THE SKY WAS THE COLOR OF SEA GLASS: pastel swirls of greens and blues against the navy sea, just like her paintings from art camp all those summers ago. Lia sat alone on the empty beach, her tan toes tucked beneath the cool sand. She picked at the hem of her sundress, wondering how ten years had come and gone since she’d seen him last. Ten years coming back to the beach house on this same early August weekend; the holiest tradition the Mason family had.
It was ten summers ago that Officer Grayson’s squad car had slowed to a halt in front of the Mason’s summer cottage just after dark. They weren’t usually allowed to light bonfires on the beach, but he’d come to tell the family they’d make an exception the following night. Lia Mason had snuck out of bed in her Barbie nightgown to peak at her father and the officer through the eyelet curtains.
They were drinking dark liquor from glass cups on the front porch. The bottle sat between them while they spoke in hushed tones. They drank a lot of it, and when Officer Grayson left after an hour or so, dad drank some more. He just stared out into the dark like a zombie and sipped in silence under the dim porch light. Lia couldn’t see his face from the window, but she knew he looked tired and sad; looked older than yesterday somehow.
Her mother had gone to bed early that night; hadn’t touched her food at dinner. She just stared out at the dunes. Later, when Lia pressed her ear against the bedroom door, she could hear muffled crying coming from inside. Her older sister Maeve had suddenly jerked her shoulder and whispered harshly to go to her room. To not bother mom right now.
Something bad had happened to Johnny. Lia didn’t know what it was, but she hadn’t seen him since breakfast two days ago. He had poured Lucky Charms into a pair of plastic bowls and the two of them sat together at the kitchen island, picking through the cereal, eating all the marshmallows. Then, he’d kissed her a top her head and left for the beach, surfboard tucked under his arm.
Lia had stood with her nose pressed against the screen door, watching him jog off shirtless, jumping into the backseat of a jeep wrangler with two other boys in the front. The stereo was blasting and they all had colorful neon board shorts on. They were all laughing. She wished she could go with them. Johnny was always having fun. She wanted to have fun, too.
She remembered things feeling different that summer. Maeve was suddenly a teenager. She used to giggle and whisper in bed at night with Lia; now she snuck out windows after dark to meet boys on the beach. Johnny was never home that summer; he wasn’t around to build drizzle castles in the sand and ride bikes to Dairy Queen. She had missed the way it used to be before she began to feel invisible, aside from those special mornings when she and Johnny got to eat their Lucky Charms together. Before everyone started growing up and being boring. Something was just off that summer.
But nothing felt quite as off as it did on the day Johnny disappeared. Where was he and why was everyone acting so strange? Policemen kept coming and going from the house. Neighbors brought casseroles and summer salads big enough to feed an army. Plates of chocolate chip cookies and bite sized brownies; fruit baskets and flowers. Grownups whispered a lot and eyed her apologetically as she rode her bike up and down the street, trying to keep her feet moving and her mind quiet.
Maeve took her into the bedroom after dinner that night and the sisters sat facing on their twin beds, knees touching. Maeve’s eyes were red and watery and her face was all splotchy and swollen. Lia wondered how long her sister had been crying and if she knew that her mascara was smudged off under her eyes, like black streaks on the cheeks of a football player.
Johnny was missing. He’d gone surfing at Brigham’s Inlet the other morning and never came out of the water. There would be a bonfire on the beach the following night – a ceremony in his honor – with friends and family and all the rest of the island community coming together to pray. To pray her big brother would come home. They didn’t know anything for sure, but time was passing and hope was beginning to flicker and fade.
Lia felt hollow inside. How could he not come out of the ocean? Where was his surfboard? Where was he? She was too young to grasp the concept of death. Young people didn’t die; that was something that happened to grandparents and faceless strangers on the five o’clock news. Big brothers didn’t die. Boys who wore board shorts and rode in back of jeep wranglers and chased girls and burped the ABC’s at the dinner table didn’t die.
That night, Lia and Maeve lay silently in their parallel beds, staring up at the popcorn ceiling in the dark. Cars occasionally drove by, flooding the room with the yellow glow of headlights before fading to black. Each time the girls heard the sound of wheels on gravel, they sucked their breath in, praying it might be Johnny. Or somebody who knew where Johnny was; somebody who would tell them that he was safe. That he was eating Lucky Charms somewhere, wearing that goofy grin of his; that this was all just a bad dream, some kind of cruel joke.
Lia wasn’t sure at what point during the night she left her bed, but when the morning sun woke her, she was spooned against Maeve, the two of them clutching hands in the same twin. Maeve was snoring softly, deep in sleep. Lia lay still, as not to wake her. For the first time in days, she felt safe – not quite so scared and alone – being in her sister’s arms.
Mrs. Abrams from next door brought a stack of pale blue ribbons over around lunchtime. She said everyone would be wearing them pinned to their shirts tonight, in honor of the search to find Johnny. Blue was his favorite color; that’s why they chose it, she said. Mr. Mason was out with search and rescue, scouring the beaches for signs of his son. Mrs. Mason was in bed, where she’d been since yesterday. Maeve clutched the ribbons to her chest, thanking Mrs. Abrams before they tightly embraced and began to quietly cry. Lia felt like maybe she should cry, too. Should she join them, wrapping her arms around their waists? Is this what grownups did? That seemed to be all anyone was doing the past few days. Drinking brown liquor and hugging and crying.
Instead, she picked at her pizza crust and pictured Johnny riding in on a big wave. Pretending he was fine; just up the street heading in to shore. He’d come strolling through the screen door any minute now. He’d come; she knew it.
Hundreds of people came to the beach at dusk, huddled around the bonfire Johnny’s friends had built. Lia recognized lots of the faces, but there were many belonging to strangers. A few local newscasters stood up near the dunes, reporting on the event. Lia clutched her father’s hand as they made their way as a family down to the fire, eyes wide as saucers taking it all in. Was all of this for Johnny? She imagined him peering out from the dunes, hiding and watching the crowd. She wished he’d just come out, already. This wasn’t funny anymore. It never was.
As the sky grew black, a neighbor from down the road played guitar by the fireside. People swayed with their arms around each other’s shoulders. Some cried, others sang, the rest stood silently. Mr. Mason scooped her up in his arms and her blonde mess of curls blew wildly in the summer wind. Lia clutched her little arms around his neck. She didn’t want to be here anymore; she just wanted to go home. She just wanted to eat Lucky Charms with her brother; she wouldn’t even mind if he teased her a little; even if he called her a baby. Anything if it meant he came home.
Grandma and Grandpa’s grey Cadillac pulled into the stone driveway the next morning. To this day, Lia remembered very little about the events that occurred within those following twenty four hours, accept that her mother collapsed on the floor in the family room. And then she found out it was over.
Johnny wasn’t coming home.
The days to follow were a blur. Grandma had to take her to the department store to buy a black dress, since she didn’t have one. The funeral was an overwhelming mob of young people and old people and flowers and handkerchiefs, followed later by more food than she’d ever seen at Mrs. Abrams’ house. Chocolate cake and fried chicken sandwiches and blueberry pie; all of Johnny’s favorites, people said. She wondered why no one brought Lucky Charms.
In time, she realized her brother was gone. He wasn’t coming home. It wasn’t fair and it didn’t make any sense. Everyone was sad for a very long time and Lia wondered if anybody would ever smile again, or if their mouths would just stay in straight lines forever. When she asked Maeve about this, her sister’s eyes had welled with tears and she’d given the smallest hint of a hopeful grin as she reached down to hug her little sister.
“Eventually, something will make us smile. You’ll see.”
For almost a year, Johnny’s bedroom door stayed shut. No one told Lia she couldn’t go in, but she knew better. She was only seven, but she knew better. But slowly, it turned out that Maeve was right. Over a long stretch of time, life began to feel normal again. Not normal the way it was before, but a new kind of normal. Mrs. Mason eventually began to get out of bed in the morning. Mr. Mason went back to work. Maeve made cheer captain and the family would go to all the Friday night football games. Some days, they talked about Johnny and they laughed over memories. Other days were better off not saying his name. You never knew which type of day it would be until you woke up in the morning. Then, you had to decide what would be a better way to get through it.
Johnny’s friends came by often to chat with Mr. and Mrs. Mason. Lia would eves drop from the top of the stairs, listening to them talk about the old days with Johnny. Sometimes, her mother would even laugh; that real, hearty laugh that was so contagious. The one Lia thought might have died the same day Johnny did. There was something about seeing his friends sitting around the living room that made her feel warm inside, like Johnny was still there, too. And she liked that it made her mother happy.
Even though time healed them, they never forgot. They never stopped hurting; stopped missing; stopped wishing he’d knock on the screen door and stroll back into their lives, right where he left off.
But life continued on, and the good things continued to happen. And every year, on that same August weekend, they gathered together at the family summer house and honored Johnny. Some years were more painful than others, like the third year anniversary when he would have been graduating from high school beginning college as a freshman. Other years, there was more laughter than tears as everyone focused on only the good times. Over time, Lia could not always decipher the memories that she had from the ones only told to her from stories. But what she most loved about this tradition was that it ensured she never forgot him; never let him fade away, even when his face became harder to picture in her mind as time ticked forward.
Now, seventeen years old, with the same wild blonde curls she had a decade ago, Lia lifted herself from the sand and began to make her way barefoot back to the beach house. She smiled at the sight of her family laughing together about something out front. Mrs. Mason and Maeve were drinking wine, wrapped together in a beach towel on the front porch swing. Mr. Mason was grilling hamburgers on the patio. As she reached the foot of the drive, her father looked up with a smile.
“Hamburger or cheeseburger, baby?” he asked.
Lia paused for a moment, and then shook her head. “Neither. I’m thinking I’ll have Lucky Charms tonight.”
Mrs. Mason beamed at her from the porch; Lia could see the tears glistening in her mother’s loving eyes. But they were happy tears this time; and tonight there would be real smiles and real, hearty laughter. And they all drank wine –even Lia tonight – and ate marshmallows for dinner, thinking of only the good things. Thinking only of Johnny and knowing that this right here was everything he would have wanted, and just the way he’d wish to be remembered. Lucky Charms and all.