The summer after I turned twelve, my brothers and I were coinslot rats at the boardwalk arcade. Mom and Dad packed up our house on the other side of the bay, and most of our stuff went into storage. The rest we took to Uncle Todd’s vacant bungalow on the beach. Even with Dad away driving his routes, it seemed like a big adventure at first. But soon we got tired of dragging the living room chairs around the small table for dinner, and the air conditioning unit in the living room coughed and died. Eventually we began to wonder if we’d be going back to our old school, and then, when we’d see Dad again.
The bungalow had three bedrooms and felt overfull when everyone was home. As the only girl, I got the smallest room that probably should have been a closet. Mom stayed in the master with the baby. It was another brother, with a round white face and big eyes. He looked like an alien monkey. My brothers and I called him Moon Unit.
Usually we went out during the day; it was better than trying to tune one of the three channels on the black-and-white TV or sweating over jigsaw puzzles with missing pieces and getting into fights. When we weren’t out, we’d crowd around Mom and the baby and ask, “Is it awake? Can we play with it?”
“His name is Roger,” Mom would say. “And no, and no.”
We made sandwiches out of peanut butter on defrosted hotdog rolls that came out of the microwave half stiff, half soggy. Then we’d go to the arcade and fish the coinslots for quarters. It was called FUN CITY, but someone had scratched out the “N” on the main sign. On a good day, even the twins would find between seventy-five cents and a dollar-fifty apiece. My older brother, Crockett, had a system: We saved a third for Mom and Dad—it didn’t seem like a lot, but by the end of the week we could put a few dollars into Mom’s pocketbook. Another third we could save up for ice cream, or salt and vinegar fries, or rides at the amusement park. The rest we spent in the machines. If the arcade workers saw us play enough games, they wouldn’t catch on.
Dante and Tommy, the guys who ran the stand most days, were only a few years older than Crockett, but we thought of them as adults. They took their smoke breaks outside the arcade, where they flirted with the girls who passed by in t-shirts and bikini bottoms.
Crockett hung out with them and took puffs on their cigarettes. He tried to impress Dante by saying “dope” and “whack,” words he’d heard Dante use with his cousin from Baltimore. I’d be stuck looking after the twins then and scuffling my feet. I was jealous of Crockett, wearing Tommy’s cap backwards and shooting smoke from his lips into the hazy air.
I snuck around the corner as they stood outside one day. Dante nudged Crockett on the shoulder. “Which one do you think is hottest?” They stared at a trio of girls parked on a towel down the beach. We knew these three well; they were internationals who spent their summers on the boardwalk.
Siobhan’s hair gleamed copper, and every time she took off her cover-up I was surprised by the freckles on every inch of her body. Svetlana, the Russian from the McDonald’s drive-thru, rode waves better than any of the guys. Tati’s skin was a red-brown shade I’d never seen before, and she had fake breasts that reminded me of the Baywatch reruns that played over the counter at the pizza place.
“Svetlana,” I said, striding out from my hiding place. Just that week there’d been a huge storm, and the next day she was in the surf cresting waves as slippery as greyhounds. She’d skimmed up the beach on a final wave like a gull diving after a mussel, picked herself up and turned directly to me.
“You want to learn how to do that?” she had asked, her black and gray wetsuit clinging to her skin, dirty blonde hair French-braided out of her eyes.
I nodded shyly, tearing my gaze from her storm-gray eyes to the breakers where other body boarders flailed and shouted. Crockett had an old board in the shed, but I was embarrassed to use it.
Svetlana dropped her board to the sand and dug around in her canvas bag for a wristwatch. “I have to go,” she said, “but come to McDonald’s later and I’ll give you an ice cream.”
Now, when I said her name, Dante and Tommy looked at one another and then me. Crockett’s shoulders rose stiffly as he handed the cigarette back to Tommy. “Tati is hella fly, brother,” he said, before turning to me. “Where are the twins, Samantha?” He knew I hated my full name. Dante rolled his eyes but Tommy stared at me along with Crockett, his brow raised.
I dug my nails into my palms and marched off. Crockett was the oldest, but it was always me who had to look after Johnny and Jamie. They weren’t stupid, but they couldn’t stay out of trouble. Once Johnny played lookout while Jamie worked the back of an arcade machine with a screwdriver trying to get to the coin box. Another time they stole a family’s pizza, ate the whole thing by themselves, and threw up pepperonis on the sand. This time I looped through the arcade and didn’t see them until I came to the opposite entrance. They were telling a fat lady in a wide-brim hat, her nose and shoulders pink from burn, that they were homeless orphans and needed twenty dollars to get dinner and breakfast the next day.
I came up behind them and stomped my foot. They shrieked and split around me back into the arcade.
“Sorry,” I said to the lady. “You should put some aloe on that.”
The summer started off with Mom planning big dinners of steamed crabs from the corner shack, corn on the cob and canned green beans, and homemade cherry pie. She marked Dad’s return trips on a calendar that leaned against the side of the microwave. But June stayed up long into July, and we lost track of when Dad would be home again.
I felt like I knew something the others didn’t, because the last I’d seen him was after the celebration of the twins’ birthday and Father’s Day. Mom had trailed him outside while me and the boys were supposed to be getting ready for bed, and I watched them talk through the blinds. I used to do this back at the house, staring until they moved in close to kiss, and then I’d pull away and go up to my room.
This time their voices got louder and their hands moved faster and wider like it was a contest. I only heard bits and pieces, the same words, “money” and “responsibility.” Then Mom raised her voice.
“Part of your job is to help me raise these kids! I’m all alone here.”
There was a pause before she spoke again, quietly so I had to press my ear to the crack of the windowsill.
“I didn’t marry someone to get stuck with all the work.”
“I am working!” Dad yelled.
Mom said something sharp, about having a man around the house.
Dad bowed his head and dropped his hands. Mom’s hands hung defeated too. Finally, she shook her head and turned to come inside.
I knew she’d catch me if I stayed, but I wanted to see what Dad did. Would he come after her? Would their foreheads bump, and their voices go soft?
When Mom opened the door, I was frozen in place. “Get to bed, young lady.”
My fingers slipped off the blinds. Dad was gone.
The arcade days lasted until August, when Moon Unit started being awake more than asleep. Mom still didn’t leave her room much, but now it was full of marked up newspaper classifieds. She told us if we were going to be out all day we might as well take Moon Unit with us. There was an old stroller in Uncle Todd’s shed that Mom and Dad had used for me and Crockett back when the extended family would do weeks at the beach. Mom dug it out and brushed off the mouse turds. I’d put sunscreen on the twins when they were Moon Unit’s size, so I knew how to keep a baby safe. It didn’t mean I wanted to, though. Now that there was someone new to be helpless, the twins grew up a little and imitated Crockett. I got stuck struggling after them with the stroller.
By the end of a week of this they left me behind at the beach highway crossing, and even though I hated trucking around Moon Unit, I knew it wasn’t his fault and I couldn’t just dump him in beach traffic.
“They’re all butts,” I muttered as we finally struggled up the handicap access ramp to the boardwalk. “And you’re doomed to be one too.”
When I finally got the stroller on the boards, the sun beat down and the beach was packed. My t-shirt dripped with sweat, but I hated the sparkly bathing suit top Mom had bought me. I scowled at the families under umbrellas, at the fathers tossing Frisbees and the mothers dipping their babies’ toes in the surf.
Moon Unit sucked on his pacifier like he could get milk out of it if he tried hard enough. I had a bottle in reserve for when he realized the sucker was just a distraction. We parked in the shade, and I dug some of my savings out of a plastic baggie and treated myself to a soft serve with rainbow flavor on the edges. Orange and pink and blue trickles ran down my hand. I wiped what I couldn’t lick off onto my board shorts.
A woman cooling herself with a paper fan sat nearby and began cooing at the baby. He wore jean shorts and a striped shirt that was faded pink. Mom had also stuck one of my old floppy hats on his head. It had orange and yellow flowers stitched around the brim. I’d put a blanket over his feet while we were in the sun, and I pulled it aside once we reached shade. He frowned at everything with those big, big eyes.
“What’s her name?” the woman asked.
I paused with my cone suspended and stared at her. “His name is Moon Unit,” I said.
When she looked at me doubtfully, I added. “They named me Zappa.” I mimicked Moon Unit’s expression, wishing I could grow a bushy mustache like Frank Zappa. “You must be a tourist,” I said.
After that she crossed to the lemonade stand.
I should have known that it would only get worse. As I wheeled up to Fun City, a group of girls fresh off the beach bent over Moon Unit’s stroller. He tried to grab the damp strands of hair that brushed past him. The girls had salt on their thighs and red marks on their chests from wave burn. Tommy was smoking around the corner, and he leaned forward with his arms crossed.
“He doesn’t like strangers,” I said, but they giggled when Moon Unit tugged on their bathing suit strings.
“Look!” one girl cried. Moon Unit had dropped his pacifier and tried to suck the bleached ends of her hair.
“It’s because it’s salty.” I jolted the stroller, and Moon Unit started crying. The girls gave me dirty looks, and I wheeled him into the shaded mouth of the arcade and handed him his bottle.
“Hey.” Tommy walked over.
I met his blue eyes, and he blushed and tugged at his cap, sweeping aside brown surfer bangs. “You can’t keep bringing that baby in here.” He scuffed his cigarette butt under one flip-flop heel and tried to look stern.
“There’s no sign saying, ‘No Babies.’”
“It’s just too loud inside, for a baby.” He glanced around as if the dings and chimes and gunshot noises from the machines were hanging in the air.
“It’s loud at my house, but he sleeps just fine.”
“Look,” he said finally. “The boss told me and Dante we’ve got to cut down on bystanders. The baby can’t play games. We already let your brothers get away with being around all the time.”
“We play,” I said. “I play.” My initials held the first six record slots on Punchup Joeys.
“Just take it to the library, or the ball pit?”
“Him.” I grabbed the stroller handles and swung the wheels around fiercely. Moon Unit lurched and the bottle tip popped out of his mouth. He burped loudly. I started marching, no destination in mind.
“Look,” Tommy called, spreading his hands, “you can come back without the baby.”
At the end of the boardwalk was a poster store with pictures and frames tacked up all over its three stories. From the outside it looked like the walls were made of frames nailed to frames in cascading layers. I pushed Moon Unit over the door sweep and shot a defiant look at the counter, but the woman there was helping a customer and didn’t glance up. At the stairs I reversed the stroller and bumped it gently down backwards. There were retro prints in the basement, Abbey Road and Marilyn Monroe in her white dress, Elvis with half a lip raised, eyeing passersby. I took Moon Unit into the pinup section and stopped. We looked at the curvy ’50s girls in bandeau tops and polka dots. Moon Unit’s eyes crossed and sank closed.
“This one’s my favorite,” I said, pointing out a brunette wearing cat’s eye glasses with the claw of a hammer between cupid’s bow lips. She perched atop an engine block with a manual spread open on the floor. The bright red bandana in her hair reminded me of Mom, though Mom didn’t arch her back with cleavage spilling out of her top. Mom just walked around her room naked, and we’d see her if we didn’t knock, her breasts swinging like weights. I worried someday my own body would do that, and in the bathroom at home I punched myself in the chest sometimes, caught between hoping something would happen and hoping it would keep anything from happening.
“I bet she doesn’t need a man around the house,” I said to Moon Unit, touching the corner of the frame. “I bet she knows exactly what she’s doing.”
He’d fallen asleep.
I made a point to come home late with Moon Unit. I had eight dollars in my baggie saved up from July, so we went to the McDonald’s and ate off the dollar menu. Svetlana waved to me from back by the drive-thru window. After a while she took a break and came to the table with me and Moon Unit. He kicked his heels against the seat and reached for more juice.
“This one is new,” Svetlana said. Her stringy blonde hair was tied back in a ponytail and spilled around the top and edges of a visor. I admired the peaks of her cheekbones, so distinct they cast shadows. “Where are your brothers?” she asked. We all came to the drive-thru when Svetlana was working because she’d slip us fries with our double cheeseburgers.
“At the arcade,” I lied. The sun was setting across the bay; by now they’d be home helping with dinner.
She took a napkin and wiped the corners of Moon Unit’s mouth, let him wrap his fist around one of her fingers.
“When does school start for you?” she asked.
I shrugged. “A couple weeks?” The thought of being back among the other girls in my too-short pants and ratty sweaters soured my stomach.
“And I go back to Russia when tourist season winds down,” she said, staring at the parking lot for a brief moment. “I’ll miss the waves.” This was Svetlana’s second or third summer working in the U.S. She hadn’t even known how to swim when she first came.
“What’s Russia like?” I asked.
“Where I live it’s much colder than here,” she said. “And everyone dresses nicely; the women there are very beautiful, much prettier than me.” She smiled her crooked smile, her lips the color of the pinup girl’s bandana.
I dropped my gaze to my hands and tried to wipe a smear of ketchup off my board shorts. “That’s whack,” I said.
Svetlana cocked her head. “Whack?”
“I mean—I think you’re beautiful.”
Svetlana laughed, the sound swooping like a gull, and my face turned as hot as the boardwalk under sun. “You’re very sweet. But I come here to find all my boyfriends.” Her gaze turned distant, then she nudged my shoulder with her knuckles. “Come out to the beach with me Monday morning, 8 AM. I’ll show you some board tricks.”
“Okay.” My shoulder froze half-cocked where she had pushed it, and I stared after her as she slipped back behind the counter. I imagined us on adjacent boards in the surf. She in her wetsuit, sleek and fast as a seal. I’d wear my shorts and a gray t-shirt over my bathing suit top to match.
I cleared the table and got Moon Unit ready to go home. He fussed and rocked as we wheeled past the mini-golf courses and wound our way closer to the bay. We hadn’t gone mini-golfing since the twin’s birthday. An animatronic stegosaurus and a t-rex faced off over a hole, their mouths open, the rex’s claws spread for a fight. But when they moved, nothing happened; they just bowed to each other, over and over.
“Where were you?” Crockett was waiting for me on the back step. “Mom’s ready to go ballistic. I tried to cover for you.” He took the stroller handles from me, and I grabbed the bar by Moon Unit’s feet. Together we hauled him inside.
And there was Mom, waiting in the kitchen. She wore nice pants and a shirt I didn’t recognize, her hair combed and face made up. She took one look at Moon Unit and said to Crockett, “Go change him.” Then she turned to me. “You’re grounded, young lady.”
“That’s not fair!”
“Making me and your brothers worry about you and going off with the baby—that’s not fair.” She crossed her arms. “I was ready to call the police.”
“For how long?” I couldn’t lose the moments with Svetlana on the beach in the morning quiet.
She shrugged. “That depends. Maybe until school starts. And you just wait until your father finds out.” She turned to the stove, giving me her back while she collected the pans from dinner.
“Yeah, right,” I muttered.
“What was that?”
“Dad’s not coming back.”
The pans clattered together. “That’s grounding for a week.”
“I’m right, aren’t I?” My voice rose. I wanted her to look at me.
But Mom kept on, softly. “I’m working during the day now. You’ll stay home and look after Roger until I change my mind.”
“I hate this! He’s always my responsibility. I hate being the girl!”
Mom dumped the pans into the sink and turned to me. “We all have to work together now!” There were tears in her eyes. “Go to your room.”
I pushed past Crockett on my way in and told him to go away, flopping on the bed where I could bury tears in my pillow.
Some time later, there was a soft knock. I mumbled into the pillow but the door opened anyway. It was Johnny. I sniffed away my last tears.
“I got you this,” he said, holding out one of the cheap arcade bracelets. “Well, Crockett gave me the tickets.” He reached for one of my hands that stuck out from beneath my pillow. “He told me to pick something for you.” Johnny slid the metal over my wrist. It caught on the baby hairs of my arm and tugged a few out.
“Mom told me and Jamie we can’t be out all day either,” he said. “We’re supposed to study before school starts.”
I slid my arm from beneath the pillow and sat up, tracing the wire around my wrist. My mind moved ahead to the week as Johnny dropped onto the bed beside me. His weight shifted the lump of quarters in my shorts pocket.
“What did she say about Crockett?” I asked.
“He has to do yard work for the neighbor.”
Crockett would be nearby. Close enough to check on the twins.
“How much did you make today?” I asked. If Mom was working, the thirds rule didn’t apply any longer.
“Forty-five cents. Jamie got two dollars.”
I turned my arm and the bracelet glinted. “Johnny, what if I paid you five whole dollars just to watch Moon Unit for a little while Monday morning?”
He opened his mouth, and I drew the baggie out of my pocket. “That’s over a week at the arcade, if you found 50 cents each time. And Jamie will be here, and Crockett will be right next door.”
His eyes were fixed on the bag. I shook it just enough to make it jingle before putting it back in my pocket. “Think about it,” I said. “Mom doesn’t need to know. I’ll even spot you our next Road Twister match.”
I smiled, and Johnny’s face lit up briefly. Then he dropped his eyes back to the comforter. “Sam, is it true what you said about Dad?”
I tucked an arm around him and bit my lip. “I was mad.”
He blinked his long lashes.
“He’s got to come back for sure before school starts. He’ll have to help us move back home.” I knew when I said it that we weren’t going back to our old house. But Johnny swallowed and hopped off the bed.
“Okay,” he said. “Have a good night, Sam.”
After he closed the door behind him, I changed into pajamas and slipped between my sheets. I couldn’t hear the surf in my windowless room, but it was out there, waiting. And Dad wasn’t. Mom could ground me all she liked during the school year, but I was going to the beach with Svetlana.
The sky was gray as I crossed the grassy part of the dunes, dragging Crockett’s board with me. It had rained all weekend, time passing like the orange and red bubbles in the arcade’s lava lamp prizes. At least Johnny hadn’t ratted on me—I made sure to point out how many games he could play for five dollars, and that if he said a word to Jamie, I’d have to split the money. When I left the bungalow, Crockett was showering, and Moon Unit was still asleep. I let myself quietly into the boys’ room and tapped Johnny on the shoulder.
“I’ll be back in a couple of hours,” I whispered, folding the baggie in his fingers.
At the top of the dunes I scanned the beach for Svetlana. The boardwalk was quiet, with some shops just opening and others still dark. Out at the edges of the waves were fishermen. One caught a small shark and threw it back.
I tucked the board beneath my arm and headed down the beach, trying to practice the collected stride of a surfer dude, but each step shifted with the sand. It was cool between my toes. I shed my flip-flops as I neared the water, picking a spot to wait. The sun was supposed to peek out closer to noon; maybe it would warm up before then.
I’d taken off my sweatshirt and moved to the water’s edge, shoulders squared in one of Crockett’s baggy t-shirts, when I finally heard someone call my name.
“Sam! Sam, down here!” A figure waved from a section of beach by one of the bigger condos.
I grabbed my things and ran awkwardly, the edges of my board shorts dripping and sand sticking between the bottoms of my feet and the soles of my flip-flops. Svetlana wasn’t wearing her bodysuit, and she wasn’t alone. There was another girl her age I didn’t recognize, and they were paired off with two guys who stood around shirtless, looking bored.
Svetlana said something to one of the boys and bent to lift her cover-up. Underneath she wore a pale turquoise bikini with bright pink and yellow hibiscus on it. She looked washed out and too-thin in the colors, her skin almost gray in the overcast light.
“You’re going to board in that?” the guy asked. He had a soft accent and his skin was darker than Dante’s, with a day or two’s growth of stubble on his shaved head and cheeks. His chest and arms reminded me of Billy Bazooka from one of the eight-bit games—in the intro, he made his shirt explode by flexing.
Svetlana introduced us, but I forgot everyone’s names immediately.
“Just a few runs,” she said to her boyfriend, the Billy-lookalike, smiling up at him in a way that turned my stomach to jelly.
“You’ll be all sandy.” He traced her shoulder and upper arm.
Svetlana turned to me. “Are you ready?”
I nodded, almost forgetting to leave my sweatshirt and flip-flops in a pile before she pulled me to the water. Svetlana went straight in while I hovered in the foam, steeling myself for the cold. Behind us, her friends stood in a triangle, watching.
I sloshed in after her, swallowing a mouthful of salt as I gasped. Svetlana tread water beyond the breakers.
“Come on!” she shouted.
I made it to her side, and she got her board ready in front of her.
“You want to hold it like this,” she said. “And move up close to where the waves peak. You have to get right on the edge, or else you’ll miss the wave.”
My teeth chattered as I bobbed beside her, Crockett’s t-shirt clinging heavily to me. Svetlana’s hair was still dry, but the surf had slapped me on the side of the face, and the end of my ponytail wrapped wetly around my neck.
We moved up, the ocean sifting shells and other things beneath our feet. I couldn’t touch bottom, but I got my board under me.
“I’ll tell you when to go for it,” Svetlana said.
I nodded, and the water picked us both up and dumped out a wave. Svetlana looked over her shoulder. “This one looks nasty, Sam. Dig in—”
But I’d already drifted in front of her, and instead of riding the wave I caught the full force of it, spinning me off the board and slamming my body into the churned-up sand with all the broken shells. Seawater burned up my nose, and the sand ripped across my knees and elbows. I tumbled at an angle, my left thigh and opposite shoulder pitching into the shelf. Finally, the wave spilled out past me, and I was getting to my knees when another bowled me over.
Svetlana rode the second wave in, and she turned and sloshed through the surf toward me, hooking an arm around my elbow and pulling me to my feet. My cheek stung, and I blinked away tears and spat saltwater.
The other three had come down to the surf’s edge. Svetlana’s boyfriend held her board where it wouldn’t be swept away.
“Fun,” muttered the other boy.
“She lost her board,” the girl said, and the three watched the red foam shape as it dipped toward and away from shore.
“Are you all right?” Svetlana asked, patting my back with one hand. I leaned forward on my thighs and coughed water, trying not to cry. A slush of wet sand oozed from the cuffs of my boardshorts.
“Look at her leg,” pointed one of the boys. There was a skinned trail starting to bleed.
I opened my mouth to tell them I was fine, but more spit trailed out, and I sniffed hard.
“Poor Sammy,” Svetlana cooed, and then I really was crying. “Maybe we can get you an ice cream.”
“Look, Lana,” said her boyfriend, spreading his free hand. “If we want to get cleaned up to see that movie, we should get off the beach.”
Svetlana stroked my bruised shoulder a few more times. I felt small as a baby doll on the arcade prize shelf. Her friends stood around looking at one another but not me. Finally Svetlana nodded. “Hey,” she said, “we can try this another time. You’ll have to get a new board, but they’re not too expensive at Sunsurf’s.”
I nodded dumbly as they walked me toward my pile of stuff in the sand. Without the arcade I’d never make enough to buy a new board before school. Svetlana helped me on with the sweatshirt; I was shivering so much I couldn’t get my arms in it myself.
“You’ll be all right getting home?” she asked.
I nodded, wondering if I could shower and slip back into bed before my brothers even noticed I had gone.
Svetlana’s friends nodded as I set off toward the dunes, her boyfriend waving halfheartedly. “Nice to meet you, Sam.” He put his free arm around Svetlana’s shoulders and turned her around.
I stopped when I reached the passage through the dunes that would put me on my street and looked back. At first I didn’t see the group, but then I found the tops of their heads on the other side of the bleached fence posts. A spot of blonde hair bobbed, and then a dark, shaved head, as though Svetlana and her boyfriend were treading water together. Their foreheads brushed, and I turned away, my arms empty at my sides.
Author Bio: Jae Steinbacher is a writer and editor residing in Raleigh, North Carolina, where she completed an MFA in fiction at North Carolina State University. She attended Clarion West in 2014 and now serves as its Workshop Administrator. Jae is a 2017-18 NC Arts Council fellow in literature. Her work appears in Terraform, Escape Pod, and PodCastle. “Chimeras” was a Notable Story for The Best American Science Fiction and Fantasy 2016.