When the Grand Prix stopped kicking up rooster tails of red dust at every junction Helen announced they had left Georgia behind and were officially on their first vacation. Following beat-up signs and billboards, the rest of the drive would take them further south to the Gulf Coast of Florida.
In the back seat, Helen’s twin daughters Julie and Debbie had been arguing for the last forty miles. The girls were out of Planter’s Peanuts and Pepsi-Cola, bored with playing “I Spy,” and sick of variations on Barbie and Francie ensembles; their eight-year-old imaginations stretched to breaking over the long trek south from the outskirts of Atlanta.
The route Helen chose had little to do with scenic value. She figured the lack of notable landmarks contributed to the girls’ boredom but she was willing to weather their snotty remarks and impatience, so long as it meant they could stick to back roads not found on the map. This was better than risking the preferred path of tourists and patrol cars along Highway 98.
For the eleventh time Julie asked, “Are we there yet?”
Helen shot back the brightest answer she could offer. “Where the heck is ‘there’?” A glance in the side view mirror was startling: blonde bob raked back from her face and tucked behind her ears, eyes underscored by shadows, the remnant of a purple bruise not quite faded beneath makeup.
• • • •
Late in the afternoon, Helen pulled over and parked under a sign for a campground with the same name as the nearest town, Alligator Point. At the check-in cabin, a man with a mustache so thin it might have been drawn with an eyebrow pencil, and a nametag that identified him as Dorsey Corcoran, pointed to a map. He referred to the place beside his blackened thumbnail as “a private cove.” He reeked of tobacco and his crooked grin revealed a row of yellow teeth dotted with gold fillings. He was the kind of man Helen’s husband Roy would have called a “swamp hick.”
“Y’all are gonna be mighty cozy,” Dorsey Corcoran said. “Yes ma’am. That there’s a preferred spot. If y’all had come down any closer to the season, it’d be gone.”
“It’s fine,” said Helen. She checked over her shoulder to make sure the girls were staying put in the car.
“Say, is that a ’64 or a ’65?” Dorsey asked, jutting his chin toward the Grand Prix outside.
Helen froze. “I don’t know,” she said.
“Well, you’ve kept it in good shape. Nice color, too. What do you call that shiny green . . . ?”
“Moss,” she said. “I think it’s called moss.” She initialed the register and handed over cash for two nights.
Fifteen minutes later, after locating their campsite, she squinted through the dusty windshield at row after row of mangy palm trees with peeling trunks. Down the beach at the next site, an elderly couple in swimsuits sat in lawn chairs staring at the brackish water. They rested silently and still with flabby arms limp at their sides, fingertips almost touching the sand.
Helen took note of the scenery and wondered if Dorsey knew the meaning of either “private” or “cove.” The beach formed a large C-shape and included a playground with two swing sets, all of it surrounded by the ancient, shedding palms. This tiny enclave occupied the southern tip of the larger campground where more prosperous visitors rented cabins or parked their trailers during tourist season.
“Look at us. Three gals on a spree!” Helen said as brightly as she could. “When you’re on vacation, anything can happen.”
The girls said nothing. Julie collected their overnight bag from the floor while Debbie gathered up their Barbie dolls and magazines.
• • • •
They managed to haul the tent out of the trunk but had trouble pitching it. The fine, dun-colored sand kept giving way underfoot on the narrow beach. There were no waves, no surf, only a dull sort of gurgle each time the foamy water rolled up a few inches and back again.
Helen glanced over her shoulder while they struggled with the pole and the stiff canvas. Each time the girls caught her looking around she pretended to be estimating the space they needed.
“Smells like rotten fish,” said Julie, wrinkling her nose and pointing to the shoreline.
“Stinky,” said Debbie.
“Daddy wouldn’t like this place at all!” Julie declared. “I bet he’s glad he didn’t come.”
“That’s how the gulf smells,” Helen told them. “Y’all are here to see the sights and learn about the world and be sophisticated. Watch out. Only ignorant people complain wherever they go.”
The twins took a break to drink the Pepsi-Colas she’d bought at the check-in cabin, and eat cheese sandwiches from the small portable cooler. While they ate, the girls stood as they often did, heads inclined toward one another, whispering God knows what about their elderly neighbors.
Helen stopped hammering a foot-long metal spike into the ground, and raked the hair from her eyes with her free hand. She stood for a minute and surveyed the beach with a dull sense of unease, trying to decide if the feeling was spurred by the viscous gurgle of the shoreline or the call of gulls, like chattering monkeys, overhead.
• • • •
Sunset turned the shore into ribbons of royal blue and teal. Entwined clouds of periwinkle and fire-orange stretched for miles toward a crimson, falling light between the trees.
They had only two folding cots, placed at right angles inside the tent. The twins shared one of them, sending delicate snores into the air and pushing at one another gently with swimming motions, their hands and feet trying to clear an imaginary space.
Helen lay awake, staring out the open canvas flap until she saw the dark silhouettes of the elderly couple rise clumsily from their lawn chairs, clasp hands, and make their way inside their own tent. One of the two zipped the flap shut behind them.
She imagined they were on a reunion honeymoon. Alligator Point was run-down, but maybe it was a relic of their youth, a hot vacation spot when it was swanky and new.
“Swanky” was one of Roy’s words; it reminded Helen of their own early days. Sparkling beaches spread out before high-rise hotels painted flamingo pink, the surf so starkly blue against white she could hardly believe it was real. Roy’s shocking bright smile, his black curls shiny with pomade above sunglasses so dark she couldn’t see his eyes at all. He would reach over and pat her hip with one hand and ask how she’d like to spend her honeymoon in one of those swanky hotels.
For a while after they married she anticipated more days in sunlight that caressed her skin, more nights of dancing in clubs, her bare shoulders fragrant with coconut oil. For a long time after she stopped expecting such days and nights, she hoped for a sign that things would get better, or at least stop getting worse.
On the canvas floor beside the twins’ cot she spied a couple of well-thumbed issues of Photoplay and Screenland. On the cover of one, Liz Taylor and Richard Burton were photographed clinging to one another, their mouths open wide. Helen couldn’t tell if they were laughing or screaming. A headline read, “Are Liz and Burton’s Love Binges Killing Them?” A photo insert in the corner featured a redhead named Florinda. Another showed Taylor and Burton looking bronze, drunk, and overweight in swimsuits on a yacht.
Helen hated these magazines. The twins bought them surreptitiously at Kresge’s with change begged off of Roy, and hid them in their room. She guessed they were feeling bold because they were on vacation for the first time. Or maybe they’d simply fallen asleep and forgotten. She hoped the magazines didn’t remind the girls of Roy but she couldn’t be sure without asking. They lay on their cot with arms crooked and entwined. She couldn’t remember a time when she had slept with such innocence and abandon.
• • • •
The first dream was all broken images of the twins playing: Julie and Debbie on a swing set surrounded by palm trees, their bare feet raking the sand with each pass through the air, stirring up and infuriating a line of large black ants trying to stumble to their nest with what seemed to be bits of paper and broken seashells. In the next dream Helen saw her own eyes reflected in the rearview mirror of the Grand Prix, blackened with bruises; in the mirror she watched the twins bury a bloodstained hammer in the sand. She checked the mirror again, dabbed at her chin with powder, and noticed Richard Burton approaching the car, shambling and drunk, his face filled with rage. She looked down at her hand; it was warm, wet, cupped around a pair of broken teeth.
She felt the sand between her toes and the heat rising up from the ground. One of the ants, lost and abandoned by her tribe, clambered over Helen’s foot. A searing pain in her heel told her she had been stung, and she leapt from the burning leather strap of the swing seat, landing on bare feet running. Soon the burn spread from her heel to her ankle and up her calf. When she touched her leg it folded over in sections and she fell, the hot sand enveloping her until she sank to her hips. All around her the green, fishy water was rising. She saw the twins with their arms dangling over the edge of their cot, fingers dipping in the rank sea.
She bolted upright, screaming, as a tsunami swept the tent. Waves six feet high knocked the canvas sideways, tossed the twins under, and rushed over Helen. Her voice, shouting the names of her daughters, formed bubbles, and the stinking water filled her throat.
She screamed again and awoke to see Julie and Debbie sitting up on their cot, sleepy-eyed and staring at her. She ran her fingers through her hair. Her face and scalp were drenched in sweat.
“What are y’all doing? Mama had a bad dream, is all. Go back to sleep.”
• • • •
In the morning Helen lay on her cot with her eyes closed, trying to recall the order of these images. Each time she got lost when she pictured her eyes in the rearview mirror of the Grand Prix. Something moved in the middle distance, a long, flat body with scales and muddy green skin sweeping aside the trees as it stumbled toward her, just out of view.
At last she opened her eyes. The tent was as intact as it had been before she fell asleep. The movie magazines lay on the floor but the twins were gone.
She jumped out of bed and slapped the canvas flap aside. Her first thought, more of a frantic hope, was that the twins had gone outside to play. She glanced up the beach at the empty swing sets. She had taken for granted that the town’s name was no longer appropriate, and there was no danger. But of course it was foolish to feel safe; there was always danger. Alarm rising like an approaching siren in her chest, she turned slowly, 360 degrees, careful not to miss any detail of the surrounding campsite.
When the tent of the elderly couple came into view, she gasped. There were the twins, flanking the old people who had resumed sitting in their lawn chairs exactly as they had the day before.
Helen caught her breath, a painful lump forming in her throat. She wanted to run to her daughters but she didn’t want to alarm them. Just as urgently she didn’t want their newfound acquaintances to question her. She couldn’t answer anything they might ask.
Her flip-flops felt grimy, coated with wet sand, by the time she reached the spot where Julie and Debbie stood beside the old couple. Something different from the previous day’s scene troubled her. Once she drew alongside the twins, she realized the old people were not looking at the water, and not talking to her daughters. Instead their heads were tilted back, jaws slack. The woman’s chin was dotted with dried saliva.
“What’s the matter with ’em, Mama?” Julie asked. “Are they sick?”
“We just walked over to say ‘hey’ but they were sleepin’,” said Debbie.
“They’re not asleep,” said Julie. “They’re sick. They look sick.”
Helen took each girl by the hand. “Come with me,” she said. “Debbie’s right. They’re takin’ a nap. Old people like to sleep in the sun, is all. So be real quiet, now. Don’t make a fuss. It’s time to go.”
“Told you so,” Debbie taunted Julie with a wagging finger.
Julie slapped her sister’s hand away and said, “I’ll tell Daddy you farted in the back seat!”
“Come on, I said.” Helen led them away, back down the beach to the car.
In a few minutes she had broken down the tent. She rolled it roughly and tossed it into the trunk of the car with the cooler.
“Daddy says don’t roll it up,” Debbie reminded her, still showing off because she thought she’d won the first argument of the day. “He says you’ve got to fold it.”
“Never mind,” said Helen. “He doesn’t care any more.”
“Yes, he does,” said Debbie.
“He’ll get mad if you do it wrong,” Julie chimed in.
“Shut up, now,” Helen told her. “Get in the car and be quiet.”
Her daughter’s dashed expression cut Helen to the quick. She softened her tone as much as she could and said, “Listen, if y’all act real nice and don’t fight, we’ll stop for pancakes and sausages at the first place we see in Alabama.”
Both girls brightened at the idea.
“Now be good and get in the car, so we can have a nice breakfast on the road.”
As soon as they did as she said, Helen retrieved the hammer from the trunk. She knew it was clean. She had washed it thoroughly before they left the house in Atlanta. Nevertheless she drew back as far as she could and pitched it high, over the beach and into the water.
She had no way of knowing how much time the old couple had paid for. Maybe they really were on a reunion honeymoon, a prelude to what they had done together, or a chance to build their courage. Or maybe they only needed the one night. Would Dorsey or some other campground employee drive by to make sure visitors didn’t overstay their rental?
She couldn’t risk it. She had to be on her way, well out of Florida, before anyone showed up. Back in Atlanta it would only be another day or two before somebody stopped by, most likely one of Roy’s drinking buddies.
She almost cursed the old couple but thought better of it. They’d chosen this place, of all places, to die. She didn’t know why and she decided it was best not to think too much more about it. Thinking never solved a thing, in Helen’s experience. She slammed the trunk shut and climbed into the driver’s seat.
“Are we still on vacation?” Julie asked when Helen started the car.
“Yes, we are,” she said. “That’s right.” She checked the rearview mirror. Behind her, in the trees, something shifted sideways and then settled, as if waiting for a signal. “Three gals on a spree! Anything might happen.”
Spread the word!