“No one likes the broken ones.” Shifting his gaze from the sand to the surf, he folded his arms across his chest.
“I do, daddy. They’re beautiful.”
Scooping up a smooth shell with a jagged edge, Alana turned it over in her hand, noticing its purple and white stripes.
Lost in her own thoughts, she wondered where its journey had started.
Holding the shell to one eye, she peered at him through a tiny hole in the shell’s surface. His black windswept hair had blown to one side. Unruly stubble covered his cheeks and chin. He always went unshaven at the cottage.
The pant legs of his navy swim trunks dotted with pink flamingos draped loosely below his knees. If it hadn’t been for the double knot tied tightly at his waist, they would have surely fallen by now. He had lost quite a bit of weight as a result of his stressful work. Behind his disheveled appearance, Alana still recognized the dapper man she had grown up loving.
She set her newest treasure into the weathered bucket, already filled to the brim with broken seashells of varying shapes and sizes. She especially loved the shells with the roughest exteriors. Those she thought were the tough ones, just like her dad.
The sun slowly melted into the water, painting large brushstrokes of violet and orange into a canvas of white clouds.
She placed her hand in his, both lost in the moment.
When the last bit of the sun receded, they walked silently back to the cottage in the afterglow.
The wooden gate creaked as Alana pushed it open. She stepped onto the brick path leading up to the small patio that hugged the back perimeter of the beach house. Turquoise paint on one section of the siding had already started peeling back, revealing the lime green color beneath. This past winter the storms had fiercely whipped through. The most severe Florida had ever seen. Her dad didn’t complain. The damaged paint had been the worst of it for the surprisingly small structure.
Her mom insisted on the turquoise paint. “A timeless shade for charming cottages,” Alana clearly recalled her mom’s words from last year. She had been right. The paint nicely dressed up the quaint cottage.
Her dad slipped off his sandals outside the glass door, removed the towel from his shoulders, and wiped the sand from his shins. Her mom greeted him at the door. She never came with them, believing, “Sunsets are meant for daddies and their daughters.”
Alana lifted the lid of the plastic trunk that sat in one corner of the patio, gently dumping her bucket of shells into it. That should be it, she thought. The trunk couldn’t hold much more. Five years of broken seashells. Closing her eyes and digging her hand in, she circled her arm around, feeling the coolness of the shells against her skin.
“Alana, you barely touched your breakfast.” Aunt Martha cut through the silence, slicing into Alana’s thoughts.
Alana picked at her scrambled eggs. Every day at breakfast she was lost in memories. Broken just like her seashells. Her dad had been right, “No one likes the broken ones.”
It had been one month since her sixteenth birthday. A day she had anticipated—a pizza party and sleepover that never happened. Now a day clouded over by tragedy and sadness.
“I miss them, too.” Aunt Martha read her mind, which wasn’t difficult these days. Numbness consumed Alana. She hadn’t cried once. Her grief was creating a huge hole in her heart, threatening to swallow her whole.
Alana thought back to the day everything traumatically changed. She had gone over it a million times in her head. It just continued to loop around with no end in sight.
She remembered how sunrays streamed through the kitchen window, forming beads of sweat on her dad’s forehead, accentuating the salt color sprinkled throughout his hair. A cinnamon aroma swirled around him like hot cross buns baking in the oven.
When her mom crossed her arms, Alana inhaled a whiff of ginger. She loved when her parents were together. Her home transformed into a comforting combination of cinnamon and ginger, reminding her of the sweet scents of the holidays.
For as long as she could remember, Alana had this uncanny ability. She smelled people. She had learned over the years that pleasant scents came from people she could trust and unpleasant odors always surrounded people she couldn’t. Fortunately, the people close to her smelled delightful.
That day, however, the scents spiraling around her were overwhelmingly strong; they overloaded her senses. It took all of her strength not to gag. That’s how she knew something was brewing and it wasn’t going to be good.
Her dad loosened his tie and gruffly cleared his throat. He stepped forward. The shadow covering her mom shifted, creating a halo over her head, accenting her perfect dark hair, not a strand out of place, with caramel highlights framing her face. Not a wrinkle to be seen. Even with her mom’s penetrating stare, she still exuded breathtaking beauty.
“We would like to have this conversation today and not on your birthday tomorrow. Let’s get straight to the point.” Her mom sighed and placed a hand on Alana’s shoulder. “Your father and I met with your principal and two of your teachers today to discuss your grades. You’re in danger of flunking out if your grades don’t improve after spring break.”
She knew this day would come. Alana had been hiding her “F” graded tests for months. School was so boring. She spent most of her time in class daydreaming of Adam, and all the exotic places she would travel once she was a famous choreographer.
“The principal will allow you to continue on to your junior year if you agree to extra hours of tutoring after school, show improvement in your grades in English and History, and attend summer school. You’ll also have to take a comprehensive test for each subject.”
“Great,” Alana managed to choke out.
“You’re lucky the principal and teachers are willing to work with you. Consider this your monster eclipse. In other words, your only chance, so don’t screw this up.”
Her mom always had some quirky saying and a tendency to create analogies about all matters in life. Clearly a result of her mom’s schooling in psychology.
“We’ve decided that you will not be going to your dance competition in Myrtle Beach over spring break. Instead, we’re sending you to Aunt Martha’s ranch in Texas.”
At the time, she couldn’t believe they were sending her to Aunt Martha’s. She loved Aunt Martha and didn’t mind the ranch too much, but missing dance was a huge punishment and more appropriately like missing a “monster eclipse.” Not to mention she had been dreaming of the beachfront boardwalk of Myrtle Beach for months.
Dance was the only activity she truly loved. When she listened to the music and moved in rhythm with it, everything seemed right in her life. The music spoke to her soul like a yellow lotus flower bursting from the depths of the water, reaching for the sun. Everyone who watched her could see she was born to be a dancer. She had moved the audience to tears on several occasions. It came as no surprise to anyone that she had won numerous trophies since joining the local and prestigious dance company at the very young age of seven.
“We know how hard you’ve worked at dance and we feel that because of this, you’ve been letting your grades slide. That’s why we’ve also discussed removing you from dance until your grades improve. We already talked to your dance teacher,” her dad said.
“I hate both of you and wish you would die,” she said under her breath and ran upstairs to her room. She cringed, thinking about those words now.
She remembered the last thing her mom whispered to her before she fell asleep, “When you go to bed mad, you wake up sad, so I’m kissing your sorrow away.”
Alana couldn’t help but blame herself for her parents’ deaths. She had learned they had snuck out that night to test-drive a new car they wanted to surprise her with on her birthday. This made her feel even worse, knowing she didn’t really deserve a car due to her failing grades. As her parents were driving the car on Main Street, a drunk driver crossed over three lanes of traffic and hit them head on. It happened in seconds. All three of them were killed instantly. Alana shuddered to think she had wished for their deaths because she was mad at them for cancelling her dance trip.
In the wake of her parents’ deaths, Alana was not expected to return to school for the last two months of her sophomore year. The school psychologist felt it would be best for Alana to be in the care of her next closest relative.
She was now far from home, away from her best friend Piper, Adam, and the life she once knew. On top of missing her parents, she couldn’t bear being away from Adam, too.
The first few weeks at her aunt’s, Alana stayed in bed most days. Sometimes she would watch television and sometimes she would just stare at the ceiling. She had no appetite and lost ten pounds, which was quite a bit for her small frame.
One day a week, Alana saw a therapist who recommended journaling and reading books about grieving, which she tried to do. She thought about her parents every day. Being here was difficult.
Even with her aunt and her comforting lemon scent, Alana felt lonely. She had always wished for a sibling. If she had a sister or brother, she wouldn’t have to face the tragic loss of her parents alone. She often pondered why her parents never had another child.
When Alana was seven, her dad took her to an animal shelter where she had picked out a golden puppy. Alana knew then that Sam would be the closest thing she had to a brother. Almost on cue, Sam laid his warm head on her feet. She reached down and fluffed his ears.
“I wanted to give you something for your birthday,” Aunt Martha interrupted her thoughts. “I was holding off because it never felt like the right time. But I think you need this now.” Aunt Martha handed Alana a small blue velvet box.
Inside Alana found a sparkling blue stone wrapped in gold. Mesmerized by its beauty, Alana instantly felt as if she was transported to breathtaking crystalline waters, watching the waves roll in.
“It’s been in the family for years and handed down to the eldest daughter on her sixteenth birthday, starting with my grandmother. Since I don’t have any children of my own, you’re the next in line. The crystal is sapphire. Here, I’ll put it on you.” A lemon scent wafted from her aunt. Alana breathed in the crisp clean scent that immediately invigorated her.
“Please keep it safe,” her aunt advised. “It’s rare.”
She touched the amulet as her aunt clasped the chain around her neck. A jolt and tingling sensation passed through her fingers, similar to when she first touched Adam. Thinking back, she remembered her aunt wearing the sapphire on special occasions and always admired it. She assumed it was a gift from Uncle Joe.
“There. Doesn’t that look gorgeous on you?”
“Thank you. It’s beautiful. I will always treasure it,” Alana whispered, managing a smile and hugging her aunt. Over the years, her aunt had showered her with beautiful dresses and thoughtful gifts, but nothing topped this amulet.
Alana headed upstairs to her room.
She thought back to her parents again. “How am I going to live without you?” she said to the ceiling. “You won’t be there for all the big and little moments in life and that makes me hopeless and sad.” She closed her eyes. “Why? Why?” She still couldn’t wrap her head around what happened. Loneliness and sadness took over her life. Sam nudged her leg and she bent down to hug him. “At least I have you, furry little guy.”
As hard as it was, she tried to focus on the present moment as her therapist had advised. Alana turned her attention to her closet. Aunt Martha had asked her to feed and groom the horses. What does one wear ranching? She found the cowboy boots and cowboy hat that her aunt had given her. Then she pulled a pair of jeans and tank top from her dresser drawer.
After dressing, Alana quickly braided her long thick brown hair and put on her cowboy hat. As she turned to leave the bathroom, a flash in the mirror caught her eye. She stepped closer to the mirror and took in the beautiful blue sparkle from her necklace. She thought of her mom’s deep blue eyes.
She could almost hear her mom’s voice, “Alana, when you feel like you’re stuck in the mud, all it takes is some refreshing water to thin it out.” Alana splashed some water on her face.
Before she turned to go, Alana noticed dark circles under her eyes for the first time, a true indication of her sadness.
Kicking dirt and rocks, she slowly made her way to the stable. A ranch hand met her at the door and began explaining the regimen to her. Alana half listened and yawned.
“I’m going to check on the pigs. Will you be alright here?”
Without looking at him, Alana nodded and shooed him away. She had no intention of feeding or grooming any horses.
Alana climbed the ladder to the loft area where bales of hay were stacked high. Picking a spot in the back, she sat against the wall.
“Living on a stupid dude ranch, bored out of my mind. This sucks,” she said aloud to the horses and closed her eyes. “I’ll rest for just a minute.”