Beth sauntered toward the sound of crashing water, the twinkling dance of a shoal marker providing promise that she was getting close. She felt the unfamiliar tickle of sand beneath her feet as the chilled grains molded together under the weight of each determined step. As if suddenly passing through a barrier, what had once looked like an endless ether of uninhabited space now abruptly registered as the reflective surface of the ocean, lazily mimicking the night sky as if it were swaying to a gentle serenade. She was sure that she had arrived at another planet. For if places like this existed on earth, what in the world was keeping everyone she had ever known in the lowlands of rural Kentucky?
Beth was raised in an outdated clergy house, the sententious steeple of the church always visible as a reminder that the almighty was always watching. Being the daughter of a Baptist pastor meant she was tasked with the constant responsibility of representing the church, a crushing weight bestowed upon her since childhood. She was never as proficient at this job she was expected to be, once slapping a girl in grade school who pulled at her ebony braid before calling her a bible pusher. Later that day, as she rolled the peas around on her plate, her mother asked her if she would like to be slapped so that she knew what it felt like.
“We are called to love our neighbors, Bethany. That was an opportunity to teach your classmate about what it is we believe so that she may see the path to salvation as well.”
Beth closed her eyes, gripping the fork so that it left a mark along her palm as she took a steady breath. She opened her eyes to retort but instead saw sister blinking at her from across the table, a silent plea to behave emphasized by the “v” between her eyebrows. How the same mixture of DNA could create two girls of such opposing characters was a mystery to all. While Beth still lacked a basic understanding of obedience, Hannah was three years her junior and had already demonstrated a seasoned aptitude towards the skills of housekeeping which Beth found too mundane to bother with. So as the years drifted by, she watched Hannah blossom into a caretaker just as her mother had done before her. Her soft laugh would float along the pews before Sunday sermon as she chatted with her friends and attracted cautious glances from the suite of soon to be gentleman callers.
Her parents loved her undeniably, their strict principles meant to instill values in a world that seemed to be tumbling towards increasing chaos. But Beth was woven from a different fabric, one that seemed more inflexible with each external attempt to manipulate. When she was in junior high, she started cutting the legs off of her jeans and hiding the cutoffs under the cover of her skirt. She was tall for her age, and the new debut of flesh caught the attention of the star lacrosse player, who walked her home one day and kissed her by her mailbox. Disappointing in most aspects, his teeth clattered with her own as he impatiently forced entry into her mouth. Beth remembered thinking she could do with less saliva as she nervously giggled and looked down at her feet, waiting for him to walk away. Whatever she had expected, that certainly wasn’t it. It most definitely was not worth the look on her mother’s face as she turned around to see her gaze locked on her from behind the kitchen window. Apparently Hannah’s ballet practice had been cancelled this afternoon and they were both home early.
They enrolled her in private school the very next year where she developed a quick companionship with Clara, another new student who had recently moved across the country when her father was relocated for work. Together they passed notes in class and Beth listened to Clara talk about her latest crushes.
“How come you never tell me who you like?” Clara asked one day from across the cafeteria table. “I’m always spilling my guts and you never give me anything.”
Beth watched mesmerized as Clara scrunched her nose with a giggle, her freckles peppering her rosy cheeks beneath blonde bangs. She whipped out a tube of strawberry lip-gloss and applied it liberally while awaiting Beth’s reply. She wondered whether those lips would be any nicer to kiss than her past experience, silently concluding that the answer was obvious. “I don’t know, I guess I don’t like the boys at this school that much.” She attempted to sound nonchalant.
“How about I set us up on a double date? Cory asked me out this morning and I told him I’d think about it. Why don’t I tell him I’ll go if he brings a friend for you?”
“I don’t know, Clara, my mom will kill me if she finds out.” Beth stared down at her pizza, unwilling to meet Clara’s gaze. She noticed too late when Clara stood up from the table and started walking over to Cory Longacre as he sat with his football buddies a few tables over. Beth watched as Clara’s plaid skirt swayed gracefully with each step. Feeling like she wanted to vomit, she deposited her forehead in her palms and focused on her breathing. A few minutes later she felt a playful poke on her right temple.
“Stop being so dramatic. Come stay at my place this Friday. Cory said he’ll bring Dylan and pick us up at 8.” Beth didn’t bother to pick up her head, but nodded her agreement anyways, trying to look as dramatic as possible to hear another giggle. It worked.
Beth’s first date with Dylan was uninteresting, filled with movie theatre popcorn and an instantly forgettable film. But Beth agreed to a second, and a third, and a fourth, because each one ended with a night with Clara where Beth would watch her gleefully dance around her beach themed bedroom about the boy who gave her a kiss on the cheek. As the foursome grew closer with each passing weekend, she felt a growing companionship with Dylan. She liked ruffling his golden curls to gently annoy him, and proudly wore his football jacket on gameday. Still, the part of Beth that was frequently ignored was growing louder, screaming at the back of her brain that something was wrong, and so Beth designed a cage to keep her at bay.
“Do you ever think about what your wedding will be like?” Clara asked one day. She was laying on Beth’s bed, propped up on her elbows to read her history book.
Beth nearly spit her sparkling water out with laughter. “Hello, have we met? Not at all.” She swiveled her desk chair to face Clara so that she could nudge her leg with her toe. “I guess I think about the honeymoon though.” At this Clara sat up and raised an eyebrow, suddenly more interested than before. “Not like that,” Beth snorted, “I just think about where I would go. I’ve never been out of Kentucky, I don’t even know what that would be like.”
“I went to Barbados with my family the summer before we moved here,” responded Clara. “It was beautiful. The sand was almost pink and the ocean was like bathwater. You should definitely go there when you and Dylan get married.”
Beth was silent for a moment, picturing Clara splashing in the waves which she had only seen on TV. “Yeah, one day.”
When Beth was 17 she finally introduced Dylan to her parents. He dressed in a button up shirt to make a good first impression and made sure to only kiss Beth on the forehead before wishing her family a goodnight. He was a perfect gentleman, someone who her parents readily approved of after he started accompanying them to church. Selfishly, Beth liked the comfort of his presence by her side, the stability of knowing that his shoulder was there to rest her head upon, and the look of approval it gave her parents to know that she would end up with a respectable suiter after all.
She foolishly thought that it could stay like that forever.
Until one fateful Friday, when they were both 21, she helped Dylan pack up his suitcase to return to his dorm. He was one year away from a bachelors in engineering from the University of Kentucky. She had been working full time at the local bakery, slowly gaining confidence in experimenting with concoctions that she would occasionally present to the owner. She loaded up the last of his shirts in his large duffel bag, zipped it shut, and turned around to see Dylan on one knee, diamond ring dazzling in his shaking palm. She watched as his mouth moved, making out words like “love” and “forever” but hearing nothing but a crescendoed ringing piercing her eardrums. His eyes were hopeful, full of the love that she couldn’t reciprocate in the way that was needed of her. She knew right then that she had stolen his teens by committing to an unspoken promise that she was about to break. She owed him an explanation and she would figure out how to do that one day. But for now, she needed to leave that room. She needed to leave that town.
‘“I’m so sorry, Dylan. No.” She couldn’t bear to look him in the eyes, focusing intently at the carpet as she walked out of his childhood bedroom. Clumsily, she sleepwalked her way home along the deserted, unpathed road and eventually collapsed back onto the inside of her front door with a tearful sigh. She caught the site of Hannah’s worried eyes peering out from over the top of a book from an armchair in the living room. As if controlled by someone else, she heard her voice travel through the otherwise empty house. “I need you to tell Mom and Dad that I'm okay and that I’ll be home soon.”
As she stood on the beach, her thick braid draped between her shoulder blades and glistened in the moonlight. The memory of packing her bag, and booking her flight seemed like a memory shrouded in too much red wine, a feeling she once inflicted on herself after stealing the communion stash the day the rest of her classmates went to prom. Lukewarm ripples lapped at her feet, soaking the bottom of a long, black skirt that would embarrass her father by the way it clung to her hips. Why had she thought she couldn’t come here alone? Her own company was what had carried her through now anyway. She felt something inside her crack. Like a cage rusted by lack of maintenance, coming apart at the seams before crashing open to let free the part of Beth that had been waiting in isolation.
That Beth screamed. That Beth threw her head back and yelled to the heavens for the years that she had spent asleep. That Beth wanted to run, and that Beth got her wish. She was suddenly startled by the sensation of wind hitting her face as she pumped her legs and dashed parallel to the water’s edge. Damp sand sprayed up behind her with every forward leap, her arms pumping desperately to propel her forward. She passed a couple taking a midnight swim and clamped her lips between her teeth in the effort to suppress an apology that was already starting to form. Her heart hammered from beneath her chest and her vision began to blur as the ocean air brought tears to her eyes. She could have ran for hours, and perhaps she did, but her marathon came to an abrupt conclusion as she encountered a wave breaker blocking her path along the beach. Screeching to a halt, she stared at the pile of rocks in amusement, falling to her knees at the lack of momentum.
She allowed her head to fall back before involuntarily succumbing to exhaustion and collapsing atop the powder soft Barbados beach. Orion hung protectively overhead, more distinguished than the Kentucky sky allowed. As she lay there mesmerized, she began to catch her breath and allowed her eyes to slowly close. Her cheeks burned hot, she pictured what she must look like from the heavens. An overpassing own would surely see the heat radiating from her body, imprinting a scarlet figure, haloed in amber, and suspended atop a blanket of the cool expanse surrounding her. She allowed herself to burn brighter than she ever had before, deciding it was better to suffer a few burn marks than never having burned at all.