“I never thought I’d be back here,” he said, looking down the county road. “It’s all so surreal.”
“We don’t have to go if you don’t want to, baby,” his wife put her arm around his waist, under his jacket, warming her chilled fingers on his spine. “We can just go back to the hotel and start our honeymoon now.”
He smiled at her. “I know, but I promised I’d come if it happened and now we’re here. If we turned back now, I don’t know that I could ever face myself in the mirror again.”
“Alright,” she bumped her head against his shoulder. “Show me where you grew up.”
It was unseasonably cold for the tropical island he’d grown up on. He remembered spending his days running barefoot and shirtless through the trees and down the beach. Every boy his age did that, and all their moms were at home, usually with their newest boyfriends, wearing things that were to keep them cool, or so they said. It wasn’t until the boys were nearly grown that they understood what went on in the houses on stilts. The latest boyfriend would park under the house so it would rust less when it started to rain. When the cars pulled up, the children knew it was time to go out and play. They couldn’t go down to the water until the boyfriends came out to keep them from getting washed out to sea. Sometimes, the newest ones would forget and the boys would get yelled at for coming back to the house to remind them.
Amber looked at her husband standing tall and watching the road directly in front of them as he guided her over the dirt road that was unpassable for their rented sports car and tried to imagine him as a pre-teen boy, running wild through this wet, green paradise. The thought made her smile and her smile caught his eye.
“What?” he asked.
“Just thinking of you,” she said.
“When I’m right here?”
“Trying to imagine you when you lived here.”
“Oh, don’t do that. I was a stupid teenager and this place is a dump. We’ll get through this and get back to the hotel so we can go to the nice spots.”
“I’m not in a hurry,” she told him. “The walk is nice and this place is so gorgeous.”
“This is nothing compared to the places I want to take you,” he said. “And I do have plans to take you in some of them.”
She shivered. “I can’t wait.”
They walked the rest of the two miles in a companionable silence, squeezing and kissing each other occasionally. When they got to the house on stilts, Amber could feel her husband tense up. This was their destination, then. She took a deep breath and waited for him to decide what to do next. While she waited, she looked up at the house and a slight movement caught her eye. One of the walls wasn’t a proper wall at all but a blue tarp, swaying gently with the breeze.
The door opened and a very large man with a flaming red beard stepped through it. “Will,” he said, waving to her husband.
Will waved at the giant and started walking to the stairs. “Micheal,” he said.
“I’m glad you made it,” Micheal said. “She wanted to see you.”
“I told you I’d come,” Will said. “She was always good to me.”
Micheal nodded. “Is this the lovely Amber?” he asked, turning to her.
“Amber, this is Micheal, my best friend and basically my brother, Micheal, this is my wife, Amber.”
“You’re even prettier than your picture,” Micheal said. “I’m sorry to have missed the wedding, the pictures Will sent me were beautiful.”
“It’s a pleasure to meet you, finally,” Amber said, smiling. “We missed you at the wedding but we understood. We came as fast as we could afterward.”
“Well, come inside and say hello,” Micheal said, and led them up the stairs. “There are people who will want to meet you.”
“Is she here?” Will asked, stopping them before they reached the door.
“Damn,” Will said. “Oh well, can’t be helped, I’m here to see your mother anyway.”
It was basically one large room, with parts partitioned off with colorfully patterned sarongs. There was a large gathering of people milling about, talking low, as though they were waiting for something. Amber felt all their eyes on her as she walked through the room to where the hospital bed was set up.
Micheal made space for them through the people and tapped an older man on the shoulder who could only be his brother, though his bright red beard was shot through with strands of silver. When he moved, Amber could see the waxen figure still on the bed and her breath stilled in her chest. She was almost certain they were too late.
“Will,” the figure in the bed called. “You came.”
“Hello, Dee, I told you I’d come visit you,” Will said, moving to kneel beside her. “And I even brought my wife with me.”
“Thank you,” Dee said. “I so wanted to see you happy before I went. You were always so miserable when you came to stay with me. Are you happy now?”
“I’m very happy now, Dee. You were the person I wanted to show my new bride off to the most. You always told me I deserved a pretty wife.”
Amber blushed and looked down at her feet, intensely aware of the dying woman staring at her.
“I told you that you deserved a good one, too,” Dee said. “Tell me, girl, are you a good wife?”
Amber stammered. “I hope so. I’ll do my best.”
“Do better,” Dee said and started coughing. The coughing fit shook her and Micheal came to take Will’s place to hold his mother while she spasmed with the pain. He injected something into the IV line in her arm and she slowly relaxed, the tightness around her eyes loosening in relief.
Micheal touched her forehead and moved away to talk to Will. “It won’t be much longer,” he told him. “We’re honestly surprised she made it this long but she insisted on talking to you before she went.”
“You should have visited earlier,” a woman said behind them. She was striking, not quite beautiful but with a handsome face that looked much better on her son.
“I came now,” Will said. “To see the woman who raised me and to show the woman I love the beautiful parts of the island. Quite frankly, mother, I’ve seen enough of the squalid side of paradise to last me two life times.”
Will grabbed Amber’s hand and they left. She could hear an argument going on inside the house and she wasn’t sure whether she should insist he deal with his family or just go with his decision to leave them behind. As they walked back down the county road to the rented sports car, she watched him shake off the gloom that had been weighing him down. He walked straighter and breathed deeper the farther they got from the house on stilts.
“Let’s go, baby,” he said, looking down at her with the same look he’d had when he’d said ‘I do’. “We have a life to start.”