She rubbed her eyes. What was this? Oz? Perhaps it was the time of day but the houses seemed brighter, more well-defined and the palmettos and oleanders seemed greener, their branches and the edges of their fronds were sharper. The sky seemed to be a more vibrant shade of blue than she could recall. She took a deep breath and even with the van's air conditioning running full blast she could still smell plough mud, which was an acquired taste and dangerously addictive. In her dreams she actually smelled plough mud.
Despite the economy, there was gentrification everywhere but the kind that pleased her. Most of the old migrant worker cottages that flanked the road onto the island had been resurrected and transformed into million dollar futures with colorful lush window boxes of fuchsia geraniums, hot pink petunias and bushy asparagus ferns to prove it. It was amazing, she thought, what you could accomplish with the combination of elbow grease, a little money and a clear vision.
They came to the corner and she noticed that the gas station was under new ownership, gouging its customers an extra twenty cents per gallon for the privilege of convenience. That would never change no matter who owned it. The patrons of Dunleavys Pub, noisy families and happy dogs, spilled out onto the sidewalk picnic tables, laughing, talking and having lunch. Her stomach began to growl when she thought about their quesadillas. Judging from the parking lot, Durst Family Medicine appeared to be doing a brisk business. Probably legions of poison ivy and sunburn victims, she thought. People were walking to the beach pulling wagons loaded with gear, toddlers and iced water in their coolers and Beth thought she might like a walk on the beach that day to introduce Lola to the ocean.
The dependable rolling panorama of robust life gave her some relief. For as much as Beth embraced the twenty first century, like all true Charlestonians, she hated change of almost any kind. Commercial development made her suspicious and she generally ignored its creeping advance, hoping it might go away. If she had lived there full time she would have fought it with all her might. They could build all the Starbucks and Sonics in the world on Mount Pleasant and the adjoining island of Isle of Palms but something deep inside of her depended on the peninsula of Charleston and the entire length and breadth of Sullivans Island to remain the same. So far it was reasonably so
They turned right on Middle Street, the Champs Elysse of the island, and began to head toward her house. In the time it might take to swallow a pill, she would be back, perched on the threshold of her childhood. Her stomach began to flutter.
Memories flooded her mind all at once―all of them together, cousins, aunts, uncles, all of them. She could see herself and the others as children, running around in their pajamas, spinning like helicopters in the silver dusk, fall down dizzy, chasing lightning bugs, scooping them into mayonnaise jars with holes punched in the top. The holes were made by her Uncle Grant's ice pick that they were forbidden to touch.
"Don't you children even think about laying a hand on that thing," he would say in a very stern voice to his boys. Then he would turn to Beth with a wink and she knew he wasn't so very mean as all that.
Summers! Searching the thicket for wild blackberries in the full sun of the day, filling coffee cans with them, and later, sunburned and freckled, how they feasted on hot sugary blackberry dumplings that her Aunt Maggie whipped up in her copper pots. There were literally hundreds of days when her boys, Mickey and Bucky and Beth caught crabs down by the rocks with Uncle Grant. They used chicken necks for bait, tied up in knots on weighted ends of cord. They caught blue crabs by the score, shrieking as they moved them ever so carefully from the line to the net to the basket, trying not to get pinched―The Revenge of the Ill Fated Crab. They shrieked again with excitement when one escaped the basket in the kitchen or on the porch, clicking its claws as it hurried sideways, looking for salvation. There was no salvation for those guys, no ma'am. They wound up steamed and dumped right from the colander on newspapers that were spread over the porch table, cracked apart and dipped in cocktail sauce. It made her laugh to remember. She realized then that she had not been crabbing in years. And she remembered how she had completely embraced her closely-knit family when she was young and how important it had been to her.
"Maybe I should take up crabbing again, Lola. Do you want to come and help?"
"What's that?" Mr. Brown said.
"Nothing. I was just talking to my dog."
"No reason why not."
They passed the hill fort then and Beth sighed with relief as it had not changed one lick, except for the children's park built in front of it that had sprung up some years ago. In her mind's eye, she could see herself, her cousins and a gang of island kids, sliding down it on flattened cardboard boxes and catching the devil from the town fathers for trespassing and sledding on the patchy grass. They had been very young, not quite ten, when Mickey had his first brush with the law.
"What do you think you're doing, son?"
Mickey looked up into the face of the Chief of Police and everyone thought he was going to wet his pants, right there in front of the whole world.
"You children get on out of here now, before I have to lock you all up! You hear me?"
Beth giggled to remember how they had abandoned their cardboard and ran in every direction to escape incarceration.
She remembered flying kites on the beach in the winter and all those stories they told and retold...you see, as long as things looked about the same and they told and retold the same stories, the past was still alive. They could all stay young and live forever. In that moment, that was what she wanted―for her life to be as it had been before her father died and to live forever in that corner of her childhood world.
"Turn left here?" Mr. Brown said, snapping her out of her daydream.
"Yes, left here and then right to that driveway on the left. Yes. Left here."
"Welcome home," Mr. Brown said and put the car in park, leaving the engine to continue its rumbling. "Always good to be home, ain't it?"
She simply said, "Yeah, it is." What she wanted to say was something else entirely. She wanted to say, you don't know how complicated this is. I might be swallowed alive in the next year. Get me out of here. But she didn't.
She only said, "yeah, it is."
Beth leaned forward in her seat to size up the Island Gamble. She thought she had known exactly what to expect. The house would loom large, spooky and scare the daylights out of her with its enormity. But it didn't. She was ship shape. Her shutters were straight, her white clapboards glistened from a recent paint job and her silver tin roof mirrored the enormous clouds overhead like the compact mirror of a dowager. The Island Gamble seemed sweet, grandmotherly, and nostalgic, as safe a haven as one could ever want. At the sight of it she became emotional and suddenly she wanted to cry. There was her mother's old Volvo wagon and her Aunt Maggie's car too. They were there, waiting for her.