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Everything That Follows

It didn’t seem dangerous until the rain started. Not really. Until then, the evening still felt largely unwritten and within their control. But as the fog changed to mist and then to hard wet rain that soaked their boozy skin, the night started to get away from them. Doors were closing, options vanishing. And by the time Kat was being pulled by Kyle unwillingly toward the edge of the boat, the approaching danger was inescapable.

Kat blinked the water out of her eyelashes. When her vision cleared, Kyle’s face was just inches from her own. Someone watching from behind might have mistaken them as a couple in an intimate embrace, that suspension of breath before a first kiss. But that person would have been wrong. Their closeness was not voluntary.

Kat twisted her torso around and tried to get a clearer view of where behind her Hunter was seated, but Kyle’s fingers dug harder into her waist. He was leaning back against the wall of the whaler’s stern, pulling her weight toward him. All she could see beyond his body was the black, churning ocean.

Three of them were on the boat—Kat, Kyle and Hunter—so maybe the encounter didn’t really look romantic. Three people made it something else. But what, Kat couldn’t pinpoint. She twisted around again, trying to catch Hunter’s attention, but it was useless. Hunter had passed out somewhere around the last finger of whiskey and hadn’t budged since. Now he was slumped along the white leather bench at the bow, his face pressed into the smooth cushions that formed a half-moon. He didn’t flinch as the rain pelted his tanned skin.

Kat turned back to Kyle. His face was too close, distorted. The sharp angles of his jaw, his prominent nose and dark eyes. He looked surprisingly hideous at such proximity. The night wasn’t supposed to end this way. Nothing they planned pointed to this. It was supposed to be a celebration. And yet, there they were, alone on the Atlantic in the driving rain.

Kyle shouldn’t have been there, either. That, it seemed now, was where they’d taken a wrong turn. If anyone were to be out on that fishing boat late at night, it should have been Kat and her boyfriend, Sean, and their friend Hunter. It was Hunter’s boat. They were supposed to be celebrating her biggest sale ever: a large, blown-glass sculpture she called The Selkie was the size of a toddler and twice as heavy, and its sale would pay for a year’s worth of rent. Glassblowers don’t make a lot of sales like that—not even on Martha’s Vineyard—and so a night of overindulgence might have been expected. But the party at the bar went on too long, and the after-party shouldn’t have happened at all. With or without Kyle, the boat had been a bad idea.

Kyle’s shoulders swayed with a gust of wet wind. He looked around nervously at the choppy waters and used one hand to steady himself on the edge of the boat before returning it to Kat’s waist. Was that hesitation she saw? A second thought about where he was taking this? In his inebriation, Kyle seemed to be oscillating between asking permission and not asking. He was a beggar and a predator both at once. But his grip on her body didn’t relent for long. Kat still felt trapped.

“Kyle, let’s drive back in. It’s starting to really come down.”

“We will, we will,” he said. “In a few minutes.”

Even if she broke away from him, where would she go?

Kat was usually good at this—recognizing untrustworthy characters and threatening scenarios. It was a skill learned of necessity, unfortunately for her. But the whiskey had dulled her powers. And Kyle had seemed so desperate to impress, too passive to be a threat. She didn’t see this move coming. She’d overlooked the signs, and at some point along the way, the evening simply got away from her.

It all started with the sculpture; she was sure of that. That was when her euphoria set in, which was roughly the same time that her good judgment left her.

“That’s a heavy fucking mermaid,” Hunter had said.

Six hours before, Kat, Sean and Hunter had delivered the eighty-pound glass artwork—her big sale—to the pristine summer home of a local art collector. It took all three of them to lift it from the dolly.

“It’s not a mermaid,” she corrected him. “It’s a selkie.”

Hunter rubbed his lower back. “I don’t know what that is.”

“It’s basically a mermaid,” Sean said from the doorway of the elegant rich person would pay ten thousand dollars for it. People wanted fancy bowls and paperweights shaped like whales, he’d said. That’s what sells. But he was wrong. He shouldn’t have doubted Kat because she had created something extraordinary, and now a rich person was buying it, and for much more than that.

Kat called it The Selkie because, at the right angle, you could see the curve of female hips, shoulders and breasts. The bottom half looked more seal than human. From a different view, it was a smooth abstraction, with ribbons of grayblue waves running through it. Haunting from every angle, it was technically interesting, but not the sort of thing most people would want to look at every day.

“C’mon, we have to get this dolly back to Kyle at the bar,” Kat said. She had been eager to get out of the art collector’s house too, and on to the celebration with their friends.

It wasn’t always the case, but on some occasions, Kat found it strange to be alone with these two men, one of whom was her boyfriend. They’d been hanging out so much lately that it was beginning to feel like she was dating both of them… or like Hunter was their adopted thirtysomething child… or she was theirs. Most of the time she could ignore the odd feeling, but on that day, Kat wanted it to end.

They left the collector’s house just as the sun was going down; Kat remembered the station of the sun vividly. As they stepped out into the overcast October evening, she felt a lightness that went beyond the lost weight of her artwork. She was high on the possibility that this sale could portend greater opportunities down the road: richer clients, bigger price tags, more ambitious works. She was also relieved by the sudden influx of cash into her checking account. It was a near guarantee that she could make it through another winter on the Vineyard without much trouble. The economics of her life were even more precarious than usual.

It wasn’t just Kat. Sean and Hunter and all the locals were giddy to finally have their island back. It used to be that Labor Day meant the official end of the tourists and the start of the off-season, but these days, people just kept coming through September. The air stayed warmer and the beaches stayed busy. “Shoulder seasons,” that’s what they called fall and spring now, which just meant the restaurants stayed open for another six weeks. It’s good for the year-rounders’ incomes, but it also made Columbus Day feel like a miracle when it finally hit and most of the tourists left for good.

No one harbored hard feelings for the tourists; that’s an important point on the Vineyard. No one here held a grudge for the summer dinks. It’s a point of understanding among all the natives and loners, the fishermen, the environmentalists, the washashores and the weirdos who stayed all year that the economy relied on everyone’s contribution. So thank God for the people who came, and spent, and left. Everyone’s survival depended on it.

And on that night, just hours into the post–Columbus Day calm, the tourists were finally gone. The ferries were back to their limited schedules and many of the establishments had locked their doors for good.

“It’s like the zombie apocalypse around here,” Hunter had said as they walked. They were headed for a local bar called The Undertow.

An eeriness had descended on the suddenly empty streets, growing eerier as dusk fell, like an abandoned carnival in a horror movie. But most of the locals preferred it that way. They gladly kept the carnival running all summer, then relished the quiet of its abandonment. Anyhow, it wasn’t entirely dead. A handful of restaurants and shops with loyal followings kept humming through the winter, including Kat’s glass shop. What was left open was just enough for them. You could almost feel the electrical current of the island turn down as the last overbooked ferry cast off toward the mainland. The island, and its year-round residents, were shifting to their lower gear.

Sean had been walking in front with the dolly. Kat remembered the sound of it clanking along cobblestone. The narrow, winding side street opened up to the slightly wider Main Street, with its tiny ice cream shop and pricey boutiques. It was life in miniature, a movie set. Nothing in the village of Addison was convenient and nothing you needed was ever available—unless what you needed was fudge, a Black Dog sweatshirt or seashell art. Places like these—Addison, Edgartown, Tisbury and the like—weren’t designed for real people anymore. They were performances of island life for outsiders, approximations of the real thing. Addison was on the southeast shore, just a short drive from the Edgartown ferry stop, and it was as picturesque as it was inconvenient.

“Gang’s all here,” Sean said when they got to The Undertow. They could see heads laughing through the windows on the second floor.

Kat didn’t particularly like this bar, but there weren’t many options in off-season. The first floor was a working fish market, so the whole place smelled of old oyster water. But it had great ocean views in three directions. And, because of the stink, it never got overwhelmingly touristy. All the servers and cooks from the other restaurants liked to come here after their shifts ended, so things didn’t usually pick up there until late. Wednesday nights, it was an unofficial gay bar. Thursdays were open mic. It was one of the few places in Addison that felt like it belonged to the locals. All of which is why it was Sean’s favorite bar.

 Sean had grown up on Martha’s Vineyard and detested anything designed to attract moneyed outsiders. He stayed unflinchingly loyal to all that was local and old. It was like a religion to Sean. His bars, his friends, his clothes, his oldman-on-the-sea beard, even his longtime girlfriend, Kat. He stuck with things that he valued as a matter of principle. Sean was a reliable rock and everyone fucking loved him.

It is entirely possible that on that night, Kat, without fully realizing it, was feeling a little suffocated by Sean’s unofficial role as the mayor of the Addison year-rounders. Maybe she didn’t realize it at the time, but she was pushing up against something. Maybe a part of her yearned to behave badly.

When they got inside The Undertow, Hunter and Sean joined the crowd at the center of the room. Kat went straight to her best friend, Erika, who was working on a whiskey sour at the bar.

“Where you been?” Erika said, leaning in for a cheek kiss. Too many windows were open in the bar, and Erika’s skinny tattooed arms prickled with goose bumps.

“The Selkie! We just dropped it off.”

“Good for you and good riddance. It can haunt someone else now.” Erika maintained the possibility that every supernatural theory was a little bit true. She was particularly literate in Celtic traditions and felt sure from the start that invoking a sea spirit was terrible juju. Just asking for bad luck, she’d said, and there’s no point in doing that.

“I think I’m going to miss her, actually.” Kat put an arm around Erika and ordered a pilsner.

Erika, who worked at a restaurant, told a spirited story about the fight she’d had earlier that day with her boss, neither the first nor the last story of its kind. Kat listened and laughed while the sun finally went down outside and the boathouse lights cast a twinkly effect across the barroom.

“What’s going on over there?” Kat nodded toward Hunter and a woman she’d never seen. The woman looked miffed as she spoke to him. Hunter had his hands in his pockets and his head hanging sheepishly.

“Exactly what you think,” Erika said. “So I see Hunter’s drinking again?”

“A little, I guess. I don’t know.” Kat watched him shift from one foot to another in discomfort. “He seems okay.”

Hunter wasn’t supposed to be drinking. He was just four months out of rehab and on strict instruction to lay low and stay sober, at least until his father got reelected. He was the only son of US Senator Briggs, of the Briggs family of Massachusetts. While not a committed drunk, Hunter was a consistent fuckup as only a rich, ignored and bored scion of America’s ruling class could be. His latest infraction was a drunken joyride along some protected habitat farther up-island, which got him arrested and led to a very public apology and half-true confession of alcoholism, at the advice of his father’s campaign manager. (Kat thought sex addiction would have been a more fitting label.) So no, Hunter shouldn’t have been drinking that night. But he was fun and bad and generous with his affection. No one ever stood in his way.

Maybe if Hunter hadn’t been drinking, they wouldn’t have taken his boat out. That seemed to Kat, in hindsight, like another inflection point of the evening.

“A toast,” Sean yelled from the other end of the bar as beer sloshed over his raised hand. “In congratulations to the talented Kat for sending her giant mermaid out into the world.”

“It’s a selkie!” Erika yelled. The group quieted, their drinks raised. Sean smiled wide. “And cheers to the good visitors of our fair island, for finally getting the fuck out.”

“Hear, hear!”

Sean looked drunk already, though it was always hard to tell. He got rosy and cheerful on the first sip. Sean could toast the sun setting and rising again each day. And it was always he who made the toasts because there was an unspoken understanding among everyone that this was Sean’s bar, Sean’s world. He assumed a heartfelt responsibility for the people in his corner of the island that no one could ever match or dared try.

“Summer’s over, go home,” finished Kyle, the bartender. He was new to The Undertow, just a month or so into this job. Kat had only seen him a few times before that night.

“Summer’s over, go home!” repeated the group. It was a rallying cry for the locals, but there was no malice behind it. On that night, it felt jubilant.

Sean took a seat at a sticky table in the center of the room and a dozen other revelers joined him.

Kat ordered three plates of fries and another round of pints from Kyle before sitting down.

They were ticking through everyone’s plans for the coming months; that was the last thing Kat remembered really clearly.

Erika, who was normally a chef at a high-end farm-totable restaurant, was moving to a fried fish joint in Oak Bluffs for the winter. Erika’s friend Colleen was going to work at a gift shop on Chappy, which she was bereft about because Chappaquiddick may as well have been a different continent in the dead of winter.

Sean would be at the boatyard, of course, and also doing one-off refurbishing projects on some of the yachts in storage.

Sean’s buddies Jeff and Rakim were going back to stay with their families in Quincy while they looked for work.

Hunter was reportedly perfectly happy with the landscaping job he’d picked up since rehab, which meant mowing grass in the summer and shoveling snow in the winter. It seemed a waste of all that expensive schooling to Kat, but Hunter said the physical work helped to keep him “on track.”

Kat would be at the glass studio, cranking out the stuff that sells well in winter—holiday ornaments, cocktail glasses, champagne flutes—and minding the shop for whatever light traffic might wander in.

This was the rhythm of everyone’s life on the island, driven by two tides, both beyond their control: the ocean tide and the tide of tourists. The latter rose like a tsunami in late May, multiplying the population sixfold and changing everything for four crowded, messy and occasionally dehumanizing months of the year. It assigned everyone to the category of buyer or seller, taker or giver. You were either there to play and spend, or you were there to serve—waitress, line cook, cashier, dockhand, ferry attendee, bar back, weed dealer or landscaper. And if you were any of those things, you were probably two or three of them because everyone had at least one side hustle. That’s how you survived the year. And when that tide of consumers finally receded, what was left was the heartier life. It’s a gnarlier creature that stayed on all year, with more grooves to show for the shifting salt and sand. The grooves were where the stories lived.

Everything That Follows
by by Meg Little Reilly