by Michael Greenhut
The rip tide had promised Stephen a watery grave, then backed out of the deal.
He'd seen red, felt his lungs exploding, and said his atheist prayer of Good
Riddance. After that, his life became a badly edited grind house film. One broken
reel later, he was on the shore. A shell sat on his chest, just over his heart. He
coughed up saltwater, sand, and part of a dead jellyfish. His mouth, throat, and
nose felt like victims of a hot pepper holocaust.
Stephen picked up the shell and held it to his ear, indulging in a little "what the
hell" he used to do as a kid, before beaches were prisons. Inside the shell he heard
a second beach, a second ocean, and a woman's voice.
"I wish you could see me, Gerald," she said. "I got them. All thirty-six of the men
and women who orchestrated this. They'll each be playing a lifelong game of
Frowning, Stephen sat up and switched the shell to his other ear. He heard the
woman laughing and playing in the water with two younger voices. Girls.
"Their prisons are beaches like this," she continued. "But not like this. I have the
house we built. I have the girls. I have you."
And I've got a lifetime supply of ultra violet, Stephen thought. Still, he was
grateful for the white collar aspect of his prison, grateful that he woke up every
morning without a sore ass or an involuntary tattoo, even if he had nobody to talk
to. He wondered what he'd do with a wife, two little girls and a summer home.
Probably work late.
"Hello?" he said into the shell, feeling like a moron. He was probably saying hello
to schizophrenia, or some other delirium that resulted from excessive mental
She didn't seem to hear him. "I'm going to build sandcastles with the girls. See
you tomorrow, Gerald. Keep the lightning away."
Stephen had improved his aim enough to kill the seagull with one stone. He ran up
to it, wearing the rags that had once been his Armani suit. He looked down at the
dying bird, avoiding the little eyes, and said, "I'm sorry, guy. I just need to eat you
or I'll suffer a protein deficiency. It's nothing personal."
Bob and the others from top management would laugh at him. Stephen tried to
imagine Bob on his own beach, waddling after some other flock of seagulls,
demanding that they get the hell back there so he could stuff his face with them,
didn't they know who he was? By now, Bob had probably lost enough weight to
see his own feet.
The bird didn't taste like chicken, but it stopped the rumbling in his stomach.
Stephen picked up the shell and listened to the other beach. For a little while, he
heard only the ocean, crashing and retreating against the shore. Then, a gaggle of
"Don't trample your sister's castle," said the woman, "or I'll put you on your own
beach by yourself. And I mean it this time. I meant it the last time, too, but this
time I mean it doubly."
"Can I make that beach, Mom?"
"Only if you're willing to babysit her there."
Stephen listened to them play, smiling, until the girls' voices faded into the
"Good morning, Gerald," she said, then sighed. "You're not really listening to me,
are you, Gerald? I suppose I'm not really talking to you either."
"No," said Stephen. He wondered how he'd react if she ever heard his answers. If
this woman existed outside his mind and on a real beach, StarCorp policy would
make him toss the shell into the sea, maybe destroy it. Then they'd send someone
to that other beach to destroy her and appropriate her daughters. Of course,
"StarCorp policy" was now nothing more than a few makeshift umbrellas.
"I want to go back to work," she said. "Designing more resorts, not prisons. I was
better at making people happy. But making people sad pays a lot more. Hell, I
owe my early retirement to that. I owe every hour I spend with my girls to that.
And those jerks at StarCorp deserved what they got. Didn't they?"
Adrenaline hit Stephen like a six foot wave from behind. He opened his mouth to
say something, but all that came out was "Bitch."
He shivered at night, sleeping under all his ex-corporate rags. Once, he rolled over
and pricked his leg on a pin that still read "Starcorp Bioconflict, Inc." - hiding in
something that had once been pocket liner.
When he couldn't sleep, he traced imaginary constellations in the foreign pattern of
stars. A hunter with six arms. A scorpion with two tails. A mother with seven
He periodically picked up the shell and listened to the woman snoring.
"What's your name?" he asked her once, just for fun.
"Andrea," she muttered in her sleep.
Stephen bolted up, holding the shell over his ear, feeling like a voyeur caught with
his pants down.
When he got over the embarrassment, his mind formed a million questions.
Instead of speaking again, he paced through the sand, muttering to himself. How
had she heard him? In her sleep, no less?
He'd still only 80 percent convinced himself that this woman was real. Part of him
still thought he'd drowned and surfaced in some afterlife, waiting for some psychic
old lady with cataracts to come along and tell him to "head toward the light."
When the sun came up, he caught a small fish for breakfast and watched the
horizon. As a boy, during family trips to beaches like this, he would wave at
distant sailboats and speeders. At some point after puberty and a rather humiliating
junior economics class, he decided to own one of those speeders, just to show the
world that he could.
The mild clouds above suddenly morphed into ponderous gray blobs. Without
warning, rain began barreling down. Lightning followed, then thunder. Stephen
had gotten used to these instant storms, quicker than instant coffee and ten times
stronger. He ran from the shore and ducked into his makeshift tent. He listened to
the shell, hoping to hear his possibly-imaginary female friend.
"Hurry up, you'll get pneumonia." Andrea's voice. Her beach had the same
"Can I watch the lightning?" The older girl asked. "I want to see it hit
"Is Daddy mad at me for sitting in his chair?" asked the other girl. She sounded
just old enough to form words without trouble. "Is that why there's thunder?"
"No, sweetheart. It's called a second storm. Remember when I told you how I
made this beach in a special vacation world? Well, this world has special weather
that's a little different than the weather from Earth."
"Did the bad men send thunder from their beaches?" asked the younger girl's
voice. "Do they want to shock me?"
"Yes," said the older girl. "The prison worlds are the same as our vacation world.
The bad men are on permanent vacations. They're having as much fun as we are."
"They are absolutely not," said Andrea. "The bad men probably got struck by
lightning. Or they drowned. Even if they haven't, they're each on their own
boring, lonely beach, forever and ever. They aren't having fun like us, and they
can't leave like we can. And they certainly can't hurt you."
"Promise?" asked the younger girl.
Stephen put the shell down and watched the sea. He imagined himself with Andrea
and the girls, playing Daddy. Would he teach them how to play baseball, like a
good old American dad? Would they eventually follow his footsteps and make
their high school team? Could he teach them calculus? Would they become
engineers like him and fight the national brain drain? Or would they put their
talents to fixing the environment that StarCorp had wrecked?
They hadn't wrecked it, not really. Biological weapons didn't kill people - greedy
clients did. That's what Bob always said. But at Christmas parties, Bob would
always make toasts to greed, usually after he'd drained his glass.
Almost half a billion people still lived on Earth Alpha, and with no noticeable side
effects from StarCorps' work. Stephen fell asleep repeating this to himself,
listening to the waves crash and yawn.
In the middle of the night, Stephen woke up and listened to Andrea sleep.
"Did you trap me here?" Stephen asked.
"Who are you?" She murmured in her sleep.
"One of the bad guys," he said. "Maybe the worst one. I designed the plague that
killed your husband."
"I hope you all drown," she said.
How could anyone who wasn't a Nazi have such detailed conversations in her
sleep? Sounds from his beach must be competing on the same wavelength as
sounds from her dreams.
"I tried to drown myself," said Stephen. "Fate had other plans."
Her apology moved him, until he realized she meant that she was sorry he lived.
Still, he liked the tone in her apology. Sincere, direct, passionate, without the aid
"It's not your fault," he answered, feeling like that phony shrink on comedy
"It is. Gideon & Sons Criminal Justice wanted me to make desert prisons."
"So you made beaches instead," said Stephen. "I guess I owe my second
childhood to your bleeding heart."
"Your jail is just a parallel of my home. You're not suffering enough, and it's my
"Don't blame yourself," said Stephen. "You were brave enough to disobey the big
corporate ghoul that employed you. Braver than I was." And evidently, they still
paid you, he almost added.
"You're right," she said. "Damn you. You don't even sound like an ass."
"I'll try harder."
"Sweet dreams," he added.
Stephen wondered if other criminals had such pleasant conversations with their
nemeses. "Goodnight," he said.
Stephen woke just after dawn, feeling like he was a six-year-old on Christmas
morning, just before his parents had told him of Santa's untimely death. The sand
felt warm on his back and between his toes. He could smell the sea.
He drank from his makeshift reservoir, caught a couple of small fish and tried to
pretend he was retired. He stared at shapes in the sun, as he'd done as a child,
before his family had started prepping him for Ivy League middle school and
filling his head with Greek theorems. He saw turtles, rabbits, wolves, and a lizard
When he grew bored, he picked up the shell and listened for Andrea.
She was laughing and playing with her children - just one of the girls.
"You're in a good mood, Mom," said the older girl, as if she were starting on the
road to a request.
"Am I?" asked Andrea. "I guess I am. I don't know why. Maybe I had a good
"If you say so, Mom. So . . . can I try designing my own beach later? One of the
"Nice try, sweetie. I thought I told you to stop studying my work until you're
"I know what I'm doing, Mom."
"I know what you want to do, sweetie, and you're not doing it."
"Why not? I'm smart enough."
"Being smart isn't all you need for this kind of responsibility. Ask me again in a
few years and we'll talk about it."
"Fine, fine," said the older girl, with an aggressively teenage flavor of
"Fine, fine," echoed the younger girl, with more enthusiasm.
Stephen smiled as he listened to them splash each other. He stepped up to the tide
and kicked the water with his feet, splashing nothing in particular, pretending the
girls were laughing with him, that he was one of those jolly dads who lived for his
kids and didn't know a thing about golden parachutes or collateral damage.
After about twenty minutes, they went out of listening range. He still wasn't sure
how that range worked or why it fluctuated and traveled. Maybe Andrea had her
own shell, a sort of companion to his. Something she carried with no knowledge
of what it did.
To keep his mind from turning into boiled jelly, he started carving numbers in the
damp sand near the tide, fragments of old equations he'd used. Before he'd gotten
far, a shadow came over him. He had no time to look up before the air became a
virtual swimming pool.
Lightning flashed all around him, followed closely by thunder. Stephen ran for his
shelter, crawled inside and waited.
The storm remained in place. Wind had blown most of Stephen's shelter into
glorified rubble. He lost track of time as the water doused him without pause,
turning his vision into a rain-beaten windshield. He could hardly breathe without
sucking water down the wrong pipe. Clouds had darkened the sky, making high
noon indistinguishable from late evening. He shivered, pressing the shell over his
ear so tightly that he drew blood. The air smelled like wet gym sneakers.
"Will it be over soon?" asked the younger girl.
"No," said her sister. "It won't be over until I say so."
"If you tell your sister that one more time," said Andrea, "I'll send you to bed
without dessert for a week."
"But it's true, Mom," said the older girl. "I made this storm. I make a lot of
Silence took over for a few moments. When Andrea spoke, her voice had aged ten
"I've been reading your books, Mom. I can make things in the worlds you've
"Why would you do this to us?"
"I can't help it. All the storms have to start on this beach, since it was the first one.
They happen on some of the prison beaches at the same time. If you hadn't used
this beach to make your prisons, that wouldn't have happened. But you did. So
I'm not going to stop this storm until it kills all the bad guys in all those other
The youngest girl began crying. Andrea hushed her, then started humming a
"Stop whining," said the older girl. "I'm doing this for Dad."
Andrea stopped humming.
"You really should have done this weeks ago, Mom. Huh? Mom, stop! Let go of
Stephen never saw the lightning. He felt the hairs rise on the back of his neck, then
the pain, as if his bones were imploding. The world around him became a dream.
Stephen tried to speak, but only gibberish came out of his mouth. The waves
lapped over his ankles, as if in remorse. He stared at the wrecked vacation home.
Both girls stood beside the wreckage, looking back at him. The younger one had
honey blond curls and couldn't be older than three. Tears had dried on her cheeks.
The older had long, dark hair and a pale face, and looked fourteen or fifteen. She
held a burnt shell that looked otherwise identical to Stephen's.
Andrea was nowhere.
"Where's Mommy?" asked the little girl.
"The lightning moved her to a different beach," said the older one. "It's not my
fault. She grabbed the equipment from me and I lost control of the storm. She
made me do it. She let all the bad men live. None of this is my fault. It's hers."
As she said this, a tear dribbled down her cheek.
Stephen gave up trying to speak. The lightning must have deep fried a small part
of his brain. He bent down and carved letters into the sand: "Why am I here?"
"The lightning must have hit you when it hit Mom," said the older girl, with a
blank tone and a blank expression. "It sent her to your beach. It sent you here."
"No," shouted her sister. "No, no, no."
Stephen wrote, "I will find her."
"No you won't," said the older girl. "Every shell I send to one of the prison
beaches carries my storms with it. I'll send enough shells and make enough storms
to kill all the men like you." She ran down the beach and toward the shore, as if
she were chasing a soccer ball. Her sister started to follow. Stephen grabbed her
before she got far. The little girl fought him, then cried.
Eventually, she cried herself to sleep. When she woke, Stephen drew two figures
in the sand - himself and the little girl. Then he drew an arrow pointing to the
right. At the end of the arrow he drew Andrea.
"Can you bring her back?" she asked.
Stephen meant to shrug, but ended up nodding.