An excerpt from

Gooseberry Island

As they walked toward the sound of hissing surf, he asked, “So how are you?”

She grinned. “Life’s better than good,” she said and looked at him. I should have guessed, she thought. “An Army Ranger, huh?”

 

He nodded. “I’m stationed at Fort Benning, Georgia, Fourth Ranger Battalion.”

“Well, that explains the haircut,” she teased.

 

“We’re being deployed to Afghanistan for a twelve-month rotation. It’s my first combat tour.”

Afghanistan, she repeated in her head and cringed. “And you’re shipping out…”

“Tomorrow,” he said. “I took all my leave, so I’ve been home for the past four weeks.”

 

“Wow,” she said, taken aback. “You’ll be away for twelve months?”

“Yup,” he said, looking into her eyes. “I’ve been told by a few of the guys who’ve already been over there that it can go by quick.”

“Wow,” she said again—at a loss for any other words.

 

He picked up on it. “You don’t like the military…” he started to ask.

“Just the opposite,” she said. “I have nothing but the greatest respect and appreciation for our men and women in uniform.”

“Really?” he asked. “You’d never know it by your face.”

“It’s just that…well…I also understand that freedom comes with a heavy price.” She shook her head. “And sometimes that price can be severe.”

 

David studied her. “Your dad?”

 

She nodded. “He was an infantryman in the first Gulf War,” she said solemnly.

 

“Wow,” David said, using her favorite word and not picking up on the melancholy. “Good for him.”

“Yeah, good for him,” she mumbled, just as they reached the beach

As though it had been awaiting their arrival, they found a deserted park bench. Cemented into the cobblestone pathway, the bench’s brown slats had been beaten relentlessly by a decade of harsh coastal storms and were now faded and smooth.

 

David gestured for Lindsey to take a seat. As she did, he took his place beside her. For a long while, they sat in silence, quietly paying their respects to the miraculous surroundings.

Together, they watched the sun set. Just as the final sliver went down for the night, David looked at her. “Good show, huh?”

“I can’t imagine a better one,” she replied.

He smiled. “Me either.” Suddenly, the beach was theirs alone.

 

As the moon took its rightful place in the darkened sky, the tide ran for the shore where it hissed upon landing. Seconds later, it sprinted back into the ocean, rearranging the cinnamon-sugar landscape and creating a beautiful rhythm as it ran its laps. The sea winds picked up, causing patches of elephant grass to bow to Mother Nature and her violent mood swings. The heavily salted air was crisp, heightening the senses. It was as if someone had pulled away an invisible veil, leaving behind the clarity of a blind man gaining his sight for the first time.

“It’s really beautiful here,” Lindsey whispered.

 

“I know,” David agreed. “It’s my favorite place in the whole world.”

She looked at him for a long moment. “Mine too,” she admitted.

In the distance, that same soothing tide yanked wave after wave into a headlock, throwing each one into the lighthouse that stood guard over the harbor; walls of freezing seawater were being tossed two stories high into the tall, sleek structure. Lindsey pointed toward the stone lighthouse. “Look at that,” she said.

 

Waves charged the gray tower, which appeared to have grown out of a pile of jagged rocks, pounding hard to overtake the medieval-looking fortress. It was like watching an unwanted guest: a missionary peddling religion from door-to-door, refusing to surrender. Above it all, the light—ten thousand candles strong—which had spent a century guiding the way for those who had become disoriented or lost on their journey, illuminated the entire show. As dependable as a loyal friend, that light stayed on in the face of even the foulest weather.

Lindsey tried to imagine what that strong lighthouse had witnessed in its time. A silent observer to horrible maritime tragedies; migrating souls trying to find their place in the world; a witness to whalers, men of war and countless fishermen, casting their nets in order to keep their children fed.

“That old lady, Ruth, has manned that lighthouse since I can remember,” David said, breaking Lindsey out of her trance. “They say she’s saved quite a few souls in that rescue skiff of hers.”

“She must be a hearty soul to live such a solitary life,” Lindsey said.

“I guess.” He thought about it. “I wouldn’t mind living there.”

“All by yourself?”

He nodded. “Why not? There’d be no one around to bother me.” He stared at the lighthouse. “I’ve met Ruth a few times, and she’s not very friendly.”

“Well, being antisocial is probably a valuable trait for that kind of work. Can you imagine spending that much time alone, confined to one space? It must change a person.”

“I suppose it might,” David agreed, “depending on where your head’s at.”

Lindsey shrugged. “She chose the isolation, I suppose.” After a moment, she added, “You’re probably right. I’ve been in a room filled with lots of people and still felt alone.”

 

David looked at her and smiled. “I think you have to feel comfortable being alone with yourself before you truly know who you are and can feel comfortable being yourself with others.”

Lindsey nodded. “Old Ruth rows into town every few months to pick up supplies, but she must live on seafood, mostly. Now that I could do.”

 

“Not me,” David said. “I’ve been eating seafood since the day I was born, I think. I could die a happy man if I never ate it again in my life.”

Lindsey tensed at the word die. “There are folks who’ve claimed to smell pipe smoke being carried on the winds from that lighthouse. You think she smokes?”

 

David grinned. “Who knows? There’s no one to stop her or complain.”

Lindsey laughed, happy to daydream aloud about the mysterious place. “Do you think that lighthouse has ever seen any pirates?” she asked, immediately creating pictures of sea shanties being sung and casks of rum being consumed, all followed by the usual pillaging and plundering.

David laughed. “Drunken men emptying lobster pots that weren’t theirs, maybe, but I can’t imagine that Blackbeard and his bloodthirsty crew have ever sailed these waters.” The closest thing to pirating would have been the local whalers—heavily tattooed, unshaven men from Nantucket and New Bedford—hunting whale bone to create scrimshaw jewelry and ornate pipes.

He’s right, Lindsey knew, but it was still fun to imagine it. Just by closing her eyes, she could imagine the sea winds singing in harmony—with gorgeous mermaids trying to seduce seamen into their watery graves or the terrifying howls of invisible sea monsters lurking within the rising swells.

 

“What do you think it looks like inside there?” David asked, bringing her back to the present once again.

She stared off into the distance and smiled. “I’ve always imagined a winding staircase at its center and rooms filled with overstuffed bookshelves springing out.”

 

“That sounds nice,” he said, happy to jump into her vivid imagination.

They sat in silence again, while moonlight carved out a swath of light across the rolling waves, creating an abandoned, dimly lit highway that stretched out to oblivion. The night sky—like a giant, darkened meadow filled with fireflies—glowed and twinkled, shimmering off of the vast turquoise desert below.

 

As they gazed up at the constellations together, Lindsey said, “When I was a small girl, my dad used to show me the stars. He’d say that I was the Little Dipper and he was the Big Dipper, looking over me.”

“Your dad sounds like a great guy,” David said.

Lindsey smiled. “He is,” she said, volunteering nothing more.

David looked up and pointed at the North Star. “That looks more like you to me,” he said.

“Really?” she asked.

He nodded. “They’re all beautiful, but that one shines the brightest.”

She looked at him and started to laugh, but he wasn’t trying to be funny or cute. He’s serious, she thought.

David grabbed Lindsey’s hand and held on, surprising her.

“Can I help you?” she asked, half-joking.

 

“I don’t want to get lost,” he joked.

 

She looked down at their clasped hands. “You feel safe now?”

 

He nodded and never let go of her hand.

“What about your father?” she asked.

“He’s inspired me my whole life,” David said.

“Really? That’s great.”

“Yup, he’s always told me I’d never amount to anything.”

 

“And you’re going to prove him wrong in Afghanistan, right?” she asked, her body tensing.

“Something like that,” he said.

 

Just then, people began leaving the party, and the musical roar was reduced to the hum of a few stragglers. “The keg must be empty,” Lindsey teased.

 

David smiled. “Must be,” he said, with an innocent shrug. After a while he said, “All right, so tell me, what’s the one thing about you that no one will ever know but me?”

 

His grin and dancing eyebrow almost made her laugh. Instead, she gazed at the stars. “I shouldn’t tell you this because you’re going to war.”

 

“That’s exactly why you should tell me,” he said.

“I have this incredible fear of dying alone,” she admitted. “And sometimes, I feel lost, as if I don’t belong here or anywhere else.”

 

David looked shocked by her depth and moved even closer toward her—until their legs touched.

“I know it’s silly ’cause I’ve never been alone,” she admitted, her eyes back on the stars. “But I still can’t help the way I feel sometimes.”

 

He wrapped his arm around her shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. “It’s not silly,” he whispered. “And I’m glad you shared it with me.” He peered into her eyes and smiled.

For Lindsey, it felt like this wasn’t the first time they’d ever been together. She turned to face him and completed the hug. For a few wonderful moments, they held each other tightly.

When they finally broke apart, he pointed at the lighthouse. “Look right over there. Whenever you feel lost or alone,” he said, “all you have to do is come here. No matter how dark or stormy, that light will always guide you home…back to where you need to be.”

 

While her eyes filled, she wrapped her arms around him again. This time, she kissed his cheek.

 

“Hey, what’ll your boyfriend think?” he teased.

Her body tightened, and he sensed it.

“Please tell me you don’t have a boyfriend, Lindsey,” he said, his voice now troubled.

 

She shook her head. “Of course not,” she said, “or I wouldn’t be here with you right now.” She looked into his eyes. “I was with a guy for three years, but we broke up six weeks ago.” She half-shrugged. “I caught him cheating.”

“Oh,” David said. “I’m sorry.”

 

“He keeps telling me it was a mistake, but…”

 

“I guess there are some people who could make those kind of mistakes,” David interrupted, “but I could never do that to someone I love.” He shook his head. “Never.”

She searched his eyes. He’s not saying it to be cruel, she thought. He’s just being honest.

 

“Sorry,” he said. “I shouldn’t have said that.”

 

“Yeah, you should have.” She squeezed his hand. “What about life after Afghanistan? What are your plans then?”

 

“I’ve been in for a while, so after this deployment I can either get out or re-enlist.”

 

“And which way are you leaning?”

 

He leaned toward her.

She laughed.

“I’m not sure,” he said, straightening up. “I love the Army. I do. But being a ranger hasn’t left much time for anything else.” He paused. “It’s not really a job, you know. It’s more like a way of life.” He looked into her eyes, where he stayed for a long moment. “And I think I want more from life…much more.”

 

She smiled.

“We’ll see,” he said.

“Yes, we will,” she said under her breath.

They sat on that hard bench, talking and laughing until the sun popped its head up in the east.

It’s strange how you can meet someone and feel like you’ve known them your entire life…or maybe even before that, Lindsey thought. She pointed toward the horizon and smiled. “Sorry, but it looks like I’ve cost you a full night’s sleep.”

He turned to face her and locked onto her eyes. “Don’t you dare be sorry, Lindsey. This was the best night of my life!”

She searched his eyes for the truth again but didn’t need to look far. She was an avid reader, and he was an open book that seemed to be written just for her.

“Besides,” he added, with a dimpled grin, “I’ll get my sleep on the plane.” He grabbed her and pulled her to him. “I promised myself I’d be a gentleman,” he whispered, “but I don’t know if I can stop myself from kissing you.”

“David, trust me, you are a gentleman.” She pointed to the sunrise. “If you’re concerned with time, then this could actually be considered our third date.”

At that moment, they both leaned in toward each other. With pursed lips, David took the final plunge. The kiss was tender and passionate and hungry and magical—all at the same time. It felt like a true first kiss, releasing butterflies that began to tickle Lindsey’s insides.

 

As they came up for air in each other’s arms, David said, “It figures that I met you now…my last night before shipping out for a year.” He searched her eyes again. “But I’m grateful I spent it with you.”

She grabbed his hand. “Me too,” she whispered, “but…”

 

“But?”

 

“I’m not sure I can start a new relationship right now.”

 

“So you think being a pen pal is a risky relationship?” he teased.

She gave him her contact information. “Here’s my email address. If you write me, I’ll write back.”

“I’ll write you,” he promised.

She smiled. “You’d better.”

As he escorted her back to her car, she said, “Whatever you do, David McClain, you come back to Gooseberry Island, okay?”

“I will, Lindsey Wood,” he said. “I’ll meet you right back here on the bench before you know it. I promise.”

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