I check my pockets.
I check them again.
I check the curb.
We had finished brushing the sand off our feet and rolling down our pants legs. The sun was setting, and the air was cooling considerably in the past hour. We are in Florida, and it is December. Christmas, in fact.
Familiar white noise of my childhood somehow keeps me calm. The shore froths and foams at low tide. The beach stretches for miles, and the horizon produces muted purples and blues with a backglow of pink. Flat clouds gather and blend into the greying blue above us. Seagulls congregate along the softened zig-zag margin where the rolling waves stop on the sand. We know those birds are wondering why we are there. They probably already know.
After we put our shoes back on, I tell Reilly that we have to walk on the beach again, because I don’t have the keys.
He checks his pockets, too. We spin in place and look at the asphalt and adjoining sidewalk; the keys could appear as quickly they disappeared.
We had walked a least a mile on the beach. The sand, the sea, the pelicans could have swallowed the keys. We need to retrace our steps.
We start on the land bridge connecting the asphalt and the great expanse of sand. I look up the coast to the pier where we started walking. We begin our search together then decide it might be better to divide and conquer.
Just minutes ago we watched a parascender float through the air while a speedboat pulled him, and now our eyes focus on the sand, and I try to recall our exact path. I realize that I didn’t really pay attention to our steps, because we were lost in conversation, in each other. My heart pounding in my ears matches the volume of the ocean waves playing Yahtzee on the shore. White and static bounced and tumbled in different combinations. Did it ever roll all sixes? On a day like today, I would say yes.
On our walk down, we occasionally noticed the sun’s descent, the temperature’s decrease, and kids running around or writing in the sand. We had walked mostly on the packed sand, and the balls of my feet had nearly rubbed raw until we walked up toward the dunes where the sand was softer.
On the walk back, Reilly is 50 yards ahead. While we scan the sand, I sometimes look up the miles of coast. I notice certain landmarks that we passed the first time: sandcastles, holes and little plastic shovels, piles of seaweed, where people had written in the sand, a jellyfish.
The worst-case scenario crosses my mind. I am not worried that we wouldn’t get back to my parents’ house. I don’t have anyone’s number memorized. If we could get into the car, then maybe I could get my cell phone and get a ride back to the Westside. That would be easy enough.
But that is not the worst-case scenario.
The lost keys aren’t mine. They don’t belong to my family. I have them because I agreed to housesit and dogsit for my friend Jenny while she went on a Christmas trip with family. And she let us use her car. So I imagine having to explain how I lost the keys and why the dog is dead. I imagine poor little Henry the wiener dog lying stiff and unconscious by the front window of Jenny’s home waiting for Jenny’s car to pull up. But it wouldn’t be me in the car, because Jenny would have killed me for losing her keys. I would be dead. My ragdoll body would wash onto the shore days later while kids played catch with the keys we were looking for. And Reilly would have to explain awkwardly to my mom what happened.
This situation would be a much smaller deal if the keys were mine.
I have a feeling we wouldn’t find them on the beach, but at the same time, I want to get to the first part of our walk, where we rolled up our pants and let the water wash over our feet. I know that if the keys happened to drop into the water, there would be no chance of retrieving them. Not exactly a reassuring thought, but it is what I want to do.
We see a man scanning the beach with his metal detector. I ask him if he came across a set of keys. He says that he hasn’t. He asks if we lost them along the beach. I say that we did. He suggests we retrace our steps, to follow our path exactly the way we walked. That’s something we had never considered. We know he is trying to be helpful, but we are just frustrated, and Henry is waiting for us. My brother is waiting for us. When he finishes talking, we thank him for his advice and part ways. The coast looks as long as ever.
We finally come to the spot by the pier where we stood in the ocean. Of course we don’t see any keys, and I hope that a seagull would drop them into my hands. The seagulls mock us instead. They would never lose their friends’ keys.
Then we start up toward the parking lot. We check by the sidewalk where we originally took off our shoes. We reach the car and check the keyholes of the doors after we tried opening the doors. We talk about making another sweep of the beach, and I sigh at the cooling breeze and darkening sky.
Reilly walks up to the pier’s entrance, to a small parks and rec office where people can buy fishing permits and supplies. I check the sand again where we first took off our shoes. I keep wondering about Henry and having new keys made for the car and Jenny’s house and I kept telling myself how irresponsible I am and that I should have secured the keys instead of putting them in my back pocket.
Reilly comes down from the pier. I look at him, and he smiles and holds up a set of keys that I immediately recognize by the leather Harding University keychain. He says that someone found them and turned them in. We walk quickly to the car, and it feels so good to be able to unlock the door, text my brother to tell him we are on our way to dinner, and look forward to Henry’s tail wagging when we returned to Jenny’s house. It feels good to live.
Just before we put back on our shoes and started our search, we stood on the sand and watched the ocean. Our conversation had gotten quiet and after a few moments, Reilly said he had never been happier in his life and I began crying and he said that he really enjoyed spending the past few months with me and he wanted to spend his life with me, and he asked me for the chance to make me as happy as I’ve made him. He said, “I would love for you to have this” as he pulled out of his pocket a little black velvet box. I said that I would love to give him that chance, and I kept crying as he took the ring from the box and put it on my finger. I wiped the tears from my eyes. We hugged tight and gently kissed. With his arm around me, we continued to stare at the ocean.
We put on our seat belts. I turn the key in the ignition. I check the side and rear view mirrors. I check the time, the headlights against the dusk. I check my phone after sending a mass text to all my friends. I check myself in the eyes of the man sitting next to me.
As we pull out of the parking lot, I check my hand.
I am engaged.