Second Chance(9)

By: Natalie Ann

He missed this, though. He always had when he left and wondered why he didn’t visit more often.

Too busy, he reminded himself. Too much work to be done, too much he needed to prove to people and prove to himself.

And too many memories to push aside. The harder he worked, the easier it was to forget about the past.

He put one end of the paddle in the water and started to turn around and head back to his grandmother’s house, feeling better than he had in longer than he could remember. He shouldn’t have waited so long to get on the water.

In a nice rhythm of paddling and gliding now, he decided to bypass his grandmother’s house and move down a little further. He’d probably regret that decision tomorrow when his shoulders ached, but at the moment, he was enjoying himself too much to stop.

He’d lost count of how many people he’d waved to. Strangers, every single one of them.

Another thing about small towns—everyone was friendly. No one walked by with their head down and pretended not to see you. No one was in too much of a hurry to give a friendly nod.

There was a lawn mower running up ahead, a dog barking and running in another yard, and a young woman gardening a little further down…long blonde hair pulled back in a ponytail, sitting on her knees in a flowerbed.

To be at peace like that in the middle of the week. To just walk out your back door and know this was the view you had all the time.

The man mowing his lawn tossed his hand in the air and Nick returned the greeting. Down further, the dog ran to another dock, stopped at the end, and started to bark and prance around. He glided closer to the woman gardening. She turned and lifted her hand up; he did the same. And then froze.

He stopped breathing—that last bit of air lodged in his throat. He wasn’t sure if it was the memory of today and thoughts of Mallory mixed in with the woman’s long blonde hair, but he started to shake and have flashbacks.

Maybe it was the brightness of the sun slightly blinding him…he didn’t know. But before he knew it, the paddle slipped from his fingers. “Crap,” he said, reaching for it and losing his balance, feeling the kayak start to tip and knowing there was no way to stop its roll.

Next thing he knew, he was gulping in water and pushing his hair off his forehead. He grabbed at the overturned kayak, held on, and turned to see the woman standing there staring at him.

“I’m fine,” he yelled, but she turned and quickly made her way toward her house.

He looked around and saw the paddle floating a bit further away and kicked near it while holding onto the kayak. He’d thought maybe the woman was going to get help for him, but she didn’t. She just stopped at the top by her back door and continued to look at him.

Without hesitating, he kicked closer to her dock. There was no way he could get back in the kayak without leveraging it against something and lowering himself in.

But it wasn’t only that. It was the hair that stood up on the back of his neck. Something wasn’t right. Something was telling him to go after her. He didn’t know why. It couldn’t be Mallory—there was no way—only he wasn’t thinking clearly.

Call it the cool bath he just took, the tingling in his arms, or the racing of his heart, but he had to know. He had to get a better glimpse of the woman that just caused him to make a foolish mistake and overturn himself in a kayak that he’d been using since he was kid.

So he pulled himself up on her dock, lifted the kayak halfway up, and set it there to make sure it wouldn’t drift away. Then he started toward her house.

It never occurred to him that he might frighten her, approaching this way. He’d been on this lake for years; he knew a lot of the houses and had met many of the owners at one point or another, though he never remembered seeing her.

At this point she was long gone. He didn’t care that he was soaking wet. He’d apologize later if he startled her, but he had to see her. He had to see her face. Just for his peace of mind.

Could it be Mallory?

Maybe it was the sun and a trick of the light. A hallucination possibly.

He didn’t know. But if he didn’t search her out and get a closer look at her face, he’d never be able to relax and he would continue to wonder.

He just reached the back door and was going to knock when he heard a car door slam out front and an engine start. He turned in that direction, moving quickly now.

Maybe he’d scared her? Now he felt horrible.

Stopping on the grassy edge of her driveway, he saw her throw her SUV in reverse and start to back out fast, only to slam on the brakes as his grandmother’s car blocked her from leaving.

He stood there dripping wet, water running down his face, his hat and sunglasses long gone at this point—he’d just realized that—and watched as his grandmother climbed out of her car and walked toward the woman trying to escape him in the SUV.