The JRB presents an excerpt from a work in progress, titled ‘Vacation’, by Sebastian Murdoch.
‘Oh my god, look,’ Sadie said, extending her phone into Marco’s line of vision. At that same moment, he looked up and made eye contact with Lucy. When he looked back down at Sadie’s phone, he laughed with her, and Lucy struggled not to ask what was so funny, thinking that Sadie could be showing him one of her Instagram posts or tweets, the two of them laughing at her right in front of her face.
Instead, she got up from the couch, soon to be her bed, and wandered out onto the deck attached to the holiday house her family had rented. The deck, which wrapped around the back of the house and one side, hung out over the small spit of water that stretched along a stone barrier separating them from the rest of the Gulf. Occasionally, pairs of people floated by in kayaks, their paddles dipping and drawing up through the water as they slipped over the surface of it, heading for where the waterway fed into the wide expanse of sea. Lucy leaned against the railing that hemmed the deck and watched the people go, all of them savoring the last dredges of sunlight before the sky darkened and their deck lights came on. She took a picture of the people in their kayaks, then turned to go back inside.
Marco stood with his shoulder butting up against the door frame, arms crossed over his chest, his eyes on her, rather than cast over her shoulder at the sky or water. The sliding glass door that led onto the deck stood ajar, but he closed it as he stepped out onto the deck.
‘You scared me,’ Lucy said. As she said it, she realized that ‘scared’ was too strong a word, too melodramatic. He’d startled her only, and she should have said that instead.
‘Sorry,’ Marco said, and he seemed to genuinely mean it, his eyes softening at the corners like butter on a hot plate. ‘We’re about to go up to bed. Thought I’d tell you in case you were waiting on us to do the same yourself.’
Heat climbed up Lucy’s neck and settled in her face. She’d been that obvious in her discomfort then, and now she’d put Marco and her sister out. Part of her cringed with mortification, but a larger part swelled with relief. Now she could finally do what she’d been wanting to do since her family arrived: be with them but also without them.
‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘I’ll just be a few minutes. See you in the morning.’
Marco looked like he wanted to say something but merely nodded and went back inside, flipping the switch that controlled the deck lights as he went.
The cold, white light of the regular bulbs vanished, replaced by the green, watery light meant to warn passing vessels of their proximity to the shore. The whole deck was bathed in that sickly hue, Lucy included, and she stood in its luminance for a minute before going back inside. She felt, as she reentered the house, that some of that strangely colored light clung to her skin and clothes like a fine mist. It occurred to her that she might have tracked the light inside the house the way she might track in mud or dirt, and she hastily slid the door shut so as to bar the light passage into the rest of the home, the way the stone barrier below them partitioned the waterway from the Gulf. She could not explain to herself why this felt so urgent, so necessary, but did that matter as much as satisfying the need? Lucy locked the sliding glass door and went to the bathroom to prepare for bed.
Later, as she lay on the couch trying to sleep, she found herself gazing through the uncovered sliding glass door, out onto the deck where the green light remained glowing and ever present. At one point, between slow, sleepy blinks, she thought she saw a woman standing at the railing, staring off to sea, as Lucy had done earlier. The woman did not turn around, but Lucy felt the unmistakable sensation of familiarity, that she knew this woman, if not well, and that, if she were to turn her face toward her now, she would recognize her immediately. With that feeling came a sense of both fear and serenity, or perhaps serenity found in fear, and Lucy drifted off to sleep, not stirring for the rest of the night.
In the morning, after coffee and breakfast, the whole group marched off toward the beach, towels slung over shoulders and coolers tucked under arms, each person already slathered in sunscreen and anticipation. The beach happened to be only a few minutes walk down the road from the house, and so they flapped along in their flip flops and sandals, Lucy trailing behind everyone else.
‘Still with us, Lucy?’ her mother asked from the front of the pack. She had her sunglasses perched on her nose and a slash of bright red painted onto her lips. Her mother would spend much of her time at the beach reclining in a beach chair while scrolling on her phone or sipping a canned seltzer and thumbing through one of the mass market paperbacks she’d packed for the trip. If she did venture into the surf it would only be up to her ankles at most and only after the urging of her children and husband.
‘Yes, ma’am,’ Lucy said, dropping her phone into the cavern of her tote bag.
‘Good,’ her mother said. ‘Don’t want to lose you the first day of the trip.’ She laughed at that, her voice husky with humor.
‘Remember when she ran off during that trip to Destin?’ Sadie asked. She looked over her shoulder at Lucy and then at Marco. ‘She was thirteen, and I was ten, and we were at one of the outlet malls when mom turned around and realized Lucy had vanished. Turned out she was making friends with some food court worker.’
‘Nearly gave me a heart attack,’ their mother said, pressing a hand to her chest.
‘That true?’ Marco asked, glancing back at Lucy.
‘It was a long time ago,’ she said. ‘Some rumors of my disappearance may have been greatly exaggerated.’ In truth, Sadie’s retelling was pretty close to what had actually happened. Except Lucy hadn’t been ‘making friends’ with the food court worker so much as he had lured her from her family with the promise of free samples and the low-down on where she could get cheap marijuana, which she had only just gotten interested in at thirteen. Looking back on it in her therapy sessions, Lucy had realized the danger of the situation, what could have easily happened to her younger self had her family not found her in time. The story took on a much darker tone after that epiphany, and, though she hadn’t shared that discovery with her family, she resented them for making light of the event as if it was so impossible that a predator might choose her. Her with her stocky limbs and stubborn baby fat, the train tracks covering her teeth, her wild and frizzy hair that refused to be tamed by anything but the most high-powered straightener. In their eyes, she would have been the last choice for an abduction.
Sometimes, on her bad days, Lucy daydreamed about what would happen if she was kidnapped. She pictured her friends and family dizzy with grief and fear, plastering missing persons posters all over town, leading search parties made up of all her neighbors and even strangers who had been moved by her disappearance. The hunt would go on interminably, no one’s hope or determination lagging. Everyone would care, and that care would be as stalwart and dependable as a lighthouse in a storm. When she mused on this idea to her therapist, the latter posited that perhaps she was projecting some inner longing for attention onto her fantasy and maybe it was best not to entertain the idea of some psychotic kidnapper stealing her off the street. Lucy kept her daydreams to herself after that.
The beach was predictably crowded when they arrived, families and groups of friends already clustered along the shoreline, tents and umbrellas fluttering in the light breeze that swept across the sand and the surface of the water, kicking up little waves here and there. Children squealed and screamed as they crashed again and again into the surf. Somewhere, someone had brought a speaker and was playing pop music at an inconsiderate volume. The scent of salt drifted through the air and met Lucy as she trudged toward the spot where her family had stopped to set up camp. Already, sweat rolled down her temples and dampened her underarms. The sight of the cool, blue water seemed to make the heat intolerable, and she longed to simply drop her stuff and bound into its embrace.
‘Lucy, come help me with the towels,’ her mother said. She unrolled one beach towel, the fabric printed with toucans and palm trees, and tried laying it out on the sand, but the breeze blew it back toward her.
They got the towels arranged while Marco and Lucy’s stepfather John set up the tent, stabbing the legs into the dense sand. Sadie stood off to the side, snapping pictures of the water, delighting in each new but undoubtedly similar shot.
‘I’m so glad we decided to do this,’ she said. ‘I’ve been needing a day like this for forever.’
Lucy chewed the inside of her cheek and tried not to feel uncharitably toward her sister. But it was difficult, knowing that Sadie had a nearly perfect life: the perfect boyfriend, perfect job, perfect apartment. While Lucy was still plodding along, floundering as she tried to carve out some semblance of success for herself. If anyone was in need of a vacation from the everyday, it had to be her.
Finally, after everything was squared away and Lucy’s mother had taken up her position on one of the beach chairs, the rest of the group danced across the hot sand toward the water. Lucy was the first to enter the waves, the Gulf crashing against her ankles and shins like an excited pet. She didn’t stop to revel in the sensation, but moved forward with dogged determination to cool her body. Only when the water was up to her chest did she turn back to see if John, Marco, and Sadie were still behind her.
They lagged behind, Marco dragging a colossal inner tube through the waves. Sadie walked backwards, saying something that Lucy could not hear above the din of the ocean coming to regroup against the shore. John, still wearing a T-shirt that now grew soaked in the spray and surf, plodded along at the back of the group, a visor perched atop his head and a stripe of zinc on his nose. They appeared for all the world to be a normal family, now that Lucy was standing outside the frame, looking in. She sank deeper into the water and let herself be carried farther out to sea.
Eventually, the trio caught up to where Lucy floated, the group forming a loose circle. Marco handed the inner tube to Sadie, who immediately slipped under the water, reappearing within the circle of butter-yellow plastic. Her hair, now plastered to her head, dripped onto her shoulders and the straps of her bikini. Even now, she looked like a model, all gift beauty and easy grace. She wasn’t even wearing mascara that might have left black streaks on her face from the water.
‘Today is the perfect day for this,’ Sadie said, tipping her head back as she smoothed her hair into a single column of dark curls down the space between her shoulder blades. ‘Not too hot. Not too windy.’
‘It’s supposed to rain later this week,’ John said. He squinted out at the horizon and pursed his lips.
‘Well, we’ll just have to enjoy this while we can,’ said Marco. Ever the optimist. Lucy watched him watch Sadie, and she felt a stirring in her groin, a desire to be looked at that way. By Marco? Maybe. She’d always had a fondness for Sadie’s fleeting boyfriends, the ways in which they fawned over her, fell for her so easily and with such abandon. Lucy wanted someone to want her in that way.
At that moment, pain. A sharp, sudden pain in Lucy’s right forearm. She jerked her arm out of the water and looked down, just in time to spot the undulating, translucent bell of a small jellyfish scooting away from her and into the darkness of the Gulf. Lucy clutched her arm to her chest, a yelp stuck in her throat, and stared after the jellyfish.
‘What’s wrong?’ Marco asked. He moved toward her but left a hand resting on Sadie’s inner tube.
‘Jellyfish stung me,’ Lucy said. The words came out mumbled, like a child recounting a nightmare, and she blushed to think how she sounded then. ‘It’s alright.’
‘Ouch,’ Sadie said, but she already sounded bored with the whole ordeal, reclining inside the inner tube.
‘Let’s have a look,’ Marco said. He reached for Lucy’s arm, but she withdrew.
‘It’s fine,’ she said. ‘I’ll go back to the house. Put some vinegar on it. No big deal.’ She slid past him, her bare shoulder grazing his, and the dampness of his skin made that flutter in her pelvis burst back into life. Though she knew she ought to keep moving, she paused long enough to flash him a tight smile and say, ‘Really. I’m alright. Thanks though.’
He looked like he wanted to press her on the subject, but he kept whatever thoughts lay dark and formless in his mind where they were.
Lucy marched back up the beach, looking down at her arm as she went. On her inner forearm stood a red welt, the color of it most intense at the center and fading into feathery streaks of pigment the further it got from the point of contact. She ran a finger lightly over the welt and winced. It felt inevitable that this should happen. Not in a self-pitying, ‘woe is me’ kind of way. But in a way that was aligned with the natural order of things. Not good or bad, but neutral.
‘What happened?’ Lucy’s mother asked as Lucy approached. She set aside the seltzer she’d been sipping and sat up straighter in her chair.
‘Jellyfish,’ Lucy said. ‘Don’t worry about it.’
‘Oh, you poor thing! Do you need me to pee on it?’
‘What? No. That doesn’t even work.’ Lucy sidestepped her mother, who looked for all the world like she was actually getting ready to stand up and do what she’d offered. ‘I’m just going to go back to the house for some vinegar. I’ll be back.’
‘Okay, dear, you call me if you need any help,’ her mother said, but she had already settled back into her seat and was thumbing through a magazine with a pair of white-toothed celebrities grinning on the cover.
Before she left the beach entirely, Lucy looked back at where her family still frolicked in the water. She froze. She couldn’t be sure, but it looked as if someone had joined John, Marco, and Sadie out there in the waves. At first, she thought it might be her mother, but no. Her mother remained seated on her chair. And though this person was farthest from Lucy’s sight, she could tell it was a woman with her back turned to the rest of the beach, gazing out at the horizon. Again, Lucy was overcome by the feeling that she knew her, but she brushed it aside and turned away.
The sun beat down on her shoulders as she trudged her way toward the house, occasionally worrying at the welt on her arm. She thought about what instinct drove humans to do that, to prod at something they knew would incite pain. Perhaps it was a way of reminding ourselves that we were alive and attuned to the world and its effects on us. Either way, she couldn’t stop touching the mark, sending little bursts of pain rushing along her nerve endings.
By the time she made it back to the house, her shoulders were a pale pink despite the sunscreen she’d coated herself in less than an hour ago. She went straight to the pantry, where she found a bottle of apple cider vinegar, which she carried to the sink. There, she dampened a square of paper towel and held it to the welt. Almost immediately, the stinging sensation subsided, leaving behind only the faintest flicker of discomfort.
Lucy jumped, nearly overturning the bottle of vinegar on the counter. Marco stood leaning in through the doorway, eyebrows lifted in curiosity.