Copyright © 2009 Vivian Arend
All rights reserved — a Samhain Publishing, Ltd. publication
“Gram, where do you keep the rice?” Alexia rummaged through another cupboard in frustration. “Gram?”
Her grandmother stared out the window. Alexia wrapped an arm around her and led her back to the kitchen table. “We need groceries. I can’t find much of anything in the house right now.”
Gram waved a hand to the front of the fridge and a list of numbers tacked by the phone. “Get what we need delivered. Just call and they’ll come by. You need to be here, that’s more important than groceries. You need to be ready for it, Ally.”
Alexia poured some tea and forced the cup into her grandmother’s hand. She hadn’t been warned how far her relative had regressed in the past year. It was no longer an active senior who greeted her across the table. This was a frail reflection of the dynamo Alexia knew.
It broke her heart to see Gram lose herself.
“You need to be ready, my dear,” Gram repeated as she patted Alexia’s arm with fingers gone soft with time. The old lady sipped her tea and Alexia saw a flash of familiar eagerness as Gram’s gaze returned to the window. To the ocean.
Alexia sighed and held Gram’s hand. She was glad to get this last bit of time with the woman who meant so much to her, but it was hard to see her changed.
“You look lovely. The boys will all be fighting over you, but you make the decision. It’s your choice, no matter what they say.” The old lady chuckled. “I remember when your Gramps courted me. He wouldn’t leave me alone. I had my eye on him too, even though there were others who were supposed to be better for me. It’ll be the same for you. I know it. You’ll see him and he’ll be the one you want.”
“I’m not here to find a husband, Gram. I’m here for you.”
“Bah, what do you need with a cranky old lady? You need a nice strong young man with beautiful eyes.” Gram leaned forward and shook a finger in her direction. “Don’t you take any guff from them now. You’re stronger than they think.
“Fetch me the purple box, Ally, there’s something I need to give you.” Gram motioned toward one of the stacks of boxes and books scattered throughout the house like so many treasure piles. Every spare inch of the house was filled with the things Unca and Gramps had collected over the years, and Gram couldn’t seem to part with any of them. Alexia poked and prodded until she found the one Gram wanted and brought it back to the table.
“This has been in the family for a long time, and now it’s yours to care for and enjoy.” Gram’s eyes twinkled. Alexia smiled at her. Whatever was in the box had the power to energize the old woman. “Wear it for me now. I know it seems too fancy for everyday, but I want to see you two together.”
Alexia opened the plain box and gasped with delight. Inside lay an ornate medallion, the etching of a dolphin leaping out of the water bold on its surface. Strong leather straps looped around the open edge, bits of mother of pearl lining the border. Alexia scooped it off the satin cushion and laid it in her palm to admire. The metal warmed her hand, flickers of light from the sun shining on its surface. Sparks floated in the air, dust motes turned to fireflies in the reflection.
“Gram, it’s beautiful. I’ve never seen it before.” She stared into glittering gray eyes. “You said our family has had it for years?”
“Generations. Come, let me help you put it on.”
Alexia turned around and Gram lowered the beautiful object over her head. The metal warmed as it nestled intimately between the swells of her bosom. Alexia impulsively removed her ponytail holder to allow her hair to fall around her in a riot of brunette curls.
The necklace fit right. It felt right. It caressed her skin and she covered it with a hand, tracing her fingers down her body, a trail of heat following.
Buttery soft fingers patted her cheek and Alexia gazed into a face worn with years, lit with a beautiful smile. “It does look wonderful on you. I knew it would. Now, I want to hear all about what you’ve been doing and how long you can stay with me.”
Alexia forced herself to chat quietly for a while, stopping when Gram’s eyes rocked shut too often. After tucking Gram into her main-floor bedroom for the night, she returned to the kitchen to make a grocery list.
Then she stood and stared at the ocean, her arms wrapped tightly around her. Her grandmother was fading fast. The only constant in Alexia’s world and she was falling away. Alexia’s fingers drifted to rub at the medallion like a touchstone, the warm metal relaxing her, even as her heart was breaking.
Gram said she couldn’t live in the beachfront house any longer on her own. She’d called Alexia in a panic asking for help in selecting a new place to live where she’d get assistance yet still have some independence. Alexia wished she could care for her grandmother permanently, but it wasn’t possible. She’d taken all her vacation time to come and settle Gram into her new home. Beyond that she needed to make a living, returning to her position as a massage therapist at the hospital. She couldn’t stay, no matter how much her heart longed to remain in the familiar setting.
* * *
Shutters rattled in the stiff breeze off the water, the sound settling around Alexia like a familiar blanket. Distant memories rose as she hopped out of bed and opened the French doors to stare at the ocean waves, the crash against the shore growing louder as she stepped onto the balcony.
Moonlight shone on the water, the night air warm in spite of the wind that tossed her hair into her eyes. She dragged a hand through her curls and faced into the growing storm. It exhilarated her to think of the power building in the darkening clouds, the waves whipped into a frenzy of whitecaps and foam. Alexia stood near the railing, her gown pressed to her body as she leaned forward to look down. The row of flags placed in the sand that led out to the shore stood stiff and unfurled, the flapping fabric a beacon against the dusky sand.
She couldn’t resist and raced down the stairs to follow the path to the water’s edge. The sea danced before her, the crash and slap of the water echoed in her ears and she stepped into the surf. She stretched her arms and rotated slowly, eyes closed, head thrown back. It had been years since she’d been able to experience the night air, taste the salty spray on her lips, and it was a homecoming she’d longed for. The house on the rocks was Gram’s, but the memories were all hers. Memories of endless summers, filled with quiet days of pleasure.
A lone gull cried and Alexia opened her eyes to watch it ride the air currents, the moonlight shining on its white body. It dipped low over the water and she could just make out the fins of dolphins in the distance as they played in the waves. Her heart leapt.
It was a good omen, it had to be.
The dolphins were always there when good things happened.
She remembered the first summer she’d gotten dumped at Gram’s. At fourteen she’d thought it was a punishment to be abandoned by her mother to the old woman’s care, but that soon changed. Gram was a hoot to be around. The house library was extensive and the beach… For a girl who had grown up in the city, all the water and sand was a playground to delight the senses. She’d spent every minute of daylight outside the first week, called in only for meals by her doting grandmother.
There were always other people on the beach, wandering from the wharf in Jaffrey’s Cove looking for flotsam and other prizes. A large family holding a reunion picnicked nearby one day, and she’d spent the afternoon with the little children helping to build the biggest sandcastle possible. They’d gathered shells and had begun to decorate it before the little ones lost interest and left Alexia to complete the final details…
A shadow fell over her as she knelt in the sand, finishing the moat.
“It’s a beautiful castle.”
She glanced up at the unknown youth and froze. He must be there with the reunion, but he wasn’t one of the safe little children she’d spent the afternoon with. He looked like one of the top ten boy-band singers, blond and all-American. Tanned skin and bright surfer shorts completed the picture. He loomed over her and Alexia sputtered for a minute as she tried to find her tongue.
“Thanks.” She checked around for anyone nearby to hide behind. She wasn’t shy. Much. This good-looking fellow made her hot and cold at the same time, and she wished some of the seven-year-olds would return so she’d have a chaperone.
He sat next to her, blocking her path of escape. There was no retreat without destroying the castle. She was suddenly conscious of her old swimsuit. The tightness, the worn patches.
“You’re new here, aren’t you?” he asked, staring over the water.
She nodded before she realized he couldn’t see the motion. “Got here last Saturday.”
He turned brilliant green eyes on her and she hurried to grasp some more shells and place them on the castle. If she didn’t have to look at him she’d be okay. Maybe.
“You having fun on your holiday?”
His voice was quiet and she had to listen hard to understand him over the crash of the surf behind them. “It’s been great. I’ve never made a sandcastle before.”
He gave a startled gasp and she swung toward him. His jaw hung open. “Never made a…really? Where do you live?”
“Saskatoon. It’s in the central part of Canada.”
His eyes grew thoughtful for a moment before he laughed. “I guess you don’t have a lot of ocean in the prairies.”
She shook her head and resumed building.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
He held out a hand. “Joshua.”
They shook hands. Alexia cringed as her sandy fingers touched his clean ones and rubbed grit together.
“Alexia, would you do me a favor?”
She sat back on her heels. She knew her face was beet red and she hoped it would just look like she’d had too much sun. Talking to boys was so hard.
Joshua pointed toward the water and Alexia noticed a gaggle of other boys grouped together, all watching closely. “My brothers and cousins.”
She waited. Joshua was the one fidgeting now. She checked his ears and they were either burned to a crisp or he was blushing harder than she was. She understood about being embarrassed. “What’s wrong? What can I help with?” Alexia glanced cautiously toward the boys. “Wait, you said they’re your family. All of them?”
Joshua gave her a wry smile. “I’m the youngest of five and I’ve got seven more cousins. And yup, it sucks big time.”
Alexia laughed and he smiled, like there was finally a common bond between them. She screwed up her courage. “What do you need help with?”
He mumbled something too low for her to hear, his face turning even redder. He met her eyes and must have seen her confusion. He took a big breath and let it out in a slow, uneasy stream before speaking louder. “Can I give you a kiss?”
She collapsed onto the sand as her legs gave way in surprise. “What?”
“I’m sorry, I don’t mean to be rude and I know it’s strange for me to pop up and ask something like that when I don’t even know you and I can understand if you say no but…” His gaze swung back to the boys who whispered behind their hands and slapped each other on the backs. Joshua squared his shoulders and looked Alexia straight in the eye. “They’ve been teasing me about being the baby of the family and one of them said I’d never even kissed a girl and before I knew it, they were daring me to kiss someone on the beach and they don’t think I will and…” He shook his head. “Man, it sucks to be the youngest.”
Alexia felt for him, even as blood rushed through her and made her squirm. She heard one of the brothers give a catcall and suddenly her embarrassment turned to anger. She knew what it felt like to be teased, and she wasn’t going to let the fact he was gorgeous stop her from fixing his jerks of brothers. She crawled to her knees and faced him.
Joshua stared at her, then his eyes widened. “You mean it?”
She nodded slowly. “Just a quick kiss, right? Nothing else?”
He shook his head in denial so fast she smiled. He cleared his throat a few times before holding out his hand to her again. “You are a true friend, and if I can ever come to your rescue, I would be honored to repay the favor.” His grin went from ear to ear.
Alexia smirked back at him as they shook hands, conspirators together against the bullies of the world.
She closed her eyes. That was about the extent of her knowledge when it came to the kissing deal. She waited, barely breathing. His lips brushed hers, cool like an ocean breeze, before he pulled away quickly.
Alexia opened her eyes. Her cheeks were hot and flushed, but she was still there and hadn’t melted from embarrassment. The hooting and hollering faded away in the distance, and she turned to see the rest of the boys retreating down the beach.
What was she supposed to say? “You’re welcome. Will they leave you alone now?”
He nodded. “I know it seems silly to let them get to me, but they are family and I guess I figured…” He gave a wry smile. “Anyway, thanks for helping me. They’ll stop teasing me, for a while at least.”
He rose to his feet and Alexia stood too, feeling strange to remain kneeling at his feet. Joshua shyly passed her a shell. “Here, for your castle. Or to take home as a memento of the holiday.”
She dropped her eyes to see a perfect shell, the edges intact and the spiral tracing counterclockwise to a fine point. “Thank you, it’s beautiful.” Alexia lifted her gaze to his. She caught a glimpse of something in the water beyond his shoulders and sucked in air. “Look!”
Fins surfaced in the water near shore. Suddenly a smooth body rose into the air, somersaulted and dove back in nose first.
“You’ve never seen dolphins at play before?”
She shook her head, refusing to take her gaze off the beautiful creatures. “They are so amazing. Do they plan it in advance? Are they playing or is it something they do to hunt or—”
Joshua laughed as two of the creatures leapt into the air and passed each other at the height of the arc. “It’s just play. Dolphins don’t have much work to do and lots of time to play.”
They stood shoulder to shoulder and watched until he squeezed her hand. “I have to go. Thanks, and I hope to see you again.”
Alexia watched until he disappeared from sight before making her way back to Gram’s remote beachfront home. Walking the steep stairs up to the main house, she stopped again and again to admire the dolphins as they frolicked in the waves.
Her first kiss. How very strange.
A wave broke high enough to splash her knees, bringing Alexia back from her wandering thoughts. Water soaked the bottom of her nightgown, making it cling tighter, clammy against her skin. Alexia debated only for a moment before she plunged into the next wave and let it soak her to the waist, the salt water crisp and cool. She felt light, and every inch of her skin tingled in the wind, her hair whipping around her face. The moonlight bright on her body, the storm ready to break, a deep longing rose within her for something unknown.
Alexia sat in the crashing surf, the wildness of the weather calling to her core, chaining her to the shore like a siren’s cry. She lay back, the grit of the sand under her shoulders delighting her with the coarse texture. A wave broke over her, soaking her to the skin.
The medallion around her neck flared and light exploded from within its depths. Motes danced, light swirled, sparkles flew around her and caressed every inch of her skin. Heat wrapped around her, stroked her torso, lapped at her neck like the touch of a lover.
The sky disappeared.