She tasted him falling in love with her—felt it on her lips like blood. It was hot in the air—like coffee at a coffee shop, sea-salt on the wind, cotton candy at a carnival. She smelled his want and tasted his need in her bones. Through every nerve ending, shattered and uninterrupted, shards marched like soldiers towards her heart, like butterflies fluttering on the flurry of all those feelings—of a sense—of all senses. Layne could feel it in her toes—curling inward towards her heart, like fragmented glass. Each feeling skipped and hopped towards its destination.
Those feelings—concerned her.
He arrived when she was on the wind floating freely—riding waves and evading cliffs as she approached each shore with caution.
Could she be more specific? Eventually. Narratives unfolded over time, reader, and she did what she had to do in order to burn. Genuine, she was true, but was the narrative? Layne Gregory made her story unequivocally her own. Whatever fable she drew, however ghastly the scheme, she reveled in it—rolling around, running it through her hair, fingers, and toes. It was her story and hers alone.
Or was it?
Was it love? No, it was lust. Was she certain? No. Was she lying? Sure, why not? Didn’t everyone lie to themselves in order to avoid the truth? She wasn’t really avoiding it though—strapped to her thighs like weapons forced to wear, driven to survive, self-preservation was essential.
Was she afraid? Hell no—maybe? Yes, she was afraid. She was always afraid. Aren’t we all? Acknowledging fear was the weapon to surviving it.
Her life revolved around no man.
Layne laughed. Of course it did. In this world, all lives revolved around males and their maleness. Please don’t be delusional in thinking otherwise, reader. The P word was real and so were its consequences—a religion so deadly, it coalesced and propagated, like the virulent disease it was.
That was how Brody found her. Not purposely. Not that he was aware. Oh the many moves and manipulations brought. She liked the game, he liked the game, and so, they played. But was it really a game? Or was it something more insidious and manipulative? A preservation of self and country? Of the world? Of hedonisms and chaos? An anarchy ordered?
Couldn’t it be all the above? Evidence of history forgotten?
Blue Aviators mirrored the retaining wall that held back the rising turquoise sea. Her reflection in silver from the salt and pepper shakers rippled wide distorting her, making her feel more aware…and arbitrary. The clamor of crowds and the slap of the ocean merged and leaked all over the boardwalk. People going to and fro finding their way through the maze enjoying their day unaware, apathetic or apprehensive—painfully so—to the murkiness that lived in the light on full display parading in front of all like a circus; a corrupt theatrical telling of a country gone bad and a world putrefying.
Was it ever good to begin with? No, not really. Maybe. Sometimes. Rarely? It’s complicated? Depends on who you ask?
Her emotions were irrelevant presently in respect. She knew this—but not really. Convincing oneself otherwise was yet another game. Still the thought skimmed the surface of all thoughts and banked itself on the shore of everything she pondered over lately; like a dying loved one withering away in hospice while we—helpless—longed for a cure…or the end. These emotions—important no matter where they hovered at any time of the day—were the motivation to what she did—what we all did. Reminding and allowing herself to feel these emotions at some point—the fury, sadness, pain, and helplessness—curbed the guile of indifference that tried to embed itself within her and make her forever complacent.
Indifference? Complacency? So much worse.
Wasn’t it? Were these not the real crimes?
Did you kid yourself into believing that all was inherently good, reader? Deluded into believing that everything was righteous and each historical detail was accurate in its telling? That the people in power were transparent and only had your best interest at heart? Deemed yourselves shrewd and agreeable, what fools tolerated and ignored? Perhaps you knew and just didn’t care? Maybe the weight of it was too much? A smothering that left you without hope? No need to go on? No need to fight another day?
Layne took a long salty sigh contemplating the realities of such.
Were you hard on yourself? Don’t be. Not everyone was fully capable of comprehending what drifted in front of them like air. Whether pride, ego, or apathy, the truth sat there for all to see. Layne counted herself amongst the naive for many years.
As did this narrator, dear reader.
He saw it—Brody. He lived it. He cornered and created it as it altered in front of him from the inconspicuous to the inescapable. He understood that in order to live, in order to play, he needed to dance; to create the steps that led directly to her and pivoted her life—if only slightly. The steps weakened him; he thought otherwise. They all thought strength was power and weakness was impotence. As if one didn’t complement the other.
How silly they were.
The machinations of the universe worked against them. Fate—destiny was a crock. The universe—that fickle bitch—cared nothing about peace, love, or goodness, hate, war, or evil.
Brody’s arrival in her life was circumstance poured through the cracks into spotty patterns imagined into something else.
Nothing more, except those patterns led him to her—so he thought; something more made him linger. It definitely wasn’t her. Was it? The contradictions were slippery and tangled. She doubted there was meaning behind them except for those that wanted to attribute their own interpretations—searching for patterns in the chaos. What little we knew in the gamut of everything.
And then there was that narrative again, reader. The one interpreted from the many.
Layne took a drink of unsweetened tea. A mixture of lemonade flavored the flatness. The ice melted. The glass perspired like the woman that sat across from her unaccustomed to the southern Florida heat. The fans overhead not doing much to alleviate her discomfort. Ironic given she was of Afro-Antiguan descent born south of here in the seas amongst the islands, sultriness, and sun—relentless and unsympathetic.
“There’s air inside,” Layne told her. “In Qatar, they’ve started to air condition the outside.”
Lucretia nodded ignoring the latter: “A part of the experience.” Frowning, she sipped what used to be ice water. “A part of the purge.”
Layne assumed it was some new fad diet. “Good luck with that.” The corner of her mouth lifted in a reluctant smile. “Thick thighs make for longer lives. They’ll certainly make for good eatin’ when they come for all you rich people.” This said in reference to a sign Layne and Lucretia saw earlier that said Eat the Rich—a common refrain nowadays.
Lucretia laughed: “Layne, Layne, Layne, echoing my own words back to me in order to teach me my own lesson.” A pause. “I like the cold. Maybe it’s the Irish in me.”
“I know few Caribbean women that like the cold as much as you do.”
“You know no Caribbean women but me. You have few relationships with women and people period. It’s…unhealthy You’re anti-social and probably on a government watch-list labeled lone wolf.”
“Most likely. Some of us aren’t made to pal around twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.”
Digressing: “I wonder if we should give it a code name? Like Lucretia’s puzzle?”
Layne rolled her eyes: “No, no, we musn’t.”
“Duty is such a burden.”
“Ethics even more so,” Layne replied dryly.
“For some more than others.” She pulled out a tablet from her expensive fancy handbag. “I sent you a profile.”
“I received it.”
“Why are we in this deplorable heat then? Aren’t we supposed to be north of here?”
Layne took another long drink and grimaced. The tea was flatter now that the ice melted. “I wanted to enjoy the people-watching here before we went north. It’s so much more…assorted. At least it is in the more affecting areas.”
Lucretia placed big dark designer sunglasses on her face. “Assorted? They’re people, not nuts. Then again, this is Florida,” she shuddered in distaste.
“You’ve never liked it here.”
“No. It’s like that country filled with all the creepy crawlers and far too many old white people.” Her lips recoiled exposing straight white teeth.
Layne frowned: “I…what?”
“So much wildlife and lizards everywhere,” she said pulling her legs closer looking around cautiously. Her opal-grey pumps contrasted nicely with her legs.
Layne grimaced. “Why are you wearing those god-awful shoes?”
“Because they’re pretty,” smiling, unrolling her legs to look at the shoes in question.
Lucretia was all things feminine—Layne was not, until she needed to be. Her flip-flop dangled rhythmically on her crossed leg, pumping up and down like a paddle ball as she eyed Lucretia’s shoes with raised eyebrows. Crossing her arms over the orange tank top, Layne looked down at her own attire: neutral grey-blue shorts with pockets—nice deep pockets. “I’m comfortable.”
“Yes, yes, you are.” Lucretia stood gathering her things. “If you no longer need me, I would like to do some shopping before heading north.”
Known for her eccentric but mysterious glamour and tastes, Lucretia was an international it girl. Money and fame followed her—gossip and the paparazzi emboldened slash annoyed her. A wealthy businesswoman specializing in feeding the glamorous hedonisms of bougie women—Lucretia’s words not Layne’s—that a moralistic society tended to frown upon and deny for centuries, she used her smarts and fame to their advantage and dared anyone to tell her otherwise. A philanthropist of the unusual kind, she directed her funds quietly and strategically benefiting those othered by just being. She was a queen lauded by many, hated by others—misogynoir at the core of that hate.
Then there was her bodyguard.
The bodyguard—who sat at the next table scanning for all things questionable—was a white man who Layne occasionally referred to as KC, as in Kevin Costner. He and Lucretia eventually got the reference with a small laugh and blush that made Layne laugh out loud, which startled them all, even herself—Layne wasn’t known to spontaneously erupt in laughter or to smile unless it was for the job. None of them were. All so sarcastically somber.
Positive Lucretia hired him because he was pretty, Layne confronted her. Lucretia swore he had all the necessary attributes needed for a bodyguard, including hand-to-hand combat skills and other expertise. Jason Trevorton was more than qualified for the position. He looked at ease in this heat in his tie-less suit, which only moderately covered his weapon and all his other qualities. Layne begrudged her own inclination towards him. She indulged him nonetheless. He was good at his job; smart, loyal, and easy on the eyes—something she could use when needed.
“You know who he looks like, right?” Layne asked her when she first hired him. “One of those superheroes from those movies.”
“Which one?” Lucretia eyed her suspiciously.
“The one with the costume…and morals.”
“They all wear costumes and have morals.”
“No, no, not really. He was anachronous…which I found fascinating.”
“I wonder why,” Lucretia said caustically, which made Layne frown in reflection. “Your pop culture knowledge is atrocious.”
A month later, Jason looked relaxed and bored. Subterfuge. The man caught a scent. She noted the slightest change in tension.
“Why do you need my permission? Shouldn’t I be asking you that since you’re the boss?” Layne questioned looking around suspiciously for the source of his tension.
“I was being polite,” she winked.
“No. I’ll see you there.”
“Yes, well, okay then,” Lucretia smiled—Layne did not. She rarely smiled. Smiling was work—the duty and trade kind. The work with no title or desk. The work—murky in origin—when completed, coerced a smirk from her cold, dead heart. That work.
He entered her life then. He did earlier, though she wasn’t aware of it—or was she? He was like new tech: first introduced into one’s life, a fascinating new toy, so sleek and unique; ultimately, one becomes enslaved—shackled to one’s most base impulses; it consumed, it chewed. Was she talking about him or all men? Not all men? She rolled her eyes at that ironically tired tag.
Comparing him to new tech? Another more dramatic eye roll.
She was aware, reader; she liked to think she was always aware. But was she really? He was just another star in the sky, another pebble in the path.
How aware are you, reader, to those?
The flare caught her eye as did the man behind it. Jason saw it too. Both naturally cautious, Layne rose casually and Jason moved to block. Layne waved him off, subtle as not to alert. “Let me get a photo of the two of you for that vapid site that sucks the essence from your spirit and peddles egocentricity and late-stage capitalism.”
Lucretia stunned a double-take. “What?” She asked as Jason pulled her close to him placing his arm around her protectively and whispered what and why.
She merged into him easily. His hands and lips—sense beneath the hint of substance amongst the breath and brush of her skin. It was like watching an erotic play in slow motion where only the allusion of intimacies were allowed.
Layne noted Lucretia’s slight shiver and stifled a grin. She took Lucretia’s phone wrapped in an expensive designer leather wallet from her nicely manicured hands. “Pose and do your thing.” She took a few photos of Jason and Lucretia then zoomed in past them to the man behind the flare, pressed her finger to the screen and took multiples.
Walking over to stand shoulder to shoulder, all three of them eyeballed the photo.
“Layne?” Lucretia queried. “Oh. Hmmmm,” she mumbled.
“We know who that is, right? ” Layne asked to both Lucretia and Jason.
“A journo?” Jason asked.
“That is not a journo,” Layne stated emphatically.
“He’s very pretty. He looks so familiar,” Lucretia muttered walking away looking at the photo while navigating the boardwalk with Jason at her side; his hand on the small of her back. Her expensive clothes—a grey pencil skirt hugged her thighs; a white silk shirt ruffled softly with the wind—made her elegance fluid, natural, and effortless. Her long wavy hair with red highlights shimmered black in the sun. Several eyed her; a few may have even recognized her—most in awe.
Layne wondered when the temptation for Jason would be too much for Lucretia to check. Would she be able to curb that impulse or follow it willingly?
She sat back down and motioned a waiter over. “May I have a menu please?”
While checking out the man behind the flare, she feigned looking at that menu.
He sat outside on the veranda a few businesses down. His hair, a surfer blond—gradations of dark and light merged in a bedhead of chaos almost smooth; not quite though. His body reeked of tone and sand and all things solid and reckless. She flagged him from where he sat. He was tempting. So tempting. Dressed casually in indigo blue jeans and a cobalt blue tee, he attracted some admirers from a few of the men and women, even the androgynous staff that served him. His smile and affection genuine but ultimately absent. His focus elsewhere.
“Brother,” she mumbled, irked by the pull.
“Do you know what you want?” The waiter asked.
“Yes, but it’s not on the menu,” she replied eyeing the source of her concern and root of an itch growing.
“I beg your pardon?” The waiter asked puzzled.
“Do you have gluten-free buns?”
“I love Miami. I want the Cuban veggie black bean burger, tomatoes, lettuce, onions, and bring me a double-side of spicy-mayo and regular mustard.”
“Sweet potato fries?”
“Yes. Thank you.” She handed the waiter the menu hesitating briefly when she saw the man behind the flare approaching her table. He sat down in the seat exited by Lucretia minutes earlier.
Layne didn’t bother covering her amusement.
“Bring me a chicken Caesar salad, no croutons or anchovies and…what are you drinking? Is that tea?” He asked removing his sunglasses. His voice was like smoke—blue and grey smoke, like his eyes; his eyes that held Layne’s much too long while she gathered her wits from his boldness.
Tension suffocated the space between them. Gravitation was immediate—and disconcerting.
“Half unsweetened tea, half lemonade, with honey, no sugar,” Layne told the waiter. “Separate tab,” she said not taking her eyes from him; thankful they were still covered with sunglasses—one of the reasons she purchased them.
The waiter walked away.
“I know who you are. I know what you do,” he said and changed her life forever.
© 2020 Alex Shea/Pamela Gay Mullins