Note from Tim: I apologize for the lack of paragraph indentations. When I uploaded the file, somehow they were lost. I re-edited them in, but they didn’t stick. If you really want the indentations, buy the book.
It was dark. Just moments ago, the sun burned her face and dried the tears on her cheeks, but now it was dark. Mollie lifted trembling fingers to her eyes, but found them still wet. Of course it was dark. Cold sweat dripped from either side of her forehead, as she watched the night shadows callously dance across her bedroom ceiling. They imitated the clouds from her recurring nightmare. Tonight made three times this week. Faces were different, details of her surroundings changed, but the same devastating thing happened every time.
Was it supposed to mean something? She didn’t know. But gaining any significant amount of sleep after waking from it was nothing short of a miracle. That she did know.
She rolled over and sighed. A bold red 3:26 AM shone brightly in her face, mocking her. It said, “What’s the matter? It’s the middle of the night. Can’t you sleep, Mollie?”
In an attempt to bore herself into oblivion, she began listing in her mind all of the mundane things that made up a day in the life of Mollie Wells.
Wake up. Run (although that likely would not happen today, at least not before sunrise). Work. Lather, rinse, repeat.
There was nothing of importance to think on, therefore, like it or not, the dream returned as the center of her focus. Something about it haunted her. She knew dreams were only that, but why the repetition? And why the lingering? No one ever remembered their dreams, at least not in full detail.
But Mollie could, at any given moment, replay any part of the dream in her head the same way she could envision scenes from Grease, Say Anything, and Dirty Dancing.
How possible was it for one’s heart to beat violently enough for the chest to actually break open? Because that’s how it made her feel every time.
Everything about it seemed so real. The conversations she had, the emotions she felt. Fear, frustration, confusion, anger, and most of all, desperation. They were all a very real part of it.
Maybe if she forced her mind to concentrate on all of the unedited photos waiting in her laptop, she could doze off within a reasonable amount of time.
Tomorrow, well, technically later today, no sessions were booked, and other than the editing, her agenda held nothing of great importance.
She made the decision to give herself a break for once. She could sleep in, run after breakfast no matter how late that ended up being, and still have plenty of time for work.
Mollie reached for the buttons on top of her clock that her fingers knew by touch. She turned off her alarm and returned the bright, mocking glare, which now read 3:48.
Guess what, 3:48. I don’t care. What do you think about that?
With visions of lighting and editing software dancing in her head, and an occasional disturbing flashback of the dream, she managed to fall asleep sometime before five.
For a second, the sunlight streaming through her bedroom window threw her off. Every morning since she had moved to Oak Island, North Carolina five years ago, she had gotten up before the sun and jogged the shore of the beach she had grown to love so much.
When she remembered her long night and the plan to rest, she welcomed the sun and stretched in its warmth. The clock read 10:34 AM. She could not remember the last time she had slept so late. Even as a teenager she had been an early riser. She threw her fresh white down comforter away from her legs and hopped out of bed feeling refreshed.
Jude, her six year old chocolate Lab who had been sleeping on the floor beside her, followed Mollie through the house, from the bathroom to the closet, and into the kitchen.
“Good boy for sleeping in too, Jude. Good boy. You need to go potty?”
Jude wagged his tail enthusiastically and ran toward the back door as if a ten pound bowl full of beef jerky with his name on it waited for him on the other side. She opened the door and was almost trampled as he hastily bolted past the screen, leaped over the four wooden porch steps and landed safely at his grassy destination. After completing his job, the two of them continued their morning ritual, only a little later than usual. She could tell he was getting antsy to hit the sand. He ran with her every morning and he was getting better.
When they first moved, and he was no longer running the streets of her west Texas suburban neighborhood, but the windy shores of North Carolina, he became so distracted. Birds, crabs, fish, humans…anything at all snatched up his attention. The moment he’d decide to go after that distraction, all obedience and sanity would vanish and Jude would sprint, yank the leash from Mollie’s grip, and begin a two-way chase down the shore.
After realizing the chase was futile, he would return as if nothing had happened. For months, he repeated the same routine every morning, but eventually he grew bored with the birds and the crabs and accepted them the way a dog would accept a cat living under the same roof. Every once in a while, the wrong move from a seagull sent him flying again. But for the most part, he was over it.
Mollie sang the words to a song that had been stuck in her head since the day before while she started on her coffee. She dropped both halves of a bagel into the toaster and grabbed the remote. Even though knowing the details of the forecast for the day was unnecessary, it was a habit.
She, being a photographer, needed to be prepared. Clouds made a difference in the lens she used, and rain or high wind meant relocating the shoot or sometimes even rescheduling.
She spread a generous amount of low fat cream cheese across both halves of her cinnamon raisin bagel and doctored her coffee with hazelnut creamer.
The weather man informed her today would float around eighty-three and sunny all afternoon with a good breeze. Sounded like heaven!
She slipped on her bright colored Nikes, brushed her teeth, and threw her long dark hair back into a messy bun.
“Jude, let’s go to the beach, buddy!”
The canine smiled from ear to ear, letting his tongue hang as far from his mouth as it could without detaching. His tail wagged with brute force leaving anything at its level in extreme danger.
With leash in hand, Mollie led Jude, or really, he led her through the back porch and crossed the fifty yards of patchy grass separating her house and the beach. The minute her feet sunk into the powdery sand, she reminded herself, like always, that she was blessed.
There were tons of people out today. Spring was ending and the rentals were filling up. Schools were just letting out for the summer and people were scratching the itch to take a vacation after months of cold weather.
Many vacationers not staying directly on the beach would use the public access boardwalk not far from where she stood. Several homes near her were rented out, meaning men, women, children, and canines came and went all throughout the peak season.
As she began her jog, she took in the late morning scene; families throwing Frisbees, a group of guys in their twenties near the tide drinking beer (even if it was just eleven in the morning), and women in their bikinis stretched out on beach towels. She spotted two little boys around the age of six or seven, giggling every time the waves tickled their toes. The water was likely too cold for swimming with it just being the end of May, but that didn’t stop some people.
Her destination was the pier. Every morning she ran the 2.4 mile stretch to her favorite spot on the beach. There, she did all of her thinking. There was something comforting about being alone under the shelter of that old abandoned pier, looking out into the never ending waters.
The houses and condominiums stopped about three-quarters of a mile north of the pier and very rarely would someone travel the distance, especially during the sunrise, which was when she normally made the trip.
This was a different experience, jogging this late in the morning. On a normal day, she would be having lunch by now.
As she and Jude kicked it into the next gear, she studied the different types people scattered across the sand. A woman with an impressive tan, and a two piece bathing suit (which she had no business wearing), ran after a runaway beach ball, while a man helped his son and daughter construct an elaborate sand castle. Just down from them, three young men in their late teens/early twenties passed a football while the girls they so obviously attempted to impress pretended to ignore them.
Mollie couldn’t help but think of her dream. She tried to shake it from her mind, but everything surrounding her brought it all back. Every feeling from the night before returned and suddenly her breathing pattern grew unsteady.
Her thoughts were interrupted when a stray Frisbee crossed their path and Jude’s dog instincts took over. He ran after it, jerking the leash out of Mollie’s hand and leaving every ounce of obedience behind.
“Jude!” She screamed as she chased him with all her might.
“Jude, stop! Jude!”
Nothing could stop him. She watched helplessly as he and the stupid green Frisbee flew through the air straight toward…oh no.
“Jude!” Was this happening? She felt like Jennifer Aniston in Marley and Me.
The only word to accurately describe the emotion she felt was horror. She watched Jude, her dog, her soon to be dead dog, trample over a large red blanket—on top of which a man and his daughter sat—in the middle of a picnic lunch.
Jude plowed straight through the lunch spread, sending grapes, chips, and mangled pieces of sandwiches flying through the air like they’d been shot out of a batting cage pitching machine. As if that weren’t bad enough, he then landed proudly with Frisbee in mouth, directly on top of a freshly built sand castle, likely built by none other than the same father and daughter whose lunch and castle were now destroyed.
“Oh my…Jude! I am so…so sorry. You have no idea how embarrassed I am. I am so sorry. I cannot believe he…” This dog might literally be sleeping in the dog house tonight. “Jude, bad dog! Bad, bad dog!” He flashed his famous try to not love me when I look like this face. Not gonna work bucko.
When she finally faced the man, she froze. His eyes matched the color of the sky on a perfectly cloudless day like today. His dirty blond hair formed large waves that stopped just above his dark eyebrows. Day-old stubble covered the lower part of his face, but did not hide the strength in his square jaw line. He flashed a smile revealing flawless pearly whites and dimples on both cheeks. A smile like that was capable of getting him anything he ever wanted.
“Well, at least he caught it, right?” He said as he laughed and nudged his daughter who looked to be around four or five. The girl was on the verge of tears until Jude turned his head and caught her attention. The shock on her face then transformed into a cute smile similar to the one her dad wore, only hers included dimples that could get her anything she wanted as well.
“I don’t know what to say. He has never done any… well maybe not never, let’s just say he hasn’t pulled a stunt like that in a long time. I am so-”
“Sorry? You said that I think probably twenty seconds ago.” His smile reached all the way up to those eyes causing Mollie’s stomach to do a little flop. “It’s fine. Isn’t that right Beyla?”
The gorgeous little girl with a sunflower bathing suit and blonde ringlet pigtails gave Mollie a shy smile. “Can I pet him?”
“Of course. He doesn’t deserve it, but sure.” Wow. They were taking this so lightly. Others always yelled at her about keeping him on a leash or not bringing him out of the house at all.
“I know I keep saying it, but I really am sorry for all of this.” She motioned toward the blanket that now resembled a town recently torn apart by a natural disaster.
“It’s really okay. I promise.” There was that smile again. Not a flirty how you doin’ kind of smile, but a genuine, nice guy, reach down to your soul smile.
“Seriously, it was just peanut butter and jelly. I think we’ll survive. He was pretty determined to catch that Frisbee and I’m glad we didn’t get in his way.” He knelt down to scratch Jude on the head.
He grabbed the disc and tossed it back to the guys who had been watching and laughing a few feet down shore.
“He also demolished the castle you probably worked hard on.” She motioned toward the large mound of sand that once resembled a palace.
“The tide is moving in pretty fast. It would have been gone in an hour anyway. Would you give yourself a break? Clearly, it was vital that he get the Frisbee and I’m honored that we could contribute to that epic catch.”
Okay. No one was this nice. Couldn’t he at least roll his eyes or something so she wouldn’t feel as bad as she did?
Beyla was content petting Jude and he was more than content soaking up every second of it. He had always loved kids.
“Well, I feel bad. That was your lunch and now it’s inedible.”
He thought for a beat and shrugged his shoulders. “Yeah, you’re right. We might have to starve until dinner.” His casual, happy expression turned serious and unpleasant.
She knew he was joking but she couldn’t help but feel like she needed to make it up to them somehow. This was all her fault whether he blamed her or not. “You’re being really nice, and I appreciate it, but I still feel terrible.”
“Don’t! We just live right there. We’ll have new sandwiches in no time.” That smile lit up his face again while he pointed straight up from where they were standing toward a two-story white Victorian style home. A large porch wrapped around the back half of the house and made her own seem child-sized. Two wooden swings hung from both sides of a charcoal door, and colorful pillows were strategically placed on them both. The back yard was green, beautiful, and open. Near the right corner of the house, a live oak stood with a rope swing hanging from its limb.
She remembered admiring that house the first time she had passed it, and had slowed down to appreciate its beauty a few times since. She wasn’t aware anyone had been staying there since the family that had occupied it a year ago moved away.
“You live there?”
The shock Mollie felt must have been evident. He widened his eyes, matching her own. “I live there! And I would invite you up but I have a few breakable things lying around. Might not be a good idea.” He motioned with his head to Jude, who was oblivious to anything happening around him.
“Funny! Beyla is your daddy always this funny?”
“He likes to be funny all the time. Sometimes he sings the ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes’ song, and he makes me laugh. Do you like that song?” She jumped up and down with excitement over the possibility.
“I think so. But I can’t exactly remember how it goes. Maybe he can do it right now!” The girls turned their attention to the man who still remained nameless.
“Yeah, daddy! Please? It’s so funny! And make the funny face, too!” She jumped even faster, encouraging Jude to do the same.
“Oh yes, you must make the funny face.” Mollie liked this girl.
He was not happy. He placed his hands on top of his hips and shook his head with a grim expression. “You know what? I regret to inform you both that I will not be performing the ‘Heads, Shoulders, Knees, and Toes’ song for you today because I just don’t remember it. In fact, I think I have forgotten your name. What is it again? Brandi? Barley? Bobby?”
Beyla giggled so loud it was contagious. “Daddy, you know my name. It’s Bay-luh! Beyla Gray Reagan.” Her giggling continued as she joined Jude in a game of run around in circles.
“Beyla yes, yes it’s coming back to me.” He chased her around, tickling her until she couldn’t run anymore.
He stopped, slightly winded and looked curiously into Mollie’s eyes. “Now, I still can’t remember your name.”
“I haven’t told you my name. But smooth move, sir.” He was good. She wondered how many girls had been a victim to his charm. For all she knew, his wife could be in the house napping.
“Well then, you will have to tell me.” He returned the smile.
What was happening here? Like it or not, she was flirting with a man on a date with his child.
And what did he mean that was his house? Did they live there, or were they on vacation? Because she had never had, and did not intend to have, a vacation-long fling with a guy whom she knew nothing about. No matter how cute he was.
“Well I am Mollie and this is Jude, which you know already.” She resented her pulse for beating as fast as it did.
“Mollie, it’s a pleasure to meet you. I’m Sam and this is Bailey.” He shot Mollie a wink.
“Daddy, it’s Bay-luh!” Her tolerance for him seemed quite low and that made Mollie laugh.
“So nice to meet you both. And look, I know you said it was okay about your lunch, but I’ll feel bad about it all day. Why don’t you let me take you guys somewhere for lunch? I was going soon myself.”
“Honestly. It’s fine, I can run up and make more. I promise you don’t need to feel bad.”
There went those eyes again.
At this point, Beyla seemed interested in what was being said. An excited grin spread wide across her rosy cheeks.
“Okay, then I’m not doing it because I feel bad, I’m doing it because I just made some new friends and I want to take them to lunch. What do you say Beyla?”
The giggling returned. “Yeah, yeah, yeah!”
Sam threw his arms up in surrender. “Why not? Let’s go to lunch.”
Beyla clapped and cheered.
Wait a minute. What was she thinking? She didn’t even bother asking if there was a woman in the picture that would mind their little lunch outing.
“I’m guessing it’s okay with Beyla’s mom?” Mollie gave Sam a questioning look. He uncomfortably looked down and cleared his throat.
“My Mommy will say it’s okay. She’s in Willytown with Richard and they eat lunch together all the time. But we never got to eat at a restaurant with a dog before. Can Jude come too? To the restaurant?”
Sam laughed and explained, “She lives in Wilmington and I’m pretty sure she isn’t concerned with any of this. So where do you have in mind? It had better be expensive if you hope to make up for ruining our whole day.”
“Ha ha,” she said unenthusiastically. She could tell this wouldn’t be boring.
Beyla, ecstatic about getting to spend more time with Jude, the psycho dog, found a stick for playing fetch. Jude was thrilled. And off they went.
“Have you tried Sophie’s? It isn’t far from here and I hear their pizza is impressive.”
He flashed a quick smile. “I haven’t actually, but I’ve heard it’s pretty decent.”
“My best friend will kill me if I go without her. She’s been begging me for months to try it and I haven’t had the chance, but it sounds perfect today.”
“Well, I’d say so if you’re willing to risk your life for it.”
“I won’t tell if you don’t. Meet you back here in half an hour?” Why was she so nervous? It was just lunch. She was in her jogging shorts and covered in sweat for Pete’s sake. There was absolutely nothing romantic about it.
“It’s a plan. And I know I kept saying you didn’t have to do this, but pizza is sounding way better than peanut butter, so I’m taking it back. You have to do this.”
They laughed for another minute and agreed to meet back at the scene of the crime in half an hour.
Mollie and Jude, without any other mishaps, managed to jog the last stretch to the pier. Once there, she took a seat on her favorite flat rock and reflected on the last few hours. What had started out to be a terrible day had somehow evolved into one of possibilities.
She had never been the kind of girl to put much energy into thinking about what might be. She hated herself for feeling giddy about lunch with Sam because she really didn’t want to become involved with any man. Even if she did, she knew nothing about this one.
He had a daughter and was no longer with the mother. That alone should be reason enough to take caution.
She wasn’t sure she would ever be able to trust another man with her heart. It seemed unfair to give someone the impression that she could.
But it was just lunch. That’s it. You couldn’t give someone an impression like that by simply sharing a meal with them, could you? Besides, she wasn’t even going home to clean up first. What says “cool and casual” more than running shorts and a chocolate Lab?
She had never been this forward either. Geez, she practically asked the guy out! He didn’t make it hard though, that was for sure.
And then there was Beyla. That girl had a fiery spirit inside of her, she could already tell. Maybe she had more to do with Mollie’s bold invitation than Sam.
She suddenly realized she hadn’t thought once about last night ever since she, well Jude, ran into the Reagans. And if that ended up being the only good thing to come from her meeting them, it would be enough.
She let Jude splash around in the water for a few seconds longer before heading back. This afternoon was going to be interesting.