The sky was turning gray at the edges, a faint sign of lightening, and the stars that had been overhead earlier in the night had slid to the corners of the sky. The day would not arrive in the same rainbow of light that it had left. It was quiet and gray. Soon, the rocks and vines on the beach would gain form and substance against the sand. Across the bay, the first ferry would back up to the docks soon. Its whistle would be low and long in the bright morning sunshine. Boats, day cruisers and fishing boats, would leave the harbor, their engines chuffing quietly in the water, past the buoys and the piers, out past the breakers and into the ocean.
He scraped a hand over his face and grimaced at the feel of rough skin under his palm. He shifted slightly and blinked against the dark, wondering how they had managed to sit outside all night and how he was going to stand again. He glanced at the top of her head. She was leaning heavily on his arm; her mouth was open slightly and her breath was warm and moist on his sleeve. Beneath the blanket covering their legs and arms, her fingers curled around his elbow and her knees shifted over his thighs.
It was Illumination Night. Or, he supposed, it had been Illumination Night. Mattie had discovered it the day before. It had been raining and the scrabble games were losing their appeal. In between a letter change and triple word score, Mattie decided to leave and go to the Flying Horses. She had a slight crush on one of the workers, a fact she denied with a heavy blush and exasperated eye rolls. On one of her spins on the old merry-go-round, he mentioned Illumination Night to her and she mentioned – begged, pleaded – it to them.
It was hard to explain the night. Harder still to explain why it made him happy. The campground, a collection of gingerbread houses, circled around a pavilion. It was dark when they arrived and people swarmed in the narrow streets. The crowd swelled around the pavilion.
Mattie bounced on the balls of her feet and looked around, scanning the grounds for the boy. Her fingers circled Harm's forearm for balance as she rose to her toes to search. Beside him, Mac threaded her fingers through his. She smiled up at him before glancing around at the crowd. Like him, she was unsure of what to expect.
A band in brightly colored jackets sat at the front of the pavilion. He watched them, waiting for them to play. But the musicians continued to sit, waiting for a signal from the conductor.
"What happens next?" she asked quietly, leaning into his arm.
"I don't know," he muttered out of the corner of his mouth. "I already bought Mattie a glow necklace, so really what else is there?"
She bumped his side with her elbow. "Behave," she chided. "It could be fun."
"Mmhmm," he mumbled. He tightened his grip on her fingers and glanced at the pavilion again. The sky was dark now and the moon was a thin sliver on the horizon. Light caught on a brass instrument and circled around the horn as the musician lifted it. He heard the conductor tap his wand against his stand and the band began to play.
During the day, the houses looked like a child's bedtime story. Fanciful and brightly colored. They spread over a wooded campground, placed like dollhouses around the pavilion and the trees. But, in the dark, when shadows crept closer to the houses and the trees were dark silhouettes against the night sky, and the night painted the houses in more somber shades, the houses' cast eerie shadows on the ground. When the band began to play, the dark houses turned on lights on their porches. Japanese lanterns, painted with flowers and stars, sun bursts and moons, glowed softly on the porches of all the houses.
"Oh," she said softly against his shoulder. "Wow."
"Yeah," he said.
He had kissed her there. In the middle of the Japanese lanterns and the storybook homes. He had kissed her while the crowd ebbed and flowed around them. In the middle of a bath of light.
He found her later that night, wandering on the beach. She skirted the edge of the water and the cuffs of her jeans were rolled above her ankles to avoid the fingers of waves that splashed around her feet. Her hair was pulled into a ponytail and he could see strands of hair escaping in the wind. A blanket was draped over his arm and he sat on the deck, waiting for her to wander back in his direction.
"Hi," she greeted him quietly, when high tide pushed her back. "Pretty night tonight." She pulled the cuffs of her sweater around her fingers and lowered herself on to the bench.
"Here," he said, offering her the blanket, "I thought you'd like this."
The shadows washed over his face, bathing his skin in a silvery blue. She wanted to run her thumb along the shadow of his jaw, but her hands remained curled in her sweater sleeves. "Thanks," she said.
A star slipped out of the sky and she closed her eyes to make a wish. Opening them again, she added, "Thank you for asking me to come."
He wanted to tell her he didn't need the thanks. He wanted to tell her that anyone would have done what he did. Instead, he nodded, still unused to the sounds of thanks on her lips. In years past, it had been a given between them. They knew that they were grateful for each other's presence without having to say it. But the years had built a dam of ugly words and hardened feelings, choking off gratitude and niceties, until they were only a thin trickle. "Why did you say it?" he blurted the words out.
"Say what?" she asked. The muscles along her spine tightened and her fingers curled into her palms, the nails carving half circles into her skin.
"Never?" he asked. He gripped the arm of the bench.
"I..." she stumbled over the words, "I don't know." She glanced at the stars and let out a long breath. "I really don't." She shrugged and braced her body for his reaction. "But I know I meant it at the time."
He stretched a let out in front of him. "I know," he echoed quietly.
She shrugged again and pleated the blanket on her lap. The breeze was damp and it curled the ends of her hair. Across the bay, a house was brightly lit and the lights glowed on the water's surface. "If it helps," she said, watching the water ripple under the squares of light, "I don't think it had anything to do with you."
"Surprisingly," he said, "I don't think it does."
"I figured." She glanced at him, leaving the squares of light filled water behind. "Do you ever wonder..." She let the sentence trail away.
"All the time." He nodded.
The breeze stung her eyes and nose and she sniffled, inhaling the salt-filled air. She blinked against the wind and shook her head slightly. "Can we," she sighed, "do you ever think that we'll get it right?"
"I," he paused. "I think we're doing okay now, aren't we?" He hated that he didn't know. That he couldn't tell just by talking to her.
She looked at him. "I thought so." Her shoulders rose under her sweater and fell, the soft yarn waving over her muscles. She pulled a leg to her chest and hooked an arm around it, letting her chin rest against her knee. "Aren't we?"
He circled her wrist with his fingers. "You're the one who keeps leaving now." He hooked his finger around the bones in wrist, caressing the skin that covered them.
"You ran, too," she pointed out, then she sighed. "Maybe it would be better for you if you ran now," she breathed into the blanket.
"I'm no good to anyone at the moment," she told him. She looked into his shadow-covered eyes. "You probably won't have children with me."
"Do the doctors know anything for sure?" he asked, letting his hand drift over her arm. Her skin shivered beneath his fingers.
She shook her head. "I've an appointment when we get back. I may not need a," she swallowed hard against the word, "hysterectomy."
"That's good news, isn't it?" he asked.
"I..." she said. "Yes. I guess. But that doesn't mean I can have children." She whispered the words into the wind, hoping it would carry them away. Out to sea, out over the water and onto the continent. Far, far away from the island.
"We can always adopt."
"But, they still – it wouldn't be the same."
He let go of her wrist and leaned forward. His head fell against his hands and he looked at her from the corner of his eye. "Would you love the child any less?"
"I – no, of course not."
"Then, why," he asked, "do you think less of me?"
She sniffled against her kneed and nodded. "I'm sorry," she choked the words out.
He moved to pull her closer to him and she let him. "We think too little of each other," she muttered. "I underestimate you," she said, pulling back. She pushed her hair out of her eyes and brushed her fingers over her cheeks. "How do we keep doing this?"
He stared at the bay, watching dark waves roll onto the dark sand. He shrugged and drew the blanket over his lap. A buoy's bell ran in the distance as it bobbed in the waves and he could see its blinking light. "I don't know," he answered, staring at the cloudless sky. It was so dark, without the haze of light pollution, that purple glow that settled in the night skies over cities.
"And yet," she said quietly, "here we are." She raised a hand and let it fall to the bench.
"There must be a reason why."
"Because no one else will have us?" The corner of her mouth tilted up, letting him know she was teasing.
"Maybe because we don't want anyone else," he suggested. The words drifted across the porch and danced through the house on the breeze.
"Do you?" she asked, her breath catching at the back of her throat.
"Do I what?" he asked.
"Want anyone else?"
"No," he shook his head.
"Oh," she smiled and looked out at the sea. "Okay. Good."
He wrapped his hand around her forearm, banding it with his fingers, and tugged a little. Loose with happiness, she leaned against him. "I think," she said, "looking back it on it all, I don't know what we could have changed."
He thought of the fortune cookie, long gone, in that Chinese restaurant. He though of the could have beens that floated in the bubbles of the fish tank. "I think everything worked itself out okay."
Her fingers danced over the sleeve of his sweater, catching in its loops and lightly scratching the skin beneath it. "I love you, you know," she whispered.
His hand tightened on her arm and he smile, a self-assured smile that spread across his face. "I know," he told her. "Ow," he cried as her fingernails pinched the skin near his elbow.
He took a deep breath. "I love you, too." The words ran together and blended, but she could still hear them distinctly.
Sometime, during a conversation about anything but the past or the future, he thought it might have been about wombats or koalas, she fell asleep. Her head grew heavier and her breathing evened out. He rested his chin on the crown of her head and drifted away. The sounds of the waves carried his cares out to sea. When he woke, the sky was growing lighter and the stars were winking in the paler shades of blue. The sun was almost above the horizon when she blinked awake. Kissing him softly on the mouth, she whispered, "Good morning."
"Morning," he answered.
A/N: Thank you all so very much for your kind reviews. They meant alot to me. I think that, unless inspiration hits, this may be my swan song. But who knows? We all learned the hard way to never say never. Thanks again. It's been a sincere pleasure writing and hearing from everyone.