May wakes up with a start. She squeezes her eyelids shut again, crunches the grey sheet between her legs, pushes her head into the pillow, inhales the dry, air-conditioned air in the room, arches her back, and wills her eyes open. The white walls have gained an orange hue from the morning sun, and the leaves of the ancient mango tree in front of the window create dancing shadows on the wall. So this is it, this is how it starts, she thinks of her day ahead. It is her 40th birthday today. Will anyone remember it? Leo, her husband, snores next to her, his mouth half-open, face wrinkled from the pillow, one calloused foot hanging over the edge of the bed.

She hears rustling and giggles from the other room. The kids have woken up. In the next minute, the bedroom door swings open, and Peter, four years old, runs in, hops onto the bed with a scream, and settles atop Leo’s back. Paul, his two-year-old brother, calls from the room.

“Mom, mohom, mohommm!” Uh, of course. He can’t get out of his sleeping bag. May swings the sheets aside and hurries out of the room.


Their rental Chrysler rolled onto the driveway of the one-level white bungalow at midnight the night before. They flew from Toronto, their permanent home, to Orlando, and drove all the way on Interstate 75 to Naples. It was all Leo’s idea.

“Let’s go somewhere warm when you have a break from teaching between semesters,” he said. “Let’s see the Everglades! Let’s go to a sandy beach. Florida! Would you like that? Imagine! Warm weather in April. The kids would love it!”

“And us, too,” May added. So Leo researched the most family-friendly beaches and towns in Florida, and decided on Naples. They rented a two-bedroom bungalow from Airbnb. The photos online showed sea-themed knickknacks: a fish-shaped bowl on the table, a wooden crab, a shell and a starfish on the wall in the kitchen, blue and green couches in the living room, and a paddle mounted on the wall in the kids’ room. There was a mango tree in one of the pictures in front of the house. The tree looked enormous next to the house, a giant protecting an elf’s home. May thought of this photo on the journey to Naples. She longed to run her fingers along the bark of the tree, peep to the sky through the shroud, and hold the half-ripe, pinkish fruit in her palm. Would the mangos be hard or soft? she asked herself. When she first saw the tree for real, it enchanted her so much that she stared at it until the kids squirmed in their seats, still strapped in the car seats in the middle of the night.


An hour after breakfast, all four of them march towards Vanderbilt Beach, about a kilometre from their rented bungalow. The kids settle in the blue beach cart, above the inscription that says, “Do not transport children or animals inside.”  The wheels screech on the sandy pavement as Leo pulls it, and May trudges alongside in a white floppy hat, oversized Gucci sunglasses, and pink rubber flip-flops. They pass other one-level houses, cabbage palm trees, striking red and purple flowers, and tanned middle-aged or elderly people in white shorts jogging or biking. As they turn the corner onto a wider street, May notices the name “Inn at Pelican Bay” on the gate of a blinding white, four-story resort. Queen palm trees wave lazily in the breeze around a turquoise pool. Polished cars zoom by on the road. Naples is a rich town for retirees, thinks May, and daydreams about living somewhere like this place when she gets old. The sand on the beach feels warm and silky. They glide towards the brownish water, passing rainbow-colored umbrellas, wet towels, books, iPads, sweating smoothie glasses, and half-round, floppy bellies.

“Look!” says May, “the waves have brought some dead fish.” A few fish lie on the shore where the waves reach farthest, as if marking the border of the beach. When May turns around, she notices that the people facing the beach in their chairs might do that not because of the strong winds blowing from the sea, but to avoid the sight. A ranger in a black open jeep picks the fish into a bucket in the distance. But there is no turning back. The kids have already thrown off their clothes, and Peter eyes the sea, and May believes that the water sizes up Peter, too. It is like a split second before two magnets, unable to withhold the physical force of attraction, stick together. And Peter yelps, “We take it off, we take it off,” as he throws his clothes in the sand and runs towards the ocean. The blue swim trunk with red crabs on the legs swings on his lanky body. May nods to Leo, and he catches Peter before he can jump into the foamy water. They stand in the wet sand, waves lapping at their ankles. Peter giggles, covers his eyes, and squats to touch the broken shell pieces the waves bury between his toes.

May undresses Paul, peels off her own clothes, spreads the chequered picnic blanket on the sand, weighs it down with the bags and towels, and throws the sand toys in the middle. She nudges Paul towards the water. “Come on, we’re gonna have fun!”

Reluctant, Paul lets her take his hand and lead him to the edge of the water. Now all four of them stand there. Peter’s excitement grows with each wave. He sits in the sand now and lets the waves wash out the ground beneath him, all the while squeaking, stimming, and frolicking. Paul lowers himself cautiously, but then a wave sweeps him off his feet and soaks him to the chest. Leo copies the kids, and the frothing, foaming water splashes on his torso as he sits between the children. “This is so warm,” he squints in the sun towards May.

“Let me take a picture of the three of you,” May says and she turns around, runs back to the blanket, grabs her phone, and gallops back to the ocean. She angles her phone with both hands. Three male mermaids. Mine. She thinks, lingers for a moment, and with a click, snaps a photo. But as she pushes the button, something shimmery shows up in the water, slides on top of the wave, and lands next to Paul: it is a dead fish. May grunts. She checks her phone. In the picture, the guys grin in the shallow water, their backs to the sea. There is an elongated, silvery object in the top right corner. She zooms in. It’s the fish. One glassy eye stares blankly into the sky, the tail flops to the side, and the mouth forms a black hole in the boys’ direction. May strides back to the blanket and hides the phone in her bag.

When she straightens up, she notices that the neighbouring couple are studying her. The man, tall, tanned, in his fifties with a khaki safari hat, strolls towards her. He points to the horizon.

“Sorry to butt in, but did you know that there is red tide in the water?” The sound of the waves and the wind dull his words. May understands “red tie” at first and imagines tiny red bow ties swarming in the waves. “It’s an algal bloom that kills the fish. Very toxic.” He nods in the kids’ direction.

“Ah…thank you,” she mutters. She pauses, then turns her head in the kid’s direction, “But we can’t keep them out of the water.” May scratches her head, distraught. “Just make sure that you give them a good bath afterwards.” The man ambles back to his chair and plops down next to his book.

Later, when all four of them dry in the sun on the blanket, May notices that the children’s noses are runny. Did they catch cold already? She wonders. Back in the house, when they Google “red tide,” she finds out that the algae causes nose and throat irritation. She also reads that the tide can last for months depending on the winds. “We’ll find another beach, don’t worry,” Leo consoles her.

A text message beeps on May’s phone. It’s Jill, their neighbour from Toronto. “Are you guys okay?” Oh, no, May thinks, my house is probably smoking! She checks in her mind if she had left the stove on, or the air conditioner, or the door unlocked. Maybe it was the tap? She can’t recall.

May scribbles into her phone. “We’re in Florida. What happened?”

The reply lights up on the screen. May’s face changes when she reads it. She lowers herself onto the bed, silent, as if waiting for the words to reach her, touch her, push her into motion, just like those beach-eroding waves. Her mouth shapes the letters into words. They drag themselves like screams choked into whispers.

“There was a van attack in Toronto. In our neighbourhood. Someone killed ten people and wounded a dozen…oh my God.”

The words flutter in the shadowy room, hold themselves against the humming of the air conditioner, and dissolve into silence. Thoughts jump into their place: questions, theories, and more questions.

“Terrorism? Or something else? Why?” She searches the news on the internet. Yonge Street. Van attack. Why today? May thinks. The whole thing plays in front of her eyes now.  People ventured out in the first sunlight of April in Toronto, expecting a lazy afternoon stroll, and then the van bulldozed them. One article mentions something about the driver’s mental health condition, something about high-functioning autism. The letters blur. It feels as if someone is pouring lead into May’s head, its weight gaining by seconds, until it will fall off her neck and roll into the corner of the room. She has to lie down onto the cool minty bed cover. Stop. Stop thinking. It’s none of your concern. This is not about you, not about your son, Peter. But no matter her tight-pressed lips, the sighs escape and stand like judges around the bed. Will Peter become a mass murderer? Will he run down people on the street on a spring day? Will he? Will he not? May swallows the tears back, hugs her legs close to her chest, and lulls herself into numbness. She loses track of time.

Another SMS pings on her phone. It’s from Suzy, her friend from British Columbia. “Is everything all right? Happy B-day!” she wrote. Finally, someone remembered her birthday. She writes back to her and tells her about the Florida vacation. “Thank God! I tried to reach you everywhere. You freaked me out! :)” Suzy’s words snap May back to the present. She shakes off the remnants of her melancholy and ambles out into the kitchen to prepare dinner for her family.


May leans forward in the shower. Warm water pours down on her neck, her back, and down on her legs. Steam rises in its wake and blankets the glass-dividing panel on the bathtub into a frost-like shade. May breathes into the steam. Does Leo remember that it’s her birthday? She pours shampoo into her palm and massages her scalp slowly, staring at the black mosquito net on the bathroom window above the tub. She notices some grey shapes on it, probably as the steam has settled on the window. May stares at it while hot water gushes down her neck and the small of her back, all the way down to her heels. It looks like a cloud, and just like those take different shapes, the gray side of the net contorts into the profile of an old woman with spiky hair, cheekbones of a skeleton, and a grey feather boa around a stick-like skinny neck. She grins towards the wooden window frame as her long nose curves down into her chin. A ruffled, feather-like coat covers her body. May is transfixed by the apparition. If death has a shape, this should be it. This is how she would draw it: in grey, not black, to capture the moment before life fades into absolute darkness. How far is it, anyway? she muses. How many more years? Will she turn into an old crone? The shower hisses and sputters and splashes on May’s body. She turns the water off and steps out of the tub.


Leo waits for her on the bed. May climbs next him. They hug and intertwine their arms and legs. She feels his heartbeat through her nightgown and snuggles into his warm body. They hold each other like that for a while.

“By the way, happy birthday,” Leo says. He starts kissing her. May thinks of the tiny scratches his red beard leaves on her face, and as he moves lower on her body, she smiles to herself in the dark. She pulls the cover over their heads. They make love in the darkness of that cave, with the duvet over them. May closes her eyes and loses herself in the slow rhythm of their movements, and the waves of the ocean bear down on her and the world falls apart.

When she opens her eyes the following day, the orange sun peeks into the room through the leaves. Three purple mangos swing in front of the window, like obscene balls in the morning breeze. She hears the noises from the living room. May yawns, stretches her arms, slides off the bed, and opens the door. Three guys, one big, two small, play with Lego blocks on the living room floor. May kisses each of them, shuffles barefoot into the kitchen, and takes out the pan to prepare breakfast.