Family Vacation

Photo by Rick Pilot.

Be quiet.

You’ve been living in a strange house. It’s a sunny afternoon, but Mom’s upstairs with a stomach ache and Dad’s mapping a route. He’s desperate to find a movie theatre that serves popcorn with real fucking butter. He won’t tolerate imitations, but he also refuses to pay extra. This is making the vacation harder than it needs to be. Even though there’s a theatre right in town, he’s been driving everyone an hour, sometimes more, to scout the options. You can hear him on the phone now asking to speak to someone in concessions. You serving Flavacol over there? ‘Cause I won’t pay for my own death. He scribbles the facts on a receipt and then asks for a name. When he dies, decades from now, the undertaker will hand you a baggie of the names and promises that littered his pockets. 

Stay out of the way.

Find a puzzle, read a book, write a letter. Since you arrived, Dad keeps saying the rental is musty, says it like he’s a detective repeating a clue that promises to add up. Every afternoon Mom brings home live lobsters, and every night Freddie sits at the dinner table wondering what it feels like to be boiled alive. You want to joke—feels like two weeks in Maine—but you don’t dare. Instead, you crack the lobster’s carapace and think about Tony, back home, punching his hand through the wall when you announced you two were done-zo. 

You are still thinking about Tony as you prepare to sunbathe on the back porch in your green bikini. Your parents forced the break-up, despite your protest, but you like Tony’s anger. At least it’s something. At thirteen, all you want is something. When you first arrived, your family ate lunch in a retro diner where a mother and son sat in the booth next to yours. They were having a staring contest, and you couldn’t believe how good they were at looking. An intense and prolonged opening of the eyes is the something you want, although this need is hard to define and even harder to tolerate. You could barely stand watching them watch each other.

The porch overlooks the harbor, and seagulls squawk and swoop. The air smells ancient, like algae and crustaceans, and you can’t stop taking large, huffing breaths. You’ve lived in the same house all your life—a salt box in the woods of Vermont—so this coastal neighborhood where every home sits on a tenth of an acre feels foreign and public. Mom calls it quaint; Dad says it’s crowded. You haven’t drawn conclusions. The possibility of being seen in a private moment feels both electric and invasive. Imagine a stranger looking down from his second story bedroom and thinking: What a sight! Not harmless words. Could they attach themselves to you? It would be a blessing; it would be a burden. It’s what you wish for; it’s not what you want. 

Grab the oil. Lather your legs, your arms, your stomach. It’s embarrassing how good it feels to be touched, even by your own hand. At school, you’re known as the Oh, Yeah girl, a phrase you’ve said without affect since toddlerhood, but when Jenny Davis exposed your habit at cheer practice, the girls began to chant Oh, Yeah in rising prosodic tones. They know what you and Tony have been up to. Everyone does, even your parents, even ten-year-old Freddie. It’s the reason you’re here in Maine.

When Pastor Lewis suggested a family recalibration—uninterrupted time to reacquaint yourselves with one another—your brain suggested a canned sitcom response: I’m gonna need to speak to your manager! Instead, you sat silent as Mom recalled someone from AA who’d been known to rent his beach house. Tell him we’ll bring our own toilet paper, Dad said. You know they charge extra for shit like that.  

As you lay face down on the plastic lounge, you hear the neighbor’s back door swing open, the sobs of someone crying. It’s the six-year-old girl from next door. She’s not vacationing, and you know this because just yesterday she showed you and Freddie a series of holes dug in the small patch of grass that connects the back lot of her house and your rental. Beds, she whispered. You examined the cavities, each flagged by stakes of petrified wood and covered with water-beaten stones. One by one, the girl lifted the rocks to reveal half-broken dollar-store toys. Fucking fantastic, Freddie said, trying one of Dad’s phrases.

You turn your head toward the worn pink cape. The two homes are so close that every night you smell their dinner—hot dogs and beans. Now the girl’s lying in a hammock, one tanned leg dangling from the stripped fabric. Through a squinted eye, you admire her tawny skin. You’ve never been, and will never be, anything but pale. Pale or burned. She’s revving up again, the pitch of her cries making it difficult for you to concentrate. You’ve been replaying Tony’s words on a loop: When you leave, I’ll probably kill myself. He even showed you his dad’s gun kept on a shelf in the closet.

For the last year, you’ve had your own finger on a trigger of sorts. Each time you and Tony touched, your body fired every feel-good chemical it could muster into your desperate, aching system. You have no language when it comes to Tony, only the felt sense of what it means to be endlessly wanted. It floods you. You are about to head inside and give Tony a call when the girl calls out.

“My kitten,” she says, steadying her voice. “He ran into your basement.” She stands, points toward the lattice work around the porch, and explains there’s a way animals can sneak inside. “Happens a lot,” she says and details the protocol: her parents call the homeowner, who calls the renter, and only then does she retrieve her pet. With her doleful, glassy eyes she looks like a barred owl, a spooked thing ready to spook. “Trouble was born in that basement so he’s always trying to get back.” She follows up with some other facts: her dad’s out, and she’s not allowed to use the phone.

“I didn’t see a kitten,” you say.

The girl goes on to describe the animal in such detail that you are certain the whole thing is a lie. Bent tail, extra toes, a white patch of fur that looks like a necklace on an otherwise black body.

“But you could let me in,” she suggests. She climbs over the railing of her own back porch and onto yours.

You’re of two minds: you want to help—she is so young and so sad—but you also want to show this conniving kid that you’re not the kind of sucker to fall for brazen schemes, if that’s what this is. Standing there in your green bikini, straddling these two truths, you’re uncomfortable. It’s a vacation after all, and there are sidewalks to stroll, shops to browse, and ice cream to lick, if only your mother’s stomach would settle. You can hear Dad yelling now: Freddie, quit it with the damn ball, I’m on the phone! 

Every time Dad loses it, Mom finds a private moment to remind you of the summer your father turned thirteen. Can you imagine shoveling dirt for hours? Living in a hole for three days? You are not sure this ever happened. You never met your paternal grandparents, both dead before you’d been born, but apparently your grandfather was a bit cuckoo, your grandmother what some might call “encouraging.” You are not to speak of the story to your father, who has never once mentioned it himself. In fact, sometimes the details morph when Mom tells it. Three days becomes a week. Thirteen becomes age five. If you can find a way to hold the egg of your father’s story in one hand, the egg of your needs in the other, you’ll survive. So far, you’ve only found Tony who once said, A blowie from you is a rocket to God! How you laughed and forgot you had ever been born, would ever die. 

You tell the girl to wait right there. “Don’t you move,” you say with stern command. You’ll peek in and report back. “If there’s a cat, I’ll shoo it out.” 

“Let me come,” she begs, but you shake your head no.

“Don’t hurt him,” she says.

“I wouldn’t know how,” you reply, wondering if that’s true.

Enter the house. Dodge your father. Sneak through the kitchen and down the basement stairs.

The basement is like nothing you’ve seen. Even at five foot one, you hinge your hips and round your shoulders to enter. The walls are stacked stone, and someone has shoved old newspapers in-between the wooden frame and the foundation. Up above, dissolved knots in the pine boards let in scrims of light. At your feet, a dirt floor. The boiler gurgles with digestive sounds while you stand chilled in your green bikini making short kissing noises.

There are many sections to explore—an enclave of mechanicals, a panel of breakers, a tidy section of stacked plastic bins. There is also a crawl space, the opening of which is at breast level. It is filled with mouse traps, rubble, and a few soda bottles. All this, but you don’t see a cat.

Steady your senses.

You hear something. It’s not the erratic movements of an animal, but a rhythmic dripping. You follow the noise and discover a damaged pipe running across the ceiling. Overhead, a sagging of pink insulation like half-eaten cotton-candy.

Forget about the cat.

A plan to end this vacation—a route back to Tony—is emerging. You pick up a rock, and without hesitation you bang it against the pipe until the loose connection opens completely. A sudden gushing more forceful than you could have predicted spews forth. Cold water sprays your body, and the sensation—an icy aching—opens your mind. Ever since Tony’s hand punched through that wall you’ve been walking around half-lidded and slow, but the water shocks you awake. Your body screams I’m here! I’m here! I’m here! and you welcome its arrival. Your father will be livid to have spent good money on a leaky house. There will be phone calls and stop-payments and small claims court. 

Plot your next move: Slink upstairs and then stage some reason—the neighbor and her cat!— to send Dad into the basement. It’s important he discover the mess for himself. You’ll be on the road before sundown, biking toward Tony’s before midnight. You can almost taste his spit in your mouth. Grape soda and cigarettes. As you turn to exit the basement, the girl and her worried eyes are on the stairs. You wonder, did your father notice her in the house?

“Trouble!” she calls.

“Hush,” you say in a curt whisper. “Don’t talk. Don’t move.”

If your father suspects foul play, you might as well dig yourself a bed in the girl’s lawn and find a stone big enough to blanket your body.

“Let’s go,” you say, eying a new set of stairs and the slanted metal of a bilco door. You’d rather head outside then navigate your way through the house and risk being caught. 

But the girl remains fixed. Worse still, she continues to call for the cat.

In a last ditch effort, you lie and say you saw the cat escape through a tunnel in the foundation—the same way the girl said it could enter. She gives you a once over, and you can tell by her expression—a dramatic and distrustful squint—that she watches too much TV.

Trouble!” the girl shouts. “Trouble!”

Once, Tony confessed he’d seen a ghost. He’d had his hands on your breasts when he described a man with a tall hat and wet clothes who’d paralyzed his boyhood. He made you promise not to tell anyone and then asked three times if you believed him. You did—you do. Maybe, you think, this girl is like that ghost in the way that she was sent here to unmoor you. 

Your jaw tightens. The pool of water is expanding, the mess of what you’ve done irrevocable. You hadn’t realized how quickly the basement would flood. You feel on the edge of lashing out when a new scheme materializes.

Maybe it’s better if the girl stays.

It could be her word against yours. Who’s to say she didn’t mess with the pipe? 

“Suit yourself,” you whisper.

You are about to race outside when you consider: if the cat’s real, might it drown? Another thought: cat or no cat, what do you owe this girl?

You hear footsteps above, a slamming of doors. Dirt powders your hair.

You settle on a plan to pick the girl up by her armpits and drag her outside, but when she sees you come near, she runs off the stairs, into the basement, and toward the breakers. Without warning, she lets out a scream you’ve only ever dreamed about. It’s a pure and open sound, released with maximum force. In mere seconds the bilco doors open—the looming height of your father a black outline of mass. Soon your mother’s silhouette appears. Freddie’s voice intones that UTI commercial: “What the heck’s going on down there?”

Light sears your eyes. It makes you sick to see your parents’ feet firm on the grass while you’re still underground. It’s a dreadful and funereal vision from the perspective of a corpse. A frame of blue sky sits in high contrast to your family’s faces in shadow. This image will remain with you for a long, long time. When you attend college, you’ll paint it; when you orgasm, you’ll feel it; when you give birth to your son, it’s this portrait you’ll conjure as the Stadol hallucinations tease: you could die from being so open. It was so strange, you’ll say. There were three people. What people? Who knows.

The girl hobbles toward you, past you, and then onto the concrete stairs leading toward your mother, crouched down, arms outstretched. A mousetrap has caught the girl’s three smallest toes. Look at her bloody foot, at the flesh opened by that rope of metal. Feel the water lapping at your heels. Listen to the sound of the rushing stream behind you. You are still waiting for your eyes to adjust so that you might see your mistake in everyone’s eyes. You are expecting a walloping dose of layered blame, and yet, when you emerge from the basement, your parents are united in concern as they circle around the girl and her foot. This, more than any wind up and release with Tony, blows your mind. The immediate and ceremonious care for someone other than you, on this vacation dedicated to your rehabilitation, freezes you like a wild animal. You could run a marathon, if only you could move your body.

Mom strokes the girl’s hair as Dad pries open the mouse trap. The girl’s gone quiet. Freddie’s been instructed to remove his shirt, and he stands bare chested as your father improvises a tourniquet. You imagine the world a tiny shell, yourself a creature who’s molting, now homeless. 

Stay still. Mom’s run inside to call her friend Janet, an ER nurse. She’s yelling to your father, “Sterilize the wound! Sterilize the wound!”

Dad grunts, “Are you kidding me here, Cindy?”

When you think you might be sick, a powder-blue dodge with rust spots drives into the neighbor’s lot. A leather-skinned man with bulging eyes appears. He wears a white tank yellowed at the armpits, and although he’s thin, the saggy outline of his pectoral muscles are on full display. When he sees the backyard commotion he ambles over with a look of drunk curiosity. Seeing his daughter on the ground with a shirt tied around her foot, he looks at your father and says casually, “What the fuck’s going on over here?”

“You tell me,” your father shouts back. “You fucking tell me!”

The man comes closer and the girl stands, her right foot dangling against her left shin. She is the tiniest of war veterans with her homemade bandage and bloodshot eyes. Your father explains: he found the girl in the basement, his own daughter forced to play goddamn babysitter. The man studies the scene, bemused. You’ve seen a lot of movies lately, and the man’seyes are not unlike the close ups of a criminal just before the crime. Unbridled energy— pleasure and danger—live in his pupils.

“Mia, darling,” he says and then sings: 

Fine looking, hard working 

Bambi was a mean, good girl. 

If these lines are a joke between them, the girl doesn’t laugh.

“You been working hard today, Mia?”

He grabs the girl’s thin arm and she flinches.

“Hey!” you yell, surprising yourself.

When the man comes toward you, your dad blocks his path. At once, the man and your dad are face to face. The girl, released from her father’s clutches, hobbles your way and tucks her face into your belly button. The warmth of her small body against your flesh makes you wish you’d had a sister. You wrap your arms around her shoulders and hold tight.

For a skinny man, the girl’s father has sinewy arms twined by swollen cords of veins. It isn’t hard for you to imagine his large-knuckled hands gripping a baseball bat or stacking stone for hours. His physicality seems tireless. That look of extreme focus! Of purpose! He breathes in and out of his nose in short, unnatural blows.   

            Dad’s anger, contained to whims of verbal explosion, has never entered the corporal world. He’s a short man with a soft middle. When he is contemplative and quiet, the slightly swollen features of his face–full cheeks, pouty lips–make it easy to imagine him as a dopey, pretty boy. For all the complaints he slings around town, you’ve never seen him get into a fist fight. You aren’t sure he knows how.

The girl’s dad is grinning. 

“We’ve got ourselves a big man?” he says. “We’ve got ourselves a traveler, a big spender, a show-off?” 

“Look,” Dad says. “Just look right here.” He puts his palm vertical like a traffic cop. You can feel the girl’s quick shaking. Freddie, distracted, keeps pointing toward the basement.

You are desperate to make them stop by announcing it’s all your fault, but you don’t know where to start. The story of what happened keeps creeping back and back and back in your mind until suddenly it seems pointless to declare the moment Tony asked if you knew how to make a man sing. Play the piano, you’d guessed and his friends had laughed.

The girl’s father grabs at Dad’s shirt collar and makes a chortled sound in his throat as he collects scraps of mucus and phlegm, which he then spits on your father’s wide-eyed face. The loogie, like an uncooked egg, slides down your father’s cheek. 

The man belts: Been dying since the day I was born!

You look down at the girl, who meets your gaze. She’s such a pretty thing. You used to think that beauty was its own form of protection, but looking at her well-proportioned face, at her honey-blonde hair and bowed lips, you are certain the people of the world will make it their mission to see how she might crack, to glimpse how she might be ugly for a moment. You try to send her telepathic advice—it wont always be so hard—but even you don’t believe the hype.  

“Look,” Freddie shouts. “Look!”

Everyone, including the girl, puts their attention toward the basement, where a large white tomcat has appeared. It’s broad shouldered with a thick neck and a heavy head. Its fleshy jowls turn your mind toward textbook photos of disease, of mumps or goiters. The fur of its legs and belly are wet, the base of its tail matted. His eyes, in profile, are glass orbs of jade, his whiskers battered in dust.

It’s a cat, only it’s the wrong cat.

You and the girl share another look, only this time it’s as though she’s the one with a message. Its all my fault? Im so dumb? Im only six, what did you expect? Whatever she’s trying to say, you can tell she’s sorry about the way things have turned out. She lets loose your waist and limps toward her dad, who, still singing, carries her home. 

In your green bikini, you imagine the afternoon—once open like a throat—now strangled. Freddie bolts inside. Dad turns on the hose and sprays himself in the face.

He mutters, “Some vacation!” 

Later that night, you sit around the dinner table with greasy take-out sacks smoothed flat and used as paper plates. Everyone is packed for an early morning departure, a week ahead of schedule. The boy at the drive through forgot your mom’s order, but she doesn’t make a fuss. Instead, she nibbles on the saltines from her purse and promises she’s not really very hungry. The sky is streaked orange and red, the soft light casting long shadows.

A plumber’s already come through, the homeowner informed of all the commotion. If your father suspects you of messing with the pipe, he doesn’t say. A lucky thing you went down there, Mom’s said more than once, and you don’t correct her. Dad’s finished his burger and cleans his teeth with his tongue, his eyes fixed at middle distance. You can’t stop thinking about the girl. What is happening to her at this very moment? Something or nothing, you wonder. Something or nothing? What will she be like at eight, ten, twelve, twenty? Your French fries get cold.

Without warning, Freddie stands from his seat, rolls up his sleeves, and lolls his head. He sings, Been dying since the day I was born then heads toward your father, who sits with his fists clenched. Freddie wipes his brow, mumbles to himself, and then whack—he trips, dramatically, over Mom’s shoes.

Your mother is the first to start laughing, a mouth-covered chuckle. When Freddie dribbles a glass of water down his chin, you laugh too.

Dad rises, straight-faced, to approach Freddie.

“We’ve got ourselves a big man?” Freddie mimics.

Freddie. Years from now, someone at a party will say some line about how every family has a release valve and you’ll think, of course, how true, we have Freddie.

“Yeah, I’m a big man!” Dad shouts, although it’s clear that he’s shouting at Freddie in character, not Freddie himself. 

“We’ve got ourselves a big spender?” Freddie squints his eyes in mock inebriation.

“I’ve got a zillion dollars. What’ve you got?” Dad puffs out his chest.

Mom is crossing her legs and holding her belly. She swears she will pee her pants if they don’t stop.

“I’ve got—” Freddie looks around and grabs the closest thing to him. “Bananas!” he says, and then Mom really loses it.

Go upstairs. Open the bedroom’s window. The dark of night has turned the bluffs inky. When all is quiet, the most vulnerable animals pad across the beach as bobcats watch from rock cliffs feasting on carrion. How many little girls have been starved by their parents and then shamed when their bodies find a way toward satisfaction? Too many to count. A primordial list.

Close your eyes. Breath deeply.

Once, when you were much younger, snow fell for days. No one could go to work or school. Before you lost power, Dad filled the bath, and every time you flushed the toilet, he’d scoop a bucket of water from the tub to fill the bowl. He’d kept the fire going and balanced a cast iron skillet on the fire’s grate to cook eggs over glowing embers. During the height of the storm, Dad stepped into the whirling mess and you followed. Together you dug out an igloo with gloved hands. The job took the better part of an hour, and it was unclear if the warmth you felt once inside was born of hard work or ancient surviving. You curved your spines and bent your knees long enough to compose a story together: a girl, her pet, an adventure.

Climb into the pink sheets of someone else’s bed; study the silver light of someone else’s mirror; feel the smallness of someone else’s room. This is no burial, just a temporary resting place. Tomorrow you’ll find that Tony’s spent the week making out with Jenny Davis, but for now, leave the day behind. Let the world have its tricks. There are women who, finding their way, plumb truth with self-assurance, grace, and resolve. Who could do such a thing? You could; you could do just that.

Rachel Ephraim

Rachel Ephraim teaches Fiction, Memoir, and Social Justice at Bard Early College in Hudson, NY. Previously, she taught for Writopia Lab, a non-profit that fosters joy, literacy, and critical thinking in children and teens from all backgrounds through creative writing. She received her M.F.A. in Fiction from Columbia University, at which time she worked as a reader in the Fiction Department of The New Yorker. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Washington Square Review, Electric Literature, and The Apple Valley Review, among others.

Rachel Ephraim teaches Fiction, Memoir, and Social Justice at Bard Early College in Hudson, NY. Previously, she taught for Writopia Lab, a non-profit that fosters joy, literacy, and critical thinking in children and teens from all backgrounds through creative writing. She received her M.F.A. in Fiction from Columbia University, at which time she worked as a reader in the Fiction Department of The New Yorker. Her fiction has been published or is forthcoming in The Washington Square Review, Electric Literature, and The Apple Valley Review, among others.

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