Continued from Thursday, November 27th…
Dinner was lovely. Dinner could not be faulted. It was a little outdoor cafe on the boardwalk. Her Mom’s boyfriend had taken them out.
They were staying with her Mom’s boyfriend. Who lived in Florida. Not that boyfriend was exactly the right term, or perhaps it was, if applied loosely. Stepfather was more appropriate really – they’d been dating since she was eleven. So stepfather in all but jewelry, really.
He was, in fact, the reason they’d gone to Florida. Let’s visit him, her Mom had said. It wasn’t a bad idea, and somehow, miraculously, they all found places to sleep in his little one-bedroom apartment.
Sharing a bed with her Grandma was not bad experience – Grandma didn’t kick. Not even a little bit.
But still, it was nice to escape the confines of the apartment for a bit – and dinner really was lovely. The food was good and the little cafe had live music – a singer crooning away at the mike, old classics – ‘These boots were made for walkin’ and ‘Besame mucho.’ Stuff she had to fight not to sing along to.
Dinner was great. Fantastic, even.
No, the trouble was the after-dinner part.
“You are not leaving this house in the dark by yourself,” her Mother said.
Sigh. She felt like a puppy. Like they thought she’d escape if they ever let her off the leash.
“Mom, I’m twenty-six. I’ll take a walk on the beach if I want to,” she said.
Jenna spoke slowly, as though she were trying to explain the concept of a beach to a very small child.
“No. You won’t. It’s dangerous out there.”
“Mom, it’s Florida,” she said. “I’ll be twenty feet from the condo. Not exactly the wilderness.”
The only response was some rather emphatic headshaking.
“What are you afraid of?” she asked. “That I’ll be snatched up and pulled out to sea by the kraken?”
“No. I was thinking more along the line of rapists, thieves and murders.”
It had been hardwon, but Jenna gave a little skip from the sidewalk as she leapt onto the sand, leaving her flip-flops behind. It was either a night-time walk on the beach or a nine o’clock bedtime – and there was no way she was going to sleep at nine.
And, quite frankly, hiding in the closet to read didn’t seem like particularly pleasant option either.
Somehow, she managed to convince her mother that it was still early – that nine o’clock was pre-rapist-and-murderer time. You know, that they didn’t come out until at least ten-thirty.
But nonetheless, she was tied to a strict half-hour deadline. If she wasn’t back in half an hour, her mother was calling the cops and sending out a SWAT team.
But it was worth it, Jenna thought, feeling the cool breeze blowing against her face and the deliciously cool, wave-washed sand under her feet.
The walk was pleasant. Every now and then, she’d turn to look at her footsteps trailing behind her in the sand, like a moonlit path from a story.
And she was, she thought, perfectly fine on her own.
The beach was empty, except for the occasional person taking their dog on a night-time walk. She would be sure to report the lack of rapists and murderers to her Mom.
She was perfectly fine by herself, she repeated. Perfectly – OWWW!!
She’d never been stung by a jellyfish before, but judging based on the intense burning coming from the bottom of her foot, that was what had just happened.
She hopped up and down on one foot, semi-staggering on her one good leg.
So maybe…. walking on the beach alone at night. Maybe not the best idea. She felt tears well at the backs of her eyes. How far was she from home? Could she hobble all the way back? She wasn’t sure.
She was still weighing her options – and trying not to cry – when she crashed into another problem. Well, maybe not problem, exactly. But a walking, talking, two-legged human.
“Whoa. You ok there?”
The guy was taller than her, and when she finally got herself hopped around to face him, she looked up into a pair of concerned brown eyes…. surrounded by perfectly floppy hair.
Not that she hadn’t wanted to get Surfer Boy’s arms around her… but she hadn’t expected to be staggering drunkenly down the beach and in pain when it happened.
But help was help, right? And she only hoped he would help. She could soothe a kitchen burn like nobody’s business, but Jellyfish were whole other bucket of fish.
“I – I think I’ve stepped on a jellyfish,” she said, trying not to lean on him too hard.
“Ok,” he said. “Hang on.”
It was a good thing he was sans-surf board this time – because she didn’t think he could’ve hobbled onto the sand with her and his surf board in tow.
“Thank you,” she said, as he set her down in the sand.
She watched as he plopped his backpack onto the sand. That cute little hank of hair fell in front of his eyes as he dug through it. She did not reach out to brush it away.
He pulled something out of the bag and moved down to the water. She was only a little surprised when she felt a cool, firm hand against her ankle. She watched as he gently poured water over her foot.
“You have to use salt-water,” he said. “Fresh water might enflame the sting more.”
He reached into the backpack again and pulled out two small somethings.
She only jumped a little when she felt something scraping against the skin of her foot – a credit card.
“Relax,” he said, placing a cool hand on her ankle. “I won’t hurt you. At least not anymore than the jellyfish already has.”
“Thank you,” she said quietly, giving him a small smile. Now that the pain was mostly gone, she was just looking at him. And she hoped, when he looked back, that he didn’t see all of the grossly inappropriate thoughts running through her mind.
She watched as he scraped her foot with the credit card and then pulled the tentacles out with a handy little set of tweezers.
“Does this happen to you a lot?” she asked.
“Finding cute girls hopping around one-legged on the beach?” he asked. “No, that’s kind of a rarity. But the jellyfish sting thing – hang around on the beach long enough and it’s bound to happen.”
“I’m glad you were here,” she said. “And I’m glad you were prepared.”
“Yeah, well, me too.”
The pain was gone now. But she was still kind of regretful, as he released her ankle to sit down next to her on the sand.
“So,” he asked. “What’s your name?”
“I’m Jenna,” she told him, fighting the urge to stick out her hand like she was at an interview. Instead, she ran a palm over her long ponytail, trying, somewhat pointlessly, to smooth it down.
“I’m Chris,” he said.
The silence that hung between them wasn’t uncomfortable – it was just silence, broken by the rush of the waves, as they watched the glimmer of moonlight on the ocean.
“Am I allowed to ask you why you were staring at me on the beach earlier?”
She turned to look at him and her eyes widened in indignation.
“I was not staring,” she said.
“You totally were.”
“I was not,” she said. “That was not staring – I’m like a professional starer. When I’m staring, you’ll know it.”
He chuckled. He had, she noted, a nice laugh. And quite a nice voice.
“Well, I knew it,” he said.
“I guess I might not’ve been as subtle as I thought I was being.”
“Maybe not,” he agreed.
She smiled at him.
“I wasn’t really sure what to say,” she admitted.
“Maybe,” he said. “Next time, you should just start with hi.”
“Advanced line,” she answered. “You would’ve fallen for that?”
“I’ve fallen for worse in my time.”
“Yeah, well… Hi.”
He smiled back at her.
“So what are you doing down here, anyway?” he asked.
“Is the tourist thing that obvious?”
She shifted her legs against the sand, marveling at the absence of pain.
“I’m just on a family vacation with my Mom and Grandma.”
“And they’re cool with you going for walks on the beach by yourself at night?”
She pulled her cell phone out of her pocket and looked at the glowing digits on the screen.
“I have to be back in exactly fifteen minutes,” she told him. “Or they call the SWAT team.”
“Bringing out the big guns, huh?”
She nodded and her smile turned sad.
“I guess I should be getting back,” she said.
With a heavy sigh, she shoved herself off of the sand and tried to stand, only stumbling a little before he managed to get up and catch her.
“Can I walk you back?” he asked, having the good grace to pretend she didn’t just fall on him.
“I’d like that,” she said, managing to stand on her own now, although he did not let go of her hand.
Fifteen minutes of walking, she thought, covers a surprising amount of conversation. She now knew that he had three sisters and a cat name Muffy – not a name of his choosing. Shelter cats come pre-owned – that was his excuse and it was a pretty good one. He now knew that she hated onions, that they were flying back home in two days and that she wanted a dog, but that her building didn’t allow pets.
She didn’t want to let go of his hand as she stepped back onto the sidewalk in front of her building. She swallowed hard, trying to gather a little courage.
He looked up at her.
“So, are you planning any more adventurous night-time walks for tomorrow night?” he asked.
“Maybe,” she answered.
“You can tell your Mom that you won’t be alone next time,” he said.
“I won’t be?”
“Yeah,” he answered. “I’m thinking of cultivating a habit of night-time walks on the beach. I tried it once and something really good happened to me.”
“I’ll see you out here tomorrow?” she asked.
“I certainly hope so,” he answered.
“I’ll be out here at eight,” she said.
“Then so will I.”
He stroked his fingers gently across her knuckles and then she reluctantly pulled her hand out of his. But it was made slightly easier by the fact that she’d see him again.
“Good night,” she told him, trying very hard not skip with joy on her way into the building.
Oh yeah. This family vacation was definitely looking up.