In Gifts by the Shore (Part 1), I introduced you to my main character, Marianna Greggor, a 39-year-old single mom of a college-aged daughter and, also, the younger sister of Ellen, who owns a bungalow in Sarasota, Florida. As many of you already know — or can guess from the names! — one of my inspirations for this manuscript came from the very different sisters in Sense and Sensibility. But this is not a retelling of that story. It’s a new tale about siblings, mothers and daughters, good friends, and getting a second chance at love.
As always, I look forward to all of your thoughts, so please don’t hesitate to share!! Thank you. 😉
GIFTS BY THE SHORE
CHAPTER TWO: Bungalow 26 (continued right after Gil’s scene — READ PART 1 HERE)
The white sand enveloped her feet.
It was so powdered-sugar like that Marianna’s poor toes, unprotected in flimsy pink flip-flops, weren’t safe from the thousands of granules of warmth that attacked them and her heels with every sinking step on her trek to the water’s edge. Warm sand, yes, but not scorching. That surprised her.
Ellen was right. Sarasota was not Ann Arbor. And the Siesta Key beach was not remotely like a visit to the chilly, rocky shores of Lake Michigan. Marianna felt herself to be a stranger in a strange land.
She’d barely thought this to herself when, in spite of the jarring differences between her home state and this all-natural water park, she began getting caught up in it.
The colors grabbed her at first. She would’ve sworn they were fake. She looked out into the Gulf and that blue was so vibrant, so very azure that she was sure it’d been dyed. Nothing in the real world could possibly look that blue. She recalled photos of tropical places she’d seen in magazines like National Geographic and always figured they’d been touched up somehow. Tinted, so as to make the landlocked Northerners envious.
But she realized now that—no—reality actually could be this stunning. This utopian. And that the photographs were only able to capture the images, not the pervasive scent of sand, salty water and sunscreen. Not the sound of the squawking seagulls and chattering beachcombers. Not the feel of the hot sand granules, the sweat beads sliding down her arms, neck and spine. Not the shocking warmth of wading into the Gulf, like sinking into a Jacuzzi.
A giggle rose in her throat, and she felt like that five-year-old girl again, discovering the world freshly after their move to Ann Arbor. How magically different their new home seemed to her then…and now.
With a bolt of impulsivity she hadn’t felt flowing inside her in a while, she kicked off her flip-flops and carried them, stepping along the undulating seam where the waves lapped rhythmically against the shore, caressing it. Every stride was a brand new stitch, connecting her, however tenuously, to this exotic, amphibious fabric of a place.
The further she walked, the faster her blood pumped. She could feel her heart rate increasing, and not just from the exercise. Her pulse was matching the heartbeat of the sea—the ebb and flow of the Gulf’s ever-shifting tide—marking the passage of time like a ticking grandfather clock. The waves were a swinging pendulum of seconds, beating the minutes, hours, days, and reminding her of years that had passed, of relationships that had come and gone, of emotions she had once felt and now ceased to feel.
And then the harmonious unity of her footsteps in flawless synchronicity with time came to a crashing halt.
“Ow!” she squealed aloud, the pain in the sole of her right foot too sharp to ignore.
She hadn’t been looking at where her feet were landing, but she knew she’d have to remember not to lose focus in the future if she wanted to keep her toes. She spotted the offending object jutting out of the water-packed sand. The jagged edge of the twisting shell was serrated enough to cut flesh. She inspected the bottom of her foot for blood. None, although there was an indentation where she stepped on the thing. She rubbed her sole for a moment then reach to pick up the shell. On first instinct, it reminded her of a funnel cloud, like a palm-sized Midwestern tornado. She dipped it into the seawater, shook the sand and grit from it and held it up to the light.
She’d seen shells like this before in shops, but she never imagined just finding one in the wild. On closer inspection—save for the broken ridge she’d stepped on—the shell was so perfect, it was almost edible. Brown lines drizzled dark color down the cream and gold sides, like chocolate syrup over a vanilla and caramel cone. The top swirled into a point, managing to make it look at once both delicious and dangerous. Almost tempting enough to take a bite.
“That there’s a lightning whelk,” an old lady’s voice informed her. “It’s unusual to find a nice one like that this late in the day. Best shelling is in early morning.”
Marianna shaded her eyes against the sun’s glare and squinted at the woman. She was probably about the same age as Mr. Niihau but, unlike his dark hair and deeply bronzed, weathered skin, this woman was a study in white. Her hair was as snowy as Mrs. Claus, worn in a bun and covered with a wide-brimmed sunhat. Her milky complexion was textured with dry, pale wrinkles, and her swimsuit and wrap were varying shades of ivory. Standing next to her in the burning midday sun reminded Marianna that she needed to buy sunglasses, a beach hat and more sunscreen. SPF 50 at least.
“Thanks,” Marianna said brightly. “I didn’t know that. It’s pretty.”
The woman nodded. “You looked like an out-of-towner, girlie.” She pointed further up the beach. “If you get out here at five or six in the morning and keep walkin’ about a half a mile that a-way to the rocks, you’ll find some real stunning ones.” She motioned toward Marianna’s flip-flops. “And you’ll wanna put them back on or get yourself some Beachwalkers like me.” She lifted up a foot to show the only dark piece of clothing she had on—slip-on water shoes, like the kind marine biologists or serious snorkelers might wear.
“I will,” Marianna promised her, glancing behind them, surprised to see how far she’d already ambled down the coast.
The older woman caught her gaze and stabbed her bony index finger at the hotels in the opposite direction. “Walk that other way another mile or so and you’ll find yourself at some pretty ritzy hotels and bungalows and such. But you don’t need to be rich to enjoy the beach.” She flung her arms out on both sides, as if to capture the air. “The beach is free for everybody.”
“I’m not rich,” Marianna said, pondering for a split second what it must be like to feel comfortable like that. Never having to wonder where the next rent payment or doctor’s fee would come from. Never having to make a choice between buying a much-needed coat for yourself or new school clothes for your child. Never having to worry about selling your house because you can’t swing the mortgage or the insurance or the utilities…
“Me neither, girlie.” She tapped her chest with the flat of her palm. “I’m Vivian, by the way.”
“Marianna,” she told her, as the woman stuck out her hand to formally shake hers. Vivian’s grip was strong and sure, grounding Marianna to the present.
“I walk all the way down Siesta Key beach and back, twice a day. Two and a half miles each way,” Vivian told her proudly. “So, I’m sure I’ll see you again. And you just ask me if you have any questions ‘bout anything, you hear?” She patted her chest again and grinned. “Fourth generation Floridian. Not one of them newcomers.”
Marianna grinned back. “Thank you,” she whispered, a lump rising in the back of her throat for a reason she couldn’t begin to justify. When had the simple act of someone being kind to her reduced her to tears?
Vivian waved and was on her way, and Marianna was left swallowing back an emotion she was too anxious to let herself feel. But she did eye the people on the shore a little more closely now.
There were lots of women in bikinis with perfectly even tans and trim bodies—showing off their butterfly tattoos on their shoulders, their silver or coral anklets, their diamond-studded belly piercings—and hard-muscled men jogging along the shore with shades and waterproof watches. The youngsters frolicked like water nymphs, and even the older people had a lean, outdoorsy look about them.
She felt frumpy in her t-shirt and shorts. A pale-faced tourist in paradise, carting only her bungalow key, a pair of flip-flops and a shell. A simple existence, really.
She spied a family with three or four…no, five kids under the age of eleven or so. The youngest ones were a set of twin boys—a handful from the looks of them—about four years old. They were racing each other to the water as fast as their brown little legs could carry them, giggling, with maniacal expressions on their faces like Thing One and Thing Two from The Cat in the Hat. Their beleaguered mother was calling after them, but she had the three older kids hanging off of her. Literally. One of them was pulling at the straps of her swim top.
Marianna heard her shout, “Steve! Get them!” in an exasperated tone, motioning toward the adult male nearby, ostensibly the twins’ father, who was occupied blowing up a beach ball for the siblings. He dropped it and began to chase the little terrors into the Gulf.
She was mildly amused by this scene—half relieved, half wistful to have those parenting days long behind her—and she couldn’t help but reflect on what it might have been like for her, Donny and Kathryn if there had been other children in their little family. Kathryn had always been such a quiet little girl, only starting to come out of her shell and explore the world more once she got into high school. The blow of her father leaving when she was just sixteen stunted that growth for a time, but she soon found more consolation from her friends than from Marianna. Certainly, Kathryn now preferred her new college pals, her boyfriend and her exciting university life to another dull summer with her mother.
Again, Marianna felt the lump of emotion rising in the back of her throat and forced it down once more. There was no use crying. She just needed to regroup. To take a few deep breaths. Get back into the swing of things. And slog away even harder this time. That strategy had worked in the past and, by God, she would make it work again.
She felt a splash on her legs and the sudden hot breath of Thing One as he raced past her, deeper into the water. Quite a few yards away, the father had nabbed Thing Two and was holding him firm with one arm and waving wildly at Marianna with the other. “Please stop him!” he shouted.
She threw her flip-flops and new seashell on the sand and plunged deeper into the Gulf after the boy. But he was fast, and she…was not. He zigzagged in and out of the water, in between people, around clumps of seaweed, giggling demonically the whole way. She reached out to grab him on the shore but, just like some hapless adult in a kids’ sitcom, he slithered out of her grasp and she slipped in the wet sand, falling to her knees.
“Ow!” she cried, not sure what jagged object she’d landed on this time, only that everything out here—be it on land or sea—seemed to be conspiring to cut or bruise her.
She heard a deep, throaty laugh (not maniacal, not demonic) and a voice beside her that said, “This one yours?”
She turned to face the sound and stood up, brushing the sand from her limbs and spotting a collection of cat’s paws in a heap where her knee had been. “No—” she began, but then she focused on the man and, for a moment, found herself actually tongue tied. He was holding up the four-year-old as easily as she’d hold up a coconut…if it had legs and were kicking.
This was not what was remarkable about him, though.
The Sunshine Coast, while full of heavenly bodies in varying states of undress, had presented her with someone wholly unexpected. Although roughly her age, the man had jet black hair—slicked back, full lips, twinkling baby-blue eyes and a tanned, toned frame, like he’d just stepped out of a late-1960s beach movie. There was just no other way to say it: He looked like Elvis Presley in some film like “Clambake.”
She blinked at him and murmured, “Do you sing?”
“What?” he asked above the noise of the still-squealing kid.
“I, um—” She swiveled around in frantic search for Thing One’s father and, suddenly, he was there.
“Sorry, sorry,” the dad said to the Elvis lookalike and to her. “Thank you for grabbing my boy.” He snatched the kid from Elvis’s capable hands and the giggling and squealing came to an immediate stop. As the father marched the child back to his family, Elvis chuckled and said, “I do not envy that man.”
She laughed. “Or his wife.”
They shared a fleeting smile.
“Thanks for catching him when I couldn’t. I slipped…”
“I noticed.” He squinted at her feet. “If you’re going to run on the shore, you should get some Beachwalkers.”
“I know, I know. You’re the second person to tell me that today.” She noticed he was wearing some very sporty-looking black water shoes with red stripes to match his long swim trunks. “I just got to Sarasota. Do you know a good place to buy some?”
“Yeah, you looked like an out-of-towner.”
Marianna’s awe at his resemblance to The King began to wear off and a splinter of irritation took its place. “Do I have a sign on my back or something?”
“Nah. It just takes one to know one. I’m not a native either, but I’ve lived in Florida for a long time.” He checked his watch (waterproof, she was sure) and added, “I’ve got to get to work, but the best beachwear outfitter around is just a few miles down the road in St. Armand’s Circle on Lido Key. Take Tamiami Trail to 789 North and follow the signs. The shop is called Castaways, and it’s on John Ringling Boulevard, just past the circle. They’ve got clothing, bathing suits, snorkel gear, footwear—everything you need for your visit. Lots of other great shops on the block, too. The Beaded Periwinkle and The Golden Gecko are a couple of my favorites and they’re right next door. You should check ‘em out.”
“Hmm,” she said, noncommittally. “Thanks.”
“You’re welcome.” He paused, flashed her one of his twinkly grins and waved like he was The King himself. “See you around.”
She waved back and watched him stride down the beach, finding it hard to believe their paths would really cross again. He had the gait of someone who didn’t spend a lot of time idling on sand drifts and talking to frumpy divorced women, however even his tan and effortless his manner.
But, then, people always said insincere things like that to each other. Probably even more often in a beach-culture environment such as Florida, where the population fluctuated with the tide.
She grabbed her pink flip-flops and new lightning whelk—both half buried in the sand—patted her pocket to make sure her key was still there and, finally, began her trek back to the Siesta Sunset bungalows. Where the rich people stayed. She knew she didn’t belong there, but she was getting attached anyway.
Such simplicity. It struck her freshly again and again.
What a contrast from the crazy complexity of her life with Donny, his kind parents (when they were still living) and Kathryn as a baby. What a contrast from the quieter life of just her and Kathryn alone, when her daughter was a teen. This summer life felt almost too easy.
And, yet, as she approached #26, her pulse started racing again. Not like the rush of rejuvenation she felt at the exercise of walking along the stunning beach. No. More like a return to the combination of fear and indistinct emotion she’d felt after talking with Vivian. More like the misgivings she tried to express to Ellen at having come to Florida at all.
With simplicity abounding—so much daily clutter cleared away—it was shockingly apparent when there was a big problem sitting in the middle of the room. Like, oh, her entire nebulous future.
She sighed and pushed open the door to the bungalow. It was precisely how she’d left it and, for some reason, this brought with it a fresh wave of sadness. She swiped away any remnants of sand and sea from the shell and placed it in the middle of the glass coffee table. Her first decoration.
It wasn’t even three o’clock in the afternoon but, suddenly, the two days of driving, the tension of moving, the odd sense of displacement she’d felt since being there and the endless stretch of the unknown all mingled inside of her to create only the certainty of exhaustion.
She curled up on Ellen’s cushiony floral sofa—a buttercup pillow under her head—and closed her eyes. Drifting into sleep and away from all anxiety-producing things.
The day might not yet have ended but, tomorrow was still another day. She figured she had more than enough worry and angst to carry over into it. For the time being, though, she’d burrow deeper into her borrowed shell, pretend the ocean was a melody designed to lull her to sleep and dream about her longest-held fantasy—the one she pointed refused to name aloud.
(End of Part 2) What did you think of the new character who was introduced in this scene — Vivian? Any thoughts on Marianna and Gil’s first meeting or on the story so far? Would you like to see something from big sister Ellen’s point of view? I hope so…because she’s coming up next! Look for Part 3 on October 22nd! Hope you’re enjoying it. 🙂