By Richelle E. Goodrich
Dedicated to my sweet nieces,
Elica, Olivia, Elizabeth, Lucy, & Cumorah
“The sun locks beneath Aquarius tempers,
And now the nights draw near to half the day…”
And now the nights draw near to half the day…”
The sun was a perfect sphere on the horizon, inspiring the sky to blush in rosy hues. It shone like a broiling ball of flames, as if it could somehow concentrate enough heat—being at its closest proximity to the ocean beneath—to evaporate every drop of saltwater into massive, billowing storm clouds. That’s what Safire Morgan imagined as she stood on the beach, squinting into the sunrise.
It would’ve been warm enough in her sundress if not for the breeze. But the water was warm. That’s what her friends told her, anyway. She hadn’t yet found the nerve to step foot beyond the dry sands. She was afraid of water. Afraid of drowning.
Safire rubbed on her bare arms to soften the goose bumps. After two days in the sun, her freckles were even more pronounced than usual. If only the rest of her skin tanned as easily as those lousy spots.
The air lifted her honey-blonde curls which she combed behind her right ear with one finger. This was more of a habitual move than the result of windswept hair. Only her right ear ever saw the world. The other, half browned by freckles, never escaped the shadows of her long hair.
She inhaled, drawing in the ocean air, imagining the taste of saltwater through its briny, yet strangely sweet smell. Her focus remained distant, however, her mind darting between mental images of fiery chariots pulled skyward by titian horses and white water lilies bubbling to the ocean’s surface, coalescing into what appeared to be lines of sea foam. Safire squinted at a glimpse of what she pictured as tail fins sticking straight up out of the water. The sun had momentarily reflected blue off the fish’s scales. A large fish. But now it was gone. Blinking her green eyes, she scanned the water once again, already accepting the anomaly as an illusion.
It served her right to frighten herself with the thought of some sea monster, the way she indulged in crazy daydreams.
“Hey, kid, you up for snorkeling today? We’re all going together—Brook, Jen, Troy. I’ll hold your hand if it’ll get you to come along.”
It was so hard to say no to Wade, especially the way he purposefully crouched low so as to look up at her with a pleading, puppy-dog pout on his face. Not having known him for more than the past three days, he’d proven himself a real gentleman toward Safire despite that his arms wrapped themselves as often as possible around her best friend, Brook. He and his buddy, Troy, had zeroed in on the three vacationing girls the moment they’d pulled into the hotel parking lot. Brook had announced their arrival to the world by screeching to a halt near the front doors in a rented mustang convertible. Wade had wasted no time hustling over to introduce himself. He’d talked nonstop about the many activities this beachfront tourist trap had to offer, while simultaneously gathering up their luggage as if he were the hotel’s bell boy. He and Troy had invited them to dinner that night. Since then, what had been planned as a girl’s getaway had become a couple’s retreat…...plus one.
“Thanks, Wade, but I’m fine. Honest.”
His gaze widened as he moved in to deliver a convincing speech, entreating her to reconsider. Safire wondered if he knew how perfectly his eyes mirrored the sky.
“You’re not gonna want to miss this, Saf! An underwater adventure starring colorful fishes and beautiful coral and slimy eels and…..well, other oceany stuff!”
She continued to wordlessly decline his offer, shaking her head in tiny, timid tremors.
Wade begged harder, making adorable, hopeful faces. “Come on, Saffy, please! Safrina? Sassafras, you know you want to!”
“Please, stop it.”
He shed the playful manner and straightened up to his full height—a lanky light post. “I was just trying to make you smile. Really, Safire, I feel bad that you haven’t gone out on the water with us yet. Mr. Douglas offered to take out his sailboat again. All you gotta do is say the word…”
She nodded her understanding but denied any desire to go near the water. “Thank you, honestly, but I’m fine. I don’t mind hanging out on the beach. Water’s just…..not my thing.”
Wade frowned. The way he looked at her showed he was trying to be understanding. “Bad experience as a kid, huh?”
Safire shrugged, brushing her curls behind her right ear again. “You could say that.” She smiled kindly; her lips pursed in a manner that let him know she didn’t intend to share anything personal.
“Okay, kid.” He patted her on the back in a friendly fashion before starting into a jog toward a shallow inlet of docked boats. Turning without slowing his steps, he yelled back, “We’ll meet up with you for lunch!”
She waved her okay.
Safire didn’t mind that Brook and Jen were enjoying the company of their newfound ‘boyfriends’, participating in every seaside activity the area had to offer. In a way it was a relief. She didn’t have to worry that her fear of water was ruining anyone’s fun, a concern that had nearly made her feign the flu to keep from coming. Truth be known, the only reason she’d agreed to accompany her friends on this vacation was to split the cost and enable them ‘one week of paradise’ as they’d put it in a dreamy sigh pitching her the idea. Safire was never one to let her friends down. She’d saved up plenty of vacation days at her office job anyway. Why not cash in a few? There were other things she could do to pass the time: shopping, reading, dining, reading, watching the sunrise, watching the sunset……reading.
Squinting harder to see Wade finally reach the docks, she waved. Four hands waved back. Then a few more. Her friends must’ve made new friends.
Trying her best to smile over a touch of melancholy, she returned her attention to the horizon. The sun had climbed a little higher in the sky to where smears of violet and indigo played backdrop to its brightness.
Her eyes dropped to the endless waters. Ominous wasn’t a fierce enough word to describe how she felt standing before this liquid monster—so small and insignificant compared to its massiveness. The ocean’s constant roar seemed a menacing warning howled by Poseidon himself. “Stay away! Disturb not my aquatic creatures lest with one sweep of a tidal-wave arm I release my wrath and swallow every observer, claiming their souls!”
Safire retreated a few steps at the mental imagery. Then she laughed internally, embarrassed by the fact that she’d frightened herself. Poseidon……oh, honestly! That was almost as silly as her earlier thought that she’d actually witnessed a sea monster’s tail!
Of course, all of it stemmed from what had happened to her brother. They’d been close as siblings until that accident. They’d done everything together, shared everything, including clothing, classrooms, exploits, likes and dislikes. For this reason Safire had always feared they would suffer the same fate. That’s why she normally steered clear of large bodies of water.
The reasonable side of her brain often presented convincing arguments as to why this notion she’d adopted as a child was exactly that—childish. One person’s fate did not determine another’s, no matter how close their relationship.
Wanting to be brave, yearning to prove to herself that this fear was irrational, Safire dragged her bare feet forward in the sand, pausing between each bold step. If she could make herself stand where the waves washed ashore; if she could pause for a moment where the water quietly glided over the sand, coloring it a darker shade of gray; if she could experience the warm saltwater for herself and remain rooted there without harm, without Poseidon enchanting the seas and dragging her under. Then, for today at least, she would consider herself brave.
Safire stopped on the compacted sand. Though the granules were moist enough to swallow up her toes, she remained just outside the ocean’s reach. Her green eyes lowered to stare at her freckled feet. As a wave washed ashore, a thin sheet of liquid threatened to kiss her toes, failing by mere inches. A ragged exhale escaped her breath—half relieved, half disappointed. Wiggling a foot free of the suctioning sand, she hesitated, but then placed it within the space where the next wave would surely stretch.
Her eyes lifted to observe the enemy approaching. A short wall of water appeared to roll over the shore as if galloping on liquid hooves. Unable to remain standing, it fell forward, crashing headlong into the ground. A line of white foam gurgled up as the water monster attempted to crawl across the sand, frothing…..reaching. Safire held her breath while the ocean’s touch drew near to her toes. She could picture a watery hand suddenly grasping at her ankle, and in that moment of alarm she lifted her foot to evade the wetness. She gasped when her attempt to back away was halted by something solid.
Off balance, Safire stumbled forward, both feet splashing into the wetness. She grabbed behind herself, knowing something was there, hoping it was sturdy enough to steady her. A hand clasped onto hers, large fingers wrapping tightly around her own. She turned around, her eyes darting up, then down at her two wet feet, then up again. A man stared back at her, holding the hand she’d reached with. His eyes were pools of molasses. His black curls—soaking wet—hung nearly as long as her own. Ribbons of auburn appeared weaved into his dripping mane. He wore a blue shirt, loosely buttoned, the collar lifted to hug his neck. His tan shorts appeared dry like his shirt, as if he’d just changed after a swim.
The man apologized straight away while helping her find her balance. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you.”
Wide-eyed, she gawked at the stranger, forgetting for a moment that the ocean had bathed her feet and then slipped off without dragging her in. Her fingers clutched tightly to the anchor they’d found. She finally managed to stammer a reply.
“No, no, um, no….it’s okay. I uh…” Unable to think of a way to explain her panicky behavior, she muttered, “The water’s warm.”
The stranger smiled so beautifully that Safire’s fears melted at the sight.
“You’re right. The water is warm,” he agreed.
She blushed and looked away, feeling utterly stupid. Of course the water was warm. Duh! Everyone knew that. Then, sensing how hot her hand felt, she realized her fingers were still grasping tightly to his. Quickly, she released him and turned a deeper shade of red.
“I’m so sorry.”
“Please, don’t be.” The way his kind voice hit her ears, she couldn’t help but look up again. He smiled as another wave crawled ashore, licking both of her feet. Safire rose onto her tiptoes and pranced out of the water’s reach. The stranger chuckled lightly.
“You don’t care to get your feet wet?”
Fairly sure that even her freckles were blushing with embarrassment, she did her best to save face. “I’m not a big fan of water, no. If I were, I’d be snorkeling with my friends right now. Actually, the reason I’m standing here is because I was attempting to be um…” She realized at this point she’d said too much. Her actions, though odd, didn’t require an explanation. She didn’t even know who this man was, for crying out loud, but for some reason her tongue continued wagging. “I was trying to be brave, I guess. I just, um….the water and I…uh…we’re not…”
“You’re afraid of water.”
She was thankful for him jumping in to save her from drowning in her own words. Now, if he’d kindly just turn and walk away. His smile broadened and she felt her cheeks burn.
“It’s okay; it’s not an uncommon fear.”
She nodded, knowing this to be true. Still, she felt like such a coward. Afraid to get her feet wet, ugh! He didn’t understand. So what? Why did she need him to understand?
“It’s just that my..….my brother, he um…” Safire hesitated telling him the truth. She’d never shared this story with anyone but her closest friends. Why was she telling a complete stranger the horror of her childhood?
“You don’t have to explain,” he cut in.
But she wanted to. Even more so after his show of compassion. His eyes appeared to sympathize without even knowing the facts.
“He drowned,” she breathed.
The sympathy remained etched in his features. “I’m so sorry.”
She felt stupid for sharing. Like this man could do anything to fix the past. Like he even cared.
“You were young when this happened,” he said. Although the words may have been intended as a question, he seemed to know the answer beforehand.
“You watched him drown.”
Again she nodded, somewhat spooked he would guess such a thing.
“It’s reasonable then that you fear the water.”
She smiled gratefully, and he copied the gesture.
“Maybe someday it will be different for me. Maybe someday I won’t run from Poseidon.”
His eyes tightened, as he repeated her words. “Yes. Maybe someday.”
Embarrassed and uncertain as to what to say or do next, Safire looked down at her toes. She watched them dig beneath the sand, burying themselves as she wished her head could do. If only she were an ostrich. A scrape along the pad of her sole had her toes quickly resurfacing. The stranger bent down, and pulled something from her footprint.
“It’s a shell,” he announced, holding up his find. “Or half of one anyway.”
Safire accepted the cone-shaped corner he offered, eyeing it in the palm of her hand. The widest end was a thin circle of irregular shards.
“Ouch,” she grimaced.
The stranger rose to his full height facing her. Safire’s eyes followed him up until her neck cricked to look at him.
“Is your foot okay?” he asked, pointing to her toes now wrapped behind her standing ankle.
She answered without looking down. “Yes, I’m fine. Um….thank you.”
He didn’t reply. His dark eyes returned her stare without blinking—tight and guarded. Safire felt her own eyes scrunch in the same manner, wondering what this man was thinking. She was the first to blink, at once aware of her rude manners lacking in more than one way.
“I’m sorry, I…” It took a moment for her to concentrate. Straightening up, she smiled and extended a hand. “My name’s Safire. Safire Morgan. I should’ve introduced myself earlier.”
The stranger grinned as if entertaining an amusing thought. He accepted her hand, grasping gently and shaking. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Safire.” Again he grinned with humor. She wondered until he explained. “My name is…..uncommon. It was given to me because I happen to possess a fondness for water.”
She was suddenly curious, imagining well-known characters associated with oceans, lakes, and seas.
“I’m Aquarius,” he announced.
“Aquarius,” she repeated. “I like it.”
Again there was an awkward moment of silence; although, it seemed to Safire that she was the only one to appear uncomfortable. Her palm opened up when she remembered the broken shell.
“I haven’t found a shell on this beach yet that isn’t cracked or broken. I was hoping to discover a perfect specimen to keep as a souvenir. I’m starting to think I’ll be going home without one.”
“How many days do you have to hunt for one?”
“Only four. I leave at the end of the week. We do, I mean—my girlfriends and I.”
“I think that gives us plenty of time to find the right souvenir.”
Blushing, Safire looked towards the sun. It was a bright ball of amber now, hovering in a solid-blue sky.
“Have you eaten yet this morning?”
Turning back to Aquarius, she shook her head.
“Would you care to have breakfast with me? I know a place only a short walk down the beach. It’s nice but casual.”
She nodded, accepting his invitation. “Will you give me a minute to run to the hotel for my purse?” She pointed to where the sandy terrain inclined, transitioning into leafy landscaping. Stone steps lead up to a number of rooms spread lengthwise to provide scenic ocean views.
“No need,” he said. “Please, let me provide for you.”
“Provide for me,” she whispered. She hadn’t meant to repeat his words, but the message was sweetly unusual.
“Yes,” he insisted. “I’ll provide breakfast.”
“Oh, okay.” She glanced down to hide how her cheeks had flushed once again and noticed his feet protected by sandals. Her freckled toes were bare. She pointed to the hotel a second time.
“I should probably go get my shoes if we’re going to step inside a restaurant.”
“No need. This place caters to beachcombers. There’s a deck where we can sit and look out over the ocean.”
Safire shrugged in a consigning manner and brushed her honey-blonde curls behind the one ear. “Oh, well, okay then. I guess I’m ready.”
It was fifteen minutes of leisure strolling before they reached their destination. Conversation took effort. Safire answered simple questions that persisted throughout their walk but with long pauses of silence in between. Being naturally quiet, she struggled to think of things to ask in return. More often than not, Aquarius volunteered information before she managed to verbalize any interest. At the very moment her spirits were slumping, imagining herself to be the worst excuse for a conversationalist ever, the man piped up out of the blue with a compliment.
“You have a beautiful voice, Safire.”
His flattering words instantly lifted her spirits while simultaneously making her clam up all the more. She was grateful when he sat her at a corner table for two on a large outdoor deck attached to the back of a family-owned restaurant. Other customers took up some seating, but not so many as to threaten a meal enjoyed in semi-privacy.
Aquarius politely excused himself, asking for Safire to wait while he went inside. When he came back, he found her focused on something overhead. He put down two plates of food and looked up in the same direction.
“What do you see?” he asked.
She smiled at the sky before glancing at him. “Nothing really. I just like to imagine things. You know, envision shapes in the clouds.”
He grinned with a hint of amusement which caused Safire to laugh at herself.
“I’ve noticed how you watch the sky more than most.”
“Habit, I guess. I blame it on my mother. When I was a little girl she once said, ‘It’s a shame that only children ever look up. Adults seem to have forgotten that a billion eyes look down on them from above. They miss out on so much.’ I vowed right then and there I would keep my eye on the eyes looking down on me. I was a kid. I took it literally. But childhood habits die hard.”
They shared in a laugh. Aquarius motioned to the plate he’d set before her.
“I hope you don’t mind, I took the liberty of ordering for you. They do require shoes inside the restaurant.”
Safire looked down at one of her favorite breakfasts—three berry-filled crepes dotted with whipped cream. A light syrup had been drizzled over top, not dark enough to be maple.
“It’s honey,” Aquarius informed her at the very instant she was wondering.
“Honey? Oh. I’ve never tried crepes with honey before.” She picked up a fork to try a sample. “They’re always served with maple syrup.”
“I know. I prefer honey. I was hoping you would too.”
The bite proved heavenly—strawberries made sweeter by rich nectar. Not wanting to speak with her mouth full, she made a noise to communicate her delight.
Aquarius beamed. “I’m glad you like it.”
They took their time eating, conversing over trivial things, but again with extended moments of silence. It was after a long pause that Safire dared to ask a personal question, one she’d been thinking about for a while.
“Aquarius, did you say that your name was given to you because of your love for water?”
He nodded, jostling his long, black curls. “That’s correct.”
Safire wrinkled her brow. “But, how could that be? How could your parents know you loved water as a newborn?”
Aquarius smiled at the question. His eyes, however, did the opposite. “It wasn’t my parents who named me. I was adopted as a young boy. Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time in the water.”
Safire immediately apologized for the apparent sadness she’d inadvertently dredged up. “I’m sorry for prying.”
“It’s okay.” His earnest gaze held hers. “You shared a personal secret with me. I owed you one.”
She listened carefully as he went on, divulging memories obviously tied to strong emotions. His eyebrows knit tighter as he revisited the past.
“I was young, but old enough to walk…..to run. I don’t remember much except living near the ocean. I can recall the constant murmur of water, how it even reached inside the house. I can’t see their faces, though—my parents. I often try. I try to picture how they might’ve looked, but I can’t seem to focus on them. All I ever see is….” He trailed off, deeply concentrating.
“What?” Safire whispered the question, not wanting to meddle but yearning to know.
Aquarius glanced over at her, drawn to the present again. “Nothing,” he answered.
She couldn’t help but show disappointment.
Out of sympathy, he answered her question. “All I ever see is water. Murky water everywhere.”
“Oh.” She thought about this for a moment, forming a possible explanation. “Sometimes our minds block out tragedies; especially if the event was traumatic or it happened at a young age. Do you think that maybe your parents……..drowned?”
Aquarius smiled, understanding how she might come to that conclusion. “No, Safire. I’m sure they didn’t.”
“Oh.” Again her shoulders slouched in a discouraged way.
“I was the one who drowned.”
Her gaze shot up, her green eyes as wide as coins. “What?”
“I was saved. Revived. And later, adopted.”
“Oh.” She tried to smile, to show some sign of how glad she was for his safety. But in truth, his story made her ache internally, wishing her brother’s fate had been similar. She volunteered the ending to her own story, not sure why.
“My brother drowned in our swimming pool. We weren’t supposed to be there, but we were enrolled in swimming lessons, and he wanted to practice. I climbed the gate with him. I thought if we stayed on the shallow end we’d be okay. But he wanted to dive from the side and was afraid he’d hit his head on the bottom of the pool. I went along with him. I thought I could reach out and pull him to the side if he had any trouble. He dove in….” She stopped, overwhelmed by a wave of reawakened horror that stirred up unresolved guilt and heartache.
Aquarius finished the story for her. “Your brother never surfaced.”
Safire nodded that his guess was correct.
“And you were too afraid to jump in after him because you knew, like him, you would sink.”
“I couldn’t swim.” Safire closed her eyes, trying hard to block out the imagery. She didn’t want to cry. She simply wanted this man to understand.
Warmth topped her hand, and she felt a tender squeeze on her fingers.
“I know,” he whispered softly. “It’s okay, Safire.”
She opened her eyes and forced a tiny smile.
“Your brother’s death was tragic, but you do know that what happened wasn’t your fault.”
She nodded. “Yes, I know. But I wish with all my heart I could forget the past.”
“And I wish with all my heart that I could remember.” He managed to make her chuckle at the irony of their situations. “You have a charming laugh.”
She blushed and pulled her hand out from under his, instantly wishing she hadn’t.
“You’re awfully free with compliments, sir,” she accused.
“But never insincere.”
“Is that so?”
“Yes.” He took her hand again, a move she didn’t fight. Holding it firmly, he delivered a waterfall of flattery. “You’re beautiful, Safire. Your face is that of a goddess. Your hair glimmers like a chest of gold. Your voice rivals the angels while your laugh makes them as jealous as demons. And your lovely scattering of freckles…”
The last comment made her burst out laughing, communicating her skepticism. When Aquarius skewed his eyebrows, she lifted her arm that he might better view how peppered her skin was.
“Freckles are nothing but ugly blotches. Blotches aren’t lovely.”
Aquarius lifted her fingers and slid his other hand beneath her elbow, holding it up also. He narrowed his eyes as if giving her freckles a thorough exam. She giggled, partly wanting to pull her arm out from under his scrutiny but refraining.
“I believe you’re wrong,” he finally announced, letting her elbow rest on the table. “All I see are an abundance of golden flecks that must have fallen from your gold hair, sprinkled like diamonds to sparkle on your lovely skin.”
“Oh, sir, I believe you’re a charmer,” she said, deeply touched.
He smiled guiltily. “Yes. But never insincere. If I didn’t adore your freckles, I would not have approached you on the beach.”
“And startled all reason out of me!”
“That was unintentional. Once again, I do apologize.”
They stopped to look at one another, each lost in thought. Aquarius was the first to move. He leaned over the table, inviting her to draw closer to hear what he had to say. Nearly nose to nose his expression sobered.
“Safire. Go in the water with me. I promise I’ll hold onto you. I won’t let you drown.”
Her heart raced. His request played out in her mind’s eye—the two of them running across the beach, hand in hand, splashing up wet sand as they leapt into the breaking waves, laughing, swimming, until finally the ocean would rise at an opportunity to prove its baneful nature by jerking them apart and swallowing her whole, tossing her about as if she were nothing but a worthless grain of sand meant to sink to the bottom of a dark, lonely abyss…
“Safire? Safire, breathe.”
She sucked in a quick breath at his command and shuddered as her lungs expelled it. Aquarius’ large hand fell warm against her face and caressed it in an attempt to calm her. She felt the color rush back to her cheeks.
“It’s okay,” he whispered repeatedly, stopping only when she nodded her acknowledgement. As soon as her heartbeat settled, he dropped his hand from her cheek and squeezed her fingers. “You truly are afraid of water.”
Safire lowered her head, feeling ashamed; embarrassed; mortified. “I’m sorry,” she muttered.
“No, no, it’s my fault, I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have pressed you. I was just hoping there was a chance I could shoulder your fear and help you move beyond it. Fix it, perhaps?”
She frowned at his words, repeating them critically. “Fix it..….because you think I’m broken?”
His eyebrows pulled low, shading his dark eyes in a near angry expression. “No, no, never!” Just as quickly, his face relaxed. “Maybe bruised is a suitable word. Fragile, definitely, but never broken.”
The way he looked at her—leaning forward, his gaze swimming with compassion—washed away every negative emotion. She lowered her defenses, aware of his hand still warming her own. Her eyes avoided glancing down, afraid he would let go. Instead, she looked to the sky. The sun had climbed steadily. Behind Aquarius, off in the distance, three dark dots appeared to ease slowly downward, veering in the air like tiny flies. She squinted to try and make out what they were.
Aquarius turned to look over his shoulder, keeping his fingers securely wrapped around hers. “I see them too. Skydivers. Watch, they’ll land on the beach.”
He was right. It seemed to take forever, but one by one the dots came into focus. First, having the appearance of dropping flies, then smudges of colors—red, orange, and green. Eventually their chutes emerged, making it easy to mistake them for runaway kites. Finally, the divers came into clearer view, and it was an anxious wait until they maneuvered over the water before steering toward a stretch of beach on which to land. Each did so expertly, quick to gather up his chute and run, disappearing between bordering buildings.
“Is that something you would ever do?” Safire asked her companion.
“No,” he admitted, grinning down at the table.
Aquarius looked up, still grinning. His fingers squeezed hers and then moved to his lap. He straightened up in his chair.
“Are you ready to go?”
She nodded yes, thinking exactly the opposite, but when he rose from the table she did likewise. It seemed a faster walk back to the spot of beach where they’d met. Aquarius didn’t say much. He did stop twice to dig around peeking shells that, once uncovered, proved damaged in some respect.
Within view of the docks Safire spotted her friends. They’d already noticed her and were headed on a straight path to meet up. Wade was all smiles. Troy looked inquisitive. Brook and Jen were focused on the stranger keeping at their girlfriend’s side. Their big eyes sparkled with curiosity and approval.
Aquarius leaned in to speak to Safire just before the two parties met up. “These must be your friends.”
Safire looked sideways to see if his expression was contrary. “Yes, they are. I’ll introduce you, if that’s okay?”
Introductions were short and sweet. Safire explained that Aquarius had invited her to breakfast from which they were just returning.
“How was the snorkeling?” Aquarius asked the group, recalling a comment Safire had made earlier.
Wade answered for everyone. “We’re signed up to go this afternoon. They’re booked for all morning.”
“It will be well worth the wait.” Aquarius said. “The underwater terrain near those cliffs supports a tremendous amount of sea life.” He immediately turned to Safire before anyone could comment. “I’m afraid I must be going. I have things that require attending to.”
Her heart sank at his announcement, feeling certain he was dumping her at the first opportunity. The sour look on Brook’s face only served to reinforce this belief. Of course it made perfect sense. Why would he be interested in a timid, quiet soul terrified of getting her toes wet when he obviously lived and breathed to play in the water? But she’d been drawn to him so strongly, even having shared her deepest secret with this wonderful stranger. That was her own fault. He had told her not to. Stupid girl.
Safire looked at her toes as they buried themselves in the sand. Again she wished it was her head. Her eyes darted up when she felt him take her hand.
“If you don’t mind, I’d like to see you again. Would you have dinner with me tonight?”
Stunned, she stared at his striking brown eyes now framed by air-dried fringe.
“She would love to!” Brook declared.
Safire blushed instantly, but agreed. “Um, yes. Yes, I would really like that.”
Aquarius smiled so beautifully that even Brook and Jen sighed at the sight. “I’ll meet you right here then.” He pointed to the hotel behind them, and her eyes followed his finger. “When the sun sets behind that rooftop, I’ll be here waiting.”
Safire nodded eagerly. “Me too.”
And then, without any adieus, he turned and left.
Brook and Jen dove in like two starved piranhas wanting immediate answers and tasty specifics. How? When? What did you do? They acted disappointed with her brief version of a short story. Only the promise of more to come had the power to appease them. Wade and Troy, on the other hand, seemed to appreciate Safire’s brevity.
“I thought you girls wanted to hit the gift shops before our appointment on the docks,” Wade reminded them.
Safire agreed to accompany her friends for a couple hours of window shopping. She spent the remainder of the day alone on an open balcony, reading, glancing at the sun every ten minutes to watch it climb like a slothful slug overhead.
It was nearing seven in the evening when she went to stand on the beach, changed into another sundress—a longer, red gown accented with patterns of orange and gold. Flat sandals held to her feet, tied in a crisscross fashion around her ankles. A dainty locket hung from a gold chain around her neck.
Safire faced the hotel, looking over the rooftop at the last glimmer of sunlight to sink behind the structure. She imagined a boiling vat of lava somewhere far distant, its red glow coloring the sky while slowly melting the sun into a mixture of bubbling heat and fire and hissing steam. Aquarius silently stepped up beside her, pausing for a long moment to look in the same direction she stared. She sensed him; his presence influenced her mood without words or touch.
“You look beautiful.”
She smiled, balling up her suddenly rosy cheeks. A glance sideways and she realized he was wearing the same blue shirt with the raised collar—his hair once again wet from an evening swim. Perhaps she shouldn’t have changed.
“Are you ready to go?” Aquarius held his hand open for her to accept.
She swallowed back a rise of amorous emotions and then slipped her fingers between his. He turned her toward a rising moon and began an unhurried walk along the beach.
“Did you enjoy your afternoon, Safire?”
“I did. And you?”
“Yes, I did. I had a difficult time concentrating on my work knowing I would have the pleasure of seeing you again tonight.”
“Yes, I did. I had a difficult time concentrating on my work knowing I would have the pleasure of seeing you again tonight.”
Her heart fluttered at such sweet sentiment. “I had a hard time concentrating too,” she admitted. Reflecting on what he’d said, she asked, “Do you work nearby?”
He smiled down at her. “I work in many different locations. I just happen to be in this area right now.”
“So, you could do your work from anywhere?”
“Anywhere near the sea.”
She felt his reservation to elaborate, but dared a guess, curious. “Like a fisherman? Or a scuba diver?”
He looked to the silver moon as if contemplating what to say. He squeezed her fingers before replying. “I consider myself a venturer-slash-ecologist-slash-soldier of sorts.”
She had to wrap her mind around his description, and still there seemed no clear job title. The fact that he didn’t come right out and clarify made her stop questioning him, respecting his unspoken want for privacy.
“I work in a law office,” she volunteered. “It’s a boring job.”
“I work underwater,” he said. “It’s a lonely job.”
Hearing that, she settled on ‘gypsy fish-hugger’.
Aquarius laughed aloud. Safire looked up sideways to catch him smiling at the moon.
“What’s so funny?” she had to ask.
He shook his head. “Nothing, nothing.” But, reconsidering, he shared a clever joke. She wasn’t certain it was truly the cause of his spontaneous outburst.
“Okay. What do you call 1000 lawyers dead at the bottom of the sea?”
Safire shrugged, stumped.
Aquarius chuckled before delivering the punch line. “A good start.”
“Oh, that’s awful,” she groaned.
He tilted his head and perked one dark eyebrow. “Yes, I know. One might consider it unlawful dumping of hazardous waste.”
Safire made an appalled face, then broke down and laughed against her better judgment. “I work for lawyers, you know. Highly successful ones.”
“I know. That’s why I find it amusing.”
They continued on, quietly for the most part, content to be holding hands. Safire glanced at the moon frequently, imagining lucent, heavenly creatures living on its surface, responsible for the way it shimmered silver in the darkness.
Aquarius watched her wonder at the moon.
Nearing the deck to the same restaurant they’d dined at that very morning, Safire naturally slowed her steps, assuming this to be their destination. But she was urged on past patrons who sat outside conversing over seafood dinners under strings of white Christmas lights. Aquarius led her further down the beach until the sands disappeared under an accumulation of driftwood. The ocean off to their right appeared to sink lower while the sound of civilization diminished.
“Where are we going?” She hadn’t thought to question this man’s integrity. And now that he seemed to be steering her to a secluded area, it made her wonder if she should have.
“We’re almost there….just over that bank.” As if he could sense her worry, he added, “You’re safe with me, Safire.”
Her inner voice calmed at his words, believing him.
It was a short but steep descent down the bank he’d pointed out. Aquarius was first to jump the drop before immediately turning around to take Safire by the waist and gently hoist her down. They stood facing each other for a moment before the glow of auburn lights drew her attention to a smoldering campfire. Aquarius led her by the hand to a log of driftwood meant for seating. He built up the fire while she watched.
It was a small, carved-out pocket of earth they were in; soil and sparse grasses formed the short walls while a stretch of sand covered the ground beneath them. The ocean seemed at a farther distance beyond and below their viewpoint.
“Does the tide ever reach up here?”
Aquarius layered chunks of chopped wood to feed a pit of growing flames. “No, it won’t reach us. If you decide you’d like to take a swim, I’ll have to walk you to the water.”
She forced an uncomfortable smile and changed the subject. “So, what’s for dinner?”
Aquarius beamed as he moved to the end of their log seating to retrieve a hidden stash of unusual ingredients. “Now, keep an open mind here before you judge,” he warned. “You can’t truthfully say you don’t like what you’ve never tried.”
She was instantly curious…..and concerned. Leaning forward, she stretched her neck to try and see past his arms. Whatever he’d provided was wrapped up in long sheets of green. Seaweed?
“I probably should have told you this before; I’m a fairly strict vegetarian.”
Safire made a face behind his back, praying she wouldn’t be asked to eat any slimy green stuff. So much for anticipating a lobster dinner.
Aquarius worked on their meal, bent over the ingredients so as to keep them from Safire’s view. She would’ve stood to look over his shoulder if she hadn’t thought it rude. After a few anxious moments, he turned to face her, presenting two long pointed sticks spearing a variety of colorful, though exotic, vegetables and fruits. Again her host was beaming as if he’d gutted a fresh salmon.
“That looks really good,” she said.
His lips slipped crooked. “You’re jesting.”
“No, sir.” Her fingers crossed her heart. “I’m entirely sincere.”
Aquarius jerked his head in the direction of the fire, inviting her over. “Come on. We have to roast them. And there’s plenty more, so don’t be shy.”
The evening elapsed with the moon climbing steadily away from the waters, following an arched path overhead. They sat in the sand side-by-side under starlight for hours, feeding the fire whenever a crackling of embers threatened to call it a night. At times conversation came in hushed expressions, but both seemed at ease in moments of silence. When Aquarius asked her about the stars that she frequently crooked her neck to gaze at, she admitted a hobby of hers was finding memorized constellations. To impress him, she pointed to where his constellation twinkled overhead. He moved his face closer to look from her vantage point.
“That’s Aquarius, right there. The god of rain. There’s his body, and his arm reaches out in sort of an arch…..one, two, three stars.”
“Hmmmm,” he hummed. “My very own place in the heavens. And a god, even! Who would’ve thought?”
As soon as she turned to look at him, to question whether he had found the constellation or not, he leaned in and kissed her briefly on the lips. Her green eyes flashed wide momentarily, startled, staring at a dark gaze that seemed intent on reading her reaction. The very second she wished for another kiss he moved in. His were sweet and tender gifts of affection, molding his mouth in response to her slightest shifts. The more she seemed desirous to taste his lips, the longer he left them pressed against her mouth. His hand moved to brush along her cheek, his fingers circling her ear before weaving themselves into her curls. She, likewise, lifted a hand meant to slip around his neck, but he caught her fingers and placed them against the back of his head where she grabbed onto his hair. Time stood still in paradise. Not even the fire dared to burn out.
It was Aquarius who ended their tender affections with a light, throaty laugh. Their foreheads met, both parties smiling.
“What’s so funny?” Safire had to ask.
“Would you believe I haven’t kissed a woman in ages?”
“No, sir, I don’t believe it.”
“It’s true. And I must say, I don’t recall any kisses being as desirable as yours.”
Her heart thrummed, nearly leaping into her throat for joy. “You’re terribly free with the flattery, sir.”
“But never insincere.”
He planted a kiss on her freckled nose and then shifted his position to hold her in his arms. She dropped her head on his shoulder, content. Now close to him, her eyes glanced to notice something on his neck. Her first thought was claw marks. His hand immediately went to lift his shirt collar, hiding them from view.
“Scars,” he said, offering no other explanation.
She imagined a gruesome story behind such deep scratches, but didn’t dare pry.
Wordlessly, they turned their eyes to the stars and let their thoughts drift. When the fire settled to nothing but a dying heartbeat, Aquarius hugged the woman in his arms and moved his mouth to her ear.
“Safire. Go in the water with me. I promise I’ll hold onto you. I promise it will be okay.” He could feel her muscles stiffen in his arms. “I really want you to come with me, Safire……..but, you don’t have to.”
She was quiet for the longest time excepting a few quivering breaths. Eventually, the reply came in a whisper. “I just…..I can’t. I’m sorry.”
He kissed her hair. “It’s okay. Maybe another day.”
She nodded, feeling once again like an irrational coward.
“It’s time to walk you home.” Shifting his body forced her to sit up, losing the warmth of his nearness.
She nodded. Again this felt like rejection, until his hand took her by the jaw and his lips strongly assured her otherwise.
“Will you meet me for breakfast, Safire?”
She happily agreed to meet him at the same spot where they’d bumped into one another early that morning.
And so it went for the next three days, meeting for breakfasts and dinners on the same stretch of beach outside the hotel. Strawberry crepes with honey at the restaurant while basking in the sunrise. Dinner by firelight overlooking a waxing moon. Whenever a seashell caught their eyes, Aquarius stopped to pick it up, searching for a perfect specimen to offer as a souvenir. Their fingers interlocked at every opportunity while their lips shared in frequent, heart-thrumming kisses. And at each meeting, just before parting, Aquarius uttered the same fervent request.
“Safire. Go in the water with me. I promise I’ll hold onto you. I promise, I’ll never let you drown.”
Her heart ached every time his plea hit her ear. Oh, how she longed to agree to his request! How she yearned to say yes and prove herself brave, to prove herself master of fear and not slave to a childish phobia of water! Time after time she envisioned Aquarius walking her into the waves, immersing themselves in nature’s pool side-by-side and hand-in-hand. She imagined the sea as buoyant and gentle, picturing liquid arms holding her near the surface and gently swirling about her body. But the images always darkened until some ferocious sea creature or Poseidon himself ripped her from Aquarius’ arms and dragged her down to a cold, wet grave.
It was their last night together, having spent a great deal of it tasting one another’s lips by firelight, when he asked her once again to trust him.
“Safire. More than anything in the world, I wish at this moment to have you step into the water with me just once. Please, Safire. I promise I will keep you safe. I swear by the king of tritons you will not drown.”
Moisture pooled in her eyes at his earnest plea, her woe made worse by the knowledge that morning’s light would separate them……possibly forever. Dreams were a wondrous repose, but eventually reality demanded its due share of attention. She, nor her girlfriends, could afford to stay vacationing any longer. They had jobs, bills, responsibilities.
“One swim. I ask for only one, Safire. I’ll hold you close and never let you go. I promise…..I promise.”
Tears spilled over, painting luminous tracks on her cheeks. Why did Aquarius keep rehearsing this request? Why so desperate for one swim?
“If you’d come with me, your fear of water would vanish forever. I can promise you that.”
Her hands pressed tight together within his larger grasp. She bit her lip, focused on his beseeching eyes, her vision somewhat blurred by tears. His passion frightened her, perhaps even more than the idea of drowning.
“Why?” she asked. She wanted to hear the truth—a reason greater than helping her conquer a fear of drowning.
“Because,” he whispered, “because….I love you.”
That made no sense.
“Come with me.”
“I can’t do it.”
“I’m sorry, I….I can’t.”
He released her hands and wiped at her tears before she could get to them herself. “It’s okay. I understand. I do.”
Nonetheless, she felt lousy.
Silence made the night colder for the first time. It was awhile before Safire could look at the man beside her. When she did, he spoke.
“You’ll be gone tomorrow.”
She nodded that it was so. His jaw appeared to tighten at her wordless confirmation. He looked up at the stars, his eyes squinting in the direction of his constellation—the god of rain.
“We never did find a flawless shell for you to take home. You’ll be leaving without a souvenir.”
It was painful to hear his voice, how sad it sounded. Nearly as sad as she felt. “It’s okay,” she breathed.
His arm reached to wrap around her and pull her near, hugging tight for the longest time.
“Will you come here tomorrow before you leave? One last time?”
She nodded readily, agreeing to a final bereft adieu.
The morning greeted her in angry colors. A reaching sunrise seemed to extend its arms over half the ocean, reflecting crimson off sheets of gray clouds that lowered the sky. A constant cool breeze agitated the waters, influencing lines of waves to peak choppily. All the elements threatened rain. It seemed a fitting backdrop to a parting scene she was both desirous and dreading to play.
Safire pulled a jacket over her freckled arms, and hugged the material closed. With determined steps she started along the beach toward her destination. She walked faster than usual, partly due to the unpleasant weather, but mostly anxious to see Aquarius. Passing their regular breakfast haunt, she noticed that no patrons took up the deck seating. The clouds had discouraged even the most daring souls.
Safire hustled past, impatient now that she was so close. She jogged across thinning sands and stopped at the brink of their private burrow. Her heart sank when a glance down found no one there.
Carefully, she turned to descend the ledge herself. It didn’t prove as easy without Aquarius’ helping hand. She shook each foot to release granules of sand trapped in her shoes, and then stepped over to the driftwood log where she and Aquarius had spent the last few nights cuddled up together. Taking a seat, her eyes lifted skyward, staring worriedly at storm clouds that appeared to be growing more massive by the minute, swelling like thirsty sponges. It was difficult to tell which proved the greater intimidation—the ocean or the sky.
Her gaze darted to her right, lingering on the bank where she expected Aquarius to appear. Disappointed, she sighed and looked away. Her hurry to get there may have made for a longer wait.
Safire pulled her jacket more snuggly around her slender figure, hugging herself to keep warm. It didn’t seem to help, so she stood and paced in order to fend off the chill. Her footsteps took her to the edge of the fire pit filled with days of accumulated ashes. On the far side of the pit, placed tight against the outside ring of rocks, sat a large conch shell. It was a pink and cream-colored cone speckled with brown flecks. Blunt spikes bordered the widest end.
Safire crouched to pick it up. The shape appeared whole. Perfect. No cracks or broken edges flawed any portion of the shell. She noticed something tucked into the protective hollow—a discolored roll of paper. Her brow wrinkled and she bit down on her lip, wondering what this meant. Pinching her fingers, she pulled the tiny scroll from its keeping place and set the conch shell on the ground. The paper felt dry in her hands, yet rough and crinkled, suggesting it had previously been wet. A message appeared on the unrolled page, written in attentive penmanship. Safire dropped to her knees and swallowed hard before reading the words.
My Dearest Safire,
It was near impossible for me to say goodbye to you last night—to let you walk out of my arms, out of my life, possibly forever. I fear that if I were to hold you again this morning I’d not possess the power to let you go. To do so would be torture. Oh, how I wish you would stay. How I wish you would run to the ocean and shout my name to the waves! But I understand. I do.
My heart aches nonetheless, for I have never crossed a heart as innocent and delicate and beautiful as yours. Knowing what a treasure you are only makes it that much harder for me to let you walk away. Forgive me for being the coward. Forgive me for not stepping forth and facing you today.
Your life must be of your own choosing. It must be so. But, if you find yourself near the ocean again, blow on this shell and think of me. Think hard of me, Safire. I promise, you will be in my thoughts always.
All my love,
“My Aquarius,” she whispered, touched by his closing inscription.
Her teardrops splashed against the page just as the rain began to drizzle. Quickly, she let the paper in her hands recoil as it wanted to. She shoved it in her jacket for safe keeping, knowing how the coming days would find her rereading the penned message a multitude of times. Scooping up the gifted conch shell, she stood and faced the ocean. Rows of angry waves made it appear more frightening than any day she’d previously witnessed the monster. It seemed a crazy thing to shout out his name to the ocean, but if there was a chance that Aquarius was watching her, hidden, would the gesture make him appear? Would his arms and lips come to warmly greet her? Or would it be torture, as he had written, to touch him, smell him, melt into him only to say goodbye again?
Safire brought the conch shell up to her eyes. Raindrops splattered on contact with its glossy surface. How precious this souvenir would be to her. She brought the narrow end close to her lips, pausing before actually forming her mouth to the piece. What if she did blow? Would he hear the dissonant cry and come running? Closing her eyes as she sucked in a breath of air, the act produced a sob. She pressed the treasure against her chest. The rain poured heavier, large beads crashing and rolling over her face. Her eyes lifted, blinking into the sky. The clouds appeared like smeared streaks of blackness drawn earthward. A few minutes more and she would be soaked to the bone.
Quickly, she climbed the soil ledge, now a slippery mudslide. She managed, with effort, to scramble out and stand on the brink. Her feet pushed against the wet sand as she started into a run toward the hotel where Brook and Jen would be waiting to drive her home. She told herself it was for the best. In a few weeks this vacation would be tucked away in the back of her mind as an enchanted dream. An unforgettable week in paradise.Safire pulled the hood of her jacket up and over her head, but to no avail. For the clouds let loose as she ran away, dumping their store of water as if the god of rain had only one intent—to drown her.
My love for you reaches beyond the borders of continents,
so vast in scope I would cross oceans to be with you.
Yes, but does that same love penetrate so deep
as to dare thee to sink to the oceans’ depths to find me?
~ Richelle E. Goodrich
Copyright 2013 Richelle E. Goodrich
Copyright 2013 Richelle E. Goodrich