I had to open the window all the way down to let the air in, clean out the stench from the vomit all over my sister’s front, her thighs, the seat, the bag at her feet. It was disgusting, a pinky-orange colour with chunks, and there was so much of it. Before it made me gag, I stared at it wondering how come my little sister’s tummy could hold so much revolting goop.
The four of us had been in the car for hours and hours. Lina was on the right, Edith in the middle (because she’s the oldest, she thinks it’s her job to be in the middle), and me behind my dad, on the left. Less crowded than the last time we made the trip, with my mom and the baby. When Lina threw up, my dad didn’t even stop the car. He just told us to clean it up with whatever we could find in the bags, a t-shirt or a shirt or a dress. I opened the bag at my feet and picked a nightgown, because I figured who cares if it’s stained. Edith used it to wipe things up, all the while gagging and breathing heavily through her mouth. Our dad barely looked back at Lina, who really wanted to cry but was trying to be brave. I could see her chin quivering, her eyes wet. We knew he wouldn’t stop the car because he’s a doctor and he’s never afraid of “bodily functions”, as he calls them. He was in some rush to get to the beach house. Didn’t even stop for lunch as we usually did. It was all go, go, go.
After those shenanigans, we were quiet the rest of the way. My dad turned the car radio on to some music and, after shuffling the dial a bit, settled on a Bing Crosby hit. My dad was not a fan, but I guess there was nothing much else on. The song made me sleepy; that, and the movement of the car, the wind on my face from the still open window. I must have fallen asleep, because next thing I knew he was carrying me from the car into the cottage, in the dark. My sisters were already in their beds, the flowery covers all the way up to their chins. The baby’s crib sat empty in the corner, and it made me sad to see it.
The next morning things were already different than they’d been every other summer. Usually, our mom would make us breakfast, eggs and bacon or pancakes or toast with butter and jam, whatever she was in the mood for. We’d put on our swimsuits and sandals, grab our towels and buckets and shovels and run out as soon as we’d taken the last bite of food. We didn’t wait for our parents, or maybe it was that they didn’t want to come, I couldn’t really tell. It was always a race down to the beach, past the other cottages, down the short wooden walkway. It was our favourite place in the world. We built castles with moats and cities and lagoons. We buried each other in the sand and dug ourselves out. We chased the surf and then ran away from it. We gathered shells, then threw them back into the sea for the sirens to use for necklaces. At some point our mom and dad would show up with sandwiches and sodas, and so on and so forth.
This morning, though, there was no breakfast ready when we got up. And of course, our mom wasn’t there. She was probably having her own breakfast by herself, back in the city. Or maybe smoking a cigarette. Our dad was sitting on an armchair, the Sears radio perched on a little stool and on at a low volume. He leaned sideways to get his ear close to it, to hear what it said about the outbreak, I’m sure. There was nothing much else to be interested in those days. We saw him hang his head, rub his forehead with his hand, run his fingers through his white hair. It had always been white, his hair; he wasn’t old or anything. “A family trait,” he told us. And it was true because his brother, younger than him, also had white hair, and we could tell in old pictures of our grandfather when he was young that his hair had been white too. I couldn’t hear what the radio was saying, but the voice, low like a whisper, made me nervous.
“Daddy, could we have some breakfast please?”
He looked up at us, and I saw his eyes were red. “Yes. You’re old enough to help yourselves, though. Edith, you’re in charge of breakfast. Sylvia and Lina will help you,” he said to us. I could sense Edith was both proud and scared. I guess it wasn’t so easy being the oldest. A lot of responsibility, your parents counting on you.
We had some toast, from bread we’d brought from home, but nothing on it, unfortunately. “We need to go to the grocery store, I suppose,” said my dad, and I was relieved he realized this.
No one was in a rush to run to the beach that day. We sat on the sofa with our books, read some. We tried to play but Lina ruined it by putting her doll to sleep in the baby’s crib. Edith yelled “No!” and snatched the doll away and threw it under my bed. We all wanted to cry now, but didn’t.
Days went by like this. Our dad got groceries for us, but they weren’t quite right. Things were missing, like butter for our toast, and onions for the spaghetti sauce, and we went three days without milk because he kept forgetting to buy it. We spent time at our home, trying to stay out of our dad’s hair, keeping our voices down as if he were sick. We mostly did great in this respect, but sometimes not so much. One day Lina coloured in my book, and I got mad and slapped her. She shrieked and Edith came running and started shouting at me, and I at Lina, and then our dad stormed in and dragged me and Edith by the arm to the bathroom and closed the door with us inside. He said “Work it out!” in a loud, angry voice. I thought really Lina should have been there too, because this was her fault, but she was now the baby of the family and therefore received special treatment. Except when she threw up in the car.
I took to doing my things near the phone. Just in case it rang. I’d sit to read on a chair next to the phone, or coloured on the floor right there. Or just laid on my back on the cold tiles and stared at the ceiling. But always close to the phone, closer than anyone else. I wanted to be the one to pick it up if anyone called. If our mother called. But it was silent, and silent, and silent.
We did end up going to the beach eventually. The first day we went we didn’t race down, because it felt disrespectful somehow. So, we just walked. The second day we walked a little faster. The third day Lina broke into a run and we followed after her because, being the youngest now, she was our charge. After that, we ran to the beach every day, fast as we could. Lina yelled: “Please, slow down! My legs are out of breath!” We played, too, the same games we always played, with the bucket and the sand and the surf. We ate apples and drank water from a thermos. But no one brought us sandwiches, so we just stayed there until we had pangs from hunger or until we were bored, or too hot, or all those things together, and then we walked back home.
There was a fisherman at the beach some days. He always wore the same clothes: khaki pants, a white shirt and a hat, and it all looked a little dirty and ratty. He was an older man, older than my dad he looked like, but maybe he wasn’t. My dad always said that people don’t always look their age but they always look their lives.
Sometimes we sat close to the fisherman and he would say hi to us, let us pick up the worms from the can and hold them, wrap them around the hook. He had to fix it most times because we wouldn’t stick the worm clear through the hook, which was a bit like murder but it was what you had to do to catch a fish. We didn’t mind if he did it, but for us it was different. We felt bad for the worms. We gave them their last bit of love and care before they were sent into the ocean to their deaths. Lina sometimes named the worms even, if she felt a connection to them. One was Eric, after our teenage neighbour she loved. Another worm she called Silk. She would talk to them, too. I didn’t understand why she did this even though she knew they’d be dead soon, but then one day a creature, some type of small shark maybe, washed onto the beach and I adopted it. Its head was nearly completely severed, but somehow it was still alive, flapping its tail side to side, opening and closing its little round mouth. I stroked it, pulled it into the water and held it there so it could breathe, and then I also named it. I don’t have a very good imagination like Lina does, so I called it Sharky. Edith said the thing was gross and I should release it and let it die in its home in the sea, but I couldn’t let go. Lina understood, I think, because she borrowed a worm from the fisherman and tried to feed it to the shark (it didn’t want it). Then she sat next to me and Sharky and stroked it too.
When we came back from the beach that day our dad was on the phone. I froze right there at the door, so happy was I that our mom had called. I knew it was our mom. I wanted to talk to her so badly, tell her about the shark and the fisherman and his worms, about Lina vomiting in the car and Edith cleaning it up with my nightgown. I needed to ask for a new one. But our dad gave us a quick look, motioned his head for us to move along. We went to the bathroom to take our suits off and clean up. We kept our voices down and noise to a minimum, wanting to hear what he said.
“… doesn’t only affect children, Maura.”
“Damn it, there have been over five hundred cases already! It’s not safe there. Please drive over to us. The girls miss you. It’d be good for you.”
“Well, someone has to!”
“No, I don’t understand. Your other children need you now. This is insane. We’ve been gone three weeks, Maura. Maura. Maura.”
I guess she hung up. Our dad slammed the receiver on the phone. He growled, like an injured animal. He would have shouted if we hadn’t been around, I’m sure of it, but he probably didn’t want to scare us. I wanted to ask him about mother so much. What she was doing at home, alone. Whether she’d come finally (I knew she wouldn’t). If she was healthy. But things had been difficult with our parents since the baby, and we didn’t want to make it worse with our questions and complaints. When our mother was in one of her moods and we were “pestering” her (this was her word), she’d say to us: “Learn to read a room, girls.” Edith explained to us that this meant we needed to pay attention to how she was feeling and act accordingly. It felt to me we’d been “reading the room” for months now. It was just exhausting.
We kept making ourselves breakfast, playing at home, going to the beach. It was still early in the summer so there weren’t many families around, although our dad said he expected at least a few to join us soon, “other outbreak refugees,” as he said, just not as many as in “normal years”. People were mostly staying put. I didn’t really understand any of it; why most people stayed put but we didn’t, why some of us were outbreak refugees, but others were not.
Our dad almost never came to the beach with us. The few times he did, the fisherman wasn’t there, which was a shame because I wanted to introduce them, show our dad how I could handle the worms. Also, I wasn’t even sure he actually believed us that there was a fisherman at the beach that let us play with his fishing supplies. When we told him, he just nodded and said: “Is that right.”
Staying out of trouble got harder and harder as the summer wore on. We started getting more bored every day. I was sick of my sisters and they were sick of me and each other. We were fighting more and more, running out of things to play, books to read. Our crayons were useless little stumps, and our markers were almost all dry; we had coloured in all of our books. We didn’t have a television here; our only one was back home. There was a movie theatre in town, but our dad said none of the movies were appropriate for us. “Too much silliness,” he told us, even though Edith and I were dying to see Gene Kelly. Edith was “exasperated” with us all the time now, she said, because we could be such babies. We barely had enough clean clothes and were eating the same four or five things every day: bacon, sausages, spaghetti, PB&Js. Eggs fried and scrambled, and sometimes boiled. One day our father was inspired and made us spaghetti with bacon and eggs. He seemed proud, too. Said it was called “carbonara”. It was delicious.
“Daddy, when will we go home?” I asked him during the spaghetti-bacon dinner. I thought that would be a good time to ask since he was in a good mood, because of the carbonara.
“I told you already. When the outbreak is over.”
“But none of our friends have it,” said Lina.
“We don’t know that for sure.”
“We could go home and just stay inside. We won’t go out. We won’t catch it.”
“Is mommy coming?”
“I don’t know.”
“Is she sick?”
“She’s not sick like your baby sister was sick. She’s heartsick. She needs time.”
“We could help her feel better.”
“Yes, well, she says she needs time alone. Eat your dinner.”
That was the end of the conversation. We were relieved he hadn’t yelled at us for something or got mad, even though we’d pushed it a bit. We ate our dinner. We wondered why time alone was better than time with us. We could give our mom hugs. We could make her tea, and bring her a book to read, and keep our voices down. We could move the crib away so she wouldn’t see it and remember, we could throw it out with the garbage or hide it somewhere really secret or burn it in the back yard.
The fighting between us girls continued. We tried to fight quietly, so our dad wouldn’t hear, but sometimes he did because we just had to yell at each other, and when he heard us, man oh man. He locked the culprits up in the bathroom to “work it out”, or made us scrub the floor of the kitchen as punishment, sent us to bed without supper, banished us from the house so he could have some peace and quiet. Our mom usually just let the fights run their course, but I don’t know if that was wise, because sometimes those fights could really drag on for a long time.
Our last fight at the beach was not over such a serious thing. It was just that we were grumpy and maybe that we missed our mom. I had been taking a nap on Edith’s bed, and must have had too much to drink just before because I had an accident and soiled her sheets and cover and mattress. She lost her marbles. I hadn’t had an accident in years and years, I couldn’t even remember the last time, so this was very embarrassing for me. But then on top of that, Edith was shouting “What is wrong with you, what is wrong with you,” stomping her feet and shaking her arms, and I was a little confused and didn’t know what was wrong with me. I started crying, pulling the sheets out of Edith’s bed, and then I must have pulled with a lot of force because the last corner of the sheet flew out from under the mattress and my arm bounced backwards and hit Lina on the face. She fell to the ground and also started crying, but I didn’t think this was my fault, she shouldn’t have been so close to me right then, so I yelled at her “you need to watch where you’re going, you little brat!” My dad stormed into our room, picked Lina up, grabbed me by the arm and told Edith to follow him. He took us outside, set Lina down, went back inside and slammed the door behind him without a word. He must have been all out of words altogether.
We went to the beach. There were a few more families now, as our dad had said, but we didn’t feel like making friends. Maybe if they’d arrived when we did. Now we just looked at them, in their silly bathing suits, their moms offering them oranges and sodas, their towels clean and an umbrella for shade, dads on deckchairs reading the papers, and we just didn’t feel we had anything in common with any of them anymore. Plus, everyone looked like they were keeping their distance from everyone else, so.
The fisherman was there, but we were tired and sat some way away and didn’t say hi. We just stared at the ocean, the three of us. We were getting hungry and thirsty. Then Lina got up and walked over to the fisherman. We had to follow her because we were older and in charge.
“No energy for playing today, huh?” said the fisherman.
“What’s your name?” Lina asked him and only then I realized we didn’t know.
“Clarence. What’s yours?”
“Lina. This is Edith and Sylvia.”
“Nice to meet you, Lina, Edith and Sylvia.”
We sat next to him and watched his line, bobbing in the air, piercing the water at some point we couldn’t see. It was loose, which meant no fish yet. This was no different from before; we’d never seen him catch a fish. He always had his bucket ready with water, and it was always empty. He didn’t seem to care though, because he kept coming back and waiting patiently. I would have been furious if I never caught anything.
“We’re here because of the outbreak,” said Lina.
“It’s ok, girls. I figured that’s why you were here so early in the season and for so many weeks.”
“Also, because our baby sister died of it.”
I buried my face in my hands. I didn’t see why she needed to air our dirty laundry in front of just anyone. Edith slapped her arm, and Lina yelped.
“I’m sorry to hear that, Lina. You all must miss her a lot.”
“Not really,” said Lina, and I couldn’t really blame her, because she’d been the baby until the baby was born and then she was just a normal kid, which was a much less special thing to be. She’d been jealous, I know. “Our mom and dad miss her. Our mom won’t come stay with us.”
The fisherman was quiet. We waited to see if he’d say something else, but he didn’t. I guess maybe he was embarrassed to be told these private things by a chatty little girl.
We were ravenous when we got home, but the only things in the fridge were some bacon and a tub of butter. We three just stood in the middle of the kitchen, not sure what to do, our brains too foggy from the heat and the hunger and the tiredness to come up with a plan. Edith said “I need to pee,” and walked off to go to the bathroom. Lina looked at me with tears in her eyes. “I miss mommy,” she said.
We decided to find our dad and tell him that we needed to go back home immediately. We found him in the living room, listening to the radio. He didn’t motion for us to leave, so we stayed and listened. They were talking about the “toll of the epidemic” and “recovering from the devastation”. He turned it off.
“The outbreak is over.”
We looked at each other, too weary to want to jump up and down in glee.
“We can go home.”
“Will mommy be there?” asked Lina.
“Yes, she will.”
“Is she ready to see us?”
“Go pack your bags.”
We packed slowly. Edith decided that some of our clothes were in such bad shape that we should just leave them behind. I was secretly impressed by her decisiveness. It’s the kind of thing our mom would have done if she’d seen our socks full of holes, our stained shirts, our dresses that had become too short in the course of these months at the beach. Our mom was not sentimental about things. I took things a step further and put my nightgown, stained still with Lina’s vomit from the car ride over, in the trash.
We helped our dad pull the blinds down, clean out the refrigerator and swipe the floors. We carried things to the car, got in (Lina on the right, Edith in the middle, me on the left, behind the driver’s seat). Our dad looked at the house and sighed. “Off we go, then,” he said, and he sounded tired.
I leaned on the door with the window down again, looking out at the little town, other people’s cottages, the promenade by the water. I waved a little goodbye to the beach. Just as we turned towards the highway, away from the water, I saw our fisherman. He was standing ankle deep in the water, facing the setting sun. There was no one else there, and the empty beach made him look larger somehow. His hat was on the ground, and I could see his jet-black hair standing up as if he’d stuck his fingers in an electrical socket. In his left hand, he held his fishing pole. In his right, a short stretch of line, a bright silver fish hanging from it, wriggling and contorting, wanting to live.
Lila Rabinovich is a public policy analyst who writes in her spare time. Her fiction has appeared and is forthcoming in JellyFish Review, Brilliant Flash Fiction, Burnt Pine Magazine, Cosmonauts Avenue, and High Plains Register. One of her pieces has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. She grew up in Argentina and lived in England before settling in Alexandria, VA. She lives with her husband and three kids.