I went missing fifteen years ago.
And now the only person who knew where I was is dead.
I fold the newspaper in half, then in half again before putting it in my recycling bin. There is no indication that I’ve read any story more than once, running my finger along the print so many times it’s now black with ink.
Some said I was dead. Some said I was still alive – there were ‘sightings’ of me in Sicily, Miami, Hong Kong, even Havana. Exotic places. Good places to hide. Those people spreading the rumors might find it funny to learn that I’m giving bicycle tours on Block Island, just off the coast of Rhode Island. Not exotic, not hiding. Just existing.
When I first arrived here, I knew this was where I wanted to stay. I’d never been to Block Island, didn’t even know it existed until someone on the bus told me. Which meant others might not know about it, either. An island shaped like a pork chop in the Atlantic, a little more than an hour’s ferry ride from Point Judith, population less than 1,000 year round, although surging to about 20,000 or more during the summer. What really struck me was how I felt when I stepped off the ferry: as if all my worries had been stripped away. I could breathe here, the air heavy with saltwater and fog but light as the clouds that skipped along the horizon.
I live in a small white Cape just up the road from the farm where they’ve got the llamas. The furniture came with the place; it’s a little worn but not worse for wear. The front porch and living-room bay window overlook the ocean – and the dock at Old Harbor where the ferries come in. I’ve got a telescope set up inside so I can see them.
My name’s Nicole. It’s not the name I was born with – not even close. But I’ve always liked it and figured since I needed a new name I might as well pick one I liked. I could have it for the rest of my life. As long as it might be. Or might not be.
My last name’s Jones. Not exactly original. But no one’s ever questioned it.
I didn’t change how I look. At least not then. Now I look a little different, but it’s just that I’m getting older. My hair’s starting to get some gray streaks – I cut it short to keep it out of my way – and I wear glasses. I wore contacts back then, but I like the way the glasses look, like I’m a college professor or something more distinguished than I really am. The biking has made me leaner. I was always comfortable in my body, but now I feel better, more alive.
I still look over my shoulder when the door opens in a restaurant or a shop, but now the person coming in is usually a friend or a tourist looking for some clam chowder or a painting of the island. I paint a little, too, when I’m not out on the bike. I have an easel that I can set up wherever I like and some empty canvases that I fill with the bright colors of the ocean and the sky and the cliffs. People buy them, wanting them as souvenirs of their stay here. I’d never done anything creative before. Didn’t think I could. My hands had never held a paintbrush. It felt heavy to me the first time, that thin little stick.
I started the bike tours because of my friend Steve, who owns one of the independent taxis on the island. Taxi drivers here are also tour guides, and I took Steve’s tour not long after I settled here. He told me everything I know about the island: its history, its landmarks, where the dead bodies are buried, so to speak. He tried to talk me into driving a hack, but I can’t get a license so the bike thing was a fallback. I run the tours through one of the rental places; I bring in the business, split the takings forty–sixty. I get the forty, but I’m not complaining. I take home cash.
I didn’t tell Steve why I couldn’t get a driver’s license, and he didn’t ask. It’s that New England Yankee thing: they keep to themselves and let strangers in selectively. For some reason, I passed Steve’s test. We meet every Friday for happy hour at Club Soda up on Connecticut. It’s where the locals hang out. There’s foosball and pool and darts and usually music of some sort. The beer is cold, and if you want to be left alone, no one will bother you.
I go sometimes without Steve and have a burger if I don’t want to cook. I am doing just that now, minding my own business, when Steve comes in with the paper. Not the Block Island Times, but the Providence Journal. He’d gone to the mainland today to pick up his new LCD TV. I didn’t think he was back yet; otherwise, I would’ve invited him along.
‘Hey, Nicole,’ he says as he shifts his heavy frame onto the tall chair across the table from me.
I look up from my plate and nod, my mouth full of beef and bun and lettuce. Steve is about sixty-five, the same age my father would be today if he were alive. He’s tall, with a big barrel chest and bushy white hair and a nicely trimmed beard. He plays Santa every Christmas for the kids at town hall. Steve was a geologist in his other life, that’s how he ended up here, studying the island’s rock formations. But when he’d spent all his grant money, he stayed, writing up his research, buying his first cab and settling into island life. He married a local girl who died twenty years ago of breast cancer. He swears he will never love another woman again. And then he asks me again to marry him, because I’m the only woman left who will tolerate all of his tired old stories. It’s a joke almost as old as the stories now, but we keep it up just because we can.
Steve perches his reading glasses on his nose.
‘Interesting story in the paper today,’ he says, his voice low, a tone in it I haven’t heard before. ‘They’re doing a series on cold cases. You know, police cases that never got solved?’
I swallow, but it feels like the burger’s too big for my throat and I have to take a swig of my Bud Light to force it down. ‘Yeah?’ I ask, although I don’t really want to go there.
Steve puts the paper on the table and turns it so it’s the right side up for me. I push my glasses higher and squint through the bottom half of the lenses. Immediately I want to laugh. Not because the story is funny, but because I’m relieved. The story is about a series of rapes that occurred twenty-five years ago. The rapist wore a mask, never spoke and always entered through a window and left the same way. None of the women could ever identify him, even though there had been a couple of suspects. But with no hard evidence, the case stayed open.
I concentrate on the story, reading each word as Steve wants me to. When I’m done, I take another swig of my beer. ‘Interesting.’ It’s all I can think of to say.
‘He could be anywhere,’ Steve speculates, flagging down Abby, the waitress, and asking for a beer.
‘It’s creepy,’ I say. ‘I don’t want to think he’s here, living among us.’ Not like me.
Abby returns with the beer, sets it down, and Steve orders a burger just like mine. No tomato. No ketchup. Just lettuce, mayonnaise and mustard. We’re like an old married couple. Abby is used to us. She winks at me as she leaves.
‘Just think about it, though,’ Steve continues, even though I want him to stop. ‘He was never caught. What’s he doing now? Is he married? Does he have kids?’
‘Maybe he’s dead,’ I say flatly, taking another bite so my mouth’s full and I can’t respond to Steve’s expression.
‘You’re heartless,’ he says after a minute.
‘He’s a rapist,’ I say after I swallow. ‘It would be better if he’s dead. Then he’s no longer a threat.’ I think for a second. ‘Maybe the reason the rapes stopped is because he’s dead. Maybe he died, so he couldn’t rape anymore. The case will always be open, then, won’t it?’
Steve admits he hasn’t thought of that. He prefers to think of this animal as living among regular people, trying to be like one of them but always fighting his demons.
‘You should write for TV or something,’ I say when Abby brings his burger. By now I’ve finished mine, so I order some onion rings for us to share. I don’t like anyone to eat alone. Except for me.
I pull my sweater around my shoulders and shiver. It’s the beginning of May; the island’s getting ready for tourists, but it’s still chilly as the breezes sweep off the ocean and envelop the island. It’s always windy here; I’m always wearing a sweater or a fleece or a windbreaker. I don’t think I’ve put a bathing suit on the entire time I’ve been here.
‘You’ve got to be from Florida,’ Steve starts up again. Another old argument. ‘No one can be as cold as you are all the time.’
I don’t answer. I have no history, no life before Block Island. Steve teases me, but he respects that and doesn’t ask me anything about it. It’s why we’re friends.
I busy myself reading the paper placemat. ‘We’re All Here Because We’re Not All There.’ It’s Club Soda’s slogan. When I first got here, it struck me as something I could have as my own.
The onion rings arrive. Steve has moved onto the sports section of the paper, speculating about the Red Sox and if they’ll win the Series again.
‘They’ve become the Yankees,’ he says somberly, because that’s a bad thing. But I know at the same time it’s a good thing because they’ve stopped disappointing. Baseball was new to me fifteen years ago; now it’s a bond I’ve got with my new friends. I’ve surprised myself in many ways.
‘Getting ready for the season?’ Steve asks, folding the paper up, finished with it. He takes an onion ring, dips it in ketchup and brings it to his mouth. I take the biggest one off the top and nod.
‘They’ll be here soon,’ I say, meaning the tourists. Just a few weeks now until Memorial Day weekend, when they’ll file off the ferries into our lives. ‘I’ve been mapping out a couple of new routes.’
‘You can still find new routes after all this time?’ Steve is teasing me. Every year I change up the routes, just in case I’ve got repeat customers. I don’t want them to think it’s been there, done that.
I take another onion ring and suck the onion out of the fried breading.
‘That’s so gross,’ Steve says, but then he does it, too. We go through the rest of the onion rings and leave their skins, like shedded snakeskins, on the plate.
When we walk out of Club Soda, the night air pierces my face and I wish I had more than my sweater. I walk around to the bike rack and start undoing the lock.
‘I can take you back,’ Steve says, nodding toward his Explorer in the lot.
I’m not one to argue. We get the bike into the back of the SUV with no problem, and as I start to climb into the passenger seat, a sleek black car skids around the corner and slams on its brakes. Steve takes a step out of the Explorer, ready to give the guy a lesson on how to drive here. I lean around in my seat to watch, but the dim light inside means I can’t see very well.
I hear raised voices, Steve’s and another man’s. I see a shadowy outline and hope he doesn’t take a swing at Steve, who isn’t in the best of shape. But then it’s over, and Steve is back, getting into the Explorer and shutting his door, which means the light goes out abruptly.
I can see outside now. I can see the stranger’s face. But the problem is he’s not a stranger after all.
©2015 Karen E. Olson