Friends and Enemies
"When's your birthday?" The tall man asked.
"Winter 8th," I said, leaning against the railing of the boat and listening to the waves.
"What's your gender?" he asked.
I blinked at him and raised one eyebrow.
"It's protocol; I have to ask," he explained, sighing.
"Girl," I said, "And my name is Chelsea."
"What's your business on Sunshine Islands?"
"I'm thinking about moving there," I said, "and I'd like to look around before I make my decision."
"Practical enough." The man nodded and smiled. "We hope you enjoy your trip. The Islands are beautiful this time of year."
"So I've heard." I plastered a phony smile on my face politely.
He turned to walk back to the cabin. Just before he disappeared, he looked over his shoulder and called, "We should be leaving soon. There's a few other passengers who have to board."
I wrapped my arms around myself and continued to watch the water, letting my mind wander absently.
After my parents said I had to leave, I really wasn't sure what I would do. The whole thing had been rather abrupt. I'd been minding my own business, sitting the living room, when Mom came in and sat down.
"You've been here quite a long time, Chelsea," she hedged.
"Yes," I agreed, "Does it matter?"
"I know you've been looking for a job. I know that one day you'll be successful. But your father and I think you'd do better if you had a little . . . push in the right direction."
And that was it. They gave me $3000 'generously'. I packed up my things. And then I left. I still called them occasionally, not letting the resentment I felt seep into my tone. I stayed in a little motel for a few days while I looked for an apartment.
Unsuccessful, I went to a little Café and sat down with some coffee and ran into someone I knew.
"Julia Fletcher?" I asked, smiling widely.
Julia had been one of my very best friends in high school. When school had ended, she'd gone with her mother, Mirabelle, to live on little settlements called Sunshine Islands. We'd lost touch after that, but I never forgot her.
"Chelsea?" She asked in disbelief, coming over to sit by me after a hug. She looked just the same as before; light long blonde hair, big blue eyes and slightly revealing clothes.
"Julia, I haven't seen you in forever!" I cried as she sat down.
"It has been a while, hasn't it?" She mused.
"How's life on those new Islands? Are they thriving?" I asked, perhaps too nosily.
She made a face. "They're doing all right, I guess, but some say they aren't doing as well as they once did . . . what we really need is a money-maker, you know? Someone who can make our little home great again." Her voiced was tinged with longing.
"Really? Well, I'm sure someone will come along," I said sympathetically.
She sighed and changed the subject. "So how are things going to for you?"
I averted my eyes, ashamed. "Not so well. My parents got tired of me." I snorted. "I'm looking for an apartment and a job . . . maybe even a new life."
Her eyes brightened, and she grinned. "Chelsea, you don't really care about the city, do you?" Julia asked.
"Not really," I said honestly, "It's too populated and noisy."
"There's an old deserted plot of land on Vendure Island – that's where I live – that we're not using. It used to be an old ranch – the land is perfect for it. Ever considered farming?" She raised an eyebrow.
I leaned back in my chair, considering. I'd always wanted to get out of the city, sure, but farming was an entirely new idea to me. I was fond of animals, and I didn't mind hard work – which it would most certainly require – but . . .
"Come back to the Islands with me and look around. Taro would be thrilled if you said yes."
"Who?" I wondered.
"Oh, I guess you wouldn't know him, would you? He used to be a farmer himself – a pretty good one. He really wants our little Islands to thrive, and he's convinced the only way to do it is to get rancher." Julia shrugged, as if she didn't believe it.
"I don't know anything about it," I hedged.
"He'd teach you, I'm sure. And maybe" – she paused to smirk – "maybe you could ask some of the 'magical fairy folk'. They're rumored to hang around the Islands." She laughed loudly.
I smiled. "Maybe."
"So you'll come, then? I'm leaving this evening," she said persuasively.
I bit my lip. I'd never been an impulsive person; I always thought every little thing through before I did it. But this, what Julia was offering me . . . it would be stupid to not at least check it out. It had possibilities . . .
"Alright," I agreed, "I'll come, if only just to look."
She threw an arm around my shoulders. "Great. Let's get back to my hotel room – I have to pack."
"Why are you in the city, anyway?" I asked as we hailed a taxi.
"Oh, just for fun. There aren't any shopping malls there, you know," she laughed. "I don't come here very often. It must have been fate for me to bump into you like that."
I snorted and rolled my eyes. "You know I don't believe in that sort of thing."
She pursed her lips. "Oh, that's right."
So that was that.
I was on this rickety old boat, which was heading in the direction of what may or may not be my new life. I wondered ideally for a minute if this was the kind of thing Mom and Dad would approve of.
Probably not, I decided. They always wanted me to become a doctor or a lawyer or something.
Julia came out onto the dock to join me just then, smiling widely. "Chelsea, what day is it?"
"Sunday. Why?" I asked.
She looked around the deck. "My cousin might be onboard with us somewhere. He comes to the Island on Mondays and Tuesdays. Come on; let's go look for him."
Unable to come up with a reason why we shouldn't, I agreed, reluctant to leave the pretty water and the falling sun. The inside of the boat was rather cozy, I had to admit – little sofas were spread out in an observation room with a huge window made of glass so you could see the waves.
"He's not out here – maybe he's in one of the guest rooms," she sighed. "We shouldn't bother to look there."
"Maybe he'll come out for dinner," I suggested.
She shrugged. "Doubt it. He's just a bit anti-social."
"Did I ever meet him in high school?" I wondered.
"No – he went somewhere else, with his sister. We can go back onto the deck, if you want," Julia said.
"No – it'll be dark soon, and it's getting cold. Let's stay here."
We lay on one of the long couches in silence. I remembered that one of the great things about Julia was that she didn't feel the need to fill silences with meaningless chatter; we were comfortable just sitting there.
I was relieved that hadn't changed. There was a little counter in another room that sold food, so I bought both of us a hot dog and a little bag of nuts. A few of the other passengers came out their rooms to eat as well; Julia sat facing the hall, searching.
Finally, just as I was almost done, a man rounded the corner into the little eating room. Julia grinned widely and went over to hug him without a verbal greeting. The man froze and then blushed, looking anywhere but at her.
She chuckled and pulled away, gesturing for me to come over. I threw away the little nut bag and did as she asked. "Chelsea, this is my cousin. He's the Island's animal dealer – he works with Mom."
The man frowned down at me. Intimidated, I bit my lip and blinked. He was perhaps the oddest-looking person I'd ever seen – but in a good way. He had silvery jaw-length hair, and amethyst-colored eyes, a deep purple I'd never seen before. They were partially obscured, however, by the black Stetson hat he wore.
The rest of his clothes matched the cowboy appearance; a black button-down with a tan vest, black jeans, black fingerless gloves and a white bandana around his neck. Absently, my hand reached up to touch my own red bandana, neatly tying my hair back.
He continued to stare at me, almost in disapproval, and a knot formed in my stomach.
Rather than allowing the awkward silence to stretch on, though, I found my voice. "Nice to meet you."
He nodded at me once before his eyes flicked to Julia in irritation. "Are we done with introductions? I just wanted a drink." His voice was deep and gruff, but still smooth and appealing.
My heart was beating so loud it wouldn't surprise me if everyone on this boat heard it.
Julia frowned and sighed. "Don't be rude, Vaughn. Say hello."
Vaughn, I thought. So that was his name.
He turned to me and muttered "hello" before whirling and heading to the counter. When I looked back at Julia, she was smiling apologetically.
"Sorry. I guess I should have warned you about him. He's not . . . overly-friendly."
"Overly?" I asked, raising my eyebrows.
She avoided my eyes now. "Okay, so he's not friendly at all."
"I can hardly believe he's related to you," I said, "You, the picture of happiness and optimism."
Julia waved one hand dismissively.
I glanced out of the corner of my eye and saw the man behind the counter handing Vaughn some sort of red drink in a fancy-looking cup. Wine, my mind supplied. When he tried to pass us to go back into his room, Julia caught his elbow.
"Vaughn, wait – sit with us in the observation room for a while." Her voice was half-hearted, anticipating his response.
His eyes were cold and hard. "No." He turned and disappeared down the hall without looking back.
I bit the inside of my cheek, fighting feelings of anger and pessimism. "Did I do something . . .?" I asked Julia, my mind scanning over our short greeting and coming up blank.
Julia shook her head almost violently. "No, Chelsea, it wasn't you, I promise. He's like that to everyone, and always has been; if you move to the Island, you'll get used to it."
"If all the other Islanders are as welcoming as he is, then maybe Sunshine Islands is not the place for me," I mumbled nervously.
Julia chuckled unexpectedly. "Trust me, Chelsea, everyone is the exact opposite of Vaughn. Warn and friendly and happy and all that."
"If you say so . . ." I murmured, glancing once more over my shoulder as we made our way to the little observation room and sitting on little blue couches.
There were a few other people in the room, and they were all talking quietly amongst themselves.
"So he's always been like that, then?" I asked the question before thinking, but I chastised myself almost immediately after the words fells from my lips. It wasn't my business to know anything about Julia's rude cousin, and it shouldn't interest me in the slightest.
Just because he was attractive didn't mean he was worth getting to know, I told myself, thinking of his eyes in particular.
Julia looked both surprised and curious by my question, but she shrugged and answered me anyway. "Yes, always. He didn't have the best upbringing, though."
"Oh? What happened?" It was like I didn't have control of myself – I couldn't shut up.
Julia bit her lip and fidgeted with the hem of her shirt. "Chelsea, it really isn't my place to say."
"Yes, of course not," I said quickly, "Excuse me for asking." Stupid, I growled to myself, stop asking nosy questions.
Julia's laugh rang out across the small room. A few people glanced up, either curious or irritated. "Don't be so formal, Chelsea. If you really want to know, you could ask him – but I feel obligated to warn you that his reply might be colorful."
I snorted and shuddered slightly. "It doesn't matter; I don't know why I asked. Tell me more about the Islands," I said to change the subject.
She was instantly talking animatedly about her wonderful home – how beautiful and simple it was, how kind the people were, how much potential it had.
"Taro thinks it could be a real success. If I remember correctly, you were always so determined in school, Chelsea. I bet you could do it. You could build a thriving farm and find all the sunstones."
"Sunstones?" I asked, caught off guard by the unfamiliar word.
She paused and seemed to realize something. "Oh, sorry, Chelsea, of course you wouldn't know what those are – Taro will explain it better than I can."
I shrugged and agreed.
She then proceeded to tell me about the people who lived on the Islands. "Since there's only three Islands – well, four, if you count Lighthouse Island, which is pretty much deserted – there aren't many people. There's my Mom and me – and Vaughn, when he's here – Chen and Charlie, Natalie, Taro, Felicia, Denny, Lanna, Gannon, Eliza, Regis, Sabrina, and a few others whose names I've forgotten."
"Is that everyone?" I asked.
"No. There's also Elliot." She said his name warmly, lovingly almost.
"Boyfriend?" I guessed, raising an eyebrow.
She shrugged and blushed slightly. "We haven't actually said we're going out officially, but I guess so."
"What's he like?" I said, honestly curious.
She talked about Elliot for quite some time, and I struggled to focus on our conversation after the first eight minutes. From her descriptions, Elliot sounded nice enough, but also a bit of a nerd. Of all the types of guys I could picture Julia with, nerds weren't among them.
I always figured she'd end up with a jock or a model or something – she was certainly pretty enough. It was funny – I usually had no problem envisioning the type of people others would be with, but when I thought of myself, of my type, I had absolutely no idea.
Without my conscious permission, I thought of Julia's cousin, of how he'd made me feel even after that short greeting.
Intimidated, irritated, saddened – all those negative emotions that were enough to make anyone avoid the person who inspired such feelings. But there was something else I couldn't put my finger on . . . something good, I decided.
It was pointless to even consider it, though – he obviously despised me (for unknown reasons), and the bad feelings outweighed the good ones at any rate. I didn't even like him. He was a jerk. I was wasting my energy just thinking of him.
So I forced my mind to think of other things, to focus on what Julia was still saying about Elliot.
"Chelsea, look, it's just up ahead!" Julia cried excitedly, pointing a finger at the two large Islands in the distance.
"How do you get from one to the other?" I asked curiously.
"There's a bridge," Julia said, in a voice that implied it should be obvious, "And there's a man named Kirk was takes us to Meadow Island when we want to go there – it's too far away from the main two Islands for a bridge."
"Oh," I said lamely, "Why aren't the other passengers out here? Aren't they getting off?"
"No – this boat stops at another Island, too, one that's much more populated," Julia said, her eyes never leaving the approaching Island.
"Why" – I started to ask, but in the corner of my eye, I saw Vaughn stepping out on the deck, a black bag slung over his shoulder.
He was in the same clothes as yesterday, and for a moment I wondered if he was hot – this fall had unusually high temperatures this time of year.
As he approached us, a comment burst from my lips before I could stop it. "You must be hot in those clothes." I desperately tried not to blush and avert my eyes when I realized the double meaning in my words.
His eyes widened slightly and he seemed to take a moment to compose a reply. "Maybe I am, maybe I'm not – it's not your business," he said, his voice gruffer than last night.
"Good morning, Vaughn," Julia said, obviously trying to diffuse the sudden tension in the air with an overly-cheerful attitude.
He sighed and mumbled, "Morning, Julia."
I would have spoken, too, but I pursed my lips in a tight line, still angry. It was out of line for me to ask him my question, but he could have been a bit more graceful about it. I couldn't even study the Island closely when we pulled up alongside the dock – I was too aggravated.
And what made it even worse was that, when we were walking off the boat toward the dock, I glanced up and saw him smirking slightly, as if my rage was amusing to him. I wanted to push him off the little path into the ocean, but I refrained.
Committing an act of harassment might not be the best first impression to make on the Islanders.
Still, I gave him my most vicious-looking glare when I managed to meet his eyes; the smirk fell away, and he glared right back. I dropped my eyes, losing my nerve, and stared straight ahead, wanting to hit something.
In the distance, I could see a short figure walking swiftly towards us, and I breathed a sigh of relief, needing the distraction. In my hurry to get to the figure, however, I became clumsy, and somehow managed to trip over my own feet.
I dropped my hand and my hands flew out in front of me, waiting to absorb the impact. But it never came. Instead, I felt a strong hand curl around my wrist and pull me roughly back onto my feet.
I blinked, surprised, and then stared down at Vaughn's hand around my wrist, marveling at the electricity that seemed to radiate from his hand and shoot up my arm. His hand lingered where it was for a moment, possibly feeling the same thing I was, before he hurriedly let go like my skin was dripping with acid.
I looked up at him, my eyes wide. He looked a bit off-balance as well, before the already-familiar frown twisted his features.
He was still striking, even annoyed. "Be careful," he snapped, but his voice held something else besides anger, and I couldn't decipher what it was.
I didn't answer; we kept walking toward the figure, who was much closer now. Inconspicuously, I glanced over at Vaughn once more; he looked indifferent, flatly apathetic.
Jerkish as he was, I couldn't help but wonder if I would feel that electric shock if I touched his skin again. My hand moved outward a few inches . . . and then I snatched it back, beyond annoyed with myself now.
Feeling or no feeling, I had no business knowing him and I didn't want to know him.
"Julia! Vaughn!" The figure – a woman – stopped in front of us with a wide smile.
She threw her arms around her daughter. "How was your trip to the city? Did you buy anything good, dear?"
Julia smiled. "Not this time, Mom. But I did bring back someone you know." She gestured to me. Julia's mother – Mirabelle, I remembered – studied me for a moment before her eyes lit up in recognition.
"Chelsea? Is it really you, honey?" I grinned.
Mirabelle looked just the same as I remembered – short, a bit chubby and emitting love and friendliness. "The one and only, Mirabelle."
She laughed and pulled me into a tight hug. "What are you doing here? Are you visiting for a while?"
"Chelsea's going to ask Taro about that old abandoned ranch up north," Julia answered before I could, "She's going to live here!"
"Maybe," I reminded her.
She waved me off, like I hadn't spoken. "Come on, Mom, we have to go find him."
"I didn't know you even liked farming, Chelsea," Mirabelle commented as we began walking.
"I don't know much about it," I admitted, "But, to be honest, I'd like to start a new . . . life for myself, if you will. Julia told me about this Island, and I just thought that maybe . . ."
I heard a quiet snort from behind. I glanced over my shoulder to find Vaughn staring with a smug expression.
I swallowed my rage and stared straight ahead.
"I'm sure you could do it, honey. You were always stubborn," Mirabelle laughed, apparently missing her nephew's impoliteness.
"I hope so," I murmured softly.
They both sounded so encouraging and, as I looked around, I saw how beautiful the Island truly was. Not such a bad place to spend a long period of time.
"I run an Animal Shop, Chen runs a general store, Gannon is the carpenter, and Vaughn is the animal dealer. He'd bring you anything you ordered," Mirabelle said sweetly.
"After she's learned a thing or two about animals," Vaughn said quickly, his eyes suspicious, "I don't want them dead within the week."
I gaped at him, infuriated, halting my walk. "You" – I stuttered, raising my hand to jab my index finger at him.
Julia bit her lip. Vaughn raised an eyebrow, almost daring me to insult him.
"Maybe you should go inside the Shop, Vaughn," Julia said, almost desperately, "Start work? There's a lot to do, you know."
Vaughn continued to stare at me challengingly for a few seconds before he looked at his cousin. "Alright," he said indifferently.
He went inside a large red building we were just walking by without another word. Tears were stinging in my eyes, but I refused to let them fall. He wouldn't affect me this strongly. I wouldn't let him.
It was confusing – the way my mind reacted to him, and the way my body reacted, two entirely different things. But I could ignore the latter. I could ignore my stupid attraction to him. As I turned away and began walking with Julia and Mirabelle again, resolve formed in my mind.
From this point on, I would have as little as possible to do with the Island's animal dealer.
A/N: So this is a new one . . . the title is subject to change.