First Light by Isabel Jolie

 

Chapter 1

Cali


Nym’sangular ears faced forward. His lips curled over sharp white teeth, amplifying the guttural growl.

“At ease.” The formidable warning halted. I ran my fingers through his fur, and his tail wagged. The knock on my solid wood front door persisted. Light streamed in through windows, and behind me, the swells of the ocean reflected the setting sun.

Wanting him near, I instructed, “Sit.” After all, I didn’t know these people well.

With quick steps, I hastened down the entrance hall. I glanced back once, double-checking Nym obeyed, before opening the front door to greet Poppy, the zealous, blonde extrovert who lived a few doors down. She used to be a bartender at the restaurant on the marina, and from what I could tell, she knew every single inhabitant on Haven Island, as well as many returning vacationers. Soon, she’d be opening her own restaurant. Her southern accent was stronger than most of the North Carolinians I’d met here, and she explained she had been born in Louisiana.

For the longest time, she and I had barely qualified as acquaintances. She’d wave if our paths crossed, and I’d wave back. People out here sometimes waved to total strangers, so the action did not constitute friendship. I thought of it as merely southern hospitality. Then I moved in a couple of houses down from her and her fiancé, Gabriel. She latched on to me like a pet project. In a different situation, I wouldn’t think twice. I was sure we would’ve been fast friends.

“Hi.” I greeted my neighbor with a wide smile, hoping it appeared genuine.

“Are you ready? I’ve got the cooler loaded.” Poppy pointed a well-manicured nail at her red wagon with oversized rubber wheels.

“I am. I picked up some chicken tenders and made some brownies.” I left her standing at the front door and hurried to the kitchen to gather my contributions.

“Oh, my word. Hello, doggie. Can I pet her? She’s a German shepherd, right?”

Nym sat at attention, lips down, no growl. He wouldn’t attack unless commanded.

“He’s safe,” I said as I pulled the cooler strap over my shoulder and lifted my water bottle off the counter.

Poppy bent down on her knees and rubbed all over him. His tail wagged and his tongue lolled out to the side, deceptively detached.

“What’s her name? Or did you say he?”

“Nym. He’s a boy.”

“Such a gorgeous doggie. Where’d you get him?”

“My brother gave him to me.” I shuffled toward the front door.

“Gabe has been talking about getting a dog. Is he good about keeping pace with you when you run?”

“The best.” I held the door, waiting. She bowed before Nym, in no apparent hurry. “Do you run?”

“Good god, no. But Gabe does. He’s been training for Iron Man. So he’s always running. Or doing something. A dog might be good to help occupy his time. Do you know where your brother got him?”

“Nowhere close by. My brother lives in California. Ready?”

Poppy stopped scratching behind Nym’s ears, and he held a single paw up, his sign that he wanted her to continue. I clucked my tongue, and his paw hit the floor.

“Oh, lordy. He did that because you clucked.” Her long sundress swayed with her movement as she joined me at the door. Nym remained in position. Poppy cooed. “What a good little doggie.”

“German shepherds are intelligent dogs. He’s a great pet.” Out of habit, I comforted said dog by promising, “I’ll be home soon,” before pulling the heavy door closed. “Where’s Gabe?”

“He’s already down there setting up the table.”

Poppy shifted her cooler, making room for mine in the narrow wagon, and I glanced back at my house, mentally running through my departure checklist.

“Wait. I need to lock up.”

“You lock your door?” Poppy asked with a mix of mockery and disdain. I understood. This island didn’t allow cars. The speed around here was markedly slower, and a sense of safety shrouded the slower pace. People left bikes on racks without locks, and almost every golf cart had a key in its ignition, no matter where it was parked. Still, I needed to lock my door.

“One minute.” I ran back up the four steps, opened the door, and punched in a code. The alarm didn’t connect to the police station, but it would send out a shrill sound that I could hear from the beach. I twisted the lock and dropped the heavy key into my pants pocket. The outline shone through the thin cotton material of the capris.

Poppy gave me an inquisitive glance but lifted the wagon handle and tugged while rattling on about the weather and the chili recipe she found. On the path to the beach, she visibly strained as the oversized wheels settled into the sand.

“Here, let me help.” I gripped the metal handle and put my weight into it.

Each month, on the night of the full moon, residents and vacationers gathered on East Beach for dinner in the sand. I’d watched for the last two months from my deck. Yesterday, when Poppy cornered me in the market, I’d been too tired and slow to think of an excuse.

Before us, a crowd of people congregated on the beach for Howl at the Moon. The sun set low to the west, over the island horizon. The intense heat of the summer day had drifted away, replaced by a warm summer night with a mild ocean breeze. Seagulls and pelicans flew nearby, and the occasional squawk pierced the hum of the crowd. Poppy frantically waved her arm in the air. Her fiancé, Gabe, smiled.

He stood near a circle of foldable chairs with a low collapsible table in the center. Standing with him were Luna, Tate, and Jasmine, a family I knew well. My edginess eased. I wouldn’t count Luna or Tate as personal friends, but I’d been tutoring their adopted daughter Jasmine for well over a year, and we’d grown close. Luna worked as a scientist at the conservation center, and Tate was a lobbyist for an environmental group out of D.C. Tate adopted Jasmine, and when she arrived here, she had an extremely limited command of English. That was when he hired me.

Poppy headed over to Gabe and the others. The wheels sank further into the sand, and I tugged harder. A tall, attractive, bearded man approached, presumably to help me with the cart. He smiled and reached for the handle. Sunglasses blocked my view of his eyes.

“Here, let me help you.”

None of the others paid us any mind. Poppy hugged Luna. Jasmine read a book while sitting in a chair, oblivious to any of the surrounding adults.

His warm hand covered mine, and I snapped it back, sending the handle down onto the sandy beach with a low thud.

“Sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”

“You didn’t. I’m sorry, it’s just, do you know these guys? I can’t let you walk away with the food unless I get confirmation of identity,” I joked. We were on a beach surrounded by dozens of families. The potluck dinner offered up twenty yards away was free. The man seemed harmless enough in his shorts and flip flops, but still, I didn’t recognize him.

“Sorry. I thought you knew me. I’ve seen you around the island so often.”

“You have?” I studied him more closely. He had broad shoulders. He wore an ironed button-down shirt that hung out over his shorts, untucked. A thick black watch with a face that could be used for SCUBA wrapped around a thick wrist, and he had a resident’s tan.

“Wow. Way to maim a man’s ego. I’m Logan.” He thrust a hand out. “And yes, I’m friends with these guys. I’m glad you finally made it out for a good old-fashioned Howl at the Moon.”

I accepted his offered hand. He shook mine with a firm grip, warm and friendly. A tingling sensation radiated from my palm, to my fingers, and along my forearm. I found it hard to raise my gaze, not that it mattered, because the sun reflected gold against those Wayfarer lenses.

“Poppy’s been trying to get me to come all summer.” It felt like an admission.

“It’s a fun night.” He let go of my hand and lifted the handle from the sand.

All around us families gathered in groups. A long set of narrow, eight-foot folding tables with navy plastic tablecloths held a mix of Crock-Pots and platters of food. Several kegs and coolers filled with ice and beverages circled the ends of the food tables. A line extended about fifteen feet back as people waited to sample the different kinds of chili and the random mix of casseroles, sides, and dips.

Poppy, as a soon-to-be restaurant owner, donated some food for promotional purposes, but she had told me that Gabe liked to have his own dinner set up in his own group. She’d laughed and said he didn’t do well with lines. Plus, one time his favorite chili had been all eaten before he made his way through the line, and he’d had to eat a dried-out egg salad sandwich. He’d declared never again. She’d told me the story while I waited in line at the market to buy my groceries, and the cashier had laughed and asked her to tell Gabe hello.

Logan effortlessly pulled the wagon over the remaining stretch of sand, and I followed along. Luna wrapped me in a hug, then Tate and Gabe followed suit. After getting all the cordial niceties out of the way, I plopped into the chair next to Jasmine and tapped her leg. She looked up, and the dazzling white of her teeth shone bright.

“Cali. You came.”

“What book are you reading?”

She lifted it up so I could see.

“Jane Austen? That’s pretty advanced.” When I first met Jasmine, she had a Level 1, borderline Level 2 English comprehension. She astounded me with how quickly she’d picked up English. If I were so inclined, I could write a case study illuminating the effects of language immersion based on her advances over the prior year.

“I watched the movie last weekend. It’s on the summer reading list.” The idea of her entering ninth grade made my throat tighten ever so slightly. I hoped I’d done the right thing by recommending she enter the US school system at that level. I didn’t actually have a degree in education. Most of my work involved translations. I’d responded to Tate’s job post on a whim. I didn’t have the exact experience outlined in the job post, and when he hired me after a phone interview, I’d suspected I was the only applicant for the position.

“Are we still on for tomorrow? Did you get through the word problems?” I expected math would be her biggest challenge. We’d been working all summer. I planned on continuing to work with her each day after school. She could do the work, but I enjoyed seeing her. Our relationship had grown beyond that of student-teacher into friends. She checked the time on her wrist and closed her book.

“Nine o’clock. I’ll see you then.” Jasmine stood and picked up her bag.

“Where are you going?”

“Oh, I’m babysitting this evening. It’s a vacationing family. I don’t know them.” She shrugged, like it was nothing. Like she didn’t realize she was abandoning me.

“Do you need a refill?” Logan stood high above me, next to my chair.

“Nope, I’m good. Thanks.” To my dismay, he sat down in the chair Jasmine vacated. I watched as she made her way over to her parents, presumably to say goodnight.

“What’re you drinking?” Logan asked. I eyed him suspiciously, reluctant to dive into a conversation. He chuckled.

“Is it a secret?” he asked.

“It’s water.” I held up the solid metal bottle, offering proof I spoke the truth, even though he couldn’t see inside.

“Well, there’s plenty of bottled water in the cooler if you need more. Poppy said you live near her, but I see you down in the inner island. Do you work down there?”

“You see me?” I studied him again, puzzled because normally I thought of myself as good with faces.

“Yeah, riding around.” He shrugged like it was completely normal to be observant. He had a commanding air, which contrasted with his friendly, easygoing smile and the leather flip flops. As I studied him, it hit me. He’d ironed all of his clothes, including his cargo shorts, loaning a bit of formality to an otherwise relaxed outfit. His hair clipped close around his head. Not in a buzz cut, but short.

“Wait.” I snapped my fingers. “Is that beard new?”

He scratched his jaw, raised his sunglasses on his head, and grinned. “Yeah. I decided to grow it in. What do ya think?”

“That’s why I didn’t recognize you. You’re the police chief on the island.” On the island, they called it Public Safety, or at least that was what the vehicles combing the island were labeled, but it was just a different name for police.

“That’s me.” I’d received two photographs of him with background information. He’d graduated from West Point, and he’d been Special Forces. Then he’d spent nine years working in an Illinois police department. Steer clear of him. Erik didn’t mince words.

“And you’re Jasmine’s tutor, right?” I nodded. I suspected every resident on the island knew me as Jasmine’s tutor. “And you live three houses down from Gabe and Poppy? The green wooden house?”

“Yeah.” My stomach swirled as he revealed, drop by drop, how much he knew about me.

“They said you’re divorced.”

“Yes.” Across the circle of chairs, Poppy tilted her head back and laughed loudly, the sound barely rising above the hum of conversations and the crash of the surf. Several people I recognized as waitstaff surrounded her. I scanned the crowd for Tate and Luna. The sun had set, and while the bright moon lit the beach, the dark shadows made it difficult to see past the clusters of people congregating around us.

“I’m divorced too.” He took a long swallow of his beer.

“Oh.” I shifted. I hadn’t known that about him. “Did you move here after your divorce?”

“Yeah. About two years ago. I’ve lived here longer than any of your crew.” My crew. Ha.

“Where did Tate and Luna go?” I straightened my spine, hands on my lap, carefully scanning the scene. He pointed toward the public food table.

“Looks like they’re surrounded by the interns.”

Sure enough, several of the college-aged kids out on the beach every day during my walks circled them.

“You’ve got a great dog. I’ve seen you out running.” The man did know a lot about me.

“Thanks.”

“So, you moved here a year ago. From Seattle, right?” How does he know this? “University of Washington? I have some buddies who went there. How’re you liking the East Coast?”

I gestured to my dry and itchy throat. “I’m not feeling well. I’m going to head home. Would you mind letting the others know?”

“Let me walk you back. Here, I’ll get your cart.”

“No.” His stunned expression told me I must have responded too strongly, maybe shouted. “It’s Poppy’s cart. I need—” I stood and ran my hand across my forehead. It felt damp. I didn’t have any business being here. I needed to go. “Thank you. Nice to meet you, Logan. See you around.”

As my feet sank in the thick sand leading up to the dunes, away from the crowd, my brother’s words haunted me. For god’s sake, Cali, don’t get close to anyone out there. The less anyone knows about you, the better.