Strangers In The Land: Chapter 2
Author’s Note: I remembered to copy-and-paste into WP’s Visual editor this time in order to retain as much of the formatting as possible, but I probably won’t read through this ’til tomorrow morning at the earliest. As usual, feel free to comment both on any weird formatting glitches and on the finer points of craft, storytelling, and so forth.
I was thirteen when I first laid eyes on Arthur Winterbourne.
It was July: full summer, even in Connecticut. A sapping heat bowled in oppressive waves from the chipseal roads and a hot wind roiled out from the land to move upon the steely face of Long Island Sound like the spirit of G-d before the creation of the world.
Insofar as such a thing is possible on Long Island Sound in July, the beach lay deserted. Now and then, a disembodied voice would shout down the searing sand, “Not so far out, Jimmy!” or “Allison, watch your sister!” but for the most part the only sounds were wind and waves and the yearning cries of herring gulls.
It was not, in short, the kind of day that gets you moving.
I scoured the beach alone, slathered with SPF one zillion, my nose hot-white with zinc. I took no chances. Skin cancer, my science teacher had pronounced, can kill. Somewhere inland, my father taught voice and English to college students who sprawled, I imagined, in air-conditioned comfort.
At that moment, I hated them.
Our cottage – my father’s family’s cottage, the only long-term home in my short, itinerant life – stood just past the sand. A tattered verge of dune grass and a little fence marked the boundary of our yard.
I had spent part of the morning practicing the piano: then I’d decided that only an idiot keeps a piano in a poorly-insulated cottage by the shore. Our Baldwin upright jangled like a honkey-tonk. Bach came out like blues. I had given up. There was no point. The piano tuner, overlooked in the rush of summer plans, could not come ’til Friday.
After, I read on the porch until I thought my eyes would bleed. That, too, I had given up. Atlantic tedium had seeped into my bones.
With my plans exhausted, I had choked back a sad lunch of pastrami on dust-dry rye with a sheen of horseradish sauce and straggled out to the water.
Now, all along the arc of sand, I saw the telltale signs of an invasion: the pink, marbled bells cast up on shore, translucent tentacles entangled in the kelp and sea-bream washed up by the waves.
The jellyfish had come.
I loathed them — but it was loathing colored with the fascination of dread.
I did not see the car that came and went; the forlorn steamer trunk – G-d knows how old – dumped by the walkway to our cottage. I did not see the scene of tense leave-taking, bereft of tears or even words.
I saw none of this because I was absorbed in poking a dead jelly with a prodigious length of driftwood, nudging it back and forth along the tide-line, trying to turn it over. I crouched on the balls of my feet by the miniature monster of the deep, my very bones pulsing with the thrill of suspended fear.
From nowhere a voice said, “You can pick them up, you know.”
I froze. Something in me has always recoiled from strangers: especially from strangers with voices like silk-sheathed razors; like honey chased with wasps. I shifted my weight to my heels, but did not stand or turn.
The Voice behind me sighed. I heard the hush of footsteps in the sand: What? City shoes? School shoes. Cap-toe Oxfords appeared on the beach before me: Oxfords without socks. Slim ankles rose from them: frail stems dusted with white-blond hair. “Look, you’re Toby, right?”
I glanced up, now: reflexively, I rose. Before me stood the stranger who spoke with an assassin’s voice. His narrowed eyes, the unremitting azure of centuries-old glacial ice, fixed me in place.
I couldn’t move; could barely breathe. The stranger was a small god – a miniature Apollo clad in a white button-up (open well below his collar-bone) and khaki shorts – but he was none the less a god, gracile and golden-tan. Gods, I firmly held, did not speak to little brown-sparrow mortals like me except when they stooped from the heights to strike us down.
“You’re Toby Singer, yes? Hello? Jesus, what’s wrong with you?”
“I … what?” Internally I cursed the obstinate brain that inevitably failed to cough up words when I needed them most. I leaned on my driftwood stick and stared (cheekbones like razor-blades, those blue veins just beneath the temples…).
The young Apollo sighed again.
“I’m Artie. Arthur Winterbourne. Surely your Dad mentioned…” He trailed off, shook his head. “Look, I’m stuck here. Work with me.”
Blank, I stared at him.
“Anyway. I knocked but nobody answered. My stuff’s sitting by the fence. I need help getting it to the house.”
He wasn’t asking. I looked into his blaze-blue eyes and couldn’t begin to dream a refusal, so I went, feet dragging, eyes trained on his back.
He jogged up to the yard, his stride long-swinging, easy. He might have been fifteen, sixteen – an age at which most boys resemble gangling giraffes. Not Artie: he seemed too smooth, too finished. I stumbled along behind him; when we reached the torn selvedge of the property, he seized one handle of his battered trunk.
I took the other. Words came to me at last: “How much stuff do you need at the beach?”
He snorted. “Doesn’t your Dad tell you anything? Look, I’m staying with you all summer. Then, you’re taking me to Afton. My parents are divorcing.”
Divorcing, he said, not getting divorced or splitting up. Something about the word felt inexorable.
Dimly, I recalled some long-past dinner table chat: Dad leaning back and saying, “Toby, we might have a guest this summer.” Something about a student at Afton, the school where my father would teach come fall, and where I would, I assumed, wait out my high-school years. Something about divorce; bickering parents.
The trek from fence to porch measured maybe thirteen steps, but the sweat beaded and rolled as I wrestled Arthur Winterbourne’s trunk. I sighed as we heaved it up onto the porch. We set it down; he turned to me and dusted off his hands. “That’s good enough for now.”
“The door’s unlocked.”
“Do you really want to haul that bastard any farther?”
I hesitated. “No.”
He smiled a cool and distant smile that never reached his glacial eyes.
“You can pick them up, you know,” he said again, his voice a half-shade warmer.
I stared at him.
“The jellyfish. They’re harmless once they’re dead.”
I shook my head and sighed. “You must think I’m stupid.”
“Well, you haven’t exactly given me much to go on.” He regarded me flatly from beneath a wing of Rheingold hair that swung down to cloak his temple. I saw no sign of sweat, no trace of effort.
“Everyone knows the stingers in the tentacles still work,” I countered.
He raised an eyebrow. “That so?”
“Yeah. Peter Reynolds said his brother knows someone who tried it once and he got stung all up his arm.”
“All up his arm – is that a fact?” Artie leaned back against the door. I half-expected him to light a cigarette; instead, for an interminable moment, he simply stared out at the water, his head turned so the slanting light fell hard across his cheek; his perfect nose.
I tried to swallow, but my throat felt full of sand.
After a long, long pause, he fixed those eyes on me again. Chills rippled along my arms; crawled down my spine.
Artie smiled. Something in the tilt of his head, the way he lowered his eyelashes, seemed almost girlish. I looked away.
“You’re not scared, are you?” he asked. The wasps had gone from his voice; it was honey and satin now. “There’s nothing to be afraid of. I’ll prove it.”
He flicked his bangs away and looked me dead in the eye. Then he lit out from the porch.
Magnetized, I followed as he sauntered back down the weathered wooden steps, across the sweltering blond sand, and down to the jagged tide-line with its wicked cargo of little rosy bells.
He turned and locked his eyes on mine. Without once looking away he reached down; grasped a rosy jelly and raised it up, triumphant, like Perseus with Medusa’s head. He didn’t wince; he didn’t even blink. He simply smiled. “See? You can pick them up.”
I narrowed my eyes. “You’re faking it.”
“How?” He glanced at his hand.
He had me there.
“Come on,” he purred, “Grab one. It’s nothing.”
I swallowed hard, squeezed my eyes shut: almost of its own accord, my hand shot out and seized a marbled jelly from the sand.
A blinding, searing fire shot up my arm: I flung the jelly down; wildly shaking my blistering hand. Tattered remnants of the glutinous tentacles clung like vengeance; I dove, howling, into the water, which relieved the burning not at all.
Livid, I wheeled on him. From the water’s edge, I saw him drop his jelly. He, too, shook his hand furiously; I noticed a certain pinched paleness at the corners of his mouth now. Anger rose like bile in my throat; I marched out of the water, rage branding my temples as the invisible stingers branded my wrist, hands white-knuckled into bony fists.
With every fiber of my being I longed to strike him; to knock his pearly, leering teeth through the back of his skull.
Thirteen years as my gentle father’s son restrained me.
For the longest time, I simply tried to stare him down. In the end, I looked away. To the gulls, the wreckage of the tide, the waterlogged toddlers, and the beached legion of women, I hissed the clipped syllables: “Liar.”
Artie just laughed: a bright little sound, like the trumpets of heaven announcing the coming of the dawn. The he loped away; his perfect, even stride carrying him over the beach and to the house, my house; the one house I had always known and loved.
He leapt up the steps, went in, and closed the door.
I had no say in it.
He exploded into my cottage, golden and long-limbed and lithe. On the first evening, after supper (he asked, offhand, “Does your Dad always pray like that, like he’s singing?”), he drafted me to help him drag his trunk up to my room, where he sat down on my bed, pushing aside the curtains Dad hung there when I was three and afraid that ghosts might see me.
“That one’s mine,” I told him flatly, still catching my breath.
He shrugged. “Change is good for the soul, Toby Singer.”
I thought then of the story he’d concocted to defray my father’s censure: how he had blundered into a jellyfish at swim, and I had nobly sacrificed myself to extract him from its tentacles. Before then I had never thought to use a lie to save someone else’s behind. I looked at him, and looked, and finally shrugged and said, “Okay. Whichever you want. They’re basically the same.”
He smiled. “You could move yours under the window.”
I shook my head. “It’s cold at night sometimes. Even colder over there.”
He nodded. “Ocean breeze. I get it.” Yawning, he stretched himself out on my bed and pulled the curtains on their little wire track. “Hey, it’s cozy in here,” he announced.
I know, I didn’t say, I’ve slept there since nursery school.
Instead I stared at the faded curtains with their blue-and-white sailboat print. A breeze from the window stirred them; stirred the matching window treatments. With a sigh I sat down on the other bed, along the wall opposite the one that had been mine. The white chenille coverlet — just like the one on my bed, the one Artie’s sand-caked feet were besmirching right now – tickled the backs of my knees.
“Now what?” He threw the bed-curtain open again, its curtain-rings hissing along their wire track.
“Huh?” I looked up, startled.
He fixed me with his glassy, penetrating gaze. “Now what do we do? What do you do for fun around here?”
I blinked. “Um, fun?”
He rolled his eyes. “You know. Enjoyment. Frivolity. ‘Hilarity and riot.'”
Biting my lip, I looked away, rubbed my elbow. “I swim,” I spoke as if to a small and ignorant child, “Play the piano, sometimes meet up with some of the other kids and we do whatever.”
“Whatever,” he repeated, “What. Ever. Aren’t there parties, or bonfires, or something?”
I swallowed. “Yeah, but I don’t go.”
Without looking, I could feel his eyes on me, pinning me to the wall. “Dad doesn’t think it’s a good idea.”
Softly, he snorted. “And you always go by whether or not Dad thinks it’s a good idea?”
I glanced up again. “Yeah. Yeah, I do.”
He sighed. “I can see you have a lot to learn, Toby Singer. Stick with me, and you’ll go far.”
In my lap, my hands twisted around each-other. I looked out through the open window at the white waves cresting the water: in this light, the Sound looked almost the same color as Artie’s eyes. I drew a long deep breath and I thought, but did not say, But what if I’m happy where I am?