The heat from the bonfire was intense. But the burning along his face, neck and arms was nothing compared to the pain in his heart.
He flicked another simmering glance toward the couple hidden amongst the shadowed rocks that linked the islet La Roca to the mainland. Jaw clenched, he rose from his crouched position beside the fire and stalked away from the group of rowdy teenagers gathered around the flames. His footsteps took him to where the waves crashed against the darkened shingle beach. With an instinct born of betrayal, he picked up a stone and hurled it into the fire’s rippling reflection, each successive stone landing further than the last.
The sound of footsteps crunching the stones behind him stayed his arm in mid throw. He tensed as a pair of warm hands snaked around his waist and slender arms encircled his torso.
“Miguel,” a voice whispered against his neck, “where’ve you been all summer? I’ve missed you. We could slip away; head back to the house while everyone is here on the beach.”
He tore himself from the embrace, careful to keep his back to her.
“Not now, Anna,” he replied between gritted teeth, his anger now directed at himself. Anna was a loose thread he should’ve taken care of weeks ago but he’d been too damned distracted.
Hands jammed into his pockets, Miguel strode off into the darkness. He needed to put as much distance as he could between himself and the whole lot of them: Anna, the rowdy drinkers now dancing around the bonfire and most especially, the couple hidden in the shadows.
So, Carlos – the player who gloated every Monday morning about his conquests from up and down the coast – had finally moved in on Daniella.
Daniella, the new girl from Barcelona, whose urban chic and quiet shyness had caught his attention from the first day she arrived at the only high school in Salobreña. He’d watched her, day after day, sitting on her own in the school grounds, the small-town locals too tight-knit to let the attractive stranger into their midst, with rumours of her snobby city ways passing from one pair of lips to another.
The snide remarks had brought back memories of his own cool reception when he first arrived in the seaside town two years ago to live in exile with an elderly relative. It was the prank he’d played on Javier Batista that had landed him in the Principal’s office for the last time, forcing his parents to carry through with their threats. It was still a mystery how they’d managed to link him to the posters plastered all over the school of the super jock’s face photo-shopped on to the body of a drag queen. He’d been so sure he’d covered his tracks carefully that time.
The first few months in Salobreña had been lonely, Miguel finding little in common with the residents of the backwater town. That is, until the day he watched a group of boys swim out to the tip of La Roca, scale the limestone cliffs to the top and leap from a height of fifteen metres into the warm Mediterranean waters below. They’d caught him looking and after a few nudges and whispers, Carlos yelled out to him.
“Hey, city boy, come and take a jump if you dare.”
Goaded by the challenge, he swam out to La Roca, scrambled to the top and heart pumping, took his first terrifying jump into the swirling waters below. It’d been his ticket into the herd, a rite of passage that had given him instantaneous acceptance.
It was the lingering sting of those memories that had prompted him to approach Daniella, captivated by the warmth in her caramel eyes, intrigued by the heart-shaped birthmark on the side of her neck. The easy flow of conversation had led to an offer to take her to see the town’s only attraction, the Salobreña Alcazar. One look at her slender figure silhouetted against the castle’s ramparts, her long chestnut hair blowing in the wind, precipitated another impulsive invitation.
“Any interest in going for a swim sometime?” he asked in what he hoped was an even and offhanded tone.
After the slightest of hesitations, she smiled and replied “Sure”.
Anna was quickly forgotten, relegated to the status of a spring fling, all his free time now spent with Daniella, swimming in isolated bays, walking the beaches, commiserating with each other about their forced exiles to the small town. In response to her explanation of her father’s transfer to the local branch of a national bank, he said that his parents had been transferred overseas, choosing to abandon him to the care of an unknown spinster Aunt, a story which had successfully garnered the appropriate sympathy.
He’d lain awake many a night into the early hours, basking in the knowledge that for the first time in his life, he knew what it was like to be the Javier’s and Carlos’ of the world; that this time, he’d been the one to land the girl.
Before long, spending his spare time with her was not enough.
The fact that there were no job openings at the restaurant where he worked had not stopped him from securing her a position there. It was child’s play really. A few whispered words, a nod or two at the appropriate moment, a purposely mixed up order and the boss dismissed José, already under repeated warnings. Then a casual mention of his friend, Daniella, and they were working together. The two of them … and Carlos.
Hands balled in his pockets, Miguel approached the stretch of beach that had been theirs. He stood at the water’s edge, his hand thrumming with the memory of the day he brushed his finger down Daniella’s neck and around her birthmark.
“An unusual shape,” he commented.
She pulled away. “You’d better beware,” she said with a teasing smile. “People with a heart-shaped birthmark can sense other people’s feelings, see their auras.” She narrowed her eyes. “Some even dream events before they happen.”
He’d laughed then, as casually as possible, asked if she was able to read him. She hesitated, then looked away and changed the subject. He shrugged off his unease, not wanting to believe that she could see into the emptiness that filled his soul.
The summer progressed, with passion mounting in his heart, but little more than friendship offered in return. His frustration grew but he waited, calculating that his efforts would pay off in the end. He had failed however, to factor in Carlos, failed to see the signs of something brewing between him and Daniella.
He kicked at the stones on the beach, jarring his foot in the process.
“Miguel, come on,” his friend Pablo shouted from the direction of the bonfire. “We’re swimming out to La Roca.”
He turned to the sounds of squeals and shouts. Shadowy figures race toward the shoreline, tearing off t-shirts, hopping out of shorts. The blood raced through his veins and he savoured the familiar rush that had hooked him from his first jump.
Then two shadows detached from the rocks and a shudder snaked its way up his spine. The bubbling surge of adrenalin was quickly replaced by something heavier, colder. Miguel watched as Carlos pulled Daniella toward the water, eager to join the others already swimming out to the rock. But Daniella hesitated, peering around, searching the darkness, searching for … him?
Miguel walked back toward the now deserted bonfire, his steps measured. He slowly unbuttoned his shirt, then dove into the waves. His strokes were purposeful, the water’s cool caress doing little to douse the fire that raged within. At the cliff face, he grasped a rock and hauled himself out of the sea. He climbed upwards, the jagged edges of the limestone biting into the soft skin of his palms and soles. He made it to the top in time to see Juan make a sign of the cross before taking the short run and hurling himself off the edge of the cliff. Four seconds passed before he heard the splash in the water below.
“Olé,” Juan shouted from down below. The group cheered.
Another of the daredevils stepped forward. Hand on his waist, he took a deep breath, blessed himself, then ran the few feet and plunged over the edge.
“Hey, Miguel, where you been?” Pablo asked. “You gonna jump tonight?”
Several heads turned in his direction.
He felt the force of Anna’s resentment rolling off her in waves. Carlos looked him in the eye, a slight mocking curve to his lips, a challenge in his crossed arms. And in Daniella’s shadowed features he saw not only guilt and embarrassment but something else, a hint of unease, before she dropped her gaze.
A muscle twitched in his jaw at the thought of the empty days to come, knowing with certainty that he’d lost her. He took a step forward and looked over the edge into the dark pool of water partially enclosed by the surrounding cliff face. The jump, intimidating enough in the light of day, was reckless at night. He suspected their bravado was spurred on knowing it was the last weekend of the summer break. That, and the large amount of alcohol consumed, as few would attempt the jump stone-cold sober. He stepped away from the edge.
“Not tonight, man,” he replied. Carlos sniggered. Hands clenched, he stepped to the side, a calculated move to clear the way for anyone else with enough machismo to take the leap.
No one else seemed in a hurry to jump, the guys teasing each other, trying to incite themselves to the challenge. Goose bumps rippled across his arms as a light breeze caressed the top of the La Roca. He watched, waiting, knowing it was only a matter of time.
“Come on,” Juan shouts from the waves below, “I’m getting cold. Anyone with enough cojones to join us?”
Carlos made his move, as Miguel knew he would.
“Make way,” Carlos shouted, before taking a few steps back.
Miguel watched as Carlos crossed himself. Then one step, two steps and he was running the short distance to the plummet over the edge.
Miguel’s eyes narrowed. It’d be easy, so easy, to extend his foot, to nudge Carlos off-balance, just enough to scare him, to inject an extra frission of fear that he might actually hit the side of the cliff on his way down. What he wouldn’t give to wipe that self-satisfied grin from Carlos’ face, to knock him off his pedestal, if only for a few minutes; to have him know what it was like to face his own mortality.
Miguel stood there, suspended in the moment, split seconds remaining to make his decision. Then his gaze suddenly jerked upward and he met Daniella’s eyes. Eyes widened in shock, her head moving side to side on her slender neck, the heart-shaped birthmark a dark stain on her pale skin. Her eyes held his as Carlos ran past, sailing over the edge. He remained captured by the horror reflected in her wide-eyed gaze, wondering how she could possibly have guessed at the darkness within him. It was only as she turned away, a trembling hand raised to her neck, that he recalled their conversation about her birthmark that day on the beach.
Miguel clambered back down the cliff face on shaky legs. What, if anything, had Daniella foreseen? Was it possible that there could have been a different ending to the jump?
He dove into the water and struck out towards shore, pummeling the waves in an effort to ease the growing frustration that he would now never know whether he’d had it in him to exact the vengeance that only minutes before had burned a hole in his heart.
Karen MacDougall is a novelist living in a suburb of Toronto, Canada.