Landmines and Earthworms


Aya’s hair is sopping wet and it’s long enough that the ends make swirling patterns against my exposed collarbones and tickle my skin from where she is leaning over my shoulder. She refuses to put it into a ponytail or a bun. I even offered to twist together one or two thick braids on the train ride over. She says wet hair down is a sexier look. Which is fine for the beach but I don’t know what there is to be sexy for in the shoddy computer lab of Snapton Public Library. There is only one staff member, a middle-aged woman at the information desk, and she had her mouth screwed up the entire time while I recited my address and full name for my new library card.

Aya’s chewing gum right next to my ear and the whirring sound of the computer starting up still manages to be louder than her. I feel embarrassed by this somehow, like it’s my personal computer or something. ‘Sorry this is taking so long,’ I mumble, clicking at the space bar.

Aya tuts and pinches the meat of my shoulder. ‘Don’t be sorry.’

The screen lights up and she watches silently as I carefully type the digits from the back of the card to get into the computer and then, just as carefully, enter my email address and password. A blank draft pops up and my fingers hesitate at the keyboard.

The smack of the gum stops and quiet tension take its place. ‘What are you waiting for?’

‘You’re watching me!’ I splutter, heat rushing to my face. She laughs. ‘I don’t know what to say.’

Aya’s hair unsticks from my skin as she moves off to drag a chair from the second computer station closer. She falls into the seat and raises an eyebrow. ‘Tell her you’re having the best day of your life.’

I might be. I honestly might be.

Aya and I write the email together. Hey Mum! It has been one hour at the beach! As if she hasn’t been staring intently at the clock at home. I am well and safe! Aya stifles laughter at the formality. I finish with Love, Amina. Aya makes me change it to Love, Amina and Aya.

The woman breathes a sigh of relief when we walk past her. I feel bad that we’ll be back soon.

***

‘Why’d you cut your hair?’

We’re in the ocean, occasionally splashing each other, occasionally fully submerging ourselves in the water, occasionally stumbling upon gritty shells. I keep the prettiest ones in my fist and try not to lose them to the water.

Aya runs her wet hands over her wet face and then looks at me expectantly. I cut my hair for this. For this day. It was like tunnel vision, like this trip to the beach was the last day of my life. All I could think about was the sand, and the water, and everything annoying that can arise from a day at the beach. Sunburns. Suspicious stings from sea creatures. Drenched, briny, tangled curls. So I packed two bottles of sunscreen, bought three ointments from the pharmacist, and cut my hair until it was too short to even twirl around a finger.

It would sound crazy to Aya. But I don’t want to lie to her. Not today, not on a day like this. ‘I thought it would be easier. For today.’

Her lips form a smile. ‘Your hair is gonna be short for longer than just today.’

The ocean shudders around us and salt water gets into my mouth. I spit and wince but Aya isn’t laughing like she should be. She’s still waiting for a response, eager-eyed.

I compose myself. ‘I know. It’s stupid but I just didn’t want to have to do something I’ve never done before.’ Aya nods encouragingly, which almost makes me feel less crazy. ‘It’s just—I’d get back home, right? And my hair would be, would be like a problem. Something I would have to deal with. And I like to avoid dealing with new things.’ My words are jumbled and vague and I feel crazy again.

‘But you’ve never been to the beach before. You done a bunch of new things today.’

‘It isn’t as hard. Doing new things with another person.’

She hums. ‘So, if I had offered to come to your house and help wash your hair, you wouldn’t have cut it?’

There’s another question buried in what she’s asked me. Do you want to be that close? Can I be someone who helps you? Aya does that often. Plants secret questions into other questions, or jokes, or sideway glances. Most days I avoid those questions like landmines, scared of blowing up the surface of our friendship. But the beach’s sun feels different from the sun that hangs above the school oval, and under this new light the secret question is alive, something gentle writhing underground that needs to be freed.

I look down at my feet to avoid eye contact, forgetting I am submerged. ‘Yeah, maybe.’

‘Yeah, or maybe?’ Aya’s voice is a pickaxe.

My watch starts to beep loudly. Another hour. We’ve made it a game all day, running off like fugitives whenever we hear the sound, and this time is no different. We stumble and kick up water and shriek like something is chasing us, and leave our conversation to sink and settle on the ocean floor.

***

Hey Mum! Everything is still okay. Aya and I are taking a break from the beach to get something to eat nearby. Talk to you soon. Love, Amina and Aya.

***

Aya hates wasting food so we bring the last of our fries back to the beach with us. She feeds me a fry or two every few minutes because my arms are trapped beneath the sand she’s heaped on top of me. She’s taking it very seriously, like I’m a fussy baby being swaddled.

Aya’s making sure we get through all the classic beach day activities. I refuse to tan, but we’ve made sandcastles, and joined in a clumsy game of volleyball, and drew names and hearts in the wet sand at the water’s edge. I offered to be buried, rather than bury Aya, so as not to spoil my good mood with the pressure to do something right. And I’m shorter.

When she’s done, she jumps up and walks away, exposing me to an onslaught of sunshine. I squint and twist my head to spare my eyes. ‘Wait, where are you going?’

She comes back with the paper towel housing the shells I’ve collected and sits beside me again. ‘Gonna decorate.’

She starts pressing the shells into the sand and it’s like the sand is an extension of me, like there are going to be imprints on my skin. I wish I had a phone, so she could take a picture and I could see the patterns she’s creating.

Aya goes to the beach all the time. It’s something I hadn’t known about her until today, when she showed up at the train station with a dozen shell necklaces she’s made herself strung around her neck, but it explained a lot about her. Like the sweet glow she always has on her face. And how sullen she gets in winter. And why her hair always looks a little bit messy.

‘Will you make me a necklace?’ I want to remember today. Do you think today is special?

Aya looks up from the line of shells she was working on. ‘Sure. I’ll make you matching earrings too. And a bracelet.’

‘And anklets?’

‘And anklets.’

Deep beneath the sand my watch beeps its tinny beep. That on-a-mission feeling descends on us again and Aya abandons creation for destruction, tearing at the sand so I can wiggle free. The shells are spread across the sand like litter. I hope they stay hidden from the beady eyes of little kids stumbling around for treasure.

Back in the library, I stand while I type on the ancient keyboard, so as not to leave sand all over the seat.

***

Hey Mama! We’re still well and safe, so please don’t worry about me. Love, Amina and Aya.

***

‘Is this really a classic beach activity? It feels kind of dangerous.’

‘How is napping dangerous?’

‘Someone could steal our stuff. Or take creepy pictures of us, or something. Or kill us.’

‘Kill us,’ Aya laughs. ‘In broad daylight? Right next to a family of five witnesses?’

‘Whatever, I’m just saying. You wouldn’t go to sleep in a random park, would you? Or the mall.’

‘Well, the beach isn’t a park or the mall. The rules are different.’ Aya pushes up onto her forearms from where she was laying on her stomach and flips her hair out of the way. ‘Relax, I take naps at the beach all the time.’

‘Aya!’ I push up onto my forearms too and I sound so much like my mother. ‘When you’re all by yourself?’

‘I’m always all by myself,’ she responds. ‘And yeah.’

‘Promise me you won’t do that anymore.’ We aren’t nearly close enough for me to make that kind of request but I say it anyway.

Aya doesn’t respond. She doesn’t promise, not even jokingly. ‘You take a nap. I’ll stay awake and protect us from the thieves and creeps and murderers, with the power of open eyes.’

I tuck my hands under my chin and Aya sits up, as if to prove her consciousness. The sunshine is better than any blanket I’ve ever slept under.

***

Hey Mum! We’ve left the beach now. We’re about to take the train home, so this will be the last email. See you soon! Love Amina and Aya.

***

We get a seat by the windows. My short-cropped hair is blessedly dry, but Aya’s isn’t, and the smell of the sea curls around the both of us and whoever is unfortunate enough to be sitting behind her.

‘This was the best day of my life.’

‘Really?’

‘Yeah. I’m so glad we did this.’ And I’m so glad no one’s sitting directly in front of us. ‘Thank you for making this happen. And for being okay with the interruptions.’

‘It was nothing. It was worth it.’

The train is flooded with weak orange light, the very beginnings of the sunset, when we barrel out of the tunnel and go above-ground.

 

S.D Munawara

S.D Munawara is an emerging writer and student of literature living in Melbourne. In 2022 she was the winner of the Hachette Australia Prize for Young Writers for her non-fiction piece 'Mental Funerals'. This story won the youth section of the Under The Silver Tree Cooperative Bookshop (Broken Hill) Short Story prize 2023 (judged by Overland fiction editor Claire Corbett).

More by S.D Munawara ›

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

If you like this piece, or support Overland’s work in general, please subscribe or donate.


Related articles & Essays


Contribute to the conversation

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *