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The Wild Adventure


Mitch and the Sand-Bridge

Written by

 Zach Hawrot

Being a teenager is hard. Losing your father...that's even harder. But getting invaded by a race of amphibious octopus while on a beach retreat to mourn the aforementioned that’s the hardest.


Welcome to Sandbridge

It’s that time of year when the highway transforms into a slow-moving minivan race track. 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 with headphones pulled over her auburn hair blasting punk music. Crime and Punishment sits on her lap.

     Their mom makes the dreadful and trademarked turn around from the passenger seat. She’s unhealthily pale and in a mood that despises nonsense, “What is he doing now?”

     Bek glares at Mitch. She gives him a chance by not mentioning specifics, “He’s messing with the cars behind us.”

     Mitch rolls his eyes. His thirteen-year-old face grows disgusted at the accusation, “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. Mitch and Bek treat his demands like they're from a substitute teacher and continue on bruising each other.

     Their cousin — Stan — watches next to Mitch. He smiles sheepishly at their war, cowering deeper into his seat in fear of a stray punch.

     He’s thirteen, like Mitch, but from Texas, not Ohio. He 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 actually 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 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 reaches five. And when she reaches 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 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 then opens her window. The warm, salty air washes the staleness of the van away. The leftover sniffles come to a conclusion.


     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 so 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 in the hands of kids whose parents normally 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, most 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 clubhouseeven 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, The Darma Initiative.

     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 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 taxidermied 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. Standing on his tippy-toes, he reaches above the top lip of the cabinets, blindly feeling around until he finds what he was 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. Mitch points to her. Josh turns, sees, then nods his head, “C’mon Bek.”

     Stan takes a small step to the screen door, then stops, fidgeting his feet backwards 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 still, trapped in a gaze on the ocean in front of 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’s 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 draws a large circle in the wet sand then two intersecting lines that divide 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, 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 — Magnolia flowers like the ones from back home. It’s strangely out of place, but no one cares to question it or talk about 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. Everyone turns.

     “Cool, bro. Those have been around for years.” Josh nods his head 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 were surely playing tricks on him, he thinks. Yep. That had to be it. He turns to follow his family when — crunch! He just stepped on a crab.


Bikes and Shark Teeth

Buzz. Buzz. Buzz. SLAM! Mitch whacks the antique digital alarm clock on his

nightstand. What am I doing? He thinks to himself. It’s vacation. Whatever motivated me to set an alarm last night is now dead to me.

     Shifting in his bed on his way back to slumberland, he sees Stan asleep on the twin bed next to him. Now he remembers!

     Mitch quickly and quietly stands. He tiptoes to the dresser and swipes the prepared stack of clothes. He slips out of the room using the same precaution you’d use to sneak out of your parent’s house at 3 AM. And it works.

     Still in his underwear, he changes in the hallway. His shirt is two sizes too big, faded, and has a brawny man mowing the lawn with the caption “Father Mows Best.”

     He crudely wedges his feet into his shoes, yanks the porch door open, then bolts out.


     Soon after, Mitch is in the middle of the moment he’s been visualizing since they left Ohio: standing on his bike pedals with his eyes closed, leaning forward like the mast on a ship as a warm sea breeze blows against his face.

     “Watch it, buddy,” a jogger yells out. Mitch opens his eyes and swerves hard to the left, just missing the runner.

     “Watch yourself, you old sack of crap!” Mitch yells back with a contradicting smile across his face.

     There’s a reason Mitch is smiling. On top of riding bikes, one of his other favorite pastimes is yelling at runners. No matter what insult you hurl their way, they can’t hear you since they have headphones on (most likely blaring upbeat music because they’re too weak to exercise with just their thoughts). So when he yells to Mrs. Barilla that he forked her yard last weekend, she simply smiles back — plus he gets the confession off his chest. Win, win.

     He waves bye to the pinheaded jogger then peddles faster. No one’s going to ruin Mitch’s morning. He’s invincible.

     Ring. Ring.

     Another biker rings their bell from well behind him. He ignores it, choosing to read the names of the passing houses instead: Atlantis, Someday, Alimony.

     He doesn’t know what the last word means, and this annoys him. Not so much because he doesn’t get it but because he hates how complicated adult jokes can be. He’d much rather hear a simple joke about butts. In his opinion, butt jokes are the best. And deep down inside all adults, at depths they would never publicly comment on, he knows they would have to agree.

     Ring. Ring. Ring.


     This time the biker’s closer. Mitch looks back. Nooooo! It’s Stan. Mitch acts like he didn’t see him and peddles like they do in France, taking a sharp cut down a side street. He skids around the corner and out of sight. Crap. The houses come to an end — all that lies in front of him is a hundred-yard drag strip leading to a nature reserve.

     “Hey, cuzzo. Wait up,” Stan yells out, somehow gaining ground.

     With no houses to hide behind, it’ll be blatantly obvious he’s avoiding Stan. Well, then, so be it! Mitch peddles like a madman until he reaches the entrance to the refuge.

     It’s a densely forested area that splits the ocean on the left from the bay on the right. This is Mitch’s favorite place on the island. No condos, restaurants, or even a street light to spoil this world, an overgrown jungle planet that feels pre-historic, full of dark mysteries and folklore. And Mitch can’t wait to explore every inch of it...alone!

     Ring. Ring.

     “Mitch, stop!”


     This can't be happening, Mitch thinks to himself. How the heck can’t I out-bike Stan?! And who the heck uses their ringer that much, let alone at all?!

     Mitch speeds past the entrance. Other bikers casually stroll on the path, but he has no time for their leisure so he rudely cuts in front of them, nearly wiping out as his tires skid from the sand that found its way onto the path.

     Ring. Ring.

     Deeper into the refuge they go. The path splits like a maze, zig-zagging through wide-open sunny stretches then into narrow, darkened channels that seemingly lead to nowhere. But no matter how many times Mitch veers down a side path thinking he lost him - RING RING - Stan’s right behind him.

     Screw this. If he can’t outrun him, he needs to outsmart him. Mitch speeds around the next bend, hugging the corner closely. The instant there’s a blind spot, he slams the breaks and fishtails into the uncharted forest.

     Five seconds pass when — zoom! Stan flies by, completely oblivious to Mitch hiding in the woods. If you would have told Mitch last night he’d have to hustle

to outrun Stan, he’d call you a fool. If you asked him what he thought of Stan now, he’d say there’s a good chance he’s a Russian spy.

     After a safe two-minutes pass, he begins walking his bike back to the path, grinning while thinking of all the adventuring he can now do in this haunting habitat. But just as fast as it came, the grin turns into terror, and the walk turns into a halting stop.

     The ring, ring he heard before is now a hiss, hiss.

     Blocking the only clear way to the path is a snake with a head the size of a softball. Normally, Mitch loves snakes. He thinks they’re rad and loves how ballistic girls get when he throws one near them.

     But this snake is different. The vertical slits tell Mitch it’s loaded with venom, and its open white mouth reminds Mitch of...cotton. Crap. This isn’t good.

     Slowly and carefully, Mitch walks the bike backwards. Angry and fixated, the snake follows.



     The snake’s not slowing down, so Mitch back peddles harder, faster, and...less carefully. His heel snags onto a root that sends him tumbling to the ground.

     Seizing the opportunity, the snake slithers ahead until it’s within striking distance. It coils, priming itself for attack.

     Mitch reaches desperately for a stick, but there’s only tangled trees and vines. “Help! Somebody, please-”


     A rock sails through the air directly into the snake’s massive head. It collapses. Dead.

     Mitch turns to the zing’s direction. He thinks he sees something moving deeper into the forest, something upright, something hairy. But before he can get a clearer look, whatever it is he thinks he sees is gone.

     “Mitch, where are you?” Stan yells from the path.

     Mitch can’t help but feel guilty for now wanting Stan’s help. But then again, Stan’s the reason he had to hide with deadly snakes. Mitch concludes that Stan’s still terribly unfortunate but agrees it’s best to suppress that resentment until he’s safely out of danger.

     “Stan! I’m in here.” Stan peeks his head through the trees.


     “Wait,” yells Mitch. “There may be more.”


     Stan sees the dead snake. A perfectly round stone lies next to its battered head.


     “Holy smokes, Mitch! That’s a cottonmouth.”


     “Would you happen to know anything about how it died?”


     “No. Not at all. I just got here,” Stan replies.


     As Mitch walks his bike back to the path, questions flood through his head. Who or what just saved him from the snake? Why did it run off? And most importantly, How the heck did Stan keep up with him for so long?!

     These questions occupy him until he’s back on his bike and back on the path. Before he arrives at any answers, Stan rides next to him, nearly bumping his handle-bars. He says nothing but fixates on Mitch with a cheesy jagged smile.

     Feeling pressured to say something, Mitch goes for the first thing he sees: Stan’s puka-shell necklace with a shark tooth dangling from the end of it.

     “Are you serious?” Mitch points to the necklace.

     Stan’s smile shrivels away as he shrinks down into his handlebars. Mitch feels bad and tries to change the topic, “Where’d you learn to ride like that?”

     “I’m used to getting chased from school.”

     Now Mitch feels like the ultimate jerk. Thankfully, for Mitch’s sake, Stan presses on, “This area’s amazing. Check this out.”


     They take a narrow turn on the fork in the road. The landscape quickly changes from overcrowded trees to wide-open swamp land ruled by dark pools and skinny, naked trees. A cluster of trees, each tree no smaller than five healthy trees combined, grows in the middle of it all, towering well above the canopy. Thick vines droop down them like braided hair.

     “Pretty sweet, huh? Kinda looks like a treehouse.”

     Mitch agrees, “It really does.”

     Guilt hits him like the rock that hit the snake. Stan actually seems like an okay dude. “Hey man, you know where I could find a necklace like yours? I can’t’s kinda cool.”

     Stan’s eyes light up.


     Mitch looks into the gift shop’s mirror. Through the reflection, he sees Stan reading a book. This is Mitch's last chance.


     Thoughts of should I do it race through his head. He just told Stan he kinda liked it, but this, of course, was a big fat lie. If anyone from back home saw him wearing a puka-shell/shark- tooth combo, he’d never be invited to a birthday party ever again.


     "Hey Mitch," Stan says with his face still buried in the book, "it says here that this island used to be run by pirates. You think we can find any treasure at the refuge?"

     Mitch freezes awkwardly like a dog when you put a sweater on it, "No, I don't think the refuge has any buried treasure."

     “Aww dang, well what about...” and then Stan looks up. The book falls out of his hands. He smiles so intensely Mitch knows he has no other choice — he has to buy this necklace.

     “Stan, this gives us special powers, right?”

     Stan replies almost too quickly, “Of course. Heightened swimming skills, the ability to become invincible and hunt in packs, and an overall sense of being awesome.”

     “Perfect. I figured we could hunt in packs but wasn’t quite sure on the invincibility part.”

     They exit the store, both wearing necklaces, both eating ice-cream cones. Stan freezes when he sees two military trucks with mounted machine guns rumbling down the coastal road.


     Mitch sees the question physically forming across Stan’s wrinkled forehead and answers it before it gets asked, “There’s a military base over there.”

     Mitch points to the far left side of the beach. “We stayed near it one year. They shot so many guns it sounded like a Rambo movie. I thought it was sweet — but my mom did not. That’s why we always pick a house on the opposite side of the beach near the refuge.”

     “Do they normally drive around like this?”

     “Well...good point, dude. Can’t say I’ve ever seen them outside the base before.”

     “Maybe it’s aliens! They found a colony off the coast. And now we must defend the beach from invasion!”

     Mitch stares blankly at Stan, unsure if he’s being serious or not. Before Mitch has a chance to ask, Stan approaches a soldier in uniform standing in line for ice cream, “On behalf of our country, I wanted to thank you for your service.”

     The soldier laughs to himself as he bends down just so Stan can hear, “Kid, between me and you, this is the easiest base in the world. In fact, I almost wish something bad would happen just so we’d have something to do.” The soldier winks at Stan then orders an ice cream cone.

     Stan just stands there, not quite sure what to do next. Mitch steps in to help,

     “You ready to head back? Mom’s going to be wondering where we are.”

     It takes Stan five seconds to realize Mitch hopped on his bike and is already halfway down the block.


     Mitch can’t help but wonder what’s going on in Stan’s head. Was he starstruck by the soldier, or is he upset the soldier just spoiled his beach vacation alien invasion theory? Mitch, with strong conviction, settles on the latter.


Danger Tide

There’s a law of the universe that states when you’re going to the beach for the day, there’s always, without fail, just the right amount of beach junk you can carry without being forced to make two trips as long as everyone — no less than five years of age — uncomfortably loads every inch of their upper bodies with as much as they can possibly handle.

     Standing in a line on the top of the sand dune, Mitch and his family embody every aspect of this complex theorem, adding to the sample size that proves this law is unequivocally true. Each of them is overloaded with towels, chairs, umbrellas, games, snacks, you-name-it.

     Everyone is quiet. Unsure who should lead, Josh looks at his mom. She nods for him to go ahead.

     He clears his throat, then begins, “We are all travelers of both time and space, going to where we’ve been. Let the tide wash our faults away, taking away our sins. There’s smoke behind us, spiraling high, we have but three choices: to run, to hide or to...”

     Josh chokes up before he can finish. Everyone but Stan joins in with their own tears. Bek surprises herself by empathetically resting her hand on Josh’s back.

     Not letting this rare support go to waste, Josh takes a deep breath then pushes past his feelings, “...we have but three choices: to run, to hide die. What do we say?!”

     Mitch’s family shouts back, “RUN!”

     All together, shoulder to shoulder, they charge down the dune. Looking like a drunken penguin march while strapped obnoxiously with beach gear, they barrel through the heavy sand. Other beachgoers watch on, confused as to what’s happening.

     Once they reach prime umbrella territory, they awkwardly release their beach gear without missing a step as they sprint forward and dive straight into the ocean.

     And with that dive, the ceremony concludes. Mitch and his family wade back to the beach quietly, solemnly. Stan saunters five paces behind, attempting his best invisible that Mitch spots out,

     “I bet you’re wondering what the heck all of that was, huh?”

     Stan nods a resounding yes. Mitch explains,

     “My dad never missed a chance to inject a little fun into a moment, especially if the moment was us complaining about carrying beach crap over the hot sand. So, he spliced together quotes from his three favorite things: Led Zeppelin, the Bible, and LOST, then made it into a game.”

     Stan’s eyes light up, “Your dad liked LOST?”

     “Yup. And he, unfortunately, saw the ending before he passed.”

     Stan’s jaw drops. Mitch suspects it’s not from the joke he made about his dead dad but rather at the dig he made about LOST.

     “Would you stop making that thing? It’s just stupid,” Mitch changes tone to yell at his sister.

     Bek makes the same drawing in the sand from yesterday: a circle with a heart, a sun, a lightning bolt, and a smiley face inside it.

     She wastes no time responding, “Shut your whiney face and stop being such a cud.”

     Mitch, looking for support, puts his arm on Stan’s shoulder, “That thing she’s’s our family crest. They draw it everywhere we travel, in the mountains, at the beach, wherever. Now, everyone in my family has something cool, like a sun, a lightning bolt, or a heart — which I can even get behind since it’s for my mom and dad. But do you know what I get? A smiley face. A freakin’ emoji.”

     Bek refutes, “It’s not an emoji, nimrod. You know it’s to show how happy and funny you are...or were, at least. How else can you easily draw something to represent that in the sand?”

     Mitch kicks sand at her. She kicks it back. Mitch grabs a paddle to chuck at her. Josh grabs his arm,

     “Just shut up about it, dude. Dad’s gone. Do you know what that means? It means the crest’s never going to change, so accept it.”

     This does the trick. Mitch drops the paddle.

     “Let’s go.” Josh grabs the paddle Mitch just dropped and tosses another one to Stan. “Last year we got over five-hundred in a row. Should be a piece of cake with you here.”

     Stan looks at the paddle like it’s advanced alien technology. Mitch helps relieve his confusion, “C’mon. It’s easy.”

     They form a circle where the dry sand meets the wet sand and treat a small blue ball like a grenade, doing anything they can to keep it in the air — and they quickly die a thousand deaths. Stan is wretched. He knows it. They know it. The entire beach community knows it. Despite the weight of the world against them, they buckle down and continue playing.

     “I don’t know how your father got into these books.”

     Bek looks up from reading The Old Man and the Sea to find her mom reading a thick novel. The cover art’s a sword piercing through a stone.


     “I always thought Dad would have been an excellent writer,” Bek says. “He wasn’t just skilled, but he always had a knack for giving us the exact story we needed to hear.”

     “Oh, if that wasn’t the truth,” her mom smiles and puts her book down to think. ”Like the time he tricked you guys into thinking you were talking to Mr. Murch’s ghost on the CB radio.”

     “Deadman Murch was Dad?!”


     “You didn’t know that?”


     “No!” Happy anger consumes Bek’s face.


     “Wow. That’s too funny. He needed a way to scare you so you wouldn’t cross through their yard anymore.”


     “Well, it worked!”

     “Most people just yell at their kids but not him. He’d always find another way to reach you. I, on the other hand, do not share that quality.”

     Bek’s not subtle, “That’s for sure.” She laughs and so does her mother. “Mom, your angle’s more along the line of, I’m going to rip your face off if you don’t stop what you’re doing.”

     “Well said, dear. Well, said,” her mom smiles, accepting those words as a compliment, then goes back to her book.

     “I’m done. You guys are truly pathetic,” Josh spikes his paddle into the sand then storms into the ocean. Stan looks like he’s about to cry.

     Mitch can’t lie, Stan is truly pathetic. But he also feels bad for him, “Don’t sweat it. Josh can be a little harsh sometimes.”

     “I really tried to paddle the ball well.”


     “I know, Stan. We all know.”


     Mitch’s attention shifts to a group huddled around something on the shore. He nods at Stan to look. They throw their paddles near their chairs and head over to investigate.

     No one’s talking. Everyone’s just looking at it, trying to find the words to describe what exactly it is:

     The thing seems to be some sort of translucent shedding — like a snakeskin — as large as an adult shark with a wide top that branches off into multiple thin, spider-like legs.

     Someone pokes one of the legs with a stick. Everyone jolts back as the shedding coils itself around the stick.

     “What the heck is that thing?” asks a beer-bellied man who most certainly sells cheap insurance.


     “Everyone, back up.”

     Two people holding a sizable body-bag approach the crowd, motioning everyone to move back. Their name tags read Virginia Marine Biology. They wear rubber gloves and hold long poles with claws at the end of them. When they lift the shedding into the bag, it stretches from top to bottom, extending nearly ten feet in length. Then, just as quickly, it becomes limp. Whatever energy was left in it is now gone.

     “What the heck is that thing?” the beer-bellied man repeats, hoping this time for a response.

     The worker — a nerdy yet arrogant man that looks like he loves to educate morons — turns to him, “What do you think it is?”

     The beer-bellied man stutters nonsense.

     The worker smiles, “It’s an octopus shedding. Consider yourself lucky. I’ve worked here for twenty years, and this is the first one I’ve seen.”


     Everyone turns to the voice of a man in a military uniform. He sits in the driver’s seat of a truck and glares at the workers to stop talking. They follow his short orders then carry the bag to the back of his truck. The military man nods his head to all of the onlookers then drives off as soon as the biologists get into their truck.

     Mitch walks away kicking sand out of annoyance.

     Why didn’t he touch that shedding? He’ll never get that opportunity again. Like the time he didn’t poke the dead body at his friend’s uncle’s wake even though they bet him four dollars to do it — what a mistake.

     Stan follows Mitch back to their spot, “Rule one about the beach, Stan. Naps are mandatory.”

     Mitch slumps into a beach chair, still stewing in let down. He sinks the legs of the chair deeper into the sand and then does the same with his feet. He balls up a towel for a pillow, lays back, closes his eyes, and fades away.


     Like sitting next to a towering bonfire, the sun becomes unbearably hot, forcing Mitch to shield his eyes with his hands. It feels like God’s squeezing a bellow behind the burning star.

     Regardless of how hot it gets, though, it doesn’t burn him. He acclimates his eyes by peeking from behind the safety of his fingers. Surprisingly, this takes no time at all. His eyes absorb the light like food, soaking it in, growing more energized after each passing moment.

     What freaks Mitch out isn’t the intensity of the light but that his eyes continue adjusting past it, allowing him to see shapes of the world he never knew existed. It’s like another dimension is peeling back its layers right in front of him.

     The ocean is no longer water in motion. It’s more like a glassy lake with waves of gray, smokey energy moving through it.

     Droplets of vapor float all around him, evaporating to the thick clouds above that no longer look like gigantic white blankets but trillions of water particles frozen in time.

     He grabs a handful of sand but to him, it’s not sand anymore; it’s a handful of infinitesimally small stones — each rock unique in color, shape, and density, feeling as if it’s the only one in his hand. Turning his hand sideways, the thousands of rocks in his palm cascade over his skin to the sand below, each one crashing down loud enough for him to hear.

     Nothing specifically steals his attention but he feels that he must look up, so he does.

     Standing at the ocean’s edge, a man uses driftwood to carve something in the water-soaked sand. Mitch walks to him, gently, so as not to disturb this man’s deep train of thought.


     As Mitch walks, the sand barely bends to his weight — it’s like walking on a warm shaggy carpet.


     Mitch stops a few feet short of the man once he can see what he’s drawing. It’s a picture. But instead of drawing each shape all at once, he draws them like he’s masterfully painting each stroke, etching all the vertical strokes first followed by the horizontal strokes after. All that’s left are the curves. After a few quick carvings, Mitch finally figures out what it is — it’s their family crest.

     The man turns. Mitch’s eyes bulge from his face,




     As the words leave Mitch’s mouth, his dad’s legs collapse and his face smacks against the sand. Something long and skinny binds his legs together. It continues into the ocean, looking like an old sea rope that’s been deteriorating at the bottom of the sea.

     Mitch can’t see what “it” is connected to but where it leads into the water, it glows red as if the devil himself is lurking just under the crest of the wave.

     Mitch’s dad claws at the sand — but it’s useless. In a flash, he’s pulled into the water and swallowed by the sea.


     Mitch jolts awake. This time, his vision adjusts immediately.


     Stan’s sitting in the chair next to him, “You okay, dude? I think you were dreaming.”

     Mitch takes a moment to respond, “Yeah. I think it was a

dream, too.”


     “You look like you could use a fresh swim. And to be honest, so could I. Let's go.”


     Mitch turns to the sea. It chills his core just looking at it. How can he tell Stan no? It’s just the ocean. He loves it.


     Mitch wills his legs to the water’s edge. His face turns a ghostly white as the salty water rolls over his feet. He tries to move but can’t; his ankles feel chained together.

     It’s not until the tide recedes and his feet are free of water that he can move again, which he does in a panic by running to the dry sand where the water cannot find him.

     “I’m going back to the house for a bit,” Mitch announces to anyone who cares.

     “What’s wrong?” his mom asks without putting her book down. “Um, nothing. I think I’m just a little dehydrated.”

     “Well, get some rest, hun. We’re going to Baja at five.” Mitch notices that, like his mom, Bek never cared enough to look up from her book. And Josh was far too busy doing push-ups in the sand. Stan was the only one who looked concerned.

     Normally this would bug him but not now. Now, he's too busy being terrified of what he can't yet understand.


     “You look like crap,” Mitch’s mom nicely points out from across the restaurant’s table.

     “I’m still a little tired, that’s all,” he responds. “Probably those four packs of Skittles you ate earlier.”


     “Shut up, Josh. You know my tolerance is five packs.” Mitch

kicks him from under the table. “I’ll be fine, though. I think I just need a good night’s sleep.”

     “Why don’t you guys go play?” Their mom points to the empty cornhole boards set up on the restaurant’s lawn that borders the bay.

     It hurts Mitch to feel so ill. Not just because he feels like everyone is babying him but because this is one of his favorite places on the island.

     No, it’s not just the chicken fingers he swears are the finest in the world, as all kids do at some place and time — it’s the atmosphere.


     It’s the kayakers with headlights on, gliding through the dark waters fishing the bay. It’s the crabbers, checking their cages, crossing their fingers that they caught tonight’s dinner. It’s the mysteries and legends told by seafaring locals who’ve been here for generations, hoping that one day someone shares a map to the fabled lost treasure at the hidden cove.

     “You guys go ahead,” Mitch puts his head down as the waitress clears their table of empty dishes.

     “But we need four players,” Bek responds, irritated by his lack of will.

     “Have Josh play on both sides like we used to do when you sucked and gave up after three throws.” Even with his head down, Mitch gets in a dig.

     Bek rolls her eyes, but it works. She follows Josh to the boards,

     “Stan, you coming?” Josh asks.

     Stan’s too buried in his phone to see they got up from the table, “Oh, yeah. Sure. One second.”

     Stan slides his phone over to Mitch. “Check it out.”


     Mitch perks up and reads the screen. It’s a Wiki page. Stan continues, “Octopus haven’t molted since the Jurassic period. Says it right there. What do you think that means?”


     “C’mon Stan. Let’s start before someone else claims the

boards,” Bek yells over.


     Stan walks off, leaving Mitch to wonder what the heck that thing from the ocean really was.



Nightmare Island

     Mitch’s family sets up a board game just as he closes his bedroom door. It’s time for a much-needed sleep.

     As hard as he tries, he can’t shake the dream he had on the beach. The chills stay wrapped around his bones. It was too visceral. Too real. Too...his thoughts blackout. Any remaining energy subsides as soon as his head hits the pillow, instantly sending him into a dreamless slumber.

     When he awakens, he feels like a new boy. The tarry residue left from the day before seems to have purged itself from his system. All that remains is blazing energy.

     But then he looks at the clock — 3 AM. Crap. He tries to go back to sleep. It’s pointless. He’s too wide awake.


     As he creeps out of his room, he hears Stan talking in his sleep, “Bad guys. Go away — I’m Batman.”


     Mitch laughs out loud and continues into the living room. Moonlight streams through the ocean-front windows. Mitch stands at the glass, transfixed by the full moon. It looks counterfeit, like the one you’d see from a movie.

     And the stars, they dance and shine like they were just born, the same way they did when he went camping at the Adirondack Mountains. What always stuck with Mitch wasn’t so much the survival or fishing skills he learned there — he has a smartphone for that — but what his dad stressed every day of their trip, “If you truly want to live, make every day of your life a new adventure.”

     Mitch relishes in this thought. He transports himself back to their adventures, especially the ones where they got lost (all of them). One adventure in particular stops him in his tracks:


     Before his dad got sick, he told them about a trip he was planning. It would be an adventure so grand that the National Geographic would beg him to feature it. The location was kept secret by his father, and it eats Mitch alive that he never asked him where it was before he passed.

     Mitch’s dread gets sidetracked by a noise coming from outside. It’s a loud screech, full of terror and pain. If it hurts to hear this awful sound, Mitch can only imagine what the animal is going through.

     He walks into the enclosed side porch then onto the deck. The cry abruptly stops like the vocal cords were ripped from its throat.

     Looking out across the moonlit sand dunes, Mitch sees nothing.

     “What a tease,” he says out loud, disappointed the mystery didn’t unfold. But then, as if to appease his disappointment, something stumbles over the peak of the sand dune not lit by moonlight. The thing collapses and slides down the sandy hill until it stops underneath the deck.

     Mitch rushes inside. He returns with a flashlight, then runs down the deck stairs and beams the light forward — it’s a raccoon.

     Blood spots stain every inch of the animal like it was pierced by fine needles. Wheezing hard, it takes one more breath, then dies.

     “Man, what the heck got you?”

     From the corner of his eye, Mitch sees a moving shadow at the top of the dune. He shines his light. Blinded by the beam, a red fox freezes, then charges towards him.


     Mitch cocks back the metal flashlight to use as a weapon. The fox bounds at Mitch. Off-balance, Mitch stumbles backward into the sand. He covers his head, but the fox simply leaps over him and continues past the house.

     Just as Mitch starts to curse the fox and its mother, a stampede of cries echoes from the row of houses next to him. He shines his light and sees packs of raccoons, foxes, and — what?! He squints his eyes to ensure it’s what he thinks it is. Yep. Snakes, slithering alongside the other animals, down the dunes and away from the beach.

     Mitch’s smart enough to know that animals provide warning signs of bad things to come. But he’s also too curious to let that thought deter him from climbing the hill to see what it is that the animals are so afraid of.

     He reaches the top of the dune where the moon illuminates everything — the dunes, the sand, the water — except what the animals are running from. Something’s off. Something that normally is, right now is not.

     Mitch looks up when a green star, shining like a ball of swirling energy, plunges from the sky towards the horizon. Just as Mitch begins to awe at the sight, another one falls. Then another. And another.


     Next, lightning appears, but this isn’t your run-of-the-mill electricity. This lightning explodes upwards from the ocean then branches sideways in the sky like an Acacia tree.

     This spectacle hypnotizes Mitch, seducing him to the shoreline without his consent. Only after the abnormally icy water rushes over his feet does he even realize where he’s at.

     More lightning explodes, this time in the middle of the sky as if it was discharged from thin air. It branches over the entire ocean like a firework, then fizzles out like liquid metal burning through seams of atmosphere. Mitch waits for more but doesn’t get it — nothing’s left but the moon and stars.

     Only now does he realize how cold the water truly is. It’s not just cold. It’s somehow boiling while still remaining icy. Where these waters came from, only God knows.

     He steps back until he’s on dry sand again, never taking his eyes off the ocean in front of him. And that’s when he figures out what’s off — it’s the moonlight.

     Growing up, his dad told him the path of moonlight only follows the bravest of kids. So when the trail of light followed Mitch on their night hikes, he thought himself magical. But like most things in life, knowledge ruined the fun and taught him the moonlight’s path is all about perspective and follows anyone...except for tonight.

     Tonight...there’s no such thing as perspective. The path of the misplaced moonlight stretches across the ocean and stops miles down the beach, near the refuge.

     Now either his mind is playing tricks on him or the moon is starting to grow. Whatever it is, he quickly prays it would stop so he doesn’t have to see what lines the shoreline: rows upon rows of dead sea-animals. Small fish. Big fish. Eels. Dolphins. Sharks. Stingrays. If you’ve heard of it, it’s there.

     But then it gets worse.

     For every dead carcass, there’s at least three of the same sheddings they saw at the beach the day before.

     Flight instinct again kicks in. This time, he listens. But by the time he’s halfway to the house, he slows his pace when the silver sand that was just reflecting the gray moon has now turned into a crimson sandbox. He comes to a complete stop.

     Now he understands why people couldn’t help but look at Medusa. The urge for safety becomes dwarfed by the hunger to see. So, he turns and looks at what he once knew was the moon.

     It’s now a demonic orb boiling with blood red and black refractions as bright as a midday sun, flooding its version of daylight to as far as Mitch can see.


     And then, like a cosmic magic trick, the moon completely melts away. Only her star companions dot the sky.


     He screams to himself, RUN!, but the universe again toys with him. The second he flinches to go, one by one, the stars begin falling from the sky until all of them collapse together. Their green tails paint the horizon to look like the Northern Lights.

     The beauty of this moment is stripped away as the stars crash into the water. Now it feels like a war movie. Like Normandy. Like an invasion.


     Mitch turns. Stars are now crashing inland. Fire shoots upwards in the distance. After a barrage of explosions — silence. And after a short-lived calm — it creeps out of the ocean.

     All along the beach, something with needle spider-like legs lurks onto the dry sand. Mitch has officially had enough.

     He takes off, not looking back even if his dad called him by name. He reaches the dunes and slides down the sand to the bottom of their house. He races up the stairs to the balcony door, opens it, and just as he goes to close it — whap!

     The arm of something coils around his leg, digging into his flesh. Luminous blue veins line the tentacle-like arm and pulsate like they are filled with electricity.

     What scares Mitch the most isn’t that something is attacking him. What scares him the most is that he can’t see what the tentacle is actually leading to.

     By the time he thinks to scream, the creature beats him to it, shrieking in pain as it uncoils itself from his leg and ducks away into the shadows.

     Mitch, not waiting to wonder why it retreated, slams the door shut and runs inside.

     “Everyone, wake...” he stops, not because he wants to but because he has to — his tongue swells to the outside of his mouth.

     He moves toward his room, stumbling against every wall until he’s through his doorway.

     He tries yelling Stan’s name, but all that comes out are mumbles. When he moves to shake Stan awake, Mitch’s eyes roll back in his head as he collapses in between his bed and Stan’s.

     Sweet dreams.

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