A Short Story
By Ben D’Alessio
This is the recounting of the siege of Ocean Breezes, New Jersey, a small beach community that valiantly repelled the hordes of weekenders attempting to overrun the Jersey Shore gem for three days and three nights. It has gone down in history as “Bloody MDW”. This is their story.
BENNY: (n) A person that invades the northern half of the Jersey Shore from Memorial Day Weekend (“MDW”) to Labor Day Weekend (“LDW”). BENNYs typically disregard social norms, the rule of law, and jettison their inhibitions the moment they cross the shore’s threshold. BENNY is an acronym for Bayonne, Elizabeth, Newark, New York, signifying the brute’s relative geographic origin of descent.
They never used to come in on Wednesday night. The snake of traffic would reach as far back as Exit 145 on the parkway, “The Oranges,” where sweat-covered, electronic bass-thumping, Springsteen blasting, vodka-passing, Red Bull-guzzling, road-raging, family-filled, bicycle-attached, roof-rack strapped, inhibitions-waived-by-the-time-they-exit-the-mainland swarms of New Jerseyans and New Yorkers descended on the serene beach communities like the blitzkrieg on Poland, eager to inhale their first morsel of summer.
But since its inception in 1889, when Methodist minister Josiah Mandrake and his followers broke ground on the first tabernacle, the quaint shore town of Ocean Breezes had remained largely untainted. The Methodists’ yoke of the local government well into the 21st century ensured that the town remained “dry,” thus repelling the savage twenty-somethings searching for ear-splitting, dirty dark bars. The lack of a large, commercial boardwalk warded off French-fry, soft-serve, franchises and sky-rise developments; the dearth of multi-family housing kept out undesirable weekly renters. In short, the couple thousand inhabitants of Ocean Breezes had created a little oasis on the Atlantic that most New Jerseyans couldn’t locate on a map.
That is, until a food blogger from Williamsburg, Brooklyn published a piece about the pastry shop on Main Street that got picked up by Buzzfeed and subsequently went viral.
Lucy and Mindy Wallace used their collective savings to open up a boutique bakery (“Lucy and Mindy’s”) on the prized corner of Main Street and Atlantic Avenue, ditching congested Hoboken for a simpler life at the shore — the ink to their marriage license barely dry by the time they opened for business.
The first “rush” of the summer — the first “rush” the bakery ever experienced — picked up steam at 10 a.m., on the dot.
“Oh my God!” a tan mid-riff exposed twenty-three-year-old hollered at the front of the line. “I adore buttercream cupcakes.”
“Oh, me too, babe,” said her steroid-injected boyfriend.
“Ugh, I’m just so happy we found this place. Ya know, I’ve been driving by here on my way to Belmar my entire life! I’ve never even heard of Ocean Breezes.”
“Me neither, babe.”
“You guys don’t even have a sign on the parkway!”
“Yes, it’s a lovely town. We’re really enjoying it here,” said Mindy, peeking at the growing line over midriff’s shoulder. “So, two buttercreams then?”
“And I can’t believe the deal we got on the Airbnb. We’re renting the entire top floor of this gorgeous old Victorian overlooking the water. It’s just so… ugh! I feel like the moment I crossed over that bridge, I could just relax and forget all about life back in the city.”
The couple paid for their cupcakes and hopped on their tandem bike, heading the wrong way down Atlantic Avenue while midriff attempted to snap a picture of the pastry for her Instagram page.
Wally’s shaking hands cracked a can of Pamplemousse La Croix before he even brewed his morning coffee. He put an “X” through May 23rd on his calendar, his fifty-third “X” in a row. His fifty-third day in a row with quivering hands — his fifty-third day in a row without a drink.
Ocean Breezes had been running a program since the temperance-era that permitted, every year, a handful of indigent alcoholics the opportunity to stay in town while they worked through the steps. Given the municipality’s island location, lack of bars or liquor stores, and virtually non-existent public transportation, Ocean Breezes was an ideal place to “dry out.”
Although Wally was a native son of the Garden State, he had seldom left his hometown of Paterson in his forty-four years and had never even heard of Ocean Breezes — when he was accepted into the program and checked where it was, he was disappointed to find that it wasn’t located closer to Atlantic City, just in case he faltered.
From his one-bedroom in The Seagull, the only apartment-complex in the town, Wally could walk to his job at the community center, resupplying paper towels and wiping down the exercise equipment with disinfectant. Located on the “Bay” side of the island, Wally would pass the 7th street bridge that siphoned traffic off of the Garden State Parkway, through Shore Point — the inland town resting on the other side of the bridge — and into Ocean Breezes. He would oftentimes imagine simply jogging across the two-and-a-half-mile bridge separating the island from the rest of New Jersey, tumbling into “Martin’s Mead Mart,” the liquor store that has been in operation for over 100 years, and drowning himself in whiskey.
“Smartest business decision my family ever made,” the fifth generation of Martin would say, the chorus of cash register dings! exploding in layered harmonies. “Opening up a liquor store on the border of a dry town.”
Each day that Wally walked by, the bridge seemed to become shorter and shorter, as if it was pulling the island and the mainland back together.
He was awakened from his daydream when a family of five’s string of bicycles went cruising through a stop sign on Mandrake Street, causing Mrs. Goldenstein to slam on the brakes of her sedan halfway through the intersection — the family hadn’t even flinched and continued to flash blissful, white smiles as if they were a living Tommy Hilfiger advertisement.
At the community center, David, an Ocean Breezes native visiting home for the summer after his Junior year of college, had to swim his way through gaggles of chatting septuagenarians who treated the exercise machines like park benches.
“Excuse me, sir, if you aren’t using that, do you mind…”
“If you aren’t using…”
“Oh! Oh, I haven’t even started yet, pal.”
And the old man turned back to his friend and continued with their conversation.
“This is insane,” said Isaac, David’s roommate at college who was visiting. “Man, it’s like a vacuum sucked ’em all into your town. When I was here over Thanksgiving, this place was dead.”
“Yeah, it never used to be like this,” David said, looking out the window at the crowded downtown like it was Omaha Beach. “I… I don’t understand how this happened.”
Luther Mandrake had a blue-blooded pedigree that made the Kennedys look like first-generation immigrants. Methodist deacon, Ocean Breezes’ mayor, the Mandrakes virtually owned the downtown and a plethora of old Victorian homes that lined the most prestigious streets of the beach community. But despite his wealth and responsibilities, Luther most enjoyed the same thing his ancestors had when they established the town in the 19th century — the beach when the spring showers ceased and the sun came out to warm the Jersey Shore.
“Ha Ha Bitch pleeeaaasseeee, I shower in Louis Thirteeeeeen!” flowed out of a thumping speaker on repeat.
Luther had just cracked open a fresh Carl Hiaasen paperback from the library — he had fallen in love with the “large print” books since hitting his fifties, and made sure the local library had the most impressive selection at the shore — but he couldn’t get more than a few lines in before jumping out of his beach chair every time the chorus to Bleed Louis XIII came back around.
He knew there wasn’t a chance the Memorial Day Weekend hooligans had properly purchased tags to access the beach and took solace when the teenage checker came pacing down the sand.
“Huh…hey, do you guys, like, have badges?”
“Ha Ha Bitch pleeeaaasseeee, I shower in Louis Thirteeeeeen!”
“What?!” called a few from their beach-chairs.
“I said, do you guys have your beach badges?!”
“’Badges?” The group started to laugh as one bronze young man put on an offensive Mexican accent. “We don’t need no badges! I don’t have to show you any stinkin’ badges!’”
Luther shot into the air, startling everyone involved in the hullabaloo.
“You need badges to be on this beach!” he shouted, pointing at all of them like a paranoid-schizophrenic.
“Dude, calm down,” laughed the thespian. “We got badges, amigo.” He showed the proper season’s badges clipped to the beach-bag. “I was just reenacting that scene from that movie.”
The deacon grabbed the back of his chair and dragged it down the beach in defeat. Luther soon realized that the obnoxious beachgoers were not an isolated incident, for as far as he could see, weekenders flooded onto the shore, eating up the golden sand like locusts whose incessant buzz emanated from a hundred portable speakers.
Back at his home, a cream-white Victorian with burgundy trim his ancestors built during the Gilded Age, his wife Mary poured him a tall, ice-clinking glass of horchata — his vice ever since Manolo, a Spaniard and recent convert to the church, had Luther and Mary over for dinner last summer and introduced him to the milky nectar.
Luther made his way out to the balcony, his sanctum — away from the church, of course — where even on a cold winter’s night he would bundle up and listen to the crashing songs of the Atlantic Ocean.
But when Luther entered the balcony’s threshold, the caws of the laughing gulls and the ocean’s melody were drowned out by Jimmy Buffet.
On the adjacent balcony, he watched as men in cargo-shorts, polo shirts and visors grabbed whooing tanned and wrinkly women around the waist as they huddled around the swirling margarita mixer like they were pagans frolicking around an electric-green fire.
“Hey buddy, you want one?!” called a pudgy guy who had spent the entire morning at the beach without sunblock.
“How do you know the McKenzies?!” Luther shouted over the music.
“We don’t! We found their place on Airbnb!” he poured out a frothy margarita, spilling it directly on the balcony floor. “Ain’t it great?! We’re gonna rename this place Margaritatown!” The fat man found this line original and hilarious.
The barbarians had breached the gates.
Luther placed his horchata on the wood-railing and returned inside, without saying a word, he brushed passed his wife.
“What’s the matter, dear?” Mary asked.
She followed him down the stairs and into his library, where he knelt before a chest covered with maps and stacks of old books. She looked on as her husband moved the books to the floor, opened the chest, and reached inside.
“Your grandfather’s sword,” she said as if she had been waiting for this moment for some time now.
“And all of my grandfathers before him,” he responded, following the sword with his eyes from the point to where “God” was engraved on the pommel. “This sword defended Mandrakes in the old country.”
“Will it defend Mandrakes in the new?”
Luther inhaled, regarding the blade one more time.
“Not just Mandrakes, my dear. Civilization.”
The tabernacle’s air conditioning did little to quell the ruminating fire of the masses. Irate residents of Ocean Breezes from all walks of life, not just the devout Methodist base, filled the meeting room, shouting over one another like parliament.
“I couldn’t even get out of my driveway this morning!” cried old man Cusimano. “I had to call the police to get them towed!” General shouts of sympathy rang out from the crowd. “And when I came back in the afternoon, I couldn’t get into my damn driveway again!”
“I almost hit a tandem bike going through a stop sign!” shouted Ms. Fitzpatrick. “They… they didn’t even seem to notice auh… and it really shook me up.”
Nearby friends rubbed Ms. Fitzpatrick’s back and placed hands on her shoulders.
“You can’t even use the gym,” David stood up, one of the few meeting constituents under the age of thirty. “It’s like they treat it like a lounge!”
Eventually, the floodgates opened and it became impossible to fully hear any one complaint.
“… and then he called me a jabroni!”
“If it wasn’t for those two,” old man Cusimano pointed at Lucy and Mindy Wallace, both flushed crimson at the end of the row. “This never would’ve happened!”
“Enough!” boomed the deacon. Luther reestablished himself at the podium and the crowd fell silent when they saw the shimmering broadsword in his hands.
“My brothers and sisters, I know you well. Some of you are the offspring of the original settlers of our heaven, who planted the first stone on this island with my great-great-grandfather before the turn-of-the-century. Some of you belong to my Sunday flock, others are new to our hearth-by-the-sea. But all of you here before me, whether you knew it or not, are guardians of Ocean Breezes.”
Affirmative murmurs emanated from the crowd.
“A scourge has invaded our shores, breached our walls, that threatens our very way of life.”
Methodist, Catholic, Baptist, Jew, Secularist, Atheist, shook their heads and stomped their feet.
“I brought you into a bountiful land, to eat its fruit and its goodness.”
“Amen! Hallelujah! Amen!” called the crowd.
“But when you entered, you defiled my land and made my heritage an abomination!” Luther cried, quoting the book of Jeremiah.
“Tell us, Luther!” Mr. O’Sullivan tossed his walker aside as if it were a hindrance. “What do we do?!”
“We cast them out to the sea!” cried old man Cusimano.
“We blockade the bridges!” yelped Ms. Fitzpatrick.
“We crush them!” The crowd turned around. “Make ’em wish they never stepped foot in our town!!” And began to cheer upon seeing the uniformed, mustachioed, police chief Walters panting and red, standing at the back of the tabernacle.
“They blocked my driveway, too…”
“Brothers! Sisters! Be still!” Luther called, but the pent-up anger had been suppressed for too long.
Rage abounded. A dormant, primordial instinct bubbles to the surface when our way of life is encroached upon. Some look to religious texts, others cite the Constitution, history, nationalism, whatever the source the feeling remains the same: the struggle for preservation is rarely defeated. Luther Mandrake saw with his own eyes, the first time in his 38 years as a minister, the fire of man he had only read about in books. He knew it was time to make a stand.
“I am before you as a man of peace. Where that peace is threatened, I owe services.”
The citizens of Ocean Breezes grew discontented with their leader.
“But I also stand before you as a man of God. And I did not come to bring peace on the shore, but a sword!”
The crowd erupted sending shockwaves through the tabernacle that shook the stain-glass windows. Pulling concealed machetes, knives, guns, and other weaponry that had been hidden under sweatshirts and raincoats, the gathering exited the tabernacle and entered the balmy night.
Luther watched on from the podium, and with his sword named God in his grip, he smiled knowing he had ignited the uprising.
The sun had torn through the SPF 15 she had applied the previous afternoon, turning her cheeks a bright crimson. Her blonde highlighted hair swayed in the breeze coming off the bay and she didn’t flinch when a seagull landed on her head, stuck atop a pike that lined the 7th Street Bridge.
Wally had to hold back vomit as he watched Ms. Fitzpatrick and old man Cusimano struggle to slide another severed head onto a makeshift spear.
“Well done, Gladys,” old man Cusimano said from his wheelchair, holding the spear steady. “That’s the last one.”
“I think that should just about do it.” She came down from the step ladder, wiping the death grime from her hands onto her blood-stained blouse. “That’ll serve as a nice warning not to rent to the trash.”
Wally, along with the rest of the Ocean Breezes citizenry, had borne witness to the execution of the McKenzie parents — Luther had made it public.
Before they sealed off the only bridge leading onto the island, the sword-wielding minister himself had led a search team for the McKenzies on the mainland to bring the family back to the island to stand trial.
Their charges? Renting their house out to undesirables on Airbnb aka “The Plague of Quaint Neighborhoods”.
Working with a tip from a member in Jeanine McKenzie’s yoga class, the search team found the family renting out a colonial a few towns inland and yanked them into the street as they were finishing up dinner.
Objectively, what the McKenzies had done — renting out their own beach home and collecting a premium for the summer while themselves renting a place on the mainland — was common practice at the Jersey Shore and not even frowned upon in Ocean Breezes. But the family had relinquished their home — and subjected their neighbors — to “weekenders,” the Thursday-to-Sunday vodka-and-Redbull shotgunning at four-in-the-morning crowd that crossed the bridge like Viking invaders after laying waste to locales like Belmar and Seaside Heights — once respectable, family towns. Therefore, the McKenzie’s betrayal of their kind was unforgivable; the only suitable punishment for their transgressions was death.
As a token of the Lord’s mercy, Luther had ordered Jack and Abigail McKenzie to be hanged before they were decapitated — their tenants were not shown the same charity.
Acting as judge, jury, and executioner, Luther carried out his own sentence, growing weary during the stretch of the final five trembling weekenders from Lyndhurst, but swung the sword hard and true, nevertheless.
The heads of the McKenzies (the parents that are, the children were provided safe passage back to the mainland) and those of their tenants, the twenty-somethings that had put Bleed Louis XIII on full blast at the beach, their margarita-swilling parents, and any others with whom a local had a personal complaint, now lined the island-side of the two bridges.
Escape from the island was futile. Wally had considered it himself. Naturally, those who couldn’t escape to their cars dove into the bay to escape certain death — for many, watching old man Cusimano repeatedly run over the neck of a wounded teenager with his wheelchair cemented the BENNYs’ fears that there would be no reasoning with the berserking residents. Wally was treated like a local and did not have to fear for his well-being, but had already been to prison for possession charges back in his twenties and thirties, and had no intentions of going back; this time for life, for conspiracy to murder.
As the sun had set across the bay, all Wally could see were flailing bodies struggling in the green water, far from Shore Points two and a half miles away. He had turned around on the dock and back into the gruesome fray taking place in Ocean Breezes, for Wally never learned how to swim in Paterson.
That’s not to say that rescues weren’t attempted from the mainland. Boats leaving Shore Points tried to slip through the bay under the cover of darkness and deliver shocked weekenders to safety. But Luther had anticipated the Good Samaritans spoiling his reckoning and had commanded David to form an elite squadron of coast-watchers with a handful of the town’s spry youths.
David had been looking for an excuse to utilize his new Tesla flamethrower, and sent the modest fishing boat up in an orange fireball that drifted back out into the water like a Viking funeral pyre — Wally still had the nauseating scent of torched flesh lodged in his nostrils the next morning.
Even the Wallaces, who would rush errant spiders to the grass with a folded piece of paper and had a maize and green Jill Stein sticker proudly plastered across the bumper of their Prius, jettisoned their moral convictions of non-violent action, and took positions at the bloody frontier — Mindy wielded a freshly sharpened cake knife, Lucy swung a Lakewood Blue Claws novelty bat. When they stumbled upon the obnoxious couple from Thursday morning cowering behind Manolo’s shed, they took their time erasing the pair from existence, and only stopped when the Spaniard queried if he could test out his bullfighting espada he had brought back during his last visit to Seville.
By the next morning, Mandrake and Main Streets were strewn with dismembered corpses baking in the sun, the cobblestones saturated in BENNY blood.
Besides Mrs. Goldenstein twisting her ankle while chasing a fat BENNY with a machete, the residents of Ocean Breezes had remained unscathed. Luther celebrated with an horchata on his balcony, taking in the serene atmosphere before he returned to the tabernacle where chained hostages huddled together in a dark room.
To prove his loyalty to the community and thus keep his head, Isaac, David’s college roommate, set up a live-feed of the hostages to prevent the government from attempting any swashbuckling, Osama Bin Laden hunting-type raids on the island.
“Are we live?” Luther asked Isaac, who was still trembling from the carnage he had witnessed.
“Yuh… yes, yes, sir. We’re live right now.”
Luther paced about the room to the sound of chains screeching across the floor as he drew near.
“Whuh… why are you doing this to us?” A girl from Murray Hill, Manhattan whimpered in the corner. “We didn’t do anything to you.”
The minister kneeled before the girl, whose cheeks were caked with dried blood and sand, and his holstered sword thumped down on the linoleum floor.
“Oh, but you did. Are you familiar with Japanese history?” Luther left time for the quivering girl to answer, and then looked around the room, posing the question to anyone else willing to respond. When no one answered, he continued. “During the 16th century, the Japanese shogun grew suspicious of this new religion that had been coursing through the common folk and even making its way to some of the daimyos… the regional lords of Japan. The religion of which I’m speaking, of course, is Christianity. You see, Christianity, especially that of the Portuguese Jesuits, subverted the Japanese way of life. When the shogun, and to a greater extent the country as a whole, felt their society threatened by a virus, they took action.”
The minister scraped some crusty blood from the girl’s cheek with his fingernail and rose to his feet, this time addressing the prisoners as if it were a sermon.
“And how did Japan kill the virus infecting their ancient civilization? They outlawed the religion, executed the believers, and cut themselves off from the rest of the world!”
Luther announced, standing over her once again, “So, my dear, when you sit there and cry that you ‘didn’t do anything’ to us, you’re missing the point entirely. You… all of you, are viruses to be terminated.” He unsheathed his sword and slashed it through the air. “Tumors to be radiated. Boils to be lanced and growths to be carved out. You’re a pox on civilization, a societal malfunction.” He crouched down beside her once more, “You’re an invasive species, sweetheart, a disease that needs to be wiped out before it can take root.”
“You speak about society,” a deep voice rose from the corner. “But it will be society that kills you and destroys this godforsaken place!” The speaker was one of the few middle-aged male prisoners, thick and brawny, as the rest were slaughtered during the nighttime purge.
He knew he had Luther’s attention and rose to his feet.
“You’re lucky I’m stuck in chains old man, or else I’d crush your skull like a beetle.”
“Is that so?”
The man struggled to his feet, leaning against the wall before finally standing upright. The rest of the prisoners gazed upon the stoic man as if he were their champion.
“That’s right. Society will turn on you and this… this shit beach community will be wiped from the Earth.”
Before Luther could swipe the blade of his sword across the prisoner’s bare neck, Isaac, who had been monitoring the cameras from a laptop, called out from his desk.
“I don’t think so,” he said, pointing at his computer screen and grabbing the attention of the entire group. “Mr. Mandrake, come take a look at this.”
Isaac turned up the volume on the computer until the entire tabernacle could hear the news anchor reporting on the “phenomenon sweeping across the world”.
What Luther saw would have made most men sick, for the abject carnage the defenseless suffered rivaled that which occurred in Ocean Breezes only hours earlier, but to the deacon it was art.
A four-way, rotating split-screen showed live feeds of crazed locals with smiles on their faces and fire in their eyes, taking their anger and resentment out on obnoxious tourists. A local Parisian kicked a gawking couple down the harrowing, steep Montmartre steps, and a New Yorker beat a man to a pulp with his selfie-stick. In the French Quarter, a New Orleanian carved up a paunched tourist with the shards from a broken Hurricane glass beneath a gallery with tourists hanging from nooses of iridescent plastic beads. Angelenos mauled a group of influencers (and the security guard) congregating around a private mural of wings, while across the Atlantic irate Italians drowned tourists in the Trevi Fountain.
Luther watched on knowing the global fire had been lit. The crackling embers from the small beach town had ignited a conflagration of international proportions. The tourist-infested neighborhoods of the world were rising-up and taking back their homes. A red Irishman interrupted a field-reporter while seated in the driver’s seat of a Guinness truck and explained in a thick brogue that the little American beach town had inspired their uprising. He then took off, rumbling down cobbled Temple Bar into a pack of stumbling Chinese tourists.
“It’s… it’s happening everywhere,” said Isaac. The prisoners’ champion had heard it all, his bravado was smothered and he slumped back down in his corner of the tabernacle. “They’re calling you ‘The Deacon of Death’,” Isaac continued. “Mr. Mandrake, I think… I think you need to do something. Say something to the world to get them to stop. Innocent people are being slaughtered.”
“Innocent? Innocent? Viruses cannot be so. Find David and gag the brute who somehow made it through the night.” He motioned to the defeated weekender in the corner. “If I hear him again, his head will join the others lining the bridge.”
David unloaded a cargo of canned food from a boat with the help of Lucy and Mindy Wallace. The goods had been shipped north from Atlantic Grove in solidarity.
“The government is sending the National Guard all over the shore,” said the captain, hauling the last box of tuna onto the dock. “They’re afraid some of us other towns are gonna follow suit. Start crackin’ skulls. Man, there was this guy that parked right in front of my driveway last summer… if I coulda hooked him up to that tow truck,” the captain said, trailing off into a gory fantasy.
David bent down from the dock, scooped some saltwater into his hand and splashed it onto his face. The scorched rescue boat he had torched with the flamethrower sat on its side in the sand like a beached whale — its occupants likely drowned fleeing the flaming vessel, or had been captured and tossed into the tabernacle with the others.
After fixing the cargo onto the dolly so the Wallaces could take it to the look-out stations set up around the island, David sped down the boardwalk towards the gym, where he expected to have the exercise machines and equipment all to himself.
He leaped over a stream of blood as if it were a puddle forming between the street and lip of the curb, and followed the lingering stream to where it trickled off the edge of the boards, leaving a red depression in the golden sand. Leaning over the railing to get a better look, David could make out the better part of a bloody footprint, its toes pointing to underneath the boardwalk.
When he was twelve, David had taken a girl from Secaucus below the boards, retreating from the August sun for a cool respite, and had his first kiss. At fifteen, he and a few of his friends from Shore Point shared their first beer at that same spot after their homecoming win against West Regional — David’s father had supplied the beer; rather have them loosely monitored within the confines of the island than let loose on the mainland, was his thinking. When swaths of the Jersey Shore had fallen victim to the opioid plague — where it was more likely to see drugs and paraphernalia change hands than two tweens exchange first kisses beneath the boardwalk — Ocean Breezes had retained its mid-century innocence.
David hopped down onto the beach and shielded his eyes from the sun to provide a better look into the darkness. Figures darted in opposite directions, forcing David to jolt backward in surprise and fall into the sand. He took off up the beach, running parallel to the figure, and from the other direction, a crackling voice rang out after him, “No! Follow me! This way!”
He had been able to gain on the figure with ease, dodging the stilts that held up the boards like a native to the forest. Cutting off its angle, David pounced at his prey, his lunge taking them both careening back out into the sun and onto the beach.
The target was a nine-year-old girl who had left from her leafy suburb in Somerset County the day before with her parents — whose heads now lined the 7th Street Bridge — and had managed to evade the marauding locals by hiding beneath the boardwalk. Trembling from head to foot, the girl had been unable to speak, let alone scream, since the night before.
“You were supposed to be evacuated with the other children. Now you’ve borne witness and must be…”
But before David could finish, Wally laid a crushing, linebacker-imitating, blow into his side, pulverizing him into the sand.
The two bodies thrashed about the beach, jockeying for the high position and exchanging blows to the face and throat.
“You’re that… that fucking drunk!”
“I’ve been…” thwack! Wally planted a fist on David’s chin. “… sober for fifty-four goddamn days! Ahh!”
David had caught Wally’s second punch and sunk his teeth into the fleshy part of his hand. As Wally reeled in pain, David lunged into his pocket and pulled out a blade, which he had used the night before to scalp a pair of septuagenarians who had hogged the warm-up mats for twenty minutes chatting.
But the college student’s adrenaline had gotten the best of him, as the aimless slashes through the air did little damage to his opponent, and left him vulnerable to a swift counter.
Wally had engaged in numerous brawls growing up in Paterson, plenty of them involving knives — with the scars to show it — none when he hadn’t been drinking. But sobriety was Wally’s newly discovered super-power, so he could anticipate each thrust of the knife as if David’s slices were in slow-motion. On a fatal plunge aimed at his heart, the newcomer blocked David at the wrist and twisted his elbow so the blade was slowly descending at the attacker’s sternum.
“You don’t…stop! Stop! You don’t have to do this. You don’t have…” David pleaded as the point hovered an inch from his chest, only a cotton t-shirt to serve as the first line of defense against the knife.
Wally grit his teeth and put the full weight of his body behind the handle of the blade.
“You… you aren’t innocent either. I saw you, too. I saw… stop! Help! Hellllp!”
A crack of thunder burst from down the beach and the weight that had been gaining on David’s shaking forearm vanished.
Wally blinked, once, twice, and mouthed something inaudible before crashing into the sand. The back of his skull was missing, revealing brain and bone.
With guns drawn, a team of special forces slowly approached the college student and weeping child and asked if they were hurt.
Old Man Cusimano was a dead-eye. Although he seldom spoke about his deployment to Korea, it was public knowledge he had sustained gruesome injuries in the war and took to the bottle when he returned home to Roselle, up in Union County. Arriving in Ocean Breezes in the fall of 1973 to “dry out,” the wheel-chair-ridden veteran had only left the island three times since — for his son’s wedding, for his daughter’s wedding, and his son’s funeral. For him, Ocean Breezes was Shangri-La, the Elysian Fields accessible to the very much alive mortals of the Earth. So, when the SUV with battering-ram grill attachment flew down the 7th Street Bridge to break through the garrison the town had come together to build, Old Man Cusimano was 18 again, firing his issued carbine into the charging enemy.
The Hummer H-2 appeared larger than some of the tanks he had seen in the war, but without the battle-ready protections, the former sniper sent a bullet through the front windshield without any impediments, striking the driver in the chest, causing the bumble-bee vehicle to slam into the guardrail and flip onto its side.
When the passenger crawled out of the shattered window, Old Man Cusimano had already lined up the shot and put a bullet through the driver’s temple.
The vet reversed out of his perch in the wheelchair — as his position had certainly been compromised — and flew past Ms. Fitzpatrick wiring a claymore and a hobbling Mrs. Goldenstein, who despite her injury during the purge of the filth, refused to be sidelined during the fortification of the island.
Old Man Cusimano looked on with pride, with a lump on his throat as he rolled by and witnessed the town come together — to patrol the wall where the bay waters splashed against the island, to wire explosives to the 7th Street Bridge, just in case the barricade was breached, or to hose the blood puddles that spotted Main and Mandrake streets into the sewers. Even during Super-Storm Sandy, back in 2012, the residents trickled back onto the island here and there, lending aid where it was needed, but focusing most of their efforts on the more severely stricken chunks of the shore.
He came upon Mary Mandrake, on the street of her namesake, and slung his rifle over his shoulder so they could embrace.
“Boy, I’ve heard the rumors of you and that thing, Anthony, wish I could see you in action for real. It’s probably just like the movies,” she shivered with excitement.
“I’ll tell ya, not a single sucker is getting across that bridge on my watch. It’s like…it’s like I’m a new man, Mary.”
“Oh, I’m so happy to hear it. Luther would be too. You should go see him. I think he’s gonna make a statement — you know how he is — has that gift for allocution. You might even get on TV!”
“That sounds lovely. If only I was twenty years younger. You might not remember, but I was quite the bull in my sixties.”
“You used to do one-armed push-ups right on the beach! I remember it well, Anth…”
From his wheelchair, Old Man Cusimano hadn’t seen the shirtless berserker flying down Main Street until his hammer was lodged in the back of Mary Mandrake’s skull. The man’s eyes darted about his face, and after one attempt at pulling the tool out of the back of Mary’s caved-in head, he took off weapon-less down the street, leaving bloody footprints on the concrete and the stench of unwashed crevices behind him.
Old Man Cusimano fumbled with his rifle, and by the time he had centered the cross-hairs and fixed them to his eye, the man was gone. Mary’s body emitted spastic shakes from the ground and he almost fell out of his wheelchair reaching for her hand.
The pebbles danced in the pool of blood expanding around her head, and when Old Man Cusimano looked up, he saw the fury of the retribution tearing down the street, letting out a high-pitched screech signaling the ultimate battle of the war.
He raised his weapon and fired-off two rounds — hitting one woman in the chest, killing her instantly, another woman in the shoulder. But the caged animals had gained on the wheel-chaired man before he could bolt another round and enveloped him in a wind-tunnel of blades and clubs before proceeding down the street.
Luther sliced God through the air with the intent to kill the visiting college student.
“You betrayed me!” the sword parried off of the torero espada Isaac had taken from Manolo’s corpse. “We took you in as one of our own!”
Isaac dove across the floor to gain distance from the irate deacon.
When Luther had been recording one of his fire-and-brimstone tirades in the tabernacle office, Isaac took the opportunity to unleash the hostages from their shackles. The group, mostly comprised of women and children, pounced on Manolo, who had rushed into the room when hearing the iron fall to the ground.
They pummeled the Spaniard with their fists before choking him with their own shackles like a garrote. The mob flung open the doors and breathed in the salty air for the first time in over 24 hours. When Luther had stormed into the makeshift dungeon, sword unsheathed, all that remained was Manolo’s lifeless body and Isaac, completely unscathed.
Luther lunged at Isaac again, the blade missing entirely and tearing into the desktop computer. The TV they had rolled-in on a cart for the prisoners played perpetual coverage of the worldwide uprisings — the aftermath of the massacre on Copacabana beach, the demands of the locals holding hostages in Stone Town, Zanzibar — cut into the grunts of the melee.
“You won’t leave this island alive,” Luther said, catching his breath.
“None of us will! You could’ve policed the rules more heavily, ticketed the bikers who ride down the wrong side of the street, towed away cars that block driveways. Added a luxury tax or something, anything instead of killing tourists and putting their heads on pikes!”
Three-round bursts erupted from just outside the tabernacle doors followed by the thud of lifeless bodies falling to the ground.
Isaac leaned against the wall believing he was only moments away from SWAT coming to rescue him and taking Luther away in handcuffs.
“It’s over, Luther.” He tossed the espada onto the floor and put his hands above his head.
The doors flung open and an officer in black and blue SWAT gear made a preliminary scan of the room. He removed an extra assault rifle that had been slung over his shoulder and slid it across the linoleum floor until it stopped inches from Luther’s toes.
“What are you doing? He’s the maniac behind all this! You have to arre…”
Isaac flew backward from the three-round burst, leaving a snail trail of blood on the drywall as he slid onto the floor.
A tear came to Luther’s eye as the officer removed his mask and it was David who looked back at him, his gear shining in the fluorescent lighting like a knight’s armor glittering in the sun.
“Luther, it’s… Mary is…”
But the deacon put his hand up to stop him. “She’s a martyr for a noble cause. I couldn’t be prouder to have called her my wife.”
He picked up the assault rifle from the floor and they left the tabernacle side-by-side. Screams and gunfire — even the explosion of a claymore Ms. Fitzpatrick had booby-trapped to the front of her little cape cod — went off around the island. But Luther knew the struggle was over, the siege had served its purpose.
David watched a live-feed on his phone as the last of the hostages were delivered from the island and back onto the mainland. The special forces had been summoned back too — only the locals remained.
The Wallaces appeared from behind an overturned truck they had used as cover; Mrs. Goldenstein hobbled out from a storefront. The legion grew with freedom fighters emerging from their posts as the mass moved down Mandrake Street, the locals embracing each other with hugs and tears and kisses on the cheek. And they gripped hands as the rolling thunder of fighter jets approached from the West, casting Ocean Breezes out into the sea in a symphony of fire.