By Richelle E. Goodrich
“All truth starts out as a wish; hence, reality is born from fairytale.”
Five weeks passed under a constant drizzle after the three girls returned home from their vacation getaway on the coast. Five weeks, two days, nineteen-and-a-half hours without sunbeams cutting through a stagnant blanket of gray clouds. Though her eyes habitually looked skyward, Safire hardly noticed the lack of sunlight. She couldn’t get Aquarius off her mind or out of her daydreams. Granted, Jen and Brook didn’t make it any easier for her, the way they constantly found reasons to bring up the fact that, “getting his phone number wouldn’t have been that difficult, you know.”
“Seriously, Saf. I hate seeing you brood over a guy like this.”
“I’m not brooding.”
“I don’t know if I’ve ever seen her brood this long over a guy,” Brook told Jen, reflecting on the timid girl’s short list of past suitors.
Safire dared to raise her voice just a little, hoping for a gentle hint of conviction in her tone. “I’m not brooding.”
“Well, I would be,” Jen admitted before pointing out for the hundredth time. “That man was sexy-gorgeous and sexy-charming and definitely more mature than you. I don’t know what in the world you did to snag him, but he was totally into you.”
Safire could feel her face flush hot with embarrassment. “I didn’t do anything; he just wanted company, that’s all. He was there on business and didn’t care to eat alone. I mean, it only makes sense. I saw him at breakfast time and dinner time—mealtimes, that was it.”
“I wouldn’t’ve minded keeping his company anytime,” Jen sighed dreamily.
Safire shrugged a shoulder as if she didn’t care. “It wouldn’t have bothered me.”
Jen and Brook cast a skeptical glance at one another. “Yeah, right,” the girls voiced with simultaneous sarcasm. The two snickered at their friend’s expense, certain her tense mannerisms and long face conveyed a totally different story.
Brook reached to manually lift the corners of Safire’s mouth. The effort was unappreciated.
“Quit brooding, Saf.”
“I told you, I’m not brooding.”
“Oh yeah? Then why do we never see a smile on that freckled face of yours anymore?”
Safire grimaced at the mention of her freckles. It was her least favorite distinctive trait, other than the humiliating fact that she was deathly afraid of water—more specifically of drowning. Aquarius had liked her freckles, though. He’d called them golden flecks fallen from her gold hair, sprinkled like diamonds to sparkle on her skin. The memory of his flattering words made her sigh sadly. She snapped out of it in time to find two pitying expressions aimed at her.
“If that isn’t a classic case of brooding, I don’t know what is.”
“Maybe it’s worse. Maybe she’s mourning.”
“I’m not mourning,” Safire insisted irritably, “and I’m not brooding either.” She stood up as if to leave, but then remembered they were in her apartment. The only other thing she could think to do was pretend to straighten up a perfectly tidy room and ignore the scrutiny of her friends. Perhaps shifting the topic of conversation would work.
“I read in the news that the beach we stayed at closed due to shark sightings. I hope no one got hurt before they vacated the area.”
Brook waved it off as nothing. “Wade told me that kinda thing happens all the time. Some kook surfer imagined a couple of big tailfins, and suddenly the beach was evacuated. Precautionary measures.”
“Wade’s still calling you?”
Brook blushed, feigning a minor, lovesick swoon. “Yes, yes he is……because he has my phone number which I gave to him.”
Safire rolled her eyes. Hint noted—yet again. “I told you, Aquarius never asked me for my phone number.”
Jen and Brook shook their heads in a disappointed manner and spoke lowly to one another. “She’s never gonna get it.”
“Nope. She’s hopeless.”
“Total lost cause.”
Shifting her posture to make her sit up taller, Jen proudly announced, “Troy called me last night. We talked for two hours. He said he really misses me.”
“Wade said the same thing to me,” Brook chimed in. “He mentioned maybe taking a trip this way one of these days. I wish it wasn’t such a long drive to go see them; I’d love to visit the coast again. Wouldn’t that be fun?”
Safire mentally muted the conversation as Brook and Jen dove into comparing enviable notes about their long-distance relationships. She was actually amazed that Wade and Troy had kept in touch for so long after spending only a week of vacation time in the girls’ company. But what wasn’t to miss about Brook and Jen? The two were fun, smart, young, available, freckle-free, tanned beauties. A frown naturally tugged on Safire’s lips as she wondered if Aquarius ever entertained even a passing thought about her. How she wished she’d been sensible enough—brave enough—to get his phone number. But it had never seemed like the kind of thing to request from him, as if owning a cell phone was contrary to his nature.
Her thoughts turned to the souvenir he’d left her—the conch shell with its written treasure tucked inside—the last line in particular…
‘I promise, you will be in my thoughts always.’
He’d promised he would think of her. Maybe it was true; maybe he did. But what did it matter if they were now forever apart? The question brought up another curious line penned by Aquarius, one she’d read over many times.
‘…if you find yourself near the ocean again, blow on this shell and think of me. Think hard of me, Safire. ’
What good would that do? The idea was probably nothing more than a sweet sentiment jotted down with no real meaning other than to form fantasies in her dreams where she might call on a lost love. Most likely, Aquarius was a seasoned romantic who knew how to play a young, naïve girl bearing an obvious crush on him. It was silly—an act that would produce no real results. Obviously, it was sentimental gibberish. Without a doubt Aquarius had moved on to his next work assignment and was busy charming another unsuspecting female whose company he wished to keep—some pretty, young thing who would prevent his evenings from passing in loneliness. He was a charmer by his own admittance.
‘But never insincere.’
Never? Could she believe that?
Safire groaned at her own wishful thinking. What did it matter anyway? Aquarius was long gone; he wouldn’t be calling on her. And attempting to call him by blowing on a conch shell—the very idea was ludicrous.
The sky cleared up on a Sunday afternoon. Safire noticed it when she opened her front door for Brook and Jen. They bounced into her apartment, both grinning wide and ready to burst.
“You’re never going to guess what we have to tell you!”
“Go ahead, go ahead, guess!”
“Yes, yes, Saf, take a guess!”
Safire glanced from one eager face to the next, noting the shimmer of enthusiasm in their eyes. She made a reasonable deduction based on the topic that had dominated their latest conversations. “Wade and Troy are coming here to see you.”
Jen bit her lip, still smiling, while Brook shook her head in quick, short jerks.
Safire took another stab. “You’re going to the coast to see them?”
The giddy girls jumped up and down, bursting out, “Yes, yes, you got it! How’d you know?”
“Oh….lucky guess.” Safire couldn’t help but smile at their animated delight.
She was dragged to the couch in her own front room and made to sit between the pair. Jen and Brook dropped onto the sofa on bended knees, facing Safire from either side, taking turns spilling all the details while bouncing excitedly on the cushions.
“Wade called me and mentioned that a three-day weekend was coming up.”
“Yeah, Labor Day weekend.”
“And he said that his friend, Troy—”
“My Troy,” Jen cut in, beaming, pointing at her own chest.
“Of course,” Brook groaned, too elated to manage a cross tone. “Anyway, Wade said that Troy said that his parents own a cute, little cottage on the beach that was supposed to be rented out for the holiday—”
“—except now it’s going to sit empty because someone died or got divorced or whatever….I don’t remember.”
“So he offered it to us!”
“Yeah, for nothin’!”
“We get an entire, adorable, beachfront cottage to ourselves for less than a penny a day for the whole three-day weekend!” Jen and Brook squealed simultaneously.
“Isn’t that great, Saf?” They ceased rejoicing to look expectantly at their hostage, waiting for a decent reaction.
“That is great—Wade, Troy, and you two sharing a cottage for three days—that’s um, really great!”
Safire felt a weak slap on her shoulder. “Don’t be silly. Wade and Troy have their own place to stay. It’ll be a girl’s retreat—just us three.”
“Yes, Saf, we want you to come too.”
“Right.” A note of doubt came out stronger than Safire had intended.
“We do!” Brook insisted. “I mean, of course we’ll spend time with the guys, but we want you there, Saf. Please? It’ll be fun, like vacation.”
“And maybe Aquarius will show up.”
Safire flashed a glance at Jen who smiled crookedly, knowingly, in response. Jen played on that look of hope.
“He’s an undersea hire who loves the ocean—you said so yourself. And it’s only been a few weeks. There’s a good chance he’ll still be working in the area.”
Brook joined in. “He’s probably hanging out on the beach pining over you this very minute.”
“Yeah,” agreed Jen. “He’s probably brooding, the same way you’ve been brooding over him ever since we left the coast.”
“Hoping you’ll come back—”
“—to fall into his lonely arms—”
“—where he’ll hug you and squeeze you and kiss you all over—”
“Okay, enough! You two are awful.”
“So you’ll come with us?”
Safire sighed, thinking it over. The lure of possibly seeing Aquarius again was too tempting to turn down, no matter how infinitesimal the actual chances.
“Fine, yes. But only if you promise to stop pestering me.”
“We promise, we promise,” the two declared. They bounced on the sofa, once again celebrating the upcoming trip. Jen added an afterthought.
“And you know, Saf, if it does turn out that Aquarius is gone….well….Troy happens to have a cousin who might hang out with us for a while. He’s in law school. Maybe you two will hit it off.”
Safire managed a feeble smile at the suggestion, but she couldn’t imagine anyone filling the shoes of her Aquarius. Anticipation was already building in her chest, despite the fact that the reasonable part of her brain calculated a slim chance they’d ever experience a coincidental meeting again. Checking her calendar she realized there were two full weeks before Labor Day weekend. That was a long time to anxiously await the opportunity to test out a crazy notion brewing in her head.
Two days before the Friday of Labor Day weekend (which Safire had requested off at the law firm where she was employed) a knock sounded at her front door late in the evening. Seeing through a peep hole that it was Brook, Safire turned the knob and pulled open the door. A knot formed in the pit of her stomach upon first sight of her best friend. There was no bounce in her step, and despite a reapplication of makeup, it was fairly evident she’d been crying.
Safire followed her slouching friend into the front room where Brook fell into the corner of the couch and dropped her face into a throw pillow. Safire stood and listened to the muffled screams endured by the puffy cushion. When Brook finally ceased, her observant friend ventured the obvious question.
“Is something wrong?”
There was a drawn-out, dismal moan. “Yes, Safire. I’m really sorry.”
Hesitation preceded the next obvious question. “Sorry…..for what?”
Brook wiped under her eyes at a fresh rise of moisture. Her gaze remained fixed on the pillow in her lap. “The trip is off. I’m sorry if this causes you any inconvenience.”
Safire felt her heart—buoyed by hope for nearly two weeks now—deflate and sink. She’d entertained far too hazardously the fantasy of meeting up with Aquarius again. And now all hope was to be extinguished because of….why?
“Why?” she breathed aloud, unable to do anything but stand in place like a rock pillar.
Brook clenched her jaw and glanced up at the ceiling, avoiding eye contact. The move exposed heavily bloodshot eyes. Safire felt a swell of sympathy for her friend until she spoke up.
“Because all men are scum, that’s why. You’re lucky that smooth-talking Romeo, Aquarius, didn’t get your number; he would’ve broken your heart after stringing you along with false flattery and long-distance promises he never meant to keep. Every decent, respectable woman is better off without a man—better off not being jerked around by those cheating, double-crossing, two-timing con artists!”
Safire tangled up her face and pressed both hands against her stomach. In no way could she imagine Aquarius living up to such a harsh description. She was unsure of what to say or what to ask of her friend, but Brook didn’t wait for a plea to continue.
“Wade called to see if we were still planning on coming for the weekend. I, of course, excitedly told him yes—as if we hadn’t discussed it just two days ago! He acted like everything was okay—said we were still invited to stay at Troy’s parents’ beach house—but he didn’t sound very enthusiastic. Actually, he sounded bummed about it, so I pressed him to tell me what was bothering him. Finally, after grilling him, he admitted there was a problem. ‘A minor glitch’, he said. Yeah, right. Well, come to find out Troy’s been seeing his ex-girlfriend behind Jen’s back, and now, apparently, they’re an item….again. No one was planning on saying a word to Jen! The coward was going to feign the flu and avoid her so he could spend the entire weekend cheating on her!”
“That’s awful,” Safire said, and then cautiously asked, “but, they were still willing to let you use the cottage for the weekend?”
“Yes, and I nearly agreed to go because I wanted to see Wade. It didn’t occur to me he was just as bad as Troy.”
Safire’s eyebrows slanted. “What do you mean?”
“The jerk actually tried to defend his cheating friend’s behavior! ‘Troy didn’t mean for this to happen,’ he said. ‘He’d never really gotten over his past girlfriend’, he said. ‘You can’t force a person to love someone or to stop loving someone,’ he said. I couldn’t believe it! I told him those were lousy excuses for complete deceit and betrayal. He came back with, ‘It’s not betrayal if you’re not in a real relationship; all they ever shared were phone calls.’ I tried to set him straight because that is most certainly not the only thing they ever shared. They exchanged words of promise and love, heartfelt words that insinuated an exclusive relationship regardless of whether or not it was long-distance.”
Brook folded her arms across her chest and hugged herself. Safire’s heart ached watching her struggle not to tear up.
“Wade told me the biggest problem with women is we read things into men’s words that aren’t there.” Brook turned her head and spoke at the wall, wiping at a spilt tear. “He said, ‘Long-distance relationships never work out anyway, everyone knows that.’ So I told him exactly what he could do with his cell phone to make sure he didn’t waste any more minutes on our pathetic, long-distance relationship since it was doomed to failure, according to him. And I’m pretty sure I was explicit enough that he didn’t have to read anything into my words.”
With the story out, Brook broke down and cried. Safire was quick to move from the spot she’d been rigidly standing to sit at her best friend’s side. The two hugged as a short session of weeping worked its way through.
“Oh, Brook, it’ll be okay,” Safire breathed repeatedly. “It’ll be okay.”
Eventually, the heartbroken girl pushed away to rise and search for a tissue. Safire kept seated, weighted by her own heavy heart. How stupid was it to ache over losing a shot-in-the-dark chance to run into Aquarius again?
“I’m sorry, Saf. I know you were looking forward to this trip.”
“I was, sort of,” Safire admitted. “I took the whole day off Friday so we could leave early.”
“Crap, that’s right, you used a vacation day for us.” Brook smacked a hand against her forehead. “Ugh! I’m so sorry.”
It was dead quiet for a long moment before a mumbled suggestion broke the uncomfortable pause.
“You could go by yourself. I mean if you really had your heart set on it.”
Safire felt a flutter in her chest as hope slipped in again. But wait…
“What about you and Jen?”
Brook managed a tiny, crooked smile. “I don’t think we’re invited anymore. Probably more like ‘banished forever’. But not you, Saf—Wade loves you. Just call and ask if he or Troy mind you coming down alone. I’m sure no one will care, especially given that the house is sitting empty.”
Safire swallowed hard, fearful and yet desirous. “I, um…I can’t go alone.”
“Sure you can. Besides, the beach will be full of people. If you want company you’re bound to meet someone—maybe even a certain tall, dark, and handsome someone?”
Safire’s cheeks would’ve blushed if not for the anxiety stealing her color. She yearned to go search the shores for Aquarius, but to drive that distance alone…
Brook went to crouch before her friend. With a hand on each knee she convinced her to brave an adventure.
“Don’t think, just do it. You have a cell phone if you need to call for anything. Wade and Troy will be there, so you’ll know at least two people. Don’t worry about me or Jen, we’ll live. I’ll feel like a total heel for ruining your weekend and wasting your vacation day if you don’t go, Saf. Just go. Go. Go!”
“Okay, okay.” Safire made a face that seemed to shift through a range of emotions in a heartbeat—anxious, excited, sick, and frightened altogether. “Fine….I’ll go.”
A brief call to Troy granted her full permission to use the empty beach house; he even politely added that it was okay for Jen and Brook to come along. Safire thanked him kindly.
That night she dreamt of Aquarius. It was a sweet yet bizarre dream where the two were wrapped up in each other’s arms, kissing, so entirely absorbed in a moment of bliss that neither was aware or even remotely concerned about the ocean swallowing them whole and casting them to the depths of a bottomless sea. Safire awoke in the morning gasping for air, grateful to discover it was indeed air and not water surrounding her.
That evening after work she packed her things in a little two-door sedan and then tried to get some sleep. After tossing and turning for most of the night, she decidedly slipped out of bed well before sunrise. There was nothing keeping her from leaving—no traveling partners to wait for and no reason to torture herself any longer with an extended delay. Locking up her apartment, Safire turned her eyes skyward where she found the constellation, Aquarius, and smiled at the god of rain.
“Please, please, Aquarius, meet me there,” she whispered to the stars.
Twelve hours later, having stopped necessarily at gas stations only twice, she rolled into the same familiar seaside tourist town and followed directions to a cute, little getaway cottage reserved the entire weekend just for her. It was an adorable beach house separate from public sands, yet within easy view of the crowds. A wide, covered deck extended from the house toward the ocean, equipped with cushioned patio furniture. The key to the lock, left under a twisted stump of driftwood on the front porch, worked without a snag.
Safire entered the front room, dropped her baggage, and then immediately headed for the rear deck. She was down the back steps and hustling toward the beach when it occurred to her she’d just finished a daylong trip without once stopping to freshen up. A quick brush through her hair and a little mouthwash seemed worth the time.
Swiveling around on her heels, hoping she hadn’t forgotten to pack her toothbrush, Safire gasped, nearly shrieking at the sudden presence of a tall, male figure.
“Sorry, Saffy, sorry.” Wade had two hands raised as if warding off a real scream from the girl. “I didn’t mean to startle you, I swear, honest, but you seemed like you were in such a hurry; I was trying to catch up.”
Safire nodded, breathing a word of receipt for his apology. When her heart settled down, she managed a timid smile.
Wade also appeared uneasy. He stammered out an explanation for his being there. “I uh, I just wanted to welcome you back to town, and……and to see if you had everything you need…or if you needed something, you know…..else. Something you’d forgotten. Like a beach towel or a bathing suit or uh, I don’t know….stuff you might’ve forgotten.”
Safire nodded her understanding. “Thanks, Wade. I’m good…..I mean as long as it’s still okay I’m here.”
“Yeah, yeah, of course! All three of you could’ve come; that would’ve been great, or uh…fine. But I see you came alone?”
Safire nodded that his observation was correct.
Her tall, lanky greeter shrugged his shoulders indifferently, but a sag at the corners of his mouth told a different story. He took a step backwards as if he would leave but then paused, reconsidering. He sighed heavily before speaking up again.
“Look, Saf, I’m sorry about this whole mess. I never meant for things to turn out like this. I really, really like Brook, that’s the truth. But Troy—he’s my best friend, even if he is a completely insensitive idiot. I wasn’t trying to make Brook mad, and I’m truly sorry for that, but I can’t be expected to badmouth my buddy. Friends are supposed to support each other. Do you understand—even a little bit?”
Wade screwed up his face in such a pathetically vulnerable way it was difficult for her not to laugh. “I do understand.”
His countenance washed smooth with relief at her words.
“And Wade, I think Brook would understand too if you explained it to her just like you did to me.” Safire watched him swallow hard, considering her advice.
His head gave a vague nod. “Yeah, maybe. Anyway, I’m glad you made it here safe and sound. I can drop by and check on you now and then if you’d like—you know, in case you’re bored or want company or need the boogie man chased off.”
They both chuckled, but Safire agreed to have him or Troy check in on her occasionally. Wade took a few steps rearward toward the driveway, moving and speaking in a more relaxed manner while retreating.
“Hey, Saffy, we’re having a bonfire tomorrow night on the beach—free dinner, lobsters included. You’re invited if you want to come meet some of the gang.”
“Thanks. I’ll think about it.” She slowly climbed the steps onto the deck, stopping in place when Wade came to a halt a few yards off. His face tightened up again.
“Oh and uh, if you were thinking of looking for that guy, Aquarius……..well, just a heads up—I haven’t seen him anywhere around since you gals left here last time. I’ve kinda been keeping an eye out because Brook asked me too. She wanted me to get his phone number for you.” Wade conveyed his sincerest apology in a gesture. “Sorry, Saf. But hey….Troy has a cousin visiting this weekend, Callan—real nice guy, good sense of humor, not so fond of the water, kinda like you.”
“Oh, ’kay, uh, well maybe.”
“Think about it. And enjoy your time on the beach today. Hunt me down if you wanna go snorkeling!”
She hurried inside, listening to Wade’s tires squeal their departing goodbye. Her back rested against the door after it closed, one hand grasping the pull handle. Her gaze locked onto the pile of baggage she’d dumped on the carpet across the room. It was the only untidy spot in this minimally-decorated, open arrangement. The house was dim indoors. It was empty and cold, much like Wade’s news had left her feeling. Discouragement made her slip toward the floor before catching herself from sliding clear down. What a waste of time to have driven hours to get there when a simple call to Wade could’ve provided the answer to her question—was Aquarius gone?
She hung her head, accepting reality. Why had she dared to believe her latest dreams were actually beckoning portents? Only in fairytales did princes, kings, and gods wait around for the return of a woman. It had been a longshot that his job had kept him stationed nearby, but apparently it wasn’t so. Recognizing this likelihood beforehand—knowing the depth of disappointment it would bring—didn’t make the truth any easier to bear.
Safire glanced up at a beige loveseat pinned between matching end tables. She moved toward them—forgetting why she’d stepped back inside—and prepared to plop down on the cushions. Her sandals hit the edge of the couch when she kicked them off, but before taking a seat she paused, remembering her plan had been to look for a toothbrush. It seemed pointless now, unless she planned to kiss her pillow later on. Glancing at the pile of luggage, she recollected something she had made a point to pack. Her heart beat faster just thinking about it, and within seconds the treasure was freed from its protective packaging—Aquarius’ conch shell.
The words penned in his letter rang out loud in her mind. ‘…if you find yourself near the ocean again, blow on this shell and think of me. Think hard of me, Safire. ’
This was the reason she’d come. It was crazy, yes. It was ludicrous, absurd, senseless, insane, whatever laughable term anyone wanted to call it; nonetheless, the fact was every fantasy about the man whose likeness she’d branded in a constellation would never be put to rest, never fade under a smoldering ember of hope, until she did as the letter instructed.
Safire freshened up quickly. With the treasure tucked in her handbag, the anxious girl scurried across the back deck, down a set of steps, and headed off barefoot for the beach.
The sun hung at her back, not yet low enough to bleed colors into the sky but clearly heralding evening hours. Safire walked the long stretch of seashore, purposefully steering near groups of people, her eyes alert and observant. Normally, she would watch the clouds overhead or gawk at the broad ocean, imagining misted sailboats skimming through fog or sea monsters lurking in the depths, stalking, waiting to snatch surfers from curling waves. But today her eyes were intent on taking in every figure within sight—male, female, moving, stationary, on land, in the water. Quite possibly, Wade had been careless in his search for Aquarius and failed to recognize his profile from a distance. No one’s desire to find the man could compare to her own. It wasn’t until the air chilled to a point she longed for a jacket that Safire gave up her search. Noticing how the sun had turned red, sinking behind public resorts, Safire headed for the empty stretch of shoreline fronting her beach house.
Her fingers slipped inside her shoulderbag. A spiked edge of shell rubbed against her thumb, feeling like a row of teeth on a hair comb. With darkness looming, and her hunt ending unfruitful, it seemed the time had come to utilize the conch shell—one last, crazy option. It was an act she would perform on an isolated section of beach. No one need witness her insanity.
Far from open view, Safire stepped toward the reaching tide to where her footprints vanished in moist sand. At the water’s fringe where airy foam came to die, she stopped and planted both feet apart. A lucent, pale-coral moon greeted her from the far side of the world, so nearly-spherical it appeared whole. The conch shell came out of hiding and Safire gripped it with both hands. She closed her eyes, remembering, and thought hard of Aquarius. His face took shape immediately, including a perceptive smile that always rested on his lips. She breathed in the memory of his smell, how he reminded her of the briny ocean. She imagined the soft and low way his voice touched her ears with every charming phrase formed by his tongue. She pictured him standing before her with his long, black curls and eyes like the night, deep and penetrating and full of mystery. She thought so hard she could feel his touch on her cheek as if it were real—careful yet sure. She twisted her neck before opening her eyes, hoping to feel his fingers brush across her lips. But there was no one behind her.
Suffering a slump in the pit of her stomach, she brought the conch shell up to her mouth, tentatively placing the narrow end against her lips. Mustering up the courage to cross a clear line of reason, yet fearing that exhausting this last resort would crumble all hope of ever laying eyes on her Aquarius again, Safire drew in a deep breath and blew. The sound was anything but lovely—a shrill, discordant bleat. It was a pitiful cry that mimicked the desperation governing her actions. Safire glanced around, partially looking for curious observers but mostly hoping against all odds to glimpse the man whose image was engraved in her mind. Only the moon’s face stared back at her, blushing as if embarrassed by such silly behavior.
Again she blew on the conch shell……and then again and again and again. And why not? No dignity remained to salvage. No hope either.
She inhaled deeply at the final bleat, feeling the cool, ocean air enter her lungs. It tasted of him. On the brink of tears, Safire held her breath, feeling the utter fool. A sudden breeze whipped strands of golden hair in her face which she habitually brushed behind one ear. The same ear tilted, suddenly alert at a low-spoken sound—the utterance of her name. Her eyes widened, and she twirled about in the sand, dropping her cherished shell in the process.
Aquarius stood on the beach before her. He looked exactly as he had the first time she’d laid eyes on him—tan shorts, wet hair, high collar and all.
Safire raised a hand as if to touch his skin, to check that his presence was indeed real and not some ambitious dream, but she stopped short, mortified. Her eyes dropped to the conch shell at her feet which Aquarius stooped to pick up.
She stammered an explanation for her bizarre behavior. “Y..you said in your letter……y..you wrote that if I were ever at the beach again…...y..you wrote to do this.”
“H..how is it possible….?” Entirely dumbfounded by his unexpected appearance, she couldn’t form words to ask more.
He smiled as if amused by the question or by her ineptness. “I must confess, I saw you on the beach earlier, but I was in the water at the time. I couldn’t chase you down. Then I heard you call me with this—” He lifted the shell in his hands. “—and I knew to follow the sound.”
“It was crazy of me, I know…”
“It was touching.”
Safire looked into his eyes, searching for sincerity, and believed what she saw. Here he was—her god of rain, her constellation, her motive for folly—so close that his warmth and smell fused with her own aura. She yearned to close the short gap between them, to step into him, but her legs felt paralyzed, her feet cemented as if the shore had turned to quicksand.
She uttered the truth. “I missed you so much.”
Again he smiled, but the expression was void of all humor. “I missed you too. Terribly.”
Then all at once she was in his arms, unsure of who had moved. The conch shell fell to the ground as they kissed under coral moonlight, reacquainted just as if time had never come between them, not caring at all if witnessing eyes noticed their intimacy. When Aquarius brought his lips to the top of her head, she hugged him close, hearing his heart beat like a bass drum in her ear. He wrapped his arms around her possessively.
“I can’t tell you how much it means to me that you’ve returned.”
Safire spoke against his chest, warmed both inside and out. “I didn’t think you’d be here. I was certain you’d left weeks ago, but I couldn’t quit thinking of you, and I couldn’t call because I never got your number, so I had to come, just to see…just to try….”
“And I’m so glad you did. I’ve not been able to leave this place after letting you go in the cowardly manner I arranged. I’m sorry I didn’t meet you in person that morning…”
“No, it’s not okay, but at the time I wasn’t sure I could bear another parting. The thought of having to watch you walk out of my sight, knowing I couldn’t chase after you…..it seemed an excruciating form of torture. It’s been so hard having only your memory to keep me company.” Aquarius took her gently by each side of the head and turned her face up to gaze upon. “But you’re here now. You’ve come back to me.”
“Yes.” Her head nodded as best it could in his grasp. “I’ve never missed another soul like I’ve missed you.”
He smiled happily at her words.
“Can I please have your phone number so I can call you from now on rather than feel my only choice is to blow on that awful-sounding horn?”
He chuckled lightly and dropped his hands from her face, taking her by the waist to walk side by side. “We’ll take care of that later, Safire. Right now I’m starving for some dinner, and I’m betting you haven’t eaten either.”
“I haven’t,” she admitted.
“Please, let me provide for you then.”
Safire recalled how sweetly unusual those words had sounded the first time he’d said them to her, offering to provide the first of many shared meals. “I would like that.”
They walked a few yards before she realized her conch shell had been left behind in the sand. “Wait….my shell.” She attempted to turn around, but Aquarius kept a hold of her.
“You won’t need it again,” he said, “I promise.”
“But I want it; it’s dear to me.”
“Very well.” He motioned for her to stay put while he returned for her treasure. She thanked him and tucked it safely away in her bag.
Dinner was a vegetarian plate at a table outside their old breakfast haunt. Familiar white Christmas lights shone prettily on the deck, spiraled around a number of thick, wooden pillars. Safire relished the sound of his voice whenever Aquarius spoke. The silence too felt precious. Frequently, her eyes strayed to the rising moon, watching it glimmer a luminescent white now that it had climbed nearer to the stars. More than once she smiled at romantic thoughts—all of it too perfect not to be a dream.
“This day has turned out better than I ever expected,” she said.
Aquarius squeezed the freckled fingers entwined with his own. “I know.”
The moon was at its height when Aquarius walked Safire along a span of quiet beach. Unconcealed by clouds, it appeared like a small hole letting only minimal light into a blackened dome. The tide was rising, extending further inland at every stretch of the ocean’s arm. When a wave unrolled ashore, reaching far enough to wet her bare feet, Safire danced on tiptoe trying to avoid it. She could only manage to swing around to Aquarius’ other side; he wouldn’t release her hand.
“You know the water won’t hurt you, Safire.”
“Yes, I know…..I’m just…um…” Her face turned red, embarrassed by an enduring childhood phobia. Looking down, she noticed how his sandals kept his own feet dry. “It’s not like you’re getting wet.”
He smiled that perceptive smile of his. “I’ve been submerged underwater most of the day. How about you?”
Her shoulders rose, thinking quickly for a wise answer. “I didn’t have an opportunity; I just got here.”
“There’s opportunity now.” He didn’t go on to make the request he’d made every night during their previous time together. She waited, expecting him to invite her into the water, but he didn’t. Eventually, she answered his silence, certain of what was on his mind.
“If I could swim without fear, Aquarius…”
He interrupted her. “I’m not asking you to take a swim with me.”
Her eyes pulsed wide, both surprised and confused. “But…you asked me to every day before.”
“I know. And I realize it was cruel to pressure you so strongly. I only did so because I was certain if you were to enter the water with me, just once, your fears would cease.”
“I doubt that.”
Her eyes scrunched tight regarding him, wondering at such confidence. If only she felt capable of suppressing the panic that consumed her at even a passing thought of merging with the water.
“You don’t have to swim with me, Safire, but it would make me very happy to simply see you get your feet wet without scuttling away. Do you think you could do that?”
“Just get my feet wet? That’s all?”
“Yes. That’s all.”
They’d halted their walk. Aquarius stood watching her, anticipating an answer. It seemed like a reasonable compromise, far easier than embracing the ocean. She wanted so badly to do it—to prove she was at least slightly courageous and at the same time make him happy.
“I can do that,” she uttered, and then whispered to herself, “I hope.” Her head nodded assuredly to instill further confidence as she turned to face the ocean. The scene was like a black pit of tar blending into the night’s sky. Her imagination conjured up an awful image of the sticky stuff snatching her ankles, traveling up her legs, unwilling to let go.
“Don’t look at anything but your feet, Safire. Concentrate on your feet and nothing else. Dip your toes in the water. It won’t harm you, it will only caress you. Feel how warm and gentle and safe the ocean is.”
“Safe,” she repeated doubtingly. The word seemed inaccurate. Safe things didn’t drown people.
She focused on her bare feet peppered with freckles, determined to keep both eyes fixed on her toes. Aquarius assisted by voicing instructions that seemed easy enough to follow. His words fell on her ears like soft, low whispers that seemed to float in the breeze past her shoulders. The harder she concentrated on his voice, the more intimate and persuasive it felt. Anxiety that normally tensed every muscle in her body seemed to melt like wax, dripping away impotent. While the air grew cooler, the water remained warm. And it was gentle, languid, pooled at her ankles—no real threat at all.
She pressed forward, taking small steps at Aquarius’ insistence. Her mind fixed onto his simple commands, allowing them to direct her moves. His tone offered comfort…..like the warm water now pooled at her calves—no threat at all.
“You’re doing wonderfully, Safire. Take another step, yes, that’s good. The water loves your skin; it welcomes you. Feel how it kisses your legs and chases away the cold. It’s gratifying, Safire, so pleasantly desirable. Take another step.”
It was the feeling of walking on clouds in a way. Aquarius’ voice wrapped around her mind, producing a spellbinding effect that—like a sweet song—lulled to sleep all the irrational fears she’d fought for so long. Her eyes, still focused on the blurry shape of her toes in the water, fell heavily entranced and closed under the weight. The ocean had receded as if it feared her more than she feared it. A childish and silly fear. She took a bolder step forward. The water pooled near her knees—no real threat at all.
“Excellent, Safire. Imagine how the sea could hold you if you’d let it. Imagine it warming your arms as it does your legs. It’s no danger to you, Safire, I promise. Go on—go on, take another step.”
And so she did, and then another, sinking to just below her thighs in a vast, dark pool that had barely caressed her up to that point. It was background noise that broke through first, conjuring up the mental image of tall waterfalls yielding an impressive amount of spray. Her eyes opened, unable to ignore the rumble. She gasped at an incoming wave. With the trance severed, panic reclaimed her, coursing through her veins like poison. The water rose swiftly, climbing above her waist, shoving her rearward. She reached for Aquarius, expecting his helping hand to be as near as his voice had sounded, but no one was there to take her hand. Scrambling to keep upright, her feet flailed underwater, just barely managing the task. She twisted around in a suddenly hostile ocean and struggled to hurry for shore. Aquarius stood on the sand, watching…..waiting. He didn’t come forward until she reached dry land where he took her by both wrists, keeping her at bay. He offered a shower of congratulations.
“You did it! You did it, Safire, you braved the water all on your own!”
She hated the smile on his face, how he seemed blind to the danger she’d narrowly escaped. “I nearly drowned, thanks to you!”
His expression transformed in a blink, instantly concerned. “No, no, no, that’s not the case at all…”
“Yes it is!” she argued. “I almost went under!”
“But you didn’t,” he reminded her. “And if you had gone under, you would’ve resurfaced easily. You were never at risk, Safire.” He appeared sincere—his dark eyes begging her to believe him. It calmed her to some degree.
“I thought you were right behind me.”
“No. This was for you to do alone.”
“I panicked; I thought that wave would drag me under.”
“But it didn’t.” He waited a moment for her to breathe easier and then complimented her again. “You faced your fear, Safire, beautifully. You stepped into the water all on your own. And you went much further in than I ever thought you would.”
“Further than I should have.”
“Perhaps, but you did it nonetheless. You entered the ocean and you didn’t drown. You didn’t drown.”
All she could do was nod. He was right. That had always been her worst fear, and it had not come to pass. The water hadn’t come alive in the form of some hungry sea serpent determined to claim her.
“You should feel good about this achievement.”
“It was scary.”
“I know, and yet you braved it. That’s all you need to remember.”
She nodded, agreeing, but not wholeheartedly. Her hands moved to rub at her arms, hoping to find some warmth. The mild breeze felt colder now with her dress soaked.
“Come with me,” Aquarius gestured.
He took her by the hand and hurried along the beach in the direction they’d come from, past the outdoor deck still lit up in white lights, and on to an area where grass pushed through a seashore composed of more soil than sand. He stopped to help her down a low embankment that deposited them in a small, enclosed pocket of earth. The inlet housed a cold fire pit and a long hollow log meant for seating. Safire recalled the few perfect evenings they’d spent in this private hole, warmed by a glowing fire and heated kisses.
Aquarius was quick to get a blaze burning whereby Safire could dry off. It wasn’t long before she found herself in his arms again, huddled near the flames and searching the night for known constellations. Only stars claimed the sky by the time he walked her home. They stood where the sands disappeared beneath an outdoor deck and kissed goodnight. When he dropped his arms from around her as if he would go, she prevented him with a question.
“Would you like to come in for a while?”
He smiled and refused her kindly. “Thank you, but no. It’s getting late.”
The thought of him walking away bothered her. “It’s just me here, Aquarius. No one else is home.”
“Are you concerned about being alone?”
Her head shook in honest answer. “No, not really.”
Again, he smiled. “Then I will come get you in the morning.”
This news served to ease her concern over parting with him. “Alright. ‘Til morning, then.”
She was the first one waiting outside at sunrise, sitting on the deck, awing over pastel clouds as they chased away the grays of twilight. The air was completely still, and though a chill touched her skin, she could tell the morning would warm up enough to justify the sundress she’d chosen to wear. Sandals dangled from her toes in a roseate color that matched her outfit perfectly. It wasn’t long before she spotted a lone figure headed her direction. A new, white shirt was tucked into his tan shorts, the collar lifted high as usual to conceal the scars on his neck. It was curious how he always kept them hidden. Only a glimpse of his scratch marks had she caught the first time they’d kissed; he’d covered them up protectively. She wondered how intrusive it would be to question him about how they’d been earned.
“Good morning, Safire. Did you sleep well?”
“Yes, I truly did.” She smiled, recalling pleasant dreams that had included him.
Aquarius took her by the hand as she hopped down the steps to meet him. “Are you hungry?”
Breakfast felt like déja vu, nearly a repeat of their first date. They ate at the same restaurant—served identical crepes drizzled with honey, eaten over light conversation fused with pleasant stretches of silence. At the end of their meal, Aquarius offered to walk her home. She was immediately saddened.
“But, I thought I would spend the day with you.”
“I’m sorry, Safire. I’d love to keep your company, truly, but other obligations require my attention.”
Disappointment wilted her countenance substantially. “It’s a holiday, though—a three-day weekend.”
“You’re right; however, for me it’s more complicated. I’m needed in the water. Nature doesn’t pause for holidays.”
“Not even for one day?”
He made a sorry face.
Safire pled for a compromise. She had nothing else to do. He was her only reason for being at the beach. “Isn’t there someone who could take your place today? A supervisor or co-worker?”
Aquarius shook his head and frowned at her desperation. Taking her hand, he squeezed her fingers tenderly. “Safire, you must understand that my time in the water is necessary. I promise, though, it won’t be for the entire day. I’ll come see you as soon as I can. And I’ll provide dinner for the two of us—a private meal by firelight. It will be an evening worth waiting for.”
“I know. It’s just……what am I supposed to do all day? I came here solely to find you—to be with you.”
Aquarius appeared conflicted and unsure of what to say. His chest expanded and shrank as he breathed in deeply, thinking. It was a stretch of time before he spoke up again, offering another option.
“There’s an old pier that extends over a cove not far from the house you’re staying at. You could wait and watch for me there if you’d like. I can surface now and then to see you, but you’ll have to sit alone for periods of time in between.”
His offer lifted her spirits immediately. “I don’t mind. I’d be spending the day alone anyway.”
“Are you sure you wouldn’t prefer other activities on the beach?”
“No, I’d rather be near you.”
He was noticeably flattered. “Alright then. You should bring something to do while you wait. Do you have a book to read or a project to work on?”
She nodded assuredly. “I do. I have a book here in my bag; I almost always carry one with me.”
“Very good. Come then, I’ll take you to the place.”
Their walk kept near the water’s edge where the shoreline underwent a stark transformation in a short distance. White sands turned to browner soil that sprouted an abundance of long grasses. Twig-like trees were sparse and then suddenly thick and tall, surrounded by undergrowth. This miniature woodland fenced off a calm cove slightly resembling a bowl of beef broth. The water appeared dark and shaded and was visually impenetrable.
Aquarius led her onto a long, wooden pier made from weathered planks kept together by red, rusty nails. The structure floated on the water’s surface like an anchored raft. Every footstep generated a creak or moan from the pier as if it was an old man protesting unexpected company. A handrail ran along one side and cut across the narrow end, fashioned from slender tree trunks bound by heavy vines. Safire glanced around, unimpressed by the forsaken look of the place and especially the mucky water.
“You work here?” she asked, wrinkling up her nose. “You actually dive into that….mud?”
Aquarius smiled with amusement at her reluctance to embrace the spot. “Yes, I do. I happen to like this area a lot. It’s more algae than mud—very private and undisturbed.”
“Oh. Well, I suppose that’s a good thing when it comes to the preservation of wildlife.”
“It’s a very good thing—for the preservation of all life.”
She forced a weak smile. “I think I prefer cleaner waters.”
Aquarius laughed but didn’t argue. He motioned for her to have a seat on the end of the pier. She hesitated, seeing how splintered the wood beneath her sandals appeared, but eventually she dropped to her knees. Her nervous gaze darted across the sheltered harbor until Aquarius crouched down beside her, drawing her focus on him. It hit her that his eyes were exactly like puddles of this mucky cove he seemed so fond of.
His hand cupped her chin before he spoke. “Stay here. Don’t go anywhere, understand?”
He stood up and turned to leave when she quickly asked, “Where are you going?”
He answered over his shoulder, grinning. “Into the water, of course. Do you want to come with me?”
“Uh….no, no. Thanks anyway.”
“Stay right here then.”
She nodded tensely and resolved to be happy for the chance to be near him while he worked.
Minutes passed like hours as she waited, nervously eyeing her surroundings. The thicket of skinny trees seemed to curl their clawed limbs with every passing breeze, beckoning her to leave the pier and come closer. She tried squinting into the underbrush, certain that unseen animals lurked in the shadows, drooling at the mouth, anticipating a chance to sneak up on her. Skimming over the black cove, she imagined aquatic monsters looking up from the bottom, watching her every anxious move. When her legs began to prickle with an onset of numbness, she slipped onto her hip, careful to keep her toes away from the wharf’s edge. How long until Aquarius surfaced?
She had nearly huddled up into a self-protective ball, unable to crack open her book for fear of things prowling about in her imagination, when something warm and wet clamped onto her ankle. A shrill scream ripped through the air. Her leg yanked and fought to break free until a figure rose up from the murky water—bare chested, long hair sticking to his face and neck, his expression struggling between amusement and apology. He kept a firm grip on her ankle in order to prevent her from kicking him.
“I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” he said, attempting not to laugh. “I swear, I’m truly sorry.”
Safire exhaled in a ragged gust. She was naturally upset, but mostly just relieved to find that the fingers binding her ankle weren’t unfriendly. “You scared me near to death! Why did you do that?”
Grinning irrepressibly, he strove to subdue his amusement. “I shouldn’t have, I know, but I couldn’t resist.”
She narrowed her eyes, condemning his lame excuse. Again she breathed in and out—deep, quivering breaths meant to steady her heartbeat. Aquarius could see he’d really shaken her up. His other hand reached from the water, landing on her knee.
“I apologize, Safire. It was cruel of me to sneak up on you.”
She nodded, agreeing with him, but mumbled, “It’s okay.” Her ready forgiveness repainted his smile.
“Are you enjoying the peace and quiet here?”
She shrugged. “Well, I’ve been trying to, but...”
“Is there a problem?”
“Not really; it’s just..….this place is a little eerie.”
She waved off her apprehensions. “Never mind, it’s silly.”
Aquarius smiled perceptively, regarding her anxious behavior. “You have an enviable imagination, Safire, but unfortunately you let it control you. There’s nothing here to fear—no werewolves skulking behind the trees or selkies staring up from the water.”
She laughed at the absurdity of his remark. Of course no mythical creatures like werewolves were hiding in wait; that would be ridiculous. But an actual gray wolf—maybe. She blushed with embarrassment, partly because he was right about illusions easily influencing her, and partly because this flaw in her was apparently obvious.
A gentle, comforting pat wet her knee. “I wouldn’t bring you anywhere unsafe. Trust me, Safire.”
His reassurance did make her feel better.
Aquarius brushed his hand along her leg, down to where her heel rested in his cupped palm. He slipped of her sandal and set it aside. She allowed him to do the same with her other shoe, but when he tugged on her ankles as if urging her to abandon the pier and enter the water, she immediately objected.
“No, no, I…I can’t—I don’t know how deep it…”
“Calm down, Safire. I just want your feet, that’s all. You can dip your toes in the water, I know you can, you’ve proven as much.”
She froze, considering his request.
He rubbed her ankle to gently encourage her. “It’s warm, you’ll like it. And I promise no fish or sea monsters will bother you.”
“Are you sure about that?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Trust me.”
As if testing a bowl of hot soup, she reached down and touched the surface with her toe and then immediately recoiled. Aquarius laughed at her wariness and urged her on. “It will relax you, Safire. And here you don’t have to worry about any waves rolling in to catch you off guard.”
“That’s a relief,” she said, able to laugh at herself this time around.
Resolving to face her childhood fear a second time, she placed her knees together and stabbed both feet into the black liquid—a swift, decisive move. It felt as if the water had been heated by sunlight, warmer than the air above it.
Aquarius rested his hands on her knees. “It’s nice, isn’t it?”
“Yes, it actually is.”
“Now you can soak your feet and read your book.”
She nodded, but conveyed lingering unease.
“Yes, I do.”
“Kiss me then.”
She smiled and leaned forward as he rose higher out of the water, exposing his full, naked chest. A fair amount of hair covered him, black like his curls. His skin was paler than she would’ve expected for someone who worked outdoors. But he labored in the water, not in the sun.
Aquarius let her hand fall on him as she sought support reaching for a kiss. It was obvious she trusted him. He tested this truth by inching backwards, making her give up her balance to stay with him. Though her fingers tried clamping onto his skin, she didn’t attempt to shove away and snatch onto the pier. He smiled with satisfaction and then moved in closer, delivering the kiss she sought.
His fingers massaged her thighs as their lips pressed together, soft and pliant like clay forming around a mold. She made the sweetest sounds of pleasure he’d ever heard—sounds that drew him closer as if caught in a lover’s trance, making him less careful than he ought to have been. As their kisses intensified, her hand naturally moved to reach for his hair. Her fingers slipped under the wet strands, touching the slits on his neck. They felt wet and oily. Aquarius reacted abruptly, grabbing her hand and yanking it away, keeping a tight hold on her wrist. He was instantly sorry for the shock on her face.
“I’m sorry, Aquarius, I didn’t mean to….I wasn’t trying to touch your scars.”
He slackened his hold on her. “No, no, it’s me; I overreacted.”
But she felt awful for how a simple touch had affected him. “I shouldn’t have….I mean, I know you’re sensitive about it. I apologize…”
“Don’t Safire, please.” His face was tight—flickering between signs of worry and regret. “You didn’t do anything wrong. It’s me. I’m sorry, I just can’t…”
She wanted to hear what he stopped short of saying, and pressed him to finish his thought. “You can’t what?”
He muttered the truth. “I can’t trust you. And yet I’ve asked you to trust me. I’m being completely unfair.”
She didn’t know what to say. Boldly, she inquired about the marks on his neck. “Where did you get them? How did it happen?”
She waited and watched him struggle, his expression altering between looks of agony and sorrow. She was patient as he thought out an answer. A safe answer.
“I was a boy when it happened—the result of disobedience. It was a hard experience. Maybe someday I will tell you more.”
She was disappointed to learn so little, but nodded that it was okay. Apparently the wound went deeper than his scars.
Aquarius sunk in the water and began to float away from the pier.
“Wait, no, please don’t go!” Safire couldn’t help but be concerned for him. “I don’t want you to go away upset.”
“I’m not upset. I’m fine.” He gave her a weak smile.
She thought the look was sad. Determined to keep him there, she bombarded him with questions. “What about your gear and your tools? How will you breathe in the water without a tank? What if you need help? Where are the other divers?”
Her desperation was enough to make him stop and laugh. “It’s okay, Safire, calm down. I’m fine, and I will be fine underwater. I work alone. I have everything I need, don’t worry. Read your book. And try not to fret about werewolves while I’m gone.”
She was happy to see him smile more genuinely that time. “I’ll wait for you here. Don’t be long.”
He slipped beneath the surface without another word. Safire tried to see into the dark liquid, but only a reflection of the encircling thicket stared back at her.
It was hard to gage the passing of time, but soon enough the story in her book managed to claim her attention. It turned out to be a suspenseful tale that raised odd questions about the characters, coaxing her onto the next page with heightened anticipation. She kept her feet submerged for a long time, lazily lifting one leg and then letting it slowly sink back down while lifting the other. Eventually, both legs came out to dry on the deck. Aquarius resurfaced shortly after. He made his presence known by splashing the girl on the pier with an angled slap against the seawater. Safire squealed and held up her book like a shield before daring to peek around the pages.
“I am. And it looks like you’ve been reading. Is the story any good?”
“Very, although I’m starting to wonder if I can trust the main character.”
“Well, he’s supposedly a good guy, at least you start out thinking he is. For most of the beginning he’s involved in searching for this missing girl, avid about hunting for clues as to her whereabouts. But then strange things happen—what seem like chance occurrences—that result in him taking over the case. Everyone’s relying on him to track down this girl and catch her abductor. Time and again he seems hot on the trail only to end out just minutes shy of capturing the culprit. It’s suspicious. The more I read, the more I wonder if he’s no good guy at all but the actual scoundrel he’s pretending to pursue.”
“I can see why your imagination spooks you so effectively, reading books like that.”
Safire grinned guiltily. “You’re right, but I get hooked on these page-turners.”
“At least you’re keeping entertained. I just wanted to check on you.”
Her good mood faded. “Wait, you’re leaving again? What about lunch? It’s got to be close to noon now?”
Aquarius kept a straight face as he lifted a handful of glistening seaweed out of the water and announced, “Oh, I brought my own lunch. Would you like to jump in and dine with me?”
Safire’s nose crumpled over a curled upper lip. “Uh…..you’re kidding right?”
“No, actually, it’s edible and highly nutritious.” He took a bite to prove it. “Care to try some?”
She shook her head, shifting her expression to one of utter disgust. “I believe you stand a better chance of getting me to swim across this mud hole.”
Aquarius gave up the earnest expression and laughed aloud. “You haven’t even given it an honest try.”
“I would have to be near dead from starvation. Sorry, but I think I prefer real food.”
“This is real food.”
“For a fish, maybe.”
Aquarius tsked his disapproval at the girl. “Oh, Safire. I’m afraid you’ll have to go seek out something to your liking then.”
“Won’t you come with me?”
His brow creased in apology. “Dinner tonight, I promise.”
She tried not to show any depth of disappointment while saying she understood, but it was hard to hide her feelings entirely. Aquarius approached the pier as she stood up to slip on her sandals. His forearms rested on the floating edge; he watched her tuck a paperback book into her shoulder bag. Safire forced a smile looking down on him, his wet curls limp under the weight of dampness.
“Will you at least walk me back to the main beach?” she asked. Hope showed plainly in the way she constrained an inhale, biting down on her lip.
Aquarius motioned for her to kneel on the pier once more. He lifted up higher as she leaned down until their lips met in a soft, wet kiss. Aquarius then made his feelings very clear, caressing her cheek as he spoke. His dark eyes fixed on her with a depth of gravity.
“You must believe me when I tell you it is torture to spend this time apart. All I want is to be with you, Safire, right at your side. You have no idea how great my restraint not to reach out and take you in my arms this very minute and pull you into the water. I would share my world with you. I ache to show you everything below of importance to me, to watch your face light up with wonder! I long to reveal how I spend my hours here as a matter of necessity. But I understand your fear of water, and I sense the suffering it would cause if I were to force you to join me. The choice must be yours. And so I cannot do what I ardently yearn to do. I am sorry that I’m unable to spend more time on the shore in your company. I wish the case were otherwise.”
“I understand,” she sighed, “your work is in the ocean.”
“My life is in the ocean.”
She nodded, not entirely grasping his passion. “Okay.”
Aquarius ran his hand along her cheek, troubled by her continuing frown. “Not okay.”
She didn’t deny it.
“But it will be okay tonight when we’re together.”
Again she nodded. “Yes.”
It was a melancholy parting, both forcing a happier expression for the other’s sake. Following a trail that led her outside the trees, Safire considered napping the remainder of the afternoon away. Perhaps the time would pass more swiftly until Aquarius could join her.
Nearing the beach house, she was surprised to find Wade on the rear deck, peering inside through a set of glass doors. It was even more surprising to see the look of immense relief take shape on his face when he turned around and spotted her approaching.
“Where in the blue blazes have you been, Saffy?”
Safire gestured behind her. “On the beach, where most people go when they come to the ocean.”
“Yeah, but I combed that beach, and there was no sign or sight of you anywhere. And last night when I came to check on you—no answer. Brook said you haven’t returned one phone call or text since you arrived. You had me worrying like a neurotic mother hen, Saf!”
She shoved a hand in her purse hunting for the cell phone she was pretty sure had been left on the bathroom counter in her haste to get to Aquarius that morning. “You called Brook?” she asked, readily giving up her search.
“No, she called me, fretting about you.”
Safire’s form slumped guiltily. “Oh, sorry.”
“But the good news is we talked things out, thanks to you.”
“Really? I’m glad to hear that.”
“Yeah, well…..I’m just seriously relieved to see you’re okay. Where have you been?”
Wade’s blue eyes pulsed wide. “Honestly? You found the guy?”
“Yes. Well, actually, he found me.”
“I’ll be darned. I haven’t seen head nor tail of the dude anywhere around. Where’s he been hiding out all this time?”
“In the water. He said he spotted me on the beach yesterday and sort of followed me here.” Safire gestured to the house.
“So, where have you two been hanging out since then? Because I know I didn’t see that pretty gold hair of yours anywhere on the beach today.”
Safire blushed at the compliment. “No, you’re right. Aquarius had to work, and he invited me to wait for him. I’ve been reading a book, sitting on this wooden pier behind the trees.” She pointed in the general direction of the area.
“I know the place. You want to be careful around that old hunk of driftwood; it’s rotted and falling apart. I wouldn’t lean on the handrail unless you care to take a slimy swim, if you know what I mean.”
She nodded her awareness of the fact.
“So, where’s Aquarius now?”
“In that nasty cove? You mean he actually swims in there?”
Wade screwed up his face disgustedly. “Ick.”
Safire agreed, laughing at the way a disconcerting shiver traveled down his spine.
“Does this mean you’re free for a while then? Want to go get a bite to eat? It’ll be my treat!”
Wade looked eager, but Safire hesitated, having determined to rest up before Aquarius came calling. “Uh…well…” Then again she was hungry, and Wade had been good enough to play private investigator all morning looking for her.
Wade nudged her with an elbow, trying to be convincing. “Come on, Saffy, just you and me. We’ll hit the hamburger joint and celebrate reuniting with our significant others over a plate of cheesy fries.”
She couldn’t keep from laughing at the way he rubbed his hands together, salivating.
“Okay, Wade, just you and me and a plate of cheesy fries.”
“And two bacon, double-cheese burgers.”
Wade made her run inside the house to retrieve her phone, which he then insisted she use to make a quick call to Brook. Her best friend first dealt out a harsh scolding for being the cause of a sleepless night and a major panic attack. Then she squealed in happy celebration at Safire’s news of finding Aquarius and succumbing to a love sickness so potent that she couldn’t even text her best friend a proper, courteous word about it.
Lunch with Wade passed a good portion of the afternoon in a pleasant fashion. At first their conversation revolved around everything Safire knew and cared to divulge on the subject of her best friend, Brook. Wade asked questions ranging from pertinent-in-a-budding-relationship to off-the-wall-bizarre, like, “If she had to room with a gorilla, who do you think would get the top bunk, Brook or the ape?” Safire nearly blew soda out of her nostrils more than once in response to Wade’s random questions. He was a card, no denying it
Their lunch date ended with a few inquiries ventured about Aquarius. Wade grew increasingly sober as it became apparent Safire was ignorant of a major amount of basic information.
“So you don’t know where he’s from, where he was born, anything about his family, or how old he is?”
“Well, not really, no.”
“Saffy, haven’t you asked him anything?”
“I don’t like to pry. I mean, it seems that most people share what they feel comfortable sharing.”
“But the guy’s a complete mystery to you.”
“Okay, what’s his favorite color?”
She shrugged. “That’s not really important is it?”
“What’s his phone number then?”
“He said he’d share that with me later.”
Wade’s brow tightened. “You still haven’t gotten it from him?”
“No, not yet, but I will.”
“Okay, well, what does the guy do for a living?”
“This one I know; he’s a marine ecologist….or something like that. He works in the ocean.”
“Doing what exactly?”
She raised her shoulders again. “I don’t know exactly what he does, but I know he’s out there right now, which proves he works underwater.” She sighed with an air of frustration, as if irritated at being drilled like some adolescent on a first date. Wade took the hint.
“Alright, alright. It’s none of my business, but honestly, Saf, I think you ought to ask a few more questions. If the guy holds back, that might be a red flag. You need to be careful. Maybe he’s got something to hide, like a wife and kids perhaps?”
“I appreciate your concern.”
“Just doing my job. You know Brook would kill me if I didn’t watch out for you while you’re here.”
Safire had to smile at that truth. “Thanks for checking up on me…..and for lunch. I do appreciate it.”
It felt as if the air had cooled when Safire awoke to a noise that didn’t quite register in her groggy mind. It took a moment to comprehend she’d been sleeping for some time. Her eyes flickered open to a room where only shadows appeared darker than the night. Silver moonbeams streamed across the ceiling, illuminating the furniture in tones of gray. The noise sounded again, tapping against glass, this time recognizable to her.
What time was it?
Safire sat up, realizing she’d fallen asleep on the couch.
Another knock. The back door. Aquarius!
She sprang from the cushions and ran to where Aquarius stood in his tan shorts, waiting for her behind glass doors. Unlatching the lock, she apologized profusely through the widening doorway.
“I’m so sorry…...I must’ve fallen asleep.”
Her fingers worked like a comb and then an eye brush and finally a flat iron trying to tidy up her hair, makeup, and dress. She wished for a mirror, concerned about smeared mascara blackening her eyes.
“Stop fussing. You look breathtaking, Safire—more so than the full moon in its entire splendor.”
She raked a hand through her hair, blushing. “You flatter me.”
“I only speak truth. Never insincere.”
Safire smiled, flickering a glance at the white sphere in the sky beyond. “It’s not actually a full moon,” she noticed.
Aquarius turned his head to examine the same celestial body.
“Can you see?” she asked him, “where there’s still a sliver missing?”
“Ah, you’re right. Perhaps tomorrow it will be whole.” He turned to face her again, extending his hand through the doorway. “Are you ready to go?”
She nodded for certain and linked fingers with his, stepping outside to join him.
Their dinner date was indeed worth the wait—a roasted vegetarian meal by campfire (minus any hint of seaweed) followed by stargazing and a quiet walk on the beach.
Safire was pointing up at the sky with Aquarius’ arm around her as they walked side by side. “Do you see it? Your constellation?”
“I see it every night now that you’ve shown me what to look for. The god of rain. He sits in the water with Cetus and Pisces.”
She grinned with satisfaction. “He does.”
Aquarius went on, squinting up at the stars. “I can see him in the water right now with a lovely goddess at his side. Yes, yes, she’s standing next to him, a bit shorter than he is, near Cetus. Do you see her?”
Safire scrunched her eyes, examining an area of space sprinkled with a small trail of dimmer stars. “What are you talking about?”
Aquarius pointed at the heavens. “That’s her, walking on water with her hand in the tipped vase carried by the god of rain. Tell me you see her; she’s right in plain sight. They call her the goddess of the mist—so named because of her power to transform the seas into clouds. She does this to walk on them without fear of drowning.”
“The goddess of the mist, huh? What is her name?”
“Safire, of course.”
She groaned at his tall tale.
“It is not. You totally made that up.”
“Never. She is the goddess of the mist, and I have dubbed her Safire—and so it is.”
“It is a lie and a fairytale.”
“All truth starts out as a wish; hence, reality is born from fairytale.”
That was a challenging line to argue against. She ceded because of his kind insistence. “It’s a beautiful fairytale. I love it—thank you.”
It was the blackest time of night when Aquarius walked Safire home. He left her at the door with a shower of goodnight kisses, refusing an invite inside.
“I will see you tomorrow morning.”
She nodded and let his fingers slip away from her own. His figure disappeared in the darkness somewhere along the seashore before she turned away from the window and headed for bed.
Sunday dawned by means of a colorful sunrise together with a rainbow of emotions. Safire was excited to have this day to spend with Aquarius, at least a portion of it anyway, but at the same time she battled a bluer mood stemming from her departure date being the very next day. Tomorrow night would find her twelve hours away from this amazing man whom Wade had called a mystery. The word did seem accurate. At breakfast, the silence found her mentally sifting through questions, praying for the courage to ask any one of them.
“Is something troubling you, Safire?”
She lowered her head, embarrassed by the fact that he read her so easily.
“Actually, yes,” she admitted. “I was just wondering if you wouldn’t mind telling me a little more about yourself. I really like you, Aquarius. I want to know more about the man I’ve grown so fond of.”
His hand moved to warm hers, squeezing tenderly in the process. “What do you wish to know?”
She was happy he seemed willing. “For starters……how old are you?”
“A thousand-forty-five years…..approximately.”
A feeble smile acknowledged a sense of humor she didn’t entirely appreciate. Perhaps he wasn’t as willing as she’d assumed. Maybe Wade was right and the man had something to hide.
“You don’t believe me.”
Safire raised an eyebrow at him. “Why not simply give me a straight answer?”
He frowned. “Does my age matter that much to you?”
“Um…no, not really. But to respond to my question with an absurd…”
“An age. You wanted to know.”
“Ask me another. I will tell you what you want to hear.”
“I want to hear the truth, Aquarius. Nothing else.”
He nodded, a wounded look furrowing his brow. “Ask me then.”
Safire decided it was time to be bold. If he was intending to break her heart, he should do so before anymore fantasies were wasted in his arms.
“Are you married?”
“No, ma’am, I am not.”
That was a relief. “Ma’am,” she repeated, disturbed by the formal label. “Why did you call me that?”
“Why do you suddenly not trust me?”
“Why do you not trust me?”
That question stopped him cold, and it unnerved him in a way she’d never seen. His countenance drained of color, leaving him wan and pasty. His hands fisted before disappearing under the table. It spooked her to see his eyes dart about, glancing over the table, focusing on nothing.
“Aquarius? What’s wrong? Please, talk to me.”
Her soft beseeching seemed to draw him back, yet he spoke with a downcast gaze.
“I want to trust you, Safire, more than anything. I would like for you to know me. I do not lie to you; I have nothing to hide from you. But I do have things to protect.” His brown eyes shot up, intense, focused, and imploring. “There is a difference, do you understand?”
She wanted to say yes, but her head shook of its own accord. “Why can’t you just tell me what it is you want to tell me?”
“Because I…..” His brow seemed to crease so tightly it appeared painful. Out of the blue he asked a question. “Will you come in the water with me? Right now this very minute, don’t think about it, just hold my hand and run into the waves. Come now, take a swim with me.”
She could feel her heart jump clear into her throat as she struggled to breathe amid an onset of acute anxiety. Her mouth moved as if she would speak, but no air existed to relay the words. Aquarius spoke up before she could manage.
“It’s okay, Safire, forget it. But for the same reason that you can’t bring yourself to face the water, for this very reason I protect secrets I wish with all my heart I could…”
Her voice cut in, saving him the effort of an explanation. “I understand. I do. I get it.”
She nodded in quick jerks.
He took her hands in his own and moved in closer. “Look at me, Safire.”
She did, somewhat ashamed, trying to hide it.
“None of this changes how I feel about you. I love you.”
All at once there were no burdensome concerns. He loved her. He’d said so.
“I do, Safire. I love you.”
“I love you too.”
“I know.” She blushed—again an open book.
“Would you like to ask me anymore questions?”
“Oh…..I, uh…” She felt bemused and unable to think straight. Only one question popped into her head. “Yes, um……what is your favorite color?”
He smiled broadly before answering. “Green.”
The day lapsed as if the goddess of the mist really did live within her—forming clouds for her bare feet to dance across while the words, ‘I love you’, rang in a repeated loop in her mind. She waited all afternoon for him on the pier, greeting Aquarius with a smile and a kiss whenever he surfaced from that black pool he spent hours hidden within. Nothing seemed able to yank her head from the clouds until the sun went down and the moon—at its fullest and brightest—shone like a spotlight on her and her love. They were lying in each other’s arms, staring at their constellations overhead, but Safire’s thoughts were hung up on reality. This was the gravity to pull her to Earth. She finally said the words out loud.
“I’m supposed to go home tomorrow.”
Her only answer was silence, so she went on with what she’d been thinking.
“I was considering skipping a day of work to stay here a little longer. I thought I might call in sick.”
Aquarius stirred, but said nothing. His gaze remained fixed on the night sky.
She prompted him to speak. “I was wondering what you think I should do.”
It took a moment, but he did give her an answer, uttering it to the stars. “I think you should call and tell them you won’t ever be coming back. I think you should stay here, with me.”
When he didn’t turn to look at her, she lifted herself up from the sand and leaned over him, putting her face in his, forcing him to see her. “Do you really mean that?”
“Yes, I do.”
She was speechless. There were a hundred questions needing to be asked, but where to start?
Safire dropped back onto the sand, wanting a moment to think it over. The moon was eclipsed by Aquarius’ head as he leaned across her this time, his nose nearly touching her own. He voiced an invitation that made her heart drum against her ribcage.
“If you go, I will miss you sorely, and you will miss me. It will be worse than before—a pain I don’t wish to suffer. I know there are things to work out, but we will find a way. Stay here. Don’t go.”
“Stay where exactly?”
He glanced away for a moment, toward the sea.
“Do you live in this area? Because I thought you said this was a work assignment and that you move around to different places.”
“I do move, quite often.”
“And you want me to….follow you?”
“To come with me, yes.”
She swallowed hard, struggling with the next question on her mind. “Would there be some sort of, uh…..like a commitment involved with some kind of written or verbal promises of some form?”
Aquarius’ lips thinned into his familiar, perceptive smile. “Are you talking about marriage?”
“Uh….maybe? Or, well, yes.”
“Is marriage what you want?”
She shrugged and nodded at the same time.
He laughed at her struggle to express her desires without distressing him. “If marriage is your wish, then I will grant it for you.”
“What about you? What do you want?”
“To be with you….forever.”
His words were nectar to her ears. “Then I do want marriage. To you, that is.”
“And I to you, my goddess of the mist. It will be done.”
It was a strange feeling that swirled inside of her, a buoyant euphoria causing great happiness, but the feeling was not pure. Mild anxiety disturbed her warier side, like a thorn needing attention prior to finding lasting relief. The more she contemplated the vast amount of uncertainties involved in a future with this mysterious man, the more her anxieties increased. She soon felt the need to take a step back in order to proceed in a wiser, more careful manner.
She hesitated, hoping to approach him the right way. A request for his phone number came out first.
“My number? Why?”
“To call you.”
He sat up with worry on his brow and turned to face her. She copied his move.
“What’s wrong, Safire?”
“Nothing really, it’s just……I think it would be—” She paused to find an appropriate word. “—irresponsible….yes, it would be irresponsible for me to up and leave my job and my apartment and my friends without any notice or goodbyes or packing up my stuff and tying up loose ends at home. It would give us a few weeks maybe to talk out the details over the phone.”
“Are you having second thoughts?”
“No, no, not at all. But I….I have to go back for a few days at least…..to say goodbye. And we—” She gestured between them. “—we have a wedding to plan and things to discuss before I just up and follow you wherever it is that I’m going to be following you. I mean, what are we….me…I….what am I going to do—be doing, I mean, when you’re out in the ocean all day long?”
Aquarius curled his lips under and bit down on them, which hampered her ability to interpret any expression on his face. His unblinking stare made her wish he would say something. When a faint smile emerged, she was somewhat relieved. He took her hand and held it, finally uttering a word.
“Yes, I do. I was being selfish asking you to desert a life that clearly is dear to you. You should return and do what you must. I will miss you terribly while you’re gone. And I will hope that you come back to me.”
“Of course I will,” she insisted. “And I’ll call you every day we’re apart, I promise. All I need is your number.”
He nodded, agreeing. “We’ll take care of that later. Right now I should walk you home. It’s getting late, and if you plan to drive a long distance tomorrow you would do well to get some sleep.”
They walked hand in hand up to the beach house without a word passing between them. At the foot of the deck Aquarius kissed her passionately before planting a single peck on her forehead.
“Wait, what about your phone number?”
Again he kissed her, a soft press on the nose. “Tomorrow.”
She didn’t understand why he wouldn’t just recite the numbers aloud. “I’ll remember if you tell me.”
He seemed to think before responding. “It will give me a reason to see you off in the morning. Now go to sleep. Dream of me.”
Rather than argue, she gave in. “Goodnight, Aquarius. I will. Until tomorrow.”
He turned away from her and stepped in the direction of the seashore. She watched him fade into the night, wondering if it was an illusion that his steps seemed to increase the further away he ran.
She turned to the house and unlocked the back door when it hit her that she’d indeed observed him running……….running away. He was running away from her! This was going to be exactly like the last time—he wouldn’t show in the morning. He never planned to. And he’d refused her his number which meant she’d have no way to contact him.
“No, no, no,” she breathed, facing the ocean. She dashed after him, in search of him, racing as fast as the sand would allow her to travel. All was deserted along either stretch of shoreline. No sign of his tall form came into view. She called out his name again and again, desperate to locate him before he ran too far off.
“Aquarius! Aquarius, wait! Don’t go!”
Surely he could hear her; why didn’t he answer? Was he that hurt by her decision to leave? Had she bruised his feelings, having voiced uncertainty about forsaking everything to remain with him? Why would a few days apart matter when he knew she loved him? Or did he doubt her feelings? Did he doubt her? Had she given him reason to? She had to know!
“Aquarius, please! Please, come back! Please, talk to me!”
Her head turned in every direction as she stood in shallow waters, unbothered by spreading waves that licked her toes and washed her heels. Where had he gone? Which way should she run? Knowing southern shores were public beachfront, she headed north to where the sands mixed with heavier soil and grasses. Aquarius was a private person, which accounted for his love of that secluded cove tucked within the trees. She continued to call out his name while stumbling down a dirt trail leading to the rickety, old pier. She hurried as fast as she could manage by feel, the way barely lit under moonlight that filtered through overhanging foliage. There wasn’t time to be frightened of werewolves or bears or gray wolves. Her only fear was of losing Aquarius—of losing his affections.
Reaching the pier, she stopped to cast an eye across the cove. There was no sign of him anywhere, no evidence he’d come this way. Tears formed in her cheeks, recognizing she’d hit a dead end. Where else could he have gone?
“Aquarius! Aquarius, please, come back!” she cried.
There was one other place, a refuge he frequented. Underwater, within his beloved ocean.
Safire ran the length of the old pier, causing it to dip under her pounding footfall. Her actions disturbed the black liquid and pushed the pier somewhat adrift. Her toes curled over the brink as she stopped abruptly where the floating path ended. Unbalanced by the motion beneath her feet, she grabbed for the makeshift handrail, seeking a brace with which to reclaim her equilibrium. It snapped under the weight of her pull due to decay that made the wood no longer suitable for use. A scream tore from her lungs as she snatched the vertical end of the rail, but the wood collapsed and split like a hollow reed. Unable to keep from falling forward, she crashed headlong into the water.
Altogether blinded by both the night and the murkiness surrounding her, it became impossible to discern direction. Safire struggled to swim, hoping her actions weren’t actually submerging her even deeper. It was like wrestling a formless phantom while wrapped up in suffocating blankets, knowing time was the ultimate enemy. Her lungs hurt, having failed to take in a breath of air before going under. She felt the lack of oxygen tempt her to inhale the surrounding atmosphere. But that would mean certain death.
The word felt tangible at this point, as if it were a door held open by this black phantom that had swallowed her whole, now waiting patiently for her to slip across the threshold. It was her worst fear playing out—a phobia being proven a prophecy, dreaded since the day her brother had drowned and marked the way.
But unlike her baby brother, she could swim.
Though her lungs screamed for air, she deprived them of drawing in the black poison that continued to disorient her senses. Hoping the surface was only strokes away, she kicked her legs and paddled with her arms, swimming toward either life or death. Seconds passed with the ocean still her captor. Unable to deny her lungs any longer, she sucked in the mucky poison, feeling the heaviness of mortality enter her chest. In no time at all her muscles fell limp and useless. She accepted the struggle as over.
Perhaps her brother would forgive her now.
As her senses began to fade, she wished for one last kiss from Aquarius.
It was strange how all at once she felt his hands on either side of her face, holding tight, his forehead suddenly pressed against hers. As dark as it was, she could imagine his wide eyes staring directly into her own. Was this her mind’s reply to desperation? She longed to say something to him whether he was real or not. She wanted him to know something…....something true………impossible to speak underwater. Fading further, her eyes closed off the dream, yet her name by some means echoed in her head as if it were spoken by his lips— shouted from his mouth.
Death was a quiet evil, unavoidable like the dark night and defenseless sleep and tearful sorrows. It had hunted her down and slithered close, wanting only to smother every last flicker of life.
A kiss fell against her lips, parting them, forcing in more deadly liquid. It was a futile action. Next, his mouth was at her neck, spread wide open so as to clamp against the skin. But it was no kiss he offered. Her body twitched, muscles taut and stiff, reacting to a real pain she was alive enough to feel. His sharp teeth sliced into her throat and venom entered, burning along its spreading path.
He laid her down on the ocean’s bed, keeping attached to her neck like a leech.
Her dying thought was a nightmarish image of handsome, vampire selkies possessing a taste for human blood.
Copyright 2013 Richelle E. Goodrich