The fog rolls over the water like a blanket so thin it cools rather than warms. The man beams at the woman standing next to him. She turns her head, attempting to hide her upturned lips, and gazes at the blue abyss, letting the aroma of salt carry her away. Then, like a diver emerging through water, the sun breaks through the clouds and, in one hot breath, blows all the fog away. The woman grabs the man’s hand and begins to run, her tight black curls waving in the breeze of their momentum like branches in the wind.
The icy water laps against their feet, the riptide trying to pull them away. He pulls her deeper, and the chill begins to creep up their legs, but he persists. As long as she’s next to him, she thinks, ice is warm and the current leads to heaven. A wall of water crashes over their heads, dragging them under and rubbing her face into the sand briefly before they break the surface, laughing and spitting out saltwater. He looks at her. Her smile is painted with the sunrise, her eyes stardust fused into glass, her body woven from the clouds. He kisses her, and he can taste the salt on her lips.
They stay there even after the gently glowing sun dips below the horizon, watching the dots of light poke little holes in the darkness and lying on the sand still pulsing from the day’s heat. Her hand slips into his and a smile creeps over his lips, his dark brown eyes turning up at the corners. He turns over, and whispers something to her. She closes her eyes, revealing a small dimple on the corner of her mouth.
Everything is as it should be.
*I will love him forever*, she thinks.
TWO (25 YEARS LATER)
The girl keeps her eyes fixated on the tree. It’s beautiful, like cool grass on a summer’s day, beautiful like a warm fire on a cold night, beautiful like a golden necklace resting on a beating heart, beautiful.
The silence is a clenched fist, a volcano about to erupt.
On the second highest branch dangles an ornament with lines where the dust was hastily brushed off, with text bordered by lavender that reads, “i luv yoo momy an dady.”
It reminds her of how it used to be, back when the star on the tree still had its shimmer and the air was light; when on Christmas Day, she and her siblings would get thick sweaters with designs of snowflakes and candy canes that they would have to change out of for church. She wonders why her parents no longer believe in what the preacher said about love and kindness, about fidelity. She wonders if they ever did.
A little boy in candy cane pajamas jumps on her lap. “Maddie! Maddie! Maddie! Can you believe it? Santa got me action figures!” She grasps his hand tightly but doesn’t shift her gaze. Through the fuzzy fog of memory, she remembers loving how her parents pretend to be an old man with a bushy beard who gives presents to all of their children. Now it just reminds her of all their other lies.
The boy puts his head in front of her face to block her view. “Maddie?” She squeezes his hand and he looks into her eyes to make sure everything’s okay. Her eyes stay locked on the tree, but when she lets go, there are fingernail marks on the back of his hand.
She finally turns her head and looks at her parents, at her father’s deep brown eyes bordered by thin lines, her mother’s dark curls brushed with grey. They stand far from each other, too far, and the tension between them is a wire pulled taut. Every inch between them rips the girl’s heart. Their faces, although older and more worn, resemble the faces of a completely different couple with the same set of children, but whose lips were upturned and who were holding hands, who gave them sweaters on Christmas and still believed in love and kindness and forever, who lay on the beach contemplating the stars. She remembers those people. She remembers seeing them fade away.
Sometimes, lost in hope, she wonders if they will ever come back. She doubts they ever will.
THREE (25 MORE YEARS LATER)
Her sandals are worn so thin that she can feel the sharp rocks beneath her feet. The sticky residue of the saltwater clings to her like a leech, like the sound of his laugh echoing in the chasm of her head.
Her hands, covered with rivets and blue veins showing through translucent skin, rest by her sides as she stares into the sparkling blue expanse. Silvery locks of hair cascade down her hunched back like a waterfall. Wrinkles line her hollowed face, but her faded smile leaves crinkles around her eyes and lips and puts color back in her pale cheeks.
She never thought she would come back here. She never knew how much she wanted to.
In the water, she can see her daughter wading up to her thighs, her hand in another woman’s as they walk towards the setting sun. She’s giggling at something the woman has said, her eyes filled with the same joy as her mother’s fifty years earlier. The old woman watches her daughter, but is distracted by a man with eyes so dark they’re almost black, staring into the distance. She knows him, but age and time have built a barrier between them and she can’t quite recall how. As if he knows she’s looking, his focus turns to her, and their eyes meet. She knows exactly who he is.
She instantly casts her gaze down. She can’t bear to look at him.
When she finally glances upward, the sun has sunk too far below the sea and all that is left of her former love is a silhouette against the horizon.
*Never say forever*.