This post is part of Fiction Friday, a series born out of my ongoing desire to be a novelist. These stories are meant to be read independently. They are fictional vignettes inspired by glimmers from my life.
Before summer was over, our parents took us on one last vacation. We drove somewhere I didn't recognize and still can't find my way back to, no matter how many maps I pore over. On our way there, I fell asleep in the back seat of the van, one earphone falling out of my ears. I woke when my brother jabbed me with his elbow. Inside the Walkman on my lap, the disc was still spinning. "We're here," Joshua said, elbowing me again. Our father had parked the van under an elm tree, the only shady spot in the yard.
The vacation rental was smaller than our house in the city, smelling of soap and wood. The kitchen was equipped with white melamine dishes, wine glasses, a few dull knives, a drawer full of silverware. A laminated card was propped up on the countertop to welcome us and remind us of the house rules: no pets, no cigarettes, and to please refrain from leaving food outside because of the wild animals. My mother read the card aloud while my father unloaded the rest of the van, carrying the cooler in last, which was packed with sliced meat, fruit, and milk. Before transferring the food into the small refrigerator underneath the countertop, he removed an apricot from a paper bag and pushed it into his mouth, extracting the pit after several seconds.
"I'm going down to the beach," my mother said, fanning herself. "It's certainly hot enough, isn't it?"
We changed into our swimsuits. My brother and I ran out the door and spotted the shore. We fumbled down a steep hill, tripping over the exposed roots that stretched out of the ground, shaking out clumps of dirt that lodged in our sandals. Joshua flung his shoes off when he reached the sand and ran straight out into the water. He disappeared, then his head broke out of the water's glimmering surface twenty feet up the beach, hair slicked down around his face.
"Come on!" he called out, but my legs were suddenly paralyzed. I'd just remembered what my friend Rumi had told me weeks before, that she'd once stepped on a jellyfish at her aunt's beach house, and when she ran out of the water, screaming, the jellyfish's tentacles were still wrapped around her leg. They were these long, slimy things that left red lash-like marks around her calves. Her aunt quickly peeled the tentacles off with tweezers and doused her throbbing skin in vinegar, but Rumi's leg stayed swollen for days, the itchiness unbearable as she lay in bed at night.
It was the most terrifying thing Rumi had told me about, next to showing me the diagonal scar from her surgery that ran down the side of her abdomen. She told the story of her scar almost proudly, but recalling the jellyfish only made her panicky. "I'm never going out in the ocean again," she said. "Swimming pools are just fine with me."
By the time our parents caught up with us, Joshua had grown tired of swimming, and was back on the beach. He accepted a towel from our mother and stretched out on it, one wet arm flung over his face to shield against the sun. Our mother tried to rub sunblock on his shoulders, but he waved her away, promising in an uninterested voice that he would do it in a minute.
"Aren't you going in the water?" my mother asked me. She was wearing her sunhat and a purple one-piece that she'd bought from Sears at the start of the summer.
"No," I said.
"She's scared of it," my brother said.
"I'm not scared," I snapped. "I just don't feel like it."
"Right," he said.
"Joshua, put on that sunscreen," our father said. "Don't make your mother ask again."
"What about her?" asked my brother, jabbing a thumb in my direction. "Doesn't she have to?"
"I'm going swimming," I said in a huff, leaving before he could say anything else. This time I made it shin-deep in the ocean before my legs froze up again. Any further and the water would distort the ocean floor beyond recognition. The rocks were starting to all look like jellyfish. There were hundreds of them, just waiting to be stepped on, waiting for a leg to curl around.
Tentacles! Rumi's voice shouted in my head. Tweezers! I shuddered and glanced over my shoulder; for a second, I thought of going back. That plan didn't sound so bad. I would smear on the sunscreen, lay as far away from my brother as possible, and nibble on the chilled apricots that my father had brought down from the house.
Back on the shore, Joshua was propped up on his elbows, hands cupped around his mouth while he called out to me. I couldn't make out the words, but I saw the smirk on his face.
I went in. I rushed into the ocean until it came mid-way up to my thighs, then thrust my arms out, and dove under the slippery surface. There was little resistence. For a split second, I imagined the jellyfish would find me, surround me, but when I finally opened my eyes, I saw nothing but smooth rocks and little crabs rushing across the ocean floor, everything in shades of blue and green and orange, everything quiet, everything clear.