Summer has come on like the hot breath of Cerberus crossing the river Styx, except the river isn’t Styx, it’s the mouth of Plum Island Sound, and the smell isn’t dog breath, it’s fish rotting on the beach. The children were up early, arguing, so Justine sent them back to bed. They complained but complied, and the quiet has been a relief from the unexplained fish kill littering the sand across the street with reeking bodies the lone Osprey, wheeling overhead, refuses to touch. Only the neighbor’s pregnant dog is interested in them. She keeps running off to roll in the stench.
Justine stands in the hall between the doors to the children’s rooms and shouts,
“Time’s up. Let this day begin again.”
Slowly, the boy, who just turned thirteen, emerges with his nose in his smart
phone. He shambles past her. The girl, a tall twelve-year-old, follows, a sly smile
creasing her face. She doesn’t roll her eyes until she’s well past. She has the makings of a beauty. Perfect skin that tans gold, yellow brown cat’s eyes, broad shoulders and long legs; such a contrast to her wiry brother. Recently the girl has grown taller than he is, which has been a curse for him, a blessing for Justine, since, although they still snipe at each other, he keeps his distance from her to avoid comparisons.
The fish kill has created all kinds of controversy. Less concerned environmentalists say it’s the result of a toxic algae bloom that has come and gone in cycles since the beginning of time. Alarmists claim it’s the fault of global warming.
Justine splits a pair of English muffins and pops them into the toaster oven before
she sets a pan on the stove and drops a lump of butter in. She cracks half a dozen eggs, whisks them to a froth and tips them into the pan.
“Grab a couple of plates,” she tells the kids.
They are sitting at opposite ends of the kitchen island, glum, until, as though
through some sort of magical sibling bond, they both look out longingly at the water.
“So awful,” Justine says. “No hanging out on the beach this week.”
The girl groans.
“Behave and maybe you can talk your father into driving you over to the pond.”
The boy brightens. He loves to fish.
The thought of her ex taking them fishing makes her smile. He once told her he’d
watch Antiques Roadshow before he’d sit in a skiff all day waiting for a bite from a fish he have to unhook and throw back. The toaster dings and Justine plates the muffins and the eggs. She garnishes them with a dollop of sour cream and a sprinkling of capers. The boy attacks the food. The girl looks at it like she’s been served a dead rat on a plate. She begins to pick it apart, removing the garnish, caper by caper.
“I don’t get why you can’t just make regular eggs like everyone else.”
“Eat,” Justine says. “You’ll thank me when you’re older and can appreciate
having more refined tastes than ‘everyone else’.”
“No way I’m going to a slimy pond to sit in a dumb boat and fish,” she says,
The boy wolfs down his food and is back on his phone. Sometimes Justine wishes
she could lock them in their rooms until they’re full-grown. Irish twins. Inseparable when they were little. Now they are always at each other’s throats. Her ex says it’s a phase. Teenage hormones. Easy for him to laugh off their animus for each other, he only has to put up with them one weekend a month and Wednesday nights at their favorite pizza place. The thought of them with him, smiling, the good daddy, galls her. Still, whenever he arrives to pick them up, the curl of his mouth when he smiles, and the hardened physique under his t-shirt arouses her. He used to be softer. Muscle is something he’s acquired since they split. And he’s sober. She doesn’t like to think about the implication in that. But who is she to complain? She threw him out. To his credit, the alimony and child support checks arrive on time.
On the beach a young woman in a red bikini and knee high rubber boots, is
picking her way through the mass of dead fish. She steps gingerly, like she’s walking a tightrope. She’s carrying a clipboard and stops now and then to poke at the pile with a stick and make notations. It’s been four days since they washed ashore and still no cleanup. The smell this morning is worse than the day before.
Justine heads to her bedroom to dress. She strips out of her pajamas and stands
naked, staring into her closet. It’s tempting to put on something slinky to try to lure him when he comes to get the children, to make him wonder about what he’s been missing since she cut him loose. Not that she wants him back. Not yet.
A glance at the mirror on the closet door confirms the results of her gluten free
diet and yoga.
“Your body is a temple,” her instructor says at the beginning of each session. He
steeples his hands and chants Namaste at the end.
Justine pulls on shorts and a camisole top. She adds a sheer cotton blouse, a
flowery print that ties at the neck with a silky cord. She closes her eyes and holds the ends to her face. The softness makes her want to feel the touch of someone else’s skin.
When she looks out again, the bikini clad girl is still on the beach, holding a jar up
to the sun. Dead fish flesh? The girl looks young, too far away to tell if she’s pretty or plain. From that far she has a decent body, and Justine can’t help wondering who her ex is fucking, now that he’s honed himself back into shape. She’s thought about fucking her yoga instructor but the competition for his attention in the class is steep.
That night when her ex comes to pick the children up they make nice. He
compliments the flowers on the living room coffee table. He picked that table out of
someone’s trash right after they bought the house. The flowers are from her neglected garden. Day lilies, chive flowers and hosta leaves. The garden was better off when he was around, always amending the soil, watering, pinching back, never her thing.
“Let’s get this show on the road,” he tells the children, who are already at the door
with their backpacks slung over their arms.
“Giddyup,” the boy says and opens the door.
Her ex lingers before he grabs her, hugs her tight, and hisses, “I never really loved
you. If you hadn’t been pregnant with him… Good Christ it’s hot in here,” he says, and releases her. “How can you stand that smell?” And he’s out the door.
She’s gob-smacked by his anger. Is it true? He never loved her. Or was he trying
to hurt her, the way she hurt him? It felt good at first when he hugged her, until his arms tightened and she was afraid he might break her in two. Such a bold move for him, or maybe not, maybe that is who he was all along, under who he was when he was drunk and stoned.
He’s right. It’s hot as hell and the house stinks. She closes all the windows, walks
into the bedroom, shuts the door and turns on the air conditioner. It’s the only one in the house. It takes a while before the room cools off. She strips naked, stretches out on the bed that used to be their bed, until the canned cold raises goose bumps on her arms and she pulls the coverlet over her so she can sleep.
The chop-chop of a helicopter and a commotion on the beach wake her. She gets up and pulls on a t-shirt and panties before she walks over to the window. Three news vans are parked across the street. The helicopter hovers above the beach. A front loader has been brought in. It’s scooping the dead fish up and dumping them into a truck. It takes a bit before she realizes there’s something else in addition to the fish, even longer to get her head around what it is, seals, piled on top of the dead fish, some still alive. Teams of rescuers carry slings and water buckets, dousing the live ones as they lift them onto the slings. A boat idles in the surf, ready to ferry them to deeper water. It’s happened before, but just a few swept in on a high tide. This is different. This is carnage.
Justine is reluctant to leave the cool bedroom where she feels insulated from the
calamity outside. Thank God the children are gone. Her phone starts to sing, God Save the Queen, her friend Shirley’s ringtone. She picks it up and before she can say hello, Shirley says, “Seals? It’s all over the TV.”
Justine checks the time. It’s only 7:30. She has a tight knot of a headache.
“I’m headed your way as soon the damned dog takes a shit,” Shirley says.
“Don’t,” Justine says, “The smell will make you puke. Meet me downtown for
breakfast. The Pancake House. In forty-five minutes.”
Justine throws on the clothes she wore the night before and braces for the heat and
the smell. When she emerges from the bedroom, the smell isn’t too bad. It’s the heat that hits her. The air in the closed up house is stuffy and as dead still as the bodies on the beach. When she opens the front door the smell makes her gag. She runs to the car, jumps in, pushes the button that turns it on and sweats until the AC cools it. Curious neighbors are braving the smell to see what’s going on. Several wave as she drives by. Some are wearing dust masks or bandannas around their faces.
Justine lives on what would be an island if not for the ribbon of road through the
marsh, which eventually curves up through a tree-lined neighborhood onto Route1A, which wends through the town. She passes the gas station, Dunkin’ Donuts, the supermarket, several fried clam places, a Mexican restaurant, a liquor store and an ice cream stand, before getting to The Pancake House.
Shirley is already there. They bump heads when they hug.
“Your hair smells like dead fish?” she says.
Justine sniffs a strand.
“Order me coffee and the Number 1, poached with dry toast,” she says and heads
for the restroom.
She pumps soap from the dispenser, lathers her hands, washes her face, and wets
her hair, dries it with paper towels, then wets and dries it again. She sniffs her shirt. It smells, too. She remembers the flacon of perfume in her purse, a Mall giveaway. She searches to find it, and spritzes some on.
By the time she walks into the dining room, Shirley is talking to a couple at
another table about the situation at the beach.
“Here she is,” Shirley says, “Justine lives right across the street.”
Mercifully, their waitress walks in with the food. Justine knows it’s rude but she
takes the seat opposite Shirley that places her back to the couple at the other table. She just hasn’t the heart to talk about it.
The eggs are perfectly poached. The yolks ooze over the whites and soak the
toast. But her appetite has fled. She’s never been big on perfume. The fragrance, which might be pleasant in a smaller dose, is overpowering. Shirley is kind enough to ignore the smell. Justine sips her coffee as Shirley demolishes an omelet, three strips of bacon, home fries and a couple of slices of rye toast. The sight of the egg yolks congealing on her plate makes Justine queasy. She pushes it away and is relieved when the waitress comes to take it.
“Everything okay?” the pretty young waitress says. Her hair is pulled up into a
ponytail and her white shirt is tucked in tight to her short black skirt.
“It was fine. I just don’t have much of an appetite,” Justine says.
“Separate checks,” Shirley says.
The girl shoulders the tray away and returns with their checks.
Shirley looks hers over. “All that food for $6.99. I love this place.”
She pays with a credit card. Justine pays cash.
“What are you up to now?” Shirley says. “You can come over to my house.”
“Thanks, but I think I should go see what’s washed up since I left.”
She doesn’t invite Shirley to follow. Breakfast listening to Shirley drone on about
her son is all Justine can take. He just broke up with a girlfriend who snuck over to his apartment and slashed his tires. Justine’s headache pounds at the memory of the day her husband moved out. She drove off to give him some space to pack without her lurking. The children were at school. When she returned, he was gone. She’d steeled herself for the missing things she expected him to take, but it was as though he’d never been there. Nothing personal, no furniture, none of the artwork or antiques they’d collected together. She assumed he’d taken some pots and pans and cutlery but didn’t bother to check, so what she found in the bedroom was that much more shocking; their wedding picture, the one she used to keep on the dresser, but had put away in her underwear drawer, lay on her pillow, smashed, the photo torn to pieces, shards of glass from the frame scattered around like something you’d see in a TV movie, bloodless evidence, thank God. She didn’t try to
clean it up. Instead she stripped the bed, tied the corners of the bedding around the mess, balled the whole thing up and shoved it into a trash bag. She hauled the bag out to the garage, dragged the mattress to the basement door, hoisted it up, gave it a push and watched it cartwheel down the stairs. Same Day Mattress was true to their ads. The new mattress was in place before the children got home. She splurged on one topped with memory foam.
She says goodbye to Shirley. All she wants to do now is go home and jump into
the shower, but back at the house the crowd of onlookers has grown. There’s a police detail directing traffic. A newscaster is interviewing her neighbor with the pregnant dog. Justine pulls into her driveway and walks next door. Their houses look down over the beach. The crowd is clustered on the other side of the road, in front of the news trucks.
“What’s going on now?” Justine asks.
The smell has turned sickly sweet since she left. Only part of the beach has been
cleared. The front loader sits idle. Everyone is eyeballing the water.
“Oh, my God,” Justine says when she sees what’s drawing everyone’s attention.
Just off shore the water is churning with black fins. At the waters edge, some of
the sharks have come in close and are trying to hurl themselves onshore. The bikini girl and a group of men are in wet suits, trying to zap them back into the water with what looks to Justine like cattle prods. Already, some lay dead on top of the rotting fish and decaying seals. Gulls scream overhead.
The newscaster turns from her neighbor, who has a wet bandana around her face
to counteract the smell. The neighbor is in her sixties. She’s wearing a cowboy hat. She looks like a robber out of a western movie. Her dog is yipping in the house. The
newscaster is fully made up, wearing a stylish suit jacket and pearls above jeans and flipflops. Her makeup has caked and turned glossy in the heat. She shoves her microphone in Justine’s face.
“Have you ever seen anything like this?” she asks.
“We’ve had fish kills out here, and the occasional orphaned seal, but never anything of this magnitude,” Justine says.
Her neighbor shakes her head and sighs, “What next?”
“A giant octopus maybe. Or a couple of monster squid.” Justine says, deadpan.
The newscaster looks serious.
“I don’t think this their habitat,” she says.
“She was just joking,” the neighbor says, her voice muffled by the bandanna.
“Let’s hope so,” Justine says, looking out across the open ocean where another
row of black fins has just emerged.
“Holy shit,” the newscaster says.
This morning it isn’t an octopus or a squid or more of the sharks circling, it’s a whale, big and black and shiny. Just one. Gasping for breath on the beach, it’s huge sides, heaving. It looks like the whales Justine took the children to SeaWorld to see when they were small, when she, and everyone else, didn’t know any better. There is a flotilla of small boats clustered off shore, poised to try for a rescue. The sharks that didn’t strand have moved on. The bikini girl is out of her wetsuit. Today her bathing suit is blue. She and a couple of men in olive drab shorts and shirts stand on the sand in a huddle. A camera crew is set up at the other end of the suffering animal. A truck with a New England Aquarium logo has joined the line up of news station vehicles. A fire truck has been brought in to spray the poor whale. It’s all over the news. Only residents and authorized personnel are allowed to enter the street. Her phone rings. It’s her ex.
“What the fuck is going on out there?” he says.
“Maritime Armageddon. Go buy a couple of gas masks. The kids are going to need them.”
She’s soaked an old chiffon scarf with cologne and tied it over her nose.
“If it’s that bad, I can keep them,” he says.
She can hear the children in the background, the boy shouting, “Right on!” The
girl yelling, “Yes! Yes! Yes!” As far as she’s concerned, under the circumstances, and
maybe under any circumstances, he can keep them.
Years ago Justine worked for a newspaper on the Cape. One of the writers wrote a
book about strandings. It was illustrated with archival photos. At the beginning of the twentieth century, a stranding was a bonanza. Up and down the coast, townspeople would bludgeon live seals to death and carry them away to strip their skins for the fur. There are pictures of smiling children, leaning on wooden clubs with dead baby seals at their feet. A whale stranding was an even bigger deal, money in the bank, all that quivering baleen, oil and the teeth. They prized the teeth.
But this is a much larger whale, an Orca she thinks. Those other whales were pilot
whales, smaller, driven crazy by some inner ear disease that drove them to ground. How a whale as big as the one on the beach navigated such shallow waters is puzzling.
She ties the cologne soaked scarf tighter around her face and walks closer to the
street. Her neighbor waves to her. She’s got the dog with her. It’s straining the leash. She keeps yelling at her to sit. The dog’s belly is bulging with unborn pups. Her pink teats stick out straight. The children keep begging Justine for one, but she doesn’t want the responsibility. The dog is an unlovely mutt and she’s whiny; if the puppies look anything like her, definitely not.
The front loader starts up again and clears the beach around the whale. The driver
is wearing a gas mask. The bikini girl and her colleagues (now at least ten) are masked and dragging a contraption towards the whale. It’s an enormous black elastic tube with chains attached to one end. The whale’s huge eye blinks each time a plume of water from the fire hose showers it. They stretch the tube as wide as they can and wrestle it over the whale’s tale. The animal doesn’t resist. Once it’s in place they walk, holding the ends of the chains together, to the waiting boat. The boatman fastens the loop to the stern, inches forward, dragging the whale off the beach, into the water until the beleaguered beast is buoyant and they putter off, around the point, out into the open Atlantic. Everyone breathes a sigh of relief.
When the children were small it was a pleasure to walk them across the street, to
watch them pick up hermit crabs in the tide pools, to splash each other with glee. She wonders if, even after the cleanup, she’ll ever be able to set foot on that sand again. She watches until the front loader finishes scraping the beach, until the bikini girl and the others have packed up and gone, until the last truck full of carrion drives off and the smell has mostly dissipated. There’s just a whiff of it left in the air.
Now that she doesn’t need it, the scarf covering her face is suffocating. She unties
it. Her phone vibrates in the pocket of her shorts.
It’s a text – from him. “What’s the deal?” it says. “Should I keep them?”
She types, “You can bring them back. The coast is clear, literally.”
It’s 8 o’clock by the time he brings them home. The light has gone gray. The smell
is no worse than it normally is at low tide. She meets them at the door. He could have just dropped them off, but it’s obvious after the children run past her, with barely a hello, that he expects to be invited in. She blocks the doorway and talks to him through the screen.
“That was fast,” he says.
“I wish they were that fast at helping around the house.”
“I was referring to the beach,” he says. “The clean up. You can hardly tell what
went on here.”
“You should have been around earlier,” Justine says. “It was a madhouse.”
He turns away from her to look out over the pristine sand.
“I lied about not loving you,” he says quietly and presses his palm to the screen.
She raises her hand and fits it to his.
“You’d better come in,” she says.
The children climb the hill toward the intersection where the camp bus will pick them up. The boy runs ahead, rough-housing with a friend he met up with along the way. The girl takes her time. She was up early, fussing with her hair and changing outfits. From her confident posture, Justine assumes she liked what she saw in her last glance at the mirror before she left the house.
This morning Justine loves her children again. She’s happy to have them back.
After her ex came in, they all sat in the kitchen and talked, full of concern about the
“Heartbroken,” the girl said, about the loss of so many sea creatures.
“Relieved,” the boy chimed in, that they were able to rescue the whale.
“Fearful,” they both said, that it could happen again.
Justine hoped she had the right answer for that, “I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.”
After the children went to bed it was tempting to let her ex stay, to let him back
into their bed. In the end, they closed out the evening at the door with nothing more exciting than a chaste kiss.
She stands on the doorstep with a watering can in hand. The mint her ex planted
in a big terra cotta pot so it wouldn’t take over the garden has begun to wilt in the heat. The beach is empty except for a woman standing at the water’s edge. Justine watches her wade in, thigh deep. She’s wearing the same khaki shorts and shirt the men were wearing the other day. Justine waters the plant, puts the can down, walks to the edge of the lawn and crosses the street. There is a layer of boulders between her and the sand. She steps up onto one of them. The woman in the water is dipping what looks like a giant thermometer in. Justine calls out.
“Excuse me,” and then louder, “Excuse me.”
The woman turns. It’s bikini girl. A woven lanyard hangs around her neck. A
laminated card dangles from it. She raises her free hand, holding up her index finger, a sign Justine interprets as: Just a minute. Justine waits while bikini girl inspects the glass tube before she walks out of the water and towards her. Justine is glad to see she’s not barefoot; she’s wearing scuba booties.
“I live across the street,” Justine says. “So awful. Any idea why?”
Bikini girl shakes her head. “The water is a bit warmer than normal for this time
of year, but not stratospheric. It makes sense that a few seals might follow the fish kill. But why so many? And it kind of makes sense that the seals would attract sharks. But in those numbers? And willing to kamikaze themselves? That’s unprecedented.”
“And the whale?” Justine says.
“God only knows. Maybe just curiosity. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong
with him. After he was released he swam alongside the boat for a while, splashing it, before he took off and disappeared. They’re smart that species. We’ve begun to see more and more of them up here.”
She’s close enough that Justine can read the name on the card hanging from her
neck. There’s a “Dr.” in front of it. She’s older than she looked from afar. The sun is so bright Justine wishes she’d worn sunglasses and the heat is oppressive. Not a cloud in the sky. She shields her eyes with her hand.
“We’re cordoning off this section of beach for a couple of days,” Dr. Bikini says.
“The sun and high tide will sanitize it. So far, we can still count on Mother Nature to do that.”
Last night, after Justine made her “wait and see” comment to the children, her ex
corralled her when they were out of earshot, “You couldn’t come up with something more reassuring?” he said.
“Like sometimes nature is inscrutable, but there’s a reason for everything. That
what might seem wrong to us, may actually be right in the overall scheme of things.”
“Since when did you become so philosophical?”
“Since I got clean,” he said.
A long minute passed in which Justine had to restrain herself. She wanted to trace
the contours of his mouth, to kiss his eyelids, to beg him to come home.
“The jury’s out,” Dr, Bikini says. “None of us really know what’s going on. We study. And then we study our studies. And still. Who knows? We’ll just have to wait and
Justine laughs at that as she walks back up to the house. She opens the refrigerator
and lets the cold air cool her down before she takes out the pitcher of iced tea. She pours a glass and drinks long and deep, so refreshing after the days of dead fish. She stands at the window and watches two guys arrive in a truck filled with metal stakes and crime scene tape. One pounds in the stakes and strings the tape along the street and down to the water line on both ends. The other one affixes No Trespassing signs to every other stake.
It’s trash day. The basket is brim full. When she drops in a handful of orange peels, the smell of rotting vegetables repels her, a reminder that everything organic eventually decays. Fish. Seals. Sharks. Whales. And she asks herself.
Why are the children so much harder to love?
Why is she so disconcerted that she loves her ex again?
She doesn’t trust him. That’s why. If she takes him back, how long will it be
before their relationship decays?
But why does she have to trust him to sleep with him again?
Because they’re not kids anymore. They’re parents.
Of course she has to trust him. She has to believe in him again. That will take
time. Maybe more time than she wants to take, time that might delay restarting her life with some other man, as selfish as that sounds to her as the thoughts snake through her head. The truth, she thinks, as she holds her breath when she ties the plastic bag closed and carries it and the recyclables out to the curb, is all the incessant talk about Save the Planet is a farce. The yellow crime scene tape that cordons off the beach screams, CAUTION, CAUTION, CAUTION, in bold black letters. Justine takes a deep breath. The air smells fresh again. Clean. Surprising how fast the smell has dissipated. Maybe, if time really is running out, the planet will be just fine without fish, or seals, or sharks – without whales, without her or her ex or the children. Barring a meteor strike blowing the hurtling ball of rock apart, the planet will survive, regardless of global warming, regardless of her overheated heart.