Of all the pizza stands on the East Poke Boardwalk, only Tony’s was open all year, and there Maggie and Liz met for a slice and a soda.
“So you’re renting out here now?” Maggie asked.
“Cheap in the off season,” Lisa said. “Nice and quiet, and every day I get to look at the ocean.”
But Lisa was bright-siding, and Maggie knew it. Lisa had abandoned her in-town apartment to save on rent, even though she’d be forced to move again when the tourists, and the inflated rents, returned in May. Her leaky boat of self-sufficiency had run aground on the rocks of cash flow.
The two friends sat on a bench, facing a rough, whitecapped ocean, their backs turned to the shuttered boardwalk stands. The wind whipped their hair, and fine grains of sand stung their faces.
“Nothing like a little sand in your pizza,” Maggie said.
“It’s so East Poke,” said Lisa.
“This Boardwalk,” Maggie said, and sighed.
“What’s bugging you, Mags?”
“A few weeks ago,” Maggie said, “there’d be ten thousand people out there, half naked, half drunk, misbehaving.”
“I just have a sense of a season passing,” Maggie said. “Sad. How’s the massage business?”
“Looks like I’ll be picking up weekend shifts at the diner.”
“Just for the winter. I’ll have more clients when the tourists come back.” She shrugged. “That’s life in a resort town. Anyway, embrace your hell.”
“Embrace your hell. Everything else is a lie. There is no heaven on earth Mags. Embrace your hell, and at least you’ll live an authentic life, and in your suffering, you’ll be alive.”
Maggie lay an arm on Lisa’s shoulder. “Yeah, kiddo, summer’s gone,” she said.
In the following silence, the two friends watched and listened as stormy waves crashed into an eroding beach.
“I might join you at the diner,” Maggie said. “With a tray in my hand.”
“You?” Lisa scoffed.
“She’s not lying, Lisa.”
“Who’s not lying?”
“That’s my hell. His daughter is not lying.”
“Paul’s. She’s making accusations.”
“About who? Her father?”
“Imagine the worst,” Maggie said.
“Yup,” Maggie said. “He admitted it. Not in so many words, but still…”
“What exactly did he say?”
“He said that he and Penny were really close when her mom was first in a wheelchair. I asked what does that mean, really close. He said a lot of hugging, I was weak, I was drunk a lot, I leaned on that kid for emotional support, more than I should have.”
“He said that?”
“That’s what he said.”
“It was a confession, Lisa. I can still play it in my mind, word for word. When I woke up this morning, I knew.”
“My God. So now what?”
“So now, murder/suicide, a Shakespearean ending.”
Lisa grabbed Maggie’s wrist. “Come on, be serious.”
“He’s my landlord, he’s my employer, without Paul I don’t have a home or a job.”
“Stay out here with me. Let’s give it to Memorial Day, then we’ll figure something out.”
A gust of wind picked up their paper plates and sent them whirling down the boardwalk.
“I’m 35,” Maggie said, a divorced, washed up dancer with a monster boyfriend, a bad knee and no job skills. Paris, we were finally going to Paris but I can’t leave for Paris with that man.”
A noise over the bay caught their attention. They turned toward the fogbound sunset to see what looked, at first, like a noisy buzzing pelican diving into the water.
Dan Burns’ only hangout was the hangars at the local airports. The question for Taylor, driving frantically, was which one? Bayside County Regional? Or Pierce, out in the countryside?
At Bayside Regional he only got as far as the general aviation desk. The airport had gone all badge access now and after bouncing off a bureaucratic wall he settled for cruising the parking garage. His father’s Navigator was nowhere in sight.
He zoomed out Jefferson Road, passing the neighborhood where a serial killer had done his demonic deeds. What role, really, had Dan Burns played in the Jefferson Road murders? Something darker than the public knew, but Taylor felt he would never be sure.
Taylor stopped across from the home of Joseph Garland.
Like many other houses in the neighborhood, it was fronted by a ditch meant to minimize the chronic flooding. That ditch was all mud, dead grass and trash. Garland’s house, painted white, had been abandoned for years now, its driveway buckled, paint peeling, crusty screens on the windows. It had become something of a macabre tourist attraction.
Taylor crossed the street and peeked through the cracked garage windows. In this garage Dan Burns had discovered a toolbox that contained sick souvenirs of the murder victims. How exactly had he known where to look? On this polluted soil, Dan Burns committed the bravest, most heroic act of his life. Or pulled off a clever ruse designed to deflect the guilt of his darkest impulses. Taylor hustled back to the car, knowing now that Daniel Burns was capable of anything.
At Pierce Airfield, the Lincoln Navigator was parked in the asphalt lot. Taylor hustled among the big hangars and vaguely remembered the name Rudy, and there was a hangar so marked, Rudy’s Aviation. As he approached, a man drove up in a greasy golf cart. He was a burly guy with a military haircut, aviator sunglasses tucked into his shirt.
“Has Dan Burns been out here?” Taylor asked.
“I’m his son.”
The man pursed his lips. “Okay.”
“I’ve got a message for him.”
The man shrugged.
“An urgent message,” Taylor said.
“Family trouble?’ asked the man.
The man sighed. “Figures. He really hasn’t been himself lately. I can get him on the radio, but I’d need to see your ID.”
Taylor, in sudden panic, searched his pockets.
“I didn’t bring my wallet. Did he file a flight plan?”
“Don’t you need to file a flight plan?”
“Not unless you fly into controlled airspace.”
“Did he say where he was going?”
The man shrugged. “If you had ID, I’d call him, but son, I don’t who the hell you are. He’ll be back after dark, he’s going to do some night landings. Don’t worry, he doesn’t have the fuel to stay out for long.”
The sun was just at the horizon, a glowing, glorious orange.
“I’ll wait,” said Taylor.
“Not in my hangar,” said Rudy. “Sorry, son, we live in paranoid times.”
Taylor walked through the chain link gate that separated airfield from its parking lot. He sat behind the wheel of Stephanie’s car and watched out the buggy windshield as the sun turned sky tricks until it was a sailor’s delight, then a purple sky, then a night promising stars. Just to hear a friendly voice he turned on the radio to catch the last few minutes of Tasha’s show. Some song Taylor didn’t recognize ended, and then Tasha said, “Late police blotter coming up and then, a surprise for you all.”
But after a Want-A-Burger commercial she never came back. Her show ended with a raucous Ramones tune, which sequed into the national news. Taylor flicked off the radio, sat back and stared from the sky to the blue taxi way lights to the tiny half-lit control tower and then back to the stars. He checked his cellphone to see a whole chain of desperate texts from Stephanie. He tapped out a reply:
I’m OK Home soon.
Exhausted, he settled back and closed his eyes. His phone buzzed, Tasha Wolf, he declined the call, searched the skies, and curled up against the door. His father’s plane couldn’t have much more fuel.
He woke up to a tap on the glass. He shook off that sleep, staring at the pale face of a sheriff’s deputy. What time was it? He rolled down the window.
“Taylor Burns?” the deputy asked.
“Yes?” said Taylor, wary.
“Son of Daniel Burns?”
“There’s a plane down in the bay,” he said. “I’m sorry to say, sir that we believe it was your father at the controls.”
The deputy nodded. “We would like you to come to the county morgue.”
A squawk blurted from the deputy’s squad car radio. “Excuse me,” he said to Taylor. “One minute.”
As he leaned in to answer the radio call, Taylor’s phone rang, and this time he answered.
In a voice like a funeral director’s Tasha Wolf said: “Taylor, I have some very bad news for you.”
It was not quite spring when Taylor led his little family up to Holy Hill. Old Man Winter had come sweeping out of the North, frosting Shipwreck Bay in one last nasty gasp. Jamie was huddled into a parka like an arctic explorer. Annie kept her back to the wind, turned away from Stephanie, who was carrying the bouquet. Taylor lifted the flowers out of the vase, knelt, and laid them at his mother’s tombstone.
Mom and Dad buried together, maintaining in death the fiction of harmony. Only now could Taylor see it plainly, his mom’s need for freedom and his dad’s need for admiration. Neither partner could grant the other what they needed most.
Annie stood next to Taylor, taller now, over the winter she had shot up to adult height. Her cold hand in his, her head bowed as in prayer, she said: “I miss him sometimes, but he could be so mean to her.”
“Well I only miss Aunt Liz,” Jamie said, and turned his back on the graves.
Taylor gathered niece and nephew, one under each arm. “Okay, your uncle Dan wasn’t a softie. But they both loved you, the two of you, that’s what to remember.”
“Really?” Jamie said.
“Oh, Jamie,” Stephanie said, and bit her lip.
Jamie broke away from them and walked downhill toward the cemetery road. Annie watched him go, then hurried after him.
“He’s, you know, fifteen,” said Taylor. He kicked at his father’s grave stone. “He did one noble thing. That’s how I like to think about it. All those children will ever know is that their uncle flew into a fog, got disoriented, lost control of his plane and plunged into the bay. That’s enough. That’s all they can handle right now.”
“All they can handle,” Stephanie agreed, and took his hand. “Ready?”
From the cemetery the new family drove to the bay piers and took the ferry to Poke Island. The closer they got to the ocean the more it felt like spring. Only Aunt Crabbie’s was open, and Taylor promised the children a seaside lunch, anything on the menu. They found a corner table from where they could see the site of their new summer home. For now it was only a set of screw pilings torqued into the sandy soil.
“She gets the better room,” grumped Jamie.
“But yours is bigger,” said Steffie.
“But she gets the ocean,” said Jamie.
“You both get the ocean,” said Taylor. “It’ll be right there, right off the porch.”
“There’s your friend, Artie,” Annie said.
Taylor glanced over the menu to see Artie and Cammie climb the stairs from the beach. Artie gave a quick wave and steered Cammie into the shadowy bar.
“I like him, he’s funny,” said Annie.
“Yeah,” said Taylor.
“Are you still friends?” Annie asked.
“Oh yeah,” said Taylor. “Kind of. You know, things change.”
“Speaking of change,” Steffie said, “I do have to get in, so … let’s order up.”
“Do you get free hamburgers?” Jamie asked.
“No, I’m in marketing.”
“Marketing? What’s that mean?” Annie asked.
“It’s an office job, honey,” Steffie said. “I’m still new there. Ask me a month from now. Taylor. Taylor! Are you ready to order?”
“He’s daydreaming again,” said Jamie.
“Always looking out to sea,” said Annie.
“Yeah,” Jamie said. “What are you looking at, Uncle Taylor? What’s out there?”