You write a word on your hand in green marker and tell your grandma to guess what it is. The word is atmosphere, but you spell it with an F because you forget that P and H together make the same sound. She guesses twice and then gives up. You show her your hand and laugh. She smiles and corrects your spelling and tells you that’s a good word to know. You’re six and you’re sitting on a white carpet and your grandma is sitting on a white couch inside of a white apartment and you’re in Florida.
Florida grandma is the kind of grandma that lets you write on your hand as long as you don’t put it down on the carpet after. New York grandma would never let you write on your hand, so in this way, Florida grandma wins. She also buys the good chocolate milk from Publix when you come to visit with your brother and your dad, which is really the only thing you look forward to when coming down here. Florida grandma is married to Florida grandpa who doesn’t talk too much to you and who your dad says isn’t really your grandpa and isn’t really his dad. It’s confusing and you ask questions, but you never get an answer that you can make sense of. You can tell that this isn’t something your dad would say to you in front of your mom if she were here, and even though he doesn’t tell you not to repeat it to her when you get back home, you know.
You and your brother sleep on the floor of the guest room on the same air mattress and he takes up all the room because he’s bigger and will give you a dead-leg or press one of your pressure points if you try to get some more space. Your dad sleeps in the bed and snores loudly but it doesn’t keep you awake because you’re used to it. Your brother falls asleep with his mouth open and you wish you could find a bug to put in there.
Your grandma wakes you and your brother up and it’s somehow even darker out than it was when you went to sleep. She asks you if you want to walk out to the beach and watch the sea turtles come to shore to lay their eggs. Your brother has been talking about how he wanted to see this the entire trip and even though you don’t want to go, you get up because if your brother is excited about it, then it’s probably pretty cool.
Your grandparents’ apartment is right next to the beach so as soon as you walk outside, your toes are in the sand. It’s so dark outside you’re scared and you ask your grandma how late it is and she says it isn’t late at all; it’s early.
If it weren’t for the moonlight, you wouldn’t be able to see anything, but there they are—turtles are crawling out of the ocean and onto the sand like they’re coming to take over the world.
There are so many, you say. There’s like a million.
That’s not a million, stupid, your brother says. It’s maybe, like, fifty. Maybe. If there were a million, we wouldn’t be able to stand here.
You don’t know if he’s right so you don’t respond. There are too many to count to try and prove him wrong, so you just watch them build nests for their eggs and then go back into the water. It takes awhile and you wonder if you’ll be out here long enough to see the sun come up for the first time.
Why are they leaving their babies? you ask your grandma. And how do they know to come back here? And how do they know which ones are theirs?
They just do, sweetie. Don’t you think your mother would be able to find you?
I guess. But I’m a person not an egg.
Yeah, you’re a person. An annoying one, your brother says. You ask too many questions.
It’s OK, your grandma tells you. It’s good to ask questions.
When you’re eleven, a hurricane will hit Florida and your grandparents will have to evacuate their apartment. When they come back after the storm to get more of their things, their apartment will be flooded. Your grandma will slip and hit her head against the wall. She will go into a coma. She will die. You will go down to Florida for the funeral and people will cry and tell you that your grandma loved you and that she’s in heaven now and that she will always be with you. To make you feel better, a friend of your grandma’s—probably someone else’s Florida grandma—will tell you that everybody eventually dies. You already know this and it doesn’t help at all.
After the funeral, you will overhear a conversation between your parents. Your mom will say your grandma was a victim of the storm. Your dad will say that he thinks your grandpa pushed her. Your mom will call your dad crazy for saying this and will get angry with him. He’ll argue with her and say it was because of her money—he just knows it. Your dad will cry and break something. It will be the first time and last time you ever hear him do that.
Everybody will be sad.
But not yet.
Right now you’re on the beach and you’re tired but you don’t want to leave yet. You can somehow tell, even now, that you won’t see anything like this again, so you try to take it all in. All that you can hear is the wind and the water crashing against the shore.
The atmosphere is nice, you say to your grandma.
She laughs and puts her hand on your head.
Yes it is, she says. It really is.
Aaron Schwartz earned his B.A. in literature and creative writing from Binghamton University. He is currently at work on a linked collection of short stories. Aaron lives in Rockland County, New York.