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Friday, September 19, 2014


Chapter 12

White lightning slashed Jake into consciousness. He opened his eyes to blinding brightness. Silence stuffed his ears. He blinked, and beach and sky appeared. The noise of gulls, ocean breakers and flapping palm fronds clicked on at full blast. What had happened? His left cheek stung as if touched by an electric wire. He rubbed it gingerly and sat up.

Crystal huddled nearby, eyes wide, body motionless, as if watching Lazarus rise from the dead.

He must have passed out. The last thing he remembered was telling Crystal about the human toaster. Had it worked? A few feet away, Betty and Eve lay stretched out against each other, sound asleep.

He got to his feet and stumbled to the women. Betty was snoring, but Eve’s chest wasn’t moving. He touched her neck and found her skin warm, her pulse strong. Evidently a shallow breather. Her fingers and hands were blanched and wrinkled from the water. Her feet too. No shoes. No calluses on her toes and heels. He shook his head. Those pampered feet were going to have a tough go of it.

The sun was sinking behind the island. How long had he been out, anyway?

He glanced back at Crystal. She hadn’t stirred. Mighty unusual for her. “What happened? I must have fallen asleep.”

“I slapped you.”

“You—” He stopped. “That’s what woke me up?”

Crystal’s nod was barely perceptible. Her body hunched into a tighter wad.

Cry Baby Crystal had slapped him? Jake rubbed his cheek, hiding his smile. The kid had really whopped him one. That explained why she was sitting there knotted up like that.

“Which was harder, smacking me or the snake?”

Crystal’s lips twitched. “You.” She grinned and her shoulders relaxed. “You wouldn’t wake up.”

“Looks like you did a good job with the human toaster while I slept.”

“They won’t wake up either.” Crystal pinched the skin on the back of her hand and held it up for Jake to observe. “We need coconut juice. I looked but I couldn’t find any—only a dead animal covered with flies.” The corners of her mouth crinkled downward.

“Tell you what. Eve has immersion foot. How about if you massage her hands and feet while I get some coconuts for us?”

“Immersion foot? Ewww!” Crystal slipped her hands behind her back. “What’s that?”

“She was in the cold water so long the blood stopped circulating in her hands and feet. If we don’t get it going again, she won’t be able to use them. Ever.” Disfigured face, useless hands and feet. Would she wish he’d left her in the ocean? Tightness squeezed his chest.

He sat and lifted Eve’s right foot. “Start gently, using the palms of your hands to squeeze, like you were flattening Silly Putty.” 

Crystal crept next to him and sat, folding her legs in an X in front of her. She grasped Eve’s left foot.

“Then, before your hands get tired, press harder and use your fingertips.”

“My hands are already tired.”

“Count to ten, then shake your fingers out.” Jake shifted to Eve’s right hand. “Let’s do the same thing with her hands. Squeeze each finger ten times like they’re in hot dog buns, then rest and go back to her feet.”

“Okay, but I’m thirsty.”

“Right.” Not a marathon runner here. He rose on stiffened legs. “One coconut shake coming up.”

Before he’d taken ten steps up the beach, Crystal was asleep. He hesitated. The shadows had deepened, and a murmur of animal life seeped from the densely packed trees. He should shake Betty awake to keep watch. Or he could hurry and pray nothing bad would happen.

* * *
   
Eve opened her eyes. Her vision flitted like a bird caught in a storm, seeking a place to land. It tumbled onto a blur and focused. A man. Sunburned face, scraggly whiskers, two jagged scars on his right cheek. Alarm spat electricity across her nerves.

Quick, get away! Run! She tried to move, but her head spun so that she teetered at the edge of a dark chasm.

“Hey, you okay?”

The voice brought her back to the man. He sat cross-legged next to where she lay. Way too close. Course dark hair lay on sand-crusted legs barely inches from her face. She jerked her head away. The movement tingled life down her spine and into her limbs.

Wait—he was holding her hand? She whipped it away. “What are you doing?”

“You’ve got immersion foot. I’m massaging your hand to get the circulation back.”

“Don’t touch me!” Run! Hide! She tried to wriggle away from him, but her body parts lay in a disconnected heap. Her mind swirled, dragging her into the depths of a black whirlpool. No! She fought back. Not with this man here. 

Concentrate. She willed herself to grasp the jagged edge of consciousness, to pull herself over its razor-sharp lip. Breathe. Think. Where was she?

She gulped a lungful of air and risked a glance away from the man. Sand. She was lying flat on her back on a stretch of sand. The rhythmic crash of ocean breakers broke into her consciousness. A beach? She wrenched her attention back to the man. What was going on? She struggled to sit up.

The man sat immobile. When she collapsed, he spoke, his voice soft against the ocean’s rumble. “Betty and Crystal are here. Look to my left and you can see them.”

Betty and Crystal? The memory dropped like a bomb. She’d fallen off the lighter—had swum after them, screaming, yelling, pleading for them to hear. Horror at her abandonment gripped her anew. She gasped to breathe.

“They’re right over there, see?”

She turned her head. Betty and Crystal lay nestled nearby, eyes closed, heads pillowed side by side on a yellow life vest.

The grip on her throat loosened, and air seeped back into her lungs. Safe. They were all safe. She peered up at the man. "Jake Chalmers. Your wife—” Hadn’t she worn a life vest too?

“She didn’t make it.” The words scraped in a whisper from his throat.

Didn’t make it? The words cut into her soul. Ginny—dead, trapped in an explosion meant to kill Evedene Eriksson. Sobs crammed her chest.

“I have some coconut juice here. How about if you take a swallow.” Without waiting for an answer, Jake scooted closer and raised her head. With his free hand he picked up a coconut pierced at one end and held it over her mouth. “Can you stick out your tongue?”

She winced as her tongue touched her lips. “My mouth—”

“Your lips are swollen from sun poisoning. We’ll try not to touch them. Just a bit of juice now.” He tilted the coconut until it dribbled a dab onto her tongue. “Atta girl.”

The drop of liquid crystallized into salt. Her tongue was coated with it. She swallowed the bitter saliva and panted to keep from vomiting it up.

“More? Gets better as the salt dissolves.”

She nodded reluctantly and stuck out her tongue. In between swallows she breathed deeply, willing her stomach to settle, closing her eyes until the black whirlpool threatened and she popped them open again.

“Good enough. Let’s give it a rest.” Jake lowered her head and took her hand. He kneaded her fingers. “Can you feel that?”

“Yes.” She squirmed. “Pins and needles in my fingertips.”

“Good. Betty and Crystal and I are taking turns massaging your hands and feet. By tomorrow you should be okay.”

Tomorrow? She turned her head for another glimpse of the beach, absorbing the fact that the sun had set and a gray gauze of twilight clung to the sky. Behind her a bird chattered. She pivoted her head toward it. Was that the howl of monkey in the distance? A breeze fluttered the shadowy fronds of a line of palm trees, and she caught the faint scent of flowers.

“Where are we?”

“An island, probably on the edge of the Philippines. Appears to be uninhabited. We’ll check it out tomorrow.”

The Romero trial. It jumped out at her like a jack-in-the-box. “I need to get off.”

Jake squinted his right eye and raised his left eyebrow. “We aren’t staying any longer than we have to.”

“I mean there’s a—” She halted. Should she talk about the Romero trial? What if she slipped and mentioned Captain Emilio in connection with it? Jake would figure out she was the target of the explosions. All those passengers, Ginny, dead. But the target escaped. The target lived.

She coughed. “I’m sorry. I’m confused. I—how did I get here?”

Jake switched to massaging her other hand, and she stifled a yelp at the pinpricks.

“Betty and Crystal landed here this morning, then I swam in from a piece of wreckage. We spotted you in the current and fished you out.”

“You weren’t in one of the lighters with the rest of us. How—?”

“Captain Emilio forced me overboard at gunpoint. I swam out to save Ginny, but …” Jake's lower lip jerked. He paused. “But I was too late.”

The sobs beat hard fists against her lungs again. Jake turned fierce eyes on her, and the fists froze.

“There’s a man out there who murdered nineteen people.” Jake’s eyes, weighted with pain, blazed into hers. “He made sure I saw it. Made sure I saw him raise his hand and give the signal to detonate those explosions. Made sure I knew my wife was on board one of those lighters.” He stopped, and the air hurled out of his lungs like a category five hurricane. He flared his nostrils and gasped in a fresh storm, his chest shaking.

“Nineteen people. They never had a chance.” His jaw tightened, accentuating the two pale scars on his sunburnt cheek. “Captain Emilio thinks he killed twenty-three, but four of us escaped.” His eyes bored into Eve’s. “And that, Eva Gray, will be his downfall.”

Eva Gray. She shuddered. That name was key to why nineteen people had lost their lives. Until they got off this island, she must make sure Jake never found out. 

CONTINUED ON MONDAY-TUESDAY

Thursday, September 18, 2014

STRANDED, Chapter 11


Chapter 11

Jake’s euphoria snapped like a broken wishbone. He’d lost Eve. He stared dumbly at his empty hands. Go back and get her. He could do it. That was all that mattered, wasn’t it? To do what he couldn’t do before—to save a life instead of letting it slip away as if it were inconsequential pocket change? He lowered himself into the jostling breakers to turn around, but his legs sprawled helplessly and he barely caught his breath before his head plunged beneath the surface.

“Jake!”

The shout brought him up sputtering. Ginny? He could do it—he could save her.

Heaving against gravity, he lurched to his feet to return to the ocean. A wavering blob on his left came into focus. Crystal—yelling at him, tugging a caravan of life vests.

Eve? He blinked in confusion.

The youngster stopped in the shallow water, leaned over Eve’s head, and grasped her under the arms. Crystal’s blue shirt and shorts plastered her thin frame. She must have waded in after Eve. Gratitude choked Jake’s throat. But why was the child’s face scrunched like that?

Crystal’s wail slapped him like an open hand to the cheek. Blood rushed to his head, stinging his face. Noooo! Eve. She was dead …

He cried out and smashed through the waves to them. The life vests had wedged Eve’s body into the wet sand at the edge of the beach. Her head was tilted back, her eyes open and vacant.

“Her face,” Crystal blubbered. Her fingers lost hold of Eve’s arms, and she plopped onto her backside.

Her face? Crystal was crying about Eve’s face? Jake dropped to his knees beside them. He raised Eve’s head and pressed his fingertips against her neck. His breath untangled from the knot in his chest. “She’s alive.”

Crystal clambered to her feet. “But, but what happened to her face?”

Her voice shook with horror. Did she think fish had been nibbling on Eve, eating her alive? He could see why. “It’s sunburned, that’s all. There’s nothing to cry about.”

Crystal stepped back as if he’d smacked her. An even louder yowl crashed against his ears.

He sagged. Great, she’d taken his words as a rebuke instead of as comfort. Seizing her hand, he drew her back to him. “Hey, I meant she’s going to be okay. You’re her friend, aren’t you? How about if you call her and see if she replies?”

Crystal drew in a shaky breath while he shifted Eve into a sitting position. Averting her eyes from both Jake and Eve, she dropped to her knees beside them. A wave trickled across the  wet sand and batted her legs. She dangled her fingers in the foam, the corners of her mouth twitching into a frail smile.

How long since she’d last played like a normal kid? A twinge of guilt pinched Jake. His wasn’t the only world that had turned upside down.

“Eve?” Crystal’s voice quavered. She peeked to see if Eve responded, then glanced at Jake. She called again, louder, her voice shrill against the backdrop of tumbling breakers. After her third attempt, Jake closed Eve’s eyes against the burning sun. 

“She’s out cold. We’ve got to warm her up, fast.”

Crystal hunched her shoulders and rubbed her arms. “We could bury her in the sand. It’s nice and hot.”

“Scorching hot, don’t you think? That’s what my bare feet say. How about if we use a human toaster instead?”

The high pitch of Crystal’s voice cascaded into a giggle. “What’s that?”

“Did Betty come with you? I need both of you for the toaster.”
  
Crystal pointed at the jungle encroaching the back of the beach. A bundle under the shade of a stumpy tree raised a slender arm and waved. “Aunt Betty said you’d make it, and you did.”

Jake’s chin quivered. An old lady with a snakebite and a scared youngster known as a crybaby had tromped through sand and vegetation to be with him. He wasn’t with the one person in the world he wanted to be with, but how good of God that he wasn’t all alone either.

He blinked away the pricking in his eyes and stood, half lifting Eve. His legs wobbled and he sank into a crouch. No way he was going to carry Eve to Betty.

He shaded his eyes and squinted at Crystal. “I need your help again. You game?”

Crystal’s prompt grin, spreading white teeth across a face burned almost as badly as Eve’s, squeezed his heart. The kid had the wail of a foghorn, but the brightness of a sunbeam.

“We’re going to slide Eve across the hot sand on these life vests. I’ll pull her by her legs while you hold up her head, okay?”

Crystal’s mouth and eyes rounded into startled circles. Was it the idea of touching Eve’s head?

“Her face is a stomach-turner, isn’t it?” Might as well face the facts as run from them. He stood and tugged Eve onto the beach. “She’ll never recover if we don’t get her out of this sun. You ready?”

Was he? The long swim towing Eve had drained him, and here he was going to do it again, only over a sea of blazing sand. But to rest would be to penalize Eve. He’d make it. The journey’s end was as good as within spitting distance.

He clasped Eve’s legs under his armpits so that he faced Betty, and leaned into a mule-harnessed pull. He didn’t look back, but a jerk on Eve’s body followed by a piggy half-squeal-half-grunt told him Crystal was on board.

Halfway to Betty, the sand bit his bare feet with sizzling teeth. No leaping his way over the coals this time. It was all he could do to put one foot in front of the other. If he ever ended up in the ocean again, he’d stow his shoes in his pockets.

The heat crackled up from his bare toes to his tongue. How long since he’d drunk that coconut juice? Stomach acid pitched flames into his mouth and scorched the back of his throat. Every breath of air was a chore to inhale and exhale. Exhaustion pressed against his face from the inside like a balloon ready to burst.

And then, there was Betty reaching out to him, guiding him with her tiny hands on his arm into the shade.

“You’re a hero, Jake. You saved her!” Betty’s eyebrows rippled into a funny crook as she peered up at him.

A hero? He’d done it? He crashed onto the sand, dumping Eve’s legs.

Betty and Crystal rushed to his side. Why were they undulating like that, mouths moving, no sound?

“Hug her,” he blurted, gesturing at Eve. His mind jumbled the words on his tongue. “You two, toaster … Eve, bread between.” His words came out like teeth pulled with pliers.

His eyelids quivered shut. Had he made sense?

* * *

Crystal shrieked as Jake’s eyes rolled to the back of his sockets and his eyelids slid shut. Aunt Betty glared at her, lips squeezed in that cut-the-nonsense look Crystal hated. She clenched her bottom lip between her teeth to keep from crying. But she’d never seen eyeballs swivel like that—it was awful, like they weren’t attached any more.

A shiny green fly with bulging red eyes and translucent wings landed on Jake’s mouth and scuttled across the tire tread of his lips. Noooooo! Hadn’t she learned in science class that flies spit saliva on the spot they want to eat?

“Scat!” Aunt Betty flapped her hands above Jake’s face. The fly buzzed away, circled several times, and finally disappeared. Betty placed four fingers to the side of Jake’s Adam’s apple. “He’s okay. Poor guy only swam half the ocean to get Eve here.”

Aunt Betty removed her hand, and Crystal slipped her fingertips onto the four white splotches fading from Jake’s sunburnt neck. His pulse thumped against her third fingertip, and she giggled. It was as if that big, green fly had snuck under his skin and was trying to shove her finger away.

“His skin’s burning.” Betty reached over and grasped Eve’s ankle. “And she’s cold as ice. Let’s get her out of those vests and slide her and Jake together to help each other out.”

Crystal was good at untying knots. She had the two vests off Eve’s thighs before Aunt Betty finished untying her one knot. Together they rolled Eve onto one shoulder and then onto the other to free her of the vest on her chest.

“No sense trying to move Jake. Let’s bring Eve to him.” Betty stooped to Eve’s head and seized her shoulders. Crystal joined her, and they shoved, tugged, and pulled on Eve.

“Good grief, I didn’t know she was that heavy.” Betty released Eve and breathed hard. “Unless we roll her like a log, we’re not going to budge her.”

“Let’s just do a toaster, like Jake said.” Crystal stepped to Eve’s back and crouched next to her aunt. Betty’s face was bright red, like all her sunburn had rushed up and pooled there. And now her eyes were wobbling, like Jake’s had.

Betty’s eyelids fluttered. Her shoulders sagged forward, pulling her head and fluff of white hair into her clothes like a turtle into its shell. Crystal stifled the sob her lungs shoved at her throat. Not again! This was what Aunt Betty had done when they got off the lighter—passed out, leaving Crystal all by herself.

She wasn’t alone, though. Jake and Eve were with them now. She helped her aunt stretch out on the sand to hug Eve’s back, one arm flung across Eve’s stomach. Her aunt’s eyes drifted shut, and the familiar puffs of her snores rose like invisible smoke signals over Eve’s right shoulder.

Wait, she didn’t want to be the front part of the toaster! Crystal’s lower lip trembled as she stared at the nasty cellophane blisters on Eve’s face. Please, no, the blisters weren’t moving, were they? Crawling like hungry maggots around Eve’s nose and lips, bumping into each other across her cheeks and forehead?

She gagged and turned her head away.

Across from her, Jake hadn’t moved. Was his chest rising and falling, or were those heat waves shimmering like when they’d carried Eve? He was a hero, Aunty had said. He’d swum half the ocean to save Eve. And Aunt Betty, she was a hero too. How many times walking down here had Aunty fallen but got up? She kept pointing to Jake, a tiny dot on the ocean, and saying, “We’ve got to be brave, sweetie, like him.”

Crystal whimpered and lay down. She rolled herself against Eve, shuddering as the front of Eve’s damp shirt pasted itself against the back of Crystal’s. Her head bumped into Eve’s chin. An icy chill crawled down Crystal’s backbone. Ick, had she squished Eve’s blisters? She whimpered again and wriggled lower against Eve’s body, away from the horrid head.

Her legs touched Eve’s, skin against skin, and Crystal gasped. Eve was cold—really, really cold. Eve wasn’t just bread—she was frozen bread.

Taking hold of Eve’s arm, she clamped herself against the frigid body. The coolness invaded her, sucking on her body heat like she was a popsicle. Now she was a hero, wasn’t she? Both she and Aunt Betty—a human toaster defrosting Eve, bringing her back to life. Eve had saved their lives, now they would save hers.

She lifted her T-shirt and pressed Eve’s arm against the warmth of her stomach. Eve’s hand and fingers were crinkled like Grandma’s when she’d had her hands in dishwater too long. Crystal laid her arm alongside Eve’s to create another toaster, and used both hands to enclose Eve’s wrinkled fingers with their long, polished red nails.

What had happened that Ginny and all those passengers had died? Crystal sniffled. When she and Aunt Betty were sitting on the rock, she asked if her mom was like Ginny. Mom would’ve been, if she’d lived, Crystal was sure of it. But Aunt Betty said no and had smushed her lips together in that way that meant she didn’t want to talk about it. Crystal closed her eyes against the pain and clutched Eve’s arm in a tight embrace.

She woke with sand in her mouth. She’d rolled onto her stomach and broken the toaster. She grabbed Eve’s arm. The flesh was warm.

“Hey!” She sat up and sputtered sand, wiping it away with both hands. “Hey, everyone!” She shook Eve, then Aunt Betty. Neither moved. She crawled to Jake and shook him. “Jake!”

Were they dead? All three lay in the exact same positions she’d last seen them in. Her insides froze, and for a moment she couldn’t move.

Forcing herself, holding her breath each time, she checked the pulse in their necks. Jake’s and Eve’s were strong, but Aunt Betty’s was faint. Crystal pushed up the leg of her aunt’s shorts and inspected the snakebite. It didn’t look any different. She pinched the skin on the back of Betty’s hand. It stayed wrinkled. Her own, too.

As if tapped on its shoulder, her thirst blazed. That’s what they all needed—coconut juice.

“Jake.” She jiggled his arms. His shoulders. His head. “Please, Jake, wake up!” When he didn’t respond, she poked him hard in the ribs. Nothing. She wanted to slap his face, force him to wake up, but he was an adult. She couldn’t bring herself to do it.

She got to her feet. The only palm trees she could see were in the direction she and Aunt Betty had come. How many trees had she trudged by with Aunt Betty hanging onto her shoulder? One or two coconuts had to be close by. Nothing would happen if she walked far enough to grab one but stayed close enough to keep everyone in sight.

None of the bodies stirred as she stepped farther and father away. The gulls had abandoned the sky and were plopping along on sturdy, webbed feet at the ocean’s edge. Were they eating, or had the sun dropped low enough to signal bedtime was at hand? The granules of sand that had steamed her sandals earlier were cool now under the shadows stretching across the beach from the jungle.

Where were all the coconuts she’d seen? Had someone come and gathered them? Fear prickled the back of her neck and tiptoed bony fingertips toward her throat. But no, there was a nut up ahead, a dark smudge on the white sand. She’d have to step out of sight of Jake and Eve and Aunt Betty, but only for a minute.

She raced toward the coconut, its sweetness already on her tongue and halfway to her stomach. Really, she’d open it and take just a sip, then first dibs went to Aunt Betty because her pulse was faint. Or should it be Eve, barely hanging onto life? Or Jake, so tired from saving Eve he couldn’t be roused?

The buzzing registered just before the sight and smell of the rotting animal made her veer. Her feet slipped and she fell smack on her face, her fingers only inches away from the putrid flesh. 

A blanket of shiny green flies hurled upward from the lump, hovered like a magic carpet, and zoomed down on her. Squealing through her nose, her eyes and mouth scrunched tight, she rolled over and over in the sand until she could scramble to her feet and run.

The gulls screeched and took to the sky as she dashed past. They scolded her with raspy caws, flapping heavily away over the ocean and circling back.

Jake and Betty and Eve had not moved. They were dying, and the flies would move in on them next. Crystal didn’t bother to check anyone’s pulse. She dropped to her knees beside Jake’s head.

Raising her hand, she brought it down hard and slapped him full on the face.

CONTINUED ON FRIDAY


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