Her toes dug into the sand. “I’m not going.” He didn’t hear her as he bent to pick up another shark’s tooth from amongst the broken shells littering the shoreline. They had been arguing now for the last ten minutes.
“Here.” Ben said placing the small black tooth in her hand. Afraid of the words coming his way he quickly bent once more. They had been this way all summer. Him singing her praises and giving chase, her running away. Now that he had finally caught her, she was going away. Why sending her away with a bunch of sharks’ teeth was more important than actually owning up to his feelings, Ben couldn’t say. He heard her sigh in frustration, Ben bent lower, concentrating now, as if placing one more tooth in her hand would make everything okay.
“Did you hear me?” Sarah stooped. “I leave at the end of the week.” She paused, stared over at his tanned form. His dark brown hair hung in salted curls, the tips sun kissed in rich reds and golds. Those curls would be on his stylist’s floor before long. “Ben.”
A large black lab raced toward them chewing at the ball in his mouth. Nearly pushing her over in his excitement, the dog dropped the ball on Sarah’s toes. “Really Bruiser?” Ben snickered beside her. “It’s not funny!” Bruiser nudged the ball, gave a solitary bark, his tail whipping sand in the air. “Okay.” Sarah picked up the ball and stood. “Damn dog.” Yet she smiled when she sent the ball into the air.
Ben rose, wiped bits of sand from his fingers. His light brown eyes glanced after the dog then down the beach knowing one of his parents had to be close. He watched his mom wave from 100 feet away. Ben returned his attention to Sarah. “You better be nice to that damned dog. If it wasn’t for him,” he shrugged, stared at the ground then dared to meet her eyes, “I’d never of met you.” Ben gave her a soft smile, knocked her shoulder with his. “Come on. Say you will go.”
It was pitiful. He was twenty-one; heading into his senior year of college and this was the best he could do? When had he become so shy? A lump formed in his throat. Sarah watched the dog ride the waves. He watched her. It had become his hobby this summer and he had a sketch pad to prove it. Sarah sitting by the rocks, Sarah and Bruiser, Sarah looking at him – that was his personal favorite. He had snapped the image with his cell phone just as the sun was setting. The lighting played up her green eyes, deepened their jungle color against her freckled face. It was only when he looked past the surface of the picture as he sketched that something exploded within him. Ever since, it had caused him to stumble (as he was now) whenever she was around.
She stood silent beside him. By the furrow of her brow and the sucked in bottom lip the idea of spending a few more days with him had slunk past some private barrier. “Sarah?” She didn’t answer. Now it was his turn to wait as she peered into the horizon. A shark’s tooth rolled in the sanded surf but he knew it would be gone before he was able to catch it. Like Sarah in a way.
Still staring out at the ocean she said, “There is nothing here.” Her thin shoulders scrunched up in a shrug but she refused to look at him. “We were just having fun, nothing more.”
He knew she had an on again off again boyfriend. Sarah had been texting him all summer. Technically, he had Bailey who was off backpacking through Europe with her sister. Realizing she wasn’t going to give he tried again. “Friends,” he said with emphasis, “don’t leave like this. Come to the big bash on Saturday. Everyone will be there. Bruiser too.”
“Hey there. Find any good shells?” Ben’s mother asked walking over to them. She eyed Ben then nodded at Sarah. “Bruiser isn’t giving you any trouble is he?” Ben knew this was a euphemism for him and rolled his eyes.
“No Mrs. Gables. Bruiser is fine.” Sarah flashed a smile at Ben then threw the sanded tennis ball Bruiser had again dropped on her toes.
“I’m so excited that Bruiser made your acquaintance. Your parents have been so refreshing. I wish you all didn’t have to go.” An actual frown appeared on his mother’s lips before she whisked it away. “I expect you both to put in an appearance Saturday. We are going all out this year. The neighbors have fireworks and your dad,” she pointed at Sarah, “is on grill duty. You’re lucky to have a chef in the family. Sunday brunch won’t be the same. We’ll miss you.”
“Us too.” Sarah said but her gaze moved passed his mother and back to the ocean with a quickness that unnerved him.
Gently his mother broached the subject of next year. “Your mom has already talked about booking the condo next door again. Think we can coax you back to our beautiful beach next summer?”
“Maybe.” Sarah peeked at Ben who had turned three shades redder than his last sunburn. “It certainly is beautiful here.”
“Good.” His mother turned towards the condo and waved at Ben’s father who stood at the condominium’s access gate. A shrill whistle sounded from his direction and Bruiser tore off at a run with the ball in his mouth. “Well, that is our signal. Remember, Saturday.” She gave Sarah a luminous smile, turned it on Ben and winked at him before walking away.
“Man does she like you.” He said aware she had spied them from the balcony and used Bruiser as a reason to come say something. That megawatt smile was the dead giveaway.
“I hope so. I’ve only been a permanent fixture at your place.” Sarah’s tone changed pitch, sounding guilty as if her presence had been a real inconvenience. “My mother too.” Now he heard her embarrassment, but she followed it with a truth they both recognized. “I’m amazed our families clicked so well.”
“Like it was meant to be or something.” He grinned. The Gables had claimed the entire McAteer clan as extended family over the last two months as if taking in tourists as house guests was what every Florida family did.
“Or something.” Sarah said pulling her phone out of her pocket. He was sure it was an unconscious reminder of the life waiting for her return since she slid it back into her pocket without a glance. “I still blame your parent’s dog!”
Ben smiled. He had been looking for an excuse to meet the pretty blonde with her nose stuck in a Dean Koontz paperback when Bruiser ran over to her, dumped his ball in her lap and proceeded to shake wet sand from his coat. It was well worth a day of humiliation and apologies. Ben already promised Bruiser extra treats for the rest of his life. “I swear he has never done that before. Kicked sand on people, jumped on them, yeah. He ever got into people’s food, once, but never has he given up his ball. That is sacred.”
Sarah didn’t respond. She rubbed her arms as if she were cold. Ben moved closer to her, “Wanna talk about it?”
“Not really.” She dug her toes in the sand again. A nervous habit he realized.
He stared out at the frothing white caps unable to understand how his world upended. Neither intended for their relationship to be anything more than a fling. Okay, so he respected her reading taste. And she had a great sense of humor. What wasn’t there to like? She was smart, had taken a genuine interest in his family, knew not to take herself or life too seriously and liked to have fun. Chewing his lip he realized somewhere along the way all that had changed but he couldn’t pinpoint the where or when it had. Only that he viewed Sarah as more than a friend. “Look. I never-“
“Don’t.” Sarah placed a hand on his arm stilling him. “We haven’t done or said anything I regret. Let’s keep it that way, huh?”
“Yeah.” Ben nodded. He pulled her into a gentle one-armed hug, razed her the way he did his little sister in an effort to keep things light. Then because he couldn’t resist, he kissed the top of her head. “I don’t want to go home.”
Sarah ignored the brief touch. “Why? It is your last year. After that you are free.”
“You haven’t met my parents, obviously. I’m already shopping schools for my Masters.”
She nodded, “I may do that too.”
“You already have a job lined up next year with the hospital. Why would you want to stay in school?”
“More money, duh!” He looked down at her, pushing her blond hair away from her lips his fingers lingered. Sarah pulled away. “Hear from Bailey?”
“She’s back on Monday.” Ben grimaced. “We aren’t moving in together.” This he delivered matter of fact as if talking about Bailey didn’t bother Sarah in the least. He cast a sideways glance to check.
“Good.” Sarah kicked up the sand off her toes. “I told you she wasn’t ready. Besides what would she want with some frat boy like you?” She teased.
“Who said she was the one who decided against it.” He said irritated Sarah was right. Though Ben bet Bailey’s sister and Europe had more to do with Bailey’s decision than her realizing she was too young to lock herself into something more long term. “Maybe I turned her down.” In his book the decision had been mutual.
“Oh please! You’ve been mooning over her since I met you.”
“Well maybe I found someone else.”
“Stow it, Gables. Such talk is not permitted around here.”
“What about the fireworks Saturday?”
“I think I’ve had enough of those.” Her green eyes found his. “We were just blowing off steam. I have Paul, you have whoever. Besides we live in different states and long distance doesn’t work. Once we get back to our lives we’ll both realize this wasn’t real. If we try to make it more, we won’t even end up as friends. So let’s just leave it.”
Ben wanted to argue, tell her that he loved her. Tell her how he felt it in his bones. That if she left him today a part of him would never return. Ben grabbed her hand, entwining his fingers about hers and acquiesced. “Okay. But you have to meet me before you go. Say goodbye.”
Sarah nodded. “I’ll show up at the party too. Your mom asked. But,” she pointed a finger at him, “I’m not spending all my time there with you. Today was our last day.” She looked back out at the ocean. “I have to go.” Tears moistened her eyes as she broke away to gather her things. “My mom wanted to do some last minute shopping.”
He didn’t fight, didn’t grab for her hand or try to kiss her goodbye, just stared at the water immobilized. Sarah had made up her mind. Paul won. He lost. It seemed fitting that they should end at the beach where it all had begun. And maybe she was right. Maybe none of it was real.
Kicking up a spray of water, Ben turned toward the condominium. Nothing about Florida was real anymore. The house was gone. His parents had sold it last year and bought this stupid place now that both he and Caroline were gone. His mother had consoled him with the cruel reminder that they had a three-bedroom unit on the third floor with plenty of space for visiting children. Sure, he loved waking up to the oceanfront vista overlooking the pool. He rather liked the look of concrete and palm trees, the bright blue of chlorinated water glinting in the sun. Spending a summer here made for a great vacation memory but it wasn’t home.
He wasn’t sure exactly where home was. Certainly not at school, nor the school he’d attend after that. Maybe that was why he liked the idea of moving in with Bailey. It would have hardly caused a blip in his routine since wherever she was had been his home for two and half years. Stable, comfortable, Bailey. Yeah, he liked her but love? The way he loved Sarah?
Could he call it love? This ache deep in his gut. He knew he wanted her to be happy. Was that love or him being idealistic? The thought of never talking to her again after Saturday killed him let alone of not seeing her every day. He’d take letters, communicate the old fashioned way, every carrier pigeon if it meant she would be in his life in some way. She could marry Paul, have a thousand babies with him, just as long as they remained friends. For the first time his mind skidded into the idea of marriage – with Sarah and what it would be like. His heart sank. Man did he envy Paul.
Heading back Ben heard his dad’s voice carry from the pool where he joked with another tenant. At the small stretch of fenced dog friendly grass his mother happily walked Bruiser. The downsize suited them well. “You know I was thinking,” she said as he approached, “Sarah lives in the Midwest, she might like our jar of sharks’ teeth. It would make a great reminder of the summer. Besides, we can always find more.”
His mother smiled. “You know how I say that sharks teeth are our way of saying I love you?” Ben nodded glumly. “Well you don’t think I made that up, do you?” His mother nudged him and pointed towards his father. “We had a summer romance twenty-six years ago. He gave me a jar of sharks teeth with a fancy red ribbon wrapped around it on our last day together, told me anytime I missed him to give that jar a shake. Can you guess what I found when I did?” Ben shook his head. “A handwritten love note.” She squeezed his hand, “Sometimes you just know and other times you have to shake the jar. I’m guessing you are a lot like your father and Sarah is more like me. She’ll come around.”
“It isn’t like that.”
“Really? I’ve seen the way you look at her. Come on, I’ve got some extra ribbon left over from Christmas.”
It had sounded less dumb when his mother said it, but now holding the gift bag behind his back, he was beginning to rethink the idea altogether. Sarah had kept her word. She didn’t see him until the party on Saturday and by then their conversation was stiff and forced. Now she waited at the beach gate holding her sandals in her hands.
“Hi.” God she looked so beautiful in her flowered sundress, her hair piled in a loose bun. “I wanted to get you something to remember me by.” Ben handed her the bag and watched her dig beneath the pale pink tissue paper and come up with a mauled tennis ball. Sarah laughed. Ben shrugged, “From Bruiser.”
“You really know what a girl wants. Too bad it doesn’t come with drool.”
“Drools extra. The next thing is better. I promise.”
Sarah lifted the glass jar into the air. She smiled. “You’ve been trying to get me to pick up sharks teeth the entire time I’ve been here.”
“Family habit. Now you’re a real Floridian with your own private stash of sharks teeth. Anytime you miss us, me or Bruiser, just give that jar a shake.” He had packed the jar with just enough teeth to hide a folded paper, the drawing of her eyes with the message: I love you scrawled across the top and I see love staring back at me at the bottom.
Ben didn’t hug her, just accepted the simple kiss on his check. The summer had changed him and he imagined the road ahead, possibly with Sarah, perhaps not. Either way, sharks teeth would have a prized place in his heart. They truly were his way of saying I love you.