by J.A.W. McCarthy
She said, “Just get away from me, I don’t want to see your face right now”, so Valerie did just that and walked out of the bar. Once Valerie got to the end of the block she turned around and watched Jane exit the building, heading in the opposite direction back towards their hotel. Jane never turned around to see where Valerie had gone.
There were people everywhere: tourists like her—though Valerie liked to think she wasn’t at all like them—with their flip flops and beach bags and phones on selfie sticks bobbing like antennas above the crowd, their kids trailing and getting tangled like kittens in the legs of those who were just trying to get to work or the ferry or home. A man, squinting down at his phone, walked right into Valerie, but she didn’t pause for his befuddled apology. There were too many people and not enough space to really get lost.
Valerie continued down the impossibly long pier, powering through a blister forming on the ball of her right foot and the crowds that finally started to thin as the restaurants and the bars and the gift shops ran out. In the distance she could see hunkered motionless in the water a small ship, the kind you could rent for booze cruises. She tried to concentrate on the swooping red letters on its shiny white hull and the little dash mark windows splitting the dark blue bottom that looked like it was leeching paint out into the water. She worked to picture the molded plastic booths and the cans of warm Sprite and the smooth roundness of the railing not so far above the churning waves below. All that mattered was that she didn’t think about Jane and how her eyes narrowed until there wasn’t any green anymore. How her black hair crawled along her neck with the slow, disappointed shake of her head. How the hitch in her voice was as sharp and tiny as broken glass as she said she couldn’t do this again.
When it wasn’t just clouds and a sky the same murky blue as the water—when she could finally see the long wooden planks of the pier end in a blunt, railing-less edge—Valerie realized the tourists and the locals and even the seagulls were gone. The arcades and fish shops had given way to a row of small, weather-beaten sheds with misshapen, open mouths that seemed to vomit frayed heaps of nets and ropes and large metal shards she imagined were intestines from long abandoned boats. Valerie stuck her head in each shed, though she didn’t know what she was looking for or even what she wanted to see. She and Jane had yet to venture out this far, preferring instead to get drunk in the dingy hotel bar upon arrival before sneaking beers into the arcade next door where Jane played Knight Rider pinball and took off her shoes and fell down laughing over and over again until the attendant asked them to leave. Valerie remembered going to bed that first night with the warm belly slosh of being pleasantly drunk. She remembered thinking that this might really work.
One of the last sheds before the abrupt edge of the pier had a dusty blue door propped open by a metal bucket full of sand and cigarette butts. Valerie stuck her head inside. Glass-fronted hutches perched atop the mismatched apothecary cabinets lining the walls of the tiny shed, each one stuffed with a jumble of costume jewelry, knickknacks, and the usual junk shop clutter. Sand dusted the wooden floor, which Valerie realized was the pier itself and not a part of the shed. The only light came from the jagged slits in the roof and the ocean throwing up sparkling bursts of reflected sun from the spaces between the wooden planks below. An oversized calculator and a notepad sat atop a small counter directly across from the door. There was no shopkeeper.
As Valerie moved around the tiny shop she dragged her right foot, careful to keep her weight off the now-screaming blister that seemed to be pricked with sand and probably disease; she didn't know how she would make the walk all the way back to the hotel. After a few minutes of looking at bug-shaped brooches, forty-year-old political buttons, and salt and pepper shakers shaped like frogs embracing, Valerie sat down on the sandy floor and took off her sandal.
Cross-legged, her foot sole-up in the cradle of her lap, she gingerly nudged the dime-sized dome of the blister and watched its gooey insides recoil from her touch. It was as if the pus inside was alive, a frightened worm that would burrow deeper into her foot if she touched it again. The pain was too intense to leave it alone, though; the throb would not dull even without the pressure of her fingers or shoe. Valerie thought of the blisters Jane would get with every new pair of stilettos and how she would sit on the edge of the tub after an event, shoes and dress in a careless heap on the bathroom floor, her brow furrowed with concentration as she fearlessly popped each blister with a sewing needle. Valerie always had to look away right before the needle went in, eyes closed and grimacing until she heard Jane peel the Band-Aid from the paper.
Valerie remembered that she had a safety pin in her pocket, and bent it open as wide as she could. She summoned Jane’s courage, but it still took several tries to break the skin. A fresh pain cut through as she slowly pushed the needle in, then diluted as it blended with the constant throb and burn. Still, there was no relief, not even a dot of blood to mark what she had done. Holding her breath, Valerie tightened her grip on the safety pin and yanked it upwards.
That did it. She closed her eyes as she felt the heat thin and spread to a comfortable warmth from the bisected blister through the entire bottom of her foot. The relief was immediate, the pain draining as fast as the wound. When she opened her eyes again, though, she saw that this release was not the blood and pus she’d been expecting. The liquid that gushed from the opening in her foot looked like salt water.
“Are you alright, sweetheart?”
Startled, Valerie looked up at the strange woman standing over her, then slapped her hand over her injured foot. The water was bracingly cold, how the sea always seemed to feel to her.
“Yeah, sorry, I had, uh…”
The woman went behind the counter and produced a Band-Aid from beneath the tray of a metal cash box. She was small and slender, her exposed knees and elbows gnarled knots in the center of each leathery limb. In her white Bermuda shorts and pink polo shirt she looked like a Boca Raton grandmother about to hit the links.
“Where you visiting from, dear?” the woman asked as she watched Valerie affix the Band-Aid over what was now a withered flap of skin on the bottom of her foot.
“Ah, that’s nice. Now why don’t you have a look around and maybe you’ll find something to bring back to your darling in Seattle.”
Valerie knew she’d have to buy something after the shopkeeper’s small kindness and polite ignorance of the salt water mess she’d left on the floor. Once she got her shoe back on she took her time inventorying the tiny shop from one end to the other. There was a cloudy crystal candy dish she could give her mother if she could come up with a good story to go with it. Her friend Dana might like the chipped ceramic clown as a joke gift. Jane would definitely hate the oversized clip-on bakelite earrings. It wasn’t until she saw the row of porcelain heads lining the top shelf of one of the cabinets that she felt the shopkeeper watching her.
“Hardly anyone ever notices those,” the woman sighed, dragging a small folding stepladder from behind the counter. Valerie scooted aside as the woman set up the ladder and carefully climbed up to open the glass case that contained the heads. “I suppose I should display them a little lower, but they’re not for everyone.”
Once the woman had them lined up on the counter, Valerie could see that the life-sized heads were all women, with the same delicately pointed features and white faces. They looked old, like hat stands from the twenties or thirties. All three had the same short flapper hairstyle with curlicues punctuating the cheeks, tiny red lips, and brightly painted eyes. The blonde and redhead had blue eyes. The black-haired one had green eyes.
“Sorry, hun, but I gotta ask you not to touch those,” the woman said, eyeing Valerie’s hand as it reached for the black-haired head. “I’d offer you some wet wipes, but I just ran out.”
Valerie looked down at her hands, expecting her fingertips to be a bit wrinkled and white from the salt water that had poured from her foot, but instead she saw that every one of her fingertips was bright red and inflamed as if all of the skin had been worn off. She carefully touched her thumbs and index fingers together, surprised by a lack of pain. When she turned her hands over, she saw what looked like sand and some kind of bright red paint crusted under each nail.
Unconcerned, the woman beamed from behind the counter. “Would you like the honors, sweetie?” she asked, a hammer suddenly in her hand.
The look on Valerie’s face must have been enough of an answer, because she barely had time to jump back as the old woman brought the hammer down on the blonde head. Shards of painted porcelain flew up and out, garishly bright colors that looked like they’d already passed through a wound. Valerie coughed under a cloud of white dust, but the shopkeeper remained smiling, the hammer still tight in her small fist. She didn’t even look down at the sand crabs scuttling from the wreckage of the porcelain head.
“What the fuck?” Valerie shrieked, watching the little crabs pour over the edge of the counter and down onto the floor. She jumped back towards the door as the army of crustaceans approached, what seemed like hundreds of them, though most found an outlet through the gaps in the floor. Only the last two crabs lingered, unable to fit between the boards of the pier. They rocked in a drunken side-to-side motion, slamming into the counter over and over again, bound together by a rope of wet black hair, as familiar as what Valerie often found in the shower drain.
“Oh, you’re not leaving yet, are you dear?” the shopkeeper asked, a look of sincere concern and disappointment mixing on her face.
“Thanks for the Band-Aid, but this isn’t really—”
Valerie didn’t finish. The shopkeeper wouldn’t have been able to hear her words anyway over the burst of the hammer smashing through the red-haired head.
This time it wasn’t sea creatures that surged from the remnants of painted porcelain and dust. First came a great gush of what looked like salt water, then tangles of seaweed pushed forward by even more water. Valerie didn’t know why she continued to stand there, only shifting her feet to avoid the splash. She didn’t know why the door suddenly wasn’t an option. She was transfixed by the steady stream of water—more than could have fit inside the porcelain head—and what looked like broken-off fingernails now being carried over the edge of the counter and down between the cracks in the floorboards just as the crabs had been.
“What is this? What the fuck is going on?”
One of the hair-bound crabs plucked a muddy fingernail from where it had come to rest just short of a gap between two boards. As it triumphantly waved its claw in the air, Valerie saw that the nail was caked with shiny red underneath, too bright and undiluted to be blood. A few small chips of the same red glinted on the wooden floor. Valerie hauled her injured foot back and kicked the bound crabs across the room.
“You tried really hard, didn’t you?” the shopkeeper said, her crestfallen face an unsettling juxtaposition next to the hammer she still held aloft. “All that fighting, all for nothing. You didn’t know when to stop, so she spit you out.”
It was as if the old woman had seen Jane there behind Valerie’s eyes and snatched her from her mind, splayed them both out across the pier for this entire strange mistake of a seaside town to see. Valerie felt nauseous, more worried about what this woman might get wrong than how she would even know. She remembered how Jane had looked yesterday morning—before the thousandth argument, before the defeated stops and starts, before the “let’s get a drink” became “we need to talk”—standing in front of the bathroom mirror as she pressed lipstick kisses into a tissue, the little bubbles that slipped from the corner of her mouth as she smiled when Valerie came up behind her, that solitary spark of hope in her suddenly huge green eyes as her black hair started floating upwards.
“Gimme the hammer,” Valerie said to the woman.
The hammer came down differently for her, not the same crisp crack of when the shopkeeper smashed the first two heads, but almost cushioned like the rounded thickness of slicing through water. The top of the green-eyed black-haired head cleaved, sending black shards of porcelain darting out in opposite directions and crashing against both ends of the shed. The woman did not flinch and neither did Valerie. They both stood still and watched black mud speckled with silvery sand flow slowly from the remnants of the head’s lower jaw and neck. Jagged, shiny white chunks—seashells this time, Valerie thought—emerged as the mud crept over the edge of the counter. It wasn’t until one hit her foot that she realized what they were.
Valerie stooped to gather four of the little white chunks and fit them together in the palm of her hand: two molars, each broken off at the root.
She tasted salt tinged with copper in her mouth, the tang of a salt water gargle after an extraction. Her tongue searched frantically, found a gap in the upper right side of her mouth. The shopkeeper smiled sadly, her thin white brows making a wave across her forehead. The shed filled with the scent of gin.
Jane laughing then suddenly not, the bottles they brought spilled and smashed like a christening.
Strands of long black hair coming loose between Valerie’s fingers. A knot of her own auburn hair in Jane’s fist as she grasped for an anchor.
Red swirls, still shiny even underwater, slipping upwards, peeling from her grip.
“This is the part where you tell me it’s time to go, right?” Valerie spat, her mind struggling to order the images from the last two days. “Follow the light or some bullshit?”
The old woman gently pulled the hammer from Valerie’s hand, the wooden handle bearing her murky, wet fingerprints. “There is no light, dear.”
With no more porcelain heads to smash, Valerie realized that she shouldn’t have let go of the hammer, shouldn’t have walked into this shop, shouldn’t have gotten on that boat, shouldn’t have thought this place would change anything. She pushed her hands against either side of her own head to focus the ache, raked her fingers backwards through her hair, a muscle memory of emerging from water. Her hands came out filled with her own broken strands of hair stuck between her fingers like spiderwebs. The shopkeeper continued to look at her pityingly, as if she was trying to determine the right moment to bring the hammer down one last time, a weighty mercy.
Finally, Valerie turned and ran out of the shed. Out on the pier she took a moment to look back at the rows of low buildings that were supposed to be souvenir shops and restaurants and arcades, all of them now barely discernible from one another in the dusty dark blue that blanketed the town and the sky like fabric, fuzzy and without clouds or stars. In the other direction was the water, the same depth as the sky but shiny, glass against velvet. The only lights came from the coast guard boat flanking the little ship she’d seen earlier, still bobbing in the same spot. She ran towards them, past five more sheds spilling their guts of nets and wooden traps and mangled boat parts. It was at the very end of the pier, suddenly dizzy and nauseous, that Valerie doubled over and vomited seawater, knots of intertwined black and auburn hair, red-crusted fingernails, and bits of broken teeth into the unmoving ocean below.
When she straightened, she found that the small ship and the coast guard boat were the only objects dividing the water and the sky for as far as she could see. She remembered how it looked the same last night, just the diffused pinpricks of light coming from the ship to mark the difference between the dark of the sea and the darkness above. The rush of bubbles coming from Jane’s nostrils and her own nostrils had distorted the little pools of light, made them split into bits of glitter swirling around their heads. For just a moment Valerie had felt at peace in the sudden silence, just her and Jane like it used to be, their arms so effortlessly floating up and out towards each other.
Valerie sat down on the end of the pier and let her legs dangle over the edge, her feet not quite touching the water that had yet to carry away the hair and fingernails and teeth she’d just vomited. The ship bobbed in the water, started to turn just enough so that Valerie could clearly see the red script along its side. She could still feel her fingers dragging down their surface, slicker than the rest of the hull, even then still believing Darling Jane could save her.
J.A.W. McCarthy goes by Jen when she is not writing. She lives with her husband and assistant cats in the Pacific Northwest, a place that inspires her dark tales. Her work has appeared in numerous publications, including LampLight; Nightscript V; Immersion: An Asian Anthology of Love, Fantasy & Speculative Fiction; and Flame Tree Publishing’s Lost Souls. Find her at www.jawmccarthy.com, or on Instagram and Twitter @JAWMcCarthy.