“...Happy Birth-day to Kurt, Happy Birth-day to Kurt!” the three sang.
“Make a wish!” Rachel said.
Kurt closed his eyes for a moment. Just as he leaned down to blow out the candles on his Black Forest cake, something behind Rachel caught his eye. His jaw dropped so far down Rachel thought it might bang against his chest.
“Did you see that!” Lance said, pointing somewhere behind Rachel’s head.
She turned around, and Mitch did, too. But Rachel didn’t see anything but the velvet blackness of the Caribbean sky.
“What was it?” Rachel asked. “A shooting star?”
“I’m not sure,” Kurt said, stunned.
“What’d it look like?” Mitch asked, in a beer-slurred voice.
Lance said, “It looked like a Roman candle to me.”
“It wasn’t any Roman candle,” Kurt said, slowly and ominously. He was still staring up at the heavens, oblivious to the 16 ordinary candles that were burning on the cake in front of him.
Rachel found herself irked with all three of the boys. “Blow out the candles, Kurt, before the wind does it again.” The wind in Aruba was so strong and gusty it had taken two packs of matches to light them all.
Kurt finally directed his attention back to the cake.
“Don’t forget to make a wish,” Rachel added.
Kurt looked into her eyes, smiling. “I already made my wish, Rachel.”
She felt her cheeks flush, even though she knew it was silly. Kurt always made suggestive comments like that, but he hadn’t ever actually done anything. They had known each other since the seventh grade, and he hadn’t ever even tried to kiss her! She had actually thought he might try it for the first time, three days ago, when they were on the plane on their way down to Aruba. They had been lucky enough to get two seats by themselves—Kurt’s parents, Mitch, and Lance, were sitting about ten rows in front of them. Rachel had put her head on Kurt’s shoulder to “sleep” and, as she began to doze, she felt his lips brush against her hair. But that was all.
Kurt looked down at the cake again, closed his eyes, and blew hard. All 16 candle flames bit the dust. Fortunately, he had enough finesse not to spit on all over the cake, the way Mitch always did. Kurt smiled at Rachel when he finished, that devious look still in his eyes, but his gaze was drawn back to the sky behind her.
“Now what are you looking at?” Rachel said, annoyed again. She turned around again and glanced up at the sky, but there was nothing there but stars.
“You should have seen it,” Kurt said, in a hushed tone. It was awesome...bright, bright red. It looked like a meteor at first, but when it got closer to the ground, it slowed down and looked like it was almost...floating.”
“Yeah,” Lance said. “Like it slowed down to land.”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “You both drank too much beer.”
Lance said, “I haven’t had any beer, Rachel.”
“I only had two,” Kurt said.
Mitch belched loudly. “I lost count.”
“You don’t count,” Rachel said. Mitch was only 14 years old and was already far down the well-paved path of alcoholism, at least in her humble opinion. She didn’t understand why Kurt wasn’t more concerned about him. If Mitch were her little brother, she wouldn’t let him drink anything. Or smoke anything, either.
Kurt stood and walked across the balcony to the railing, apparently still looking for the meteor or whatever he had seen, or thought he had seen. Rachel gazed past him, out to the north size of the island, at the lighthouse. The main reason Kurt’s parents had rented the vacation home was the breathtaking view it afforded. From the front balcony, which bordered the master bedroom, you could see the Caribbean Sea and Arashi Beach, along with the top of two shipwrecks that poked up out of the water like poorly hidden animals. From the back balcony, where the two guest bedrooms were located, all you could see were hills covered with cactus—that part of the island looked almost like the set of Western. If she hadn’t known she was in Aruba, she might have thought she was in Nevada or Arizona. Beyond all the cactus, you could see the “California” lighthouse. Rachel thought it was a bit odd to have something named after California in Aruba. But then, there were a lot of strange things she had discovered about the island during her short three day stay there—the prehistoric-looking iguanas that sauntered around the swimming pool as if it belonged to them; the little geckos that clung to the walls at night, their beady black eyes seeming to peer steadily back at you; the eerie Divi-divi trees, all permanently bowed in the same direction from the wind. And what wind! It was so strong and gusty Rachel always had a feeling that a storm or a hurricane was brewing. But there were no storms or hurricanes, just crystal clear, cobalt-blue skies. In fact, there didn’t ever even seem to be any clouds. Still, Rachel hadn’t felt completely at ease since they had arrived on the island. She didn’t know why, exactly. Maybe it was just because it was so different from home. It had been snowing when they left Illinois, but the thought of snow now seemed unreal.
Kurt and his parents were nuts about Aruba—they had been there several times before. Kurt's dad liked to take the family on “back to nature” vacations and insisted that everyone leave all their electronic devices at home—computers, smart phones, and video game consoles. Mitch was always miserable, as Mitch was loved to play video games.
On this particular visit Kurt’s dad had told Kurt he could invite Lance and Rachel along to celebrate his birthday and his admission to MIT. Kurt was the youngest kid in Urbana, Illinois who had ever been admitted to the prestigious engineering institute—he wouldn’t even have to finish his senior year of high school before he started. Rachel was proud of him, of course. But the idea of Kurt leaving at the end of the next year...well, it wasn’t something she wanted to think about.
Kurt and Rachel and Lance had been friends for almost four years, all of them living on the same block in Urbana. But Rachel pined for more than a friendship with Kurt...
“I think it hit the ground near the lighthouse,” Kurt said, pulling Rachel from her thoughts.
“You think we can find it?” Lance asked.
“Just cut your cake, Kurt,” Rachel said. “One heart attack a day is all I can stand.” They had all taken a windsurfing lesson that afternoon, and Mitch had nearly drowned. Nobody was paying attention to him and he drifted out too far. A strong gust of wind knocked him into the water and the sail board got away from him. If Rachel hadn’t heard him yelling, he might not be sitting here with them now. The boys had a good laugh about it, acting as if it wasn’t a big deal, but Rachel knew it had scared Mitch down to his gangly, pubescent bones. And it had scared Kurt, too.
Kurt came back to the wicker table and sat down, looking lost in thought. He picked up the knife and sliced out big chunks of the cake. Black Forest cake was Kurt’s favorite. Rachel had wanted to bake one for him herself, but the kitchen had no cake pans and they had ended up buying a ready-made one at the local grocery store.
“Too bad there’s no ice cream,” Mitch said. “It’s a lot better with ice cream.”
Rachel took a bite of the cake. Despite the fact that it had melted a bit in the heat on the way home from the store, it was quite good. The chocolate was rich and moist, the white icing sweet, but not too sweet.
They all ate their cake in silence, listening to the wind rustle through the palm trees out in the garden below them. The gusts were so strong that it made the house whistle and moan as it passed through the spaces around the windows and sliding glass doors, which was at least part of what made Rachel uneasy. Kurt said the constant blowing was caused by “trade winds” that were in turn caused by the circulation of the sea water. Rachel didn’t understand the theory behind it, but she took Kurt’s word for it. When it came to anything scientific, Kurt knew what he was talking about.
Kurt was looking up at the sky again. He wiped the chocolate from the corner of his mouth, swallowed with some difficulty, and said, “We have to go look for it. We can’t miss an opportunity like this.”
“I’m game,” Lance said.
“Me, too.” Mitch punctuated this with another loud belch.
“Shhh,” Rachel said. “You’ll wake up your parents.”
Kurt and Lance both laughed, though Rachel had not intended it as a joke. She thought Mitch’s constant belching was nothing but a juvenile way to call attention to the fact that he was drunk. He was always trying to show off and prove that he was as grown up as his big brother. Rachel actually felt sorry for him. Even though he was always clowning around, there seemed to be a sadness behind his wide-set, hazel eyes, as if he had a low opinion of himself. He often did crazy, reckless things, especially when he was drinking. At times it almost seemed like he had some kind of death wish. His mother suffered from bouts of depression and seemed to have a drinking problem, too, though Rachel and Kurt had never spoken about it. Maybe it was something Mitch had inherited. But Kurt didn’t seem to have any problems like that.
Kurt tossed his fork in his empty plate and stood up. “Lance, you get the flashlight out of the jeep—I gotta find my shoes.”
“You’re not serious...” Rachel said.
“Sure I’m serious. You think I’m just going to ignore something like this? It might be a chance to make a scientific discovery.”
Rachel rolled her eyes. “It was just a shooting star, Kurt. Do you really believe it landed on this island? And you’re going to find it?”
“I don’t know, Rachel. What difference does it make? We can just go up to the lighthouse and see if we can see anything. It’ll be cool.”
“Yeah,” Mitch repeated, “it’ll be cool.” He and Lance had already stood up, though Lance was stuffing a second piece of cake in his mouth.
Rachel did not move from her wicker chair. “Your parents will freak if they wake up and find us gone.”
“They’re out cold,” Kurt said. “Did you see how many Aruba Aribas they drank at dinner?”
“I want to try one of those,” Mitch said.
“It’s just rum and fruit punch,” Lance said matter-of-factly.
Rachel groped for an excuse—any excuse. The last thing she wanted to do was sneak out of the house in the middle of the night and go tromping around a strange island. Though neither of Kurt’s parents had actually said it, she had the feeling that they both expected her to “keep the boys in line.” It didn’t make any logical sense—Rachel was just six months older than Kurt, and almost exactly the same age as Lance. But she got the feeling that because she was a girl, Kurt’s parents assumed she had some kind of inborn motherly responsibility that would kick in whenever the boys got too spirited. That incensed her, but what could she do about it? If this was the way Kurt’s parents thought, it was the way they thought. Plus, she was already treading thin ice with Kurt’s mother. It was obvious that Sally Morrow didn’t like her very much, that she thought Rachel was somehow corrupting her “innocent” son. Again, Sally had never come out and said anything like this, but Rachel got the message loud and clear—the way Sally would make sure that they were never left alone at the Morrow’s house; the condemning glances she would give if Rachel dressed the least bit sexy; the way she always steered conversations away from anything that touched on sex. Once, when they had gone to the movies, Sally asked if they minded if she came along and then actually had the nerve to sit between the two of them, like a human barrier! Kurt never said or did anything about this kind of thing, but Rachel knew that it made him angry.
Rachel had to admit there was a little truth to Sally’s concerns. Rachel didn’t know for sure, of course, but Kurt did seem pretty innocent in the sex department. But so was she! And was sixteen too young to experiment a little bit with someone you really liked and trusted? Rachel certainly didn’t think so.
All this went through Rachel’s head in a matter of seconds—these thoughts had run through her head many times before. Lance and Mitch were already standing up, rarin’ to go on their meteor-hunting expedition. Kurt was watching Rachel’s face, waiting for an answer.
“Are you coming with us or not?” he finally said.
Looking for an out, Rachel glanced at the birthday present she had bought for Kurt. “Why don’t you ask Dr. Fate if we should go?” At least there would be a 50-50 chance to call it off—you could only ask it yes or no questions.
“Yeah,” Mitch said. “Let’s see what Dr. Fate has to say about it.”
Rachel handed Kurt the plastic human head. In appearance, it reminded her of photographs she had seen of Albert Einstein. Dr. Fate had bushy eyebrows and long stiff strands of gray hair that stuck out from his temples at wild angles. There were wrinkles across his forehead, and the eyebrows were raked upwards in an expression of surprise, as if some deep insight had just popped into Dr. Fate’s mind. They had been playing with the gadget all evening, shaking it, asking it questions, and then reading the answers, which appeared in a little circular window in the top of his head.
Kurt closed his eyes and shook it. “Dr. Fate! Should we go try and find the meteor?” He squinted at read the message.
“If you have the nerve.”
Mitch laughed, and Lance did, too.
Kurt set Dr. Fate back down on the table. “Well, I guess that settles that.”
“Maybe you should ask him again,” Rachel said.
“Look, Rachel, if you don’t want to go, you can stay here.”
“Yeah,” Mitch added. “It’s not a girl-thing, anyway.”
“Oh? And exactly what is a ‘girl-thing,’ Mitch? Playing with Barbie dolls?”
Mitch picked up the beer he had been drinking. “You said it, not me. He emptied the rest of it down his throat.
Rachel glared at him. The three boys headed across the balcony towards the stairs. She remained firmly planted in her seat.
Kurt turned around on the top step. “You’re really not coming?”
Rachel didn’t know how to answer. She wasn’t sure exactly why she didn’t want to go. She just had a bad feeling about it, a faint tingling in the pit of her stomach.
Something moved on the wall just behind Kurt’s head. Rachel jumped and let out a little shriek.
“Hey, it’s a gecko!” Kurt cried.
The little lizard-like creature was frozen in mid-crawl, the way they always seemed to be, a few inches below the ceiling. Their skin was an odd yellowish green color, appearing almost translucent—Rachel imagined they would feel rubbery and sticky to the touch, like a gummy bear, not that she would touch one in a million years! They also had had tiny suction cups on their fingers and toes, or whatever you called the fingers and toes on a lizard—that was how they were able to cling to walls. Kurt had told Rachel that geckos were completely harmless, that they just ate spiders and other insects that and were very “shy” around people.
Kurt watched Rachel’s reaction, enjoying her squirm.
“Geckos mean good luck,” Kurt told her, but she already knew that, too. It was an old Caribbean superstition—Kurt’s father had told them about it the first time they had seen one in the house.
“They still make my skin crawl.”
“Oh, there nice. They won’t hurt you—watch.” Kurt reached up and, very slowly, moved his finger closer and closer to its stubby tail. The little creature suddenly scampered across the wall and disappeared around the corner—in the direction of Rachel’s bedroom.
“Thanks a lot, Kurt.”
He laughed. “He’ll keep you warm tonight, Rachel. Geckos are very cuddly.”
She merely sighed at the joke.
Kurt watched her for a moment, became almost as still as the gecko had been.
“You coming with us or not?”
“Do you really want me to?”
They gazed at each other, Kurt’s blue eyes locked on hers. He knew she had grown tired of Mitch and Lance and wanted to spend some time with him alone. Maybe he hadn’t ever kissed her, but she had a feeling he liked her more than just a friend. But Rachel certainly couldn’t blame him for wanting to bring Lance along on the trip. Lance was his best buddy. And Mitch was part of the family. Rachel just wished they didn’t have to go off on some crazy new adventure every two hours.
“I want you to go, Rachel,” Kurt finally said, “but only if you want to go.”
She thought it over another moment, then said, “I want to go.” It was a lie, but she decided that it better than being left behind with the geckos and God only knew what else.
She pushed her chair back and stood up, motioning to the cake. “Should I bring some along? You might get hungry.”
Kurt grinned, his dimples showing. “Good idea. Why don’t you bring some drinks along, too. It’s a long hike up there.”
* * *
It was almost 3:30 a.m. by the time they climbed the hill to the lighthouse. When they reached the towering, beige-colored structure, Rachel was relieved. The entrance was covered with a rusty metal door that looked like the ones used on prison cells. And there was a large, heavy padlock on it.
“Well, I guess that settles that,” Rachel said.
Kurt laughed. “You think a little padlock is going to stop us?” He tilted his head back and surveyed the area around the door. Above it was a ledge, and above that and to the left, a rectangular window. In the semi-darkness, it looked to Rachel as if it blocked from the inside with a piece of wood.
Kurt apparently didn’t notice this, or simply didn’t care.
He began to climb.
Rachel glanced over her shoulder, towards the road that led up to the lighthouse from the beach. “I’m not sure this is a good idea.”
“Then why don’t you go home,” Mitch muttered..
Rachel ignored the comment. She watched as Kurt deftly pulled himself up onto the ledge and eased himself around to the window. She couldn’t help admiring his movements, and his body in general. He may have been a whiz in science and math, but he was no “geek.” Tonight, he was wearing only some running shorts and a sleeveless shirt, and his muscles in his arms and legs were clearly visible in the dim light. She also found his masculine, square-jawed face incredibly sexy.
So do half the girls in the tenth grade, a voice in her head said. He’ll never think of you as anything more than a friend. “You’re like a sister to me,” he once said. Thanks a lot!
Lance had a big birthday bash two months ago, and Linda Eastland was there, who Rachel knew liked Kurt, and it seemed that he was paying a lot of attention to her. Rachel had wanted to strangle her, and then hated herself for feeling jealous.
Kurt started pounding on whatever it was that blocked up the window. A second later, there was a thud. “We’re in!” he called down to them in a loud whisper. “You first, Rachel. Then Lance and Mitch.”
Rachel hesitated—Kurt had first stepped up on the padlock and eye-hook to climb up to the ledge. It looked easy enough, but his legs were longer than hers.
“I’ll give you a boost,” Lance said.
“No, I’ll give her a boost,” Mitch said.
“You can both keep your hands to yourself,” Rachel told them. She tried to step up onto the lock, her sneaker slipping a couple of times. She managed to get a foothold and climb her way up onto the ledge, the same way Kurt had. She was only wearing shorts and a T-shirt, and both Mitch and Lance seemed particularly interested in monitoring her progress from below. She was thankful that it was dark.
“That’s it,” Kurt said reassuringly, as she made her way around the side, towards the window. Something tugged at her shorts. A split-second later, the sound of tearing fabric cut through the air.
“Oh-oh,” Mitch said, laughing.
As soon as Rachel was within Kurt’s reach, he grabbed her arm and helped her over to the window. “You okay?”
“I’m fine,” she said, turning around to look at her shorts. There was a small rip at the bottom, but nothing serious.
Kurt leaned out and peered at the wall. “Lance, be careful—there’s a nail sticking out.”
“Great,” Lance muttered.
“This should be interesting,” Mitch said, with a giggle.
Lance ignored him and made a futile attempt to tuck his immense Polo
shirt into his shorts, looking a bit self-conscious. Lance wasn’t fat, exactly.
Lance grunted and began to climb up the gate. He made it onto the ledge with surprising grace, at least with more grace than Rachel had displayed. Though Lance may have been heavy, he certainly knew how to move his extra weight around.
Mitch finished off the rest of his beer and threw the can over his shoulder. He first tossed the beach bag up to Kurt, then climbed up onto the ledge in no time flat. He had a wiry frame and looked as if he was built to climb around on things, like a monkey.
“Let’s go,” Kurt said, after they were all assembled on the ledge. He pushed the beach bag through the window, then wriggled through himself and dropped down to the inside. “I can’t even see my own hands in here.” When he spoke his voice echoed a little bit—it sounded like he was inside a cave. A few seconds later, he found the flashlight and turned it on. He was standing on some steps. From Rachel’s vantage point, it appeared to be a spiral staircase. Kurt motioned through the window to her.
Rachel wriggled through and Kurt helped her down to the steps. It smelled dank and salty. Lance and Mitch followed. Lance got stuck about halfway through, but Mitch gave him a little playful assistance from behind and he finally made it, cursing Mitch under his breath.
They began to climb the winding concrete staircase, Kurt leading the way. Every dozen or so steps there was another rectangular window in the wall. Rachel glanced out each of them as she passed by, catching a view of the palm leaf covered huts on Arashi beach, and farther away, the sparkling strip of high-rise hotels on the east side of the island.
“Look!” Lance said. “I see it!”
Lance was behind her, staring out the last window Rachel had passed.
Kurt scrambled back down the stairs and brushed past her.
“Right there! A red light out in the sand dunes.”
Rachel and Mitch joined them, all four of them bumping heads as they tried to peer through the small window.
“I see it!” Mitch said. His voice dropped to a whisper. “It looks like it’s glowing.”
Rachel had seen it too, though now, Mitch was blocking her view.
“Let’s go all the way to the top,” Kurt said, as he started up the steps again. “We can see better up there.”
Rachel followed the three of them, lugging the beach bag with her. In his excitement, Mitch had carelessly left it next to the window. It was a lot heavier than it was when she had packed it—apparently, Mitch had slipped in a few cans of beer along with the soft drinks before they had left the house. As she made her way up the stairs, the bag slammed against her knee a couple of times. There was something sticky on her skin. She stopped for a few seconds to see what it was and found that the cake had been pulverized by all the beverage cans—the icing was seeping through one side of the thin material. Rachel dreaded what Kurt’s mother would say when she saw it. The light blue bag was actually hers, an Aruban souvenir she had bought, a green Divi-divi tree embroidered onto the front. Now, the tree was almost obliterated by a greasy circle of melted icing.
Wonderful, Rachel thought. She would undoubtedly get blamed for it.
As she resumed her ascent, the faint tingling in the pit of her stomach returned. She had been sure that if Kurt and Lance had actually seen anything, it was only a shooting star. Now, however, she had seen it herself. And whatever it was, she had a feeling it was no shooting star.
When they reached the top of the lighthouse, Kurt encountered a solid steel door with another padlock on it.
Kurt banged on it with his fist, cursing.
Rachel stepped back down to the nearest window. “You can see it from here.”
Lance tromped down the stairs and looked out, followed by Mitch and Kurt.
The red glow was much more visible now.
“It’s just past where we stopped yesterday,” Kurt said, “near the cliffs where we were watching those guys windsurf.”
Rachel thought he was right—she could barely make out the cliffs, and the whitecaps of the waves beyond them. They had stopped and watched as some local boys did flips, even double flips on the large swells, expertly landing upright again on their windsurf boards. Mitch said that he wanted to try it, but Kurt told him that anyone was crazy who tried to windsurf there. The waves were good, but there were lots hidden rocks and “coral heads,” razor-sharp pieces of petrified coral that lurked just below the surface of the water. When one of the Aruban boys finished and carefully picked his way up onto the cliff, they noticed that his tanned body was covered with long, snaking scars, all crisscrossed by white stitch marks. The sight of him made Rachel shudder.
There were a lot of sand dunes there, too. The flashing red light seemed to originate between two of them. The spot was at least a mile away, maybe farther. It had taken them about ten or fifteen minutes to ride there on the bicycles they had rented.
“It looks like its blinking,” Lance said.
“Yeah,” Kurt said.
“It’s the light on top,” Mitch said. “Spaceships always have little red lights on top so airplanes won’t crash into them.”
“Very funny,” Lance said.
None of them spoke
for a moment, the wind making a foreboding, hollow sound as it blew through the
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