Finding Lily - Chapter 7
~ Lily ~
Lily almost drove to Virginia Beach. If she were being honest with herself, it was the first place she thought of after leaving Assateague. But as the US-60 exit came into view, a distant memory clawed its way into her brain, sending a sharp pain through her stomach. She shook her head, trying to ignore the thoughts savagely pounding in her mind. Anxiety bubbled in her chest as she took the US-60 Exit in search of a gas station and pulled into the first one she saw. Putting her car in park, she clawed at her chest, tapping her leg to calm the wild beat of her heart.
Virginia Beach once held her family’s most precious memories. It was her favorite place – an escape from her silly teenage drama. As she got older, it was also a place she introduced only to her closest friends, like Ella. Sunkissed skin, cute boys, and seafood were her only concerns at the beach – the only three things that had to matter when you’re vacationing away from your responsibilities. The last time her family was in Virginia Beach together was no different. Lily and Ella spent their days sunbathing and trying to flirt with the cute boys in the ocean. At night, they did everything they could to get away from Lily’s parents. Not that Lily’s parents weren’t cool – they were – but hovering parents usually meant ‘too young to flirt with.’ So, on the last night, when Lily’s mom gave the girls extra money to head to the boardwalk, the girls jumped at the opportunity to get away.
Ella and Lily took care of their stomachs first, grabbing some pizza from Dough Boys before tracking down Kohr Brothers for some ice cream. They sat on the back of a boardwalk bench, feet resting on the seat, and tried their best to grab the attention of handsome passersby. It didn’t take long for a group of boys to find them, nor did it take long for those same boys to start showing off. And in one stupid move, one of the boys spilled his orange crush smoothie down the back of Ella’s white sweater. Embarrassed, he apologized profusely, trying to clean it up and offering to grab paper towels from the bathroom. Ella shrugged him off. She took off her sweater and tried to tough it out, but the cool ocean breeze sent goosebumps down her back, and she eventually gave in to her chills.
Lily could sense Ella’s guilt.
“It’s not your fault,” Lily said as the two girls walked back to the hotel. “That kid was an ass.”
Ella shrugged, trying not to let her disappointment show.
“We still have some money left,” Lily said, waving a twenty-dollar bill in front of Ella. “Let’s grab some popcorn and convince my parents to let us rent a movie.”
Popcorn in hand, Lily and Ella walked back to the room, talking about boys and joking about how annoying they seemed. They questioned why they liked boys to begin with – they were so dumb and frustrating. Aren’t girlfriends better?
As they approached the hotel, they could see the distant outline of Lily’s dad standing in the shadows of the hotel’s entrance. He was slowly pacing back and forth, one hand on his hip, the other holding the phone to his ear.
“I promise you, it’s over this time,” Lily heard her dad say as they got to the front of the hotel. “When I get home, we will sort everything out.”
Something wasn’t right about the call. About her dad’s tone. The two girls quickened their pace, hoping to avoid her father’s attention.
“I love you, too,” she heard her dad say as they walked into the hotel. “I can’t wait to see you.”
Ella reached out to Lily, attempting to put her arm around her friend, but Lily shook her off. She didn’t need to be coddled. Besides, who’s to say that had anything to do with… whatever they were thinking. Maybe it was a misunderstanding.
When they got back to the room, Lily handed the popcorn to Ella. “I have a stomachache,” Lily said. “Maybe we can watch a movie tomorrow when we get home.”
But they never did watch that movie. Lily suddenly felt awkward and vulnerable around Ella, and the more Ella tried to be there for Lily, the more Lily pushed her away. On the surface, no one would have known the turmoil turning over inside Lily’s mind. She remained ever the spunky and happy optimist until she was alone with her thoughts. Her walks home from school were haunting.
Would her dad be home when she got there? Should she say something to her mom? What if she was wrong? What if she made things worse?
When the divorce finally did happen, it wasn’t like anything Lily expected. It was Lily’s mom who served her father the papers, not the other way around. She said she’d had enough, that she knew what he had done and that she wanted nothing more to do with him. Initially, Lily’s guilt subsided. Her mom made a choice. She’d found out on her own, and she decided to leave on her own.
But then she walked in on her mom crying on her bed, tears soaking the pillow that laid beneath her makeup-smeared face. The guilt came roaring back. Could she have saved her mom from these emotions if she’d just told her what she saw that night?
Lily turned up the country radio, trying to drown out the sound of her thoughts. A few minutes later, she was in a gas station parking lot, scrolling her phone for potential next stops. She wasn’t particularly familiar with any other beaches in the Virginia area. Besides, she thought, the rest of the beaches South of Virginia Beach were simply extensions of the same town. Would she really be able to escape the memories here?
The soothing sound of Chase Rice’s voice filled her car.
“It was faded blue denim on Franklin Street
A “He’s Not” buzz, a house band beat.
It was a summer heat dragging me to a fifth-year fall.
It was classes skipped cause the room couldn’t teach
What we learned three days on Wrightsville beach
With my high school love, short hair
And that sweet hometown southern drawl.”
Lily took it as a sign, typing Wrightsville Beach into her GPS. Five hours. Glancing at her phone, it meant that she wouldn’t pull into town until well after dinner. She turned off the car and ran into the gas station to grab a few snacks. If Wrightsville Beach was good enough for Chase Rice, it was good enough for her.
She ate all of her snacks in the first hour of her drive, her stomach groaning in protest of her hasty decisions.
Just a little longer, she thought, patting her stomach. By the time she got to the North Carolina coast, the empty pangs of hunger were rippling through her body.
She kept the GPS on as she drove along the main strip, hoping to find a hotel, but it was just houses and condos. Her stomach gurgled again, protesting her choice to search for a hotel instead of a restaurant. As she headed back down the main strip, a glowing blue and white sign read Tower 7 Baja Mexican Grill. Her stomach flipped in excitement, forcing her to pull over and find a parking spot.
The restaurant was small and mostly empty, filled with vibrant colors of green, red, and white. An older couple sat at the oversized bar, sipping wine and sharing a nacho appetizer. A group of men in golf shirts sat at a table in the middle of the restaurant, hugging their beers and discussing the amazing putts and drives of their afternoon.
The waitress seated Lily at a high top that looked out over the sidewalk. Mostly couples, walking hand in hand, strolled past, shoes and sandals dangling between their fingers as they walked to or from the sand.
“Hi, I’m Paige.” The waitress was young, maybe just a few years younger than Lily. She was girl-next-door kind of pretty, with loose brunette curls that reminded Lily of Ella. “What can I get for you?”
“I’ll have a Dogfish 90 Minute and an order of nachos,” Lily replied, keeping her fingers on the laminated menu. “Do you mind if I keep the menu? I’m sure I’ll want something else.”
The waitress nodded and smiled, walking away to put the order into their system. Lily pulled out her phone, searching for nearby hotels. A short list of hotels and motels appeared on her screen, several with no vacancy banners blaring across their website pages. Lily started with the ones in closest proximity to the restaurant. She’d called three hotels, all of which were full before Paige set her drink on the table in front of her.
“Thank you,” Lily said. “Hey, do you know of any places around here I might be able to stay tonight? I checked a few, but they all seem to be full.”
“Hmm… there really aren’t that many around here.” The waitress paused thoughtfully. “There’s a Holiday Inn not too far up the strip. I know a lot of the smaller ones fill up fast since they don’t have a lot of rooms. You might be better off inland.”
“Okay, thank you for the advice,” Lily replied, turning back toward her phone to search for the Holiday Inn. They wanted more than three hundred dollars for one night. There was no way she could swing that, not if she wanted to make sure she had enough money to get to the Keys.
“Is she drinking beer by herself?” Lily could hear the faked hush of one of the men behind her, talking just loud enough for her to hear.
“Looks that way,” another one said. “You should invite her to sit with us.”
“Hey, darlin’.” Lily ignored the man, her body tensing at the sudden attention.
“Yea, Lou,” Paige said, walking over to the table of men.
“Is that young lady eating by herself?”
Before Paige could answer, Lily stepped in.
“Am I supposed to pretend you’re not talking about me? I’m not quite sure how this is supposed to work.” Lily inherited her side-eye from her mother, and it was known for being an intimidating look, even for her.
Three of the men quieted, glancing from one to the other and back at Lily, unsure how to take the next step. The gentleman Paige referred to as Lou, on the other hand, was unphased.
“Didn’t mean any harm,” Lou said. “We just saw you eating by yourself and wanted to offer you some company if you were up for it.”
Lily glanced around at the polo-clad men, expensive watches and clean white shoes to match. She knew that this was more of an affluent area, but that didn’t necessarily make it safe for solo women travelers.
“I’m okay,” Lily replied, adding a light smile. “But thank you for the gesture.”
“No problem,” Lou replied. “Offer still stands if you change your mind.”
Lily nodded her head and turned back to her table, excited to finally see the plate of nachos in front of her. Feeling more conscientious of her surroundings now, she resisted the urge to shovel all of the chips into her mouth as fast as possible, much to the frustration of her stomach. When the chips were largely polished off, she ordered herself a second beer and a chicken burrito and resumed her task of locating a place to stay.
While she could feel the men’s glances every few minutes, they largely left her alone to finish her meal and tend to her task. A task that proved nearly impossible. She was planning to go to Myrtle Beach the next day. Should she just make the drive tonight? It was only another two hours.
“Can I take those for you?” Paige asked, pointing to the dishes left in front of Lily.
“Yes, please. Thank you,” Lily replied. “And I’ll just take the check whenever you’re ready.”
“It’s already been taken care of,” Paige replied, her face blushing. “Lou and the guys added you to their tab.”
Lily turned to the men and then back to Paige.
“Are these guys okay?” Lily whispered.
“They are. They’re a bunch of goofballs, but they’re regulars. Lou actually used to be the mayor of this town. Dale and Tommy have lived here with their families for years. Will grew up here. Well, more inland. He’s the youngest of the four.”
Paige recognized the tentative look on Lily’s face.
“Look, I know this is a weird situation, but I wouldn’t put a woman alone in harm’s way. They’re goofy, but they’re all good guys.”
“Thank you.” Lily smiled at Paige and began to gather her things. She stood and turned toward the four men.
“Thank you for doing that,” Lily said to them. “You really didn’t have to.”
“It was no problem,” Lou said. “Would you care to join us for another drink?”
“I really shouldn’t,” Lily replied, taking stock of the four men. Lou was on the shorter side, with a dimpled smile and a solid head of grey hair. Tommy and Dale looked like brothers, though something told Lily they were not. Still, their salt and pepper brown locks looked identical. Then there was Will. Though he was seated, his long legs told Lily that he was likely the tallest of the men. His kind face and dimpled smile made Lily doubt her own intentions to leave. “I’ve got to get going soon if I’m going to find someplace to stay.”
“Will has a place you can stay,” Dale chimed in. “Don’t you, Will?”
Will turned toward Lily, a genuinely handsome smile spreading across his face. “I do,” he said. “My parents own a house just a few blocks from here. They’re away on vacation, but I could let you into the guest house. I won’t stay there. I’ll go back to my place in town. It would be all yours.”
“Uhm.” Lily’s exhaustion was catching up with her, and this sounded like a great offer. “I’m not so sure.”
“Look, Will, you’ve scared her away,” Tommy laughed.
“I’m sorry,” Will said, his face blushed a soft pink color.
“Why don’t you hang out with us while we finish our drinks? Then you can make a decision. No pressure, either way,” Lou’s voice was more serious now. Still gentle and kind, but not the jovial tone he’d taken just a few minutes before.
Well, what the hell, Lily thought as she took a seat at the head of the table.
“So, what do you do?” Tommy asked as Lily settled into a seat, folding his hands in front of him on the table like a pupil waiting for a riveting lecture.
“I’m an attorney,” Lily replied. “Still a little new at it.”
“You don’t say!” Lou said, nodding in Will’s direction. Lily followed his gaze.
“I’m an attorney, too,” Will said, almost like an admission of guilt. “Mostly small corporate.”
“Small world,” Lily said, suddenly feeling more comfortable. Will reminded her a little of an older and more mature version of Patrick. There was something kind and gentle about him. Yet, as the pair talked, trading stories of their triumphs and failures as attorneys, Lily could also see that there was a fighter buried deep, accessed only when absolutely necessary.
“We’re gonna head out, now,” Lou said, interrupting Will and Lily mid-conversation. His eyes lingered on Will, suggesting an unspoken encouragement. A few moments of awkward silence passed between the two men before Will sighed and turned his attention back to Lily.
“Hey, would you want to take a walk on the beach?” Will asked.
“Sure.”Lily shrugged. “Why not.”
As they approached the beach, the pair removed their shoes. The sand was dense and deep, causing the patterns in their steps to look awkward and uncoordinated. But neither judged the other, each on their own uneven footing.
“So, what brings you to Wrightsville Beach? It’s not what you’d call a popular tourist destination,” Will asked.
“Don’t make fun of me, but I heard about it in a song,” Lily replied honestly. “I’m taking a road trip from Pennsylvania, where I live, to the Florida Keys. I didn’t really plan ahead and needed a place to stop. While I was searching the internet, a country song came on and mentioned this beach, so I thought I’d give it a try.”
“Ah, the musical stylings of Chase Rice,” Will said.
“You know the song?” Lily asked, feeling enamored by Will’s knowledge of country music.
“Sweetheart, I grew up in the South. Country is about all I know. Plus, Chase Rice does come here quite a bit. I suppose he did sorta put this place on the map.”
Lily nodded, realizing the extensive affluence of this small beach town.
“What made you want to be an attorney?” Lily asked, mostly to learn about Will, but she had selfish reasons, too.
“That’s an easy one. My dad is an attorney. I looked up to him my whole life and always wanted to be just like him. So, I decided to go to law school and follow in his footsteps. I don’t remember ever wanting to do anything else.”
Lily glanced out toward the ocean, the faint glow of the moon bouncing off the rolling waves in the distance. She got the sudden urge to chase the moon, to jump on a boat and chase it until it was close enough to bathe in its glow. Close enough that she could touch it. That’s what chasing her purpose felt like - a never-ending journey toward an impossible destination.
“What about you?” Will asked.
“I don’t really know, to be honest,” Lily answered. “I thought it was to make a difference. But recently, I’ve been thinking that maybe it was more to prove some people wrong and please others. Give my parents something to brag about and stroke my ego, maybe.”
Will looked straight ahead, his silence causing a sudden spike in Lily’s anxiety.
“I’m sorry, that was probably too much.” Lily tried to laugh, but Will stopped walking.
“That’s one of the most honest things I’ve ever heard anyone say,” Will said, staring directly into Lily’s eyes.
Lily didn’t know how to respond, but she held Will’s gaze long enough for her to realize that if she stayed any longer, she might not leave.
“I think we should probably head back,” Lily whispered, turning back toward the beach entrance by the Mexican restaurant. Will followed, keeping an intentional gap between the two of them. Their conversation turned more stagnant, small talk about the ocean and the beach. Something had shifted between the two of them. It was small, but they both felt it, and neither knew what to do with it.
By the time they reached Lily’s car, the energy between the two of them felt palpable. Like they might shock one another if they stood too close.
“It was nice meeting you,” Will said, sticking out his hand to shake Lily’s. “I know it’s probably not something you’re comfortable with, but my offer still stands if you need a place to stay.”
Lily fumbled for her phone. It was well after ten o’clock, and she still didn’t have a place to stay. She looked up at Will and saw all of the potential between the two of them, laid bare. All she had to do was accept his offer. Maybe they go back to his parent’s house, and he genuinely tries to leave. She tells him that he doesn’t have to go – that she would prefer it if he stayed. So, he would. Even a perfect gentleman wouldn’t turn down a night with a pretty woman. They could stay up and watch movies, cuddle; maybe she even gives in to his undeniably subtle advances. Maybe they end up in bed together, and it would all feel like a dream.
But that’s all it would be—a dream. Tomorrow morning would roll around, and the reality of their situations would sink in. He would just be a rebound, and she would just be someone who used a nice guy to fill a void in her life. Again.
“I really do appreciate the offer, and I’ve had the most incredible night, but I think I should go,” Lily said, sighing heavily with the weight of her words.
“I understand.” Will smiled, opening Lily’s door for her to step inside. “Can I give you my number in case you change your mind?”
“Sure,” Lily replied. She handed him her phone, allowing him to type in his number.
“It was nice to meet you, Lily,” Will said as he stepped away from her car.
“It was nice to meet you, too.”
Will stepped away from her car, and she watched him walk down the sidewalk and disappear around the corner. Her heart ached for a second at the potential she’d just let walk out of her life, but she also felt a sense of pride. This was her life, and she needed to fill it with herself before she filled it with the affection of anyone else. She opened the Google Maps app on her phone and began to search for hotels in Myrtle Beach. One hour and forty-eight minutes.
Not so bad, she thought. She set the phone on its dock. As she put the keys into the ignition, she heard a loud knock on her window. She turned toward the noise to see all four guys from the restaurant standing outside her car, Will standing behind them, shrugging his shoulders.
“What’s going on, guys?” Lily asked after she rolled down the window.
“How bout a late-night boat ride?” Lou asked. “Promise to bring you back within the hour.”
Lily’s eyes danced toward Will, who wore a sheepish smile. Maybe there was a little more adventure in this place.
“What the hell,” Lily said, turning off her car. “Why not?”