John R. Chabot




Friday night, just after nine. Bryan sat at the kitchen table, his head in his hands, mostly to hide his face from the woman across from him. He knew Cheryl was taking it very seriously, and he didn't want her to see if a smile slipped out. Not that it was actually funny, but he was rather pleased. Still he had to admit it had been a damned strange experience.

"I still don't understand," he said. "Why would she do a thing like that?"

The woman said nothing, but watched him closely.

The overhead fixture cast only a dim light. When it had burned out the week before, Bryan had replaced it with a 40-watt bulb, the only one he could find in the pantry. He had meant to get something stronger but, as with a lot of things Bryan meant to do, it would wait, who knew how long.

He mumbled into his hands, "It wasn't me she wanted."

Bryan was in his late twenties, with a thin-chinned, inoffensive face. He took his hands away, but still didn't look at the woman. "Sometimes I think it never was me."

Cheryl's eyes never left him. Her brown-eyed gaze was steady in a plain, steady face framed by straight brown hair. Not pretty, but earnest, the face of someone's best friend. The dim light suited her. She wore a plain white blouse a size too large, the kind she always wore, that gave only a hint that there might be anything feminine under it. Some women have made an art form of crossing their arms, or turning in a way to emphasize curves that is just short of advertising. But not Cheryl. Never Cheryl. Bryan sometimes had the feeling she was hiding in her clothes.

She said, "I think something's wrong with her. She was using you." Her voice was low, as sincere as her deep, brown eyes.

"But what for? It wasn't sex. I mean, not really."

Cheryl said nothing to that. She knew what for, but also knew he wouldn't understand.

He looked at her finally, saying, "I don't know why I'm telling you all this." Actually, he did know. It was because it was too good not to tell someone. And who better than good old Cheryl? Always there, always dependable Cheryl.

"We're friends," she said. She reached across the table and covered his hands with her own, squeezing a reassurance. "What are you going to do?"


"If she comes back. What if she wants to do it again?"

He shrugged, shaking his head. "I don't know. She probably won't."

"You mustn't let her."

Bryan hesitated, secretly wondering why not. "I know, but… What can I do?"

Cheryl stood up, came slowly around the table to stand over him. She put a strong hand on his shoulder, stood close to him. Too close. His face was just above her waist. He wondered again, as he often had, what was under the bulky skirts and loose tops she had worn since high school. He began to feel a familiar warmth, and thought, What am I doing? Why am I thinking about this?

The bottom of her blouse was out, hanging loose, hiding the top of her plaid skirt. He could just see the bottom of the zipper where it rested against her hip. Above it, under the blouse, would be a button. If he undid it, the zipper tab would slide down easily. The skirt would open and show ... what? A slip, probably. Did women still wear slips? They never did in the movies. But, yes, Cheryl would, he was sure. But then ... maybe not.

She had both hands on his shoulders now, pulling him firmly toward her, off the chair and onto his knees.

Oh, Lord!

"There is something we can do together," she said. She knelt before him, her plain face close to his.

He tried to look away. Oh, my God! He could feel the heat flowing through him. Was this really Cheryl? She took both his hands in hers, holding them tightly, pulling them against her. Bryan squirmed internally. Jesus Christ, now what do I do?

Cheryl swayed a little, her eyes closed, her head tilted back. In her deep, throaty voice she intoned solemnly, "Lord, Jesus Christ, now hear our prayer!"

It's possible that Cheryl’s prayer was heard; Bryan's certainly wasn't.

* * *

At eight o'clock on a cold, blustery Saturday morning, the beach was nearly empty. March hadn't really come in like a lion, but on that day it was showing that it had a claw or two. The sky was thick streaks of gray and white, the ocean a darker slate. Pelicans circled just beyond the breakers, watching for the silver flash of shallow feeding fish. Gulls patrolled for unwary sand crabs.

Kurt Brodbeck was jogging on the beach, keeping to the firm sand just above the waterline. He wore a gray sweat suit and gray sneakers. He knew he looked good in gray. He had curly hair, natural but beginning to recede from a square-jawed face.

He could see only one other person ahead of him, someone standing at the water's edge. Instinct kicked in and he began to run a bit taller as he saw it was a woman. Coming closer, he began picking up the vibes of young and pretty and, despite his jogging pace, his gut sucked in a little more.

She stood close to the water, staring out to sea, then turned and ran a few steps before raising her hand to shade her eyes and look again. As Kurt came up, she turned to him, held out her hand. He could see from her face that something was very wrong.

"Would you help me, please?"

Her hair was just past shoulder length, wild ash blond ringlets and curls that blew about her face. A delicate face, frightened and defenseless. A loose skirt of some flimsy material kept billowing up in the wind to show her legs. Long legs. One hand kept moving about, trying to hold the skirt down. She wore a heavy cable knit sweater that seemed too big for her. On the ground beside her was one of those oversized handbags made of knotted rope. He had the impression of a frightened, blond gypsy. The hand and arm held out to him were covered in rings and jangling bracelets.

"Please help me!"

"Sure. What's wrong?"

"It's my husband."

She turned to look out over the water again. "He's out there. He was swimming and now he's gone. I can't see him anywhere."

Kurt looked where she was pointing. The ocean was a dull, slate green, the breakers choppy in the wind. Farther out, the incoming swell was long and high. Still, as it rose and fell, he should be able to see anyone swimming. The current, he knew, would be running north and would tend to carry anything with it. He looked that way, but saw no one.

"Please," she begged, her voice nearly hysterical, "get him out of there!"

Without thinking, Kurt pulled off his sneakers and sweats. He was a big man, broad-shouldered, the heavy muscles of his arms and back sharply defined, tapering down to a narrow waist. Well, not as narrow as it once was, but still pretty good. He went into the water wearing only his jockey shorts, smashing through the smaller breakers as they rushed at him, knowing she was watching. Looking good.

Along the North Carolina coast, the current sweeps up from the Caribbean and is never all that cold, even in March. After the chill of the wind, it felt almost warm. As he swam out, he thought of that movie with Bo Derek. Some guy saves her husband's life, but the husband has to go to the hospital, and the guy ends up in bed with her. Nothing happens, he remembered, but that was because it was a movie—the guy wasn't real. Jesus, how could you be in bed with Bo Derek and nothing happen?

Past the last row of breakers, he stopped to look around. Nothing. Just vast tons of water, green and frothy, lifting him and sweeping past him. He could feel the surge move him as it passed. He doubled over and dove, thinking the guy might be floating under the surface. He came up quickly, knowing there was nothing he could do. It was stupid. He couldn't see anything in that water. If the guy was out here, the Coast Guard could look for him. He had a flash of a body being swept by the current, tumbling lazily along the sandy bottom.

He turned and headed back to shore, coming through the last small set of breakers about thirty yards north of where he had gone in. The wind seemed a lot colder now on his bare, wet skin.

He turned back to where the woman had been standing, but she was gone. Then he saw her, running toward the street and the row of still-empty cottages that paralleled the beach. Gone for help. He shivered in the wind, went for his clothes, then saw that they were also gone. That puzzled him. Where the hell were his clothes? It took him a few seconds to put things together. He looked back to the woman, and noticed something gray flapping behind her as she ran.

"Son of a bitch!"

He took off, running as fast as he could through the loose sand, feeling his chest swelling and his leg muscles bunching, anger and exercise warming him. He thought at first that he would catch her. He got to the street just as she slammed the door of a baby-blue Mercedes convertible. He put on a last burst of speed, but she got it started and moving, squealing off away from him. She slowed as she came to the corner and turned to go out to the main road. As she made the turn, her blond hair wild in the wind, he saw her look back at him and wave. She was laughing.

He stood there in his hot anger and his cold, wet jockey shorts, seething. No woman could do that to him. Not to him.

"Just wait, you little bitch. Just fuckin' wait!"



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