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Sea Glass

A windchime played through a crackling speaker. Frozen leaves kicked by tiny feet. Vida’s quarry—her fucking quarry, as if it was going to run away—had a sound distinctive enough, persistent enough, that she knew it was there even in the imperfect shifting darkness outside the circle of her flashlight.

She was almost sure this wasn’t illegal. The park rules prohibited defacing real or personal property, taking flowers or plants, and littering. What she planned was the opposite of all that. But every chip of sea glass she scooped from the water’s edge was going to stop singing, and that seemed a little selfish.

They really needed the money, though, and people on Etsy were paying ten, twenty bucks for bulk lots of sea glass. More if you sorted it by color and size. And it was free for the taking. Surely, she thought again, there was no law against taking litter off the beach. But she’d come at night anyway, bringing Louisa and Murph the yellow lab along with her for safety.

She’d also brought a long-handled net, the kind you used to clean the pool if you lived in a suburb with a pool in the backyard and not in Astoria with your grad school friend and her grandma and her grandma’s dog. But the net wasn’t long enough to reach down to the river’s edge from the walkway that paralleled Shore Boulevard. They’d had to climb over the fence and down the seawall, Murph scuffling and sliding on the steep concrete, Vida and Lou bracing the toes of their sneakers and then jumping. It was darker down here, though a little light still glittered off the river. The singing was constant and they crunched where they stepped.

Vida took a couple of steps, a couple of scoops, a couple of moments to pour the glass into a plastic shopping bag where it tinkled together one last time and went silent. She repeated that a couple of times. Then she stepped in something that squished instead of crunched.

Murph darted towards the sudden smell and then away, which was all Vida needed to tell her that something was wrong. That dog had never darted away from raw hamburger in his life. And that was what she’d stepped in, now that she turned her flashlight on it. Pre-formed patties from a shitty grocery store, the kind textured with little divots just to show they hadn’t been made by human hands. There were more of them at the edge of the light. About a dozen all told, laid out in a series of concentric arcs that they’d just reached the edge of.

“Ugh.” Lou had been a vegetarian from before they’d met, but there was more than that in the noise she made. And Vida agreed with her. There was something very wrong here, although the meat was pink and fresh and no bugs crawled on it. She shuddered and stuck her shoe in the water on impulse, as though the East River was going to make anything cleaner, and got a wet sock and another squish for her trouble. She turned her light to see what she’d stepped in now, and discovered that the patties went out under the water too, making the arcs into complete circles. The larger scope made it worse somehow.

“What the fuck!” Vida began to back away. She was sorry she’d made a noise as soon as it left her lips, and Lou said nothing at all, just backed away with her until they both felt safe taking their eyes off the meat and running.

They hadn’t really had a plan about getting out when they climbed down here, just a tacit agreement that it must be possible. Murph was running ahead of them down the shoreline and he soon reached a spot where there wasn’t enough space to stand between wall and water. The wall was a little less steep there, maybe.

There was no way the dog was going to scrabble back up so they boosted him first, not an easy task. He was overfed and he didn’t like that his feet were suddenly off the ground, even in a good cause, so he squirmed. Louisa got kicked in the face and squeaked, but didn’t drop him.

Vida turned her head to avoid a similar fate and caught a movement from the corner of her eye. Fluttering, close enough to see in this dark. A bird, plump as a pigeon but not pigeon-shaped in the beak or the wings. Speckled and showing a hint of dull red in the dark, so that she wondered if it had gotten into hamburger blood that had dried. It swooped towards her and then away clumsily into the dark before she could say anything to Lou.

Then Murph managed to get leverage with his front paws at the top of the wall and scrambled up. Vida boosted Lou—it had been Vida’s stupid plan, after all—and let Lou pull her up. She was still clutching the bag somehow. On the way home the contents rattled, but they didn’t sound like windchimes. They sounded like the old broken bottles that they were.

They were living in a two-story house between 23rd and Crescent Street. It had vinyl siding and graying window frames and a horrible awning that hunched over the front door. On one side, a new five-story glass box claimed to house “luxury rentals” and the other was a vacant lot surrounded by green scaffolding where a house much like Lou’s grandma’s had been torn down last year and a building much like the glass box would soon appear.

A lot of the time Vida looked at the house and felt The Doom, but coming home to it in the dark wasn’t so awful, especially after the night they’d had. And she couldn’t blame it on the house. She’d first felt The Doom before they left Montana, during the weird year when grad school was over but she was still living her grad school life. She hadn’t thought grad school would be a royal road to riches—no one was that naive any more—but watching other people leave to go adjunct or tutor ESL or write ad copy while she and Lou and a few others kept drinking beers and sitting by dying bonfires to the end of the summer and into September, that might have been what started The Doom in her head. Maybe it was when Ted got arrested for an amount of weed any of them might have had in their car, or when smoke from the forest fires settled over them for two months straight and a freshman from Julie’s comp class died of an asthma attack. Vida was not ashamed to admit that she got scared, then, even though none of it was connected. It was just The Doom. And it had come to Missoula.

Then Lou’s Uncle Andy died and her grandma Bea (the women of the family all had those old-fashioned names that they clipped off short for everyday use) asked Lou to come home because she didn’t want to live alone. And Lou asked Vida to come with her, half from pity but also, Vida thought and hoped, at least half from wanting company herself. It wasn’t how Vida had imagined ending up in New York City when she was younger but it was New York nevertheless. Only The Doom had followed them.

Or, Vida thought as she dropped her damp-hemmed jeans on the floor and crawled into bed, maybe The Doom had showed up everywhere all at once. That would explain so many things, the election and the weather and the seemingly endless supply of weirdoes shooting up crowds on the news. It would explain why she couldn’t find a job better than three-night-a-week bartender in one of the great financial hubs of the universe and had to justify her existence by stealing sea glass from the park and trying to walk the extra weight off Murph.

Vida overslept the next morning, not that that meant anything anymore except whimpers from Murph about how urgently he had to pee. She slid the same jeans back on—they were a little wet, but not terrible—and the least dirty pair from among the socks on the floor. They’d have to do laundry eventually, but the longer they could push it the better.

As soon as they hit the sidewalk Murph wanted to run, despite the heat, and while Vida ran with him life was good. But then he got winded and slowed to a waddle and she was mad that life had done this to him, a dog that wanted to run confined to sweaty sidewalks and wrapped in his own bacon because Uncle Andy, seven years ago, bought a puppy on a whim and then promptly violated parole and went back to prison. Vida was pretty sure she would have hated Uncle Andy and she was also pretty sure she shouldn’t say anything rude about a dead man whose old bedroom she was sleeping in, at least not to his doting mother and brooding niece. This left her at a loss about what to do with her anger, except keep walking Murph. And eventually he got tired.

Back at home Lou was in the kitchen scrolling through job listings. She’d been writing term papers for spoiled rich kids and feeling pretty guilty about that, but now the semester was over so she wasn’t writing term papers for spoiled rich kids and feeling guilty about that instead. She was so glum about it that Vida didn’t dare say what she felt, which was that she was insulted and shaken by the fact that the term paper mill hadn’t wanted to hire her as well—they had had a record number of applicants this spring, apparently, and there were only so many rich kids in the world who were smart enough to realize that they were too stupid to write their own papers. She especially couldn’t say that now that even that little trickle of money had dried up and the household was three adult women living off one bartender’s hourly plus tips and one widow’s pension from the MTA. Three adult women and a dog. Even though the house was paid off—the proudest accomplishment of Lou’s grandpa’s life, now the ugliest thing on the block—taxes still came due, and utilities, and groceries, and vet bills, and the occasional cold beer for all three of them when it got to be too much.

The list of things she couldn’t say to Lou, to anyone, was getting longer and longer and that was what she hated most about The Doom.

Bea didn’t seem to feel the strain, though; when she came into the kitchen it was to smile and ask what they’d been up to so late last night.

“We went to the park,” Vida said, still slightly ashamed of how close what they’d done had come to stealing.

“At night?”

“It was fine,” Lou put in. “We had the dog with us.”

“Dog’s not much good against a gun,” the older woman insisted, but she fondled Murph’s ears at the same time. “Did you see any canoodling?”

“Canoodling?” Lou seemed to have caught the good mood; she laughed. “Not a bit. Maybe we should have gone down to the Ramble if we wanted to see that.”

“I hear they don’t hardly have canoodling there these days either. All the young men there now are just birdwatchers.”

“That’s what they want you to think!”

The two laughed, and Vida was happy and lonely at the same time.

“We did see something weird though,” she put in, after a moment. “Someone threw a bunch of hamburger patties down onto the beach.”

“Not threw, exactly,” Lou added. “It was more like laid out in a pattern. Big circles.”

“Huh,” Bea said, and pursed her lips. “That seems like a waste of good meat.”

Murph was asleep next to the couch by ten-thirty in the morning, but Vida was restless so she walked back up to Astoria Park by herself. And despite herself, or maybe because she wanted a breeze more than anything, she walked along the river and looked down to where they’d been last night.

If her depredations had left any marks they were gone now; the layer of wave-polished glass looked even and pristine. And the beef patties along the shore were gone too. She squinted at a gull ankle-deep in the lapping water, wondering if it looked fatter than the gulls she’d seen before. Did people feed gulls the way they fed cardinals and chickadees? That might explain it all, except the fear she’d felt—sharper and more biting than The Doom, but equally intense. And why would it have been set out at night? Were there night gulls? Was that the strange bird they had seen? It hadn’t looked like a gull at all.

She was distracted from ornithology by the sight of something moving in the shallow water. It was brown and so her first thought was rat but it was shiny, smoothly knobbled and rounded, as though it was made from driftwood. It humped up out of the water like a rising stone, coming inshore.

A horseshoe crab, she realized as the creature’s shape became clear. A big one, bigger than a Frisbee. As it moved in she spotted one of the hamburger patties still at the edge of the water, just in its path—still bizarrely fresh and pink, still perfectly machine-round and dimpled. She just had time to think oh no, don’t touch it when the crab turned, faster and tighter than it seemed like an animal like that should be able to turn, and headed back out to deeper water. In moments it was gone and she began to doubt what she’d seen, trying to plaster words over the holes in her impressions.

“Horseshoe crabs?” The look on Bea’s face made Vida wish she hadn’t mentioned it, no matter how long the silence over dinner had gotten. “Ugh. I remember how they used to ruin going to the beach when I was a little girl. I thought they were long gone from around here.”

“Ruin?”

Bea actually shuddered, her whole face squinting into a frown. “They’ve got those stingers. It’s not safe to go near the water when they’re around. You can die just from the pain.”

A defensive impulse leaped to the top of Vida’s throat. “I think that’s jellyfish.”

“Definitely horseshoe crabs. My momma would pack us all back up if she saw one, even if we’d only just got there, and drive us straight back from Brooklyn.”

“Sounds awful.” Lou shook her head sympathetically.

Vida had nothing else to add.

The weather was going to shift soon, spring to full summer. All that meant this year was unseasonably hot and humid to seasonably hot and humid, Vida guessed. She’d waited as long as she could, and anyway, she needed to do something with herself and her shifts had been cut again.

She walked out one morning with a plastic bag from the City Fresh and she gathered as many blooming branches from the lindens as she could. It felt wrong to pull the branches down, brush aside the round serrated leaves and pluck the clusters of white blossoms off, wrong like people were looking at her and wrong like she was cheating the bees. So she silently recited old folk names for the trees and their useful flowers. Tilia, she called them to make it easier, and lime which appealed to her bartender’s mind. Lime was something you could harvest.

She didn’t strip all the flowers she could reach before she moved to the next tree, that didn’t seem fair. It took the length of the block to fill up her bag.

“What’s that?” Bea asked when Vida walked into the kitchen and pulled out the biggest soup pot.

“I’m making tea. It’s medicinal.” Bea was very into herbal medicine, owned a neti pot and took milk thistle and probiotics alongside her Centrum Silver in the morning. But she still looked dubious, so Vida elaborated. “Lots of antioxidants. And it helps with stress.” By which she meant she hoped it would get her a bit stoned and make The Doom fuck off for a bit, although if it was the really good stuff her aunts probably wouldn’t have taught her about it.

Bea came up to the counter, reaching around Vida to pick up a sprig of tiny sweet flowers. “These are from the trees outside.”

Vida nodded, proud.

“Ugh. Think, girl!” Bea smacked Vida lightly on the back of the head. “Dogs piss on those trees!”

“I don’t . . . ” But Bea had already grabbed a handful of the linden flowers and stuff them into the plastic bag that was hanging off the doorknob for trash. Vida gave up when two more handfuls had gone. It had been a bad idea from the start, that was all.

But later she got mad. Sure, ok, there were things in the dirt in the city. Maybe there was no need to be scared of dog piss (and wasn’t all water everywhere in the world at this point once piss, later cycled through a tree or a cloud or something? Dinosaur piss, mammoth piss, piss of the queens who were later named goddesses?) but there were heavy metals, pollutants, remnants of old industry under the skin of the soil. So maybe the linden tea hadn’t been the best idea.

But she’d tried to do something, hadn’t she? That’s what everyone kept asking of her, not just here but everywhere, to do something. To prove she was trying, that she wasn’t worthless, that she’d jumped the hurdles and dived through the hoops and dodged between the traffic cones in earnest, that she was doing her best to . . . what?

To do. Anything. To work. To increase the amount of entropy in the universe, if it came to that, as long as she proved the singular god-awful truth that she wasn’t indolent. They treated even making things worse as better than stopping. But now The Doom had come and it felt like everyone was going to stop whether they liked it or not.

They wouldn’t hear, in the meantime, that it was ok not to rush onward into that. Anyone who said it while rushing with them was a hypocrite, and anyone who stopped and said it proved by stopping that they were not worth listening to.

She couldn’t sleep, though she pried open the window, accepting the noise and the smell of distant fry grease as the price of some moving air. It had rained a few hours before but it had cooled nothing, only made things damper, and now it was over.

The bedroom was still too close, so she got up and moved to the kitchen and looked out the window towards the street. It was dark, but the city was never really dark, and the lights on the damp asphalt looked a bit like the lights on the river. She took Murph and went out to sit on the stoop.

She breathed deep, down to the diaphragm, and tried to think about everything square on. She wanted a cigarette and remembered painfully that she’d quit.

The door opened a crack. Vida scooted over and let it open a little more, and Lou emerged in the t-shirt and shorts she wore for pajamas.

“Nice evening,” she said, and sat beside Vida. A breeze swirled up the street and made her words true for a moment.

“Yeah.”

“I looked it up, and you’re right. Horseshoe crabs can’t even sting.”

Vida nodded. She’d been sure.

“Plus they have blue blood and it’s used in medicine.”

“Really?” God. They even made horseshoe crabs do things to be useful.

“Don’t tell Grandma. She’ll interrogate her doctors, make sure they’re not giving her monster blood.” Lou chuckled a little and ruffled Murph’s ears. Vida wrapped her arms around her knees.

From where she was sitting she thought at first a rat was scurrying beneath a parked car beneath the street. Only when it darted back out into the streetlight again did she realize she was wrong again, it was the reddish bird. On the ground she could see just how it wasn’t a pigeon, or a sparrow either or any other bird she knew. It had longer legs and a long peg of a bill, and it scuttled along until it disappeared under the next car. She waited for it to come out again so she could show Lou, but it never did.

“Any of that sea glass sell?” Lou asked.

“Not yet.”

Lou squeezed her shoulder. “It was a good idea though.”

Over breakfast Vida smiled and took exactly the right amount of eggs. Lou was distracted, worried over the fate of an unanswered email about a phone interview for a new job, a real job. Bea, pouring out the last cup of coffee, beamed.

“Rho called last night,” she said. Rho being Rhoda, the eldest of six sisters, the youngest of whom was Bea. Rho lived in Florida now, in a life that Vida chose to imagine pearlescent and punctuated by leaping dolphins.

Lou perked up. “How’s she doing?”

“Oh she sounds great, great.” Bea sat down in the space that was living room, across the pressboard table from the space that was kitchen. “I asked her about the horseshoe crabs, you know? To see what she would remember.”

Vida felt accused, pushed it down and away.

“She says laying out a circle of land animals with five points inside will do it. She says in her day, they’d lay it out with dead mice or have the boys take their slingshots and shoot pigeons. So that’s where those burger patties came from.” Bea nodded and forked up her eggs. “Someone still watching out.”

“Watching out for horseshoe crabs?” Vida let just a little bit of sarcasm seep in, hoping to jolt Lou out of her funk and into the conversation.

“And all the other creepy things down there. You don’t even know what might be under all that water.”

Now Vida was annoyed with a woman she’d never met for not appreciating the dolphins she’d only just imagined. Why even move to Florida then?

She googled “red bird” and scrolled through a lot of pictures of cardinals and finches before she found what she was looking for, which turned out to be called a red knot. It was a shorebird and it migrated nine thousand miles a year and it had the energy for that because it ate horseshoe crab eggs when they spawned along the Chesapeake Bay in the spring. Only in recent years this was a problem because there were a lot less horseshoe crabs and a lot more people along the shores of the bay and the number of red knots had dropped and dropped. The one she’d seen was supposed to be on the tundra making more knots by now.

Horseshoe crabs again.

That meant, Vida realized, that driving the horseshoe crabs away with dead mice and hamburger patties—which couldn’t possibly work, except that she’d seen it work—was starving the birds. “Goddamnit, Rho,” she muttered under her breath, and then “goddamnit, Bea” and then “goddamnit, Andy” just for good measure. She’d been feeling so guilty, when everyone was stealing something from someone all the time and they didn’t even know it or care.

She didn’t bring Lou with her this time, just Murph and two plastic bags and the net. She’d figure out some kind of way to get back up on her own. She could still hear the singing but now she could ignore it.

Jumping down this time was harder, because she could imagine landing in the meat, feeling it squish under the thin soles of her sneakers. But she landed in the crunch of glass, and now she didn’t feel guilty at all about that.

Whoever thought they were protecting this park, they’d been back—this time with a package of hot dogs. She wanted to run again as soon as she saw them, and Murph did too. He laid his ears back and whimpered when she moved towards them instead. She could barely stand getting close enough to reach them with the net, but she did. Scooping them up was hard because they rolled across the slippery wet glass but she got them all before her nerve broke. Once they were inside the bag she felt a bit better and when she tossed the bag up and over the wall out of sight the fear left her entirely.

Still, out of caution, she rinsed the net in the water before she laid it aside and began scooping glass into the other bag. It wouldn’t do the crabs any good to come ashore if there wasn’t sand.

Somewhere far out at sea, deep below, something large moved. She could feel The Doom shift, pushed to one side to make room for it.

About the Author

Carrie Laben grew up in western New York and earned her MFA at the University of Montana. She now lives in Queens. Her work has appeared in such venues as Birding, The Dark, Indiana Review, Okey-Panky, and Outlook Springs. In 2017 she won the Shirley Jackson Award in Short Fiction for her story “Postcards from Natalie” and Duke University’s Documentary Essay Prize for “The Wrong Place.” In 2018 she was a MacDowell Fellow.