The blue water laps at the shore. Gliding effortlessly over the sand, it washes over the feet of all who happen to stand upon it, mine included. It is like any other day at the beach—or, at least, it would be.
Except my parents are fighting.
This has become a routine over the past several weeks, especially when the three of us are together.
It goes something like this:
My dad will look at another woman. My mom will react. The two of them will start fighting.
And me? I’ll be left to watch—or, at the very least, pretend I’m unaware of what’s happening.
Truth is: I know a lot more than they think I do. I’ve learned to play dumb, especially since this has been going on.
“Carter!” my mother snaps at my father, who stands a short distance away. “Listen to me!”
“Not now, June,” my dad replies. “And not here.”
“You don’t seem to mind where you’re doing it.”
I pace along the shore, trying my hardest to ignore the tangling feeling of unease in my stomach. My eyes are set toward my phone, but my heart and mind are on the conflict that is currently playing out behind me.
My dad’s always had a wandering eye—and, from the argument I accidentally heard the other week, a potentially-wandering body.
I come to a halt near where the shore ends at its clam-shaped curve and look out at the Gulf of Mexico.
The water is so blue here—so peaceful, so tranquil.
If only my life were like it. Maybe then I wouldn’t have to worry about anything.
I turn my head when I hear the sound of my father’s exasperated sigh cut across the distance between us, then watch as he storms across the beach in the direction opposite me.
My mother calls: “Where are you going?”
To which he replies: “Away from you!”
I try not to react—at least, not physically—but find an uneasy exhale passing from my lips as I consider the reality I am facing.
This was supposed to be a fun family outing. Instead, it’s turned into another miserable trip.
I lift my head and turn my attention to the far edges of the beach, where the green grass meets the white sand at a small metal fence, and consider walking home. The house is just a few hundred feet away, so if I really wanted to, I could just leave. I know my mother will expect me, however; and for that reason, I turn and begin to retrace my steps across the sands.
As I draw near my mother, I hear her counting beneath her breath—a trait she said a counselor once taught her as a teenager to help her control her frustrations.
“Mom?” I ask.
She turns; and for a moment, I consider the look on her face: the wild, almost-surprised expression. Then she smiles and says, “Jessica. I was wondering where you went.”
“Where’s Dad?” I ask.
“He’s… swimming. Or something,” my mother replies, and somehow, someway, she is able to keep the bitter tone from seeping into her voice. “He said to go back to the house.”
“He just did. You know your father: always wandering off on his own.”
I can’t help but feel that last bit was a barbed comment toward him.
Rather than question her, I nod, say, “Okay,” and stoop to help her gather the beach towels, the cooler, and the parasol that we lugged from the garage specifically for this trip. My mother’s strong arms take hold of the massive contraption and she sets it against her shoulder with such ease that it seems like she’s twice her size. But at five-four, Mom is short, but strong—a trait that’s served her well as a diving instructor.
As we begin to make our way from the beach, and cross the invisible threshold that separates the town of Mermaid Cove from the beach itself, I try not to consider the argument that has just occurred, but find myself doing just that.
I shouldn’t have to worry about this. I know I shouldn’t. I should be able to be a normal teenage girl, thinking about grades and classes and the future ahead of me. Instead, I have to constantly consider the next argument and what all it might entail.
I struggle not to frown the moment my flip-flops touch the solid earthy path that leads to the row of beach houses along the coast.
“Say,” my mother offers, drawing up alongside me, “what do you think about ordering pizza tonight?”
“You don’t want to cook?” I ask. “I thought we were going to barbecue?”
“It’ll put your father in a better mood. And besides—” My mother smiles. “I really don’t feel like cooking.”
The first legitimate smile I’ve been able to muster since the argument graces my face, and I nod to reassert the fact that I am, in fact, in a good mood, regardless of what I’ve heard. “Yeah,” I then say. “Okay. Cool. Pizza it is.”
My mother nods and begins to hum a tune from the radio while we continue up the rocky pathway that runs behind the beach houses.
Within moments, we are drawing near our home. Rising from the rocky cliffside, its jarring countenance contrasts beautifully alongside the two yellow homes beside it. We are one of two red homes on the drive, but undoubtedly have the best view.
“Jessica, honey,” my mother says, reaching into her pocket. “Would you run up and unlock the door? I need to put this stuff in the garage.”
“Sure, Mom,” I say, taking hold of the keys.
My first real respite from the argument comes as I make my way up the front porch. Our orange tabby cat, Tibbles, sits in the window, watching and waiting and meowing as I approach.
“I know,” I say, tapping the glass opposite him. “We’re back.”
He rubs up against the window before hopping down to greet me at the door.
Inside, I slip into the kitchen, deposit the cooler atop the counter, and step forward to examine the ocean from the yawning windows over the kitchen sink.
It’s getting late. Already darkness is encroaching upon the gulf, turning the sky a dusky blue that’ll eventually fade to black. A part of me wonders if my dad will return before it gets dark, but knowing him, he won’t be gone long. He never is—at least, so far as I’ve come to know.
I am just thinking on this when my mother steps through the front door. Tibbles follows her into the kitchen, and slinks between her legs before jumping onto the counter to ponder the outside world beside me. “You finished your homework?” she asks.
“It’s Christmas break,” I say. “I don’t go back to school for two weeks.”
“Still—you don’t want to be rushing to do it before your vacation is up.”
“Mom,” I groan.
She smiles and reaches out to brush a hand through my blonde hair. We are complete opposites, she and I—her with short-cut black hair and fair skin, me with my freckles. I’ve always been told I resemble her, but I know for a fact that I got most of my looks from my dad. Thankfully he’s movie-star handsome. Otherwise, I’m not sure what I’d do.
She considers me for a moment before saying, “I’m so proud of you, Jess.”
“For what?” I ask. This time, I can’t help but frown, as I’m anticipating something awkward.
“For being such a good kid. I’ve never had to worry about you, and I know that I never will. You’re not like some of the girls at school, wandering around, not sure what they’re doing with themselves.”
“I’m still not sure what I’m doing,” I admit.
“Still, you’ve got a good head on your shoulders, and… well…” My mother smiles. “Let’s just say that you’re the best kid a mom could have.”
My mother laughs and stands on her tip-toes to kiss my cheek, an action I pretend to hate by playfully batting her away. “Go shower,” she says. “Then we’ll order pizza.”
“All right,” I say, then turn to wander down the hall, Tibbles at my heels.
A part of me wonders if she’s sent me off to try and call my father home, but another feels like she simply wanted a moment to piece together what she’s going to say upon his return.
I anticipate their divorce—and though I love both of my parents deeply, I can’t help but feel, at this point, that it might be better for both of them.
And, as selfish as it sounds: I’d at least sleep better knowing that there was some resolution.
I have just crawled out of the shower and am making my way into the kitchen when I see my mother looking at her cell phone, a pale expression on her face.
“Mom?” I ask, knocking on the threshold. “Is something wrong?”
She lifts her head to face me. “Oh,” she says, then frowns, her eyes falling back to her phone. “It’s nothing, honey. I just… can’t get a hold of your father, that’s all.”
I glance toward the clock, only to find that I was so caught up in escaping the day’s anxiety that an hour has passed.
Normally, my father is home no later than a half-hour after one of their arguments. And for him to not answer his phone?
I draw forward. “He hasn’t called?” I ask.
“No,” my mother replies. “He hasn’t even texted.”
I frown. “Maybe his phone went dead,” I say, hoping to offer some reassurance.
“That doesn’t explain why he isn’t home.”
I’m not sure what to say, so I remain silent and tighten my shawl around my shoulders.
“He’ll be home soon,” my mother says after a moment’s consideration, as if she’s suddenly become aware of the fact that she’s unnerved me. “Why don’t you go ahead and order the pizza?”
“Shouldn’t I wait for Dad?” I ask.
My mother stares at me for several moments. Then she says, “Hold on” and lifts her phone back to her ear.
I try not to eavesdrop as she wanders into the living room, but find myself doing just that.
Several seconds pass, then a minute.
By the time my mother speaks, I know, deep down, that it isn’t my father she’s talking to, but his answering machine. “Carter,” she says. “Where the hell are you? I want you home now. You’re starting to worry Jessica, and me.”
I make sure to crouch down and bat at Tibbles’ tail to seem as inconspicuous as possible before my mom comes around the corner.
“Jess?” she asks.
“Yeah?” I reply, gathering the cat into my arms before standing upright.
“Go ahead and order the pizza. I’ll be back.”
“Where are you going?” I frown.
“I’m gonna see if your dad’s down at the bar.”
“You still can’t get a hold of him?”
She shakes her head. “No,” she says, “which is strange, because he usually has his phone glued to his hand.”
“You don’t think something’s happened, do you?”
Her eyes betray her stone-faced attempts to hide her emotions. “No,” she says, then catches herself by saying, “Your dad’s fine. I’m just going to check and see where he is.”
My mother turns toward the door and grabs her keys. “There’s cash in our bedroom nightstand. Grab a twenty and order two pizzas. I’ll be back soon.”
“All right,” I say, and watch as she disappears out the front door.
A short moment later, the garage door yawns open, and I watch the car roll onto, then out of the driveway. My mom barely stops to close the garage door with the remote before taking off down the road.
I’m not sure what to think, what to do, or even how to feel. I suppose my dad could be at the bar, blowing steam off through a game of pool or drowning his sorrows in a few whiskeys, but that wouldn’t explain why he wouldn’t be answering his phone.
I shake my head.
My dad’s fine. His phone is simply dead. That’s all there is to it.
With a troubled sigh, I hug Tibbles to my chest, then kiss his head and say, “You want pepperoni?”
He meows before launching himself from my arms and onto the floor at my feet.
The night grows increasingly dark as I wait for the pizza to arrive. Though a part of me wants to revel in the fact that both of my parents are gone, thereby offering me a peace of mind I haven’t had since this afternoon, I know for a fact that something is wrong.
Dad has been gone for two hours, Mom nearly one.
Neither of them will answer their phones.
It’s taking every ounce of my strength to not call the police.
But what could they do? my conscience is quick to offer. Come to your door? Ask where they’ve been?
It’d sure sound good if I told the authorities my parents were fighting over my father’s supposed infidelity, and that they’d been gone for over two hours collectively.
Fact of the matter is: there’s nothing I can do. I’m stuck here, waiting for the pizza with Tibbles meowing at me in concern.
“Could you stop?” I ask, the unease growing ever thicker in my gut.
The cat cocks his head at me and meows once more before darting into the living room and disappearing from sight.
I sigh, bow my head, collect my face in my hands, and try, with little success, not to worry.
The doorbell chiming nearly scares me out of my skin.
“Coming!” I call, palming the twenty-dollar bill and making my way into the living room.
An African-American delivery driver in a red uniform and hat greets me as I open the door. “Hello,” he says in a cheerful voice that instantly grates on my nerves. “Order for… Jessica? Pruitt?”
“Yes,” I say. “What’s the total?”
“Keep the change,” I say, and shove the money into his palm in a rough exchange. I take the two pizzas without thanks before shutting the door and turning back into the kitchen.
Tibbles is immediately bounding down the hall, singing the song of his people as he darts between and around my legs.
“I’ll give you a pepperoni in a second,” I say, setting the pizzas on the counter.
The cat meows and jumps up on one of the revolving stools, his green eyes set on the boxes before him.
Though my stomach craves food, I don’t think I can eat due to the worry gnawing at my insides.
Not wanting to disappoint the cat, I pop open one of the boxes, reach in, retrieve a piece of ham off a pizza I thought I specifically ordered to be pepperoni, and place it on the counter before the cat. He won’t care. Pepperoni and ham are one in the same to him.
I sigh as I turn my attention out to the distant shore.
A thought strikes me almost instantly.
Mom had said that Dad had gone swimming.
Could something have happened?
The idea that he could’ve been swept out to sea or into the undertow beyond the sand bars instantly makes me uneasy. The fact that he could’ve been attacked by a shark, though?
Mating season has been advertised on signs along the beach, and bull sharks, known for swimming upriver into the water that dumps into the ocean via the channels surrounding Mermaid Cove, are usually always present off the Gulf. They are notoriously aggressive, and able to swim in both fresh and salt water.
If Dad got attacked, and something happened—
No. I can’t think about that. Dad is smarter than that. He and Mom are professional divers—run a small business and everything. Nothing would have happened to either of them.
The reality, and the thoughts that consume me, eventually become too much to bear.
Calling the police isn’t an option, and alerting the coast guard that they are missing would do no good so early in the night.
If I want anything done, I have to do it myself.
I scramble into my tennis shoes in the moments thereafter—drag a hoodie around my shoulders and grab the keys off the rack. I tell Tibbles that I’ll be right back and hear a meow of question as I first exit, then lock the door behind me.
Then I’m running toward the beach.
I shouldn’t be going so fast. Given the uneven path, I could trip and fall and skin my knees. But right now, I don’t care. All that matters is that I need to see if my parents are on the beach.
It takes little more than five minutes to make my way toward the fence that separates the Mermaid Cove municipal from the shore.
Upon reaching the fence, I jump over, then pace onto the beach.
“Mom!” I call, cupping my hands over my mouth. “Dad!”
The stillness leaves me feeling eerie, the silence even more so. Only the tide can be heard this late at night.
From here, I can see almost the entire beach, save the distant edge where the Gulf meets the rocky cliffs.
With fear in my heart, I make my way due south.
Walking here, along the shore, and feeling as though something is wrong, I become hyper-attuned to my surroundings.
A distant car honks.
A gull cries out.
A fish jumps somewhere nearby.
I turn to view the ocean—to see if, by chance or happenstance, a couple is standing in the waters off the shore—but find nothing to indicate that my parents were ever here.
I have just reached the edge of the sandy beach and have begun to climb atop the craggy rocks bordering the cliff when I hear something jump.
At first, I think it’s a dolphin, or maybe a small whale breaching the surface of the water.
When I turn, though, I don’t see a gray tail.
In this lighting, streaming down from the moonlight above, I see a fluke, but it isn’t shaped like a whale’s, or colored the same.
And red and orange.
I have just begun to stare out at the ocean, mystified at what I could have possibly seen, when something bumps against my foot.
I look down.
My father’s body—cold and prone and ripped to pieces—shifts in the tide at my feet.
There is little I can do but scream.