Hally happened to be at the registration desk when they came in, hand in hand, and for a moment she was fourteen again, and it somehow hurt as it had hurt back then. As if it were the most important thing in the world.
It was the summer that two dreams had died. One, that she’d get a swim team scholarship to college. And the other–
She used to have posters of him all over her room. Other girls had posters of rock stars, but she had Morgan Muir. Pictures of him smiling, lifting his Olympic gold medal aloft, when she was just seven or so.
Morgan Muir was when she’d first become aware that men were different, that she wanted to marry one someday. Well, beyond men being like daddy, of course. Not that she’d been exactly sure what the relationship between men and women was, just that you married a man and then he’d be with you all the time. Oh, and you got to wear a pretty white dress. And somehow babies appeared and they looked like him, and you got to be mom, and run the house.
By fourteen, she had a better idea. Enough to fuel daydreams. Not from the sex education classes. That whole thing was too real and vaguely squeaky. Dreaming about it would be like dreaming of butchering the chicken, instead of the Sunday roast all golden and mouth-watering. Instead her day dreams were composed of the love scenes in a million movies — not that she watched much, but when mom and dad were watching something, she caught glimpses of men and women embracing, their faces full of ecstasy of love, of belonging — and of stories of the attraction between couples in books. Not that she read Romance because she simply wasn’t that sort of girl. But there were love scenes in every adventure book, particularly westerns.
Sometimes in her daydreams he came and saved her, but more often she saved him, which is when he realized she was special and important and he loved her. This was because she was conscious of being ten years younger than him, and that the difference between fourteen and twenty one was a great gulf. She still looked like a little girl who’d grown too fast. She knew that. And he was a man.
But mostly the dreams were of how he’d smell like the salt sea, of the touch of his hand, of being held by him and told she was his one true love. Whatever feat of valor or devotion — a lot of the dreams involved arriving at his death bed, and somehow nursing him better — that got her there, the important thing was that she’d have him all for herself forever.
She’d never understood how he came to be where he was, though the papers later — with glossy photo montages and tales of how beautiful and romantic it was — had said something about a sail boat capsizing. But she’d learned long ago that newspapers just came up with some plausible story and ran with that. She remembered even the school newspaper had done that about the cookie sale for the swim team, saying the cookies were store bought and taken out of the package, when she’d just said that as a joke, and been at pains to describe the hours and hours of baking.
Besides sailing would be stupid unless he was really far off — and then how would he end up in her cove? — because the entire area had a ton of submerged rocks at high tide, the kind that you could only navigate if you’d grown up here and had the entire landscape in your had from years of familiarity.
She suspected he’d been climbing down the rocks to the cove and fallen. But perhaps he didn’t want to say that to the paper, because it sounded stupid: great Olympic swimmer, slips and falls on wet seaside rocks, and almost kills himself.
However he came to the cove, she’d never have seen him if she hadn’t come down early morning to practice. It was early March and mom and dad hadn’t had the pool conditioned and open for the summer, at the hotel. And that was the other reason she headed for the cove. It wasn’t that big. Just half the size of the pool. but it was surrounded by rocks which meant even as the tide came in, it was slightly warmer. Because the rocks gave off some of the warmth of the day, or something. Or perhaps it was an illusion. It just felt warmer.
She’d been early too, so the water was barely up to her ankles there. Not enough to swim. Which was good, because Morgan Muir — she’d paused, in her red swimsuit, the towel under her arm, sure she was dreaming — was in the cove, his mouth and nose only above water. Barely.
She’d tossed the towel, and scrambled down. With the tide coming in, he’d have been dead in minutes. If he wasn’t dead already. He looked dead: pale as the belly of a fish, and limp as day-old catch.
She’d felt for his pulse, though, and there it was, beating at the side of his neck, in a regular thrum. And it was a good thing she felt for it, before she tried to lift him. Because when she tried to lift him, she could see half of his head was all over blood, which kept coming and coming, and mixing with the water.
Pressure. She thought, hazily from her high school first aid classes. Pressure.
First she tried to lift him, and when that didn’t work, she’d gone and scrambled up the rocks, and got her towel. She got kind of under him, lifting his head out of water, and pushed the towel against the wound.
She still didn’t quite remember how long she’d been in the pool. But it must have been two or three hours, because the tide came in completely, lifting them both, and she couldn’t swim, not holding him above water, not with the towel now completely wet with his blood. Yes, she’d taken lifesaving, but she could never get a proper hold on him, while she had that towel pressed against his head. She kept thinking he should be dead, there was so much red on the towel. And she couldn’t feel his pulse. There weren’t enough hands.
The tide had kind of jammed her against one of the rocks, with her leg wedged against it, and she took advantage of that to keep his head above water.
Periodically, she called out, but the beach was pretty deserted till much later in the day. She didn’t expect an answer. She kept wondering if she should or could hold him like this till there were people on the beach. Couldn’t you die of hypothermia? Was he dead.
Suddenly, out of nowhere, it seemed, there were running steps on the beach, and she called out. Moments later a young woman stood on the rocks. She was Morgan’s age, at least, and blond, and had on jogging pants and an old sweater.
She made a sound when she saw them, then plunged into the water, clothes and all, and relieved Hally of her burden.
Hally would never remember the conversation right, but it was all rushed. She thought the woman asked her if she had a cell phone. When she shook her head, the woman said, “well, then, can you run and call 911 somewhere? I’ll hold him up.”
Hally felt half dead, but she scrambled up, and ran stumbling to the stairs that went all the way up to clifftop, the hotel her parents owned and ran.
And then she didn’t remember anything. Mom said she’d come in and said “Morgan Muir is dying in the cove where I swim, in the beach. Call 911.” And collapsed.
Turned out the leg she’d wedged on the rock was cut almost to the bone.
“I have no idea how you managed to run on that leg,” was what she remembered when she’d woken in the hospital, recovering from blood loss and pneumonia.
She hadn’t said anything, because a hellish throat infection had piled on the pneumonia, and she couldn’t talk.
The pneumonia had been bad. Really bad. She’d spent ten days in the hospital on IV antibiotics.
That was when she had first become aware of Kemp. Kemp had been in swim team with her forever, but apparently he was volunteering at the hospital that summer. And also, he looked completely different from during the school year. Like he’d grown a foot, being now taller than her, and his voice had dropped.
The first time he’d seen her, he’d just smiled and said hi. But then he kept coming back, with flowers, and books — he’d bought her the ridiculously expensive, illustrated fairy tale book she’d been mooning over in the local bookshop — and hard candy which made her throat feel better.
It was funny because in her head she remembered that time as two different things. One was getting to know Kemp, and thinking what a great guy he was to be paying so much attention to her.
Another was lying in the hospital bed, knowing she’d be out of shape for swim team, and — when the infection set in on her leg and they told her the bone itself had been cut, and that she might never walk without a limp — that she’d probably never get the scholarship she’d been aiming for, and never get to go off and study art. Lying in the hospital and reading the newspapers and magazines about how Morgan Muir’s fiancee had saved his life, and how romantic it was, and how the wedding was planned for the next month, and all the celebrities who’d be attending.
No wonder the nurses kept giving her sleeping pills. She didn’t take them, but practice sleight of hand and then hid them in the box of pencils mom had brought her from home. She didn’t like taking tablets was all.
But it had led to the temptation.
On her tenth day in the hospital, when she had been waiting for the doctor to come in and discharge her, Morgan and Marissa, his fiance, had come in. They were all put together, and she looked perfect, make up and designer jeans and all.
Hally could talk now, but found that in their presence she couldn’t find her voice.
“I hear you saved me,” Morgan said. “And you got sick because of it. I’m sorry.”
His voice in person was oddly disconcerting. It sounded more mundane than when she heard him in interviews. Like it had less resonance.
He and Marissa had brought in coffee, from the drive through place that was expensive, and they’d got her a hot chocolate. “Your mom said you like that.”
She’d sat there and sipped, and then the nurse came in. And of course she fawned all over Morgan and Marissa. Because “so romantic.”
They’d left their coffees on the tray by the bed, and she’d thought–
For just a moment she thought she could put the tablets into Marissa’s cup. There were nine. It would probably kill her. And no one knew she had them. And it could be some big accident.
But then she heard, in her mind, clear as day “No. You’re meant for better things.”
And that was it. It was like a thought, but not her thought. And she blinked in shock. What better things? What could be better than consoling Morgan. Having Morgan fall in love with her.
Only she’d know she killed someone. Even if he fell in love with her — as if there were no other women in the world — she couldn’t live with it. She couldn’t.
She sipped hot chocolate, and Morgan and Marissa talked to the nurses, and Kemp put his head in, with a big smile, “Still waiting for discharge, Hally? I’ll go grab doctor Grant.”
And now, now twenty years later, here were Morgan and Marissa coming into her hotel to register for a stay. She guessed Kemp must have taken the reservation, because she’d have noticed the name.
She smiled at them, as she registered them, and gave them the room key. Her parents had retired and left her and Kemp in charge of the hotel ten years ago. After she’d finished her art degree. Which she mostly used to make haunting drawings of mermaids and knights. They sold really well in the gift shop.
Morgan’s hair was receding. Marissa seemed to wear more makeup than Hally remembered. But they looked happy.
As she was signing them in, Morgan looked at her name tag. “Halcyone! Like the girl who–” He paused, and his face split in a big grin. Suddenly he was pumping her hand, saying “You saved my life. Marissa told me.”
“Oh, it was nothing,” Hally said, and just then Kemp came in, saying something about pool maintenance.
The four of them ended up having dinner together that night, after Kemp and Hally lined up a babysitter for their kids. “The twelve year old,” Kemp explained. “Could babysit them all, but you know what the law is, so we get a babysitter.”
“I remember those days,” Marina said, her voice reminiscent. “The twins are away at college, though.”
During dinner, Hally kept trying to figure out what had been so special about Morgan, what caused that terrible ache of her 14th summer. He was a nice, middle aged man, with receding blond hair, and a devoted wife.
She didn’t regret getting injured saving him. He and Marissa seemed very happy. And somehow, that summer, she’d got Kemp.
As if knowing what she was thinking, he reached and caught her hand, under the table. His hand was very warm, very firm.
And his hold on life and love and the future would never let her drown.