Within the Water

Art by Yoni Perla
Writing by William Cheng

The sea dried up on a Tuesday, just like my brother said it would.

“Why a Tuesday?” I had asked him.

“I didn’t make the decision,” he replied. “It’s just the way things are. The sun comes up at six in the morning. The snow starts in mid-November. And the sea will dry out on a Tuesday. That’s the way it’s meant to be.”

An empty sea? Imagining the sea without water was like imagining a daisy without its petals. A strange, otherworldly image of a time with no more soft sand under my feet. Just the coarseness of dried dirt, and the crackle of sedentary shells wherever I walked.

The thought of it stirred the back of my mind, and another question slipped out.

“What will happen then? When the sea dries up?”

“Come on now, stop with the questions,” he said. “I brought you here to fish, not to just chitchat. Let’s get the nets onto the truck.”

“Yessir,” I said. And we quietly worked, without so much of a glance at one another.

Roland was ten years older than I was. If it wasn’t for the shape of our eyes, you couldn’t have guessed that we were brothers. He must have been an entire head taller than I was, with salt and pepper hair and a brown birthmark on his left cheek the size of a small tangerine. He used to be as skinny as a twig, but ever since he entered rehab, he began to bulk up a bit. 

Come to think of it, he did look healthier than he ever was.

I watched the trees on the side of the road blur into a green canvas as our truck zipped down the road. A Jimi Hendrix record played over the radio, the cries of the guitar interlacing with the gentle hum of the Chevy. The noon sun descended over us as if a puppeteer was controlling it. Its sweltering heat left my skin sticky and itchy.  

“You can roll down your window, you know.”

Roland looked over at me, with one hand over the wheel.

“I thought you said that it was jammed.”

“It was,” he said. “But I got it fixed the other day. Thought it would cost a lot more than it did, but the shop said that it was just a small motor gear inside that got out of whack.”

“A motor gear?”

“Mmhm. The mechanic swapped out the gear in half an hour. Even held out the old gear for me to see. And sure enough, two of the teeth were broken right off. There must have been twenty teeth on that gear, but it only took two to break it. Funny how what seems to be such a small problem can cause the entire system to fall out of whack, eh?”

I turned the crank and sure enough, the window rolled down seamlessly. I could feel the summer breeze singe the front of my face. 

“It was all worth it though,” Roland said. “I managed to find a buyer a few weeks ago. Said that if it weren’t for the window problem, he would pay fifteen hundred dollars for this truck. Can you believe it? That’s nearly as much as what I paid for it. So of course I had to find a way to fix it.”

The road narrowed, turning from asphalt into dirt.

“You’re really moving, aren’t you?” I finally said.

“Yeah. You know how last time, I told you that I maybe found a job? Well, it’s an oil company in Fort Worth.” He looked over at me. “Texas. They just sent over the paperwork. I can start at the end of the summer.”

“Why don’t you want to stay around here?” I asked. “Why do you have to go somewhere so far away?”

He didn’t answer.

“You’ve been clean for a while now, right? You’re still going to rehab?”

“Yeah, I’m still going to rehab. But it’s not that simple,” he said. “A lot of bad things have happened to me here. Of course, there’s been a lot of good,” he said, as he shot a look at me. “I really appreciate that I can try to be the best brother I can be for you. But to be honest, I need a fresh start, somewhere as far away from here as possible. You understand, don’t you?”

I understood, of course. But things that are understandable aren’t any easier to accept. 

I gazed solemnly out of the truck. You could make out the hues of the ocean now, just past the forest. A blue that seemed to be painted directly onto the tree trunks. And if on cue, Jimi Hendrix’s guitar stopped singing, and the song slowly faded out.

Roland slowly pulled off the road. There was a small wooden dock that split the coast in half. This was our favorite spot. The water was not so deep, making it perfect for fishing with nets. 

Our rubber boots sank deep into the mud, the water level rising as we went in deeper. At one point, I nearly stumbled and fell all the way in.

“Careful,” Roland said.

We cast the first net about fifteen feet from shore, the fishing nets clinging to my hand like the talons of some wild bird. This area was perfect for small fish. And sure enough, our first catch was a medium-length carp.

“Not bad,” Roland said. “Big enough to eat?”

“Nah,” I said. “Let’s throw it back in.”

“You’re the boss.” And he released the fish back into the water and watched it disappear into the depths. Today, the water was muddied. Normally you could see right through the surface, but today the ocean was black and bruised. 

“Have you told mom and dad that you’re leaving?”

Roland stopped unwinding the netting. A fish was tangled inside, struggling to get out.

“Nope. I was actually hoping that you could tell them.”


“Well, you’re the one who actually lives with them…”

“But you’re the one who’s actually leaving!” I said. “Don’t tell me that you weren’t planning on seeing them.”

“I wasn’t,” he said. “But ever since I started using you-know-what and that fight we had, I don’t think that they want to see me again.”

“But you’re clean right now,” I said. “And they’ll always want to see you. You’re their kid, for heaven’s sake.”

Roland silently gazed at the faint flops of the fish in the net.

“You’re right,” he finally said. “I’ll pay them a visit before I leave. How does that sound?”

I nodded. 

“Here, catch,” he said. He tossed the fish at me, and in my haste to catch it, I stumbled and fell backwards into the water. 

“Hey!” I indignantly tried to splash him, but he cackled and ran away. 

As the sun began to set, we decided to call it a day. We took out the Cokes from the ice cooler and threw the fish in its place.

To this day, I still have that image of us sitting on the dock, sodas in hand. We could see a boat in the distance, speeding along the horizon.

“I wish I could take you on one of those,” Roland said.


“One of those fancy boats. I’m telling you, it’s a completely different experience. Fishing on open water is so much better than fishing just a few meters from the coastline.”

“I bet it is,” I said, polishing up the last drops of soda and crunching up my can.

Roland looked over at me.

“You don’t believe me, do you?”

“Of course I believe you.” I said. “I just don’t think that it’s my thing. Ever since I nearly drowned, I don’t think I ever want to be that far away from land ever again. Even fishing from the coastline has been a stretch.”

The boat in the distance spun around and zipped back across our line of sight.

“I still remember that, you know,” he said. “That was the scariest moment in my life. I was supposed to be watching you swim, but the big tide came out of nowhere and pulled you right in. If it wasn’t for the lifeguard, I don’t think you would have made it.”

I clapped him on the back. “It’s okay,” I said. “I’m feeling pretty comfortable with the water. And who knows, maybe I’ll feel like going on a boat with you one day.”

“I bet,” he said, his eyes fixated on the horizon. “And don’t worry about it. When the sea dries up, you won’t be able to drown anymore.”

But countless Tuesdays passed by, and the sea continued to froth at its mouth. I even took my bike to the coastline to check. Every time I passed by, the sea was still there, full to the brim.

Roland passed away not much longer after that fishing trip. Two weeks before he was supposed to leave for Fort Worth, one of his neighbors found him lying face down on the floor, veins overflowing from an overdose.

The rehab center had said that there were no signs that Roland was sinking back into addiction. “He was a role model for the others,” one of the counselors told my parents. “There was no one as resilient as he was. We all thought he would make it.”

But he didn’t. And so the funeral went on. And his apartment was cleansed. And his old truck was sold to the buyer. And the sea swelled, louder than it ever had before. I could hear its roar from the window from my room. A deafening and primitive sound, like a foghorn in the dark.

Until one night, when the rushing of the water finally stopped.

I was supposed to leave for college in the morning, and I was packing any last-minute items I had on my lists. Not that it mattered too much. At this hour, I was just looking for an excuse to stay awake.

To kill the time, I was eyeing through a stack of books on my desk to take with me. Not that one, I thought. Should I take One Hundred Years of Solitude? Or a Hemingway? But as I considered this in my mind, my eyes fell on another object on my desk. It was an old snowglobe that my family bought when we drove up to Virginia Beach together. 

As I picked it up, I noticed that something was off. First off, no snowglobe I had ever held felt this light before. Now one might ask, how could I possibly know that? Surely a person could not retain in their memory the weights of every snowglobe that they ever held. But the difference was so noticeable—like night and day—that I could not help but give it a shake. Instead of floating gently to the bottom, the fake snow stuck to the sides of the glass like paper posters to a telephone pole.

Without thinking, I dropped the snowglobe onto the ground, shattering it into a kaleidoscope of broken glass and plastic. Getting on my knees, I took a closer look at the crime scene. There was no water to be found on the ground. Just billions of glass particles, a broken pedestal, and scattered snow.

Why today, I thought. Why this Tuesday in particular?

Even with the noise that was surely emanating from my room, it appeared that my family was still asleep. Or maybe, I thought, the noise was never there. Perhaps this was a dream. All the noise was in my head. All the water was in my head.

Just to be sure, I switched on the lights in the bathroom and turned on the sink. Silence. I headed downstairs and checked the kitchen sink. Not a single drop of water dripped down.

It’s happening, I thought. 

Even by bike, the ocean was not that far away. After countless visits on Tuesdays, I had memorized the route to the dock in my head. 

I strapped on my bike helmet and began to pedal down the street. The moonlight was especially bright tonight, a stage light suspended from the heavens. An audience of stars were gleaming, watching the spectacle. 

And a spectacle they would receive. When I arrived at the dock, I could only gasp at what had happened.

Where there once was an ocean lay a desert that seemed to stretch on as far as the eye could see. It was as if all the water had evaporated. 

My god.

The bike fell to ground as I began to take in the hellish landscape in front of me. Under the light of the moon, I could tell that the seafloor had dried into parched sandpaper. Serrated rocks jutted out of the landscape like knives on a cutting board.

I looked around the coast. Not a single other person was here. It was just me, the dock, and an empty ocean. 

The curiosity got the better of me, and I began to walk, farther away from the shoreline, into the moon-shaped crevice. All was quiet except for the crunch of brown, caked, and dead weeds under my feet. What appeared to be plastic bags turned out to be the dried carcasses of jellyfish. The flightless remains of fish laid quietly on the ground, rotting away in silence. 

In the far off distance, I could see a large object teetering precariously towards the bottom of the crater. As I descended the slope, I could begin to make out the remains of the boat that Roland and I saw that day. Its hull had split in half, with sheets of metal protruding from the sand at twisted angles.

At these depths, my head only had one thought left.

“Roland,” I said aloud. “You were right.”

The sea was gone, just like that, on a Tuesday.