The sand was golden as the Atlantic ocean lapped at its curving slopes, the sun dazzling on the rippling water like the golden navel jewelry of a belly dancer. Andy walked behind his three cousins, following them down to their parents’ private beach. Tiffany led the way: tall, lithe, golden brown like the shore, her long blonde hair tied in a ponytail that trailed all the way down to her pink bikini bottom. She was carrying a basket in one hand— holding sunscreen, her beach towel, and her cell-phone—and her free hand was slapping her upper thigh as she walked. Andy was carrying her beach parasol, which he wanted to do, despite how long, heavy, and unwieldy it was. He would have done anything for her. She was the most beautiful thirteen year old he had ever seen.
A sudden tug on the parasol and Andy almost fell backward. Startled, he glanced behind himself and saw, to his irritation, his youngest cousin, Seth, grinning devilishly.
“Watch out, Mary Poppins!” Seth said. “Those winds are strong.”
Seth was tanned brown, like his eldest sister, and sandy blonde. He was eleven years old— one year younger than Andy— and it was, so far as Andy reckoned, because Seth was younger that Seth deliberately irritated Andy so much. He constantly badgered him, and mocked him, and slugged his arm, and acted like they were buddies while also submitting Andy to bullying antics that bordered on controlling. Andy tried to let his irritation subside since he was staying with his cousins for the rest of the Summer. Or at least until his mother and father called him back to Georgia. He was at the mercy of his aunt and uncle until then, and they played favorites. In fact, if they had had a pet worm it would have probably been more favored than Andy was.
Seth pulled on the parasol again, making Andy wobble, lose his balance, and nearly fall.
“Don’t drop the umbrella,” Samantha snapped.
“Seth keeps pulling on it,” Andy said, defensively.
“Then you need to be more careful,” Samantha countered. She was red-faced from sunburn and anger. Andy did not know why Samantha was so spiteful toward him. Was it because she had a sunburn and he didn’t? Well, her siblings did not have sunburns, either, and were tanned. On the other hand, Andy had darker skin than all of them, and not because he played in the sun all of the time. It was hard to play outside in the trailer park back in Georgia; there were too many broken glass bottles and rusty detritus that required tetanus shots. Then again, just about anyone’s skin was darker than Samantha’s. She was as pale as a peeled apple and freckled like a cinnamon bun, taking after her father rather than her mother. Nor did she have blonde hair. Her hair was a drab mousy brown that always seemed to spiral spitefully in natural curls.
“You should know better than blaming other people for your mistakes,” Samantha continued. “I know that, and we’re the same age.”
Andy ignored her, just like Seth and Tiffany and her parents ignored her. It seemed to be the best option for her middle-child tantrums and outbursts. She was sensitive about everything, and that sensitivity was more than skin-deep.
“Put the parasol here,” Tiffany said, pointing to a slope of sand.
Andy unwrapped the parasol, letting its radial ribs expand, the blue-and-white striped bloom blossoming wide. He nearly lost his balance with the unwieldy canopy, wobbling left and right. He then impaled its shaft into the middle of the sandy bank.
“No, not there!” Tiffany said. “There!”
She pointed at roughly the same place, so Andy uprooted the shaft and thrust it into the slope a few inches higher, where her finger pointed.
“Ugh!” Tiffany exhaled in disgust. “You are useless.” She stooped down and uprooted the parasol and carried it farther up the slope, then impaled its shaft into the crest of the slope and angled it downward. “This is where I wanted it,” she chided him.
It was nowhere near where she pointed, but Andy did not say so. He watched her as she crouched and unrolled her towel beneath that little pool of shade in that otherwise starkly bright stretch of sand. He watched her in fascination, not knowig why he was so entranced by her long legs. Until this Summer he had never met his cousins before. For some reason, of which he did not understand, there was some “family drama” that kept his mother and his aunt apart. In fact, they had been estranged his entire life, so coming to stay with them was, for Andy, like staying at a stranger’s house. Somehow, though, he thought a stranger would have been more friendly to him than they were. They treated him like not only an inconvenience, but like something they were ashamed of being seen with in public. They never let him leave their private house, and only agreed to let him accompany his cousins down to the beach because it was their private section of the beach. No humiliating eyes.
“Don’t let anyone see you with him,” his aunt admonished his cousins. “If any of our neighbors happen by, tell them he just showed up and you don’t have the heart to tell him to leave.”
If his aunt and uncle spoke to Andy at all it was in commands, like he was a dog. Generally, however, they spoke around him rather than at him. Sometimes he felt like he was in the hospital, on the sickbed, while adults spoke about his condition while not speaking directly to him.
Seth ran into the white surf, shouting. Tiffany called after him.
“You need sunscreen, idiot!”
“I’m letting Samantha have it all,” he said. “She needs all the sunscreen she can get.”
“Shut up!” Samantha yelled, even as she begrudgingly lathered herself up in the stinky white lotion. “I’m getting a tan. It’s just taking time.”
Andy waited for his turn for the sunscreen. Tiffany frowned at him, almost as if in disgust.
“What do you want?” she asked.
“Sunscreen,” Andy said.
Tiffany almost laughed— a mirthless laugh of cool disbelief. She shook her head, making her long hair play peek-a-boo on either side of her hips. “You don’t need sunscreen.”
Andy was confused. “Why?”
“Because it would be a waste!” she said. “I mean, you people are made for being in the sun all day.”
Andy did not understand, but since Tiffany was the one that said this, he accepted it as a truth, and walked across the burning sand, glad when the warm surf crashed over his feet. No sooner had he waded waist deep then up popped Seth beside him, pouncing on him and wrapping his arms around his neck, trying to piggy-back on him.
“Let go!” Andy tried to shout, half-choked.
“Getty up!” Seth cried.
Andy peeled Seth’s arms from around his neck and let him drop, floundering, into the water. Coughing, Andy rubbed his throat, wondering if he would have a bruise there tomorrow. It had felt like he had been hung with a noose. He walked away, putting some distance between himself and Seth. In doing so, he accidentally bumped into Samantha, who was standing nearby.
“Watch where you’re going!” she snapped. She pushed him, but since she was so scrawny she could not budge him. Still, he obliged her by stepping away from her. She obliged him by stepping toward him. “You’re really clumsy!”
“Okay,” was all he said.
She did not relent, but seemed provoked at his neutral response. “I thought you were supposed to be athletic and stuff.”
This confused Andy, too, because he had never played any sports. He never watched sports, either. He spent his time reading and helping his mother around the trailer, making dinner, cleaning, and repairing things. His mother had taught him how to stitch.
Thinking he should stay away from both of his cousins, Andy walked a little farther out into the ocean. It swelled up to his collarbone. He felt nervous being out this far. He knew how to swim, but as he gazed upon the expanse of the Atlantic he felt like the ocean surrounded him. It dwarfed him— dwarfed the sun in the sky— and made him feel small and insignificant in the saltwater wash of the world. What mysteries lurked there in those silent waters? What monsters?
Fearing the ocean, Andy turned toward the beach. He saw Tiffany walking toward the water; tall and slender and long-legged. She walked with a poise that was so mature and ladylike, similar to the way fashion runway models walked. She dove into the shoals and then emerged, glistening and golden like a bronze statue. Andy was transfixed; so much so that he did not see Seth wading toward him until it was too late. Seth leapt on him again, this time on his head, and, with his whole weight, his cousin shoved Andy down into the saltwater. Andy had been so taken by surprise that he had not had the chance to breathe in any air, and in fact gasped, thinking a shark had clamped him in its jaws.
Andy struggled to throw his cousin off. The pressure in his vacant lungs was too much. His chest ached. His nostrils and eyes burned in the saltwater. He panicked and felt the strength go out of his limbs. Seth had entwined his arms and legs around Andy too securely to be broken or even loosened. As a last chance effort—before his lungs should explode—Andy turned his head and bit Seth’s arm as hard as he could. Seth instantly released him and Andy burst up through the water, coughing and choking and trying to regain his breath. Blindly, he walked toward the shore.
“He bit me!” Seth yelled. “He bit me on my arm! Dad was right. He is an animal.”
Andy was too grateful for air to take umbrage at what his uncle may have said. He trudged toward the shore until he came to the frothy edge of the ocean, then collapsed on his butt, coughing and wheezing, the surf lapping against him as if the ocean’s bosom, too, was trying to regain its breath with every painful contraction.
“Hey!” Seth said. “You bit me! Apologize or I’m telling dad!”
“You almost drowned me,” Andy said between ragged breaths. “You wouldn’t let go.”
“You bit me,” Seth said, again. “Apologize.”
“You better apologize,” Tiffany said, with a tone of distinterest, “or dad will just send you back home.”
Andy was bewildered by the water glistening on the flat of her chest, above her heart. In that moment he would have said anything she told him to.
“Sorry,” he said.
“You better be sorry,” Samantha said, revving up for one of her outbursts. “If you’re not sorry you will be, because we don’t tolerate things like that in our household!”
“Give it a break,” Seth told his sister. “He said he was sorry. I’m not worried about it.”
Samantha was so off-balanced by her brother’s sudden change in mood that she could only gawp like a pale-faced fish. “But…but…”
Tiffany turned away, not interested in anything other than taking selfies with her selfie-stick. Seth had lost interest and was chasing a pelican that had landed a few yards down the way, the big bird somewhat indifferent to the rowdy child. Only Samantha remained next to Andy, outraged that no one else was outraged anymore. Andy stared at the lapping water, trying to ignore Samantha’s lingering scowl. She tarried a bit longer, her shadow draping itself over his legs, before hesitantly turning away from him and shuffling back into the shoals.
Andy did not know how to please any of them. It seemed that Tiffany wished him to simply disappear until something needed to be carried. Meanwhile Seth wished Andy to be a toy that did what he wanted, regardless of how painful or humiliating. Samantha just wished to…chastise him. His uncle and aunt wanted him to go home. They had said as much the other night, when he was laying on the couch in the living room and they were in the kitchen, drinking.
Andy was surprised to hear Tiffany say his name.
“Yes,” he said, looking up at that tall girl with the long hair and longer legs.
“Why don’t you go pick some seashells for me?”
Seeing her in the bright sunlight, with the sand glowing around her and the water glistening on her slender arms, Andy would have done anything for her, including diving into the deepest part of the ocean as sharks spiraled around him.
Well, maybe not with sharks.
“What kind of seashells do you want?” he asked, knowing the difference between a conch and an auger and a scallop and such.
“The type that come from the sea,” she said with a shrug. “Put them in my basket.”
Andy immediately leapt up and began picking up the seashells that had washed ashore with the tides. There were countless shells cluttering the beach; some brilliantly colored with red stripes and yellow hues and burnished brown, and some blanched white with the kiss of the saltwater and the gaze of the sun. Tritons and mitres and cones and bonnets, figs and frogs and harps and spindles: he collected what he could. Yet, while the more simplistic shells were whole, the more elaborate conchs and spindles were shattered, some looking more like spiral bits of bone rather than shells. The lunatic tides were merciless in their anxious tossing and smashing of shells. They broke the more elaborate shells like a passionate woman breaking plates after news of her sailor husband being lost at sea. Only the plainer, more solid shells survived her passions.
The sun beat upon the children’s backs as it rose toward its midday peak. Tiffany retreated under the shade of the parasol. Samantha began to pick up shells, too.
“That one’s mine,” she would tell Andy when he was stooping to pick up a shell. Invariably, however, she would forget about the previous one and then claim the next one he was stooping to pick up. “That one’s mine too.”
She shadowed him throughout his hunt, her pale legs always nearby; her little freckled feet in his periphery as he picked up shells. Sometimes she would put her shells in Tiffany’s basket as Andy carried it around, since she had nowhere else to put them.
“You better not mix up my shells with Tiffany’s,” she said, tossing her shells in carelessly.
Somehow Andy knew he would be blamed for their inevitable squabbling later, when it came time to divvy the shells amongst the two sisters. This fret so overwhelmed him that when Seth nearly tore the basket out of his hand, Andy almost punched his cousin in the face.
“Stop it!” Andy said.
“You can’t tell me with to do,” Seth said with a smirk. He pulled at the basket again and Andy stepped away, trying to put distance between the two of them. Seth stepped forward, a look of mischief in his blue eyes. Everything was a game to him. “I’m going to get it,” he said, gleefully.
Samantha grabbed her brother by the wrist. “Quit it, Seth. You’ll break my shells!”
Seth shoved his sister and she went sprawling on the sand. Tiffany, overhearing the fight, stopped taking selfies and emerged from under her parasol.
“Stop fighting!” she said. “Or I’ll tell dad!”
Seth just grinned and ran into the surf again, undaunted by the threat. Samantha was sniffling, and trying not to cry. Andy helped her stand up, but she shoved him once she regained her feet.
“Don’t touch me!” she snapped. Still sniffling, she stormed up the beach and into the shade of the palm trees, her back to the ocean so no one could see her face. Andy knew she was crying. He thought about going to talk to her, but Tiffany called to him and he forgot all about Samantha.
“Let me see my seashells,” she said.
Tiffanys voice was musical in its chiming cadences, like a lullaby, and Andy immediately obeyed. When he reached her, he held the basket up in both hands. She rummaged through its hoard with a finicky, fastidious eye. Her small delicate fingers danced through the shells like a sea creature scuttling across a mound of underwater treasures. Andy felt her fingertips tickling him along the inside of his belly.
“They’re not bad,” she said. “But a lot of them are broken and small. You can get better shells in the water if you dig around for them.”
Andy nodded without hesitation, set the basket down, and went out into the water.
“In the deeper water!” Tiffany shouted after him.
Andy could not resist her siren song and so he went further into the ocean. He was up to his waist when he took a deep breath and submerged to the bottom, digging around in the drowned sand for whatever his hands might lay upon. His fingers found nothing and he emerged, his vision blurred with saltwater and his lungs chugging air. He glanced around blearily, making certain that Seth was nowhere near him, and then he took another deep breath and dropped himself into the water, searching once again. He did this several times in several different locations. Meanwhile, he thought about his mother and his father and his cousins and his aunt and uncle. He drowned in his own thoughts and frets.
Tiffany, Samantha, and Seth weren’t Andy’s real cousins; not by blood, anyway. Their father had divorced their mother in order to marry Andy’s aunt. The drama of it all happened over a decade ago. Andy had never met his “cousin’s” birth mother. Whenever Andy’s mother had spoken about it to his father she said that her brother–in-law wanted a smaller sized baby bed to play in— whatever that meant. Consequently, his three cousins rarely saw their mother since their father “out-lawyered” her in court. It was much the same as with Andy and his father. He rarely ever saw the man that had given him his name and his face and his skin. Like the seashells scattered beneath the sun, there were many things broken in this world.
Andy rose again from the water, snorting saltwater through his nose. He sneezed it out, but it burned in his sinuses. He hated the thought of drowning in the ocean. He had read somewhere that saltwater took a very long time to drown you. It could take up to half an hour, which seemed cruel to Andy. But at least the ocean did not hate you. It might drown you, or smash you with a tidal wave or capsize your boat; but it did not do it because it hated you. He knew only people could hate other people. They might help you live; they might provide you food and shelter and a place at the table, but if they hated you while they were doing it then it was like they were drowning you; drowning you for days, weeks, months, even years. And that was even crueller than what the ocean did to you.
Steeling his nerves— and remembering how beautiful Tiffany was as she emerged from the water—Andy dove down into the water once more, digging into the sand with his feverish fingers. To his surprise, his hand happened upon something big, heavy, thorny, and hard. It felt like a large crown. Emerging, he lifted the shell out of the water and looked at it with his blurry eyes. It looked like a large murex shell, or something similar enough to be labeled one. In the blinking, blurry moment that Andy held it he saw that it was large, with great heft to it, and its thorny back gave it an elaborate Poseidon crown-like appearance. It was an impressive shell, and his heart leapt at the prospect of Tiffany’s delight.
But before he could stare long at it, Andy was startled when a slimy black appendage darted out of the shell’s serrated mouth. With a cry, he dropped the shell and it plunged back into the water. But before it could be lost to the depths forever, Seth— who had been sneaking up on Andy—dove for the shell and grabbed it, hauling it out of the water and up above his head, the black appendage flailing wildly toward the sky.
“You scaredy cat,” Seth exclaimed. “It’s just a shell snail!”
Before Andy could say anything, Seth ran ashore, shouting in triumph about his prize.
“Look at my shell!” he shouted. “It’s the best shell and it’s all mine!”
Naturally, his two sisters wanted to claim it for themselves. Before they could, though, Seth ran off toward the house. Tiffany stomped after him. Samantha paused, looking at Andy.
“You better pick up everything,” she said. “Especially my shells!”
She then ran after her sister and brother. Andy watched her go, coming ashore once again. He picked up the basket, and collapsed the parasol, and folded the beach towel. But even as he did these mundane things he could not shake the image out of his head. It was disturbing, and Any wondered if he had only imagined it; if the saltwater and the sun and the gleam of the slimy thing within the shell had deceived his eyes.
What Seth had not noticed, and what Andy had seen in that blinking flash of a moment, was that the appendage inside the shell was attached to a body, and that body had a face with features not unlike that of a baby’s.
The walk back to the house was hard on Andy. He had to carry not only the parasol, the beach towel, and the sunscreen lotion bottle, but also the basket full of seashells. Everything was so heavy and cumbrous. He walked at a slug’s pace, the clutter in his arms making him teeter and tremble. Eventually, and with great effort, Andy arrived at his cousins’ beach house.
His cousins’ beach house was like a mansion, and not just because Andy had lived the majority of his life in a trailer park. It was larger than most of the houses he saw around his hometown in Georgia. It had two storeys, a large wraparound porch with awnings jutting here and there over the chairs, large windows letting the sun in, and the whole estate was surrounded by a low fence to keep the alligators out of the grassy lawn. Toward the back of the house, facing away from the ocean, was the beginning of the mangroves. Floating among them, in the deeper waters, were manatees, those gentle giants with the mysterious eyes.
It should have been a paradise. Yet, Andy always had to be on his guard; always watchful of his cousins and his aunt and uncle. He was in a strange world and at the mercy of their merest caprice, and so felt like a newly hatched seaturtle besieged by seabirds on all sides. They reminded him, nearly ever hour, that he did not belong there. He was a whim away from being besieged on all sides by thunderously loud, fault-finding factions.
And yet, when Andy opened the sliding door to step into the kitchen, he found that it was the shell, and not himself, that was embattled at that moment. All three of his cousins were fighting over it. Seth ran around the island in the kitchen while Samantha chased after him. Tiffany stood by, scowling and demanding that she be given the shell since Andy had been the one to first find it and so, by extension, she had greatest claim to it.
“And I’m the oldest,” she said. “So I get to choose.”
“No way,” Seth said. “It’s mine, fair and square. The scaredy-cat dropped it in the ocean. Finders keepers.”
Samantha, meanwhile, tried to wrestle the shell from her brother’s hands.
“I never get a good shell, ever!” Samantha moaned.
But when she saw the black appendage emerge from the conch, she yelped and sprang backwards, crashing into Andy as he came into the kitchen.
“Yuck!” she cried, bouncing off of Andy. “You keep it! I don’t want the nasty thing!”
Seeing the snail’s appendage once again startled Andy. It was black, but also mottled brown and had bright luminescent yellow stripes that looked like they probably glowed in the dark. It still looked vaguely like an infant’s arm, and even had tiny stalks that undulated like fingers at its end. Yet, unlike sea hares or sea slugs, there were four such stalks, and were strangely prehensile in their weird array.
“Yeah, I don’t want that thing,” Tiffany said, having a change of heart. “It’s too gross. I only want the shell.”
Still, the two sisters remained, watching Seth as he held it aloft as if bearing the Olympic torch. After a few moments of his parading, the sisters turned their attention to the basket of seashells that Andy had brought in with him. Tiffany pointed to the kitchen’s island and Andy obediently hoisted the basket—with a grunt—and set it there. He fumbled the rest of the things in his arms— the parasol and towel—and they tumbled to the floor.
“At least I have all of these shells,” Tiffany said.
“They’re not all yours,” Samantha said. “Mine are in there, too.”
“Do you actually know which ones are yours?” Tiffany retorted.
“I…” Samantha faltered. “I’ll know them when I see them,” she said.
“No you won’t,” Tiffany said. She looked at Andy. “Do you remember which ones are mine and which ones are hers?”
Andy felt like a cornered cricket, and that any chirp he might give would earn him the bottom of someone’s shoe. He shrugged one shoulder meekly.
“Great,” remarked Tiffany. “Well, there is only one way to know. I will go through them and take whichever ones I want, and then you can have the rest.”
“But that’s not fair!” Samantha cried.
“Then you shouldn’t have mixed yours in with mine. You should have brought your own basket.”
Tiffany took the basket and walked upstairs, disappearing into her room.
Samantha turned on Andy, her brown eyes twinkling with tears. “This is all your fault!” She ran upstairs, too, slamming the door to her room.
Meanwhile, Seth was lording over his prize, grinning with great satisfaction as he watched the strange arm-like tentacle writhe out of its wickedly thorny shell.
“It’s cool,” he said. “Ain’t it?”
Andy did not know what to say, other than it was a hideous creature. He kept his silence, which Seth mistook for envy.
“You’re just like my sisters,” Seth said. “Jealous of what I found.”
Andy could have corrected Seth, and recalled the fact that he was the one that found the shell, but he thought that argument too meaningless to pursue. Moreover, he was too overcome with a sense of foreboding from the shell. Seeing it in the kitchen made him feel uneasy for the entire house.
“It’s the best shell I’ve ever seen,” Seth said, watching the snail sway. “Just got to get rid of the snail.”
Standing aside, Andy watched as Seth searched around the kitchen. Seth found a saltshaker in the cabinet next to the refrigerator. It was a large saltshaker; the kind that you twisted to grind up its pink salt crystals in order to season food. He held it over the shell and began grinding the salt, showering the snail, the shell, and the island. He made a mess.
“It sure as hell doesn’t like that!” Seth exclaimed with a laugh.
The snail instantly lost its black luster and began to shrivel and withdraw into the shell. There was no refuge for it, however, even within its own home. The salt dried out its slimy, liver-colored flesh until it looked like a black banana left out in the sun. Seth took the shell to the trash can and, using a spork he found in a drawer, began prodding and scraping and scooping the snail out.
“That is one weird looking snail,” he observed as it began to slip out of the shell.
Andy was mesmerized and appalled by the ghastly thing. To him it looked less like some tubular snail and more like a small, lumpy, shriveled infant. There even seemed to be a face where the head should be, wizened by the ravages of the salt that dusted its viscous flesh.
Seth cussed as he scraped
“Damn, it doesn’t want to come out!”
Andy stared at that shriveled head, and thought he saw a luminescent eye open. Before he could gasp in fright, the petal-lipped mouth parted like a flower and a long tube slithered its way out, tapered at the end with a sharp black barb. It darted out wildly and struck Seth in the arm just as he had dislodged the snail from the shell.
“Ow!” he cried. He dropped the shell on the island. He clutched his arm with his other hand. “Ow! Shit! It burns! It burns!”
Seth’s voice heightened, as if he might begin to wail at any moment. Andy ushered him to the sink and ran cold water over the puncture point. It was small, like a spider bite, and had a swollen whelp that was red. Seth cringed as the water ran over the mark. He breathed through clenched teeth, his face wrung in pain.
“Should I call an ambulance?” Andy said, panicking at the thought of Seth dying from a venomous sting and his aunt and uncle blaming him for it.
“No,” Seth said, trying to put on a brave face. “The pain’s going away. It’s feeling better.” After a minute of washing the wound with cold water, Seth left the sink and went over to the island, reclaiming his shell with a gleam in his eye. “Now I just have to boil it to get that stink out.”
The snail itself was nothing but a dried-out husk reeking in the trash can.
Over the next ten minutes Seth boiled the shell in a large pot on the stovetop. Andy sat at the island, watching Seth for any telltale signs of fatigue or lethargy. The whelp on his cousin’s arm was darkening.
“You should go to the hospital,” Andy said.
“Stop being such a worrywart,” Seth said. He had a pair of tongs and was turning the shell around inside the boiling pot. He seemed to do this out of boredom and restlessness rather than purpose. “It’s just a bruise.”
Andy was not so sure. The whelp had blackened, and appeared to be “sweating”. That was the only term he could think of for the dark bump’s wet shimmer.
“Hey, why don’t you get me a glass of water?” Seth said. “I’m thirsty.”
Andy would have pointed out that Seth was next to the cabinet with the glasses and right next to the refrigerator with the water purifier, and so Seth could have gotten his own water, but he knew Seth was stubborn and would not have gotten his own water, especially if challenged on it, and besides Seth looked peaked, the dark circles under his eyes deepening in his strangely gaunt face. In short, Andy fetched a glass of water for his willful cousin.
“Here,” Andy said.
Seth tipped his head back and gulped the entire glass down in one go. This was impressive considering he was only eleven and the glass that Andy had filled was a glass intended for an adult.
Seth immediately handed the glass back to Andy. “Some more.”
Andy filled the glass once again, and once again Seth drained it with one extended tip of the head. Seth’s Adam’s apple was like an oversized hamster racing up and down a narrow water hose. His body began to sweat all over, from his forehead to his feet.
“More,” he said.
Andy obliged him, all the while eyeing his cousin with alarm.
After downing the third glass, Seth retched and ran to the sink. He threw up, expelling all of the water he had recently drank.
“I’m calling the ambulance,” Andy said, heading into the living room. He glanced around the living room, his eyes wandering upstairs, past the rails and from door to door on the second floor. He remembered that there was no house phone. Tiffany was the only one, besides her father and stepmother, that had a cell phone. So, Andy ran upstairs and knocked on her door. Her voice cut through the door, and through Andy’s heart, like a sword.
“Seth’s sick!” Andy said.
Another door opened down the hall, Samantha stepping out in shorts and a tanktop. Her eyes were rimmed red and her brown hair was matted to her imprinted forehead. She had been laying in bed, crying.
“What’s going on?” Samantha said, somewhat warily.
“Seth’s sick,” Andy repeated.
“So what?” came Tiffany’s reply.
“Really sick,” Andy said.
He heard Tiffany sigh, and the creaking of her box springs as she got up from bed. When the door opened she stood before him with her hair wrapped up in a towel and a long white shirt on, and seemingly nothing else except underwear. Andy glanced at the interior of her room, and saw that it was cerulean trimmed and white-walled and had a large seashell-shaped mirror in one corner, the vanity table crowded with makeup and brushes and jewelry. It was a mermaid’s bedroom.
“He better be dying,” Tiffany said. Huffing irritably, she went downstairs. Andy followed her, and Samantha followed him.
When they came into the kitchen, Seth looked at them in surprise. They looked at him in surprise, too.
“What?” he said.
He looked completely normal. He was no longer sweating; no longer retching. Even the whelp on his arm had lightened and shallowed.
“What’s wrong with you?” Tiffany demanded.
“Wrong with me?” Seth said, scoffing. “Nothing’s wrong. What’s wrong with you?”
Tiffany turned on Andy, her hands on her hips and her arms akimbo.
“Are you trying to annoy me?” she demanded.
Andy was too baffled by Seth’s miraculous recovery, and the swells beneath Tiffany’s shirt, to offer a coherent explanation. He stammered for a few moments before Tiffany, in a hissy-huff, stormed upstairs and disappeared once again into her mermaid bedroom.
“You shouldn’t play tricks on us,” Samantha said, having recovered enough from her previous defeat to feel aggrieved at this new turn of events. “It’s not funny.”
“I didn’t ask you to come downstairs,” Andy retorted, too overcome by the bizarreness of the situation to be diplomatic.
Samantha’s face turned bright red, her eyes a tempest of fury and tears. She stormed upstairs once again and slammed her door shut.
“My sisters are drama queens,” Seth said, still stirring the shell around in the steaming pot. “It’s all melodrama with them.”
Andy opened his mouth to ask whether Seth really was okay, but hesitated. He wondered if he had imagined the situation as being worse than it actually was. Perhaps, he thought, he had succumbed to his own alarmist melodrama.
But then his eye caught something peculiar in the kitchen; something that he could not rightly account for. The saltshaker was on the island, where Seth had left it, but it was now nearly empty. Where did all of the salt go?