As Carl predicted time brought change on the county road. In twenty years the area had gone from a sparsely populated dot noticed only on Florida highway maps to some of the most expensive and fought over beachfront property in the nation. Jake had managed to keep his end of Carl’s posthumous deal. His determination in that regard had turned him into the defacto leader of a nonexistent preservation society. If there was word of a development, it made it to the market. If it were something that the locals agreed should be stopped, Jake made sure it was.
He failed to find a mate because of these ideals. There were women, some older than he some younger. There were a few, attracted to his energy and resolve, that were much younger. But they never lasted. Either they were too determined to get him to sell the place or too willing to have him dictate their every move. But it was a good life and he lived it well. To most it would have been a full life.
Jake Burns’ struggle began with a radio call while he was deep sea fishing with friends out of Destin. They had made it about twenty miles offshore and were deep in an alcohol fueled discussion when the ship’s radio squawked.
“Daily Bait, this is the Walton County Sheriff’s office. Do you copy?”
“This is the Daily Bait,” the owner slurred.
“Is Jake Burns aboard your vessel?”
“Could you put him on the radio?”
“This is Jake Burns.”
“Jake, Tommy Allen. We need you back in Seagrove.”
“Feels good to be needed, but I am adrift”
“Jake, there’s been an accident. A car ran into your house.”
“Bulldoze it, I’ll rebuild it Monday.”
“Knock it off Jake, someone died.”
“A tourist?” Jake asked getting serious.
“Who was it Tommy?”
Jake turned to the boat’s owner and asked blankly, “where are we?”
“It’s about two hours to Seagrove and another hour into Destin Harbor.”
“Drop me offshore,” he said deciding to swim to shore rather than wait to get to a dock.
“Ok Jake,” he said as he started up the motors and immediately gunned the large boat for shore.
Jake didn’t speak the whole way in. He sat up on the boat’s bridge until he could see the lights from shore and then moved down to the bow. The boat stopped about forty yards out and Jake dove in without a word. He swam furiously through the dark waters to the beach and from there sprinted up the dunes. The damage to his house was visible from the top of the dune. A wrecker, yellow lights flashing sat in the parking lot that straddled the county road on the near side and his market and adjoining home on the other. There was a cracked crescent of light surrounding the dark outline of the car wedged into his home’s first storey. As he ran across the deserted road he was quickly intercepted by the sheriff’s deputy.
“Where is she?” he yelled out blindly.
“She’s gone Jake,” the deputy replied trying to calm him.
“I’m sorry, she’s gone.”
Noticing Shelia’s Mercedes parked in front of the market he dodged the human barricade and marched towards it.
“Jake, the sheriff took Mrs. Brockwell to the hospital,” Deputy Allen said.
“She wasn’t doing very well. They thought they might be able to give her something to calm her down there.”
Jake stood silently staring across the scene. The wrecker’s engine roared and in a series of metallic wails and dull cracks, the young girl’s car came free from his house. Jake’s face was immobilized by uncertainty. The flashing yellow lights of the wrecker reflected off the tears streaking from his eyes.
“Eden, what happened?” he asked.
“Do you have somewhere else to stay tonight?” the deputy asked him.
“What do you mean?” Jake answered.
“Someone needs to look at your place, to make sure it’s not going to collapse.”
“I don’t know, I mean I don’t think so.”
Confused by what question Jake was trying to answer the deputy took his arm, “C’mon I’ll take you down to the Shoreline Cottages. They’ll probably have something available.”
He led him to the cruiser and opened the back door for him. Jake walked around to the front passenger’s door and let himself in. The deputy ran over to the wrecker, instructed the driver to sit put until he returned and ran back to give Jake a ride. Although initially upset at being woken in the middle of the night, the owners of the Shoreline Cottages were helpful. Once inside a room, Jake spent the time until dawn sitting in a chair.
At sunrise he was back at his home hanging a blue tarp over the hole in his house. He nailed the top of it into the wood framing on either side of the hole and then dropped some bricks on the loose end on the ground. As he kicked one brick over the tarp, he saw a piece of metal flash through the sand. He bent down and picked up a ring he hadn’t seen in a long time.
He called the Sheriff’s office every day at least twice until finally he was asked to go in to give a statement. There was little he could contribute as there was no doubt that it was simply a tragic accident. The deputy listened to what Jake had to say, answered his questions and then thanked him for his time.
Jake walked out into the bright Florida sun and put on his sunglasses. It was ironic that the law enforcement office for all these billions of dollars worth of real estate visited by thousands of tourist each year spending hard earned and harder borrowed money was nothing but a double wide trailer with a gravel driveway.
He drove the five hundred yards back to his market, a small grocery store on a two lane county road like no other in the country. As he opened the door he was blasted with Hoss screaming at the television mounted above the beer coolers. Hoss was a painter whose brain had been sieged by his own misspent life for so long that ranting was his only form of conversation and inanimate objects were the only ones who would bother to listen to him. His real name was Norman Leeds but everyone called him Hoss mostly because that was how he started every sentence.
"Alright Hoss Man, you gonna be amazed at what your place is gonna look like when me and my crew get finished with it!" he yelled to Jake.
Jake looked at the register to find Ashley, one of his cashiers, scowling back at him.
"Thanks Hoss, but I'd like to get things back to normal around here soon so stay away from the beer cooler, Ok?" Jake replied. "By the way, why aren't ya'll working back there right now? Has another one of your crews deserted you?"
"Nah, I sent them up to 98 to get some more supplies, thought I might cool it a bit in here while I waited for them. You got anything I can munch on in here?" Hoss said as he was eyeing the cold six packs through the glass door.
“Not unless you’re a paying customer,” Jake replied.
“Awe c’mon, you telling me that it’s all about the snow bunnies and knee-highs?" Hoss was the only person around that didn't seem to worry about making a living so he regularly insulted the two groups of people that brought the best business year round to the beach, mostly northerners and retirees.
"Hoss, you’ve got enough supplies in my living room to build a house, now get outta my store and finish that damn room or else I'm gonna call Lee and tell her what you're really doing on Tuesday nights when you say you're playing poker here!" Jake always threatened calling Hoss's girlfriend whenever he wanted to motive him, usually it got the intended results.
"Too late Hoss Man, she moved out on me last night."
"Was it the two missing walls, ah excuse me, the renovations you've been doing at your place or the fact that you’ve got a 5 year old German Shepard that still isn’t house broken?"
Hoss laughed. "Neither," he said, "She got all in a wad over me cleaning my head in the dishwasher."
"Cleaning your head in the dishwasher?" Not that it was surprising that he would try something like that, it just seemed to Jake to be a mechanical impossibility.
"Yeah, I broke down the engine yesterday morning and threw the head in the dishwasher. Put some degreaser in that little detergent cup and let her rip. Lee comes home and tries to clean some of the crap out of the sink and starts screaming about me ruining the dishwasher. Said something about the plastic peeling off the plate rack, grabbed her bag and left. Won't answer my calls either. To tell you the truth, Hoss Man, I'd don't think she liked that car!"
The restoration of that car was a work in progress that had begun to unravel and chip and generally fall apart much the same as any type of reality that Hoss came in contact with. He had bought it at an auction that he went to about four years ago in Tallahassee and still couldn’t get it together.
"Go figure," said Jake. "Listen Hoss, I need my home back together. For two weeks now I've woken up every morning covered in sheetrock dust and you seem to be making no progress.”
“Yeah, man, it’ll get there,” Hoss said with a careless wave.
Jake turned to go back out to his house when he heard over his shoulder, “I don’t think you wanna go back there Hoss Man, your ex is back there waiting for you, and she’s acting kinda loopy.”
“She’s not my ex,” Jake said walking out the door.
As soon as he turned the corner around the market he stopped at the sight of Shelia’s car parked exactly as it was the night of the accident. He turned towards the beach but stopped again after a couple of steps. He took a deep breath and continued back to his house. He opened the door and entered cautiously. She made him twitch just by saying his name.
She was leaning against the wall that had been destroyed in the only corner not tainted blue by the tarp’s effect on the sunlight.
“Hi Shelia, how are you?”
“Oh, feeling no pain. Not really feeling anything. My good doctor has kept me on a steady diet of valium; he says it will help me adjust. To, um, being alone I guess. I don’t think it’s fair, so many people are alone without tranquillizers but I don’t know what else to do.”
“You’ve always known what to do.”
“I always thought I was in control. Now I’m alone.”
“I talked to the Sheriff’s office today,” Jake said trying to start a conversation.
“Ah, the beachstone cops. That’s what I’m going to call them now, sort of funny don’t you think? Did they tell you about the memorials they will be putting up? In all three directions there will be flashing yellow lights: WARNING DANGEROUS INTERSECTION, especially for drunk drivers. It’ll be a very fitting tribute to her, to her memory. They’ll never find out what really happened to her. I guess I’ll take what I can get, like this,” she said holding up the ring. “I’m taking this from you again.”
“Oh, I meant to get that back to you. I don’t know how it ended up over here.”
“In the change bowl?”
“No, I found it in the parking lot. I think it’s the same one, musta been out there for a while.”
Shelia lowered her head to the ring the she held with both hands. It appeared as if she were praying to it. She raised her tear streaked face back up to him as her right hand worked the ring onto her left index finger.
“You kept it all the time,” he said in wonder. “Why’d you leave it here now?”
“I didn’t, she did. She took it from me the day her father died. I waited until she got home from school that afternoon. She wasn’t very emotional about it when I told her. I was worried about that. She marched right up to my bedroom and pulled this hatbox out of my closet. I didn’t even know she knew about it. I used it as a sort of graveyard for gifts from you and David. She told me it was time to be done with the past. She started dumping it all in the garbage can. I tried to stop her, after all there were some expensive pieces in there from David. It was all trash to her. She emptied the box but this was stuck down in the little crease in the bottom. She pulled it out and I guess it caught her because she put it on her finger. It was strange that she knew it was from you.”
“Well she knew we had dated and it obviously wasn’t David’s style of gift.”
“Too cheap,” Jake stated.
“Too unique,” she corrected.
“Junk with a q.u.e.,” he said causing Shelia to smile for the first time.
“So you’re going to just cover up the hole and keep on here?” she said eyeing the blue tarp patching the wall.
“I’m really sorry what happened to Eden, she was… you did a great job raising a special young lady. Everyone thought so. Most everyone around here has asked me to tell you that, if you need anything, you know.”
“Thanks, I know how they felt about her, it had nothing to do with me though, it was who she was and what she did to people that made them feel good. She was the kind of person who you always wanted to stay around you a bit longer but never did.” She picked up a paint splattered screwdriver off the table, rolled it off one hand timid slur, “So, are you going to stay here?”
“Shelia, I told you a long time ago this is where I belong. This place has gone through some crazy changes over the years and I’m glad I stayed through it all and it’s all just reinforced that this is where I should be.”
“Jake, for so many years, especially considering David’s passing, I knew the only reason that it was good that it didn’t work out for you and me was because of her. She gave me so much pride, so much happiness. I need to keep that here inside of me, not to be reminded of it every time I ride by here.”
“Shelia, are you asking me to sell this place to White, let him tear it down and put another overpriced seafood café or villa seabreeze grotesque multi unit crap thing just because you’ll be sad to see a building your daughter ran into?”
Shelia looked down at the ring and walked towards the door. Jake followed her out to her Mercedes and opened the driver’s door for her. She put the key into the ignition but paused before starting the engine. Jake had already returned to the porch door when he heard her callout.
“Jake, don’t take offense, but you’ve always been so much to everyone while doing so little with your life.”
He immediately dropped his head and shook it side to side.
“Yeah, I guess so; I just never saw the point of trying to spin big wheels on a short drive.”
“No, Jake, that’s not it.” Then she rose out of the car and walked back toward him face to face. “You’ve traveled as little over the past twenty years as any man can, but you don’t seem to rust. How do you do that?”
“I don’t know Shelia.” Trying to keep his voice flat just made him sound like he was whining. It was impossible to explain this simple thing to her despite the repetitive way he had to do it. “I just like it here, it’s strange to me that you don’t understand it, for all your threats and derisions of this place, all the opportunities you’ve had, you’ve gone no further.”
She smiled faintly and almost whispered, “So it seems,” and then she lifted her left hand up to his face closing her eyes as she held his cheek. Jake closed his eyes too until she withdrew and returned to her car.
Jake opened his screen door then turned to watch her leave. As she pulled away, he walked back inside and to the refrigerator that was standing in the middle of his living room. For some reason he was surprised on opening it to find all the beer had been subcontracted out.
RETURN TO TABLE OF CONTENTS CONTINUE TO CHAPTER 4