|(Prior to release of this story, a hurricane named Charley was coincidentally stirring off the west coast of Florida. The Charley herein refers to a hurricane that had swept through in 1986. - Editor)|
harley begins like most hurricanes, an embryonic swirl of white clouds inching across TV weather maps. He sprouts from the gulf as a tropical depression just west of Tampa then rolls east across Florida, barely disrupting beach-going traffic along the way. Once free of land, he blossoms, first swelling to a tropical storm, and then, gathering speed and fury, he surges up the coast toward the unsuspecting Carolinas.
It is August of 1986, and residents of Coastal Carolina are inured to storm warnings. The year prior, when the much-hyped Gloria threatened the shore, Ocracoke Island was evacuated. But Gloria shifted course and missed Ocracoke altogether. Now, as tourists cut their vacations short and flee to the mainland by ferry, residents lounge on their porches, kicking back with beers in hand and feet propped up in a posture that says this, at worst, will be a temporary inconvenience; at best, entertainment. They don’t yet know that Charley will cause $15 million in damages and claim five lives.
In the late morning hours a preternatural quiet overtakes the island, replacing the usual background chirping and buzzing. Ten-year-old Justin creeps along a forest path, sneaking like a thief. Usually he kicks his way through the soft matting of dry leaves, grubs in the soil for insects, or uses fallen branches as swords, striking them against sturdy trunks. But today he steps lightly, and the noise of crunching twigs and pine needles underfoot seems all the more magnified by his attempt at silence.
A light breeze whispers through the forest, creating a gentle murmur of rustling leaves. Justin tunes it out, along with his footsteps and hushed breaths, focusing on the sound he’s been tracking all month—a distant hubbub punctuated by intermittent peals of laughter. He weaves around towering pines and tilting cypresses, steps over the mossy remains of moldering timber, and ducks the low-hanging branches of live oaks. Soon the sound of crashing surf mixes with the light-hearted noise. The yipping chorus grows more discernible until finally, when the trail widens out to a sandy clearing, distinct words separate from the garbled chatter.
Justin leaves the path and crouches behind a final stand of cedar. Even with his face buried in the conifer’s bristling boughs, he smells smoke and the salty scent of seawater. Beyond the trees, a large bonfire billows in the center of a curving ribbon of sand and pebbles, and past that, waves crash in a small inlet. Logs pop and crackle in the flames, launching occasional cinders and earning delighted whoops from half a dozen teenagers—an equal number of boys and girls—who circle the fire.
Two girls in bright neon bikinis and another in a black one-piece sprawl on the dun sand, watch the boys, and giggle. Two guys, bare-chested and wearing OP trunks, toss a football in a game of keep-away while a third, in frayed cutoff jean-shorts, charges back and forth between them. Justin watches from his safe distance, knowing not to intrude. He’s too young and, though he’s lived here since May, an outsider as well.
One day, a month before school let out, his mom told him to pack up his things, and they drove down to Ocracoke Island that very night. She calls it a vacation, though Justin knows better. He tries not to think about why they came here, but at night, when his mom coughs and cries herself to sleep, he can’t help it. At those times, he pictures a hulking beast stalking his mother, a bull-sized creature with a devil’s head, snorting just outside his window, waiting for him to drift asleep so it can slip inside. He tries to force it from his thoughts, but the harder he wishes it away, the more real it becomes.
During the first two months on the island, Justin slept little and plodded through their cabin in a foggy haze. It wasn’t until he started trailing these youths that he found something else for his mind to focus on at night—imagining himself as one of them, taking part in their summer escapades.
His gaze drifts upward and he notices that the sky has grown darker, looking bruised and swollen. A mountain of gray clouds fills the horizon and rolls toward him. Justin takes a deep breath, and a shudder passes through him. The air tastes thick, like syrup.
A banshee wail erupts from the clearing and Justin looks across just in time to see one of the boys leap through the fire. The boy turns back around to face his friends, thumping his chest and yelping in delight. “All right. All fucking right!” He dances in a circle, pumps his hands in the air, then turns and wiggles his butt at the girls. They giggle and the middle girl, a slender redhead who is the tallest of the three, calls out, “Woo hoo, shake it baby!” The other two, positioned at her side as usual, squeeze the redhead’s arms and laugh.
Justin knew the first time he saw them that the redhead was their leader. That day, she slid a purple wildflower behind her ear and moments later the other two were searching for one of their own. The redhead waited for them to catch up with her latest whim, picking at a nail to bide her time while her girlfriends riffled through the timothy. She possessed an air of royalty and Justin knew, right then, that no matter what she asked of her girlfriends, they would obey her. Whenever the redhead dreams up some new stunt, the blonde always replies, “No way,” but she never means it. It’s simply routine; the others always follow her lead.
Justin understands following—following, blending, fitting in. You can be wrong if you make a decision, but by following what is already acceptable you will always be right. Though Justin loves the vibrant green and yellow walls in his bedroom, he opts to wear less conspicuous colors outside. His wardrobe is a collection of blue and beige solid prints bought at The GAP. He rarely wears new T-shirts out of the house, waiting instead for them to dull from repeated washings.
Blending in seems to be the brunette’s philosophy as well, and seeing her in the group gives Justin hope. It makes him think he might one day be able to join them. Demure in manner with short-cropped hair, the brunette smiles and giggles at jokes, but never gives a full-bodied cackle. Of the three girls, her figure is the most developed, yet she is the one wearing the one-piece—a black spandex thing that hugs her neck like a wetsuit. She probably chose it out of modesty, but Justin prefers to think of it as a minor rebellion—her one choice that doesn’t mimic the redhead.
The redhead opens a purple backpack and removes a dark brown bottle, smirking as she gives it a few shakes. “Time to party,” she says. Justin mouths the words, “No Way,” just as the blonde says the same thing. The redhead pours from the bottle into a large plastic cup then tops it off with soda. After a few sips, she passes it around the circle. The last boy in line finishes the cup with a few gulps, lets out a whoop, then cries, “Hell yeah.” He runs into the water and the two boys quickly follow.
The girls stand and the redhead takes off her top, shooting it at the other two like a rubber band before rushing into the water. The brunette’s mouth forms a shocked, O, and her eyes get wide. The blonde hesitates a moment, eyes flitting back and forth between the running redhead and the stunned brunette. But then she laughs and tosses her top onto the sand as well. Her tan is darker than the redhead’s and the milky white skin stands out as more of a contrast.
Blood rushes to Justin’s face and he instinctively lowers his head. When he peeks up to watch the girls running into the surf, he still sees the afterimage of those naked breasts. His racing heart starts to slow down as they dive into the water and bob up a moment later.
The six kids bounce on the rolling waves and all of them scream out together, “All fucking right!” Justin closes his eyes and imagines that they’re cheering him as he jumps through the bonfire. He feels the searing heat for just a moment before landing on the other side, senses the congratulatory slaps on his back, and smiles.
Then all at once, the rain starts, a hard sprinkling on his upturned face. He opens his eyes and remembers the warning to be home before the storm hits. Out in the water, the three girls swarm one of the boys, trying to dunk him, while the other two boys fight to pry them loose. Justin turns away and retreats down the path, the cheers fading with every step, drowned out by the patter of raindrops on leaves.
Rain soaks Justin as soon as he emerges from the woods, and he slogs along the winding Lighthouse Road, staying on the shoulder to gain some protection from the nearby trees. Farther along, high tide creeps over the asphalt and covers one full lane. Justin stomps through it, slapping his Nikes down so water splashes out to the sides. Nearing the harbor, he stops at a ditch and fishes through the flotsam and grit. He returns to the center of the road with a handful of flat, smooth pebbles, squats down between the double yellow lines, and stares out across the bay.
A long wooden pier, supported by pilings as thick as telephone poles, stretches into the center of the roiling water. The decking usually stands high above the surface, but now the water splashes against the underside, sometimes high enough to reach the No Trespassing sign posted on the first piling. Closer in, below the wooden slats, the tall saw grass that used to mark the shoreline bends back and forth, as if swaying to some reggae beat. Water curls over the grass, stretches across the road, and laps at Justin’s sneakers.
Similar piers finger out into the water from different angles, some with yachts lashed to them, others with trawlers docked alongside. A handful of weathered buildings—a fish warehouse, a bait shack, a dock office—surround the water, each of them also standing on thick stilts. In front of the warehouse, a large blue tarp covers a mountain of crab pots. Cinder blocks weigh down one end of the tarp and the other end is tied to a reefer with a red crab painted on its side.
He stands up, leans to one side, and throws his rocks sidearm to skip them across the water, but the surface is too choppy and most of them disappear with a hollow plunk. However, a few bounce off a crest and hop out into the sound, so Justin keeps at it until they’re all gone, then he hunkers down again and stares out over the water. A whirling waterspout twists up from the sound, spinning in a crazy tight circle, and Justin imagines it’s a show put on for only him to see. As it fades, a sudden gust knocks him off his haunches and he plops back on his butt, laughing. No more putting it off, he thinks. Time to get home.
He scoops up a few more rocks and tosses them at the pier, where they bounce off the boards into the water. When he has no more, he dusts off his hands and turns to leave.
At the next intersection, a One Way sign points back toward the harbor. Months ago, when his mom was still walking, they’d stroll together around the island and on their return trip she would always point to the sign and joke, “Figures, doesn’t it? We’re headed the wrong way.” She made the same comment every time, but her tone grew more wistful as the weeks passed, and on their last few walks, she cried.
Mr. Bertram, the ex-Marine who brings them groceries from the mainland once a week, says everything about the island is the wrong way. He says that people here prefer it like that so they can’t be found. Until the 911-system was installed a few years ago, none of the roads had names. When giving directions, residents would use natural landmarks to send visitors on their way, or else they’d create a street name, Dead End Road or whatever came to mind at the moment.
The concept of unnamed streets rankles Bertram’s military nature. He calls it chaos. Ten years retired from the Marines, he still rises at dawn and presses neat creases in his clothes. His bald head, square jaw, and aquiline nose would make a perfect recruiting poster, if not for his bushy eyebrows, thick as an owl’s. Justin smiles whenever the old soldier says, “Yes, ma’am,” or “No, ma’am” to Justin’s mother, or when he speaks to Justin without the soft, singsong tone most adults use with children. Mostly though, Justin likes the way he calls him Trooper.
Mr. Bertram calls Ocracoke an escapist’s paradise, a place where no one worries or cares about anything. But Justin knows some things matter. Cinder blocks, for example, are an important commodity. They are everywhere, clustered under decks, lining driveways, piled in great heaps in the middle of yards.
Justin races past the One Way sign and the dilapidated houses lining his street. The roofs form an irregular skyline, cantilevered from many seasons of buckling. Halfway down the street, surrounding a large A-frame house, is a once-white picket fence, now spotted like a Dalmatian from all the chipped away paint flecks. Justin drags his hand across the slats so his fingers make a drumming sound, pulling back just before reaching a girl’s bike with a wicker basket leaning against the fence. The bike has stood in that spot since he’s been on the island, and wisteria vines now weave through its spokes. The chain loops off the sprocket wheel and hangs down to the ground.
As he passes the fence, a gaunt man with frizzy gray hair calls out “Hey there, Pardner. Slow down. Relax. Enjoy the heat wave.” The man next to him, just as thin but with tanned leathery skin and a bleach blond ponytail, slaps the first man on the back. “Ha. Heat wave!” he says.
They both sit on wooden chairs in the front yard, each holding a bottle of Bud. Though the porch is covered, they sit just below the front steps, getting soaked. The one with the ponytail tilts back and leans his head against a yellow canoe, which lies upside down on two sawhorses. The other holds up his bottle in a salute and smiles. “Keep on trucking, Pard,” he says.
By the time Justin gets home, the howling wind is blowing the rain sideways. The house tilts to one side, not from this storm, but perhaps from the cumulative effects of so many like it. The only part of the faded blue rancher that stands plumb to the earth is the thick foundation of scored concrete. Water puddles in the yard, covering the sparse clumps of grass dotting the hard-packed dirt. Leading from the gravel driveway to the side door, moss-crusted stone steps stand out from the water like an island chain.
Justin skirts their tan Volvo and races for the screen door, pausing when racking coughs explode from inside. His hand hovers above the handle and he stares at the rust patterns burnt into the screen, opening the door only after a long breath.
In the bathroom, the medicine cabinet is crammed full, with the overflow lining the sink. He sorts through bottles, vials, and tubes with an expert’s touch, having long ago foregone the need to refer to the abbreviated prescription labels. He knows what his mom will need: pills when she’s crying, capsules when she’s throwing up, and syrup when she’s coughing. But there is no cough syrup. He opens drawers, sifts through the fish-patterned towels on the floor, lifts the bathmat. It’s no use.
Standing before his mom’s bedroom, he sucks in a breath to ready himself. He’s accustomed to the smell by now, but it still assaults him whenever he enters her room. Holding his breath usually forces him to swallow a big gulp of air later, when his lungs start aching, but he can’t stop doing it.
The first sight is always the ivory-framed picture on the nightstand. When they ran from Pennsylvania, they left with three hurriedly-filled suitcases and an apple crate packed with various appliances and toiletries. The only non-functional item his mother brought was this photograph, the sole memento of her previous life. In it, Justin’s mom and dad press together, cheek-to-cheek, smiling for the camera. His mom’s face beaming out from the beveled glass is his lone reminder of what she once looked like—rounded cheeks with tiny dimples, a soft mouth with a wide toothy grin, and raven locks circling her face in a permed halo. It was taken when Justin was three years old, just before his dad died in a car wreck. Though his dad is a hazy memory, Justin recognizes how he is the natural result of his parents’ union. Justin has the fair, freckled skin of his father, the wide face and dark eyes of his mom, and curly light brown hair that is a subtle mixture of both.
He cracks the door wider and sees the bony arch of his mother’s back. She leans over the bed with her head hanging in a trashcan, her shoulders shaking. The silk top—once shiny white, but now a dusty pearl—clings to her back, outlining her spine, each vertebra, each rib. There doesn’t seem to be any meat left to her. Behind her, a large ruddy blotch stains the cream pillowcase in a pattern resembling a jellyfish washed up on shore. Justin tries to ignore the constant disarray and dirty linen, but it’s hard to do. Their house in Philly had always been spotless. His mom was fanatical about housecleaning and persnickety when it came to clean clothes.
In addition to bringing food to their cabin, Mr. Bertram also takes their laundry to the cleaners, exchanging one duffel bag of clothes for another. The bags have been growing lighter, containing less in them each time. Lately, his mom has been throwing away some of her clothes instead of sending them out, asking their neighbor, Mrs. Murdock, to buy her new outfits. Although it’s Justin who makes the actual requests, and each time he does, Mrs. Murdock squeezes her lips together and shakes her head, muttering, “Good Heavens,” or simply clucking her tongue. Justin wishes she could see the discarded clothes one time—the ones speckled with ruddy brown spots—just to silence her. But, like his mom, he is also embarrassed.
His mom hugs the trashcan, coughing harder, her face so red it looks like it might explode. When she finishes, she turns to the side, resting her head on the trashcan’s rim, and gulps air in heaving breaths. She sees Justin and offers a weak smile, the articulation of bones showing like slow-moving machinery covered with a drop cloth.
“We’re out of syrup,” he says. “I can go get some, though. Run to the store.”
“No, no, just—” she breaks into coughs again.
Justin approaches and bends close. “What, Mama?”
She spits a glob of pink phlegm, coughs again, then gulps more air. She looks up at him with teary eyes, unable to speak yet.
Justin bites his lip and turns his head. The wallpaper is a dizzying pattern of schooners and clippers on a dark brown sea. The sails seem to ripple and the ocean seems to roll thanks to the warped lathing underneath.
Justin’s mother wheezes, catches her breath, and says, “Next door.” She tries to push up from the bin and Justin jumps forward, grasping her shoulders to help her ease back. He’s careful not to squeeze. The bones feel brittle as dry twigs, and he’s worried the least pressure might snap one of them. She flops back into her pillows, breathing in ragged gasps. The sunken space around her collarbone fills with each breath, then recedes again into a pronounced vee as she exhales. “Next door,” she repeats, waving dismissive fingers at him, as if she lacks the strength to hold up her entire hand. “Go,” she says.
“O.K. Be right back.”
As Justin steps into the hallway, he hears a deep sucking breath—the precursor to another bout of coughs—and then it begins all over again. He can deal with the coughing though. It’s the crying that rips him apart; the crying is worst of all.
Mrs. Murdock says they should pray more, that God ignores those who ignore Him. She’s passionate about religion, but preaches to fear God and His wrath instead of loving Him and His mercy. As if in warning, God has shaped her into a lumpy potato—stout and blunt, coarse in complexion. And, just like buds growing on a tuber, warts dot her cheeks and neck, sprouting from her as if expressing penance for being born into this wicked world.
Justin slides through the Murdock’s gate and ducks his head from the pelting rain. He knocks and the door swings open in Mrs. Murdock’s traditional manner, giving Justin an unobstructed view of the large crucifix down the hall—perhaps her way of sharing Jesus’ pain with visitors. She peers at Justin from around the door’s edge and emerges after a few moments, her lips tied into a square knot and a hurricane lamp clutched in her hand. She doesn’t ask what he wants, merely raises her eyebrows and waits for him to speak.
Justin lowers his gaze, traveling over the white cotton yoke, down the drab brown dress, landing on her hard square brogans. He addresses her feet, asking for cough syrup but she replies, “We’ve got none.”
Another salvo of his mother’s coughs shoot through her window and Justin’s cheeks redden. “Harsh, that,” Mrs. Murdock says. “Wicked enough to expel the devil.” Her voice lifts at the end, making Justin wonder if it’s some sort of question. “She’ll be needing your prayers. You must be strong. Understand?”
Justin keeps his head lowered but nods. “Yes, ma’am.” When his eyes flit up, she seems to be ruminating. Before she can add any more, Justin says, “I gotta go. Gotta get some medicine.”
He walks down her path, through the ivy-covered arched trellis, refusing to look back. At the end of the driveway he turns left and trots toward Albert Styron’s. Her words echo in his head as he picks up the pace. You must be strong. You must be strong.
It’s obvious that the store is closed, but he leaps over the two cement steps onto the timber esplanade and pulls at the knob anyway. After a few yanks, he leans on the door and his breath fogs the frosted glass pane. He lifts his cheek, staring back the way he came. The wind blows from the backside of Styron’s and hurls rain over the awning in sheets. It falls down and away so it seems as if the store is the storm’s epicenter and the roof is its origin.
Justin eases to the porch’s edge and tries to identify individual drops in the whipping rain, but they fall so fast that they merge into long watery cords. They remind him of guy wires stretching overhead as he rides across the back half of a suspension bridge, except these shimmer with constant movement. A film he’d seen in science class about the making of the cosmos said everything in the universe had erupted from one ball of mass the size of a golf ball. When he’d seen The Big Bang explode, his gaze followed the smoky particle trails racing out into the black void, disappearing off the edges of the screen. As then, these cables of water spray out into the distance and Justin can’t track where they end. His head spins with a dizzying sense of vertigo, like he’s slipping. The whole world seems to be pulling away and as soon as he has this thought he’s again reminded of the One Way sign. “Wrong way,” he whispers. “Figures.”
Turning in the other direction, he jumps down the steps and continues up the road to the harbor. Mr. Bertram taught Justin how Marines call cadence when they run, and now, each time his left foot hits the ground, he speaks another word. Must—be—strong—step, step, step—must—be—strong.
When he reaches Lighthouse Road, the wind off the harbor socks into him, roaring like an eighteen-wheeler on an overpass. Both sides of the street are flooded now and farther out in the bay waves leap in every direction, creating a rolling carpet of whitecaps similar to the churning in his stomach. The blue tarp has torn free from the cinder blocks and flaps in the wind. The crab pots are nowhere to be seen.
Justin sloshes through the ankle deep water, which rises to his shins as he nears the dock. His chest is heaving but he wades through and pulls himself up onto the slick wood. The waves shoot up and splash through the slats, making a slurping, sucking noise that reminds him of his mother. He feels the wet, slimy wood, and imagines that muck creeping through his mother, taking her over.
The pier’s slippery planks jut out into the bay, disappearing into the water fifteen feet closer than normal. Justin follows them as far as he can, toeing the boards as he inches forward, until all he can hear is the roaring storm. Rain stings his face and the wind rocks him, but he braces himself thinking, I must be strong. . . I will be strong. Jaw set and fists clenched, he screams up into the raging sky, “How strong do I have to be?”
As if in answer, the wind bursts forth and Justin stumbles, his sneaker slipping on the slick boards. He catches himself just before falling, and shakes a fist at the sky. “All right,” he says. “All fucking right!”
Imagining himself as a statue, able to endure anything, he bends his knees to gain a steadier balance. His legs ache, but he doesn’t move, a determined grimace etched on his face. The water rises over his sneakers, crawls up his shins. The waves tug at his feet as the pier slowly retreats under water. But still he doesn’t budge.
Another gust strikes, this time knocking him down, and he falls over the edge. He wedges one hand between two planks and holds on while the surf tries to pull him under. Brine fills his mouth and he considers letting go, but then, the gust ebbs and his head bobs up over the water. He yanks himself up, skinning his knee on the wood, then looks back toward land. Where he kneels, the dark wood rests about eight inches under the water, but Justin knows the path to safety, can see it protruding twenty or so feet away from him. Trembling and heart racing, he crawls toward shore, notching his toes between the slats and grasping the upwind side of the boards with his hands. The serrated edges cut his palm, but he ignores the pain, gripping tighter and pulling ahead. The sea first beats against his elbows and thighs, and then, as he moves farther along and rises from the surf, it tears at his forearms, knees, and hands.
When Justin surfaces, he collapses onto the planks. Blood trickles from where the boards cut his hand. He glances at the protruding splinters then drapes his arm over his face, crying into the crook of his elbow. Between sobs, he says again, “All fucking right then.”
When Justin first wakes up, he doesn’t know where he is. The absence of the ceiling fan’s rhythmic squeaking—a sound that’s greeted him every morning since moving to Ocracoke—has him momentarily disoriented. For a few seconds he is back in Philadelphia, but the coarse shriek of a seagull shatters the illusion. When his eyes open, he sees his new room instead—seashell-patterned sheets and curtains, chipped oak nightstand holding a fish-shaped lamp, and thick netting tacked up in one corner of the ceiling. The only toys are a few dozen plastic army men stuffed in a jumble of green arms, legs, and machine guns into an empty Skippy peanut butter jar.
When Mr. Bertram gave him the toy soldiers five weeks ago, he’d explained small unit tactics—how to set up a defensive perimeter, communicate in the field with hand signals, and build a foxhole that provides both cover and concealment. He showed Justin how to set up a base camp in the side yard, and war games got him out of the house. A week later, when Mr. Bertram taught him reconnaissance techniques, Justin ventured farther, following the other kids around the island.
Justin rolls over on his side, sees his sodden clothes lying in a heap on the wood floor, and yesterday’s events rush back to him. The power was out and the house was dim when he’d returned home last night. He'd lit a votive candle and hovered in his mother’s doorway, the halo of light dull against his dripping clothes and barely illuminating his mother’s still form. Thundering rain and rattling windows had overwhelmed all other sounds, making it impossible for him to detect the ragged whisper of her breathing until he was close enough to touch her. He’d tiptoed out, stripped off his clothes, and crawled into bed, but Mrs. Murdock’s warnings kept him awake. Maybe she was right; maybe everything was their fault for ignoring God. Justin had squeezed his eyes shut then and promised he would do anything, trade anything, to save his mom. Now he cocks his head again, turning an ear toward the open door, hoping for the ordinary clatter of kitchen utensils or footsteps in the hall, hearing only the chirping birds outside.
The hardwood floor creaks as he pads to his mother’s room. Easing her door open reveals the vacant bed, but his mother is not up and walking about; she sits in a rocker by the window, an afghan draped over her knees. Morning light casts long shadows across her sallow features, creating dark rings around her eyes. She turns her head and smiles, saying, “Finally get up, eh sleepyhead?”
She turns back to the window and pulls the gauzy curtains aside. “Come here,” she says. “Look at this.”
Justin crosses the room and peeks over his mom’s shoulder. In the back yard, beneath a leafy arbor overgrown with honeysuckle and wisteria, a squirrel scurries down the bird feeder, clawing for seeds. It slips and dangles for a moment, then repositions itself upside down. “Persistent little bugger,” Justin’s mom says. For the first time in a long while, she giggles—a rasping chuckle, but a laugh nonetheless.
Justin leans into her, careful not to press with any real weight. She keeps her gaze fixed on the squirrel, but drapes an arm around his waist. Back in Philly, whenever Justin did something good or bruised himself on the playground, she’d squeeze him in a powerful hug. But right now, her arm feels less substantial than one of his belts.
She rests her head against his hip and puckers her lips a few times, licking at the corners.
“Mom,” Justin says. “You need some water?”
“No, no. I’m fine. My mouth is dry, that’s all. But thank you for asking.” She reaches up and pushes a lock of hair away from his eyes, patting it down on his head. He used to hate when she did that, but right now it feels like the greatest thing in the world.
“How about some cocoa then?”
“Mmm, that does sound good. You convinced me.” Her smile deepens and ghastly pits crease her cheeks. “And you can finally try out the mermaid-stove,” she says.
Justin’s mother loves all of the cabin’s beachy kitsch: carved ducks on the mantle, seascape prints on the walls, and lighthouse figurines scattered throughout. Her favorite discovery, though, is a butane cooker with legs shaped like mermaids, backs humped and tails curved so they look like they’re swimming.
Justin’s mother gives him one final squeeze, pressing her knobby shoulder into his abdomen. “Go on, now,” she says.
In the kitchen, Justin removes the stove from a cabinet drawer. The construction is simple enough—a metal ring, four legs, and a butane canister—but something about it seems magical to Justin. The way the ring rests atop the mermaids’ open palms makes it appear as if they’re offering him the world. Just wish and it will come true.
He turns a knob at its base and gas hisses out, erupting with a satisfying Whoomp when he inserts a lit match. Justin twists the knob a little more, and a blue flame rises through the ring. He fills a kettle, sets it on the stand, then sits down. The kitchen table is covered with brown shelf paper, a deep maple matching the wall’s wainscoting. A folded piece of cardboard steadies one of the legs, but the table still wobbles when Justin leans his elbows on it, cupping his chin in his hands.
Their first month on the island, Justin’s mom cooked breakfast every morning, replacing his usual bowl of cereal with hot meals: pancakes, waffles, eggs and bacon. They ate every lunch and dinner out, and though selection was minimal—six restaurants, five of which served nothing but seafood—they didn’t tire of the meals. When the frequency of their lunch excursions dwindled, Justin made sandwiches at home; and when their trips ceased altogether, he cooked frozen meals in the microwave.
Justin rises and removes two packets of hot chocolate from a mason jar. He dumps the contents into a couple of mugs then looks out through the window over the sink. Outside, the man who called him Pard yesterday is tromping through his front yard in yellow waders that go up to his chest and buckle over his shoulders. Holding a sled that looks like a giant Frisbee with handles, he races toward the still-flooded street then leaps into the water, skimming the surface for a few feet before capsizing with a giant splash. The man’s ponytailed friend hoots at him from the roadside, and then they switch places, repeating the process again and again. The mermaids’ outstretched arms beg Justin to go play, do something, do anything; but Justin only drops his gaze and bites his lip.
The power comes back on, overhead lights blinking to life and music springing from the radio. REO Speedwagon sings, I Can’t Fight This Feeling Anymore. Justin turns up the volume and sings along with it under his breath, imagining his mom doing the same. REO is one of her favorite groups.
But before the song finishes, a breaking news report interrupts the music. A teenage girl drowned last night off the Ocracoke shore. Justin stares at the radio, hoping it’s not the brunette. When the announcer gives the name, Justin realizes he doesn’t know if that’s her or not. Last night’s prayer flashes in his head—I’ll trade anything—and he wonders if he somehow caused this to happen.
Then the water begins to boil.
Justin rocks in a hammock stretched between a fencepost and a twisted oak in the back yard. Bees buzz through the arbor and birds chirp in nearby trees. With his eyes shut, Justin imagines that he is flying with them up in the sky. The hammock doesn’t convey the same sense of soaring as playground swing sets—that stomach-lifting experience when you separate from the seat—but it still provides a calm feeling of weightlessness.
The dreamy sensation remains after Justin opens his eyes. The sky seems hazy and out of focus, and shapes form in the clouds—a wild buffalo, a rocket ship, a spinning top. Wind rakes through the oak’s branches and light dances in the leaves. Though not as sturdy as the elm in their front yard back home, the oak is a good climbing tree. It’s got a good, low notch for that all-important first step, and the limbs slant upwards with a gentle slope.
Justin relaxes his eyes, and in the shifting light he pictures his mom straddling one of the gnarled branches, laughing while she swings a hammer, building him another tree house. The last time she’d done that, she’d swung from the branches and cried out like a monkey. She’d hugged him to her and sung, “Justin and Mommy sitting in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g.” Her voice had been soft then, the same lilting tone as the birds overhead. But the voice coming from her room now is shrill and irritated.
Justin turns his head toward the open window, and the slack, peaceful look slips from his face. When he rolls out of the hammock, a webbed imprint is stamped across the backs of his legs. He tiptoes over the hard-packed earth, crouches outside the window, and curls his fingers around the cracked frame, pressing his head against the wall below. He hears, “No tubes. No hospital. Which word don’t you fucking understand?”
A brief shudder passes through Justin. He rarely hears his mother curse, and when that happens, she usually follows up with effusive apologies.
“It won’t change anything,” she continues. “So why bother?”
Mr. Bertram replies in an even voice, “I’m sorry, ma’am. It’s not my business.”
“You’re damn right it’s not—” Hard coughs choke off her words, followed by the sound of something shattering. After she catches her breath, she says, “Damn it! Look what you’ve made me do.”
“Are you all right, ma’am? Can I do anything?”
“No, I’m fine. I don’t—”
She starts crying and Justin cringes. He picks at a large splinter protruding from the windowsill. I shouldn’t be here, he thinks. This is wrong. But then the scraping sound of glass being picked up pulls his attention back to the room.
“Please don’t,” his mother says. “I’ll clean it up later.”
“I just want to help, that’s all.”
“I know, I know. Oh shit. How can this be happening? I’m not even forty. I’m not…” Her voice trails off then breaks up again.
“There, there,” Mr. Bertram says. “It’s going to be O. K.”
“I’m sorry. I shouldn’t cry like this. My life’s been good, you know. Better than most.”
“I’m sure it has,” Mr. Bertram says.
She coughs again, just a few sputters, and then there's a long pause. “Have you thought about Justin? What you want to do?”
“What? Well, my sister in Virginia, she’ll take him.”
“But what about right now? Should he be here when you. . . well, you know?”
The splinter snaps off in Justin’s hand with a loud, Pop. He looks down at it, surprised, then turns and runs away. He runs past Mrs. Murdock’s house, past the One Way sign, past the harbor, and when he reaches the end of Lighthouse Road, he keeps on running.
Dog Beach hugs Pamlico Sound in a wavy line that traces the shore like half of a figure eight. Seen from above, it resembles two giant bites taken out of the land. To one side, breakers crash in a lulling rhythm while gulls glide on the soft breeze, scissoring their wings for lift and then drifting back down in slow, swirling circles. An occasional blue crab skitters from one hole to another as the tide surges forth and washes away their tracks. On the other side, a flat stretch of sand, shells, and pebbles extends into a series of dunes. The seaward face of the dunes is barren, ribbed by the wind; but the opposite side is smooth, tapering off into thickets of pampas and saw grass. A few sturdy cedars grow here, but they, too, obey the wind, bending drastically where they crest the dunes like grass that’s been stepped on.
Justin has been pacing the beach for hours, crunching shells beneath his feet. His words have rolled through his head for the past few days. United Methodist Church is holding the brunette’s funeral service right now, and Justin has avoided that side of the island all day. He knows her drowning was not his fault—wishes don’t come true. But he still feels guilty, because he knows, if they did, he’d still wish for the trade.
At the end of another circuit, he turns around and sees Mr. Bertram approaching from the far side. Of course, thinks Justin. He should have known. Even on an island with no traffic lights, no shopping malls, and no cable TV; on an island where bodies have to be shipped by ferry to a funeral home; even here, there is no escape.
“Hey there, Trooper,” says Mr. Bertram. “Your mom was getting worried about you.”
Justin drops down, sitting on his feet with his knees pressed into the beach. He keeps his chin down and wriggles his legs to dislodge the shells.
Mr. Bertram stares out across the water with his hands on his hips. He says, “Hard to believe a hurricane came through just four days ago, huh?” He pauses a moment, continuing when Justin doesn’t reply. “This one big storm I heard about—I can’t remember where exactly—blew an oil tanker right up into the city streets. Can you imagine that? Wind picking up this huge ship and tossing it like a Wiffle Ball?” He waits again, but when it’s obvious this will be a one-sided conversation, he launches into it with fervor. He chatters about the post-hurricane clean-up efforts, about bulldozers and other heavy equipment, how many man-hours were required to scrape sand off the roads and push it back into the dunes. He tells Justin that horses ran wild on the island until the ’60s and that island legend says Blackbeard’s treasure is buried somewhere in the dunes.
Justin doesn’t react until he feels a tapping at his shoulder. When he looks up, Mr. Bertram is holding out a sandwich. “I’m not hungry,” Justin says.
“O.K. For the birds then.” Mr. Bertram peels the bread away and tears it into bits, passing half to Justin. When Mr. Bertram tosses out the first chunk, seagulls swarm to him, and a few brave ones waddle up to within a few feet. “Try it,” he urges.
Justin throws his entire handful at once and the flock explodes with motion. Most of the bread falls to the sand, but a few pieces are snapped up in mid-air. As they scurry for the leftovers, the bigger gulls peck at the smaller ones to bully them away.
Mr. Bertram takes a deep breath and scratches beneath his chin for a few moments. The large vein on the side of his bald head throbs as he grinds his teeth. “Hey Trooper, you want to tell me what’s on your mind?”
Justin picks up a conical shell and rolls it between his fingers. He keeps his head lowered, focusing on the spiral pattern as he spins the shell in his hand. Justin tries not to cry, but his voice cracks anyway. “Why do people have to die?”
“We all die, Trooper,” Mr. Bertram says. Then he turns and places a hand on Justin’s shoulder. “But first, we have to live. Life is tough enough without worrying when it’s going to end.”
Mr. Bertram pulls a thick brown wallet from his back pocket. He flips through several plastic windows then holds it open in front of Justin’s face. “My daughter,” he says. A fair-skinned girl with a black graduation cap on her head smiles in the photo. He points a finger at her chin. “See this cleft right here? That’s from my pop. And those blue eyes? My mother had those.”
He folds the wallet, clenches it in his hand for a moment, then returns it to his pocket. “When my mother died, I thought it was the end of the world. Thought I couldn’t go on anymore. But I did. And now my parents live on because I never gave up.”
Justin turns his head and rubs his nose on his sleeve.
Mr. Bertram reaches over and ruffles Justin’s hair. “Your mother loves you, and you love her too. That’s what really matters. Right?”
Justin bobs his head but keeps his chin on his chest.
“You’d like to do something for her, right? Well, the best way to make her happy is for you to be happy. Know what I mean?” Mr. Bertram gives Justin’s shoulder a gentle shake.
Justin nods his head. “Yeah,” he says. “O.K.”
The night sky is clear and the full moon makes the grave easy to find. Sympathy cards and flowers coat the freshly churned ground, and a few framed photos lean against her headstone. The largest photo is a close-up of the brunette, a posed yearbook shot. Her smile is tentative, all lips and no teeth, but her eyes are bright and hopeful. Justin is glad to see this picture. He doesn’t want his last memory of her to be the shocked expression when the redhead stripped off her top.
The cobalt moon casts a shimmering light across the simple inscription:
In loving memory
Rebecca S. Jones
July 15, 1970
Aug 22, 1986
Justin scrapes at the packed dirt where he guesses her heart might be. The digging is easy and he quickly makes a small hole. He fishes in his pocket and removes a handmade necklace, a seashell looped on a shoestring. He drops it inside the hole, covers it up, and tamps the dirt back down, standing there, chewing his lip. “I made it myself,” he says. He takes a deep breath then adds, “Well, Mr. Bertram drilled the hole for me, but still.”
He picks up one of the bouquets then lies back in the grass, clasping the flowers to his chest. Staring up at the sky, he rolls the stems between his fingers. Out here, away from the city, the sky seems to hold so many more stars—more pinpricks of light than grains of sand on the beach. It’s as if they, too, chose this place to hide.
Something touches his finger, a bright green caterpillar, flexing and curling, wiggling in the air as if waving hello. It slinks into his palm and wriggles across his hand. As soon as it rolls off into the grass, Justin pulls the bouquet up to his face. He hadn’t noticed any insects before, but there they are: aphids chewing on the flowers and a stationary ladybug clinging to a stalk of Queen Anne’s Lace. Fingering one of the tightly fisted roses, Justin feels a network of veins inside the velvety petals. The detail is so amazing it takes his breath away. It’s like a whole new world is coming to life in his hands, one that was invisible just moments before.
This morning, he couldn’t have imagined such a mystical finish to his day. If this is possible, he thinks, then anything is. Maybe, just like the stars above, billions of possibilities still exist in the future. Who knows how tomorrow will end.
Copyright © Bill Glose 2004. Title graphic: "Running from the Eye" Copyright © The Summerset Review 2004.