Bruised and Battered
Updated: Aug 3, 2020
Will headed south. She thought she might go as far as Antarctica -- all the way to the Pole, maybe. Perhaps the little shits would turn blue and shatter into a million ice crystals, like cartoon characters. Then she remembered all the long, bone-chilling Upper Peninsula winters of her youth and decided to stop in Australia, where she quickly landed a job guiding tourists on scuba dives near the Great Barrier Reef.
A white owl followed her.
Will caught it mainly with her subconscious sight -- swooping in and out of the corners of her dreams as she drifted in and out of sleep. She couldn't quite decide whether the thing evoked fear or just revulsion, but she slept with all the lights on and the ancient TV flickering dully.
The owl peered wisely through the tiny apartment's second-floor window. Will was stretched out on a heavy leather sofa that had seen better days, wearing a tank top and bikini pants. A crocheted afghan was jumbled at her feet, and a thin pillow was doubled under her shaggy head. Her long arms and legs were dotted with bruises.
A ceiling fan rotated slowly overhead. An empty bottle and half-full glass of red wine sat on the coffee table next to her, along with a dark orange slab of sweating cheese. The TV was barely audible -- a morning talk show was on.
A young woman with long, dark hair pulled into a limp ponytail spoke.
"It's completely terrifying," she said.
The host frowned skeptically. "They're not exactly ferocious-looking."
Artistic renderings of gray aliens flashed onto the TV screen -- some crudely drawn, others lavish with detail.
"What's so terrifying?" he pressed. "I'd love to meet an E.T."
Under other circumstances, the suited middle-aged man who responded might have been taken for a corporate attorney. Occupying a place on a panel of alien abductees automatically made him look weak.
"It's impossible to fully understand unless you've been through it," he said. "It's not an adventure. There's a complete loss of control. People have been driven to suicide over this. "
A heavily made-up blonde chimed in.
"You're conscious, but you're paralyzed," she said. "They physically paralyze you, and they... paralyze your will." Her hand made a nervous, fluttering motion.
A rooster crowed. The sound came from a novelty alarm clock sitting a few feet away from the abandoned wine and cheese. A chirpy digitized voice told the sleeping Will it was six o'clock a.m. The rooster crowed again.
Without opening her eyes, Will groped for the clock and hurled it unerringly at the owl. The windowpane shattered. She picked up the remote and clicked the TV to darkness. The room was silent. She sat up, trembling.
Will stripped naked, exposing a few more bruises, and performed her morning ablutions, which consisted of going to the bathroom and brushing her teeth. She pulled on a faded one-piece swimsuit in a moss green shade that matched her eyes, covering it with shorts and a tee bearing the Wind Spirit logo. She grabbed a bagel from a bag on the counter, saw a bit of mold on the edge, and tossed it into the trash.
She emerged from a doorway next to a Chinese takeaway and began to jog effortlessly down the street. She passed fast-food stalls and cheap souvenir shops where workers raised awnings and set up displays. The promenade teemed with scruffy backpackers, tailored professionals, and sunburned tourists sporting floppy hats and cameras.
Cutting through the crowd, she angled across the street to a park, where she jogged past rows of evenly spaced palm trees, hedges of bougainvillea and scampering wallabies. A haze lay over the ocean beyond the mudflats that bordered the far side of the park. Will inhaled deeply, tasting the salty air.
Few things gave her the release running did -- this short jog qualified as a tease. Crossing back to the busy side of the street, she bounded onto a tour bus parked in front of an expensive hotel.
A conspicuously handsome driver greeted her with a smile.
Will sighed. Another irritation and the day wasn't yet an hour old.
The bus pulled away. Will's eyes swept the group of tourists -- they looked just like yesterday's tourists.
Johnny began his patter, speaking through a microphone.
"Hope you folks didn't eat your brekkies yet, because a feast awaits you on board the Wind Spirit, and all our ship rations are guaranteed seasick-proof. If you ate anything on your own, we make no promises."
"Now you tell us," a passenger interjected.
The crowd laughed. Will stared studiously out the window. Johnny lowered his microphone and turned his attention to her.
"Going by the Half Shell tonight?"
He grinned as though encouraged and picked up the microphone.
"Today we'll be sailing out to the reef, where we'll see masses of black geese roosting -- quite a show. Among the extras on offer is a chance to view marine life in our glass-bottom boat or join a scuba-diving adventure led by our own princess of the deep, Willoughby Roan."
Johnny winked at her, all boyish confidence. Will groaned inwardly. Her persistent sense memory of their one and only intimate encounter was the clammy texture and musty odor of his sheets. Even the drunken stupor that led her to think it would be a good idea to couple with him one night hadn't prevented her from noticing that.
"You should do your laundry more often," she said coolly.
Will gazed out the window. A brilliantly colored parrot swooped through the sky over blazing masses of wild poinsettias.
The bus turned a corner, and the masts crowding the harbor came into view. The remaining few minutes of the ride brought no more clever remarks from Johnny. The first to jump off, Will hurriedly brushed past a group of tourists having their picture taken, and boarded the huge catamaran.
Crew members gathered for their last few minutes of free time in the galley, where a vase of long-stemmed yellow roses occupied the center of a table loaded with pastries and fruit.
Danny, a muscular sailor with perpetual sunburned fair skin, pounced as Will entered.
"Secret lover?" he asked, gesturing at the flowers. "Wish I could say they're from me, but I'm short the cash."
"And the class," shot Bernard. Fiftyish and gay, the head chef identified with Will. They were both outsiders.
"Look at those bruises -- heat of passion?" Danny smirked.
Will opened the card and her expression darkened. Stuffing it into her shorts pocket, she removed the roses from the vase and pitched them through a porthole. Then she calmly sat down, poured coffee, deliberated between a blueberry and a raspberry Danish, and chose blue.
Trish, a friendly Midwesterner who thought people like Will made the rest of the world hate Americans, wondered if they would be motoring out.
"Yeah," Danny said. "Wind's too light."
The ship's engine rumbled.
This is Excerpt No. 2 of The Darkest Eyes by Mick Brady
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