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Seagulls encircled a lithe figure standing in the receding tide, the air a thick mishmash of salted spray and early morning promise. A swath of dark hair obscured her face until the wind danced. The glimpse caught in my throat. I stretched my arms across my porch bench, bracing against the unexpected pull. My journal collapsed in my lap; my place lost. A freighter blasted a warning. Her stride took her away from me, her Aves guard trailing in Pied-Piper fashion. She melted into the mist.

The town, strung along a spit of the Washington coast, is not large enough to hide anyone in the off season. By noon, I knew that a woman fitting her description had rented the bluff house for the month. I told myself I wasn’t altering my routine for her, but I delayed my morning walk until she came into view.

With my elderly neighbor’s mutt as a beard, I merged onto the beach with unfelt, confident strides and tossed Hardy’s rubber stick in her direction. Hardy rushed the lure, snatched it up and trotted over to get a sniff of her. Jealousy spiked my spine.

“Hardy!” I called. I neared, keeping a social distance. “Come on, boy.”

She bent over, her hair cascading, and rubbed Hardy behind the ears.

I forced my breath into an even rhythm. Hardy pivoted and dropped the toy stick at my feet. I tossed it another forty.

She took in Hardy’s one-man race, making no attempt to tame the hair blowing across her face. “He’s a breed jumble. A rescue?”

“Funny, I never asked.” Despite my wishing for it, she did not turn her head toward me, her profile defined by the midday sun. The catch in my throat returned.

I tracked Hardy to steady myself. “I walk him for my neighbor.” Hardy nudged a piece of driftwood until it rolled and began pawing the sand. “Probably a clam.” I offered. “He’s a digger.”

“And you?”

“A writer with writer’s block. A walk with Hardy clears the cobwebs.”

She turned her back to me, surveying the scene. A few surfers dotted down the shoreline. A sailboat cruised at a hundred yards out. “Good spot for it.”

I studied the cut of her shoulders under her sweatshirt, her stance, subtly defiant, a heroine. I had disappeared for so long into my stories that any human interaction had become a conduit to conjure future characters. I quashed an absurd notion to ask her to be my muse but could not ignore the inner roil.

“What brings you here?”

She shrugged. “A long, postponed promise to myself.”

I waited, hoping for more, but Hardy reappeared and deposited his lure at her feet.

She kneaded his neck, said, “I have to get off.”

She cut past me before I could object. I forced myself to trod on, rendering the walk with Hardy a reality rather than a ploy. I watched for her the next day, and the next, but the only sign of her was the light in the western window of the bluff house. My writing came to a complete standstill before bursting into an obsessive diatribe that I buried in the bottom of the trash can just before collection day.

Desperate for an outlet, I drove into Aberdeen, swam laps at the YMCA and stopped at the local market. I cruised the aisles, gathering sudden urges into my basket. At the self-checkout, two machines to my left, there she was, head down, intent on her task. Shoppers between us blocked a direct view. I scanned my items, trying to think of a clever quip to catch her attention. The machine prompted me to weigh the tomatoes. She stepped off to the exit.

I tapped my foot at the maddening slowness of the payment process, pocketed my receipt and rushed the door with bags in both hands. A search of the parking lot came up empty. I threw myself into my car and admonished myself for the unwarranted panic.

The crush of incoming weekenders clogged the to-ocean-beaches grid of streets. At the first open stretch of the single-lane highway, the two cars ahead of me surged forward, passing a slower one in front. Relegated to my place by another run of double yellow lines, I fumed.

At the next straight away, I pressed the accelerator well past the posted speed, passing just as the driver of the slower car removed their baseball cap and I caught her quick smile. I swerved back into the right lane, reveling like a teenager in the happy notion she had recognized me. I navigated the curves north, daring sneak-peeks in my rearview when forest shadows might cover my glance.

She kept her distance. No denying the puppeteer nature of her presence, as if I had played into her gambit by passing. I yielded at the town crossroads, my wheels inching forward, loathe to lose her to the bluff turn-off, but she followed me through the intersection. I steered into my cottage driveway. She parked across the street and without a glance my way, headed inside the local pub.

The wind pushed out of me, disappointment bubbling in my throat. I ferried my groceries into the kitchen, grabbed a jacket and tramped back out. A squall whipped whitecaps on the blue, the vortex distorting the sunrays. I stomped down the stairs to the beach, berating myself for assuming. A perfect shell revealed itself in my path. I plucked it out of the foam and brushed the grit from between its ridges.

“Lovely.” Her voice crossed my shoulder with the breeze, cool and not.

“Findable only in the off-season when the summer scavengers aren’t at work.” I turned.

She stood six feet away and held up a tote bag from the pub, her baseball cap back in place, large black sunglasses shielding her eyes. “Care to join me?”

Without waiting for an answer, she took a seat on a large log, motioned me to her right and unearthed two bottles of beer and a large chicken burger sliced in half. We twisted off our beer caps.

She nodded at the burger. “Want half?”

The ease of the share struck a note I couldn’t quite grasp. “Did you know that Marla raises the chickens herself?”

“The pub owner?”

I nodded. “It’s an under-the-foodies-radar farm-to-table.”

“Any other local secrets I should know?”

“Sally Sturmer does an informal whiskey tasting—really good stuff—on her front porch on the second Friday of the month. Ten bucks in the mason jar for five shots. Bring your own lawn chair.”

“Sounds like a locals-only situation.”

“Sally’s flexible this time of year.”

We chewed in silence. Seagulls padded toward us, perusing our potential leavings. She cast a crust of bread at one.

I wagged my head. “Wouldn’t start something you can’t finish.”

“Finishing is overrated.”

I laughed. “I wish my editor had your mindset.”

She consumed her last bite, denying the hopeful gulls. “Aren’t most endings really a beginning?”

I grimaced.

She stood up. “I best get my groceries into the fridge.” She said it like I would know she had groceries.

With considerable effort, I summoned a nonchalant tone. “Shall I bring two chairs on Friday?”

“What time?”

“Five-ish. Beach Avenue just off Third.”

The gulls took flight as she climbed the stairs to town level.

* * *

My journal had more lines crossed out than not. The pages begged for mercy. I pushed it aside and stared at the clock as if the answer lay between the minute and hour hands. After a shower and more attention to my hair than usual, I toted two folding chairs up the hill. I moved through the growing crowd, shaking the hands of folks I knew were vaccinated, keeping my distance from others.

I dunked my cash into the jar and studied the bottles of fine whiskey set on the small table. The 16-year Aberlour drew my eye.

Freda, the owner of the local mercantile, sidled up. “Who’s the second chair for?”

Nothing goes unnoticed here, like a townie having lunch on the beach with an outsider, but I answered anyway. “I invited the gal renting the bluff house.”

Freda raised her hand to shade the sun from her eyes as she looked into mine. “Know much about her?” Her tone suggested a judgement in play among the town gossips.

“Not really. Just thought she might enjoy a gathering in the midst of a solo getaway.”

“Marla says she’s from the Mendocino area.”

“I wouldn’t have pegged her for a Californian.”

“Well, you know what they say about north versus south.”

I did. Sweet Cali summers, spiked with pubescent angst and heady experimentation, flavored by salt and sea, had shaped me. I had spent almost every one, prior to my 13th birthday, with family on my mother’s side, the Bay area residents East-coast-like in their work zeal. The Los Angeles-born defined the word relax. Throughout the ’80s, we occupied a series of cottages along the shoreline just north of San Luis Obispo, each June to August.

Dinner had rotated between the households, satiated-for-now teens spilling out onto the beach after, pick up volleyball and football driving each evening to an end. My mother used to joke about how the Wilkes, in “Gone with the Wind,” had always married their cousins. How we were the perfect set of boys versus girls, no others need apply.

A cloud moved across the sun, threatening, but the wind carried it off again. I sipped on my single malt and visited with a few more folks, trying not to look over my shoulder every thirty seconds. The crowd settled into their seats and Burt, Freda’s oldest son, picked at his guitar, strumming a Muddy Waters tune.

Restless, I returned to the porch to procure a second shot. I put a hand to the Aberfeldy, reading the small easel note next to it: “Flavor-rich, syrupy notes of honey matched with bursts of vanilla and a gentle spice undercurrent.”

“The GlenDronach is a better choice.” She stepped up on my left. A bandana wrapped her hair back, but sunglasses hid the eyes I wanted to see.

A smile crawled across my face. “Such preferences define my latest characters and quite possibly hold the key to solving the crime.” I drew my sunglasses down on my nose in my best detective impression, studying her profile. “So, you prefer caramel to vanilla?”

Her chin lowered as she read the labels. “I prefer most everything to vanilla.”

“If you’re in need of some spice, wait a beat. You won’t be disappointed.” I cast an eye at the crowd and logged several folks looking our way.

She picked up a bottle and held it to the light. “Secrets revealed?”

“Fodder for a thousand unwritten scenes, dysfunction, all round.”

“Including you?”

“Me most of all. A writer of mysteries who can’t find an ending.”

She slid a ten into the jar and poured two shots of the GlenDronach. “This may or may not help.”

I lifted my shot glass. “To any port.”

Burt dove into the steady beat of “Mannish Boy” and folks clapped the steady cadence typically left to a bass. We navigated to our chairs and joined the chorus of voices accenting the well-known lyrics with catcalls and laughter. Marla’s husband revved up his harmonica. The sun drifted into its sinking routine.

I twisted in my seat. “Perhaps we should introduce ourselves.”

“Seems unnecessary.” She whipped off her bandana, propped her sunglasses on her head, pushing her hair behind her ears. She lifted her chin, met my gaze, and winked.

I viewed her full face without obstacles for the first time. I took in the curve of her lips, the recessed dimples waiting to deepen, the now-revealed widow’s peak at the center of her forehead and the slight, almost invisible scar along the left ridge of her jawline. My chest tightened.

My mind swung back to a dark, deserted stretch of beach, a passel of adolescent cousins, a bottle spinning in the firelight, a dare, a moment, then shouts, wrestling, shattered glass, blood and accusations spewing. That bottle had revealed more than any of us had been ready to intake: a long-sought outcome that most there, if they were truthful, would say they had suspected. That spin had punctuated summer’s end, sending the seemingly inseparable gaggle of cousins back to our individual lives with a frayed cord.

Burt issued a bluesy wail, “Baby please don’t go.”

“Sarah?” All breath exited my core, leaving me weak.

“You didn’t used to be so slow, Morgan.”

“What’s it been? Thirty years?”

“More, one child, two marriages, three IPOs.”

“You were always the math whiz.” My mother had kept me more or less up to date on the brood of firsts, seconds and once removed, that held as many failures as successes. Sarah fell into the latter on both counts. A tech guru according to my mother. I noted the absence of a wedding ring. “So, the second marriage is no longer?”

“The child went off to college. You know the tale.” She held my gaze. “Or at least the one we told.”

I looked at the ground between us. “And the last public offering spawned this break?”

“Among other things.”

I downed my shot glass, swallowing my shame for having let so much time go by. I reached for her glass, uncertain as to what question to ask next, but eager to reacquaint myself with my favorite-cousin-turned-mysterious-woman. “This calls for another. Any preference?”

“Surprise me.”

I galloped back to the tasting station, secured two more shots, and realized my mistake. Freda and Sally had moved in on my territory, hijacking any chance I might have had to get more answers that night. As the sun tipped over the horizon, Sally shooed the stragglers off her porch and waved at others lingering in the yard.

I collapsed our chairs and waited for Sarah to finish trading Blues trivia with Burt. We stepped off the sidewalk in unison and faced each other in the empty street.

Hazel eyes twinkled at me. “I rather like that you invited me not knowing.”

I grasped the chairs to steady myself. “I’m headed to Olympia for the weekend. Long planned writers’ retreat.” The twinge darted about inside me. “But we should do dinner. Maybe Tuesday?”

“I’ll ask Marla to stir up some takeout paella.”

I teased. “Careful. You’re sounding like a local already.”

She shivered.

I chalked it up to the night breeze.

“Tuesday then.” She stepped toward her car. “At the bluff house.”

“I’ll bring the wine.”

“Nothing vanilla.” Her smile slipped as she slid into her car and powered on the headlights blinding my view.

* * *

I rang the doorbell, ignoring the flutter in my chest. A call from inside ushered me in. I navigated the hallway into the kitchen and proffered a chilled bottle of Sauvignon blanc. Sarah held a corkscrew, two wine glasses and cloth napkins. She motioned toward a tray of cheeses and Spanish olives, on theme with the paella. “Grab that.”

I hefted the tray, followed her to the deck and deposited my load on the large teak table. Sarah uncorked the wine and poured. We settled into a corner of the table, the ocean bouncing below us. I pushed my hair behind my ear, hoping she would notice the new tourmaline stud I had purchased in Olympia to impress. I had spent the entirety of the weekend thinking of nothing but her. Wondering how I could have left things undone for so long. Cursing myself for never calling her. Rationalizing my adolescent behavior, my fears, my lifelong inability to not be who I was.

The day had been unusually warm, but a cool wind infiltrated, pushing the clouds into imagination fodder. I waved my wine glass at the sky. “Can you see the lion?”

Sarah fell into the rhythm of our childhood game. “It’s a lioness. See the cubs behind her?”

“And is that a monkey hanging from a tree?”

She drew a steady bead on me. “You always saw the monkey no one else saw.”

This time I did not look away. “Comes from having one on your own back you don’t acknowledge, except in stories.”

“So, you’ve never?”

“No one that I wanted to take home. You?”

“One serious encounter. Just after my first divorce.”

“No staying power?” I held my breath, waiting.

“I’m holding out for that feeling I had just before this.” She tapped the scar.

I winced and looked down at the table, searching the weathered wood grain for an answer. My mother’s musings never took into account what that gangly blood-connected group of us might actually be. She never considered, at least not out loud in my presence, what genetic predispositions might be closeted in our DNA, the truth of our sexual orientations waiting for the hormonal release of puberty and the spin of a bottle.

That bottle. I had emptied it in pursuit of the courage I lacked. Spun it in a drunken desire to know if Sarah wanted me, too. That bottle that had allowed me to taste her lips had drawn harsh judgements. The shocked among us had dragged Sarah and I apart, denying our right to be us. That bottle had shattered in the mayhem, drawn her blood and left this line along her jaw to cross or not.

I raised my eyes to hers, stretched my arm across the intervening space and pushed her hair back. I traced her wound with my finger along the underside of her chin. I had studied this face for hours. To have not recognized it sooner felt like a betrayal. My hand trembled. She clasped it with her own and leaned toward me.

I opened my mouth to take in her exhaled breath. “And now?”

“I want to test the kiss-it-better theory.”

I sank into my beginning.


Kay Smith-Blum, a recovering retailer, was named 2013’s Woman Business Owner (NWWA).Smith-Blum’s novel was red-listed in Launch Pad’s Prose 2020 competition. Her short works can be found at Pif Magazine, Fiction Southeast, Yellow Arrow Publishing, among others. Her essay, “Targets,” was nominated for Best of the Net 2020.

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