She stood immobile at the railing staring out to sea, her flowing gown of Spanish lace waving about her, violently mimicking the white caps across the sound. Her blood-red cape flapped noisily around her and her long dark hair streamed behind, pulled unmercifully by the fierce zephyr. The ship’s progress was slow as it pushed on through the rough waters. Would it even make it to shore or would they all be dashed upon the rocks? Would they be killed instantly or thrown into the chilling water to die in numbing abyss?
Though the stormy sea made the ship toss about like a cork, she stood as sure-footed as a weathered sea captain, as resolutely unmoving as a statue and as tragic as a heroine, devoted and faithful, waiting in vain for a sign of her lover’s return, the man who would never come back to her. The sea had surely swallowed him up and refused to release him.
The hood half hid her from view. She tried in vain to keep it on her head but the constantly swirling wind blew it off time and again. The fast-approaching storm smelled of snow and made her skin of her face cold, raw and red. Unshed tears lurked within her dark, brooding eyes. Her expression, misery so eloquent on her face, spoke of the deepest longing. None of these things, however, could hide how lovely she was.
Zeth shook his head free of these fanciful notions, notions formed as he stared at the girl who stood not ten feet from him. No, it wasn’t circa1820, there was no Spanish lace in sight and the cape was just a regular, loose-fitting wool coat. It was his tendency to read people and form word pictures to describe them, but as he saw them, not as they truly were. Such was the way a writer’s mind worked and he made no apology for it. It was his profession. It was how he got his ideas for yet another story, yet another interesting character.
Sitting there he watched the girl with a book in his hand, the wrapping paper Ivy had painstakingly hand-drawn still around it and her favorite red hair ribbon she had used to wrap it conveniently served as a bookmark. He closed it over and stuffed it into a large pocket of his pea coat. He had read nine of the ten chapters of the small book and had had every intention of finishing it before landing back at port. He had promised Ivy he would, after all, and he always kept his promises to her. At least, he always tried.
This young woman at the railing, however, intrigued him, and not just because he suspected her of having a broken heart. That was the only kind of person worth observing, in his opinion, one with a broken heart, if he wanted fodder for his next tale. He suspected, and how he hoped he was wholly wrong and just letting his over-active imagination run amok, that this girl might very well be considering tossing herself over the railing and into the freezing sound once the deck cleared of all people.
That had been the only reason for him staying out on deck with her in what promised to be the bitterest nor’easter in years. He could have finished reading the book very comfortably situated inside with a cup of coffee and a bag of chips. But something told him to stay out there. He thought this might be destiny calling to him, telling him to help her out. He couldn’t refuse. Wasn’t it bad Karma to do so? Ivy had told him that and why wouldn’t he believe her? she was almost always right!
He made a mental note to check out the difference between Karma and Destiny once he got back home with a dictionary in hand, but for now he casually went to stand next to her. He grabbed the railing as she did and looked, not at her, but out to sea.
“Doesn’t it bother you?” he casually asked.
At first, not thinking he had spoken to her, she said nothing until he repeated the query.
“I’m sorry, are you talking to me?” she said after making certain there were no others about which he might be speaking to.
“Yes,” he replied still not looking at her. He thought it best not to be too direct. It might spook her. “Your hair slapping you in the face must be bothering you.”
“Uh... I guess. I forgot my hat,” she replied warily.
“I’ve got a hair ribbon you could use to tie it back,” he suggested, again his tone quite casual.
She stared at his profile suspiciously. “You often carry a hair ribbon?” she asked before she could stop herself. Much to her surprise he burst out laughing. When he turned to her and she saw his face properly for the first time her breath caught in her chest. She’d never seen anybody so wonderfully handsome, and oddly familiar.
“Any other day I wouldn’t, but today I do. Talk about destiny, huh?” he retorted with a devastating grin. He then took out the book from his pocket and pulled the bright red grosgrain ribbon from it. He handed the book to her without a word and went to stand behind her scooping her hair up as expertly as any hairdresser.
Stunned, she stood petrified with his book in her hands as she felt his fingers ever-so-gently running through her tangled locks. Any minute, she thought, he would wrap the ribbon around her neck, strangle her and toss her lifeless body overboard. If it had been just herself she had to worry about, she might not have minded so much. Just as these thoughts formed in her head she felt him tug lightly on the ponytail he had formed and tied the ribbon around it as if he’d done it a hundred times before.
“There you go. No more hair whipping into those pretty eyes,” he said giving her another dazzling smile.
She stared at him half amazed, half relieved that he wasn’t a murderer. No one that good looking could be, could they? Ah, but wasn’t there a very charming and handsome serial killer named Ted Bundy or whatever? A shiver ran through her.
“You must be so cold. Want to come inside? I’ll get us some coffee or hot cocoa,” he said solicitously.
She shook her head and breathed easy again. She now knew he couldn’t be a killer if he wanted to take her into the crowded, noisy area where every sane person currently hid from the freezing wind and the approaching tempest. She turned back to watch the white caps form as the water rose three, five, six feet into the air she reminded herself that she might have to worry about drowning rather than being strangled. It was getting rougher by the minute, but she didn’t mind. She so loved that salty, fishy smell. She would risk almost anything for it.
As if reading her mind he said, “Don’t you just love the sea, that tangy ocean smell? Of course, this dreadful Chinook I could do without.”
“Chinook?” she repeated curiously.
He smiled. “Actually, Chinook is what they call the warm breeze which melts the snow in the Rockies in early spring. Not exactly an accurate description of this blustery wind, is it?”
She shook her head mesmerized. He looked very familiar but she couldn’t place the face. And his voice was alluring and so tantalizing. It washed over her like a soothing balm. She liked the way he talked, as if he were reciting poetry.
“I love the sea,” she said dreamily.
He grinned. “Do you? Even this rough?”
“I always wanted to live by it,” she said sadly. Especially like this she liked it, angry and formidable. It made her feel small, just a speck on the globe. She thought all people should feel the power of the sea at least once in their lives, just so they could get over themselves and their self-imposed importance.
“Never got the chance?” he asked.
She shook her head, bitterly remembering how often she begged her parents to take her to the beach when she was a kid. They were always too busy and the beach supposedly too far away. It still made her want to cry, but she bit back the tears, tears that were lately too close to the surface.
“I guess I’ve been lucky. I’ve always lived within walking distance of the beach. My dog loves barking at hermit crabs and chasing seagulls. I just like walking on the sand watching the sunset. Peaceful, you know? You can think there, be part of something much bigger than yourself. I think that’s important to do,” he said, more to himself.
“Yes,” she whispered, staring at his profile in amazement. He spoke her thoughts. How was he doing it? “Do you watch the sunset in winter at all?” she asked tentatively.
“Especially in winter. I have the beach entirely to myself then, except for Frodo and the gulls,” he added with a smirk that didn’t quite reach his eyes.
She saw unmistakable sadness there all of a sudden, but didn’t dare ask about it. Only just realizing she still held his half-wrapped book she held it out to him asking, “Is it your birthday?”
He looked down at the book and wistfully smiled. “No, my niece Ivy gave it to me because... well, because she’s an awesome kid. He took the book out of her hands and pulled the wrapping paper off. Before she could read the title of the book he had flipped over the cover to a neatly printed inscription on the first page. Holding it out for her it read:
“Dear Uncle Zeth, I know you have a broken heart but you gotta forget about that ugly cow. She didn’t deserve you and she wasn’t your soul mate anyway. The perfect girl is out there. You just have to let the cosmos find her for you. I want you to be happy so read the book. I love you so much! Your ever-loving niece, Ivy.”
“Isn’t she something? I love that kid,” he whispered a tiny hitch to his voice. She looked up at him and was stunned to see tears fill his eyes. He quickly blinked them away much as she had done moments before and she dutifully pretended to see none of it
“It’s obvious she loves you, too, but she spelled your name wrong,” she said.
He grinned and shook his head. “No, my mother decided it would somehow make me unique and give me some sort of distinction to have a name starting with the letter Z. So, there you go, Zeth not Seth. Mothers can be so weird, huh?” he said torn between annoyance and resignation.
“Maybe we have the same mother,” she said looking astonished and almost fearful.
“How’s that? Your name starts with a Z, too?” he joked. When he caught the look on her face, he started, stunned, and asked. “Does it? Tell me.”
She grimaced. “Promise not to laugh?”
“Where’s the fun in that?” he asked. At the glower on her face he burst out laughing, but quickly sobered and said, “I just got it out of my system. Tell me, please.”
“Zuzu,” she muttered disgustedly. She looked at him bracing for the usual reaction, but it didn’t come. Instead the saddest look crossed his face, as if she’d told him they had banned Christmas forever. Tears filled his eyes again as he stared at her, one even slipped down his cheek.
“Zuzu....George Bailey’s little gingersnap, Zuzu Petals...,” he mumbled still staring through her. “I was going to name her Zuzu Petals.... my baby girl.”
Watching another tear fall unfettered and before being able to stop herself, she tremulously asked, “Was?”
He shook his head as if coming out of a trance and looked out to sea for several minutes before answering. “Didn’t know for sure she was a girl, just had a feeling... just a feeling…maybe a little hope,” he said quietly.
Silence stretched between them for several minutes. “She said we were too young, she didn’t want to be stuck with a kid before she got a chance to do anything with her life. I begged her not to do it. I told I would take care of the baby, all alone if I had to, but she wouldn’t listen. She killed my baby, just like swatting a fly. No remorse, no nothing. God, I hated her for it, still do,” he said growing more bitter with every word.
He felt the blood pounding in his ears. He knew he shouldn’t have said that. He hadn’t told anyone of it, after all, and this person was a complete stranger, but it burst out of him, all the pain, out of control like a dam breaking free. It actually felt good to have it out at long last.
“How could she do that?” he shouted angrily. “To kill something pure and innocent, defenseless, is beyond evil. Oh, sure, everybody thinks I’m a cretin for saying such. I want every woman barefoot and pregnant, right? Well, I don’t! I just don’t think children created in love should be thrown away like yesterday’s newspaper, like they don’t matter.”
He turned then and glared at her ready for a fight. The sight of her silently crying, however, removed all traces of his anger, and tore at his insides.
“Zuzu, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to I yell at you,” he said anxiously, taking a handkerchief out of his pocket and wiping gingerly at her face.
After several minutes of awkward silence and because he felt utterly foolish and highly embarrassed he decided to pretend he hadn’t just let out his darkest secret. “Funny how we both have names starting with the least used letter in the alphabet, don’t you think?” he said feigning casual.
“I thought Q was the least used,” she replied with a sniff.
He made a weird face then shrugged. “I think you may be right. I stand corrected. But there aren’t many names starting with Z. That’s something,” he replied lamely. “Zuzu, I’m so sorry. I didn’t want to make you more unhappy.”
She stared at him frowning slightly. Had her misery shown so clearly on her face? “You’re hardly the reason, Zeth. That honor goes to...” She paused and looked out to sea again. “It’s rather ironic. Your girlfriend--I’m assuming she’s the fat cow your niece spoke of--you hate her because she got rid of your baby and my boyfriend left me because I wouldn’t,” she said as she placed her hand on her slightly protruding abdomen.
Her billowing coat had hidden her condition from view, but now that Zeth saw it, he gaped, completely stunned. Of its own volition his hand reached forward wanting desperately to touch her. Realizing it was wholly inappropriate he pulled back and looked at her apologetically.
“It’s all right. You can touch her. My mom says all pregnant women are public domain or something stupid like that. Some say it’s good luck to touch a baby before it’s born,” she said. “Although, I don’t know if it’s good luck for the person or the baby.”
Zeth so wanted to place his hand on her belly, but still he hesitated. She rolled her eyes and took his hand placing it on her belly with her hand over his. A look of complete rapture overtook his features, but just as quickly total despair replaced it.
He smile bravely and said, “Congratulations, Zuzu. You’re going to be a great mommy.” To his surprise as much as hers he leaned forward and kissed her forehead.
She stared at him stunned, emotions swelling within her. No one, not her friends, not her family, nobody but this sweet, kind stranger had thought to congratulate her. She hadn’t realized until that very moment that those words were what she had been missing, had been longing for.
“Thank you, Zeth,” she whispered, tears threatening again.
Just then the baby jumped and Zeth let out a cry of surprise. “Holy moly! Did you feel that?” he said stupidly.
She giggled. “Of course I did, silly. She’s in me, after all. Strange, but she’s been so still and quiet all day and now it feels like she’s practicing to join the river dance troupe.”
“So, you know it’s a girl already,” he asked.
“No, it’s...” she paused to look at him. “Just a feeling.”
They stared at each other, something miraculous passing between them. They were so close now, he with his hand on her tummy and his other had somehow found its way around her waist at her back. She had her hand over his. Her body nestled comfortably against his was now warmer, shielded from the harsh wind.
Anyone looking at them would have assumed they were a family in the making. It should have felt strange and awkward, yet it didn’t. It felt nature and somehow right.
“Will you be disappointed if she turns out to be a boy?” he asked softly.
She shook her head and rubbed her belly, a sweet smile touching her lips. “Gosh, no. Boy or girl, I’m already in love.”
He grinned. “I love babies, too. I used to babysit Ivy all the time. I even changed stinky diapers,” he said proudly.
She laughed and he stared, astounded at the transformation. Her laughter changed her instantly from misery to joy and also from merely a pretty girl to a beautiful woman. His heart skipped a beat then thundered on.
“That’s so much better,” he muttered, unaware he spoke aloud.
“What is?” she asked innocently.
“You happy, smiling, laughing. I wanted to talk to you to make you happy. You looked so sad before,” he said. The baby kicked again and he gasped.
“I think she likes your voice. Every time you talk she jumps.”
“You think?” he said incredulously just as the baby kicked again making them both laugh. “Wow,” he muttered.
“Yes, I do,” she replied, rubbing her tummy.
“What must that feel like for you?” he asked awestruck as he felt the baby move again.
“Same as for you only on the inside. Sometimes it’s just like a butterfly fluttering, but other times it’s a jolt to the ribs. It’s not so good when she kicks my bladder,” she replied wrinkling her nose a bit.
The tiny, unconscious gesture made his insides quiver. He opened his mouth to speak, but just then the loud speaker announced they were approaching port.
Zeth knew his time was short. “Zuzu, which side of the sound do you live on?” he asked, almost desperate.
“I live in Queens currently, but I’m here to see about a cottage for rent. It looks really nice,” she said enthusiastically as she fished in her pocket for the directions and the real estate clipping she cut out of the paper. She handed it to Zeth who blinked several times in stunned disbelief.
“You’ll love it. It’s right by the beach and,” he smiled as he looked at her. “It’s next door to me.”
Her jaw dropped. “You’re fooling me,” she shouted.
He shook his head grinning like a fool. “Welcome to the neighborhood, Ms. Brookfield.”
“How do you know my last name?” she asked astounded.
“You told me when we spoke two days ago. Zeth Courtier at your service. I’ll be your landlord, neighbor and hopefully really good friend,” he said giving her a devastating smile.
Her heart jumped as did the baby. She now knew where she saw his face before. “You’re the novelist X. Z. Courtier, aren’t you? I saw your face on the back of It’s All In The John Hancock. My brother gave it to me for my birthday,” she said excitedly.
“That was my first book. It stinks,” he said with a shudder.
“Oh, no! I loved it and I swore I would read everything you ever wrote,” she told him vehemently.
“Thanks, I’ll give you copies of the others if you promise not to tell me how awful they are,” he said with a self-deprecating shrug.
“What does the X stand for?” she asked suddenly.
He grinned. “Xavier but that’s really my middle name. Publisher thought X. Z. Courtier would be more interesting than Zeth X. Courtier. Don’t ask me why.”
She frowned. “You shouldn’t listen to him,” she said.
He laughed. “I’ll tell her you said so,” he replied. The baby moved under his hand again filling him with an irrepressible joy. He stared into Zuzu’s dark eyes and felt something stirring within him, something powerful, more powerful than the sea, then any storm, than anything he’d ever known.
Before he could stop himself he bent down and kissed her softly, lingering there for as long as he dared. When he felt her arms fasten around his neck drawing her small, pliant body closer a fire ignited within him. This felt so right, so good, like it was meant to be.
The ferry gave a gentle jolt as it bounced into its slip at port. A few minutes later the loud speaker called everyone to shore and Zeth reluctantly released Zuzu. He leaned his forehead on hers breathing quickly hardly able to form words, his mind a blur.
“Do you believe in Destiny, Zeth?” she asked breathlessly.
He chuckled and showed her the title of Ivy’s book titled, Let Destiny Find Your Bliss.
“I definitely do now, Zuzu. Let’s go home,” he murmured, kissing her again.