A car started on the far side of the beach parking lot. Its headlights came on, overpowering the moonlight. They illuminated the ocean for a moment before the car reversed and turned. It left the parking lot.
Dante, sitting in his own car, scanned the parking lot once the moon had reasserted itself. He was alone now; the lot was otherwise empty. He hadn’t noticed the other car arrive, lost as he was in his own thoughts. But he was glad that it was gone. The darkness and solitude were what he wanted right now.
His mother was dead.
And, with her, the only person who had ever believed in him. Well, she had believed him that one day, when it mattered. And that was good enough. No one else had believed him.
Now she was gone.
The whole time she had been dying so had his dream. That was, of course, why he hadn’t been there. Well, what could he have done anyway? Would his being there have helped?
Tamika thought so. His only sister thought Dante should never have left in the first place. Why would anyone leave their small town? What good could come from leaving? Did he think he was special?
And now, sitting in that parking lot in the darkness, Dante would not have been able to argue with her. He had left and nothing had come of it. Oh, he had tried. Tried damn hard. But here he was, back again, no further along.
Not exactly no further along. He had written several plays. A couple had even been performed. Though the audiences were sparse. And the actors second rate. Some even third rate. But wasn’t it a start?
Who had he been kidding anyway, thinking he was special, that he could make it?
Perhaps he would stay now, in this town with its nosey ways and mundane dreams. Perhaps he would never leave. He’d figure that out later.
Right now he only wanted to stare at the ocean.
It was the closest thing he had to a surrogate for his mother. Dante laughed at the thought. Why was he so drawn to this place, to that body of water, so much larger than one life? It had nearly killed him, after all. But it was where she had believed him. It was the moment, the connection, that had fuelled all his striving ever since.
Dante opened the door of his uncle’s car — loaned to him to use while the family was dealing with things. His sister had a second car, but she had made no such offer.
The night air was damp and cool, though not cold. Wisps of sea spray hung in the air, their salty flavour impossible to keep from nose and lips. Dante closed his eyes and breathed deep. The rhythmic thunder and whoosh of waves crashing and then retreating filled his ears. Tiny pebbles, caught in the backwash, tinkled.
He moved across the parking lot, over the wooden breakwater, through some light scrub and onto the gravel of the beach. It was dark but the moonlight was enough to guide him. There was only the light and dark in that time, in that place. There was no grey. It was how Dante had lived his life these past five years.
In his mind, there had only been the theatre and success. The reality had lots of grey, sure, but every day he awoke with thoughts only of success in his mind. Because she had believed. Through the coffee shop jobs, the janitorial jobs, the labour jobs. Through all his struggles. When he had lost a whole play to a corrupt hard drive — finished, edited, ready to go — he had persevered. Because she had believed him. Here, right here, on that day so long ago.
Dante moved across the stones, closer to the water. He felt them roll beneath his sneakers and heard them crunch as they shifted. The waves grew louder, the spray thicker. The world disappeared, except for that place. The beach was a stark white noise bubble universe, a sensory deprivation tank. His own personal time machine. Things were clear here, they made sense.
Facing death will do that to you.
He hadn’t wanted to go swimming on that sunny day so long ago. Actually, he hadn’t been swimming since. The very idea filled him with dread. Yet, here he was, strolling that very beach again. Life does come full circle. It all started here.
Sure, Dante had wanted to write plays before that. He had even been scribbling silly childlike ideas in a notebook that day. It all still seemed so very near in his memory.
It was Tamika and her friend that had done it. Dante’s mother was engaged in conversation with some friends, her children out of her thoughts for a moment. Tamika had told Dante that he needed to learn to swim. He had told her to leave him alone. That hadn’t, of course, worked.
Her friend — Barry? — had lifted him and put him over his shoulder in a fireman’s carry. Dante, looking down from that perch, had seen his notebook sitting there. Its dark, artificial shape contrasted with the sun-bleached stones of the beach. It had been hot that day, and the waves gentle. Barry had made his way to the shore and then waded in, Dante still over his shoulder.
Then he was plunged into another world. A muffled green place. He broke the surface and sharp light and sound flooded back. A moment later it was gone again, the muffled, subdued world back again. The water had burned in his open eyes. Then the surface again. Under again.
In those brief periods of gasping and flailing Dante remembered cries of alarm — his own and his mother’s. He hadn’t seen her, but he had heard her call out his name.
Barry was an idiot, had tossed Dante into the undertow. The boy had been carried out, way out, away from shore. And he couldn’t swim. His arms were growing tired, the world heavy and pressing down on him. The gasps became gulps and his trips to the sharp world stopped, replaced by his new existence in the green below. Somewhere in his brain he knew it would all soon be over.
And in that moment he had wanted to live, was truly alive for the first time.
He wanted to share his stories with the world.
If only he survived.
As his eyes had closed and consciousness receded, Dante had heard singing. That was the first thing no one believed. Or, rather, they told him it was a figment of his imagination. His brain shitting its pants, as people liked to say.
But it hadn’t been. He was sure of that. There was no way he could’ve imagined a song like that. Its beauty was beyond anything he had heard in his short life. It existed only in the green below, could only exist there.
Then there were hands, holding him, moving him along. As swift as the undertow had brought him out — no, swifter — he was going in, toward the shore. Dante had a clear image of those hands in his memory. They had been pale, nearly white, and webbed.
And hadn’t he seen the tail, whipping about? Of course, that was what had moved them so fast toward the beach. It had been a mermaid. Dante believed it then and he believed it still.
Then it had all been over. The beautiful, dreamlike part, at least.
Other hands — human hands — had grabbed him, lifted him from the water, and carried him to the beach. He could still feel the sun-warmed stones on his back. And how could he forget the brine in his lungs? He had tasted it for weeks.
But he had survived.
And Dante never forgot his desire, his need to tell stories. It was what he would do with his life.
It didn’t matter that no one had believed this particular story about singing mermaids. Because his mother had believed him. Her faith in him, whether real or pretend, had kept him going then. And it had kept him going ever since.
Was it still enough?
She was gone. Was his own faith in himself enough to carry on? Dante wasn’t sure.
His adult legs didn’t shake as he approached the waves that night. He wasn’t scared. This was where his dream had been born. It was only fitting it was where it would die too. Full circle.
When he was a child, especially after that fateful day, he had believed in magic. Not the magic of nature or the magic of God. Real magic. When you’re a child everything seems possible. No one has tempered your dreams with reality. Dante knew then, so long ago, that the future was wide open, full of potential. He had, after all, his whole life ahead of him.
But now the magic was dead.
There was rent, due every month. Utilities, the same. An ex-boyfriend who wouldn’t return his calls. And Dante thought maybe the guy was right not to return them. That was where he was. Washed up, alone and struggling to survive. He wanted one day with some magic. One day to remind him of how easy life had felt, how amazing it had been to dream. Now it was all bills and beige days.
There was a glimmer of that past here, in the rumbling static and shadow of the beach bubble. But it only made Dante think of what could have been. It didn’t help him recapture the magic of that day. Coming here had been a stupid idea.
He stepped forward and let a little wave flow over his sneakers. At first there was only the wet, followed by spreading fingers of coolness. It jolted him, sending a chill of panic up through his legs. He took another step, feeling the water squish between his toes. More water lapped at his ankles, tugged at his jeans as it retreated. His heart was pumping faster. No one did this, stepped into the sea, fully dressed, in the night. It felt good to do something taboo. It felt good to be different. He took another step. The water crept up over his calves and stung his knees.
He was alive. There was still time. He was numb, sure. But it would pass as his mother had passed. All is change and circumstance. He was still here. He still had time. Life was an adventure, unfolding each day.
Dante sat down then. There was no splash; he sank down, sliding like a fish through the water until his ass touched the bottom. Sitting there, cross-legged, the cold water pushed through his clothes. His phone, in his pocket, would be ruined. So be it. His wallet and its contents would be soaked. Fuck it. He was alive. The cold told him so. He was alive. There was still time. He was wet to his chest now and was being pulled, swaying peacefully in the lapping and receding waves.
The magic was real. He would make it real.
He closed his eyes, drinking in the sensations of the moment. The water was cold but not freezing. The night air felt warm now against his head and neck. He was doing something different. And it felt amazing.
Then he had one further impulse. Why not? Sucking in a breath he plunged his head beneath the water.
The jolt, the sheer exuberance of that moment made his initial foray into the water seem like nothing. His head pulsated with the beautiful assault. He could feel the water against his closed eyes. Dante sat there, submerged, cold, in wonderful stillness, letting the sea lull him.
In that moment of silence he heard it. The song. It was so dusty and stretched with time in his memory that he almost dismissed it. But it was there, distant and growing. His breath was stale in his lungs. He ignored it, barely noticed it. The song was back. The magic was back.
The magic was real.
His lungs cried out and he lifted his head from the water. Salty rivers of cold sea water flowed from his hair, over his ears and face and down his neck. But they were joined by hot tears. He sobbed into the night. But they were pangs of joy.
The magic was real.
There was still time.
His dream would die with him alone.
And he wasn’t dead yet.
His mother’s faith had brought him this far. His faith in himself would bring him the rest of the way.