Family Dynamics

What If


“Should we wait for Emile?” I ask.

Grandpa doesn’t slow down, and each steady stride of his equals three of mine, even though everyone tells me I’m tall for my age.

“No,” Grandpa answers.

Emile is my sister. It’s pronounced “Emily,” but everyone always says it wrong. She is two years younger, and we fight a lot. She is annoying because she follows me around and always messes up my side of the bedroom. She was still putting on her windbreaker and shoes when we left. Grandpa told her we’d be on the beach walking toward the point, although I would rather just wait for her.

When we pass the first outcropping of rocks, I look over my shoulder and see nothing but sand and the campground hiding behind beach brush. It’s February, and the place is all but deserted except for our family and a handful of old-timers. They come every year during the winter, when it’s rainy, empty and quiet. My Grandpa insists that’s when it’s the most beautiful, all green and foggy. I think the hills look like soft green velvet, but I don’t say this to anyone.

As we walk along the surf, I tuck scraps of abalone and pink sea snail shells in my pocket along with my tissue. Pretty soon it becomes wet and disintegrates in my hand. That was dumb of me, I think to myself. I will be needing that tissue. My nose always runs in the wind, as if it turns on an invisible faucet in my sinuses. Mom is always asking about them. My sinuses, I mean.

Pretty soon we round the corner and can see nothing but beach and cliffs, ocean and sky. The sky is bright blue because the wind blew the fog away. I squint when I look behind me.

“I can’t see the campground anymore,” I say.

When Grandpa doesn’t respond, I add, “Maybe we should stop here and wait for Emile.”

“She knows where to find us,” he says, sounding impatient with me. I can usually tell when adults start losing patience, but I keep thinking about what if

What if Emile can’t find us?

What if she gets lost and we have to send out a search party?

What if she gets caught in a riptide and drowns before we even notice?

What if someone kidnaps her?

The what ifs keep playing in my mind like a tape cassette I can’t pause. Every few yards I turn my head around and my chest tightens when I don’t see Emile in her bright green windbreaker.

Finally, I can’t keep it in any more. “What if something happens to her?”

“What’s going to happen to her?” Grandpa asks.

I don’t know how to answer him, the feelings and words won’t straighten themselves out in my head. “Well…what if she gets lost?”

“There’s only one way to go. She’ll run into us, we’re not walking that fast.”

“What if someone bad takes her?”

“There’s no one here. The campsite’s practically empty. Who’s going to take her?”

“Lunatics?” I say. I know all about lunatics from books, and they always appear when you least expect them.

Then, lifting his hands in the way he does when he talks, “You know, you worry too much. There’s nothing to worry about. So stop it.”

His words hit the stop button in my head. I stop looking back for Emile, and before I know it, she is calling out to us, her voice carrying on the wind.


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