“Better Homes” by Emily Temple
A story about building castles and fortifying against time
AN INTRODUCTION BY JANE ALISON
What could have spawned Emily Temple’s strange, seductive story about a woman, sand, and a building competition in California, “the Sandcastle Experience”? A proverb like AMan’sHomeIsHisCastle, but feminist and then gleefully demolished? Or David Markson’s lonely woman, perhaps the last woman in the world, haunting a beach in New England, lighting fires and peeing in the dunes? Or the image of a forlorn girl who’s been turned into a heifer (we’re in Ovid country now), printing her name in the sand with a hoof so that someone might know who she is? Or, maybe, maybe, the idea of sand trickling through an hourglass, but this hourglass is a woman’s body, once so desirable but now — not so much?
All of these figments might have been cavorting through the curious brain-caves of the endlessly inventive Emily Temple. She lures the innocent reader into her tale with the promise of sunny seaside fun: we will watch a woman compete in a contest to build the best and most durable sandcastle. Ah, process, creativity — a Project Runway kind of tale! We learn the rules of the game, we meet a few fellow contestants, we watch our Builder set to work like an industrious spider, and we begin to learn some secrets about this odd woman in whose head and sandy body we’ve camped. What sort of person, after all, suspends real life to spend days, a week, maybe more, who knows, acting like a large maddened child on the beach?
Grain by grain we learn why building a castle means so much to this woman, why winning this contest — winning, frankly, anything — is so horribly important. Grain by slipping grain we are led inside this mazy woman to a place that is ever more worrisome, until at last the maze is turned inside out, its sad female monster laid bare. With “Better Homes,” Emily Temple gives us a thoroughly modern tale but one that has its grim roots in tales of princesses, witches, homes, monsters, and men: indeed, Temple’s heroine might be all of these things. Like all true fairytales, this story has dark pith at its core. But this is a new world we are in, and our heroine, fierce spider, will build again.
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“Better Homes” by Emily Temple
My plot is about halfway down the beach, counting from where it turns into that sort of sandy marsh at the north end, and close to the access road that leads into town. The beach is more than a mile long, maybe even two miles, and it’s covered with plots like mine. I’m lucky: I’ve got a good spot; there’s even a little shade. Not everyone gets shade, and it can really be a lifesaver, especially in these early stages, when you’ve got nothing to lean against and no place to hide and the California sun just keeps on galloping down your neck. The man in the plot to my right has even more shade than I do, but the woman in the plot to my left (this is left and right when facing the water, of course) has zero. So I’m feeling pretty good.
I’ve seen the man before, at last year’s competition. I don’t know his name, but I remember the castle he built, huge and smooth like a skull, with a narrow hole in the crown, just big enough for him and his necessities. I heard he lasted a long time. I wave to him as I measure out my plot in paces. He waves back. He’s not handsome, but there’s something about his wide, clear face, sand-colored itself, that I find appealing. He’s pacing too, and we must look strange, taking wide parallel steps and waving to one another. Like queens. But these early decisions are crucial: set your foundation too close to the water, and it’ll be washed away like that. Set it too close to the rocks, and you’re dealing with the stiff slope of the beach, the coarser sand, and the high winds, not to mention longer toting distances. You have to find the perfect balance. Which I do. I draw a line in the sand with my toe. Then I unpack my backpack and line up my tools along the toe mark: shovel, bucket, spade, and the biggest palette knife I could find at the art-supply store down the street from my new apartment. The rest of my supplies I leave in my backpack in the pool of shade.
The woman on my left does not respond to my wave. She is pacing quickly, measuring tape flipping around, all her other supplies strapped tight to her body with fancy Velcro straps and harnesses. Her brown hair is sleek and shiny, and she keeps reaching up as if to tuck it behind her ears, finding it untuckable (that is, already tucked), and then going back to work with extra ferocity. This woman means business. I’ll have to keep an eye on her. I grab my bucket and head down to the water.
Everyone builds sandcastles as a child. Even I did, though I didn’t see a real beach until I was an adult. I always loved sand, though. I used to sit in the community sandbox down the street from our crooked little duplex for hours, turning a cracked plastic cup over and over to make towers, digging out windows and outlining bricks with a dead pen my mother had given me to play with. Or maybe we had found it there, buried. I can’t remember. I do remember my mother watching me while I worked, sitting on a peeling park bench, smoking a cigarette. Once, I picked a lipsticked butt out of the sandbox, waddled over, and climbed up next to her on the bench, copying her movements. It took her several minutes to notice me and knock the sandy cigarette out of my mouth. She didn’t say anything, or gasp in disgust, or even sigh. She recrossed her ankles and tapped out some ash.
When you grow up, you stop building sandcastles, of course. Unless you don’t. Unless you discover a talent for it, or at least a passion. If you don’t want to give up your sandcastles, you become a Builder.
Most of the time, that doesn’t mean much. You have a particular affinity for beaches, maybe. You spend hours playing in the sand with your kids, or your sister’s kids, or your neighbor’s kids, or whatever kids you can find lying around. You take a pottery class, and all of your pots end up with spires and draw-bridges. You get into sand art. You move to Florida. It depends on your temperament, really. But once a year, there’s a competition for all the Builders in the country, or at least all the Builders who can get to this particular stretch of beach in California. It’s called the Sandcastle Experience.
Honestly, I felt grateful to get the invitation this year. I hardly get any mail anymore, and I didn’t know if the organizers had my new address. But somehow that intrepid little card made it to my mailbox, and I knew that it meant that this was the year I was going to win.
Here are the rules: Everyone is randomly assigned a plot. No switching. You are allowed one medium-sized backpack — they have a sizer at registration, like the ones for carry-on luggage at the airport — which must contain all of your tools, food, water, and whatever other niceties you think you need to survive. You have twenty-four hours to build your sandcastle, during which no one else may enter your plot for any reason. After that, it’s simple: the last castle standing wins. If you are inside your sandcastle, no one (except the sea, or the wind, or other external forces such as God or coyotes) can knock it down. If you are not inside your sandcastle, your sandcastle is open to attack. You may, of course, defend your castle if you are not inside it (and to be clear: “inside” means “enclosed within” — Dadaists take note: even if you have an army of disconnected walls scattered around your plot, it doesn’t count). When your castle is knocked down, you are out. You are not allowed to use any mixers (cement, tar, egg whites) in your sand to increase the strength of your castle walls. Also, no guns. I heard that one year some guy built himself a thick brick of sand and just camped out inside of it with a sniper rifle. Most people were happy to walk away once they saw that, but there were six dead, in the end. After that they added the “no guns” part.
There are different strategies. Some Builders swear by simplicity: four ultrathick walls and nothing else. Their packs are filled only with food and fresh water. Some people spend all their time building moats threaded with wooden spikes to keep out would-be attackers. Some are in it for the design aspect, the challenge of building something extravagant and beautiful in just twenty-four hours, and they go big with the drawbridges and barbicans. Some try to use that beauty to their advantage. This one guy, two years ago, built his sandcastle in the shape of an enormous pair of praying hands, big enough that he could fit between the palms. The hands were amazingly detailed: they had fingernails, and knuckles, and even little errant hairs. One hand had a long scar down its side. The other had a constellation of freckles. I like to think that when the man was inside, he was reading the creases of the giant hands’ palms. I like to think that he gave whoever it was a good, long lifeline. He counted a bit too much on other people’s respect for his castle’s religious overtones, though. When he went to refill his water bottle at the gas station across the street from the beach, his neighbors dusted it.
Me, I’m not too big on the religious overtones or extravagant curlicues (or not anymore, anyway). My plan is to go simple, but with some frill so it’s clear I’m not just one of those survivalists who don’t even care about making their castle look like a castle, who just want to wait everyone else out without really participating. One way or another, those people tend to get eliminated pretty quickly.
This is my third Experience. The first year, it was just for fun. My husband and daughter came to California with me, watched me build and took pictures inside the castle I built. There’s one — of my daughter holding up a spade, grinning, her ponytail dipped in sand, while my husband tries to wipe his hands clean in the background — that I just love. I’m not in any of the pictures, of course. I was always the one taking them. That year, after I’d stuck it out for a couple nights, a respectable length of time, I collected my gear, abandoned my post, and treated my family to a huge pasta dinner at a little Italian restaurant across town from the beach. I’m sure my castle was knocked down within the hour, but I didn’t mind. I didn’t even go back to check.
Last year, they didn’t come. Last year, the Experience was held the same week my daughter left for college, which she did with more of her things than I thought possible and with a promise to not ever come home for the holidays. This was, incidentally, also around the time my husband left me for — get this — a much older woman. She’s a paleontologist. He finds her distinguished. So perhaps you won’t judge me when I say that I can barely remember last year’s Experience. I admit it: I was a wreck. I think after I’d blown my nose on everything that wasn’t covered in sand, I just wandered off looking for tissues and/or whiskey and got eliminated that way. But this year will be different. I’ve had enough of losing.
There’s no official information about what you get if you win the Experience. I’ve heard they give you an actual castle of your own, somewhere in New Zealand or rural France, and your property taxes are paid every year by everyone else’s exorbitant entry fees. But that’s just a rumor. After the closing ceremony, which very few people are usually around to see, no one ever really hears from the winner again. Probably on account of his or her life being completely changed by all that money and happiness.
One year, the winner was a woman who built a tiny castle, the size of a tennis ball, and actually kind of the shape of a tennis ball, too: just a mound of sand hastily pulled together, with a toothpick flag stuck in the top. She hid the castle under her bucket and left her tools scattered everywhere, so that when other Builders came marauding, looking for castles to tear down, it looked like she was out and they ignored her plot completely. The woman wandered around for a week, waiting for other people to sneak out of their castles so she could knock them down. Finally, after she razed a fortress (it could have fit a family of four) whose owner was out desperately looking for the other holdout on the empty beach, she was declared the winner. She’s not back this year. I heard her parents’ home, somewhere in Pasadena, burned down under suspicious circumstances.
I begin by tracing the shape of my castle in the sand. It’ll be a sort of squat square, with rounded edges and, if I have time, some nice battlements. Nothing fancy. It’s boring, but I’m trying to maximize my chances. I build the sea-facing wall first, tiring out my legs going up and down the beach to get the good, wet sand. It takes a long time. My legs burn. Note for next year: incorporate hills into my daily run. (Unless next year I find myself living in a castle in New Zealand, in which case there will be no running of any kind.) For a while, I keep pace with the guy on my right. We chat as we carry our buckets of sand. His name is Leonard. It’s his sixth year in the contest. Last year, he confirms, he got pretty far.
“What’s your secret?” I ask him.
He tries to wink, but he’s panting a little from hauling sand, so he ends up looking sort of like he got caught in the middle of a sneeze. It’s cute.
The woman on my other side does not respond to my polite greetings or questions. She is methodical, almost robotic. All her tools are brand new and have matching sky blue handles; she is also wearing new boots. Most people, including me, go barefoot in the sand, both for the comfort and for the nostalgia factor, but I can see how the boots give her extra traction walking up and down the beach to the water. I picture her home, which must be spotless, her children, who must sit all in a line on her couch in identical sweaters, raising their hands when they have something to contribute to the conversation. Her children would never leave her. They’re far too polite.
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To be clear: it’s not that my daughter isn’t polite. She’s plenty polite to other people; she must be, or she wouldn’t have gotten anywhere in life (and she’s a neuroscience major at a fancy school, so). But she was never polite to me, even as a little girl. It was always about her daddy. She forgave him everything: when he missed her soccer games, when he forgot about her choral concerts. When he drank so much he passed out at the dinner table, one ear sunk into his coconut cream pie. Even when he slept with one of her teachers — her math teacher, a prim woman who was, now that I think about it, also older than me — she cried and cried but called him at the hotel every night so he wouldn’t feel alone. (He wasn’t, of course, alone.) I’m sure he told her it was all my fault. That I hadn’t loved him right, that I had driven him into the arms of another — that old story. She forgave him. She got an A in math, which was not her best subject, and after that she forgave her teacher too. But me? Nothing I do is forgiven. When they finally left, my daughter told me I was a monster. My husband told me I was disgusting. People in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones, I told them, but they didn’t seem to know what I was talking about. I guess my daughter’s precious father never taught her about proverbs.
By the ten-hour mark, I’ve built two walls: the seaward wall and one sidewall. I’ve left the wall toward Leonard open. I feel more comfortable about the idea of him watching me sleep than the woman. She’s someone my husband would probably want to fuck. When we still lived together, he constantly admonished me for my messiness, my laziness, my lack of matching tools. He likes order, refinement. Maybe he’s even slept with her already. But I think that about everyone now.
When I’m spent, I lie down on the little bed I’ve made from the driest sand I could find (you think sand is soft until you try to sleep on it) and sink my face into the inflatable pillow I brought in my backpack. I have to force myself to eat a granola bar before I fall asleep. I’m nervous, and I never want to eat when I’m nervous. I set my watch to wake me up in six hours exactly. I have a lot of work left to do, but I’ve seen what happens to people who don’t sleep in the first twenty-four hours. I won’t take any chances.
At hour twenty, my shovel breaks. The handle snaps clean off. I still have half a wall to build, and now all I have to work with is a sharp-edged metal pan and a wooden stake. I could slay a vampire or, I don’t know, enter a discus-throwing contest, but I can’t finish my sandcastle. I can’t help it: I start crying. The woman to my left looks over and frowns. I wave again, even through my tears, because screw her. She turns her back to me. She’s putting the finishing touches on what looks like a smaller version of a tower that might hold some kind of crooning, follically blessed princess. She’s even outlined bricks the way I used to when I was a child.
“Hey,” Leonard says from my other side. “Yikes.”
“Don’t mind me,” I say, waving the pieces of my shovel at him. “Just another loser, here.”
Leonard disappears into his egg-shaped castle for a moment (this time, he’s put the entrance at the bottom so it looks a bit like a tall yurt) and then pops back out again. He waves a shovel like a flag. It’s not the one he’s been using; this one’s red. “You want?” he says.
“Are you serious?” I say.
Leonard shrugs. I hear the woman on my left clear her throat dramatically, but I don’t turn to look at her.
“It’s not the best,” he says. He walks up to the edge of his plot and sticks the shovel in the sand on my side. I come forward and pick it up. There’s a crack in the handle, and it wobbles a bit, but it’s a whole shovel.
“This is really nice,” I say.
“It’s extra,” he says.
“But you didn’t have to,” I say.
“It’s no big deal,” he says. He looks less tired today. His egg-yurt is mostly done, so it looks like he’ll have time before the next stage to cross the road and get extra supplies from the gas station, if it hasn’t been completely cleaned out by the survivalists.
I thank him again and then we stand around smiling at each other for a few seconds, neither of us sure what to say, until he shrugs, turns, and goes back to work. I do the same, filling in the final piece that will make my sandcastle a viable building and not just a series of packed lumps waiting to be kicked apart, but I keep looking up to see where Leonard is. I want to wave my new shovel in the unnamed woman’s face, but I don’t have the time to spare. It’s hour twenty-three when I finish. I’ve left a small hole in the back wall for a door, but otherwise I am completely enclosed in my castle. I get to work on the battlements. They’re just for show, but they make my castle look more like a castle, and I’m feeling pleased with my new shovel and also with myself for having finished in time. I look over at my neighbors: Leonard, back from the gas station with a few bruised bags of Flamin’ Hot Funyuns, is drizzling water over his perfect egg to cement the outside. The woman is already sitting in the top of her tower. She has little windows built in, and through them I can see the curve of her brown head, but nothing of her face.
The second day is quiet. No one in my line of sight down the beach leaves his sandcastle. Most people have brought enough supplies that they’re still comfortable, or as comfortable as they can be, and the weather is holding, so there’s no real reason to even try to sneak out, other than boredom. To that end, Leonard and I have discovered that we can talk to each other quite easily while remaining safe in our castles, me resting my chin on one of the little indents I carved out, him just sort of yelling from inside his egg. He tells me he’s a widower with two sons in the army and that he lives on a little plot of land in Atascadero with an old basset hound named Bongo and six chickens.
“Ah,” I say. “Hence the egg.”
“It’s one of the strongest shapes around,” he says. “That and the female body.”
“I don’t know about that,” I say.
“That’s normal,” he says. “But I’ve got a feeling about you.”
A thin laugh spools from the tower on my left, and I realize with a jolt that of course the woman can hear us. The piled sand had given me a sense of privacy, like a cell phone held to your ear in public. I feel my face get hot.
Leonard doesn’t notice the laughter. He asks me about my daughter. What he actually says is “That strong body of yours has given birth, I’ll bet.”
“She’s a smart girl,” I say. “She’s majoring in neuroscience.” I don’t tell him that I haven’t spoken to her in almost a year, or that I actually have no idea what she’s majoring in now, because no matter who picks up when I call her school, they won’t release any information about a student without that student’s consent. I don’t tell him that the last time I saw my daughter, she was sitting in my husband’s car, refusing to look out the window at me, while he told me about the papers I could expect to receive and what I ought to do with them. Even when I pressed myself against the glass and said her name over and over again, smearing up the window with my lipstick, she wouldn’t look.
“You must be a wonderful mother,” he says.
I start to cry again. At least this time no one can see me through all the sand.
That night, Leonard slips through the makeshift doorway in my castle wall. I hear him coming and sit up.
“Hi,” he says.
“Hi.” I’m wearing a purple flannel nightgown that’s seen better days. It gets cold at night on the beach, but any sleepwear gets, as you might imagine, more or less completely ruined in the sand. He’s wearing a ratty sweatshirt that says YUKON on the front and a pair of baggy sweatpants that say SYRACUSE down the leg, so I don’t feel so bad.
Leonard comes over to where I’m sitting. He has to sort of scootch/crawl because the walls of my castle aren’t very high and he doesn’t want to be seen.
“I couldn’t sleep,” he says.
“Why not?” I ask.
“I was thinking about you.”
“Thinking what?” I ask, although I think I know.
“I want to know all your secrets,” Leonard says.
“I don’t have any,” I say. “I am secretless.”
Leonard smiles, as if I am a naughty child caught in an obvious lie. “You remind me of something,” he says. He puts his hand on my breast.
“Something like what?” I whisper. He kneads my breast thoughtfully. It’s the left one, the smaller one. I wish he had chosen the right. My nipple stands up inside my nightgown.
He is quiet for a long time, kneading. I have to work hard to keep from breaking the silence.
At last, he says: “Home.”
I sit back a little bit. Then I reach down, pull off my underwear, and spread my legs wide.
I wake in the morning to the sound of Leonard’s screaming. I’m curled up, the way I always used to sleep with my husband, only of course my husband is not there and I’m covered in sand. Leonard stamps a foot and more of it flies into my face.
“You bitch,” he says. “You stupid whore.”
I sit up. “What?” I’m hurt, and a little sore from the sex, and I’m starting to think there’s some sand up inside me, and now there’s sand in my eye.
Leonard kicks more sand at me, then leaps away. I look around and see, through my battlements, that his beautiful egg is nowhere to be seen.
“I can’t believe I fell for this,” Leonard says. He picks up his cracked shovel and shakes it at me. I don’t point out that it was he who offered me the shovel, not to mention came into my sandcastle all on his own in the middle of the night and started in on the sweet talk and fondling. Instead, I just stare at him.
Leonard crouches to leave my castle, but then suddenly rights himself. He turns and looks at me. Then he spits in my direction. The spit doesn’t get far because he’s a little dehydrated, like all of us, and as I’d recently discovered, he has only average tongue strength, but I still understand the message and feel wounded.
“I take it back,” Leonard says. “All of it.” Then he whips around and crashes straight through the doorway without ducking, in fact swinging his reclaimed shovel, taking half of the back wall down with him.
I jump up, all insult and soreness forgotten. “Cheater!” I yell. “Cheater!”
Leonard begins to kick at the crumbling wall. “Oh yeah?” he shrieks. There’s more yelling and swearing and name-calling, but his voice soon thickens to a clod in my ears, and I can’t differentiate one word from another. He sounds like my husband, only less so, because he doesn’t know which words will hurt me most. It’s during this torrent of abuse that the Castle Guards appear, wearing their bright blue T-shirts and plastic helmets. The shorter of the two has one of those decorative broom things sticking out of the top of his helmet, like a Roman soldier, and it’s bright red. Everybody knows the Guards have Tasers in their scabbards.
“Plot 83?” says the broom-headed Guard. “You’re out.”
“Also, illegal destruction, two counts,” says the other. “Destruction while occupied and destruction after elimination.” He’s writing this, or something, anyway, down on a little pink pad.
“You’re going to have to come talk to the eligibility council,” Broom-head says. “And you better come along right now. You’re definitely going to be facing a fine. And this could bar you from participating next year.”
The other guard is now taking photos of my destroyed wall. “Big, big fine,” he says, as though he finds the idea sexy.
“This is horseshit,” Leonard says. “It was her fault!”
The Castle Guards shrug. “You know the rules, Leonard. Now come with us.”
After Leonard and the Guards disappear behind a dune, I notice the woman in the tower staring at me. I wave. She raises her eyebrows at me and gives me a weird sort of smile. I almost give her the finger because, again, screw her, but I don’t. I might not want to make any more enemies just yet.
I spend the rest of the day repairing my wall. You’d think the Guards would grant me some special dispensation or something, but they don’t return, so I make certain to stay inside of the structure as I’m working. I want to ask the woman to keep watch while I get the wet sand from the water line, but I don’t trust her. Instead, I dig a hole. It’s hard work without a shovel, and by the time I hit moisture my hands are red and raw and I’m bleeding from somewhere underneath my fingernails. But I don’t care. I repair my wall from this new well of wet sand, slathering it on and packing it together, making it even better than it was before. I’ve already had to move once this year. I won’t let another home get destroyed.
After the third night, people begin getting bolder. Most of the Builders who came only to show off their construction skills or build their art portfolios or meet other Builders and have weird sand-fetishist mermaid sex have been eliminated — they’ve carefully photographed their castles for posterity and walked down the beach to stretch their legs and admire everyone else’s work and maybe find some good shawarma and then come back to empty plots. As they knew they would. They don’t care. They’re just like I was my first year. They all have real homes to return to. But the rest of us are getting antsy. Most of those people won’t be back, anyway. You could say that they’re in the Experience for the experience. The Builders who come back year after year, who need it, who feel more accepted, more normal on this stretch of beach than they do anywhere else, or who just want their escape from the world to last forever — those are the people who really belong here. And if you belong, it’s more likely that you’ll last.
Now I can see people sneaking up and down the beach, looking for unoccupied castles to ransack. I wonder where their own castles are. It should be obvious by now that if you go out to destroy someone else’s castle, you’re leaving your own undefended. Unless you’ve worked out some kind of system, of course. I’ve heard some people put knives in their moats. I’ve heard some castles are booby-trapped. I don’t have a system. I still have some food left, so I’m staying put. I figure, why not wait for everyone else to fight it out for a little while?
“Hello,” someone says. It’s the woman. She’s standing on the edge of her plot, looking at me through the battlements.
“Getting interesting out there,” she says.
“I call it stage three,” she says.
“Have you gotten this far before?” I ask.
“We should team up now,” she says. “We’re more likely to survive stage three if we team up. One of us can run interference while the other goes destroying.”
“How can one person guard two castles?” I ask.
She smiles. “Mostly by trickery,” she says.
I look over my shoulder at Leonard’s empty plot.
“You might prefer that kind of teaming up,” she says, following my gaze. “But I’m afraid that’s not really on offer. Mostly because it never works.” She has a smug little smile on her face. I notice suddenly that she still looks completely clean. There’s no sand in her hair or mashed into her knees, and her manicure is still in place. She might as well be sitting in her living room at home, waiting patiently for a set of illustrious guests to arrive. She has that vibe.
“I prefer to go it alone,” I say. “But thanks.”
“Don’t be stupid,” the woman says. “They go for the castles that look easy to knock down first.”
“Yours looks easier than mine,” I say, without knowing if this is true.
The woman snorts but quickly collects herself. “Fine,” she says. She climbs back into her tower.
That night, I decide I’m tired of waiting. The woman to my left is still in her tower, apparently asleep — I can just barely see her ponytailed head through the little window — so I sneak out. Leonard took his cracked shovel with him when he left, and so I bring the pieces of my old one, which are better than nothing. I clutch the broken handle in my hand as if it were capable of emitting light. On the other side of Leonard’s plot, an old man sits in a little square castle, barely wider than a telephone booth but with a pretty peaked roof, holding a camp flashlight under his chin. Move along, his face tells me. I force myself not to look back at my now-unguarded home, so as not to give anything away. Not home. Castle. I keep moving.
Farther down the beach, I find what I’ve been looking for: a castle that seems unoccupied. I approach it warily. It is small and bowl-shaped, with a circular opening at the back. Inside I find the typical backpack full of clothes and supplies, plus a pink blanket, a pillow, and a little battery-operated clock radio. Someone has painted little hearts and stars on the clock radio in glow-in-the-dark paint. I can imagine it: mother and daughter painting the little hearts and stars together, then turning out the lights and going ooooooo. It’s love, this little clock radio. I throw my body against the back wall of the castle. It doesn’t budge. I back up a few steps, treading sand all over the pink blanket. Then I run again, and this time I break through the wall, landing hard on my shoulder on the other side. After that, it’s an easy task to dismantle the castle. I am like a whirlwind, with the slice of metal in one hand and the stake in the other. I am like death.
When the curved walls are completely decimated, reduced to little piles of loose sand, I take one final look. Somewhere in the process, I’ve stepped on the clock radio, and I can see its weird metal guts poking out into the sand. It’s bad form to destroy a fellow Builder’s personal belongings in the process of attacking their castle, but it’s recognized that it happens. I feel a little sorry. Then I stomp on the clock radio again and again and again, grinding it into the sand.
I run back to my own castle, lungs raw. It might be over for me now. I’ve been gone for a while. But when I get there, I see that it’s still standing, and the relief I feel is like dropping into a bath. Or like coming home. This could be my new home, I think. My husband took my home away, and not only my home, but my house too, claiming that having bought it meant it belonged to him. But he didn’t even live in it. He just cleaned it top to bottom, threw out everything that had been mine, and then sold it to the first person to make an offer. I wrote an anonymous letter telling the buyer all about the asbestos, the leaky roof. I got a letter back, from my husband’s lawyer, but I didn’t open it.
On the afternoon of the sixth day, I’m lying on my back inside my sandcastle, watching clouds. Once or twice, sand-covered people poke their heads over the walls to see if anyone is inside. I wave at them, and they go away. The clouds are moving quickly, and they seem to be changing color, gaining weight and darkness, though it can’t be later than two. No, it’s not just the clouds. It’s the whole sky that’s getting murky. At first I think I’m just falling asleep, or maybe passing out — I’ve been rationing the hell out of my water — but then I hear what is unmistakably the screech of a megaphone. Castle Guards begin walking up and down the beach, informing us of the THUNDERSTORM WARNING. COMPETITION IS SUSPENDED UNTIL FURTHER NOTICE. PLEASE MEET AT THE SAFETY POINT.
Panic pinches me. I have no idea how my castle will fare in a downpour. Better than those intricate confections some people make, probably, but what if it’s completely washed away? What if all the castles are completely washed away? What will happen then? I gather my things as well as I can while keeping one eye on the clouds, which at this point might as well have glowing red eyes and outstretched claws and be calling out my name. Before I leave, I nestle my bucket upright in the sand, to catch myself some extra drinking water. Do I congratulate myself for this foresight? I do indeed.
The safety point is a high school gym located a few streets inland from the beach’s midpoint, as fair a location as possible, we were all assured, but still a significant distance from my plot. As I walk away, I can see for the first time the spread of remaining castles, and the many blank spaces where castles used to be, like a long row of brown teeth — once strong and now rotting, knocked out and broken. There must have been more than two hundred castles at the beginning, and from what I can see now, it looks like less than a third are left. Other Builders are walking toward the safety point too, but no one speaks, or even gets within range of speech, except one group I see far ahead of me, who seem to be walking together and talking, even laughing and touching one another. I realize I might have waited for the woman on my left, looked for her, walked with her. She wanted to be my teammate, after all. But still, it seems better this way, just moving silently forward through the sand to the place where they’ll tell us what to do next.
The gym is small and dingy; I can only imagine what the high school it belongs to must be like. Then again, everyone’s high school experiences are small and dingy, once you get a little distance. There’s a big red M painted on the floor of the gym, along with thick curving lines that undoubtedly have meaning to those who watch basketball. One of the hoops has no net. Blank pennants hang on the walls: the students here have not won very many state championships, except for Girls’ Lacrosse ’04, which is something, at least. My heart fills for Girls’ Lacrosse ’04. The bleachers have been pulled out from the wall, and there are rickety tables set up in the middle of the room with what looks like bug juice and little packets of snacks in little plastic bags: one per person. Castle Guards tick your name off on a little sheet when you collect your food, so it’s fair to everyone. I get my juice and snack pack and, feeling like a fourth grader, find a spot on the bleachers to wait out the storm.
The last time I was in a room like this, my daughter was in eighth grade, putting on a Christmas pageant. I remember they had all the kids walk in with penlights clutched below their chins, singing a song: It is better to light just one little candle than to stumble in the dark. I thought it was ludicrous at the time, all those kids walking toe to heel like brides, singing a repetitive and obviously metaphorical song, but now I’m tearing up just thinking about it.
The gym begins to fill with people. By the first crack of thunder, there are some seventy Builders milling around, talking, eating, or napping, and I’m surprised to see that we’re actually a pretty diverse group. There are, perhaps, slightly more men than women, but the ages and races and sizes vary wildly, from the short, fat black teenager flirting for extra juice to the old, translucent woman hovering under the netless basketball hoop, looking up at it, or maybe through it, as though it’s going to hand something down to her. One man has curled himself into a ball in a corner. Two women are sitting back-to-back on the bleachers, spades out, alert to attack, even here. A middle-aged man with a rapidly deflating paunch is crying in the middle of the room, even though two women, equally middle-aged, are vigorously rubbing their breasts against him, petting his wispy hair, and making cooing sounds. Lots of people are sitting alone, but lots of people are also talking to one another, just socializing, perhaps, or maybe making deals, plans, pacts. I should, I think, join them.
But I don’t move. It’s not that I’m afraid to talk to people. I’m not. People like me. Or, I should say, they like me at first. It’s around month six that something sours. That’s when people seem to decide they’ve made a mistake. It’s not something I understand; I feel like I’m the same person at month six as I am at month zero, but the pattern is unmistakable. I tend to get fired after half a year at any job. Other women decide they’re allergic to my perfume, nothing to be done, it’s really too bad, sorry! Even the Korean pen pal I had in the third grade gave up on me after a few months. (That or she died. I never found out.) I saw it happen to my husband, saw the love drain out of him, almost immediately after we were married, even as I loved him harder and harder. But I was pregnant, and he was stuck, and he stayed for a long time. I guess that makes him a good man.
I used to torture myself, trying to figure out what it is that people dislike about me. But I suppose most of what we feel about other people, good or bad, can’t be explained. It’s chemical, or subconscious. Maybe it really is my perfume. Now, I feel lucky. Some people don’t even get those six months of like-ability. A lot of those people are, from the look of things, here in this gym.
“You know Aaron Spencer?” I overhear a muscular woman say to a small group. “Well, Mark and Frank and Michaela snuck up on him last night and began to tease him about his divorce. Apparently after only ten minutes Aaron came storming out of his castle to punch Frank in the face, and that’s how they got his castle down.”
“Isn’t Michaela out?” someone asks.
“Oh yeah,” the woman says. “She’s been out for days. But there are no rules saying you can’t hang around with your friends while they compete, as long as you don’t actually help in the destruction. You can say whatever you want. And you know how mean Michaela gets, especially after she loses. Remember last year, when she lured Camilla out of that monstrous castle by just mentioning her son who overdosed?” There is general laughter and head nodding. Part of me longs to join this group, to smile and snicker with them, to be part of them. Isn’t that why we’re all invited to the Experience? Because we share something, because we’re the same? But just looking at the talking woman, with her sharp smile and calloused hands, makes me tired. If, as I am starting to believe, the Experience is the final vestige of the rejected, the stunted, the cruel, the absurd, then joining her hyena pack would mark me irrevocably as one of them. But I am not one of them. I am a winner.
I see the woman who has the plot to my left over by the basketball hoop. She’s conferring with a group of four men with their backs to me, all in tight black shirts. I wave. She ignores me.
Thunder booms overhead. A fight has broken out on the other side of the gym. Two men are silently pushing each other up against the red mats that line the far wall. I can only hear their outbreaths and see their bodies mashing together; from a distance, they might be fucking, or hugging each other through abject despair, or both. Their faces are as red as the mats, but their expressions are somehow serene. A pair of Castle Guards power walk past me to break it up.
“None of these lunatics should ever be allowed out in public,” I hear one mutter to the other.
“At least they have each other,” says his friend. I wonder: Is that what we have?
Around ten o’clock, the Castle Guards declare the thunderstorm threat passed, and we’re given half an hour to resituate ourselves in our castles before play resumes. I look for my neighbor and see her ahead of me, walking briskly back to her tower. The black-shirted men are nowhere to be seen, so I hustle to catch up.
“Hey,” I say.
“Oh,” she says. “You.”
We power walk in silence for a while.
“So who were those guys you were talking to in the gym?” I ask finally. “Your friends?”
She scoffs. “Entirely not,” she says. “Just colleagues.”
“Where are you from?” I ask.
“Do you have kids?”
“Look,” she says, without slowing her pace. “You had your chance to team up.”
“I’m just talking.”
“I’m just walking,” she says, and then she stops walking. “Yes!” she hisses. I follow her gaze and see her tower, still standing. My castle is standing too. “It looks like the storm missed us,” she says. This, I think, is the nicest thing she has yet said to me.
“Thank God,” I say.
“Don’t be stupid.” She rolls her eyes and disappears into her tower. She’s right, though, about the storm. The bucket I left to catch rainwater is empty, and so, nearly, is my water bottle. I probably should have saved some of that bug juice.
At the ten-day mark, I am severely dehydrated. I haven’t had the strength to go out and attack any more castles, or to do much of anything. I can only sit between my four sand walls to thwart those who now roam in packs up and down the beach. The woman in the tower seems to have the same strategy as I do. I try to talk to her, calling up to her in her tower, but she ignores me.
I can’t see any castles except for my own and the woman’s, but I think there must be more still standing around the bend of the beach. I eat the last bit of food I have, an apple that’s so red it looks like it must be evil. I wipe it off, of course, but the sand still squeaks in my teeth.
Maybe it’s a day later or maybe it’s a week. Whenever it is, it seems as though I’ve been in my castle for an uncountable number of days, an uncountable number of hours, when my neighbor approaches, seemingly from the water, as if she’s been birthed there. She even looks wet. Like a Bond girl, you know? I’m having a hard time standing up, but I call out to her.
“Woman on my left,” I say. My voice is all sandy. “Ahoy.”
“Come out,” she says.
I don’t know what she means. “Have I won?” I manage. “Have I won yet?”
She says nothing. I wonder what she’s doing out of her tower. I look up at it blearily and can still see the shape of her head through her little sand window, leaning against the wall as if in sleep.
The woman has followed my gaze and is now smiling toothily.
“How are you here?” I demand. “I can see your head up there.”
“I told you, the only way to win is by trickery,” she says. So she hasn’t been ignoring me. At least not every time.
“You’re smart,” I say. “But I’m going to win.”
“You’ve already won,” she says. “So come out.”
I’ve won! But where are the Castle Guards, coming to give me my prize? It doesn’t matter, I think. They must be on their way.
I look around my castle. I don’t want to leave. I could just stay here, prize or no.
“I won’t come out,” I say. “I live here now. This is my home.” The woman scowls at me and then disappears. Aha, I think.
But then I see Leonard, my Leonard, bent down and smiling at me through the door of my castle. He reaches one large hand toward me.
“I’m sorry about before,” Leonard says. “I was a fool.”
“Yes,” I say.
“Come watch the sunset with me,” he says. “We can live here forever. You and me.”
“Did I win?” I ask.
Leonard smiles. “Almost,” he says. “Come on.”
So I take his hand. As we walk toward the water, I notice his black T-shirt, and the black T-shirts of the other men who have appeared silently around me.
“Wait,” I say. I turn, but the woman on my left has already begun. I try to go back, to stop her, but suddenly I feel myself held down, pressed into the sand by eight strong hands, all applied carefully to chaste body parts — knee, shoulder, head — so I can’t complain about harassment, and then the woman proceeds to take my castle down, piece by piece. Leonard pets my hair, makes soothing sounds. The woman slices through my battlements with her knife. She punches through my walls. She looks wild, and finally dirty, and thick with passion and anger. She looks, suddenly, just like me. I lie on the sand, under so much polite weight, captured, held, cradled safely between man and sand, waiting for it to be over, so I can start again.