by Nancy Gerber
It was a perfect day for the beach, the sky a cloudless powder blue, sand like blanched almonds, sea the color of smooth, green silk. Rows of white lounge chairs stood side by side, shaded by large, turquoise umbrellas. In the distance a gull dipped toward the horizon like a lone fluttering handkerchief.
Elise walked toward the rows of beach chairs, followed by her two young sons. Will, age seven, marched behind her, carrying his blue pail like a briefcase, with serious determination. Gus, who was four, ambled behind his brother, kicking up little whorls of sand and swinging his bucket back and forth. A light breeze lifted his swim trunks, tickling his legs, and he giggled in delight. Elise’s husband, Tim, a bond trader who worked on Wall Street, was finishing up his workout and said he’d join his family later after phoning in a trade or two. Behind the three the hotel loomed yellow and white in massive, tiered layers like a luxury ocean liner.
Elise found two empty chairs in the first row and placed a towel on one and her tote on the other, saving it for Tim. She removed her print cover-up and admired her abdomen, flat as a board even after bearing two children, and her smooth, caramel-colored arms and legs. She adjusted the ruched bandeau of her teal two-piece; seriously, was there any other woman here in her late thirties who could wear a suit like this, from Paris via Henri Bendel? Apparently the past few years of Pilates and personal training had paid off. Elise had met Tim when she was working on Wall Street, and she continued to do so after Will was born; it was only after Gus came along that she found the long hours too stressful and decided to give up her career and stay home.
Although it was not yet 10 a.m., the sun was beginning to burn brightly. Elise adjusted her sunglasses and spread her towel on her chair. Then she beckoned to Will to come and put sunscreen on her back. As soon as Tim came down, she planned to turn over and lie on her stomach. She’d sprayed the boys with lotion before they left the room; they’d been nut brown for a long time and she wasn’t really concerned.
Will had been gazing at the ocean when Elise motioned to him. He set down his pail and came over to his mother, who squeezed a blob of white cream into his hands and turned away so that her back faced him. “Rub some on my shoulders and down here,” and she touched her back below the bandeau. Will spread the creamy stuff in the places she’d pointed to. His hands were so small and light they felt ticklish, and Elise wriggled a bit as he moved them over her skin. When there was no cream left, he wiped his palms on his swim trunks and returned to his study of the ocean. The water was the same color as his mother’s bathing suit.
Elise lay down on her chair while Gus sat down next to her chair and scooped up sand with his shovel. She watched while Will meandered to a spot about one hundred feet away where the beach crested at a small rise. Here he found wet and dry sand and plopped himself down, deciding this would be a good spot to build his sandcastle. His mother picked up her book and started to read.
Will had filled his pail and turned it over twice when he realized he wanted someone to help him. Where was his father? His mother was still reading, her eyes invisible behind their dark glasses. Or was she sleeping? He could see his younger brother digging in the space between her chair and the one meant for his father. He called to Gus but Gus either didn’t hear or ignored him. Gus was a baby anyway. He was okay but his mother always sided with him whenever he started whining. And he whined a lot.The sun continued to climb in the too-blue sky, and Will began to feel hot and sweaty. He looked at his mother and thought about asking her for something to drink. Then he remembered the silkiness of her back when he rubbed in the cream. Something had stirred in him while he was doing that and now he felt uneasy. Maybe he would walk down to the ocean. He knew he was not supposed to go in alone—he had been told many times it was dangerous—but maybe just for a minute. He would stick his toes in the water. It wasn’t far from where he was building his castle, and he wouldn’t be gone long. His mother wouldn’t even know he was missing.
Will went down the rise and stood at the edge of the water. There were many people on the beach, mothers and fathers playing with their children, a few old women who reminded him of his grandma. The sand was cool and moist. He walked a little ways into the water. There were some small crests here and there but no waves, not really. He would wade in till the water covered his ankles and then turn back.
The water was inviting. Will walked in up to his knees and gazed around. There were grown men and women swimming and children holding their parents’ hands. When he turned to face the beach, he could not see his mother and Gus because they were on the other side of the rise. And suddenly he felt afraid.
A wave came and knocked him over, and he felt himself being pulled away from the shore. Now he could no longer stand and was forced to kick his hands and feet to stay afloat. He knew how to swim; he was a good swimmer, and he swam all the time in the pool at home, but this was different. There was something pulling him like a rope, and the more he tried to push away from it and return toward the beach, the harder it pulled. The shore was moving farther and farther away. He was gasping for air, and it was getting harder and harder to breathe. He couldn’t catch his breath, he couldn’t call out. Waves of fear washed over him. The more air he swallowed, the more he couldn’t breathe. Why was that? Where was everyone? Why didn’t someone help him? He was getting very, very tired, and when he could no longer come to the surface, it was almost a relief. Soon he could go to sleep.
On the beach Elise glanced at her watch, put down her book, and looked up. Will was gone. She stared at the empty space in disbelief. Less than three minutes ago, he had been sitting right in front of her, building his castle.
* * *
That evening toward dusk a young, newlywed couple drove up to visit the landmark hotel and its beautiful beach. They were staying at a resort on the bay some twenty minutes away and hadn’t heard about the morning’s terrible accident.
Kicking off their sandals, they wandered along the shore, admiring the ocean, which glistened like a silver platter. The beach was empty save for a few gray-and-white gulls poking their long, orange beaks in the scattered seaweed. The pair came upon two crenellated towers made of sand, one intact, the other disintegrating. The young woman stopped to look.
“Something about this makes me sad,” the young wife said. “It’s as though someone wasn’t able to finish what they’d started.”
“Oh you, you’re so gloomy,” her husband teased. “Probably some kid got called away to eat dinner. Whoever it was will be back tomorrow to work on it some more.” He took her arm and looped it through his, and they continued their walk in the direction of the lighthouse.
* * *
Thirty years later Gus returned to the hotel one afternoon in late September. His mother had never recovered from Will’s death and had passed away ten years ago from lung cancer, even though she’d never smoked a single cigarette. His parents divorced when he was six, and his father remarried and moved to the West Coast. His father had two boys and a girl with his second wife, and Gus rarely saw or spoke to him.
Gus noticed the ornamental grasses and wildflowers that lined the path that curved toward the beach. He was a big man who moved slowly. His mother had often said she was surprised at his size; he’d been such a pipsqueak when he was young. But his father was tall, and besides, who knows how these things will turn out.
There was no one on the beach. It was cloudy and gray with the chill of fall in the air, the ocean the color of zinc. Gus took off his Docksiders and left them beside the gate. There was a sign that read No Lifeguard on Duty. Swim at Your Own Risk. He kicked up some sand as he walked. The beach, he saw, was covered with stones ranging in size from pebbles to small rocks. He picked up a few to look at them. Their edges were smoothly polished, but they were pocked with tiny holes and striated with small lines like veins. They ranged in color from dove gray to deep charcoal. Gus found them quite beautiful and imagined them lining a garden patio or terrace. He made a mental note to tell the managing partner at the landscape design firm where he worked. He began to gather the stones, filling the pockets of his khakis till they sagged under the weight.
Gus walked down to the water and stood at the edge. Suddenly he began grabbing handfuls of stones from his pockets and hurling them into the sea. “Damn you! Damn you!” he yelled until his voice was hoarse.
When his pockets were empty, he knelt in the wet sand and wept bitter tears for the brother he barely knew.
Category: Fiction, Short Story, SNHU Creative Writing, SNHU online creative writing