“Over the Shoulder”
In the last hour since Jimmy and the others were camped inside the Team Shelter, the wind had picked up speed from a steady breeze to a salt-scented whip, and now the island was bracing for a weather change. The earlier humidity had been sucked up and cast away. A thick cool breath was hanging around in its place. Far out to sea, a blanket of darkened clouds appeared, and the heavier chop in the ocean hinted they weren’t coming with a gift basket of kindness. To the north, past Cannonball Peak and far westward to where he had to travel, the sky was still clear.
Jimmy closed his eyes and counted the steps he would have to take to reach the Mythical Creature’s domain. Even though he didn’t know the exact distance in miles between that and the Team Shelter, given the amount of time he’d have to spend walking on sand, he knew it would be both slow and exhausting. Both were qualities the Spotless Cowboy would love to take advantage of.
He thought he had made it obvious to the others that he didn’t want to take this trip. Sure, he understood the psychologically troubled nature of New Switzerland’s many inhabitants, and the odds of getting anywhere without suffering a fight were higher than they were in Los Angeles. But anyone willing to pick a battle with a man in superhero tights was already at a disadvantage emotionally, and was more likely to lose the fight in the first punch. The fact was, the majority of violent people claiming residence here didn’t have the training to cause much pain. The Spotless Cowboy, unfortunately, was much different. He had plenty of experience in causing pain, assuming one could feel pain when he’s the center of attention in a hail of gunfire. That was what Jimmy didn’t want to face out there in the wild.
However, thanks to the agreement he had made with Demo Man to join the Risen Ordinaries, and by extension, to contact the Mythical Creature on his behalf, he would have to take that chance. Rather than belabor the fear he felt souring his belly, he thought it was best just to make a run for it. So, he set out for his journey, keeping a tight hold of the videocassette, praying to God that no one would shoot him. Instead of cradling it under his arm like a football, protecting it from any slight vibration, Jimmy clutched it like a rolled-up poster crushed against his elbow joint. Then he began to walk. Calmly. He also assumed that running anywhere attracted attention, and attention would better draw the eyes of a murderous stalker surveying the roads for his prey than not.
Somewhere in the middle between the ocean and his destination, the scent of rum swirled around Jimmy’s nose. Although he was neither an alcoholic nor the casual drinker, he understood the momentary intoxication that came from pissing away the moment. Life took its leisurely stroll along the beach and invited anyone interested in paradise to walk with it. Everywhere around him the mood was calm, even careless. The people of Sandy Smack Island wandered the beaches searching for quarters, feeding gulls, and for whoever was bold enough to swim out to the pylons in the lagoon, the pelicans, and they each celebrated living life without working a job or worrying about the circumstances that had chased them here. Some entered the island shops—most shops were clothing outlets and cocktail bars—but it was unclear whether they were the shopkeepers or the customers, as everyone was dressed the same. And none of the people paid Jimmy any attention, which was exactly what he had wanted, so he seized the opportunity to belch; he had been harboring his stress in the form of gas since he’d left the house this morning and thought neighboring neglect provided him a chance to relieve himself in private.
But, as his mouth opened, a gust of wind deposited a tongueful of sand, and he dropped the cassette out of reflex. It landed two inches from a rock. A man who was fastening his sandals against a nearby stump looked over and noticed him.
Off to a terrible start, Jimmy thought.
Nearby, there was an open, bamboo style cocktail bar called “Tuna Bite” that had a full menu of drink items on display and accompanying mixing bottles lined up on the shelf below it. A lone bartender with arched shoulders and confident stride patrolled the pit. With every stool around him having a butt demanding submission, he didn’t have time to get bored. He also didn’t have time to serve Jimmy. For the impatient ones and the nonalcoholics, self-service was an option. Outside the hut was a spigot that ran up from the ground next to an unattached support beam that bypassed one’s chance for a hangover. It would have to do.
Still choking, Jimmy scooped the videocassette up from the beach and lumbered toward the spigot. On turning on the water, someone tapped him on the shoulder.
He didn’t want to look. He was supposed to be on a secret mission now, invisible to the world, and especially to homicidal men with golden eyes. But drinking out of a spigot next to a watering hole was not the most inconspicuous thing he could’ve done and he probably deserved to be noticed. As he knelt into the water stream, he turned his face.
It was Demo Man. And he had a note in hand. Jimmy didn’t feel any more relieved.
“I need you to do one extra favour for me. Take this note to the Creature.”
Sand rushed out of Jimmy’s mouth as the water rinsed in. He pulled away to take the note. The water dribbled down his chin.
“What for?” he asked, wiping water and muddy sand off his neck. “There’s a reason he’s avoiding you.”
“I know. And I respect that. That’s why I’m not looking for him. But I still need to pass some information along. Make sure he gets it.”
“Is it private?”
Demo Man laid his hand on Jimmy’s shoulder. The pressure exerting from his fingers was soft.
“You don’t need an answer to everything.”
“I guess that means ‘yes’?”
“What does your stalker look like?”
This caught Jimmy off guard. What little water and sand that remained in his mouth he nearly choked on.
“Plummet Man told me why you were jumpy in there. Says you call your stalker the ‘Spotless Cowboy.’ What does he look like?”
Jimmy wiped the last bits of dribble off his chin.
“I really shouldn’t give you that kind of information. I shouldn’t have even told Plummet Man about it.”
Demo Man cleared his throat.
“On the contrary, that was a very intelligent thing to do.”
Jimmy studied Demo Man’s face. The silver facemask pulled tightly across his mouth from ear to ear, and the dark lines down his cheeks bent outward as they relaxed, and whoever the mask covered wasn’t about to give anything away. But his blue eyes were visible, and they were wide, authoritative, understanding. They were like healing pools circulating above a ski-sloped nose. And he knew those eyes had seen a lot on this island. If the Spotless Cowboy were to make it to Cannonball City, those blue eyes would see it happen.
“You mean to catch him on your security cameras, don’t you?”
“As I said, very intelligent.”
Jimmy considered the consequence of sharing this information. By passing along the description, he’d effectively make Demo Man, the father of superheroes, lead Peacemaker, part owner of the island, a target. On the plus side, the Spotless Cowboy would never know to target him. It was dangerous, certainly, but also harmless, if kept in secret.
Jimmy closed his eyes as he recounted what he remembered about the man who had threatened to murder him on three separate occasions.
“Dark hair,” he said. “Pointed nose, almost like the Mythical Creature’s snout, but much shorter. Tan. Crusty skin. And his eyes—I could never forget his eyes. So dark, and yet, intense. They didn’t miss anything. Like yours. But they were different. They were golden, like an ancient coin, or a puddle of piss. They didn’t miss anything. Or forget. They murdered whatever they saw. Through gunfire. Smelly, bloody gunfire. Doctors, bodyguards, Corvettes—nothing survived.”
“Except you,” said Demo Man, interrupting his trance. “You survived.”
Jimmy looked toward the bar. None of the patrons moved. And he was still thirsty.
“Nothing lasts forever.” He folded the note and shoved it down his boot. Then he stuffed the videocassette under his arm. “I suppose I should get going while the sun’s still bright and I’m still breathing.”
Demo Man extended his hand.
Jimmy shook it. He had a firm grip.
“Don’t let him know you’re watching.”
“Don’t you worry about me.”
Demo Man turned away and headed for the clubhouse. Gulls jumped out of his path as he moved.
Jimmy looked at the Tuna Bite again. The bartender was sweating through his armpits he was so busy. Patrons demanded complex concoctions three at a time, and the man was in over his head. Even his brow had grown moist. The paddle fans that rotated above him didn’t seem to help. Jimmy didn’t want to bother him for the refreshment, even if that one rare cocktail would’ve calmed his nerves. He decided to trust Demo Man’s ability to become his eyes.
Once he wiped his brow free of sand, he continued north toward the island’s exit arch.
The oblong, oval-shaped Sandy Smack Island was a small mass of land, no more than a mile in diameter. Sidewalks were made from smoothed out collections of crushed seashells, somewhat easy on bare feet, but were few in number and connected mainly to businesses. Shops of limited variety—clothing, food, and bars mainly, with one hotel called the Smack Inn in the heart of it all—populated the northern part of the island while simple, single-roomed homes dominated the south. Everything was constructed from a mixture of bamboo and cedar or mahogany plywood, and each structure had its own wind generator providing power.
Palm frond fragments covered many of the thatched rooftops found on the island, perhaps to give the buildings additional aesthetic quality. As Jimmy continued north, however, he realized just how few of them were anchored. Hemp straps wrapped across each roof to keep the fronds in place, but they were clearly installed by amateurs. Jimmy took a frond to the face every hundred feet or so when the wind blew.
At the north end of the island, a guard manned the exit gate next to a No Dogs Allowed sign. He perched on a stool with arms folded across his chest and was sipping a sour apple martini as he gazed off across the western lagoon. For a man on the job, he certainly looked like he was enjoying himself.
When Jimmy approached, the guard hopped off his stool, nearly spilling his drink. He shoved his hand in Jimmy’s face.
“Any contraband heading for the main island?” he demanded. He was an average-sized man with blond stubble and sunglasses. For a moment, Jimmy thought he was looking in the mirror.
“Just the stuff Demo Man wants me to smuggle,” Jimmy said.
“Any liquor in your boots or?—”
“I actually could use a drink. Mind if I have a taste of that concoction?”
The guard lowered his sunglasses. Jimmy left his alone.
“Do I have any reason to stop you from leaving?”
“Well, you might prevent my death if you do. But if that’s no concern of yours, then no.”
The guard returned his eyewear to its normal position.
“Very well. Carry on then.”
The guard returned to his stool and took a sip of his martini.
One could imagine the bridge’s splendor the day after it was built: A grand feat of engineering from an island deprived of talent. Crossing a shallow channel and joining an isolated people to a mainland, it was the marvel for its time by rube standards. It hugged the water’s surface and stretched at least a quarter of a mile, supported with endless pylons and crossbeams. No one could deny its worth, or its functionality. But now it was worn from countless high tides. Paint had peeled from each board. Some boards were so rotted that a single step would’ve punched right through to the ocean.
Jimmy gripped the railing as he traversed the bridge with careful steps. Though the boards were like landmines, the handrails were quite stable, and he thought he could stop himself from falling through if he held on tightly enough. Waves lapped over his feet as the storm clouds drew closer. Sailboarders and swimmers kept close to it in the shallows, as if it would slow them down should they plow right through it to the other side. One swimmer caught in the middle of the bay reached up for the bridge to take a rest, and Jimmy was careful not to step on his fingers. A few gulls perched on the posts. And he kept walking, determined to get his task over with, determined to take the safest path, determined to avoid any—whoops, that was the wrong step.
The bridge ended on the main shore of the Cannonball Strip. While locals never officially gave it a name, Jimmy sometimes heard it called “Statue Beach,” for all the carvings of wildlife that dotted the base of the cliff. The statue of a lobster, called a “crimson claw,” stood in a plot of grass just beyond the stretch of glassy white sand. Shadows from the cliff planted it into darkness.
Jimmy, now exposed to the mysteries of the rising cliffs, shook out what was left of the rotted board in his boot, and then bolted for the statue to hide behind it. With the safety of Sandy Smack Island officially behind him, he needed to seek cover as often as possible.
Salt and coconut overpowered his scent as he closed his eyes and sat with legs folded at the statue’s pedestal, listening for ill-fitting noises and any change to his heartbeat. The ocean rumbled to the south, spitting the sizzle of crash break onto shore. Royal palms rustled in the fluctuating breeze on either side of him. And the gulls kept singing amid the whispers of the wind. But nothing echoed from the cliff. No footsteps. No rifle catches. Nothing.
With the videocassette tight under his arm, he stood and moved toward the west, hustling for the next statue. Above him, young tamarindillo and flowering sweet acacia trees with ripe yellow bulbs lined the cliff’s edge, peeking at him from over jagged rocks, but none moved beyond the wind. The scents they emitted were far too pleasant for his mood, and he didn’t trust them one bit. He kept his eye on them as he moved.
Statue Beach was long, almost the length of Coastal Run, which covered a five-mile stretch between the open fields of South Drive and the sleepy town of Primex, where Jimmy lived, and for every step he took along this beach, he glanced over his shoulder to discover that he was making hardly any distance at all. He lost track of time as he ducked behind one critter sculpture after another, occasionally glancing up at the cliffs to see if anyone was looking down. A half-hour could’ve passed, or maybe an hour—it had been a while—yet time expanded to fill the same compact bubble. An hour felt like a minute and a minute felt like an hour. His feet were already sore from the walking he had done since leaving Smack Burgers in Cannonball City, and the rolling dunes collapsing beneath his toes did him no favors. By the time he reached the triangular boulder formation near the beach’s curve to the north, he was exhausted. He dropped to his knees for a break.
The limestone boulders were several feet high, jagged, and clearly uncomfortable to use as a seat. But they had one saving grace. Someone had left a rowboat parked between them.
The boat was average-sized and had a deep hull and two sturdy benches. A pair of oars lay in the middle, stretching out under both benches. There was a stenciled logo for the Cannonball Queen painted on its side.
Jimmy climbed into the boat and pressed his forehead against his knees. He didn’t need the breath, but he definitely needed the rest. Although his ankle problems from his mishap at the Australian Open were all but a memory, too much wear and tear had left him vulnerable to pain, and he didn’t want to push it past its limit. With the tingling he felt near his left heel, he knew the limit was coming if he didn’t stop.
The sand around the boat was undisturbed. With the exception of the tracks he had left behind, there were no footprints surrounding it. It seemed that no one was coming back for it.
He checked over his shoulder. The cliffs remained quiet, and the tamarindillos lining the edge were still.
The quiet atmosphere did nothing to pacify him. No matter how much he tried tricking himself into believing differently, he felt uneasy about traveling the wild coast without protection. Even if Demo Man were watching, there was nothing he could do from miles away if something were to happen. That was reality as he understood it.
The solution was clear. No one was returning to this boat. Jimmy, therefore, would skip the walk and row all the way to the Forgotten Junkyard. The Spotless Cowboy would never think to shoot him out in the middle of the sea.
Two hours into his mission, Jimmy’s arms had grown weak. He dug his boots into the bench nearest the bow, clenched his teeth, and strained against the oars to maintain a straight path. But the plan to keep the coastline in sight was failing. Fighting the waves had merely drained him. Riptides pulled him farther away. Now loose somewhere in the Caribbean Sea, he had drifted far from shore and the currents were altering his plan by the minute. Then, as the last speck of hillside became the size of his thumb, the surface began to swell.
The Sandy Smack Island water taxi had dodged him a couple of times since, but it was too fast for Jimmy to get the captain’s attention. Each time Jimmy tried to flag him down, the captain was looking down at his sandwich.
The storm clouds drew over him as the waves continued to rise. Then a curtain of rain fell in blanketing machine-gun fire across the surface toward him and quickly barraged him. He stuffed the videocassette under his thighs to keep it from getting wet.
The rowboat rocked from the rising tide. It undulated through increasing peaks and troughs. Jimmy clutched the oars for dear life, straining to keep the vessel balanced. His abdominal muscles tightened under the pressure, a cramp overcame his belly, and his thighs nearly crushed the tape. He breathed through his nose and exhaled through his mouth just to keep calm.
But his efforts were in vain. Just as a crack of lightning zapped the horizon to the west, an eight-foot swell rolled through, causing the boat to careen up to the crest and tip sideways. Jimmy lost his balance and fell overboard, while still holding the oars like crutches, and he penetrated the surface of the sea.
He reached for the side of the boat when the wave passed under and the trough sucked him downward. The videocassette had skidded to the side during Jimmy’s tumble, and was now exposed to the elements. As the vessel tilted away from the pitch of the retreating wave, Jimmy hoisted himself over the edge and collapsed on the seat. The tape slid hard into his feet.
The moment he caught his breath and sensed the worst was behind him, another large wave drove through, this time capsizing the rowboat.
One oar tried to escape, the other got trapped under the boat, and the videocassette fell into the ocean. Jimmy, having little time to breathe, dove for the tape, catching it before it could disappear in the black abyss.
With his fingers tight around the videocassette he resurfaced to discover the loose oar getting away. Too tired to fight the waves, he flipped on his back and kicked toward the paddle.
Up and down the watery slopes he floated, forcing himself headlong into breaking troughs. The oar seemed motionless, yet Jimmy could never get close enough to catch it. With foam rushing up his nose every few seconds, he now regretted taking the ocean route.
Then he bumped into the oar. With his head. He kicked toward the boat after reclaiming the paddle, but he didn’t have the strength to flip it upside right. So he grabbed the top of the boat and held on. At this point, his mission was about survival.
Fortunately, his problems were short-lived. About fifteen minutes later, the water taxi returned. This time the captain paid attention.
“What’s wrong with you?” he asked, after he had pulled Jimmy aboard. “This tide’s no match for a rowboat.”
“Didn’t think it would be that difficult,” Jimmy said, as he rubbed the salt out of his eyes. “Shipwreck survivors do it all the time.”
The captain squinted. Jimmy couldn’t tell if he was thinking of something to say or telling himself how stupid his new passenger was.
“Well, where were you trying to get to?”
“You’re not a Lush Penitentiary escapee, are you?”
“Do escapees have access to rowboats?”
“Don’t know. That mean you’re not a convict?”
Jimmy laid the videocassette on the seat next to him and the oar on the floor. The other oar, as far as he knew, was still trapped under the boat. His lungs were heaving.
“Could we chat later? I’m exhausted.”
“If that’s what you want.”
When the storm passed, Jimmy convinced the captain to take him back to the rowboat.
The tide continued to swell, despite the weather clearing. But Jimmy and the captain reached over the side of the speedboat and flipped the overturned rowboat right side up, chucking the missing oar into view. Then the captain fastened a rope to its nose. Once Jimmy reached for the oar, they towed the rowboat back to shore.
“You should probably walk to wherever you’re going,” the captain said, as he helped Jimmy drag the rowboat onto the beach. “That water won’t be calming for at least another day.”
“Yeah, you’re probably right.”
A few minutes after the captain bid Jimmy goodbye and sped out of sight, Jimmy pushed the rowboat back into the water and hopped in, determined this time to stay closer to shore.
The orange sun of evening crept in when Jimmy finally caught sight of the coastal junk heaps. The beaches from the Highway Fork to the Rock Garden were long, smooth, and uneventful, and they provided him with no distraction or entertainment. A few swimmers ventured out close to where he rowed, but the tide was so relentless that most stayed nearer to dry land.
As the sun bottomed out, Jimmy entered the bay between the Rock Garden and the Forgotten Junkyard. With the ocean floor turning shallow, the waves became more violent, some lapping over the edge of the boat. He continued to fight the resistance, and soon drew close enough to shore that he could climb out and pull the boat to the beach.
With his boots still well below the waterline, he felt the ocean rushing around his feet. But he stomped along the ocean floor, struggling against the breaking tide. And he continued to rise above the surface, straining to keep the boat under control, and he rose, higher and higher, until he made it to ankle-deep water. And then he gave the boat one final tug. And he was on dry land. And he could rest easy.
He had made it to the place where the Forgotten Junkyard met the Caribbean, the southern beach just ahead of the Mythical Creature’s doorstep, and now he had to tread on land belonging to the island’s most dangerous Risen Ordinary, attempting to gain information from the creature who didn’t want to be bothered. Jimmy inhaled another breath of salty air as he prepared for his next unwanted confrontation.