The sun was warm on her face, sand soft between her toes. Shannon breathed deep the scent of the wind, laced with salt, as it lifted her hair up with its passage.
Brandon pulled her arm so hard, she wondered if it were going to separate from its socket. "Come on, slow poke! Let's race!"
She smiled and indulged him, even though they both knew he would win.
Shannon loved the way her legs burnt, as each stride slammed down on the wet sand, only to be swept over by the white foam of the ocean tide.
As they ran, she found herself staying right on Brandon's heels, which meant he was going easy on her.
Brandon ran cross country their entire school career, he was one of the fastest on the team. Shannon wasn't bad, in fact if she'd stayed with the sport, she probably would have been quite good, but the appeal of sweaty arm pits, four mile runs and competition was lost on her.
They were on the same team in middle school and even though he was upset she stopped the sport and switched to knowledge bowl in high school, Brandon still attended every meet with a foam finger and very inappropriate cheering. The latter getting him kicked out before it even started some days.
Once they reached the massive rocks of the jetty, Brandon collapsed on the ground, bringing her down with him. They laid in the warm blanket of sand, chests heaving from the exertion.
The rare sun felt so wonderful on her skin. She reached a hand up to block it from her eyes, memorizing the way it trickled through the shadow of her fingers.
Brandon caught his breath much quicker than she did. He rolled onto his heels and stood up, stretching as high as he could go. The sillohette of his lithe body made it seem like if he were to stretch just a little higher, he could touch the sky itself. If anyone could do it, she believed it was Brandon.
Lowering his arms with a content sigh, he scanned the horizon, while Shannon stayed heaving on the ground. After a moment, his hand came to his forehead, blocking out the sun's light and a big smile spread over his face. "Hey! Stay right there!"
Like a shot of lightning, Brandon sprinted towards the vast ocean like a bird taking flight.
Shannon raised up on her elbows, watching as he scooped up whatever prize he'd seen and held it triumphantly over his head. That triumph quickly disappeared, when an angry wave to crashed on his back. Brandon let out a high-pitched shriek. "Cold! Cold! Very cold!"
Shannon was beside herself with giggles. "Wow that was sooo manly!"
He flung himself into the sand beside her and rolled until he was covered in its warmth. Once he was satisfied, he looked to Shannon, who was still giggling. "It's not nice to laugh at a man when he is on a quest for a lady."
"I didn't know you were on a quest for me. I didn't send you. I hold no responsibility."
He pouted and reached behind his back. "Then I guess you don't want this?"
Shannon stopped laughing when the treasure came into view. A small, heart-shaped shell rested in his calloused hands. The delicate blue and white streaks danced around each other and swirled into the middle, as if the ocean were hand-painted on the smooth walls.
"It's your favorite color."
Shannon smiled and reached for the shell, cradling it in her hands. "It's beautiful. Thank you."
She had no more time to admire it, before the shell was plucked out of her hands and slipped into his pocket. Brandon smiled his knowing smile and winked. "Don't worry, you'll get it back. I just have something I want to do with it first."
"You give me a gift and then take it away? Present tease." Shannon scolded.
He stretched and flopped backwards, letting the sand's warmth cradle him.
Brandon reminded her of a big puppy, always energetic and happy. His full brown eyes and infectious smile, always made her feel like she belonged in his world. Sometimes that was the only place she ever felt like herself.
They sat, staring at the ocean, as the orange sun dipped down below the horizon. Shannon leaned back on her hands, flicking a small piece of driftwood out of the hole her fingernails dug.
Without the sun's light, the wind blew cold and wrapped its way over her shoulders, peppering her pale skin with goosebumps.
She rubbed her arms and shivered. "It's getting cold. Can we head back?"
Brandon rose up, sand flying from his dark curls. "Hm, I guess so. If you want."
He stood and turned around with an outstretched hand. She grasped it and he flung her up so fast, she stumbled a few feet.
Brandon laughed his impish laugh. "Whoa, steady there."
"Well if you wouldn't use your new man strength every second of the day..." She griped, rubbing her hands up and down her bare arms.
Brandon removed his jacket. "Here, wear this until you get to your car."
Shannon looked at the soft, black cotton jacket and back to her friend, "Won't you be cold then?"
He bowed before her, tipping an imaginary hat. "Don't worry about me little lady, I'm warm-blooded."
Shannon laughed at his southern drawl and buried herself in the heat of his jacket, tucking her chin down to hide from the growing wind.
She inhaled the scent of Axe Phoenix and forest. Brandon didn't live out as far as she did, but he always had the faint smell of the wilderness about him. He smelt like the Earth, warm, rich and full of life.
The sight of Brandon had kneeling down, with his back to her and his hands waiting, broke her thoughts. She blinked for a second, processing his pose, before the gesture dawned on her. "Yes, please!"
Taking a moment to position herself, Shannon tapped his shoulder, and he rose up, carrying her across the big pieces of driftwood.
She nuzzled her head on his shoulder and held on tight. It was then she realized how much muscle her friend developed since last year. He must have been going to the gym over break, that would explain the few times he didn't go out with her and Iris.
She ran her fingers along the line in his shoulder and smiled.
When did he grow up? If he's more like a man since last year, am I any more like a woman?
Shannon pressed herself closer to his firm back and wondered if she would ever look like her mother or her sister-in-law? They were both, proud, beautiful women who looked like they could stand against the world's problems and still maintain their grace.
Shannon always felt gawky and uneasy in her own skin.
With two more steps to clear the driftwood, Brandon hiked her up and took off in a full-blown sprint. She held on with all her might, shrieking. "Slow down! We're gonna trip!"
And they nearly did. Twice.
When they arrived to her tiny, black Honda, Brandon set her down and ruffled her hair. "Whew, that was a work out."
"And what is that supposed to mean?"
He put his hands up and shrugged. "Take from it what you will."
This earned a smack to the shoulder, which did nothing to faze him.
Instead, he just backed up a few feet and put his hands in his pockets, rocking on his heels. "Thanks for the beach day, it was really fun. See you tomorrow."
Shannon waved back, deciding not to throttle him for his prior comment. "Yeah, it was. See you later."
She opened her door and realized she was still wearing his hoodie. "Brandon! You forgot this!"
He was nearly down the street, when he turned and cupped his hands around his mouth. "Keep it! I've got another!"
Her fingers bunched up in the fleece sleeves and she inhaled one more time, memorizing the scent. She wondered if it were a smell she would remember long after Brandon was out of her life? The thought made her heart ache.
College was always the sanctuary for which she wanted to run full-speed and never look back, but now, there was something she may want to look back for.
It was dumb to think Brandon would follow her to whatever state she chose. He had his own life and his own dreams. She couldn't ask him to give them up just because she felt lonely.
With a final look in his direction, Shannon sighed and sat in her car, throwing her bag in the passenger seat. Her head rested against the seat, hand on the buckle.
She was just about to clip it, but she opened her eyes and looked forward. "The music room is open?"
The blue, rusted door was ajar, the wind making it swing back and forth in a haunting way. Dan must have forgotten to lock it. Again.
Shannon locked her car and climbed the stairs to sneak in. All the band and choir folders were neatly aligned in their cubbies and none of the instruments were checked out this late. She glanced around and saw no one, curious why the main lights were still on with no one present.
It was quiet, unsettlingly quiet. Shannon felt as if she would crumple under the thick silence of the room and her steps became weighted with each nervous shuffle further in.
So, when the pile of books fell over, the scream that stayed in her throat, made her leap from the spot she was standing in and frantically scan the room.
Nothing. Not a chair or a stand out of place.
Suddenly, the scary stories she loved so much, began to haunt her. She pictured disfigured ghouls waiting to fall from the ceiling or a knife-wielding maniac to pop out of one of the practice rooms. The fear was thick in her mouth, metallic and wild.
Shannon wasn't sure if she were going to scream or throw up. She should've just left, walked out the door and pretended she wasn't there. But what if some crazy homeless guy broke in and was stealing from the choir fund?
Every year, they saved up money to go on one fun trip together. She couldn't let their hard-earned money go to waste!
The thought gave her courage, as she tip-toed up to one of the three darkened practice rooms and forced herself to look inside.
Nothing in the first one, but storage. She let out a little of her held breath.
Moving to the second, she found the abandoned spare piano they always said would be tuned, but never got to it.
A swelling dread filled her steps, as she crept up to the third room, which had the lights off and nothing but a computer screen to offer a hollow light. She peeked in through the small window and gasped when she saw the shape of a man inside.
"Oh shit. It IS a crazy homeless dude."
Never removing her eyes from the shadowed intruder, she reached to the book shelf and pulled out a volume with some heft to it.
Taking a few practice swings, she whispered a frightened. "Hey batter, batter, batter."
It would do the trick.
Shannon bounced on her heels a few times, breathing heavily, pumping herself up. "Okay, you've got this. You've got this. And go!"
She burst into the room, turning on the light and winding up for the swing of her life. To her amazement and relief, the figure there held no bloody knife, nor a revolver, instead he limply held a pencil in one hand and his glasses in the other.
Mr. Thompson had fallen asleep in his chair, in front of a desk, scattered with music sheets and his foot kicked over the pile of books, which was what called her to action.
She sighed her relief and lowered her arms. Why hadn't the man simply gone home if he were that tired? Instead, of scaring her half to death?
She peeked down to the desk, to see the pencil had slid down one sheet and left a long, black streak on the top. His face rested on a few blank sheets of paper.
Was he writing some new music? Something for the choir or his own personal project?
Since it was clear no threat of murder or possession was evident, Shannon lowered herself down in a crouch to get a good look at the man. It felt like this was the only time she'd be allowed to get this close and she wasn't going to waste it.
He looked different than he had the past few days, sleep adding a new level of innocence to his face, softening his features.
His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows, showing the strength of a developed man, so different than her peers who were only entering this stage. His dark hair was tussled, the slight curl she didn't notice before, twisting like a comma in front of him.
His glasses were laying askew on the paper and she wondered if they were digging into his wrist?
Shannon turned her head from one way to another, knowing that it was wrong to stare, but unable to break away from the beauty of the man before her. It occurred to her, that she had never really been this close to any type of man in her life, but her father or Brandon.
The boys who surrounded her were developing into the men they would become someday. Not a one of them seemed worth the time to get to know. She'd gathered who they would be when they grew up, just like they thought they knew who she would become as well. She was the girl who never belonged here and they were the men who would never leave.
When she looked at Mr. Thompson, she saw a man who had lived and seen things she could only dream of. He was from the city; he'd gone to a university and seen a world she'd only read about.
What kind of things could he show her? What stories could he share about his adventures and what the outside world held?
The glasses were bothering her. They were digging into the skin of his wrist, wedged between the desk and his arm. That couldn't be comfortable.
Before she realized what she was doing, Shannon's hand reached out and slowly slid the glasses out from under him.
When she did, she felt the light tickle of his breath on her hand, when it passed and the sensation sent a small tingle down her spine. She bit her lower lip, trying not to make any noise to disturb him, as she folded the glasses up and to set them on the desk in front of him.
A moan came from the being before her, the kind of moan that meant he was waking up.
Shannon dropped the glasses too quickly and they clicked on the wood in front of his face.
To her horror, those icy blue eyes fluttered open and focused right on the girl before him.
Shannon held her breath, as Mr. Thompson stared at her, confused.
She tried to think of a reason, any reason at all, for why she would be here. What could she say to justify being here after hours and him waking up to her hand mere inches from his face?
They stared at each other for what seemed to be hours, though it was only seconds.
Without saying a word, Mr. Thompson reached up to his face and his fingers danced around where his glasses would be.
He looked to Shannon, who pointed to the desk where they were neatly folded and waiting. He picked them up and adjusted them to their perfect fit.
Once he had, he squinted at her and reached a finger out to poke her arm. "Hm, so I'm not dreaming after all. Ms. O'Ryan, care to explain exactly what you're doing here?"
"I...I...um." She stuttered.
His eyes searched her face and then trailed down when he noticed the book in her hand. "Did you want to borrow that?"
Shannon glanced to the book and realized she was still clutching it to her side. "Oh! I... um... noticed the doors were unlocked and came in to see if Dan forgot to close them. Then I heard some books fall over and I thought someone broke in to steal the trip money. So, I went to investigate."
Mr. Thompson smiled and sat up, brushing back his hair. "Well, aren't we feeling very Nancy Drew today? And what exactly were you planning on doing with the intruder, before you realized it was me?"
Shannon picked up the book and blushed. "Well, I was going to...kind of..."
She made a feeble swing and he laughed.
It was the same laugh she had heard before, one that was made entirely of joy, not a single trace of mocking or contempt. He laughed so fully and with such amusement that despite herself, Shannon found herself laughing right along with him.
He leaned back in the chair and put a hand to his face. Shannon fell against the door frame, gripping her stomach.
The two laughed for a long while, before he wiped a tear from his face and inhaled. "Wow, I haven't laughed like that in a long time. You're something else, Shannon."
She felt a shiver go down her spine, this was the first time he didn't use her last name. It sounded so naked, so exposed and delicious in his smooth voice. She wanted him to say her name again and again.
"Well you may laugh, but I could have clobbered you in your helpless state. Why were you asleep here anyway?"
Mr. Thompson stretched and loosened his tie. "I was writing some new music and fell asleep. I haven't been sleeping very well lately. I almost went home, but then I got some unexpected inspiration and had to write about it."
Shannon nodded and tried to get a peek at the title. "Can I see it?"
Mr. Thompson's face melted away from his smile. "It's not finished yet. I'd rather you not."
"Okay, can I at least know what it's called?" She probed, as he looked to the right and shook his head. "It doesn't have a title yet, but I'll let you know when it's done. Well, it's getting late, so I'd better head home. You should do the same."
She nodded and backed out of the room to clear his way.
He pulled his jacket on and turned to face her, his face surprisingly sincere. "Oh yeah, I hope I didn't hurt your feeling earlier in class. It wasn't my intention"
Shannon looked away. "You didn't."
Lying was never a skill she bested and Mr. Thompson must have seen through it. He brushed past her and went to the piano. "Come over here, please."
Shannon followed him and stood by her beloved instrument.
Mr. Thompson cracked his knuckles. "The reason I said what I did, was because I know there is so much more than what you're giving me. In you is a world of promise, and I know when I'm being cheated out of an amazing performance."
"Just from your speaking voice, I can tell that you have a very rich tone and I would like to hear that. Here, I'm going to play something and I want you to sing it."
He thought for a moment, glancing over Shannon, before the song came to mind.
His fingers went to the keys and he played the beginning chords of Amazing Grace, a song that she knew very well.
Shannon opened her mouth and began singing softly.
Mr. Thompson shook his head. "That's lovely, for a church mouse. I want a woman's voice. Try again. Stand with your feet shoulder length apart and use your diaphragm, not your shoulders."
Shannon inhaled and tried to put more strength behind her tone. It still felt like it was faltering in some way.
Don't be a mouse. Don't be a mouse. Don't be a mouse.
Then, Mr. Thompson's velvet tone joined in and the faltering in her voice became apparent.
He created a perfect harmony and the more strength he put into it, the more she responded and before she knew it, the power in her voice, she had no idea lived there, escaped her lips and filled the room.
Mr. Thompson held out the final chord and his mouth stitched into a smirk. "Now she is the woman I've been waiting for. Try using that sound whenever you sing and you will find a part of yourself you didn't know was there. Goodnight, Ms. O' Ryan."
Shannon exhaled in a quick breath. "Oh, goodnight and thanks!"
She practically flew down the stairs, threw herself into her car and took off, the smile never leaving her face. Not only had she tapped into a voice she never knew she had, but he praised her. The Tinman had a heart after all!
Shannon wasn't sure when this became so important to her, but finally she secured a place in his world of music and she had no intention of disappointing him.
Mr. Thompson watched her drive away, a little too fast, and returned to the back desk. With a deep, tired sigh, he picked up the sheet of music he'd created and puzzled for a moment.
Raising it up to his eye level, he squinted at it and scoffed at the title his half-asleep self, created.
Locking it away in the desk drawer, he stood and turned the lights off on the piece of sheet music he tentatively labeled. "Fire-Hair Beauty."