Olivia was trusted. One of few. She had earned her pass, her freedom for the day.
Someone told her, someone there, that yellow was the color of madness. Van Gogh's paintings were sometimes made of stunning yellows that danced and flew in turmoil. He was mad. He cut off his ear and gave it to a whore, proving he was mad. But his paintings were grand things. She had looked them up in the library and responded quite well to them. Now today, perhaps, she would become a girl in a painting, maybe even a girl in a Van Gogh painting. Then she would be invincible.
She stood in front of the mirror, restless, hair tossing, searching her dress for flaws. There were none. "Well," she whispered. "Today I will go down to the beach in my yellow dress. If people notice, they will simply think what a beautiful dress, and pay no attention to me."
She made her way down, leaving the hill, the immense colorless structure of Ocean Maneir hovering ominously, in wait for her return. She weaved a pattern, right, then left, always the same. One step short in either direction constituted a horrific breach of trust. She would be sleepless for days.
How she did love coming to the beach, feeling free, a part of something so magnanimous and beautiful. Here people usually ignored her, except for a quick look and shake of the head.
When her lips tasted salt from the enormous water, she moved back, counting exactly twenty-one feet, because today she was twenty-one years old. Spreading her towel near no one, she sat in its center.
Oh, the ocean, the smell of it. Seaweed and coral reefs, all the beautiful things deep down inside its mystic belly, sand mixed with wind and rain, and maybe even mixed with smell of sun itself. She leaned back, inhaling, until she was stepping along the stones of Atlantis. . .
But then a large ball, rounded to perfection, came plunging through sand, jolted to a stop and was again seized up by sounds of hilarity.
There were nineteen people on the beach. She never included herself, only the others, and there would be no valid references until they were counted.
When spoken to, she did not respond. Those who frequented the beach knew that, so they ignored her. But it simply didn't matter. The best greetings, the very best of all, came from the ocean scattering its seashells across the sand, like gifts a cat brings home, dead and lying at your door. She thought of Mr. Cat, her ally against the world, and she heard them say it once again as she ran to him, "Go away child, your mother is sick." She saw his eyes shining green as grass blades against his sleek black coat, their bond unbreakable, enduring beyond the grave she made for him, at her secret place under the willow tree meant for her tears.
She watched the girls in their tiny bikinis. She, of course, never wore a swimming suit. She never went swimming. How could she? If a wave should even touch her toes, how could she ever count the drops, the ocean being so vast and all? She looked down at her toes and smiled. It would be simply uncountable. No, she knew her limitations. But she was wearing a Van Gogh dress. So today, there was an alliance with the great water even if she did not count the drops.
Huge spaces of brilliant blue sky, white clouds changing, merging, floating weightless, free, without remorse. She began to count them, squinting hard, until she felt herself beginning to float .. She counted the smaller ones first, because they could get away. Then she counted the larger ones, and the ones that merged. No problem, she only had to estimate. It was a mathematical equation of sorts, but not impossible, even when those merging became part of the whole. Meaning that they must be subtracted. No problem in that either. . .
"Hey, you!" a voice yelled, laughing.
Good Lord, someone was standing right over her! How tall he looked as she peered up. The starkness of the blue, the sun so bright, making her eyes sting.
"What you counting anyway? There's nothing bad up there gonna getcha."
"Hey, what's your name?"
Olivia tried to hide her face in the sleeve of her dress, but he bent down, speaking low.
"Listen, I got a bet with some guys over there. They're saying you ain't gonna let me sit down with you. If you let me sit down right here, I'll split with you. I'll be makin five bucks, and I swear to God, you can have half of it."
His bare toe nudged her foot, which instantly withdrew, coiling under her. Burying her head farther into her dress sleeve, she began a strange howling that erupted from deep inside. . .sounds that quivered and trailed away, igniting memories that leapt hot and knife sharp, searching for an exit, any exit, like the waves she could hear thrusting against the shore, hunting but finding no release and rushing back to somewhere, as she clutched at her towel. Feet accumulated around her. Voices, so many voices.
"She's from the place on the hill. The nuthouse!"
"Yeah, she's the one that comes down all dressed up like the Queen of Sheba, or somethin'."
She tried to get up, her feet digging holes that spewed up sand. There were feet now, of all sizes, large and small, some with toenails painted bright red, making a circle. She began frantically counting out their numbers, her voice shrill.
Hands touched her, and she bolted, still yelling out the feet numbers over and over, though she knew they were just estimates, now only in her mind's eye. She ran up the hill, stunning yellow swirling around her, a wounded bird shrieking numbers back into the currents of the ocean wind.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: After high school, Kay Smith attended Goodman Memorial Theater school in Chicago, and tried her hand at painting in New York City. While going for a degree in early childhood education at Missouri Western State College, she managed to take classes in creative writing, and her poetry was published in the school's literary journal. But through the years of raising her children and working as a teacher of handicapped adults, Kay's painting eclipsed her writing, as her work was shown in galleries in Missouri. Now that she has moved to the Eureka Springs area to pursue both painting and writing, Kay is excited about continuing to develop her writing craft through the Community Writing Program.