The scent of burning pine needles drifted past as park rangers cleared out brush to make room for new growth. Mixed with the salty tang of the ocean, the aroma reminded Olivia of a small summer camp she had worked at ten years earlier. “The summer I was beautiful,” she thought, looking down on her now softer, rounder figure.
The Summer of Beauty was six years ago. In that season, she had taken first one lover, and then a second—the only two she ever had. She could have loved and married either one had she not been so foolish. Breathing in the ocean spray, Olivia now realized both men had moved on long ago and forgot the memories she still clung to.
Olivia had travelled to the Florida Keys to photograph a destination wedding, and stayed on a few extra days, hoping to add some nature shots to her portfolio. She chose this inlet for its obscurity, a small piece of protected forest cut through by a dusty trail leading to the secluded beach. Hiking the trail each morning, Olivia found the beach empty every time, save for two rotting picnic tables and an unused fishing pier. Olivia found comfort in this routine. She hadn’t been home in years, in part because her unpredictable schedule dragged her across the continent every few months.
This afternoon, she heard voices at the end of the path. Though resentful of the unwanted company, Olivia plodded along. She hoped that her heavy intruding steps would make the other party uncomfortable enough to leave. Her efforts went unnoticed. Determined to wait, she plunked her heavy camera onto a picnic table and slid onto its cracked bench.
Next to the other table, a young mother in an oversized pink top and white denim shorts was trying to sunbathe. She slathered on suntan lotion with one hand while gently rolling a stroller back and forth with the other.
The woman’s husband stood at the end of the graying pier, casting a fishing net into the waves. Moments later, he retrieved the empty net and tossed it out again. He smiled and posed, showing off for his wife, who giggled appreciatively while lulling their whimpering baby boy.
The couple’s daughter, a small girl of four or five, dressed in a bathing suit the same color as her mother’s, ran back and forth between her parents. Pigtails whipping in the ocean breeze, she cooed at her little brother, then dashed back to her father, pleading with him to play in the waves.
Finally, the girl’s mother paused in her other tasks to open the large pink tote bag tucked in at her feet. “Take these, Kelsey,” she laughed. “Build a castle worthy of a princess.” The girl clapped her hands and squealed.
Water was needed to wet the sun-drenched sand. Kelsey ran to the water’s edge, using the molds for buckets. She splashed them about her mother’s feet before dumping them out entirely a few feet away. After the girl created a mud hole with the water, she lay on her belly, stuck her feet up into the air, and gathered the sand to her chest.
When the pile was sufficient, Kelsey began to make turrets, deliberately packing the sand into the blue plastic boxes. The tow-headed girl child stuck out the tip of her tongue, gently biting it in concentration.
Olivia watched this familial scene—the mother, minding the children and encouraging her husband’s efforts; the father, hunting and gathering for his family; the daughter intently focused on her endeavors. She gripped her camera, wanting to capture the moment, but she worried that as an adult alone without children or a companion of her own, the family might view her interest with suspicion.
Instead, the photographer watched unnoticed. She pretended to be caught up in beauty of the sea. The waves seemed to grow more boisterous, despite the still-gentle breeze and uninterrupted sunshine. While the water slowly morphed from bright cerulean to smoky indigo, Olivia saw that the child was satisfied with her castle creation and was running back to her mother. Her playful exuberance caused the baby to wake.
Kelsey ignored her brother’s cries, taking the noise for granted as a part of everyday life. But the sound grated on Olivia’s ears. She was unused to babies. Whenever she heard one crying, she felt anxiety clawing at her chest like an enraged cat. Even now, Olivia felt her chest tighten at the sound, but stayed at the table’s moldy bench, transfixed by the little girl.
She’d be about Jenny’s age, Olivia realized, thinking of the name she had given her almost-daughter, the phantom child she had chosen to relinquish after her one shining summer of love. Olivia shook her head, trying to erase the memory.
Kelsey’s father had caught one or two fish and ventured toward the shore to show the trophies to his wife. His daughter plopped onto the other picnic table, wiping golden grains of sand off knobby knees.
Olivia wanted to surreptitiously slip away, but regretted she had not taken any photos of the drab pier or the azure sky beyond it. Today, the water seemed different somehow, and she could not capture it in words.
Resigned, Olivia put her camera into its case, and stood up, only to see Kelsey standing in front of her, arms akimbo, gazing at her with a frankness she was unused to.
“You like my castle?” the clear face tilted up at her.
“Um,” Olivia stumbled, looking to the girl’s preoccupied parents for assistance. “Why, yes. It’s very nice.”
“I’m going to take some pictures.”
“Well, it’s very pretty down here. Don’t you think so?”
Kelsey shrugged. “You wanna take a picture of my castle? It’s real big!”
“I suppose so, if your mother doesn’t mind.”
“Where are your kids?” the girl asked. She darted behind Olivia, looking for a playmate.
“I don’t have any,” the photographer replied, trying not to blush at the girl’s guilelessness.
The girl tilted her head again in a sympathetic gesture this time, “Why not?”
Then, the child’s mother, squinting into the sun, interrupted, “Kelsey, honey, come over here. Stop bothering the nice lady.” She offered the photographer a faint shrug and sympathetic smile as if to apologize for her daughter’s boldness.
The girl grinned, waved goodbye to Olivia with both of her small hands, and blew her a kiss. Then, she ran back to her mother’s side yelling, “Mommy! That lady’s funny. She doesn’t have kids!”
This time, Olivia did blush. Turning away from the pier, she packed up her equipment and slowly walked back down the trail without taking a single picture.
The path was short, but as soon as Olivia was out of sight within the small patch of trees, she stopped and sunk onto a bed of brittle pine needles. She brought her knees to her chest. Rocking back and forth in the silence, Olivia allowed herself to cry for the first time in six years. “It’s time to stop running,” she whispered.
She returned to the hotel, packed her things, and booked a plane ticket home.
◊ ◊ ◊
Megan E. Cassidy
Megan Cassidy is an author and English professor from Lockport, NY currently teaching at Schenectady County Community College. Her first young adult book, Always, Jessie will be published this spring by Saguaro Books. Megan’s other work has been featured in Pilcrow & Dagger, Wordhaus, and Gilded Serpent Magazine. For a free preview of the novel, deleted scenes, and current projects, check out Megan’s website at: http://yamauthor.weebly.com or follow her on Twitter @MeganEileenC