He was a friend. Well, not really. An acquaintance is more like it. I only met him once but that one time was enough to mark me.
It was dark. Cold. I had my flashlight strapped onto my side but I wasn’t going to use it. If I couldn’t see them, they couldn’t see me and I preferred it that way. With no means of finding my way through the night, all I could trust were my thoughts. There was no point in using my eyes so I closed them. The only noise came from the waves crashing onto the shore and turning into foam. I dragged my feet through the wet sand and thin foam in complete silence. I didn’t even want to breathe too loudly so I only allowed myself to take short breaths and hold them for as long as I could, just as if I were drowning.
Then, a splash. I froze. I closed my eyes and tried to distinguish the splashing from the sound of the waves. It grew closer. I held my breath and focused on the way my heart beat against my chest rapidly. The cold water kissed my ankles. I shivered.
Something breathed on my neck.
I grasped the flashlight and smashed the bulb against his face. I bit my lip before a scream could escape them. I heard the splash of his body against the water. He screamed, but soon the scream turned into a soft laugh. I touched the blood on my neck and wiped it away. Why I didn’t run, I’ll never know. Perhaps his laughter caught me out of guard. It was, in a way, entrancing, almost like a lullaby. “Who are you?” I yelled.
“I’m the man who lives here. Who are you?” he laughed.
“I’m…” I started, “I’m lost.”
“Perhaps opening your eyes might help.” There was another splash.
“It won’t. Whatever I do, all I see is black.” A hand touched my chin and pushed it up.
“That’s because you need to look at the stars.” He whispered. I opened my eyes.
The white shone through the fog. Silver painted the black and killed it. I turned my eyes to the waves. I didn’t see the black anymore, but the stars that had fallen into the water. They cleared a path into the horizon.
“It’s cold tonight.” The man commented.
“It is,” I didn’t take my eyes off the stars. I couldn’t.
“Do you have somewhere to sleep tonight?”
“No,” I muttered.
“Come with me,” I didn’t need to turn to know he was looking at me. I could feel the weight of his eyes on my body. “Just for tonight. I can give you a place to rest.”
I ran my hands through my arms. The wind chilled me. It wasn’t a good idea to follow a stranger I had just met in the middle of a deserted beach. It was a horrible idea, in fact. But he didn’t seem too strong or threatening. I had knocked him to the ground with only a flashlight, and I was young, overly confident, and quite stupid. “Alright,” I replied, “lead the way.”
His fingers intertwined with mine. The heat of his hand passed on to mine. He pulled on my hand and led me through the darkness.
We walked for no more than a few minutes. The waves had crawled up to our ankles by the time I spotted the dim light by the edge of the sand. It passed through a curtain, moving like a ghost through the night. The outline of the small house became clearer as we got closer.
The man led me to the wooden steps that lifted the house from the beach and opened the door.
The light came from a single candle that was about to flicker off. It sat on a table on top of a puddle of wax. The man shook something that sounded like pieces of wood rattling. He stroke a match and lit the candle by the door.
The red light was enough for me to get a good look at the house. The wooden door frame smelled like salt and the bottom of the walls had yellow stains on its white painting. The top was chipping away, revealing the dark bricks underneath. Stairs led up and into the darkness.
There were books on the counter and a dirty plate next to them. Yet I didn’t spot a light switch or any lightbulbs. There weren’t any power outlets on the walls. I didn’t even see a phone.
“Would you like something to eat?” the man asked.
I hadn’t eaten all day and the pain in my stomach had been growing stronger, so I nodded. The man grabbed a box of matches from the counter with one hand and held out the candle with another one. He walked through the doorframe and led me to the counter where the books laid open. He made his way to a cabinet by the far back of the room.
I sat down on the chair next to the counter. My gaze fell onto the open books on it. I could not recognize the language they were written in and the cover didn’t help. It was a single color, like the one hidden beneath the intricate book jacket of a hardcover. One was blue, one was red, and one was black.
The man dropped a muffin in a plastic wrapper on the table and sat next to me. I looked up. For the first time, I stared into his face. I’m not sure if my memory has played tricks on me, if the light of the candle deceived my eyes, or if I remember him exactly as he was. My breathing grew slower. The man’s face looked as if it had been carved out of wood. Lines like cracks ran down his brown face, over his lips, and onto his chest. His eyes were a dark blue like the one of the sky just before the light completely disappears into the night. I had never seen eyes that blue.
The man must have read my reaction. He let out the same soft laugh. “Eat up,” he stated. For a moment, I had forgotten about my hunger. I opened the wrapper and bit into the muffin. My hands wandered onto the covers of the books.
“It’s hard,” he said, “keeping books in a house that is so close to the sea, but it is the safest thing to do here.” I didn’t understand what he meant but I still nodded. “But the hardest part is finding that one book that grabs you and won’t let you go until you’re through. I’ve been jumping from book to book for a while, but none have really grabbed me.” He explained, “Would you recommend anything?”
I shook my head, “I don’t really read.”
“You don’t read?” The man laughed, “How old are you?”
I decided in my head that I should lie, that I would say I was older than I really was. Yet my lips spoke before my head, “Fourteen.”
“Fourteen and you don’t read.” He tapped his fingers on the counter, “You should start reading. It’s going to help you as you grow.”
“How?” I asked.
He said, “Reading helps you grow.”
We didn’t exchange another word about it. I ate up the pastry in a matter of minutes. I licked the crumbs off my fingers and picked them off the wrapping. The man didn’t glance at me once. His sight was fixated in the movement of the candle’s flame.
It wasn’t until I was sure that I had eaten every single part of the muffin that he spoke again. “Why is such a young girl walking alone on the beach in the middle of the night?” I didn’t reply. I thought I was doing a good job hiding my motives and when he guessed them, I was amazed. But in retrospect, the answers were quite obvious. “You’re hiding.” He stated. I lifted my gaze. The cracks on his skin seemed to take life and shift with every movement he made. “You’re lost,” he continued, “You’re scared.” I gripped onto the counter and tried to tell how he knew what I was feeling, but I couldn’t.
“It’s alright. Being lost, scared, it’s all part of growing up,” He said, “Or is there something else that’s scaring you?”
I shook my head. “The unknown scares me,” I confessed.
“The unknown,” he repeated, “That scares us all. Why do you think we cling on so strongly to anything that can explain what we don’t know?” He passed his hand through the hardened wax puddle that had formed under the candle. “Did you think you could escape the unknown by hiding from it?” I remained silent. It was at that instant when I realized how stupid my idea had been. It had made sense at some point, but there, with that man explaining it so clearly, any excuse that I had made up in my head died. “You can’t escape the unknown, child,” the man continued, “You have a choice. You can obsess over it, let it rule you, consume you, mandate your beliefs, your fears, your life. Or you can accept it and learn to live with it. That doesn’t mean you can’t be scared of it; it’s fine to be. It just means you are willing to face it.”
I listened to every word he said. I didn’t dare move or even breathe too loudly. “There’s a bed upstairs you can sleep in if you wish.” He grabbed the candle and handed it to me, “Take a candle and don’t forget to blow it out before you sleep.”
I took the candle from his hands. In the light, they looked like the hands of a wooden puppet. Yet when I touched them, they felt like warm flesh.
I stood up and ventured through the strange house. I grabbed onto the railing and stared into the light of the candle until my eyes grew teary. I stepped up the stairs and lit my way through the darkness.
I entered the first room I saw. Inside, there was a single bed with white sheets over it. The window was open and white curtains flew in the wind. I closed the window and sat on the bed. I stared into the darkness of the hallway I had come from. My body shivered. I didn’t think it would be so hard to blow a candle.
I clung onto the bed and blew out. The flame died. I let the darkness envelop me and for a moment, I didn’t close my eyes. I stared straight into the dark until it felt like seeing the face of an old friend.
I woke up when the sun came up the next morning. I looked around the house, but the man was gone. I was never sure if I had dreamt the entire meeting or if he had been real. I am still not sure.
I ran back home that day. I was missing for no more than a weekend. My parents cried when they saw me and I cried too. They sent me to a psychologist who helped me a lot. I never did tell her about the house or the man. I began to read a lot more, always by candlelight.
I had convinced myself that the house had probably never existed and that the man was just something I had imagined. But today, I find myself strolling through the beach that I had once used to run away. And I run into a house that only lived in my dreams. I step inside and I see the same three books that a man had once told me he couldn’t choose over. I go upstairs and I see a candle I blew out in a dream next to the bed where I dreamt that dream. I can’t help but wonder if I hadn’t run into this house, if I would still be walking down the beach with my eyes closed, afraid to look at the stars.
Photo by Lukas Robertson