Montauk was the last stop.
On the Long Island Expressway, the bus had followed other cars under gray bridges and green road signs. Through the window I had glimpsed hands and hair and faces in profile and wondered what those people had lost. We crossed the Throgs Neck Bridge, a sprawl of concrete and wire suspended above the water. For the last hour, the sea was visible to my right. It stretched on and on; the waves were frothy and white. In Sayville, we passed long piers with boats tied to wood posts. Black and gray Shearwaters flew overhead. In East Quogue, I saw a parking lot that contained a small, pearl-colored carousel. In Napeague, a group gathered around a bonfire on the docks. I spread the highway map I’d purchased at a rest stop across my legs and followed the lines that led to the thin strip of land extending into the water like a finger.
The news reports I’d seen in the hospital had, so far, been accurate. The recovery was progressing. There were no new cases. The disappearance of the sickness remained a mystery. During my travels, I had seen people on the streets and in bus seats and wandering roadsides with their faces uncovered. On the radio, I’d heard that Montauk had fared better than other parts of New York. The town on the very tip of Long Island had been easier to quarantine than the Hamptons or Freeport.
Montauk was bordered by three bodies of water: Fort Pond Bay, Block Island Sound, and the Atlantic. A national park lay on the western edge; the lighthouse stood on the eastern tip, isolated from the grid of narrow streets and beach houses downtown. By the time the bus passed the arched wood sign that read Welcome to the Village of Montauk, I was the only remaining passenger. The town itself seemed peopled, but sparsely—the occasional car on the road or passerby on the sidewalk. In the distance, I could see the flashing peak of the lighthouse.
On my way to New York, I had moved through cities—St. Louis, Indianapolis, Pittsburgh, Trenton. I used my cash on chips and Cokes from rest stop vending machines. Once I nearly missed the bus from spending too long standing in front of a soda machine, trying to remember how to choose. Anything else I needed, I paid for with one of the Televangelist’s credit cards. I kept my mother’s photo in my back pocket. I held the accordion case in my lap until my thighs went numb.
I saw cut power lines, the black cords swaying like tentacles, and billboards with tattered advertisements and vines crawling up the metal legs. Brown cattle rooting in the snow. A woman who boarded the bus in Akron and looked, for a moment, just like Lynn. In Pennsylvania, two horses galloped into our path. One was white, the other reddish brown. They seemed to come out of nowhere. The driver hit the brakes and the bus skidded. The horses slipped on the asphalt, their heads raised, their manes billowing. Their running seemed frantic, without sense or direction. I pressed my hand against the window and thought about how I used to dream of me and Liam leaving the Hospital together and boarding a bus just like the one I was sitting in and watching the landscape pass.
Of course, there were faster ways to travel. I told myself that I didn’t want to wait in lines or lug the accordion case through airport security, but the truth was that I’d never flown before and everything about the idea frightened me: the cramped seats, the tiny bathrooms, the turbulence, the suspension. I wanted to move in a way that was familiar.
I was dropped off on Euclid Avenue. The small downtown looked deserted. There were no cars. A bicycle lay in the road. A pagoda stood in the center of a roundabout. The roof was falling in and the surrounding hedges were withered. A white mist was descending over the town. I could see it hanging above the rooftops, threatening to sink even lower.
The last time I saw my mother, she was in a submarine on Mysteries of the Sea. I didn’t know what had happened since. I only knew where she lived and that, according to WeAreSorryForYourLoss.com, she was still alive. My plan was to go to her houseboat, where I hoped she would be. And if she wasn’t there, I would settle in and wait.
In search of the harbor, I ended up cutting through a playground, where I found vacant swings and a slide and an overturned ice cream cart. The thin rubber wheels were deflated and a sticker that read WE SCREAM! was peeling away from the side. Two teenage girls were sitting on the swings, swaying back and forth. They were both slim and pale, with silky hair that reached the center of their backs.
“Hey,” I called to the girls. I set down the accordion case and stretched my fingers. On my way to Montauk, it had taken me some time to get used to talking to strangers, to managing everyday exchanges like buying a ticket or asking where I could find a bathroom. “Which way to the harbor?”
They rose from the swings and walked over to me. Their tempo was both casual and suspicious, like it would only take one wrong move for them to bolt. One of the girls had blue eyes, the other hazel. They were both wearing gray sweatshirts and jeans. The hazel-eyed one was chewing a pink wad of gum.
The blue-eyed girl pulled two cards from her front pocket. She held them out in front of me, one in each hand. They were large cards with creased edges and blazing yellow suns.
“Want to pick?” she said.
I remembered the professional tarot card reader who lived on my childhood street in Revere and was always predicting terrifying things.
“No thanks,” I said.
The girl shrugged, then bent over and rapped her knuckles against the accordion case. Her friend snapped her gum.
“Anyway,” I said. “I’m still looking for the harbor.”
The girls nodded past the slide and the swings. I went off in that direction. Even though I didn’t look back, I could feel their eyes on me. The accordion case thumped my leg. I did my best to pull it along.
Eventually I reached a long dock. Fog had collected around the anchored boats. I passed work boats filled with metal cages and nets, vessels with names like The Intrepid and The Blue Pearl, and a boathouse paneled in gray cedar shake. A pink-cheeked man in overalls sat on the edge of the dock, smoking a cigarette. He didn’t say anything to me when I passed with the accordion.
At the end of the dock, I found the fiberglass shark hanging from the metal chain. It was bigger than it had looked on TV, nearly twice my height. The white plaque on the harbor read: 16 Harborside Blvd. I kneeled and moved my hands over the letters. My mother’s two-story houseboat was docked in her space, right where it was supposed to be.
The houseboat’s upper level was pink, the lower level yellow. The hull was painted a dark blue. From the outside, the levels were connected by a little turquoise ladder. I stepped onto a narrow white deck. The houseboat swayed. I noticed the muddy outline of a footprint by the stern, but couldn’t tell how old it was. I knocked and rattled the knob. No one came to the door. I picked the lock with a hairpin and went inside.
The interior had the stale, untouched feeling of a place that had not been occupied for some time. I called my mother’s name, but there was no reply. The first floor contained the helm, a sitting area with a mauve sofa and a coffee table, and a kitchen. There was a black stove and a toaster. A small TV was mounted on the wall. In the refrigerator, there was only a jar of peanut butter. Half a loaf of bread and coffee in the freezer. A circular table with a single chair had been jammed in a corner. I rested the accordion case on the linoleum floor and rubbed the knot of muscle in my arm. I sat at the table and pictured my mother eating her meals there, which it didn’t seem like she had done in a while. I looked at the harbor through the long rectangular window that stretched above the couch. Fog hovered over the water. I wondered if the view had been enough to keep her from loneliness.
It was hard to ignore the possibility that my mother might not be happy to see me. That she might have had a very good reason for keeping her distance, her anonymity. That each time a young woman approached her, there was a flicker of dread. I hoped she would see that I was worth keeping around.
The first time I heard a noise upstairs, I thought it was just the sound of wood settling. The second time, it was unmistakable: the creak of footsteps above me. I called for my mother again. Still no reply. A tall glass jar filled with kitchen utensils sat on the kitchen counter. I pulled out a metal spatula, which I knew would do me little good in a fight, but I was comforted by the idea of having something beyond my own limited wits. As I climbed the stairs, I told myself that the person could be my mother or a well-meaning neighbor or maybe even another relative. Imagine that! I tried not to remember the newspaper headlines I’d seen about looters taking over empty homes.
On the second level, I found nothing but furniture. A large oak desk bordered by small towers of books. A silver lamp, black with tarnish, sitting on the floor. A map of a body of water thumbtacked to the wall. A neatly made futon bed. The peach-colored comforter had been smoothed, the white pillows fluffed, as though it had been prepared for a guest who never arrived. The floors were made of dark, smooth wood. The wallpaper, a pattern of green vines with spade-shaped leaves, was worn bare in spots. In the center of the ceiling, there was a skylight. When I peered through the glass, it was like looking at the belly of a cloud.
I checked the closet, which was half-full. I ran the edge of the spatula over the empty hangers and listened to them clink together and thought of how remarkable it was that I was doing the same thing in my mother’s houseboat that I once did in the hospital. Next I squatted and looked under the bed, and it was from the floor that I noticed the bathroom door: it was closed, but there was a light on inside. The door was locked. I heard water running.
I sat on the edge of my mother’s bed. I held the spatula with both hands and considered how, if need be, it could be turned into an effective weapon. I hadn’t come all the way to Montauk to be frightened away. I was here, finally, and I had no plans to leave.
As I waited, my mind dipped back to gliding down the Hospital halls: my slippers sliding over the floor, my fingers moving across that patch of bubbled wallpaper, the silence. There had been moments during my journey when I’d thought, for a split second, that I was still there, and it had taken a minute or two of staring out the bus window for me to return to myself. I took long, deep breaths. I jiggled the spatula. I picked at my cuticle until it seeped blood. I listened for the sound of the lock turning and the door creaking open.
Finally a lanky figure dressed in jeans and a black hoodie emerged. It was a man. He didn’t say anything when he saw me. He just stood in the bathroom doorway. He was wearing a chipmunk mask: oval eyes with cartoon lashes and two square white teeth. I registered the downward cast of the chin, the slight hunch in the shoulders. Coupled with the mask, it was as distinct as a fingerprint, and I was no longer afraid.
I rose from the bed, leaving the spatula behind. There was a crescent of dried blood at the base of my thumb. I walked right up to him and raised the mask.
Oh, what aging can do and not do. His face was pale and smooth, a lifetime’s protection from the sun. The few lines I found looked like creases on parchment. The scarring was still deep and rippled; the vacant socket was dark. Flecks of dry skin had collected around his lips. He had a gray streak near his hairline. I fingered that clump of hair; it had the downy feel of animal fur. I pressed my hand against the web of scars and the sunken left socket. I remembered touching his face for the first time and nearly wept.
“Marcus,” I said.
Marcus had no way to explain his appearance. He was simply here, in Montauk, and for the time being, that was enough.
On our first night, it was decided that I would sleep upstairs, on my mother’s futon, and he would take the couch. It seemed clear that my mother had not been here for some time, but this was her home: she had to return eventually. In the meantime, I could feel myself becoming enamored with the idea of restoring life to the houseboat, of making it a place she would want to come back to. At night, I would stare through the skylight and listen for Marcus’s noises downstairs. It was hard to believe he was really here, but then I would hear a creak or a cough and know that he was.
I started thinking about the time we ran away to Little River, a campground in Revere. We took a pillowcase filled with hamburger buns and Dr. Peppers and Band Aids and a flashlight. Marcus was ten. I was eight. On the way, I found a penny and kept turning the coin over in my hand. Was it good luck to find a penny head’s up or tail’s up? I couldn’t remember. Marcus couldn’t either.
At the campground, we hid out in the woman’s bathroom and for hours Marcus had me shine the flashlight on the tile wall while he used his hands to make shadows in the shape of a flapping bird and a barking dog and an elephant with a sagging trunk. We were damp and dirty and couldn’t stop laughing. We had eaten half the hamburger buns; soft white bread was stuck to the roof of my mouth and sesame seeds were wedged between my teeth.
Later we pretended the shower stall was our very own apartment. The curtain was the door. I made a show of pushing it aside and telling Marcus I was home. The plastic crinkled. He rose from the corner of the stall. He raised his Darth Vader mask long enough to kiss my cheek.
By midnight we had eaten all the bread and drank all the soda. We were lying on the cool floor of the shower. We had told ourselves that the ceiling was made of glass and we could see constellations. We named the ones we’d learned about in school—Orion’s Belt and Ursa Minor and the Milky Way.
“Here’s how they’ll find us,” Marcus said after we’d run out of stars.
First, he predicted we would hear cars pulling in, then footsteps. Everyone would have flashlights, only they would be bigger than ours. We would be discovered by a man, a stranger, but our foster parents wouldn’t be far behind. We didn’t have much more time here.
Even at that age, I was aware that happiness, our happiness, was a fleeting thing, like a popsicle melting around your fingers in summertime. But I didn’t want to think about having to go home. I didn’t want to think about consequences. I just wanted the coolness of the tile and elephants made of shadows and the sensation of our fingers touching.
An hour later, Marcus’s premonition came true. We heard the cars first, then footsteps, then voices. The local sheriff found us in the shower stall. He moved his flashlight over our bodies and asked if we were hurt, his face tensing as his light settled on Marcus’s mask. When our foster mother barreled into the bathroom, she wanted to know whose idea running away had been and Marcus said it had been his, that I hadn’t even wanted to go. When I thought about Little River now, I was struck by how young Marcus had been when he started becoming aware of his abilities, and the way he had tried to shield me from blame.
In Montauk, we spent our days exploring. One morning, it was so foggy outside that the lobster cages appeared stuffed with white, as though the mist was something they’d dragged up from the sea. We discovered an out-of-service gas station—the windows were covered with plywood signs that read NO GAS—and the Harbor Master’s office, which was dark and locked. There was the Montauk library, a lavender-colored building with bay windows, and an American flag, raised to half mast, snapping in the wind. Every time we returned from an outing, we searched for some sign of my mother, but found nothing.
On Surfside Avenue, a grocery was selling rationed portions of rice and canned foods and bottled water. The store was cramped and dusty, but the shelves were stocked with beans and tuna fish and peas. The owner, a middle-aged man with acne scars on his cheeks, measured out bags of rice on a small silver scale. I kept using the Televangelist’s credit cards to pay.
The grocery was one of the few places where we could count on finding a gathering of townspeople. When I asked the owner and the people in the checkout line and in the aisles if they had seen a woman named Beatrice Lurry, they all told me the same thing: there had been no sign of her since the sickness ended.
Once we followed Emerson Street down to the beach. The air grew saltier and damper and before long, we were picking our way through a patch of rocks and following a sandy path out to sea. Bundles of slick, mossy kelp had washed ashore, along with driftwood and seashells. Some shells were white and grooved; others were brown and knobby. I squinted at the water and made out red buoys through the fog. The clouds were thin and woven together in a way that reminded me of muscle fiber.
“Do you hear that noise?” Marcus asked. He was wearing a maroon coat with a hole in the stomach, so white stuffing kept spilling out.
I nodded. Each time a wave rolled in, there was a cracking sound. It was like hearing a hundred bones snap at the same time. I watched a bird with a black circle around its neck skim the surface of the sea and pull something from the water. The wind swirled sand around our legs.
On the beach, Marcus told me that he had hitchhiked from Boston to Montauk. He described the things he had seen during his journey: a helicopter crashed on the edge of a field, churches with shattered windows, an abandoned watchtower with hands stuck at noon, a nightfall that closed around him like a fist. Before the sickness, he had been living in a shelter in Cambridge and playing chess for money in Harvard Square.
As I listened, I considered how it felt for us to be back together. Natural: that was the first word that came to mind. I imagined a system of wires connecting our lives the way power lines link transmission towers.
I picked up a gray stone and threw it into the water. “Do you still set things on fire?”
“Before the sickness, I thought the urge was going away.”
I could feel him curling away from the question. He worked on pushing the stuffing back into his coat. “Hard to say.”
I reached for his hand and squeezed. His skin had the same soft feeling that I remembered from childhood.
I told Marcus things too. I told him about the Hospital and Dr. Bek and Liam and the twins. I told him about finding my mother in the most extraordinary of ways. I explained that I had come to Montauk to make a new life. I couldn’t go back to Boston. I started telling him about the Televangelist and the well, but stopped myself.
“You must already know about all that,” I said.
“I never knew about the Televangelist,” Marcus replied. “I only knew you were in trouble. I only knew about the well. Just like I didn’t know how or why you were coming to a houseboat in Montauk, only that you were.” He said this in a way that did not invite more questions.
Another afternoon, we walked along the side of Route 27, moving in the direction of the lighthouse. It was a rare, clear day. The sun had burned away the fog; the sky was open and blue. A VW bug passed us on the road, sputtering exhaust. The lighthouse flash seemed brighter. We walked by a construction pit. A yellow cement truck was parked next to it, along with neat stacks of metal beams, yet it seemed the actual construction had never started, leaving behind a gaping hole in the earth.
The farther we got from the water, the more the landscape thickened. I watched the slim points of branches bend in the wind. We passed a knotted oak and I thought I glimpsed the twins’ faces resting in a crook like a pair of eggs.
We came across a sign for a place called Camp Hero. A red wooden arrow pointed to a path that disappeared into the woods. We followed it and soon we were standing in front of an enormous radar. The bottom was a huge gray cinderblock, the top a metal dish shaped like a canoe. A tall chain link fence, capped with barbed wire, surrounded the tower. The land was mucky and dark. Beyond the radar I could see clusters of white buildings.
A nearby plastic stand held a stack of brochures. The paper was brittle and damp. Some of the words were smudged, but I was able to discern that the radar was originally constructed to detect Soviet Bombers. Every day in Montauk seemed to bring something that was new to us.
Even so, exploring wasn’t all we’d been doing. We had attempted to start the houseboat’s engine, thinking we could go in search of my mother, and determined it was non-working. When a rainstorm revealed a leak in the roof, Marcus found a toolbox under the kitchen sink and used the turquoise ladder to climb up and repair it; I’d been in charge of passing him the nails. I wanted us to take care of this place, to do the things my mother wasn’t presently around for. We discovered fishing tackle in the lower level closet and cast lines off the deck. So far, the only thing we’d caught was a doll with a missing arm and melted skin, her bow-shaped mouth dark with algae. During our expeditions, I kept an eye out for people from Mysteries of the Sea, people who might be able to tell me something about my mother—the tugboat captain; a member of the camera crew—but no one we’d come across in Montauk had looked at all familiar. I examined her desk drawers and found envelopes, a gold letter opener, and a pamphlet on Montauk. I touched everything because my mother had touched those things and for now, that was the closest I could get to her. The map on the wall was of all the bays and sounds around Montauk. I used a black marker to trace the course she had taken on Mysteries of the Sea.
In the middle of the night, when I couldn’t sleep, I read the books in her office. One stack was concerned entirely with physics; I read about special relativity and the twin paradox. The language was advanced, hard for someone like me to understand. Another stack contained novels: Don Quixote, Treasure Island, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, which featured a submarine on the cover. Sometimes, while I was reading, I heard Marcus playing the Televangelist’s accordion downstairs, and the wheezing melody made me feel, strangely enough, right at home.
At Camp Hero, he’d picked up a brochure and fashioned it into an airplane, which he launched over the fence. It crested upwards, then became entangled in the barbed wire. I slipped my fingers through the metal circles and felt the fence shudder. I leaned against it and wondered if Montauk was what our childhood might have been like if it had been all foster kids and no parents.
Our nights went like this: I took showers so hot, my skin burned. Marcus washed our clothes in the kitchen sink and draped them over the railing to dry. I knocked the sand off our sneakers and listened to the grains scatter across the deck. We ate plates of fried beans and peanut butter sandwiches for dinner. Usually Marcus slipped bites under his mask, but once he placed the chipmunk face on the coffee table and let me watch the scars squirm on his jaw. We surveyed the night sky through the windows and made a wish whenever we saw a shooting star. I wished for my mother, wherever she was. Wished she would come back. That I would wake in the morning and find her standing over me and demanding to know who was sleeping in her bed. I wished for everyone I had left behind at the Hospital. I wished Detective George was still solving her cases. I wished for Liam and the twins and Christina and the Televangelist. I wished for Marcus, that he would be happy with me, in this houseboat in Montauk. I wished that I would finally learn how to stay out of trouble.
One night, we were side by side on the couch, watching TV. I was dressed in the white bathrobe I’d found in my mother’s closet. My hair was wet. My skin smelled like soap. In the Hospital, we’d been allowed to shave once a month. Gerry or Lynn would issue us a disposable razor and wait outside the door. My legs and underarms, once covered in a light fuzz, were now smooth. My bangs were finally long enough to push behind my ears.
I always wanted to watch the news, in hopes of seeing something about the Hospital. So far the closest I’d come was spotting Nicola Dresden and Richard Kim, the same reporters I used to watch from the Common Room. That night an “Outbreak Retrospective” was playing on CBS. A rash of survivors had, in the last month, simply disappeared. Some had picked up and gone across the country. They had abandoned jobs and homes and pets and families. Some left behind only a letter to explain, or just vanished in the middle of the night. Others had committed suicide. About a hundred people, in all. The news called it a “micro-epidemic.”
In an interview, a psychologist said some survivors didn’t know how to make sense of what they’d lived through, so they shed their old life and assumed another, which I supposed was not so different from what I had done by coming to Montauk. Images from the sickness came next: bodies under white sheets, patients behind plastic tents, helicopters sweeping cities, National Guard marching around in their hazmat suits.
A woman appeared on the screen. She was middle-aged. Her skin was ruddy. A tissue was crumpled in her hand. Her son had survived the sickness and then jumped off the Golden Gate Bridge. He had left a note telling her that he couldn’t trust the world anymore.
The woman looked into the camera. A clear stream ran from her nose. “When could we ever?” she said.
I fell asleep on the couch. When I woke, the living room was dark and still. I sat up and sleep wilted away like sand falling from my hair. My neck was stiff. The room felt empty. Marcus had been sitting next to me and reading the pamphlet on Montauk. He’d told me that the lighthouse was the first of its kind in New York State and its flashes could be spotted from nineteen nautical miles. The last thing I remembered seeing was his mask.
I got up and turned on a floor lamp. A large white moth had settled on the shade. I rattled the lamp and it fluttered over to the wall. The houseboat rocked beneath me. I checked upstairs and the deck. Marcus was gone.
Outside the wind was biting. I pulled my sweatshirt sleeves over my hands. I walked away from the harbor, toward the cluster of buildings downtown. From the shadows a trio of young men emerged. They were falling against each other and singing. They seemed to be coming from the direction of the beach. Soon I was moving through rock and sand, on my way to the water.
The wind must have carried the smoke over to me, as I smelled the fire long before it came into view. And then, once the beach was in sight, I saw a wild bloom of orange and a gray train of smoke moving across the sky.
The fire was spilling from a rusted aluminum trashcan, the flames stretching upwards. Marcus stood next to his creation. I skidded down a sandy bank and came up behind him. Up close the smoke was thick.
“What are you burning?” I rubbed the toe of my sneaker into the sand. The shoreline was dark. I could only tell when the waves were rolling toward us from the cracking sound.
“Trash,” he said. “Just things I found on the road.”
“How does it feel?”
He gazed at me with those blank chipmunk eyes. “Good enough.”
I raised my hands and the heat warmed my palms. It’s a beach fire, I told myself. A perfectly normal thing for two young people to be doing.
“This is the thing about fire,” he said. “Most people think it’s about destruction, about burning something down. But it’s not about that at all. It purifies. It takes a thing and makes it into something new. It releases.”
“Whatever needs letting go.”
Marcus sat on the ground and began shaping sand into a cylinder. I crouched next to him. The sand was damp and stuck together easily. I had seen him do this before, in the backyard of our foster home, with the wet dirt a rainstorm would leave behind. Once the base of the castle was finished, he stenciled in two long windows with his pinkie finger. I added a lopsided spire roof. We dug a mote. We went deep enough to feel the ground turn icy cold. Marcus leaned toward me. He smeared sand against my hair and then my cheek. I grinned and shook my head like a dog throwing off water. I grabbed a handful of sand and threw it at him. It pinged his mask and slid down the plastic. I didn’t have to see his face to know he looked happy right then.
Together we leaned back on our elbows and gazed out at the dark water. We breathed in the smoke and felt the heat press against us. A hard gust passed over and smashed the fire down into the can like a fist. I thought for a moment that the fire had been extinguished, but then the wind stilled and it burst over the edges, bright as ever.
Photo by Jasen Miller on Flickr
© 2012 Laura van den Berg. All rights reserved.