Laura was late.
I was the lone passenger left as the dust of departing taxis and shuttles settled over a straggle of palm trees. Blotting my damp forehead with a handkerchief and dragging hot, soupy air into my lungs, I turned back into the airport terminal. The entrance to paradise was a metal warehouse, probably some sort of Army surplus, since the island was a U.S. possession. Plywood partitions divided the expanse of cement floor, ratty-looking palm fronds decorating a low fence around a waiting area with rickety tables, sagging cane chairs, and a liquor bar manned by a sleepy black man. A dusty purple satin banner with gold fringe hung crookedly from one of the exposed rafters, spelling out in red sequins: Hands in the air! A warning about the hotel rates?
I was Alice in a seedy Wonderland, wishing I’d taken Pat MacIntyre up on her offer to share a taxi into town. She’d departed with, “Be seeing you, it’s a small island,” and a Cheshire Cat smile that lingered behind her in the humid air.
Head pounding with the heat, I trudged over to the booth covered with more antique palm fronds, returning my plastic cup to the man with the face like gnarled mahogany, who grinned toothlessly above a Well Come to our I-Land sign. I’d thirstily gulped one of the drinks he’d handed to all arrivals, minors included, before realizing the fruit floating on top disguised nearly pure rum.
I turned down another cup, blotted my face again, and asked the man where I could find a phone. He looked bewildered. I tried asking the bartender, slumped snoring over the bar, but couldn’t wake him. I sank onto a bench to rub my throbbing forehead and check my watch again.
Laura was really late.
She’d always refused to wear a watch because it would impose false mechanical rhythms and “block the natural flow of the day.” Somehow Laura had managed to thrive in a scheduled society by making people feel guilty enough over their own uptightness to indulge her for the sake of Peace, Love, and Freedom.
I was getting cynical in my old age. I was all for Peace and Love, maybe Laura and John had found them here. And lost them.
None of it seemed real. The plane ride. This island. John’s death. I kept expecting to turn around and see him laughing at this latest great joke he’d pulled on us all. Closing my eyes, I could see his grin as he popped open the warped door of the old farmhouse he and Laura had rented back home in Happy Valley, one of the last Hippie enclaves dating from the 60s.
“Sue, Sue.” Holding me by the shoulders and shaking his head. “You’ve been holed up in that dusty old library again! Your brain looks tired.”
“So let’s go jogging tomorrow morning.”
“You’re on, sweet-cheeks! But hey, look at me, tell Professor Dad I’m brimming with responsibility. Got a J-O-B! So be heartless, you two, have fun while I slave.” And he was striding off to one of the brief checkpoints on his eclectic resume, leaving Laura to lead me to the back porch.
Her Earth Mother title was purely descriptive that afternoon. Basking in the August sun, large breasts bobbing in a peasant blouse, feet bare beneath an East-Indian print skirt, and long dark hair tumbling loose, Laura exuded lazy sensuality. She refilled my cup with her herbal brew as I admired her organic garden.
Leaves gleamed in the sun. Light and heat pooled, thickening, flooding me with shimmering waves as the plants exploded into riotous growth before my eyes, swelling with fruit and bloom. Their colors intensified to day-glo brilliance. My head swam dizzily.
Laura, shrugging: “What’s the big deal? Even you’ve smoked dope before, haven’t you? I brewed the tea from mushrooms I picked myself, it’s organic.”
I was floating, swooping through the air to perch among the wildly painted dahlias. They were swaying and dancing, grinning faces turned to mine. Together the blossoms and I crooned a medley of Disney tunes as Laura went twirling around the overgrown yard, skirt spinning, colors whirling. She danced, flinging off her clothes, then lay back in the tall grass.
“Wow.” I stared through the stems at her full breasts and the plump extra flesh pushing against pale skin in mounds and folds of a surreal landscape.
Laura’s dreamy voice drifted overhead. “Inner beauty . . . . Finding a natural balance . . . . Integrating dualities into a wholeness without needing manufactured rules and logic . . . .”
I finally connected the weird fleshscape with Laura’s voice. Naked sounded good, so I stripped in the hot sun, wriggled my toes, flowed into some slow Yoga stretches that melted me right down into the warm earth.
I was a tiny ant, staring up through the grass blades at two huge feet planted before me. It was the titanic Earth Goddess, feet growing out of the fertile soil and head cloud-distant. I’d studied Her names — Gaia, Pachamama, Inanna, Freya — but I’d never seen Her, felt Her massive power quaking through my bones. I gawked up at Her mountainous peaks and valleys in awe.
But it was Laura’s voice echoing down from those heights. “Flaunting it? You’ve got to transcend, Susie! Just can’t break free of the perfection trap, can you?” An immense arm lowered from on high, enormous finger pointing down at me. “It’s the pride trip, you think you’re immune because it’s all so easy for you, it’s like you don’t even notice you’ve got all the silver stars for teacher’s pet: Thin. Blonde. Track star. Magna cum laude. Daddy’s best girl, little brother’s idol.”
I was baffled. The giant Goddess was crying.
“Go on, be honest for once!” Her voice had gone shrill. “You can’t stand it that dumpy old Laura took John away, your darling golden-boy brother.”
Dismaying pity and shame stirred me as I crouched naked at her feet in the grass, shaking my head in confusion.
*she stirs, the sun behind her head, and she’s a dark, ominous silhouette looming over me, blotting out the sky*
“Uhn.” My head nodded heavily, and with a jolt I snapped upright, blinking in confusion at the shabby terminal. I twisted around on the bench, knocking over a plastic cup that hadn’t been sitting beside me a minute before. “What?” I fumbled for it as fruit and bright red juice sprayed across the floor. I retrieved the cup and peered into its sticky, pungent residue. Sharp shards, mixed with dark bits that looked like whiskers, glinted in the red puddle.
I touched them. Broken glass.
The bartender, emerging from his snores to my insistent shaking, threw his hands up, shook his head, swore on his mother’s soul he hadn’t seen anyone approach me with the doctored drink. “Be dey Rude boy, dey makin’ moh trouble here!” He hastily closed up the bar and disappeared. No one else around.
I threw the island’s notion of a prank into the garbage can. I needed a cold shower and some sleep. There had to be a phone where I could call Laura.
A red-painted line took me past plywood ticket counters and the roped-off corner where young boys in ragged T-shirts had stacked the baggage that hadn’t been misrouted. A few battered boxes and a shiny purple suitcase were the only remnants of the departed tourist horde. The red line died at the back of the building, where I pushed through metal swing doors to the pickup area.
Blinding glare, heat waves shimmering off cement under the fierce sun. A lone taxi minus driver baked in the dusty parking lot. The heat pulsed, closing around me like a voracious creature determined to suck away even the memory of coolness. I couldn’t get a proper breath.
And it was only February. Tightening a sweaty grip on my briefcase, I was heading back for the shade when a battered Jeep careened over the rutted road and jounced to a stop near the taxi.
The cab driver emerged from a cubbyhole off the loading area, throwing up his hands as the dust cloud defiled his glossy black paint job. “You be drivin’ dis ting like a crazy mon!” He jabbed a dark finger at the dented gray Jeep.
Its driver stopped bawling out an off-key rendition of “Stairway to Heaven,” pushed back a tumble of tawny hair, and vaulted over the side bar. He reached in back and produced two beer bottles, striding over to lean against the taxi hood. “Cool out, Joe. What’s happening?”
The cab owner flinched as the other man lounged against the gleaming paint in his faded shorts and T-shirt. He shrugged, flicked specks of dust from his immaculate trousers and white linen shirt, and accepted a beer.
“Same ol ting. I jus work all de time.”
“Car’s looking good.” He took a swig and poked his head through the window. “New tape system? Put out some sound?”
Joe’s impassive face was split by a white grin. “Is de bes.”
“Well, don’t keep that domino game waiting.”
Joe nodded and sauntered back through the dim doorway. The other man took a swallow of beer and strode toward me, stopping to size me up and down.
“Lost baggage?” He grinned through a short coppery-glinting beard. “No point waiting here, could be days. I’ll give you a ride into town after I pick up my stuff.”
“Thanks, but I —”
“No problem.” Halfway through the door, he turned back. “Want a beer? Cold ones in the back, help yourself. Here, hold this for me.”
He was gone and I was holding his half-full bottle. I looked down at it dazedly. I walked over to set it on the Jeep’s dashboard and headed back for the shade of the terminal. The tropic sun wasn’t kidding around. Time to call Laura.
As I reached the doorway, the man burst through with a large box balanced on one shoulder, a young native boy staggering sleepily behind with a smaller box.
“Ready to go?” He stopped and the boy bumped into him. With his free hand, he steered the boy forward and propelled him gently toward the Jeep.
“Look, you’re three or four scenes ahead of me here. Excuse me.” I made a move toward the door he was blocking.
He didn’t get the message. “If you need the bathroom, it’s over behind the bar. What happened to my beer?”
All I wanted was to get inside, out of the sun’s onslaught. He was planted tall and solid in the way, teeth flashing through the close-trimmed beard that set off just too nicely the kind of blunt, rough-hewn features that would have labeled a woman homely, but on a man broadcast sex appeal. He seemed to find me vastly amusing. I winced away from the glaring reflections off his mirrored shades, refocusing on a pair of muscular brown legs. This deep a suntan had to be overkill.
“Excuse me,” I repeated, edging around him. “I’m waiting for a friend.”
“Can’t do better than that?” He grinned. “Good luck with the baggage.”
He frowned then, pushing the sunglasses up over his hairline and giving me what seemed to be a suddenly puzzled scrutiny. His eyes glinted vivid blue with the intense sunlight. “Hey, don’t I —”
“No. Definitely not.” I moved around him toward the door.
He started to reach a hand, then shrugged and slipped the shades over his eyes. “I’d get out of this dive before dark if I were you. See you around, it’s a small island.”
Inside, I blew out a long breath, sucking in the marginally cooler air with relief. If my first minutes of the island were any indication, I’d have to take Pat MacIntyre’s warning seriously. The dull throb of an overheated headache was the worst threat I could cope with at the moment.
I finally found the phone, complete with a faded message scrawled on a dusty scrap of paper sack taped over the dial. Out of Order.
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