Stephanie Knaack is a psychology major and writing minor in her third year at PLU. In her free time, she enjoys reading, painting, and watching horror movies. She would like to thank all of her family, friends, and English teachers for their encouragement and support over the years. Much love.
Everything was gray: the foam-tipped waves in the distance, the wet sand beneath her feet, and the cloud-covered sky above, stretching out in every direction and broken only by the handful of other beachgoers in their puffy neon jackets. April had to squint her eyes against the overwhelming monochromatic brightness. She should have brought her sunglasses down to the beach, but at this point, she was just glad she’d remembered to wear gloves and her warmest jacket. The wind blowing in constantly from the Pacific was freezing, making her eyes water and nose go numb.
Under her rubber boots, the wet sand was studded with clear jellyfish corpses, abandoned crab shells, and trash: crushed beer cans, cigarette butts, crinkly plastic water bottles. April bent to grab a sand-encrusted toothbrush and dropped it into her half-full trash bag. No matter how often she came down to the beach to pick up garbage, and no matter how much cleaner it looked by the time she left, there was always more junk to collect the next time.
This beach had been her mother’s favorite, before she’d passed away last year. The place had been a constant throughout April’s childhood, thanks to the twice-yearly trips with her family to their beach cabin, up on the cliffs overlooking the ocean. Back then, instead of garbage, the sand had been filled with treasures: long strands of drying seaweed, iridescent abalone shells, and even the rare perfectly whole, unbroken sand dollars. April and her mother had always collected as many of those perfect white sand dollars as they could find, and, back up at the cabin, had used acrylics to paint them the colors of the rainbow.
One trip in particular stood out to April, even when the others blurred together into a haze of hot chocolate, pounding rain, and jigsaw puzzles. It had been one of those rare days when their chilly Northern-Pacific beach was blessed with sunshine and mild temperatures, and April had taken a walk to collect shells and sand dollars alone, since none of her other family members had wanted to come with. At age thirteen, she’d been deemed old enough to go by herself, which made her feel simultaneously grown-up and a little nervous. She’d started off down the path to the beach by herself, pausing when she heard pounding footsteps close behind. A momentary panic was abated when she turned to see her mother jogging towards her, the wind tossing her short blonde hair back and forth.
“I changed my mind,” her mother said once she caught up, linking her arm through her daughter’s. They hadn’t found any sand dollars to paint that day, but it was still one of April’s fondest memories of the place.
The tide had been low when she’d arrived at the beach that morning, but it was slowly moving back in. Heading toward the path that led up the cliffs, back to her family’s old cabin, April stooped to pick up a crumpled soda can. She shook some of the sand out of it before dropping the thing into her bag. Narrowing her eyes, April noticed something unusual up ahead.
It was half-hidden behind a pale driftwood log and a patch of dried-up beach grass. From a distance, the dark gray mass could have been mistaken for a large, smooth stone, but as April got closer, she realized it couldn’t be a rock. There was too much blood. Pushing past the wind-blown grass, April’s grip on her trash bag loosened, and it fell to the ground.
A dead seal lay on the cold sand, on its side. She could see that the birds had begun to claw at its slick, gray skin, tearing it open to reveal the creature’s red insides. Tears began to stream down April’s face, only half-caused by the relentless wind whipping sand into her face as it blew. The seal’s eyes were already gone, likely picked out by the ravenous gulls and crows circling overhead. Where and how the creature had died was a mystery to April, but she hoped that the encroaching tide would take it back out to the ocean. That was where it belonged: away from the bloodthirsty birds, away from the prying eyes of beachgoers, away from the garbage-studded landscape she’d once loved.