“I’m fine,” Irene says.
She is fine, releasing, then reeling in, two steps forward, one step back, which is what a fish like this takes, and she doesn’t seem to be losing patience. Fifteen minutes pass, then twenty. She’s getting more aggressive with her reeling, which is what he would have advised. The fish is getting tired.
“Anyone else would have handed the reel over by now,” Huck says.
“I doubt that,” Irene says.
“I only meant to say you’re doing well,” Huck says. He can’t believe it, but he thinks of the Invisible Man, Russell Steele. You have a wife who fishes like this and you cheated on her?
Huck should cast his own line, he knows, but he’s vested in this fight and wants to see it through. Irene lets the line go and then she reels with a grunt—she’s human, after all—and just like that, Huck sees the flash of gold fins beneath the surface.
“Here we go, baby,” he says. “Don’t give up now. Bring him in.”
Irene lets out a moan that sounds like a bedroom noise, and Huck won’t lie, he gets a bit of a rise. But no time to dwell on that, thank God, because here’s the fish. Huck grabs the gaff and leans all the way over the side of the boat to spear the fucker and hook it up over the railing onto the deck of The Mississippi, where it flops around, making a tremendous ruckus. It has gorgeous green and gold scales, Huck’s favorite color in the world, and the protruding forehead of a bull fish.
“Mahi mahi,” he says. “I’d say twenty-five pounds, maybe forty inches long.”
Irene takes a sip of her beer. “Can we eat it?”
“For days,” Huck says. Without thinking, he raises his hand for a high-five and Irene slaps his palm, square and solid. He grabs her hand.
“Congratulations,” he says. “That was some skillful rod work there, Angler Cupcake.”
Irene looks at Huck and she breaks into a smile and then so does Huck, and for one second, they are two people standing in the tropical sunshine while one hell of a majestic fish flops at their feet. For one second, they forget their hearts are broken.
It doesn’t end there—no, not even close. Huck puts the bull on ice and then casts his own rod, and Irene casts again, and they both get fish on. Two more mahi. Again, they cast. Huck gets a hit right away, Irene a few minutes later. Two more mahi. Irene asks if there’s a head and Huck says, “There is down below. No paper in the bowl, please.” Irene comes up a few minutes later, pops the top off a Red Stripe, and casts a line. She gets a fish on.
It’s insane. Insanely wonderful. They have six mahi, eight, twelve. Huck brings in a barracuda, which he throws back, and Irene brings in a mahi that has been bitten clean in half.
“Shark,” Huck says. He unhooks the half fish and throws it back.
“Oh yeah?” Irene says. He thinks maybe he scared her, but she casts another line.
Fourteen, sixteen, seventeen mahi.
Thank you, LeeAnn, he thinks. For the past five years, every time he’s caught a fish, he’s thanked his wife, because he believes she’s helping from above. Silly, he knows.
They take a break and Huck offers Irene one of the Cuban sandwiches, which she accepts gratefully. He thinks maybe they’ll talk, but Irene takes her sandwich to the bow of the boat, on the side with the shade, and Huck lets her be. He does wonder what she’s thinking about. Is she contemplating the horizon, wondering what happens when we die?
He would like to explain to her how extraordinary today is. Seventeen mahi! Maybe she understands, or maybe she thinks fishing with Huck is always like this. At any rate, she returns to the stern, pulls a bottle out of the water, and casts a line.
At three thirty, he tells her it’s time to go.
“Yes,” she says. “I’m sure my sons will be wondering about me.”
Sons? he thinks. She has sons. He wants to ask how many and how old they are—but there isn’t time. He has to pick up Maia. Today has been magical, nearly supernatural, and restorative the way he’d hoped. But unfortunately, real life awaits.
Forty-five minutes later, he pulls up to the dock by the canary-yellow National Park Service building. He ties up and offers a hand to help Irene out of the boat.
“Oh wait,” he says. “I owe you some fish.”
“Don’t worry about it,” she says.
“No, no,” he says. He doesn’t have time to fillet any right now, and he can’t very well hand her a whole mahi. “I could drop some off at your villa tomorrow. Or we could meet somewhere in town?”
“You don’t have to give me any fish,” Irene says. She takes a deep breath. “I can’t believe how therapeutic today was. I managed… somehow… to step out of myself. And it’s because you let me tag along. So I’m grateful. I will forever remember today and your kindness.”
It sounds like she’s saying good-bye, and Huck rejects this for some reason. “Are you… leaving? Soon? Leaving the island? Heading home?”
“At some point, I guess,” Irene says. “I have a life at home. A job, a house, and Russ’s mother, Milly, is still alive and I’m her… contact person, her point person, the one who makes decisions for her. My sons have lives as well. We can’t stay forever. But we’re still waiting for the ashes and for a report from the authorities about what exactly happened…”
“Bird got struck by lightning,” Huck says.
“I guess they need to confirm that,” Irene says. She presses her lips together, and Huck sees her fighting tears.
“Listen, what if we met in town sometime tomorrow? We could grab a drink and I’ll bring you a bag of mahi fillets.” Tomorrow’s Monday, and it’s also the night of the Gifft School’s annual overnight field trip to the Maho Bay campground. They’ll sleep in tents and tell ghost stories. Maia had said she still wanted to go, and Huck wasn’t particularly looking forward to a night alone.
“You said you’ve never been to the villa,” Irene says. “Is that true?”
“That’s true,” Huck says. “I don’t even know where it is.”
“I don’t know where it is, either,” Irene says. “But why don’t you bring some of that fish over tomorrow evening and we can grill it. I’ll figure out the address and I’ll text you. You do text, right?”
“Of course I text,” Huck says. “I have a twelve-year-old granddaughter.”
Irene stares at him a second and then pulls out her phone. “Give me your number,” she says.
Huck watches Irene walk away. She’s not a bad-looking woman, not bad-looking at all, and, boy, can she fish. If she were anyone else—anyone else—Huck would ask her out. As it is, they have a sort-of date tomorrow night.
If she remembers to text him.
Which she probably won’t.
Why would she?
She might, though, he thinks. She just might.
Both his mother and his brother return to the house in the late afternoon. Both are sunburned, and they won’t tell him where they’ve been. Baker has been home, lying by the pool, waiting for his phone to ring with some news about… about anything. He’s called VISAR and gotten transferred three times, so he’s had to leave messages. Then he called the Peebles Hospital on Tortola, hoping they could give him some information about Russ’s ashes, but the woman he spoke to, Letitia, said she didn’t have any bodies by the name of Russell Steele.
“Really?” Baker asked. “It’s my father… he was in that helicopter crash off Virgin Gorda on New Year’s Day.”
“I was off last week for the holidays,” Letitia said. “All I can tell you, sir, is that name is not in the hospital database.”
“The contact name might have been Todd Croft,” Baker said. “Would you mind checking Croft?”
“Not a problem,” Letitia said. He heard her typing. “I’m sorry, I don’t have that name in the database, either. You might check with the Americans.”
Baker called the Hurley-Davis Funeral Home in St. Thomas and spoke to Bianca, who was even less helpful.
“I’m looking for my father’s remains. His name was Russell Steele. He was killed in the helicopter crash north of Virgin Gorda on New Year’s Day.”
“Virgin Gorda?” Bianca said. “You’ll need to call Peebles Hospital, then. On Tortola.”
Baker had hung up, confused and agitated. He tried the number his mother had for Todd Croft next, but it was out of service. Next he went to his laptop to look up the Ascension website, but the site wouldn’t load. Baker couldn’t figure out if his service here on the island was the problem or if something was wrong with the website. He googled the names Russell Steele and Todd Croft—his Google worked, so it wasn’t the service that was the issue—but none of the hits matched the men Baker was looking for. He tried Stephen Thompson next—there were probably only fifty or sixty thousand people in the world with that name—so he refined it by adding pilot and British Virgin Islands, but that was a bust. There was a Stephen Thompson, Esquire, listed in the Cayman Islands—not exactly pay dirt, but Baker had nothing else to go on, so he called the number listed on the website and that number, too, was out of service.
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