He lay his head against the back of the seat, his hat on his knee, and lightly scraped the texture of the armrest with his fingers. Though he was relaxed, the extent to which he had to stretch to hold that position made him look a little awkward, his wiry frame trying desperately to take up more space than it physically could.
Figures in minimal clothing slid silently by.
“May I roll down the window?”
“The air conditioner is on.”
He scratched the plastic texture some more, rubbing it with his fingertips.
“You know what, go ahead. It’s not like I’m trying to conserve fuel in this thing.”
Warm, salty air tossed the boy’s hair about.
“Me too! Me too, Dad!”
The girl met her father’s gaze in the rearview mirror.
“Sure thing, beautiful.” Both of the back windows came down. She clapped her hands. The cotton gloves she wore muffled the sound.
“How long are we staying here?” He looked over at his father.
“Two days. Why, got a date this weekend?”
“Yeah, I thought we’d chill out around here for a couple of days and then head down to Disneyworld for the rest of the time.”
The pelicans hovered, dipped suddenly, and climbed again into the sky.
“So you’re an atheist, right, Dad?”
“I suppose so. The exact term might be agnostic.”
“Mom believes in God, you know.”
“Oh, do I know.”
“She wants me and Ella to join her church.”
“Well, I’m not going to stop you, but I would rather you didn’t.”
“I know they teach you to do good and be good, but don’t you already know all of that?”
“Well, I guess all I have to say about that is that you shouldn’t do it unless you really believe in it.”
“But you think it’s all fake, right?”
He adjusted his sunglasses. “Yeah, I think it’s fake. Just a way to control people and take their money for nothing. But if you’re going to waste your time and money, I suppose most people do that anyway, and there are worse ways of doing it.”
He regarded his son. “Do you believe in God?”
“Sometimes I think so.”
“Well, I suppose I wonder about it sometimes too. Just don’t let it interfere with your real life, though, I guess.”
He looked back at his daughter again.
“Ella, are you ready to make castles?”
“Yes, Daddy! I love castles!”
“Well, good! We’re almost to the resort.”
Riley liked going out with the kids regardless of the situation, but he especially liked taking them to the beach. Thin beauties were always curious about this dark, chiseled man with two cute kids and no woman to speak of. He got a few looks while he laid out the towels and set up the umbrella.
Ella ran out to the water and almost lost her balance when the waves swept up around her knees. She laughed and kicked water into the air.
“Do you like the beach, Ella?”
“I love the beach!”
“What are you now?”
“I’m a mermaid!”
“What kind of mermaid?”
“A princess mermaid!”
Riley laughed as he opened the green canvas sack and pulled out various buckets, shovels, molds, and other implements vital to a master sandcastle builder. He sat down by his son under the umbrella and lay back on his elbows.
“Your sister has quite the imagination. I love it.”
“Yeah, she tells me all sorts of stories.”
Adam lifted a handful of sand and let it fall as if it were in an hourglass.
“So what if God does exist?”
“Are we still on that?”
“Yeah. What if God exists? I mean, when it comes to believing in God, you have nothing to lose and everything to gain, right?”
“I believe that line of reasoning is called Pascal’s Wager, and it has two flaws. First, people have a lot to lose by wasting their lives believing in God. Second, God doesn’t exist. So the whole discussion is pointless anyway.”
“Studies show that people who believe in God are happier.”
“Or they say they’re happier than they truly are because religion programs them to do so out of guilt.”
“Yeah, I guess that’s a possibility.”
Ella skipped back up toward them and started cheerfully rattling through the buckets, molds, and shovels. She immediately started filling the buckets with sand and packing it tightly. The wind pushed down on the brim of the hat that protected her face and neck from the painful rays of the sun. The skin there was red and tight, with splotches of white.
“Look, Adam, I’ve never been one to shove my worldview down other people’s throats, but if you really want to know how I feel, I’m going to tell you. Everyone knows what it means to be a decent human being. If a man needs some belief in an Eternal Master of Warm Apple Pie to motivate himself into doing what he already knows he should do, that just shows he’s weak. And on top of that, he opens himself to all sorts of ways in which he can be manipulated.”
Riley watched as his daughter began to place parapets, keeps, and walls for her castle. She worked quickly, humming all the time. He could already see the sand getting stuck in her gloves and sleeves. They had brought extras, but he generally tried to avoid changing her clothes as much as possible, as it was always painful for her.
“What kind of castle are you building, gorgeous?”
“A princess castle. I’m the princess.”
“What are you princess of?”
“Well, good! It’s a good place to be princess of.”
Laughing, Riley raised his eyes toward the shore. Among the bathers and sunbathers, a dark figure walked down the water’s edge, his eyes cast listlessly upon the ground. He was a black man with a haggard and graying beard, and he carried three plastic bags, one filled with soda cans, another with plastic bottles, and a third with glass bottles. His T-shirt and jeans had holes in them, and his archaic Reeboks slid awkwardly over the water-packed sand. He was muttering to himself, and he carried a metal cane that he did not seem to need.
“Now how did he get here?” Riley looked around. “I thought the resort kept this beach secluded.”
The old man raised his eyes to meet Riley’s gaze, and his lips stopped moving for a moment. Riley looked at his daughter again. The sandcastle was looking amazing now: three levels of pressed sand now towered over the beach, with a little plastic flag sticking out of the top and crenellations cut into the top edge of everything.
“Be smart, Adam.” He looked over at his son, who had now reclined and closed his eyes. “That’s the bottom line. I’m a prime example of how people don’t need to believe in God to be happy. Everything you need for happiness is right in front of you. You just have to be willing to seize it, and you can’t do that unless you see the world for what it is. Don’t believe in things that don’t exist. Believing in something untrue never helped anyone do anything.”
Ella had run back toward him and taken hold of his arm. Riley looked over to see the muttering man bearing down on them purposefully, his cane swinging above him in the air. On his feet in an instant, Riley pulled his daughter around behind him, and his mind flashed back to the krav maga classes he had taken a year before.
The muttering man stopped at the sandcastle and pummeled it with his cane. He shuffled his feet angrily and brought down the rest.
“No castles! No fairytales! No kings and queens! Just sand! Just silicon and dirt! Just nothing!” After spitting on the razed structure, he turned and walked away just as quickly as he had come.
“What the hell?” shouted Riley. “What’s wrong with you?”
“Nothing! Nothing at all! Just sand and dirt and dust and water! It’s all nothing!”
Riley shook his head. “Crazy old man.”