A Quick Note:
Fresh Water From Ben Gile Pond was my first book ever released in print. If you've been reading A Tourist Again, you're probably aware that it takes place in the same universe as Fresh Water, though in my novel we pick up 30 years after the events of Black Christmas. With A Tourist Again I wanted to show what it was like in the immediate aftermath of the bombings. The confusion, the lack of answers (the continued lack of answers), and most importantly the lawlessness that arose with a drastically reduced human population.
That last part is the big one. We are deeply flawed and violent creatures (two traits that tend to go hand-in-hand), and while most of us adhere to at least a vague code of morals, the majority of us are incredibly opportunistic. Take that and apply it to a world without government and police and watch how quickly the good guys and thinkers left in the world disappear.
I'm not going to get into the symbolism and underlying commentary in this story because I'd be here forever, but I will say that many social and political themes in this book, as with Fresh Water, are born of today's social and political climate. I'm not going to dig into that either, but I will say this before I leave you to join Elizabeth for the end of her journey: regardless of the (R) or (D) you identify with in politics, don't use it to completely size up others. We are so much more than our political affiliations, and as a society we are forgetting that... at our own peril.
To New World Ogunquit...
For Liz... obviously.
The miles she’d walked were something she could feel on her body like another layer of clothing. Every step she took, now dragging herself along the shoulder of US-1, was punctuated by pain in her feet. It didn’t matter how she tried to shift her weight at this point. The pain was everywhere.
But she was nearly there.
Ahead the road rose and curled and dipped and wended as it adhered to the land. Granite cliffs rose out of the soil on either side of her at odd intervals, each of them fringed with pine and oak saplings with the larger growth of the forest beyond. This couple-mile stretch between York and Ogunquit was largely devoid of any serious manmade leavings of the Old World. A Lyon’s clubhouse rested at the base of a hill teeming with crab grass and cut by a gravel driveway. Off the parking lot was a row of sawhorses that had at one time supported the Christmas trees they were selling before Black Christmas. The leftover trees now occupied the ground around the sawhorses, but they retained their evergreen leaves.
The world had been left in a permanent state of Christmastime. Such leavings were certain to turn up as the worst of humanity spread out and resettled the world.
They could have all of it. Elizabeth would never celebrate Christmas again.
* * *
A lone signpost bleached gray by the sun marked the Ogunquit Town Line on her right. Through the trees ahead she spotted the white façade of a building. Poking up over the tree line were just short of a dozen flag posts with nothing flying on them. The bold evergreen lettering occupying most of the street-facing elevation was obscured by fluttering leaves and pine bristles, but she knew this place for exactly that it was.
This was the Ogunquit Playhouse.
A rush of energy swept through her, chasing away much of the fog that hung over her mind. Her posture straightened, as did her footing, and before long she was speed-walking through her fatigue toward a line of unkempt hedges that fringed the theater’s southern parking lot. The darkness that encompassed the dark spectrum of emotions she’d felt since Durham all at once melted away. Even the pain in her feet felt a great deal more manageable.
She rushed past the hedge, that odd smile of hers once more occupying her face. And why not? She was here. The ruin she’d left behind her on the road back to Claremont hadn’t been for nothing.
How wrong she was.
Elizabeth halted so quickly she nearly tripped forward into the gravel. As she found her balance, wavering in place for a moment before straightening and turning her gaze back toward the Playhouse, every one of those slimy, acidic feelings that had ravaged her since Durham returned.
The entire back half of the theater was a charred assortment of sticks from a fire long extinguished. Elizabeth wasn’t certain what miracle had kept the front façade so largely intact, but it didn’t matter anyway. Painted in huge letters on the white siding in sweeping, almost calligraphic letters, were the words: the men abandoned the natural function of the woman and burned in their desire toward one another, Romans 1:26-27. Beneath it, crudely scrawled by a person less concerned with form, was the American translation of that particular bible verse: Die Fags Die.
She stood gaping at the building, unable to believe that this magical place was the same venue where she and her parents had seen Oklahoma! with fucking Sally Struthers. It wasn’t until the pain of her nails biting into the soft dough of her palms registered that Elizabeth realized she was clenched up all over. An arbitrary effort was made to relax herself, but she hardly saw the point. Gazing down at her hands, she unfurled her fingers to find four pink, half-moon shaped divots where her nails had bit into the flesh. These wounds rested just above the ones she’d previously carved there.
Well, were you expecting to see a show? Dad asked, voice marinated in just enough sarcasm to prod at her sanity. That liberal artsy stuff is over. If people know what’s best for them they’ll get back to the traditions that made this country great.
“I doubt this country was ever truly great,” she grumbled, voice cracking after 25+ miles of nonuse. “And that liberal artsy stuff has been around since long before the G-O-P.”
She waited for Dad to fire back, but he didn’t. He’d said what he wanted to say with no designs on arguing it. Back into the ether he went.
Despite the state of the place, she started herself down the road that curled up past the Playhouse box office. For the second time in as many days she didn’t realize she’d unslung Dad’s rifle until she found it there in her hands, pulled tight against her midriff. A year ago these gaps in awareness would have left her concerned at the very least, but in the New World they felt like just another tool in the box. Unfounded or not, she was responding to potential danger on a subconscious level.
She kept the rifle where it was as she passed by the smashed-in window of the box office beneath the skeletal framework of an awning that obviously came off with each season. Pausing to peek inside, she saw nothing but a small space no larger than a closet, its desktops bare and furniture likely stored away inside – or had been before the fire anyway.
The sky burned orange overhead as the sun cleared the horizon. Elizabeth’s gaze drifted back toward US-1, peering as best she could into town through the trees. Sadly there wasn’t much she could see, but that would come in time. There was no hurry now. All she could do was hope the rest of the town wasn’t so hatefully, so needlessly defaced.
The front doors were of heavy, stained wood, and they were very seriously locked. Not that it mattered. She simply made her way around the building with Dad’s rifle at the ready and slipped into the lobby through what remained of the auditorium – just a few wooden chairs occupying the back row. It was as though the entire stage and seating area had been snatched up and carried off by some giant.
What are you doing in here? Dad asked as she stepped over a pair of charred beams and pressed down the aisle toward the lobby. The burning smell of woodsmoke was borderline oppressive despite the time it had spent in the open air. The front half of this place could collapse at any time.
She didn’t care, and she didn’t answer him. It was mostly because she wasn’t entirely sure what she was looking for, but she’d know when she found it. There was still so much left of Ogunquit to inventory in her mind. Still so much of herself waiting to be gathered up.
Somehow the smell was worse inside the lobby, but she was growing used to it now. This part of the Playhouse was otherwise immaculate to the point where if she’d been standing inside without seeing the back half of the building she’d have no reason to believe it wasn’t still intact. Her memory of this particular part of the Playhouse wasn’t a vivid one, but as her eyes swept the sunlit room she began to feel a sad nostalgia nibbling at her. The snack bars built into alcoves on either side of the room were packed up, their refrigerators open and empty. This wasn’t the result of looting (the place was untouched save for the fire and the hate speech outside) but rather the season ending.
Were Ogunquit a living entity, it would be waking just about now from a long winter slumber, ready to charm tourists and locals alike. Restaurants would be stocking up, bedsheets drawn over hotel beds, sidewalks swept, signs re-hung, beach umbrellas opened… and this beautiful place by the sea would be ready to fill the souls of all ages snatched by its charm.
Only there was no tourist season coming this year. No plays, no lounging on the beach, and no boiled lobster with drawn butter unless she wanted to wade into the Atlantic.
The lobby turned out to be something of a bust from a practicality standpoint. Nothing of real use. Still, she took her time and walked the entire lobby, glancing over the faces of actors and actresses who’d graced Ogunquit’s stage adorning the walls.
Her attention fell on a glass counter flanked by the locked entry doors. Inside was all the branded merchandise the Ogunquit Playhouse unloaded every year. Eclectic bands of dangly jewelry sat winking through the glass in the sunlight while arranged throughout the rest of the case were t-shirts, hooded sweatshirts, mugs and shot glasses, and a stack of children’s books that nearly drove her backward in shock.
In an instant Elizabeth was hauled back in time to when she was very little, back when Mom and Dad still read to her before bed each night. Though it was seldom a joint effort, both certainly put in the time, and by the time she’d grown out of it she was already a better reader than Dad.
The book’s cover blurred as the tears started to come. The Pride of Perkins Cove it was called. Written by Brenda Yorke Goodale. The brightly-colored bow of what looked like a cross between a lobster boat and a great white shark drifted in front of a white drawbridge while a small boy looked on from a dock in the foreground. This had been her favorite book as a child, long before she even knew what Ogunquit was. Having never known a grandmother herself, Elizabeth was enchanted early on with the book about a boy visiting his grandmother and searching for the model after which the great ice breaker of Perkins Cove, The Crusher, had been built.
How could she have forgotten about this book?
The crack of a lone gunshot sounded off outside, followed by the rattle of automatic return fire. Elizabeth was snapped out of her thoughts in an instant, but the feelings that the book kindled in her, that bright and warming sunshine born of this misplaced memory remained. With a quick glance out the nearest window, she confirmed the coast was clear outside before gripping the rifle and rearing up over the display case with its stock ready for smashing…
No. She may not have had control over what others did in this place, but she refused to treat Ogunquit’s remains with anything less than complete respect. Plus, the doors around the back didn’t appear to be locked, and as she rounded the case, edging her way inside and drawing the door open without so much as a snag on its track, this was confirmed. There was nothing in the case that she needed other than that book, and it was all she took. As she turned it around in her hands more gunshots sounded off outside.
“Hush now,” she whispered, addressing the New World as she began to leaf through the bright illustrations of Goodale’s book. “You’ll have your turn…”
* * *
Hours passed in what felt like the space of minutes as she took in all the book had. Every page, the way the words were arranged, the brightness of imagery and the style of the art, all of it conjured feelings that left her feeling more like Beth than Elizabeth. After the way she’d walked into Maine like a ghost aimlessly roaming the scarred landscape and the way she’d felt not so much trapped but furloughed in her own mind took on more gravity as she paused between each readthrough, re-assessed herself, then started over again.
It was a wonder she didn’t fall asleep. The world outside even seemed to have wanted her to conk out for a bit as the sunlight reaching in through the windows was all at once stolen away during her sixth readthrough. Blinking rapidly, she rolled her eyes around, feeling them drag ever so slightly against the dryness of their sockets. She was thirsty and hungry, finding as she glanced back through the days since Claremont that thirst and hunger frequently masqueraded as each other.
You think so deeply when you’re overtired. Just like your mother.
For a moment the warm fuzz that was her emotional climate bloomed into a buzzing rush of endorphins. Dad had frequently compared her to Mom, and while most of it had been sweet and endearing, to hear Dad compare the depth of her mind with Mom’s was the biggest compliment she’d ever received.
It doesn’t count as a compliment when it comes from your own head, Andersen countered. His voice didn’t come as a shock to her, but its tone was unexpected. It was dark and bitter with a current of repressed pain running beneath, but on top of it all was a hatred so purely distilled that it ran like black die through her body, stripping away her joy and inviting the feelings of guilt and loss back in earnest. The final words he left her with before withdrawing to his quiet corner in her mind were as true as they were cutting: stop trying to be someone you’re not.
Like water spouting in the desert, tears returned to wet her eyes. When she blinked them down her cheek and felt them trundle toward her chin, she refocused on the cover of The Pride of Perkins Cove in time to see her tears patter upon the line of people crowding the white draw bridge. Was this how it would be? Would Andersen be waiting silently behind each memory, each thought and conclusion, ready to supply the commentary that would destroy her?
Or was she wrong about everything she’d felt? Had she reclaimed pieces of Beth or was Andersen standing sentinel over that little girl’s memories? Memories she had no right at all to call her own?
Don’t let the New World destroy my baby girl. Dad sounded preemptively mournful.
Andersen seemed to have nothing to add, though if Elizabeth could somehow narrow in on his face, wherever it was in the all-consuming black of her mind, she knew he’d be grinning.
Taking one last look at the cover through eyes spilling over with tears, Elizabeth hugged the book to her chest as the crying fit overtook her. With everything she had she tried to draw her former feelings out of the book, telling herself that it was an extension of Mom and Dad and hugging it was like hugging them. But she didn’t need Andersen to tell her that was crazy.
When it was over and she’d calmed enough to acknowledge that she should move on, she did so with a divided heart and mind that she knew were there to stay. There was no rest or reprieve for a person leading two ghosts into new and dangerous wilds. A part of her even managed to float the idea that she should just press on and leave Ogunquit behind, but she banished it in short order.
This place was hers. She’d bled for it.
She’d killed for it.
* * *
US-1 dipped into a basin where a small bridge was marked with a sign reading The Josiah Norton River. With this naturally came the reek of the water. Just beyond, through the wavering branches of maple trees that still shouldn’t be in bloom yet, was a road she recognized from her trip with Mom and Dad. It cut to the right off US-1 and stretched a quarter mile or so toward Shore Road, a scenic route that hugged the edge of the ocean and connected York Beach with Perkins Cove and Ogunquit Village.
It was in Perkins Cove that she’d catch the Marginal Way footpath and take a nice, quiet stroll, alone with her thoughts. At several points during her half-mile trek through rows of Victorian houses turned Bed and Breakfasts it occurred to her that she’d already been doing that for days… or was it weeks now? Months? In any event, she would walk the Marginal Way one more time.
What sight, she imagined, to see a child walking down the busiest road in Ogunquit with a children’s book in one hand and an automatic rifle slung across her back.
* * *
The road split ahead, with the left fork running though a small corridor of trees before curling around past a couple of houses-turned-giftshops. The right branch fed the rest of Shore Road, running over the Josiah Norton River mouth emptying into Perkins Cove. Rising from an island just before the split was a large wooden sign, green and white like a crashing wave, carved with gold lettering that read: Perkins Cove.
Elizabeth squinted at the sign until she drew close enough to see that the name “Perkins” had been aggressively, almost maniacally, spray-painted over in the same black from the Playhouse. As she came around the sign she found two others facing the other converging roads, all identical, all with the Perkins name blotted out.
Should this mean something to her? No more than the gay hate-speech scrawled across the siding of The Ogunquit Playhouse meant something to her. She was nearing, what… two days without sleep? It didn’t matter. She was in Ogunquit.
Elizabeth took the left branch into the cove. Ahead more giftshops lined the street between a smattering of private homes overlooking the cove/harbor for which this place had been named. From what Elizabeth could see between the buildings, all of the lobster boats were still there bobbing in the water, waiting to venture out in search of Maine’s most prized food.
In a way the harbor was now a graveyard. Beyond, the charred remains of what she remembered to be the most beautiful contemporary houses in town pocked a grassy hillside overlooking the channel that fed the harbor. They’d been burned down, possibly due to some natural event, but Elizabeth was disinclined to follow that train of though. Someone had come through before her. Someone with much different feelings toward Ogunquit. She remembered there being a hotel across the harbor as well, now all that remained was its narrow foundation cutting through the swaying tallgrass.
Keeping to the sidewalk, though she had no idea why, Elizabeth rounded the last of the Cove access road’s little corners and came to a slow stop. Nothing remained of Perkins Cove but a sprawling parking lot stretching from the massive rock barrier at the edge of the sea where the most furious of winter storms would break, and down to the harbor on her right where a small boardwalk jutted out over the docks where lobster- and fishermen had once unloaded their hauls.
But that was it. The entire peninsula was a landscape of black, all of the buildings from the restaurants to the gift shops to the private community that had formerly occupied the far end had been erased from the earth. Her stomach coiled up as her gaze fell upon the remains of the footbridge about a tenth of a mile down where the road was seen to loop back around. A lone set of stairs climbed into the air at the edge of the channel that fed the cove. It railings were still white, though charred at the edges. That was all that remained of the iconic bridge.
She lifted her book and studied the acrylic bridge depicted on its cover and the smiling faces of waving tourists lined up across it. Then her gaze went to the space the bridge had once occupied. Then back to the book. To the bridge. To the book. To the bridge. To the—
It’s gone. Just go.
She waited for Andersen to offer his two cents as well, but he stayed quiet. It wasn’t until she turned toward the ocean and set eyes on the Marginal Way curling along the shoreline that he finally spoke up, that hateful sarcasm almost seeming the throb in his voice.
The days of walking for leisure are over. Just leave it and go. You know there’s nothing for you here. This place isn’t yours.
Clearly it wasn’t, and all at once the entire driving force that had kept her going since Dad’s death imploded on itself. Her gaze fell back to the book; visions of a world that would never return. She wasn’t aware her feet were carrying her to the edge of the parking lot and the ocean beyond until she bumped into one of the massive boulders along the fringe of the pebbly beach below. She’d climbed on them as Mom and Dad watched, peering down into the cracks and crevices where black ropes of dry seaweed lay dusted with sand.
Beth had climbed the rocks. Not her. And Beth was gone.
The rumble of a car drew her attention toward the access road where the surviving buildings still obscured enough of the approach for her to find a hiding spot. Her gaze sharpened on the road as it shrank toward the village.
No. She was done hiding. Let them come.
She swiveled back to face the ocean, readying herself to rejoin her parents, but as her gaze ran along the pebbled beach below, she felt that fissure in her mind crack like the shell of a nut. There was no smell of rotten onions here, but that hadn’t stopped the ocean from giving up its dead on the beach. A massive humpback whale rested on its back, fins out on either side of its white belly as if appealing for help. The indifferent waters of the Atlantic washed its tale with every crashing wave. Scattered around it were the corpses of fish, seals, and seagulls.
The building hum of the car was lost on the wind. Her mouth dropped open and her heart was seized in the icy grip of a ghost named Andersen.
This is a dead world. Point your finger at the government, or the rich, or aliens, it doesn’t matter. Anyone left who might have the answers is in a bunker somewhere. There’s no going back, no changing things. You either choose to live, let the world make of you what it wants, or take the other way out.
She said nothing, her gaze refusing to leave the beach even as the sound of the car cruising up into the parking lot registered somewhere far off in her mind. It was impossible for her to look away from the dead that had been deposited here by the Atlantic. Every animal was relatively fresh. Not one of them was picked over by the winged seaside scavengers known for boldly snatching food out of vacationers hands and flying off without a second thought. They were either dead, too, or leaving them alone for a reason. If that was the case, the animals got something humanity didn’t.
Perhaps the human race deserved this.
The thud of a car door closing reached her ears, followed by the creak of another being pushed open. Elizabeth’s free hand lifted to the strap of Dad’s rifle, but aside from that she didn’t move. Her gaze remained on the graveyard below.
“Little girl?” a meek, hesitant female voice cut through the thunder of breaking waves and the foaming of surf. When some time passed without an answer, the woman spoke again, this time closer. “Little girl, are you okay?”
The book fell from her hand as she slowly rotated. It clattered on the rocks before slipping between them. Gone. As the faces of the new arrivals took form before her, a man and a woman in ragged clothing, each with their filthy faces drawn in the most altruistic expressions of concern she’d seen since before Christmas. And for a moment she thought she might have found good people, perhaps new traveling partners to journey with her out of this corpse of a town.
Then she thought of the cannibals and the hate speech on the side of the Playhouse and the line of dead marching single file behind her. No. There was no happy ending here. This world wasn’t a place for good people, and the haggard couple before her, clearly unarmed, wouldn’t keep her safe.
“Where’s your mom?” the woman asked, stepping carefully toward her with her hands held out invitingly.
“Or your dad?” The man came along behind the woman.
Elizabeth felt her mouth crack open, understanding that she had something to say, but unsure what that was. And then came her little trick, the one where the rifle was in her hands before she even knew what she was doing. She did have something to say, but she didn’t need words to do it.
The man and woman immediately cringed back, holding up their hands in a feeble appeal for mercy as she leveled the rifle at them. It needed a name. She’d said she’d name it when she reached Ogunquit, and as her attention fell briefly on the starting point of the Marginal Way, she smiled to herself and turned back to the couple, framing them up in Marge’s iron sights.
“Please, we were just trying to help!” The woman cried, falling back against the hood of the car.
Help. Another Old World relic with no meaning now.
She lowered the rifle, watching as both of them let out a long, dramatic sigh of relief.
“My god, you must have been through so—"
The man’s words were silenced by the roar of the rifle as Elizabeth rained hell down upon them, firing from the hip with the control of an expert marksman. The hands and faces of the man and woman disintegrated, their bodies collapsing together in a heap on the ground as bullets continued to tear shreds of clothing and flesh from their bodies. Elizabeth didn’t realize she was screaming until the rifle offered a sputter of clicks, signaling the magazine was empty. Her shrill voice pieced the silence of New World Ogunquit, echoing off the rocks and coming back upon her like the wail of a banshee. As it slowly lost its power and the sound of her turmoil no longer resonated amongst the burned buildings, she lowered the rifle and took in her deeds.
They were innocent. They were trying to help you, Dad gasped.
Andersen was less taken aback: You did them a favor. There’s nothing left worth living for.
Somehow she agreed with both of them, but wasn’t permitted enough time to indulge her internal conflicts as a sound that was simultaneously foreign and familiar came muffled through the cracked passenger door of the Honda. Elizabeth’s gaze fell to the rifle. No more ammo. So what was she going to do about this?
She lowered the rifle to the ground and stepped reluctantly toward the sound, the cry of a small creature. What waited in the backseat was either hungry or in need of a new diaper, or both. Through the gray glare reflecting off the window, a baby no older than a year old gazed about the cabin, her eyes not settling on anything in particular until they found Elizabeth in the window. The baby’s face contorted beneath a healthy crop of black hair held in place with a pink headband. It let out an impatient chirp before reaching toward a black backpack beside the pink car seat, straining as if she might grab it, then settling back with her eyes on Elizabeth.
How cruel fate was, still teaching her lessons after all she’d been through. Ahead of her lay an uncertain future where she hadn’t yet committed to either living out the rest of her life or ending it all. If she chose to move forward in the New World, it would be with the understanding that the old codes of morality were shredded, and a life on the road in a world perpetually perched on the Eve of Christmas and teeming with the worst remnants of humanity would be one of future costs.
And as she’d already established, New World commerce dealt in lead. And fire.
She’s your responsibility now, Dad said sternly. Don’t you dare leave her behind.
Spare her the future she’d have and just kill her. Andersen’s voice held a clinical detachment, leaving Elizabeth assured that his advice wasn’t coming out of spite. But how would she do it? She would need more ammunition for the rifle, but that wasn’t coming from anywhere nearby.
Give her the water, Andersen advised, sending a ripple of dark emotion through her as she considered it.
Elizabeth’s chest tightened and her breathing grew shallow. Inside the car the baby began pawing at the straps restraining her, though this only lasted for a moment before she gave up, frustrated, and turned to Elizabeth. She threw her arms up comically and said, “Oh!” Her little voice, though muffled, inexplicably struck Elizabeth as the very exemplification of innocence… an innocence that would be stripped from her in this world one way or another.
Take her, Dad urged.
Give her the water, Andersen countered.
Elizabeth drew a deep breath and opened the door.