On the Beach
She was sitting just outside the firelight. When Tom had glanced over, just a few minutes before, she wasn’t there. Now, she was off to his right, sitting all alone. He caught her looking at him. He smiled and turned his head. The next time she seemed to be looking at someone or something behind him. He spun to see who might have caught her eye, but there was nobody back there.
She reminded him of one of those girls in the movies, the best friend of the hot chick. She was pretty in her own right, but was usually lost in the glare of the friend and uncomfortable in the darkness when the star wasn’t around. The light from the beach bonfire didn’t illuminate her, but he saw her attractiveness in the glow from the moon and stars. She was wearing a plain sundress and her dark hair was pulled back.
Tom grabbed a couple beers from the cooler and walked over. She didn’t look up until he was right in front of her. Her eyes were as dark as her hair. He took one bottle by the neck and held it out towards her.
“Hi. Like one?”
She shook her head and looked down at the sand around her feet. Her silence was accentuated by the crowd behind him and the soft crash of the nearby waves.
“I was getting hot and the smoke started blowing in my face. Mind if I join you?”
She gave him a slight smile and wiped at the log next to her, as if sweeping off a spot for him. He sat and put the beers next to his feet. He turned to the girl and put his right hand forward. “I’m Tom.”
“Dorothy,” she said, holding the backs of her fingers towards him, almost like she wanted him to kiss her hand. He shook it awkwardly.
“Nice to meet you.”
He was met with silence again. Oh, great, he thought. If she’s as shy as I am, this is going to go nowhere fast.
“I’ve been here for a couple weeks, but haven’t seen you around. Are you here with someone?”
“No. I don’t know anyone. I just saw the fire and wanted to be close.”
“I came down with my cousin, Will. We know a few of the people.” He pointed to the other side of the fire. “He’s the one taking out the guitar.”
Aw geez, a few drinks and the guitar. Here we go. And sure enough, Will struck an odd chord and started singing “Blowin’ in the Wind.”
“We get in a crowd like this, and Will’s had a few beers, he starts singing Bob Dylan songs. I tell him that nobody wants to hear that crap, it’s our grandfather’s music for God’s sake. Then he says, ‘They’re classic for a reason.’ You like Dylan?”
She gave the slightest shoulder shrug. “I don’t know him.”
“Trust me, you aren’t missing anything.”
She smiled at that. Tom took a long drink from his bottle. Liquid encouragement.
“I hear this all the time, and I’m not in the mood for it tonight. You wanna walk down the beach or something?”
He stood and held his hand out. Dorothy placed her fingers in his palms and he helped her up. Her fingers were chilly, and he found himself wishing he had a jacket to offer.
“Are you cold?”
“No. I’m quite comfortable. Are you?”
“No. I’m good.” But as they stepped away from the bonfire a gust blew in from the ocean and gooseflesh crawled up his arm.
They walked along the sand, the noise of the bonfire crowd vanishing behind them. Tom tried to wait for her to break the silence, but she was content not speaking. The girl walked close beside him, her shoulder brushing the top of his left arm from time to time. It was a kind of intimacy he’d never experienced with a stranger before.
“I’m heading back to Boston College in a couple weeks. Are you in school?”
“No. High school was all I needed.”
“Really? So what do you do with yourself?”
“Oh, you know…” She trailed off as if he truly could fill in the blank of what encompassed her life.
He got lost in his thoughts, trying to imagine this pretty girl’s life. She obviously wasn’t spending her time on the beach. She was pale. The moonlight almost made her glow. He was certain she wasn’t married or engaged; he’d checked for a ring. And the fact that she was alone and walking with him seemed to rule out a boyfriend, too.
He was trying to figure out if she was a local or a summer person when he realized that she wasn’t adding to the conversation. He’d have to try to get things started yet again.
Another strong breeze came in from the ocean, blowing the tips of her hair against his face and neck. The gentle brush tickled, and he shivered again.
“You know,” she said. “On a night like this, at this time of the year, it’s warmer in the water. Come on.” Dorothy peeled off her dress and tossed it into the beachgrass near the dunes.
Tom’s jaw dropped. Where’d this come from. She stood before him in her white underwear. She didn’t have much of a chest, but her bra was heavy-duty. The word industrial came to mind. It wasn’t like any he’d ever seen before. The few girls he’d been with didn’t even wear bras most of the time. He watched her do that trick that girls do, a twist, a stretch, and a wiggle, and the bra was off, joining the dress in the grass.
She patted the back of his hand and ran to the water, into the moonlight reflection. He jerked off his shirt and took two steps before dropping his pants. He should follow the lady’s example. And besides, he had to keep his phone and wallet dry.
When Tom looked back up, she was gone. She had run into the water right in front of him, she couldn’t be more than twenty or thirty feet away. The water should be way too shallow for swimming, and even then, he’d see her kicking legs. But there were only the undisturbed waves, marching to the shore.
To his mind, the whole scene had been playing like the opening of “Jaws” and now he was scared. He called out, “Dorothy!”
As if on command, she popped out of the water, just beyond the breakers, a hundred feet from the beach. She bent back her head, wiping stray hairs from her face. “Are you coming?” she shouted.
Tom ran until he had to high-step in the water, then dove and swam out to her. She was right about the warmth. The water was much more comfortable than the air. He stood up and shook the water from his face and hair.
The water was shoulder deep and they were softly buffeted by the waves. She embraced him, pulling herself close, hard nipples prodding into his chest. He wrapped his arms around her, unsure of what else to do. Even after the past hour, she was a complete stranger. He wanted to kiss her, but he didn’t have the nerve to try.
She put the side of her head against his shoulder. “You remind me of a boy,” she said. He brought one hand up and stroked her hair. “My parents didn’t like him. They called him a hoodlum. Just because he hung with Frank Barelli. But he was nice. Are you nice, Tom?”
The question took him aback. “I think I am.”
She hugged him tighter, then let go and disappeared under the water again. The stars were vanishing as clouds gathered, so it was almost impossible to see, but there was no sound of her splashing anywhere. She was the quietest swimmer Tom had ever been around.
He spun to look in every direction for any sign, and saw her in the shallows near the beach. He swam in as fast as he could, letting the waves help him along the way. By the time he reached the sand, she had put her sundress on her wet body and was holding out his clothes to him.
As he pulled on his shorts, she started walking west again. He went after her, awkwardly trying to pull on his shirt as he jogged.
They came to a break in the dunes and she turned toward a house up the beach. “Good night, Tom.”
“I have to go.”
“Can I see you again? Maybe tomorrow?”
“No.” She paused, and looked at Tom with a stare that told him not to interrupt. “Tonight was nice, but you’re just another boy who’s going to leave. And every time, you don’t come back.”
“Well, yeah, I’m going back to school, but—”
Dorothy grabbed his arms and pressed her cool lips against the corner of his mouth. Goose pimples sprang from his arms, but an electric heat shot through his feet. She pushed away, spun, and ran to the house. He wanted to run after, but his legs felt stunned by that shock.
A cloud passed over the moon as she ran into the shadows along the house and he didn’t see her re-emerge from the darkness.
Tom took two steps toward the house, then realized if he wanted any chance with her, he’d have to wait.
He turned and walked back to the bonfire, wet body shivering in the cool night. As he traced his own footprints back along the beach, he thought it odd how the waves had washed away the girl’s prints, but not his own.
The clouds that gathered at the end of the night had become a storm by the next morning and Tom spent the day at his uncle’s place in town.
The following day, he rode his bike out to the house at the beach. He hated showing up uninvited, but had to see Dorothy again. He stopped on the shoulder across the street and walked up the board sidewalk to the house.
He knocked, and a middle-aged woman answered the door. “Yes?” she asked.
“Hi. Is… uh… is Dorothy at home?”
“I think you have the wrong house,” the woman said, and started to close the door.
“No. We met on the beach the other night and I dropped her off here.”
“I’m sorry, that wasn’t anyone who lives here. Good day.”
The woman pushed the door further, making it clear that he was dismissed, but left it open enough to watch him leave. Tom turned and stepped off the porch.
He was about halfway down the walk when he heard a mumbled commotion behind him. It ended with a clear, “Mother, don’t do this.”
Then he heard another voice call to him. “Young man.” He turned and saw an elderly woman at the door. She must have been eighty or so. Maybe almost as old as his great grandmother. “Did you say you were looking for Dorothy?”
“Yeah. Dorothy. You know her?”
The woman stepped back and opened the door. “Maybe you should come in.”
In the back he heard the other woman. “Mom!”
“You hush. It’s my house and he’s my guest.” She looked back at Tom and waved him forward. He followed her into the living room and she motioned at a sofa, inviting him to sit.
“Why are you here?” she asked. Before he could answer, she walked over to a side table and picked up a picture.
“I was at a bonfire down the beach the other night, and I met Dorothy. We walked for a while and she said goodnight to me out back and came into this house. Is she your granddaughter?”
She handed him the picture. “She was my aunt.”
The words barely registered to Tom. He was staring at a yellowing black and white photo of two young ladies in front of this house that looked like it was taken back around World War II. The younger one was unmistakably Dorothy.
“But I don’t… What? No, no, it can’t…”
“Did she say anything to you?”
“We talked. A little. She didn’t say much.”
“Did she maybe tell you why?”
“I don’t know what you mean. Why what?”
“In the fall of 1946, my grandfather awoke one morning and saw my Aunt Dorothy walking out into the ocean. At first, he thought nothing of it. She loved the water. A moment later, he realized she was fully dressed. He ran down to the shoreline calling her name. He said she turned to him once and waved, then calmly walked until the water was over her head. He swam out to where she went under, but she was gone. No one ever saw her again.”
“No. No, you’re lying. We talked. She held my hand. She kissed me.”
“This isn’t the first time, young man. Tell me. Did she tell you why she killed herself?”
He tossed the picture frame to the other end of the couch. He needed to get away. None it made any sense. He leapt from the couch.
The old woman was in front of him and grasped his hands. “Please. Did she say anything? Anything.”
“No. She said I reminded her of a boy. A boy her parents didn’t like.”
“I don’t know. Wait. Frank someone. Petrocelli or Garelli. Something Italian. No. He wasn’t Frank, he was Frank’s friend.”
“She said he was nice, and she asked me if I was nice, and that was it. Then she said goodbye.”
The corners of the wrinkled mouth turned down and the old woman looked down at the floor. “Thank you.”
“Oh, and then she said something about the boy leaving and never coming back.”
“But here you are. You came back.”
He paused a moment. “I guess I did.”
The woman wrapped him in her thin arms and hugged him with a strength he hadn’t imagined she had. She took his face in her hands, pulled it down and kissed him under one eye. Then she walked him to the front hall, saying only “Thank you” as she closed the door behind him.
Tom walked around the house, down to the beach. The tide was pulling out and there was a wide expanse of smooth wet sand.
Except for a single line of delicate footprints leading into the ocean.
by T. L. Emery