(this story first appeared in Vol 28.1 of December Magazine)
First the snow. Three heavy hours. We run in it. Play. Build snowmen. Snowball fight. Fall onto our backs, move our legs and arms back and forth until we turn into angels.
Then the heat. Within an hour the snow is gone. We are down to shorts and short sleeves. Puddles are everywhere. Me and S.B. make one last check. The radio.
“It won’t be long now,” she says.
We hug for a long time. I stare at the Christmas tree over her shoulder. Our ornaments. The shortness of our time. Our kids—he is seven, she is just four. It’s unfair, so wrong, but I try not to let it get the best of me. The kids run into the living room. Dance around us and hug our legs.
“It’s too hot!” says Little Man.
“I’m hot too, Daddy!” says Oogie.
The sky has gone blood red. There’s a rumbling in the far distance.
“Time for the beach,” I say.
“YEA!” the kids cheer. They grab towels. A rubber ball. Tupperware and spoons to dig in the sand. We load the kids, the cats, and the dog into the car. We have two coolers of food. Bottles of water. And as much wine as we can carry. “I’ll get the presents,” I say.
At the beach. Me and S.B. sit on a blanket. Hold hands and drink wine. The kids are running, digging, splashing. The cats are a hundred yards away. Two little dots in the sand. Running. Chloe, our dog, is not far off. She is sniffing and sniffing and whining. She hears the rumbling too.
“It’s so hot,” says S.B.
She holds up her glass. I fill it. Open another bottle. Drink from it. I can’t help myself from looking at her. Even now—the sky about to break and everything so meaningless on the beach—I am in awe. She is beauty. Truth. My grace under pressure.
“I love you, honey,” I say to her.
She leans into me. We kiss. The kids scream.
Fish have been popping up since we’ve arrived. Now, they’re washing onto shore.
Flipping. Flopping. Mass fish suicide.
Oogie runs to me. Hugs me. She is teary eyed.
“The fish, Daddy! Why are they dying?”
“They’re okay, Oogie. Let’s not worry about the fish.”
I want to hug her and not let go, but there isn’t enough time for that. What looks like lightning, but longer and brighter and much more intense, blasts the sky. It does not boom with thunder, but makes a great hiss-sizzling sound. Like drops of water in a frying pan.
Little Man is not crying. Not upset. He has moved to S.B.’s lap and is watching the sky.
“What’s going on?” he asks.
“Just some weird weather,” says S.B.
The gulls that would usually be here, pestering us, snagging up these dead and dying fish, are all in the sky. High up. Hundreds of them. Moving back and forth. Swooping. Dazed. There are blackbirds and pigeons too. Great masses of them. They are colliding. Squawking. Feathers rain down. Finally, they all move together further out over the big lake. Toward the place the world rumbles.
“Why are we letting her run away?” Oogie asks and points to Chloe. She has finally made her move. Is trotting away. Looking back. Picking up pace. Looking back. Then finally, at full speed. Racing back toward home.
“She’ll be okay,” I say. Oogie wipes tears.
S.B. drinks her wine. I drink mine. We give the kids water. Candy canes. They get sticky and play in the sand. They wander up and down the beach until they find a place away from the fish to rinse their hands and feet. When they return to us, they watch in silent amazement as the world unfolds—after all, this is stuff unseen.
S.B. reaches into the black garbage bag and brings out the presents. She doles them out quickly. Each kid has a great pile.
“Let ‘er rip,” I say.
I open another bottle. Me and S.B. look at the sky. It is twisting. Black and red. Lightning and sunshine all at once. Suddenly, the temperature drops—enough to make all of us shiver—and I wish, in our rush to leave the place we love, we would have brought blankets for this.
“Why are we opening presents here?” Little man asks.
“It’s Christmas!” I say. “YEA!” the kids cheer.
Little Man hugs an Angry Bird pillow. Jovi kisses her Stompeez then hurries to put them on.
“I love them!” she says.
“This is awesome!” Little Man throws his bird into the air. Catches it.
“Great catch,” I say. He gives me a high five.
Wrapping paper and ribbon blows round. Up. Then starts across the sand toward KFC. The kids, instinctively, go after it.
“No, no, no!” I say, “It’s Christmas, kids! You don’t have to clean up the mess! I’ll get it later!”
They run back. Winded.
“Really?” Little Man asks.
“Really!” says S.B. “Today, we worry about nothing. We are just a family that loves each other. Spending time on the beach.”
The kids jump around us. Dance. But there is a great gust. Sudden deep cold that drives them to us. We move close together, drink wine, eat candy canes, sing Jingle Bells, and everything is warm and sweet.
“This is a weird day, but it’s great,” says Little Man.
“Yea, it’s weird,” says Oogie.
“Sure is,” I say.
There is more rumbling. Louder and closer. A great growing rush. I look to my wife. Tears start in her eyes. She is staring out at the lake. “Oh, honey,” she says. “We picked the worst place.”
When I look, I am taken to a place that cannot be believed. There is a man on the beach with the woman he has always loved. Even before he knew her. And they are there with their little kids. The ones they love so much. And above them, the sky is opening. There is a giant white hole. Gleaming. And several miles out, pushing along toward them, is great wave.
The sky darkens.
More cold. And even though they should be gathering themselves up for one last run. A panic. To the car. He knows it’s useless. That finally, it has come.
“Let’s hug,” says S.B.
“Mom, why are you crying?” asks Oogie.
“Because I’m so happy,” she says.
“Me too,” says Little Man.
“Me three!” says Oogie.
“Me four,” I say.
The rumbling is fast. Deafening. The wave must be a mile high. Just before it hits, there is a strange, slow-motion of silence. The wash of warm rain. We wrap our arms around our kids, around each other, as if it is the end.