The jellyfish arrive after a summer storm in August, when the Atlantic Ocean and Jersey Shore are at their warmest. We discover them nestled into seaweed clumps on the packed sand, above the low tide line, their translucent tentacles tangled, in clusters and alone, in jagged pieces and whole, the size of shuttlecocks, fried eggs, open palms. We have come to this beach for years and have never seen so many at once. Our mother tells us a group of jellyfish is called a bloom.
We poke at them with yellow plastic sand shovels or broken crab carcasses or sometimes a finger that we sniff after, the brine of the ocean settling in our noses, before we wipe the gumminess on whomever is unlucky enough to be next to us. The jellyfish yield, then jiggle, then settle. We believe the clear ones are safe, that only the ones threaded with deep red veins the color of dried blood can sting; our beliefs have never failed us. On sand that burns our soles, the jellyfish reluctantly sunbathe, inches away from the water that would save them.
Summer, 1987, we are nine and eight and almost six, tow-headed and cerulean-eyed, the bleached hair on our tanned arms and legs stiff and white with dried ocean salt, skin taut and dotted with green fly bites underneath. We spend our days bobbing and breast-stroking and being tossed by breaking waves. We are strong swimmers who must be cajoled out of the ocean to eat turkey sandwiches our mother has brought in a red and white cooler. Our palms are perpetually sticky from the melted drumsticks or firecracker popsicles that we sprint across blistering sand to buy at 3:00 each afternoon when the familiar jingle floats over the dunes to our beach towels, where we allow the sun to dry us while ice cream drips onto our thighs before we race together back into the surf.
Let’s build a hospital for the jellyfish, the youngest of us suggests when the surface of the water is thick with them, when we cannot walk more than a few feet without stepping around one. In twenty years, she will be an emergency room nurse, working overnight shifts starting IVs and administering morphine whose addictive power she does not yet understand, but will. But on this day, she ferries buckets of foaming water to our jellyfish hospital, where we have sectioned off twelve squares with raised sand wall dividers, created seaweed beds with clam shell pillows and stationed our neon-haired troll dolls as doctors in each room.
We will soon learn that all of the jellyfish washed up on the shore are dead or dying. That even those who remain in the water typically live only a year; the smaller ones, mere days. That no matter how much we wanted it or how hard we tried, we were never going to save them. We airlift broken jellyfish with our shovels, placing them gently down on their beds, where the youngest tucks them in and instructs us to gather more seaweed from the water’s edge to make the jellyfish comfortable.
Once all of the hospital beds are occupied, when there is nothing left to build or admire and only lives to be saved or mourned, the older two of us grow bored. We aren’t like the youngest, who will continue to give until she has nothing left for herself. We care about helping others, but we care about ourselves more. We dare each other back into the water, where we swim among the living, shrieking when a jellyfish brushes against our arms, marveling when we are not stung. Only the youngest stays on the shore, dutifully tending to the convalescent, stroking the smallest, most broken one with her tiny fingers.
Remember the jellyfish hospital, our parents, still married but only for another few years, will reminisce later that summer with their indulgent smiles. We will pretend not to notice when the youngest’s eyes fill with tears at those wasted jellyfish lives, the way we will pretend decades later that her sudden weight loss isn’t alarming, that her pupils were always that dilated, that the doctors and rehab will save her. We will say things like, we couldn’t have known, she hid it from us, and, but we tried, and, maybe it was inevitable. We will pretend, until we can’t pretend any longer, that we did enough.
The morning after the jellyfish appeared, they are gone. We arrive at the beach early, the youngest running across the still cool sand and crying out when she reaches the ruins of the abandoned hospital, now merely misshapen lumps of sand. What happened to the jellyfish, we ask a lifeguard. He looks at the youngest, still crying. They swam back to sea last night, he says. The youngest whispers, we saved them, and he nods, so we nod too. She wipes her eyes and skips to where tiny morning waves roll up on the sand. Is it true, we ask. No, the lifeguard says, we disposed them all this morning. No one wanted to see dead jellyfish on their vacation. The youngest takes delicate steps into the water, arms extended as though she’s balancing.
Summer, 2008, we are thirty and twenty-nine, hair darkened with age, eyes still the uncomplicated blue of the summer sky. The houses, the dunes, the waves: everything looks battered, smaller. We return to scatter the youngest’s ashes, the single remaining grace we can offer her, upending the container at the water’s edge, watching as pieces of her collect in the froth, catch a breaking wave and settle on the sea detritus at our feet. To our right, now dusted with her, is a bloom of stranded jellyfish. We cup underneath the seaweed and coax them back into the ocean, our hands steady, watching as the jellyfish bob on the surface, drift slowly, then disappear in the undertow.
Katie Devine’s fiction is forthcoming in trampset and Peauxdunque Review. She is the 2020 short story winner of the Words and Music Writing Competition. Her work has received support from Sirenland Writers Conference, Tin House Summer Workshop, and Aspen Summer Words. She is an MFA candidate at The New School, works in media brand partnerships and lives in Brooklyn with her dog, Eliza Hamilton. Find her at katiedevine.com or @katiejdevine on Twitter/IG.