A few weeks had passed since Hatari’s body had washed up on the shore and Cheveyo had disappeared from the island. Delila had returned to work after taking a week of leave. Diego had spent her first couple of weeks back trying to work up the nerve to approach her. He came in before his shift one day with a bouquet of brilliant tropical flowers. He had repeatedly rehearsed how he would ask her out.
When he started to speak and she replied, he could still hear the pits of sadness in her voice and couldn’t bring himself to impose any further upon her. He presented her with the bouquet and explained that they were a delivery from all of her coworkers, taking minimal credit for the extraordinary arrangement that he had hand-selected. He knew that this was the right thing to do but that it also meant that he would have to continue to play the role of friend, occasional bartender that specialized in mango thingies, and full-time tormented admirer.
While Diego’s situation worsened, Neela seemed to be on the mend, as far as her coworkers were concerned, anyway. She did everything she could to put on a brave face when they were near. She could hardly bear the void Cheveyo’s absence had left in her life but found that she could make it through the day if no one questioned her sadness.
She spent quite a bit of time with Mari, comforted by her wisdom and the parallel pain she still experienced from the loss of Mitchell. Neela had become well versed in Rumi and ritualistic in her daily meditation practices. She was happy for her grandfather and friend, seeing that they seemed to lessen each other’s loneliness.
She could hear Henry’s voice lighten more and more every day that he spent with Mari, and she longed to hear the lightness in her own voice return. One day, in an effort to take her mind off her suffering, she asked Delila if she was ready to go back to the dance hall. To her surprise, Delila had been waiting for an invitation since she returned to work.
They met at the bar, and even though both were anxious to return, they felt some comfort in the familiarity of their surroundings. For a moment, it felt like they had gone back in time, before either of their relationships, but that feeling didn’t last.
Delila was curious as to what had happened with Cheveyo. She hadn’t heard Neela speak of him in recent weeks. Maybe more importantly, she wanted to know why Neela had kept whatever happened between the two of them a secret from her. She was fearful that bringing him up might spoil the evening, though, so she waited as long as she could to ask.
“Okay, I’m just going to come out with it, and if you don’t want to tell me, just tell me to shut up. What’s up with Cheveyo?”
“Shut up,” Neela barked.
“Come on, girl, I’m your best friend! What happened?”
“You said I could say shut up.”
“I know, but I lied. What happened? You know I can’t stand not knowing something.”
“The truth is, I don’t know. He just isn’t here anymore, and I feel like I can’t breathe.” She couldn’t hide her pain from Delila any longer.
“He didn’t say anything before he left?”
“Any red flags?”
“I don’t know, you’re better at that stuff than I am.”
“This is true.”
“The last thing he said to me was that we would meet at the pier every other day.”
“Is there any way that you could’ve misunderstood where you were supposed to meet? Maybe it was a different pier. There’s a few on the island.”
“No, he made it very clear, and he knows there’s only one that I walk to.”
“Are you sure? That kind of thing happens a lot.”
“When does someone forget where to meet the person that makes life worth living?”
“The movies…?” Delila said with minimal confidence.
They shared a forced laugh at the ridiculousness of the response. They agreed to stop talking about Cheveyo, but Neela was already terribly distraught by the conversation. Just the mention of his name lessened what little oxygen was in the room and deepened the ache in her heart. She didn’t understand how it kept beating through all the strain, or what she needed to do for it to heal. She knew she couldn’t go through the motions of the evening any longer, so she excused herself to walk home. Delila didn’t put up a fight; she had become quite unexpectedly stirred by the sound of the steel drums and was ready to go home as well.
Neela walked sluggishly back to her cottage alone. She heard her grandfather and Mari laughing as she neared the front door. She was happy for them, but the thought of listening to their laughter all night as she cried herself to sleep was intolerable. She walked past the cottage to delay the discomfort as long as possible.
She strolled down the beach, periodically flicking the dry sand up with her cane. She typically liked the way it felt when the wind carried the granules back toward her, but on this night, the sensation fell a little flat. She sifted through the sand until she reached the driftwood. She felt around and noticed that there were several new pieces that had come ashore. She tapped each of them until she found one that sounded denser than all the others. She sat down on what she quickly identified as a large portion of a tree trunk.
She ran her fingers over its crumbling bark and thought about what type of life it may have had before it entered hers. Who planted it? Where had it grown? Did it enjoy the changing of the seasons? There was a mystery about the tree that would have typically excited her imagination into answering all of these questions and more, but this time it didn’t. Her thoughts merely brought her to an unfortunate realization. She found that even in its postmortem state, the tree felt more alive than she did in that moment.
Her thoughts had returned to Cheveyo and how alive she’d felt when he was near. She couldn’t help but think of how he had encouraged her to explore beyond the driftwood and how she had retreated back behind the boundary since his departure. She hated the thought of living a life of restriction just because he wasn’t there to encourage and protect her. She pushed herself to get up and explore a little farther.
It wasn’t long before she heard people socializing in the distance. She stood still for a moment. Small and warm lights appeared ahead of her. Neela believed them to be the glow of tiki torches posted around the outskirts of a gathering, but she couldn’t be sure. Trying to focus on the blurry images caused an immediate headache and dizziness that lasted longer than the visual itself. When she could steady herself, she turned back around and walked past the driftwood to another familiar space.
The pier was recognizable but of no comfort to her. It was painful to revisit a place that had once represented excitement and happiness, knowing that it wouldn’t anymore. It had become a source of grief and a symbol of lost hope.
It had been several weeks since she had felt the weathered wood of the handrail and heard the waves come in under her feet. She could almost hear Cheveyo’s voice calling out to her as she walked the length of the pier. It was agonizing, but she eventually reached the end, despite it all. She leaned up against the railing, hardly able to stand unassisted at this point. She knew she had to let him go or she would forever be weighed down by it. She spoke aloud to herself and God, and then, finally, she said her goodbyes to Cheveyo.
“You have to move on, Neela,” she said to herself firmly.
She ran her fingers down the handrail as she thought about all of the ways loss had destroyed Henry’s life.
“Please don’t let me stay stuck in my misery forever. Give me the strength to move past this,” she pleaded with God.
She tilted her head back and felt the wind run across her face. She could almost smell that sweet version of the sea unique to Cheveyo.
“I know one day I’ll be happy to think about you, and I look forward to it, but for now, I have to let you go. Goodbye, Cheveyo. I’ll always love you.”
She took a flower from her hair, kissed it softly, and tossed it from the pier as a final tribute to a love lost. She turned to walk away.
“Did you mean to drop this?”
The voice sent chills down her spine and stopped any bit of movement, which included the beating of her heart. The only person capable of evoking that reaction was Cheveyo. The voice started out behind her and traveled to just barely beyond the tip of her nose.
“Did you mean those things you said?” he asked as he softly placed the flower back in her hand.
She felt his hand for verification, certain she was mistaken in the recognition of his voice.
“Yes, my pearl.”
She held his hand for a moment before she ran her hand up his arm, over his broad shoulder, up against his neck, and then cupped his face gently. Her hand trembled over every unmistakable inch.
“Is it really you?” she asked.
As she held him close, all the wondering and worry didn’t matter anymore. She pulled his face toward her and kissed him deeply.
She could barely pull herself away. “Where have you been?”
“I had to stay away.”
“I had to keep the existence of my people concealed, and I could see how much I frightened you that night.”
“So it was you.”
“I thought it was best to keep my distance and give you a chance to move on.”
“Why would I want to move on?”
“I know humans pretend not to be animals, but Ojigong do not. I am very much an animal, Neela. I did not think you would understand or accept what I had to do to protect you.”
“I don’t understand.”
“I have been to the surface enough to know that humans live within certain guidelines that limit their defenses. We do not govern ourselves in this manner. If we are attacked, it is understood and accepted that it is a fight to the death. It seems like most humans would disagree with our way of being.”
“So, you killed him?”
“I thought you knew.”
“I wasn’t certain. I thought that maybe you dragged him into the water and nature did the rest.” She stepped back from him a bit farther.
“I heard you scream. I tried to get to you as fast as I could. I had to come out of the water in my true form. I was desperate to save you.”
“You weren’t in human form?”
“There was no time.”
Neela stood still and quiet.
“Say something, please,” he pleaded.
“This is all just so much; I don’t know what to say.”
“Say that you love me.”
“It’s not that simple. You killed someone, Cheveyo.”
“I have killed a lot of evil creatures. I killed this particular one to keep you safe. I do not regret it. I would do it again, sooner if I could.”
“You can’t go around killing people. You may not agree with our ways, but they keep things safe and fair.”
“Were you safe that night? Was it a fair fight? His strength supersedes yours by a great measure, there was nothing fair about it.”
“No, but Hatari should’ve gone to jail for what he did.”
“And live to hurt someone else?”
“No, live to receive his punishment and hopefully give him time to redeem himself.”
“You believe something like that could redeem itself?”
“I don’t know, but I hope so.”
“Pure evil only intensifies with time.”
“I guess I would hope that someone could help him remove the evil, help him see another way.”
“Evil cannot be reasoned with and will never bend to the will of others. It has to be extinguished. It is the only way to rid yourself of it.”
They stood in a silent understanding that they would not agree on the matter.
Neela appeared more fragile and fatigued than Cheveyo had ever seen her. He offered to help her to a bench to rest. She accepted. He wanted so badly to kiss her again but fought the urge. He knew that it might have scared her away at a moment when she stood just barely on the threshold of his life. He reached over to hold her hand, which rested on her thigh. When she didn’t pull away, she gave him hope that she may in time accept his nature.
They stayed fixed in this position for some time. Neither wanted to leave, and neither had any more words to defend their position. As they sat in the quiet, he admired the light cascading from the full moon perched high in the sky. He hated that she couldn’t see the beauty that surrounded them but took some comfort in knowing that she couldn’t see the bad the world had to offer either.
“It is getting late; can I walk you home?” he asked.
“I don’t know what to think about everything, but I know I don’t want to go. I’m afraid that I’ll never be with you again, more than I am of your nature.”
“Do you still love me, as you said?”
“You just disappeared, Cheveyo. You left me by myself when I was scared.”
She stood up and walked to the side of the pier. She leaned her body against the rail, perched her elbows on top of it, and placed her head in her hands.
“Do you love me, Neela?” he said more assertively.
She quickly turned back around toward him.
“Yes, you know I do. Being away from you was excruciating,” she said, with the full depth of her anger and pain evident.
“Then I will be here every morning and every night until you tell me not to be.”
“How do I know that? And what about rest? You can’t possibly be here every day.”
“I care not; I cannot be away from you any longer. Being separated from you felt much worse than the exhaustion from the constant shifting or the fear of exposing the existence of my tribe. If you give me a chance, I promise, I will not leave again, under any circumstance.”
She moved closer to him and rested her head on his chest. He held her tightly for a moment before lifting her chin up with his index finger and kissing her passionately. He picked her up and gently spun her around. She felt his unnatural strength again, and it was just as exhilarating as it had been. When he placed her back down on the pier, she continued to lean into him. He led her in a swaying motion for a moment. It was reminiscent of their first night together. He didn’t hum or sing, but they could both hear a sweet melody streaming from their memories of that night. He walked her home and reiterated his promise to return daily. He was back in her life, and even though she had her doubts, her love for him gave her faith that he would stay true to his word this time.