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Authors: Mary Anna Evans

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BOOK: Isolation
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Chapter Three

Joe had promised himself, time and again, that he would call his father, then he had let another year roll on. After he'd left home at eighteen, he'd thought, “When I get settled somewhere, I'll let him know where I am.” But he'd wandered for years, working odd jobs and sleeping wherever he could pitch a tent.

He'd lingered so long in North Carolina, learning to flintknap from Old Man Kingsley, that he'd thought, “It's time. I need to call my dad and let him know I settled down.” Then Old Man Kingsley died, which is what people with nicknames like “Old Man” tend to do, and Joe had taken to wandering again.

If Faye had kicked him off the island like she should have—why had someone with her brains let a vagrant camp on her island, anyway?—he would be wandering still. Instead, he'd acquired a wife who had never met her father-in-law, fathered a son who had never met his grandfather, and adopted a daughter who also hadn't met her new grandfather.

When they'd found out Faye was pregnant again, Joe had thought, “It's time,” and he'd invited his father to spend Thanksgiving with them on Joyeuse Island and stay to meet his new granddaughter. Then he'd waited too long after the miscarriage to call him and ask, “Could you come another time?” So now Joe was stuck on an island with a wife who wouldn't talk to him, a father he didn't like, and a two-year-old. Happy holidays.

Sylvester “Sly” Mantooth didn't ask his son why his daughter-in-law left the house every morning. He didn't do much, really. Joe couldn't put his finger on the reason his father annoyed him so. The man just sat, coffee cup in hand, and talked the live-long day. He talked to Joe. He talked to Michael. He talked to himself, when Joe and Michael left the room and forced him to do that. He didn't say anything much, but he talked a lot.

Faye didn't seem to notice. Every afternoon, she came home empty-handed and avoided Amande's daily calls. She silently ate the supper Joe had cooked, letting Sly's endless words swirl around her. At dusk, she gave Joe and Michael distracted kisses before nodding at Sly, showering, and falling into the bed where she spent a lot of time not sleeping.

Joe had to do something. He didn't know what it was, but he had to do it. If this situation rocked along until Amande got off that airplane, lugging a huge teddy bear for the baby-that-wasn't, he wasn't sure his family would survive intact.

If Joe didn't know something was very wrong with Faye, he would have been angry. Okay, he was angry. But he would get over it.

Since Faye had stopped her obsessive monitoring of their finances—the normal Faye could pinch a penny in two and spend it twice, so what was up with that?—she hadn't noticed that Joe had been spending more money than he should at Liz's Bar and Grill. For the two weeks since Sly Mantooth's arrival, Joe had loaded his father and his son into the john boat every morning, as soon as Faye was out of sight, and he had pointed it toward the marina that their friend Liz owned and called home.

On every one of those mornings, he had savored the fact that the noise of the boat motor silenced his father by making conversation impossible. Once ashore, there were the very welcome, time-killing activities of carefully securing the boat and fueling it, before leading father and son into the grill. Inside, Liz's crooked grin and her peerless fried eggs made another sliver of the morning easier to bear.

The state of their budget said that Joe ought to stay home and fry his family's eggs himself. Except Joe didn't really know the state of their budget, since Faye had stopped balancing the checkbook. Playing short order cook would have saved him a few bucks, but his stomach roiled at the thought of sitting at the breakfast table with his absent-eyed wife, his toddler son, and the father who had never actually told him how long he'd been out of prison. Or why he'd been there in the first place.

Faye was doing her share to save on groceries. Every morning, she tucked a single banana in her work bag as she trudged across the island to do whatever it was she did these days. And every morning, before she'd even disappeared into the distance, Joe said, “Ready for some biscuits? Then get in the boat!” in the happy voice of a man looking forward to quality time with his father and son.

This morning, as always, Sly had answered, “Damn straight!” and Michael had run in circles yelling, “Bikkits! Bikkits!”

Joe always enjoyed that one moment of feeling like the family hero. It was totally worth thirty bucks for three breakfasts and a big tip. More than thirty bucks, actually, when he factored in enough fuel to get there. Still. Totally worth it. Also, Liz needed the money more than they did, if such a thing could be possible.

Twenty minutes after starting his boat's wonderfully loud motor, they arrived at the marina that housed Liz's Bar and Grill for the fourteenth time since his dad had stepped off the plane. The place had been seedy when Wally had owned it—actually, calling it seedy would have been generous—but Liz had poured her heart into giving the place a homey ambiance.

Joe understood how she felt. He'd grown up in ramshackle houses that were held together by duct tape and landlords' promises. Faye's plantation house on Joyeuse Island wasn't the home of his dreams. It was a home beyond his dreams. Joe felt like somebody had crawled inside his head to see the biggest and finest house he could imagine, then they had searched the world until they found something bigger and finer than that.

Faye loved the old house. It was her home. But, still, when she looked at it, she saw ancient plumbing and wall plaster that she would never finish patching.

Joe looked at it and thought, “I can't believe this is really ours.”

Every square foot of Liz's business—the marina, the convenience store, the bar and grill, the dock, the grassy yard with its benches and picnic tables—showed the hand of a woman with only a little money but a lot of pride. She'd peeled up the sticky linoleum Wally had installed in the restaurant and store, and she'd put a multicolored epoxy coat on the concrete beneath. That floor was always as clean as her mop could make it. She'd painted the dark paneling a happy yellow, and Joe was damned if Liz didn't learn how to run a borrowed sewing machine so she could make curtains for the place.

She'd mowed the grass herself, from the back wall of the kitchen to the seawall where her dock stretched out into the Gulf. Joe didn't know how she'd scraped together the money to re-gravel the parking lot, but she'd managed it.

Liz Colton herself hadn't weathered the years since her son Chip's death nearly so well as her business had. Too much bourbon had added a little more grit to the plain-spoken redhead's voice. She waited too long to touch up her roots these days, and the white stripe through the middle of her long and bushy orange locks was not a good look for her. She was surly to most of her customers, except Faye and Joe, and Liz was in a business that depended on her good humor. People didn't want their fishing trips spoiled by a woman who called them stupid for buying the wrong bait. They'd begun buying their bait elsewhere, and also their ice and their gear, not to mention the fried flounder dinners that Liz had served them on those days when the fish weren't biting.

It didn't make sense to Joe that Liz was still nice to him and Faye. They'd watched her son die after he'd come damn close to killing them both, so Liz had to feel a jolt every time she saw them. Joe was pretty sure Liz only tolerated them because Michael's toddler grins made tiny moments of her life easier to bear. So she sucked it up and said nice things to Michael's parents, but she couldn't bring herself to say nice things to anybody else.

Every day, while Liz was cooing “Who's the cutest little black-haired boy in Micco County?” in her gravelly baritone, Joe was calculating just how much he could overtip without hearing her tell him to go to hell. And, for the last two weeks, every time he'd parked himself on one of Liz's barstools—which was every single freaking day—he was also wondering what in the hell he was supposed to say to his father.

He should probably have led with, “So, Dad, how long have you been out of prison? And what, exactly, did you do to get sent there?”

Instead, he had bought the man breakfast every day, thus funding Sly's improbable flirtation with Liz.

“How's my favorite redheaded bombshell today?” Sly would ask in a booming voice that filled the shabby grill. Every day. He asked this every day and Joe wanted to fall through the floor every day.

“She's ready to serve you up something hot and steamy and just the way you like it” was Liz's invariable response. Every day, Joe wondered if it were possible to fall through a floor twice.

Yes, Sly and Liz were about the same age. And, yes, they both possessed the cagey brains and crude senses of humor that marked them as survivors of a lot of hard years. Nevertheless, a woman with Liz's street smarts should have looked at Sly and seen trouble on two legs. And a man with his father's long and tough history should have looked at Liz and seen heartbreak in the flesh.

In the movies, they would have found happiness and healing in each others' arms. In real life? Joe had once witnessed two bears fighting for territory. The air had been full of blood, rage, and flying fur. He would expect pretty much the same results from any attempt at a romance between Liz and Sly.

Nevertheless, Joe continued to put Sly in his john boat and take him to these early morning trysts because he couldn't think of any better way to pass the morning. In one more week, Thanksgiving would come and go, then Sly would go home to Oklahoma. Not that Joe knew for certain that the man possessed a return plane ticket.

Joe eased the boat alongside the dock. Once it was secured, he set Michael down to see which way he ran. When he was lucky, Michael ran away from the restaurant door, insisting on delaying breakfast long enough to watch fish and turtles gather at the end of the dock. Liz had been throwing her kitchen scraps in that spot for years, and the fish knew where free food fell from the sky.

Joe was big on time killers these days, and this one was actually pleasant. The sun glinted off the water and the fishes' scales, and his blood pressure always settled down when he spent a little time listening to the creaking and sighing sound of seafaring crafts safely moored.

Michael hurried toward the spot where the fish waited for him. He burbled happily while Joe produced a slice of bread from the leather bag that always hung from his waist, full of necessities like stone tools and food. Sly, who didn't move like a man in his late fifties, dropped to his knees beside the boy and told him about all the fish, just like he did every morning.

“See them minnows, all different shiny colors? Purty, ain't they?” Flailing his hand at a few bigger fish floating among the multitude of minnows, he said, “Them's pompano.”

Yes, they were. They had been pompano every single day for two weeks now and they always would be, but Michael didn't mind hearing about them again.

“And over there?” The big hand flailed at a silver flash further away from the dock, gliding underwater like a bird. Only its wingtips broke the water. “Stingray.”

Right again. Sly Mantooth knew a stingray when he saw it. Soon enough, Michael would, too. In the meantime, all three of them watched its flat, undulating body pass by.

Joe was irritated with his father's constant chatter, no doubt. It had been his understanding that ex-cons weren't talkative, not when the wrong word might put them in life-or-death trouble with their fellow prisoners, but maybe prison didn't mark everyone in the same way. If anything, Sly was chattier now than he'd ever been when Joe was a child. Leave it to his dad to do everything backwards.

Still, Joe watched his father with a flicker of interest. Looking at Sly lean easily over the side of the dock and riffle the silty water with a relaxed hand, Joe thought that maybe there was some hope that he himself wouldn't move like an old man before his time, either.

As always, the fish rose from the darkness, fluttering their pectoral fins and piercing the surface of the water with their gaping mouths, and Michael talked to them as if they were familiar playmates. Joe supposed that they were. Bending his head toward the bag hanging from his belt, he reached a hand in to fetch some bread before Michael started to whine for it, so he missed the moment when Sly flung himself headfirst off the dock.

Michael had left the dock, too, intent on following his grandfather into the water, but Joe reached out a long arm and plucked the boy from midair. Caught off-balance, he nearly toppled over the edge himself. When he gained his footing, Joe found himself on the dock's edge staring down at Liz. Ten feet from the dock, she floated below the murky water's surface with her arms outstretched through circling schools of minnows, catfish, and pompano. Her hair, iron gray and faded red, snaked through the water as if reaching out for air.

Joe was as much a man of action as Sly and he needed to be in the water. He needed to be doing everything in his power to save Liz. He looked reflexively for Faye, so that he could hand their child to her and dive in, but she wasn't there. Sly, burdened by nothing to stop him from yielding to the impulse of the moment, had already wrapped both arms around Liz and yanked her to the surface. He was shaking her, slapping her, doing anything to rouse her, but she hung slack in his arms.

It was no accident that Joe was a strong swimmer. His father had made time to teach him very few things, but Sly had ensured that Joe could handle himself in the water because he himself swam with the power of a killer whale. Joe's father turned Liz on her back, wrapped one big arm around her chest, and struck out for land.

Joe paused only to dial 911, then sprinted up the dock while carrying a struggling child and barking information at the emergency dispatcher. Sly was already dragging Liz onto the muddy shoreline before Joe got there. It was littered with soda cans and candy wrappers that had held snacks sold by Liz herself.

BOOK: Isolation
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