Neela: The Blue Pearl

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Chapter 1

Neela spent the first eighteen years of her life on a small tropical island. She didn’t look like any of the other girls she grew up with. They all had beautiful skin tones and hair colors that could be deepened, bronzed, or highlighted. Her skin was pearl white and her hair alike, despite being kissed by the rays of the ever-present sun. Her eyebrows and lashes were scarcely noticeable against the pale canvas of her face. If not for the touch of pink in her lips and splash of blue in her eyes, she would have been completely void of color. Her appearance was distinct for the island, but her features were actually quite plain, with the exception of her eyes. There was an ethereal quality about them, one that you would notice right away if she were to look up for a moment.

Beyond the aesthetic differences existed a unique way of being as well. Unlike most teenagers of modern times, she favored nature over technology. She loved all elements of nature, but the sea had a special place in her heart. From a young age, she treasured the sound of the waves, the salty air that smelled like home, and the breeze that always made her feel like something exciting was just beginning to brew. Her senses fanned the flames of her natural affinity as she matured. However, it was her vivid imagination that ignited the infatuation that accompanied her into adulthood. It was an infatuation that she shared with the most important person in her life, her grandfather.

Her grandfather was a fisherman named Henry who had spent many of his early years on the open water. He wasn’t formally educated, but he made it a point to be self-taught in most areas. He knew much more than what was advertised by his exterior or his manner of speaking. His speech had US Southern roots dappled with a collection of words procured during his world travels. His physical appearance was that of a short, stout man; his body was a product of years of hard labor and his face weathered by the sea and sun. His beard was as unkempt as the rest of him. His walk had character implanted by injury and enhanced by his efforts to mask the chronic pain. In his mind, any lag of the leg or moment of hesitation revealed weakness. Because of this, he hid many of his acquired injuries. However, there was one that was impossible for him to completely conceal, despite his best efforts.

He had a facial scar that consisted of multiple thin, interwoven streaks, with a small amount of branching. It lived partially underneath a ratty old cap and mostly in the shadow created by its brim. It ran from above his left brow, down his eyelid, and ended just before the peak of his cheekbone. Neela had quite a fondness for it as a little girl, or more so a fondness for the story of its origin. She would often beg Henry to tell it, in his best pirate-like voice. Although it was somewhat inappropriate for a child, he would almost always oblige her request.

“Well, a long time ago, way back, when the wind took me where I ought to be, I landed on this here island. I think I had been visitin’ for a while before another lad blew in. His loose and flashin’ coin made word of him spread quick. He was lookin’ for skilled fishermen, said he’d pay double the goin’ rate. I needed the money and had the skills, so we was a fine fit. Mind you, I knew nothin’ of his aim before boardin’ his ship that day, and we was too far out by the time I realized just what it was.

“I’m ashamed to say it, but we was whalin’. He had been trackin’ the poor ole girl for a while and knew just where she’d be. We nearly had her, until somethin’ bigger than us decided to intervene. You could feel somethin’ comin’, just as we was closin’ in on her. The air turned thick and hot, practically smothered us. The ship rocked in all directions. We tried to stay locked up tight on that rope, but everythin’ was workin’ against us. Capt’ was yellin’, ‘PULL HER IN… PULL… HER… IN!’

“The sky turned as black as his soul, and the waters as violent as his nature. The wind knocked us over and flung us around the deck. The sea spray came at us from every angle. The salt put a sting in our eyes and the ropes put a deep burn in our hands. The sails were one by one ripped from the masts. We had nothin’ left to keep the course. Ole girl was fightin’ us tooth and nail. We couldn’t hold on. She slipped out of our raw clutches and into the bottomless blue. Any fool could see that it wasn’t meant to be, but the Capt’ kept at us.

“‘GET HER BACK,’ he yelled into our wrought faces. ‘DO SOMETHING!’ he ordered cruelly.

“We begged him to give it up, warned him of the sea king’s wrath, but he wouldn’t listen. He was willin’ to sacrifice us all for a bit of blubbery booty. He cursed the king loudly and dared him to bring his worst aboard. Me and the boys battened down the hatches, gripped to whatever was near, and prayed like hell that the stories of a sea king were just that. We all crouched down, but the Capt’ stayed standin’. He took up a post in the middle of the deck, with sheer defiance keepin’ him upright. Lightnin’ blazed through the dark sky, givin’ off just enough light for me to see me mates thrown overboard. The sea rose ten times the height of the hull. I looked up, expectin’ it to crash down upon me, but it held, and a man appeared at its still peak. Thinkin’ it was God perched up high, I was relieved. The water brought him over to the deck and set him afloat right smack dab in front of the Capt’s feet.

“He looked to be about seven feet tall and somethin’ far beyond our world. Somethin’ as untamed as the sea itself. He had this long silver hair that whipped with the wind and blindin’ porcelain skin. He yanked up the Capt’ by his collar and unleashed a deafenin’ shrill into the man’s face. The Capt’ pled his case, but he couldn’t hornswaggle his way out. He was tossed overboard for what he done. His death left me the last man on his crumblin’ ship. His executioner turned sights on me, still hunkered down in a nook. He moved in on me real eerie-like, lurchin’ through his enslaved water. He looked like a man up top, but whatever that was below the surface was somethin’ altogether different. He hovered over me, stared directly into me eyes, and proclaimed:

“‘No man commands this sea! I am King Azul, and this is my kingdom!’

“His enormous voice rattled through me bones and echoed deep in me chest. I sat there, a dead man waitin’ for his fate. The king raised his fist in the air. The lightning seemed to obey him. It was louder and brighter than I ever seen it. I shut me eyes and prayed for mercy. A pain I never felt before overtook me. It felt like a blade forged from electricity and fire plunged into me left eye and was driven deep into me skull. It took away me senses. I woke up the next mornin’ fully marooned, mostly buried in the sand, and nearly dead. I was hurtin’ from head to toe, but I was alive. He made sure that I lived to tell the tale of the great King Azul, who purloined the sight from me left eye and the souls of many men.”

For Neela, Henry’s story was amusing and fictitious, a mixture of the tall tales men told at sea and perhaps a small amount of truth. It changed a little each time he told it, but in any form, it stood as inspiration for some of her own imaginative stories. Although she had been almost always embraced by her peers growing up, she sometimes worried that her unique appearance would draw unwanted attention. She used her narratives to control the reason for some of the attention she received and as a way to connect with others. Storytelling also allowed her to feel larger than life, particularly larger than her life. She was grateful for the humble surroundings Henry provided and loved him dearly but had always desired a bit more adventure than her childhood had offered.

I don’t want you to get the impression that Neela’s childhood was at all negative, because it wasn’t. It was just a bit dull in comparison to the adventures her imagination conjured up and maybe a bit quiet with just her and her grandfather there. They’d lived alone since the death of her mother.

Neela’s mother’s name was Anika. She was a beautiful young woman, inside and out. Unfortunately, she’d passed away shortly after giving birth to Neela, her only child. Her death had left Neela without a mother and without any information regarding the identity or whereabouts of her father. At the time of Anika’s death, Henry was already a widower and perhaps slightly ill-equipped to raise a little girl alone in his grief. By the time Neela hit her teen years, she had already become the somewhat more responsible party between the two of them. She tried her best to steer Henry away from unhealthy choices, but it was no easy task. When reason failed to win him over, she employed other tactics. Some of her most successful were sneaking healthy substitutes into recipes, watering down his rum, and dampening his cigars.

His vices were plenty and of great concern to Neela. She believed that without her routine interventions he would have had a much shorter and more treacherous walk to the grave. Despite the yearn to roam, she chose to stay at home after she graduated high school to ensure his longevity. She took a job at a childcare center within a nearby resort. It was one of the very few within walking distance from their home. The position allowed her to keep a handle on the Henry situation and earn a wage for something she loved to do. Several times a day, she would dress in handmade costumes and enthusiastically share her tall tales. Most days there were plenty of children within the center to delight, but on occasion, the number of guests would dwindle, and she would be rerouted to the art or meditation studios to assist the instructors there. She wasn’t crazy about those days, but it wasn’t anything she found intolerable or too terribly disruptive to her daily routine.

Neela was very much a free spirit, so it might surprise you to learn that she was also a creature of habit. Her off days were routinely spent roaming the beach that lay just outside her back door. Her workdays were equally predictable but a bit more rigid. She would wake at six in the morning, take a stroll on the beach, shower, pop on a bohemian-style dress, and eat breakfast with her grandfather, all before heading off to work on foot.

Breakfast with Henry was one of Neela’s favorite parts of the morning. She loved to entertain him with colorful accounts of life within the resort. He found her stories enjoyable; however, he worried about her surrounding herself with so many strangers. When he expressed his concern, she would try her best to explain how she loved to listen to the travelers’ stories and even live vicariously through them at times. He understood the need for adventure but still worried about her safety around all of the young men that passed through “looking for a good time,” as he put it. Over the years, he had repeatedly warned her about the ill intentions of some of the visitors to the island but never fully explained why his fear was so intense. One morning during breakfast, he decided she was old enough to have a better understanding of his worries.

He took a deep breath and blurted out, “You know, it pains me somethin’ awful to talk about Nika, but I gotta tell you somethin’.”

“Okay…”

He took another deep breath. “She used to work at that resort of yours, and she was real taken with the visitors, like you.”

“I didn’t know she worked there.”

“I didn’t think anything of it, just a summer fling or somethin’. If I’d known what was gonna happen, I would’ve put my foot down right from the start.”

“If you knew what would happen?”

“He would break her heart.”

“Who was he?”

“I did try to warn her, but before I knew it, she was pregnant, and it wasn’t long before I lost her. I don’t want you to end up like that.”

“I know, but Grandpa, who was he? You said you didn’t know anything about my father… about their relationship…”

“I don’t know anything much.”

“Who was he?”

“Just a fool like all the others. To them, you’re just a moment. They don’t see forever when they look at ya, darlin’, you remember that, okay?”

“I will, but did she ever tell you anything about him?”

Henry sighed. “Neela, I’m her father. She didn’t tell me much.”

“You said before you didn’t know anything, but now it seems you know something. Which is it?”

“All I know is that he was visitin’ the island and ran off before she could tell him that she was expectin’.”

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure.”

“What did he look like?”

“I don’t know.”

“Do you really not know, or is this another—”

“I caught a glimpse of him one night, but the coward was gone before I could get to the door.”

“Well…?”

“I wasn’t impressed.”

“Grandpa!”

“I guess some would say he was tall, and from what I could tell, from the side of his face, he seemed pale.”

“I probably get my pastiness from him then, huh?”

“God made you like porcelain, just like he made me like leather, darlin’. We are what we’re meant to be.”

Neela laughed. Henry always had a way of reframing anything she said that was remotely negative about herself. She knew what he was doing and loved him even more for his efforts.

“Oh, crap, I’ve gotta get to work,” Neela said quickly as she hurried toward the front door.

“You just remember what I said!”

“I will—no sex with any of the visitors, got it!”

Henry cringed at hearing her say “sex” for the first time. It wasn’t exactly the point he was trying to make, but if it helped to prevent her from getting hurt, it would do.

Neela’s head was spinning during her walk to work. Henry had always maintained that he knew absolutely nothing of her father or the nature of the relationship between him and Anika. Without anything to support the notion, Neela had always assumed that her father had been absent from her life by choice. Henry’s disclosure made it possible that her father didn’t even know she existed. She realized that it was now possible that she had a father somewhere out there that would very much want to know of her. She was uncertain of how to feel about all of it but couldn’t wait to get to work to run it by her friends.

She had two close friends who worked with her at the resort. One was a mature woman named Marigold, who went by Mari, and the other was a young woman Neela had known since childhood named Delila.

Mari was closer to Henry’s age but had a youthful whimsy about her that had drawn Neela in right away. Mari didn’t really need to work at the resort, but she enjoyed it. She would tell you bluntly herself that she was lonely, rich, and bored after her husband died and had decided to remedy the loneliness and boredom by teaching meditation classes. For Mari, life was about chakras and auras.

For Delila, life was about pop culture and gossip. She worked full-time at the front desk, along with the occasional overtime hours in housekeeping. Delila was never void of theories about the guests and was an excellent storyteller in her own right. There was never a fact she couldn’t inflate to make it more appealing to her audience.

When Neela arrived at work, she went straight to the meditation studio to find Mari, who was prepping for her first class of the day. Neela didn’t waste any time, jumping right into it.

“You aren’t going to believe what my grandpa told me.”

“Good morning, my dear.”

“Good morning, but did you hear what I just said about my grandpa?”

“Yes, and whatever it is has troubled you. I can see it in your aura; it’s much darker today.”

“He said that my father was a guest that my mom met while working here one summer.”

“Oh, young love. It comes on so quickly and can end so abruptly,” Mari said with a tone that hinted there were memories of past loves scrolling through her head.

“And he said that my father never knew about me,” Neela said, totally ignoring Mari’s wandering of the mind, which she tended to do sometimes.

“How does he know that?” Mari asked.

“He said my mom didn’t get a chance to tell him that she was pregnant.”

“I wonder if there’s anyone still here from that time who might be able to tell us more about your mother’s summer romance.”

“I’m not sure I would want that.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t know. I guess I don’t want any confirmation that he didn’t care about her.”

Mari tried to discourage negativity whenever possible. “Try not to think that way, honey, it’s so hard to know what goes on between two people when you’re not one of them. I’m sure they cared for each other.”

“I used to think I was the reason he ran off, but if it wasn’t me, what was it?”

“I don’t have the answer to that, but I’m sure it isn’t a simple one. You’ll see when you fall in love; it’s anything but simple.”

“I guess my grandpa is right about things being temporary for the guests. I’m steering clear of them, for sure.”

Mari’s experience in life allowed for a certain type of chuckle. “Oh, my sweet child, you can’t control who you fall in love with.”

“Maybe I won’t fall in love at all. People always leave, or die, or aren’t who they seem to be. It’s just not worth it.”

“I don’t know if they can help dying, my dear, but they’re not all bad. My Mitchell was one of the good ones.”

“I’m so sorry, Mari. I didn’t mean anything bad about Mitchell.”

“It’s all right, I understand, but it isn’t like you to be so pessimistic. What of those fairy tales you’re always telling? They wouldn’t be nearly as entertaining without someone falling in love, now, would they?”

“I guess not. Wait, what time is it?”

“It looks like a quarter till eight.”

“I have to go, but we could talk at the dance hall later if you want.”

“I’m afraid I left my dancing shoes at home.”

Neela projected her voice a bit as she was walking away. “Tomorrow then?”

“I’ll be here!” Mari yelled back.

Neela rushed off to the childcare center, full of anxiety. She was never late. She always woke with plenty of time to get wherever she needed to be early. She clocked in just a few minutes before eight—late in her mind, but only in her mind, as her shift was scheduled to begin at eight.

She was a little frazzled from her imagined tardiness and preoccupation with questions surrounding her parents’ relationship, but she still wanted to put her all into her performances for the children. She quickly entered the children’s activity room through the back door. She quietly slipped into a storage closet without any of the children noticing. The closet was filled with plastic bins organized by theme. Each bin held a collection of headpieces, dresses, and jewelry, all handmade or embellished by Neela. She wasn’t given much of a budget by the resort, so every few weeks she would cash her check and head to the fabric store.

Aimee, the owner of the store, knew her well and looked forward to her visits. Early on, she’d helped with the construction of the costumes, but Neela had caught on quickly and could soon teach Aimee some new techniques. Neela did, however, still routinely need assistance in locating fabrics and patterns that fit her needs. The two would scour the store for hours in search of just the right materials. The hunt could have been tedious for the ladies, but they genuinely enjoyed each other’s company, in spite of their dissimilar tastes. Aimee favored simplicity, while Neela favored anything textured. Neela loved her trips to the fabric store, but she wouldn’t rely solely on items purchased there for her creations. She also liked to incorporate things she found around the house or recovered from the beach. She had once made a corset from the spines of Henry’s old books and a sort of wizard staff from twisted driftwood she found just outside her back door. She would sew, glue, iron, or even tape, if need be, until everything felt just right for each story.

On this particular day, she selected a corset-like vest to wear over her dress. The vest had a collection of nautical-themed iron-ons that extended beyond the neckline. She put it on quickly and locked the two sides together with hook and loop strips in the front. She ran her hands down the vest to ensure proper alignment, then yanked on the bottom a bit. She took her sandals off, as she tended to do whenever possible, and placed them under a small velvet chair that was the only piece of furniture in the closet. She exited in character and with a manufactured high level of energy. She rallied the children into a small cluster in the center of the room.

“Step right up, don’t miss a beat.

Listen to me tale from the edge of your seat.

It happened long, long ago—

before you and you started to grow.

Imagine it, a nasty old pirate’s ship—

sailing on its one hundredth trip.

The pirates aboard were scary,

never merry,

and led by the worst of them all—

Captain Buckyball.

He only loved his trophies and booty.

He had no sense of duty.

One day he sought a forbidden treasure

that’s value was beyond measure.

See, the treasure he sought

couldn’t be bought.

It belonged to the great King Azul,

who never played anyone’s fool.

He was smart, strong, and full of magic.

To steal from him would be quite tragic.

The captain could care less about all the king’s power

and kept seeking his treasure until the final hour.

The king warned him of his terrible fate,

but it was far too late.

The captain’s aim was tightly locked,

with no idea that it could be so easily blocked.

See, the king controlled the weather,

and he was exceptionally clever.

He threw lightning bolts at the ship

and heavy rains that made it easy to slip.

With all the fire and slippery ground,

No one wanted to stick around.

The men jumped overboard, fell all the way down—

It was the only way to escape the wrath of the crown.

The last man standing tall

was Captain Buckyball.

The king didn’t like that at all,

so he made Buckyball fall to a strange crawl.

And as he crawled on his hands and feet,

he still didn’t feel that he was beat.

The king then knew he would never learn,

even as his ship continued to burn.

So he turned the captain into a harmless baboon

and threw him far away into a raging monsoon.

For the rest of his days,

he would have no rays,

no trophies or gold,

and never again would he be so bold.”

The children all cheered and begged for another. Her rhythmic tales were never perfect, but she would put such energy into them that the children never seemed to notice their flaws. She delivered several more, with differing themes, each more well-received than the last.

As she ventured into tales of princes and princesses, she became worried that she was filling the minds of the children with nonsense. She wondered if her mother had been a young girl that believed in princes and happy endings and then had sought that type of love in an unworthy stranger. She found herself changing the tone and endings of some of her tales. Her heroines became far more independent and protective of their hearts than they had been in previous versions. After her last story of the day, she was more confused than she had been shortly after breakfast. She changed out of her costume and dashed to the front desk to find Delila.

“What’s up, girl, you still goin’ to the thing tonight?” Delila asked.

“You said my attendance was mandatory to remain in this friendship, so yeah, I’m going.”

“You usually don’t listen to me. I figured I’d be flyin’ solo again.”

“No, you have a wingman—or woman, or whatever—tonight.”

“Okay, let me clock out real quick, rip these clothes off, and pop on some heels.”

“Rip your clothes off?”

“I have my outfit on under my uniform!”

“Oh.” Neela laughed at her overeager and overprepared friend.

“It’s just a top. I’m going to wear it with the uniform skirt—save time, you know.”

“Makes sense,” Neela replied.

A faint mumble of a grunt came from Delila as she struggled to remove her stiff uniform top, which covered a much more Delila-like tank top, as she would describe it. She quickly discarded her flats and replaced them with a pair of high heels. The heels made her sound much more severe than she ever could be as she walked out from behind the front desk to join Neela. She shoved her top and flats into the oversized purse that was nestled in the crook of her elbow.

Delila was ready for the dance but could sense a slight reluctance in her best friend. Neela never really wanted to go to the dance hall, but everyone else always did. It was tranquil on their side of the island, but there really wasn’t much to do in the way of entertainment. Delila was beyond excited to have finally swayed Neela to come to the only hot spot in town. She pulled gently on Neela’s arm to encourage her to keep walking toward the hall.

On the way there, she filled Neela in on all the gossip centered on room 1B. Mr. Rogan was staying in 1B again. He frequently requested the room when he visited the island with his wife. Most thought that his wife changed her appearance drastically in between visits. She was said to have ever-evolving fashion and a propensity to alternate her wigs to match her looks. However, Delila was convinced that Mr. Rogen, if that was his real name, was a polygamist living secret double, triple, or even quadruple lives. She was always in high spirits when he visited and always appreciative of her front-row seat to all the drama. Neela was so amused by the gossip that she almost forgot the drama the day had brought to her own life.

They strolled into the hall a little early and decided that was a good thing, as it ensured they would have a table for the night. The band was setting up in the front of the mostly open-air room. Faint microphone testing and soft pentatonic scales on the steel drums could be heard through the speaker system staggered throughout the very large and very humid room. There was a slight breeze that traveled through the space, making the heat and humidity a bit more bearable than it would’ve been otherwise.

“I’m so freggin’ fraggin’ excited. I love this band!” Delila exclaimed.

Neela sat silent.

“What’s up with you? Why you so quiet?”

“I’m sorry. I’ve been, like, really in my head all day.”

“What’s wrong?”

“I hardly know. I guess it started with something my grandpa said this morning.”

“What did ole Henry say that has you so shook?”

“It didn’t really shake me when he said it, but then later…”

“What was it?”

“You know that we never really, like, talk-talk about my mom, right?”

“Yeah…”

“Well, this morning he tells me that she used to work here and that my dad was a guest that manipulated her into bending her morals.”

“Bending her morals, huh?”

“You know, they were to-geth-er, and then he just ran off when she got pregnant.”

“You said your mom was, like, twenty-something when she died. And if she was anything like you, your dad was probably her first. I’m not so sure there were any morals bent there.”

“She was twenty-one, but they weren’t married.”

“Is that a must for your first time? Marriage? Come on, Neela.”

“No, I guess not, but I know my grandpa would have encouraged her to wait.”

“Yeah, so would any parent. It’s the ideal sitch.”

“Yeah, but he, like, constantly reminds me to wait. Like, constantly.”

“What does he say again?” Delila prompted.

“You’ve heard him.”

“Yeah, but I got a good response for it this time.”

“All right, he says nobody wants to buy the cow when they’re getting the milk for free.”

“It’s not free—they have to wine and dine this cow.”

Neela didn’t react.

“I was tryin’ to make you laugh. Look, this thing with your mom, obviously it would have been fantastic if she’d waited until marriage, but that’s just not what happened.”

“Yeah, I know, but I wonder why he just left her like that.”

“Do we know that he did?”

“Well, my grandpa did say he left before she could tell him about me. I guess it just feels like he took advantage and ran off. I don’t know.”

“Okay, so there you go—he didn’t know, and then it was probably just the end of his trip or something.”

“That’s what I was trying to tell myself this morning, but then I was like, then why didn’t he ever reach out to her? If he loved her, you know?”

“You’re right, to just ghost her like that…What a jerk!”

“Ghost?”

“Yeah, you know, when somebody just disappears on you.”

“I’ve never heard that.”

“That’s because you keep your head in those fairy tales, my friend.”

“I know, and that’s really messing with me too. I spent the whole day worried that I was contributing to some poor little girl’s delusions of a Prince Charming.”

“What?”

“The fairy tales. I love them, but maybe they’re not the best, you know?”

“I love you, but you’re losing it. This whole thing has you super negative.”

“I know, but—”

“Look, people fall in love, its messy, things happen, that’s life. If your mom didn’t have some things happen, your little self wouldn’t even be here right now. So let’s stop all this and create some mess of our own, starting with Diego.”

Neela couldn’t argue with Delila’s somehow sound logic. They made their way over to the bar, where a boy named Diego was eagerly waiting to take their drink order.

He greeted them playfully and anxiously. “Hellllloooo, ladies. What can I get for you? May I suggest my signature mixed drink? I call it Diego’s Delicious Daiquiri—no, Diego’s Dynamite Daiquiri—no… It has a working title, but you’ll both love it, you want one?”

Diego had a difficult time speaking with natural pauses and sometimes even breathing around Delila. He always had. They’d had a few classes together in high school that Diego remembered fondly and Delila didn’t remember at all, or so she said. He had improved his fluidity of speech since then, but not by much. Neela felt sorry for him, but not enough to try his new concoction.

She quickly rejected his offer. “I don’t really drink.”

Delila quickly canceled out her rejection. “But she will tonight. We’ll take two of your signature daiquiris, kind sir. And can you keep my purse behind the bar tonight, D?”

He answered with an immediate, “Certainly.” He loved it when she called him D. She didn’t do it all the time, but when she did, it made—his—night.

It was sad, really. Diego’s confidence was so unexpectedly lacking for someone that most would consider to be a catch. He tried way too hard to impress Delila while he mixed their drinks. She politely watched the show with minimal encouragement. When he was out of things to toss or shake, he poured the mango-colored mixture into tall, curvaceous glasses, added a few pieces of fruit to the rims, and tossed in two clear straws before presenting them to the ladies. Delila complimented him on their appearance, and Neela complimented him on their taste before they departed the bar to reclaim their standing table.

“Thank God, I can see the steel drummer from here, this is perfect,” Delila said.

“What’s in this drink?” Neela wondered aloud.

“One part heaven, two parts deliciousness, and I don’t know, but whatever it is, Diego read my mind,” Delila responded.

“It is delicious! I think he should keep that descriptor in the title, for sure,” Neela said as she siphoned the daiquiri eagerly through the straw.

“You gotta pace yourself, girl, you don’t want to be a sloppy drunk. That’s just not a cute look.”

“But they’re so ridiculously good!”

Delila laughed.

“DIEGO! DIEGO! CAN I HAVE ANOTHER ONE OF THESE MANGO THINGIES? THEY’RE DELICIOUS, DAZZLING, DELECTABLE, DANDY…” Neela rattled off a few more favorable adjectives that started with the letter D.

“Come on, now, you can’t be screamin’ at people across the room like that. If you want another one, I’ll get you one, but you have to promise me you’ll drink it slow this time.”

Neela held up two fingers and then three and then two again.

“What are you doing?”

“Scout’s honor… I think.”

“I love you, but you are seriously off today. Stay here, and I’ll go get you another mango thingy or whatever they’re called.”

“Okay.” Neela removed her straw and tried to lick the last little bit of daiquiri from the sides of the glass.

* * *

Deep regret set in for Delila as she walked to the bar. She’d never thought that one drink would have such an effect on her friend. She had reached the legal drinking age the year prior, and even though her experience was limited, she was pretty certain that you can’t get intoxicated on such a small amount of alcohol in such a small amount of time. Once at the bar, she decided to try to slow things down a bit. She asked Diego to make an alcohol-free version of his delicious daiquiri.

“Your wish is my command,” he responded.

After all, it was another opportunity for him to demonstrate how talented of a mixologist he was. The other patrons at the bar enjoyed his performance, but for Delila, it just meant an extended wait time, when she was already anxious to get back to her friend. Unfortunately for Diego, she kept her back to him and her eyes elsewhere for the entirety of the show.

Her gaze alternated between two fixed points: the gorgeous steel drummer and Neela. Her attention was pretty evenly distributed between the two until Neela started to sway offbeat to the rhythm of the music. Her sway was subtle at first, barely noticeable to the crowd. Then a more familiar song came on, and her sway became much more exaggerated. As soon as Delila could get her hands on Neela’s mango thingy, she was back at the table.

“Okay, girl, calm down with all of that. Here’s your drink,” Delila said as she placed both of Neela’s hands around the glass.

She hoped that drawing her focus to the drink would stop the swaying, but no such luck.

“I don’t dance, but I like to sway,” Neela said proudly.

“I see that.”

“I don’t know about that drummer of yours, though,” Neela blurted out.

“What?”

“That drummer guy. You’ve been here like a million times, and he has NEVER, EVER talked to you.”

“He will,” Delila said confidently.

“Is there anybody else you might like?”

“I’m too worried about whatever this is going on with you tonight to notice anybody else, really.”

“I’ll be fine! Go dance with somebody, I’ll sway here.” She giggled. “Get it? Sway instead of stay?”

“I get it and love it, but I’m not leaving you here by yourself. It’s a packed house tonight.”

“I could ask around. There’s gotta be other single guys around here.” Neela started to turn away from Delila to embark on a somewhat wobbly search for single young men.

Delila pulled her back swiftly. “No, no, no, okay? Now, I did see another guy near the bar.”

“Who is he?”

“I don’t know. I’ve seen him here before, but he’s always dancing with a different girl. Hashtag total-player.”

“Where is he? I’ll tell him to stop that!”

“Yeah, I’m sure he’ll get right on top of that, Neela.”

“Why do they want to be that way, with us for just a little moment or whatever?”

“Shoot, girl, I’ll be with him for a moment or two—or ten.”

“DELILA!”

“You have got to calm down. I was just kidding.”

“I AM CALM!”

“O… m… g… girl. He’s coming over here, be cool,” Delila whispered.

Delila’s embarrassment worsened as the stranger drew near. He was far more put together than she had originally thought. Her eyes examined him from top to bottom, and her mind made notes of the features she wanted to discuss later with her friend. That is, if Neela ever got back to being her normal self. Delila noted that the man’s lightweight clothes hung just right on his muscular build and that the neutral colors he wore complemented his caramel complexion. She wasn’t particularly fond of long hair, but his was incredibly black, straight, and shiny. Whether she liked it or not, it was an impressive head of hair.

“I beg your pardon, but are you all right?” the gorgeous stranger asked, with his gaze directed at Neela.

She looked in the opposite direction as soon as he started to speak but continued to rock her hips subtly side to side, outwardly unfazed by the intrusion.

Delila gave her a little nudge of encouragement.

“Oh, you were talking to me? I’m great, wonderful, not in need of saving, Mr. Charming, nope.”

Delila tried to explain. “She’s a little drunk tonight.”

“No, I’m not!” Neela fired back.

“She was able to notice how charming I am, so she must be fine,” the stranger testified glibly.

Neela stopped swaying abruptly. “Yuck! Arrogant.”

She folded her arms on the table and then leaned over to rest her head on them.

“Is it arrogant to be confident?” the stranger questioned.

“No, it’s arrogant to be arrogant,” Neela responded without lifting up her head.

“Agreed,” the stranger replied.

“Look, we know your type,” Neela barked a little louder through her folded arms.

“Really? Do tell.”

“Delila says you’re a total player, and Delila almost NEVER LIES.”

“Who is Delila?”

“That would be me,” Delila said, humiliation dripping from a meeker version of her natural voice.

“Delila does not know anything about me; we just met. It is nice to make your acquaintance, Delila. I am Cheveyo.”

Delila nodded as she shook Cheveyo’s hand.

“Now that we have met, do you mind introducing me to your friend?”

Neela grunted loudly.

“I sure don’t! This is my friend Neela.”

“Neela, the color of blue in Hindi, I believe. What a beautiful name. It is nice to meet you, Neela.”

“Yeah, yeah, you say that now, and next thing you know, I’m pregnant and you’re a ghost,” Neela said with her head slightly raised.

Delila laughed.

“I sincerely hope that is not the case. I am sorry if I have upset you. I simply sought to make certain that you were all right and introduce myself.”

Neela refused to engage any further, and it became painfully clear that the conversation was over before it ever really began.

“Yes, well. Ladies, it has been a pleasure. If you will both excuse me, I must be going.”

Cheveyo extended a parting nod to each of the girls, only acknowledged by Delila, as he walked away from the table and left the dance hall.

Delila was worried. She had never seen Neela behave this way. “You okay?”

“I wanna go home.”

“Okay, I’ll walk you home, but you seriously dropped the ball on this wingwoman thing tonight.”

Neela took her seriously and apologized for dropping the proverbial ball. Delila explained that she was only teasing and reassured her that an apology wasn’t at all necessary. They walked toward Neela’s house in silence, which was a very unusual occurrence for the two of them. One of them always had something to say, and the other was always eager to listen. Delila took the silence as an opportunity to internally review everything Neela had said prior to her mango thingy. She couldn’t fully understand why she was so upset about the new information her grandfather shared, or why she would come down so hard on herself for telling harmless little stories to the children at the center.

She tried to put herself in Neela’s position but had no real frame of reference. Her own parents were very much alive and had been happily married for many years. Her life lacked the stressors needed for true empathy. She tried to think of something to say that might comfort her friend, but it was difficult to form the right words, and she could tell that for Neela, it was far too stressful of a night to talk about it anymore. When they made it to the cottage, Delila helped her quietly sneak in through her bedroom window. Neela had purposely left it open that morning in preparation for just such an operation. Thankfully, it went well, and they successfully avoided an interrogation from a presumably drunk Henry. He was sound asleep on the sofa and didn’t hear a thing.

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