New Title 15, p.1
Gregory L. Norris
Copyright 2016 by Gregory L. Norris
At 6 p.m. on Saturday night, the Thirteenth of June, the ferry left Cardigan Island, thirty-six miles off the coast of Massachusetts.
Twenty minutes later, it collided with the sea monster.
10:15 a.m., Saturday the Thirteenth:
Cardigan Island. What an appropriately miserable name, thought Jack Lester. He sipped his coffee, glanced beyond the rain-splattered glass of the Here and Now Café’s windows at the stretch of beach, and shivered. The weather was beyond sweaters, even trench coats. Parka Island, his snarky inner critic quipped. With gloves and scarves.
“Welcome to June-uary,” said the barista, a cute girl with a dimple and small cans, the perfect size. Firm, not floppy, not those hideously hard abominations that looked ready to burst in most adult skin flicks.
Jack realized he was staring and blinked himself out of the trance. “Huh?”
“June-uary. That’s what we call it on Cardigan. Only things missing are snow and icicles.”
“Ice,” Jack sighed. He shot a look at his backpack. A patch of skin above his left eye ticked. He willed it to stop. It didn’t. The opposite corner of his mouth curled with a sneer. He ordered it to heel. It did as instructed. There would be plenty of time to gloat once he was back on the mainland.
“Top you off?” Dimples asked.
Oh, if I was stuck on this miserable rock for another day, you sure could, he thought, indulging in a humorless chuckle. Reverse cowgirl, or whatever the fuck they called it.
“Naw, I’m good,” he said. “I will be, once that blows out far, far across the drink.”
The barista tipped a look toward the nearest window. The undulating wall of charcoal-colored clouds lay farther toward the horizon. “Been a while since we had a June hurricane off Cardigan.”
“June-uary,” Jack corrected.
She tittered in response, a pleasant laugh he was sure he could fast grow to love. Then he remembered his ugly predicament and the dream blurred before shorting out completely.
“You’re catching on quick,” she said. “You’ll be able to pass for one of the locals in no time. Roll your Rs at the end of your tongue, know the locations of all the rrrecycling bins—on an island like Cardigan, you have to rrrecycle these days, you know.”
“No, I didn’t. Apart from the tongue-thing,” he said, which sounded dirty, and what passed through Jack’s mind in fast-forwarded frames was dirty. “What gave me away?”
“The shoes,” she said.
Jack looked between the flaps of his open trench at his loafers. Size eleven, moderately comfortable, with wet soles, the toes curling. “My shoes?”
“Too slick. Most people here wear sneakers, flip-flops, or hiking boots. All that walking around and bike riding. Real locals only take their cars out at night to the restaurants and clubs.”
Jack snorted. “Clubs?”
“Sure, like the Trellis, though I prefer About Face—that’s where all the celebrities hang out.”
Jack took another sip. The robust breakfast blend went down agreeably, and he was tempted to take her up on the offer of a refill. But he was jittery enough already; too much more and it would be difficult to disguise. They hadn’t searched him or his backpack on the trip over, but the signs at the North Pier clearly stated that ferry security were granted full discretionary powers to paw through bags and shove their fingers up unsuspecting assholes. He didn’t want them going through his backpack. Not now. The strangulating sense of paranoia he’d suffered through at the estate, when the hurricane was taking its unexpected roll along the New England coast, again gripped Jack’s guts. The skin of his cheeks and throat boiled, while invisible ice shriveled his balls and sent a chill tumbling down his spine.
Was he the only person of the over fifty-thousand stuck on Cardigan Island ready to jump into the water and start paddling to get away from the fucking place? He only wished he’d found the Here and Now a day earlier; Dimples would have been a hell of a distraction to pass the time.
“So, just waiting for the ferry?”
“Two days and counting,” Jack said.
What he didn’t say, because he knew it was wiser not to, was that the past two days had driven him as close to madness as humanly possible. That the tick above his eye began the moment he swung that big home run, knocking it out of the park. He hadn’t used a broomstick or a baseball bat, no siree, but some ugly bit of statuary that looked like a dancing Indian with a giant flute for a dick. Koko-something or other. He knew the name, but at that moment it eluded him. Swung it hard, as hard as he could. Clubbed the ball with the barrel of the bat that wasn’t a bat, and knocked the ball that wasn’t a ball over the fences. Or into the nearest wall, at least. An acre of white wall that wasn’t so white after Jack’s grand slam.
The coffee cup slipped from his shaking fingers and spilled its dregs across the tabletop. Dimples hurried over, rag in one hand, coffee pot in the other. The fluidity in which she wiped and poured was poetic. Young and beautiful, he imagined her cutting through the ocean, her perky tits bobbing in clear view as her mermaid’s tail gracefully propelled her forward. And him, free of his foreign loafers and constraining trench coat, in pursuit.
What would happen once he caught her? Jack smiled, and she returned the gesture in human form. But the smile was merely politeness, not mutual attraction. She was young, flamboyant, a pretty thing who’d probably known one, maybe two boyfriends. Too naïve to be jaded about love just yet.
Love. He was twice her age, balding—and what remained of his hair had gone gray around its thinning edges. The makings of a paunch started to hang over his belt. The back view hadn’t fared much better—he’d caught a look at his sagging ass in the mirror of one of the dead bitch’s five Carrara-marble bathrooms while washing up and wished he hadn’t been forced to cancel his gym membership.
No, Dimples wasn’t interested in him, not in the way he wanted. And it was a good thing for her, Jack agreed, considering the last woman he’d shared coffee with was lying under a few feet of crushed gravel somewhere out on Old Town Road.
“That’s enough,” he snapped, stopping her in mid-pour.
“Yeah, that’s what I said, didn’t I?”
The barista’s cheerful expression darkened. “Sure. You let me know if you need anything else.”
Jack nodded and avoided her eyes. She sauntered away, and Jack knew she would not be back, except to clean the table after he left. Now was as good a time as any to make his escape. Once the cops came looking, and they would, the less she told them the better.
Ten hours to go—if the ferry ran this night. If…suddenly, breathing ceased being easy or even involuntary. It was raining like a serious bitch out there, but he needed the air, needed to think. Jack stood, grabbed the backpack, and left a bunched twenty on the table—the last one in his wallet. Ironic, his inner critic chastised, considering what he had stashed inside the backpack’s center pocket.
“Thanks,” Dimples said.
Jack didn’t turn or respond. He pushed through the door and headed into a wall of brisk, turbulent air. Through the pelting rain, he noticed a lone figure strolling across the beach.
10:41 a.m., Saturday the Thirteenth:
The chill raced past Cary Labonte’s ankles and up his shins. A wave crashed over his feet, which were already numb from the coarse sand beneath his soles and the icy water. The rain on his face and the restless wind whipping across the beach added to the sensation. He hadn’t felt this cold since…the ski trip? His youth, when the raw, wet snow made skin red and itchy. Maybe never.
In just under ten hours, he’d be on his way back to Hyannis, his colored pencils and paints stowed in his Italian leather valise, which boasted nifty bronze snaps. The journey aboard the ferry would, on paper, pass roughly in one hour and change, though he sensed it would feel much longer, the seconds tolling with the weight of days. Because he knew they would be waiting for him in Hyannis, on the pier, and he would tell them the truth. The truth about Cary Allan Labonte’s deep, dirty secret.
“Mom, Dad,” he whispered aloud, receiving a mouth full of rain and wind in the process. “I have something to tell you. Something you’re not going to like. You might disown me over it…only I hope it won’t come to that, because I’m still your son, and I know you love me no matter what. And it’s not like I’m trying to upset you, I just need to be honest. About who I am. My identity. About the true nature of my heart. About…”
Cary choked down a heavy swallow, aware that his mouth had gone completely dry. He wiped his glasses and fixed them back in place, but the storm instantly covered them again.
The swirling mass on the horizon grew more distant with the seconds, and part of him was sorry to see it go. Hurricane Boris, the second named storm of the season, had forced his stay on Cardigan Island to be extended by two days.
“It’s like this,” he continued, adding the appropriate hand gestures. “I didn’t come out here to attend a sales and marketing seminar, like I told you.” Anticipating their next words, he grumbled, “No, I’m not lying, not going down some dark path to sin! Why is everything that feels good and right got to be a sin? Is love a sin? No, because love comes from God, and if I have this love inside me, does it matter if it’s not the same kind of love as the love that’s supposed to be normal? Is my love, is the beat of my heart, any less real?”
He came close enough to the seagull pecking at a bit of pilfered razor clam shell to illicit a shriek from the ravenous diner. As the maelstrom swirled and his heart raced, pumping his blood and transforming its passion into fire, Cary imagined the gull’s cry as his mother’s reaction to the speech, her voice rising into the shrill zone at his revelation.
“Mother, Father,” Cary said, “the truth is…the truth of who I am…I’m an artist. I don’t want to be an accountant!”
As soon as the words flew from his lips, he felt better, as though his body had vomited out something toxic. Not only better, but empowered. Cary flashed the barest smile.
“That’s right. Your little boy is going to be an artist.”
He revolved toward the cluster of one-story bungalows with worn cedar shingle exteriors ensconced in wild tangles of salt marsh roses. Seeing the Sugar Beach Artists’ Colony made coming out of the creative closet so much easier, at least during his practice run.
Cary started the long walk back to his bungalow, the Georgia O’Keefe Cottage. En route, he padded over gravel, grass, finally the cobblestone street, and the feeling gradually returned to his feet through tiny jabs.
Like many of the colony’s residences, the O’Keefe Cottage bore an original painting created by its namesake. This particular study of a salt marsh rose was located over an antique writing desk, about four feet up from the floor, on the canvas of the wall. The vibrant coral-pink flower had faded over the years, and didn’t look particularly suggestive of the female reproductive anatomy, and the study lacked signature bones or animal skull. But it was signed and dated, and that made it priceless.
While stripping down to his jeans, Cary wondered why someone hadn’t come along and cut out that section of wall. Then, removing his waterlogged button-down shirt, he answered his own question—obviously, because the artists who’d come to Sugar Beach were too captivated by their muses to risk defiling the work of one of the greats. That, and worries over what would surely amount to a lengthy prison term.
The bungalow, one of a dozen, measured a paltry 300-square feet. One corner housed the bed, its frame constructed of rough timbers, the linens and mattress surprisingly comfortable. The writing desk sat across from the bed, a galley-style kitchenette outfitted with coffee pot, microwave, and a tiny dorm fridge under the counter to the left of the front door. At the back of the bungalow was studio space complete with easel, French doors, and, beyond crisp white drapes, a view of the Atlantic. A shelf at shoulder height created a miniature gallery, where Cary had displayed three sketches and one watercolor canvas.
The bathroom didn’t have a tub, just a standing shower behind a plastic curtain. But even the curtain was artistic, a vibrant aqua with colorful tropical fish, and every time Cary stepped in there to wash away sand, salt, and sweat, it struck him as strangely wonderful to imagine how many talented artists had stood in the same position before him, O’Keefe included. It stopped him from pissing beneath the spray, out of respect.
The water never got truly hot, but Cary’s flesh came alive beneath the cascade. The bar of organic soap, made locally by a Cardigan Island artisan, filled the tiny space with the scent of peppermint. His shampoo was organic, too—green tea—another of the tiny joys of his weeklong stay.
He didn’t want to leave.
Cary toweled dry, considered tugging one out for the second time that morning, and then decided not to—he’d just showered, and with the clock ticking, it would be better to enjoy synthesis of a different nature. He dressed, pulling on clean, dry clothes, and reached for his sketchbook.
Hurricane Boris had added almost two full days to his visit. Yet again, Cary’s mind wandered to thoughts about living permanently at the Sugar Beach Artist’s Colony. Could he prosper in such a tiny place after the largesse of his parents’ house? Of course he could—who needed a tub or sofas or a gourmet kitchen with stainless steel everywhere you turned when you had wild gardens of salt marsh roses growing right outside your bungalow door? If he made it, maybe they’d even name one of the cottages after him. The Labonte Bungalow. He’d paint his own version of a salt marsh rose, which wasn’t native to the island but had flourished here anyway like in so many other New England communities after drifting ashore from the deck of a doomed clipper ship that had been transporting the flowers to Washington, D.C. The clipper had gotten scuttled in a violent storm like the one blowing out to sea, and the hardy roses had drifted to shore to begin a new life. Cary had read the details of the story on a garden plaque in the colony’s courtyard, and very much appreciated it.
This place was, Cary thought, paradise.
A flash of movement teased the corner of his eye. Cary glanced up in time to see a shadow pass beyond the French doors, visible through the part in the curtains. The shadow was too immediate, too close to the ground, for a seabird. Another artist, perhaps—only that in addition to using organic soap and shampoo, allowing your fellow creative geniuses to work in peace without interruption was law here in paradise.
Cary set down his sketchpad and hurried over to the French doors. He pushed open the right. A wave of brisk, wet air rolled into the bungalow. He turned to the left, and the shadow came rushing toward him. Right before the world turned red before his eyes and a jolt of exquisite pain robbed the strength from his legs, Cary stole a look at his attacker.
The serpent that had invaded his modern, private paradise wore a trench coat and loafers.
11:30 a.m., Saturday the Thirteenth:
The body had aged a good eleven years, but the brain hadn’t forgotten the last time Brandon Dunne had spent the night in his clothes. Graduation—khaki slacks, a button-down over white T-shirt, and tie, hideous in color, yellow silk slashed through at an angle by thin thunderbolts of slate blue.
Brandon glanced down and, for an instant, thought he’d somehow fallen through a splinter in the fabric of time and space. Khaki slacks. Button-down shirt. The same ugly tie, perhaps the ugliest throughout all of human history, chortled his inner critic. But
The abomination—surely a gift from a relative or a loan from their dad, though he couldn’t remember Bob Dunne ever showing such lapses in taste—sat beside him on the sofa, bright even in the murky gray glow oozing in from the window. Too bright. Dad was dead, but the hideous tie had somehow survived.
What little sentimental value or novelty had worn off quickly at Claudia’s wedding. She was the only one who understood the tie’s significance, though by the look on her face when he congratulated the bride, she didn’t appreciate the gesture. He wasn’t sure why he thought she would.
The night they spent on the couch at her parents’ place, talking until night became morning and sleeping together with their clothes on past morning and into noon, was a lifetime ago in both the figurate and literary sense, he mused, thinking again of cell replacement. Nothing had happened on graduation night. It could have, but it hadn’t, and now she was married, and he was stuck on a different sofa in her parents’ Sea Breeze Road beach house.
A loud and unexpected clunk sounded from the other side of the room, where his brother lay in a fetal curl on the loveseat. Aaron’s other loafer followed its twin onto the floor. Brandon’s shoes felt sizes way too small. His toes ached. His clothes clung awkwardly and, after two solid days in them, were steadily growing more fragrant.
Looking at the wide screen TV was nearly impossible, given the flash of high-def color and the speed in which channels raced past. None stayed on the screen long enough for the images to focus. The succession of rapid glimpses burned one after image atop another.