Mud Season

Chapter 1


Readers, I have a request. You've found this story.  If you wish to discuss it with others, please do it in private and not on public message boards.

There is a reason for this, and it has only to do with self preservation on my part. There are many who don't like what I have to say, and they would deny me and the sites that host my stories the right to say anything at all.

These people won't make any effort to find my postings; they rely on Internet chatter to know when I'm active. When they learn that I am, they make it their mission to bring grief to me on a 7/24 basis.

I appreciate your cooperation, and thank you kindly for respecting my privacy.



I woke up on the announcement that the plane was about to land, but I think the landing was already well underway.  I had to yawn large a couple of times to equalize the pressure in my ears.


I don’t usually sleep on planes, and wasn’t really sure why the relatively short flight to Florida had put me out.  I wasn’t tired, so probably just bored.  The quickest flight was on Southwest.  Southwest is a model of efficiency, but the flight crews prefer to amuse flyers rather than feed or coddle them.  My middle seat didn’t help, but that was my fault.  On a two-hour flight nothing mattered much, but I was still glad when the door opened and I could get off.


Orlando: the land of fantasy.  I’d been several times, but it wasn’t my destination that morning.  No, I was heading to Cocoa Beach to see my family; to be there to visit with my dad while he convalesced.


After my checked bag came around the carousel, I walked out of the luggage area and looked for a sign with my name on it.  There was only one person with a sign, and it was my name indeed printed on it, so I smiled and headed toward her.  A female driver: a new first!


“I’m Paul Dunn,” I announced when I was in front of her.


She smiled, “I’m Lauren.  This way.  Let me take your bag.”


“I can carry it,” I said.


I followed her out to the curb where she told me to wait.  In a few minutes she came back driving a minivan.  The side door started opening before she got out, and there was a man sitting there in the second seat.


“Paul?” he asked, and looked at something in his hands.  Then he got out of the car and introduced himself by holding out his picture badge.  “My name’s Ron and I’ll see you to your father.  Lauren is driving, okay?”


I knew there would be security.  I didn’t like the idea.  I didn’t really like any part of it, and I’m sure these people were being low-key because my father insisted on it.  Still, I knew I hadn’t been left alone on the sidewalk, even for the few minutes it took Lauren to get the van, and before I could complete the thought another guy appeared beside me, his badge in hand so I could see.  .


I saw his first name was Hector before he let his badge retract on a lanyard.  He was a big guy when I looked: most likely a Mexican who’d taken up Sumo wrestling.  His neck looked as big as my waist, and he said, “We will show you ID every time we meet, okay?  If we don’t, you yell.  We will always have the ID out.  Got that?”


I nodded quickly, more out of fear from his size than understanding.  I mean, what would I do if this guy even gave me a cross look?


He asked, “You want the front or the back?”


I looked, and there was a third-row seat that looked good, so I said, “Back, if it’s okay with you.”


For all his size and professionalism, the man had a friendly smile.  “It’s all about what you want, Paul.  The back is good, though.  It’s an hour to Cocoa.  We have some food and drinks, so all we’ll stop for is tolls.”


I started to lift my bags off the sidewalk, and he said, “I’ll take these.  Get in.”


I suddenly worried.  Like, what if these people aren’t who they say?  I pulled my cell out and called my father, knowing that he wouldn’t answer because he couldn’t.  Elenora picked up, a smile in her voice.  “Paul!  You’re here?”


“It’s me,” I said.  “I’m at the airport.  Am I supposed to get in this car just because these people have a sign with my name on it?”


I thought about what I’d just asked and added, “Am I supposed to be this paranoid?  Am I me?”


Her voice came back softly, “Paul, we chose those people because we thought you’d like them.  If you have Lauren, Ron and Hector, they’re real.”


“That’s them,” I said quietly.  “Sorry.”


“Nobody likes this, Paul.”


God, I knew that.  I hated that my dad’s money made us targets, but I knew it did, and I was lucky enough that Dad was still alive after he was kidnapped.  I had the idea in my head that it was my fault, and it really was.


* * * * * * * *


There is a lot of story behind it, but when my father and mother divorced, all I wanted in this world was a sense of normal.  To find that normalcy, my Dad moved us to an old house in Brattleboro, Vermont.  It’s a nice house, and pretty much middle-of-the-road for the town: nice, but not anything extravagant.  I know that Dad loves it there as much as me.  Parts of the structure are a bit crooked, and the floors and stairs creak, but it’s warm in winter, cool in summer, and a great place to live.  It’s a simple house by design, not one to show off or brag about.


People knew my father, and some of them knew of his money.  We didn’t show it off where we lived, and for a long we were just a divorced father and his son.  I’m sure nobody thought we were poor by any means, but my father isn’t well known outside of certain circles, and in Brattleboro we were just people


I could be normal with my friends because money wasn’t a subject, at least not beyond what you had in your pocket at any point in time.  Family money wasn’t discussed.  People knew we weren’t poor, but I don’t think we were perceived as being particularly rich, either.  It was perfect for two years.


Now my father had been damaged because of that money, and I was still pissed off.


I was in Florida to see him.  He had wisely chosen a little beach town for his recuperation, instead of staying for mud season in Vermont.  He’d asked me to come with him from the start, and any other time I would have.


I was busy learning to be my own person, though, and decided to stay in Vermont until all the commitments I’d made to others had been satisfied.  My mother and her partner, Ally, looked after me, and a rotating team of security people watched over all of us, being as discreet as they could in a small town like Brattleboro.  In a bigger town, security would have been far easier to hide, so the Brattleboro house had a lot of electronics installed, inside and out, and our neighbors got the free versions – paid for by us.  There are two other families in what we had begun calling ‘the compound’.  Those are the Timeks, whose house is about two hundred feet north of ours, and set back more from the road, and the Luellens, whose house is fairly new, and literally hangs off the steep hill behind us.  The Luellen’s driveway runs between our house and the Timek’s, and it’s called unimproved, which means you need all-wheel-drive and good clearance to get there by car.


All the properties are on a hill, divided by a road, and the hill across the street continues down to the river.  The only structure across the road is an old, brick utility building with one door and no windows.


The people who my father hired to provide protection were obvious sometimes at first, but not so much anymore.  Other than a question at bedtime, to ask if the family was expecting anyone and a comment in the morning that things were clear, there was little contact with us in the house.  They’d call to ask us about cars turning into our driveway, but they never asked a second time about the same car.


It was low-key, and I still rode the bus to school, still hung out with my friends, and still spent every possible moment with Lisa Mongillo.  The school had its own security, and if they paid any special attention to me they sure didn’t show it.


The dance to honor Jamie Jenks had been fast approaching, and I spent a whole lot of time helping with last-minute things.  Ally went to work in Boston at least three days a week, and sometimes all week.  My mother wouldn’t leave me alone, so whenever Ally came back I made a special effort to stay out of sight.


I couldn’t leave before the dance, but Dana and Elenora had no such limitations.  They were in Florida with my dad, and Dana had a couple of tutors to keep him up to snuff with his class at school.  We all talked every day, and if one thing was clear, it was that Dana loved the ocean.  Except at first.


I had coached Dana on beach safety, the dangers of the sun and rip currents; I’d told him about sharks and stingrays, and warned him to stay clear of surfers.  What I’d neglected to mention is the sheer slamming power of a waist-high breaker, and Dana had taken the first big wave of his life right in the nuts.


His displeasure with that event stayed with him for a long time, and I heard about it in triplicate every day for a week after it happened.


Since then, he’d learned to either approach the surf sideways, or to just dive in.


Dana wasn’t a strong swimmer because he never really had a place to swim.  There are rivers around Stockton, but no real lakes or ponds, and certainly not an ocean.  His whole life, he’s been limited to splashing around in deep holes in the Tweed and Mad Rivers, and an occasional late-night dip in a hotel pool up by the ski area.  By the time the weather and water are comfortable for swimming, the deep holes aren’t very deep anymore, so he’d never really swum for any reason other than to get wet and cool off.


Dana was a prime candidate to drown when he arrived in Cocoa Beach, so Dad hired a lifeguard to coach him in the resort’s pool, and made sure that at least one of the security people on duty at all times, would be trained in water rescue.


It never came to that.  They’d been there for a month, and Dana had taken to the water like an otter. By the time I showed up, he was doing a few laps in the pool before bed just to relax, and more in the morning to wake up.  He was looking forward to learning how to surf, and waited for me to come and take lessons with him.


* * * * * * * *


On the way in the van, I was getting a long-winded, somewhat funny, lecture on basic security from Hector, whose intelligence was a bit masked by his sheer size.  He seemed built to intimidate, not educate, but he had a way with words that made his lecture easy to palate.


He didn’t try to scare me, but rather to suggest that I should always, always pay attention to the people around me: close enough attention that I would be able to describe those people, at least in basic matters, such as sex, size, coloring, hair, approximate age, and clothes.  He also wanted me to pay attention to peoples’ behaviors, and to move away quickly from anything or any person who made me even remotely uncomfortable.  I shouldn’t run and hide, just move away.  Then he ruined it by saying, if I do that, and someone follows me, others would intervene.


I folded my arms across my chest and sat back, not ready to listen anymore.  I didn’t want to be watched like I was some freaking Ebola outbreak.  I was there for fun in the sun, and to be with my father.  Period.


Hector smiled.  “Don’t worry, it won’t be so bad.”  His smile turned into a little boy’s grin.  “We won’t follow you into the bathroom or your bedroom.  If you meet someone, go ahead and talk, play, whatever.  Just do this one thing.  If someone seems interested in you, ask yourself why.  That’s all.  If it’s a little girl your age, you already have your answer.  If it’s someone older, someone you don’t know, then park a question in your mind, and start remembering what takes place.”  He smiled, “And like I said, if something makes you feel uncomfortable or uneasy, just walk.”  His smile brightened, “This is Earth, the United States.  You don’t have to explain yourself to strangers.  There’s no law!”


I liked the guy, and smiled.  “If that stranger has a badge, then there’s a law.”


Hector said, “Well, yeah.  There’s that.”  He looked at me a bit more closely.  “Don’t take a badge at face-value, Paul.  I could make a call right now, and have you a genuine Cocoa-Beach Police badge waiting when we get there.  Ask for their official ID and something else, like their driver’s license or even a library card.  Any cop anywhere will prove who they are if you ask.”


I sat back less belligerently, and pondered what I’d heard.  It made sense, all of it, but I still didn’t like the idea of having people looking at me, watching what I do and who I associate with.


Still, since Dad’s kidnapping, I had read up on the Internet about kidnapping for ransom.  It’s actually common in Latin America, less common but still prevalent in Europe, and extremely rare in the US and Canada.


Even so, a kidnapping for money here is exponentially more likely to end up with a dead victim than anywhere else.  In Latin America, ransoms are routinely paid, and victims are routinely released.  In Europe, kidnappers have offered up body parts as evidence of an actual kidnapping, and the victims’ families sometimes ended up with a package containing a child’s ear, or nose, or a fingertip arriving in the mail.  Few victims are murdered, but disfigurement is not uncommon.


In the US, though, most victims of kidnap for ransom are killed during the kidnapping, dead before they get to the driveway.  The penalty for kidnapping is the same as any capital crime, and there’s no benefit to the kidnappers for keeping the victims alive.  If they get caught with a dead victim, they’re not in one bit more trouble than if they’d kept said victim alive and healthy.  There’s no point in it, no point at all, only added risk.


The people who took my father didn’t know the rules.  They were petty criminals: drug users who saw an opportunity for a big score, and almost succeeded.  Half smart.  The snatch was perfect.  Wait on a busy street until Dad was alone on the sidewalk, bored while Elenora looked in a shop.  The guys who took him left their van there in the street, side door open.  Then they edged up to my father, one on each side, made a little friendly conversation, and quietly pushed him into their van, then took off.  Dad was literally taken by surprise.


The guys who took him weren’t as smart as they thought they were, and they were no match at all for Dad’s lawyer, Bernie Sutton.  Bernie doesn’t like crooks and liars any more than the next person would, yet he talked to the men who had my father like they were his personal friends.


He also talked to his real friends: friends in banking and high finance, and friends of my father who knew everything about computers and networks and wireless devices.  There were a lot of people watching when Bernie typed in the transaction code that would transfer a hundred million of my father’s dollars into the bad guys’ account.  It was electronics, not people, that traced that transaction right to its destination, which was known to law enforcement by the time the deposit showed up on the screen of the perpetrators’ laptop.


That protected the money, but it didn’t find the criminals.  That took until the next morning, when the master criminals themselves walked into their bank in Amherst, Massachusetts, barely forty miles away from Brattleboro, and only about ten miles from Barent’s Academy, which is where I had gone to school, and where the plot was born.  To their credit, they didn’t withdraw a huge sum of money, just enough for tickets to the Cayman Islands and some pocket money.


Bernard Sutton had stayed in our Brattleboro house for a day and two nights, and never once mentioned what his plans were.  He didn’t tell me, he didn’t tell the police, and he didn’t tell the FBI.


The opposite was true.  He’d let us all believe that paying the ransom was the best, and possibly the only course.  That was my feeling to begin with, so I never argued with him.  What Bernie neglected to mention to any of us, was that he had his own ways to find creeps like the ones he was after, and Bernie Sutton is rich only because of what he knows, and what he dared to do.


When those guys showed up at the bank, a friendly local cop, accompanied by a less-friendly Massachusetts State cop, a Vermont State cop, two Brattleboro detectives, and two FBI agents were there to greet them.


I wasn’t there, but I expect that Yves St Pierre and Louis Charmont weren’t very happy with their reception.


I’m glad.  If they had stuck to stealing money, I’d be on their side, only chastising them for not taking more when the taking was good. 


They had hurt my father, though.  It was unnecessary, and what they did was simply brutal.  That made Charmont and St Pierre the first people on Earth that I hated.


I might have actually championed their cause if all they took was money.  That wasn’t enough for them, though.  St Pierre had gone and beaten my father with a piece of pipe even after Charmont had drugged him to within a breath of death.


Given any chance at all, I’d have gladly tortured the two of them in vats of boiling acid.


The irony is that they’re bonded out of jail, and my family is now practically imprisoned under a new cloud of security because of them.  I’m sure that my father could just breathe the words, and those guys would vanish from the face of the Earth, but Dad won’t do that, and it wouldn’t stop the next guys from trying anyhow.


I don’t think I could really cause harm to them, either.  Still, a month earlier I never thought I was capable of hatred, so maybe by fall I might be able to condone murder.  By Christmas, I might be able to commit murder myself.  Wouldn’t that be nice?  Paulie Dunn, the Christmas Eve murderer!


I looked at Charmont, St. Pierre

Said, “Now you two are out of here!”

I held them down at gunpoint near,

And used my knife to take an ear.


“Ouch” they said, to make me grin.

“This is how the fun begins.

“You hurt a fine man with my Dad,

“So now I’ll make you really sad.”


I suck.  I could think things like that, but I could never do it.  Not in a million years: not ever!  I’m too much a coward.


I groaned, almost a sob, and the giant, Hector, looked back and asked, “What’s wrong?”


I grimaced.  “Did you ever kill anyone?  Could you?”


His big face went sad, and he said, “No, and I don’t know.”  He swallowed, “I’m trained to kill.”  His eyes blinked and he looked away for a moment, and then brought his eyes back to mine.  His voice was soft, just for me.  “I hope it never comes to that, but I guess I could.”


His huge shoulders heaved, and he added, “That’s a tall order.”  Hector paused and drew a breath, then leaned closer to me.  “Listen, Paul Dunn.  I’m being paid to look after you, and I’m paid well.  If it ever comes to it, my employers will expect me to put my own life ahead of yours.  Nobody wants anybody hurt. My job is you, though, and I’ll look after you the best I can.”


His smile was taut.  “If someone gets between us, he better have a why ready, and he better be fast!”  His smile became gentle again.


I smiled back.  My well-being was his job, and while I didn’t like that in the abstract, I felt that I’d just talked to an honest man.  I immediately classified him as Hector the Gentle Giant, because that’s exactly the way he came across.


As big as he was, I hadn’t picked up on him at the airport until he actually approached me, so I felt comfortable that he could watch me from afar and not muck up whatever social life I might come up with.  He also seemed ready to treat me neutrally.  It was clear that he’d be the boss if he sensed trouble, and I appreciated that.  He also seemed to realize that I didn’t like his being there on general principles, and he’d already promised to stay out of my way and my personal business.  We’d get along.


* * * * * * * *


I was in Florida on something of a personal high to begin with.  Just the prior Saturday, our committee had pulled off a successful and very much fun dance to celebrate the life of Jamie Jenks.  Out of nine-hundred-eighty-five students in school, only forty-nine didn’t show.  They all had excuses that ranged from illness to recent injuries, to funerals they had to attend; a family wedding, and two kids were busted for having pot the day before.  Only one stayed away as a protest, and I think she was born to be a moron.  She belongs to PETA, and thought we were wasting money that could go toward euthanizing sheep instead of eating them.


Every administrator was there, every teacher, all the support staff.


The attendance was amazing, and the party was upbeat from the get-go.  We’d used streamers for tickets, and they were over everything and everyone.  The decorations committee had the gym done up in metallic foil colors.  It wasn’t a big, dark party like you’d have in a disco.  Things were bright, but not glaring.


The DJ was great.  His rig sounded fantastic; his personality was gentle and low-key, yet he was a lot of fun.


For food we had chips and dips, vegs and dips, hot nachos, a theater-type popcorn machine manned by our Principal, and something like a ton of sweets: cookies and brownies mostly, but there was also a small mountain of bite-size pieces of baklava.


The school system had just banned the sale of soda, and they told us we couldn’t give it away either.  No matter, we made a local farmer happy, and bought vats of cider, big dispensers of white and chocolate milk, and we rented water coolers with the large spring-water bottles.  There was coffee, too, and hot chocolate, and the makings for tea.


The goodies were no substitute for a meal, and for the first two hours I thought we’d way overspent.  Things just weren’t disappearing until around nine PM, when a mass hunger seemed to arise, and the food started to vanish as fast as the volunteers could replace it.


I loved it!  I like to dance.  I’ve danced with my mother forever, since I only came up to her knees, and now I dance with Ally, too.  This was my night to dance with Lisa Mongillo, and we were a natural fit: as comfortable dancing together as my mother and father always were, and we got things going like my folks would have.


We came into the dance like everyone else, and the DJ had just begun.  Nobody was on the floor, and I gave Lisa a gentle tug, turned, and we danced the first dance of the night, the first couple on the floor.  A few friends cheered us, and a lot of others happily joined us.


Some boys from school had a band, and they had volunteered to play a set for free. They set up their equipment while the party commenced.  We promised them a half-hour, but let them go fifteen minutes longer because everyone liked them.  They did their own music, and it had a retro-country sound, like the Eagles mixed with Marshall Tucker.  They were upbeat and fun, and really helped to elevate the mood of the party.


Dan McNaughton had been scheduled to make a little speech, but he was too wired up when the time came.  He stood on a table with the DJ’s microphone so people could see him, and said, “I’m supposed to say something here.  I’ll just say keep it up!  Have fun, and remember Jamie.  This party is just exactly how he’d want it!”


He jumped off the table to applause, and handed the microphone back to the DJ, who immediately started the next song.  Dan walked out on the floor, hand-in-hand with Cynthia Olsen, and they soon disappeared into a throng of other dancers.


What our committee was proudest of, and what we enthused about after everything was over, was that nobody, nobody didn’t dance.  Dweeby people, overweight people, pimply people -- dweeby, overweight and pimply people – they all got asked to dance.  Not once, but all night.  We on the committee were volunteers at first, but it wasn’t long before everyone just danced with whoever was available.


Little Jeffrey Patenero, our resident dwarf, made it his mission to dance with all the girls he could.  He had good moves during the faster things and the people closest to him usually watched appreciatively.  He shied away from slow dances, for obvious reasons, until his brothers came up with the idea of a little platform for him to stand on.  They set it up by the edge of the dance area, near the DJ.  Jeffrey looked embarrassed at first, but Lisa was the first to dance with him there, and she had him beaming within a minute. 


After that, when the DJ was going to play something slow, he announced a ‘Jeffrey’ song.  Jeff came running, and girls took turns dancing with him.  It was awkward but doable, and Jeff’s star shone pretty brightly on that night.


We had under-spent our allocated five thousand, and after all was said and done, we decided to give what was left to a local charity.  It wasn’t a lot:  about four hundred dollars.  We could have served shrimp after all, but I didn’t protest.  Shrimp and cider?  No, that would be weird.


Who to donate the money to was an open question with our committee, which should have been over and done with.  We left the question, and the money, with next year’s committee.


* * * * * * * *


I only missed a day of school after my father was in the hospital.  I stayed out that Monday and spent the day at the hospital.  I was more of a wreck after the fact than when Dad was missing, and wasn’t very functional that day.  Elenora and Dana spent three days in Brattleboro with us; then they went home to make arrangements with Dana’s school so he could be out for what might be the rest of the term.


Back in Stockton, Elenora also met with Heinrich Benz, who agreed to take on the management of the Laundromat renovations full-time until Dad was able to come back.  There was a lot of busy work involved with working that out, and it was the following Tuesday when Elenora and Dana were back in Brattleboro.  Dad’s stay in the hospital had only been for three nights, and he was home on the prior Wednesday when I got back from school.


I love my father, and I want to make that clear, but within one day of his homecoming I was referring to him as the IP, as in injured party.  The grouch in that bed was not my father, because my father is never in a dark mood, and this guy never cheered up.  I’m happy to help out with the old and infirm, but I’m no slave boy.  I was one hour shy of going out on strike when Elenora finally returned, and they took off for Florida the very next day.


That was the first time flying for both Elenora and Dana, and they got the royal treatment.  Dad hired a private jet to fly them from Keene, which is just across the river from Brattleboro, to Melbourne, and a helicopter took them up to Cocoa Beach from there.


I’ve been on those corporate jets a few times, and they are way … far and away … the way to travel when point B is a serious distance from point A.  That trip to Florida probably cost the price of a decent new car, though, and you’ll notice that I made the trip in a middle seat on a discount airline.


That’s fine, and my fault.  I could have been on the private jet myself, but I’m busy learning about responsibility and participation:  school spirit and all that.  Anyhow, staying behind to do the things I’d promised for the people I’d promised them to counts for something.  Follow that work up with a middle seat on Southwest, and I ought to get some kind of good citizen prize.  That’s what I think.


* * * * * * * *


Hector had stopped talking, and turned around.  He was doing something, so I looked out the window at the passing fields, and the mile markers that reminded me that we were on the Beeline highway.  There is a cute little bumble-bee cartoon on each milepost.


The next thing I knew, Hector was holding a box out to me: a plain brown thing that said Paul in black marker ink.  I looked my question at him, and he said, “Lunch.  Take it.  There’s a fold-down tray on the seatback.”


I was hungry, and the sandwich was my favorite:  a BLT on white bread with plenty of mayonnaise.  There was also an apple, a pickle slice, and a little package of corn chips, and by the time I had it laid out on the tray, Hector leaned over again with a quart of white milk.  “There’s a glass inside your arm rest there.  Need anything else?”


I took the bottle of milk and shook it while I shook my head no.  “Thanks,” I said, somewhat surprised.  It was clear that they hadn’t guessed at my favorite lunch, but I wondered who told them.


Only my father would know.  Well, other people would know, but they were in other places than Florida.  It had to be my father, and my yummy lunch told me he was getting back to normal.  God, the last time I saw him, if he said he was hungry I might have chilled whatever my mother had made for him, just to match his mood.


I munched the rest of the way to Cocoa Beach, and enjoyed everything except the apple.  I was too full for even a bite, so I left it on the tray when I handed my trash forward.  Just minutes later, we stopped for the last toll and headed across water and islands to town.


The first building, which is kind of fantastical, is a surf shop called Ron Jon’s, an outrageous looking pinkish building that disappeared from view when the car turned.  We went south for a mile or so, before turning back north on a road closer to the beach.


It wasn’t long before we turned into a short, palm-lined driveway that led to a building near the water.  When the car stopped, Hector slid the door open door for me, and my father was standing there waiting, with Dana on one side and Elenora on his other.  Dad’s left arm was in a cast, but his right one was free, though it was obvious that he was favoring it.  Dana and Elenora both had smiles for me, but Dad wore a huge grin.  He wiggled the fingers of both hands in a gesture that I took to mean ‘come here’ and it was comical when Dana lifted the hand in the cast out of the way so we could have a hug.


That we did, and Elenora gave me a little hug from behind.


It was kind of an amazing moment for me because I was registering all kinds of things at once.  I’d seen them all there, but the hug came on so quickly and lasted so long, that I had to look again at each of them to validate my first impressions.  I had them right, though.  Dad, as usual, was dressed conservatively, wearing dark blue shorts and a light blue button-down shirt, the top three buttons undone and the tails hanging out.


He didn’t surprise me, not a bit.  It was Elenora, who in my first impression looked like a mermaid.  When I managed a good look, she was in normal-enough beach attire:  a green bikini-top, and a shimmering, translucent beige skirt.  She looked great, and her Italian heritage showed in a terrific tan.


Dana was a picture.  He had a dark tan, too, and a huge Hawaiian shirt that went almost to his knees.  It was a great, floral thing, possibly orchids, and all primary colors.  It was long enough to hide anything he may have been wearing underneath it.


The best thing was his hair.  It was frizzed out from being in the water and the breeze, all highlighted blond from the sun, and he looked like the perfect beach boy.


He was beaming, too, and hanging close to my father.  He still had the cast in his hand, and grinned at me.  “Cracks nuts, too!” he said as he lowered Dad’s arm.  He grinned again, “You gotta lose the pants!  You look like you just got off the bus from Vermont.”


“I did,” I growled.  “Where can I change?”


Hector was right beside me, holding out a card-key.  “This is yours,” he said.  “Use it for everything.  It opens the room, makes the elevator go to your floor, and pays for anything you want here.”  He patted my shoulder.  “Have fun, amigo.  Be good and play safe.  Hopefully you won’t see me too often, but I’ll be around.  Okay?”


I turned and smiled.  “Thanks,” I said holding out my hand.  We shook and I added, “Maybe some night we can shoot a little nine-ball or something.”


“Maybe,” he said.


I grinned, “Bring money.  Lots.”


He wiggled an enormous finger at me and said, “You got a date!”  Then he turned and left, and seemed to just disappear.


I turned back to my family and asked, “Where are we staying?”


“Top floor,” Dad said.  “Go up with Dana. I don’t want to be going back and forth.”  He looked quickly at Dana and asked, “Okay?”


Dana nodded, and then grinned at me.  “Wait’ll you see!  C’mon.”


I followed him into the building, and could see right through the lobby to the beach and ocean on the other side.


It was Dana’s first-ever time in a hotel, and it was clear to me that he loved it, at least this one.  He showed me how to work the elevator, which would go to everywhere but our floor at the touch of a button.  Our floor required the insertion of the card-key, and the sixth floor wasn’t even an option on the buttons.  The sixth floor was all ours, too.  There were two suites, and I shared one with Dana.  They adjoined, so we didn’t even have to go out in the hall to visit next door, and the suite was really nice.


There was an entryway, just like in a house, with a nook for hanging outdoor clothes.  The left side led to a little hall, and there was a kitchen there, just after a bathroom.  Walking straight ahead brought us to a living room that had to be twenty-five feet wide, with a dining area on the left that led back to the kitchen.  The side to the ocean was curved, floor-to-ceiling glass, and the drapes were operated by a remote control, which Dana gleefully demonstrated.  There was a deck out there, too, and doors to it from each side of the room.  It was down a few steps so the railing didn’t interfere with the view from the room itself.


That living room was all comfy looking, in the way that hotels do that sort of thing.  This one had an unusual bit: a sofa in the middle of the room that faced both ways.  One side had a view to the beach and the sea beyond, and the other side of it faced a wall with a flat-screen television and a compact sound system.


There was plenty of other furniture, but that was the first two-sided sofa I’d seen, so it’s what struck me.


A bouquet of flowers sat on a highly polished table, and I looked closely to see if they were real.  I pulled back at the scent.  They were real for sure, and fragrant.  I looked at Dana and said, “Flowers?”


He nodded, “Every day.  They’re in our rooms, too, and the bathrooms.  When you’re on the deck, look down.  It’s full of planters and red flowers, and they draw hummingbirds like you never saw.  They aren’t the gray things from Vermont; they’re all colors, and they’re neat to watch.”


I smiled at his enthusiasm, and followed him to my own room.  Dana and I each had bedrooms with en-suite bathrooms.  The rooms were reversed, but otherwise identical, and they shared a deck, and both had drapes controlled by remote.


I was impressed with the place, and also with my father’s indulgence in it.  For all his money, he was usually happy with a Holiday Inn, or some other mid-level place.  “My needs are small,” he’d say.  “Just give me a bed, a shower, and a phone.”


I looked around me and conceded that we had those things there.  Hotels don’t differ much in their basic offerings, but rather in presentation.  In that last respect, this place was a knockout!


When I was in my room, I decided to unpack.  That took a few minutes, and I was looking out the window most of the time.  It looked like high tide, and there was a nice, steady surf under the bright blue sky.  I paid scant attention to what I was doing, but the things I’d need right away landed on the bed, while other things found a drawer.  I took the clothes that needed hangers and arranged them nicely on the back of a chair.  I’d hang them if I needed the chair for something else.


I pulled off my travel clothes and practically dove into my bathing suit and beach clogs.  I looked at Dana.  “What am I forgetting?”


“You need a shirt,” he said, “A shirt with a pocket.”


I looked at him and he reached into his own shirt pocket and pulled out the card that ran the elevator, opened the room, and turned the lights on.  “This,” he said, wiggling his in front of me, “is all you need, and you don’t wanna lose it. It’ll get you downstairs; it’ll get you a beach towel and all the toys.  You show it to the nice people at the pool, and they’ll bring you an iced tea, a nice lemonade, an ice cream … anything you want.”  Dana was grinning.


“What?” I asked.


“I love it here, that’s what!  Now I’ll love it more, ‘cause you’re here.”  He turned around, saying, “Let’s went,” as he did.


I snagged the shirt I’d flown down in off the bed, and put it on unbuttoned.  When we left the suite, I took my card out of the little slot it was in, and everything we’d turned on went back off.  I’d seen that before, but not in American hotels.  I thought it was a pretty ingenious way for hotels to save money, and at the same time advertise how much they cared about the environment.


Dana had the lay of the land, so I just followed along in his wake.  He has a knack for names and faces that I lack, and he pointed out the people I should know on the hotel staff, told me their names and what they did, and in a few cases, introduced me.  “Gene, wait!  This is my brother, Paul.”


I met people like Gene, then Dana told me what they had the keys to, so I’d understand why it was good to know them.


My first hour in Cocoa Beach showed me the side of Dana that I’d heard about, but never really seen.  The few times I saw him with his own friends in Stockton, it was all in passing, and the temperature was usually something south of zero, so the encounters were brief: just long enough for me to see that people were genuinely fond of Dana, but that was about it.


This was my first glimpse of him on his own with people he’d taken the time to meet.  That hotel was his own turf, too, at least where I was concerned.  I hadn’t been there before, but after a month, it was immediately clear to me that Dana was already a fixture, and a popular one.


There was a booth in the pool area where they handed out towels, lent sporting equipment, and where people signed up for activities and the various lessons the place offered.  When we walked up, there was one girl there, looking bored.  She smiled when she saw Dana, and turned that smile to me.  “You must be Paul.”  I nodded, and she said, “I’m Claire,” she said cheerily, holding out her hand to shake mine.  I shook, and she held a little brochure out, held between two fingers of her other hand, so she could kind of flip it to me.


She said, “The pool is right here, and the ocean is behind you.”  She put her elbow on the counter, her chin in her hand, and she pointed at the brochure she’d just given me.  Anything you might want that’s not food-related is right here.”  She tapped the brochure for emphasis, “If it’s listed in this folder, that is.”  Claire was probably in her early twenties, blonde and blue-eyed, and very attractive and personable.


I asked, “Are towels listed in here?”


“Absolutely!  How many would you like?”  She batted her eyes at Dana and said, “Dana always takes five, but I think he just likes to make me work.”


Dana prodded me with his elbow, so I said, “Five sounds good.”


Then I peered over the counter with Dana as Claire bent to get my towels.  She only wore a white bikini bottom below her hotel T-shirt, and I suddenly knew why Dana required five towels for the beach.  One to sit on, one to dry off with, and three to keep Claire bent over.  Dana flashed a leery grin my way, and I already wore my own, so it was funny.


Let me tell you, that hotel has thick towels, and five of them in front of me made Claire disappear from my view.  Walking away with Dana, I asked, “Does Claire have the keys to anything?”


“Oh, yeah,” he said.  “Not real keys, but if she likes you, every guy in this place likes you, too.”


“Favored guests?” I asked.




I thought we’d sit on lounges by the pool, but Dana walked right past there, and out onto the sand.  He stopped where two lounges were right under some palms, and one of them was covered in towels, so I spread one of my towels on the other one, dropped some others on top of it, and ran off to the water with a towel in my hand.


I hadn’t been to the ocean since Thanksgiving, and I stopped only long enough to shed my shirt and clogs onto the towel, then I ran out into the surf.  The waves were pounding in like they do on the East coast, with a rhythm and spacing that other oceans don’t share.


I was able to turn away from ball-busters, taking them either sideways or on my butt, and I laughed like a little kid until I was in enough water to dive in.  Then I swam far out, beyond the breakers and into the swells, and I reveled in it.


I spent my first twelve summers on Cape Cod.  Our cottage there wasn’t beachfront, but it was just up the road, two rows back.  I was and am what my parents call a beach rat, and that hadn’t gone away when Dad sold that little house.  I still love the ocean, and there is nothing in nature more pleasing to my eyes than that water stretching away forever.


I flopped onto my back to float and feel the sun on me for the first time in what seemed forever.  I saw the occasional gull overhead and heard others squawking.  The breaking surf sounded distant, and I felt totally relaxed for the first time in months.


Then Dana came up beside me on a bright purple, pink and yellow inflatable raft, and he was towing a second one for me.  He smiled when I saw him, and said, “Brought you a ride.  Um,” he lowered his eyes, “It’s my fault, but we kinda ignored Dad back there.  I think he feels bad.”


I looked toward the beach and couldn’t tell who was who, then reached for the raft Dana had brought.  “It’s not your fault.  I saw the beach and the water and forgot all about him.”


After a couple of rollovers, I was on my raft, paddling to shore beside Dana.  I said, “If you tell him what I just said, I’ll put poison in your milk.”


Dana looked at me like he thought I was serious, and said, “Don’t worry about me.  Did I tell you?  We have a surfing lesson at three.”


We were just getting into the breakers, so I waited on a wave and let it bring me to shore, where it dumped me rudely in the sand, and the next wave crashed over my head before I could get to my feet.  If you don’t know the sensation, it’s like someone has the back of your head and is determined to pound your chin into the sand.  After three tries, I was on my feet, and chased after my raft as it scudded along the spoon like an eel on an oil slick.


After that I looked for Dana, and couldn’t see him where I thought he should be.  Then I heard a faint voice calling me, and looked toward the hotel.  Dana was halfway across the beach waving and calling to me.  I ran after him, picking my towel and belongings off the beach, and sat on my lounge when he sat on his.


If my father disowned me, right then I wouldn’t have cared.  I was winded from running in the sand, but totally exhilarated by my swim in the ocean.  All I needed was a shower to get the sand out of my bathing suit, and then I could go make nice with Dad.


I toweled off my head the best I could, and then looked around.  Sure enough, there were showers right beside each set of steps to the pool from the beach.  I had the problem of sand in my suit, so I trotted over, stood under a shower head, and pulled the chain.


I don’t know what anyone thought of me, or if anyone even noticed, but I let that water cascade down on me as I pulled the waist of my trunks out and did a little dance around.  There was sand everywhere inside that bathing suit, so I had to keep going around in a circle, stretching out the front, the back, and all around the sides until I felt sand-free.


There was a foot-wash there, too, and after I felt clean I washed my clogs off.  Then I looked around the pool area for my father and Elenora, and didn’t see them.  I looked back to where I’d left Dana, and he jumped up, waving, then pointed at a palm tree two down from ours, where Elenora was also waving at me, and my father was looking my way.


I trotted over there, feeling completely bone-headed.  I tried to cover up when I got near them.  There you are!  I looked all over the ocean for you, even went out there, and here you are … here.”


My father snorted, and Elenora rolled her eyes, and they both smiled when I sat down.  Dana sat beside me, patted my shoulder, and whispered, “Nice try.”


Dad asked, “How was your trip?  Any problems?”


“It was okay,” I said.  “At least I got a middle-row seat between big people.  You know how I love when that happens.”


Dad asked, “Why didn’t you go first class?”


“Dad, Ally looked.  I’d have to go through Pittsburg, Charlotte and Atlanta first to go first class, and I wouldn’t be here yet.”  I grinned, “Anyhow, who cares?  I’m here, and I want to know what’s up with your bones.”  I looked at him, “How’s the arm?”


Dad held his right hand out and said, “This one’s working again.  It’s good, I guess, but I keep bumping it, and that hurts.  A lot.”


I looked at his left arm, and he said, “I see the surgeon later today.  I think this big cast will come off next week, and I’ll get a soft cast for I don’t know how long.  The doc says the bone set fine, but there’s not a lot of soft tissue on a wrist.  It’ll be a matter of protecting it for awhile.”  He knocked the cast and said, “I’ll be glad to get this thing off.  Talk about an albatross; Dana uses my arm to open his walnuts.”


I looked at Dana, and he smiled kind of sappily.  “Serious?” I asked.


Dana shrugged, “Hey, they brought us fruit and nuts, and I couldn’t find the nutcracker.  My sandal wouldn’t cut it.”


I looked at Dana for another second, and then my father and Elenora, and I started laughing.


Welcome to my family, release 2.0!