In hindsight, it was probably a bad idea. But with the top down and wind blowing through their hair, there was no better start to the weekend. Gwen cranked the music louder to muffle Olivia’s singing.
“What? It’s not that bad.” Olivia continued belting out lyrics. “Well, shake it up, baby… (shake it up, baby).”
“Twist and shout… (twist and shout),” Gwen couldn’t resist joining in. Olivia’s positivity was infectious. “How much longer do we have?”
Olivia looked down at her phone and brought up the map. The blue line traced the path to their weekend. “Without traffic, I’d say less than an hour till we hit the first Key.”
“Yessssss!” Gwen stomped her feet, stuck a hand out of the Jeep, and shouted, “Freedom!”
“I know. We’ve put this off for too long.” Olivia shook out her hair. It was a poor attempt to stop it from smacking her in the face. “Gwen, we need gas.”
“No, we don’t. I filled up ten minutes ago.” She looked at the gauge just to be sure. It was early, but there was no doubt in her mind that she could have just stuck in the pump and forgotten to do anything.
“Uh, yeah, you do.” Olivia pointed over to the military convoy pulling off to the gas station.
“Ten bucks they’re Navy.”
“Oh, you’re so on.” Gwen let off the gas and pulled behind the trucks.
What could be wrong with a little flirting? Both girls were single and on vacation. The sun started to rise. They welcomed warmth that the early morning was missing. The girls traded their sweaters for sunglasses and finally found hair ties at the bottom of their beach bag. Gwen took the final sip of her coffee and was glad to have a reason to go inside and spark up a conversation.
The coffee smelled fresh, which was rare for a turnpike rest stop. Olivia raided the chips, trying not to stare at the two men browsing the candy bars. Gwen couldn’t believe how her best friend could go from a shy, reserved librarian to acting like a boy-crazed sixteen-year-old.
“Shit.” Gwen let the coffee overflow burning her hand. She stuck the burnt part into her mouth and went looking for ice.
“Don’t put ice on it.” The warning came from a deep voice behind her. Gwen froze, thinking her mishap had gone unnoticed. The last thing she wanted was for a cute guy to see her sucking on her hand after burning herself. “It’ll blister quicker. Try warm water or soy sauce.”
She released her hand and winced. “I’ll be sure to keep that in mind next time I try to cook.”
“Or pour coffee?” He smirked.
“Aren’t we a smart ass?” She thought. But he was helpful, and those green eyes made it easy to forget the burn. He looked around the convenience store before asking. “You two making this trip by yourselves?”
“Yeah. We’re big girls. I think we can handle it.” Gwen couldn’t help but grin. He was gorgeous. “Why do you think otherwise, Mister… Cifone?”
“Commander.” He was cocky, but he was good at it. “Of course I do. There are pirates in these parts. Why else do you think they are calling the Navy down here.”
Gwen laughed at him. “Well, if my ship gets boarded and plundered, I’ll be sure to call out for you.”
“I’m sure you’d be what they’re plundering.” He couldn’t keep a straight face. “We’re all on leave if you ladies are making it all the way down to the tip. We’d sure love for you to join us.”
“That could be fun.” Gwen stuck out her hand. “I’m Gwen.” He looked at her hand and saw it was still red.
He gently took it in his and kissed it. “I’m Lance.”
“Oh, no, he didn’t!” Olivia blurted from the cash rep.
Olivia watched the two exchange numbers. Gwen had to drag Olivia from the convenience store. When they got in the car, Gwen handed Olivia a ten. Olivia was able to keep silent until they hit 80.
She finally blurted out, “Please tell me what I witnessed was real.” Her mouth hung wide open.
“You might want to close your mouth,” Gwen said, trying to change the subject. “You could swallow a bug.”
“No, really? Did a guy named Lance really just kiss a girl named Gwen on her hand?” For the twenty years they had known each other, Olivia had made this her life goal. “You have to marry him!”
“You’re crazy. And no matter what story you read, she never marries Lancelot.” She saw Olivia’s smile fade. “Don’t I have to find Arthur first?”
“No, because everyone knows that Lancelot is the better looking of the two.” Olivia yawned and laid her chair back. “Hopefully, one of his round table members is just as hot.”
Olivia slept the rest of the way to Key West and missed out on the few times Gwen pulled over to take pictures of houses on stilts. The seven-mile bridge gave way to open skies and blue waters that made Gwen want to pull over and jump into the ocean. There would be time for that during the week.
Gwen tried to wake Olivia when they went through Sugarloaf key, but the girl continued sleeping. Even sleeping through her own photo shoot with a Key deer. One came right up to the parked Jeep and sniffed Olivia’s dangling hand.
The Jeep chugged down the road past places that could have been anywhere but the keys. They passed through where the townies lived and into postcard Key West. Those fancy postcards only told part of the story. It was refreshing to see normality in a vacation spot. Bright colors blinded Olivia as she opened her eyes.
“We’re here?” She sounded a bit surprised.
“Of course we are. What did you think I was doing while you were playing sleeping beauty?” As Gwen pulled into the driveway of the bed and breakfast, her phone buzzed.
“Ah! Let me read.” Olivia snatched it up before Gwen could react. “Hi, beautiful. Us sailors are getting settled in. Why don’t you and your friend meet us for lunch?”
“So I’m guessing he has a friend or two for you,” Gwen said, yanking her phone back. “No more reading my messages.”
“Yeah, like that is ever going to happen.” Olivia rolled her eyes. She started shoving all her stuff she threw around the Jeep into her overnight bag.
Two queen beds with white and baby blue quilts and matching towel animals awaited them behind the door. Gwen claimed the bed closest to the sliding glass door.
“Olivia, you have to see this.” Both girls gasped at the view. Their room was only a few drunken skips away from the ocean. The sand and blue water were just what they needed to recharge.
Gwen was delighted with her last-minute hotel choice. “How cute is this?”
“Are you sure the animals aren’t going to miss you while you’re gone?” Olivia was already out of her sweatpants and shirt and into a bikini with a bright pink cover-up.
“There are other caretakers for the otters.” Gwen hadn’t even thought about changing. She was perfectly content with stepping out on the balcony and taking a nice nap on the hammock. “Pretty sure I’ll miss them more.”
“Not if you’re distracted.” Olivia waved Gwen’s phone in front of her. “How did you? Seriously are you a magician?” Gwen was sure she had her cell in her back pocket.
“You dropped it when you put your bag down. And since when have you cared about me touching your phone? What are you hiding?” She lifted her right brow, half expecting Gwen to dive for the phone. But there was nothing more than a shrug from her.
“If you want to ruin your surprise go right away. But don’t come crying to me saying how you couldn’t wait.” It was easy to bait Olivia. The two had known each other for twenty-three out of their twenty-seven years of life. “Go ahead. Look if you must.”
Olivia stood with her mouth open, looking at the phone, not knowing what to do. She blinked a few times, waiting to see if Gwen was lying. But there was nothing. Moving faster than she expected herself to, she snatched a business card off the desk and ran into the bathroom with the card and phone. Gwen rushed over and pounded on the door, but there was nothing she could do about it now.
When Olivia finally returned from the bathroom, she had a massive smirk on her face. Gwen knew that look all too well. “What did you do?”
“Oh, nothing. Just you might want to put on something cute. The knights of the round table are heading this way.” Olivia stumbled over her bag she had carelessly tossed down when she came in. Luckily, there was a wall to catch her.
“Hmm. I don’t think you’ll be needing a drink anytime soon. You can’t even walk soberly.” Gwen found the cooler that Olivia had for some reason stuffed in the closet. She pulled out orange juice and cheap champagne. “Or I’ll just pretend you didn’t smack your head on the wall.”
The doorbell rang just as Olivia finished cleaning up the giant box of makeup; she toted everywhere. It didn’t need to be so large. She only used eye shadow. Everything could have easily been stored in a small bag that fits inside her purse. But every time Gwen brought it up to her, she always said the same thing; “I like to keep my options open.”
Commander Lance Cifone was the first to come through the door. He was no longer in uniform, just board shorts, and a fitted tee. Behind him, another hunk of the same height, though slightly less build. His blonde hair was rebelling against the standard Navy cut.
“It’s good to see you so soon.” Gwen did her best not to give Olivia a death stare, but it was hard when the girl was pretending to be little Miss innocent.
Lance leaned in and kissed her cheek. “Olivia’s text seemed so eager to get us here. I didn’t want to disappoint.”
“What? No?” Olivia’s face flushed. “That was all, Gwen.”
“Well then,” He winked at Gwen. “I better send Charlie back because I thought I was fulfilling a specific order.”
“No need.” Olivia shut the door quickly behind him. “I’m sure he wouldn’t want to go back to base while on leave. If he did, I’d just feel horrible.”
Gwen loved when Olivia’s plans backfired on her. “So what do you Navy boys do besides get drunk and tan yourselves?”
“We take pretty girls on boat rides.” Lance nodded towards the ocean. The girls grabbed a few towels and the cooler they had packed already. Charlie came through with a packed lunch for the four of them.
“So the Navy is like grown-up boy scouts? Always prepared?” Olivia said, earning the stink eye from Gwen. “What?”
Charlie led the way from the hotel to the boat. Olivia watched as Gwen and Lance talked. There was something about him that made her worry. Gwen glanced at her, and Olivia beckoned her back with a finger.
“Hey, anything wrong?” Gwen wanted to know why her bouncy friend had done a 180.
“Are we really going on the boat with them? I mean, we just met them.” Olivia whispered. “What if they are like serial killers or something?”
Gwen fought back a sigh. “Well, I was going to wait to tell you, but this isn’t my first time meeting Lance.”
“What?” Olivia stopped in her tracks.
“And you’re just telling me now?”
“Well, I was going to tell you on the way down. But I thought this was more fun.” Gwen felt bad for holding back from Olivia. She was her best friend, but she had to be sure there was something there before she even thought about telling the Drama Queen anything. “Look, when we get out on the water, I promise you’ll get the whole story.”
Olivia waited a moment before she caught up with them. Gwen bounded through the sand and caught Lance’s hand. He leaned in and gave her a quick kiss. Olivia wanted to be happy for them, but knowing her best friend had kept a secret left her bitter. Olivia shook her hands and feet, letting the anger flow out of her.
“Is she okay?” Lance asked.
“She’ll be fine in a moment. That’s her angry dance.” Gwen let Lance help her into the boat.
Olivia, with the temper tantrum she had just thrown, felt even more stupid standing there with the picnic basket. She wouldn’t blame Charlie if he backed out now. Damn it, Lance. Charlie is perfect. How could she stay mad at her best friend when she picked the perfect guy for her? “Hey, wait for me!”
The water was glassy perfection allowing a clear view of the colorful fish that swam around the anchored boat. The two couples grabbed their snorkeling gear and decided to explore the nearby reef. Olivia could not believe how she almost ruined the day.
Beautiful colored parrotfish munched away on the reef while a school of Sergeant Major fish swam quickly over them. The sun was at high noon, and Gwen and Olivia started to burn. Unlike the two Naval officers, they did not have tanned skin. At the bottom of the small stepladder swam a giant, dark fish. Olivia froze. Everyone surfaced as Olivia started panicking and swimming away from the boat. Charlie stopped Olivia from trying to swimming miles back to shore.
“Where are you going?”
“That thing is going to eat me!” The words squeaked out of her.
“Olivia, seriously?” Gwen couldn’t believe her. They had gone over flashcards of fish that looked dangerous and which weren’t, just for this reason.
“It’s Goliath grouper.” Olivia just stared at her. It seemed the flashcards hadn’t worked.
“It’s also called a Jew Fish.” Gwen saw the gears in Olivia’s head start to put things together. “It’s not going to eat you.”
“Well, it looks like it can swallow me whole.” She put her mask on and slowly started to swim back to the boat. Charlie held her hand the whole way.
“Gwen, you need help with that?” Lance took the sunscreen from her and started to rub it on her back. “I mean unless you were going for the tiger stripe look.”
“I thought that’s what you liked.” She shivered from the cold spray.
“So, are you going to tell me or what?” Olivia had her giant beach hat on and huge dark sunglasses. She looked like a movie star from the 1960s.
Gwen thought about holding out a little longer, but Olivia looked as though she was about to explode. “Remember about six months ago when I had to go to Tampa?”
“Yeah, it was to be a guest speaker. OH MY GOD! Was he a student?” The question was a strange mix of happiness and why.
“What? No. Lance asked me to come to speak about training animals for the Navy.” Gwen honestly didn’t know what went on in Olivia’s head sometimes. “He took me to dinner both nights. I was out there saying it was for rapport or something, but after dinner, let me know that it wasn’t.”
“So you held out for six months?” The alcohol was finally hitting her, and she wasn’t as mad as she was this morning.
“I couldn’t tell you. You have been talking forever about me meeting a Lancelot. I thought this would be more fun.” Gwen left her sitting on the bow.
The men had disappeared into the cabin. She was glad that Lance hadn’t heard how Olivia was probably already planning their wedding and demise in her head. It was much cooler below deck.
“What’s that?” She pointed to the map.
“We’re just trying to find an island the guys keep talking about,” Charlie answered.
“What’s so special about it? Aren’t there a bunch of little ones all over the place?” Gwen cuddled up to Lance. It was nice to be next to him.
“Some of the guys say it’s haunted. I call bullshit, but Charlie wants to check it out.” Lance absent-mindedly started to scratch Gwen’s back. “But there are other things I’d much rather be doing with you.”
Gwen eyed him. First time in months, she could actually touch him, but now, all she wanted to do was kick him. He brought Charlie along to distract Olivia, not invite them both out on the romantic boating trip he had promised her. They were already out here together, no way she could ditch her best friend now. “I’m sure one little adventure wouldn’t hurt.”
“We’re going on an adventure?” Olivia peeked in. She had an irrational fear of boat cabins.
“Yeah, we’re going to go ghost hunting.” Gwen watched her friend’s face go white.
Where had her best friend gone? Who was this scaredy-cat standing before her? “You alright? If I remember correctly, you dragged me throughout New Orleans hunting ghosts.”
“Yeah, but that was on land. With land surrounding us. What if the boat breaks? Or a ghost lets out all our gas? Or what if we get separated?”
“Don’t worry, Olivia, remember you’re with the grown-up boy scouts,” Charlie said, taking a small dig at her as he brought up lunch.
It was another three hours before they saw anything. Gwen started to wonder if they were going to end up in the Bahamas or maybe even Cuba. “Are you sure that the island even exists?” she asked. “
We’re going to get stranded out at sea and have to catch a shark to pull us back to shore, aren’t we?” Everyone looked at Olivia. “What? It could happen.”
“What has she been drinking?” Lance whispered into Gwen’s ear.
“Not really sure, but I think I want some.” Just as she finished saying, they spotted land on the horizon.
Olivia waved at the hazy land. “Why, hello ghost island.”
When they pulled up to the dock, it was worn and covered with barnacles. They saw that someone had recently been here. There was a fresh rope neatly piled up. They all gave each other an uneasy look. They weren’t leaving without exploring first. Olivia clutched the rail. “Gwen, I think we might want to sit this out.”
“What’s gotten into you?” Gwen pulled her onto the dock. “You’re the one who always drags me to these kinds of places.”
“Yeah, but they aren’t three hours away from civilization.” Olivia’s eyes darted around the island, searching for a reason to make Gwen stay in the boat.
It was an overgrown mess. Palmetto branches cut their legs. There were no houses for the ghosts to haunt. At least none that the four had run into yet. Birds of paradise sang to their intruders from flowering trees. Spiderwebs hung just above their heads, forcing the men to crouch in a few places.
Gwen looked back at her friend, who was still on high alert. “See nothing to be scared of.”
“You’re right,” she said as a rabbit hopped past the group and back into the bushes. “All that’s here are cute little animals.”
“Hey, what’s that over there?” Charlie asked, pointing at a chain-link fence that was covered in vines. The barbed wire on the top looked too new for how overgrown everything on the island was.
“Okay, guys, let’s go back.” Olivia was trembling.
Lance wanted to push on, but Gwen was starting to catch a bit of Olivia’s fear. “A quick look, and we’ll turn back, I promise.”
The group walked along the fence. The vines and overgrowth were starting to look all too perfect. It was clear that it was to mask the fence from the shore. Gwen doubted that whoever put up the fence thought people would wander this deep into the woods.
“Oh, there is definitely someone here,” Gwen said, pointing to a small, spinning radar dish.
“What is that?” Olivia asked.
“It could be several things,” said Lance. He squeezed Gwen’s hand, which was resting on his shoulder. “We can go back.”
“Are you crazy?” Gwen said. “We just found something. Let’s go.” She moved quicker down the fence.
“Gwen!” Olivia squealed. “Please! Let’s go back.”
Gwen kept walking. She had never complained when Olivia would drag her to historical places that were supposed to be haunted. Now that they finally found a real place that could truly be haunted, Olivia wanted to turn back. It made no sense. Just ahead was a roadway leading to whatever was hidden behind the fence. On either side of the solid-looking gate were guard towers with their windows smashed in. They didn’t see any guards.
“Did you call in our coordinates?” Charlie asked. Lance shook his head. He took one look at the wielded gate and grabbed Gwen. “We need to leave. Now.”
“What? It’s just a closed base. Why are you so freaked out?” She got out of his grip and marched up to the door just to the side of the gate and tugged at it. “Look. The door still opens.” Gwen ducked inside before anyone could stop her.
“Your girl is going to get us killed.” Charlie followed after Lance.
There were two buildings inside. Lance and Charlie knew this was a research facility. Lance had met Gwen on a base that was basically its twin. Expect this one had chains on the doors and bars over the windows.
“She’s over there.” Olivia pointed to where she saw a figure in the distance.
“Over there?” Lance asked. “There was no way Gwen could have run off that quickly. We were right behind her.”
Olivia tried to shake off her fear. “Well, Charlie, I think we found your ghost.”
“Lance!” Gwen’s cry came from another direction.
The three ran towards it. Lance and Charlie both pulled guns from their pockets. Olivia just looked at them. “Why do you have guns?”
“Boys scouts, always prepared, right?” But Lance’s voice was shaking.
Gwen came running from around the building. Olivia had never seen her move so quickly. Moans echoed through the empty space.
“Where the fuck did you bring us?” Gwen said as she ran past them.
“Those aren’t ghosts. Those are fucking zombies!” Olivia shouted. She didn’t understand why Lance and Charlie were just standing there. “Shoot them!”
Charlie picked up Olivia and ran. No one stopped running until they were back at the boat. In the cabin, Lance made Gwen strip down to be sure she wasn’t scratched or bitten. “Did you know about this place?” Gwen couldn’t hold back her anger.
“You know I didn’t.” Lance kept his distance. She had already pulled away once, and maybe space was what she needed.
Gwen paced the small cabin. “Human testing wasn’t supposed to start for another five years.”
Lance stopped her. “Gwen, what are you talking about?”
“Don’t act like you don’t know.” She pushed him off of her. “Why do you think I was there?”
“Because you were an expert in animal training. Why else would you have been there?” Lance didn’t know what she was talking about. He trained dolphins to salvage things from wrecks, and until now, he thought Gwen trained otters and other animals to do the same thing.
Gwen muttered to herself. “The super soldier project. They were testing it on the animals first.”
Lance held his breath. He didn’t want to alarm the two upstairs. If they were doing the testings on humans here, there should be no problem. He’d bring Charlie and a few other guys back and take care of the mess. The zombies were contained. It would be an easy clean-up. As Lance started to relax, so did Gwen. Everything would be alright.
The boat had been moving for some time before Gwen and Lance made their way out of the cabin.
“Everything alright?” Lance asked, popping open a beer.
“We’re good,” Charlie said, accepting a beer.
Olivia sat down next to Gwen and whispered. “Did anyone shut the door?”