An excerpt from Dark Genius (Unpublished manuscript)
The last time Harper went out to Stone’s Island was in August, some years ago. He couldn’t remember exactly how old they were, or what year it was, but they’d gotten hold of Uncle Jim’s 15-foot Boston Whaler and headed out to explore the island. They discovered a cove on the lee side of Stone’s and pulled her up onto the rocks. Deciding to take a closer look at the estate, they walked along the rocky shore and discovered in the tide pools the headless carcass of a harbor seal, rotting in the morning sun. Instead of going to the house as planned, they took the carcass back to the boat and headed out into the shallows.
They hooked the carcass onto a drop line, cast it out, and let it sit on the bottom. After a few minutes they pulled it up, and with it came a mass of frenzied, feeding sharks. The sharks swarmed and dove and bit at the meat, breaking the surface as they gorged. Jimmy stood in the boat and smacked the bloody water with an oar, trying to bean one of the sharks. He frantically smacked the water over and over, but failed to hit anything. The spray got into their eyes and ran down their faces into their mouths. Harper remembered the taste of the salty red water and, even now, it turned his stomach.
Jimmy stood on the bow, feet wide apart, rocking the small boat back and forth, forcing the weight of his whole body with each push, laughing uncontrollably, until they started to take on water. Waves slapped up, into the boat. Bits of seal gut came aboard with each wave. The sharks circled and bit at the meat, swarming in a frenzy. Harper held on to the side of the boat, overcome by fits of uncontrolled laughter as it bobbed up and down, shark fins rising up, teeth mashing the seal flesh. Jimmy became brazen by Harper’s response, rollicking with laughter at his mad game, forcing the boat closer to the water with each push. Jimmy suddenly fell out of the boat, and into the churning sea. Harper had seen Jimmy swim fast before, but he practically leaped back into the boat. The image of a shark grazing Jimmy’s leg as he swam, the black shadow surging forward from the depths, was etched in Harper’s memory.
Harper fell to the floor of the Whaler, holding his stomach; the cold water and uncontrolled laughter caused him to pee in his pants. Watching from the floor of the boat, his body drenched in remnants of seal guts, seawater and urine, looking into Jimmy’s wild eyes, he knew; He knew Jim had fallen overboard on purpose. Had carried the little adventure as far as it could go. It struck Harper as such an obtuse thing to do, and he couldn’t understand why Jimmy always went too far.
Sunlight streamed in through a break in the curtains and he could see a wall of tiny dust particles dancing in its beams. He thought of vacuuming the rug, but had only a mechanical sweeper. Ever since he brought that rug to the island, he’d seen particles floating above it.
The sound of running water pricked up his ears. He didn’t understand why water would be splashing in the kitchen. Perhaps a bird had come in during the night and was caught in the sink. He lay in bed listening to the faint gurgle and splashing. The gentle trickle of water falling. He sat up and looked toward the sound. His bedroom door was ajar. He got up and looked into the kitchen. A girl stood over the sink, washing her face and neck. She wore a blue plaid shirt, a red sweatshirt wrapped around her waist, blue jeans and dirty white canvas sneakers. Her hair was dark, almost black, but as she pulled at the wet curls it appeared, in the sunbeams from the skylight, a very dark brown color with reddish highlights, and was thick and wavy. When she was finished pulling at her hair, she looked around the counter top for something to dry it with.
“Hello” he said.
She turned sharply, pointing a long kitchen knife in his direction. Her fearful look startled him and he took a step back.
“That towel is dirty,” he said, pointing to the rag by the sink. “I’ll bring you a clean one.”
She took a step away from the sink, her eyes fixed on him. He went to his bed, pulled on his trousers, stepped into his moccasins, then got a towel from the linen closet in the bathroom, and brought it to the kitchen. He stood a few feet away from her and offered her the towel. She slowly reached out with one hand, holding the knife in the other, and took the offering. “Thank you,” she said, in a small voice.
“I have plenty of food,” he said. “I can cook something. Do you want breakfast?”
She smelled the towel, then slowly dried her hair and face. Her eyes very light blue, a color he’d never seen before on a human being.
“You can cook if you want,” she said.
“You can put that knife away. I’m not gonna hurt you.”
She held the towel in front of her chest and slowly slid the knife into the sink.
“Good,” he said. “I generally eat big in the morning.”
She shrugged and turned to look at the fireplace. He followed her eyes and said, “Fire went out last night.”
“I can build one,” she said.
She walked to the fireplace. He went to the refrigerator to get eggs and ham and bread. He watched her out of the corner of his eye as she stacked kindling on the ashes and fanned the coals. She crumpled up newspaper and placed in underneath and the wood started to burn. She placed a few medium sized logs onto the fire and the flames quickly grew.
He hand pumped well-water into the coffee pot, then put it on the gas stove to percolate. Cracking open the eggs, he placed them in a large, black pan, and laid slices of ham-steak in, and it sizzled and popped from the heat. He placed slices of bread on the old fashioned, pyramid shaped toaster that fit neatly over the gas burner. The eggs crackled and popped and he turned them gently, so as not to break the yolks. While he cooked, she warmed herself by the fire.
“I can tell you’re all right by looking at you,” he said, and wanted to ask why she was there, but decided to let her speak in her own time. Perhaps she was lost or running from something. She cleared her throat and looked as if she was about to speak, but said nothing. “I’ll give you a lift back to the mainland, if you like. Or I’ll give you gas or whatever you want for your boat, but that’s as far as we go.”
She warmed her hands by the flames. “It’s a good fire,” she said. “I was cold. The wood is dry. Burns good.”
“It’s been in the woodbin for over a year, more or less. I get oak from the mainland. Oak burns best, I think. Dense wood. Not like pine.”
He placed the eggs, ham and toast on two plates and placed them on the table. He poured two cups of coffee and set one down for her. “Come and eat.” He stood in front of his place and waited. She walked slowly to the table and sat, never taking her eyes off of him. He sat and smiled at her and said, “Best breakfast in town.” She smiled and picked up her fork.
She looked to be about twenty, he figured. Definitely not younger. Perhaps, as old as twenty five, now that he had a good look at her. She glanced at him and he blushed, wondering how she got the eyes of a husky. She wasn’t light skinned enough to be an albino, but she had fair coloring. Her lips were full and her nose was small.
“Where are you from?” he asked. She frowned and poked her food with a fork. “Aren’t you gonna try my coffee? I make strong coffee.” She gave a slight smile and made a show of sipping from the cup, although it didn’t look like she took any into her mouth. “You want some water?” he asked. She vigorously shook her head. He got a large pitcher from the fridge and grabbed a glass from the cabinet and placed both in front of her. She filled the glass and quickly drank it down. Then she dank another, and another.
“I hope you didn’t try to drink that water that runs in the sink. That’s not potable.”
He watched her gulp down a full glass of water. “You’re dehydrated,” he said.
She looked eagerly at him and licked her lips. “Yes, I think I am. I wasn’t thirsty before and now I am.”
“Why would you be so dehydrated?”
“I was at sea.”
“I swam for a whole night.”
“What about your boat?”
He did the calculations in his head. The currents run swiftly through slots between the islands. Either she was a very slow swimmer, or the tidal current brought her in from one of the outer islands. Perhaps, Jewell Island, the last island before you hit the open ocean. That would be about five or six miles to the East.
“It sunk?” he asked.
“Hit a rock or something. Heavy seas. I don’t remember the rest.”
He hadn’t heard about a shipwreck, certainly not nearby. The radio would have been crackling with the news. There had been very stormy weather the day before yesterday, but something wasn’t adding up. “You’re telling me you wrecked and then you swam here?”
“I think so.”
“You had a life vest?” She said nothing. “Was anybody else onboard?”
“I don’t remember.”
“Was it a ship, like a cruise ship, a private yacht, a sailing ship, what?”
“I…” She stood up. “I don’t think…” She ran outside and leaned over the porch railing. He heard her gagging, and walked over to see if he could help.
“You drank too fast,” he said. “You’ll be okay. Come sit by the fire. ” She turned to look at him and her blue-white eyes sparkled in the morning sun.
They went inside and sat in front of the fire. He sipped coffee from a mug. She sipped a glass of water. Her color came back, what little there was in her pale skin, and her eyes were less glassy. “What’s your name?” he asked her. She stared at the fire and said nothing. Then she extended her right hand in front of her, stretching the fingers out. She looked at the back of her hand, then at the palm, and said, “My hand looks the same. Familiar. But I don’t remember my name.” He took that as nonsense and looked at her for a few minutes, noting the sweep of hair across her forehead, the tight, almost pore-less skin of her face. “What do you mean, familiar?”
“I mean, I know it. It’s mine.” She looked again at her hand and smiled, then turned back to the fire.
“What’s the last thing you remember?”
“Coming to this island. Standing on the shore, and watching you…by the fire.”
“Oh” she said, in a soft voice.
“I was aware of you in the bush. You should have come to the fire.”
She stared at the flames and tussled her hair. She had a slow, dreamy quality about her now, and she could barely keep her eyes open. She stretched out on the sofa and closed her eyes. He got up and moved her feet onto the cushions, then got a blanket from the bedroom and placed it over her. He watched her breathing as it grew shallow. The flare of her nostrils became less pronounced. Once she was asleep, he walked back into the kitchen to finish breakfast.
He split wood in the back yard. The stack, dropped off from the mainland a week earlier, was good oak, ready to be split and dried, and he was making headway. As he heaved the heavy blade, he could feel an occasional cool breeze as the afternoon winds shifted. It was sunny and hotter inland, and he removed his shirt when it started to stick to his back. The sea breeze kicked up and cooled his sweaty skin. The ax was heavy and double bladed, and the oak split easily. Wiping his brow, he turned to see her emerge from the cottage. As he strained to scratch an itchy spot behind his shoulders, he felt her hand move in slow circles against his flesh. He stiffened and turned to her. “How are you feeling?” he asked, placing the ax against to the woodpile.
“Like I’m dreaming.”
“You need food, and more to drink.” She gave him a slight smile and stared at him, as if she were witnessing something completely new. “How long were out in the water?”
“I don’t remember, exactly. It’s a blur. No longer than a day, I think. And part of the night.”
“Where were you headed?”
“I don’t know.”
“Who was with you? How many onboard?”
She frowned and took a step toward the cottage. He placed a hand on her shoulder and she turned to him. “I want to help, but I don’t know anything about you,” he said. “What’s your name? Do you have family?”
“I don’t feel right,” she said. He release his hand and she walked toward the cottage.
“I only want to help.” He put his shirt back on and followed her inside.
She was sitting at the kitchen table, her head down. He brought the pitcher of water and filled a glass. She sipped and stared down at the table, her thick hair obscuring her lovely face. He leaned back against kitchen counter and crossed his arms over his chest. “I’m worried you’ve been missing for a while. People are probably worried, probably looking for you. The police-”
“No police,” she interrupted. “There’s no one. I’m alone.”
“You were alone on the boat?”
“I’m trying to tell you, you can’t just disappear. People will be looking for you.”
Her expression was strangely serene, childlike. He went to the sink and pumped fresh well water into the pitcher. “I live alone. It wouldn’t be right having you here…” He finished refilling the water pitcher and returned it to the fridge. “You understand?” He turned back to her, but she was gone. Her half-empty glass still on the table.
“Hey,” he said loudly. “Hey, kid.”
He walked outside. Everything was as he’d left it. The wind tussled the pines. The tall grass beyond his yard swirled in the gusts. He made his way down to the path leading to the beach. His boat was tied securely to the dock, and bounced freely in the choppy water. Clouds rolled in from the North. The air began to chill. “Hey, kid,” he yelled, against the din of escalating wind. He felt foolish calling her “kid.” She wasn’t a kid. Perhaps, he wasn’t much older than her, he really couldn’t tell. Perhaps, it was her apparent vulnerability that made him call her kid. It could be she wasn’t young at all, but only appeared youthful. What else was he going to call her? And she’d be even more vulnerable in the approaching storm. He wasn’t happy worrying about her, or anyone else for that matter, especially a mixed-up stranger. He had his own troubles. He turned and walked back up the path.
By the time he reached the cottage, large drops of rain began hitting his head. The precipitation was cold, and sent a chill through him. This caused him to worry even more about the girl. Her infirmity reminded him of his own weakness, and how pained he was at the loss of his family. Simple tasks, like taking out the garbage, or chopping wood, could trigger deep, painful memories, and send him into depression.
He stood in the storm-darkened kitchen, staring at the open door and the rainy field beyond, and thought of his wife standing in front of him. At first, she was nude. Her strong shapely legs, the pillar of her vibrant body. Then she was dressed in jeans and a pale red T-shirt, the way she was the last time he saw her. She was smiling, her brown hair diffused in back-light, radiating around her head like a golden crown. In his mind, he smiled back. His daughter ran into the room and said something. At first he couldn’t make out the words, but the sound of her voice spun his stomach. He looked at her angelic face, a smear of chocolate outlined her lips.
“Hi Pumpkin,” he said, and smiled, his heart breaking. His throat tightened, and he could feel tears filling his eyes.
What was left of the light in the kitchen succumbed to stormy twilight, as he stared out the open doorway, his mind dull, saturated by inklings of ancient emotions. A feeling of longing made his eyes lose focus, and he stared at nothing for a few moments, floating in the lightness of melancholy. Rain pelted the porch and began wetting the floor where he stood. Blue-black clouds danced and clashed above. A downpour pinged off the metal roof, slowly at first, then more abundantly, enlivening the sounds of gusting wind in sharp staccato rhythms. He stared put at the field and slowly shut the door.
He retrieved a box of wooden matches and lit a kerosene lamp. The smell triggered sense memory of the often repeated task, rooting him in the feeling security and home. The smell of the stove, the essence of gas fumes after being lit, the crackle of eggs cooking on the stove, the smell of coffee percolating. He slowly stacked dried kindling, lit the newspapers he’d stuffed underneath and waited until the kindling caught, then added larger pieces of wood, building it into a roaring fire. He sat on the sofa and watched the flames.
A dull ache started behind his eyes, and was exacerbated by the light of the fire.