Stranger in Paradise

Posted on: September 28, 2016

"Damn dark glass. I was convinced these were at least half full." Tom sighed and replaced the bottles carefully in his pack. He looked down at me, concern all over his face. "I'll go get a new one from the truck. I'll just..."

I could tell he was reluctant to leave; he sat next to me in the sand and tied and re-tied his Jamaican-flag bandanna over his beaded dreads until I punched him on the shoulder and said, "Go on, mate, I'll be fine."

"Yeah, that's what they all say in the movies - but the dude always winds up D-E-A-D!" He grinned, but I could see he was still uncertain.

"We're not in a horror movie, man." I glanced around at the tropical greenery that clicked and whirred with jewel-bright insects, at the tree-tops where birds of paradise darted to and fro, at the pool of crystalline water - its fabulous waterfall glittering with a million liquid diamonds.

I dredged up a smile for him. "This is quite possibly the least spooky place I've ever seen. I'll be right here when you get back."

"All right. But, Luke, you better be... You know. 'Kay?"

He took my thin hand in his powerful one. We interlaced our fingers the way we always used to when we were kids. Black on white. White on black. Just as it should be.

Swiftly and self-consciously (even after all these years), he leaned in to kiss me.

"I'll be back."

I listened to his footfalls growing fainter until all I could hear was the endless, organic hum of creatures going about their lives. I leaned against the nearest tree and closed my eyes.

I must have drifted off because I was woken by the sound of giggling and splashing close by.

As if in a dream, I walked until I could see the source of the disturbance: a young couple chasing one another around the edge of the oasis' pool. The man was making what he probably thought were tiger noises. The woman fled before him, shrieking. (I stifled a smile; she was taking care not to flee too fast.)

I tried hard not to stare, for neither wore a stitch of clothing.

The man spotted me first and stopped being a tiger in order to come and say hello.

He ambled up to me, quite unabashed. "Sorry about that, old thing," he said, extending a hand.

"Didn't spot you there what with...other things in view!" He waggled his eyebrows at me. "Sir Michael Smith. At your service."

I tried to pretend this was all perfectly normal. "Well! Another be-knighted Smith!" I beamed.

"Dad was ‘Sir Michael,’ too! I'm Luke, by the way. Doctor Luke Smith."

We shook hands as the woman - as unselfconscious as her companion - bounced up to us, shooting me curious glances from beneath her long fringe.

The erstwhile tiger introduced her with a flourish: "This beauty here is Julie Dempsey - my fiancée." Some deep emotion I couldn't fathom crossed his face. "I'm... really pleased you're the first to know."

I returned Julie's enthusiastic handshake. "Charmed, I'm sure."

"When did you find our little paradise, Doc?" she giggled.

"Oh, only a few minutes ago. The other half's around here somewhere."

"Aha! The more the merrier!" roared Sir Michael. (He put me in mind of one of those larger-than-life Victorian Major-Generals; I honestly couldn't tell whether he was hamming it up or not).

He continued: "So, what in Glory's name is a place like you doing in a man like this?" (Julie rolled her eyes - I supposed she'd heard this line many times before.)

I tried to explain. "This place has been on my bucket list for a while, now."

They looked blank.

"That's, like, a list of things you want to do or see before you die? I've...been stuck at the Minverabad hospital all year, but I've always wanted to visit the oasis because, well, I was curious. Dad was posted out here. After Mum died, that is. And local patients had some weird stories about this place..."

There was an awkward silence.

"Do you come here often?" I added, more cheerfully than I felt.

"Wouldn't be seen dead anywhere less classy!" winked Sir Michael, breaking the tension.

"You'd be seen naked pretty much anywhere, though," returned Julie, tartly. "We went to your hospital, I think, Doc." She turned to her fiancé again. "Is that where they took the bodies?"

Curiosity got the better of decorum. "Bodies? What happened? Um, if you don't mind my asking?"

Julie suddenly found the sky quite interesting, but Sir Michael was not lost for words: "We were on a day trip out here with some other tourists. Julie slipped on the rocks above the falls-" he pointed- "and broke something very important, didn't you, Silly Bean? As for me, I got bitten by one of those damned blunt-nosed mambas whilst trying to rescue her."

He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. "One minute we hadn't a care in the world, the next we were in some dreadful melodrama!"

I nodded. "Gosh! Brave of you to return!"

To my astonishment, Julie started to cry.

Her fiancé put a comforting arm around her. "Don't, darling... Just think...we're so lucky to be here! Together. In our youth..."

"But we can't leave!" She wailed. "Ever!"

I wanted to question them further. What DID they mean? Who had died? But it didn't seem to be the moment.

We were interrupted by a crashing in the undergrowth. I turned, scanning the bushes expectantly.

"I... had a little boy named Luke," murmured Sir Michael, behind me. "Never saw him, though. My biggest regret..."

"Quite the coincidence," I replied, distractedly. "But you're forty years too young to be my old man. Also, you're alive."

I waved. "Hey, Tom!" Help me out, here!

Tom sloped past us, eyes eerily blank. Thorn-torn. Ignored us all. Something very wrong.

"He can't hear you. Not anymore..." Whispered Julie.

"THOMA-A-S!" I yelled.

I rounded on the others. “What’s happened to him?!”

“He’s just lost someone.” Replied Sir Michael, flatly. “That's morphine he's carrying. You were a patient, Doctor Smith?"

"Yes, but what did you mean earlier, when-"

"I mean we died that day. Hence, ‘not alive.’ Neither are you, by the look of it."

His eyes bored into mine. "...Son."

I watched in horror as Tom dropped the bottles in the sand and sank to his knees.

Written by: Alex Preece
Photo by: Blake Bronstad

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