The next morning, Neela missed Cheveyo dearly, but she looked forward to spending more time with Delila, Mari, and Henry. She skipped her morning walk and made a large breakfast. Henry was shocked to see her in the kitchen when she would typically be with Cheveyo and immediately assumed something was wrong.
“Mornin’. Everythin’ all right with ya?”
“Yeah, have a seat. I made all kinds of goodies.”
He sat down at the breakfast table. The look of the feast she’d prepared briefly distracted him from his worry. Shoving a pancake or two in his mouth distracted him a little more.
“You like everything, Grandpa?”
“Yeah, but why are you here? Aren’t you usually with Chevron at the crack of sparrows?” he questioned through a mouthful of pancake.
“We decided to spend some time apart.”
Henry jumped up from the table.
“I’LL KILL ’IM!’” he shouted as bits of pancake flew out of his mouth.
“No, Grandpa, sit down, it’s not like that.”
“That fopdoodle thinks he’s gonna use ya up and move on to the next, well, he’s got another thing comin’…”
“GRANDPA, please sit down and I’ll explain.”
Henry begrudgingly sat back down.
“Thank you, but it really isn’t like that. I told him that we should hang out every other day so that I could spend more time with you, Mari, and Delila.”
“And he was okay with this?”
“Now he’s makin’ too much sense. I don’t like this, either, there’s somethin’ the matter with him.”
“First we are too close, now not close enough? Grandpa, you have got to get a grip. It’s fine, here, have another pancake.”
She placed the largest pancake she could make on the plate in front of him.
“Stop tryin’ to distract me. There is somethin’ the matter with him,” he said as he devoured the oversized pancake.
“All right, just be careful is all I’m sayin’,” he surprisingly relented. Partially because he was becoming overwhelmed by the volume of food he had consumed in such a short amount of time.
“Will do,” Neela responded.
“Wait a minute…”
“Did you put something funny in these again?”
“I have no idea what you’re talking about.”
“You know that flaxseed of yours is too disgusting even for the birds, and they eat worms, Neela—worms!”
“Crazy like a fox. You should listen to me. Flax is a filler in birdseed, and even they don’t like it, they’ll pick right through it.”
“Okay, okay, okay.”
After Neela agreed to stop sneaking healthy bits into her recipes (with her fingers crossed, of course), they enjoyed the rest of their breakfast. Once pancakes were scarce and dirty dishes plenty, Neela excused herself to walk to work. She left a little early so that she could hopefully meet up with Delila before her shift. When she arrived, she went straight to the front desk to wait for her friend.
“NEELA! O… M… G. Chica, do you actually have time for me today?”
Neela greeted and hugged Delila enthusiastically. She could feel how much her beautiful friend had missed her.
“I have so much to tell you. Guess who’s got a boyfriend?”
“No way,” Neela said in disbelief, which was followed by a sense of sadness.
She realized that she must have missed a whole sequence of events that led up to the official label of boyfriend. It was starting to sink in just how much she had neglected her friend.
“Yeah, girl, meet me at the dance hall tonight and I’ll tell you all about it.”
Neela agreed. She wanted to know who the boyfriend was right away but knew there was no way that her dramatic friend was going to tell her so easily. Delila had to make Neela wonder about what was going on in her life, a passive punishment of sorts for her recent absence. They went about their respective schedules out of obligation, but both were eager for the day to be done. During her lunchtime, which differed from Delila’s, Neela searched for Mari in the breakroom.
“Neela, honey, I’m sitting on the couch, about ten steps in front of you.”
Neela smiled. She was always so happy to hear Mari give her directions in steps without hesitation or any additional instruction. Mari had a way of being helpful without making you feel helpless. The ladies greeted each other with a hug, and Neela joined Mari on the couch. Neela ran her hands back and forth on the plush pile of the velvet. She loved any directional fabric in which she could manipulate the nap with just the swipe of her hand so that the texture changed from smooth to rough instantaneously. A bit of human magic at play.
“It’s good to see you. You look well,” Mari said.
“It’s good to hear your voice, Mari, and I am very well,” Neela said with a cheeky grin.
“Oh, so how is your Cheveyo?”
“Very well as well, thank you for asking.”
“Good, so it’s official, he’s your boyfriend, then?”
“I think so.”
“I’m so happy for you.”
“What’s been up with you lately, Mari? Grandpa said you stopped by the other day.”
“I hope you don’t mind. I wanted to check on you.”
“Not at all.”
“Your grandfather was a delight.”
“You didn’t think he was a little crazy?”
“Heavens no, why would I?”
“Most people tend to think he’s a little unhinged, when they first meet him, anyway.”
“I thought he was charming, and he reminded me of home.”
“Oh, that’s right. I forget that you both grew up in the States.”
“And we’re both from the South. I’m well accustomed to tall tales like his. It’s not crazy there, it’s tradition. You both sure can tell a story.”
“Thank you, I learned from the best.”
“I would love to stay and chat, but I have to run. I have another class in just a few minutes. Please tell your grandfather I said hello.”
Neela finished the rest of her workday and hurried to the dance hall to meet Delila. She said hello to Diego as she entered the hall and then felt around for an available table. She was relieved to finally find one with two empty chairs. Delila bounced in full of energy shortly after Neela sat down.
“Thank God you saved a table, this place is packed! I guess they all came out to hear my man go from the drums to the microphone. Aaaahhh, can you believe that? Hashtag lead-singer!”
“You’re with the drummer now?”
“Yes—and the LEAD SING-ER, don’t forget that part. His name is Hatari, isn’t that sexy?”
“Yes, very. How long has this been going on?”
“A few weeks. You’re not the only one in love.”
“I’m happy for you, but what about Diego?”
“We’re just friends.”
“I’m a little sad for him. No wonder he sounded down tonight.”
“He’s never asked me out. I don’t think he likes me like that. Anyway, do you wanna hear how it happened?”
“I was still hanging out at the dance hall every night in your much-noticed and unappreciated absence—just kidding, sorta. Then one night, I was looking a little extra fine, and I noticed him noticing me, if you know what I’m saying.”
“Oh, yeah, sorry girl, well, he was looking me up and down, it’s something guys do when they’re interested.”
“Oh, okay. Then what happened?”
“He motioned for me to come over during a break, and we started talking. He’s a really nice guy, goes to church with his mom, volunteers his time, just amazing.”
“That does sound amazing,” Neela said, with her internal skepticism well hidden.
“We had an over-the-top first kiss that night and several more kisses since then.”
“Do you feel electricity when you kiss?”
“Girl, you mean sparks, and no, that’s just something people say.”
“He does get a little handsy sometimes, but other than that, he’s been a perfect gentleman.”
“Yeah, he can’t get enough of me, so I have to pump the brakes. He’s fine with it and says I’m worth the wait.”
“That sounds uncomfortable.”
“All guys are like that.”
“Yes, he is, girl, I saw the way he was lookin’ at you that night, like a wild animal or something.”
Delila suddenly became distracted by someone entering the room.
“Oh crap, here comes my boss. How does she always find me?”
Delila hid behind Neela and tried to develop an escape plan.
“You’re always in the dance hall,” Neela answered, not realizing it was a rhetorical question.
“Never mind, let’s try to get away before I end up working another shift.”
Delila grabbed Neela’s hand and pulled her through the crowd toward the exit. Unfortunately, there was another manager practically posted in the doorway. It was too late to walk in another direction. They were spotted. With the close proximity, Delila had no choice but to acknowledge him. Turned out Delila was running from the wrong one, but she was right that she would end up working an extra shift as a result of the encounter. She was disappointed that she wouldn’t be able to introduce Neela to her new boyfriend.
“I can’t believe I agreed to go back to work again; their set is almost over too.”
“I can meet him another time. Is tomorrow good?”
“I think he’s off tomorrow, that would be perfect. Do you wanna see if Cheveyo is free and we could all go out to dinner?”
“I’ll ask him, but we’d have to go kinda early. He has to get up for work the next morning.”
“Five o’clock?” Delila suggested.
Neela hated to lie to her friend about Cheveyo but felt some comfort in the rationalization that he did actually have to go home early to rest, and he did also have to get up early—it was just to meet her at the pier instead of for work. So really the only falsehood was the reason he had to get up early. She felt better minimizing it down to a single lie; it felt like a lesser offense somehow.
The best friends hugged goodbye, Delila ran off to cover another shift, and Neela walked toward the exit. From the exit, she chose the pathway that led to the beach. She had a date with Cheveyo for a good night kiss that she had been looking forward to all day. She walked the familiar path with a little extra pep in her step, until an unfamiliar voice called out to her.
“Yes, who’s there?” She clung to her cane a little tighter.
“Hatari, Delila’s friend.”
She relaxed her grip, stopped, and waited for him to catch up.
“Oh, nice to meet you,” she said when she could hear his somewhat labored breaths approaching.
She extended her hand in his general direction. Hatari bypassed the handshake and went in for a hug with a kiss on the cheek. His greeting helped her to understand the definition of “handsy” more fully.
“Oh, gosh, you sure are affectionate.”
“Beautiful girls have that effect on me.”
She began to walk away. “Yes, well, it was nice to meet you. I have to be going now.”
“Where are you going? I could walk you.”
She increased her pace. “It’s not necessary, thank you anyway.”
“Come on, I can’t let a pretty little thing like you walk out here all by herself. What if something happened to you? Delila would kill me,” Hatari insisted.
“I guess you can walk me to the pier. I’m going to meet my boyfriend there.” She threw the word “boyfriend” out there in hopes it would discourage him from tagging along.
It didn’t. Hatari moved closer to her as she continued her way down the beach. The farther away from the dance hall and people they got, the more uncomfortable she became.
“Yeah, Delila said you had a boyfriend. I think I’ve seen him before, he’s pretty jacked, right?”
“Yeah, he’s strong, if that’s what you mean.”
“Do you like that?”
“Yeah, I guess.”
“You guess? What else do you like?”
“He’s a very protective person.”
“I’m not sure what you’re looking for here.”
“You don’t think it’s a little weird that he’s dating someone like you?”
“Why would it be weird?”
“Because you’re blind, mama.”
“Visually impaired, and he doesn’t care about that.”
“Oh, I bet not. He can look at whatever he wants while his sweet little blind girlfriend doesn’t have a clue.”
“That’s not true!”
“Yeah it is. I’ve seen his type before. You need a real man in your life.”
“I have that!”
“I was thinkin’ someone more like me.”
Hatari leaned in and tried to kiss Neela, this time on the mouth. She said no repeatedly and tried desperately to get away from him. Instead of stopping, he pushed her up against a sand dune parallel to their path. She tried to hit him with her cane, but he took it away and threw it just out of her reach. She tried to grab Delila’s pepper spray from the pocket of her dress, but he took that away too. She screamed out for help, but her pleas went unanswered, and he moved in closer.
He pinned her arms above her head with one hand and put the other over her mouth to muffle her screams. He used his body weight to keep the rest of her restrained, sadistically whispering details of his plans into her ear. She realized in that moment that there were things far worse than death. Things worse than any nightmare she’d ever had or book she’d ever read. She was terrified but kept fighting as hard as she could to get away.
Unexpectedly and with great force, Hatari was ripped off of her. She could hear just seconds of him screaming for help, a commotion in the water, and then just—nothingness. It was as if Hatari had been plucked right out of existence. She frantically searched for her cane in the eerie silence. When she located it nearby, she picked it up, along with a handful of sand. She ran home as fast as she could, with the sand draining out from in between her fingers. There was no sound to support his presence, but she was sure that she could feel Hatari on her heels the whole way home. She had broken a promise to Cheveyo in not meeting him at the pier, but she knew he would understand.
She was relieved that her grandfather was asleep on the couch when she arrived home. She didn’t want him to worry or somehow blame Cheveyo. She also wasn’t sure what had happened to Hatari and if it would cause her any future trouble. She stayed in her bedroom all night, frightened and unable to sleep. She waited for Cheveyo, in any form, human, Ojigong, it didn’t matter, as long as she could explain what had prevented her from meeting him at the pier and receive his comfort. She longed for the safety and security she felt in his arms.
She dozed off briefly and woke right back up. With just a few minutes before her alarm was scheduled to go off, it was pointless for her to keep trying to get some sleep. She lay still in her bed and waited for the unnerving sequence of beeps. She spent this time thinking of how to explain to her best friend what had happened and how she would break the news that Hatari wasn’t who he pretended to be. She couldn’t find the words that might fully explain the situation without devastating Delila.
When her alarm went off, she headed out to the pier in hopes that Cheveyo would be waiting, but he wasn’t. She waited at the end of the pier and even called out his name a few times before a stranger asked her if she was okay. She didn’t want to draw any more attention to herself, so she headed home, disappointed and concerned. She was worried about Cheveyo, but also that Hatari would reemerge.
On her way home, she heard a lot more foot traffic on the beach than typical for a weekday morning, or anytime, for that matter. She recognized a voice nearby and decided to inquire about all the extra activity.
“Chief Cavacha, is that you?”
“Neela! You really shouldn’t be here. Where’s your grandfather?”
“He’s at home. What’s going on?”
“We have a situation, but everything is going to be fine.”
“What’s the situation?”
“I don’t want to scare you, but it looks like there may have been a shark attack last night.”
“Is everyone okay?” Neela asked.
“It looks like someone got drunk, went for a midnight swim or something. We are still trying to work out all the details.”
“Are they okay, though?”
“No, I’m afraid he didn’t survive.”
“Who was it?”
“We can’t be entirely sure yet, but the man I think it is, I doubt you would know.”
“He was a real bad guy, Neela. He was always in and out of jail, beating on women, selling drugs, things like that. I really don’t think you’ve crossed paths.”
“Chief, you’ve known me all of my life. Have I ever been one to gossip?”
“Then you can tell me who it is. I won’t say anything.”
“Okay, but this really needs to stay between us. We think it was a man named Hatari. Did you know anyone by that name?”
“No, I don’t think so,” Neela said quickly, before the breath in her lungs escaped and refused to return easily.
“You seem upset.”
“I knew I shouldn’t’ve told you.”
“Did you know him?”
Not a word.
“Please, let me get one of the officers to walk you home.”
“Oh, no, I’m fine. I was just trying to play everything out in my head. How do you know it was a shark attack?”
“Are you sure you want to hear all this, Neela?”
“Yes. I love reading crime novels, and this is like one in real life.”
“I know you can’t see the disastrous mess we have here, but I assure you it was a shark, at least at some point, before or after the jellyfish got a hold of him.”
“Yeah, his body has marks consistent with jellyfish stings. He must have encountered a whole school of them at some point.”
Neela got quiet again.
“You sure you’re all right?”
“Yeah, just tired, but I can manage the walk home.”
“Okay, if you’re sure. Get some rest, and tell your grandfather I said hello.”
Neela could barely manage to utter her standard response, “Will do.”
She walked home slowly, in sand that now felt like miles of wet cement to drudge through. She was confused about many things but pretty certain it was at least a possibility that Cheveyo had murdered Hatari. She knew her friend would soon hear of the news and need her support, but she just couldn’t bring herself to go to her. She called out of work on the house phone that was rarely used by her or Henry. She was so shaken, she could barely remember the number, much less run a steady finger over the braille. She faked sick over the phone and retired to her bedroom.
She sat at the end of her bed for a moment, uncertain of how much she had really faked. Her body ached all over, and she was overwhelmed by nausea. She stood up slowly and climbed into bed carefully. She pulled her covers up to her chin and held them in place tightly with two small, clenched fists. Henry came home from an early-morning outing with Mari and immediately noticed Neela’s cane near the back door. He went to her bedroom to check on her, worried as to why she wasn’t at work. She explained that she had a headache and wasn’t able to go in. Henry told her all about the shark attack story going around town. She explained that she had already encountered Chief Cavacha on the beach and knew all about it.
“Are you sure your stayin’ home today has nothin’ to do with that boy’s death?”
She became anxious at the line of questioning, fearful that her facial expression had somehow revealed her involvement in Hatari’s murder.
“No, why would it?”
“I don’t know, sometimes stuff like that can make you think of other bad things.”
“I just have a really sick headache.”
“It’s not like you to call out. Are ya sure?”
“Did you know him?”
“The shark attack victim?”
She debated on lying to him but decided to tell half-truths instead. She already felt awful about all the lying she’d been having to do since meeting Cheveyo.
“Not really. He just started dating Delila recently.”
“Delila was datin’ that clown? They say he was a drug dealer.”
“I highly doubt she knew that, Grandpa.”
“No, of course not. Poor Delila. How is she?”
“I don’t know.”
“What do ya mean? Isn’t she your best friend?”
“Yeah, but I thought she might want to be alone right now.”
“Neela, I didn’t raise you this way. You get your butt up, get dressed, and get over to Delila’s house immediately. Unless you are knockin’ on death’s door, you need to be there for your friend.”
“She was supposed to be at work today.”
“Don’t you think she probably took the day? You want me to go with ya?”
“No, no, I’m going.” Neela exited the comfort of her bed, against her better judgment.
She took the longest shower possible. She needed the extra time to clear her head and figure out what she was going to say to her brokenhearted friend. She had absolutely nothing prepared by the end of her shower. She took extra time getting dressed. Still nothing. She couldn’t prolong her preparation time any further or it would become obvious to her grandfather that she was stalling. She picked up her cane with exaggerated movements in front of Henry, walked out the front door dramatically, and gave the storm door a bit of a slam. Not enough to really anger him, just enough to make certain that he knew she reluctantly followed his instructions.
On the way to Delila’s house, she prayed for divine intervention. “Dear Lord, if you could just find it in your heart to cause a tsunami or hurricane or something to prevent me from having to do this, I would love you forever, in addition to worshipping you, which I already do, by the way, faithfully. I don’t want anyone to die or anything, maybe just a small flood, something that wouldn’t hurt anyone but would give me an excuse to run home. Amen.”
She lost a little hope with each step and found herself with an unanswered prayer at Delila’s doorstep. She knocked on the front door. Delila’s mother answered and seemed grateful to have extra support for her daughter. She didn’t need to guide Neela to Delila’s bedroom, Neela knew the exact number of steps and location of each obstacle like the back of her hand. When she reached the bedroom, she opened the door to complete silence.
Neela could hear faint cries coming from the direction of the bed. She walked over and felt around for Delila. She found her curled up under her bedcovers. She sat next to her and waited for her to say something.
Delila didn’t realize anyone was there at first. She had been silently crying to herself for some time and had lost touch with her physical surroundings. She was deep in her grief, and it had taken her far away from her small bedroom. When she felt capable, she returned, peeked her head out from the covers, and saw the only person she felt would understand the journey her grief had taken her on.
Delila immediately wrapped her arms around Neela and laid her head on her shoulder. “Did you hear what happened? I just can’t believe it.”
“I’m so sorry, Delila.”
“I keep thinking this is my fault. He was probably upset that I went back to work and went to sulk on the beach by himself, poor guy.”
“Don’t think like that. I’m sure it had nothing to do with you.”
Delila began to cry softly again. “I should’ve stayed with him, Neela; it was his big night.”
“Delila, you went back to work because you are a good person who likes to help people. He should’ve been able to understand that.”
“I could’ve said no and he might still be alive.”
Neela felt that there would be unnecessary and prolonged suffering for her sweet friend if she didn’t do something to debunk Delila’s belief. However, the truth could have been incriminating for Cheveyo. She was conflicted; either way, she would potentially hurt a great love of her life.
She thought about all the times Delila had been there for her. She’d never treated her differently, never asked her to be the spokesperson for all people with a visual impairment or even asked too many questions. She was a true friend, who Neela decided deserved the truth.
“I have to tell you something.”
“What?” Delila whispered through tears.
“You have to promise me that you will keep in mind that I would never try to hurt you.”
“I know that, girl, I love you,” she said as her tears lessened.
“Last night, Hatari offered to walk me to the pier. I said no, but he insisted.”
The crying stopped completely.
“I didn’t know what to do. He tried to force himself on me, and next thing I knew, it sounded like he was dragged into the ocean or something.”
“What are you saying, he attacked you?”
“Yes, please don’t be mad. I did everything I could to fight him off, and I don’t know, he just wouldn’t listen.”
“Oh my God, Neela, are you okay?”
“You’re not mad?”
“I thought you might be. I’ve heard girls get really mad at their friends when there’s a man involved, even if they’re victimized by him.”
“Yeah, psychos. Neela, if you say he attacked you, then he attacked you. I’ve never known you to lie. What a horrible freggin’ person I fell in love with. I can’t believe he did this to you!”
“I can’t believe that you believe me; I was so scared to tell you.”
“I’ll always believe you—you’re my best friend. I just can’t believe I fell for his crap. What a freggin’ fraggin’ horrible person.”
“He was slick.”
“Yes, he was, and I was stupid.”
“Don’t say that. You believed in what he told you because it seemed believable.”
“I should’ve seen some kind of warning signs.”
“You saw what he wanted you to see. He was that slick. This could’ve happened to anyone.”
“You really believe that?”
“What do you think happened to him, after he attacked you?”
“It sounded like someone dragged him away… I really don’t know.”
“I think… into the water.”
“Did they say anything to you?”
“No, nothing. All I heard was Hatari screaming. Oh, I’m sorry, I shouldn’t’ve told you that.”
“No, it’s fine, I guess, he deserved it. I still can’t believe he attacked you. You could’ve been killed.”
“Wow, you are taking this really well.”
“I was devastated, but now I’m pissed! He made me believe that he was a sweet guy that liked to take care of other people. Come to find out he’s actually a predator.”
“I’m sorry that he wasn’t what he pretended to be.”
“It’s okay. I’m sure I’ll go back to being upset for a while, but I’ll be okay. I’m not going to mourn a creep forever.”
“What can I do to make you feel better?”
“Will you stay with me and listen to movies, the way we used to?”
They lay on the floor in front of Delila’s television for the remainder of the day. Over the years, they had enjoyed many movies this way. Delila didn’t think it was fair that she could enjoy the aesthetics of the film if her best friend wasn’t able to anymore. She kept her eyes closed and speculated about what the scenes and characters looked like right along with Neela. The worlds and characters of their imaginations were far more interesting than anything that was ever on the screen.
When it was time for dinner, Delila’s mother invited Neela to stay. She graciously declined and walked home. She knew her grandfather would be worried, and she wanted time alone to fret about Cheveyo without fear of her distress showing. She was consumed with worry the whole way home, but when she reached the cottage, she did everything she could to put it all away and disguise her suffering with fatigue.
“How’s Delila?” Henry asked.
“She’s pretty sad and angry, but I think she’s going to be okay.”
“I was angry too. When a loved one is taken too soon, it’s hard not to be.”
“No, I get that, I do, but I think she is angry because she feels kind of duped by Hatari.”
“Oh, she found out about all the other, huh?”
“Ya see what I’ve told you about these yahoos?”
“Yeah, but he was local, so that blows your whole theory out of the water.”
“Not exactly, smart butt. He has lived here a long time, like myself, but he wasn’t born here.”
“Why do you want me to be with someone born here, if you weren’t even born here?”
“They’re just good, decent people, but also, truth be told, it might be so that ya don’t leave me.”
“Grandpa, I’m not going to leave.”
“That’s the natural order of things, though, I suppose. We all grow up, and some of us leave. I did.”
“Well, the island is my home. I’m not going anywhere.”
“I hope that’s true.”
“It is, but I do have to leave you for the night. I’m exhausted.”
“Good night. I’ll be out here if ya need me.”
He knew, as she walked away, that she had too much of his spirit in her not to roam at some point. He cherished nights like this, when leaving him meant only a short walk to her bedroom.
She went to bed truly exhausted, as she had said. She was still worried sick about Cheveyo but looked forward to falling asleep. She hoped that dreams of him would bring about some comfort and that the morning would bring much-needed answers. She fell asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow.
She woke up the next morning heavily disappointed. It seemed Cheveyo had vanished from her dreams as well. She couldn’t get to the pier fast enough. She had to know what had happened to him, and to Hatari. She was so consumed by concern for his well-being that she couldn’t gauge whether or not she should be angry with him—or fearful of him, for that matter. She barely put herself together before running out the back door.
The beach had returned to its typical quiet and desolate state. It didn’t take long for her to arrive at her destination, anxious as she was. She sat at the end of the pier and waited as best she could for her love to return. The sound of the waves was of little comfort to her.
As the time passed, she became more and more distraught. Unwanted and involuntary images of scenarios that may have taken him away from her invaded her thoughts. Her imagination, once a gift, felt like a curse. She couldn’t understand why he wouldn’t come to the surface for even a few minutes to make sure she was okay and alleviate the immense pain she felt without him.
She waited for him until it was time for her to go to work. She walked home, apologized to her grandfather for missing breakfast, and walked with no sense of urgency toward the resort. Her heart, once overfilled with the joy created by her time spent with Cheveyo, felt completely deflated and heavy all at the same time. She arrived to work late and was completely without concern for any disciplinary action. Wanda, her supervisor, was shocked at her tardiness and weathered physical appearance, having never seen her in such a state before.
“Neela, is everything all right?” Wanda asked with sincere concern.
Neela had always loved the sound of Wanda’s voice. It was a huge selling point during the interview process that she would be working directly for someone with such a warm tone. But as much as she loved Wanda’s voice, it had little effect on her in this moment. Neela clocked in and then sat in a nearby chair with her hands folded in her lap, without any acknowledgment that Wanda was speaking to her.
Wanda became increasingly concerned the longer she went without a response. She had never seen Neela as anything but a ray of sunshine—almost annoyingly cheerful at times, but never one incident of negativity or gloominess, at least not in her presence.
“Neela?” Wanda said again a little louder.
“Yes?” Neela responded in a solemn tone.
“Are you all right? Do you need to take a personal day?”
“Oh, no, I’m fine,” Neela said, not very convincingly.
“Forgive me for saying this, but you don’t look fine.”
“No, I’m fine.”
“But you’re not, Neela. I don’t think you are in any shape to interact with the children today. Can I call your grandfather for you?”
“No, I’ll be fine. If you want me to go, I can walk home myself.”
“I don’t want you to go, I just think it’s best.”
“Why don’t you take the rest of the week off, and come back refreshed on Monday.”
Neela clocked herself out. “Okay. I guess I’ll be back Monday, then.”
“Take care of yourself, and let me know if you need anything,” Wanda said as she left the room to attend to other matters.
Neela didn’t have enough energy for her typical “Will do.” She stumbled out of the clock room and then struggled to remember the steps home. Maybe she should’ve let Wanda call Henry, she thought briefly, before changing her mind. She had walked home from the hotel a million times, but never with a confused mind and an eroding heart. Delila was out on leave, so she couldn’t ask for her help. She would have to pull herself together long enough to find Mari. She remembered the general direction of the meditation studio.
She walked as far as she could recollect and then yelled out when she couldn’t figure out which door to open. “MARI… MARI…!”
A door to one of the rooms swung open quickly.
“Neela?” Mari called out from the doorway.
The sound of Mari’s voice evoked immediate tears.
“Excuse me, everyone, I shall return,” Mari said to her students as casually as she could. She shut the door behind her and walked toward Neela, a little more frantic than her tone had let on.
“Honey, what’s wrong?”
“I think something bad happened to Cheveyo.”
“What makes you think that?”
“We were supposed to meet at the pier, and he wasn’t there. He’s not there anymore.”
“Maybe he got busy. I’m sure there’s a reasonable explanation.”
“I don’t know.”
Mari hugged Neela’s limp body and tried to reassure her that everything would be okay. Neela explained her confusion and inability to recollect her way home. Mari was truly worried for her friend. She had never seen her so upset. She agreed to walk her home if she would wait outside while she finished her current class. Neela agreed and sat on a bench just outside the studio. She cried quietly to herself. Mari hated to leave her in such a state, but she had obligations to the resort and her students. Mari asked for her students’ understanding and took sole responsibility for the disruption. She finished her lesson as quickly as she could and headed straight back to Neela.
In Mari’s absence, quiet cries had transitioned back to silent devastation. Mari had a difficult time coaching her practically catatonic friend into an upright position and even more of a difficult time getting her to place one foot in front of the other for their walk home.
The walk seemed to go on forever; Neela stayed silent throughout, and Mari did her best not to pry. She did, however, provide support in the form of encouraging statements and gentle circular back rubs. When they arrived at the cottage, Henry greeted them at the door.
“What’s goin’ on?” Henry asked.
“Neela is having a rough day,” Mari replied.
“Are ya knackered or sick or what?”
“She is just a little tired, that’s all. If you’ll help me get her into bed, she should be fine after a rest.”
They walked Neela to her room and helped her climb into bed. Henry had never seen her so lifeless, but he did recognize and identify with the level of devastation the longer he observed. He didn’t quite know how to help. He knew rum had been the only thing that dulled his pain at times and didn’t want Neela to pick up that habit.
He and Mari walked back into the living room to speak privately.
“I’ve never seen her so gutted,” Henry said.
“I know. I hate seeing her like this,” Mari agreed.
“Neela will tell you when she feels comfortable, but I’ll say this: women love in a different way than men. She’s hurting right now, and yelling at her or telling her ‘I told you so’ isn’t going to help the situation.”
“Is that what ya think I would do?”
“I’m not sure, but this is what I’ve seen fathers do.”
“I don’t want to hurt her, but I don’t want her continuin’ to make bad decisions with this Chevron guy.”
“Now, you know his name is Cheveyo, and I hear what you’re saying, but she has to make those decisions for herself.”
“My father didn’t approve of my Mitchell, and you know what I did? I ran away with him and never looked back. My father missed out on a good bit of my life because he tried to make my decisions for me.”
“This has been so hard without my wife. She always knew what to do with stuff like this.”
“What would she have done?” Mari asked in a sincere fashion.
“Well, when my daughter was upset, she would have a little chat with her while they baked cookies and ate them fresh out the oven.”
“I’m sure you can manage that?”
“I don’t know how.”
“Would you mind some help?”
“I’m sure you’re a busy woman that don’t have time for all of this.”
“Nonsense. I will finish my last class for the day, swing by the store, and be back here before you know it, sound good?”
“Yeah, if you’re sure we aren’t puttin’ you out.”
“Absolutely not. Just try not to do too much damage until I get back, would you?” Mari said with an impish smile as she exited the cottage.
“I’ll try not to.”
Henry saw Mari out and then walked back to Neela’s bedroom. He cracked the door just slightly and watched her lay still. He hoped she was really asleep, as she appeared to be. After a few minutes, he left her alone, as recommended, and commenced cleaning the cottage. He had a difficult time finding the cleaning materials, as Neela had been the one to primarily clean in recent years.
He put anything that could be seen as clutter in the closet, wiped all the surfaces down, and swept the tile floor. The cottage was a small one-bedroom with an open kitchen and living room that had a pull-out couch for Henry, though he routinely slept on top of the couch or in his recliner. The whole place wasn’t more than eight hundred square feet, but he realized during his cleaning process that it was too much for Neela to have been doing alone. He had a higher level of appreciation for Neela’s efforts to keep up the house when he had started to give up.
He looked around the cottage and realized that he was suddenly out of place. His disheveled appearance just didn’t go with the decency he saw in front of him. He had fashioned himself a daily uniform almost twenty years ago, with no evolution since. His shabby duds had been more about functionality and familiarity than appearance. He needed something a bit more structured. He searched everywhere for the one button-up shirt that he believed he still possessed. He looked in all of his usual storage areas—the bathroom floor, bottom of closets—and finally found it balled up under the couch.
He shook the very crinkled ivory guayabera shirt out several times, gave it a good sniff, and put it on over a white undershirt. It was a gift he’d received from a woman he had a brief fling with in Cuba a few summers before he met his wife. It was a bit tighter than he remembered, but he hoped it still held some of its prior appeal. He brushed his teeth, combed his hair, trimmed his beard, put on his favorite hat, and cocked it slightly to the side. He was ready and as dapper as he could be under the circumstances.
He sat on the couch to wait for Mari’s return. He tapped his foot rhythmically at first, then much more erratically as his wait time extended. It was another hour before he would finally hear a knock at the door. He jumped up as rapidly as his old and injured bones would allow, opened the door quickly, and greeted Mari loudly.
Mari laughed at his overzealous salutation and showed herself to the kitchen. She removed all of the cookie ingredients from the bag one by one and gave an explanation of each to Henry, who sat at the kitchen table, listening and trying to conceal his anxiety. She mixed the ingredients together in a bowl she’d bought at the store. Her purchase was a clear sign that her short time in the cottage had given her the impression that there would be limited resources beyond the ingredients.
“You’re sure you don’t mind me doing something your wife used to do? I don’t want to be disrespectful,” Mari said.
“No, it’s nice to have some help with all of this.”
“How has Neela been while I was out?”
“She’s just been sleepin’. I’m surprised she could through all my racket, though.”
“What were you up to?”
“I didn’t think you the type.”
“I’m not, really, but I didn’t want ya to have to work in a mess.”
“How sweet of you.”
“It was no trouble at all.”
“What a bad liar you are.”
They both laughed.
Mari preheated the oven and prepared the cookie batter on a baking sheet that she had also purchased during her shopping trip.
“You know, I was thinkin’ about that Rumi quote.”
“I’ve never met another Rumi fan on the island.”
“I love him. I connect to anyone that seems to be searching for a deeper meaning in life, like I always am.”
“What has your search yielded so far?” he asked.
“That the universe puts us where we’re most needed.”
“What have you learned so far, Henry?”
“Oh, I don’t know.”
“You seem like you know a lot more than you put on not to.”
“I don’t know about that, but if I had to say, I guess I’ve learned that there’s different types of love and that they do very different things to ya.”
“Tell me more.”
“Some can make ya stronger, and some weaker than you ever imagined you could be.”
“Do you mind me asking when it made you weak?” Mari asked softly.
“When my wife died, my heart just shattered.”
“I’m so sorry, Henry. I know how it feels to lose a piece of you.”
“Then my daughter had to leave me… Her death ripped those shattered pieces clear out of my chest.”
“It sounds to me like you were at your strongest during those times, if you don’t mind me saying. You had lost almost everything and kept going. I admire that.”
“I didn’t feel strong. I felt like I was drownin’ in my own despair. I tried like hell to get my head above water, but I just kept sinkin’. I’m sure all that bobbin’ up and down affected Neela.”
“I’m sure it did. It made her appreciate life, however long and painful it may be.”
“I’d rather she was happy.”
“Appreciation will help her to be happy. You should be proud of the job you have done with her. I’ve never met a kinder and more considerate young person in my life.”
“Thank you, but that has more to do with her than me. She has always been an angel, despite my bad influence.”
“Do you mind if I take your angel some cookies now?” Mari said as she slowly walked toward Neela’s room.
“Not at all. And, Mari?” Henry called out.
She looked over her shoulder at him.
“Don’t mention it.”
Henry hung back to allow Mari to work her magic.
When Mari entered the bedroom, she noticed Neela’s unusual position and gaze. She was lying flat in bed, pillows all above her head and none underneath. Her eyes were fixed toward the ceiling—terribly unusual for her, as she typically looked down, giving off a somewhat bashful impression.
“Can I come in?” Mari asked gingerly.
“I guess,” Neela mumbled.
“I made you some cookies, chocolate chip.”
“I’m not hungry.”
“I understand. I’ll just leave them here on your nightstand in case you want a little treat later.”
“I wish there was something I could do for you, doll; I hate to see you like this.”
“You know, when I was a girl, my mother used to braid my hair and tell me these wild stories to cheer me up. I’m not sure if any of them were true, but she told them with such conviction that you couldn’t help but wonder. They were great distractions.”
Neela sat up slowly and pushed all of her hair behind her shoulders. It warmed Mari’s heart that Neela seemed to want her to provide the motherly comfort she described. Unbeknownst to Neela, Mari was not able to have children of her own and had desperately wanted a daughter all of her life.
“Let me let a little fresh air in here and sit you up in a chair so I can better reach you.”
Mari cranked open the casement window near the bed and went quickly to the kitchen to get a chair. When she returned, she noticed a beautiful red cardinal sitting on the edge of the window.
“You have a little visitor on your window.”
“What is it?” Neela asked, having not noticed the fluttering sound she would normally recognize in an instant.
“Or who is it?” Mari clarified.
“They say that a cardinal is a loved one that has passed on.”
“Do you believe that?” Neela asked.
“Yes, and when you are feeling better, you will too. Your heart and mind are too open not to.”
“I think my open heart and mind may have allowed me to imagine Cheveyo.”
“No, my dear, you didn’t imagine anything.”
Mari helped Neela to the chair, and the storytelling commenced. She told Neela what she could remember of her mother’s most entertaining stories as she braided her hair. She was several stories in before Neela started to seem more like herself, and a few more before she was able to laugh a little.
Henry was encouraged by the sound of Neela’s laughter and went in to check on things. “Is it safe to enter?” he said in a playful way.
“Yeah, come in, Grandpa.”
Mari finished her braid and laid it against Neela’s back just as Henry approached the chair.
“Is there anything I can do for ya?” he asked.
“You aren’t going to fuss at me?”
Mari cleared her throat as a reminder for Henry to act right.
“No. I understand that me yellin’ wouldn’t help right now.”
It was getting late, and Mari felt it was best to give Henry and Neela some time alone. She excused herself for the night and promised to visit again soon.
After she left, Neela thanked her grandfather for allowing Mari to come over and for always being there for her. It seemed Mari was right; Neela had a true appreciation for the life he had given her, despite his own suffering. They shared the plate of cookies and a few more stories. Henry tucked her in for the first time in a decade, kissed her good night, and took the crumb-filled plate into the kitchen.
Neela felt better than she had earlier in the day and was eventually able to fall asleep.
Henry, however, wasn’t able to catch a wink. He was worried for Neela and unable to say all of the things that would’ve eased his mind, knowing they would surely drive her away. He stayed up all night, checking on her and trying to convince himself not to intervene.