The sun was dying.
At least it was going out in a blaze of glory.
Clichés, but Anitra knew exactly why someone had looked at the sunset and thought those words.
Probably, they’d just gotten word that their son who had been fighting leukemia for the last three years was out of remission.
Probably, they’d been told there was nothing except experimental treatments left, and none of those held much hope or promise.
Probably, they’d been working their fingers to the bone, trying to take care of their business, along with being a mom to the son who just wanted to be a normal kid, and still pay their bills, while their deadbeat ex kept haranguing them for divorce, which they were loath to give, because it might mess up their health insurance.
Probably, if someone lived a life like that, when they looked at the sunset, instead of seeing the beauty and the uniqueness that each and every one was, they would see it as death.
Anitra Pollard stood on the shore of Lake Michigan, the breeze across the lake blowing the tunic dress she wore as well as her hair. It was a little chilly but felt warm after the subzero temperatures that blew off the lake in December and January.
Her soul cried out to the Lord, begging for the life of her son, even though she knew it was futile.
She’d been hoping for a miracle for three years.
Hoping that when Jordan had been declared to be in remission, that was a bit of the miracle she’d been begging for.
No such luck.
All spring, Jordan had been talking about angels in heaven, and she’d allowed him to do so, of course, but it scared her too.
A premonition on her part, or more likely his.
He seemed eager to go.
That made it easier, in a way.
But it wasn’t in her DNA, as a mother especially, to stop fighting.
To pry her fingers up and let go.
She wanted to shake her fist at the sunset, angry that God could make something so beautiful while her life contained so much pain.
They would fight this new diagnosis, of course. And that would mean more trips to Chicago, more loss of sleep, and more feeling overwhelmed as she did it all as a single mother.
Despite the fact that her divorce was not final.
The pier on her right, long and little more than a dark shadow as the sun crept lower, almost disappearing, grounded her somewhat.
As long as she lived in Blueberry Beach, all of her thirty-three years, the pier had been there, along with the lake, reflecting each sunset.
Solid, weathering every storm.
The pier wasn’t particularly pleasant to look at, but it felt stable, when nothing else in her life seemed to be anymore.
She supposed everyone was looking for stability.
Maybe God typically provided that.
But lately, it seemed like God had just upended her life time after time.
Half the time, she wondered if He was even there.
Although she couldn’t exactly look at the expanse of the lake before her and truly believe He wasn’t.
She carried her sandals. Her feet were bare, cool in the sand.
She hadn’t been gone long, but Iva May, who came to watch her son for an hour or so every night while she took a walk, wouldn’t mind going home early.
It was cool enough and early enough in the season that the beach was deserted.
Mostly deserted. She passed a man.
A tourist, since she didn’t recognize him.
She supposed he was athletic and strong, although her head was in such a state that she didn’t pay attention.
The idea of noticing a man felt strange. She was still married. Soon to be divorced. It was just a matter of getting the papers and signing them.
And then trying to figure out how that affected the health insurance she needed for Jordan, which is why she’d been dragging her feet to begin with. Her marriage had ended a long time ago when her husband had found someone else.
Overwhelmed but too restless to continue to stay and look at the water that often calmed her, especially this time of evening, she whirled, intent on her normal business walk, heading back to her small shop and the apartment that she lived in over it with her son.
Maybe it was everything that was happening.
Maybe it was because she hadn’t eaten all day, fasting and praying because she knew God was listening, He just wasn’t giving her the answer she craved, or maybe she was just getting old.
Whatever it was, she whirled too quickly, and the earth tilted around her, going fuzzy, then black, then she was on the sand, its wetness digging into her cheek, the cool roughness feeling good, if odd, against her hot skin.
Things seemed to darken then lighten and then blacken again.
She didn’t feel any particular hurry to get up, not even when a large wave touched her toes, reminding her that Lake Michigan was beautiful, wild, and very, very cold in March.
“Are you okay?” A voice, strong, low, and full of compassion, seemed to warm her the whole way to her cold toes.
She didn’t recognize it, although it seemed a little familiar.
Maybe a tourist who had been in her diner. She wasn’t sure.
A hand settled on her shoulder, and she gave in to the pressure, rolling until she lay on her back.
“Ma’am? Can you hear me?”
She could. She supposed she should let him know. She was bothered by something. What was the thing?
The hand, strong and warm, shook her again. “Your eyes are open. Your pupils responsive. Are you deliberately not answering me? Are you deaf?”
The last question wasn’t made sarcastically. It was like he was sincerely asking if she were deaf.
“I’m fine,” she whispered, knowing she was anything but. Of course, the problems that she had weren’t anything the man thought they might be, but he didn’t know that.
She was tempted, for the first time ever, to just get up and walk into the water. Keep walking until it was over her head and she disappeared.
Even if she disappeared, her problems wouldn’t, only she wouldn’t be here to solve them anymore.
They’d disappear for her, but she’d leave behind bigger problems for her son and her friends or whoever took her son, since her ex was highly unlikely to.
“I’m going to call an ambulance,” the man finally said.
“Please don’t. Please,” she whispered.
“Sit up and talk to me, and I won’t.”
She didn’t want to sit up. She wanted to just lie on the sand and let it take her. Or rest, or just bury her problems with something. Lake Michigan seemed as good of a something as anything. But since the man had been kind enough to stop and try to do a good deed, she didn’t want to punish him.
No good deed goes unpunished ran through her head, and she almost laughed.
She believed it. Had lived it most of her life.
Being good and doing the right thing hadn’t seemed to pay off for her.
At least not where Jordan or her marriage or her personal life was concerned.
She pushed up, slowly, the big warm hand behind her pushing, helping, and steadying her as she made it upright and bent her legs, pulling her knees up to her chest and wrapping her arms around them.
Putting her head down in a position she held often as a young girl, sitting on the edge of the lake.
It seemed like forever ago. She would like to be over her problems and not be burdened. Just for a little bit.
“You still don’t seem like you’re quite all there.” The man dropped from his crouch to his butt beside her, his position imitating hers to some extent but keeping one hand on her back, steadying her.
She could have told him she didn’t need it, but forgive her, she was just savoring the touch of someone strong and capable, even if he couldn’t share the problems that were in her head.
He sat close, and she wasn’t sure whether it was her or him, but when she lifted her head, it ended up in the crook of his arm.
It didn’t keep her warm, but it did feel good.
It had been years since her husband had offered any kind of support.
She’d been alone so long.
“Do you often walk on the beach?” the man asked.
She shook her head no, then she looked at him. He wasn’t bad to look at. With a strong jaw and kind eyes. A straight nose.
She couldn’t see much else because of the fading light, and she supposed she didn’t need to.
She was pretty sure he had been in her shop earlier that day, but it didn’t surprise her that he didn’t recognize her.
People who came in the diner often didn’t since she had her hair pulled back severely in a bun and usually wore her reading glasses perched on the end of her nose. Not to mention, she did a lot of the cooking, and Iva May usually worked the cash register.
It didn’t matter about tourists anyway. They were here one week and gone the next.
She enjoyed them, normally. Although the last three years had been a trial.
The man was still looking at her. It made her feel like he truly cared.
“I just had some really bad news today. I suppose, when you get bad news after bad news after bad news, it gets harder with each blow to bounce back. Maybe that was it. I don’t know.”
“Did you eat anything today?”
“Did you drink anything?”
Maybe. Yes? No… She really couldn’t remember. “I think I had coffee this morning.”
“Maybe you should try to take care of yourself. That might have something to do with it.”
She nodded. “You’re right.”
His advice, delivered in a tone that said he cared for her, despite not knowing her, was well meant. She wanted to soak it up, as impossible as it was.
How was she supposed to explain to him that she couldn’t hardly take care of herself when she had a son who was dying of cancer, and a business to run so that she could continue to pay her bills, and a husband who’d been gone longer than he’d been with her and wanted a divorce so he could marry—not the woman he left her for—but the next woman or the next. She couldn’t even keep track. One of them.
That she was afraid her health insurance would disappear when she signed her divorce papers, and she wouldn’t be able to make a living if she had to be in the hospital with her son and couldn’t work in her diner.
She couldn’t explain all that to a stranger.
She allowed her head to continue to rest on his shoulder. It should have felt weird, but it didn’t. It felt good, like someone else was beside her. For once.
“Thank you. Thank you for just sitting here with your arm around me.”
He didn’t say anything for a bit, like maybe he found their position odd but right as well, and then he said, “You’re welcome. It seems like maybe you need it.”
She nodded, moving her head up and down on his shoulder. “I think I do.”
His left hand reached over his body and touched hers which rested on her knee. He touched the ring finger where her wedding band had sat for years. She’d taken it off when her husband had informed her that he was moving in with someone else, which was not quite a year before her son had been diagnosed with cancer.
She noticed, as his hand settled over hers, that he wasn’t wearing a ring either.
A thought tumbled around in her brain, as rhythmic as the sound of the waves lapping the shore, as the wide-open lake breeze, fresh and clean, washed over them.
What was the point of doing right? She was tired of being good. Tired of doing everything perfectly—as perfectly as she could. Tired of being the responsible one. Tired of being the one who made sure things got done. Tired of always shouldering the load and picking up the slack.
She was tired. Tired of no one ever seeing her, appreciating her, tired of always doing everything for everyone else. Tired of being the one everyone depended on. Tired. Tired. Tired.
Normally, she would never sit on the bank of the lake in the arms of a man whose name she didn’t even know.
She’d certainly never done anything like that before.
She wasn’t interested in tourists anyway. They were here for a bit and then gone.
Growing up in Blueberry Beach, she’d learned she couldn’t form a lasting relationship with someone like that.
But maybe that’s what she needed. Something transient. After all, if she were going to do something she knew to be wrong, who better to do it with than a stranger?
Don’t be ridiculous. No one needs that.
The voice of reason in her head had always been loud and strong. She was tired of listening to it.
Look where it had gotten her. Soon to be single, having been essentially a single mom for years anyway. Responsible for all the bills from the last bout of cancer, heart broken by a man who couldn’t keep his promises. And now her son was going to be taken from her.
It sure didn’t seem like she was going to reap what she sowed. Seemed like she’d done nothing but reap hardship all her life.
She shivered. The man’s arm tightened around her.
The hand that was over hers moved slightly down, warming her fingers.
She shifted her hand just a little, and their fingers slid together.
Under her cheek, the man tensed.
That hadn’t been his intention. But after five or six heartbeats, he relaxed again, and his other hand slid up and down her arm, warming it.
“Thank you for stopping for me,” she said softly.
“Of course. I couldn’t walk on by without making sure you were okay.”
Of course. He would have stopped for anyone. She knew that.
“Do you live around here?” he asked. “Or are you just visiting too?”
“Can I not say?” she asked, not being coy but truly meaning it. She didn’t want to be her anymore. Even though she knew a person couldn’t just walk away from their life.
Well, her husband could walk away from his life and ditch everything, but she couldn’t. Not forever.
Maybe she could for an hour.
But no more. She couldn’t let herself.
“So you’re wanted by the police?” the man asked, and she smiled, wishing she were free to laugh too.
When was the last time she’d been with a man who had been charming and funny? For her.
It seemed like never.
“I am,” she said, going along with his statement. “I don’t want you to get messed up with my crimes. It’s better that you stay an innocent bystander.”
The man grunted, his side touching hers, feeling right. “I’m not very good at being a bystander. If something’s happening, I guess you can see that I have a tendency to get involved in the thick of it.”
She shook her head. “Shh. Don’t tell me anything about yourself. I don’t want to be able to describe the witness.”
“I think you can plead the fifth.”
“I suppose I could, but it would be better to be able to tell the truth.”
The man gave a low whistle. “An honest person. Those are hard to find nowadays.”
“Tell me about it,” she said, and she thought about her ex. What she wouldn’t do for an honest person. An honest husband.
“I guess if we are being honest, but I’m not allowed to give you identifying details, maybe I can still say I don’t typically sit on the beach with my arm around women that I don’t know.”
“I’ve never done this.”
“Hmm. So you’re not from around here.” His voice held humor. “Be careful. I’ll figure you out yet.”
She smiled, not the slightest bit tempted to tell him that she’d lived beside Lake Michigan her whole life.
“Is this your first time in Blueberry Beach?” she asked, referring to her hometown, although the man didn’t know it.
“No. I’ve been here several times. My job, which I’m not allowed to tell you about, and the training that I’ve done for it, which I’m really not allowed to tell you about, has taken up a lot of my time. And now, I’m at a bit of a crossroads, and I took a week off to come here and make a decision.”
She grunted. “What is it about the water, and the vastness of it stretching out in front of you, that makes you feel small and almost insignificant, and it puts your problems in perspective?”
At least, sometimes it did. Even as she said it, she knew it wasn’t true for her. Not lately. But she knew the feeling, because normal problems looked small against the water and the vastness it contained. “Maybe that makes it easier to make a decision, when you feel like it’s not life or death in the universe.”
“I hadn’t thought about it that way. But I can see that you might be right. I just know my thoughts get clear, and things seem to fall into place when I come out here, and watch the sunset, listen to the waves, and feel the slower pace of life. I think this is the way life was meant to be lived.”
She could agree with that. But just because one lived in a lakeside town didn’t mean a person didn’t have problems.
“I think this is the kind of place where tourists,” she almost said “like us,” but she didn’t want to say anything that wasn’t true, “go to make idyllic memories that they take home with them to unpack during their mundane lives the rest of the year.”
“I think so. You make better memories when you’re with someone.” He paused, then said lower, “Every time I’ve come, I’ve been alone.”
He was so gentle, his voice that good mixture of culture and gravel that touched her just right, and she couldn’t be the only one. She had trouble believing he was alone.
“After breakups?” she asked.
She’d spent a lot of time at the beach after her husband left. Iva May didn’t mind walking across the yard between her small house and Anitra’s apartment. She could watch her game shows in the evening on Anitra’s TV just as easily as she could watch them on hers.
Not to mention, she seemed to have a few ghosts in her own past that made her sympathetic to Anitra’s situation.
“No. Sometimes, life just seems a little overwhelming. Or a lot overwhelming. Me coming here had to do with that job and the training that I was talking about earlier, but I’m not allowed to talk about it, so I won’t. Because, in a way, I kind of like the idea.” He paused for a bit, and they listened to the water lapping along the shore. The moon had risen above the eastern horizon behind them and shone down, blocked occasionally by clouds.
“The idea of not knowing who you’re with?” she asked, and he didn’t say anything.
She’d given up that he was going to answer and let her mind wander. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to know who he was. He seemed like a nice man.
But she didn’t have any room in her life for real romance. As much as she might want it, and, with her divorce imminent, as much as she might be able to correct at least one of her many mistakes.
But she just didn’t want another entanglement. Didn’t want more. Especially not a tourist.
When she was in high school, she’d had a couple short and sweet summer romances.
Nothing more than holding hands and maybe a kiss under the pier.
They’d always promised to write, and sometimes they did. But not for long. Never for long.
She had never been interested in anything like that, but as the mystery man’s hand tightened around her arm, she felt like maybe it was okay to sit here with someone she didn’t know and had no intentions of ever seeing again.
Regardless, maybe she was crazy, but for the first time in her life, she didn’t care about tomorrow. After all, tomorrow always took care of itself.