Big Torch (
The Opening of a Novel)

by William T. Hathaway

Aeron O'Keefe walked surrounded by leaves as Miguel Escalante parted the branches for her. Their motion tattered patches of sunlight filtering through the trees. Scratched by twigs and bit by mosquitos, they made their way through the rife vegetation, sweating in the humid heat.

She wasn't sure if Miguel was following a path or just making one up as he went, inventing it step by step. But either way she trusted him.

Orchids and Spanish moss clung to the branches, nourishing themselves from the damp breath of the forest, musky with fumes of fertile decay. Foliage thrived in a hundred shades of green, all with a sheen of moisture.

Slippery leaves slavered over them, soaking them with dew. Miguel's tan arms gleamed; his damp T-shirt stretched over broad shoulders; black hair glistened. Aeron's T-shirt was wet to transparency; she noticed Miguel trying not to stare but still enjoying the sights. With anyone else it would have been embarrassing, but with him it was daringly fun.

In search of nectar, a swallowtail butterfly glided the currents. A spider web hung with prisming dew lay in wait for it, and at its center sat a golden orb spider big as Miguel's eye.

The trees they rustled through stretched high above them, canopying towards the sun. Tallest were mahogany, live oak, and strangler fig; then came poisonwood, tamarind, pigeon plum, and buttonwood; the shrubby understory swarmed with indigoberry, boxwood, and wild coffee, all laced together with vines.

Beneath his shorts, the muscles of Miguel's calves flexed and stretched as he walked.

They were exploring the hardwood hammock on her parents' property, but she imagined they were in Peru searching for Machu Picchu, in Mexico for the Seven Cities of Cíbola, or right here in Florida for the Fountain of Youth. She knew Miguel would be the ideal guide — his Spanish ancestors started exploring America 500 years ago. His first memories were of the boat trip as he came here from Cuba when he was four. Now he was a sailor himself, and she'd like to explore the ocean with him someday. She liked to do just about everything with him, except say good-bye.

And tonight they had to say good-bye early ... she had to do a nasty job for her father. She helped him in his landlord business, and tonight he was making her do something she hated — kick someone out. And the tenant was going to hate it even more than Aeron did — the angriest person she'd ever met.

But that would be later. Right now they were together.

The vegetation lessened, and Miguel reached back, took her hand, and drew her up so they could walk side by side. One of his arms went around her waist and the other thrust ahead. She liked the feel of his body moving against hers. Straight raven hair, high cheekbones, and deep-set dark eyes gave his face an angular intensity. It was softened, though, by curving lips, a slightly crooked nose, and large earlobes she liked to tweak. His skin was tawny as a lion's. It was a face she liked to look at and didn't want to lose. Very different from her pale-skinned, blue-eyed, blonde-haired blandness. It struck a note in her, made her ring deep down inside where they were the same.

The trees gave way to bamboo, its graceful wands and elongated leaves forming an impenetrable screen. They skirted its edges and came out into a clearing, a meadow full of ferns whose profusion of fronds spread out before them in cushiony invitation.

Miguel must have had the same thought because he stopped and pulled her closer, then turned so they were facing. Now both his arms were around her, and she could feel his warm breath tickling her neck. That started some juice flowing.

Last night ... he was all over her, a great wave taking her.

They were both straight edge. They didn't smoke, drink, dope, or poke holes in their skin, but they fucked like crazy.

"There's nobody around at all," he whispered and dropped one hand to her bottom.

"I'd like to, but" — she gave him a consoling kiss on the cheek — "there's no time. I still have to do this terrible job tonight. Plus remember the last time we did it on the ground ... over by the Silver Trail ... the fire ants? They don't like big monsters invading their turf."

"They weren't so bad."

"You weren't lying on them! They weren't biting your butt!"

"That's right, I forgot," he admitted. "You had to jump in the water just to get rid of them."

"It was pretty much of an anti-climax."

Across the clearing, motion caught her eye. Out of the brush stepped a Key deer. The doe paused, one foot raised, sniffing, listening, looking. Aeron squeezed Miguel's hand, and they stared enthralled. As the deer gazed at them, their eyes joined across the space, across the species. Communication flowed between them: cautious curiosity about a fellow creature. The doe broke contact, began nibbling the tips of ferns, then looked back at them as if saying, As long as you stay on your side, it's OK.

Two feet tall at the shoulder, she was small even for a Key deer, and was probably born late last season. Aeron imagined bringing her home, feeding her and petting her. Somehow that made her think about having to move away from Miguel soon, and she sank into gloom.

Sensing something was wrong, he held her closer and asked, "How you doing?"

She leaned against him. "I don't want to go ... leave you ... hundreds of miles away. August ... in just a few months. I hate it."

"Know how you feel," he said. "I think about it every day. Like a countdown on death row."

As she groaned, the doe perked up her ears and trotted away.

Miguel stroked her shoulder and nuzzled his head into hers. "Hey there."

"Maybe I should just forget about university," she said. "Maybe junior college is enough. I can stay here ... we can be together ... scrabble along somehow."

It was a conversation they'd had before, and they both knew all the arguments pro and con. They were graduating from the community college in June, and she was supposed to move up to the university at Gainesville. Her dad could afford it. Miguel's mom couldn't, so he had to stay. They kept telling each other they'd be able to get together every several months — Christmas, spring break, summer. But they wouldn't really be together, and who knows what could happen being apart so long. For one thing, they were both pretty horny types.

Miguel was brooding, and Aeron wished she hadn't brought it up. It made both of them feel helpless, powerless. He shrugged mutely.

"Sorry to bring you down." She stood on tiptoes to kiss him on the forehead, her lame way of apologizing for raising the Big Glum. "It's only April. Let's enjoy being together."

"Yeah," he said, but the corners of his eyes were pinched.

A turtle plodded across their path, and they stopped and watched him. With his yellow-striped head extended he was as long as her foot. "They're good luck," Miguel said.

She wanted to pick him up and pet him, but that would scare him, so she let him lumber on, admiring his determination to get where he wanted to go at his own pace.

The sun stretched into an orange egg as it dropped through the mist on the horizon. Its golden light shot rays through the haze, then shined the clouds pink and violet, flaring across the turquoise sky. After a last long gleam, it disappeared.

The air cooled down to about 85, and that brought out more bugs — mosquitos, no-see-ums, deer flies. Swatting and swearing, they stepped up their pace and headed for home.

It was only few hundred yards away through mangroves and bamboo, a cedar house on eight-foot flood-protection pillars on Big Torch Key at the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. At the end of a long dock floated a cabin cruiser.

Unfortunately it was just her home, not both of theirs. Actually it was her parents', but they wouldn't be back till late tonight. Dad would definitely not like Miguel being here.

They walked under a wooden arch hung with bougainvillea vines, around a swimming pool, then past a pond with gold and black koi cruising under purple and white lotus blossoms. The large leaves floated on the surface like green platters, and Aeron remembered a picture she'd seen once of a baby lying on lotus leaf, happily unaware of the fragility of its world. She shivered and took Miguel's hand.

By now it was dark. Transitions between day and night were swift down here. This was not a twilight sort of place. Birds had stopped chirping, frogs had started croaking. For Aeron they were the little musicians in God's orchestra, day shift going to bed, night shift waking up.

Here the sea breeze blew away most of the bugs that had clustered around them, but as they climbed the stairs they still waved their arms to ward off the stragglers so they didn't follow them into the screened-in porch.

"I got a headache," Miguel said. "Too much talk about August. Think you could fix it?"

Aeron was sorry again that she'd brought up the split. "I'll try. I'll need to meditate first, though, to charge up."

"Good. Thanks."

They sat in the living room on a wicker couch under the cedar cathedral ceiling. She closed her eyes and thought her mantra. After a few minutes her other thoughts faded away, and she was left with a clear mind, empty except for the mantra's quiet hum. She could feel energy building up within her, and when it seemed like enough, she cupped her hands on Miguel's head, fingertips to his temples, and let the energy flow into him. At first his body tensed even more, and a spasm jerked through him. He exhaled with a long groan. She kept thinking the mantra and directing its force into him. Gradually his neck and shoulders relaxed, his breath became quieter, and he sighed. His pinched frown turned into a relieved smile. "Gone," he said. "Your healing hands did it again. You're a wonder."

"Glad I could help. Call me anytime. I even make house calls."

"House?" The smile left his face. "Then I'm out of luck. How about a trailer?"

She could tell their financial gap was still on his mind, tormenting him. It bothered him far more than her. "Anywhere you are is OK with me," she told him once again.

"Thanks. You got a cure for hunger too?" His light Spanish accent sharpened the edges of his consonants and made his vowels clear and consistent.

"Yeah," she said, "it's called, You Help Cook."

They grilled a grouper he'd caught this morning, made lemon rice, and heated a can of black bean soup. For dessert it was mangoes from the tree.

Being here just the two of them was like playing house together, and it seemed they'd been doing it for years. In a way they had. They'd been together a year and a half, and in her math book that was a plural. They'd met at the beginning of their freshman year at Florida Keys Community College and hit it off right from the start. Even though they were so different, they almost always understood each other. It was like they were tuned in together.

As they were cleaning up after dinner, she was thinking how great it would be to cuddle up on the couch, watch a little TV, then head for bed. Like a real married couple. But no, the game was over. They had to sleep alone in their separate parents' homes.

And she still had to do this job for her dad she'd been putting off.

"I hate to say it," she whined, "but it's time to say good-bye."

Miguel glanced at his watch. "So soon? I thought they weren't getting back till late."

"Yeah, but before that I've got to tell one of the tenants her lease is canceled."

"Who's that?"

"Elizabeth Marshall."

"Don't know her," Miguel said.

"She runs Buff Bods."

"Oh yeah, the fitness studio."

"Is that where you get your muscles?" She squeezed his arm.

"No, I get those humping boxes at Winn-Dixie. They get heavy after a couple of hours stocking shelves."

"Anyway, this is going to be no fun at all," Aeron said. "She's open late tonight ... I can't put it off any longer. This woman has a temper like you've never seen. I had to give her a rent raise awhile ago, and she threw a chair at me."

"Now you have to tell her she's out?"

"Yeah, and she's not going to like it one bit."

"I wouldn't either," Miguel said.

"But you wouldn't throw a chair at me. I'm just the messenger."

Headlights swept across the wall. She heard the hum of dad's Mercedes and the crunch of pea rock in the driveway.

Oh no! At least we've got our clothes on. "They're home early," she said through clenched teeth.

"Then I better get home too. Hope this ... my being here ... doesn't make trouble for you."

"I want you here."

Dad's voice from outside: "What's this bicycle doing in my parking space?"

Aeron tightened her lips and breathed into her cheeks. She didn't know why she was breathing that way ... maybe to become a balloon that could float away. "It's trouble."

Miguel stood up with a reluctant shrug. "Then let's meet it ... and finally meet them."

Throat crimped, she pick up her purse, and they walked out onto the porch. Dad looked shrunken as he glared up from the driveway eight foot below. He stood hands on hips between the idling car and Miguel's bike, which was leaning against a house pillar.

"Sorry about that, Mr. O'Keefe," Miguel called down. "I just stopped by for a minute, but I should've put it somewhere else. I'll get it out of your way right now."

Aeron saw dad checking Miguel out as the two of them hurried down the stairs.

Mom got out of the car with a strained smile. "You must be Miguel."

"That's me," Miguel said with a dip of his head that was very unlike him.

"Well, nice to meet you." Mom's closed-mouthed smile showed her dimples, but she didn't offer her hand. She was trying to be friendly, Aeron could tell, but not too friendly or else she'd get into trouble with dad.

Miguel tried to smile too. He stuck his hands in his pockets, then took them out.

Dad cleared his throat.

"Oh yeah, the bike," Miguel said. "Well, I'll be going. I just needed to drop off a book ... that, uh, Aeron needs for class."

"That's nice of you," said mom.

Miguel got on his bike and rode away without saying good-bye to any of them.

Needing to catch up with him and straighten this out, Aeron said, "I'm going to Elizabeth Marshall's, tell her about the cancellation."

"You haven't done that yet?" Dad's sharp blue eyes drilled into her. "Boy, you must've been busy."

"I was just on my way there when Miguel stopped by. That was like three minutes ago, no big deal ... but you're trying to make it into ... I don't know what. I needed the book."

"You need to keep your word," he said. "I know where you're going now. You're going to chase after your Latin lover. But you can just stay here. Marshall is open till nine. You've waited this long, you can wait another half hour."

Aeron's face was flushed, and she could feel herself sliding into a swamp of frustrated rage. A year and a half ago she told her parents she'd met a guy she really liked, expecting them to be happy about it too. Right away they started asking questions. As soon as they found out he was Hispanic, dad started cutting him down. Her father, Aemon, was into being Celtic. It was a big deal with him — genealogy, family coats of arms, music, myths. He'd named Aeron after a Celtic goddess, and she was supposed to carry on the heritage. Grandkids named Escalante didn't fit the image.

Dad couldn't get her to break up with him, but he jammed her into promising she wouldn't have Miguel at the house when they weren't here. Agreeing to that was humiliating, but Aemon had a way of keeping after you with different kinds of pressure until you gave in and did what he wanted. That was why he had so much money ... and that was why mom took Xanax.

Aeron knew her parents were going to have to meet Miguel someday, but she'd hoped it wouldn't be like this. So much for hopes.

She wanted to jump in her car and roar away, but she was too scared. Then the tears came. She hated herself for letting him still squash her at twenty, but she didn't know what to do about it. She hated herself for crying like a little girl, but she couldn't stop. She even hated Miguel for leaving, but she knew he had to.

In terms of brains, the tests said she was in the top one percent, but emotionally she felt like a retard.

While dad parked, mom hugged her. "You know how he is sometimes. Let's go in and I'll make you some hot chocolate."

Aeron follow her up the stairs feeling eight years old ... and hating it.

Chapter Two

Elizabeth Marshall was adjusting weights on the abs machine when the landlord's daughter walked into her studio. Elizabeth grimaced. "Don't tell me you're raising my rent again!"

"No," Aeron said.

"That's good." Girl would be pretty if she didn't look so scared. "Then you must be here for fitness. We've got Nautilus, Nordic Trak, aerobics, Pilates, Jazzercise, body sculpting, massage and tae-kwon-do. Plus weight loss, but you don't need that. We've got classes and personal trainer sessions. First session's free."

"It sounds like a great deal, and I could use it. But ... tonight is a business call."

"I paid my rent!"

"I'm afraid ... it's not about rent."

"What then?" Girl's getting more nervous and I'm getting mad.

"My dad ... well ... he needs the place back. He's ... canceling your lease." Avoiding Elizabeth's eyes, Aeron pulled some papers from her purse.

The words pierced Elizabeth like a hot spike. "What? I've got nine months left on this lease. He can't just cancel it. That's what leases are for."

"It says in the contract that either party can cancel it with sixty days written notice."

"I've been here six years."

"I hate to be the one to give you the bad news. I agree with you, it doesn't seem fair."

Need a cigarette bad. "In two months I'm out? Where am I supposed to go?

"He didn't say."

"Look at all this equipment ... weight stations bolted down. Cost a fortune to move this stuff. You're not making me move, you're putting me out of business! I'm just scraping by as it is. You might as well shoot me." Elizabeth yanked the pin on the Nautilus machine, letting the iron bang down.

"I'm not doing it, it's him."

"That's what everybody says. Everybody's got an out."

"I'm sorry." Aeron's voice pleaded for forgiveness.

"Sorry? What do you care?"

"There's nothing I can do about it."

"Why's he doing it?"

"He found a company that'll pay a lot more rent."

"How much more?"

"Almost twice."

"Goddamnit, I couldn't pay anywhere near that. I'm busting my butt just to make a buck. You think I like working here till nine o'clock?" Elizabeth threw a Nordic pole against the wall. "You're driving me out. Only rich people are going to be able to afford to live here. You move in here and think it's your playground. But I was born here."

Elizabeth's rage went red and she started getting the tunnels again. Everywhere she looked became dark around the edges, narrowing down to a long tube, staring at the world through to barrel of a gun.

Flip! There it goes! Little man flicks the pain switch in my brain, sends a hot twitch down to my toes, spins me crazy. Not again! Hate it! Don't want to be that.

Kill the bastard! No. Yes! Crush his head in a vice like he's doing to me.

Shout: "Bastard owns the building but he doesn't own me. I'll smash his place. Smash his face. Make him regret this!"

Elizabeth leaped at the light fixture, but it was too high, so she grabbed a chair, flipped it upside down and swung the legs into the globe. Crash! "There! Good, glass all over the place. Ha!"

Now the girl is backing away, eyes big, hands out like I might throw the chair at her.

Ha! She falls backwards over the bench press, ass over elbows, gets up and limps out the door.

Elizabeth fumbled her pack of Newports open and dropped two before getting one between her lips. She flicked the flame, butane blue, and drew menthol green daggers deep inside.

I'll call Jannie. Maybe she'll know some vacancies. It's late, but realtors work all the time anyway.

Damned cell phone's so little can't find the buttons.

"Jannie, Elizabeth. My bastard landlord just booted me, broke my lease, I'm out. Is there anything I could rent that would hold the studio? Say between Sugarloaf and Big Pine?"

Jannie's high, thin voice: "There's a storefront in the Summerland strip mall for five K a month."

"Impossible. I'm not even grossing that much."

"Then sorry, but there's nothing. I'm on multiple listing, so if it was out there, I'd know about it. Damned building moratorium. Landlords are doing everything they can to break leases and jack up the rents. Just the big chains are going to be able to afford it down here."

"I'd like to wrap a big chain around their necks. Let them see what it's like to get strangled."

"It's getting the same with residential rents. If you don't own, you're out."

"I'll have to move to the mainland. I hate it up there ... it's a madhouse. I can't afford to move all the machines and open a new place there. I'll have to just get a shit job as a trainer ... be back on the bottom of the heap. All because this guy sees a chance to get richer by pushing me out. He's ruined my life!"

"I hear you," Jannie said. "This business has gone savage. Sorry you may have to leave."

"Gotta be something we can do. Can't just take this lying down ... like a good little girl. Have to stop it."

"You find out how, let me know."

"I'll do that. Bastards! Bye, Jannie." Elizabeth stuffed the cell phone back into her pocket and burst into tears.

Look at this place. I put six years of my life into it, working sixty hours a week. Talk about sweat. Now it's gone! Nothing. Say good-bye. My home too — apartment in the back, cozy. Now I'm homeless, end up a bag lady. All 'cause this guy wants to be a millionaire.

Need some snow ... a whole noseful. Sock it to my septum. Where's the bag? In my dresser. Go get it.

I oughta burn the place down. I got a right to. I remodeled it and everything. This apartment was a dump when I moved in. Now it's my lair. Or was. Old waterbed has some mileage on it. Think of the dorks that have rolled through here ... two or three a week, six years. I don't know ... maybe a thousand. I'm no good at math ... or else I'd be a landlord. They think in numbers. To us it's a home, to them it's numbers.

All those dorks ... a long chain around my neck. Was there any of them you wanted to stay? No. Don't think about it.

Where's the bag? Next to the panties and the vibrator. All my addictions together.

Turn the world into white powder, like a snowy paperweight, me sealed safe inside. This was a good batch. Hail, Colombia! I'm not going to be able to afford this anymore. Not much of it left ... enjoy it while I got it.

Chop a line. Deep breathing. Dazzle me. Yes! That's it, feel the power of the powder. Be the power!

I'd kill him, but they'd know it was me.

Need another cigarette.

Kill another guy, they're all the same. I know men ... too well. Deep six some dork. They deserve it. Make 'em pay. Now they went too far. Time to stop 'em, stop 'em dead. This time vengeance is mine.

Oh no, now I'm getting the whirlies. Hate that. Tornado brain, tornado groin. Going deeper off the deep end. Please no, not another "episode." How long will this one last? I don't want to be this way, do horrible things.

Suck the cheeks hollow getting more smoke in. Pack it in. Helps but not enough, never enough, helps the top mouth but not the down mouth. Have to diddle the middle again. Need to pop gotta pop, get it in get it on. Thrip thrap thrub. Dildo or dork?

Dork! Want a dork, off him, pop him. Any dork'll do ... as long as he can do it ... lot of 'em can't, shrivel stubs ... useless dorks.

Why do I want 'em when I hate 'em? And I always hate 'em. But never so much as today.

OK, girl, get into gear and go get him. Which gear? That new frock. Makes the tits look bigger and the ass smaller.

Strip down. More deodorant. Slip the dress on. Presto change-o. A whole new me. But the same old hole.

Wristband tighter, Apache beads on suede, too wide but it hides the scar. A shame scars don't tan ... but razors rust. Slash and burn.

Outa here. To hell with locking it. Let 'em steal everything.

Slam the red Mustang. Slam bam thank you ma'am, I'm the man. I'll kick you out on your big pink butt.

Why do I need one so soon? Had a dork Saturday and a dildo Sunday ... now the achies again. Should've vibed again this morning — day goes better ... don't have the dreams. But I hate it, hate needing it, why aren't weekends enough? Losing it again.

Just find one.

Where? Looe Reef Resort — I haven't been there in a month.

Into the traffic, floor it, No! Brake! SUV ... screech. Watch your rear end, ass-hole! Creeping tourists. Mustang Sally, you're too fast for 'em. Girl, we're not of this world.

Elizabeth blinked as lights flashed by from restaurants and stores on US Highway One.

It's all just a strip mall now ... from Key West to Canada. Millions of dorks lined up along it.

Road's clogged with tourists ... we should blow the bridges, keep them out.

She pulled in and parked at the Looe Reef Resort on Ramrod Key, then sauntered past the guest rooms, swimming pool and boat dock into the tiki bar, just a wall-less thatched roof overlooking the Atlantic.

She sat at the bar and ordered a coral kiss. The barkeep was bald, paunchy and probably had to stay until 2:30. He splashed rum, grenadine, sugar, cream and key lime juice into a blender, whirled it into froth and gushed it into a champagne glass.

She sipped. Sweet-sour sparkled her tastebuds, vapor tingled her nose.

Nice, but I can tell right now this isn't going to do it. Need something stronger than booze and coke. Need to blast the bad news out of my brain. Blast the landlord's brains out. This is a job for Methedrine. Grope in the purse for the little white footballs. Slurp one down. Look around.

Perusing the prospects, she saw they were meager. A tourist couple, suitcase folds still showing on their polycottons, sipped piña coladas at a side table. In a corner an obnoxious foursome getting loudly drunk. A few single guys: Two local lushes, one in a tropical print shirt unbuttoned to his furry midsection, the other in a Miami Marlins T-shirt stretched tight by his belly, both hunched over a game of liar's dice. A tattooed guy with a droopy mustache wearing a mesh tank top, cut-off jeans and rubber flip-flops was shooting her looks as he nursed his draft. Uninspiring.

But another guy farther down the bar was watching her. What kind of a guy? Didn't look too bad. Short dark hair, bland polo shirt like something out of a Lands' End catalogue, boring pretending to be classic. That's OK, sometimes a boring man is just what a girl needs.

He was definitely interested. Eyes appraising, gliding like radar over her dress, x-raying her. Made her shiver, want to run, want to slap his face with them, made her want.

He was trying to hide his stare by turning his head, giving her the lateral gams, the angle ogle. Lured, but not yet ready to eye lock.

Drop another Meth ... drink the bitterest pill there is. Crank up the machine, sparkle plenty.

She gave him her better left side, not that it was all that great, but it was what she had and he seemed interested. They could have a little talk.

Now he was staring, eyes on high beam right on her, and she lifted hers and looked into his. Contact! Penetration! He was pushing right into her, through the green irises deep inside.

She gave him a brief nod, then looked away. Smiled in profile, pretended she was charmed by the lights twinkling on the water. That was all it took. He ambled towards her carrying his drink ... and his napkin like a good little boy. He wasn't so little around the waist, though, but not a real porker, just a middle-aged chub. Moved steady, wasn't drunk. Wearing pressed chinos ... definitely not a local. Probably a wife with a hot iron on the other end of those sharp creases. Shiny tasseled loafers ... with socks yet. Did she shine his shoes too? Where was this guy from? Only bankers and cops wore shoes and socks down here. Everybody else pranced in sandals.

"Mind if I join you?" His voice was deep but pinched by nervousness. He didn't do this every day.

He had one side of his mouth lifted away from his teeth in what was supposed to be a smile, trying to look friendly and sincere, dashing, powerful, not too eager. Trying to look like everybody else wanted him so she should too. Then his whole mouth lifted up, and his teeth slipped back out of sight behind rather thick lips.

Don't smile back. Give him a nod of assent but not of surrender. Move your knees to the side to make room for him while showing off your legs under the short little dress, kind that lets the breeze blow up.

A missed whisker peeking from the dimple in his chin, how dear. Bit of cologne along with the smell of ... oh, no, Scotch. Hate the damned smell of Scotch.

"Jack's my name, Jack Ogilvie." He slid onto the next barstool and set his drink down. Little button nose almost lost in his round face. Mid forties. Hair clipped and combed to hide the thinning; no weird tufts sprouting from his nose or ears. Stainless steel watch a bit scuffed but at least not a digital; expansion band, trying to look sporty. Hands clean and soft, no dirt under nails. No wedding ring or mark on that finger. Maybe he sends his ironing out. Maybe he just doesn't wear a ring ... so he can play around. Signet ring on his right hand, Uni something or other. Good — college man. Better than an army ring. Buy me a drink, Mr. Middle Management. Your middle looks like it could use a bit of management, though.

"I'm Terri, Terri Carter."

"Would you like another drink, Terri?"

Smile, but not too gratefully. "Thank you."

Jack held up two confident fingers to the bartender, then settled in to check her out, now-eager spaniel brown eyes skimming over her. At least he kept his mouth closed, no tongue lolling out. "You from around here?" he asked.

Nod. Speak demure ... act brazen. "I'm local as they come."

The bartender poured Glenfiddich rather than bar Scotch for Jack. Good sign. But all Scotch stinks the same.

"A Florida Keys girl, huh?"

"You got it. Wouldn't be anywhere else. How about yourself?"

"St. Louis. Had to go to Miami on business, thought I'd come down and see the sights."

"Haven't been fishing yet, have you?"

"No" — surprised and a bit suspicious — "how could you tell?"

"No sunburn. You're not all red and crinkled."

Jack smiled, relieved she couldn't read his mind. Oh, but she could. "Hey," he said, "that's pretty observant. I'm going out tomorrow for bonefish. Got a guide and everything."

Bragging a little to show he wasn't a party-boat type. He'd already caught on to the fishing status hierarchy.

"You a fisherman ... uh, fisherwoman?" he asked with a confused shrug that said all this vocabulary was a bit strange but he was no male sexist pig. Some of his best friends were women.

Elizabeth nodded and peered at him over the top of her glass. "Underwater ... with a spear gun. I like to look 'em in the eye first."

After a pause he chuckled. "All-right! The lady's a hunter."

"It's a hunter's bar. Look at the swordfish." Stuffed, it floated over the bar like they were all under water.

"Maybe I'll put my bonefish up there tomorrow," Jack said.

"Sorry" — she shook her head to show off the auburn curls — "it's all catch and release now. Those days are over." Consoled him with a lift of her drink.

"Oh well. Then no dinner, either."

"Bonefish aren't good eating anyway ... too many you-know-what. Maybe you'll catch a grouper. Ugly but delicious."

The bartender brought their drinks. Jack pushed a twenty toward him and said, "Here you go. Keep a couple of bills for yourself and feed the rest to the juke box. Something mellow."

Jack looked back at her, his face almost swelling with interest, bodily fluids on the rise. It made her chest tighten, breath narrow to a wisp. Hold on, girl. You can ride this tiger.

Jimmy Buffet's rough gentle voice crooned of sailing ships and sunsets, liquid embraces, languid passion and wistful good-byes. Jack didn't ask her to dance. No one danced anymore.

He leaned closer, though, eyeing the décolletage. Thank you, Wonder Bra. "So what brings you to this little bar on this little island tonight?" he asked.

The burn of his gaze prickled her skin, shriveled her insides, flipped her crazy motor-mouth switch. "The stars. They made me do it. Actually I think my star died a long time ago, but its light hasn't gone out yet, so I don't know it's dead.

"But it's really not stars at all, you know, it's the planets make us do things. You can tell the difference because planets don't twinkle, just bore into you with that laser light, a lot closer than the stars. And they're hollow inside. That's how people can live there."

"OK." Jack kept his smile but pulled back a bit. "What planet are you from?"

"Earth." A defiant cackle, let him think what he wants. "That's the worst. It's the prison of souls. Earth's where they send the heavy-duty desperados, the hard cores. Everybody there's a lifer. The lucky ones are on death row.

"The people on the other planets, the worst thing they can have astrologically is the Earth rising in their chart. Makes them crazy."

"You're into astrology?" he asked, hoping to salvage the convo.

"That's why I'm here, like I told you. I'm still answering your question, I didn't forget, I never forget. I came here tonight because it's a very auspicious time. There's a grand cross in the heavens. Uranus, Mars and the nodes of the moon, all in opposition and squares. Very difficult but very powerful if you can handle the energy. Uranus is the planet of new beginnings. That's tonight — a new beginning."

Now Jack looked more wary than aroused.

You're flapping in the breeze — reel it in, girl. You'll spook him off.

She gave him an embarrassed laugh and a look of sincerity. "Forgive me, Jack. I've been ranting. Nervous tension. Something about you ... your presence ... really makes an impact on me" — an apologetic smile — "and I start chattering nonsense."

He leaned back with a trace of amusement, pleased by the praise, which was of course well deserved. "That's all right. I get carried away sometimes myself."

Maybe he thought she was just kooky and eccentric. That he could probably handle.

Her throat and lungs, her every capillary, craved a cigarette, the sharp draw of smoke like a sword that soothes as it slices. But that might put him off even more. If he was a smoker, he'd have probably lit up by now. Dork wouldn't think of waiting or asking. She took a deep drink, trying to focus on the sting of the alcohol and the sourness of the key lime, drawing them down to burn like nicotine. "Dance with me."

"Sure." He stood, took her elbow and gallantly helped her from the barstool, looking confident he had her now.

The music had gone reggae, a ganga-slurred chant to a slow, pumping beat. Perfect for shaking your booty and letting it do the thinking.

She curved into Jack, brushed against his arm, then his shoulder, and backed away with what she hoped was a soft, teasing gleam in her eyes. He picked up the motion and swayed toward her, took her hand, led her sideways, then glided his other arm around her back and rested his hand on her hip. He used little nudges of both hands to steer her this way and that to the rhythm with more skill than she would've thought. He wasn't all middle management; the man could move and groove. She picked up on his signals with twists of her hips, head and hands. They merged to the music, eyes devouring each other. She let her mouth drop open in a sultry pout, raised her arms over her head and swiveled at him, all the while flashing a challenge, daring him to take her. He raised each shoulder alternately while his belly and rump jiggled, looking proud and happy, like a boy who's just had a stroke of well-earned good luck.

Girl, look what you've wrought! Dork has turned into Dionysus, a stud!

She could feel his energy beaming at her, saturating her. She stalked toward him on tiptoes, body a fluid invitation, lips a lascivious sneer, then backed off in arrogant disdain.

But he wouldn't let her get away, instead encircled her waist with his arms. She writhed in captivity, trying to break his grip with her hips, grazed his chest with her breasts, making his eyes widen and mouth sag.

The noisome foursome had gone silent, watching them. Even the dice players had stopped shaking their cups and were staring.

As the song ended, Jack took her in a ballroom pose and dipped her toward the floor, his leg between hers. She clung to his back, feeling his heat, smelling his deodorized sweat. The audience applauded. He tipped her upright again and whispered in her ear, "Let's quit while we're ahead and get out of here." She squeezed him in agreement.

As soon as they stepped out onto the deck, she lit up, sucked the smoke deep and relaxed into a tarry haze. She was hooked, an addict, and he seemed hooked enough on her to put up with it. He backed away a half step and said invitingly, "I've got a room right here. We can have a quiet drink."

"Come to my place, Jack." She gave him a come-hither look, trying to seem mysterious and alluring shrouded in smoke. "I want to show you how the locals live."

He hesitated. "Then we'd have to take two cars. Be simpler just to stay here."

Holding the cigarette away, she stepped closer to him. "Leave your car here. I'll bring you back." Brushed her hip against his. "Tonight or tomorrow morning ... whenever you want."

Jack teetered in indecision. She held his gaze and said, "We'll be more comfortable at my place." Stroked his hand. "You don't want to live like a tourist, do you?" Still mulling, he stared off across the Atlantic.

He needed to be led. Good, she took his hand and started off. "My car's right down here." He came along, swallowing a burp.

The moon was ducking in and out of clouds, shining brief silver shimmers on the ocean. Jack slid onto the black leather seat of her convertible.

Ready to ride the hide, she thought.

"Sporty wheels," he said.

"Glad you like it. It's little but it moves."

He snapped his shoulder belt in — cautious. "Not as little as my rental."

She revved the engine to rumble his buns and wondered if she should play a CD. No, better to talk. There'd be time for music later. "Thanks for coming back to my place. I'm kind of a homebody."

"That's great. I'm tired of hotels anyway."

"You travel a lot?"

"Yeah. The whole world starts looking the same after a while. Everything's franchised ... including the breakfasts."

"Wait till you have my breakfast."

"What's that?"

"Cooked to order for you."

"Sounds great. Even at home it's Eggs McMuffin in the traffic, cup of coffee by the gear shift."

"You don't have anybody to cook for you at home?"

"You mean, am I married?"

"Sort of."




"It's tough?"

"It's tough. They blame me. So does she ... but it was her idea."

"Well, I don't blame you."


They turned onto a commercial side street along the canals and drove past a down-market jumble of service businesses: laundromat, hair stylist, massage therapist, internet café. Older ground-level buildings waiting to get flooded again, new ones built on pillars with parking underneath. The wending canals gave her nabe a river feeling. They parked in front of a ground-level stucco under the sign, "Buff Bods Fitness Studio."

"Don't expect anything fancy. I live in back and run the business. It's funky but fun."

"I'm up for that."

She led him on a path of pea rock around to the back where the canal held the moon's reflection like a poaching egg. Frogs thrummed in the mangroves along the shore. The buildings were dark and quiet.

They walked around her boat slip with the jet ski floating in it — her mermaid motorcycle. They crossed the patio, and she slid open the glass door. She took his hand as they stepped inside. His eyes gleamed with Mesopotamias of lust.

Yes. He's not dumb ... he knows when he's wanted. But will he know when he's not wanted?

His arms went around her waist. Bump bellies, lock lips, touch tongues; she pulled away. "I don't usually do this, you know ... let a man move this fast. But there's something about you."

"You too."

Grip ... grab ... grope. Up top to the tits. Like my little fatties? His breath louder. Oh, down there too, my not-so-little fanny. Bottom boy, eager for my beaver.

"Let's get more comfortable." She led him to the bedroom.

"A waterbed ... they're lots of fun."

"We can sail away."

"And a ceiling mirror! You must be a connoisseur."

"Watching doubles the fun."

Things were coming off. He glommed on with the mouth ... seemed to like them ... and she got to pat baby's bald spot while he nursed. Slurp. Pump me up ... I'll float higher and higher ... till I pop.

Yes, press there, rub it, yes, legs too.

"No, Jack ... not fair. You can't make me naked and leave all your clothes on. I want to feel your body too. Here, off the shirt."

Yep, Lands' End.

"Oh, you're quite a hunk ... big strong arms." Big fat gut. "I like a well-built kind of man."

"You're pretty well built yourself."

"You don't think my tits are too little?"

Squeeze them.

"Anything more than a handful is wasted."

"Unfortunately I make up for it down below. There's lots more than a handful down there."

"Let me check it out."

Yes, the fingers ... slip and slide. "Oouu ... you. How wet I am! That's all your fault, you know. You did that to me. Just being around you turned me on. Now I want to see what you've got down there." Zip and yank. "Oh, my goodness! There he is ... what a nice looking fellow. And large. Let me give him a kiss."

Seems to be able ... and ardent. A hard man is good to find. Don't want him to get too excited too soon, though. "Now I want this ... in me," she told him.

"You got it."

Thrill me, Trilby. Sock it to me in the tummy.

Oh no, his finger in his mouth ... then in my pussy. I've had it with guys sticking their fingers in their mouths. They assume you're all dried up. but I'm not. Hey, bozo, I don't want your spit on my clit. Don't need it. Finger licking is definitely not good. You do that again, I'll kill you ... swear to God. Scotch breath is bad enough.

There he goes ... in his mouth again. Now he wipes it on his guided missile, right? Yep, you've had it, buddy. Warned you.

Slides it in. Mission control ... we have entrance ... we have penetration ... we have lift off ... all the way in. Ride it!

Want to kill him. Saturday's guy put his finger in his mouth too.

Cool it, girl. He's just a dork. You can't kill him. Hate him, yes, kill him, no. Just gouge his back with your acrylics.

Kill him! Dorks die.

Forget it ... get your ya-yas. Get down and grind, grapple it, wrestle his slider. He's got you full.

No, there he goes! Squirting too soon already too late. Slip shod, squishy slop. Lunge, you grunge, you're finished ... your meat is dead. Your gun doesn't work but mine does. Grab it.

Don't shoot him! You're flipping out!

Gotta gotta! That's the last straw ... broke this little camel's hump. He didn't pop me, so he gets popped. Pop goes the weasel. The dorks are kicking me out of my home, ruining my life.

This guy isn't doing it!

He's just like the guy who is. Dorks are dorks. Now it's payback. Someone's gotta die! He thinks he's a lord, the lord of my land. But he's just a squirt, a stick it in and squirt guy. He thinks he owns me, can make me homeless. They're all the same. Greed and war. Burning up little Arab girls with their napalm, selling guns to African dorks so they can shoot little black girls, making little Latin girls sew all day in their factories for a dollar.

I'd like to kill 'em all. But I can't — they're already dead. All I can do is show them that. Jack, here's your wakeup call. I'm purifying the planet.

Pistol in the bedtable ... for the intruder in the dark. Grope in the drawer ... not his drawers. Hard steel harder than him. Take that, Jack. Here's one to remember me by. See it in the mirror. Touch to the temple. He opens his eyes at the feel of cold metal. OK, gang ...


In one side and out the other. Wings of blood out both holes ... fly away to a better land.

He's thrashing, lashing ... going wild. Jerk is jerking me off. Get it ... grab it. Almost ... there ... more.

No ... fading ... falling ... winding down. Useless. Leave me hanging.

Now he's still. The blood ... no more spurts ... pump stopped ... but both sides seeping ... all over me. You sopped me but didn't pop me. Now get off me. Flop. Ugh.

Did you?

No. I can't believe it can't believe it can't believe it. Did I finally do it? Oh God, what's going to happen? No, maybe it's just another dream. I couldn't have done that.

You killed him ... in cold blood ... now hot blood. And you're shivering ... shaking all over. What's wrong with you ... what got into you, do such a thing?

OK, OK, I'm crazy. You don't have to tell me again. Dad's right, I got it from mom. She just killed herself though. I murdered this poor dud. Now he's dead, eyes half open, mouth drooling. And I'm crying.

That's what happens when you kill people, girl — they die. What'd he ever do to you?

Licked the finger!

What's that to kill somebody for?

That's just the start. Then it gets worse. I just went proactive, protective first strike. OK, I'm a murderer ... murderess in a red dress. So be it. Watch out.

Calm down. Stop shaking. You need to think ... need help.

I know I'm crazy. But if I know it, part of me must not be crazy.

That's me! I'm the part that's not crazy. But you don't listen to me.

I'll get help. Tune in to my guardian angel. She'll help me. Elizabeth! Elizabeth Bathory, I invoke you. Be with me now in the hour of my need. Come to me.

Yes, I can feel your ethereal presence. Greetings and welcome. You know the blood is the life. You bathed in blood. Transylvanian maidens you slashed and drained and in their juice you splashed and played. Drenched in virgin gore, you washed all your wrinkles away.

Taste it. Now I can lick the finger. Prosit ... toast to Elizabeth, copper tang ... penny for your thoughts, Jack. You're so quiet, all asprawl. Another one of those guys who fall asleep right afterwards.

Rollick in the hot juice, soak up the throb of it, smear it icky messy baby fun.

Bless me, Elizabeth, baptize me, initiate me as your blood sister. Now I'm worthy of you.

The drip drips. Press my lips to his red bubbling fountain, elixir fresh from the heart.

That's brains, yick! Jack, you're a mess. I blew your brains out. Well, not all of them ... but enough.

Girl, you really lost it. I can't believe you shot him.

Can't believe how easy it was. Sorry, guy, you caught me on a bad day.

Oh! What if someone heard? Prison ... death sentence!

But everything's closed. Good thick cinderblock walls ... no one here to hear ... little .22 bang.

One less useless dork. What to do with him? Jack, you can go home now.

More Meth to get through this. Get him out of here, clean up, have to wash everything. Thank God for waterbeds — no bloody mattress.

The bullet ... went out the other side. Must've hit the wall. Where? Should be about here. Yeah, a hole. Get a nail file ... poke in and find it.

Here, stuck in the plaster against the cinderblock. Pry it out. Little ball of metal banged flat.

Take his cash? No, I hate a thief. Just get him out of here.

Big lawn and leaf bags. Three of them. He's compostable but non-recyclable. That's it, just reach down and grab his handle. One hand there, the other in his hair ... hoist him up. Stretches it but it doesn't come off. Grunt. Have to bend him over, double him up, stuff him in. Good thing he's not a basketball player. Yuck, have to wash my hands again. Damn, broke a nail. Thirty dollars shot.
Cram all his clothes in another bag. Shoes should sink it.

Jack, I'll bet you're happier now than I am. I'm actually quite upset. So please don't hold my little temper tantrum against me. Ready to go skinny dipping?

Cinch them shut.

Shakes and shivers again. I don't want to be a killer, that sort of person. Why did I? He wasn't so bad. Snuffle ... blow my nose on the bloody sheet, bawling like a little kid now. Terrible. I made him pay — now I have to pay. What'll happen? Have to plan. Tight control, lock down zombie mode. Elizabeth will guide me ... one step at a time. Thank you, angel.

Have to do this exactly right, or they'll kill me. How do they do it here? Needle. Well, that wouldn't be so bad ... an O.D. But it takes years before they give it to you ... and until then I'd hate to wear those clothes.

I finally did it. Now maybe that'll change me. I could be ... what? Not happy, but at least not the way I am. Ritual sacrifice free the soul. I've gone the limit, dredged the bottom. Release me.

Get to work. See the job, do the job. This is a job for jet ski. Pull on my wetsuit.

Lug this big lunk. He could stand to lose a few. 'Bout to give me a hernia.

Get the hand truck. That's better. Flopping all over the place, but he moves.

Wheel him out across the patio. Load him on the ski, hang over the seat. Bungi cord him on ... sit on him. All aboard ... move it out.

Go slow, out to the channel. Moon on black water — spilled milk on a glass-top stove. Don't cry, Jack ... you're better off. Now you can flirt with my sister in heaven. Elizabeth Bathory will give you a warm welcome ... she knows more tricks than I do. Kiss her croissant for me.

Where should I drop him? Someplace with no night divers. Pye Key ... the other side. Snag him up in a cove. He won't stay there long, though. Tide's too strong ... he'll float out ... surprise! Let 'em find him ... be a good lesson to 'em.

Toss the gun on the way, plop, bullet later, plip. Night heron prowling by on green wings, yellow striped face, round eye couldn't care less. Mangrove shoots jutting their skinny spindle dicks up out of the water. Sulfur and iodine stink of rotting seaweed.

Sorry, Jack, iodine won't help.

Here we go. Let this cat out of the bag. Blug, splog. Bob up and down ... so heavy but still lighter than water. Marshmallow in hot chocolate ... sour cream in borscht. You're awfully pale, Jack ... try to get some sun while you're here.

I'm sorry, you know, I really am. It wasn't your fault. I don't know what got into me. I hope you're OK ... over there ... if there's a there.

Here I go crying again. That won't help you either, though ... you've got enough salt water. I don't blame you if you're pissed.

I'd even kill myself if it would help ... but it wouldn't. I threw the gun away anyway. And I promised Elizabeth I'd never slash the wrist again. That hurts! Harder than you'd think, get a razor in there.

Gotta run. Bye, love. You wanted to catch a fish, but now the fish will catch you. You're part of the Gulf Stream.

Give it the gas ... outa here. Waverunner, run me home.

Girl, this could get you into major trouble ... especially if it becomes a habit. Once is enough. Don't do it again!

© 2008 by William T. Hathaway


About the Author

William T. Hathaway's first novel, A WORLD OF HURT, won a Rinehart Foundation Award, and the second, SUMMER SNOW, has just been published. It is set amidst the war on terrorism as an American warrior falls in love with a Sufi Muslim and learns from her an alternative to the military mentality. A selection of his writing is available at


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