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“Oh, don’t worry,” said her brother, “Penny and Miles can sleep through anything.”
Another event she remembered was her mother lying on her belly, naked to the waist, with hot stones on her back. She had gotten her roots done that day, and her hair was uniformly its original honey blond, lying in thin, soft waves around her head. Virginia told her they were heading down to the beach and asked if she wanted to come. Instead of answering, her mother smiled without opening her eyes, and groaned, extending her arm out to her daughter. The sun made the little hairs on her mother’s arm look like filaments of light.
Then, there was her brother on the beach with his fruity cocktails, bright, frothy, toy-colored drinks from the hotel bar that he sipped between rounds of an elaborate beach-ball game he played with Penelope and Miles. Scott asked if she wanted to play too, but she was unsure about the rules, which Miles seemed to make up as he went along, so she sat quietly in her brother’s chair, sucking in her stomach in case any photographers happened by, eating the fruit from Scott’s cocktail. All three of them were golden, sweating, her little nephew like a cherub in his swimming trunks, with his uncontrolled giggling and pudgy belly.
She watched her family, angelic with happiness, their cheeks glowing with tan every night at dinner. She feasted on their joy, her mother and Penelope drinking water from crystal glasses and looking serene while Miles fell asleep on a plateful of lobster carcass. At a dinner toward the end of their stay, her family toasted her generosity. She said “Oh, it’s nothing, stop. Toast Mom’s manicure.” It was nothing. It was no sacrifice to bring them there, not like when her family took vacations and afterward dessert would disappear suspiciously for about a month, and no one could go to the movies, order pizza, or make long-distance phone calls. “No, this is wonderful. It’s been amazing, Ginny—don’t you tell me it’s nothing,” her mother said.
She had begun the week feeling like a member of the family, but as the days went on, it became clear that she was mostly the observer of the family and, finally, in the end, its benefactor.
It was then that things started to get disorienting, like she was looking at the world through the lens of a camera operated by a hack. The camera operator kept breaking the one-hundred-and-eighty-degree rule, and she would find herself looking at her brother, then at herself, seeing herself in an entirely different room, and then she was standing on the beach and it was the ocean she was seeing, and the sky behind it filled with mountainous purple storm clouds, an avalanche of storm clouds rolling right toward the shore. She remembered thinking that she could not leave Malibu, because it would be a permanent goodbye.
Something about the fullness of the clouds, how fat they were, how they took up the entire sky, which only hours earlier seemed infinitely open and blue, made her body feel strange. She ran her hands over her form, and, as she had feared, discovered she was hollow. She had no bones, no organs, no fat, no muscle. She had no idea how she was still able to stand with those things missing.
Next, her palm was shoveling a handful of sleeping pills into her mouth. But she didn’t stop there. She wasn’t—she swore up and down to her brother, her psychiatrist, everyone—trying to commit suicide. She was just trying to fill herself up, and she grabbed what was available. Yes, she had swallowed the pills, but she had also swallowed other things she pulled from her tote bag: a roll of Smarties, a mouthful of sunscreen, and a banana. It had started to sprinkle. Her mother had left a coral ring on the table of their beach encampment. Virginia swallowed that too.
Then there was nothing left but sand, and she set to work on that. The last thing she remembered was putting her fingers in the damp sand, and Scott suddenly standing next to her, saying, “Ginny, it’s raining. What the hell are you doing?”
So that was that. And certainly it was easy for her psychiatrist to write on her evaluation that she had attempted suicide (probably for attention) because she felt she had lost her connection to her family, which was (in her own words) “the only thing I love.” She hadn’t tried to convince the doctor otherwise, because she feared that he was wrong, and that whatever caused her to behave as she had in Malibu was the symptom of an even more profound sickness, worse than a suicidal impulse; something that would eventually make her one of those owl-eyed Hollywood madwomen, and that if anybody knew she would be told to stop working and take care of her disease.
She opened her eyes and saw the tree in the distance, bending. The wind was whipping up sand, making miniature tornadoes that skidded back and forth along the ground. How long had she been sleeping? she wondered, not able to remember when she had fallen asleep or what the sleep had been like. She was waiting for Karl, she recalled, but he was nowhere to be seen.
As soon as she sat up and her waking senses returned, she felt her skin burning. At first, only her face felt hot, then her neck and chest, then her whole body. She looked down at her arm and saw that it was a dark, purplish red color. The moment she fully felt her pain, she started to cry. It was like nothing she had ever felt before; other pains, like migraines and ulcers, came in waves, but this burn flooded her brain with a constant recognition of its pain, like hearing a scream prolonged indefinitely. All she could do was be as still as possible, and even then, the sand in the wind cut at her.
Her stillness was almost immediately interrupted by yells coming from behind her. She knew even before she turned around that it was the refugees. They were running in her direction, screaming something unintelligible, a swarm of bright colors and dark limbs, moving so fast they seemed, like the dust devils, to be animated by the air. She could hardly recognize them as the same refugees who had crouched soundlessly in the grass-thatched shelter all week.
Had it been a week? Had it been two? How long had they been here?
Still, there was no Karl.
They were coming right toward her. She stood. Her head swam. She felt she was inhaling nothing but sand. Her skin stretched over her body as if it were no longer connected to her form but simply something tight she was wearing. It was dead, the living organ that had been her skin, burned to death.
As she fell, she saw Meme, standing apart from the refugees, and even from a distance, Virginia could see her lips part and the perfect white teeth in her mouth, her canines seeming elongated like tusks. Lying on her back, Virginia saw the grey sky, voluminous black clouds, literally black, and thought how horribly it would hurt to be rained on.
The refugees were close enough now that she could make out what they were screaming: Umm siysiy, umm siysiy.
She didn’t need a translator to understand them.
The tree, they said, the tree.