It was hard not to appreciate the beauty of the water: the way it lapped against the shining rocks, and how the sun danced off the gentle waves. The breeze was rippling across the surface and biting at Lauren's face. Her eyes watered from the cold air that surrounded her on the cliff. She pulled her sweatshirt tighter around her, but the wind ripped straight through the fabric, chilling her to the bone.
But she was still content. Happy to just be here, away from the city and the world. Tucked into her own corner of the universe. Her old family home was placed right on the edge of the rocky cliff, where the grasses swayed violently, and the ocean stirred loudly beneath their feet. The sound of the waves whispered up at her, clawing at her ears and shouting at her to hear them. But she couldn’t, she couldn’t listen.
Her siblings had always hated it out here: the showers were never hot enough, the light was always low, and it was so deeply lonely. And as a teenager she couldn't wait to leave. But now that she had returned, as an adult, she realized that it was not a devastating loneliness it was a calming one. Lauren had been the only one who ever understood.
That sometimes it's better to be alone.
She sat along the cliff top, just off the back porch and watched as the sun sunk lower and lower in the sky. It dipped down, just gracing the water then slowly submerged itself, leaving behind the warm glow of its memory. When the air dropped colder, she picked herself back up and walked inside. The small living room was lit by a few lamps in each corner and it led straight into the kitchen, which was lined with dark cabinets and a granite countertop.
Sitting on top of the counters were all the letters she had sent him, each marked with a stamp that said: Return to Sender. And after each one came back, she set it down, and drafted a new one. They were mostly all the same, with a few variations on the time of year and when he should come.
But there was a little twinge of hope in her heart, because her last letter had not been returned yet. So, she sat at the counter, the clock ticking nearer and nearer, and with each passing second, she felt herself grow warmer and warmer.
He is coming, she repeated, over and over. Lauren walked around the house, pulling old photos down from the walls to look at them, wiping the dust off their frames and the glass. She saw photo after photo of her siblings, and her parents, and it wasn't until she was in her room that his face graced her again. The two of them, together in their youth, smiling with gaps in their teeth. In high school, arm-and-arm at dances, at graduation. Then the photos stop.
She hadn't seen him in years. She had read about him in the paper once, his restaurant was doing well. And she had heard his name vaguely mentioned by old friends, but she hadn't seen him.
Lauren hadn't even really thought of him much until this last year. Once her father died, and the house was in her possession and she finally came back home: she saw the photos. And all the memories came flooding back to her. All the laughing, and the love.
How she had broken his heart that night, leaving him kneeling on the cliff. Tears in his eyes as her lips formed the words: I can't. Because she was finally free, she was leaving this small town, heading for the real world.
She was going to be a writer, and she couldn't stay here. She just couldn't.
Lauren had gone to college, met knew people, fell in love, got married, got divorced, but there was a small hole in life: like a shell on the beach that had been misplaced. Something was missing.
When she saw his face again, last year, she realized what it was: it was him. He's what was missing.
She couldn't write anymore, not with her heart so locked as it was. She felt empty and incomplete, and without her father's guiding presence, she was more at a loss than ever.
She had never stopped loving him. Never for a second, and she felt selfish and horrid for dragging it all up again. For writing him that first letter 7 months ago:
James, I never stopped loving you. I only said no because I needed to leave home, and I needed to see the world for myself.
James, my wall is full of memories of our childhood. I know that I hurt you, and you have every right to hate me. But if I could just see you once, it would be enough.
James, come to my old home. Since my dad died, I've been staying here. I love you, and I just want to see you.
James, this will be my last letter. Come to the house, May 7th, I'll be there. If there is any part of you that still loves me, please. If you don't, I guess I'll have my answer.
Lauren felt childish, and stupid, for not realizing what she had all those years ago. But at the same time, she was glad she had not said yes. Because, perhaps, this was their story: they were meant to fall apart, to grow apart, to become their own people, so that when they finally did come back together, it would be perfect.
There was a loud knock from downstairs, and Lauren's heart leapt from her chest. She ran out of her room, sprinting down the stairs, two at a time: This is it, he's here. He came. He was so close to her, just on the other side of the front door. She would finally see him, standing there, his dark hair and bright eyes, with his easy grin spread across his face.
She reached the door and wrenched it open.
But it wasn't James.
"Caroline?" Lauren asked, not doing a good job of hiding her disappointment at seeing James' little sister.
"Hi, Lauren." Caroline smiled at her. She had James' eyes.
"What are you doing here?" Lauren questioned, growing nervous.
"Could I come in?" She was wrapped in a warm peacoat and the wind ruffled her brown hair behind her. Lauren stepped aside, motioned for Caroline to come in and she followed. They went into the living room and sat opposite each other on the small couches.
"Can I get you anything?" Lauren asked suddenly, realizing Caroline had travelled a long way to get here.
"No, I'm alright." They sat in silence for a moment. Caroline was looking around the room, at the house that James had spent so much time in but she had never been inside.
"He's not coming, is he?" Lauren's voice cracked, and she was embarrassed to have thought that he could still love her. Caroline's eyes fell, and reaching into her purse, she pulled out the last letter Lauren had written and handed it to her.
"Sorry," she mumbled, tears were swimming in her blue eyes.
"Did he at least read it?" Lauren asked as her throat started to burn.
"No, I-I went to his apartment and your letter had been delivered so I read it." Her cheeks flushed,
"It's okay. I'm glad I know now. I can move on." Lauren whispered to her hands, a single tear dripped off her chin and landed on the J in James. Caroline reached forward and grabbed Lauren's hand.
She took a deep breath, "James died, Lauren."
"What?" Lauren shuttered, really looking at Caroline now. Though she couldn't be more than thirty, her hair was greying at the roots and there were bags under eyes.
"He died, about eight months ago, cancer. I went to his apartment last week to finish collecting his stuff, when I saw your letter." Lauren's heart had stopped beating in her chest. James was dead. He was gone. He was never coming back.
She would never feel his hand in hers, she would never look into his blue eyes. She would never hear "I love you," leave his lips, and she would never be able to tell him. Lauren had no idea what to say. She had no words to fill the silence, and Caroline seemed to understand.
"He went in his sleep, it was difficult at the end, but he was at peace. He had written, a bunch of letters, to friends, and family, you know, to read after he died. And there was one in the box...that I didn't know who it was for. Until, I got your letter, Lauren. Here," Caroline pulled a second, cream envelope out of her bag and it was addressed the same way she signed all her letters to James: Lo.
This letter hadn't been opened: it was still carefully sealed. And the paper was smooth in her hands. Lauren just stared at it, stared at the words he had written, his hand had passed over this envelope.
Caroline gave her hand a squeeze and stood up to leave. Lauren walked her to the door, clutching the envelope in her fingers. They hugged good-bye, and Caroline stepped out into the windy night, but she turned around once more to look at Lauren. Her eyes searching her face,
"He never married. He always said he was waiting for 'the one'." She paused, before continuing, "I hope you find what you're looking for, Lauren." And she disappeared into the night.
Lauren closed the door and locked it behind her, since no one else would be coming to see her tonight. She returned to the living room and sat on the couch, just staring at the envelope. Her heart pounding: these were his final words to her.
It's me, James. But you already know that. You were always the writer, but now I'm gonna have to give it a shot. Guess I shoulda listened to all those tips you gave me on writing, huh?
I know we haven't spoken in years, not since you turned me down. I was angry, for a while, you know. After you said no, but now I understand why you did. We were too young, way too young. And if we had gotten married then, we wouldn't have made it. You needed to leave and write, and I needed to leave and cook. And we did.
I've read all of your work. I can hear your voice, reading it to me, like you used to when we were little.
I tried to call you a few weeks ago, I wanted to see you. But your phone isn't connected to that number anymore so I couldn't reach you.
It's crazy, how much our lives have changed in the last ten years. And I wish I could see you, god I wish I could see you, so I could tell you thank you, for turning me down. But I wish I could look into your eyes once more, to tell you that I love you. I love you, Lo.
I am so completely in love with you. I miss swimming in the ocean and reading in the libraries with you. I miss going to the drive-in and cooking for you. I know that you've gotten married, and I am so glad, because all I want is for you to be happy.
So, I hope when you read this, that you are happy. That you are complete, and whole. That you are writing, and reading, and enjoying everything, because life is too short for regret.
My dearest Lo, this is where I leave you. I hope this letter finds you well, and even though you can't be here, I still feel you everywhere. I can smell your perfume in the flowers outside my room. I can hear your voice in the ocean waves. I can feel your warmth in my memories.
I love you, forever and always,
Lauren finished reading, her face raw from the tears. He hadn't hated her, quite the opposite. He had loved her. He had not forgotten her. And if he were alive, he would've come. He would've read her first letter and come straight away.
She looked at the letter and read it twice more. This was what she needed, and even though she didn’t know it, Lauren had been waiting her whole life for this letter.
Then once the tears dried, she turned to her computer and opened a new document:
I first met James in kindergarten. He was quiet and seemed to blend into the background, but that's why I fell in love with him: he was so at peace with himself...
And she wrote until she was out of words, and James came alive in the pages. And once more, over the roar of the ocean, she heard him tell her,
"I love you."