Every night we lie on the sand and wait here for morning. The good sleep never comes. To pass time Mallory plays us music, tinned sounds the dark July wind whips from her hands and renders noiseless along the beach. She keeps the volume low because the music is secret. Her phone is down to eleven percent and we have no way to charge it. Charging is not allowed. Phones are not allowed either, but Mallory is wily. She does things the rest of us learned not to. The thin men took our phones from us when we arrived but she slipped hers into her underwear. Now she hides it in a pocket under her rags and only plays music once their patrols end. Mallory is not stupid. If the thin men heard, there would be trouble. She knows this. We told her so.
Here is what we said:
They shot at the last girl they caught with a phone. They took us from the grill and gathered us around a BB gallery on the midway. Before a wall of paper targets, faded old terrorists, stood Ana. The thin men had gagged her and bound her hands and watched as her forehead turned shiny with fear. She’s so young! one of us cried. That is no excuse, said Needles in his thin weird way, pausing between bursts. Not anymore, sisters. He aimed at her shins to make her bleed and dance, and though this was punishment for her we understood it as a warning to us. Girls work. Men pray. Afterward they sent Ana out. She hobbled into Brooklyn without so much as a blister pack. Not one pill. We were ashamed when she left, but that was early on, and we are not so easily upset anymore. We are too tired for shame. Mallory nodded when we told her the story, but she didn’t understand. She will. She has been with us only a short while and she’s already catching on.
I hate this, she tells us tonight, as she has told us each of the past three nights. I can’t sleep here. I’m not an animal.
Our pen is not built for comfort. It is a flimsy construction, a circle of sticks hacked from the sideshow and pushed into the sand. But this is where the thin men say to make our bed, so this is where we lie down. It is below the Parachute Jump, whose cherry bulbs light up still, as if Coney Island was only Coney Island and these were ordinary summer nights. When we sleep, if we sleep, the Parachute Jump stains our dreams red.
Tell me again. Mallory kicks at the fence, spraying those nearest with sand. Why don’t we run?
We hate that question. We hate Mallory for how often she asks it. We hate her for her earache voice, that pleading tone. Most of all we hate her because it would be easy to run, but where would we run to, and who would give us our medicine, and does she know anyplace better?
I don’t. But my phone is going to die, and once it dies we will have nothing. Is that what you want?
Mallory is exhausting. And we are so tired.
Our job is to cook. Most days we’re at Nathan’s, grilling what remains of the meat. At noon and six the thin men wait on line for food, their breath spongy, eyes shrunken, all of them bearded and sunburnt. They carry their own condiments, tearing into packets of ketchup before we’ve served them their meals. These condiments they keep locked in Needles’s van, a place we know well: messy with blankets and rope, plastic utensils and cardboard boxes. If we are bad we must stay awake at night inside it while Needles reads to us from Scripture.
Our other job is to clean. Some of us who don’t serve at Nathan’s wear hot rubber kitchen gloves to pick flowers and weeds, killing all that new green before it kills us. We tear trellises of morning glory off the rides and hack at the lilies that have cracked through the asphalt, everything fat and dripping with pollen.
The rest of us spend our days whitewashing the park’s signs, wandering around in the sun with paint and ladders. So far we’ve blanked out a third of the sign for the sideshow, covering the lady who eats swords and the lady breathing fire and the lady who wears snakes like necklaces of muscle. The thin men sleep there. They dislike the sign, a mural inked onto the building long ago, a reminder of what this place used to be.
Our jobs are hard. The thin men make them harder. They clothe us in burlap, rough rags made rougher by our sweat and salt from the Atlantic, and the material itches fierce. But we don’t complain. We never speak. If they catch one of us speaking, they separate her from the rest and make her stand alone in the sun by Needles’s van, trying not to faint. Speaking must wait until after dark, like now, once they’re asleep.
Hello? asks Mallory. Anyone?
At first we refuse to acknowledge her. Lacey starts in about the mealy taste of the food, and Zan describes the smell of paint drying in the heat, calls it the odor of sick. Mallory stiffens, glancing from girl to girl, because we’ve ignored her, because she sees us the way we used to see ourselves, the way we would be if things were still normal.
She leans over to Lacey, reaching for her hand. She peers into Zan’s hood and holds her ankle. Be real with me, she says, don’t you dream of someplace better?
All of us do but no one admits it. Instead some of us mutter, and others roll their eyes, and those of us who speak are crispy and dramatic about it. Zan tells Mallory what we all know, that this is better. Lacey agrees, saying everywhere else is murder or worse. Cara, combing a slick of hot blonde hair off her neck, just explains that this is the world.
Mallory shrinks into her robe, drawing her knees to her chest. She can sulk as much as she likes, but she knows Zan is right. The oldest of us is seventeen, the youngest barely eleven. We are lucky the thin men allow us to stay. We are lucky to be alive. They turn away the women and most of the men, any man who won’t pay medicine for admission, any man who won’t join them in prayer. No brothers, no boyfriends. No one ill or unwilling to work while the thin men repent in the parking lot, asking for forgiveness.
Girls work. Men pray.
The thin men guard us from what is outside the park, stationing themselves in shifts at the gate. They are unhappy to look at but no danger to us so long as we obey their rules. In the beginning we worried about them, until Needles declared that we were unclean and that any thin man who touched us would have no drugs. This was before Mallory came. She is too new to fear them in the ways she should.
But Mallory understands why we do what we do. She knows the reason well. Two pills a day, one when we wake and one before bed. Claritin works best, though sometimes it’s Allegra or Zyrtec or Sudafed. Since we’ve been cooking and cleaning for the thin men our sinuses stopped bleeding. Our noses dried up and throats deflated. Not so many of us have died.
They give us too much. Mallory pulls her secret pocket inside out. She shows us the pills she has pretended to swallow over the past few days, a palmful of white dots eaten at their edges. One in the morning is more than enough.
That’s so dangerous, someone says. Don’t you want to live?
This isn’t living. Mallory hides the pills and lies on her side, motherly with disappointment. We should steal their stash and go. But you don’t want to. You like it here. Then she turns off her phone and night rushes in around us, red as a throat lozenge and whistling with hot wind.
This is bothersome. Mallory has bothered some of us so much that we think about her until daybreak. Who is she to tell us how we feel? She doesn’t know how Ana cried while she painted, and cried while she weeded, and cried when we ate because she knew she’d be hungry again soon. How upsetting she was. Mallory doesn’t know that the young one, the boy with the patchy beard, the one who yearns for the other thin men’s approval, broke their rules and offered us extra bread for information. She doesn’t know that after we sold it to him, after we told him about Ana’s complaints and her secret phone and her attempts to text and tweet, he received his reward. By Needles’s order he oversaw the grill, indoors, in the shade, for a week, and didn’t even have to pray. The stale hot dog buns he brought us scraped the insides of our mouths and tasted like salt.
We were hungry again soon.
As we lean back and stare at the beach, we consider the things we’ve done and the things we might still do. Like Mallory, we could save our pills. We could also steal them from the thin men. They might keep them in Needles’s van but we don’t know for sure, and dreams of thievery wheel around in our heads. For the rest of the night we try to unthink these thoughts, waiting for sleep as the ocean beats the shore, unaware of us, free from ever having known anything better, anything different. The sound of it makes us jealous. All that stupid black water, advancing and receding.
• • •
Just before Mother’s Day an argument erupted at the exchange under the bridge. Had the sickness turned contagious? Zan thought no, siding with the men who traded medicine from food carts and laundry bags laid over the cobblestones. She knew them from her old neighborhood, these men who were rich with antihistamines. They gave Zan’s mother the family rate—twelve pills for half a case of water, six for three tins of soup—because they took care of their own.
Another man who claimed to have been a pharmacist disagreed. He wore tattered suit pants and his hair in a bun and spent his mornings preaching: The way those pigs live, they’re bound to spread it. Most dismissed him for a joke, but as days passed and more died, some of those Zan knew—the trainer, the concierge, that man who had managed a Citibank—began to listen. The pharmacist’s group grew, men and women nodding along, their eyes like grommets.
Keep your comments to yourself, Zan’s mother said. Not one word.
Once supplies began running low, the occasional shove became an occasional punch. Soon the pharmacist and his people were stealing drugs, raiding carts and laundry bags. They live, you die, the pharmacist kept saying. Simple as that. After one brawl ended in bloodied lips and a broken arm, Zan’s mother ordered her to leave, to forage in Brooklyn during the day. Things here will calm down, she said. They have to.
That was their plan, and Zan followed it. She did as she was told, much as she didn’t want to, much as her mother’s instructions chafed against something teenaged inside her. That was life until the dusk when she returned, two cartons of menthols and a box of limes under her arm, to find the exchange on fire. Smoke boiled out from under the bridge and across the water in nightmare black clouds.
She sifted through char for days. She might have uncovered her mother, incinerated, burnt to carbon, but she can’t say. The concierge was gone. The trainer and banker and pharmacist too. She doesn’t know how she got to Coney Island, but she knows why she stayed. Others were at the gates, but Zan was the only one they let in. The women wept and so did the men, and the thin men didn’t care. They wore priestly beards and white robes and spoke in neutral tones, rejecting all save Zan with cool equanimity. Part of Zan must have liked that. Eyeing the park, she saw that we girls were here for comfort, and she liked that also. She arrived on a dark spring morning, covered in ash, and to her it felt like deliverance.
• • •
When we dream, we dream of red rain. This year the rain came early. January felt like April, watery and gray, cold nights smelling of mud and dead leaves. Three bad storms struck the coast, but that weather hurt other people, not us. Not our families. After, some of us volunteered: picking trash off the beach, sifting through bits of people’s lives the wind and water had buried in the sand.
In February the weather turned hot, and we wore summer clothes to class. The boys grilled us, staring at our legs, thanking God for climate change. Their jokes didn’t last. At midmonth the trees were budding and insane grass had shot up all over—in subways, on glass towers in Midtown, atop cabs trawling the streets. Spores flooded the city, the air so thick with them that the Brooklyn we knew looked magic. School ended at spring break and our mothers shut their blinds. We fed them soup and took their temperatures and shut their laptops when they fell asleep.
By March the dead were everywhere: on our phones and TVs, all over the country, inside our homes. Some said whatever it was had revived with the Antarctic thaw, others blamed the government. An ancient virus. Lab-cooked pollen. Allergy season is what they called it on the news. It happened too fast for us to understand. We bought air purifiers, placed towels in the cracks of our windows and doors, tied bandannas around our faces, and breathed as shallowly as we could. Come April most of us still wheezed, newly asthmatic and gasping. Go somewhere the air is fresh, our mothers warned us, where nothing natural grows. Eventually we listened. We’d always loved Coney Island.
The thin men blast their air horn at six in the morning and we shuffle to Nathan’s to take our pills with fountain soda. The soda is warm but we drink it anyway. We don’t risk choking. Last week Francesca dry-swallowed a pill and choked. The thin men withheld medicine from her for three days. Veins in her temples throbbed. Her neck swelled with lumps. When she was too feverish to work they separated her from us and made her sleep under the Cyclone. We were weeding when we found her. She didn’t look like Francesca anymore. Her sinuses had split her face, opened her head up from inside. Spores had settled in her airways and little white flowers bloomed from her bones.
After we swallow our pills the thin men herd us to the patio, where we sit, six to a table. They say they have something important to announce, that today will not be a normal day. Needles stands before us, eyes yellow, beard shot through with wiry gray hair, and declares that our medicine is running low. If we want to remain with them, under their protection, we need to go out there, into Brooklyn, and bring back pills. This is a new part of our arrangement, he explains, gesturing north, fingernails crusted with ketchup. If we don’t return by nightfall, we shouldn’t bother.
It is already hot. Our thighs grow damp under our robes as we shift around on these concrete benches. We want to cry, but we don’t. Crying is not allowed. Instead we bite our cheeks and beg the young one with our eyes as Needles continues: Search the back rooms at Duane Reade, under the counter at CVS, the manager’s office at Rite Aid. Check the bodegas that line the beach, the swim shops, the junk stores, the magazine stands in the subway. Anywhere that might have offered lottery tickets. Anyplace that might have sold cigarettes. He tells us not to give up until we’ve restocked their supply. Fifty packs should do it, he says, and try not to die before sundown. They laugh, even the boy, who glances from thin man to thin man and refuses to meet our looks.
We leave in silence, picking up the hems of our rags as we cross Surf Avenue. What choice do we have? It is slowgoing. We take care not to brush bare skin against the weeds in the road or the tall grass that sways from the sewers, but some of us do, and those of us who touch that horrible green can’t help it—we cry.
The day is so hot, too hot in our robes, and outside an overgrown Duane Reade Mallory pulls off her hood. We whisper at her to cover herself. Removing our hoods is not allowed, and we have worn them so long that we too are threatened by Mallory’s naked face. She is dirty and grinning, mouth peppered with acne. We turn away. It is hard for us to see an unshadowed girl.
Don’t you understand? They’re not coming after us. We’re free.
Of course Ruby would ask Mallory what she means. Ruby is so young. But Mallory doesn’t mind. She holds the smaller girl by her shoulders and points her to the haze hanging over the road to the west. If we find pills, we can go where we want. Eat what we want. Aren’t you sick of Nathan’s?
Ruby nods a soft yes. She nods for us all. We’re desperate to leave Coney Island, this poisonous place we used to love. Our mothers used to take us here, and we remember the park, the pier, the Cyclone the way it was. The bleachy taste of fear as the coaster climbed the tracks, wind ripping our hair as we shunted down its wooden curves. Now the Cyclone is a corpse. New grass rustles below its frame as if agreeing with all the bad intentions there are.
Mallory pulls on Ruby’s arm. We’re out, she says, her voice cracking. We’re almost gone.
Are you serious? one of us asks. When? asks another.
Today, she tells us.
It takes her repeating it again and again to make us believe she means what she says. This is upsetting, even to little Ruby, whose lips crumple up in fear. Like us, Mallory came from Brooklyn. She knows what’s left, the fresh city jungles and survivors’ seething rage, the thinning colonies and mad filthy loners. The tent cities and rape gangs. The torched buildings and waxen blue bodies in piles under the highway.
Coney Island is better.
When she skips into Duane Reade we follow, whispering and weary. No one says no. But the drugstore is empty. So are CVS and Rite Aid and the Mermaid Pharmacy. Same with the bodegas. The junk shops and magazine stands. Their shelves in splinters, weedy floors sharp with glass. Mallory leads us on to each broken place. We would take what we could but there is nothing to take. No bottled water. Not one energy bar.
At dusk Val stops us outside a dollar store, kicking at an inflatable dolphin that has drifted belly up to the curb. Mallory beckons with her hand, one more shop to check, but Val refuses the invitation.
What’s wrong? asks Mallory.
We’re not leaving, Val screams. Stop lying. Everything’s cashed. We’re done.
That’s only true if you let it be true, says Mallory.
I can’t listen to you anymore, Val tells her. Who do you think you are?
We understand Val, we really do. The heat trapped in our robes has made us feel shrunken and old, brittle and finished. We’re tired. We’re ready to return to the park, to the pen, to our spots at the grill, to do what we’re asked and pray the thin men don’t hurt us. If we apologize maybe their punishments will be easy? It is too tiring to be out here on our own. Too tiring to search for drugs in this heat. Too tiring to hope that something, anything, might change. But that isn’t good enough for Mallory.
All right. Her greasy brown hair, plaited in a fishtail, slaps her shoulder. This is what you want?
Hope, the way that girl sells it, is the most exhausting thing.
We vote with our feet. Val goes first, shuffling toward the park. The rest of us fall into line behind her, heads bent to the pavement. We ignore Mallory’s pleas and walk back single file, a long and ragged bolt of burlap. When we reach the gate, Mallory whining at our rear, the thin men hang from its crossbars and murmur. Needles silences them with a finger to his lips. He places his dirty hand on Isalia’s neck and turns her face up to meet his.
What did you bring us?
Nothing, she says. I’m sorry.
Nothing, all of us say. We’re so sorry.
• • •
By the time Lacey and her stepmother left their neighborhood, everyone they knew was dead. They should have left sooner. At first they stayed because they thought Lacey’s father would return with medicine, then they stayed because they thought the government would help. Then they stayed because where else was there to be, and then they stayed because leaving would have felt like surrender. Neither of them wanted to quit, not in front of the other.
On Memorial Day, though, they knew they had to go: they were starved and thirsty and also angry and tired, and it was silly to pretend Lacey’s father was coming back. They packed bags and hiked west, wading through waist-high Brooklyn grass, the air shimmering with grit as they crossed the bridge. They panted their way through Manhattan, tangling and untangling themselves through roadways of milkweed and irises and rope-thick ivy, lungs aching, bandannas wet from their breath. But when they arrived at the tunnel, they found its entrance blown in, wild and green, with no way to pass. Rubble littered the on-ramp, rested in dents on cars and trucks. Lacey’s stepmother sat on a mossy curb and wept, and Lacey rubbed her back. Even if they had spent spring speaking to each other warily, as if still in competition for Lacey’s father’s attention—as if each could maim the other with a sigh or critical glance—for a moment Lacey felt she had family again.
They gathered themselves together and trudged up through SoHo, aiming to try the other tunnel. On their way they found a bar full of dour people who invited them to stay the night. The headman there was fat and smelled of roasted pork. He wore a Beyoncé T-shirt that rode high on his belly, and when Lacey’s stepmother asked how it was they had meat, he laughed, and the others there laughed too. Rotten-teeth laughs. At this bar everyone was round in the face, and Lacey pulled her stepmother aside. Don’t you know what they’re eating? she asked. Her stepmother gave Lacey a thousand-yard stare. No, she lied, and Lacey left alone, stumbling back through downtown on a warm night with a southern breeze. She meant to go home but kept walking instead, walking until she came to the end of Brooklyn. She was so delirious that when she spotted the thin men she ran their way. Lacey saw their white robes and thought they were doctors, or that’s what she told us later.
• • •
They found no pills. We watched the surf while the thin men marched us back to our pen to search us. The sun was setting just then, sinking on the water, blinking scattershot through the clouds. We started out strong, but soon we were not so strong. The thin men were rough. Some of us bit and others scratched. After they patted down Quinn they wrestled Marianne to the sand and bound Samara to Heather so neither of them kicked. They found nothing except the girls we are under our rags.
What are you hiding? asked the patchy-bearded boy. He folded his arms across his chest and chewed his lip, looking down at us, a clump of those they’d searched sitting shoulder to shoulder behind a dune, out of earshot from Mallory and the others. Give me something to use.
There wasn’t anything left, Thalia told him. We have nothing to give.
Everything’s gone, Phoebe agreed. It’s all picked clean.
He crouched beside us, hands on his knees. If you help me, I’ll help you. They’ll promote me and I’ll take care of you.
With more stale bread? asked Selena. More time in the van?
If you don’t help, it will be bad. The boy blushed. Worse than bad.
Rachel laughed. There’s nothing we can do.
Think of something. You did before.
The boy left us to discuss it. We pressed together our heads and spoke of our options for a good long while. One of us reminded the rest that the system was rigged, and another observed that the damage had been done, that blood was already in the water. Whatever we did, she said, something bad was sure to happen. The worst would be believing you deserved it, especially if you didn’t. If you hadn’t done anything wrong.
We didn’t do anything wrong. We only told the boy what he needed to hear. The words might have caught in our throats, but we said them anyway. We had to speak loud because the other girls, those being searched, were screaming. The boy glowed with our news and ran to whisper it to Needles, who stopped the thin men before their hands closed into fists. He whispered to them, then delivered his judgment to us. You sick little girls. No food tonight or tomorrow. Maybe never again.
The thin men eyed Mallory, but they let her be. The boy herded them away.
Now it is night and we huddle together, sitting on the sand inside our pen. We do not speak. Mallory’s songs play on, tinny and low, music that sounds like summer, like dancing, like parties we never had. It’s the sort of music that’s meant to be played loud in rooms that are small, so that if you talk to anyone you must speak into their ear, and they into yours, and if their lips brush your cheek or the side of your mouth it might be an accident or it might be on purpose, and either way is thrilling. Mallory’s music is not meant to be played low in this empty place.
No one hums along. No one even breathes in time. We know she only means to remind us of home, of before, but tonight we don’t want to be reminded of home or before or anything else. We don’t care to hear it, this weak apology of hers. Tonight we hate Mallory the most. So when we spy Needles stalking the beach from the ocean side of the Parachute Jump, no one warns her. No one says a thing when he creeps behind her, his eyes like flat red mirrors. When he rips her phone from her hand, we look away.
We didn’t do anything wrong. We didn’t.
We’re almost too tired to flinch when he breaks her fingers.
We suck our cheeks when he smacks her phone against the Parachute Jump and shatters its screen, ending its music.
We watch the sand or the black Atlantic or the overcast night sky while he rubs her phone against her face and shreds her ear.
We try not to cry when he pulls her from the pen, heavy and bleeding, onto the beach. Beyond the Parachute Jump. Into the dark. Where we almost can’t hear what happens next.
• • •
One night last weekend in the sand-blown hour before dawn, Mallory told us about visiting an aunt in Atlanta with her mother. This trip was over last Fourth of July, before the world became this world and visiting aunts became something girls didn’t do. They drove down together in a rental Jeep the color of white winter sky, a car Mallory picked. She and her mother traded off behind the wheel, stopping at headwaters and pretty cliffs and forested old battlegrounds, eating fast-food breakfast and spending a night at a roadside motel with a reptile pit out back and fireworks for sale at the front desk. Mallory hadn’t spent much time with her mother since her parents divorced. For the most part it was fun. On this trip, she said, they argued only over music.
At the start, Mallory’s mother allowed her to choose what they listened to. Mallory wanted dance music, loud sugary songs about love and its opposite. But by the time they were in Maryland, her mother began asking for quieter music, a more adult soundtrack. Maybe that was because she was single and lonely, or maybe it was because she wanted to share her sadness with Mallory. Either way Mallory fumed because of the gulf between who she was and who her mother wanted her to be. The argument seemed pointless to her when she told us this, knowing everything that was about to happen, but back then neither woman would concede, and though both knew they’d regret the fight later, this small thing became a big thing. As they crossed into Virginia, they were shouting.
Eventually Mallory’s mother snapped off the radio and the two finished their drive in silence, the mood between them so strained that when they showed up Mallory’s aunt asked what was wrong before she said hello. The fight wasn’t really about music, Mallory explained, it was about how growing up means hurting the people you love. Everyone does it, she said, trying to wound their mothers with violent haircuts and late-night parties, bad boyfriends and girlfriends and failing grades, gossip and drugs and pregnancy scares, things that give the illusion of heft, that could make someone seem more interesting than she was.
Once the memory of their fight faded, the rest of the vacation went smooth enough. They cooked backyard meals and strolled through the aquarium and day after day shopped at the mall. Mallory never apologized. She said she would have, that she was thinking of what to say, but she ran out of time. She never said what brought her here either, but any one of us could guess.
• • •
Most of us found our mothers. Kyra discovered hers in the tub, bag of ice melting on her chest, another puddling under the small of her back. Aisha’s buried herself under her covers, the sheets so hot Aisha nearly blistered her hands pulling them off. Savannah came home to hers in a bathrobe, lying prone on their stoop. Britt’s fell onto the subway tracks at Atlantic Avenue and had to be carried out of the tunnel. Naoko managed to get hers to the ER, where the nurses gave them powder-blue face masks that did nothing to help. Leigh’s collapsed while heating soup on their stove. The soup boiled away and Leigh came home to find that the pot had begun to rattle and smoke.
We try to forget our mothers, but we can’t. When we dream, if we dream, we see their red faces washed in rain. We think of what we would say to them now, and we think of the things we wish we could unsay.
Dawn arrives with sun that splits the clouds and turns the ocean into smoked glass. We sit in our pen and wait for news of Mallory but no news comes. Like Ana and the other girls sent out before her, Mallory is probably wandering Brooklyn. But she might be elsewhere on the beach, or maybe trapped in the van. She might be anywhere. We can’t be sure.
At the normal hour we tense for the air horn. The thin men do not blast it. We drag ourselves to Nathan’s for pills and to fix their food anyway. If we ignore them, there will be trouble. None of us slept. Some of us trip over our burlap. But we pick ourselves up. We carry on. As we pass Surf Avenue we expect to see the thin men kneeling by the van, heads bowed in prayer, but the lot is empty. The van’s windows are dark, its steel sides brown with mud, wheel wells hairy with grass. Is Mallory inside? We can’t tell.
When we stumble onto the patio, ready to take our positions, we see that the thin men are in our seats. They sit where we sat yesterday, their cheeks pale, fingers long and trembling. Standing in their center, Needles looms over the patchy-bearded boy, who kneels on the concrete, a half-eaten bag of buns clutched to his chest. We almost step into the middle of this, but Ellie holds us back.
You’re a thief. Needles is spitting and furious. Did you think you were smart?
They lied to you, the boy sniffles. I was only trying to help.
You thought you could steal and we would celebrate you for it.
They’re hiding things from us. They knew she’d been keeping her phone since she got here. And it’s not just her phone. They’re hiding—
Needles kisses his index finger, silencing the boy. You’re blind. He glares at the rest of the thin men. All of you. You’re blind, and you’ll be held accountable.
They shift in their seats. The boy panics, eyes flickering from thin man to thin man. He begins to cry.
It was a mistake, he whimpers.
Needles slaps the boy’s jaw. The crack of it echoes.
There are no mistakes, he says. Not anymore.
He pulls the buns from the boy and rips at the package, scattering scraps of bread and plastic to the wind. He continues, sneering about how the thin men have allowed themselves to be led astray, that they’ve lost their faith. But it’s not the end. Scripture is filled with stories of redemption.
Please, weeps the boy, don’t do this.
It is already done.
Pacing the length of the patio, Needles tells them that today they must leave the park. They are the ones who will visit the pharmacies and bodegas, subway kiosks and abandoned stores, hunting Brooklyn for leftover drugs. We girls are snakes, unfit for guidance, and now the thin men need to prove themselves worthy. But they will have to do so without medication. Today there will be no pills for them. This, Needles explains, they’ve brought on themselves.
We’ll die, says the boy, his voice small and dull.
Try not to, Needles tells him, dismissing them with a wave. He spins and strides off toward the parking lot, but stops when he sees us.
Today you weed. Every girl, every last liar among you.
The thin men wail. We get to work.
Grass under the Cyclone sprouts thick and crazy. Each time we clean a section, more springs back, and inside our rubber gloves our hands shake from the strain of uprooting stems. Because we are desperate to stay awake, and because there are no thin men left to police us, some of us whisper to each other. We talk about Mallory.
Stella suggests that Mallory headed west, hugging storefronts as she walked out alone. Celia says no, Mallory probably went north, searching for help she could bring back to the beach. Nicole calls Celia naïve. Do you think she’d help us? After what we’ve done? Nicole gives a bitter laugh. No one is coming to save us. If she’s anywhere, she’s in his van.
This is a bad thought. We know what it’s like to be in the back of Needles’s van, skin burning on its steel floor. We can feel the rope biting into her wrists and ankles, the taste of the burlap gag as her tongue pushes against it. The sour smell of the van’s interior, the dried blood crackle on her neck as she strains to look out the windows. The hot pain of her ear and swollen side of her head. The emptiness inside her.
By midafternoon it is too humid to focus on weeding, and we are too tired and hungry to try. We cannot concentrate on the task because our thoughts keep returning to what we’ve done to Mallory. Our breathing is heavy and the work is slow, and we don’t even have stale bread for our grief. There are no thin men around to shout at us to fall back into line, and without them our thoughts turn prickly with condemnation, hot with shame. We know what our mothers would say.
We could see if she’s in his van, Ophelia says, finally.
We could untie her if she is, says Candace. We could let her run.
We’d have to go now, says Delilah. So she has time. Before they get back.
What will we say? Maya shakes her head. How could we ever say anything to her again?
• • •
I’m sorry I stole your sweater. I wore it to a party where a girl threw up on it and another girl said I should throw it out so I did. I didn’t think about how you’d feel. I didn’t think.
I’m sorry I told everyone I hated you. I said you were old and mean and that you lived to make me miserable. I promised myself I would never grow up to be like you. Now I don’t know if I’m going to have the chance.
I’m sorry I drank when I told you I wouldn’t. I got so drunk I woke up with a boy in his bed and my mouth tasted of hair spray and my thighs were bruised. The boy was the brother of a girl I no longer speak to, and she told other girls that I made what happened happen, but I didn’t. I don’t even know what happened, not really.
I’m sorry I acted cold. I’m sorry I was so convincing at it that I managed to convince everyone I was actually that way. Even myself. You knew that wasn’t me.
I’m sorry I loved him. He cheated on me and I went back to him even after you warned me. I didn’t listen to you. I never listened to you.
I’m sorry I took the pills. I liked them because they slowed me down, warmed me and reassured me and helped me get to sleep. I was pretending at addiction because I was selfish and obsessed with drama. I’d take back all my pretending, if I could.
I’m sorry I starved myself. I ate nothing and refused to talk to you about it when you asked, when you kept asking why I was hurting, why I wanted to make myself sick, why I wanted to be so thin I might disappear. I’m sorry I hated myself this much. I deserved better. You deserved better too.
• • •
We go the long way, by the boardwalk, so that if the thin men are lingering outside the park they won’t notice. We pass the Wonder Wheel, its cars creaking as they sway in the breeze. We pass the steel-shuttered shops, musty and disused, their awnings peeling and faded. We turn right after the rides and shuffle up toward the stadium, pressing ourselves into the shadows cast by the midway booths. We enter the parking lot to find the van’s rear doors open, Needles dozing in back, legs hanging over the bumper. His mouth is open, breath foul. He’s alone.
We scan the inside, careful not to disturb him, pushing aside boxes of ketchup and his dog-eared Bible, its pages greasy and its type smeared. We search the front and rear seats, under the dashboard, the pavement below the van. Mallory isn’t here. There is no evidence that she’s ever been here. But there is rope, coiled yellow plastic rope, wet with oil from the van floor. We know that rope. We know how to use it.
Sondra and Celestine bind his hands. Michelle and Chloe tie his feet. They are quick and quiet and cinch him before he wakes, before he can alert the thin men. And then his eyes are open.
What are you doing?
We tighten the knots so his wrists go white and then red and his ankles clack together. Then we pull on the rope, hard as we can, and are proud to hear the sound of his body thudding to the lot.
Where is she? one of us asks.
He doesn’t answer. Peggy kicks his shoulder. He pitches sideways, striking his chin on the pavement. We ask about Mallory again, and again he refuses to tell. He coughs, and this angers us. Liza wants to put her thumbs in his eyes but we hold her back.
You girls, he says, mouth thick with afternoon heat, do you understand what you’ve done?
Maybe Mallory has left the park, or maybe Needles doesn’t believe we’ll beat the answer from him. He is of no help, so we tear our rags and bind strips of burlap around his mouth. Some of us sit on his chest while others double-check the van. Still we find nothing: more boxes of ketchup, more Scripture, newsprint, bedding that smells untended and hot, soaked through with fever dreams. No blister packs. Not one pill. But Polly is luckier than the rest of us. She discovers keys in the ignition, and today, this afternoon, that feels like enough.
She tries to start the engine while other girls debate. Some want to break into the sideshow and check it for pills. Some say that pills are no guarantee of survival, that they never were, that they’ve always been a lie. They suggest we lock the park gates and head to the grill and cook the food all for ourselves. No one brings up untying Needles. No one talks of returning to our pen. No one mentions anything about working or praying, and no one speaks of Mallory because now is not the time. Guilt will only slow us down. This summer, guilt is also a killer. We’re in the middle of this, discussing the drawbacks to each of our next steps, when the motor turns. The van thrums into life, rumbling on the hard-top.
Half a tank, shouts Polly. Where do you want to go?
Don’t do this to me, says Needles. He has spit out his gag. There is red at the corners of his lips, red in his beard. I helped you. I saved you. If you go you’ll get sick, and that will be the end of that, sisters.
We retie his gag and tie another strip of burlap around his eyes. Some of us want to stand him up, to see how long he can take the sun before fainting, but Polly guns the engine. The van’s low thunder is wonderful, as good as Needles and this baked parking lot and foul Coney Island are bad. He whimpers, twisting from side to side, cooking on the asphalt. And that’s where we leave him.
Some of us climb into the van’s front and some into the back—ten of us, fifteen of us, as many as will fit. Those we cannot take will go cooking at Nathan’s or hunting the park for drugs, an eye on Needles, an ear out for the thin men, and escape in other ways. We promise them we will return as soon as we find somewhere better, somewhere good, and we look in their faces when we tell them we mean what we say. There is no time now for more, but even this makes the hurt a little smaller. Then we shut the rear doors as quietly as we can and pull out, up to Surf Avenue, and turn left, heading west along the coast. We pick up speed, driving as fast as we can, and roll down the windows, flashing past the half-blank signs of Coney Island and the tropical greens of the Brooklyn jungle. We breathe deep and fill our chests as if the air can’t hurt us, as if nothing can. Someone says to turn on the radio, and someone else says to turn it up, and though there’s nothing on, no news or music or anything at all, we keep searching.
Amina fingers her necklace, flipping channels between bursts of static while we make our way into the city. We talk about driving to find Mallory, about where she might be, where would be best to search for medicine and how we will double back for everyone we’ve left behind. We imagine where we might pull over at night and get some rest—a highway motel, or a service center, or even just the side of the road. We’ll sleep fine, we know we will, even without medication. Was Mallory right about the drugs? Maybe. We’ll see. We’ll pull off these rubber gloves to hold each other’s hands, and before we sleep we’ll ask each other if we’re all right. If we’ve forgiven ourselves. Sleep well, we’ll say, thinking of Mallory and our mothers, other women we knew, women whose love has taken us to such strange places. Good night, okay? Good night, good night.
Jonathan Durbin‘s fiction has appeared in One Story, New England Review, Electric Literature‘s Recommended Reading, Crazyhorse, the Masters Review and Catapult, among others. His nonfiction has been published in the Village Voice, Travel + Leisure, Interview, Paper and elsewhere. He has been awarded residencies at The Ragdale Foundation and Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, and is currently at work on a novel and collection of short stories. He would like to acknowledge Stephen King’s “Night Surf,” which inspired his story in this issue.