Uncanny Vale

Home to the Literary Creations
of Erin Wilcox

Half a World Away (formerly titled "Commando") (excerpt)

Crack the Spine (2014)

A mother and daughter walked side-by-side toward a beach off the highway. The mother was middle-aged and slight of frame, the daughter in her midtwenties, tall and broad-shouldered. The daughter shortened her stride to keep pace, tucking her forearms in her hoodie’s front pocket. Sunlight shone through ragged tufts of cloud, tempering the ocean-chilled breeze.

It had been a good day, as days between them went. Neither spoke ungracefully as they picnicked in the redwoods. They took an impromptu drive. In the daughter’s gut, the ball of nerves that accompanied her mother’s visits had uncoiled somewhat, and her thoughts drifted toward the e-mail she’d opened that morning. Nothing was the same now, yet no one knew.

She looked ahead and imagined how she would frame this shot, noting how the dunes shrouded the ocean. It was poetic, she thought, all those grains of sand overpowering the body that ground them down. She might come back and take some footage before she left. If she left. Either way, she could not keep this news from her mother.

She caught the elbow of her mother’s white blouse. The wind pressed the sleeve against her slender arm. “I forgot to tell you.”

The mother turned. A muscle flexed in her cheek.

“You know the program I applied to?”

The mother observed her daughter’s raised brow, the note of celebration in her voice, and understood. She tried to offer a smile, but could not. The fall semester started in four months, and this film school was in Australia.

Her daughter’s brow fell. “This could lead to internships,” she said. “Real film work.”

A life across the world, the mother thought. Her daughter mentioned the application, but the program was competitive, her obsession with cameras fairly new.

A wave boomed behind them. “Could you defer, maybe apply somewhere closer to home?”

Her daughter rolled her eyes. “I shouldn’t even have told you,” she said, then marched up the dunes. The mother sighed, removed her shoes, and climbed the rise. She cleared the dunes and the shore opened up, stretching its arms to far-off outcroppings, rocky, on either side.

Her daughter stood by the water, barefoot, her hiking boots discarded farther up the beach. She was pulling off her sweatshirt. It caught and she tried to help, but her daughter nudged her off.

The mother stepped back onto the wet sand. The squint of her daughter’s blue eyes, the hunch of her shoulders were all too familiar.

“I just hope you’ll think it through,” she said. “You’d be a long way from home if something went wrong.”

“I got a full scholarship.”

The mother’s words evaporated into the salty air. This crazy plan of her daughter’s was turning uncomfortably real.

Her daughter pulled off her T-shirt and held it out with her hoodie.

“What are you doing?”

“I’m sweaty.”

The mother took her daughter’s shirt and scanned the water. The only swimmer was a lone surfer in a wet suit. “You don’t have anything to wear.”

“I’ve got pants in the car. I’ll just go commando on the ferry ride home.”

The mother blinked. In her sports bra and hiking shorts, her daughter looked like the farthest thing from a soldier she’d ever seen.

“It means without underwear, Mom.”

“Oh.” She shook her head, then surveyed the empty beach and lifeguard tower. “I’m not sure it’s a good idea to swim here.”

“I’ll be fine. Stop worrying.”

“Just be careful.” She gestured at her daughter. “You’re not a lifeguard anymore.”

Nerves burled in the daughter’s stomach. Her mother ran her eyes over her bare belly, then adjusted her own posture, sucking in her trim stomach and throwing her shoulders back as if to say, Stand this way and you won’t look so fat. It was an old trick, but she still saw red every time.

“Oh, I get it.” The daughter looked down at the fold of skin poking out above her shorts. “This looks pretty terrible, huh?”

Her mother cringed, wrinkling her nose in the nervous tic her sister and she called “the rabbit.” Whenever her mother was confronted, she wore that look, nose twitching and body tense, ready to hop away.

“Maybe I will defer, consider my options,” the daughter said. “I hear they have a great program in China.”

She spun and waded out, ignoring the shock of cold. The water chilled her thighs and reached between her legs. She dove at the next wave and did the crawl, always her best stroke.

Full text available at Crack the Spine 117.