Evelyn watched as Lawrence put the plastic bag over his head, snapped the terry-clothed elastic around his throat and affixed the tube to the helium tank beside him. She sat quietly, neither interrupting nor egging him on. She was simply there so that he wouldn’t feel alone when it happened. Evelyn always said we weren’t alone when we came into this world and we shouldn’t be alone when we leave it.
Lawrence pumped gas into the bag and tightened it according to the instructions provided in the kit, then gave her a thumbs-up. She nodded and smiled with all her tenderness. She wanted her eyes to convey warmth and ease, and also, that this was the right thing to do. She watched him look around the bag and blink. Then she saw his mouth form a whisper; a prayer, she thought. He hadn’t mentioned being religious when they met, but then again, it seemed unusual not to call on God in your last moments. She bowed her head and said a little prayer too. We need all the help we can get, Evelyn had said, though, truthfully, her faith had been on the wane lately. By the time she looked up, Lawrence had passed out. Fifteen seconds was all it took. Ten minutes later, his brain shut down, and he was gone. Evelyn removed the bag from his head, gently folded it, and called Lawrence’s ex-wife, who had agreed to “stumble upon” his body.
Later, she would aimlessly walk the aisles of Ralphs supermarket, unable to decide what to make for dinner. Usually on the days she worked as an exit guide, she ordered takeout. Harold wasn’t always supportive of her work, especially when it took her up to Ventura or even farther away. He didn’t like her driving at night, or sharing the road with big rigs. He said, “I don’t want to have to sit by what’s left of you like those hospital families do, in case something irreversible happens.” Selfish, was Evelyn’s reaction. People needed her. A few years ago, when there was a crackdown on the Honorable Exit Network, she was identified as one of the exit guides, her face splashed all over the news. She was called an “angel of death,” “black widow,” all kinds of things. It didn’t make any sense. She was a volunteer! She went on Larry King Live to explain that she didn’t help anyone, and that it wasn’t a crime if she wasn’t aiding anyone. She was no Kevorkian. She wasn’t interested in helping the suicidal, just the ones who wanted to die with a little dignity. And somehow (usually through word of mouth) they found her. As far as she could tell, most people were unmoved by this defense. In the cereal aisle at Ralphs, a man seemed to recognize her, and clucked his tongue in consternation at having the misfortune of being in her orbit. One woman with her boy riding in the cart made sure to stand between them as Evelyn, who generally tried to look as nonthreatening as possible, passed by on her way to grab a box of Crispix. Don’t worry, she wanted to say, I don’t snatch children. But when you have stage-four something, maybe you’ll call, maybe you’ll want to go your own way.
After Ralphs, she took the long way home, up the Pacific Coast Highway, and saw beautiful phosphorescent waves crashing all along the beaches. It gave her pause and she pulled off and parked. She watched as people entered the water and covered their bodies with the glow, giggling and glittering. She sat in awe of the hypnotic movement, the light crashing, the bodies covered in a glowing film. She didn’t so much as blink.
The bloom, as people called it, had changed things. It had changed the water, the sea life, and even the sand—made it finer, softer, easier to sleep on. It was as if the ocean itself was inviting everyone closer. The sick and dying took pilgrimages to Zuma Beach to be saved, as if it were some kind of neon Lourdes. People rubbed the bloom all over themselves vigorously while watching whales spray fans of blue-green water that radiated light into the sky. The beaches became littered with refuse—food wrappers, plastic bottles, needles sticking out of the sand near the bathroom. Patrols were set up, and with flashlights bobbing they checked and rechecked people lying on the sand to make sure they were still alive. At night, those looking to be healed floated out to sea on their backs. Some didn’t come back. Through this natural thinning, whatever was left in sleeping bags became fair game for the rest of the beach dwellers. When the sun came up, the glow of the water would fade to a muddy red and the garbage piles became imposing. People called the City of Malibu and demanded extra garbage pickups. No one was leaving. People were feeling better—cured, even.
On the eleven o’clock newscast one night, Evelyn saw the Channel 4 News Team’s report from the beach, their high beams sweeping the blinking eyes of the already-devoted. The anchorman, visibly affected, said, “Extraordinary things are happening on the California coast.” Evelyn yelled for Harold to come to the TV. He was slow to arrive, nearly lumbering at fifty, and when he finally did see it, he was unmoved. “It’s just bioluminescent algae,” he said.
“Goddamn it, Harold.”
He stared at her, moon-faced Evelyn, with a new bob he didn’t particularly care for. So what that the whales were glowing or that people were lining up along the water trying to touch the stuff? They were fools. The algae was just a naturally occurring thing. The sea creatures swarming the coast had only come to eat the bloom, their migration had a reason behind it. A pilgrimage to rub yourself with algae just didn’t make sense to him. Who even started this rumor that the bloom could help anyone?
“Maybe it could help my arthritis,” Evelyn said.
“Don’t even go there, Ev.”
“What about your IBS? Maybe drink some?”
“I don’t have IBS,” Harold said across the room.
Harold found it hard to be around Evelyn when she got like this. She had always been a bit neurotic. He often joked that she kept him sick just so he could need her, that she was like Kathy Bates in Misery, wanting him to be sick so she could break out the mandoline to slice quarter-sized carrots and half-moon celery and fill him with chicken soup and Ritz crackers. She never disagreed. Though they joked, there was something to it. When she had worked at the hospice, Harold worried that spending so much time around the dying was poisoning her perception of her own life. She began to drink too much, so he asked her to cut her shifts, get right again. She cut them all and started doing this instead. He wasn’t sure which he preferred.
Harold turned off the television as he sat down on their Ultrasuede sofa, gently tapped on the cushion beside him. “Evelyn, sit down. It’s going to be okay.” She did, but gently pulled the remote away from him and turned the television back on. Without looking away from the group of seniors dancing a conga line into the waves, she said, “You just never know, until you know.”
“It’s turning into the fucking Ganges,” Harold said.
“Sorry,” he muttered, somewhat shamefully, though he didn’t mean it at all.
The traffic on the PCH was choked for hours now, worse than the worst summer Fridays or late-Sunday depressed returns. The sky was turning hazy from all the exhaust, and no one could tell if the clouds and fog were the result of June gloom or something more sinister. It made the daytime red water look like it was on fire. Each night, when the sun went down, and the bright-blue glow returned, the bloomers stared in wonder. Some of them went on the news to say, Stop coming, turn back. There’s no more room. Evelyn, now a resident, was the loudest advocate for more settlements. Couldn’t some of the empty summer beach houses be used as shelter?
Harold watched Evelyn argue passionately on television that the water belonged to everyone, and he felt proud of her. Still, the house felt vaguely threatening while empty. What if something awful happened and Harold was all alone? She was unaffected by his pleas. She’d told all her newest clients to come to the water. It would buy them time—maybe they could live after all. She started to fancy herself an entrance guide of sorts, entering a new phase of life, one with expectation.
No one could decide what color ribbon to use for those lost during the bloom. They settled on periwinkle because it had the least awareness associated with it already. Some had argued for a hue closer to the glowing ocean. Richard Atkins, the self-appointed leader of the bloomers, had made the final call.
Mary Jean Ragonovich was fifty-three and from Wilmington, Delaware. Her daughter, Patty, told Anderson Cooper that she had been suffering from late-stage lymphoma and thought Zuma Beach sounded like a good bet. It wasn’t.
Others died. Nothing dramatic or savage, though. In the mornings, scouts shook everyone awake, making sure they weren’t just baking in the sun—cancer patients and other chronic ailers just lying there in the sand. What to do with them? Even as she jammed beach sticks with periwinkle ribbons into the sand, Evelyn didn’t doubt the water was a cure. The ribbons fluttered in the wind and made a strange echoing sound. They flapped along the highway. For every dead person, there were four more who said they had been healed. And so more people kept coming. When the cars of the deceased were towed from the side of the road, other cars showed up. The long-waiters rejoiced and hogged two parking spots, making room for other cars only when their families came to join them on the beach. Fights broke out. People argued about fairness and degree of illness. The price of sunblock was exorbitant. Beach umbrellas sometimes shaded as many as five scrunched bodies waiting for the sun to fall and for the bloom to return. Some, growing skeptical, asked what would happen when the glow disappeared, but those conversations were waved off with declarations of “a new normal.”
Evelyn worked the PB&J station during the day and as a tai chi instructor at dusk. It gave her a sense of purpose—people were always going to be hungry, and people needed to exercise their minds as well as their bodies out here. Drivers donated to the cause by throwing bread and peanut butter out their windows. One jar of Skippy hit Evelyn in the head. But it was okay! People were being so kind on the whole.
The summer felt festive and surreal, and Evelyn rose through the ranks because she was the go-to for bloomers on the ebb. She was an elite bloomer, someone people came to with their problems. She was allowed into the water with the first wave each evening. The lines were hours long, so this meant something.
“Have faith in it,” she would tell the doubters. “It just takes time. God’s on his own clock.” She’d smile and pat them on their hands, cupping them to show she really did care. “How long?” was a frequent question. There was speculation that the bloom was fading, but each time the doubt floated through, someone pointed and yelled, “Look!” at a new patch of luminescence. People would wade out with buckets to catch it.
She thought of Harold, how much she missed him. She couldn’t understand why he couldn’t just set aside his cynicism and see what she saw or, at the very least, take her word for it. He wouldn’t even come down to see for himself. He just sent her text messages saying:
“When are you coming home?” and “petunia misses you. so do i. i think she has a heat rash or something. she won’t stop itching.”
She responded: “bring her down, we’ll see what the water can do. how’s your digestion?”
She missed her pool. She had a feeling people were peeing in the water out here. She knew the beach bathrooms had become untenable. People did what they had to do. She couldn’t stand to miss that great big glow above her, though, so she endured the thought of it.
Each night when the moon was high and most of the bloomers were asleep, Evelyn would set out on her swim, dodging couples copulating in the cresting waves and seniors pouring handfuls of water over their heads, their faces illuminated in ghostly blue. She wondered how she looked in the late-night glimmer, drawn or sultry. She would swim out, dive underwater, and be eye to eye with a fish or a crab. She’d look up at the quilt of tiny specks glimmering above her. She wished she could stay there, let that be her new sky.
It felt good to swim away from the chaos on the beach. All that desperation was daunting. Harold had refused to bring her the bathing suit she’d bought for their trip to Bermuda. He’d threatened to go alone, and when she still didn’t come home, he did. So she slept in her one-piece and let herself air dry in the daytime—her suit always on, always ready. Swimming now, she worried about who was taking care of Petunia, but she knew Harold wasn’t cruel. He would have found her a sitter. The dog liked to swim in their pool alongside Evelyn. They’d do laps until Petunia wore herself out. Then Evelyn would use the kickboard while Petunia sunned herself dry. It wasn’t a bad life, and she told Harold as much many times. But being on the beach felt crucial right now. She saw Barry Cooperman, stage-four melanoma, doing the backstroke, and she waved energetically—he wouldn’t be her Wednesday appointment after all. She saw his lean arms rising above the water, and she felt revived by the miracle. Yes, this was the best thing that had happened to Evelyn in a long time, a very long time. There was evidence of the miraculous all around her. Just yesterday, Teresa from San Diego got up and walked without her cane for the first time in years. Everyone had hoped that she’d hop or skip or really show some kind of glee, but they understood that Teresa wasn’t one for spectacle.
Evelyn floated on her back for a while, drifting past others floating with their eyes closed. She wondered if they were dead or only relaxing. Having to drag the bodies out of the waves each morning was not on the top of her list of favorite things to do. But it was a necessity. Someone would call 911; usually there was a cameraman around to catch the whole thing.News anchors had begun to lean on the word “miracle” lately, as if the joke was on the bloomers. Embedded journalists with sunburned noses went from encampment to encampment asking questions like, “Where does everyone go when the tide comes in?” They had answered these questions over and over again—to Anderson first, then Katie, then others. Reporters were always captivated by surfers zipping along the bright-blue waves, and people on the beach were sure to cheer the surfers on, quietly hoping no one was getting decapitated out there.
Evelyn enjoyed the float. She could think about anything out here, meditate, really ground herself and become one with the ocean. She floated for so long that when she picked her head up, she could hardly see the beach. She looked around her and saw the end of the bloom, where the water was dark, and panicked. Where the fuck had the rest of the bloom gone? She spun around in panic and began to swim back toward the light, unnerved by the vast darkness that opened along the bioluminescent line. How did the news choppers not show this bit? In the pictures she’d seen, the bloom stretched for miles. The thought of an end crushed her, and she flapped her arms back toward the shore.
In the morning, they found Barry Cooperman floating face-down.
Harold wanted Evelyn to snap out of it. The bloom was over. He said it over and over again. Or he said things like, “Let’s just try and get things back to normal, Evelyn.” But Evelyn couldn’t get back to normal. She was apathetic. What now?
“We’re all just going to keep going as if nothing has happened?” she asked Harold.
“But what has happened?” Harold asked her, over and over again. “It was just a fucking red tide,” he whispered to himself when she was out of earshot.
He knew Evelyn had changed when he picked her up at Zuma Beach a few days before. He found her sitting in the sand, one of the last bloomers left, staring at the water. At home, her malaise was conspicuous: She stopped getting out of bed, stopped making dinner, and looked at the food in the refrigerator with indifference. But she still kept her appointments.
Friday was Mitchell Warshaw. He was thirty-five. Evelyn always had a hard time with the young ones. Mitchell’s cluster headaches had gotten so bad that he had ceased getting out of bed. The pain pills that had once incapacitated him now did nothing. It was his time to go, he declared, and his family tacitly supported him. He’s always been his own man, they said. His mother had asked if he’d see one more specialist, but he demurred. His family had seen the pain he’d been through, the poking and prodding, the middle-of-the-night groaning. They often said they didn’t know how he had endured this long. Evelyn, brought in one sublimely sunny morning, handed the family waivers to sign. Mitchell proved his sound mind by being charming to Evelyn, telling her she looked like a young Helen Mirren as he signed his own release into the next world, and she blushed, even though she knew it wasn’t remotely true. Sometimes, she knew, these cases were not cut-and-dried. Mitchell was off the books, so to speak. Not suicidal, per se, but his affliction had reached the point where living like this was unsustainable. He was okay with his choice, and his family, knowing he’d find another way—gun, belt and doorknob, etc.—got a referral from a friend.
On the selected Friday, she pulled into the parking lot of his condominium twenty minutes early and watched Mitchell’s sister unload a trunk full of flowers, as if his room would be the site of his living funeral. She considered jumping out and helping, but she said the Rosary first, then crossed herself and shoved the plastic beads back in the glove compartment and put on some lipstick.
Inside, his sister was weeping and arranging white lilies.
“Please, I’m not dead yet,” Mitchell stuttered. Evelyn held his hand as his sister, weeping, unwrapped the plastic bag he was to stick his head into. With her other hand, Evelyn rubbed the woman’s back.
“It’s hard,” she whispered.
“What if next month they find a cure?” the sister asked.
Mitchell stared out the window and said, “They won’t.”
“But what if,” she said.
“You signed the papers,” Mitchell said.
She trained her eyes on Evelyn. “How do you do this day after day?” she asked.
“I only want to help,” Evelyn said lamely.
“But what if I wasn’t here? You’d be here, watching him die, and then you’d just jump back into your car and leave him here like nothing?”
“Stop it,” Mitchell said.
“We never just leave people. We always make sure there’s a discovery plan,” Evelyn said.
“How can you be so casual about all this?” she shot back.
Evelyn didn’t know. Sometimes she felt as if she were simply going down the list she learned in training. She had been firm with family members before. In fact, once, a client’s mother had slapped her in the face when Evelyn arrived at the agreed-upon time, as if Evelyn was the reason her daughter was sick. Grief was violent sometimes, she knew, even though people suffering through it for the first time didn’t.
Mitchell’s sister was infuriated by Evelyn’s silence and asked Mitchell if he trusted her. “She’s not giving us straight answers. She just comes here for a few days and kills you, like it’s nothing.”
“I don’t kill him,” Evelyn said.
Mitchell’s sister picked up the box for the exit kit and asked, “How much does this even cost? This hood and whatever.”
“Sixty dollars,” Mitchell and Evelyn said, almost together.
“So you’re getting rich. And how much are you paying her to do this to you?”
“I’m a volunteer,” Evelyn said quietly.
Evelyn crept out of the room, wanting to give them their space. They argued over why their parents weren’t there, and Evelyn saw herself being opened up to a boatload of liability. She looked at the door and considered fleeing. Mitchell’s sister had it all wrong. She was a helper, always had been. But no one in this house was ready for a final exit. She listened to their anguished back-and-forth as Mitchell’s sister questioned when the last time he had a headache even was. She pleaded with him and then, in a hushed whisper that Evelyn could not make out, began some sort of incantation.
She sidestepped the sofa and made her way back to Mitchell’s room. His sister, with her back turned, hid her grief from them.
“All set?” Evelyn asked.
“We need some more time,” Mitchell said.
“It happens,” Evelyn said.
She took the exit kit and put it back in its box and smiled at Mitchell. She didn’t want to seem in favor of one decision over the other, so she put her hand out and said, “Be in touch if you need.” She erased every last bit of evidence of herself there and as she left, she said, “Sometimes the miraculous does sneak up on you, and it doesn’t hurt to wait for it.”
In the car, Evelyn felt a weird feeling. Rattled wasn’t the right word for it, but it was as if the things she knew to be true suddenly weren’t. And as days passed, she seemed unmoored from the life she knew. Harold began to really worry about it. On her worst nights, he’d wake up to find her side of the bed empty, and he’d have to get in the car to go find her—usually at Zuma Beach, staring at the water, thinking the moonlight’s reflection might actually be a bit of phosphorescence. She began spending more time online, searching for other signs of sea life gone mad. Where was everyone going? she wondered. Where could she go? She found articles about blooms in Australia, but Harold would never okay the plane fare. When had they last traveled out of the country? Paris for their twentieth anniversary, when everything seemed to go wrong. Harold wanted to spend all his time in and around the Eiffel Tower, meet some other Americans, have a drink at Harry’s Bar. Evelyn wanted to go to the catacombs, touch the skulls of the thousands and hear the drip drip drip from above. By the end she’d locked herself in the bathroom with a baguette and block of butter and just ate and ate.
On clear days at home, she could see the ocean from her bedroom window. Harold thought of keeping the curtains closed, but he didn’t want to rile her up. She was already annoyed just thinking about the ear and sinus infections fellow bloomers had started complaining about. Even Harold, with his bullshit about red tides, was bothering her. Why couldn’t he just see it for what it was—a chance to change your life. No wonder she was depressed.
She wondered what would have happened if she had gotten up and walked out of the bar all those years ago when Harold had his head in his hands saying, “I don’t think I can do this.” She fought for it, though. “I know you can,” she told him. Four words she wasn’t even sure about, but she said them with authority, so he believed her. He really believed her. Slowly, then, he sucked the life out of her and here they were.
She always wished on shooting stars. She’d run outside barefoot when the internet announced a meteor shower. She’d make wishes on full moons and half-moons and quarter moons. She did see herself as superstitious but mostly just in case. Just in case someone was listening. She wondered where the other bloomers had gone to—back to their lives like nothing had happened? Or were they feeling the same uneasiness as she was feeling? Returning to normal seemed like a kind of sin. After the spectacular, a ho-hum life didn’t quite cut it.
At Ralphs, she looked around to see if she recognized anyone from the beach. Was that Elsa whom she shared a peach with, who said she usually lived in Encinitas but couldn’t miss this? No, it wasn’t. It wasn’t anyone she knew.