He turns to me as I hop up on the stool.
Our eyes connect and I tilt my head down, smile. “Can I buy you a drink?”
He glances behind to make sure I’m not talking to somebody else. Then he raises his eyebrows.
“You want to buy me a drink?”
“Yeah… Oh, I’m sorry—It’s against your beliefs or something?”
He purses his lips, eyes busy searching my face, my dark hair, my olive complexion. Despite my accent, he’s presumed I’m a local girl.
“Don’t worry, I’ll just go back to my friends.” I spin the stool round and look at the group of girls huddled by the door, their table graced with purple and blue and green cocktails all bursting with tacky plastic flamingos, umbrellas, and ultraviolet stirrers. At least they’re trying to fit-in, rivalling the locals with their traded clothes and bronzed skin, but it’s still clear they’re tourists.
“No, no.” He reaches out and puts his hand on my forearm, stops me just as I’m rising from the stool. “You took me by surprise, that’s all. And I’m not from the island.” He points to his neatly cropped blond hair. “So, yeah, a drink would be great, if you’re still offering?”
I smile, fleetingly, and turn back to the bar. The barman’s loitering around, polishing glasses and pretending to be busy even though there’s barely anyone here. Nothing ever kicks off until at least 2am.
Blond crop makes several not-so-subtle sideways glances at me while I stare at the barman until he makes his way over.
“Two large waters please.” I speak slow and loud to make the translation easier for him.
The barman pauses, his bulging eyes looking like he’s pretty much reached his limit for serving foreigners that think he’s simple. He takes in a breath, lets it back out, then walks the few steps to the disused water tap. Beneath it he opens a black curtain to reveal jug after jug of pure, clean water, some clear and some still bubbling with water tablets. He almost manages to hide the slight shake of his head. But he won’t be rude to me—I’ve just ordered the most expensive drink on the menu.
Blond crop is sitting sideways now, his entire body facing me while he takes in my neon halter top and raw-hem shorts. He wants me to look at him. Not yet. Keep facing forward. Keep in control. Wrap masking tape counter clockwise to form a tight seal. Clearly enunciate consonants. Two or more vowels together may prompt an extra syllable. Drink six to eight glasses of water a day. Everyone should wash their hands with soap or ash after using the toilet; before handling food or clean water; and before eating.
“So, when did you and your friends get here?” Blond crop asks.
I smile into the empty space in front while the barman seems caught in a personal debate over what jug to pour our drinks from. Maybe he’s forgotten his rotation order. Great.
“Over three months ago,” I say, trying not to spit the words out with too much venom. “Just a ten-day girly trip away before we all enrol at different unis.”
“Ahh, holiday reps, beach bars, foam parties?”
“Yes, yes and yes.”
“Sizzling Ouzo and a holiday fling?”
“As many as possible.” I finally turn to face him, tuck a strand of hair behind my ear and let my knees rest against his.
He holds out his hand, rigid and formal. “Dean.”
I hesitate for a moment before sliding my hand against his. “Emilia.”
Two large glasses are place on the sticky bar, cloudy from recently dissolved water tablets. Perfect. I pull my hand free, riffle in the tiny diamante bag I traded only yesterday, find some money and make a point of scanning over the different types of notes before handing the correct amount to the barman.
This time I swivel straight back to Dean. “So, why are you in here alone?”
“Ah, so it was curiosity that brought you over to me?”
“Yep. That and my friends dared me to come talk to you.”
Dean looks at the huddled group of foreign girls while he thinks up his answer. The girls are sipping their drinks and pretending to be happy, as though they’re not stuck here like everyone else.
“I came over on a lads’ holiday a few years back,” Dean says. “And knew straight away the island was where I needed to be. Soon as I could save up the money I got a flight back. Worked every job going—cleaner, brewery worker, barman, tobacco production line worker…” He pauses for effect. “Holiday rep.”
I raise my eyebrows and smirk, just like I know he wants me to.
“But, you know, no-one’s holidaying anymore. So, I’m between jobs.” He takes a big gulp of his water. “My turn to ask you a question… You’ve got an accent I’ve never heard before. Where are you from?”
Even with this tacky outfit and expensive drink he’s questioning me.
“Ummm, it’s really embarrassing.” I rotate my stool again, back to the bar, take a sip of water and twirl a strand of hair around my index finger. “Everywhere I go, every person I speak to, I start speaking just like them. I’ve been here long enough to pick up the accent. Guess that makes me a follower or something.”
“No, actually that’s quite a talent.” Dean places a hand on my knee and gently pulls me back round to face him. “So, if I was from Liverpool then you’d be speaking scouse right now?”
I squint and wrinkle my nose. “Maybe, after a few conversations.”
His hand’s still lingering on my knee.
The song changes, not that I know anything about the music they play in these bars. It’s gone from a mind-numbingly fast dance track to a much calmer, slower rhythm.
Dean looks out onto the empty dance floor, then back to me with a forced intensity in his face. He obviously thinks this is his most overpowering look. “Emilia, do you want to dance?”
I lean a little closer to him, feeling his hand slide a fraction further up my thigh with the movement. “Dean, do you want to come back to my room?”
He sits back and swallows, then nods like one of those dog ornaments on car dashboards.
“Yeah, okay.” A grin sprouts and takes hold of his face, before fading a little as he looks to a door on the far wall. “I need to use the little boys’ room. Don’t move.” He walks backwards a few paces, holding my gaze, before turning and jogging into the men’s toilets.
I look around, at the sombre barman, the happy-go-lucky tourists, the sleazy middle-aged men who prey on the happy-go-lucky tourists, and quickly pull the small Mason jar from my diamante bag. Keep in control. Don’t put the seal on the inside as the centripetal force will cause shredding. It is acceptable to put glottal stops in the middle of words in casual context. The water tanker provides the island with 1600 cubic meters of drinkable water per day. Tap jar to remove any remaining bubbles. Keep in control.
Dean returns, still jogging, and I make a show of drinking my water, taking long, slow, purposeful gulps until it’s all gone.
“You’re right, best to drink up.” He grabs his glass, a little cloudier than it was when he left for the men’s room, and chugs the rest of it down. “Never know when the next decent water’s going to be.” He wipes his wet mouth with the back of his hand, then squares up to me, tilting his head. “Let’s go.”
We walk over to the exit, passing the table of girls and give them a wave. They look uneasy, unsure, but still produce lipgloss-coated smiles. One of them even waves back.
“They’re fine. We’ll all meet up in the morning.” I tell Dean, not that he’s the least bit concerned about separating me from them. He holds the door open and I walk out into the Strip, the humid road crammed with clubs and bars, hot from late-summer air and the slowly increasing crowd of sweaty, thirsty, stranded holiday makers.
Dean goes left, towards the cluster of hotels in the centre of town. I take his hand and pull him back the other way and, ignoring the desperately yelled drink offers from barmen outside competing bars, we head up the hill towards the Red Cliffs.
“Your hotel’s this way?” Dean questions, pointing up the hill. “Maybe you had a few too many glasses of Malamatina before you had that water.”
“I’m not in a hotel in town—too busy, full of beer-bellied tourists and screaming brats—my friend’s uncle has a villa on the Red Cliffs.”
Dean slows his steps. He knows the sort of place I’m talking about—exclusive, gated, elite—that’s why I brought us both glasses of water and made them large. That’s why I swapped these clothes from a snobbish foreign girl who looked down on the traditionally woven dress I traded with. And that’s why I stole her necklace. I dig into the high neck of my halter top and tug it out, run the heavy pendant back and forth along the chain, letting the diamond glint pink in the bright lights of the bars. Dean’s eyes move straight to it, moving back and forth, almost able to follow my movements. Almost.
“It’s got a games room,” I shout over my shoulder as I start walking. “Air-con, infinity pool. And no-one’s home. But it’s fine if you’ve changed your mind, I can entertain myself.”
He appears beside me. “I’m sure I’ll be able to keep you entertained.” He takes my hand again, holding it a little firmer than before. I can just about feel his fingers shake. Keep in control. Full consciousness is retained throughout. Found in damp soil, it flourishes in spring and flowers in June and July. Insufficient natural sources of fresh water to meet the needs of the population. Filter water through a cloth into a clean container, add two water tablets, close container and wait thirty minutes. Tells of someone in the military are high levels of focus and confidence, a lean and groomed appearance, a firm and erect posture. Early indicators are slowed eye movements, shaking, and numbness to extremities.
We reach flat land, away from the groups of people bustling towards the Strip, and he pulls me towards him. Then he takes both my wrists, walking me backwards a few steps until I’m squeezed between him and the speckled remains of the old town wall. He kisses me, his lips moist and hot. Then his mouth is on my neck and his trembling fingers are trying to unbutton my shorts while I use all my control to pull him even closer instead of shoving him away. He positions his feet between mine and moves them apart, spreading my legs.
“The villa’s just a few minutes away,” I whisper. “And it’s got seven bedrooms, seven beds. Doubles, king-sized, air or foam mattresses, goose feather pillows.” I stop his hand on its progressively southward journey down my shorts. “And we can do it on all seven.”
He stops. Breathes in, breathes out, his breath spurting its way through the hairs on my saliva covered neck. Then he walks back, almost tripping as his legs start to give but manages to steady himself. He holds his shaking hand out towards me and I take his hand, let him think he’s pulling me towards him.
“Maybe you had a few to many Malamatinas before I brought you that water,” I jest and we walk on, closer and closer to the Red Cliffs. His arm is over my shoulder, and walking is getting harder with every minute that passes as I’m taking more of his weight. “Not long now.”
I lead us off the path and onto the dusty soil of the Red Cliffs, far earlier than the start of any of the long driveways that lead to the gated mansions, built with much clearer views of the ocean than here. But here, far away from the recommended trails on tourist maps, up high above the docks and where winding, skinny trees spurt from the arid earth, is perfect.
“I don’t know why,” Dean begins. “I mean, I didn’t drink that much but my legs are going weak.”
I don’t respond. There’s no point, we’re almost at the cliff’s edge.
I duck out from under his arm. He stumbles and shifts his weight from one unsteady leg to the other, desperately trying to hold himself up, keep in that formal stance he’s had drilled into him. His feet squirm, boots kicking up red soil.
I stroll along the very edge of the cliff while I wait for his struggle to end and eventually see him collapse from the corner of my vision. He’s cursing, screaming, shouting a name, Emilia, the name I told him was mine.
His friends on the docks are too far away to hear, blotches of pacing khaki, black sticks for guns, waiting for the early morning water tanker. Waiting to get their fill of clean, pure water before they distribute it to the island.
“Emilia!” Dean shouts but his voice is giving in, falling away, scratching the sides of his throat on the way out of his dribbling mouth. “I can’t move my legs.” He’s wincing, almost crying. He’s trying to keep his eyes trained on me but they can’t keep up. He lets out a gurgling cry and reaches for his throat, fingers grasping for it, pulling at the skin on his constricting neck. “Emilia, help me!”
“The Conium Maculatum plant,” I explain, letting my accent drop. “Looks just like fennel, if it weren’t for its glossy leaves. A small amount is enough to paralyse a healthy man. First shaking, then numbness of extremities, slowed eye movement. But you barely noticed any of that, put it all down to the alcohol. Then comes paralysis of legs, along with throat constriction. Sometimes, depending on the dosage, the poison works its way up the body causing paralysis of the lungs. Respiratory collapse. Death.”
I glance down at Dean. His mouth is moving, trying to speak. He’s even managing to produce a few spit bubbles.
“Why?” I ask, knowing that must be his question and that he’ll never be able to answer me. But I want him to try. No harm in toying with him, playing a game, like his kind did, still do, to us.
I walk over, kneel down beside him, beside his powerless body. “Because you, them, you’re not as God-like as you think you are, with your guns and rules and restrictions. Think you can make this mess, fund the war, all for your own entertainment and glory, and then swoop in to pick up the pieces, acting like heroes?” I lean down to his ear and whisper. “I know what you are.”
I reach into the neck of his shirt and pull out the dog tags.
His eyes grow wide. Maybe he needs me to elaborate, or it might be a side effect I hadn’t notice with the others.
His head’s shaking and I grab it with both my hands, my fingers tangled in his sticky, sweaty, matted blonde crop.
“Your country funded this war. But we’re the ones who lose our brothers, our fathers… ” I yank his hair and pull his face closer to mine. “Our husbands.”
He’s flopped over on his side, one stone hand grasping his throat, the other frozen in the motion of reaching for his hip, an automatic reaction to reach for a gun that isn’t there.
I grab at the denim on his furthest away knee and pull his leg up at an angle. Then I roll him towards me, so he’s on his front, face sideways, and I part his lips wide open. If he’s sick, or if his insides start to run out, he won’t choke.
I place my fingers under his wet face and tilt it up until he blinks, the movement slow and dull and agonising, and his watering eyes finally manage to look at me.
“I’ve poisoned you. Not enough to kill you today, or tomorrow, but probably the day after. That’s when I’ll come back. I’ll roll you off the edge, into the sea. By then your eyes will be in the bellies of black-headed gulls.”
I leave him, his arms and legs contracting, his bulk and muscle and power reduced to nothing.
I walk back to the Strip.
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© 2018 Rebecca Delphine
Rebecca Delphine is a Young Adult author from Thanet.