The Little Waffler smelled of raw, dying seafood. The odor bonded to the floorboards it had lingered for so long. Anston could smell it even in his dreams. Even though he spent just one weekend a month on this vessel, that one Saturday morning haunted his subconscious with cities of calamari and skyscrapers made of mackerel. It never stopped. On this particular morning, a giant man was picking his teeth with marlin.
He was just getting out of his clamshell taxicab when something jolted him from his slumber. The fishing reel was spinning out of control, and the whirring drowned out the calming sound of waves. He nearly tossed his coffee from the armrest it had come so fast. The line took off, speeding hundreds of feet from the boat, racing for the darker regions of the hungry sea.
As his coffee settled from its near spill, he locked his fingers around the rod, trying to secure it before it could escape. He yanked the handle back to keep the catch under control. His feet, which he had propped against the stern’s inner wall just before falling asleep, were feeling the full force of his 160 pounds resisting overthrow. His knees shook under the weight.
The power opposing him: immense. He must’ve been fighting a shark, a squid, or even a whale the resistance was so strong. His arms strained from the force. If a bodybuilder couldn’t handle this, he thought, then a weakling like him had no business trying. Of course, he had to try. It was his lucky rod, a present from his favorite father, the biological one with all the advice, the dead one. He had to hold on.
As he planted his foot against the stern wall, he worried that the creature had more strength in its fins than he had in his arms. As his knees began to rise, he feared his legs couldn’t handle whatever need for power remained.
With his right foot riveted to the wall, he carefully set his left foot to the deck floor and spun. Then he propped the pole over his shoulder. He felt the force of the creature driving him downward at once. The tug-o’-war match was uneven: this thing was clearly winning. The rod was digging hard into his shoulder, and he was almost out of line.
To counterbalance the opposition, Anston threw himself to the floor and firmed his body into a plank position. Now he had both feet against the stern wall and his belly flat to the deck, but his knees were collapsing from the pressure. He worried the creature would pull him right through the wall, if it didn’t flatten him or pull the boat down with him first.
With the pathetic arcing force of his forearm, he pushed his graphite rod in the opposite direction. It was enough to keep him in the boat, but not enough to keep his fishing rod in one piece if the struggle were to persist. The tip bent toward the water at ninety-degrees. Any moment it would snap.
“Someone cut my line!”
His two friends were inside the cabin playing cards, and he had no clue if they were within earshot.
His heart was pounding now. The coffee sitting on the table just over his head was moments away from being out of a job. His energy, thanks to that dichotomy of biology where caffeine and adrenaline had similar yet conflicting goals, was spiking while burning itself away. He was gritting his teeth as he fought to hold himself together.
He hoped someone had heard him, but he knew these guys well. Once they got into a heated match, they would tune out an atomic bomb hitting the next neighborhood over. Even as he strained with the sea creature’s might, he had that ugly feeling he would have to take care of this himself. But he kept calling out to them, anyway.
Anston wanted to try his luck at gripping the reel’s handle, to spin the crank the other way and hopefully reverse fate, or at least stall the inevitable. But one false move and his rod had a date with the ocean floor. Coming from his dead father, this was not an option. The skin of his forearm started to welt.
“Someone cut my friggin’ line,” he shouted again. “Matt! George!”
It took a full minute of him screaming his throat dry for someone to finally respond. George, saddled with lines down his face and a scowl under his nose, emerged from the cabin entrance with a pair of scissors in hand. His neckline was stained with beer and his hair was tussled from lack of a bath. The parrot on his shoulder squawked.
“Keep your voice down, sheesh,” George said. “Matt’s winning, no thanks to you.”
He crossed the tiny deck and clipped the line. The release caused Anston to slam the pole against the floor, nearly cracking it. The force caused the tip ring to ricochet into the coffee, knocking it all over the chair. At least he was awake now.
“You’re welcome,” George said, as he trudged back to the cabin. “Matt! You better not be peeking at my cards, you nut-waggle!”
“Nut-waggle!” squawked the parrot.
The door to the cabin slammed shut as the parrot’s voice drained to silence. Anston was once again alone, trying to control himself from hyperventilating. His heart was hammering. The blood rushing through his head was giving him a serious tension headache. But the calm was settling in from behind. The storm of battle was passing now.
He sat up, nursing his forearm. The welt tickled, but at a fair price: it would heal and his dad’s last gift to him could stay dry another day. Why he always insisted on using it instead of keeping it mounted on the living room wall, he didn’t know. A cheaper rod from a sporting goods store he had no love for would’ve been safer. But he knew his dad had given it to him on the condition that he’d use it. If only it hadn’t been his final gift.
He checked his watch. Not even 7:00 a.m. If his coffee had only lasted, then he could get through the next hour of sitting around and staring at the solid floor as it rocked amid the quieting ocean. Perhaps his friends would let him join the card game instead. He would need something like that to slow his heart. The whole reason he was out here was to avoid stress. Of course, now he was upset. That such tension had caught up to him so early in the morning didn’t bode well for the rest of his day.
* * *
The Little Waffler sailed into port around four o’clock that afternoon. The arrival of docked boats and the neighboring parking lot brought Anston relief. For nine hours he had done nothing but read computer magazines and watch his friends play War, breaking only to hang out with the boat’s captain, who refused to let him stay in the pilot house for more than a couple of minutes at a time, citing ADHD as his reason, and not, he insisted, because Anston was mopey and annoyed him and talked about his fishing pole way too much. Anston was willing to take his word for it, but at face value. He figured the guy was just trying to spare his feelings. With the scent of saltwater etched in his clothes, the nightmares of anglerfish threatening to jar him out of bed, and the depressing memories of constant shuffling around from one human interaction to the next, he was glad the trip was over.
Holding his rod, fish bucket, and one-cup portable coffeemaker to his side, he cocked his knees and jumped the gap between the boat and the dock, feeling that sense of freedom he had lacked on deck. The dull thud of wood beneath his shoes reminded him that everything was okay now. No evil sea creature would threaten his father’s last gift to him. Land was a fair maiden.
He cracked his back to loosen his body. Then he headed for the parking lot. When he got there, he found a homeless person next to his car begging for change. He didn’t have any cash to offer, so he put his entire stock of fish in the man’s shopping cart. It was the least he could do for charity.
“Thanks, pal,” the man said. “You’re a saint.”
It was actually George’s fish. Anston had taken part of his supply when he failed to catch anything for himself. He didn’t think George would notice a few missing.
When he returned to his two-bedroom house almost an hour later, he was surprised to find a red Audi A3 in the driveway and a dark-haired woman sitting on the front step to his porch. She was reading a paperback novel called Skimpy Delicious Tarts, which had a cover featuring two strawberry-filled Pop Tarts overlapping each other on a dish in front of two half-naked romance models making out in a cloud of steam, and didn’t notice him getting out of the car. She licked her fingers as she turned the page, and licked her lips as she continued reading, but her stiff posture suggested she was getting bored with the book.
Anston recognized the woman immediately, and he was puzzled to see her there. Not that he had any reason to complain: she was beautiful in the amber glow of the setting sun, maybe the fairest lady he’d ever met, or at least recently. She seemed intelligent, friendly, and just controlling enough to keep things from getting stale, based on the few interactions he’d had with her. And she matched his physical preference so closely that he questioned why she’d even talk to him. Tall, blue-eyed brunette with no discernable tattoos, especially on her lower back, in a pink sundress and gold hoop earrings. And she was sitting on his front step. And he did not know why.
“Rebecca,” he said, when he ascended the driveway to approach her. “This is a surprise. How’d you find me?”
She flinched when he called out to her, and then hurriedly stuffed the book in her purse after sneaking in a couple more lines to read. Her face had an awkward expression on it, but she corrected her lips to force a smile. She stood to greet him and opened herself for a hug when he came within reach. Thanks to the fishing equipment in his hand, he had to give her a one-arm squeeze.
“I had to research you on social media,” she said. She smacked him on the shoulder. “And it took a long time, buster. Why aren’t you on that new Facebook thing?”
Anston shook his head.
“I know a guy who knows a guy who knows the founder. I think it’s a gimmick. Won’t last. Look how quickly MySpace is dying.”
“That’s because we’re not on it together. Here, hold still.”
She was holding her cellphone—one of those brand new Apple iPhones that people had been standing in lines all summer to get—and angled it so the screen was facing her. She wrapped her arm around his shoulder and pulled him close.
Anston shuddered when he saw his face digitally imposed in real time on the tiny rectangular screen. He squirmed out of her grip.
“Whoa, whoa,” he said. “What are you doing?”
“Trying to take a picture with you.”
He shook his head.
“Uh-uh, I don’t want my picture taken.”
She put her weight on one foot, leaned back, and folded her arms over her chest. She had a smirk on her face.
“Look at you, Mr. Self-conscience, who thinks you’re uglier than you are, which you’re not.”
“Not worried about my appearance,” he said. “Knowing my picture is floating through cyberspace gives me the creeps.”
She shook her head in disbelief.
“It’s the digital age,” she said. “There’s no such thing as privacy anymore. Get used to it.” She wrapped her arm around him again. “Come on, say cheese.”
He squirmed out of her grip again. Then he flashed her an apologetic smile.
“I’m not comfortable having my picture taken. Sorry. Nothing personal.”
She twitched her eyebrows and shrugged. Then she stowed her phone back in her purse.
“Okay, if you’re that paranoid. Whatever. Well, to answer why I’m here, I tried calling you a few times so I wouldn’t have to come here, but your voicemail is full. Don’t you ever check your messages?”
Anston reached for his keys and unlocked the door. He glanced inside to make sure the living room was appropriate for company. He rarely invited ladies over for the simple reason that he’d often left items of questionable ownership lying around whenever he tidied the place. Some relics of his previous marriage occasionally made way into public view, and these relics sometimes fell into the category of garments of a personal nature. Needless to say, the ladies in the past who’d visited when he’d forget to put everything back in its place—deep in the recesses of his closet, for example—didn’t usually return. One day, he thought, he’d have to give his ex-wife’s old stuff to a thrift store. He just wasn’t sure when he’d find the time.
Once he verified the room was clear, he stepped aside to allow Rebecca in. She sashayed past him, making sure to draw attention to her curving hips.
“What was your question?” he asked, when he realized he had spaced out for a moment.
“Don’t you ever check your messages?”
“Yeah. No one ever calls. You sure you dialed the right number?”
“It’s why I spent too much of my day hunting for your address. You never confirmed our dinner tonight.”
Anston remembered making something like a date with her, but he couldn’t remember for which night, or if he had believed the sincerity of her invitation.
She half-turned to view him from the corner of her eye. The right side of her mouth was up in a smile, and her lips parted to show off those sparkling teeth. Her hand was in her purse, and then it was out holding an unopened bottle of tequila.
“For after dinner,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye.
She set the bottle down next to the answering machine. He wondered for how long it would sit there untouched.
“Beautiful,” he said.
Anston was grateful that he had a date tonight, but he wondered how much energy he had for it. Truth was, he wanted to unwind after his hard day on the sea, and he wasn’t sure if Rebecca’s plans would allow him to rest. He smiled at her, hoping to gauge her thoughts. She smiled back. Her lips were enticing.
Some crazy thought suddenly raced through his mind. He felt like testing the waters of romance a little, for kicks. So he licked his lips in the most seductive way he could imagine. Even as he slipped his tongue back in his mouth, he believed he mirrored a dog panting for water. Must’ve looked ridiculous, he thought.
Rebecca licked her own lips. Anston felt a shot of lighting racing through his gut, and he just about bowled over. Her tongue was like candy licking candy. He reached for the back of his couch to catch his breath.
“I need a moment,” he said.
After giving it a second’s thought, he realized he wasn’t ready for romance. Even though Rebecca was stunning in every way, he had no reason to believe that he’d keep up with her. Wherever this night was headed, chances were disaster would follow.
To redirect his thoughts, he glanced at the fishing equipment in his hand. He realized he hadn’t fully settled in. It was nice to get away for a couple of days, but now he was home, and the brass hooks over the gas fireplace were waiting. They had been naked for two days and were ready to dress again. He set the rod in its safe place. The remaining vestiges of sunlight pouring through the gap between the window curtains glistened off the graphite surface, and he breathed a sigh of relief. His rod was home. His rod was safe.
Rebecca watched him set it in place.
“I thought you were working today,” she said.
He offered her a quizzical expression. What had he told her about his job, anyway?
“On a Saturday?”
“I invited you to a picnic with some friends this afternoon, but you said you were working and couldn’t come.”
Anston thought back to the conversation, which they must’ve had over the phone at midnight several nights ago. He remembered her saying something about a picnic and him thinking he had no interest in meeting her friends or having ants crawling all over his sandwiches under a sappy tree. But he couldn’t remember telling her he had to work. That would’ve been a blatant lie. He must’ve mentioned the fishing trip. He always went on the first Friday and Saturday of the month.
“Well, I was half right,” he said. “Sorry. I’ll make it up to you somehow.”
She grabbed his shirt by the neckline and smiled.
“You can make it up to me at dinner tonight.” She released his shirt. Her fingers drifted down to his narrow chest, and she patted him there. “The reservation is for eight o’clock, so you better get cleaned up. Quickly.”
She sniffed his neck. Anston was a little uncomfortable with that, and he backed away.
“I’d say take a shower first, but it’s a seafood restaurant, so you’ll probably blend right in.”
“Glad to know I’ll pass their admission standards.”
Anston was tired, but he was also nauseous from seasickness. Going to a seafood restaurant was something he didn’t really want to do tonight. Going to bed, or at least plopping in front of the television, was a much more attractive way to spend his evening. But he and Rebecca were still making an impression on each other, and he wasn’t ready to blow it with her. Not yet. It was too early in the relationship to claim that he owed her anything, but he was the kind of guy who thought beyond today, and he figured the less he upset her now, the better his future with her. He needed to suck up his evening plans and assimilate into hers. It’s what his father would’ve told him to do had he been here to advise him. He just had to trust that the room would stop spinning.
“Let me get my bearings first,” he said. “Had a rough morning.”
She checked the clock on her cellphone.
“You got ten minutes, so don’t dawdle. You’ll love the food there.”
“Says the woman who didn’t spend the weekend on a boat in the middle of the ocean.”
Anston headed for the small door beside the living room that led to the garage. Rebecca called out after him.
“Anyone tell you how handsome you are when you walk away?”
After returning the bucket to the garage and the coffeemaker to the kitchen, Anston reached into his refrigerator for a can of Arizona iced tea and popped the top before bothering to shut the door. The first sip cured his mild dehydration. The next twenty stabilized his unsettled stomach. The last sip fed his hungry trashcan. Then he leaned against the wall and counted to a hundred. He could feel his body recharging, but he knew he needed sleep to fully engage his proper energy levels. He was so caught up in the fantasy of sleep that he’d forgotten about his company.
Anston began unbuttoning his shirt as he returned to his living room to check his answering machine, only vaguely aware of Rebecca standing just a few feet away. He didn’t own a cellphone—didn’t believe in them or want to pay the extra bill—and if his friends couldn’t reach him at home or on the Internet, then they didn’t know him. So all of his messages transferred to the device on the small oak table at the end of his sofa. As he got his shirt halfway open, he glanced at the message counter. His inbox was full. Rebecca had been right.
When Anston glanced across the sofa, he found her kneeling next to the gas fireplace, examining the logs that he rarely used. Even though it was early December and the cold evenings were beginning to stack on each other, he didn’t like his fireplace. He often worried about the flame jumping the firebox and hitting the floor. He used it only on the worst nights of the year when he couldn’t wrap himself in enough blankets or drink enough hot cocoa to warm himself up. Most days he tried to forget that he even had it. Rebecca was doing a nice job bringing it back to his attention, though. She was testing the durability of the fireplace screen, rocking it back and forth, when he noticed her kneeling there.
“It works, if you’re wondering,” he said.
“Might be nice to cuddle next to one night,” she said, as she erected to a standing position and gave him a seductive smile. She was hugging herself and squeezing tightly as she wrinkled her nose like a rabbit. The opening bell for trouble, as if licking her lips weren’t bad enough.
“Maybe. I’d have to clean the vents first. Nowhere for the carbon monoxide to go at present.”
She winked at him.
“No need to kill the mood.”
He watched her as she continued to examine the living room. When she reached out to touch the fishing pole, he stopped her.
“Please don’t touch that,” he said. “It’s irreplaceable.”
She offered him a quizzical look.
“I’m not gonna take it down or break it, silly,” she said. “Just want to understand your hobbies better.”
“It’s not a hobby. I fish because my father fished. That’s the last thing he gave me before he passed. I’d rather you didn’t touch it.”
She shrugged. Her mood dipped as she stepped closer to the sofa.
“Okay,” she said. “I understand.”
The vacancy in her eyes suggested she didn’t, but Anston would worry about that later. The important thing was that she didn’t touch it. He didn’t want the oils on her fingers to ruin the varnish on the handle. He’d just had it restored a few weeks earlier and didn’t want anyone but himself getting his or her fingerprints smudged in. It was the best way he could keep his father’s last gift to him in pristine shape, the shape it was in when he’d received it.
Of course, as he watched her slow-nod, he realized the irony of his reasons were now in the open.
“I use it because he expected me to,” he said, in case she was drawing the line between his scolding her and his active usage on the high, salty seas. “Otherwise, I’d just get a crappy one from Target.”
“No, I get it,” she said. Her stare was still on the blank side, but at least now she was arcing her gaze toward the floor. A clap and a smile later, she was back to showing off her warmth. “I get it.”
Anston returned his focus to the answering machine. Rebecca, who had noticed the high message count, had a stern look on her face. She was somewhere between amusement and legitimate concern when she stared at the calls indicator. She leaned against the sofa’s armrest beside him.
“You must be popular,” she said. “You say you check your messages often?”
Anston shrugged. He’d checked it every day, and the machine was empty when he’d left for the trip the day before. This was a surprise.
Rebecca reached for his chin and pulled it in her direction so that his eyes had to meet hers.
“Just to remind you,” she said, “you did tell me you deleted your Strangers to Hitched profile after we agreed to give this a shot. Have you done that?”
He had, but not because she’d asked him. He’d just realized after they started talking that he was bored with the idea of finding love on the Internet. He had to deal with computers and software and the people who didn’t understand either on a regular basis. Dealing with the Internet, too, was just a chore.
“And you’ve stopped talking to your old girlfriends?”
Anston took her hand and removed it from his chin.
“I honestly don’t know why I’ve got so many messages. Stop worrying about me.”
But he was worried about himself. He didn’t get fifty messages in a month, much less in two days. He was nervous that maybe something serious had happened to a family member. A part of him didn’t want to listen to the messages for fear of what the numbers meant. But he also didn’t want to listen to them in front of this woman he barely knew, in case it was something personal. He was tempted to ask her to leave.
But then he thought about how that might look to someone who didn’t know him well. Potential girlfriends in the past had bailed on him over a misunderstanding. Claiming he wanted privacy would likely raise suspicions she had no need to believe in, if patterns were to hold. So he decided not to say anything and just do what he would’ve done had she not invaded his space at all.
Overwhelmed by the vast number of messages—he usually had fifteen a week and thirteen were telemarketing robots—and because he suddenly remembered that he was on a time limit for the dinner reservation, he resolved to listen only to the first. He figured he could check the rest the next morning when he would have a better opportunity.
He hit “PLAY.” A voice he failed to recognize drifted between the sofa and the table lamp.
Mr. Michaels, said the deep male voice. This is Dr. Niles Farea from the Happy Place Enrichment Facility. I’m afraid I need to speak to you over a matter of great importance. Please see me the moment you receive this. I’m afraid this cannot wait. Thank you and have a happy day.
Anston grumbled under his breath as he buttoned his shirt back to his neck. The Happy Place Enrichment Facility: there was a place he had no desire to see again. He thought he had made it clear to them that he was cutting and running.
When he glanced at Rebecca’s face, he noticed her raised eyebrows. She was tapping her fingers against the sofa’s armrest.
“What’s the Happy Place Enrichment Facility?” she asked.
Anston shook his head.
“Nothing. It can wait.”
“I hope so.” She checked the clock on her phone. “It’s a hard reservation to get, and I’d hate to miss it over something that can wait.”
Anston took her by the hand and pulled her to the front door.
“Let’s just go. I can’t wait to eat with you.”
He also couldn’t wait to squelch her line of questioning. The Happy Place Enrichment Facility was not a topic he wanted to discuss, ever. The sooner he could redirect her to less disturbing things, the better.
Problem was, the topic was something he couldn’t drop so easily himself. Dr. Farea’s call was likely to sit in his thoughts for the next few hours, and that would drive him crazy. There was no way he could enjoy a dinner with anyone, including Rebecca, with the question lingering in his mind about why anyone from the Happy Place Enrichment Facility would feel the need to reach him. Keeping this matter to himself wasn’t going to work all night.
He would have to trust Rebecca on this one, as hard as that might seem. If the Happy Place’s doctors believed it was important to contact him tonight, then there was nothing stopping them from calling him again. One way or another, she’d find out what kind of hold this place had on him.
Anston squeezed his eyes shut as he accepted the urgency of what he would have to do now. He hoped he wasn’t about to ruin this new relationship with this stunning, provocative woman. But he knew the risk. He knew he was putting things in jeopardy. He still had to take it. It was the only way to get them off his back.
Outside, Rebecca headed for the driver side of her vehicle, and Anston headed to the driver side of his, a brown 1981 Maserati Biturbo that he had proudly bought from an Italian automobile collector a few years earlier and kept restored ever since. When she noticed he wasn’t meeting her at the passenger door of her Audi, she gave him an impatient stare.
“Where are you going?” she asked.
He glanced at his Maserati, as if he had made his first of several mistakes tonight.
“Er, how else am I gonna get there?”
Rebecca displayed her vehicle in the same way a game show vixen would display the box of jewelry for a contestant to guesstimate a price.
Anston shook his head.
“Uh-uh, I’m sure you’re a lovely driver, but I’m taking my own car, thank you.”
“Okay, but I know where the restaurant is, and we don’t have time for you to make a wrong turn. Besides, it’ll give me an excuse to come back here for some coffee and tequila afterward.”
Anston felt a lightness in his chest. He did like the sound of some after-dinner company. But the call from the Happy Place Enrichment Facility could not go ignored. He’d have to address it after dinner, and he was sure that Rebecca would not enjoy it there. He had to be straight with her on this one.
“Under any other circumstance, I’d take you up on that. But that call seemed urgent. After dinner, I’m gonna have to see what it’s about.”
“Just trust me on this. I promise I’ll explain soon. Don’t let it ruin our dinner.”
Rebecca opened her mouth to protest, but she caved. She was a smart woman. Even if she didn’t know what the facility was or why it had an interest in Anston’s prompt visit, she could read between the lines enough to understand Anston’s position. She gestured him to get into his car.
“Just follow close and don’t make us late.” She opened the Audi’s door and started getting into the driver’s seat. Then she shifted midway and stood erect again. “And you owe me a midnight coffee for this.”
Anston winked at her.
The problem was, even though he had wanted that midnight coffee and tequila with Rebecca, and though he had definitely wanted it with her tonight, he knew she was unlikely to spend another moment with him after the decision he knew he had to make. The problem was, even though she didn’t know what the Happy Place Enrichment Facility was, or why it would’ve called him, he did know, and he knew that whatever they were contacting him about could not go ignored, not even for a moment. That he had already gone a day without hearing the message was likely trouble.
So, when they reached the intersection at Main and Cross and Rebecca went to the right, toward the restaurant, Anston silently apologized to her and went to the left, toward the Happy Place Enrichment Facility. Even though he hoped she would understand his decision one day, he figured she’d have moved on by then. Given his connection to the place, it was probably for the best that she got out of the game now while things were still normal.