Rushing along the Lighthouse Lane boardwalk toward the beach, Cort tries to slow herself down, to stop and breathe, but things are spiraling the way disasters do on TV, when every moment is more likely to bring something scarier than the one before. If there’s one bomb, have they ruled out two? If there’s one shooter, is he acting alone?
This is some completely new thing: just weirdness spreading, overwhelming people. Mom, and the little boy’s mother (though if Cort had shown up that may have been different), and others, too: the couple shouting at each other on their share house porch, the families sitting on the sand staring out to sea, the old guy laughing so loud at nothing. Nobody has slept, it seems like, and everybody’s going crazy.
Two kids, maybe twelve years old, look like they’ve just awakened in their clothes, bed heads and wrinkled shorts and Ts, standing dumbly with upturned faces. Beside them, three ladies in bathing suit tops and shorts who could be wearing more turn in place, looking up behind Cort and then back at each other with their hands floating up. What is everybody gawking at?
Cort turns and sees it: a smear of oily smoke staining the the sky over Pines Beach, turning the daylight dim and orangey. Ashes float down like gray leaves onto the rooftops and porches, dunes and bramble. The smell of burning reaches her, some shocked low voices, some curses as a few continue to stab pointlessly at their cells. Her ears feel hot. A hissing sound like static closes in and then fades. The surf a half a block away?
A few tourists take off toward town, jogging and shouting at each other. One almost trips, laughing. A family steps slowly out onto their porch, shielding their eyes, pointing, mouths slack.
Tay, Mom, where are they? Mom would still be in the unit two miles up the beach, where else, so okay. But Tay, who knows? With some new girl from Five Towns or Westchester, in their same little boatshack, getting her high and making her laugh until she lets him feel her up, for starters, anyway.
Two older guys march by, their heads twitching with anger or panic, clutching dead cellphones. Behind them, past the worn boardwalk steps that climb the last dune to the beach, Cort recognizes Sioux’s gray cedar and glass beachfront house where they all took Ex last year and ended up huddled in Sioux’s bedroom laughing and crying until finally they crashed, thank god, sprawled across each other with sweaty hair and blotchy skin and sour breath from the awful speed rush of it.
Cort crosses the lane and heads up the wooden steps to the landing by the glass front door. She peeks through the sidelight at the skylit foyer, past the broad stretch of light wood floor leading to the kitchen, where she remembers everything possible was made of stainless steel, like a chem lab or a slaughterhouse.
Halfway down the gallery, it looks like a painting has fallen from the wall, one of those big rectangles of solid color that cost more than Cort’s whole house. Cort drops her gaze to the door in front of her, and sees now it’s actually open a few inches.
“Hellloo?” she calls out, nudging it open a few more inches.
A whisper, a giggle, like children hiding. Cort steps carefully inside, wary.
Sioux Klein and Madison Schone are standing on the granite kitchen island counter in their underwear, toes painted alike with dumb glitter polish, giggling hysterically, dirty hair hanging in their faces. Their bodies look loose and blotchy beneath orangey tans. On the floor, a bottle of Vodka lies spilt sideways, a puddle shining.
Cort slows, finally seeing the single clothesline they have draped over an overhead beam, the ends tied into rough nooses around their necks.
“Hey, what are — let me —” Cort rushes forward, but Madison stops giggling long enough to slur:
“No, we’re doing this. Get away!” Sioux fights a blurt of giddy laughter, loses. She sways, her shoulders shaking, straightens, sways again, the rope tightening with a faint creak, the flesh on the side of her neck bulging around it, reddening.
“Owwww.” Madison whines, clawing at the rope around her neck, too, the slack gone as Sioux staggers. “Wait…”
Cort’s already clambering up the counter, grabbing Sioux by the waist: “Wait, stop. Let me, okay? And then, you know what? We just leave.”
Sioux tries to pull away, tightening the rope around Madison’s neck again. “There’s no ferry!” Her voice is a shrill, wet sob.
Cort shakes her head, tightening her grip. “There will be.”
“It’ll be too late! It’s already too late! We stopped the game, but we can’t sleep. We can’t!” Her mouth twists into an ugly smile as tears begin to stream.
Cort counters, “What about the boats, the Marina? Somebody will give us a ride.”
“To where, somewhere we aren’t? Where is that place? To someplace, but why, when we would be there, just the same, with this light. This noise. With my stupid fucking brain frying!”
Madison shouts, “Shut up! Jump! Now! Or I will!”
Sioux twists out of Cort’s grip and simply steps off the countertop. How can she be so heavy that she falls so impossibly quickly, like some huge, invisible thing has smashed her downward from above?
On the countertop beside Cort, Madison gasps and sputters, arching up on her tiptoes as Sioux’s counterweight pulls the rope taut. Her hands scrabble at the noose that has become too tight around her neck for her clumsy fingers to grab. Her nails claw at her skin, streaks of blood appearing as she sputters, eyes bulging.
Where is – something – anything — to cut the line? Cort’s eyes dart over the cabinet faces, drawer fronts, countertops. There! A wooden knife block offers up black handles. Cort leaps down and pulls one, which turns out to be a bread knife, but there’s no time to turn back for another. She rounds the island and grits her teeth and stands on her tiptoes to reach above Sioux and saw at the rope — some kind of boat rope, thick and braided, it turns out, not clothesline – and slick and waxy enough for the blade at first to skid rather than bite.
Seconds are all. How many does anyone have without breathing?
But even with the rope laid out like a loaf on a cutting board it would take a good minute to saw through with a bread knife, and meanwhile Sioux’s feet have begun to kick against Cort’s shins, heels hard, searching for purchase. One of her hands claws Cort’s hair and face, the other stabs at the air like a terrified blind girl’s. Cort dares to look upward, and Sioux’s swollen face is a light purplish color, her lips white.
Cort drops the knife with a sob to grab Sioux around her waist again, trying to lift her to create some slack, but there is none, by a missing foot or so of clothesline, there is none.
The sound that comes from Cort is lower than a scream, a long senseless shout that begs and denies and climbs as she struggles to lift Sioux higher into the impossible air.
They embrace, slow-dancing. Sioux’s feet never touch the ground, kicking at nothing, and her hands find a will of their own to grasp trembling at the clothesline choking the life from them.
Hold her, just hold her up. Just long enough for her to get her fingers under the noose.
Cort bends, her own breath stopped in a gasp.
Behind her, above, Madison has grabbed the line just above the noose and has pulled herself upward, like climbing rope hand over hand in gym class, but without the wrap and belay around the leg. Her toes dangle just above the counter; slack sags the line between her grip and the noose, and she lets out a startled grunt, as if at her own good idea.
But then her arms begin to quiver and twitch against failure, failure surely killing her a fraction of an inch at a time as gravity wins and she drops slowly back, the rope tightening again.
Cort has Sioux in an upward bearhug, like a clumsy skater’s lift, but Cort’s arms, too, begin to shudder until the taut desperate urging of Sioux’s body against hers stops, and a new, unmovable heaviness prevails.
Behind her, toes skimming the countertop, Madison makes a last sound like a thick, wet sigh, and dangles limply to one side, turning ever so slightly, one eye still seeming to gaze at some distant point, the other simply empty.
Cort’s arms give way now, too, and Sioux’s feet ghost the floor, one foot sideways, the other straight and so lightly barely touching down just ahead of her, a marionette’s.
Cort stays bent, squeezing her eyes shut.
Now, this is the time to finally wake. With a start, gasping to catch your breath while everything returns to the way it was before.
She opens her eyes.
Sunlight makes a shadow of a leaning girl across the floor.
A faint sound like creaking begins and stops. Begins again.
A thin smell like ammonia floats in the air.
Coming from Meerkat Press -- 2020