Continued from yesterday…
Sean stepped away, running his hands down her goose-pimpled arms. He held each of her hands and looked intently into her large hazel eyes. He hadn’t seen Rose clearly without glasses for many years; but still had not recalled her eyes ever shining with such radiance, such depth of emotion.
“I will never leave you alone,” he told her sincerely. Rose smiled, and looked away shyly. A lovely, long, brownish sheet of hair coyly obscured part of her face. He brushed it to the side and secured it behind her left ear. He ran a finger gently down her cheekbone till she returned his gaze again.
Rose nodded; said, “Okay, Sean.” He nodded as well. They smiled.
Together, they turned and started across the sliding sand toward the music. A drum now faintly accompanied the lively guitar chords. Rose thought she could make out a rustling maraca or two.
“A path,” Sean suddenly said. Rose started at the interruption, and so did a tiny bird that had been resting near them in a small pineapple bush. It flapped in consternation, then took offended flight into a plant a little farther along.
Rose looked down at where Sean indicated and saw that, yes, a few round stones poked through the sand of the beach. Looking up, they saw the foliage carefully curved around the open space above the stones. A veil of swishing flowers hung from a tree on the left a few feet ahead. Beyond it, an unlit tiki torch sat where the trail seemed to end.
Cautiously, they walked forward into the arched jungle tunnel. Rose’s feet tickled in the sand and cooled on the wave-rounded stones. She ran a timid hand across a hanging leaf as they passed.
Sean stopped at the torch, so Rose paused just behind him. “What is it?” She whispered.
“It’s the end of the trail,” Sean told her, also in a whisper. Where they had assumed the rock-path ended, it had instead curved. He looked ahead at something, his face showing uncertainty.
On tiptoe over his shoulder, Rose saw the real trail’s end. A few yards ahead, the stones continued to a bamboo enclosure of sorts. She could see a small fence of braided palm leaves, strings of lights, flowers; and could hear the music more clearly. She heard laughter.
Sean turned his head. Rose saw concern in his ocean blue eyes, concern for her. She thought of the old shed door and its safety.
Then, Rose remembered what was beyond the door into their poky garage: A dirty kitchen. A cluttered front room. Her own bedroom, barely traversable. Then, there were the children’s rooms. The children themselves. She loved the children, but always felt so tired when they came to mind. She bit her lip again, and swallowed.
“Let’s get a little closer,” she decided. Surprised, Sean nodded. He reached down with his left hand to protectively hold her right. They started forward again.
Their bare feet barely shuffled across the sandy walkway. Rose’s long hair barely swished against her back. The upbeat instruments continued, with punctuations of talking and more laughing. The sounds of both grew louder as Sean and Rose slowly drew closer.
“A sign,” Sean quietly announced. He stopped; Rose looked where he pointed. A windworn sign hung casually from the end of the palm-leaf fence, just under a bright wreath of tropical flowers and multi-colored lights. Black, friendly paint spelled the words: Annual Parents’ Getaway.
Sean looked at Rose. He rubbed his bottom lip with his right hand in consideration. Rose looked at Sean. Her left hand found a few loose strands of hair to twist as she deliberated.
“Ah, I see you finally arrived,” A new voice said.
Sean and Rose jumped. Rose pulled at Sean’s hand in an effort to run back down the trail. Sean pulled at Rose, in an effort to free his hand in case he would need it to defend them both.
A tall, smiling, Polynesian man stood next to the sign. He managed to make his dazzlingly white grin even larger. It was he who had spoken, they realized. A deep, affable chortle sounded from his faux animal print-clad midsection. “No need for that, you two,” he assured them.
Rose stopped pulling; Sean retained his defensive stance. “Oh?” He asked. “Why not?”
Impossibly, the man smiled wider. “I am Stephan,” he said with a small bow. “You are late. If you’ll calm down, I will be happy to explain about this place.”
Sean barely relaxed. He pulled Rose close to his side. “Okay.” He said, trying to sound calm.
Stephan laughed again. “This is a magic place,” he began. He swept a hand around to indicate the trees, path, birds, sand, and ocean. “We are here for you. We are not a TV show, timeshare gimmick, or even a dream.” He allowed this information to sink in, then continued. “You have earned an evening here.”
A throat cleared behind the divider, behind Stephan. They could barely hear it over all the party noise beyond. A hand thrust a clipboard near Stephan’s muscular arm, which he hurriedly read as he frowned slightly. He raised his left hand, using his right to count each finger. He did so two or three times, then shrugged and cheerfully gave up. The other hand and clipboard retreated.
“Well,” Stephan smiled, “You really are late. It would appear you’ve been needing to come here since about five years ago.” He chuckled.
Rose looked at Sean, confused. “What do you mean?” Sean demanded. “What are you talking about?” Rose squeezed his hand, gratefully.
Stephan sighed, still managing to look unbelievably happy and helpful. “This place is a magic place,” he repeated. “Besides existing just for parents, we enjoy certain time benefits here.” He met each of their gazes to be sure they were paying attention. “When you are done, you will come back to the same time you left.”
“That’s impossible,” Rose automatically responded. She was surprised, however, at how hopeful her accusatory tone sounded. Stephan chuckled again, reassuring.
“It’s true,” he simply told her. “Plus,” he added, straightening, “You earn your time based on the number of children who are waiting for you at home.” Here, Stephan laughed outright. “And,” he said, wiping a happy tear from his eye, “that means you two get to stay at least all night if you wish.”
Rose blushed slightly. Sean looked unconvinced.
Their host was unaffected. “Come in and see for yourself!” He invited, stepping back and gesturing to his right, to the music and the laughter.
Hesitantly, Sean walked forward. Rose was still holding his hand, or his hers. They paused at Stephan’s side, and saw he spoke the truth. On the other side of the papery wall was a veritable mob of couples talking, joking, smiling, drinking, eating, embracing, lounging, or even swimming.
Yes, Rose saw, there was a gorgeous pool just beyond a stage of tireless musicians and dancing couples. Waterfalls ran down lava rocks amidst rain forest foliage, terminating in a huge swimming area of varying depths. It was the sort she had seen people post online, saying how they’d go somewhere like that someday. She had known better when she saw them; known she would never see a paradisaical setup like that in person.
Yet, here it all lay before her. “Wow,” she breathed. She looked to Sean, to gauge his response, and saw the affable Stephan just behind him.
“Go right ahead,” Stephan supplied. “Everything is open to you: the swimming pools, the bar, any food…” He coughed a discretionary sound, then added, “Even some private rooms, once you get more comfortable.” Sean turned quickly to look suspiciously at Stephan, who shrugged a pleasant shoulder in innocence.
“Sean,” Rose said, “I see Tiffany and Michael!”
Now Sean turned quickly to Rose. “What?! Where? Did they follow us here?!”
“Oh, not our Tiffany and Michael,” she quickly explained. “Tiffany and Michael JONES, our neighbors.” She pointed, near a vivaciously-red flower topiary near the closest waterfall.
Sean looked, squinting, then his face cleared. Still, he hesitated.
“Look,” Stephan said, startling them, “No one is actually an alien in human suits or something. I promise it’s all exactly as it appears.” He smiled ever wider. “Go on, and ask your friends you just saw.” He gave Sean a friendly push, laughed uproariously, and walked off toward the private buildings he’d mentioned earlier.
“Well, I suppose it doesn’t hurt to at least go ask,” Sean told Rose, reassuring himself. She nodded. They stepped forward together, Rose timidly keeping very close to his side. Everywhere they looked they only saw happiness, relaxation, love. They skirted the dancing group near the music. They walked past candlelit tables of men feeding women tidbits on forks, or women spooning bites past their husband’s waiting lips.
Soon enough, they reached their lounging neighbors. Tiffany noticed them first. “Rose!” She exclaimed, overjoyed. She and Michael stood to meet them; Rose and Tiffany hugging while Sean and Michael shook hands and patted arms.
“We’re so glad you two made it!” Tiffany exclaimed. She looked over at Michael, who nodded and smiled. She treated the encounter like an accidental run-in at the grocery store.
“So, this is real?” Rose asked, shyly. It seemed an odd question to pose with the physical evidence of their friends nearby. Tiffany and Michael, however, only laughed.
“Don’t worry,” Michael said to Sean. “We didn’t believe it when we got here two years ago.” He shoved Sean playfully on his arm. “Too good to be true, huh?” Sean smiled weakly.
“He nearly punched Stephan when we first found it,” Tiffany added solemnly.
“Oh. Yeah,” her husband remembered. He looked down. “That was embarrassing.”
“Anyway, it’s real. It’s true.” Tiffany reassured Rose. She turned to Sean. “Some couple set it up years ago, according to what we can find out. Stephan says it’s not like a TV show, but there’s gotta be something sci-fi about how it all works!” She laughed.
“Yeah,” Michael agreed. He looked thoughtful. “Honestly, we don’t really care anymore. It’s just nice to have a break.” He reached back to pick up his drink. Condensation ran invitingly down the sides, and a small umbrella rested on its very top. He raised it in mock toast, and added, “Go on, and enjoy yourselves. If you remember us, we’ll head back together when you’re done.”
“But, Michael,” Tiffany reminded him, “We only have three children. We can’t stay as long as they can.”
Rose blushed again. Sean looked indecisive.
Michael chuckled a bit, and drank a sip from his fluted cup. “Well, if you want to head back in a few hours, let us know and we’ll go together.” He winked at Sean.
Dismissed and convinced, Rose waved a friendly goodbye. “Thank you,” she told them.
“Enjoy!” Tiffany and Michael chorused, then smiled at each other, sat, and continued their private conversation.
“Sean,” Rose said, as they meandered toward the inviting pool. “Hmm?” He asked.
“I’ve been thinking that we could spend an hour or two here, then go back.” He paused, and his eyes met hers as his left hand found her right. A million questions flitted between them. “That way, we could have fun, and be sure we get back to the kids in case there is no time thingie,” she explained.
Sean thought it over, then said, “I say we try to make a run for it and see if anyone stops us now.” He looked around furtively, as if the swaying trees and happy couples were set to pounce at any moment. “Ready? Let’s go!” He took off toward the fence with the sign, pulling Rose and her flying hair behind him.
They reached their goal unmolested. In fact, except for a few entertained glances their way, no one had seemed to even notice. Rose shrugged, but then Sean was off running back toward the beach.
She followed, caught in some of the flying sand of his barefoot sprint. He reached the cave with Rose puffing somewhat just behind. The door to the garage was still ajar. Rose could see their battered minivan skulking in the shadow of boxes beyond. Sean reached out to the door.
“Sean?” She ventured. He turned, and paused at her flushed face, disheveled hair, and pleading eyes. Automatically, he stepped closer and put his arms around her again. Rose reddened, but caught her breath to continue.
“What if it’s all real, and it disappears if we go through the door again?” She searched his face, practically begging for assurance.
He considered. “If it all goes away, I will take you somewhere like this as soon as we possibly can,” he promised. She smiled and looked shyly away, curtaining her face. He once again gently brushed her flowing hair aside; gently kissed her lovely cheek.
“Okay?” He asked. Rose nodded.
Taking a deep breath, she pulled out of his arms and walked toward the dilapidated brown door. Sean hurried to walk beside her. They entered the musty garage, then immediately turned to look back. The beach was still there, the palms were still swaying, the ocean still shushing against the shore.
“Quick, go check the time!” She told Sean. Realization entered his eyes beneath mirrored lenses, and he sprung to the door of the house. His movements were impeded slightly at the return of his former bulk. Peeking through the garage side of the kitchen door, he announced, “Eleven o’clock. Is that what time it was when we left?”
Rose considered, then remembered the beeping clock as they crossed the kitchen. “Now it’s Eleven-oh-one,” Sean amended.
“Then it works!” Rose called. “Unless it’s been twelve hours or something,” she added, thoughtfully. Sean looked back at her, then ran to join her again.
“Let’s try it, then,” he said, nodding toward the waiting beach. “It’s worth it to me to make you happy.” She looked up at his face, so familiar and so loving.
“I’m happy just to be with you,” she said. He smiled a half-smile in response. “But, I do like how I look on that side of the door,” she added playfully. Sean’s smile spread.
“Me, too,” he laughed. “I mean, about me, too.” He took her hand. “Maybe we should check out one of those rooms before running back this time,” he teased. Ignoring her scandalized look; he walked through the door once again, pulling Rose happily along.