Title: UNDER WESTERN SKIES
Category/genre: NA Inspirational Romance
Author: Nicole L. Ochoa
Editor: Elizabeth Buege
Original version here.
Sarah Hardy can hardly wait for her boyfriend Jeremy to return from his snowmobiling trip and follow through with his interrupted marriage proposal. Five days later, when he goes missing, Sarah’s world and her faith in a loving God collapses.
When Sarah can’t find her way out of the depression that has plagued her since Jeremy’s passing, her concerned family ambushes her with an emotional intervention. At the suggestion that she get out of Wyoming and away from the memories haunting her, Sarah hesitantly agrees to spend a few months in California visiting her cousin. Hoping the change of scenery will be just the thing to begin the healing process, Sarah packs her bags and boards the plane.
Within hours of her arrival on the coast, Sarah feels her ragged heart respond to a brooding surfer who pulls her from the waves. She fights the urge to run—she came to California in search of peace, not love. Why bother with love when it will just end at the grave? As Sarah’s broken heart begins to mend, she will have to deal with her shattered faith and decide if a second chance at love is worth laying to rest the memory of her blue-eyed cowboy.
You Should Be Here
I’d been waiting for this moment since fifth grade, when I’d done my state report on California. I grew up in Wyoming, and California had always been an enigma. From my understanding, it was a state with miles of beaches, cute surfers, and endless sun, a stark contrast to my home in the high desert of Wyoming with its miles of sagebrush, rugged cowboys, and endless winter. My cousin had moved to a ocean town three years prior to attend school. This was my first time visiting him since his move. It also happened to be the first time I’d been able to see the state I’d written about in elementary school.
My being in California wasn’t necessarily my choice, but a strong suggestion from my concerned family. Only a few days earlier, they’d ambushed me with what my sister, Katy, coined an “emotional intervention.”
“What do you think?” Brian asked as I stared out my window, mesmerized by the Pacific. The sight of the waves rolling gently onto the sandy shore and the gulls coasting low across the endless blue landscape held me tongue-tied.
“It’s beautiful,” I said, unable to pull away.
Brian eased his car off the freeway and into a lot near the pier I’d spotted stretching into the sea.
“Do you think it would be all right if I went for a swim?” I asked, eager to touch the water.
He laughed as he turned off the car. “This isn’t San Diego, Sarah. The water’s freezing.”
I’d assumed all of the beaches lining the California coast were warm and wondered if my favorite cousin was up to his old antics. But as I climbed from the car and felt the slight chill in the air, I was disappointed to find he wasn’t.
Next to Brian’s car, a sandy-haired guy zipping up a wetsuit stood next to a blue Chevy with a surfboard lying on the dropped tailgate. He glanced in my direction, and our eyes met. I nodded a hello, figuring he’d do the same; instead, he furrowed his brow and narrowed his green eyes. Hoping his menacing stare hadn’t been intended for me, I glanced over my shoulder. Nobody was there except Brian, who was digging a quilt out from under my bag in the back seat.
My new beach towel, the one my parents had used as the lead-in to my intervention, peeked out of the top of my suitcase. I let out a sigh. The wretched towel had been disguised as a Christmas gift. We’d just finished unwrapping all of our presents on Christmas Day when my mom appeared with the neatly-wrapped box.
I had glanced at my older brother, Mike, for an explanation as to why Mom had tears in her eyes when she handed the box to me. He just shook his head. His wife Malinda, who sat at his feet, wouldn’t meet my eye. I looked to my younger sister, Katy, knowing she would give me a clue as to what was going on. She sat curled up in Dad’s reading chair, her phone discretely tucked into the branches of the tree so she could check her notifications without Mom and Dad seeing. I expected to get an uninterested eye-roll; instead, Katy offered a hesitant smile. Whatever was inside the box wasn’t good.
On the couch, my rough-hewn father placed his arm around my mother, who now had tears spilling onto her cheeks. She brushed them away as she waited for me to unwrap her gift. I tugged at the ribbon and felt it knot. When I gave it a second tug and it still didn’t budge, Dad sat up and handed me his pocket knife. With one last glance around the room, I pulled off the paper and lifted the lid.
“A beach towel?” I asked, running my finger over the bright fabric. Nobody spoke.
Thinking something might be hidden inside, I carefully removed the towel from the box, but nothing tumbled out.
“Thank you?” I said, looking around the room for an explanation as to why nobody was smiling.
My mom swiped at a tear. “We thought you could use it in California,” she said with a hesitant smile.
Dad leaned forward. “Sarah,” he said, resting his elbows on his knees, “we need to talk.”
Katy sat up and finally gave me the eye-roll I’d been expecting. “What Mom and Dad are trying to say,” she said in her matter-of-fact tone, “is it’s time to move on.”
It’s time to move on, I repeated to myself as I scanned the sandy shore now in front of me. Had my family also arranged for the disgruntled surfer to be part of my welcoming party?
Turning back to the surfer, I saw him scraping a bar of wax across his board, acting like he hadn’t just given me the look of death. Maybe I’d misunderstood his expression. A bit unnerved by what I’d thought I’d seen, I checked my reflection in the car window. Nothing looked out of place, but I pulled my hair back anyway, keeping an eye on him in the glass. His head came up as I secured the rubber band. He looked both confused and angry by my presence.
“Sarah,” Brian said, interrupting my thoughts as I watched the surfer grab his board and walk away. “I’m going to pick up something for dinner. Do you want to come, or would you rather head down to the beach to find us a spot to eat?”
I glanced over my shoulder at the chowder restaurant he’d pointed out on our drive in; the long line hadn’t gotten any shorter. I reached for the quilt. “I’ll take beach duty.”
Brian smiled. “I won’t be long.”
“You’d better not be,” I said teasingly. “I’m starving.”
He glanced back and grinned. “It’s nice to have you here, Sarah.”
I probably should have joined him, but he should have known better than to conspire with my parents. Since Brian was going to college in San Luis Obispo, he’d received his babysitting assignment by default. I smiled as I watched him walk away; if I had to have a chaperone while on this emotional hiatus, I was glad it was him.
I shoved the quilt under my arm and made my way down the wooden staircase toward the beach. When I reached the sand, I scanned the area for the surfer but couldn’t find him. In an attempt to shake him from my thoughts, I turned my attention to the waves lapping against the shore. There was something about the way he’d looked at me that bothered me. It was almost as if he’d recognized me. I hadn’t recognized him. Whatever his problem was, I wasn’t going to let some brooding surfer ruin my first time visiting the ocean.
A salty breeze kicked up a few loose strands of my hair, kissing my face as it passed and turning my attention back to the water. It felt surreal to be standing on the edge of the continent. I had to keep reminding myself I wasn’t in a dream. Nothing about my life over the last ten months felt real. I’d been living in a daze since Jeremy died, walking through life on autopilot. Hopefully, this change of scenery would force me to pay attention to my life again.
The last ten months had been hell. I’d done my best to hide from it beneath my studies at the University of Wyoming, but hell wasn’t one to give up easily. As hard as I tried to recover from the crushing loss I’d experienced, I’d found no way to climb out of the pit of depression into which I’d descended. At my parent’s suggestion for me to spend a little time away from Wyoming, I saw the leg-up I desperately needed.
Wyoming held too many memories. Up until Jeremy had gone, the memories were good, but not having him around made them unbearable. With each rustle of the wind through the aspens, each sweet smell of alfalfa in a fresh-cut field, and each golden sunset over the plateaus, I saw Jeremy. With constant reminders of him at every turn, I couldn’t escape the sting of losing him, making it impossible to deal with my grief. Maybe this place, this part of the earth where Jeremy had never been, would be where I found healing.
Locating a dry spot of sand north of the pier, I spread out the blanket and tugged off my boots. Scattered along the waterline were a bunch of white shells basking in the fading light of day. A shell would be the perfect memento to mark this new beginning.