Cruel Paradise

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Chapter 17

It took Blane about 30 minutes to get to the outskirts of Parham Town. Not his personal best, he noted, but there was a pretty good chance that he’d be doing plenty of running in the next few days trying to get Larkin out of the country. As he emerged from the woods, he evaluated the first home that he encountered, slowly creeping up to face the back of the house. He was clearly in the lower income part of town, and felt a stab of guilt for stealing from them. But the more ideal candidates for his meal, the very few middle class homes, were at the center of town – clustered around Tholen’s estate like a bunch of spoiled children vying for attention. He couldn’t risk being spotted by venturing further in to town and he didn’t have enough time. This would have to do.

Aberland knew the area well. These houses were some of the original structures on the island, built easily 40 or 50 years ago and already virtually beyond repair when the people of Tortola chose to return to the island from their exile, after the Socialistas began to focus their attentions elsewhere. The exterior walls had plenty of cracks, and their stucco coating had long since fallen away. Some of the more resourceful islanders had created a mixture of sand and mud to attempt to patch over the weak points. Others stuffed grasses or leaves in the holes and deeper fissures that were forming.

Daylight was beginning to fade, but as he crept closer to the dirty kitchen window Aberland could glimpse a big stew pot on the stove and some freshly baked bread on the counter. His mouth began to water, and he edged along the backside of the house, hiding out of sight near the rickety screen door, where he leaned forward slightly to get a better look. He shrunk back immediately. Inside, a larger woman had bustled back in to the room and begun chopping up some of the day’s catch to flavor the stew. He hadn’t seen any evidence of toys or kids in the house, and that gave him some small comfort. Surely this woman could scrounge up a meal elsewhere, just this once. A man yelled unintelligibly deeper inside the house, and the woman responded, “Comin’!” A moment later the swaying back of her dress crossed in front of the window and sashayed in to another room. This was his chance.

As fast as he could, Blane lurched forward. He miscalculated and threw the back door open way too hard, and it smacked the inside wall loudly. He hoped that the couple was too occupied in the other room to notice. By the sound of their raised voices, they seemed to be arguing. Blane dumped the fish into the stew pot and put the lid on it. A frequently used and re-used plastic bag was sitting on the counter and the fresh bread found a new home in it. Snatching up the shopping bag, he had lifted the stew pot and was ready to take off when he heard a loud “Hey!”

He whirled, ready to pull out his gun and forcibly leave with their dinner. But there was no one there. Confused, he peered down the hall, and still saw no one. The argument must have been getting more heated. Blane took his leave, happy to avoid any further conflict. The theft had been easy enough. The challenge was going to be moving quickly with a pot full of sloshing stew that he couldn’t afford to waste. Clamping the lid down with his thumbs, he settled for a brisk walk back to the campsite.

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Larkin reeled in shock at the sight of the abandoned house. It was the last thing that she’d expected to find, and its very existence was extremely unsettling. Why was it there? Perhaps some hermit must have wanted to live a very private life, far away from anyone else on the island, she speculated. It wasn’t entirely unheard of. But that didn’t make it any less creepy.

The derelict house had clearly sunk in to the ground a little, and seemed to be lying there, crouching and waiting for someone to dare to come closer. The windows were broken, the glass jagged or even missing in some places, and Larkin couldn’t help but imagine things leering at her from its darkened rooms.The remnants of white paint hung from the sides of the house peeling off in ribbons, and its humble front porch sagged heavy in the middle, its spindly columns threatening to snap in two at any moment.

The whole scene was really spooky, with the neglected home’s shadows slinking away from the fading sunlight in to the rippling reeds. She was half ready to turn and run back to the safety of the cave – she could already picture herself tearing through the woods faster and faster with wild scenes from horror movies playing in her head. The place practically looked like she’d find a corpse just lying there on the front porch, never to roam the surrounding forest again. Suddenly everything seemed to become eerily quiet, and grew even a little darker, almost imperceptibly so.

Larkin shook her head. This was silly. There would be no one anywhere near that house, why should there be? Why not poke around a little bit and have something interesting to do instead of wandering around aimlessly? She’d have a nice little ghost story to share by the fire later. Besides, it would be the best source of firewood she’d been able to find by far. She checked the sky, and found the light still just strong enough for her to safely check it out and have time to get back before it got too dark.

She swallowed hard, and held her borrowed Colt 1911 at the ready once again. She’d gotten lax about carrying it properly through the forest. Resolved, she plunged in to the high wild grasses of the clearing, cutting a path through them for what must have been the first time in many years, she realized. With every step the house seemed to yawn larger before her, still ominously pitch black inside.

Finally she was within a few feet of it, trying to convince herself that now that she was this close, it wasn’t really that bad. She was too rattled to notice that it only appeared to be so dark inside because of the position of the sun, and it wasn’t that difficult to see in to any longer. She inched closer, knowing that she should at least walk all the way around it and verify that there were in fact no crazy villagers or shamans waiting to string her up for dinner, but she was too curious about what would be waiting inside the house.

She found a table just inside one of the windows, and on it sat a picture of a woman encased in a silver frame, now very tarnished and worn. The woman was young, perhaps as young as Larkin, with beautiful dark glowing skin and her hair set in a style that reminded Larkin of pictures from the 2010-decade. She was sitting by the beach in the sun, very happy. Larkin looked past the table, further in to the depths of the house, and could make out a simply furnished living room, with chairs and a table and a few other personal belongings.

Who must that woman have been? Was she living here with her lover or even a family all those years ago? What made them leave and never come back? There was no knowing. It was a strange reminder of how the people of Tortola and likely so many other island nations fled from the ESU to find a home somewhere else. And when they returned – if they returned – they found a sad shadow of what their life used to be.

A balmy breeze rustled the grasses around her, pulling Larkin out of her reverie with a start and giving her a chill as she turned quickly to look around the clearing, her heart pounding in her chest. The eeriness of scene had crept back in, and she realized that she’d lose the precious sunlight if she didn’t become more brisk about her mission. She circled the house, trying to keep her imagination from running wild again, and found a nice collection of wooden siding that had fallen off and dried out in the sun, perfect for their fire. She walked through the tall grasses nearby and pulled up as much as she could stuff in to her bag for their bedding, then gathered up all the wood she could carry. She hurried back across the clearing, not without a few backward lingering glances at the haunting little home. It would stay in her memory for a long time.

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