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Noah stared at the sky and the occasional somber raindrops that jumped up the windshield. He unconsciously caught his bottom lip in his mouth while staring at the churning grey clouds, dazzled by their endless sweep. His own flesh tasted salty in his mouth and the observation made him smile. Noah delighted in the New England weather and the film of residue the ocean had left on his skin. He was there for the native experience, salt and rain and all.
The weather stained marinas to the right reached for the sea like the fingers on little hands. Each flashed by in an instant, only to be replaced by more of the same. The iron sea twisted at their edge, gnashing its white, frothy teeth. Noah tried to absorb it all.
He was out with a Luke, a friend from college. They’d graduated twelve years ago, but to them it felt like yesterday. Their wives were at home with the three younger children while Luke and Noah caught up (and toted the three older girls across the rocky Gloucester beach). Noah had never seen the Atlantic Ocean before that day. It was greyer and angrier than he could have imagined, biting his fingers and toes with icy fangs when he tried to touch it.
From the passenger seat, Noah glanced back to view his eight-year-old daughter, Summer, in the backseat. Her car seat was nestled between those of Luke’s daughters, Elise and JB. Elise was absently chewing on her hair. JB was fast asleep, her dark lashes knitted together, looking angelic.
As Summer saw him turn, she scowled and reached for him with spitty hands. He smiled and reached back for her, but upon touching her fingers, she pushed his hand away. She made an inconsolable little noise. Noah turned back and unzipped his maroon backpack. In the front pocket, a white paper bag was lodged between an old pack of cigarettes and pair of binoculars with shining glassy lenses. He unrolled the top and ran his fingers through the waxy wrappers. Sea foam green. Baby blue. Lemon yellow. A twist of caramel and milky white. He selected a piece of taffy (sunrise pink: strawberry) and pulled the paper off before handing it to Summer. She grinned and began greedily chewing on the edge.
Their day trip was nearing a close and the girls were exhausted from the day’s endless trotting up and down the granite beach. Luke had one last stop in mind.
JB had been asleep for nearly half an hour as they drove up the coast: past the fisheries, and the taffy shops, and the rain thrashing the angry sea. She woke silently as they pulled into a tiny parking lot that was dangerously close to the ocean ledge. Noah stayed with the girls while Luke climbed out and headed for the tiny wind-whipped, salt-bleached restaurant. If Noah wanted authentic, he would certainly have it.
In Luke’s absence, Noah turned to the girls. He first addressed Elise, thinking that Luke’s eldest daughter might understand him the best. He asked how her hair tasted. She spit it out and glared at him. So much for that. He then moved on to Summer, sure that his daughter would have something to say about their adventure or where they were headed. Instead she waved her syrupy fingers and asked for another candy. “We’re having dinner now, baby” he insisted. She looked angrily at him as though he’d betrayed her.
JB watched the entire encounter wordlessly. Somehow, by remaining silent and not displaying her childish ignorance, JB managed to give the impression of being more intelligent than the other girls, despite being two years in their junior. Noah fancied thinking of her as capable of complex thought. Somehow her silence seemed more sophisticated than Elise’s bad habits or Summer’s demands. She stared at him with wide, glassy eyes.
Luke swung himself back into the cab of the car. His hair was matted with the falling rain. “They’re closing early,” he groaned. “They sell live lobster, though. Want to try it? I mean, it doesn’t get much more New England than that…” he trailed off. Noah looked at him blankly for a second, having briefly forgotten his east coast adventure while lost in his reverie.
“Live—Yeah! Live lobsters? Sure!” Noah grinned. He was falling head over heels for the alien region where the air was wet and salty and the buildings bleached by the sun.
Luke smiled at his friend. He hadn’t changed a bit. Still easy to please and adventurous, Luke was the same boy he’d met all those years ago in that class they’d both taken out of mild curiosity. Despite getting married and having children, Noah remained boyish and up for anything. It almost made Luke sad because so many others had grown up too fast.
Luke shook off the feeling and ducked back into the rain.
Noah shoved his shopping cart down the aisle, though he hardly needed it. In the lonely absence of his family, he didn’t need to use an entire cart. Familiarity made him push it.
Summer and her two younger siblings, Paul and Joy were grown up, now. Paul and Joy were in college. Summer was in London, trying her hand at fashion design. Their mother had left the day Joy moved into her dorm. He scuffed his feet through the sawdust. A shabby looking kid, about Paul’s age, stood halfway down the aisle, weighing a jar of pickles in his hand. Noah swallowed hard and turned away, trying not to think of his family. Joy was coming home in a few weeks for Christmas; it would all turn out fine.
Noah passed the deli counter. The air was cold and the scent of preservatives hung over him. Rows of skinned fish lay at attention. He was slightly disgusted with them and the overwhelming scent of carcasses and salt. At the far end of the counter a glass tank was built in. A tiny child had her nose pressed against the glass, laughing at the pile of creatures that writhed and shifted within. Noah knew what they looked like too well to laugh with her. They lay stacks on top of each other, claws rubber banded shut. He couldn’t help but imagine the belly of a slave ship and the humans who had been fettered and thrown in on top of each other, piled carelessly like these sorry grey exoskeletons. The whole thing made him sick. The exotic seafood held no interest for him, now. He blanched at the salty air, giving the counter a wide berth so that he wouldn’t have to see its contents. The East Coast was too far from home.
Elise and Summer shrieked with mixed delight and horror when Luke pulled the first writhing bug out of the brown paper bag. The mottled brown-purple shell was wet and the yellow light touched it gently. It flailed its legs furiously, trying to right itself, panicked eyes swinging about the room. Luke teasingly presented it to the girls and they scattered, giggling and screaming. JB sat on the floor, gazing at them. As before, she remained quiet, observing the situation.
Noah tilted his wine glass, forcing the golden liquid to wash up the side of the glass. In it, two translucent ice cubes floated, treading water in the amber sea. He liked to imagine the tiny world within his glass, the ice cubes miniature barges in the ocean.
Luke scooped up the second lobster and weighed them both in his hands. Behind him, a metal pot smothered a blazing orange coil, the water within churning and boiling. Steam furled out the top, twisting towards the ceiling before being sucked through the fan. Luke lowered both lobsters into the water and Elise giggled as she waved goodbye from the door frame.
A scream burst through the air and rebounded off the walls. Startled, Luke and Noah turned to stare at JB who held out the ear-splitting shriek.
“What is it, baby?” Luke bent to scoop her up. She scrambled away from him, wide eyes terrified. “JB?” He asked, approaching her again “Are you hurt? Did you fall?”
“NO!” she wailed “NO. NO! Please, DADDY, NO!”
“JB, what is it? Use your words. What’s wrong?”
“Don’ do that! DADDY” She recoiled from his touch, alienated and afraid.
“JB. Tell me. Use words”
“Don’ kill them. Please,” She said, her wail ebbing to a sob. Noah watched the exchange with interest.
“They’re for dinner, JB. We need to eat them” He tried to explain.
“You don’t! There are other things. Please. Just stop,”
“You’re killing them! They’re dying! Take them out!” Her emotions spilled out her eyes and poured down her face. “They’re someone’s kids, too” she added quietly in a shockingly mature attempt to play his emotions.
“Jay,” he said soothingly and finally caught her in his arms despite her struggles.
“Please?” she asked feebly; still not ready to give up.
Luke held his young daughter. She was too sweet. The kitchen was quiet from a moment, her sobs were too miserable to be loud. Embarrassed by JB’s tantrum, Summer and Elise had slipped off to play with Paul, Joy, and the baby in the other room. Noah stared at the JB. What was she saying? Her conscience was very advanced: JB couldn’t have been more than five years old.
Suddenly the new calm was splintered by a high pitched screaming noise. The lobster’s emitted a terrible wail. JB broke into a fresh wave of shrieking pleas which supplemented the lobsters, producing a deafeningly shrill, desperate imploration. “You’re murdering them! You’re killing them!”
“JB, they don’t even—“
“-- feel it. The temperature doesn’t bother--”
“You’re a mur’erer! I cann’--”
“—them. It’s like falling asleep.”
“—look at you.”
“It doesn’t hurt them!”
The pitchy whine continued through the background. JB’s failure filled her eyes with panic. Lives depended on her success. She couldn’t lose.
“They wouldn’ scream if it din’ hurt!”
“They aren’t really screaming!”
Noah’s wife stood next to him and muttered “He should keep that girl under control,” Noah looked at her sideways “Our Summer would never cause such a commotion” she continued. Noah wanted to defend Luke and remind her that the only reason Summer didn’t panic so much was because she was given everything she wanted the moment that tears threatened the complacence. The look on his wife’s face told him that speaking up wouldn’t be a good idea.
For another half hour, JB wailed and fought, trying everything from bribery to threats of not loving Luke. Finally, when the shredding whine died and she knew, despite her desperate please, despite every single desperate attempt she could think of, her father had ignored her and killed the creatures anyways. She collapsed on the floor, sobbing inconsolably at the loss of life. Luke reached to move her off of the kitchen floor but she screamed and ducked out of his grasp. He was a monster: a terrifying killer. It shocked her to find that there was nothing she could do to slow his murderous hand. She was terrified by her utter helplessness. JB ran from her father, finally falling in the stairwell and finding herself unable to get up. She was too miserable and too scared and too helpless.
Luke excused himself and went to find her. How would her relationship with her father be, now that she’d seen him kill? How would her self-esteem be when she knew Luke wouldn’t listen to something, even if it was that important to her? And why, out of the five people there, did only a single child notice that boiling a creature alive as it shrieked and banged on the walls in a final desperation was gruesome? What about that didn’t sound like a gas chamber?
Noah’s wife made another comment about JB’s behavior and Noah turned to her. He said with sudden clarity “I wish Summer did that,” When she stared at him, shocked, he continued. “I wish she fought for something she cared about with that conviction. I wish she was that empathetic. I wish she wanted to save lives,”
Noah’s wife glared at him, angry that he was so bold. From this moment of alacrity on, his life was going to be long.