(A Fish Out of Water, continued)
The truth was, despite my loud objections, I didn’t have a work shift that day. It was a lie; I admit it. But I’m nineteen and summer seasons are short, and it’s not every day you’re invited to hang out with a hunk named Hudson. Driving myself to the rendezvous was my strategy. No one would be the wiser.
Until Trevor intervened, ruining my plan. It’s the curse of having a younger brother: They never listen.
I was starting to hyperventilate when Ben finally came to the rescue and offered to drive me to work. Okay, not my first choice, but I would take it.
“I’ll drop you at the diner on my way to pick up Sarah. Mom’ll get you later.”
He headed out of the neighborhood and onto Beach Shore Drive.
“I’m not a baby, you know.” I rolled my eyes for extra effect. “I can take care of myself.”
“Yeah, like making a big stink when you couldn’t have my car?” Ben can be snarky, too. He’s had it in for me ever since I arrived home as a newborn, supplanting him as the focus of our parents’ attention.
I looked in my purse as the blocks ticked past, ignoring him, and pulled out my work shift sheet. I feigned shock. “Can’t be,” I said.
Ben took the bait. “What?”
I sighed, perhaps a smidge dramatically. “You’re going to kill me, but it looks like I actually don’t have a shift today. False alarm.”
Ben swerved the car to the shoulder and slammed on the brakes. “You little—”
“I’m really sorry,” I interrupted, trying to sound sorry. His eyes were throwing knives at me. “I don’t have a shift, but I do have plans.”
“Those plans do not involve me.” He drummed his fingers on the steering wheel. “In fact, you can get out right here and walk back home. It’s probably only half a mile.”
This was not going as I’d hoped. “Just drop me at Oyster and Main.” I let a bit of pleading slip into my voice. “It’s also on your way to Sarah’s.”
With the engine idling, Ben stared at me for a few beats. “You aren’t doing anything stupid, are you?”
I shook my head.
“Like running away, or meeting that nice axe murderer from the wanted poster at the post office?” He continued to stare.
If anyone could keep a secret in our family, Ben was it. Trevor, forget it; he’s ratted on me too many times to count. And Dad—well, he’s got Mom, and everything he hears he passes on to her.
I put a finger to my lips. “I have a date. I know Mom and Dad won’t like him, so you can’t say a word.”
“Do I know the guy?”
“No.” When Ben didn’t respond, I added, “His name’s Hudson. He’s nice. I met him at the Clam Shack.” And so good-looking he took my breath away, but that wasn’t for Ben to know.
Ben shrugged. “It’s your love life. But since you’ve asked me a favor, I’ll ask you one back, and then we’re even.”
I grinned in victory. “Sure.”
He paused. “I may not be back today, but don’t tell Mom and Dad. Sarah and I . . .” He ran a hand through his close-cropped hair. “Let’s just say, we have plans, too.”
Hudson sat at one of my tables during the first shift of the summer. He resembled a Greek god, with a mop of brown curls, sculpted biceps, and a chest broad enough to sport the word Brigantine without wrinkling the letters. I pegged him as an Olympic swimmer training at the Shore.
I couldn’t believe my good fortune. This was the summer I’d have the fling that Carly and Jenn boasted of last year. It was their turn to be jealous.
The first time he’d appeared at the Clam Shack, Carly had sized him up and decided to take over that table. She’s got two years’ seniority over me, so I couldn’t do a thing about it. Then Jenn muscled in the next time he showed up for lunch. But funny thing is, they gave me back that table—and Hudson. No persuasion needed.
“What’s up?” I finally asked Carly during a lull, as we rolled the flatware into napkin bundles.
She placed a handful of flatware rolls in the storage basket. “Nothing,” she said, then looked at me slyly. “He’s all yours, Gory.”
“You know I hate that nickname.”
She just grinned. From the day I’d started at the Clam Shack, she’d dubbed me Gory, all because I blanched when Frank, the owner, plunked live crabs into a boiling pot.
“He’s too weird for us,” she said. “A slob. And damp, too.” Her nose wrinkled.
I’d be my own judge of that, I decided.
The next time he arrived at the Shack, I was finally able to attend to him myself. I rushed over to where he was seated, at table four, beneath the suspended, stuffed swordfish.
“Hi,” I said, hoping my Clam Shack shirt still looked fresh. Sexy was too much to ask. “I’m Gloria, your waitress today. What can I get you?” How about me with a side of steel-cut fries?
His eyes, two pools of seafoam green, met mine. In a blink, I was transported to my favorite place in the world: floating in the surf, on my back, face to the never-ending sky, watching the gulls circle and dive.
“Two crabcake sandwiches, please,” he said, his voice soft and deep, with the hint of an accent.
With effort, I pulled myself back to the Shack, to the table, and flipped open my order pad. “The usual condiments? Coleslaw? Chips? Anything to drink? We have soda, iced tea, water.”
His teeth, when he smiled, gleamed, and his face relaxed into a friendliness that was an invitation to . . .
Somehow I was sitting opposite him. Quickly, I glanced around for Frank, who would yell at me for taking too much time with a customer. The place was packed for lunch.
“Gloria,” Hudson said. My name coming from his lips sounded, well, glorious. Totally unlike the way Trevor usually spat it out.
“I’ve got to get back to work.” I pushed myself to my feet, as though the pockets of my shorts were filled with lead. “As you can see, we’re super busy.” Glancing back at my order pad to give myself time to regroup, I added, “I’ll have your crabcakes in just a few.”
For the next hour I battled the chaos of lunchtime, juggling eight tables, including number four. Hudson slipped away just after I handed him the check. Disappointed, I bussed the table. He’d left crumbs and spills, smears of crabcake sauce, wadded-up napkins. Remembering Jenn’s words, I wiped corner to corner on the table, following Frank’s strict busing instructions, A sheen of moisture remained on the vinyl cushion where Hudson had sat. I shrugged. This was a beach diner, filled with folks who had spent the day riding the waves or wallowing in the water. Dampness was a given.
I picked up the payment book and headed to the register. Nestled inside with a wrinkled twenty, which more than covered his meal and my clean-up, was a scrap of paper.
Meet me at Oyster and Main tomorrow an hour before midday.
“Here,” I said, pointing as Ben rolled to a stop at the corner.
Ours was a typical beach town. At that corner three blocks from the dunes, where the land lay flat as the proverbial pancake, it was obvious no one was waiting. I gulped in disappointment, wondering if I’d guessed what Hudson meant correctly. Ben shot me a dubious look.
“He’ll be here; I’m just early. I’ll be fine.” I opened the passenger door, praying that Hudson hadn’t stood me up.
“Wait.” Ben’s brow furrowed. “I’ll be responsible if something happens to you.”
With a huff, I stepped out of the car and onto the sidewalk. I wasn’t going to let him see me cry. “I’ll be fine,” underlining my repeated phrase by raising my voice.
“She will be fine.” Hudson put a damp arm around my shoulders, peering into the car. “Don’t worry, big brother.”
To cover my astonishment—and relief—at Hudson’s sudden appearance, I leaned through the open door. “See?” I was pleased that Ben’s jaw had dropped. He nodded and drove away.
It was then that part of me pointed out I didn’t know Hudson at all beyond his good looks, his apparent slovenliness when dining, and a propensity to wear wet clothing. What if he was an axe murderer? I’d just sent away my lifeline, promising him that I was perfectly safe.
“You are perfectly safe,” Hudson said, his arm still comfortably around my shoulders.
Had I spoken aloud?
A pay phone stood five feet away, and I stepped to it, searching my pockets for a quarter. “Let me call my dad right quick, to let him know where I am.”
I saw a moment of puzzlement in his eyes.
“Beneath the surface is the best way to call,” he said. “The vibrations travel more quickly via saltwater.” With a gentle but firm hand, he turned me away from the phone. “In any case, your father knows where you are. We will send a message later.”
“But—” Prickles made the hair rise on my scalp.
“We do not have much time if you want to see what I have to show you.”
The breeze lifted his curls and swept up small whirlwinds of sand, ever present along the sidewalk.
I heard Carly’s words. He’s too weird. Still, something drew me to him, and whatever it was lay deeper than his good looks. I felt like the tide being pulled by the moon.
“Gloria.” My name again sounded magnificent on his tongue, like the clear chime from a large bronze bell. He placed one finger on my cheek to turn my face to his . . .
The sun shimmered, and we stood on a narrow strand of beach, high dunes and sea grass behind us, the blue ocean lapping at our feet. My idea of heaven.
“How did you do that?” I shook my head to clear the haze that seemed to fog my vision.
Hudson smiled, and I suddenly didn’t care what magic he was wielding. All was right with the world.
A loud pop and the guttural roar of a single prop plane pulled us out of our reverie. We were no longer alone, but surrounded by the usual towel and beach umbrella crowd of a summer day at the Jersey Shore. The plane pulled a banner that floated behind it: Sandcastle Contest Today.
I grabbed Hudson’s arm. “This’ll be fun. Let’s go.”
“A castle of sand is ephemeral,” he said, his steps slowing. “The first wave would demolish it.”
“That’s the fun of it,” I said and led the way through the knots of sunbathers and picnickers.
Cordoned off from the beachgoers, the expanse of sand reserved for the contest had been transformed into a wonderland of strange creatures and ornate fortresses.
“Hey, girl!” Hannah hurried to me. We’d gone to high school together, and now she was running an events business in town. “You’re a townie, Gloria,” she said, beaming. “Would you mind serving as one of our judges? And your friend—Hannah’s eyes roamed Hudson’s magnificent physique and I felt a twinge of possessive jealousy—he’s welcome to judge as well.”
We walked among the sculpted creations, eating fried fish on a stick and later, chocolate dipped ice cream cones. Hudson laughed at the cyclops with the seaweed hair and the giant clam edged with teeth. “The sea has nothing like this.” Then, he rounded a nearby castle turret and stopped. I nearly stepped on his heels.
He was focused on an octopus the size of a small car. But was it an octopus? The sculptor had added too many arms.
“Someone you know?” I teased.
Hudson bent down to examine the carefully fashioned tentacles, his lightheartedness gone, replaced by a seriousness that was new to me. I sank down beside him. He sighed, then got back to his feet.
“Gloria,” he whispered, and even in that low voice, my name on his lips sounded sacred. “It is late. Time to go.” He again touched my cheek with his fingertips and we were back on that narrow patch of sand, with no one around.
He stripped off his tee and wrapped my purse in it. He tucked the small package into a thicket of grasses.
“No one will take it,” he said.
“Where are we?” This was no section of shore I’d ever walked on.
“This is what I can show you,” he said, an arm outstretched toward the horizon. “You are not afraid of the water, no?”
Water, no. Strange man, maybe.
“Why me, Hudson?”
He crinkled his nose into a frown. “I do not understand you.”
I stepped away from him. “Why are you asking me to do this—whatever it is? You don’t know me at all.”
Clouds scudded overhead, racing inland. The sea grass whipped in a frenzy, and the surf churned. As Hudson stood on the beach, watching me, I felt in my gut that the wind and waves were his doing. Don’t ask me how.
“Ah, but I do know you, Gloria. You yearn for freedom, as do I.” He pulled from the pocket of his jammers a thin strand of shells, exquisitely tiny, and slipped it over my head. That small act stirred a dim memory: a birthmark on my shoulder, now long faded, its shape—a fin?
“Take my hand and you will see.”
We walked steadily into the water, hand in hand, until we were chest deep. In the distance, a lifeguard blew. Then another joined in. With a kick, Hudson let go and dove under the surface. Instinctively, I followed.
By the time we reached the lighthouse point, his legs had morphed into a long fish tail. A wave washed over my head, and I marveled as I realized I had no need for lungs.
— By BWG member Dianna Sinovic