by Will Powers
I was on the beach on a Tuesday afternoon when I first saw the neighbor boy. Josh and I were sunbathing on a green towel, Josh facing the water reading a history book, and I sitting upright in my orange bikini facing the dune. The dune was a great lump of sand, rock, and beach grass reaching into the sky, maybe forty or fifty feet tall, and from where I sat I could spot some of its component parts: rusted beer cans, a turquoise net, pieces of wood, fragments of dead crab, clam, and bird. But really, it was one big mass, just sitting there, charred and drying in the sun’s heat. The waves rolled in and out behind me. I leaned back on the towel and my hand reached out and landed on Josh’s hairy thigh. I looked over at him, watched him read, watched his squinty green eyes, heavy and blinking, and the network of wrinkles on either side. His black hair was speckled with gray, and he was buried in the book, totally unreachable. I sat up again.
High up at the top of the dune a figure appeared, a small child clutching the string of a yellow kite. This was my first sight of the neighbor boy. He ran with his short little legs along the ridge, following the movement of his kite. I heard only the crashing waves from behind me, so the boy’s scuttling along the dune was noiseless and distant, a silent picture. He stopped, looked down over the steep edge as if searching for something, and then dipped his foot precariously over the edge until it made contact with a stick jutting out of the decline. Aha, I thought. He’s found something. The boy retracted his foot and reeled in the kite, twisting the spool methodically until the canary-colored thing at the end fluttered just over his head. He jumped up and snatched it out of the air. Then he promptly walked away from the ridge and disappeared from my sight. I took in a breath of sea air.
“Josh,” I said.
“Yeah, honey,” he said, his eyes focused on the bright white page.
“Do you think you might want another coffee?”
“I’m okay, still feeling the last one.”
“I think I’m gonna go make another pot. Back at the house.”
“Up to you,” he said.
I stood up and raised my hand to block out the sun, which sat just above the ridgeline of the dune. The neighbor boy had reappeared, but now he was lugging something large and purple under his arm, stopping again at the spot he had marked out before. After a moment’s hesitation, he hopped right over the ridge, deftly grabbing hold of the protruding stick and planting his bare feet on the steep wall of sand. Then he dropped from the stick and landed ass-first on the long purple object: a sled. He shot down the dune, gaining speed rapidly, bumping on some roots, and then planing on the level sand, losing speed.
I kicked Josh’s chair.
“Look at this,” I said.
Josh swiveled his head and watched the boy come to a stop in the sand. He stood up from his sled, stretched for a moment, and then began trudging towards us, dragging the sled behind him and leaving a sled-width path behind him in the sand. His hair appeared to be wet, plastered to the side of his face. He was short and slightly overweight.
“Hiiii,” he said, as he approached us.
“Heya!” I said.
He walked right by us, as if heading towards the water. Then, appearing to change his mind, he turned around.
“Do you guys know what time it is?” he asked, looking off nervously into the southern distance of the beach.
Josh glanced down at his phone. “Three-thirty.”
“Oh,” said the boy. “Thanks.” And then he walked off again, diagonally, toward the ocean at a wide angle. As he walked, he curled his toes and slapped his feet against the shiny wet sand. When a wave washed over his feet, he stopped in his tracks and looked down at the white froth that bubbled around his ankles, hiding his feet. I remembered that I was supposed to go back to the house and make some coffee, so I slipped on my flip-flops. I grabbed Josh’s large T-shirt and put that on too.
“Hey,” the boy called out from the wash. “Did you guys come in for the summer?”
“What?” said Josh, squinting over his book.
“Did you guys come here just for the summer?”
“We moved here two weeks ago,” said Josh. “We’re here year-round. I grew up here.”
The boy looked down at his feet as another wave came in.
“Born and raised,” said Josh.
The boy knelt down.
“Just down the road,” Josh continued. He pointed off toward the bluffs, but his hand slowly fell as he realized the boy wasn’t paying attention. I put my hands on Josh’s shoulders.
“Are you from here too?” I asked the boy.
“Yeah, well … ” he said, hesitating. “Nearby,” he said, and stepped out of the wash. “I am from Hollow Castle.”
“Hollow Castle?” I said.
“That’s right. It’s over there.” He pointed over the bluffs, “Beyond the Death Mound, the Piranha Forest, and Atilla Crater.”
Josh raised the book to his face again.
“Can you give me a tour of the area?” I asked.
“Of course,” the neighbor boy said. “It is my duty to welcome travelers, as long as they are good-natured.”
“I am good-natured,” I said.
We set off down the beach, leaving Josh in his chair. The wind was beginning to pick up, and the neighbor boy waddling in front of me had to raise his voice. First, I asked him about the Death Mound. Is that the dune? It’s another name for the dune, he said. They gave it that name after an ancient war, long ago, when people were killed and their bodies were piled along the sea cliffs. Eventually, the pile grew into a proper mound, weathered by the wind into a slope connecting the beach and areas above it. I said I thought that was pretty grim. He agreed. Then I asked if he’d ever found any bones in the Death Mound. He hadn’t, he said, but they were surely down there. Then he pointed out some tide pools in an area where the wash had cut into the beach. He said that the tide pools were filled with minnows that had special powers; the orange ones could heal the sick and the white ones could make you fly. I asked him if he knew this for certain. He said that it was generally known around the kingdom, but that the wizards and mages were the only ones who could extract the fish from the tide pools since everyone else was a little too slow with their hands. I asked him why they couldn’t just use a net. He said plainly that you had to get them with your hands.
We walked up a wooden staircase to the top of the dune, from which we could see the whole landscape of the dunes spread out in front of us, the rising and falling hills of sand dotted with low-lying trees and scrub. At the edge of the dunes was a forest of oak and black locust trees, a green strip separating the dunes from the unseen highway. Beyond the highway, some miles away, was Provincetown, marked out by its old stone tower that rose higher than the shingled roofs of houses, shops, and bungalows, some of which were visible from here. The neighbor boy directed my attention to a large flat area about half a mile away, where the dunes gave way to a dried-up bog filled with scrub oak and lowbush blueberry. That’s the Piranha Forest, he said. Sometimes, the leaves on the trees turn into piranha creatures that make a bloodcurdling screeching sound and attack travelers. He said that one time the king had assigned him a quest to clear the forest of piranhas so that the boatbuilders could continue to harvest the wood for their boats.
“Does the king often assign you quests?” I asked.
“Yes,” he said. “All the time.”
I asked him what other quests he had been assigned.
“Usually fighting pirates or ghouls, but sometimes I just have to deliver something to someone or forge a weapon.”
I asked him if he could show me the castle. He paused for a second, unsure, and then he said he’d show me as long as I didn’t show it to anyone else. I agreed, and we walked down through the dunes for about five minutes until we came to a grove or hollow with a single, dying honeysuckle tree in the center. The tree’s roots were half in sand and half in dirt. Around the back of the tree, against a rising hill of sand, was a crude hut made of thatched branches and sticks packed in with layers of brown leaves. The doorway was adorned with small white honeysuckle flowers.
“This is my chamber,” he said. “In Hollow Castle.”
“Is this where you get quests?”
“Yes,” he said. “The king or the head mage sometimes comes here to assign me quests.”
He invited me inside, where there was only a stump and a backpack, unzipped and spilling out leaves of loose white computer paper covered with sketches. He offered me the stump while he sat cross-legged on the floor. The sun had made me a little tired, so when I sat down I leaned back against the hut’s thatched frame.
“Don’t do that!” he cried out. “You’ll break it.”
“Right, right,” I said and sat up straight.
“Your shirt is wet,” he said and snickered.
I looked down at the white t-shirt, which draped down almost to my knees. It was damp with sea water around the areas of my bikini and thong. My breasts were clearly imprinted on the shirt in the form of dampness.
“I went swimming!” I said. “Don’t laugh at me.”
“I’m not,” he said.
Then I looked up and I could see the sun spilling into the hut through the branches, and beyond that I could see a great rising mound of sand where there were no trees at all, and above that I could see the blue sky with clouds that were thin and straggly with frayed edges, like the furry form of a Samoyed, and then I told the boy that I had to get back to my husband but that I had had a wonderful time and I would love to visit the kingdom again.
The second time I saw the neighbor boy, it was night. The yard was dark, humid, and loud with insects, and the white door creaked on its old spring hinge as I released it behind me. I made my way through the yard, dipping my head beneath the laundry line stretched between two trees. The walk was some relief. Uncle John’s birthday had required a long phone call after dinner. Josh and I had sat at the dinner table for an hour filling him in on our move and our employment prospects, which were very few.
I walked on the beach alone and saw a bonfire some distance away spilling smoke up above the bluff and into the cloudless night sky. I heard some laughter. When I approached, three boys were sitting around a burning mass of driftwood and branches. The neighbor boy was there. The three boys were silent, one of them aimlessly tossing twigs and rocks into the flames.
“Hey,” said the neighbor boy.
“Hi,” I said, approaching them slowly and then stopping a few feet away with my hands on my hips.
“What are you boys doing out here?” I asked.
“Nothing,” he said. The other boys were silent, possibly thrown off by my arrival.
“Did you make this fire?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Found the wood along the beach here?”
“Yeah,” he said. “Driftwood.”
“Found any human bones in the dunes yet?”
“A few, yeah,” he said, and then gazed into the fire.
“Are you telling campfire stories?”
The boy laid down flat on the sand and sighed. “We were playing a game earlier.”
“What kind of game?” I asked. I sat down opposite the neighbor boy.
“We were fighting ghouls in the sand pit. I was a dwarf-mage.”
“Why were you fighting ghouls?”
“We met an old half-orc in a tavern who told us that if we cleared out all the ghouls from the sand pit, we’d each get potions.”
“What kind of potion?”
“Different potions. I want an invisibility potion, and Mark wants a water-breathing potion, and Kean wants … ” He looked at the boy to the right. “What did you want, Kean?”
“A growth potion,” said the boy. He was thin with red hair and acne.
“Well,” the neighbor boy continued, “I wanted an invisibility potion so I could go down to the part of the beach there where all the shipwrecks happened.” He pointed southwards down the beach.
“Why do you need a potion to go down there?”
“There’s ghosts there at night.”
“How do you know?”
He shrugged. “It’s spooky.”
I told him I believed him but that I was going to walk down there anyway and then loop back and call it a night. I stood up, said goodbye to the boys, and told them to make sure to put out the fire before they left the beach.
“Wait,” he said. “Are you sure you want to go there alone?”
I laughed. “I’ll be fine,” I said. “But I’ll let you know if I see any ghosts.”
The third time I saw the neighbor boy was months later, when the trees in the yard had started to turn red and yellow and the bogs were mushy underfoot. Josh had more work than before. He had a beat with the local paper covering an ongoing legal dispute over dockage fees at the wharf. His newspapers and printouts were spread all over the floor, kitchen table, and counters, covering nearly every surface within his radius, and he was blasting Neil Young from a portable speaker. I heard the guitars fade away as I walked down the road. On the road to the dunes, a brown pickup truck passed me and then slowed as it approached a driveway. A tall, middle-aged man in baggy jeans and a flannel shirt got out of the car and went over to a mailbox, opened it, and withdrew a few letters. He waved to me and I waved back. He tossed the mail through his car window into the passenger seat and then turned toward me.
“You’re the new neighbor,” he said. He had a wiry beard and bushy eyebrows and was a little older than Josh. “I heard about you from my son,” he said.
“You’ve got an awfully cute kid,” I said.
“Damn right,” he said. “He’s a rascal.”
He invited me into their house for coffee. Their yard was big, much bigger than ours, but dotted with piles of junk: timber, saws, rakes, and other tools, half-empty bags of soil and fertilizer, Styrofoam cups, a rusting wheelbarrow, boat parts, and an actual boat, half-covered with a blue tarp that fluttered in the wind. The house itself was small, weathered gray, and lifted a few feet off the ground with pilings. There was a small deck on which two pairs of swim trunks, one large and one small, were drying in the sun. As I walked through the yard, the boy sprinted by me. He turned his head as he ran and waved to me wildly with both hands, then he disappeared into another part of the yard. His father held the door for me and I stepped inside. The kitchen was dark and smelled like coffee and tobacco. There was a picture of the Virgin Mary in a gold frame over the oven. On a small table by the pale double-pane window was a single turquoise candle, a week-old newspaper, and a dog-eared Dungeons & Dragons book with a mug on top. The boy’s father made me a cup of coffee with milk. He said his name was Steve, and he asked why we’d moved out here to the dunes. I told him that we’d moved back into Josh’s family’s house, since we didn’t have much money and his parents were in the nursing home nearby in Wellfleet. He asked Josh’s family name, and I told him it was O’Hanlan.
“Used to mow the lawn over there.”
“I bet Josh wishes you were still mowing the lawn.”
“Ah, so he doesn’t like to mow the lawn?”
“He complains about it,” I said.
Steve laughed and then leaned back on the sink. There was a brief silence.
“Just you and your son out here, then?” I asked.
“Just us,” he said. “Just us for a couple years now. Just us.”
I didn’t see the neighbors again for a long time. Sometimes, Josh and I talked about Steve and the boy. Around Christmas, Josh found a newspaper article online about a woman who’d died from a heroin overdose on the beach just south of our house. She’d died at night, just below the dune, in January a few years before. Her husband had come from a long line of Cape Cod natives, but she herself was from Springfield, Massachusetts, and had spent time living in Hawaii, Costa Rica, and Florida before settling on Cape Cod. She’d worked as a waitress.
When the winter came, Josh and I stayed inside most of the time. The dune itself seemed to freeze, and there wasn’t much to do. I didn’t see the neighbor boy again until the thaw, in mid-March. He had a new kite, a blue one, and I watched it flutter out from the edge of the dune, darting around at the whim of the wind.
Published on June 16, 2022