“Hey hotshot.” Carol’s parked outside the library, leaned up against her Mustang, mid-afternoon on an early September Thursday.
“Carol!” Connie almost yells. “I wasn’t expecting to see you so soon.”
“I could go and come back in two months?” Carol fakes turning around to get back into her car, but Connie’s already hugging her.
“How are you? Are you hurt? Sick? Is that why you’re back so soon?”
Carol smiles and puts up her hands. “I’m totally fine. They just didn’t need me as long as I expected this time.”
The lie she’s been telling is that she does volunteer work, mostly consulting for the Red Cross and that she has to travel, sometimes on short notice for long periods of time, when needed. As lies go, it’s not that bad. She really is doing volunteer work that requires a lot of travel. She really is spending her time away helping others. This time, Talos called her back because of an incoming storm that ended up being not as bad as feared, though the cleanup had been pretty massive. After, she stayed around for a bit taking care of other smaller issues, some for the Skrulls, some on a few other planets, but after three relatively quiet weeks, it seemed time to head home.
“I just got back a few hours ago, actually.”
“What are you doing here and not with your girls?”
“They went to the beach for the holiday weekend.”
Even thought they weren’t expecting Carol back for at least four more weeks, Maria and Monica always left a note on the refrigerator letting her know where they were, if they were gone for more than a day. Carol hadn’t realized the timing of her return until she saw the note. Of course they were at the beach. Maria’s parents rented a house for Labor Day weekend every year. In all the years they went to the beach, for one reason or another, Carol had never been able to be there.
“Go join them. Get out of here.”
“I don’t have a swimsuit,” Carol says, laughing, but it’s also true and a problem she needs to solve before she goes. Off Connie’s look, she continues. “I’m going to surprise them tomorrow. It’s four hours away and I’m a little too tired for a long drive. And there are some errands I want to run before it gets too late. Want to come with? Keep me company, help me stay awake? You’re done for the day, right?”
“I am.” Carol holds open the car door and Connie gets in.
“So, where are we going?” Connie asks once Carol pulls onto the main road.
“You know that thing that I want to buy?”
Connie smiles. “Yeah. You want me to help you pick it out?”
“Nope. I know which one I want.”
“You’re going to buy it today?!”
“Not yet.” Carol laughs. “I don’t have nearly enough money for that. I want to go and make sure it’s still there. See if I can put it on hold or something.”
“Wait,” Connie says after a moment. “You’re going the wrong way. The jewelry store is all the way on the other side of town.”
“There’s this little antique place that we went to a few months ago to get an anniversary present for Maria’s parents. She saw a ring while we were there and she said it reminded her of one her grandmother used to have. So that’s where we’re going. I pretended I wasn’t paying attention when she talked about the ring, but I was.”
Connie claps her hands. “This is going to be fun.”
“In other news,” Carol says. “What happened with you and Marvin? Did you two have your date? I’ve been dying to hear how it went.”
“We did, but it was… he was weird.”
“No! Tell me everything.”
They walk into the shop as the man behind the counter is helping another customer. Carol heads straight for the jewelry counter.
“Yes! It’s still here. This one,” she says after a quick scan, pointing at a ring near the bottom of the display.
“Oh that’s beautiful,” Connie says when she catches up and joins her at the counter.
“Right? You think so? It’s good?”
“It’s gorgeous. … Are you nervous?”
“A little bit, yeah. I should be nervous. It’s a big thing.” She crouches down to get a closer look. “Maria will love this. And she won’t expect it at all.”
“Is this a gift?” The man behind the counter has finished with the other customer and walked over to them. Carol stands up and nods.
There’s a moment where the man doesn’t respond, and Carol wonders if she made a mistake. She doesn’t want to lie, but she also doesn’t want there to be a problem getting this ring. She definitely hadn’t thought this entirely through. It’s obviously not a ring you give a friend, or even a sister. How much had he heard her say?
To hell with it, she thinks, deciding to tell the truth. “For the woman I love.”
This man, this wonderful man, smiles. “Let’s have a look then?” He takes the ring out of the case and hands it to her.
Carol inspects the ring closely—it’s even nicer up close. It’s a platinum band, with a modest ruby stone at the center and and a pair of smaller sapphire and diamond stones on either side of it.
Meanwhile, Connie gets to work on asking the man if they can place it on hold. It takes some convincing, and some true Southern Charm on Connie’s part, but eventually she gets him to agree. “She’s an Air Force veteran and I’m just an old widow, please help us out,” she says at one point.
Carol hands him an envelope with a good amount of cash to get the hold started. “Thank you,” she says to Connie, squeezing an arm around her shoulders, as he fills out the necessary paperwork.
As they are about to leave, a necklace on top of the counter draws Carol’s attention and she reaches for it. It’s a princess length simple silver chain. Like the ring, it has a ruby stone and a sapphire stone.
“For Monica,” she says to Connie. Carol’s already given the man all the money she had allotted for this today, so the necklace, though much less expensive than the ring, has to go on hold as well. “A veteran,” Connie reminds him before he can even begin to protest.
It’s just after 9:30 when Carol arrives at the beach the next morning. She can see Monica, already in the water, with her grandfather. Not far from the edge of the water, Maria and her mother sit on beach chairs, reading quietly. There’s one empty chair, George’s, and all of Monica’s stuff is in a pile nearby, clearly unceremoniously dumped before she sprinted into the water.
Carol approaches quietly before loudly putting her chair on the sand next to Maria. “Room for one more?”
Maria, who had spun around, softens when she hears and sees just who is next to her.
Carol smirks. “Hi.” She waves at Maria’s mother, who waves back. “Hi, Evelyn.”
Without saying a word, Maria stands and hugs Carol. “Surprise,” Carol whispers. “I came back yesterday, but I was a little too tired to drive here last night. So I waited until this morning.”
“I’m so glad you’re here. ….. What’s with the hat?”
Carol is indeed wearing, a very large, very floppy sunhat, that doesn’t suit her at all. “I didn’t have any beach stuff, so I went shopping with Connie. She was very concerned I would get all burned up, so she bought this and made me promise to wear it. I’m also covered in SPF 80.”
Maria laughs. Of all people, Carol doesn’t need protection from the sun.
“Don’t laugh! I have two more hats in that bag.” She points to an oversized beach bag on the sand next to her. “And she wants a photo of all three of us wearing them.”
Ordinarily Maria wouldn’t do this in public. It’s not like they are still in the Air Force, but for a lot of reasons, it’s easier to not do this in front of a lot of people. So, ordinarily, she wouldn’t do this, but she doesn’t care. She also would maybe not do this in front of her mother, because that’s awkward, but again, she doesn’t care. Her girlfriend is back way earlier than expected, wearing a ridiculous hat that she definitely doesn’t need, and flew across a few galaxies to be here.
She slides her arms around Carol’s neck and kisses her, a very long, lingering kiss.
“God I missed you. I missed you so much,” Carol whispers when they break apart. She kisses Maria’s forehead. “I’m sorry I didn’t send you a message, I thought I’d be romantic and surprise you.” She kisses her cheek. “I didn’t realize what day it was or I would’ve come straight here.”
“It’s good. It’s good. You’re here.”
Maria moves in for another kiss, but a booming voice calls out, “CAROL!”
And just like that—does she have super speed too?—Monica crashes into Carol. “You’re back!”
“I am!” Carol says, hugging Monica and lifting her off the ground. “You’re so tall! You’ve gotta stop growing kid, it’s not fair.”
“You’re taller than me,” Carol teases as she lifts Monica above her head briefly, before setting her back on the ground.
“It’s your first time at the beach with us! Let’s go in the water.” She starts pulling Carol in the direction of the ocean. Carol’s not budging, of course, but Monica’s trying. “Come on. The waves are so big.”
“This afternoon. Let me eat breakfast and sit with your mom for a bit, please?”
“The waves will still be there in a few hours. We have the whole weekend. I’ll be in the water so much, I promise.”
“OK,” Monica says, pretending to be stern. “But I am coming to get you at 12:01.”
“I’d expect nothing less.” Carol kisses the top of Monica’s head before the girl runs back to the water.
After hugging George and Evelyn, Carol drops into her chair next to Maria, lacing their fingers together. They spend the rest of the morning like that, Carol never letting go of Maria’s hand—not when she eats a breakfast sandwich, not when telling Evelyn and Maria a particularly amusing story from her recent trip to space, not when she dozes off, not even when her ridiculous hat nearly blows away and she almost knocks them both out of their chairs trying to catch it.
Not until Monica, who is not wearing a watch, somehow knows exactly when to get Carol and drag her into the water.
“You don’t want to join us?” Carol asks as she kisses Maria’s hand before finally letting it go and standing up, but she already knows the answer.
“I’m not getting stung by a jellyfish, no thank you.”
“I’ll protect you.”
“I think those things are stronger than even you.” Carol gasps, offended. “Now go before she calls the Coast Guard.”
When Carol gets waist-deep into the water, she turns to face Maria as a hard wave hits her, but doesn’t move her an inch, and blows a kiss. Then, she gives in to the water and swims with Monica.
“Always been a show-off, that girl,” Evelyn says.
“Yeah, that’s never gonna change,” Maria replies.
Hours later, Evelyn and George have taken Monica out for ice cream, to give Maria and Carol some time to themselves. They spend the whole time on the porch, curled up in a large reclined chair with Maria laying on top of Carol, a blanket draped over both of them. It’s peaceful. They lie there in silence so long that Maria isn’t even sure Carol’s awake until she feels her shift slightly.
“I want to marry you,” Carol says sleepily.
“I know.” Maria’s a little sleepy too.
“I want to marry you, too.”
“This isn’t an official proposal, by the way.”
“It better not be.”