The alligators kept sticking their red slimy tongue out at him. But in fact, it wasn't slimy at all. It was just solid red plastic. His sweaty hand gripping the mallet twitched as he whacked the green meanie. Like a row of ants burrowing their way out of the soil, the prize tickets snaked their way out of the arcade machine. It was just enough to exchange for a sweet yellow birdie at the counter with button eyes and a stubborn hook of a beak. Stuffed into the narrow cage of his pocket, it bobbed up and down and rubbed uncomfortably against his thighs. Beyond the boardwalk, Elsie was bobbing up and down in the water. Jerked upwards by the surging rush of a wave that aimed its frothy flashes at the sky, she was flushed into a whirlpool seconds later. He set down a beach towel on the wet sand and stretched himself out upon it. Seeing him, she emerged out of the water, her wan bluish skin seeming to deflect the rays of the sun.
He reached for the yellow birdie in his pocket and juggled it like a ball. "This may just be for you," his lips slightly widened into a semblance of a smile. "All that money at the arcade just for this pathetic little thing. You must be kidding me," Elsie sneered and beat the bird down mid-air as it was still being juggled. The bird landed on the towel beak-down with a whoosh. Elsie sat down right on top of it. "Get up, you'll crush it," he whimpered. He watched the opaque blue of her eyes blend into the far reaches of the ocean. He didn't want to look into them for the fear of seeing his reflection - stooped shoulders, rigid lips breathing in salt and flying particles of sand."You fool, it's a pile of rags not a real bird," she retorted in a voice loud enough so that a boy digging in the sand nearby overheard her.
Turning to face her, the little one asked: "Hey, do you have a bird over there?" The blond curls sticking out of his tiny blue hat made her think of some kid's picture on a cereal box. "Just go give him the bird ok?" Elsie said to Michael. "Sure, he's no brat, he may just deserve it," Michael replied, shoving Elsie to the right. "Ewww, get your hands off me, you creep." Elsie yelled out. "I just want to get the bird that you're sitting on," insisted Michael, raising his voice and tapping her shoulder. "Well, tough luck," answered Elsie. "I am keeping it. You are never supposed to retract a present. That's just not how it's done." Michael leapt to his feet. The wet ground collapsed beneath him as he ran so that his footprints trailed him. The goo-like sand jelly sucked in his feet and yet he could still hear Elsie's voice broadcasting "Wait for me, I am coming to swim with you."
Elsie, in his mind, was wearing these white gloves, with pieces of loose latex drooping off the ends of her fingers. When she spread ointment on his back, it wasn't her hands that were touching his burned skin that felt like it was being ripped off, but the rubbery latex with its scratchy friction. He heaved like an unruly colt trying to throw its master off the saddle. She told him to stop moving as she pulled on his ear. There was something very methodic about her "care." Ever since he was pulled out of the fire, she showed up exactly at the same time every day, 3 p.m., dressed in all white from skirt to blouse and cap. He once joked with her, "You aren't on the hospital staff, you don't have dress in white you know." But it's not like it mattered what he said to her anyway. She would just sit in her chair and watch him intently.
He tried to catch her blinking, but her eyes seemed always open, her blue pupils piercing and bright. She never dozed off and closed her eyelids even for a moment. The one time her silent routine got disrupted freaked him out quite a bit. She walked over to the foot end of his bed and slapped his ankle. "What?" He asked her. "It's just an ant that was on your sock," Elsie replied quickly and went back to her seat. He was always aware of her: even when he sat up to drink his juice, he knew she thought about his slurping. He had to get to her to talk. Reaching over to his fruit cup, he launched a plastic spoon in her direction. It landed right in her lap and the squished moist peach leaked on her white dress. "You are gross," she raised her voice.
Later that day, they went shopping together. She was trying out a blue bead necklace in front of the mirror and glided the beads across the string from one end to another. The swiftness of her fingers outstripped his patience. The beads quickly flew out of his line of sight like a bunch of sparrows who scurried up into the air one after another. "This necklace just doesn't suit you," he whispered, breathing on her neck and lightly grazing it with his index finger. Elsie turned around; the palms of her hands squeezed his shoulders tightly. Through the narrow store window, a wave crashed against a breaker and the foam that flew upwards eventually settled on the rocks, turning their color from gray to dark brown.
He wished he were sitting there in his swimming trunks, watching the maelstrom's spiraling lines as the water was sucked in towards the depths. "This necklace is for you," Elsie stated and carefully hung it around his neck. He spun it on his hand and the beads seemed to be flying this way and that, as if they were not attached to anything but freely floating through the air like azure fireflies exploding in the night and catching the sleepy eye unaware with their tiny points of scintillation. She teared up and sniffled slightly. "You're always so .... ugh." Pausing as she squinted her eyes, she added: "You'd like to go on the rocks, wouldn't you? The high tide is coming in." Elsie was indeed relieved that he would. Of course, it irritated her endlessly that he tuned her out while he was there. But that certain calm, those soothed nerves of his satisfied her. If not for her sake, then for his.