On the boat to Ship Island, Jana and Eric sat below deck on a wooden bench facing a large woman and four children with carrot-colored frizzy hair and freckled skin like their mother’s. The woman wore a loud print dress, its buttons straining over her breasts and stomach. She fanned herself with a folded newspaper. The oldest child, a slight, vacant-looking girl missing her upper front teeth, stared open-mouthed at Jana. Identical twin boys were fighting over a bag of Cheetos. Jana wondered how old the boys were—four, maybe? With these drugs, multiples are a possibility, her doctor had said. The youngest, a little girl wearing a faded pink ruffled top and shorts fat with a diaper, clung to the mother and sobbed into her shoulder. When the toddler turned, Jana saw the wide, flat face and almond-shaped eyes of a Down’s Syndrome child. Jana shivered. So many things could go wrong.
Eric had said there would be a place to change into her bathing suit on the island, but the thought of dirty stalls smelling of chlorine and sweat and urine had turned Jana’s stomach. She’d worn her suit under a pair of shorts and a tank top, and now it wedged into her crotch and bound at the legs and the spandex tummy panel was so tight she could hardly breathe.
The nine o’clock boat on Saturday morning had been sold out, so Eric had booked them for ten-thirty on this one, the smallest and oldest of three boats that crossed the Mississippi Sound to Ship Island and back every day in summer.
“It’s the same boat I used to take,” he’d said. “It’ll be like stepping back in time.”
It had rained heavily along the coast the night before and the sky was still overcast. The boat sat dockside, dead still in the murky water, only the occasional slap of a small swell, the water more olive-brown than blue or green, foam on the surface like soap scum. Inside, voices echoed off the metal walls: loud laughter, an older couple sitting behind them arguing, children yelling and crying. It hadn’t occurred to Jana that the boat wouldn’t be air-conditioned. Sweat trickled down her back. Her thighs stuck to the wooden bench. She thought of cattle cars and slave ships. She glanced at her watch: ten-forty.
“Why aren’t we going?” she said.
Eric shrugged. “Beats me.”
The little girl across from them had stopped crying. The woman sat her on the floor with a naked baby doll the child slammed against the floor repeatedly. One of the doll’s eyes was missing, a black hole.
“You watch her, Lola,” the mother said, and the older child slid off the bench and onto her hands and knees. “Boo,” she said to the baby. “Boo!” The baby smiled, tears still running down her cheeks, a rivulet of snot on her upper lip. The woman opened her National Inquirer and ate a Snickers bar, sucking the melting chocolate off her fingers. The boys found the life vests under the seats and flailed each other with them. The mother said, “Y’all quit that, now!” They stopped but were soon back at it, and from behind her tabloid the mother said, “Boys, if I have to put this paper down, I’m gonna wring your necks.” The baby girl toddled the narrow space between their feet toward the center aisle, unsteady on her short legs. When the older sister blocked her way, the baby laughed and did it again until one of the boys stuck out his foot and tripped her.
“Jamie Peets!” the mother said, scooping up the wailing child. “Now look what you done. Shame on you!” She grabbed the boy by the arm and wedged him between her and the window. “Don’t you dare move.” She turned to the boy on her other side. “You neither, Jimmy.”
The boat’s engines revved into a loud thrum. The vibration ran though Jana like an electrical current.
“What if I get seasick?” she said.
Eric said, “You won’t. The barrier islands keep the water calm.”
He had told her about Ship Island. Growing up, he had gone there with his dad and his two brothers, but his parents had divorced when he was fourteen and his mom had moved them back to Ohio, where she was from, and his dad had moved away too and disappeared from their lives. Eric hadn’t been back to the Mississippi coast in twenty-five years. Jana had grown up in Atlanta, but she had never been to the Gulf. A convention—Eric was a pharmaceuticals company rep—had meant a trip to Gulfport.
“I can’t be this close to the island and not go. Come with me,” he had said.
The boat lurched and then eased away from the dock. It rode so low Jana thought if she reached out the window she could trail her hand in the water, like riding in a canoe. The Captain came on the loudspeaker, welcomed everybody aboard, and talked about the weather.
“Already ninety degrees, folks. Gonna be a hot one.” He told them to be on the lookout for dolphins, especially on the starboard side. Another crewmember went through the emergency procedures.
Once they were out of the harbor, the boat picked up speed and settled into a steady rhythm. A fine spray misted through the open window, but Jana didn’t mind. At least it was cooler. The hormones she had been taking made her hot, nauseated, weepy, and bloated—all the symptoms of early pregnancy without the pregnancy.
The mother rocked and shushed the baby, cutting her eyes at the little boy who looked subdued. “You got a bad, bad brother, don’t you, Cissy?”
The baby quieted and tugged at the buttons of her mother’s dress. “Titty,” she said.
“Oh, Lord. Not right now.” The mother rummaged in her big bag and brought out a box of vanilla wafers and gave the child one. The child—Cissy, Jana knew now—threw the cookie on the floor and set up a howl, grabbing at her mother’s breasts.
The woman sighed. She unbuttoned her dress and exposed a freckled, stretch-marked, blue-veined breast. The girl made smacking noises while she nursed, kneading her mother’s flesh with one hand like a kitten. Jana had never seen breasts that big. The woman made no attempt to cover herself. She looked at Jana. “This botherin’ you?”
“No, not at all,” Jana said, her face going red. She looked out the window. The sun had come out. Even in sunlight, the water was grayish and dull.
The woman nursed about five minutes on one side, then the other. “There, that’s enough,” she said, plucked her breast from the child, and buttoned her dress. Milk dribbling down her chin, the little girl climbed off her mother’s lap and stood looking up at Jana. She patted Jana’s bare leg with one sticky hand.
The mother said, “Would you look at that. She likes you. She don’t usually take to strangers.”
Jana managed a smile. She found a book in her bag and disappeared behind it, but the baby pounded Jana’s legs with both fists.
Jana put the book down. “Hey there,” she said to the baby. “Hi, sweetie. Cissy.” The baby stretched her arms toward Jana and made little sounds like the cluck of a chicken.
“She wants you to pick her up,” the older girl said.
The twin at the window said, “I need to pee.”
“Me too,” the other boy said.
The mother said to Jana, “I could stand to go myself. You wouldn’t mind watching her for a minute, would you?”
Before Jana could think what to say—Sorry, I can’t, I’d rather not—the woman sat the baby in Jana’s lap and used a faded blue washcloth to wipe the child’s nose. She offered the cloth to Jana. “I’ll leave this with you,” she said, “in case Cissy needs it. She’s got a little cold.”
Speechless, Jana took the dirty rag, stuffed it between her and Eric on the seat, and wiped her hand on her shorts. She hadn’t brought any hand sanitizer. The baby felt hot and damp and smelled of urine and something sour. She stood on Jana’s lap, her short legs locked straight, and touched Jana’s face and hair. The child’s eyes were gray, almost translucent, a little bit crossed. Jana’s stomach turned.
The mother pointed at the older girl. “Lola’s good with Cissy. She knows what to do. Anyway, I’ll be right back.” She said to the boys, “Well? Come on.” She squeezed between Lola on one side and Eric, Jana, and Cissy on the other. The little boys scrambled after her.
Jana had not noticed the size of the woman’s belly while she was sitting. “Eric, did you see that?” she whispered. “I swear I think she’s pregnant.”
Eric glanced at Cissy. “Surely not. Why would you—”
Jana shook her head. “I can’t imagine.”
The baby looked around then, her face crumpling, and sat down hard on Jana’s lap. “Oh, please don’t cry,” Jana said. She didn’t know what to do with a toddler, let alone one like Cissy. “What does she like, Lola?”
Lola shrugged. “She likes jiggling okay.”
Jana bounced her knees. “You mean like this?” Lola nodded. Jana remembered a song from her childhood and sang it.
This is the way the ladies ride,
ladies ride, ladies ride,
This is the way the ladies ride
All the way to town, oh.
Cissy clapped her chubby hands. When Jana stopped, the child nodded vigorously and wriggled.
“She wants to do it again,” Lola said.
Another verse, and another. Before long, the baby tired of the game. She rubbed her eyes and nuzzled Jana’s breasts, but she didn’t cry. Jana rocked her a little, and she fell asleep. Jana explored the idea of her, the weight and warmth against her own body, the wispy red curls, those almond eyes. She wondered how old the mother was; it was hard to tell.
The woman and the twins were gone a long time, it seemed. The little girl grew heavy, and Jana wondered what she would do if the mother didn’t come back. But that was crazy; where would the mother go?
There was a commotion behind them. A member of the crew rushed past, carrying a first aid kit.
“Can you see what’s going on?” Jana asked Eric.
He stood up, sat back down. “No. Something’s happening, though.”
Jana shifted the child in her arms and turned to look. A crowd was gathering near the back of the boat. The crewmember shouted, “Everybody in your seats! Give us room!”
Some people did as they were told; others didn’t. Jana couldn’t see what was happening, either. Then something—a movement, a sound—made her look away from the crowd. A boy and girl, possibly fifteen, sixteen, sat two rows back. The boy’s face smooth, almost angelic, no beard, a shock of dark hair over his brow, the girl’s bare shoulders tan, her long, blond hair cascading down her back. She was sitting on the boy’s lap, touching his face, his hands on her neck and back and in her hair, and they were kissing, deep, searching kisses, oblivious to the ruckus. Jana couldn’t bear to watch and yet she couldn’t turn away. Since they’d been trying to have a baby, sex with Eric had become all about Jana’s hormone levels and cycles, the right day and time, the best chance of conceiving.
It wasn’t long before the crowd dispersed. The twin boys came running down the aisle. Their mother yelled at them to stop, but they kept going.
“Sorry it took so long,” the woman said, squeezing past Eric’s and Jana’s legs. “Long line at the restrooms. And somebody fainted back there.”
Jana took stock of the big stomach. Yes, she thought, pregnant. The woman took Cissy and sat down next to Lola. Jana’s arms felt a little numb and weightless. There was a wet spot on her shorts.
The baby girl stirred and whimpered, then settled. The woman kissed the top of her head.
“Mama missed you,” she said, “yes she did.” The boys ran past again. “Little hellions. You got kids?” she asked Jana.
“No.” Jana stopped herself from explaining although she always felt the need to. She had been married briefly when she was very young, no children. She had sworn she wouldn’t marry again, and then Eric had come along six years ago. Eric had never been married. He wanted a child, maybe more than she did. She was thirty-eight years old. They had been trying for a while.
“I got three more,” the woman said. “The oldest, Ben? He’s eighteen, he just went to the Army.” She paused. “I was sixteen when I had him. Jesus, what I didn’t know then.”
Jana added the numbers. This woman was thirty-four years old, four years younger than Jana. How could that be—a woman like her with seven children, probably another on the way, and Jana couldn’t conceive?
“Count yourself lucky,” the woman said. “Kids are trouble. Trouble and heartache.” She shifted the baby girl and extended her hand to Jana. “I’m Ruby,” she said.
Reddened, rough knuckles, dirty nails. Jana didn’t want to touch Ruby, but how could she not? She shook Ruby’s hand. Warm, moist, the palm callused.
“I’m Jana. This is Eric.”
“Hi,” Eric said. He stuffed his book in his backpack. “Come on,” he said to Jana. “We’re almost there. Let’s go up on deck.”
The island, a long, low slash of white against the dull water of the sound, rose into dunes topped with scrub pines and sea oats. Jana and Eric were among the first off the boat. She looked back for the woman, Ruby, and her children, but she didn’t see them. The pier extended far out into the sound, and a long boardwalk led over the dunes to the Gulf beaches. Nearly noon, the sky clear now except for thunderheads lingering far out over the Gulf, the sun directly overhead, the air hot and still, hardly a breeze. The sand burned Jana’s feet through her sandals. By the time they reached the top of the dunes, blood rushed in her head and ears and neck, and she was drenched in sweat and out of breath. The horizon tilted dangerously. She stopped, held on to the rail. Her period was six days late. She didn’t think Eric had noticed. She hoped he hadn’t. She wanted to know for sure before she told him.
Eric said, “You okay?”
She nodded. “God, Eric, is it always this hot?”
“Yeah, in the summer.”
To their right, the old fort. To their left, a small concession stand out in the open, no shade. A low, cinderblock building with a sign for restrooms and showers. A small pavilion. In front of them the white sand beach, already crowded with the passengers from the earlier boat, and the water, clear aquamarine out a long way until the color deepened to green, then blue. The surf was higher than Jana had expected.
“You’re disappointed, aren’t you?” Eric said.
Jana felt sorry for him. He remembered the island through the lens of childhood, the last good days with his father.
“No. It’s pretty. The water’s beautiful.”
Eric suggested they tour the fort first and then spend time on the beach. “I used to find great shells out here,” he said. “I don’t know about now.”
The old fort’s brick walls rose thirty feet above the Gulf. Inside, it was cool and damp, a relief from the relentless heat and sun. Eric pointed to the south side. “I used to climb those ramparts.” They were standing on the parade ground when Jana spotted Ruby near the foot of a brick tower, the little girl on her hip, Lola beside her.
“Don’t you go up there!” Ruby yelled. The twin boys scampered like monkeys up the tower’s outside stairs. “Come down right this minute!” she shouted, but the boys hung over the rail around the top, their legs dangling. A guide climbed up and led them back down. He said something to Ruby that Jana couldn’t hear. Ruby, whose skin was already turning a hot shade of pink, flushed even deeper. She huffed off, the boys running ahead, Lola trailing behind.
After the fort, Jana and Eric bought hamburgers from the concession stand, a beer for Eric, water for Jana. While she was on the fertility drugs, she couldn’t drink. They ate standing up in the pavilion—no seats left—but at least there was shade. They rented chairs and an umbrella and threaded their way among the crowd down to the water’s edge and walked east. They passed Ruby and the children. She had spread a blanket near the water line, no chair or umbrella, and she sat with her dress pulled up, revealing her enormous white thighs. Lola seemed absorbed in building a sand castle. The twin boys chased each other in and out of the shallow water, and the baby girl sat in the sand near her mother with a shovel, filling and dumping a plastic pail.
Down the beach, away from the crowd, Eric set up their umbrella and chairs, and Jana took off her tank top and shorts and slathered on sunscreen. She handed the bottle to Eric.
“Do my back?” she said.
Eric rubbed lotion on her back and shoulders. “Hmm. Nice,” he said. Her shoulders were tight. He kissed her hair. “There. That good enough?”
She nodded. She wanted to say no, it’s not, don’t stop, don’t ever stop.
Eric moved his chair away from the umbrella. She tossed the sunscreen at him. “Put some on,” she said, “or you’ll cook.”
She sat in the sun for a while, but the sand flies wouldn’t leave her alone. “I’m going in the water,” she said. “You coming?”
Eric didn’t answer. Dozing. Irritated, she walked down to the water. The high surf had carved a ledge in the sand, but then the shore sloped off gradually. She waded in, the cold water a shock after the heat. She was thigh-deep when a wave knocked her down, and then another. She rode the waves and sometimes they took her down and she struggled to get back on her feet. She swam out beyond the breakers and floated on the swells. She felt weightless and small. She thought about the tiny, alive thing that might be swimming inside her, no larger than a seed, its cells doubling and redoubling, all its parts coming together. She had a doctor’s appointment the day after they got home. If this treatment cycle failed, she didn’t know what they would do. Give up, probably.
She turned from her back and treaded water, looking toward the beach. Eric stood on the shore, waving and calling to her, but she couldn’t hear. He waded out, turning sideways against the breakers, and swam to meet her.
After the swim they went for a walk. Tangled ropes of seaweed and piles of broken shells littered the beach. “It must have been stormy out here last night,” Eric said. “Heavy surf breaks shells up like that.”
Crosscurrents in the surf met in a chaos of spray, the waves played out, and the backwash at the water’s edge tugged at their feet. Jana tried to scoop up periwinkles, tiny white, yellow, and purple bivalves, but they burrowed into the wet sand and disappeared, leaving bubbles, then nothing, as though they had never been there at all.
“I picked up a bucket full of these one time and carried them home,” Eric said. “Once they’re out of water, the shells pop open and the little clams die. They smelled awful. My mother had a fit.”
They had walked a quarter of a mile or so when Jana spotted the two kids who’d been making out on the boat. Beyond the breakers and the pale aqua shallows of a sandbar, way out where the water deepened, they splashed and ducked each other and laughed like children
“Look, Eric.” She pointed. “Those kids. They were on the boat with us. Watch them.”
The boy and girl came together, treading water, kissing, riding the swells. Jana imagined how they would touch each other under the water, and later, hidden away in the dunes, they would have sex, or maybe not hidden but brazen, right there on the beach, so lost in each other that they didn’t care who saw.
“Yeah,” Eric said. “I see them.” He put his arm around Jana’s waist. Their bodies had dried in the sun, their skin salty and hot. He pulled her closer and ran his hand down her back.
“We’ll be okay, Jana,” he said. “We’ll have a baby, and we’ll be okay.”
They walked on to the end of the island to see the split the hurricanes had made. There were dredges and barges offshore, the work going on to restore the island, but for what, Jana wondered. It would happen again.
They were almost back to where they’d left their stuff when they heard screams. People were running on the beach. Jana and Eric ran, too, toward the sound.
Jana took it all in: Ruby, two park rangers, the faded blanket, the woman’s tote, Cissy’s doll and pail and shovel. The twin boys’ sunburned shoulders, their round eyes. Lola standing alone at the edge of the water, waves lapping around her feet.
Jana turned in a full circle, scanning the beach and, God, no, the water, for Cissy.
One of the rangers was on a walkie-talkie. “We’ve got a missing toddler out here. Need assistance.” The walkie-talkie crackled.
Jana buried her face against Eric’s chest.
“They’ll find her,” he said. “How far could she get?”
“I need you to describe her, Mrs. Peets,” another ranger said. “Hair, eyes. What she’s wearing.”
“She’s two. She’s—” Ruby looked at Lola. “Oh Lord, Lola, what’s Cissy wearing?”
Jana spoke up. “Pink. Pink top and shorts.” Ruby looked at Jana like she’d never laid eyes on her.
The ranger wrote it down.
“Redheaded, like me,” Ruby said. “Gray eyes, like her daddy’s.” Ruby fluttered her hands around her face like she was batting away flies. “She’s got the Down’s. Not too bad, see, she’s a smart girl. She wouldn’t run off.”
The rangers looked at each other. One said, “Where’d you last see her?”
Ruby pointed at the blanket, her hand shaking. “Right here,” she said. “She was right here a little bit ago.”
The other ranger knelt beside Lola and brushed the child’s hair out of her eyes.
“Hi, sweetheart,” he said. “Don’t be scared. Did you see where your little sister went?”
Lola shook her head.
The ranger said, “It’s all right if you don’t know. But you can tell me if you do.”
She looked at Ruby, then toward the water. “I told Cissy not to,” she said, “but she don’t mind me.” Lola’s thumb went in her mouth.
Ruby’s voice rose to a keening. “Oh,” she said, “oh Lord. Oh Jesus.” She sank heavily to the blanket. One of the twins, then the other, sat beside her and patted her arms. Lola dug in the wet sand with her bare hands.
Jana and Eric waited in line to board the boat back to Gulfport, the cacophony of the beach replaced by stunned murmuring among the crowd, the crackle of walkie-talkies, the rangers’ voices over bullhorns, organizing the search of the dunes. A Coast Guard rescue boat trolled offshore. Ruby sat in the shade of the pavilion with the other three children who were eating popsicles. A woman park ranger sat with them. How long would Ruby have to wait?
“Did you hear?” a woman behind Jana said. “That woman fell asleep and left the older girl to watch the baby and those rowdy boys. What kind of mother does that? All those people around, and lifeguards. Why didn’t somebody see her? Poor little thing.”
Jana faced the woman. “That little girl has a name,” Jana said. “Her name is Cissy.”
Near the front of the line, the teenage couple stood a little apart, the sunburned girl looking back toward the beach, arms crossed over her breasts. The boy slouched against the boardwalk rail. He tucked the girl’s damp hair behind her ear, but she didn’t seem to notice.
As the boat left the island dock, a thunderstorm blew in and stirred up the waters of the sound. Jana rested her head on Eric’s shoulder. She looked out the window and remembered Cissy’s odd face and eyes, her short legs, how she’d clapped her hands and touched Jana’s face and hair. She imagined a calm place deep in the waters of the Gulf where light played like stars on the surface and the currents flowed gently and the wind and lightning couldn’t reach, the baby floating there, turning somersaults and cartwheels, swimming, her eyes open to the wonder.