August 1990

It had been a summer of storms, but today was still. Gray, but still and hot. While my mother did a crossword-puzzle from a back issue of the Washington Post, my sister and I bobbed in the ocean, splashing and flipping and daring each other to peek over waves. 

Our father was back home in Maryland. We had had a yearly habit of summer vacation two weeks from the end of August for as long as I could remember. This year, we were at a new beach, Avon, North Carolina. We’d booked into the cabin without knowing much about that particular town, and fully expecting that my father would be there with us. But, as an intelligence analyst with an emphasis on the middle east, we’d barely seen him since Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait two weeks before. 

The trip had not started off well. It had been stormy, and early in the week, a dog had drowned while playing in the surf, just down the beach from where we were staying. We found little solace in the house itself, a tiny cabin called, aptly, “Heller.” The “outdoor shower” was simply a hose that had been cable-tied up one of the beams underneath our house, where the mosquitoes were fiercest. The big brown marks on the pine walls were knots 90% of the time, but palmetto cockroaches often enough that you never slept entirely easily.

But today was still, and we had clunked out to the beach first thing, laden down with beach chairs, towels, pool noodles, sunscreen, books, water, snacks, and hats. My mother worked her puzzle, and we hopped down to the water, strong swimmers and cautious children by nature.

In my father’s absence, my mother had been solo parenting non-stop. She’d managed the 8 hour drive with no one to spell her, and near constant commentary from the backseat on how soon it would be the other sister’s turn to ride shotgun. We’d spent the afternoon one day at her friend Laurel’s, and while there, my mom had taken a particularly large tumble in the surf, both losing a contact and badly bruising her knee. That night, as she’d limped alongside us to the payphone outside Frank & Fran’s Fishing Supply Co., I’d not been sure we’d ride out the rest of our two week stay. The glory of a day on which my sister and I could entertain each other was not lost on my mother.

And so, in the nearly flat water, my sister and I splashed and played, oblivious to anything but our own buoyancy. 

“GIRLS!” my mother’s yell broke our focus on each other and we looked lazily back at the shore at her. “GIRLS!” She was standing now, pointing out to sea with one arm, and gesturing frantically with the other hand for us to run back to shore. Our nerves shot by the week of unfortunate incidents, we grabbed each other with wide eyes. Something white and nondescript floated just beyond my sister’s left shoulder. 

“It’s a dead dog!!!” I shrieked. My sister screamed, and we clawed our way forward out of the water. The water pushed us back and back, but our terror was stronger than any ocean current. We spluttered onto the wet sand and hurled our way up the sand towards my mother, who was grabbing our things. 

“Grab your bags, we have to go!” my mom barked at us. Though we’d been rattled, this seemed like an overreaction to us. We figured the dog would drift away, and we’d be all clear to go back in the water. 

“Why? It’s just a dog!” 

“A dog? Look!” My mother pointed out to sea. We turned our heads and followed her finger to the glossy, gray-black funnel cloud reaching down to the ocean. None of us knew much about the atmospheric sciences, but I had read enough stories in Cricket magazine to know that a cloud like that equaled trouble. 

We ran awkwardly back to Heller, pool toys and chairs bumping against our sandy shins. Huddling together in our rickety cabin, we watched the waterspout spend its energy far out to sea, shrink, and disappear. 

The day became still again.




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