Shauna left the apartment in her flip-flops and without a sweatshirt. It was Brian’s fault.
“Come on, come on,” he said, a rolled magazine stuck in his hand like he was aiming to swat a bad cat. She cried out but he just shook his head and advanced. He never raised his voice but just walked across the room, his chin stuck to his right shoulder as he went, one eye on her and one looking behind him like a chameleon. He only stopped when they were out the door. He turned and looked back inside the apartment with his whole face once and then closed the door behind him.
The fog was in, thick but high. The sky looked like crumpled wax paper. Shauna was cold and pissed. She could feel herself losing control of her hands, a sudden petulant anger seizing them. She threw them towards his chest and pushed. “What the fuck? Why are you kicking me out of the house? Does Dad know what you’re doing?”
He brushed her arms away. “He’s sick again. It’s better if you’re not around.”
“What do you mean, sick? He was fine an hour ago. Goddamn it, I was watching TV in there.”
“He’s sick. Sorry to kick you out.” Her brother apologized too much. He would dramatically roll his eyes down to the floor and rub his hands on his thighs so it looked sincere. It was his way of getting out of things, she thought.
“What the hell am I going to do?”
“Go down to the harbor for a little while.”
“I’m freezing already. Fuck. It’ll be cold as hell down there. Are you coming with me?”
“I’m going to stay here for a minute. Go down to the harbor, to the part where the tourists are. I’ll come and get you.”
“How long is this going to be? I don’t want to be sitting and freezing and smelling fried fish for the rest of the afternoon. I’m not staying out until mom gets home.”
“I don’t know how long it’s going to be. I don’t know.”
“Oh, just fuck off.”
Shauna was not going to obey her brother. So far as she knew, when puberty had arrived a few years earlier, it hardly changed his body – his upper lip sprouted a sickly little thing he detested, and he turned leaner in spite of starting plenty skinny – but it had made him an insufferable prick. At some point after the bank ate up her dad’s boat and the old man stopped parenting, Brian volunteered for the newly open role of paterfamilias and took to it with tyrannical gusto. His comfort with telling her what to do was remarkable. They were only three years apart, but he carried himself with an authoritative air, yelling at her for spending too much time outside, yelling at her for spending too much time with a boy, yelling at her for not doing her homework. He had the balls to dress her down in line at Safeway for reading gossip magazines rather than helping him unload the cart. He was worse than a parent.
She’d be fighting it until one or the other of them moved out. In the meantime, he’d keep on ordering her around, and, on occasion, driving her off the couch into the street, because her dad was sick. Like she couldn’t be in the house when he was sick.
She didn’t know and didn’t want to know what was going on with her dad or her brother anymore. Shauna just wanted to sit on the couch and ignore everyone. In that apartment, afternoon TV was the best part of most days.
Shauna didn’t go straight down the harbor. Instead, she went out back to the dumpsters. It was pretty much the only place in the whole of the Seaside Meadows that couldn’t be seen from the road, the parking lot, or one of the windows in the apartment complex.
The dumpsters stank like something dead. The loud family in 24 had dumped the leftovers of their Sunday-evening santería in black garbage bags bound with twine, and they were putrifying in the trash. The stink filled her nostrils and tickled the back of her tongue, the hot water in her throat rising up to meet it.
letter-spacing: -0.15pt;">She pulled a crumpled cigarette out of a ziploc bag in her pocket, licked her lower lip, and let the cigarette stick to it. It tasted like a gym locker. She had been stealing a cigarette a week from her mom’s purse for more than a year, since she turned twelve, and tried to smoke only once every two weeks in order to maintain a constant surplus. Her stash was stored under the soles of four running shoes, for lack of a better hiding place. As always, she burned her thumb when she lit the cigarette.
letter-spacing: -0.15pt;">She held the smoke behind pursed lips. Her joints loosened and her capillaries tingled. She thought she might disappear for a while.
He had always used his solemn authority to humiliate her. When they were younger, which wasn’t actually so long ago, he casually mocked her, exploiting his slightly greater awareness of the world to keep her down. Her understanding of the world was conditioned by his lies: she had once honestly believed that sweet pickles were some sort of cooked worm, that midgets had their own religion, that there was a realm of swear words that she couldn’t hear because her ears weren’t old enough. The seaweed on the beach was still whale guts to her. Up at Clear Lake with her country cousins, he presented her with a cattail he had broken off down by the lakeside and told her it was a corn dog. She chased after him, a tree branch in her hand and downy fluff on her lips, but he was faster and bigger.
But then at least he had smiled when he manipulated her. Now he looked tired, which was all the more aggravating.
Back when she still talked to Tyler Campbell, he took her up into the hills that rose abruptly behind the town. They sat in the dirt and looked at the ocean and he put his hand under her bra. The wandering hand was no surprise – she had encountered it behind the utility shed at Cunha, and in a cypress grove at Poplar Beach, and in the back row of the shitty theatre with the pockmarked walls in Pacifica – but she was pleased by the privacy of the path he showed her. The hills behind town were treeless and scrubby, and sometimes from the passenger’s seat of her mom’s car driving in from the south she thought they looked like turds dropped on the horizon. From the summit she couldn’t see the Seaside Meadows but could see the breakers rolling in towards the parking lot on two sides, so she thought the view was good enough. She liked being alone more than her friends, who seemed to think thirteen-year-old girls could only exist in packs. Being alone up in the hills would make her feel better.
She left the Meadows through a hole in the back fence, coming out into the parking lot of the adjacent apartment complex. She walked fast to warm up and to avoid being seen. She tinkered with the lighter in her pocket as she went.
There was an indentation in the hills at the top of the first ridge, a gentle depression, flanked by pampas grass. A rotted old car had been left there years ago and an alkaline pool spread out around it, staining the cracked clay white. Some kids built bike jumps out of mounds of dirt and planks stolen from some fence somewhere. Shauna probably knew whoever it was, and she wondered whether they were BMX idiots or dirt-biking rednecks.
Less than twenty minutes had passed. She figured that Brian probably wouldn’t even go down to the harbor. He’d just wait for her to get cold. The last time he kicked her out, she waited for an hour. When she came back, he was sitting on the lip of the sink. He cradled the phone to his ear and was making plans with a girl. She hung up the phone and he yelled at her, but she laughed back at him, and he couldn’t do anything.
There were three paths away from the clearing: the one she had come by; one running parallel to the coast down into the brussel sprout fields to the north; and another heading further into the hills. She took the last path, moving her feet carefully as she proceeded down the first ridge. As she traveled up the first ridge, she stopped seeing the scattered Coors cans and bags of trash that dotted the trails at the base of the hill.
In the low trough between the hills, she lost the bleating dial-tone of the foghorn. The steady cold wind off of the ocean rode too high here for her to feel it, and an unnatural warm stillness settled over her. The salt was much milder on the air, replaced by mud and the tang of the plants around her. She smelled pine and molasses coming up from the thickets that hemmed the path. She was not sure how far she had traveled, or how long. She didn’t think much of her brother.
Shauna’s mom had tried to let her in on what was going on, once. Or so she thought. A little while after Brian kicked her out of the house for the first time, she dragged Shauna across the hill on the pretense of holiday shopping. Shauna knew this was a lie before they even left. When they arrived at the mall, her mom sat silently in the car, her big scarred hands draped on the wheel and her eyes on Shauna. “I know times are hard right now,” she began, her voice taking a step up with each word.
“I know too.”
Times were hard. Their apartment was a heatless leaking wreck, they ate almost no red meat, they had no cable, and her dad was in a funk. He had never been chatty, but now he almost never spoke, smiling distantly at her when they were in the room together, occasionally letting fly a non sequitur when the conversation could least afford it. She hated him, but it was a lazy sort of hate. She resented him for the vacuum he had become, but he was also helpless and pointless and hardly worth the trouble. Besides, she could remember how he took her on the boat, again and again, throughout her childhood, laboriously showing her how the crab traps worked as he pretended to sink them into the harbor. Nobody put that kind of time into her anymore.
Shauna’s mom faltered after her introduction, started swallowing her words. She never came down to a point. Shauna could tell that she was stepping around whatever was actually going on, but she was a little bit relieved by that. Ultimately, her mom arrived at a cliché. “We just have to stick together as a family,” she said, her voice faltering but her eyes steady. As though Shauna had a choice. She was pretty much stuck.
The second ridge was higher, steeper, and further than she had expected. Her calves and thighs strained as she pushed up it. The path was bad, all deep mud soaked by a year-round spring somewhere nearby, and she kept slipping as she clambered up. A second, better path diverged from it. She took that path for at least fifteen minutes, until she came to another ridgeline. She could no longer see the ocean.
The path made a cross, four trails diverging. Shauna was tired and hungry and cold, even in the warm protected air. She took the direction she thought might bring her back home. She walked down the hill on unsteady feet, even as the trail narrowed down to a slender line between the hedges. As she walked, a small rivulet appeared beside the path, and then overtook it, until black water was up around her ankles and mud and silt was between her toes. Dismayed, she turned back.
But that just made things worse. Shauna grew increasingly unsure of where she was. She hadn’t noticed on the way out that the trail split into indistinguishable little deerpaths three or four times. The scrub was deeper and thicker than she remembered, and as she pushed forward a web of branches reached across her, running thin pink lines across her exposed face and arms. Her shirt and pants became mussed with the fragrant glue from the lower leaves of coyote bush, and her feet had turned black from the mud, and the light was failing.
She was lost. She started thinking of Brian again. He had put her out here.
Fuck Brian. Fuck me.
In some ways, the death of the old life was a blessing. Her father’s trips to work always marked the onset of gnawing anxiety for the whole family, never openly acknowledged but felt by everyone. Shauna had seen her dad put on his suit for funerals up and down the coast, went to a few herself once she was old enough, and even in grade school she knew a bad storm or a mistake on deck was a possibility. That anxiety, at least, was forever gone.
And his new solitude spared her the torment of his friends. All the fishermen were briny and tatty, the small ones never slender, but scrawny; the big ones never brawny, but fat, and all of them embarrassing company. In the summer after her sixth grade, the last summer in the cottage, pungent Jack Flores became a near permanent resident. His career and ability to make rent payments ended one season and six months earlier, respectively, than her dad’s, and he charmed his way into a place on the living-room sofa. Whenever he arrived unannounced in their living room, returning empty-handed from some errant job search, Jack Flores would gather up both Shauna and Brian, one under each arm, and press their faces to his unwashed sweatshirt, laughing the whole time. They were both too old for this kind of treatment. It was embarrassing and disturbing. Shauna could take certain things from family, but not from strangers, and a bear hug from a stinking old man was one of those things. She and her brother spent most of that summer outside the house or closed in their room, leaving Jack Flores to the company of her father.
There was no room for Jack Flores at the Meadows. So sometimes, when she put her mind to it, what had happened over the past few years could seem like a blessing. But most of the time, she missed what was gone.
She could tell that she wasn’t walking on the same path she had been earlier. It fell away at a broken tree, descending straight down the hillside. She tripped on a root and let her feet slide. She tried to slow herself with her hands thrown out, grasping at serrated blades of elephant grass, riding on her heels as she stumbled forward, but she lost control and ended up bouncing twice on her back before landing in something with thorns. She felt crucified and stupid, and she knew at least one of those feelings was just melodrama.
She picked herself out of the bush and lit another cigarette.
When he was done, Brian’s father curled up on the bed. Brian pulled the stained comforter up over him and perched on the edge of the bed, waiting for him to fall asleep. Then he left to find his sister.
Since his dad had lost it, Shauna seemed to have gone sour. She was angrier and more resistant, bold enough to push him when he needed her out of the house. Brian figured that was what being a teenager was like; he felt a vague guilt at having squandered his teenage years, having been acquiescent and quiet rather than rebellious. The people he went to class with drank, smoked, popped pills, broke into places, were picked up from the youth authority at five A.M. by angry parents. He was only sixteen, he still had two good years to go, but he felt he had been pressed by circumstance to be mature. He knew he’d never act out the way Shauna did. She, on the other hand, was just beginning, and in fine form. He wished her resistance wasn’t always enacted on him, though. His mom was too exhausted and his dad too broken to rebel against, though.
Unlike Shauna, whose memory seemed very short and whose mind seemed very malleable, Brian didn’t have trouble remembering what his dad had been like before. He was never the hero fighting against the sea – he had always been wiry and twitchy, the twitching only slightly mellowed by the packed pipe he kept nearby when he wasn’t at sea. All but the most old-timey of the crabbers would arrive home stoned, passing a joint around the dock and trading crabs for decent bud. They carried some of this mellow with them, but his dad always carried a little bit too much nervous moral force to carry the mellow beyond the dock. The ones who didn’t commute in from over the hill or further lived their poverty in cheery disarray, their bungalows decorated by abalone shells and half-drunk cans of beer. Brian’s memory worked best with smells, and the other crabbers lived in stale bachelor stink. Their cottage had always been the cleanest and the best organized, testament to the presence of his mom but also to the diligence of his dad. After coming back from the traps, rather than drinking with the crew of his boat he would come home and clean, each successful voyage marked by a tidy house. It was ritual behavior. Once the ship stopped going out, he abandoned the ritual. The apartment at the Meadows was hardly worth cleaning, anyway.
She wasn’t at the harbor. It took him half an hour to confirm this. He checked the small rocky beach, the lobbies of the fancy hotel and the parking lots of the motels, the Chinese restaurant and convenience store on the town side of the highway. He walked down among the boats, watching the breakwater between the masts, seeing no one out against the surf or on any of the other floating piers. He sat for a moment, watching the bright bulbs of the squid boats queue up out in the bay past the breakwater. In the growing dark, they looked like a string of Christmas lights. Then he returned to the search.
He cut into the seafood restaurants across from the harbor one by one, dodging the hostesses to eye the waiting areas. Most were empty. She probably wasn’t in a seafood restaurant, anyway. When their father lost his boat, the family stopped eating seafood. It enraged him – not just crab, but clams, rockfish, salmon, herring, anything. He stayed far away from the harbor, but even if they bought it from Safeway, he knew where it came from, from Dennis Sturgell and the rest of the Oregon boats, poaching the Farallone waters where they didn’t belong, and he let the rest of the family know at volume. Now none of them ate seafood.
He was left with almost nowhere to go. She was not at the harbor.
Brian catalogued the possibilities in his head. She most likely had disobeyed him, had gone somewhere else, to a friend’s house or downtown somehow, or she was just hiding in a corner of the Meadows. The alternatives were endless. If she were dead, nobody would know to call the house. She probably had no identification on her. If she was wounded in such a way that she couldn’t talk, the same applied. Or if she had been kidnapped, or crushed, or trapped, or washed out to sea. These were the things he thought of as he walked back to the apartment.
This would make sense, he thought. Another thing lost.
They had weathered two and then three bad seasons well enough, cutting out red meat and expensive Christmas gifts. Brian didn’t mind the first one. It was an El Niño year, and the storms and the swells that followed them kept their father home for most of the crab season, which Brian and Shauna loved. But the subsequent years, when the pots came back empty, he started to go weird and Brian started to feel nervous around him. Then the bank took the boat and they moved to the Meadows and his mom’s hours got longer and longer and his dad got bottled up in the apartment and started to pickle.
It happened in a similar way each time. His dad would come bursting out of the bedroom after a day or at least a few hours spent locked in it, sobbing and lurching.
The first time his dad was sick, he broke the living room window. His mom hung a sheet where it had been. The next day a man from the owner’s came by and told her she had to fix it within two weeks or lose the security deposit and they would be evicted if it kept happening. They would lose the security deposit anyway, because the landlords would find something that hadn’t been on the original report. The family didn’t agree on much anymore, but it was a common article of faith that everybody was looking to cheat them out of the rest of their money. They even let Shauna know.
The second time his dad was sick, he knocked Brian to the floor, mostly unwittingly. Brian hit his head on the cabinet and had trouble standing back up. His dad sat next to him and cried. When Brian was able to get up, his dad still sat there, his whole self nodding back and forth like a holy man. When Brian’s mom came home from work, she considered making his dad leave forever. She asked Brian what he thought. He told her it was just an accident and that he didn’t think it would happen again. She was not entirely satisfied, and for two months changed her schedule so that she could keep them from being alone in the house with their father, especially Shauna, who they had kept mostly in the dark. But they fell behind on the rent and Brian’s dad behaved well, so she let herself forget.
He didn’t even know where to start to look for his sister.
“Brian, what did you say?”
“I can’t find Shauna.”
“What do you mean?”
“I asked her to leave when dad was having trouble. I asked her to wait down by the harbor. I didn’t find her when I went down there.”
“Where’s your father?”
“He’s asleep. I don’t want to wake him up.”
“Okay. She’s probably with her friends somewhere. Doing something.”
“I know, Mom. But she might not be –”
“I’m sure she’s fine. I can’t talk anymore right now. I’ll deal with this when I get home.”
He wrote a note on the back of a bill and taped it to the front of the television. Shauna. Went out looking for you. Be home soon. She still wasn’t at the harbor when he checked, nor was she anywhere around the Meadows. It was dark. She was still gone. He sat on the curb outside the Meadows and held his head in his hands, thinking of how on top of it all he had managed to lose his sister.
This is a good memory.
Shauna was eleven, Brian fourteen, before the boat went away and they moved into the Seaside Meadows. They retrieved their bikes from the lean-to behind the house and rode out on the broken gravel of the driveway, down Monte Vista to Main Street. They rode on the sidewalk and were cursed at by a young man in a Chivas jersey. Old Portuguese men were sitting outside the I.D.E.S. Hall in the weak sun, watching their daughters hang banners for the Holy Ghost festival. They stopped at the old vending machine behind the feed store and bought orange sodas with dimes, sitting on the hay bales as they drank and watching the owners’ granddaughter smoke and chat with Jeff Guerra when she should have been working the register. They dropped down to Highway One and then across it, letting a jaywalker pushing a baby stroller guide them across. Then down to the coastal trail, bouncing up the coast, watching surfers ground down under the big swells. They headed south, down through the cedars until they had fields on their left and the ocean on their right. They had to cut back up to the highway; it made Brian nervous to bike there, but the only people on the road were ladies carrying groceries and a CHP cruiser driving slowly on the northbound shoulder. Somehow Brian knew where to go, taking Shauna right off One onto a white gravel road. It was marked with a sign that read “Beware Trucks Entering Roadway.” They stopped at a grandiose stone gate, with “Ocean Glen” written over the top in wrought iron, a pastiche of the old ranch signs that you could still see from the highway. The gate had no fence connected to it, so they walked around it, carrying their bikes over the gopher-pocked field. They left their bikes in a ditch when they came to the point where the land fell away, climbing down the precipitious bluffs with both hands grasping the crumbling sandstone walls. When they arrived on the beach, he led her down to the water. The normal jagged rocks lay a hundred yards offshore, and the swells broke on the reef instead of the beach. In front of them there lay a protected lagoon. They waded in, the water warm because it was an El Niño year. Shauna sat in the water and let it rise up around her shoulders.
“How did you find this place?”
“I don’t know.”
Shauna passed through the widest hole in the fence with uncharacteristic grace. Hemmed in by thorny scrub, the trail thoroughly lost, she had no choice but to cross through the wire into the field on the other side. She went through slowly and cautiously, one bending limb at a time. She couldn’t help feeling more clever than the deer or coyotes the wire was meant to keep out. The flip-flop on her trailing foot stuck on the wire, but it fell on the right side of the fence. She took that as a good omen.
She walked along the fence on the margins of the fields. It was the right enough direction, as long as the wire was on her left. Keeping to the fence, she looked out across the expanse of corrugated earth, scanning for anyone who might hassle her about trespassing. It was hard for her to make anything out by reflected orange glow of the town’s lights, but this meant nobody could see her either.
She favored her right side as she went, a long sharp feeling having come to rest in the left leg following her long slide down the hill. It really hurt.
The murmur of sea and highway came to her, and she started walking faster. She wondered where her brother was.
When Brian saw her, he was looking in the gutters by the road, operating now on a bleak and amorphous hunch. She wasn’t in the gutter. She was walking, a few blocks up from him, and he could tell that she had seen him before he had seen her. He watched her as she walked up the street with an exaggerated limp. Her clothes were dirty and it looked like she might have been crying, but he doubted it. He stood and approached her.
When they met, Shauna looked at him and he looked back.
“How’s Dad?” He could hear in her voice the same aggrieved anger that she had displayed when he kicked her out, but it was quieter, and there was something else there that he couldn’t make out.
He didn’t answer, but nodded and smiled. After a moment, he spoke. “Let’s go back to the Meadows.”
They walked back to the apartment together, her head barely above his shoulder. Her arm brushed his.