Saturday, March 25
Ellis texts me, asKing (1) Did I hear it? The house collapsing just now? And (2) When does he get his ten dollars?
You’re going straight to hell, I write back. Do not pass go, do not collect $200.
Ellis: after you 🙂
Yesterday he waved an Alexander Hamilton under my nose and said the Ocean Drive house wouldn’t last the weekend. I just about slapped it from his hand. In no universe is it okay to bet on catastrophes, for or against. No matter that no one lives in that house. No matter that I pretty much always want to do whatever Ellis wants.
Me: Wait, pretend I said DMV. I feel like that’s worse.
Him: to late! we’re going to hell!! get in the car!!!
I blink at that “to” like my phone might locate a second “o” if I wait long enough.
Ellis MacQueen, folks. The boy who beat me on the SATs.
Him: see you in 10?
My whale-print boots and I wade through brown water and wave at neighbors retrieving soggy newspapers. I’m smiling, but I’m picturing the worst. The two-story Cape Codder cracked open like a hinged dollhouse. Ellis saying “Oh wow,” trying to sound sad. But the truth is he likes how something as big and sturdy as a house will collapse if you kick it hard enough.
Ellis is already there when I hit the beach. He stands apart from the other onlookers, his navy L.L. Bean windbreaker zipped to his chin. It’s too cold for shorts but he’s wearing them, so his prosthetic leg is visible below his right knee. Damp, dark hair hangs in his eyes. Without saying anything, I step up next to him and bump the side of my body into his. He bumps me back.
The only surprise: a leash knotted around his fist, and Goose herself at the other end. She’s as ugly as ever. If I had to guess her breed, I’d say black Lab–Australian shepherd mix meets hyena. Plus there’s her mouthful of snaggleteeth, matted fur no matter how recently she’s been groomed, and today the addition of four little booties, one on each paw.
Ellis sees the question on my face and explains, “Tommy asked me to watch her.”
Before I can figure out what that means, there’s a crash that makes both Goose and me jump. The Ocean Drive house shivers and settles into its most dangerous slant yet.
“Oh wow,” Ellis says.
As its foundation buckles, everything the rental’s landlord didn’t bother putting in storage spills from its open mouth. Soggy seashell-print curtains, red pot holders shaped like lobster claws, all too brightly colored against the gray sea, the taupe sand.
“Is the diner okay?” I say it like who cares, not me, but of course I do. His parents’ restaurant has one of our town’s many unplanned oceanfront views. With the house in front of us becoming driftwood as we speak, MacQueen’s Diner is next-closest to shore, and last I checked, his family doesn’t have plans to rebuild. They don’t have any plans at all.
Ellis’s eyes go wide. “Um. I think you should see for yourself.”
At once I’m back in a childhood nightmare: standing on the diner’s countertop as water surges through the front door, seaweed coiled in the coffeepot, barnacles scarring every surface, stubborn as cement. All this in the two seconds it takes Ellis’s face to fall into a lazy, teasing grin.
“You shouldn’t joke about that!” I gasp.
He looks down at my hand, which has accidentally grabbed his wrist. I let go. Scowl. His smile stretches across his whole face.
I let him get away with it only because of how pitiful this whole situation is. Figure A: waves swallowing a house and only nine people bored enough to come see it. Figure B: Goose up to her doggie elbows in floodwater, trying to sniff her own butt.
If you’ve never seen a jetty, walk to the end of Main Street and look for the man-made pile of rocks sticking out into the water, a straight shot for a whole quarter mile.
If you only want to know the important part, it’s this: The jetty makes it so the waves don’t just break against our shores—they pummel the coastline until it’s unrecognizable. Add rising sea levels and we lose several feet of beach each year.
Last month, Maine’s governor finally approved funds to tear the jetty down. But it’s like the fourth law of physics that every time one problem gets solved, another takes its place.
For West Finch, that looked like the three college kids from California who parked themselves on the rocks last week. After reading about West Finch in environmental studies class, they felt they had a civic duty to save our precious coastal wildlife. Specifically, a bird called the piping plover.
The piping plover’s thing is that it lays its eggs right in the sand where anyone can step on them. So of course they’re under all these protections and somehow still halfway extinct. West Finch hasn’t had plovers in years, but—just in case!—our mayor put the jetty demolition on hold. Dynamite is not ideal egg-laying mood music, apparently. Meanwhile the protestors say they’re not leaving until the project’s canceled altogether.
I scan the faces of the other Ocean Drive spectators. No sign of the ringleader’s vibrant blue hair, or the dreads or Birkenstocks or hemp-whatever her two co-members are probably sporting. I haven’t seen them up close (pretending they don’t exist is my protest of their protest), but I’m sure I’d recognize them. I snap a few pictures of the wrecked house with my phone. Maybe if they saw this place, they’d understand their crusade is more complicated than they think.
I follow Ellis to where the house’s back door used to be. Water gushes from a rectangular basement window, and with it, a stream of items that point to a richer life than summer holidays. I collect a topless Barbie doll with seaweed threaded through her hair, a bloated paperback with yellowed edges, and a teacup patterned with pink peonies, broken cleanly in two. Ellis comes back with a WORLD’S BEST GRANDPA medal around his neck.
I raise an eyebrow.
“It’s because I give out a lot of sweets,” he says.
Face full of mischief, he reaches into his jacket pockets and pulls out a whoopie pie in each hand, nestled in plastic sandwich baggies. He offers what looks like the bigger one to me. It doesn’t feel entirely appropriate to snack while we wade through thousands of dollars in property damage, but whoopie pies are so much work that Ellis’s mom bakes only a couple dozen each day. The sandwich cakes are a dark, sticky chocolate filled with whipped marshmallow fluff.
“So,” I say through a glob of frosting. “Are we going to talk about Goose’s footwear?”
Because the dog, she is still wearing those booties.
Ellis pushes his hair out of his face with the back of his arm and rolls his eyes. “He wouldn’t let us leave without them.”
It’s no secret Tommy is obsessed with his dog. Nicer to her than he is to most humans (and me especially, his least favorite member of our species). I’m no fan of his, either, but I’m being 100 percent objective when I say the dog looks ridiculous.
I abandon my treasures in the sand and scramble up the boulders stacked along the western side of the yard. I find a dry, flat rock and sit with my knees under my chin. The half-naked Barbie gets yanked out to sea on the next wave, but the heavier teacup and book are dragged along for several minutes before they disappear. I squint at the horizon and don’t blink until my eyes water.
It gives me a rash to think we’re in any way alike, but besides me, Tommy would appreciate this more than anybody. He thinks he’s some kind of artist. Or he used to. Before he got depressed, before he left school for two weeks in January to “get back on track” (doctor’s orders), he’d draw whatever you put in front of him. A mountainside prickly with pine trees, Goose making a face only a dog-parent could love, and once a house split down the middle, staring down a wave as tall as itself. It gave me a behind-the-eyes feeling that made me need to hit him. Instead I sent the drawing through a paper shredder and left the skinny strips scattered around his bedroom. I hoped his lungs would freeze in his chest when he saw. I hoped he’d know it was me.
It felt like an appropriate response at the time.
Ellis is running figure eights in the flooded street. His stride’s a little awkward without his running blade, but he’s still pretty fast. Mud splatters clear up the back of his jacket. Goose chases him unleashed, first in big circles with her different-colored eyes bulging, then zigzags, until she’s panting. Ellis will make varsity any day now, so he could keep going if he wanted. But he slows when Goose quits chasing. It’s no fun if someone isn’t telling him to stop.
We wade north toward the center of town. The ocean pulses to our right some fifty feet away, and Ellis and Goose shield me from most of the spray. In my head I make this week’s to-do list: order a better SAT prep book; draft a plan to save West Finch from climate change; etc.
“Listen,” Ellis singsongs when I’m quiet for too long. “You can be upset that I’m smarter than you and always have been, or you can be upset about that worthless house. Not both.”
“You are not smarter than me.”
He spreads his arms in a grand shrug. “Who are we to argue with the College Board?”
“Not in this universe.” My steps, now stomps, soak my leggings. “Not in any of your pretend universes, either.”
“String theory isn’t pretend. It’s physics.”
“Well, whatever it is, enjoy it while you can. I’m doing a retake in May,” I say, making a mental note to register.
Ellis and I are both near the top of our class, but my grades are always a little better. It’ll be a nonissue soon enough. When he gets recruited for track, the whole well-rounded-student-athlete thing will make our on-paper selves look pretty much identical to elite East Coast deans of admissions. That’s The Plan.
My radioactive SAT score is not part of The Plan. But then, neither is Ellis’s skipping homework whenever he feels like it and not making varsity yet, so.
I continue. “Saving the diner comes first, though. Plus the rest of West Finch.”
“And you’re going to help.”
He halts. We’re in the middle of the street, no cars, but still. I want to drag him to the safety of the road’s shoulder. He shrugs helplessly and points to Goose, who’s off-leash and lagging several feet behind. My hands find my hips.
“Hurricane season is only three months away. I need your full participation. Put that brilliant mind to work.”
He takes his time clipping Goose onto her leash, incorrectly assuming I’d miss him rolling his eyes. But his jaw clenches as he stands. Something behind me catches his eye.
A figure in a black wet suit rocks on his heels at the water’s edge. Close enough to hear us if we yelled. Far enough I’d rather not. He even looks around once, but he must not see us from there.
I know Tommy by the bumpy white curve of his shaved head and familiar slope of his shoulders. He quit therapy last month, and according to Ellis, his prescription now consists of antidepressants, exercise, and sunshine. He could swim at the YMCA, like a normal person, but their mom is just happy he’s cultivating an interest in something besides sleeping.
The first wave touches his ankles. Next, his knees. The ocean is maybe thirty-six degrees, so how’s that wet suit warm enough? Not to mention the current’s always strongest after a storm.
“Guess that explains dog duty,” I say.
Ellis squints. “Let him freeze his balls off if he wants to. It’s a free country.”
As far as Ellis is concerned, looking alike is the only thing they have in common. I have to agree. They’re identical twins, so mix-ups happen—to other people. To me, the MacQueen boys are different in a million ways, all starting and ending with the fact that Tommy and I are not friends. His hatred of me could fuel several bonfires, and I’ve fantasized about accidentally closing his fingers in a car window once or twice.
The diner shimmers through the mist at the end of the road. Ellis turns toward it, away from his brother, and tugs on Goose’s leash. He’s told me Tommy isn’t trying that hard to feel better. But if happiness is a switch he can turn on and off, wouldn’t he have flipped it already?
When Tommy dives, his form is infuriatingly perfect. Hands stacked. Chin tucked like he’s holding a fifty-cent piece against his collarbone, the way they taught us in swim class when we were kids. Me, I scattered at least fifteen dollars in the deep end before our instructor conceded diving might not be my thing.
A wave explodes above the spot where he disappeared. Goose barks once.
I can hold my breath longer than he can. I’m sure of it, even as my eyes fill and my lungs crumple against my spine. The ocean roars like I’m pressing shells to my ears. I count to almost sixty before my breath rips through me. Moments later, his white scalp bobs to the surface, impossibly far out. I knew he could swim but not like this.
A fishhook in my chest tells me to stay, though past experience says later we’ll find him curled under a blanket on the couch, and there he’ll sleep until dinner, snoring so loudly I sometimes think he’s faking.
Ellis and Goose are miniatures halfway down the street. I could squish them between two fingers, or put them in my pocket.
Have fun, I think, sparing one last glance toward the ocean. Then my jacket flares out behind me as I hurry after them.
Copyright © 2021 by Cassandra Hartt
Copyright © 1993 by the Estate of James Schuyler