Maria and Andy walked down the stairwell of Connor’s apartment and headed for the Boardwalk.
“Do you think I was being a jerk?” Andy asked with a touch of regret. “Maybe I should have just left him alone.”
“You’re fine and so is he.” Maria smiled as she took his hand and swung it around lightly. “Connor knows you were just mess ‘in around. He laughed at everything you said, or maybe I should say, he tried to laugh at everything you said.”
“That’s just it. He couldn’t laugh. He couldn’t even speak. Daisy did all the talk ‘in. I’ve never seen him let Daisy do all the talk ‘in before.”
“Don’t worry about it, Andy. All of us together will help Connor get better.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, Doctor Chimes will advise him, Davis will monitor his progress, Daisy will baby him…” Maria halted in her speech because Andy interrupted her with, “Don’t you mean, spoil him?”
Maria playfully pulled on his arm. “Come on, Andy. She’s not that bad.”
“Oh yes she is.”
Maria threw her arms up in the air, knowing it was useless to argue about it. “Okay, she’ll spoil him then. But my parents won’t spoil him, they’ll pray for him. Mark and Susan won’t spoil him, they’ll encourage him. Then there’s us,” Maria pointed to Andy and herself. “We’ll kick him around a little bit and tease him. Alone, our part is probably not good for him. But…if you combine our part with everyone else, it’s a pretty good recipe for recovery. Don’t ya think so?”
“Yea, I see what you mean, plus there’s Connor’s personal drive. We can’t forget that.”
“Personal drive is at the top of the list,” Maria agreed.
“It’s gonna be tough competing with Nurse Velcro though.” Andy shook his head, wondering how to get around her. “She’s pretty sticky, and Connor, man, he certainly has no interest in being unstuck.”
Maria shook her head and laughed. It amused her that Andy viewed the situation like a competition. She had only meant that friends had a way of balancing each other out, not that they competed. But that was Andy, so she tucked that little revelation away in her heart and continued her counsel. “You better watch out, because next time she might find something harder than a pillow to throw at you.”
“She might,” Andy smiled at the possibility. He looked up at the star filled sky and breathed deeply. “Nice night for a run.”
A wintry breeze swirled around them.
Waking urge to run within them.
Icy fingers prod and poke them.
Crashing waves beckon to them,
“Borders come, come and run them!”
Energized by the perfect running conditions of the night, Andy answered the call without another word. He slid into an easy running gait and aimed for the beach with Maria at his side.
Icy jabs from ocean breeze.
Whooshing cars along the street.
Rhythmic padding of four feet.
Pumping air in total sync,
They aim together for the beach.
Crashing waves, they want to meet.
Soft wet sand beneath their feet.
Star light glisten on the deep.
When it’s cold, one loves to keep,
Endless distance, endless beat.
It’s a runner’s favorite feat,
Running-running with no heat.
Such conditions are so neat.
They make night runs, superbly sweet.
They galloped across the boardwalk platform and jumped from the top of the stairs into the sand below. Without a hitch they continued their jaunt down to the edge of the water and ran parallel with the ocean.
The tranquil sound of the night breeze across the dunes combined with the sound of rushing water, set their minds at ease. They switched into autopilot and ran without a thought or care.
It was an unmarked distance that they ran. There was never a thought to chart it. Not a single glance at a watch to time it. Who wanted to count minutes when endless miles of starry sky and ocean coastline stretched out before them?
The tide changed as the night wore on. Sometimes the waves would roll up higher than expected and nibble at their feet. They did not try to avoid it. They splashed along, enjoying the refreshment. The shock of the icy water made them laugh. A few times Andy exaggerated his steps to create bigger splashes and louder laughs from Maria. Feeling encouraged by her energetic sound he gave the next wave a huge kick. Freezing bullets of water shot out in all directions.
“Aaaaaaaa! A-n-d-y!” Maria, not being the type to let a ripe opportunity pass her by, returned Andy’s splash with one of her own.
Andy felt the wild urge to jump out of his skin and wrestle until there was no more breath left in him, but he caught himself and pulled back. Splashing Maria was one thing, but wrestling? That was something entirely different. Maria didn’t wrestle. He gave her grand slam splash an approving chuckle then turned towards the dark ocean water and stared out into its vastness.
If Connor had been running with them, there would have been a wrestling match for sure. But he wasn’t with them. He was at home, flat on the floor, unable to so much as laugh without pain. The disappointment over Connor’s condition resurfaced in Andy’s heart. He had forgotten about everything when he first hit the beach, but now that Maria was kicking ice cold water at him, it all came back. The icy, cold, shocking reality, Connor got his butt kicked, and he had not been there to help him. Pictures of Connor’s black and blue jaw line, his tired eyes, his swollen hands, his bandaged chest, his uncharacteristic silence, these pictures crept back into Andy’s mind and stewed within him angrily.
“What happened?” Maria asked in bewilderment. “Did I do something wrong?” She touched his arm and tried to see his face. She couldn’t tell. Was it ocean water, sweat or tears running down his cheek. “Andy, what happened? I was just playing. You know that, right?”
He stuck his arm out to her and gave her a little sideways hug. “I know,” he returned with unusual gruffness. “You didn’t do anything wrong. You’re a lot of fun Maria.” He coughed to clear his throat. “It is just that, you know, nights like this…” He raised his arms high to encompass the windy, wet vastness in front of them. Then he sadly dropped his arms back onto her shoulder. “Nights like this, I usually get a crazy, long run with you for starters. Then a whirlwind wrestling match with Connor. Now, he’s all laid up at home. No tell ‘in when he’ll be able to move around again, much less wrestle.” He pulled her closer to his side and kissed the side of her head. “You know what really gets me the most?”
“What gets me the most is that I was on the phone talk ‘in to him about Daisy’s race ‘in stripes just 20 minutes before it all went down. Twenty minutes! Can you believe that? While we were at Shop-Smart eating sandwiches, Connor was getting his butt kicked. Why didn’t I feel it, or sense it or something? I should have known it was happening. I’m mad I wasn’t there to help him. I’m mad he’s not here to wrestle.” Andy squeezed Maria’s shoulders a little tighter under his arm.
“It’s not your fault, Andy,” she whispered.
“No, but had I been there…the two of us together…we could have…”
Maria interrupted him, “You weren’t there Andy, and there was no reason for you to be there either. You don’t work at Palmer. Let’s just be glad they’re home now.”
“Yea, you’re right,” he reluctantly conceded. “I’m glad he’s home. He’ll recover real soon.”
They watched the waves and silently digested the bitter-sweet events of the day. Andy’s heart was in a state of turmoil just like the multiple currents moving in the water before them. The waves crashed into each other making unexpected turns before they hit the sand. Sometimes the water would roll up high, splashing their legs with icy reality. Other times the waves would roll in soft, with just a gentle tap at the toe.
From one unpredictable wave to the next, moonlight bounced, without any detectable pattern at all. Andy tried to replace the anger he felt about his buddy getting beaten up and the culprit getting away scot-free, with simple relief that Connor’s injuries were not permanent. He was home. He would recover. But it was hard. Andy’s emotions bounced back and forth, back and forth, back and forth, all over the place, until a new thought entered his head. “The Adams family better not have anything to do with this,” he grumbled irritably.
“I’m sure they don’t,” Maria defended weakly, for no real reason at all.
“And how do you know that?” Andy gave her a direct look.
“Well, I don’t really. I just don’t see how. They aren’t even here. I mean, why? What would be the reason?” Maria stammered under his direct gaze.
“How do you know where they are and where they’re not?” he continued.
“I know for certain that Gary is in Brazil with his mother. Glenn is supposed to be there too, so I’m assuming he is. Mr. Adams, well, he’s on the loose I guess, but he has no connection with Palmer. It makes no sense for him to be hanging around here.”
“The Adams family has never needed a good reason to harass people. How come you know so much about Gary?”
“I follow Gary and Glenn on Facebook. I’m positive that I can tell them apart because I’ve been studying their photos. Glenn wears an earring and has a tattoo on his arm. Gary wears only a black crucifix. When we watched Daisy’s fall on the news, the cameras zoomed in on Alison and the guy she was with. That was Glenn, not Gary. But in court, Gary confessed to it and took all the blame for it. I don’t have any idea why he did that. But I know for a fact that it was Glenn with Alison. Gary is not like the rest of his family. No matter how things look, he is not the criminal that he appears to be.” Maria exhaled heavily like a huge weight had just been lifted off her chest.
“That’s crazy.” Andy shook his head with disbelief.
“Well, it is just like you said, the Adams family doesn’t need a good reason to harass a person. They’ll even harass their own flesh and blood. They are letting Gary, if not making him, take the blame for something Glenn did.”
“Well, even if we rule out Gary, there is still Mr. Adams and Glenn. Do you have any tidbits on them?”
“No. Uh-uh.” She shook her head sadly, wishing she did. “Well, there’s the horse thing, but I don’t see the connection there. Gary has this horse that he hides from his family.”
“Oh yea, the horse.” Andy chuckled.
Maria dug her feet into the sand, thinking hard. Wondering hard rather, wondering if she dare ask Andy a question.
“Does Gary know you visited his horse?” Andy asked.
“Well, I was sorta hoping to shoot him an email sometime soon. Maybe attach a photo or something.” Maria was now an inch shorter because she’d dug her feet so deeply into the sand. A sudden wave rushed up and slammed against their legs, washing away all the sand around her feet. She stared at her sopping running shoes, afraid to look up while Andy watched the wave roll out, thinking.
“Well…” he ventured after some time, “It seems to me, that if you went to so much trouble to see the horse, you should at least mention it to him. That you did it.”
“Really?” She looked up into his face with utter amazement. “Really, really, really?!” She jumped under his arm and he rolled his eyes at her surprise. “Yea really. Why are you so shocked?”
“It’s just that, I know you hate the Adams family. I’m surprised that it’s okay with you that I contact one of them.”
“I do hate the Adams family. That hasn’t changed any. But if you have found a way to keep tabs on their whereabouts, that’s helpful. Plus,” he gave a little chuckle, “You’re gonna do it anyway. Am I right?” His eyes sparkled in the moonlight, knowing her mischief.
She just smiled not really wanting to answer.
He leaned down and kissed her smiling face. He hugged her close and whispered, “Gottcha,” in her ear. He loved her unpredictable nature, that was true, but even more than that he loved catching her. “You’re so much fun Maria. I love you, okay. You can trust me,” he whispered. “Can you do me just one favor?”
“Don’t interact with the Adams family alone. Always bring me into it. Use my email address, not yours.”
“He won’t answer it, if it’s from you.” She looked into his face seriously. She wanted to say yes, but she couldn’t.
“Make a new one then.”
She smiled. “That’d work. Do you wanna do it now?”
“Yea, let’s go.” Andy took her hand and they walked the long distance from the beach to Maria’s house.
When they arrived, the house was dark.
“Cars are here,” Andy observed. “They must be home from Connor’s.”
Maria hesitated at the front door for a moment. “Yea, they’re home, but hmmm, I think we should go around back and use the kitchen door. If the lights are out, that means Mom is in bed. Let’s not wake her.”
Andy silently followed Maria around the side of the house. When they entered the kitchen they found Mark sitting at the table, eating Jell-O.
“Must have been a good run, you guys are a mess,” Mark chided. “Hey! Take your dirty shoes off, I just mopped the floor.”
“Oh crap, sorry man.” Andy stepped backwards and pulled off his wet shoes and soggy socks at the door.
“I thought it was my turn to mop the kitchen,” Maria mumbled as she pulled off her shoes.
“It was, but you weren’t here, so mom told me to do it. You take my turn next week.” Mark finished off his Jell-O and put the bowl in the sink.
“Hey, that looks good. Can I have some?” Andy smiled at the empty Jell-O bowl.
“Help yourself. Mom made a whole bunch.” Mark stuck his thumb out in the direction of the refrigerator.
“Let me have your wet shirt, Andy.” Maria’s arms were full of their stinky shoes and socks. “I’ll put it in the wash with this other stuff.”
Andy pulled off his shirt and put it on top of the stinky pile in Maria’s arms. “There ya go Care Bears.” He grinned playfully.
Maria crinkled up her nose as the odor of his shirt wafted around her head. “Ugh, don’t think I’m going domestic on you, lover-boy. I’m only doing this because you stink.” She turned in the direction of the wash room. “I’m taking a shower too, so hang out with Mark a while.”
Andy nodded at Maria as she left the room, then took a big bite of red Jell-O. “This is good. Can I have some water too?”
Mark pushed a glass into the water dispenser of the refrigerator door and filled it up with ice water. He handed it to Andy. “If this is enough hydration for ya, p-l-e-a-s-e go take a shower in my room. You can change into some of my clothes. Maria’s right, you stink, man.” Mark gave his sweaty buddy a friendly punch in the arm.
“Thanks, man.” Andy downed his water, put his dishes in the sink and followed Mark to his room for a shower.
When he was all cleaned up, he took the rest of his dirty things to the washroom and dumped them into the already running washing machine. He was going to go back to Maria’s room but he heard the Jell-O calling him from the kitchen so he made one more pit stop.
After filling two bowls high with Jell-O, he flicked off the kitchen lights and wandered through the dark house to Maria’s room. He tapped softly on her door with one of the bowls.
She cracked her door open and whispered, “Come in.” He slipped through the crack then silently eased the door shut with his foot.
“Brought you some Jell-O.” He grinned.
“Oh thanks!” Maria had been towel drying her hair, but upon sight of the Jell-O, she immediately stopped and sat on her bed to eat with Andy. “I’m so hungry,” she mumbled with her mouth full.
“I’ll get you some more, if you want.”
“Na, this should do it.” After a few satisfying bites, she pointed to her computer with her spoon. “I turned it on but haven’t done anything yet. What should my new address be?”
Andy slid onto her desk chair and started pushing keys. “Our first names, with a random number or two should do the trick. And, uh, secrets, can be our password, okay? There we go, we’re in. Now, what do you want to say?” Andy paused at the keyboard waiting for Maria’s input.
Maria smiled. “I told you, he might not respond if your name is on the email.”
“I put your name first. He’ll open it, believe me. Now, what should we say?” he asked again.
She hovered over Andy’s shoulder thinking.”Ummm, Andy, are you jealous?”
He looked her in the eye. Their faces were very close now, due to her hovering position. “I am. I’m very jealous,” he whispered seriously.
Maria returned his serious gaze. “Andy, I’m not interested in him… for that reason.”
Maria stuck her pinky finger out and hooked it onto his pinky finger. “Promise.”
Flattered by his concern, Maria couldn’t help but smile. “Forever and ever, Andy.”
“Okay then. I’m good.” He kissed her hand then returned his attention to the keyboard. “Now what do you want me to type?”
“All I want to say is, ‘I hope you are having a nice Christmas. Al says not to worry about Freedom. She is doing fine.’ Then sign it ‘Legs’.”
“Only my legs are in the photo. I thought it was cute.”
“Cute? Maria, you have the hottest legs in the country. I don’t think you should mention them to this guy.” Andy shook his head, completely against the idea of Gary noticing her legs.
“Oh God, Andy.” She dropped her head to his shoulder in frustration. “Okay, okay, how should I sign off then?”
“Your initials are enough.” He keyed in M.L. “You said what you wanted to say without leaving any opportunity for misunderstanding. Now, where’s your SD card?”
“You’re being over protective,” she mumbled as she handed the SD card to him.
“Things worth keeping are worth the trouble to protect,” he sighed lightly wishing she understood his feelings better. Then he attached the photo and sent the email. “All done.”
“Thank you.” Maria yawned and laid her head on his shoulder. “I don’t know how far we ran but I’m exhausted.” She gently combed her fingers through the back of his hair and yawned again. “Would you play the guitar for a little while, before you go home?”
“Sure, I’ll go find Mark’s guitar.” Andy silently tiptoed out of the room.
When he returned, Maria was already in bed, snuggled under a pile of blankets.
Andy turned the lights down low and went to her side. Strumming a soft melody, he watched her eyes blink slower and slower until they opened no more. His peaceful notes carried her away to dreamland. He continued his song and watched her sleep a bit longer, knowing quite well, that things worth keeping were worth the trouble to protect.
Classical Guitarist Johann Pachelbel