My Terrible, Horrible, Heroic Summer
I dreaded going back to school. I dreaded seeing the breathless looks of admiration and hearing the praise from teachers and students. For the last month I had endured the fame when all I felt inside was agony. Finally though, the day came, and I went.
“There he is!” I heard a girl whisper to her friend as I walked down the hall.
“Are you sure?”
“Of course. I saw him on TV.”
Everyone had seen me on TV. I must have given a hundred interviews in the last two months. The worst was the one they played over and over, the one right after it had happened. The one when I was filthy and out of breath and wearing that blood-stained T-shirt that I couldn’t bear to wear again but couldn’t bear to throw out.
My first class was English with Mrs. Robins. “I want everyone to write about what they did this summer, okay?” She giggled and glanced over at me. “When you’re finished, maybe I’ll pick a few of you to read yours to the class.” She glanced over again. Other kids were looking now, too. We all knew who would be the first person “randomly” chosen to read.
I played baseball with my friend Terry, I wrote. There, I was done. I had played baseball. That was true.
Mrs. Robins walked by, looked down, and frowned. “Write about the most important thing that happened to you. You know.” She gave me a meaningful look and walked away.
I closed my eyes and for the first time in a month, I let myself go back to that overcast Saturday morning when it had all happened, when I had become a national hero. The worst day of my life.
* * *
I left my house before the sun rose and walked the mile and a half to the bus stop. It had rained the night before, and the air smelled clean and freshly showered. It was a day of promise. It took the bus forty minutes to get to the city and then fifteen minutes for me to walk to the 90th Street Municipal Children’s Home. Lily was waiting for me outside. She took my hand, almost shyly, then leaned over and kissed me softly on the lips.
“Was it hard to sneak out?” I asked as we walked down the street, heading downtown.
“Nah, Frances was fast asleep. Easy.”
“Will you get in trouble?” I asked. I didn’t tell her I had sneaked out too.
Lily shrugged and squeezed my hand. She could say a lot without words.
We walked all the way down to the harbor and had ice cream at a small parlor. My ice cream melted down my hand as I watched Lily savor every bite, letting her eyes close in silent pleasure.
“Do you ever get ice cream in there?”
“Of course.” She snorted. “It’s not Oliver Twist.” Then, grasping her bowl in both hands, she crossed her eyes and in a terrible British accent said, “Please sir, may I have some more Rocky Road.” I laughed so hard I almost fell out of my chair. It was then, when I was gasping for breath and trying not to pee myself, that I realized how much I loved this girl. She was my first girlfriend and I had fallen hard for her. She made me glow inside, like I was Ironman with a Lily-powered arc reactor inside me.
“So what do your parents think of me?” Lily asked, as we walked along the beach, watching the waves roll in. There was an odd smell of rot in the air coming from somewhere out to sea.
“They’re dying to meet you,” I said, then kicked myself for mentioning parents dying. Lily didn’t seem to notice.
“What did you tell them?”
I shrugged. “The truth.” I looked out to sea, not looking at her.
The breeze wafted the smell towards us and Lily coughed and wrinkled her nose. I felt like it was at me, as if the stench of my lies were rolling off me.
In fact, I had not told anyone about Lily. It wasn’t because she was an orphan or that her mother had died of a drug overdose when she was five. I knew that wouldn’t matter to my parents. They would would love her like a daughter. They would love her so much they might even want to adopt her and then…
And then she would have parents who loved her and everything she’s ever dreamed of and I would have lost her forever because you can’t date your sister, even your adopted sister, ran the frantic undercurrent of thought I would never allow to be voiced, not even in the lonely sub-basements of my mind. If no one knew, no one could ever call me petty or selfish, or accuse me of maybe, just maybe taking everything away from this girl I loved. Because boyfriends might come and go, but parents are a strictly limited commodity.
The smell was getting worse. I was just about to suggest we get back to the city when the ocean started to recede. It was like watching the tide go out in fast forward. The word tsunami went through my mind, and I looked out to sea, expecting to see a mountain of salt water rushing towards us. What I saw was even worse.
It was some sort of thing rising from the water, taller than any known animal, crawling on four legs out of the sea until its vast barnacle-encrusted bulk was swinging free of the water. It was not heading directly for us, but towards the city.
Lily was smarter than me. She was already pulling at my hand, trying to run not towards the city but away from it, down the beach. I ran with her, but turned back to take one last look. A tail whipped out of the water and sliced towards us, four feet above the ground. I dropped and pulled Lilly with me, but she stumbled and fought to stay upright.
I screamed at her, “Get down, Lily!” but as I said her name, I heard the sickening crunch as the tail hit her and threw her across the beach.
The next moment, I was kneeling beside her, praying with all my might, although I could see it was hopeless. She had just enough life left to squeeze my hand before she died.
I have no memory of the next five minutes, although I have nightmares almost every night. In them, I am climbing a mountain of slimy, foul-smelling scales, fueled by rage and horror. I keep hoping to find Lily at the top. I know I won’t, but I can’t stop climbing.
I might not remember, but the whole world has seen the shaky cellphone videos of me climbing up the creature’s back and stabbing it in the eye just as it crushes an SUV on the Bayfront Parkway. They found me lying on the dead creature’s head, my arm up to the elbow in its eye socket, still clutching a three-foot piece of driftwood like a poor man’s Excalibur.
Eighteen people died that day in the space of five minutes, including Lily, but they were an afterthought as people breathlessly calculated how many lives I had saved.
No one connected me with Lily. No one questioned the blood on my shirt. They didn’t know it was hers, and I didn’t tell them. They asked what I was doing on the beach and I lied. I don’t know why. It was like I still wanted to keep her all to myself, even the bloody shirt and the pain that ate away at me like cancer. I couldn’t go to her funeral. I held one for her by myself, the night after my appearance on the Late Show. I thought about joining her, but quickly decided no. She wouldn’t have wanted that.
* * *
I opened my eyes. Everyone else in the class were still writing, describing in detail that one camping trip they took, the boy they met at the movies, the swimming party they went to. Mrs. Robins was still glancing my way every few seconds, silently urging me to write the glorious hero story they were all expecting.
I took out a clean piece of paper, took a deep breath and began to write: This summer I lost someone I loved. Her name was Lily.