May 19, 2014, 3:30 p.m., Fort Morgan, Alabama
The crisp breeze off the Gulf of Mexico buffets me a little as I walk westward along the beach towards the old fort. The surf is comforting, but I watch my step as I walk along the edge of the warm water, because jellyfish have been plentiful along the beach this spring.
I’m alone; there is no one else here, either. It’s uncharacteristic, I think, for both myself and this popular spot along Alabama’s coast. Today is gorgeous: A bright blue sky, comfortable temperature, perfect for teenagers to skip class, or grownups to call in sick at work. I remember then that I did, in fact, decide to take today off because I’ve been working pretty much nonstop, every single day since April of last year, the day I ‘met’ Emmett Wilson.
I crouch down to watch the bubbles that pop up after the wave recedes; the bubbles that follow tiny crabs burrowing back down into the sand. I notice an interesting little shell. I pick it up; I turn it over in my hand, trace the edges with my finger.
Out of the corner of my eye, I see someone in the distance, walking towards me. As he gets closer, I can’t hear footsteps over the sound of the surf. It’s a tall man in a dark suit, black leather shoes, completely dressed in almost funeral attire on a beach. That alone should make me feel afraid, but I’m not. But there is something really weird about this —
He stops about a foot and a half away from me. I look up at the man’s face…
He hold out his hand. He wants the shell. And then he says…
“Hey girl! Wanna take a walk?”
I start a bit, as my friend Elizabeth nudges me.
I laugh. “Yeah, I guess I zoned out for a little bit.”
“I don’t blame you,” she said, pulling her beach towel more snugly around her shoulders as she stood up. “You’ve been working nonstop on this Emmett project since you’ve been here. You gotta be wiped out.”
Elizabeth and I have been friends for decades. She’s the lovely, calm, easygoing one, who always seems to have it together, and I’m the dysfunctional kook who needed a drink to feel whole. Somehow, we compliment each other, enjoy each other’s company, are always there for each other even though we live about 1,000 miles apart.
She knew I would be in Pensacola for a few days, so she invited me to her family’s beach house in Fort Morgan to sit on the beach and decompress, to catch up, to reconnect.
This is the place where we can both recharge our psychic batteries. Elizabeth knows me well; we’ve seen each other go through job crap, personal crap, spiritual crap — and yet, here we are, four decades after we first became friends in Sr. Mary Clarissa Rose’s typing class at St. Joseph High School. Picture it: Five desks across by six rows of desks in a cinderblock 1960s school. All the desks have Underwood manual typewriters on them. The room is loud with the clacking of typewriter keys against paper and platen; hands in proper position arched properly, students focused, intent on increasing words per minute to earn the nun’s approval.
This went on five days a week, nonstop. It was mind-numbing.
One day, as the class was deep into typing mode, I reached into my sweater pocket, quietly winding the stem on the side of the toy. I turned around and caught Elizabeth’s eye — she looked at me questioningly. I opened my hand slightly and showed her the toy. Elizabeth gaped at me, then stifled a laugh.
I surreptitiously bent down as if to tie my shoe, and let it loose.
The result was laughter, excitement, welcome distraction as students moved their feet out of the way of the hopping chick moving randomly under desks, down the aisles, towards the front of the class. No one tried to stop it.
Except Sr. Clarissa.
She swooped down one row of desks, then another to catch it. Although the tiny toy was fast and unpredictable in its movements, the nun was agile, used to herding errant and nonconforming teenagers for several decades. Sr. Clarissa swooped down upon the little toy and held as high as she could for all to see (she was 4′ 11″ and everyone was taller than she was, including me).
“Whose is this? Whose is this?” She repeatedly shouted to the now-silent classroom.
No one answered. I dared not respond; I knew Elizabeth would never rat me out, but she was damn near choking on stifled laughter behind me. Sr. Clarissa gave everyone in the class a dirty look, then ordered us to continue typing.
Sr. Clarissa kept the chick in her desk drawer for the rest of the school year — after I’d received my final grade in the typing class and knew I was safe from her holy wrath.
“You know that plastic wind-up chick I had in Sr. Clarissa’s class?”
“I found it the other day in a box of stuff from high school. Damn thing still works.”
Elizabeth snorts with laughter. “Sr. Charisma was so pissed.”
“And it was the start of a great friendship.”
The thing about our friendship is that we feel comfortable telling each other anything, and we can listen to each other without judgment. I’ve always felt completely at ease around Elizabeth; I’ve never felt that kind of trust with very many people in my life. Her friendship is one of the most precious things in my life.
She knew me before, during, and after my drinking career, and she’s one of the few friends still around. And she’s never judged me for any of that.
And because we are completely honest with each other, I’ve told her everything that I’ve learned about Emmett Wilson so far, and the research itself. Elizabeth is curious why Emmett fascinates me.
“It’s the whole mystery of him,” I tell her. I’ve told Elizabeth how I came across Emmett in the first place, completely unknown to me; how we are distantly related. “Why is this story important to tell? I’m still in the artifact-information gathering stage, so I honestly don’t know him very well yet. Eventually, I’ll just put everything in front of me, and try to assemble the jigsaw puzzle of his story. Maybe then I’ll know what’s at the heart of the story.”
“Do you have a crush on him?” Elizabeth asks me.
I laugh. “Yeah. A crush on a dead man. It’s kind of a one-way relationship.”
“Yes, but you know, he did kinda reach out to you. Maybe it isn’t as one way as you think.”
“I’m skeptical, but I will remain open minded,” I say, as we continue walking along the beach.
And then, we stop and admire the small shells at our feet. One of them catches my eye. I pick it up…
…and it is remarkably like the one that Emmett seemed to reach for in my dream.
“Oh, that’s pretty,” Elizabeth says, looking at the shell in my hand. “It looks like a heart.”
I still have it.