HALLOWEEN, 1986, North Shore, Oahu, Hawaii.
“Courtney makes the sun come up,” Single Fin told her, speaking loudly to be heard above the party.
“Is that so?” she asked, widening her eyes.
Courtney stood before her, his hair still wet from a post-sesh shower, his tan skin still glowing from the sun, and watched as her eyes traveled over his torn T-shirt, board shorts, and bare feet. While her gaze was lowered, he looked at her hair — full with kinky curls and deep brown, almost black, framing her gentle face and brushing along the curves of her bare shoulders.
“He’s out there every morning at Sunset. Dawn patrol.”
“Morning at Sunset?” she asked, arching an eyebrow at Courtney.
“Sunset Beach,” Single Fin tried to clarify, his parting words as faithful wingman, then he stepped backward, fading into the costumed crowd.
“And you are?” Courtney asked.
“Eurydice,” she told him. She wore a blue bikini — almost nothing — and her skin was smooth, the color of peanut butter.
“Is that a Brazilian name?”
“My father is from Greece. My mother is Brazilian,” she said.
“And you really are from Ipanema? Like the song?”
“Yes, that’s where I’m from.”
“The surfing is good?”
“It’s great. I usually bodysurf with my niece. She’s fourteen. She’s like the little sister I never had. She would love this party — she loves dress up. You’re not in costume?”
“No, that’s not really my thing. Neither are you.”
“I didn’t really have anything. And I only decided to come this afternoon. Somebody invited me on the beach.”
“Yes, but I haven’t seen him yet.”
“So you don’t know Drew?”
She shook her head.
The party, celebrating All Hallow’s Eve and kicking off the winter surf season, was being held at the sprawling, multilevel beach house of Drew Beck. After beating the likes of Mark Occhilupo and Derek and Michael Ho to win the Triple Crown the previous winter, Beck was considered North Shore royalty and his newly built house reflected his reputedly inflated ego. The construction had provided work for a lot of local carpenter/surfers, so in that sense he had created some good will. But in the short time since Courtney had arrived on Oahu, it had become clear to him that Drew was far from well liked, despite the crowd tonight. Even the always amiable Single Fin made reference to the rumor that Drew had made a deal with the devil for his surfing success.
Tonight Drew’s face was painted in jungle green camouflage that matched his board shorts. He was easy to spot across the crowded room, holding court and holding in bong hits. He was surrounded by an entourage of other pro surfers, the chosen acolytes and wanna-bes, and a coterie of nearly naked and thoroughly tan young ladies. Speaking into his ear at the moment was a figure wearing a full-body skeleton suit — white bones on a black background — and a disturbingly grotesque Ronald Reagan mask. Drew turned in their direction and coughed out his hit, sending the girls around him into a fit of giggles.
From hidden speakers, Prince was singing, “Women not girls rule my world, yeah, they rule my world.”
Courtney’s attention returned to the young woman in the blue bikini in front of him.
“I suspect you’re better off — “
“Court-knee!” A blond approached them. She wore a pink two-piece, hot pink high heels, and a long beak over her nose held on by strings wrapped around her ears. He recognized her from the beach.
“Hey, you are — “
“I’m a pink flamingo, duh.”
Now he remembered that she liked to say that word, which he found off-putting. He turned back to Eurydice, but she was moving away, giving him a little hand wave and a smile.
He accepted that for the moment he had to let her go and turned back to the blond. “The beak is the giveaway.”
“It’s a bitch to drink around. I have to keep lifting it up.”
“I saw a plate of shrimp in the kitchen you might be interested in.”
She missed the joke. “No, thanks, I’ve got a wicked shellfish allergy. My throat totally closes up. I’ll stick to booze.” She lifted her drink.
“No harm there.” He looked around, trying to spot Eurydice. “Well, I might actually grab some shrimp myself.” Best way to shake her.
“Put another shrimp on the Barbie.” It was one of the Aussie boys, dressed as a caricature of himself, in a floppy hat with corks dangling from the brim swaying back and forth.
“Not this Barbie,” Courtney aimed a thumb at the pink flamingo, “she’s allergic.”
“Are you allergic to beer?” The Australian surfer boy held out a mug.
His matchmaking complete, Courtney moved on, wishing them a brood of blond children. He searched for Eurydice — her face, her hair, her blue bikini. He did pass through the kitchen and caught a glimpse of the blue top through elbows and shoulders in the next room. Edging his way sideways past the kitchen crowd indulging their munchies, he made his way toward her. Bananarama was singing, “She’s got it, yeah baby, she’s got it…” He was practically on top of her before he realized he had the wrong girl.
COURTNEY’S EYES moved from her face, over her breasts cupped in her blue top, down her flat stomach to what he first thought was some kind of costume belt. But it moved, it slithered, wrapped around her narrow waist above her bikini bottom and curvy hips. As if mocking Courtney’s shock, the snake stuck out its ribbon of a tongue and hissed.
“You like snakes?” she asked in a husky accented voice. She smiled and raised a bottle of tequila to her lips.
Okay, Courtney thought, resisting the urge to step back, this one’s hardcore. Downing straight tequila with a snake wrapped around her belly.
“Is that your snake?” he asked her.
“He is my baby,” she said, stroking the snake’s skin. She lowered the bottle and let the snake’s tongue circle the rim.
A snake on tequila, Courtney thought. Bad combo.
The crowd around the snake charmer was growing. A local dressed as King Kamehameha with full gold headdress stepped in and said, “Ho, shit, sistah! How’d you get dat snake through customs?”
“He is a good boy. He sleep the whole flight from Rio, under my sweater. Right here.” And she ran her fingers over her smooth bare pelvis in a way that made Courtney swallow hard.
The mystery man in the skeleton suit suddenly appeared behind her.
“I like your snake,” he said, his voice muffled and distorted behind the Reagan mask.
She turned to the skeleton man, and Courtney saw his moment to remove himself. Single Fin could be seen over the heads of the crowd, out on the deck, waving to him and calling, “All hands on deck!”
There was an opening around a bald surfer who was having his body spray-painted silver. As the painter paused to shake the can, Courtney ducked through the fumes toward fresh air.
He was hit by the pungent scent of pot before he stepped outside. Everyone was getting high on the deck.
“Hook up yet?” Single Fin inquired, passing a joint. Clearly, he had not. His parents were originally from Finland, and despite dedicated pursuit of countless beach girls, he remained perpetually unattached. Add to that his board preference, and voilà — Single Fin.
“Have you met the snake smuggler?”
“That Brazilian chick Ava? Oh yeah.” Single Fin nodded. “Sexy voice.”
“There are no snakes allowed in Hawaii?”
“Yeah, no brah. Pet snakes — totally illegal.”
“Apparently she had him wrapped around her the entire flight.”
“Well, you know, you don’t want to piss off the tourists by putting everyone through a snake search. People stash them in carry-on bags, purses. You can even mail yourself a snake. They’re not allowed to open the mail, even if you wrote: SNAKES INSIDE — HANDLE WITH CARE.”
“Think she’ll get busted?”
“Not by a guy.”
“I wonder if she takes that snake to bed with her.”
“Something to consider…” And Single Fin gazed off at the ocean in contemplation.
“She’s rubbing elbows with Death right now. Or Ronald Reagan. Not sure what he’s going by.”
“Far out,” Single Fin said. “Just say no.”
“Good advice,” Courtney said, taking a hit and passing back the joint, scanning the crowd inside for Eurydice.
“Lono is good, man. There is a Brazilian honey for every man at this party. Such bounty. Harvest moon. We are bringing in the Brazilians. Fresh crop. They are very ripe, brah.”
“And some are nuts.”
“Sometimes,” Single Fin pronounced with an air of profundity as he exhaled smoke, “you feel like a nut…”
Courtney spotted Eurydice on the sand below, walking down the beach, headed for the water.
“Laters,” he told Single Fin, vaulting over the deck rail and landing hard but on his feet on the sand.
EURYDICE WALKED ahead of him toward the water’s edge, arms crossed over her chest and hands gripping her biceps. As he jogged closer, she whirled around and spread her hands, as if she’d just drawn a can of pepper spray out of her bikini bottom.
Courtney jogged to a halt and held up his palms. Her shoulders sank when she saw it was him.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean to freak you out,” he said.
She stood there and ran her hands over her upper arms again. It was cool by the ocean, but not cold.
“Can you really make the sun come up?”
“What?” he asked, stepping through the soft sand to her.
“Can you make the night end? Can you take away the darkness?” She looked down the beach.
“Is something wrong?” He stepped right up to her, wanting to rub those shoulders for her.
“People come here to escape.” He followed her gaze back to the beach house and the revelers on deck. “But it’s an illusion. We can’t escape.” She looked at him.”The beach seemed safe in the daylight. But now I wonder if I should have spoken to him…”
“Is some guy hassling you?” He found himself standing straighter, his biceps flexing. His ears tuned in to a dog’s muted barking, and looking at the shorebreak he imagined a pack of wild dogs running out of the surf, jaws snapping.
“Can you get me out of here?” she asked.
He’d always wondered what he’d do if he saw somebody drowning while he was surfing, if he’d be the one to get to them in time. This girl was truly spooked, though he didn’t know why. “We can leave now.”
“I have to get my things. Inside. You’ll stay with me?”
“Right by your side.” He opened an arm and she moved in close to him. She tipped up on her toes and lightly touched his cheek with her lips.
AS THEY stepped inside, a bald non-silver surfer lay on the couch with his head on the armrest. Courtney felt Eurydice slip from his side, but he was caught for a moment by the scene. Perched on the back of the couch sat Reagan, a lit red candle in his hand. He dripped the hot liquid wax onto the surfer’s upper forehead. The kid didn’t flinch, so Courtney assumed he was drunk or stoned. A pattern began to emerge on his cranium until Courtney recognized the red stain as belonging to Reagan’s comrade Gorbachev. Of course this was Gorbachev in only board shorts and puka shell necklace, but Courtney could appreciate the poetry of that. After all, Reagan was all bones.
He tried to see through the mask’s eyeholes to gauge Reagan’s expression. He seemed very focused. Who was he? Very committed to character. The eyes were too deep in.
Courtney, having guessed the punch line of the wax tattoo, turned to escort Eurydice out of there, when Reagan looked up abruptly from his work and seemed to stare in Courtney’s direction. It was impossible to tell what he was looking at, due to the rubber mask, but Courtney glanced over his shoulder, following some kind of instinct. Eurydice was all the way over in a doorway, looking wide-eyed and stricken, then she ducked out of sight. When he turned back, Gorbachev lay peacefully on the couch surrounded by stoned admirers, but Reagan was gone. Courtney sprang for the doorway.
The hallway was long with a series of closed doors and dense with costumed revelers. At the end was the base of a spiral staircase and on the bottom step sat a young Hawaiian man wearing only orange trunks and a facemask and snorkel. As Courtney ran to him, he could see the man was soaking wet, leaving a damp puddle on the carpet that was beginning to take the shape of . . . Gorbachev’s birthmark?
Courtney shook his head. Too much pot. Focus!
“What’s up there?” he asked.
The snorkeler pointed up.
“Yes, up there — what’s up there?”
“Stars,” the snorkeler said, removing his mouthpiece. “Water and stars.”
Courtney leaned over the seated snorkeler and twisted his neck to look up. Indeed, above him loomed an inky night sky speckled with stars. The staircase led to some kind of roof deck. Awkwardly climbing over the snorkeler’s head and shoulders, Courtney ascended the staircase.
He emerged onto a roof deck surrounded by the tops of palm trees and affording a dramatic view of the ocean. Tiki torches lit the four corners, giving the scene on the deck an eerie glow. To his left a hot tub bubbled and inside sat three blow-up dolls the size of petite women — blond, brunette, and redhead — each with leis around their necks, vacant Kewpie doll eyes, and obscene open red mouths. To his right, sitting on what looked like a treasure chest, was a grizzled man dressed as Long John Silver, complete with live parrot perched on his shoulder and what appeared to be a genuine peg leg.
Silver gestured with a bottle of Captain Morgan’s rum to the hot tub and told Courtney, “Don’t bother with those three, Jim, my lad. I’ve been trying to talk to them all night. Not a word.” Silver leaned forward conspiratorially. “Inflated egos.”
“Blow me!” the parrot squawked suddenly.
Courtney briefly considered asking the pirate if he’d seen a woman — a real woman — in a blue bikini, but figured it was pointless. He looked at the trunk and had a fleeting paranoid thought: Could a person fit in there?
He turned back to the stairs and heard raised voices below.
“Courtney, you up there?” Single Fin.
“What’s going on?”
“That chick you were talking to? She just got bit by a snake.”
“What?” Courtney spun down the stairs.
“She got bit, brah. What’s her name?”
“That’s the one.”
“Bitten by a snake? You mean the one Ava had wrapped around her waist? It’s poisonous? That’s crazy.”
“Where is she?” Courtney started off down the hallway, Single Fin at his heels.
“She’s off looking for the snake. It went into the bushes — “
“Not Ava — Eurydice. Did they take her to a doctor?”
“I saw them taking her downstairs, that Reagan dude and Drew. I think Drew said he could suck the poison out.”
Courtney ran for the stairs. He bounded down but stopped short, pulling his bare feet back as a Doberman gnashed his sharp teeth and lunged for him, barking wildly. There was a dog gate at the bottom of the stairs, which the animal could have easily jumped, but he stayed behind it, growling and barking fiercely, paws raking at the top of the gate, flashing those razor-sharp teeth as saliva dripped on the carpeted bottom step.
“That’s Cerberus,” Single Fin said, coming up behind Courtney. “Drew’s dog. Here, take these.” He put some squishy pink rectangles in Courtney’s hand.
“Spam. Dog’s crazy for it. Toss some across the room and run for it.”
“Where the fuck are they? No one’s here. Just the dog.”
“There’s a back door down here. They must have taken her out — maybe on the beach.”
“Man — “
“Throw the food and run for the door.”
Courtney looked at the meat in his hand then at the wild-eyed dog.
“You coming?” he asked Single Fin.
“No way, man. You’re on your own. I hate dogs.”
Courtney twisted his mouth in annoyance, then tossed the Spam across the room, aiming for the couch on the far wall with the leopard print cover on it. Cerberus swung his head as the meat sailed over his ears and leaped toward the couch.
Courtney vaulted the gate and ran for the door, praying he wouldn’t have to struggle with a lock. Cerberus had his head between the cushions, his snout buried in the gap as he gobbled up the Spam. The door was unlocked and Courtney pushed hard, swinging it behind him once he was out, his back against the wood. He felt the thump as Cerberus flung himself against the closed door, barking furiously. There was a latch on the outside, and Courtney bolted it.
UNDER THE starry night sky, he took a moment to get his bearings. An onshore breeze drifted over him, smelling of salt. The surf boomed nearby. The dog’s barking was muted. Even the party’s music sounded distant. Out here in the darkness it felt like a different world.
Between his toes the sand was soft and chilled. Had they really taken her out on the beach? They were going to kill her if they didn’t get her medical help fast. Had they walked around the house to a car? He spotted footprints — several, one set deeper, as if someone might be carrying her. They led down the beach. Courtney started running.
Nobody was on the sand, but the footprints were clear. Surf crashed ferociously to his right. On his left the homes were mostly dark, an isolated yellow square floating here and there in the night shadows. The palm trees were tall, narrow silhouettes. He passed one darkened beach house, its A frame traced by a colorful line of Christmas lights, an arrow pointing to the heavens. He felt like the North Shore was in hiding, that he was the only one out, willing to confront what waited for him at the end of the trail of footprints.
Suddenly his feet were wet and he was splashing through some kind of tidal stream. The cold water startled him, and he looked back toward the waves, trying to remember if the tide was coming in or going out.
On the other side of the stream the trail of footprints began to curve and his eyes followed its direction to a skeleton of a building, still under construction, exposed and open to the sky, its hollow center illuminated by torchlight. He again broke into a run.
The frame rose up before him and shadows danced in the firelight. Reagan was there, the curves and hollows of his face mask alive with flickering light, skeleton costume snug as a wetsuit over his lean body. His arms were spread over her. She lay stretched out in her blue bikini on a longboard, resting on two sawhorses, a veil covering her face. She didn’t move. Drew was the torchbearer. His face was still covered in green and black camouflage paint but now his eyes possessed a faraway glaze. There was another man Courtney didn’t recognize, but he was big and wore only black shorts. Drew’s torch was reflected in his dark shades.
“What the hell are you doing?”
Shades stopped him before he got to her, got Courtney’s arms pinned behind him and held him tight as he struggled.
“You’re too late,” Reagan told him in his muffled voice.
“The hell I am. Let me go. I’m taking her back.”
“Dude…” Drew began.
“She’s not yours to take,” Reagan said.
“She’s not yours either. Let me go. I’m getting her to a doctor.”
Reagan kept his fingers on her bare shoulders, looming over her.
“If you take her, you must not remove the veil. Look at her face, and she will be lost to you.”
“Let me go!” Shades eased up on him long enough to allow him to snake his arms free. He rushed to her side and slid his arms beneath her. Lifting her off the surfboard, he glared at Reagan. His head was full of threats, retribution, but he bit them back — he needed to get her out of here fast.
“Via con Díos,” Reagan said. He spread his arms, and as if on cue Drew dropped the torch. The sand snuffed it out instantly, and the skeleton house was enveloped in darkness.
Courtney thought they might come after him in the dark, so he hurried down the beach, her arms and legs dangling limply as he held her. She was still warm, for which he felt great relief. He couldn’t see if the veil moved with her breath or not. He worried it might inhibit her breathing.
A veil — what the fuck? What had they been up to? Rape? Satanic ritual? No time to think about it.
He splashed back across the stream and tried to lift her higher as he lowered his head to get closer to her face. He needed to feel her breath. Tequila. He smelled tequila through the veil.
With his arms full, he bent his head further, feeling the strain in his neck and shoulders, and took the soft fabric of the veil in his teeth to lift it back.
When he saw her face, he dropped to his knees and she tumbled onto the sand.
“No!” Courtney cried. The surf thundered.
“My snake,” she slurred, coming to from the fall, in her deep Brazilian baritone.
Courtney bolted back for the party, but he had no clue where he was going or what to do. He ran past the side door of Drew’s house, heard Cerberus still barking, and headed for the street.
Reagan was pulling out in a red convertible, longboard sticking out of the back seat like a gravestone. Eurydice sat limp in the shotgun seat, eyes closed, arms folded and crossed over her bikini top.
“Reagan!” Courtney yelled.
A skeletal arm rose up and Reagan flipped him off as the car peeled away.
Courtney ran after him — like a dog chasing tires — till panting, bare feet torn up by pavement, he had to stop. The taillights vanished into the night. The Kam Highway was black and empty.
Courtney stumbled off the road and collapsed on the beach. An empty red lifeguard station loomed over him. He lay on the sand for a long time, breathing, the night sky vast and indifferent — an impenetrable dome above him. Then rung by rung he climbed the ladder and hauled himself through a window into the station. It smelled of Coppertone. He curled on the sandy floor and held his bloody feet.
When the sun came up, someone would happen upon him and know, just by looking at him…
He was no lifeguard.
— Jeff Freiert‘s stories have been published in StoryQuarterly, Best New Writing 2008, and Joyland, as well as previously in The American (in Italia). His short fiction has been awarded the Eric Hoffer Prize for Prose and has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. “Girl from Ipanema” is part of a collection called “Walking on Water.”