“Hm? Nat, is that you?”
Natalie smiled. “It’s me, Uncle.”
An man, slouched on a broken couch, turned his weary face towards her. “Aren’t you early? Come closer, so I can see you.” She knelt down next to him, taking one of his thin hands in hers. “Why,” he whispered, smiling. “You look like you’ve brought the sun in with you.”
She laughed. “Uncle, it’s nice to see you, too.”
“So what is it this time? What story would you like to hear this time? That is, if you’re not getting too tired of this old man’s ramblings.”
“Uncle, you know I love hearing your stories!”
“I know, I know. So what do you want to hear this time?”
“Well, I love all of them, but do you have anything new?”
“New? New stories? Hmm... Nat, did I ever tell you my story?”
“Your story? No. What is your story?”
He smiled. “Well...”
“It all began when I was about... oh, eight or so. Did you know my family lived in the same house you and your mom live in now?”
“I know, Uncle. You told me last time.”
“Oh, yes. Well, we lived in that house, all seven of us, and I was the youngest. So when my brothers and sisters were in summer school, I went down and played in the sand, like what you used to do when you were little. All day long, I played, and then one day, I saw her.
“She was the prettiest little girl I ever saw, with hair and eyes the color of bright blue-green sea in summer. We were the only two people on the beach, so of course I invited her to come and play with me.”
“But didn’t you wonder who she was?”
“Well, when you’re a kid, you don’t wonder. I was just happy there was someone my age to play with. I think, deep down, I already knew she wasn’t normal, but I didn’t care.
“We made the grandest sandcastles, Nat. The first one we made had towers and fountains that ran and a little lake, right below a bridge to the castle gate. The next day, I came out to play and it was gone, just one big pile of sand, but she was still there. And we made a better one that day, and the day after.”
“Did you ever find out her name?”
His eyes misted over. “Yes, I knew her name.”
Natalie waited patiently for it, but he continued with his story.
“Summer school ended and fall began, and we still played every day. I started noticing that no one except me could see her, and I stopped telling people about her. When my siblings got out of summer school, they and their friends started playing down by the beach, too. But they couldn’t see her, and for the longest time I couldn’t figure out why. I’d talk to her, and they’d look at me weird, like I was mad or something. Pretty soon they stopped playing with me, telling others that I was this crazy kid talking to his imaginary friend, but I didn’t mind because I had her.
“Once school started for me, I couldn’t see her as much. Still, we played together as much as we could. She didn’t talk much at all, but I always knew what she wanted me to know, and I knew that she was happy. I was happy, too.
“Years went by, and we kept our friendship as strong as ever. Then, puberty hit.” A wry smile lit upon Reuben’s face. “Suddenly I couldn’t stop thinking that she was the prettiest girl in the whole world. It hurt our friendship for a little while, because I was so awkward around her. We even stopped playing together. But one day I went down to the shore and told her how I loved her, and asked her to be my girlfriend. And she said yes. I can almost remember the look on her face. She said she loved me, too. We were the happiest two in the world.” His eyes softened and a wistful expression crept over his face.
“And then I went to highschool.”
“In highschool, everything happened. My junior high was in this town, but my parents made me go to highschool in the city. There was so much drama, Nat. So-and-so broke up with his girlfriend, these two became a couple, they did this, they did that. There was so much going on. I don’t know how you deal with it. You’re in highschool, aren’t you?”
“I’m a sophomore.”
Reuben shook his head. “What a crazy time. Nothing hurt our relationship as much as highschool. I was so busy during the first semester that I barely saw her at all. One day I went to the sea and she wasn’t there, Nat. You can’t imagine my fear—I thought—I thought she had disappeared forever. I was so, so scared.
“I searched for her for hours, and when I finally found her, she was lying on the sand, looking pale and thin and scared. Do you know what she said? She said that we couldn’t work out. She loved me, but we—our relationship—couldn’t work out. It wouldn’t.”
“She said that we would die.”
“She wasn’t human. It was the first time that she said it so plainly. She was from the sea, she told me, from the depths of the sea that mankind didn’t even know existed. I was human, and she was inhuman, and she said if she loved me anymore they’d kill both of us. Part of her culture—something stupid like that. I don’t remember clearly. All I remember is that she asked me to understand—how could I, Nat? I was young, and so angry. I was really angry. And I said something that I’ve regretted for the rest of my life.
“In my anger, I accused her of being a liar. I told her, ‘Maybe you aren’t from the sea. Maybe you just don’t want to see me anymore.’ For the first time, I doubted her.”
“And then... what happened?”
He stared into the distance, reliving painful memories.
“She cried, Nat. The first time I had seen her cry and I was the one who did it. I was the one who hurt her, and I was too angry to even see that. She cried so hard, Nat.”
There was something glimmering in his eyes and something wet on her cheek.
“And then, then what happened?” Natalie asked so quietly, wanting and not wanting to hear more.
“There wasn’t much after that,” Reuben said harshly, and rubbed at his eyes with his sleeve, muttering about too much sand around the house. “I only saw her from a distance after that, and started dating some girl from my highschool. Can’t even remember her name. I was so cruel, Nat. The more I thought about her just not wanting to see me, the more I believed it, and the angrier I got. I took that girl out to the beach one day, just to rub it in her face. And we kissed.
“I was watching her out of the corner of my eye as we did it. There was such a sad expression on her face, Nat. Like something had died inside of her. And at that moment, something died inside of me. Maybe I was regretting. But I looked at her, and—”
“Uncle? Uncle, it’s okay. You don’t have to tell me. I don’t have to know,” Natalie said quickly.
“No, Nat.” He looked at her. “If there’s anyone I’d want to know, it’s you. You’re this old man’s only friend.”
“You’re not that old.”
“Thank you, my dear.” He sighed and gripped the edge of his couch. “Now, I was saying...”
“You looked at her as you kissed that other girl.”
“Oh, yes.” His eyes misted over. “She disappeared, Nat. She disappeared the moment I gave my heart to another girl.”
They sat in silence. Outside, the wind pushed against the side of the shack and swept sand into the air and the sun; the waves sparkled and glittered like gold; and the sun shone on all. But inside the shack, it was dark, silent, and cool. It was only the two of them. The only two who knew his story.
“Why do you think she came?” Natalie asked.
Reuben looked away. “You know, when I was a child, I was looking for a companion. Maybe she was looking for someone, too.” Then he gripped her hand and stared into her eyes, hopeful. “Do you—do you think, if I had broken off the kiss and apologized to her, she would have maybe...”
“Maybe,” Natalie said quietly. “Maybe.”
He slumped back into his couch. “But I didn’t. I was a fool, a complete idiot. A childish act of spite threw everything away. And look where I am now! Just wasting away out here, wishing, hoping for another chance.” Shaking his head, he whispered, “What an utter fool...”
Natalie stroked his hand. “Maybe you will,” she said.
“Not a chance,” he said. “I’ve been looking for her for years and years and years and have never found a single sign. I can’t even remember her name—it disappeared when she did. It’s all over, Nat. It’s all over.”
“What about you? Will you leave?”
He smiled. “No, not me, Nat. I’ll be waiting here until the sea runs dry.” Then, he placed a hand on her shoulder.
“Here’s a lesson to you, Nat,” he said. “Don’t let anything come in between you and your love. She still wanted to be with me, even if we both died—I know that. Don’t mind those little differences—human, inhuman? We didn’t care. They were the ones who cared. And finally, Nat. Don’t run away. Don’t run away from love.”
Natalie exited the shack and was blasted by the wind, which whipped around her and pulled at her hair. Yet, there was a bittersweet feeling that accompanied it, swirling around and overwhelming her.
Something stung at her eyes and she wiped them away. “Too much sand,” she said, and laughed.
She spread her arms wide open and felt the sun and sea all around her.
"Come on, Ty. Let’s do this.”
Teal eyes shift uncomfortably. “If you’re sure...”
He sighs and pulls out a shell-like cell phone. “Hey, um. Dad? There’s someone I’d like you to meet. Her name’s Natalie.”