Cooked Cookies, Sheree Shatsky
Originally published in The Shallows/Cold Creek Review (January 26, 2018)
Sadie stands in the shallows of a tidal pool carved out by the surf and watches Mina and Lulu rescue sand dollars stranded along the shore. Her sisters flew out to the island earlier in the week and like the pelicans gliding overhead, she cast work to the wind to join them on the beach this glorious day. The sun is white hot, searing the blue from the sky and she pulls her floppy hat low to focus past the haze, the ends of the scarf tied around the brim dancing about her shoulders. The scarf was her mother’s favorite, the Vera with the green abstract design and she had looked gorgeous wearing it, as glamorous as Jackie, when she was a Kennedy and not yet Jackie O. The breeze knocks back her hat and the sudden brilliance casts the middle-aged bathing beauties into shimmering silhouette. “You’ll never save them all!” Sadie yells.
Lulu waves her off, busy tossing sand dollars back into the ocean. She is the oldest sister, named after a pop star, a fact she lorded over her siblings as somehow more distinctive than the names given them —second born Mina, her namesake the wife of Thomas Edison, Sadie after a song in the Broadway musical Funny Girl and the youngest, their brother Luke, bestowed with the name of his father’s hometown, although most when introduced assumed a more scriptural reference.
Mina shouts back for them both. “Sadie! Get out of that private spa of yours and come down here and help!”
Royal terns with large red-orange bills part passage as she trudges through the squeaky sand to join her sisters. The sand dollars dot the beach like Spanish coins. They spent hours as children scooping up the purplish brown creatures and tossing them back into the ocean for one more chance at life, to live at the very least, a few more hours until their next weightless struggle against the rhythmic tides. Sadie scans the beach and pinches a chalk white dollar from the sand. The velvet furry cilia are dried to a crust. The creature is long dead.
Mina leans in for a look and brushes sand off the fragile disk with her pinkie. “Fried alive, that’s what Luke called beached dollars. Fried alive. Remember, Lulu?”
“Something like that. Or maybe, cooked cookie. That’s one cooked cookie, he’d say.” Lulu looks out over the sunlit waves, lingering for a moment. “I thought it would hurt less,” she said, “coming back here.” Her bottom lip trembles and she stills it with the back of her hand. “Sadie, I’ll never understand why you moved back here, after what happened to Luke.”
Sadie slips the sand dollar into the mesh shell collection bag strapped around her waist. “This island is all I have left of him. That and the cooked cookies.”
They had discovered the island via outer space. Their father’s job as a NASA engineer brought the family to Florida where they lived close enough to Cape Canaveral to stand in the backyard and watch the rockets launch.With the transistor radio blaring out the countdown to zero, all eyes turned toward the sky in search of the bullet shooting towards the heavens. Whoever spotted the fiery glint first would point and shout, I see it, there it is!Go baby go! They waved and cheered as the ship climbed upward and onward until poof, it winked out of sight into the dark beyond, leaving behind a pillared column trail and a distant thunder of engines to mark the flight.
They were mid-century modern pioneers, a space family living the heyday of the race to the moon. The space industry employed most of the men in the neighborhood who all became official NASA property pre and post launch, ghosting families of high tech and support personnel, often for days at a time. Working and living as part of a world where life revolved around whenever the next window opened for a scheduled mission meant mothers typically stayed home to manage the everyday, which their mother did as effectively as when employed as a secretary for a research scientist. The logistics of returning to the work world with three children and an intermittent husband proved difficult if not impossible, so she realigned her focus to meet the needs of the family and volunteered outside the home when time allowed, mostly in activities that involved her children. Weekends were the payoff, finding them on the beach, with blankets and chairs tucked out of the sun under an old fishing pier. They waded and built sand castles, scooped up sand fleas or walked the shoreline in search for whatever the ocean offered up, filling plastic pails with shells, driftwood, black sea beans or trinkets of glass tumbled smooth by the waves.
Sadie’s passion for shelling was obvious by her posture. She searched in constant stoop, her nimble fingers plucking shells from the warm water or the crusty shell grit covering the beach. Heading up to the hot sand, she picked through the belly of cliff-like ridges revealed with the recession of the tide, bucketing finds for the trip home where she cleaned and glued the collection of lightning whelks and calico scallops, olive shells, fighting conch and spiny murex on long palm frond husks. Sadie’s mother encouraged her avid interest and upon learning of a Girl Scout shelling jamboree on a tiny island located off the southwest coast, she made two phone calls--the first, to register her daughter as a participant and the second, to persuade her sister-in-law into coming along with her kids, so they could share the costs of a motel, since Luke was a boy and no boy could sleep over at the scout house with girls, even if three of the girls were his sisters.
Everyone learned the number one rule of the island the first day of the jamboree—let the living be. The guide held both live and dead shells to their noses for comparison and if the whiff of rotting fish left any possible hesitation of what lie within, the demonstration of placing the creature on the surf’s edge resolved all doubt. If it feels safe, she said, the living will crawl home, moving back to the same spot where collected. She released the eager shell-seekers to the first pinks of the sun, armed with sifters and buckets. On the same day astronaut Neil Armstrong took the first step on the moon, six-year-old Luke—surrounded by Girl Scouts wearing green Bermuda shorts- found the first sand dollar of the day, bleached white in death. He slid his hand beneath the fragile being and asked the guide for an official declaration of demise. Upon learning the dollar had been stranded too far from shore to save itself, he spent the remainder of the trip throwing every live dollar washed up by the tide back into the sea.
To say the family fell in love with the island the day of Luke’s discovery and empathetic mission sounds silly and trite, but indeed love was the simple truth. Perhaps the laziness of the Gulf proved the attraction, the less threatening nature of its ease and merge, lapping an invitation instead of crashing warnings against the shore, a lulling tease of sorts that one could wade with expanse without fear of what lie beyond the darker fathoms. Whenever school and space offered a window of opportunity, they packed into the car and drove the three and a half hours across the state to spend a few days wandering the white sand in search of coquina and jingle and bubble shells and the ever elusive junonia, a creamy mahogany-flecked deep water lovely that rarely washed up on shore. The shell proved so rare a find that island tradition decreed the lucky person discovering the stately beauty stop by the visitor center to have their photograph snapped for the local newspaper.
Good fortune found Mina when she stumbled upon the pride of the island chasing after a missed Frisbee. As the disc lifted and floated out with the fingers of the tide, she trapped it with her foot, nearly stamping on the coveted shell. Mina scooped up the junonia and marveled over her find. The shell was intact, not a chip or a break, the spiral rows of brown and white spots sharp and distinct, not faded like the fragments she often discovered on the beach. It was if a diver had gathered the shell for her to find. Turning the junonia over, she found the body whorl pristine in it’s sculpture, smooth and shiny and inhabited. She took a sniff. The resident sea snail was alive. She placed the junonia on the shoreline and watched it bobble toward the water, only to be washed back in for someone else to find. Grabbing the shell and a sharp piece of driftwood, Mina shucked out the purple mottled snail neat and clean, flinging the body as far out into the water as she could. She rinsed off the junonia and turned to head back, only to see Luke standing behind her, watching. He retrieved the Frisbee beached in a tangle of seaweed and left his sister standing in the surf.
Her photograph appeared in the newspaper the next day. Mina raised the flying disc high, while planting an exaggerated kiss smack on the shell. The underlying caption read “One small step for The Junonia”. After all the traveling back and forth across the state, the two worlds merged as one. The time had come to leave space behind and call the island home. Their father landed a position with a group of engineering consultants on the mainland and his nine to five day gave his family a more predictable life, a life embraced in a stucco home set back off the beach, within sight of the dunes where Sadie found Luke.
The day began like any Saturday, with Sadie waking before dawn to catch the low tide. She pulled on clothes and grabbed her collecting equipment, running the short distance from the house to the beach access, pounding down the boardwalk in ancient sneakers to explode out onto the white sand. For the moment, the beach was hers. The raw smell of salt hugged the air and unseen birds called from the dim shadows casting the beach and the ocean into a seamless gray blue that would soon give way to the coral sun rising behind her. Luke was still too young to be out alone on the beach and Mina and Lulu didn’t shell much anymore, preferring slathering on baby oil and tanning on the beach in tiny bikinis. The two lounged about in haughty poses, thinking themselves far removed from the family hobby both now considered at best tourist, though both were quick to scoot off the blanket to help the occasional straw-hatted young man with sticky zinc oxide ointment plastered across his nose distinguish a band tulip from a true tulip.
Sadie flicked on the flashlight and zigzagged the beach between the high tide line and the surf, stooping now and again to rifle through the shell crust in search of the hallowed junonia. The beam flickered in wide arc, skipping across what looked like a crumpled blanket or a beach towel or better yet, a nesting sea turtle. She marked the spot with her pail, so later she and her father could come back and screen off the area in case the turtle had laid eggs. Taking care not to frighten the creature, she crept closer. As the sky took on a life of its own, Sadie discovered that someone had taken a life from her.
At first glance, she thought Luke was playing a trick, pretending to be asleep, odd because he wasn’t allowed to be out on the beach by himself and she thought how much trouble he would be in for being out alone, the rule was thirteen and even then permission was required, but then she noticed his arms and legs were sprawled in ways that didn’t make sense, splayed in directions limbs did not naturally extend. She bent down and shook him, Luke, hey, what are you doing, get up and his head lolled to one side, his face masked with blood. A sand crab twitchedtowards him and for a moment, all Sadie saw was the jittery crab, fixating on its stalk eyes and sideways gait, and then the roar brought her back, building in her ears like the rumble of rocket engines. She screamed at its zenith, long and hard for her brother.
Sadie had to get Luke home. Reaching past his cock-eyed arms and around his waist, she supported his head in the basket of her elbows and pulled, moving him a few inches before collapsing backwards into the sand. Standing up, she tried again, only to slip under his limp weight. She laid back and sobbed, her face streaked with sand caking her tears dry, betrayed that the island so loved had seemingly turned against her. Setting Luke’s head on the cushion of powdery sand, she whispered to him, together we can do this, hang on, I’m your big sister, you’re safe now, I’ll get you home and we will make a plan to hunt the elusive junonia, we won’t tell Mina and Lulu, just me and you and our picture in the paper. We can do this.
She dragged him down the beach flailing and falling, her muscles jumpy with fatigue. A crazy kid song Luke loved popped into her head and she sang the lyrics to him as they struggled down the beach, get the fire and get the kettle, I’m going to eat up Hansel and Gretel. Luke would sneak up on Mina and Lulu chanting the creepy little tune and his sisters shrieked, pretended to be scared and ran away from him, begging him to stop. The memory reenergized her and she sang and pulled and fell and talked to Luke about his beloved sand dollar, with its constellation petal center. Resplendent in her determination, they were halfway to the boardwalk when the man Sadie sometimes saw surf casting on her early morning expeditions appeared out of the halo of dawn to take Luke from her arms and carry him home.
He had been dead less than a week before a sixteen year old girl could no longer live with her conscience and confessed to a high school counselor her witness of the beating of a young boy about the same age as her own brother. She and three friends had crossed the causeway in the early morning hours to party on the island. High on angel’s trumpet, the group stumbled across Luke tossing sand dollars into the ocean, their hallucinogenic brains perceiving him as a threat, as some sort of mini snitch. Her boyfriend grabbed Luke as he turned to run and held him while the others took turns pummeling him with a crowbar brought along for protection, breaking his arms and legs and fracturing his skull in two places. Before his killers tossed him aside, the girl stripped him of the leather pouch he carried when shelling. Inside were a couple of cooked cookies and a single junonia.
The story made headlines for months, the first murder on the island astonishing in its own right and yet, incredibly committed by high school students. The crime forever destroyed the atmosphere of absolute safety in a paradise where youngsters once shelled at dawn. The newspapers, both island and mainland, warned of the toxicity of angel’s trumpet with its stunning dramatic blooms, the botanical equivalent of a flashing skull and crossbones while the school board demanded the drug curriculum be reviewed and revised, particularly in the area of local poisonous plants. Some discussion was bandied about requiring a resident pass or a payment of a toll to cross the causeway onto the island, but all the protests, declarations and community outrage didn’t bring Luke back, anymore than witnessing his killers plead guilty to second-degree manslaughter. The broken family left the island and moved to the tiny seacoast of New Hampshire, where beaches stretched long into the cold Atlantic and shelling proved somber, all shades of black like their grief.
Lulu and Mina nap in webbed sand chairs beneath the beach umbrella, calling it quits on saving cooked cookies. Both wear visors and sport noses coated thick with sunscreen, their individual tubes stuck in the sand beside their bedazzled flip flops. The sun shifts to bathe their lily-white legs in tropical heat and with a swirl of the canopy, Sadie casts them both back into shade. Her sisters continued to live in the northeast after the death of their mother, followed by their father a year and a half later. As friends and relatives gathered at his home after the service, Sadie escaped away to his study, where his cashmere sweater still hung across the back of his leather chair. On his desk stood the photograph of Mina and the junonia. Off to her side stood Luke.
“Dad received the print not long after we moved,” said Lulu from the doorway. “Luke was cropped from the photo that ran in the paper. The editors felt the family should have the original, considering what happened.” She joined Sadie and picked up the photograph of Mina’s big day. “Mom couldn’t bring herself to look at it and for some reason, Mina hated the picture as well, so Dad filed it away, until a few months before he died.”
“I don’t remember him being with Mina,” was all Sadie could say, tracing her finger over the eagle embroidered on the Apollo 11 Mission patch sewn to her father’s sweater.
“There’s a lot you don’t know about Luke,” Lulu said, crossing to the window where a glimpse of the ocean on a sunny day brought thoughts of island life. “Sadie, I caught him sneaking out to the beach the morning he died.” She had woken to find Luke rummaging deep through the dresser drawers and before she could say a word or wake her sister, he found Mina’s junonia and stuffed it inside the leather pouch made at summer camp. Holding a finger to his lips, he whispered wish me luck, Lulu and slipped into the darkness and out of their lives. “I could’ve stopped him,” Lulu said. “Instead, I rolled over and went back to sleep, thinking I’d tell Mina in the morning, but I didn’t. I never told anyone.” She placed her forehead against the glass and closed her eyes. “You should take the photograph home, Sadie. Dad would want you to have it.”
The sun sets wide and purple and orange on the island, a burnished sky parallel with the ocean. Sadie will wake her sisters in awhile and together they will watch the light dissolve into magenta. She looks out to the horizon where years ago she tossed the stolen junonia into the center of Luke’s scattered ashes, a promise to her brother she would search for him always among the sand dollars.She remembers her mother wore the Vera scarf that day, knotted tight against her throat, as stoic as Jackie in her pink suit. The shell litter pricks Sadie’s feet and she strolls back to the deep sand of the dunes. The royal terns have taken residence in the tidal pool and she walks their way, scanning the beach for conch and cockles and whatever else the island has cast aside on this day.
Sheree Shatsky writes short fiction believing much can be conveyed with a few wild words. She was selected by the AWP Writer to Writer Mentorship Program as a Spring 2018 mentee for flash fiction. Recent work has appeared in KYSO Flash, Fictive Dream, and X-R-A-Y Literary Magazine with work forthcoming in Crack the Spine, Foliate Oak Magazine, and the KYSO Flash Anthology, Accidents of Life. Read more of her work at http://www.shereeshatsky.com . Sheree tweets @talktomememe.