The picture depicted three young people smiling into the camera in foreground, the blue waters of the Atlantic Ocean crashing against the beach behind them. The young woman, in her early twenties, was in the center, her auburn hair and gentle green eyes illuminated by the sun that was clearly behind the camera that had taken the photo. She smiled with her teeth exposed, white against her soft pink lipstick. To her right, a sandy-haired young man coyly smiled, his face pressed up against hers, his bright blue eyes fixated on her behind paint-splattered glasses, squinting against the light. Immediately to her left was another young man, his smile small and serious. His long black hair hung down around his face, accentuating his dark complexion and eyes. He looked stoic in comparison to the other two: eyes focused on something beyond the camera.
The photograph sat hidden behind a computer monitor, a thin layer of dust covering the glass of the frame. Behind the desk, however, the same photograph was committed to paint; it hung on the wall, directly above an aged version of the blonde young man, with creases and lines across his face, but the same paint-splattered glasses. He fiddled carefully with a ruler, measuring the piece of canvas that sat in front of him, measuring its every dimension in deft moments, marking them with dark pencil marks. There was no whitewash on it, just the fabric waiting to be mounted and eventually painted. He let out a sort of a deep hum, and fiddled with the ruler in his hand, turning it in a circular motion while attempting to balance it on his fingertips. It clattered to the floor and seemed to echo loudly, as if it was amplified by the near silence that was in the room. He slid his foot to drag the ruler closer as he bent to pick it up. He decided to stop fidgeting and continue to get the measurements correct.
A younger version of the man had once sat in a coffee shop not too far from where his older counterpart had housed his gallery. The coffee was just as bad as it was back then, a twisted sort of anachronism in the modern age of multi-billion dollar coffee companies and the standardization of those chain stores. It was horrible, the man thought, grimacing through a sip; horrible, but the cheapest cup of coffee in the entire goddamn city. He relaxed his stride upon exiting just long enough to catch his reflection in the plate glass window. He saw that younger man staring back at him, slack-jaw underneath his unkempt sandy hair, his eyes filled with a million questions. He moved as his older self did, across the window making wild gestures with his arms trying desperately to get his own attention. The older man noticed: he could not help but to, for he knew for certain that if he could hear this young self, that he would be shouting questions and continuing to expect answers to what the older man thought were unanswerable questions. He moved away from the plate glass windows, leaving his younger self standing there in complete confusion, mouthing obscenities to himself that everyone walking past the window would have been glad they could not hear if they would have noticed.
There was a twisted expression on the older man’s face as he stood gripping the handrail on the commuter train as it would its way underneath the city of monoliths. It was a confused look, with perhaps a bit of concern about it as well. He stared at the floor, every disgusting, dirty bit of it. The other passengers read, or stared off in the distance, but he just merely stared at the floor, that confused look sprawled across his face. No one on the train would notice it, because that was always just the way that the trains in that city operated.
The idea, like the hundreds that came before it, was hatched sitting on a corner of an empty quad as the three students exhaled smoke and passed a joint between each other. The sandy-haired young man gave a sparse cough as he let the last bit of pot out of his lungs before sliding his free hand across the thigh of the auburn-haired girl sitting next to him. She slapped at it playfully, as they continued to barely listen to the dark-haired young man’s words as they rebounded against the back of the building that they were leaning against.
“I’m telling you guys, we can just catch the train and ride it all the way to the coast for like nothing. Cheap. Dirt cheap. My brother does it all the time.” He furrowed his brow as he noticed his words had fallen on deaf ears. “Goddamn it, can’t you two just listen for like two seconds?” His cry of anger was cut short just as the joint appeared in front of his face. He inhaled sharply.
“Breath it in, man. That’s it. Now relax. We’re listening.” The sandy-haired young man carried a giant grin across his face that almost seemed as if it was running the risk of spreading outside of his head. Beneath his paint-spattered glasses, his eyes held more crimson than blue. He sucked his grin back in an instant, and retained a deathly serious pallor about him for just long enough to say one last thing: “I have to make rent this month. If I don’t make rent this month, my dad is going to drive up here, throw me over his shoulder, and take me home kicking and screaming.” Laughter spurted out mere moments afterwards, as his grin found its way back across his face. He reached over to pluck the joint from his friend’s lips, and took another deep inhale before holding the smoke deep in his lungs as his face twisted up inside of itself, like it would do nearly two decades later as he stood holding on as the train plunged its way through the dark underbelly of the city.
The auburn-haired girl next to him started to giggle at the sight of his face, as she crept closed to her, before affixing her mouth over his, inhaling as he exhaled. She carried a serene look on her face as she exhaled the smoke. She smiled, and ran her tongue against the front of her teeth before she began running her hand across the back of the sandy-haired boy’s neck. He grabbed her wrist and pulled her close to him, her arm wrapping around his shoulder. She looked at her dark-haired friend carefully before she spoke: “I like it. I haven’t seen the ocean in such a long time.”
“See? We sit on the beach, just hang out all day, take in the ocean, the boardwalk, everything. Then, it gets dark, we ride the train back home, catch some sleep on it, and we’re back up on campus before class on Monday.”
“Casey, that’s all well and good, and I like the idea, but I’ve got a painting to finish before Monday. If I don’t then I don’t have a very good chance of passing. And if I don’t pass, then I don’t graduate. And, if I don’t graduate, then my dad will murder me in a gruesome and sudden fashion. Closed casket funeral-style, man. Like with a hatchet or something else.” The sandy-haired young man made a swift chopping motion with his hand towards his friend, which was accompanied by a “thunk” to drive his point home. He gave a swift shrug, and searched through his backpack before drawing out three bottles of beer and passing them out.
Casey twisted the cap of his bottle, and took a quick gulp, wiping his mouth with the back of his sleeve before responding: “Bring you stuff. Paint on the beach. It’ll be better than wandering around this old place looking for something to paint. Shake things up a bit. Paint the boardwalk or something.” He clanked his beer against his friend’s, and foam rose out of the two bottles; “Kat’s in! You heard her! She wants to go, I want to go, and if you don’t, we’re going to go without you. Then, the Ferris wheel on the boardwalk is going to stop with the two of us on top of it, and you won’t know what’ll happen after that.” He made a shifty glance towards Katherine before settling back on the sandy-haired young man, just in time to take a deft punch to the shoulder.
“Good man, Mark. Now let’s get us some tickets and get our stuff together.” The three students tapped the beers together, before finishing them in quick successive gulps; they left them standing up against the wall they were sitting near.
The train came to a grinding halt just inside the terminal, before chugging itself forward a few more tentative feet. The older Mark stepped out quickly, narrowly avoiding collision with an elderly lady who was trying to get off at the same time. He didn’t apologize before hurrying up the stairs and onto street level. He hurried across the street and entered a small bistro motioning behind the hostess to the phonebook that sat unused underneath the phone. The young woman handed it to him, and he began to paw through it with a look of desperation on his face. After several minutes of scrutiny, he wrote an address down on the back of a piece of cardstock that was in his jacket pocket. He thanked the hostess in a hurried tone and then ran back across the street and once again into the train station.
He stood waiting at the ticket booth for what seemed like an eternity, impatiently alternating his stair between the people in front of him in line and the clock that hung above the small, conical space. He could not help himself from fidgeting, before he advanced towards the counter. In one swift moment he slipped a bill on the counter and mumbled his destination so that only the teller could here. The old gentleman behind the booth printed him a ticket, and pointed to the staircase behind him. Mark gave him a slight nod before turning quickly and hurriedly making his way down the steps. He got onto the train mere moments before the doors were closed by the ticket takers.
The train ride to the ocean was as unspectacular as the three could have imagined. It was still dark when the train pulled out of the station, although the beginning of daylight had just begun to peek its way over the horizon. They huddled into a booth, and immediately started dozing off to the sound of the wheels running across the track. Katherine’s head was slumped against Mark’s shoulder, and on the other side of the booth, Casey had wrapped his arms across himself, buried in a jacket. They did not stir the entire trip, waking with sleepy eyes when the train had stopped in the station. They could not yet see the ocean, but they breathed in the salty air, which roused them to alertness faster than anything else had done. They walked out of the station shoulder to shoulder, and heading east along the sidewalk, with Mark dragging a suitcase behind him.
The sun was in the sky before the train had pulled into the station, and as the three students walked down the deeply cracked sidewalk, a level of heat had begun to stick about the day. The mid-April cold snap had begun to thaw, and every tree that dotted the well-worn road had stubborn-looking buds that had sprung in defiance of the cold weather. In the salty breeze, they seemed to reach up and over towards the sky, merely waiting for the sun to reach the right height overhead. Katherine inhaled sharply as she intertwined her arm with Mark’s. Casey knit his brow together in a serious expression as he looked around at the storefronts that they passed: “Nothing looks like it’s open yet. I’m starving.”
“It’s only April, Casey. Lots of these places won’t be open until after Memorial Day. Relax; I’m sure we can find someplace that’ll be selling breakfast.” Katherine pulled away from Mark and slipped her arm around Casey’s shoulders in a brief hug as they continued walking down the road.
“There are sandwiches in the suitcase, too. You worry too much, Casey. Always the little worrier.” Mark let out a brief, but loud chuckle. He hustled in front of the other two and faced them as he walked backwards down the sidewalk: “We shouldn’t sit in some crappy, touristy café. Let’s just grab something to go, and take it down to the beach. I need to find something to paint.”
Casey shook his head with a slight smile across his face: “You have all day to paint. No need to start now. Let’s take in the town.”
“It’s just another little crappy coastal tourist joint; from here up to Maine, they all look the same. They’re dead from Labor Day to Memorial Day, and then everything is just too full of people.”
Katherine looked into Mark’s eyes and scowled: “Don’t be so negative. Sorry if it’s not ‘cool’ enough for you, Mark;” She changed the tone of her voice, mocking Mark even further: “Mr. Artist would rather be sipping espresso in the village than at some beach with his best friend and his girlfriend!” She was shaking in anger slightly, and both Mark and Casey had bewildered looks on their faces. Neither of them had ever seen her in this sort of mood before. Mark stopped abruptly, and sauntered up to her while wrapping his arms around her slender neck. He bent in a few inches from her face and looked into her eyes apologetically. Mark never apologized with his words, just with his body language. Katherine kissed him gently, accepting his apology while Casey stood awkwardly staring up at the sky. She looked over at him the entire time.
They found a small cafe and crept inside. It was near empty, and the waitress stood reading a romance novel behind the register. She took their order quickly, and barked it back to a fat cook standing over a grill. A few minutes later she handed over three to-go boxes, and the trio stumbled back out into the lighted world. They found a nearby park bench, and sat on the edge of it while greedily devouring contents of their boxes: eggs, sausage, and potatoes. They disposed of the empty boxes before wandering back to the main road, where the small coastal town was just starting to come to life. They walked past a number of small shops, whose proprietors moved around inside behind locked doors. There was a spring in the trio’s step after the food, and they laughed amongst themselves while they continually moved towards the East. They began to ascend a small hill, and at the top, found themselves staring at the vastness of the Atlantic Ocean. Mark looked at the other two, before elbowing Casey in the chest as he hoisted his suitcase up and starting running down the pavement. The other two exchanged smiles before running after him.
They finally caught up to him outside of the ramshackle changing room. Mark was already inside, and emerged clad in an outfit that he had deemed incredibly ironic for him to wear: large plastic sunglasses peaked out from underneath a second-hand panama hat, which blended down towards one his father’s old Hawaiian shirts and a pair of shorts, worn in protest of the unusually cold April weather. Another massive grin cut across his face when his friends emerged from the small shed. They laughed in unison at his clothing choice, finding it humorous and even a little enviable. Casey wore an old college t-shirt with shorts, while Katherine covered a simple bikini in a tank top and shorts of her own. They all stood outside in silence, smiling at each other, until Mark began to count down on his fingers from three to zero, before pivoting swiftly and tearing across the sand to the surf. Katherine ran after him, while Casey sauntered slowly behind, giving a little half grin as he stared out at the waves crashing out on the breakwater.
The water was cold, but it did not stop them from walking through it down the beach. They barely spoke, just walked through the surf, Mark’s arm around Katherine’s waist, and Casey walking with his hands in his pocket. The beach was scattered with all sorts of shells and flotsam that hand wandered in with the tide, and every so often, one of them would stoop and pull something out of the sand, rinsing it gently in the water. They held them out to one another, and paused in their walk to confer whether what they had found was worth keeping. Each find kept getting switched for something better at every turn, and it was eventually Katherine who had found a thumbprint sized piece of blue sea glass. It immediately went into Mark’s cumbersome suitcase, which was partially covered in seawater. Up ahead, they could see the boardwalk loom.
The older version of Mark had fallen asleep on his train, and only woke from his nap when it came to a grinding halt at a new station. He looked around bewildered, staring across the train until he finally remembered what he was doing. He disembarked slowly, following the small amount of passengers out, which seemed comprised mostly of students who were returning home to the suburbs from school in the city. He enviously stared after the young men and women, each who seemed to carry an air of absolutely no worry or care. He caught eyes with his younger self as he walked away between two young women, his arms around their waists. He gave his older self a quick head shake before he disappeared from view. Older Mark walked towards the information desk, with his discarded cardstock in his right hand.
He had barely been waiting five minutes when the taxi pulled up to the curb outside of the station. He climbed in the back, and held up the piece of cardstock to the cabbie. The grizzled man gave a slight nod, and pulled the taxi out and into the traffic that seemed to gather out of nowhere. Mark looked out from the back seat, and could see his younger self standing knee deep in saltwater, arms spread with an enormous grin on his face. In front of him Katherine held up an old camera, and snatched a quick picture. Behind her, Mark’s easel was set up, ready to paint the boardwalk.
He stood over it, staring at the Ferris wheel from behind a brush, which he held up next to it. It was a practice he never quite understood, taking for granted that it may have merely been for show. Off to his left, Casey and Katherine sat in the sand, quietly eating sandwiches. They watched him paint for over an hour before the itch to move seized them both. Katherine walked up behind Mark and rubbed her hand against the back of his neck: “We should go up to the boardwalk, instead of just staring at it.”
Mark shook his head in quick succession, letting loose a few drops of sweat caused by the intensity of his work and the growing afternoon heat: “No, I need to finish this. You guys go ahead, I’ll catch up with you.” He leaned back and kissed Katherine before returning his gaze back to his canvas, swiping his brush against the very top car of the Ferris wheel. Katherine shrugged at Casey as he stood up, wiping the sand off of his behind. The two walked up the sand dune and towards the boardwalk.
Look at this unfold from his taxi, Older Mark felt an inward twinge of guilt. He longed to bang on the glass of the back window, to convince his younger self to follow them, but he knew that it was futile, and the damage was already done. He merely stared out the window as their tracks faded as the sand turned to concrete, and the dunes in front of them became houses. The taxi had stopped, and he handed the cabbie a bill as he opened the door and walked out. He looked up at the street sign, and looked behind him, just barely catching sight of the sun slipping behind the numerous houses that moved around in giant, simple geometric patterns along the streets. He began to walk slowly down the road, and thought he could see a Ferris wheel sticking up in the middle of the subdivision, its lights brightening up the entire sky.
Mark sat underneath the blue sky, his eyes splitting focus between the Boardwalk down the beach and the canvas in front of him. He rubbed his eyes vigorously as his rapid perspective changes began to cause a headache. He unconsciously, yet carefully, set his implements on the suitcase as it lay in the sand. He paused, stretching his arms up and yawning vigorously before lying in the sand and staring at the sky as the sun had just begun to cast colors across the sky. He had been painting for hours, and something was not quite right. He couldn’t rest his mind, and pulled off his paint spattered glasses before resting his arm over his eyes. He thought about the picture as he imagined it, letting it swirl around like the foam coming off the sea until he got it just right. It has to be exactly right, he thought; otherwise it’s not even worth finishing. He began to wonder what the boardwalk looked like under the cover of darkness, and whether he would have enough light to finish by. He paid no mind to his two missing companions, figuring that they were playing some game up on the boardwalk. His only focus is on how he was going to finish his painting. It was to this thought that he fell asleep to.
The sky was a deep purple when he awoke, covered in water and sand. He jumped up, brushing himself off before frantically grabbing his implements off of his suitcase and looking at his canvas. It was fine, but focusing on his background, he realized that sleeping had been the right call: the entire boardwalk was lit up. He started making frantic brush strokes, covering the sky in his canvas with a deep purple that he was frantically mixing on the spot. He carefully textured the small amount of clouds that hung in the sky above the Ferris wheel, before moving on to the boardwalk itself. Each brushstroke was deliberate, and careful, despite the appearance of being rushed. He worked with a furious intensity that had the beach been occupied by others, he would have undoubtedly drawn a crowd around him, watching him out of curiosity of what caused the young man to nearly stab at his canvas with his brushes. The sun kept slinking behind the sand dune, and even in the drab light, Mark kept painting. He didn’t stop until he was standing in the dark, alone. He carefully put away his implements, and carried his canvas with him towards the boardwalk.
Mark watched his younger self walk towards the boardwalk, as he turned and walked directly up to the door that stood in front of him. He breathed in, trying to gather the last little bit of courage he had, hesitantly holding his finger over the doorbell. It seemed like time itself had stopped, as he made the final judgment call as to whether it would end up being worth it. He tried to stir up emotions that he had long suppressed, mannerisms and personalities that he once clutched to that died when he entered the real world in fanatic pursuit of his dream. He pushed the bell and waited. Even after two decades, he recognized that same face when she opened the door.
The house she lived in was modest, but Katherine’s eye for decorating remained intact. The various objects made the entire house seem like a museum, but more interactive. Mark carefully picked up the bric-a-brac of sea shells and antique picture frames, studying the small children who were routinely and prominently featured. He was visibly shaken, as if he had seen a specter or phantom materialize through every photograph he inspected. He mind raced with a million questions, each attempting to batter down the door of silence he erected as Katherine bustled about in kitchen, preparing coffee. As he paced about the living room, he eventually found a photograph he recognized: the same one which had not only sat upon his desk, but that he had committed to paint after their trip to the shoreline twenty years ago. He traced his fingers around the edge of the frame, a simple wooden affair with sea shells and small pieces of beach glass affixed to it with strong glue. In his left hand he had picked up that same piece of blue glass Katherine had found when they first wandered down the beach, sound of the Atlantic crashing over the breakwater, hand in hand. He heard he call him from the kitchen, asking how he took his coffee. He mumbled a reply about cream and sugar before returning to inspecting the numerous photographs. When he noticed another, set in a similar frame affixed with more seashells. He noticed the background of the photograph first, and recognized the Ferris wheel which dominated the sky. He smiled, looking at Katherine hugging her two small children on that same beach, years later, but the smile faded when he saw the other occupant of the photograph. He stood a little behind Katherine and the children, in a relaxed pose with his hands tucked into a pair of frayed shorts. That familiar, uniform dark hair, coupled with that sly half-smile gave him away immediately. Mark dropped the frame, reeling in a sudden understanding before he fled from the house and back out into the world.
They found Mark sitting on a bench on the boardwalk, studying his painting under the bright, colorful lights. No one said a word as they sat down next to him and together, all three of them stared off at the night sky for a long time before they got up almost in unison and began one last walk down the beach. Even though it had been nearly deserted all day, in the dark the beach seemed like a vast wasteland completely devoid of life. They walked in silence as the tide began to come in around their ankles. They paused at the ramshackle shed to change quickly, before increasing their pace. The shops were all closed along the neglected road, and ahead they could see the train station. There was no train yet, and they had timed their arrival a touch early, but were still relieved that they were not going to be stuck on the shore overnight. They sat on a bench in silence, Mark’s head resting on Katherine’s shoulder, and Katherine’s resting on Casey’s. That was the last time that all three of them would be together. The final weeks of their carefree college life would come crashing in, like the wave over the breakwater that protected the small Atlantic coast town from the ravages of the power of the Ocean. Older Mark watched the three of them sitting on the bench, waiting for they train to take them back inland. He wanted desperately to shout to them, to get their attention and try to insert himself back in that happy moment before he had to live through what came next, but his voice caught in his throat. He pulled out the bit of cardstock revealing Katherine’s address before flipping it over to take another look at the photograph on the other side. All three of the young faces stared up at him as first stared back at them, and then up at the sky, the darkness quickening and the first stars beginning to reveal themselves. He replaced the photograph in his pocket before he stopped walking and turned around. He saw no one there.