Monique started cleaning up the dishes and the grill after Margo left the cafe with Devin, Melvin and Junior. She had resisted the urge to run down to the beach and see them off. It felt to her as if doing so would reinforce the feeling that she’d said goodbye to them forever.
That was ridiculous, of course. It wasn’t that far across the reach, and even with Devin’s little outboard motor it wouldn’t be long before the skiff landed at the docks on the mainland.
Barnaby and Elvin took the twins, Paul and Pam, and went down to the beach. Lou Ann stayed to help Monique. Jessica gathered up dishes before leaving with Bill and Vivian to go through the little island village and check on the other residents.
Lou Ann looked up from the tabletop she was washing. “How long do you think they’ll be gone?” she asked, voicing the very question going through Monique’s mind. “I mean, it’s not that far, but…well, I don’t think they’ll just turn around and come back, do you?”
“Margo wants to go home and get her cat,” Monique replied, trying desperately to sound nonchalant. She wondered if the delicious lunch she’d just eaten was going to stay down. Her stomach was in turmoil; she was that tense. “Her boyfriend is away.”
“I don’t know why this is upsetting me. It’s probably nothing.” She went to the sink to rinse her washcloth. “It’s just…it’s so odd, looking out at the beach and seeing…sand.”
That was an odd way of putting it, but it was also true. Summer days were not generally empty beach days. Normally, the sand was covered with blankets and umbrellas and people of all ages.
Monique started washing the plates and silverware by hand. There’d been so few people it wasn’t worth loading up an industrial sized dishwasher. She couldn’t remember ever washing dishes by hand at The Beach Bar, even in the off-season. The locals were good customers in the winter, and on the coldest days you could still expect the flatlanders to ferry over for a drink and a few laughs in the evenings.
Technically, Monique was herself a flatlander—she’d live on the island for a few years, but she wasn’t a native. “Has the ferry ever not come before, Lou Ann?”
“Not that I can remember.” Lou Ann pinched her lower lip, thinking. “Mama’s been here forever, of course. She might know; or Dad.” Lou Ann’s parents lived on the other side of the island. “I tried to call her, but my phone’s not working.”
“Try the landline.” Monique tapped her own forehead impatiently. “Why didn’t we think of that before?Lou Ann went to the end of the bar and lifted the receiver to her ear. Her eyebrows shot up. “Dial tone!” she exclaimed. She punched numbers and waited. Then: “Dad? It’s me. Hey, has there ever been a time when the ferry didn’t show up here?”
There was a pause as she listened to her father talk. Apparently, he had a lot to say.
Monique listened half-heartedly to a one-sided conversation that consisted mostly of “Uh huh,” and “Really?” and “Hmm.” It might have been an interesting monologue, but all she could do was wonder if she might be able to call Margo on her cell from the landline when Lou Ann finished talking. She wasn’t hopeful.
Bill and Jessica slowed their pace for Vivian, not so much because she was tiny and therefore short of stride, but because she obviously didn’t see well, and they didn’t want her to bump into or trip over anything. Jessica tuck the older woman’s hand into the crook of her arm, unconsciously leading her in much the same way Melvin Samples had done for his wife the last few years. “Aren’t you sweet,” Vivian said, reaching across her body to pat Jessica’s arm. “It’s the cataracts. I’m scheduled to have them taken care of next month…”
“Oh, that will be wonderful for you,” Bill said, his rumbling baritone alive with enthusiasm. “My mother had hers done, and she sees everything now.”
“Well, that’s the plan,” Vivian agreed. “But…”
“But…?” Jessica prompted.
Vivian sighed. The trio mounted steps to knock on the first of many doors, doing their neighborly wellness checks. “I have a bad feeling about this…situation.”
An elderly woman answered the door. The three visitors tried not to display their relief and failed.
Barnaby and Elvin stood ankle deep in the calm waters of the beach, keeping an eye on the rambunctious twins.
Walking down from the bar, they’d noticed a row of beach chairs someone had left unattended. Elvin looked back at them now, squinting. “One good gust of wind, and those are goners,” he declared.
Barnaby shrugged. “Don’t know who they belong to,” he said. “Guess we can take them back to the bar with us in a while.”
“You think they were there all night?”
“I suppose.” Barnaby didn’t care. All he cared about was that Lou Ann and the twins were with him, safe. “It was a quiet night.”
“Yuh.” He shielded his eyes with both hands and peered across the reach. “Can’t see the mainland,” he remarked. “Is that fog?”
“Maybe.” Barnaby frowned. “I don’t see the skiff anymore, either. Do you?”
They gave each other uneasy looks. It didn’t seem like there had been enough time for the skiff to have gotten as far as the fog bank they believed they were seeing.
“Is Dev’s outboard that fast?” Elvin asked.
“Maybe that fog is closer than it looks.” Barnaby bent and splashed water on Paul and Pam. They squealed with delight and splashed him back.
Elvin kept quiet. Barnaby didn’t talk much, and appeared to be deep in thought—playing with his kids was just his way of taking a moment for reflection. Knowing this did nothing to ease the fear Elvin felt building in the pit of his stomach. He looked back at the empty beach chairs and wondered who had left them there. It was unsettling to see them there, absent the sunscreen-smeared bodies and towels and drinks.
After a few minutes of play with the toddlers, Barnaby straightened up. He flexed his neck and back and then took a good long look across the water.
“Yeah, I reckon the fog is closer than it looks, Devin’s outboard is stronger than we think and they’ve been gone longer than we realize. I haven’t been timing them, have you?”
Elvin thought there were a lot of “maybes” implied in Barnaby’s musings, and they all amounted to nothing more than wishful thinking. But when you came right down to it—what else did they have? “No, I haven’t looked at my watch all morning,” he replied. He grinned, but it felt false on his face. “Cuz I left it home,” he added.
Barnaby let out a laugh that sounded as false as the smile on Elvin’s face felt to him. “Me, too, buddy.”
“They’re probably docking as we speak.”
“I hope so.”
Elvin sighed and looked out across the reach again. “How long do we wait before we officially get scared?”
“Officially?” Barnaby made a few lunging splashes with his kids, avoiding the question for a few moments. Finally, he looked back at his friend. “Dude, I am already scared—officially.”
Devin adjusted the rudder slightly, frowning at Melvin, who was leaning over the bow of the skiff. “Mel, sit back,” he ordered. “You wanna flip this bitch?”
Melvin glared back over his shoulder. “I ain’t that heavy,” he growled. “We should be able to see the docks through the fog by now!”
“It’s not fog.” Margo spoke so quietly it was difficult to hear her. Melvin sat back, as ordered, and looked at her. “Can’t you smell it?” she asked. “It’s smoke.”
“Ayuh,” Devin agreed. “I been trying to ignore that. Thanks a boatload, Margo.”
“Think nothing of it,” Margo replied flippantly. She sighed deeply, and it was impossible not to notice the shakiness of her breath. “What could cause that much smoke? Do you think it was a dock fire?”
“Mebbe.” Devin and Melvin exchanged meaningful looks. “But we’d have heard the sirens, even across the reach…”
“That’s a lot of smoke.” Melvin stretched himself over the bow again, much to Devin’s dismay. “I think I see something.”
“No it’s—oh, shit!”
The little skiff bumped something, turned slightly to the left and bumped something else. Margo leaned over the side and looked down into the water. She screamed.
Bodies floated all around them.
To Be Continued….
The Writers Unite! May prompt led to this 3rd installment. I wonder what will happen next?