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The Ocean Inside

The Ocean Inside

3.8 8
by Janna McMahan

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"A beautifully crafted, mesmerizing read which I highly recommend."
--Cassandra King, author of The Sunday Wife

Life changes in an instant. One day, Emmett and Lauren Sullivan's biggest worries revolve around the escalating taxes on their gorgeous Victorian beach house on Pawley's Island, South Carolina. The next, they're facing a devastating crisis.


"A beautifully crafted, mesmerizing read which I highly recommend."
--Cassandra King, author of The Sunday Wife

Life changes in an instant. One day, Emmett and Lauren Sullivan's biggest worries revolve around the escalating taxes on their gorgeous Victorian beach house on Pawley's Island, South Carolina. The next, they're facing a devastating crisis.

"It's impossible to not be touched by the honesty and courage the novel--and the author--portrays." --The Sun News (Myrtle Beach, SC)

Emmett and Lauren have always been a team, working together to raise their two daughters. But lately, with all their attention focused on nine-year-old Ainslie, they barely notice as their older daughter, Sloan, drifts further away from them and toward a reckless path that could tear their family apart. . .

"A thought-provoking story that will linger in the reader's imagination."
--The Free Lance-Star (Fredericksburg, VA)

"A vividly drawn love letter to coastal South Carolina. McMahan's descriptions of the Lowcountry and its unique climate and customs jump off the page."
--Publishers Weekly

"The story is gripping and the characters all too real."

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

McMahan's debut novel is a vividly drawn but uneven love letter to coastal South Carolina. Emmett and Lauren Sullivan's lifestyle has never matched their upper-crust neighbors', but they've been comfortable raising their daughters in their "money pit" of an ancestral home. Then their nine-year-old daughter, Ainslie, is stricken with a rare form of cancer, and the family is plunged into chaos. Suddenly Emmett is battling a recalcitrant insurance company; the stress of caring for a sick child full-time begins to take its toll on Lauren; and 18-year-old Sloan's college plans are in jeopardy. As the parents' financial and emotional problems consume the family, Sloan finds escape with a new boyfriend whose preppy good looks and moneyed charm mask a dangerous streak. McMahan's descriptions of the Lowcountry and its unique climate and customs jump off the page, but her characters and plot have trouble matching the wealth of scenery. There's emotional sincerity and depth, and ample talent for description and pacing, but the eventual payoff and resolution, though unconventional, falls slightly flat. (Apr.)

Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

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Read an Excerpt

The Ocean Inside

Copyright © 2009

Janna McMahan
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-7582-2197-1

Chapter One Night Swimming

Not halfway there and yet her shoulders tingled with fatigue. Going out was always a fight, the incoming Atlantic shoving her back, impeding her progress. Sloan swam slowly, methodically, one stroke following the next in perfect rhythm with a head turn and measured breath in between. Pier lights appeared from behind a jetty and she stopped, treading water, triangulating herself against the faint illumination of home.

An occasional figure moved on the beach, dark against the lights rising behind dunes. Tonight she hadn't worried that her mother might see her drop her clothes to the sand. Her parents were at a charity benefit in support of a cure for some disease or another. They were always attending these events even though her father grumbled. But her mother was poised for the next illness or disaster, always extending her checkbook to those less fortunate. Sloan had come to question her mother's commitment to these causes. Somehow, her actions appeared desperate at times rather than altruistic.

Her parents looked like old money when they left, Sloan's father in his worn tuxedo and her mother in a rose-colored dress, understated as always. A string of inherited pearls encircled her delicate neck. But her parents seemed somehow out of kilter in their evening attire with the summer sun bright on their shoulders. It was the gentleness of his hand against her back as he helped her into the car when only moments before they had argued. This particular argument was the same as always-money, work, the pressure of social obligations.

They seemed at a truce when they left. Sloan stood on the screened-in porch watching them pull away, the oyster-shell drive popping under the car's tires. Ocean breeze fingered her hair while a lump of dread formed in her stomach. Sloan had come to anticipate this emptiness, the sensation of a roller coaster hung at the bottom sweep of a drop, pressing down, never leveling out.

She was nearly ill with this sinking feeling at times, but she could never pinpoint why. Sometimes it didn't have anything to do with her parents or her SAT scores or even her total lack of social life. When that vacant sensation crawled in her stomach she gravitated to the beach. It was an odd impulse that had made her wade into the dark water the first time.

She hadn't meant to go so far. She knew better, but she walked forward into the waves until she was gently lifted, her tenuous connection with solid earth dissolved. She had floated there, her arms moving listlessly, barely enough to keep her head above soft swells, knowing an undertow could carry her to sea.

But she had sensed the tide was coming in and she had been correct on that all-important account. The current caught her up and swept her along parallel to the beach. At the northern tip of the island she was pushed inland where the water squeezed into the creek behind their home. There she was deposited on the steps of their dock as if the hand of a god had laid her there. She crawled into their barnacle-encrusted wooden boat. Like most everything else of value in their lives, the watercraft was inherited from her great-grandfather, a once regal thing grown shabby under her father's watch.

Stars had been distinct that moonless night as she tiptoed down the dry planks of the slender walk from the dock. Palmetto fronds clacked and marsh grass shushed as she sneaked toward her back door. Inside, her parents dozed on the sofa, a movie playing soft blue against their faces.

She had remained careful since then, checking the weathered tide chart on the storage shed door to make sure of the water's movement before she ventured into the surf-a calculated risk. She was a strong swimmer. Her mother had made sure of that, hauling Sloan and her little sister to lessons at the YMCA for years, until Sloan had flatly refused to go another chlorine-stinging lap.

Her mother would have a meltdown if she knew Sloan was out at night, swimming into the distance, leaving her younger sister alone in the house. She'd be grounded for a month if discovered, perhaps for the rest of the school year. Still, Sloan craved the heart-pounding adrenaline from this secret endeavor, a feeling far preferable to the palpitations of anxiety and dread that came upon her so naturally. She felt wild and independent knowing she could slowly drift to the black below or be attacked by a rogue shark. Everyone would wonder what had happened to her. Was she kidnapped? A runaway? There would be headlines in the Pawleys Island Gazette-"Local teen disappears, worst feared."

Gauging her level of exhaustion as moderate, Sloan started toward shore. She'd make it. She always did. Today was not her day to die. She struggled on. The journey back was always easier, as if the world were behind her pushing her home.

Twenty minutes later her feet found sandy purchase and she stumbled onto the beach so limp it was impossible for her to feel any emotion, except perhaps relief that she had survived once again.

Soreness would grip her muscles the next few days, a constant reminder of her triumph over the abyss, over exhaustion, over herself. Her mother would comment that her moody nature had ebbed. Her grades would improve. She would be at peace for a time.

It was not the death-defying act that buoyed her but the clandestine nature of it that was her companion. I have a secret, she would think to herself over the next few weeks when she quarreled with her mother or struggled with calculus. I'm strong. I'm a survivor.

Chapter Two Island Life

Emmett Sullivan pressed open the hatch to the widow's walk atop his house. His golf shirt billowed in the rush of salty air as he climbed the last few ladder rungs and stepped into a 360-degree view. The Atlantic tumbled in on the east side of the island. To the west, the creek was placid, the marsh grass still and straight. Only a cat's-paw ripple in the channel betrayed the current below where the incoming tide married the creek. Here at the northern tip, a wide sandbar tightly packed with cordgrass squeezed the channel more narrow each year. It was healthy compared to the southern end, where the clockwise motion of the Atlantic chewed away the island's sandy fringe and depleted the creek.

Emmett scanned the beach for his daughters' bright bathing suits. They were in their usual spot, away from the grip of undertow between islands but close enough to be seen from the widow's walk.

He clicked the walkie-talkie. "Sloan, it's Dad."

One of the tiny people on the sand below moved. A moment later, he heard his older daughter's bored tone crackle to life in his hand.

"Yeah, I'm here."

"Your mother says it's time to come in."

Sloan motioned to Ainslie and began cramming things into a bag. Ainslie, true to form, ignored her sister, enthralled with something in a tidepool, probably crab holes or a starfish. Emmett knew how things would transpire. Ainslie would ignore her sister. Sloan would practically drag her to the house. Later, Sloan would let her mother know, in that universal sardonic teenager tone, how much she hated having to baby-sit, AGAIN.

The girls trudged back, lugging buckets and bags. Sloan wore her straw hat and Jackie-O glasses. She was no doubt slathered from head to toe in sunscreen in her battle to stave the freckles that sprinkled her mother's skin. Then there was Ainslie, his sun-drop baby, all nut brown skin, dark eyes and hair just like Emmett's before the gray invaded. Emmett could relate to his nine-year-old's desire to stay out all day. His own childhood had been spent in similar pursuits on this island, he and his brothers wading tidal creeks and crawling sand dunes from first light to dark.

The girls left the hard-packed beach for the loose sand of a path that snaked between dunes. The sand pulled at their steps, their flip-flops kicking up sprays of granules behind them. They worked their way through gnarled cedars, a stand of only a dozen or so trees. When he was a boy, this island had been thick with cedars, low-slung and hardy from weathering storms. Emmett and his brothers hacked through them, cleared secret rooms in their dense branches.

Their mother banished them from the house each day until supper, so Emmett followed Rick and Judd around the island. They rode bikes the three miles down to the public beach at the island's southern end where new, pale girls in bikinis appeared each week. They hung out with locals who leaned over the creek bridge, fishing poles tailing line into rippled waters, buckets and coolers smelly with flounder and spot. At low tide, the boys dug oysters and clams. They came home with split fingers and a sack of jagged bivalves.

They shed their cut-off high-tops in a muddy heap outside, hung their stinky shirts and shorts on the clothesline and showered in the changing area under the house. The shower stung their skin with sweet prickles of pain and washed rank pluff in a gurgle down the drain. They ran up the back stairs in the buff, their mother snapping a tea towel at their bare bottoms as they streaked through the kitchen. A few days later their clothes would appear, fragrant and folded, in their chests of drawers.

Emmett often lamented that his girls would never know the luxury of being kicked out and free to roam. Lauren kept a close eye on them-they were never unaccounted for, never left to their own meanderings, particularly Ainslie, who was still a baby in so many ways. But Ainslie was tough, athletic, and energetic. Emmett wished Lauren would let her join the other kids who explored the island on bikes and slender scooters. Often Emmett thought Ainslie should have been born a boy; perhaps then her mother might have cut her some slack. But to Lauren, girls were supposed to be pink bows, tea parties, and piano recitals.

Poor Lauren had struck out with both girls in that respect. Where Ainslie was rambunctious, Sloan was introverted and somewhat dark of nature. She had inherited his family's artistic talents but also a more brooding, sensitive side that was puzzling. Sometimes when Sloan would give him a certain look Emmett could see contempt, so bald and honest it seared his soul. She apparently found him incompetent, but then the girl would roll her eyes and he would convince himself it was only puberty talking.

He could feel the girls rattle into the house, but up this high, wind smothered most of their noise. He sensed water running in their bathroom beneath him. He reclined against the bench and scanned the horizon of startling orange burn pooling over the mainland, its reflection quivering in the creek. Out to sea, the sky was licked with lavender like the heavens of a Renaissance painting.

"Want some company?" Lauren appeared at the hatch. Wind whipped her blonde bob in a frenzied dance. She held a glass in both hands. "I come bearing gifts."

"Please join me."

He took the gin and tonics from her outstretched hands. She climbed up and slid onto the bench opposite him.

"I assume Ainslie's in the bath." He sipped his drink, and the distinct taste of juniper and lime tingled his nose.

"Sloan's supposed to be helping her wash up, but I heard the TV on. I think they're watching Titanic for the forty-fifth time," she said and sighed dramatically. "It's pretty up here tonight."

"We always have the best sunsets in the fall."

"Have you heard when they're going to start dredging the creek?"

"Spring, I hope. The channel has to be opened up again or we won't be able to get the boat out."

"Mom?" Sloan's frustrated voice floated up to them.

"What now?" Lauren leaned over the opening and yelled, "I'll be down in a minute." Then to Emmett she said, "Well, I guess I need to go stir the soup anyway."

"What are we having?"

"She crab."

"My favorite."

Lauren backed down the ladder, grasping the rungs with one hand while she balanced her drink in the other.

Emmett sucked down the rest of his cocktail and tossed the ice cubes onto the sharply pitched roof. He watched as they rolled down and bounced off where the curlicued façade poked above the gabled roofline of his funny house, the only Victorian on Pawleys. When his grandfather built it in the 1920s, locals had hated the giant burgundy, blue, and green house. Now it was considered a landmark, a house locals advised tourists not to miss.

Emmett Layton Sullivan Sr. bought this northern part of the island as a family get-a-way and erected an exact replica of his house on Cape May. Shortly thereafter, Victorians started popping up in nearby Georgetown, but there was never another frosted cake house on the island. The houses served as the logo for his grandfather's company, Painted Lady Greeting Cards. His brother Judd lived in the New Jersey house now and was CEO of the company. Rick was their lawyer and CFO. But Emmett Layton Sullivan III had stayed behind, married a Lowcountry girl, become a landscape architect. Along with his brothers, Emmett had inherited this house. His end of the deal was upkeep and taxes, both of which escalated each year. Lauren had been so enamored of the house that Emmett continued to tease her that she'd married him for real estate. They had both envisioned the many rooms overflowing with a large family. But now their home was a money pit, a hulking house of deterioration that would have served a larger family well, but which seemed empty with only their two children padding the halls.

Emmett backed down the ladder and pulled the hatch closed with a final swish of air. Before he could get it latched Ainslie was calling for him, drawing her words out long and pleading, "Daaaadeeee. Daaaadeeee."

He pressed his palm against a bumper sticker on her bedroom door that read, Lights out! Turtles dig the dark.

"Watch out. Here I come," he said in a low growl. He pushed the door ajar and stomped into her room. Ainslie squealed and jerked away from Sloan, who was struggling to pull pajamas over her sister's wet legs. Posters of frogs, snakes, and butterflies were stuck at odd angles along the walls. An entire bookcase was given over to prized seashells, contorted driftwood, and smelly bits of coral. Ocean musk came from the bank of aquariums housing the luckless creatures Ainslie plucked from the beach.

"You do this, Dad. I can't get her to sit still," Sloan said. "She's old enough to put on her own p.j.s anyway. Y'all just baby her."

"Go on. I'll take care of her." Emmett raised his arms over his head and swayed into the room like Frankenstein. "Get those pajamas on. I'm the daddy monster who gobbles up little girls who don't have on pajamas. Aarrgghhh!"

"Oh, no. Oh, no." Ainslie jerked on the damp pajama bottoms. "I'm done! I'm good! You can't eat me!"

"No?" He stopped and turned his head as if thinking. "But I'm still hungry. Maybe I'll just GOBBLE YOU UP ANYWAY!" He stomped to the bed, grabbed her ankles, and dragged her toward him.

"No, Daddy! Don't eat me." She gasped around gulps of laughter. "Don't!"

He buried his face in her soft tummy. "Yum. Yum. Yum."

"I'm not sweet! I'm not!"

"Yum. Yum. Yum."

Emmett stopped. Ainslie was still slick from her bath and Emmett's fingers moved smoothly over her abdomen. He could discern a distinct mass below her ribcage.

"Ainslie, does this hurt?"

"Get me, Daddy!"

"No. Stop a minute. This spot right here. Does it hurt?" She calmed and laid back. "No."

"How long has this been here?"

"I don't know. Get me, Daddy."

"Stay right there." He walked to the top landing of the stairs and yelled down for Lauren.

"What?" she called up.

"I need you to look at something on Ainslie."

She came to the bottom of the stairs, a tea towel in her hands.

"What is it?"

"Did you know she has a lump in her stomach?"

"No." Lauren's forehead wrinkled. She draped the towel over the banister and took the stairs two at a time. Ainslie lay still, her arms above her head, her top bunched up against her neck. Her innocent eyes moved from her mother's face to her father's and back as they poked her stomach.

"Right here," he said, moving his fingers over the firm lump.

Lauren touched her gingerly. Her eyes focused on the spot. "Ainslie, how long has this been here?"

"I don't know."

"Does it hurt?"


Lauren pulled the pajama top down slowly and said in a forced, cheerful voice, "You hungry, baby?"

"Yes! Yes!" Ainslie said. "I'm starving."

"Good. Go tell your sister it's time to eat."

Ainslie bounced off the bed and ran into her sister's room.

"What is it?" Emmett whispered.

"I don't know. You get on the Internet and see what you can find. I'll call the doctor's office and leave a message. I'm taking her in first thing in the morning."


Excerpted from The Ocean Inside by JANNA McMAHAN Copyright © 2009 by Janna McMahan. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

A Kentucky native, Janna McMahan now lives in South Carolina with her husband and daughter. Her debut novel, Calling Home, received high praise for both style and substance from critics and readers alike. It has been written that Janna, "gracefully walks the tightrope of being both literary and commercial." Her short fiction has received numerous awards including the Imaginative Writing Award from the Kentucky Women Writers Conference, the South Carolina Fiction Project and the Piccolo Spoleto Fiction Open. Janna's fiction has also been in published in numerous literary journals including Wind, Limestone, Yamassee, Alimentum and The Nantahala Review. Her non-fiction appears frequently in magazines and online.

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Ocean Inside 3.9 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 8 reviews.
harstan More than 1 year ago
On Pawley's Island, South Carolina, Emmet and Lauren Sullivan raise their two children in a wonder loving home. However, their idyllic lifestyle takes a horrific blow when their youngest daughter nine years old Ainslie becomes critically ill. Emmet and Lauren try their best not to neglect their teenage older daughter Sloan, but cannot help their focus has to be on Ainslie. Sloan feels increasingly like an intruder filled with anger, resentment and remorse as even their grandparents ignore her while taking a zillion photos of her ailing sibling. She begins to turn to reckless actions like swimming in the ocean at night alone and falling for her boyfriend Cal's pressure in order to gain some attention from her parents. THE OCEAN INSIDE is a profound look at what happens to internal relationships when a trauma crashes the lives of a happy seemingly well balanced family. The Sullivan foursome is fully developed with each having a unique personality so that the audience can see how they react differently to Ainslie's health crisis. Lauren dives into charities; Emmett worries about paying medical bills; Sloan feels deserted; and Ainslie turns reflective as she knows how her sister, her parents, and the islanders feel. Janna McMahan provides a thoughtful contemporary tale that will leave her readers pondering how we would act. Harriet Klausner
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Amanda Pennington More than 1 year ago
I couldnt put this book down. I loved it...especially since im a south carolina native!