Clarissa spied him from a distance. It was noon. His lean figure cast a long shadow behind him as he slowly strolled along the road towards her house. She was on the front porch, sitting on the wooden rocking chair that creaked every time she moved. The paint was chipped off and she sometimes got splinters in her fingers as she ran her hands up its wooden arms. She looked at him from the corner of her eyes, not wishing to let him know he was being observed.
He was a stranger. There weren’t many that came to her island. It was a remote island in The Bahamas; one of seven hundred altogether, most of them uninhabited. This was one of the most remote inhabited ones, with only a couple hundred occupants, mostly natives interspersed with some foreigners hired by the government to teach, along with one or two old retirees from England and America.
He looked like an American. His hair was dark brown and even in the distance she could make out his blue eyes. He had an athletic build. His tanned skin and muscular arms indicated he spent much time outdoors. She wondered if he would notice her. He had to; she was the only one about at that time. Her mother had gone to the fields since morning and her brother was off somewhere, probably playing on the beach opposite their home.
She was barefoot, in a floral print dress that hung to her mid thighs. Her feet were up on the concrete rail. Her toes were painted red and the nail polish was as chipped as the chair she was sitting on. She could feel the heat of the sun burning her toes and the breeze from the ocean, heavy with heat, graze her skin and ruffle her dress, pushing it further up her thighs.
Music was playing on the radio. It was classical; she found it soothing as it wafted out the door and dissipated in the air in front of her. She always wanted to play the piano and often imagined it was she playing while she listened. By this time he had just gotten in front of her house and turned to look at her; a little hesitantly at first. He seemed to make up his mind to approach her finally and walked briskly over to her porch. She tugged her dress down demurely and anxiously awaited him. Her heart fluttered within her and she could feel the heat rising in the nape of her neck.
“Hello there.” His voice was deep and cool in the blistering heat of summer. She smiled in response but said nothing.
“Do you know where I can find The Paradise Hotel?” She only just noticed his brown duffle bag slung across his right shoulder.
“Yes. It’s up the road a ways, ‘bout a mile.” She pointed with her calloused brown index finger towards her left.
He leaned against the rail her feet were just on and looked away towards the sea. “It’s so beautiful here. Do you mind if I rest here for a minute?” He turned around and gazed at her with the bluest eyes she had ever seen.
“Go ahead. Do you want some lemonade while you rest?”
“I sure would appreciate it.” His pearly white teeth peeped through his lips as he smiled and made her envious as she thought of her own discolored enamels.
When she came back with the lemonade he was sitting on the front steps, his bag by his feet, his elbows resting on the cool concrete. She handed him the glass. The ice tinkled against it as he drank. She could see beads of perspiration drip down his throat as he leaned back to drink. She sat down beside him and drank from her own glass. She then took the lemon wedge that was stuck to the glass and bit into it. The juice dribbled down her chin and made her skin feel sticky. She carelessly dabbed it with the back of her hand.
“My name is Tom Milton by the way.”
“Hello. I’m Clarissa. What brings you here? We don’t see too many strangers.” She had a slight Bahamian accent that annoyed her. She wanted to sound American. She would practice by mimicking Mr. Peterson, the island’s only resident American who was an avid fisherman and who loved to tell her stories about his former life in the United States. He had been on the island for almost a decade and was Clarissa’s closest companion, old as he was. She loved story-telling in any form and grew familiar with his eccentric ways, following him about like a puppy since she was seven. She was almost sixteen now and still followed him whenever she could.
“I’m here to do a bit of research for the summer. I work for a company that wants to invest in this island. They want to develop it to lure visitors and tourists and provide employment for the locals. What would you think of a resort here?”
It was Clarissa’s dream to have more people visit the island since she couldn’t afford to leave herself. She was lonely and wanted more people around to observe and maybe even befriend. “I would love it! Will you have swimming pools and aquariums?”
“Yes, we’d have everything. Jet skis and parasailing; we’d offer boat services to the smaller outlying islands and nature walks; you name it, we’ll have it.”
“When will this happen?”
“Oh it might take some time. That’s why I’m here. I have to scout out locations, figure out permits and laws. There’s plenty to be done. I’ll need a local to help me find prime locations too; someone who is familiar with the island and has knowledge of the best spots to fish and swim and hike. And then of course there’s the actual construction of the resort, the outlying buildings, etcetera. It might not happen for some years yet.”
“Oh.” She was disappointed that it would take so long. The anticipation alone would kill her.
“Have you lived here long?”
“All my life.” Clarissa was the fourth generation of her family to be on the island. It was all she knew. She had never left it before. Her mother, Melanie, was too poor to afford to send Clarissa and her half-brother Simon anywhere and they had no other relatives in the outer islands who they could visit. Clarissa’s father lived out on one of the main islands. He had resided briefly in Paradise Island, dated her mother, then left when he got a job in another island. She never heard from him again. He knew of Clarissa’s existence but didn’t care to pursue a relationship with her. He already had three other children with his current girlfriend. This was nothing new. Island life was rife with heart break, loneliness, and disappointment, at least for Clarissa.
“So you must know all about this place huh?”
“I suppose so. I’ve been exploring it since I was three. The other American here, Mr. Peterson, can also give you good advice. He takes me fishing and hiking too but he’s pretty old and wouldn’t be able to take you about.”
“Well how about you act as my guide while I’m here? I can pay you; and I’ll talk to Mr. Peterson for advice but you can actually take me everywhere. What do you say?”
The prospect of money was all the convincing she needed. Her mother would be grateful for the extra help. “It’s a deal. We can go with bicycles everywhere. You can borrow Mr. Peterson’s, I’m sure he won’t mind.”
He reached to grasp her hand for a handshake. She placed her sticky fingers in his palm. It felt soft to the touch and very warm. She had a tingly feeling in her stomach.
“Tonight I’m going to rest in the hotel. Why don’t I meet you here tomorrow at ten?”
He said, “Thank you for the lemonade,” and strolled along the middle of the road once again towards the direction of the Paradise Hotel, the island’s one and only hotel.
Clarissa swung her legs back and forth on the rail. Her worn brown work boots were splattered with white and black paint from the time she helped Mrs. Tyrell and her daughter paint their kitchen for some extra money. She wore shorts and a pink top. Her bicycle lay on the ground, battered and worn as her boots were. There were dents and chipped off paint, a broken bell, and a little white basket in the front. It had been a present from Mr. Peterson when she was a child. She hadn’t grown that much so she could still ride it. No one had ever given her such a nice present.
Her hair hung about her nape in wild curls that blew in the wind as she sat there basking in the sun like a lizard. She had her eyes closed and sniffed the salty sea air as the sun warmed her face and arms.
“Hi.” A deep voice startled her and she looked up to find Tom waving at her as he approached. He wore jeans and a t-shirt. She noticed how clean and new his clothes were compared to her own. “You ready to get going?”
“Yes.” She grabbed her bike from the ground and strolled alongside him as they started down the road to Mr. Peterson’s house. “Did you like the hotel?”
“Yes, the view as you walk in is breathtaking. The archway and French doors leading to the water is a terrific idea. I met Mr. Brown also. He’s a really friendly guy. He gave me the grand tour and told me where the best places are to go exploring.”
“Most locals here are nice. My mother always says that as long as you’re friendly to your neighbors and hospitable to strangers only good things will come. I try to practice the golden rule but it’s hard sometimes, especially towards my little brother. He’s nothing but a nuisance most times.”
Tom laughed and asked about her brother. “Simon’s seven right now. He likes to run around barefoot, mostly by the beach. He likes to fish. He’s usually by the broken pier opposite our house looking for shells to sell or crabs to poke or jellyfish to smush. His other hobby is to follow me around and pester me. He likes to try my patience.”
The duo trod up the road until they reached the shack by the side of the road that Mr. Peterson called home. It was comfortable enough. A small cot was in one corner, he had a stove for his measly meals, usually fish and various fruits and vegetables that he bought from the locals or found when he went for walks. He had a hammock in front of the shack, held up by two trees in his front yard. He would lie there in the mid-afternoons, under the shadow of the leaves, hiding from the hot midday sun. He fished in the mornings and evenings. Sometimes if he had more fish than he needed he would barter with another local for other necessities but generally needed very little to survive. On occasion you could see him at a school event playing in the domino competition or helping out one of the other old men on the island. He didn’t fraternize much, never went to church, and rarely talked to anyone but Clarissa. Many surmised it was because of some great tragedy that happened in his youth. Some thought he was just antisocial by nature. No one ventured to question him, at least not anymore. He was also known for his sharp tongue when irritated, and he was very easily irritated as Clarissa in particular knew. She would deliberately tease him to get a rise out of him and then soothe his crankiness with some treat, whether food or story or local gossip.
“Mr Peterson!” howled Clarissa. A few birds shrieked back their startled responses and flew off to a less noisy vicinity.
“What do you want now?” shouted an irritable voice in return. They followed the sound of the voice until they reached the owner. He was in the middle of scaling some of the fish he’d caught that morning with a small, jagged and very sharp knife. He swatted away some flies that persistently buzzed around his head and around the dead fish as they walked in. He looked up as Clarissa and Tom neared him. She was used to the smell but Tom’s face crinkled in disgust. Mr. Peterson eyed him suspiciously. “Who’s this then?”
“This is Mr. Milton. He wanted to talk to you.” Clarissa dropped her bicycle and went over to Mr. Peterson to help keep the flies at bay.
Tom explained why he was there and offered Mr. Peterson more money he would have made in six months if he decided to assist him. Mr. Peterson stopped working and gazed thoughtfully at Tom. He appeared to be satisfied with the inspection and accepted less than gracefully.
“Well we can talk more tomorrow. This little girl can show you some sights in the meantime and I’ll come up with some places for you by midday tomorrow.”
Clarissa knew that was his way of dismissing them so she waved goodbye, grabbed her bike, and strolled in the direction of the road. Tom quickly followed suit and they were once again on the main road walking their bikes.
“Where to now?”
“Oh, I think you’d enjoy a general tour wouldn’t you? I’ll take you to the end of the settlement and back and point some of the interesting bits out to you.” As she was saying this Clarissa mounted her bike and rode slowly down the winding road. She pointed out the church, the one closest to her house, and the few houses scattered along the way. There lived Mr. and Mrs. Jones, they were childless and went to church often. Over on the left were Mr. Bartholomew and his three sons and two daughters, nearly all still in school. Clarissa’s knees bobbed up and down as the road slowly wound upwards and they were nearing the top of the hill. It was harder to pedal and they straggled a bit before finally reaching the top. She took him to a spot at the edge of the road where they could see the land and ocean sprawling in front of them with the houses appearing like little pink and blue dots along the roadside.
“Wow this is spectacular!” Tom was almost breathless with wonder. Clarissa watched him, fascinated by the way his hair danced in the wind, at how his shirt swished around his abdomen. He suddenly turned his gaze to her and looked mildly startled by her hungry look. He noticed the sheen of sweat along the bridge of her nose and the plump wet lips that were slightly open as she breathed heavily from the unusual exertion. She smiled at him and turned away. This man was what she had dreamed about when she gazed into the sea, when she wandered alone along the beach in the evening or watched the sunset while she sat on the pier.
They spent some more time riding around the island, even making it to the other two settlements before finally returning to hers. They parted on the road in front of her house.
“So tomorrow…let’s make it nine instead okay?”
Clarissa nodded assent and watched as he mounted his bike and rode away. She sighed heavily. She was aware that something had changed but couldn’t quite put her finger on it. She would wait and see what happened.
For the following three days Clarissa, following Mr. Peterson’s directives, took Tom to the most scenic views on the island. Tom took a great many pictures she noticed and scribbled a lot of notes in the new notebook he carried expressly for that purpose. She pointed out notable plants and birds, giving him information about the flora and fauna, to the best of her knowledge anyhow. Most of her lessons were from Mr. Peterson when he would take her with him to explore the island.
They also brought along a book Clarissa had that had pictures of the plants and animals common to The Bahamas. When they couldn’t identify something they pored over the book with the giddy excitement of school children.
On the fourth day they decided to scout out some of the beaches and have a picnic at the one that Tom liked best. Clarissa saved her favorite for last. It was the most secluded beach she had found near her settlement. It was surrounded on all sides by trees that formed a semi-circle around a smooth and unbroken plain of white sand that sparkled in the afternoon sun. They spread a blanket under the shade of some overhanging trees and placed rocks to hold the edges down. Tom got the picnic made up at the hotel. There were paper cups and plates, cheese, all kinds of fruit, crackers, soda, and sandwiches. They both scarfed down the sandwiches first then leisurely nibbled on bits of fruit, their backs resting on the trees behind them. They gazed in silence toward the sea, the sounds of the waves and the heat making them both drowsy.
“How old are you exactly Clarissa?” Tom quietly asked, still gazing at the water. It was so blue it almost hurt his eyes to look at it.
“I’m gonna be sixteen in a couple of weeks. How old are you?”
She had never before thought about his age. He was a dream. Dreams didn’t have age.
“So you’re still in school I imagine.”
“No. I finished in June.”
“Aren’t you a little young to be done already?”
“No, it’s normal to finish at sixteen. I started earlier too. My mother couldn’t find a babysitter and couldn’t take me to work so I went to school. There weren’t many of us so it was fine. One of the perks about living in one of the outer islands.”
“So what happens now?”
“I’m not sure. I might try to go to Nassau and find a job or I could stay here and work with my mother on the farm. There aren’t very many options for me.”
“I’m sorry.” He looked at her with pity and a tinge of admiration. She stared back at him, wanting to reach out and touch his face. She wondered what he would do if she did. She didn’t want to frighten him so she did nothing but stare.
Tom cleared his throat uncomfortably and suggested they go for a swim. He pulled off his shirt and pants and jogged to the water. Clarissa slowly unzipped her dress. She wore a black two piece swimsuit that Mrs. Brown bought her from Nassau on her fifteenth birthday. It clung tightly to her since she had grown a little since then. She had never felt so exposed before and walked shyly over to the water. She saw Tom’s head bobbing up and down as he swam. She plunged in and dove further out. When she stood up the water reached her neck. She stood as still as possible and waited for him to come to her. He came a minute later and stood beside her, quietly gazing at the horizon. Suddenly, almost fearfully, he reached over and clasped her waist under the water. She somehow knew he would. He slowly pulled her to him and turned her face upwards towards him.
“You’re very young,” he said shakily as he stroked her face with his hand. She replied by leaning forward and kissing him. He hesitated for a second or two before pulling her tighter and pressing her lips harder with his own. It was exactly how she hoped her first kiss would be. It lasted for what seemed liked decades and she didn’t want to stop. She twisted her fingers in his hair and tasted the saltwater on his lips. This was the best moment of her life.