Heron’s Point was as small and old a seaside town as anyone could imagine existing in New England. The populace skirted a fine line between neighborly and incestuous, the economy relied too heavily on summer tourists, and most of the houses were only holding up against the hurricanes and harsh winters with a hope, a prayer, and some old magic.
It was widely understood that, after a certain point, fishing towns could only survive with the aid of magic. Every town had their source, and Heron’s Point had one which the locals enjoyed for its straightforwardness and simplicity. Heron’s Point had the Summer Girls. All they had to do was host a single Girl for the season and let them do and take what they wanted. Let them take and take and all the while, look the other way. It was easy.
There were rules, of course. A Code of Conduct had been drafted ages ago, with a heavy, unspoken threat of “or else” attached to the end of each clause. Every spring before the tourists arrived, amidst the 4th of July preparations and regatta fundraising campaigns, they reissued the Code. Fliers were sent home with children on the last day of school. Leaflets were slipped under doors. The local radio station – a tiny affair, broadcast on an AM frequency which only the townies knew to listen to – issued daily reminders along with updates on the Summer Girls all summer long.
The phrasing of the Code would change every few decades to adjust to the current vernacular, but it always boiled down to the five key points.
1. Be polite (or else)
2. Give the Summer Girls whatever they want (or else)
3. Do not intervene in their conflicts (or else)
4. Tourists and outsiders belong to the Girls. Do not concern yourself with them (or else)
5. Keep the secret; keep the contract (or else)
Punishments for breaking the Code were few but severe. The Girls had their own ways of dealing with offenders and none of them were pleasant. Winter storms would only hit specific houses. Locals would disappear around water. Boats vanished in shallow waters and were never seen again.
Heron’s Point had developed a sort of town-wide neighborhood watch. Had anyone violated the Code? Was someone in danger of violating the Code? Who were they? Could reparations be made? If not, could the town help the soon-to-be-deceased’s family? Most often the watch succeeded. It had been years since anyone had offended a Summer Girl that badly. But it had not been so long ago that the repercussions were beyond living memory.
That year, the Summer Girl arrived the morning after the summer solstice. Her name was Marisol. There had been a full moon that night, and a storm had raged on the horizon. In later years, some folks would speculate that those had been omens. But such people saw omens and portents of bad news everywhere, and there’s little point in looking for signs after the fact.
But regardless of the weather, the locals were wary. Marisol was a new Girl, one they’d never seen before and of whom they had no record. Records, of course, were not always reliable in Heron’s Point, as the fury of Girls past had wrought havoc on the Town Hall several times over the preceding centuries. So it was possible Marisol had visited in years prior, before any of the current residents of Heron’s Point had been born. But that didn’t help them now.
Every Girl was different. Most of them were pleasant enough, if a bit eccentric. The town even had a few favorites! But there were troublemakers, too – Girls who pushed residents to break the Code – and the townsfolk had to stay alert. Heaven only knew if a Girl would be demanding or quiet, friendly or mean-spirited, forgiving or vengeful. It put the town on edge, having a new Girl; there was no way to prepare but to be vigilant. If dealing with a familiar Girl was like walking on eggshells, then a new Girl was like walking on a bed of super-heated thumb tacks.
No matter how horrid a Summer Girl was, though, the townsfolk knew they had to be good to them. They had to do what the Girls asked and smile at them when they passed by and ignore it when they stole merchandise or seduced some fool tourist. They had to keep quiet about their strangeness and honor the contract while they took their yearly payment in fun or flesh. This was the price for keeping the town alive.
Like all Summer Girls, Marisol’s skin was pallid and her eyes were too large. To those in the know, both traits reminded them of the fish that lived in the deepest parts of the ocean and hunted in the dark. Her hair, a mass of greenish-brown burls, was tied back with strands of seaweed. Her clothes on that first day were mismatched and worn, like they’d been found rather than purchased. These were all familiar traits for a Summer Girl.
Marisol had a quietness to her that had little to do with how often she spoke. Other Girls had been quiet, too, but not so much as her. A body never knew if Marisol was listening to nearby gossip or the music on the speakers, if she was staring so intently at a person or the horizon. It was mightily unsettling. The townsfolk watched her and waited anxiously for the other shoe to drop.
The only request Marisol made was for a job. She asked the man who ran the tour boats if he had any openings. He said yes, though he didn’t. Instead he fired his niece from the ticket booth and put Marisol there instead. She was paid in cash at the end of each day, which she then spent on trinkets and kitsch and anything deep-fried or coated in sugar.
She was a hard worker, and despite her quiet, the other employees grew to like her in that tentative way some people like old dogs prone to biting once in a blue moon. Beyond asking for the job, she’d made no other demands of the town. Sometimes, the Girls would ask for housing or they’d order food and not pay for it, but Marisol did none of that. Whatever she took, she paid for; what she ate, she did in private; where she slept, people only guessed at, but she was always back at work first thing in the morning. She was an enigma, but as Summer Girls went, she was refreshingly low maintenance. By the end of July, everyone had begun to hope they might get off easy this year.
Then Connor came to town.
Halfway through the summer, one of Marisol’s coworkers had fallen sick, and Connor’s father, a boat pilot, offered his sons services for the rest of the season. Connor’s father had spent all his life in Heron’s Point and knew all the dirty secrets. Connor, on the other hand, had been born and raised inland with his mother’s family; he’d come to Heron’s Point to work and to spend time with his dad, and all he knew was that Marisol was the most beautiful girl he’d ever seen. To the horror of his father and the townsfolk, the attraction was mutual.
The two began to spend a lot of time together. On breaks, they ate their lunch together, and when the work day was over, they’d often disappear together until dark, when Connor went home. On the job, Connor would make an adoring goof of himself whenever he passed the ticket booth, and he passed the booth often. The tourists thought it was sweet. The people of Heron’s Point were horrified.
There were debates. Should they tell Connor about the Summer Girls? Were they allowed to tell him? He wasn’t a tourist, but he wasn’t local either: where did that put him regarding the Code? Was there a loophole? Could they be punished for using a loophole if one existed? Was it worth risking punishment for a boy most of them didn’t even know? The debates went on unresolved for weeks. The community radio even reported on it.
Connor’s father could only look on in anguished silence. He’d spent the first few weeks reminding his son that neither he nor Marisol were local, that she may be homeless or sick or insane for all anyone knew. He’d even dropped leading hints about her strange appearance and behavior. Conner wouldn’t listen to a word of it and eventually his father gave up. And then there had been that morning on the pier, when Marisol had cornered him to have a few words regarding the Code….
Connor’s father would mourn his son after summer was over, and spend the remaining time he had thinking up plausible deniability regarding his son’s disappearance.
By late August, the town was divided. Most had decided that the situation was regrettable, but if the Summer Girls counted Connor as an outsider, then they had to as well. But there were dissenters as well. As summer drew to its close and the tourists went home, they made their plans. There was only so much time before Marisol vanished, taking Connor with her, so they had to act quickly.
A small band of rebellious townsfolk struck one evening as Connor was walking home. As he walked home from another date with Marisol, the group cornered him and wrestled him into a van bound for the inland. They bound his legs and hands and covered his mouth, telling him in guarded tones they knew a secret about his girlfriend. They began to spill everything, from the town’s history on. But they hadn’t even passed the city limits when they realized he wasn’t shouting and he’d been rolling his eyes a lot.
They removed the gag with trepidation. They listened in stunned silence as Connor revealed that Marisol had told him all of this weeks ago. He knew about the Summer Girls, about their arrangement with the town, and he was aware that, come fall, probably no one would ever see him again. He knew that some men eventually died when they went with the Girls, but others managed to live a very long time and he since he loved Marisol, he was willing to take that risk. So he thanked them for their very kind but very unnecessary concern and asked if they could please untie him and drop him off. Sparing a sidelong glance at the confused and dispirited mob, he got out of the van and headed for home at a brisk walking pace.
There was an awkward silence, then the group disbanded and went to bed. After that night, there were no more arguments among the townspeople. Connor’s revelations had sparked plenty of questions, though. Did everyone the Summer Girls took know what they were getting into? Would local boys be up for grabs too from now on? Was it hypocritical for the people of Heron’s Point to concern themselves about this now, after centuries of just letting things happen? Should they void the contract? What would happen if they stopped currying favor with the Girls? What would become of the town when summer ended, now that people had interfered so badly? They had no answers and they wouldn’t get any from Connor or Marisol.
A week after the failed kidnapping and just days before the last full moon of the last month of summer, Connor and Marisol didn’t show up for work. They would never be seen in Heron’s Point again.
As summer became fall, the townsfolk waited anxiously for their punishment. The sooner it was over with, the sooner everything could go back to normal. But nothing happened. Nothing for months and months and months. Weren’t the Summer Girls angry? Weren’t they going to punish the town? The normally reliable omens of bird migrations and shadows on the moon were of no help. The tides were regular. And the fishing haul, usually the most reliable predictor to their fate, was poignantly average. The people of Heron’s Point waited and worried.
Winter solstice had passed when the Summer Girls laid down their verdict. A late hurricane swept up the coast, with high winds and merciless waves. But it hit nothing else except the little town of Heron’s Point. The town flooded almost completely for the first time in half a century. Trees were felled and shingles were torn off in the wind. Houses were submerged to their top floors. But miraculously, mercifully, when the waters receded, all the houses still stood and no lives had been lost. Well, none but the anticipated.
When the last of the waters had gone and the land sobered up, the people began to take stock of the damages. A few people had gone missing – they were the men and women who’d kidnapped Connor all those months ago. This had been anticipated. But there was something strange. Their homes stood completely untouched and undamaged, with their doors wide open and their belongings bone dry. But there was blood inside each of them and signs of a struggle.
So much blood. And their houses and yards were so dry….
One officer joking said it looked like someone or something had come out of the water to settle a score, while the flooding kept them from escaping. No one laughed. There was blood in the grass at one house. Right up to line where everything became waterlogged.
The worry came back, that maybe this was too steep a price to keep the town afloat. Maybe they could keep business coming on their own. And it’s not like people couldn’t move away. But after the storm, the fish came back and filled the nets to bursting again. With the fish came money to see them through spring. Tourists were making reservations for their summer holidays already. And the Summer Girls were going to come anyway….