Seeing Pink

His coach always said, “You make your best strides in sand, not on the track.”

As often as possible, Ben’s training included runs at Pine Island. The area just off the ocean provided him the softest, whitest sun-bleached sand to run on; challenging him with steep, wind-carved dunes that beat any stadium steps. The sand wasn’t easy to run on — well, “in” — since it’s softened dryness swallowed every footstep. His feet sank deep, forcing his weary legs to burn lactic acid as he sought to yank them free for another step.

It wasn’t just the great workouts that Pine Island provided. The location gave him the solitude he needed ever since his mother had died. Breast cancer. Amy’s struggle to fight the disease for nearly a year had both tortured and inspired Ben. His mother had been his training partner and coach after he’d left college to take up ultra-distance racing. He watched her retch in agony as chemicals decimated her athletic body. Heard her softly crying at night, in her recliner, blanket wrapped tightly about a body that was crumbling under the weight of treatments, lost income, and ebbing hope.

That was the torture.

The inspiration was gleaned from those rare days when she pulled on her pink running shoes, refusing to allow cancer to steal every instance of good from her life, and ran beside him. They knew those short loops, at a pace microseconds faster than a walk, meant nothing to Ben’s training. But those runs filled him with a resolve, to be as good … no better … than what Amy dreamed for him. She never set outlandish goals for him, nor criticized race results, and not even once did a negative word emerge from her mouth. She filled him with positive reality.

So after Amy had died, Ben took her pink running shoes with him to every workout. If he set out from home, they sat neatly paired on his front steps. When his training took him from home, the brilliant pink shoes hung, or sat, in a spot he knew he would be passing, or returning to. Those months running the Blue Ridge Mountains, the shoes hung from a tree somewhere along his circuitous routes. And in the last two months, as he trained on the sands of Pine Island, the shoes hung on the weathered snow fence. In most cases, no matter where he was – the steep white dunes or sprinting the shoreline – he could see the shoes.

Those pink shoes were a beacon of strength and confidence for Ben. Every time he reached the pinnacle of another dune, he would turn to the shoes and raise his arms in triumph. If he felt his resolve waning, his body growing painfully weary, he would peek at the shoes and mutter in between gulps of sea air, “Okay Mom, I can do more.”

It wasn’t that he needed those shoes to go on, to feel motivation. His mother’s death had certainly hurt, and he thought of her often. But she had stressed, during numerous talks they’d had traveling to and from races, “Ben, I don’t have to be here, beside you, to be with you.”

At times, Ben just shook his head at the simplicity of her rationale. Yeah, I know, Mom,” he mumbled once.

“Ben!” his mother snapped. “When you are out there on the race course, miles from the start or finish line, am I beside you? Huh? Am I?”

“Well no,” he said, “but I know you’re back there, waiting for me to come back.”

“But I’m not there telling you to keep going, to dismiss the negativity, or even to get your butt moving,” she stated. “So if this cancer gets me – and it probably will – I won’t be there.

“But I’ll be here,” she said poking at his head and chest. “There’s nothing I haven’t told you or said to you that’ll need to be said the day after I die. Nothing!”

“You are you because of you,” she added. “You know all I’ve taught you, but you’re great because of you and your strength. Be you and you will succeed.”

The shoes reminded him of that conversation; of his mother’s will to live; her gift of confidence and inspiration. So they went with him; a subtle reminder.

As he stood atop that hill of sand, grinning, he looked toward the fence where brilliant pink flashed in the late-day sun. “Yeah Mom. I’m moving my butt.”

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The Keys To Her Heart

“Key To Her Heart”

“Uh ma’am. You dropped your keys.”

Elsa saw a ripple of fear cross the face of a woman standing near her. She turned her head, didn’t make eye contact, and stammered, “No … no I didn’t.”

“Pretty sure they’re yours,” Elsa replied, glancing down to catch another look at the keys lying on the sidewalk outside the doorway of a small café. Darkness inside told her the eatery was closed. A sign of brilliant colors above the door said, “Bea’s Hive.”

Elsa looked at the front of the café again, then snapped her view to where the woman stood. She spun and began walking away. Unsure what to do, Elsa glanced at the keys, then looked at the woman, now a good 30 yards away. In seconds, she vanished into a thick crowd.

Quickly, Elsa bent, reached a gloved hand toward the key ring. Just as her fingers touched it, a shot rang out. Sparked by a jolt of surprise, Elsa yanked her hand back! But before standing up, she looked down again, and reached.

The delay may have saved her life.

As she grabbed the keys, the door of “Bea’s Hive” exploded in an eruption of glass and shards of wood. Confetti of shrapnel cascaded. Elsa ducked; too far. Her forehead smacked the concrete with a resounding thud.

Before she could even feel for blood, a hand reached through the shattered door, grabbed her leg, and roughly hauled her inside the café. Whoever had her continued to pull her deeper into the darkness.

Confused, Elsa managed to remain calm and limp. Though her head was spinning, she somehow rationalized she was better off being dragged into the closed café than lying on the sidewalk with bullets flying. With a crash, her body slipped through metal swinging doors. She felt the chill of tile, and assumed “kitchen.”

Suddenly the person dropped her legs, and stepped over her, back to the doors. Elsa watched a head carefully rise to the small doorway window. A man! Her hero was a man. He chanced a look through the window. In a hazy light, she saw toussled long brown hair. Catching a glimpse of his rugged face, she had a feeling of familiarity; as though she should know him.

Wobbly, Elsa raised her head off the floor. Hands coarsed with grit of dirty floors, she felt for something to grab so she could stand. A table. She started to rise, but the man turned and signaled her to stay down. Head spinning more, she sat back in agreement.

After what seemed like an eternity, the man slid from the window, and moved toward Elsa. As he moved from the light, she couldn’t make out his features, his face fading fast into the dark.

“You okay,” he asked in a hushed, deep voice. “Sorry it got kinda hairy.”

That voice. Again, Elsa couldn’t shake the idea she knew this man.

“But I know you’re into that,” he added.

How? Into what? Who? Elsa struggled to understand why a complete stranger would know what she was “into.” Oh God, she thought, I’ve escaped from one horrific situation to get into another. This guy thinks ….

And then a flashlight popped on, the beam pointed straight at her eyes. She turned from the brilliance of the white LED.

“Get that outta my eyes,” she barked, her fear replaced by anger. “Who are you?”

As laughter erupted from her hero-turned-apparent-assailant, Elsa knew.

“Clint?” she queried.

“How’s that for a little excitement,” her husband chirped. “Feelin’ the ol’ romance?”

“Wha …. I don’t underst …. Oh my God!” Elsa answered. “Don’t tell me it’s because I said I wanted to do something …”

“… exciting for our anniversary,” Cliff noted wryly.

“Good Lord, I was thinking carriage ride in a park, a rock concert, or maybe just dancing.”

“I know. But when you said ‘exciting,’ my mind just took off, and well … got your heart racing, huh.”

“But the woman? The keys? Who …”

“Greta. Glad you didn’t recognize her.

“Your secretary? But the gun shot? The café? You’re lucky I didn’t get hit!”

“Blanks and a little pyrotechnics, from work, on the door. The hardest part: making sure you’d show up and see those keys. Sorry about your head. When you duck for cover, you go low!”

“All because I said …”

“Yes my love. Now let’s go get cleaned up. We have a night of dining and dancing. Yessiree, it’s going to be an exciting night, my love.”

Beach Walk

IMG_0612No one knew who they were.

Wasn’t all that unusual for a walk along the beach. A surfside stroll isn’t about people you see or meet, but enjoying the beauty of the ocean and the calming repetition of the waves crashing toward land. Of course, neighbors sometimes run into each other as they walk off the final rust of a night’s deep sleep, or at day’s end as they try to shake loose the vestiges of a rough eight-hour shift. And with many Californians, a friendly “Hello” is far from uncommon as people, wandering in opposite directions, meet and then pass on by.

So no one took notice. And they were just fine with that. The early morning sun, still not yet having topped the hills, pushed the haze of morning aside, and warned of a day filled with bright sunshine. The forecast had said the thermometer would inch its way into the 80s, so as the sun edged closer to peeking over the ragged outline of the hills, it was already obvious the future held the trappings of a grand day at the beach.

From a distance, the two women wandering barefoot on the surf’s edge could have been a couple of neighbors out for their daily morning stroll; perhaps friends who’d arranged an early-morning walk. Much like everyone else wandering their way along the half-mile of ocean-drenched sand, there was nothing that made the pair stand out.

Barefoot with their jeans rolled up just below their knees, the two wandered a curvy path along the wet sand. Aimlessly moving seaward, daring the waves to spill onto their path, they slowly walked with heads down. On those rare occasions when the ocean took their dare, loosing a larger wave, shoved by unseen forces somewhere beyond the horizon, which rolled toward them, threatening to wash high above their ankles, the women would lazily move toward drier sand. The impending deluge would fall short of sweeping over their legs, collapsing as if falling into despair for not having been the victor.

At one point, they stopped and stared toward the horizon. And then one spoke.

“I guess I don’t quite understand, Pamela,” she said in a quiet voice, nearly drowned out by the crashing waves that reached to slide over their feet.

“I don’t really understand it either, Amber,” Pamela replied in an equally hushed tone. “Honestly, I didn’t forsee this happening.”

As though they realized talk would do little to change things, the pair looked toward the ocean for a few seconds, and the turned and continued along the beach.  Steps leaving an aimless path of footprints, they eventually reached a rocky outcropping and stopped.

With the waves now ceaselessly smashing into the rocks in an increased crescendo of noise, Amber silently looked around, found a small, flat raised area and sat down. Motioning Pamela to share her perch, Amber slowly slipped her arm around the shoulders of her friend. After a few seconds, she let her arm slip.

“What does this mean for us,” Amber whispered, a tear slowly slipping over her reddened cheek.

“I suppose it means that for the first time since we were 9, we won’t be together,” Pamela answered, her quivering voice faltering. “I suppose … I guess ….”

They leaned into each other. From a distance, a glimpse might have given a passerby the impression the women were chilled by the blustery breeze that was coming inland; seeking warmth. But with their now tear-drenched cheeks pressed firmly together, it was obvious it was an intimate moment the pair was sharing.

“Have you said anything to your family?” Pamela asked in a voice she was having difficulty finding.

“Not yet,” Amber choked. “I will. Probably tonight.”

“I can’t imagine they will be surprised,” Pamela continued. “After all, things have been different for quite some time. Surely they have recognized the signs. They can’t possibly have not seen this coming.”

“I wouldn’t think so … at least, I’m sure the children could see it, but I don’t know about Russell,” Amber said, pulling her head up and letting her eyes once again find the ocean. “Russell will be devastated.”

“Curtis was almost ambivalent,” Pamela mused, a smile pinching the ends of her mouth. “At least once he got passed the initial shock. I can’t help but think I saw a sense of relief in his eyes.”

The women sat, watching the spray from the waves reach toward them. The frothy, foaming water settled into pools on the rocks. After 10 minutes of silence, Amber stood, stretched her arms above her head, then gently wiped her hands across her eyes. “We better get going. I’ve got dinner rolls that need baking.”

Stepping carefully off the rocky outpost, the women were startled when a dolphin, swimming less than 10 feet off the shoreline, splashed its tail on the water’s surface. Clicking its own surprise at them, the dolphin suddenly dove out of sight.

Recovering from their initial shock, the women began to retrace their steps, or might have begun retracing if those steps hadn’t succumbed to the perpetual beating of the waves. Though sadness creased their faces, they walked with a lighter step.

After an hour, the friends stepped up onto the boardwalk, followed the windy pathway a short distance before ending up in front of a small building. Though the salmon-colored paint and seafoam green trim was weathered, the building still held an appeal that could easily be termed, “charming.” The pair stood silently, gazing at the building that once was termed, “As inviting as Grandma’s house,” in a newspaper review. Maybe it was the white hand-stitched gingham curtains, or the white picket fence that ran the length of the building providing a brilliant contrast to the colorful row of flowers that grew before it.

Pamela slipped her hand into Amber’s, and then with her other hand, pointed to the top of the building where a large sign reached across the roof. Her voice quivered, but eventually found strength as she said, “I can remember when that name meant everything to the residents and visitors of this community. And I remember thinking, one time a few years ago, ‘We’ve made it, and we are here to stay.'”

“I remember thinking that, too,” Amber said. “But I’m almost certain that thought was preceded by, ‘I can’t believe she talked me into that sign.'”

They broke into loud laughter, and then fell into a hug. And as soon as their embrace was complete, the tears began flowing again. After a few minutes, Pamela reached up and softly stroked her friend’s hair, and whispered, “We better stop this. What will the regulars over at Barnacle Bill’s Bar think.”

One last hug, and then they headed toward the front door. Just before entering, Pamela turned to Amber and chuckled, “That sign? What do you mean? Girlie, I can’t believe I let you talk me into that name!” Looking up, the pair stared at the sign, its bright orange lettering on an equally-bright yellow background spelling, “Ambela’s.”

“Come on!” spouted Amber. “I know it’s quirky. Maybe even corny. But you have to admit, it fit perfectly for where this place was located. Right along the boardwalk … where people ambled by, looking for a great place to eat.”

“It’s a lot corny, my friend.” Pamela answered, her smile gleaming. “Now let’s get inside and make Ambela’s last day one of its best.”