Aqua is coming in less than FOUR DAYS, people! Are you about to hyperventilate, because I sure am! (With excitement, that is…Definitely not heart-stopping anxiety. Nope, no one around here is practically too shaky to type. Excepting the caffeine jitters, of course.)
Anyway, I promised some teaser material every few days, and…well, it’s been five days. Oopsie. I’m too scattered to see straight these days, so have mercy on a soul.
If you missed the first two chapters, things will make so much more sense if you start here. Those who have been following along and eagerly anticipating this post, enjoy Chapter 3 (and thanks)!
What in the heck is WRONG with me?
My fingers grip the steering wheel so tightly, I wonder for a second if Lil Red can feel pain. I guiltily ease up on my grip, only to slam my frustrated palm down against the dash with a raging snarl. Realizing the windows are open—and this town is way too small to make a scene at a stoplight without being noticed—I tone down the self-flagellation for the moment. It doesn’t mean I’m not still internally cursing myself.
What kind of freak hallucinates about random creepy dudes diving in the water?
And better yet…convinces herself he’s drowning, and practically rips the head off his über-cute and potentially non-moronic friend for refusing to join in the insanity?
“Ugh….Ugh, ugh, argh, raaarrgghh, blaaaaarrrggh!” I’ve moved on from the stoplight, so I pound my fist against the dash a few times to punctuate my growls. “Sorry, girl,” I follow up with an apologetic pat to the warped vinyl, “It’s not your fault I’m a head case.”
As I pull Lil Red under the stilted house and cut the engine, my forehead finds the steering wheel with a dejected sigh. I’m perfectly copacetic with being a little neurotic…but turning into a raving lunatic is not on my life’s agenda.
“Hi, Honey.” Mom’s moved on to hanging pictures as I trudge through the front door, dangling my beach towel in front of me to conceal my torn-up leg. “How was the water?”
“Wet.” I don’t pause to wait for the perplexed raise of her eyebrows, steaming my way down the hall to the bathroom.
I start weeding through the bathroom cabinets, trying to track down the peroxide. The searing sting as it fizzes away the germs from my leg certainly distracts me for a moment. But by the time I’ve slinked across the hall and secured myself in my room, I’m right back to replaying the events of the day. I start milling about the room, trying to get absorbed in unpacking. But try as I might, my mind won’t quit attempting to rationalize what I saw.
No one jumps in the ocean and comes out dry. It just doesn’t happen. So, clearly he never actually jumped in the water.
My mind flashes to the vivid image of his foot sinking under the water’s surface. I try to squint it away, but that image is tattooed on my brain as sure as the swirls of black ink encircling his ankle…his ankle that immediately preceded that foot as it splashed under the rippling waves. The very watery, liquidy, wet-wet waves. I slam a dresser drawer closed, letting out a perturbed huff.
It was pretty windy… A contemplative frown curls my lips as I ponder the thought. Maybe he just air-dried that fast. Yeah, that’s all there is to it…He dove in, swam around for a second, climbed back out when I wasn’t looking, and air-dried in the wind.
Never mind that there’s no way he climbed out without me noticing—and he pretty much would have had to walk through a supercharged wind tunnel to dry off that fast—it’s got a shred of plausibility to it, so I’m calling that my going theory. Take that back, it’s not my going theory. It’s my final conclusion…because I’m putting this to rest right here, right now. The crazy train is pulling out of the station, and Yours Truly will not be on board.I scoop the pile of clothes off the bed, weaving around the furniture and remaining boxes to find the closet.
I flop down on the floor, beginning to sort out all of the red shirts, followed by the orange and yellow tones. As a rainbow of colors begins to take shape on the closet rod, I start to feel much better already. Sanity and rationality definitely suit me. In fact, I don’t know why I got so worked up in the first place. It was a simple, honest misinterpretation. No big deal. By the time my last purple shirt hangs neatly in the closet, I’m genuinely over it. Or at least mostly over it. And to prove it, I decide to re-enter the world outside my room, heading to the kitchen to help Mom and Cora with lunch.
“I smell chicken enchiladas…” I muster a lighthearted smile, as my socked feet glide across the tiled kitchen floor. “Are they already in the oven?” Don’t ask me how my mom manages to make homemade enchiladas while unpacking an entire house…The woman’s a machine.
Mom’s head nods, as she scrubs a pot in the sink. “Fifteen minutes to go…Can you make it that long? There’s fruit on the table if you’re famished.”
This time my smile takes no effort, as Aunt Cora reaches for the wooden bowl overflowing with fruit, and holds it out like one of the wise men offering up some frankincense. “Fresh from the market this morning.” The wry twist of her mouth tells me she tried to argue with Mom that we didn’t actually need a metric ton of fruit immediately upon arrival. Clearly she lost that battle.
“Thanks, I’m good,” I snicker as Aunt Cora unceremoniously plops the bowl back in the center of the table. “I didn’t really do that much to work up an appetite.” True, the actual amount of running I did was nothing, and I never even got around to swimming; but I have the feeling my lack of appetite has more to do with the nagging uncertainty still hanging in the back of my mind. The giant metal pot clangs in the kitchen sink as Mom tries to rinse it, and I scoot around the counter to start digging through drawers for a dish towel.
“Second one on the left,” she nods her head to point the way, and I unfurl the towel just in time to catch the massive pot. Mom takes her enchiladas seriously, and this sucker holds enough chicken to feed an army.
She directs me to the pot’s new home in a corner cabinet, and I give her a peck on the cheek after peeking through the oven window. “Thanks for making my favorite, Mom…You rock.”
She nods with an impressed-with-herself smile, leaning the side of her head against mine for a second. “I’ve been known to make apple pie too…for those who help me hang curtains.”
Aunt Cora putters a sigh behind her newspaper across the room. “I don’t suppose we already have the hardware for those curtain rods, do we?” Apparently she’s finally tiring of making shopping runs.
“Nope.” Mom flutters a devilish eyebrow, shooting a smile my way as she calls across the room. “I don’t suppose you’d mind making another quick run to the hardware store after lunch, Cora?…I’d be ever so grateful.” I snicker under my breath as Cora’s cynical brow peeps over the folded corner of her paper.
“There’s apple pie in it for your efforts…” I chime in with a sugary sing-song, and Cora’s newspaper cracks back to attention.
Mom’s giggle echoes over my shoulder, and I can’t help but join in at the sound of Cora’s grumbling, “I don’t like apple pie. Hell, I don’t even like apples…but does that get me out of having to buy a ten-pound bag of them?”
I start fishing through cabinets again, trying to track down the dinner plates. And even though Mom has to help me find the forks too, somehow it’s already starting to feel like home.
I don’t even want to face the beach for six days.
I’ve just about squelched the imaginary drowning from my memory, and I have no desire to reawaken that mental image. I make myself extra useful around the house, organizing the laundry room and painting the hideous pea-green bathroom a much more tolerable minty shade. Then I crank out four more chapters of my work-in-progress, and even get down some new ideas for my next novel. When I start getting a little stir-crazy, I pay a visit to the nearby Texas State Aquarium in Corpus Christi. I’m supposed to be watching the dolphin show; but I find my eyes repeatedly wandering out to the bay, the rippling waves beckoning me like a Siren song.
I don’t think I’ve ever gone six summer days without getting in the water. And there’s just something about an ocean swim that no lifeless, concrete pool can replicate. I come to the decision that I’m being ridiculous—avoiding the beach, like it’s destined to be the site of my next psychotic break—and vow to head that way, as soon as the last dolphin somersault is done. I swing by the house to throw on a swimsuit and then head for the public beach, following the countless tire tracks leading out onto the sand. This time I hook a right and park a comfortable distance away from the jetty. I’m eager enough to hit the water that I don’t even mind the crowds of sun-baked tailgaters, kitesurfing thrillseekers, and kids building castles and burying each other in the sand. I stuff my T-shirt and shorts into the passenger seat, donning my goggles and a tight bun, and abandon Lil Red to tread out into the shallow waves.
I was practically born into ocean swimming. Mom hasn’t missed her ritualistic early-morning swim since the dawn of time itself; and Aunt Cora prefers the twilight hour, but she’s equally rigid in her routine. Despite Mom’s lectures on the hazards of mid-day sun exposure, I usually end up hitting the water right before lunchtime. I tell her it’s a great way to work up an appetite, and she makes sure I douse my entire body in sunscreen.
The cool water laps against my ankles, then my calves, soon up to my thighs. As the sandy slope takes me deeper into the waves, I raise my hands in a point overhead and spring headlong into a shallow dive. I power forward with a breaststroke a little distance, before veering right to follow the shoreline. It only takes me a few freestyle strokes to fall into sync with the choppy waves, timing my breath with each arc of my right arm. Swimming in the ocean is the perfect combination of focused attention and mental escape. Dwell too long on your personal drama, and you’ll be sucking down saltwater. (Decidedly not a good way to work up an appetite.) I find a tune that fits the tempo of my stroke and hum inside my head, sighting off a lamppost on the pier up ahead.
By the time I’m on my third lap, cycling back to the pier again, my muscles have sufficiently turned to mush to call it quits. Six days of down time, and already I’ve got the “jelly arms”. (Aunt Cora’s term, not mine. And she’d definitely be shaking a disapproving head at me if she knew I was copping out this easily.) I plot a lazy course for shore, washing up among the plastic-shovel-wielding little kids and beer-drinking fishermen. Propping my goggles up atop my head, I decide to check out the pier from the pedestrian point-of-view. As usual, I keep walking until I distance myself from the crowd, settling upon a quiet stretch of railing to rest my arms and just gaze out to sea. My chin finds a comfortable cradle in my palm; and for a moment, I attain complete and total serenity. I take in the warmth of the sun tempered by the breeze against my damp skin, the caw of the gulls just near enough without being obnoxiously distracting, the light sparkling off the ripples as the water stretches out from here to the jetty…
I jump at least three feet in the air when a throat clears at my left side.
“Sorry,” Tristan raises an apologetic palm, his other elbow casually resting against the railing a few feet away. “I didn’t mean to sneak up on you.” I wonder if he lives in those red swim trunks? At least today he’s wearing a T-shirt. The lettering has almost completely faded, but I’d recognize that Led Zeppelin logo anywhere. Funny, I wouldn’t have taken him for a Zep Head.
“Um, no worries,” I stammer, sucking in an awkward breath. “I heard you coming.”
He raises one doubting eyebrow, a smile playing at the corners of his lips. Did I mention I squealed like an electrocuted pig whilst jumping three feet into the air?
I tuck in my lower lip and search my brain for something remotely rational to say, finally settling on, “How have you been, Tristan?”
An unabashed smile lights his face, as if he’s genuinely pleased I recognized him. Of course, that doesn’t mean he has the foggiest clue what my name is. “I’m great, Layla…though I was beginning to wonder if you’d ever turn up again.”
Hmm…Color me unfairly skeptical.
“Hey…” he wonders, “Are you going to be here for a few more minutes? I have something in my car for you.”
“Um…sure,” I shrug, unable to control my puzzled eyebrows from pressing together.
“Great,” he flashes another grin. There’s that one crooked tooth again. “Just wait here,” he pats the wooden rail, already backing away. “I’ll be right back.” He turns and picks up to a trot, working up to a brisk jog down the length of the pier toward the parking area.
I’m truly trying to find my little Zen moment again, settling my gaze back on the rippling waves below. But in reality I’m straining my eyeballs to covertly watch as he reaches his vehicle (what appears to be a nineties-ish dark blue Jeep Cherokee). He quickly fishes something out of the glove compartment before jogging back my way. He’s not even breathing heavily when he slows to a walk and resumes his elbow-lean against the railing, this time with something pressed against the wood under his palm.
“You left this behind the other day.” His hand slides forward along the weathered boards, careful not to lose a grip on the equally-weathered copy of The Fellowship of the Ring.
My eyes light up, and I unconsciously snatch it from his hand. “You found it!” Of course, I’d already realized it was missing…but I’d chalked it up to a casualty of the day. I was too ridiculously rattled to revisit the jetty in search of it. “Thank you so much, Tristan,” I thumb through the pages, still astounded they haven’t fallen out of the binding. “It’s a favorite.”
“I figured,” he smiles, nodding to the battered cover. “It’s windy out here, but that kind of beating takes years to inflict. Granted, that copy’s probably been around for a while…It doesn’t even have a picture of Elijah Wood on the cover.” His crooked smile broadens, seemingly in response to my approving chuckle.
“My mom had it first,” I offer in explanation, “but it actually looked pretty pristine by comparison when I first got a hold of it.”
“Hey, I hope you don’t mind,” he smoothes down the curls dusting the nape of his neck, “but I took the opportunity to read it…It’s been way too long since the last time I did.”
I feel a twinge of guilt, having written him off as a pretty boy on first sight. It’s immediately followed by a wave of dread, with the realization that I’m blushing. Yet again. Why doesn’t my skin need direct permission from my brain to do that? Sometimes I’d swear it’s deliberately betraying my conscious mind.
“Um…No problem.” Apparently I’m a master of three-word sentences beginning with the word ‘Um’. For the love of God, Layla, think of something remotely intelligent to say. “I’ve got the rest of the series too, if you ever feel like finishing it out.” There we go…reasonably coherent and generous.
“Thanks, I might take you up on that,” he lets loose another sparkle of pearly whites. I have to admit, the perma-smile is kind of contagious. “There are a couple of weeks left before it’s time to hit the textbooks again. I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like to read just for fun this past year.”
“I’m gonna go out on a limb and guess you’re not in high school?” As much as I’m looking forward to heading off to college, I’ve never really been faced with too little time to read whatever I want.
He nods in answer to my question. “A&M Galveston. Maritime Systems Engineering major.”
I give an impressed nod, trying not to look too clueless…Despite my familiarity with all things oceanic, I haven’t got the foggiest idea what ‘Maritime Systems Engineering’ actually entails. I at least know Galveston’s three or four hours up the coast. “That sounds cool…Are you just here in Port Aransas on vacation before you head back to school?”
“Nah, Port A’s home,” he looks out across the water. “Has been for years.”
Gee…I can only wonder what that must be like. I don’t even realize I’m lost in thought, until I catch a glimpse of him studying my expression. I tend to frown when I’m lost in thought. “Sorry…” I jiggle my head back into the conversation. “I’ve just never been able to call a place home for ‘years’, plural. We move every summer.”
“Hmm…” He mulls that over for a second with a slow nod. “Are your parents in the military?”
I shake my head. “My mom just likes a change of scenery….Unless, of course, it involves something other than sandy beaches, palm trees, and rolling waves.” I shrug my eyebrows. “Name a U.S. beach…We’ve probably lived within spitting distance.”
“Huh…Interesting.” He seems a little intrigued; but if he’s surprised, he certainly isn’t showing it. “What about your dad? Is he as big a fan of the beach life?”
“I wouldn’t know.” I stare out across the water, my eyes not actually focused on the view. The lack of emotion in my tone is a bit jarring, even to my own ears. I clear my throat, bringing my eyes back to meet his and making an effort to take the robot out of my voice. “I’ve never actually met my father…His name’s Jim, or Jack. Maybe John? Some short ‘J’ name, I think.” I can see a perplexed look hinting across Tristan’s face. Can’t say I blame him…Who doesn’t remember her own father’s first name? Although, I’d swear Mom’s told me two or three different versions of it. “My mom doesn’t like to talk about him. I assume he’s some kind of deadbeat…Or maybe he’s just plain dead.” Wow, somehow robot-speak sounded better than the icy chill that’s settled in my voice now. I should probably just quit talking, but for some confounding reason I try to explain myself. “Mom’s not the type to be in doubt of who my real father is…If she’s kept him out of our lives, it’s for good reason. So I don’t ask. Or at least, I quit asking a decade ago.” Not getting any straight answers does that to a person.
“Well, it sounds like you and your mom are getting along just fine without him, at least.” His eyes are encouraging, without the look of pity I always dread. “Maybe Port A will be the place the two of you decide to call home for more than a year.”
That doesn’t actually sound half bad. I push the thoughts of my mystery father to the back of my mind and mirror Tristan’s soft smile. There’s a little pause where we both seem to be pondering what to say next. I can’t seem to come up with any words, but thankfully Tristan jumps in first. “Hey, I realize you don’t need any help learning your way around the beach; but if you’d like, I can show you a little bit less crowded stretch up ahead. It’s not a long walk.”
I glance around at the building swarm of people on the pier, surprised I hadn’t noticed until now how much it’s picked up. “Less crowded is good…I’d like that.”
“I thought that might be the case,” he nods with another warm smile, giving the wooden railing a little pat as he turns to lead the way with a backward glance in my direction. “Calmer shores, coming right up.”