Our Brothers at the Bottom of the Bottom of the Sea


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This story is dedicated to the strong women in my life: my wife, Eileen, but especially my daughters, Rebecca and Anastasia, who in their youth have, like Rachel, shown the world the lion hearts of the brave.



The beach was the one spot the police and fire crews could not close to crowds attracted to the flames. People gathered on the sand, summoned by an ember sky and the pillows of white smoke riding through Sea Town. It was after midnight, and the crowd had the matted, tossed-together quality of people hastily roused from sleep and dressed in whatever had been close by: pajama bottoms, loose shorts, oversize T-shirts, and zippered hoodies. Mostly, they watched Happy World burn in silence, hugging themselves against the cold night air. Children clung to their parents' pant legs, and grown men and women covered their mouths, trapping gasps behind their hands. The air crackled with bullhorn commands and the popping of heat-splintered wood. The crowd seemed immobilized by its fascination. When the tide crawled up the beach, the onlookers closest to the ocean were startled, as if the sudden water were hands that had reached out low and cold to grab them by the ankles.

In front of the amusement park's castle fa
ade of arched entryways and rampart towers, firefighters in yellow slickers heaved lines of fire hose. Arcs of water shot up and out from glittering chrome nozzles, desperately pushing against risers of flame that refused to back down. The fire punched through the castle clapboards in glowing vines twisting up and around the guardian towers, illuminating the sentries, the brass buttons of their uniforms, and the steel blades of their bayonets. In mute empathy the crowd drew closer together, fixated on the toy soldiers' impending doom.

A bullhorn roared, and at once the yellow slickers fell back. Firelogged clumps of clapboard dropped from the walls, raining down on the boardwalk below. The collective sympathy of the crowd turned toward a dark brute on the ground, a fiberglass bear with its arms raised to welcome guests at the central gate. In a matter of seconds, a bonfire of debris had encircled the bear; the gesture that for years had beckoned guests now became a plea for help, begging escape from the flames.

The crowd, both horrified and fascinated, could no longer remain silent; bursts of protest, first in whispers, then in shouts, rose from the onlookers. “No way.” “This can't be happening.” “No.”

At the far edge of the witnessing mass, two young people stood apart, a pale girl in a baseball cap, a black boy with a restless Afro that shook in the breeze. Her head was on his shoulder, as if taking shelter under his hair.

“Look,” she said. An entire wall peeled away, a hot and impatient flower of fire that came crashing down, taking sentries and turrets and flag posts with it. The collapse exposed a skeleton of black steel and smoking strings of loose cable, and buried the bear for good.

“You know what happens now?” the young man said. “Everyone's going to say, ‘This is our 9/11, the day Happy World burned down.' There'll be posters and T-shirts: ‘August 14, 2014. Always remember.'” He squeezed his companion's fingers. “They're going to come for us,” he said. “We should go. Now.”

“No,” she said. “Too suspicious.”

“What about Ethan? You think he


“Glad you're so sure. He probably thinks it was you. You think he'll say so?” When she didn't respond, he added, “They'll look for enemies.”

“Then they'll be looking the wrong way.”

He searched her face. “You know who did this?”

“Maybe,” she said, drawing her arm around him. “Sledge Leary?”

“I wish. But this ain't a comic book,” he said. “Seriously. Is it someone close to us?”

“Close to us?”

With the collapse of the Happy World fa
ade, the fire, as if it had run out of rage, began to dim. Rolls of black smoke replaced the flames, and the beach crowds began to disperse.

“Close to us?” the girl said again. “Yes and no.”


chapter one

following the script

Rachel did not know where she would find what she was looking for, or even what exactly she needed to find, but she was fairly certain that once she got beyond the seasonal displays of inflatable toys and neon boogie boards, she would find the homely, useful things that should be the true business of a hardware store. This one had low-hanging fluorescent fixtures and the sour smell of weed killer and burlap sacks. Like a houseguest searching for a bathroom, Rachel peeked uncertainly down the aisles. The signs suspended from the ceiling were only marginally helpful. She wished for something explicit, like “stuff you need to fix a hole in the wall.”

An employee in a store apron approached Rachel, examining her as if anticipating customer needs was one of his chores. Rachel did not appreciate the attention. In general, she dressed for invisibility. She wore loose cargo pants and a white sweatshirt that sagged from her torso like a spent balloon. A blue baseball cap, with a strip of duct tape covering the sports logo, crowned her shoulder-length brown hair. Her canvas sneakers, which were originally bright blue, were now dishwater gray.

“Looking for something?” he asked.

“I need to fix a hole. In a wall.”


“Yeah, it's dry.” She felt a little defensive. She and Betty had at least a baseline level of competency, enough to keep the damn walls from getting wet.

The man crossed his arms over his chest and smiled. “I mean,” he said with mock patience, “is it Sheetrock or plaster?”

“I don't know. It's a wall.”

“Ohh-kay,” he said. “How big is this hole?”

About the size of a man's fist. Not a particularly large man, nor even an especially angry man, but a frustrated man who had run out of things to say and, not wanting to leave without having the last word, had made his concluding argument in the wall.

“About the size of a doughnut,” Rachel said.

“The doughnut hole or the whole doughnut?”

“The whole. The whole doughnut, I mean.”

“Good,” the man said. “I'm glad we're being scientific about this.” He ticked off the necessary items on his fingers. “You'll need a ten-inch knife, maybe a six-inch knife, a patch kit, some mud, a mud pan


“Joint compound.” He rubbed at a dirt spot on his apron. “You know, it might be easier to get help, have someone do this for you.”

It wouldn't, Rachel thought. The guy who had left the hole in the wall was the plumber Betty had called in to fix a leaky faucet. That was a month and many noisy nights ago. The faucet still dripped, just not as much.

“We'll do it ourselves,” she said.

“Then you'll need the right tools.” He motioned Rachel to step aside and, while she waited, harvested the necessary items from the shelves. They made an expensive-looking pile at the counter. The man scanned them into the register, and Rachel admired the point-of-sale displays: key rings, candy-colored miniature flashlights, and little pocket knives, too adorable to be either effective tools or weapons, which would fit comfortably into a purse or pocket
which, Rachel thought, would fit very comfortably in her hand.

With Curtis, taking things had been easy. He was a walking distraction, a goodwill magnet who attracted many fans, mostly women, but men too, who threw affection on him as readily as the devout pinned dollars on parade saints. While Curtis plucked their heartstrings, Rachel plucked their tabletops, their counters, their shelves. At home, she had a dresser drawer full of cosmetics she would never use, a closet rack of clothes she'd never wear
that was beside the point. The point was a little in the having, a lot in the taking, but not at all in the using.

Now there was this man standing right in front of her, no more than two, maybe three, feet away. That would be cutting it close. But, Rachel believed, the distance between two people could hardly be reduced to a matter of inches. “You have the number of a good handyman?” she asked.

“After I just rung all this in?”

She smiled. “You might be right. I might need help. Just in case.”

“You have seven days for returns,” he said, turning toward a drawer behind him, “if you have the receipt and the stuff isn't used.” While he rummaged for the right business card, Rachel picked an emerald green folding knife from the display, slipping it into the cargo pocket of her pants, where it hung weighty and full, like a ripe piece of fruit.

*   *   *

Under Rachel's bare feet, the sand shifted damp and cool. Betty, satisfied with the dark, said it was time, and they crossed the beach toward the water's edge. Betty carried the pillowcase full of shells
she insisted on it
and Rachel carried their footwear and a loose sheet of paper that shuddered in the breeze. The boardwalk world receded behind them, a blade of bright lights between the black sky above and the night-dark beach beneath it. Crashing surf overwhelmed most of the carnival chatter on the boards.

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