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A sharp breeze blew across the empty beach, whipping up small tunnels of sand, and sending chills down the spine of Annie Sullivan. Sitting on the porch swing, she rubbed her hands quickly over her upper arms and shivered.
The evening air along the South Carolina coast brought back a deep sadness. Annie sat looking out into the blue ocean, watching the last of the day’s sunlight disappear.
The beach carried haunted memories for her.
She sighed, pushing herself backwards with her strong legs, causing the old swing to groan as it moved. There was a comfort in the creaking noise. She thought it was funny that a sound could trigger a memory as quickly as a smell.
As a child, her family had stayed in cottages, and they always seemed have a porch swing like this. Her Daddy even built one like it at home for them.
Life had been so very different then. Her family had been happy. It was an entire lifetime ago. The loss of her younger brother had shattered their lives. He had died from a fall when Annie was just thirteen. Chris was just eleven.
Her parents stayed together, but shouldn’t have. The house became a tomb, her mother pending weeks in her bedroom or at the cemetery, ignoring her living child. Her father’s solution was to find solace in the bottle.
Annie ceased to exist when Chris died. They had left her to struggle with her devastating loss and never comprehended her pain. She shared her feelings with her closest friend, Sarah Tilson.
Sarah had spent most of her childhood with the Sullivan family and was there when the accident happened. She was Annie’s only shoulder during that time and they were like sisters.
Annie found happiness away from home and decisions were made without any parental observations. She married right out of high school and had three children one right after the other. Tom Moore was a poor choice for a partner and parent. It ended.
Now years later, she had made her way back here, to the memories it held, this time with her children.
The end of summer was approaching and meant another year away from the scents and sounds that completely spoke to her soul. The ocean seemed for her a safe haven. It made the next eleven months bearable knowing that she would return here. She was determined to make this a special time for her kids. A time they would never forget.
This important part of her youth she would pass on to them to enjoy. She had saved hard for this week. She felt a small part of her not only deserved this, but also needed it.
Together with Sarah, and her three children, they had filled the old Toyota and driven the two hours to the beach. They found the tiny rental cabin without even trying. The yellow cabin had two bedrooms, a kitchenette, a bathroom and a family-style room. There was no television which annoyed everyone but herself and her middle child.
Annie and Sarah shared the smaller bedroom and the three kids, under mild protest, jammed together into the other. Annie had two girls. Janie, who was thirteen, lived in the moment. She was all teen and angst, revolving around a world of her own concerns. She was tall for her age, all legs and arms. Janie had golden hair, and soft green eyes. She talked nonstop and when she wasn’t talking, she was singing,usually loud and somewhat off-key. She came across as a tough kid, but her heart was always there, rooting for the underdog.
In the middle was Christopher. It was his smile she had first fallen in love with when he was born. He was an easy baby. That had not lasted. Her ex-husband had seen to that. He had taken that carefree little boy and had turned him into a child whose eyes held a fear of dangerous unexpected encounters. He had the same dark black hair and blue eyes as Annie. At ten, Christopher was a serious kid, who spent a lot of his time alone, with his face buried in a book.
Suzie, who at seven years old would enjoy this week more then anyone, with the exception of her mother. She was quick to laugh but just as quick to cry. She was just coming into her own, old enough to decide things on her own but suddenly relenting to other people’s choices. Her dark brown hair was the Sullivan trait she inherited. The tiny cabin seemed like a palace to her. A small yellow palace and she delighted in it.
Annie worried less about her girls then her only son. They were fighters, but Christopher carried the world on his shoulders. She had told him a million times to just be a kid, but Christopher always appeared to be there watching quietly over his small family of women.
Lost in thought, she did not hear Sarah approach carrying two tall glasses of ice tea.
“Uncross your ankles, Annie. You know doctor television says your feet will swell.”
“He doesn’t have three kids to support and only one week to spend on vacation on the salary and tips of a waitress.”
Sarah handed Annie one of the iced teas and found a spot on the swing. Annie reached out and wrapped her left arm around her friend. They rocked back and forth at a slow, easy pace. It was a comfortable silence between friends. They had spent so much time together people mistook them for family.
Sarah was much thinner and her hair had lost the shine it held as a younger woman. She had never married or even had a serious relationship. She worked as a hairdresser close to where Annie waitressed. She lived in a small apartment above a lawyer’s office. She seemed to always appear somewhat pale and she constantly wore sunglasses.
Annie wanted her to come along with her and the kids. Sarah had insisted on giving Annie half the cost of the rental. Two hundred dollars was a lot of money.
“Look how tall Christopher getting! What is he, almost eleven?”
Annie smiled and looked at where her son sat on the blanket, legs folded, head buried in some new book on Japanese fighting swords.
“Ten. Christopher was all grown by the time he turned six years old. Sometimes I think he was cheated out of any kind of childhood, Sarah.”
She took a sip of the tea and let out a quick cough. She looked at Sarah and then at her glass. She smiled.
“You can handle it, Annie. It’s a Long Island Ice Tea.”
Annie had never become the drinker Sarah had developed into. She placed her drink on the rough, dry porch floor. Sarah finished her ice tea, taking big gulps. She pulled her thin sweater so it folded in the front of her, covering her small upper body.
“Oh, wait till I tell you this. The other day, I caught the little man drinking a beer.”
“Oh my God! Really? Christopher?”
Sarah spit out an ice cube laughing, and covering her mouth with her hand. Annie joined her and then noticed Christopher looking their way, hushed her friend with a finger to her lips. She continued in a lowered voice.
“I thought he was gonna wet his shorts when I walked into the kitchen. He started stuttering about being curious about how beer tasted.”
“What did you do?”
Annie looked across the sand to where Christopher was sitting. He was looking at them, his head turned slightly to the side. She waved and he waved back and then his eyes returned to his book.
“ What was I supposed to do? I swatted his bottom.”
This started a new storm of laughter. They continued swinging,holding on to each other. Annie loved this time she spent with her friend and children. As she looked up at her kids, she realized that all too soon they would leave her. They would plan their own summers and just maybe bring families of their own back here. She felt her heart pull a little and a tear start down her cheek.
The love she had for her children filled her world. It was a deep unconditional love with no end to it.
The sun had traveled further down its path to meet the sand, and still her children played, read, and listened to music.
Sarah filled her glass again, returning to the swing, but there was little conversation, both lost in their private thoughts. Sarah fell sleep. Annie went to the small bedroom and retrieved a blanket covering her best friend. At times she felt as though she had four children.
She made her way down towards her children, carrying a book she had taken from her room. She motioned for them to follow her as she started on their nightly walk. They fell into line with the girls sprinting ahead looking for shells to add to their growing collection.
Christopher walked quietly beside his mother. He seemed to have a book with him all the time. He kept pace with her long strides. Looking up at her, squinting into the fading sunlight, his young face turned serious.
“Are you still mad because of the beer, Mom?”
“No little man. But it didn’t belong to me.”
“I’ll apologize to Auntie Sarah. She always has beer around. I didn’t think she’d miss one.”
He looked up at her and she down at him. Her eyes reflected the love she felt for her son. The promises held,and all the hope that those promises would be fulfilled. She reached out and ran her fingers through his dark curly hair.
“No. She’s fine. I just can’t pay to replace it.”
“You know, Christopher, there’s a new book out by that author you have been going around quoting.”
They stopped walking and he looked excitedly at her. Silently, she handed Christopher the book. She watched his face. He took it and quickly looked at the title. He opened the book and read the inscription.
To my little man.
Please just be ten, at least for this year.
All my love, Mom
His voice a soft whisper, Christopher reached out to take her hand without looking up. She gave his hand a tight squeeze. She was content to have him allow her this. To have him walk hand-in-hand down the beach beside her, a connection strong and unspoken. The time for him to do this without protest was drawing to an end.
Annie was glad she had brought them here.
The girls returned and while there was a visible temptation on Janie’s face to make a comment about her brother being a baby, a knowing glance from her mother silenced it. Then Janie did something sweet, she took her mother’s other hand. Suzie grabbed onto Janie’s free hand and the four of them continued together.
They walked down into the town’s center and at the Dairy Barn the children got small ice cream cones. They sat together on a bench outside the store.Suzie slapped at a hornet resting on her own elbow, sending the cone flying into the air landing on the street. Suzie started to cry, big tears running down her small face. Christopher wrapped his arms around her. He sat her back on the bench. He walked over to the store window and spoke with the man behind the counter, talking and pointing to his sister. A few minutes later he walked over with a new cone.
He handed Suzie hers and she happily started eating it.When she was finished, Suzie walked to her brother,gave him a quick hug and whispered she loved him. As they started to leave, the man hollered to Christopher not to forget his part of the deal. Christopher waved back.
“Christopher? What’s going on?”
“Well, in exchange for the cone, I promised to sweep before he opens. I gave my word.”
“ I will walk you down.”
“I’m not a baby. I can walk down here alone.”
His sisters snickered at this remark and he turned red,slightly embarrassed.
“I will walk you down here in the morning.”
“Yes, ma’am. But you’re not going to hang around?”
A smile covered his entire face. Annie thought to herself,there it is, that’s the smile I fell in love with when he was born.
They walked toward the cabin at a quicker pace. The sky was dark and the wind was picking up. They talked about tomorrow. Janie wanted to take pictures with the old camera Annie has borrowed. Suzie wanted to build a castle. Christopher cleared his throat stating he had to be excused because he had a job in the morning. This was announced with a sense of ten-year-old pride, and the women of his family smiled at each other.
They walked along talking about the coming school year. She marveled at how they took things in stride and how close they were. Annie worked second shift at the diner. She tried hard to make family time and on the nights she worked, they came by the diner, ate in the booth and did their homework under her watchful eyes. They would all walk the four blocks home together.
As they got close to the cabin, they heard angry voices. Annie threw her arm out and told them to stay put. She headed to rescue her friend if need be. She arrived to hear the manager yelling. The check Sarah had given him bounced and unless she had two hundred dollars cash, the vacation was over. Annie stepped into the middle of it and when she turned around her three kids were right behind her.
Annie turned to the man who was standing there He was unshaven and his teeth were a full shade of missing.
“Look lady, I just want what’s owed me.”
The manager turned and walked away into the darkness. Annie turned to the kids.
“Go inside. Now.
Her tone said it all. Annie told Sarah that she would drive back to the city and get the cash first thing in the morning. Annie looked over at her friend of almost twenty-five years. She suspected the money had gone to buy booze and she didn’t want to have an argument within earshot of the kids so she told Sarah that she was going to bed.
Sarah sat down on the swing but before Annie headed back into the house she turned to look at Sarah sadly.
“Damn. Just once. I never ask for anything in return for what I give to you.”
It wasn’t a question. It was a statement.
“Can you watch the kids at least? I don’t want to take vacation time away from them.”
“I’m sorry, Annie. I am.”
“ Good night.”
She was disappointed in her friend, and now the drive back to the city meant another half of a day lost with her children. Life had difficult moments and this was one of them. She wiped the last of her tears. When she stepped in the front door, Christopher was there.
“What are you still doing up?”
“I just wanted to say good night.”
“Well, brave knight, you did a swell job tonight taking care of your little sister. I have to go back home in the morning. I know you promised you would sweep the storefront. I want you to come right back afterwards and stay close to your sisters. And, remember Auntie Sarah is in charge. I will try to get back as soon as I can. Now off to bed.”
The sun was hidden from view when Annie started her old car and headed it back toward the city. She noticed how stirred up the waves were this morning and the leavings of the storm washed up along the coast. It must have been fierce storm last night, but she had fallen asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. She had drifted off so quickly; she hadn’t even heard Sarah come into the room.
She wanted this trip to be quick and pushed on the gas pedal a little harder and brought the little car up to sixty. As she drove along the size of the waves smashing into the shore worried her. She wanted to get the owner his money and get back to enjoying the rest of the week with her kids. She had peeked in on them this morning before she had headed out and they looked so peaceful and safe. Sarah had been still asleep when the alarm went off but Annie had woken her up before she left. She concentrated on the road but still had a sense of uneasiness.
The alarm went off in the cramped little bedroom. Christopher jumped up, rubbing his eyes, and allowed it to continue it’s wake-up call. He had heard his mother leave but had stayed warm and comfortable inside his sleeping bag. His older sister opened one eye and hissed at him. He laughed and turned it off.
“Okay, little girls. I have to go to work now. Try to stay out of trouble. If you’re good today, I’ll treat you to another cone.
Would you like that?’
A pillow struck him face first, muffling his laugh. That started the pillow fight. They all squared off and started swinging at each other. They were screaming and laughing. Suzie swung wildly clipping Janie on the right side of her head and she dropped to the floor covering her head with her hands. That stopped everything. Christopher went to her side and knelt beside her. He waited. He looked at Suzie, who shrugged her shoulders. Janie ambushed him and pulled him down onto the bed beside her. Both sisters hit him with their pillows while he lay there covering his head with his hands. The laughter started again and grew loud. He finally yelled ‘uncle’ so loud the bedroom door flew open. They froze.
Sarah stood there, rubbing her temples and looking worse then she probably felt. She didn’t say anything. The kids just looked at her. She turned away and walked back into the small bedroom and slammed the door. Fun time was over.
They quickly picked up the room with quiet conversation between them. Christopher got up and went in to the bathroom to change and when he came out he told his sisters that he was headed to the store. He pulled on his heavy sweatshirt, jeans, and slipped into his sneakers without untying them. He suggested they put on some coffee for Auntie Sarah. He told them to try and stay out of her way, to read or color until he got back, then they would do something together.
They told him to hurry back and then got dressed and went out into the small kitchen. They made some toast and had some juice, with Janie complaining again about there being no television.
“Let’s go look for washed-up treasure,” Suzie said.
Janie looked crossed-eyed at her sister, which started Suzie laughing. They heard a loud pound on the bedroom wall from Sarah, who apparently was still trying to go back to sleep.
“ Well, okay, Suzie. Buried treasure hunting it is. We better get out of here anyway. No sense disturbing Auntie Zombie.”
Suzie covered her mouth with both her hands and fled the kitchen. She went in and got her heavy sweater to put on and grabbed the pails they had brought for digging. Janie grabbed her sweater and they left clutching the pails, quietly closing the door behind them.
They headed down the sandy shore barefoot and searching the debris that had floated in on the tide. Suzie shouted she had found a sneaker, a pair of sunglasses with a missing lens and a shovel. They continued down the beach, getting closer to the surf, searching for washed up loot, finding sand dollars and shells. They lost all track of the time.
Christopher had hurried down the beach, arriving just as the storeowner was unlocking the front door. Picking up the morning papers, Christopher followed him inside. Without a word, he was handed a broom which he took and returned to the front lot. He began to sweep in earnest and continued for almost an hour before finishing. He had removed his sweatshirt, even in the cool morning, he sweat, putting all he had into doing a good job. He placed the broom back where the he had gotten it. The owner waved him over, handed him five dollars, and shook his hand.
“Come see me next summer if you want a job. I could use someone to clean up every morning. You kept your word, and did a good job. You deserve this.”
He handed him an ice-cold bottle of soda.
“Thanks. I mean, thank you, sir.”
“Hell, son. I don’t even know your name.”
“Christo… It’s Chris,” he answered without hesitation.
He left the store and headed up the beach. He was thinking of the five dollars he had and what book he could put it towards. He slowed to a walk as he headed back toward the cabin. He was amazed at the size of the waves. He had never seen them so big. He pulled his hooded sweatshirt back on and lifted the hood, keeping his head warm and jamming his hands into the pouch in the front.
As he got closer to the cabin he saw Janie at the edge of the breakwater. She was waving her arms and darting in and out, reaching for something. She was screaming and kept looking towards the cabin. As Christopher got closer he increased his speed. It took him only a few seconds to realize Suzie was in the water and in trouble. The surf was crashing and pulling her further out.
Christopher ran hard, realizing that she could not hang on out there alone. She was moving away from the shore and fast. He raced past Janie and told her to run to the cabin and call for help. She paused and he yelled at her to move. She looked out to Suzie, and then she took off as quick as she could.
He entered the water on a dead run, not bothering to remove his sweatshirt or sneakers, and plunged into the towering waves and swam towards his little sister, who was struggling and showing signs of fatigue. Christopher noticed the strength of the waves pulling him down and pushing him closer to his sister but further from shore. He felt a sense of fear from her, but did not hesitate to continue to reach her.
He called out to her, telling her to hold on, he was coming to get her. She was panicking, wildly chopping at the water, crying for him to hurry. He reached her and she grabbed onto him, forcing him under the water. He surfaced and grabbed hold of her, pushing her towards the shore. He spoke to her, instructing her to paddle with the waves, ride them towards the shore. He yelled over the crashing sounds for her to stop fighting him. She calmed down as he spoke to her and was following his instructions. It took almost ten minutes for him to get her closer to shore. She felt her feet touch the ocean floor and knew she would be all right from there. She turned to see where her brother was, she had felt his hand on her back, but it was gone. She was swallowing water and still reaching for him. She heard the sound of a huge wave crash around her and sent her further in toward the shore. She felt someone else grab her and assumed her brother had found her again in the surf.
Janie had returned from the cabin in time to see Suzie stand and then be pushed toward the shore. She scanned the water looking for her brother but she couldn’t see him. Janie grabbed her sister and pulled her the rest of the way onto the beach. She went back into the surf and looked again for her brother screaming for him, praying he would pop up any moment and laugh at the fear he had caused her but there was no sign. He was gone.
The Fire Rescue arrived at that moment and three men dove into the surf, not sure who they were looking for but knowing from the emergence call it was a child, just a boy, who was out there and needed help.
It took them over an hour to locate Christopher in the murky water the storm had created. They had tied ropes to each other and to a secured shoreline. They radioed for a rescue boat to head out following down the shore in the opposite direction. The undertow was that strong. The recue boat called the police on shore relaying that they had found him. They referred to him as a 1-49. No visible signs of life. And, after they brought his body from the ocean they of course tried CPR, but mostly it was preformed for show. It gave the people the impression that they had not just seen someone they love just die in front of them.
They placed his young body on a gurney. They had stripped off his sweatshirt and tried to restart his heart to no avail.
They were getting ready to load him into the ambulance when Annie’s car pulled into the drive. She had never gone all the way into the city but had turned around. She had felt something was wrong. She ran toward the crowd of people now gathered and heard someone say something about leaving kids alone in dangerous situations. She knew. She dropped her purse and ran towards the ambulance. The lights were still flashing. One of her kids was hurt. Out of the corner of her eye,she caught Sarah talking to a police officer. She stopped running and walked slowly toward her two daughters, who started crying the moment, they saw her.
Annie knew by the look on Janie’s face. It was the same look she had on her own face when he brother died in the fall.
She knew without asking her son was gone. She dropped to the beach, unable to breath, unable to cry out, unable to move. A policeman walked towards her, squatted down close to her and talked calmly to her explaining the story her daughters had told him. He explained how her son saved his sister, but was weighted down by the clothes he had on. They had tried to get him out of the water but they couldn’t find him.
There was a strong undertow. The water was stirred up and muddy. He said he was sorry for her loss.
Annie heard few of those words.
Annie gathered her daughters, hugged them, made sure they were not hurt and sent them to the car and told them to wait there for her. She entered the ambulance and sat beside her son. She could pinpoint the exact moment she felt her heart break in half. It was that quick. It just took a second to feel it break and she knew it would never be whole again, not ever. She couldn’t swallow, she sat very still beside him. Tears streamed freely now.
She was lost.
She reached out and slowly fixed his hair, smooth his blankets and kissed his cheek. She said no prayers, no oh-my-God-why; she said no words at all. There was nothing to say that would change this now. She held his hand for a long time, feeling his fingers resting in her palm.
She left instructions as to wear to bring her son’s body with the police. Then she left her only son all alone. Her hero.
Annie was headed toward Sarah for an explanation. As she approached from her back she overheard her talking to the police officer. She appeared nervous and kept hugging herself.
“I suppose I’ll get blame for this kid’s death as well as carrying the blame for her kid brother. Her parents blamed me for that one. Hey, I never said I would watch anybody. I’m not responsible for some little jerk climbing a tree and thinking he could fly anymore then some kid thinking he can save the world while drinking in half of the Atlantic Ocean.”
Annie stopped a few feet from Sarah and stood very still.
All these years she had felt responsible for not being home when the accident had happened to her brother and now her son. And, both times her best friend had been within reach to stop both lives from being lost and had done nothing. She had not cared enough.
Sarah was sobbing now, clutching at the man’s arm. Annie cleared her throat and Sarah turned and looked at her.
“I’m sorry for you Sarah, I truly am.”
She looked at her with eyes that told her they were no longer friends. Sarah cried out to her, yelling she was sorry. Annie kept walking.
When she buried her son, she would finally be able to lay the memory to rest.
She drove her two children home.
Annie moved to the ocean when she gave up her job. Her grandchildren spend summers with her there. It still holds that certain comfort for her. Some nights on her walks, she sees her son sitting there on a towel reading. And, as she starts down the beach, she can feel his small hand resting in hers. It brings her peace. She buried her only son beside her only brother and went on with her life. And like the tide, her days and nights come and go.