by Aaron Benjamin
If I close my eyes, I can still taste the salt on my lips. The shrill cries are no longer from the patient down the hall but the mournful calls of circling gulls. I hear the buoy clanging, a relentless and poetic intonation. Eventually, it tolls for all of us, and I fear my time is soon.
At night when I lie awake, I think about that sound, but mostly, I think about what we pulled from the sea. I wish I could put it back. Once you take it, there's no tossing it overboard, like a catch under the legal limit.
I'm writing this with the hope that you'll believe me. No one else does. Not the white coats here at the laughing academy. Not the police. Certainly not the public defender who wore Crocs to my first court appearance.
But maybe you'll read this, and you can share it. The story of how evil came to live inside of me. I might not be around to tell it. Truth be told, maybe you won't be around to read it, either.
It started when I got out of the Women's Correctional in Windham and I needed money to feed my habit. You don't have much choice once that brown sugar gets its claws set. So I'd taken to breaking into seasonal camps around Sebago Lake, scrounging for anything I could pawn for fifteen cents on the dollar.
It wasn't a violent crime or armed robbery. Still, it was burglary, and the state of Maine frowns upon that, as do prospective employers. You get a resume for Lilith James in your inbox, it's an automatic delete. Not that I had a resume anyway.
Most of the places didn't have alarms or security cameras. But when the winter break-ins had reached epidemic proportions, many people put in Nest cameras. I happened to stroll into one of those camps after midnight on an evening in December. Ho fucking ho.
The camera in the living room had caught me looking right at it, a glazed oh fuck plastered on my face. The local police and the camp's owners shared it on social media. "DO YOU KNOW THIS WOMAN? PLEASE CONTACT STANDISH PD." Even with my puffiness and shitty skin from using, someone still recognized me. Guess I've got one of those faces.
My public defender at the time—not Crocs guy, chewed-Nicorette-in-court-guy—urged me to plead, and I did. I don't have much to say about my six months inside, but at least I got clean. Being a guest of the state is much cheaper than one of those fancy rehab places.
I got hooked when I was twenty, when somebody offered me a pill I couldn't identify. It was a week after the incident in the stairwell in the Old Port, and I wasn't a reluctant consumer. Anything to get the memory out of my head, even temporarily, would do just fine.
That's how it started, and that beginning signified the end of all the good things. There would be no bachelor's in American lit; that much was certain. But that's not what this story is about. It's about the run out past Matinicus and what we pulled from the ocean. It's about time growing short for all of us.
I could have done hard labor jobs, demo, or something of that nature, which my PO encouraged. Idle hands being the devil's work and all that happy horseshit.
But I'd have run back to the needle in short order if I had to listen to the job site banter of twenty-something guys arguing about the Red Sox pitching staff or their political takes fed to them by the Facebook algorithm.
Before I had to go that route, I ran into Billy Machree in the Old Port Tavern one night. I knew him from elementary school on Peaks Island, where we grew up.
He'd gone to the voke in Portland for high school, and my mother had moved us to SoPo. That's what we called South Portland, a mocking attempt to class something up that isn't classy, like pronouncing Target Tar-jay.
Billy looked the same. Ferret-like, I'd always thought. Even at age thirty, he could only manage the wisp of a mustache. He tried to take me home because he was drunk and didn't get the message that I fished off a different pier, if you'll pardon the applicable metaphor. If I was interested in getting some dick, it probably wouldn't be one in Carharts and a Fox Racing hat who smelled like he'd dove headfirst into a vat of Fireball.
But I didn't tell him that because it was good to see him. Seeing people from simpler times makes things seem better, even if it's the narcotic we call nostalgia pumping into our veins. It softens the coarse parts we'd like to forget, blurring the edges of memory until only the good remains.
We got around to what I'd been up to. I was feeling loosened up from a few Allen's Coffee Brandy's with milk (Known locally as "Fat Ass In a Glass" or "Lewiston Panty Droppers"). Drugs had always been my problem, and I could mostly handle my booze.
Counselors advise heavily against that, but the teetotaling thing never worked for me. I spilled my guts to Billy before I spilled them in the bathroom toilet shortly before closing time. I told him of my plight, and he said that his father had a spot open on his lobster boat, the Mother Machree.
It was a strange offer, given that I had no experience. The open ocean made me nervous, being out there all alone, surrounded by nothing. Heck, I don't even like lobster. Rats of the sea, as far as I'm concerned. But the money would be enough to keep the lights on, so I said yes.
The summer months were hardly like a job. I didn't sleep much, but I never did anyway. The three of us would steam out of Portland Harbor in Big Mac's forty-five-foot Osmond Beal at about a quarter to four in the morning, past Fort Gorges.
As the sky lightened in the east, we'd nod to the old World War II Battery Steele on Peaks, where Billy and I played as kids. We'd charge across Casco Bay, gulls trailing our wake, waiting for us to break out the bait so they could poach some breakfast.
Mac was as round as his son was lanky. Sometimes I'd see them standing on the dock together, and it would look like the number ten. He wasn't a salty, jaded bastard like most lobstering and fishing types. He was a teddy bear. The constant joking was a bit much, but I figured it was better than the opposite.
Summer lobstering is done three or four miles offshore at the most. We'd start pulling our pots as soon as we made open water past Cushing Island.
You don't call them "traps," not if you're from Maine. You know what they look like. The cutesy rectangular boxes you see on a dock on the cover of Down East Magazine, wooden and weathered.
Some towns and businesses stack them and make Christmas trees out of them, which is supposed to be quaint but always struck me as trying too hard. Other people throw a sheet of glass over them as a makeshift coffee table.
But wooden pots are a thing of the past. On the Machree, we used metal ones with neon yellow grating to make them easier to spot in the water.
We'd find our blue buoys as the low clouds would start to burn off. Then we'd attach the line to the hydraulic crank that hung on a metal arm that we would swing out over the water. Then the pulley would start to turn, and we could begin hauling the pots up from the bottom, usually fifty to a hundred feet deep that far out.
Billy and I would set the pot onto the rail, hooking a curved gaffe stick into the metal grating to swing it in from the arm. Then I'd pop the top open and start measuring whatever crustaceans were inside. You use a metal tool to measure from the eye socket to the start of the tail. For it to be a legal catch, it has to be between three-and-a-quarter and five inches.
If it falls under, it's called a snapper, and you toss it back. If you pull out a female lobster with eggs on it, you put a notch in the right tail flipper and toss her back, so other lobstermen will know not to harvest it. Get eaten, or get to fucking; how's that for a message? I'll spare you any current sociopolitical allegories.
If it's a keeper, you use a plier-like tool to band the claws. You don't want to get clipped because they are grabby little fuckers, but it's more for their own protection. It's why you don't set your pots for more than forty-eight hours.
Any longer than that, and the lobsters are liable to get hungry. And if they get hungry and there's nothing else to eat, they get ornery. That's when they start to devour each other. You might think that's fucked up, but give a moment's thought to human nature. We make up for what we lack in claws in every other way.
A boat needs about one hundred and fifty pounds daily (at an average of a pound and a quarter per sea pigeon) just to cover gas and bait. Most days in the summer, we'd get five hundred pounds plus. Once we pulled all our lines, we'd rebait them and drop them on our way back into port.
I'd jab a foot-long spear into the bait container filled with pig skins. That's not a euphemism for footballs. Actual pig skins that Mac bought from various slaughterhouses around Southern Maine. Open a container of skins on a July day, and you'll never crave a ham sandwich again, I promise.
You jab a few pieces of skin, stick it in a mesh bag, and place it in the pot. Then you attach it to the line, dump it over the rail, and watch it fade into the sea. I liked to watch each one disappear, to see how long I could track the yellow before it was swallowed up by the darkness.
The summer passed, and I learned the job, easing into the rhythms of life on the boat. Got scars on my hands from claws and nicks from knives. The money was decent, and we were back in port and sold off by two o'clock most days. I spent too much of my paycheck on shitty beer, but I wasn't using.
They treated me like one of the guys, which is a pretty low bar, but hell, you take what you can get. Mac seemed to like having me around, even though I was the first woman he'd ever had on crew. I think he enjoyed that he could talk to me about things like books and current events, things Billy had no interest in.
When the leaves turned and the winds shifted, stiff gales blowing down from Canada, life on the boat got harder. The lobsters headed for warmer water offshore, and so did we. To the good, prices went up as demand grew scarce. But you have to work for it.
The temperature plummeted, and the splash when the boat bounced over a cresting wave sent an icy spray down on the deck. Anything more than rubber gloves made handling lobsters and equipment a challenge. So my hands froze, becoming gnarled and cracked. I'd sneak some Bag Balm lotion on them when Billy and Mac weren't looking, lest they bust my balls for being a wuss.
Twenty and thirty miles offshore isn't a day trip. You go out for forty-eight hours at a time and work non-stop. We'd take turns napping on a mattress for an hour or so in the tiny v-shaped berth at the fore of the hull.
The only good thing about winter lobstering is winter money. Not for me, mind you, but for Mac. I was on a flat day rate of a hundred bucks. But Mac said after a few years, I could get a percentage if I worked hard.
So it was a no-brainer when he asked if I was interested in pushing east to the far side of the storm for a fifteen percent stake on this one trip. I ran the numbers and figured I could take in a couple grand. I needed to sock away as much money as possible to get my mother out of that state-run nursing home.
The nor'easter was already battering the eastern seaboard, shutting down the Carolinas and the DC area. It was forecast to cross over Long Island and Cape Cod, then barrel onto Maine's south coast. From there, they said it would turn northwest toward the White Mountains.
Portland would be hit, but the mid-coast and Down East would largely be spared. Prices always spiked when there was a big storm. Fewer boats out meant less supply, meaning those with supply could charge more. I didn't major in economics, but it makes sense: when product is scarce, prices skyrocket. I knew that much from my drug-buying days.
Mac gave me the deciding and only vote, a one-woman permanent UN Security Council member with veto power. He was a yes, and Billy didn't have a say. So it was up to me. He was nothing if not a benevolent dictator.
My only question was when we were leaving; the answer was that afternoon. The storm was scheduled to arrive the following morning, so we needed to beat it or be socked in the harbor. The chop was already getting heavy and was only going to get worse.
We planned to cruise toward Matinicus Island, setting our pots along the way. We could anchor overnight in the relatively safe waters between Vinalhaven Island and Camden. Then we'd wait, timing it so we'd head back to the west, pulling our lines as we went.
Mac studied the charts, checked in with his weather guy, and deemed it a go. It was about as risk-free as it gets. Or as risk-less as life on the water can be. We'd be timing the market like a commodities trader might anticipate a hurricane crushing an offshore oil refinery.
We sailed out of Portland Harbor under a slate gray sky, making eighteen knots past Ram Island Ledge Light, say that five times fast. Twenty miles out, Billy and I started laying our lines.
Maybe it was the fact that I was so inexperienced, but in the short time I'd been on the crew, I had yet to develop that kinship that Billy and Mac had with the ocean. I'd spent my life on boats, ferrying back and forth from Peaks to Portland. But this was different. It was open water.
Billy and Mac had an almost mystical relationship with the sea, viewing it as a partner, an entity that you must listen to and bargain with. Hippie dippy shit that contrasted strongly with their views on everything else.
There wasn't talk of Davy Jones Locker, and Mac didn't have a topless mermaid on his keychain or anything like that. But the notion always hung in the air that we were at an uneasy, unspoken truce with the water.
So far, there wasn't an occasion for me to consider the ocean in these terms. But as we slugged for Penobscot Bay, I felt unease wash over me as the swells crested the rails and sloshed over my boots, splashing up at my waterproof oilskin pants.
Maybe it was Billy. He had some annoying ticks. I suppose we all do, and it was like working in an office with somebody. Though I've never worked in an office, I imagine that's what it's like. Hell, it's like every relationship, really. Eventually, you notice something annoying—how they chew their food and sniff when they have a cold.
With Billy, it was the constant, absent-minded whistling. When it was particularly grating—like the time he couldn't stop whistling Steve Miller's "Abracadabra," I asked him to kindly shut the fuck up. He sheepishly told me he didn't even realize he was doing it, and I believed him.
As a few wet snowflakes began to land on my face, I heard Billy whistling a tune I had heard on one of Mac's playlists. It was a "Going Home" song he would blare as we made for port with a fresh load of bugs for the market.
I didn't know if it was an old sea shanty or an Irish drinking song, but it's called "Fiddler's Green." As Billy whistled, I didn't find myself annoyed, so much as haunted as I recalled one of the lines from the song:
Now Fiddler's Green is a place I've heard tell
Where fishermen go if they don't go to hell
This unease stayed with me, and I couldn't shake it. As the storm pushed further to the Northeast than was forecast, I was slipping into a daze and nearly missed it.
I know now that I wouldn't have missed it because we were being pulled toward it, in a gravitational pull of fate. I saw it off the port side in pitch-black ten-foot seas, a howling wind, and snow squalls.
It was a flash of white streaking by in my peripheral vision, like the headlights of a passing car on a country road. The white was skin. Human skin, of that I was sure. It appeared to be floating on top of the waves. I screamed into the wheelhouse for Mac to bring it back around. Neither he nor Billy had seen it.
Seen him.
Obviously, I wish I hadn't said anything, but hindsight is a cunning bitch. And like I told you, there was something inevitable about all of this. Our trajectory was set; the force drawing us to this moment was stubborn and unflinching.
Mac turned around from the controls but couldn't hear me over the storm and engine. So I stepped further into the wheelhouse and told him there was something—someone—in the water, and he needed to swing it around.
As Mac cut her hard to the left, the metal arm with the pulley swung out from its position hanging over the deck. As it swung out over the water and back toward the side window of the wheelhouse—toward me, I had a fleeting recognition of what I'd done. I forgot to lock the pivot at the base to keep it in place. An amateur move.
The arm came at the window, shattering it. Little bits of glass exploded all over me, all over the wheelhouse controls and monitors. This was enough to take Mac's eyes off where he was going. Enough to take his eyes off the depth finder on the console.
We ran aground on a rocky ledge, and it tore into our hull like a jagged knife. Billy was still on the deck and could have been tossed overboard. Instead, he careened forward in the direction of the crash, thudding up against the wheelhouse wall.
Mac banged his head on the console, opening a nasty cut. He pulled down his watch cap so the fabric would stanch the bleeding. I ended up on the wheelhouse floor, no worse for wear.
When Mac realized we were aground, he scrambled down the tiny ladder to the berth. I got on my hands and knees and stuck my head through the hole to take a look as well.
A rock that protruded from the top of the ledge had torn into the hull, opening a scar. Waves splashed up around it, though we weren't taking on water. The boat wouldn't sink, but we weren't going anywhere.
Mac dispensed with the obligatory torrent of obscenities, and I stepped back into the howl of the storm to check on Billy.
I found him extending a gaffe stick into the darkness over the rail. It took me a moment to realize the person hadn't been floating in the waves. Instead, they were sitting on the partially submerged ledge our boat now rested on.
I moved behind Billy and held onto him because he was leaning far over the rail. I looked through the snow and saw matted hair soaked from the storm and waves. The face beneath the hair rose slowly, and I met a pair of eyes as black as the sea we were about to pull the boy from.
The growing feeling of impending doom had, for the moment, disappeared. Subconsciously, I probably reasoned that the crash had led to that feeling, my brain's attempt at bringing order to chaos. You felt like something horrible was going to happen. It happened. Now it's over.
Only it was just the beginning.
He looked about twelve, but his body seemed weak as if he had some childhood infirmity from which he had not yet recovered. "He was a sickly youth" is how they would describe it in old books. But he didn't have some Victorian malady like rickets or polio, so far as I could tell. He was cold and shivering; his teeth chattered.
Mac grabbed a moth-eaten green Army blanket, placed it over the boy's thin shoulders, and guided him into the wheelhouse. With the busted window, it didn't provide much additional shelter from the storm.
I asked the boy if he was ok, but he didn't answer. Mac asked what had happened to him and received no response. I asked where his parents were, and he said nothing. Every question that raced through our minds and across our lips was met with silence.
Finally, I asked his name and got no reply. So he would be the boy, and nothing else. His name a mystery, along with everything else about him.
He opened his mouth and I thought he would finally speak. Instead, he stumbled to his knees. I rushed to him and heard a great retch from inside his body. It sounded like someone tearing a piece of fabric with their bare hands.
Onto the deck, from somewhere deep inside his guts, he spit up saltwater, seaweed, and something gold. At first, I thought it was a watch. I squinted at the object as it lay in the bile on the floor.
I don't know what possessed me to do it, but I lifted up a strand of the seaweed because I wanted to get a closer look, and that's when I realized what it was—grillz.
You know what I mean, right? The jewelry that you wear on your teeth? These had diamond—or, I assume, cubic zirconia—letters on the two middle plates with the letters H and W on them. Initials, probably.
As I stared at them, I jumped and realized these grillz were still attached to the front teeth. I felt like retching myself but managed to keep my dinner down. I looked up at the boy to see if his own choppers were still in his mouth. As if on cue, he parted his lips slightly to reveal his own intact pearly whites.
Billy snatched the grillz up, inspected them, then dropped them almost immediately. They landed on the floor, skittering forward like those wind-up chattering teeth toys, and came to rest beneath the instrument panel.
Mac threw blankets over electronics to keep them dry, but not before sending a distress signal on the Coast Guard radio band. They responded that they couldn't get up in the helicopter, not in this storm, and that a cutter was five hours out.
So we would wait, perched precariously on that ledge. While Mac and Billy did their best to secure the wheelhouse, I took the boy into the berth. He sat on one of the wood-slatted benches on top of the mattress, the blanket wrapped around him. I decided he needed something to wear, so I rummaged around in a compartment where Mac and Billy kept a change of clothes.
I could feel the boy watching me. Wherever I moved, his gaze followed, but I could never quite catch his eyes moving. It was like one of those paintings in a creepy old house. I pulled out an old t-shirt of Billy's—the one that smelled the least like sweat—and handed it to the boy.
He pulled the shirt over his head, and it was three sizes too big. Billy was skinny, so at least the gym shorts I found could fit around the boy’s waist with the drawstring pulled tight. After he was dressed, I sat down on the bench across from him. He got right back to staring at me.
His gaze and the silence made me uncomfortable, so I decided to scrounge up some food for him. The small refrigerator was in the wheelhouse, so I stood and flipped up the wooden bench on my side, where we stored dry goods, chips, granola bars, and beef jerky.
I was rummaging around, looking at expiration dates, when the boy started to whistle. I knew the tune. Everyone does. It's from the Mickey Mouse Club.
M-I-C… K-E-Y
I froze and felt like I would piss down my leg because it was weird and haunting. I turned slowly, and the boy was looking right at me. He finished whistling the tune.
When he was done, he bared his front teeth slightly and pushed them forward over his lower lip, and that's when I realized that I had been looking at the grillz upside down.
What I thought had been the initials H-W were actually M-H. My hands shook as I looked at the  boy, realizing he had led me to this conclusion.
Mickey. Mickey Howes.
I'd asked Billy once about the vacancy on the boat I'd filled, and he'd brushed it off casually. He told me that Mickey Howes had quit and moved out west or some shit. He'd always been talking about going to San Diego.
One day, Mickey just didn't show up for work. It wasn't the first time that had happened with a crew member. This wasn't Goldman Sachs. The best and brightest weren't beating down the door to bust their humps on the water.
I hadn't given it another thought until November when the name popped up on the local news—PORTLAND MAN MISSING, along with a smiling photo from his driver's license, complete with those grillz on his teeth. It was brief, but the name clicked, and I asked Billy about it. He confirmed it was the same person, and the cops had talked to him and Mac, asking if they'd seen him.
There was no nationwide manhunt, and it didn't end up on Dateline since Mickey wasn't a pretty blonde. He was one of those people who lived on the margins of society—a blue-collar job and no real relationship with his family. I'd seen it plenty of times in my using days. People disappeared, and nobody thought much of it until a body turned up after the overdose.
I heard Mac and Billy coming down the ladder, having got a blue tarp duct taped up over the space where the window used to be. Mac sat beside me on the bench, and Billy sat beside the boy.
I tried to keep it together until Billy asked me if I was high and if that was why I forgot to lock the pivot. I told him to fuck off, and he called me a junkie.
I could feel the rage starting to boil. Of all the things you can call me—justifiably—that one still gets to me.
Billy spit onto the rock protruding through the hull, and Mac told him to smarten the fuck up, that it wasn't my fault. Then Billy said it. He broke the glass in case of emergency, and he rang the old "C"-bell.
Instead of getting angry, I smiled. I knew I shouldn't say what I was about to, but I did anyway.
You've heard the term in vino veritas, right? Well, we sat there sober as Mormon judges, and I quickly realized that there were no lies down in that berth. Not the lies we told ourselves to simply get through each day. Not the ones we tell others.
So I asked Billy what happened to Mickey Howes. The words tumbled out of me, and it was as if someone was pounding the override key on whatever part of our brains filters out things you shouldn't say. I felt like a ventriloquist's puppet.
Billy shook his head and gave Mac a nervous glance. He said he had no idea. Mickey skipped town and didn't want to be found. That was it.
Then I asked Billy about the grillz. Why he'd looked at them like they were covered in ebola. I said it was because they belonged to Mickey, didn't they? Billy didn't respond.
I heard Mac utter you fucking idiot, which I assume was directed at Billy. Billy bolted up from his seat and lunged at me, trying to get his hands around my neck. Mac grabbed him from behind, and things were about to get really ugly. But then the boy spoke for the first time, yelling:
We all froze, and the boy looked at Billy with a smile. He spoke again, calmly now. The boy told him to go on and tell the story. Say it out loud, the boy said; it will make you feel better. His voice was unremarkable, save for the fact that it was much deeper than I expected. He was plain-spoken and without an accent, his cadence oddly formal.
I looked at the boy more closely and saw that his Adam's apple bulged from his neck. I hadn't noticed it before, but it was oddly large, and I was sure it hadn't been earlier. There was also the shadow of hair on his upper lip. Not a lot, but enough to give Billy a run for his money.
Billy sat back down, and I snapped out of my daze. He began to speak. It was as though he was compelled to, just as I had been compelled to ask him about it. So in the most matter-of-fact way imaginable, he told me what happened to Mickey Howes.
HE HAD GONE DOWN TO FOXWOODS CASINO FOR THE WEEKEND. It was a guy's trip. This was code for playing ten-dollar blackjack and ordering in a cheap hooker late night. His girlfriend Katherine stayed home.
Katherine hadn't counted on Billy and his friends getting the boot from the casino after Fletcher Nadeau pocketed a handful of chips that didn't belong to him. So they drove home half in the bag at two in the morning.
They rolled into Billy's driveway a few hours later, and there was a pickup truck in the driveway, one that Billy knew. One that belonged to Mickey Howes. As it happened, Mickey was coming out the front door, doing the walk of shame.
Billy wasn't quick on the uptake usually, but he was sharp enough to realize that Mickey was banging his girlfriend. Billy went from zero to a hundred, but his buddies held him back. Billy had been pinched for A&B years ago and didn't need another strike.
I knew Billy as a laid-back guy, but when a man is shamed in front of his friends, it's not something he quickly shrugs off. The shame of that stays with you. Without that shame, he probably could have let it go.
The boy told Billy to continue. I could see Billy didn't want to. He refused. The boy reached out and touched Billy on the hand, and it was like Billy had been stricken with immediate paralysis. He slumped back against the hull, his head hitting the fiberglass side with a light thunk. His eyes rolled over white, and he began to speak.
Only it didn't come from his mouth. It was Billy's voice, but it came from the boy. I tried to push myself up off the bench to escape up the ladder, but I couldn't move. I wanted to. My brain told my body to move, but I sat there just as paralyzed as Billy.
I could move my eyes and see that Mac was also frozen in place, a placid Buddha. I could hear every word and was aware of everything going on around me. I had experienced sleep paralysis once when I was younger, and this felt eerily similar.
As the boy/Billy continued the story, I found myself watching it. I was there. I could see what Billy recounted, not like a peeping Tom in the bushes, but a shadow over Billy's shoulder.
I saw Billy waiting outside Mickey's apartment for him to come stumbling home from the bars. I saw Mickey come up the drive, and Billy sprung out and stabbed him with the pointed end of a gaffe stick. He buried it in Mickey's neck and sealed his hands over his mouth to finish the job.
Billy wrapped his body in a blue tarp and dragged it up into the back of the bed of his truck, which had a cap on it. Back at home, Billy took a skill saw to the body, detaching the head and limbs, then cutting the torso in half.
He couldn't very well haul a body down to the dock in one piece, so over the course of a week, he'd packed Mickey's miscellaneous parts in duffel bags. He'd throw a couple of cinder blocks in each bag, and when they were alone in open water, he'd toss it overboard. And thus ended the short, happy life of Mickey Howes.
When he'd finished speaking, Billy snapped from his trance, and his eyeballs returned to their proper place. I sensed I could move again, though I didn't dare to. I could hear Mac breathing in and out through his nose.
Billy's eyes met mine, his face apologetic. There was no need to apologize to me, though. I wasn't the one in seven pieces on the bottom of the Atlantic. The boy leaned over to Billy and whispered something in his ear.
Billy stood from the bench, ducking his head so he wouldn't bump it on the deck above. He only managed to squeak out that he had to take a leak.
I realized Mac and Billy had a secret. We all have them, but theirs was death. Mac did his best not to betray what he was thinking—that there was no way I was getting off this boat alive, not while I was carrying their freedom around in my pocket like a handful of spare change.
I looked at the boy and saw that the hair around his temples was going gray. I was sure it hadn't been like that before. And despite that, he seemed… stronger. His arms were developed and muscular.
The boy stood, and his head nearly touched the top of the berth. Then, with alarming quickness, he snatched Mac's hand, holding it palm up.
He lifted his pointer finger, and the nail on it was long, filed to a sharp point. He dug it into the skin of Mac's wrist.
Mac spat out a fuck and tried to twist out of the boy's grasp, but the grip was too strong. Blood dripped from his forearm, and I let out a little gasp. The boy let go, and Mac let his arm flop back onto the bench.
I looked at the boy as if asking permission to help, and he nodded. I pulled open a compartment where we kept a first aid kit, rummaged through it, and found an alcohol swab and a roll of gauze.
I turned to Mac, and he pitifully lifted his arm to me, like a kid showing his mom a boo-boo. Blood ran from his wrist, off his arm, and plopped onto the knee of his oilskins. I ripped open the packet with my teeth and took out the swab.
I did my best to clear away the blood. When I did, I could see the tattoo on the underside of his forearm. I'd seen it before. Not too often because Mac was pasty as fuck, so he usually wore long sleeves on the boat, even in summer. But I’d never seen it up close like this.
It was a nautical compass. Mac saw me studying it, squinting at the points on the compass rose. With his free hand, he suddenly pulled his sleeve back down over it.
I saw it now, and my body gave a great shudder. I realized I was looking at a ghost from the past. A ghost from the incident that night in the Old Port.
That night in the stairwell when I was twenty, the man came at me from behind as I went to my car after a few too many drinks at Gritty's. He pushed me up against the wall, and I only remember the heavy breaths he took through his nose and his hand across my mouth.
I struggled for a bit but then stopped fighting. Tears formed in my eyes, and I looked at the inside of his forearm, begging for it to be over. A pentagram tattoo was on his arm, MÖTLEY arched around the top, and CRÜE curved around the bottom. In all the years after, every time I heard Kickstart My Heart or Smokin' In The Boys Room, I would relive what happened in the stairwell.
As I sat there looking at the tattoo, I realized that this compass was just a cover-up for Mac's misspent younger years of shouting at the devil. I hadn't known Mac when I was a kid. Billy lived on Peaks with his mother, Liz. Mac and Liz weren't together, and I'm unsure if they were ever married.
I did my best to hide my reaction, but I've never had much of a poker face. I let go of Mac's arm and looked at the boy. His hair was now grey, his skin leathered and worn from the sun and sea.
He smiled because he saw that I knew. I stood up and started to back slowly toward the ladder. Mac raised a hand as if to tell me to take it easy. I trembled but couldn't speak. I stood there frozen.
The noise made me jump, jarring me from my daze. It was coming from above. Tunk tunk tunk. There it was again; it sounded like something bumping across the deck.
I climbed the ladder and came up into the wheelhouse, my knees knocking. I pushed the wheelhouse door, and it didn't budge. I tried again and got the same result. I pressed my nose to the glass and saw something blocking the door—two pots stacked on each other.
I gave a more purposeful shove, and the trap on top tumbled off. The one on the bottom gave way enough for me to slip through the crack out onto the deck.
The snow came at me sideways, and the waves pelted me with spray. I squinted into the storm and couldn't see Billy anywhere on deck. Then, my eyes caught movement above me, and I heard that noise again. Tunk tunk tunk. Footsteps on metal. I slowly raised my head.
I realized the pots hadn't been there to block the door; they were used as a ladder. Billy stood atop the wheelhouse, his body swaying in the gale. The tips of his boots were at the very edge of the roof, and he stared down into the sea.
I screamed his name, and he turned his head down to me slowly. Through the storm, I thought I saw a smile at the corner of his mouth. Then I saw the rope around his neck.
He stepped off.
The rope lengthened, and his boots penetrated the waves, followed by the rest of his body. Then the rope snapped tight, the other end attached to the metal arm. Billy's head was just underwater. His body thrashed, and the survival instinct we all have kicked in.
I rushed to the side of the boat and leaned over. I grabbed the rope, swinging the arm and Billy's body back toward me. I tried to pull him out by the rope, but he was too heavy, and I didn't want to add any more pressure around his neck.
I reached into the kit box we kept on the rail and used it to saw at the fibers, trying to keep a grip on the rope so that when I got through it, Billy wouldn't sink.
When I made the final cut, I let go of the knife, and it tumbled into the water. The rope slipped between my fingers. I tried to grab it, but my hands were too slick. The frayed ends pulled from my clenched fist, and I couldn't hold on.
Billy was swallowed into the infinite black of the sea, his body disappearing and fading away like a ghost.
I climbed down the ladder. The boy was sitting across from Mac, who had his head in his hands. He heard me coming and looked up. I was going to tell him about Billy. Maybe he knew. I guessed he did. But at that point, I was fresh out of fucks.
I sat next to the boy and thought it was Mac's turn to speak. Part of me wanted to hear his confession. I had never reported it. I'd swallowed it whole until it consumed me from the inside out.
So I wanted to hear it from him, but I wasn't going to give him the satisfaction of begging. When did he know? The first time he met me? Did he see my face and remember? Or was I just one of many who all blended together?
Mac shook his head, looked down at the water sloshing around the rock, and whispered that he was sorry. He said he wished he could take it back. I didn't respond. What was I supposed to say?
The boy looked at me, and that's when I realized it wasn't Mac's turn. It was mine.
He said I needed to purify myself with the truth. I'd never spoken of the awful thing that I did, but at that moment, I was ready to spill my guts, just as the boy had on the wheelhouse deck. You carry a burden for long enough, and it will eat you from within like the salt air of the sea weathers everything it touches.
I began to speak.
Jackie was a year behind me in high school. I had a crush on her, but she was dating boys then. She went to Boston for college, and the first time I saw her after graduation was at the party when I took the pill, the one that set me on this course.
Jackie and I hooked up in the bathroom, and from then on, we were inseparable. She was good for me, and though I never told her about the stairwell, she sensed I had some lingering trauma. She never asked about it, only gave me love.
After getting hooked, she tried to get me clean a few times, but it never took. She never gave up on me, though, and eventually, I convinced her to try it. It's like a warm hug, I promised, and I dragged her down that road with me. Eventually, her parents sent her away, and when she got out, she said we couldn't be together anymore.
She'd still check in on me, and when she did, I'd lead her back to old habits. She would leave again until the urge to use became too great. Then we would fall back to each other, collide, and do it all over again.
The last time it happened, we went to Cumberland Farms for a pack of cigs so we could sit and have a smoke and work it out like we always did. Jackie had a dollar in change and spent it on the Moose Money scratch ticket that promised BIG GAME, BIG WINNINGS.
She scratched it in the parking lot and revealed a $5,000. Then $5,000 again. This is how they get you, just like a dealer. They hook you, suck you in. Give me three more Lucky 7's, I'll get that third $5,000 on the next ticket.
But that's not what happened this time. There was no tease. Jackie scratched off the next number and through the shavings we saw antlers materialize.
She won all the prizes. Pass Go and collect your winnings from the coffers of the Maine State Lottery. Twenty-one thousand cold ones total before the governor took his cut. Jackie and I looked at each other and shrieked.
Jackie had gone to school to be a nurse. She took care of people, an effortless bedside manner. She needed to heal broken things. Maybe that's why she never could just cut the cord with me.
This money was enough to pay off her student loans and maybe have enough left over for first, last, and security for a new apartment together. It could be a new start, she told me.
I wanted nothing more than that. But I said we should celebrate. Just one more time, then we'd get straight together. Jackie said no, this was a sign. We needed to make the change now. But I was persistent.
You can't cash a scratcher that large over the weekend, so we bought some H using the ticket as collateral. Derek was our regular guy, and he knew we were good for it. Because, after all, they always come back.
We went back to Jackie's place. I looked at her as she tied off, and tears ran down my cheek. It was the first time I wanted to stay clean because I wanted to remember what it felt like to hold and kiss her and be present in that moment with a clear mind.
But I couldn't resist. I could never resist. I tied myself off and watched as Jackie drifted off on the couch. I prepped my own dose and was about to shoot it when I heard her aspirate. Vomit ran from her mouth, and I realized what was happening.
When you overdose, your brain shuts down and forgets to tell your body to breathe. So I scrambled into the bedroom, looking for the single dose of Narcan spray I knew she had. I ripped open drawers. Looked under the bed. Went to the bathroom and emptied the medicine cabinet.
It had to be somewhere. I pulled everything out of the kitchen cabinets, tearful gasps stuttering out of me like a pull-start lawnmower trying to come to life.
I checked on her, and she wasn't breathing, so I rolled her onto the floor to start CPR. Not that I knew how to perform it. Her head flopped to the side, and I knew she was gone.
Finally, I decided to call 9-1-1 rather than keep looking. The operator managed to get the address through my wails and told me to stay on the line.
I screamed and cried on top of her, put my hands on her cheeks, cupping them, my tears dropping onto her lips. I opened her eyelids with my thumb and forefinger and saw they were rolled over white.
I placed my head on her chest and sobbed. When I finally opened my eyes, I saw the Narcan bottle winking at me from beneath the coffee table. Here I am. I reached out for it and prayed for a miracle. I squirted it up her nose, but it was too late.
The paramedics arrived and had to peel me off of her. I watched as they tried to bring her back, even though they knew she was gone. After they wheeled her out with a white sheet over her, I slipped the lottery ticket in my pocket.
On Monday, I went to the lottery commission and got my picture taken with a giant fucking check. I didn't smile like most winners did.
I didn't attend the funeral. I didn't even donate to the GoFundMe for burial expenses because, by that point, I had blown through most of the twenty-one grand, less the governor's cut.
So now you know what I did, what my secret is. I killed the love of my life.
I'll always be sorry for what I did. But I know where I can shove my sorries.
When I finished the story, the boy looked at me and said that it was good. He looked at Mac and told him that it was time.
Mac nodded and moved slowly to the ladder. I watched him disappear up into the cabin, then I glanced over at the boy. His face was now creased with deep ravines of wrinkles. He was old. Ancient. But his muscles were taught and rippled.
He was feeding on all of this. Our secrets, the confessions, the dark things we held close. Isn't it that way with evil? The wicked deeds give it strength.
We waited silently for what seemed like an hour, but it was probably only about twenty minutes. I smelled something wafting down from above.
On these winter trips, Mac would bring a sack of potatoes, corn on the cob, and a couple of onions. He'd boil it up and toss a few lobsters in, and we'd have a good old-fashioned boil right there on the boat.
I got up and climbed the ladder into the wheelhouse. The storm had quieted for the moment. Mac stood with his back to me, whistling. I saw flecks of potato skins at his feet, and the windows that were still intact were fogged up.
He was standing at the square card table we ate our meals on. On it, a large metal stew pot sat on a hot plate. The water inside was at a rolling boil, and I could see ears of corn floating at the top through a haze of steam.
Mac didn't turn to me even when I cleared my throat. He grabbed three lobsters from the table, their claws banded, and placed them in the pot. He watched them in the water for a moment, then leaned his head down.
He placed his hands on the side of the pot, and I thought I could hear the flesh of his hands sizzle from the scorching metal. I was going to speak, though I'm unsure what I would have said.
Mac lowered his head further, and the water bubbled more furiously as if it was anticipating what was going to happen. I heard the ladder creak as the boy joined us. Mac lowered his head into the water, and I heard him scream. But the scream was extinguished when his mouth went under.
He stood there, fingers with a death grip on the edge of the pot, and I could tell by how his body tensed that he was trying to pull his head out. But that wasn't happening. The boy wasn't going to let him.
As he struggled, the storm picked up again, rocking the boat, roaring wind tearing the tarp from the broken window. I was frozen in place just like before.
I stood there watching—not quite feeling bad for him, but not enjoying it either. I watched as he boiled himself alive like all those lobsters he brought to market.
The waves crashed into the wheelhouse, threatening to wash over the entire boat. It was like the whole world was being torn open. Finally, Mac's hands fell from the sides of the pot, and I could see skin from his palms stuck to its side.
The wind and snow quieted. The water somehow stopped boiling and was calm. Mac's body shook with deep tremors, then stopped. I stared at him, stunned at what I'd just seen, my mouth slightly agape.
Behind me, the boy asked if I wanted to live, and I said that I did.
I turned and finally saw what he really was. He was not a boy or a man or human. He was a creature from the ocean, so horrifying I had to look away once I saw the truth.
Somewhere in the distance, I heard a buoy bell ring, clanging over and over.
The sound pulled me up from sleep. I opened my eyes, and I hoped that it had been a dream. The mattress squeaked beneath me. I could taste the salt on my lips. I turned my head to the side and vomited saltwater and seaweed.
Then there was shouting and the muzzle of a Coast Guardsman's gun pointing down into the berth. I looked around for the boy, but he was gone.
The crew wrapped me in a towel and got me on the boat. I watched from the rail as the guardsmen zipped Mac into a body bag and placed it on the deck of the cutter. I watched all this as they read me my rights and slipped zip ties onto my wrists.
As I sat with my hands behind my back on the cutter, looking out at the bright sunshine sparkling across a winter sea, I whistled softly, as Billy used to. The words from Fiddler's Green playing over and over in my head.
Now Fiddler's Green is a place I've heard tell
Where fishermen go if they don't go to hell
I found myself wondering what would happen to our lines. Would they be hauled up by someone? Or would the pots be left for the saltwater to abrade until the neon yellow was gone from them? I wondered how long it would take for the lobsters inside to get hungry enough that they would start feeding on each other.
As I whistled and thought of these things, I saw schools of fish scatter and part as if fleeing some threat. The boat gave a gentle rock as a great shadow passed beneath us. I watched it move away silently into the deep.
Since we were more than three miles offshore, they turned me over to the FBI. They decided I was nuttier than squirrel shit. I don't blame you if you agree with them. But that's why they sent me here.
A week later, a clammer spotted Billy's body washed up off Owls Head Light. The flesh was already picked over by fish, crabs, and of course, the lobsters. They pinned that one on me too.
Maybe you've watched the Dateline special, downloaded the true-crime podcast, or checked the Subreddit for LilyJamesMurders. I haven't seen, listened to, or read any of that. Delilah, the kind lady with the soft voice who brings me my meals, gave me the gist of them.
I'm prohibited from viewing such provocative material, the contents of which could send me further into delusions. When you get to the funny farm, your access to the outside world is severely restricted, lest you get any crazy thoughts in your head.
The one thing they don't restrict is access to religious texts. So I told my lawyer, Counselor Crocs, I wanted to explore the spiritual side of things, hoping it would bring me some clarity.
He wasn't too keen on that because if I suddenly gained "clarity," it might undermine my plea of not guilty by reason of insanity in the matter of the deaths of the Machree boys. Eventually, he relented.
I found what I was looking for in the Bava Batra, the third of the Talmudic tractates in the order Nezikin. It's on page 74b if you care to look it up, which you should; otherwise, you'd be taking the word of Crazy Junkie Murderer.
It reads:
He created both male and female Leviathan, the creatures of the sea. And if they would have coupled and produced offspring, they would have destroyed the entire world. So what did God the Holy One, Blessed be He, do? He killed the female and salted her to preserve it for the banquet of the righteous.
So this is the prophecy I believe I have been chosen to fulfill. Either that, or I'm just another in a long line of crazies inside these walls who have divined personal meaning from ancient religious texts.
One of the many downsides to life here in the loony bin is that you can't make any decisions regarding your own body if they deem you are not of sound mind, a standard that I apparently fail to meet.
The doctors and nurses here don't see what I do. They tell me the ultrasound looks normal. But I feel the contortions and turns that the thing inside me makes. It moves like a twisted knot of snakes.
Delilah started sneaking me packets of salt from the cafeteria. I crave them now. That's my weird pregnancy thing. Not peanut butter and pickles, just straight-up NaCl. I was eating them by the dozen, so she switched to full shakers from the tables in the employee cafeteria. She's nice like that.
I'm trying to get rid of it on my own, somehow hoping that this will do the trick. I suppose I don't really believe that it will work, but I’m running out of options.
I've tried to accept what they tell me, that I made all of this up. That I imagined it, and I was the one who boiled Mac's head in the pot. I hung Billy from that metal arm, then cut him down so his body was swallowed up by the sea. There was no boy.
I want to believe them because then I would be ok, and so would you. If these aren't the rantings of a crazy person, my hour—and yours—are almost here.
So I stand at my window, and on clear days, I can see the ocean, and it calls to me. I place my hands on my stomach and feel the tremors in my belly. There's a shadow beneath the breaking waves that roll toward shore. I can see it waiting patiently for me.
For all of us.
Exhibit B: State of Maine v. James, Motion to Dismiss, DOCKET NO. BCD-RE-15-01