On a Saturday evening in late September, a pretty girl in a red bikini ran along the edge of the surf. Behind her, the Seaside Heights amusement pier jutted into the Atlantic. The roller coaster plummeted, and kids' high-pitched screams skittered wildly through the salty air. Joy and fear. We're scared and we love it. Stop! Keep going!
A purple sunset bridged sky and sea. The girl was tall and athletic, and she ran in smooth strides that ate up big bites of toasty sand. Her long brown hair trailed behind and seemed to float magically out over the line of surf. Beth was her name, and the good news was that she was running to me.
Yet even as I sat there watching her speed toward me, surrounded by my friends from school, with a radio thumping music and a cooler full of drinks planted in the sand, I knew that real trouble was also headed my way. It was racing toward me faster and faster, step by ominous step.
This would all fall apart. The bliss, the magical Indian summer, Beth, all of it. And not only couldn't I stop it, but I had to start it.
Soon. I had already waited too long.
I don't know if you've ever held a secret so powerful that it could make someone you love stop caring for you in the blink of an eye.
If you ever find yourself in possession of such a secret, you might be braver or more honest than I was. You might come right out with it at the first opportunity Here it is. I think you have the right to know this. Now I've told you everything. Do you still love me?
But with all due respect, I don't think you'll act that nobly. I bet you'll do what I did: keep it to yourself in the safest hiding place there is--your own mind. Tuck it away for as long as possible and try to pretend it isn't there. Pull it out and examine it in the dark of night, when you're all alone, and then shove it back quickly.
The strange thing is that no one will be able to guess you own such a secret. Not your sharpest teacher. Not even your dearest friend. So you'll feed off the false hope that maybe if you just wait, the secret will vanish into the swirl of sand as the wind kicks up along the beach. Perhaps it will float off like driftwood with the night tide, or circle away like a knot of gulls into the purple sunset.
Don't be fooled. It won't disappear. Eventually it will catch up with you, and you'll have to confront it.
Near me, a bunch of my buddies played a violent game of sand soccer. The ball got half-buried in a dune. Smitty and Charley Hu, Junior Martinez and Kerry Vaughn kicked sand into each other's faces and pushed and elbowed and shouted. One player was better than the rest, faster and more skillful.Tommy Fraser dug the ball out, dribbled around Charley, and blistered a shot through Smitty's legs.
Goal! Cheering. Whooping. Insults back and forth.
And then she was there. Breathing hard. "How come you're not playing?"
"I decided to sit this one out."
"Good," Beth said, "then you can go for a walk with me. It's a gorgeous sunset"
Normally I wouldn't need much convincing. She saw me hesitate. "What's wrong?"
She looked down at me. Hands on hips. "Jeff?"
I stood up. "Okay. Let's go."
"You don't sound enthusiastic."
"Do you want me to turn a cartwheel?"
"Bet you couldn't," she said, and then she turned one of her own. I watched her spin, hands splayed wide in the sand, lithe legs whirling. Then she was standing again, smiling in triumph, hazel eyes flashing. "Your turn."
"Forget it. I can't compete with that. Anyway, guys don't turn cartwheels. We're not built for it."
"Chicken," she teased softly.
We started off across the sand toward the pier. Packs of kids still roamed the boardwalk, flirting and fighting and playing video games. Cotton candy and balloons. Arcade games of Ring Toss and Frogger, and pyramids of milk bottles that never completely toppled. Here on the beach, the air was tangy with salt. Beth took my hand.
A few minutes from now, when we walked back this way on our return trip, she would know. I couldn't not tell her about Troy and what was about to happen. Kids would be talking about it at school. It might even make the newspapers. Better she hear it from me.
"So come on, what's the big mystery?" she asked. "You've been acting weird all day. Make that all week."
"There's no mystery," I told her, which of course wasn't true. "I just don't feel comfortable talking about it when there are other people around."
"Talking about what? Jeff, there's nobody else here."
A tall guy jogged by, grooving to headphones. I nodded at him as he ran past. "Almost nobody." The wind had picked up, and waves crashed against the steep bank.
"Did you do something wrong?"
"No," I said too quickly.
"You did, didn't you?" Beth sounded a little gleeful. I guess I don't do enough things wrong.
"I said no!"
"Wow," she whispered, "this is really serious."
She nestled close, and I put my arm around her. We could hear music from the pier now. Springsteen from a boogie box, cranked to ten thousand decibels. Circus music from rides jingled merrily. On the end of the pier couples smooched. We could see them silhouetted by the sunset, pressed close.
The pier normally closes on Labor Day, but the rides and game booths had stayed open for a few extra weekends to milk a little bonus money out of the unseasonably warm weather. Thiswas the final Saturday night. By Monday everything would be closed and shuttered. One last perfect summerlike evening on the Jersey shore. I held Beth tighter.
She was my first girlfriend. I had asked her out on the last day of school, and we had spent the summer together. It was the best thing that had ever happened to me in my entire life. Nothing even close. I would have done just about anything in the world not to tell her what I knew I had to. "Warm enough?" I asked.
"Yes. But curious. What's wrong?"
"Wait till we get off by ourselves."
"We could find a boat and row out to sea," Beth mocked gently. "Then there wouldn't be anyone around but fish, and they probably don't care about your secret."
"It's not my secret," I muttered, looking down. With each step our sneakers pressed twin prints into the sand.
"Then whose is it?"
That surprised her. "You mean you guys have a real family secret ... like a mad aunt in the attic?"
"A mummy's curse?"
"Jeff, don't tease me. Your parents are the nicest people I've ever met. It's hard to believe they have a secret worse than a mummy's curse following them around."
"Yeah," I grunted. "But I think if you gave them the choice, they'd take the mummy any old day."
We reached the old amusement pier and walked beneath it. It was gloomy and noticeably cooler. There was a feeling of danger--anyone might be lurking down here. It was also a well-known make-out spot. Beth and I had been taking things one step at a time, getting to know each other slowly. I was surprised when she stopped walking, rested her back against a wooden support, and pulled me close. "Now we have a little privacy," she said. "We don't need to talk at all." She kissed me on the lips.
I kissed her back. She put her hands around my neck. Pressed her body against me. But it was the wrong time for this. I had to tell her tonight. Beth felt me tense up and pulled away. "Okay, full confession. What is it?" she asked. "Did you find someone cuter?"
"No, because there is no one," I told her.
"Right answer," she said. "Then what?"
I led her deeper under the pier, to where silver-black water splashed against the supports. Music filtered down from overhead. It was a cool, shadowy, and mysterious spot.
Beth looked at me. No one should have such pretty eyes. Sometimes I swear I can hear them speak in a soft, musical voice that has no need of words.
"I'm not hiding anything," I said back to her eyes.
She looked surprised. "I never said you were."
My hands fell to my side. "Enough," I said. "Here goes."
But before I could get the words out, she took my right hand and squeezed it. "Wait. Jeff. Listen, seriously. If you're so uncomfortable talking about this, you really don't haveto. I mean, if it's a family secret and it's private, then maybe I shouldn't hear it."
"No, you should. I want you to know me. I want you to know my family."
"I already do. Your parents are great."
"There's more," I said.
"What are you talking about."
"I have a brother."
She looked back at me, and I got the feeling that she might have laughed out loud, if something in the expression on my face hadn't convinced her that I was serious. So she said, "No you don't. I mean--I would know. Your parents would've talked about him. And there are no pictures of him in your house. I've seen your family photo albums."
"Yup, you have. And you're right, it's just like he doesn't exist. Like he's been wiped clean. Like he was put in a transporter and beamed out into space and the atoms of his body are floating through the galaxy." For a long moment we were both silent. "But he's rematerializing. His name's Troy. He's coming home."
"Home from where?"
"You mean he was in another country?"
"Further than that."
"Jeff, will you stop it. There's nothing farther than another country Just tell me the truth."
So I held her loosely by the wrists, and looked right into her bright hazel eyes. "He's been pardoned," I told her.
"I don't understand."
"My brother's coming home from prison, which is a lot farther away than any foreign country. He's been doing hard time since he was sixteen--about five and a half years. He was tried and sentenced as an adult, but some court in New York just decided he should have been tried as a minor, and other things happened at his trial that shouldn't have happened. So they're letting him out. And he has nowhere else to go, so he's coming here."
She was silent for maybe ten seconds. "How long was his sentence, before they changed it?"
"Life," I said again. "And now some court of appeals is setting him free. Poof. Just like that."
"Jeff, what did your brother do?" she asked. But those pretty hazel eyes were speaking much more truthfully in their language without words. "Tell me he didn't do anything awful," they were saying. "Tell me he didn't hurt anyone."
The wind made a whistling sound through the pier supports, and it sounded like breath being sucked in over sharp teeth. "He killed a kid," I told her. "A boy from our old school near Buffalo. Stabbed him in the stomach with a knife. The kid's name was Billy Shea, and he went into cardiac arrest on the way to the hospital."
Beth shivered. "It was an accident? Or self-defense?"
"No," I said. "He meant to do it. It was intentional, premeditated murder." I heard my voice getting louder, and the words tumbling out angrily, but I couldn't stop myself. "He'd gotten into lots of trouble before that--serious trouble--he was like a ticking time bomb. It was only a matter of time before he took a human life." And now I was way out of control, angry and loud, and Beth was looking at me a little scared. "And they should have made Troy pay for it," I told her. "An eye for an eye, a life for a life, that's the only fair way--but instead they're letting him go after less than six years. And he's coming here. Next week. To live with his family and start over again."
She looked back at me, unmoving, unblinking, and I understood exactly what those pretty hazel eyes were saying, so I held her tighter and whispered in her ear, "There isn't anything I can do about it. I'm his brother. My parents are his parents. We have to take him in."