Saturday, March 31, 2012

Chapter Four

I'm keeping my fingers crossed that my upstairs neighbor has checked out. I heard him this afternoon -- but it could have been housekeeping. Since then, there's been not a clomp or a clunk. I'm not going to be awake that much longer, so if he comes back late maybe I won't hear him.

I forgot to share my biggest news: I bought a laptop. I can't afford it, but I can't afford to be without a computer either, so there you go. This one is making signs that it's on its last legs. It will be delivered on Thursday (I'll get home on Thursday -- I probably won't touch it until Friday).

It's an HP Folio 13 (or something like that -- that means nothing to me). The most exciting part is: it weighs just three pounds. THAT I am excited about. Doesn't come with PowerPoint, so if I need it for work I'll have to see if Open Office will do the job (I expect it will).

The screen is smaller, but I had a 13-inch before and liked it just fine. I will GLADLY take a smaller screen to have it be that light. Anyway -- I'm excited, blessed.

And with that -- here is chapter four:

Alex was almost halfway up to the house before Caroline realized what was happening. “Hey—wait a sec! Alex!” She hurried to catch up with him. She didn’t know what it was about this boy. His aspersions on Bonita Key, his assumption that she would have lunch with him—all of that should have bothered her but coming from him it didn’t rankle her a bit. He seemed completely open and honest, as if the idea of playing games or being petty wouldn’t occur to him. It struck Caroline that she was making a lot of guesses about someone she’d only known for a couple of minutes and yet she was certain she was right about him.

Alex turned to wait for her. As she drew near she noticed that his eyes weren’t the dark brown she had thought they were. They were hazel, brown with a green tinge and flecks of gold.

“I’m not hungry—I ate breakfast not all that long ago,” Caroline said. “I can wait if you’re going to eat, though.”

“No, that’s cool—I’m not hungry either. What do you want to do first?”

“Well…why don’t we walk down the beach toward my house. I’ll introduce you to my family, I guess.”

They had no sooner reached the sand of the beach when Caroline looked up to see a familiar figure coming toward them. It was Mr. Katz, jogging along just above the reach of the waves, his face red, beads of sweat on the top of his head, his bald spot wreathed by curly brown hair. Caroline was struck, as usual, by the size of his feet. He had the biggest feet she’d ever seen. “He crushes more coquinas per step than any five people I know,” she thought.

He drew up alongside Caroline and Alex and stopped, huffing and puffing, bent over. “Hey…Caro...line…Who’s…your friend?”

“This is Alex Yealin, Mr. Katz. His parents bought the old Benson place.”

“Nice to meet you, sir.” Alex extended his hand. Caroline was struck again by his mature manner. None of the kids she knew would have responded the way Alex did. He seemed a lot older than she was, although she knew from her research that they were the same age.

“Well, Alex…it’s nice to meet you, too.” Mr. Katz straightened up and shook Alex’s hand. “I live just across the way.” He waved his hand over his shoulder. “Caroline’s a good tour guide—she’ll have you knowing your way around like a native in no time. I jog along here every day, so we’ll probably run into each other again—no pun intended!”

“Yes, sir. Thank you. I look forward to it, sir.”

Mr. Katz looked at Caroline and raised one eyebrow. Alex’s politeness and formal manner were something that he wasn’t used to either. After exchanging a few more pleasantries he was off again, his huge feet pounding the sand, crushing the coquinas in his path.

Alex turned to Caroline with a funny look on his face. “That man has the biggest—” he began before catching himself.

“I know, right? The biggest feet in the world. He’s a math teacher at the middle school. My math teacher, as a matter of fact. He’s pretty cool.” They were walking along the beach again, down far enough so that the warm water splashed around their ankles.

“We cut through here to get to my house,” Caroline headed away from the Gulf. She could see her brother out in front of their house, vacuuming The Tomato. “That’s Kael, my brother. He goes to the high school. Mom’s a vet—her office is at our house. Dad works for a bank on the mainland. And I have a little brother, too. Donny. Cute, but annoying.”

Alex didn’t say a word, just scrambled up the dunes behind Caroline. “Do you have any brothers or sisters, Alex?” Caroline already knew the answer from her research but thought it would be polite to ask. Now that she knew Alex she was feeling a little uncomfortable about having scoped out information about his family over the internet.

“No. There’s just me. Mom’s from this part of the country and wanted a place down here for vacations, summer, that kind of thing. I’m here now with Mrs. Birch. She’s our housekeeper…used to be my nanny but I’m too old for a nanny now. Mom and Dad will come down on long weekends and that kind of thing. I wasn’t exactly excited about the idea, but I promised Mom I’d give it a chance.”

Caroline looked at him with renewed wonder. She’d been complaining about spending the summer here in familiar surroundings with her family and at least the occasional chance to spend time with her friends, and Alex was calmly telling her that he’d be here for most of the summer almost by himself! She felt a bit guilty for all of her griping over the past couple of days.

They stopped at the front fender of The Tomato. “Kael, this is Alex. His folks just bought the Benson place,” Caroline hollered over the noise of the vacuum. Kael nodded, waved the vacuum hose at them and yelled back.

“Hey, Alex!”

Caroline turned to go into the house. Her mother was in the kitchen, chopping onions and garlic. Caroline introduced Alex to her mother. As usual, he responded in an almost formal way.

“Very nice to meet you, Dr. Brennan. Caroline’s offered to show me around the island—I’ve only been here for a couple of days. I know my parents will be eager to meet you and Mr. Brennan when they come down next weekend.”

“I’d love to meet them, too, Alex. Please let Caroline know when they’re coming and we’ll have you all over for a barbecue. Mr. Brennan considers himself to be a gourmet cook because he can grill steaks without burning them completely.” Dr. Brennan smiled at the two of them. “Care, could you do me a favor? If you’re going to show Alex around could you go into town and pick up a loaf of bread for me at the bakery? We’re having spaghetti for supper and I’d like to make garlic bread to go with it. Alex, you’re more than welcome to join us!”

“Thank you, Dr. Brennan. I’ll have to let my housekeeper know. May I use your phone?”

Caroline pointed to the phone and Alex took it into the next room to make his call. Caroline’s mother looked at her questioningly. “He seems very nice…” she began.

“Yes, he seems very nice,” Caroline agreed. “He also seems very…I don’t know. Grown up, almost. I wonder if he knows how to have fun.”

“Well, sweetie, it’s been my experience that kids are kids no matter where they’re from or how they’ve been raised.” Dr. Brennan paused from her chopping and pushed a strand of blonde hair away from her forehead with the back of her wrist. “I’m sure that if you give him a chance you’ll see that he’s just like Rachel and Hannah.”

“Yeah, maybe,” Caroline said doubtfully. She took some money from the loose change jar on top of the refrigerator. “Can I buy us a cookie while we’re at Mrs. Griffith’s?”

“Of course you may. Tell her I said hello, okay?”

A few minutes later Alex and Caroline were headed down the street toward the small downtown area of Bonita Key. There were only a dozen or so stores, a couple of restaurants, and a gas station on the island. One of the shops was the Sweet Thing Bakery, run by Mrs. Griffith and her daughter, Ruthie. The bakery was one of Caroline’s favorite places in all the world.

As she pushed open the door to the small shop she was hit by a blast of cool air. An instant later the aromas enveloped her—fresh bread, warm cookies, muffins bursting with berries and nuts, pastries and cakes, pies and brownies. Mrs. Griffith was famous for her baked goods and did a steady trade with mainland folk who were more than willing to make the short drive to the island for some of her wonderful creations.

Ruthie was behind the counter. She looked up with a smile as Caroline came in. “Hey there, Caroline! How’s it going today?”

Caroline introduced Alex to Ruthie. “Ruthie is an incredible musician, Alex. You should hear her play the violin. She’s amazing.”

“Caroline is my biggest fan, Alex.” Ruthie smiled fondly at her young friend. She had been Caroline’s babysitter a few years back and Caroline was still in awe of Ruthie’s beauty and skills. She seemed to Caroline to be everything that Caroline aspired to be—talented, gorgeous, gracious.

“What can I get for you guys?” Ruthie’s question brought Caroline back to the present. “Mom’s just taken a fresh batch of chocolate chip cookies out of the oven. The ones with the big chunks of chocolate, Caroline—your favorite.”

A few minutes later, warm cookies in their hands and a crusty loaf of bread in a crinkly paper wrapper under Alex’s arm, they headed back toward Manatee Court.

“Ruthie’s father died when she was a baby,” Caroline offered. “She ought to go to a music conservatory or something like that, Mom says, but she’s going to stay here on the island because she knows her mom needs her help in running the bakery.”

Alex looked at Caroline. “Do you know everything about everybody around here?”

Caroline flushed with embarrassment. “I just thought you’d want to know, that’s all. It’s not a big secret. When you live in a place like this, pretty much everybody knows everybody else’s business,” she added defensively.

“Let’s stop by my house on the way back. Mrs. Birch’ll give us some milk and we can finish these cookies in the gazebo.” Alex seemed oblivious to Caroline’s embarrassment. He looked at her expectantly.

“Okay,” Caroline mumbled. It was going to take her a while to figure this kid out.

Twenty minutes later they were lounging in the gazebo in back of Alex’s house. It had not yet been renovated and it suffered from peeling paint and rotting boards. Once upon a time the gazebo had been spectacular, decorated with intricately carved posts and gingerbread trim and benches and affording a magnificent view of the Gulf. The view was about all that was left of those former glory days.

“I wonder if Dad’ll have this redone or if he’ll just scrap it and build a new one,” Alex mused, looking up at the roof of the structure. Patches of sunlight shown through where shingles had long been missing.

Caroline leaned back. “I don’t know. It’s awfully—”

A loud crack interrupted her as the railing she was leaning against gave way. She flailed her arms, trying to keep from falling. Alex lunged toward her, grabbing her hand just in time to yank her back toward the center of the gazebo. He pulled her so hard that they both landed in a heap and another crack sounded as a board beneath them began to give.

“Man, this thing is a death trap!” Caroline rolled toward the bench at the side of the gazebo. She laid there for a second, looking over at Alex who had also moved away from the latest offending board. They stared at each other for a second and then broke out in laughter.

“I saved your life,” Alex insisted. “You would’ve fallen off this thing, landed on your head, and broken your neck.”

“You almost killed me,” Caroline retorted. “Inviting me up here! I hope your folks have insurance if they’re going to keep this thing around!”

Alex leaned over and pulled at the rotting floorboard. “I’m going to get rid of this so that no one else steps on it. I think it’s safer to have a hole in the floor than to have a board that looks solid but is actually rotten. And I’ll be sure to tell Dad that this needs to be repaired soon. Hey—something’s down there!”

Caroline was about to warn him that there could be lots of things beneath a gazebo. Snakes, spiders, a raccoon or an opossum—reaching blindly into a dark hole wasn’t the smartest thing you could do. Before she could open her mouth, though, Alex had already retrieved an object from the darkness beneath the floorboards.

He held out a cloth-covered bundle. He slowly unwrapped it to reveal a glass jar, about the size of a small mayonnaise jar. Inside the jar was an old, yellowed envelope. “Cassie” was written on the front in firm, masculine handwriting. Alex looked at Caroline and wordlessly unscrewed the lid of the jar. He took out the envelope and peeked inside it. He turned it upside down and a small oval object fell onto the wooden floor. He took a folded letter out of the envelope, started to open it, and stopped.

More later...

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