Down by the sea near the great big rock, they made their camp and toasted marshmallows over a small, fine fire. The night was pleasantly chilly and the sea spray cold. Laughing talking, eating the gooey marshmallows, they had one swell time; just them, the sand, the sea, and the sky, and the great big rock.
The night before they had driven down to the beach, to the camping area; and on their way, perhaps a mile from their destination, they had seen a meteor shower, or something of that nature. Bright lights in the heavens, glowing momentarily, seeming to burn red blisters across the ebony sky.
Then it was dark again, no meteoric light, just the natural glow of the firmament–the stars, the dime-sized moon.
They drove on and found an area of beach on which to camp, a stretch dominated by pale sands and big waves, and the great big rock.
Howard and Margaret watched the children eat their marshmallows and play their games, jumping and falling over the great big rock, rolling in the cool sand. About midnight, when the kids were zonked out, they walked along the beach like fresh-found lovers, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, listening to the sea, watching the sky, speaking words of tenderness.
“I love you so much,” Howard told Margaret, and she repeated the words and added, “and our family, too.”
They walked in silence now, the feelings between them words enough. Sometimes Howard worried that they did not talk as all the marriage manuals suggested, that so much of what he had to say on the world and his work fell on the ears of others, and that she had so little to truly say to him. Then he would think: What the hell? I know how I feel. Different messages, unseen, unheard, pass between us all the time, and they communicate in a fashion words cannot.
He said some catch phrase, some pet thing between them, and Margaret laughed and pulled him down on the sand. Out there beneath that shiny dime moon, they stripped and loved on the beach like young sweethearts, experiencing their first night together after long expectation.
It was nearly two a.m. when they returned to the camper, checked the children and found them sleeping comfortably as kittens full of milk.
They went back outside for awhile, sat on the rock watching the stars and said hardly a word. Perhaps a coo or purr passed between them, but little more.
Finally they climbed inside the camper, zipped themselves inside their sleeping bag and nuzzled together on the camper floor.
Not long after, Howard awoke and looked at his wife in the crook of his arm. She lay there with her face a grimace, her mouth opening and closing like a guppy, making an “uhhh, uhhh,” sound.
A nightmare perhaps. He stroked the hair from her face, ran his fingers lightly down her cheek and touched the hollow of her throat and thought: What a nice place to carve out some fine, white meat . . .
–What the hell is wrong with me? Howard snapped inwardly, and he rolled away from her, out of the bag. He dressed, went outside and sat on the rock. With shaking hands on his knees, buttocks resting on the warmth of the stone, he brooded. Finally he dismissed the possibility that such a thought had actually crossed his mind and went back to bed.
He did not know that an hour later Margaret awoke and bent over him and looked at his face as if it were something to squash. But finally she shook it off and slept.
The children tossed and turned. Little Kyle squeezed his hands open, closed, open, closed. His eyelids fluttered rapidly.
Cathy dreamed of striking matches.
Morning came and Howard found that all he could say was, “I had the oddest dream.”
Margaret looked at him, said, “Me too,” and that was all.
Placing lawn chairs on the beach, they put their feet on the rock and watched the kids play and splash in the waves, watched as Kyle mocked the sound of the Jaws music and made fins with his hands and chased Cathy through the water as she scuttled backwards and screamed with false fear.
Finally they called the children from the water, ate a light lunch, and, leaving to their own devices, went for a swim.
The ocean stroked them like a mink-gloved hand. Tossed them, caught them, massaged them gently. They washed together, laughing, kissing–
–Then tore their lips from one another as up on the beach they heard a scream.
Kyle had his fingers gripped around Cathy’s throat, had her bent back over the rock and was putting a knee in her chest. There seemed no play about it. Cathy was turning blue.
Margaret and Howard waded for shore, and the ocean no longer felt kind. It grappled with them, held them, tripped them with wet foamy fingers. It seemed an eternity before they reached shore, yelling at Kyle.
Kyle didn’t stop. Cathy flopped like a dying fish.
Howard grabbed the boy by the hair and pulled him back, and for a moment, as the child turned, he looked at his father with odd eyes that did not seem his, but looked instead as cold and as firm as the great big rock.
Howard slapped him, slapped him so hard Kyle spun and went down, stayed there on hands and knees panting.
Howard went to Cathy, who was already in Margaret’s arms, and on the child’s throat were blue-black bands like thin, ugly snakes.
“Baby, baby, are you okay?” Margaret said over and over. Howard wheeled, strode back to the boy, and Margaret was now yelling at him, crying, “Howard, Howard, easy now. They were just playing and it got out of hand.”
Kyle was on his feet, and Howard, gritting his teeth, so angry he could not believe it, slapped the child down.
“Howard!” Margaret yelled, and she let go of the sobbing Cathy and went to stay his arm, for he was already raising it for another strike. “That’s no way to teach him not hit, not to fight.”
Howard turned to her, almost snarling, but then his face relaxed and he lowered his hand. Turning to the boy, feeling very criminal. Howard reached down to lift Kyle by the shoulder. But Kyle pulled away, darted for the camper.
“Kyle!” he yelled, and started after him. Margaret grabbed his arm.
“Let him be,” she said. “He got carried away and he knows it. Let him mope it over. He’ll be all right.” Then softly: “I’ve never known you to get that mad.”
“I’ve never been so mad before,” he said honestly.
They walked back to Cathy, who was smiling now. They all sat up on the rock, and about fifteen minutes later Cathy got up to see about Kyle. “I’m going to tell him it’s okay,” she said. “He didn’t mean it.” She went inside the camper.
“She’s sweet,” Margaret said.
“Yeah,” Howard said, looking at the back of Margaret’s neck as she watched Cathy move away. He was thinking that he was supposed to cook supper tonight, make hamburgers, slice onions; big onions cut thin with a freshly sharpened knife. He decided to go get it.
“I’ll start supper,” he said flatly, and stalked away.
As he went, Margaret noticed how soft the back of his skull looked, so much like an over-ripe melon.
She followed him inside the camper.
Next morning after the authorities had carried off the bodies, taken the four of them out of the blood-stained, fire-gutted camper, one detective said to the other:
“Why does it happen? Why would someone kill a nice family like this? And in such horrible ways . . . set fire to it afterwards?”
The other detective sat on the huge rock and looked at his partner, said tonelessly, “Kicks maybe.”
That night when the moon was high and bright, gleaming down like a big spotlight, the big rock, satiated, slowly spread its flippers out, scuttled across the sand, into the waves, and began to swim toward the open sea. The fish that swam near it began to fight.