Sometimes a Guardrail is Missinghttps://i0.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/frame.jpg?fit=1920%2C1440&ssl=119201440Melissa BowersMelissa Bowershttps://i0.wp.com/barrenmagazine.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/03/melissabowers.png?fit=96%2C96&ssl=1
The thing about the water—
but whatever he’s about to say, it won’t be enough, because the thing about the water is the sensation of plunging toward it, how that feeling must vary by intention: whether the sea is rushing up to meet you because of something you’ve chosen, like leaping from a plane in joyous freefall, or because you have careened by accident over a cliff on Highway 1. How the glittery blues must shift in the light while you roll, while the seatbelt strains at your splintering clavicle, the intermittent crashing louder than the broken waves against sand, and not as graceful. Or peaceful, though they will all say you are now at peace. Even the screams would be different, separate and identifiable, the way you can tell if a newborn’s cry means sleepy or hungry or in pain.
The thing about the water is that when you’ve been in it too long, your skin prunes, the toes and fingertips pucker and shrivel like a baby in a bath, but then you begin to inflate. It makes you swell. It turns you into something pliable, doughy, as though you’ve become an object for children to mold. Your eyes, glazed open. Or maybe, after so many days, closed, the bloated orbs sinking into damp and mottled cheeks. The gulls circling overhead, mutating into vultures wing by wing. The thing about it is the hidden coral, jagged; the seaweed, slimy and deceptive, coiled around each limb, tethering you to the ocean until the tide is finally ready to spit you out.
The water used to be harmless. You used to build crumbling castles, search for seashells, shriek as its foaming mouth chased you up the beach. When you snorkeled in the bay, the fish were not scavengers; they were afraid, darting diagonally from you in shimmering clouds of panic. They were not tangled into your matted hair.
—is that it’s so, so beautiful, but I don’t even know if I can look at it anymore.
Melissa Bowers currently writes from California, though she will always be a Midwesterner at heart. She is the first-place winner of The Writer magazine’s personal essay contest, a multi-prize winner of the 2019 Larry Brown Short Story Award, and a finalist for both the 2020 Lamar York Short Fiction Prize and the 2020 Tucson Festival of Books Literary Awards. Her work has also appeared in Writer’s Digest and HuffPost, among others, and is forthcoming in The Boston Globe Magazine.