Twenty-seven is too old for my sister to run away from home, but, after seven unreturned phone calls, I started seeing signs in vegetables. In the produce section at Cronig’s, the browning bruises on bananas read clear as any subway map, the tilted stem of an apple pointed south—a sweet-skinned compass. Against my palm, the beveled rinds of oranges told a story of the black tongues of highways and flickering motel signs.

*

My sister started chasing our mother’s ghost twelve years ago, thumbing her way from Chilmark to Vineyard Haven in forty minutes, a personal record. At the harbor, white caps rose and fell in a July wind as tourists licked ice cream cones in souvenir t-shirts and snapped photos of the A-frame houses hugging the shore. Beth traded eight dollars for passage to the mainland as, overhead, gulls pumped dappled wings. She spent three weeks in Manhattan, stalked gridded streets, spent nights in the mildewed apartment of a NYU freshman she had met on an island beach. By the time she returned, summer had fizzled, store fronts boarded, SEE YOU NEXT SUMMER signs yellowed in empty windows as the green leaves of trees burned red and orange and gold.

*

Our mother came to the island for a summer and stayed eleven years. Our bedtime stories were not of an ash girl turned queen, but of places she had stopped before getting to us: a fountain of youth run dry in Delaware, a thirty foot tall statue of denim-legged Paul Bunyon cradling a hot dog along route 66, the matchstick walls of an impossibly small house in South Carolina. Our parents were not happy. Often, our mother accused our father of loving the sea too much, of being gone too often, of trapping her. On a Wednesday at the end of August, Beth and I napped as our mother packed. We woke to the front door ajar, the dust of dirt roads trailing her while, overhead, cicadas buzzed swan songs.

*

Kidnapped, Beth said. No, I countered. Alien abduction. We went on. She was a CIA operative—had been all along. She witnessed a murder and was immediately relocated to somewhere in the corn fattened Midwest by the witness protection program. She was a Russian spy, maybe, gathering information on the shipping ports of the east coast but was called back to Kiev. Naturally clumsy, she had wandered through a time portal. She was the first called to heaven during the rapture and was waiting for us patiently at the pearly gates. Anything to avoid the simple fact that she had left us.

*

Winter nights on the island with my sister went like this: Beth and I raced through red solo cups of beer or glasses of just-turned wine in the overgrown backyard of a seasonal stranger’s home. Acres of overgrown grass whistling down to black water as burning wood cracked and hissed, flames licking the sky. I clapped as Isaac Matthews or Josh Riggs hauled a piano or a bed frame or a bookcase from a truck bed into the spitting embers while, beside me, my sister sighed. Tongues of fire shot up wooden legs then slithered hungrily across keys, a headboard, shelves. The smell of pot in the air, and, in the darkness, a guitar forced an unwilling melody.

*

In the harbor, raisin-faced men whose bony knees bounced us as babies sat on the bench at Squid Row, pipes pursed upside down in thinning lips as light rain misted. Trawlers bumped into the harbor, their metal wings tucked to paint-chipped sides. Beth named boats as they jolted into wooden berths. Globe Trotter, Unicorn, Persephone. I scanned the fogged horizon for the blue of our father’s fishing boat, scheduled to return after a three-day stint. In my chest, my heart jitterbugged, egged on by seven cups of gas station coffee. Spending the moonless night on the harbor had been Beth’s idea and even though Dad had left me in charge, I got caught up in Beth’s excitement and we passed hours pressed on our stomachs, a flood lamp dangling between us, shining over the water. Carrot-shaped bodies of squid tornadoed around the green light of the lamp, slick, ink-filled sides pulsing, it seemed, to the beat of a single heart. Did you know that giant squid eyeballs are bigger than basketballs? That they nibble their neighbors without giving it a second thought? That three hearts thump in every chest? In the ice-filled cooler, rippling skin flushed from white to red to brown as water rushed from pores and thick black ink pooled.

*

At Coca Cola Beach, the water runs brown from iron that swirls and pools in damp sand. Beth and I shared a towel on the shore and watched surfers bob on the black and blue Atlantic swells. In the spray of retreating waves, sandpipers rushed, calls drowned by the surf. Beth eyed the tiny birds, imagining the places their fine-feathered wings had touched—the roofs of skyscrapers and the grass of empty pastures, the flaking shingles of slumped houses, the drowned bottoms of tidal pools.

*

After high school, Beth would trade Coca Cola Beach and unblinking, blue-veined squid for the land-locked hayfields of Western Massachusetts and a scholarship to a liberal arts school where she would study marine biology, devouring texts on deep-sea creatures, penciling outlines of tentacled animals hiding deep in the crevices at the bottom of the earth, heads ringed with barnacle crowns. She replaced the backpack with a rolling luggage set purchased from a Macy’s catalogue, brimming with extra-long sheets. At a mainland Walmart, we flexed our father’s credit card, filling the back of our mother’s left behind Suburban with shiny appliances: toaster oven, microwave, mini fridge. After the car was emptied and Beth unpacked, I bore down on the twists and curves of unfamiliar highways lined with thin trees molting white blossoms. I longed for the ocean’s brine, the clang of the bell buoy.

*

Beth called me from a payphone at the Boston Greyhound station, saying that she was coming home. That it was foolish to think she could ever have left. In my sister’s two year absence, I had slipped into an easy rhythm. Days spent on the ice-choked docks, hauling in catches from the trawlers. Stringy, hard muscles in my arms and chapped fingers. In my back pocket, a sharp knife to butterfly wriggling fish from chin to fin. My nights were spent with Isaac Matthews, gulping foam-topped beers at the Ritz or the Lamppost then driving back to Isaac’s cabin outside of town, soothed to sleep by the wind humming around the sharp edges of the roof.

*

Ice slicks floated across the gray, swirling surface of the sea. Frozen sand and rocks and seaweed crunched under booted feet and my sister slaved hours to open-eyed dreams of palm trees in her childhood bedroom. The front page of the Vineyard Gazette declared this winter the coldest of the century, reproducing black and white photos of an unmoving, ice-choked Atlantic, a thick-maned mare pulling a carriage across the frozen sea. The day after the photo was printed, the three Riggs boys, drunk on Jameson, drove their mother’s baby-shit-green Datsun Wagon across Aquinnah Pond, spitting streams of whiskey and belly-laughing as ice splintered under spinning tires.

*

Beth left the third time the morning our neighbor’s Irish Setter, Lily, broke through the splintered ice of Quanset Pond, canines snapping at the white-slicked back of a skunk. I shrugged when Beth rolled her eyes and declined my offer to join the search. In the graveled driveway, the exhaust from Isaac’s pickup spiraled. As ice filmed over the dog-sized patch of open water, the town congregated on the Hoxsies’ back porch, let Mary Ann Hoxsie bless us with Styrofoam cops of hot chocolate then trod boot prints into the white snow of untouched deer paths and called out the red-haired dog’s name. Under cover of ice-coated branches, Isaac and I scanned the snow for the heart-shaped prints of four paws as my sister drove her rust-flecked pickup to the ferry, left her keys dangling in the ignition.

*

Two weeks passed before I heard my sister’s voice crackle through the landline at my father’s house. Florida, she said, was silky beaches, leg tattoos, land stretching green and flat for miles, dotted with the white of towering crosses. She had found a dog, she said. She had found a god. I laughed, assuming this god would be the god of stamp collecting, of poetry translation, of botany, but Beth was silent. Before the sun set, I had called out of work for the week and was keying in my credit card number on JetBlue’s website and trading my snow boots for rain boots.

*

The Cape Air flight from the island to Boston was nearly empty. As the small plane’s propellers whirred and wheels lifted from yellow-striped runway, I understood why the airline is dubbed Cape Fear. I hail-Maryed prayers at random Saints. The plane bucked and dove, climbing higher into the graying afternoon. The leaves and chimneys and covered swimming pools of the island fell away to the hungry, white-capped swells of the ocean. Then we were skidding onto the slick runway at Logan, my stomach still floating in the snow-heavy clouds. On the flight to Orlando, I slept sandwiched between strangers in Mickey Mouse t-shirts and woke as the Captain’s voice joked over the intercom: Welcome to Vegas.

*

My sister rents a small oceanfront suite with a kitchenette at the Tropical Manor in Daytona Beach. The walls are frozen cocktails: hibiscus and banana and lime green. Bikinis dry on the backs of chairs and door handles: polka dot, floral, paisley. On rainy days, my sister plays bridge in the Flamingo Room with purple-haired old ladies who have already buried two husbands apiece. On Sundays, square-toothed Reverend Mike comes from the Episcopal Church downtown and preaches. Beth and the purple ladies are in love with him, and around Beth’s tan neck a bejeweled cross pulses. When the sun shines, we sit on slatted chaises around the hibiscus-shaped pool and drink Pina Coladas surrounded by strangers, and it is this rundown resort town that makes Beth happy. As the sun traipses though the sky, we move to the beach, the fine, white sand is silk against my calloused feet.

*

Lazarus’ tongue is wet and hot, nudging the soft skin between my toes. My sister found the thick-headed dog padding down the beach on a Monday morning, his tongue dry, ribs visible through tight skin. The day before, Reverend Mike shared the story of Jesus raising Lazarus from the dead, and as Beth fed the dog from her open palm, she thought of Reverend Mike’s peroxide smile, his thick, glossy hair.

*

NO PETS ALLOWED and IF YOU’RE SMOKIG YOU BETTER BE ON FIRE signs hang beside the waxy leaves of fake plants in the front office of the hotel. Lazarus never barks, and butts of cigarettes cartwheel across the blue and white striped pool deck with the breeze. Under the Florida sky, Beth leashes Lazarus, and the three of us walk the beach. Beth searches the shorelines for the sand-submerged shells of sea turtles. One of the purple ladies, Maude or Prudence or Gylnnis, has seen the eggs hatch under guazy moonlight year after year. In the light of the waning moon, our shadows stretch and shrink. One night, Beth is a giantess, the next a dwarf, Lazarus a Clydesdale turned mouse.

*

Beth sleeps, her breaths deep and slow. On the iron-railed balcony, I watch the green and brown bodies of geckoes skitter over terra cotta as small waves wash white against a rockless shore. On the beach, tan locals spread blankets and towels far from the shade of sharp-leaved trees. The trails of beer-filled coolers leave ruts in the sand. As the sun bloodies the horizon, the hum of insects rise and birds unfurl tucked wings before taking to the brightening sky. In the light of the blinding sun, it’s easy to forget the frozen bodies of birds cluttering the ice slicked shores of the island.

*

Beth spends too much money on the rented ragtop convertible, handing her credit card to the acne-faced kid at the rental counter with a shrug. We nose down I-4. In the hot sun, I am queasy from the tequila and sour mix from the night before. Drunk on margaritas, I promised Beth I’d make the drive to Orlando with her to the Jesus theme park, would fork over fifty dollars to count animals two by two in the Garden of Eden so on Sunday Beth could prove her devotion to Reverend Mike. On the side of the highway, billboards advertise painless vasectomies, Smokin’ D’s Barbeque, ninety-nine dollar divorces. Palm fronds sag in the heat and Beth cranks the air conditioning, warbling along with Carly Simon as she laments the vanity of all men.

*

At the Holy Land Experience, the applause in the darkened amphitheater runs on an automatic track, encouraging fat-necked tourists and youth groups to join in before actors decked in jewel-toned costumes have delivered repentant lines. Outside lions and lambs in grubby costumes walk side by side. Four-fingered plush paws hold billboards counting down the minutes to the next crucifixion, and girls in short-shorts snap selfies with the cheap, plastic likeness of Christ. Young children stare wide-eyed at the gold-rimmed coliseum while paper-skinned women cross themselves before entering the chapel. The gift shop sells t-shirts and key chains, engagement rings and fragile scaled models of Jerusalem. Beth cracks that the place should be called the Wholly Bland Experience but buys postcards of a thorn-crowned Jesus for the purple ladies back at the Tropical Manner anyway. As we exit through the pink-gummed mouth of Jonah’s whale, she tells me that the heart of an Orca weighs as much as a mid-sized sedan.

*

Later, ice will melt to water and run in heavy streams from gutters and rocks and roofs of cars while buds nudge at thawing earth. Drunk, the youngest, squarest jawed Riggs boy will floor his truck through the brick front of Larsen’s fish market, losing his movie star head and liberating tanks of lobsters to two-step, drunk on freedom and oxygen, on the cement sidewalk, bound claws held aloft. Tourists will return to the island, snatching up hair appointments and parking spots, stumbling drunk into the streets to stare gape-jawed at the clearest skies they’ve ever seen.

*

Early one June morning, the water-logged body of the Hoxsies’ red-haired dog will be pulled to the surface of Quanset Pond by a pair of eager fisherman mistaking the taught line for a derby winning Striper. Even later, I will return to the island after turning down Beth’s offer to wander, tan-skinned in a rental car with Lazarus’ wet nose pressed to the glass of the rolled-up window. Lazarus will pad silently behind me over the grooves of Isaac’s wood floors, over sand, over ice. For the next few years, pastel postcards from Beth will drop into my mailbox: Grand Canyon State, Garden State, Golden State, before stopping altogether.

*

For now, though, I crouch beside my sister in the damp sand as the earth erupts with the soft skulls of slit-eyed turtles. Beside Beth, Lazarus’ tail sweeps the sand. My sister is talking about the turtles, about their internal magnetic compass, their natural inclination to head for the greater light intensity of the open horizon. How, for the first year of their lives, baby sea turtles are rarely seen, and that this period of time is known as the lost year. I am thinking about my mother, about her final passage from the island, wondering if, as the sun dipped below the horizon, she saw the pulsing endless ocean or the curve of the mainland. The sea retreats and returns, washing our feet with warm, foaming water as waves of tiny, dark-shelled turtles clamor over one another, rushing toward certain darkness.
 

Photo by inazakira

Victoria Campbell

VICTORIA CAMPBELL holds an MFA in fiction from the University of Central Florida and serves as Fiction Editor of the Florida Review. Her work is forthcoming in the Bellingham Review.

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