Stella preferred the mornings on Melanos when most visitors would be nursing their hangovers or trying to eat breakfast in time to hit the beach and then collapse under the Mediterranean sun. Her flat was at the less-fashionable end of Helicia beach away from the larger clubs. It was also a decent walk to the golden sandy beach so beloved of the more casual visitors. She’d been on Melanos for just about six weeks and felt justified in regarding herself as part of the island.
As ever, the weather was fabulous. It was already in the low 20s and she wore a thin, calf-length linen shirt over her bright red bikini. Apart from that, all she had were her sandals, shades and a battered backpack sporting the flag of Australia.
Stella strolled from her apartment block towards her favourite spot, the Mimosa bar. She walked past the small harbour used by the local fishermen and up towards the beach, gold in contrast to the black rocks that gave the island its name in Greek. The Mimosa marked the divide between the old town of Helicia and the modern resort of Helicia Beach with its bars, clubs, cafés and shops for tourists. Behind her were a couple of more relaxed restaurants that opened in the afternoon. Some mornings she might grab bread from the bakers and sit on the harbour wall, most days she would spend time in the Mimosa.
Inside the staff had begun clearing the remains of the night before and were washing glasses and sweeping the floor. In the background, they were playing a local Greek radio station. Stella liked the uncluttered feel of the place before the evening when the more adventurous tourists would arrive to sample the bar’s so-called Famous Mimosa Cocktail before heading back to the main clubs. The Mimosa did have a dance floor and by the evening the music had changed to the trance-inducing, booming sirens’ call that pulled in the British holiday makers. Although she looked at most mid-twenties, Stella wasn’t one to party or to lose herself in an alcohol-induced daze. She did like the buzz of people but most times stayed sober. What she liked most was that Melanos was far away from home, yet with its warm, sunny days and dark rock reminded her of everything left behind more than she liked to admit.
By the time she’d reach the counter, one of the staff had prepared her a coffee with a couple of honey-sweet pastries. She nodded her thanks, left some coins and took her breakfast out onto the balcony to watch the world go by. She grabbed a white plastic chair and pulled it up to a small table on which sat an ashtray and a sun-bleached menu.
“How’s my favourite Ozzie doing today?” a man’s voice said from behind where she sat.
“Morning Karl,” Stella said without turning. “I thought your favourite Ozzie was Kylie, or that girl you met up with last week. Clarissa, was that her name?”
Karl sat down next to Stella. He was holding a bottle of beer he’d already half-finished. He took another mouthful.
“Gorgeous,” Karl said.
“What, exactly?” Stella asked. “The beer or the view?”
“Or you,” Karl said and moved his chair closer.
Stella continued with her breakfast.
“What are you up to later?” Karl asked.
“There’s a special night at the Midnight Bar; drinks half price, dancing until late. I thought we could make a night of it.”
Stella turned to look at Karl. He was in his early twenties, short dark hair, intense brown eyes and suntanned. He was handsome enough, though not Stella’s type. Being the morning he had on his tour guide top, shorts and sandals.
“You know I don’t drink,” Stella said.
“You do sometimes, remember two weeks ago? I thought we were going to get close. I keep telling you, we’re made for each other.”
“I’ve heard you say that to all the girls. Shouldn’t you be off sizing up the latest batch? Don’t want Joe to get first pick.”
Karl finished his beer, left the bottle on the table and stood. As he left, he blew Stella a kiss and walked off without looking back. Stella laughed. Unlike many of the Brits that washed up on Melanos, he could be good company when he wasn’t trying it on. She reached for her coffee and watched the harbour while she finished her breakfast.
Being Tuesday, the ferry from the mainland pulled in moments before half past ten. Stella watched the usual collection of locals and tourists gathered on the boat’s deck to see if anyone interesting would arrive on the island. She counted nine locals and six tourists and was about to turn her attention to finishing her coffee when she saw him.
Walking from the back of the ferry was a man in his mid-twenties who walked as though he had lived all his life at sea. He dressed like a tourist but instead of bright T-shirt, cheap sandals and vivid sunburn he wore dark blue, had the sort of shoes that could walk mountains and had a decent tan all over. His shoulders were muscular like an Olympic swimmer. His hair was dark-brown and unlike Stella seemed comfortable without sunglasses.
Stella put down her unfinished coffee and sat back to gaze at the man. She was fascinated by how he walked and how he surveyed the harbour. This was somebody she’d be quite happy to meet. She had no plans for the day; maybe luck was smiling on her. Her dreams were dashed when the man stepped from the boat. One of the other tourists, a skinny red-haired girl in bright yellow top, white shorts and carrying a broken bag, raced forward to hug him. She then gave him her bag to carry. Stella stared as the couple strolled off towards the beach with its tourist hotels. She swore under her breath without realising, and went inside the Mimosa to grab another coffee.
An hour later, Stella had read all of yesterday’s papers cluttering the bar and drunk more than enough coffee. The ferry had left for its next stop and she debated the best use of the day. She was considering going back to her flat for her paints when she saw the handsome man making his way towards the bar. He was alone. She became aware of every breath as she counted the steps he took and, yes, he came up the steps to the bar. She tried not to stare but from close up she could see he was muscular and must exercise to keep trim; she liked that. He came to where she sat.
“Excuse me,” he said. “I hope you don’t mind. I was told that there was a boat trip round the island this afternoon. Is this the place where I can book it?”
Stella forgot to speak. The man’s voice was very British and almost hypnotic. His spoke every syllable as though he had recently learned the language and loved its every sound. She quite forgot to answer.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the man said. “Do you speak English? I am looking for the boat trip.”
Stella laughed; a short laugh to hide her lack of composure.
“I’m the one should be sorry,” she said. “Yes, they run a boat trip, leaves at two, gets back at seven in time for dinner. If you go into the main bar and ask for George, they’ll know who you mean. His cousin runs it. I’m Stella, by the way.”
The man reached out his right hand to shake hers.
“Pleased to meet you Stella,” he said. “I’m Michael. Can I get you a drink? It seems I’ve plenty of time.”
“Please. Thanks. I’ll have a water, no ice. I’ve had enough coffee this morning. You get coffee if you want. It’s fine. The coffee I mean. I mean, pleased to meet you as well, Michael.”
Stella watched Michael’s walk as he went to talk to the bar staff and get drinks. Close up she could smell his deodorant, which was less extreme than the cheap stuff most tourists drenched themselves in. He smelled of distant woods and mountain flowers.
“Here you go,” Michael said, sitting as he placed the drinks. “Your health!”
He tipped his drink towards her – he too had water.
Stella lifted her glass to his and touched the rims. “Yours too,” she said.
They sat in silence for a few moments drinking and admiring each other.
“You here long?” Stella asked.
“I don’t know,” Michael said. “I’m on an extended break from home. I’m wandering the Mediterranean starting in Greece then I might go on to Turkey or across Italy. You?”
Stella launched in to a familiar speech.
“I’m an Ozzie, you might have guessed from the accent. I guess I’m on walkabout. I’ve been in and around a few of these islands for a couple of months.”
“Impressive,” Michael said. “You on your own?”
Stella sipped her drink before answering.
“Me neither,” he said.
Stella was disappointed. Was he yet another bloke looking for a bit of fun while his girlfriend was sunbathing? He had seemed better than that.
“Problem?” Michael asked.
“I saw you get off the ferry,” Stella said. “It looked like you were with someone.”
“What, that girl Tracey? I don’t think so. She seems a bit desperate to me, I was the third person she’d tried to chat up on the two-hour crossing. She told me she’d twisted her ankle and could I help her get to the hotel. Thankfully, she’s not staying anywhere near where I am. Where do you stay? Not in the tourist traps I assume.”
“No,” Stella said smiling and sitting closer. “I have a flat back there across from the harbour. It’s cheap enough and there’s no loud clubs keeping me awake. Not that I’m one against clubs. It’s not where I want to spend every night. I don’t mind music and dancing.”
“I like dancing,” Michael said. “Perhaps we could meet up tonight for a dance? Just a dance.”
“That would be nice,” Stella said.
“Or,” Michael said, “you could come out on the boat this afternoon. The swimming is meant to be glorious. They take the boat to a bay on the other side of the island with warm blue water like a postcard.”
“I don’t swim,” Stella said.
“Really, I thought you Australians were born surfing.”
They talked for another hour about travelling, being away from home, the weather and a dozen other topics. All the while they edged nearer to each other as they sat on their plastic seats oblivious to everyone coming and going.
“Is that the time?” Michael asked, catching site of the clock over the bar inside the Mimosa. “I need to get my stuff. Are you sure you won’t come for a swim or at least the boat trip?”
“No, you go. Are we still on for tonight?”
“Of course,” he said. “Back here for eight? I’m sure that’s plenty of time. I’ll grab a shower when we get back and grab a change of clothes. We could have a bite to eat as well if you want. See you later.”
For a moment, Stella thought Michael would lean across to kiss her goodbye. The moment passed but, as he walked off, he stopped to look back and wave, blowing her a kiss as he did. She sat back in her chair. Today was a good day.
At seven thirty, Stella was already in the Mimosa looking for Michael. It had been a long time since she’d been so interested in someone else. She knew it couldn’t work out but, while she was here, she’d enjoy herself. As expected, the bar was all but deserted with staff outnumbering customers. She ordered a glass of sprinkling water and sat back outside where she had met Michael that morning. Would she appear too eager? She finished her drink, walked back round the harbour then returned at just before eight. The bar was busier though still fewer than a dozen people sat around drinking. Michael wasn’t one of them. She checked the clock over the bar and her watch. She was on time, where was he?
Stella ordered another glass of water and checked out her appearance in a mirrored wall panel by the dance floor. She wore a knee length red skirt, a white top that wasn’t too tight but showed off her figure without being too obvious, and her best strappy sandals. She checked her watch again. It was only ten past eight, and she’d already finished her second drink.
By eight thirty, she’d had four glasses of water and still no sign of Michael. She had to use the ladies room and begged the staff to not let Michael leave if he should arrive while she was gone. When she came back he still hadn’t appeared. She’d had enough of water and order a Virgin Mimosa, the non-alcoholic version of the bar’s normal cocktail. It came in a wide glass with plenty of ice, an umbrella and was bright orange with cherries floating on the ice cubes. She sat at the bar, drinking it in small sips to take time.
“Hi ya Stella!” a voice called. She turned It was Karl.
“On your own?” he asked.
“Meeting someone,” she said.
“Who’s the lucky man? Don’t answer; you’ll break my heart.”
Stella swirled the iced around her drink rather than make conversation.
“Quiet in here. Don’t know why you like it so much. Nobody comes in here.”
“You’re here,” Stella said.
“Just passing through, just passing. You coming to Midnight?” he asked.
“I don’t think so. You know I don’t like to drink.”
“Your loss. Let me know if you change your mind. I’m supposed to meet a couple of mates. If you see two guys from the travel company tell ’em I’m in the pizza place. You hungry?”
Stella realised she was very hungry. She’d get Michael to take her to dinner. When he arrived.
“I’m fine,” she said. “See you later.”
Half past nine arrived and Michael had still not turned up. Stella was on the dregs of her third Virgin Mimosa when Karl reappeared. He wore in his usual loud blue and red shirt, shorts and little else. He always dressed loud in the evening.
“Still alone?” he asked.
“Maybe,” she said.
“Let me get you another of those,” Karl said. “Why not sit over there. You’ll see your friend arrive.”
Stella was bored of sitting at the bar and took a seat at the table Karl had indicated. He came back with the inevitable bottle of beer and a glass of sparkling orange liquid. She looked at her watch. Michael was not coming. She lifted the drink and drank it down in one, intending to go back to her flat and forget about men. She’d swallowed the lot before she realised it didn’t taste the same as the others she’d drunk.
“What was that?” she asked Karl.
“A Mimosa Special. Georgio behind the bar said you’d been on the specials all evening. I thought you didn’t drink.”
“I was on the other specials. The non-alcoholic ones. What’s in that?” she asked.
“Not sure,” Karl said. “Juice, ice, grenadine, voddie, sparkling wine. You know, stuff like that. Relax. You’ll be fine.”
Already the drink was making her feel excited and alive. The music seemed louder, and she was very conscious of her breathing. Everything in the club seemed to snap into sharp focus. Who needed Michael?
“Do you want another?” Karl asked.
Stella paused for a second.
“Yeah, why not. Make it a large one,” she said.
An hour later, she and Karl were dancing though Stella had drunk so much she was using Karl for support more than moving around the dance floor. Karl held her close, and she looked at him through a haze. He wasn’t that bad looking. He watched her for a moment then kissed her. Once.
“Come on, you need some fresh air,” he said.
“I didn’t know you were a gentleman,” she said.
“I’m not,” he said then pulled her close for a long kiss, which she returned.
They walked out of the bar together.
“Do you want a walk along the beach or would you rather go back to your place?” he asked.
At that point, she could make out almost nothing except the lights of the bar and Karl’s face in front of her. She leaned forward and kissed him, pulling his face hard to her own.
“Let’s go to my place,” she said.
“Excuse me,” a man said. It was Michael.
Stella turned in the direction of Michael’s voice. There he was, dressed as he had been earlier, his clothes now streaked by something black. He stared at Stella, then Karl.
“Sorry I was late,” Michael said. “I don’t want to interrupt anything.”
With that, he turned and strode off back along the beach.
Stella felt very dizzy, very small, and very, very wrong.
“I don’t know what his problem was,” Karl said.
Stella needed to lie down. Alone.
“Just forget it will you?” she asked. “Leave me alone. You’ve caused enough trouble.”
“What did I do?” he asked.
Stella staggered back to her flat and oblivion. Men, who needs them she thought as she passed out.
The middle of the following morning, Stella was in her flat packing. She’d woken in the middle of the night unsure how she’d got home. She also felt awful and made herself drink the remains of a bottle of cola she’d abandoned on a shelf above her bed. It didn’t make her feel any better, but she had hoped the sugar and caffeine might work a miracle. An hour later, she gave up trying to sleep and went for a walk around the harbour. It was five in the morning, well before any but the most dedicated fishermen were awake. Two hours in the light breeze helped clear her head and she remembered just how the encounters with both Michael and Karl had gone. Another hour passed before she could face breakfast then back to her flat.
She didn’t have many possessions; clothes and some other bits and pieces. They all fitted inside a backpack she kept propped in a corner. She went through a pile of paperbacks, some she’d read, some she had no interest in reading. They could be a gift for the next person to rent the place. She kept one, stuffed it in her backpack to read on her travels, and then began to check through the drawers one final time.
There was a knock on the door.
She stopped still. She was in no mood for visitors, indeed she couldn’t remember the last time anyone had called round.
There was another knock.
It was Michael. She sat down on the bed, put her head in her hands and huddled down wishing this world would go away.
“Hello? Stella? I can hear you in there,” Michael said. “Can I come in? I want to apologise.”
Apologise, Stella thought, what for?
She stood so fast that she went dizzy.
“Hold on,” she said.
She caught site of her reflection in a mirror over the small sink. She looked awful. Did she have a towel? She grabbed one and wrapped it around her hair.
She opened the door.
“I was just washing my hair,” she said.
Michael stood there looking immaculate though tired. He was wearing jeans and a plain white T-shirt.
“I wanted to say sorry,” he said. “Can I come in?”
Stella moved back.
“There’s not much room. You can move that backpack off the chair,” she said.
“Are you going somewhere,” Michael said as he sat down.
“You know us Ozzies,” she said. “Always wandering around.”
She sat back down on the bed staring at Michael.
“About last night,” he said.
“Don’t,” she said. “I was drunk. I never get drunk. I don’t often drink. I…”
“The boat had a problem. The engine failed. We were late back. I went to the bar as soon as I could. Silly really. You’ve got friends and I just. I mean I sort of assumed.”
“I was drunk,” she said. “I didn’t think you were turning up. I had a cocktail by mistake and things got confused. I don’t normally…”
Michael held up a hand to interrupt her.
“Can we start again?” he asked. “Or are you leaving today?”
Stella looked at the backpack, now lying on the floor looking tired and unwanted. She knew the feeling.
“I’d like that,” she said.
“Let’s meet up at five. Shall I call?”
“Five’s fine. Gives me a chance to get some sleep.”
“Let’s meet at the Mimosa. I’ll be fashionably late. Let’s take it from there. No promises.”
“No promises,” he said. “Except this time I’ll be there.”
With that, he left.
Stella breathed in as deep as she could then out, lay out on her bed and tried to work out just why Michael made her feel the way he did. Two minutes later, she was asleep.
That afternoon Stella arrived at the Mimosa bar at five minutes after five. The sun was warming the same table where she had met Michael yesterday. As she’d known he would be, he sat waiting for her. He’d found (and ironed) a white shirt which contrasted well with the dark blue chinos he wore. Stella had spent a frantic two hours sorting out what to wear, in the end choosing a yellow blouse and red skirt. She felt more alive than she had for months.
“These are for you,” Michael said handing her some flowers as she sat down. “They’re mimosas, like the bar.”
Stella took the spray of small yellow flowers and smelled their scent. They reminded her of small flowers that grew in the rocky ground back home.
“They’re beautiful,” she said. “Thank you.”
Michael just smiled.
“I ordered water; I wasn’t sure what you’d want. If you want I can get something else.”
“Water’s fine,” she said.
They sat and chatted about the sun, the island, holidays and everything except their homes. After a couple of hours, they went for pasta at a nearby restaurant where they sat and watched the boats bobbing on the harbour. They laughed and Stella felt as though this were the first evening of the rest of her life. They argued over who would pay for dinner before agreeing to decide on the toss of a coin. Stella won meaning she would pay, though Michael insisted on best of three. In the end, they split the bill and left a generous tip. They sat and finished their drinks.
“How long are you staying around the island?” Michael asked.
“A while yet, it depends. I’ve no itinerary,” she said. “You?”
“I thought I’d come for a couple of days, I might stay longer. Who knows?”
“And when do you go home?” she asked
“No rush, I’m taking some time out. Not to walkabout like you Australians but there’s things happening at home I don’t want to be involved with.”
“Girlfriend things?” she asked
“I’ve not got a girlfriend,” she said.
They chatted some more, and the waiter brought them another bottle of water on the house.
“What do you like to do of an evening?” Michael asked.
“Sometimes I go to Mimosa’s to see what the world is up to. The bar staff all know me. Sometimes I even work behind the bar. Despite last night I mostly just drink juice or water.”
“I thought last night didn’t happen,” Michael said.
Stella smiled at him, lifted a glass of water part way to her lips. “Here’s to tonight,” she said.
Michael lifted his glass and clinked it against hers. “To tonight,” he said.
They both paused then drank, putting their glasses down as one.
“Let’s go for a walk, see the sun go down,” she said.
They left hand-in-hand.
Four hours later, they were lying together at the edge of the beach, watching how moonlight sparkled on the water. Above the stars were clear, and they made a game of pointing out their own imagined shapes in the sky. They’d made love as though they’d known each other for years, and Stella wondered just what she was getting into. She was a long way from home yet everything felt right.
“It’s getting chilly,” Michael said.
“I think I messed your shirt up,” Stella said, laughing. “There’s a button missing.”
Stella and Michael stood, tucked their clothes back in and strolled arm-in-arm towards the main waterfront. They had walked almost round the small headland of the bay and were some distance away from the noise of humanity. They carried on looking at stars and almost didn’t notice the group sat on the shore drinking bottles of the local wine, smoking and throwing pebbles in the sea. When they drew near, they drifted to pass behind them, but the group had already noticed them. Stella saw that they were all men, all tourists and all drunk.
“Wotcha Romeo, Juliet!” one said.
Stella and Michael carried on, nodding but not pausing.
“Fancy a drink?” another said brandishing a bottle.
“No thanks,” Michael said.
Stella grabbed tighter to Michael’s arm to pull him closer.
“I know what you fancy,” the first one said.
“I know what I fancy, too,” said yet another.
At this, the group stood up to block the way.
“How about a party?” one of them said.
Stella shifted to be behind Michael as they stopped.
“No thanks, why don’t we all go back to the club?” Michael asked. “I’ll buy you a drink.”
The tallest of the group of drinkers moved to stand in front of Michael and stuck out his hand. He pointed his index finger and jabbed it into Michael’s ribs.
“Why don’t you just get off back home and let me and the boys have some fun with your bird?” the tall one asked.
“I don’t think so,” Michael said, staring the other man in the eyes.
“Not a good idea,” the other man said. “Boys.”
Just as the group of men made to attack Michael, Stella took another step backwards. Next thing she knew there was a loud, low noise like a large lorry backfiring some distance away. The group of men all fell to the ground unconscious. Michael was standing with his right hand working a control on the watch on his left wrist. From the watch came a deep blue glow. Michael turned the watch to shine on the group of men, pressed a button and there was a brief flash of light that made Stella clench her eyes shut for several seconds.
“I told you I didn’t think so,” Michael said, then turned to face Stella.
“I’m sorry about that,” Michael said. “Are you OK?”
“What was that?” Stella asked, keeping her distance.
“It’s a piece of technology. It stuns then allows me to wipe memories. They won’t remember this in the morning and they’ll assume they got drunk and slept on the beach.”
“I mean, who are you?” she asked.
“My name is not pronounceable. I’m not from England,” he said.
“I guessed as much.”
“I’m an alien,” he said.
“Alien,” she said.
“I’m from a small star in a constellation that humans call the Southern Cross. You can’t see it from here but can in Australia. You might know it.”
“The Southern Cross,” she said.
“Yes. I’m from a star they call Alpha Crucis or Acrux. Not a very glamorous name but I call it home.”
“And you’re some kind of alien?” she asked, still keeping her distance. Her eyes were wide, and she felt like running or screaming.
“Yes. My race looks more like a squid than one of these two legged mammals.”
“And why are you here?” she asked.
“Thousands of years ago my people were explorers. Some found a world orbiting Alpha Crucis and used their science to adapt themselves to live in its wonderful blue oceans. Our original form was leathery red-winged creatures. We were from a nearby blue star humans call Beta Crucis. It’s something called a Cephid Variable which means it gets brighter and darker. We’ve been at war for centuries — they call us mutants and want our minerals. We think they’re old and lazy and there are plenty of other worlds. I didn’t want to fight, so I stole a ship and came out here to get away from it.”
“Oh,” Stella said.
“Sorry,” Michael said.
“What for?” she asked. “For being alien, for lying to me or what?”
“I never lied,” he said.
“What now?” she asked.
“I’m sorry, but I need to stay hidden. I’ll take you back then wipe your memory. It’ll be for the best.”
“And you’d leave me with no memory of tonight?” she asked.
“I’m not,” she said and made a fist of her right hand. From a silver ring on her middle finger a bolt of green light stabbed Michael who fell to the sand before he could react.
“You’re still conscious, for now,” she said. “You know a lot about stars, but not enough. Do know what the humans called Beta Crucis?”
She knelt to stare Michael in the eyes.
“Mimosa,” she said. “The Australians use the Southern Cross on their flag, that’s why I choose them to hide among.”
She stood and concentrated for a moment. Her outline shimmered to be replaced by a leathery bird-like creature over two metres tall.
“Goodbye,” she said looking at Michael one last time before another stab of green light shot out. This time Michael twitched and then changed into a blue, squid-like creature. His body was limp.
Stella lifted Michael’s body and cast it into the sea. She walked back to shore, stretched her blood red wings and then flew off to the rocky hills to lay her eggs.
by Tony Jones