"Out here the river, meets the sea
And in the sticky heat I feel ya' open up to me
Love comes outta nowhere, baby...
Like a hurricane
Like a hurricane
And it feels like rain,
And it feels like rain..."
A seagull shrieked, razor on glass. The sleeping man jerked awake in the beach chair, the lyrics leaking from the radio at his feet sounding tinny. A dream of a different life wavered before his eyes to dissolve into the syrupy undulations of the Atlantic Ocean. He blinked rapidly to clear his vision, feeling a wispy sadness clinging to the branches of his mind. Wiping his eyes with the back of a salt-rimed hand, Ross Mercer wondered again how he had ended up in this emotional Sargasso Sea.
Down by the waterline, his wife Maura and son Nathan splashed about in the spumy edges of the surf. The boy was digging around in the soggy sand, presenting shells to his mother like jewels to the queen. She was smiling and patting her son on the head; he grinned gleefully and continued his hunt for treasure. Ross sighed, feeling guilty over the stab of envy that had lanced through his heart. It had been too long since she had smiled at him like she meant it. There was something else, an undertone of oily regret, that the boy may have been the only thing Ross had ever really done right.
Maura looked up suddenly, caught him staring. Her smile faded slightly, almost imperceptibly, but it was enough for Ross to catch. His heart twinged again, and he waved to her, trying to cover up his discomfort. She raised her hand briefly, tentatively, and turned her cool gray eyes back to Nathan. Nathan had seen nothing, knew nothing. Ross was more than happy to keep it that way.
Ross leaned back in the chair, trying to ease the sting of sand on his sunburned back. Just as he settled into a semi-comfortable position, another shriek erupted from the nearby gull. Ross jumped, turning to look.
The plump bird was a few feet away, standing on one leg atop a small mound of sand. Seeing Ross move, the gull cocked its head to gaze at the man with nacreous eyes. The orangey beak parted slightly with a low, guttural squawk leaking out. It had the sound of a dying engine, and Ross chuckled. Scruffy and looking world-weary, the bird looked at Ross expectantly.
"Sorry, bro, all I have is some cheese puffs." He held up the bag in his lap, as if the gull would know enough about snack foods to have an opinion. "Woops, looks more like crumbs" Ross opened the bag wider to check. "Wait, there's one left". Ross extracted the dessicated lump of corn dough and yellow flavor from the bag, holding it up to the bird; it perked up and took a step closer. Ross tossed the puff and the gull expertly snatched it from the air. The sudden motion and the prospect of a free meal caught the attention of two other gulls behind the first. They charged Ross' new friend, which took off running. Ross chuckled as the birds hustled down the beach, tussling over the snack.
"Daddy, daddy, look!"
Nathan was calling excitedly from down by the waterline. He was holding a small, white disc in his dripping hand.
"What is it, kiddo?" Ross called out.
"A sand dollar, dad! I'm gonna be rich!" Nathan's enthusiasm was infectious, making Ross grin.
"We'll have to get you a sand bank!"
The boy hiccuped with laughter at the silly joke. He skipped over to Maura, holding out his prize. She had been standing with her back to them, hugging her sides in the cool ocean breeze. Her head was down, making absent-minded trails in the wet sand with the toes of her right foot. Ross could tell she was distracted, but she perked up at the sight of her son.
The waves were rolling up the shingle slowly, and Ross felt every single one inside. The sun was painting Maura in bright gold and peach, a swan he used to know elegantly poised over the sand. A swan that loved him once, in a different chapter of his life. There were twinges, faint sparks, but now they stopped short of full ignition. Ross doubted he could feel any more than the ghost of a trace of a faded memory of what they used to have between them. It wasn't love, it wasn't loathing, it was cold ashes. His head fell to his chest. Dizziness overwhelmed him, wrapping him up in a coat of fatigue. The heat and the whisper of the waves lulled him into a doze.
"Ross, wake up."
Ross snapped awake again, embarrassed to find he was slumped over. A thin string of drool was creeping down his cheek. Maura was sitting on the towel next to his chair, a look of mild concern on her heart-shaped face. He wiped his cheek hurriedly. "Hey, hon."
"Where did you go, Sleepy?" she asked, smiling slightly.
"Not far" Ross answered, his voice squeaking with far more cheer than he truly felt, "Just a quick trip to La-La land, thinking too much." He regretted that remark instantly.
"Thinking about what?" she said, trying to sound light, but Ross sensed some tension in her voice. She absent-mindedly had placed a hand on his arm. He found himself trying not to flinch.
"Everything and nothing, love. Just...nothing, really." She sighed but didn't look at him, focusing instead on Nathan, who was stalking a seagull along the tide line.
Ross dropped his gaze to the tanned fingers resting lightly on his arm, saddened to feel that taking those fingers into his own hand would be akin to trying to cross a burning bridge. Ross willed himself to move. He watched as a hand that did not feel like own crept up to hold Maura's lightly with the the tips of its fingers. She turned to him, startled, and he swallowed hard as he looked into her cool, grey eyes.
"Just..." he hesitated. She held her breath, expectantly. "Just...happy Valentine's Day, dear...happy Valentine's Day." She started to smile, then stopped, then continued on into a faint upturning of the corners of her mouth. "Happy Valentine's Day to you, too" she replied, but Ross could hear the effort she was putting into not sounding surprised. A brief pause, and Ross felt her fingers slipping out of his. Two sets of wary eyes looked for solace in the frolicking form of Nathan. The boy sensed he was being watched, and he looked back to his parents, waving and grinning. They waved back, two ice sculptures come to life.
Behind him, the pewter-jade ocean swelled and rippled, carrying on a restless conversation with the shore.
Opening lines are lyrics used without permission, from "Feels Like Rain" by John Hiatt. One of the best damn love songs ever written.