Helen awoke to the bickering of an elderly couple who had laid claim to the several square feet of beach adjacent to hers. She tried to focus on the swoosh of the surf and the call of the gulls, but nature was no match for the discordant back and forth of Ed and Ruth, whose names Helen had extracted from their debate in those final minutes before her eyelids reluctantly fluttered open. Clearly, the two geriatric sand crabs meant to get to the bottom of a few things, even if it took all day and sucked the peace right out of the afternoon: Did Ike really intend to abandon Korea to the commies? Had Ed left his brain back at the hotel? Did Ruth even know Korea from the hole in her head? Ed doubted it.
Rolling onto her side, Helen shot the pair a murderous look that ricocheted unnoticed off their leathery pelts, and a surge of revulsion shot through her, so strong it nearly made her nauseous. Why couldn't they cover some of that up, for God's sake?
Stop it! Do you expect to stay young and beautiful forever? Your day will come, dearie. Her grandmother's stern reprimand. She shuddered at a vision of her shriveled, bent, demented future self—so like Great-grandma Annie in her awful final months as resident ghoul in Grandpa and Grandma Starling's back bedroom, only a thin wall between their rooms shielding thirteen-year-old Helen from the spontaneous shrieks, moans and cackles that penetrated her sleep no matter how hard she pressed the pillow to her ears.
But that was years ago. Why was she letting memories of that frightful old creature spoil her vacation? It was Ed and Ruth who had set her off, with their appalling manners and abrasive accents—they were from that part of the East Coast where simple words like "war" and "job" required an extra syllable—but she knew it wouldn't have mattered if they'd behaved and sounded like a couple of Midwestern librarians. The beach was crawling with their kind today; one or another of them would've gotten to her eventually.
Tom had suggested she talk to a doctor—maybe even a psychiatrist—about her "problem" with elderly people. Maybe others had the same squeamish, claustrophobic reaction to them; possibly there was a cure for it, some kind of therapy. Very likely he was right. But still, what would be wrong with asking, when he returned from his swim, if they could try to find a beach with at least a few people who didn't make her think, every few minutes, about Great-grandma Annie. About how when Grandma Starling, the wretched creature's dutiful eldest daughter, had the sniffles or a late appointment at the beauty shop, it had become Helen's duty to coax chicken broth and Jell-O down the toothless old woman; to keep her company in front of the TV until she began her hair-raising cacophony of whimpers, moans and jagged snoring. And then Helen would roll her down the hallway into her room, shivering with disgust—and yes, fear—as she hoisted the limp, wasted form onto its bed and pried its skeletal claw from her wrist.
Stop it, Helen. Just stop it.
She stood to give her limbs an extended stretch, reminding herself that the dreaded geriatric stage of her life was years away. Decades away. Half a century away, or more. Why, even her grandparents were younger than these two beach relics, and both her parents would still be under fifty if they were still living—if that delivery truck hadn't run a red light fifteen years ago. And she herself was not quite twenty years old, pretty and smart with a job in reservations at TWA (but of course she wouldn't stay a working girl for long), newly married to an ex-navy man with Frank Sinatra eyes—a man who would someday inherit his father's small chain of hardware stores, not that she wouldn't have fallen for him anyway.
She felt the old goat ogling her and slid her eyes toward him, catching him in the act. He grinned without a trace of apology and seemed about to crack a joke, but Helen cut him down with a curt nod and made a point of wrapping herself in her blanket-size beach towel before striding down to the water. And to think she had chosen the red one-piece suit over dozens of others because of the way it accentuated her curves and made her feel sexy.
She was trying not to feel peeved about Tom's extended swim, but such a long absence struck her as inconsiderate, if not downright rude. What she needed right now was his tan, lean—young—body stretched out alongside hers on a blanket in the sand, while they flirted in whispers and caressed each other's fingertips and shared discreet little kisses. This was their honeymoon, after all—an overdue honeymoon they had postponed for three months in order to avoid the Florida hurricane season.
"Come on! let's have a quick dip before we settle in." Those had been his exact words: "A quick dip."
She had waved him off. "You go ahead. I've waited long enough for this sunshine; I just want to lie here and soak it up." And she had winked and added, "Hurry back, I'll miss you."
When the heat had become too intense even for a sun-starved northerner like her, she had dragged the chair into the shade of the beach umbrella and dozed off for—how long? Too long, judging by the cobwebs in her brain and the kinks in her legs.
Gazing out into the waves, she felt the first prickle of concern. Tom's brown curls were nowhere to be seen in the sea of bobbing heads, all of which were as round and hairless as basketballs, even those of the old women, with their thin, beauty parlor perms tucked up into rubber bathing caps. Maybe Tom had finished his swim while she slept, and decided to go up to the Beach Café for a beer. If so, she hoped he would think to bring her another gin and tonic to make up for his neglect.
She returned to her chair and tried to distract herself by flipping through a copy of Modern Screen, but within minutes, anxiety had begun to interfere with her concentration.
"A quick dip," he had said. She wished she hadn't left her watch at the hotel. Tossing the magazine aside, she tuned back in to the old couple's relentless quarrelling. Having exhausted the topic of Florida beach vacations versus the more convenient jaunts to the Jersey shore, they had gone to work on the problem of the hotel's overpriced restaurant.
"I'm telling you I won't set foot in there again, Ruth. There are other places to eat."
"Ed, you're such a damn cheapskate. Don't be such a damn cheapskate."
Helen continued to scan the shoreline in search of wavy, dark hair atop a tall, tanned, muscular frame. But everywhere she turned, her eyes were assaulted by shriveled flesh, deflated udders, sagging buttocks, and toothpick limbs sticking out of blubbery sun-baked torsos packed into too-small bathing suits.
Stop it, Helen. Your day will come.
If only there were some less-wrinkled bodies to rest her eyes on. But except for Helen, the youngest person on the beach was a tall red-haired man in a uniform, his ruddy face devastated by acne scars, not much fun to look at. She guessed him to be about thirty, some kind of security guard, who strolled up and down the shore chatting with the sunbathers as if at a social gathering. He had said hello to Helen a couple of times, asked if she was okay, if she needed anything. And there was a trio of stout middle-aged women wearing name badges on their white waitress dresses, who walked among the sunbathers delivering orders for soft drinks and snacks from the Beach Café. But where were all the other honeymooners? The young parents with toddlers building castles in the sand? The hormone-ravaged teenagers eyeing each other on the sand or horsing around in the water? Where on earth were all the children?
Well at least there's this one, she thought, her face softening as she laid both hands on her abdomen. Her pout turned into a smile as she imagined how Tom's blue eyes would light up tonight at dinner when she told him.
She had put away the diaphragm the day before the wedding, with his approval, both of them eager to get their young family started. They had agreed on three kids, maybe even four, so that if something happened to her and Tom—which was unlikely, she knew, extremely unlikely—but if it did, the children would at least have each other. And they would ask Tom's sister to act as guardian in the event of their improbable—highly improbable—early deaths. She hoped Tom's parents wouldn't be offended, but Helen's own experience told her that children shouldn't be raised by grandparents if there was a better, younger option. It just wasn't what nature intended; grandparents were too far removed from childhood to empathize with a youngster's fears and insecurities.
A peaceful quiet fell as Ed and Ruth's argument sputtered to an end. The old man began to snore—a surprisingly soft, hypnotic sound that allowed Helen to doze off again too. She awoke with a start as someone jostled her chair. Tom? No, it was a small boy—there was actually a child on the beach—scurrying past her on his way to the water, his mother murmuring an apology to Helen as she hurried to catch up with him.
"It's okay." Helen smiled, cheered by the burst of youthful energy. "Say, do you know what time it is?"
The woman threw an apprehensive look at the boy, who was taking a first tentative step into the tide, but she stopped to fumble around in her enormous straw bag and finally pulled out a watch.
"Just a couple minutes past four."
"Four o'clock?" Helen scrambled to her feet, her eyes darting up and down the beach and then out to sea. "My husband, he—he hasn't come out of the water. It's been over three hours!"
"Really?" The woman asked in a nervous voice, averting her eyes. After a moment she said, "I have to look after my kid. I'm sorry, hon." And she walked away in a hurry.
Shaken by the inappropriate response, Helen turned to the elderly pair next to her, panic rising in her voice. "My husband! Have you seen a tall, dark-haired man anywhere on the beach? A young man? He went in for a quick swim over three hours ago!"
The old woman snickered and elbowed her companion, who grunted but didn't open his eyes. Helen's temper flared. What was wrong with these people? Did no one see the urgency of the situation? Tom could be dead—drowned!—and this senile crone was laughing at her? It was too much.
"I'll never look like you, you dried up old hag! Never!"
Her hands flew to her mouth. Aghast, she stared at the elderly woman, an apology forming on her lips. But Ruth had turned away from her with a shrug, and Tom was still missing! She had to find someone who could help. She began running down the beach toward the café.
Two firm hands gripped her shoulders from behind.
"Now, now, Miss Helen. What's the trouble? Where you headed to?"
The man who gently turned her around to face him was the red-haired security guard with the scarred face. Thank God!
"Officer! My husband! My husband went swimming and should be back by now. He—"
"He'll be here any minute to have dinner with you just like he does every evening, honey. Let's go sit with your group and wait for him, okay?"
"My group? What do you mean, my group?"
One of the chunky waitresses from the Beach Café, the one with her yellow curls piled high under a pink scarf and a badge identifying her as Judy, joined them and took hold of Helen's other arm. They walked her over to a table where two slack-jawed old men with sunken, watery eyes sat staring at nothing, and some other pathetic creature of indeterminate gender slept in its wheelchair, a trickle of spittle drying on its chin.
From out of nowhere, Judy produced a cheerful fleece shawl that she draped around Helen's shoulders. "There we go, dear. Now did you want coffee or juice with your dinner this evening?"
"Neither! This is not my group!" Helen's eyes were wild with terror, wet with frustration. "My husband and I are on our honeymoon; we're not with this bunch of old fogies! Please! Call the police, or the lifeguard—isn't there a lifeguard?"
"Hush now, honey." Judy's smile never wavered, even as she worked her wrist free of Helen's grasp. "Now just you look over there, walking through the door. Look who it is."
Helen squinted until the approaching figure came into focus. It was just another old fart; they were lying to her, or had her confused with somebody else. Then as he shuffled nearer to the table, their eyes met and Helen went limp with relief.
Those eyes. Those Frank Sinatra eyes.
"Oh thank God, Tom! I was so worried." Clutching at his sleeve as he lowered himself into the chair next to hers, she whispered, "All of these old people..."
He glanced around the table, and then winked as he gave her hand a squeeze. "I know, honey. But you don't need to worry about that. Me and you, we're as young and good-looking as ever."
She peered into his eyes, blue as the Florida sky, and decided to believe him.
"Yes, of course. But still, Tom. The children—where on earth are all the children?"