On the first day of our vacation, I heard about the Koala Tide.
The first time I heard the words, I knew I shouldn't be listening. But I was. The sun was very big and very hot that day. I was sitting a few feet away from the beach blanket, on the beach in Florida, shoving heaps of sand into a pile to make a castle. I was wearing my orange bathing suit. It was not my favorite bathing suit.
"The Koala Tide," said my father's friend Fred, "can lay waste to a man's vacation."
I looked over at the beach chairs they were sitting on. It was so sunny that it hurt my eyes to look. The sky was very blue.
Fred wore blue swim trunks and had a very hairy chest. He was holding a beer. I hated Fred.
My father wore red swim trunks and was very tan. He was also holding a beer. I loved my father.
"Shut up, Fred," my father said. "The kid can hear you."
"Calm down," Fred said. "She doesn't know what we're talking about. I'm just telling you, in two days, it'll be here. You should keep her off of the beach on the third day. It's for her own good."
I stopped looking at them and continued building my sand castle, digging moats. But the words were already stuck in my head: The Koala Tide. I thought about the words. I wanted to say them out loud but did not.
With my hands still in the sand, I began imagining it: Rows and rows of koalas swimming to the shore, climbing out of the ocean with wet fur as they made their way onto the sand. I pictured the koalas lying on the beach and eating lunches. Koalas on vacation.
I walked over and sat down on the beach blanket. My father was reading a book.
"Dad," I said.
"How many koalas will come?"
He looked up from his book.
"Don't worry about that," he said. "It's nothing real."
"Then why did Fred..."
"Fred's batshit crazy, sweetie," he said. He was already reading again.
But I couldn't stop thinking about the koalas. I could not wait for them to come. There were already pelicans and seagulls all over the beach, pecking at the grains of sand. They were nice. But the koalas seemed much better.
On the second day of our vacation, I swam in the ocean with my older brother. He was in charge. He wore yellow swim trunks. He was 19 years old. I was only 7. My brother was pretty tan, but not as tan as my father. I loved my brother.
The sun was hotter that day. The sky was just as blue as before. I wore my purple bathing suit. And all over the beach and in the ocean, there were the pelicans again, even more than before. Their mouths were big and their chins hung down. My father said they saved the fish in those chins.
"The Koala Tide is coming," I told my brother. The sun was glinting off of the waves. It was almost too bright and wet to make out his face.
"The Koala Tide."
"You don't know what you're talking about."
"Yes, I do! Fred said it was coming."
"Fred's a drunk. No such thing as a Koala Tide."
"Dad drinks beer like Fred does."
"Dad can hold his booze."
I wasn't sure what he meant, so I said nothing. Instead, I turned away from my brother and dove under the water, kicking my legs hard, looking for fish until my lungs went tight and my head pulsed black and white. Then I came back up for air.
"You're going to feel pretty stupid when the Koala Tide gets here," I told my brother when I caught my breath.
"Yeah, you let me know as soon as the Koala Tide shows up, kiddo."
"You're going to feel pretty stupid when it comes," I told him again. "And I'm going to keep a koala. Once they get here."
"You're getting more retarded by the minute."
I looked over and watched as a pelican landed in the water a few feet away. He sat on top of the waves and moved with the ocean. His feathers looked very wet and his eyes looked very large.
"Look," I said to my brother. "Look at that pelican!"
We both looked at the pelican.
"All the pelicans," my brother said, "look very guilty."
I did not know what to say. But I felt that he was right and so I nodded.
On the third day of our vacation, I woke up buzzing. The excitement was in my veins. I hummed the words quietly, while we ate breakfast, through the eggs in my mouth, The Koala Tide, The Koala Tide, The Koala Tide.
"What are you mumbling about?" my mother demanded.
My mother wore a black swimsuit. She was tan like my brother. No one was as tan as my father. I didn't like my mother. She yelled the most out of everyone.
"The Koala Tide is coming today," I said.
"Who told you about that?" my mother demanded.
"I'm not telling!"
"That's just a legend," my mother said, sighing. "Don't get all excited for nothing. It's not real."
"Mom, when the koalas come, I'm gonna keep one."
My mother shook her head.
"There are no koalas coming," my mother said.
"We can keep one in the laundry room," I told her. "Nobody will ever have to know."
But I did want people to know. I especially wanted to show the koala to my friend Gretchen VonDeeseBrooke. Gretchen VonDeeseBrooke always bragged about her new green bicycle. I hated Gretchen VonDeeseBrooke.
I wanted to take Gretchen VonDeeseBrooke into the laundry room and show her the koala and then ask if she had a koala bear. I knew she did not.
"There won't be any koalas to put into the laundry room," my mother said. "None."
"Not even one?"
"I don't want to hear the word koala again!" my mother said.
She put her eyes back onto the newspaper. I chewed my eggs and hummed some more, quietly this time.
That afternoon, we were back on the beach. I was wearing my pink bathing suit. The sun was huge and hot again, the hottest of all the days. I tried to tell my brother about the Koala Tide again.
"The Koala Tide is coming. I need to know what Koalas eat," I said to my brother. "I want to feed mine when it gets here. What do Koalas eat?"
"That's a lie!"
"Fine, they eat other koala bears."
"No, they don't!"
"Listen, the koalas aren't coming, kiddo. Give it up."
"Just tell me what they eat!"
"Fine! They eat plants!"
"Plants," I repeated. "Those are easy to get."
I had not built a sand castle since I heard about the Koala Tide. Instead, I watched the beach for the koalas. I watched the waves. I pushed my feet deep into the sand and thought of what I might name my koala. I liked the name Benjamin.
Then a shadow blocked the sun. I looked up.
"No sand castles today?" my father asked.
"No, not today," I said.
I wanted to ask him about the koalas but I was afraid I would get in trouble. I held the question in my throat.
"Well, maybe tomorrow then."
"Yes, tomorrow. More sand castles."
"Want to get some ice cream tonight, kiddo?" he asked. "For the sunset?"
This is my father's favorite thing to do. Every night on vacation, he likes me to sit on the beach with him, our mouths full of Rum Raisin and Rocky Road, while the sky went from pink to purple to blue.
"Ok," I said.
My father turned and walked back towards the blanket.
I shook my head. I was lying about the sunset and the ice cream. I knew once the koalas came, everything would be different. I would not want to leave my koala home alone so soon. He would have to come with us, or else I would have to stay home and tend to him. My father didn't understand how difficult koala care was.
Another thought crossed my mind. Maybe I could have more than one koala. Maybe I could keep two or three. They could all live in the laundry room. I wondered how many koalas I could hold at once.
When the Koala Tide finally came, I was not the first one to see it. I had been looking down at the sand, thinking about ways to fit seven live koala bears into my suitcase when I heard the shrieks of children and birds.
"Son of a bitch!" my father yelled from the blanket.
I looked out at the waves and saw they had turned black. I squinted my eyes hard and saw that dark shapes were tumbling up onto the sand, rolling in with the tide.
"THE KOALAS," I screamed.
Then I ran.
"FOR CHRIST'S SAKE, CASSIE, DON'T!" my father bellowed.
But it was too late. I was faster than my father.
I ran, legs pounding towards the surf. I rushed towards those koalas full speed. I heard my father behind me, screaming " DON'T!" again and I ignored him. My legs pulsed harder, into the sand; my fingers were balled up, my blood pumping.
The pelicans were flying overhead, with the seagulls. Everyone was squawking above me and swooping down into the tide to greet the koalas and some people were running away from the shore while other people ran towards it. There were colorful bathing suits everywhere, the colors blurred.
As I got closer, my eyes locked onto the piles of koala fur and claws and noses and mouths. I saw the koalas rolling up onto the beach with the waves, their bodies washing into one another, their fur covered in water.
Yes, yes, yes. The koalas were here. There were so many koalas. You could never count them all, I thought.
I kept running, full speed. The closer I got, the harder I clenched my fists.
There were too many people. If everyone took one koala, I might be left with nothing. I suddenly hated the crowds of strangers in their bright bathing suits. If I did not grab as many koalas as possible, I would only have one and one wasn't enough. I pushed through all of the legs and kept running.
I stopped at the edge of the sea. Water was rushing in between the koalas and I let it run over my toes.
I looked around. There weren't as many people nearby as I thought. There was just one old man a few feet away. Lots of people were still running, probably to get their suitcases. But there were plenty of koalas here, within reach. I could have them all. The old man next to me wasn't even taking one. Our car would be filled with koalas, there would be koalas in our house, koalas everywhere.
I bent over the first koala, one lying on his side, sleeping, the waves pushing over him. I wanted him. I reached down and grabbed him with both hands, excitedly, the joy thumping in my chest against my ribs, and he was heavy, so heavy, and so wet.
I strained to lift him up to me, to pull him up from the sand but I was not strong enough. Finally I settled on sitting him up in the water so that I could see his face. I put my knees down into the wet sand to look at him, to hug him against my chest.
The screams came out of my throat before I knew what was happening.
As I screamed, I realized that here was the koala bear's face, eyes plucked out and blood clinging to the fur, veins hanging out of the holes and resting against his cheeks.
I looked down and all around me were piles of eyeless koalas, their dead bodies rolling. All of their faces had the two deep holes, the veins bouncing against the sand as their heads hit the beach. The old man was shaking his head. I began to sob loudly. And then there was my father with his hand wrapped around my arm, yanking me away from them, away from the shore.
"Close your eyes, Cassie," my father said.
I spent the rest of the afternoon in the bedroom I shared with my brother. I lay on my stomach on my small bed and cried in the dark. I fell asleep like that until my mother came in and woke me up for dinner.
And then, there was Fred, sitting at the dinner table. We were all at the dinner table. It was my mother and my father and my brother and me and Fred. My cheeks were wet and my mouth felt numb.
Fred was drinking beer again. My father was, too. I could not eat my hamburger. I could only think about those eyeless holes and weep quietly.
"Cassie," my mother said. "Control yourself at the dinner table."
"The..." I sobbed quietly back, "koala was..."
"I told you I didn't want to hear the word koala again, goddammit!" my mother snapped.
I looked down at my plate. Fred was not bothered.
Through a thick mouthful of hamburger, he said, "Warned you about those damned koalas, didn't I?" to my father. He said this over my head, as if I were not there, at the table. He said it as if I were not still sobbing, much louder now, my whole body shaking from the wailing sound that rose up out of me.
BIO: Sarah Rose Etter was born and raised in Pennsylvania. She earned her B.A. in English & Publishing at Penn State University and is currently working towards her M.F.A. at Rosemont College. She loves T.S. Eliot and dive bars--and hates semicolons.