They washed up in the high tide, mangled, sides stained from dark coffee and lipstick; the caps, with brutal, little rectangular sip holes, floated free, unbroken, coming together and bobbing apart with each wave. Wedged into the rocks, clotted nests of cups and lids held sway with green seaweed. Cellophane emerald wrappers gripped the vessels.
Sylvia walked the beach with Armando. He was sniffing her butt the way he liked to do when her parents went out and he'd follow her from room to room in a game, sniffing her behind, then barking wildly when she’d shoo him away. Now she didn't shoo him away, she needed him. He followed her loyaly, newly bereft, sniffing her behind and whining. No loud barks came from him and Sylvia was quiet too. The smoke had subsided and with it, the sirens and the wails. It was so quiet apart from her boots squishing the cups and the seaweed. She held a lantern she’d made at school which was a good thing, a spaghetti sauce jar that she and her mom had washed, peeled the label off of— what kind of fucking glue do they use for these?— and then slathered with Elmer’s and pink and yellow tissue paper. In it, her mom had thrown a fake votive candle.
I want a real candle, she’d said, with hot, drippy wax. But her mom said the fake candle would be safer and so there it was, its fake, flickering light had been going for how long: 37 hours, was it? A day plus a night was 24. But it had been longer then one day and one night. She had slept fitfully and lost track of time.
I was the second quiet night, or so the grumbling in her stomach made her think it was because the sunlight hadn't really shifted out of blackness. The sun hadn't really re-appeared. Only a mustard gray hung in the sky. It had gone from black night to a suffused gray, gray bits falling from the sky endlessly like dirty snow flakes. And now this yellowish sky. Sylvia crushed bits of ash in her hand. They vanished. She smelled her hand. Nothing. She sniffed again, looking for a sign, wood smoke or barbecue, but her palm was blank and odorless.
Armando was crying beside her. So she sat down with him on the beach. The mussel shells she’s always known were there but evanescent; she’d touch one and watch as it dissolved on her fingers to more ash. She looked at her finger. Was she a witch? The shell crumbled to dust and inside the yellow pulp of flesh melted. Sylvia swirled her finger in the melted mussel. It stuck like egg yolk and she wiped it on her shoe.
Her father loved mussels. He ate them in summer time, coming down to the dock and scrambling off to the beach when it was low tide to collect pot-fuls. Up at the house he’d make spaghetti with garlic and oil and he—his name was Andy- she wanted to announce that now to the empty beach: My dad’s name is Andy and he loves mussels--loved spaghetti and mussels. She told Armando instead even though Armando knew this. He would rinse the shellfish under cold water to get out the sand, then steam them open with white wine and herbs. Finally dump the broth on the huge platter of spaghetti. The creatures were for adults- they were the only ones who could like them, the orange pulp, secret inside the shell, the black lips that bisected it, and the entrails within. You just eat the whole thing, he'd always said. Pop it in your mouth. Here, dip it in butter first. Butter helps everything. But she wasn't a grown up and didn't want to try such a thing.
She threw her arms around Armando. He was a husky with one hazel and one dark brown eye. He licked her eyelids. How could she not have tried mussels when the things were whole? When they were the way they were supposed to be, yellow and firm? When her father had offered? Now the next time she saw him, he’d have no mussels to eat. He, too, would touch them and after the storm, or whatever this was, they were no good anymore, crumbling pieces of crap she thought. You couldn't dip a pile of dust in butter or a melted yellow goo. Now mussels were ruined by the storm. Up on the lawn where the trampoline was there was a scorched hole in the earth, black and round, the exact shape of trampoline, like a giant cookie cutter had seared it into the lawn. How would they ever fix that? She wanted to jump but her legs had a stiff leaden feeling, as if she dragged each one through the thick air. a soreness, suffused her body like it did when she had a fever. Moving was difficult .Maybe she was coming down with something which was too bad because Monday was the science fair and her black hole project was ready to go on oak tag, labeled, colored in carefully with marker and everything.
Armando licked her whole face and she let him. There were no lights across the bay like every boat, every house in Connecticut had gone to sleep. Jack must have still been napping. She hated him so much and the way her mother always layed down and napped with him. It had been enough now. A long enough nap and she needed her mother to come out of the house and find her something to eat. And her dad’s trip to the hardware store had taken way too long.
He had left before the nap, before the storm to get some nails because they were going to make a birdhouse that afternoon. He had been hiding birdseed in the driveway when the storm hit. Sylvia saw the seeds fly up into the air then bounce aloft for a strange amount of time like gravity had stopped, the little sharp seeds going up higher and higher and her father so surprised because then things fell down. She saw his shoes lift up off the blacktop driveway. The look of surprise on his face. Then there was a big puff of black something and she didn't see him anymore. She opened her eyes and she was lying under the boxwood at the edge of the forest. A big tree, the one with the swing on it was lying next to her and Armando was hiding under the bush weeping. He thumped his tail when he saw her wake up.
“Where’s mom?” she said. Then she remembered about Jack’s naptime. How they had eaten lunch, grilled cheese with tomato soup, and their parents had salads and then how Dad went to do his errands like he always did after lunch on Saturdays and mom and Jack were headed away for the nap. She circled back to the moment: They were standing in the driveway. It was still October, the sky bright, a pumpkin smiled on the front stoop. She saw her mother’s chestnut hair as it bounced away with the baby on her hip.
She saw her father, hands up in the seeds, one shoe disintegrating the other rising up with him off the ground. A rabbit disappeared under a bush and then the bush crumpled to dust.
She woke up near the boxwood. It was still intact. Armando licked her bleeding knee and they looked up to the house. It was too smoky and they couldn't see anything. Surely the house was there behind the cloud. But it made her cough so she walked down to the beach. Only boring people are bored, her mother would say to her if she appeared bored while her mother layed down with a book or played with her phone.
She was not a boring person and so she took Armando down to the beach to explore. She should tell her mom first so she yelled into the brown cloud. I’m going for a beach walk. A yellow haze hung around the cloud that seemed to be just siting there on the lawn like a big puff of fur, or like her grandma’s powder puff she’d found once. The puff was peach colored and sat in a cardboard cylinder of powder on her grandma’s dressing table. Next to that had been crystal dish filled with Hershey kisses. She dug in her pocket. She knew she had one in there, but she removed her hand and found it covered in silver, the aluminum foil like paint on her fingertips.
And so to the beach. No one was there. They walked around the cove past the three houses they knew, but didn't see, until they reached the pier. Three red bouyes chained together floated like a string of Christmas ornaments. It wasn't even Christmas yet. She didn't even know what she would be for Halloween She was considering a vampire mainly because secretly she was still afraid of Halloween and if she pretended to be one of the scariest most terrifying things—she was considering shark and psycho killer too— then perhaps she wouldn't be scared.
Don't say that, her mother had said. Don't be a scary thing; it’s nihilistic.
What does that mean?
It means— it's what happens when you lose love. You want to destroy everything.
Now she walked with Armando barring her teeth. I come to suck your blood, she said. Because she was very, very bad. Her voice had an odd tinny sound to it. There were no other sounds. She picked at her ears that seemed to be stuffed with cotton or something like the one time she had tried her mom's earplugs on an airplane when they hurt from the pressure. They did not hurt now, but they did not hear either. Was everything silent? Or had she lost her hearing? Say something! she shouted. She did hear her own voice but it was metallic as if synthesized. A metal taste filled her mouth. Had she licked a silvery finger? no, it was something else, fear whipping up through her, the wave of feeling that rested beneath boredom. What was it she feared? That they would go away? She would be alone? They would die? Her mother had said, name the fear. And so she had named three.
She sat down, not sure what to do. Armando sat next to her. He began to howl. Other dogs joined him. Or was it an echo? They sang and sang. The mustardy glow fell down upon them and the water—she could still see it, the liquid that had been blue with bright lime green grasses emerging, boats bobbing, the duck blind that made her sad, Connecticut on the other side, the big round tennis bubble that lives to the side of the cove. How she was going to try tennis because she had good hand-eye coordination, a teacher said, and the bubble was right there, her mother said. The metal grew in her mouth like she’d sucked on a mouthful of coins. But she didn't put coins in her mouth anymore. She knew better. Even when she counted them out for her grandfather in New York and helped him slide them into the paper slots for each denomination. She knew coins were dirty. But she was so hungry.
Now, she would try anything. Even a runny cheese, if her mother wanted her too. Even a disgusting pate or a piece of raw sushi or cashew butter. She would eat anything. Armando understood and began to lick the melted muscles off the rocks. He tore at the paper cups beating them into a white froth with his teeth and claws. The dog spun in a circle his eyes growing wild. Hey, calm down. They will come get us for dinner. She looked up the hill but couldn't see more then a few feet ahead into the mustardy brown clouds that sat like ghosts on the beach.
Her parents were always worried but was this it? They were worrywarts and her mother was over -protective even though she was almost ten. But was this the thing? This was the warning. Batteries clattered in a soupy wave around her left sneaker. Her bare toe emerged, the nail bathed in mercury. It was silvery like her hand. Don't touch it, a voice told her. For she was nine and she knew a few things and she was not a boring person and she was going to do tennis and she wanted her dinner very much and she was not afraid and she knew how to keep a stiff upper lip ( whatever that meant) and she couldn't see the tennis bubble anymore and all the houses and boats were gone and there was fur in her hand, a broad panting in her ears, her own breathing. The dog growled and whirled around and around in circles and she watched him go faster and faster as he chased his tail, then stopped, attacking the cups, tearing them to bits. She tried to stop him with the smell of her butt- sticking it in his face, in their game, but he was not interested anymore. He was crazy.
She sang, We gather together to thank the lords blessings. He hastens and chastens his will to make known. An orangey dust floated down from the sky and powdered her hands. She thought to herself they looked tan. Last summer they had laid to on the dock with oil glistening on their bodies. She and her friend, while her mother sat nearby with a timer on, letting them go without SPF for five minutes only. The sky above had been blue, streaked with lavender and the sun had been blinding, sinking. The clouds had been mashed potatoes. That was the way the sky was, not this orange-y mass. She wondered who was the wicked oppressor in the hymn she sang with gusto until her shoes completely evaporated, her bare feet suddenly stinging in the mess and Armando lay down to sleep. She picked up a paper cup and filled it with the oily water. But this one was Styrofoam, and it held together. Was it the only cup left in the world? Armando had ravaged all the others. He sat and gnawed on a lid, cutting his black dog lips against the sharp edges. She had gone how many times with her mother to get a special drink with a sip hole like this while Jack stayed home? She secured a lid onto the indestructible cup. She lifted it to her lips, pretending she was in that easy time.