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He took the steep, narrow path down to the beach, leaving the old house to stand lonely at the top of the cliff. The sighs of the November wind in the tall, yellowed grass mixed with the whispers of the sea which like a sleeping giant caressed the wet sand with a gentle hand. The waves licked the beach, trying to coax the large, smooth stones into following them back into the cold depths.
Carefully, he took small steps. He had to stop for a moment as a sharp pain stung him under the kneecap. Time is a friend of no one. Why should it spare him? How many summers ago was he running down to the sea, a young boy, breeze in his hair and his heart light and carefree. How long ago that seemed now, like faded scenes of an old movie he’d seen once but now it was covered with the dust of Time itself. Edward tasted the salt on his lips while his stare wondered far away to the horizon. It was almost impossible to tell where the ashen blanket of the sea ended and the sky began, the small island with the lighthouse drifting in between the sky and the water.
Farther off, on the edge of an old fisherman’s boat half-buried in the sand, sat a man, staring into the somber distance. Slowly, each step sinking into the fine sand, Edward approached him. The stranger did not pay any attention to him at first.
“Do you mind?” Edward indicated to the nose of the boat which was sticking out from the sand. The paint on its hull had faded and peeled, revealing only some remnants of blue and red in places.
The man looked up at him. He couldn’t have been older than twenty-seven, maybe thirty, but there was something in his eyes which shared the same color with the cold sea and the thin line of his mouth that made him appear older. The man lowered his stare for a second as if considering something and then shifted to the right, freeing some space on the edge of the hull. He continued to stare into the distance where a lonely seagull cried out into the cold November sky, her wings spread wide open as she was gliding on the wind.
Edward sat down and put one hand into the pocket of his coat. He took out a slightly crumpled pack of Marlboro and put a cigarette in between his lips, offering the last one to the man beside him.
The man nodded and took it. Edward crushed the now empty pack and hid it in the pocket. He found the lighter and covered it from the breeze with his palm as the flame touched the cigarette. Then he let the man light his. For a moment they just sat there, staring at the sea. Finally, Edward exhaled a cloud of bitter smoke and said.
“Was trying to quit but…” he looked at the man next to him, who let the cigarette slowly burn away, its ashes creeping closer to the filter. Edward noticed that in the other hand which was resting in the man’s lap he was holding something, a small piece of paper, a corner sticking out from between his fingers.
“Say, have I seen you at the cemetery?” Edward asked finally. The man nodded.
“Did you know my mother?”
“Yes,” the man spoke quietly, his voice barely audible in the wind. The seagull gave out another cry and landed onto the surface of the water. Both of them kept quiet for a moment.
“She used to love this place,” the stranger suddenly broke the silence.
“Yes… She did. We used to come here every summer.” So many summers had passed, a whole life now separating him from his childhood. “It was her wish to be buried here on the island, closer to father.”
The man turned and looked Edward in the eyes.
“Did you know him?” he asked.
“Know him?” Edward looked at the stranger and then turned back towards the horizon, drawing in another lungful of smoke. “No, I never did get a chance to meet him.” He never liked to talk about his feelings but there was something about this place and about the man himself that made it easy to speak. As if they’d known each other for the whole life.
“Did she ever tell you anything about him?”
“She… She used to speak about him sometimes. Even after all those years, she still continued waiting for him, hoping the sea would one day bring him back. I guess this is why she wanted to be laid to rest here. To be closer to him.”
Edward inhaled the smoke for the last time and pressed the cigarette butt into the cold sand.
“It’s funny how she used to say she has a guardian angel. You know, once she had almost died. It happened when I was little.” Edward gazed into the distance as he spoke as if returning back in time to the distant memories. “A car, it almost ran her over. The driver had lost control and if it weren’t for the man that had pushed her aside… She never said anything else about it. Only on her deathbed, she told me that the man, the one that saved her, he looked like my father.”
Edward reached into the pocket for another cigarette but all his fingers found was an empty pack.
“I wanted her to live her life but there must be some feelings stronger than…” It was hard to deal with her passing. He didn’t finish the sentence. “When I was still a boy, I believed that he was still alive, that he would come back one day. But with time I understood that sometimes the sea keeps what it claims. She never gave up hope, though.”
“I am sure that if he only could he would come back to you,” the man said.
“You never did tell me how you and my mother knew each other.”
It was getting darker. By the minute, the air grew chillier and Edward pulled up the collar of his coat. The man did not say anything. Instead, he stared at his wristwatch for a second and spoke. “It was a pleasure to meet you, Edward. But I’m afraid I have to be going now.” He put out his hand and Edward shook it. The man turned around and started walking away, his feet raising a small cloud of gray sand with every step he took.
Edward was left alone on the edge of the old boat, watching as the man’s figure grew smaller while he walked along the beach. Edward turned his head to where the stranger was sitting. A cigarette, dying, lay in the sand. Next to it, partially covered by sand, lay a picture. Edward reached down and picked it up. It was an old black and white photograph. Faded colors, a crease in the middle and torn corners. Two faces were smiling at him from the picture, a man and a woman. Behind them, Edward recognized the lighthouse, which rose from the small island. It took him a second to realize that the smiling woman in the picture was his mother, the kind of her he never knew – so young, so happy. And the man, the man was the same young man he’d spoken to just a moment ago.
Edward turned the picture over and read words written in a neat cursive:
Seaton Beach, Roland and Eva, 1935
He turned the picture over and got up. “Hey!” his voice was carried away by the wind. The beach was enveloped in the twilight. Edward stood by the boat, looking out into the distance, trying to see where the man had gone to. He took a couple of steps, then increased the speed of his strides, following the footprints in the sand, until they disappeared into the nothing as if the person he had just spoken to had vanished into thin air. It became darker with every passing minute. Edward stood there for a moment in the cold wind, staring into the empty wild beach ahead of him and holding the picture in his hand.
“Edward!” He heard Johanna’s voice somewhere far behind him. He hesitated, his eyes looking ahead, the darkening sky hanging low over the deserted beach. He heard his wife’s voice call him again. When he turned, he saw her at the top of the cliff, a gray shawl wrapped around her shoulders, the same gray color of the evening sky. There would be rain tonight. He felt the first cold drop land on his face.