Scoundrel Time

Sunshine and Sea Air

The water is yellow today, so Becca chooses the marigold placemats and beige dishes to coordinate, finishing with linen napkins and silver flatware (her pattern is Grand Baroque). She adjusts the place settings on the patio table overlooking the ocean. Now that everything is arranged, she stands back to have a look, snapping a photo that captures the neon purple sky. She uploads the image right away. Perfect morning to eat outside! #ocean #nofilter #breakfast

“Mason! Mia! Time to eat.” When the kids finally stumble out of their rooms dressed for school, she serves up a meal of eggs, vegan sausage and fresh-squeezed orange juice, and the three of them settle in, unfolding their napkins.

“Look at the ocean, it’s yellow,” Mia, the youngest, says.

“It’s a beautiful day, isn’t it?” Becca says.

Mason, who is older—in fifth grade this year—shakes his head.

“We learned about this in school. The ocean is yellow because it’s full of chemicals. All the fish are dead.”

Becca swallows what she’s eating, takes a sip of juice and tilts her head.

“Mason, honey, you have to know things will work out for the best. Everything will be okay.”

“But Mrs. Harrison said the planet’s dying and we’re going to have lots of acid rain. There won’t be anything left when I’m old like you.”

“That’s all very doom-and-gloom. I know it’s good to be thinking about these things. Maybe one day you’ll go to college and study environmental science. Wouldn’t that be exciting? But don’t let this ruin your day. Hurry and finish your breakfast. We’ve got to get you to school.”

In the car, Becca clicks through the usual radio stations. It would be great to hear something soothing, the type of music she and Daniel used to listen to in the living room late at night. It’s all talk radio and news, though. Everything is an emergency these days. The ocean. Toxicity. Warnings. A new kind of natural disaster.

“Are they talking about the waste bubbles again? Can we listen?” Mason says.

Becca shudders but leaves the radio on.

“Ocean-Roaming Acid Globs, better known as O-RAGs, continue to roll out of the water and ashore. One coastal community near Huntington Beach was impacted yesterday when several of the gelatinous orbs measuring over ten feet in diameter rolled directly toward oceanside residences, destroying homes and resulting in potential fatalities. Accompanying this incident were harsh winds and thousands of dead crustaceans that washed onto the sand, their bodies strewn—”

“I think we’d better shut this off.”

“Are the globs what killed Dad?” Mia says.

Becca looks into the rearview mirror to see her daughter’s eyes grow suddenly big and sad.

“No, honey. We’ve talked about this. You know that’s not how your father died.”

Becca changes the station. No music here, either. Just another reporter interviewing an expert researcher from an oceanographic institute.

“…We have concluded the O-RAGs are composed of toxins released by plastics and mutated into a slimy and corrosive substance that is stable until it collides with a large mass, which can cause its outer membrane to burst apart. The chemicals inside dissolve whatever is in its—”

Becca shuts off the radio. “It’s too much.”

“Mom, I want to listen,” Mason says.

Becca notices a red light on the dash signaling the car is low on gas. She misses the days when Daniel would fill up the tank for her and she’d sit in the passenger seat and wait.

She drives to a nearby station; the attendant is outside, changing the price on the sign. Forty dollars a gallon now. She sighs and pulls up to the nearest pump.

“Can we go inside and get snacks?” Mason says.

“Do you really need to?” Becca says. “We just ate.”

“I just want a drink,” Mason says. “It’s so hot.”

It’s not the worst thing for her children to be well hydrated. Electrolytes. Now there’s some science she can get behind.

“Sure, just get a Gatorade or something good for you. Get me something too.” She hands him cash. “Coffee on ice. With a straw. Please ask for a plastic one. You know I can’t stand the way those paper ones taste.”

“I want to come!” Mia says.

“Take your sister.”

Mason groans.

Becca gets out of the car, pumps gas and watches the numbers rise, rolling her eyes. Hundreds of dollars and a few minutes later, the kids return to the car with three big plastic cups with lids and thick plastic straws. The cups sweat from condensation, ice cubes clinking inside.

“Let’s get all the other trash out of the car before we bring those in,” Becca says. Mason and Mia help her pull a few old soda cans and drink bottles from the back seat. “Into the recycling bin, please. It’s important we do our part.”

#

After dropping the kids off at school, Becca checks the time. She’s got a few errands to run before she drives back home to receive a scheduled grocery delivery. Then it’s on to her bi-weekly Pilates class, a late lunch, and a nap. After that, she’ll drive the twenty miles back to school to pick up Mason and Mia.

She shakes her head. There’s just never enough time.

Sometimes driving back and forth to the school every day really is a bit much. But the private school is so much better than the local public schools. It’s good to prioritize education, even if it means driving all the way to another neighborhood, right?

Serenity Nails is located just a few blocks away from the school, and Becca pops in, asks if her favorite technician, Isabella, is available for gels. This sort of routine, however mundane, helps keep her from dwelling on the past.

Self-care is important, anyway. Her therapist always says that.

Isabella ushers her toward a table, hands her a disc of colors to pick from. After selecting a bright blue polish, Oceanic Princess, she settles in, palms face down on the table.

“How are you?” Isabella starts by filing off the top layer of old polish from Becca’s nails with a disposable emery board.

“Oh, I’m good,” Becca says, even though she’s feeling a bit worn down. “Same old stuff. Just dropped the kids off at school. Out running errands.”

“You live near the coast, right?”

“That’s right. Lovely day out there. Beautiful view of the ocean.”

“I’ve been hearing the news. Pretty scary stuff. Those acid globs roll out of the water like bowling balls. They say you never see it coming.”

“I suppose they do say that.” Becca hopes the conversation will turn in another, more positive direction. She tries to think of something else to say.

“Do you think you’ll move away because of all this?” Isabella says.

“No way,” Becca says sharply. “People don’t move out of Kansas because of tornados or leave San Francisco because of earthquakes that could happen. My husband, my late husband, Daniel, he designed our house. I can’t leave it behind just because of some stories on the news, and, you know….” She waves her hand dismissively.

“People are dying,” Isabella says, pausing to look up before filing shellac from Becca’s left pinky nail. Small particles fall from the emery board to the paper towel covering the tabletop.

Becca shifts her gaze to the television set on the wall. A newscaster reports on a local protest of the mayor’s order to move inland while headlines scroll across the screen alternating between Coastal Areas in Danger! and Palisades Homes Dissolved in Tragic Acid Sizzle!

Then the video starts playing.

Few videos of O-RAGs have been captured, but this one has been shown over and over again on the news. A large gelatinous ball, this one a ten-footer, rolls out of the water. It’s translucent, with slivers of sun and purple sky visible through its undulating form, rolling from the surf to the sand, maintaining its spherical shape until it reaches the wide porch of a nearby house. Colliding with the structure, the globule bursts apart and the house splinters, breaks, and disintegrates, dissolved by the caustic slime in a matter of minutes. A few broken chunks of wood and soapy ooze are all that remain.

Jesus, Becca thinks, This is a nail salon. Can’t we just watch The Masked Singer? I’d even settle for last season’s Bachelorette. How is anyone ever supposed to relax?

Forty minutes later, she emerges from the salon with a set of shiny blue nails and examines them outside. She rotates her hand side to side, the polish glittering in the sunlight. Isabella’s done a decent job though she could have gotten closer to the cuticle line.

No time to just stand here looking, though. She’s got errands to run. Her dry cleaner is in the same parking lot. She pops in, picks up her order, a few summer dresses on hangers wrapped in thin plastic bags, and hangs them on the hook in the back of the car.

Driving home, Becca’s car faces west. The mountains open up, framing the ocean, where the water appears a few shades darker than it did earlier today. Thick cloud cover has turned the daisy-yellow sea into an umber brown. Haze covers the horizon. It’s days like these when Becca doesn’t appreciate the pollution hanging quite so heavy. It really spoils the view.

#

At home, Becca turns on the air conditioner, cranks it way down and goes into her bedroom to change for Pilates. Time to bust out her new teal leggings. Once she’s got them on, she poses in front of the mirror, admiring the breathable mesh side panels and deep, hidden pockets. It’s crazy to think the material was made from recycled plastic bottles. She had to pay extra for shipping from the overseas athleisure wear company, but it feels good to be supporting the environment in this way. The leggings fit like a glove. She makes a mental note to go online later and buy another pair—maybe two or three.

A knock on the front door.

Becca greets the grocery deliveryman, who is on her doorstep with the bags, his truck running on the street.

“Thank you so much,” she says.

He usually helps bring the packages inside, but this time he issues a quick nod and rushes back to his truck where he gazes through the windshield up at the sky, frowning. Becca wants to tell him she knows the sky is unappealing right now, having turned brown, but he should have seen it this morning, when it was still neon purple and majestic, the color of a gown fit for an alien queen.

She hauls all the delivery bags inside and sets them on the kitchen counter, first peeling open the sticker seals on the insulated sacks, then pulling out the cold packs and finally the grocery containers. She balls up the packaging and tosses it into the trash.

Stacking the plastic containers of lettuce, tomatoes, oranges, and apples on shelves in the refrigerator, she mentally adds up the exorbitant tab of this week’s grocery bill. Fresh produce has really gotten expensive. She empties a bag of five or six avocados into a bowl on the countertop. A few are bruised, which is frustrating since they cost ten dollars apiece—even more than they were last week. She turns the avocados, so the bruises face down.

Daniel left them taken care of financially. He’d done well with his architecture firm; she and the kids could still buy the basics without worrying about money. Friends encouraged her to sell the house, move away from the coast and escape all the memories. Start over somewhere newer, somewhere safer.

But where is it safer, really?

Becca can’t help seeing an image of Daniel’s body the way it was found washed up on the beach, his lower half gone. They’d been hearing about O-RAGs for weeks, but they knew the whole situation had to be a hoax; the government had gone too far in telling people to stay out of the water. She and Daniel could think for themselves. Nothing was healthier than sunshine and sea air. So, Daniel went for his daily swim.

Becca was working in the living room, dusting the china in the cabinet, holding a blue-and-white teacup to the light, when she heard the commotion. Shifting her gaze to the group that was gathering outside on the beach, she caught a glimpse of Daniel’s bright red rash guard in the sand and dropped the teacup, barely noticing the sound of it crashing on the floor.

The doctors later told her his legs and part of his torso had been dissolved by toxic acids, but Becca still wasn’t sure. It could have been a shark. They couldn’t prove it wasn’t a shark, could they?

She shakes her head. There’s no time to think like this right now. She needs to keep going about her day, stick to her routine. With a few minutes to kill before she has to leave for Pilates, she walks into the living room, looks out at the ocean through the west wall, which is made entirely of glass, framing a perfect view of the water.

Even smothered in the brownish haze, the water is lovely, infinite, full of possibility. Daniel liked to stand in the very same spot to have his coffee, watching the waves, talking about how he planned to spend his day. She didn’t even like coffee, but she’d pour a small cup anyway, and curl up on the sofa, just to be with him before he left for work.

The view outside changes, cloud cover growing heavier by the moment, the sky an even darker shade of brown, as if pregnant with dirt and soot and rain. It’s going to be another one of those crazy weather days.

Becca frowns and resigns herself to settling in front of the TV for a few minutes, finding a program that is not the news, some daytime soap she doesn’t care about. She watches it anyway. A flashing message interrupts the show. A warning. She switches the channel to the local news station where a reporter addresses the camera.

“We’re receiving new reports from coastal communities about extreme problems with Ocean-Roaming Acid Globs. Scientists say that up to this point, membrane surface area to volume ratios have limited sphere size. However, recent strengthening of membranes has allowed the globs to remain intact for longer periods of time and thus grow larger. The pH of the slimy substance has dropped to extremely dangerous levels, making it likely to destroy anything in its—”

Becca swallows, changes the channel, sees the same news coverage, changes it again, and again. She turns off the TV and sits in silence, stroking the slick surface of her fresh nail polish until something catches her eye. Outside the west wall of the house, through the massive floor-to-ceiling windows, the horizon blurs.

An enormous sphere emerges from the ocean, blocking her view of the purple sky. It’s impossibly tall and wide, the size of a two-story building. Iridescent and tinted yellow, it seems to be glowing, a shimmering ball catching the sunlight. The color alternates; for a moment it’s sparkly blue like her gel nails. The sphere rolls from the surf and across the sand, making steady progress toward her house, nearing the wide patio where she and the kids ate breakfast only hours ago.

She turns away. The glob will change course; it won’t really come for the house, it won’t really come for her. It will stop at the back patio. The news has sensationalized the problem. All those newscasters with their ridiculous talking points.

It’s important to maintain perspective.

Walking with a slow, even pace toward the kitchen, she heads for the refrigerator where she pulls out an ice-cold bottle of coconut seltzer water. Twisting the lid, she savors that distinctive hissing sound and the fresh aroma of coconut before she tosses the cap into the recycling bin.

Her heart races.

The memory of Daniel’s death assaults her again. She sees it up close now: what was left of his ragged body, the discolored spots on his waterlogged skin where it looked like something had burned through the flesh of his arms.

She takes a sip and turns to face the windows.

The glob rolls into the house, takes the patio in an instant, and then the west wall. When the windows break, the noise is familiar, terrible in the way of an old family heirloom—a blue-and-white teacup—shattering.

Her heart races so hard it hurts. She should do something, shouldn’t she?

The ball of acid is upon her, semi-transparent and sparkling. For a brief half-second, she can see her reflection in its crystalline surface, but her face is warped, her body stretched wide. Bits of kelp and shells are stuck to the membrane and sizzling, turning black. Wisps of steam rise up and outward and the sphere radiates heat that hits her in a sharp, blazing flash.

She steps back.

There’s an awful noise—a cacophony of wood cracking and more glass breaking.

Becca takes another step out of the way and the glob barely misses her, but a spray lands on her left arm, a few droplets searing through her skin. She shrieks with pain.

The rest of the sphere rolls through the side of the kitchen and takes the back half of the house. Moments later—sizzling. Drops of water onto flames.

All the bedrooms are gone.

Fighting the pain in her arm, she gasps, tears streaming down her face. She grabs a kitchen towel and holds it to her wound before collecting her purse and heading for the front door. She feels the goop spreading, eating holes through her flesh and making its way down into her bones. How far down will it go?

Outside, she locks her front door with shaky hands, averting her eyes from the jagged shell of a house she leaves behind, open to the air and the beach. The pain in her arm is worse now, makes her spasm and vomit and cry. But it’s not the acid glob that’s caused her injury. She’s sure it can’t be. She checks the time on her phone. If she hurries, she can still make Pilates.

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