He lay awake, on his back and staring into the darkness of the room. The smell of paint and sawdust still filled the air. Their belongings lay in boxes around them but their bed had been set up with blankets and sheets. The cotton of the pillowcases were still stiff, everything was new, ready for a lifetime of use. There was a loud hum that came out of the silent and empty space. He was on top of the sheets, naked but still so hot. Lydia slept soundly next to him.
He sat up. She shifted before once again settling in. Her face was lost in the pillow. A bead of sweat gathered and ran down his back. He stood and didn’t breathe for a second, waiting for his movement to evaporate into the night. He navigated soundlessly to the living room across a minefield of boxes.
When he stepped out onto the deck and closed the door behind him. It was silent and smooth and an entirely different thing from the wooden door that had been there before with its peeling paint and rusted hinges. He stood for a moment, relieved by a small breath of wind that lifted the sleeping leaves and cooled his sweated skin. The moon was not yet full, but the sky was cloudless and it still illuminated the new wooden boards of the deck. He stepped onto the lawn and King George emerged from her kennel. He knelt down and called her over.
‘Good dog.’ He scrubbed his hands behind her ears and burrowed his face into hers. ‘Let’s go.’ He stood again. ‘This is too new for us.’ He turned to grab his running shorts which were slung over a deckchair. He put them on and made his way around the side of the house. Once on the road it was suddenly a strange thing to be standing in his shorts and bare feet while the rest of the bay slept. It was as if he had sleepwalked here and he was in half a mind to return to Lydia and bed but he shook his head free of the idea. He couldn’t go back inside to the sweat salted sheets and stare at the ceiling with the island imprinted on his mind. He needed to run. He looked further up the road to the blackness of the bush. The hermit’s hut was in there, decaying and dying. He still hadn’t gone back.
He turned away from it and began running downhill. The week that they had been in the house, for it was no longer a shack, he had unashamedly increased his swimming. He hadn’t attempted to reach the rocky outcrops again. Usually it was just to Close Island to sit in his tree and look out at Far Island. Close Island and Far Island, that’s what he called them now. That is all they represented. He ran past the shop and started up over the hill that led to the estuary. Since its completion, the shack was stamped with some sort of permanence. He didn’t like being in it and at night time he felt boxed in and wondered if they shouldn’t have removed all of the walls and replaced them with glass doors that could be opened.
Lydia was happy. She was still fishing in the mornings and their last appointment with her doctor affirmed that everything was on track for a February birth. The baby grew with every day and he would start again with Bay Builders soon. This was it, but he wanted so much more. They reached the top of the hill where the road started down to the estuary and he ran on, his bare chest beading with sweat. The trees arched over them, threatening to swallow them entirely as they passed underneath.
The blue light ahead of him meant the end of the tree tunnel and the beginning of the estuary. He couldn’t run fast enough. The only unknown was the island and he was sure now that it held the answer. King George galloped at his side.
They reached the bottom of the hill and launched into the wide open savannah of mudflats. They were covered in shells, tussocks and long shadows of the hill. The road cut straight through the flats and water lay in pools on either side. He wanted to get off the road. He veered suddenly, onto the flats. The cool film of water was a relief for his feet and he ran on, avoiding tussocks and scrub, side stepping logs covered in the thick cement of barnacles. There were small valleys cradling hundreds of mussel and cockle shells which had been picked apart by seagulls and other sea birds. They had currents still running through them and when he could not clear it by jumping, he waded through. King George had to swim across. Nothing would deter him; he felt an urge to keep going, to make his way across the flats to the other side.
Beyond the ditches, the fecund smell of the mud flats rose up. He sank down to his ankles. Past the mud, the ocean floor was exposed. He broke into a run. The wet sand was ribbed with uniform lines. He sprinted and soared and his feet came down hard on the firm sand. King George barked at his side, clipping at his heels. He ran over a thin spit of sand to reach the ocean. It pounded onto the sand, the white wash fluorescent in the night. Moonlight spread across the sand like the skin of an animal. He stopped and stood there breathing heavily and rested his hands on the back of his head. He turned his face to the sky. There was more out there, he just had to keep going.
King George was barking. She was a little way ahead by a small dip and he walked towards her. She was whimpering, looking from him to what looked like a dark patch of sand. He walked closer and took her by the collar and pulled her back to his side where she sat and whined. An enormous stingray was spread out on the sand. The barbed sting was laid out straight and ended almost exactly where he stood.
When it felt him approaching, a great ripple flew through its body, lifting its wings as it attempted to take flight before slapping back down onto the sandy bank. Beyond it, in the dip that he had seen earlier, there was a small flow of water and before he had fully thought any more about it, he found himself pulling the enormous winged creature towards the river, its tail whipping around desperately at the unnatural feeling of human hands.
He guessed the stingray could sense when they were close to the water as it erupted into flight sidling forward like a bird with a broken wing, leaping, crashing towards the water before it sailed away to wait for the tides.
He stood, dazed and euphoric. His legs felt weak and he smelled the fishy water that the ray had left on his arms. King George was jumping around barking, chasing the ray as it glided down the rivulet, half its body exposed and ploughing through the water. It eventually sunk down to the bottom. He followed it down and continued out to sea. The river it had chosen to swim was leading directly to Far Island. He looked harder and saw that the island was there, a small cusp of black on the horizon.