By Rylee Black
(This story is based on a photo prompt from the writers group Writers Unite! and has a 3000 word limit. You can find more great stories based on this photo on their website by clicking – HERE)
June 24 – Present day – Blue Moon Bay, CA
Carlie Schafer’s shoulders were hunched up around her ears, and her grip on the steering wheel was white-knuckled. The road to the family’s cabin on the beach was no longer the well-maintained passage from highway to shore she remembered from her childhood. Sometime in the last ten years it had become no more than a narrow path between trees and bushes, all rutted and uneven and littered with large rocks that seemed to appear out of nowhere. She’d managed to successfully navigate around most of the bigger ones, but several times she’d been caught off guard and hit one then cringed when the vehicle had jolted hard then swayed alarmingly as she maneuvered over it. Having a friend who still lived in the area and who also happened to have a beat-up old jeep he’d been willing to loan her had definitely been a godsend.
Her bottom lip throbbed from where she’d been biting it in concentration, and a headache hovered menacingly behind her brow. How long was this darn road anyway? The old saying ‘you can never go home again’ mockingly played over and over again in her exhausted mind. But she didn’t see this trip to the cabin as going back home to relive childhood experiences. She was using it as a means of hiding away for just a little while from well-meaning friends. The fact that it was indeed a place filled with many wondrously happy memories was completely beside the point. Or so she told herself.
Anyway, not all Blue Moon memories were happy memories. That last visit, the one between high-school and college, before Daddy died and they’d quit coming to the shore for the summer, had been so bittersweet it brought a pang to her heart and tears to her eyes even now.
Visions of a tall, impossibly good-looking boy named Sullivan Bradford slipped in on the tears. Sully. Her Sully. Sixteen and glorious, with his muscled body all tanned and toned from hours spent working hard and playing harder in the surf and sun. Sully, with that thick sun-bleached blond hair that fell over long-lashed sky-blue eyes. Sully, with those soft, full lips that had lifted into a devastating smile each and every time he’d seen her and taken her places her teen-aged mind had only dreamt of.
They’d been young and totally convinced they were in that forever-and-always kind of love. Then one day he’d gone, without any explanation or even a final good-bye. And that last summer at Blue Moon Bay had ended with Carlie lacking some of the innocence she’d brought with her and nursing a shattered heart. Several years later, her dad had confessed to ordering Sully to stay away from his little girl. By then, too much time had passed to even consider tracking him down.
Carlie pushed all the memories aside when the little cabin came into view. Her breath caught in her chest at the sight, and she pulled to a stop just to take it all in. It looked exactly the same. Mom must have hired someone to care for it for all these years. The walls were still painted a soft, sundrenched, salt-and-sand-softened blue. The shutters and porch railings remained a worn and rustic white. And the rose bushes they’d planted so long ago were covered with dozens and dozens of full pink blooms.
All the sadness she’d been feeling slipped away as she breathed in the salty air and drank in the view of the pretty little cabin and the waves crashing one after another onto the shore just yards away from its pale yellow front door. She sighed contentedly. This was exactly the peaceful retreat her weary soul needed.
The sun was setting by the time Carlie had unpacked and eaten a light supper. Seeing that the clouds were beginning to tinge a soft pink, she grabbed the old throw off the sofa and took it and her glass of wine outside. She happily curled up in one of the big white rockers on the porch to watch mother-nature’s show. The surf provided the sound track as waves rolled onto the beach with their rhythmic crash and roar. The setting sun supplied the artistry, painting the sky with glorious pinks, reds, and oranges and sending rays of brilliant light out to dance like diamonds across the water. God, how she’d missed this place. Why had she let so many years go by without coming back?
An elderly couple she didn’t recognize walked by hand in hand and exchanged pleasantries with her as they passed. A lump formed in Carlie’s throat, and she took a big sip of wine to wash it away as she watched them disappear on down the beach. Oh, how she envied them.
When she’d married Archie just out of college, she’d thought they had that kind of marriage. That ‘til-death-do-us-part-still-mad-about-each-other-even-when-we’re-old-and-gray kind of love. But the ‘til death do us part and the old and gray thing had obviously been her dream, not his. His dream, as it turned out, was to see how many times he could sleep with the long-legged barely legal redheaded receptionist from the office next door to his before she found out.
After she’d kicked him out and divorced him, she’d spent the next three years avoiding men like the plague. Her friends began badgering her the day after the only other single girl in their group had married, leaving Carlie the only one without a husband. With no more weddings to plan, they’d all begun to focus their attention on her. It was after her third disastrous blind date that she’d decided it was time to take a break from it all and booked a seat on the first flight out to California. Now, here she was on the beach with a glass of wine, feeling more peace than she had in a very long time.
The sun finally sank below the horizon and the darkening sky began filling with countless points of shining light. One especially brilliant star caught her eye and winked at her. She smiled, thinking about how Dad had told her as he lay dying that when she missed him all she had to do was look up at the stars and he’d let her know he was watching over her. She touched her fingertips to her lips, blew a kiss heavenward, then went inside and slept better than she had in years.
Morning broke bright and clear, and Carlie stretched luxuriously and yawned. The sea air blew in through the open window cool and fragrant and carrying the cries of the seagulls already hard at work looking for their breakfast.
Well rested and eager to see what the day would bring, she got up and made quick work of bathing and eating. Dressed in shorts and a bikini top, she ventured outside to explore her surroundings. First she took a swim, then a long walk on the beach. Once she got back, she looked around the house. Memories of time spent with family were everywhere. The very moment she stepped into the back garden she spotted something that made her draw in a startled breath and sent her heart into overdrive. Conscious of her tender bare feet, she made her way gingerly over the uneven stepping stones to the gate post where the little bucket hung, looking just like it had that summer she’d spent here falling in love with a blond-haired, blue-eyed surfer boy.
With trembling hands, she lifted the little pink bucket with its bright yellow polka-dots down off the hook, and hugged it to her chest. She closed her eyes and fought back tears while a trembly smile full the pain of love and loss played across her face. This bucket had been her life-line to Sully that summer. Her father hadn’t like him. More to the point, he hadn’t liked the amount time the two of them spent together alone. He’d said the boy was trouble and that they were far too young to be in love. Carlie and Sully hadn’t cared what he or anyone else thought. They’d known what they meant to each other, and it was love.
It had been Sully’s idea to use the bucket he’d borrowed from his little sister as a means of setting up times and places to meet without her father knowing. Each night he’d slipped undetected into the yard, then every morning she’d crept out of bed before the rest of the family awoke and made her way out to the garden. She still remembered how her heart had beat in happy anticipation of the note she knew she’d find tucked underneath some sort of treasure in the bottom of that little pail. Memories of pulling scraps of paper from under seashells or ribbons or pretty rocks filled her mind. She still had every one of those treasures tucked safely in the wooden box he’d bought her when they’d gone to the fair.
It wasn’t until she pulled the bucket away to look at it again and heard a rattle that she realized there was something inside. With bated breath and her bottom lip held firmly in her teeth, she peered inside. A beautiful sand dollar, complete and shining white, sat nestled in a bed of soft pink rose petals. She tucked the pail into the crook of her arm and reached in to lift the shell and reveal the folded slip of paper it hid.
Deep down she knew there was no way that this note could be from Sully. A decade sitting in the bottom of the bucket through wind, rain, and sun would have destroyed both paper and fragile shell. Plus, she’d check the bucket every day after he’d disappeared, all the way to the morning they’d driven away, and it had been empty every time. Surely he’d didn’t still live here after all this time, did he? He’d talked so often of his dream of going away to college and getting away from Blue Moon Bay to see the world.
Fingers numb with anticipation fumbled the small scrap of paper as she carefully unfolded it. There were just two words written on it. Two words written in a hand she knew as well as her own. Two simple words that brought joy and broke her heart all at the same time. “I’m sorry.” Could this be real? Was it even possible? She’d thought she’d loved Archie, but if she was honest with herself, she’d admit that there had always been a piece of her heart that belonged to Sullivan Bradford. Her first love. The boy that all boys, and then all men thereafter, had been compared to and judged against. Only now did she realize he’d been the reason she’d never truly given her heart completely to anyone else.
She clutched the note to her with closed eyes and a smile. How pathetic was it that her heart soared at the thought of him? That summer they’d had was ten years and another lifetime ago, for heaven’s sake. They’d been children, really, with no clue about the harsh realities of life. They were adults now with jobs and responsibilities and tons of experiences that had changed them. Carlie had married and divorced, and that had certainly changed her. Her eyes went wide with that thought. Had Sully married? She looked at the note again, trying to read between lines that weren’t there. This wasn’t a declaration of undying love. It was just a request for forgiveness. Probably, he’d somehow heard she was coming and decided to use this opportunity to clear his conscious of any guilt he felt for the way things had ended.
She tucked the note in the pocket of her shorts, dumped the soft pink petals on the ground, and hung the bucket back on the fence. Then she squared her shoulders and headed around the house to the porch, admonishing herself for the dreams of her foolish heart the whole way. “You can’t go home again, Carlie Jo. It’s not just an old adage, it’s the truth. And you certainly can’t expect your childhood love to be anything more than a really wonderful memory. Life has moved on and you need to follow suit. You’re a grown woman, not a starry-eyed teenager for Christ’s sake. Get a grip. Soul mates and true love are just cheesy concepts dreamed up by big business to sell cards, books, and movies. Sullivan Bradford was just a silly teenage fling, and that’s the end of it.” Now, if she could just get her heart to believe that.
She didn’t see him standing there until she was already on the porch. Her Sully, looking like a marvelously filled out and gloriously grown-up version of the teenaged one. He stepped up close, flashed her that devastating smile of his, and held out a bunch of wild flowers, just has he had ten years ago.
“Hi, I’m Sullivan Bradford.”
She blinked back happy tears and quoted her side of that decade-old conversation. “You don’t look like a Sullivan to me. I think I’ll call you Sully.”
They both laughed, heady with the reality of being together again.
“What are you doing here, Sully?”
He flashed a tender smile. “Looking for something I lost right here a long time ago.”
Her breath hitched. “Oh? And what was it you lost?”
He took a step closer. “The other half of my heart. But it’s okay. I think I just found it.”
June 24 – One year later – Blue Moon Bay, CA
Carlie Shafer sat in the rocker on the porch of the cabin and tried hard not to get up and pace. She’d picked up and set down her phone at least a dozen times in the last half hour. He’d said he’d be here. She just needed to be patient. She’d only left him two days ago, for goodness sake. Compared to the ten years before that, two days was nothing.
She sighed and looked down at her phone again. Who was she kidding? Two days felt like a lifetime now that she had him back. She should have waited for him in the city. Being away from him always made her feel like they were wasting precious moments that they could spend together. She chuckled, thinking about what he’d say if he heard her thoughts. He might laugh; though she knew he felt the same way. But he’d insisted she come out here ahead of him because he had something to attend to that came up last minute. He’d be here. Tomorrow was the anniversary not only of their first meeting, but also their reunion just a year ago.
The sun was getting ready to set when she picked up her phone again with the intent to really call this time and see just where he was. Being a silly woman in love had morphed into actual worry about his safety. She set it back down when she heard a bark. It was Harley, Sully’s golden retriever. She stood, concerned something was wrong. Harley’s customary enthusiastic frantic barking when he neared the cabin had sounded muffled, and Sully was still nowhere in sight.
She let out a breath in a rush of relief when Harley came bounding around the curve in the path. The reason for his strange bark became obvious. Clutched in his teeth was a little pail that was an exact replica of the pink and yellow polka-dotted one that hung on the post in the back yard.
The happy dog clambered up the wooden steps and sat in front of her, tail wagging and eyes shining with the excitement of having successfully performed an important job. Or perhaps the excitement had more to do with the fact they kept a jar of treats for him on the table next to the door and he knew he’d soon be getting one for his efforts.
Carlie grinned as she reached down and took the bucket. “Thank you, Harley. You’re such a good boy. You’re going to have to be patient and wait a couple more minutes for your treat while I look to see what surprise your daddy thought was so important that he entrusted it to you.”
She scratched the dog’s ears, then looked around one more time for Sully. Since he wasn’t anywhere around, she figured he’d sent Harley on ahead with the surprise on purpose. So she reached in and pulled out a piece of that tissue paper used in gift bags. That was new. When she saw what was under the tissue paper, she dropped it and put a hand to her lips as tears filled her eyes.
“You just going to stand there, or are you going to read my note?”
She looked up into his blue, blue eyes. “Oh, Sully.” Her words were wobbly and tear drenched.
“Here, let me help.” He climbed up the steps to stand in front of her, and took the bucket. “Go on now, I’m pretty anxious to know what you have to say about what I wrote.”
With one last look into his eyes, she reached in and pulled out a blue velvet ring box, then the folded slip of paper that lay beneath it. Sully set the bucket down and took the ring box. Carlie unfolded the paper and read the words he’d written. She threw her arms around his neck. The kiss they shared lasted long enough for the sun to set and Harley to give up on his treat and fall asleep under the porch swing.
When they pulled apart, Sully looked down at her, his expression solemn but his eyes shining with happiness and unshed tears. He took the paper from her and held it up with a crooked smile. “So – does that mean your answer is yes?”