The beach will be small. But somehow, it’ll be enough. Two lonely strangers will tumble over its coast like driftwood into the clutches of low tides. Deep within their rib cages, their hearts will be crumbling sandcastles, awkwardly patted together by the children they once were.
The woman will stash sand dollars into her coat pockets, saving them to play checkers later with her daughter. There'll be scallop shells wreathed into her hair. The man will have plastic wrinkles melting from his eyes. Years will be carved into his face, making him look older than he’ll be. He’ll stare down a pack of Camels and repeatedly shake his head.
She will notice him first. From her place crouched in the gravel, he'll appear as if he’s made of moonlight and pearls. Bridging her head back, she’ll take in the depressions on his cheeks until she’ll know he’s like her. A paper sailboat. With each passing moment, they’ll find themselves slipping from the string connecting them to the shore. Drawing nearer the approaching horizon.
“What’s your dream?”
It will be a simple question, one she’ll only ask to strangers. Because she’ll know that strangers are only friends you haven’t met. And right now, she’ll need a friend. The silence will fill the darkness between them, loud and crashing, a tidal wave of unspoken truths.
“To be human with no regrets. To live and feel. To experience.” The woman will blink twice at the youth behind his voice. His smile will be grim and bittersweet.
“You say that as if you’re going to die.”
“Aren’t we all?”
She won’t be able to argue with that. Instead, she’ll reel in a legal pad from her otherwise castoff handbag. Her shaky breaths will tiptoe into the air like footprints in the sand. Every few strokes on the page and her pencil will crackle into ashes. She’ll scratch the side of the tip on the paper and realign. But her words won’t make sense of the lines.
“What’s your problem?” the man will ask.
“You asked about my dream.” He’ll flip over the Camels and pretend to understand the colours on the box. “What’s bothering you?”
The woman’s clumsy pencil will finally bend lead into curves. December 31st, the page will swallow the numbers. He’ll tap the glass of his watch, the hands frozen at 6:19 am. His fingers will tangle into fishing lines, trapping his short nails.
“You don’t have to share. Just thought you might want to let it out.”
“Well, the truth is,” her knuckles will tighten like clams, “I have a confession to make.”
Something will be lingering in the space between them that day. Maybe it will be madness, maybe it will be solace. Either way, there’ll be a sort of magic that only comes from strangers by the sea.
“I feel like a thief,” she’ll say, plain and simple. “Like I steal from the stars. Every day I write about them and I can’t seem to stop. My poems are dipped in stars, but I never asked their permission. I promised I’d find something else to write about. That I’d write for myself this year. But promises break faster than trust.”
Delicate clouds will spread beyond the sea as if they’re the wings of the moon. Through the haze, the distant skyline will glisten like soap bubbles. The man will understand then, that her eyes churn with otherness and thoughts that wander off the edge of the earth.
“Then do it.”
“The year isn’t over yet.”
She’ll open her lips as if to say something, but think better of it and shake her head. The water will spray seafoam onto her brow like a crown and she’ll replace her pencil with a ballpoint. “It’s more permanent this way,” she’ll explain.
Her phone will cast beams on the sand and the man will catch the true time. 11:43 pm. She will mistake his glance for interest and rotate the screen so the light will flutter through the dark. For a second, she’ll be stunned as his features will ripple out from the shadows. How little the man will have truly lived, how small the years he’ll have passed.
“My daughter,” she’ll say, referring to her wallpaper. “We eat dessert first, but never skip our veggies! She deserves the world, but I can’t even give her a backyard to pretend in.”
He’ll nod respectfully, gesturing for her to continue. Somehow, it'll be the silent support she’ll need. “My husband was a fighter. He protected us. But sometimes,” her voice will break, “you pick a fight you can’t win.”
The silence will grow thick then. So quiet that he’ll hear the memories ensnared in her neck and she’ll hear the blood sloshing around his heart. The only outward sounds will be her pen etching life into paper and his breathing interlocking with the ocean.
The noise will be sudden, low and sweet. Tickling through the empty space in a foreign, unearthly way. She’ll think it’s singing. But then she’ll see the raindrops trickling from his eyes like gentle torrents on the seaside. She’ll scrabble through her bag for the heap of fast food napkins, rushing to hold them under his chin. His tears will roll over his nose, slide across his cheek and splat onto the tissue.
She’ll explain to him why you mustn’t waste tears. It’s why she collects strays and keeps them. Catching, never counting. His throat will bob like planets as she’ll leak snippets of her childhood. How she’ll have stubbornly tried to count every star in the night, but find that the sky only changed its freckles in retaliation. So she’ll have stopped counting tears and stars and instead, read them and their meanings.
“Maybe,” he’ll tilt his head to the moon, “they aren’t there to be quantified. Perhaps we aren’t meant to count the stars. Just savour and understand them.”
There will be a slight pause before he’ll offer the story of his tears. “Lung cancer.”
“Please don’t say you’re sorry.”
For the first time that night, one of them will smile. “I was going to say I’m rooting for you.”
Every silence between them will only seem to amplify, until the woman will be sure even the stars can hear. But the man will feel the ocean rushing in his ears and he’ll know that silence won’t mean you’re alone. In the company of a stranger, silence will mean each is fighting their own battle. He’ll massage the cigarette package between his fingers, lost in a trance with the faded letters.
“Are you going to take one?” She’ll point to the Camels and his breath will hitch.
“No. . .”
“Alright then, let me free up your hands.”
The woman will reach for his palms gently, almost giving him the time to pull away. But he’ll only peer beyond the line where the ocean kisses the sky. She’ll peel away the opening flap and stuff the cigs into her handbag to throw out later. Because what kind of mother will she be if she scatters them in the sand and tells her daughter not to litter?
It will be a little hard with the bracelets orbiting her wrists, but she’ll still have it in her. With a little love and spit, she’ll sharpen the creases of the cardboard, folding down the tabs until she’ll have her desired form. A paper sailboat. And she’ll let it escape into the frothy fingers of the sea, watching as it’ll sail off without a map. The man will observe her the whole time, until he can’t contain himself.
“That was my last pack.” His laughter will fill the expanse the silence will have once. “I’ve been dreaming of quitting those suckers all year. You just did it for me in the simplest way.”
The woman will adjust the shells in her calculatedly messy curls. She'll decide she's happy she chose to skip the New Year's party. “Maybe we aren’t meant to follow our dreams. Maybe we have to build them.”
Ten. Somehow they’ll know then, that in the last seconds of the year, they’ll have touched their goals. Nine. They won’t use a timer. Eight. The broken watch will be out of the question. Seven. Together, they’ll clench their fists into asteroids, chipped with fear. Six. And hope. Five. The silence will steady them. Four. And they’ll listen. Three. It’s there that they’ll find the answer. Two. The sound of their entwined heartbeats, ticking off the time. Counting down. One.
“Are we new people now?” he will ask, shattering the quiet.
“I don’t think so. We might change a little, but we’re still ourselves.”
He’ll scratch his nape. “Maybe that’s enough.”
The details won’t be clear after that. All that’ll be known is that eventually, they’ll go their separate ways. The beach will once have been enough to hold their hearts, but on January 1st, it’ll be small again. In the dark silence, a lone page will coast through the sky, passing under the moon’s eyes.
Cartwheeling onto the sand, it'll sink into a puddle of starlight. And the stars will give their blessing. The only evidence that the man and the woman will have been there, will be the echo of their untuned heartbeats and the poem dipped in stars.
They’ll be strangers at the start
But together, they’ll be the full moon
They’ll be strangers when they part
Two waning crescents, falling out of tune