DEVIN CARTER had five days off, thanks to a stretched knee ligament, and he needed to get away from everyone and everything he knew, so he threw some clothes and a couple of books in a bag, loaded the dog into the car, and drove down the gulf coast of Florida to Naples, where he picked up the Tamiami Trail. Turning off the air conditioning, he powered down the window and let the salty-smelling breeze clear the cobwebs from his head.
He was tired. He’d been on a merry-go-round this last year, and full stops had been rare. There had been the odd day now and again where nothing was scheduled, but mostly, he’d been running for months.
Rusty, his red mixed-breed pup, sat in the passenger seat, tongue lolling, excited to be going somewhere. It didn’t really matter where as long as his owner was with him and there was food to eat.
Devin put on some kickass rock ’n’ roll and turned up the volume, singing along when he knew the words and even sometimes when he didn’t. Singing was another thing he didn’t get to do much of lately.
It was late August, the end of summer everywhere but in Florida, where that season just went on and on, and he was glad of it. He knew what snow and cold were, having grown up in Minnesota, and while he enjoyed renewing his acquaintance with frostbitten fingers and wind-reddened cheeks on occasion, he much preferred the milder temps down south.
Two hours into the trip, he pulled over for gas and bottled water. The minute he stepped out of the car, Rusty jumped into his seat and hung his head out the window. Devin kept an eye on him as he filled the tank. “No, you don’t have to go. You just want to mark territory.” Rusty tilted his head, knowing full well what his master was saying, because he said it a lot. “Stay.” Rusty’s ears went down; he knew that word, too.
Heading inside, he located the coolers at the back of the store, grabbed two bottles of water, and paid at the counter. The woman did a classic double-take. “You know who you look like?”
Devin pulled a bill out of his pocket and handed it to her. “No, who?”
“I saw you on Leno the other night. That guy with the Suns, you know, the one who got all those home runs this season. I have the worst memory when it comes to names.”
“Hm. No idea who you’re talking about.” She made change and handed it to him. “Thanks.”
“Welcome,” she said.
Smiling, he started to leave the store. Just as he was exiting, the clerk called after him, “Sure you’re not him? I’m a big baseball fan, and I’ve seen all the games.”
He turned to look at her. “You have a good day now,” he said, and flashed a killer smile. Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open, but Devin was gone and back in the car and driving away in moments. He loved his fans and went out of his way to be generous and patient with them, but they were one of the things he needed a break from.
AS HE drove southeast on the Tamiami Trail, otherwise known as US 41 or SR 90, the scenery got wilder and signs of human population finally dropped off. This was Everglades country, and he felt himself relaxing into the trip. He loved traveling. He missed it more than anything else. His fondest wish for this journey was that he might find himself in a place where no one knew who he was, or if they did, they wouldn’t care.
He’d been on the cover of Sports Illustrated twice in the last year and given countless interviews. Talk shows clamored for him, he’d been signed to endorse various products, and he’d been interviewed by newspapers and other magazines. His dark good looks and tall, lean body came across well on the screen, and being intelligent and well-spoken only added to people’s desire to get close to him. And why? Because he was positioned to break the ten-year-old home run record held by Barry Bonds. ESPN was calling him “the Secretariat of baseball.” For the next five days, he just wanted to be a guy with a dog, taking a break from life.
As he passed Ochopee, Rusty started making “I gotta go” noises, so he pulled over at a post office. Clipping him on-leash, he let Rusty pull him toward an inviting grassy space on one side of the parking lot, keeping a watchful eye open for alligators. They were known to frequent the area and often crossed the Trail.
Devin watched Rusty sniff every square inch of the spot, content to indulge his doggy behavior. The cell phone he usually carried was back in the car, buried in his bag, left there purposefully so it wouldn’t disturb him, not that he’d get a signal out here anyway. The quiet soothed his frayed nerves, and he realized he was smiling.
He returned to the car, shoving Rusty over into the passenger seat. “How many times do we have to go through this?” he asked good-naturedly. “That’s your place, this is mine.” Rusty woofed softly and then ignored him. He popped a painkiller for his leg and washed it down with water.
A short distance on, he stopped at Joanie’s Blue Crab Café, where he ordered and ate Cajun grouper?quite possibly his favorite Florida meal?while Rusty remained in the running car, air conditioning turned on high. There weren’t many diners. Highway 75, which paralleled the Tamiami Trail to the north, was getting most of the traffic these days. Devin preferred the Trail; he liked the relative wildness of this part of Florida, and he wasn’t in a hurry.
He continued on 41 until he hit US 1, turning south. He sort of didn’t breathe much until he got past the sprawl of Miami, and then he was in the Keys, and it was okay. He relaxed again and drank in the sight of aqua water on both sides of the road and endless bridges. He hadn’t been here in a few years and was happy to be back. There was nowhere else like it in the world.
Drowsy from the pill, he almost stopped in Key Largo but kept going until Islamorada, where he spotted a likely place to stay. The sign?on it were the words “The Blue Paradise” with a leggy, faded flamingo next to them?swung slightly in the breeze. The “Village of Islands” was known for its sport fishing, and he thought it might be fun to go out on a boat from one of the handful of marinas in the area.
He pulled in and parked on gravel, leaving Rusty in the car. The dog whined.
“I’ll be right back,” Devin promised and looked around. The place was overrun with vegetation, the pastel-painted cottages nearly hidden behind draping greenery, and through the curtaining trees, he caught a glimpse of white sand beach and ocean. Spotting an “Office” sign next to the pale pink door of a small house, Devin went inside. An elderly man sat behind a low counter, reading a newspaper, his feet propped on a chair.
He glanced up as Devin entered. “Can I help you?”
“I was wondering if you had a cottage available.”
“Sure do. It’s been slow this year. The economy, you know.” Devin nodded his understanding. “How long might you want it?”
“Four nights, and I have a thirty-pound, well-behaved dog.”
He grinned. “Dogs are okay, though we require a damage deposit. You’ll get it back if he doesn’t eat a hole in the couch.”
Nodding, Devin took out a credit card and handed it to him. “You own this place?”
“For over forty years now. Name’s Harry Dellwood. You need anything, just ask.” He ran the card and handed Devin the receipt for his signature. “Hope you like quiet, ’cause that’s what we specialize in. Lots of peace and quiet. There are only a few people staying here right now. Honeymoon couple in number three, businessman in number one, handful of others. It’ll pick up again in another month or so. Your timing is great.”
Devin handed the white copy back to Harry. “Can I take the dog down to the beach?”
“Yup, no problem. Just be sure to clean up after him. Canoes are numbered to match the cottage. Take it out whenever you like. There are a few kayaks, too. Not numbered. First come, first get.” Digging around behind the counter, he finally came up with a card key. “I’m giving you the one on the end: number fourteen. It’s near the beach and set well back in the trees, so you’ll have lots of privacy.” When Devin looked up sharply, Harry laughed and said, “Recognized you when you walked in, and the name on the card confirmed it. Saw you on Leno. You’re a damn good baseball player.” Devin pocketed the card and receipt, biting his lip. “No one will bother you, young man,” Harry assured him. “This ain’t New York or Los Angeles, ya know.”
Devin stuck out his hand and Harry shook it. “Thanks. Is there somewhere I can get some food?”
“Grocery store just down the road. You can cook, can’t you?”
Devin laughed. “After a fashion.”
“If you were asking for a restaurant, got a few of those nearby, too. Just drive around, you’ll see ’em.”
“Thanks. You’ve been very helpful.” He went back to the car and parked it in a small lot near the road, grabbed his bag and Rusty, and walked the heavily shaded, worn dirt path to his assigned cottage. It was a bit on the shabby side, weather-beaten from years of use and taking the wind off the water, but inside, it was comfortably furnished, dry, and cozy. Rusty raced around, sniffing in the corners. There was a couch and chair in the sitting area, and opposite that, a queen-sized bed with good reading lamps. The kitchenette was small but serviceable. He ducked his head into the bathroom and was pleased to see a tub, not just a shower.
Leaning over the kitchen sink, he looked out the window, through the trees to the beach. He saw canoes and kayaks and a dock to the right. A pelican sat at the end, calmly gazing out to sea.
“Rusty, we’re going to like it here,” he said as the last of his cares fell away.