THE EAST END
Blog Tour Excerpt
After sunset, Corey Halpern sat parked at a dead end in Southampton with his headlights off and the dome light on, killing time before the break-in. As far as he knew, about a quarter mile up the beach the owners of the summerhouse he’d been casing for the past two weeks were busy playing host, buzzed from cocktails and jabbering beside the pool on their oceanfront deck, oblivious that a townie kid was about to invite himself into their mansion while they and their guests partied into the night.
Smoke trailed up from the joint pinched between Corey’s thumb and forefinger as he leaned forward and picked up a wrinkled sheet of paper from the truck floor. He smoothed out his final high school essay, squinting through the smoke-filled haze to read his opening lines:
In the Hamptons, we’re invaded every summer. The mansions belong to the invaders, and aren’t actual homes—not as far as the locals are concerned. For one thing, they’re empty most of the year.
The dome light flicked off and he exhaled in semidarkness, thinking about what he’d written. If he didn’t leave this place soon, he might never get out. Now that he’d graduated he could make his escape by taking a stab at college in the fall, but that would mean leaving his mother and brother behind, which for many reasons felt impossible, too abstract, the world outside this cluster of towns on the East End so unimaginably far away….
If only he could write as he saw things, maybe this place wouldn’t be so bad, though each time he’d put pen to paper and tried to describe these solo hours at the ocean, or anything else, the words remained trapped behind locked doors deep inside his head. Sitting on his heels, he reached up and pressed the faint bruise below his right eye, recalling the fight last weekend with that kid from North Sea and how each of them had been so quick to throw punches…
A few miles later, with Iggy Pop and The Stooges blaring from his door panel, it made perfect sense to take the night to a whole new level and rob his mother’s bosses before they came out from the city; before Gina came home crying after one of the longer, more grueling workdays; before he joined her for the summer as the Sheffields’ servant boy. Iggy reinforced the necessity of the much higher risk mission—the need to do it now—as he belted out one of his early-seventies punk anthems, the lyrics to “Search and Destroy” entering Corey’s brain and seeping much deeper inside his chest as a truth he’d never been able to articulate for himself. His fingers tapped steadily on the wheel when he turned off Main.
He drove slowly for another block or two, his pulse beating in his neck as he turned left at the pyramid of cannonballs and the antique cannon on the edge of town. A couple blocks later, he downshifted around the bend, rolled to a stop and parked beside a wooded section of Gin Lane. From there he didn’t hesitate at all. He hustled along the grass bordering the roadside, past hedgerows and closed gates and dark driveways, until the Sheffields’ driveway came into view. A life-size pair of stone lions sat atop wide stone bases and bookended the entrance, two males with full manes and the house number chiseled onto their chests. Corey knew the lions held a double meaning. His mom’s boss put these statues out here partly because they looked imposing, the type of decorations kings used to choose, but also because they stood as symbols of August birthdays, the same astrological sign as Mr. Sheffield’s first name—Leo.
He stood still for a moment, looking between the bars of the tall iron gates crowned with spikes. Beginning tomorrow morning, and then all throughout Memorial Day weekend— just as he had the past few summers—he’d spend long days working there. Gina would be so pissed if she could see him now. She’d at least threaten to disown him if she ever found out he’d broken in, but that would be a hollow threat anyway, and he’d already convinced himself that she’d never know. The Sheffields should have paid her more to begin with, even if she didn’t have a deadbeat husband like Ray pissing her meager savings away on his court fees and gambling debts. But the memory that sealed Corey’s decision tonight had been replaying in his mind for almost a year—the dinner party last summer, when Sheila Sheffield yelled at his mom right in front of him and about ten guests, berating her for accidentally dropping a crystal chalice that she said cost more than Gina’s yearly salary. While Leo and the grown Sheffield kids looked on dumbly and didn’t bother to make a peep, Corey had followed Gina into the kitchen and stood a few feet away from her, unable to think of what to say to console her while she cried. Ever since then, he’d wanted to get back at them all.
Fuck these people, he thought.
He would rob them, and smash some windows on his way out so they wouldn’t suspect anyone who worked there. All he had to do was make sure not to leave any evidence behind, definitely no fingerprints, and he’d take the extra precaution of scaling the gates rather than punching in the code.
He wriggled his fingers into his gloves. Crickets chirped away in the shadows, his only witnesses as he looked over each shoulder and back through the bars. He let out a long breath. Then he gripped the wrought iron and started to climb.
Moonlight splintered between the old oak branches and cut across his body like blades. It took only a few seconds to grapple up the bars, though a bit longer to ease over the spear-like tips while he tried to shut out a nightmare image of one of them skewering his crotch. Relieved when his legs reached the other side unharmed, he shimmied down the bars like a monkey and dropped, suddenly hidden from the outside world by the thick hedge wall. Poised on one knee, he turned to his left and scanned the distant mansion’s dark windows, the eaves and gables. The perfectly manicured lawn stretched for acres in all directions, a few giant oaks with thick limbs and gnarled trunks the only natural features between the faraway pines along the property line and a constellation of sculptures. A scattered squad of bronze chess pieces stood as tall as real-life soldiers, with two much larger pieces towering behind them—a three-ton slab of quartz sitting atop a steel column and a bright yellow Keith Haring dog in mid stomp on its hind legs, each the size of an upended school bus or the wing of a 747, all the sculptures throwing sharp shadows across the lawn when Corey rose to his feet, leapt forward and ran toward the Sheffields’ sprawling vacation home.
His sneakers crunched along the pebble driveway, his steps way too loud against the quiet until he made it across the deeper bed of beach stones in the wide parking area and passed through an ivy-covered archway, still at top speed while he followed the curved path of slate down a gentle slope, and then pulled up at the corner of the porch. Breathing heavily, he grappled up the post and high-stepped onto the railing, wiping sweat from his forehead when he turned to face Agawam Lake. The moon’s light came ladling down onto the water like milk and trailed into the darkness of the far shore, while in the reeds beside the nearest willow tree a pair of swans sat still as porcelain, sleeping with their bills tucked at their breasts.
No one will know, he thought. The crickets kept making a soft racket in the shadows. The swans seemed like another good omen. But then a light went on inside one of the mansions directly across the water, and Corey pulled his body up from the railing, thinking he should get inside before someone saw him. He quickly scaled the corner porch beam and trellis while trying to avoid the roses’ thorns, even as they snagged his sleeves and pant legs. Then, like a practiced rock climber, in one fluid motion he hoisted himself from the second-story roof up to the third-floor gable. He crouched there, looking, listening. The house across the water with the light on was too far away to know for sure, but he didn’t see any obvious signs of anyone watching from the picture windows. Probably just some insomniac millionaire sipping whiskey and checking the numbers of a stock exchange on the other side of the world.
Confident that he should press on, Corey half stood from his crouch and took the putty knife from his back pocket to pry open the third-story bathroom window, the one he’d left unlatched the previous day when he’d come there with his mother. The old window sash fought him with a friction of wood on wood, but after straining for a few seconds he managed to shove the bottom section flush with the top, and was struck immediately by the smells of Gina’s recent cleaning— ammonia, lemon and jasmine, the chemical blend of a freshly scoured hospital room. Balanced at the angle of the roof, he stared down at the neighboring properties once more. Still no sounds, no lights, no signs that anyone had called the cops, so he turned and stretched his arms through the window and shimmied down until he felt the toilet lid with both gloved hands and his sneakers left the shingles, all his weight sliding against the sill as he wriggled in.
Although he hadn’t been sure whether he’d ever go through with it, he’d plotted this burglary for weeks, the original iteration coming to him during Labor Day weekend last year. The first step had been to ask Gina if he could clean the Sheffield house with her for a few extra bucks before the summer season began. She’d raised an eyebrow but agreed, approving at least of her teenager’s out-of-character desire to work, and throughout the past week, whenever she’d left him to dust and vacuum the third floor, he’d had his chance to run recon and plan the point of entry. He knew she wouldn’t bother to check the latch on a closed window three stories off the ground, not after she’d scrubbed and ironed and Pledged all day. And more important, by then he knew those upper-floor windows had no seal-break sensors. He knew this because a few days earlier he’d left this very same window open before Gina armed the alarm, and afterward nothing happened—no blaring sounds before they pulled away, no call or drive-by from a security officer. So tonight, again, the security company wouldn’t see any flashing red lights on their computer screens. Not yet anyway, not until he smashed a window downstairs and staged a sloppy burglary scene on his way out.
Despite knowing that nobody would be out till Friday, his footsteps were all toe as he crept from the dark bathroom and into the hazy bluish hall, and yet, even with all this effort to tread lightly, the old floorboards still strained and creaked each time his sneakers pressed down. Trailing away from him, a black-and-white series of Ansel Adams photos hung in perfect rows, one on either side of the hall, hundreds of birch trees encased in glass coverings that Corey had just recently Windexed and wiped. Every table surface and light fixture and the entire length of the floor gleamed, immaculate, too clean to imagine the Sheffields had ever even set foot in here, let alone lived here for part of the year. He’d always felt the house had a certain coldness to it, and thought so again now, even though it had to be damn near eighty degrees inside with all the windows closed.
After slowly stepping down one set of stairs, Corey skulked along the second-floor hall, past the doorway to Mr. and Mrs. Sheffields’ master bedroom and then past Andy’s and Clay’s rooms, deciding to browse Tiffany’s bedroom first, his favorite room in the house. The Sheffields’ only daughter had a floor-to-ceiling bookshelf full of hardcover novels, stage plays and poetry collections, a Super 8 projector, stacked film reels and three antique cameras. He’d spent as much time as possible in this room during his previous workdays, mainly staring at the paintings mounted on three of the walls, and now lingered once more looking at each textured image, surprised all over again that a rich girl had painted these shades of pain, these somber expressions on the faces of dirty figures in shabby clothes, compositions of suffering he’d have expected from a city artist teetering between a rat-hole apartment and a cardboard box in an alley. They all had something, that’s for sure, but one portrait had always spoken to him much more than any of the others. He stood before it and freed it from its hook.
At the window he noticed the light had gone off at the mansion across the lake and figured the insomniac must have drunk enough for sleep. Although he knew he shouldn’t, he flicked on Tiffany’s bedside table light to get a better look at the girl in the painting, her brown eyes, full lips, caramel skin, her black hair flowing down to divots between her collarbone and chest. He knew Tiffany had painted it, but also that it wasn’t a self-portrait. She looked nothing like the girl she’d painted. Anorexically skinny, Tiffany had dyed-blond hair and usually wore too much makeup. In one photo with her parents and two older brothers, while the rest of the family had dressed in country club attire, she had on a tank top and frayed jean shorts, dark sunglasses, the only one of them with any tattoos, the only one barefoot on the grass.
Corey searched her shelves until he found the photo of Tiffany’s best friend, the girl from the painting, Angelique. He’d seen her at the estate plenty during the previous summers, and last Labor Day weekend they’d talked many times, their conversations lasting longer and seeming to have more depth until finally he summoned the courage to ask her out. Her long pause had made him wish he could disappear, and then those four awful words, I have a boyfriend, had knocked the wind out of him just before he nodded with his eyes to the ground and walked away. Reliving the disappointment, he killed the lamplight and lay on the bed with her photo on his chest, and then, stupidly, closed his eyes…
Excerpted from The East End by Jason Allen, Copyright © 2019 by Jason Allen. Published by Park Row Books.