Finding Lily Chapter 4
“Please try again. I know my daughter was here, and I desperately need to find her,” Ruby said.
“I’m sorry, ma’am, but I don’t see Lily Edwards in our system,” the hotel receptionist said.
“Try Lily Hollowell,” Ruby insisted.
“I’m sorry, I’m not seeing anyone under that name either,” the receptionist said calmly. “To be honest, ma’am, I’m not really supposed to give out this kind of information.”
“No, please, you have to help me. I have to find my daughter.” Ruby dug into her purse and produced her cell phone. “Look, look at this photo.” Splashes of red and orange dripped down the screen, displaying a breathtaking sunset over the ocean. Only a sliver of the beach was visible. Still, Ruby had to try. “Do you have any idea where this photo may have been taken?”
The young man shook his head before his eyes made contact with the screen. “I’m sorry,” he began once more.
“You’re certainly sorry a lot,” Ruby said, pulling the screen from beneath his gaze.
“Wait,” the man said, reaching for Ruby’s phone. “There.” He pointed to the corner of the screen, where one solid wooden pole dove into the water. “That looks like the pier.”
“The pier?” Ruby asked. “Why on earth would Lily be all the way down by the pier?”
“Now, that one I definitely can’t help you with.” The man walked away from the desk, leaving Ruby to her thoughts.
The Grand Hotel was Lily’s favorite place as a little girl, even through high school. When she got older, she begged to go to the pier with whichever friend was invited along that year, but Ruby always said no. The pier was too dangerous for pretty, young girls to hang without parents nearby. They could all go together, or they didn’t go at all. The girls always opted for the former, strolling around the games and rides while Ruby and Mark, her ex-husband, hung back a bit to give them some space. It was never Ruby’s intention to smother her daughter, just to keep her safe.
Ruby’s phone vibrated, the screen alight with a new Instagram notification. Ruby’s fingers trembled as she pulled up Lily’s account.
“On the road again,” the caption read, accompanied by a photo of Lily’s polished fingers wrapped around her steering wheel. “Might take this trip all the way to the Keys! Stay tuned!”
Ruby’s stomach tumbled as she devoured the rest of Lily’s post for clues to her next destination.
South, she thought. All I know is she’s going South.
Ruby squeezed her phone so hard, she thought it might crumble in her hand. Now all she could do was wait. Wait for Lily to post another photo, to ‘tag’ herself at a restaurant or bar. There was nothing else. Ruby straightened her blouse, fluffed the ends of her hair, and gathered her composure. She turned on her heels and walked back to the young man who had returned to the counter.
“I’d like a room for the night, please. Oceanfront, if you have it.”
Ruby didn’t have a bathing suit. Hadn’t even thought to pack one with her. This wasn’t a leisurely road trip down the coast with her girlfriends; this was a mission to find her daughter and bring her home. Still, when she walked past the pool bar on her way to the restaurant, she considered for a moment how relaxing it might be to lay in the sun, even if it was only for an hour before it sunk into the ocean.
Stop that, she scolded herself. You’re here for a purpose, and that purpose has nothing to do with a tan.
The first martini slid down her throat in a matter of seconds, making her face flush and her body feel warm and tingly. She set her empty glass on the concrete bar top and traced the seashell outlines stamped into it with her fingers. By all accounts, this was your typical beach restaurant. Fishing nets dipped and weaved around support poles and under ceiling rafters. Fishing reels and decorative stuffed fish adorned the walls and display cases. It wasn’t exactly what she would consider a high-end restaurant, but they had a happy hour special on martinis, of which she was delighted to take advantage.
“Another for the lady,” she heard a man’s voice say beside her.
Of course, Ruby thought. A woman can’t ever sit alone without a man thinking she needs company. Lord, have mercy.
“Funny, I don’t remember asking for another,” Ruby said, turning toward the man’s voice. She tossed her blond hair over her shoulder and squared herself to the arrogant clown standing next to her. “As a matter of fact, that was going to be my last one.”
“Looks like your plans changed,” the man pushed back. Though his eyes were the color of a rainforest, she sensed something darker, more violent within them. His tone was harsh and demanding, and a steady unease filled Ruby’s stomach.
“I can assure you, they haven’t,” Ruby said, ignoring her building fear and pushing away from the bar top with her purse.
The man grabbed Ruby’s arm to prevent her from leaving, curling his fingers tightly around her wrist. “I just bought you a drink,” the man said firmly. “You’ll stay right here and enjoy it with me.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Ruby saw another man move in, shoving her assailant into the concrete bar top. “Don’t fucking touch her!” The second man was only minimally taller than the first, but the venom in his voice said he wasn’t to be taken lightly. “What the fuck’s your problem, man?”
Ruby could see it now, her name splashed across a newspaper headline as the sole cause of a fistfight between two upstanding men. Because, of course, it was always the woman whose name and history were picked apart in these scenarios. She wasn’t having it. The testosterone was so thick she thought she might choke on it. Ruby turned to walk away as she heard the first man say, “She’s my girlfriend. I can treat her however I want.”
Ten years of anger management and five years of meditation practice dissipated under the rage-filled pressure ballooning inside her. She felt heat rise in her body, felt the blood rush to her head, felt the anger rip through her like a raging Hulk.
“If she’s your girlfriend, what’s her name?” the taller man asked. The question took Ruby and her assailant by surprise. They both assumed the taller man would believe the erroneous statement, they both thought the comment would put them eye to eye once more, but the taller man wasn’t buying it.
“Fuck you,” the aggressor said. He grabbed his beer from the bar, drank the rest of it in one gulp, and charged toward the front door.
“I’m so sorry that happened to you,” the taller man said. “Are you okay?”
“Fine,” Ruby replied a bit harshly. Her blood felt like heavy lava flowing through her veins, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that she had just dodged a dangerous situation. Her stomach knotted as she thought of Lily.
“Here, take a seat. Let me get you something to drink,” the man offered.
“Are you kidding?” Ruby spat. “This is how everything started with that handsy asshole who just charged out of here. I don’t understand why men think that women need to be rescued. I could have handled that myself.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. I’m sure you could have,” the man said, taking a step away from Ruby. “Is there someone you can call who you’d feel comfortable walking you back to your hotel? I’d be happy to, but I understand you want to feel safe right now. I just don’t think you should go back alone.”
Ruby stared back at the man, who seemed genuine in his efforts to help her. His dark, brown hair complimented the chocolate in his eyes, and she could see his anger melt away to a sweeter core. The restaurant was beginning to settle, and the voices that were silent moments ago began to rumble amongst themselves. Ruby’s intuition pulled her attention to the front door, where her attacker seemed to be arguing with a member of the security team. She wouldn’t put it past him to wait for her in the parking lot, hoping she would be alone. If not, he’d just follow her to wherever she was staying. She needed to wait out his anger.
“Maybe I do need a drink,” Ruby said just barely above a whisper. She slid herself back onto the barstool and ordered a dirty martini, extra olives. “What are you having?” she asked the man.
“Wait. Didn’t you just say that you don’t need to be taken care of?”
“I don’t,” Ruby replied, fighting the smile dancing at the corners of her lips. “I’m taking care of you. What are you drinking?”
The man’s full lips parted into a gorgeous smile, making Ruby feel both excitement and shame. What about Bob? He was good to her, definitely too good, and he deserved her faithfulness. He also probably deserved a phone call.
“I’ll have a Corona,” the man said. “I’m Denzel, by the way, but most people just call me Zel.”
“Ruby,” she replied, sliding the beer the bartender set down toward him. “Denzel, huh? That makes sense.”
“What does that mean?” Zel asked. His fingers did a little tap dance on the bar top in anticipation of Ruby’s response.
“Well, considering the way you quickly transform into the Equalizer, I’d say Denzel makes sense.” Ruby smiled and poked at the olives in her glass.
“Equalizer, huh? That’s quite the reference. I was hoping you would say it was because of my dashing good looks.” Zel curved one of his hands under his chin like a GQ model. Ruby wasn’t surprised by Zel’s smoldering presence in that pose. She was, however, surprised by the sudden heat that ran through her body and clung to her skin like steam after a hot bath. “I’m only kidding,” Zel added when Ruby didn’t comment. “I’m a little surprised you’re familiar with the movie, though.”
“Okay, now it’s your turn. What is that supposed to mean?” Ruby fired back. Her red lips parted into a wide smile as she waited eagerly for Zel to make his observations.
“I guess you just don’t strike me as an Equalizer kind of woman,” Zel replied. He shrugged and took a swig of his beer.
“What kind of woman do I strike you as, then?”
“Honestly, you don’t remind me of the kind of woman who has a lot of time for TV or movies at all, but if I had to pick, I’d say you remind me of a cheesy romantic comedy kind of woman. Hallmark movies, maybe.” Zel stifled a chuckle as he watched Ruby purse her lips in disappointment.
She took a deep breath, ready to retaliate. But why? she thought. He’s not wrong.
“Well, I guess you got me there,” Ruby said, allowing herself to relax a bit more. “I’m not one for TV or movies. I started my own business a few years ago and don’t really have much time anymore.”
“What kind of business?” Zel asked, turning on his stool to face Ruby.
“Interior design. I have a little studio just north of Philly. It started as a bit of a hobby, but eventually, it grew into something more substantial. I just celebrated my 500th client last week.”
“Wow. That sounds like quite the business! I imagine entrepreneurs like yourself don’t get away a lot. Are you here for business?"
Ruby shook her head and stared at the olive soaking up the liquor at the bottom of her glass. Its form hadn’t changed much since they ordered drinks, but she knew that the gin had permeated its porous surface. It soaked through the fleshy exterior and poisoned the olive to its core. It would have a bite now. Not because it wanted to, but because its circumstances called for it. The only way to avoid the bite was to discard the olive but was that fair to the olive? Wouldn’t it welcome having someone’s teeth sink in and alleviate its burden?
“I’m actually here for my daughter,” Ruby said. Somewhere, a small hole pulled open and relieved some of the pressure.
“Oh, are you meeting her for dinner?” Zel asked. He glanced toward the front door.
“Not exactly,” Ruby admitted. She could feel the hole ripping, begging to burst wide open. “She’s going through a hard time. Her husband cheated on her and then asked for a divorce. She’s not taking it well, and she decided to take a road trip down the east coast. To find herself, or something, I guess. Left behind a good job as an attorney. She didn’t leave on good terms, and she’s not speaking to me, and I worry about her. So, here I am.”
She felt herself deflate as if she’d been filled with poisonous gin for several days. She pushed her martini glass away in disgust.
“You mean, you’re following her?” Zel asked.
“Only because I’m worried about her. She’s young, and she doesn’t have her head on straight right now. She could get hurt or worse. I’m just trying to look out for her.”
“From what you said, it sounds like she has a lot to work through,” Zel commented.
“What are you trying to say?” Ruby spun toward Zel, raising her eyebrows in opposition to his statement. She could feel the poison ooze back into her body like a sponge that had been rung out only to be set back down in its mess.
“I’m not trying to say anything you didn’t already say. All I meant was that it seems like she has a lot on her mind. I can’t imagine balancing all of that at what I imagine is a young age. I’m likely twice her age, and I know I struggle to balance everything I have going on in my life.”
“So, what? I’m supposed to do nothing? Leave her to just fend for herself? She said she might go all the way to the Keyes! She’s only twenty-eight! She’s still a kid.”
Ruby let the sounds of her words linger between herself and Zel, trying hard not to judge her thoughts as they marched out of her head and into the air. Maybe to some people, this might sound crazy, but this was Lil. She needs me, Ruby thought. How can she do this alone?
“I’m going to go ahead and guess that she knows she can contact you if she needs to,” Zel said after a brief pause. His cautious eyes fell on Ruby’s as he carefully chose his words. “All I’m saying is that getting away has helped me recenter and think through the person I want to be when I get back. A road trip might be good for her.”
“You don’t even know her. How can you possibly know what is and isn’t good for my daughter? She has a job. No – a career! A good one! And she’s just throwing it away for some kind of meaningless discovery trip. It’s my job to save her from this ridiculous outburst.”
Zel laughed and shook his head, twisting his body back toward the bar. He took another swig of his beer and laughed again. “Wow.” He tucked his smile into his mouth and bit down on his lips. His words sat just behind his teeth, waiting for permission to proceed.
“What ‘wow?’” Ruby asked.
“Well, to loosely quote a brilliant and beautiful woman I just recently met,” Zel started as playfully as possible. “‘Women don’t need to be rescued.’”
He held Ruby’s eyes as her body filled to the brim with the poison she’d worked years to eliminate. The hole had stitched itself shut and the pressure boiled under her skin. She could feel it coming, the rage that stole her life from her after the divorce.
“Woah,” Zel said, putting his hands up in front of him in response to Ruby’s furious glare. “I was just making a joke. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
“My initial instinct was right,” Ruby replied, her tone firm and even. She tossed the lone olive at the bottom of the glass into her mouth and bit down hard, feeling the gin ooze out of its fleshy core, relieving it of its burden. “This was a mistake.”