EMMY’S FACE LIGHTS up when she runs full speed toward the water’s edge, chasing the tide out. My heart warms with her squeal of delight as it chases her right back in. Back and forth they go, engaging in the never-ending dance of ebb and flow.
Few times in her six years of life have I ever seen her so happy, so carefree and animated. That alone makes this move worth it. Maybe we won’t have to leave this place. At least not for a while.
Tirelessly, her little legs carry her as she flees the frothy waves, sandy water splashing up from her feet as she runs. I watch her play, more satisfied than I’ve been in a long time. Maybe this will be good for her.
Finally, winded, she doesn’t turn to run the tide, but keeps coming toward me until she can launch her small body at mine like a tiny bullet. I catch her, hugging her close so that I can bury my nose in her neck and inhale the smell of baby powder, fresh air and little girl.
When she pulls away, she’s smiling. “That was fun, Momma. Did you see me run fast? Even the waves couldn’t catch me.”
Her lime green eyes are twinkling and her cheeks are rosy from the fall nip in the air. Her hot breath mixes with the ocean’s breeze to sooth my insides, like maybe happiness, wholeness is finally blowing in.
“I did! You ran so fast I could hardly keep up.”
She claps excitedly. “Can we walk before we go?”
I glance at my watch. We are supposed to meet the landlord at his office at three, but we should be in good shape as long as we head back to the car within the hour. “Sure, but we can’t stay too much longer.”
I’ve barely finished my sentence before she’s out of my arms, on her feet and blazing off down the beach, her long hair flowing out behind her like midnight flames.
This straight stretch of beach is practically deserted, so I let her run as fast as she wants to. There’s a great likelihood that I’ll have to carry her back, but I don’t mind. I treasure any chance I get to hold her close and pretend that nothing in the world could ever take her away from me. Plus, all this exercise means she’ll probably fall asleep in my arms tonight. She’ll be exhausted. I smile at the thought. The perfect end to what’s looking like a nearly perfect day.
Up ahead, Emmy stops several feet from what I now recognize as someone building an elaborate sandcastle. I see her pop her thumb in her mouth, so I speed up. That’s a sure sign of distress for her. That and the way she goes still as a statue, not moving a single muscle. Those are the only outward signs of her condition.
Without looking back, as though she can sense my presence when I stop at her side, she reaches for my fingers with her free hand, squeezing them as tightly as she can.
I squat down, something I’ve learned is soothing to her. When she’s anxious, she likes to be able to hide. While she’ll tuck herself behind my legs if I’m standing, she relaxes more quickly if I’m down on her level where I can hold her.
She surprises me when she doesn’t turn into my chest and bury her face like she usually does in these situations. Instead, she stands perfectly still, watching the man who’s on his hands and knees constructing the castle. His back is to us and I doubt he knows we’re here, he’s so intent on what he’s doing. Obviously he takes his castling seriously, which gives me ample time to study the scene.
The castle is taller than Emmy and has at least a dozen spires and turrets of various sizes. It’s probably taken him all day to construct it. There are even trees in the “castle grounds” that lead down to the edge of the mote he’s currently digging. The whole thing is pretty impressive. But not nearly as impressive as the guy who’s building it, I learn once I turn my attention to him.
His hands are broad and long-fingered, tanned and capable-looking, as though they’re used often and probably calloused. I follow them up muscular forearms roped with thick veins and bands of sinew, to biceps that bulge against the dark blue cotton of his T-shirt. The material is stretched tight across his wide shoulders, too, which only further accentuates his narrow waist.
I evaluate the man in the same clinical way that I do the castle–with an appreciation for form and structure. Nothing more.
That is, until he turns his shaggy blond head to look at me.
I can tell by the frown that creases his forehead and shades his bright blue eyes that we took him by surprise. Normally I would do the polite thing and apologize, but at the moment my thoughts are as scattered and hard to catch as my breath.
He’s handsome, yes. He’s built well, yes. I’m sure in another life or if I were someone else, I’d be very attracted to him. Only I’m not attracted to men. Or women. Not anymore. I’m not attracted to anyone anymore.
So then why can’t I breathe? Why do I feel like I just fell into a black hole that sucked all the air from the world and dropped hot boulders into my stomach?
He rocks back on his haunches, brushing off his hands almost angrily. My insides do a funny little quiver as he watches me. It’s not really fear or embarrassment; it’s more like…awareness. Extreme awareness.
Emmy stirs where she had gone around behind me to peek over my shoulder, and her movement draws his piercing eyes. After that, I think I cease to exist.
As he stares at her, the color leaves his handsome, golden face, taking with it the frown that he was wearing. His mouth drops open a little and I hear the huff of a breath as he releases it. If I didn’t know any better, I’d say he looks shocked. I just don’t know why he would be.
He gapes at Emmy for a few long seconds before, wordlessly, he turns away. At first, he does nothing. Doesn’t move, doesn’t speak. Doesn’t even appear to breathe. Just continues to kneel, facing away from us, staring at the sandcastle. But then, after a bit, he returns to his mote. He digs into the sand fiercely, almost angrily, and I wonder that his fingers don’t bleed.
I don’t really know whether I should say something or not, so I opt with not. Already he doesn’t seem too thrilled with our presence. Another interruption might be even more poorly received.
Just as I’m rising to sweep Emmy into my arms and carry her back, the man pauses, his head turning as he catches a glimpse of the clump of daisies buried stem-deep in the sand in front of the castle. His shoulders slump visibly. I see his hand start to jut out and then stop, and then start again. He reaches for one flower, plucking it from the bunch and twirling it in his fingers. I know I should leave, leave him to whatever he was doing and thinking before we arrived, but I can’t. Not yet. I can’t, but I just don’t know why.
Finally, he glances back at us, at Emmy. His gaze isn’t too direct, almost as though he knows that too much attention is hard for my daughter. I watch as he extends the flower, his hand shaking the tiniest bit as he holds it out to her. I start to reach for it, but Emmy surprises me by grabbing it herself, her slim little hand easing out to carefully take the daisy from his grasp.
The stranger gives her a small smile and turns away again. He doesn’t get to see the way Emmy’s lips curve around the thumb still stuck in her mouth. He doesn’t get to see the way she watches him afterward.
“Thank you,” I tell him quietly.
He pauses, turning only enough that I can see his strong profile–straight nose, carved mouth, square chin. He nods once and then returns to his excavating, as intent as he was before we interrupted.
Puzzled and flustered, I turn and carry my daughter back the way we came, the scent of fresh-cut daisies teasing my nose and the quiet hum of my child tickling my ear.
WHO THE HELL was that? I think, wondering why I feel like I just got sucker punched in the gut. I resist the urge to turn and watch her walk away. Or go after her.