• Britt Leigh

Finding Lily - Chapter 9

She didn’t begin to question her choice until she stepped onto the boat. She turned around for a moment, deciding if she should make a break for it before they pushed off from the dock, but she froze. She felt the boat rock gently back and forth, a light breeze blew in her face heightening all of her senses. Her body’s internal warning system was ablaze with sirens that only she could hear. Her heart struggled to pick a side; was this danger or adventure? Her eyes registered that the boat was beginning to move. She had seconds to decide.


Get off! Her brain yelled, but her heart kept her feet planted. Trust yourself, it whispered.

Lily turned back toward the gentleman on the boat, eager to sit down lest she fall overboard out of sheer clumsiness. Lou gestured to a few seats at the front of the boat, and Lily chose a pristine white bench closest to the center of the boat. A metal armrest ran down the center of the bench, and Lily found herself clinging to it, ready to hold her ground if they attempted to throw her over.


Don’t be ridiculous, her heart said. They will be doing no such thing.


If the men noticed, they didn’t say anything. Instead, they put all their effort into making her comfortable. No one sat too close, not even Will. Lou stayed behind the wheel, but the rest of the men stayed in front of Lily, all of them in easy eyesight.


It was still early in the year, and the evening air was beginning to sink into the 50s. Lily could feel the goosebumps prickle down her arms and legs, but she refused to give any sign that she was cold. She sat tall and straight in her seat, directing her attention to Dale who was just beginning to explain the history of Wrightsville Beach.


“Wrightsville Beach is actually an island,” Dale said. “Not many people realize that. Did you know that, Lily?”


“No,” Lily felt embarrassed by the admission. She did have to drive over several bridges to get there. “But it does make sense.”


Dale was very much the tour guide. He knew everything there was to know about Wrightsville, from information about Hurricane Hazel, one of the largest hurricanes to ever hit the small town to its history as a premier destination dating back to the 1800’s. He even knew a few fun facts about the rich and famous who owned beach homes along the Banks Channel.


Will sat a few seats away. Though Lily would have preferred the warmth of his body next to hers, she also appreciated his respect for her space. Or perhaps she had read too much into their interaction on the beach.


“The only reason you know all of this is because you were there,” Will laughed, his chestnut brown hair shifting slightly out of place with each burst of laughter. He’d been adding his own colorful commentary to Dale’s tour since they pushed off from the dock.


“And you’re not sitting next to the pretty girl because you were born yesterday,” Dale shot back.

If it weren’t so dark, Lily would have sworn his cheeks blushed as he turned his head toward the ground. He lifted his head just enough to meet Lily’s eyes. They shared an unspoken moment, and something turned inside Lily. She broke their eye contact first, looking back toward Dale to rescue her from the awkward silence he’d created.


“Why don’t you keep the tour going, Dale? Lord knows we were all just dying to hear your story about the seventh oldest yacht club in the world,” Tommy said. “For the thousandth time.” He added under his breath, bringing his beer bottle to his lips. He flashed Lily a quick wink and waited patiently for Dale to start his tour yet again. Lily nodded in gratitude and brought her attention back toward Dale, carefully avoiding any more awkward eye contact with Will.


Dale continued with his stories, and Lily tried to pay attention. She was even starting to feel more comfortable, but every time someone moved out of her eyesight, or the boat turned in a direction she wasn’t expecting, her internal alarm system blared. She found her mind designing escape scenarios should something go wrong. She reached into her purse and gently brushed her fingers against her pepper spray. She didn’t care that it looked awkward for her to keep her hand inside her bag, she only cared that she would be safe.


It was the part Lily regretted about the experience the most. If only she hadn’t been raised to believe that all strangers were bad – that trust is a gamble, regardless of who you give it to. Stranger or not.

It reminded her of a poem by Blythe Baird.


We are the daughters

Of men who warned us about the news

And the missing girls on the milk carton

And the sharp edge of the world.

They begged us to be careful. To be safe.

Then told our brothers to go out and play.


It was tempting to give into the men’s final pleas for her to stay the night. They’d demonstrated that they could be trusted – to an extent, anyway. And Will. He was the perfect gentleman, everything that Shane was never going to be. At least, that’s the story she’d created in her mind.


Maybe she’d consider a move to North Carolina – a change of scenery could be good for her. Will was an attorney, so he could help her find a job. They’d date for a little while, but he’d want to settle down quickly. Serious types never waited too long, plus he’d be conscious of his biological clock – and hers. He’d want kids in a few years.


Now we’re uprooting our life for men we barely know, her brain hissed. If you stay, all you’ll be doing is repeating your past.


Lily knew her brain was right on this one. And so, for once, Lily gave the W to her head instead of her heart.


~


The sparkling lights of the Myrtle Beach skyline laid out before her as she made her way toward her hotel. Though it was nearly one o’clock in the morning, Lily expected to see more people out and about. As a child, she always imagined Myrtle Beach having an active nightlife, but the quiet streets painted a different story.

The weary-eyed hotel concierge struggled to keep her smile as she greeted Lily and handed her the keys to her room. The woman’s fatigue hung to her eyelids as though they were being pulled down by some invisible force. But that was the only thing out of place about her. Her hair was neat, hanging in beachy waves around her round face. Her white button-up uniform was ironed, and her nametag pinned perfectly atop the pocket on her left breast. Lily recognized the hustle, the looks of someone working at least two jobs to make ends meet.


Lily thought to stay and make small talk. Perhaps ask the woman about her life at the beach. It was something that patrons often did at the restaurant where she worked to help pay her way through law school. It was a courtesy, a way to be a little extra kind to someone who could use some friendly words. Lily always appreciated the effort of her patrons, especially the ones who knew her struggle. Then again, she also appreciated the moments of quiet, when she could turn her brain toward something else or to nothing at all. Sometimes, the lulls at work were the only time she had any peace.


Lily thanked the woman with a broad smile, allowing her to return to whatever it was that would occupy her time through the night. Lily didn’t know why, but she thought the woman might keep a journal she filled with stories of adventure and unruly customers. She smiled at the thought of the woman writing about her brief meeting with Lily.


A young woman checked in tonight by herself. She let me return to my thoughts quickly. I’m grateful for her. Also, I hope she’s okay.


~


It felt as though Lily had just laid her head on her pillow when the first rays of sun came spilling through her window. She hadn’t realized the blinds were still opened when she plunged into the depths of her bed the night before. Now they required her attention lest they pull her prematurely from her quickly retreating dream. Will’s fingers tracing the outline of her cheek. His other hand on the small of her back. Their lips close to touching, so close that she can feel the energy pulsing between them. He pulls away from her, and she turns her head up to meet his gaze, but something’s wrong. His face is beginning to blur into the sun behind the window.

“Dammit,” Lily croaked to herself. She tore the sheets from her body and stomped over to the window. From the view of her sixth-story window, she could see families clamoring about with chairs, umbrellas, sunscreen, and beach balls.


What time was it? Lily wondered.


She turned back toward her room, for the first time really surveying the accommodations. They were modest, of course, given her budget. The white and teal walls provided the stereotypical beach feel, as did the large painting of ocean waves above the king-sized bed. Lily wouldn’t use more than a quarter of that bed while she was there, but something about having the space available made her feel more comfortable. Safer, even.


The bathroom was larger than she’d expected, and she was thrilled to see that a large bathtub took up most of the space. Whether she would take a bath or not was yet to be seen, but again, having options was nice. The rest of the room was light and airy and came with the usual amenities. Microwave. Small desk with an oversized chair. There was a nightstand on either side of the bed. One empty, the other with a clock that read 9:45.


What time did the concierge say breakfast ended? Ten? Lily couldn’t remember, but ten sounded about right. Without a second thought, Lily made her way into the hallway. She walked to the hotel’s complimentary breakfast with a fatigue that plagued her entire body. Her Philadelphia Flyers t-shirt and black sweatpants hung loosely from her aching limbs, and her tangled hair required a monstrous effort to keep behind her ear.


Given the state of things last night, she hadn’t thought much of walking downstairs without getting ready. But this morning, the hotel lobby was bustling with people hustling to get to “a good spot” at the beach, as though there were any bad spots. Lily wasn’t a fan of the ocean. To look at, yes. It was beautiful and immense and made her problems feel inconsequential in comparison. To step into, no. There were too many opportunities for something to go wrong, so she liked to keep her distance. Like, toward the back of the beach where no one liked to sit, distance. It was quiet there, and the people watching was second to none.


“I guess your man couldn’t be bothered to come down and grab you something, huh?” an older woman with a raspy voice said beside Lily’s ear.


“Well, that’s hard when there is no man to speak of,” Lily replied, her eyes skimming the tan line left on her ring finger. Yes, sun was definitely in order. It was time to get rid of that reminder once and for all.


“I’m sorry, dear, I just assumed,” the woman shrugged, her big floppy hat and large sunglasses shaking softly with the motion. She walked away, moving slowly toward an older man in light blue swim trunks and a polo shirt. The man held out a cup of coffee for the woman and kissed her gently.


“What would you like, sweetheart? I’ll get it for you.”


One day, Lily thought.


Lily struggled to balance the pancakes, muffin, banana, and coffee as she made her way back to her room. She was grateful that the keycard was magnetic. No swipe required. She lifted her leg to bring the keycard in her pocket level with the door’s magnetic reader and sighed with gratitude as the door mercifully opened.


She set her breakfast on the small desk and retrieved her phone from the nightstand. She hadn’t heard from Shane in days, not that he cared. Though, a part of her longed for the comfort of his voice.


That’s all it is, anymore, Lily thought. Familiarity. A comfort zone from which I need to break.

She snapped a photo of her view from the room. The sky was as their commercial promised – blue with whisps of light clouds brought in with a gentle sea breeze. The bright colors of beach umbrellas, kites, and ice cream awnings lit up the rest of the photo. By all means, it was a photo fit for a postcard.

Starting my day in Myrtle Beach, Lily wrote for the Instagram caption.


~


The beach was gloriously uneventful. She read her book, took a nap, and soaked in the warmth of the sun and the sounds of the ocean breathing its waves onto the sand. By the time she packed up her things to go back to the hotel, her mind and body felt clear and refreshed.


Lily hadn’t been to Broadway at the Beach since she was in high school, and the cloudless sky and inexistent evening breeze called her to explore once more. She couldn’t help but wonder what had become of it since her last visit. Would it hold the same magic it had held all those years ago?


Despite the warm temperatures, Lily shrugged on a lightweight leather jacket and a pair of jeans. In her mind, the darkness and the cold were one. Once that sun went to rest beyond the horizon, her brain would trick her into thinking she needed a jacket, no matter how high the number on the thermometer. But, just in case her brain decided to give her a reprieve from its anxiety, she wore her favorite Philadelphia Flyers tank top.


The rays of the sun were still dancing in the evening sky as she parked just outside the Hard Rock Café. Her phone dinged loudly as she took her first step onto the main promenade.


How is Myrtle Beach?


The text was from William. Lily felt a sweet sense of warmth fill her belly, and her heart did several jumping jacks before her brain could register a response.


Okay. Lily typed. Doing some exploring tonight.


She wanted to turn her phone to silent and tuck it back in her bag, but she didn’t have the willpower. She walked aimlessly past Senor Frogs and the Sweet South Popcorn Company, barely registering that she wanted to stop there for a snack to take back to the hotel. A nervous energy filled her as she waited for William’s reply.


Anywhere interesting?


Lily couldn’t stop it. Her mind filled with the possibilities in his text message. Was this a trick question? Did he already know she was at Broadway at the Beach? Was he here?

Her mind entered a trance-like state as she built a story that included William stepping around the corner of Extreme Pizza, a giant bouquet in his hands, asking her to eat dinner. He would tell her that he followed her because he wanted to make a proper go of things, that she’d been so compelling and charming, he just had to spend more time with her.


Somewhere deep in Lily’s mind, she realized the very problematic narrative she was weaving. That him following her there would make him more of a stalker than a prospective relationship, but she couldn’t keep her mind from romanticizing the notion.


This only happens in movies, Lily assured herself.


Broadway at the Beach. Lily replied, her black converse stepping through a fresh-spilled cup of something sticky.


“So sorry,” she heard an exhausted mother say, but she barely noticed. Her thoughts were still tugging her into a Hallmark movie she was never going to live.


Ah, that’s a good spot. William replied. How long are you road-tripping for?


Undecided. Lily typed back quickly, hoping that her response would sound just mysterious enough to keep William interested.


She barely pulled her eyes from her phone as she walked across the bridge toward the WonderWorks. Her shoe picked up the debris lying on the boards, the sticky sweet syrup of the spilled drink acting as an adhesive to anything her shoe touched. Her body adjusted to the sound and sensation of her sticky shoe, though her brain failed to bring this adjustment to her conscious thoughts. It couldn’t push through the excitement that welled in her chest each time her phone chimed with a new message from William. It couldn’t warn her of the loose board in time to prevent her from tripping, sending her phone dribbling across the boardwalk.


Her heart sank into her stomach as she scrambled after it, its chime distinctive amidst the chattering crowd. She sprang forward, swiping her finger across the screen without thinking, without realizing that her phone was ringing. It wasn’t a text message.


“Hello?” she could hear Shane’s distant voice as she stared in disbelief at her phone.


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