Newburyport, MA

Luke O’Neil

This story appears in Protean Magazine Issue IV: Special Relativity. Print copies are now available at our store. Excerpted from Luke O’Neil’s book of short fiction, A Creature Wanting Form, out from OR Books.


They drove north and east to go look at the ocean and then along the road over the salt marshes passing by the dilapidated but still striking pink house.

People are drawn to this house in part because of the story about its spiteful construction in the early 1900s. The tale goes that a rich man’s wife insisted he build them an exact replica of the home they were currently living in but this time nearer the water and so he did without explaining that it would be in the middle of nowhere and set her up there before divorcing her and cleaning his hands of the whole mess.

The house has been slated for demolition numerous times over the years but local groups have regularly come to its aid hoping to save it. Nobody seems to be able to agree on exactly what to do with it though and so it sits there frozen in time taken over by wildlife and slowly giving way to entropy.

Some people just like it because it’s pink and the way the setting sun reflects off of that pinkness and that’s also fine.

The beach was chilly and the water was brackish and cold but not Massachusetts cold although he would have gone in either way because when you trek to the beach you go in the water that’s just how things are done.

She always asked him not to swim out too far from where she could see even though it’s what he was compelled to do. He felt unsettled this time and so he stayed close and bobbed near the shore waving back every now and again.

One has to be careful to not to do the I’m drowning wave. It’s a different motion than the I’m still here wave.

She laughed at how his little head looked poking out of the water from a distance. A little fucking clown.

No it wasn’t harsh like that.

What do you think about when you’re floating out there she asked him later and he said I don’t know mostly dumb stuff about our connection to the earth and things like that. The type of things you think when you are trying to not think about anything. Corny naturalistic transcendentalist Thoreau and Emerson type of shit. Man’s powerlessness when confronted with the sheer awesome force of the tides and that sort of shit.

This time as he floated on his back he watched airplanes crisscross the horizon. Big ascending jets from Logan trailing lines of white cloud exhaust and low swooping propeller planes from the local grass runway. He was thinking about images from an airport across the world he saw earlier. Of desperate people clinging to the landing gear of a military plane as it attempted to take off. Of the video he watched of two little dots falling from the sky. People who had held on to the plane for as long as they could before they had to let go. Of the dozens or hundreds of people online trying to construct a bookending connection to those dying humans and the people who leapt from the towers which he found somehow offensive as if a new horror like this needed an analogy to be registered emotionally.

He thought of a picture he saw of a military dog sitting in a seat on one of our evacuating planes and of the famous TV reporter and many others who squealed with glee about how cute the whole thing was. Look at this good doggy boy narrowly escaping the warzone with his doggy life.

On the other news they were trying to convince viewers to stop thinking of the people we had been killing over there as human at all.

When he got out of the water they walked along the shore a bit holding hands and knowing they were holding hands just to do it and saw a flurry of movement where the wet sand met the dry and they looked closer and there were thousands of insects of some kind being driven insane by the carcass and bones of a seagull.

What are those he said and she said I don’t know I assume they are sea lice or something. She didn’t know if sea lice was even the name of a thing that exists. If they weren’t called sea lice already they should be.

Whatever they were they were scurrying in some kind of psychotic heat and the two of them felt a kind of shared visceral revulsion at the leaping maggot-like creatures and they tried to move around them assuming they were just concentrated by the site of the bones but as they walked along it turned out they stretched the length of the waterline for as far as it went.

Let’s get the fuck out of here he said and she said alright and so they got the fuck out of there.

Some short time later on a different beach the tide was so low and the ocean was so far away and as they walked and walked she was delighted by all the hermit crabs dinking around in the wind-blown rivulets and it made him love her like when they were young for a minute.

There must have been hundreds of them and they leaned down to get a closer look at one in particular because it seemed like it had a long silver tail reflecting bright off the sun but no it was just some kind of mackerel or something it had hanging out of its crab mouth. It was way too large for a hermit crab to have taken a bite of and maybe it was the hangover from the night before or the realization that everything is about to be fucked again from the sickness but the same disquiet from the earlier beach day returned.

The gulls were screaming in their horrible bird tongue like they were supremely pissed off about something like when you want to explain how you feel to someone so badly but instead you lash out and later feel poorly about it.

Nearby one of them was rhythmically jackhammering its bird nose into the ground so aggressively like you would if you were trying to break your head open against a wall if you were in solitary confinement. It erupted from its sandy effort with a crab of its own in its bird mouth and the crab was also too big for the bird and then horse flies were eating the humans even though they were too big for them.

Sometimes hermit crabs will get into fights with each other. If an aggressive one covets another one’s shell he’ll go and bang on it and now the other guy has to come out and crab wrestle and whoever wins gets to take the nicer crab house. A lady walking alone came up to them and said do you know if the water comes all the way up to here and covers all of this and being an expert on the area in the way you are when you’ve been on vacation in a spot for one day longer than someone else he explained that it did and in fact it should be over our heads right here in a few hours.

That night they crawled into bed with red faces and he tried to read.

As a strong bird on pinions free,
Joyous, the amplest spaces heavenward cleaving

Whitman wrote that about the glory of a bird’s flight but that exultant untethering from gravity didn’t seem to accurately describe the condition of most of the birds he knew personally. The state of being a bird seemed to be the same as any other desperate animal. We are all constantly starving and we don’t want to be starving anymore. The pain of hunger and its obvious antidote. ♦


Luke O’Neil writes the newsletter Welcome to Hell World and is the author of the book of the same name.

Art by 20th Century Collages.

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