From a distance, they looked like rocks. Large, sea-beaten and sandy rocks. A foggy day at Drake’s Beach. The sea was quiet and the world still. You could ride a bus to the lighthouse but the lines were long and we were only there for the day and who wants to spend their weekend like that? Standing in line, riding a bus. Waiting in lines during vacation is one of many American pastimes I just won’t accept. That the princesses have secret tunnels undergirding Disneyland so they can pass through its various locales without being waylaid by intractable lines of gawking consumers, all waiting for the same, mass-produced experience; that the actresses must pass through what I imagine are either a dark warren or a dull steel, lightless office park, and along the way transform from one idealized cartoon to another, speaks to a capitalist depravity that belittles everyone involved. So on vacation I seek authenticity by avoiding lines. We passed up a chance to see the lighthouse and walked instead down to Drake’s Beach along a narrow footpath. But my daughter is three; she doesn’t care about lines; her concern is: what is that, there on the beach? The looming rocks.
Recent rain made the going slick and muddy. Wouldn’t you know it? We ended up in a line. The line moved constantly, sure, but we were moving in concert with everyone else, slowly going forward for our turn at the destination like so many customers at a pharmacy—so much so that when we took Rosa aside to explain to what was happening on the beach, everyone behind us stopped moving.
What we’d finally noticed: The rocks were the stillness. They held it aloft, like a child tenting a thick, warm blanket over our heads. As we got closer we could see rangers standing near the rocks. Little orange warning flags. How people roved in circles, how they paused, how they cocked their heads and considered what was before them. Sea lions, of course. Young males too weak to compete with older bulls in the orgies carrying on down the coast. Sleeping off their long pilgrimage through cold water to a party they weren’t even invited to.
“They’re not dangerous—right?” Caroline asked. We had been trading Rosa back and forth along the path, and just now she was holding her—& tighter the closer we got to the beach.
“No,” I said. “They’re very dangerous.” My legs felt uncertain on the slick path and I was glad to have stopped.
“Are you guys going to go?” someone said.
We looked at them, the groups of people waiting behind us. They craned their necks and adjusted the straps on their day packs. I pointed to where the path had turned away from us, over a little rise. “That’s the trail.”
“But they’re not fast, right?” Caroline asked.
The people were moving quickly along the trail now. The bottleneck had formed a singular mass of bodies moving tightly together, like a school of fish, and now, released, it sprang towards the beach. The sea lion nearest us flopped its big head up and down on the sand before settling again.
“Oh, they’re very fast,” I said. I remembered going to the Ano Nuevo Reserve and walking with a guide who would stop the group whenever a sea lion was within fifty yards and theatrically throw up his hands, shielding us from the beast while shouting, “Stay back! For your own safety! They are very, very fast!” At least, that’s how I remember it; what’s important is that standing there, just above the beach, looking up and down the coast and seeing the large, silent, still shapes lying at seemingly regular intervals, I was certain of their deadly speed. I imagined a territorial fight where two of the giant monsters violently whipped their mass and their tusks at each other, people scattering away, people caught in the middle, people trampled and gored. I imagined getting caught out there, between them. I imagined Rosa and Caroline out there. I was terrified. I explained to Rosa how dangerous they were, and how she had to stay near us, and not go near the sea lions. We can look, because they’re sleeping, but we can’t get close, okay? But Rosa, unfazed by all that, had only one question: Does it have eyes?
She asked this reverently, as if in the presence of a great power.
A power she’d seen before.
In her classroom at the Montessori school, there’s a fish-tank.
In the fish-tank there are goldfish.
Every day, the fish are fed. The teacher leads, and the children help. The fish-tank is near the window and sunlight falls at an angle and lights up the bottom half of the tank. One morning, into this light, following the sinking flakes of food, swam an eyeless fish. It drifted, its head ticking back and forth, sensing by some other means the surrounding world. It wasn’t a new fish, it was one of the everyday fish, all of whom, yesterday, had eyes. The blind goldfish lurked for a moment before swimming back up into the dark. Reporting this to us at home, Rosa, appalled, let us know that “One of the other fish? He ate her eyes. Now she has no eyes.”
As adults we know that the world is full of disgusting terror. But what, to a three year old, is such a thing? That a fish might eat another’s eyes, that they might go on living together, that such great violence just happens, sometimes. We accept it, but what does it mean to accept it? Rosa sensed it in the sea lions, the meaningless possibility of violence. Does it have eyes? When we finally got to the beach we gave the sea lion a wide berth and searched out his eyes. He was lying on his side, eyes squeezed shut. But they were there. The eyes. Roaming beneath the lids, flickering with dreams. We watched for a few moments to see if he’d open them, but he didn’t. The sea was gentle and foamy. We looked for shells, and then we drew X’s with our feet near the tide pools and pretended they were spots for buried treasure. Rosa took her shoes off and got her feet wet in the ocean. Whatever she was looking for in the sea lion’s eyes, she must have found it.
But she didn’t look at them again.
When we left, she said goodbye to the ocean.
A few weeks later, on the other side of the country, Nicolas Cruz walked into Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School and killed seventeen people.
I see the fish sinking towards the bottom of the tank. Did it feel the light, did it taste it? What is the light to an eyeless fish?
Survivors processed off the school grounds, escorted by armed police, their hands held above their head as they snaked single file towards safety.
The sea lion had eyes we did not see.
Nicolas Cruz walked into a school and gunned down seventeen people. His classmates and teachers.
In Rosa’s books, and on her shows, animals talk, and learn, and live together. Every year the sea lions migrate, and as soon as they find their beach, they begin to fight. The males lift themselves into the air and come crashing down on their rivals, gouging with their tusks. The victorious males, bloodied and torn, heave themselves onto any nearby females and forcefully mate. In the books and shows the animals all have eyes and hands and speech. They are just like us.
When the police found him, Nicolas Cruz had been to McDonald’s.
He killed seventeen people and dropped his guns and walked out with the survivors.
He blended in.
He went to McDonald’s.
He sat and waited.
He looked at the menu.
He thought of ordering food.
His picture was on the news. You could look into his blue eyes.
Dustin Heron is a social worker and story writer. His work has appeared most recently in Conclave, The Normal School, Fictive Dream, Occulum, Ghost Parachute, Porridge, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best of the Net. His first book, Paradise Stories, was published by Small Desk Press. You can find more of his work at dustinheron.com.