We weren’t supposed to drive the golf cart, but my cousin Pal took the key when all of the adults were showering and getting ready to go have drinks with the neighbors. Pal was always taking keys. The year before, when we’d been vacationing at the exact same beach house, the one we always stayed at, a rental with four bedrooms and an outdoor shower and a ping pong table, he’d taken the house keys one day and buried them in the backyard. The yard was all sand and scratchy Bermuda grass. When the adults asked him why he did it, he said that he wanted to be a comedian and he was trying to generate material for himself. The adults said, “That’s not funny, Pal,” and Pal said, “It was actually pretty funny watching you dig up the yard.” One time he saw Caddyshack and every time he farted after that, he would say, “Somebody step on a duck?”
Pal and I waited for our parents to leave for their cocktail hour. I sat in a wicker chair and he sat on the couch with the striped cushions. One time, maybe three or four years earlier, Pal had unzipped one of those cushions and hid his parents’ car keys in there. That was the time my aunt Sandy, Pal’s mother, spanked him right out in the living room with her hairbrush. I thought we could watch TV or play ping pong once they left for the neighbors’ house, but Pal had different ideas. He cradled the box of leftover doughnut holes from that morning’s breakfast and stared at me. The golf cart key was in his pocket.
He popped a doughnut hole into his mouth and said, “Don’t say anything.”
He stuffed three more doughnut holes into his mouth, one after the other, pushing them in with his fingers, and then started to sing “Cheeseburger in Paradise,” which was one of our beach songs. I told him that I hoped he didn’t choke because it would be an embarrassing way to die and everybody would read about it in his obituary. He sang louder. I was thirteen, a whole year older than Pal and a staggering two inches taller than he was, but somehow he was the one who always ended up in charge. I never understood how that happened, but he was always the leader and I was always the follower, no matter what I did or said. I didn’t necessarily want to be the leader, but it might have been nice to have the option every now and then.
My parents emerged first, leaving the door to their bedroom open. The lingering steam from their showers drifted out into the living room. I could smell my mom’s perfume, a shock of citrus, and my dad’s Speed Stick. My dad wore a Ralph Lauren polo, seersucker shorts, and a pair of boat shoes. My mom had on a Lily Pulitzer dress that was printed with giant squids. They said they were just going to have drinks with this couple down the street, who were also from Greenville, a doctor and a real estate agent, and they would be home in time to say goodnight. There was Sprite in the fridge and some maraschino cherries in the cabinet if we wanted to make mocktails while they were gone.
Pal said, “Thanks, but if I get thirsty I’ll just have one of your Coronas.”
My dad said, “Very funny.”
Pal said, “Funny makes the money. You know, I’ve been thinking about it and I think I’m gonna buy this house when I become a rich and famous comedian.”
“Really?” my mom said, cocking her head to one side. She stood beside my dad, running her hand up his back and then twirling his hair around her finger. My dad was bald on top but the hair that wrapped around his head was thick and soft. My mom said, “That sounds great, Pal. We look forward to your success.”
“But obviously,” Pal said, licking the sugary glaze from his fingers, “I’ll be taking the master bedroom, which means that you and uncle Jack will have to take my bedroom. My parents can stay where they are and so can Missy.”
“Ah,” my mom said. “So you’ll put us in the room with the twin beds.”
My mom said, “How generous,” and then winked at me. “That shouldn’t be a problem. Right, Jack? We’ll have plenty of room if we push the beds together.”
“No problem at all,” my dad said. “It sounds like he’s got it all figured out.”
Then my aunt and uncle came out of their bedroom. My aunt Sandy, who only wore clothes that had “petite” written on the tag, struck a pose that screamed “cha cha cha!” She said she’d worked up a big thirst that day, a terrible thirst. She spread her arms out and said she could not even measure the size of her thirst. It was greater than her wingspan—and weren’t her arms looking an awful lot like wings these days, what with this skin sagging down? She said that Buck and Geri, the people down the street who they were going to visit, the doctor and the real estate agent, had better have a decent Pino or else they were going to get it. She glared at me with those nut-brown eyes and dragged a finger across her throat. I said, “What’s Pino?” and she laughed. She wore a Tommy Bahama dress printed with these huge Hawaiian flowers and my uncle Simmons wore a shirt with the exact same pattern on it.
Uncle Simmons walked over to Pal, saying, “What were y’all going on about before?” He tried to get at the doughnut holes, but Pal jerked the box away.
Simmons said, “Geez, Pal.”
Pal said, “Geez, Dad. Shouldn’t you have left like fifteen minutes ago?”
Pal looked at me, wanting backup.
I said, “You don’t want to be late,” but nobody paid any attention to me.
My mom said, “Pal was just telling us that he’s going to buy this house for all of us once he becomes a famous comedian.”
Pal said, “I didn’t say I was going to buy it for everyone. I’m going to buy it for me and then everyone can stay here.”
The adults all looked at each other and grinned. I thought they were communicating in some silent language that only adults were supposed to understand, but I knew what they were saying. They were teasing Pal silently, but I don’t think he had a clue. I wondered if that was the difference between being twelve and thirteen, or the difference between being a boy and a girl.
Simmons scrubbed the top of Pal’s head with his knuckles and warned him to be good while they were gone. He said, “Don’t lock your cousin out of the house again or crack all the eggs on the driveway to see if they cook. We spent all of our tax refund on this vacation, so there’s nothing leftover to bail you out of jail.”
My father laughed.
My mother and my aunt Sandy just looked at each other and shook their heads. They were sisters and both turned the exact same color in the sun, a sort of burnt cinnamon.
Pal squirmed away from Uncle Simmons and said, “Seriously. Go.”
Uncle Simmons pointed at me and said, “We expect you to hold the fort down, alright, Missy?”
I nodded, even though I knew it was only a matter of time before we left the fort altogether and felt the wind in our hair.
Our parents said goodbye and then went down the stairs and started walking toward the neighbors’ house. Pal and I went onto the screened-in porch and watched them go down the street. My dad’s arm was around my mom’s waist. She reached up and smoothed the hair on the back of his head. My aunt Sandy was pretending to dance as she walked, twirling in her white alligator sandals and snapping her fingers to a beat that wasn’t there. She trotted in a zigzag line and Uncle Simmons told her to dance herself onto the grass so she wouldn’t get hit by a car. Then they were too far away for me to hear what they were saying.
When I turned to look at Pal, he was spinning the golf cart key around his finger. He said, “Let’s hit it,” and started down the stairs.
I called for him to wait, since our parents might see us if we took the golf cart out too soon. He said that was a good point. We should really wait a couple of minutes, until the coast was clear, and then we could be sure they had reached the neighbors’ house and were definitely too busy drinking and talking to look outside and see us zoom by in the golf cart. Pal went into the kitchen and got a Corona out of the fridge. When I asked what he was doing, he said he was killing time. I knew there was no reasoning with him. He opened the bottle with the can opener and then took a big chug. I thought he might throw up for a second, which wouldn’t have surprised me because beer stunk and was the color of pee, but he just let out a burp that lasted a solid five seconds.
I said, “Gross.”
He said, “You don’t get comedy, do you? I bet you’ve never even seen Austin Powers. You’re so uptight, you’re probably going to run for school council. All of the girls like you at my school end up running for school council.”
I had no plans to run for school council, but I was not nearly as offended as he probably wanted me to be. He couldn’t even finish the beer, so he poured the rest of it out and then hid the bottle under the sink cabinet, along with all of the extra dish soap and roach spray.
He grabbed a sleeve of graham crackers from the cabinet and went downstairs. He didn’t even have shoes on. I followed him down the steps, where there was a huge concrete pad under the house. The outdoor shower was down there, along with a closet that held beach chairs and boogie boards, and also a locked closet that rumbled from some kind of water heater or something. The golf cart was charging down there, too, next to all of the cars. Pal unplugged it and jumped in the driver’s seat. He yelled for me to get in, even though I was feeling a little nervous. I still wanted to go, because riding in golf carts was one of the best parts about coming to North Litchfield every summer, that and going to the Fish House for supper and ordering baskets of hushpuppies with honey butter and also building enormous sandcastles on the beach with my dad, who was a landscape architect and had a talent for digging fish traps that actually worked, unlike Pal and Uncle Simmons who just ran through shallow water and tried to scoop up minnows with butterfly nets
My desire to ride in the golf cart was ultimately greater than my fear of getting in trouble. I got in the passenger seat and we took off. Even if we got in trouble, I knew it was Pal who would take the brunt of it, not me.
It was after seven o’clock and still warm outside, although my skin felt cool from being in the sun all day. We drove south on the main road, passing the Litchfield Retreat, where a bunch of kids were huddled in the parking lot and buying popsicles from the ice cream truck. Pal said he couldn’t wait to be grown up and making his own money. Once he had money, which would probably happen after his first Netflix special, he was going to buy all of the basketball jerseys he wanted and he was going to fill the freezer of the beach house, of his beach house, with ice cream sandwiches. He said he liked the Neapolitan ice cream sandwiches best, which had all three flavors, not just vanilla. I said that if he was hungry, he should eat the graham crackers that he brought, but he said those weren’t for us. I didn’t know what he meant, but he made a U-turn and we started to head north on the main road.
We passed some other people in golf carts. I asked Pal how old you had to be to drive one by yourself.
He said, “Do you care?”
I said, “Well, yeah, if you don’t want to get pulled over by the police.”
“Do you see any police around here? Even if there were police, I’d say bring it on! I could outrun them all.”
I said, “You should slow down,” but instead he floored it. The speed limit was 20 mph but we were definitely going faster than that in the golf cart, which made a high-pitched humming sound as we approached top speed.
We passed a family carrying flashlights and heading toward one of the public beach accesses, where they must have been going to look for sand crabs once it got dark. The father in the group waved his arms and called for us to slow down. I started getting worried, like somebody might call the police and report us for driving a golf cart underage and not having a driver’s license and breaking the speed limit. I thought I might do okay in jail, since I could make myself invisible and stay out of trouble, but Pal would probably get shanked. I saw some examples of shanks on a TV show about the incarcerated life. Some of the shanks were made out of toothbrushes.
Pal finally slowed down when we turned onto a side street. It made the wind quieter in my ears and we could hear each other talk. He said there was a golf cart path up ahead and there was even a boardwalk we could drive over. I’d never seen this boardwalk, but Pal said my dad had taken him out for a ride a few nights earlier. I couldn’t believe they had gone without me. Nobody had even offered. As we drove further away from the beach and deeper into the neighborhood of rental houses, there was less of a breeze and the sound of bugs got louder and louder. The mosquitos were so fat they bounced off me.
We turned onto a crushed-shell path, which led to the boardwalk. It stretched over shallow, swampy water and cut through a dense jungle. The tires made a thump-thump noise as we drove over the wooden boards. I leaned over and looked into the dark water.
I said, “Spooky.”
Pal said, “Baby.”
Up ahead, there was a spot where the water was deeper and turtles swam under the boardwalk. They were red-eared sliders with shells as big as dinner plates. They weren’t just mindless beings, no way, not with eyes like that. They were wizards trapped in the bodies of turtles. The boardwalk was wider at this point, this lookout or feeding zone or whatever it was, so there was enough room for one golf cart to pull over and another golf cart to pass. I told Pal to pull over to the side, so people would have room to get by, but he stopped right in the middle. There was no arguing with him.
Pal grabbed the graham crackers and jumped out of the golf cart. We stood on the edge of the boardwalk and watched all of the turtles swim over to us. It was less like begging and more like they were ready to receive our offering. All of their necks were outstretched in anticipation and Pal said, “Look at these dickheads.” We split the graham crackers between us and broke off pieces and threw them at the turtles.
I said, “How come I wasn’t invited when you and my dad came?”
He went through his graham crackers fast and then shook all the crumbs into the water. He said, “I might have fudged that part. I did come here the other night, but I snuck out with the golf cart. I was just driving around and found this.”
Somehow that made me feel better. The idea of him sneaking out alone was better than me being left out of a group thing.
I said, “How did you find your way around and not get lost?”
He said, “I can see a 3D map of where I am in my head. I’m like a pulsing dot moving through the streets.” He looked at the pieces of graham cracker absorbing water and then spinning among the turtles.
I said, “Oh.”
A golf cart headed toward us. It was a father driving a bunch of little kids who were all still wearing their bathing suits. They must have come from a swimming pool somewhere because their hair was wet and a kid in the back of the golf cart held onto an inner tube that was fully inflated. The man came to a stop. There wasn’t room for him to pass.
The man said, “Hey, pal, if you wouldn’t mind pulling over.”
Pal said, “How’d you know my name?”
The man said, “Excuse me?”
Pal said, “Are you stalking me or something?”
I said, “Pal.”
Pal whispered, “Shh. I’m getting material.”
To the man, he said, “Who sent you to kill me? Was it Goldmember? You probably thought you could feed my body to the turtles, but the joke’s on you, mister, because they’re already full! I already fed them!”
The man scowled.
He said, “I’m not going to ask you again,” and I could tell by the tone of his voice that he wasn’t messing around. He had a weird accent, like maybe he was from somewhere up north, and that made me nervous. You never knew what people from Ohio were capable of.
Pal said, “Okay, okay,” and we got back into the golf cart. I prayed that Pal was a good enough driver to pull off this maneuver. I think the man waiting for us hoped that Pal was good enough, too. He said, “Back it up, then pull forward—over to the side there.” Pal put the golf cart in reverse and backed up, carefully. I didn’t say a word. I didn’t want to distract him. Then he switched into drive and pulled forward. He steered over to the left, so the golf cart was out of the way and the other driver could pass.
The man pulled up, so the two golf carts were side by side. He said, “You two shouldn’t be driving around by yourselves. I suggest you go home before someone gets hurt.”
Pal said, “Who’s hurt?”
The man said, “You’ve got it coming, kid. One day.”
All of the little kids watched us. They were wrapped in beach towels and had white-blond hair brushed into mohawks. I said, “Goodnight,” and watched them disappear down the boardwalk.
It was starting to get dark. I couldn’t see the turtles but I could hear them in the water. I was waiting for Pal to take us home and said, “Aren’t you ever afraid of getting in trouble?”
He said, “No.”
We went home and parked under the house. Pal plugged in the golf cart so it could charge overnight. We heard voices upstairs and knew that our parents had gotten home before us. Pal and I didn’t say a word to each other, but we both understood that it was a delicate situation. We had to be careful about what happened next. He tip-toed up the stairs, quiet on his bare feet, and waved for me to follow. I crept behind him, hoping that our parents weren’t sitting in the living room and waiting to ambush us for taking the golf cart. I was nervous but there wasn’t any other way to sneak inside.
Pal reached the top of the stairs and opened the door carefully. I was glad he went first. I wouldn’t have been brave enough. I expected to hear our parents’ voices the second that door opened, voices that shook with anger and disappointment, but that’s not what happened.
My father stood in the kitchen, fixing himself a cocktail. He took a bag of ice out of the freezer and dropped the bag into the sink. It made a loud noise and the ice cracked. He reached into the bag and grabbed a handful of ice with his bare hand and dropped it into his glass. He saw me and said, “Oh, Missy. Why don’t you go into your room, honey? You, too, Pal. Why don’t you go into your rooms and get ready for bed.”
My dad should have been mad at us. He should have been saying that we were stupid to take the golf cart for a joyride, that it was dangerous, that someone could have gotten hurt or that we could have gotten into trouble. He should have noticed that the golf cart was gone and that we were gone, but he hadn’t.
My dad said, “We’re hitting the beach early tomorrow, so you better get plenty of rest, okay?”
Pal said, “Where’s my mom and dad?”
Uncle Simmons came out of his and Aunt Sandy’s bedroom. I could hear someone yelling back there. I could hear someone saying words that I was not allowed to say, words like “unfuckingbelievable,” and then I heard a noise like a lamp being knocked over.
Uncle Simmons saw me and Pal standing in the living room.
“Hey, kids,” he said. He was nearly out of breath. “Why don’t you two hit the sack, huh?”
Pal said, “Dad?”
Uncle Simmons said, “It’s okay, Pal. Everything’s fine. Your mom was just tired and went to bed early. Aunt Kerry is just helping her change out of her dress.”
My dad said, “You know how tricky those zippers can be.”
Uncle Simmons walked over to the kitchen and picked up a piece of ice from the bag in the sink. They seemed very far away, him and my dad. The house had an open floor plan and I looked all the way across the living room and into the kitchen, where Uncle Simmons stood under a fluorescent light and ran the piece of ice along his hairline. He looked tiny, only a few inches tall. I could have held him in the palm of my hand.
He said, “Maybe we’ll have pancakes tomorrow morning? Does that sound good?”
Pal said, “Sure.”
“Okay, then,” Uncle Simmons said. “Sleep tight.”
Pal dropped the golf cart key in a conch shell that sat on the side table. He went into his bedroom and shut the door. I stood there for a minute, looking at my dad and my uncle. I heard my aunt crying and my mom trying to soothe her. I heard it all. There was a wall separating us, but I knew.
Later that night, when the house had finally gotten quiet and everybody was in bed, or at least when I thought everybody was in bed, I heard a knock at my door. I dog-eared my place in the book I was reading, which was about a girl who learned to time-travel, and said, “Come in.” I knew it was Pal before he even opened the door. He tip-toed over to the foot of my bed and sat down. His pajamas were just a pair of old basketball shorts and I saw how sunburned he’d gotten that day. His skin was bright pink and when he scratched his chest, his nails left white streaks. He said that he’d been thinking about buying the beach house one day and he wanted my advice.
I said, “Do you mean whether to buy it or not?”
“What?” he said. “Of course I’m going to buy it.”
I thought he might have changed his mind after what happened, what we saw when we came back from riding in the golf cart. I wasn’t sure if he saw what I saw, though.
He said, “I was going to ask if you think I should change the name.”
“It’s kind of stupid, don’t you think?”
“You think you could do better?”
“Sure.” He scratched at my blanket. He said, “We could brainstorm. I’m funny, you’re smart. We could come up something amazing. People would ride by and see it and they’d be like . . . ‘those people have it going on.’”
I said, “Those people.”
He said, “Well, us.”
There was a wooden sign above the garage that had the name of the beach house on it. The name of the beach house was Footprints in the Sand.