Whack! Whack! Whack!
There. That should do it, he thought as he drove the last nail into the hand-painted sign: Pop's Place.
Pop had nailed the sign to the front eave over the steps of the porch. He walked down the steps to the edge of the driveway, stopped, and turned around to inspect his handiwork.
The family home was an old white clapboard, low-country two-story with wraparound porches front and back on both levels and a silver-colored painted standing-seam steel roof that pounded when it rained hard, as it often does in the South. Worn and well lived in, but not run-down, it sat on the edge of the interior marsh separating Sullivan's Island and Mount Pleasant.
The dim red lights from the instrument dashboard reflected off the interior of the plane's cockpit. Pop felt a trickle of sweat slowly make its way down the middle of his back.
"Lieutenant, you see anything yet?" Runyan's worried voice crackled over Pop's headphones.
"Nothing yet, Runyan."
Petty Officer Jim Runyan was Pop's enlisted back seat gunner and radio operator. The two teamed up on many prior dive-bombing missions against the Japanese and worked well together.
Back in the tiny radar room onboard the Big E, the aircraft carrier USS Enterprise, officers huddled around the enlisted radarman seated in front of his scope. He was watching for a blip, a small burst of light that appeared for just a moment when the electronic sweep passed over an air contact.
"Where the hell is he?" growled Lieutenant Commander Will Barker, commanding officer of Bombing 6, Pop's squadron. "He knows better than to be out after dark - no damn way to get back, and he must be on fumes.
"Good morning, Mr. Harrison. How are you today, sir?" asked the very pretty young blonde with bright-blue eyes behind the front counter. Michaela was her name. Her long, curly golden hair fell midway down her back, shining in the sunlight that sneaked through the windows.
Pop's and Michaela's eyes met and stayed for just an awkward moment until Pop cleared his throat and broke his gaze.
"Doing well, Michaela. How are you sweetie?"
Pop had known Michaela since she was a little girl, but he just realized he hadn't been paying attention all these years as she grew up. Wow! Herb's daughter had matured into a beautiful, young woman right under his nose, and it had completely escaped him.
If she was a bit older, and I was a bit younger, who knows? he thought.
Pop woke with a start. He sat up in bed, eyes wide open. His heart raced as adrenaline pumped through his body. Panting, he quickly looked around the darkened room. It was quiet except for the crickets outside. Now he remembered: He was back in South Carolina. It was 1949, and the war was long over. He took a deep breath, plopped back onto his pillow, and stared up at the ceiling. Eventually, his breathing and heart rate slowed. He regained drowsiness and fell back asleep.
Pop pulled into his usual spot at the side of the general store, put the transmission in first, and shut off the engine.
"Okay, now," started Pop in a loud voice as he reached for the screen door handle but then stopped, hesitated, then carefully and deliberately pulled open the door and stepped inside.
"What's all the ruckus about?" he said starting again.
Michaela was talking quietly with another young lady. As he passed, they both turned and looked at Pop. Michaela caught his eye and he met her gaze with his own. She had the slightest hint of a smile on her lips.
Herb, Pop's childhood friend, owner of the store and Michaela's father, called from the back of the store and motioned with his head for Pop to come back there.
"Who's the African girl, Herb?" asked Pop, referring to the young lady at the front counter, "not that it matters much to me."
"That's Katrina, and she's not African," replied Herb. "Well, she's Cuban, whatever they are, but forget all that. She's your first customer!"
"Okay, that's great!" exclaimed Pop.
"I didn't know you owned a hotel," Katrina said.
"I don't. It's not a hotel. Well, it didn't used to be, " Pop chuckled. He kicked the crushed oyster shells with the toe of his boot. Giving Katrina a half smile, he said, "Now I guess it's your home - at least for as long as you are here. Let's get you settled in."
After the drama of the day, Pop decided to turn in early that evening, even before the sky had fully darkened. He fell asleep as soon as his head hit the pillow and started to dream...
Pop tapped the throttle back and leveled off at twelve thousand feet. He was on the lookout for enemy shipping.
Suddenly, up ahead, Pop saw what looked like four Japanese oilers, known to be loosely following the Japanese carrier task force. There is no way I am returning to the ship with a full load of bombs, Pop thought as he looked down on the Japanese replenishment ships.
Just as Pop signaled the attack, they must have been spotted by the enemy vessels. The ships began evasive maneuvers by zigzagging through the water at varying speeds. Pop pushed the stick forward and eased the nose over into a near-vertical dive-bomb attitude.
As he descended, antiaircraft fire began to explode all around him with colored bursts. Shrapnel pinged against the propeller and clattered against the windscreen. The combined scream from the engine along with the rushing of the slipstream along the fuselage was almost deafening.
After the bombing run they headed back toward the battle group. Pop felt disoriented, a bit like vertigo, and his vision started going in and out. Pop shook his head in an effort to clear his head, but his vision soon tunneled.
"Runyan, start the checklist, dammit!"
"What checklist, sir?" Just then Runyan felt the plane enter a steep dive.
"Sir, what are we doing? Sir!"
Then in a faraway voice, Pop heard Runyan yell into the intercom, "Pop! Sir! What are you doing? Pop! Pull up! Pull up!"
Life in the low country rolls along at its own pace and follows its own rhythms: the call of the waterfowl in the marsh in the early morning; the musky sweet smell of low tide twice a day; and the gentle, salty air breezing off the Atlantic in the evenings. All characteristics of coastal Carolina.
At Pop’s Place, the days passed slowly but comfortably. Several boarders came and went in the following weeks, mostly short term, paid their rent on time; but otherwise, the intersection of their lives’ paths and those of Pop’s Place were brief and uneventful.
Katrina was a good companion to have around The Place. She did her job as house manager in a most professional way, taking pride in her work. This showed a certain degree of ownership in her responsibilities, and this pleased Pop—he didn’t care much for slackers. She had a pleasant and friendly demeanor, quickly sized up people, understood their motives, and dealt with them accordingly and appropriately. Although Pop in no way considered her as a potential for a romantic relationship, he nonetheless grew to be very fond of her company and wanted her to have a pleasant and meaningful life, however long she remained at Pop’s Place. In fact, Pop did not want romance between them as he feared that would eventually ruin their business relationship. This was not to say, however, that he didn’t recognize her as a woman in a way that a man does.
However, today, unlike most other days, something was different in the way Katrina looked. She was even standing differently. Pop was sure it wasn’t him or the way he looked at her. Something was truly different, but he couldn’t put his finger on it.
“Katrina,” Pop asked, “what is different today?”
“Ah, yes, Señor Pop, I do think it will rain today,” she replied, bending over the sink to peer out the window. “But maybe that isn’t so different. No?”
“No, something else. Something about you,” said Pop. “I do not understand.”
“You look different,” Pop continued. “It isn’t the dress—I don’t think—I have seen that same one often. Something about you.”
Katrina stood still for a moment, still not facing Pop. She leaned over and picked up a dish towel. Drying her hands, she set it back down gently and paused for another moment before turning around. “I have feared this moment since I arrived here several weeks ago. I did not want you to know.”
As he dreamed, Pop tossed and turned in his sleep...
All Pop remembered was the sound of water slapping against the sides of his closed canopy. He blinked a couple of times, trying to clear his head.
Looking around his cockpit, he could barely make out in the dim light of twilight the instrument panel and assorted levers, switches and cables that surrounded him. Suddenly he became aware that his legs felt wet. He looked down and saw water in his cockpit almost up to his lap. He immediately took off his leather helmet, released himself from his parachute pack, and grasped the cockpit release handle. He gave it a violent tug. It was stuck. He looked down at the slowly rising water and tugged again—harder. The canopy catch released, and with a screech like fingernails on a chalkboard, Pop cranked the canopy backward on its rails. As he jumped up onto his seat, Pop suddenly got light-headed, and his vision collapsed into a narrow tunnel.
Sunrise came early on the third day as it always did around this part of the world. As soon as the sun broke the horizon, the heat and humidity jumped considerably. Several puffs of clouds dragged across the sky, occasionally providing brief respites from the sun.
As another plane droned past at high altitude, Pop decided to deploy the second and final sea dye marker. Yesterday he wasn’t ready to assume the risk of attracting sharks, but desperation drove him to it today. He opened the pouch, strapped the lanyard to the side of the life raft, and flung it out. With a plop, it landed in the water a few feet away, and immediately the lime green dye started to spread.
Suddenly, in the corner of his left eye, he thought he saw and heard movement on the surface—a slight splash. He turned his head, but there was nothing. He scanned the water, over his left shoulder then his right, but didn’t see anything.
“Ah! There! Again!” Pop shouted aloud as he turned in the raft, now to the right. “But what was it?” Pop continued to search back and forth. After several minutes, he sat back. “My head hurts, I keep drifting in and out…and I am thirsty as hell. I am probably just seeing things.”
As he drifted along, Pop swirled his fingers in the water with his right hand, blankly looking at the water, but not really taking in anything that he was seeing.
From the depths below, a large, dark, triangular shape slowly came into focus just below his fingers. Pop watched as it gradually materialized, but it didn’t register at first. When it rotated slowly to the right and moved along his raft toward his dangling feet, he saw the black, lifeless eye about a foot below the surface. He snapped fully awake. Shark!
Pop turned around again and motioned to Katrina to stay where she was. He slid the pistol into his right rear pocket. He put his finger to his lips, signaling for her to stay quiet. He pushed open the front door and stood at the top of the wooden steps.
Simultaneously both doors of the car were flung open and two young men in their twenties of obvious Latin descent stepped out. An empty bottle of rum rolled out and fell on the crushed oystershells. Despite the cooler weather, the driver was wearing a white Guayabera long-sleeve shirt with the four patch pockets in front, cream linen pants, and a white Panama hat with a black band. Between his fingers he held a H. Upmann Flor de Tabacos de Partagas cigar—a Cuban favorite of the upper crust. His buddy on the other side of the car was similarly dressed but with a pale-blue shirt and no hat. He came around the car and joined the driver. Both started to move toward the house.
In an instant Hector kicked Pop’s hand. A shot rang out, and the bullet slammed into the ceiling, showering them both with plaster. The pistol skittered across the floor. Hector reached into the back of his pants and pulled out his own weapon—a Colt .45 model 1911—pulled back the slide, and chambered a round. He leveled the pistol at Pop’s abdomen. With a sneer, he said, “This is for what you did to my wife.”
Whoosh! He heard the sound of water splashing onto the plank floors. He whirled around. Katrina stood looking at him, a surprised look on her face. A puddle of water lay at her feet.
“Oh! I thing the excitement may not be over yet. Today may be the day.”
Herb moved inside the back door, pulled the screen door shut behind him, and latched it to the frame. He took one last look at the marsh and swung the heavy wooden door on its hinges. The wind howled around the edges of the door as he put his shoulder to the wood and closed the last few inches. He rattled the knob lightly to make sure the catch caught and slid the slide lock home. He turned to face Michaela in the darkened room and leaned back against the door.
“Honey, get out the kerosene lanterns and matches,” said Herb, a little breathless. “It’s already pretty dark in here now, and nightfall will be coming before too long.”
With a tremendous crash, a window in the back of the store suddenly blew in, wind scattering broken shards of glass and wood everywhere. Michaela and Herb could feel the whoosh of the wind blow through the store.
“Michaela! Sweetie! There is something I have to tell you!”
shouted Herb. “Something you have to know!”
Michaela, without saying a word, leaned forward with one hand clung to his shoulder, to hear what Herb had to say above the roar of the wind.
“I have meant to tell you this for a long time, but was waiting for the right moment. There might not be another moment,” Herb shouted above the cacophony of sound around them. “You—”
“Is she going to be okay?” asked Pop.
“I think so. She was brought in late last night. They found her in a pile of branches in this condition. She’s in a light coma now from the concussion, but she’s young and strong. Her vitals are good. I expect her to wake up any time now. How do you know the girl?”
“She and her daddy are neighbors and old friends of mine. I’ve known them for a long time. I grew up with her daddy, and I’ve known Michaela since she was a young child,” explained Pop. “They’re good people.”
“That’s pretty much what I thought. They found her purse nearby, and she had a flyer from your boardinghouse in it. ‘Pop’s Place,’ isn’t it?”
Dr. Dan and Pop stood at the foot of Michaela’s bed for a while longer, staring over at Michaela. Pop took a deep breath. “Dan, I almost hate to ask, but Herb, her daddy, where is he?”
The light in Michaela’s room snapped on behind the drawn curtains, casting a dim yellow rectangular light across the floor of the veranda. Pop heard the bedroom door shut. A few minutes passed, presumably as she prepared for bed, and then the light unceremoniously went out.
"Good, she’s asleep.On one hand," thought Pop, "I won’t have to deal with this tonight, but on the other, I still don’t know where in the world I stand."
He was afraid to admit it to himself but, impulsively, he wanted to confront the situation and put his doubts to rest one way or the other.
Pop entered the house through his bedroom door. He set his coffee cup on the small table by the window, kicked off his shoes, and lay on the bed staring at the ceiling, still fully awake and still fully clothed—his mind racing through the possible scenarios over and over. Then he thought he heard an almost imperceptible whisper, a sliding shhh. He sat bolt upright. He mentally cleared his mind. “What was that? Did I hear something?”
Pop jumped to the window and parted the curtains just enough to see outside. The first quarter moon was just setting—nothing unusual. He wondered if he heard anything after all. He shrugged, turned around, and sat down on the edge of the bed. Just before laying back down again, he saw it. A small piece of folded white paper slid partway under the door.
Michaela stopped in front of her bedroom door. Holding both sandals in one hand, she turned around and faced Pop. Rainwater dripped from the two of them, puddling on the pine plank floor around their feet. She put her arms around Pop’s slim waist and gazed up into his hazel eyes. Standing on her tip-toes, she pulled him tightly against her, hips to hips. Her white gauze dress was thoroughly soaked, revealing every curve of her firm body, leaving nothing to the imagination.
“Well, for the record,” said Agnes, holding out her white-gloved hand, “my name is Mrs. Jackson Harrison, as I am still Jackson’s wife, but you can call me Agnes.”
“Yes, well, of course.” Jerry coughed nervously, glanced over at Pop and sat down. “I suppose that is what we are here to discuss.”
“There is really no discussion to be had. Jackson and I were married fair and square, all legal-like, at the Naval Academy. I have the marriage certificate right here to prove it.” She patted her purse. “And South Carolina being a community property state and all, that makes him and me partners in his little hotel.”
Later in the afternoon, Kat walked into the kitchen and stopped by the hook on the wall to gather her apron. She had been out all day shopping. Putting the apron over her head and tying it behind her back, she stopped suddenly, frowning. That gas smell again! she thought.
Just then Michaela opened the back door and stepped in.
“Kat, do you smell gas?” She walked over to the window over the sink and lifted it open. “Whew!” She fanned the air with both arms. “Whew!”
“Sí, Señorita. Señor Pop went to Columbia today to get the part to fix it. Finally. It has been this way for a long time, but it has gotten much worse in the past few days. I would turn it off, but I do not want to break it.”
“Oh, that’s where he is. I was wondering about that. Do you need any help with dinner? If not, I am going to go upstairs and take a nap before we eat.”
Pop could see the spectacular sunset in his rearview mirror as he crossed over the bridge into Mt. Pleasant. He would be home soon, and his growling stomach anticipated dinner. Pop couldn’t remember when he had been happier.
As Pop crossed the low wooden bridge onto Sullivan’s Island, a tremendous boom! echoed across the island. Stopping suddenly, he saw a huge fireball rise above the trees ahead off to his left. Knowing that it was in the general direction as Pop’s Place, he shoved the gear shift into first, popped the clutch, and sped off in the direction of The Place as fast as the little four-cylinder motor would take him.
After she prepared for bed, she walked over to the bedside table, picked up a framed picture and gazed adoringly at it for a moment. With a heavy sigh, Michaela put down the picture and walked over to the window overlooking the dock. She had agreed to let Jim Martin keep his 22-foot sailboat tied up overnight with the promise he would move it tomorrow morning.
The breeze picked up a bit and the clips on the halyard softly clanged rhythmically against the mast. The dim amber dock light cast eerie shadows across her bedroom. As she watched, a light fog, more of a mist, slowly swirled in atop the water. Feeling a sudden chill down her back she grasped her sweater tightly around her neck. As she started to turn away, in the corner of her eye she thought she saw the dark figure of a man on the dock. She looked back quickly, but saw nothing.