The night Penny died Nols wasn’t there.
She had worked a double shift earlier, and they’d headed to a party at the house of one of Moises’s friends around two a.m. Nols remembered she wanted to visit the boardwalk in the morning. “We’ll rent bikes and ride the whole thing. Twice,” Penny said, popping the cap from a beer bottle. “If you can wake up that is—riding ends at 10:30.”
Nols groaned. “I’ll try.”
Then they sat on the couch together, talking with two guys from Rehoboth. The four toasted each other, then toasted England, then American involvement in World War II. “Yanks drink horrible tea, but other than that you’re all right,” Penny concluded. Moises had a beer sitting next to him on the coffee table and, without looking up, worked a pen over paper, drawing.
He and Nols didn’t recall when Penny left the party. Nols remembered the slow way the room moved, how this hippie bartender brought along his bow-legged pit bull. When he woke at ten in the morning, Nols found her coat and clothes, but her shoes were missing.
Nols learned the basic facts about Penny’s death from the police, and all night, while he and Jorge drove, he had pulled apart those facts. Listed details. Replayed his memories of her, searching, hoping to fill what was missing from that night. The way he would later tell it over and again, the only sequence that felt true was this: Before dawn Penny walked down to the sand, right along the ocean. He imagined the mole crabs dug holes under her feet. She probably felt serene when she stepped into the water, sensing the waves’ chill, the sea foam that tumbled up then slid back. She wasn’t thinking about tides when she swam out to see the city lights from beyond the breakers, wasn’t thinking about rip currents, narrow rushes of water that surge offshore. He imagined Penny looked back to the boardwalk, the electric light shimmering in broken zigzags across the black ocean. Then she felt weakness in her thighs and arms and started back to shore. Pulling at the water, she looked up only to find the boardwalk was further away, her fatigue worse. Aching. Her lungs burned. Nols wondered if Penny realized then she was helpless, that she wasn’t going to make it back. He imagined the salt water eclipsing her vision, hinting at the inky darkness below, and when she stopped treading water then slipped underneath the surface, weighed down by her own body.
When they were three blocks from Penny’s apartment Nols asked if they could drive a while longer. “I feel sick,” he said. “The rum, maybe.” He could see that Moises knew he was lying, asking for time. But soon they would be standing in that compressed living room with her four roommates. Soon they would admit to everyone Penny’s body was found on a barrier island.
“Sure, I still have a quarter tank,” Moises said. “Just don’t throw up in my car.”
They neared the inlet and headed west, over the bridge and along the beginning of Route 50, leaving Ocean City. Dawn spilled over the bay, and Nols felt the sun through the window.
They drove through a tangle of houses, along streets and canals. Light flickered through spindly trees. They stopped at an elementary school where no children were playing; swings hung empty.
He could see Penny again, as the police had revealed her at the station. A dribble of foam clung to the edge of her mouth, a slice of seaweed to her hair. Penny’s eyes were glistening and half-open as if she were only nodding off.
Then he couldn’t bear sitting in the car any longer: the seat felt hot on his back; the belt squeezed his chest. Nols stumbled from the Camaro and gasped in humidity. Shaking, he knelt in the grass and looked out at the field—the patches of soil and clumps of dandelions.
As he stood and ran, eyes closed, feeling rushing air on his face and popping dandelion stems against his sneaker tops, he dreamed a thousand things. Behind Nols seeds caught breeze and painted the lonely morning with wishes.