"The Water's Edge" by Abby Manzella

Abby Manzella

Abby Manzella

Abby Manzella is the author of Migrating Fictions: Gender, Race, and Citizenship in U.S. Internal Displacements, winner of the Society for the Study of American Women Writers Book Award. She has published with The Threepenny Review, Lit Hub, Catapult, Colorado Review, and Pleiades.

The Water’s Edge

Before walking toward the ocean, Kal stood stock still as his parents hovered over his big sister. Adeline was rocking on the sand, clutching her leg—wailing. She’d been stung by a jellyfish. Kal had never seen a jellyfish before his sister splashed through a puddle of trapped seawater and screamed. When she fell to her side, the water settled to reveal a clear pile of Jell-O hidden beneath the surface. 

Kal remained silent as their father scooped Adeline up like a baby, even though she was nine, almost three years older. When his parents set her under their beach umbrella, he stayed out of the way, even though no one said anything to him. 

As time passed, though, Kal grew annoyed that his father wasn’t getting out the potato chips and watermelon he’d promised. Instead, his mother rushed to and from the ocean with a bucket, her straw hat falling unnoticed, exposing her pale skin to the sun. She poured the collected saltwater on Adeline’s foot, and he remembered that the day was supposed to be about the sea.

Kal had never been to the Pacific Ocean. His mother had told him that there was water as far as the eye could see, even past the horizon where he couldn’t see anymore. It was about the way the world curved. The ocean traveled to places he had never been.

“Even beyond California?” he asked. 

“All the way to China,” his mother said.

“That’s a far way.”

“Yes, it’s the biggest body of water on Earth,” she told him. It didn’t look much like a body to him, but his own little body was drawn to it. He could taste the salt in the air like dried out tears, and he could hear the waves calling to him with a roar. 

Kal knew he should wait for someone to take his hand to guide him to the shoreline, but he wanted to see how the waves rolled over the tiny shells. Once at the water’s edge, he curled his toes into the sand. The ocean filled the empty space he created so that after a moment he couldn’t tell that he had disturbed the beach at all. He watched the space his feet made disappear over and over again. 

As Kal stood there, the water crept up his legs, and he decided to make a sandcastle right there. He could even dig a protective moat filled by the sea. 

Kal found a shell for scooping. He piled and piled the sand and then the waves came and erased his progress, but he thought that the sand deeper under the water was probably even sturdier for building, like the cement poured by the orange-vested people who came to make a sidewalk back at home. After the workers had left, his father let him place his palm into the drying grayness, a rule that was fun to break. 

“You can always remember this day,” his father had said.

“Will it be here forever?” Kal had asked.

“For a very long time.”

Kal had liked the way the cement felt mushy between his fingers, and he had liked the gentle pressure of his father’s hand against his own. 

Now he would build the biggest castle, and his father would be proud. He would build it with the strongest sand he could find. It would even help Adeline not feel so sad.




When the family arrived at the beach that day, Adeline proudly revealed her big girl swimming suit with little heart cutouts. It was pink, like the color of Meggie Sampson’s barrettes. Meggie had curly red hair that was so wild it needed to be contained. Adeline had long straight black hair that flopped down her back. Kal mumbled behind her about infinity while flying a stinky crab claw with his hand like an airplane. Sometimes Kal could be such a baby.

When they used to play dolls, he would follow her rules about who was sick and who wanted scrambled eggs and not buns. Lately, though, he wanted to make up his own stories. Adeline wasn’t sure she liked that. After all, Meggie had an older brother not a littler one, and he told Meggie all sorts of grownup stuff that Adeline had never known. How would she discover these things on her own? 

As she hopped over a puddle left by the last high tide, Kal called for her to wait up. She turned in frustration and kicked water at him.

Pain seared her leg! The burning latched onto her and refused to let go. She stopped thinking about pink as the edges of her vision turned to red, and she fell hard to the sand.




The parents have turned all of their attention to their howling daughter, who has welts emerging on her left foot. The mother plucks out stingers from Adeline’s swollen toes, one by one. They haven’t seen Kal walk toward the shore, even though they had told him all about the gloriousness of feeling the sand beneath you and the water lapping over you. They told him about the ocean’s edge that you can never reach but where the sky and sea tumble into each other, everything blue. The father hands Adeline an ice pop to calm her; her cries slow. The father takes a breath and looks around the beach. Then he asks the mother, as casually as he can, if she has seen Kal.


The parents run to and fro along the beach, calling out their son’s name. The “aaaa” sound flies into the wind. Adeline lets her ice pop melt stickily in her hand as she tracks their movements. Both parents get wet, their feet splashing through the rising tide as they cover the same section of shoreline again and again. They see nothing of Kal. They don’t even notice the small pile of sand that he built, which the waves quickly erode and claim again for the ocean.