Gina Burgess is a writer from Tasmania. Her stories range from unsettling to uplifting and often take readers down unexpected paths. Her work has appeared in Wizards in Space, Mystery Weekly Magazine and Re:Fiction.
by Gina Burgess
We drove to the beach every summer. The day after Christmas while everyone else watched cricket and fought over junk on sale in the shops, Dad warmed up Old-Val’s engine until she stopped sounding like she had hiccups and Mum packed our stuff into the boot. Then we locked our little flat and drove a gazillion hours.
It was easy to tell when we were getting close. The air turned fishy and I wound my window down to get a good whiff. Then a million colorful shacks appeared on the sides of the road. Dad drove slower as we passed them and the snail-speed just about made my head explode because I wanted so badly to start having fun.
I wriggled and bounced and leaned out the open window, getting a face full of salty breeze. Between the shacks and gum trees, I glimpsed thin slices of beach. On the long drive I’d decided that each grain of sand had a little bit of fun in it and I planned to play with every single one.
“Sit back, Tommo,” Dad said, meeting my eyes in the rear-view mirror. “Keep your seatbelt on.”
“It is on,” I said, though it barely counted, since I’d untangled myself from the chest part. Even though the road was bendy and hard to follow, Dad kept his frown on me until I slithered all the way back into my belt.
Finally, after forever, our shack appeared. It was the smallest and plainest of the lot, the paint flaky and the lawn covered in brown, bald patches. But I didn’t care. It was like my teddy, who still snuck into bed with me sometimes—old and worn out, but in a good way. Just like I knew which parts of my teddy had lost their squishiness, I remembered which veranda steps were wonky and shouldn’t be walked on.
The moment Old-Val stopped outside the shack, I rammed open the car door and ran a couple of crazy laps across the front lawn, dodging the bald patches, which I pretended were quicksand. The run ended with me slamming against Dad and wrapping my arms around his waist. He laughed and rested his rough hand on my head.
Instead of heading to the front door, Mum led the way around the side of the building, past a fallen wheelie bin and broken dinghy. When we reached the backyard, I made myself ignore the swing set, walking with Mum and Dad onto the back porch. Before the fun could start there was an important job to do, and as always it was up to me to get it done.
Dad removed the glass slats from the little laundry window. He passed each one to Mum, who carefully stacked them on a grubby picnic table. When the window was a dark, spooky hole, Dad beamed at me.
I held my arms over my head and Dad’s big hands lifted me up. He turned me about until my toes faced the opening then he slowly fed me into the shack. That was my favorite moment—being half in and out of two different places, partly scorching in the sun and partly not. A moment later, my feet found the sink and I straightened up inside the shack.
“Go on, Tommo,” Dad whispered from outside. “You know what to do.”
I nodded even though he wouldn’t see much through the little window then I stepped from the sink to a bench and slithered down its cupboard door like a rock climber. As soon as the worn-out vinyl was under my shoes I shot through the shack.
I ran by the kitchen with the wonky table, rocketed into the musty loungeroom then into the hallway. From there it was a short skip and a jump to the front door, where I tippy-toed, stretched and reached the lock. I laughed as I clicked it. Other years I’d needed to pile up books—make a step—to reach it.
When I pulled the door open, Mum and Dad were waiting in the sun. Mum’s arms were packed with our stuff, but Dad’s hands were free, and he ruffled my hair.
“Good work, Tommo,” he said, easing me aside so Mum could get in.
“That was a tight fit through the window,” she said over her shoulder. “You’re getting big, Tom. Doubt you’ll fit next year.”
“Guess you better find that door key you lost, eh, Dad,” I said as we followed Mum to the kitchen.
“Yeah.” Dad scratched his stubble, smiling crookedly. “Or a neglected shack with a bigger window.”
I frowned. Why would we go anywhere other than our own shack?
Dad laughed and shrugged. “We’ll figure something out.”
Dad moved the car down the road a way—he didn’t like it sitting in the yard for some reason—and Mum drew the loungeroom curtains closed. She said it was to keep the heat out, but it didn’t work that good. It was warm and a bit stuffy, and with the curtains shut we couldn’t see the beach or the other shacks.
It would have been great to head straight to the beach, but Mum wanted to unpack first. While we waited for her, me and Dad headed into the backyard with a cricket bat and tennis ball. I was soon giggling flat-out at Dad’s hopeless tries to catch the balls I hit, and Dad needed to remind me over and over that playtime in the backyard had to be quiet. After forever, Mum came out looking grumpy. She made a shooshing noise that sounded way louder than my giggles.
“The neighbors will hear,” she hissed, and ordered us back inside.
“Can we go to the beach now?” I asked.
“Not quite yet,” Mum said. “We have to get supplies first.”
Mum liked to call them supplies but they were pretty much the same as groceries. Just milk, bread and chocolate spread if I was good. “Good” mostly meant I shouldn’t complain about being hot when Mum and Dad insisted we all put on jackets before heading out.
It took a bit to get Old-Val started but eventually she took us up the road to a shop. We hadn’t been to that shop before. Mum and Dad thought it was exciting to use a different shop each year. This one was a tatty old place with a faded sign, and inside we found owners that looked even older than the building. We walked to the aisles with me in the middle, swinging on Mum and Dad’s arms. Then we split up.
Mum went to the counter to ask the gray-haired shopkeepers a ton of questions that I was sure she already knew the answers to. Like: was there somewhere to get a nice counter meal—yep. And: did the beach have lifeguards—nope. She even asked how to put bait on a fishing line. I was about to remind her she did it fine last holiday, but Dad dashed from the aisle he’d been in, took my hand and coaxed me away. Together we explored the rows.
“Whoops, I forgot a basket.” Dad said the same thing every year. He was the most forgetful person in the universe. He lifted bags of raisins and nuts. “Pop these under your jacket, Tommo, just for safe keeping.”
I was lowering my jacket’s zip before the words finished coming from his mouth.
“Now, go and wait by the car for me, mate,” Dad said as he stuffed flour and bread into his own coat. “I’ll be out after I pay.”
When I reached the front of the shop, Mum was still talking with the old couple behind the counter. As they rambled a lot of words at her, she made sneaky little shooing motions at me. Determined to be good and earn my chocolate spread, I hurried from the shop.
Not long later, Dad met me at the car. He looked chubby instead of his usual skinny. With one hand he held his fat middle, while he used the other to unlock Old-Val. After I scooted into the back seat, he let the stuff under his jacket pour onto the seat beside me.
I stripped down to my t-shirt then sifted through the shopping. It was mostly stuff we got all the time, but the brands were different, which made it feel special. The juice had a picture of fruit slices on its label instead of the usual bright sun, and the cereal box had a cartoon elephant instead of a monkey. There wasn’t a photo of the cereal. No way to guess the flavor. Just the cute elephant and some big, bold words.
“What does it say, Dad?”
Dad tilted his head. “You don’t know?”
I shrugged. I knew some of the letters but not the whole words. “What is it?”
“Well, it’s…” Frowning, he looked at the shop. “You know what, Tommo, I need one more thing. Wait here, okay?” He marched off.
Mum passed him in the middle of the carpark and her eyes widened. “Where are you going?”
“Get Old-Val started,” Dad said. “I’ll only be a tick.”
Mum looked small behind Old-Val’s steering wheel. I’d never seen her there before because Dad drove us everywhere. And I soon found out why. Mum stomped on pedals and twisted the key, but Old-Val wouldn’t start for her.
“Dammit,” she hissed, which I pretended not to hear because we weren’t supposed to swear. Wiping sweat from her forehead, she shot a grin over her shoulder. “If only we could fit a new car under our jackets, eh, Tom.”
I smiled even though I didn’t really know what she meant.
After a bit, Dad left the shop again and moved fast towards Old-Val. “Why isn’t the car running?” He waved Mum away and she scrambled over the gear stick into the passenger seat.
Dad turned the key, but Old-Val only coughed. “Bad timing for a breakdown, sweetie,” he murmured as he patted the wheel. “Come on. Don’t let me down.”
Mum gasped and squeezed his shoulder. “Ma and Pa Gray are onto us.” She stabbed a finger at the front of the shop where the old owners were standing. With frowns and slow steps, they started crossing the carpark.
“Oh, hell,” Dad muttered, twisting the key. When Old-Val choked and sputtered, he swore much worse than Mum had, but it didn’t seem a good time to remind him not to use bad words.
“Come on, Val,” Mum moaned, eyes on the old people who were almost at the car.
“Come on, Dad,” I squealed.
Finally, Old-Val hiccupped then revved. Without even asking me if my seatbelt was on, Dad shot the car forward. He turned her so fast I squashed against my door then he rocketed us into the road.
As we flew past shacks, Dad laughed, and I cheered like I did on rides at the fair. Mum didn’t join in. She sat sideways in her seat, a scary looking stare cutting into Dad.
“Whatever you went back for better be important,” she said.
“It is.” Dad patted his t-shirt which was a funny, square shape. “It’s a surprise for later.”
Mum and Dad decided we shouldn’t go back to the shack for a while. We parked Old-Val under some trees where the shadows made her disappear, then Mum asked me where I’d like to pass the time.
“The beach,” I said, which made Mum and Dad laugh.
Mum squeezed me close. “Like there was ever going to be another answer.”
We walked through the hot sun all the way to the beach. By the time we got there, Dad was soaked with sweat and smelled bad, but he looked happy. He whipped his t-shirt off, somehow keeping his surprise present hidden. I copied him, chucking my t-shirt onto the sand beside his. Mum didn’t take hers off because girls don’t do that.
Mum didn’t come in the water either, which was okay because it gave me and Dad time to be boys together. We splashed about in the waves, going further out than Mum would have let us.
Mum smiled at Dad when we finally plodded back to the sand.
“I peeked at the surprise,” she said.
“Approve?” Dad asked.
“We should have thought of it sooner.”
I looked between them, grinning. “What is it?”
Dad tipped his chin towards his t-shirt bunched on the sand. “Take a look.”
I dug into its folds and drew out a book. Colorful cartoons smothered the cover. Animals, furniture, buildings and even a car that looked like Old-Val. It seemed like the book had every single item in the world drawn on it.
“The pictures are good,” I said.
“Yeah, they’re great,” Dad replied. “But it’s the words that are the best.”
I pulled a face. Words were strange puzzles that didn’t make sense to me. They were confusing, like the weird chats Mum and Dad had sometimes. Those talks that they told me not to worry about.
“This is an alphabet book,” Dad said, shifting closer to me to turn the pages. “I’m going to teach you all the words in it.”
“Why?” I asked.
“Well… because…” He smiled. “Because knowing words makes people better at not losing keys or forgetting shopping baskets. They help people get better starting cars too.”
“But you know words,” I pointed out. “And you forget stuff all the time.”
“You’re right, I do know words,” Dad agreed. “But not all of them and not much else. After I teach you words, I’ll teach you numbers and then someone smarter than me can teach you all the harder stuff. Then one day, maybe you will have a shack that comes with keys included.”
He wrapped an arm around me and turned to page one.
Copyright 2019 by Gina Burgess