Welcome to Sandbridge
It’s that time of year when the highway transforms into a slow-moving minivan racetrack. Other than the brand, the inside of each van is exactly the same: the despondent kid in the back seat with headphones on, the mom in the front disciplining the hellions in the middle, and a rooftop cargo container undoubtedly flapping its straps in the wind, the same ones that were triple-knotted at the last gas station.
How much longer? Get your hands off me. Do you smell that? If you do that one more time! — echo in each ride. If not for gasoline, it’s rumored these annoyances alone could power the minivans to their sandy vacation shores.
“Mom, tell Mitch to stop it,” Bek pleads from the back seat. Punk music blasts from the headphones pulled over her box-dyed auburn hair. Crime and Punishment sits on her lap.
Their mom makes the dreadful and trademarked turnaround from the passenger seat. She’s unhealthily pale, with forfeiting eyes, and in a mood that despises nonsense. “What is he doing now?”
Bek glares at Mitch with her electric green eyes. She gives him a chance by not mentioning specifics. “He’s messing with the cars behind us.”
Mitch, with ruffled hair complimenting his grass-stained clothes, rolls his big sky- blue eyes. “Lies. I am minding my own business.”
Bek drops the truth: “Minding his own business as in dropping golf balls out the window.”
“Shut up, you jerk!” Mitch jabs Bek in her arm. She counters back. For a fifteen- year-old girl already smaller than her little brother, she has the gusto.
“Stop it!” yells Josh from the driver’s seat. “Mitch, just stop. Can you not be an idiot for once in your life?”
The level of authority in his voice is undermined by the crackling in his seventeen- year-old developing manhood. With a shaven head and cut like a middleweight fighter, he looks like he should be driving a Mustang, not a minivan.
Mitch and Bek treat his demands like they’re from a substitute teacher and continue bruising each other.
Their cousin — Stan — watches next to Mitch. He smiles sheepishly at their war, cowering deeper into his seat, fearing a stray punch. He’s thirteen, like Mitch, but from Texas, not Ohio, and has neatly parted hair. He wears thick black glasses, says soda instead of pop, and shopping cart instead of buggy. Mitch lost all respect for him when he found this out. But to be fair, he never respected him that much in the first place.
Josh tries again. This time, he points out the window. “Seriously, look. We’re almost there.”
This works. Mitch and Bek stop to look where Josh points. It’s a highway sign that reads Sandbridge — 15 Miles.
The car turns silent. Josh presses play on a worn-out cassette player wired into the van’s USB. The cassette label reads, The Beach Boys’ Greatest Hits.
Mitch turns back around to face the front. Bek releases her balled fist and sinks into her seat. Their mom takes a deep breath, counting on her fingers until she gets to five. And when she gets to five, the tears welled under her eyelids all break loose at once.
Through the corner of his eye, Mitch notices Stan sitting awkwardly like he’s frozen in freeze-tag, trying his best not to move as the upbeat song bobs away.
Mitch wants to explain to him why everyone’s crying. He wants to explain why the energy all went to hell — and this thought takes Mitch by surprise. Why does he care so much about Stan feeling awkward?
And then it hits him. He doesn’t give a crap about that. He’s just distracting himself from the pain.
The muted chatter continues until the cassette needs to be flipped. Josh reaches to do just that when his mom grabs his hand — she’s had enough. He doesn’t disagree and pulls his hand back.
She smiles a humble thank you and then opens her window. The warm, salty air washes the staleness of the van away. Any lingering sniffles float away with the wind.
Their van slows down as it drives onto a tight, two-lane bridge that arches over the top of the bay, filled with high grass, inlets, and coves. The mile-long bridge is the divider between the real world and the getaway. Besides a boat, there’s no other way you can get to paradise without crossing over it.
God help them if anything happens to this bridge.
Mitch sticks his head out of the window. He wants his family to think he’s soaking in the aura, not secretly drying off his tears.
As soon as their wheels cross back onto land, they drive under a sign, Welcome to Sandbridge — Leave All Your Worries Behind, and are instantly surrounded by vacation goodness: gift shops, dessert parlors, food trucks, and seagulls. You’d think the town was a commercial — everyone is happy.
Ice cream cones drip on the hands of kids whose parents usually restrict their sugar intake. Steel-drum players float their melodies into the air for all to hear. People of all ages ride bicycles. Even the over-achieving joggers are smiling.
Only God could explain how running under the radiant summer sun could be enjoyable, but they either love it or are excellent liars. Mitch thinks they are liars.
Smiles and laughter burst from the faces of even the most jaded, office-obsessed, zero-fun, boring, stick-up-their butts, bump-on-a-log kind of people.
These are usually the people who berate Mitch like he’s their own, shaming him to act his age and not do things like smash homemade stink bombs in their daughter’s clubhouse even if she deserves it for sneaking into his top-secret tree fort.
So when Mitch sees these tyrants without a tattooed scowl across their faces, it gives him a feeling of safety for the week — a sense that absolutely nothing can go wrong here.
But then he reminds himself of their current situation. This thought, as much as he tries to bury it, saps his energy, leaving him empty-minded until they get to their house a mile down the flat ocean road.
Josh parks the van in front of a blue and white oceanfront house. A circular wooden sign hangs above the main entrance. It reads, Camelot.
Normally, this is the time when arrival relief converges with the sheer panic of unloading the van before any fun can occur — but not today. Instead, everyone calmly heads to the front door and walks in.
The inside was decorated by a self-assured adult, one that watched two videos online and then tells everyone at Thanksgiving dinner they are thinking about becoming an interior decorator. Even Mitch sniffs out the nonsense.
The theme is dolphins...and pirates and stars, and, finally, in one glorious corner, a family of taxidermy foxes. Everything’s in a particular order, which proves it was done intentionally and not while intoxicated.
Josh pets the foxes like they are real, like he’s missed them.
Bek heads to the bookshelf and quickly finds what she’s looking for — The Old Man and the Sea. She opens the cover. Bek is written with blue ink and has five slashes for each time she’s read it.
Mitch climbs onto the kitchen countertop. Then, standing on his tippy-toes, he reaches above the top lip of the cabinets, blindly feeling around until he finds what he’s looking for — a glow-in-the-dark football.
He fires it at Josh, who turns just in time to catch it. Josh smiles warmly, sadly.
Mitch just now notices his mom standing behind Josh beyond the screen door. She’s on the porch looking into the ocean. Her long, wavy brown hair blows behind her like a ghost at the front of a ship. Mitch points to her. Josh turns, sees, then nods.
Stan takes a small step to the screen door, then stops, fidgeting his feet back into the living room. Mitch sees Stan’s hesitation, so he puts his hand on Stan’s back and gently guides him outside.
But their mom stays frozen, gazing into the ocean before her. Josh wraps his arm around her. “Let’s go.”
It takes her a few seconds, but it works. She escapes from her trance and then wraps her arm around her oldest son. He escorts her down the wooden stairs to the path carved through the sand dune that leads to the ocean.
In a line, all of them sit at the water’s edge with the waves crashing at their pale suburban feet. The evening sky’s a fresh fairground stick of cotton candy, with blues swirled into pinks as the bay behind them tries to catch the falling sun. It’s truly sublime. Some may say it’s religious.
Over and over, one wave after another, they sit, offering all of their pains to the receding waves, willing the salty waters to cleanse their cuts and take their burdens to be buried at the bottom of the sea.
This cathartic healing cycle continues for some time. The peace is unwavering...well, to an extent. Because Mitch is there, and he has a threshold twice as short as that of the average man (toddler).
He makes a fart noise with his lips pursed into the crevice of his arm. Josh doesn’t waste a second. “Are you kidding me? Of all the things-”
Josh stops and looks at his mom. She’s giggling like a child.
What starts small snowballs into a boisterous laugh that spreads like wildfire. Even Josh is laughing. All of the awkward tension from the last few hours quickly melts away.
“You’re such an idiot,” Josh replaces his judgment with a hard, brotherly hug.
“What?” Mitch replies. “It’s what Dad would have done. He would have said that sadness and the ocean don’t mix. If you want to sulk, go to a funeral — or a Pirates’ game.”
Bek grabs a piece of driftwood and then draws a large circle in the wet sand with two intersecting lines dividing the circle into quarters.
In one-quarter, Bek draws a sun then hands the stick to Josh, who draws a lightning bolt in another section. He gives it to his mom. She draws a heart and then holds it out for Mitch. He shakes his head. She pokes him with the stick to take it. He swats it away.
Josh, glaring at Mitch, takes the stick from his mom and draws a smiley face in the final empty quarter. Just as he finishes the smile, the tide crashes in, washing the creation away.
“That’s kinda poetic.” Bek squints into the ocean as she gathers her words. “We drew our crest for him, and the water took it from us the moment we were able to fully appreciate it.” She tilts her head down and lets gravity pull the overflow of tears from her eyes.
Mitch sees Stan fidgeting, presumably to ask a question. Before his cousin can find the courage to speak, their mom beats him to it. “Happy thoughts, Bek. Happy thoughts.”
Mitch knows this is just as much advice for herself as it is for Bek.
“I’m sorry I went too deep. It’s just...” She pauses, searching for the right words. “That’s what Dad always did. He’d find something stupid and draw a wild connection to something else. And it always ended in a train wreck.”
Their mom smiles. “That was your father. He’d do anything, and I mean anything, to hold your attention. Wanna know his secret?” She laughs to herself. “Never once did he know what the heck he was doing — he just made you believe he did.”
A cool wind blows in from the ocean as if to punctuate her words. It smells not of the sea but something more specific. Mitch spares no time unraveling the aroma — magnolias like the ones from back home. It’s strangely out of place, but no one cares to question it. They’d much rather sit in silence and enjoy where it takes them.
Silence, though, can only last for so long-
“Look. A dolphin!” Stan points to a fin gliding above the water a stone’s throw from the shore.
“Stan, I forgot you were still here!” says Mitch’s mom. “Sorry for this sap show. How about we unpack and get some ice cream?”
No one says yes, but everyone stands and starts walking back to the house. Mitch watches on, taking inventory of his family: His mom actually appears to be smiling, and Josh has his arm around Bek...on purpose. Maybe this week won’t be the train wreck he thought it would be.
They’re almost halfway to the house when a ghost crab darts between Mitch’s legs. Mitch, without flinching, reaches down and slaps it upwards into Stan, who squirms and contorts his body to avoid what you’d think was a thirty-pound crab, not a quarter-sized crustacean. Mitch’s eyes light up when he sees Stan’s fear. Poor Stan.
Another crab crawls through Mitch’s legs. Mitch reaches back. But just as he’s about to slap it airborne, he pauses.
Two more crabs scurry by...then three...then even more. Mitch turns to the ocean and sees gangs of them fleeing from the water like their tiny little lives depended on it.
His attention’s stolen by a green light flashing across the twilight sky. It plummets, then vanishes altogether once it reaches the horizon.
Mitch squints his eyes to better focus on what he thinks is a geyser of water from where the green light landed.
“Did you guys see that?” He turns around.
Everyone’s ten steps ahead of him. When he goes back for another look, a new green light appears in the sky.
“Guys, look!” This time he yells it.
“Cool, bro. Those have been around for years.” Josh looks towards a group of kids flinging toy helicopters into the sky — green neon glow sticks dangle from their tails. “No. Not those. It was something else, like...a falling star that crashed into the sea.”
Doubt falls over Mitch the moment these words leave his lips.
He gives the sky one more chance — and it couldn’t care less. His eyes are surely playing tricks on him, he thinks. Yep. That has to be it. He turns to follow his family when — crunch! He just stepped on a crab.