Island Girl (Part 4) Mystery/Romance

The dim light of day blackened under a bruised sky. Clouds swirled and clashed, rumbling the heavens. He sat at the kitchen table and slowly shuffled a deck of cards in the soft light from a kerosene lamp. She emerged from the bedroom, wearing his loose fitting clothes and holding another lamp. She sat down across from him, placing the lamp between them. She looked softer, more approachable, in the dim light. Almost cuddly, he thought, wearing the extra-large clothing.

 “Do you play?” he asked.

“I don’t know.”

“You don’t know if you play cards?”

“What game?”

“How about Tell?”

“I don’t know that game.”

“It’s easy.” He placed the deck in front of her. “Deal.”

“How many?”

“As many as you want?”

“That’s a weird way to start.”

“There are no rules to this game.” They stared into each other’s eyes for moment. He smiled, daring the butterflies in his stomach to take flight.

“I’ll take as many as I can get, then,” she said.

“Good choice.”

She picked up the cards and dealt the entire deck. “This is like War,” she said.

“How so?”

“Dealing the whole deck.”

He gathered his cards and said, “We throw down the cards one at a time. You can throw them down from anywhere in your hand. But, you can’t change your throw.”

She turned over her top card, revealing the jack of hearts, then threw it down. He threw down the ace of spades. “I win,” he said. “Now, you must tell me something about yourself. Something I don’t know already, which is almost everything.”

“I just tell you something, you don’t ask?”

“No, that would be truth or dare, wouldn’t it?”

“I don’t know.”

“I don’t either.” He gently tapped her wrist. “Tell.”

She sat back, pulling her hand away from his, thinking of something to say, then leaned forward. “I was born in another state.”

“That’s too vague.”

“I was born…” She placed a finger to her forehead and said, “In a place far from here.”

“Still too vague, but I’ll let it pass.”

He threw down his top card, the jack of spades. She threw down the ten of hearts.

“You win again. Are you going to win all the hands? I bet you are. I bet these cards are rigged.”

“You dealt them.”

“But you shuffled them.”

They stared at each other. The wind slapped the side of the cottage and she turned toward the rattling windows. Heavy rain pummeled the tin roof. Shadow silhouettes came in through the windows and danced across the floor, looking like animals invading the house. “Storm’s peaking now,” he said. “It will calm down soon.” He took her deck and pulled a card from the middle of the pile. It was two of clubs. He pulled another card from the deck, four of clubs. Finally, he pulled the ace of hearts from her deck. “There, you see? You have an ace.”

“Now, you tell me something,” she said.

“All right. I was born here, on this island.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“It’s true. I was born here during a bad storm, just like tonight. My parents were here for the day, but got stuck in the squall. In the middle of the night, my mother went into labor and had me right here, on this table. I was a week early.”

She leaned back and laughed. “This table?”

“I swear.” He held up a hand and they laughed.

She ran her fingers along the top of the table, feeling the raw edges of the wood. “You know what I think? I think you cheat at this game, and I think you lie”.

He stared at her, not liking being called a liar, then smiled. “Your turn.”

“Okay. All right. Let’s play,” she said, shuffling her hand.

“You know you can’t re-shuffle. Once it’s set, that’s it.”

“You cheat. I cheat. It’s the rule. Rule number one.”

“Oh, is it now?” he asked. “Go ahead, throw down.”

She tossed a card from the bottom of the deck. It was the queen of clubs. He tossed the king of clubs. She took a deep breath and looked up at the celling in exasperation. The wind threw rain loudly across the roof, seeming to reflect her response.

“Tell me something good, this time. Something I want to know,” he said. “Like, your name.”

A small tree branch hit against the side of the cottage. The slight pink hue drained from her cheeks. She got up and looked out the window. After a few moments, she turned to him and said, “They’ll be coming for me soon.”

“Will they?”

“Yes.”

“Who’s coming?”

“I can’t tell.”

“Can’t or won’t? I deserve to know what’s going on.”

“You’ll know. You’ll know when they come.” She walked to the fireplace and sat on the sofa. He shuffled the cards a few more times. “I’m playing as your proxy. You’re getting your ass kicked. Tell me your name.”

“Jane.”

He smiled. “Jane. Jane what?”

“Just plain Jane.”

“Plain Jane, from Pudden Tane?”

“Yes, that’s right. I was born here, on the kitchen table.”

 “Tell me Jane, who’s coming for you, should I be worried?” Rain gusts rattled the large windows on the windward side of the house. Gusts pelted the tin roof more loudly than before. “Is it the boogeyman? Should I be afraid?”

She looked at the ceiling.

“It’s the roof,” he said, raising his voice over the din. “It’s tin.”

She walked back to the kitchen table, took the cards from his hand, and threw down the joker.

“What does that mean?” She asked.

“It means you lose. You have to tell me your story, who you are, everything. I’m afraid I’m headed for trouble having you here, with people coming to get you. I want to know what’s coming.”

“What’s your name?” she asked.

“That’s right, you don’t know, do you? Well, we have that in common, Jane.”

“Look, I don’t remember my name, or anything else, is that so hard for you to understand?”

“I’m a little thick. He’s thick-headed, they used to say about me.” He stood up. “They called me Rocky because of it. My head’s like granite.”

“I can’t say.”

“Why? Why can’t you?”

A thunder clap shook the hill. Lightening lit up the sky. The trees surrounding the cottage swayed violently. She ran into his arms, resting her head on his chest, and sobbed. He gently patted her back. “It’s okay. You’re all right. You’re safe here.”

“Help me,” she said, softly, and buried her head into his chest. They stood like that for a while, until she stopped shaking, then he pulled himself away from her, and held her in front of him. She looked down at the floor.

“I won’t let anyone hurt you, if that’s what you mean. Not in my home.”

“It won’t matter. They’ll come and…” She looked up suddenly, as if remembering something, then backed away from him.

“What?” he asked.

Another violent thunderclap rattled the cottage. She backed away further, looking frighteningly up at the skylight, as if somehow the lightning would illuminate her through the glass, and give away her secrets. After the rumbling thunder sounded, she walked slowly to the sofa, her hands clasped in front of her chest. She laid down and buried her head in the pillow.

Growing exasperated, he walked over and stood in front of the fire. They listened to the storm and the wind. After a few minutes, she looked up from the pillow.

“I’m sorry,” she said.

“That’s a tough way to be. Nervous like that. You should relax.”

She smiled. “I’ll try.”

“Good.” They watched the fire for a few minutes, then he said, “I’ll make up the couch. You can stay in the bedroom for the night.”

“No, I want to stay near the fire.”

“Okay, if that’s what you want, but the sofa’s not very comfortable after a while. The cushions are old and – ”

“No, this is good. I’ll be good, here.”

He looked at the decanter of whiskey on the mantelpiece and said, “Do you want a drink?” She stared at him, but said nothing. “There’s whiskey, if you want.”

 “Do you want some?” she asked.

There was nothing he wanted more than to pour himself a glass of the aged Kentucky Bourbon. He wanted to smell it, to see it pour over ice and savor its cool bite. He wanted its warmth in is belly, the gentle fire that ran through his guts and calmed him, the fast lift of the alcohol running through him and making his blood hot, energized and crazy. Right now, those old feelings felt fresh and exciting, wrapped in fancy new paper and sitting in a box under the tree. He thought of how after having a few, the whiskey would start to go down like water, and he’d go into a blackout and say and do things, and not remember most of what happened, and regret it all the next day. Then he remembered the puking, the pain in his gut, the hangover headaches and dizziness, his injured and sore body, and not being able to walk a straight line. How his words would come out so slurred, he’d have to think of them as he spoke. He didn’t miss the hangover or waking up in the strange doorways, or the doctors, with their curt manners, telling him he was killing himself, but he liked having the whiskey near, and looking at it in the fine decanter.

“It’s for guests,” he said, and turned and walked to the bedroom to get blankets and sheets.

     After they made up the couch, they locked eyes for a moment and his stomach turned over again. He thought of what it would be like to be with her, then pushed it out of his mind. She smiled, but he couldn’t bring himself to smile back.

“I hope you’re comfortable,” he said.

“I’ll hang my clothes in front of the fire, if that’s all right. They should be dry by morning.”

“Yeah,” he said. “Good idea.”

The wind died down, and a steady rain tapped on the roof. The only illumination came from the fireplace, and a kerosene lamp by the sofa. In the kitchen, he took the other lamp and walked into the bedroom. He turned and looked in her direction, but saw only the couch where she lay, and beyond that the clothes hanging from the fireplace screen. He wondered what time it was. It felt very late, but he sensed that it was still relatively early. It didn’t matter. They were both tired.

“Good night,” he said.

“Good night,” she answered, her small voice barely audible.

He turned and shut the door.

2

Island Girl (part 3) A mystery Romance

He laid down, half expecting his daughter to stand next to him and touch her fingers to his eyelids the way she so often did when he napped and wanted to wake him. Her light brown hair was so very fine, he used to tell her, because the angles had found it on the breath of whispers in God’s ear, and they’d snatched it away as it fell from heaven and weaved it onto her head. She’d hold her head in her hands and in a knowing, skeptical tone, scold him. “Daddy!” He’d touch her nose with a finger and hold her close, and they’d sit quietly for a few seconds, then he’d catch her eye and wink, and smile at her and her blue eyes would grow huge for a second and she’d beam at him, taking in a deep breath and releasing it with a sigh. Her small fingers were perfectly formed, but slightly pudgy, as she held them over his eyes, and he’d quickly snap at them, pretending to bite her hand, and they’d laugh. But she did not come to wake him. She would never come again. The pain of that realization sat upon his sternum like a dead weight, a rock pressing against his heart, unable to be dislodged. He crossed his hands over his chest and fell into a deep sleep.

     She stood at the end of the sofa, gazing into the fire. The youthfulness of her face was illuminated in yellow and orange hues. He watched her for a moment, not completely sure he wasn’t dreaming. The fire popped and an errant piece of char hit the fire screen. Startled, she turned to him and he smiled. They locked eyes for a second, her opal-light irises instantly captivating. Her hair and clothes were soaked and she dripped water onto the floor.

“You decided not to leave, then?” he said.

“It’s raining.”

“I noticed.” He sat up. The wind and rain buffeted the cottage, making the fire feel all the more pleasant. She stared at the burning wood and said nothing. He got up slowly, watching her and the fire, then went to the kitchen and poured water into a glass and brought it to her. “How’s your headache?” he asked.  She took the glass and sipped, but said nothing. “I have a shortwave radio,” he said. “Cell phones are spotty, and may not work. Is there someone we need to call?”

She walked to the kitchen and placed the empty glass on the counter, then sat in the old, creaky chair at the head of the table and stared down at her clasped hands. She shivered from the cold. He saw she was dripping water onto his chair and floor. “I have some dry things you can wear,” he said, and walked into the bedroom. He lit a lamp, then opened his bureau and found a navy blue sweatshirt and pants and thick cotton socks. When he turned, he was surprised to find her standing in the doorway, staring at him. She had removed her sweatshirt and now wore only a tee shirt and skin tight, very wet jeans. The low backlight accentuated the curve of her hips, thighs and well-rounded calf muscles.  “I’ll leave these here.” He placed the clothes on his bed and turned to her. “You can change,” he started to say, but she was gone.

He found her looking out a kitchen window. Shrubs and trees wiped wildly in the squall. Rain pelted the cottage in violent waves. “I left the dry clothes in there for you. Feel free to…” She turned toward him, and her slight smile stopped him in mid-sentence. She was more beautiful than any woman he’d ever seen. A flutter grew in his stomach and for an instant, he felt tongue tied, something he’d never suffered before. Feeling momentarily inept in front of her, but quickly regaining his senses, he turned away from her gaze. “You can go in there,” he said, pointing at the bedroom. When he finally turned back to look, she was walking toward the room and quickly disappeared inside. “Bring the lamp out when you come,” he said.

Island Girl

cabin

ONE

Sprawled at his bare feet, a green canvas bag holding captive two large lobsters. They scuttled about, armor clacking the skiff. He didn’t particularly like the taste. He loved being out on the boat, the feeling of floating on the tide, looking into the shallows, seeing crab and small fish roaming among the barnacled rocks. Pulling pots by hand and rowing was good exercise. He loved the smell of the bay, the shore at low tide, the complex aroma of living Earth.

The wind kicked up from the east as he maneuvered the skiff in toward shore. The island foliage tossed uneasily, fighting the stiff breeze. Choppy waves riled the skiff. He pulled the boat onshore and tied it down, when he saw her. Something out the corner of his eye. Just a splash of red, but the color was bright enough for him to realize it was not a natural color for the island. He thought for a moment he was seeing things from his imagination. The red of blood. The color he was sure covered his wife and daughter. The horror of imaging how they looked after the crash. His imagination often took him there, to that scene on the tarmac. The horror of it sinking into his bones, like cool water floating down in layers, to the bottom of his soul.

The crimson flashes moved inland, up beyond the tall grass on the hill, beyond the slink weed bushes on the rocky trail leading away from the cottage. He reached the trail head, but saw no more signs of her. A slight breeze rustled the bushes behind him. He started and turned quickly, scanning the bushes, the trees and grass beyond, but he saw nothing. A bird landed on a tree nearby and he smiled. His mind was playing tricks. His only visitor was a black bird with a red patch. Red winged black birds were uncommon on the island and probably the reason it caught his attention. Crows and seagulls ruled the rock. Just last night, a small murder of American crows appeared near the cottage, their loud cawing and iridescent feathers unmistakable in the craggy pines.

He lit the outdoor roasting fire. After he’d cooked and eaten the lobster, he sat, satiated, under the canopy of stars. Cool air wrapped around him like damp sheets. He sat on the hard flat rock, shaped like a stool, and stared into the fire. Clumps of smoky seaweed, still oozing dampness, wheezed and popped in the heat, and gave off sour smoke.

When the season was right, he’d roast corn on the cob with the lobster, but often he couldn’t finish the meals. His appetite would wane as he drifted into bad memories. The burial, the condolences, the sad offerings, the blur of black clothing, pale skin and muted whispers, and the sorrowful moans. The preacher’s caw echoing into incoherent rants. Words popping out, such as “life,” “death” and “meaning,” but his voice was more like the wind and rain and provided no comfort. Rituals. Other people’s thoughts held no meaning. Grief lived in his chest like a knot of angry crabs, the weight of it strangling and gnawing on the flesh of his heart, and because of it, his appetite was gone. He ate what little he could of the rich lobster meat and threw the rest back into the fire. He held a bottle of bourbon on his lap, running his fingers down the smooth glass. But, he knew he wouldn’t drink. Not at that moment, but soon maybe, and it would start all over again.

A twig snapped and he looked up. Just off the trail, someone standing in the shadows, but he tried not to stare. He held a smoldering twig in his hand and watched the glowing tip turn to ash, occasionally looking up and scanning the trees and bushes, trying to snatch a glimpse of the stranger. After seeing the outline of shoulder-length hair and just enough facial features to decipher them as feminine, he thought it might be a young woman. Thick hair, perhaps, covered the side of her face. He saw these things in dark outline, never catching any detail. And her footfall was light, not like a man. He was quietly amused by his silent watcher, and wondered if she was a perhaps a child, or a teenager who’d run away from home. Then he realized he should speak and see what kind of trouble she might bring. How could she be anything but trouble? “Come in out of the dark,” he said, placing the tip of the smoldering stick back into the fire. “I won’t bite you.” He sensed her there, standing still in the shadows. He resumed holding the burning stick, until the flame diminished into a small glowing point. There was no sound, other than the occasional breeze.

As night closed in around him and the air cooled, a chill covered him like a damp whisper, and he decided to go in. He stood and looked at the area where he’d last seen her outline and said, “I’m going in now. I’ll leave a blanket on the porch. It gets cold.” He stared into the blackness and laughed to himself for thinking it was somebody. If it had been a girl, she would have talked to him by now. And if she had talked to him and had come inside, what trouble would she bring? He didn’t need it. He was alone with his own troubles. That was enough, and they were all he could handle.

He went inside the cabin and built a fire. When the logs caught, and the flames licked a good size log, he pushed the sofa up close to the hearth and sat. If it was a girl out there, he thought, somebody would be looking for her. She could be a runaway or hiding from the law or bad men, a bad marriage. But these were just ideas. It had been a black bird with a red patch on its wings. Nothing more.

Time passed and heaviness woke him. He roused and checked the fire and found no flames.  The room was cold. He looked out the window toward the fire pit. There was nothing to see. He lit a kerosene lamp and went to the bedroom.

His shadow cast on the ceiling from the lamp, as he adjusted himself under the covers. His own dark outline brought to mind the crows outside the cottage. About two weeks earlier, they’d come and stayed the night in the pines, cawing and squawking into the early hours of the morning. A murder of crows, holding court. What had they said to each other? Had it had been an omen. The figure in shadows popped into his head. Perhaps it really was a girl. He turned down the lamp and pulled the cold covers up to his chin. He turned over, and a whisper came to him. A gentle tingle in his ear. He wasn’t sure what it said, but the voice was that of his wife. Perhaps she was standing beside him now, watching over him. He opened his eyes and saw nothing, then yawned and closed them again. He inhaled deeply and sighed out the words, “Goodnight, my love.”

To Be Cont’d…

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