On the first anniversary of his mother’s disappearance, someone left Taylor Burns a gift card.
Good for one healing massage at Inno-Scents Spa
The card was unsigned. Taylor hoped this was a gift from Lisa Lange, a masseuse at the spa. He’d had a crush on Lisa for years. He walked into the spa, expecting to see Lisa, but was greeted instead by a short, cute Asian woman.
She was in her early 20s, with skin that seemed to glow with health and optimism. Her pixie-cut black hair was streaked with hairdresser’s grace notes of silver. She wore loose gym clothes and was barefoot.
“We are so happy to meet you,” she said. “We should be barefoot, though.”
When Taylor didn’t get the message, she added: “We may remove our shoes. Our feet keep us in touch with the Earth.”
When Taylor had freed himself from shoes and socks, she led him to a hot tub that was surrounded by lit candles. She indicated a wicker chair, where a pair of white spa shorts lay folded.
“I thought Lisa would be here,” Taylor said.
“Lisa is not well today.”
“Just the flu maybe or…?”
Cammie shrugged.“We do not know,” she said.
She folded the privacy screen so Taylor get could undress. Bare feet slapping on tiles, she walked off.
Taylor was pretty sure he’d passed this woman in the cinder-block hallways of Shipwreck Bay High School. She was a daughter of refugees who, decades ago, had settled farms at the city’s edge. Every time he’d seen her in high school, her face was downcast, as if she was terrified of eye contact.
Wearing only spa shorts, he eased into the hot water and exhaled.
Bearing his mother’s disappearance was like carrying a ship’s anchor on his back. She had been his heart’s refuge from a cold, strict and disapproving father. She set high standards, but levied no harsh judgments. With grace and good humor, she accepted the world with all its faults. Taylor, an only child, felt she reserved a special love for him. This beautiful young man, he’d once overheard her say to her sister, came from my body.
Taylor slapped the water, turned on the jets and lay back. For all her big heart, Elizabeth Burns was no softie. She had become a phenomenal surfer, had developed muscles where many women her age had flab. The older Taylor got, the more surfing had become her obsession. It’s what you love that will kill you, and surfing had destroyed Liz Burns.
Or so it was assumed. Her body was never found. The sheriff’s investigation was still open.
A year-long nightmare shivered just underneath Taylor’s waking thoughts: Beautiful Liz Burns, gasping, terrified, flailing, choking, dying alone in the wild ocean she loved.
Was she murdered, as the town gossips whispered? Taylor was not blind to this possibility, but it vibrated in such a dark place in his soul that he often fended it off with a mantra: She drowned, it was an accident, she drowned.
Taylor lay back. Damn you, he scolded himself, this is just what I came here to forget.
Taylor inhaled floral scents, closed his eyes, let time pass. The next time he opened his eyes, Cammie was standing next to the tub, holding open a towel.
He stepped into it, wrapped himself, walked behind the privacy screen.When he was dry he hitched the towel around his waist and crossed to the massage room. Cammie had her back turned, busy arranging oils in wicker baskets. She opened the curtains, letting in a flood of foggy light. Shipwreck Bay was notorious for its fogs.
Taylor lay face down on the table, naked, and draped himself with a turquoise towel.
“Ready,” Taylor said, and Cammie began to kneed his scalp, then his neck and shoulders. Some masseuses have the magic touch, and Cammie was one of those. The tensions of Taylor’s demanding job and devastated love life began to melt away. Taylor imagined himself in a fragrant forest in early spring, with all its earthy sights and sounds.
He abandoned himself to Cammie’s hands, enjoying the intense pleasure of her back massage. Cammie said barely a word until she asked him to turn over and started anointing him with oil.
A moment later she was annointing his penis.
The Inno-Scents was a therapeutic spa, not a happy-ending joint. So Taylor, who was raised as a gentleman, closed his eyes.
Cammie leaned toward him and, her breath hot in his ear. She whispered something just as Taylor heard the spa’s main door, and footsteps out there on the tiles.
Cammie backed away from the table. Taylor grabbed for a towel, but not soon enough. The massage room’s door cracked open.
“Taylor?” The door opened wider.
“Oh! Oh my God,” a female voice said.
The door closed. Taylor rolled off the table and wrapped a towel around his midsection. Cammie plopped into a chair, looking guilty, like a shoplifter awaiting the cops in a store manager’s office.
Taylor walked into the main room and approached the intruder, Stephanie Voss, who’d retreated behind the reception counter.
“Enjoying your massage?” she asked, arching one eyebrow. “Happy with your ending?”
Taylor slipped behind the privacy screen, toweled off his oily body and got dressed. His massage-relaxed muscles had already bunched into knots. Could he manage a graceful exit?
Steffie Voss was an assistant to Billie McGinn, the spa’s absentee owner. Taylor had known Steffie since they were 12, and she was a kind soul, but prone to envy and dreamy mysticism. Now she sat on the platform steps with a grumpy look on her face.
“Yes, my love?”
“You’re not going to get that girl in trouble, right?”
Steffie’s hand went to her chest, and a sarcastic look formed on her face. “Me? Why would I do that? Just because she’s turning this spa into a whorehouse.”
“She’s been here exactly two weeks.”
“Maybe just have a quiet talk with her?”
“Taylor, she makes seventy five bucks an hour, and I make ten. I’m not her boss.”
“She’s just a dumb kid.”
“You know what I’ve noticed, Taylor? Rich men, and skinny girls, can get away with just about anything.”
Stephanie was one those people who were born to be overweight, a tendency compounded by her love of pasta, bread and potatoes. At Shipwreck Bay High School, her friends called her Steffie, and the bullies turned that nickname into “Fat Stuffie.”
“Well,” Taylor said, “maybe just one warning before you go tattling to Billie.”
“I bought you a massage, Taylor, not a date with a prostitute.”
Cammie changes into her street clothes as she watches Steffie scold Taylor.
“You’re the one? That was your gift card?”
She glared. “And this is how I’m repaid.”
“Thank you,” gulped Taylor. “For the gift. Very thoughtful.”
Steffie heaved a dramatic sigh and walked toward the door. Only with her back turned did she mutter, half hoping Taylor would hear: “Fool that I am, I love you.”
“Sorry,” he said. “What did you say?”
She opened the main door, then turned to tell him: “The Universe is open to all of us, Taylor. In the end you’ll see. Everyone gets what they need.”
A chill dusty wind huffed in from the street. Steffie slammed the door. Taylor shuddered. He turned to see Cammie, peeking at him from behind the dressing screen, then disappearing, like a frightened mouse.
Taylor tapped his pocket to make sure he had his cellphone, exited the spa, walked around the corner and entered the bright, busy Peace Love & Coffee.
He bought a cappuccino, settled into a sunny spot at the counter, whipped out his phone. He felt flattered by Steffie’s attention, but the landscape of his love life was a burnt-over mess. Just this month, his fiance Karen had dumped him and split for California.
He tapped out a message:
Stef: I appreciate your thoughtful gift … it’s nice to know someone remembers Mom. I’m fond of you but … since the Karen thing, I’m just in shock. Let’s make a date for lunch soon…
He sent that message and sipped cappuccino. Maybe a minute went by before his phone vibrated. He looked at it, expecting an answer from Steffie. Instead, it was a message from Cammie.