(Submission for the 2013 Rehoboth Beach Reads Short Story Competition)
Personal mottos are great. They motivate and remind us to stay pointed in the direction we want to go, and being fourteen—I’m Sarah from Virginia, by the way—I’m not really aimed in any particular direction, so mine is: Live in the moment. My mom’s a great teacher who used to love her job, but now she doesn’t even like it, so she swings from “the grass is greener” to “make hay while the sun shines” when summer vacation rolls around.
My dad’s the smartest person I know, but I’d never say so, and if my friends ever suspected I felt that way, I’d roll my eyes and say he doesn’t have a clue, or I’d pretend to be soo embarrassed about his being a college dropout. (That’s because he’s a genius when it comes to Spanish, and his college professors didn’t know what to do with him, so after his freshman year he took a job translating software and technical manuals.) He’s self-employed now and works from home.
Dad must have adopted his personal motto while he was an exchange student in Spain…or maybe he felt that way while he was in high school, and that’s why he didn’t go straight to college. Either way, it’s a quote by a man named John Hope Franklin, and it’s burned into my brain: “We must go beyond textbooks, go out into the bypaths and untrodden depths of the wilderness and travel and explore and tell the world the glories of our journey.”
I didn’t know what a “bypath” was until Dad made me look it up, but I’ve been on so many of those little, untraveled side roads in places like Alaska, Maine, New Hampshire, and Pennsylvania, that I must admit that Dad’s onto something. Mom’s as bad as he is now, and the older I get, the more I fear I’m developing her same appreciation for things like calving glaciers, rocky coastlines, moose, and cascading waterfalls. I’d die if either of them found out I don’t mind spending time with them.
We don’t have formal conversations—boorring—to choose our adventures. Since Mom and I have the summers off, we “travel and explore” during June and July, and by Thanksgiving Dad’s put a bow on next summer’s trip. Some of the best adventures are the ones that we let Dad plan by himself…like the first time we went gem mining in Franklin, North Carolina.
Dad’s obsessive-compulsive disorder, which is reeally embarrassing, makes him an excellent planner, and he doesn’t overlook even the slightest details, but his surprises are the hardest ones on Mom even though I think she enjoys them the most. She has attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, and the ADHD makes her a horrible waiter—is that the word for someone who waits? I’m not looking it up—so by the middle of May she’s twitchy enough…with the end of the school year and all. When you add the anticipation of vacation and the nervous excitement of a surprise, all the Ritalin in the world couldn’t calm her down or stop her from talking. I mean, it’s like she gets a case of verbal diarrhea.
God bless my dad. I don’t know how he’s able to get her to relax when she gets that way. Well…That’s not completely true. My bedroom’s next to theirs.…
Anyway, I have a lot of amazing memories, and apparently, I’ll appreciate them even more when I get older. I also have shelves full of turtle and dolphin figurines, agate slices—teals and blues, mostly—decorative soaps, water globes, and paracord bracelets as proof that our adventures have been a lot of fun. Not every stop along the way has been a hit though, at least in my book. I hated the Mount Washington Auto Road in New Hampshire. Hated it. Mom and Dad seemed to enjoy it. They’re talking about going back to New Hampshire. I’ll go but not to that narrow, twisting, eight-mile cliffhanger. I mean, you could see the clouds whipping across the road.
Never again. Not ever.
I’m happy to say that Dad redeemed himself with this year’s surprise. His claustrophobia has gotten worse, so lately we’ve been renting a car and driving instead of flying. Fine by me. I love playing the license plate game. Anyway, we left on May 30 for an eight-night adventure. Dad drove. Mom navigated using printable maps; reading the step-by-step directions helps her calm down and focus. I listened to music until my headphones shorted out—“Yes, Dad, you did tell me to stop wrapping the cord so tightly around my MP3 player.”
So annoying when he’s always right.
We made our first college visit ever on the way to Pennsylvania. Scary…James Madison University, I mean, not Pennsylvania.
It was dark when we pulled into Mountain Springs Lake Resort and even darker by the time we settled into our apartment inside a converted barn. Dad and I played a little ping-pong in the shed next door while Mom decompressed. She really loved the efficiency kitchen; we don’t do a lot of cooking at home…Dad’s OCD and all. The horseshoes, badminton, nature trail, and lake were great. So were our excursions to Quiet Valley Living Historical Farm and to Bushkill Falls. Mom and I were both fighting back tears as we packed the car to leave. I made Dad agree to a ping-pong rematch when we came back next year. Not exactly “living in the moment,” but I never said I was the prototypical teenager.
I can say the same thing about the girl I met at our next destination, and I have Dad’s tireless web surfing to thank for my having met her when I did. Sooner or later, someone would have turned us onto Rehoboth Beach, but by then it probably would have been too late.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
So the drive from Pennsylvania to Delaware was our typical road trip—construction delays, snacks, Mom’s need to pee, a Dunkin’ Donuts at every exit. I did see license plates from Washington State and Wyoming on the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Oh, and one from Arkansas as we rounded the traffic circle onto Rehoboth Avenue. Bonus. Dad missed the turn into the Atlantis Inn, but it was raining, and we circled right back around, so I didn’t say anything. Mom, not so much, but you could tell that she was dying to get out of the car. All was well by the time we checked in, though. The room had a refrigerator, microwave, and a small table & chairs where mom could sit and read the dozens of brochures she picks up wherever we go. And as soon as our bags were unpacked, the clock started ticking on her picking up the next batch.
It didn’t tick for long.
With thoughts of a windy, rainy vacation in “The Nation’s Summer Capital” dampening our spirits, we sloshed toward the Visitors Center, but the personality of the woman who greeted us and the weather forecast that she gave us could not have been brighter or more cheerful. It didn’t take Mom long to collect her paraphernalia—I’m trying to use more SAT words—and with our umbrellas in hand, we headed downtown, stopping to take obligatory photos of the lighthouse, Rehoboth Avenue, the water tower, and such.
I fear Mom’s fascination with history is also rubbing off on me—I’d deny that, too—because as we walked, I found myself wondering about the old houses and buildings that we passed. How old were they? Who had lived in them? Don’t get me wrong, stores full of cute shorts, tank tops & t-shirts and tax-free shopping were far more attractive, but I did wonder. The boardwalk was so much wider and beautiful than the one at Virginia Beach, but a further exploration had to wait until after dinner.
Dad knows to keep Mom and I fed.
The wind and rain had subsided by the time we finished our subs and chips, and as we ventured out, I began to make mental notes to go back to this store and to that one over there. Oh, and to that one. I’ve always preferred to browse for a day or two before spending my vacation money, but the twenties from Nana were burning a hole in my new glitter leopard wallet. So many stores. So many clothes.
Well, Mom and Dad have been giving me more freedom lately, so I explored Funland alone, and my plan to spend wisely lasted until I found the Skeeball and saw that penguin. It was a level two prize, and if I didn’t score enough points to win it outright, I could trade three level one prizes for it. I’m not sure how many dollars I blew through before I had enough of those tiny, brown dogs, but eventually, I got my penguin, and I would have walked away with the other level two prize (a yellow bird that bore a striking resemblance to Tweety) if the sixth little dog hadn’t been so elusive and costly.
Mom and Dad might not have been as impressed with my haul if I hadn’t “underestimated” how much I spent, but seeing no need to ruin the moment, I helped them move the bench’s backrest so that we faced the ocean, sat down, and quickly changed the subject. The penguin and one of the tiny dogs are now on a shelf in my bedroom…next to the huge whelk with the hole in it that Dad found the next morning while collecting shells. Apparently, after a storm is a good time to go “shelling”—not an SAT word, but still a good one.
The cloudy sunset was disappointing, but I’m glad we waited for it; the pod of dolphins that swam near the beach was amaazing.
Mom bought a small bucket of white cheddar popcorn and went back to the room to read her brochures while Dad and I stopped in Dunkin’. Dad ate his Vanilla Kremes in the store, but he didn’t seem to enjoy them nearly as much as the whoopie pies we got last year in Maine. I think he’s still in withdrawal. I decided to save my muffins for later since Dunkin’ was out of white milk, and Dad let me go across the street to Lingo’s Market by myself to buy some. After a bit of give and take, I swore that I’d sit under the light if he let me hang out for a while, and he agreed, but he couldn’t promise that Mom wouldn’t check on me.
Maybe he is trainable. Wait until I start driving.
So I crossed Rehoboth Avenue without looking back, strolled up the alley, and strutted into Lingo’s. The lady could not have been nicer, and I was soon chilling on a bench with a penguin and two tiny dogs, enjoying my desert and reveling in my brief yet miraculous independence. In no particular hurry, I ate the muffins in small bites, sipped my milk, squirted the last of my pocket-sized tube of lotion into my hand, and then moseyed over to the trash can and back. Tending to my dry hands, knees, and elbows, I checked over my shoulder. No familiar faces, shadows, or silhouettes…yet. Despite my promise, I began to wonder if a dash to the bookstore was possible. “That might be pushing my luck—”
“I like your animals,” a tiny, hoarse voice interrupted as a girl about my age glided into the light.
“Thanks,” I said, surprised. “I made a considerable donation to Funland to win them. You wouldn’t believe how many quarters it took me.”
“Yes I would,” she said with a smile. “Mind if I sit down?”
“Please,” I said, sliding the animals toward me. “How many of these do you have?”
“I—I can’t go that far.”
Her voice was like a whisper, so I inched closer. “My parents wouldn’t let me go that far by myself either. I’m Sarah, by the way.”
“Nellie. Nice to meet you.”
“But they’ve let me off my leash for a little while. That’s why I’m here, and they’re there,” I said and smacked a mosquito before pointing over my shoulder. “They have to let me grow up sometime.”
“Good for you,” Nellie said much too softly. “You must be staying at the Atlantis Inn.”
“Is it nice?”
“It’s great. I’m hoping to go swimming tomorrow. What about you?”
“I can’t swim.”
“You should learn…and I should have been clearer. Where are you staying?”
“Is it a rental?”
“No,” Nellie sighed.
“Are you staying with friends?”
“No,” she sighed again after hesitating.
Not one who enjoys getting the third degree myself, I tried just one last time. “You must live around here, then.”
“Over there,” she said, gesturing.
For someone who lived at the beach, Nellie didn’t seem to be very happy. I wondered if she was simply bored, but how could a young girl be bored in such an exciting place? “Is your house old?”
“Very,” she said, smiling.
“I bet it’s nice,” I added and then smacked another mosquito.
“It used to be.” Her voice was barely audible.
“Your parents must have let things go,” I guessed, inching even closer. “My Dad hates owning a house…the yardwork, the painting—”
“That’s not it.”
At a loss, I must have had a puzzled look on my face because she continued on her own.
“It’s been completely remodeled.”
“It must feel like a new house,” I said.
“I like the way it used to be…I hate the changes.”
“I feel that way sometimes. What did they do to it?—”
“Different paint, autographed photographs of people I’ve never seen before on every wall, television sets everywhere, a hot tub of water out back, strangers coming and going.”
Although I was sure I had that puzzled look again, Nellie said nothing. Perhaps she was just the typical, moody teenage girl who took issue with everything her parents did. If I was being honest, I could have described myself that same way from time to time. “Have you talked to your parents?”
“My Dad never visits.”
“What about your Mom?”
“She’s not around much.”
“Any brothers or sisters?”
“There are three other kids in the house….” Nellie’s tiny voice trailed off into nothing.
“Who takes care of the four of you?”
“The man and woman who changed everything live in the house.”
I began to suspect that despite living with other children Nellie was as the very least incredibly lonely. If she were, there was little that I could do. And if her parents were divorced and her mother had abandoned her, I absolutely did not want to go down that road. Perhaps the best thing I could do for Nellie was to keep lending her an ear and to offer her a friend who would never leave. I whacked a mosquito and picked up the dog closest to me. “For you,” I said, living in the moment.
The corners of her mouth turned upwards, but she shook her head. “I can’t.”
“Sure you can,” I insisted.
But again she refused.
“You said you weren’t allowed to go to the boardwalk by yourself.”
“Something like that, but again, no.”
“Well, I’ll leave this here in case you change your mind.” I returned the dog to the bench.
Nellie nodded her head.
“Maybe she’s afraid they’ll see her with it and think she broke the rules,” I thought to myself as I sat back, trying not to stare. So rude, but if I hadn’t been struggling to hear her, I might have actually seen her, and the more I looked at the pale wisp of a girl under the baggy, old clothes, the more I feared that in addition to her other problems, she wasn’t well. Except for her hauntingly beautiful eyes, she was a shadow of the vibrant girl she should have been, and I suddenly wished I hadn’t eaten both of my muffins. Debating whether or not to offer to buy her one, I waved away another mosquito. Nellie remained unbitten, and I wondered if the little bloodsuckers could sense that she had no blood to spare. “Lingo’s is still open—”
“It’s getting late, Sarah.”
“One second, Nellie,” I said and sighed heavily as I stood. Spotting Mom on the median, I started shuffling toward the street. “It’s not that late,” I yelled, “you just go to bed waay too early.”
“It’s still time to go.”
“Can’t I have just a few more minutes? Pleease, Mom.”
She waited for a car to pass. “I’m not going to shout. If you want to discuss it, come over here. If not, it’s time to go.”
“Fine,” I humphed, looking both ways. “I’m in the middle of a conversation,” I complained from the middle of the street.
“A girl I met named Nellie.”
Mom tilted her head left, and then right. “Who?”
“The girl on the bench,” I said, stepping onto the curb.
“The one I was sitting on.”
“There’s no one there, Sarah. Just your prizes.”
I took my hands off my hips and turned around. “She’s right there—” I began to insist, but Nellie had disappeared. “Great,” I said with a heavy dose of sarcasm. “You scared her off.”
Mom was beginning to lose patience. “Go get your animals. We’ll talk about this in the hotel.”
I looked both ways again, and hurried back across Rehoboth Avenue. There was no sign of Nellie in any direction, and despite experiencing an odd sense of loss over losing a “friend” that I never really had, I was happy to have lived in the moment. She had refused my tiny, brown offer of kindness, but perhaps our short conversation would be a good ending to her long day, and as I reached for my stuffed animals and counted only two, I was almost positive that I had made a tiny difference. Not wanting to get ahead of myself, and haunted by a lingering doubt, I looked around…. “Soo relieved she changed her mind,” I thought. “The dog with the crooked tail has a new master—”
“Did you lose something?”
The unfamiliar voice caught me by surprise, and I dropped my penguin. “I thought I did,” I stuttered, picking up the bird.
The woman who had exited the boutique across the alley chuckled. “Sorry I startled you, but you look like you’re looking for something.”
“I am…I was,” I said with a smile, “but now I’m sure my friend took it with her.”
“The dog from Funland I gave her.”
“I’d be happy to help you look,” the woman said. “Is it one of those little, brown ones?”
“Yes…She took it,” I said with another smile, “but thank you anyway.”
“If you’re sure…”
“Positive.” Backpedaling, I again thanked the woman, who nodded her head and began flipping through an outdoor rack of expensive dresses. “Waay out of my price range,” I told myself and then spun to go.
My independence was dead before I had finished my spin.
“What’s the problem, Sarah?” Mom asked, just steps away.
“Stop stalling and come on, then.”
“Sorry,” I fibbed, “and I wasn’t stalling.”
“Well, whatever you were doing, it’s time to be getting back. Let’s go.”
“I wasn’t stalling,” I insisted; “I was looking for one of my little dogs.”
“Did you find it?”
“Turns out, Nellie accepted my gift and took it with her when you scared her off.”
“Careful, Sarah,” Mom warned. “For starters, Dad gave you an inch of freedom tonight, and you were intent on taking a mile.”
I decided not to push my luck.
“Second, I’ve been checking on you from time to time—”
“From the pool deck of the hotel.”
“Dad said you might.”
“And you’ve been alone on that bench the entire time. Just you, your dessert, and your stuffed animals.”
“The light’s not so good, and I was blocking your view of her. Nellie’s very thin…and pale…Her clothes were dark.”
“Sarah,” Mom said in a very parental and disciplinary tone, “there was no one on that bench. I saw no one. Your father saw no one when he checked on me. You stopped talking to imaginary friends years ago. No more lies.”
“And third, if you’re missing a dog, I bet it’s that one over there.”
She pointed to the corner where the alley and the sidewalk met. “On that window sill.”
Gladly taking the opportunity to walk away from my mother, I hurried to the corner. Taped to the inside of the market’s window were a sign advertising a sale on canned vegetables and another one for soft drinks, and resting on the window stool, a narrow plaque read “THANK YOU FOR NOT SMOKING.” Outside on the window sill, resting against the glass between the words “THANK” and “YOU,” was my little dog with the crooked tail.
“Is that it?” Mom asked.
“How about we go now? Your dad wants to talk about the plans for tomorrow. I think he wants to challenge you to a game of disc golf at some place called Cape Lopen—”
“Cape Henlopen State Park,” I mumbled, staring at the sign. The hairs on the back of my neck stood on end. “We can go now,” I said.
“Praise the Lord,” Mom said. She wasn’t usually a religious person. “I think I’ll make myself a cup of hot tea. Want a cup of tea?”
“Sure,” I whispered.
“You’re leaving your little dog?”
“It’s your decision, but may I ask why?”
“I already have everything I need.”
“I’m not sure exactly what you mean by that, but I’m going to leave it alone.”
“Please do,” I said, grabbing my mother’s hand. I hadn’t walked hand-in-hand with my mother in years.
“You know,” she said after stopping to look both directions, “I saw an ad in one of those brochures I picked up for a themed bed and breakfast that’s on the same street as Starbucks—the one we walked past this afternoon. They remodeled an old house. It looked beau-ti-ful.”
“Old-time Hollywood and a sitcom from the 1960s that you’ve probably never heard of called Bewitched. Apparently, the rooms are full of memorabilia, and the walls are full of autographed photos. Want to go with me to check it out tomorrow?”
“Bewitched, you say. Interesting name. Sure, I’ll go.”
“I bet it’s haunted,” Mom joked.
“Could be,” I choked. “Could be.”
As we reached the front of the Atlantis Inn, I let go of my mother’s hand and squatted down to adjust my sandals. The straps were perfectly fine, of course, but I needed one last look. “They say that many children are able to see ghosts.”
“I’ve heard that.”
“Adults are usually closed to the idea that they’re real,” I continued, peeking across the street, “so it’s harder for folks like you to see them.”
“Are you calling me old?”
“Not at all,” I said, smiling, as Nellie waved goodbye.
“If what you said is true, I wonder at what age children stop seeing them?”
I stood up and took my mother’s hand again. “I’ll let you know.”