The sun beats down on Paradise like an angry drunk. It cracks the villas’ pastel stucco skin, makes syrupy heat waves roil above the tar roofs, and bleaches the loose gravel driveways into trails of jagged bone shards. It makes the oak trees sag, browns the evergreens’ needles, and turns the air sticky with the elm trees’ sweat. The evidence of last night’s party putrefies in the streets: meat gristle, disemboweled garbage bags, and cigarette butts with their marrow sucked out.
People sleep as late as they can, wearing stained cocktail dresses or rumpled button-downs or absolutely nothing at all, depending on how the night went. But then they snort themselves awake, and the hangover headache hits like a meat tenderizer, smashing into their brains over, and over, and over. So they stagger out of bed and pour themselves a drink, or have a smoke, or take a tab or two—whatever it takes to get them to nightfall, when they can start getting smashed in a much more enjoyable way.
The children have been awake since dawn. They’re not with their parents in Paradise, of course. They’re in the forest around it, which is where they had damned well better stay, or so they’ve been told. Some sit in a circle under the smothering sun, whispering about escape and tonight and it could actually work with excitement and unease (mostly unease) in their eyes. Others mill about on bare, calloused feet, their footsteps silenced by fallen leaves and experience. Many wear cuts or bruises with their grimy shorts and t-shirts. Cora has a split lip that looks like a big, angry slug stuck to her face. Experience.
Overhead, in the boughs of an oak, Phebe keeps watch for anything dangerous creeping up the hill out of Paradise. There’s nothing to see, of course. The Beast prefers to keep his distance. Everyone knows that. The trouble only starts when they run into him.
That doesn’t mean it’s not reassuring to have a lookout, though. Just in case.
Edgar Wiggins (“Ed” to his friends, or “Edgar-Roscoe-Wiggins-Goddamnit!” to his wife when they fight) sits on a barstool at his kitchen counter. It’s the smallest piece of furniture in the most cramped room in his already claustrophobic house, which is, incidentally, the only place in Paradise where he doesn’t feel quite at home. He gulps down his usual breakfast of ibuprofen, then washes it down with the coffee that’s been sitting in the pot since last night, mixed with a little bit of whiskey to freshen it up. Hangovers have definitely gotten worse since he first founded Paradise. It’s never technically been condemned as illegal, but Edgar has never really asked for a second opinion on the topic, either. He’s not an idiot. He knows about plausible deniability.
Still, six years of running a vacation resort in the legal gray area have taken their toll. Ed knows it in the way his maybe-white-once-upon-a-time bathrobe barely closes around his woolly beer gut, which still hasn’t taken the hint to leave even though he’s been ignoring it for years. He glances down and sees a few silver chest hairs. Clenches his teeth. Pours more whiskey into his mug. It’s just wrong, just unfair, because he owns Paradise, and Paradise specializes in making people feel young again. But feeling young means having fun. And having fun definitionally means no children. And it’s Ed’s job to get rid of them, after the parents sign the non-disclosure agreement—it’s Ed who drives their snotty little brat-bastard kids through the forest’s winding backroads and tells them to get lost. Usually roughs them up a little, too. That gets the message through. He is a yellow belt in kickboxing, after all. And if—when—the kids try to get back into Paradise—
Ugh, yep, that does it. The headache is back. Ed makes a mental effort not to make any more mental effort, not at this ungodly hour. It’s barely past noon, for God’s sake.
Phebe glances down from her lookout tree and spots Cora speaking with the girl who just arrived that morning—new enough that she still has glossy hair, smooth nails, a healthy layer of baby fat. She’s got so far to fall.
This one is the youngest arrival they’ve had in a while, but she looks exactly like every other kid on their first day in the forest. Dazed. Terrified. Relieved. Slightly guilty. But Cora is getting New Girl calmed down. She’s a good leader, Cora. Better than Phebe would be, even though Phebe has been here longer than anyone else. That’s why Phebe and Cora are the two leading the escape from Paradise.
—escape—tonight—could it actually work—
Quinn Wiggins (“Kiki” to her friends, or “the she-beast” to Ed when he’s with his drinking buddies, though he doesn’t know that she knows that) shuffles into the kitchen and pours herself a mug of coffee from the dregs in the coffee pot. A cast-iron skillet lies on the stove, crusted with the remnants of Ed’s post-party snack from last night. She sighs, disgusted, but long past disappointment. Definitely long past trying to clean up after him—the grungy tile floor and smudgy chrome refrigerator show that well enough. Quinn scratches at her sleep-matted hair (fried its original cappuccino-blond with goop from a bottle, because that’s apparently somehow less pathetic than gray) and sits down at the kitchen counter, leaving one barstool between her and Ed. “Hey,” she mumbles. “Happy Fourth of July.”
Ed just grunts.
God, it must be great to be like that. So mentally monotone. It would’ve made things a lot easier for her, at least, these past six years she’s spent living in somebody else’s Paradise.
She gets up to brew some coffee that’s actually fresh. The pot Ed made tastes like roasted fertilizer, and anyway, it gives her something to think about that isn’t—
No. She isn’t ready for that, yet.
Because as much as she’s tried to make herself as empty and flat as Ed, her head still churns with regret, whole oceans of it, and each wave is a teasing, gentle threat to drown her, and each day’s tide pulls in closer, higher, heavier, and the whispering water sounds like the voice of—
No. She isn’t ready for that, yet.
Cora and Phebe gathered the rest of their tribe weeks ago to tell them the escape plan. Fireflies had watched silently from among the trees, the embers of their meager cookfire had glowed with soft expectation, and the crickets’ chirps had all sounded like question marks. Everyone, whether seventeen years old or seven, had held their breath and listened to Cora like their lives were at stake. Which they weren’t—not their lives. Just Cora’s. And Phebe’s.
“This Fourth of July,” Cora had announced, “we are bringing an end to Paradise. Phebe and I discovered something last night, while we were all scavenging for food in the village during our parents’ party.”
Phebe had inhaled in disgust. Phebe would never, never call the Paradisians their…parents. Especially not The Beast—the one that belongs to her.
But Cora had still continued, “Phebe’s dad leaves his business phone at his house when he goes to parties. That’s our target. Their Fourth of July celebration runs from sundown to sunup, the longest party of the summer, so that will give us the widest window of opportunity. I’ll go as Phebe’s lookout. She’ll call the police. And then we’ll all be out of here.”
I hope, Cora hadn’t said, but everyone had thought. Loudly.
Quinn wanders through the Fourth-of-July sales in the roadside mini-mart twenty miles to the south, the only piece of civilization even remotely close to Paradise. Edgar calls this place Purgatory: those passing it headed north are ascending into weeks of carefree vacation, while those unfortunates headed south are sliding back into that familiar hell of day-to-day parenting. Quinn would give her life for just one day in that hell. Not her soul, though. She already gave that up for a lifetime in Paradise.
No, the irony of that is not lost on her.
No, she does not think it is funny, either.
Just seeing Ed’s handwriting on his shopping list makes her growl low in the back of her throat. She kills a quarter hour stacking the cheap lite beers and red plastic cups in her basket into a neat little pyramid, just to make Ed wait a little longer—the stack collapses the second she pushes the cart forward again, and, oops, looks like she’ll have to start all over again! Once she’s bored with that, she goes in search of the charcoal and lighter fluid, fantasizing about using it to burn down Ed’s sick little project. She’s had a lot of fantasies like this over the years, since she first tasted the pile of shit under Ed’s silver-sheen promise of feeling young forever. He’d shoved it in her face the first day they moved to Paradise, when he’d driven off the main road and into the forest on their way into the village, then looked at Phebe in the rear-view mirror and said, “Well? Get the hell out!”
The cart handle creaks as Quinn’s fingers tighten around it. A hundred Pillsbury Doughboys stare at her from the rack of canned biscuits, their arms wide open and their palms face-up in a cheerful shrug. What can you do?
And at least there’s that. At least Quinn has done what she can. Once she had recovered (or not recovered, but at least started functioning again (or not really functioning, but at least managing to put a complete thought together without decomposing)) after losing Phebe, she began hiding food under the back porch. She uses small things, mostly, things that Ed won’t miss—overripe bananas, or half-eaten tubs of peanut butter, or canned soup and hardened nubs of old cheese—but sometimes, she sets out a box of Lucky Charms. Phebe’s favorite. Then Quinn waits, and Phebe always appears, like she’s been on the lookout all day, just in case. Quinn isn’t sure if that makes her feel better or worse.
It isn’t until Quinn wanders into the checkout line that she notices that she’s placed a box of Lucky Charms in her basket. It’s family size. Ironic. Not funny at all.
The afternoon’s heat has come and gone. It’s getting close to time.
Phebe climbs down from the lookout tree. She finds Cora showing New Girl around the tribe’s barracks, a mismatch of patched hammocks and brush lean-tos crowded around the trickle of a stream they use for water. New Girl flinches and gasps when Phebe appears next to her—Phebe always forgets to step more loudly around the new ones. Cora just smiles, or does the best that she can with that angry-slug-lip. “This is Phebe,” Cora says to New Girl. “Don’t worry. She’s one of us. Phebe, this is Li. She’s one of us too now.”
Phebe jerks her forehead towards New Girl Li’s feet. “She likes your shoes,” Cora interprets, even though shoes are worse than useless here. Too noisy. The Beast doesn’t like noisy children.
“Th-, thanks,” Li sniffles, shuffling to put herself in Cora’s shadow.
Phebe presses her mouth into a flat smile. She thinks it comes off as warm. Ish.
Li scoots another half-step behind Cora.
“We’re finding Li a place to sleep,” Cora explains. “She won’t need it, if things go as planned tonight, but….”
Phebe swallows back the nervous knot in her throat. Li stops digging her toe into the dirt and looks up at Cora, who laugh-coughs and says, “But, on the bright side, if things don’t go as planned, you’ll have your choice between Phebe’s hammock and mine.”
Quinn had thought this would get easier, after a few hundred repeats. Nope.
She follows Ed towards Paradise’s park, which is really just a glorified patch of trampled grass, dead from perennial overwatering with spilled beer and piss. A familiar queasiness fondles the base of her stomach, a feeling like the way ‘fickle’ sounds. It triggers that convulsive itch in the back of her throat that signals a nice, exhaustive vomit.
She shouldn’t have come. But she did. Always. Because, at one point, Quinn had loved Edgar. Or she’d at least loved past Edgar, even if that Edgar had died and gone to dust years ago. Or maybe she hadn’t loved Edgar at all, and she’d only loved Edgar, Adjacent: his money, and his con-artist’s grin, and his boneheaded confidence that he could bend the world to his wishes, because the idea of letting someone else do the work for once in her goddamned life had seemed oh-so-attractive, at one point. God, she’d been an idiot.
A cloud of marijuana smoke and meat char hovers in the air over the party. Hoots and catcalls and hyuk-hyuk-hyuks echo between the empty houses. Ed tugs her (by force of will only, not actual physical contact, which is fine by her) cross-current through the slow-motion stampede of bodies jostling towards the open bar. Once they’ve made it past, Edgar mounts the heap of amplifiers in the center of the park and starts thrusting jacks into various inputs. Quinn watches from the homemade fireworks display, a ramshackle rainbow held together with duct tape and beer bong tubes. At least she’s alo—
WHAAAAAHMP. The speakers explode with feedback—Quinn literally jumps, heart shooting up her throat and through the top of her skull, and then her vision lurches horrendously as her ankle twists beneath her with a sharp and soppy pop-squelch.
“Sorry, sorry!” Edgar shouts over the crowd’s grumbles and moans. A few seconds of random button-mashing later, The White Stripes blast out of the speakers so loudly that Quinn can feel her molars rattling. Ed looks at her, widens his eyes, and presents his empty palms for her examination. “Why don’t I have a drink yet?” he yells over the music. “Goddamn, what are you even good for?”
Quinn’s sob sours into a scowl. She hobble-walks home for an icepack, hating Ed and Edgar and even Edgar, Adjacent, because that was the monster that gave birth to this… this…
absolute … fucking … beast.
The jagged silhouette of evergreens bites into the sunset. At the fringe of the forest, two girls hide in the undergrowth, staring at the empty house looming before them. “I’ll be on the roof, watching the front door,” Cora reminds Phebe. Final checks. Unnecessary, but comforting. “Everything will be okay,” Cora says.
Because good leaders always tell the truth.
But the best leaders know when to lie.
Dubstep burps through the speakers in the park, its muffled bass throbbing along with Quinn’s ankle as she hobbles through the back door into her kitchen. She’s progressed from queasy to nauseated to well and truly sick, and thrusting open the kitchen window for fresh air only gets her a punch in the nose with the thick, acrid party-smog. It smells like Ed when he edges up close to her in bed, the nights when drinking and drugs aren’t enough and he wants…just wants.
That does it. Quinn leans over the sink and wretches. The smoky-salty-sour taste still sticks in the back of her throat, though. It always does.
Li hunkers in a grove of holly bushes, pointed leaves poking into all the wrong places, and watches first Cora, then Phebe slip into…Paradise? She thinks that’s what she’d heard her parents call it, discussing plans to each other while they had Li locked in her room for the weekends. She’s not one hundred percent sure what the word means, but maybe—
Gah, she needs to stop that. Bad Li!
Too curious, her parents always tell her. Ask too many questions, and you get the belt, or the shoe, or the hand around the neck, and then the only question that matters is, “Are you sorry now?” Li shifts uncomfortably in the bush. No more questions. Just praying that this plan of Cora’s works, even though that hope seems as dumb as a two-legged chair.
Ed bites off a longneck’s cap, drains the bottle into his mouth with a drunken panache, then chucks it backwards over his head and arches his back and howls when it crashes to the ground, because this, this is what it means to be alive. He spots the young couple that just arrived this morning from—hell, from somewhere out of town. “How’re you likin’ your first party in Paradise?” Edgar shouts, slurring everything except the P’s, which he enunciates with a spray of saliva. God, he’s hilarious!
They both nod with a manic sort of grin and bumble over each other to come tell him about how they got this pill of such-and-such from so-and-so and it was incredible like sex on a stained-glass rainbow in outer space with—
Ed turns away before they can finish, lurching off with a klutzy smile to get a dose for himself.
And that sets the whole world to lurching.
Damn. This is the best Fourth of July ever. He needs something big, something big-big, so he’ll never forget this momentous glory. Glorious moment. Whatever. This is a night worth celebrating.
Fireworks. That’s what he needs—fireworks! He fumbles for the lighter in his back pocket, that oldest and bestest of bestie-best friends, and smiles like a hungry ogre at the pile of fireworks by the speakers, his toes and throat and groin all tingling with excitement. Fireworks always make him think of the first time he and Quinn—
Where is Quinn, damn it? And on the Fourth of July, for God’s sake! The beautiful roar of the party, the beer and barbecue smoke, the bodies grinding against each other—without Quinn, it all feels…he feels….
Heh. Emp-ty. Fuck, what a stupid word.
Ed won’t, ab-so-loo-teh-ly won’t let Quinn ruin this night for him. He tosses the lighter to a lanky woman next to the fireworks—it ricochets off her forehead before she can catch it. Those pills are really screwing with his hand-eye-quilibrium. “Light ‘em up, Prescott,” Ed hollers, or tries to holler. It’s hard to speak clearly when the words taste like lemon meringue and come out feeling like velcro on shag carpet. “I have t’go get the she-beast.”
Phebe waits for Cora’s signal—sprints across the clearing between the forest and Paradise—reaches the back porch of the Beast’s den and starts searching for a way in, her heart fluttering like a hummingbird’s wings.
Then the fluttering stops dead.
Because the kitchen window is open, just enough for her to squeeze through—almost like someone has been expecting her.
Ed teeters and tangos towards his house, thinking about how he’s going to drag Quinn back to the party, and she’s going to like it, damn it, and they’re going to have one of those best-nights-of-their-lives, like they used to have before they started being married and stopped being friends and their relationship went to shit and got clogged in the U-bend.
For the first time in years, Ed actually feels happy. Or at least high enough to get unstuck from his sense of self, which is close enough. He breathes in noisily through his nose, and giggles at the slippery scents worming up his nostrils. The balmy evening air wraps him in a bear hug, and Ed throws his arms around it, too. He’s floating five ten, twenty feet off the ground, because this is Paradise, and for once in his fuckin’-waste-of-space-life (he imagines the words in his dad’s voice, for the sake of tradition), Ed has finally done something right.
He arrives at his house’s back door, only now it’s two, four, eight doors all tie-dyed in his vision, a kaleidoscopic masterpiece. His eight hairy right arms reach out to grip eight pulsating doorknobs, and with a shiny click, all the doors open at once.
Li thunders downhill towards the house, swearing all the good and nasty swears she knows and even some she’s not really sure are swears at all—damn shit ponker fuck quasar hell—hoping she’ll figure out just what the dongle she’s doing by the time she gets there.
Phebe scrambles through the window—splats down onto the tile kitchen floor—and freezes.
Because the Beast is halfway through the back door on her right.
And his wife is gaping at Phebe from the sink on her left.
And then there’s the phone, on the edge of the table, right between all three of them.
Ed seizes up at the sight of the girl crouched on the tile, the girl who looks just like Quinn but also doesn’t look like Quinn at all, because those are Quinn’s brown eyes and caramel lips and cappuccino hair, but he would recognize those eyebrows anywhere, because they’re his, and she is his, this little beast in his kitchen.
The whole house seems to tilt, trying to spill him off his feet, and he’s suddenly tingling with dread and sweat and angerangeranger because this goddamn girl is always trying to ruin his Paradise and remind him that he’s just getting fatteroldersicker and why won’t she just stay the fuck out of his life.
His daughter swipes his phone from the table—Ed leaps forward to tackle her with an animal roar. The breath rushes out of her with a dull whuhhh as the phone flies from her hand and out of sight.
Outside, the sky explodes, fireworks reaching, splaying, punching into the dark.
Cora spots Li running downhill and tries to wave her away, but Cora could only watch one entrance, only Li saw Phebe go in at the same time as the creepyscarymean guy who threw Li into the forest, so she doesn’t stop even for a second, because even if Li still doesn’t know what she’s doing, she knows that he can’t be doing anything good.
But just as she’s about to race inside to do she-doesn’t-know-what, a phone—the phone—skitters out the back door along the wooden porch. Li scrabbles after it, guts all wobbly from the squishy thudcrunchwhacks from inside the house, and she dials the number and she hears the ringing and—
A bone-snapping crack comes from the house, and then everything inside goes quiet, and Li knows better than to wait and see if it’ll be her turn next. She turns and runs, fear tickling up and down her spine and making her go fasterfasterfaster, while the emergency operator’s granulated voice calls out after her, “Hello? Hello?”
Quinn watched in agony and terror but not quite disbelief as Ed crashed onto their daughter and started beating her senseless, or to death, Quinn isn’t quite sure where he’ll stop, but she is sure that she’s picked up the crusty skillet from the stove, and the cast-iron handle feels heavy and firm and solid in her hand, and that now she’s shoving Ed off of their daughter—her daughter, damn it—and now she’s swinging (just once, because that’s all it will take), and now she’s baring her teeth in what might be a snarl or a gag or a laugh as the skillet connects with Ed’s fury-flushed face.
Colored lights gallop across Phebe’s closed eyelids like a party strobe—blue, red; blue, red; blue, red. Someone pushes pills into her mouth and presses a drink to her lips. A siren overhead whoops on an endless repeat. And Phebe smiles through it all (sleepily, painfully), because she gets it. This is a night worth celebrating.
Quinn stands as quietly as possible in the hospital room’s door frame. Phebe is finally awake, sitting cross-legged on the bed inside and staring out her little strip of a window, her freshly washed hair draping down past her broken nose and bruised face. Quinn squeezes Phebe’s gift (apology, peace offering) nervously in her hands—it’s the best thing Quinn could find, not even close to enough (she got it from the hospital cafeteria, for chrissakes), but nothing will ever be enough, and she doesn’t know where else to start, only that she has to start now.
So, she starts. Now.
Quinn taps a knuckle on the doorframe and takes two steps inside. Phebe twists around, eyes gone wide—even swollen and bruised, they still look identical to Quinn’s—and tenses at the sight of her, and Quinn tenses, too.
But then, Quinn smiles.
And waves (gently, now, gently).
And pretends not to feel the hurt when Phebe doesn’t smile back.
And slowly—ever so slowly—Quinn takes her hand from behind her back and shows Phebe the miniature box of Lucky Charms.
JOSHUA BEGGS is a 2019 graduate from Hendrix College and a current MD candidate at Kansas University Medical Center. In his free time, he volunteers as a Spanish interpreter at his local free clinic, makes a podcast (which his mom says is awesome), and maintains his very creatively named website joshuabeggs.com.