The sun is gone, but the night is hot. I sit as far away from the fire pit as I can, fingers tracing patterns in the sand. It’s dry and powdery, and still a little warm. The sparks from the fire jump and fizzle. I feel the flashes of pain as they land on my bare legs. I don’t mind; a part of me even likes it. Fire on bare skin, and I win.
The flickering light illuminates the faces of my cousins oddly. The shadows and hollows of their faces are starker, and yet the skin around their eyes and lips seems smoky, soft, warm. In the firelight everyone blends together into one fluid movement, but on the outskirts, where the grasp of the firelight grows weak and the darkness creeps in, the dance becomes disjointed. I am in that darkness.
The laughter grows loud and my fingers creep underneath the dry powder, seeking warmth, and find that damp, gritty layer underneath. The person besides me leans towards me and unconsciously I lean away.
“Oh, don’t be like that.”
Isabelle. I relax, but only slightly.
“Sorry.” I can’t think of anything else to say. Isabelle is . . . overpowering. Predatory, even. She laughs her smooth, smoky laugh and places a cool hand on my thigh.
“You’re so sweet,” she smiles. I wish she would take her hand away. “How are you doing?”
“Fine, fine,” I say. “It’s nice to be out here. It’s very peaceful.”
“Mm-hmm.” She stretches, tossing back her head and raising her arms. Her bare skin is tight. “But how are things at home?”
“But it must be really hard, your parents divorcing—”
“It’s fine!” I snap, louder than I’d meant to. Across the fire Jake bellows in laughter. I look across quickly, cheeks flaming, but no one has noticed.
“Okay, whatever,” Isabelle says sulkily, turning away.
A shudder goes through me. I wish I could get away. Not home, but not here: definitely not here, not where the only thing there is heat and laughter.
“What’s your greatest fear?” says a shrill voice from across the fire. No one listens. Jake punches Laurie on the shoulder. Then again: “What’s your greatest fear?”
I peer at the fire, trying to see beyond the light. A small figure. “Tess?” I say. “Tessy, is that you?”
Jake cuts across Tess’s reply. “So! She speaks at last.”
I roll my eyes at him. “Well, you can’t seem to shut up, Jake.”
The shrill voice again: “I said” —in the tones of accusatory impatience that mark an annoyed eight-year-old— ”what’s your greatest fear?”
Now I know that it’s Tess. She can’t stop asking me, but I brush it off. She would ask Mom but Mom is usually angry, and Dad never says anything anymore. “My greatest fear is burns,” she tells me when she’s bored. “I feel sick when I see burns.”
I don’t like to think of where she saw burned skin.
Jake hoots with laughter. “That’s Tessy all right.” Don’t call her Tessy. Only I call her Tessy. “She’s been asking everyone all day. Don’t tell me you haven’t answered?”
“Have you?” I say, trying and failing to sound withering.
Laurie laughs. “It would take him weeks to finish.”
Tess whines something, but over the laughter I can’t hear.
“Oh yeah?” Jake screws up his eyes and sticks out his tongue. “Let’s go around.”
Isabelle speaks up. “My greatest fear,” she says, smooth and charming, getting smokier by the second, “is isolation.”
Someone laughs. Laurie says, “It would be, considering all the guys you’ve dated,” and Isabelle smiles, like she enjoys her private life being discussed. But I glare at her. Isabelle might be shallow, but she isn’t stupid. Now I’ll be last, and I won’t be able to escape it.
So it starts. “Blood,” says someone.
I trace figures in the sand.
Time seems to crawl by. I have dusty grit underneath my fingernails. My skin feels dry and lifeless, like a shriveled apple. But to stop feels wrong—I need the hum of sand and skin rubbing together.
“Burns!” Tess says triumphantly.
“Laurie,” says Jake.
Trenches. Canals. Infinity symbols. The sand rushes back in as soon as my fingers push it out.
The fire crackles. Behind me the ocean comes and goes, salty, cool.
“It’s your turn,” says Tess matter-of-factly.
“Yeah,” says Jake. “What is it? Jump scares? Horror movies?”
“Nothing,” I say. “It’s nothing.”
Jake laughs. “Come on. You’re not scared of anything?”
“No!” My hands make fists, trying to hold the sand, but it trickles out of my fingers in tiny rasping waterfalls. “That’s not what I meant. I’m scared of nothingness. Of being in nothing.”
“Don’t be a bad sport,” Laurie remonstrates me. “We’re all scared of something.”
“But I just said—” I take a deep breath. “I’m scared of . . . Of . . . Of rats.”
There’s an awkward silence.
“Okay,” Jake says doubtfully.
The fire crackles. Isabelle leans over to me. “You can tell me the truth later,” she whispers, dark red mouth curving up like a sickle. I see a glint of victory in her eyes.
“Hey, I’ve got an idea,” says Laurie brightly—a little too brightly, maybe. “Jake, how about you take us out on a boat ride! You just got your license, right?”
“Yeah . . .”
“Oh, Jake, take us out!” Isabelle is already standing. Whoops and shouts and the noise starts again. I remain seated and stare at the fire through the sea of legs—some tanned, some white, most burned bright red. Somebody grabs my hand.
“Come on, let’s go!”
“Tess?” I look up. “Tess, it’s really late. You ought to go to bed.”
“It’s not late! Everyone else is awake!”
“Anyways, Jake just got his license, and I don’t want you on a boat without an adult.”
“Laurie’s an adult!”
“Laurie is also a teenager.”
Tess pulls on my hand petulantly, blue towel dragging in the sand, but I don’t move.
“You’re no fun!” whines Tess. “You can stay here if you want. I’m going.”
She darts away, skipping, holding her towel out behind her like a cape. I stand, but I know she won’t listen. Jake and Laurie are already walking towards the dock. They’re an odd pair: Jake, gesticulating wildly, his bare, muscled back crusted over with sand; and Laurie, tall, slim, composed, her hair braided neatly. When Tess darts in between them, Jake jumps and rolls his eyes like a boy, but Laurie just smiles.
I drift to the end of the long line of cousins. A breeze ruffles my hair, bringing the smell of salt and plastic beach chairs with it. Behind us I see the tiny bob of phone flashlights looking for ghost crabs, and even farther down the beach, I see the lights of the city, hazy and wavering. I close my eyes and try to capture it: the peace, the voices, the ocean smell. Mom and Dad and lawyers seem years away.
Tess appears besides me. “Will Mom be mad if we go on the boat?”
I open my eyes and look down at her. Her face is small, and her bones are sharp and angled underneath the chubbiness. “I don’t know. Maybe. Probably.”
We turn onto the dock. The wood creaks underneath our feet. We hear the water lapping against the wooden posts.
“Should we go on the boat, then?” Tess asks. She stumbles and takes my arm, watching the water from between the slats of the dock.
“No, I don’t think so.”
Tess and I are quiet, listening to the ocean.
“Are you going to go on the boat?” she asks me, looking up from her feet for a moment. She glances back down.
We try to listen to the ocean again, but the unceasing sound of our cousins washes it out of our minds until Tess finally lets go of my arm.
The dock is narrow and Tess and I are pushed to the edge. The boat sits, waiting for us. Jake extends his hand, and Tess takes it, jumping over the dark, sloshing water. She gives me an unreadable look and runs off to the bow. I step over the sloshing darkness and try not to stumble. Jake grins.
“Shut up,” I say, even though he hasn’t said a word.
The boat smells like salt, dry seaweed, and fish. Piles of plastic netting lie on the deck. It’s made of grimy metal plates, painted white. The bolts are cold underneath my bare feet. I walk over to the side, leaning on the railing. The metal pushes into my stomach, settling underneath my ribs. I can feel the cold from underneath the fabric of my bathing suit.
“And . . . There we go!” says Jake from miles away, and then there’s the sound of the engine starting. Where there were ocean waves there are propellers now. A bump, a jolt, a rocking: the boat rumbles to life.
I try to find the horizon. Darkness mixes and mingles at the edge of sea and sky; I can’t tell where the water ends and the sky begins. I shift to look back at the beach. The dock seems to shrink, and the lights of the crab-hunters look like sparks. Our fire, dying, flickers like a candle in the flatness of the beach.
We speed up. The wind seems to howl in my ears, creeping into my skull and filling me up with a whirling rush. I grip the railing with my stiff, chapped hands and try to steady myself. The water churns, creating ripples, and the ripples go, go, go, leaving as soon as they’re formed. If the ripples have mothers, I wonder if the mothers know them and love them. Or perhaps each ripple is like the next: just skimming the surface. I wonder if the loving mothers ever argue with the cold mothers, and if they ever win. I wonder if the loving mothers are ever ready to see each ripple disappear into the sea. And then I wonder if the cold mothers were loving mothers once, and if instead of kissing them goodbye the side of the boat threw up his hands and let them and all their ripples fall into the darkness.
There’s a pain in my foot. I crouch down to examine it, but all I see are my sandy toes. I glance up and I see Tess sitting a few feet away from me, moodily throwing seashells. She aims at Isabelle and misses.
“Tess! What are you doing?”
She frowns at me sulkily. She throws a shell. It hits my ear.
“Tess! That hurts!” I duck. A shell whizzes over my head, clangs against the bottom of the railing, and disappears into the frothing ocean. The wind blows harder and the boat rocks. I stumble.
Tess runs out of seashells.
“I hate you,” she says, voice wavering. “I hate everybody.”
“Nobody talks to me,” she wails. “Nobody talks to me here and nobody talks to me at home and even at school nobody talks to me.” She scrabbles around for a seashell, and, finding one, flings it at me with all her might. It clangs against the railing and hits me with a dull thunk. I stumble back, clutching my head. My hand grazes the underside of the railing.
“Tess, stop it! Stop throwing—”
The boat rears and falls and Tess screams, loud, shrill, terrified. The world is dizzying, lopsided; I see the railing above me and I reach behind me for the floor but my hand meets only air, and suddenly I’m falling.
The wind rushes around me and into me; it’s consuming me, and for an instant the only thing in the world is darkness and roaring in my mind. It’s loud, oh so loud, and my head is about to burst open and unleash it—
I take one last gasp.
The water is cold, sharp, trying to freeze my thrashing limbs into place. I see white froth and bubbles encircle me as I fall deeper into the emptiness. My throat seems to lock. Where’s the surface? Where’s the surface? My chest burns. I can’t find the surface. The ocean seems to pull me down. Everything is very still except for the burning fire in my lungs. Air. Air. I need air.
I’m sinking, now. There is nothing for miles—nothing on nothing on nothing. I see my hair reaching up to the surface, watch my hand try to grasp the glimmering up above. My skin looks white, dead.
I’m scared. I’m so scared. The water runs its cooling hands over my body but it can’t get inside me, I won’t let it get inside me, I—
One last huge, gasping bubble floats to the surface, silvery white, fluid.
The burning stops. My throat welcomes the cold. There’s an odd cool feeling in my lungs. My eyes glide open. There’s no color. I don’t see white or black or even blue: I see transparent, transparent for miles. The world is made of nothing.
The nothing shimmers. It’s peaceful down here. I can’t move, but I’m drifting . . .
I hear Tess laughing.
At first it’s an echo coming from the deep, but then it becomes louder, clearer. Her laugh glances off the infinite glass of this world until my head is screaming, and my body vibrates with each little giggle—
“Oh, Mommy, stop it.” Tess gasps for air, but it rushes out of her in a million incandescent giggles. I look over from the sink and I see them on the couch, gasping with laughter. I smile.
I turn back to the dishes, but Dad calls me.
“Leave the dishes for a moment and come look at this,” Dad says from his station at the stovetop.
I rinse my wrinkled hands and turn the water off. The kitchen smells like garlic and frying bacon and tomato sauce.
Dad waves me over to one of the many saucepans. He’s still wearing his white button-up shirt and his pressed brown pants, but he has tied a battered apron around his middle. He holds a kitchen thermometer in his hands, the one that he got himself for Christmas last year, since Tess and I can never think of anything besides crocheted potholders.
“Look how the temperature of the oil isn’t going up, even though it’s still cooking. By now it’s evaporating.” I nod, looking at strips of dark meat simmering in the golden liquid. The oil pops. I step back, but a hot droplet lands on my forearm, like sparks from a fire.
An alarm goes off from Dad’s phone. Tess shoots up from the couch. “Is it ready? Is it ready?”
“Yes,” I toss over my shoulder.
“Wait! I want to try!”
Dad turns off the alarm. I step backwards again, and he lifts the simmering saucepan off the stovetop. I can hear the oil rocking in the pan. “Careful,” he says. I nod. It smells wonderful, like melted gold.
“I want some!”
I turn around. Tess’s voice comes too close. Suddenly I’m terrified. “Stop!” I shriek, but she barrels into me. I stumble backwards, arms pinwheeling. Dad yells.
Golden fire rushes down my back. Someone is screaming. My back is on fire. Mom is yelling. Hands rip off my steaming shirt, raking the fire deeper into me. I scream. Tess is crying. Mom is on the phone. There’s water on my back. Hot ice—that’s what it feels like, hot ice. Steam billows.
And all I can think is, how did it go from nothing to something so fast?
Tess isn’t laughing any more.
The world is quiet.
The world is cold . . .
It erupts into noise. A million bubbles explode from the surface, reaching me, trying to grasp my hair. A hand grabs onto my wrist, hard. It pulls. I feel heavy. Water circles and rushes, bubbles, laughter, wind.
I hit the surface and I realize that I’m alive, that there isn’t nothing around me, that there’s air, and I’m alive. Jake is there too, holding me to him in the water, but I don’t care, I’m too busy retching, gasping at air. He wraps his arms around me, squeezing my stomach. Seawater spills from my stiff lips. Someone lowers a rope ladder from the boat.
“Hold on to me,” he says. “Hold on to me, okay? Hold on.”
I wrap my legs around his middle and hold onto his shoulders with my arms. He climbs slowly, breathing hard, shivering.
He slumps onto the deck and hands pull me off them. They lay me down and push on my stomach. Oceans seem to stream out of me. It hurts, it hurts so much, to feel the quiet leave me in puddles strewn on the deck. But finally I can breathe.
Conversations: Isabelle on the phone, talking quickly, her smoky voice broken; Laurie saying she’ll turn the boat around; Jake asking me if I can hear him, if I’m okay.
I stare at my feet. Nothing swarms at the edge of my vision, trying to take me away, but I squeeze my eyes shut. When I open them again, I can see everything.
“I’m okay,” I say. My voice sounds broken, dipping into a whisper.
Jake gathers me up into a big hug, but I struggle out of his embrace.
“Tess,” I say. She walks over to me, trailing the blue towel behind, but she stops a few paces in front of me, wary.
“Are you burned?” she asks. Her small fingers are tight around the towel.
“Can I talk to you?”
“Yes. Yes you can.”
She wipes salt-clotted hair out of her eyes. Her fingers are dry and chapped and they tremble.
“I’m scared of nothing, too,” she says.
Nothing is Terrifying won an Honorable Mention for Short Story in the 2020 Scholastic Arts & Writing Competition.