The acrid bite of sweat stung Dave’s eyes as he gazed into the sleepy bar. The last of the sun’s light played over his sweat soaked back as he made his way into the dim interior, past the two ancient video game machines. The games chirped an electronic greeting to Dave as he ran one sap-stained hand over the buttons of the old Pac-Man.
“‘Lo Dave,” the bartender, Hammond, grunted at him.
Dave blinked once to clear his eyes as he settled on the dented stool, his perennial perch at the bar. The stool provided a perfect angle for watching the door, bar, and small dance floor.
“Hello, Hammond,” Dave said.
Hammond poked his tongue through the gap in his teeth as he slicked back his fading grey hair. Dave lifted his chin and Hammond grunted once more, acknowledging Dave’s request for his usual lager.
“So, how’d it work out with that girl you met the other night? Linda, wasn’t it?” Hammond leaned conspiratorially close as he talked and Dave could smell the faint odors of lemons, whiskey, and smoke that perpetually clung to his friend.
“Not so good. She wasn’t really my type.”
Hammond snorted. Over the past year, Dave and Hammond had worked out a nice little signal system. They both knew Linda had blown Dave off, but somehow the system took some of the sting out of admitting it.
“Well, you can do better, that’s for sure.”
Staring at his wavy image in the bar’s old mirror, Dave translated the statement to himself; “There’s got to be some woman out there who’ll put up with you.” But to Hammond he responded, “Just hope it’s soon, Hammond. Real soon.”
As Dave settled back along the scarred oaken bar he absently massaged his newly blistered hands. They had been rubbed raw from holding his new chainsaw in place for so long. His teeth still ached, too.
“Finished with that old live oak?” Hammond asked as he slid the lager to Dave. Hammond always slid his beers, never content to simply hand them over.
“Only just,” Dave replied as he slipped his palms around the frosty glass. The mug’s chill soothed his hands as he brought the beer to his lips. Only after drinking deeply did he feel any relief from the wet Carolina heat.
“Those trees are rough,” Hammond commented as he halfheartedly swiped at the bar with an old rag.
“Couldn’t believe the size of them myself when I first got down here,” Dave replied. “Some of those branches - big as highways!”
Dave’s gaze slipped up the dusty mirror facing of the bar, past the sketch of the old post office Hammond had bought from the Feds and turned into a bar. He sighed in satisfaction. A few more days and he ought to be done clearing the land. Then all he had to do was plot out the foundation and he could sit back and let the construction crew sweat it out in the June heat while Dave tried his his hand with the college girls on vacation in the low country. After all, Dave was only a few years older than them and had almost gone to college himself. Well, the thought had at least crossed his mind once or twice.
Dave was finishing off his fourth lager as he idly scratched his name into the bar with his thumbnail and dreamed of lithe bodies in the South Carolina sun. Suddenly, a blast of Southern heat rolled over him, heralding the entrance of a new arrival to the bar. He hoped it was Vic, his construction supervisor, dropping by to say they were ready to go when Dave was. But what walked in was a hell of a lot better.
Chestnut hair caught what was left of the sunset, framing an angular face in a halo of light. The fading sun seemed caught in the web of tousled hair. Her silhouette was lean and tall. As she penetrated more deeply into the bar’s interior Dave could see the slight edge of fatigue in her dark eyes, obvious even in the bar’s dim interior.
“Could I bother you for some water?” the woman asked Hammond, her voice dusty and full. It reminded Dave of some old Garbo flick he’d seen years ago.
“Sure, Ma’am. Two shakes.” Ever the optimist, Hammond winked at Dave as he swung around to reach the tap water.
Dave felt the heat returning to his body, but this time he welcomed it.
“Hot today, isn’t it?” Dave asked the woman. Great line, real smooth. Dave winced inside and out of the corner of his eye he saw Hammond shaking his head. Dave gritted his teeth and plowed on.
“I’m Dave Durman. Haven’t seen you here before.” Oh, even better. What an ass.
The woman smiled up at Hammond as she accepted the water. After draining off the glass in several long gulps she turned to gaze at Dave for the first time.
“You must be from North of here. Natives don’t start commenting on the heat until at least mid-July.” The woman smiled at Dave as she continued. “I’m Livvy; short for Olivia.”
“Nice to meet you,” Dave replied with relief. Maybe he hadn’t blown it yet. “Do you work around here? I haven’t seen you here before,” he repeated awkwardly.
“I work at the nature preserve two islands over,” Livvy answered softly as she accepted her second glass of water from Hammond.
As Dave watched her drink he could barely keep from grinning. Must be those damn beers. Of course Livvy looked real nice in the light cotton sun dress she was wearing and that sort of thing always seemed to give Dave an attack of euphoria.
“I own some property about a mile from here. Just about finished clearing it. You should see the diagrams of the house the construction guys are gonna build me. It’ll be a real sweet setup.”
“I’m sure it will be,” Livvy responded distractedly as she slowly massaged her temples.
“I’ve got aspirin,” Dave offered, fumbling in the pocket of his cut offs.
“No, thank you,” Livvy replied, touching Dave’s arm lightly with her tanned fingers. “I think I just need some air, that’s all. But thank you again for offering. You’re sweet.” Livvy stretched as she got up off the old stool, revealing the cracked red leather covering the seat.
Sweat sprang up on Dave’s upper lip as he too arose. “I could drive you up to my property,” he offered. “You know, show you around. You can catch the breeze from the ocean up there real good.”
Livvy stared at Dave for a moment before the right corner of her mouth quirked upwards in half a smile. “How do I know you’re not some maniac who hangs out in empty bars picking up women and dumping their mangled bodies in the ocean?”
“Aw, he won’t do nothing bad to you. Dave’s a good kid,” Hammond interjected before Dave could speak. “Besides, Dave wouldn’t never do nothin’ that might get him jailed up. Don’t like those close spaces do you, Dave?”
Dave just nodded and worked hard at appearing trustworthy.
“Besides, who’d want to hurt someone as pretty as you?” Hammond finished, giving his patented three-toothed grin.
Shaking her head and smiling, Livvy looked from one to the other of the two men. Just as Dave became certain she would brush him off, undoubtedly with humiliating kindness, Livvy nodded thoughtfully. “Alright, Dave. I’d like to see your seaside manor-to-be.”
Turning, Livvy made her way to the door. As Dave followed her he could hear Hammond wheezing through his teeth in appreciation. Dave just couldn’t believe his luck.
Their footsteps ground out tandem rhythms in the gravel as they made their way to Dave’s old Ford pickup. Dave opened the door for Livvy, hastily grabbing up the blueprints and receipts littering the cab of the truck. Livvy thanked him absently as she slid onto the warm vinyl seat. As Dave hastily crossed to the other side of the dusty red pickup he allowed a grin of excitement to flicker briefly across his face.
Dave and Livvy sat in awkward silence as Dave drove out onto Palmetto Drive. Dave racked his brains to find some words with which he could impress Livvy. Island stories wouldn’t do. She was obviously a native of the Low Country. Maybe he could tell her about Detroit, the Great Lakes, anything.
Staring out the window down the tree-lined street, Dave watched the spanish moss hanging in clumps of the live oaks which stood like giant chaperones among the smaller palmettos. The moss clinging to their limbs reminded Dave of the lace that had adorned his grandmother’s clothes.
“Spanish moss is another one of those things us Northerners don’t get to see. It’s like some sort of alien life form. I mean, how does the stuff even survive? All it does is hang there. It doesn’t even hold on to the trees like ivy does,” Dave said.
Livvy turned her head away from Dave to stare out the window. “It sucks the water from the air. It usually doesn’t hurt the tree, but if too much of it grows on a tree all of the shade can kill it.”
Livvy turned back to Dave hen suddenly wriggled across the seat until her body pressed against his, her mouth almost grazing his ear. “The settlers and slavers used to stuff their beds with the moss. Imagine, sleeping on parasites. But then, the settlers and slavers were basically parasites themselves, so it makes a certain sense - like sleeping with like.”
Livvy’s breath tickled Dave’s ear and he could feel the warmth first kindled by the alcohol building inside of him. Dave concentrated on his driving as he slowly slid his arm around Livvy’s shoulders. Wouldn’t do to crash now, not when things were looking better than they had for him in months.
“You’re an interesting lady, Livvy,” Dave said as he glanced down at her hair. Its color reminded him of autumn and the North.
Within a few minutes Dave turned the pickup onto the dirt lane that connected his soon-to-be home to the rest of the island. “This is it,” he grinned at Livvy. But Livvy was already retreating back to her side of the cab, staring out the window at his property.
Pulling to a stop, Dave hopped out and quickly walked around the truck to open the door for Livvy. Real Southern gentleman stuff. Always impressive. Score another point for Dave. Livvy slipped off the seat, her dress hitching up enough for Dave to catch an enticing glimpse of the lightly tanned limbs beneath.
As Dave shut the door Livvy walked out to the middle of his land and stared around. Palmettos dotted the flat terrain and a small pond marked the Western edge of the property.
“What you’ve marked out with the ribbon is yours?” Livvy asked as Dave joined her on the grass.
“Yeah,” Dave grinned. “Pretty impressive, huh?” he added hopefully.
“The natives didn’t think it was possible to own land,” Livvy mused aloud. “They saw it as the reverse, that the land owns us.”
“Uh, yeah, I guess. Seems like a pretty strange notion to me. Are you a historian or something?” Dave couldn’t tell with Livvy how serious she was about all this native crap so he didn’t want to risk putting the idea down too much.
Just then, Livy’s right hand snaked out to grab his left, her palm surprisingly calloused, probably from working at the nature preserve. “Come on,” Livvy said as she pulled him forward.
They stopped in front of the massive live oak he had just finished felling today. One of its huge branches had fallen in such a way it looked like some fey highway leading into the dusky night toward the land of faerie. Its trunk hd been nearly six feet in diameter and it had taken Dave the whole afternoon to get it down. It would take at least another few days to get the thing into manageable pieces.
Dave turned to glance up at the moon. It would be full in a few nights. Watch out for weirdos, he thought. When Dave turned back Livvy was running her hands along the grain of the tree.
“Good wood,”Dave said. “I could let you have some if you like…” Dave’s words trailed off as Livvy turned back to him. She was working at the buttons on her sundress. Dave stared in disbelief, mouth suddenly dry for reasons other than the alcohol. Intense hazel eyes looked up into his blue ones as Dave stepped towards Livvy. The dress fluttered to the ground and Livvy’s dusky body shone in the moonlight, soft depths hidden beneath the angular planes.
As Dave reached out to pull Livvy into his arms she suddenly darted away. “Catch!” she whispered, dashing towards the nearest tree, a younger live oak at the very edge of his property.
Dave laughed with exhilaration and desire as he chased Livvy over the low branches of the tree. Finally, she whirled and stopped as he caught her in a rough embrace. Their mouths met as Livvy pushed Dave gently against the tree. His back scratched up against the rough bark, but at the moment he didn’t mind one bit.
“You’re mine,” Livvy whispered.
“Anything you say,” Dave replied huskily, staring into Livvy’s golden-brown eyes.
“I hate you,” Livvy responded, all warmth draining from her voice and eyes.
Dave’s sweat turned cold on his back and neck and he tried to push Livvy away, but her grip just tightened. “What are you talking about, Livvy? What are you, some kind of psycho?”
“No,” she hissed. “I hate you because you murdered me.” Livvy spat out each consonant. Dave flinched as if the drops of spittle landing on his face were made of hot tar.
“You are sick!” Dave exclaimed as Livvy’s grip tightened on his arms. He could feel a prickling up his spine and Dave wondered why he couldn’t seem to break her grip. How could Livvy be so strong? Dave’s mind darted about desperately, searching for a possible means of escape. Everything suddenly seemed so unreal...Except for the hazel eyes boring into his own and the sudden tightening of fear in his throat.
“You don’t own me! I’m not your property!” Livvy flung back. Rage caused her voice to quaver as it climbed several octaves up the scale, piercing his brain with its acute bitterness and hatred.
The prickling of his spine increased and began to spread to the whole of his back, as if some lunatic torturer were sticking needles up and down his spine.
“Murder for murder. My justice, Dave.” Livvy’s voice dropped too a soft whisper as she kissed him gently once again. Her body softened for an instant, quivering slightly, and a desperate hope welled up within Dave. Maybe she was on PCP or something and he could ease her down. That might explain her strength and delusions. She’d sure be hurting in the morning.
Dave kissed Livvy back, hoping to lull her into letting him go. Suddenly Livvy’s body went ramrod straight and Dave felt his blood spill as she viciously sank her teeth into his lower lip.
A scream spilled past Dave’s lips, an agonizing howl that went on and on as his back seemed to splinter into a thousand tiny fragments of pain. Blood trickled down his chin, salt filling his mouth as his senses slowly shattered into a million shards of broken dreams and Dave felt himself plunged into a living, breathing darkness.
Dave grasped at memories as if he could gather up the pieces of his mind as a child gathered a flower’s petals. But his memories melted at his touch like snowflakes in the Southern heat.
Livvy staggered backwards and stared at the tree. Bulbous knobs stared back at her in a pattern reminiscent of a human face. She smiled crookedly before wandering back to her dying tree. Livvy wobbled dizzily once before laying down on top of her fallen body.
Slowly, gracefully, she sank into the wood of her dying tree as she stared upwards, counting the stars until they faded forever from her view.
© 2018 Teeuwynn Woodruff