Thursday, December 12, 2013
Neighbors can be your best ally or your sworn adversary. But in a small fishing village like Montauk, it was never the latter; never in my case at least. Since moving here five years ago, I’ve done my best to stay on everyone’s good side. If one of my neighbors is working on a special project, I’m the first to lend a hand or offer up my tools for the job. I always remember to wear my smile when I’m in public, leave a generous tip for the waitresses at Sharpe’s Diner, hold the doors open for random strangers.
Though, in Montauk we have a word for strangers: Tourists. We experience an influx of idiotic tourists–or citiots as my neighbor Pat christens them–that drift our way from the city every year. They’re here from July to September and they depart by the beginning of October.
In a big city, the faces are all anonymous. You can brush shoulders with more than a hundred people in a few city blocks and not recognize one single face. Here, you can’t even walk down your driveway to fetch the morning paper without bumping into somebody you know.
* * *
Monday, September 2, 2013.
Labor Day. I drive to town in the morning and remember what day it is. All the banks, schools, stores, bars, and restaurants are closed until tomorrow.
I pass by Coscarelli’s Market and see John Coscarelli leaned up against a stack of empty milk crates, smoking a cigarette. The closed sign is stuck inside the window but he’s waiting for the milk truck to get here so he can let the delivery guy in. Just because everything stops in Montauk on Labor Day, doesn’t mean the world stops with it. If John wants his milk delivery, he’ll take it today or wait until Wednesday for the next delivery truck to roll through town.
You can always rely on John for fresh milk and bread just like you can rely on Donald Carpenter to have the freshest fish in town at his seafood market. You can depend on these men just like you can depend on Paul Mancini, the local pharmacist to help you with your meds. And if you’re looking for summer or winter apparel, you can always count on Kelly Cornell’s boutique to be open…well, excluding today of course.
Right now Kelly’s probably at home struggling to keep her promiscuous sister Selina in check. Kelly and Selina live together on my block, Essex Street.
I talked to my uncle Ronnie a while back. He’s lived in the same neighborhood for fifteen years and doesn’t know the name of the guy who lives next-door to him. Most people go their whole lives without really knowing their neighbors. How many people can say they know the names of every person who lives on their block? I can.
Kelly and Selina Cornell are directly across the street from me. In addition to them, there’s Angus Smith and Malcolm Wright, my next-door neighbors on the left. They’ve been married longer than most straight couples I know. I must say out of all my neighbors, they throw the best New Year’s Eve parties.
Pat McMillian is my next-door neighbor on the right. His specialty is sarcasm and he’s the only one I go out of my way to chat with on a regular basis. Next to Pat is Bruce Sharpe, the owner of Sharpe’s Diner. He lives with his two daughters, Gail and Lindsey, and raises them on his own. Next to Angus and Malcolm is Lance Diamond, who recently had an extension put on his home to add a third floor. The fact that his last name is Diamond is beyond ironic considering he’s the richest guy in town. He owns the town lumberyard. Oh, and four different restaurants.
Rounding out the block is Kyle Concorde, owner of Concorde Cleaners and Laundromat. George Reese, the guy who runs the hardware store. And Cornelius Swanson, the old man who dwells in the last house on the left.
With nowhere in town to go, I return home. On the way back, I pass several wandering citiots looking for a place to eat. They’re not going to find it in this town, not today.
When I get back, Kyle is standing atop a ladder, emptying his gutters and Lance is polishing the side of his boat. I acknowledge both of them and offer to help but they decline politely.
The day is balmy and peaceful, and I don’t feel like wasting it inside my house. So I knock on Pat’s door to see what he’s up to.
“Arnie,” Pat exclaims as the door opens. My name is Arnold White but he calls me Arnie to bust my chops. “Come in.”
He closes the door behind us and fetches two cold beers from the fridge. We pop them open and clank the bottles together.
“To good health,” he says.
“Cheers,” I say and gulp down some of my beer.
Sirens commence in the distance, faint and distorted. But then the sound grows clearer, unmistakable. It stops conversation dead in its tracks. For a solid minute, all we can do is listen and try to sort it out in our heads.
It’s not police or ambulance sirens. It’s not the sound of a fire truck. And if there’s a fire, how come the whistle didn’t sound to alert the volunteers? No, this is something dissimilar, something ominous.
Voices emanate from the street and we gather outside as the rest of our neighbors begin to congregate.
“What is that?” one of Bruce Sharpe’s daughters asks.
“I don’t know, sweetie,” he responds and look to others for answers. But we’re all in the same boat. Nobody has a clue.
“Does anyone have Trey’s number?” Pat asks. Trey Miner is the town sheriff. If anyone has an inkling as to what this is about, it would be Trey.
“I think I have it written down somewhere,” George Reese says. “I’ll be right back.” And with that, George trots back inside his house.
“What on Earth could that be?” Lance asks, keeping his distance from Angus and Malcolm. His subtle way of letting them know he doesn’t approve of their lifestyle. I can’t speak for both of them but I don’t think they miss his friendship.
“No idea,” Kyle shrugs as the conversation continues to go around in circles.
Then, finally George saves us from the banality when he rushes out with news. But not the news we want to hear.
“Trey’s not answering his phone. In fact, I can’t reach anybody at the station. Their phone is down. Half the phones in town are down. And my television’s not working either. It’s just buzzing and flashing a logo from the emergency broadcasting system.”
The only one of us who is unaccounted for is Cornelius Swanson. Before I can walk down the road to check and see if he’s all right, the group gains a few more members. It’s the citiots I saw wandering about town before. We were all so distracted by the sirens we didn’t even see them approaching.
“You guys know the deal with these sirens?” one of them steps forward to ask. There are three of them, all young men in their early to mid-twenties.
“We’re just as clueless as you,” Kelly says. I spot Selina eyeing up the guy in the middle, the citiot with bleach blonde hair. Kelly’s going to have her work cut out for her today.
A patrol car speeds down the block and comes to a screeching halt. Trey Miner steps out and everyone begins shouting and asking questions at once while Pat and I stand back and shake our heads.
“Calm down,” Trey shouts back. “Everybody calm down. What you need to do is turn back to your houses, pack your belongings, and skip town until further notice.”
“What’s going on?” several people shouted.
“State of emergency. Airborne toxins were accidently released from Peach Island. There’s a mandatory evacuation in effect. Everyone needs to pack up and leave town immediately for their own safety. Please do so in a calm and orderly fashion and this will all be resolved before you know it.”
“What’s Peach Island?” the lead citiot asks.
“It’s an animal disease center,” Kyle explains. “It’s located off the coast of Montauk. They do experiments; try to determine the origins of viruses and diseases that are linked to humans from animals.”
“And these diseases,” the citiot continues. “They’re harmful?”
Kyle sighs with exasperation. “Harmful? Fatal is better way of describing it.”
“Sounds like we’re fucked,” Pat laughs as Sheriff Miner drives away to warn more folks about the toxins. I can already hear most of the engines running through town. Everyone is starting to clear out and head for higher ground. “We might as well strip off our clothes and have one big orgy right here in the streets. Arnie, I’m afraid you’re stuck on the bottom.”
Pat is clearly making a joke. But now is not the ideal time for jokes. I study my neighbors and they’re all wearing the same look; that wide-eyed deer-in-the-headlights expression. Kyle is the first to disperse from the group to gather his belongings. Then Bruce breaks away with his two daughters to see if he can get them to a safer place.
In minutes, the streets become flooded with automobiles of all shapes, colors, and sizes. We all shift our conversation to the curb and watch the motorists try and make their grand escape. I see people riding bumper-to-bumper, slamming on their brakes, punching their horns. So much for exiting in a calm and orderly fashion. Then George Reese slips away, leaving just me, Pat, Kelly, Selina, Angus, and Malcolm with the three citiots.
“We took the train here,” the youngest one whined. “How are we supposed to get out of town?”
“Yeah,” the bleach blonde citiot added. “The trains aren’t running today.”
“I fail to see how that’s our problem,” Pat says.
“Well it is,” the leader of the pack says.
“Like hell it is,” Pat chides as the traffic begins to move slower and slower down Essex Street.
“What’s the holdup?” Selina wonders.
“It’s a one-lane road,” Lance answers. “With all these people trying to flee town consecutively, there’s bound to be traffic jams. I wouldn’t be surprised if there are a few accidents already.”
George Reese loads up his car and takes a box from his house, stopping at Kyle Concorde’s and Bruce Sharpe’s doors first. Then he hurries down to us, box in hand, and passes out respirators to the entire group, sans three for the citiots. I can’t tell if he’s being greedy or if he genuinely doesn’t have enough to go around but the citiots don’t look pleased. Still, they bite their tongues and stand aside for further development.
“I can’t promise these will protect you,” George clarifies, “but it’s the best I can do. Well, best of luck to you all.” With that, George gets in his car and merges into a sea of slow-moving traffic.
As some of us try on and adjust their respirators, Kelly looks to me and Pat for answers. “We should all stick together,” Pat advises the group. “You can all join me in my house. The TV isn’t working but I have a radio and we can figure out what’s going on. There’s no sense in jamming up the roads any more than they are.”
* * *
On the radio, the music has stopped and been replaced by nervous reporters summarizing the events, although they’ve now resorted to repeating the same sentences over and over. Every station is urging listeners that can’t escape town to seek shelter and not breathe the outside air.
With my respirator tightly secured, I watch through Pat’s window. Horns blare endlessly as traffic sits still for an hour. Eventually, drivers begin to abandon their cars and start collecting in the streets.
Lance had called it. Word spread through the crowd that there was an accident ahead on the roads. More than one apparently. With the roads blocked off, everyone has found themselves trapped. Living by sea would have its advantages in this situation, but taking a boat would only expose you to the toxins drifting in our direction. There’s one road to and from town…no alternate routes.
The crowd grows bigger and bigger as more residents–luggage in hand–start marching on foot. The crowd grows into a mob as everyone has seemingly abandoned their vehicles and is looking for a means of escape. One of the mob shouts, “We’re all going to die!” and pandemonium strikes.
Kelly and Selina can’t bear to watch and slink away from the window as Pat and I press against the glass, horrified by the scene that’s unfolding. The mob has worked up into a panic.
There’s no organization. No rationality. No chivalry. Men are shoving women. Women are shoving men and clubbing them with their purses. Grown men are snatching respirators off the faces of children. Neighbors trample neighbors, their ribcages snapping under the feet of hundreds of panicked residents. I watch helplessly as Lindsey Sharpe–frightened and separated from her father–has her respirator stolen by Ben Folsey, the geriatric mailman. I look around for Bruce or her sister Gail but it is impossible to make out all the faces in this fray. The chaos is relentless.
“Is this Montauk or bedlam?” Pat asks, still trying to maintain his sense of humor but I can see the color draining from his face, hear his stomach gurgling. The sight petrifies him.
Several rioters turn their attention to Lance Diamond’s property, where his boat and Mercedes are set ablaze by envious business competitors. The police haven’t made their presence known since Sheriff Miner drove through the neighborhood and I’m hoping and praying they will soon. But for all I know, Sheriff Miner and his deputies are already far gone.
Pat brings this to Lance’s attention and without any thought, Lance rushes out to try and save his prized possessions. Pat doesn’t take any chances and locks the door behind him.
The three citiots whisper quietly as Selina and Kelly sit together on Pat’s white sofa, Kelly praying silently, her hands clasped together.
A deafening shot rings out through the neighborhood and the mob parts in every direction. Cornelius Swanson–the kind, sweet, gentle old man from the end of the block–is toting a double-barreled shotgun. Lance is the first casualty, taking a full blast to the chest. Swanson turns the gun and fires again on this disoriented crowd as they attempt to flee. I can see someone else writhing, twitching in the street alongside an abandoned Volkswagen. It’s Kyle Concorde, another victim of Swanson’s mania.
“We’ve got to stop him,” Angus says, clutching his boyfriends hand tightly.
“You’re right,” Malcom agrees. “Cornelius always liked us and he never did a bad thing before today. He’s just confused and scared. Pat, I’m going out there. Lock the door behind us. I’m going to see if I can get him to hand over the shotgun.”
“That’s suicide,” Kelly warns him.
“I’m afraid I must agree with the young lady,” Pat says. “It’s too dangerous, even with the respirators. You don’t want to expose yourself to the air.”
“He’s killing people,” Angus argues. “He has to be stopped. Just lock the door behind us and keep an eye out through the window. Do you have a gun?”
“I wish,” Pat sighs.
“You’ll be safe as long as you stay inside and keep those respirators on,” Malcolm assures us. “Okay, we’re going out.”
The three citiots gather by the window with me as Pat locks the door and Angus and Malcolm step out to reason with Cornelius. I can see them trying to persuade him, but I can’t hear through the glass, and I’m no lip reader. I can only imagine they’re trying to talk some sense into the old coot.
Without a word, Cornelius raises his shotgun and fires on Angus, then turns the gun on Malcolm. My head drops as I turn away from the window. I can’t bear to watch another second. The youngest citiot describes Swanson sliding the breach open, emptying the dead shells, and loading four more rounds. Then he lumbers off, stalking the streets as more people continue to disperse.
“He wasn’t wearing a respirator,” Pat mumbles.
“What?” I ask.
“Swanson wasn’t wearing a respirator. If the air is contaminated, maybe it’s effecting people that are exposed to it. Maybe it’s the cause of all this panic and destruction.”
“That’s a farfetched theory,” I say.
“But it’s a theory,” he says sternly. “And it matches the pattern of irrational behavior. Four of our neighbors are dead, that we know of at least. Cornelius Swanson, who before today wouldn’t harm a fly, is out there gunning people down in cold blood. What else could it be?”
“Fear,” I say. “Some people don’t know how to react during a life-threatening crisis. Especially a crisis that seems as hopeless as this one. Until today, the biggest crisis this town faced is when the mill caught fire. This behavior is basic human instinct. It’s a distinct form of self-preservation.”
“Now that’s a farfetched theory,” Pat chuckles behind his respirator.
“Uh, guys…” Kelly whimpers and then trails off.
Pat and I turn around and see Kelly and Selina being held back by the three citiots. The leader has a serrated knife to Kelly’s throat.
“You two,” the leader points to us with the knife, then rests it back against Kelly’s tender throat. “Remove your respirators.” We do as they say and the youngest one picks them up and fastens one of the respirators to his face. The other two have already robbed Selina and Kelly of their respirators and have taken to wearing them.
“Where are the deputies? Where’s Trey?” I whisper.
“If they’re not dead, they probably skipped town before the roads got all jammed up,” Pat whispers back. “There’s no cavalry coming either. No reinforcements, no helicopters will arrive until they’re sure the area is safe and secure. With all the lives already at stake, they’re not going to risk more. They’re going to wait for this situation to remedy itself and then they’re going to swoop in and clean up the mess.”
“Enough chitchat,” the leader barks. “You two assholes get in the corner, facing the wall on your knees and place your hands behind your head.”
“We under arrest?” Pat quips.
“Just do it,” he orders and we walk slowly to the corner and drop to our knees, place our hands behind our head with our fingers interlocked.
I turn my head slightly and watch out the corner of my eye as the leader passes the knife to the youngest member of the group and passes Kelly off to the blonde one.
Then he throws Selina down firmly on the sofa and I hear her blouse tear and shred. “Stop!” Selina cries.
“No way,” the leader says. “If I’m going to die today, I’m not dying without one last piece of ass.”
“Please, don’t do this,” her cries recur.
“I thought this was what you wanted,” the leader sneers, tearing the straps from her bra.
“Not like this,” she shakes her head, sobbing. “Not like this, please.”
“When do I get my turn?” the blonde one chuckles, holding Kelly at bay as she squirms under his slimy grip.
“Patience, buddy,” the leader snickers. “You’ll both get your chance with this little slut.”
“All they have is a knife,” Pat whispers over Selina’s sobs as I hear her jeans being unbuttoned and slid down. “We can take them.” I nod and glance over at the other two citiots, thoroughly entered by the show that’s about to proceed.
“Now,” I whisper and we both spring into action. Pat grabs the nearest object he can find–an old lamp–and smashes it into pieces over the young citiots head. He hits the floor hard and knife slides out a few feet in front of him. I snatch it as the blonde citiot pushes Kelly aside and comes after me. He swings his fist just as I inch back and swipe the blade through the air. The serrated edge catches him and slices through the meat of his forearm.
The leader crawls off Selina and before he can make a move, Pat clocks him upside the head with his lucky golf club. I don’t know what was lucky about it before this very moment, but it sure saved our asses today.
“He’s losing blood fast,” I say, pointing to the blonde that I slashed.
“You severed an artery,” Pat explains. “He’s going to bleed out. Nothing we can do for him. Besides, we don’t owe him anything. You girls ok?”
The girls nod and Selina fixes her jeans but her bra and blouse are unwearable. Pat fetches Selina a clean t-shirt and hoodie to cover up with. We reclaim our respirators and Selina gives the barely conscious leader a firm, steady kick in the balls.
“Let’s finish these bastards off,” Pat says.
“I’m no murderer,” I say. “As you said, the blonde one is done for. His friends are worse for wear too. They don’t pose much of a threat.”
“Still, I wouldn’t feel safe in the same house as them,” Kelly joins in.
“We can go elsewhere,” I point out. “There’s got to be a safer location than this, no offense Pat.”
“The only thing keeping us safe from the air outside is these respirators and some weather stripping,” I continue. “The streets are clear now. I haven’t heard any gunshots or screams. I think we’re in the clear.”
“Where would we go?” Selina says, still a bit shaken up. I can hear it in her voice. The trauma of today’s events will haunt her for years to come…if we survive the interim.
Pat snaps his fingers. “Paul Mancini’s house.”
“The town pharmacist?” Kelly asks.
“He’s got a bomb shelter in his backyard, built it during that whole Y2K frenzy. He showed it to me years ago. He stocked thing with enough food and water to last for years.”
“What if he’s there?” I ask.
“Paul is a reasonable man. He’s not like these little monsters. He wouldn’t turn us away, would he?”
“Only one way to find out,” I shrug.
* * *
Once outside the house, the girls grip to us tightly and shut their eyes. They don’t want to see and I can’t blame them a bit. As we walk, the list of fallen neighbors grows by the second.
Kyle Concorde. Angus Smith. Malcolm Wright. Lance Diamond. John Coscarelli. Darren Schreiber. All victims of the mayhem that transpired on what started as another pleasant day. A block from Paul Mancini’s house, I spot Lindsey Sharpe. I’m no medic, but I know a few things. And I can tell the girls ribcage was crushed, the result of being trampled. It’s too late to save her.
We find the metallic door buried under a patch of shallow grass and pry it open with crowbars from Paul’s toolshed.
The gun hammer cocks and the barrel is raised to my eye. As he adjusts to the sunlight, Paul realizes it’s me and lowers the pistol.
He welcomes the four of us inside, sealing the door behind us. The shelter is ten feet deep and no longer or wider than an old military bunker. Donald Carpenter is here, as is Trey Miner, sans his sheriff badge and hat. It looks as though the mob–incited by their entrapment–knocked him around. Paul has cushioned chairs, bottled water, canned and dry foods, and a wireless radio set to static.
“The radio stopped working hours ago,” Paul explains. “The best I can do is pick up the frequency of some classic rock station out in Connecticut. They seem pretty clueless as to the whole situation, haven’t mentioned it once. I wouldn’t be surprised if they didn’t know yet.”
“I’m sorry everyone,” Trey moans. “I tried to get the roads clear…but there were too many accidents, too many casualties and not enough manpower. I tried to radio for backup again and again, but no one was responding. Then I got swarmed. They took my badge, my gun, even my fucking hat. Paul was nice enough to take me in. Where’d you get the respirators?”
“George Reese. Last we saw him; he was heading out of town. I don’t know if he ever made it. Cornelius Swanson shot six or seven people that I know of. Bruce Sharpe’s daughter was trampled to death.”
“Bruce Sharpe,” Trey laments. “He didn’t make it either. Some citiot clubbed over the back of the head with a baseball bat and took his respirator and supplies. I checked for a pulse, but it was too late to do anything. The blow to the head put him down fast.”
“What about his other daughter, Gail?”
“Don’t know,” Trey shook his head. “Got lost in the fray.”
“Guys, listen,” Paul exclaims. “I’ve got something on 102.4; let me see if I can get a clearer frequency.” Paul adjusts the antenna gently and the sound becomes crisp and plain.
The first words I can make out are “false alarm.”
Turns out that the “airborne toxins” were nothing more than a weak strain of flu toxins that had accidently escaped from the lab of Peach Island through the ventilation system. A mix up in communication had caused the mass spread panic and led people to believe their very lives were at stake.
I guess this makes everything ok. It was all just a false alarm. Oh well, no harm done…right? Right?