The Bandbox Hat
Previously: Amanda got a bloody nose from Cassie’s poorly aimed volleyball serve while on a group date at the beach. Sarah Jane and Linda, Austin’s mother, chat in the water, away from the cameras. Linda asked Sarah Jane if she was close to her parents.
I should have seen the question coming. Why I didn’t is a mystery. My eyes filled with tears at the reminder that I didn’t have parents anymore. At least my face was still wet from Austin and Linda’s splash fest, so I didn’t bother to dash them away and draw attention to my emotions. After a deep breath, I trusted myself to answer.
“My parents have both passed away,” I said.
“Oh, dear.” Linda grasped my arm. “I’m so sorry. I’m so thoughtless to have asked.”
I kicked a toe through the water and watched the cascading arc of drops. “It’s a perfectly normal question. Especially since we’re on a reality show where the whole point is to talk about families and if they’re compatible. It just caught me by surprise.”
“Do you want to talk about it?” Linda’s voice held equal parts compassion and comfort.
I shook my head. “Not really, but that is why we’re here. Should we go back in camera range?”
Linda glanced at the water line before us. Her camera man waved and motioned her closer. She sighed. “I suppose. But I don’t want to sit in the middle of everyone else and let those other girls think it’s okay to interrupt us. Let’s walk down the beach.”
We walked back to where the camera and sound guys waited and headed away from the shelter and the squeals and calls for Austin’s attention.
The camera man snaked around us and then walked backwards, the camera perched on one shoulder.
“How do you do that?” I asked him.
“I’m a professional.” He said it with no emotion, but I saw a smile behind the lens.
“How long ago did you lose your parents, Sarah Jane?” Linda asked.
“Mom has been gone several years. My dad died just a few months ago.”
We strolled, which, given the backwards walk the camera and sound men had to perform, was a good plan.
I peered around the pair in front of us. Brown cliffs jutted into the sea way ahead. Nothing else but scattered groups of colorful beach towels and umbrellas could be seen.
“Were you close?” Linda asked.
“Not especially,” I said. “To Dad, I mean. He had four boys to help him on the farm. He left me and my sister to Mom.”
She asked a few more questions, generic things like where I was from and what did we grow on the farm. Then the big one: “Why are you on this show, Sarah Jane?”
“Should we head back?” I asked. “We’re pretty far from the group.”
“I suppose,” Linda said.
We turned, then waited for Camera Guy and Sound Guy to do their bob and weave around us. Once we were back in focus, Linda repeated her question.
“I wish I knew,” I confessed. “I met Liam at a coffee shop. He talked me into it. I’ve never done anything like this before. I don’t even watch these shows. But Liam can be very persuasive. School’s out so I’m not working.”
“Those are the external reasons,” Linda said. “Why are you really here?”
I inhaled and held it, counted to six, then slowly blew out the breath. “Liam caught me on a bad day,” I said.
Linda didn’t say anything.
“I moved away from the farm right after Dad’s funeral. I suddenly wanted to do something completely unexpected and out of character. I think I was still having some of those feelings when Liam told me how great this would be. I admit, it sounded fun. Travel a bit, meet some people. I forgot about the ‘finding true love’ bit. Liam also neglected to mention the constant twenty-four/seven cameras and people.”
“I see.” Linda rubbed the nape of her neck. “I’m feeling warm. We should get sunscreen.”
We cut a diagonal path to the production tent and grabbed some SPF 30 from the basket on the ground, then made our way to where Linda’s chair and tote bag still sat in the middle of her beach blanket. I’d dropped my things a few feet away but didn’t see them now. Just a sandy mound where my sandals and towels had been.
Suspicion nipped at back of my mind. I toed the mound. It wasn’t just sand. Something solid was in there. I pushed with more force and wiggled my foot, sending sand scattering. Sure enough, a blue and green striped towel appeared first, followed by my brown flip-flops.
I turned toward the sound of Linda’s voice.
“Come sit here with me.” She was in her chair, patting the towel beside her.
Glares from the dozen or so other girls in the area seared my face.
“I’d love to,” I said, making my way to her side. I dropped my flip-flops in front of the blanket, then settled myself near Linda. “Tell me a story about Austin as a little boy.”