“I’m freezing and I hurt all over.”
Sabrina’s words penetrated the vat of Jell-o surrounding my brain and woke me up. Once I gained enough awareness to take stock, I realized that they pretty much summed up my situation as well. I’d clearly underestimated the fury of the dark hangover that had oozed up from the bottom of the cauldron. In addition, I was stiff and sore from lying on the ground, right where I’d evidently passed out some time before. It was still dark, so I didn’t know how long before. The bonfire was out, and I was willing to bet that if I got up and stumbled around, the stones would be gone as well.
On the asset side of the ledger, the one side of me that was warm was where I was nestled up next to Sabrina.
“And my mouth tastes like I’ve been munching on cow patties. I need water, aspirin, and a toothbrush, in that order, ten minutes ago. Wonder who won the Super Bowl?”
“You promised it was the Falcons. We should be celebrating.”
“What the hell do you think we’re doing?”
“You want to leave now?”
“No, smart guy. I want to freeze to death lying here on the ground. Well, maybe just one more minute. Just for God’s sake don’t try to kiss me. You’d be running off to the bushes to toss your grits.”
So I kissed her neck instead. Then we got up, located the flashlight I’d stuffed in my back pocket a lifetime ago, and headed back toward the boat.
“That was pretty amazing, you know.” Sabrina’s words from behind me boomed loudly against the still night, but there didn’t seem to be any reason to whisper like there’d been coming up the path. “Too bad we can’t get the recipe for that brew. Peckerwoods’ would be famous for miles around. We’d have to build on and hire more staff.”
Her resilience astonished me. Not to mention her early morning wit. I could scarcely find my way to the bathroom without a cup of coffee, and here she was ignoring a pounding headache—assuming that she was experiencing the same after-effects that I was—and cracking jokes. I confess I’d never met an early-morning woman before; didn’t even know the breed existed.
I had water in the boat, but no toothbrush—I’d have willingly shared if I’d had one—and no analgesic of any sort. In fact, I’d come astonishingly unprepared. Didn’t even have matches to light our own fire. I determined I’d do better when Beltane got here.
Beltane. The very idea sent a shiver up my spine. Didn’t even want to think about that before coffee. But the two brain cells that were functioning this morning agreed with Sabrina: it was pretty amazing.
Our only communication on the boat ride home was, once again, her warm side up against me. But as we loaded the boat on the trailer, she told me her plans. “I’m going to spend the entire day with my kids. Go home and wake ‘em up, hug ‘em for about an hour, keep ‘em home from school, make waffles. Go to a movie, play in the park, eat at McDonald’s, whatever they want to do. So I guess I’ll see you for breakfast in the morning?”
I was going to ask her out to dinner but her intention seemed clear enough, so I choked off the invitation. “I need to see Adeline this morning, so I guess I’ll have to suffer through another breakfast at Peckerwoods’ without you. That’ll be day number 37. Not that anyone’s counting. But as long as you promise to be there tomorrow, I guess I’ll survive somehow.”
“You’re sweet. Gotta go. See you in the morning. She started to walk away and then turned back to add, “Don’t mention to anybody that I spent the night with you. My reputation couldn’t stand the shock of that big a boost all at once.”
My paper was there when I got home. I wisely waited for coffee to open it. Despite Sabrina’s prediction, the Falcons hadn’t let me down. I’d still get to see their first Super Bowl win, assuming I was still alive then. Ellie was no doubt going to give me some first class shit over causing the loss, but that was in the future. The present was ibuprofen, a shower, breakfast at Peckerwoods’, and then the road to hell and Adeline.
I called her once I made it to the highway. For once she answered right away.
“I’m pretty sure I saw your father last night. I’ll be there in a half hour. Dig out the most recent photograph you have.”
“Oh my God. Do you think it’s really him?”
“Relax. Think positive thoughts. I’ll tell you all about it when I get there.”
She was remarkably composed when she answered the door, although she was clutching an almost empty Bloody Mary like it was salvation.
“Come, sit down, have a drink, tell me what you know.” Adeline led me to the kitchen table, normally Priscilla’s domain but her grey elegance was nowhere to be seen. There was a tall sweating pitcher of Bloody Marys and an empty glass beside it which Adeline filled, along with her own.
“Here’s the picture you asked for. Is it him?”
“Yes. No doubt at all.” I gazed down at the photo of George sitting at his kitchen table smiling at a cupcake with a birthday candle in it. “Your father was walking the wheel I built out on the island last night. I could see him very clearly, and the others, although we couldn’t talk. He looks great. Doesn’t seem to have aged much, either.”
“The golden-haired woman was there, pretty clearly in charge. Plus a couple of dozen others. The stones were there too, and the bonfire, although I couldn’t feel the heat.”
“Wait, wait. You’re jumping around. Tell it from the beginning, everything that you saw. I want to hear it all.”
So I did. She listened without interrupting until I’d finished, then starting asked me questions.
“You tried to touch the pendant that she was wearing and your hand went right through it. But when she laid it on the ground, you could pick it up and it was totally normal.”
“Yes, exactly like that.”
“But the fire and the stones were on the ground, and you couldn’t feel them.”
“No, you’re right. There must be things that are permanently stuck in the Otherworld and things that can cross over.”
“And did you see Daddy and the woman together? Did they act like a couple?”
“I didn’t see your father until right at the end, but he very well could have been there the whole time. To tell the truth, I should have been more prepared. I never thought to look at a better picture before so I’d know for sure if I saw him. But to be honest, I didn’t really expect to just run into him. In fact, I didn’t have any idea what to expect, and it caught me totally by surprise. That’s not going to happen again.”
I took a tentative sip of the Bloody Mary, and my stomach revolted just as I expected. I set it down too hard on the glass table. “Sorry. Can’t drink that right now.”
“Yes, I forgot. You drank way too much drugged jungle juice brewed some other place or time or both and it spaced you out and made you hallucinate. There’s no chance my father was a hallucination, is there?”
“I would say almost anything is possible, although if the woman was a hallucination, where did I get the punch from? But not your father. If I’d been hallucinating, he would have looked like the old newspaper version of his picture, not almost exactly like this one that I’ve never seen before.”
“No, I guess you’re right. So how did he get there?”
“I need to talk to Chai to see if she has any theories. But my best guess is that on Beltane, if you don’t leave the island before the fire goes out or maybe before the sun comes up, you stay in the Otherworld. Beltane is when your father disappeared, and he prepared his cottage in case he didn’t come back. Throwing out everything that would spoil, for example. But he didn’t want to do anything irrevocable in case he did. I’m pretty sure he didn’t know for certain what would happen. He also figured there was a chance he would die in the attempt, but he wanted to go badly enough that the risk was worth it.”
“So in only three more months, we can find out for sure.”
Her words shocked me. “You’re going to stay on the island? Just like that?”
“Good grief, Rick. Why in the world would I do that? We know nothing about this place, but the chances of it having air conditioning, running water, and electricity—much less a Starbucks—is miniscule. Walk away from my spoiled life to have a conversation with my father just because he didn’t bother to tell me he was leaving six years ago? I don’t think so.” She took a long drink from her Bloody Mary, made a face, stalked over to the sink and dumped it out. “I’m switching to coffee. Can I make you some?”
“Coffee sounds great, thanks. If it turns out you can’t talk to your father, how are you going to find out for sure?”
“Hello, Mr. Hot Shot Investigative Reporter. I’m going to take two pads of paper and pens. I’m going to set one on the ground so he can pick it up. Then I’m going to write my question on my pad, and he’s going to write the answer on his.”
Duh. Hot shot reporter indeed. I excused myself for not thinking of that already—it’d been a long night with not much sleep and a lot of distractions. I’m sure I’d have come up with it long before Beltane.
“Sorry, that was unfair. You’ve been up partying all night. Strictly for the cause, I suppose. Did you go over by yourself?”
“A friend that I hadn’t seen for a long time showed up just as I was leaving, and I took her along.” I considered ‘a friend’ to be more an evasion of an invasive question than a falsehood. “In retrospect, it’s too bad Chai wasn’t there. But I’m going to make sure I talk to her this week.”
“One thing we have plenty of is time.” Her eyes teared up a little, and she quickly turned away and fussed with the coffee. “I’ll be fucking out of my mind by then,” she spoke over her shoulder. “But in the big scheme of things, if you’ve waited six years knowing nothing, what’s another three months when you know he’s alive?”
Pointing out that “alive” might not be strictly accurate would have been cruel, particularly since I thought of George as alive as well.
Adeline set my coffee down on the table, and then took both of my hands. “Rick, I want to say that you’ve done a really magnificent job of this. Succeeded in a situation beyond my wildest imagination. I’m hoping you don’t mind staying on at the cottage until after Beltane?”
Hope I don’t mind? I laughed. “I’m on pretty good terms with Sheriff Tate, so you’re going to have to really work at it to get me evicted. Might as well just let me stay on until then.”
My mind finally reacted to the caffeine and I had another thought. “I also have to go back to see the lawyer. Want to go with me?”
“You bet your ass.”