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August 21 ... and One-Half
ALL THE THINGS Misty loved about Peter, Angel loved them first. In art school, it was Angel and Peter, until Misty came along. They’d planned out their whole future. Not as artists, but as actors. It didn’t matter if they made money, Peter had told him. Told Angel Delaporte. Someone in Peter’s generation would marry a woman who’d make the Wilmot family and his whole community wealthy enough that none of them would have to work. He never explained the details of this system.
You never did.
But Peter said every four generations, a boy from the island would meet a woman he’d have to marry. A young art student. Like an old fairy tale. He’d bring her home, and she’d paint so well it would make Waytansea Island rich for another hundred years. He’d sacrifice his life, but it was just one life. Just once every four generations.
Peter had shown Angel Delaporte his junk jewelry. He’d told Angel the old custom, how the woman who responded to the jewelry, who was attracted and trapped by it, that would be the fairy-tale woman. Every boy in his generation had to enroll in art school. He had to wear a piece of the jewelry, scratched and rusted and tarnished. He had to meet as many women as possible.
You had to.
Dear sweet closeted bisexual Peter.
The “walking peter” Misty’s friends tried to warn her about.
The brooches, they pinned through their foreheads, their nipples. Navels and cheekbones. The necklaces, they’d thread through holes in their noses. They calculated to be revolting. To disgust. To prevent any woman from admiring them, and they each prayed another boy would meet the rumored woman. Because the day one unlucky boy married this woman, the rest of his generation would be free to live their own lives. And so would the next three generations.
Shirtsleeves to shirtsleeves.
Instead of progress, the island was stuck in this repeating loop. Recycling the same ancient success. Period revival. This same ritual.
It was Misty the unlucky boy would meet. Misty was their fairy-tale woman.
There on the hotel stairs, Angel told her this. Because he could never understand why Peter had left and gone off to marry her. Because Peter could never tell him. Because Peter never loved her, Angel Delaporte says.
You never loved her.
You shit sack.
And what you can’t understand you can make mean anything.
Because Peter was only fulfilling some fabled destiny. A superstition. An island legend, and no matter how hard Angel tried to talk him out of it, Peter insisted that Misty was his destiny.
Peter insisted that his life should be wasted, married to a woman he never loved, because he’d be saving his family, his future children, his entire community from poverty. From losing control of their small, beautiful world. Their island. Because their system had worked for hundreds of years.
Collapsed there on the stairs, Angel says, “That’s why I hired him to work on my house. That’s why I’ve followed him here.” Misty and him on the stairs, her cast stretched out between them, Angel Delaporte leans in close, his breath full of red wine, and says, “I just want you to tell me why he sealed those rooms. And why the room here—room 313—here in this hotel?”
Why did Peter sacrifice his life to marry her? His graffiti, it wasn’t a threat. Angel says it was a warning. Why was Peter trying to warn everyone?
A door opens into the stairwell above them, and a voice says, “There she is.” It’s Paulette, the desk clerk. It’s Grace Wilmot and Dr. Touchet. It’s Brian Gilmore, who runs the post office. And old Mrs. Terrymore from the library. Brett Petersen, the hotel manager. Matt Hyland from the grocery store. It’s the whole village council coming down the stairs toward them.
Angel leans close, clutching her arm, and says, “Peter didn’t kill himself.” He points up the stairs and says, “They did. They murdered him.”
And Grace Wilmot says, “Misty dear. You need to get back to work.” She shakes her head, clucking her tongue, and says, “We’re so, so close to being done.”
And Angel’s hands, his leather driving gloves let go. He backs off, now a step lower, and says, “Peter warned me.” Glancing from the crowd above them to Misty, to the crowd, he backs off, saying, “I just want to know what’s happening.”
From behind her, the hands are closing around her shoulders, her arms, and lifting.
And Misty, all she can say is, “Peter was gay?”
But Angel Delaporte is stumbling backward, down the stairs. He stumbles to the next floor lower, still shouting up the stairwell, “I’m going to the police!” He shouts, “The truth is, Peter was trying to save people from you !”
HER ARMS ARE NOTHING but loose ropes of skin. Across the back of her neck, the bones feel bundled together with dried tendons. Inflamed. Sore and tired. Her shoulders hanging from the spine at the base of her skull. Her brain could be a baked black stone inside her head. Her pubic hair’s growing back, scratchy and pimpled around her catheter. With a new piece of paper in front of her, a blank canvas, Misty picks up a brush or a pencil, and nothing will happen. When Misty sketches, forcing her hand to make something, it’s a stone house. A rose garden. Just her own face. Her self-portrait diary.
Fast as her inspiration came, it’s gone.
Someone slips the blindfold off her head, and the sunlight from the dormer window makes her squint. It’s so blinding bright. It’s Dr. Touchet here with her, and he says, “Congratulations, Misty. It’s all over.”
It’s what he said when Tabbi was born.
Her homemade immortality.
He says, “It might take a few days before you can stand,” and he slips an arm around her back, hooked under her arms, and lifts Misty to her feet.
On the windowsill, someone’s left Tabbi’s shoe box full of junk jewelry. The glittering, cheap bits of mirror, cut into diamond shapes. Every angle reflecting light in a different direction. Dazzling. A little bonfire, there in the sun bouncing off the ocean.
“By the window?” the doctor says. “Or would you rather be in bed?”
Instead of “in bed,” Misty hears dead .
The room is just how Misty remembers it. Peter’s pillow on the bed, the smell of him. The paintings are, all of them, gone. Misty says, “What have you done with them?”
The smell of you.
And Dr. Touchet steers her to a chair by the window. He lowers her into a blanket spread over the chair and says, “You’ve done another perfect job. We couldn’t ask for better.” He pulls the curtains back to show the ocean, the beach. The summer people crowding each other down to the water’s edge. The trash along the tide line. A beach tractor chugs along, dragging a roller. The steel drum rolls, imprinting the wet sand with a lopsided triangle. Some corporate logo.
Next to the logo stamped in the sand, you can read the words: “Using your past mistakes to build a better future.”
Somebody’s vague mission statement.
“In another week,” the doctor says, “that company will pay a fortune to erase its name from this island.”
What you don’t understand you can make mean anything.
The tractor drags the roller, printing its message again and again until the waves wash it away.
The doctor says, “When an airliner crashes, all the airlines pay to cancel their newspaper and television advertisements. Did you know that? None of them want to risk any association with that kind of disaster.” He says, “In another week, there won’t be a corporate sign on this island. They’ll pay anything it takes to buy their names back.”
The doctor folds Misty’s dead hands in her lap. Embalming her. He says, “Now rest. Paulette will be up soon for your dinner order.”
Just for the record, he goes to her night table and picks up the bottle of capsules. As he leaves, he slips the bottle into the side pocket of his suit jacket and doesn’t mention it. “Another week,” he says, “and the entire world will fear this place—but they’ll leave us alone.” Going out, he doesn’t lock the door.
In her previous life, Peter and Misty, they’d sublet a place in New York when Grace called to say Harrow was dead. Peter’s father was dead and his mother was alone in their big house on Birch Street. Four stories tall with its mountain range of roofs, its towers and bay windows. And Peter said they had to go take care of her. To settle Harrow’s estate. Peter was the executor of the will. Just for a few months, he said. Then Misty was pregnant.
They kept telling each other New York was still the plan. Then they were parents.
Just for the record, Misty couldn’t complain. There was a little window of time, the first few years after Tabbi was born, when Misty could curl on the bed with her and not want anything else in the world. Having Tabbi made Misty part of something, of the Wilmot clan, of the island. Misty felt complete and more peaceful than she’d ever thought possible. The waves on the beach outside the bedroom window, the quiet streets, the island was far enough removed from the world that you stopped wanting. You stopped needing. Worrying. Wishing. Always expecting something more.
She quit painting and smoking dope.
She didn’t need to accomplish or become or escape. Just being here was enough.
The quiet rituals of washing the dishes or folding clothes. Peter would come home, and they’d sit on the porch with Grace. They’d read to Tabbi until her bedtime. They’d creak in the old wicker furniture, the moths swarming the porch light. Deep inside the house, a clock would strike the hour. From the woods beyond the village, they might hear an owl.
Across the water, the mainland towns were crowded, plastered with signs selling city products. People ate cheap food in the streets and dropped litter on the beach. The reason the island never hurt is—there was nothing there to do. There were no rooms to rent. No hotel. No summer houses. No parties. You couldn’t buy food because there was no restaurant. Nobody sold hand-painted seashells with “Waytansea Island” written on them in gold script. The beaches were rocky on the ocean side ... muddy with oyster flats on the side that faced the mainland.
About that time, the village council started work to reopen the closed hotel. It was crazy, using the last bit of everyone’s trust money, all the island families chipping in to rebuild the burned-out, crumbling old ruin that rose on the hillside above the harbor. Wasting the last of their resources to attract reams of tourists. Dooming their next generation to waiting tables, cleaning rooms, painting souvenir crap on seashells.
It’s so hard to forget pain, but it’s even harder to remember sweetness.
We have no scar to show for happiness. We learn so little from peace.
Curled on the quilt, a part of every person for generations, Misty could put her arms around her daughter. Misty could hold her baby, her body cupped around Tabbi, as if she were still inside. Still part of Misty. Immortal.
The sour milk smell of Tabbi, of her breath. The sweet smell of baby powder, almost powdered sugar. Misty’s nose tucked against the warm skin of her baby’s neck.
Inside those years, they had no reason to hurry. They were young. Their world was clean. It was church on Sunday. It was reading books, soaking in the bathtub. Picking wild berries and making jelly at night, when the white kitchen was cool with a breeze, the windows up. They always knew the phase of the moon, but seldom the day of the week.
Just for that little window of years, Misty could see how her life wasn’t an end. She was a means to the future.
They’d stand Tabbi against the front doorframe. Against all the forgotten names still there. Those children, now dead. They’d mark her height with a felt-tipped pen.
Tabbi, age four.
Tabbi, age eight.
Just for the record, the weather today is slightly maudlin.
Here, sitting at the dormer window of her attic room in the Waytansea Hotel, the island is spread out under her, filthy with strangers and messages. Billboards and neon. Logos. Trademarks.
The bed where Misty curled around Tabbi, trying to keep her inside. Angel Delaporte sleeps there now. Some crazy man. A stalker. In her room, in her bed, under the window with the hiss and burst of ocean waves breaking outside. Peter’s house.
Our house. Our bed.
Until Tabbi turned ten years old, the Waytansea Hotel was sealed, empty. The windows shuttered, with plywood bolted into each window frame. The doors boarded over.
The summer Tabbi turned ten, the hotel opened. The village became an army of bellhops and waiters, maids and desk clerks. That was the year Peter started working off the island, doing drywall. Little remodeling jobs for summer people with too many houses to look after. With the hotel open, the ferry started to run all day, every day, cramming the island with tourists and traffic.
After that, the paper cups and fast food wrappers arrived. The car alarms and long lines hunting for a place to park. The used diapers people left in the sand. The island went downhill until this year, until Tabbi turned thirteen, until Misty walked out to the garage to find Peter asleep in the car and the gas tank empty. Until people started calling to say their laundry room was gone, their guest bedroom missing. Until Angel Delaporte is exactly where he’s always wanted to be. In her husband’s bed.
In your bed.
Angel lying in her bed. Angel sleeping with her painting of the antique chair.
Misty, with nothing. Tabbi, gone. Her inspiration, gone.
Just for the record, Misty never told anyone, but Peter had packed a suitcase and hidden it in the car’s trunk. A suitcase to take along, a change of clothes for hell. It never made sense. Nothing Peter did in the past three years has made much sense.
Outside her little attic window, down on the beach, kids are splashing in the waves. One boy wears a frilly white shirt and black pants. He’s talking to another boy, wearing just soccer shorts. They pass a cigarette back and forth, taking turns smoking it. The one boy in the frilly white shirt has black hair, just long enough to tuck behind his ears.
On the windowsill is Tabbi’s shoe box of junk jewelry. The bracelets, the orphaned earrings and chipped old brooches. Peter’s jewelry. Rattling around in the box with the loose plastic pearls and glass diamonds.
From her window, Misty looks down on the beach where she saw Tabbi for the last time. Where it happened. The boy with short dark hair is wearing an earring, something glittering gold and red. And with nobody to hear it, Misty says, “Tabbi.”
Misty’s fingers gripping the windowsill, she pushes her head and shoulders out and shouts, “Tabbi?” Misty must be half out the window, ready to fall five stories to the hotel porch, and she yells, “Tabbi!”
And it is. It’s Tabbi. With her hair cut. Flirting with some kid. Smoking.
The boy just puffs on the cigarette and hands it back. He flips his hair and laughs with one hand over his mouth. His hair in the ocean wind, a flickering black flag.
The waves hiss and burst.
Her hair. Your hair.
Misty twists through the little window, and the shoe box spills out. The box slides down the shingled roof. It hits the gutter and flips, and the jewelry flies. It falls, flashing red and yellow and green, flashing bright as fireworks and falling the way Misty’s about to, down to shatter on the concrete floor of the hotel porch.
Only the hundred pounds of her cast, her leg embedded in fiberglass, keeps her from pitching out the window. Then two arms come around her, and a voice says, “Misty, don’t.” Someone pulls her back, and it’s Paulette. A room service menu is dropped on the floor. Paulette’s arms come around her from behind. Paulette’s hands lock together, and she swings Misty, spinning her around the solid weight of the full-leg cast, planting her facedown on the paint-stained carpet.
Panting, panting and dragging her huge fiberglass leg, her ball and chain, back toward the window, Misty says, “It was Tabbi.” Misty says, “Outside.”
Her catheter is pulled out again, pee squirted everywhere.
Paulette gets to her feet. She’s making a nasty face, her risorius muscles cinching her face tight around her nose while she dries her hands on her dark skirt. She tucks her blouse back tight into her waistband and says, “No, Misty. No it wasn’t.” And she picks up the room service menu.
Misty has to get downstairs. To get outside. She’s got to find Tabbi. Paulette has to help lift the cast. They’ve got to get Dr. Touchet to cut it off.
And Paulette shakes her head and says, “If they take off that cast, you’ll be crippled for life.” She goes to the window and shuts it. She locks it and pulls the curtains.
And from the floor, Misty says, “Please. Paulette, help me up.”
But Paulette taps her foot. She fishes an order pad out of the side pocket in her skirt and says, “The kitchen is out of the whitefish.”
And just for the record, Misty’s still trapped.
Misty’s trapped, but her kid could be alive.
“A steak,” Misty says.
Misty wants the thickest piece of beef they can find. Cooked well done.
WHAT MISTY REALLY WANTS is a steak knife. She wants a serrated knife to cut through the side of this leg cast, and she wants Paulette not to notice when the knife’s missing from her tray after dinner. Paulette doesn’t notice, and she doesn’t lock the door from the outside, either. Why bother when Misty’s hobbled by a ton of fucking fiberglass.
All night, Misty’s in bed, picking and hacking. Misty’s sawing at the cast. Digging with the knife blade and scooping the fiberglass shavings into her hand, throwing them under the bed.
Misty’s a convict digging herself out of a very small prison, a prison felt-tip-penned with Tabbi’s flowers and birds.
It takes until midnight to cut from her waist, halfway down her thigh. The knife keeps slipping, stabbing and lancing into her side. By the time she gets to her knee, Misty’s falling asleep. Scabbed and crusted in dried blood. Glued to the sheets. By three in the morning, she’s only partway down her calf. She’s almost free, but she falls asleep.
Something wakes her up, the knife still in her hand.
It’s another longest day of the year. Again.
The noise, it’s a car door slamming shut in the parking lot. If Misty holds the split cast closed, she can hobble to the window and look. It’s the beige county government car of Detective Stilton. He’s not outside, so he must be in the hotel lobby. Maybe looking for her.
Maybe this time he’ll find her.
With the steak knife, Misty starts hacking again. Hacking and half asleep, she stabs her calf muscle. The blood floods out, dark red against her white, white skin, her leg sealed inside too long. Misty hacks again and stabs her shin, the blade going through thin skin, stuck into the bone.
Still hacking, the knife throws blood and splinters of fiberglass. Fragments of Tabbi’s flowers and birds. Bits of her hair and skin. With both hands, Misty grabs the edge on each side of the split. She pries the cast open until her leg is half out. The ragged edges pinch her, biting into the hacked skin, the needles of fiberglass digging.
Oh, dear sweet Peter, nobody has to tell you how this hurts.
Can you feel this?
Her fingers stuck with splinters of fiberglass, Misty grips the ragged edges and pulls them apart. Misty bends her knee, forcing it up out of the straight cast. First her pale kneecap, smeared with blood. The way a baby’s head appears. Crowning. A bird breaking out of its eggshell. Then her thigh. Her child being born. Finally her shin breaks up, out of the shattered cast. With one shake, her foot is free, and the cast slips, rolls, slumps, and crashes to the floor.
A chrysalis. A butterfly emerging, bloody and tired. Reborn.
The cast hitting the floor is so loud the curtains shake. A framed hotel picture flaps against the wall. With her hands pressed over her ears, Misty waits for someone to come investigate. To find her free and lock her door from the outside.
Misty waits for her heart to beat three hundred times, fast. Counting. Then, nothing. Nothing happens. Nobody comes.
Slow and smooth, Misty makes her leg straight. Misty bends her knee. Testing. It doesn’t hurt. Holding on to the night table, Misty swings her legs off the bed and flexes them. With the bloody steak knife, she cuts the loops of surgical tape that hold her catheter to her good leg. Pulling the tube out of her, she loops it in one hand and sets it aside.
It’s one, three, five careful steps to the closet, where she takes out a blouse. A pair of jeans. Hanging there, inside a plastic wrapper, is the white satin dress Grace has sewn for her art show. Misty’s wedding dress, born again. When she steps into the jeans and works the button and the zipper, when she reaches for the blouse, the jeans fall to the floor. That’s how much weight she’s lost. Her hips are gone. Her ass is two empty sacks of skin. The jeans sit around her ankles, smeared with the blood from the steak knife cuts in each leg.
There’s a skirt that fits, but not one of her own. It’s Tabbi’s, a plaid, pleated wool skirt that Grace must’ve picked out.
Even her shoes feel loose, and Misty has to ball her toes into a knot to keep her feet inside.
Misty listens until the hall outside her door sounds empty. She heads for the stairs, the skirt sticking to the blood on her legs, her shaved pubic hair snagging on her panties. With her toes clenched, Misty walks down the four flights to the lobby. There, people wait at the front desk, standing in the middle of their luggage.
Out through the lobby doors, you can still see the beige county government car in the parking lot.
A woman’s voice says, “Oh my God.” It’s some summer woman, standing near the fireplace. With the pastel fingernails of one hand hooked inside her mouth, she stares at Misty and says, “My God, your legs.”
In one hand, Misty still holds the bloody steak knife.
Now the people at the front desk turn and look. A clerk behind the desk, a Burton or a Seymour or a Kincaid, he turns and whispers behind his hand to the other clerk and she picks up the house phone.
Misty heads for the dining room, past the pale looks, people wincing and looking away. Summer women peeking from between their spidery fingers. Past the hostess. Past tables three, seven, ten, and four, there’s Detective Stilton, sitting at table six with Grace Wilmot and Dr. Touchet.
It’s raspberry scones. Coffee. Quiche. Grapefruit halved in bowls. They’re having breakfast.
Misty gets to them, clutching the bloody knife, and says, “Detective Stilton, it’s my daughter. My daughter, Tabbi.” Misty says, “I think she’s still alive.”
His grapefruit spoon halfway to his mouth, Stilton says, “Your daughter died?”
She drowned, Misty tells him. He has to listen. A week, three weeks ago, Misty doesn’t know. She’s not sure. She’s been locked in the attic. They put this big cast on her leg so she couldn’t escape.
Her legs under the plaid wool, they’re coated and running with blood.
By now the whole dining room’s watching. Listening.
“It’s a plot,” Misty says. With both hands, she reaches out to calm the spooked look on Stilton’s face. Misty says, “Ask Angel Delaporte. Something terrible is about to happen.”
The blood dried on her hands. Her blood. The blood from her legs soaking through her plaid skirt.
A voice says, “You’ve ruined it!”
Misty turns, and it’s Tabbi. In the dining room doorway, she’s wearing a frilly blouse and tailored black slacks. Her haircut pageboy short, she has an earring in one ear, the red enameled heart Misty saw Will Tupper rip out of his earlobe a hundred years ago.
Dr. Touchet says, “Misty, have you been drinking again?”
Tabbi says, “Mom ... my skirt.”
And Misty says, “You’re not dead.”
Detective Stilton dabs his mouth with his napkin. He says, “Well, that makes one person who’s not dead.”
Grace spoons sugar into her coffee. She pours milk and stirs it, saying, “So you really think it’s these OAFF people who committed the murder?”
“Killed Tabbi?” Misty says.
Tabbi comes to the table and leans against her grandmother’s chair. There’s some nicotine yellow between her fingers as she lifts a saucer, studying the painted border. It’s gold with a repeating wreath of dolphins and mermaids. Tabbi shows it to Grace and says, “Fitz and Floyd. The Sea Wreath pattern.”
She turns it over, reads the bottom, and smiles.
Grace smiles up at her, saying, “You’re getting so I can’t praise you enough, Tabitha.”
Just for the record, Misty wants to hug and kiss her kid. Misty wants to hug her and run to the car and drive straight to her mom’s trailer in Tecumseh Lake. Misty wants to wave good-bye with her middle finger to this whole fucking island of genteel lunatics.
Grace pats an empty chair next to her and says, “Misty, come sit down. You look distraught.”
Misty says, “Who did OAFF kill?”
The Ocean Alliance for Freedom. Who burned Peter’s graffiti in all the beach houses.
“That’s what I’m here about,” the detective says. He takes the notebook out of his inside jacket pocket. He flips it open on the table and gets his pen ready to write. Looking at Misty, he says, “If you wouldn’t mind answering a few questions?”
About Peter’s vandalism?
“Angel Delaporte was murdered last night,” he says. “It could be a burglary, but we’re not ruling anything out. All’s we know is he was stabbed to death in his sleep.”
In her bed.
Tabbi’s dead, then she’s alive. The last time Misty saw her kid, Tabbi was on this very table, under a sheet and not breathing. Misty’s knee is broken, then it’s fine. One day
Misty can paint, and then she can’t. Maybe Angel Delaporte was her husband’s boyfriend, but now he’s dead.
Tabbi takes her mother’s hand. She leads Misty to the empty seat. She pulls out the chair, and Misty sits.
“Before we start ...” Grace says. She leans across the table to tap Detective Stilton on his shirt cuff, and she says, “Misty’s art show opens three days from now, and we’re counting on you being there.”
My paintings. They’re here somewhere.
Tabbi smiles up at Misty, and slips a hand into her grandmother’s hand. The peridot ring, sparkling green against the white linen tablecloth.
Grace’s eyes flicker toward Misty, and she winces like someone walking into a spiderweb, her chin tucked and her hands touching the air. Grace says, “So much has been unpleasant on the island lately.” She inhales, her pearls rising, then sighs and says, “I’m hoping the art show will give us all a fresh start.”