Saturday, 01 January 2022 17:09

Flawed by Kelly Griffiths

Flawed by Kelly GriffithsPainted a shitillion times and in a perpetual state of latex molting, The Pelee Islander was a floating tin can. Mr. O said to pass the trip across Lake Erie writing in our journals: observations on nature and over-consumption and our plan for saving the planet from corporate greed and political corruption. And as an aside: what did we want to change about ourselves?

Everything, morons.

We were about to graduate from high school.

I passed the trip nose-in-phone, absently peeling paint scales off the seats and rails. Two hours of sitting did nothing for my especially-achy left leg. To distract myself from the pain, I drooled over the picture of Mason. It had been a week. Why could I not remove his picture? Why hadn’t I changed it to him with horns on his head and warts, or a mustache and angry eyebrows? Keeping Mason’s pic as my home screen proved I wasn’t over him, that I hadn’t moved on.

Scroll…scroll…I stopped on the image I’d posted two minutes ago. Jack Peters liked it already. I scanned the deck. There was Jack, by the stairs. He smiled into his phone, possibly, hopefully, at my cleverness. The pic was me, holding Mason’s necklace over the rail of The Pelee Islander with a malevolent grin and the caption: a woman’s heart is full of secrets. I shouldn’t have done that. It was mean. But I didn’t actually drop the necklace into Lake Erie, so it was only theoretical assholery—all I had the courage for.

Jack caught me staring. I was actually staring through him, thinking about Mason and that look of revulsion on Mason’s face when he found me out. The one right before: “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Because you’d look at me like you are now.

A text arrived with a laugh-cry emoji. A number I didn’t recognize. Jack gave me the atta-girl nod and held up his phone.

I was jumping up and down inside and formulating my witty text response when Mr. O powered up his bullhorn and explained we were to experience “cell service disruption” that would begin any minute.

Gasps, all around.

“It won’t be much better when we get there, either. T-Mobile customers will have hit or miss. Verizon can only get service on the southernmost tip of Pelee Island.”

“When will we be there?” one student asked.

“We’ll hike there in the morning. But don’t worry. In the spirit of fairness, you’re all handing over your phones when we dock.”

This was met with groans and expletives. A shout rose above the din. “We have rights, Mr. O!”

And even: “What if we get lost?”

“No worries about getting lost on Pelee. It’s small enough; we’ll find you.” He winked at Miss Robinson. “Assuming we want to find you.”

“My parents are expecting a call,” someone shouted.

“Nope. Your parents were sent an email. And they all signed off. Have you forgotten the definition of retreat? Seclusion, folks.”

“But you didn’t tell us!”

“Exactly. Otherwise, you’d have brought contraband phones. I was born at night, not last night.”

Miss Robinson laughed. Her blindingly white teeth were framed by ruby-red lipstick. Oh, he was scoring points with her now. I pursed my own thin and not-very-exotic and certainly-never-painted lips. My biggest beef with no phones was no picture-taking. Just as I thought of it, someone made that point, too.

“I and Miss Robinson will take lots of pictures. Worry not. We’ll post them to the Facebook page…assuming we can get cell service.” He laughed again, at his own joke, which wasn’t a joke at all, but was stupid.

The rest of the ferry ride was a communal fantod.

With a shriek of rubber and a few jolts, The Pelee Islander docked. We were officially in Canada. Stern-faced port authority workers wound the boat tight to the steel bollards with thick ropes. She settled with belch of diesel and black smoke.

As students filed off, Mr. O held out a black trash bag. I wanted to punch the smirk off his face.

“Aw smile, Halle. I’m sure I won’t confuse this bag with actual trash.” To Jack he said, “Remember that unflattering shot you took of me last week while I was sick? Payback, Mr. Peters. You better pray you don’t blow your nose or do anything else camera-worthy this weekend.”

Jack’s jaw dropped.

“Thought I didn’t know?”

Jack moved on, eyes ahead. I turned and gave him a sympathetic smile. It was a half mile trek to the beach. Great. My leg would be on fire.

Without the slim rectangle it usually held, my hand felt naked. Seclusion was already getting to me, and to the others. Hands clutched at empty pockets before remembering. Fingers instinctively squeezed air. All our snap streaks, gone. Like that.

None of us were here because we wanted to be. Some idiots on the school board had made the unilateral decision that a retreat in the spring of our senior year was necessary to round out our high school educations—to reflect on life and purpose and all that philosophical shit none of us would care about for another decade. And how would we generate all these profound thoughts? A scavenger hunt. We’d be assigned to teams and have the run of the 16-square-mile island. Bikes would be provided. No cars. No soliciting the locals for use of boats or golf carts. No alcohol. No sex. No drugs. No fun. No phones. And don’t eat the grapes in the winery fields. They’re sprayed with shit that makes you shit.

I wasn’t sure I believed that. But did I want to chance it?

“I’ve got my own mission.” Adele from Honors Chemistry opened her palm to reveal a Juul. She wasn’t into cigarettes, caffeine, or other “shit that doesn’t even get you high.”

“What about the drug-sniffing dogs?” I whispered.

She scoffed. “Oh please. Pelee is too dinky. Do you know how much those dogs cost?”

Dinky or not, the Canadian island employed a slew of port authority workers. They shot us that military-hostile scowl, like we were a threat or something. One unzipped a bag and fished around in it without so much as looking. I studied him as he picked his way through bags and suitcases. I would have videoed him, had my phone not been taken. He struck me as…what? …blasé. Like he was going through the motions. Maybe he was. Maybe his girlfriend broke up with him last week, too. Did I want to see heartache everywhere? Maybe I did.

From somewhere close by, a dog barked. A drug-sniffing dog? Please, no. The bark, it had a friendly feel. Or did I want it to be friendly? And what did drug-dogs sound like? I didn’t know. More lusty barks. I clenched myself, anticipating the beast’s rush on us and a violent slam to the dock and handcuffs and Miranda rights and a cold, smelly, hungry night in a Canadian jail cell next to Adele.

The reality: I didn’t watch where I stepped.

My foot caught a boat cleat, steered my already-uncoordinated stride sideways and off the dock. I. could. not. stop. That realization lasted a millisecond, enough time to scream and alert all my classmates that one exquisitely stupid girl was about to fall headlong into Lake Erie.

There.

Was the murky water with its swirly grease trails coming to meet my face and my outstretched and flailing arms. The water was a cold slap. Still, I was tempted to stay under. Should I come up and face everyone, or drown? Tough choice, but since I couldn’t force myself to drown, I broke the surface and gritted my chattering teeth.

A milky hand extended toward me. A port worker pulled me out with surprising ease, and when I stuttered a thank you, he made no reply. Miss Robinson rushed over and put her coat around my shoulders. The laughter of my classmates was just the beginning. I’d hear about this the whole weekend. The only upside was that the phones were gone, so no one had footage of me getting fished from the lake. As we trekked to the beach, my sneakers squished. My left leg was heavier from the water and would stink in no time if I didn’t take care of it. And maybe even if I did. And another thing: my hand was freezing, the one he’d clasped when he lifted me out.

#

Mr. O was a master delegator. He organized the students into work groups. Some gathered driftwood or dry grasses. Some searched out rocks and stumps to place around the fire. His most trustworthy students skewered marshmallows or arranged the chocolate pieces and graham crackers on picnic tables. And all the while, Master Delegator was inside his phone.

The sun set, and with it—mercifully—went the biting black flies. Since all our luggage was in a separate transit to the rooms, I couldn’t get fresh clothes. I had to deal with being soaked. Mr. O found a softish rug and wrapped me like a burrito. I was not only ridiculous; I was useless. With mincing steps, I moved off toward the thicker part of the woods, determined to remove my wet clothes and turn the rug around, dry side to my skin. As the sliver of sun vanished, the woods darkened enough for me to undress in relative privacy. I took everything off down to my socks and wrung out the water.

That was when I heard the first scream.

And another.

And too many to count.

My clothes dropped to the dirt. I ducked behind the fattest tree trunk. Between the screams I heard another noise. As if something heavy were dropped on the sand. Scream. Thud. Scream. Thud. Scream. Thud. Whatever ripped those noises from the throats of my friends—I had to run from it. Get as far away as possible. I bit off a whimper and reached for my rug.

A hand curled around my face and clamped over my mouth, stifling my own scream.

“No sound. Follow me.” Jack’s voice was a harsh whisper in my ear. He took my hand. I was completely naked. The rug would slow me down. He didn’t seem to notice, anyway. We slunk into the darkest part of the woods, the roots and rocks digging into my good foot. Once we reached the boundary where the woods opened to a dock, I chanced a look behind.

Nothing. I couldn’t see a thing through the trees and snarled bush.

I yanked him to a stop. “Jack. What happened?”

He shook his head, tried to keep tugging me forward. “We have to get inside, find a place to hide.” Then he actually looked at me, and his eyes went even wider. “Damn, Halle.”

“I was changing.”

He nodded at my left leg. “I meant that.”

I sighed and rolled my eyes.

He averted his eyes. “Can you walk?”

“You think I suddenly lost the ability to walk?” Being naked was humiliating. Being naked and discovered as an amputee by Jack was off the charts.

Jack picked his way along the dock, hunkering behind boats and peeking out before moving between them, pulling me along. The marina restaurant was deserted. A neon OPEN sign emitted an electric cricket call. The bulbs inside threw ghosts of light onto the boardwalk. Creaks and rubber moans accompanied the rocking of The Pelee Islander in its moorings. Dark spines of masts and riggings inked the moonlit sky; their halyards chiming against the steel like funeral bells. No voices. No ship horns or the clap of shoes on wood. Where was everyone? Only one boat had a warm glow emanating from its windows. Jack headed for it.

“Wait, Jack.” Did I need to remind him I was naked?

He ignored me and rapped softly on the door. The sound of someone banging into something was followed by a curse. The voice was familiar.

“Adele,” I whispered. “That you?”

Adele opened the door, a mantle of pot wafting around her in a vaporous cape. “Hey, guys, I thought you were—” She saw me. “Whoa, girl…how’d you keep that a secret?”

Jack pushed past her, pulled me in, and noiselessly closed the door. “Turn that light off.”

“Why?” Adele moved like a sloth.

Jack snapped off the light. “You mean you didn’t hear anything?”

“No. Why?”

“Forget it,” Jack said. “Whose boat is this?”

“Don’t know, but they were too stupid to lock it. How’d you find me? Did Mr. O send you?”

“This is the only boat with a light on. Everybody’s gone,” Jack said.

I beelined for the aft bedroom, yanked the flat sheet off the bed, and wrapped it around me, tying it off at my shoulder like a toga. Once “dressed,” I knelt on the floor and motioned for Adele to join me. She was stoned beyond belief.

“What do you mean, gone?” she asked.

“I’m not sure,” I said. “I heard screams. From the beach. I didn’t see anything. It sounded so bad I was afraid to look. I was afraid if I looked, it would get me, whatever it was.”

Jack opened drawer after drawer, presumably looking for a radio. Or maybe a weapon. Eventually, he gave up and joined us on the floor. “Adele, share some of that, will you?”

I looked at him, dumbfounded. “Right now? Are you mad?”

“We can’t use the radio. They’ll hear. We can’t fight them—Halle, you heard what they did to the others.” His throat closed off. “And. I. saw. I don’t…know what to do. I can’t think. Don’t know who to call. And we have no phones, thanks to Mr. O and his seclusion.” Jack grabbed fistfuls of his hair. “And if you saw what’s out there, you’d want to get high, too…. What else is there?”  

Adele handed it over. Jack dragged way too hard and coughed. I swiped a pillow off the bed, and he coughed into it.

Adele offered me the Juul, and I sucked that shit like a Dyson.

Jack would not say what he saw. Said there wasn’t enough weed in the world to get him to tell, said we wouldn’t believe him, and anyway, he didn’t trust his eyes. He suppressed a giggle. That’s how I knew he was stoned.

“Are they terrorists?” Adele asked.

He shook his head.

“Animals?”

“Not like any I’ve seen.”

Adele sucked in a huge hit. “Maybe they’re genetically modified.”

“I’ll say.” Jack frowned at the idea. He burst into giggles.

I asked Jack how he managed to get away.

He reddened and got serious. “I wasn’t on the beach. There was this dog. It came to me as I was gathering Mr. O’s stupid sticks. The dog was so friendly, I figured somebody lost him. I followed him through the woods to a house. He climbed the stairs and pawed at a door. I was about to knock when I saw you…er, your blanket in the woods. It was bright and caught my eye. That’s when I heard the screams. I nearly fell down the steps trying to get the hell out of there, but I remembered you. You were close. I saw what was happening to the others, but you I could help.”

I remembered the barking dog. How could I forget falling off the dock? I swallowed. “What was happening to the others?”

He shook his head and squeezed his eyes shut.

Adele looked from Jack to me and back. “You were spying on Halle, weren’t you?”

Jack reddened. “Screw you.”

Adele laughed. “What do I care? I’d do it, too.”

It was my turn to get red. I was pretty sure Adele was straight. I was pretty sure I was, too. Pretty sure, but not positive.

Jack shushed us and tipped his head, listening.

Something was happening outside. Something…mechanical. It was unlike anything I’d ever heard. If a waterfall spoke in a foreign tongue, that’s what it would sound like. And another sound: some sort of helicopter thing. Thump-thump-thump-thump, but higher pitched. We shrank lower, and Jack slipped under the table. I followed. Adele came last.

“What is that?” The crack in Adele’s voice said she was finally with us in our terror.

The thumps got faster. The sound, louder. We held onto each other till my ears felt as if they’d explode. I released my hold on Jack and tried to protect my ear drums, tried to stuff my fingers into them and stop the agony. The sound snaked into my head. Higher and higher and louder and louder and still impossibly louder, until it was difficult not to howl right along with it.

Wetness drenched the insides of my ears, and with the rush of fluid went a good bit of the pain, leaving behind a ringing. The thumps continued, but softer. I took my hands away, noting the trickle of fluid and blood on each palm. For what felt like an hour but was probably minutes; the eerie waterfall-talk continued. As abruptly as it began, it stopped.

Tears streaked Adele’s face. She’d bitten her lip. Blood ran down her chin.

A noise made us all jump. Someone was outside the door, but the porthole showed nothing but night sky. Adele started to rise, but Jack yanked her down. “Don’t.”

She shook him off and crept to the side window.

I was afraid to move or speak. Or breathe. Jack snatched my hand and squeezed, hard. Like it was the last thing he’d ever do. Yes, one should hold hands when one was about to die.

Adele pulled apart the blinds and drew in a sharp breath.

Jack knew what was out there. So did Adele, and I’d know soon enough. I’d die in this toga with a wet prosthesis in an exotic boat that smelled of orange cleaning oil and pot. I’d die holding Jack’s hand. Stoned.

But instead of instant and horrible death or a door breaking off its hinges from the powerful yank of something unthinkable and bloodthirsty, Adele clambered off the seat and dashed to the door. She flung it open, caught it before it banged into the wall.

In trotted a dog.

“That’s the one.” Jack crawled out from under the table. “He’s why I’m not dead.”

 The pup had the most unusual markings. Eyes as dark as Lake Erie water, a white triangle on his nose, tapering into a line between its ears. Its short-haired coat was mostly the color of caramel, except for a white crest on the chest and tips of each paw. It—no he, had Labrador in him, but those blue eyes were Husky. He was young, barely out of puppy stage, based on his sleek coat and thick, biggish paws. He made me want to hug him; he was that painfully adorable.

I checked for a tag. Sure enough, a rabies license hung from his nylon collar. And on the back was a name. Bait. And a phone number. That did us zero good. We didn’t have phones.

“How’d he know we were here?” Jack craned a look out the window. “I mean, it’s a small island, but not that small. It can’t be a coincidence. Him, finding us.”

“He tracked you,” Adele said. “Not that difficult for a dog.”

Outside, the awful noise started again, startling all but Bait. Thump-thump-thump, in a crescendo the thumps intensified. Jack and Adele hugged their knees. I sat cross-legged with my elbows pressed against my ears. Bait curled up in my lap and put his nose on my thigh. Could Bait be deaf?

The sound stopped. As suddenly as it started. This time it barely lasted five minutes.

Bait padded to the door and began to scratch.

“No, boy,” Jack scolded.

Watery puppy eyes regarded us with a wisdom that looked human. He scratched the door again.

“He’s going to give us away,” Jack said.

At that, Bait turned to us and tilted his head, as if deciding. He closed his eyes and shook his head. Clearly a no. He resumed pawing the door.

“Open the door. See what he does,” I said. 

As if he understood, Bait backstepped a few paces so Jack could open the door. Once Bait crossed the threshold, he turned back. When no one moved, he took Jack’s shoe in his teeth and gently tugged.

“Maybe we should follow? He saved me before,” Jack said.

Adele sucked in a breath. “I say we stay here till morning. Why go out now? That’s plain stupid. I mean, what the hell made that noise?”

Bait spun in circles and tilted his head. He didn’t bark. His silence was intentional. He wanted us to come.

“I’ll braid my vagina hairs into a potholder before I’ll leave this boat. Smart dog or no.” Adele curled up on the cushioned bench. 

I tossed her a blanket. “We’ll be back.”

“Bring food. All they have is canned anchovies.”  

Bait took us through backyards, picking a route along drainage ditches and paved irrigation troughs. Where could everyone be? I recalled the screams and thuds, and my gut clenched. That was all I needed. To shit myself.

“What’s wrong?” Jack whispered.

“Nothing.”

Bait turned into a driveway. The name on the mailbox was COLE & BETTY DUDAS. The BETTY was struck through with black Sharpie. No lights shone in the A-frame cedar home’s floor-to-ceiling windows. Solar lanterns illuminated an upper deck furnished with cushioned chairs and pillows. Bait led us up a spiral staircase. My prosthesis dinged against it and Jack stiffened. I tried to be more careful, but it was plastic on metal.

At the top I scanned the beach.

Empty. The lights along the walkway showed the picnic tables stacked with graham cracker boxes and unopened bags of marshmallows. Some had blown into the sand. Near the edge of the wood a dark, angular mound of splintered bones and fabric strips and hair and—it was just sticks and wood for the bonfire. No one to light it.

“I need a bathroom.”

“Now?”

The lock on the sliding door disengaged, startling us. From inside, a pale, knobby hand pushed the handle and the door slid open enough to allow us entry.

Even in the dark, I could see the place was swank. Tall ceilings, modern wall art, and plush carpet gave it a Zen feel. Bait bounded into the overstuffed chair and curled into a ball. He exhaled a contented dog sigh.

“Shut the door, will ya?” came a voice from the shadows. He was in a chair behind the door. “I see you met Bait. He’s a good boy, ain’t he? Can’t seem to break him of the furniture, though. Thinks he owns the place.” The white-haired man smiled and rubbed the stubble on his cheeks. Lines etched what once was a chiseled face and was pleasing even now. “Late for a walk, ain’t it?”

It wasn’t late. My guess was nine o’clock. The sun had been setting when the screams started.

I abruptly asked—I assumed it was Cole Dudas—if I could use his bathroom.

His eyes swept my toga. He pointed out the room, and I barreled there with the grace of an albatross, slamming the door and falling onto the bowl just in time. Through the door I heard snatches of conversation. Jack explaining, we were high schoolers on a retreat and something went horribly wrong.

I came out of the bathroom red-faced but feeling better.

“Please, sit?” Cole gestured to a cushioned accent chair.

Jack didn’t move, so neither did I.

The old man’s gaze was on my prosthesis. “Surely you need to rest.”

I hated that it made me less in everyone’s eyes. That was why I’d hidden it when I moved to Parkville High School, hidden it so well not even my ex-boyfriend, Mason, knew. Until he did. Did any of that matter now? My waterlogged prosthesis banged on the wood floor no matter how delicately I tread.

“I’m fine.” I gritted my teeth.

Cole Dudas sniffed and wrinkled his nose. “You been smoking them funny cigarettes, ain’t you?”

Jack let out an exasperated sigh. “You don’t have to believe us. Just let us use your phone.”

“No phone here. Broken.”

In this place? Doubtful.

“You know exactly what we’re talking about, don’t you?” Jack said.

Cole pursed his lips as if deciding how to answer. With a grunt, he pushed himself standing. His chair was actually a wheelchair. “Come along.” He ascended a narrow, carpeted staircase. Each step was punctuated by a grunt as he pulled himself up using the handrail. The stairs led to a finished attic. One wall was floor-to-ceiling windows, the blinds shut.

“You can see from here. It’s docked on the other side of the island, but we’re high enough.”

Jack stayed me with his arm. “Don’t pull the blinds. Peek out the cracks.”

We put our eyes to the blinds and gazed into the darkness. My first impression was of a shiny wrecking ball roughly the size of two Pelee Islanders, but with pinpricks of light I assumed were windows.

“They’re not from here,” Cole explained. “That thing makes a terrible racket when it moves. You heard it, I’ll betcha. They can do a bunch of amazing stuff, but they don’t much care about noise pollution. Your friends, I’m sorry to say, are inside. Beyond helpin’.”

Downstairs, the door opened.

“That’d be them, coming for you, son.”

 “You trick people into coming here and hand them over?” Jack asked.

“People follow Bait of their own free will. I’m just trying to stay alive. They won’t want you, neither.” He nodded at my prosthesis.  

The sound of heavy steps below. Bait barked. A scraping sound worked its way up the steps.

“Don’t look,” he said.

I could not help it.

What I thought I saw, at first, were leafless, upside-down birch trees propelling themselves by innumerable twiglike legs. Their blotched forms shed serrated flakes as they moved, the size of dead leaves but flat and thick and sharp as blades. They advanced toward us on knotty branches and hinged, arthritic twigs. Round their bodies were several belts of eye-like globules that protruded and jiggled as they moved, each the size of an egg yolk, but black. I could see myself reflected in those terrible, jiggling orbs.

Something tiny hit my cheek. And another. Another. It felt like wood dust thrown from a circular saw. An alien smell dug at my nose, an amalgam of bleach and burnt rubber. To protect my eyes, I put my hands to my face and peeked through my fingers. A cloud of flying things shifted like flocks of birds. Some pinged into my hands, my neck, my hair. Where had they come from? Inside the creatures? Except for a papery, malevolent scraping, they were utterly silent, both the flyers and the trees.

Jack trembled, grabbed my hand as a cloud of them enveloped us. “Survive,” he whispered.

His slack hand was ripped from mine.  

Thud.

The sound I heard on the beach. Jack, on the floor.

Twig fingers, silent, insect-fast, snatched him up.

I screamed and cried and dived for Jack, tried to pry away the gnarled knuckles and fingers sunk in his flesh. There was no blood. Jack was ice cold. His open eyes, frosted. I tried to swat away the animated branches, each time feeling a sting of cold so intense it sliced.

“Don’t struggle or they’ll sedate you, too,” Cole warned, like he was doing me a favor.

As if in answer, the flying things swarmed and stung me, each contact point a sizzle and blooming paralysis. A strong knot of twigs carried me downstairs, set me in Cole’s wheelchair. Cole followed, his apologies punctuated with grunts of pain.

The tree monsters left and took Jack with them.

Bait crawled onto my lap and curled up there, as he’d done before.

“How could you?” I asked, though with my lips numb it came out, “Owkudu?” And a string of saliva dangled from my parted lips.

Bait didn’t answer. Maybe he was just a stupid dog, after all.

With the back of his hand, Cole wiped my spittle. “Try not to judge us, luv. They allow us life, and in return we entertain any stragglers until they come round again. If you’d waited until after Sunday to pay me a visit, we would’ve had more time with your friend.”

“We followed your dog. (Eee-fawoed-erdog.)”

“Yes. Well, he’s not called ‘Bait’ for nothing. That was my idea.” He narrowed his eyes. “You followed a dog named ‘Bait,’ and you’re blaming me?” Cole limped to the kitchen. “I make the best blueberry crepes, fix you right up…What’d you say your name was?”

“I didn’t. (Eye-int.)”

I don’t know how long I cried. First, at our stupidity. Cole was right. But Bait was just a puppy. Harmless. Like Cole. I looked at my stump. Like me. Why hadn’t we listened to Adele, stayed in the boat where it was safe? I cried for the life I feared I’d never live, for the hug I didn’t give my Mom when I left. For all my friends who were nothing more than thuds and screams and ice. I wished for a reset on the day. To not go on the trip. Sink the ferry. I made many irrational wishes and eventually came back around to that thought Mr. O wanted me to have: what I’d change about myself.

My leg. I’d give myself a whole, warm, living leg.

Then I changed my mind. I’d be me, but I’d like myself, flaws and all.

And again, I changed my mind, certain this time of what I’d change: I wouldn’t be a prisoner. Wouldn’t be helpless. I’d survive. The soaked padding in my prosthesis gave off a rotting, wet smell. Cole was still in the kitchen, fussing over crepes when the paralyzing agent began to wear off.

#

My prosthesis was a compound of silicone, thermoplastics, and titanium. The water made it extra-heavy. Cole Dudas was losing a crepe from the sides of the pan, humming. His pleasant hum cut out when I swung my prosthesis into his skull, cracking it. Down he went, stunned and betrayed.

“Et tu, Brute?” I said crisply, lips restored, even though it didn’t apply, exactly. I swung it like a mallet, burying the toes in his eye.

Bait took a chunk out of my forearm before I battered him, too.

I went back for Adele, but she was gone. Her Juul was on the floor. I smoked the rest of the pot and starved so bad I ate the anchovies. I’d never felt so alone. Was this surviving?

#

Saturday, I lay in the eternal dusk of the boat listening for sounds of life. Or death. The only sounds were the cries of gulls, the lap of water against the hull, and the clawing of my empty belly. Sunday morning, I left the boat and skulked to the dock, climbed into a dumpster, the kind for cardboard recycling. I closed the side depository, except for a small crack, and had a view of the ferry. Sunday was the day we were supposed to leave Pelee Island. Go back to our old lives, to our parents, our colleges or our real jobs.

A far away sound, the crunch of gravel under many feet. Louder. Louder. No one spoke. Or laughed. Or complained. The footfalls had an eerie sameness of stride and pace. At the dock, the march stopped. Not one-by-one, but instantly. Simultaneously. All their eyes were frosted over. Their spines, uncannily straight. A single phone (mine?) was handed to a zombie-faced Miss Robinson by an equally robotic Mr. O.

Gone was the flirtation. She mechanically strode to the other side of the boat and dropped the phone into Lake Erie, in full view of the students. She took another bag and dumped it on the deck. Students came forward and picked through the pile. No one spoke. They moved at a sloth’s pace. Phone-deprived students would have attacked that bag with mob passion.

#

I silently climbed out of the dumpster. The toga didn’t help. There had been no clothes in the boat cabin, and I’d been afraid to leave, even for food. I was so hungry I wanted to gnaw on cardboard. But I didn’t have time for that, or for hunger or weakness or fear. I had to get on board. Get to my parents, to people who were actually people.

The Lake Erie water turned my toga into a garrote. I swam hard anyway, below the waterline, feeling my way along the side of the boat until I was out of view. I remembered there were large black drums chained to the side; for what purpose, I had no clue. One was on an upper deck, but one was low enough to reach. I hefted myself onto the barrel and clung to the chain to keep from slipping. My waterlogged toga wanted to pull me back into the murk. I squeezed out what I could.

Steps on the gangway, rhythmic, dead.

The barrel I assumed was full of life-rafts was attached to a lower deck window, probably for easy escape in a sinking. Upside down, leg-over-leg, I climbed the chain. Water dribbled off my sheet and made lusty plops that I prayed wouldn’t give me away. With fiery palms and aching arms, I reached the window and swung my leg over and dropped as soundlessly as possible into the vessel. Spiral stairs led to the bowels of the ferry. I fled there, horrified at the trail of watermark I left behind.

I huddled in the orlop, wrung more water from my toga and thought about Jack. Was he on the deck with them? Was he like them? A zombie. It wasn’t fair to lose him, to lose all.

After a while, noises started in the decks above. Human sounds, what you’d expect from high school students: spontaneous and irregular. There were voices, a few at first. Then more. Like they were normal. Happy, even.

Mr. O shouted for everyone to settle down. I even heard him flirt with Miss Robinson.

Joy and relief surged through me, and I was about to come out of my hiding place when I had another thought. This was bullshit. Mr. O, Miss Robinson, and my friends—they were being put back into the world for who-knew-what? My friends were husks, retrofitted scouts or alien probes, able to be turned on or off as needed to fit in. They were not my friends anymore.

When the ferry docked, I slipped inside a cluster of gushing girls. They babbled about the prospect of a real shower with hot water that didn’t stink like eggs. One looked at me. Casey from homeroom. “Nice dress,” she said. My arms were gooseflesh from the wind’s bite through my wet sheet. I was certain at any moment one of them would confront me. Or take me. Could they tell I wasn’t like them?  I searched for Jack or Adele, though I was afraid of what I’d see in them. Or not see. Not one of the zombie students bothered with me. It was like I was one of them. Or they just couldn’t tell the difference.

Until I got to the checkpoint to re-enter the USA.

I didn’t have my paperwork to re-enter the country. The port authority worker was the one who’d fished me from the lake two days ago. Eternity ago.

Panicked, I searched the crowd. Mom and dad were at the bottom of the gangway. They waved and called my name. I started to cry and wave back when a milky hand pinched me, sending frigid agony into my arm. Our eyes met: his grey and luminous and full of meaning. Mine, petrified.

He opened his mouth to say something, but before he could, Mom was between us, unaware, asking what was the problem here?

“No problem, Ma’am,” he answered. “Checking paperwork.”

She smoothed my hair and began to tell me about the lunch she planned. My favorite: turkey reubens, mac and cheese, choc—then she noticed my toga.

“—Halle…what’s this?”

I looked at the alien disguised as port authority. His eyes (reflecting me in the irises) held a challenge. Inside my head I heard an unfamiliar voice, like the sound of a waterfall. This time I could understand. All of it. Somehow, he gave me all I needed to know. More than I wanted. I was good at keeping secrets, they knew. They knew all about my prothesis and how I kept it to myself. And how I killed Cole and Bait. They appreciated my grit, they said. And they had a job-opening, they said. I created it, they said. Take it or die.

I had seconds to decide.

“Oh, this.” I shrugged and hoped Mom bought my honest act. “My costume for our skit. They dared me to wear it home, haha, and oh, I tripped on a cleat and fell off the dock. But I had so much fun, Mom. You wouldn’t believe it.”

Mom shook her head and clucked, her non-verbal for: Halle-never-learns. She couldn’t see my arm was still in his grip. She went a few steps before she realized I hadn’t followed. “Halle?”

I looked at him.

He looked at me.

His kind had no need for clunky, inexact things like words. In the time it took Mom to take the three steps back to us, the deal was done. Jack said to survive, hadn’t he? Mom and Dad’s safety was thrown in when I balked. And they’d provide a puppy.

Like Bait?

Exactly like him.

What about Jack? I asked.

Too late for him.

Bullshit. You can make it happen. THAT’S WHAT YOU DO. Put Jack back.

Puppy and Jack when you start work.

Deal, I said.

I skipped down the gangway and joined my mom. First thing I did was hug her. Tight. “Mom, I got a summer job. On Pelee Island.”

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Kelly Griffiths shares her writing journey with an eclectic band of creatives called The Little Red Writing Hoods. She hikes as often as the Northeast Ohio weather allows. Recently she fell in love with a new thrill: single-track mountain biking—a religious experience because she's a sneeze or bug-in-the-eye away from getting all her metaphysical questions answered. Her four children and partner are the loves and pride of her life. Her short fiction can be found in The Forge Literary Magazine, Ellipsis Zine, and Reflex Fiction, and her flash “Tease” was nominated for Best Small Fictions by Gordon Square Review.

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