Of all the things Ryan loved about summer, there was one thing that topped them all - the beach.
He didn't know what it was - maybe it was the cool, crystal blue waters or the golden sunsets - but there was something about it that was special to him. It was freedom from the heat, something he craved nearly every day of summer. So it wasn't a surprise that tonight, which marked the very beginning of summer break, he found himself there with his family once again, celebrating Shirley's fourth birthday while the sun set slowly behind them.
By now, most of the other families on the beach had gone home, meaning Ryan and his family were among the only ones left. The place was much quieter than it had been earlier, when the screaming seagulls and laughing kids had made him wish his family owned a private beach, without all that noise. He was pretty much satisfied now that all the annoying people were gone, and the only sounds to be heard were his siblings splashing each other in the water. At the moment, it was all he needed.
"You gonna go back in?" his mother, Theresa, asked him as she pointed toward the water, interrupting his thoughts.
His gaze followed her finger to where his three siblings played noisily in the lake. He shrugged. "I don't know, maybe," he said.
"Well, we're going to be heading home soon," said Theresa. "So hurry, before it gets dark."
Ryan stared out at the sky, at the pinks and yellows that now collaborated over the lake for a pretty view. He knew what that meant - soon, the sky was going to go completely dark, and stars would poke through the atmosphere. He could admit, he kind of wanted to go join his siblings in the water again, but since he had been out for so long, it was probably going to be cold. And he didn't like the cold. But the game his siblings were playing was one of his favourites, and it taunted him as he stood there watching them. He knew he couldn't miss the game before he went home. He would go to bed regretting it.
It was called The Shark Game. It was pretty much tag, but a water-based version. From where he stood, he could hear his eight-year-old brother Cody making these deep roaring sounds as he chased his sisters, meaning he was obviously the shark in this situation. Jodi and Shirley were frantically trying to swim away, as any victim would, even though they couldn't swim yet. The sight made Ryan smile as a thought crossed his mind. Maybe they wouldn't get "eaten" if they had their oldest brother out there to rescue them. From the looks of it, they were wrong if they thought Cody wasn't going to catch them, and trying to run away in the water did nothing to help them. Cody definitely had the easiest job in the world right now - all he had to do was reach out and tag one of them, and he would no longer be the shark, but the victim. If Ryan were in the lake with his sisters, it wouldn't be difficult to change that.
He was pretty sure he had to go back in the water.
Feeling suddenly full of energy, Ryan ditched the towel he'd wrapped around himself and trudged toward the action, feeling the soft sand between his toes as he walked. It felt like a massage. Up ahead, Cody finally looked up after managing to tag Shirley, and he waved wildly in Ryan's direction, looking exhausted from his shark duties. "Ryan, come here!" he called. "Come join us!"
It looked like he had no other choice now anyway. Because if Cody kept deliberately slapping the water the way he was now to get his attention, some other parent on the beach would want to strangle the life out of him.
Ryan sprinted the last few feet to the water, and gasped at the sharp cold that rushed up his legs. Just as he'd suspected, the water was totally freezing, and his teeth were suddenly clattering together as he shivered. It didn't help that the sun was slowly dipping away, meaning he couldn't get much warmth from it. He could swear that if he stayed another ten minutes out here, his lips would start turning blue and he'd go all white, like some kind of ghost. Strangely, though, he could admit it was better than sweating profusely and desperately trying to find objects to fan himself with to cool down. Because today had been hot. And he'd been an idiot and worn a hoodie to school. So this, in a messed-up kind of way, was an escape from it all, even if it wasn't so hot anymore.
"Shirley's it," Cody announced, pointing in Shirley's direction, as if Ryan had no idea who she was.
And Shirley. Did not look happy. It might have been her big day, turning four and all, but deeming her as the person who was "it" in the game was like asking her to chop off every one of her Barbie's heads. It just wasn't going to work. Her tiny face was scrunched into a frown, and her arms were folded across her chest in protest. It didn't look like she wanted to go anywhere. "Shirley, you have to start tagging people," Ryan told her as he somehow managed to lower himself into the water without shrieking. "Mom said we're going home soon, so we have to finish the game."
Shirley's face softened a bit. "Okay," she said, sighing dramatically. Then her game face was on, and Cody, although there wasn't supposed to be touch-backs, was her target.
He leaped out of the way as if she were holding a snake in her hands. Which was impressive, considering the past few days for him had involved fevers and cough medicine. His strength must have been returning. "Hey, you can't do that!" he said. "Get Ryan or Jodi, they're right in front of you!"
Ryan nearly tripped over his own feet as he tried to scurry away from her, but much to his luck, she tagged Jodi anyway. And Jodi wasn't much better when it came to being the shark. If anything, she was a million times worse than Shirley. "I don't wanna be the shark," she whined, as if she would burst into tears at any moment.
When no one responded, she got louder. "I don't wanna be the shark," she repeated.
"All you have to do is tag someone else," said Ryan. "Then you won't be the shark anymore."
No way was he going to offer to be the shark or anything. That would just give her the easy way out, and would inspire her to pull the same stunts in every game. And if she didn't get her way, it would likely trigger a Jodi Tantrum, and that was everyone's worst nightmare. It was hard to believe that such a small girl seemed to have all the power in the world when she was angry. It was better to ignore her and never offer to take her position. In The Shark Game, that was practically at the top of the rule book: Never give in to sister - serious consequences will be suffered. Ryan never needed to remind himself of the golden rule, probably because it was pretty much cemented into his brain permanently. That was how often Jodi had her fits while playing the game. Apparently, nothing was fair in her opinion. Whining about it was better.
By the time the Shark Game was reaching its moment of intensity, it was late, and the sky was growing darker and darker as the minutes ticked by. The other three families on the beach had now gone, and besides the mixed sounds of splashing water and screaming, it was silent. It was just the way Ryan liked it - no one else was around to interrupt. It was just he and his siblings. Moments like these were rarely experienced, and he wished they would never end. They left him feeling like life was amazing, like it had so much to offer and there was nothing in the world that could destroy its perfection. It was a pretty weird feeling, he could admit. He suddenly felt lucky to have siblings around to spend time with, and to share those special moments with. He didn't know why, but he was pretty sure he was going to remember this night for a long, long time. Maybe it was because his youngest sister was finally four years old, or maybe it was because the scenery around them was absolutely gorgeous, but he had that gut-feeling that this memory would stick with him for years. Maybe it would be something he'd tell his grandchildren about someday. The thought made him want to burst out laughing. He was only ten years old, so he wasn't going to have grandchildren for another fifty years or so. But already, there was so much he wanted to tell them about from his past. Someday, he knew he was going to get there, but it felt so far away. The future had a lot to hold, but he would never know what to expect. And that, in a way, kind of freaked him out a little.
Shirley's voice pulled him out of his strange, philosophical world: "Help! Ryan, help me!"
Ryan knew his mother was probably having a heart attack in her lawn chair, thinking Shirley was drowning or something. He looked over to see his mother eyeing them from afar, probably allowing her nerves to calm down a little. Motherly instincts, he assumed. "Ryan, hurry! The shark is gonna eat me!"
Shirley pretended her life were literally dangling from a thread, and any moment now, she'd slip away. Ryan swam in her direction, somehow avoiding Cody - AKA the shark - and he extended his hand out to her so he could pull her away. "Don't let that nasty shark eat you," he said, humour glinting in his eyes as they met with Cody's.
"Don't worry, I'll get her," Cody assured him, sounding a little over-confident.
He lunged in their direction, and just barely missed Ryan's arm. "Climb on my back," Ryan told Shirley, ducking down a little so she could pull herself up. Once she finally made it, he said, "We're gonna go underwater, so hold on tight and hold your breath. Got it?"
"Okay," she said, sounding panicked.
But before they dove beneath the surface, Ryan could hear his mother's voice. "Okay, time to get out!" she called. "It's almost bedtime."
All four of them groaned. "Five more minutes?" Ryan called.
Theresa shook her head. "No, it's getting late," she insisted. "Out of the water."
They all still groaned, but Ryan knew better than to ignore his mother. As soon as he was out of the lake, the cold bit at his entire body and he began to shiver again. He bolted through the sand back to the towel he'd ditched earlier and hugged it for dear life, embracing the warmth and comfort it had to offer. He and Cody scooped up their t-shirts from the extra lawn chair and proceeded to the van without waiting for Jodi and Shirley. Ryan could already see that Jodi was hiding behind a tree, so from the looks of it, they weren't going to be leaving for a while. Jodi had to have her tantrum first.
And while Ryan sat in the van waiting for Theresa to catch her, he realized he and his family were finished making memories for today. Tomorrow, they would continue. They had the entire summer ahead of them for memory-making, and already, it was off to a pretty good start.
The family's one-story house came into view as Theresa turned the van down the bumpy road, and Ryan was glad. All he needed was a nap, or something that would at least take away the heavy weight that now pressed onto his eyelids. Once Theresa put the van in park in the driveway, Ryan didn't hesitate to climb out of the back seat and head for the door. Instead of craving the beach now, he craved the indoors instead, where it was warm and his bed awaited him. He'd been looking forward to staying up late tonight, considering school was out and there was no need to worry about bedtime, but the beach had worn him out. Now he was more than ready for a little sleep.
Theresa unlocked the door to the house, and the kids burst inside, kicking off their shoes at the bottom of the stairs. Shirley took a seat on one of the steps, looking ready to pass out. "Mommy, I'm hungry," she said.
"After all that cake?" said Theresa. "I don't think you want to explode."
Shirley laughed and jumped up, gripping Theresa's sleeve. "Please?"
Ignoring them, Ryan dragged himself upstairs and slumped down onto the beige sofa in their cramped living room. Empty Barbie packages and torn wrapping paper surrounded him. He sighed as he dug out the TV remote from between the couch cushions, feeling as though sleep would take over him at any minute. Cody plopped down next to him, leaning in close as he flicked through the channels on TV. "Whatcha doin'?" Cody asked nosily, reaching to snatch the remote from him.
Ryan hid the remote under his arm, away from his brother, who was suddenly incredibly annoying. "Don't touch it," he warned.
Cody backed off a bit and laid back on the couch, and that was when Ryan caught sight of the multiple bruises that lined his arm. Wonder if Tara finally got him, he thought, and then chuckled to himself. "Who beat you up this time?" Ryan asked, and laughed.
Cody's I-hate-being-sick expression transformed into a what-the-hell-are-you-talking-about expression. "What?" he said.
"Dude, there's bruises all over you." Ryan stared blankly at the marks, observing them. They were quite ugly, and dotted his arms like a bingo board. He couldn't believe Cody never noticed them.
"Where?" Cody searched his left arm, seemingly in a panic.
"Other arm, dummy," said Ryan. "Look at them. They're freaking huge."
Cody examined his other arm, and it didn't take long before he found them. Ryan could tell his brother had spotted them when his dark eyes went wide. "What are they?" Cody asked.
"Bruises," said Ryan. "Did Jodi punch you again?"
Cody's grin looked forced. "No. I didn't even hurt myself."
"You don't even feel that?"
"No." Cody was still staring at them, probably wracking his brain for ideas on how he'd gotten them. Apparently, Jodi's violence hadn't caused them, and neither had Tara's force. But something had to have caused them.
"Shark Game a little rough?" Ryan suggested.
Cody shrugged. "I don't know," he said. "I think Shirley might have grabbed my arm really hard, though."
"So it was Shirley." Ryan laughed. The last thing he would have guessed was that the four-year-old had caused the massive bruises. "Did she happen to throw a couple punches while she was at it?" he joked.
"No," said Cody, sounding irritated now. "Nobody hit me, okay?"
"Okay, jeez." Ryan threw up his hands in surrender and focused his attention back on the TV screen. Still, he hadn't found anything interesting to watch, and by now, he was considering giving up and just going to relax in he and Cody's shared bedroom. He was still fighting the fatigue that plagued him. Going to bed would be much easier.
"What are you two watching?" Theresa's voice interrupted Ryan's dreams of sleep as she strolled into the living room from the kitchen.
"Cody's arm," said Ryan, and pointed at his brother's colourful arm.
Theresa bent closer to take a look at them. Cody stuck his arm in her direction, showing it off as if it were an art project. Theresa's eyes widened. "Jesus," she said. "Enough rough play?"
"Nobody touched me," Cody insisted.
"Well, someone must have," said Theresa. "Bruises don't come out of nowhere."
"Actually, sometimes they do," Ryan cut in. "But I'm pretty sure he just won't admit that Shirley beat him up."
"She didn't beat me up!" Cody snapped. "I don't know where they came from."
"Okay," said Theresa, raising her voice a little, probably to control Cody's anger. "Well, I guess you'll just have to be more careful. Let me know if they get worse, though."
Ryan was positive that the bruises weren't important enough to have to go to a doctor or anything like that, so her offer wasn't going to help. There wasn't some sort of "cure" for them. Besides, the bruises were normal. People got them all the time. Ryan had had a fair-sized bruise on his arm from falling off his skateboard. Jodi had had one on her ankle when she'd twisted it on the curb. And Shirley had gotten one on her cheek from when Jodi had "accidentally" punched her, which she seemed to do a lot. Cody's really weren't any different, so he wasn't sure why they were suddenly such a big deal.
And even if they weren't normal, they had "Doctor Mom" to cure them with her mysterious ways. Even if she wasn't really a doctor, Theresa always seemed to know what she was doing when it came to injuries and illnesses. She was a natural at it. Maybe the internet was her best friend, or maybe she was just really smart, but she could find a solution for everything. Ryan wished she could have actually became a doctor, but as a single parent to four kids, it would be rough. Ryan and his siblings would have practically lived with a babysitter, and that sounded like hell on its own. Additionally, there would have been college to worry about too, so even more free time would be eaten away. It was better to pretend she was a doctor instead and approach her with every problem they experienced.
Before long, Ryan and Cody found themselves in their shared bedroom, observing the bruises. Even though they were supposed to be sleeping (it was really late now), Ryan thought the bruises looked kind of cool, the way they arranged themselves on Cody's arm. It was like a complicated maze, with multiple twisty-turny paths that nearly covered the entire top half of his arm. It wasn't until Theresa barged in and told them to get to sleep that they stopped fooling around and cooperated, laughing. Maybe tomorrow, if the bruises were still there, they'd have more fun with them. As long as they didn't disappear by morning.