Phil woke when his grandmother stopped breathing. Her room was just down the hall from his, and he slept at night to the tidal rhythm of her apnea and her medicinal vaporizer. When the former sound ceased, he came awake in the dark morning and slipped out of bed and stumbled down the hall, just to check on her. A small light sifted in from the nightlight in the hallway bathroom, and when he moved so his shadow fell away from her face, one milky eye glimmered yellow in the dark. Her mouth hung open, her wrinkled lips dry and thin. He remembered the time his two goldfish had died and his mother had helped him scoop them from the bowl, the warm luster gone and their scales faded like watercolors in the rain, their little mouths agape. His grandmother was still wearing her clip-on earrings, gold filigree badges pinching each lobe. Her hair crested and waved in steely strings, oily and thin.
The room was very still. Even with the swirl of mist issuing from the vaporizer. The chir of the pre-dawn birds that had at first overlaid the hum of the vaporizer like a soundtrack went silent. He pulled his arms around himself, but even he felt motionless—he could not feel his own heartbeat, he could not hear his own breath. He inhaled deeply, his narrow chest expanding against his arms. He bent and shook his grandmother and she rocked all at once, her whole body together like a piece of furniture. He rubbed his eyes and yawned. He thought of going back to bed but he heard noises in the kitchen, realized his parents were awake, and he tottered down the hall, blinking into the bright kitchen light. His father sat at the table with his head in his hands as his mother scooped grounds into the coffee maker. When she saw him standing in the kitchen she said, “Phil, what are you doing up at this hour?
“I just woke up. I don’t know.”
“Well go back to bed, sweetie.”
Phil looked at his father, whose face was still hidden in his fingers. He said, “Is everything okay? Grandma’s not moving.”
“Oh God,” his dad said.
“Oh, Phil, you saw her?” his mother said. “Oh, honey, I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry you had to see her like that.”
Phil’s head felt thick, and he kept blinking his eyes but some sort of scum had filmed them over and for a few moments he wondered if this was all some bizarre dream.
“See her like what?”
“Sweetheart, Grammie is—she passed, honey. She passed in her sleep.”
“I should call my sisters,” his dad said, and then he stood and patted Phil’s head.
Phil sat at the table while his mother arranged the kitchen, set two coffee mugs on the counter, studied the gurgling coffee maker. His younger sister Sharon shuffled in and sat beside him to put her head in her arms on the table. She closed her eyes but she didn’t fall asleep.
His mother sat, too, and sipped her coffee. She put one hand on little Sharon’s head, and she watched Phil over the rim of her cup. His father came into the room, his fist over his half-tied tie, and grabbed the second cup of coffee from the counter. His eyes were red. He paused and touched Phil’s mother’s shoulder, three fingertips, and she looked up at him, patted his hand. Then he drifted out of the room. Phil’s mother leaned toward him, touched his arm, her fingers still warm from the coffee cup and his father’s hand. She said, “Go on back to bed, sweetie. You have the church retreat, and you need your rest.”
“But Grammie’s—” Phil stopped, unsure whether to use the word “dead.”
“We talked about it, Phil, and we think you should still go. Grammie paid for this trip, she wanted you to go.”
“You don’t think she’d want me…there? With you and Dad at the—with her?”
“Church was important to her, sweetie, and it’s all arranged already. It’s sweet that you’re thinking about us, but your dad and me think your Grammie would want this more.”
“But, Dad would—”
“I know, Phil. I know. But it’s all settled, okay? Go back to bed. Your father needs us to just—your father needs you to go back to bed.”
Phil kept his eyes closed most of the three-hour ride south out of the hill country to the coast. No one else existed in the van: the seven other teens laughed and bounced on the long bench seats as Ben, their youth leader, sped down I-37 and through the small Rockport streets and then the sandy beachside roads, but Phil had muffled his ears with the headphones of the Walkman he’d gotten for his birthday the week before. He had no cassette to play in it, but he figured with the headphones on, no one would ask him anything—he didn’t even know if Ben or the two old chaperons in the other car knew about his grandmother, and he didn’t know how to explain. He drifted in and out of sleep, dreaming memories of finding her in the back room, her one heavy mole with the three hairs in it casting a still shadow over her wrinkled upper lip, the sliver of her eye in the hallway light, the medicinal smell of the vaporizer. When they stopped in Pleasanton for Cokes and snacks, he stayed in the van, the other kids shoving out past him.
He had nodded off when Ben braked the van too hard and swung after the lead car. Phil’s head bounced on his tinted window and Lane Murray, the red-haired girl next to him, slid into his thigh. The faded Lincoln ahead of them had ducked onto a broken asphalt beach road, out of Port Aransas and toward Summerplace. Lane scooted back to the middle of their seat, said sorry though it was only the shape of the word through the cocoon of Phil’s silent headphones. She touched his hand when she said it. Phil looked out at the rows of humped, grassy dunes of Mustang Beach slipping past the window like an EKG, rises and dips in one long rapid line, and between them the Gulf of Mexico glinted in the cool sunlight. Phil looked back at Lane’s hand but it was nowhere near his anymore.
When the van stopped, the kids spilled out into the shell drive, laughing and chasing each other or collecting their duffels and backpacks. Ben walked up to the Town Car and shook hands with Bully and Bully’s wife Della. Phil left his headphones on, and the muffled shouts of the teenagers mixed in the salty air with the scattered cries of seagulls. Only two remained silent: a younger boy no one knew well or even by name, and Phil, who stood away from the van and surveyed the dunes across the road, the choppy late-May Gulf and the gray-blue sky over the thin horizon, the little shaft of an oil derrick. The huge two-story house behind him, a beach retreat, wide raised deck and a couple of balconies, peeling paint on the slatted siding and a screen door that hung at an angle and clapped in the breeze. Here they would sleep and eat and pray for a week, they would learn about Jesus and the importance of faith while three hours north, Phil’s grandmother lay in the mortuary, being dressed and made up for a viewing and a funeral.
The kids bounced on the balls of their feet, bags hung on shoulders or slumped against hips, while Bully and Ben did a head count. The boys flexed their muscles and the girls pretended not to notice. Then Ben waved them all in and they sprinted under the weight of their bags, dashing through the screen door and letting the spring slap it shut. They huddled in the dim dining hall, dust on all the tables, and waited for their room assignments.
Later, when the silhouette clouds defined the twilight edge of sky their first evening, the youth group gathered on the beach and built a campfire. It burned small, made pitiful by the salty wind, but they huddled around it loyally. They bowed their heads and listened to Ben drone words of thanks and praise. A boy named Luke elbowed the girl next to him, she snickered, they got a youth-leader stare from Ben. The prayer went on. Toward the end, Phil looked up from the circle and out into the Gulf, where the ocean sky met seamlessly with the indigo line of the Gulf. Out there away from the prayers and the teenage elbowing and the guttering beach-strewn fire. Out there he saw something.
They played Frisbee by day, the girls in their pink-and-blue two-pieces screaming in the water at imaginary fish. Bully and Della sat on the shore discussing Reagan’s final year. The youth leader dashed about in the water, playing keep-away with teens. Phil joined them because he didn’t know how not to, because to lag behind would mean questions about why he was so quiet and he had no answers. Gulls swam in the air, echoing the yelps of the cavorting teenagers below, the waves slipped slowly higher on the shore, and out in the Gulf a single trawler rode the horizon. Some of the boys stopped periodically to watch it, though Phil was watching too for whatever he’d seen out there the night before. After a while, the girls broke away to sunbathe, and several boys joined them to stretch in the sun.
Phil lay on his own towel next to Lane, the grit of sand in the cheap cloth scuffing his stomach and his elbows. A Frisbee sailed over them, a flash of cool shadow like a passing gull, and Lane sat upright to shout at the boys. Phil watched her pink, freckled back, picked at his towel then tugged it another half-inch closer to hers.
“You boys better not hit us with that thing,” Lane said, and Phil gazed at her, the “us” echoing in his mind. She lay back, propped on her elbows. The Gulf washed the beach at her back; Phil watched the waves brush in.
“My grandmother died,” he said.
“What did you say?” Lane lay flat, sighed and put an arm over her eyes.
“My dad’s mother, she used to work in an airplane factory, back in, like, World War Two or something. She died yesterday.”
“Cool. Like that cartoon chick with the muscles, Rosita or—wait. What?”
“No, her name was Helen.”
“She died?” Lane rolled to face Phil, her head on her curled arm and her eyes pinched against the sun. “Shit,” she said, her voice so small it was nearly lost in the surf.
“Yeah,” Phil said, but then a couple of girls shuffled past and back up to Summerplace’s swimming pool to sun in the absence of sand, and as Phil watched them, Lane started gathering her towel as well.
“I’m real sorry, Phil,” she said. She touched his forearm, like she had in the van, then she stood and followed the rest of the girls. Phil was still looking at his arm.
When the boys began swimming, Phil was last into the water and soon the others had waded up into the sand again, leaving Phil alone in the surf. Some played Frisbee a bit longer while others explored the fringes of the dunes, until the old chaperons left for the house. Ben followed, then the boys, until only Phil and a younger boy named Cole remained. The boy picked through shells on the beach. Phil floated on his back in the algae-green Gulf, wondering how far out the current would take him. He closed his eyes to the bright flat sky, and he thought about his parents, his family up north three hours away. This was the second day, and back home his mother was doing the wash, all the darks tumbling in the dryer, and his father was putting a shine in his good pair of boots. His little sister didn’t understand any of it—she only knew she was going to a funeral, that everyone was sad and silent except Phil, who was gone on some kind of vacation. He wished his parents had mentioned something to Ben or the chaperons, so that someone from the church could have insisted he stay and attend the funeral. Instead he floated out here in the sun.
He heard a sharp splash and he came upright in the water and whipped his head around, searching. He thought of the thing he’d glimpsed in the dark the night before, and he wiped the salt water from his eyes and blinked in the sun. The current had carried him almost a mile away from the youth group’s beach. The shell-picking boy had gone. The fishing ship had sailed off over the curve of the Gulf. Phil surveyed the surface for fins or the pale shimmering blob of a man-of-war. Then up out of the water came a fish, a slim bass-sized thing the dull color of ocean mud, only two feet away. Phil swept his arms back and pulled away from the fish, but it jumped nearer, and nearer again, and when Phil was almost flat on the water from backstroking, the fish fluttered out of the water and slapped against Phil’s bare stomach. He screamed and went under, gulped water, turned over and swam hard. When his knees scraped sand he kept swimming, crawling fast out of the Gulf like a thing born of the ocean and evolving on the go. Phil ran barefoot over weed-sharpened dunes and hit the cracked beach road at full speed, running the mile back to the old beach house.
“Probably a mullet,” old Bully said. “Stupidest fish in the sea. They’ll jump right up into your boat if you’re not careful.”
Phil shivered, even though Ben had wrapped him in a blanket, and he told the girls the Gulf was cold so they wouldn’t laugh. The boys laughed anyway.
“What do you mean, if you’re not careful,” asked a girl, Kendra. “Makes for easy fishing, right?”
“Easy fishing, yeah,” Bully said. “Easy eating, no. Those things taste like spit.”
“Must have been pretty creepy, huh?” Lane said. “I would have just died if that thing had landed on me.” Phil looked at her from the side, not turning his head.
“It wasn’t so bad,” he said, half to her and half to the floor. “Just startled me, really.”
“Well,” Ben said in his youth-leader voice. “Well—you know, you really shouldn’t just let the current take you away like that. It could have been dangerous.” No one said anything else, so Ben pushed himself to his feet. “Come on,” he said. “Let’s go get some lunch.”
Around the splintered tables in the screened-in dining area, with the paper plates of sandwiches and beans all waiting silently, the group listened as Ben said a prayer. In it, he thanked God for protecting Phil, and asked Jesus to watch over all the kids in the Gulf. Phil did not say amen. Phil said little the rest of the day and kept silent when he went to bed in his springy top bunk. The other boys stayed up an hour and laughed whispers among the soft beams of flashlights sifting like dust through woolen camp blankets. But Phil put on his headphones, listened to nothing, and stayed awake all night.
The boys ran early to the Gulf to test their strength against the waves, which they knew would rise cold and strong. Ben went with them, as much to prove his own strength as to watch over them. Phil, though, stayed at the pool with the girls, where he did little but sit in a stringy deck chair and read a horror novel and chew on the toothpick he used as a bookmark, peeking carefully at times over the top of his book at the girls in their clingy two-pieces. Sometimes the girls would splash at him, or try to talk to him, and he answered with, “Yeah, it’s pretty good,” and “Nah, I think I’ll finish this chapter first,” and “It’s OK, you didn’t get my book wet,” even though they had. He stayed at the pool until noon, when Ben and the boys returned from the beach and they all went into the screened dining room, where they said a quick prayer and ate thin cheese sandwiches and rippled potato chips and drank flat soda from three-liter bottles. The boys laughed over their games on the beach, and the girls began to talk with the boys, and Phil was left alone in the din to think. All that morning he’d had some thought in the back of his mind, dancing beneath his novel and the sight of the girls in the pool. It should have been his grandmother, who by now was lying in a viewing room in the funeral home, awaiting all the family save him. But it hadn’t been her, hadn’t been anything he could quite place, just a submerged nagging. Now he disinterred the thought: That fish that had landed on him in the ocean was not the thing he had seen in the waves the first night, swimming and leaping against the dark. And whatever that other thing had been, it still haunted him.
They met in the dim common room at three and looked for a light switch, for though the sun was out, a crust of sea salt frosted the windows. Luke and another boy, Nelson, found the switch in a short niche, where they also found a door that lead to an unknown part of the house, but Ben arrived before the boys could explore, so they turned on the lights and gathered to hear instructions. They divided into three groups of four. They played a round of questions, in which they had to confess something they wouldn’t ordinarily say out loud. A blonde girl named Samantha confessed that she slept with a stuffed kitten she’d had since the age of two (all the girls nodded their heads at this, and all the boys laughed, even Phil whose Winnie-the-Pooh lay propped on the corner of his bed at home). Luke had wounded a deer his first time hunting but had been unable to finish it off. His father had to kill the deer for him, a knife drawn slick across the throat, and though Luke had long claimed the rack of antlers that hung in his living room, he had not yet returned to the hunt. The girls made sad noises and the boys said nothing. Phil considered his grandmother and the funeral he was missing, but he couldn’t bring himself to say it aloud to the whole group, so he revealed instead that he had in fact been a little scared in the Gulf when the fish slapped against his stomach.
Next they played the game where you close your eyes and fall backward into your partner’s arms, and many boys let many other boys fall, and one boy partnered with a girl slipped his hand across her breast when he caught her and set the girl screaming and slapping at him. Phil caught fairly and was caught in turn. But these old games served only as a preliminary to the real test. For this, Ben drew up a sack of jars, from which he produced an array of baby foods: infant applesauce and mashed peaches and swirled carrots and liquefied peas, which one boy called grasshopper guts. They all laughed and grimaced, and then Ben explained.
“Each group will choose a leader, someone your group can trust, and that person will come up here and take a bag of plastic spoons.” He held aloft a fist of bags and rattled them. “Then you all will line up in four lines, and the front person in each line will put on a blindfold.” He showed them his other fist wrapped around purple, lima-bean shaped sleeping masks. “When you put on the blindfold, you’ll come up here and open your mouth, and your group leader will feed you something from these jars. It won’t always be pleasant, but you have to trust your leader. You have to eat whatever they give you.”
The group lapsed into groaning and faking sick, and when each team had chosen its leader, everyone pleaded for applesauce or peaches. But the three leaders remained solemn and gamefaced, and they gathered on the other side of the common room while their groups lined up.
Phil wound up last in his line, with Luke as his leader. Ben had stepped into his group. Phil watched as each linemate took the spoon: Ben first, and Luke fed him carrots, which Ben winced from at first but swallowed with a smack and approving mmm. Then Samantha, applesauce; then Lane, and peaches. Luke called forth Phil. He did not care what food he got, and he did not distrust Luke, but he did not like the mask that would blind him. He had been in the dark, in his grandmother’s bedroom and then down in the salty Gulf, thrashing with the mullet on his stomach. He did not want to return there. But he put on the mask loosely enough to allow a crack of light from below. He would eat whatever Luke gave him, so long as he had light.
Mouth open, eyes downcast into the light, he received the plastic spoon. He closed his lips. It felt gritty like toothpaste and at first had no flavor, but when he swallowed, the aftertaste gripped his throat in a nightmare. Luke had given him peas, but these were neither the salt-and-onion peas he ate with steak at special dinners nor the cold slippery knobs of peas they served in the middle school cafeteria. These were the chewed and regurgitated cud of infant spit-up. When he ripped away the mask and gagged, doubled over, he could not hear the others laughing, did not see Lane laughing with them or Luke doubled over, slapping his knee and almost weeping with pleasure. Phil swallowed again and again, gasped for water. Ben brought him a red plastic cup, helped him stand, and as Phil drank, Ben turned to the group and quieted them.
“Thank you, Luke,” he said, and he turned to Phil, who still was draining the cup. “The Lord doesn’t always give us peaches, Phil, but he always gives us food.” Ben turned back to the group. “We have to take the peas along with the peaches, and we have to trust that whatever God gives us will be good for us in the end.” Then he laughed and clapped Phil on the back, and he offered him another cup of water. Phil drank three more.
When the meeting concluded, the group said a prayer, though Phil didn’t close his eyes and he didn’t listen and he didn’t say amen. Then Ben set them to cleaning up the small common room, the boys eyeing the dark hallway with the hidden door, whispering and nudging. When they’d finished and Ben had dismissed them, Nelson came near Phil and whispered, “Meet back here after dinner.”
* * *
In the dark common room, all six boys huddled in the saffron circle of Luke’s small flashlight, whispering, and then all the boys followed the spilled flashlight beam through the door in the hidden hallway to a tiny half-bath with a second door opposite. They crossed through it into an unknown room devoid of furniture, and in the far wall across the faded area rug they discovered a steep, narrow staircase. The flashlight beam vanished, and word spread lips to ears that they should watch their step—they did not want to alert anyone, or anything, at the top of the stairs. When this passed to Phil, Cole the shell-picker emphasized anything, and Phil was swept away in a current to the dark shape he had glimpsed rising from the ocean during prayer the night before. But a board creaked, and Cole was gone, and Phil climbed the stairs to join the rest of the group.
They sneaked through it single file until they turned a corner and spread out in pairs down the next hallway. They faced a door down a dusty hall of windows. Darren, who stood beside Luke in front, said, “Shit, this is our room.” But Luke turned to the group and gathered them tight in the corridor and said, “No, listen—the hall outside our room, the windows are on the left.” A blue light soaked through the salt crust on the windows—this light came from the right. And then Luke said what they all now hoped: “This is the girls’ room.”
They snickered but Luke shushed them and, with a fist raised like a soldier, motioned for them to advance. They moved without light, and except for the creaking of boards that in this house creaked anyway, they moved silently. And then they stood in the vacant room. The dark bunks spread in the same broad, square-edged U as in the boys’ room, though somehow these bunks seemed neater. Flowered suitcases and small pastel duffels lay at the feet of the bunks. A couple of beds flashed in the thin light with the glossy covers of teen magazines or Sweet Valley High novels. One girl, Phil saw, was reading a Jane Austen book. They all saw Samantha’s ragged kitten lain across her pillow. Some of the boys snickered and pointed at it; Phil thought of Winnie-the-Pooh and under cover of the dark room, did not laugh. Then Luke turned to the group and gathered them.
“Men,” he said, though he, the oldest, was only fifteen, “you know what we have to do.”
“What?” The shell-picker was the youngest, twelve.
Luke said with curt command, with seriousness and disciplined purpose, “Panty raid.”
They paraded around the room with bras on their heads. They slung-shot panties at each other. Inspected, critiqued. Flowered panties and pink cotton panties and thin laced panties. Phil paraded with the boys but did not wear the bra he carried; he studied it, felt the cottony insides of the cups. He brought it to Luke.
“You think this is a D cup?”
“Hell if I know,” Luke said. “Looks kind of small. I don’t think any of these chicks is a D cup.”
From over Luke’s shoulder, a blue satin bra strapped over his t-shirt, a boy named Jason grinned and said, “Yet.”
Then, amid the hushed party and the confetti of panties, Cole the shell-picker suddenly belted a gasp that from him sounded like a shriek. Everyone froze and stared, and the flashlight beam clicked on and swung to him. He held a thin paper-wrapped tube, his eyes screwed up in disgust. He showed them all and with tight lips said, “It’s a tampon!”
They made it across the road to the grassy dunes, where they fell laughing and gasping into the sandy weeds. Phil was glad to have stopped, still wary of the beach though soothed by the rhythm of the surf. Jason still wore the blue satin bra, and all the boys asked for a turn at modeling it. Phil could not work the clasp behind his back—none of them could—but he gave up before anyone could help him secure it.
They sat on the dunes in a semicircle, facing the Gulf though Phil dared not look at it and instead picked at the sparse grass. He said, “I shouldn’t be here.”
“Hell,” Luke said, “none of us should be here. It was lights out an hour ago.”
“I mean I shouldn’t be here on retreat. My family has a funeral tomorrow, and I’m not going to be there.”
Luke said, “Really?” but Jason stood up and everyone turned to face him.
“Oh shit, guys, if it’s lights out, then the girls are back in their room.” He held out the bra and everyone realized at once that they’d left behind a hell of a wreck, the bunks and the floor and the high wooden rafters of the girls’ room slung in bras and panties. The boys all looked around at each other, then Jason stuffed the blue satin bra into his shorts pocket and sat down again as the boys debated what their punishment might be.
But it had already happened, during the raid, even as they paraded and laughed in the dark of the girls’ room. The boys discovered it when they sneaked up their own stairs and into their own room. The girls had been there—the boys’ room hung in long white rags of Summerplace toilet paper, their underwear scattered over bunk frames and backpacks.
The second night since the fish, Phil muffled his ears with the silent headphones of his Walkman as he lay in his bunk. He thought about his grandmother, what she might look like in her coffin at the funeral, but all he could imagine was her propped against her pillows in bed, her mouth agape, her gold earrings. The pillows crowded the coffin, thin vapor fogged from her open lips, her eye reflecting Phil’s silhouette as his family pressed in around her, everyone leaning over the coffin until Phil got shoved aside. As the images slipped closer to a dream, Phil couldn’t tell if the rhythmic sound he heard in the back of the funeral parlor was heavy breathing or waves in the Gulf, and he worried it might be both.
In his dream he found himself standing on the peak of a dune, watching the surf in a blue moonlight, the silver breakers advancing like ranks of an invading army. Away in the distance, an indistinct shape rose a glowworm against a denim horizon. It went under, and rose closer, leaping breakers as it closed in on the shore. It was the sleeping form of his grandmother, her dry mouth agape and one eye glowing yellow in some unseen light, and then she descended and rose again, just a shape now, formless and mysterious. When the shape descended it did not rise again. Phil tried to cry out as he ran into the water but he had no voice, and when the water rose to his waist and he prepared to dive, he realized he had no arms either, each shoulder pale and smooth like the ball hitch on his grandmother’s pick-up truck. He twisted his torso as though to shake loose his limbs—he could feel his biceps tense, his fingers open and close—but no limbs emerged and he was trapped. He opened his mouth to call for his grandmother but the sound he heard was only the ocean between his teeth. A wave swelled, some glowing image inside it, and Phil bent his armless body into it to brace for the wash but when it hit him it pulled him under, and he was much deeper than he’d expected.
He looked down into the water and saw the black lose density, become the indigo-black of comic book ink, the violet of blood in dreams, the iridescent amethyst of an ocean twilight. His lungs burned and he tilted his chin upward, toward a blue film he hoped was the surface; he kicked hard in the water, working both legs together and moving his upper body like a dolphin, the way he’d seen Olympic swimmers kick off a wall in competition, and he drove upward, climbing through the depths until the blue turned to the white of daylit ocean sky and finally slipped past him as he broke the surface into empty air. He drew a deep breath, but without his arms he could not tread water, and he quickly sank again, midbreath, and his open mouth ingested the bitter vomit of processed peas. The ocean swirled in green and he wept in it, his silent cries choked off. He turned, and floating up out of the vomit was the face not of his grandmother but of Lane Murray, her hair green instead of red and the sea he had thought was peas now the marbled pinks and burgundies of hair dye. Now the red of blood. Ben’s voice came from above the ocean surface calling, Spilled for you, Phil. Blood of Christ. You can’t always have peaches, Phil. You can’t always have Jesus.
Phil made it to the surface again, woke up when his head hit the rafter.
After morning prayer on the beach and breakfast in the dusty dining hall, Ben assigned the teens chores. The girls would help clean up around the retreat, and the men—here Ben smiled at the boys, who swelled in their seats—would help haul stuff on the beach. The shell-picker asked what sort of stuff they would haul, and Lane objected to the stereotypical roles assigned them. So Ben explained that they would haul great chunks of driftwood collected from the sand and pile them into a huge beachside campfire, and that Lane could help if she thought she could handle it. She said she could. Phil said nothing to anyone all morning.
The sand-pink driftwood felt dry as ash, drier than the sand, and it rested light and smooth in the arm, not splintery like the logs of firewood Phil and his father split from the dead trees in their backyard last fall. He’d gone out expecting strained muscles and torn flesh in his palms, but he got only a thin red burn on the soles of his bare feet.
They stacked the wood far back on the beach, away from the high-tide rim of shells and dried kelp and dead jellyfish. Ben watched them dig their shallow pit, watched Lane get the dirtiest to prove that she could, watched Phil wallow as best he could to keep up. He watched and chatted until a sand-fight broke out, watery mudballs that dissipated as soon as they were thrown. When two boys started wrestling in the pit, Ben dragged them out and laughed and said, “Save it, boys, save it.”
“Save it for what?” they asked, and they tried to drag him down to the sand, hanging on his arms like ornaments. “Trust me guys,” he said, then turned to Lane and nodded and said, “Everyone. Trust me, everyone.” He grinned. “You’ll need your energy.”
Then Ben fell as Lane tackled him, and Phil jumped in, and Luke, and the rest. Despite Ben’s warning, they wrestled. Phil forgot his dream, and the nearness of the ocean, and the thing he’d seen in them both. He even, almost, forgot the funeral.
After dinner, Ben sent the youth group to the common room for Bible study with Bully. They had brought their own Bibles, some small and personal with illustrated covers and dog-eared corners, some just red pew Bibles borrowed from the church. Phil carried a complicated study Bible crowded with notes and commentary, a thick brown hardcover thing he never opened except in youth group. Lane, he saw, caressed a thin leather Bible with gold edges and a red velvet bookmark sewn in the binding, her name embossed on the cover in gold leaf. She opened it before they began, flipped through it to the bookmark. Her lips moved in small puckers as she read. Phil watched them, watched her tongue periodically slip between them in silent pronunciation. He sat next to her on the couch. He said, “What you reading?”
“John, three eight,” she said. “‘The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’”
Phil flipped into his own Bible and searched for the verse.
“I’ve always liked that verse,” she said. “It reminds me of nature. I always think of it when I hear the wind in the trees. It’s like God is laughing at some joke I don’t get, but I always laugh, too.”
Phil found the verse but his read differently. It had none of the poetry, none of the concise flare of hers. The words in Phil’s Bible were flat instructive prose with footnotes.
Bully cleared his throat and opened his own Bible. It was a cracked leather thing, flaccid from years of bending and flipping, and three dozen homemade colored tabs spined its graying edges. He spoke to the group, told them to open their own Bibles, assigned three of them some verses to read, then he said, “Luke, you go ahead.”
Luke began, his voice wooden with recital, his Bible a stubby children’s Bible with a sketchy painting of a short-haired Jesus on the cover. “As they rode along, they came to a small body of water, and the ee-nutch—”
“Eunuch,” Bully said.
“And the eunuch said, ‘Look, water! Can I be baptized?’ ‘You can,’ Philip answered, ‘if you believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God.’ And the eu…the eunuch replied, ‘I believe with all my heart.’ So they stopped the chariot and they went down into the water and Philip baptized him.”
Bully held up his palm to stop Luke’s reading. “Why did the eunuch want to be baptized?”
“What’s a eunuch?” Luke said.
“It’s a guy who’s had his nuts cut off,” a boy named Tyler said.
Everyone laughed, and Bully smiled and said, “Close enough. Why did he want to be baptized?”
“My friend Katy is a Baptist,” Lane said, “and she just got baptized last year. They dunked her under in this big metal bin up on the stage, where the altar is?”
“Ugh,” Samantha said. “What about her clothes?”
“OK, hold on,” Bully said. “I think now’s a good time for that next passage. Lane?”
Phil leaned forward in his seat, closer to her. She read and he watched her lips move.
“God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the Ark, in which a few—that is, eight—were saved through water. And baptism, which this prefigures, now saves you—not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a good conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ.”
“What is baptism, then?” Bully said.
“It’s saying you believe in Jesus,” Lane offered.
“Sure, sure. But why do you have to get all wet?”
No one answered. Then Luke smirked and said, “‘Cause God don’t like dirty people.”
A couple of kids snickered, but Bully held up his hand and said, “That’s pretty close, Luke, pretty close. What kind of dirt don’t God like?”
They looked at each other, waiting. Phil said to the floor, “Sin?”
“Sin it is, Phil my boy. Let me ask you kids something. You ever go to your grandma’s for Thanksgiving? For Christmas?” All nodded except Phil. Bully didn’t notice. He said, “Yeah, and you walk in smelling all that good stuff, the ham, the sweet potatoes, the pecan pie steaming on the window sill?” Phil shifted in his seat and looked away from the group. “And you go straight for the kitchen, you go to stick your finger in that pie?” Nods all around. Phil closed his eyes. “And tell me, you go to reach for that pie, and what’s the first thing Grandma does?”
Nelson laughed and said, “She’d slap my hand.”
“But hard, she would,” Bully said. “And what would she say?”
Samantha leaned out from her chair, shouted, “Go clean up before dinner.”
Bully jumped in his seat and said, “Yes ma’am, wash up!” He waited. Some laughed. Phil sniffed. Bully said, “And God, well he ain’t no different. You got to clean up before you can go to that great big feast of heaven. You got to get forgiven by God and clean away all the bad stuff you done, and then, if you ask nice, Jesus will pass you the pie.”
They sat in silence, some smiling, some not. Some looking into corners or out of darkening windows. Then Samantha said, “Hey, Bully? What about my verse?”
“Yes ma’am, what about your verse? How about you read it for us?”
So she read, saying, “John confessed and said, ‘I am not the messiah.’ And they asked him, ‘Are you then Elijah?’ And John said, ‘I am not.’ ‘The prophet?’ He answered, ‘No.’ Then they said to him, ‘Who are you then, that baptizes here?’ And he said, ‘I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord,’ as the prophet Isaiah said.”
Bully sat still, his eyes downcast, and then he looked around at them and said, “All y’all been baptized already, I know it. We baptize ours as babies. But tonight, with the ocean so near, we figured, what the heck. Tonight we go into the water to make straight the way of the Lord, and Ben will be our John.”
* * *
They met on the beach. Ben stood beside the pile of wood they had made, holding a guttering torch. In his other hand, he held a Bible. He read over the wind, “And John spoke, saying, ‘I baptize you with water, but there is one coming after me who will baptize you with fire.’” He bent and plunged the stick into the pile of driftwood and held it there until, sheltered from the wind and the ocean spray, the flame caught the logs.
“I know it’s a little cold, guys, but we thought this was important. A new experience for you. So bear with me. I want you all to follow me down to the water, and I’ll take you out, one at a time, and I’ll dunk you. Remember that trust game we played, where you fell backward into a partner’s arms? This is the same thing. You’re just going to lean backward and fall under water, and I’ll be there to lift you out again. But think of it this way: it’s not me you’re falling back on, and it’s not me who’ll lift you out. It’s Jesus.”
They went out one by one, some screaming, others silent, a few reverent. All returned shivering, racing for the fire and all the boys jumping over it, through the flames, a brief scent of salt and singed hair. Then they settled, one by one, into the sand around the fire and chatted: “It was so dark.” “I think I felt a stingray.” “Did Ben touch your boob?”—”Ooh, don’t be gross.” Until out from the darkness washed Ben’s voice in the shape of Phil’s name.
The water glinted obsidian rimmed in green, the night sky an indigo flecked with stars in reds and blues and yellows to match the tower lights of oil rigs far offshore. Ben stood thigh-deep, but Phil standing beside him was in over his shorts. His stomach muscles clenched tight; the ocean floor came up in the water and swallowed his feet to the ankles. Halfway up the sky hung an eggshell moon. Ben said, “Relax, Phil, answer when I ask a question, and then just fall back, OK?”
“Can I talk to you about something?” Phil said. His teeth clacked when he spoke, so he pinched his jaw shut and sucked on his tongue.
“I saw my grandmother—”
“Do you accept Jesus Christ as your Lord and savior?”
“OK, Phil, fall back.”
And before he was ready Phil went under. The Gulf filled his nose and stung. He swung his arms out to balance, thought he would bump Ben’s leg—felt nothing. I am the voice of one crying out in the wilderness. Something touched his stomach; Phil collapsed in the water, jerked, flung his arms in spasms and burst free of water, flailing, shouting, “Jesus Christ, what the hell!”
A grip tight on his arm, his shoulder. Phil’s eyes wide to the darkness, the bonfire streaking as he thrashed, and the sound of Ben saying, “Phil, Phil, I’ve got you buddy.”
“Holy shit,” Phil said, “Oh my God, was that you?”
“It was me, Phil. I got you.”
“Oh my God,” Phil said, panting, wondering in the maelstrom of other panicky thoughts if Ben had heard him cuss.
Ben said only, “Are you all right?”
Phil coughed and said yes, yes he thought he was fine.
“We can talk later, if you still want to.”
“Whatever,” Phil said. He turned and swam hard in the shallows for the shore and what flickering light it could offer.
* * *
When all were dunked and laid to dry by the fire, Bully slipped away. His wife replaced him, carrying to everyone’s surprise a thin acoustic guitar. She sat cross-legged by the fire and said, “Let’s sing a few, kids, what do you say?”
“Oh, play ‘Straight Up’!” Kendra said.
“Paula Abdul?” Darren said.
Over the building chatter, Luke said, “Hey, that chick’s hot,” and then everyone began to speak at once:
“You can’t play ‘Straight Up’ on acoustic.” “Don’t call girl’s ‘chicks.’” “I want to hear Guns N’ Roses.” “Hey Ben, we got any s’mores?” “Who are Guns N’ Roses?” “We don’t have any s’mores.” “I think I saw something out there.” “Kiddos, kiddos, we’re singing Christian songs.” “Out there in the water.” “It was Ben, you numb nut.” “Hymns and the like.” “Please, guys, don’t call each other numb nuts.” “It was the first night. It was a dark shape jumping out of the water.” “We can sing ‘Spirit in the Sky,’ kids, how about that one?” “Maybe it was a shark.” “That loud rock song?” “I’m missing my grandmother’s funeral.” “I prefer the ’69 version, but the lyrics are the same.” “Okay, I know what you’re talking about. Play it Della.” “Play what?” “Phil saw a shark?” “It wasn’t a shark.”
And then, above the chords coming from the guitar, Ben’s great voice broke over them in a boisterous yell: “Gotta have a friend in Jesus!“
All ebbed silent, and Ben sang alone at first, “When I die and they lay me to rest, gonna go to the place that’s the best,” and then Della joined him: “When I lay me down to die, going up to the spirit in the sky.” Though the kids had never heard the song, they smiled and swayed with the music, and they applauded Ben and Della when they’d finished. Phil looked out at the Gulf, remembering his grandmother in the dark back bedroom.
And then Bully returned carrying a large paper sack. It clacked when he set it down. He unrolled and opened the mouth of the sack. He took out a can of shaving cream in each fist, green cans that read No Menthol, and he held them out like an offering. The kids stared. Ben took one from Bully and handed everyone else a can, too. The teens stood there, watching, unsure. And then Ben and Bully uncapped their cans, aimed, and shot a spray of foam onto the nearest kid and ran.
The group exploded into screams, and everyone sprayed each other as they sprinted across the beach, into the water or over the dunes and toward the ragged lawn of Summerplace. The whole youth group swarmed under the yellow security lights of the house, screaming and laughing, wrestling in the dirt and grass and shells, kids muddy and bruised and swathed in shaving cream. Girls got groped, boys fought, they enacted tiny conspiracies and plots of revenge, celebrated obscure victories. The battle lasted nearly an hour, and even out of breath and deaf from plugs of grassy foam in their ears, all the kids, even Cole the shell-picker and delicate Samantha, cried reluctance to quit.
Ben let the cans spit air before he called them all back to order. He set them to the ashy remains of the fire, kicking sand into it then pouring buckets of salt water over it, sending forth steam in whipping curtains. Then Ben sent them all to the showers, and to bed.
* * *
A sound like a boat knocking in slow waves against the leg of a dock. Just a small boat, an old wooden fishing boat without a motor, something out of an old book, a grandfather’s tale. A grandmother’s lament, her fisherman gone. Phil woke. He had never really been asleep.
Summerplace had no docks or piers, and if it had, the ocean broke far enough away that Phil would not have heard them. But the sound remained, partly issuing from Phil’s quiet heart and partly trapped in his head, and partly, it seemed, living in the old wooden timbers slanting above Phil’s head. He lay in his bunk and listened for a long time, half an hour at least, and then he sat up. The noise was no longer real, but through the breathing of the other boys he could hear the ocean calling from over the grassy dunes. And Phil went barefoot to it.
The worn asphalt road felt like the rippled ocean floor, ancient and asleep. The grass of the dunes bristled harsher, awake and lively, purple-green in the dark. Phil watched carefully and put his bare feet in the patches of sand, until sand and weed both gave way to shell and Phil was on the gritty beach.
The moon was away elsewhere and the tide had gone out to follow her, and the blue beach Phil saw stretched long before him. In the thin frothy line of indigo waves a sandbar pushed clear of the Gulf—this was where Ben and the boys had played Frisbee and challenged the surf. Now it rested quiet, but it was not empty in the night. Something lay upon it.
Phil stopped at the rolling edge of the water, some two dozen yards from the low mound of the sandbar. The Gulf licked his feet, remembering him, as he stood and squinted in the dark at the thing on the risen sand. Phil watched a long time, then he turned to look back at the dunes and the house that slept behind them. The night was all waves and moving air and absolutely nothing else. Phil’s feet burrowed in the muddy sand. A knotted hunk of driftwood bumped his ankle, floated about him, then was swept away. Phil watched it as the water receded a few inches further, and then he moved to follow.
His feet made only tiny padding noises in the shallow water. He waded the two dozen yards to the sandbar and the water only ever came as high as his calves. Just a few feet before him lay the small bulk he’d seen from the shore, and for a time the night and the ocean knew only the two of them, Phil and the form in the dark, a dolphin, still and cold on sand. In the dim starlight, Phil felt and found the blowhole, a round sunken flap in the crown of its skull, part nostril and part navel; he held his hand above it and he felt no breath. The hole was dry and drawn up like the opening of a pouch, fine wrinkles fanning out from the opening. The eyes, large and foggy and the bruised color of ink, hung open but looked at nothing, not even at Phil. Phil lowered his head. This was what had awakened him. This, he supposed, was what he had seen in the ocean, not a breathing thing in currents and waves but this moment. He had known this was coming.
He ran his palms along the flesh, petting the dolphin as he might a cat. The skin felt dense and spongy, though Phil thought for sure it would have felt much different alive, would have pulsed with some deep electricity land mammals could never understand. He rubbed and petted and marveled at the skin, and when he had gotten used to it, he lay down upon the body of the dolphin, his chest on the dolphin’s back and his arm across one flipper and his face beside the silent blowhole. The surf rolled him to sleep.
He woke cold within an hour; already the night had passed over to morning, but the hours were young and the air was at its coolest. He knelt by the dolphin, studied it for signs of shark bites or net wounds, something that might explain its death. He discovered small scars, raised bumps in the alien skin, but he found no open wounds. He thought of beached whales who starve to death, but the dolphin had come aground sometime since the shaving cream fight, because he had not noticed it before then. It had simply died. It might have been diseased, but it just as easily was old, its time come.
He thought of the girl last year who had brought a pistol to the high school in her purse because she feared her ex-boyfriend; he thought of the piano instructor that used to live next door and the ambulances that came screaming and left silent and slow that time he had his heart attack; of the accident his family had once passed on the highway, the pile of steaming cars and the pulse of red and blue lights on the news, and the long glistening streak on the asphalt. He thought of the videos he’d watched in sex ed class, about the disease you caught having sex or shooting up or God knew what else. He thought of his grandmother, of her clammy head and the skin that sagged around her neck and the scent of chemicals always around her, of her one half-open eye in the dark. He thought of his family, masses of relatives in dark suits and dresses gathered at the house and eating, talking in whispers, all those other things he’d seen on TV funerals but had never been part of himself. He wondered if his father was awake now, still crying. Phil cried, looking at the dolphin and then out into the Gulf where the stars blended with the lighted spires of the rigs and the ships so you didn’t know what was real and what was metal in the dark. He cried, but when he put his palms on the crown of the dolphin, he smiled, too, and he didn’t know what to think but goodbye.
He dug in the sand till his hands pushed under the dolphin, and he heaved and rolled the body back away into the water, rolled and rolled until the dolphin floated, and he walked a long while, the water not reaching his chest until he was almost a half-mile out and the dolphin started taking on water through its open beak, and Phil pushed hard so the dolphin would sink, and after a moment a great gurgling burst of air erupted in the Gulf, and Phil shoved against the body and sent it out into the surf. He turned and swam back, riding the shallow waves when he could, walking the last tenth of a mile in, and he was a long way down the shoreline, far from the house, far even from where he’d washed ashore himself that second day, and he walked through grass and weeds until he found the road again, then he followed the road back to Summerplace. The dawn still lay submerged beyond the horizon, only a paleness in the sky and the sun still hours away, but Phil himself felt weightless and luminescent. He had air-dried by the time he slipped into the bunk room and under the folds of his thin camp blanket, and he fell asleep fast and rested well, better in two hours than ever he had in a night.
When the youth group had eaten their last breakfast, Ben called for them to gather in the common room.
“We don’t actually have to be out of here until one, so I figured you could have the morning to yourself. But you must absolutely be out front with bags packed at twelve thirty. We will leave at one o’clock, and I have no problems with you calling a cab on your parents’ dime if you get left behind.”
“The wind blows where it chooses,” Phil said.
“What?” Ben said, his neck stretched to discover the voice he’d only barely heard.
“Nothing,” Phil said.
Lane smiled at him, and he smiled back.
Luke jumped up and said, “Marco Polo in the pool in ten minutes!” and all shouted approval and ran to get their suits. Phil still wore his, but he did not follow. Instead, he turned and walked outside into the sun. Clouds spread gray over the beach. But beyond them, out over the Gulf where the dolphin drifted, the air eddied clear as Phil’s own mind. He walked the road and dunes to the beach. He stepped into the Gulf, water pulsing around his ankles.
He walked into the Gulf until his feet came off the rolling ocean floor. Then he swam out long, his arms cupping and dragging the water around him until they ached and floated loose on their own, until he could not swim. He rolled onto his back, did not care if the mullets came to him, and saw that he had gone out past the breakers, into the thin rolling of the water that was barely surf. The clouds lay in a dark line on the land, a mirror in negative of the thin beach below them. He was maybe a mile out. He lay back in the water, dragging air into his lungs till they burned and breathing shallowly to keep it there, to keep himself afloat, and he stared up at the deepening blue above him and listened to the sound of the wind, and he drifted in the water.
Samuel Snoek-Brown is a writing teacher and a fiction author, though not always in that order. He also works as the production editor for Jersey Devil Press. His work has appeared in Ampersand Review, Fried Chicken and Coffee, Red Fez, SOL: English Writing in Mexico, Fiction Circus, Scintilla, Unshod Quills, and others. An excerpt from his novel Hagridden appeared in a special issue of Sententia, and his fiction has been shortlisted in the Faulkner-Wisdom contest in 2010 and 2011. He grew up in Texas but currently lives with his wife and their two cats in Portland, Oregon; online, he lives at http://snoekbrown.com.