The Life Of Reilly
The Life Of Reilly
Sue Civil-Brown The Life of Reilly
To Buster, who spent some time in my koi pond and didn’t
eat the fish. The fish thank you.
To African gray parrots everywhere. You talk, but
we don’t listen. Well, except for a handful of scientists…
And thanks to Discover magazine for teaching me
that African grays really do talk intelligently,
although not as rudely as a certain bird.
And thereby hangs the tale.
“I TAKE IT YOU weren’t satisfied to be quantum consciousness dispersed through eleven dimensions?”
Lynn Reilly stood in the living room of her little bungalow, the tropical breeze of Treasure Island blowing through open windows and screened doors. The furnishings, though sparse, were wicker with brightly colored pillows. Curtains matching the pillow covers—which Lynn had made herself—tossed gently in the breeze.
It should have been an idyllic evening scene: tropical breeze perfumed by exotic flowers, the sound of the surf in the distance, the sun settling low in the sky and casting a golden glow everywhere it touched.
Should have been being the operative phrase.
Lynn had forgotten all that beauty because she was standing in the doorway of the room staring at her Aunt Delphine.
Delphine looked pretty darn good. As if she’d had a face lift. Nothing exaggerated, just enough to take a few years off. Her skin tone was great, too. Lynn would have given her right arm to achieve that particular satiny rosy look.
So Delphine looked great. The only problem was, she shouldn’t have been standing in Lynn’s living room.
Because Delphine had died five years ago of a stroke.
Delphine smiled. “You could at least say, ‘Hi, Aunt Delphine. It’s been a while.’”
Instead, Lynn said, unable to wrap her mind around what was happening, “You’re supposed to be dead.”
“Pah!” Delphine replied, frowning. “Death is far overrated, dear! And by the way, you’re wrong about the number of dimensions.”
Lynn’s knees started to give way and she sagged onto the nearest chair. Was she really discussing quantum physics with her dead aunt? Shaking her head in shock, she asked, “Okay, so how many are there?”
“Sorry, dear,” Delphine said. “You’ll have to earn your Nobel Prize on that one.”
And that was Delphine, as enigmatic in the afterlife as she had been in life. Wasn’t she supposed to be playing harps with angels or something? How could God have let her escape from heaven to come to Treasure Island?
But then, given Delphine’s nature, the better question might have been: How could God have prevented her?
“You’re not supposed to be here,” Lynn said lamely.
“Probably true.” Delphine said. She was wearing her favorite green dress which was covered in huge red cabbage roses, and settled onto the other wicker chair. Well, not settled, exactly. She almost…floated. “But I thought I’d drop in anyway.”
“How soon can you drop out?” Lynn asked pointedly.
God, this was impossible. She loved Delphine. How could she not? The woman had raised her from the age of ten, when her parents had died in an accident. But she shouldn’t be here. Lynn was a scientist. Reality didn’t behave this way.
“Lynn, honey. You and I need to talk.”
Uh oh, Lynn thought. Whenever Delphine said that, she was in for the Lecture.
“I can’t understand why in the world a young woman your age, with your training and credentials, would move to a tiny island to teach little kids. You should be at Stanford or MIT. There are hardly any eligible men here!”
“Delphine…” But then Lynn bit her tongue. She had had this discussion with Delphine before. Too many times. When she’d decided to major in physics and mathematics, Delphine had told her she would alienate men. When she had graduated summa cum laude and decided to pursue a Ph.D rather than a Mrs., Delphine had told her she would surely end up a lonely old woman.
“Oh, don’t purse up at me,” Delphine scolded. “Do you have any idea how blessed you are?”
Blessed? Lynn sat up straighter. Blessed? Blessed to have the world’s most interfering and manipulative aunt returned from the grave? Not that she didn’t love Delphine to pieces, but the last five years had been undeniably…calmer. More rational. Because nobody had been trying to make Lynn over into her own image.
Even as she thought it, Lynn realized she was verging on tears. Interfering and manipulative, yes, but so, so loving. Part of her wanted to fly across the room and try to hug her aunt just one more time. But the scientist in her erupted in a state of armed rebellion. This could not be real. It had to be an hallucination, and giving in to it would be dangerous to her sanity.
“I’m going to take a walk,” Lynn said, clutching frantically at the straws of her mental health. “I expect you to have vacated the premises by the time I return.”
“But we’re not finished!” Delphine said.
“Oh yes, Aunt Delphine,” Lynn said. “We are. Go juggle some comets, or pick a star to send into supernova…or whatever else you might have to do. But let me live my life, okay?”
Without waiting for an answer, Lynn rose and stormed out, tamping down irritation and fear, pondering the inevitability of what had just happened.
Of course Delphine would do this. Even if she was an hallucination.
REVEREND JACK MARKS was in his driveway, washing the ancient, cranky Jeep that was his emergency transportation. The island’s salt air made rust a constant problem, and keeping the Jeep clean was a near daily chore, at least when they weren’t having a drought. At the moment, car washing was limited to once a week.
But it wasn’t really a chore, for it gave Jack time to think about life, God and his place in the universe, time to meditate as he went through the repetitive, mechanical motions of scrubbing and rinsing, scrubbing and rinsing.
Nearby, the island’s pet alligator, Buster, waited on the grass for a spray from the hose. Buster, who’d lately been spending most of his time up at the airport, had apparently been driven into town by the island’s recent lack of rain. Jack obligingly hosed him from head to tail, listening to Buster’s groans of pleasure.
“Oooh, that feels good,” Jack said to the gator. Grinning, he hosed the beast yet again, even though he was well aware that he was wasting precious water. Even Bridal Falls had shrunk some for lack of rainwater. The pool beneath looked smaller, too. But Buster was a living being who needed his share of water, too, and as Jack thought about it, he decided Buster needed the water more than the Jeep. So he turned the hose back on the gator until the beast was in the midst of a muddy puddle.
Buster approved, rolling in it. So much for the scrubby lawn.
Jack was not the stereotypical image of a clergyman. He eschewed clerical garb for Hawaiian shirts, khaki shorts and leather sandals, even when he was leading worship. It wasn’t that he disrespected God. Far from it. He simply knew that God looked beyond what clothes a man was wearing, and was more interested in the cleanliness of the soul than the cleanliness of the suit. Treasure Island suited his view to a T: liberal and laid-back.
He glanced up as his new neighbor, the pretty dark-haired schoolteacher, emerged from the front of her house. So much for cleanliness of the soul. He fought down the urge to take a third glance, because upon the second one, he realized she certainly was fetching in bicycle shorts and a sports bra. He told himself not to notice, that women on Treasure Island often exercised in such garb, as the tropical heat would permit little else. And to be honest, with most of the women he saw dressed in that way, it wouldn’t have disturbed him.
But there was something about this woman that made his heart skip a beat. Maybe it was the dark eyes that seemed at once placid and deep, or the smile that could easily have substituted for the island’s power plant or even—so much for cleanliness of soul again—the long legs that seemed to carry her with such effortless grace. Whatever it was, this woman was certainly worth a fourth and fifth glance, if not an outright stare. Not the sort of thing a man of the cloth ought to do. But then, he was a man like any other, and he had the sneaking suspicion heaven would understand.
He was about to call out a friendly hello—having convinced himself that he meant nothing by it beyond the sort of neighborliness that typified the community here on Treasure Island—then hesitated when he realized she was not moving with her usual, casual grace. She was almost stomping, which, he could not help but notice, gave ever the slightest bounce in her…pectoral region. She was upset. Even angry, maybe. Certainly disturbed. Not the time for a friendly hello.
His first instinct was to mosey over that way and ask if something was wrong. But before he could make up his mind about a proper approach to something which might prove to be delicate, Lynn Reilly turned around and walked back into the house. Looking, Jack thought, rather like a woman determined to face a great unpleasantness. She disappeared inside and the screen door slapped closed behind her. Shrugging, Jack started washing his Jeep again.
A moment later, his head snapped up as he heard Lynn Reilly’s voice float clearly through her open windows.
“You,” Lynn said loudly, “were supposed to dissipate!”
TREASURE ISLAND RESIDENTS rarely minded their own business. Indeed, on this island, if you suggested that someone should mind own business, hewas likely to look at you as if you had inquired about the marital status of a tuna sandwich. It was one of those places where, if you didn’t know what you were doing, someone else surely did. Jack had only a few more scruples. In short, if he learned something in confidence, he held it in confidence. On this island that rarely happened.
Still, he hesitated. He hadn’t yet met the schoolteacher. She’d arrived just before the opening of the term, and he’d been away on a rare vacation. Bursting into her house demanding to know if something was wrong seemed hardly likely to endear him to her.
But curiosity had sunk its teeth into him, and if Jack had any significant flaw, it was his curiosity. Since his childhood, people had been saying that curiosity killed the cat, but that hadn’t slowed Jack any. Piqued, he stepped over Buster with a muttered apology and strode straight toward the new schoolteacher’s house. Behind him, Buster lifted his head from the mud curiously.
After all, he told himself, the sanity of one of the island’s very few teachers was a matter of concern. So was her safety. Either one constituted ample excuse to butt in. Especially on Treasure Island.
He supposed he didn’t look very reputable, pretty much wet as he was and covered with soap stains and grime from scrubbing the Jeep’s wheels. His nails would have shamed a coal miner. So as soon as he rang Lynn Reilly’s bell, he shoved his hands into his pockets.
She appeared on the other side of the screen door, looking harried and maybe even a tad frightened. “Yes?”
“Ms. Reilly, I’m your neighbor, Reverend—”
“Yes, I know,” she interrupted. “Jack Marks. I’m sorry, but this isn’t a good time for a social chat.”
Give her points for being blunt, he thought. He always liked that in a person. “Social chatting can wait,” he said, giving his best ministerial smile. “I understand that just dropping by can be inconvenient, although on this island it’s hard to escape.”
“Then what?” she asked.
Maybe she was a little too blunt. And there was something about the way she was standing, as if she were trying to block something from his view. “I’m sorry. It’s just that I heard you while I was washing my car, and I thought you sounded…distressed.”
To his amazement, color rose to the roots of her hair. Had he interrupted some kind of tryst? But no, he was absolutely certain that she had sounded as if someone were bothering her.
“I…uh…” Words appeared to have utterly escaped her, surely a strange state of affairs for a middle-school teacher. Her color deepened even more, reminding him of a freshly boiled lobster…although he had long since sworn off eating anything that had to be cooked alive.
“Unexpected quantum field collapse.”
He gaped at her. What language was she speaking? She made a visible effort to gather herself.
Then a recognizable word burst out of her. “Telephone,” she said.
“What about the telephone?” he asked.
“Someone was bothering me. I hung up on her.”
He nodded. “I’m sorry to have disturbed you then.”
“No. I mean, it’s okay, it’s just that, well, I have an interfering aunt.” She gave him a weak smile.
“I have an interfering mother,” he said with genuine sympathy. “Treasure Island is just far enough away.”
Her smile was sickly. “Aunt Delphine is…never far enough away.”
“She can afford the international long distance, eh?”
She nodded. “It’s as if she were right in the room.”
He chuckled. “I’m more fortunate. My mother insists that I call her.”
“I wish Aunt Delphine would learn the same manners.”
“Well, I’m sorry to have bothered you. I’ll just go back to washing my car then.”
“Thanks for caring.”
“Sure.” More polite smiles. He was halfway back to his Jeep when something made him look around. Lynn Reilly still stood in her doorway, behind the screen, watching.
Some impulse, born of the devil he later thought, caused him to say, “Why don’t you come over for dinner tonight? Just a simple salad and grilled fish, but I have plenty.”
“Thank you! I’d love that.”
He thought her acceptance sounded awfully relieved for the circumstances, but he shrugged inwardly and returned to his car.
Then, through the open window, he heard Lynn Reilly say, “Just leave me alone!”
He winced, hoping she didn’t mean him.
“GOT A LADY COMING over tonight?”
The voice came from the yard next door, and it belonged to Zedediah Burch, aka Zed-the-Bait-Guy. Not that there were that many other Zeds on the island. None, in fact. But somehow it was always Zed-the-Bait-Guy, run together into a single word. He caught and sold fresh chum for the commercial fishermen and the few sport fishing boats the island boasted. You could always count on Zed-the-Bait-Guy for exactly what you needed to entice the kind of fish you were looking for.
Jack paused in the process of spreading out a tablecloth on the slightly rusted wrought-iron table on his small brick patio, a patio that rippled and dipped a bit because his predecessor hadn’t thought to make a level bed of sand to support the bricks, all of which looked like castoffs from a brickyard.
“What makes you think that?” he asked.
Zed-the-Bait-Guy shrugged and moved a wad of chewing tobacco a little more firmly into his cheek. “Tablecloth.”
“Oh.” Jack looked at the oilcloth he was spreading, a sheet he’d bought from Hanratty’s general store a couple years back. It was already cracking along the folds. “You think this is fancy?”
“I think you wouldn’t bother for me.”
Jack had to grin at that. “You’re right, Zed. For you I’d let the rust show.”
“Rust adds to the taste,” Zed said. “So who is it?”
“The new teacher. I thought I’d be neighborly.”
Zed nodded and turned to spit into the spittoon he kept on his side of the property line. The wad landed with an audible ping that sent a shudder up the back of Jack’s neck. He had to remind himself that millions of viewers watched baseball players do exactly the same thing, dozens of times during each game. In glorious full-color close-ups, too. The reminder didn’t help.
Jack swallowed hard, then spoke. “Could you move that a bit farther away while we’re eating tonight?”
Zed shrugged. “Won’t be here. Big game tonight.”
“What are the stakes?” Jack asked. He didn’t have to ask what kind of game. Poker was the game on Treasure Island.
“Me and Fred Hanks are facing off with Mick McDonald and Joe Cranston. Winner gets to ask Hester LeBlanc out to dinner.”
Hester had been widowed nearly two years ago when her fisherman husband had gone overboard during a severe squall. There was some talk that he’d gone over on purpose, rather than face Hester’s anger, since she’d just learned he was sparking around with Camille Danza. Some went so far as to suggest that Hester…arranged…his untimely demise, although Jack saw nothing in her that would hint at such a possibility. Even on Treasure Island, sometimes gossip was just that—gossip.
Regardless, thus far the island’s middle-aged, would-be lotharios had respected her mourning. Apparently they had decided that long enough was long enough. “Good luck.”
Zed shrugged philosophically. “Winning only means you get to ask first. Doesn’t mean she’ll say yes.”
“That schoolteacher though…” He smiled. “Quite a looker.”
“I hadn’t noticed.” Liar! Jack felt instantly ashamed. He was a preacher for heaven’s sake. He had no business lying.
“Maybe you’d better get Buck Shanahan to fly you into Aruba to get your eyes checked then,” Zed suggested, with a twinkle in his eye that made clear he did not believe Jack one iota. “Whatcha making?”
“Just salad and grilled fish.”
Zed shook his head. “No dessert? No taters? Look, I got a couple of bakers you can have. They’re pretty good cooked on the coals. And I have some rum cake I picked up in Aruba. Ain’t been opened yet.”
Before Jack could say anything, Zed was hurrying toward his back door.
Jack shook his head smiling and finished spreading the oilcloth. That was one of the things he loved about this island. On Treasure Island, being neighborly wasn’t merely a phrase; it was a way of life.
When Lynn Reilly arrived, he had the potatoes wrapped in foil and baking on the hot gray coals, the salad tossed and ready, and the fish seasoned with dill and on the rack, prepped for grilling.
He’d even dug into the church’s supply of communion wine for a bottle of passable red, although he knew he ought to serve white wine with fish. Unfortunately, his budget didn’t allow for buying wine from the only supplier on the island, the casino.
“Smells delicious,” Lynn said appreciatively as she took a chair at the table and accepted a goblet of wine. She had changed into a white sun dress that caught the red of the setting sun and reflected it back as pink. The sky overhead seemed ablaze tonight, probably heralding rain for tomorrow.
“I hope you like dill,” he said, reaching for the wire fish basket.
The potatoes were done, so he put the fish over the heat. It would cook fast, even though the coals had burned low and gray.
“It’s nice of you to ask me over,” Lynn said. “I’ve got a grill out back and a patio, too, but every time I think of actually grilling, it seems like a lot of effort for just one person.” She leaned forward, resting her elbows on the table. “It’s funny, when I moved here, I was sure I was going to do all those things that come to mind when you move to the tropics. Cook and eat outside, spend hours on the beach or in the water.”
He chuckled. “I know. It turns out you have to make a real effort to do it, just the way it was back on the mainland. I fight the battle every day.”
“Do you?” She looped her fingers and rested her chin on them.
“Yep. I don’t know if I feel lazy because of the weather and the lifestyle, or if it really is too much trouble to bother for one person.”
She laughed, her brown eyes sparkling. “The air is so soft it’s almost tranquilizing. And when the breeze starts in the evening, I just want to sit and enjoy it.”
“Yeah, I have the same problem. The longer you live here, the easier it gets to function, but at first you just want to go on a permanent vacation.”
“School keeps me busy, thank goodness. Some things can’t be ignored, like teaching a class or grading papers.”
He flipped the fish over. “How many students do you have?”
“All the younger ones, from first grade up, then high-school physics one and two, calculus and applied math.” She held up a hand. “It sounds like a lot, but I have a total of sixty-three kids.”
“So lots of individual attention.”
“That’s what attracted me to this island in the first place. With so few students in each class, we can explore more. And I can get some of them hooked on science, so maybe they’ll stay with it after they graduate.”
“You’re passionate,” he said.
She shrugged. “There’s a big universe out there. The better we understand it, the better we’ll know our place in it. Maybe we’ll stop acting as if it’s our garbage can. In fact, I’m thinking about taking some of the classes for a day trip to see an island in its pristine state. One of the parents was telling me about a small island where the only fresh water is in a rain pool.”
Jack nodded and tested the fish. “Just another minute.” Looking back at her, he continued. “I don’t think our kids appreciate just how important rain pools are to our survival. This island would be dead without rain, and we’ve had to dig cisterns in the rock up on the volcano to ensure a steady flow. It doesn’t just magically come out of the tap.”
“It doesn’t do that anywhere,” she smiled. “But yes, I agree with your point. It’s especially critical on these small islands. Rain is truly the gift of life.”
“Just ask Mars.” He removed the fish from the grill and gently pushed a piece onto each plate. Then he forked the potatoes out of the coals and set them on a separate plate. “I’m afraid I don’t have sour cream, but I have—”
“I have sour cream,” said a voice from the deepening dark next door. Zed stepped out of the shadows. For once tobacco didn’t create a bulge in his cheek. “You must be the new schoolteacher.”
Jack rolled his eyes. “Lynn, this is Zed.”
“Zed-the-Bait-Guy,” Lynn said quickly.
“Hi.” Zed extended a hand in greeting and smiled broadly, a mistake considering what the chaw had done to his teeth. “Let me get that sour cream for you.”
Jack put his hands on his narrow hips. “I thought you had a poker game?”
Zed smiled. “Was just getting ready to leave.”
Right, Jack thought. And people complained about his curiosity.
Zed returned in thirty seconds with a carton of sour cream. “Keep what you don’t use,” he said. “Seeing as how I can get more when I buy more spuds.”
“Thank you,” Lynn said.
“Yeah, thanks,” Jack said. “Your game?”
“My game?” Zed blinked. “Oh, yeah, my game. Wouldn’t want somebody else to get at Hester first because I didn’t show. See ya later.”
After his footsteps vanished into the sound of the surf that was only a few blocks away, Lynn asked, “Does Hester know they’re playing for her?”
Jack reached for a spoon to use with the sour cream and passed both to Lynn. “Probably. There aren’t a lot of secrets around here.”
She nodded. “Makes sense.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “You think so?”
“Why not?” she asked. “Human attraction is largely random anyway. It’s a matter of pheromones—whether the other person smells like a viable reproductive partner. And we don’t even know it. At the most basic level, it’s about whether proteins in our brain are open or folded, a largely random function of precisely where the potentiality wave collapses into a point particle. So why not turn it over to the deal of a card?”
Jack looked at her, trying to find words. “Umm…”
She laughed. “Sorry. I go over the top sometimes.”
“It’s just that I’ve never heard love spoken of in such…cold terms.”
“Noooo,” she said. “It’s not cold at all. It’s quite beautiful, in fact. The universe deals to each of us in turn, random shuffling at the Planck scale, and yet we’re responsible for how we play every card we’re dealt. It’s a mathematical and ethical symphony beyond imagining.”
“Planck scale?” Jack asked, then shook his head. “Never mind. How’s the fish?”
“Fantastic! I don’t think I’ve ever had fish this fresh.”
“It came in on the boat this morning. One of the perks of living here.”
For a little while they were quiet, enjoying the food and the deepening tropical evening. As the last of the daylight faded, two citronella candles in clay pots provided the illumination. If there were any mosquitoes on the island, Lynne had yet to run into them, but the candles drew the attention of an equally successful pest: moths.
With her chin resting in her hand, she watched as Jack gently waved them away, saving them from death by fatal attraction. She couldn’t help but find it touching; surely he was the first person she’d ever met who actually cared what happened to a moth.
“These fellows,” he said as he waved them away, “are harmless, though not particularly pretty. It won’t be long though before the real butterflies start emerging. The colors are glorious.”
“That would make a great class project for my younger students.”
“Just don’t kill them to examine them.”
She sat up a little straighter. “Observation without interference?”
“Exactly,” he said. “You can catch them alive, look them over, then let them go.”
“You realize, of course, that observation without interference is not even theoretically possible,” she said. “Heisenberg? Schrödinger? Wave-particle duality? Double slit experiments? Any of this ring a bell?”
“Umm…you’ve gone into that other language again.”
“That was English,” Lynn said. “Well, Heisenberg and Schrödinger are German names, but still…it can’t come as a shock to you that we change the universe whenever we look at it.”
“When you stare into the abyss, the abyss stares back into you?” Jack asked.
“Well, that’s Friedrich Nietzsche. He was a philosopher, not a physicist.”
“Is there a difference anymore?”
Lynn smiled. “Touché. When we start to look at the most fundamental building blocks of the universe, we do tend to blur that line, don’t we?”
Jack shrugged. “I really couldn’t say. I don’t know all that much about it. But listening to you…well, I’m reminded of some of our more esoteric conversations back in seminary. How many angels really can dance on the head of a pin, and the like.”
Lynn felt the flush rise to her cheeks. Maybe it was the wine. Maybe it was the shock of a dinner invitation on the heels of Delphine’s visitation. “I’m sorry, Jack.”
He held up a hand. “No, don’t be sorry. I have to say, I’m fascinated. Truly.”
Fascinated. That was a word that could mean a lot of things. Some of them purely intellectual. Most of them not. The latter could be…dangerous. Very dangerous.
Lynn shook her head. “Just tell me to hush when I start babbling about things that sound too weird.”
“On Treasure Island?” he asked with a wink. “Trying to define weird here is like stepping into a tar pit.”
“Lynn,” he interrupted, “just be yourself. Don’t try to impress me, because you already have. And don’t try to play to my expectations, because I don’t have any. If I’d wanted to be surrounded by staid, ordinary, never-risk-looking-weird people, I’d have stayed in Connecticut.”
He waved his hand over the candles again, sending a few more moths back to the safety of the shadows. She took the opportunity to study him, really study him. She’d spent most of the evening avoiding directly looking at Jack except in brief glimpses. The interface of observer and observed was never more apparent than in human interaction. All her life, she’d had a strong tendency to watch people, to examine every movement, every facial tic, every shift of the eye or the posture, looking for cues to their thoughts. It had consistently made people uncomfortable, to the point where she’d trained herself not to look at people directly. That had grown into a shyness that had plagued her through childhood and into the present day.
Right now, however, she decided he was an attractive man. Person. Not a movie-star type, but handsome enough in a laid-back sort of way. His face seemed to want to smile, and laugh lines decorated the corners of his eyes and etched the edges of his mouth. The sun had bronzed him, nothing surprising here in the tropics, and left his brown hair streaked with blond. Almost a surfer look in a way, except his eyes held so much more depth.
That was when he realized she was staring at him. To her astonishment, he didn’t squirm. Instead, he smiled, revealing great teeth. “You look like you’ve never seen anyone push moths away from flames before.”
He nodded. “I actually find it an interesting paradox. God gave most creatures a desire to live and the means of survival. Then we have the moth, who seems willing to immolate himself just to approach the light. One would think the heat would warn him off.”
“Not if he can’t feel it.”
He nodded. “Or…if the light is so beautiful the moth wants to approach at any cost.”
Instinctively, she looked into the candle flame. “It is beautiful.”
“And for the moth it is at once a desirable goal and a deadly trap.”
She glanced his way. “Are we talking metaphor here?”
“Why do people always think I’m speaking in parables?”
“Maybe because you’re a minister.”
He laughed at that. “Sorry, I was just marveling at one of nature’s oddities.”
“There certainly are a few of those. Although…”
She leaned on her elbows on the table. “Well, I shouldn’t I guess.”
“What?” he asked.
“The moths aren’t attracted to the flame.”
“Is that a fact?” His eyebrow lifted.
She nodded. “It’s actually the warm candle wax that’s the attraction. The infrared signature of warm candle wax coincides with that of the sex-attractant chemical emitted by female moths. Light-conducting spines on their antennae carry that signal to their brains, and they think there’s a…well…they think there’s a horny female moth there.”
“That would certainly explain the self-immolation,” Jack said. “Huh. So it’s not the flame at all.”
“I didn’t mean to spoil it for you.”
“Not at all! Why would you say that?”
She shrugged. “People are more comfortable with the familiar. The assumption is woven into the fabric of our language—‘Like a moth to flame.’ Then science comes along and shows something else entirely. People resent it when science turns their beliefs upside down.”
“Some people do,” he said. “I’m not one of them.”
Lynn nodded, wondering if his casual smile were covering something else. In her experience, discussing science with religious people tended to end very badly.
He paused for a moment, then continued, “Lynn, I’ve always felt that we miss so much if we don’t realize that the entire universe around us is full of wonders. Every breath of air, every beat of our hearts, is a kind of miracle. A beautiful, beautiful gift. Understanding why it happens, at a scientific level, doesn’t disprove the miracle. It helps us to appreciate the miracle even more.”
Right then and there, Lynn decided she liked Jack. And that, she reminded herself, could be a serious problem.
She jumped to her feet—not too quickly, she hoped—and said, “I’ve had a wonderful time, Jack. Thank you so much. But I have a stack of papers waiting to be graded.”
He rose immediately. “Then get to it, teach.” With a grin, he shook her hand. “See you around.”
She nodded and fled while trying to look as if she weren’t fleeing. This was going to be bad. Very bad. A neighbor who cared enough to save the tiniest creature from its own urges, and wasn’t offended when she shot holes in his worldview. Someone she could appreciate and also talk to. Yes, this was going to be very bad.
To her great relief, she found her living room empty of Delphine. She plopped into a chair and drew a deep breath, taking a moment to look into every dark corner of the room, making sure Delphine wasn’t hiding in the shadows before letting out a deep sigh.
She was alone.
Alone was good.
She could handle alone.
“YOU DIDN’T HAVE ANY papers to grade at all.”
Lynn rolled over in her bed with a groan and pulled the pillow over her head. The first roseate light of dawn was seeping between the Bahama shutters, far too early for rising. On Treasure Island, school started at ten in the morning because so many students went out early to fish with their parents.
“Go away,” she mumbled and tried to reach for the strands of a really lovely dream she had been having. “It’s too early.”
“You lied to get away from the nice preacher.”
Lynn groaned again, rolled over and closed her eyes. “You’re not here. I refuse to observe you and thus the quantum wave does not collapse and thus you are not here.”
“Don’t be silly, Lynn,” Delphine said, now a warm presence beneath the covers. “You know it doesn’t work that way. You’re not the only observer here. And if the pheromone scent under here is any indication, you weren’t the only observer last night either.”
Lynn threw back the covers in horror. “Aunt Delphine!”
Delphine, now sitting primly on the side of the bed, garbed in some diaphanous thing that Lynn remembered from years past, simply smiled. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Lynn scowled. “Stay out of my bed, Aunt Delphine!”
“Oh please,” Delphine said, patting Lynn’s foot. “I would never dream of doing something so tawdry. I may be a ghost, but I’m not like that.”
“Pffft. Don’t eavesdrop on my dreams either.”
Delphine put a hand over her eyes. “I didn’t see a thing, dear. But it doesn’t take a bloodhound to tell that you had some nice ones.”
Lynn leapt out of the bed and headed straight for the shower. When she emerged, Delphine was buffing her nails at Lynn’s vanity table.
“Feel better?” Delphine asked.
“I feel less like a broadcast antenna at least.”
“That’s good, dear,” Delphine said. “And I’m sorry. That was a bit…forward of me. You must understand that in my state of existence, privacy is simply not a relevant concept anymore.”
Lynn found it impossible to imagine in detail, even while she could understand the theory of superposition and interconnectedness that underlay Delphine’s new experience. Still, the idea of not having a truly private thought was unnerving, to say the least.
“You look younger,” Lynn said, giving in. Hallucination or not, she found an odd comfort in Delphine’s presence.
“I can look any age I want to now. In fact, I don’t even have to look human. However, I’ve chosen a younger version from your memories…from back when you thought I was the coolest aunt ever.”
“How old was I then?” Lynn asked, trying to towel the moisture from her hair and fighting a losing battle against the ever-present humidity. “Three? Four? It must’ve been before the age of reason.”
Delphine laughed. “I always loved you, Lynn.”
In spite of her irritation, Lynn felt a pang. “I know, Aunt Delphine. I loved you, too.”
“Past tense?” Delphine asked, shaking her head.
Lynn hung her towel over a rod and considered the question. It was customary to speak of the dead in the past tense and yet…“No. I guess not.”
“Would you like to know what happens when we die?” Delphine asked, looking away as Lynn shrugged on her bra and panties. “You should wait until your skin dries, dear. It will be much easier to get dressed then.”
“That would mean waiting until January,” Lynn said, now reaching for a pair of capri pants and a flower-print blouse. “I never really feel dry here. And yes, I would love to know what happens when we die.”
Delphine smiled. “Nice outfit. Not what I’d have worn to teach in my day, but it’s practical here. I can’t tell you all of it—that would spoil the surprise—but let’s just say I have unfinished business.”
Lynn shook her head as she picked up a brush. “I refuse to be your unfinished business.”
Delphine shrugged. “Sorry, kiddo. Not your decision.”
Lynn headed for the kitchen and her prized espresso maker. How many shots? Two? Four? Twelve? How many would it take to wrap her brain around Delphine’s intrusion into her life? And why didn’t they have a Starbucks on this island yet?
Four shots, she decided. An Americano over ice with just enough cream to take the bitter edge off. She needed to be buzzing high on caffeine to deal with this.
“I do miss Starbucks,” Delphine sighed behind her.
“What? They don’t have them in heaven?”
“Don’t blaspheme, dear.” Then, “Hmmm. Ahh! That’s much better!”
In spite of herself, Lynn whirled around to look. Her aunt was now seated at the dinette with an iced latte in her hand.
“It’s so hot in the tropics,” Delphine remarked.
This was too much. “Where did you get that from?”
“I thought about it and there it was.” Delphine smiled beatifically, then sucked delicately from the straw. “Oh, that’s the best I’ve ever had.”
“It’s not fair.”
“That you get to think one into existence, but I have to make mine.” Petulance, Lynn thought. Now she was being petulant with a ghost.
“Well, Lynn, you live in a cause-and-effect world. You have to effect the cause to cause the effect. So start brewing so we can chat before you leave for school.”
She didn’t want to spend her usual quiet coffee time with a dead aunt. This was her time in the mornings, time to sit on her back porch and sip her coffee, taking in the fragrance of bougainvillea and dew before they evaporated and left behind only the tang of salt air. However, she had no choice in the matter, so reluctantly she walked out to the porch and sat with Delphine. Besides, she didn’t really want Delphine to go.
“That’s so much better,” Delphine said approvingly.
“So are you going to tell me the mysteries of the universe?”
“Don’t be silly. You have to find them out for yourself.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I can’t tell you that,” Delphine said. “I just have to finish something.”
“Oh, lovely.” Lynn put her chin in her hand, her elbow on the table, and stared at her favorite aunt. “You know you could cost me my job.”
Delphine appeared appalled. “I wouldn’t do that!”
“You will if I keep talking to empty air.”
Delphine pursed her lips. “I hadn’t considered that. I was only thinking of my mission.”
“I’d appreciate it if you would keep that in mind.”
“Of course I will.”
“Thank you.” Bargaining with the dead. Lynn closed her eyes, surrendering briefly to a sense of surrealism that Dali and Kafka might have conspired to create.
She lifted her coffee and sipped, considering how bizarre it felt to look across at a dead person. Common sense said this could not be happening, but then again what was reality? When she considered her former colleagues at Princeton investigating the effect of consciousness on the underlying quantum field of the universe, reality became a tenuous thing.
But there was nothing at all tenuous about Delphine’s appearance. She looked solid enough to touch. A thought occurred to her. “You’re not cold.”
Delphine arched a brow. “Why would I be cold?”
“Ghosts are supposed to create cold spots. You draw energy from the matter around me in order to materialize. I should experience that energy drop as coldness.”
Delphine laughed. “That old tale. Well, I suppose some do. But I’m not exactly a ghost.”
“Then what are you?”
“A non-physical manifestation of my consciousness.”
“Not the same thing at all, Lynn. Not at all. A ghost is merely an imprint left on the quantum field. Like a footprint left in the dirt. The footprint is there, but the person who left that footprint has passed on.”
“Don’t sound so dubious. Remember, I’ve graduated ahead of you.”
Lynn had the worst urge to roll her eyes. “Graduated what ahead of me? Death? Yes, I’ll give you that much. But physics? Oh Auntie, let me assure you that physicists are working on things you only imagined when you were still teaching.”
“You think I don’t know that? My point is—I have the answers now. You don’t.” Delphine sipped her latte then frowned. “Which reminds me. Why in the world did you leave Princeton and your research to come to this place and teach youngsters, of all things?”
“Do you really want an answer?”
“Because I got sick of the underhanded competition,” Lynn said. “Not with my peers, but with my students. I’m sure you heard about it. Students were stealing books and papers from the library to prevent other students from reading them. Buying their term papers on the Internet. Fudging their experimental results. I felt as if I were teaching a generation of cheats. Not that I should have been surprised, given how some of my colleagues behaved.”
“Your work was stolen.”
“Yes.” Lynn scowled. “And I hope Donald Farthing enjoys his new-found fame.”
“He was that professor you were dating, right?”
“And he’s the one who stole your work?”
“Two years of research on 11-dimensional Calabi-Yau shapes, trying to prove my theory of quantum space-time. I had to develop a new mathematic to solve it, Auntie, just as Newton had to develop calculus to fashion the equations of classical mechanics. Then one morning I wake up and find he’s published my research on the Internet, under his name. He’d copied my files to his computer and even backdated them. And since he was a tenured professor and I was just a Ph.D candidate…”
Delphine nodded and took another sip of her drink. She sucked loudly at the straw just as she sometimes had in life. “I never really cared for Donald,” she said finally. “I’m so sorry he proved me right.”
“You’re not the only one.”
“Well,” Delphine said, suddenly brisk, “this is a nice spot for a change of pace. Almost like a vacation. Is that why you chose this place?”
“Yes, it is. Just let me get on with it, will you?” But a vacation was not the reason she had chosen this island. A vacation had been the last thing on her mind. She’d needed to escape, yes—especially from the academic world that was looking at her like a bug under the microscope—but Treasure Island had been an accidental discovery on the Internet.
She’d been browsing around, looking for various teaching jobs, when this one had popped up. She might have passed it by, except that her mathematical mind had immediately calculated the thousands of miles this job would put between her and Donald.
The lure had been irresistible.
“But of course!” Delphine arched a brow as if surprised. “I’m not here to hinder you.”
“No?” Lynn felt entirely dubious, with good reason. Delphine’s help had often caused more problems than it had cured. “But, um, I really should handle my own life on my own.”
Delphine smiled benevolently. “You only think it’s your own life.”
Lynn didn’t know how to react to that. She wanted to throw something, but that wasn’t her nature. She could have told her aunt to stop playing the sphinx, but she’d never told Delphine to do anything except butt out. Which she had just tried to do.
“Look, dear,” Delphine said kindly, “you know you’re part of the Unity. Nothing affects only you. Others are involved. But, I promise to stay in the background as long as my work here if unfinished.”
At that, she dissipated. Lynn felt anything but reassured. Delphine in the background could be as every bit as disastrous as Delphine front and center.
Groaning, she sat on the back porch, drank coffee and watched the remainder of the sunrise. Before long, despite everything, peace began to fill her again. That was why she had come to this island, and the sun’s early rays seemed to bathe her with it.
Forget Delphine, she told herself. The worst she could be was a nuisance. The best….
Well, the best that could be said was that Delphine had just confirmed a lot of current theories in physics. She smiled at that and raised her coffee in a toast to the sun. The world was an amazing place.
It even included an alligator staring at her from beneath a shrub.
She blinked and peered more intently. God, it was an alligator. It must be Buster, she realized. He was the only crocodilian on the island and more a celebrity than any of the human inhabitants, even World Series of Poker champion Bill Anstin. Buster was not quite wild, not quite a pet, not dangerous but neither to be trifled with when he set his mind to something.
Rather like Aunt Delphine.
“Tell me you’re not in league with her,” Lynn said.
Alligator physiology made it impossible to shrug, but somehow Buster conveyed a shrug regardless.
“Aren’t you supposed to be with Hannah?” Lynn asked. Buster was smitten with Hannah Lamont, a pilot who lived with Buck Shanahan up at the airport. Island legend said that Buster had played a prominent role in getting Hannah and Buck together and thus ensuring that Hannah stayed on Treasure Island.
“Mmmhhhhmmm.” It was a wordless groan and yet Lynn had no doubt what Buster meant.
“She’ll be back soon, I’m sure.”
“So you’re lonely and hanging around with me?”
“Delphine’s going to make trouble for me, isn’t she?”
Lynn sighed. “You have to understand, Buster. She was the stereotypical spinster schoolmarm. When she was a girl, guys didn’t like girls who were too smart. And she was way, way too smart. She never found anyone who could put up with that, and for as long as I can remember, she’s been bound and determined that I should not end up alone.”
“What she can’t understand,” Lynn said, “is that I would rather be alone for the right reasons than be with someone for the wrong reasons.”
“I don’t want to be with someone just for the sake of being with someone. I’d rather be alone than be with the wrong person again.”
“You think I’m crazy, right?”
“Will you do me a favor, Buster?” Lynn asked, looking into his saurian eyes.
“When Delphine makes things nuts—and we both know she will—will you remind me I’m not crazy?”
Buster blinked and seemed to be assembling the parts of the thought before he replied.
So okay, Lynn thought. At least she had an ally. An ally-gator. She laughed at the thought as she rose to get ready to leave for school. Maybe Buster was wrong. Maybe she was crazy.
But she could still laugh at herself. She laughed even harder when she realized her aunt had done it again: she had her niece talking to alligators.
Delphine tended to have that effect.
THE NEXT AFTERNOON, just as he was about to set out for his daily jog on the beach, Jack stepped out of his house to find Buster waiting in the now-dry wallow they’d made together yesterday.
Jack stared at the gator, wondering why he was hanging around here when lately he’d preferred to be up at the airport. But the obvious plea was just too much to ignore, especially since he couldn’t see even the smallest puff of cloud in the sky.
“Okay, Buster,” he said. “I’ll get the hose.”
This gator talked. Of that Jack had not the least doubt. Admittedly the beast was limited by lack of lips and proper vocal chords, but somewhere during his long gator-solitary life on this island, he seemed to have learned English.
Jack turned the hose on Buster, and a stream of water ran over the rough hide, causing the gator to groan ecstatically.
“It might,” Jack said to Buster, “be ecologically more sound to put you in my bathtub.”
Umum, Buster answered, shaking his head.
“No, I guess not. I’d have to change the water anyway to keep it clean.”
Buster groaned happily, wiggling in the dirt until it mixed with the water and became mud.
An amused voice came from next door. “Does watering him make him grow?”
Jack looked up to see Lynn standing in front of her house, backpack slung over one shoulder, a stack of file folders in her arms.
“I don’t know,” he said truthfully. “But since the drought it sure makes him happy.”
She laughed. “I agree. A happy gator is desirable. Do you feed him, too?”
“That’s one thing we avoid. We don’t want him too comfortable around us.”
“So what does he eat?”
“Well, he was eating fish and birds at the pool but now…” Jack shrugged. “I suspect it may be time to dump a few dead chickens and fish waste somewhere near the pool. He can’t be catching a whole lot right now.”
“I was thinking that, too.” She walked to her porch and set down her folders and backpack before coming toward them. She remained a respectful distance from Buster, though. “He and I had a visit this morning. A very nice conversation.”
“You didn’t run shrieking? Most newcomers do the first time they meet him.”
“I’d heard about him from my students. No point in becoming terrified, from what I heard.”
“None really. If he ever attacked a human, it was One-Hand Hank Hanratty, the guy who brought him here. The local myth is that Hank lost his hand to Buster, who wasn’t real happy about being the only gator here. Or maybe he wasn’t happy about being brought here. Whatever, he’s certainly adapted.”
“Quite well it seems. He’s even gotten you to do his bidding.”
Jack laughed and looked at the gator, who was happily rolling in the mud. “I guess that’s enough. We don’t have water to waste.” He turned off the spigot and Buster made a sound very like awwwwwwwwww but kept on rolling happily.
“I swear,” Jack said, “I’m never again going to refer to the reptilian brain as the cause of most of the bad in human nature. This reptile is both smart and a good guy.”
“I see your point.”
He wiped his hands on his shorts and flashed her a grin. “Wanna come jogging with me on the beach? It’s the best time. Great breeze, beautiful water…”
She hesitated, just long enough to make him wonder if he had something green caught between his teeth. But then she smiled. “I was going to go in early, but…Just let me change. Although I warn you, I’m used to jogging on pavement, not sand. I don’t know how far I’ll get.”
“Not a problem. I’ll just leave you in my dust.”
She grinned. “We’ll see about that.” Then she whirled, scooped up her school things, trotted back to her house and disappeared inside.
Jack found he was still smiling. He glanced at Buster. “She’s pretty unaffected and charming, isn’t she.”
Buster lifted a muddy eyelid. “Mmmmhmmmmm.”
“I thought you’d agree. And don’t worry, I’ll rustle up some chickens from the general store and some fish offal from the docks after my run and I’ll drop them off for you up near the falls.”
Buster made a disappointed groan.
“Look, you know it’s against the rules to feed you in town. Although, I have to admit, after all this time, we ought to trust you more.”
Buster seemed to nod.
“And, I’d be awful surprised if no one has ever fed you in town.”
Buster winked, as if to say, I’ll never tell.
“Yeah, that’s what I thought. Well, I’ll see what I can do.”
Buster rumbled something and worked his way deeper into the mud.
Less than five minutes later, Lynn, clad in a jogging outfit, met Jack on the cracked pavement. They stretched a bit, then loped at an easy pace down toward the beach. “It’s easier if you run on the wet sand,” Jack told her. “The water has it pretty much packed.”
“Yes. The electrolytic effect of the water increases the charge interaction between the sand particles, forming a more stable soil matrix.”
“That means the water has the sand packed, right?” Jack asked, staring at her.
“Umm…yes. I guess I’ve spent more time in laboratories than I have at beaches.”
“Living here ought to remedy that.”
From his mud wallow, Buster watched them go, apparently content to let the stupid humans run around in the heat by themselves.
THEY RAN AWAY from the town, to avoid the fishing boats and piers, along a wide expanse of spun-sugar sand. Lynn felt her calves straining in a new way, even on the harder wet sand, but she hardly cared. She was still utterly enthralled by the Caribbean blue water, a color that defied description. She could have scientifically explained that incredible blue-green down to the last grain of sand on the ocean floor, the exact depth of the water and its refractory abilities, but for once the scientist in her just wanted to shut down and let her senses drink it all in.
Besides, however far she had gone at Princeton working with the quantum universe and the observer effect, the reaction of the observer remained unquantifiable. In short, there was no scientific way to explain her reaction to the sheer beauty around her.
And at the moment, she didn’t care.
She was breathing deeply and her calves were screaming when finally Jack slowed to a halt, the tiki-hut roofs of the casino in sight.
“Are you okay?” he asked. He was hardly out of breath.
“My legs are complaining about the sand.”
He flashed a charming grin. “Let’s walk back then.”
She glanced at her watch and saw that she still had plenty of time. “At least part of the way,” she agreed. “You’re a bad influence, you know.”
“That’s the first time I’ve been told that.” He cleared his throat, indicating he was joking, as they turned and started back.
“I’m sure,” she agreed dryly.
“What did I influence this morning?”
“Well, like I said before, I was going to school early. I wanted to prepare some projects to do with my students.”
He looked at her with an arched brow. “Not a volcano, I hope.”
He pointed to Big Mouth, the towering volcanic cone that had birthed the island. “Because we live with the real thing.”
“And it’s going to erupt for the benefit of my class?”
“Gee whiz, I hope not.”
She had to laugh at his pretend look of horror. “No, not volcanoes,” she finally said. “Isn’t there a volcanologist on the island?”
“Yeah, Edna. I’ll introduce you, if you like. She could probably tell the kids whole bunches of fascinating stuff. Maybe even take them on a walk up to the lava tubes.”
She nodded, trying not to grimace as her legs tried to knot up on her. “I hope I can walk to school. Darn, that was a punishing run.”
“You’ll get used to it.”
She looked askance at him. “You’re awfully sympathetic, being a minister and all.”
He shrugged, a wicked twinkle in his eye. “Absolutely heartless, that’s me. Try walking backward instead.”
Uggh. The last time she’d heard those words…. But she decided to let go of the memory and pivoted, glancing over her shoulder as she walked, feeling how the reversed motion stretched and soothed her calf muscles.
“Don’t look,” he said. “You’ll make your neck ache. Just trust your muscle memory to guide you.”
“You sound like Obi-Wan Kenobi from StarWars.”
He laughed and shook his head. “Nah. Just an old, broken down, church-league basketball coach.”
She wished she wasn’t imagining him out on a basketball court. She wished she wasn’t dragging her gaze away from an awesome pair of runner’s legs, close enough to touch, muscles rippling with a controlled power that made his stride seem utterly effortless. She’d thought he was attractive before, but somehow this morning, he’d passed attraction and hit the top of the scale at ten or so. Perfect ten. She almost giggled at herself.
“My class,” she said, in a tone meant to remind herself of important matters. Instead she came off sounding stern, as if corralling recalcitrant five-year-olds.
“Yes,” he agreed, looking suitably solemn. “Your class.”
She cleared her throat and made herself look away from him. The water was more beautiful, after all. Wasn’t it?
“One of the things I’ve been learning from my students is how little they know of anything off this island.”
“Is that bad?”
“Depends.” She still refused to look at him. “I don’t want to bring in the big, bad world, if that’s what you mean. It’s not my job anyway. Besides, they already gamble. How much harm could I do?”
He threw back his head and laughed. “Point taken,” he said finally, wiping a tear from his eye. “Sin and degradation, all the way down to kindergarten.”
She eyed him. “Why do I think you’re making fun of me?”
“It’s just the way you said it. There’s nothing inherently wrong with gambling. It becomes a problem only when you bet more than you can afford to lose, when you forget that the game is played for the pleasure of the game itself and not for the profit from it. Kids here learn from very early that you can enjoy the game within the limits of your resources, that you don’t need a bigger risk in order to experience the pleasure. It’s not a forbidden, secret passion. It’s just something fun to do, and a good way to learn about the ups and downs of life.”
“And here it’s a civic duty. I know. And frankly I don’t care. If that’s how people here want to govern, by the outcome of card games, that’s their business.”
“Then why did you say what you did?”
She thought back to her words. “I guess that came out wrong.”
He merely smiled.
“I guess what I’m trying to get at is that these kids know a lot about cards, a lot about fishing, a lot about every little nook and cranny on the island. But they don’t know a lot about how the ecology works or how different it is in other places. Or how much impact man has.”
“Those would be good lessons.”
She stopped walking and leaned forward, grasping her toes and lifting gently.
When she looked up, his gaze was a blend of concern and something else…open admiration for the way her pose highlighted her…assets. She quickly stood up.
“A little. It’ll wear off.”
She forced away the thoughts of how she must have looked a moment earlier, and instead scooped up a handful of wet sand and let it slowly slip over her tilted hand. “Don’t you see it, Jack? At first it barely moves. Then, as the water seeps down to contact my skin, it forms a lubricating layer. Friction decreases. The sand slides faster, and…” It fell to the earth with a plop.
She looked at him. “Every molecule is a miracle. Every atom, every quark. Even the most ordinary activity is part of the flow of mass and consciousness through space-time, ripples of potential talking to one another in a language so subtle and beautiful that even now we’re only beginning to understand parts of it. I want my students to see that beauty, to see that magic.”
He smiled broadly now, nodding. “That would be great. So what project were you thinking of?”
“I want to start first by showing them the interconnectedness of the ecosystem. How everything depends on everything else, and nothing is too small or insignificant to consider. Then I want to move on to a contained ecology, like an unpopulated island.”
“Well, I know of the perfect island, although I’m not a hundred-percent certain it’s never been contaminated.”
She waved a hand. “Contamination is inevitable. So long as the wind blows and the waves wash ashore, things will travel—from seeds, to microbes.”
He nodded. “You’re doing good, teach. Maybe you can even tell us what impact Buster has had on this island.”
She looked at him. “Buster is part of this island now. And I suspect he’s done less damage than the casino.”
“Shh. He’s a very self-important alligator.”
She laughed then, feeling better than she had since Delphine had first appeared in her living room.
Delphine. Oh, lord, there was trouble coming. Lynn could feel it in her bones.
LYNN BEGAN TO FEEL she was making genuine inroads into her new life and new job. She had learned each student’s name and was settling into something of a comfortable and even normal routine, if such could be said to exist on Treasure Island.
Then, of course, Delphine returned. The timing was just too perfect. In another world, she might have thought it an accident. But the way things were going lately….
Coming down the short hallway in the white panties and men’s T-shirt she slept in, she entered the kitchen with no thought except coffee. She hadn’t even waited to put her contacts in, and she’d lost her glasses in the move, a mistake because without them she needed to make the coffee by touch, since the world was utterly out-of-focus.
Not that she had a chance to practice, because just as she stepped toward the sink with the coffee carafe in her hand, the under-sink cupboard doors blew open and water spewed forth with all the ferocity of a fire hose.
Lynn shrieked. “Delphine!”
But Delphine apparently had decided to remain invisible this morning, even though it was totally obvious to Lynn that nothing short of diabolical intervention could have sprung that leak exactly at that instant.
Slipping on the suddenly flooded floor in her bare feet, trying not to drop the glass carafe, she continued her way to the sink and counter. But despite her best efforts she fell.
“Delphine!” she cried again as she hit the floor on one side, cradling the carafe to her breast as if it were a baby. “I’m going to kill you, do you hear me? You’ll be deader than dead!”
Rising to her knees, she began crawling toward the counter, getting sprayed now directly in her face. She wondered if it was possible to hit a deceased aunt with a pipe wrench. If she could even find one.
JACK MARKS HEARD the shriek as he was watering the herb garden he tended on the side of his house. He wasn’t especially domestic, but he loved to cook, and he loved truly flavorful food, which here on Treasure Island meant growing your own herbs or impoverishing yourself to have them flown in.
Fresh was better anyway, he thought, humming as he watered. From time to time he turned the hose to hit Buster, who had for the time being taken up permanent residence in the wallow in front of Jack’s house. The neighbors were even beginning to remark on it. Jack, of course, knew the secret: water. He was the only one who cooled Buster off.
Who was Delphine? And why did Lynn sound so distressed? Jack felt the urge to go help, the white knight in him coming to the fore, then reminded himself to mind his own business. He sprayed Buster again, then bent over to shut off the water.
Another shriek and a thud. Jack straightened and looked toward Lynn’s house. The screen door to her kitchen might as well have been made of wood for all he could see.
“I’ll kill you, do you hear!” she shouted. “You’ll be deader than dead!”
O-o-o-kay, he thought. A life hung in the balance. Time not to mind his own business. He dropped the hose onto the ground, wiped his wet hands on his shorts and strode toward Lynn’s door.
As he came closer, he heard a rushing sound and Lynn’s voice erupting in language blue enough to dye the entire Caribbean. He winced, then felt an unwilling grin tug at his mouth. He didn’t know many people who could swear like that.
He reached the door and cupped his hands around his eyes so he could see past the screen into the dim kitchen. “Lynn?”
Was she talking to him? Or to the Delphine she’d been shouting at earlier? Either way, she sounded stressed to the point of breaking, so he opened the door and stepped into the kitchen.
The flood wasn’t the first thing that caught his attention. Oh, no. He might be a preacher, but in that instant he was all man. With water spraying everywhere, Lynn was scrambling to get under her sink, tossing bottles and cans in every direction. She was also an extremely tempting sight in a white T-shirt that was nearly transparent from the water, clinging to her every curve like a caress. And that cute little rump, cased in white bikini panties, up in the air….
“Ooof!” Shock and pain hit him at exactly the same moment as a can of white enamel spray paint, flung across the room, hit him in the family jewels. For an instant, fiery pinwheels blinded his vision. He doubled over and lost his balance, falling face-first into the flood.
Shock retrieved him from pain long enough to turn him once again into a man of the cloth, one with a white horse and a lance. Another can flew, but he dodged it and crawled forward through the water.
“Damn it!” she said, twisting her face to one side as she tried to feel for the water cocks.
“Here, let me,” he said, sliding up beside her. It did not help to realize that cold wet clothes between two warm bodies was surprisingly sensual. He gritted his teeth and reached in for the cocks. Moments later he had shut them.
Lying side by side on the floor, looking into the cabinet, neither of them moved or spoke.
Finally he cleared his throat and said, “Who is Delphine?”
He might as well have touched her with an electric prod. She stiffened, jerked away and glared at him. “What are you doing here?”
“Trying to be helpful. I heard you scream.”
“You think I can’t turn off the water by myself?”
Lying there, soaking wet, with his privates throbbing in pain, he wondered if he had lost his mind. Surely his help shouldn’t have elicited that kind of response.
“Of course I think you can turn off the water by yourself. I was just trying to be helpful.”
“You and Delphine both!” She pushed herself farther away. “I can live without this kind of help.”
“Who’s Delphine?” he asked. “I heard you yelling at her.”
“My aunt!” She sat up, looking thoroughly and utterly disgusted. Sitting up, however, gave him a wonderful view of her bobbing breasts. He closed his eyes.
“Your aunt is visiting you?”
His eyes popped open and he sat up. “Just passing through?”
She scowled at him. “Quit giving me the third degree.”
“Well, you were threatening to kill her.”
Her jaw dropped, then a moment later snapped shut. “She’s not here.”
What was going on? There was suddenly something furtive in her eyes, as if she were hiding something. All of a sudden Jack had a truly uneasy feeling about this woman. Was she crazy? Was she hiding this Delphine somewhere in the house and planning to kill her?
The last idea he immediately batted away like a gnat as being highly unlikely. Crazy seemed more in the ballpark, especially on this island. Only slightly crazed people lived here and moved here. Himself, for example. He could have served in some nice wealthy church, driving a nice expensive car, eating at restaurants and all those other glorious things you got to do if you landed among well-to-do congregants. Instead he’d chosen to come here and live like a beach bum where at last he could be himself.
Most everyone here was a little bent. Why not the schoolteacher? On the other hand, she was charged with looking after the children….
Deciding he needed to keep an eye on her, he pushed himself to his feet. “Let me help you clean this up. I’m good at swabbing decks. Did it for four years in the navy before divinity school.”
“No. No!” Looking horrified, she jumped to her feet. “I’ll do it. You’ve got better things to do.”
He ignored her and bent down to look at the copper tubing. “I’ve never seen a pipe split that way. Look at that tear. It’s like someone slashed it.”
She started to bend to take a look, but at that instant appeared to realize her state. Looking down at herself, she turned bright red. “Get out of here,” she said hoarsely. “Now!” Then she turned and fled, slipping a bit on the wet floor.
Jack hesitated, unsure whether to laugh, swab the deck or just flee before he got sucked any further into this woman’s life. Then he realized he really had no choice; he’d been told to leave.
Turning, he marched out of her kitchen, ignoring the way water slopped over his feet and sandals. The woman was an oddball, he thought. She talked to herself, threatened to kill a woman who wasn’t even there just because she was frustrated with a burst pipe and then refused help with the cleanup.
That latter, he thought, was downright unneighborly. The least you could do is accept freely offered help when you had a bit of a catastrophe. Even if you were a woman, half-naked and exposed in a now-transparent T-shirt and panties. Heck, especially then!
He shook away the thought as stepped out the door and found himself face-to-face with Buster.
“Why aren’t you in your wallow?” Jack asked.
The alligator opened his mouth just enough to show all those huge, gleaming teeth and moved toward Jack.
Instinctively, Jack backed up. “I’m not your dinner.”
Buster groaned and shook his head, still showing his teeth.
“This is ridiculous,” Jack said. “You’ve never eaten anyone on this island.”
Buster appeared unimpressed, as if to say, there’s always a first time.
Jack moved to step around him, but Buster, moving with that always amazing reptilian speed, blocked the way.
“What is going on here?” Jack demanded. He stepped the other way and again was blocked.
“You devil,” he said to the great beast with the huge gleaming teeth. “You don’t want me to leave.”
“Mmmmhmmmmmm,” came the response.
Well darn, Jack thought. Here he was, stuck on a cement stoop, caught between the house from which he’d just been evicted and an alligator that appeared to have every intent of biting him if he moved in the wrong direction.
The choice between the slightly crazy virago inside and the slightly crazy alligator outside was hardly a choice. How long was he going to have to stand here?
For a moment he thought of trying to dart past Buster—after all, the alligator had never harmed a soul in recent memory—but he was intelligent enough to realize that if he moved fast, he might well evoke a predatorial instinct that not even Buster could control.
So what now, genius? he asked himself.
Buster settled the issue by opening his mouth to a gaping maw and darting toward him again.
Jack jumped back through the screen door and let it slam shut between them. “Now what?” he asked the empty kitchen as Buster grinned at him.
GRIPING BENEATH HER breath, both horrified and embarrassed beyond words, Lynn threw her soggy clothes into the bathtub and toweled herself dry.
“You’re gonna get it, Delphine,” she muttered. “I don’t know how, but you’re gonna get it. I’ve got enough problems without you bursting my pipes.”
“Whatever makes you think I did that?” All of a sudden, Delphine was sitting on the edge of the tub.
“Because I know you,” Lynn said. “There is nothing beneath you when you want something.”
Delphine arched a brow. “Really?”
“Really,” Lynn answered, even though Delphine’s response had been more one of disapproval than question.
“Well, dear,” her aunt said, “I’m a woman on a mission from above. Sorry. I can’t leave. But I really don’t understand what makes you think I’d flood your kitchen. Did I ever treat you so abysmally in life?” Delphine patted her hair, which somewhere between her last appearance and this had gone from gray to bright red. Cherry red.
Lynn felt a pang of conscience. “No.”
“See? What makes you think I’d do it now that I’m an angel?”
Lynn frankly gaped at her, clutching the towel, forgetting about the terry robe on the back of the door that she’d been about to reach for. “An angel? You?”
Delphine sniffed. “I succeeded at life.”
“In your own extraordinary way,” Lynn agreed sarcastically. She draped the damp towel over the bar and reached for the thick terry robe the weather was seldom cool enough to wear. Right now, however, she felt unpleasantly chilled.
“You’ll have to excuse me, Delphine, but I have a kitchen to mop.”
“Oh, don’t worry about that. There’s a nice young man doing it for you.”
Lynn gaped. “I told him to leave!”
“He tried to.”
Lynn’s hands settled on her hips and she frowned at the apparition sitting on the edge of her tub. “What have you done now?”
Delphine assumed a look of utter innocence. “I,” she said firmly, “haven’t done a thing. But some of the local fauna seems to have…reached a decision.”
“And you had nothing to do with that.”
“Not a thing. I’m quite sure of that.”
Lynn wasn’t so sure about that, but then she remembered that, while Delphine had mastered the art of misleading through misdirection or omission when necessary, she had never out-and-out lied about anything.
Which made this even more perplexing.
“Do go out and help the lad,” Delphine said. “He shouldn’t have to clean the mess all by himself.”
“I was going to clean it by myself. I didn’t ask for help.”
“But he was feeling so bad about not being able to give it!”
“I’m capable of taking care of myself!”
Now Delphine frowned. “That may be so. But take it as a little whisper from heaven—allowing others to help you from time to time is merely polite.”
Then, in an eye blink, Delphine vanished, leaving Lynn alone in her bathroom. Which, when she thought about it, was one place she ought to be able to be alone.
Grabbing her robe off the hook, she slipped it on and belted it tightly. Then she went out to find out what kind of chaos was now occurring in her kitchen.
She stopped at the doorway as she saw Jack Marks mopping steadily away at her floor. He seemed to sense her, for he looked up, then paused.
“Don’t blame me,” he said. “I know you threw me out. But Buster wouldn’t let me leave.”
Being reminded that she’d thrown him out embarrassed her, but curiosity about what he said grabbed her even more. “Buster?”
“Take a look out your door.”
Jack had already managed to clear a large swath of floor enough that she could cross it without sloshing. “I doubt,” she said by way of apology, “that this floor has ever been this clean.”
He actually grinned. “I guess there’s a silver lining in every flood.”
She couldn’t help smiling back. Then she looked out her door and saw Buster sitting at the very edge of her stoop, grinning with all his alligator teeth. “He stopped you?”
Her heart skipped. “Do you think he’s suddenly gotten dangerous?”
Jack came to stand beside her. “Somehow I doubt it. But frankly, I wasn’t going to try and test him.”
“I wouldn’t either. My gosh, look at all those teeth!”
“The better to eat you,” he replied wryly.
It should have been impossible, but Buster managed to look wounded around the edges of his gaping maw.
“Awww,” Jack said sarcastically. “You were the one who kept threatening me when I tried to leave, and now you want me to believe you’re innocent?”
Lynn decided that seeing Delphine might not be as totally weird as she had initially thought. After all, she had talked to an alligator, and now Jack was too, and darned if the gator didn’t look as if he understood.
She spoke. “This could get us committed anywhere else in the world.”
He looked at her. “That’s what I love about this place. So, since I can’t leave, can I finish the floor?”
She decided not to mention the front door as her cheeks reddened. “I’m sorry about the way I acted before. I was rude when you were trying to help.”
“You were upset. But someday you have to tell me about Delphine.”
Lynn’s flush deepened. “Maybe. We’ll see.”
He nodded, wrung out the mop into the sink and went back to work. Lynn couldn’t figure out anything else to do except grab handfuls of old towels to wipe up the dampness and suck water out of crevices.
“Nothing on this island ever really gets dry,” Jack remarked as he swept the mop around. “The heat will evaporate the excess, but the humidity will remain.”
“That’s one of the first things I noticed here, the humidity. It’s odd though because even though it’s there, it’s not real troublesome.”
“Unless it turns really hot. Most of the time, though, it just seems to soften the air.”
“Well, I haven’t needed any moisturizer since coming here.”
He flashed a smile. “One of our many money-saving benefits.”
“Does the island have a plumber?”
“We sure do. I already put in a call to him.”
“Any idea when he’ll get here?”
Jack leaned on the mop handle and grinned. “Well…he said as soon as he could.”
“And that means?”
Jack shrugged. “I guess it depends on whatever else he needs to do.”
“Relax. All things come in their own time on this island.”
Harv Cullinan’s time proved to be about a half-hour. “Caught me just before I left for a day of fishing,” he told Jack as he stepped into Lynn’s kitchen. “There I was, dreaming of a big ’un. All set to go, me tackle box beside me, waiting for Geordie to pick me up.”
“I’m sorry,” Jack said.
“Me too,” Lynn said a trifle sarcastically. “Next time I’ll make the pipe wait.”
Harv looked at her. A short, bulky man with a balding head, he might have been a miniature Hulk. “Now, now, teacher, nice of you to worry about me, but there’s always another day to fish.”
Lynn nearly gaped at his response. She’d been churlish and he’d taken it as a kindness. There must be something in the air here. Worse, his response made her aware of how peevish and unpleasant she was being. “Sorry. I’m sorry you missed your fishing.”
“Like I said, always another day.”
Slowly, as if his every joint ached with monstrous pain, he lowered his bulk to look into the open cabinet beneath the sink.
“My, my,” he said, his voice sounding hollow as he put his head inside the cabinet. “That’s a beaut.”
“We thought so,” Jack agreed.
Slowly Harv eased back and sat on his heels. “It’s not gonna be easy.”
“Why not?” Lynn asked.
“Because pipes don’t split like this. Not copper ones, unless somebody’s done something to them.” He eyed her suspiciously from beneath bushy brows.
Lynn felt as if she stood accused before a jury. “I swear I didn’t do anything to it.”
“Someone did,” he said darkly.
Lynn had a pretty good idea who, but she hadn’t gone far enough over the edge to say so out loud. “Can you fix it?”
“Oh, aye. I’ll need me helper and some other tools. Back shortly.”
She hoped shortly was shortly.
“He’ll take good care of you,” Jack said. “I’ve gotta run. I’m meeting a couple planning a wedding. I’ll check back later.”
Buster let him pass this time and slowly returned to the wallow where he settled in with contentment.
As she changed into more suitable clothes, Lynn wondered if she’d come to this island to teach for real, or if she was in some mental hospital totally lost in delusion.
What happened next would only increase her questions.
THE HULK AND COMPANY returned an hour later, shortly before Lynn needed to leave for school. To Lynn’s horror, a backhoe and two trucks pulled into her yard. The Hulk and three helpers appeared, all of them carrying battered tool boxes.
She jumped out her front door and barred the way. “What do you need all this stuff for? It’s just a little broken pipe.”
“It’s a broken copper pipe,” Harv Cullinan answered, as if that explained it all. His three minions all nodded sagely.
“Wait,” she said again. “Why the backhoe?”
“Because,” the Hulk said patiently, “we need to check all the pipes.”
“Do you want one to split inside your wall?” He shook his head. “Substandard materials. I’ve seen the mess….”
Somehow Lynn couldn’t halt the tide. Four beefy men pushed past her into her kitchen. She followed them.
“I’m not sure about this,” she said.
“We are,” Cullinan answered. “We don’t do jobs halfway, teach. No point in it. Just causes you more trouble and money in the long run.”
“But it’s just one little broken pipe.”
“It’s a sign of worse. I told you earlier, copper don’t split that way.”
One of the men had crawled under the sink while she was protesting, and when he re-emerged, he looked as glum as if he’d just been told life had ended. “It’s bad, Harv,” he said. “Wrong gauge. Too thin.”
Cullinan looked at her. “See? You got a big problem, teach.”
Just then the backhoe started digging up her front yard. “What’s that for?” she asked desperately.
“Gotta check it all out. These places is old.”
“But I can’t afford…”
“Don’t be worrying your pretty little head. We’ll take care of you.”
Yeah, thought Lynn. To the tune of thousands of dollars she didn’t have, most likely. And it was all Delphine’s fault. Her aunt had broken that pipe, sure as she was standing here.
“What if I want to run the risk of just fixing the one pipe?” she asked desperately.
The Hulk shook his head. “I wouldn’t be an honest man if I let you do that.”
With that he ushered her out of her own house, leaving her helpless to do much except watch her front yard being trenched. A few of the neighbors came out to watch, too.
“It’s okay,” said the woman from across the street. “Hi, I’m Betty Denton. I work nights over at the casino.”
Lynn shook her hand. “I just had one little pipe under the sink burst. This seems a bit…much?”
Betty shook her head. “Trust me, Harv is a damn good plumber. He’s had to do most of these houses over because people originally built them themselves, and a lot of them cut corners. He did my place last year.”
“He dug up your yard, too?”
Betty hesitated. “Well, not quite. But he had to rip out a few walls.”
“Walls? Walls?” Rendered speechless, Lynn stared at her bungalow, wondering what she’d have left of it by nightfall.
Betty patted her arm. “Dil Stedman does great drywall. You’ll never know.”
“I’ll never know.” Lynn repeated those words all the way to school, all the way through the day and on the way back home. As she approached her block, however, her trepidation grew so great that her feet dragged. She half expected to find nothing but a hole in the ground where her bungalow had been.
As she rounded the corner, the first thing she saw was the heavy equipment, then the trench running through her front yard and the fact that not a working soul was in sight.
Trepidation gave way to a nub of anger. They couldn’t have left her in these straits.
But they had. The backhoe had dug down to the sewer and water lines, exposing them. Inside the house a tangle of tubing, none of it connected to anything she could see, stuck out from her beneath her sink.
She dumped her book bag on the now-dusty table and on leaden feet went to survey her bathroom. The tile wall holding the shower head and faucet had been pulled out, leaving an exquisite view of two-by-fours and pipes.
Hanging from the shower head was a sticky note. She pulled it down and read, “Betty says you can shower at her place. We’ll be back as soon as we have all the parts. HC.”
Slowly, note in hand, Lynn sat on the edge of the tub. “Delphine,” she whispered, “I’m going to get you. Somehow.”
At that, Delphine appeared, sitting on the commode. Her hair was still cherry red, which clashed nicely with the orange dress she was wearing. “I’m not responsible for this.”
“It would have been nice if you had appeared and scared them out of here before they tore my house apart.”
Delphine patted her hair and sighed. “It’s just a minor hiccup, dear. When the plumbers are done, you’ll never have another problem. At least not of this kind.”
That seemed foreboding. “I better not have any more problems at all!”
Delphine sniffed. “You expect too much from life. There are always problems. Plumbing and a ghost are the least of them. You need to alter your perspective.”
“What perspective? How could anyone living in this madhouse have a perspective?”
“It’s really quite easy. Take a deep breath, then laugh. You’ll see.”
At that moment they were interrupted by Jack’s voice calling from the kitchen. “Lynn? Lynn, would you like to go to the tavern with me?”
Lynn was off the edge of the tub like a shot, headed for the kitchen. “Look what he did to me, your plumber.”
“You’re welcome,” Jack said, clearly irritated.
“He tore up my whole house!”
“He must have needed to.”
“I’m not so sure about that.”
Jack hesitated, then turned a sharp about-face and headed for the door. “Buy your own beer,” he said shortly.
“There,” said Delphine from behind her. “What did I tell you? You really need to learn some manners. People here are at least trying to be friendly, unlike the other places you’ve lived.” She sniffed again. “Ungrateful girl!”
Lynn turned to glare at her, too, but caught only a glimpse of rainbow hair as Delphine faded from view. There didn’t seem to be anything else to do. Lynn kicked the wastebasket.
What the hell did she have to be grateful for?
SOME EVENINGS JACK WENT to the tavern on the edge of town. It was a great place to socialize with the folks of Treasure Island. Men of the sea tended to be a God-fearing lot, as were their wives, so he saw most of them in his church on Sunday. But that wasn’t the same as befriending them, and Jack had long felt he could do a lot more as a friend than as a preacher. Hence, he spent some evenings at the tavern and some evenings at the ever-running poker tournament on the upper floor of City Hall. And every Saturday he shot hoops with the island’s children, male and female. Between the three, he socialized with nearly everyone.
On this particular evening, he chose the tavern where he was warmly greeted and invited to sit at a table with six of the biggest—literally—fishermen on the island. He felt dwarfed among them, but that didn’t especially bother him until one of them punched him in the shoulder. Jack was no wuss, far from it, but these guys’ idea of a friendly tap would have knocked down sheetrock and two-by-fours.
Before long the conversation turned from the day’s catch to the new schoolteacher.
“There’s something whacked about her,” said Jazz Bingle, a guy tall enough to play for the NBA if he hadn’t also weighed close to three-hundred pounds. “The wife says she’s teaching them about global warming.”
Jack’s interest perked. “What’s wrong with that?”
Jazz shrugged. “Nothing. But it’s kinda weird when your kid comes home as says the earth getting hotter could cause an ice age. Now how do you figure that?”
Bart Abernathy nodded. “Don’t add up, do it? How does hot make cold?”
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