An excerpt from

Island Life Sentence

Carrie Jo Howe

Prologue

“Sunshine state... my soggy ass.”

It was dark. The power and the AC had gone out hours ago. Peg hugged her dog under the makeshift bed-tent, clutching him into her sweaty pajama’d breasts. An engraved locket pinned to Nipper’s blue life vest dangled under his pirate dog collar. Hurricane rain pummeled the bedroom window--the violent wind shook the glass panes. Peg wondered about the moaning sound until she realized it was coming from her own throat.

“AHHH.” She shrieked at the sudden crash on the metal roof. Several days of binge drinking without proper oral hygiene, or any hygiene for that matter, produced noxious vapors in the tent. Nipper’s nostrils flared as he took in the odors and licked her flourescent orange, cheesy, tear-stained fingers.

The teepee bedspread crushed Peg’s hair into a Bozo coif. Sitting on her knees, she released her grip on Nipper and reached over her head to hold up the blanket with the end of the flashlight. The beam of light cut through the darkness jumping across the sparkling jewelry strewn in a heap on the crumpled, food-stained sheets. With her other hand, Peg lifted one long gold necklace from the tangled jewels. She sniffled as she placed the shiny strand over the dog’s neck. Nipper yawned anxiously.

 She under-armed the flashlight and squeezed the dog tightly. More sounds of destruction emanated from the other room, re-activating her gooseflesh. The booze and chips from yesterday made their way back up her digestive track. Nipper cowered, squinting his eyes, ears flat to his head.

Do not throw up. Get a grip.

Snuggling him close she yelled over the din. “Oh my friend, you’ll be okay.” The dog’s loving brown eyes made her heart constrict. She tightened the straps of his lifejacket.

“I’ll see you in the afterlife.” She kissed his forehead.

Hesitating a moment, “Ummm... actually, I don’t want to worry you, but I’ll more than likely be in Hell... since I’m personally responsible for the hurricane... and you know... Sister Gabriel and the Catholic Church are not going to go easy on that.”

 Nipper blinked.

A thunderous WHAM shook the wall--a barrage of debris pummeled the house mercilessly. Gasping, Peg wet her lips with her dry tongue.

“I mean... honestly, how different can it be from here?” 

 

FIVE MONTHS EARLIER

 

Garage Arbitrage

“Thanks for helping me with the garage sale,” Peg said to Trudy as they walked up the driveway. Trudy’s feet made sucky sounds in her knee high length purple polka-dot rubber boots. Her hair stuck out of a golf visor with the well-known tree on a craggy cliff logo from Pebble Beach.

“When did you go to California?” Peg pointed at Trudy’s visor.

“Never been. This’s my lucky garage sale visor.” Trudy took off her round glasses and cleaned them on her sweatshirt that said Don’t Trust Atoms, They Make Up Everything.

“Sweatshirt too?” Peg grinned.

“Yup. It doubles as a dress if I need to fancy up.” Trudy un-scrunched the sweatshirt from around her mid-section. It draped to touch the top of her boots.

“That IS fancy.” Peg linked her friend’s arm. She paused. “We still don’t know where we’re moving yet.”

“Humph, I still don’t see why he’s so keen on selling your house and leaving the neighborhood.” Trudy unlinked her arm and shoved her hands in her gargantuan sweatshirt pockets.

Peg huddled in closer. “Yeah...Clark and I’ve lived in the house for a long time...” she looked away from Trudy and took a deep breath.  “But,” Peg added with fake enthusiasm, “that means that there’s A LOT of crap to sell.”

“Too bad you can’t sell Clark,” Trudy mumbled. Surveying the treasures piled up on the card tables she quickly cheered, “Oooooo, you know I can’t be mad during a garage sale, my Achilles heel.” Trudy did a game-show-host arm sweep, displaying the bounty to the universe.   “Last year, I got a video camera for twenty-five cents at an estate sale. I had to haggle with the widow. Tough old bird.”

“You haggled with a woman...for her dead husband’s video camera...for a quarter?” Peg’s eyes grew wide.

“Yes. But it didn’t come with a charger cord. That’s proved to be a problem.”

“I hope the weather holds.” Peg scanned the drab, wet skies and shivered in her down coat.

“A little freezing, slushy rain won’t hold back the die-hard yard-salers.” No sooner had the prophecy been spoken than the junk junkies started to circle the cul-de-sac.

Car idling, the first customer hustled out of her car up to the tables. The yard-saler did a quick scan then jumped back into her car and peeled wheels out of the neighborhood.

Peg mouthed to Trudy, “What the heck?”

Trudy whispered to Peg as other shoppers milled around, “That lady was looking for something in particular. No need to park.” Trudy grabbed her phone and clicked on the icon showing a large metal garbage can with a talking lid. “Probably has the app Yardwaste that shows all of the garage sales in the county today.” She scrolled through her phone. “Look here we are, fourth on the list. Man, that broad got up early.”

Peg noticed that a customer had two kitchen towels in her hand. The top towel was embroidered with a Christmas tree and the saying I love you this and every other Christmas. Peg remembered when Clark had given her that towel. He wrapped it around a bottle of wine and placed it in a basket with two green crystal wine glasses. The snowstorm had prohibited the usual family and friend festivities. The room was cozy, Christmas music played, the tree lights twinkled and—

The towel...I LOVE THAT TOWEL.

Overcome with emotion, Peg lurched over the table and grabbed the towel from the unsuspecting shopper’s hand.

Sensing a problem, Trudy hustled over to diffuse the situation. Waving three other colorful towels in the customer’s direction, she blurted, “These towels are a better deal—three for the price of one.”

The woman initially resisted, until she saw Peg wipe her eyes and blow her nose on the Christmas towel. Making a face, the shopper snatched the three-pack from Trudy and tossed the towels in her plastic grocery bag.

Meanwhile, Peg scanned the garage. 

In the corner, a grandmotherly-looking woman inspected a pair of wine goblets. She held them up to the lamp light and green reflections of cut glass discoed across the ceiling.

The glasses...I LOVE THOSE GREEN WINE GLASSES. CLARK SAID THEY MATCH MY EYES.

Satisfied with their condition, the grandmother delicately placed the crystal glasses in a silver and gold basket.

The basket...I LOVE THAT BASKET.

It was too much. Peg made her move, but not fast enough. The elderly customer saw Peg coming.

Assuming a sumo wrestler stance, Grandma was ready for a match.

Peg bobbed.

Grams weaved.

Peg lunged.

Grams lurched.

“What are you doing?” Trudy grabbed Peg from behind, her hands hooked around Peg’s waist.

“I can’t let these go.” Peg had a grip of one side of the basket handle. The resolute Grams matched her grip on the other side.

The tug of war continued. Peg’s neck veins bulged. “This is my life here on display. For cents on the dollar.”

“This was YOUR idea!” Trudy said through clenched jaw.

“I CAN’T DO IT,” Peg wailed as the basket handle snapped in half.

The two glasses twirled into the air. Peg caught the stem of one glass at the same moment the other one shattered on the ground. Peg fell backward on top of Trudy.

Other than a slight two-step and grimace, the old lady was unmoved both physically and emotionally. She shook her head in disgust, mouthing curse words as she walked down the driveway. Other shoppers in the garage quickly put back their possible purchases and followed suit.

The two friends untangled their limbs on the cold cement floor. Tears flowed from Peg’s face as she cradled the goblet in the towel.

Trudy brushed the green glass shards from her butt. “This is going to be a very long day.”

 

Drunk Deal

Peg and Clark Savage snuggled next to each other on the couch, the 80s music of their youth blasted from the stereo. Happy hour rolled through dinner hour, then seamlessly transitioned into late night cocktails. Flames from the fireplace reflected serpent tongue shapes against the empty wine bottles lined up on the hearth.

“Oh Clark, I love them. They’re gorgeous.” Peg removed the emerald heart earrings from the box and kissed her husband.

“For the smartest and most beautiful woman in the whole...wide...let me see...neighborhood.”  Clark laughed. His smooth hands effortlessly slipped the delicate earrings through her earlobes. The green stones contrasted with her pale white skin.

Peg giggled, “Gee... you really think I’m the most beautiful woman in the entire neighborhood? Even Brabra...Barbara? She has new boobs.”

“You are more ravishing now than when I met you. You know I’m a sucker for a redhead.” Clark kissed the freckles on her nose. He was a smooth talker all right. 

Hoping that the praise was for him, Nipper-the-Dog looked up expectantly.  Realizing it was a false alarm, the copper-colored bird-dog flapped his ears and re-curled in front of the fire.

“I color my hair you know.” Peg waved her hand in a circular motion around the top of her curly ginger locks.

Clark smiled as he reached for her stockinged feet. “Wouldn’t it be great to have an amazing adventure now that the business is sold? We’ve done our job. The house is on the market. Once it sells, the world is our oyster. We can live anywhere.” He massaged her arches. Peg melted.

“I thought that our anywhere was downtown Chicago in a highrise.” She tipped her head back and sighed. “You know—restaurants, bars, opera, symphony...Cubs games...they could win it this year you know.”

“Spoken like a true Cub’s fan.” He stopped rubbing her feet and said in a business-like tone, “Yes—downtown Chicago would have been great if we had to stay in Illinois. But that has changed.  Illinois is bankrupt. Property taxes are going up. I can’t take this weather anymore.”

He softened and took her palm tracing the pink lines with his index finger. “Think of the fun stuff we could do in Key West.”

“Oh Clark, not the Key West idea again...” Peg looked at him pleadingly.

“Listen to me for a minute.” He very deliberately put his wine glass on the coffee table, took her by the shoulders and gazed directly into her pale green eyes. “There’s music, and warm water, and palm trees—think of it, our nights would be margaritas and long walks on the beach. We could get a boat.” 

A boat?

Peg felt seasick at the thought of it.

Clark got up to refill her green wine goblet. On his return to the couch, he took out a Key West brochure from inside his briefcase. The Italian red sloshed onto the glossy paper, making the tourists in the photo look like murder victims.

“You’re serious. Move to Key West.” Peg surreptitiously rubbed her chin hoping not to find that one wild hair that refused to be tamed. “I don’t know anyone in Key West. We’ve lived in this house for twenty years. I have my friends and community. I’ve never lived in a different state.” She had to admit, it did sound dreamy—just the two of them—alone on a tropical island—so romantic. But then again, she was drunk.

“You can meet new friends. Change is good. Your old friends can come and visit you.” Clark was in full sales mode now—face flushed, muscles bulging, hair all tousled. Peg struggled not to succumb to his powers.

“It’s so far away.” Peg pointed at the picture at the brochure. “On the map it doesn’t look like there’s land...just water...blue everywhere.”

Clark was preparing his rebuttal when she blurted, “And...I’m afraid of driving on long bridges...no way...can’t breathe.”

“What? Since when?”

“9/11.”

“Oh, because there were so many bridge deaths on 9/11?” He noticed her backing away and brought her back to him gently. “You should be afraid of living in a highrise in the city, not bridges connecting us to Paradise.” He nibbled the emerald earrings on her earlobes. “Mmm, I do have good taste.”

Peg resisted, annoyed that he was making sense and kissing her at the same time. “It’s irrational, I know. I read about it. Stems from a fear of being trapped.”

“The airport has jets that fly in and out all day. You’re just a plane ride away.”

Clark crooned seductively into her ear.

“How about that hurricane problem. What happens in that case? How do Nipper and I get out of there?” Peg took a big gulp from her glass.

Nipper opened his eyes when he heard his name. Since there was no possibility of food, ball, or squirrel—he returned to his slumber.

“I’ll be there. I’ll take care of you. There’s always plenty of warning before a hurricane. Key West hasn’t been hit by a hurricane since Wilma in 2005. Even then, no one died.”

Peg’s eyebrows raised at the word died.

“I’ll be able to get you and the dog to safety.” Clark scooped up her legs and swiveled her torso until she was sitting in his lap.

Uh Oh. He really wants this. He is so irresistible. He smells like soap and campfire.

She had a vague sense of déjà vu. It had been a night like this when Clark wanted to liquidate all of their assets to buy a small Internet company, another similar evening when Clark wanted Peg to work as Chief Financial Officer, and another yet when he brought home a puppy—the best inebriated agreement by far. 

 “Let’s just go and take a look at properties. We don’t have to buy anything if we don’t really love it. You can run the numbers. Do the math. See if it makes sense financially. We’ll just keep an open mind.” Clark pressed his mouth to her wrist, moving slowly up her forearm toward the inner elbow. “Such beautiful soft skin.”

 That whispery, sexy voice...

Peg cursed the butterflies that flitted their way through her bloodstream. She swilled the last of the liquid courage. “You know I can’t resist spreadsheets.” She smiled and Eskimo kissed his nose. “Oh...okay...fine.”

“That’s my girl.” In one swift move, Clark dumped her body off his. He grabbed a wet paper towel from the table and a pen from his computer case. “Let’s sign this agreement on this official document. I, Peg, and I, Clark, agree to have an open mind while looking for properties in Key West.” He grinned drunkenly as he signed the paper and then watched her smudge her signature next to his.

The room spun. The couple embraced. The dog continued sleeping.