The heat of July warmed the green waters around Shell Island. Frenzied blue fish thrashed in the surf, leaving behind a ghoulish trail of red as they devoured their prey. From her porch, Mrs. Johnson, watched Billy Williams down in the surf as he waited for the sharp teethed blues to swim into the shallow waters. The twelve-year-old stood with his net ready to cast. A school of mullet darted through the incoming wave and he tossed the weighted mesh, which flared into a circle, sinking down, down, down, netting the fish.
Mrs. Johnson waved her apron, her sign to Billy when she wanted fish. He waved back, tossing his fish in a bucket. Billy threw his net over his bony shoulder and struggled up the sand dune into her yard.
"Good cast Billy, nice size mullet. Clean me two," she said.
"Skin them?" he asked, taking a knife and rusty pliers from his jeans pocket.
"I want to pan fry, could you scale them?" she asked.
"Always skin my mullet. Who would eat mullet skin unless they're starved?" he said, wrinkling his freckled nose at her.
"Skin 'em then," she said, taking two dollars from her apron pocket and placing them in his shirt pocket.
She liked Billy’s assertiveness in cleaning fish. He gripped the fish, ripped off the skin, gutted, and placed them in fresh water. Pretty fast for a boy of twelve. She remembered the first time he dressed mullet for her when he was seven. His young mouth was filled with chewing tobacco and the juice ran down his chin like over boiled coffee. He held the fish down with his bare left foot, scaling it from the head to tail. This is when Mrs. Johnson noticed his hands trembled. She thought it strange for a boy that young to show stress revealed by a shaky hand.
Today she observed the same stress in Billy and both hands were affected.
"Glad you bought my mullet today, Mrs. Johnson. Mom needs extra money to buy things for our new house. That's it over there, it’s the one painted green. Remember when I lived in that old trailer park across the street?” he said, squinting his eyes in the sunlight.
"I remember, Billy. I watched your folks build that house. I'm so proud for you."
"That trailer park's a mess now where we used to live and Mom's glad to be out of there. She couldn't take it anymore. I didn't like it either." Billy rubbed his hands together in an effort to stop the shaking. "Mom's painting the windows today," he said.
Mrs. Johnson glanced across the street. She could see Billy’s mother, Nancy Williams, adding final touches to the deck rails.
"Know you're pleased to be in your own home," Mrs. Johnson said, impressed by the boy's sense of pride.
"Mom asked me to buy Gillette blades on the way home. Get single-edged she told me. Windows are the last things to clean. There's nothing like a house with windows that sparkle," he said. "Mom always tells me this. Our panes will be gleaming when she's done. Dad will be surprised when he returns from the fern farm tomorrow."
"On a buying trip for the plant store?"
"Yes, we're going to landscape, too. Make our yard as pretty as the house."
"I'm happy for you, Billy. Yard work is good exercise and fun, too. Guess fishermen fill the park on weekends these days, " she said.
"A woman still lives there in an old rattletrap trailer in the back. Drinks beer and plays her television loud at night. Sometimes I hear her laugh. It's a gross howl she makes," Billy said.
"Now, Billy how do you know she drinks or how she laughs?" She tilted her head surprised.
"See the top deck of our house. That's where I sleep at night. I love to be outdoors. I can see lights on in her trailer and hear her television. One night, it sounded like my dad, laughing and talking, over at her place. I see a lot of men hang out around there on weekends."
"What you heard could have been the wind and not your dad. Sounds carry funny near the ocean you know. Even the rumble of thunder can mimic people speaking in anger," she said, listening more intently to Billy.
"I don't like that woman. I think she's weird," he said. Billy put his trembling hands in his pockets.
"You're too young to worry about strange women and noises at night. Just be glad you moved away," she said.
"That woman’s made a nervous wreck out of Mom. She talks to herself and thinks people are hiding under our new house. We waited too late to leave that park."
"Maybe you left just in time. That's it, you moved before real problems started." Mrs. Johnson gave Billy a pat on the back. “Keep your fishing habits. It’s good for a boy your age.” Mrs. Johnson said good-bye and went inside to finish her chores.
After dinner, she returned to the porch to watch the sunset. The sky had turned a deep vermilion, leaving a trail of red as the sun vanished behind a landscape of palms. Her attention was suddenly drawn to the Williams’s house. A vehicle with flashing lights had wheeled into the driveway. She wondered if her new neighbor from New Jersey, Thelma, had called a wildlife emergency again. Thelma made calls at the sight of any wild creature in her yard.
After a short time, the vehicle turned off its lights and disappeared into the dusk. Everything seemed calm again until she was startled by a figure that emerged from the shadows. Her neighbor, Thelma, stepped into the light.
"Billy is with my husband," she said, pulling a handkerchief from her pocket and wiping her eyes.
"What do you mean? Billy being with your husband?"
"He's had a terrible shock. Doctor gave him something for his nerves. He has witnessed a horrifying sight."
"What happened?" Mrs. Johnson said, jumping to her feet to catch every word.
"It's not Billy. It's his mother," Thelma said.
"You mean, Nancy Williams?" Mrs. Johnson stepped closer.
"Yes, she finished painting her windows today," Thelma said.
"Yes, Yes, I saw her," Mrs. Johnson said, shifting from one foot to the other impatiently.
"Nancy cleaned and put away her paint brushes. Washed and razor scraped every window in her house. She put on fresh white shorts and a blue shirt, then − did the ungodly. She took her own life with the same razor blade that she used to scrape the windows. She inflicted eight gashes to herself. Wrists, arms, groin, ankles, and . . . throat. Never knew a person could have the strength. She made certain not to live," Thelma said, wiping her eyes again.
“Oh my god! I gave Billy the money to buy razor blades! I bought his fish," Mrs. Johnson said, clasping her hands together. "How did all this happen?" she managed to say.
Billy came home from the beach, just as the paramedics placed his mother in the rescue," Thelma said. “Poor boy saw nothing but a trail of red. They're still trying to find Mr. Williams, can't seem to locate him at the fern farm, poor man."
In quietness, Mrs. Johnson walked Thelma home, thinking back on every word Billy had said that morning. The sounds he heard at night. The voice of his father in the woman’s trailer and her laughter. What did Billy mean, she deserves that awful park? Whatever Billy feared about his mother had caused his hands to tremble. Young people have a way of knowing the unknown. He knew all along, just did not know when it would happen, she thought.
The moon had risen above the palms, casting shadows across the Williams’s unlit front window. Palm fans gently swayed up and down, reflecting in the clean glass like people dancing in waltz time. She studied the strange phenomenon. People dancing when a young boy lay broken hearted. Only time would heal his trembling hands. The night sounds returned, and she, too, could hear people talking. Yes, she could hear the rumble of underground talk like a smoldering volcano before the deadly ashes are spurted. People talking about things she did not care to hear.