You are nine the summer your distracted parents ship you off to your grandparents, and you spot her before your grandmother’s station wagon stops. She might be your age. She stands silhouetted against the ocean shore, her wavy hair catching the breeze, the horizon at her waist like an eternal aquamarine ribbon. You bound out of the car like an unleashed Labrador and introduce yourself. She turns slightly and says, “You can call me Jessica.” You tell her your name and it pales in magnificence beside hers but it’s OK, it’s OK, she cocks her head to one side and you’re allowed to follow her to the pristine beach behind her cabin. A pudgy straw-haired girl, slightly younger, looks up as her queen returns. Her lip twitches when she spots you. She announces herself as Cindy. “Jessica, I got everything ready!” she says. You look down at a neat array of marbles in a segmented tray – the plebian blue-and-yellow-toothpaste-swirl-inside ones on the left, then the red-white-and-green ones, then the blue-and-orange, some standard translucent shooters, smaller monochrome balls, a pair of Milky Way sparklers, and one perfect green mica. And you get to join. No mere shooting game, this – Jessica’s event is something other – and no fairy-tale caravan ever had more adventures than you, as you bought, sold, and traded kingdoms with your allotment of the precious gems. No one obtains the green marble, which rests in the bank, aloof. And so it goes all summer; your grandparents have to fetch you to meals, the salt air whetting your appetite but you never mind it. You grow thinner and browner and less elegant than ever, but Jessica’s voice is a constant source of wonder and her slim hands shape the story and you cannot tear yourself away. Until one day, Jessica says she can’t play. She says this in an oddly formal way. You subside, and you go to the skirt of beach behind your grandparents’ cabin and build a sandcastle. Then you watch the sea destroy it. The next day is the same, you advance, hoping hoping hoping to set your feet on the path to enchantment again – then Jessica says she’s not available. But you can see, you’re almost sure, a straw-colored head peeking out from behind her house. You try a third time: she doesn’t speak, just holds up a hand – a policeman’s hand, a suspended wave – and you retreat to your books and your stickers and your grandmother’s consolation baking. After that you and Jessica are only nodding acquaintances and when you ask your grandmother why she just sighs and says that sometimes people are fickle and it’s not you, honey. But you know in your heart she’s wrong and you don’t even enjoy your cookie.
Now it’s several decades years later and your grandmother has just passed after a long and full life, and she’s left you the beachfront property. You’re on the opposite coast now. The upkeep would be too much, you know this. You take a week off to get it ready to sell. To take your mind off your aching arms and back, you stroll along the beach; a glint catches your eye. A marble. Not the green mica, that would be a cliché, but a marble, nonetheless. It’s a standard blue-and-yellow, distorted and misshapen after thirty years of salt-water kisses, subsided into a vague, asymmetric heart shape. You grip it until it hurts your palm, and you want to fling it back into the waves, but you don’t, you don’t, you don’t – you slip it into your pocket.
Linda McMullen is a wife, mother, diplomat, and homesick Wisconsinite. Her short stories and the occasional poem have appeared in over one hundred literary magazines. She received Pushcart and Best of the Net nominations in 2020. She may be found on Twitter: @LindaCMcMullen.