I recently posted a short story. Since then, I've done a bit of editing. So here is the updated version!
The sun burned at the horizon as I stepped outside, balancing my cup of coffee in one hand while gently closing the door behind me. This condo was more than just a seaside rental; it had turned into a second home, a young lovers’ paradise. We’d stayed there for three consecutive summers, and at the end of each August we bid the place a solemn farewell through car windows nearly blocked by luggage. The location was ideal; walk the length of a football field, and you were at the shore, where the waves tumbled in softly, leaving bubbles and foam on the smooth sand. Every now and then, a thunderstorm would intrude upon our haven’s tranquility, but we never minded. The upstairs bedroom opened onto a balcony, and while the storm raged outside, we’d pull back the curtains and watch as the ocean churned in a wild chaos. We rarely got out of bed on those days.
This morning, though, was quiet as an old churchyard cemetery. I could almost feel the ghosts around me as my bare feet touched upon the cool, stone walkway. The air seemed electrified, but I heard nothing except the whisper of the waves as they approached then fell back, came closer then receded. Tourist season was over. It was the first of September, and another summer had burst into life and then abruptly, tragically died. Only this time, I mourned its loss alone.
I lifted my small, Styrofoam cup to my lips, tasting the overly sweet coffee while inhaling its fragrant steam. The hot liquid flowed down my throat and slowly soothed the burning caused by a sleepless night of tears. Through puffy eyes, I saw old Samuel hobbling down his driveway to retrieve the morning paper. He bent slowly, carefully, to pluck the parcel from the ground, and as he stood back up, his eyes caught mine and his face burst into a smile. I loved the man like a grandfather, and he loved me like the children (and grandchildren) he’d never had. But I didn’t want him to see me like this. I chided myself for not leaving out the back door.
"Good morning, sunshine!” he said in his usual upbeat sing-song.
His voice was raspy yet comforting, and for a moment I wanted to run to him and bury my face against his shoulder and sob. Instead I forced a smile accompanied by my usual, “Morning, Pops, what’s new?”
“Oh, nothing much,” he predictably replied as he began opening the plastic bag with trembling fingers. “The world’s a crazy place. I’m afraid to see today’s headlines.” He feared the state of world affairs, but he compulsively read The New York Times from cover to cover every day without fail. Sometimes I think his anxiety over everyone else’s futures kept him from feeling lonely.
“Yeah, it’s sad to see.” Armageddon could strike tomorrow, and yet no emotion stirred in me. The state of world affairs meant nothing compared to the state of my own. But I had to play the part. “Gas prices are sky rocketing even worse, huh?”
“What’s that? You ate something that gave you gas?”
I forced a half-hearted laugh. “No, no, I meant gasoline. You know, for our cars.” I inched closer. He looked up from his paper and stared into my face with a sage’s perception. Without any words, he knew what had happened, and I recognized his own recognition. But before he could verbalize anything, I turned and walked quickly toward the beach, my feet pounding hard against the stone pathway.
It seemed like five football fields this time, but at last I reached the shore. I tossed my now empty cup into a nearby trash receptacle, and I walked straight into the water. The waves sloshed up against my shorts, and the coolness of the morning ocean gave me goosebumps.
I stood there unaware of passing time, gazing toward the middle of the sea and hoping some solace would come to the shore, especially for me. But there were no boats in sight. There weren’t even any people. The unlikely loneliness of the beach on this morning, along with the cold water, sent chills down my spine, yet I found myself frozen in place. I could not retreat. Maybe I expected him to come up behind me, like he loved to do, and wrap his arms around my waist before snuggling his face next to mine. Together, we’d watch the waves roll in, and I’d never felt more connected to eternity than in those moments. There was something about the ocean, and something about love; and the union of the two gave birth to an almost-miracle.
As I reminisced in this way, I impulsively felt for the ring finger on my left hand. The shimmering golden band, which the jeweler had melded with my engagement band, had become a part of my own body. It had taken on human properties; it had represented life. But now, my heart raced as I tried to locate the tiny circle. All I could feel was flesh. The ring was gone, and I had to raise my pale, naked hand to my face to visually witness its absence. Total disbelief and panic set in, and I frantically splashed around in the water trying to locate the one remaining symbol of “us.”
No longer daunted by the chilly water, or the fact that I was wearing a t-shirt and shorts, I dove into the water, eyes open and arms flailing. The ring had to be somewhere. It had to be. I hadn’t gone in too deep, and the waves were gentle this morning. The undertow couldn’t have carried it far. The shifting sand couldn’t have been that greedy. God couldn’t have been that cruel.
People had begun to come out to the shore for their morning walks, and a few gave me strange looks as they passed. Luckily, the walkers were few and far between, though I really didn’t care who saw me sloshing in the water, hair soaked, limbs trembling from the cold and the fear. This was my ring. It was my heartache. No one else could possibly understand.
The sun rose higher in the sky, and the wind shifted. Grey clouds began to obscure the brightness, and I was familiar enough with seaside climate to expect a storm within an hour. Maybe less. I still hadn’t found the ring, and I was exhausted from my attempts at its recovery. Nearly defeated, I trudged from the water and onto the sand, taking a moment to sit down and breathe. I spat sand and dirt from my mouth, and I squeezed water and tears from my eyes. It was a burning, salty mixture.
Suddenly, from the corner of my eye, I saw someone running toward me. It was a little girl, about five or six years old, and she had something sheltered inside her small fist. A tall woman followed from a distance, but the girl’s speed brought her to me just seconds after I first noticed her. “Look what I found!” she exclaimed, her bright brown eyes glistening with joy and her dark curls framing an angelic face.
My heart leapt. I was speechless as she unclenched her fingers from around her precious discovery.
My heart fell. It was a small seashell. But to her, it was the whole world.
“Isn’t it pretty? Mommy says it was home for an animal. But the animal isn’t in there anymore.”
As my heart rate slowed, I carefully took the shell from the girl’s hand and tried to conceal my disappointment. “It’s – it’s beautiful,” I stammered, examining its mother-of-pearl sheen and the tiny points that interrupted its otherwise smooth surface. “Do you know what this type of shell is called?” The girl shook her head. “It’s a conch. And it did hold a tiny animal. This tiny little shell protected an animal’s life!”
The girl smiled and turned as her mother approached. “I’m so sorry she ran up to you like that,” the woman said with an apologetic smile. “She’s never been the shy type.”
I laughed. “Oh, that’s alright.” For a moment, I’d almost forgotten about the ring.
“Well, come on honey, let’s get going. Daddy’s waiting to cook us breakfast.” My stomach sank, but I retained my smile as I bid the woman and her child a farewell.
But then, as they walked away, the girl suddenly turned again, and she ran back up to me. Without a word, she stared into my face, just as Samuel had done earlier, and took my hand. She pressed the tiny shell into my palm, closed my fingers around it, and gave me the brightest, most loving smile. Stunned into silence, I felt her little fingers leave mine, and she walked happily away with her mother.
What seemed like a lifetime later, I pried my lethargic legs from the sand, and rose. I examined the tiny conch as the thunder rolled in. It truly was perfect to observe. No chips, nothing broken. But who knew what had been concealed inside for countless years and countless human lifetimes.
I walked slowly back to the condo, the conch held safely in my left hand. Upon reaching my place, I turned the doorknob and passed through the threshold, feeling the cool, wooden floor beneath my sandy feet. I walked into the living room and sank into my favorite beanbag chair. With the shell still in my hand, I fell asleep just as the first sheets of rain began to cleanse the windowpanes.