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Albert Camus

Don't walk behind me; I may not lead. Don't walk in front of me; I may not follow. Just walk beside me and be my friend.

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

nothing in real life is ever as transparent as it seems - Aqua by M.A. George


Meet Layla McKelland:
Novelist (unpublished, but cut her some slack…seventeen is a bit early to despair),
Slightly neurotic introvert (Alright, let’s be honest…there’s no “slightly” about it),
International Woman of Mystery, and…
Okay, just scratch the bio.

Description:

Meet Layla McKelland:
Novelist (unpublished, but cut her some slack…seventeen is a bit early to despair),
Slightly neurotic introvert (Alright, let’s be honest…there’s no “slightly” about it),
International Woman of Mystery, and…
Okay, just scratch the bio.

The only real “mystery” in Layla’s life is why her father has never been on the scene. Or why her mother drags Layla to a new coastal home every year.

Nothing about the latest hometown seems too newsworthy…until a routine day at the beach leaves Layla questioning whether she’s read one too many paranormal fantasy novels. The plot thickens when a random guy claims to know things about her father—a bizarre claim he backs up with an equally impossible stunt. And Layla soon finds herself on the wrong side of a mysterious attempted drowning…on her own kitchen floor.

When all is done, Layla will attest that fact is far stranger than fiction. And nothing in real life is ever as transparent as it seems…Not even water.
Especially not water.

EXCERPT





It takes about five minutes—maybe seven—to pretty much see the whole town. I don’t have too much interest in visiting the tourist stops (although the T-shirt shop with a giant shark-tunnel entrance definitely intrigues me), so I follow the signs to the public beach and park in the line of cars forming in the sand. I slip my hair into a ponytail and loop my beach bag over a shoulder, pretending to push down the broken door lock as I step from the car.

A steady current of wind blows back my hair and peppers my ankles with sand, as I pause to survey the scalloped white lines of foam in their rhythmic surges along the coastline. My breath automatically falls into beat with the waves, the familiar taste of salt glazing my lips. A few seagulls bob overhead, riding the wind stream as they shamelessly hit me up for food with a chatter of caws. They give up on me quickly, moving along to an older couple setting up their lawn chairs down by the water. It’s not as crowded as I’m sure it will be soon; but even so, there are more people than I’d like. I was hoping to get some writing done, and people in general tend to mess with my focus. (At least, that’s the argument I used when I convinced Mom to let me homeschool a few years back.) Never mind that I’m socially inept…or more accurately, I fail to see the point in being social. First I’m the “new girl”, then I’m the “weird girl with her nose stuck in a book”. Eventually, I become the “Hmm…She might actually be worth talking to” girl. And before you know it, I’m the “girl who disappeared over summer break”…a.k.a. the “What was that girl’s name again?” girl.

So, in my typical hermit style, I search out the least populated place on the beach—which at this particular moment appears to be the jetty—and make my way there with my beach bag in tow. The jetty is basically a long, straight concrete sidewalk that dead-ends somewhere far out in the water ahead of me. Either side of the sidewalk is flanked by huge granite blocks—at least five or six of them to each side—some of which have toppled over into the water, with just one corner barely peeking up through the surface. I pass a few men camped out in chairs with their ice chests and fishing poles, some little kids climbing over the rocks while their parents dangle their feet off the edge of the walkway, and a couple of girls that look about my age laying on the rocks to soak up the sun. I slip quietly by, continuing farther out along the jetty, reaching the point where the concrete sidewalk ends and is replaced by only the massive granite blocks. They march out in a wide, craggy line ahead of me, a seemingly endless path out into the sea. I only see two more people out ahead—two guys who passed me on my way out, flipping a football between them as they trotted from one boulder to the next. They just seem to be bumming around on the rocks now, watching the ships drift by. So I stop a ways before I reach them and pick out a spot amid the rugged boulders, nestling into a crack and leaning my back against the sun-warmed stone. It takes me a few minutes to get myself situated, sitting cross-legged with flip-flops kicked off, ear buds feeding me a steady stream of tunes while I put pen to notepad.

It typically doesn’t take long before I’m lost in a fictional world of my own making. A world where rules can be bent—be they rules of society, relationships, or reality as we know it—and my characters can speak as though they took the time to choose each word carefully (unlike myself in real life, who usually just blurts out whatever comes first to my mind). But for some reason right now, my characters aren’t saying much of anything. They’re unusually quiet in my head, and getting two sentences down on the page feels like pulling teeth. Evidently I’m doing a poor job of looking hard at work, and a squeaky little voice appears behind me.

“Whatcha doing?”

I look up over my shoulder to see a girl in a pink and white striped swimsuit and bare feet standing over me, water dripping from the ends of her golden ringlets, as curious blue eyes study the notebook in my lap. I pull one bud from my ear—squinting into the sunlight framing her face—and put on a polite smile. “I’m just writing some stuff…What’re you doing?” She can’t be more than seven or eight, and I search from the corner of my eye to figure out where her parents have gone off to. I think she belongs to the couple with their feet dangling out over the water; and I can barely make them out in their same spot a good fifty yards down the way. “Do your mom and dad know you came all the way out here?”

She shrugs, clearly not concerned with the consequences one way or the other. “You’re pretty.” She flashes a gap-toothed grin, and I can’t believe I actually blush. “I like your long hair. I wish mine would grow that long…but Mama makes me get it cut when it starts getting all tangly.”

“Well, I think you have very lovely curls…If I had curls like that, I wouldn’t need to grow my hair so long to be pretty.” I wink with a smile, and her little face beams with pride. Before she has a chance to strike up a whole new line of conversation, I move to put my ear bud back in its place. Just before it plugs up my ear and drowns out the wind noise, I nod my head toward the distant couple with another friendly smile. “I think you’d better get back to your parents…I don’t want to get you in trouble.”

She looks back and debates my suggestion for a second, ultimately deciding she’s not in the mood to get into trouble, when she sees her mom beckoning with a wave of her arms. “See ya!” She skips off, jumping from one jagged boulder to the next, and I can’t help but watch to make sure she lands safely back with her family.

Once I’ve watched them pack up and make their way back to the beach, my eyes wander out to a massive oil tanker crawling along through the distant waves, and then on to an egret perched out on one of the rocks. Apparently it’s just not a good day for writing…I’m distracted beyond repair. I toss my notebook back in the bag and kick my feet up on one of the rocks. The jetty seems to be filling up with more people closer in to the beach, so I keep my back turned that way and crank up the volume while I stare out to sea. The two guys about twenty yards ahead of me are still the only other people out this far, and they don’t seem to be paying me any attention. They look about nineteen or twenty—though one of them is apparently trying to pull off an older look with a feeble attempt at a lumberjack beard. It covers his face and dangles down an inch or two; but it has that scraggly look, like his follicles just aren’t quite man enough to muster a faceful of hair. That being said, he’s certainly got the creepy look mastered. His entire body is draped in tattoos, with thick dark brown hair matted against his forehead down to his brow line; and I can’t be sure from here, but I think he’s got at least half a dozen piercings. That alone doesn’t necessarily make him menacing…It’s the combination of the slightly crazed look in his dark eyes, his gaunt limbs with every vein and sinew of muscle showing beneath the skin, and his actual choice of tattoos—for example, the anatomy-textbook heart pierced by a shard of broken rib adorning his chest (complete with fountaining blood)—that takes it a tad over the top. Even his black swim trunks are a little sketchy…One of the legs is so torn up and frayed at the bottom that it’s a good three inches shorter than the other.

By comparison, his friend looks downright GQ. His curls are cut short, leaving just enough length to frame his head in haphazard chocolate-brown whorls. His bold, solid-red boardshorts seem to be brand new and completely intact, though possibly in danger of sliding right off if he doesn’t hike them back up pretty soon. Evidently, he’s a little too proud of those abs to buy a swimsuit that actually stays up. When he spins and jumps to catch the football his Sasquatch buddy just passed, I unconsciously squint my eyes closed for fear I’ll be gawking the moment those trunks hit his ankles. After a few seconds pass, I make the mistake of prying my eyelids back open, only to meet his gaze as he throws a self-satisfied smirk my way. Ugh. I roll my eyes, just in case there’s any doubt in his mind I’m not interested, and debate whether to call out that he needs to pull up his drawers. Deciding I’m not actually a cranky eighty-year-old man, I zip my lips, fishing back in my bag for my notebook instead. I came here to write, and that’s precisely what I need to get back to doing.

Damn characters don’t want to say a bleepity-blapping thing. And I can’t even get a good visual on the scenery. I slam the notebook closed with a muffled snarl, and toss it back into the bag. I try to hold my eyes on the seagulls drifting overhead; but my gaze shifts against my will back to the two guys, who seem to have wrapped up their ball game. The curly-haired “Check out my abs” one is sprawled out face-up on one of the granite blocks, either staring up at the cloudless sky or dozing off for a nap. I can’t quite see his eyes from here to tell the difference. And his Wookie-faced friend is sitting a couple boulders away, tossing pebbles into the water.

Fascinating.

Clearly the writing inspiration isn’t going to come from these two, so I shift mental gears and fish around in my bag for a book. I always carry at least two or three to choose from, and my hand lands first on a ratty paperback copy of The Fellowship of the Ring. I’ve read it far too many times to avoid the creased covers; and it’s kind of become a source of pride that it’s so worn down, it might fall apart at any second. I don’t even bother starting at the beginning, I just crack open to a random chapter and start reading. I’m about a chapter and a half in, reaching up to flip the page as the wind picks up the corner for me, when my peripheral vision catches sight of Mr. Lumberjack Crack Addict wading out into the water. He stands atop one of the submerged boulders, little waves splashing against his tattooed ankle, staring off into the distant sea. My eyes shift to search the empty horizon—admittedly curious what he’s staring so intently at—and just as I drift back to his scruffy windblown beard, he springs from the rock and dives out into the water. Nothing too earthshattering about a guy diving into the ocean…except I’m pretty sure he didn’t jump nearly far enough out to clear all the boulders hidden under the water’s surface. I lower my book to my lap, sitting up straight with unblinking eyes trained on the water, where I just saw his ankle tattoo disappear under the surface.

And I count.

One, one thousand…Two, one thousand….Three, one thousand…

I make it to twenty, then thirty, and there hasn’t been a sign of him. Not a bubble, not a splash—not a Chewbacca face poking up from the surface to catch a lungful of air—and my pulse ratchets up with the adrenaline-laced panic beginning to course through my veins. I yank the buds from my ears and spring to my feet, widening my search radius; but still no hairy head or black-inked feet in sight. The only soul in the area is his pretty-boy buddy, who’s apparently sawing logs on a rock while his friend drowns with a broken neck.

“Hey!” I bellow, taking off in a barefoot run over the uneven blocks of stone. “Hey, wake up! I think your friend is drowning!”

He doesn’t even acknowledge that I’m hollering my lungs out. He just reaches up to dust his nose, rolling a sleepy head to face the other direction.

“Hey!” I clamber over the craggy blocks, doing my best to run without misstepping my way into a tumbling head injury of my own. “Wake your ass up!” Another wave of adrenaline surges through me, as my eyes dart back to the eerily calm water. Still no sign of that guy anywhere, and my stomach lurches with the mental image of a lifeless body rising to the surface. Apparently I’m living proof that a lifeguard certification doesn’t keep you from crapping your pants when faced with a real-life drowning.

A million thoughts shoot through my brain as I leap from one rock to the next…everything from What possessed me to do this barefoot?, to Figures…The woolly mammoth would be the one who needs mouth-to-mouth, to If this jackass lets his friend die while he’s taking a nap, I might have to personally send him to greet his buddy in the afterlife. As thought number three hits my mind, I bellow out another screaming obscenity-laced snarl at Mr. Look-At-Me-Sunbathing-While-My-Best-Bud-Kicks-The-Bucket. Apparently he finally hears me, rising up on one elbow to shoot me a confused grimace. I only half take notice, too busy focusing on the expanse of sea that I’m now convinced has become a watery tomb. And whether it’s because I’m distracted by the way my heart rises up in a thundering lump in my throat—or because I’m too pissed off at GQ Boy to see straight—I trip on the edge of a boulder, the skin that used to be attached to my shin now scoured off by the jagged rock. I wince with another string of snarling profanity, clambering back to my feet to continue my sprint over the last few remaining yards between here and ground zero.

Evidently, the blood trickling down my leg gets Clueless Pretty Boy’s attention, and he hops to his feet to intersect my course. I’m too busy panting a half-panicked, half-furious tirade to pay him any notice, darting around him as he tries to get my attention. “What are you doing? Slow down…You’re bleeding!” His face screws up in a dumbfounded twist, as he tries to grab hold of my arm.

“Your friend is drowning, you moron!” I don’t look back, wriggling myself free of his grasp. “You might consider making yourself useful.” I’m crouching down to wade out into the water, stumbling again as my bare foot slips on the slimy granite; and before I know it, both legs have slid out from under me. Like a classic cartoon banana-peel gag, I’m going down back-first against the sloping face of a slick-wet boulder. I know the pain is coming, and I reflexively grit my teeth and squint my eyes closed as my every muscle tenses. I’m three inches from going head-to-head with a block of granite, when a hand swoops in and cradles the back of my skull before it cracks against the stone. Another hand is gripping around my upper arm; and before I can utter one of the dozen obscenities that come to mind, I’m being yanked from the water and dragged back up onto the jetty.

“What on Earth are you thinking?” I can’t see Pretty Boy’s face, but I recognize his voice as he sets me down on my butt atop one of the flat granite slabs. “Do you realize that’s how people end up dead?”

“No, Jackass,” I scramble back to my feet, refusing to even look his way, “I enjoy cracking my skull open trying to single-handedly rescue the friend you clearly don’t give a flip about.” I’m already charging back toward the water, this time crouching lower to keep from losing my footing when the rocks turn slick with underwater slime.

I’m knee-deep in the waves, wincing as the salty water laps against my bloody shin, when that same hand grabs around my upper arm, accompanied by a sour reprimand. “Would you please stop trying to give me a heart attack, and get back up there and explain yourself?” I can feel his scolding glare on my face, as the corner of my eye makes out an angry arc of eyebrow underlining his deeply-creased forehead. I refuse to meet his eyes, shrugging to jerk my arm free of his hold as my foot inches forward on the slick stone. His fingers tighten their grip, his other arm suddenly circling around my waist. He abruptly plucks me backward from the water and balances me up on one shoulder, scaling back up to the top of the jetty.

“Would you stop doing that?” I snarl, as he sets me down atop the same granite slab. “The clock is ticking, and I’m trying to save a drowning victim!”

“What drowning victim?” He bends over me with a scowl, squatting down to press my shoulder back down as I fight to get to my feet.

“Your friend, you moron!” I try to push him aside with a stiff arm to his chest.

“What friend?” He refuses to budge. “The one standing two feet behind you, wondering which insane asylum you’ve escaped from?”

I whip my head around and jerk with surprise like I’ve been hit with a cattle prod. A freakishly terrorized shriek escapes me, at the sight of tattooed Chewbacca standing just behind my right shoulder. The grungy dark brown hair is half-covering his eyes; but even so, I can see the look of consternation in them. He thinks I’ve lost my marbles.

And apparently I have.

“You’re not even wet…” My muttering voice barely carries over the wind, a sharp contrast to the horrified screech that still hangs in the air. “How are you not wet?” The frayed edge of faded black fabric flaps at the hem of his swim trunks, dry as a bone. Dry as the hair on his head…the same head that went first into the ocean, when he dove off the rocks not two minutes ago.

“What’s got her all unhinged?” He’s curling one pierced eyebrow, folding his inked arms with a flick of his woolly head my way.

GQ lets out a sigh, finally loosening his grip on my left arm. “I don’t know, Pyke…She seems to be under the impression you were drowning.”

Tattoo Boy snorts out a short laugh, turning to toss a pebble into the water with a shake of his hairy head. “Man, you sure know how to pick ‘em.”

“Pike, is it?” I glare over my shoulder. “Like ‘Spike’, without the ‘S’?” I puff out an incensed breath with a roll of my eyes. “I busted my butt to save your tattooed ass, and you’re gonna talk about me like I’m beneath your standards? At least I know how to use a razor.”

This time Pretty Boy coughs out a chuckle, which he wisely stifles the second I shoot him a narrow-eyed glare.

His annoyingly creepy friend’s voice returns behind me. “Yes…You busted your butt, and I didn’t so much as thank you.” My head rotates back to catch the smirk twisting his scraggly beard. “So thank you for saving me from, ahem…drowning.” He barely manages to finish the sentence, before another snorting laugh overtakes him.

“That’s enough, Pyke,” GQ cuts in with a serious edge in his voice. “Her intentions were noble.” I turn back to follow his voice, searching for a mocking smirk on his face. But his eyes are surprisingly serious…Their golden brown rims catch the sun, highlighting the starburst of green around his pupils. I have no idea why I’m studying his eyes right now. It’s possible I’m no longer pissed off at him; but beyond that, I haven’t settled on my current opinion of him. And it doesn’t help that now he’s looking at me with the apprehension of someone approaching a jumper on the ledge. “Are you feeling calmer now?...You were pretty worked up.”

“Damn straight I was ‘pretty worked up’,” I scoff. “I watched a guy dive into shallow, rocky water head-first…and I’m still not convinced he actually came up for air.” My forehead wrinkles as I hear my own words. “I realize that sounds absurd, but there it is.” I glance out the corner of a squinted eye to double-check that those faded black swim trunks are definitely dry. Yep…dry as the Mojave Desert. I’m torn between embarrassment and a spine-chilling shudder, as I rise to my feet and start shuffling back toward my beach bag.

“Wait a second…” GQ takes hold of my arm again, this time with a gentler tug just to slow me down. “You’re injured.” He flicks his chin at my bleeding leg. “We need to get that cleaned up.”

“It’ll be fine,” I wave it off. “My mom will descend upon me with a bottle of peroxide the second I hit the door.”

He seems genuinely concerned, but he lets out a little chuckle. I can’t tell if it’s a pity laugh, or if he’s honestly amused by my cynical reply. He keeps step beside me as I meander back to my things, taking notice when I glance over my shoulder to make sure his friend stays behind. As if he wasn’t eerie enough to begin with, the whole drowning-one-minute-and-perfectly-fine-the-next thing has sent the heebie-jeebie factor through the roof.

“His name’s Pyke, with a ‘y’,” the now familiar voice explains at my side. “Though I’m afraid he might consider changing it to ‘Spike’, now that you’ve given him the idea.” I look up to see a grin flashing across GQ’s face, a single crooked tooth straying out of the otherwise perfect lineup. Between that and the two-inch-long scar that marks his forehead—it’s lower point creating a little rift in his right eyebrow—he’s not quite the flawless cover model that he seemed from a distance. Somehow it actually raises his attractiveness quotient in my eyes. I suppose I shouldn’t fault him for having an insanely flat stomach…though I still wish he’d hike up his trunks (if for no other reason than to save me from fighting the appalling impulse to check out his abs). “He’s not as gruff as he seems on first meeting,” he adds with a glance back over his shoulder.

I jiggle my head back into the conversation…If you can call it a conversation. So far, it’s been him talking while I trudge along over the rocks, pretending not to be studying his face (among other parts). “I’m sure he’s not so bad,” I shrug with a wrinkle forming in my forehead. “He can’t possibly be any bigger jerk than I was to you while ago.” I meet his eyes with a humiliated wrinkle of my nose. “I’m sorry for the verbal lashing—”

“Tristan,” he completes my sentence with another harmless little chuckle. “‘I’m sorry for the verbal lashing, Tristan.’” He offers up a hand to shake mine, trying to contain the broadening grin. I hesitantly reach out to meet his handshake, and he takes the opportunity to guide me on to the next boulder.

I nod in gratitude for the assistance—I hate to admit it, but my scraped leg and cut-up feet are starting to throb—and bite back the urge to wince, putting on a cordial smile. “I’m Layla…also with a ‘y’.”

“Well, at least you and Pyke have that much in common.” He tips his head to the side with a shrug of one eyebrow, still trying not to smile too blatantly. “Are your parents Clapton fans?”

A sarcastic laugh escapes me, before I have a chance to squelch it. “I’m sorry,” I bite my lips closed, feeling genuinely guilty for the nervous squirm I seem to have brought to his face. “I shouldn’t laugh…It was a reasonable question.”

“Yeah, I’m sure it’s one you’ve heard a thousand times, too,” he grimaces in apology.

“Definitely…” I shuffle along with a nod. “Just not one I usually hear from the under-forty sect.” His forehead wrinkles with a sheepish squint, and I unconsciously reach up to reassuringly pat his shoulder, forgetting for a second that he’s not wearing a shirt. This time I’m the one awkwardly squirming, as I timidly pull back my hand from his bare skin. “And yes…” I recover with a clear of my throat, “My mom’s kind of an Eric Clapton fan. But mostly she just liked the sound of the name.”

That one crooked tooth makes another appearance, as a warm smile returns to his face. “Well, it’s nice to meet you, Layla. I’m sorry it had to be under such…strained circumstances.”

I hadn’t realized we were back to my beach bag, until he slows to a standstill beside me. “It’s nice to meet you too, Tristan.” I glance out the corner of my eye, biting anxiously at my lower lip. “I’m sorry I called you a jackass…several times.”

“No harm done,” he shrugs it off with a crooked smile. “I won’t say I don’t deserve the title now and then.”

“Thank you, all the same.” I nod sincerely, tucking a strand of windblown hair behind my ear. “Thank you for stopping me from falling…and for not sending me back to the asylum.” I’m certainly feeling a bit ‘unhinged’, having hallucinated a drowning and behaved like a lunatic; and he’s clearly trying to be remarkably decent about it.

“Mum’s the word.” He zips his lips with a wink, his voice turning a little more serious. “Are you sure you don’t need help getting that leg cleaned up?...I’ve got a first aid kit in the car.”

“I’m positive,” I wave it off with a little-too-overzealous shake of my head. “I’ll be fine…You’d better get back to Pyke, though. He’s liable to disappear, and then we’d have to start this whole crazy rodeo over again.”

What, I’ve lived in Texas for half a day, and already I’m making rodeo references?

Suddenly I can’t wait for Tristan to turn around and leave, hopefully before he catches me blushing.

He seems to get the vibe that it’s time to go, but not before I’m sure he sees the flush of red to my cheeks. “Take care then, Layla.” He backs away with a polite little wave. “Maybe we’ll see you around later.”

“Maybe,” I nod with a forced smile, squatting down to pack up my belongings as his back finally rounds to face me. Part of me hopes he’s right…but mostly, I can’t wait to put this whole bizarre encounter out of my crazy head for good.
Mostly.





About the author:
M. A. George is part proud mother of two adorable children, part super top secret agent…Oops, probably just lost that job.

Writing is what keeps her up into the wee hours of the night. Fortunately, she has a lot of energy (Read: caffeine is her friend). She has a bit of an obsession with music (It does a fantastic job of tuning out rambunctious children while she attempts to focus).

She sincerely hopes people out there enjoy reading her work as much as she enjoys writing it. And if anyone hears of work for a super top secret agent, she’s now available (Discretion guaranteed…).

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