El Niño had brought fifteen-foot waves to the beach. Huge clumps of kelp, logs and curved hollowed pieces of driftwood, and dead seabirds were strewn across the sand. Some of the logs were two feet in diameter. It wasn’t raining but the surf was still churning furiously and when the logs came to shore, they bobbed around as easily as corks. Seen up close, their size was frightening, thinking of how easily the ocean batted them about, how quickly one could be tossed in the air and fall on your head.
Sometimes, it seemed as if the ocean wanted to kill you.
Kyle ran ahead of her, picking up rocks and tossing them into the foamy waves as they raced up the beach.
Jenna hurried to keep up. It amazed her that his little legs could move so quickly.
He lifted a larger rock with both hands, straining to bring it up near his chest. He heaved it at the water and it fell a few inches from his bare toes.
“Careful,” she said.
She caught up to him and took his hand. His fingers were icy cold, sticky with salt water and rough with sand clinging to his cuticles. A moment later, he let go of her hand and ran forward.
The tide was going out and the waves were less thunderous than they had been the past few days. She turned her face up to the sky and watched the gulls floating overhead. She looked toward Kyle. He was squatting, his upper body bent over something in the sand. Another oddly shaped shell or a sand crab or a piece of red kelp or even a toy tossed on the shore by the ocean. He’d found marbles, plastic figurines, and a number of abandoned shovels during their walks on the beach.
She came up behind him. “What is it?”
A webbed orange-red starfish was lying on the sand. Kyle ran his finger along one of the arms.
“Oh, that’s sad,” Jenna said.
He grabbed two of the webbed pieces and lifted it off the sand. The arms sagged.
“Don’t touch it,” she said.
“Then can I have it?”
“If it was dried out, it would be okay, but there’s something wrong. It shouldn’t be soft like that.”
“Maybe it’s not dead.”
“Either way, it shouldn’t be soft. Put it back.”
“I want it.”
A wave ran up and circled their feet. It receded, leaving foam on their toes.
“See, the ocean wants it back.”
“I want to keep it.”
“Kyle, please put it down. It might have a disease.”
He froze. He didn’t turn to look at her, didn’t release his grip on the starfish, didn’t let it fall to the sand.
“Put it down.” She reached to take it from him. The thing felt rubbery, like partially living flesh. She recoiled. She held her hand away from her, truly concerned now about possible disease. There’d been foreign bacteria in the area all through the fall and winter, sickening crabs and other things that lived on the ocean floor.
“I want to keep it.”
“You can’t.” She took his wrist and tried to shake his hand loose from the starfish.
He held onto it.
“Kyle, please. It’s dead, it could make you sick.”
He let go. The starfish flopped upside down.
She took a wipe out of her bag and ran it over his fingers. “Just to be on the safe side.”
He wrenched his hand away and they continued their usual pattern, Kyle running ahead until he found something interesting, squatting in the sand, waiting for her to catch up.
After they’d gone another half mile or so, they stopped. She pulled out the bucket and shovel. Kyle sat near the water’s edge, digging a hole. She settled on her towel and watched the waves.
That night, Kyle got bored with his bath. He stood up and asked to get out of the tub before the water had even cooled. He couldn’t wait to get into his bed, to be alone in his room. His mother tucked him in, read two chapters from Robin Hood, and kissed both of his cheeks. His father came in and messed up his hair and kissed his forehead.
When the door was closed, Kyle slid his hand under the pillow. The starfish felt cold even though it had spent several hours under the pillow. He still wished he had the first one, but this second one that washed up near his feet while his mother sat on her towel had been like a birthday present from the sea. It wanted him to have a starfish.
He stroked the rubbery body. He didn’t think it was dead. When they were dead, starfish were stiff. They broke easily, almost like glass.
He pulled it out from under the pillow and put it on the mattress. He couldn’t see it very well in the darkness, but he sensed it there. He folded his pillow so his face was inches from the starfish.
Just as he was falling asleep, he felt it. One of the arms curled up and the tip of it gently touched his chin.
He smiled. He’d known it was alive.