24 hours photo column (two shots every month on the 1st and 15th winding through the clock at different random places in the coverage area)

    Janet Blackmon Morgan/The Sun News

    We are searchers.
    Some seek peace at sunrise on the edge of a pier. Some dig deep in their pockets, picking lint from folded dollars in hopes it will be enough for a cab ride home. Others ache with each deafening click of the second hand as they burrow within themselves aching for solace. Some of us hold tight to friends and family finding moments to bare our souls with the unabashed laughter of childhood.
    The journey through the year began at midnight, January 1, on Ocean Boulevard. At one hour increments halfway through the month and then the beginning of each month, the journey moved forward until all the hours were done. Each hour was represented by a different location of the tri-county area spiderwebbing out from Myrtle Beach through Horry, Georgetown and Brunswick counties.
    The tales along the way were those of Jeremy Sansbury lifting his shirt revealing the names of dead Marines tattooed on his back. There was Emily Louise Myers listening closely to her father Lomax Myers for a sign to cross the street in Pawleys Island. There’s Mike Caliendo muttering into his beer that he misses all the fun late at night in Surfside Beach. Roy Martin’s cyphering his nearly 300,000 trip from Southport to Fort Fisher. There was Billie Rae Dudley doing dos in Aynor since 1960 and Pam Brown still learning to shag in North Myrtle Beach. There’s David Bessent abandoning fear and ignoring the law as he plunges off a low-slung bridge into the Waccamaw River. There’s the Jones sisters kneeling in prayer at bedtime on Oak Island. Then, keeping with at least two generations of tradition, boys and girls pile in the back of pickup trucks cruising down Loris’ Main Street.
    And there’s Sunny Chesney Hardwick (above) squinting in the afternoon sunlight reciting the alphabet backwards as she swings on a tire slung on a backyard sycamore tree.
    From the bewitching hour we sought each other. Through the bewildering heat we hunted for relief. And into the benevolent holiday season some have found solace.


    12:17 a.m. January Myrtle Beach
    Tamela Maynor glides past the red-glow a bar before turning to answer her mother’s call. Passing the wanted and wanting, the hopeful and hopeless tangled in midnight mushiness, the six-year-old gets one more look at the ocean. Her mother, Ysela Maynor, is ready to go home after marking the new year watching a few renegade teens shoot roman candles from the dunes. Deflated and weary-eyed, they waddle through the sand and rush up an alley by Boardwalk Bill’s Bar and Grill toward Ocean Boulevard. “It’s going to be more of the same,” the mother says of 2007. “It’s going to be video games, four-wheelers and getting fat. With her, it’s going to be heli, heli, heli.”



    1:35 a.m. January Socastee

    It’s here, straddling two parking spaces on row 10. This gray plastic and steel bucket waits when there is no sleep at home. It’s too late to call friends. Dishes dry in the sink. No sounds save “Who does depression hurt?” commercial. Rows of dark storefronts with neon lies of “Open” sliding pass the passenger window on the way through this empty night. There’s a nagging list of got-to-gets, cat litter and dog food. A cold handle and openness beacon a partner to walk with through the Surfside Commons Wal-Mart. A man leans against the building checking his watch and smoking a cigarette. Inside, an unfamiliar country song whispers from the store’s speakers. The buggy’s left rear wheel won’t roll with the others and eventually spins in a tantrum by the frozen dinners. Linda is the only cashier this late. She scans a woman’s macaroni and cheese. “Ten to seven,” she confides in this woman she seems to know. “It’s been wearing on me lately.” They share a smile and wave good-bye. Back outside beneath the soldier-like row of lights, the buggy gently rolls into a safe metal cage on row 11.



    2:20 a.m. February Surfside Beach

    Mike Caliendo misses everything. Minutes ago, he missed girls dancing together at the Sundown Sports Pub; for weeks he’s missed his stolen Fender guitar; his father in Kansas months ago; and for years he’s missed dirt roads tangling through apple orchards back home near Freehold, N.J. Tonight, parked behind a nearly-empty bottle, this 41-year-old sits between a stranger and a couple coupling. Sliding a few dollars on the bar, Caliendo nods to the stranger on his left and both men watch keeper Cindy Ryan refill a wine glass for the couple. “I just woke up. What’s today? Wednesday? Thursday? I’m off today,” he said of his time split between driving a cab and being hired out to do home improvements. “I like it here now, this time of night. Quiet.” Caliendo takes a deep breath and turns up his beer as though he were rushing to relax or running from all the missing.



    3:15 a.m. February 21st Avenue and Kings Highway, Myrtle Beach

    David Pleasant’s pockets are empty as Kings Highway. His hopes of getting home of Carolina Forest before dawn – empty as the battery in his red truck. Thoughts of what to do next subtract as he stares at a low battery indicator on his cell phone. An Olive Garden co-worker ducks out of a nearby bar huddle with a few girls to offer a couch crash until the next shift in less than seven hours. Pleasant sighs, flicks off Wednesday night’s stain from his black pants, and checks his reflection in a begal shop’s window. “At least I have on my work clothes,” he says.



    4:17 a.m. March North Mrytle Beach

    There’s a lull in the evening tide at this all-night pancake house. The bar crowd has ebbed away followed by waiters and a few insomniacs. The policemen waved as the front door closed. “This time of year, this time of night, we wait. Then we wait to serve. Then we wait some more,” Terry Shelley says as she looks over the top of her glasses from the back of the North Myrtle Beach Plantation Pancake House. “Now we’re serving.” A group of men, straightening their sweater vests, laugh as each checks his watch marking distance in hours from home in middle Pennsylvania to the the non-smoking section here. After a decade of working third shift in local pancake houses, Shelley laughs about the changing tide over the years. “It was this time of year, oh, I guess it was about nine years ago,” she says of faceless customers flush with video poker winnings. “This guy came in and offered me $100 if I guessed a flip of the coin. I guessed tails, and believe it or not, he gave me a $100 bill and he gave me a tip for his food then he left. I don’t know what he looked like, never could recognize him, and it never happened again. But since then, I always pick tails,”



    5:30 a.m. March Prince’s Creek near Southport, Brunswick County

    The day’s newness is belied by an inky sky enveloping the creek. Piling beacons blip like lost stars and for a flash, there’s a division between water and air. Above the five cars in a perfect little row marked on the ferry’s deck, Roy Martin sits with his banana, newspaper and coffee cup in the passenger lounge. This will be his 290,000-plus trip from Southport to Fort Fisher. He’s the oiler and “as long as the engine’s running, I don’t have anything to worry about.” Tilting his right ear down, Martin clicks his cheek and winks. “I work down there in the engine room. It’s running.” Martin – born, bred, wed and fed along the Cape Fear – nods out toward each blip on the water. There, he says, is a plant that makes citric acid; there’s a nuclear power plant and a military weapons depot; back there is the Oak Island lighthouse and then the Bald Head Island lighthouse; that piling is the Prince’s Creek lighthouse that’s actually a river light and it hasn’t had a light for years; in a few minutes the ferry will dock at Fort Fisher on what locals call Pleasure Island. “I’ve got one year and three months to go,” Martin says as the five cars are replaced with a ferry full of commuters and workers. Some men with paint-stained fingers wander upstairs and nod as Martin calls them by nicknames he’s made up. “I’ve got just about 30 years. I’m going to set back and watch everybody,” he says from his perch in the front booth of the passenger lounge.


    6:15 a.m. April Springmaid Beach Pier

    Peace, like the tinge of pink on the horizon, is fleeting. Soon enough there will be others at the end of Springmaid Beach Pier casting their lines with Robbie Nolan. Now, at the cusp of this new day, Nolan sucks in the silence and salinity as he slings a few hooked shrimp out into the Atlantic. “I’m fishing for whatever bites,” he whispers as though he were trying not to get caught talking in a holy place. This is the first time in months he’s missed a church service back home in Cosby, Tenn. But, the pastor reasons, his little church is hosting a singing group this Sunday and he’ll be back in time for the Easter sunrise service. “I just needed this break, to get away. I needed this and for some reason, I always end up here at Myrtle Beach,” Nolan says of relenting to the tug of the coast he’s felt since he was a young man growing up in Smoky Mountains. “I say it every time we come here, I’d live here if my wife weren’t afraid of hurricanes,” he weaves in a story of not fearing the bears he sees hanging around his yard. “I’ve always felt more at home here than home.” On the last wooden plank of the pier Nolan leans his body over the rail to the heaving ocean beneath him. His eyes close tighter with each step of a fishing-rod toting stranger approaching from behind. The stranger stops short of the end of the pier and Nolan’s eyes open again to watch the silver glint of his lines leading down.



    7:18 a.m. April Socastee United Methodist Church

    The ringer is off, but a familiar voice yells through the answering machine. “I’m sorry, honey, but I wanted to let you know your uncle died a few hours ago.” My grandmother’s voice, broken, cracking, frail and fragile. Hands numb. Stomach twisted. Aching chest. Knees weak. “It’s me. Don’t hang up. What?” She told me she woke up and stumbled over him in the hall. She said she called the ambulance and she was at the hospital. Her words were falling like tangible drops through the telephone, dripping through the tiny holes in the receiver, oozing like snot down my arm and finally forming a shinny, ugly puddle on the bedside table. She said the people at the hospital were taking care of her. “Where?” I asked having never heard of that hospital. “Here. Orlando.” She went on, but I didn’t understand until she said they’d been married for 50 years this past month. This isn’t my grandmother and she’s not talking about my uncle Larry who lives with her. I broke in, politely lied, and said the telephone was breaking up and asked who was on the line. “Aunt Lucinda, honey.” She sounded kind, gentle and broken. She was a stranger, but a sister in grief. I wiped away tears trailing down my cheek and broke the news. We talked for nearly an hour until the rainy sky morphed from black to the same cornflower blue in a child’s crayon box. Her voice weak, she said she needed to call her niece Nicole in Charleston. She asked me to go to church to pray for her. I promised.



    8:30 a.m. between Loris and Aynor

    Jeremy Sansbury’s eyes squint and his head snaps to the right as an echo of a gunshot tears through the silence of this horse pasture. Standing between two dogs and a Belgin draft horse, the 25-year-old stares off into pine trees lining the edge of the field. Seconds pass until his shoulders round off like the heels on his well-worn boots. “That’s my boy. We’ve been through a lot together. Huh, boy? From post traumatic stress to this.” Grady, a cross between a Labrador retriever and a wolf, answers with a wag while Skeeter, a country mix cross, nuzzles in for some attention. This is exactly where the former Marine wants to be, he says after tugging at the tangles in the horse’s mane. This field. This slice of golden sun warming his back. This horse standing sure and these dogs winding figure eights at his feet on this morning. Other places, faces, dust, blood and tragedy still shake him from his sleep, he says. On his back are eight names tattooed in cursive above the pledge, “Gone … But Not Forgotten Fallujah, Iraq 2004.” Eight names and their ranks. Eight friends dead in eight months in a war eight time zones away. “This is it here,” he breathes out easily. “I’m going to get married and we’re going to build a house and this is it. Huh, boy?” Grady keys in to Sansbury’s voice and his wag moves from an unsure lope to a timed thump on the man’s dirty jeans.



    9:25 a.m. May Murrells Inlet

    Like a heavenly vacuum cleaner, the night has sucked out motorcycle traffic’s “ba-ba-bummba” noises leaving only inlet sounds. Tires ripping apart in burnout pits is replaced by lapping water against boat hulls. Men’s come-hither hollers are replaced by a kid’s nay while chasing three adult goats around a small island. A mating peacock’s scream pierces the air that had hours ago been filled with bands banging out rebellion songs. A whispered tease from one sister to the other fills in the silence between crab pot plops into the inlet’s muddy, brown brine. “Who gets the bragging rights? That’s what the bet is,” Laura Fenocchi (right) says to her older sister Mary Ann Fenocchi as each squint into separate crab pots hoping for the first crab big enough to call a keeper. “It’s not a real bet,” Mary Ann explains. “It’s bragging rights. That means more and it’s more fun to win,” the younger finishes the thought. One starts a thought of crabbing with their father in a canoe hugging New Jersey’s shore. In mid-sentence, the other sister finishes the memory until both sigh in unison at the common bond weaving each to the other. They’ve left their motorcyle-riding relatives at Laura Fenocchi’s home nearby for this sisterly outing. “We aren’t going to have any winners if we don’t catch anything,” Mary Ann Fenocchi says while dumping a baby crab out of her pot. They nod in agreement as each looks toward their own pots on separate sides of the dock.



    10 a.m. June Aynor

    Inside there’s hairspray, homespun sayings tacked to the walls, bottom-shaped forms left in cushioned chairs beneath hair dryers, open arms folding friends in warm hugs and Billie Rae Dudley doing dos for others. “Honey, I’ve been doing this since 1960 and I’m going to keep on doing it for as long as I’m able,” her southern voice fills the one-room Aynor Beauty Center along 8th Avenue. Her voice drips easily, slowly and sweetly but her fingers flutter, flip and fly as she transforms smushed perms into full showcases ready for show from any angle in a Sunday morning pew. She says most of her customers are, “you know, retired ladies, but I do a lot of men.” She has to, she nods over her shoulder, since the town’s barber shop has been closed for a few years. Laughing, she fluffs Thara Dean Gore’s curls, takes her $12 for the job and walks her to the door. “Alright now, Deanie, you be careful and I’ll see you next week,” Dudley says as she sends her friend out into the day. “Yeah, most everybody has a standing appointment once a week. I don’t work but three and half days a week so my days are booked when I’m working,” she says welcoming another woman into her chair for the usual.


    11:30 a.m. June Conway

    Today she will don the purple suit, accepting snickers like found loot
    Today she will search in vain for where the red hat was lain
    Not here, in there, under it, on that or this in her home
    The hat is missed, perhaps carried off by a gnome
    As the lunch date time draws near, she reaches for a substitute
    An umbrella, featherless but passable for cute
    JoAnn Waldrop breezes in the Rivertown Bistro
    Laughing with friends, saying hey and hello
    For the monthly meeting of the Carolina Jasmines
    She’s only hatless head among friends.
    (apologies to Jenny Joseph, author of Warning. The 1961 poem is used by the Red Hat Society clubs for women nationally.)



    12:30 p.m. Sunday June Pawleys Island

    An “Amen” chorus seeps past the two sets of wooden doors of St. Mary’s A.M.E. Church. Lomax Myers opens the first set of doors watching the bottom edges form wing patterns in the red carpet leading to the altar. Church is over and he stands sentinel watching this girl in a pink dress share Sunday morning secrets with a friend. “I was blessed with my daughter when I was 56,” he says as Emily Louise Myers skips toward his outstretched left hand. “She’s my heart.” The five-year-old knows the drill – hold hands and let her father lead. With each step toward U.S. 17, the Sunday softness stiffens on Lomax Myers’ face. Since he was a child, he’s made this journey across the highway from his home to church and back again. Now he teaches his daughter with short commands, patience and a tight grip. “Watch the cars,” “Hold on,” “Here we go,” “Don’t run,” “Be careful,” he says crossing the southbound lanes. They pause on a spit of pavement spanning the medium. “I remember crossing here when it was two lanes and then, before she was born, we’d have to jump the ditch in the medium. But as far as I remember, we’ve never, never had an accident here,” he says. “The Lord as blessed this little church on the highway.” About half a mile south of the last stoplight in Pawleys Island and half a mile north of the 60 miles per hour sign, the pair go through the same drill as they prepare to cross the two lanes of the northbound lane. “Hold on,” he says to his daughter as his own hand grips tighter.



    1:15 p.m., July O.D. Pavilion, North Myrtle Beach

    Love gone wrong chords blast from the corner speakers and a breeze whispers around the cornmeal sprinkled on the plywood dance floor. Pam Brown strides past smiling framed faces of shaggers, family and friends. The dance floor has the just-opened-emptiness, save shirtless Joe Skinner snapping his fingers. “You ready, honey,” house deejay Jerry Burrage says to the fast approaching Brown. The pair, in unison, shuffle toward the heaviest patch of cornmeal and begin to shag. Burrage takes the lead and gently gives instructions to the owner of the O.D. Pavilion, know as Pam’s Palace to her friends. She dances like champagne bubbling in a happy hour Solo cup. “I can’t shag,” she says knowing her dance floor is the shagging center for millions over the years. “Well, I can shag a little, but Jerry’s teaching me. See, I’m more of a novice, I guess,” explaining away the irony and awkward unsureness in the dance. “But, once I get two or three beers in me, I’m good. I’m a professional.”



    2:15 p.m. Georgetown

    This matronly chaperone is not new to the cotillion. Standing six symmetrical columns wide for a century on Prince and Broad streets, she’s getting gussied up for a new family. Multi-colored paint chips scatter like glitter on her wooden planks while men spread plaster, nail planks and re-create ceiling tiles. Her gown was fresh when she housed Georgetown Mayor William Doyle Morgan at the turn of the century. But today, the petticoat is lifted, revealing patches of beige flowered wallpaper, scratches on dull olive baseboards, hints of blue and seemingly endless layers of ecru and white. As not to disturb a hushed conversation in history, Phillip Herriot tiptoes up the front stairs with a load of plaster for a bedroom wall. Outside, a tour group pauses at a historical society gray tablet embossed with Morgan’s accomplishments while Dan Ray leans on the door of his truck. Ray, smiling, says he hopes she’ll be ready for his family by October.



    3:10 p.m. August Red Bluff community
    Leaving hesitation wadded with his shirt on the sand, David Bessent runs to the Waccamaw River. In a half dive and half hug, his body disappears in the tea-colored water at Red Bluff Landing. His head pops up close to the shade line drawn by the bridge on Highway 31. Eyes snapping to and fro, he spits water out with a primal grunt. That’s his preparation, he explains striding to the center of the bridge, to make sure he won’t break his back while breaking the rules of diving off the bridge. “Nah, I wasn’t a Boy Scout,” he says beating a pair of friends to the top. The water isn’t too low for his bluff bridge back-flip, the 19-year-old says as he positions himself above a spray-painted “JUMP.” Boys and girls he doesn’t know watch with gapping mouths and pointing fingers as Bessent frees his feet from the steamy pavement. Tongue out, the man curves, spins and folds himself easily back into the water. “I like the ocean, I go there to surf and stuff. But, this is where I grew up. Right here,” he says making another dash for the bridge. Once on the top, a few cars pass and his posture changes to that of a man waiting to use a busy pay telephone. “If you get caught, you’ll get fined,” he says listening toward a curve for the hiss of traffic. Just as he adjusts himself on the bridge, a small blue car full of pony-tailed blond girls pass. Three hands flutter out the open windows. A horn blows. Bessent splashes back in the river.


    4:30 p.m. Dirty Branch Road, western Horry County

    In a whisper equal in tone and volume to the afternoon breeze, Sunny Chesney Hardwick runs through the alphabet backwards. “Now I’ve said my C, B, A’s,” the four year old sings as she watches her new tire swing bounce off a backyard sycamore tree trunk. Gripping the yellow, nylon rope, she tries to remember a fading summer of firsts. There was naming the Spanish countries and capitals, adding and subtracting all the number combinations of her tiny fingers, and there was going down a water park slide alone. The last of the summer sunshine forms lace patterns on her bare feet. She studies the light and follows the beam’s path up through the green leaves while thinking about the next season. “Autumn?” she says knotting her brow trying visualize something unknown.


    5 p.m. Lake Busbee, Conway

    Across town, the peanut warehouse’s porch is dressed in white lace and flowers. Inside, beneath a canopy of twinkling lights, a couple makes forever vows. Here, on the shady side of Lake Busbee, Naomi Tucker ponders the ties that bind us to forever. She watches her youngest son, Nakinyah, sling a hooked worm into the lake. Before the ripples fade, he yanks the line out and drops it slightly to the left. He fidgets too much to catch an afternoon bream, she says, but he’s out of practice. This is their first trip to the fishing hole in about three years. The past 1,000 days are marred with death – her husband, a son and her mother. Time doesn’t heal, as well wishers say, but it reminds us of facing more time without the ones we love. Each day, she nods, is an effort to bind our broken souls so we can go on. For more than 31 million seconds she’s gone on. “Hmm, grief is heavy,” the 53-year-old says. She plays the radio to fill a silent home where empty shoes collect dust. She watches her youngest grow and helps him prepare to be a man in his tomorrows. She listens to the 13-year-old’s plans of being a fighter pilot, but her plans are vague. Maybe she’ll take a correspondence course, her voice changes to that of a well-rehearsed answer to questions from concerned friends. “I don’t know. I just don’t really know,” she says, closing her eyes as her son’s laughter drowns out the sound of U.S. 501 traffic. “C’mon fishes, just one bite before we have to go home,” he says in a distorted voice of the fish whisperer in his mind. “Here, little fishes. Here’s the worm. Take it, little fishes. We have to leave soon so hurry up.”


    6 p.m. The Bark Park in Myrtle Beach

    Jazzy aches to be friends. Her dark eyes plea for acceptance from this pair of strangers. She nudges the blond shepherd mix Christy and gently makes nose to nose contact with the smaller blond Dillon. A growl and snarl meets Jazzy’s tentative question. “He doesn’t really like other dogs,” the pair of legs between the meeting shift. “I’m not sure why, but he just seems to like Christy,” Martin Camire apologizes. “Yeah, that’s how it is with the smaller dogs. They all seem to have the Napoleon complex thing,” Jazzy’s person Kathy Sweitzer laughs. Small talk folds into a troubled conversation about each dogs’ history. Dillon was underweight and anxious when Camire found him at the Grand Strand Humane Society. Returning back to the beach from Georgia last Christmas, Camire found Christy on a desolate stretch of I-95. Jazzy came to live with Swietzer via “some girl who gave her to my son, Derek,” Sweitzer shrugs. The trio let the people talk while they make and abide by pack rules. Christy, positioned firmly between Jazzy and Dillon, leans Jazzy toward the pond. Jazzy’s eyes relax as the two girls run to the water. They return to shake leaving Dillon dodging water droplets. The games continue – running, swimming, shaking, nudging, growling – until the leashes are snapped and goodnights said.


    7:15 p.m. Central Park, North Myrtle Beach

    His body arches in the shape of a wind-warped tree. He crumbles to earth, losing the struggle with gravity. The soccer balls flickers off his finger tips and bobbles in the corner of net 2A in North Myrtle Beach’s Central Park. Head bowed in a defeated dip, Carlos Funes sighs as he reaches for the ball. He tosses it back toward the dancing feet of Elis Valesquez, 20 yards to the left. “Otra ves,” the goalie challenges his friend. The men, squinting through the darkness, study each other’s defensive moves until, finally, a foot forces the ball into the night and into the skyward Funes. The men had not called ahead to reserve the field and request the lights be turned on so they play in the dark beneath a moon slice. In broken English, the construction workers talk of practicing different moves for weekend games with friends in Conway. Car lights from Possum Trot Road sneak over the shrubbery and into Funes’ eyes. He stares into the laughing face of Valesquez. “Otra ves,” says Funes, digging his toes into the grass, ready to block another shot from his friend.


    8:15 p.m. Oak Island (Brunswick County), N.C.

    Lexi Jones is quick. She’s quick to correct that she’s “not three, 3 years old.” In a practiced and mastered move of an escape artist, she drops her hips and twirls her wrist free from her father John Jones’ hand when he tells her it’s time for bed. In an instant, her shy smile turns to a screaming defining accent on a reddening face. Without warning the tantrum vanishes and she’s staring into the face of her 11-year-old sister Janzen Jones. Janzen explains, with no room for options or discussions, that bedtime has arrived so they are going to get her to bed. The younger follows the older with a shrug as Janzen reminds that she’s lived through being three and 3 years old. Side-by-side and in unison, the sisters bend to their knees and slide like rock stars around a bedroom. The slide ends on the left side of the bed as each folds her hands just in front of their chests. “OK little Lou,” Janzen says, “Ready? Go.” The girls bow their heads, pretend to close their eyes but each is secretly looking at the other through lowered lids. “Dear God,” Janzen leads as Lexi takes up the rest with soft murmurs. After two inhales and exhales from Janzen, the two end the prayer in unison with, “Angels sent by God to guide me. Amen.” Just as Janzen’s hands reach toward her sister, a father’s voice breakes the silence and calls Janzen to the telephone. “It’s a boy,” the voice says as the room seems to warm with Janzen’s blush. Lexi watches her sister’s back disappear down the darkened hall. “It’s a boy,” she whispers and slides beneath the bed to giggle until bed check.


    9:12 p.m Garden City Beach Pier, November

    Four friends huddle against the other blocking the frigid wind slicing through wooden slats on the Garden City Beach pier. They came in pairs from their homes in Socastee and Surfside Beach for a walk to ease off-season boredom. “There’s nothing to do. Thursday night,” Robbie McKinney hisses angst through a scarf looped over his face. “The bars don’t even get good until tomorrow.” Trista Gerbrick shivers beneath a hoodie while Chris Corbett and Ann Mellies dig their hands deeper in pants pockets. Their friendship circle unfolds into a boy-girl line, shoulder-to-shoulder and flat against edge of the pier. Their backs are turned from the invading lights and possible conversations with a clump of fisherman on the end of the pier. Their words are whispered and each sentence seems to be punctuated with synchronized nodding from the line. Less than 15 minutes later, they lock arms and walk in step like an unrehearsed chorus line back toward their cars off Atlantic Avenue. Sealed in a friendship cocoon, they peel off each other passing oblivious to smiles facing them inside the warm arcade at the end of the pier. “What did you say we’re doing tomorrow night?” Gerbrick ask the group.


    10:15 p.m. Loris

    The town clock marks off minutes to fast-approaching adulthood as four teens gather within spitting distance of Meeting Street. Separated by a week of work and school, they come together on Sunday nights carrying on a tradition. Friday and Saturday nights are for dating, pizza and movies. Sunday night is when their world is reduced to the 1/2 mile stretch on Main Street between the First Federal and NBSC banks. They park their trucks by the railroad tracks, climb into the bed of Mathew Strickland’s Ford and catch up on who’s dating, who broke up, who said what and what was said back. The trucks are clean. So clean that Strickland’s laugh spews out a wad of green gum landing on the bed liner, without question or inspection, he plops it back in his mouth. “It’s my last piece,” he explains to a cringing Megan Ritzmann. “Let’s go,” Joseph Fowler says welcoming Ritzmann in his lap as Wesley Williams drops his large frame deep in the truck bed. Strickland makes one loop around town as rap music pumps from his speakers. “Ah, there ain’t nobody out now,” Williams said just as Danielle Herring pulls her Honda Civic up close enough to yell out the window she’s bound for home to finish an English paper. Herring’s departure is a reminder of the curfew. Ritzmann gives Strickland a ride leaving the out-of-high-school workers Williams and Fowler perched on the tailgate looking over the empty streets in their world. “Hey, I still got that dead racoon in the back of my truck,” Fowler says in a phone call to Herring and a laughing Williams.


    11 p.m. Santa’s condominium, southern Horry County

    His day begins at 5:30 a.m. with a cup of coffee and a sunrise view from his rented condominium. The day ends after midnight as two loaves of Amish friendship bread are taken from the oven. The time between dawn and darkness is filled with magic dust sprinkles falling from his lips into the dream clouds of children. “To these children, I’m the only Santa they’ve ever known,” he says breaking eggs in a bowl of dough he tended for 10 days. “I see them every year, several times a week, for eight years. One little girl brought me a scrapbook with our pictures from the past seven years.” Marland Gammon’s eyes well with tears as he flips through the construction paper pages of Bailey Pace’s gift. The child’s parents trek from Cheraw, S.C., to Inlet Square Mall for an annual visit and photograph with Santa. The first photograph shows the tiny girl’s face turned to Santa as he tilts his ear toward her. “I think that’s what I really offer – I listen. I’m here for them and I spend the time with them to hear what they have to say. I’m their Santa. I’m always Santa – here and at home in Iowa – all year,” he says as the curl tips on his mustache begin to fray as though the styling mouse has outlived its 16-hour staying power. Just as any Santa worth is girth, he remembers the children and some of the nearly 4,000 dogs who return to Inlet Square year after year. There’s a pair of great danes who seem to grow larger than the velvet throne every year. There’s Johnny, now 10, who had told Santa as a 5-year-old that he wanted to mine for gold in Colorado. There’s a 2-year-old’s petition for a pink pumpkin. “Oh my, I never knew what she was talking about,” he says with a laugh and shrug. “Every time I see her, I call her ‘My Pink Pumpkin Girl.’ She 10 now and I don’t think she thinks it’s as funny as she used to.” Brushing his permed beard, he says he has answers for the obvious questions. No chimney? Magic dust to make himself small or a key hidden away by the parents. “‘Are you really Santa?'” he raises his brows. “I tell them, ‘Santa’s the spirit of Christmas.'”