The beer slid down his throat, and Colin Hattrick wondered which might be worse: the dry vacuum of space or the liquid pressure of the ocean floor. Explosion or implosion. Both could be pretty nasty ways to die, he thought, but how much worse could it be than the searing cold radiating from inside the beach cottage behind his back?
Not much, he allowed, raising the bottle up to the moonlight, because either way he could die in silence. The silver of the moon cast a deep sepia stain across a face blurred by the neap tide of beer inside the glass. His arm grew suddenly leaden and he slowly lowered the bottle down to the splintery deck railing. Below him on the sand, a gust of wind sparked a conversation amongst the beach grass as the parched stalk nodded back and forth.
Colin looked out over the pale waters off the cape. The nighttime sea flickered in argentine semaphores under the influence of a gravid moon. Its fullness had brought Colin outside with his telescope, which now had pride of place on the rusting shrub that was the patio table. The table had been in the cottage from the first day they had come for vacation, so many years ago. Colin smiled to remember what his then new bride had said when they found it sinking into the sand underneath the raised belly of the house. She had wanted to throw it away. He had taken pity on it, even going so far as to buy some naval jelly and Rustoleum at the little general store in town. She thought him a bit odd for wanting to spend vacation time on what was essentially a housekeeping chore.
“What? A little rust removal, some fresh paint…” he remembered saying, “…good as new!”
She rolled her eyes and went in search of an umbrella and a sand bucket.
The table in his mind was akin to a friendly stray dog hanging around at the edges and wanting for a kind soul to take it home. He cleaned it up, tightened some bolts and painted it gleaming white. It looked a newly launched ship, and he put it on the deck the next day. A new citronella candle and the coronation was complete. Over the years, the edges of the table began to blur under the accretion of paint, white, always white. Colin felt a kinship with that table, realizing his own edges, his own outlines had begun to soften and fade with time. He knew it with certainty. He no longer could tell where his feelings ended and his body began. Numbness had set in, the side effects of a love gone cold.
Another swallow of beer. Tilting his head back brought his watery eyes into focus on the stars overhead. The outline of the telescope was a black cutout against the backdrop of the moon, and his thoughts turned again to the cold. What’s it going to be, boy? That voice in his head again. Launch yourself into the velvet blackness up there or dive into the black brine out past the strand?
Red Mars winked at him from the left of the moon, taunting him with its implied warmth. The waves along the beach chuckled in inky curls laced with silver thread, and for a moment he thought he saw a huge, bearded face grinning at him. Colin shook his head hard, rubbing at his eyes. The face was no longer there, Mars was an innocent red dot, and of the waves there was only a hiss of liquid over sand. He leaned forward in his chair, suddenly desiring to search the sky for an answer, an omen, a hint of warmth to melt the shell slowly crystallizing around his heart. The eyepiece of the telescope felt cool and slightly oily on his fingertips.
As he focused the lens, the back door of the cottage squeaked open, the metallic twangy voice of unoiled hinges announcing a visitor. Colin felt no obligation to turn, judging from the precipitous drop in temperature that it was the stranger he had once known as a friend and lover.
“You coming in anytime soon?” she asked in a voice cool and shiny like an axe. His heart contracted into a ball of ice, blood rushing outwards and draining into the sea.
“Maybe…I don’t know…Yes, once I’m done…” his voice leaden to his ears, “…once I have found what I am looking for.”
He felt her disapproval and annoyance boring into his back. Still, he stifled the urge to get up and go inside, pretending to look through the telescope all the while. Eventually, the hinges croaked again as she lightly slammed the door as she went inside. The light coming through the door blinked out abruptly, leaving Colin bathed only in the light of the moon. He sighed and wiped away a tear.
There was a tinkling, a sound of shattered glass or ice, he thought he heard, and wondered if it was his heart.