Female laughter echoed joyfully through the apartment building stairwell as the girls raced downstairs to catch up with the guys, who waited for them in the parking lot below.
Connor, Mark and Andy were immediately energized by the irresistible noise of their girlfriends.
“Man, they sound pumped!” Mark grinned with anticipation.
“Sure do. I can’t wait to get started either cause I’m freezing!” Connor jogged around in circles to keep himself warm.
“It’s gonna be a fun run tonight.” Andy stomped his feet, fighting off the evening chill.
The excited girls burst through the downstairs door ready to run.
Connor grabbed Daisy around the waist. “I missed you!”
“Let’s go.” She wiggled out of his hold and ran ahead.
“Hey wait up!” He went after her.
“Let’s run!” Andy and Maria sprinted ahead and over took Daisy and Connor.
“Fartleks!” Mark hollered.
“Can you please just call ’em rotating sprints? That word, Fartleks, is so gross,” Susan complained as she and Mark ran ahead of Andy and Maria to take the new lead.
Daisy and Connor, who were now in the rear, sprinted up to the front. Then Andy and Maria sprinted to the front again, so on and so forth, the couples rotated the lead position all the way to the boardwalk.
When they hit the boardwalk platform, they turned to the left and fell into a solid, group pace so they could take in the serene beach evening together.
This time of night the beach was frigid cold and full of stars. It was perfect for refreshing the mind and clearing the soul of old cobwebs that sometimes formed there. After a time, the couples numbed to the shock of the cold air. They looked up to the sky and admired the millions of stars above with no thought of their frozen limbs at all.
They ran at a steady pace under starlight together. The ocean waves crashed loudly against the sandy beach. The wild sound of it thrilled the teens.
“Let’s pick up the pace again!” Andy hollered excitedly over the noisy waves. They all stretched out their legs to take the ground ahead of them with added vigor. Each one, focused intently on advancing in unison this time, no Fartleks.
When the birdwatcher station came into sight Andy yelled out, “Bet I can beat you Connor!” Andy burst out of formation and raced ahead of the group with all his might.
“Bet you can’t!” Connor yelled up to him. He nearly jumped over Maria to get around her and picked up speed to catch Andy. With everything that was in him, he pressed forward. One day he would catch Andy. “Why not tonight,” Connor thought wildly as he stretched to reach his goal.
The others raced behind Andy and Connor. They all pushed to hit their personal best.
Connor a-l-m-o-s-t caught up to Andy. He was just three strides behind him. Andy could hear him approaching, the challenge of his friend so closely behind him excited him tremendously! Andy eyed the end of the board walk, thinking what to do next. He didn’t want to quit the race, not with Connor right on his heels.
There was a railing all the way around the end of the platform with benches against the railing. Andy either couldn’t stop, or just plain didn’t want to. Planting one foot on the bench and one foot on the top of the railing, with one fluid motion, he leapt and landed in the sand on the other side of the railing! He grinned at his accomplishment but kept pushing at top speed to the water’s edge knowing that Connor would overtake him if he slowed the least bit.
Connor went right behind him! First foot on the bench, the second foot on the railing, then a giant leap through the air, out onto the sand! It was an exhilarating feeling! He loved it! He remained on Andy’s heels all the way to the water. He chased him down the beach, along the edge of the water as fast as he could.
Mark followed easily enough. He was able to make the flying jump over the railing just like Andy and Connor. Maria could do it too. But Susan and Daisy preferred to climb the railing at a slower pace. With Maria’s help, Daisy did a one-handed scramble over the railing, while Mark helped Susan climb over.
It was clear to Mark, that even though Susan was just as energetic as the other girls, she could not run for as long as they could without a rest. “I want to walk with Susan. You two go ahead, see if you can catch up to Andy.” Mark shooed his sister forward in an annoying, younger brother way.
Maria would have argued with Mark simply because she didn’t like being “shooed” but she could tell that Daisy still wanted to run, so instead, she looked down the beach for Andy and Connor. The guys were nowhere to be seen. Daisy and Maria both laughed with out-of-breath laughter at the absurd idea of trying to catch up to them, but they said, “Okay” anyway.
“Let’s go.” Maria tilted her head in the direction of the water’s edge.
“Yea.” Daisy jogged off with Maria, leaving Mark and Susan to walk. After jogging ten minutes down the beach, they finally caught up to the guys.
Andy and Connor were wrestling wildly all over the beach, attempting to somehow throw each other into the icy cold water. Andy would pin Connor and drag him to the water, but Connor would find a way to break free and then pin Andy. Andy would holler in outrage whenever held down and Connor would laugh hilariously as he dragged Andy in the direction of the water.
Maria and Daisy slowed their pace and found a place to sit and watch the wrestling match. Back and forth Andy and Connor went, with no clear cut winner. Eventually, the guys ran out of fuel.
Connor fell out flat in the sand next to Daisy, panting with exhausted laughter.
Andy threw himself down next to Maria in the same fashion. “It took you two long enough to get here!” Andy teased, out of breath. “Where’s Mark and Susan?”
“They wanted to walk a while, they are w-a-y down there.” Maria waved her hand down the beach.
“Oh.” Andy looked up at the stars, “Look at that sky!” He spread his arms wide over his head to demonstrate the vastness of the sky above. “Hey, there’s the big dipper!” He pointed in the direction he was looking.
Maria lay down in the sand to get a better view of the sky. “A shooting star!” she suddenly exclaimed and pointed into the sky.
Connor took Daisy’s hand and placed it on his chest over his heart.
“Wow, your heart is pounding a mile a minute!”
Connor laughed again. “I almost ended up in the ocean four or five times! Andy’s an animal!”
“You started it!” Andy defended his animal behavior.
“No, I didn’t. You did, man!” Connor took a really huge breath then blew it out roughly, finally relaxing.
Daisy lay next to him, quietly looking at the stars.
The December air was chilly, but they had been running so much they no longer even notice it.
Connor rolled onto his side and moved his hand to rest on Daisy’s stomach. “How’s your arm? Does it hurt?”
“Just a little, I should have worn my sling I guess. It’s not too bad.”
Connor kissed her forehead then he remembered the headband and grinned. He leaned over and kissed her again warmly. He softly asked against her lips, “Daisy girl, when do you have to be home?”
“Grandpa didn’t say really. But maybe I should be heading back. We are pretty far down the beach,” Daisy whispered back against his lips and then kissed him again.
“Day…,” Connor continued softly, “Go Christmas shopping with me tomorrow after school.”
He rolled onto his back to look up at the stars again. “Since tomorrow is the last day of school before Christmas break, maybe you can stay out late. See how late you can stay out with me tomorrow, okay?”
“Who’s going?” Daisy looked over at him.
“I’m only inviting you girl. But I think Dad wants to go with us, maybe Coach Peggy too. They will only want to hang out with us for a little while though.” Connor chuckled. “I think they have a date of their own planned.”
“It’s hard to Christmas shop for everybody if they’re with us. We should go alone,” Daisy returned.
Connor rolled back onto his side and ran his hands through her hair, completely distracted by the sensation of it and kissed her again. She had promised him earlier, to escape with him, back into their private world. She stopped talking and just went with it for a while. This day was coming to an end, promises had to be kept.
“Day, I wish we could stay out here longer,” Connor whined between kisses.
He hummmmed back affectionately.
“Day, hey, Day,” Maria was pulling on her shirt “Day, I’m sorry to bother you guys but I have to get home. We have school tomorrow.”
“Okay, okay, we’re finished,” Daisy moaned.
Connor held on to his girl. “No we’re not.” He ran his hands through her hair again, chuckling at the amount of sand that he shook from it. “Your hair is so thick, babe. I love it. It’s like a lions mane or something.” He dug his hands into it a third time and pulled her down to kiss him again.
“Connor, don’t get Maria in trouble. We still have a long walk back.”
“Okay, okay, okay,” he gave in with a tinge of disappointment.
Everybody stood up and shook the sand out of their clothes.
“Yuck, between the sand and the sweat, I’m a mess,” Maria complained.
“Sweat ‘in is good for the skin,” Andy teased. “Gets all the impurities out. That’s why you’re so pretty.” He gave Maria a peck on the cheek, thinking he’d done a magnificent job of giving her a compliment.
Maria rolled her eyes. “Don’t care. Sweat and sand don’t mix,” she mumbled unhappily.
They slowly jogged back, looking for Mark and Susan along the way. They finally found them, talking at the edge of the water, near the boardwalk.
“Hey guys,” Susan greeted them cheerfully.
Andy walked by Mark and punched him in the arm. “Get ’in lucky?”
“Shut up!” Mark punched him back.
“Ow!” Andy chuckled.
“What’s your shirt all wet for? Connor get ‘cha into the ocean?”
“Shut up! It’s sweat from cream ‘in his butt!”
“You wish!” Connor laughed.
“There’s a bit of seaweed hang ‘in off the back of your shirt. Let me get it for ya,” Mark teased.
“Is not, shut up. Mark!” Andy checked the back of his shirt even though he knew the boardwalk beach never had seaweed.
Everybody but Maria laughed as Andy brushed nonexistent seaweed from the back of his clothes. She gave her brother a disapproving glance for teasing her boyfriend.
“What? I didn’t like his ‘getting lucky’ comment,” Mark defended his teasing remarks.
“Must be because you didn’t get lucky.” Andy chuckled.
“You date my sister, you don’t even know what get ‘in lucky is,” Mark shot back.
Maria punched Mark for that comment. “Shut up!”
Everybody, even Andy, roared laughing because they all knew that Mark’s comment was very true.
They all climbed back over the railing and walked back to Connor’s apartment complex. You couldn’t quite call what Daisy did climbing. Connor just gave her a good push and she did a one-armed, slither job back onto the platform.
When the group arrived at the apartment parking lot, Maria said, “We better go. We’ll be back in the morning to pick you up for school, okay?”
“See you in the morning.” Connor and Daisy waved goodnight to their friends and walked up the stairs to their apartments.
When they arrived at Daisy’s front door Connor took her hand and pulled her closer to him. “Hey, wait a minute,” he kissed her lightly, “Don’t say good night yet.”
“Kay.” She smiled and returned his kiss, feeling freer to lose track of time at her front door as opposed to two miles down the beach.
Eventually, Davis and Peggy opened the front door to leave. “We were starting to wonder what happened to you guys! Spoon ’in again, I see,” Davis teased.
Connor straightened up with a grin. “Hey Dad, we’ve been right here.”
“Rose is a little bit worried,” Peggy said. “But I have an idea.”
Connor, Daisy, and Davis gave Peggy a curious look, wondering what she meant.
“Daisy, I will cover for you and get you passed Rose and into the shower if you let me borrow that mistletoe headband of yours for the night. I will give it back tomorrow.”
“Sure.” Daisy giggled.
Connor laughed heartily at the happy look on his Dad’s face. “Where are you going?”
“Well, I thought I was just driving Peg home but maybe not? Where are we going?”
“That’s what we were doing but I thought it would be nice to drive home with the headband too. What do you think?”
Davis rubbed his head bashfully. “Okay.”
Peggy grabbed Daisy’s hand and peeked in the front door to see where Rose was. “She’s still in the kitchen. Run to the bathroom and start your shower and I will go to the kitchen and tell her you’re in there, okay?”
“Okay.” Then she turned to Connor and whispered, “See you in the morning.”
“Night, Daisy.” He reluctantly released her hand.
Davis knocked Connor in the shoulder “You’ll live son. You’ll see her in the morning.” Davis laughed at his son’s sad expression.
Then Peggy pulled Daisy through the door and she was gone.
That night Maria lay on her bed thinking about the wonderful Christmas she was having with all her friends. Her mind drifted off to Gary. Her fascination with his plight had not wavered one tiny bit in his absence, but she had no idea what to do about it.
Finally, she decided to say a prayer, “Dear God in Heaven, please remember Gary. Give him the strength to overcome the problems in his life. Amen.”