Less than twenty-four hours earlier, Aloe Malone was sitting on a tattered couch, a distinct eagerness coursing through her veins. She shivered; her radiator was on the fritz again, sputtering from one side, cackling, rendering her tiny bachelor apartment bone-cold uncomfortable. She curled into a sweater, still freezing, slowly succumbing to the chronic, aggravating chill.
And then she laughed, her breath puffy with condensation. She’d worked her last shift at the diner, and said her meager and limited goodbyes—except the one owed to her crummy apartment.
“Sayonara, shithole,” she whispered under her breath.
Now, she squinted into the radiant sun: hot but not fierce, a tempered warmth that was perfect and satisfying. She pressed her feet into the fairy dust sand and gave her toes a wiggle. She’d never felt sand like this before: white, delicate, possibly otherworldly, like it’d been manufactured in a laboratory or harvested from another universe. Like someone had broken one million hourglasses to populate this beach.
She turned to her personal concierge, Amir.
“Is this … real sand?”
Surely, it couldn’t be.
He nodded. “Real indeed. One of the many reasons we chose this location.”
This location: a mysterious venue somewhere on planet Earth. She’d love to know the actual coordinates and considered asking (for the third time) but confidentiality was part of the deal. If you wanted to live in the world’s most lucrative beachfront community, secrecy was paramount.
Still, she dug her toes deeper into the cushy grains. What part of the world produces sand like this? Aruba? Somewhere in South Asia? The Philippines?
She stared skeptically at Amir. His natural tan and dark features were clearly exotic. And his name, Amir. Was that Arabic?
“Aloe?” He touched her arm. “Are you feeling okay? You look a bit dazed.”
Her mind floated back. “Yeah, sorry. Still a little groggy.”
“That’s a very common side effect,” he replied. “Rest assured, you’ll be back to normal in a few hours at most.”
She nodded, somewhat attuned to the aftermath of drugs slugging through her arteries. The whole “going under” aspect had been daunting: a white mask, followed by slow, deep inhalations; counting down from ten, as requested; waking somewhere new and unknown— though it made good, logical sense. How else were people supposed to fly to a top-secret paradise without discovering its whereabouts?
Besides, look at this fucking view.
The oceanfront, steps away, was a prism of blue light. Turquoise lapped at the shoreline, fading to a sumptuous cerulean. The sky was a lovely robin’s egg, swept with long, lazy clouds. Her eyes found the horizon. There was nothing in the distance, no islands, shorelines, or glimpses. Just pure, unadulterated space.
Aloe turned to the billowing palm trees swaying in her periphery.
Not an imposing number, just enough to provide a calculated amount of shade.
Unlike other beaches she’d visited, Blue Haven’s was devoid of human life; and that, was its true appeal. No sandcastles or shoddily impaled umbrellas or squawking birds begging for scraps of potato chips. Blue Haven was a stock-grade computer background that didn’t exist in real life—except it did, to her absolute astonishment.
“Paradise,” she looked at Amir and smiled. “Y’all weren’t lying.”
“We aim to please,” he replied. “Go ahead, test the water. Dip your toe in. We’ve installed top-of-the-line thermoregulators to ensure the perfect temperature. Always.”
“You’re heating … the ocean?”
“Only as required.”
“Wow,” she replied, stepping forward.
A wave drifted over her toes, warm as bathwater, and she instantly unwound. A salty gust of air filled her lungs, causing her chest to lift.
And just like that, the unshakeable sense of irresolution that’d been following her for years was suddenly gone. All that mattered was here and now—this moment.
“How’s the temperature?” Amir asked.
She returned to his side with a lightness in her step. “Perfect.”
“Excellent.” He tucked a fuchsia hibiscus behind her ear, and for
some reason this motion summoned a pang of guilt. Her stomach lurched, and the weight of her body returned.
Did she really deserve this new life?
The answer was clear and undisputed. Of course not. No cognizant, twenty-five-year-old could honestly admit otherwise. She’d simply gotten lucky.
Then again, who was she to contest the force of luck?
“Are you ready to continue with the tour?” Amir asked.
She took one last glance at the ocean, nodding. The view was dreamy, glorious, enchanting—beyond any adjective she’d ever learned. Maybe she didn’t deserve this life, but it had found her. The only choice now was acceptance.
Even if Blue Haven seemed too good to be true.