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Happy As A Lark

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I’m pedaling faster and faster, my feet a blur as I fly down a quiet road bordered by overgrown sea grasses and covered in cracked asphalt. The salty summer air whips around my body, plastering my dress onto my skin and throwing my hair behind my face like a cape. The sky is a brilliant blue dotted by cotton cloud puffs and illuminated by a blazing sun hanging overhead. I reach a bend in the road and the wind carries the busy sounds of the marina that I pass. I slow down and coast silently through the seemingly endless line of beach trailers that lie before me. Each is decorated with painted buoys or flip flops and signs with kitschy names like “Sand in Our Shorts: The Smiths.” Golf carts decked out with beach toys and boogie boards are pulled up beside outside showers, and the smell of someone grilling wafts from a distance away. This is a place I’ve ridden my bicycle many times, a neighborhood in the little town of Emerald Isle where I’ve grown up. My father spent his childhood surfing here, eventually opening up a surf shop that thrived for over a decade. I know this back road like I know my name, and I know many of the families that claim these beach houses as their own. One thing I don’t know, however, is why I always end up riding over here subconsciously. Before I can give it a thought, I’m here. I park by the one empty lot in the midst of all these trailers, a small area covered in wildflowers. I wipe the sweat off of my face and my breath catches in my throat. A car drives by, interrupting the silence. The driver honks, probably wondering why I’m standing by an empty lot with such a stricken look on my face. He may see wildflowers, but all I can see are ashes.

Suddenly, I’m seven again. I’m having the best dream ever; I’m floating in a calm ocean, an endless sea of blue-green, with seagulls flying overhead. I marvel at the freedom they possess, and soon I’m rising above the water, realizing that I’m flying myself. As I soar above the glistening surface, one of the seagulls looks at me and says, “WAKE UP, SUMMER!” Confused, I open my eyes. I shake my head and realize that I’m in my room, in Jacksonville, and my mom is standing above me. “Mom,” I grumble, “I’m not ready to get up yet. I was busy floating.” My mom answers me with a sniffle and I open my eyes, alarmed. “What’s wrong, Mom?” I ask. My mother sits on the edge of my bed and puts her head in her hands. “Summer,” she says shakily, “I have bad news.” I grab her shoulder and ask what the news is, thinking that maybe my sister has gotten sick or our summer trip has been cancelled. “Uncle Roddy died last night,” she says. “His trailer caught on fire and he never woke up.”

The rest of the day is a blur of phone calls, prayers, and most of all, tears. They never seem to end. My mother is a wreck, and I’m in utter distress to see her so upset. I’m in the shock phase, and the tears haven’t found their way to the surface yet. I can feel them bubbling within me, hot and steaming, but the time hasn’t come for them to be shed. My little sister Sailor, who is three, cries some herself. “Want Roddy!” she shouts over and over. My heart breaks each time she screams. I feel like I’m trapped in a dark room, the oxygen supply depleting as the walls close in. I walk outside to escape the madness, but the sky is covered in a blanket of rolling thunderclouds and raindrops drip down and sink into the dying grass. I look to the heavens and beg God to send me answers. Why did you take away someone so close to us? Why didn’t you let him escape? Why did you let him suffer a flame-filled death? I’m answered by a crack of thunder and a strike of lightning so bright my eyes are stained with its memory.

The only color I see is gray. Thankfully, the sky stays that way as well. A blue sky would have been a cruel punishment at the moment. My grandparents come down, and my grandpa picks me up and pulls me close to his cheek so I smell the familiar peppermint and clean aftershave I’m so used to. His eyes are lacking the usual twinkly spark, and instead, they are a reflection of his innermost feelings; dark, deep, and endlessly sorrowful. My grandma looks like she hasn’t slept in years; her normally sophisticated and poised figure is hunched and tired, and her hair and glasses are askew. Both have tear-stained faces as they greet my family in solemnity.

The next day, I wake up refreshed and renewed, until I realize the prior day’s events. The weight comes back and hangs like a pall over my entire mind and soul. My family drives down to Emerald Isle and passes the waves that Roddy surfed so many years. We turn down his road and hold our breath as we approach his yard. As soon as we pull up, it feels like somebody has punched me in the stomach. All that’s left is charred wood, a few shingles, and a large pile of rubbish and ashes where the trailer used to stand. My mom has to stay in the car because she can’t move, and my father sits with her as I get out and walk around. The area still smells like smoke, doused by the showers the day before, and somebody has placed a cross in front. People have left memories, notes, flowers, seashells, and pictures around it, held down by the beach pebbles that used to surround Roddy’s little garden. As I poke around, I find a couple of pictures that are only charred around the edges. The first is Roddy surfing a few years back, and the second is him mid-laugh. Both capture his carefree attitude and zest for life, and I pocket them as I return to the car. The whole experience is surreal, and I feel like I’m floating through the hours weightless and invisible.

My mom makes my sister and I stay home for the funeral because she doesn’t want us being exposed to even more sadness. She tells me before she leaves that they are going to scatter Roddy’s ashes in the ocean that he loved so much. I turn on the CD player and the Dixie Chicks’ version of Fleetwood Mac’s “Landslide” fills my room. The words are so poignant at the moment and that’s when the tears come. They flow as the music plays and by the time the song ends, I sit in silence and cry some more. I crawl into my sister’s room as she sleeps in her crib. I bring my pillow in her room and lay down beside her, falling asleep. It’s a fitful sleep, with lots of tossing and turning. Soon, I enter the same dream I was having when I found out my uncle died. I’m flying with the seagulls, and one specific bird is flying higher than the others. It’s different than the others, and I’m not sure what kind it is. It swoops down and sings a beautiful song. “Bird,” I say as I fly, “Why are you so happy?” It chirps and says, “God is so good to us, Summer. He’s made us such beautiful people and he’s given us a beautiful world to enjoy!” With that, the bird flies away into the blue abyss, and I’m content. When I wake up to my sister pulling at my hair through the crib bars, a calm feeling settles over me and I feel at peace for once since the tragedy.

Months later, I’m standing on a beach access in Emerald Isle that has just been built for Roddy. Two brand new plaques stand at each end with his name, dates, and the phrase “Happy As a Lark”. The phrase was put there because it sums up his personality and character, and I’m touching the plaques and reminiscing on all of our memories and happy times. I place a wreath around the bottom of the plaque and head home. When I’m back at my house, I look up a picture of a lark on the Internet. I gasp. The bird I’m looking at is the same carefree bird in my dream months ago. Suddenly, everything clicks. That dream was Roddy’s way of telling me everything will be alright. He is safe, happy, and watching over us.

I am whisked back to the present. I’m still standing in front of the empty lot, looking at my surroundings. I smile and run into the yard, picking a handful of flowers in every color imaginable. Once I have a huge bushel, I take the hair tie I was about to use to tame my windblown tresses and wrap it around the bouquet. I mount my bike again, place the flowers in the basket, and blow a kiss to the yard. I start off again, work up some speed, and pedal as fast as I can down the familiar road once more. I ride for about ten minutes and cross a few more streets until I’m here. I ditch my bike and sprint up to the walkway, the waves crashing ahead. I place the flowers below the plaque, run my fingers over the now weathered words that say “Happy as a Lark,” and take off running for the sand. I charge all the way to the water and splash right in, diving into the froth. The current is strong and swirls at my ankles. My dress is suctioned to me, soaked thoroughly. The beach is rather deserted, and I float on my back and look up at the blue sky, letting my mind wander. I see seagulls flying ahead, and there’s one bird unlike all the others flying even higher above. Laughter bubbles within me and spews from my mouth. I float there, laughing hysterically, until tears of happiness trail down my face and mix with the ocean beneath me. I sink down into the water and blow bubbles out before returning to the surface, my hair floating out like a net around me. I look up once more at the bird as it flies away, and I shout, “Go get ‘em, Roddy!”



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