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What the Water Gave Us

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The world loves stories about shark survivors, loves the blood and the drama and the teeth-marks barely hidden beneath words and clothes, the horror that remains. It loves the fear that almost follows one out into the ocean when people go surfing and swimming, loves it because it's distant enough to remain a story.

It loved Josh's story back when it was still fresh, still bleeding; and it loves what happened to Nancy. It pulls Josh in, too, reminds him of the sharp days after everything, the way the ground felt too steady under his feet and water always sounded as if it was too close.

It makes him think of how much in love he had been for a while, with sunlight and the sound of cars, with the smell of grass and the chatter of people. But no one can love the world all that long, and he didn't manage to love it through the heartbreak of Tina leaving him once again.

And now, years after his own disaster, there she is. A woman almost lost to the ocean and all its teeth, a woman who fought whatever the water threw at her and survived. It makes him think of Tina, of Jaimie and Naomi and Heather.

It makes him smile.

He calls Jaimie, and grins when she beams at him from his computer screen, and he waves at her. “Hey,” he says, and, “Have you heard?”

“Of warrior woman battling the sea monster? Of course I did,” Jaimie says, and he loves her for the ease in her words.

“Is he crushing on that poor woman already?” he hears, sees Doyle in the background like he has done so often recently whenever he calls Jaimie. He never commented on it, doesn't comment now. Instead, he laughs.

“Would that be so bad?” Jaimie asks Doyle, asks the both of them, and Doyle shrugs.

“Depends on what he will do about it.”

“Nothing,” Josh says.

Doyle shakes his head. “So that might be bad.”

***

“I sent her an e-mail,” Jaimie says.

“Who?” Josh replies, drying the dishes while talking to her, the tablet leaning against the kitchen wall.

“Shark girl,” she says as if she expects him to get it.

But well, he does.

“How did you get her e-mail address?” Josh asks, and laughs when Jaimie smiles at him all innocently.

“Found it,” she says, and he translates 'You don't wanna know,' and he doesn't ask.

“What did you write her?”

She shrugs. “Told her what happened to us, that we get her. That she could mail us whenever she wants to.”

“That's... actually pretty nice.”

She laughs, waving a middle finger at him. “I'm always nice.”

“Nah, actually, you're not,” he replies, and grins just to show her that he never minded that.

***

“Read about you guys,” Nancy's e-mail says, “whole story sounds awful.”

He answers because Jaimie told him to, because he wants to, and he writes “It was,” and doesn't add “We're over it now.”

He doesn't like to lie, doesn't want to pretend that everything is fine now when he still watches the water's every move whenever he gets out his board and hits the ocean. When Tina left him because she sees sharks whenever she looks at him, when Jaimie too often tells him she slept badly and means she had nightmares.

“It's starting to get easier,” he writes instead, and he thinks that in time she'll get it. He hopes she will.

***

“Do you surf?” Nancy asks in her second mail, and he can read the fear she is trying to hide behind her question.

“I do,” he replies. “Didn't for a while but I got back into it. The others never really did before everything went down. But they swim. Even in the ocean.”

He adds a photo of Jaimie, Heather and Naomi, all of them in bikinis, all of them at the beach. He doesn't mention Tina.

***

“Are you still afraid?”

And he knows what she means, knows what she wants to hear. But he can't give it to her, can only give her his honesty.

“Yes. But not all the time.”

He hopes it is enough.

***

He knows that Jaimie writes e-mails as well, knows that the others know about Nancy. It's a strange new thing, this outsider they all seem to share now.

Only, Nancy isn't quite an outsider, not quite like all the people who never seem to get it or the reporters who want the story but don't have space enough to keep the people in it. She's something else, something that could fit given time. And maybe this makes it all a tiny bit stranger.

***

“Did Jaimie ever tell you about the time she punched a shark with a meat tenderizer?” he writes, grinning to himself as he hits 'send'.

Nancy's answer is made of exclamation marks.

***

“I wanna go surfing,” she writes, and he reads the yearning in between the words, the absence of the waves.

“Then go,” he almost writes. But it's too early, too harsh, and he won't push her if she isn't ready, if the fear is stronger than her love for the ocean.

“You will,” he writes instead, and he hopes that her past won't turn his words into lies.

***

“I'm dating Doyle,” Jaimie tells him, the both of them walking into the water side by side.

He turns to her, looks at her face instead of the horizon. “I figured.”

“I haven't told my dad yet. He's gonna flip.”

Josh nods, reaching out for her hand. “Yeah. But he'll get over it. He got over sharks in a supermarket, he'll get over his daughter dating an older man who did some criminal shit.”

They look at each other then, thinking of her father, thinking of Doyle.

“He's gonna shoot him,” Jaimie says.

“Probably,” Josh agrees.

***

He meets up with Tina, and it's all busy streets and hip cafés, the ocean as far away from them as possible in their city.

“How are you?” she asks, and he smiles and tells her that he's just fine. Because he is, things are almost easy some days, and he doesn't dream of blood in the water as often as he used to.

“How are you?” he asks, and she doesn't answer, just looks away, and he knows that she never quite left that supermarket, she never left the beach where she watched her brother die. He wonders, briefly, if she will ever forgive him for surviving.

He tells himself not to think about it.

***

“She send me pics of her leg,” Jaimie tells him. “Totally disgusting.”

***

“Tell me about yourself,” Nancy asks of him, her face bright and real on the screen just like Jaimie's has been so many times before. “What do you do?”

Josh grins, and he feels pride filling him up even before he opens his mouth, pride and love. “I'm a lifeguard.”

And she smiles, and she is so beautiful.

“Awesome,” she says, and he nods.

“Yeah, it is.”

***

It's Doyle and him in some bar, beers lining up in front of them.

“I had to run out of the house and hide,” Doyle tells him, “it was crazy.”

Josh laughs, can't stop laughing even when Doyle punches his shoulder.

“Fathers and cops. Better give me sharks every day. They're way more reasonable.”

***

She sends him a photo; a beach, the waves, a board.

“Did you go in?” he sends back.

“No,” she answers, and he aches for her.

“My sister did, though. And I let her,” she writes moments later. “What does that make me?”

He calls her, doesn't greet her when she answers, just says “A good sister,” and knows that she gets it.

***

“You really like her,” Tina says, and it almost scares him how well she still knows him.

“Yeah,” Josh replies, and he can't bring himself to look at her.

“She did what I never could, I guess,” Tina goes on. “She got over it.” And it's so very bitter, and he hates what the ocean did to Tina, hates the way it made her sharper instead of wearing down the edges, so sharp she tends to hurt everyone around her.

It hurts to see it, to hear it, it hurts even after they left each other; and he almost reaches out to draw her in. But he doesn't. She wouldn't want him to.

“She hasn't yet,” he tells her.

Tina shrugs. “She will.”

Josh doesn't ask how she could possibly know, simply hopes against hope and everything else that she is right.

***

“Come to Australia,” he wants to write and tells himself to stop.

'Come to Australia,' he thinks, and he imagines Nancy at his beach, her feet being buried by the waves and the sand, eyes on the horizon.

He goes to Texas instead.

***

“Hey,” she greets him at the airport, and she looks happy.

“Hey,” she says in her dad's garden, the sun beating down on the two of them, the chatter of a barbecue surrounding them like waves.

“Hey,” she whispers at the beach before she kisses him, and it feels as if that had always been the plan. It's easy and familiar, and she tastes of salt and survival.

“Hey,” she says at the airport before he leaves, and he likes to think that it's only the beginning.

***

“You and Nancy,” Jaimie says, and she is grinning.

“Yeah,” he tells her. “I guess.”

***

There's a shark in the water with Josh, strong and fast, but the boat is just ahead of him. He reaches it easily, pushing the child into another lifeguard's arms, pulling himself to safety.

The fin disappears in the ocean. At the beach, the flags go up.

“You okay?” he hears someone ask, and he nods.

“Yeah,” Josh says, “I'm fine. I don't think it was all that interested.”

And it's true, it all is, but his heartbeat only slows once they reach the beach. When his boss sends him home, Josh doesn't even try to protest.

Later on, he watches a great white being herded away from the beach on TV, Doyle a solid presence at his side.

“Big one,” Doyle comments.

“Yes,” Josh answers, wonders, 'Was that you out there,' and knows that he won't get an answer, that there could always be another shark.

The ocean looks deeper on the next day.

He dives into it anyway.

***

Nancy goes swimming on a Monday morning, calls Josh in the evening.

“For a moment it felt as if I never missed it. As if all that mattered was getting out again,” she tells him.

“And then?”

She laughs, a bit happy and a bit scared. “It felt like I needed to get out and wanted to stay at the same time. Dumb, isn't it?”

“No,” he says, “Not at all.”

She smiles, nods.

“I miss you,” she says, “I want to see you again. Like, really see you. Not just on a screen.”

“Me, too,” Josh tells her and finally says, “Come to Australia.”

And she does.

***

“This is Nancy,” he says.

For a moment, the others are silent. Then Jaimie hits him. “We know.”

Doyle smirks, pointing at Josh. “And this is Josh.”

When Nancy laughs and takes the beer Jaimie offers her, it feels as if she has always been one of them.

It feels as if everything could turn out just fine.

***

Nancy steps into the water ahead of him, steady and true, and he watches as she breathes, as she pauses, as she takes a run up. And he follows.

The waves break to take them in.