John D MacDonald – Barrier Island

The island was narrow there, and Wade guessed it would be quiet and pleasant on the south side, and so they walked through the trees carrying the picnic basket, ice chest, tackle boxes and spinning rods. On the way through the woods they spooked a pair of rabbits, and it was Lois who spotted the raccoon up in the crotch of a pine.

Tod had dug up a few sand fleas on the north beach, and the three of them, Wade and Tod and Kim, had cast in hopes of attracting the attention of a passing pompano. Kim tired of it and went back along the beach to help set up the picnic.

Wade had intercepted one of the glances Lois Gibbs had given his son, and the naked adoration in that look had startled him.

“How’s Nita coming along?” Wade asked.

“I don’t know.”

“You’ve been over there enough.”

“Is there something wrong with that?”

“Hey! Don’t be so damn prickly, boy. I’m not accusing you of a thing. I was wondering about Nita.”

“I’m sorry. When I said I don’t know, I really don’t. She’s nice to me. She smiles and talks and so on. But it’s like… this maybe sounds dumb, but it’s like somebody crouched down and holding up a dummy in front of them, a dummy that smiles and talks and does the right things. Like she isn’t really there.”

“I think that’s very perceptive. What does Lois say about her mother?”

“Lois is an absolutely wonderful human being.”

“Of course. But what does she say?”

“She says her mother is having a hard time.”

“Except you’re a little edgy lately, you seem to have got past your hard times. What was going on anyway?”

“Well, what was bothering me was so damn dumb and silly and pointless I don’t ever think about it anymore.”

“Or talk about it?”

“Not ever.”

“I’ll settle for that. Glad to have you back in one piece.”

“Glad to be back,” Tod said, grinning. At that moment something hit his bait as he was working it back in, stripped off fifty feet of line and went free.

“Like I hooked into a whale,” he said, awed.

“I smell groceries,” Wade said, reeling in.

“I hear music.”

“If your sister is going to play those tapes of hers, you three kids can take your rations a half mile down the beach.”

“Isn’t it a beautiful day, Dad?”

“I never knew you noticed.”

They walked back to the group. The sun was overhead and the day was getting warmer. Beth smiled at them as she saw them coming, and he knew what was in her heart. It was as if he had a sudden gift of special sight. Kim turned the volume dial down on her boom box and laughed and he knew what she was thinking and knew how she felt. Nita smiled too, and he saw through the smile to bleakness and regret, to a self-awareness of loneliness to come, and even down to a little stain of envy a jealousy of the two-ness of Wade and Beth. He saw the way Lois looked at Tod, and he knew something about them which he had only begun to suspect. He pushed it out of his mind. Eavesdropping was an uncomfortable habit. He hoped this random ability to see into heads and hearts would fade quickly. It made him uneasy. Let people be people. Cherish them, and trust them to tell you what they think you have a right to know.

Bern, I think you are slowly turning back into the friend you used to be as opposed to the man you became. And I welcome that. It is easier to live with. Now you have left me a pair of shipwrecked women, castaways when your ship went down. So please be aware, my friend, I am going to give it my best shot.

He looked south. The wind out of the north, once it was past the islands, began to pick up the seas, and far far out, the horizon was jagged. Better to be here than there. Here on the sunny beach like a tribal family from long ago, vulnerable to all the forces of the world.

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