Growing up, Margo had hated summer. Actually, hate was not strong enough of a word. Abhorred. Deplored. Completely, absolutely loathed. The aggressive heat, humidity, and stickiness. Grains of sand she could never quite scrub free of her body. Chlorine that dried her blonde hair into green straw. A lack of structure that caused her to flail in contrast to the organization of her school days that made her thrive.
In summer, without classroom bells, assignments, and government lunches, her days were a mix of shuffling from one place to another. This was no fault of her own nor was it anyone else’s, but solely the circumstance of having two parents working multiple jobs to try to give their children the life they wished for themselves.
No matter how she tried to understand the hype, Margo couldn’t see what the gritty summer season produced other than smells, sweat, sunburn, seclusion, and three months of life in shambles.
That is, until she was in seventh grade and her Aunt Carlie and Uncle Isaac invited Margo, her sister, Kendra, and her brother, Logan, to spend a month with them at their beach house. At first, Margo wasn’t keen on it, the location alone ticking multiple boxes on her summer hate list, but it was one of the few times she saw her parents accept help, and their acceptance meant acquiescence on her part.
So, she packed up her worn tartan duffle, hugged her parents goodbye, and climbed into her aunt and uncle’s minivan crammed full of her cousins’ summer sundries, deflated inner-tubes, and suitcases embellished with stickers from places she’d never been outside the covers of a book or National Geographic magazine.
Three hours later, they pulled up at the home shellacked in shiny white paint and fit with windows that stretched multiple floors to give the best ocean views. Despite Margo’s attempt at resistance, amongst the homesickness, enjoyment edged its way in with recognition of a beauty she hadn’t before witnessed. Perfectly saturated sand squishing beneath her feet like packed brown sugar. Sun that warmed instead of baked. Days balanced between recreation and relaxation. Nights spent listening to the crash of the ocean beneath a sea of glimmering, glittery stars. Waves cresting with so much foam, they reminded her of the bottles of soda she and her friends added Mentos to in science class to learn about chemical reactions. “Frothing” is how her teacher, Mrs. Hart, had described it.
The literal girl next door, Jeni and Margo hit it off the second week of vacation, and immediately regretted they hadn’t met the second Margo de-vanned. They had their differences, namely that Jeni’s parents owned their house on the beach and a couple more out east, while Margo’s parents were renters. Maybe, if they met in the un-sun-kissed world, that status and so many other things would’ve mattered. But here, it and so many other things, didn’t. What mattered were the commonalities, the linkage that came with understanding what it was like to be the middle child. To love magazine perfume samples and decry Tom Cruise as the greatest of the Hollywood Toms. To carry in their marrow the belief that if they changed one thing about themselves—Margo her family’s struggles, and Jeni her fear of showing her true sexuality—they would finally live the lives they were meant to.
Sunk deep into their beach chairs, drunk first on root beer and in later years the Coors they found in the fridge, they told each other all of this, self-consciousness checked at the city limits.
There was little risk with a friendship that began with July’s fireworks and ended in the dog days of August. With no real connection in the real world beyond a text exchanged here and there, their relationship felt like it was suspended in a fantasy world, where menial stories and hefty secrets could be shared with little to no repercussion. Jeni was Margo’s summer escape, although she didn’t know if she would ever say it out loud. It would be a pin to their bubble she had decided, one sometimes she wishes she could burst, just to bring Jeni along with her into reality, to have her for more than one season.
In what investigators calculated to be a matter of seconds, Margo’s mom and Kendra went from existing to extinct, fragments of their Subaru and viscera scattered across the pavement and into the ditch. The morticians put them back together in pieces, but, like Margo’s life, there wasn’t enough left for them to be whole again or anywhere close to what they once were. Their family got no last touch of a hand, no chance at a face-to-face goodbye, only sobbing at the side of people too loved to be laid to rest in too-cheap caskets.
Gone were plans to have Margo’s favorite quesadillas when she finished the semester; to sneak into the philharmonic concert Kendra loved and listen to beautiful music until the sun sank beyond the horizon; to watch her parents no longer rent their home but purchase it like they were supposed to that June and get to make it their own like they had dreamed. All that remained were feelings of those hated summers一stifling, inescapable, unbearable一and their long-standing arrangements for that summer along the ocean.
“You have to go,” Margo’s dad said to her and Logan one morning at their kitchen table when the sunshine felt too bright and too warm for a world devoid of purpose, when those they loved were devoid of their own warmth.
“We can’t leave you here,” Margo said to him, Logan nodding along beside her, his words more lost than found as of late.
“I’ll make it through. I promise, I’ll be okay,” their dad said, laying his hands on each of theirs. Margo wondered, how could he be okay when okay doesn’t exist anymore, when the scale by which they rated their experience in the world had been completely thrown out of whack? “They wouldn’t want you to do not something you love, and I don’t want you to, either. You have to live your life.”
So, like she had seven years before, Margo acquiesced, despite her very real fear that fate could once again budge into their family and take her dad, too. She had so little to offer him, and this she could.
When Aunt Carlie and Uncle Isaac picked Logan and her up, she tried not to remember what it was like to get a hug from her mom before she left, and to remember what it was like to have a hug from her father that didn’t shake. She tried not to hear Kendra’s voice over the seat partitions like she had so many times, but wanted to memorize it all the same: the slight inflections, the way it deepened or rose with whatever character Kendra decided to play that day. She promised herself again that she would not tell Jeni what happened, so the bubble could stay shiny and untouched, as the reality outside of it collapsed.
Like the old friends they were, Margo and Jeni slipped back into their patterns without a thought一or at least without looking like they were thinking of it. Margo was very aware of it, managing her emotions and forcing the elephant in the room to a corner, hidden. At times, she felt like she only did so terribly at it, the elephant was barely shrouded behind a ficus.
The maelstrom of anger and pain and grief roiled inside her, appearing in terse sentences, clenched fists, unblinking stares, and quick returns to home. That was what happened when you live the kind of tragedies you’ve read about happening to others but hoped would never touch you. You were held in a constant state of dissonance, the friction breeding tension, both inner and outer.
Jen didn’t seem to pick up on any changes, telling Margo instead about Rayna, the woman she was dating from school, whom she loved but kept secret from her parents. Margo let her carry her along in the conversation, wanting nothing more than to drift away to somewhere anywhere than where she had been.
Eight days into Margo’s stay, she and Jeni planted themselves on the beach to watch the sky rotate through its color palette, fading from blue to orange to red to purple to black. Crowds dispersed, heading back home or to restaurants for the night, and the quiet took over. Peaceful, Margo would’ve described it, if peace were possible for her anymore. Every moment felt haunted and fraught.
“Mar?” Jeni asked, her whisper seeming loud amid the the gentle shush of the current and the nocturnal calls of animal life
“Yeah?” Margo replied in her own whisper. Anything louder would’ve broken her voice.
“I know what happened,” Jeni said, the reply tentative and sympathetic. Margo didn’t question the what. She knew it. The what was the not-so-hidden elephant, the fact that Kendra and Mom weren’t gone from here but gone forever. “Your uncle told my aunt.”
The origin didn’t matter to Margo. What did was that set of words, each a pin driving into Margo’s bubble. She felt the pop inside her chest, or maybe that was her heart breaking again with another loss. With the drop of her defenses, she felt the punch land in her abdomen.
“I know you might not want to talk about it. I get that. I mean, I don’t get it. I can’t imagine,” she said, the words petering out. Jeni cleared her throat, and her voice came back stronger. “But if you want to, you can talk about it to me. You listen to me talk about the most random shit. I’d listen to anything you want to say.”
New competition joined them, quickly becoming a crowded field. In the dark of night, on the edge of the land she called home and a new world she struggled to traverse, Margo sobbed, letting the sound leave the bubble and disappear into the black, horizonless ocean.
Over the sugar-packed sand, Jeni reached her hand over, slipping her fingers into Margo’s palm and wrapping it in her firm but gentle grip. It was comfort in a touch, an infusion of the warmth Margo had loved over the past seven years, a summer escape once again.
Margo held on for dear life.