A Vacation Story
by Hamdy Elgammal
Our third Sunday at the Resort, we’re woken up at 7 a.m. by a loud crash. I look out from our second-floor window and see a man’s body splayed next to the taco-shell-shaped Swimming Pool Diez. The man has tufts of gray hair on his chest and his arms are twisted at odd angles like a dead cockroach. There’s a growing pool of blood around his head.
The Resort is Mexican-themed. There are thirty-five buildings and twenty-two pools in the Resort. Five beaches, Uno to Cinco. This is the second suicide since we arrived.
My wife Elaine and I take the elevator down to investigate. There are no paramedics in sight, no sounds of rushing sirens. We’re alone, us and this fallen man. Elaine bites her lip.
I look into the sun and squint. When I look at the man again, I see pale yellow floaters as I blink. Elaine, still in the one-piece striped swimming suit she fell asleep in, squats next to the man’s right leg, puts the tip of her index finger against his right shin. “He’s still warm,” she says. She stands, takes a few steps back, grabs my hand in hers.
“Why are people jumping out of windows in this resort?” I say.
Elaine shrugs. Bird poop falls right by the man’s left ear, the white and green goo emitting a soft splat as it hits the concrete.
“Jeez,” I say. “Did you see that?”
“Let’s just go get breakfast,” Elaine says. “We’re not helping anybody being here. Besides, it’s Salmon Sunday. I could fuck up a salmon right about now.”
We’re halfway to the restaurant by Beach Cinco when we remember — the kids. That seems to have been our overarching thought lately; not “the kids haven’t eaten yet” or “the kids aren’t growing correctly” or “is there something wrong with our kids?” Just “the kids.” The thought jumps into our collective mind. We acknowledge it by looking at each other, eyebrows raised, mouths ajar.
Our two kids, Tonya and Kevin, are five and six. We left them asleep in our suite when we went down to investigate. They could be awake now and doing anything — burning their hair or sticking their thin fingers into electrical sockets. They could be dying slow and painful deaths. Elaine and I run back to the suite.
The kids are still alive when we get back. They’re standing on the couch looking out the suite’s large window, mesmerized. They rest their elbows on the windowsill and study the fallen man, their toes pushing for a hold against the couch. I stand over them and look down and see the man’s pool of blood has expanded.
In Swimming Pool Diez, a small boy with sand-colored hair floats on an inflatable orca while a second boy tugs at the orca’s tail, his yellow-framed rubber swimming goggles strapped around his forehead. Someone in the Resort is always on some sort of floatie — orcas, pretzels, flamingoes, unicorns, kiwis.
Kevin turns his head to me. “What happened, Daddy?” he asks.
“I don’t know sweety,” I say. Then I grab them, one under each arm. They’re heavier now than they were six months ago. I ask Elaine to pull the drapes shut.
“The kids shouldn’t be seeing this,” I tell her.
“Yeah, the kids shouldn’t be seeing this,” Tonya says, from under my arm, as she wiggles a finger at Elaine. She started doing impressions two weeks ago. It was charming two weeks ago.
Elaine shuts the drapes and we give Tonya and Kevin their phones. Elaine and I face the television screen and take a moment to ourselves. This is how we bond as a family.
“Don’t you think it’s a bit weird how no paramedics showed up to take the body away?” I ask Elaine.
“The man’s dead. They removed the other guy in about fifteen minutes.”
A voice from Kevin’s phone commands, “KILL their zombie bitch-asses!”
“KEVIN!” Elaine yells. “I said no ZombieSniper!”
Then she turns to me, her voice lower but just as impatient, “Are you annoyed he’s dead or are you annoyed we can see he’s dead from our window?”
I think about this. “Both,” I say.
Elaine picks up the remote and turns on the television. Real Housewives of Fallujah is on. Somehow Andy Cohen is still involved.
“Call reception,” Elaine sighs. “Complain.”
Then she leans her head back on the couch and puts a wet washcloth over her forehead. She doesn’t really watch Real Housewives of Fallujah, she just likes the noise of middle-aged women squabbling in a foreign language. “Ah,” she whispers. “Vacation.”
I ring up reception.
“Reception,” a man says.
“Hey, so I’m calling about the dead guy? By pool ten? Are you guys planning on doing something about that?”
I hear a cough.
“Sorry. Choked on my Diet Coke,” he says apologetically. “It’s too much money for us to wheel the bodies of every suicidal Tom, Dick and Harry out of the Resort. So, Management has decided to leave him there.”
“Leave him where?”
“The building janitor sprayed him with RotSlow.”
“It makes you rot slower?”
“I get the idea.” There’s a silence so I keep going, “That’s a little undignified, though. Doesn’t he have family?”
“Not that we know of. He booked the royal suite to himself two days ago. Jumped today.”
“What about the blood? That’s a health risk.”
“If you think about it, being alive is the biggest health risk of all.”
“What are you saying to me?”
“We’re just understaffed at the moment.”
I feel my face heat up. “Meaning?”
“Meaning no one else called about this. Our poolside cameras show the blood’s dried up already. It’s 90 degrees out there. It’ll take a few days to clean that particular pool area.” There’s another pause before he says, “We appreciate your patience,” and hangs up.
“He hung up on me,” I tell Elaine.
“What doesn’t kill you,” she says, not moving her head.
“Jesus, Elaine, you could give a crap.”
She lifts the washcloth and peeks at me from under it. “What do you want us to do about it? We have a week left here. Chillax.”
“Yes, John,” she repeats, “Chillax.” She puts the washcloth over her eyes again, points an index finger loosely in the kids’ direction. “It’s your turn with them today.” Since she took the kids out to the beach yesterday, it’s her off-day today.
I take a deep breath, feel this electricity passing from my forehead down my ribs and out my toes, an angry helplessness. I stand, pack the bright yellow sunscreen bottle and two of the Resort’s soft blue and white striped towels into a duffel bag. “What are you going to do with your off-day?” I ask Elaine. “Chillax?”
“That’s the plan,” she says, giving me a thumbs up from under her washcloth. “I’ll watch TV and light up a joint.”
“Sounds like a busy day.”
“Hey man, I’m enjoying my off time,” Elaine says, pushing her new earbuds into her ears.
I try to think of a snarky response then reconsider. I watch Elaine, in this strange simulated sensory deprivation. How did we get here?
It’s her first vacation in a while. We’d moved to the City a year ago to be closer to better schools for the kids. Elaine had picked up a new job as an English teacher. Things went well for a period before Elaine started losing her stuff at school and blaming it on her colleagues. The items she lost were always small — a stapler, a pincushion, the gold bracelet with the four little silver hearts she’d inherited from her grandmother. She’d blame different people at work — science teachers, assistants, even the vice principal — yet without fail, a couple weeks later, she’d find what was missing — in the trunk of her Volvo or buried in between couch cushions.
This was worrying but I wasn’t sure what to make of these miniature delusional episodes. Was it age? Dementia? Depression? Elaine certainly wasn’t open to answering any questions. We’d been at a drug store picking up detergent a while back and I’d suggested she buy some memory supplements. In response, she handed me the red shopping basket with the detergent spout sticking out and told me she was going to go wait in the minivan with the kids.
A couple of weeks after that, she came back from school, her hair tied up and held together in a bun with a yellow scrunchie.
“I’m f-u-c-k-i-n-g done,” she said. She had a habit of spelling curse words around the kids.
“I can spell now,” Kevin said, without looking up from his smartphone. “You just said fucking.”
“Don’t repeat that,” I said. “What happened?” I asked Elaine.
“Someone stole my earbuds.” She sounded wounded. She turned to Kevin, “Are you playing ZombieSniper again?”
“No,” he replied, sounding as wounded as she was.
“Your earbuds?” I asked Elaine.
“Yes! My new red earbuds! I think it was Denise. She’s been eyeing them for a while.”
“Who’s Denise? Why would she steal your earbuds?”
Elaine didn’t answer my question, just mumbled, “Thieving geography-teaching b-i-t-c-h.”
“Please don’t spell things,” I sighed.
Elaine sat at the dining table and buried her face in her hands. I approached her, put one hand on her back, felt it rising and falling underneath my fingers. “Why do people steal things from you?” I asked.
“You tell me,” she said, her voice muffled by her fingers.
“Well, you know …” I began.
Her head shot up. “Please don’t,” she snapped.
“You asked me to tell you. I’m just saying —”
“What are you saying?” She paused then continued, her voice rising, “No, what are you saying? That I have dementia?”
“No one’s saying you’re crazy,” I said, suddenly aware of how tight a space my kitchen was. “But everyone needs help once in a while. A lot has happened this past year — your new job and moving and whatnot. We can go see somebody.”
“You think everything’s a symptom of some disease,” she said, shaking her head. I didn’t. But I could tell this had little to do with me. “You’re a hypochondriac.”
“I’m just trying to help,” I said.
“By calling me a nutcase,” she said.
“A n-u-t-c-a-s-e,” I said softly. That got a chuckle out of her. It was a wet, tired sound.
She paused, looked straight ahead at the living room wall and removed the scrunchie from her hair. “I just need a break,” she said.
A few weeks later, summer began. We packed everything into the minivan. We stopped at a BestBuy, bought Elaine a new pair of earbuds and headed to the Resort.
Two suicides later, we’re still here.
I take one kid in each hand and walk with them to the beach. When we’re at Building K’s door, I remember there’s a RotSlow-soaked corpse by the pool. I turn and leave through the back entrance and we find the stone-lined road that leads to the beach.
“Is that man dead now?” Tonya asks.
I look at her and see her wiping a booger with a finger against her swimming suit. “Yes,” I say. “The man’s dead.”
“Why?” Kevin asks.
“Because people die sometimes.”
“Is he going to come back as a zombie?”
“What if he comes back as a zombie? Can I kill him like ZombieSniper?”
“He won’t come back as a zombie.”
“KILL their zombie bitch-asses!”
“Don’t say that.”
“Sorry,” he says before looking up at me again. “So he’s dead forever?”
“Why?” Tonya asks.
“Because everything that has a beginning has an end.”
“All things have an end — like play-time. You guys have play-time then bedtime, right? Life is like that. There’s lifetime then …”
“Dietime,” Kevin finishes, nodding solemnly.
“Why?” Tonya asks again.
“Because that’s the nature of the world, things are in a sort of continual decay and renewal and life kind of keeps going on despite —” then I look down at her and see her locking eyes with Kevin, both of them smiling. They start giggling, their cheeks reddening with glee.
“You’re funny, Daddy,” Tonya tells me, flashing me her cutest smile.
I sigh. “I know I am, baby.”
• • •
That night, I can’t sleep. I lay on one side then the other, stirring. I look at Elaine, sleeping next to me. Rays of moonlight bounce off her cheeks and her face takes on a light gray hue. Outside the window, stars glimmer in the spaces between two other Resort buildings. I think about the dead man two floors down. The image in my head is fully formed — the red swimming trunks, the halo of blood, the hair covering his chest and forming a trail to his bellybutton.
What will I look like after I die? I don’t know. What would happen to Tonya and Kevin? What if instead of me watching them grow, they watch me die? I don’t know. I don’t even know if I want to know. We are, together, heading into our deeply personal inevitabilities, orbiting a fiery rock of gas, speeding into endless space, travelling on the surface of a fragile, expanding balloon made of silence and darkness. We borrow these bodies that can breathe and love other breathing, loving bodies and then we have to give them back. Where will anyone be in a thousand years? Who knows! Elaine farts loudly, stirring in her sleep, the sound like a sad trombone. I smile, waiting for a smell but there is none.
I slide out of bed, put on a shirt and my brown cargos, slip into my shoes and head to check on the dead guy.
At the building’s door, I can already see the body, but it looks like there’s a stick coming out of it. When I get closer, I see the stick is the stem of a small weed that’s growing out from the man’s chest, its brown roots sprouting from right where his heart should be. The whole thing is about eleven inches long, with leaves the size of my palm and branches thin and dark green. From the tip of the stem, a human head has emerged. Aside from thin branches that wrap around the chin, the head’s face is exactly like the fallen man’s, down to the last freckle. Its eyelids are fluttering, as if dreaming.
I squat next to the body, study both faces. It smells like bad milk and chlorine. I cross my legs, shin over shin. There are small yellow lights in the pool nearby and the gentle sound of water hitting smooth blue walls.
The head’s eyes slowly open, pushing against a thick web of rheum, bored purple pupils beneath. I stand, my throat drying up.
“You’re alive?” I say to the head.
The head turns to me. Then it looks down at the dead man underneath it. “He doesn’t look well,” the head says. It sneezes before looking to me. “Do you want to know information about the musical Fiddler on the Roof?” it asks.
“Fiddler on the Roof? The musical? I’m a talking head, get it? I specialize in musicals.”
“No, I don’t,” I manage. “Do you know why you — why this man killed himself?”
“I only know musicals,” the head says. It sneezes again, this time spitting a ball of bright green phlegm at my feet. The head starts to gag. Its stem convulses, shaking a little. It coughs, spitting out a pair of red earbuds. I look at them for a second and they seem familiar. Even covered in saliva, the maroon cord and bright red earbuds are unmistakable — Elaine’s lost earbuds, the ones she thought her colleague Denise had stolen.
“Those are my wife’s earbuds,” I say.
“Pick them up,” the head says. “Go ahead.” I do as the head says.
“How did you get them?” I ask.
The head only snorts, looking at me as if I’m the one who just woke up out of a dead man’s corpse. “I don’t know how my insides work,” it says. Then it shuts its eyes and starts snoring.
When I’m back in the room, Elaine is sitting up, one elbow on the bed, legs under the covers. She squints at me as I stand in the doorway, as if I’m the strangest thing she’d ever seen.
“I’m going to lose my mind,” she whispers.
She doesn’t respond, just sits there staring at me. Then she turns, ducks under the covers and goes back to sleep.
• • •
The next morning Elaine pokes me in the shoulders and I wake as my phone announces, “New email.” Then it starts reading, “In light of recent events, the Resort’s Spiritual Services Office is now open for free consultations. Head to the office quarters to the right of the entrance to Beach Cuatro.”
I turn to Elaine, who’s next to me, watching the television on closed-captions. Subtitles read, “NEW ZOMBIESNIPER 4 FOR iOS AND ANDROID: NOW WITH FULLY CONSCIOUS ZOMBIE AI’s! KILL THEIR ‘ACTUAL’ ZOMBIE BITCH-ASSES!”
“Fucking ZombieSniper,” Elaine mutters, shaking her head.
“Do you want to check it out?” I ask.
“No, Spiritual Services.”
“Is it like a priest?”
“I don’t know.”
“I wouldn’t go if it’s a priest. Maybe if it’s a guru.”
“Like a yogi?”
“More a mindfulness expert? Someone with a college degree.” She turns to me. “You should meditate more.”
“You don’t even meditate that much.”
“I do,” she says. “Sometimes I do. You should meditate more.”
“You should bite me more,” I say and Elaine chortles, turning back to the closed captions.
“Did anything happen last night?” I ask.
She looks at me, quizzical. “What happened last night?” There’s no recognition in her voice.
“Nothing,” I lie. “I thought I heard a siren last night, wasn’t sure what it was.” I put my fingers against my pocket, feel the outline of Elaine’s earbuds.
“Well, it wasn’t an ambulance,” Elaine says. “That dead guy’s still there.”
“Maybe we should leave,” I say, “This is a strange place to vacation.”
Elaine puts a hand on my shoulder. “The kids are happy here, they like the beach. I like the vending machines that spit out pre-rolled joints. Cable isn’t too bad either. Why cut it short?”
I put both my palms against my eyelids and massage my forehead. Today, like every third day at the Resort, is a day we’ll jointly parent our kids. They wake up gradually: walking, groggily at first and then with more life, around the suite. Kevin stands by the kitchen table for a few seconds, stretching. Tonya goes and hugs Elaine then turns her back to her. I feel this deep ache in my chest — hollow, like I’m missing my family when they’re already here.
“Put my hair into braids,” Tonya says. Elaine does, patiently parting Tonya’s hair with her fingers then decorating her braids with black and yellow bows.
I look out the window. The body and its second head are still there. There’s a circle of onlookers around it now, old men with hairy backs dressed in speedos and an old lady in a pink one-piece and a bright green visor. The second head is awake, moving about its stem. I turn to Elaine and gesture for her to come over to the window. She stands by me and we both look down.
“Jesus fucking Christ,” Elaine whispers. “I didn’t notice that before.”
“Man grew a second head overnight,” I say.
Elaine shuts the drapes. We stand there for a second, looking at the pink and blue crisscrossing patterns of the drape’s fabric. “Just — let’s just go to the beach,” Elaine blurts out.
We dress the kids and head for the beach.
Before we get to the end of the stone-lined path to the beach, I see a sombrero-shaped wooden sign with blue writing that announces, “Spiritual Services This Way!” and I tell Elaine and the children to wait for me at the beach while I go check it out.
The Spiritual Services office is huge but spare with only a desk at the very end of the room. A teenage boy sits at the desk. As I get closer, I see that he is dressed in a white shirt, jeans with abrasions at the knees and red converse shoes. In front of him are a Bible, a bottle of Jergens and a tissue box. His face looks, strikingly, like mine when I was young. I sit on a chair in front of the desk.
“Hi,” he greets me. “How can I help you?”
I look from his pimply face to the bottle of Jergens then back to his face. “I’m John,” I say.
“Biblical name. How fun! I’m Spiritual Services,” he says. “Please take a seat.”
As I move closer, he moves the Jergens and tissue box aside. “How can I help you?”
There is a picture of a teen girl at the corner of his desk.
“Who is this?” I ask, pointing to the picture.
“This is Kaylee Henderson, my crush. She doesn’t really like me, I don’t think. But enough about me. John, what can I do for you?”
“I’m confused about the suicides.” I take the earbuds from my pocket, lay them on his desk. “And this? The dead man by the pool spat out a pair of earbuds that my wife had lost a few weeks ago, and not at this resort.”
“Explanation begets confusion.”
“I mean to say that all of us are confused, John, even the ones with the most concrete of explanations. Life can be very confusing.”
“Okay,” I say, absorbing this nothing of an answer. “But I thought you had some answers. Like why are people killing themselves in this resort? Why this resort? Why die by pools? And what’s with this head coming out of the man’s body?”
“Why why why,” Spiritual Services says. “I feel so exhausted for you.” Spiritual Services stretches his arms behind his back, locking his fingers together. “Do you think it matters?”
I stare at him for a second, trying to gauge if he means what he says.
“Yes,” I manage. “Of course it matters. People are killing themselves, second heads sprouting out of torsos. It’s not a very good look on this resort, to be honest.”
There’s a silence. Then Spiritual Services laughs. “So leave,” he says.
“You think I should leave the Resort?”
“I think you should consider it if you hate this place so much. Why should one stay in a place that one doesn’t like or understand very well?”
“My kids are happy here,” I start. “We’re on vacation.”
“Tonya and Kevin will be fine.”
That catches me by surprise, that he knows my kids’ names. “I’m sorry, Spiritual Services, how do you know my children’s names?”
“The Resort knows stuff about its guests,” he replies, flashing me a warm smile.
“Is the Resort itself pushing these people to kill themselves?” I ask.
Spiritual Services reaches for Elaine’s earbuds, squashes them into a ball and throws them down his mouth, the red cord and golden earbud plug slipping between his lips like a linguine string.
“The Resort isn’t doing anything, John,” he says, though now his voice sounds a lot like my own — thick and fully-grown. “It has guests. They do things like get tans or eat or kill themselves. Sometimes, like you, they ask questions. That’s what I’m here for. You’re here, too, though. I don’t think you really grasp what that means, how lucky you are. You. Are. Here.”
His eyes are glistening with tears. I get the strong sense that Spiritual Services doesn’t have any friends. He starts spelling it for me, “H-e-r-e. With your wife and your children and your little minivan. It’s important to remember this.”
He fiddles a little with the spout of the Jergens bottle then brings it to the foreground. I take that as my cue to leave. At the door, I turn to him. “You’re not a lot of help,” I say.
He shrugs. “I’m fifteen,” he says.
I get to the beach and find Elaine sitting on a lounge chair, her jaw tipped toward the sun. She tans well. I hear faint hip-hop coming out of her earbuds. I scan the top of her head to the tips of her toes.
“Honey?” I ask.
She takes an earbud out of her ear and looks at me, annoyed. “What?”
I smile at her. I’m tired. It washes over me like waves, this ancient confusion. “Nothing,” I say, and she puts the earbud back in.
My children wade in the water. Kevin builds a sandcastle that Tonya crushes with her tiny feet and then she rubs the sand all over her arms. They jump up and down, testing the different textures of sand under their toes — the wet sand near the water and the coarser stuff further away. Elaine fits little floaters around their arms with smiling piglets and grimacing potatoes. They stand still as Buddha statues as I lather sunscreen on their noses, then they take a bit of sunscreen and rub it on my forehead and giggle. They shriek in unfettered delight with every single wave that touches their feet. They seem to have no off-button, show no evidence of exhaustion; life greets them as it does its luckiest and newest inductees — with sand and water and sunlight and the promise of unending fun.
I call out to them, “Kevin, Tonya!”
They look my way and, when they see I have nothing to say, turn back to their lives. I blink and feel the sun warming my feet, the sea breeze brushing against the hair on my own warm shins. I put a finger to my wrist and feel my pulse — thank you thank you thank you thank you.
Copyright © 2021 by Hamdy Elgammal