DOWN BY THE SEA NEAR THE GREAT BIG ROCK
For John Maclay
Down by the sea near the great big rock, they made their camp and toasted marshmallows over a small, fine fire. The night was pleasantly chill and the sea spray cold. Laughing, talking, eating the gooey marshmallows, they had one swell time; just them, the sand, the sea and the sky, and the great big rock.
The night before they had driven down to the beach, to the camping area; and on their way, perhaps a mile from their destination, they had seen a meteor shower, or something of that nature. Bright lights in the heavens, glowing momentarily, seeming to burn red blisters across the ebony sky.
Then it was dark again, no meteoric light, just the natural glow of the heavens—the stars, the dime-size moon.
They drove on and found an area of beach on which to camp, a stretch dominated by pale sands and big waves, and the great big rock.
Toni and Murray watched the children eat their marshmallows and play their games, jumping and falling over the great big rock, rolling in the cool sand. About midnight, when the kids were crashed out, they walked along the beach like fresh-found lovers, arm in arm, shoulder to shoulder, listening to the sea, watching the sky, speaking words of tenderness.
"I love you so much," Murray told Toni, and she repeated the words and added, "and our family too."
They walked in silence now, the feelings between them words enough. Sometimes Murray worried that they did not talk as all the marriage manuals suggested, that so much of what he had to say on the world and his work fell on the ears of others, and that she had so little to truly say to him. Then he would think: What the hell? I know how I feel. Different messages, unseen, unheard, pass between us all the time, and they communicate in a fashion words cannot.
He said some catch phrase, some pet thing between them, and Toni laughed and pulled him down on the sand. Out there beneath that shiny-dime moon, they stripped and loved on the beach like young sweethearts, experiencing their first night together after long expectation.
It was nearly two a.m. when they returned to the camper, checked the children and found them sleeping comfortably as kittens full of milk.
They went back outside for a while, sat on the rock and smoked and said hardly a word. Perhaps a coo or a purr passed between them, but little more.
Finally they climbed inside the camper, zipped themselves into their sleeping bags and nuzzled together on the camper floor.
Outside the wind picked up, the sea waved in and out, and a slight rain began to fall.
Not along after, Murray awoke and looked at his wife in the crook of his arm. She lay there with her face a grimace, her mouth opening and closing like a guppie, making an "uhhh, uhh" sound.
A nightmare perhaps. He stroked the hair from her face, ran his fingers lightly down her cheek and touched the hollow of her throat and thought: What a nice place to carve out some fine, white meat.
What in the hell is wrong with me? Murray thought, and he rolled away from her, out of the bag. He dressed, went outside and sat on the rock. With shaking hands on his knees, buttocks resting on the warmth of the stone, he brooded. Finally he dismissed the possibility that such a thought had actually crossed his mind, smoked a cigarette and went back to bed.
He did not know that an hour later Toni awoke and bent over him and looked at his face as if it were something to squash. But finally she shook it off and slept.
The children tossed and turned. Little Roy squeezed his hands open, closed, open, closed. His eyelids fluttered rapidly.
Robyn dreamed of striking matches.
Morning came and Murray found that all he could say was, "I had the oddest dream."
Toni looked at him, said, "Me, too," and that was all. Placing lawn chairs on the beach, they put their feet on the rock and watched the kids splash and play in the waves; watched as Roy mocked the sound of the Jaws music and made fins with his hands and chased Robyn through the water as she scuttled backwards and screamed with false fear.
Finally they called the children from the water, ate a light lunch, and, leaving the kids to their own devices, went in for a swim.
The ocean stroked them like a mink-gloved hand, tossed them, caught them, massaged them gently. They washed together, laughing, kissing—then tore their lips from one another as up on the beach they heard a scream.
Roy had his fingers gripped about Robyn's throat, held her bent back over the rock and was putting a knee in her chest. There seemed no play about it. Robyn was turning blue.
Toni and Murray waded for shore, and the ocean no longer felt kind. It grappled with them, held them, tripped them with wet, foamy fingers. It seemed an eternity before they reached the shore, yelling at Roy.
Roy didn't stop. Robyn flopped like a dying fish. Murray grabbed the boy by the hair and pulled him back, and for a moment, as the child turned, he looked at his father with odd eyes that did not seem his, but looked instead as cold and firm as the great big rock.
Murray slapped him, slapped him so hard Roy spun and went down, stayed there on hands and knees, panting.
Murray went to Robyn, who was already in Toni's arms, and on the child's throat were blue-black bands like thin, ugly snakes.
"Baby, baby, are you okay?" Toni asked over and over. Murray wheeled, strode back to the boy, and Toni was now yelling at him, crying, "Murray, Murray, easy now. They were just playing and it got out of hand."
Roy was on his feet, and Murray, gritting his teeth, so angry he could not believe it, slapped the child down.
"MURRAY," Toni yelled, and she let go of the sobbing Robyn and went to stay his arm, for he was already raising it for another strike. "That's no way to teach him not to hit, not to fight."
Murray turned to her, almost snarling, but then his face relaxed and he lowered his hand. Turning to the boy, feeling very criminal, Murray reached down to lift Roy by the shoulder. But Roy pulled away, darted for the camper.
"Roy," he yelled, and started after him. Toni grabbed his arm.
"Let him be," she said. "He got carried away and he knows it. Let him mope it over. He'll be all right." Then softly: "I've never known you to get that mad."
"I've never been so mad before," he said honestly.
They walked back to Robyn, who was smiling now. They all sat on the rock, and about fifteen minutes later Robyn got up to see about Roy. "I'm going to tell him it's okay," she said. "He didn't mean it." She went inside the camper.
"She's sweet," Toni said.
"Yeah," Murray said, looking at the back of Toni's neck as she watched Robyn move away. He was thinking that he was supposed to cook lunch today, make hamburgers, slice onions; big onions cut thin with a freshly sharpened knife. He decided to go get it.
"I'll start lunch," he said flatly, and stalked away.
As he went, Toni noticed how soft the back of his skull looked, so much like an over-ripe melon.
She followed him inside the camper.
Next morning, after the authorities had carried off the bodies, taken the four of them out of the blood-stained, fire-gutted camper, one detective said to another:
"Why does it happen? Why would someone kill a nice family like this? And in such horrible ways. . . set fire to it afterwards?"
The other detective sat on the huge rock and looked at his partner, said tonelessly, "Kicks maybe."
That night, when the moon was high and bright, gleaming down like a big spotlight, the big rock, satiated, slowly spread its flippers out, scuttled across the sand, into the waves, and began to swim toward the open sea. The fish that swam near it began to fight.
Get another batch of popcorn ready for Thursday, April 9, when we'll present another bit of Mojo magic by Champion Joe R. Lansdale!
"Down by the Sea Near the Great Big Rock" was originally published in Masks. It later appeared in By Bizarre Hands (Avon Books) and Bumper Crop (Golden Gryphon Press). "Down by the Sea Near the Great Big Rock" © 1984 Joe R. Lansdale. All rights reserved.