by Michael E. Lloyd
Chapter 24: Good Day Sunshine
part 2 of 2
The conversation at dinner had been almost non-existent, and ever since they had gone to sit up at the bar, Maelene had been very quiet again, still just staring into space.
Toni soon tired of being ignored, ordered another large beer, and drank it rather too quickly. Then out of the blue, he took hold of her arm.
‘Don’t you feel a bit uneasy about choosing these rather expensive hotels?’
‘Oh, I’m really getting fed up with this!’
She slid off her stool, strode into the next-door lounge, picked up a copy of Vogue, and sat down pretending to read.
‘Perhaps it’s time for that little chat, Maelene?’ said an unseen voice in her ear.
‘Yes, I think it is, Lucia. Oh, hang on — it’s Quo, isn’t it?’
‘Indeed. And I know you have been bottling up many thoughts about us. Why don’t you tell me about it now ...?’
‘I’m surprised you’re not just invading me again to find out for yourself!’
‘Not how I would have put it, but yes, I could do that. I should however rather hear it from your own quiet lips, Maelene. Nobody is going to notice, especially if you hold that magazine up a little higher ...’
‘Hah! You kill me, Quo. All right, then — you told me I had plenty of time to think about this when you set us loose back in Oakland. But you’ve already heard everything I’ve said about you since the Los Angeles reunion, right ...?’
‘So you just need to hear what I felt and said while Toni and I were alone in California?’
‘Exactly. But let us try to keep it brief. The poor boy is looking very lonesome already ...’
‘Is he? Oh yes, you’re right. OK, here goes ...
‘I disagree with a lot of what you’re doing down here ... or rather the way you’re going about it — interfering with our world and our lives. Sure, I sympathise with all your climate problems back on Dome — you know that, you know me! But I think you’re bending the truth far too much, for your own selfish ends ... like the reasons for our visits to the mines in Montana and the Mojave Desert. And I was real disappointed at the way you were so willing to compromise with those Brighter Vale jerks!’
‘All rather judgemental, Maelene ...’
‘All based on the truth.’
‘The whole truth? I think I understand why you feel this way, but I do fear you have jumped recklessly to a few unreasonable conclusions. But please continue ...’
‘Well ... well, that’s about it, I guess!’
‘Is that all?’
‘Probably, on top of what I said in Los Angeles.’
‘Are you possibly allowing yourself to get very worked up over a small number of issues that you really do not fully understand?’
‘Are you patronising me, Quo?’
‘I might conceivably be matronising you, Maelene, but I still think not. Can I offer a rather fuller defence?’
‘Of course. I do try to be fair, most of the time ...’
‘Nicely said, my dear, and largely true. So, let me address the main things you have said about us in the past few weeks. I think it boils down to four key points ...
‘We are trying very hard to minimise our level of intervention in Earth’s affairs. Believe me, this is not easy — but we are simply doing our best, and we are setting things back to rights as fully as possible, as we go.
‘And we really do not twist the truth, you know. We use it in innumerable good ways. But the trouble is, down here people can only see a part of most truths. And there the problems begin. The role you have played in our work has been magnificent, but you cannot and never should know the whole truth of what we have been doing, day by day, with all the other players on this stage ... let alone the bigger truths of Dome and all its challenges. So please do not judge us too harshly. And over time, try perhaps not to judge anyone, at all ...
‘You are disappointed by our so-called compromises. Well, this will probably hurt your feelings, but you are hardly the politician, are you, Maelene? On Dome, our actions and our thoughts are so completely overt that we rarely need to compromise. But down here ... well, it is clearly often the only way to make any progress. Not pretty, I agree — but prettiness is always a luxury, even on Dome.
‘And finally, you feel you are being exploited. Well of course you are! You, Toni and Raymond (and Salvatore, in the past) just happen to have drawn those very short straws. You are all inestimable heroes. And please believe me when I swear we are doing all we can to mitigate the inconvenience. We could, of course, have arranged things so that you were not even aware of that exploitation. Or we could have done far worse. Which, I venture to suggest, puts us on a quite reasonable footing in comparison with many of the administrations on Earth ...
‘So, though I could never be as succinct as you, Maelene, there you have my answers.’
‘Give me a moment, Quo.’
‘OK. You’ve made me realise I’m not the centre of the universe. So I concede on some of my silly pride. But have I made you stop and think, at all?’
‘You do that with every word you say, Maelene.’
‘Fair enough. That’s what I try to do with my songs. If you really are listening that closely, what more can I ask?’
‘So may we shake hands and agree to differ?’
‘We can certainly pretend to shake hands, Quo. With maybe less of a difference than before.’
‘Maelene, this is Lucia again.’
‘Oh, hello. Look, is this really important right now?’
‘Well, I’ll let you be the judge of that. Will you allow me to give you one little word of personal advice, too?’
‘OK, I guess it’s the season.’
‘I do feel you are being rather short and demanding with Toni. From one girl to another — he is, after all, just a man ...’
She found her man still sitting alone at the bar, now with a magazine of his own but with no more beer.
‘Come to bed.’
* * *
They took Route 41 to Miami, just as Maelene had suggested, and briefly detoured to drop in on Everglades City.
‘City?’ said Toni, as they drove slowly around. ‘It’s a small, neat, open-plan town surrounded by lots of water’.
‘Just like Amsterdam and Venice, then.’
A little further south they passed a road sign boldly stating “Panther Crossing Next 5 miles” in very large letters.
‘Is that some new-fangled pedestrian “Walk — Don’t Walk” system coming up soon?’
‘No, Toni. It means there may well be innocent Florida Panthers crossing this highway of death for the next few minutes. That’s why I’m driving much slower right now ...’
He double-checked his side window.
‘Don’t panic, sunshine. They have far more reason to be scared than you do.’
Thirty minutes later, they stopped at a rest area. A narrow canal lay quietly between the parking lot and the road, and Maelene went to investigate.
‘Hey Toni, bring the camera! I think we got us an alligator!!’
‘What’s so special about that? I’ve seen them at the zoo ...’
‘Oh, what is wrong with you? Hurry up, before it disappears!’
‘Maelene,’ said a quiet voice in her ear, ‘that’s three times already today ...’
‘Ah. OK, thanks, Lucia.’
* * *
Their luxury Miami South Beach hotel was just one block back from the sea. And as soon as they were installed, they seized on the fast-improving weather and took a gentle stroll along Ocean Drive, admiring the panoply of Art Deco buildings and absorbing the vibrant Sunday street life.
They finally had a late lunch at Ocean’s Ten open air restaurant, then wandered across to the tree-shaded lawns leading down towards the beach. A few moments later they passed a small group of obviously homeless men and women, gathered roughly together under one of the biggest trees. Maelene was tempted to stop and give them a little of the Domans’ money, but something in the air made her change her mind ...
They had barely walked another twenty yards when a loud crack rang out from behind them. A woman screamed ... and then there were people running everywhere ... and the gaunt-faced man stumbling in Maelene’s direction had a gun in his hand ... and now she was shaking uncontrollably ... and suddenly Toni had grabbed her and pushed her to the ground and landed on top of her and was hissing ‘Don’t move!’ ... and all the wind had been knocked out of her, and it was all she could do to breathe, let alone move ... and now the man was past them and running down towards the lifeguard station ... and there were more cries from back near that tree, and Toni was saying ‘Are you OK?’ ... and then he was hurrying her back towards the street and into the anonymity of the milling crowds, as the first of the police sirens broke the spell of incomprehension ... and now she finally managed a ‘Just get me to the hotel ...’ before her tears began to flow.
* * *
She was sitting immobile on the bed, sipping a glass of water and just staring into space. Toni was watching events from their fifth floor window.
‘At least twenty police vehicles down there now, all shapes and sizes, and a big fire truck, and an ambulance, and three ... no, four huge helicopters all hovering in a line out over the sea. They’ve stopped all the traffic on Ocean Drive. Ah, the medics are treating one of those people under the trees.’
‘Oh, that’s awful ...’
‘They’ve cordoned off the whole area, and they’re taking statements. Wonder if we should tell them what we saw?’
‘Oh, no ...’
‘Wait, there’s something happening near the small building down by the beach. Ah, they’ve caught him — I recognise his clothes. OK, he’s in a police car now. Phew, we won’t need to give a statement after all — plenty of other witnesses down there ...’
The news of the arrest had a dramatic effect on Maelene.
‘Oh, Toni, we’re safe again! And you protected me without thinking!’
She was weeping again now, but the shock was ebbing away and an ironic smile was slowly breaking through. ‘Bit different from the way Sal behaved in Columbia ...’
‘But you tried hard to stop those thugs kicking me that night, honey. You got a big bruise for your trouble, remember? I think we both just did what came naturally.’
Most of Maelene’s remaining uncertainty about this boy had suddenly and happily evaporated. But she wasn’t going to tell him that, at least not yet ...
‘No, Toni, this was very different. I’m real proud of you! You’re my Saint George!’
‘Hah! With your looks and personality, you’re lucky I didn’t confuse you with the Dragon, and act rather differently!’
She glared at him for a moment, then burst out laughing, leapt up, wrestled him to the ground — smokily breathing ‘Come on then, baby, light my fire!’ — and pinned him down and made him beg for mercy.
‘OK, I give in — as long as ...’
She shut him up with an adoring kiss.
* * *
Two hours later, all was calm again on Ocean Drive, and Maelene was happy to venture back down to the beach for some long-overdue sun.
‘This is lovely, isn’t it, Toni?’
‘It certainly is.’
‘How about we find some good Sunday night music after dinner, then drive a little way up the coast tomorrow and spend the whole day on another nice beach? And maybe on Tuesday we could go to Key Largo and Long Key, and even all the way down to Key West, and see some more of those wide open spaces ...’
Toni smiled ruefully and nodded his acquiescence.
So they had dinner at Mango’s, with plenty of music and dancing, and later they discovered The Cleveland and partied till very late.
Copyright © 2008 by Michael E. Lloyd