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Ever since being bitten by the writing bug early in his life, Eddie Cantrell has made attempts at leading a normal life. Unsuccessfully. He decided to give up his futile attempts a few years ago and has never looked back. However, he has developed a slight insomnia problem and his browser history is filled with a few unsavory search entries such as, "How to bleach bones." His gothic horror short story, "A Grave Tale," was published in the Dark Stains literary anthology in 2016. His ever-supportive wife prods him to finish his first novel. And someday, he just might.
Watch this space for upcoming publications, events and other news.
Driftwood ~~ by Eddie Cantrell
A couple on the verge of a break-up find a small bell on a misty beach. When they ring it, a ferryman appears, promising them a boat ride that will change their lives in a most profound way.
A woman in a white bikini top and a pair of baby blue hot pants walked to the edge of the slope, fists clenched. She stumbled down its steep gradient. Her tattooed arms spread out like wings as she fought to keep balance.
A man appeared behind her but stopped at the verge. “C’mon, Neave. I’m sorry, okay? Come back to the car.” Neave ignored him.
“Where are you going? We’re in the middle of nowhere,” he cried as she staggered over a tuft of beach grass sticking out of the sand.
When she reached the bottom, she took several quick steps toward the shoreline where she stopped and hugged her arms under her breast. Her striking eyes, one olive green with flints of red, the other light blue, filled but no tear fell. Blinking, she took a deep breath, sucking in the salty ocean air. Her eyes widened as she noticed her surroundings.
Oh my God, she thought.
Neave stood on a tiny stretch of beach, only ten or twelve meters wide, flanked between high, jagged rocks. A thin line of waves spread a fine sheen in front of her. She squinted her eyes but couldn’t discern much of the sea. A thick mist swirled over the water, making it difficult to see more than four or five meters ahead. To her left she saw the ghostly form of a low, rickety looking pier fading into the haze. It was like standing in a postcard from an enchanted world. A series of small waves rushed out from beneath the mist and scuttled out over the cool, wet sand, embracing her bare feet with their icy touch. She gasped and smiled at the same time.
He walked over the sand behind her. Neave’s smile faltered. His hand touched the place between her shoulder blades, glided down over the straps of her swimming top. It moved farther down over a large tattoo of a fire-breathing phoenix and rested on the small of her back.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
Her arms tightened around her chest, her jaw clenched.
“What you said to me in the car, Jim. It,” she paused and shrugged, “it hurt.”
His fingertips started caressing the lines of her tattoo with a feather-light touch. She shivered and wanted to—
Don’t smile, she thought, but the corners of her mouth pricked up.
“I’m sorry. What I said was unfair. I was wrong,” Jim said in a tender voice. Neave turned to him remaining in his embrace.
He looked as out of place as a banker at a frat party, standing on the beach dressed in his neat maroon cardigan, white shirt and black trousers. A draft rose up and made a mess of his perfect light brown hair.
“You weren’t wrong,” she said.
His fingertips lingered over her spine for a moment longer and then slowly pulled away. Jim broke their embrace and Neave hugged herself again.
“What do you mean?” Jim asked.
“Maybe it hurt,” she said, “because maybe you weren’t wrong.”
Jim took a deep breath and looked down at his black leather shoes, now covered in wet beach sand.
“Where are you going?” he asked as Neave turned around and walked toward the pier. She didn’t reply.
“Check-in is at one, Neave. And we’re meeting Gerald and Anne. We shouldn’t be late.”
Neave rolled her eyes. Anne and Gerald can wet their lips and kiss my ass.
As she approached, the mist slowly parted like theatre curtains on opening night. The pier came into sight, tapering out ahead of her. She stepped onto the slick, vapor covered boards. Warped planks creaked under her feet as the flimsy structure groaned against the lazy swell of the water. She heard a loud plop here and there. Then something else, something bigger, slowly sloshed through the tide. She glanced around and saw only a slight disturbance in the swirling mist, as if something that was there a second ago suddenly disappeared in a wisp of smoke.
“Did you hear that?” Jim asked. Neave heard the concern in his voice. She also heard that he was still standing at the foot of the pier.
Never been one for an adventure, Jimmy boy.
“Probably just a fish. Relax, Jim.” Her heart started racing and she enjoyed the sensation.
“I don’t know, Neave. That thing doesn’t look safe and you don’t have any shoes on—”
Suddenly Neave cried out and stumbled to the boards.
Neave grabbed her foot. “Stepped on a damn splinter.”
“Shit! Are you okay, hon—’?” He stepped onto the pier and rushed to her.
She bent over and saw the dark splinter sticking out of her foot.
“I’m fine. It’s not deep. Just a small piece,” she said and started to pull it out.
“Wait,” Jim said. He knelt down and took hold of her foot by gently placing one hand around her ankle and the other supporting her heel.
“Let me do it. You’ll just yank it out and there’ll be blood everywhere.” He looked up at her and gave her a slanted, playful smile. Neave lowered her head, a smile of her own playing on her face.
“Fine,” she said. “Hurry up though.” He softly brushed the grains of sand away from the spot and before she could raise her head, Jim had removed the splinter.
“A real whopper,” he said, holding the sharp piece up to her. He kissed her palm and placed the splinter in her hand.
She raised her head slowly and stared deep into Jim’s eyes.
“Are we done, Jim?”
He glanced at her, looked away and then back at her, blinking as if the sand was irritating his eyes.
“I hope so, Neave. We’ve got to get back to the—”
“Not the hotel. I mean us. Is this it? Are we done?” She did not drop her gaze. Jim did.
“Why would you say that?” he asked.
“What happened in the car just now. That’s what it sounded like.”
Jim looked up at her and shook his head.
“Let’s just go, Neave,” he said softly and helped her up.
She smiled, but it felt bitter. “And here I was thinking you were taking me away to propose to me.”
“C’mon Neave, we, we can carry on our chat in the car.”
“Sure, Jim. Whatever.”
He held her around the waist and was about to help her back down the pier, when Neave stopped.
“What’s that?” she said and turned out of his hold.
“Ah, Neave, please. Enough already. We’ve got to go.”
“Okay, okay. Just a minute.” Neave limped up to the last board on the pier and looked down.
“That’s odd,” she said, matter-of-factly.
A small bell, about ten centimeters tall, stood on the edge of the pier, between her feet. She bent down and picked it up. It was light and comprised of two finely crafted parts. A delicate, light brown handle joined with a small gold-plated resonator engraved with a string of intricate flowing patterns. Rust had corroded the thin plating in some places and water splotches bruised the handle.
“Maybe you should put it down, Neave,” Jim said but came no closer.
“I wonder what it’s for?” she asked.
“Some kid’s toy or something. They probably just forgot it here.” He waved his hand dismissively and shot a glance back the way they had come. “Put it down and let’s go. Please.”
Neave stared at the bell, ignoring Jim.
“Looks pretty old to be a toy.”
“Well, maybe it’s an old toy,” he tried and then sighed impatiently.
Neave turned the bell in her hand, studying the complicated illustrations that marked its surface.
“I think it’s a story or something,” she said, noticing that the twirling lines morphed into three people in a boat. Two of the people were sitting while one stood at the edge, steering the boat through an angry tide.
“I’m going to ring it,” she said and looked at Jim who just shook his head.
“Whatever,” he said. “Ring the bell, if you want and let’s go.”
Neave looked back at the bell but didn’t ring it.
“Well, come on. Ring it then,” Jim said, placing his hands on his hips.
Neave gave him a small smile.
“I, I can’t,” she said, shaking her head, still smiling that confused smile.
It felt easy enough to do but for some reason she didn’t want to anymore.
“Are you scared?” Jim asked, a small smile tugging at his lips.
Neave shrugged her shoulders. “I don’t know. Maybe.”
“Jeeez.” He walked over and took the bell from her. He made a show of holding it up and rang it repeatedly. Its ring sounded muted and flat, devoid of the cheerful, jangling vivacity that she would have expected.
“There,” Jim said, handing it back to her. “Happy?”
Neave looked at the bell and then out into the mist, hearing the lethargic movement of the water and the creaking pier. At first she found the sounds peaceful. Now shivers spread down her spine.
“Okay,” Jim said. “I’m out of here. Stay if you like. I’ll be in the car.”
Neave put the bell down and scanned the area as she stood up.
“Okay, Jim. Coming,” she said and held her hand out to him. She walked past him but stopped when she felt his hand squeeze her own.
She looked up at his face. “What’s wrong?”
His eyes strained and stared out into the mist. His lips parted but he didn’t utter a word.
Neave followed his gaze. A tall, dark shape emerged from the mist. It made a long, swishing sound as it approached. Her free hand came up to her heart.
“What is it, Jim?”
The shadowlike shape glided closer. Neave wanted to leave but neither her or Jim moved an inch.
“Good maaawning,” a cheerful voice bellowed out.
Neave breathed a sigh of relief. A tall, thin old man broke through the mist and floated toward them in a small wooden rowboat. His oars swished through the water. He pushed one forward while pulling back on the other, swinging the boat round so that it steadied, parallel to the front of the pier. He stood up and grabbed ahold of the five-rung ladder fixed to the pier.
“Charles be da name. Ferry rides be da game.” He tilted the rim of his scruffy, straw hat and gave the couple a smile so big and bright that Neave found herself smiling back. Course black hair stuck out from under his hat, sprinkled with tight, grey curls.
“Hi,” Neave said looking down at the old man, then nudged Jim with her elbow who in turn said— “Uh, hi.”
She watched as Charles picked up the hemp rope lying in the boat. His big, leathery hands worked the rope with a series of strong but graceful tugs and loops. He dropped the fisherman’s knot mooring the boat and climbed up.
Although very thin, Neave could see the taut muscles in his forearms bulge beneath skin the color of melted dark chocolate. His big coffee-brown eyes and broad smile radiated from a face webbed in wrinkles. He placed his hands on his hips and looked from Neave to Jim and back again, smiling all the while.
“Ah na you two be tha bashiest Romeo and Juliet I ever seen,” he said.
Neave didn’t exactly know what ‘bashiest’ meant but she found herself blushing anyway.
“That’s the coolest accent I’ve ever heard,” she said and cocked her head. “Jamaica?”
Charles shook his head. “West Indies, born and bred.” Charles said and broke-out in cheerful laughter.
“Reddy ti go?” he asked and looked straight at Neave.
The couple glanced at each other and then looked back at Charles.
“Excuse me?” Jim asked.
A little abruptly, Neave thought.
“You rang my bell.” He held the bell up and gave it a little ring.
Neave looked down at the boards where she’d left the bell. She frowned. Never saw him pick it up.
“No, we—” Neave stuttered
“We were just messing around,” Jim said. “I’m sorry, we didn’t mean to bother—”
“All dem tourists be saying de same ol’ting,” Charles said.
“Aldough it would be bedda if you all come along now. It’s bedda sooner radda dan later,” he said.
Jim gave Neave a side glance. “Okay that’s our cue,” he told Neave under his breath. “Guy’s a weirdo.”
Charles burst into a hearty laugh. “There be nothing weird about it, sir. Only beautiful. Truly beautiful,” he laughed. The word ‘nothing’ came out sounding ‘knotting’. Neave felt Jim shuffle from foot to foot as he was probably thinking what she was—good set of ears for an old fella.
“Sorry, I didn’t mean it like that,” Jim said sheepishly.
“Sure you don’t want to come for a boat ride?” Charles asked.
“Where to?” Neave replied.
Jim squeezed Neave’s hand. “Don’t spur him on,” he mumbled.
“To the other side of the cove and back. The view be real bashy.” He winked at Neave. She still didn’t know what ‘bashy’ meant but had the idea Charles was saying the view was spectacular.
“The place is covered in mist,” Jim said, not bothering with mincing words. “You can’t see jack-shit,” pointing at the haze.
“Jim!” Neave said, glaring at him.
Jim shrugged his shoulders.
“It’s true. We go on a little tour, can’t see anything but this damn fog and then we’ll have to pay the guy an arm and a leg,” Jim said.
Charles laughed again, waving his hands in the air in a ‘I don’t want any trouble’ gesture. It was a deep, honest laugh that could probably warm the entire cove.
“Na, na, fren. Misty here jus comes in to say I-ney. She will be off in a few minutes, you’ll see. Everyting will be bashy, breddas and dawtas.”
“And,” he continued, “it won’t cost you a single penny. Dis ride be free as da wind.”
Jim regarded Charles and Neave wondered if he was going to argue but he simply shook his head.
“Thanks but no thanks, Charles,” Jim said and gestured back at the slope with a cocked thumb. “We’re already late. Maybe next time.”
“Won’t take long, I tell a true,” Charles said. “Fifteen minutes, tops.”
Neave shrugged. “Why not?”
Jim regarded her. “No, Neave. We’re going to be late.”
“So what, we’re on holiday.”
“Good point,” Charles said, smile; alive and well.
“Yes, but,” Jim tried.
“I’m sure Anne and Gerald can check-in on their own, Jim,” Neave said, and the comment came with sharp teeth.
Jim’s lips tightened and he gave three short blinks. Neave smiled back at him but she felt anger flaring up on her cheeks.
“It’s a bad idea, Neave.”
“Well, I’ll go on my own then, Jim.” Neave said. “I do everything on my own.” The bitterness beneath those words bit like frost.
She turned to Charles. “Is there anything I can do, captain?” Her tone was as light as sunshine twinkling on the water.
The old man gave a salute and then turned to Jim, who stood there, nostrils flaring.
“You going to leave your lady princess, my bredda?”
Jim looked at Charles and then back at Neave. “Maybe she’s going to leave me.” Jim’s eyes met Neave’s.
“Then this is not the way to say goodbye,” Charles said pulling Jim’s focus back to him. He put his hand on Jim’s shoulder. “And maybe you and da princess got some tings you want to chew.” Neave looked up at the old man and saw him give Jim’s shoulder a friendly squeeze before letting go.
She and Charles stepped up to the edge of the pier.
“Careful, girly. Those rungs are slippery like jelly.”
Neave climbed down the ladder and stepped into the boat.
“Whoa,” she cried as the boat rocked from side to side.
“Easy does it, there, there.” Charles said.
“Excuse me, Charles,” came Jim’s voice. Neave looked up and saw him standing behind the old man. “I think, well, may I climb in?”
Charles stepped aside and patted Jim on the shoulder. “You’re da boss.”
Jim huffed at that and climbed down the ladder and into the boat. He made his way to Neave. She didn’t move over.
“Great,” Jim snorted, swung around and sat on the center thwart instead, his back toward Neave.
Charles hopped into the boat and plucked the rope off the post. He pushed the boat away from the pier, sat down and placed the oars in the rowlocks,
“All set?” his voice boomed. Neave gave a half hearted smile.
“Wi wan hab a bashment time, my dawtas and breddas,” Charles cried as he pulled back on the oars and sent the boat swooshing out into the cove.
“Whooapaa,” he shouted from the exertion and exploded with his heartiest laugh yet. The sound of his cheerful voice took the sad out of Neave’s smile and made it a shimmering jewel. She looked back and watched as the mist swirled across the little stretch of beach, making it fade out of vision and disappear like a final breath.
* * *
“Keep your hands inside all di while, okay? At least until Misty clears.” Charles said as the rowboat settled into the steady rhythm of rising and sinking over the hypnotic drift.
Neave looked at Jim sitting in front of her. He sat, shoulders stooped and back hunched over.
“Feels like I’m sailing in a dream,” Jim said, his voice quiet, distant.
Neave studied him for a moment. “Maybe you are.”
Jim turned to her. “Felt that way ever since I met you.”
Neave’s steely expression faltered, but only for a second. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
He didn’t answer immediately. Instead his profile disappeared from Neave’s vision as he turned to Charles. The old man kept his gaze slightly angled to the sky as if he were daydreaming of faraway places and days long past. Neave looked back at Jim who angled his face toward her again.
“I’m not good with words, Neave,” he said.
“I know, Jim. That’s why nothing ever gets sorted out between us.”
Jim nodded, frowned.
“I’m not good with flowery confessions or tearful apologies, so I’ll just come out and say it.” He paused and took a deep breath. “I’m an asshole,” he said. “I’ve got no personality, I spend all day crunching out numbers and I’m unhappy all the time,” he said and regarded the water. “At least I was until you came into my life.”
Neave’s lips parted. She wanted to say something but her mouth did nothing but close and open. Something tapped lightly against the side of the boat.
“Jim, what are you talking about?” She ran her hands through her hair gathering her thoughts. “A little while ago you yelled at me for judging you,” she said.
Jim nodded. “I know.”
“And apparently I was judging you because, because, why?” Neave’s face scrunched up in confusion as she searched for the exact words, “because I didn’t think a weekend away involved Anne and Gerald.” Neave shook her head, “Every time we go away, and I think ‘Great’! Some us time. Time to talk. Time to catch-up. Time to, I don’t know,” she lowered her voice, “have sex or something. I get this surprise. Anne and Gerald rock-up.” Neave shook her head. “It’s like you’re running from me or something.”
Jim let out a small laugh. It sounded more miserable than good humored.
“It’s not funny, Jim. The next thing I know you’re going on about how I’m always trying to change you, how I’m always right and—” Once again something bumped the side of the boat and both Jim and Neave looked up at Charles.
He shook his head at them and flashed his big white teeth. “Jus a little driftwood. It floats around all over de cove. Noting serious. Be cool.”
Neave looked over the side of the boat and saw a large milky white piece of wood stripped of its bark drifting in the dark water. A mist filtered sunray struggled through and illuminated the drifting pieces of wood like ghosts.
He didn’t reply. She reached forward and touched his shoulder. He felt clammy and shivered under her touch.
“Are you okay?”
He turned around and Neave gasped.
“Holy crap,” she said. Sweat streaked down his cheeks and forehead and his face was sickly pale. But—
His eyes, Neave thought. His eyes are brighter than candle flames.
“You don’t look well. You don’t look well at all. I think we should turn back,” Neave said and looked at Charles. “Charles, I’m sorry but would it be okay if we go back? Jim’s not feeling well.” The old ferryman gave Neave a sad smile and carried on rowing the boat. She cocked her head and opened her mouth to protest but Jim spoke.
“No. I don’t want to go back. Not yet,” he said and shrugged. “I feel, I feel great actually.”
He was different in a way that Neave could not place. He seemed well. Possibly too well?
Neave frowned. “But I thought you wanted to get back to the hotel.”
Jim sat forward and took Neave’s hands in his own.
“You’re freezing,” she said, feeling his cold, clammy hands encompass her own. “Jim, I really think we should—”
“What we should do is talk, Neave. I owe you an explanation. I think we need to—” he squeezed her hands and was about to say something more when Neave shut her eyes tight and pulled her hands back from his.
“What’s wrong?” Jim asked.
She took a deep breath and kept her eyes shut tight. In a very quiet voice, she said, “I promised myself that I wouldn’t become pathetic.”
For a moment, all she heard were the oars swishing through the water and the odd piece of wood hit the boat.
“Neave, what are you talking about? You’re not pathetic.”
She opened her eyes.
“I was so happy when you said we were going away for a week. You know why?”
Jim shrugged. “Because you love beach holidays?”
“Because I convinced myself that you were planning on proposing.”
Jim broke eye contact and looked down at his shoes. Neave barked a small laugh.
“All the fighting lately, all the late nights you worked, all the avoiding the topic of marriage, well, I simply ignored all of that and let myself believe that this is what this holiday was all about. And I couldn’t help it. Despite everything, I was just so happy.”
Another long pause. Jim slowly looked up at her and his face was not just pale and sweaty but miserable.
“Pathetic, right?” Neave said. “How could I, of all people, be so desperate that I totally ignored all the tell-tale signs?” She shook her head. “And I promised myself when we met that I wouldn’t…” Her lips tightened.
“Wouldn’t what, Neave?” Jim asked and reached for her hands again but she pulled them further from his grasp.
A tear rolled down her cheek that she quickly wiped away but another followed. “That I wouldn’t fall for you.”
Jim nodded quietly and instead of speaking, looked out over the water. Neave followed his gaze.
The sun finally broke through the mist, reflecting airy rays off the water. The surface sparkled in those ghostly shafts and looked like a long lost Dali painting. She watched as a pale piece of driftwood floated toward the rays. The moment the wood entered the shaft of light, it moved. But not like a drifting piece of wood. It moved like a person. The wood morphed. In a surreal instant, a person was swimming through the light. Neave blinked twice, wiped the moisture out of her eyes and refocused. Another piece of wood glided into the light and it transformed into arms splashing through the sea. Neave held her breath and her eyes grew large. In a matter of seconds she was watching pieces of wood turning into people, all swimming in the same direction—the opposite direction of the boat. It was a sea of migrating souls.
A thought flashed in her mind—The mist! It’s hiding something.
“Charles!” she called out but froze. Charles smiled at her. There was no evil or malice in the smile. It was as it always had been. Open and honest. Calm and reassuring.
“All will be well, Miss. Don’t worry. There be nothing to be afraid of. I promise. All will be well,” he said in a voice so quiet it could’ve been a thought planted in her brain.
Despite the cryptic message, she nodded. Another piece of wood hit the boat and drifted past. When Neave turned to Jim, she found his large blue eyes fixed on her face.
“Did you see that, Jim?” Neave asked but he was staring out the sea. Other than pensive, he seemed fine.
He can’t see them. He can’t—
“Things aren’t as simple as you think, Neave.”
Her heart pounded in her chest like a fist pounding at a door in the dead of night. She looked away from Jim and back at the ocean.
“We’re so different, Neave. We’re worlds apart, you know,” Jim was saying but although Neave heard the words, they weren’t connecting, they weren’t real.
Far off on the horizon, she watched as the mist opened and the sun rained down in a golden shower of pure sunlight turning the sea into a shimmering cerulean coat sprinkled with a million diamonds. She heard Jim speaking about how different the two of them were, how he was analytical, logical, boring and she was creative, fiery and spontaneous. She registered all of what he said as if it were an old tune that softly played in the background. She should’ve been upset but her eyes stared out at the illuminated horizon, alive with all those arching arms and kicking feet.
Oh my God. This isn’t real. This can’t be real.
Her mouth opened to say something but no words came out.
“Neave…Neave…Are you listening to me?”
She turned to him, frowning in confusion and disorientation. She felt like she had just woken up from a strange dream.
“Jim, can’t you see them,” she pointed and Jim looked out. He turned back to her.
“Did you hear anything I said?” Jim asked, that dorky lobsided smile of his playing on his face.
Neave shook her head. “Sorry, I—” she lowered her eyes and saw Jim cupped his hands together as if he were hiding a butterfly.
Neave raised her eyebrows.
He slowly opened his hands. A big, gauche, dark brown ring crafted out of wood lay in his palm.
“I made it myself,” Jim said, gushing.
Neave frowned. “Great…What is it?”
Jim threw his head back and laughed.
“Well, Neave, it’s a wedding ring.”
She looked up at his smiling face, her mouth agape.
“A wedding ring,” she said as Jim lifted her hand. He slid the chunky trinket onto the ring finger of her left hand.
“I wanted to give it to you at the hotel. I booked a table at a restaurant overlooking the ocean, and, well for some reason I put this monster in my pocket this morning instead of packing it away in my suitcase,” Jim said and lowered his head, smiling in a way Neave had never seen before. The way little boys smile when they don’t know if they’ve just done something good or something bad. “Just had a feeling I should bring it a long.”
“Are you becoming suspicious in your old age, Mr. Dawson?”
Jim didn’t laugh and looked up at Neave. “Will you marry me?”
Neave swallowed, feeling the weight of the ring.
“Well?” Jim gently pushed. Neave looked at him.
“It’s hideous, Jim,” she said dead seriously.
He burst into laughter.
“Not the answer I was looking for, but you’re right,” he said and now they both laughed. Tears streamed down Neave’s face.
“I told you I made it myself. I’m an accountant, not Michaelangelo.”
The couple keeled over into each other’s arms as Neave held her hand up displaying the monstrous ring. The laughing dwindled but they remained in a tight embrace. She buried her face in Jim’s neck. He didn’t smell like cologne or shampoo. His skin had no smell. Instead, he smelt like ocean and fresh air. Her tears wet his skin. She lifted her head and spotted Charles. He smiled at her and nodded. Neave returned the smile.
“So, what’s it going to be?” Jim asked.
Charles raised his eyebrows. “You should answer, miss. We’re almost at the end of our ride,” he said.
“But we’ve barely begun,” Neave replied, her heart skipping a beat. She noticed the mist had disappeared and above was the bluest sky she had ever seen. She slowly straightened out as her eyes focused on something behind Charles.
“What’s wrong?” Jim asked.
Neave pointed back over his shoulder.
* * *
The boat slowly drifted toward a small, stretch of beach. Colors alive with vibrancy radiated out toward them. Azure blue waves lapped over a creamy white shore. Further inland, lush, bright green vegetation painted the horizon and exploded with a million brightly colored flowers. Brilliant purple Orchids, huge white Anguillas, Martiniques so orange they looked on fire and sunshine yellow St.Johns all burst out from the vegetation like a Technicolor explosion. Yet the most spectacular sight stood in the middle of it all.
“It’s out of this world,” Neave whispered in awe.
A colossal waterfall, water sparkling in the sun like a shimmering dream, gushed down a majestic, jagged cliff face and disappeared behind the tree line. A gigantic swirling mist rose-up high from the tropical jungle—a shifting, implacable wall of mist.
“Charles, where are we?” Neave asked.
“Is it not the most bashy place you’ve ever seen?” the old man asked.
Neave nodded. “It is pretty bashy, Charles. Bashier than anything I’ve seen.”
“Is it a resort or something?” Jim asked.
Charles shook his head. “No, not a resort,” he said and gave a hearty laugh, “but someting similar, maybe.”
Tears welled up in Neave’s eyes and she took a slow, deep breath as she fought to keep herself from becoming overwhelmed. Jim moved over and put his arm around her shoulders. He kissed her temple. “It’s a dream, Neave,” he said and she looked at him.
Jim slowly shook his head. “Are we asleep? It feels like we’re asleep.” he said.
“Doesn’t matter,” she answered.
Neave took his face in her hands, closed her eyes and kissed him on the forehead, the tip of his nose and then his lips.
The boat jolted to a stop. Neave looked around as if just woken up from a doze.
“Okay, Tristan and Isolde, out you get,” Charles said, standing up. Neave heard the joints in his knees pop.
“Mind your step,” he called as Jim jumped from the boat and into the water. He turned around and helped Neave out.
She shivered as the cool water embraced her calves and splashed against her thighs.
Charles pulled the boat further up the shore, mooring it on the beach and wiped the sweat off his brow.
“You two wait here, okay,” he said and jogged toward the thick tangle of trees at the end of the beach.
“Where are you going?” Neave called after him. He waved a hand and disappeared into the jungle.
Neave stepped on the beach and the warm sand comforted her feet, sending a tingle through her body. She walked to Jim, who stood staring at the mighty waterfall. Despite the size of it and the sheer amount of falling water, she heard only a distant rumble.
“What is this place?” Jim asked.
“I have no idea,” Neave said. She took his hand. “Maybe we should just enjoy the moment while it lasts.” Jim turned to her.
“You’re right,” he said. His forehead creased in an array of laugh lines. “Neave?”
He looked at her, the intensity still on his face.
“Will you marry me?”
Neave closed her eyes, smiled and then opened them again.
The crow’s feet disappeared from his face and he kissed her. They stopped for a moment. Neave heard the waterfall in the background and the gentle swirl of the waves, inhaling the fresh brine of the ocean. She kissed Jim again but this time harder, with more urgency and he responded by pressing her tighter against his body.
“Congratulations,” a lighthearted voice came.
“I cannot express in words how happy I am for you two.” Charles stood by the couple holding a plate with thick yellowy orange slices of some kind of fruit.
Neave noticed the intricate web of illustrations decorating the plate’s rim. They appeared similar to the ones on the small bell.
The bell, she thought. Feels like ages ago.
“Help yourselves,” Charles said, lifting the plate to them.
“Is it a mango?” Neave asked.
“No,” Charles said. “It’s better.”
Jim took two slices and gave one to Neave. She bit into the piece of fruit and sweet juice flowed over her chin and through her fingers. She chewed for a moment. The chewing slowed, her eyes closed and her head tilted up to the golden sunlight. She smiled.
“What is this, Charles?” she asked, opening her eyes. Jim’s eyes were also closed, a faint smile tickled his lips.
“I call it Tha Jamaican Kiss. Good, in’it?”
“It’s incredible. I’ve never tasted anything so tasty,” Neave said. “It’s something like a mango spiked with honey, I don’t know.” She laughed, shrugging her shoulders.
“I’ve never heard of a ‘Jamaican Kiss,’” Jim said with a frown, studying the last piece of fruit before popping it into his mouth.
Charles, still smiling, gave him a nod. “I’m sure you haven’t. Dey on’y found here, my bredda an’ sista.”
The couple finished the rest of the fruit and scanned the beach, taking in the strange vegetation.
“It’s hard to explain,” Neave said, looking at a bunch of huge trees with long, slender trunks on the beach line. An iridescent blue hue radiated off the bark but it was so subtle she doubted it was actually there. “But everything here seems to be, I don’t know…” Neave’s mouth twisted to the side as she searched for the right word.
“Hyper real,” Jim said, picking up where Neave left off.
She nodded. “Yes, I guess that’s it. Hyper real.”
Neave took Jim’s hand and kissed it. He smiled and gently ran his hand down her cheek. She returned the smile.
A few moments passed where no one said anything more. Neave listened to the relaxing sound of the waves rushing on the shore and the breeze whispering through the trees. She felt the warmth of the sun blessing her skin and the warmth of Jim’s hand, her soon-to-be husband, holding hers. She turned to Charles. His gentle eyes seemed lost in the hypnotic sway of the sea. Something warm and beautiful filled her heart and almost moved her to tears again. Love? Joy? Peace? She didn’t know and did nothing more than just enjoy the sensation. She looked back at the ocean. The reflections of light from the water played on her face and lit-up her blue eyes. She took a deep breath.
“We probably need to start heading back,” she said.
Jim nodded. “I’m glad we did this. You were right. I should be more spontaneous sometimes.” He turned to Charles who was standing a few feet from them.
“Charles, would you be so kind as to take us back?” Before Charles could reply Jim added, “And you’re going to get one hell of a tip, my friend. No ‘buts’.” He laughed and clapped Charles on the shoulder.
Charles didn’t respond and brushed past Neave without making eye-contact. He placed his hands on the boat and looked up at Jim.
“Let’s go,” he said, barely audible over the crashing waves.
Jim offered Neave his hand and the couple walked to the boat.
“Let me climb in first and I’ll help you in, hon’,” he said.
Hon’? Neave thought with a smile. He hasn’t called me hon’ since we started going out.
“No, dat won’ do,” Charles said. Neave looked at him still smiling. Only Charles wasn’t smiling now. For the first time since they met, he wasn’t smiling. It made his face look old and haggard and it robbed his eyes of the light they held only moments before.
“How should we do it then, Charles? Oh!” Jim said, smiling his dorky smile and hitting his forehead with his palm. “Right. Sorry, man. I need to help you with the boat,” he said. “Neave, You get in now and I’ll help Charles get the boat into the water.”
“No, won’ work,” Charles said, stepping up to the couple.
Jim gave Charles a questioning look. The old man took a heavy breath.
“Jim, sir, you and I go back. But the lady has to stay.”
The smiles on Jim and Neave’s faces slowly vanished as a concerned look passed between the two of them.
“What do you mean’?” Jim asked, shaking his head. “Why? Should she come back later? Or is there no place in the boat, what? I don’t understand—”
“Da lady, she can’t go back, sir.”
Jim took a step toward the old man.
“What the are you talking about, Charles?”
“I’m sorry,” Charles simply said.
“About what?” Neave asked.
Charles pointed back over the cove at the beach they had just come from. Although it was far back, it could easily be made out.
Neave looked and finally shook her head. “What are we supposed to be looking at?”
“Not at da beach. Look further up. Over da bank. You can’t be seeing da road from here but you can picture where it should be.”
Neave’s eyes narrowed. “What, Charles? I don’t know wha—”
“You can’t see da road,” he interrupted, “but you can see someting else.”
Neave studied the horizon for a moment longer and then her face cleared of wrinkles. A little off to the left, from somewhere behind the bank, black smoke rose-up in bellowing puffs and stained the blue sky with dark veins.
“How did I not see that before?” Jim asked quietly.
Neave couldn’t place exactly where it was coming from but heard the sound clearly.
“What is it? I mean I know its smoke but—” Neave said.
“It’s our damn car,” Jim said, sounding more panicked this time. “Someone must’ve driven into it, after I, after I…I don’t remember parking—”
Neave looked at the smoke and then her lips parted. Concern, confusion and horror set on her face like a passing shadow. She turned to Charles who looked at her with a miserable face and slumped shoulders.
He looks like he’s just aged a hundred years.
“Shit! We need to get back to the other side,” Jim shouted. But Neave and Charles did nothing but stare at each other.
“Someone got hurt! They must’ve hit our car or something. Shit, we really have to go.”
A tear rolled down Charles’ cheek. Neave looked at Jim who was still shouting, his voice rose in panic. She lightly placed a hand on his shoulder. At first, he didn’t notice and continued ranting. After a moment, he stopped, mouth agape, and stared at her. His gaze switched between Neave and the old man.
“What? What the hell are you two standing around for? We need to get out of here. Someone’s probably been injured. I might be responsible—”
“I can’t leave, Jim,” Neave said quietly.
“I mean, I parked the car on the curb. I’m sure I did! I can’t remember exactly but—”
“I can’t remember at all actually. Where did we park?”
She cupped his face in her palms and he stopped talking. His concerned, child-like eyes, big and round, stared at her. His nostrils flared and his mouth gaping as if he was silently saying ‘OH’. If the situation were different, she probably would’ve giggled at his comically sad expression.
“I don’t remember parking, Neave. I’ve struck a blank,” he said, like someone who doesn’t quite know where they are.
She swallowed. “I’m gone, Jim.”
Confusion swirled in his large, blinking eyes. “Excuse me?”
“That’s what this is. This ride,” Neave said.
Jim looked at Charles then back to Neave.
The old ferryman put his hand on Jim’s shoulder. “The two of you were in a car accident.”
Jim’s eyes darted between the two sad faces staring at him.
“Have, have the both of you lost your minds?” Jim said, pulling Neave’s hands away from his face.
“You don’t realize it yet. Paramedics are doing all they can to save you, sir.” Charles continued.
Jim turned away from the both of them and threw his hands in the air in an exasperated gesture.
“You will survive, sir.”
Jim shook his head. “Jesus, I don’t know what the hell you two are up to?”
Charles walked over to Jim and put an arm around his shoulders.
“Get your hands off me,” Jim shouted and tried to shove the old man but Charles stood firm.
“I’ll show you, sir. But ease-up ono self, okay?” The old man looked at Neave, smiled and said, “Please turn around, madam.”
Neave nodded and turned so that her back faced the two men. For a long moment, she heard nothing but the waves, the slight breeze rustling the trees and in the faraway distance, the ambulance sirens.
“Okay, you can turn around,” Charles said.
When Neave faced them again, Jim’s face looked slammed with grief. His legs gave-out and he was about to fall but Charles shot his arms around Jim’s chest and held him up.
“What’s wrong? What did you see, Jim?” Neave asked.
His lips trembled and he looked at Neave as if she was a complete stranger, a ghost. “Your tattoo…it’s gone. And your hair…it’s—”
Neave took a strand of her hair and held it out so she could see it. “It’s darkening,” she said, in something between terror and awe. The blonde dye receded allowing her natural dark brown to reappear.
“What’s happening to me?” she whispered
Charles smiled. “What we see is just a perception, madam. But now you are coming to ‘True Light’. The way you really are. And you be so beautiful,” he said, plainly.
“I don’t pretend to know all dem answers but I like to believe it’s your purest form dat will transcend,” Charles said.
Jim slumped and shook his head.
“It’s too much to handle, I know,” said Charles and gently pulled Jim back up. “But a time will come when you will treasure dis experience more dan anyting else.” Charles looked away for a moment and added, “I know. I’ve been where you are now, sir.”
Neave saw a deep history in his sad eyes.
“What about them?” Neave asked, pointing at the water. Now that the sun was out, the glittering cove was full of those strange swimmers.
Charles sighed and shook his head lightly. “Misty hides all of dem. Dey be de ones dat don’t accept what happened. Dey return to de water and spend eternity swimming de cove, searching for—” he paused, “Someting dat doesn’t exist.”
“I just see driftwood,” Jim said in a quiet voice.
“Yes. You haven’t passed on. Dat’s why you were feeling unwell earlier. Your soul was having ‘a jitteree-doo’,” he gave a half-hearted laugh. “Soon, you’ll only see me, dat little boat and de water. Den you’ll wake up in de hospital.”
“No! Wait!” he shouted, swinging out of Charles’ arms. “I know what we must do,” he said, his voice alive with crazy desperation. “Me!”
Charles shook his head and took a step closer but Jim jumped back. “I’ll stay. Let her go!”
“No, Jim,” Neave said, also stepping toward him. Charles held his hand up and Neave stopped. The old man turned to Jim.
“It doesn’t work,” Charles said, his tone calmer than the breeze.
“Of course it will. Just take me instead,” Jim said, sounding as if he had worked this all out and it was a case of simple logic. Charles just looked at him.
“She can climb in the boat. You take her back, Charles. I’ll stay here. She can, she can, you know, she can go on and do all the things she still has to. She deserves it more than me. Yes! That’s, that’s the plan,” he said in a frantic tone.
“Just take her. I’ll stay here. I’ll—” Jim paused for a moment. His chest heaved and he fell to his knees. His knees plunged into the wet sand and a small wave crashed up against his thigh. Charles stepped up to him.
“All be okay, sir. You’ll see.”
Jim looked up at Charles. Sadness crushed his face and his eyes shut tight, squeezing-out an endless stream of tears. Mournful, guttural whines escaped his mouth and sounded out-of-place in the calmness of the lazy swish of waves.
“You don’t have much time, sir. You should say your goodbyes.”
On shaky legs, Jim rose to his feet.
Neave swallowed and her lips quivered uncontrollably. Jim moved close to her, the tears bright as a spring morning’s dew drops in his eyes. He put his hands on her shoulders and looked as if he wanted to say something but instead he embraced her. She squeezed his trembling body close to hers. She wasn’t sure how long the moment lasted before Charles gently placed his hand on her arm.
“It’s time,” he said.
“Just a moment longer,” Jim sobbed but Charles shook his head.
He pointed his chin at Neave’s feet. She looked down and saw the grains of sand through them.
“I’m disappearing,” she said.
“No,” Charles said. “I think you are reappearing. Somewhere else. A place even more beautiful than here.”
“No!” Neave said in a small voice. “I don’t want to. I want to get married and have a fam—” But Charles was already backing into the water, holding Jim close. He whispered something to Jim, but Neave couldn’t hear what the old man said.
“No, don’t leave me here,” she screamed but Charles ignored her and focused only on Jim.
The boat drifted out and Neave stepped further into the water.
“Wait,” she screamed, following the boat as it slowly began to drift out. Then she noticed the swimmers. She stopped, stepped back onto the shore and wiped the wet streaks from her cheeks. Something between resolution and peace settled on her face. The boat became smaller.
“I love you, Jim. Always.”
Her legs tingled and her back broke out in pins and needles. She looked down and there was now a very slight white glow where her lower body used to be. She looked up. The boat was now a small speck in the setting sun.
Her vision narrowed. Sunlight seeped in from the sides, from above, from below, blowing everything out. More and more light bled into her scope of vision leaving only a single clear spot in the center, where she saw the toy boat and the shape of miniature Jim in a world of shimmering white. The spot became smaller and smaller. More light filled in. More light. More white. More…
* * * * *
~~Published in Issue # 1 of Reader's Abode~~