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Cold and grumpy, I walked faster down Murray Street. I gritted my teeth and headed for the Indian River and sunshine.

Our tree dappled house, riddled with windows, made summer without air conditioning bearable, but in the winter it morphed into a mausoleum. I dug my hands deeper into the pockets of my jeans that seemed a couple degrees warmer than the drafty kangaroo pocket of my sweatshirt.

Yesterday we’d opened gifts and eaten our quirky Christmas fare of corned beef, creamed onions, Pepperidge Farms Stuffing, and mince pie with the kitchen table scooted close to the open oven—the only heat source in the house. R.J. and I took big sniffs of pine tree scent and complimented each other on our collaborative Charlie Brown Christmas tree. I’d gone to Jackie Herold’s to ooh and ah over her gifts, called Susan Sigler and Diana Knox.

The problem with a really good day is that the next one is bound to nosedive. The day after Christmas could theoretically turn out to be a fantastic day—like the boy you crushed on might return the favor at the exact same dot on the time continuum. Improbable, but not impossible. Nevertheless, today puffed up with possibility.

I hooked south along the river, my feet springing along the thick grass.

As sun and exertion thawed my body I counted the empty hours stacked on top of each other with nothing to do but think. Usually, school, swim team, and friends crowded my time and my mind. I could go to Jackie’s but she was cleaning house today. My chore list loomed longer than hers.

Photo by Jon Eckert

I scuffed along the seawall, my thoughts drifting over the ripples in the river, looking for a place to land. I refused to sink into my rocky childhood—I’d only ram into reefs of pain. Even the present—until New Smyrna Beach—harbored its own heartache. So, I floated my thoughts into the future—taking the SAT next semester, graduating in a year and a half. Then, college, career, maybe marriage, get old, die.

Even the future felt pointless today.

What was my purpose?

I sat on a bench, pulled up my knees.

Light sparkled on the water.

Palms rustled overhead and a dog yipped somewhere in the park.

I shook off the heavy, unanswerable question and focused on the immediate future—Amy Kuhns’ arrival from Stuart today—the reason this day after Christmas held promise.

The hours and chores ticked off.

I stood on the curb as Amy’s Greyhound bus belched to a stop.

Her head popped into view and she schlepped her bag down the steps.

My heart lifted. No matter how many friends I made, each one took up different real estate inside me. I’d had more friendless years than populated ones, and I valued them like sunshine or water.

Amy’s lips pinched together, her eyes looked troubled.

“What’s wrong?”

She sighed. “A lady stole my money when I went to the restroom.”

“That’s awful!” I drove straight to the beach—hoping sea and sky would sooth the injustice.

We left footprints and stories in the sand.

Photo by Chris Sardegna

Late afternoon sun still warmed our shoulders, when I asked, “Do you ever feel like something inside is missing? Something big that should be there?”

Amy let out a huff. “Well, duh, Mom died eight months ago. Dad is on the farm in Kansas.”

I winced. “I’m sorry. I wasn’t even thinking about your folks.”

“Don’t worry about it. I think about them all the time anyhow.” Amy stooped to pick up a shell. “Maybe the empty spot is where your Dad existed before your parents divorced—like I ache for Mom.”

But Dad, even though I’d moved 250 miles up the coast from him, still owned whole cities of real estate in me. And the emptiness seemed deeper than Dad. Different.

I stared at the line where ocean met air, breeze ruffling my hair. Maybe because I’d had a double dose of Mass—Midnight Mass with Jackie, then Christmas morning with Mom and R.J.—my mind veered to the spiritual. “I think the emptiness has something to do with God.” I looked at Amy. “You go to the Methodist Church. You believe in God, right?”

Amy shot me a rueful smile. “Youth group was the only thing in Stuart that I could walk to. And then there was that really hot youth leader… But, yeah, I guess I believe in God. I went to church with Mom when I was a kid.”

We stood for a moment watching the inlet crash against the jetty, then turned back the way we’d come.

“But I’m mad at Him.” Amy glanced at me. “He was mean to let Mom get cancer when she still had me and Todd to raise. Hello, what about us?”

Amy Kuhns, 16–a warmer day on New Smyrna Beach

I didn’t know what to say—like the times when Amy stared into space and looked… lost. “We need an expert on God to help us figure things out,” I said.

“Mitzi Bronson!” we both said at the same time—our Martin County High School classmate.

Amy peered at me. “Geez. We’re only sixteen and seventeen. We don’t have to have everything figured out.”

I told Amy about the St. Hugh’s seventh grade retreat when I’d felt God’s presence in the silence. My ever-present guilt had shut up for a few minutes and I sensed something infinitely bigger than myself. Not poised to smack me down every time I screwed up. An entity with me. For me.

“Cool,” Amy commented with a quiet voice, her eyes fixed on the horizon.

I breathed in the scents of brine and beach almost tasting the salt on my tongue. Today I didn’t so much sense that Presence, but a hunger to experience it.

That night as Amy and I lay buried under blankets in my bed I rolled my head toward her.

Only Amy’s nose poked into moonlight from under the covers.

I laughed.

Amy’s muffled voice came from under the blankets. “Yeah, well I bet I’m warmer than you are.” After a minute she turtled out her head. “I’m glad I came.”

“Me too.” As the words left my mouth I realized the day after Christmas had funneled into fantastic when Amy stepped off the bus.

We never got around to quizzing Mitzi about God, but years later we discovered she had prayed for us—for all her friends—when we were in high school.

Amy and I lost each other as adulthood moved us away from Florida—Amy to Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas, and me to Ohio, Indiana, and Arizona.

But in midlife, we found each other again.

Amy was right. Eventually, we figured out faith. And in a crazy twist that would have shocked our teen selves—and everyone who knew us—we both married pastors. Even more bizarre, we became the Mitzis in our friends’ lives.