Cottage by the Sea by Debbie Macomber
Thirteen years earlier
Keaton had noticed the beautiful teenage girl on the beach earlier in the week. Once he saw her playing volleyball with a group of other teens, he hadn’t been able to take his eyes off her. Her family had rented the Munson cottage and arrived Saturday morning. As soon as the car was unpacked, the girl and her older brother had made their way to the beach. They’d been there every day, laughing, swimming, and making friends. The girl was vivacious and full of life, and her laugh carried with the wind and made him smile every time he heard it. She couldn’t be more than fourteen or fifteen years old, and her brother was a year or two older. Keaton noticed how people were naturally drawn to her and wanted to be around her. He felt it himself, even though he watched from afar.
Oceanside was a small, out-of-the-way town, but when summer arrived all the hotel rooms and rentals were filled. The shops were busy with tourists, eager to spend their vacation dollars. The scent of the ocean mingled with that of fried clams and fish and chips. Children jockeyed at the window of the candy shop for a view to watch Mr. Buster pull saltwater taffy or pour fudge onto large cookie sheets. The kite shop was a favorite to both the locals and tourists. The sky was filled with every imaginable shape, with children and adults alike running up and down the beach. It was like this every summer.
The beach was crowded, bustling with activity, and yet this one girl had caught Keaton’s attention to the point he found himself looking for even a glimpse of her.
From the moment she arrived in Oceanside, Keaton found it hard not to think about her. He liked her hair, which was auburn, tinted by the sun, and long. She wore it in a single braid that bounced against her back as she raced down the beach, her bare feet kicking up the sand. She didn’t lack for attention, he noticed; he could tell plenty of boys were interested in her. Keaton couldn’t blame them.
More than anything, he wanted to talk to her. The problem was that he didn’t know how to approach her, or what to say when he did. He didn’t know how to tell her that he thought she was pretty. On the best of days, he rarely spoke. Girls left him tongue-tied and red in the face. His heart pounded so hard he felt his pulse in his head every time he thought about approaching the girl on the beach. For the first time in his life, Keaton thought about ways to overcome his aversion to speaking just so he could talk to her. He never had been good with words, and being naturally shy worked against him. Preston, his best friend, encouraged him to try to meet this girl who had taken up so much of his thoughts.
“Nothing ventured, nothing gained,” Preston had advised.
Keaton wanted to throw those words right back at him; after all, Preston had had a thing for Mellie Johnson all through high school, and despite being nearly lovesick over the girl, Preston hadn’t done more than greet her in the halls for four years. Not that it would have done him any good—Mellie had run off with some guy she’d met in Aberdeen the day after graduation. No one had seen or heard from her since.
That didn’t stop Preston from hounding Keaton about the beach girl, though. It took Keaton nearly the entire week to find the nerve to approach her. It was now or never, but still, he fretted and stewed. His inability to carry a conversation was one problem, but then there was another bigger problem.
Keaton’s biggest fear was that she’d be intimidated or frightened by him the way most people were. The girls in school had avoided him because he came across as aggressive and mean. He didn’t intend to appear that way; it was simply the way he’d always looked, because he rarely smiled. The truth was there was little in Keaton’s life to smile about. If he had his way, he’d have been invisible, but his height and size made that impossible. He’d grown to six-six while a junior, and another two inches his senior year. His shoulders were broad to the point that he barely made it through a doorway. His hands and feet were huge. He’d become used to the names people called him, making fun of his size.
These were only two of several commonly used to taunt him. He was an easy target because he chose to ignore the mocking and didn’t respond. The names had never really bothered him.
With his heart pounding like a thunderbolt inside his massive chest, Keaton slowly approached the girl.
“Hey, look, it’s the Jolly Green Giant,” one of the teenagers observed.
Keaton ignored him, and smiled. “Hi,” he muttered, staring intently at her. Up close, she was even prettier than she was at a distance. Her eyes were a hazel/green and her thick braid lay across her bare shoulder. She wore a sundress with a pattern of red poppies and her swimsuit underneath it. He wanted in the worst way to reach out and touch her cheek, to make certain she wasn’t a figment of his imagination.
“It’s the Abominable Snowman,” cried another teenage boy in mock horror.
Keaton didn’t recognize him, and assumed he was a tourist.
“No, it’s Sasquatch.”
“It does have big feet.”
“Yeah. He’s Big Foot.”
“Stop it,” the girl said, whirling around and confronting the group of teens with her. She turned to Keaton, smiling back. “Hi,” she returned.
“Come on, Annie,” her brother urged, grabbing her hand. “We need to get back.”
Annie. Her name was Annie. Keaton ran it through his mind, liking the way it echoed there.
She continued to focus on him, her eyes inquisitive, wide, and warm.
“King Kong, you got something to say?” Devon Anderson taunted.
Keaton knew Devon from high school. He was a jerk. It didn’t surprise him that Devon had noticed Annie and tried to get her attention.
“Don’t call him that,” Annie charged angrily, confronting Devon.
“He doesn’t talk.”
“Well, he just did,” she countered, annoyed with Devon and not bothering to hide it. “He said ‘hi,’ in case you didn’t hear.”
“Bet he won’t say anything else,” Devon challenged, glaring at Keaton with a know-it-all look.
Annie waited expectantly, but for the life of him, Keaton couldn’t manage to get out a single word. He wanted to tell her she was pretty and that he’d noticed her running along the beach. It was on the tip of his tongue to mention how much he liked her braid and the color of her hair, but he couldn’t get that out, either.
“See what I mean?” Devon taunted.
“Don’t do that,” she snapped. “That’s mean.”
Her brother jerked at her hand. “Come on, Annie, Mom and Dad are waiting.”
“Sorry,” she told Keaton, her eyes becoming gentle as she spoke. “We have to go. It was nice meeting you.”
Keaton nodded and attempted a smile, wanting to let her know he felt the same.
“We’ll be back next summer,” she said, walking backward, with her brother pulling her along.
A year. He could wait that long. By then, Keaton hoped, he’d find the words to tell her all the things he’d stored up in his head.
Annie, though, never returned.
Keaton waited, year after year, and never forgot the beautiful auburn-haired girl he’d seen on the beach that summer. The picture of Annie running along the sand stayed with him. Countless times he sketched scenes of the beach with her in them, using pencil and charcoal. Pictures no one saw. He carried on lengthy conversations with her in his head—just the thought of her brought him a rare taste of happiness.
Maybe one day, he thought, looking over the ocean as the waves crashed against the shore.
Maybe one day…