About 1200 words
Midnight Moonlight Mystery
by James Foley
At the Carolina Coast Hotel, some guests, bewitched by the full moon, still lounged on the lawns in the wee hours. That September weekend was ending. The sweet summer of 2017 was bidding goodbye. Meanwhile, Conn Franklin, a James Dean lookalike, was coming up the beach from his boat, ignoring Stefanie Ryan waving to him. But Conn's friends, Wyatt Graham and Cooper Peterson, were admiring fair-haired Stefanie.
“If you like them brainy,” Cooper said, “she’s a math fanatic—the best kind, the kind with Helen of Troy's legs and Isaac Newton’s calculus.”
“She's an intellectual?” Wyatt said. “So even a world-class loser like myself can hope?” Now softly, somewhere far off, a harmonica was playing an old dreamy melody, “Midnight Mystery”, as Conn joined them. Conn's lost-soul wildness generally captivated women. But he said to Wyatt, a reserve Navy officer, “Stefanie's for you, lieutenant.”
Wyatt laughed. “You get all the girls, Conn.”
“Not all. She’s out of my galaxy. Go talk to her, Wolf Boy.”
Wyatt's fear of doing that made him do it. “See you in a minute, guys,” he said.
“Not if Wolf Girl likes her, you won’t,” Cooper said. “I mean Bianca, your pet wolf.”
Facing Stefanie's beautiful face, Wyatt started stuttering: “This m-m-moon's opalescence is as g-gorgeous as you, Ms. Ryan.”
Damn! That sounded pompous, pedantic and presumptuous. But Stefanie smiled and said, “Did you actually say ‘opalescence?’”
“Uh-huh. Or ‘oboe lessons.’ I forget which.”
“You're Wyatt,” Stefanie said. “a friend of Cooper’s friend Conn.”
“Uh, actually, Conn’s a friend of Cooper’s friend me.”
Stefanie's smile broadened. “Cooper said you have an imaginary pet wolf named Bianca.”
Wyatt nodded. “She's a white wolf: albino. So she needs friendship.”
“That's amazing. A white pet wolf's extraordinary. But an imaginary white pet wolf seems unique. There's something else Cooper mentioned about Conn and you: I wonder if it's true.”
“No. No way. Not anything Cooper says.”
“That Conn takes all your girls from you.”
“Not all of them. Only the ones he wants. And just in my unlucky season.”
“Which one is that?”
“Fall through summer.”
Stefanie smiled, but hesitantly: “And yet you're still friends?”
“We were friends before birth. My mother and his mother were best friends.”
Embarrassed, Wyatt glanced at the moon dazzling the black sky above black water.
“Actually, I think I need to meet Conn,” Stefanie said. “He charters boats, doesn’t he?”
Wyatt nodded. “Uh-huh. Among other things.”
“Oh, other things? Interesting things?”
“I guess so—if you're interested in those things.”
“He seems interesting himself. He’s a professional boat captain, isn’t he?”
“Conn? I guess you could say he’s a professional dropout.”
“Dropout? Dropout from what?”
“Whatever you’ve got going.”
“He sounds like someone adventurous who might help me. Here's my problem,” Stefanie said. “My uncle Ben's dying. He's offered to leave me his old broken-down boatyard where nothing works. It's worthless, loaded with debt and mortgages. But Ben hopes I can make it profitable again.”
Now Stefanie touched Wyatt lightly as she said, “Wyatt, my life's been reckless—with no occupation. My mother supports me. When she's gone, I'll have nothing except the boatyard, if I can save it. But I'd need some guy as a partner, and Cooper told me about Conn's adventurous spirit.”
“Ms. Ryan, any man would be eager to help you. I'd be enthusiastic about it myself.”
“Call me Stefanie, please. Cooper said you're a university professor. I doubt if a rotting boatyard is your milieu. Excuse me.”
Wyatt followed her as she joined Conn, saying abruptly, “I've been wondering if you'd help me with something that's incredibly difficult?”
Conn turned, smiling his lazy smile. “Sure.”
“Don't be glib,” Stephanie said. “Would you do that? Something important to me—that maybe you alone can do?”
“You’ve got it.”
“I doubt it. Anything?” she asked again. “Are you sure?”
Now Stephanie was leading Conn away—Wyatt's eyes trying to find hers. But she ignored his as in a ‘50's movie. And Wyatt wondered why he couldn't succeed. Spending tomorrow with her, discussing fractals or the digamma function—bound together by passion, mathematics and mystery. Then suddenly he saw Conn lift Stefanie, holding her on tiptoes as he embraced her. That was the End of Everything.
It was all ruins now: the bombed-out cities and blasted streets, the crumbling skyscrapers, deserted highways, toxic air, poisoned earth and ravaged nation. And all the oxygen seemed gone, ripped from the night as Bianca began convulsing, struggling to breathe, her eyes burning out like stars. But as she died in Wyatt’s arms, somehow, miraculously, unbelievably, Wyatt knew that she was smiling.
Then an immense change. Wyatt saw Conn release Stefanie, smiling and making a deep bow, then turning and running down the beach, as if exercising. And at that moment an elderly gentleman, Mr. Wright, happened to be approaching, wobbling and beginning to fall as Wyatt and Stefanie hurried to steady him. “Are you all right?” she asked.
Mr. Wright smiled. “Oh yes, thanks to you and Lieutenant Wyatt here, our young math genius. Do you know him?”
“Yes, I know him—just didn't know he was a math genius, let alone a lieutenant.”
Wyatt helped the elderly man back up the slope to the hotel. When Wyatt returned, Stefanie said, “He’s so famous, isn't he? He still has that. So you're a math genius, Wyatt? By the way, I've been reading a little math myself—about the beta function.”
“The gamma function's fun too,” Wyatt said, astonished by Stefanie's new friendliness. And Bianca, amazingly alive again, seemed to be smiling.
Stefanie smiled too as she asked, “Ever work on an approach to the Riemann zeta hypothesis? About the non-trivial zeros?”
Wyatt nodded. “Uh-huh, that was exciting. Also a compact proof of Fermat's Last Theorem—using infinite descent. Only, the margin of the book I was scribbling it in was too narrow.”
Stefanie laughed. And Bianca, exulting in Stefanie's changed mood, seemed to jump triumphantly over the moon.
“And you're a lieutenant,” Stefanie said. “Army? Air—?”
“Navy: inactive at the moment.” Then Wyatt added abruptly,“So Conn won't join your project?”
“No. He just said derelict boatyards weren't his game. Then he jogged away.”
Saying this, Stefanie stooped to let her hands cup some of the dark water, raising it to her face. For a while nothing else happened: just the moonlight above the churning sea as it swirled and sighed on the sand, careless, indifferent.
Neither Stefanie nor Wyatt spoke. Whatever was building between them drifted with the evening breeze. Until finally Stefanie, splashing white feet in the water, said, “So you're Navy. You must know boats. I didn't realize you have boating experience. That makes a difference—about salvaging a boatyard.”
Wyatt smiled, and in the silence of that night—in the half-silent half-dimness—he said simply, “I don't mind moonlighting at the university. Bringing a boatyard back to life seems challenging. Maybe a quiet guy, Stefanie, can make your venture work, since our adventurer Conn's not involved.”
She nodded, her voice slipping out softly—softer than the shallow waves tickling her ankles as she embraced Wyatt. “We can certainly try,” she said.