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Greta and Charlie
by Em J. Knowles

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Best Friend's Brother

Badass loner surfer girl

Scared nerdy bird photographer guy

What could possibly go wrong?

Coming August 12 2024

Chapter One

 

Greta

 

THE MOON IS ROUND AND FAT, bulbous really. If it were a woman, she’d be pregnant, an overdue Mamma, like a giant glowing pumpkin, bowing at the sides. The orb looks as if it’s bobbing on the surf, then it slowly rises into the night sky. Men in black and blue wet suits straddle their boards and nod with the waves.

 

Just like every other day, they invite me into their circle. I respectfully decline, but I sit on my board close enough to hear their conversation but far enough to feel like I can get away. Even though they don’t know my story, they seem to respect my choice, but still, they leave an opening for me and my board. I imagine they want me to know I’m welcome, whenever I’m ready, if I am ever ready, but I do not want to enter their sphere. My heart whispers I can trust them, but my brain reminds me my heart is a trickster.

 

Toward the horizon, a dolphin pushes her nose through the surface of the water, and I lie down and paddle in her direction. Next, her mate and children appear. As I close in, I can sense their circle and do not want to enter without being invited, so I stop paddling and rest my chin and dangle my arms into the water.

 

I close my eyes and imagine the energy inside me flowing from my palms, as if it was a white silky steam of light. It meanders around thousands of minnows and millions of wandering plankton toward the dolphins. I imagine the pod turning toward my current of energy, and each nose nuzzles the ribbon and follows the flow back to my board where my favorite sentient beings allow me to touch them, to hold them, to embrace them. I imagine they invite me to glide through the water as they do, where I can open my eyes and hold my breath and dive down to greet the sea turtles and to chase the tarpon.

“Greta.” A man calls my name. “Greta.” He’s louder this time, but I do not want to let go of my dream, I do not want to—

A wave crashes over me, and I tumble head over feet, head over feet. I reach for the surface, but it’s not there. My body scrapes over the sand. For a second, my feet hit the ocean floor. Instinctually, I push off and project my body toward the moon.

 

When the non-surfing-types, the land lovers, tumble in the waves, they do not know which way is up, so they panic, and if the wave is big enough, they may find themselves in the arms of a bronzed lifeguard. But the surfers, the ones like me, who grew up in the blue water where the waves grow larger than anything Florida has ever seen, they are at peace—they are at home tumbling inside the surf.

 

It’s all part of the game, part of life, we’re just tiny phytoplankton drifting through the sea. When others find themselves in that place of panic, I find myself at peace. No matter where I am when I’m in the ocean, I’m free.

“Greta,” Tom yells over the crashing waves.

“I’m okay.” I cough and wave him off, but he runs, splashing in the water, toward me.

“You okay?”

“I said I’m okay.”

Tom’s a nice guy, so I instantly regret my tone. He’s older than I am, maybe late forties or early fifties. He could be my dad for all I know. He gives off the vibe that he pities me because he’s always checking up to make sure I’m alright. It’s weird because even though I don’t trust men because of the stories I’ve heard about my bio-dad, I trust Tom more than any other man I’ve ever met. Maybe it’s because he has a kid and a wife, and his eyes don’t seem to wander where they have no business trespassing.

As I walk to the shore, Tom trails behind. “What are you doing tonight?” He asks.

 

“Same old, same old.”

“Stace, Lulu, and I might be in for a late dinner.”

I nod and brush the hair away from my eyes. I think he expects me to engage, but I don’t.

 

“And later, all of us,” he gestures toward the surfers still in the water, “are lighting a fire, and Jonah is bringing his guitar. Have you heard him play yet?”

 

Jonah was the new guy in town. “Not interested, Tom.”

“I didn’t mean it like that. He’s married. They’re just a nice couple and close to your age.”

“I know what you’re trying to do. I’m not interested in becoming anyone’s friend or tour guide, unless there’s a financial exchange.”

“I just thought—”

“I know. Everyone thinks.” I grab my towel and pull the Velcro on my strap. “It’s just not where I’m at right now.”

 

“Got it. You like to be alone.” Tom turns and heads back toward the water. Over the sound of the waves, he yells, “We’re here when you’re ready.”

I don’t even respond. I don’t understand why Tom and his wife try so hard. As cliché as it may be, I’m a lone wolf. I mean I like people’s company. I have friends, kind of anyways. I have to be social behind the bar, so I have my regulars, and when I take clients out snorkeling, I have to talk to them too, and I have to be warm because I want them to come back. I guess I just don’t like people enough to want to hang out with them in my spare time. I don’t have much of it, so it's precious.

***

 

I walk down the alley and pull the back screen-door open. The kitchen is a buzz.

Wally, the head chef and co-owner, raises his tongs, “Hey, Greta.”

 

“Hey,” I say. I hang my board in the staff room next to the others then change into a short skirt and a Granny-square halter top. “Looks like the Labor Day weekend crowd arrived earlier than usual.”

“Can’t complain,” Wally says. “Hey, check in with Julie before you hit the bar. She wanted to talk to you.”

“Will do.” I grab a black apron and tie it around my waist. I knock on the boss’s door. “Wally said you wanted to see me?”

Julie waves me in. She sits behind an iron desk stacked high with papers. The walls are covered with pics of her and Wally traveling in their VW around the world. Potted plants hang from the ceiling and small trees stand in all four corners. She doesn’t use the fluorescents, instead several lamps with beaded scarves draped over them, surely a fire hazard, light up the room. There’s not a lot of space left over for the oversized papasan she points to. Oscar, their iguana, lounges on the top of the cushion.

 

Julie has a pencil pushed behind each ear, and her red hair sits on top of her head in a bun. She pushes her glasses up. “Have a seat, sweetie.”

I don’t like her tone. It could either mean another tourist complained about my aggressive attitude when I launched into a tirade about how I’m not a weekend girl, or she could’ve over-booked me when she knows I can’t work mornings. I’m trying to get my business off the ground, and she is well aware, but it doesn’t stop her from scheduling me. I take a seat.

She hands me a piece of mango and gestures for me to give it to Oscar. “I have a favor to ask.”

“I can’t work the extra hours. I’m sorry. My mornings are already booked through the weekend.”

“It’s not that.”

 

“Let me guess, another tourist?”

“Well, yes. That’s a given. But you have to know by now I’ve got your back. You have every right to stand up for yourself.”

 

“Thank you.”

“But that’s not what this is about. My brother, Charlie, is coming into town.”

“I don’t do blind dates.”

“Let me finish.”

I nod. “Sorry.” Oscar’s head bounces up and down while he tries to swallow his mango.

“He’s an award-winning bird photographer.”

An image of a sneezing ginger in heavy cargo shorts and glasses pops into my head. I stifle my laugh.

“Stop. He’s really nice.”

I press my lips together. “And you want me to--?”

“I’d like you to show him around. Be his tour guide.”

“Sorry, Jules, I just don’t have time for that. Maybe in a few weeks after the tourists leave.”

“Here’s the thing. He’s looking for a place to open a studio. In the bird community, he’s a big shot. I guess he makes lots of money. We’d like him to settle down here. Besides the fact that he’s family, he’s really nice. Did I say that already?”

“Uh, huh.”

“If he stays, he’s going to rent our beach cottage, which would alleviate some of this.” Julie gestures to the pile of bills on her desk.

I sigh. I want to help, but I need the tip money.

“I know what you’re thinking.” She hands me another piece of mango, and I bite off half and give the rest to Oscar.

I take the elastic from my wrist and twirl my braids then tie up my hair in a style like hers. “You probably don’t,” I say.

"You’re thinking you’d rather chew glass.”

“I don’t know if I’d go that far.” Oscar reaches out and touches my shoulder. I’m not crazy about iguanas, but there’s something sweet about this one. I touch the top of his head, and he closes his eyes. “I just need to make some money this weekend,” I say.

“Well, you’re in luck. Charlie’s willing to pay you more than you’d make on bar for the whole weekend, and he only needs a guide for two evenings. And—

 I’ll cover your shifts.”

"Wow, this must mean a lot to you.”

“More than you know, Greta.” There’s something she isn’t telling me, but I don’t pry.

“Okay. Set it up. I’ll show Charlie around.”

“You have to take him to the places where all the good birds hide. Not just the shore birds.”

I know where she’s talking about. I haven’t been there since last summer. It used to be one of my favorite spots, but not anymore.

“I’m sorry to ask you to take him there.”

I squint my eyes and look at Oscar. “It’s okay.” I stand and grab a piece of mango off her desk. I bite off half and toss the rest to the iguana. He catches it just like a dog would. “When do I meet him?”

“He said he’s rolling in mid-morning tomorrow. Maybe you guys could meet for brunch?”

“I’m not really a brunch kind of person.”

Julie tilts her head and sighs. “The money will be worth it to suffer through French toast and strawberries.”

As I walk out, I tap on the door. “Set it up.”

“Thank you so much, Greta.”

“By the way. Why aren’t you taking him around?”

“I hate birds. They freak me the fuck out.”

“Me too.”

“And he didn’t offer to pay me.”

“Ah, makes sense.”

***

End of Chapter One

Pre-Order Coming in July
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