BY SARA RAUCH, CURATED BY AMANDA MISKA
He steps onto the pier, fists clenched at his sides, careful of the wide gaps between planks, where he sees the restless gray-green water. Clutched in his palm is a chunk of purple agate, bought just now, when they’d gotten off the bus. Tess bought one too, smaller, more smoothed than his—it must be in her pocket, because she’s ahead of him, leaping from plank to plank like a ballerina, arms wide, palms open. Her hair, long and tangled, ripples behind her. He’s a better swimmer than Tess, but Tess isn’t afraid of drowning.
The water crashing against the sand, against the pier legs, sounds like TV static after the stations shut down. Behind him, his mother says, Are you sure this is safe?
And his dad, Looks structurally sound.
But the waves, his mother says.
Only the tide coming in.
That’s what the bus driver said, in choppy English, as they milled around wondering what to do with the next hour. Pepper crab, the driver also said, pointing to the hut at the end of the pier.
Thatched roof, weather-beaten grey walls. A woman occupies the door-less doorframe, apron tied around her batik dress. The bus driver remains behind, stooping in the dirt next to the bus, unwrapping his lunch from a cloth bundle.
He knows he should put the agate somewhere safe. But it is so royal, cloudy like it’s resolving the future to show him. Warm in his palm. The girl selling the stones, her broad smile, and her teeth, so white against her tan skin. Dark eyes, like Tess, but Tess has gone on ahead, leaving him—already to the woman standing in the doorway. Two sets of hands, airborne. Tess is the best of them at this, gesturing, speaking with her hands. Picking over the tray, his mother said, Wouldn’t you like the red stone? Or the green? But no, he wanted the purple, same as Tess.
They’re sharing a room these last few months. Their apartment in Singapore air-conditioned against the equatorial heat, but they wake early and sit on the balcony with the potted plants their mother buys in the open-air market. The bonsai trees fast grow brittle and brown. Dad gone to work and Mom still sleeping. His mother is small, with a graceful halo of curls around her face, and she worries. She doesn’t like the maid coming in to load the dishwasher or change the sheets or leave fresh towels.
Under a towel once, on the back balcony, they encountered a cockroach. That made Tess scream. One of the few times he’s seen her scared.
Come on, Timmy, his father says. Aren’t you hungry?
He is, he always is, but crab? He’s not sure.
Tess will eat it.
They’ve eaten skewered mutton wrapped in banana leaves. They’ve eaten durian, which smells like rotten garbage. They’ve slurped noodles with chopsticks and sweated out curry. They’ve peeled back the brown shells of lychee fruit, the white center sweet-tart and silky. In the market they beg for pear-flavored Tang and starfruit.
One restaurant they went to had bird’s nest soup. A delicacy, the waiter said. Nobody ate that one.
He wants to go home. He doesn’t like Indonesia, any more than he’s liked Malaysia or Bangkok or the Hong Kong airport where they were stranded for a night while a typhoon blew through. He doesn’t want to go to Australia and he doesn’t want to go back to Singapore either. Too many stray dogs, their ribs poking out, too many people getting in his face clucking, What a nice boy. Nice girl. Tess stands stock-still and smiles when this happens, and he shrinks behind her. Later, she says, Don’t be such a baby. His father says, They’re curious about you—it’s a compliment.
There are birds in Singapore: pigeons, gulls, parakeets in the zoo. Their apartment is on the twenty-sixth floor. At home he climbed trees and peeked into nests, careful not to disturb the pale blue eggs. Here there are no limbs low enough to climb.
His stomach feels like how the ocean looks through the wood slats.
Can we swim here? he asks.
You can swim at the resort, his father says.
Tess calls his name from the end of the pier, waving. She’s climbed the railing, hanging over the water. His mother yells, Tess, get down. But Tess doesn’t. She leans farther. His mother says, If she falls—.
His father says, Let her be.
The sky glows like hot metal as he makes his way toward Tess. There’s no horizon, just the sky getting darker and darker until he realizes that’s the ocean. Tess points, and he sees fins breaking water. Sharks, she says. Her feet rest on the second-highest plank, her body jack-knifed over the top, long hair hiding her face. His mother threatens to cut that hair; Tess hates to brush it, hates to wash it, it turns green after too many swims in the pool.
He’d prefer that pool now, even though when he is there, he wishes he were home, swimming in his own pool, not the kind that goes into the ground like the one on the ninth floor of their apartment building does.
Are they really sharks? he asks. He puts a hand on the railing. The wood is dry and soft. At one business lunch his dad ate shark fin soup. I couldn’t say no, he said. Tess said, What did it taste like? Like soup, but a little slimy. His mother said, That’s gross.
Tess leaps down, backward, spins toward him. Tiny sharks. Babies.
Will they eat us?
Tess laughs. Maybe a toe.
They’ve seen Jaws at least ten times. They love it. Tess always gives a sharp little intake of air when the shark rises from the water and bites the boat. That’s his favorite part.
Put that stone away, Tess says. If you lose yours I won’t give you mine.
She doesn’t lie. He slips the agate into his pocket.
Tess, Timmy, get over here.
They cross the pier to the tables. Where he sits, he can look past his feet, past the gap in the boards, to the water. Same dull gray. His dad says, It’ll be different at the resort.
His dad shrugs. Remember the brochure?
He does not.
The crabs arrive on big platters. Their shells crusted over with reddish-black paste. Peppers. His mother grimaces. Tess grabs one, snaps off a leg, cracks the shell, tastes the soft white meat. Her mouth forms an O and her tan cheeks flush. But she goes for more, devouring, her eyes wide and tearing. His dad and mom exchange knowing smiles. His mom shakes her head, and serves out the crabs onto bamboo mats. She says, You don’t have to eat it if you don’t want to. But he does. They’re beautiful, the red shell bright beneath the smeared pepper-paste, and the big awkward claws. The woman who runs the hut stands nearby, arms folded, eyes on the horizon.
He tugs off a front claw. Dry and wet at the same time. He cracks the shell, puts it to his mouth, sucks. Heat sears over his lips, into his nose, down his throat. He has been set on fire.
His mom stands, wipes at his face with the hem of her shirt, exclaiming. The woman bustles over with a tray, teapot and teacups, sets them out. He sees his mother’s eyes flare at his father, and his father, says, Water? holding his hands apart to indicate a tall glass.
The woman tuts and mimes lifting a teacup to her mouth. When none of them move, the woman says, Drink. Tess grabs a handle-less cup and sips. She nods, pushes a cup toward him. He gulps.
The liquid tastes like a milky sponge, but his throat opens and his lips stop burning. He reaches for another cup, downs that too. His mom and dad and Tess and the woman all watch.
He says, I like it. And helps himself to another crab.
Sara Rauch lives and writes in Western Massachusetts. Her work has appeared in Split Lip, Gravel, Hobart, So to Speak, Lunch Ticket, and more.