• Britt Leigh

Finding Lily Chapter 8

Ruby threw her phone onto the foot of the bed and crumbled to the floor. It had been more than 24 hours since Lily’s last social media post, and Ruby had no idea where to go next. Would Lily try to find a place to stop in North Carolina? Go somewhere more familiar? It was impossible to know, and Lily’s adventure had been anything but predictable.


“Think!” Ruby yelled at herself. Virginia had been a complete waste of time, not to mention a less-than-ideal trip down memory lane.


Though there was no way of predicting what was next, there was one constant in Lily’s trip. She had stopped in at least one beach town in every coastal state since she left home. If she continued the pattern, she would find herself a nice beach in North Carolina next.


Ruby retrieved her phone from the bed and began searching for popular beach towns in North Carolina, but there was no certainty in any of them. She’d stopped in all her previous destinations because she had some kind of attachment to them. As far as Ruby knew, Lily didn’t have any attachments to North Carolina beaches.


“Dammit!” Ruby shouted, tossing her phone onto the bed once more. She ran her hands through her unkempt hair and paced back and forth across her hotel room. The quick tempo of a pop song caught her attention, and she turned to the TV to watch the commercial play out.

“Escape to Myrtle Beach, South Carolina,” the commercial sang. Ruby paused, staring at the images of the popular beach town – a town Lily had visited a few times as a child.


Ruby grabbed her phone and her keys and marched back to her car. It wasn’t foolproof, but it was the best chance she had.


~


Ruby and Mark had taken Lily to Myrtle Beach when she was very young, before they established a tradition at Virginia Beach. But Ella’s family saw returned the vacation favor, and Lily spent a few summer trips on the South Carolina coast.


It had been more than a decade since Ruby felt the South Carolina sun on her skin. She let the ocean kiss her feet as she walked back to her hotel room, forcing the memories of Mark from her mind. Instead, she remembered the way Lily talked about the place as if it were a sort of paradise. That was before boys and hormones and teenage drama changed Lily’s relationship with Ruby. Back then, Lily was sweet and loving, always wanting to be by Ruby’s side.


“I want to be just like you when I grow up,” Lily had said to her once. Her two front teeth were missing at the time, and she looked perfectly innocent. Ruby had said a silent prayer that night, begging God not to let Lily become just like her. She wanted better for her daughter.


The saltwater air brought her back to the present. It was mostly families set up on the beach, some chasing toddlers into the shallow waves while others watched from a safe distance as their children exercised their independence. Ruby remembered both fondly, treasuring Lily’s sweet innocence and watching her grow into an independent and strong young woman.


There were a few solo folks, smattered around the families and couples, though none looked quite as sad as Ruby felt. She squinted her eyes as they fell on a man who looked familiar, with dark skin and a chiseled face. He stared back at her, a look of honest disbelief on his face.


“Ruby?” the man mouthed as she got closer, her blurred vision clearing.


Her heart attempted to beat out of her chest, betraying her suspicions.


“Did you follow me?” she asked, despite the excitement she felt welling inside her stomach.


“Follow you?” Zel replied, standing from his chair, book still in hand. “It seems you found me.”


Ruby tried to prevent her eyes from wandering to his bare chest, grey hair peppered perfectly amongst the dark black tufts. His smile was sincere and flirtatious, a dangerous combination. Still, something didn’t sit right. How was it possible that he was here? On the same beach?

“How is this possible?” Ruby mused.


“I tell ya what. I was just about to get off the beach to grab dinner,” Zel replied, keeping Ruby’s gaze. “Would you like to join me? I can tell you what I’ve been up to.”


“Sure,” Ruby’s heart answered before her brain could intervene.


“Great! I was thinking about taking a walk around Broadway on the Beach first, then seeing what restaurant had the lowest wait time. Does that sound appealing to you?”


“Why not?” Ruby replied. “I’ll meet you there at six.”


~


Something about the beach sky seemed different for Ruby, as though it were made out of something else entirely. Like most men, it held the promise of something warm, something better than anyone else could offer. It tasted like freedom, but it reeked of bad decisions and opportunities for regret. Yet, here she was, shoulder to shoulder with a man she barely knew and who she couldn’t get out of her mind.


“So, spill,” Ruby said after their initial greeting. She tried not to notice the intoxicating cologne or the fact that his white button-up shirt hugged his biceps. “Why are you here?”


“I thought that would be obvious by now,” Zel replied. “I’m on a road trip.”


“A road trip?” Ruby stopped walking. It wasn’t just doubt that seeped through her words. It was incredulity. She grabbed a fistful of her long, black dress to prevent her anger from growing. “Is this some kind of joke to you?”


“Not at all,” Zel replied, keeping his normal cool demeanor. “I mentioned this to you the day we met. You were talking about the road trip your daughter was taking and I…”


“No, you said you’d been away,” Ruby corrected. “You didn’t say anything about a road trip.”


“I never really got a chance to finish,” Zel said, the smile growing on his face. He was right. She’d gotten upset with him, downed her drink, and left him behind, her heart turning around to hold out its hand to him like a child longing for its teddy bear.


Ruby let out the breath she was holding. “That’s why you were so defensive of Lily’s decisions,” Ruby realized. She released her dress, trying to smooth out the wrinkles without drawing attention to them. “I don’t suppose you were recently cheated on and need to find yourself.”


Ruby tried to force a laugh, but she could tell she’d struck a small nerve with Zel. His smile faded momentarily.


“Maybe we should grab a table somewhere,” Zel said.

Ruby nodded and followed Zel to his choice for dinner – King Kong Sushi. Ruby was surprised by the choice, taking Zel for more of an elegant eatery kind of guy.


“I’m trying new things,” Zel admitted as they took a seat at the table. The restaurant was small but perfectly styled. Their brown, leather booth was positioned next a large fish tank, full of exotic fish that Ruby couldn’t name. Blue and white ambient lighting lined the base of the tank, giving the fish a ghostly appearance. “Sushi is something my wife always tried to convince me to eat. I told her I’d get around to trying it eventually. No time like the present, right?”


Ruby stared at Zel for a few moments. He had no ring on his finger, nor the tan lines of one recently removed. He’d been a bit forward the first time they’d met, and asking her to dinner tonight? A woman he barely knew? Certainly a wife wouldn’t be happy about these arrangements.


“She passed away a few years ago,” Zel said, reading Ruby’s silence. “Cancer.”


Ruby’s eyes fell to her hands woven together on the table. She squeezed them tightly, punishing herself for the feeling of relief that bubbled in her gut. “I’m sorry for your loss,” she said finally, returning her eyes to meet Zel’s gaze. “That’s awful.”


“It was,” Zel agreed. “She was the center of my entire world.”


Silence spread between the two strangers turned friends. Or was this more? Ruby couldn’t be sure given his choice of conversation.


“When she died,” Zel continued, “I inadvertently put Sarah, my daughter, in her place. The pain and grief of losing Yvette was…”


Zel’s voice trailed off as the waiter approached their table. The couple ordered two glasses of water and Zel ordered a plate of edamame for the table.


Zel tried to pick up where he left off, but his voice caught in his throat. He’d spent years forcing these emotions into the depths of his mind, occupying his time with Sarah’s needs. He all but refused to face the pain of Yvette’s loss.


Ruby reached across the table, pulling Zel’s hands into her own. She massaged the back of his hands with her thumbs, the same way she did the day Lily told her Shane was cheating. Zel stilled at Ruby’s touch, pausing only a few moments before pulling his hands back into his chest.


“I never really dealt with it,” Zel said finally. “At least not until recently.”


“You don’t have to talk about this if you don’t want to,” Ruby replied. “I can’t imagine how painful reliving some of this must be.”


“No.” Zel shook his head and smiled, taking the opportunity to reach for Ruby’s lingering hand. He held it firmly, using it to direct Ruby’s attention to his eyes. “I want to talk about it.”


Zel took a deep breath and leaned back in his chair, crossing his arms over his chest as if to protect himself from the story leeching through his skin.

“We knew Yvette’s cancer was terminal almost immediately. By the looks on the doctor’s faces first. By the speed of the disease next. We had time to prepare, but not enough time. Saying goodbye was,” Zel stopped. He paused for a moment to weigh his words. “Well, I don’t know that I ever really said goodbye.”


He laughed in spite of the regret stretching the facial features of his face into a resentful grimace. His head ached from keeping the truth inside him for so long.


“After Yvette died, I poured my life into Sarah. I turned my grief into a decree to make sure Sarah would never feel the pain of her mother’s loss ever again. I wanted to make sure she would want for nothing, so that also meant pouring myself into work. My life began to revolve around those two things: work and Sarah. Together, those two things comprised my identity. That was until work began to ask for more of my time. The distance from Sarah was grueling. There was no dramatic exit, nor was there a plan. At the time, it felt like a simple solution. I left my job without thinking twice and began my consultation company. The contracts were modest, but I was able to give Sarah everything she needed.”


Those days were some of Zel’s happiest. He watched Sarah go through some of life’s biggest changes. First love and heart break. Best friends and big fights. Driver training and car shopping. Zel was there through all of it. He helped mold her into the woman she was destined to become.


“Sarah grew into a remarkable young woman right before my eyes. I was thrilled when she first began talk of college. She had her mother’s brain, and I always knew she was destined for something better than the life she had with me. But talk of college and actually going to college are two very different things.”


Ruby understood. She remembered it all too well: the excitement of Lily’s applications, the anticipation of waiting for the acceptances, the overwhelming feeling of relief when Lily chose to stay local.


“When Sarah got into Brown, it was the happiest day of her life. I could see the excitement on her face, feel the electricity in the room every time she spoke of her new adventure. And I tried. I really tried,” Zel’s voice drifted off again. He balled his hands into fists and softly pounded them on the top of the table. “I’ve always been told that my emotions read on my face, no matter how hard I try to keep them to myself.”


“I understand,” Ruby said softly, remembering that morning at her kitchen counter when Lily called out her disapproval.


“Yea, well, I really messed it up,” Zel said, his hands suddenly alight with a low flow of anxious electricity. “Behind my back, Sarah decided to go to Delaware Valley. When I found out, I was furious. But the selfish part of me was also relieved. I didn’t know what to do without her, or who I was anymore. So, I let her make this horrible mistake. I let her turn down her dream for an extra few years of company.”

The waiter stopped to deliver their water and edamame. The couple stared at the sustenance in front of them. Suddenly, neither felt hungry. The waiter was patient and kind, giving them a few extra minutes to decide on their main course.


“She continued to do everything for me – cook, clean,” Zel continued after the waiter departed. “She even scheduled my appointments. But our relationship – the bonding that had taken place between us – was gone. Looking back, I know she expected me to fight her, to insist that she follow her dream to Brown. When I didn’t, two things happened. She realized how much I’d grown to rely on her, and she watched her only parent put himself before his daughter.”


Saying it aloud made Zel’s tongue feel swollen and awkward in his mouth. His stomach pitched and rolled at the thought of the emptiness that filled the space where his daughter’s love once lived.


“I don’t understand,” Ruby admitted. “If all of this is true, how did you end up on this road trip?”


“Well, because I realized two things myself – how much I’d grown to rely on her but how much I really did need to put myself first. I was just going about it wrong. I realized that I needed to make time for myself, but not at my daughter’s expense. So, I left. I left and I started traveling about two weeks ago, and I refuse to go back until I’m in a better place.”


Zel reached for the menu, indicating that his story had come to a close. He scanned the front and back of the laminated menu twice before Ruby became impatient.


“But what about your daughter,” Ruby insisted. “She gave up everything for you and you just left?”


“You don’t understand. I was ruining her life. If I stayed, I’d only continue to take her away from her future. Leaving was the best thing I could ever do for her,” Zel said, keeping his eyes off the menu.


“That’s bullshit,” Ruby said, firmly placing her hand on top of the menu to force Zel to face her. “And you know it’s bullshit. I can’t believe you sat on your high horse a few days ago and tried to tell me how I should feel about my daughter. You’re running away from your problems, just like Lily.”


“Am I really running away from them, though?” Zel asked, his eyes full of sincerity and curiosity. “The first few days, yes, I would agree with you. I was running away. I had no plan, no vision, no nothing. Just the open road in front of me and the promise that I wouldn’t have to stare at Sarah’s sad face any longer. That I wouldn’t have to face the realization that I had caused her that pain.”


“But you did,” Ruby said, her voice firm and angry. “And then you left.”


“I did,” Zel said, taking a few tentative sips of water. His eyes danced around the room, never settling on any one thing, but working overtime to prevent themselves from landing on Ruby.


“She was just trying to help you, Zel,” Ruby said. “She did something unbelievably kind and selfless. Leaving is no way to pay her back. It’s punishment.”


“Now you’re starting to sound like my daughter,” Zel said, his child-like eyes finally finding their way back to Ruby’s. “And if I’d met you two weeks ago, I would have agreed. Probably not aloud, but internally. But something has changed these past two weeks.”

The waiter returned to the table, eager for their order. Ruby looked up at the young man, realizing for the first time that his long, dark hair was tucked into a Broadway at the Beach baseball hat. He smiled as Zel and Ruby gave their orders, nodding along as if to say, “Good choices.” At least, that’s how Ruby interpreted it. She hoped that meant her meal would be good.


“Something has changed?” Ruby asked, picking up where they left off. “Just like that? Over the course of just a few days?”


Ruby’s logic and practical brain was working on overdrive. There was no way that he was able make any kind of significant change in only a few days. People don’t just change like that.


“I didn’t say that I turned my life around, but I have noticed a shift. I’ve been forced to rely on myself, and to think only about my needs, without impacting anyone else.”


“You’re lying to yourself,” Ruby said.


“Maybe I am.” He shrugged. “But I couldn’t keep living life that way anymore. My daughter needs me to be a better man, but more importantly, I need me to be a better man.”


“I respect that…” Ruby said, leaning back in her chair.


“But you don’t understand why I’m on a road trip to figure it out,” Zel said, finishing Ruby’s thoughts.


“No, I don’t,” Ruby admitted, reaching both hands across the table toward Zel. “It’s nothing against you, it’s just that I don’t understand this whole running away thing. When my husband and I divorced, I didn’t run. I faced my demons. I stuck it out, went to therapy, threw myself into a business. I never thought about leaving.”


“I find that incredibly brave,” Zel said. “But not everyone is you.”


Lily had said that to Ruby more than a few times. So had her assistant. Now that she thought of it, she’d heard that phrase quite a bit throughout her life. She sat with that realization for a few moments, swirling it around in her brain, pondering why the phrase bothered her so much.


“You think I’m one of those people who thinks everyone should do things their way, don’t you?” Ruby finally asked.


“I didn’t say that,” Zel said.


“But you thought it!” Ruby expected rage to fill her voice, but there wasn’t any. No frustration or annoyance. She laughed, her red-stained lips curling into a smile that she felt in her bones. Zel had accused her of being a controlling tyrant, so to speak, but the only emotion Ruby could find was joy. Something was beginning to unravel in her mind, something she’d held onto since long before the divorce, and instead of making her feel weak, it made her feel more alive than ever. Let go, her heart whispered. Let go.


“It’s more exhilarating that you think, you know,” Zel said, turning his chair to stare out the restaurant window.


“What’s that?” Ruby asked.


“The freedom of having no control,” Zel replied. “Doing things you never expected and watching yourself expand and grow in ways you didn’t know were possible.”


“I’m beginning to see that a little bit, I think,” Ruby replied.

Their appetites returned the moment the food hit the table. Jasmine rice wrapped around seaweed, sushi, tuna, and yellowtail. A pink sauce teased a sweet and spicy experience as Ruby dove into her specialty rolls. Zel looked more apprehensive, selecting his first piece slowly, turning it back and forth in his chopsticks to analyze its makeup. Ruby stifled a giggle at Zel’s lack of sushi experience. This was going to be a treat.


“You know, I’ve been trying my hardest to make no plans. To take my trip one day at a time, but this talk has got me thinking of taking an adventure tomorrow,” Zel said as he continued to analyze each piece of sushi.


“An adventure?” Ruby asked, restraining the amusement from her voice. “What kind of adventure?”


“I think this one might be up your alley, actually,” Zel said, tapping his chopsticks on his plate. “I hear there’s a beautiful garden nearby, complete with an array of beautiful sculptures and a small zoo. It’s not crazy – thrill-seeking isn’t really my thing. But it has the makings of a perfect summer day.”

Ruby shifted in her chair, a sudden discomfort permeating through her body. As much as she wanted to let go, even just a little bit, her control held a tight grip on her throat.


“It sounds lovely,” she commented, avoiding the insinuated invitation in Zel’s voice.


“Great,” Zel said, rubbing his hands together. “What time should I come get you?”


“Oh, I... I’m not so sure I should,” Ruby replied, suddenly feeling like a shy schoolgirl after prom.


“I’m willing to bet that your daughter is having the time of her life on this trip. She’s meeting new people, experiencing new things, and finding adventures of her own to explore. It seems to me that you’ve been going on this trip with her – separate and completely unequal. I don’t see you using the opportunity to do anything for yourself. You’re going to get all the way to the end of this trip, only to find your daughter has blossomed and grown and lived. What will you have to show for yourself?” Ruby felt like Zel was looking straight into her soul, giving a voice to everything she refused to say to herself. She’s traveled over 500 miles to find her daughter, and what memories was she making?


“Pick me up at ten o’clock?” Ruby finally said. “But I’m only going because it sounds like just the place Lily might like, too.”


Zel couldn’t know that he was beginning to take root in her heart. That there was something about him that made her forget time, and runaway daughters, and stressful work hours. That despite how much of a giant bitch she’s been since she met him, he looked past all of her flaws and saw who she was, and accepted her without question. That he’d lit a fire inside her and try as she might to keep it at bay, it threatened to consume her.


“Ten o’clock it is,” Zel said, slapping the table. “How about we find a place to get another drink?”


“Sure,” Ruby smiled. “I’d like that a lot.”


The two of them paid for their meals and walked back out into the salty evening air. The sun was just setting over the ocean, painting the sky a cotton candy purple. Before they made their way to the next bar, Ruby stepped away to make a phone call. It had been a long time coming, and she felt like an immature teenager breaking up with Bob over the phone, but it was the right thing to do. Even if Zel turned only into one incredible memory, he’d done enough to make Ruby see that there was at least one part of her life that needed to change.


Bob understood, of course, sending her off with his well wishes for finding Lily. Ruby smiled at her phone as she pulled it away from her ear, both sad and excited about the chapters in her life that seemed to end and begin simultaneously.


Two notifications caught her eye, both for Lily’s Instagram. The first image gave Ruby a heart attack. How could her daughter get on a boat with a group of strangers – four MALE strangers, to be exact?

But the second image – the second image filled Ruby’s heart with elation. The caption read: Starting my day in Myrtle Beach.


That was this morning. Lily was here.


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