My family ventured to Melbourne Beach, Florida, two weeks before the beginning of my junior year in high school for a week of unwinding. A needed escape from the daily hustle and bustle. A reprieve from constant stress. An excuse to put drama behind us and leave a barrage of expectations for a later time and date. The perfect way to breathe out chaos and breathe in God’s peace. Lungs filled with warm, salty air. Toes squishing beneath the sand. Nothing but total relaxation. Celebrating one last hurrah of summer. Oh, the best-laid plans.
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
Peace shattered. Safety vanished. The threat of impending doom loomed—close, real, suffocating. Hyperventilating, I jabbed my key at the unrelenting lock to our home away from home, third-floor view of the ocean. “Come on, open up!” I screamed; but, try as I might, my hand wouldn’t stop shaking long enough to allow me to slide the key into the keyhole. When the metal finally slipped between the jagged grooves, I twisted and turned the handle, but the knob refused to cooperate. Yanking harder, I yelled louder, but the door would not budge. Bursting into tears, I banged my fists against the door and shrieked. “Mom‽ Dad‽ Somebody, please let me in!” Tears streamed down my face as my pounding persisted. “PLEASE!” I begged. “SOMEBODY!”
Glancing down the hall one direction then the other, the corridor appeared empty. Where is somebody when you need them? I banged against the hard surface until my wrists ached. “Mom‽ Dad‽ Please open the door! Why aren’t you answering‽”
An eternity seemed to pass before the doorknob wiggled, paused, then the door came flying open. Dad stood a few feet inside the entrance, stunned and appalled by my unusual behavior. “What’s going on out here? Why all the racket?” He surveyed my windblown hair, navy blue tank top, red shorts, and bare feet and remained puzzled. “Have you been down to the beach?”
Stumbling through the doorway, I staggered to the wall, dropping my keys on the floor. “It was awful!” I stammered. “The man…he-he-he…he tried grabbing me.” I motioned to the open door behind me, waving for it to be shut. “Close it before he gets here. He may have followed me. Don’t let him in!” I gasped for air.
Dad eyed me with skepticism. “Don’t let who in?” He peered out into the hallway and scanned the perimeters, oblivious to the threat. “I don’t see anyone. What man are you talking about?”
“The man on the beach,” I stressed. “He tried grabbing me.” I tilted my head while pleading. “Don’t look at me like I’m crazy. I’m not making this up! The man was going to hurt me. I’m still not sure how I got away. Please, please close the door!” The reality of my words caused my legs to wobble like Jell-O. I wilted against the textured wallpapered wall and slid to my knees.
Hearing the commotion, Mom came running into the front hall. “What’s going on? I was in the bathroom when I heard all the banging out here. Is everything OK?” She looked first at Dad, then at me.
Dad shrugged. “Don’t ask me. She hasn’t made a lick of sense since I opened the front door. Something about a guy on the beach and possibly being hurt, I think; but she doesn’t look injured.” He eyed me slumped on the floor.
Mom followed his gaze. “Good grief, Child! You’re shaking like a leaf! Who hurt you? Where are you feeling the pain?” She took ahold of my left elbow and helped me to my feet.
“I’m OK. He didn’t hurt me,” I answered. “I just can’t stop shaking.”
“Oh, that’s good to hear,” Mom sighed with relief. “However, let’s get you into the other room where we can figure everything out. The couch has to be more comfortable than this hard floor.” Mom’s arm circled my waist, and she guided me into the living room, Dad following close behind. Picking up the remote from the coffee table, he aimed it at the TV and powered it off.
“Hey! I was watching that,” Julia whined from a nearby chair.
“This is more important,” Dad postulated. “Find a book to read if you need something to do. I’m guessing this may take a while.” Julia resigned to wrapping her arms around her knees instead and pouted.
Taking a seat next to me on the couch, Mom rubbed my arms to help calm my nerves. “What in the world happened to you out there? I’ve never seen anything like this. Your whole body’s shaking.” My muscles trembled and twitched while energy surged through my veins. An erratic rhythm of bobbing controlled my knees, as well.
“Some guy intended to rape me,” I burst into sobs. “He didn’t even know me, but he was going to hurt me. I know he was. Why would a complete stranger want to hurt me? I didn’t do anything to him. I was minding my own business, not bothering anybody. He came up to me. He sought me out.” My breaths came in short, jagged intervals, interfering with my speech.
“I hear you,” Mom soothed. “But why don’t you start at the beginning. Tell us the whole thing. Why were you on the beach by yourself? Not judging, just trying to understand,” she clarified.
I shrugged, feeling rather stupid. “I didn’t think it was that big a deal at the time. I went by myself to clear my mind. I figured it might be easier to pray and understand the events from this past summer if I was alone with God. You know, get rid of all the clutter messing with my thoughts. Where better to find God than near the ocean, right?” My shoulders slumped. “Regardless, I hadn’t walked far before a strange man approached me. He came out of nowhere.”
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
An array of pastel pinks, lavenders, and soft baby blues splashed their way across the late afternoon sky as I meandered down the shoreline. Gentle, white-capped waves lapped at my feet. I giggled as foam oozed its way between my toes and tickled my arches. Pausing for a moment, I wiggled my feet until sand cascaded over each foot, my hectic summer pulling away with the tide as the ocean retracted the water. Ahh…salt and sand. Gotta love it! I sighed.
Continuing my journey down the water’s edge, I skimmed seashells across the waves as I talked with God. “I’m tired, Lord. I’ve been working for You all summer, yet I feel so far away from You right now.” I looked to the sky, pretending God could see me better if I lifted my face. “It’d be nice to have a reminder that You’re real. You seem so far away.” With head tilted upward toward Heaven, I closed my eyes and released a deep sigh.
Opening my eyes and bringing my gaze back down to earth, my heart caught in my throat. A young man, about six feet tall and no older than his mid-twenties, stood a few feet in front of me. Initial impression hinted crafty. Shady. I’m always aware of who’s close by, and you weren’t anywhere near me two seconds ago, I analyzed. Where did you come from, and what do you want? A chill ran up my spine as his eyes darted about in nervous anticipation. Unkempt blonde, greasy-spiked hair, stubbly follicles across his chin, wrinkle-worn surfer t-shirt, tattered shorts, and pungent body odor spoke to possible homelessness.
“Hello! What’s your name?” he blurted out.
The Bible verse “As you’ve done to the least of these…” ran through my mind. Be nice. You don’t know his intentions, I reminded myself. Maybe he’s just lonely. You can be kind even if you don’t want him around. “Hi,” I responded, keeping the niceties short. I stepped back as the man inched closer, placing himself smack dab in the middle of my path. He shifted from side to side, trying to get a clear look at my face.
“Excuse me,” he spoke again. “I didn’t get your name.”
I avoided eye contact, somehow managing to maneuver around him. “That’s probably because I didn’t give it,” I muttered under my breath.
“What was that? Bridgette? Is your name Bridgette? I have an aunt named Bridgette. That’s such a pretty name!” he schmoozed, scurrying to catch up.
Feeling the man’s awkward presence at my back, I stopped abruptly and turned to face him, keeping an arm’s length between us. “My name’s not Bridgette, and you need to stop following me.” It’s hard not sounding as irritated as I feel. Your nosiness is making me feel unsafe.
“Well, if it’s not Bridgette, then what is it?” he persisted, ignoring my discomfort.
I rolled my eyes and gritted my teeth. It’s none of your business, but if it’ll help you go away…. “Hope. My name is Hope,” I gave in.
As I stepped to my right, the man promptly stepped to his left. “Hi, Hope. My name’s Buddy. Whatcha doin’ down here by the water?” He eyed the seashells in my hand and smiled. “Those are pretty. Where did you find them?” His eyebrows danced as he attempted to flirt.
I can’t tell if you’re serious or mentally deficient; but you need to find something else to do and leave me alone. I paused and eyed him warily. “We’re at the beach. It’s pretty safe to guess where they came from,” I answered. If you can’t put two and two together, I have bigger problems here than just idle chitchat.
A strong wave came rolling to our feet, forcing Buddy to step several feet away from me in order to keep his tattered shoes from getting wet. I stepped into the ocean, using the opportunity to stay with the water and inch my way the direction of the condominium. When the tide pulled out, Buddy placed himself in the middle of my path, once again, causing me to slow down.
“So, Hope, do you come here often? Do you like the beach? Are you with those people over there? You’re awfully pretty. Do people tell you that? I bet you hear that all the time, dontcha?” He quickly rattled off questions and observations that made my insides crawl.
Skimming a shell across an incoming wave to avoid eye contact, I winced at my reality. I’m alone. There’s no one coming to my rescue. Mom and Dad don’t know I’m down here, and there’s no one within earshot. Glancing across a wide stretch of sand, two young mothers sat atop a blanket at the top of the dunes watching their toddlers play. Toy bulldozers plowed sand. Plastic buckets sculpted sandcastles. They’re oblivious of my presence, I noted. As the wind started picking up, I realized, Even if I scream, they probably won’t hear me. Buddy’s probably already figured that out. My pulse began to pick up speed.
Seeming to notice my unsettled state, Buddy’s lips turned into a devilish grin. “So, how old did you say you were, Hope?” His words dripped with greed and seduction.
I eyed him with disgust, suddenly aware, I’m not sure how I’m going to get out of this situation without being hurt. “I didn’t. Now, if you’ll excuse me, you’re kind of in my way.” As I stepped to my left, he slid to his right, perfecting our earlier dance. I took another step to my left. He smirked and slid again to his right. Frustration escalating, my request bordered on a demand. “Please, move.”
Buddy shook his head. “Nah. You haven’t answered my question, Pretty Lady. How old are you? Eighteen? Twenty?” Lust saturated his eyes.
“Seventeen,” I reluctantly replied. Thankfully, still jailbait—if that matters to you.
“What was that? I didn’t hear you.” Buddy moistened his lips, his head slowly moving up and down. As he stared at me, his right hand wandered across his shirt and down into his pants.
“Seventeen,” I stressed my adolescence. “I’m seventeen. Now will you please move?” I drew in a deep breath. God, something doesn’t feel right. Help, please!
“Seventeen is a good age,” Buddy drawled. “Still young and sassy, yet old enough to have some fun—just like I like ’em.” Evil desire oozed from his eyes, causing a shudder to skitter up my spine. The movement of Buddy’s hand drew attention to his fully-exposed genitals.
Feeling sick to my stomach and like the air had been sucked from my lungs, I fought a wave of dizziness and summoned God. This would be a great time for You to intercede! Where are you? I need You. NOW. Looking toward the ocean, I began weighing my options. If I attempt to run, he’s going to catch me. If he forces me to the ground, I’ll never be able to push him off me. I flashed back to Gavin’s testosterone-induced strength at Mom and Dad’s house and grimaced. And, if I yell, no one will hear me. Great! Now what? God, do you have any answers?
At that moment, a Bible text started repeating in my mind. I will never leave you or forsake you. I will never leave you or forsake you. I focused on the promise in order to slow my breathing and control my thoughts. Another reminder soon followed. Trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding; in all your ways acknowledge Him, and He shall direct your paths. Thank you! my heart cried out. Thank you for letting me know You’re here. I fought back tears, releasing a deep sigh. I’m claiming this promise. You will never leave me or forsake me. You will never leave me or forsake me. The words became an instant prayer.
Buddy’s eyes began darting around, drinking in our surroundings as he inched forward. Again, we replayed the dance. I took a step back. He took one forward. I took two steps back. He took two forward. My heart began pumping massive volumes of blood, my feet suddenly anchored to the ground. I couldn’t move. I watched as Buddy tugged at his shirt, his hairy chest peeking through the low-cut collar. His hand slithered another obscene path down the front of his pants, causing me to cringe. Lord, I need your help! PLEASE! NOW!
* * * * * * * * * * * * *
“Then what happened?” Mom sat on the edge of her seat, clinging to every word. Julia sat wide-eyed and riveted, as well, biting her lower lip; but Dad leaned against the wall next to the TV, skeptical, with arms crossed.
I shrugged. “He started running.”
“What‽” Mom’s voice raised an octave. “He left? Just like that?”
I shook my head. “Not exactly. He reached for my hand—like he was going to shake it.”
“And you let him‽” Mom’s eyebrows disappeared into her hairline.
“No. I didn’t,” I tried calming her imagination. “It wasn’t like that. As the guy moved closer and started taking my hand, I jumped at his touch. When I did, he dropped my hand—like it was on fire.” Mom appeared as puzzled as I had felt. I gazed into her eyes, not sure how to explain what came next. “I think he saw an angel,” I whispered.
“He what?” Mom took a turn at shaking her head, blinking back disbelief. “Say that again.”
“I think he saw an angel.” I looked at Dad. His face remained stoic.
Mom pressed for more answers, her voice holding reverence. “What makes you think it was an angel?”
I looked to the back of my mind, reliving what I knew I had witnessed. “He kept staring over my shoulder—like something was behind me,” I voiced the oddity. “I knew I shouldn’t turn my back on the guy—you’ve taught me better than that—but the look on his face compelled me to turn and see what he was looking at. There was no way he could’ve been making up that expression.”
Dad finally broke his silence. “And what did you see?”
“Nothing,” I replied. “That’s what was so strange. There wasn’t anything there.” I struggled for a moment, at a loss for words. “I can’t tell you what he saw; but, I can tell you that, other than those women and their kids on the dunes, the beach was empty.”
“But you said you thought it was an angel,” Mom recapped my earlier statement. “I’m still not sure I understand. What made you think that?”
“Because I could feel a glow.” I shifted in my seat to face Mom. “I know this sounds crazy, but I felt something behind me. I couldn’t see it, but I could feel it. How can I explain it?” I paused. “Let me put it this way: if you can feel a color, I felt white on one side and yellow on the other, so I’m guessing there were two of them—angels, that is.”
“Well, we know God is capable of doing amazing things,” Mom agreed. “This is why we pray for protection every morning. Sending angel armies isn’t beyond His scope of possibilities.” She patted my folded hands. “Whatever the case, I am very thankful God was with you today.”
“Me, too,” I answered.
Dad didn’t seem content. He needed more details. “So, how did you get away from the guy?” he prodded.
I shrugged, still amazed at my freedom. “He started running for the dunes—running so fast you would’ve thought cops were after him.” I chuckled, remembering the sight. “I’ve never seen anyone take off so fast in my life. He eventually disappeared past the women and children I told you about, but I don’t know where he went from there.” I released a deep sigh.
Dad tried making sense of my reaction. “So, then why were you afraid he’d followed you back to the condo if you saw him leave the beach?”
I looked Dad in the eye while answering. “Because I didn’t know if he was still watching me. Like I said, I didn’t know where he went or if he may have come back after initially running off. It was terrifying. Who knows what was going through his crazy mind or even where he is right now? All I could think about was getting back here to safety.”
“Well, I’m glad you made it back to the condo without being harmed,” Mom piped in. Wrapping her arm around my shoulders, she pulled me into a tender hug.
I rested my head on her shoulder and closed my eyes. “Me, too.” I sighed again. “Me, too.”