I Drown Each Time by Tiffany Renee Harmon

From her absent father and her emotionally distant mother, Lena finds solace in the sea; by Tiffany Renee Harmon.

When Lena was a young girl, her favorite place in the world was the Sea of Sandrine. She would sit by the banks of the sea with her green pail and plastic shovel waiting for hermit crabs to scamper near her. The whole world seemed to fall silent and melt away in this private paradise. When she looked out across the sea, she saw only water. Sometimes she wondered if it was the edge of the world. Other times she wondered if the magical lands her father used to tell her about were on the other side. She dreamed of growing up and buying a boat and sailing across the vast sea.

One day, after breakfast, Lena looked out the bay window of the cottage while scraping off the last bits of congealed egg from the plates. "Mama, can I go play at the sea when I'm done?"

Her mother looked down at her. Her nostrils flared in disgust and she pursed her lips. "Not today, Lena. You spend too much time there."

Lena tried to imitate her mother's look, but she couldn't quite get her nostrils to flare in quite the same way and she feared her face just looked scrunched. "I do not! It's just better than being bored in here with you every day when Papa's away."

Her mother sighed and her face softened a barely discernible amount. "Fine. Go. But what are our rules?"

Lena smirked, knowing she'd hit the right spot with her words. She recited, "Stay in the sand. Don't go in the water. Don't bring home another hermit crab."

"That's right." Her mother's face puckered. "I'll never understand why you enjoy that place. The water's so dirty, it's probably toxic, and there's barely enough sand to cover the bank. I shouldn't let you go there at all, but at least it gives me some alone time."

Lena felt defensive. Sure, the water was tinged with a little brown and wasn't the picture-perfect scene from storybooks, but it was the most wonderful place in the world. She snapped back, "Well, I like my alone time too."

Her mother turned her back to leave the room. "I'm going to finish your father's letter. He'll be home from his business trip in two weeks, so this is the last one."

Lena dropped the plate she was scrubbing in the sink. "How long will he be able to be home?"

Her heart started dancing in her rib cage. What would he bring her? Would he have more fishing adventure stories?

Her mother turned back, her face grim from all the years of having expectations that were too high. "I don't know, and be more careful with the dishes. A storm's brewing. If it starts to rain, you need to come home right away."

"I will, Mama. I just want to sit and look for hermit crabs." Lena tossed the final plate on the drying pile. She moved towards the door where her shovel, pail, and a light jacket were already waiting. Her mother glared and cleared her throat. "I won't bring a hermit crab home. I promise!"

She pulled her jacket tight as she walked down the dirt path to the sandy shore of the sea. It wasn't cold, but the wind was picking up fast. She hoped that she would have time to sit for a while before it started to rain.

Once she got to the shore, she sat in the sand. She loved that the sea and the seashore were hers alone. No one ever bothered her in this place of tranquility. She felt freer here to be herself than she did back home with her mom.

She pulled out her shovel and began to dig in the sand, creating little piles that she could form into turrets for a castle. What had Mama been thinking? There was more than enough sand here. Her sea was perfect. She sang her favorite lullaby as she worked, "I drown each time I close my eyes," and squished her fingers in the sand, creating her castle. Lena looked around for her loyal subjects, but no hermit crabs were scurrying nearby. She wondered if they were hiding from the coming storm. "The sea, it calls me every morn. But I can feel the mermaid's scorn."

She hummed the next few lines as she felt sporadic raindrops fall upon her nose. She looked up at the sky. Grey clouds obscured the sun. She looked out at the sea's water. The usually serene surface was brimming with ripples. She considered going home, but she decided she would wait. It was only sprinkling.

Lena's humming turned into singing as she put the finishing touches on her sand castle. "I don't want to go to sleep. I drown each time I close my eyes." She heard the tinkling of laughter in the distance. Quickly, she turned around wondering if her mother had sent a neighbor to bring her home. No one was there.

She turned back to the castle and used her tiny fingers to draw wave designs on the sandy walls. "Oh, I will sleep next week or so, when to the shore we've had to go." Larger raindrops fell upon her castle. The right turret slipped slightly under the weight of the water. She reached out to fix it as a gust of wind blew her empty pail close to the water's edge. She stood up and began to walk toward the pail. The rain was becoming steadier now, and Lena decided it was time to go home once she had fetched her pail.

She walked slowly to the surface of the sea. The rippling water had turned to waves. She wondered again if there were people on the other side of the sea and whether or not their water was stormy too. Another gust of wind came and blew her pail out into the water. It bobbed like a lime green turtle, mocking her.

Frantically, she walked to the very edge of the water's surface and extended her small arms, trying to reach the pail which was slowly making its way further out to sea. Below the water's brown and grey surface, she saw two dark shapes swirling. Nervously, she kept reaching out her arms and continued singing to steady herself, "Please, wake me up if I should fail. I drown each time..." A scaly blue arm reached out of the sea and grabbed Lena's wrist, pulling her beneath the waves.

Lena thrashed against whatever held her wrist. She held her breath but kept her eyes open underwater and tried to claw at the dark shape holding on to her. The shape looked somewhat male and somewhat human, but his eyes glowed green and his skin. Within seconds, Lena felt dizzy. She needed to take a breath.

She inhaled the water and started choking as the liquid filled her lungs. A second creature with the same mesmerizing eyes but with longer hair and feminine features came up behind the one holding her wrist. At her presence, the first creature let go of Lena. The female creature took hold of Lena's waist and pulled her to the surface. She placed her gently on the shore.

Lena sputtered as the small amount of water she had inhaled exited her body. She still felt dizzy. She watched the female creature vanish back beneath the waves, and then she closed her eyes as everything faded away.

She woke to strong hands shaking her shoulders. "Lena, wake up. Are you okay?" Lena's eyes fluttered open, and she saw her mother clutching her body. "Oh, thank God!" Her mother lifted her to a seated position and wrapped her arms around her. "I thought you were dead." Lena felt her mother's tears fall against her cheek as she held her close to her face. "You didn't come home."

Lena looked around at the shore. The rain was still falling gently, but the sea looked a bit calmer. "What happened to you, Lena? Why are you soaking wet? It's not raining that hard. Did you go in the water? Did you go in the water?" He voice was becoming shriller and shriller and it hurt Lena's ears. She'd never seen her mother so worried. In fact, she hadn't been certain that her mother was capable of this much worry or emotion.

Lena unraveled herself from her mother's arms and stood up. Her green pail had been placed back onto the sand. She looked beneath the water's surface, but there were no shadows lurking below. "I don't know, Mama. I don't know." She considered telling her mother about the two creatures, but she was starting to wonder if it had even happened.

Her mother extended her hand. "It's time to go." Lena picked up her pail and shovel and grabbed her mother's hand. Together, they began walking away from the sea.

A voice whispered, "I drown each time I close my eyes."

Lena turned her head back to the water as she heard the melodic words. "Did you hear something, Mama?"

Her mother looked down. "Hear what?" Her nose scrunched slightly. The strong emotions that Lena had seen were already starting to fade from her face. They seemed to be being replaced with annoyance, and Lena decided with certainty that she would never tell her mother what had really happened. There's no way she would believe, not her overly practical mother who struggled to kiss her goodnight.

Lena looked back one last time at the water. "Nothing. I want to go home."

They walked back in tension but still hand-in-hand. "When is Daddy coming home?" Her mother did not reply.

That night, Lena sat by her bedroom window and looked up at the stars. It was a clear night. The clouds of the afternoon had quickly dissipated. The glowing stars reminded her of the creatures' eyes. She considered finding a new area to call her own, but she knew she would never be able to resist the call of the sea. And someday, she'd still escape to the other side.

Her mother entered her room, the door creaking underneath the weight of her hand. "Lena, I think we need to talk about what happened today."

Lena's instinct was to throw her lavender comforter on top of her head and crawl deep inside its warmth and pretend not to hear, but she didn't. She felt older after her experience at the sea, and she felt ready to finally confront her mother too.

"Okay," she said, her voice beginning to quaver. Perhaps she wasn't entirely ready, but there was no escaping the conversation.

Her mother sat down on the edge of the bed. Her hair was wrapped up in a knot on top of her head, and Lena noticed how her normally sandy brown tresses were peppered with bits of grey. Lines were forming around her darkened eyes as well, making her look perpetually exhausted. "I don't want you going to the sea anymore, Lena. It's not safe."

Lena was torn. She was terrified too after her experience, but there was something about the sea that called to her rebellious spirit. Her mother had taken away so much from her already. She couldn't take this too. "It's your fault he's always gone," she growled, her own voice seeming foreign to her. The calloused words of a stranger.

Her mother's face narrowed as she pursed her lips. Her wrinkled eyes began to well with tears and that she sniffed back. "It's not," she said, her voice stern.

"It is," Lena continued, knowing full well the stinging power of her words. "You drive him away from us."

Her mother stood, her face contorted in rage as she walked towards the bedroom door. "You'll never understand how much I've done for you. His absence doesn't make him a saint, Lena. And I'm not a villain for trying to protect you." She disappeared into the hallway and then slammed the door shut.

Lena wanted to hide under the covers again, but she continued to resist the urge. What could she have meant by that? Surely, she knew that her nagging and protectiveness were intensely irritating. Of course she was the reason he stayed away.

The next few days passed in silence. Mother and daughter ignored each other, although Lena didn't revisit the sea. She stayed at home and did her chores. Each evening, she locked herself in her room and dreamed of escaping across the sea with her father. She wrote in her journal and read books of adventure. Her mother kept to herself as well and earned a personal record for lack of nagging. Lena didn't want to admit it even to herself, but the distance created by the silence between them made her feel even lonelier than before.

One day, a letter arrived. Her mother raced to the postbox to retrieve it, and she ripped it open as soon as she saw it. Lena watched her from the window as she stood in the garden reading the new letter. She watched her mother's face display a range of emotion: hope, hate, resentment, resolve. With each flare of passion, her face tightened and her lips got smaller and smaller as she clenched them. Eventually, her hands tore the letter to bits. She scattered the shreds of paper on the ground and stormed back into the house, her face red with anger.

Lena hadn't spoken to her in nearly a week, but she couldn't resist asking, "What was it?" all the while fearing that she knew the answer. When her mother didn't respond, she asked further, "Is he not coming home next week?"

"He's not coming home at all," her mother spat. "He's staying with them."

"With who?" Lena asked, entirely perplexed.

"His other family. His real family."

The words hit Lena like a brick. It was something she'd never suspected, but looking back, she couldn't imagine how it hadn't. His absences were frequent and long. She and her mother lived in seclusion, rarely interacting with the world around them. She thought her father had a secret, but she'd never imagined that she was that secret.

"Where?" she whispered.

"Somewhere far away. Across the sea. We're on our own now."

Lena had always suspected that she didn't belong in this place, and now it was confirmed in her mind. She belonged with them. Across the sea. She wouldn't remain secret any longer. She would claim the life she always thought she'd deserved: a life elsewhere with her father and not her mother.

That night, when her mother was sleeping, she crept out of her bedroom. She clutched a flashlight in her hands and pressed against the back door as gently as she could, willing it not to creak as it opened. Slowly and carefully, she left the house and slinked towards the path that led to the sea, the flashlight guiding her way as she made her trek.

Soon, she was there. She raised her arms in front of her to see as far as the light could go. Something caused the water to ripple in the distance. A friend or foe. She couldn't know for sure. But anything was better than this. She slipped off her shoes and dropped the still lit flashlight on the sandy ground. She dipped one foot into the sea and then the other. Soon, the chilly water was around her waist and then up to her shoulders. She leaned forward and let her body float for a second before reaching out her arms to stroke the surface. She plunged forward into the unknown.


  1. Enjoyed this story. Very emotional. Don't know whether I feel sorrier for Lena or her mother.
    My only niggle was that Lena was playing in the sand with a bucket and spade like a small child but her thoughts and emotions were of a teenager.

  2. Enjoyable story. Lena is a very well-drawn character.

  3. Wow! The ending took my breath away. The child's narrative voice is totally compelling and believable. It feels to me as if Lena is on the cusp of childhood and adolescence. A gripping story.

  4. Very good fiction, captured both the perspective of the aching child and that of the vanquished adult.

    Showed the perspective of the aching children as well as that of the vanquished adult. Was tragic and deliciously, one never knew where fantasy began and reality left off.

  5. Very compelling story. Moves quickly and energetically to a conclusion that's amazing, and inevitable in hindsight. Super reveals along the way. Very well done and enjoyable.

  6. A touching story that left me with a lot of questions! I found the female creature in the sea to be the most mysterious one. The fact that she tried to 'protect' Lena from the male creature (who I assume was Lena's father) led me to believe that she even had compassion towards Lena's mother.