Thomm Quackenbush, author

Outside the Cave | 2011 | There Will Come Hard Rains

08.28.11

One cannot collect all the beautiful shells on the beach. One can collect only a few, and they are more beautiful if they are few.  

-Anne Morrow Lindbergh

 


To Hull and Back

Leelee  
Leelee on the beach

On the drive up to Hull, Massachusetts and my family's annual vacation, Amber and I use my tablet to induce plants to kill zombies. This game is partly a means of entertaining ourselves and partly for fear that my nieces will turn feral on the trip. We may need all the insulation we can get, despite Dan having arranged the seating so that none of the children are in arm's reach of any other or unsupervised by an adult.

For the last twenty years, my family has gone to Lake George. That tourist destination lost its charm to us at least five years ago, when all the shops became identical and the local employees began to recognize us. Every year, we grouched that we really ought to go somewhere else, but we nevertheless returned to our familiar cabins and did variations of the same activities out of habit. It is reassuring to know it only takes us half a decade to make a change.

I was excited to be bringing Amber, whom I have known only a touch longer than two month at this point. Had it been any shorter, I do not think I would have felt it reasonable to invite her, but we get on so well that torturing her with prolonged contact with my loved ones in exchange for a trip to the ocean was feasible. If she could survive this - and I saw every reason to assume she could - that would say volumes about her compatibility with my life and her ability to integrate as a member of my family, which is something I require in the woman with whom I hope to share a future.

Into the third hour of the trip - twelve members of my family packed into one van for four hours - my five-year-old niece Alyssah looks back at Amber holding my hand.

"You have two girlfriends," Alyssah proudly proclaims, as though this were a counting game.

"No, I only have the one," I argue back at the kindergartener.

"No, two! Her and Melanie."

"Melanie is not my girlfriend anymore," I say.

She considers this for a fraction of a second. "Why?"

"She-" How does one explain this to a child? "-decided she wanted to play with other people."

"But her is perfect for you!" Alyssah insists, using her childish grammar. I know the moment it is out of her mouth that I will never hear the end of this.

Those in earshot - thankfully including Amber - breakout in laughter. "Alyssah has a knack for saying the wrong thing. Exactly what you want her not to say is what she is going to scream," my mother says to Amber, by way of faint apology.

The literature for our accommodations, the Nantasket Beach Resort, makes it seem swanky with a capital "swank". There are Jacuzzis in every room, a fitness center, and a built-in restaurant. The photographs made the resort seem like a Gothic castle on the coast. As such, I was disappointed to be shown to my room only to find that it was entirely like a typical hotel room: hideous carpets to hide stains, innocuously bad art on the walls, forgettable wall paper, Gideon bible in the nightstand. It did, indeed, have a Jacuzzi bathtub and a small safe which I promptly put to use hiding from sight various objects of negligible worth. Best of all, given that the resort is situated across the street from the beach, is the stunning view afforded to us from out our one window... of a crosswalk and a derelict shop front, since the ocean is on the other side of the resort. We were later to be informed that getting an oceanfront room tacked on an additional $1000 a night.
Amber  
Amber having champagne because I have one girlfriend

Bryan, my younger brother who is sharing a room with Amber and me, produces a room rate card from the doorway. "Do you know this place costs $500 a night?"

I grab it from him and, indeed, that is what the card reads. "It must be a mistake. Maybe that is the weekly rate. There is no way Dan forked over $6000 for the three rooms."

Owing to our brother Dan's sudden but deserved success with his business, he is flush with money and felt it gracious to arrange for our lodging this year. There had been talk of our family getting a couple of cabins, but this idea evanesced at some point in the planning. As I contributed nothing but my company and an additional guest - albeit one who eats like a bird and could probably fit in my suitcase - I was not much of a participant in the initial discussions. It was granted that we might go to Salem if it is rainy, but it is understood that I should not hold my breath.

Money will be a pervasive, if mostly unstated, subject on this trip. The issue is not a lack of money. Prior to this vacation, most every amenity has been paid for by our parents - largely by our father, since my mother tends toward lower paying and more sporadic jobs (she tends not to get along with her bosses; this summer, she has been employed babysitting Dan's brood of five). As such, there previously was a tacit understanding that my parents set the agenda. As I am perennially the impoverished writer, I like this arrangement. However, now that Dan is not only making some noteworthy cash but it putting it out for recreational use, there is mutually bristling. He does not care to be ordered what he will do with his money and, I gather, my parents do not wish to feel they are losing the authority to direct the vacation.

Bryan, Amber, and I decide that Nantasket must be an adjective, meaning something which is hyped as amazing but which is average at best. It is nice to be across the street from the beach, but I cannot help but feel the rest of the experience could do with a bit of sprucing up. In our research of the area, we discovered that this town used to have a world famous amusement park with some of the best roller coasters to be found. However, the park had been closed for decades and all the coasters had been sold off, leaving a tourist vacuum from which Nantasket never quite recovered.
Amber  
Her fingers are huge with vacational excitement

The first day of vacation exists mostly to get the lay of the land and decompress from the experience of driving to our destination, the latter seeming nearly crucial given how like processed sardines the drive up made us feel. Amber and I explore the town, which had always been one of the better parts of my family's annual journeys to Lake George. For all its apparent priciness, Hull is inept at separating tourists from their cash. There are a handful of decent restaurants (we ate seafood on the roof of one and were serenaded by a swarthy lounge singer), a carousel in danger of being sold off piece by piece, a bar, a convenience store, and an arcade that has seen better decades. Where are the tchotchke shops? The candy maker? The kitschy t-shirt stands? Aside from the bar, the arcade is the only place that stays open past nine in strict contradiction of the tenets of summer resort town commerce.

As I wait for Amber outside the public bathroom, I am surrounded by a giggle of teenage girls who are plainly studying me.

"What're ya doin'?" the blondest one asks.

"Waiting for my girlfriend," I say, trying to maneuver myself out of the corner into which they are pressing me.

"She's in there? You have a girlfriend?" the braced brunette asks.

"Yes and yes," I answer, willing them away.

A third says, "There are some people out there we don't want to hang out with. Well, we do and we don't. They're, like, our friends but not really anymore. We want to ditch them. So, could we follow you out?"

"Um..." This must be a sting operation. At this moment, Amber exits the bathroom and laughs at the panic on my face at the children closing in.

"What's going on?" she asks.

"These... um... these young women don't want to hang out with someone out there, so they are going to follow us out. Apparently," I reply, making sure none of the teens are close to touching me.

Amber arches her eyebrows and we leave the bathroom. As soon as we are out, the girls scream, "That's them!" and point at a crowd far across the street from them. Then, they run in the opposite direction from us and I am not ungrateful for their absence.

Amber and I duck into the arcade because it is the only way to avoid returning immediately to our room for the night. There are no machines from the last fifteen years - no Dance Dance Revolution, no graphics beyond that of a Super Nintendo - and the only worthwhile prize is a moped costing 800,000 tickets. We are about to leave when we see a House of the Dead machine that someone plugged thirteen credits in and then abandoned. If there is one thing Amber and I hate more than ghetto arcades, it is sixteen-bit zombies being allowed to go unobliterated. We barely make it through a couple of levels (likely because I insist the army should come and back us up with tanks, since two unprotected cops are no match for the denizens of Hell) before our credits are exhausted, as is our patience.

The following day, we pack into the van again to check out where we will take the ferry tomorrow. This speedily accomplished, my sister-in-law Becky decides we ought to check out Quincy Market. Several members of our party ask if Quincy Market is not in the center of Boston and therefore an hour long drive. Becky and Dan insist that Quincy Market is in Quincy, Massachusetts and thus a shorter drive.

It, of course, is in Boston. As I am content to be wherever we end up, I am just happy to get outside the cramped backseat of the van. When stretching my legs, my father asks for money, apparently for parking (it is not cheap to leave a car anywhere in this city, let alone a fifteen person van). I know there had been some grumbling about my bringing so new a girlfriend on vacation, some intimation that I ought to pay out for her portion of whatever we did, so I forked over all the cash in my pocket with a smile and the matter is put to rest.

By the time we go from the garage to the street, Alyssah has taken Amber's hand in hers. For the remainder of vacation, Alyssah will cling to Amber as though my niece had imprinted on my girlfriend.

We find Quincy Market in short order, though it is something of a trial to make sure that all members of our party are together as we make the half mile walk. Bryan keeps mentioning a friend of his - a woman he worked for on Second Life - who lives in the city, as though she is a GPS who lives in his ear and can guide us through him. This is less than helpful.

Once in the market, my family seeks to pull in every direction, though must cede to the needs of the children and their tiny bladders. Alyssah refuses to have Becky take her to the bathroom, as it might mean that she would have to relinquish Amber's hand. The two go into the bathroom together and minutes elapse. My mother looks askance at me, as if to say, "Who is this Amber girl and what assurances do we have that she hasn't stolen Alyssah to sell her into slavery?" Just as I am preparing to text Amber, they reemerge.
Amber  
The paper reads "Don't Ask"

We soon end up at an eatery called Dick's Last Resort. It is a theme restaurant, the theme being constant abuse. As we passed earlier, we saw many people forced to wear hats made of their place mats, each bearing an insult or judgment. It would be easy to make the "just like at home" joke, so I will skip it.

As we are ordering from the ostentatiously surly waitress Ashlee, she notices the love bite I accidentally left on Amber's shoulder, cleverly obscured by one of my nephew's Spiderman stickers.

"That's nasty!" Ashlee proclaims. "How did that happen?"

I turn red and fear what my hat will be made to read. Amber stammers. Ashlee seems initially to ease off and takes the remainder of our orders. I think the embarrassment is over, but no. When she gets back to Amber, Ashlee says she refuses to take her order until Amber confesses what happened.

The finger of guilt is directed my way.

"You brought your girlfriend, who you've known for two months, who you bite, on vacation with your parents?"

"Yes, I did that."

"Are you a dog?" Ashlee asks.

"Possibly," I admit.

"He's an author," my mother interjects. "He has a book out called We Shadows."

"What kind of book is it?" Ashlee asks.

"Contemporary fantasy," I say, oddly more embarrassed of this than the mark on Amber (who, for the record, bruises more easily than a peach). The sequel, due out in August, is about vampires, so I suppose it is on topic.

"I don't read that kind of book," Ashlee says with contrived venom.

"I don't blame you," I say.
Lyssie and Amber  
This is what the rest of vacation looked like

We next venture to the aquarium, where Alyssah further monopolizes Amber. I do have to admit that they are the sort of adorable together usually reserved for Hummel figurines. Still, it is odd to feel jealous of someone barely out of the toddler stage, but I do not recall agreeing to share my new toy.

Once we get back to our room, Amber and I quickly decide to check out the advertised hot tub beside the hotel's pool. Though I love my brother Bryan, he is insistent upon using his laptop in the room whenever he has a moment, which is not conducive to much quality time with Amber. The hot tub is rather filled with a middle-aged woman in a floral one piece, so we bounce a beach ball in the pool (using the woman's children as our ball return when it goes out of the water) until the mother decides to mind her children a little more attentively. I am disappointed to discover this hot tub could more accurately be called a tepid bubbly tub. Still, there is something to be said for the atmosphere of such a device, even if it doesn't actually warm us. Amber and I cuddle in the tub until the bubbles cease. The boy who was our ball return jumps out of the pool and runs over to push the button that will make the bubbles return, which is service I can get behind.

We return to Boston the next day by ferry, a prospect that is swift and accommodating one way, as we sit in booths near people reading the morning paper. On the way home, the ride will be twenty minutes longer and - because no one can quite agree where we are to pick up the return ferry - we are relegated to the sixty mile an hour winds on the top level.

We try to remain one mass as we enter the Boston Museum of Science, but there are too many moving parts for the children to remain focused. Dan's family breaks off and, soon enough, Amber and I do as well, only to all reunite in minutes at a show on the bottom floor. The show consists of little more than guessing from vague clues what manner of creature is in a box the size of a large toaster oven - despite the clue that it employs a unique defense against predators, we are assured we are not dealing with a skunk - and then cooing over the porcupine leisurely picking up and consuming bits of fruit. The presenter may try to convey information to us, but little is retained beyond how sweetly galumphing the porcupine is and how easy it would be to anthropomorphize the animal into a slow speaking, doddering figure with a penchant for sweets.

At the electricity exhibit upstairs, I discover that I can conduct shocks by keeping a hand on a plasma tube. I, as a loving boyfriend, gently trace sparks on Amber's cheek. She responds by zapping my nose.

"You should kiss me while touching this!" I say.
Amber, Lyssie, Xen  
One big happy family

She takes a step away from my hand. "...No, I shouldn't. It will hurt."

"Almost definitely," I agree. "We should do it anyway."

She hesitates a second longer then rests a hand on the glass. I am not certain our lips properly touch but we stumble backward, clutching our now numb lips.

"Worth it," I proclaim, sucking on my bottom lip to assure myself it has endured no lasting damage. Then I zap any family member who happens by, to the annoyance of a stranger who takes it upon herself to be offended I am shocking a five-year-old. I try to show my own mother my newfound superpower and am perplexed that she is immune to electricity.

After we have enjoyed most of the exhibits with some thoroughness, we attempt to gather for the duckboat tour. I say "attempt", because Bryan has wandered off at some point to meet up with his Second Life friend Ruth. Now, he is a man of some twenty-eight years. By this point in my own life, I was entirely independent and - aside from occasional forays into electrically shocking loves ones in a fit of childish pique - unquestionably an adult. Bryan, for the reasons that anyone retains their childhood designations, remains something of the baby of the family (even given that the eldest of the brothers is now father to five actual children). It is expected that he is unrealistic and not wholly responsible for himself. He lives with my parents and always has, aside from living in dorms in college. It is joked that he always will live there. If given the opportunity, he will get himself horribly lost and will - possibly just to irritate us and reaffirm our suspicions - refuse to answer us. As we stew in his tardiness today, my mother tells Amber the story of when Bryan went to visit an internet friend in Kentucky for a few days that turned into weeks. He returned to New York with only a day to spare before our annual vacation and only after much screaming on my mother's part. Another time, he took the train to Canada to visit a different internet friend, whose mother turned him away since she had clearly not discussed this with anyone/assumed Bryan would not actually come/was possibly not of the age of majority despite Bryan's assumptions to that point. He would not clarify exactly what the situation was - he will not to this day. He spent the night in a hostel in Toronto and then took the train home as though this were nothing more than one of those things that happens from time to time. As the minutes passed closer to our departure, my mother more than intimated that her youngest son - who is five years older than she was when she bore him - is lost somewhere in the city of Boston with someone (we hesitate to say "some woman", since we have been offered no evidence of Ruth's gender, age, or corporeality) who may not see cause to return him.
Bryan  
Bryan: Not to be trusted

He turns up, in typical fashion, with minutes to spare, looking for all the world as if no distress calls had been placed to summon him back. My mother asks if Bryan at least has a picture of Ruth - with whom he wandered a college campus - and Bryan says something to the effect that we will think she is homely so he did not bother photographing her (though he was not shy about photographing everyone else on this trip).

The duckboat, as was explained to us by our costumed superhero driver Supersize and as is fairly intuitive from the name, is a semi-aquatic vehicle. The Boston Duck Tour vehicles are reappropriated World War II amphibious landing trucks that are used to give tours of the city. The guide goes out of his way to be funny, such as pointing out the graveyard that contains many historical luminaries that is across the street from a bar as "the only place where you can drink a cold Sam Adams while looking at a cold Sam Adam". During the portion where the duckboat plunges into the Charles River, Supersize calls children up to steer the boat for a few minutes. He selects them from front to back. Then, he calls Amber. She sits still.

"He's calling you."

"He is?" She looks at least as embarrassed as I did at Dick's.

"Go!"

When she gets up there, looking bashful, Supersize realizes his mistake and excuses that sometimes he needs someone older for a portion of the drive.

Near the end of the tour, he mentions that all the boats were named by local school children after aspects of Boston history. His boat is named Molly Molasses, after the Great Molasses Flood of 1919, which had to have come from a particularly morbid child. Given that much of the rest of the tour consisted of his telling jokes, he reiterates that this is true and asks if any of us had heard of this. I, and I alone, raise my hand. He is pleased not to be the only one who knows about this disaster. I whisper to Amber, "It's said that, on hot days, Boston still smells oddly sweet."
Amber, Lyssie, Xen  
"Well, it's no pirate ship..."

Before we get off the boat, he comes and shows me the book he is reading, Dark Tide, all about the molasses flood. On the first page, he has highlighted a mention of his boat, showing it off proudly.

"You know," my mother intones, "he wrote a book, too. It's called We Shadows."

"Thank you, mom. Please stop."

That evening, our designated pizza night, Dan and Becky insist we ride the carousel. As the children nearly outnumber the adults, we could not decline, though I quietly pointed out that everything else will likely be closed by the time the carousel is. This turns out to be true, even as we send scouts ahead to scope out if there might be another pizzeria a few blocks down, but it is a hopeless sort of endeavor. My mother grumbles that this was all intentional, that it might be a power play on the part of Dan, though I do not believe he would play a chess game that prevented his having pizza.

The next day, Amber and I wander the beach. Despite the proximity, there have been so many activities scheduled that we have had no prior opportunity to splash about. As we touch our toes to the numbing water, I realize there may be a reason for this. Despite this, Amber looks stunning in her two piece (she was a child model and aspired to continue this before realizing that she is the prettiest person ever to be so unphotogenic) and I am not about to suggest we go back inside. We are at the beach and we will enjoy it, even if it kills us both via hypothermia.

The last significant beach vacation my family went on was to Virginia Beach, before we decided we liked Lake George and hated driving. I do not remember much of it anymore (aside from catching a bucket of tiny crustaceans, deciding they smelled bad, and trying to freshen them up with a lethal dose of complimentary mouthwash) because I could not have been older than my eldest niece Ayannah, but I do recall that it almost killed me twice. Once, when I thought my family had chosen a spot on the beach, sat down, then realized they were gone. I tried to find my family among the thousands of people on the beach that day, then tried to pick our hotel out among the dozens of identical buildings.
Amber  
She seems skeptical
The coast guard was called out to find me and I believe they had on their corpse handling gloves. The second, more significant time occurred when the ocean pulled me out much too far, too quickly on my boogeyboard (little more than a three foot by two foot plank of Styrofoam). I do not know how far away I truly was, but I remember everyone on the beach looking like dots. Despite this, I heard my mother screaming for me to get back to shore immediately. I paddled as best I could against the enormous waves, but I was never a strong swimmer. Just as I approached the shore, a wave picked me up and slammed me to the beach head first. I doubt either of these contributed to making my family keen to ever come to a beach again with children, but here we are.

Amber and I attempt to find pretty rocks and shells for her to use in her art or on her altar. She had wanted to come out here to collect what the sea left behind at low tide, but that was at three in the morning. Though I was willing, we nixed that plan when we realized we would need to have flashlights and a fondness for waking up in the middle of the night to potentially be accosted by the police/coast guard.

This time on the beach with Amber is what I will mark as the best part of vacation. It is unrushed and, even as we barely speak except to compare finds or marvel over a snail she found or a clam that spat a torrent at her, I feel most fully present with her. It is not that we are out of the presence of my family - though I cannot say I am not relieved to have her away from Alyssah for a few hours - but that we can simply relax at our own pace.

"These won't be as pretty when they dry," she sighs about a handful of our treasure, as if to decide to drop it back to the tide.

"Maybe not. They are very pretty now," I note.

She shrugs and then drops them into a plastic bag that had washed up on the beach and which we were using for storage in lieu of my swimsuit pockets, for fear I will imitate Virginia Wolff if I wade out too far.

Even when we shower off the sand and go swimming in the (temperature controlled) pool later, I feel relieved of the knot of anxiety I had not been aware I had been carrying with me since the trip up. I can see that the time in the sun burned Amber pink, but she seems content to have been so marked.

"What has been your favorite part of vacation?" I ask in the shallow end, coming up behind her.

She wraps my arm around her. "I don't know. You. You are my favorite part."

"You are so cheesy!" I say. She loosens her grip on my hands in reaction, so I add, "...I didn't say stop."

Soon in Xenology: Irene.

last watched: Misfits
reading: A Walk in the Woods
listening: Edith Piaf

Outside the Cave | 2011 | There Will Come Hard Rains

Thomm Quackenbush is an author and teacher in the Hudson Valley. Double Dragon publishes four novels in his Night's Dream series (We Shadows, Danse Macabre, and Artificial Gods, and Flies to Wanton Boys). He has sold jewelry in Victorian England, confused children as a mad scientist, filed away more books than anyone has ever read, and tried to inspire the learning disabled and gifted. He is capable of crossing one eye, raising one eyebrow, and once accidentally groped a ghost. When not writing, he can be found biking, hiking the Adirondacks, grazing on snacks at art openings, and keeping a straight face when listening to people tell him they are in touch with 164 species of interstellar beings. He likes when you comment.



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Works by Thomm Quackenbush

The Night's Dream Series

We Shadows by Thomm Quackenbush

Danse Macabre by Thomm Quackenbush

Artificial Gods by Thomm Quackenbush