Jake awoke restless, nerves on edge like when his battalion was preparing for a sweep in Nam. The soft puffs of Betty’s snores punctuated the silence of the sleeping corridor. He slipped out of bed and padded across the cold floor to the hearth for his moccasins. A faint glow painted the sky outside the three windows. His heart pounded. Unless the light was peeking from under heavy rain clouds, he’d be setting sail today.
A sharp squawk from the direction of the table startled him. He whipped around. Gulls. Three of them. The beak of the largest opened into a wide V and emitted a hiss. He sat so he faced them and hurriedly assembled his moccasins. Eve or Crystal could take care of the birds. If the weather proved fair, he wanted every available second to be aimed at the journey, not gull-chasing.
He circled to the cave door and raised it. The gulls repositioned to follow his path but didn’t leave the table. He crawled outside, tipping his face upward to determine his destiny.
He got to his feet and gawked at the sky. No gray overcast. No dark clouds. Only a scattering of feathery, white ones against a brassy sky. Yet he could feel the drop in atmospheric pressure—a sure sign a storm was on its way.
He climbed to the plateau above the cave to see what an ocean view might tell him. A gust of wind tossed dried leaves and twigs at his head as he accessed the top. Kindling and some of the larger sticks lay scattered over the ground. He blinked. Eve’s tidy stack of wood was in disarray.
Worse, there was no sailcloth covering it.
He spun around to scan the trench and minefield for where the wind might have dropped the sail. Nothing. He raced to the other side of the plateau. No sign of the sail on the ocean either.
He was sure he had secured the sail last night, tightly enough that the wind shouldn’t have dislodged it. The wind was strong, but certainly nothing unusual for the monsoon. How could this have happened?
The answer walloped him in the stomach. Eve!
He dashed back down to the cave. The gulls squawked and flapped their wings but stayed on the table. He checked the sleeping ledges. His was closest to the chamber, then Eve’s and Betty’s and Crystal’s. Only Betty and Crystal were in their beds. He checked the other six ledges. All of them were empty.
And a life vest was missing.
Betty rose to her elbow. “Gulls again? I was trying to ignore them.”
“Eve’s gone. And so is the sail.”
“Oh, Lord, no!” She sat up. “What’s the weather like?”
“Clear skies and a strong wind. She’ll think that’s a good sign, but I can tell a storm is coming. There’s a low pressure front. And the sky’s a funny color.”
“Surely she’d turn back when she saw the rain clouds.”
“There aren’t any. Just little white ones.”
Betty’s hand flew to her throat. “Take me outside, Jake. I don’t like the sound of this!”
“Can’t. I’ve got to go after her.”
“No, wait! If this is what I think it is from my travels, she’s in big trouble. You need to know.”
He huffed at the delay but picked her up and carried her past the complaining gulls to the cave door. They crawled outside.
“Do you want me to take you to the plateau?”
“No need to, Jake. That sky says typhoon. That’s why those gulls are inside. They’re looking for shelter.”
He took off running.
* * *
Stepping from the jungle onto the beach where Betty and Crystal had landed, Jake drew in a startled breath. Dark clouds camped the sky like a bivouacked army. Beneath it, the ocean was heavy and rolling, restless with suppressed energy. The wind whipped inland, rattling the leaves on the trees. Surely Eve had caught the warning and sailed back to the island. Or maybe he was right behind her and could stop her before she left.
The noise of the coastline had changed. No gulls rode the air currents. The surf’s steady lap was now a rough swash foaming at the beach’s edge. Palm fronds clattered in combat. The heaviness of imminent danger permeated the air like an invisible fog. It pressed against his skin and clogged his lungs.
He ran along the edge of the beach, straining to see any movement on the ocean’s surface. If Eve had made it out there, she must be attempting to return. The wind by itself would sweep her in. Or had the current caught her and was dragging her out to sea?
Halfway down the beach, the strength of the wind forced him to retreat to the tree line. He moved from tree to tree, mooring himself against the gusts. It would get worse as the center of the typhoon got closer. The wind was strong now, but not yet vicious. Typhoons advanced slowly, at a rate of seven to ten miles per hour. If he could find Eve, they could still get back to the cave before the worst of the storm hit.
Rain broke from the clouds and sliced bullets into the sand. His heart sank when he arrived at the four sticks marking the murdered sailor’s grave. Sure enough, the boat was gone. A path of disturbed sand showed where Eve had tugged the lighter to the ocean.
There wasn’t much he could do now. Except keep looking. He couldn’t give up until it was clear she hadn’t survived. If the current had caught her, she wouldn’t be too far out. She could still make it back to shore.
The beach ended, and he entered the jungle. He’d traveled the boggy terrain five times now, two of them to haul bamboo for the outrigger. One time he’d ended up in the quagmire of the swamp. His hair stood on end at the memory of the crocs he’d run into. No doubt they were instinctively quiescent in the threat of a typhoon, but the ones he had seen were big guys. He didn’t want to put their appetites to the test.
At the next beach, he fought the wind and rain to inspect the shoreline for the boat. The gale was pushing harder now, probably forty miles an hour. He staggered forward a step at a time. He couldn’t see worth spit, but he was sure he was on the beach at the southernmost tip of the island. It was where he had dragged Eve ashore when he rescued her from the ocean. God had saved them from being swept out to sea then. Please, God, save her again.
He all but stumbled over the lighter. It was on its side, half submerged by the waves pounding the beach. The left outrigger was gone, and the one on the right was broken. The sail was still attached, but the mast was broken in two. Both oars were missing.
He searched around the vessel for Eve, then extended his hunt up and down the beach. Had she made it to shore with the boat, or …? He swallowed back the thought.
“Eve!” He hollered until his throat hurt. His voice was no challenge to the gale whipping about him, but he kept at it. He plodded up and down the shoreline, tunneling through the wind, examining the churning waves pummeling the beach. His stomach was leaden when he returned to the boat and inverted it. His heart sank further when he saw the crack down the lighter’s middle. He ran his fingertips over it. Numb as they were, he could still feel the split was beyond repair. The boat would probably break in two just hauling it up to the tree line.
He wrestled the waterlogged sail off and tugged it backwards over the sand toward the thrashing palm trees. Anger and grief wrestled in his gut. Anger with God for not protecting Eve; grief for the loss of her life. Anger with Eve for taking things into her own hands; grief for his failure to realize that of course she’d do that.
He entered the tree line and hunted for a place to stow the sail. Wet and heavy as it was, there was no way he could lug it back to the cave. The challenge of making it back there himself was increasing with every passing minute.
Shaking with cold, he returned to the beach to orient himself. The storm-tossed ocean frothed like a rabid dog, leaping and snarling at the black clouds overhead. The wind beat at the trees with a thousand fists and shrieked at their resistance. His legs and knees trembled. Never had he seen power like this.
He spun around. “Eve?”
Was the wind fooling him? But, no, there she was, a short distance off, sitting with her back against a tree. She was slumped to one side, arms and legs sprawled, wet hair plastered against her head and face. Her hands, knees, and the lower half of her legs were caked with sand from crawling to the tree.
He ran to her and stood, heart pounding, gazing in disbelief. With all his might he wanted to grab her and shake her. Hard. “What were you were doing, taking off like that? I told you I’d—”
“It wasn’t your call, Jake.” Her face reddened, and her shout flamed as hot as his. “It was mine.”
“Yours? I don’t recall that decision.”
“Do you recall I said no? That was my decision. You always assume yours overrides mine.”
Acid scalded the back of his throat. “Do you realize there’s a typhoon coming? Thanks to your uninformed decision, the boat is damaged beyond repair. We now have no way off this island you were so eager to leave.”
The tightness in Eve’s face deflated. She turned her head to the side and vomited what looked like a stomach full of salt water. For the first time, he saw the walnut-sized bump on her forehead.
“You’re hurt.” He knelt beside her and examined the lump. “Do you have any other injuries?”
She shook her head. “Not that I know of. I was thrown out of the boat. My head struck the edge.”
He looked her over for other signs of damage. The life vest had afforded at least some protection to her vital organs. “Everything okay in there?” He tapped the vest.
“Can you walk?”
“A little ways.” She let him help her to her feet.
“How about a long ways? We want to get back before the full force of the typhoon hits.”
“I can’t. Let’s just go inland and wait it out.”
“Inland is croc land.”
She shook her head in obvious exasperation. “Okay, Colonel. You go your way, I’ll go mine.”
Flames bit the back of his throat again. “I didn’t come here to leave you in the middle of a typhoon.”
“Did I ask you to come? You can stop being a hero, Jake. Stop trying to save me.” She leaned against the tree and slid back to a sitting position. “I’m staying here.”
Before he knew what he was doing, he grabbed her by the shoulders and pulled her to her feet. “If you thought your nightmare about wolves was bad, listen to the howling of that wind! That’s what you need to be afraid of! That’s what’s chasing us, and, like it or not, you are going with me!”
Her head rolled, and she vomited again. He stepped aside to avoid the spew but didn’t let go of her. She straightened to a wobbly stand, clutching his arms. Her fingers were ice against his skin.
“Wolves?” She laughed weakly. “Okay, Jake. I’ll go. At least you came, didn’t you?”
His anger fizzled at the reminder of the other part of her dream. Her father had failed her. Of course she wouldn’t trust easily. Life had taught her to look out for herself because no one else would.
“I’m here”—he softened his voice —“and we’re going to help each other, okay? Lean against my back and reach around to clasp your hands at my waist.” He rotated and felt her body slump against his spine. He reached back, grabbed her hands, and brought them together at his belt buckle. “Atta girl. Now match your steps to mine. It will take both of us to fight that wind. Both of us, you hear?”
Her answer was slurred. “Both of ush? That makes ush both colonels, you know.”
Oh boy. That hit to the head really rang her bell. He dared a step forward and felt her chest heave. A spread of warmth pooled onto his back. The pungent odor of stomach contents whisked forward with the wind.
He folded her hands under his and took the next step. “No way, lady. I just now got promoted to General.”
* * *
They staggered through flailing vegetation to avoid the worst of the wind while still keeping the beach in sight. More than he feared the storm, he feared the crocs. He hadn’t thought to bring one weapon with him. And now he had to haul Eve’s almost deadweight straight through the edge of the beasts’ territory.
The beach ended, and he had no choice but to cross the patch of jungle leading to the next beach. Croc land. Nervous sweat dripped from his armpits, replacing the pelting rain.
The path he’d hewn on his previous trips lay submerged in water. After several ankle-deep steps, he stopped. Eve was slipping down his back. If he had to run, her dragging feet wouldn’t just slow him; they’d be a handle for croc teeth.
“Eve, I need you to put your arms over my shoulders.” He crouched, scooting her higher onto his back as she flopped one arm and then the other onto either side of his neck. He grasped her forearms at his shoulders and stood. Her feet fluttered helplessly against the backs of his calves.
“Can’t walk,” she protested.
“You can walk when we get to the next beach. Right now I want you to keep an eye out for crocs.”
“Like that one?” She slapped her left elbow against his shoulder.
He swiveled in a half-turn. A blur of gray parted the reeds at a distance in a dead aim for them.
Adrenalin jump-started him into a run that would have won the gold medal in the one hundred meters. The hurdles too. He pumped muscle, leaped fallen branches, and ran like he’d never run before.
Only you can’t outrun a croc in its own territory.
The thought sank in as his chest squeezed out the last molecule of oxygen in his lungs. He inhaled desperately, mouth wide, throat burning. He toppled to his knees and let go of Eve to break his fall.
Eve's shriek matched the wind's. Her nails scratched through his shirt as she slid down his back. God, no! The croc had her!
He scrambled to his feet and whirled, still gasping, to face the beast. Eve lay on the path, struggling to get to her knees, swiping mud off her face. There was no croc.
He didn’t wait to see why. “Run!” He swept her up, heaved her over his shoulder, and staggered forward. Ten steps and the wind hurled them off his feet. Sand, coconuts, and palm fronds assaulted them as he fell. They had reached the beach.
Eve answered him with a groan and dry heaves.
He barely had enough energy to drag her out of missile range. He set her down and slumped against a palm, facing inland toward the bog while he caught his breath. A pile of coconuts next to him was ammunition in case of a croc invasion, though he doubted the reptiles would venture out this far. Not with a typhoon working up its own appetite.
“We’ve got to go. We still have time.” The rest of the journey would be a piece of cake compared to this.
The fury of the storm hit as they approached the ocean cliff. The path he’d created around it proved no protection. They went inland into unfamiliar territory, where the canopy battled the storm for them. Except for the howl of the wind and the tremor of the trees, there was no sign of life. The monkeys and other canopy-dwellers had fled. Exhausted, Jake fell asleep, cushioning Eve’s head on his thigh.
The quiet woke him. He roused Eve. “The eye is here. We’ve got to get down to the cove before the typhoon hits again.”
The nap had done Eve as much good as it had him. Although still woozy, she insisted on stumbling after him, leaving him free to hunt the trail he had marked. They emerged at the top of the ocean cliff and gazed with astonishment at the clear sky forming a crystal blue dome over beaches strewn with debris and fallen trees. The ocean, however, strained in huge waves that said the storm wasn’t over.
“The eye won’t last long.” He forced himself to keep a pace Eve could match. “We’d better get to the cove before the wind starts up again. We don’t want it to catch us on that open field.”
The descent proved too much for Eve’s shaky legs. He helped her climb step by step down the rocky path to the stream. They paused for a drink, but it didn’t stay in Eve’s stomach. She hung her head and gasped shallow breaths.
“We’re almost there,” he soothed her. “Just a few more steps.”
At the trench, she collapsed. He carried her the rest of the way to Betty and Crystal’s welcoming arms. She was out cold, and his stomach buzzed with worry that she had internal injuries.
Eve shrank from the coconut shell of sea chowder Betty thrust in her face. “No thanks.” Her stomach lurched at the reminder of ocean water scouring salt up her esophagus the whole trip back from the boat yesterday. She’d slept all day, but tonight, as soon as everyone joined her at the hearth, she wanted to apologize for wrecking the boat—and their best chance to leave the island. Her failure sat heavily on her stomach, as bitter as the salt the ocean had forced down her throat.
“You haven’t eaten anything all day.” The shell teetered as Betty set it at Eve’s feet.
“Can’t.” How could she, when Romero’s trial would proceed without her now? Everyone thought she was dead.
Crystal approached and with a loud clatter dumped an armload of wood onto the floor. She sighed heavily and sat to feed the branches one at a time into the fire. “I’m bored. Jake, can you finish telling us the story about you and Ginny?”
“Don’t pester him, child.” Betty lowered herself into the chair next to Crystal and yawned.
The yawn meant Betty would be heading to bed in minutes. If Eve were going to apologize, she’d better do it now.
But she couldn’t roll the two ton rock off her chest. She gazed glumly at the coals sparking red in the intermittent gusts from the windows. None of the others had a stake in the boat like she did. What did they care, really? Only she had a reason to get back home. Frustration pinched her stomach.
“I don’t mind, Betty. I like talking about Ginny.” Jake took a seat on the other side of Eve and put his bare feet on the hearth’s edge. The four of them sat side-by-side so the caldron afforded some protection from the wind and rain whistling through the windows.
Jake stretched his arms toward the coals and wiggled his fingers. “I told you about our time at the fair. Ginny never would date me, but we became good friends. I found every excuse I could to be with her. I sat next to her in school, walked down the hall with her between classes, asked to study with her for exams. I even drove all the way out to where she lived to help with odd jobs around the place. Her father was an inventor and was often away on business. There was always something I could do. I had a schoolboy’s crush and was madly in love with her. I was sure that somehow I would find a way to win her.”
He withdrew his arms to his sides. “Then tragedy struck. At the beginning of Ginny’s senior year, both her parents died in an accident. Her only surviving relative was her grandmother, who was in a nursing home.”
“Poor thing,” Betty murmured.
“Did Ginny have to move away?” Crystal stopped poking the fire to wait for Jake’s answer.
“No. Permission was given for her to live with a family that belonged to her church so she could complete her senior year.” Jake fell silent.
“Let me guess.” Betty leaned forward in her chair to peer at him. “It changed things between you and Ginny.”
“Yes. The Millers—the family she lived with—were stricter than her parents had been and didn’t want us getting together outside of school. When it was time to leave for college, Ginny told me it was best not to see each other or even correspond.”
“That stinks!” Crystal jabbed a branch at the coals.
“I told her I loved her and wanted to marry her. But she said our relationship could go nowhere and now was a good time to end it. I was crushed, but what could I do? I went on to college and concentrated on my studies and athletic scholarship. I did my best to forget her. Then, in my sophomore year, I roomed in a dorm suite with three guys on my wrestling team, and guess what?”
Crystal giggled. “I know. They were all Christians.”
“You’re right. God used them to wrestle me to the mat and pin me. I asked Jesus to be my Savior and turned my life over to Him.”
Eve suppressed a groan.
“So you called Ginny and finally got together?” Betty grinned at her guess.
“Nope. I figured God had firmly closed the door on any romance between us. But as it turned out, Ginny was meant to be part of my life after all. My father died of cancer while I was in college. Ginny came to his funeral and I told her I’d become a Christian.”
Jake’s voice broke. “My dad was the best. He’d have been happy to know he brought Ginny and me together.”
Eve squirmed at the grief in his voice. The ache pinching her stomach catapulted into her heart. Except now the pain wasn’t about missing the trial. It was about something worse. Something far worse. She quelled a sob that rose to her throat.
“I’m turning in.” Jake rose abruptly to his feet. His chair rocked backwards. He righted it and left without another word.
Crystal and Betty gazed in silence at the fire. Seconds later, they followed him, bidding Eve good-night.
She eased the bumpy route of her pain with a deep sigh. Well, so much for apologizing about the boat. Didn’t matter. There’d be lots more nights they’d sit around with nothing to do, thanks to her. The apology wouldn’t mean much to them, anyway. Once the typhoon hit, Jake and Betty had resigned themselves to waiting out the monsoon season. If anything, they would try to console her, maybe ask questions about why she’d been so determined to attend this mysterious court date.
Should she just tell them everything, come clean now that they’d be stuck together for who knew how many months?
The pain scuttled back to her stomach. And have Jake hate her day after day all those months? How many times had he rescued her? Each one would be a knife in his heart that he hadn’t saved his wife but had saved the person behind his wife’s death. Eve slumped forward and wrapped her arms around her chest.
No, if he was this emotional about his father’s death from more than twenty years ago, he certainly wasn’t going to be understanding about the circumstances of Ginny’s death. The only reasonable course of action was to bide her time until they got off the island.
The ache snaked back to her heart, jolting the emotion aroused by Jake’s unfinished story. Something . . . She swallowed as the ache crept up and squeezed her throat. Something about Jake and his father. The respect, the tenderness that had choked Jake’s voice . . . She clapped her hands over her face. Her father. It was about her father.
She hated him.
The pain twisted inside her like a buried dagger, scarred over but never removed. She had pushed it away and pushed it away, put it out of her mind, interred it in a tomb of forgetfulness. But it was still there.
She sat up, ramrod straight. All right, then, it was time to deal with the issue. Get over it. Move on.
She clenched her teeth. At the boat yesterday, Jake had brought up her dream. That was her clue. The ache thudded heartbeats in her ears as she forced herself to think through the nightmare. Wolves. Wolves caught her. Were they her father, something he had done? No. The answer was solid, sure. The tightness in her throat loosened.
What, then? Again, with equal clarity, the answer asserted itself: not what he’d done, but what he hadn’t done. Some way he hadn’t been there for her. Some way he had abandoned her. Rejected her for something else.
Bile curdled at the back of her throat. What? she yelled at herself. She placed herself on the witness stand—young, a child, maybe Crystal’s age. What? she yelled at her. The child cowed. She was only scaring her with the yelling. What? she pleaded. The child stared back with blank eyes. She wasn’t going to tell. Couldn’t tell. The child couldn’t see what the “what” was.
Eve stood up. Sweat coated her skin. Her body shook. It’s okay, she soothed the child. It’s okay that you don’t know. It will come. She felt that with certainty. The answer would come.
The island would give it to her.
* * *
Jojo walked down to the harbor in Manila and sat on a piling. Sea gulls circled the dock, squawking. Pools of captured ocean water and dead seaweed dotted the beachfront. The smell of the ocean was strong, freshly released from the turmoil that had battered the harbor and the city beyond it.
Exhilaration pounded his nerves. The first typhoon of the season had come and gone. The power, the relentless violence, was his power too. Four more months it would build. And build. Build until the monsoon ended, and he took his first step. With spring would come the big, fancy yachts to fill the empty slips in the marina. This year he would examine each slick vessel until the right one came along. This year, for sure, he’d find it and make it his. This year he was ready.
The harbor had become his at age six. He’d sat on the wharf and kicked his legs and waited. Waited for his father. His mother had described him. Tall, with wavy blond hair, handsome like Clint Eastwood. And rich. His stomach squeezed with excitement. A rich americano with a big, fancy, white yacht.
She told the story over and over, how she had waited on the handsome man in the bar of the restaurant he and his friends frequented. She was young and slim then, with large, brown eyes that gazed yearningly after him. She’d had all her teeth then, too, and they were white like oyster pearls. Whenever the Americano looked at her, she smiled. At last, he invited her to come aboard his big boat to tend bar at a bash he gave for his friends.
When the party was over, he came to her drunk and paid her for her services. It hadn’t been hard to end up in his bed. She didn’t stay until morning because she didn’t want the crew to find her, but when she went back after work, the beautiful boat was gone. Nine months later, Jojo was born. Stupid woman, she didn’t even know the name of his father. But he’d come back. And he’d recognize his son. His mother said they looked just like each other in the face.
But not any more. Jojo ran his beefy hand over the stubble on his cheeks and chin. His mother said he was ugly with his face cut up and scarred. Six of his teeth were knocked out in prison brawls.
So what. His father wasn’t coming for him.
And that didn’t matter either. Jojo flicked his tongue over his lips. He couldn’t have a father, but he could have a yacht.
He had two of the crew picked out to run the boat. And he had the island picked out to hide on—right at the outermost edge of the Philippines, complete with a cove to hide in.
This year he was ready.
THIS COMPLETES PART 1 OF STRANDED. WE HOPE YOU ENJOYED IT!
STRANDED (PART 1 & PART 2) IS NOW FOR SELL FOR $2.99 ON AMAZON AT http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00OQGJBUY