Haunted Castles of the Barrier Islands
In October, Darryl and Cheryl drove all the way from Argyle, N.C., to the coast to surprise their daughter, Misti, who was a freshman at UNC-Wilmington, on her 19th birthday. They found Misti locked in her dorm room -- dressed, but flushed and disheveled -- with a scrawny wannabe surfer named Kyle. Kyle wore temporarily indecent board shorts and a T-shirt with "F**K**U" printed across the front. His hair was meant to look casually windblown, an illusion spoiled by the mousse holding it in place. By the time he took hold of Darryl's thumb and said, "W'sup, dude," Darryl hated him thoroughly. He wanted to yank Kyle's horny, pimpled little heart out of his chest and shake it at him before cramming it down his throat. Instead he said, "Nice asterisks, Slick." (Darryl had randomly selected "Slick" from a list of diminutions that included "Buddy," "Chief" and "Sport.") Kyle blinked and let go of Darryl's thumb. He either didn't know what an asterisk was or couldn't believe that Misti's dad had just called him "Slick." Misti looked panic-stricken and tried to catch Kyle's eye. Cheryl touched Darryl's arm and said, "Darryl." Kyle said, "Yo, Mist. I'll check you later," without looking again at any of them. Darryl said, "What's your hurry, Chief?" Then they took Misti out to supper.
Along a four-lane strip of car dealerships, big-box stores and Mexican groceries, Misti picked a seafood place ringed by a moat of empty parking spaces. Its only virtue seemed to be that it was a long way from campus. "Sweetie, I was hoping that maybe we could go someplace nice, on the water," Cheryl said. (Cheryl idealized the ocean the way mountain people often do: She said she never got tired looking at it, but had never looked at it enough to know if that statement was actually true.) "You can't get into those places on Friday nights unless you have a reservation," Misti said. "And I gather you didn't make a reservation." Her phone beeped, and she tapped out a long text message while Darryl and Cheryl gnawed on breadsticks and watched. She snapped the phone shut and propped it carefully against her water glass, where she glanced at it every few seconds.
"Who was that?" Cheryl asked, pleasantly enough, trying to make conversation.
"Oh, that was just my friend," Misti said, almost biting off the 'f.' "You know. Slick."
Darryl excused himself and went to the restroom, where he stomped to death a truculent, tidewater cockroach. He thought about leaving the carcass on the floor for the next diner to see, but calling Kyle both "Slick" and "Chief" had depleted his limited reservoir of vindictiveness. So he picked it up with a wad of toilet paper and commended it to the deep.
They had Misti back in her room by 8. She said she was going out for her birthday with her friends and had to get ready. Darryl wanted to ask her just what, exactly, "going out" meant -- turning 19 in North Carolina didn't make you legal to go anyplace Darryl would have considered "out" -- but he kept his mouth shut. Back at the hotel, Cheryl halfheartedly suggested they order a dirty movie, but Darryl watched a documentary about the haunted castles of Scotland until Cheryl went to sleep. The next morning, Misti agreed to accompany them to brunch (strip mall, pancakes, no view of the water), but the whole time she glared at them from beneath the tunneled visor of a baseball cap. They wanted to take her somewhere fun for the day (The beach? The aquarium? Had she seen the USS North Carolina yet?), but she said she had to study for a lab on Monday and waved at them from behind the glass doors of her dormitory. Darryl hadn't slept well the night before -- he had dreamed he was trapped inside a haunted castle in Scotland -- and said he didn't feel like driving all the way back home. Cheryl suggested they head up the coast, take their time, see the Outer Banks. (They had recently sold the Daily Argus, the newspaper they published in Argyle, to a syndicate out of Ohio. They had time and money enough to do whatever they wanted.) Though both of them had lived in North Carolina all their lives, neither had been to the Outer Banks. Nags Head was so hard to get to from Argyle, it might as well have been in England. They sat in the car and looked at a map. "What do those little red dots mean?" Darryl asked. He needed new bifocals and couldn't read the print.
Cheryl squinted. "Ferries," she said. "They mean you have to take ferries."
Darryl scratched his head. He didn't know anything about ferries.
"Oh, come on," Cheryl said. "I'll drive the car onto the damn boats if you don't want to."
Darryl started the engine.
They had barely cleared Wrightsville Beach when Cheryl began to cry. Darryl wanted to cry, too, but he was driving the car. He felt like he had woken up to discover someone had cut out a vital organ while he slept; inside his chest ached a black wound where his little girl used to live. Sure, he and Cheryl had suffered when they dropped Misti off at school in August, but that day Misti had clung to them and sobbed and said going to school so far away was a huge mistake, she was so sorry, she didn't want to be a marine biologist anyway, and could she please go back home with them. They had held her and stroked her hair and whispered, Shh, shh, oh Sweetie, don't cry, everything's going to be fine, you're going to love it down here, just you wait, you've always been good at science. And even though they had left Misti standing in the dorm parking lot with her hands clamped over her mouth and they had both fallen apart as soon as Misti was out of sight, she had still been theirs. Now, suddenly, she wasn't -- or at least it felt that way. In her room, Misti had looked at Kyle the same way she had looked at Darryl when, as a toddler, she hadn't been able to get toilet training quite right. They never said one cross to word to Misti about the accidents -- not even when she smeared poop all the way down the Playland slide at McDonald's -- but she had been terrified of disappointing them, anyway. Now, she didn't want to disappoint Kyle. Kyle was 130 pounds of unoriginal persona and indiscriminate sperm cells, and Misti had known him -- what -- a month? Darryl had loved Misti her whole life.
That day, they made it only as far as Morehead City. (Nags Head, they discovered, is hard to get to even when you start in Wilmington.) They turned off the highway and started toward Atlantic Beach to look for a room, but the maze of T-shirt stores and miniature golf courses and go-kart tracks discouraged them before they reached the ocean. They returned to the highway and checked into a squat, modern, misnamed bunker of a motel called the Swashbuckler's Galleon. Darryl flipped the TV to the haunted castle channel (that night it was England) while Cheryl took a shower. When Cheryl's shower stretched past 10 minutes, Darryl knew that she would come out of the bathroom wrapped in a towel, her teeth brushed, her hair smelling of strawberries, expecting him to have sex with her. Sex was how Cheryl dealt with stress and crisis. She said that nothing cleared the fog out of her brain better. But Darryl didn't want to swab out Cheryl's brain. He resented her expecting him to. He wasn't on call. He didn't do command performances. Touching Cheryl was the last thing he wanted to do. In fact, he might never touch her again. A small, unvoiced part of him had always been a little appalled by sex with Cheryl -- the low-rent lack of reserve, the hirsute, musky ripeness of her body, the porn-star exhortations and curses. Sometimes she was simply too much. All the Swashbucklers in the Galleon would have been able to hear her when the fog started to break.