Brianna Copeland lies stomach-down on her beach towel, hoping she doesn’t look as fat as she feels in her new swimsuit. When she came across the mint green two-piece on the Victoria’s Secret website, she imagined herself as the model in the ad, all bronzed curves and windswept curls. Her fifteen-year-old figure, magically transformed. She didn’t anticipate it making her look so hippy, the ruffled halter drawing attention to her stout frame rather than complimenting it as she’d hoped. Nor did she expect the color to clash to badly with her delicately freckled complexion. But by that point it was too late to send it back, and so now here she is on vacation in Myrtle Beach with the rest of the Copeland clan—mother Carol, stepdad Ray, brother Phillip—wishing she had never ordered the thing in the first place and counting down the seconds until she’s back home in Raleigh. Back with Jump.
Up ahead at the shoreline her mother is trying to coax Phillip into the waves. “How about just one step?” she says, standing knee-deep in the surf. She clutches her monstrous sunhat to her head so that it doesn’t go flying off in the breeze. “Can you do that for me, Bean? Just one step toward me?”
But Phillip isn’t taking the bait. Instead, he crouches at the edge of the shoreline scouring the foamy sand for shells. “No, thank you,” he replies mechanically, parroting the etiquette phrases they’ve gone over with the psychiatrist. His pasty back and shoulders are smeared with sunblock. At twelve years old, he’s already cultivated an extensive roster of phobias, including water. Being near it is okay, but you try carrying him in, as Ray did a couple years ago at the rec center pool, and you’re in for a shrieking, face-smacking meltdown. Sometimes it can take days to calm him down. Carol’s Managing Anxiety in Autistic Children book insists that those fears can be overcome if Phillip can face them one step at a time, but Brianna wishes they would just let him hunt for shells in peace. It’s his vacation too, isn’t it? Let him do what he wants.
Besides, with the recent spate of shark attacks off the Carolina coasts, who can blame him for not wanting to go out in the water? Eight in the past two months, one almost every week, beginning with the kid in Wilmington whose arm got torn off from the elbow. Something to do with rising current temperatures, according to the bowtied expert on the local news. Brianna happened to catch the segment last week while flipping through channels. With the frail gentility of an exasperated parent, he explained to the co-anchors that you still have a better chance of being struck by lightning than you do of getting attacked by a shark.
“You know, he might go in if you did,” Ray offers, sprawled out beside Brianna in a plastic beach chair.
“I’m fine right here.”
“It would be a nice gesture. To him and your mom.”
“I don’t see you going in, Ray.”
He fishes around in the cooler for another Lima-a-Rita. Popping the tab with one hand, he takes a loud sip, a few droplets dribbling onto his furry chest. “I’m supervising this area right here.” He flashes his Ain’t-I-so-funny? smile. When he and Carol first started dating, he used to regale the kids with corny one-liners in an effort to earn their affections: Didja hear about the fire at the circus? It was in tents! Even at seven, Brianna couldn’t help feeling that her mom should have been aiming higher.
Slipping in her earbuds and opening her Pandora app, she snaps a few more selfies to post on her wall, each one showing the faintest sliver of iris peeking friskily over her sunglasses while the wind tousles her hair. With any luck, they will be enough to grab Jump’s attention. In the three days they’ve been here she has yet to hear from him, not a single returned call or text. Ordinarily she’d chalk this up to his distaste for cell phones (“Your fucking iPhone probably cost some poor Chinese kid his eyesight,” he’s fond of lecturing people), but after last week’s confrontation all she needs is some reassurance that she hasn’t ruined things for good.
After a few minutes, when the heat and the throngs of tourists have become overwhelming, Brianna announces to no one in particular that she’s going back up to the room. She plods through the scorching sand toward the line of hotels running along the horizon. On the balconies, colorful towels and swimsuits flap like pennants in the salt-silky breeze. As she strolls into the Island Palms Resort, the blast of the AC, as well as a few involuntary glimpses from dads checking their families in, remind her how exposed she is, and she wraps the towel around herself. Part of her doesn’t mind the appraising way that guys have started to look at her over the past couple years. And not just boys at school; cashiers and waiters and even some teachers too, their lingering glances flitting over her body before redirecting themselves, embarrassed. But then there’s another part of her that recoils at those glances, how they seem to discern things about her that she hasn’t yet discovered for herself.
The only person who has ever made her feel genuinely pretty is Jump. At nineteen, he’s a second-year senior at Brianna’s school—though in his defense it’s impossible for him to get a fair shake from any of the teachers considering they all know he runs with a gang of graffiti taggers. To them he’s just a lowlife, a criminal in the making. They don’t see him for what he is: an artist trying to pry people’s eyes open to the hypocrisy of consumerist culture, a phrase he wields as valiantly as a longsword. If they could get a look at his work, the sharp multicolored murals in alleyways and underpasses around town, Brianna thinks they might finally understand him. Like she does.
After a quick shower, she hangs her damp suit over one of the slatted rubber chairs on the balcony and then, resting her arms on the railing, peers down at the beach. Amidst the countless clusters of vacationers, she spots her family by the 71st Avenue lifeguard stand. Her mom has given up trying to lure Phillip into the water and is now reading a book in her beach chair while Ray dozes beside her. Phillip is sifting through his mound of shells. Sitting on his knees with his shaggy brown hair blowing in the breeze, he inspects each one with the bottomless concentration of a master jeweler. It’s a quality that Brianna has always admired in her younger brother, how devotedly he approaches his interests. When it comes to more routine obligations like school he has a harder time focusing, but then who really wants to focus on the right things? Watching him now, she can’t help feeling a stab of envy: with the possible exception of Jump, she can’t recall ever investing in anything with such passion.
She met Jump last winter through her friend Brooke, who had worked with him at Ben & Jerry’s for three months before he just decided not to go in anymore. A couple times a week the girls would go over to his place to get stoned and watch campy horror movies from his extensive collection. Hollywood Chainsaw Hookers. Chopping Mall. I Was A Teenage Werewolf. He was heartbreakingly gorgeous, tall and slender with coffee-colored skin and eyes so powder blue they were almost translucent. Even his smell was sexy, a body spray-and-cigarette musk that made Brianna feel like her head might explode with desire.
But still: nineteen. Practically a man already. He understood things about the world, important things, like how 9/11 had to have been an inside job because if you studied the YouTube videos like he had, you could see the explosions from the demolition charges. To hear him hold forth on the subject like a philosopher was always exhilarating, and so Brianna kept her affections to herself, letting them fester in her gut like a parasite, until one night after a party at Brooke’s when she and Jump found themselves alone on a sofa in the basement. Prior to him, she had been with only two other guys, pimple-faced boys from school whom she regarded with the dull tolerance of a convenience store clerk. With them, all her insecurities about her body were canceled out by her repulsion at the mechanics of the whole thing—all that frantic, sweaty groping. With Jump, however, she’d been poignantly aware that she was naked. And she actually wanted his judgment, that was the weird thing. She wanted him to like her, yes, but she also wanted to prove to herself that she was someone worthy of being judged.
With this in mind, it’s easy to see how he might have felt ambushed last week when she walked into his grungy studio apartment unannounced and, like an idiot, blurted, “So, I’m late.”
He was seated on his leather loveseat packing his ceramic Buddha bong, authentic Sri Lankan. For a moment he gave her a confused scowl, until comprehension finally sank in. “Wait, you mean late, like, with your period?”
“About two weeks now.” Actually, it was three but she was playing it safe, mainly for his sake. Missing a week here or there wasn’t unusual for her, but at three she figured it was time to bring him into the loop. Although maybe that wasn’t the right word. Can you even have a loop with just two people?
He gawped at her like she’d just pulled a gun on him. “Well Christ, don’t look at me. Who else have you been screwing?”
Without thinking, she grabbed an empty Sprite can from the counter and hurled it at him. It missed him by a good foot and a half, striking the wall with a clatter and then falling to the dingy carpet.
“Don’t throw stuff at me!” he whined.
“Well, don’t call me a slut!”
“I didn’t call you a slut. I just asked if you—”
“I heard you! And no, there’s nobody else, okay? Jesus!”
He took a breath. Scratched the back of his neck. “Is it maybe stress? I’ve heard that can, like, fuck up your cycles.”
“I don’t know. Could be.”
“That’s got to be it. I mean, with finals and everything, you know?”
“Yeah.” Nodding, Brianna looked at the fraying laces of her Chuck Taylors and ran her ponytail through her fists. “That’s probably all it is.”
Jump chewed on the inside of his cheek for a few seconds. Setting the bong on the coffee table, he leaned back and crossed his arms thoughtfully across his chest; the sleeves of his t-shirt pulled back to reveal his well-defined biceps. “Because it’s just—and I don’t want to sound like a prick or whatever—but I always pull out. You know that.”
The next day the Copelands venture to an outlet mall a few miles from the hotel. While the rest of the family heads to the food court, Brianna sets off in search of a gift for Jump. It occurred to her this morning that this was the best way to smooth things over, a gift. Guys like gifts, that’s what Brooke insists, so long as it’s the right kind. Meaningful but also practical. Nothing too sentimental, they hate that.
The wallet display in the window of a leather shop catches Brianna’s eye: three tiered bins, each of them heaped with discount billfolds, clutches, and card holders. Inside, the robust tang of oiled leather is thick enough to choke on. Classic rock blares from speakers in the top corners of the room, some grainy-throated singer wailing about highways and lost love. As Brianna is scanning the merchandise, the lone sales clerk wanders over to ask if she needs anything. Instinctively, she gives the woman a quick up-and-down. Dressed in factory-torn jeans and a fringed black vest, she has the woeful good looks of a former beauty queen, her thick crust of makeup cracking at the creases around her plump lips. What Brianna first perceives as a beer gut beneath her t-shirt she quickly realizes is in fact a pregnant belly.
“I’m looking for a wallet. For my boyfriend.”
“Okay, well, what does he like?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Does he wear a chain? We sell a lot of those to guys.”
Brianna studies the swell of the woman’s baby bump. She fusses with a hank of hair behind her ear. “He’s not really into that.”
“Alright, so something more traditional. Maybe just a regular bifold?” She plucks a dark brown wallet from the bin and holds it out to Brianna, who takes it without thinking. Would Jump like this? Hard to say. He needs a new wallet, that’s for certain—the organic hemp one he’s carried for years has started to look like a clump of old bandages—though he likes his accessories to have personality, nothing mass-produced or corporate, which doesn’t leave a lot of options.
Except, as Brianna pretends to examine the bifold, turning it over in her hand like a piece of fruit, it occurs to her with some embarrassment that for all she knows about Jump’s dislikes, she knows almost nothing about what he does like.
She nods at the woman’s baby bump. “Is that uncomfortable?”
The woman glances down at herself, shrugs. “Sometimes, I guess. Makes me pee a lot, mostly.”
“What’s it feel like?”
She angles her mouth in a curious little smirk. “It’s weird. Kinda like you’re in someone else’s body. You feel sick a lot for no reason and your joints hurt like hell. But it’s a good kind of hurt, like after a really intense workout, you know?”
No, Brianna doesn’t know, but she nods anyway to appease the woman.
“You wanna feel?”
“I’m not sure.”
“Here, she’s moving.”
Before Brianna can protest, the woman grabs her wrist and then pulls her t-shirt up over her stomach and places her hand on it. The skin, taut and smooth, feels like a rubber suit of some sort. Something you might wear to explore the bottom of the ocean.
“Do you feel it?”
Brianna shakes her head, and the woman moves her hand to the other side of the bulge. “How about now?”
“Hm. I dunno. She’s definitely moving around in there.”
As she presses down into the woman’s rigid skin, Brianna vaguely recalls feeling her mother’s belly when she was pregnant with Phillip. She was fascinated by the notion that a person, even a partially developed one, could thrive in such a tiny space, and the sensation of her unborn brother pushing out from beneath the flesh was…well, is there even a word to describe it? Otherworldly perhaps? Here she was communicating with this soon-to-be-person who didn’t even really exist yet. He’s reaching for me, she thought. He hasn’t even been born yet, and he’s reaching for me.
“Ow, honey. Not so hard.”
It’s not until the woman wrenches her hand from her belly that Brianna realizes how firmly she’s been bearing down on her stomach, her fingers digging in up to the knuckle.
“It’s fine. Sometimes it’s hard to feel from the outside.”
As the woman is pulling the hem of her t-shirt back down, Brianna catches a glimpse of the handprint she left in her skin, the ghostly blear of her fingers like a prehistoric cave painting. The woman offers that beauty pageant smile again, but it’s different this time. Less certain. “Anyway, is that the one you want?”
It takes Brianna a second to realize that she’s is referring to the bifold wallet in her other hand; she forgot she was still holding it. Now she looks over at the heap of wallets in the bins, the collection of brown hues like a mound of freshly turned dirt, and then down at the one she’s holding as if wondering how it got there.
Dumbly, she nods and then follows the woman over to the register to ring it up. “I hope he likes it,” she chirps as she drops it in a bag. Brianna, mumbling her thanks, reluctantly takes the bag as though she’d being handed a used tissue and then exits the store into the busy atrium. As soon as she’s out of sight of the woman, she tosses it into a trash can.
Because Phillip rarely has the patience for dine-in restaurants, especially in unfamiliar environments like this one, dinner that night is at a seafood buffet on the downtown boardwalk. OVER 167 ITEMS! proclaims the giant smiling crab looming over the entrance. Brianna gorges herself on crab cakes and fried shrimp and stuffed clams and potato salad and mac and cheese and, for dessert, a shameful glob of Oreo pie. By the time the family ambles out of the restaurant she feels like she might puke. Part of it is her encounter with the saleswoman at the leather store, still resonating in her mind. Why couldn’t she feel the baby move? Sometimes it’s hard to feel from the outside. Obviously, this was intended to be reassuring, but that wasn’t the way Brianna heard it. To her, it sounded like a warning.
They wander down the boardwalk past kitschy seafood dives, gift shops, and t-shirt booths. The air is rich with the aromas of fried foods and sunscreen. On the other side of the boardwalk are the reedy sand dunes of the beach, and beyond that the ocean. In the twilight, the water is the color of a fresh bruise and every wave on the horizon looks like a shark’s fin. Brianna envisions legions of the creatures swarming beneath the surface like something from one of Jump’s horror movies, patiently waiting for the next unsuspecting victim.
Phillip, strolling shoulder-to-shoulder with his parents to avoid bumping into strangers, makes a sudden bee-line toward an old-fashioned arcade. Video games are one of his passions, especially the bloody first-person-shooters, the gorier the better. Brianna has never been able to reconcile this with his comprehensive list of phobias, but if there’s one thing she’s learned about the logic of autism, it’s that emotions can often domino into one another with no transition: one second he’ll be skittish and withdrawn, the next he’s practically vibrating with excitement. Sometimes it’s disorienting how effortlessly he can shift between gears. When he was a toddler, you could spend an hour calling his name, and he wouldn’t so much as look at you. But if you got right down in front of him and met his eyes, his chubby face would light up with recognition, and he would smile as if to say I’ve been waiting for you.
“Hang on, bud,” Ray calls. “No running off. You have to ask, remember?”
“Can I go in, please?”
“I bet if you ask your sister nicely, she’ll take you.”
“She doesn’t want to go in.”
“Got me there,” Brianna replies, scrolling aimlessly through her newsfeed. She snaps a few shots of the water by itself and then a single selfie against the horizon, the tip of her tongue poised seductively on her teeth. A little something to snag Jump’s attention.
“See?” says Phillip, rolling his eyes. He clenches and unclenches his fists, an anxious tic. “Told you.”
To Brianna, Ray says, “Look, your mom wants to find a bathroom, okay? Just go in for a few minutes. You’ll survive, I promise.”
Brianna considers arguing, but acquiescing now might buy her some time to herself later.
And so with a reluctant groan, she ushers her brother into the jungle of machines, with its digital chorus of beeps and explosions. After a couple minutes of inspecting his options, Phillip settles on a hunting game where you have to kill forest animals with a rubber rifle. As he begins cramming quarters into the coin slot, Brianna steps away to give Jump another call. She squeezes herself into a small alcove between two adjacent rows of machines where the noise isn’t too bad but she can still keep an eye on her brother.
Not surprisingly, it goes straight to voicemail. Brooke claims there’s an art to leaving a voicemail for a guy. “You have to be straightforward but not clingy,” she explained a couple weeks ago. This was during the girls’ post-school drive to the edge of the county, where they could smoke without being spotted by anyone they knew (at 16, Brooke already has a conditional license and a hand-me-down Taurus from her mother). “It’s all about sounding, like, decisive. Like you know exactly what you want.”
“But what am I supposed to be deciding?”
She squinted at Brianna like the question didn’t make any sense. “What does that matter?”
Before Brianna is able to leave a message, however, she spots a scrum of kids hovering around Phillip, four boys and two girls. Evidently, they’re amused by his technique of holding the gun out with one hand instead of sighting it up the proper way. One of them, a black-haired kid in ankle-length shorts, reaches playfully for the weapon as if to offer instruction. Phillip jerks away and then continues firing at the screen like nothing has happened. Whether his inability to recognize ridicule is a blessing or a curse, Brianna has never been able to decide, but in any event his reaction, or lack thereof, only seems to provoke Black Hair. The kid makes to grab the rifle again, over and over like a game, prompting sniggers from the rest of the group. He’s trying to get a rise out Phillip. But Phillip doesn’t rise, not like you would expect. Instead, he stifles his feelings for as long as possible until his mind can’t take it anymore, and soon enough you’ve got yourself a meltdown like the one at the rec center pool.
Brianna, still watching like a voyeur as her brother passively endures the kids’ teasing, knows she should step in, but for some reason she can’t bring herself to creep out of her hiding spot. What she really wants is to shake Phillip by his shoulders and howl at him to just stand up for himself already. Throw a punch! she thinks. Stop being such an easy fucking target! The thought makes her queasy with shame, but she can’t stop herself: why does she have to feel helpless on his behalf? Where is the kid who boldly reached for her while he was still in the womb, not even knowing what was out there?
One of the girls, a scrawny thing with eye shadow the color of barbecue sauce, says laughingly to Black Hair, “Nick, quit being an asshole.” From her voice it’s apparent that Phillip is nothing more than a minor impediment in their night of fun.
One last fake lunge for the gun and Black Hair gives up, bored. As the group staggers off, Brianna watches her little brother drop another handful of quarters into the game, calm as a monk, and then recommence killing the on-screen animals, and it’s only then that she realizes that Jump’s voicemail has been recording this whole time.
Half an hour later, after Ray has managed to corral a begrudging Phillip out of the arcade and the family has started moseying back toward the public parking deck, Brianna spots the clique of kids mulling around an ice cream stand. Black Hair is licking tendrils of melted chocolate off his wrist while Barbecue Girl shovels hunks of mint chocolate chip into her tiny mouth. All six of them are thumbing their phone screens with their free hands.
Maybe it’s her lingering remorse for not having come to her brother’s rescue that causes Brianna, lagging a few yards behind her family, to stop a few feet from the group, studying them amidst the passing crowd. At first they look back in expectation, as though she might have something to offer them. And honestly, she wishes she did: despite the fact that they never even saw her in the arcade, and even though they don’t deserve it, she feels compelled to offer some sort of explanation for her cowardice.
Instead, she waits a few beats until the scrutiny of her gaze begins to make them squirm, at which point she holds up her phone and takes a snapshot of the group. A few of them trade bewildered glances, as if this might be some kind of prank. Black Hair, his smudgy wrist still poised near his mouth, begins to say something, but Brianna is already tossing her hair over her shoulder and hurrying ahead to catch up with her family.
By the sixth and final day of the trip, Brianna has had more than her fill of the beach—the loud, beer-bellied tourists, her frustrations with herself for not having gone with the much more sensible tankini set. Not that she’s dying to go home, either. Too many things waiting for her back there, too much to confront. Stretched out on her towel, she scrolls through the hundred or so photos she’s taken over the past week: moody ocean shots for the most part, a few quirky tourist traps like the life-sized King Kong at the Wax Museum. Then there’s her portfolio of selfies, none of which has elicited a response from Jump like she’d hoped. Just looking at them now makes her feel foolish.
But it’s the shot of the kids form the arcade that she keeps coming back to. Those six scowling faces glaring back at her like a kind of challenge, their open mouths smeared with ice cream. Something about the image, its belligerent frankness, perplexes her. It reminds her of the time that someone in Mr. Weintraub’s Life Sciences class asked if it was true that sharks can smell a single drop of blood from a mile away. This was during the oceanography unit, and while Brianna doesn’t recall what prompted the question she does recall how Mr. Weintraub, a jowly bear of a man who wore his contempt for his students like a suit of armor, sighed and flexed his jaw the way he did whenever his lectures got derailed. “That’s a myth. Pretty much everything people know about sharks comes from the movies. Fear, ladies and gentlemen, can make folks believe all kinds of crap.”
As far as Brianna is concerned, even if people like Mr. Weintraub are right, why would you want to take the chance? After all, doesn’t she know better than most the dangers of pressing your luck?
Or at least this was her opinion at the beginning of the week. Now though, it dawns on her that Mr. Weintraub was only half right: maybe people want something to be afraid of. Otherwise, the whole notion of safety loses all meaning. Because what’s more frightening: sharks in the water, or realizing once you’ve willed yourself into the ocean that the threat was just something you invented, and now here you are with not a goddamn thing to show for your fear?
And so perhaps this is why she climbs off her towel and pads down the wet sand, past her mother and Phillip futzing with his shells, past Ray who taunts her with the Jaws theme until Carol gives him a playful swat on the arm, out toward the lush whitecaps.
Shells slice into her feet as she wades out into the surf. Waves crash against her as if to compel her back to safety. When she’s far enough out that she has to stand on her toes, she lies back and closes her eyes, resigned to the understanding that if there really are things to be afraid of, it’s up to her to draw them out.
No tourist noise this far out, no corny steel drum music from the hotel pool. Just the water’s gentle sloshing against her skin. She floats until her muscles throb and all she can hear is her own heartbeat in her ears. Nothing is coming for her, no bloodthirsty predators—hasn’t part of her known this all along? Possibly. And yet another part of her, the same one that kept her from coming to Phillip’s defense in the arcade, is still disappointed: isn’t her blood worth the taking, too?
As if in response to this thought, something slick brushes against Brianna’s calf, sending a searing bolt of pain up through her leg.
She thrashes in the water, back toward the beach, her leg throbbing with each frantic kick. Her mind is alight with images of mangled limbs and torn flesh and bloodied shark teeth. A massive swell rises up beneath her and sends her somersaulting through the waves, until finally it deposits her in the shallow surf like a toy it’s grown bored with. Shakily, she comes to her feet and examines the damage to her calf, only to find that there is no gory horror movie wound, just a small C-shaped welt a couple inches long. It feels like a burn, like she’s been branded. A jellyfish sting, she realizes as she begins high stepping her way to the shore, relieved but also embarrassed by her overreaction. Just a goddamn jellyfish.
That’s when she spots Phillip standing ankle-deep in the surf, gazing out at her.
Except, that can’t be right, can it? No, it can’t be her brother, the same boy who screamed himself sick at the rec center pool, the one she ditched in the arcade when he needed her. And yet, here he is, his pudgy belly peeking over the waistband of his swim trunks, watching her limp toward him. Watching and waiting. He’ll pester her with questions for days to come, because that’s the only way he knows to make sense of uncertainty—Were you drowning? Why did you go in the water?—but for now she’s just grateful to see him standing there with his arm outstretched as if to welcome her back to shore, and so, hobbling on one foot, she reaches across the roiling waves that threaten to sweep her back out into nothingness, straining to touch her brother’s fingertips.