A startled (and slightly awkward) stillness gripped the unfolding scene in front of her, though Alex stayed calm and collected by offering a wave.
The man’s presence seemed stronger than at the café now among his family, and under the artificial light Rhea finally got a better look at him.
Looking closer, the resemblance between Chiron, Aella and Alex was subtle yet prominent; the main feature of all three being the bright blue eyes that matched their ocean surroundings – but Alex’s golden blonde hair contrasted significantly with the pale silver of his elders’.
Rhea touched her face self-consciously, wondering if she should have put more make up on.
“Rhea?” Alex asked, a little flash of concern showing in his tanned face.
She dared to meet the piercing azure glow in his eyes, but the prefix of her greeting was interrupted by Aella, whose voice was vaguely muffled over the rattling of a wooden spoon against the edge of the mixing bowl. “You two have met?”
“Yes!” Rhea answered, feeling like she ought to participate, “at Rebecca’s Café. Alex was looking for the gym.”
“The gym? Palms gym? Isn’t that just behind us?” she tut-tutted, turning to the fridge for the dessert ingredients. “Oh no, seems I overestimated the use-by on the eggs. Mind if it’s just salad, dear? It’s awful really, only giving you measly salad…”
“Oh no, don’t go into any trouble, Aella. It sounds lovely, really!”
* * *
Rhea placed a mouthful of crunchy vegetables onto her tongue, savouring the wintery flavours as they slipped down her throat. The supermarket salads she bought for herself were always soft and tasted of plastic, so home cooked food was a welcomed privilege.
When the dinner conversation was not focused on her, Rhea asked many questions about Alex’s life. It was intended to be simply polite, but soon she realised that they were the only ones talking.
Alex revealed that he’d left Isla Paradiso aged 18 for police training in Bridgeport, but although the placement was only supposed to be temporary, he had been offered a more permanent position on the greatly expanded force after the city riots – returning to his homeland only for bi-annual visits.
However he also noted that now the protests had been lost and the groups that organised them jailed or scattered, Alex had found himself near the bottom of the priority list for a promotion what with all the new recruits; a feeling that Rhea could certainly identify with, though she did not elaborate now Aella was sitting only centimetres to her left.
Dinner was polished off quickly, though the chatter carried on well after Chiron and Aella had collaborated to finish the washing up and subsequently left for bed, leaving Rhea and Alex still sitting at the table for a dessert that would never arrive.
“D’you want to watch TV? I’m afraid mum and dad don’t have the best channel options.”
Rhea gazed at the retro TV set she had not noticed on entering – it was the first technological device she’d seen in a while not including the computers at the library, but she was not sure if their simplicity could class as ‘technological’.
She placed herself to the right of the equally retro (well, not far off antique) sofa awkwardly while Alex fumbled around among the other cushions for the elusive remote, and after the press of the ‘on’ button and a buzz of static electricity the machine’s grey screen flickered into life to allow the conversation to restart.
With dusk turned to night and the low-hanging clouds to pale twinkling stars, the pixelated sci-fi episode became the single light source in the room though the only people there appeared more interested in their own words that that of the many actors and actresses.
“Who’s that again?” Rhea said hopelessly, staring into the depth of the plotline, but losing track again. Alex mock-jokingly sighed and rolled his blue eyes dramatically, though the amusement in them was not covered. “Goodness, Rhea; how could I ever be with a girl who doesn’t watch Solarlight?”
Rhea gave a half-hearted giggle to ease the tension, but it was clear that the forwardness of the question had taken them both by pure surprise. “I better go. Thank your mum for the tea, it was lovely.”
She exited the boat quietly with a brief wave and farewell from Alex and walked across the five metres of sand separating the two boats with a smile plastered to her lips, despite her persistent attempts to supress it.
* * *
The morning sun rose slowly over the islands and arched into the cloudless sky with nothing but the vicious waves of heat to map its path. The surrounding town remained quiet, its well-kept inhabitants neatly tucked in bed and frowning upon any tourist who dares to wake before nine; but judging by the raving noise of the Friday night parties that certainly seemed unlikely.
The comforts of Rhea’s bed basked in the light flooding in from the window opposite allowing her to remain a little longer in that blissful state between one’s sleep and consciousness, her thoughts directed on the possibilities with Alex after last night.
“Wha-?” she jumped, swinging her legs out from underneath the covers, her groggy eyes searching for the source of the sudden disturbance. Her mobile phone flashed underneath her foot.
Fancy coming down the café? Could do with some company. Kay.
Rhea smiled at the message in spite of herself and its disruption to her Saturday morning slumber. Poor Kay, she supposed hungover kids did not make for much company.
* * *
“Kay!” she called, her voice broken and trailing from the long walk up the hill from where ferry had dropped her, and walking up the steps she found the contrast between the heavy summer air and the shaded veranda quite remarkable.
“Rhea! What can I get you?” her friend asked considerately, “I’m afraid we’re out of coffee, though. Organic tea, soft drink, a snack?”
“Tap water will be fine thanks,” Rhea decided, ignoring the display of beautifully finished pastries and backing off to allow another customer to come forward. She took a seat nearest to the counter, tapping her nails on the clear glass of her cool beverage patiently while Kay served.
“So, long time no see?” he said, though the statement was more of an inquiry than anything, “I missed you all last week.”
Rhea took a sip of her drink and pondered over the events of the last week, however much it pained her. “Trouble at work,” she mused, deciding that her scuffle with the children and their principal was not something she wanted in the public domain; and luckily from the look in Kay’s eyes, he understood. “How are things with you, anyway?”
“Not too bad. The hospital finally sent the cheque for that stupid compensation that I should’ve received what, a year ago now?” his eyes darkened beneath the darker lenses of his sunglasses, “Of course her death was their fault.”
Rhea’s own eyes saddened slightly. Kay was not one to kick up a fuss, so sometimes it was easy to forget about the cancer tragedy of his late fiancée Rebecca, after whom the café was named. She’d only touched the surface of the story in conversation for Kay’s sake, but from the stories she heard around town it was quite inspirational.
“That’s good, isn’t it? Is that not what you wanted?”
“Better late than never I suppose,” he brooded, pushing his glasses up the bridge of his nose and becoming suddenly more interested the hygiene of his already sparkling countertop.
“RHEA! There you are!” came a panting voice, turning several annoyed heads under the veranda, “RHEA!”
And standing there, gasping in the heat at the bottom of the steps was none other than her boss Ms Chadwick, her pencil skirt dusted with the coarse off-shore sand and her blazer jacket carrying considerable sweat marks.
“Ms Chadwick?” Rhea asked quietly, grabbing the glass of water Kay had handed her and placing it at her boss’s lips; but rather than draining the glass the woman instead emptied it fully over her greying head.
“Thanks goodness, Aella said you might be here,” Ms Chadwick uttered once she had regained control of her breathing, “I’m afraid we have a serious problem regarding Jolene.”
“Jolene? I thought we’d settled that,” Rhea asked, bemused, realising hopelessly that she might never get away from the pains of work.
“So did I, but I assumed her mother might have more sense,” she snorted, her tone as condescending as any elementary teachers’, “She’s reported you, Rhea!”
Rhea’s olive eyes grew wide; surely the child’s accusations were just playground pranks? Surely this young girl’s ego was not that big having lived so few years? “Can you not convince her? You’re the head teacher, it’s your school!” Rhea said, trying to quell the building tears. Jolene’s family owned the monopoly on the most profitable attractions in town – including the grand resort Sparking Sands – from what she’d heard, and as far as Isla Paradiso went they were probably more rich and powerful than the mayor himself!
Ms Chadwick paused and took a deep breath, her own eyes cowardly avoiding contact with her questionable employee. “If only it were that simple, dear,” her forehead creased with worry and self-blames, “Jolene’s parents are esteemed members of our governor’s board – in fact, her father has recently been made the head; it will be very hard to contradict them with the rest of the panel on their side. Their famous business negotiations work to their favour, as it seems.”
At that moment, Rhea willed the baking ground to open up and swallow her whole.