Old Habits

Looking back now, Jack realizes how naïve he was. When he finally made it back to the island that day and saw Nim and Alex waiting for him on the beach, both of them together, it made sense. It felt right. He never even wondered, "Hey, who's that strange woman with Nim? And what's she doing on our island?" He just looked at her and thought, "Oh, there she is." It was like Alex had always been part of their lives, and they hadn't even known it. Jack was convinced it would be smooth sailing from that day on. Alex would love life on the island, Nim would have a mother again, and their little family would be complete.

Oh yeah, he was naïve, all right.

-x-

After two months on the island, Alex has settled into a sort of routine. The first thing she does every morning, even before eating breakfast, is grab the broom and sweep the entire house thoroughly, almost obsessively. Jack and Nim were surprised at first – they had hardly ever used that broom; Alex must have found it gathering dust in a closet somewhere – but they got used to it. It was Jack's first sign that life with Alex might take some getting used to.

"Don't you just hate having sand on the floor?" Alex asks one morning as she swept the kitchen. Jack is scrambling eggs for breakfast, and Nim is at the table, working on the school lessons she took online. "It's so coarse, and it gets everywhere. Always sticking to the bottom of your feet. Doesn't it just drive you crazy?"

Nim doesn't answer, but she looks up from her schoolwork and stares at Alex like she has three heads. It's on the tip of her tongue to say, "We're on a tropical island. You better get used to the sand," but she holds back. She still feels bad for being the way she acted towards Alex when she first arrived on the island.

Jack doesn't answer either, but he notices how tightly Alex is gripping the handle of the broom. Her knuckles are practically white. Her words replay in his head: "Doesn't it just drive you crazy?" And that was Jack's first sign that life on the island was taking Alex some major getting used to.

-x-

Jack and Nim are stunned beyond words when they find out that Alex almost never set foot outside her house in San Francisco. "I would leave the house... I don't know, maybe a few times a year," she says over dinner one evening. A huge box containing nothing but cans of Progresso soups had arrived in a shipment from the mainland that day, and Alex was so thrilled that they were eating dinner outside, leaning back in lounge chairs on the sand as the sun set over the water.

At Alex's words, Nim freezes with a spoonful of clam chowder halfway to her mouth, which is hanging open in shock. "You only left your house a few times a year?" she repeats in disbelief.

"Yeah, give or take," Alex answers with a casual shrug, as if this was normal behavior. "But I only went out when I had to. I really tried to avoid opening my front door at all." She tossed her hair in a breeze from the ocean and looked down the beach to where a flock of seagulls was settling on the sand.

Nim kept staring at Alex in shock, trying to decide whether she was just joking or really telling the truth, but Jack was looking at her with nothing but admiration in his eyes. Suddenly everything Alex has done that he and Nim found strange – like ordering a shipment of Purell, posting a bottle at every door, and insisting they all sanitize their hands whenever they come in from outside – seems tame. He's impressed beyond words at how far she's come.

-x-

Sometimes, Alex has trouble sleeping. She never says anything about it, but her telltale tossing and turning always let Jack know, and he wonders if she misses the sounds of San Francisco at night. He tries to imagine the noise of traffic, the smell of polluted city air. Tall buildings and wall-to-wall people outside the small, obsessively clean house where Alex had lived alone, only venturing out a few times a year.

Jack can't even begin to imagine it. Civilization feels too far away, too long ago. He can't remember a life without the sound of the waves crashing on the beach and the salty smell of the ocean breeze.

-x-

One morning, Jack wakes up and steps into the hall to feel gritty sand beneath his bare feet. It's been so long since there was any sand underfoot, it actually takes him a moment to realize what it is. Then worry settles into his stomach. Something must have happened to Alex – something serious – to keep her from sweeping the floors.

He hurries into the kitchen to find Nim and Alex sitting at the table, bent over an open notebook. Alex points at something on the page with her pen and says, "This paragraph is really good, Nim. The way you describe everything so vividly, you really bring it alive for your reader. That's the hallmark of a great writer, you know" – Nim blushes with pride – "but I think if you moved it up a little, it'd be even better."

Jack watches them, smiling, for a long minute, but they're both so absorbed that neither of them notice him, until finally Nim glances up and sees him standing there.

"Oh, hi, Daddy," she says, a bit surprised. "How long have you been standing there."

"Oh, not long, honey," he answers, still smiling. "I was just wondering what you two were doing."

Nim ducks her head shyly. "Well, I just – I wrote this story," she explains, "and Alex is helping me with it. It's not very good, but – "

"Not true!" Alex interrupts. "Her story is very good, Jack. You should let your dad read it, Nim."

"I can't wait," says Jack, half-pleased, half-amused, as he begins to fix breakfast. The subject of the sandy, unswept floors doesn't come up all day. Alex either doesn't notice, or it doesn't bother her anymore. Either way, Jack takes it as a good sign. Maybe he wasn't so naïve after all.