After a few minutes of staring at the bathroom door, the cracked and faded white paint ignited memories of summer nights spent with his wife in a similar cabin, on a similar island not quite two miles from where he lay. His wife’s soft features backlight from the window, her gentle smile, her delicate hands and long fingers as they found his. The familiar sensation of mounting sexual anticipation caused him to harden.
He heard water trickling onto the shower stall and it brought him back to the present. After a few minutes he hollow ring of the metal enclosure softened and he knew she stepped under the spout.
Her teasing had ignited strong desire, it ran through him like a thirst. But it wasn’t a desire for sex as much as a desire to travel back to a better time. It had been years since he’d been sober when making love to a woman, and now, in the next room, as she stood naked under that dribbling stream, as he imagined her skin glistening with foamy soap, it was all he could do to keep from going to her, ripping the plastic shower curtain aside, and taking her. Then he wished it was his wife standing under that stream, and shame came upon him. She was a stranger.
He lay down on the bed and closed his eyes. Grief shrouded his heart and today. The desire for love thrust him back into loneliness. It ran through him like a current. Beaten down by memories that bit at him, he closed his eyes and felt the embrace of his wife. Her body warm and soft in his hands. The soft smell of her perfumed skin, familiar and perfect in his memory.
A bang against the shower stall caused him to open his eyes and stare at the wall in front of him. He could call the police, have them come to the island, but for what? She hadn’t broken any laws, and it was her word against her husband’s any abuse had taken place. He’d observed no bruises on her, except on her head. She could have hit that on anything. She was well-developed, no sign of an eating disorder or malnutrition. She appeared perfectly normal in most ways, except one. And that abnormal part, the compulsion to come back to his island and present herself to him, not only made him wary, but enlivened him, jolted his nerves and he feared the entanglements she might bring. Why should he get between a man and his wife? It didn’t matter if he beat her or not. Didn’t it take two to ruin a marriage? But he knew that was wrong. It only took one. The abuser.
The scar just above his left hip ached, and he moved onto his back. It had taken fifteen stitches to close the semi-circle of wounds, when he’d woken up from a blackout. It was in the alley behind a dive bar on 57th street, early last year. He bled in the cab on the way to the hospital. The driver kept looking in the rearview, his eyes wide, trying to see if that was actually blood, and swearing loudly about the clean-up he’d have to do.
The doctor at the hospital didn’t really care how it happened, but he had to ask anyway. Garrett didn’t remember, the truth at the time. Later, as he sat in bed, as the lidocaine wore off and his wound began to ache, he remembered the bet he’d made, with a drinking buddy, that he could pull his pants down and run across the alley, touch his hip on a lamp post and make it back to the bar in under ten seconds. He smiled as he remembered the look of surprise on his friends face when he’d actually pulled his pants down around his ankles and ran across the alley, his penis flapping, legs stretched far as possible, hindered by the pants. Then he remembered the fall and the sting of broken glass as it pierced his side. He thought it was funny until the pain set in and blood began to soak his shirt. When he looked up from his fall, still sitting in the alleyway, the small crowd that had gathered to watch the fool do his trick were gone. He was alone, pieces of glass from a smashed bottle of schnapps embedded in his side.
Now, as he lay waiting for his uninvited guest to exit the shower, it seemed ten years since that incident, instead of ten months, and he realized how closely he still teetered on that line he dared not cross. The booze would end him the next time he fell, of that, he was sure. If he started drinking again, especially here on the island, the one place he felt safe and himself, he didn’t think he could stop.
The door to the bathroom opened, and she stood naked in front of him. He stared at her breasts, white-lined at the top where her bathing suit ended, then her dark nipples, slightly erect in the coolness of the room, at her stomach, flat and smooth, the skin darker then he’d expected, the small bellybutton, slightly protruding outward, and just below that, he followed the line of her inner hip through the tan lines there, down to her dark, neatly trimmed pubis. She smiled slightly and walked toward him. He sat still, his hands by his side, as she moved to him and stood close, her breast near his mouth. He pulled her close, sliding his face across her breast, his hands moving around, down to her hips. He held her there for a moment, his mouth on her tummy, breathing in her fresh scent, then turned his head away. “No,” he said, and pushed her back. She took a step away, looking him in the eyes, her expression openly confused for a moment before going blank. He turned his back to her and stared out the window. The yard was quiet. The breeze moved the tall grass. A chipmunk moved along the woodpile and disappeared in a crevasse of wood. Rose sat next to him and dried her hair with a towel.
“Put something on,” he said.
She silently got up and slipped into her clothes. He ached to touch her, could feel the want, like a sucking monster inside. It took hold of him and he thought for a moment he would go to her, but he let the monster stir, but die of neglect. His eyes never left the window. Thin clouds moved slowly toward the West.
Now fully dressed, she walked to the door and stopped to look at him. He felt her stare and looked up. She smiled, then walked out the door, leaving it slightly open. He sat in the room for a long time watching the clouds, the bushes angered by the wind. When finally he got up, the sun was almost directly overhead. He’d been sitting for longer then he knew. He stood in the doorway and watched her as she shuffled cards at the kitchen table.
“Why did you come back?”
“I didn’t come back. I escaped him and this is where I ended up.”
“I can’t have it.”
She held the few remaining cards in her hand and looked at him, her eyes pleading. “He beats me.”
“Beside the point.”
“He’ll kill me.”
“Where are the marks?”
She threw down the cards and pulled the hair apart on the left side of her head. Just above her ear, the scalp was red. A curved welt revealed through her spread fingers.
“He did that?”
“His belt buckle.” She stared defiantly at him. Tears filled her eyes, but she wiped them with the back her hand and dealt the cards. When all the cards lay in a pile on the table, he sat down across from her. He sorted his cards until they were in a neat stack, then he threw down the king of spades from the top. She threw down the ace of diamonds and smiled. “You owe me a truthful thing about yourself.”
He nodded at her, staring into her strange light-blue eyes. “Go ahead, ask.”
She offered a slight smile. “How did you like it when I touched you?”
“You never touched me.”
“You wanted me to.”
“Did you want to?”
“Not really,” she said, looking demurely down at her hand. She shuffled the cards again.
The wind picked up and something hit the side of the cottage. He went to the windows and looked out, following the trail with his eyes down to the dock. The bushes and trees swayed in the strong gusts. White caps dotted the bay. “The wind has shifted.”
He’d leave his traps for another day. He turned to her. She sat with her back to him, looking at her cards. “I was going to go into town to buy some supplies. You can come, tell your story to the sheriff.”
She scoffed. “Why don’t I just hang myself?”
“Well, why the hell did you go with them, then?”
“They’d blame you. I didn’t want you to get hurt.”
“Maybe. But, you can’t stay here. Don’t tell the sheriff, it’s up to you, but I can’t help you.”
“Did I ask for your help?”
“Don’t be an idiot.”
She stood and threw the cards onto the table. The wind hit the cottage again. A loose windowpane trembled. After a few seconds she said, “I’ll go to town, but I’m not talking to the cops.”
“Fine.” He reached for the list off the table, but she snatched it up and began reading.
“Why an aluminum pole?” she asked.
“Ask your friend, Jack.”
“He’s Bill’s friend, not mine.”
“I thought they were brothers.”
“What does Jack have to do with the pole?”
“He tore down my antenna.”
“Why do you say that?”
“Because it’s broken and he’s the only one who could have done it.”
He reached for his coat hanging by the door, then went to the back shed and got another jacket for her. She put on the blue windbreaker. It fit loosely around her frame and made her look small, fragile even.
He walked quickly, deliberately fast, like he was trying to get away from her. She followed him down the path leading to the boat, He held the small craft steady as she got in. Once settled, the wind blowing their faces red, their hair waving in the wild breeze, he pulled the starter and the engine coughed, then started, blowing blue smoke into the air. He reversed the boat, the waves slapping the stern, water spaying them. Finally, he thrust it into forward and they were off.
“How do you know which way to go?” she asked.
“I follow the path in the water, he said. ” She turned and smiled at him. He smiled back. “Can’t you see it?”
She turned back, and looked straight ahead, her face in the freezing wind, and said nothing else.
The small whitecaps rocked the boat and she held on, her hands gripping both gunwales, as water spray dampened her wind-tossed hair. She sat rigid, like a dog in the wind, he thought, staring straight ahead, never daring to move or look around.
When they reached the harbor and tied up at the public dock, he saw her hands were stiff and her face was cherry red. She rubbed her hands together and flexed her fingers. As they walked to his truck, he looked around for men who might be waiting for them, but saw no one of consequence. The small shack in the parking lot was dark. The man overseeing the operation was sitting with his legs up on the porch rail drinking coffee and chatting with another man, with whom Garrett was vaguely familiar. He waved to them and continued walking to his truck, the girl close behind.
They said nothing as he drove them into town, his old pick-up comfortable, if not a bit rocky. “You need new shocks,” she said. He grunted and kept driving without saying anything. They stopped in front of the Sheriff’s office. The girl looked straight ahead, as if they were waiting at a light. After a few minutes, he turned to her. “Do you want to go in?”
He put the truck in gear and they headed to the hardware store.
After loading the truck with the new aluminum tubing and cable and other supplies, they headed for the grocery store. In the check-out line, as he was paying for their supplies, a tall man with dark hair walked into the store. He stood at the door, near the checkout and waved to Garrett. When the six bags were loaded into the cart, Garrett stopped next to Jim. “Jim, how are you?”
“Got a day off, been busy otherwise. Who’s your friend?”
Garrett turned to Rose, who partially hid behind him. “This is Rose. She’s my wife’s cousin, from Boston.”
Rose nodded at Jim. He reached to shake her hand, and his gun became visible under his jacket, on his belt. Garrett saw her bristle at the weapon and said, “Jim’s a Deputy Sherriff.”
“Off duty. Right now, I’m just a guy getting food for the family.”
After a few minutes of small talk, Garrett said, “Well, good to see you, Jim.”
They nodded at each other and Garrett and Rose walked back to the truck. She slammed the door closed as she got in. Garrett loaded the back with the bags and closed the tailgate and got in on the driver’s side and turned the key. “We can get lunch over there if you want.” He pointed to the Woodbine Café, a place he frequented on trips to the mainland. She looked straight ahead and said nothing.
He turned to her and she looked at him for the first time. He saw fear and hate in her eyes, and he knew she was going to accuse him of setting up the chance meeting with the Deputy in the store. “I didn’t know he’d be there,” he said, wanting to cut her off before she said anything. “Besides, you’re on the mainland, you need to go. Find your family and stay there, they can help you.”
“What do you know about my family?”
“Look, I told you before-”
She got out, slammed the door shut and walked down the sidewalk to the street corner. She stood under the Woodbine sign, and bummed a cigarette from a young man as he passed by. They talked as he lit her cigarette. She seemed flirty, like she’d go anywhere with him and Garrett didn’t like what he was seeing. He shut off the truck and walked over to them. Rose turned away as he approached. He touched her shoulder. “Let’s get going, Rose.”
She looked at him, while closing one eye and taking a deep drag of the cigarette. The young man felt the possessive vibe from Garrett and silently turned and walked into the Woodbine.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“Nothing. I’m not doing anything.”
“Get in the truck.”
“Yes, just get in.”
She tossed the cigarette and he placed his hand on her arm as they walked back to the truck. They sat silently, the engine idling. She turned on the radio. A rock tune blared from the speakers. She turned it up. Garett leaned in and shut it off. “I don’t know what your game is, but latching onto the first person you see isn’t a healthy thing to do.”
They let the irony of that statement sink in, then he added, “You lucked-out with me. I only want to help you. But others, they’ll hurt you, use you…” he involuntarily looked at her body and she got the message. She sent a message back. She knew the power she held over men. It was obvious.
They sat in silence for a while and when he took a breath to say something else she said, “He’s not my husband.”
“We’re not married. Only in his head. He’s got a fantasy that he’s married to me because he said so. But we’re not married.”
“I just want to make that clear. He has no hold on me.”
“He shouldn’t hurt you, either way.”
They sat staring out the front windshield. He wasn’t sure what to do, drop her off somewhere or take her back to the island. A cold front was moving in. The clouds were high and thready. People dressed in fall clothing walked the sidewalks, cars stopped and started, smoke rose from tailpipes. He couldn’t think of what else to say that wouldn’t spoil things, in his mind. He wanted her, and he knew he could have her. All he had to do was listen to what she was saying. Desire flamed up in him and he glanced at her knee. She wore jeans, but he they were thin. He wanted to touch that knee, slide his hand up to her thigh, feel the soft flesh there. These thoughts surprised him. He knew it was wrong. The whole thing was wrong. It was like she was a gift. One that could make him feel so much better, fill his emptiness, but he didn’t trust any of it.
“I really don’t know what I’m going to do,” she said. After a few minutes she added, “My sister lives in Portland, but she’s gone away with her husband for a week. They went to Florida on vacation. Guess I’ll go there when she’s back.” She turned to him and he saw her hopefulness. “Otherwise, I have nowhere else to go.” She touched his thigh, and smiled. “Besides, I can help you chop wood.”
She adjusted closer to him, and he could feel the heat of her. For a few moments, his crushing loneliness was replaced by her warmth.
“Let’s just go,” she said.
He nodded and put the truck in gear.