That’s my age. It’s also the number of days since I graduated from high school, which un-coincidentally (is that a word?) happened to be the day my boyfriend and I broke up. Or blew up. Whichever. In those eighteen days, I’ve left everything behind and followed my mother halfway across the southern states in a futile attempt to forget everything that happened over the past few weeks.
Right now, though, I’m counting the number of times a car rolls over the smushed, dead buzzard laying in the middle of the dusty, hot road. Of course, the last car logged in at number eighteen, because that’s the kind of luck I’m having.
The whine of the door distracts me from the buzzard and numbers and poor life choices. I look up and see my mother standing on the metal steps of our “home”. “The tow truck should be here soon,” she announces.
“You said that an hour ago.” I roll my eyes, but it’s behind my shades, so she doesn’t see. Annoyed, I toss a pebble at the buzzard in the road.
“Summer.” She wrinkles her nose. “Leave that bird alone.”
“I’m pretty sure it doesn’t feel anything.” For a moment, I’m jealous. Feeling nothing has to be preferable to the mixed bag of emotions I’ve been carrying around for the last couple of months. I pick up another pebble and toss it at the front tire of our broken-down car before glancing down the road, spotting the wavy heat surrounding an oncoming vehicle.
“Let’s see if this can get us to nineteen,” I say. My mother gives me a wary look and walks back into the RV. Yes, an RV. That’s why we’re stranded on the side of this boiling-hot, middle-of-nowhere road. Our SUV, hauling a Super-Deluxe-Retro-Chrome-Airstream dream, is as dead as the buzzard in the road. Thank God she managed to roll the beast into the shade before the engine conked out. Not just to stay out of the heat, but the glare off that thing is brighter than a disco ball on Saturday night.
I’m aware that the excitement I feel at the oncoming car is pathetic, but we’ve been out here for an hour, waiting for some small-town, towtruck driving dude to show up and tow our camper to our new home. Right. We’re moving to a trailer park. Not moving moving, I guess. More like taking a vacation while my mother writes her next book. Some serial killer cut a swath through this area in the 70s, which means Julia Barnes has a story to tell. The advance paid for the Airstream. Apparently, she needs it to provide “inspiration”. Maybe the killer had one, too?
I’ve got my eye level with the front tire of the Jeep coming our way and it seems on target. I hold my breath when it slows and rolls to a stop, flattening the bird carcass on the street.
I smile at my success but have no time to relish the balance of odd number cosmic forces because the Jeep idles in front of me. Two surfboards are mounted on the top and I hear the faint strains of classic rock coming from the radio. Two guys sit in front, both tanned with wind-blown hair. A guy with an orange baseball cap and sunglasses leans out the driver’s side window and says, “Need some help?”
“No thanks,” I say. Years of listening to my mother describe the subjects of her books drives my response. At first glance, he’s handsome like Ted Bundy, so luring girls wouldn’t be too hard. My mother wrote a book about him, too. “We called the tow truck. Ocean Beach Towing? My dad said they should be here any minute.” I lie smoothly and lean to look inside his Jeep. The guy in the passenger seat has long blonde hair and flashes me a crooked smile. “They know we’re out here. Waiting and stuff.”
My reflection lingers in the mirrored front of his glasses, giving me an oblong flash of my hands stuffed in my overall shorts. Pale arms and legs and white blonde hair. I pull my hands out of my pockets and cross them over my chest, trying to look tough.
Under the brim of his hat I see his eyebrows furrow, and he lifts his glasses. I’m pretty sure he’s thinking of ways to stash me in the back of his Jeep, and with that beard I’d never be able to pick him out of a line-up. Although those eyes…I’m not sure any other person has the same startling blue-green. I think we both know it will be a miracle on par with the parting of the Red Sea if my old man is in that camper. I take a minute to try and memorize the tattoo on his bicep while I plot my escape, but it’s some design I can’t figure out. Do I run through the woods or lock myself in the camper? Neither matter because he says, “Alright,” touches the brim of his hat and drives away.
“Thanks,” I call to the departing Jeep. Dirt and rocks kick up and I can see a huge orange paw print covering the back of the tire case. When I turn back around I come face-to-face with the tow truck veering directly toward me. Not only did he miss the buzzard, but the driver rolled to a stop inches from my feet.
“Perfect,” I say, but I’m not in the mood to deal with country-bumpkin number two, so I open the door to the RV. “Mom, the tow guy is here.” I skirt past her and flop on the couch/bed, rolling over to my side. Once I hear her talking outside, I reach between the wall and the cushion and pull out the leather-bound journal I’d hidden the night before. The photo and ticket slide out before I even have to search for it. Another sign I should just destroy the stupid thing. Even if I wasn’t thinking about it—him—everything came back around to the travesty I’d made of my life. “No,” I say to the empty cabin. “I’m done with this. Eighteen is past. He is the past and this summer is my chance to change everything.” My words hang in the air without support, knowing I’m full of bullshit and lies and that I left Nashville just before the tornado ripped the roof off the house.
I stare at the ceiling of the camper, listening to my mother talk outside, and wonder; how do I change everything I am in three months, living in a one-bed trailer with my mother in a seaside trailer park, and move on with my life?
Is it even possible?
* * *
“Summer, the truck is loaded and ready. Jimmy is going to let us ride in the cab of his truck.” She says this like this entire situation is normal. Like us traveling miles away to live like hippies or hobos or something is a typical Barnes family activity. Trust me, it isn’t. My skepticism must have been obvious, because she says, “Come on! It’s an adventure! Exactly what we came here for!”
I groan but get off the bed and follow her out of the camper, avoiding contact with the driver. Even so, I study them from the corner of my eye. They’re a contrast in appearance. My mother, dressed in trendy capris and three-inch heeled sandals with tiny gold hoops in her ears, stands by the driver—a large, grimy looking man in coveralls with the name Jimmy stitched in cursive over the pocket.
Our SUV is jacked up on the tow lever and Jimmy jerks his thumb to the cab of his truck. “Go ahead and get in.”
“I can’t believe this,” I say to my mother, letting her slide in the middle so she’ll be between Jimmy and me. Out of earshot, I whisper, “With as many books as you’ve written about this kind of thing, I can’t believe you’re letting us go with a stranger.”
She turns her light blue eyes on me, a match for my own, and says, “Jimmy isn’t a stranger. Well, not really. He’s my cousin twice removed.”
“What?” I ask. No one has ever told me about some distant cousin named Jimmy that lives on the edge of nowhere South Carolina.
“I told you my family had people here. Why are you so surprised?”
“You told me you spent summers here as a child with your grandmother and cousins. You never said they lived here.”
“Well, I guess you learn something new every day, right? You should know that, being a college-bound graduate.”
I bite back my response, because Cousin Jimmy opens the cab door, hauling his middle-aged, out-of-shape body behind the wheel. The tight space instantly fills with the smell of grease, sweat, and salty sea muck, and I hang my head out the window. He cranks the truck and warm summer air fills the cab, making it worse.
“I’ll admit, Julia, I never thought I’d see you here again. After you wrote all those books, I thought you’d be living in a big house or in New York City or something.”
My mother laughs while I snort and I feel her bony elbow in my rib. “I could never leave the South, you know that. I stayed in Nashville, but I thought I’d take the summer off to work on my next novel and spend some time with Summer.”
Jimmy gives me a long look from across the cab. “You’re the spitting image of your mother at her age, you know that? She was all legs and arms and wild as the rest of us.”
I look into the side mirror and try to reconcile his words. Her blonde hair is darker than mine and shorter, but our eyes and nose are the same. I have my father’s chin and lanky build. At least that’s what the pictures tell me. I squash the jealousy over missing the genes that carried my mother’s tiny body, hands, and feet.
“You get in as much trouble as she did?” he asks. I shoot my mom a questioning look.
“Jimmy,” my mother warns, with a wink. “Those files are sealed.”
“Ha!” he laughs. “Good one. How come you didn’t tell anyone you were coming?”
“I thought we would settle in first and then have the family reunion.”
I stare out the window, bewildered by the exchange. I knew we had family floating around, but like me, my mother is an only child and the mysterious cousins of her youth seemed like a tall tale. I wondered if she really did plan on seeing them while we were here, or if she only contacted Jimmy because she needed him. That certainly wouldn’t have been out of character.
I sigh and breathe in the salty air. Like mother, like daughter, the tangled webs we weave.
* * *
As much as Jimmy came as a surprise, he turns out to be a godsend. Not only does he tow us into the Ocean Beach Family Campground, but he hooks us up to water and electricity, which I see as a bonus, since the other option is my mother flirting with some campground manager/resident to do it for us. Julia Barnes, in her mid-fifties, is a looker, but she doesn’t need to work it so we can have the camper sewer drain hooked up.
“Thanks, honey,” my mother says to Jimmy. Her southern accent has increased ever since we crossed the state line.
He wipes his hands on his coveralls. “Car should be working okay, too. Bring it by the shop, though, so I can double-check the battery.”
“You should call Sugar,” he says, hopefully. “She would love to hear from you.”
I note her tight smile when he says this, but she still replies sweetly, “I will. Once I get settled.”
“Who the heck is Sugar?” I ask the minute he leaves. We’re standing outside the trailer on our little patch of ‘Summer Heaven’, as my mother calls it. We have a waterfront slot, lined up next to dozens of other campers and trailers. Some, I notice, have been here for a while, judging by the front porch and trellis additions. The one next door has an entire garden of rose bushes. I try not to look longingly across the inland waterway at the island beach houses and condos.
An adventure. That’s what we wanted and that’s what we’d get.
“Sugar is Jimmy’s sister,” Mom says. “We were inseparable as kids.”
My mother has a weird look on her face and is clearly caught up in a memory of her cousin. I can’t tell if this makes her happy or sad. Wistful may be the right word. I don’t have time to ask, since our arrival has brought a trickle of curious residents to our little corner of the Family Campground. At least four or five people wander around, checking on plants or investigating the exterior of their trailers. All I want to do is unpack the back of the SUV and find the beach.
“Can we go inside for a minute?” I ask, hoping we can get away before the onslaught of neighbors begins.
She follows me in and I let the door close behind me with a sharp bang, effectively shutting the nosy neighbors out. We’re now in the tiny living area of our camper. It’s…tight. “What’s really going on here? Why this campground? And this beach? Is there even a book? Did you plan on seeing all these relatives?”
My mother appears offended. “Of course, there’s a book! And this beach is where I spent a majority of my childhood. Mama and Daddy sent me down here from Tennessee each summer to spend time with my grandparents. I have wonderful memories of being here and thought it may be a nice place to relax. I know I didn’t tell you all of that but it’s not like I knew you were planning on making this trip with me.”
“Okay,” I say, feeling ashamed. My tagging along had been a last-minute decision.
She points her finger at me. “Don’t you dare suggest I’m the one hiding something, Summer.”
I had that one coming, since I suddenly decided to come on this trip and not go with my friends to France as planned. In an abrupt turn-around I quit my job, packed my bag, and declared I was not boarding that plane on July 1st.
She waits for me to reply, giving me a chance to confess why I’m really here and what really happened, but I don’t. Things have been strained between us for months and I’m not ready to tell her why. I’m not sure I’ll ever be ready.
She knows that. She knows me and sighs.
“Honey, let’s have a good time. I need to get this book written, and you,” she steps closer, smoothing my hair out of my face, “need to rest. Get some sun and sleep. Get ready for next year. You’ll be a freshman at Vanderbilt, with so many opportunities ahead of you. You can put whatever’s been bothering you behind you and start over.”
“Okay,” I agree. “I can do that. But next time we’re related to someone, will you let me know?”
“Of course.” There’s a rap at the door. My mother asks, “Ready to meet the neighbors?”
I shake my head, unsure of what we’ve gotten into. “As ready as I’ll ever be.”