People came to Watch Landing to forget things. They gave themselves over to its Gulf Coast fug, its boardwalk amble, its funnel-cake smell, its open-carry vodka, its fireworks every night in order to forget, because they were on vacation.
This was the summer people came to the Landing to forget their jobs, forget climate change, forget police brutality, forget opioids, forget refugees, forget their inboxes, forget white supremacists, forget tsunamis out of season, and forget forget forget anyone who took it upon themselves to remind them of these things.
The Greys did not belong here.
Elsa and Nolan Grey might have been happier if they could be forgetful, or dead, but they were not. The Greys remembered everything.
They were fondlers of old grudges and conjurers of childhood Band-Aid smells. They were rescripters of ancient fights and relitigators of the past. They were scab-pickers and dead-horse-beaters and wallowers of the first order.
The Greys had not seen each other in almost three years, but they would converge at Watch Landing because their father was dead, drowned off the coast of Leap’s Island, an hour’s boat ride south, and as much as they would like to forget Dr. Ian Grey, they could not.
The first sign the Greys did not belong here was that, on the bus bound for Watch Landing, Elsa was the only one not dressed for the beach.
Two girls in front of her, smelling of coconut oil, wore bikini bottoms and t-shirts and hugged collapsible beach chairs. Elsa wore green pants turned up at the cuffs and Teva sandals. Her legs itched hotly. A giant backpack rode in the seat next to her and Elsa looped her arm around it like a conspirator. The bus turned onto the bridge to the peninsula. Once she got to the Landing, there was still the matter of finding someone with a boat to take them to Leap’s. Nolan, Elsa’s brother, who was meeting her there, claimed this would not be difficult, but it didn’t seem likely the island got many visitors, because the people who lived there were all crazy.
Elsa and Nolan’s father, Dr. Ian Grey, had moved to Leap’s after being humiliated at nearly every distinguished biology department on the West Coast and then losing a fellowship in Alabama. Ian’s fall from grace had been going on for so long that his children thought he might never stop falling. But he had, two years ago, when he’d joined the Reversalist movement and gone to live on Leap’s Island for good.
Leap’s was owned by Mitchell Townes and was inhabited by seven former scientists, researchers, and naturalists whom Townes had convinced of his theories and brought to live there, free of charge. The scientists’ work was dedicated to the world’s smallest known sea duck, the undowny bufflehead, and the island was the species’ only known nesting ground. The undowny bufflehead’s existence comprised the sum total evidence of the Reversalists’ core belief: that evolution had begun to run backward.
Elsa had learned all this on the Reversalists’ vague though well-maintained webpage. According to a counter at the bottom of the site, she was not alone. More than ten thousand people had been
interested enough in the Reversalists’ theories to scroll through their manifesto. Elsa puzzled over the Reversalists’ logo: the silhouette of a bearded man with a walking stick, his foot extended behind him, as if taking a step back. A caption referred to the logo as the “Darwin Walking Backward.”
It seemed unlikely to Elsa that her father had believed in any of this.
And yet, by the time Ian Grey had drowned, his rumpled clothes found among pouches of seaweed in one of the island coves the past week, her father had been living with the Reversalists for almost two years, which implied that, despite thirty years at Stanford, Cal Poly, and Berkeley, Ian did believe that human progress had slowed and swung on its fulcrum. He believed that evolution had reversed its course. And he believed all this because of some fucking ducks.
The bus slowed to its final stop at the Landing and everyone got off.
The pavement was cracked. The beach-going people scattered to the ramps over the dunes, to the liquor stores, to the snack shacks and t-shirt shops, and Elsa followed them.
She was a woman whose sweat smelled of iron, and already Elsa was sweating.
She hitched her thumbs in her pack straps. Her sandy hair was roped and piled on her head, and she wore a white tank top that did not cover her soft, curved midriff. Elsa’s mother, Ingrid, was a milk-pale Scandinavian nurse with very few bad moods. Elsa had inherited her paleness and little else.
There were many bars, because Watch Landing was the kind of boardwalk where people came to get drunk and stare at the ocean. No one was swimming. There were shrimp shacks and burger joints and a more formal restaurant with a long deck full of tables with white cloths, and of course this was where Elsa found Nolan.
There was a knot between Elsa’s shoulders that twisted taut when she saw him. Nolan’s mother, Keiko, a microbiome researcher from Kyoto, had been beautiful, and Nolan’s sleek hair and open, inquisitive face were his mother’s. The rest was all Grey.
Nolan’s hair was to his shoulders, and he’d pushed it back with a pair of sunglasses. His long legs were jacked out from the low deck chair, and he leaned over the table as he sucked from the head cavity of a crawfish. A glass of pale beer on the table was only a quarter drunk, beaded around the rim. He wore a blue oxford, open at the neck, and linen pants. In front of him was a bowl of carcasses. He looked so much like their father that Elsa paused. She’d not seen Ian since he moved to Leap’s, and Nolan on the boardwalk approximated a reincarnation.
This is mourning? Elsa called.
Nolan looked up. He stood respectfully, like a subordinate officer. His eyes were reddish and the bridge of his nose was dented from the glasses. She wanted to grab his elegant Adam’s-appled throat and squeeze. Weakness in Nolan had always driven her mad. Ever since he was small and needily sucking up all of Ian’s time.
Elsa drew close. Nolan’s fingers in the four o’clock light were oily and spotted with red; he held them out as she embraced him, so as not to stain her clothes. He kissed her cheek, and was it possible she felt the sting of cayenne?
We’re not mourning yet, are we? Nolan asked, as if he really wanted to know. As if he would not believe their father was dead unless Elsa said it was so. This pleased Elsa, and yet, why should it be up to her? They were thirty-five and twenty-nine years old, too old for this. Elsa’s life was a litany of troubles caused by the various absences of Ian Grey. Why should death be any different? Probably, the ghost of Ian Grey was off plunging his big-knuckled fingers into the layers of a duck’s eiderdown and squinting at whatever inscrutable thing he found there—oblivious that his disappearance had inconvenienced anyone at all.
Even this, even death, Ian would not make simple.
No mourning yet, Elsa told Nolan. She set her pack down as the waiter appeared and convinced her that a sweet, red slurry called a zombie was just the thing for a day like today. Elsa agreed. She ordered fried oysters and two sides of fries, because otherwise, she knew, Nolan would eat most of hers and she’d have to be angry at him, because she was hungry and wanted to eat them all without sharing, and there was no time for them to be angry with each other now.
Copyright © 2020 by CJ Hauser. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.