The entire back of the chair is wet by the time I sob myself hoarse. I feel the way I did when I cried over Kevin Knelling after I found out he was moving to Ohio. I had a crush on him in sixth grade and had this crazy idea we were meant for each other. After the abortion I had a couple good cries but those came out of the blue. And then there was the Bible study meltdown. So I guess this is only the fifth or sixth time I’ve cried so hard I wrecked my throat and gave myself a headache at the same time.
Daniel sits outside in a lawn chair waiting for me to finish, weird, embarrassing; I thought I was alone. When I roll down the window he hands me a prescription bottle and a glass of water.
“How long have you been sitting there?”
“Don’t be. I found it surprisingly satisfying.”
Because he hates me. He’s hated me all this time because I’m associated with the guys who ruined his life. Just in case I’m wrong I look to see if he’s joking. He’s not. Right now, it’s difficult to imagine Daniel Helston cracking a joke. Deadly serious is the right description. Deadly as in one false move and he’ll shoot me down with a laser beam from his eyeballs. He doesn’t trust me. This is not at all how I imagined things would go if we ever met again.
“Take two of those, then I’m taking you up to bed. It’s late.”
“But these are your prescriptions.”
He glares at me like I’m the one who has become the prize idiot. Anti-anxiety meds, maybe the exact ones I’d have ended up on if I’d agreed to do the therapy in order to keep my job. Two of these and I’ll be unconscious in ten minutes flat. Actually that sounds like a good idea.
Reaching through the window he unlocks the door and opens it. He scoops me up no problem, and off we go to the stairs that lead up to the main floor of the house. I duck my head down as far as I can so he won’t see my face burning with embarrassment. This is not a Jane Austen heroic rescue of some rain-drenched heroine. I could not feel like more of an inconvenience if he told me out right.
But remember that ulterior woman with the language I don’t understand? This is exactly what she wants, her world weary self is tucked into his arms, feeling him breathe, the warmth of his skin, the shape of his arms, even the hitch in his left side making his gait uneven arouses her to heat. More embarrassment, burning red now, and I’m getting wet.
Without turning on the lights, he navigates his bedroom, past the first bed where Mrs. Helston’s rhino cast is easy to make out propped up on a pillow, to the second. He deposits me gently but firmly, as though he half expects I’ll jump up and run back to the car. I don’t have enough energy for that.
He removes my shoes and my earrings. Has he done this before? The necklace he leaves alone as though he knows who gave it to me and what that means.
“Can you sleep?”
“This is a safe place. Your husband won’t find you here.”
I’m surprised he uses those particular words, the same ones I instructed Steve to use during Daniel’s seizure.
The pillow smells like his clothes but more potent with that lavender shampoo scent. What man uses lavender shampoo? This is my last thought before I’m off, happily, graciously dead to the world and unable to think about anything for the next thirteen hours.
The clothes Mrs. Helston has left for me aren’t any I’d ever consider buying, a spaghetti strap shirt with shelf bra and shorts that barely make it past my butt cheeks. At first pass, I’m horrified, then I remember this is the first day of my new life. I have no job. Someone broke into my condo which means two possible things and only one likely thing. My brain is functioning much better and that one likely thing blares warning like the flashing red light on the top of a police cruiser. They know where I am.
First things first: food. There’s no one in the kitchen. Trying not to snoop too much I grab the first thing I find, banana, and wander the house looking for signs of habitation. To the west, dark clouds crowd the horizon and everything in between. Wind whips the not quite secured hot tub cover. I step out to fix it and am instantly freezing, coated in a thin wet mist, almost unable to keep my eyes open against the wind.
“Jane dearie, we’re up here,” calls Mrs. Helston from the deck above.
I hesitate. How can she be so enthusiastic with Daniel standing less than two feet away? Plus I haven’t shaved my legs past my knees since…ever and there is a lot of exposed thigh with these shorts. Okay, the whole thigh. But wait, the plot thickens, there’s a child running around up there with them. One, two, three, here I come. I hope he can handle this.
Never mind all that worrying, I am the least of Daniel’s concerns at the moment. He stands at the railing looking up the coast through binoculars, his omnipresent water bottle pinched under one arm. “Those waves get any higher he’s not going to be able to paddle them.”
“Riley will get him out in time,” says Mrs. Helston.
“She better do it now. They’ve both been out there way too long to be pulling shit like this.”
“I wanna see. Let me see.”
The girl squeezes between Daniel and the railing and climbs up to balance on the rung.
“Tell me who’s wearing blue and who’s wearing orange,” he says.
Mrs. Helston pulls me in for a hug while I stare at the girl. “That’s Poppy. She’s Steve and Riley’s daughter. You have a good sleep? Feel ready to start everything fresh?”
“I feel like I missed a lot.”
“Just the best waves of the year. They’ve been out since sunrise but the storm’s getting closer. We’re getting into daredevil territory, which means I’d be running like a bat outta hell to make that surf if I could.” She laughs. “But we’re worried Steve can’t handle it.”
“Mom’s in blue and Dad’s in Orange.”
“Good job. Now off you go before you fall.” Daniel lifts Poppy with one arm around her belly, she crouches and swings until he shakes her and she drops her feet for a landing. “Nice one. Will you run down and grab me a sweatshirt?” This is Daniel with someone he doesn’t hate. He’s gentle, even a little playful, but every movement feels calculated. He waits until the door downstairs closes. “They’re not coming in.” He hands the binoculars to Mrs. Helston.
“He said he wanted to do this.”
“Some of those waves are fifteen feet high. They’re draining the water right out of the shoal, if he falls there will be no movie in Hawaii next week.”
“I don’t see them.”
“What?” He takes back the binoculars. “Fucking idiot.” He slams his fist into the railing.
“Do I need to call rescue?”
Poppy returns with the sweatshirt.
“Give it to your dad’s friend,” says Daniel.
She turns to me and shyly holds out the sweatshirt. “My name’s Poppy, what’s yours?”
“I’m not seeing either of them,” says Daniel.
“Jim is going to be so upset if he comes home and finds his board wrecked.”
“Just hope that’s the worst news you’ll be giving him—wait, she’s got him up.”
“I wanna see!”
“Let Grandma see first.”
“I’m going to drive down and pick them up. You get ready.”
“Ready for what?” asks Poppy.
“I think it’s time to play princess in the tower,” says Mrs. Helston. “You go get set up. I’ll join you.”
Poppy disappears into the single room on the third floor. The brief glimpse I catch of inside looks like the perfect place do just about anything. Pillows of every shape and color cover the floor, the sunken center, and the window seats that ring three sides.
“Nice up here isn’t it?” says Mrs. Helston.
“Why did he bring me a sweatshirt?”
“You were cold.” She shrugs. “So, Steve is unconscious or worse. Riley just dragged him out of the water. I can’t promise what condition you’ll find him in, but Daniel hates calling in an ambulance unless it’s absolutely necessary. He’ll call if he’s going to the hospital instead of coming home.” She hands me her phone. “The first aid kit is in the cabinet under the kitchen sink. Here’s hoping that’s all you’ll need. Poppy and I will be up here stranded so if he’s going to the hospital please come let us know.”
I’m not very fast on the wet stairs. Steve is injured and my skills are needed. Talk about a family prone to accidents, good grief, but I’m mostly squishing myself around in the sweatshirt marveling at this unexpected gift of attention. It hangs halfway to my knees so it’s like wearing a baggy dress or a blanket. I think I may never take it off.
This what I’m thinking about when I open the cabinet under the sink and fail to notice the spider sitting just inside until it pops out. Probably it wasn’t aiming for me, but the thing ricochets off my knee before it comes to rest on the floor. I scream, leaping up onto the sink counter. I have to find something to hang onto because I’m shaking so badly I might just shake myself right back onto the floor which is now killer spider territory.
If you remember Mr. Fuzzy Black of the Lost in Space variety, the thing that just touched my freakin’ knee could have swallowed Mr. Fuzzy Black whole. It’s a kind of mute grey brown with a body shaped like a butterfly’s but twice as thick, with a leg circumference bigger than my hand.
It touched me, it touched me, it touched me. I need a shower. My skin crawls a mile a minute. I don’t look, then I look. It’d be worse if it ran away and I’d have to be in the house knowing it was somewhere lying in wait. It stands completely still. Maybe it thinks it can blend into the floor so I can’t see it. I’ll be seeing it the rest of my life every time I lay down to try to sleep, no doubt about that. I’ve never seen a spider this size that wasn’t in a zoo.