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Authors: Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

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BOOK: The Art of Floating
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CHAPTER
38

On the morning
after discovering Toad, Sia woke with a crick in her neck.

Barnacled beast
, she thought, eyeing him over her first cup of coffee.

•  •  •

After breakfast, she poked him in the arm with the end of a spoon. “Are you going to talk to me today?” she said.

Toad stared blankly out the window.

Gumper—quick to do his business outside—nudged himself between the two of them.

“Oh, relax,” Sia said, sipping her coffee. “I didn't poke him hard.”

•  •  •

A second cup softened her, and she noted that although Toad hadn't showered, overnight his face had faded to a paler pink. The puffiness, Jilly would be happy to hear, had gone down a bit. And the cuts on his hands had scabbed over.

The star-shaped pucker behind his left ear?

Same.

CHAPTER
39

“Homer was a wo
man,” M announced.

“Impossible,” Stuart said.

“Had to have been.”

“How do you figure?”

“So much passion. Romance. Lying in love. Gift giving. Covering of male parts. It reads like an Erica Jong novel.”

“What about all the killing and the turning of men into pigs?”

“Romantic tension.”

•  •  •

Every once in a while Mrs. Windwill joined M on the tree branch. She stayed close to the trunk, where she could easily hide if Sia happened to glance out the window; she figured she'd done enough damage. Sometimes she even contributed to the whiteboard:

Sigh.
Heave.

•  •  •

The Dogcatcher took a small notebook and a pen from her pocket. With the pad against her knee, she wrote. A few minutes later she held the page up to the sky.

Gumper-Man

CHAPTER
40

Overnight word a
bout Toad spread and the town swelled with curiosity. “A look of nothing? What do you mean, a look of nothing?” the townspeople asked one another as they passed on the story. In the grocery line. At yoga class. Even in the middle of an appointment at the tax attorney's office.

In less than twenty-four hours, Toad became more interesting than last year's political election that put the first publicly acknowledged lesbian into the mayoral office or the annual tug-of-war about whether the refuge beaches should be closed for plover procreation. But interest in Toad should have come as no surprise. Folks were needy and curious in summertime when the heat melted over the town. After all, they were finally warm after spending all those months numbed up from the frigid winds, so cold every last one of them lost their urge for the imagined. From December on, as Mother Nature pummeled them with nor'easter after nor'easter, burying them under piles of snow, creative thought dwindled to a thin stream until mid-January, when it became no more than a frozen trickle. By February, it was solid ice.

But come summer, as folks pulled shorts, T-shirts, and bathing suits from their drawers, they thawed out, and soon enough they were turning over rocks and moving mountains in search of any nub of story that might roll into their corner of the world so that they could grow it into something they could put their hearts and heads around.

Toad was the nub they'd been waiting for.

•  •  •

In Starbucks, folks shared the story over mocha skim lattes and dried-out gingerbread. By the time Ted Saunders rolled in for his daily tall black house, Ed the hardware guy was howling with laughter at the idea of Sia Dane finding Toad naked on the beach gripping a large satchel of money.

“A naked guy with money,” he said over and over, trying to find a place for the image in his round, shiny head. “A silent, naked guy with money? Only Odyssia Dane could happen onto that one.”

And though Jillian swore she had nothing to do with the growing of this particular naked-guy-with-money rumor, fifteen minutes later, Ed had to redraw the image in his head one more time to include Toad with a twelve-inch tail.

•  •  •

In the yoga studio not far from Starbucks, Mrs. Houghton—who was sinking for the very first time into cow face pose without worrying the least bit how she would climb out of it—told Philippa James that Toad had a mysterious mark in the center of his chest.

“Not a tattoo,” she insisted, laughing as she discovered a great amount of painful joy in the opening of her hips. “A branding.”

“A branding?” Mrs. James whispered. “What does it look like? Is it the mark of the devil or the mark of an angel?” She was older than Mrs. Houghton by a good twenty-five years and unable, because of her hips, to do much more in yoga class than swing her arms and, on a good day, complete a few almost-deep knee bends. But while she pendulumed her wrinkly, freckled limbs back and forth, her mind ticked away at a phenomenal pace. Unlike most of the women in the class who were trying to let go of thought and worry, she was hoarding as much of both as she could for later in the day when she was alone and lonely in her seven-bedroom Federal on High Street. Unfortunately, Mrs. Houghton needed all the strength and breath she could muster to hold cow face pose, so Mrs. James gleaned no more information about the strange mark on Toad's chest. The rest she had to make up for herself.

•  •  •

“Did Mrs. Windwill see this guy appear on the beach?”

“Nope.”

“She didn't see anything?”

“Nothing.”

“Not even Sia walking down the beach with Gumper?”

“Uh-uh.”

“Oh, shit.”

“No kidding.”

“What the heck was she doing?”

“I heard she took a sleeping pill the night before and slept through the whole thing.”

“A sleeping pill?”

“Yep.”

“Seriously?”

“Mm-hmm.”

“Wow.”

“That's what I said.”

“So first Jackson, now the man on the beach?”

“Mm-hmm.”

•  •  •

Toad's story spread so vigorously that Richard arrived at Sia's house to retrieve the strange, silent man much earlier than Sia expected. Over coffee, he relayed these stories to Sia, along with the fact that he'd been flagged down four times by curious townsfolk, including Joe and Mimi Laslow, on the rather short drive from the police station to Sia's house.

“You know, Odyssia, they're just getting started,” he warned. “And to be honest, they're swallowing Toad the same way the whale swallowed Jonah. Whole. Unfortunately, there's not much else going on right now to take their attention, so don't get your hopes up that they'll spew him out and let him swim away any time soon.”

Sia nodded.

Richard sipped his coffee. “Well, him . . . and you.”

“Me?”

“Of course you,” Richard said, “and if I'm completely honest, it's you, Toad, and Jackson.”

Sia bowed her head.

“You can't tell me you didn't suspect that was coming. You know this town as well as I do.”

“I was just hoping it might be different this time. Thought maybe they'd leave me out of it.”

“No luck, Odyssia. I wish I could tell you different.”

She nodded.

“Anyway,” Richard continued, “Toad fever is even happening at the station. Look.” He pulled back the curtain and pointed.

Sia looked. A young, fresh-faced policeman was stretching his neck out of the passenger window trying, quite obviously, to snag his first glimpse of the mysterious silent man.

“Who's he?”

“New kid. He heard about Toad last night while he was washing his uniforms at the Wash Tub. When I got in this morning, he was panting at the door, begging me to bring him along.”

“So you did?”

“We can't very well keep Toad hidden much longer.”

“No, but we don't need to advertise him either.” Sia was edgy.

Richard nodded. “Do you think he's ready to go?”

“I guess so,” Sia said. “Who's to know?”

“He hasn't said anything?”

“Hasn't made a sound.”

“Did he eat this morning?”

“Yeah, he's still ravenous. An hour ago he cleaned a plate of four eggs, two muffins, a slab of bacon, and some cold leftover potatoes. When he finished, I fixed him a second plate and he cleaned that, too. It's like he hasn't eaten for weeks.”

“Hollow leg, huh?”

“Hollow body,” she said. She stood and walked to the kitchen. “He's in here.”

Toad was sitting in the kitchen in the chair by the window where she'd left him. Gumper sat in front of him, leaning on his legs and probably squashing his feet. Toad didn't look up when Richard came in, just continued to sit perfectly still with that empty look on his face. His suit was rumpled and chalky, and his hair, thick with salt, poked out at all angles.

“No shower?”

“I offered it to him. He chose not to, I guess. I didn't want to push. Or participate.”

“We'll clean him up at the station.”

“Are you ready, Toad?” Sia asked.

Before anyone could get him moving, Jillian threw open the door and pranced in. “Who's the rookie?” she said, throwing a hand back toward the car outside.

“You're early,” Sia said.

Jillian grinned. “After I heard the commotion at Starbucks, I figured Richard would get here sooner than he'd planned. I didn't want to miss him.” She grabbed Richard's hand and pulled him into a chair. Then she plopped down across from him. “Isn't this the craziest thing?” she said.

He laughed and stared at Jilly's tiny hand in his big paw. His eyes were all wet and soppy; his face mushy.
Oh, for God's sake
, Sia thought,
how much more obvious can a guy be?

“It's definitely a bit out of the ordinary,” he said. “Good morning, Jillian.”

“Oh, come on, out of the ordinary? It's crazy. Usually when a person turns up out of the blue, it's pretty clear someone's been looking for them, right? There are missing-person reports. Newspaper articles. Spots on the evening news. Right? Aren't I right?”

Richard cleared his throat. “Yes, often, but sometimes it takes a few days to figure things out.”

Jillian slipped her hand out of his, leaned back in her chair, and smiled. “And do you, Officer Richard, think we are going to figure things out?” She was talking fast now, hands flying in the air.

“Actually, I do, Jillian. I think we'll find the answers we're looking for.”

“Really? Really?” She gestured to Toad. “I mean, because this is much more than your normal everyday missing-person situation. It's much more than that, simply because”—she turned to Sia—“Sia found him.”

Richard looked at Sia.

Sia looked at Jilly.

“And,” Jilly continued, oblivious to the threat, “I know no one wants to say it. We're all doing our best to avoid the obvious around here. But someone has to, don't they? We can only dance around the hot-pink elephant in the room for so long.”

Sia and Richard looked at each other. Both knew what was coming.

“Like it or not,” she said, “this feels a lot like what happened with Jackson. Except in the opposite. You know what I mean. Sia loses someone. Sia finds someone. How is that possible?”

If Sia had dared to speak, move, or even breathe in that moment, she would have shot straight up through the skylight and floated off into the galaxy. Never to return. Instead she gripped the arms of the chair, stared at the floor, and prayed for the feeling to pass.

Jilly stood up and bounced in place, waiting for someone to respond. When she couldn't stand it any longer, she looked at Sia. “What if this turns out to be as great a mystery as Jackson's disappearance? What are the chances of someone losing and finding someone in such magnificent ways in one lifetime?”

Sia shook her head. “Enough, Jilly. Clearly you've had too much coffee this morning.” Then she walked out of the room.

“Jillian?” Richard said.

“Someone had to say it, Richard.”

“Maybe not quite like that,” he said, then followed Sia. “Sorry about that.”

Sia shrugged him off. “It's okay. No need to apologize for Jillian. She'll stumble over herself enough doing that in an hour or so after all the hoopla has died down and her caffeine buzz has worn off.”

“Let's move on, then. Everything go okay last night?”

“Yes, fine.”

“I had a car drive by several times, just in case.”

“I noticed,” Sia said. “But despite how exhausted he was, Toad didn't sleep. He didn't change out of that suit or get into bed.”

“Really?”

“Nope. I got up this morning and everything in the guest room was as I left it. I half expected him to be gone when I came downstairs, but there he was, sitting in that chair.”

“Okay. Let's get him out of here and to the station. Maybe we can figure out who he is today.”

•  •  •

A few moments later, Sia caught Richard watching Jilly, who was admiring Toad. “She only likes to look, you know,” she said.

Richard smiled. “Oh, come on, Sia. We both know that's not true.”

“Okay, so she likes to play, but only because she hasn't settled on the right guy.”

“She's so . . .” Richard paused.

Good gracious
, Sia thought,
the man is actually breathy
. “So what, Richard?”

“Beautiful, crazy, loud, funny, fearless . . .”

“Ask her out.”

“We already went out. It didn't work.”

“Try again.”

•  •  •

By the time Sia and Richard returned to the kitchen, Jillian was repentant and Toad had fallen asleep. He was stretched out long and lean, and his bare feet stuck out awkwardly from his pant legs.

“He's a little stronger today,” Sia said. “Not quite as wobbly. Even though he didn't sleep, I think the rest helped him. All the food, too.”

“That's good,” Richard said. “He's probably in better shape for what will go on at the station than he would have been yesterday.”

Sia nodded. Jillian sat in the corner sipping a glass of water and keeping her mouth shut.

“Did you notice anything else last night?” Richard asked.

“His hands are really beaten up. Cuts and bruises. And he's got a nasty slice on his cheek and a fresh wound behind his left ear.”

As Richard leaned closer to take a look, Toad opened his eyes. He woke calmly and quietly, seemingly unperturbed at the fact that he was in a stranger's house or that some man in a uniform was leaning over him.

When Sia touched his elbow, he rose and followed, but when they stopped at the door, she became acutely aware of his bare feet and panicked about their nakedness. A part of her wanted to offer an old pair of Jackson's sneakers or sandals, but shoes were much more intimate than new pajamas or a freshly made bed. The shape of a man's feet was unique, and each corn or callus told a story about the man's journey. She was nowhere near allowing Toad or any other man to slip into a pair of Jackson's shoes. “His feet . . .” she said.

Richard smiled. “Don't worry, Odyssia. We'll find him a pair at the station.”

Sia nodded. She wondered if Toad knew what was happening right then, if he knew he was being passed from one person to another and that he would probably never return to this little house on the beach.

“Richard,” she said, “you'll take good care of him, won't you?”

“Of course.”

“And you'll let me know what's going on?”

“I will. Relax. I'll call you later today when we have a better idea what's happening here.”

“Thanks. I don't want anything bad to happen to him.”

BOOK: The Art of Floating
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