Cold Blooded Lover

My feet sank into the loose, arid sand with each begrudging step I took. I held my shoes in one hand and the sun-warmed sand scorched the bottoms of my feet. My gait was unsteady and cautious as the ground slipped beneath me. Sand surrounded my ankles like a mouth devouring my flesh, reluctantly relinquishing its bite when I elevated my knees. With each new step I imagined having displaced millions of sand granules from their original location.
I halted my march when I spied a plane up above. It was only a commercial jet, yet I shielded my eyes with one hand and watched the airplane slice through the bright blue sky, leaving a trail of white exhaust in its wake.

"Cassidy? Are you coming?"

My gaze returned to the shimmery horizon, and I tightened my grip on the red and white plastic cooler. "Yeah."

I trained my eyes on the sway of the shapely backside moving in front of me as we picked our way across the crowded Minnesotan beach. The opportunity to see Julia in a bikini was nearly enough to make me forget my aversion to sand. But not quite.

I hovered awkwardly, shoes in one hand and our lunch in the other, while Julia scouted an unoccupied location close to the water's edge. She pulled a blue and white checked blanket from her canvas tote bag and claimed the small parcel of land as ours.

I continued to scan our surroundings while she busied herself with the task of flattening the blanket across the bumpy sand. Minnesota was heralded the land of 10,000 lakes, but the city of Minneapolis wasn't known for its scenic beaches. We'd driven about thirty miles west of the Twin Cities, close to the state boundary, to Square Lake Beach. I'd never been before and was sorely disappointed to discover that Square Lake was not, in fact, a square.

Clusters of family groups dotted the lakeshore, all trying to squeeze out the last little bit of summer before the school year started and the weather took a turn for the worse. The high-pitched squeals of children laughing sounded more like the shriek of mortar bomb in the moments before detonation.

I sat down on the beach blanket with my legs tucked tight to my body and rested my chin on the tops of my knees. I dug my toes deep into the golden-colored sand. A lot of people like me—separated military personnel susceptible to PTSD flashbacks—avoided the beach. The sand along Minnesotan lakes hardly resembled the dirty moon dust of an Afghanistan desert, but it was familiar enough to have made me hesitate.

"Sunscreen?" Julia offered.

I shook my head and continued to wiggle my feet deeper into the loose sand, like planting myself into the landscape. "I'm good."

"Your fair skin won't last the afternoon," she prophesized.

She pulled a comically large bottle of sunscreen from her beach bag. It was so big, it needed a hand pump.

“Over-compensating?” I remarked as she began to liberally apply the lotion to her arms and the tops of her shoulders.

“I’m fighting off the wrinkles for as long as I can. Don’t squander your youth, soldier.”

I regarded her, my eyes squinting into the bright afternoon sun. “You can’t be that much older than me.”

She smiled and her mouth curled up on one side. A manicured eyebrow rose over the top of her dark sunglasses. “I guess you’ll never find out.”

“I could always look you up in the system, you know," I threatened.

“I don’t have a criminal record, darling.”

"So you say."

She made an amused humming sound in response.

“There’s ways. I could find out,” I huffed.

Julia smiled, a look intended to placate or humor me. “I’ve no doubt; you’re a very talented detective.”

"We'll see about that one."

I was both excited and nervous to be starting my new job with the Minneapolis Cold Case division in the morning. I knew how to be a beat cop, but this was relatively new territory. It still wasn't clear to me what I would be doing day-to-day, but I hoped the learning curve wouldn't be too great.

After Julia finished applying sunscreen to herself, she turned her attention to me even though I’d rejected her initial offer.

"Take off your shirt and I'll do you, dear."

Normally I liked going for the low-hanging fruit, but I ignored her offer. Unfortunately, Julia noticed. Julia noticed everything, especially the things I tried to keep to myself.

"You've nothing to be self-conscious about, dear."

"Only craters on my back," I retorted. "It's like looking at a topographic map of the moon."

I tucked my legs tighter to my chest. I'd been so anxious about sand, it had nearly distracted me from another of my insecurities; the I.E.D. that had killed the majority of my unit had left its mark on my back. Even if I was able to limit my flashbacks, my skin remained a physical reminder of what we'd endured.

"Hush," she chastised.  "No one is going to even look."

She grabbed the bottom hem of my t-shirt, yet I continued to resist.

"You can't know that."

"Yes I can."


"Because they're looking at me," she answered as she slipped my shirt over my head.

I didn’t continue to put up a fight since her hands were on me. Instead, I closed my eyes and enjoyed the warmth of the sun on my face and the heat from her touch as she covered the tops of my shoulders with sunscreen. My eyes remained closed as her lotioned hands traveled farther down my back. Besides medical doctors, Julia was the only other person to touch my back after I'd been injured.

She swept my ponytail to the side and her hands moved back up to my shoulder blades. "I'm proud of you, Cassidy." She spoke near my ear.

"For taking off my shirt?"

"No. Dr. Warren told me your therapy was going well, but I never expected to be at the beach with you so soon."

I snorted. "So much for doctor-patient confidentiality."

"It's not her fault," she defended. "I'm a hard woman to say no to."

"Don't I know it," I quipped.

My PTSD symptoms hadn't improved much working with my previous psychologist with the police department, and the unpaid medical bills had been piling up. Julia had found my current therapist, Dr. Susan Warren, through connections with the Lawyers Serving Warriors project. In addition to keeping a dream journal, part of my therapy had been introducing myself to scenarios that might trigger a flashback.

I had promised Julia a trip to the beach in exchange for dinner at Mickey's, an old-school diner in Minneapolis that specialized in loaded cheeseburgers, thick steak fries, and chocolate malts. She very rarely indulged in that kind of caloric food, but it was a fair trade-off for putting myself in a vulnerable setting. Plus, I got to see her in a bathing suit. That, at least, hadn't been a disappointment.

She gently patted my back. "There. All done."

I immediately eyeballed my discarded t-shirt.

"It's up to you, dear," Julia decided.

She grabbed a paperback book out of her tote bag and leaned back on the blanket.

Instead of giving in to my insecurities, I left my shirt on the blanket. I wasn't a great reader, so I hadn't thought to bring a book. In the absence of something to keep my mind busy, I stood from the blanket.

Julia's gaze broke away from her book to follow me. "Leaving so soon?"

I jerked my thumb in the direction of the water. "I'm gonna go in. Do you want to come?"

"I'm fine for now."

I put my hands on my hips and gazed down at my beautiful girlfriend. The day was hot, and perspiration had begun to bead on her taut abdomen. The white material of her bikini contrasted appealingly with her olive-tinted skin. I was thankful for the mirrored reflection of my sunglasses that made my gawking less obvious.

"Don't tell me you're one of those women who don't like to get wet."

Julia smirked. "You should know better than that, Cassidy."

I gasped in mock surprise. "There are impressionable ears around here."

"How about impressionable eyes?" she posed.

She lifted her sunglasses to her forehead, and her dark eyes raked over my body from head to toe. Unlike myself, Julia made no attempt to hide her stare. My short board shorts and bikini top didn’t show off as much skin as Julia's bathing suit, but she gazed at me like a predator stalking its prey.

"Sure you don't wanna swim?" I offered.

She returned her sunglasses back to the bridge of her nose. "No. I think I'll enjoy the view for now." kThe tip of her tongue poked out and slowly ran the length of her dark red lips.

I didn't need a lake to get wet.

I padded across the beach and stood close to the water's edge so that the small, creeping waves licked at my toes. The inland lake was warm—shallow enough that swimming in the late summer months was bearable. At a deeper, larger lake only the brave or the foolish ventured into the water, even in late August.

I waded out until the water level reached my exposed belly button and then ducked under the first small whitecap. Growing up near so many freshwater lakes, it had become one of the things I’d missed the most when I’d been stationed abroad. I loved swimming, but I'd stuck to the pool at the police academy since I'd been back in the States for fear that the sensation of gritty sand beneath my toes might trigger an unwelcomed memory. But there was something familiar—almost maternal—about swimming in a lake that I hadn't realized I’d missed until now.

I remained underwater and kicked my legs hard, swimming just beneath the water's surface. Submerged, I could focus on the steady beat of my heart. It was calming, centering.

It was easy to take for granted the simple things—things that I cherished even more so now that I’d seen life on the other side. Turning on a faucet and clean, drinkable water coming out. Being able to get out of bed without having to put prosthetic legs on first. Flipping a toggle and a light going on. Going to the grocery store and buying whatever food I wanted. Holding my girlfriend’s hand in public without fear of harassment. I knew I had it good.

I resurfaced when my lungs demanded air. My wet ponytail clung down the center of my back, and my ears filled with the high-pitched call of a cry for help. My thoughts had floated back to my time in the Kumar District in Southeastern Afghanistan, and for a moment I worried my brain was playing tricks on me—that the muffled yells I heard were only inside my head.

I looked toward the beach and saw Julia standing near the water's edge. She held one hand to her forehead, shielding her eyes like a visor. She seemed to be looking at me, but not exactly. A small crowd of onlookers had similarly gathered on the shoreline, and one of them--a young woman in a one-piece bathing suit--waved her arms above her head. The disorienting yelling continued until I finally saw them, off in the distance. They looked like a mirage on the blue, shimmery horizon, but I could just make out the figures of two individuals on an oversized, orange inflatable raft.

I didn't quite know what was going on, but my instinct was to swim toward them. I freestyled—my best stroke when I swam on my high school swim team—out to the orange inflatable. It had to have been at least half a football-field-length away, and as I swam nearer, the orange blob began to take the shape of an inflatable dinosaur or a dragon.

Two children—a boy and a girl—neither of them older than 10 years old, clung to the inflatable raft.

I tread in place a few feet away from their blow-up toy. The water was well over my head, let alone theirs.

"Are you guys okay?" I asked in a voice that belied my alertness. I didn't want them to panic. "Need a tow back to shore?"

"I don't know what happened," the little boy cried. He had his arms thrown around the plastic neck of the dinosaur. "I don't know how we got so deep."

"It'll be okay," I assured them. "You two keep holding on, and I'll pull you in."

The little girl—his sister, I assumed—didn't speak. Her small body shivered despite the bright sun directly above us.

"This is a pretty cool floaty toy," I observed. I made conversation to distract the kids from noticing how deep the water was and how far away from shore we were.

"It's a dragon," the boy told me. "We just got it."

"That's cool. Are you guys brother and sister?"

"Uh huh," the boy confirmed.

"You come to the beach a lot?"

"Uh huh," he said again.

His sister remained silent, probably paralyzed from the situation.

We made slow progress as my legs propelled us beneath the water's surface. The current was working against me and the head of the giant inflatable dragon acted like a sail in the wind. It made sense how they'd managed to float away so quickly.

"What's your favorite thing to do at the beach?" I asked, still trying to distract them.

We would be fine as long as they stayed on the inflatable raft and didn't panic. I was a strong swimmer, but I didn't like the prospect of two kids flailing and clinging to me like I was their personal lifevessel.

"I like digging really deep holes and burying my dad in the sand," the little boy proudly told me.

"That's pretty cool. How about you?" I asked the recalcitrant little girl.

"I like to build sandcastles," she finally told me in a halting voice. 

"Oh yeah? I like to do that, too."

"Aren't you a little old to make sandcastles?" the little boy shrewdly observed.

"You're never too old for that," I insisted.

We gradually floated closer to shore.

"Cody! Jennifer! Oh my God!" I heard a panicked voice call from the beach.

When the water was shallow enough, the boy and girl jumped off of the inflatable toy and ran into the outstretched arms of a woman whom I took to be their mother.

"Mom!" the boy yelled as he gave her a crushing hug. "I don't know what happened. We were playing in the water, and then it was over our head."

I dragged the plastic dragon the rest of the way to shore, docking it where the creeping waves wouldn't be able to reach it.  A small crowd had gathered, but I was no longer concerned if anyone saw the scars on my back.

The woman rushed to me with her children clinging close. "Thank you. Thank you so much. I must have fallen asleep reading my book. One minute they were playing on their raft, and the next they'd drifted so far away. Can I—can I pay you or something?" She looked around helplessly as if searching for her purse.

I waved her off with a hand. My legs ached, and my breathing was slightly labored. "That's not necessary. Just happy to help. Although you may want to keep the dinosaur in the pool next time."

"Dragon," the little boy was quick to correct me.

With the boy and girl now safe on shore, the crowd of onlookers eventually bored and went back to their respective beach spots.

Julia slipped her hand into mine as we walked back to our beach blanket. She rested her head atop my shoulder even though I was still drenched from my swim.

"You're quite the hero," she observed. "In and out of uniform."

I let the compliment slide off me. That label—the H-word—had never sat easily with me. "I think you like me better out of uniform."

She kissed me—my reward for being heroic, I supposed. "You're an idiot."

"True. But I'm your idiot," I said with a cheeky grin.

She only laughed and shook her head.