On the second date she brought up the lights in the water.
“What do you mean you haven’t seen them,” she said. “You’re from here. It’s all up and down the shore, real late. The witching hour or past it.”
“Just summers when I was a kid,” I said. “Now I don’t stay out late. Early shift.”
The diner faced a parking lot, the parking lot of the black ocean. End of season loomed. Emptiness inherited the town. Waves lashed the thin shore and wind ripped at dune grass. Gulls hung in the air, motionless and screaming.
“What about tonight,” she said.
I was still surprised she wanted to see me again. We didn’t have much in common, but she was kind and that’s really all you can ask for. I hoped she thought I was kind too.
“O.K.,” I said, surprising myself too. I watched her face change in the napkin dispenser.
* * * *
There was nobody under the sodium lamps of boardwalk. The arcades were open to the cold night, games like sirens. I had a dollar so I tried the fortune teller. Her orb pulsed blue and she moved mechanically. The eyes dead and lifeless, all the life of a retail mannequin, the grace of a scarehouse ghoul. My fortune was to please insert another dollar.
I turned my collar against the carbon atmosphere. Lights in the water. Was she talking about the lighthouse? No, that went dark when I was a kid. I pictured sunken wrecks, subterranean St. Elmo’s fire. But there were no mysteries left anymore, not around here anyway. All the maps were filled in, and all that was left was tired.
Her car was parked on the bridge over the kill. She stood duneside, a shadow against the night. Hands in pockets, she faced the seamless place where sky met ocean. I said hey as I approached but she didn’t turn. She watched the dark like it was about to make a move.
“We’re early,” she said.
“For what,” I asked.
“You’ll see,” she said.
We didn’t say anything for a while. The only sound was the black wind. There was a fine chill that crystalized everything, made my skin tighten. If I unfocused my eyes I could see the faint glow of the galaxy. The whole world felt filled up with an ocean of feeling. Something in my chest hurt thinking about it.
It appeared below the water. I almost didn’t notice at first. The gradual lightening. The blue glow was electric, singular, faint. But it was rising, closing in on the surface. Soon there were dozens of blue lights up and down the shoreline. Out at sea but only just.
“Holy shit,” I said.
“They’re crabs, she said.
I could feel her silent laughter, shaking beside me.
“It looks alien,” I said.
“Everything seems supernatural until it doesn’t,” she said. “Some compass always brings them back to the same spot. Where we are now. We track them for miles, rolling with the currents, all across the sea floor. But always arriving back here.”
I pictured darkness, tracks in sand like ice cream, cold North Atlantic water. Angles of light flexing against all the gray.
“I can’t believe you’ve been here all this time and never knew,” she said.
I felt like someone peeled back my own face and showed me what was underneath. I grew up inland. Working summers at the parking lot my grandfather owned, not far from where we stood now. Every day I waved through families in cars and trucks, collected dollars, made change, sweated through long hours in the hot shed, watched the tarmac fill up, empty out. I came back when school didn’t work out. There were a lot of places out there, but none of them fit me like here. After my grandfather died the lot got bought and I found a job working the pier. When you looked out at the margin, you could see for miles — but now I saw it was only the surface.
We watched the lights bounce around the waves, looking like blue fireflies under the ocean. They tumbled in shallows, sinking into where they were supposed to be.
* * * *
Breathing cold smoke, we watched the world lighten. Snow detached itself from the fog, touching dark water before rejoining. My coworkers flicked cigarettes off the pier and went back inside. It was warmer inside the refrigerated warehouse than out. And there was never anything left to say after the sun came up.
Whenever I looked at the water I thought about that night. Sometimes I thought about how things could have gone different. Her contract with state wildlife ended and she left, I didn’t follow. Just one of those things.
It is what it is, my coworkers kept saying.
My boss came outside and frowned at the sky. He told me to move the bags of ice inside. There was a freak storm coming in, us in the crosshairs. “I’ve never seen anything like it,” he said, and shook his head. Snow clung to my jacket and I swung the pallet jack around. Seagulls danced around me and I wondered where they went during the nor’easters.
That night, the wind howled. Near midnight the TV went. Tried the light switch. No power. Snow kept falling in the dark. I pictured the town as a snow globe, under glass. I remembered the lights below the water, the stillness there. I hadn’t been back since that night. I wanted to preserve it in my head like that forever. But I couldn’t stop thinking about it. So I brought the thing of whiskey, and went back to the shore.
And when the lights appeared, I thought, oh there you are.
The lights moved toward the surface. But they weren’t slowing. I watched as the blue lights rose into the air. I looked around but there was nobody, not even plows on the road. The lights climbed skyward, moving through the blizzard. They rose above the boardwalk and the pier. In the sky there was a brighter light, waiting.