Cruel Summer

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Chapter 5

Jackson


“Goodbye, thank you for choosing Reef Escapes.” I let the last passenger’s hand go, as she arched an eyebrow towards me questioningly. Her hand slid away, and it took a moment for me to realize there was a small slip of paper in between my fingers. I briefly glanced at it to see I had been slipped a phone number and I watched the South African’s back walk down the plank and onto the jetty, where she turned her head slightly to give me a wink.

I shook my head down at the slip of paper with a little grin and let it fall from my fingers and out onto the water.

The passengers walked further down the jetty, eventually lost out of sight around the entry of the dock, and I checked the lines once more. Carter was getting better with her Cleat Hitch after her first two weeks but the time I didn’t check them would undoubtedly be the first time I would find Sailor’s revenge wandered out to the middle of the harbor and knocked around.

They seemed pretty tight, and her voice called out from the back of the boat.

“Bye, Jackson! See you tomorrow!”

I looked up at her. She had taken off the blue potato sack I had saddled her with, and was in a simple back camisole and those goddamn denim booty shorts. I gave her a halfhearted wave with an indifferent expression and quickly looked away before she smiled.

I had to, every time she flashed that mouth full of teeth at me, my brain went haywire, as if it was her personal EMP and it only fucked me over. I only glanced back to when she was on the jetty, walking away. My eyes glazed over as I stared at the perkiest ass I had ever seen walk back into town.

As soon as she was out of my eye line, I leaned back on the mast and pulled a cigarette out from my shirt pocket. Holy fucking christ. Two weeks. It had been only two weeks with Carter Brunner on my boat. Invading my personal space. Sleeping mere meters away. Giving me ‘fuck me’ eyes every time I was close.

It was intoxicating, and she was trying it on when I was in the middle of a detox. I had a few moments of fun toying with the girl when she first arrived, like that day when I had been fixing the engine. Hot and dirty, she had nearly melted under that ice cube right before I put it in my mouth. I couldn’t help but smile at the memory. She would have done anything I asked at that moment, and that was the moment I wisened up and resumed my original idea.

So far the approach I had been taking finally seemed to be working. The glares, the indifference, the occasional caustic remarks I would give her. Her wide-eyed stares, those doe eyes, squeezing her legs together whenever she watched me, they had lessened to now just every day and weren’t overt.

God, I couldn’t take it for too much longer. I had lasted for exactly one month when Ruby had boarded my boat and set her sights on fucking her way into some money. I would give Malibu that, she was definitely different from Ruby. She seemed content enough to just be and work on the boat, working to whatever goal she had in her future and most certainly running away from her past.

Before Ruby, Dad had never required criminal background checks, but after her, I certainly would. The problem with America was all the red-tape. They quoted me a month for Carter Brunner’s criminal background check. A whole month, if she was in the system for anything, I would know it in another few weeks.

I drew in another lungful, suddenly regretting spending the hundred bucks for the report. Carter Brunner probably couldn’t even think of something worthy to steal, let alone carry it through. The girl had no sense of self-preservation, with the way she couldn’t even hide her feelings.

My brain flashed the way she lightly moaned in her sleep, and I squeezed my eyes shut against the image. Holy fucking Jesus, it was tempting. Her moan echoed again in my ears and I rubbed my face down in frustration.

No.

I couldn’t let Carter close and I certainly couldn’t let down the whole angry-asshole facade, even just to fuck her. As soon as I let that go I knew we wouldn’t have just chemistry, we would have fucking alchemy. Rudimental. Ingrained.

I would most likely self-implode if I even let Carter just a little close, I would fucking lose myself trying to fill the hole inside. She would eventually take advantage of the fact that I would give her anything, then she would be the next Ruby 2.0.

I finished the cigarette and stubbed it out on the bottom of my shoe, wishing Carter was as easy to get rid of. I should have just fired her, letting a boat drift out was a pretty goddamn worst-case scenario. But then she caught up to it, somehow, then those doe eyes made an appearance and I couldn’t do it.

I locked up the boat and headed out to my ute in the jetty parking lot. The old bugger started up with a few wheezes and I headed up through the town and up the mountain overlooking it. The green tropical bush surrounded the road, and after a few minutes of the twist and turns, I turned into my driveway and pulled right up to the front porch stairs.

Dad’s broken-down truck stared right across from me on the overgrown green lawn. I lit another cigarette and exited the car, leaning up against the door and looking up at the house. With its large wrap around porch that gazed out at the view and horizon. With four bedrooms and three bathrooms, a library, and a dining area to entertain the Brady Bunch. Instead, it was big. Big and empty.

I strode up the steps and felt only a slight pang when I opened the door to the silent house. Quickly stripping down the salt-stained clothes, I walked into the main bathroom, ignoring the king-size bed and right into the shower.

Sand and salt washed down into the drain as I scrubbed myself down, feeling the tense muscles in my neck from the six nights in a row where I laid on the makeshift bed but didn’t fully sleep. She wouldn’t let me. Carter Fucking Brunner.

I rubbed the scalding water over my face. I had to get this chick out of my head, at least for today. I needed to be sharp for tonight after so many hard nights. I still hadn’t gotten the text message with tonight’s info, but every time I had done a run, the location was at least 50kms away from the reef and the anxiety and stress it caused made the 50 seem like 1000 to my nerves.

I shut off the water, dried, pulled on some loose sweats for bed, and headed to the kitchen. There were some basics in the freezer that I kept, but I hadn’t used the kitchen for anything more than toast in two months. There just wasn’t a need. My bare feet trod on the wooden floors silently when a loud squawk startled me as I passed by the large window, overlooking the overgrown jungle behind the house.

My hand flew to my heart in surprise. I turned to see the resident cockatoo, white feathers glowing. They were pristine like he must have just had a bath, and his top knot feathers sprawled out like a neon yellow Mohawk. He sat on the back porch railing and stared at me dead on. Once he realized he had my attention, his whole body jerked towards the end of the porch, where the bird feeder was kept.

“Not cool, mate,” I grumbled at him before heading into the kitchen and inspected whatever was left in the freezer, knowing there was nothing but condiments in the fridge. The squawking continued, echoing loud and brash through the house.

Finally, the cocky bird flew up to the kitchen’s window railing and actually had the gall to tap on the window with his sharpened beak. The cocky asshole was acting like he was snapping his fingers at me in a restaurant. I sighed and looked up at him from my frozen meat pie, slamming the microwave door shut.

“Fine. I’m coming, you dick”, and from the cupboard above the fridge, I pulled out a fresh and full bird seeder, the cockatoo squawking again with the sight of it through the window. The back door stuck for a second, rusty from the disuse in the tropical environment. It came free on my second pull, and the warm breeze blew in and felt comfortable on my bare chest. I walked out the back porch and to the corner, where a tall pole with a hook hung. Last month’s seeder was now completely demolished, the seeds now long gone and the plastic interior looking warped from strong beaks trying to chew it.

“You goddamn savage,” I accused the large bird who had now walked himself along the porch railing next to me, impatient on the new seed. I put up the new feeder and stepped back, wiping my hand on my sweats as the cockatoo perked up and immediately waddled over to his food. I gently held my hand out as he walked over, and he nuzzled it with the side of his face before climbing up the feeder and settling in for his lunch.

I grimaced at the sight, thinking of how I was just a free meal to him. Just a free ride. I left him to the seeds and walked back inside, finding my own meal had finished in the microwave. I looked around the house as I ate, standing at the kitchen island. Fuck this house was depressing now.

The large open concept of the living room, kitchen, and reading area seemed nice, but now all it did was push my memories right into my face.

The reading nook where dad used to sit and face the backyard, sick with chemo treatment. The corner where I set up last year’s Christmas tree was right before dad passed. The dining room table, where the last full meal that had been set up on it was for dad’s wake. I looked at the date on the wall, November 2. Coming up to a year now since he died.

I picked up my plate and moved over to the couch, quickly changing my mind. The vision of Ruby and I fucking each other’s brain’s out on the plush sectional shortly after she began working for me filled my brain. I shook it out of my eyes, and sat over in dad’s reading nook, staring out at the same peaceful sight he looked at every day.

How the hell hadn’t I seen it? Young, poor, traveling woman. Of course, she had just wanted me for the niceties. A warm bed, a nice house to come to, an occasional nice restaurant, a good size dick. Ruby had comforted me after my dad’s death when I needed it. But when she maliciously took it away and gave it to that tall Scot, it felt like she had been faking it the whole time. It hurt nearly as much as his death did.

I washed the plate and looked around, the silence of the house filled every corner but the memories screamed inside my head. Maybe I should sell? My grandfather had built this place nearly a hundred years ago when he had first married. No, the guilt would rack my soul every day for the rest of my life. I could just rent it out? Walking back to the master room, I thought it over, I was in purgatory. I couldn’t stay with where my head was currently at, but I couldn’t leave it with the history in my heart.

Eventually, I laid my head down on the pillows, sighing with exhaustion. They smelled stale, dusty. But that was good. It meant that no one had been here for a while and that Ruby’s invasive perfume had finally given up its fight in my house.

I dug into the covers and sheets, relishing the feel of the soft mattress and better yet, solitude. Quietness. I briefly wondered where Carter slept on her night off. Probably the hostel. Or maybe even she just planned on hooking up at one of the tourist bars and using the poor man’s hotel room. Whatever. She was a big girl, and whatever she did on her night off had no bearing on me. I literally did not give a fuck.

I buried my head into the down pillows and forced my eyes closed. I did not care. I fell asleep anyway.

My phone, a relic from before smartphones, chimed with the almost 90s ringtone. Groggily, I looked up and over to the nightstand it was on and read the message. The standard same of numbers in the jumbled mess lit up on the screen, and I mentally decoded the longitude and latitude coordinates. Eighteen degrees, thirty-six longitude? Jesus, that was far out. I know they were coming ten times farther, but my distance seemed to be growing farther North every time.

This was the sixth run I had done, and pretty sure the drop spot had moved at least 200 kilometers North over that time. Pretty soon, they’ll just text for me to sail all the way to Papua New Guinea to save themselves the trip.

I rolled in the bed and threw off the covers. The room was now hot in the early evening sun coming through the back windows. The humidity and heat of the afternoon drenched my sheets in sweat. Chest hair now matted to my skin and I jumped in the shower again, taking advantage of unlimited hot water and enough space for two people or one large man, unlike the Revenge’s poor excuse for a bathroom.

Again, I stared at the tiled wall in thought. Only two more runs, then I was out. Only two more and then all the debt from dad’s treatment, the house, and boat mortgages would be settled. I was originally only set myself for five, but then Ruby had taken the hidden $20,000 when she absconded, and there wasn’t a thing I could do about it. And she knew it.

But just two more times and I would be set up. I would be debt-free and even slightly swimming in it. Two more months, after Christmas, and then I’d tell the assholes they could find another chump and his boat.

Toweling off with the still damp towel, I made the motions of dressing, choosing black cargos and a black long sleeve. The house was still silent, the sun now well into setting behind the mountains. I walked back out into the back porch, wondering if that bugger cockatoo had finished up the seeder in one afternoon. Tough shit if he had, that was the last I had in the cupboard, there would be no more for some time.

Instead, I found only a quarter of it gone, with no birds insight, and I looked out onto the jungle surrounding the house. Christ, even the tropical wild was deathly still at this time of the day. I glanced at my watch to see it was 8 pm. Eight hours. That’s how long I now lasted in the home I grew up in. A happy home until an unhappy wife divorced us and left her husband and child, a loving father who died of lung cancer in his mid-50s, and most recently an unfaithful girlfriend who used my heart for a hacky sack and literally stole my future from me.

Eight long hours.

I locked up the house and grabbed my black fleece. It was time anyway. If I had farther to sail under engine power, then I needed to leave the harbor earlier anyway. Leaving the house, my heart felt a little lighter as I made the drive back into town, and through the main strip. For 9 pm, the strip was alive with bar-hoppers and restaurant-goers. The tourist season was well into swing on the reef. Nearly every spot on our tours for the next month had been filled.

I slowed for skimpy-dressed pedestrians, my eyes occasionally glancing every time a tall blonde appeared, but forced my eyes back onto the road in case it was actually her.

By the time I arrived at the jetty, the darkness of the short nights of the summer was absolute. There was no moon and no clouds. It would have been the perfect night for a stargaze if I had been more innocent and inclined. The park that held the jetty entrance was also deserted, the harbor master’s tower at the end of the street would be empty in ten minutes while the shift changed over. No one would notice a boat leaving port.

The Revenge was floating patiently, and I went to the front of her, reaching over to her deck and pulled forward a small blanket hooked onto the side. Her name and serial number disappeared and I jumped on board and opened up the cabin, quickly ducking in to manually turn on the engine. I glanced around the interior, noticing Carter had again left her large duffel bag here for the night. Meaning she left with only the clothes on her back, my suspicions about her intending to use some poor schmuck’s hotel room for the night.

I glanced at the living area as I went to my personal cupboard and opened it. The cleaning crew set to come aboard at 9 am tomorrow morning would be earning their money. Carter didn’t seem to know a mop from a broom when it came to basic cleaning. She did a good job in the kitchen, but when it came to housework, it was like her parents never even made her make her bed.

I pulled my small gun, a compact Glock out from the back of the cupboard, checking the magazine first. Still a full load. Making sure the safety was on, I tucked it into my fleece’s deep pocket and hoped to hell I didn’t have to use it for the first time tonight.

Back on deck, I started her up and turned off all my safety lights on the mast. By the time I had left the harbor, I hadn’t seen any other boat owners strolling out on the jetty, and y the radio silence I had on my channel scanner, was fairly certain the large boat had gone unnoticed.

Only when I saw the small lighthouse for Hamilton Island come into view did I turn on the SeaVision scanner, the coral reef under the water illuminated and brightening up the small shelter of the sailboat.

I navigated through the reef, well into its high tide, until the scanner went dark, the reef and seafloor now far below and showing the start of the vast Pacific Ocean. I looked back behind the sailboat as I turned her north, the bright lights of Airlie Beach now distant. The Australian coastline darkened on either side of the town, showing that it was essentially alone on this stretch.

Confident that there was no one was around to hear a loud engine, I threw the Revenge’s into full throttle and stared down her deck and to the North. As normal, the tension in my shoulder started to rise. I hadn’t even done anything wrong yet, but my body was building up for it. The coastguard didn’t usually tour this close to the coast, using the harbor masters for their intel.

But still, the threat was always there. One boat could have a sick crew member and come in early, a boat full of asylum seekers could be seen coming in and the cavalry would be called, Any number of things could draw someone to notice a lone sailboat with no lights on, sailing in the night. It was unusual. It screamed suspicious.

My body kept it’s tense position behind the wheel, my navigation screen slowly growing closer to the coordinates sent earlier. The dark coast drifted by, the lights of Townsville eventually passing by. One hour turned to two, two nearly to three, when the last longitude number clicked over and I turned my engine off to drift. My watch said I was fifteen minutes early, but my ear told me there was something in the water already.

From beneath the bench I slept on, I reached in and pulled out a heavy and long Mag flashlight and headed to the deck. Flashing three short blinks and then three long ones to the front of the boat, the signal was returned exactly the same.

The sound of a small engine started up, and in a faint and small bow light of a small dingy boat came forward and into my purview. My heart picked up, and I subtly brushed my wrists against the deep pocket, assuring myself the Glock was still there. The two men on board, dark in complexion and might be Indonesian in the full bright of day, were the same two as last time. The one standing on the bow hailed me with a simple raising of his arm above his head, and I moved to down the side of the starboard bow, pulling a large bundle of ropes aside to reveal a hatch door underneath.

Wordlessly, I opened it and looked down at him, his small boat, barely reaching a meter above the water, placed his eye line with my deck. He peeked up to see the hatch open and nodded to me. Reaching back and down behind him, he returned back to me with a large brown wrapped package, maybe half a meter in length each way.

I reached down and took it from his outstretched arms, and carelessly threw it down the dark hatch hole. He reached for another, and another, until after ten packages he had no more. Silently, the boat began to drift back and away from the boat and I watched them go, making sure they went.

Closing the hatch and returning the rope to sit on top, my nerves began to do their usual dance, as I turned on the engine and steered the rudder back down to the coast where I came from. The stars, as the only source of light, were doing a pretty damn good job of making me see things on the water. A shimmer here, possibly a spotlight there. Maybe the red flash of a starboard light from the top of a mast.

By the time I had sailed an hour and was due to turn West to the drop off point and through the reef, my mind had played enough tricks on my body that it was about to go into full-on revolt. As I turned on and into the reed, I flared up the scanner again, and deftly maneuvered the boat around the deadly reef, knowing that one large arm of the reef could easily scrap my hull from underneath and sink her.

Thirty minutes and I was through, the lights of Townsville now behind me. My eyes scanned the dark coast for the unusual blue light of the beach house, though I knew from experience that it was still a few kilometers further down. Eventually, after turning around a peninsula of land sticking out, it came into sight. A flashlight about a hundred meters in front of the blue light flared to life in the three-three code and I replied with the same.

The long, singular jetty stretched out in front of the dimly lit beach house, and the dock light came on as the Revenge pulled alongside it. I glanced up at the house, seeing a gray figure passing in front of a lamp. But my attention was stolen back to the portside up the front of the boat on the jetty. The ordinary, but somehow ugly, the face of Declan Myers came out of the shadows and he lifted his arm in salute. I idled the engine, not intended to stay any longer than fucking necessary, and moved to the front bow to toss him a line, pulling me in.

As we became level, in the fluorescent glow of the overheard jetty light, the man was still sporting a slightly bruised nose and I openly smiled at him. It was no less than he deserved, and if Carter hadn’t have given it to him right then and there, I would have done it. Shit, I had been tempted at the time. He grabbed the blonde in the poorly lit park, and I on my park bench had gotten to my feet about to remind him that pieces of shit like him never do well in federal prison.

But she had then reached down to take him in her hand and surprised me with a move that made me want to cry in sympathy for the douchebag. Then when she had kneed him in his face, I had almost laughed aloud and sat back down on my ass to let the then-unknown woman do her thing. I was happy and satisfied that I wouldn’t have to mess up my short term business deal with the asshole just because he thought ‘no’ meant ‘let’s fuck’.

He saw me smile and mistook it for something else.

“Any problems?”

I shook my head at him, “None. Same two, ten bags. Mine?”

He looked at the length of the sailboat as if he was suspicious that the cops would suddenly jump out from below deck. After a moment had passed, he pulled a manilla envelope from his pocket and threw it up to me. I opened it quickly to check, flicking my fingers through the stack of hundred, eyeing at least fifty there. Quickly pocketing it with the Glock, I reached down and opened the hatch, and reached down low to grab the packages.

I didn’t bother to make sure Declan was ready but started to heave them over the side of the ship, hearing him grunt every time he caught one. After a minute, they were all off, and he left the packages to the side while he went to grab my line. I made a gesture I was ready for it, when instead, he held it thoughtfully in his hands, giving me a quizzical look. After a moment, I became impatient,

“What the fuck is wrong?”

He looked up at me, studying my form when he finally asked, “Heard you got a new first mate.”

I tried to play it cool and straightened up, doing my best to look confused.

“And…?”

“And she’s a blonde yank that looks like she should be on a runway, rather than making eggs on your shitty boat.”

Shit. He knew Carter worked on my boat, his surviving three drug-addled brain cells had put some whispers and gossip together. I hadn’t known who she was the night before she came onto my boat when she gave him his licks, but I certainly didn’t keep her on because she could hold her own.

If he found out I was lying about her, then my last run probably wouldn’t happen without a hiccup. Still, I looked down at his face, now hardening at my growing silence, and I felt my hackles rise in her defense. Fuck this 25-year-old bogan piece of shit.

I leaned over the metal railing to him and gave him the same shit-eating grin I arrived with, “I was curious, did she just bruise your nose, or did she totally smash it in with her knee?”

The anger on his face now became undisguised and he sputtered out, “I want..”

“You’ll get nothing.” I cut him off decisively, and stood up from my lean on the rail, towering over him. “She’s my crew, and if you hadn’t tried to assault her in a park, with witnesses present, then your nose and dick would still be…” I let my eyes wander down his body, “...working?”

He opened his mouth again, looking like he was about to challenge me to off the boat and face him, man to man-child. Declan might have been ugly and rough, but at 6,2 and 200 pounds, I towered over him. I worked with boats all day, every day. He probably played with his dick in between snorting lines. It wouldn’t be fair.

In hopes of beating him to the punch, I leaned over again, almost conspiratorially. “Or you know what, actually it does seem like we should get this straightened out, huh? Seems pretty fucking life or death important to tell the big boss in the house there how his main distributor and right-hand man nearly got himself thrown in jail over a set of American tits, huh?”

Declan’s mouth set in a hard line, knowing that trying to take me on would make him feel better. But risking himself and therefore potentially this small bones drug organization of the reef’s recreational drug users, was unforgivable to his boss. From what I had heard of the man, he looked harmless but would cut Declan’s prized possession off if he thought it would help him not try it again.

He aggressively tossed the rope up to me. I let it fall onto the deck, and didn’t give a backward glance to the man as I walked back to the wheel and started the engine up, hitting it in reverse.

As I pulled out and away from the dock, the jetty light went out, Declan disappearing into the dark. As soon as I was clear of the immediate coast, I flipped my overhead lights on and let out a long sigh of relief. Still, the confrontation between Declan and I played on repeat in my brain. Fuck, fuck, fuck. Already fucking up my shit, and she didn’t even know about it.

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