Sinking: A Love Story

J.T. Townley

1.

 

Let me tell you about my island. She sank. To the bottom of the sea. Ain’t islands supposed to float?

 

2.

 

When we got the island, it was just twenty square miles of raw nature. Think: white sand beaches. Think: thick jungle. Think: coconuts, guavas, and pineapples by the boatload. We stood in the wet sand, waves darkening our rolled-up pants, clutching our shoes (Tony Llama boots, Prada heels) above the rhythmic splash and splatter. We had sea breezes and sunshine, rainbows and a case of Cruzan rum the real estate agent left us as a housewarming gift. Airdropped, from the looks of things, busted glass clinking in the surf. A seagull squawked. A soldier crab scuttled by. Tropical fish flopped in the turquoise waters.

 

“Welcome to Aurore!” I said.

 

Maddie’s expression was a sour pucker. “What kind of name is that?”

 

I took a slug from one of the unbroken bottles. “French, I reckon.”

 

“For an island?” She waded up out of the surf to dry sand. This big ugly iguana type deal plodded by, and I thought Maddie might scream. Instead, she turned and stared at the empty spot just past the breakers where the boat that brought us had been.  In the distance, the syncopated rhythms of tribal drumming. 

 

“Ain’t she beautiful?” I said, grinning.

 

Maddie’s face looked flushed. She was sweating, and her hair was disheveled. She swatted at sand flies, which had started to swarm. “A bit sauvage,” she said.

 

“That’s the spirit!”

 

A seagull swooped and cackled and let loose a foot from Maddie’s head but thankfully missed his target and only splatted her shoulder. 

 

“Ugh!” she said, wiping at it with a tissue from her Louis Vuitton purse. The diamonds I’d given her (ears and throat, wrists and fingers) sparkled in the clear morning sunlight. “Can we just get to the house, Hank?”

 

“Sure, darlin,” I said, unsheathing my new machete. “Right this way.”

 

3.

 

The island belonged to me, in the sense that I’m the one who paid for it. Two million bucks. Not a bad deal, considering. She was French, in the sense that some Caribbeans are French. They’re the ones who sold her to me, via upscale real estate agent. I’m not sure Aurore cared to be bought and sold by the filthy reach of international commerce, but that’s the way it goes when you’re an island, I guess. You don’t have much say.

 

4.

 

We emerged from the sweaty jungle to a huge clearing at the top of the bluff, our faces smeared with mud, arms scratched and bleeding, hair decorated with crushed orange flower petals. 

 

“Voilà!” I said.

 

Maddie looked confused. She scanned the clearing, taking in bay rums and kapoks and little Turk’s cap cactus with blooms pink as you’ve ever seen, struggling to find the house amid all that natural beauty.

 

“This here’s what sold me on the place,” I said.

 

“Really blends in with the surroundings, Hank.” She swatted at skeeters humming around her face. “Amazing!”

 

“Well, sugar—”

 

“I can almost make out the outline, Hank. It’s enormous: 15,000 square feet, with eight bedrooms, ten bathrooms, and floor-to-ceiling windows to take in the views, right?”

 

“What I’m trying—”

 

 

Maddie squealed and threw herself into my arms. I almost lost my balance and sent us tumbling back down the mountain. But I wobbled and held her, our sweaty funk mingling in the sweet, guava-scented breeze. 

 

That’s when I broke it to her. “Technically speaking, there ain’t no house.” Though that was overstating the case. There was a house: I could see it, clear as day. It just hadn’t been built yet.

 

5.

 

Maddie took the tent for herself. I spent my nights alone on the beach, wrapped in a blanket of wet sand.

 

6.

 

The house went up in a hurry. It was a point of pride. I brought in a general contractor from Austin, this old boy who built the house on my ranch, and, let me tell you, that young buck could by God get things done. Island time went out the window. Cracked the whip on them workmen night and day, busting tail twenty-four-seven till the job was finished. You’d think a project of this scale might take two years, but my hombre got her done in a month.

 

All the while, Maddie was living high on the hog up in her luxury tent. Inflate-o-Bed, solar-powered AC unit, the whole nine yards. Yet all day, every day, know what she did? Bitch and moan and whine and complain. “What’s with all the skeeters?” and “How did I get this sunburn?” “Why do the frogs have to croak so loud at night?” and “Why won’t it ever stop raining?” “Why is it always so humid?” and “Will they please stop beating those drums?” She even took to calling my island “Error,” then “Horror,” though she knew good and well that wasn’t her name. All that griping went on and on, so I was glad to be sleeping in the out of doors, where the crashing surf drowned out her incessant bellyaching.   

 

As for Aurore, she grit her teeth and suffered us fools gladly.

 

7.

 

Today, I turned the place upside down looking for Maddie. I spent forty-five minutes searching the eight bedrooms and ten bathrooms, then the natatorium, sauna, game room, bowling alley, movie theater, fitness center, outdoor pool, Jacuzzi, and tennis courts, but she was nowhere to be found. Started worrying them natives took her. We still hadn’t seen hide nor hair of them, but we knew they were out there, banging their drums and biding their time. 

 

In the end, though, I found that gal spinning donuts around the circle drive in the bright pink Ferrari I had delivered once the construction crew put the finishing touches on our new road. It ran along the ridge beneath the towering peak labeled La Souffrance on the map, then past the house and down to the marina I’d had built, where the custom Jeanneau 64 bobbed gently in the surf, another gift for Maddie. In a way, it was also a present for Aurore, who deserved the civilizing touch we were bringing to her raw beauty. 

 

It took a minute to flag Maddie down. She was into them donuts, I tell you what!  Windows down, blonde locks flying, giant Ferrari engine screaming at high RPMs. Gravel was shooting every which way. I counted eight laps before she noticed me. Then she grinned and waved and spun around a couple more times before she hit the brakes and skid to a stop not two feet from where I stood. The engine purred. Maddie shook out her blonde mane and checked her makeup in the rearview. 

 

“There you are,” I said, grinning. “Been looking all over.” 

 

Maddie gave me one of her signature smiles, teeth so white and gleaming it was like staring at the sun. She was a looker, alright. Three times Miss Houston and twice runner-up for Miss Texas. (Dallas bimbos stole her crown.) “Hey, Hank,” she said. “Is my track finished yet?”

 

“Track?”

 

She revved the engine a couple-three times. Sounded like some kind of threat, but it jogged my memory. We didn’t have but six miles of asphalt through the jungle. Maddie was getting bored.

 

“I already told you, darlin. We got other fish to fry.”

 

Maddie squinted and pursed her lips. She revved the Ferrari a couple more times, put her in gear, then blasted out of the drive in a stinging spray of gravel. 

 

8.

 

No matter how I gussied up the place, Maddie wouldn’t quit griping. Got the solar and wind going on the house, she said it wasn’t enough power to run her blow dryer. The catchment system didn’t give her enough water to run a bubble bath, much less to fill the natatorium, outdoor pool, or Jacuzzi. I dug a well, and though it was a real gusher and gave us serious pressure in the shower, Maddie said the water tasted like dirt. (It did.) Up went the satellite for wifi and tower for cell service, only the Internet signal was erratic, and cell coverage was weak. 

 

I couldn’t win for losing.    

 

All that on top of her everyday bitching and moaning about bugs and rain and another bad hair day. There was that tribal drumming, too, regular as clockwork, but we both tried to ignore it. I loved that gal dearly, I’m here to tell you—that was the whole reason I robbed the cradle in the first place, then endured this long, drawn-out engagement—but now she was getting on my last nerve. So I borrowed a little more against my ranch (350,000 acres), built a small airport, and bought a top-of-the-line customized Learjet. Then I sent Maddie back to Texas to plan the wedding.

 

9.

 

I enjoyed me some peace and quiet. Bananquits twittering, frogs croaking, bats squeaking in the night. Surf pounded the white sand, seagulls squawked, and sea breeze soughed through the palm fronds. Tribal drums beat late into the night. For the first time since I’d set foot on my island, I didn’t hear a single complaint.

 

But I couldn’t rest on my laurels. There was work to be done. For one thing, our current off-grid setup wasn’t working, so I had to build a power plant. That’s a complicated endeavor and nothing to sneeze at. I brought in some old boys from San Antone who knew their way around generators and transformers and let them do their thing. They studied the issue from every angle under the tropical sun, then went back to Texas to do their figuring. 

 

There was also the small matter of clean water. If we were ever gonna spend any QT on Aurore after we got hitched, we needed H20 that didn’t taste like dirt. I wasn’t about to listen to Maddie griping all the livelong. I considered going the desalination route, but one taste is all it took, and I could already hear Maddie’s whining: “It’s slimy, Hank!” What I needed was a river or lake to work with, where I could install a good old-fashioned treatment plant, then pipe that cool, clear elixir up to the house.

 

So I did me some recon. Sharpened up my machete and bushwhacked through the jungle, braving skeeters and spiders and mangy old wild donkeys. I got thorn-scratched and bug-bit, and I sweat through my clothes. But I found it. Way to the other end of the island, I discovered this beautiful fresh-water lake, pristine and unspoiled. Funny thing was, the closer I came, the louder that syncopated drumming swelled. But the wheels were already turning. I thought: construction crew, heavy machinery, new road. I thought: Maddie’s racetrack. I thought: two birds with one stone.

 

A seagull swooped and splatted me smack on the head.

 

10.

 

Thick plumes billowed into the blue. I could feel the heat and hear the crackling before I ever saw the blaze. Figured it was just a little old forest fire that would burn itself out, but the whole marina was engulfed in flames. The smoke stank of plastic and stung my eyes. The Jeanneau 64 that’d cost me a million bucks was adrift past the breakers, listing badly, pouring smoke, turquoise water sizzling around her. 

 

I scrambled up the bluff, machete clanging against rocks, and what I witnessed knocked the wind out of me. The house was a raging bonfire, half the roof caved in, flames in every window. The outdoor pool and Jacuzzi were burning, tennis courts, too, fence and nets and all.  Maddie’s pink Ferrari was a giant ball of flames. The palm fronds that weren’t burning rustled in the hot wind. Glass shattered, sparks popped, ashes fell from the sky like dirty snowflakes.

 

Yet not a soul in sight.

 

I considered all the materials and man-hours that went into that house. I tried not to think about the millions of dollars I’d poured into the place, all of them borrowed against the ranch that’d been in my family for four generations. Because ain’t nothing could be salvaged, not that I could tell. It was all gonna burn.

 

Then out of the corner of my eye, movement. I studied the edge of our site, where we’d hacked back the jungle. I scanned the clearing, on high alert, but didn’t spot a thing. A sulfurous stink wafted on the breeze. The air tasted of melting rubber. A flaming arrow sailed six inches from my head.

 

Bows drawn, blowguns readied, they lurked just beyond the edge of the clearing. They sported loin cloths and war paint. Shells around their necks, feathers in their hair. I brandished my machete in the afternoon sunlight, but I didn’t wait for the war whoop.

 

I barreled down that bluff, staggering and stumbling and running for my life. I chased my path back to the lake, through them natives’ (now empty) lakeside village, and deep into the jungle. Birds and lizards scattered. I ran and ran till I was wheezing and cotton-mouthed and my legs wouldn’t quit shaking. When I finally stopped, I looked up, trying to catch my breath. The peak of La Souffrance was barely visible. 

 

I crouched among fragrant bay rums, clutching my machete, until long after nightfall. My breathing slowed. My legs went numb. My mouth tasted like old pennies. For the life of me, I couldn’t figure out what them natives were so worked up about.

 

11.

 

The next morning, I was stiff and sweaty and covered with leaves. Hermit crabs scuttled in and out of their hidey-holes. The sweet scent of guavas wafted on the morning breeze. What I took for my own roaring pulse was actually a waterfall, clearest water I’d ever laid eyes on tumbling a hundred feet through the tropical forest and gathering in a deep pool below. I traced the slope down, then stripped off naked and dove right in. Off came the sweat and grime and blood. When I hauled my carcass up out of that water, I felt like a new man. 

 

 

It wasn’t just the waterfall either. I found a small, secluded beach overlooking a lovely lagoon. Turquoise water licked at the brilliant white sand. Geckos skittered across rocks and up palm trunks, and an iguana lounged in the sunshine. Sea breeze rustled fronds. A coconut dropped at my feet. 

 

Good timing: I was starved. I busted into that thing and scraped out the sweet flesh. Then I stumbled on a bunch of wild pineapple plants. Delicious! I found ripe guavas and ate my fill. With my cunning wit and survivalist instincts, I fashioned a fishing pole out of an old  fishing pole I found on the beach. The hook was already baited. I cooked my bounty over an open flame right on the beach, whistling a happy little ditty.

 

The quiet gave me peace of mind. No natives emerged from the lush jungle to shoot me with poison blow darts or flaming arrows. I had shade when I wanted it, plenty of food and fresh water, and more natural beauty than you could shake a stick at. Maybe them natives torched my house, marina, yacht, and airport, not to mention Maddie’s pink Ferrari, but they’d actually done me a favor. If they hadn’t chased me through the jungle, thirsty for blood, I might’ve never discovered my hidden paradise. Now I was home free, I tell you what. In my hour of need, Aurore came to my rescue, cradling me to her loving bosom.

 

12.

 

The days came and went. The battery on my phone lasted far longer than I ever would’ve imagined, and evidently them natives hadn’t torched the cell tower. As a result, I got call after call from none other than Maddie, my beautiful, emotionally stunted fiancée of seven years. During that time, I’d bought her one lovely wedding venue after another, courtesy of the massive equity my ranch commanded: coffee plantation in Brazil, vineyard in Argentina, lavender farm in the south of France. None of them places were good enough for Maddie. Coffee beans rotted, grapes shriveled, flowers wilted and died, and still we hadn’t tied the knot. Yet Maddie must’ve been as crazy about Aurore as me because now she left me one message after another, asking about guests and invitations, decorations and seating arrangements, cake and music. Likely had a wedding planner riding her pretty hard, but the time for that business had come and gone, far as I was concerned. I killed my ringer and deleted those voicemails, one after the other.

 

13.

 

Time was a rainbow smear. I fell in love all over again every morning. I came to know the real Aurore, her authentic self, and on her own terms. My heart swelled. My beard grew. I walked around buck naked, night and day. Them tribesmen never found me, if they were even looking. They wouldn’t have recognized me anyway.

 

Maddie was a different story. Maybe she wrote the book on blonde, plus she was spoiled as all get-out, but one thing to her credit, that gal was tenacious. I woke up one morning not to the twitter and cheep of tropical birds or the splendid roar of the waterfall, but to the wet thwack-thwack of a helicopter hovering directly overhead. I lay stretched out in the rope hammock I’d created from the rope hammock I found tied between two palms. Maybe I should’ve run, but I was too stunned.  Sand whipped in every direction.  Maddie glared down at me from the cockpit.  I tried to smile, but I wasn’t exactly thrilled to see her. 

 

“Hank,” she hollered through the p.a. “What do you think you’re doing?”
 

“Go away!” I didn’t yell. “You’re not welcome here!” I didn’t explain. “I never want to see you again!” is precisely the expression that did not trip off my tongue.

 

The chopper blades beat the thick morning air. Seagulls shrieked, angling for Maddie’s head, but thought better of it. 

 

Maddie had the pilot drop down so low, we were almost eye level. “Well?” she said. “What do you have to say for yourself?”

 

I glanced around, skittish, covering my pecker. Then I exaggerated a shrug, since what was I gonna say? She couldn’t hear me anyway.

 

She licked lipstick off her teeth. “Meet me at the airport.”

 

Then the chopper peeled away into the crystalline blue.

 

14.

 

Any way you look at it, the whole thing was a disaster—I mean, a complete and utter catastrophe— but it’s not like it happened overnight. It was months in the making. Aurore, my island in the Caribbean, was never shy about making her feelings known, not that I could really interpret them. She had her own language, my island, but I couldn’t speak a word of it. That didn’t stop me from trying, though I was forever groping in the dark. 

 

But ain’t that what love’s all about?

 

15.

 

Truth be told, leaving my lagoon wasn’t exactly high on my list, but Maddie wasn’t going away any time soon. That much was obvious, even to me, even in my state. Still, if I’d known then what I know now, I never would’ve stepped foot one outside my hidden paradise. 

 

I found my clothes and yanked on my Tony Llamas. The native village stood between me and the torched ruins of the house, and though I crept by slowly, silently, those natives didn’t miss much. They whooped and hollered, beating the drum, bows drawn, arrows flaming. I was in the soup.

 

Then came this low rumbling sound, big and deep and foreboding. Scattered the tropical birds, spooked the geckos, sent the mongoose diving for cover. I kept on crashing through the forest, machete hacking at undergrowth, but when I took a peek over my shoulder, them natives were frozen in their tracks.

 

I ran a little harder, thinking maybe I could put some distance between us. I’d already covered a couple-hundred yards when I heard the drumming and war whoops pick back up. But they didn’t last long because here came another low, menacing rumble, like a massive boulder careening down a mountaintop. Paralyzed them natives completely. So off I went. 

 

I hotfooted past the charred remains of the marina. The keel of my Jeanneau 64 broke the surface at a forty-five degree angle, but somehow I didn’t care about the boat or the money, much less the fact I’d have to beg the West Texas National for an extension, since I was now in hock up to my eyeballs with no prospect of repaying them loans any time in the near future. My ranch was on the chopping block, and the coffers were empty. Still, I had a feeling everything would work out in the end.

 

As I scrambled up past the burnt-out mansion, I heard another deep, low rumble. I knew them natives were petrified and nothing to worry about. La Souffrance, my volcano, was perhaps another story. It was supposed to be dormant, according to the real estate agent, yet wisps of black smoke feathered up into the sky. Tropical birds circled high above the treetops, or else winged it across the sea in the direction of nearby islands. Puzzling.

 

The natives had done a real number on the airport, burning the hanger and control tower to the ground. Maddie spotted me soon as I reached the edge of the runway. While I couldn’t hear her from this distance, I could see her mouthing off. Her pursed lips and folded arms and tensed shoulders were bad news. Then she climbed out of the chopper and onto the scorched tarmac, and all hell broke loose.  

 

What I mean is, Aurore didn’t exactly roll out the red carpet. I never took her for the jealous type, but there you have it. The ground beneath our feet, so solid and reliable, went viscous and started slip-sliding back and forth.  I caught my balance, watching the kapoks and bay rums shake and shimmy. Seagulls cackled. An unseen donkey brayed—or maybe that was Maddie. She’d lost her footing, and she was now struggling to get herself upright, knees scraped and bloodied. That trembler seemed to go on and on, birds squawking, iguanas scurrying, that rumble now a grinding roar. I looked up. From the peak of La Souffrance, thick plumes of black smoke.

 

“Hank!” hollered Maddie just as the first explosion sent rock and ash spewing into the clear blue sky. “Hurry!”

 

But I knew this was just Aurore throwing a temper tantrum, so I waited for the shaking to die down, then loped toward the chopper. Maddie shoved the pilot back into the cockpit. He fired it up. La Souffrance exploded again with more rocks and ash, along with a hot orange lava flow.

 

Which made sense.  This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill hissy-fit, this was a full-blown jealous rage. Only don’t blame Aurore, everybody knows Caribbeans are hot-blooded. This whole entire thing was just her passion for Yours Truly manifesting itself. Maddie looked scared out of her wits as she lunged toward the helicopter, which skittered away as the ground shook, but I was flattered as all get-out.  I was tickled pink.

 

Soon Maddie was buckled up, and the chopper was ready for liftoff. I was close enough to see her tears and puffy eyes and trembling lips. The pilot was yelling, head swiveling between the rushing lava river, Maddie, and me. 

 

“Please, Hank!” she cried.

 

“Go on ahead, darlin,” I said. 

 

“But the Horror!”

 

“Aurore and me’ll be just fine,” I said. “Maybe I’ll catch up with you.”

 

Maddie’s face blanched. Her eyes were narrow slits, her mouth an angry slash. “You no-good, two-timing bastard!” she yelled.

 

As the chopper went airborne, I said, “Y’all fly careful!” and blew Maddie a kiss. She flipped me the bird. They climbed above the tree line and banked away from the exploding volcano. I laughed and waved again, shaking my head. At least we could still be friends.

 

That lava hissed and sizzled and hardened not two feet from my Tony Llamas.

 

16.

 

Now everything could go back to how it was before. I’d let them natives chase me back through the jungle to my secret lagoon. I’d loll in the sunshine and take long walks on the beach.  I’d eat coconuts, pineapples, and guavas when I was hungry and fall asleep to the lovely roar of the waterfall when I was tired. I’d love Aurore, she’d love me, and everything would be A-O.K. and peachy-keen. 

 

“We’re meant for each other,” I said, gazing out across the water.

 

By way of response, Aurore trembled for a couple seconds and gave a puff of smoke. 

 

But then I studied the view more closely. What was going on?  Rather than coming in, the water was headed out, and not in any regular-type tide fashion. I heard the drum beating out there, too, and if I squinted just right, I could make out dozens of canoes and outriggers easing away from Aurore’s fair shores. None of it made any sense.

 

Until it did. 

 

17.

 

When that giant wave hit, I was clinging to the rim of La Souffrance. It was the highest point on the island, so the next best thing to Maddie’s escape helicopter, or as good as it was gonna get. (The Learjet was already history.) All sorts of creatures joined me: wild donkeys and iguanas, mongoose and soldier crabs aplenty. The cell tower bent and buckled and disappeared. The house and marina and roads, already torched by way of them natives’ flaming arrows, were swept away in the blink of an eye. 

 

As I hung on for dear life, waters surging up the mountain, so high, in fact, I had to tuck my knees up to my chest to keep my Tony Llamas from filling up with trunk fish, I realized what was happening, and I felt my face light up. It was just Aurore cleansing and purifying herself.  She didn’t have to dress up in 15,000 square foot mansions with tennis courts and pools. She didn’t need to adorn herself with yachts and marinas, roads and pink Ferraris. Good thing I never got around to building the power plant and water treatment facility, since they would’ve only made things worse, like Botox lips on an aging beauty queen.

 

 I patted Aurore on the volcano rim, whispering that I was gonna take good care of her from here on out. The waters receded to the tune of seagull shrieks, along with this loud gurgling and bubbling. This was my first tsunami, so I figured it was all part of the process. 

 

By now, them natives had paddled back to Aurore. I expected the worst. But instead of decorating me with flaming arrows and poison blow darts, they sloshed in just beyond the breakers, then filed north, beating the drum and chanting real loud. Ritual type deal, I imagined. I could hear them over the gurgling and bubbling as they made their way around the island. I could see them, too, but that wasn’t so strange, given the view from up here. What I couldn’t understand was: Why did the water seem to be getting closer?

 

Them natives’ circle got tighter, their song louder. That drumming rattled my ears and made my jaw ache. Little waves lapped at my leather soles. The bubbling and gurgling swelled. 

 

Now my breath caught in my throat. Oh, dear Lord. Was this really happening?

 

“I’m so sorry,” I said. “You’re my one and only island, and I don’t want to lose you. I know I made some mistakes, but it doesn’t have to end like this. Let me make things right. We’ll undo all the damage. We’ll make a fresh start.”

 

But Aurore wasn’t listening.  And in the end, the whole thing didn’t take anywhere near as long as you might think. One minute I was high-and-dry, perched way up on the cone of La Souffrance, the next minute them natives were fishing me out of the cool Caribbean and hoisting me into their canoe, along with wild donkeys and mongoose and iguanas. We all held our breath, gazing down into the frothy turquoise. Them natives chanted and wailed, and a half-dozen of them dove down after her and never came back up. I bawled like a titty baby. A seagull swooped and cackled and splatted me square on the pate. This huge slurping sound filled the air, drowning out the braying donkeys, shrieking birds, and sobbing natives. Then Aurore sank out of view, and that was all she wrote. 

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