John D MacDonald – Barrier Island

“Does that make you a noble person or a sneak?”

“Why are we doing this? What’s the point? It doesn’t make me into anything. I do what I do because I am what I am.”

“Popeye the Sailor Man.”

He got up and walked over to her and put his hand on her shoulder. She wrenched forward, away from his touch. “If you’ve stopped liking what I am,” he said gently, “we have some big problems. I like what you are, how you think, what you do. I love you. It’s a good thing to like the person you love.”

She came up out of the chair, turning as she did so, quickly sliding up into his arms. She buried her face in his shoulder and trembled against him, making an odd sound, not a sob or a sigh. Something in between.

“I get scared,” she said. “You know.”

And he did know. Any threat of insecurity was deadly. She had lived in a golden world until she was eight, a little girl loved and treasured and admired. A beautiful little girl in a beautiful home, wearing beautiful clothes. And suddenly the sky went dark. As it does in the stories of witches and goblins. The mother dwindled and sickened and shrank and died, as if under a spell. The father changed jobs, changed to one where he traveled all over the world. The cherished girl was sent to live with her aunt and uncle who had five loud rowdy children of their own in a house too small. There she learned to keep herself to herself, to fend off aggression, to keep her face closed, her head down, and do as she was told. And he knew that he could never build for her a world so fine but that she would always be waiting for the first hint the sky was growing dark. She had learned long ago that nothing lasted, and had learned the lesson all too well.

“Either way, Beth honey, everything will be fine. Either way. We’ll make out.”

“Sure. I know. Don’t mind me.” She turned away, out of his arms, and with her back to him said, “You had lunch?”

“Yes, thanks. I think I’d like to take the Whaler and go on out, maybe to Horn Island. Want to come along? It’s a beautiful day.”

“I’ve got to finish the August report and mail it in. Why don’t you take Tod?”

“If he’ll come. The last two times I asked him he didn’t want to go.”

“Make him go with you. He spends too much time in his room lately.”

She turned and smiled at him, the smile self-mocking. “You okay now?” he asked.

“I’m fine. Just don’t mind too much if I snarl at you sometimes. Okay?”

“I don’t mind at all.”

It took twenty-five minutes to run from the West Bay Marina out to the beach just west of the big lagoon on Horn Island. There was barely enough breeze to kick up a small chop out of the southwest. Every once in a while the bow would lift and smack down, whacking the white spray out to either side. He stood at the console, knees slightly bent. Tod sat forward on the port side. Wade could see the gentle curve of his cheek, line of jaw, shadow of eyelashes. Heritage from Beth. It was strange to see this dwindling girlishness, this essence of vulnerability, and know that in another year or two the last of it would be gone and the man would have taken its place, all planes and angles and leathery knots. And no matter how fiercely denied, that feminine factor would still be inside, buried but vulnerable.

They tilted the motor up and pulled the Whaler onto the shallow beach west of the lagoon.

“What are we going to do now?” Tod asked in a tired and patient voice.

“Walk in the woods. Show you something.”

No response. The boy followed him through the woods of pine and oak and scrub palmetto, and up the long slope of a dune. Wade stopped at the crest of the dune and said, “Not ready yet.”

“What’s not ready.”

Wade indicated the four or five brushy acres that stretched out below them, toward the sea beach on the far side of the island. “Soon that whole open patch will be all bright yellow flowers. It’s worth seeing. We can come out again.”

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