Letter From The Editor - Issue 56 - April 2017

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Oyster Beach
    by Sophie Wereley

Oyster Beach
Artwork by Scott Altmann

The day they found Joey Takamoto's body washed up on Oyster Beach, Yuan and I had been drinking up by the bridge to the mainland. We didn't know what was happening until the sirens went off.

"Someone died," Yuan said. Her beer slipped from her fingers and exploded in foam on the sand.

We started running, all clumsy arms and legs, toward the sound of the sirens. I had this feeling in my chest like I'd swallowed a fistful of smooth pebbles, and they were clogging up my throat and stomach.

We came around the bridge and I saw Mrs. Takamoto's car in the parking lot. That's when I knew it was him. Joey was dead.

Mrs. Takamoto held me and cried. Yuan covered her mouth with her hands. Her head swiveled back and forth. No, not again.

And the police didn't even say, "Have you girls been drinking?" They just took our shaking bodies and led us to the parking lot of Marsh Bro's Seafood, into the arms of parents and siblings and tourists who pointed from underneath their floppy hats. People without important faces patted my back and told me everything was going to be all right.

It was the two of us, drunk in a sea of liars.

Two weeks after they found the body, Joey's brother Jordin came back from the University of Virginia with a secondhand revolver in his luggage. He bought a motorboat and fifteen yards of trammel net, which he weighed down along the edges with copper washers. He went out on the water every day. Even though there were lots of stories about what happened to Joey, Jordin had already made up his mind.

"He thinks Joey got killed by the mermaid," I said.

"He's also an idiot," Yuan said. We watched him from the kitchen window. Marsh Bro's Seafood backed up onto Oyster Beach - the little blue crab statue on the roof sometimes looked like it was scuttling out of the water, if you came at it from the right angle - and we'd been watching him boat up and down the channel between the island and mainland for hours.

"Jordin's going to get himself killed out there, too," she said.

"Yeah," I said.

"He's not going to find it."

"It hides during the day," I said. Yuan kept her face still. She didn't talk about the mermaid at all, not even during tourist season, when the fishermen put away their traps and pretended to hunt her instead. She hated when I talked like the mermaid existed.

"Why's he got a gun for, anyway? A harpoon would make more sense."

I snorted.

"Who's going to sell a harpoon to some nineteen-year-old kid?"

"Who's going to sell a gun to a psycho who believes in mermaids?" she said, and leaned away from the window. "It's all ridiculous."

I had doubts. You didn't grow up on the island and end up totally rational. It was something about the constant white noise from the ocean and how the faces you saw changed with the seasons. Especially at Marsh Bro's. One minute you're talking to the regulars and the next some really white lady from California is asking if you have Alaskan king crab and whether there will be any mermaid sightings today.

All tourists are idiots. They want Alaskan king crab in Maryland, and they want mermaid sightings at noon when all the stories say she only comes out at night.

Yuan walked to the front counter, her flats tapping against the checkerboard floors. I liked to watch her go. When she turned fifteen years old, Mr. Marsh hired her for two dollars more per hour than minimum wage. He gave her a dollar raise every year, too, because he said her legs sold crab cakes.

It was true that Marsh Bro's did better business when Yuan was at the counter. She tossed her hair over her shoulder and grinned and it was like the sun. I'd seen grown men walk in and stare. Most days, I rinsed dishes in the back and felt satisfied that they wanted her, but she was mine.

There were no customers today. With the dead bodies, the tourists were divided into idiots who thought it was mermaids and idiots who thought it was sharks. Either way, they were all migrating to the mainland beaches.

Yuan locked the cash register.

"No one's coming in today," she said. "Do you want to go to the beach?"

I thought for a second. I didn't care that Mr. Marsh might find out and fire us both, or that Jordin might see us on the beach and decide to talk to me, which I wouldn't be able to handle. I thought this meant Yuan had forgiven me.

"Yeah," I said.

Jordin and I had last talked at his brother's funeral. They had it on a Sunday, so there would be fresh flowers in the church. The church was doing funerals for free now, even the catering. Before the service started, I saw Jordin by the cubed cheese, walked over and said something polite. He cracked a joke about me being the only one to show up without a date, then went to find his seat.

I sat two rows behind him. He cried for the entire service.

The casket wasn't open. Joey was too disfigured. Bloated from the water. Rips all up and down his back and stomach. Bite marks on his legs and arms and neck. His face was beaten in, unrecognizable. Two of his fingers were missing. His hair was ripped out of his scalp. He'd been bleeding, but he couldn't bleed anymore.

They found all the boys like this - broken apart. Like they'd been attacked by animals and dragged along the sea floor.

Lots of people said it wasn't the mermaid. Actually, everyone but Jordin, me, and the fishermen thought it definitely wasn't the mermaid.

I don't know if Jordin saw something that made him think she was real. I figured he must have. The only reason the fishermen thought she might exist was that they were drunk all the time. Maybe that's why I believed. I'd been drunk the day we saw her.

Yuan and I were walking on the bridge to the mainland. We liked to drink by the tower that controlled the drawbridge, because you could see the houses lit up on both sides of the channel.

We stopped at the beach on the way back. The night was blurry because of the fog and the beer we'd been drinking. We waded out into the ocean. The water foamed around my ankles, then my calves, then my thighs. We got sticky with salt.

Eventually we stopped making out long enough for me to hear something.

It's hard to remember what happened next.

I remember the look on Yuan's face as something crashed into my waist and dragged me under. I remember breathing in water and trying to grab onto the seafloor. I kicked and scratched and got sand in my eyes.

Whatever it was let me go, and I thrashed my way back to shore.

"Are you okay?" Yuan said. She held my shoulders while I threw up. Her hands were all sandy and rough.

"Yeah. I'm okay," I said, even though there was water running out of me everywhere. My eyes, nose, mouth, ears. I rubbed my stomach, because it felt sore, and saw blood on my fingertips. I'd gotten three deep scratches on my hipbone.

"You dumbass," Yuan said. Her voice was this cracking, watery-thin sound. "I thought you were going to die."

We made it back home okay. I limped, but I was still alive.

At the funeral, I wondered why I got to be alive when Joey was dead.

Yuan threw a pack of cigarettes and two cans of Fanta into her backpack and we headed out. It's a ten-minute walk from Marsh Bro's to the beach. The dunes out there are tall enough that you can't see over them, and the beach turns in on itself. It gets lower, too, like a bowl in the earth. High tide, it fills with water. Low tide, it's invisible. You'd get lost if you didn't know where you were going.

We called it the sex pit.

Yuan threw a towel down on the damp sand and sat down. Her orange dress stopped mid-thigh, showing off her leg freckles.

I sat next to her. She glanced at my dress, but then she was staring out at the channel, her mouth a little line. Yuan seemed to think I'd done it on purpose - wear a black dress to work so she'd get upset. But I wasn't trying to make a statement.

"Sorry. I wasn't thinking," I said.

Yuan shrugged.

"It's fine. You should take it off, anyway."

It was a test. Sleep with me and I'll know you still love me, Lyra. I wanted to make up, of course. I didn't want to keep fighting over my stupid clothes and my stupid ex-boyfriend. I wanted her back. I just wanted us to be okay before we started boning.

"I don't think that's a good idea," I said.

Yuan looked at the ground. "Sure."

We heard a motorboat come around from the south side of the beach. Jordin was bringing the boat down the channel. He waved when he got close enough to see us.

Yuan stood up.

"I wonder what he wants," I said.

"Have you talked to him since the funeral?" Yuan asked.

"No."

Jordin came to a stop about five feet out, anchored, and started wading toward us. He stumbled over to our beach towel and sprawled out, his revolver held loosely to one side.

"Afternoon, ladies," he said.

"How've you been?" I asked.

"I got heatstroke." Jordin pulled the corners of the beach towel over his face. "I'm just shitting sunburns at this point."

Yuan offered him a can of Fanta.

"Thanks." Jordin nursed the can like it was the last beer at a bad party. "You should be jealous, Yuan. Your girlfriend's been watching me all morning. I was shirtless."

"Yeah, that's why you got yourself heatstroke," I said.

"Probably."

Yuan sat next to him and dug her toes into the sand. Jordin was grinning up at me, and Yuan watched him grin. She wasn't thrilled, but she couldn't say anything. It was Jordin Takamoto. The Takamoto brothers were golden boys, even if they did sleep with mainland girls during the on-season. And of the two, Jordin was smarter, more athletic. Better-looking, too, I guess.

The island's token lesbians couldn't afford to be rude to him.

"Do you ever see her?" he asked.

"She only comes out at night," Yuan said.

"You guys are being careful, though, right?" he said. He handed me the empty can. "She gets you into the water because you're stupid and horny, and then she pulls you under and you drown. That's how it works in stories."

"I don't think the mermaid's gay, Jordin," I said.

"You're probably right." He laughed and collapsed back onto the towel. Yuan and I glanced at each other. There was no reason to laugh.

Joey had been the third to die. The other two, Colin Polenski and Serafino Gaiba, I'd known, but not like I knew Joey. We'd been dating for a year when I told him I didn't think I was interested in his bits. He didn't care that I liked girls. He held me together when coming out meant everyone hated me for hurting him. He got me the job at Marsh Bro's with Yuan, her smile, and her crab cake selling legs.

"So why aren't you on your little boat right now, anyway?" Yuan asked. "Looking for us?"

"Obviously." Jordin paused long enough for me to wonder if things were going to get really uncomfortable.

"We do actually have work --" I started to say.

"Do you want to come hunting with me?" Jordin asked.

I snorted. Couldn't help it. He called it hunting, like he knew what he was doing. Yuan's face was the same as when people talked about the mermaid -- impassive and perfect.

"Why would we do that?" she asked.

Jordin stared at the ground. His ears were red, and I stopped smiling because I remembered that Joey's ears used to do that, too.

"Not you," Jordin said. "Just Lyra."

Yuan looked at me. Her face stayed still.

"Get one of your friends to do it," I said, staring at my feet.

"He loved you," Jordin said. "Didn't you love him? Don't you want to avenge his death?"

I glared at him, seething. Joey was my best friend. He knew I loved him. I didn't owe anyone else an explanation of my feelings.

"You're talking like a cartoon character," I said.

Jordin shrugged.

"You don't have to help me if you don't want to."

"Helping you chase after an imaginary sea monster isn't helping you. It's feeding into your delusions. You're out there on your damn boat because you don't want to admit that Joey's gone."

Jordin's face went pale. His shoulders tightened. I took a step back, felt the sand under my toes shift. I couldn't outrun him if he snapped and decided to attack me.

"You've seen her, too, Lyra. You're just scared I might be right. If she did kill Joey, wouldn't you want revenge?"

A sick feeling floated up from my stomach. He had no way of knowing what I had seen, unless he'd been talking to Yuan, and she wouldn't have said anything about that night. She didn't even talk about it when we were alone.

"I can't do this. You can deal with the psychopath," Yuan said. She stood and stalked out to the dunes.

Jordin pushed himself onto his elbows and stared at the water, where his boat glistened dull silver against the channel.

"Do you think I'm a psychopath?" he asked.

"How do you know I've seen the mermaid?" I asked.

"You were in the picture they ran in the paper. The one where they blurred out his body. Everyone was staring at him, but you were looking at the sea."

"Maybe I just couldn't bring myself to look at him," I said.

"You're not like that," Jordin said, as if he knew what I was like. "And besides, you weren't sad, or crying, or whatever. You were just looking."

He stood.

"I usually leave the dock at eight. Meet me there sometime."

Yuan didn't talk on the way back to Marsh Bro's. I walked a little ways behind, watching her ankles as she kicked up sand and beach glass. I didn't want to look at her.

"Are you going to go?" she asked.

"I don't know yet."

"Please. Don't. Insanity is probably contagious."

We came around the depression, out toward the rest of the beach. Here, between Marsh Bro's and the water, was your beach if you were born on the island. It was a small spits that faced the mainland. You could see factories on the shore in the distance. The nice beach, with its endless ocean horizon, was reserved for tourists.

"Do you really think he's insane?" I pushed down on my legs as we walked over the dunes, levering myself up and over.

"There's no other explanation."

"His brother just died. That's enough to make anyone act a little crazy."

Yuan turned and gave me a hug, tight and fast. I pressed my eyes into her shoulder and breathed. She smelled like lavender and Old Bay. I remember it, how the scent was spicy and dry, and how it got sour if you lingered on it for too long.

"I wish you'd wear colors again," she said. "You're pretty in blue."

I stepped away.

"I'm mourning," I said.

She looked at me.

"I know."

The day Joey died, my parents were working double shifts at the hospital on the mainland. They wouldn't be off for hours, and even then it would have taken them ages to get home. I spent four hours at home, alone, staring out of either the window of my bedroom onto Oyster Beach, or the kitchen door at the gravel road that led to Ocean Avenue.

When dark came, I couldn't stay inside anymore. I biked from our house down the gravel path, and down Ocean Avenue, north to south.

The island isn't very large. On cool days I'd bike back and forth from the northern most point, near Marsh Bro's and the townies, to the south beaches where the tourists had their summer homes. None of it is very impressive. We're only an island because you have to cross a bridge to get here, and the bridge isn't very long. A mile or so of sea keeps us from being a part of Maryland.

It was incredibly hot that night. My clothes stuck to my body and my thighs stuck to the bike. I didn't even get cool when I stopped in the CVS and bought two packets of black craft dye.

"Are you going to the funeral?" the cashier asked.

"Probably."

"Only probably?"

I didn't answer. Instead I biked home as fast as I could. Then I stumbled into the bathroom, and dumped the contents of the packets, along with all of my clothes, into a tub of water.

I think it was the heat.

When Yuan knocked on the door hours later, it was midnight, and I was trying to figure out what to do with my dripping blackish-grey wardrobe. She stared at me. Black stains mottled my arms. My hair was tangled and sticky. At some point I had brushed my face and ended up with a black smudge across the bridge of my nose.

I was holding a t-shirt. It used to be green.

"Didn't you get my texts?" she asked.

I hadn't. I'd left my cellphone on the kitchen table.

Jordin had his boat tied up at one of the residential docks about half a mile away from his house. The Takamoto's house was an old, well-kept Victorian, left over from when the island was only just populated and everyone rode around on horses. It was tucked behind one of the tourist developments, overlooking the sea. I crept over there the next morning, before the damp had left the air, and waited.

He didn't keep me waiting very long.

Jordin was wearing a UVA t-shirt and a pair of gym shorts. He tossed me a bagel when he got close.

"You've been on a boat before, right?" he asked.

"Obviously."

I climbed in first. There was no point in trying to be nonchalant. He had already won. I was here. In the boat. Eating a bagel like this was something I did every morning. Jordin untied us and pushed off the dock with his foot, started tinkering with the motor.

The ocean smelled different in the morning. It seemed more potent then, when the sky was only just lighter than the water. It was a cold, clear smell, without any of the fishy undertones that I was used to.

"Do you know how to shoot a gun?" Jordin asked.

"No. Why a gun, by the way? Not a harpoon?"

"I'm pretty sure harpoons are illegal."

"The gun is legal?"

"It's kind of a gray area," he said.

Jordin engaged the motor and brought us around the dock and into the center of the channel. We went from the house, down the mainland side of the island, and towards Marsh Bro's. I watched the landscape as we skimmed by, resting one hand in the water.

It was exhilarating, seeing the town with sea in my hair. The schools - elementary, then middle and high together - the grocery store. The town dump. When Marsh Bro's came into view, Yuan was standing behind the shop, one arm held out at an angle like she was holding a cigarette. I realized that on a boat with Jordin was the absolute worst place for her to see me.

She waved twice. Then she disappeared into the shop, not waiting to see if I responded.

Later, she sent me a text: hope ur havin fun.

But she wouldn't return my calls.

I didn't see Jordin for a while after that. I kept thinking that if saw him, Yuan would somehow know and hate me. She eventually agreed to meet at the Italian buffet on Ocean Avenue. It was filled with the last straggling tourists and their sunburned kids. We ordered iced teas.

"Are we still dating?" she asked, once the waitress had brought our bread.

"What do you mean?" I said, fumbling at a piece of bread. My hands felt clumsy and far away.

"I just didn't know, after I saw you with Jordin. I thought maybe you forgot what being gay is like. I don't see why else you'd want to hang out with him instead of me."

My mouth dropped open.

"You're jealous? That's what this is?"

Yuan put down her menu. She brushed her hair behind an ear and leaned back in her chair.

"I'm just saying, he's basically a sexier version of Joey."

I wanted to hit her.

"What did you say to me?"

"It doesn't matter, anyway, Lyra," Yuan said. "You're not in love with me like I'm in love with you."

"What are you talking about? You think I'm cheating on you? With Jordin Assface Takamoto? You're calling me straight, and you're going to sit there and act like --"

"It doesn't matter if you're sleeping with a guy or not, 'cause you're in love with one," Yuan said.

"I'm not," I said. Then I felt the change. It was like someone flicked a switch in my head, and I realized.

Tears hit my plate in hot splatters. People were staring now. The waitress was lingering by the kitchen door, hiding behind two giant iced teas.

"You're breaking up with me," I said.

"Look at what you're wearing!" Yuan yelled. She threw her napkin onto the table and ran out of the restaurant.

She left me crying, alone. My face was absolutely determined to keep producing water. I rubbed my hands over my black shirt like that'd make the color go away.

The waitress came over a few minutes later and gave me some paper napkins. She patted my arm and said, in an old smoker's voice, "Oh, baby girl. It's hard both ways, isn't it?"

I spent the next few days stretched out on Jordin's boat, letting the sun bleach my brain clear. When I wasn't out on the water, with the white noise boring into my ears, I remembered that I lost my best friend and my girlfriend in a matter of weeks.

They were both gone. I was alone, and there was nothing I could do.

"I brought you lunch today," Jordin said.

I blinked away the glare from the sun.

"What?" I said.

"Made you a sandwich." He held it out carefully, like it was made of glass.

I ate it in a few bites, then lay down again.

"You know," Jordin said. "We could stay on land today. I have a car. We could drive somewhere, clear your head."

"No. I want to stay here."

From the bottom of the boat, I couldn't see where we were going, really. But I figured Jordin was doing his usual track up and down the channel, keeping one hand on the motor and another on his revolver. I closed my eyes and listened to the motor run for a while.

"Oh shit," Jordin said.

"What is it?" I said, pushing myself up onto my elbows.

"No, don't look --"

We were floating by the beach behind Marsh Bro's. I could see Yuan on the beach -- it could have only been her, a tall girl with black hair down to her waist, wearing a green bikini -- pressed up against a girl I didn't recognize. A tourist, probably.

"Are you okay?" Jordin asked.

I didn't answer.

Yuan had seen us looking. She waded into the water, then struck out against the tide, her arms glistening. The girl on the beach watched her go, caught in a pose that looked like maybe she wanted to go after her.

Yuan stopped halfway between us and the shore, treading water. Her mouth opened, to say something. Then she went straight under, fast, like something had yanked her down. She reappeared long enough to scream.

I threw off my shirt and sneakers and jumped into the water. Ocean filled my mouth and ears. I opened my eyes against the stinging and saw Yuan's body kicking a few yards away. I swam toward her, trying to work off my shorts at the same time.

Something gripped my ankle and yanked me down. I kicked. A dull pop -- gunshot -- sounded above me. My ankle was free.

I resurfaced.

Jordin was yelling. I spat up water and went back under. Yuan thrashed just below the surface. Another gunshot and she was swimming beside me. I pulled her up into a spinning confusion of brine and boat wake.

"Oh shit," Yuan said, in between coughs of seawater. "Oh shit -- she's going to -- Lyra, we --"

"Shut up!" I hauled one of her arms over my shoulder.

We used the waves to bring us to shore faster, rising with them, kicking hard when they pushed forward until we felt sand under our feet. Jordin's gunshots followed us to shore. One, two.

Yuan puked ocean all over the beach.

I rubbed her back, because I'd seen people do that in movies. She pushed me away. My heart panged, but I remembered I was mad at her. The girl she'd been kissing stared at us.

"Is that guy shooting at you?" she asked.

"No. Shut up." I stood and looked back at the ocean, worried about what would happen if the boat capsized.

Jordin had disappeared, the wake of his boat still in the water, pointing around the bend of the beach and toward the sex pit.

Yuan was about to say something when we heard the next shot go off.

"Stay with her!" I shouted at the tourist. She might have argued if I'd waited, but I was already running down the beach, my feet cracking shells in the sand.

Tide was low. Jordin had brought the boat right up to the edge of the bend in the beach. I almost ran into it as I came around the tall dunes and into the sex pit.

I stopped.

In front of me, curled up in the wet sand, was the mermaid. She was long and grey, with a tail that looked like it had been ancestral legs not too long ago. She had arms and hands, and I remembered the thing that gripped me in the water.

Jordin sobbed. His fingers dug into his legs so deep it looked like he shouldn't have been able to stand. The revolver hung from two fingers. The skin of his face bunched and pulled against his bones in deep wet wrinkles. He screamed at the thing in front of him.

"You bitch -- bitch -- you killed my baby brother!"

I walked around the edge of the sex pit until I could see her face. It wasn't a face, really, but a long skull with eyes and a mouth on it. She was bald.

She moaned and struggled to move. Her voice was alien and hollow, like the sound that whales make, but stunted and wavering.

She made another sound, a low, animal one. I stared at her face again, and I knew that Jordin was going to kill her. He was going to avenge his brother's death, like he said he would.

I felt like I was out in the ocean again, drowning. Everything had collapsed into a big ugly mess, and the reason for it was dying on the sand in front of me.

"You killed him," Jordin said again. "He was my brother and you killed him. I'm going to kill you, you stupid bitch."

"Leave it, Jordin," I said.

He looked at me. His eyes were red.

Sunset doesn't hesitate on the beach. The sun hit the water and turned it all orange and pink. Jordin rubbed his forehead with the backs of his hands. He was still holding the gun, and I worried that he might shoot himself in the head.

"She killed him," he said.

"It's not a she. It's just an animal. And it's going to die anyway."

"Then I'll put it out of its misery."

"You're talking like a cartoon character again."

We looked at the mermaid. She still convulsed, but she was trapped. I realized how large her stomach was, how much weight must be pushing down against her lungs. Thought of Joey, tossed around in the sea by something so big. Teeth. I saw her mouth open, and there were all these teeth.

"Put down the gun, Jordin," I said. My voice cracked.

He shook his head.

"Why should I?"

"She's going to die anyway. That should be enough, right?"

"It's not. I need this."

"No, you don't." I stepped toward him, took his arm. "This isn't right. Leave it."

"Dammit, Lyra!" he shouted. "You don't get to do this, okay? You can't tell me that I can't. She killed my brother!"

His face was blotchy red. He breathed shuddering little gasps.

"I'm sorry I'm not like you. I can't just make this grand gesture and then be okay, make out with my girlfriend like everything is normal again. I can't leave it. I'm sorry. Don't tell me I have to. Please."

I let go of his arm.

"I'm not okay."

Jordin didn't look at me, just leveled the gun at the mermaid. He shot her twice between the eyes, and then there were no more bullets.

The police found us stretched out on the beach like driftwood. They gave us blankets and told us to drink some water. We weren't looking at each other.

Yuan came with them, her hands twisting and retwisting around each other from worry.

"What happened?" she asked.

I was the one who stood up and explained. Jordin couldn't speak, not even after a policewoman gave him a sandwich and a cup of coffee. I figured I had to.

Yuan grabbed my hand when I sat back down.

"I'm sorry," she said.

It was easier to ignore her, so I took away my hand. She started to cry.

Jordin was eventually arrested for unlawful possession of a firearm. The judge was lenient. Given the circumstances, he wouldn't send Jordin to jail as long as he got grief counseling and did some community service. We met up at the dock after he finished the month-long counseling course.

"You been here long?" he asked.

"Nah," I said, glancing at my phone.

"Is Yuan coming?" he asked.

Yuan wasn't going to come, but I didn't say that. I hadn't invited her. It was better this way, with only the two of us. I still wanted her to call me, though. I wanted her to apologize again. I told myself I'd accept this time.

The walk to the sex pit wasn't very long. I glanced back at Marsh Bro's as we walked over the dunes, our feet struggling through already cooling sand.

We stumbled into the sex pit, carrying logs and sticks. The body was gone, taken away by the police to be turned over to some university lab. There wasn't even blood left.

Jordin piled the wood up in the center of the pit. I provided the matches. The fire burned green from salt, and we sat with our backs to it so we wouldn't have to look at each other. The sky got cold, and clouds bubbled up into the blueness.

The two of us on that beach. We sat there and waited for the fire to die.

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