He saw her moving up the shore while she was still a tiny sunset silhouette. He assumed she came from the pack of teenagers further up the beach—the ones he could hear yelling and laughing and throwing crap into the ocean surf—but only because she looked small, and not like the kind of person who would be here alone at dusk. But he could be wrong. He’d made mistakes like that before.
She was holding something round and long in her hand as she meandered slowly toward him, stopping occasionally to stare at the last few wisps of sunlight that streaked across the water. He was curious about the object and wanted to look closer, but he didn’t want her to think he was staring at her. Nothing worse than a guy in his late thirties with a bad haircut staring at some teenager on a beach. But more than that, he didn’t want to stare. She had her business; he had his. He was content to leave it be.
He turned his eyes from her and back to the wide gray ocean. Water was hardly ever blue this far north. Only on the clearest of summer days did it sparkle like everyone imaged the ocean always sparkled. Usually it looked like little more than a churning slab of dull concrete. The waves made a low and steady sound, a kind of distant rumble that was felt long before it was heard. They were comforting in a way. Constant. Predictable. He could understand why everything had ended here.
His thoughts were interrupted by the girl again. She was close now, and staring up at him. He searched through his brain for the correct response—a wave, a shrug, a casual salute off the forehead—and ended up just staring back with his mouth slightly open and a tiny bead of saliva hanging off his lower lip. Well, this is awkward.
Apparently she found it less awkward than he, because she continued her shoreline slog toward him. The curious object in her hand was a hot dog. He could see small wisps of steam rising from the bun, and it made his stomach rumble. He hadn’t eaten much lately. Either hadn’t felt the need or hadn’t remembered. Not that it made a difference.
The girl took a few more sandy steps to the pile of rocks on which he sat and looked up at him. “Hey,” she said. “You look hungry.”
“I… Yeah. I am, actually.”
“Want a dog?”
“Uh… Sure. Thanks.”
The girl clambered up the rocks with surprising grace, considering she was holding a frank in one hand. Now that she was close, he noticed she was wearing a hooded sweatshirt with a faded skull on the front. Her hair was black with bright red stripes running down the middle, and there were various small bits of metal sticking out of her ears and nose. The entire effect felt cool, but in a totally unplanned kind of way. Like she didn’t even need to try. He looked down at his creased khaki pants and skinny black tie and felt a brief cringe knot his gut.
“Here.” She handed him the dog and sat on a nearby rock.
He took the proffered dinner and bit into it without hesitation. The meat had cooled a little during the walk, and there was sand in the mustard that grit against his teeth. It was the best meal he’d eaten in weeks. “Oh, wow. That’s… That’s really good.”
“Thanks. I made it myself.”
She smiled. “Well, I didn’t, like, you know. Kill the cow or anything. But I grilled it and put the mustard on. You like mustard?”
“Awesome. I’ve haven’t grilled a hot dog in forever, so I was kinda worried.”
“Yeah. Actually, there wasn’t a grill, so I guess I didn’t grill anything. More like held it on a stick. But you know what I mean.”
“Murrrfl.” He realized he was talking and chomping at the same time, and the knot of disgust turned his stomach anew. He held up one hand in the international sign of Hold On A Second I’m Chewing and wolfed down the rest of the meal. At the very last bite, a squirt of mustard wiggled out from between his front teeth and made a suicidal death leap right onto his tie. He fought the urge to clean it off.
Once the chewing subsided, he leaned back on the rock and stared out at the sea, occasionally glancing at the girl out of the corner of his eye. She seemed happy to sit in silence, so he did the same, enjoying the way his stomach was now warm and gurgling. She smelled nice, like baby powder, and he liked the way her scent blended with the tang of the ocean. He hoped that didn’t make him a weirdo.
“So, uh… Thanks. For the hot dog. Thank you.”
“Hey.” She finally glanced away from the ocean and looked at him, a ghost of a smile crossing her face. “You got mustard on your tie.”
“Yeah, I know. I mean… I didn’t… I didn’t notice. I don’t care. It’s a stupid tie anyway.”
She turned her gaze back to the ocean, missing the pained look of horror that crossed Julian’s face. Goddammit, why can’t you ever talk to people? You sound like an idiot. Ask her a question. Say something witty. Come on. But nothing would come, and the longer he struggled, the more awkward the silence became, at least in his mind. Sara didn’t seem bothered in the slightest—she had turned her attention to a small cut on her hand and was picking at it with something approaching boredom. His mind raced for a conversation. They could talk about music or movies or sports or all the great unanswered questions of the world. But everything he came up with sounded leaden and dumb to his inner ear, and in the end she was forced to break the silence.
“I see you here a lot,” she said, slowly rubbing the cut as a drop of blood oozed out. “I mean, I’m not, like, stalking you or anything. I just noticed.”
“Are you here often?”
“I guess. Recently. My friends like to come here and smoke weed and throw stuff in the fire, so I just kinda tag along.”
“Sounds like fun.”
“So what do you do?”
“Me? Oh, nothing. I just… I work in IT. I write code for medical software. It’s really boring.”
“Yeah, it’s not. I hate my job.”
“Is that why you come here every night?”
He thought for a bit before answering. “No,” he said, finally. “No, I… I’m kind of waiting for someone.”
She glanced at him and raised one pierced eyebrow. “What, here? Like, you’re having a secret rendezvous on the beach?”
“No, it’s not like that. It’s… It’s weird.”
“Okay. Sorry, I didn’t mean to—”
“I had a fiancée,” he said suddenly, cutting her off. “I had a fiancée, and she… A few months ago she came here one night and, uh… She took her clothes off and put them in a little pile on this rock and then ate a bunch of pills and walked into the ocean.”
Sara looked up from the cut, eyes wide. “Seriously?”
“Oh, shit. I’m really sorry.”
The moon was starting to rise over the horizon of the sea, and the two of them stared at it in silence. Down the beach, they could hear the sounds of laughter and a crackling fire. One of Sara’s friends was apparently having a little too much fun, because every now and then a huge stoned laugh would roll up and around and crash against the rocks like its very own wave. Her cut had sprung wide, and she wiped the blood on the sleeve of her hoodie in an absentminded fashion. Julian stared at it intently, mostly because he didn’t want to take the risk of meeting her gaze.
“Hey, look. Sara. I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to tell you that. It just kind of came out.”
“It’s okay. I don’t mind if you want to talk about it.”
“You don’t even know me.”
“Yeah, well, maybe that’s better.”
“I don’t know. I just… I keep coming here, you know? Every night I come here and I sit on this rock and I think she’s going to just pop out of the ocean with a bunch of seaweed hanging off her and we’ll hug and then I’ll take her home. It’s like if I wait here long enough, she’s going to… I don’t know. It’s stupid. Sorry.”
His eyes were starting to wet, and he brushed at them with the sleeve of his cheap white shirt. She put one hand on his back and rubbed it in a circle for a few seconds, leaving a tiny streak of blood on the collar. Down the beach, one of the stoners yelled Sara’s name, then laughed. She glanced that way for a moment and rolled her eyes.
“My friends are idiots.”
“You’re young. It’s your chance to be an idiot.”
“I’m not that young.”
“What are you? Sixteen?”
“Oh. Yeah, that’s young.”
“Everyone thinks I’m twelve or something because I’m so small. It sucks. But look, I’m really sorry about your fiancée.”
“My dad used to hit me.”
“When I was a kid. He’d get drunk and hit me. My mom, too.”
She shrugged, a tiny motion in the moonlight. “It’s okay. I’m not scarred for life or anything. I just thought… you know. I figured I should tell you something, since you told me. And that’s kinda the biggest secret I have.”
“He doesn’t still do that, does he?”
“No. He’s dead. He got drunk and ran his car into a tree. I didn’t even go to the funeral.”
The stoner yelled her name again, loud and long like a wolf’s howl. She glanced down the shore, looked back at Julian, and shrugged again. “Look, I should… I should go. They’re probably wondering where I am.”
He nodded. “Yeah, okay. Thanks for the hot dog.”
She stood and stretched, causing her back to pop. For a brief, fleeting moment he considered asking her to stay, but he saw the foolishness in such a request and so tucked it away. Instead, he allowed himself to look at her with the fullness of his eyes for the first time since he saw her wandering up the sand. She was beautiful, he decided. And here, on this sad and rocky shoreline where everything in his life had come to a crashing halt, she was perhaps the most beautiful thing he had ever seen.
“Are you…” she began, haltingly. “Are you going to be here tomorrow?”
His response was long in coming. “I don’t know. Maybe. I wake up every morning and tell myself I’m not going to come, but then every night I just kind of end up here. So… yeah. I don’t know. One day I won’t have to come here anymore. I hope it’s tomorrow. I don’t know.”
“Well, listen. If you’re here tomorrow, I’ll come say hi. Okay?”
“I’d like that.”
She scrambled down the rocks and to the sand, walking with speed back to the warm orange glow of the bonfire. He wanted her to turn back and look, just a glance to let him know she understood the meaning in things difficult to say, but it never happened. His last image was of her walking, head down, wiping her wounded hand on the sleeve of her grungy hooded sweatshirt. Then she was around a curve and out of the moonlight and lost to him. The waves kept coming. He sat on his rock, listening to their rhythm, and wondered if he would be back tomorrow.
Alan has lived his entire life in the Pacific Northwest, owns a dog named Miso, and is somewhat afraid of the sun. As a former video game writer who left the world of Mario and mushrooms to pursue a more traditional writing career, his professional experience consists mostly of magazine articles about shooting the boss in his glowing red eye—although he has written text for over twenty published video games. E-mail: frodomojo[at]gmail.com