“Welcome to the oasis! I’m sure you’ll love it so much you’ll be here the rest of your life!” The red-haired woman smiled and held out a brochure. “I’m Tara. If you have any questions, I’ll be just down the road. The blue house, you really can’t miss it.”
I leaned against the open door to the condo and laughed. “The rest of my life? This is just my family’s timeshare. I’m here for spring break.”
She shook the paper. “Just in case you decide to stay!”
I looked at her sparkling eyes, something about it was familiar, but I couldn’t place it. Deciding not to be rude and slam the door in her face, I slowly took the paper from her. I hurriedly skimmed it before meeting her gaze.
“Great. It looks great.” I nodded and smiled. “If I have any questions, I’ll find you.”
She clapped. “Awesome. I’m sure I’ll see you in a bit!”
“Yeah, bye!” I waved and slowly shut the door.
I was going to the beach, not reading this little book from a stranger. Reading would be for after the partying was over, and I was on the flight back to school.
Thirty minutes later, sunrays warmed my skin, and I’d almost forgotten about Tara. Until something smacked the small of my back.
I rolled over and sat up: a multicolored beach ball. “What the hell? The whole beach and you want to toss that around near me?”
Tara was running toward me. “Sorry! We were kicking it around. I’ve got lousy aim. Sorry.”
My annoyance melted away and I shook my head. “It’s fine, I guess. I just thought I was alone out here.”
She shook her head and bent down to grab the ball. She looked up and met my eyes. Smiling, she cleared her throat. I readjusted on my beach towel and quickly averted my gaze.
“Sorry. This is weird, but do I know you?”
Her smile faltered for just a second. “I don’t think so, why?”
I shook my head, gave a small laugh, and looked away. “Guess the sun is baking my brain, too.”
My fingers flitted into the sand beside my towel; I traced a figure-eight into the warm beach. I waited for her to leave before I could say anything else weird. But she didn’t.
“Do you want to hang out?”
“With all your friends and the beach ball? I don’t think so.” I eyed the group of people far away enough that I couldn’t make out any details about them, other than they were in beachwear. “Maybe later.”
“No worries. I’ll stop by your place later,” she said softly. “Just us.”
I ran my hand through my hair, getting sand tangled into it. “Sure. Yeah. I’ll be around.”
She waved and walked away while I wondered why I was okay to make plans on my vacation. I had specifically come alone to recharge. Why was I willing to let this stranger hang out alone with me? After her weird brochure drop-off this morning?
I sighed and stretched back out on my towel. I would worry about that later; right now, the sand and sunlight were calling my name. I let the nap wash over me.
When I opened my eyes, moonlight greeted me. I looked around; it was dark, and I was on the desolate beach. I rubbed my face, instantly getting sand in my eyes.
“Shit.” I blindly felt for my water bottle and splashed some on my face. Once I had my bearings, I grabbed my towel and headed back to the condo.
Sitting on my porch, Tara stood when she saw me. I waved and smiled, repressing a groan. I’d forgotten we’d made plans.
“Hey!” She hurried down the path to me. “What happened?”
“I fell asleep on the beach.” I shrugged and led the way back up the front steps. “You didn’t have to wait here for me.”
“I had a feeling you weren’t standing me up, and I had a hunch that you weren’t home. I wanted to make sure you got back safely.” She reached out as if to touch me, but her hand stopped a few inches from my skin. “I’m glad you made it.”
I nodded. “Thanks, I guess? Um, are you still trying to hang out tonight then?”
“If you’re up for it, yeah! If not, we can reschedule for tomorrow.”
I sighed. “Come on inside. Have you had dinner? I’m starving.”
She laughed and followed me through the front door. “I thought we might eat together, so I waited.”
Nodding, I walked into the kitchen. “I’ll throw a pizza in the oven if that’s cool.”
“That works.” She took a seat at the breakfast bar.
Tossing the pizza in the oven, sand fell off me, missing the pizza and instead landing on the floor. I was still in my bikini. And she was fully dressed.
“I’m gonna shower and change real quick.” I gestured to myself. “I think I’d like to stop being half-naked now.”
Her eyes slid over my body and landed on my eyes. “Gotcha. I’ll watch the pizza.”
“Thanks.” I started up the stairs and paused. “Um, hey, Tara, was it? My name is Rowan by the way.”
“Rowan is a pretty name.”
“Thanks.” I yawned. “I’ll be back in a minute.”
After showering and changing into sweats and a t-shirt, I joined her in the kitchen. She was already cutting the pizza.
“Just in time.” She spun around, pizza cutter in hand.
We ate in silence; she mostly just watched me. I smiled when I’d catch her eye, but I focused more on the pizza and the fact that I’d spent most of the day passed out on the beach. I wondered briefly why she hadn’t come looking for me instead of waiting on the porch for me to show up, but I couldn’t get muster the courage to ask.
“So, do you live here, like, year-round?” I wiped my fingers and took her empty plate to the sink with mine.
“Oh, yeah, I came for spring break once and loved it so much, I stayed.” She laughed.
“That’s why you had your little booklet and your weird oasis greeting this morning then?” I gestured to the pamphlet on my counter. “I haven’t looked through it yet.”
Laughing, she ran her hand through her hair and twirled some strands around her finger. “Yeah! I’m a big believer in following your heart, you know?”
I nodded. “Yeah, I sort of sensed that.”
A chime broke into our conversation. We both looked around before I realized the sound was the doorbell. We both walked to the front door. I looked out the peephole: a guy was standing on the porch with a bottle of wine. I frowned.
“Who is it?” Her voice was almost inaudible.
I shrugged and mouthed, “Some guy with wine?”
She stepped past me and checked the peephole for herself. Her face went from warm and welcoming to angry and wild in seconds. She gently moved me away from the door and flung the door open.
“What do you want, Rook?” Her tender actions with me did not match the fury strewn across her face or the venom in her voice.
“Tara! I didn’t expect to see you here.” The man’s voice was smooth, almost melodic without trying.
“You’re too late. Go away.” She tried to shut the door, but he stepped forward and placed his hand on it, wedging it open.
I stepped forward and pressed on the door with Tara. “Hey now, dude. I don’t know if you’re, like, her ex-boyfriend or something, but this is my place, so you need to go.”
Tara gave a triumphant smile. Pursing his lips, he sighed and let go off the door.
“All right.” He chuckled, but it had an edge to it that left me unsettled.
I shut the door, and Tara quickly turned the top and bottom locks and put the chain in place. She turned to me; our faces inches away from each other. Her eyes were hazel. I swallowed.
“That’s Rook, do not let him in. He is my ex, and he was here to hit on you to piss me off.” She rolled her eyes. “He’s an idiot.”
I frowned. “I don’t understand how flirting with me would…” I lost my train of thought and rubbed my temples. “Forget it, I’m too tired to figure that out.”
She nodded and guided me to the couch. “Yeah, it’s late. You had a long day. Whatever you do, just don’t talk to him, okay?”
I pointed to the stairs. “My bed is upstairs.”
“Let’s just sit in here for a bit, then I’ll get out of your hair.” We were already on the couch: me stretched out resting my feet on her lap with my head on the armrest.
“Could you actually maybe stay? That guy sorta freaked me out, showing up like that and being weird so late at night.”
She sighed. “Sure. Sure. I’ll stay.”
Despite sleeping the day away, I fell asleep before she finished talking.
When I woke this time, I was in my room, warm bright light spilled in through the window. I got up and went downstairs to see if Tara had stayed like she said she would. She was gone, but there was a note promising she would be back soon.
I threw together some breakfast and waited around for Tara, unsure of going back to the beach alone with the thought of Rook lurking around. I shivered. His voice had been strange and unsettling.
By the time I’d finished eating, Tara was knocking on my door. I opened the door, oddly relieved to see her.
“How’d you sleep?” She smiled and glanced over her shoulder before stepping inside.
“Oh, fine. Thanks for staying with me.” I locked the door behind her, and we headed into the living room. Sitting on the couch, I chewed on my words for a moment.
I cleared my throat. “So, Rook, who is he? He really left me ready to go back from spring break early.”
She laughed. “You know that might not be a bad idea, if you can get an earlier flight out, you know? Can you check? Maybe take me with you?”
Shaking her head, she waved her hands. “I’m kidding about the last part. I’ll be fine here. He’s only in town for a few more days. He travels for work a lot.”
I nodded slowly, trying to understand what she wasn’t saying.
“I’ll check for flights this afternoon. I would like to at least get one more day at the beach in before abandoning it. But if you’re saying he’s only here for a little longer, then maybe I can just stick it out.”
She licked her lips and stared at me, her features full of a mixture of hesitation, sadness, and something else, was it hope?
In the end, her features settled into a look of unease; she gave a gentle smile. “No, if you think you should go back, that might be for the best. Some people don’t stay like I chose to.”
I laughed lightly with confusion. “I mean, it was always just a week. I’m on my second day of a six day stay. It was never forever.”
Her eyebrows raised and her lips settled into a different smile, a sadder one. “Of course. It’s been really great to hang out.”
I nodded. “Yeah, fast friendships, that’s always nice.”
“Nothing bonds people like a creepy ex.” She placed her hands on her lap and smoothed out her sundress. She checked her watch. “We should head to the beach before it’s lunchtime.”
I stood. “I’ve got my suit on under my clothes. I’ve got an extra towel if you want to borrow it.”
“That would be lovely, thanks.” She followed me to the towels, and then we set out to the beach which sat behind the condos.
“I don’t mean to be rude, but if you live here, where do you go to get away?” I gestured to the beach. “Like, this is where I come when I want to relax and be in a place that makes me happy. Is that the same for you, or do you go to the mountains or something else?”
She tilted her head. “I live here, because it is my happy place. Mountains are nice, but this is warm and quiet. The waves rock me to sleep most nights. I don’t need to get away from this place.”
I nodded. “That’s cool. I just wondered.”
We settled down on to our towels and I slid my sunglasses over my eyes. Seeing the sky stretch out above me, feeling the warm sand beneath me, and hearing the waves rise and fall made my eyelids grow heavy. My breathing grew steady and slower, and I glanced at Tara.
“Tara, I don’t know why I’m so tired, wake me before it’s dark. I don’t want to run into Rook later.” I reached for her arm or hand or something, whatever was closest.
I felt her fingers wrap around mine. “No worries. I’ll make sure you’re safe.”
Florescent lights and several tones of beeps and blips woke me. I squinted into the harsh lighting. My hands balled into fists, searching for warm sand and finding crunchy bedsheets. I tried to sit up, but something held me in place. I tried to speak, but a moan came out instead.
A creaking to my right caught my attention and I stopped trying unsuccessfully to speak.
“Rowan? Rowan! Oh, wow, you’re awake. Holy shit. They said you were dying.” I recognized the face, but his name wouldn’t come to me. Something with a D maybe?
A young woman came in and spoke to me. “Hi, Rowan, what do you remember?”
She placed a pen and pad of paper on my lap. I fumbled with the items for a moment, my fingers felt heavier here than they had on the beach. The beach that’s what I remembered.
I wrote, “The beach? Where’s Tara?”
She took the paper from me and the man who’d been saying my name glanced at the paper and put his hand over his mouth.
“Oh, honey.” He shook his head. “Should we—”
“You didn’t make it to the beach; you were in an accident. Do you remember that?”
I groaned. I motioned to have the paper returned. She placed the pad on my lap again. I scribbled, “Tara? Are you Tara?”
She shook her head. “No, I’m Ellen, your nurse. Who’s Tara?”
I wrote, “Tara. My neighbor on the beach.”
The man’s eyes watered. “Tara, sweetheart, your girlfriend. She’s dead.”
I stared at the man. He must have been confused. I’d met Tara just two days ago, at the beach. How would he know if she was alive or dead?
This time, I asked, “Did Rook get her? Where is Rook?”
“Rowan, there’s nobody named Rook. But do you remember Tara? Do you remember the accident? She was with you, remember?” Her voice was gentle but commanding.
My eyes slid back to Ellen. “Tara was at the beach with me.”
“Do you know who he is?” She pointed to the man with watery eyes who claimed Tara was dead.
I shook my head.
“I’m your father, Rowan.” He sounded hurt. He looked at the lady. “She doesn’t remember me. How did she wake up if she’s still this bad? You said she wouldn’t wake up anymore that she’d sleep until she eventually passed. What’s—what. Sorry. I-I’ll wait outside.”
He shook his head and hurried out of the room.
The lady looked back at me. She checked all of the machines beeping around me; I hoped she would turn them off. She sighed. “I’m going to get the doctor, okay, Rowan? Don’t go anywhere.”
I wrote several things, but she was already gone. “Tara? Accident? Dad? I was at the beach? No Rook?”
I shut my eyes and waited for someone to come back. My thoughts felt stuck in sludge. Tara. They didn’t think I’d just met her. They thought there was an accident. They thought the crying man was my dad. They thought Tara was dead, that I never went to the beach, and that Rook wasn’t real.
All I had to do was go back to sleep and I’d wake up back on the beach with Tara and we could go hide from Rook. This must be one of those lucid dreams people go on about. That had to be it.
I thought of the waves pushing and pulling the shoreline, the sun heating up both the sand around me and my skin while I stretched out on a towel, the way Tara’s fingers had taken mine as she promised to wake me before Rook found us.