On paper, a day at the beach sounds like a good idea to Gilbert Theodore Darby. Beach Day is an annual event he attempts every summer on a predetermined weekend when he knows his wife and daughter will not be busy. He wakes in his bed, stretching the sleep from his limbs, and swings his legs over the side to feel the grey carpet between his toes. Gilbert dresses in his Beach Day outfit: a lightweight beige shirt, a pair of beige cargo shorts, and the Crocs gifted to him by his mother-in-law, which are also beige. By coincidence, Gilbert Theodore Darby’s entire outfit is beige—much like his life.
Despite the protestations from his wife, Cindy, and the grey skies obscuring any hint of sun, Gilbert insists on their annual beach day. To him, Beach Day is not about the weather, or the swimming, or even the beach. Beach Day simply means time with his family, which is a rare occurrence in his household. To his wife, Beach Day is a nuisance from which she sees little escape. They have never told each other this, and this year is no different.
On the ride there, they are lost. Gilbert Theodore Darby is behind the wheel, red-faced and yelling at Cindy, who sits in the passenger seat equally enraged. She insists they follow the map she has on her phone instead of relying on memories of the previous Beach Days to guide them. Gilbert is sure he knows the way and refuses to hear any more on the subject. From the backseat of the minivan, their daughter Elizabeth watches in silence. This will not be the thing that traumatizes her today.
As they approach the beach, they do not encounter the usual salty, muggy scent that accompanies Beach Day. Instead, they are met with a smell so horrible that Cindy begins to gag and Elizabeth begins to cry. Gilbert Theodore Darby willfully ignores the odour. It carries the usual salty twinge of the ocean, as anything on the coast does, but is tainted with the sickly-sweet smell of rotting flesh. Unbeknownst to Gilbert Theodore Darby and his family, the remnants of Hurricane Claudette, which had recently swept through the area, caused a disruption in the migratory pattern of the summer flounder. It was a large, ugly fish that was only close to the shore at this time of year to lay eggs. The tumultuous tides had confused the poor sea creatures and hurled them ashore in a manner that suggested Claudette cared very little for their spawning season. This resulted in a layer of dead fish half a foot deep that covered the first ten feet of beachfront. As the waves continued to crash over this scene of death and gore, bringing with them more dead fish in various states of decay, it gave the tumorous growth the semblance of life, twitching and pulsating in the dim, grey light.
Not to be robbed of his yearly Beach Day, Gilbert Theodore Darby insists that he take his daughter over the sand dune to properly see the sight he refers to as “awesome in the most literal sense”. His wife steadfastly refuses to leave the minivan, and cites understandable complaints regarding the stench and the visceral nature of the spectacle. Gilbert insists. Cindy does not want to argue; she is so sick of arguing. Elizabeth, silent as ever, watches her mother begin to cry as her father pulls her out of the minivan towards the awful smell. This will not be the thing that traumatizes her today.
As Gilbert Theodore Darby pulls his daughter along behind him, a great many things run through his head. He finds himself frustrated: the ruination of his Beach Day; the arguments with his wife, which had become increasingly more frequent since the last year’s Beach Day; and the spawning ground of the summer flounder. Above all, Gilbert is angry with himself for thinking that any day, even Beach Day, could bridge the widening gap between himself and his family. And as depression moves in to cloud his mind, his ankle catches the branch.
Interestingly enough, the branch came from a national park on the coast of North Carolina, belonging to a virgin longleaf pine that had fallen victim to an invasive species of beetle. This caused it to rot from the inside, weakening it more and making it susceptible to the winds that ravaged the coast when Claudette moved through. Almost miraculously, the branch was carried more than six-hundred and eighty-three miles north along the coast where it was caught up in a school of terrified summer flounders and unceremoniously flung ashore with their corpses. Continuing its streak of poor luck, the branch was tossed onto the dune only yesterday by a young boy named Joseph when he was done with it. The child had been busy picking through the bodies of dead flounders with the branch thanks to poor supervision by his parents. Winds buried it under the sand where it remained, unknowingly waiting for Gilbert Theodore Darby’s ankle.
Gilbert Theodore Darby is not aware of any of this, but as he tips forward he becomes acutely aware of the fact that this is probably going to hurt.
As his ankle wraps around the branch, which sticks hard in the sand, he feels a shot of pain run up his leg. There is little he can do but watch the ground come up to greet his face as he begins his final descent down the dune, a twenty foot fall which would end in the graveyard of summer flounders. Gilbert at least has the foresight to let go of his daughter’s hand so as to not take her with him. Elizabeth watches her father fall down the dune silently, his grunts of pain covered by the sound of the crashing waves. She is unaware of the fact that this is the thing that traumatizes her today.
At the bottom of the hill, buried under a layer of rotten, slick flounders, lies a rather sharp rock. The rock, unlike the branch, is native to this area and has been for some time. The rock has never harmed anyone, save for yesterday when an inattentive and poorly supervised Joseph tripped on it. It is as ill-prepared for Gilbert Theodore Darby as his neck is for it.
And then, a brief pause, only for the doomed man tumbling down the sandy dune. Not enough time for his life to flash before his eyes or for deus ex machina to swoop down and intervene. Only enough time for an image of a New Orleans bachelor apartment in the summer of 1995.
At that time, Gilbert Theodore Darby, who back then went by Gil, was determined to find what he called the real New Orleans, not the artificial city lauded by tourists and exhaustive collegiate types that waxed philosophic, bragging about the food and the jazz and the voodoo. After a week in the city, Gil could feel he was barely scratching the surface. The tours he had planned were of little help–-historical, white-washed re-tellings of the area led by towering, minimum-wage guides with smiles that would melt your heart, whose only goal on their shifts was to get rid of all the tourists on their bus. Gil’s tour guide was named Sebastian.
Sebastian, who at the time went by Seb, took Gil aside after the tour to talk to him. He would never explain why he picked Gil out of the crowd—he would never get the opportunity. But the young man from out of town followed the local back to his apartment, and eventually toward the French Quarter, the place Gil had, unbeknownst to even himself, wanted to go this entire time.
Above all, it was the smell of the city he remembered the most. The damp air carried with it the scents of a dozen restaurants, the smells of a hundred cooking fish mingling, mixing with the smell of the bayou to create an intoxicating perfume with which Gil fell in love.
And the people. By God, the people there were alive. Back home, Gil couldn’t remember a single person who lived like they did in New Orleans. Seb insisted that he was only seeing the surface, that many people outside the tourism areas lived like he did—or perhaps worse. But Gil always laughed it off, saying Seb was too close, too jaded.
By their third day together, Gil had gathered his things to stay at Seb’s apartment. For a short time, Gil managed to convince himself that he would stay in New Orleans forever, living with this wonderful man he had been lucky enough to happen across.
In spite of all this, all they had done together, the one memory that plays before his eyes as his neck careens towards the sharpened rock that will soon pulverize his vertebrae and scar his daughter for life is of a quiet afternoon in Seb’s apartment. The two were hungover and tired from the night before and wordlessly agreed to a day inside. A small air conditioning unit hanging from the window screeched as it poured cool air into the muggy apartment, providing the two with what little relief there was to enjoy. Dampened music, pumped out from the bar downstairs, could be heard through the thin walls, a local jazz musician whose name Gil had never bothered learning.
Seb was sketching the view from that very window. It was a scene he would end up drawing hundreds of times in his life, perfecting every angle and shadow across a dozen sketchbooks. It was meditative, Seb explained once, something he did to relax and center himself. Gil was attempting to read a book his grandparents had given him, insisting it would help him “get his head on straight”. But he found himself distracted by the movement of Seb’s pencil across the page.
It was a simple moment. A sliver of time where Seb yawned, stretching his hand out with the pencil clutched in his fingers. Gil watched as Seb bared his teeth, looking up at the sky and arching his back. It was a strangely visceral moment that Gil could not tear his eyes off of. He remembered seeing into Seb’s mouth, seeing the back of his teeth, watching the sweat trickle down the nape of his neck only to vanish beneath the bright, floral shirt he wore almost every day. It was peaceful. Humanizing. It brought this God, this Adonis, down to Gil’s level for just a moment. And Gil loved him for it all the more.
The moment only lasted a second before Seb resumed his drawing. He took no note of Gil’s attention on him. A few days later, terrified of what his grandparents would do to him if he arrived home late from the trip, Gil picked a fight with Seb and found an excuse to leave. The last time he saw Sebastian, he was seated on the foot of his bed, tears streaming down his face. A drawing of the scene outside Seb’s window lay at his feet, ripped to pieces by Gil.
It had been decades since Gilbert Theodore Darby had thought of his time in New Orleans, and of Sebastian. A pang of regret crashes his heart seconds before the rock collides with his neck. This is his last sensation as the murderer, hidden by a half-rotten summer flounder, pierces him at the precise angle required to shatter vertebrae. Gilbert Theodore Darby has only a few seconds of life left as he enters spinal shock, sinking into the desiccated pile of fish. He does not hear his daughter screaming at the top of her lungs, nor the crashing of the waves as they carry more flounder to bury him. He only hears the dampened music of a local jazz musician whose name he had never bothered to learn.
Ian Mitchell is a pro-wrestling fan who also happens to be in the second year of the Professional Writing program. When not telling his friends about how he would run the WWE, he can be found playing video games, doodling, and writing a rules system for a pro-wrestling tabletop roleplaying game.