“Hey Melody! Bring me the streamers, will you?” Bethany called out from the living room.
“I’m coming, I’m coming!” Melody huffed as she picked up the box of party decorations on the patio. It wasn’t so heavy, she was just so damn tired.
She objected to having their uncle’s birthday party at the bungalow, because it was small for the number of friends he was inviting over, even though it was a three-bedroom, with two living rooms and three bathrooms. Her uncle had a lot of friends, in fact, the whole island knew him, all 500-something residents of it. But they would spend most of the time in the backyard anyway. Even on his birthday, Dave would insist on grilling outside, come rain or sunshine. And on Cona Island, you never really knew which one it was going to be. The only thing anyone knew for certain was that it was going to be hot! There was a reason it was known for being the Island of Endless Summer on travel brochures.
Her eyes caught her Aunt Emily swaggering up the steps, with a glass of wine in her hand no less. At 09:32 in the morning.
Melody twittered. “Nanna! You can’t drink at this time of day!”
“Oh, don’t you worry that pretty little head of yours,” Emily waved a hand in the air. “Martha and I went to that new hotel in Shark Bay. We had some kind of fancy chocolate liqueur. Moolon-mule, or, Merry Mule, or something like that. ’Twas pretty good, too. Tasted nothing like a mule.”
Melody planted her fists on her hips, shook her head. Emily and Martha liked tearing up the island even though they were both in their mid-seventies. Martha’s husband died six years ago. So her Aunt Emily liked to keep her company, and the old friends frequently got into trouble, though at least they haven’t been arrested. Yet.
“Did you forget to give the glass back?”
Emily waved her hand in the air again, then scowled and sniffed the air, before she came up to the porch. “Argh! That waiter boy was red around the ears and so lovely.”
They heard the unmistakable sound of a choking exhaust pipe as a familiar white Ford pick-up scampered by in the road. And with a bunch of old beat-up furniture in the back.
“Isn’t that Cliff Redford? Who owns the Crabber’s Boat House place?” Melody asked, shading her eyes from the sunlight with her hand to get a better look.
“That’s the one,” Emily nodded. “We ran into Betty from the 24/7 at the hotel, she told us some newcomer’s moved into the Reef Bungalow. That old blue one.”
Melody scrunched up her nose.
They heard a yelp inside the house. They peered in through the front door. “I’m fine!” Bethany yelled, having very nearly slipped off the ladder while hanging decorations on the ceiling.”
“I told you you should have had Brad do that,” Melody yelled back.
“By the time he gets here, I’ll be grey around the edges!”
“Who on earth would want to live in that old blue bungalow?” Melody asked Emily. “The planks are loose, the paint’s chipped. It looks like some kind of sea monster is growing out of the roof. The brush is swallowing the place,” Her eyes widened and her voice lowered to a whisper, “Is it a serial killer?”
Emily threw her head back and laughed. “We wouldn’t know, would we? Don’t get many of them around these parts.”
“Yeah, well. We’re on an island.”
“Betty said it’s a man. One of them brooding types.”
Melody rolled her eyes. “Oh boy. He’s going to leave the island in two months. Pensive people don’t want to be around other people. And around here, everyone’s always in everyone’s business.” Then she considered. “Poor guy. Do you think he can be coaxed out of his cave?”
Emily curved her thin, wide burgundy lips. They fit neatly into a roundish face with glasses and curls of shoulder-length grey hair.
“Melody…” she began.
“I know! That bungalow is beachfront, right? I’ll take my morning jog on that route. That way I can stake him out.”
“What’s this I hear about stakeouts? Are you planning on breaking into Emma’s Café for cake again?” Bethany questioned, coming to get the box of streamers Melody still hadn’t brought into the house.
“I hear a guy’s moved into the Reef Bungalow,” she waggled her eyebrows.
Bethany looked from her to Emily and back again, then she just shook her head and went back inside. “There she goes. She’ll have him gone in two weeks.”
“If he can’t stand to be around me, he doesn’t belong on Cona Island!” She batted her lashes.
Emily sighed and they all went inside to finish decorating for the party.
Melody was up early the next morning with her blonde hair tied back into a ponytail, wearing maroon three-quarter leggings and a light pink running vest that had the shoulders twisting over behind her back.
She would stake out Mr. Mysterious. What kind of guy buys a house like the old Reef Bungalow? Okay, so maybe he hasn’t bought it, maybe he’s renting. The rent’s probably not much, because the place is a dump. Not to mention all the old furniture he had wheeled out there too. He was probably setting up living space for his victims or something. Or he’s an old senile man with no money, looking for a place to spend his final days while he dies of a rare blood disease.
Okay, she didn’t really believe all the stuff she made up. It was more curiosity than judgment. And it was kind of fun to speculate. She turned it into a little game and wondered which of her imaginary mysterious men would win.
She gave Buttercup, the golden retriever, a scratch on her head before taking her water bottle on the end table, then she went out the front door.
The beach wasn’t too far below the bungalow, and she could comfortably jog on by without being too close to seem suspicious, and while still seeing what she wanted. The trouble was, there didn’t seem to be any movement from the outside of the bungalow, though she saw an old red Chevrolet pick-up parked in the driveway.
She paused and pretended to stretch, arms overhead, twisting her torso. It seemed like some of the brush had already been cleared. Just how long has Mr. Mysterious been here exactly? She stood there a couple of minutes, stretching and yawning and staring at the sea. She wasn’t quite used to getting up so early to go jogging anymore. When nothing happened, she moved on. He’ll probably come to bury his bloodied hatchet in the yard by the time she came back. She jogged up to the old lighthouse, then turned back, and she paused at nearly the same spot. She did the same stretching exercises. Nothing to see here, just a casual girl taking a casual jog Mr. Serial Killer.
Eventually, feeling a little defeated, she sat on the sand and watched the surf. She was there for nearly half an hour, and there were no signs of life inside or outside the bungalow.
She sighed. This was a stupid idea. What did she actually come here to do? Welcome him to the community? Yeah, that was it. Sure, why not? Cona Islanders took care of their own. And right now, he wasn’t part of the family. If only he’d actually show up!
She was contemplating going back, getting on with her day. She could always try again tomorrow and hope he comes out to bury another victim. So, she stood up, dusted herself off. Then she spotted something in her peripheral vision. She turned her head, and her jaw went slack.
He was mid-thirties or so, a tall 1.96 meters, and had jaw-length tousled brown hair. A three or four-day stubble shadowed a jawline that would cut through concrete. A well-sized plain white shirt revealed a sculpted upper body with broad shoulders. She had to imagine the rest of him was just as … striking. Her eyes automatically drifted down the length of him. He was wearing long loose-fitting training pants and sneakers. She raised her eyebrow. Way too hot for long pants, Mr. Gorgeous. He walked with a very slight limp, and with his hands in his pockets.
He didn’t change his pace when he spotted her, though when their eyes met she swore the temperature soared high above the normal tropical heat.
“Hi.” She managed as he came within hearing distance.
He paused next to her. For a long second or two it seemed like his eyes drank her in. Enchanting eyes in the color of old gold... “Hi.” He finally said, a smile barely tugging at his lips.
The scent of him hit her, fresh and blue. Kind of like the sea, if it were a gorgeous masculine specimen. She cleared her throat, and with it, her head. Held out her hand. “I’m Melody Andrews. My family owns Finkle Bay Watersports and Fishing.”
He took her hand in a warm, firm grip that nearly blistered her skin and made her pulse quicken. “Drake Johnson.”
“Nice to meet you,” she enthusiastically shook his hand, then snapped hers’ away. “Are you living in the Reef Bungalow?”
He gave a nod, and his eyes drifted up to the house. “That’s right. Renting, for now.”
She winced a little. Though it was much roomier than she first thought, now that she got a better look at it. There were definitely at least three bedrooms, and at least two bathrooms if not more. He didn’t seem like the entertaining type though, and she thought the only reason he probably took it was because he got it cheap. “Isn’t it, uncomfortable? I mean, it’s an old house.”
He gave a casual shrug. His knee-jerk reaction was to say it’s none of your business with most people, but her energy strangely warmed over his cold edges. “I kind of like it. Cliff said I could use some of his tools to fix the place up in my spare time. Do you usually jog here?” he asked and started to walk again. She naturally followed.
“Sometimes. When I have the time. Heard you moved in a couple of days ago. Found work on the island yet?” He had the sexiest Texas drawl in his voice.
He smiled. She’s curious, he thought, and drop-dead dazzling. Typical occupant of a small island village. He was well aware of the way people talk in places like these. He’d grown up in a small town, though even Willow Greens had at least twice the population of Cona Island. But here no one knew him, or the tragedies he’d lived through. He could start over. If he could get himself to start at all. Still, for some reason, he felt compelled to share some of himself with her. She reminded him of the sparkles of sunlight on the sea. And it was a welcome distraction from his own darkness.
“Cliff said I could help out with refurbishing the boats he rents out. He can only pay me a part-time salary, but that’s fine.”
Cliff had the biggest business building on the island. He rented out sailboats, fiberglass, and even old wooden boats to tourists, and he also fixed them. He had his own boat that was a little bigger than the fishing boats, which he used to retrieve provisions and other items for the island from the mainland.
“Cliff’s really nice. Actually, most people around here are, if you give them a chance.” She didn’t know why it came out that way, it was sort of instinct.
Yeah, they just have no idea how to handle someone like me. “I don’t doubt that.”
“So, where are you from?” she asked.
“Are we going there, now?” he sounded amused.
She casually lifted her shoulder. Oh yeah. You and I are going to go all kinds of places. First destination, straight to your brooding heart, handsome. “Well, that’s how you get to know people.”
The sand dune got steeper as they went back up to the road. And she was intensely aware of how his breathing thickened, and how he compensated his limp to the incline.
She swallowed past a lump when she thought of other, more sensual ways in which his breath would labour like that. “Did you hurt your foot?” she asked.
His jaw tightened for an instant. “Something like that.”
Touchy subject. “So, what kind of work did you do before you came to Cona Island?”
They’d reached the summit and he paused by the post of what were the ruins of an old fence. He peered out over the ocean. He shouldn’t tell her. Or anyone. He didn’t want to talk to people, didn’t want to be bothered by their pitying stares and their stuck-up comments. But somehow, he felt that he could trust her. In any case, as it goes with small villages, he wouldn’t be able to hold onto his secrets for long anyway. He looked into her eyes. Beautiful calm grey eyes, under bangs of honey blonde hair. And full, pink lips. She seemed whimsical somehow, almost like a child.
“I was a marine.” He said and tried not to let the wrench in his heart show on his face.
“Oh,” she made an ‘o’ with her mouth, lifted her brows. “That’s interesting,” she said in the way she would have if she’d learned that he loved ice cream. “Are you on a break now?”
He cleared his throat, his eyes lowered to the ground for a moment. “No. I did my last tour a year and a half ago.”
She nodded slowly as if allowing that to sink in. “Alright well, it was really nice meeting you. We should hang out sometime.”
He smiled. “Do I get to say no?”
She considered, rolling her eyes skyward and placing her index finger on her chin. Then she beamed him a smile that would shoot right through a brick wall. “Nope!”
He sighed. “Fine.”
Melody ambled off with a little spring in her step. And Drake remained leaning against the fence post, wondering what the hell just happened. He felt a morsel of something in his chest go with her, and after a moment, he realized it was a twinge of contentment.
It was quickly replaced by the sinking feeling that dragged at him day in and day out. He drew his hand through his hair. He didn’t want to be bothered by people. He came here because he was sick of talking about what happened even after eleven months of therapy. He was fed up with the pitying looks and people treating him like an invalid, while he’d worked so hard to get some degree of normalcy back into his life. And failed.
He came here to get away from his parents, who’d only made the trip to visit him once in the hospital, only to never call again. And that was the least of the damage they did…
“Didn’t we tell you that this would happen? Now you’ve lost your leg and half your hearing and nobody’s going to want to hire you for a job.” His father had said.
“You should have gone to college. We’re so disappointed in you, Drake.”
He tightened his jaw and went back inside the bungalow. Yeah well, I guess I never should have expected my own parents to know that I wanted to make a real difference in the world. Or worse, actually support my decision to do it. They’d said something else, something far more hurtful that he pushed out of his mind before it could take hold. Because when it did, he wanted to smash his fists into the wall. He was disappointed to have turned away from death’s doorstep. He shouldn’t have fought, it should’ve ended then.
There are still people who need you, Abby would have said. She was the only one who understood his head. And why not? She was his twin. They came into the world together, practically joined at the hip since before birth. The thought of her was the only thing that could still make him smile.
You don’t need me anymore Ab, you’re in heaven. He poured himself a cup of coffee, took the newspaper he’d bought at the 24/7, and sat down on the old couch. Better to sit during the day than at night…
Losing Abigail was an earthquake for him. And it was especially hard for him to be alone with their parents. For her, it was easier, though not by much. What she wanted out of life just happened to be in sync with what their parents wanted for her, too. He was left with the full brunt of their wrath for four years until he left the house at eighteen to join the Marines. And then, he joined an independent contractor and made more money than he ever could have dreamed of. He had enough to retire right now and live a comfortable life. And he’d still have his trust funds and his disability income.
But he’d go insane if he didn’t work. Literally. For the past eleven months, he’d dragged himself into therapy because his old Captain nagged him to, and sometimes, Rick was also the one that dragged him out of the house to therapy. He’d fallen into the deep depths of depression, and could barely function. He couldn’t eat, couldn’t remember the details of any one day or how he got from one place to the next. Nightmares haunted him at night, just as they still did.
He’d lost his purpose in life when he lost his leg. He couldn’t ever go back into the field, and would never make a significant difference in the world again. Or so he thought, anyway. Since, he had almost convinced himself that people didn’t always need big acts of bravery. Sometimes making a small difference was enough. He’d learned that through experience, by turning his own situation around and realizing how much it meant to him when old buddies did nothing but make a simple phone call to ask how he was or to send a text. They didn’t pity him, or make him feel somehow less capable. They were just interested in his well-being, as they’ve always been.
He felt a tail tangle around his sweats and peered down at Bean. He couldn’t really get rid of the cat. He’d laid claim to the Reef Bungalow since before Drake had arrived and had watched him with suspicious eyes when he came up the driveway that first time. A few cans of tuna later, Bean had suddenly decided he was his new best buddy. Drake called him Bean because it was the first thing that came to mind when he saw the fat cat.
“What do you want?” Drake asked.
Bean sat and stared up at him with big green eyes. Then attempted to bump his head against Drake’s leg, but he chose the wrong one. He ended up extending his neck far further than he intended to and bumped against his prosthetic instead.
“What do you think of Miss Andrews? You’ve been on the island longer than me,”
Bean rolled onto his back, paws in the air, and started purring. Drake smiled. “You like her, eh?” he swirled the coffee in his cup. Dark and bitter, like his heart.
“I guess she’s not so bad. But don’t tell her that.” He had an urge to get to know her.
He never wanted to get to know people. Help them, sure. It made him feel good to help others, but only as long as they didn’t know his face. There was a reserved part of himself that he didn’t want to share because he was afraid they would rip at him like a pack of wild dogs. Like Mom and Dad had, he heard Abby’s voice, and then you’ll grow old and you’ll be all alone and senile. And you’ll come over unannounced when we’re ninety-two to bug my family. Because you won’t have kids or grandkids of your own to keep you busy.
His heart broke a little. And now I can’t even come and bug you anymore. Because you’re dead.