Daniel never thought he would be jealous of a hermit crab. But this one was transferring shells ever so effortlessly, its claws skittering across the white sand of the beach. With its soft flesh, this crab was not born with the armor standard among its fellow crustaceans. It was temporary vulnerable, but had a myriad of options of where to live. From one salt-crusted shell to another, it was just so easy for this crab to find a new home.
“Daddy look, look!” The moving operation had momentarily distracted Daniel’s seven-year old daughter from her sand dig.
“It’s a hermit crab.”
“What’s a hermit?”
“It’s someone who lives alone, it’s called that because it lives by itself in its shell.”
“Oh, I never would want to live alone”
“You wouldn’t?” Daniel asked, curious that his introverted child would be so adamant.
“No, ‘cause I always want to live with you and Mommy.”
“Aww, you won’t always want to live with…us.” The last word rolled off his tongue uncomfortably.
“Why I wouldn’t I?
“Because someday, not for a long time mind you, someday you’re going to go to college and the last thing you’re going to want to do is live with your parents, you’ll wanna live with your friends. And then you might even have a family of your own. Someday Jess, you’re going to grow-up.”
Jessie’s eyebrows scrunched down low over her eyes as she bent back over her digging, her head shaking ever so slightly as if dusting away any further thoughts of the future. Clasping his hands around her thin shoulders, Daniel bent down to kiss his daughter’s damp, brown hair, oddly comforted by the notion that at least one woman in his life wanted to live with him forever.
“Jessie dear, come put on more sunscreen,” Cindy’s clear voice rang out across the din of the ocean.
Daniel watched Jessie resist the urge to glance back at the other adults who were seated down the beach, their canvas chairs forming a neat row against the horizon.
“Jessie, look Mommy’s going to put on some too.”
Jessie pretended she didn’t hear her, digging more furiously into the sand. Daniel couldn’t help but feel a little bad for her, she had just put on sunscreen less then forty-five minutes ago, and there were few things in life she hated worse, especially when it got in her eyes. Nevertheless, he made sure to use his sternest voice.
“Jessie, time to put on sunscreen.” With their daughter, they were supposed to be a united front, no matter what.
Lowering her eyes and raising her eyeballs, Jessie gave him her signature dirty look before scurrying over to her mom.
Daniel lingered by the ocean for a long moment, trying to will each wave to wash away the notion that his wife had only wanted to interrupt the moment the two of them had been spending together. By the time he ambled over to the empty beach chair next to her, Cindy had already smeared gobs of gooey white cream all over Jessie and was talking to her friend Melanie while smoothing some of her own sunscreen underneath her bikini strap. A thin strip of white skin, contrasted with the deep, slightly wrinkly brown of the rest of her body. “Grown-up” sunscreen said SPF 5 whereas Jessie’s said SPF 55. Daniel figured that it wouldn’t be long before she figured out what that meant.
“This place is heavenly: the white beaches, the coconut trees, the flowers everywhere you look, the open sky. And the water. The water. It’s just so turquoise.” Cindy seemed to exude enthusiasm from every one of her sun-tanned pores.
“Welcome to the Caribbean,” said Melanie laughing.
“But this isn’t like anywhere else in the Caribbean,” Cindy continued. “It’s just so, it’s so unspoiled. I get so tired of people trying to sell me crap, asking me for my money. But here, here maybe because it’s technically part of America? Here thank god, they leave you alone.”
They’ll leave us alone Cindy had said when she had been trying to convince Daniel that they should go on a family vacation to Vieques. Then, though, she hadn’t been talking about the local Puerto Ricans, she had been talking about Rick and Melanie, her ‘just work friends.’ Cindy had promised that a week at their island house wouldn’t be a big deal, because they didn’t actually know what was going on. All she and Daniel had to do was act normal. And then maybe, maybe when they got back, things would be normal too.
“That’s why we bought the house. Although, Rick and I keep telling ourselves to savor it now. It’s not going to stay unspoiled for ever.”
“You really think Vieques is going to become the next hot tourist destination?”
“Sure, why wouldn’t it be? It’s just because of the navy’s presence that people are deterred. Speaking of which, I should go tell Rick, I think the locals are finally clearing out…”
“Anyone want to go for swim?” Daniel asked, eager to steer the conversation into a different direction
“I do!” Jessie grasped for her goggles.
“Jessie, hunny, we have to wait at least 20 minutes for our sunscreen to dry before we can go in.” Cindy said ‘we’ though she rarely ever set foot in the water.
“Oh right, ya, ya that’s right, silly me.” The level of cheeriness in Daniel’s voice matched that of his wife’s. “Well then I’m going to go get us some drinks.”
Up at the house, Daniel poured himself a shot of vodka and popped open a Heineken, relishing the way the cool liquid slid down his mouth, caked dry with sea salt. His mind flitted back to the dye capsule and the dinner conversation the evening before when he had asked about the navy.
“So, what’s the deal with all of these officers anyways?” Once they had bought the tickets, Daniel had let Cindy take care of the rest of the details, so he had been surprised to find that his vacation included men in uniform. Melanie, though, had seemed eager to talk about it.
“Oh the navy, you see, the United States purchased Vieques as an extension to the Puerto Rican base during World War II. I believe the idea was that island could be used as a safe haven for the British fleet, should Britain fall to Nazi Germany. Since then, the navy has continued to use part of the island for military exercises and as a firing range. You’ll hear them at some point during your week here, I’m sure.”
“You don’t ever worry about it?” Being in close proximity to a firing range seemed to somewhat contradict Daniel’s notions of a relaxing Caribbean vacation.
“Nah. No if anything they make this place feel safer. It’s pretty wild, really. There are so many stray animals that sometimes, when I wake up, I think I’m in a jungle.” Laughing, Melanie took a sip of her beer before adding, “the locals worry, but they wouldn’t if they knew what was best for them. Without the navy, they probably wouldn’t have an economy and they definitely wouldn’t have any infrastructure. The movie theatres, the restaurants, the bars, that’s all because of the US.”
“And this here meat” Rick added through a mouthful of steak. “Speaking of the navy, so the other day Melanie and I were out for a walk and we found this armband with an emergency survival kit attached to it. It has this little red and black capsule labeled Fluorescent Green Sea Survival Dye.”
“Ya, ya I think the idea is that someone in a wrecked ship or plane or something could set it off in case of an emergency.” With his fork, Rick shoved in another bite. “Melanie and I are itching to try it out, but we wanted to wait until you folks got here. ‘Course we’d have to wait until all the locals clear off the beach. For some reason—well I guess because they usually have to work— for some reason they all want to go swimming on the weekend.”
“You, you really think that would be a good idea?” Somehow setting off some dye capsule didn’t figure neatly into Daniel’s visions of reading peacefully on the beach and playing in the water with his daughter. Glancing at his wife to see if she agreed, his chest constricted slightly when he realized that she was carefully averting his gaze.
“Why wouldn’t it be?”
“I dunno, it just doesn’t seem to be the best idea to be dinking around…” Daniel trailed off when he heard Cindy sigh the sigh she had been making a lot lately. It was the sigh that made him want to bury into his own hermit shell.
“Well you know, we’re trying out the navy’s equipment for them. They would want to be sure that it works.”
“Ha.” Dan’s gazed at his daughter who was bent over a kid’s menu. “Ya ok then, though we wouldn’t want this one to get the idea that it’s a good idea to start messing with things that aren’t hers.”
Everyone laughed as Jessie continued obliviously with her coloring. Daniel glanced at his wife and, when their eyes met, she smiled. He eased a little into his chair as the conversation continued like normal.
But the capsule had kept coming up. Rick had mentioned it later that night over desert and then it was the first thing that Daniel had thought about when the roosters woke him up at 6:30am. Wild animals had been another thing he felt like he hadn’t bargained for on this vacation. But what he really hadn’t bargained for was how hard it would be to spend so much time with Cindy’s ‘just work friends.’
The problem was that Rick and Melanie were a lot of fun. They made great drinks, and had great clothes, and cracked great jokes. They had great jobs, but no kids—which Daniel had been initially concerned about until Cindy had pointed out that Jessie didn’t like playing with other kids anyways—so they had a great house, and a great car, and they probably had great sex.
And as Cindy had said, it would just be so great to spend a week with people who were just so ‘chill.’
Daniel tipped back his head and took the shot, before chasing it with his beer. See, Rick and Melanie were so much fun because they didn’t worry, at least not like Daniel did. They didn’t worry that their shirts had been feeling tight, or that their kid sat alone at lunch, or that marriage counseling could fuck things up more than it helped.
Daniel poured himself some more vodka. Ok maybe they did have some worries, like how to find someone to mow their lawn and where they were going to go out for drinks. Who was he to say he knew? He raised his shot to Rick and Melanie’s mysterious worries and then drank it.
In reality, Daniel didn’t really give a damn about them, they were his wife’s friends, and not even good ones at that. But he did give a damn about the fact that this was the first real vacation that he had taken in over a year, and that he had spent the first part of it worrying about some stupid survival capsule. If they wanted to inject some dye in the water, so be it. He was not going to give a damn.
“Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.”
Daniel didn’t care that the water was turning neon green, and that Rick and Melanie seemed to think it was the funniest thing.
He didn’t care. He just laughed and sipped his beer.
The water looked like a cross between green playdoh and a glow stick. It was as if aliens had landed and injected some kind of poison in it, in fact, it kind of reminded Jessie of the time that someone peed at her swim lessons and the water around them turned red. Except this was green, and it had grown much, much bigger.
All the grownups were standing there looking at each other and laughing, snapping pictures and swearing. And Jessie started laughing and swearing and nobody noticed that she was swearing because they were all too busy looking the water. The alien poison had taken over the entire beachfront. As far as the eye could see.
The ants were kind of crooked on the long.
Jessie’s mom had promised her her favorite snack since everyone seemed to have forgotten about dinner. But the second the helicopters came, she started rushing, so now the peanut butter was all globby and the raisins were aout of order.
Jessie thought that the helicopters looked like angry dragonflies and that they sounded much worse. They sounded like the worse combination of chainsaws and thunder and they kept circling over and over the water without going away.
She gnawed on her log and watched as the sky cracked open gold and then morphed into a bright pink behind the helicopters. With the water still the same alien green, it was like the whole world had forgotten to be the right colors.
No one was taking pictures. No one was laughing now. In fact, everyone was pretty quiet, especially her dad.
The helicopters kept circling and circling and looking and looking, but they couldn’t find anything. They circled for so long that Jessie thought they must be desperately tired. No longer a bright pink, the sky had transformed into a deep purple, and then swallowed the helicopters in the darkest of blues.
Finally, the words that had been foaming in Jessie’s throat all evening bubbled up into her mouth.
“What are we going to do?”
The grown-ups gave each other long meaningful looks, the kind that kids aren’t supposed to be part of.
“We’re not going to do anything. We’re not going to do anything at all.”
That night Jessie lay in bed for a long time waiting for her mom and dad to tuck her in. The helicopters had finally stopped and it felt good to hear the typical sounds: the water running, the gentle click of the dishes, the murmurs of the grown-ups talking. Suddenly a loud crash made her clutch her stuffed animal snake.
“Not 50,000 dollars.”
“All those helicopters? It probably cost at least that. At the very least. Probably more.”
The instance her parents opened the door she relaxed her grip on the stuffed animal. They hadn’t tucked her in together for a long time.
“Mommy, Daddy, what will happen to the fish?”
“They’ll be just fine hunny,” her mom answered. “I’m sure they have to make the dye environmentally friendly.”
“Oh ok.” Jessie didn’t tell her that she wasn’t thinking about the dye at all. She was thinking about what it must have felt like to have those big helicopters fly so close. When her mom bent down for a kiss goodnight, Jessie noticed that her nose and cheeks were much more pink than usual.
Her mom left, but her dad sat down next to her on the bed and told her he’d help name her sisters. Every night, before Jessie falls asleep, she names all the sisters that she shares a bed with. Then, after she’s done naming them, she decides their ages and their personalities and, if she’s not asleep by then, then she starts a story. But instead tonight, she started thinking about a true story.
“Daddy, remember when I was in first grade with Mrs. House and I was in that play?”
“Ya I remember that.”
“Well, Joie laughed a lot during play practice so I decided to steal her stuffed mouse. It was the mouse from the book If You Give a Mouse a Cookie. The whole class looked for it and Mrs. House asked me if I knew where it was. I said I didn’t know. Then I hid the mouse in Joie’s coat sleeve so she could find it without knowing it was me.”
“Later I felt kind of funny about it so I told you and Mommy. You told me that I probably should have just told Mrs. House and Joie the truth. The thing was that Mrs. House and Joie probably wouldn’t have even been that mad, more just glad that I had been honest.”
“Well then why…” Jessie began, but something about the look on her Dad’s face made her stop. She let him give her a kiss and say good night. But after he left she lay awake for a long, long time.