Monday, 15 August 2022 13:03

Joy Ride by Theresa Bral & Jamie Vega Wheeler

Pupils… Persuasive… Pedal… Pentagram…

Angie gulped for air as she broke the water. Strings of auburn hair clung to her face like seaweed, refusing to be contained by her swim cap. The sun was rapidly sinking toward the horizon. But she was determined to finish.

Quagmire… Quarrel… Queasy…

Angie had grown up in the water. She had a picture of herself at only three months old being dipped by her dad into the cold shallows of the Pacific. An expression of sheer delight on her face.

Rusted… Rowdy… Roadkill… Resurrection…

Swimming was Angie’s daily ritual. And she was good at it. She was the highest ranked in the county for the 200 freestyle. She might even have a chance at a scholarship (which she definitely needed). But her dedication wasn’t solely about maintaining her competitive edge over the summer. She loved the sensation of weightlessness — the way her body moved up and down with the swell of the surf, as though she were flying. The underwater drone of sea life creating a soothing vacuum. The power of her muscles propelling her forward one more lap… then another… and another. Swimming was her drug.

To clock the amount of laps she swam, Angie assigned a letter for each one, conjuring random words to help keep a steady rhythm. The practice had a meditative effect. Her mom had taught her this as a little girl, to calm her when she was upset. Now it cleared her head.

As she rounded the far buoy, she switched from ‘R’ to ’S’.

Seaweed… Slough… Surprise

She’d stop today at ’S’. JP would be coming over soon. He wanted to be the first to wish her happy birthday at midnight, so he’d planned to stay over. Angie’s dad, Carlos, never minded JP spending the night. They were only friends, after all.

Angie waited for a big wave to bring her in. As she stood barefoot in the sand, drying her hair with a towel, her wetsuit rolled to her waist, she peered out over the water. The cove was busy at this hour — the water dotted with surfers catching the last light of day. Angie held still and waited for the green flash. That tiny burst of green light which appeared as the sun slipped into the ocean.

Down the sand a bit, she could see a couple of joggers hovered over a figure lying on the shore. Past them, the red lights of the distant power plant flashed their steady rhythm. Most people thought the plant’s tall concrete stacks ruined the view of the coastline, but to Angie they felt like home. Like twin lighthouses blinking their welcome signal. Suddenly, one of the joggers let out a cry of disgust. Curious, Angie moved closer and saw they were hovering over a beached seal. A long gash running along the animal’s side, probably from a boat propellor. Its black bulbous eyes, now a ghastly red. One of the joggers snapped a picture of the wounded creature. Angie turned away, staring back out at the water. People were strange.

“How’s the water?”

The voice startled her. She glanced over her shoulder at the surfer hustling toward the waves. It was Weiss. He’d graduated last year when Angie was a freshman. He turned and smiled at her. His curly brown hair unbrushed and wild. His green eyes teasing. The scar on his cheek serving as a caution — don’t get too close. The rumor was he’d scored it in a turf war with a bunch of college students. His friend having sewn the wound up with needle and thread.

Angie worked up the nerve to answer him. “Cold,” she responded, trying to be playful. She’d seen Weiss here nearly every day this summer, but this was the first time they’d ever spoken to each other.

“Thank god. It’s a million degrees out,” he laughed, slowing his pace to talk to her.

Panicking for what to say next, Angie blurted out the first thing that popped into her head, “It’s feeding hour you know.” She had never seen a shark in the bay, but she knew they were out there. Circling.

“How do you think I got this scar.” He winked.

Goose bumps rose on her skin. But before she could say anything else, Weiss dove with his board into the water, paddling out through a darkening sea. As fleeting as the green flash.

#

It’s feeding hour you know?… Damn, Ang, a little early in your relationship for dirty talk don't you think?” JP laid in the hammock her dad had hung in her room as last year’s birthday present.

Angie kicked him with her foot. “I was just trying to warn him about man-eating fish.”

“Wow, you’re even turning me on right now.”

Angie laughed and glanced out the window at her dad hanging Christmas lights inside the gleaming 1968 Volkswagen Bus they’d carefully restored together. When Carlos had inherited the beat-up classic from her grandfather, it had been sitting for decades in a garage, gathering dust and spider webs. Its metal rusted. The engine corroded. And together Angie and her dad had brought the old gal back to life. They’d drawn straws to pick the paint color. Her dad had voted for a loud canary yellow, which reminded Angie way too much of a school bus. Thankfully, she’d drawn the long straw and had chosen a soft baby blue. Her mom’s favorite color. Their big plan was to road trip down to Baja after she graduated to eat lobsters in Puerto Nuevo and to visit the village where Angie’s great grandparents had grown up.

JP kicked at the floor to make the hammock swing. “About time your dad let us camp out in that thing.”

“It’s not a thing. Her name is Betsy.”

“Betsy, huh?”

“Dad named her after his favorite waitress at the Pancake Pile.”

“Betsy… Is she the one with the gold tooth and the peg leg?”

Angie rolled her eyes and threw a pepperoni at him. JP had snagged her favorite combo from his summer job at Pizza My Heart: pepperoni, pineapple and extra jalapeños. He hated smelling of garlic and marinara, but it was worth it for the free pizza.

JP glanced at his phone. “Four more hours until sweet sixteen. And to celebrate, you’ve opted for a wild night in with pizza and root beer and the most eligible bachelor in all of Santa Cruz. Will they or won’t they lose their virginities to each other tonight?”

Angie waved her hands over an imaginary crystal ball, “Hmm, let me see…”

“Hey, mija.” Angie’s dad stood in the bedroom doorway. JP sunk lower in the hammock, mortified her dad had overheard. He certainly didn’t want to get on Carlos’ bad side. Even though the man was a softie, his large build, beard and tattoos gave him an intimidating air. But he seemed unfazed. “Everything's up and running. Here’s the keys.” Her dad set them on her dresser.

It had been just the two of them since her mom passed away last year. They’d always been close, but now they were even closer. Though it was pretty awkward when he’d ask her about boys, as her mom once had, or when she had to add tampons to his grocery list. Her mom’s death seemed to have aged him. That, and the long hours he spent out on the Elkhorn Slough, motoring tourists around on the lookout for marine life. Her mom had pushed him to start the business and was a pro at filling seats. People loved her. Even though he still made ends meet, most days seemed to be a struggle for her dad. He especially had trouble with the philosophy ‘the customer is always right.’

“Dad, you’re a wizard.”

He shrugged off the compliment. “The rules for Betsy are as follows: no food or drink inside, take your shoes off at the door, and most importantly no Steely Dan.”

“Who’s Steely Dan?” Angie was used to not understanding her dad’s jokes.

Incredulous, JP tried to jog her memory. “‘Rikki Don’t Lose That Number'? Come on, ‘Reelin’ In The Years’?”

Angie shook her head.

JP jumped out of the hammock, belting out a mash-up of the band’s classic choruses. 

Carlos crossed his considerable arms, clearing his throat and feigning a stern expression.

“Oh right, sorry. No Steely.” JP went silent, grabbing another slice of pizza.

“I’ve finagled the whole day off tomorrow. So after your driver’s test, maybe we go for a ride in Betsy. Take her down the coast. You drive, I pick the music. Stop off for sundaes at Georgie’s,” her dad said, patting his stomach. Angie just hoped she’d done enough studying and practicing to pass the test.

“Sounds great,” Angie agreed. “But are you sure you trust Eddie to be captain for a day? Didn’t he almost run your boat into the dock last time?” Eddie was her dad’s second in command — an eager but clumsy marine biology student.

“Trial by fire, kid,” her dad replied sagely. “ Trial by fire.”

#

“I was waiting until your dad went to bed…”

Angie and JP sat cross-legged in the restored VW. Sleeping bags unfurled on the hardwood floor Angie had spent hours laying herself. A steel vintage fan taking the edge off the heat, as one of JP’s musical discoveries played on the Bluetooth. A transplant from the East Coast, JP prided himself on his eclectic and obscure taste in music. His dad, who still lived in New York, was a studio musician, playing drums on everything from jazz albums to Top 40 pop tracks. He’d even worked with Prince back in the day (as JP had reminded her a thousand times).

JP produced two bubble gum pink cans of sparkling rosé out of his bag. “As requested from the birthday girl, I pilfered them from my mom’s stash.” He cracked one open and handed it to Angie. “Happy 16th to the only person who gets me.”

Angie took the can and hesitated. Though it had been her idea to try her first drink tonight, it now seemed as though she was crossing an invisible line. She clutched the can in her hand and made a face. “It’s warm.”

“Beggars can’t be choosers. Go ahead. I dare you.”

Angie was having cold feet. “I don’t know. I have my driver’s test tomorrow.”

“Which is 12 hours from now. Come on, Ang, we made a pact. Let’s rip the Band-Aid off. Not like you’re gonna get wasted from one can of sparkling rosé.”

Angie raised the can in salute. “You’re right. What the hell.” She took a giant swig, cringing at the taste. “Uh, disgusting.” But she took another gulp anyway. If she was honest, being bad was a bit of a rush. Exciting but also a little scary. It wasn’t as though she was against drinking. The opportunity just hadn’t presented itself.

JP scrutinized the half-finished can in his hand. “Not terrible for something my mom buys in bulk at Costco.”

Angie stretched out on the floor, laying her head in JP’s lap as the drink began to warm and relax her. He played with her hair, making long little braids as he regaled her with the details of a debate he’d had with his summer school teacher over colonialism and the inherent bias in their history books. JP and Angie had met freshman year in English. On the first day of class, she’d watched in awe as he dragged a desk beneath the wall clock, proceeding to wind it ahead ten minutes. It took the teacher a week to notice she was letting the class out early. Angie was drawn to him from that day forward. He was unlike anyone else in school. The band stickers covering his notebooks weren’t of the typical surf bands most kids she knew were listening to. He seemed to know an absurd amount about Shakespeare. And once a month he would bring a box of donuts for the lunch ladies. He was charismatic and quirky and enviably self-assured.

After weeks of noticing him from a distance, she finally mustered the courage to talk to him one day after school at the bike racks. He was slipping his ear buds in, and she asked him what he was listening to. They clicked instantly. The two of them talking nonstop as they pushed their bikes along the river path. Eventually, they wound up at a record store together on State Street, where she subsequently tripped and fell, chipping a tooth in the process. Angie was mortified, but JP stuck by her in Urgent Care, making fast friends with her dad.

They’d become close after that, and it didn’t take long for him to mention he had a crush on a guy from the soccer team. Angie was disappointed at first. But now he was the best friend she’d ever had. They were each other’s Thelma and Louise. Minus the driving off a cliff together.

“So what’s on the agenda, birthday girl? We gettin’ crazy tonight or what?” JP asked, unwinding the braids he’d made in her hair.

Angie sat up. “Twin Peaks and pedis? I got this neon orange that supposedly glows in the dark. Then maybe a Trivial Pursuit rematch.”

“So exactly what we do every weekend.”

#

Angie ran her hands under the warm water of the bathroom sink. She thought she might be a little buzzed, but with nothing to compare it to, she couldn’t be quite sure. A weird ache had taken root inside her too. A restlessness. Maybe they should do something different. Something crazy.

She inspected her face in the mirror. Her cheeks were flushed, but it could’ve been from too much sun. She was struck, as well, by her growing resemblance to her mom. The same patch of freckles high on her cheekbones. The same hazel eyes and dimples when she smiled. It was like looking at a ghost.

Angie hesitated a moment and willed herself to open the drawer. Hidden inside was her mom’s makeup bag. Neither Angie nor her dad had been able to part with this reminder of her. She would watch her mom apply her lipstick in the morning before work. A soft dusty rose color Angie would put on in secret and then rub off, never feeling adult enough to wear it. She twisted the tube open now, applying the lipstick with the same precision as her mom once had. She took a step back, and for the first time, thought it fit.

Passing through the living room on her way back to the VW, Angie found her dad asleep, snoring in his recliner with the TV turned to a cooking show. A woman with big hair was demonstrating how to make the perfect croissant. Angie clicked the TV off and covered her dad with the heirloom quilt her great grandmother had gifted her parents on their wedding day. She went out the back door, rounding the corner to the side of the house where the VW was parked. To her shock, the engine was running.

“Hop in,” JP yelled in a whisper out the driver side window.

Angie laughed, thinking he must be joking. “Alright, alright, turn it off.”

But the VW inched forward.

Angie wasn’t laughing anymore. “Seriously, I’m not kidding. You’ll wake up my dad.”

“You mean the same guy who slept through all those insane Fourth of July fireworks?”

Angie yanked open the passenger door and hopped in. “Shhh. Roll your window up.”

“What? Did I hear you say let’s go on a joy ride?” JP inched the VW forward again.

Angie reached over, trying to grab the keys from the ignition, but they were already on the move. “I’m going to kill you. Or my dad will.”

JP turned the vehicle onto the street. “It’s your birthday, and you deserve to live a little. We won’t be gone long.”

“You’ve been drinking.” He hadn’t had much, but this was Betsy. Her dad’s baby.

“One small can hardly counts. And I have a perfect driving record.”

“Because you’ve only been driving for two months!”

JP laughed and shifted gears.

“This is kidnapping.” Angie glanced at her house in the side mirror, expecting her dad to come rushing out the door to stop them.

“You’re a woman now, Miss Sweet Sixteen, how could this be kidnapping?” JP sped up, leaving their quiet night behind.

Angie felt nervous, in the same way she did before a swim meet. Maybe it was best to plunge into the water and go. To let this buzzing inside her push her to places she’d never been. The engine sailed as they turned onto a winding back road headed into the Santa Cruz mountains.

“Betsy’s as much yours as she is your dads.”

“Yeah, I wish.” Angie wanted to be mad at JP — but taking off into the night was exciting.

“Besides,” JP mocked, “what’s the worst that could happen to two teenagers joy riding in the woods with a stolen car?”

#

The moon a mere sliver, the VW’s headlights cut the only visible path through the redwoods as JP made a right down a dirt road.

Angie found the darkness disquieting. She’d heard people lived in these woods up in the trees. Free spirits who wanted only to be left alone. They built ramshackle forts in the canopies and only ventured into civilization for supplies. Her mom, who grew up poor, had a soft spot for the tree people and would bring them home cooked food during the holidays. Angie wondered, were they passing beneath them now? “It’s been awhile since I’ve been out here.”

“Fun fact: trees talk to each other. Through their roots.” JP turned to look at Angie. “They even warn each other about pests. Pretty cool shit.”

“Keep your eyes on the road.”

But it was too late. The VW rattled as it went over a large pit. Angie winced, worried about the alignment and whether her dad would notice. They soon came upon a clearing in the forest, passing a large cement slab which had recently been poured. No doubt a rich tech guy’s future second home. A chorus of frogs surrounded them, having resurfaced after the recent rain.

“Frogs creep me out.”

“Mating season. They’re not quiet about it.” Angie and her mom had often sat out on the porch listening to their serenade.

“Gross.” JP shuddered.

Just past the clearing, another property loomed in the woods. As they neared the building, pounding music eclipsed the frogs. Angie could make out the silhouettes of bodies gathered out front. Christmas lights hung haphazardly on posts illuminated an old sprawling ranch house. The place would have been quaint, except for the large gashes in its siding and the gaping holes where doors and windows had once been.

“Surprise,” JP exclaimed. “I got you a demolition party for your birthday.”

Angie had never been to one before. These types of parties were getting more and more popular as developers bought up land, demo’d old hippie homes and built new modern McMansions. Kids renting the places would get the go ahead to trash them days before the bulldozers finished them off.

“Oh joy. A bunch of horny, riled up teenagers with hammers.” Angie couldn’t imagine a place she’d less like to be.

“Well… what if I told you one of those horny, riled up teenagers might be Weiss?”

Angie raised an eyebrow.

“You know that guy Rory I work with? His band’s playing. I've heard they're shit — but I happen to know he’s friends with Weiss. So… you’re welcome.”

“Fine,” Angie pretended not to care. “But if they start playing Maroon 5 covers, we’re leaving.”

“If they start playing Maroon 5 covers, we’re burning the house down.”

Angie was a little reluctant to leave the VW anywhere near teenagers with hammers and made JP park it down the road. Approaching the house was like stepping into a dystopian future where kids ran amok, not caring about anything. A group in animal masks ran past them with baseball bats — the one wearing a pig mask turning back to snort at them. Another group she recognized from their high school hovered around a trashcan fire, chucking in wood they were pulling right off the house. She could make out a few bodies sitting on the roof smoking, and on the ground, a couple of kids were using a bare mattress as a trampoline, giggling maniacally every time they fell over.

They found Rory’s band playing on a rickety back porch already riddled with holes. Angie tried to give them a chance, but Rory’s voice was out of tune and the constant feedback from the guitarist’s amp gave her a headache. To her surprise, though, JP seemed to be loving it, doing the little bounce he did when a song made him happy.

He turned to her, yelling above the noise, “They're not so bad after all.”

“I’m going inside for some water.” She was bored and thirsty, and if she was honest, she hoped to run into Weiss.

“Want me to go with?”

"No you stay. I'm a big girl.”

“Maybe grab me a soda?”

Angie slipped away into the beat up house. The back door had also been freed from its hinges. She found herself in a kitchen. Several kids were busy spray painting a mural on the adjacent dining room wall. She had to cover her face to not choke on the fumes. Other kids were crowded around the counter where generic cola was being mixed with giant handles of generic brand vodka. She grabbed a red plastic cup and turned on the faucet, but no water came out.

“There's a case of bottled water in the back room.”

Angie nodded at the tattooed girl who’d spoken and made her way deeper into the house, keeping an eye out for Weiss as she went. A DJ was set up in the living room — a local guy she recognized from Java Joe’s. A couple making out on the couch seemed unfazed by the intermittent sledge hammers and crow bars punching into the walls around them. It seemed people were playing a drinking game where losers took neon green jello shots and  winners reveled in the thrill of busting into plaster. Still no Weiss.

A coating of drywall dust clung to Angie’s shirt as she made her way to the back bedrooms. Through the first open doorway she spotted a stack of bottled water. The room was dimly lit, and there were remnants of a Hangman game spray painted on the wall. R-E-D-R-U-M had been spelled out before the little stick figure had been hung. Murder written backwards. Angie had watched The Shining for the first time this past Halloween, and she’d had nightmares for weeks about the little boy demonically chanting the word over and over.

Angie moved through a small crowd toward the water. She grabbed one, took a quick swig and noticed a girl sitting off to one corner reading a drunk guy’s tarot cards. The type of girl Angie was sure collected crystals and kept a Himalayan salt lamp burning in her bedroom. The guy getting his reading done wore an intense expression, captivated by the girl’s every word. The girl flipped over a new card. Whatever she said had an effect on him. Angie could barely hear above the noise, but the guy seemed to be yelling at the girl who remained quiet and motionless despite the verbal assault. Something about the scene sent a chill down Angie’s spine. Which only intensified as the girl’s eyes bore right into her. Almost accusingly. She had to get out of there.

Moving clumsily through the crowd of bodies, Angie smacked her shoulder into a passing partygoer. She murmured a reflexive ‘sorry’ without looking back. But a hand gripped her arm tight, not letting her go.

“Hey there, shark expert. Surprised to see you away from the water.” It was Weiss. She was excited to see him but did her best to play it cool. “I’m amphibious. I can survive in water and on land.”

“Lucky for me.” Weiss held out a sledgehammer, "How ‘bout a little fun?”

Angie hesitated, her heart beating fast. She was used to putting things together, not taking them apart. She reached for the hammer anyway, inciting a kinetic shock as their hands touched. She scanned her surroundings, unsure. “Where should I do it?”

“Ladies’ choice.” Weiss stuck his hands in his pockets, eager to watch.

Angie approached the graffitied hangman. She glanced back at Weiss one last time and drew back the hammer. It was heavy but nothing her swimmer’s arms couldn’t handle. She closed her eyes, braced herself and took a swing. The second the hammer hit the wall, everything weighing on her shattered. The act was more than thrilling — it was liberating. She turned to Weiss, her pulse racing, and went back for more. After three swings, she dropped the hammer to the ground and stepped back to take in the damage. The broken drywall revealing pink rat-chewed tufts of insulation which looked to Angie like demented cotton candy. Her mind flashed to The Boardwalk clown that had scared her as a kid in the haunted house ride. Blood dripping from his smile and onto a giant spool of cotton candy gripped in his hand.

“You’re right that was fun.” She was giddy with adrenaline.

Weiss whistled, impressed. “Not bad. Didn’t know you had it in you.”

Angie hadn’t either. “Well you don’t know me, do you?” She swung again, as if to prove it. But this time she heard a clang and was hit by a spray of water. She jumped back, unbelieving. She’d gone too far and hit a water pipe. But the room cheered despite her guilt, bodies rushing toward the water. A large kid with long green hair slipped and slid into an even larger guy in a Sharks jersey, and the two were soon hurling one another against the wall.

“Hey, Weiss, this way.” The tarot girl motioned toward an open window, as the fight escalated. Weiss grabbed Angie’s hand and helped her through the rotten, splintered window frame. As he climbed through himself, he snagged his jacket on a nail, causing him to lose his balance and tumble out onto the dirt.

Angie tried to keep a straight face, but the laughter came anyway. “Oh my god, are you okay?” The sight of him lying on the ground with his feet in the air like a bug was too much. She covered her mouth, trying to stifle her giggles. Most guys her age had fragile egos. 

Weiss surprised her, though, by laughing at himself too. “You gonna help me up, or what?”

Angie offered her arm, and he took it, rising back onto his feet. She couldn’t resist staring at him, his green eyes equally fixated on her. And then, not knowing what she was doing, Angie kissed him.

#

“Jesus, do they not know we’re following them?” JP did his best to keep up with Weiss and the tarot girl who were in the truck in front of them. “It’s not too late to change your mind, Ang. I wanted you to have a good time, but I don’t want your dad to kill you.”

Now you care about my dad catching us?” Angie gave JP a playful shove.

“The girl Weiss is with gives me the creeps. I swear she’s the one who tried to follow me home after work a few weeks ago. I can’t forget that patchouli smell. I told you about her right?"

"What, no.”

"I was closing up alone, and this girl appears out of nowhere asking to use the bathroom. She was all glazed over. Like she was on something. Anyway, she was in there maybe twenty minutes, and when I finally went in to check on her, she'd vanished. Either she slipped out when I wasn't paying attention, or she was a ghost.”

Angie remembered her gut instinct to bolt when the tarot girl had locked eyes with her.

 JP took a sharp left and sped up. “Then she was on the bus home with me, and I swear she kept moving seats to get closer. ”

It did make Angie uneasy, but she chose to ignore it. “She’s just a kooky white hippie girl. Spit in the wind, and you’ll hit one.”

“Speaking of spit,” JP smirked, “I can’t believe the same girl who hours earlier could barely speak to Mr-I-Fight-Sharks would suddenly have the balls to shove her tongue down his throat.”

“It must've been that half can of rosé,” Angie joked. She was still on a high from what she’d done. After she'd kissed Weiss, they’d both stepped back and laughed again. That’s when he’d invited her to the sea caves. People were meeting there to bonfire, and she’d said yes without even thinking. Before tonight, she couldn’t have imagined any of this. Since her mom had died, she had tried hard to make her dad’s life easy. Which often meant wallowing in her comfort zone. JP was reluctant to continue the night's adventure, but she’d pulled the birthday card. And now here they were tailgating a beat up Tacoma to a hidden cove to party with a bunch of strangers. Angie didn’t know if she was terrified or thrilled. Maybe both.

JP brought the VW to a stop. They were north of the city. Weiss had led them off Highway 1 — the narrow two-lane highway which snaked along the coastline — into a hidden dirt lot. A few cars were already there, and Angie could see a tiny plume of smoke rising over the top of the sea cliffs.

JP grabbed Angie’s wrist before she could hop out. “We need a safe word in case we want to abort this mission.”

Angie thought for a second. “Sand crabs?”

“Technically two words. But it'll do.”

A rap on the passenger window startled them. Weiss stood there — a flashlight held under his chin, transforming him into an 80’s horror film killer. “Shall we?” he asked through the glass.

Angie hopped out of the VW. Weiss gestured toward the bus’ sliding door. “May I? It’s not every day you see these old buses in such great shape.”

“Be my guest,” Angie answered, flattered.

Weiss popped his head inside, inspecting the handiwork, impressed. “Your dad restore this?… or mom. Not trying to be sexist here.”

“Actually I did… with my dad.” Angie could still smell the motor oil and grease of the garage she and her dad had spent so many hours in. "Her name’s Betsy.”

“Good name. Aren't you full of surprises. You cut these door panels yourself?”

Angie ran her hand along a panel, “I did. And the seats are original salt and pepper vinyl.”

“Nice. My uncle lived in one of these. Used to park the ole surf wagon outside our house. Man, I wanted to be like him — but now I realize Uncle Pete was just homeless.”

"Enough car talk,” the tarot girl interrupted. She took a few steps closer to JP, who took a few steps back. “Hi, I’m Astrid.”

“Uh… you can call me Al.”

Angie shook her head. “His name is JP.”

“What, no Paul Simon fans here? It was a joke…” JP always made musical puns no one but him understood.

Angie introduced herself to a confused Astrid. “I’m Angie.”

Astrid smiled warmly. “You know, something very bad happened in that bus of yours. There’s red coming off it. And pain, lots of pain.”

“Astrid, stop trying to scare people.” Weiss brushed her off, as though used to her otherworldly ramblings. He slammed the sliding door of the VW shut. “Let’s go.”

“I’m simply repeating what the beings tell me.”

JP leaned into Angie, whispering, “Sand crabs. Sand crabs.”

Angie stifled a laugh as they walked to the sea cliffs. Weiss led them down a precipitous path to the beach below. Even with the flashlight, Angie stubbed her foot on a tree root, losing her footing. Weiss grabbed her just in time, teasing, “I’m not gonna let you fall like you let me.” Angie could hear JP swear more than once behind her, too, as he met a similar fate on the steep and rocky trail.

Finally, the light of the bonfire greeted them, casting monstrous shadows onto the walls of the sea cliffs. Weiss’ friends surrounded the fire, sipping beers and passing joints. A skinny, red-headed surfer who she recognized from school chopped a wooden pallet into pieces for the fire. Surfboards were sunk into the sand with wetsuits draped over them — a few kids having already paddled out to stargaze.

Angie’s attention moved to the depths of the black hole nature had carved into the cliffside. The sea cave’s opening was in the shape of a massive church steeple, outlined in jagged rock, almost like teeth. Beyond it, a black so black it left Angie with a sense of dread she couldn’t quite understand. As if a bad omen.

“You can only access it when the tide’s low, “ Weiss nodded in the direction of the cave. “Seems to be your night.”

“I can’t believe I didn’t know about this…” Angie stared in awe. She and her dad had boated by this beach probably hundreds of times and yet had never once glimpsed the cave.

“Oh darn, I left my spelunking gear at home,” JP quipped. Angie knew he wasn’t a fan of beaches in general. He hated sand in his shoes and refused to take them off. He complained about how cold northern California beaches were. (“It’s not a beach, if you have to wear a sweater.”) And he wouldn’t be caught dead playing beach volleyball.

Weiss said hi to a few friends, introducing them to Angie and JP. Astrid was already warming herself by the fire and motioned for JP to join her, no doubt in a ruse to give Weiss time with Angie. JP glowered at Angie as if to say ‘you owe me’ and made his way over.

“You wanna paddle out?” Weiss asked, his voice hopeful. “Don’t worry, I’ll protect you from any hungry sharks,” he joked.

Angie laughed. “But who will protect me from you?”

#

Angie and Weiss laid in silence on the borrowed surfboards looking up at the Big and Little Dipper. The black sea melted into the night sky, making it seem as though they were floating in space. The wetsuit Angie wore was a tiny bit too big but still managed to keep her warm. She was used to the water anyway. Its cold bite reassuring. They held hands to keep from floating away from one another. His skin unusually hot. She felt safe with him… but maybe a little scared too.

Angie gazed at the ceiling of stars above her, searching for a tiny red dot in the sky. “My mom took my dad to the campus observatory for their first date. To see Mars close up. I always try to find it on a clear night.”

“I’m glad then I brought you here for our first date.”

“Date, huh?” Angie was surprised by his directness.

“So, ah, your mom and dad. The whole gazing at the stars thing must’ve worked out for them.”

“It did.” Angie wondered how much she should open up to him. “She actually died last year.”

“Jesus. That’s tough. I’m sorry.” Weiss was silent for a moment, as though also wondering how much to reveal to her. “My mom died when I was little. She had issues… I sorta worry sometimes I might have them too.”

Angie wondered what he meant by “issues", but didn't want to pry. “Losing your parent can make anyone feel abnormal.” Angie remembered swimming herself to exhaustion in the weeks and months after her mom died — once to the point of almost drowning. Though the waves had been rough, she had pushed herself to reach the letter ‘Z’ in her laps. Her lungs burning. Muscles cramping. And then she was sinking. A lifeguard had brought her back to shore, and she’d never told her dad.

“It’s more than that. I have this thing I do where I picture myself losing control.” Weiss turned to her. “Like right now, I can see myself slipping off this board and sinking. And just when I change my mind to come up for air, it’s too late.” Weiss peered back up at the void. “And I’m okay with it.”

It was as though he’d read her mind, invading her privacy. But before she could respond, Weiss was gone. He’d flipped off his board and disappeared beneath the inky water. She waited for him to pop up. If this was a joke, it wasn’t funny. But the seconds soon turned to minutes. She screamed his name and jumped into the water, blindly searching for him. When she couldn’t hold her breath any longer, she broke the surface, gasping for air. And there he was. Back on his board. Smiling until he saw the fear on her face.

“You didn’t think I was actually going to do anything, did you?” He reached out his hand to help her back on her board. But she didn’t want or need his help.

“I don’t know you,” she barked at him, “or what you would or wouldn’t do.”

Weiss seemed taken aback but also ashamed. “You’re right… I’m sorry. I don’t know why I did it. Trying to be funny I guess. But it was stupid and immature.”

“You’re right, it was.” Up on the board again, Angie paddled toward shore, leaving a dumbstruck Weiss behind. A few seconds later, she could hear him trailing her. She worried she’d overreacted, but at the same time didn’t want to let him off too easy. Swallowing her irritation, she called out to him, “Race you to the shore!” Angie could hear him speed up, trying his best — all while knowing he didn’t stand a chance.

#

Angie was right. She beat him by a yard. Her frustration dissipated as they dragged the boards together back through the sand. She hadn’t loved what he’d done, but he did seem sorry.

Weiss pointed his board toward the cave. “We can change in there.” A camping lantern now hung off a rock inside, casting an amber glow. No longer so threatening, the cave felt warm and inviting. Angie followed him through the opening.

Inside, she searched for a bit of privacy.

“I can hold a towel up for you,” Weiss offered.

Having grown up by the beach, Angie was a master at changing beneath a towel. She didn’t need Weiss’ help. But something inside her wanted it. “Okay, thanks. As long as you promise not to look.”

“I wouldn’t dare.” Weiss held the towel, diverting his eyes.

Even though Angie could see the others around the fire, she felt alone in the cave with Weiss. Close enough she could smell the salt water clinging to his skin. She rolled off the borrowed wetsuit, all the while keeping focus on him. With his head turned she could see the details of his scar. She tried to picture the version of him who could wind up in a knife fight. The dark place inside himself she’d glimpsed out on the ocean.

The wetsuit dropped to the sand, and for a moment she stood almost naked in her bra and boy shorts. She thought she could see Weiss’ eyes drift toward her, but she took off her underwear anyway. She’d kissed a few boys but had never been this exposed in front of one. She was oddly bold. As though this night had ignited a change in her.

“I’ve noticed you a lot at the cove,” Weiss admitted. “You’re a strong swimmer. How come you never surf?”

Angie put on her clothes, but slowly, not wanting the moment to end. “It’s too territorial out there. I don’t have the energy to fight over waves. I’d rather have the water to myself.” Angie finished dressing. She didn’t know where to put her wet underwear and stuffed it into her jacket pocket, blushing. “Alright, I’m done.”

Weiss let the towel fall and turned to face her. His wetsuit rolled around his waist, Angie could see the vast ink work on his chest. The biggest tattoo was of a pelican with a fish caught in its beak. The fish’s body painfully twisted in an effort to escape. Weiss wrapped the towel around his waist and changed beneath it in a matter of seconds.

“Well, I’d love for you to come surfing with me sometime. I know a place where people will leave us alone.”

“Maybe.” Angie shivered a little.

“Should we get back to the fire?”

She nodded and made her way to the bonfire, disappointed he hadn’t tried to kiss her. But before she knew it, she was pulled back to him. The kiss long and deep and salty. She relaxed into him. Until a shock of pain brought her back. He had bitten her bottom lip. She wondered if it was blood she could taste in her mouth… and whether or not she liked it.

#

Angie plopped onto the sand next to JP. Astrid had deserted him to heat a liquid concoction over the fire. Bored, JP was fashioning a tiny structure out of sticks in the sand.

“What are you making there?”

“A boat to sail away on,” JP teased and dropped his voice to a whisper. “You two were getting cozy in the cave. A regular Stone Age romance.”

Angie was eager to fill in the details. She knew JP would be proud.

“Do you guys wanna partake?” Weiss interrupted, looming above them. He glanced over at Astrid who mixed something herb-like into a clay bowl.

A bit nervous, Angie asked, “What is it?”

“A way to open your third eye,” Astrid answered, in all seriousness.

Weiss added, “It’s a special tea.”

“Not a tea — a tonic,” Astrid corrected him. “And if you don’t believe in its powers, you won’t be granted access.”

Angie turned to JP. She was curious but didn’t want to admit it. She knew he’d say no, though. Which was probably for the better.

“I already tried it,” JP admitted, a bit sheepish, taking Angie by surprise. “It’s just some hippie tea. Seems harmless enough. I had a few sips of the last batch, and I don’t feel anything.” Despite his words, Angie could tell her best friend was apprehensive and was surprised he’d given in to Astrid.

Astrid walked over to Angie with the clay bowl in hand. Steam rising. She spoke softly but beamed with intensity. “You have three eyes. Two for looking and one for seeing.”

Sensing Angie’s hesitation, Weiss spoke up, “Really Angie, you don’t have to drink it.”

Angie grabbed the bowl, and before she knew it, took a sip. The smell hit her first — so spicy, it was abrasive. The tea itself tasted of fresh-cut grass, earthy and bittersweet. And burnt as it traveled down her throat. Her whole body becoming warm. For a moment, there was a ringing in her ears and the sense of being underwater. Just as quickly, however, the sensation subsided and a deep calm came over her.

“That’s definitely not Earl Grey.” Angie laughed, a little too loudly she thought.

“The recipe’s a family secret.” Astrid grabbed Angie’s wrists. Angie noticed the girl’s purple painted thumbnails digging into her skin. Astrid leaned in a little closer. “Do you want me to read your cards?”

“Watch out,” Weiss warned, “she’ll tell you things about yourself even you didn’t know.”

“Can’t wait to see this,” JP sneered.

Angie didn’t want to be on display in front of Weiss and his friends, but before she could protest, Astrid had pulled out her deck of tarot cards, clearing space for them in the sand. “Start shuffling,” she instructed Angie, “and as you do, envision what you want to learn from the cards.”

Angie found herself picking up the deck and beginning to shuffle the cards, as though guided by an invisible force. She searched for something to focus on but drew a blank. As though a fog had swept in, leaving her unable to find her way through it.

Astrid continued, “Now spread them out in the sand, facedown.”

As the girl spoke, Angie saw she was missing a tooth and pictured Astrid pulling it out with pliers. She shook away the image and did as told, staring at the drawings on the back of the cards. They seemed as crude and homemade as the clay bowl she’d drunk the tea from.

“Pick three cards and set them aside facedown.”

Angie grabbed one. And two. But was startled as a flurry of embers took to the air. One of them landing on a card, burning a hole through its center. JP kicked sand over it, as Astrid let out a little cry. Angie couldn’t help but choose the burnt card as her third and final.

“It appears the card chose you,” Astrid taunted.

Angie went to flip the cards over, but Astrid slapped the back of her hand. “Don’t turn them over!” Her eyes glowed yellow in the light of the fire.

Angie’s skin stung where she’d been hit. She was annoyed by this girl, but for whatever reason obeyed orders, taking her hand away from the cards. Astrid proceeded to flip each of the cards over herself — The Fool, The Wheel of Fortune and finally The Death card with its scorched center.

JP gave Angie a consoling pat on the back, “Eeek… Death. That can’t be good.”

“Yes it can,” Astrid snapped. She turned her attention back to Angie. “Well, are you ready to peer into the dark?”

Angie could sense Weiss’ presence behind her. His breath slow and steady and expectant.

Astrid began with The Fool card. A smiling court jester stood with legs crossed, juggling. Harmless enough, Angie thought. “This is the issue card,” Astrid explained. “The thing you’re currently facing. You're eager to experience the world. Curious… but a little naive. Easily tempted.” Astrid’s eyes flickered over to Weiss for a second, making Angie a bit self-conscious. “You must be careful — take a step too far and you’ll tumble off the cliff.”

Weiss laughed. “Well she’s got you there. You nearly fell off the path coming down here.”

The instruments of darkness tell us truths… Macbeth,” JP said in a faux dramatic tone, showing off his Shakespearean know-how.

“No interruptions, please,” Astrid said with irritation in her voice.

JP shrugged and rested his head on Angie. It felt heavy on her shoulder. Her legs tingled as well, as though they’d gone to sleep. She uncrossed and crossed them again. But the numbness continued, as Astrid moved on to the second card. To Angie, the Wheel of Fortune resembled that of an old sailing vessel. Surrounding the circle were various characters, including an angel and a devil.

“The Wheel of Fortune represents the change this issue will incite. I’m afraid luck isn’t on your side.” Astrid grabbed Angie’s hand, petting it, as though consoling a cat. “Something bad is going to happen. This is fate, you can’t control it.”

Now Angie’s arms were beginning to tingle. She pulled her hand away from Astrid and hugged herself, as a gust of wind stirred another cloud of embers. One landed on her hand, but she couldn’t feel it. And a thought struck her — she hadn't seen Astrid take a sip of the tonic. Or Weiss…

“You need to lose control.” Astrid gave another coy glance to Weiss. “You want to lose control.”

Angie's stomach flipped. She felt paranoid, as though Astrid and Weiss were messing with her. “I think I’ve had enough.”

Astrid was adamant, “That’s not how this works. You have to finish.”

Angie sensed everyone watching her. She hated being the center of attention. If she could, she would dive into the ocean, out of their sight. She turned to JP for comfort. His pupils were nearly eclipsing the whites of his eyes. Useless.

“The third card is your outcome,” Astrid plunged ahead. Angie stared down at Death — a skeleton holding two scythes above a grave, from which two hands reached out, as though begging for their life back. “Out of your misfortune, you’ll step into a new phase of life. A metamorphosis. Old you needs to die for the new you to be created.” Astrid’s voice seemed to slow. The words stretching out. “Don’t be scared, Angie.” Astrid leaned forward, her mouth close to Angie’s ear, "Let death’s arms wrap around you.”

All at once, Angie was overcome with a flurry of images — her mom’s waxen face in the casket wearing her dusty rose lipstick, the dead seal decaying in the sun, Weiss floating face down in the ocean, his skin blistered and bloated. She rose to her feet and ran to a rock, vomiting behind it. As though purging all the bad stuff out of her. Weiss appeared, his face full of concern. “It’s just a bad reaction to the tea. The stuff’s all out of your system. You’ll be fine now.”

Taking a swallow of the night air, Angie did feel better. But only physically. She was embarrassed and ashamed and wanted to disappear. “JP,” she yelled, “we’re going.”

JP struggled to stand up. After a few attempts, he landed back in the sand, laughing so hard he cried. “Am I vertical?”

JP was out of it. Angie thanked god she’d thrown up before Astrid’s potion hit her in the same way. “Well, you’re not driving.”

Disappointed, Weiss tried again, “Don’t take Astrid seriously, Angie. Her whole witchy act is all a bunch of bullshit. Sit down, let me grab you some water.”

Angie couldn’t meet his gaze. She rushed through the sand to JP. “The keys,” she demanded. He appeared puzzled, as if not knowing what keys were. Angie dug through his pockets. She found the keys and helped JP to his feet. The two scrambling their way up the path in the dark.

“Be careful!” Weiss called out behind them.

But it was too late.

#

Angie white knuckled the steering wheel as she wound along the cliffside highway. The drop to the rocky shoreline below was steep and guardrails were sparse. One wrong move, and they could plummet off the side, their souls trapped forever inside her dad’s cherished VW. She could hear Astrid whisper in her ear, take a step too far and youll tumble off the cliff.

Leaving the highway, Angie decided to take the backroads home to avoid getting caught. As if a criminal on the run, she kept checking her rearview mirror for signs of a trailing police car. She imagined being booked at the station for driving without her license. Her dad disappointed in her. Forever banned from the VW. With her luck, she’d be thirty before they let her on the road.

A blast of cold air snapped Angie out of her doomsday thoughts. JP was entertaining himself by rolling the window up and down, up and down. “JP, knock it off.” She didn’t need distractions. She needed to stay focused on the road to bring them home safe.

JP lurched forward and turned on the radio instead. Unbelievably, it was a Steely Dan song. He cackled and turned up the volume. “Shhh, don’t tell your dad.”

“Turn it off. I have to concentrate.”

 Unmoved, he began singing into an invisible microphone; his voice ringing in her ears.

Angie reached to turn off the music and swerved. Heart racing, she corrected the VW and continued on at a slower pace.

JP chided her in a sing song voice, still channeling Steely Dan. “You can get pulled over for driving too slow, you know.”

“Quiet. No backseat driving.”

“I’m not in the back seat.”

Angie grew angry. “We wouldn’t even be in this mess if you hadn’t hijacked my dad’s car and forced me to go to that stupid party.”

“Yeah, well who made us follow Scarface to a seance on the beach?” JP snarled, massaging his temples. “What was in that shit anyway? My head is pounding.”

It was true. If she’d only said no to Weiss, her and JP could be curled up right now on the floor of the VW watching old Spielberg movies on his laptop.

JP let out a grumble and bent forward, cradling his head in his hands. And that’s when Angie saw it. A flash of movement in the rearview mirror. She looked closer, and there he was. Weiss sitting in the backseat — a strange grin on his face. Angie gasped. She closed her eyes tight and reopened them. Weiss was gone. “JP, I gotta pull over, I need air.”

JP snapped up. “You wanna pull over in the middle of these dark ass woods?! Are you crazy? There are people living in the trees here, you know that right? Off the grid weirdos. C’mon we’re almost home. Let's go.”

Angie thought of the tree people. And her mom. Then decided to forge ahead. Trying to calm down, she imagined herself in her happy place — swimming laps in the cradle of the ocean. She thought the same technique for maintaining focus underwater might relieve her chaotic mind. She gazed out the window at the surrounding woods and began her mantra.

Woods… Waves… Witch… Weiss —

Angie didn’t know why her mind was stuck on him. She tried again.

Highway… Happy… Heartfelt…

It was working. She was a bit more clearheaded.

But then a metallic rattle threw her off. It sounded as if an object was hitting the van. Angie didn’t trust her own ears. “Do you hear that?”

JP had his head in his hands again. “Hear what?”

Angie could sense something stirring in the backseat. Her eyes crept to the rearview mirror. A knot tightening in her stomach. He was there again. Weiss. This time holding the same sledgehammer she’d wielded at the party. He was tapping the steel nose against the roof. A sinister expression on his face. Angie was paralyzed, unable to speak. With that same creepy grin, he drew the hammer back, intent on destruction. Angie screamed, losing control of the VW. The bus swerved, its tires squealing.

JP popped up, frantic. Pointing ahead in the road, he yelled, “Angie, watch out!”

THUMP. THUMP.

The VW skidded to a stop. Angie was overcome with the smell of burnt rubber. She exhaled sharply, realizing she had been holding her breath. She whipped her head around. The vision in the mirror had seemed so real. But the backseat contained nothing but their sleeping bags splayed across the floor.

“What was in the road?” Angie asked, not wanting to know the answer. “Tell me it was a possum we ran over.” Her hands were shaking.

“Possum! The thing was giant. Maybe a deer?!” JP was panicked. “What the hell happened to you back there?”

“Go and see!” Angie demanded. She could hear Astrid whisper again, something bad is going to happen.

“What? No way! You go!” JP sounded terrified.

Angie glanced in her side mirror, but the vintage red taillights were too dim to reveal the creature in the road. “You saw the thing, what exactly did it look like?”

“I don’t know, a big blob. Road kill. It wasn’t moving, maybe it was already hit.” JP seemed dead set on any explanation that got them out of there. “Let’s just go.”

Angie couldn’t believe this was happening. She had almost totaled her dad’s prized possession. Even if the animal was still alive, what could they do about it? She put the VW in drive and inched her way into the road. The scraping sound was immediate. Loud and abrasive. She thought she was hallucinating again, but it was clear JP heard the noise too.

They were dragging something behind them. Something big.

Neither spoke as Angie cut the engine again. They couldn’t leave. This is fate, you cant control it.

As though in a trance, both Angie and JP slowly opened their doors. Setting one foot on the ground. Then another. The frogs were louder now, screaming. Angie imagined their bulbous eyes watching them from the tangle of the surrounding forest. JP walked around the front, joining her. And holding hands, the two made their way to the back of the VW.

Where it awaited them.

#

Surfboard… Sandcastle… Scream…

The night had grown even darker. Angie was drenched in sweat despite the chill in the air, and her nausea was back. Visions of the cave kept blurring her vision as she drove in silence.

Cave… Clueless… Coma… Cracked Skull —

Her mom’s trick wasn’t working. They had done what they’d done. And the night would only get worse. Angie was plagued by the thought her gut instinct had been right — they should’ve called the cops. But JP had painted a grim picture of what would happen. No way the cops would believe them.

“Oh god, we’re really doing this." JP broke the silence.

Angie slowed the VW to a stop and stared at the tall chain-link gate. They’d arrived at the Elkhorn Slough. She cut the engine. Her dad’s key to the tiny marina hung from the ignition. Angie stared at the foam buoy keychain meant to keep the keys afloat if dropped in the water. She shuddered. This couldn’t be happening. But it was. The smell of death filled her nostrils, so potent she could taste it.

Angie gagged, flung open the driver’s side door, leaned out and threw up on the tarmac. The vomit hot and burning. JP laid his hand on her back, offering quiet comfort. But nothing could help her now.

Doing her best to pull herself together, Angie climbed out of the VW to unlock the gate.

Gate… Godless… Grave… Grotesque…

After struggling to open it — the gate was heavy and rusted from the salt air — Angie drove them to her dad’s dock. The marina was a second home to her. She’d been helping her dad with his tours of the slough since she was a little girl. He brought her on so many of them, she knew every marine mammal and migration pattern and could recite her dad’s tour from memory. Including his bad puns.

She also knew there’d be no one here this time of night. The place was deserted after the sun went down. The one exception was the night dive boat, but it had been out of commission since Don’s wife had fallen ill. The isolation was why she’d thought of the slough. That, and the sea life. They’d take care of it.

As if on autopilot, Angie stepped out of the VW again and walked over to its sliding door. A long thin scratch ran across the paint. She cursed herself for not being more careful, but the bus was the least of her problems right now. She glanced over at her dad’s boat, a reminder of what was at stake, and braced herself as she grabbed the VW’s door handle — the same chrome lock her dad had installed with his own two hands — and pulled.

Boat… Buoy… Battered… BODY.

There it was. Motionless. Cocooned inside Angie’s sleeping bag in the back of the VW. JP had been wrong — it wasn’t a deer.

What seemed to be a lifetime ago, the two of them had stood over the dead body, adrenaline clouding their ability to process what they were seeing. A man laid in the road. His face covered in blood, it was hard to tell how old he was. But Angie thought he might be the same age as her dad. Her insides twisted, pulling tight.

Tears were streaming down JP's face, as little animal sounds escaped him. When he finally spoke, his voice was hoarse and timid, “It must be a tree person.” The man’s clothes were outdoorsy but dated and worn. His blond hair matted into dreadlocks. And around his neck on a frayed bit of twine hung a small wooden pocket knife.

Angie pulled her phone out of her jacket and was about to call 911, when JP knocked it out of her hands. “What the hell?!” she cried.

“We have to think for a second.” JP’s eyes were red and puffy, but Angie could tell he had sobered up. He bent down and, grimacing, searched the man’s pockets. “Nothing. No ID.”

“What does that matter?” Angie’s head was spinning. She wanted to be home, safe under her dad’s roof. She picked her phone off the ground, “I need to call my dad.”

“Don’t be stupid,” JP shouted. “You don’t want to bring your dad into this. He’ll want to take the blame for you. And then what? Your dad goes to jail, and what happens to you? Foster care?”

Now she was the one crying. “You saw him lying in the road before we ran over him. How do we know he wasn’t already dead?”

“Who’s going to believe us either way? I’m black, you’re brown and he’s white. You do the math.” JP’s mind was on fire now. He talked fast, putting together the pieces. “And imagine if you were the one in jail. Your dad would risk everything to help you. He’d lose his business, his house. All of it! We need to act quick. If this guy’s off the grid, I doubt anyone’s coming to look for him.”

Angie had the irresistible urge to slap him. Anything to stop him from talking. Anything to bring her friend back. Because this wasn’t the JP she knew. “What are you trying to say, we should leave him here?!”

“No, I’ve already touched the guy. And they’d trace your tire marks in seconds. This bus is one of a fucking kind!”

They were face to face now, on the darkened road. Angie could almost hear JP’s thoughts. Her own were drifting to her dad. To everything he’d done for her. Don’t be scared, Angie. Let death’s arms wrap around you. Opening her mouth, she heard herself say, “Grab the sleeping bag.”

#

Their eyes watched her, phosphorescent in the dingy harbor light. The black cormorants were perched on the decayed wooden harbor sign rising out of the water. As Angie and JP rowed beneath them, the birds’ gaze seemed to follow, silently judging. The last time they saw her here she’d cradled a plain mahogany box in her arms, as Carlos steered the empty tour boat out into open water. It horrified Angie to realize she was leading JP toward a spot not far from where she’d scattered her mom’s ashes. Two burials at sea. Both destined to haunt her.

Angie glanced back at the harbor, making sure it was only the birds watching them. They were alone. All she could hear was the clanking of the harbor boats bobbing in the tide — the sound growing ever distant as she and JP made their way deeper into the slough. The two sat at opposite ends of the tiny rowboat, slicing their oars through the water. The body, still in a sleeping bag, laid between them as though tucked in tight for bed, cozy and snug. Angie had known the boat would be there, tied to her dad’s dock. When she was old enough, Carlos would let her take the rusted aluminum dinghy out alone to go exploring for birds. A way to pass the time while he did his tours.

“How much further?” JP was winded and starting to slow. “My arms are burning.”

“We’re almost there.” Angie knew where the body would be picked up by the tide and carried out to sea. The thought made her shudder. A different person had taken over her. As if Astrid’s wicked concoction had awoken a darkness inside she was helpless to resist.

They pushed ahead. Tendrils of fog wound their way around the boat. Angie needed the fog to keep them hidden, but if they lingered too long, they’d be swallowed whole and lose their direction.

She stopped rowing. “This is it.” The mist from the fog made her shiver. She wanted to get the whole terrible deed over with and quick.

Hesitant, JP reached down and unzipped the sleeping bag. The smell made them recoil. They stared into the dead man’s face which seemed now almost mask-like. The skin distended and tight. His pupils a milky hue.

“Does this make us monsters?” JP asked in a whisper.

Angie didn't know. But they had no other choice.

JP mustered his courage and grabbed something heavy from beneath his foot. They had taken the small cinderblock from the loading dock in the marina, where it was used as a tire stopper to keep boat trailers in place. JP chewed on his cheek (a nervous habit of his), as Angie slipped an anchor chain around the man’s leg and fastened it to the cinderblock.

“The fog’s getting too thick. I don’t want to be trapped out here.” JP sounded alarmed.

“He needs to be heavy enough not to float,” Angie explained. “The tide will do the rest.” At least she hoped.

“Let’s just hurry.”

Angie raced to tighten the chain around the man’s leg, not wanting it to slip off. “Help me.”

“Wait.” JP leaned close to the man and slipped off the hanging pocket knife from around his neck.

“What are you doing? Don’t do that.”

JP turned the man’s pocket knife around to reveal carved initials on the back. “I’m no expert, but if he’s found, isn't it better he’s anonymous?”

Angie didn’t know if he was right or wrong. In this moment all she could do was focus on the initials on the knife — A.R. Her initials. Angie Rodriguez. It was an eerie coincidence, and for a moment, she imagined her own lifeless body in the boat. Two frightened teenagers throwing her overboard. Her dad never knowing what happened to her. Guilt hit hard, but she swallowed it down like a cyanide capsule.

Summoning all their strength, the two of them hoisted the man to the edge of the boat. They tilted his body… much heavier than ashes… and let gravity pull him out of the sleeping bag and into the water. The boat rocked sharply as the body hit the surface, causing them to lose their footing. JP flailed his arms, and before Angie could grab him, he was gone. Acting fast, Angie dove into the water after him. A million icy needles pierced her skin. But her adrenaline drove her deeper. She reached out, hoping to grab ahold of him in the dark. She caught the fabric of his jacket between her fingers. She had him.

Until, all at once, she was yanked downward. Her foot was caught in the chain the cinderblock catapulting her into the abyss, alongside the body. She kicked and kicked trying to free herself. Desperate for air and using all her strength, she gave one last ferocious kick, and the chain unwound itself from her like a snake.

Breaking the surface she sucked air into her lungs, ready to try again. In the distance she heard JP’s cries. The current was strong and had pulled him several yards from the boat. He struggled to tread water. Angie launched forward, instead, swimming against the current. Her body knew what to do. And in a matter of minutes she’d hoisted JP back onto the boat. They were soaked to the skin and shivering. Angie wrapped the sleeping bag around his shoulders, but he ripped it off.

“No. I don't want that thing on me."

“Then start paddling. It will warm you up.”

JP did as told. The two of them rowed in silence through the thickening fog. Vapor rising from their wet clothes. The sting of salt water in her lungs.

It was taking too long, and Angie wondered if they were rowing in circles. Destined to never leave.

“We’re never gonna find our way back in this,” JP echoed her thoughts, dropping his oars. “We’re stuck out here.” He'd given up.

Angie searched the wall of fog for any landmark on the horizon. She couldn’t see anything. It was as though she were rowing blind.

Fog… Fire… Fast… Fight…

She spoke the last word out loud. She wasn’t about to give up. They’d come too far. Done too much. Then she saw it. Two red flashing lights — barely a glimmer but there nonetheless. Angie knew they were the lights of the power plant’s twin stacks. Two beacons calling them home. She dug her oar into the water and pushed forward, her old self disappearing into the fog behind her.

#

Angie pulled into her driveway. She'd had the heater on full blast to dry and keep them warm, but as soon as she cut the engine, JP’s teeth chattered. She stared at her house. The lights were off, her dad still asleep. The house was as they had left it, and yet it seemed almost foreign. As though strangers were living there. The black of the sky was softening. It was only a few hours until sunrise, and they still had a lot to do.

JP’s voice was pleading, “Maybe you should just take me home.”

The words were a betrayal. Angie realized she was all alone in this. She would have to claw her own way out of the dark. “There isn’t time. And besides wouldn’t it be strange if you were all of a sudden gone in the morning? My dad’s expecting you to be here. We need to act like everything’s normal.”

“Everything is not normal.”

“You don’t think I know that?!” Angie did her best to not yell and wake the neighborhood. She took a deep breath, fighting off another wave of nausea.

“You’re right,” JP relented. “I know you’re right.”

Angie made a list in her head of everything they had to do before her dad woke up. In a strange way the methodical organizing focused her. At the top of her list was the scratch on the sliding door. She turned to JP, “We need toothpaste.”

#

Angie crept barefoot through the hallway, carrying a trash bag stuffed with the bloody sleeping bag and their wet clothes. Luckily her dad had moved to his bed in the night. His door was closed, but she could hear him snoring inside. She tiptoed past, trying to avoid the floorboards she knew would creak. She had almost made it to the kitchen when pain burst through her foot — the agony taking her to the floor. Angie cradled her foot, trying not to scream. She had jammed her toes into a chair with brutal force. She wanted to cry and throw things and wake her dad and tell him everything. Instead, she listened for signs of him stirring, as though she were a burglar in her own home.

After a few minutes of silence, she hobbled her way to the washing machine, closing the door to the tiny laundry room behind her. She stuffed everything in, trying not to look at the bloody evidence of their horrible night.

Back outside, JP used toothpaste to buff out the scratch in the VW’s door — a trick Angie’s dad had taught her. The scratch was superficial. She wasn’t even sure what had caused the damage. Maybe the sleeping bag’s zipper had scraped the paint as they’d lifted the body inside.

“It’s working.” JP had done his best despite his exhaustion and unrelenting headache.

Angie used the rag in her hand to wipe away the toothpaste. Sure enough, you could barely see the scratch anymore. She turned to JP — the two of them hopeful. Everything seemed to be falling into place.

But a second later JP’s face dropped. “Angie, I know for your dad’s sake, we’re trying to pretend nothing happened… but I can’t sleep in here tonight.”

Angie couldn’t either. She never wanted to step inside the VW ever again. “We’re sleeping in the house. I’ll tell my dad it was too cold.” Relieved, JP wrapped his arms around her. They held each other in silence, the immense weight of the moment bearing down upon them.

“C’mon, let’s get inside.” Angie couldn’t wait to collapse in her bed and escape into sleep. JP nodded, grabbing his overnight bag from the VW and slinging it onto his shoulder. Angie paused. Staring in horror at the spot on the floorboards where his bag had sat. The stain was small but deafening. “I thought you checked for blood,” Angie accused, her voice shaky.

JP stared at the stain in shock. “I did! I swear, I didn’t see it.”

Angie ran into the garage and grabbed the first bottle of cleaner she could find. She doused the stain in the solution and scrubbed. Harder and harder and harder, until her fingers burned. “This isn’t working.”

“Angie, we need to sleep. Let’s fix this when we wake up.”

Angie ignored him and kept scrubbing. “Ow, shit.” She had splintered a fingernail, which began to bleed. As though the stain demanded her blood too.

JP ripped the rag from her hands. “You have to stop. You’re only making it worse.”

He was right. The spot had grown larger, like an eager red fungus. And she’d think more clearly with rest.

JP threw his overnight bag over the stain. “Please, let’s sleep.”

Within minutes, they were nestled in her bed. Barely able to keep his eyes open, JP whispered, “I’m sorry.” 

She answered back, “Me too,” but he was already asleep. The heat of his breath on her skin reminded Angie of being with Weiss in the cave. A lifetime ago.

Angie laid staring at the textures in the ceiling, imagining they were ocean waves. She allowed herself to sink into the water’s embrace. Opening her arms, she began to swim, her hands like the oars of the rowboat cutting through the water. A sharp tug at her ankle. It was the man. His mask face smiling as he dragged her into the dark. Rather than fight, she let him take her. Let death’s arms wrap around you.

And she slept.

#

Weiss pressed against her, smelling of salt and sunscreen. They were lying in the sand side-by-side — the spray of the break misting their skin. Angie rolled over to face him. But he wasn’t there. In his place was the carcass of the dead seal. Its flesh rotting, its eyes pecked out by birds. Flies swarmed over her and the dead and putrefying animal, so thick Angie could no longer see. The break crashed violently, sending up a wall of water. This time sounding hollow, like water hitting glass.

Angie opened her eyes and sat up with a start, blinking in the light. She could see her dad outside hosing off the VW, the occasional spray hitting her bedroom window. For a moment, her mind was blank, until the memories from the night before flooded her every cell. Panic overtook her. He would find the blood stain.

Leaping out of bed, she noticed JP was gone. No sign of him anywhere. They’d had a plan, and he’d abandoned her.

She continued to hurry through the house and out the back door. She had to find a way to distract her dad before he cleaned the inside of the VW. But once outside, all she saw was red. A bright slash of crimson. Her dad was busy wrapping an oversized red party bow around the body of the vehicle. Her birthday…

“Surprise, mija! You caught me. Did the hose wake you?”

Angie stood speechless.

“I was trying to let you guys sleep in.”

Angie searched for an excuse. “JP… went home. He wa- wasn’t feeling well,” Angie whispered, unable to find her voice.

“Ah, his loss. I’m making my famous Fruity Pebble waffles.” Her dad finished knotting the party bow and examined his handiwork. “Ain’t she a beauty? We made that.” He turned back to Angie, his face beaming, “You’re such a good kid. You’ve taken on more than any sixteen-year-old should since mom… passed. And you deserve this. I planned to give you Betsy all along. You put as much love into fixing her up as I did. And if you treat her right, you’ll be able to pass her on to your own kids,” he said, giving the VW a loving pat.

Angie’s heart sunk. The VW bus wasn’t a sweet sixteen present — it was a prison sentence. She tried to picture herself behind the wheel, but it made her sick to her stomach.

“Mija, you seem a little pale. Maybe you’ve caught JP’s bug. You gonna be fit for your driver’s test? Too much sparkling rosé?” Her dad held the empty rosé can from the night before, a ‘gotcha’ grin on his face.

“Oh, yeah, it was just the one. Sorry…”

“I’m not mad. At least you weren’t driving. I guess kids have upgraded from the Miller Highlife I used to put down.”

Angie was flooded with guilt but forced a smile.

“What, no thank you for the new set of wheels?” he said, disappointed. “I mean, she’s no BMW…”

 Angie couldn’t bear to hurt her dad. “No dad, honestly, this is the best gift ever. You know I love Betsy. I’m just tired. Didn't sleep much.”

“I know what you need. I’ll go whip up those waffles.” He kissed her on the head, “Happy birthday, mija.”

“Thanks, dad.”

As soon as he was out of sight, Angie rushed to the VW and flung open the sliding door. She was shocked to see both sleeping bags inside. Had her dad beat her to the dryer? She grabbed the bag which had held the body, turning it inside out. Nothing. No signs of blood. Her relief was short-lived, however, as her gaze fell onto the wood floor. JP’s overnight bag was gone. As was the stain. She couldn’t believe what she was seeing.

All of a sudden the hairs on her neck stood up. She could sense a presence behind her. She spun around to find her dad there, holding her cell phone.

“JP sure wants to talk to you. Won’t stop ringing.”

Angie struggled to figure out what was going on. “Sorry about the stain on the floor. JP broke the ‘no food in the VW’ rule.”

“What stain, where? Show me.”

“Oh, I thought you got the spot out when you were washing the VW… it’s gone now.”

“Are you sure you’re alright?” her dad asked, concerned.

Angie could taste Astrid’s vile tea in her mouth again. “Maybe I should lay down for a bit.”

She made her way back to her room and closed the door behind her. She could hear her dad swearing at the waffles he had burnt. With him distracted she called JP, praying he would pick up. He did on the first ring.

“Angie, what the hell happened last night? What was in Astrid’s tea? She’s some kind of witch, right?” Angie was confused by his casual tone. “Seriously, I had the most vivid dream last night. Super freaky. I was on the road with my dad, and we pulled into some scary hillbilly town. They chased us into these caves, trying to kill us. And they had these glowing red eyes —”

“Wait, what are you talking about? Why did you leave me this morning?” JP seemed to be playing mind games with her.

“This morning? You dropped me off at home after the bonfire. I was puking my guts out and crying for my mom… you don’t remember? Maybe you shouldn’t have been driving last night.” JP laughed and then groaned, “It hurts to laugh.”

Things weren’t making sense. Last night had to be real. The crash. The body. The slough… “I never brought you home.” She lowered her voice, “What about what we did?"

“What we did got me grounded for the next month. I was acting like a crazy person, trying to build a fort in the living room to hide from the racist villagers. It woke my mom up, and I’m pretty sure she’ll be calling your dad to tell him everything. She wasn’t happy. Just wanted to warn you.” Angie could hear his mom’s voice in the background. "Shit I have to go, she’s threatening to take my phone. Happy birthday. Love you! And Godspeed.”

Incredulous, Angie stared at the phone in her hand. Did she hallucinate everything? Or was the whole night one horribly graphic dream? Either way, Angie nearly cried with relief. She never wanted to see Weiss or his weird friends ever again. She preferred life as it had been. To hell with Astrid’s prophecies.

#

“91 percent, well done. Congratulations, you’re now a driver in the state of California.” The driver’s test examiner reached out her hand.

Angie shook it, relieved and excited. “Thank you, I was so nervous.”

“You did great.” The examiner admired the vintage VW bus, “I can’t say I've ever administered a test in one of these. Guess it’s my lucky day.”

“Me and my dad restored her together.” Angie dreaded making small talk with strangers, but the VW was a point of pride.

“Impressive.” The woman signed a piece of paper on her clipboard and ripped it off. “Take this inside to window 6 for your picture.” As she went to hand the slip to Angie, the woman’s pen dropped to the floor, forcing her to contort her body to retrieve it.

After Angie’s horrible dream, she thought she would never want to drive again. But the thrill of having her license eclipsed the bad vibes. She couldn’t wait to share the good news with JP. Too bad he was grounded, or she’d have taken him to the drive-in. His mom never did call her dad to rat her out. Before her test, JP had texted: “Don’t worry bout mom. She’s giving u a bday pass.” Angie would have to bake her those peanut butter cookies she loved.

“Oh, you lost something here,” the examiner exclaimed, interrupting Angie’s thoughts. The woman sat up straight in her seat. In one hand she held the retrieved pen, in the other, a small object Angie couldn’t quite make out. “A.R.” the woman read out loud and handed the mystery item to her.

Angie stared at her palm. At the little wooden pocket knife. The initials A.R. carved into the back. A loop of frayed twine running through the handle, with rust red grime faintly visible in its threads.

Angie’s heart was in her throat. A cold sweat broke out on her forehead. She was drowning, sinking like a stone to the bottom of the ocean. Where all that awaited her was blackness. And decay.

Knife… Killer… Killer… Killer… KICK.

She had to. Despite the ache. The fear. The guilt. She must keep going. Keep swimming. One lap at a time. Through the dark.

Additional Info

AUTHOR BIO: Jamie Vega Wheeler works as a freelance television producer and has directed both short films and documentaries. Theresa Bral specializes in ghostwriting commercial, film and music video treatments. Having begun their creative partnership as roommates in Los Angeles, they continue to weave spooky stories when their bosses and children are asleep. They are currently working on a series of short stories exploring the teenage condition through a twisted lens. Find them at: cartwheelfilms.org / https://tellavision.agency