This story was an entry in the "Throw Another Ward on the Barbie" contest - there were some great stories entered so check them out! This story won Judges' Choice.
Thanks to Liz, Holly & LSD - they are wonderful!
Disclaimer: Stephenie Meyer owns it.
I wake at dawn to a chorus of birds from the bush above our house and the rhythmic beat of waves from the ocean below; the soundtrack I have woken to all the days of my life. It had always been a song that never failed to excite me with its promise of endless days that glistened like the sun on the ocean, stretching in a limitless dance all the way to the curve of the horizon.
Jake and I grew up carefree children of the water and the sun, bobbing like bottles in the ocean through a routine of surf, school, surf and sleep until school was over forever and freedom was ours.
All through that last glorious summer we waited for the winter to bring our eighteenth birthdays and the official end of childhood. And while we counted down the months until the longed for future arrived, we careened through a playground scattered with new games. Bonfires on the beach, parties at Jake's house, more surfing and less sleeping.
My first car.
My first kiss.
My first everything.
And always Jake, hair flying as he swooped and pirouetted on the water, strong and graceful like a dancer perfecting his moves.
We didn't know then, as we do now, that such perfection would come at a cost. And it's not just that those days are over now, it's that I can't remember, one bleak and hopeless year later, what they even felt like.
I pull the pillow over my head to silence the noise outside my window.
The moment of quiet is interrupted predictably by my phone, buzzing with a text message. Jake's body clock is linked inextricably with mine, the years of rising with the sun to get a surf in before school a habit neither of us can break, even now. There's no surprise when I flip open my phone. The same four word message he sends every morning glows on the screen.
Are you going down?
My standard reply. Yes. I'll stop by after.
I throw some clothes on and creep around, trying not to wake Charlie. A cop and sole parent to a teenage girl; he's always slept with one eye open and he stands blearily at the kitchen sink filling the kettle when I emerge from the bathroom. He greets me with a bleak smile and we talk listlessly about what shift he's on today, what we're having for dinner, how hot the day will be. He gave up asking months ago what the day will hold for me.
I go to the beach, visit Jake, go to work, visit Jake again and come home. Every day the same, for a year now.
I sag onto the stool by the bench. It's too early in the day to be so tired. The throbbing in my head that never quite goes is savage this morning and all I want to do is crawl back into bed. Instead I kiss Charlie goodbye and climb into my car, compelled to continue like a rat on a wheel.
Unable to stop.
Unable to get off.
The drive down to the beach, past streets stacked one on top of the other in lines across the hill, is a short one. Our house, built decades ago by my grandfather, is a shack compared to the rest; a pile of bricks and tin dwarfed by the angled steel and glass of the holiday houses that dominate this small community. The views, the surf and the vineyards; the trifecta that lures city money to this wind-swept corner of the south-west.
The car park by the beach is nearly empty and I drive past the kiosk and pull in near the playground. I sit for a moment, the faded red ute idling roughly under me.
The surf is a mess this morning. The waves are barely two feet high beyond the reef and a washing machine closer to shore. There are a few diehards out there though, most of them in the water already, a cluster of black figures like seals on the grey ocean. I recognise a couple of them just from the way they sit in the water.
Sam Uley is so big the water is almost up to his shoulders, his board sitting well below the water level as he waits for a good set. He's one of a clique of year round residents who have built on the bush blocks surrounding the settlement on the hill. They set up practice in one of the towns scattered nearby, doctors and lawyers with pretty wives and tow haired children who love the ocean and have enough money to buy an escape from the city.
I slide my board from the tray of my ute, grab my wetsuit from the passenger seat and trudge down to the beach. It's too early for the families to be down yet and there's only one other person on the sand. The bottom half of his wetsuit is already on, the top half hanging from his hips as he waxes his board, a beaten up wreck that looks like it's seen plenty of action.
He has the body of a surfer, lean and muscled with broad shoulders and strong legs. The sinews under the brown skin of his arm flex in a slow, easy rhythm as he works at his board and something stirs in me briefly, a slow warmth spreading in a delicious wave from my stomach that I haven't felt in a long time.
A light shiver runs up my spine as I walk by, finding a patch of sand further on and sit next to my board, looking away towards the point until the small spark sputters and dies. I drag my wetsuit onto my lap, tugging at the stuck zip for a few minutes, the teeth biting into my fingers, before giving up. I brush the frayed ends of my tattered leg rope against the palm of my hand in a soothing tickle and pick at the board with my fingernail, looking out at the ocean, making a pile of ugly yellow wax on the sand.
There are some good sets coming through now, maybe three feet and closing out a nice distance from the reef. An orderly, predictable break. Perfect for someone who hasn't been on a board for a while.
Perfect for me.
As soon as the thought enters my head it comes, as I knew it would, as it always does. The ground lurches beneath me in a sickening whoosh and I thrust a hand wrist deep into the sand, clutching my stomach with the other, holding on grimly. My lungs empty and fill in hard, fast gasps as sweat snakes down my back. I hunch over, head bowed between my knees.
"Are you OK?"
The voice comes from somewhere above me and I squint up to see the silhouette, backlit by the morning sun, of a featureless six limbed figure swirling before my eyes. The figure crouches next to me, laying a hand on my shoulder and I lean heavily into its solid warmth, closing my eyes against the sunlight.
"I'm fine... I'll be fine."
I suck in a few deep breaths, holding them full in my chest for a few beats before exhaling slowly, praying that the ground will stop swooping under me. The hand on my shoulder drops as I lift my head and worried green eyes look into mine.
It's the boy in the wetsuit.
"Are you sure? You're as white as a ghost." He has a stub of board wax in the hand he's using to brace himself on the sand, the arms of his wetsuit standing at right angles from his hips. "Can I get you some water or something?"
"I'm alright." I push the wetsuit off my lap and shake my head a little, the small movement ramping up the vicious pounding through my skull. I smile tightly. "Just a bit dizzy. I should have had something to eat, I guess."
"No breakfast, hey? Stay there. I'll get you something." He kicks up a spray of sand as he jogs off, gone before I can protest.
Food won't help. Getting off this beach will but I can't even stand until my stomach settles and the ground stills and there's only one way that will happen. With repetition comes belief so I begin to whisper a mantra, the soothing words that will get me through this and away from here for another defeated day.
You're not going in the water. You're not going in the water. You're not going in the water.
By the time he returns the worst is over and I'm slumped on the sand, limp with the fatigue that is all that remains once the adrenaline is gone.
"Here, this might help." He hands me a bottle of lemonade, the plastic cold and dewy. "I thought the sugar might help. You don't look like you want to eat anything."
"Thanks," I mutter and take a sip. "I'm OK now, really."
"You don't look OK," he says. "Can I give you a lift somewhere?" His dark eyebrows are drawn together in a concerned frown and he chews his lip, worrying at his chaotic hair.
"No, thanks. My car's here and I only live up the hill."
"Well, if you're sure..."
"I am, thanks."
"OK, well, I'll see you around I guess." He rises and takes a few steps, before turning back to me, glancing with scorn at the wax in his hand. "You don't happen to have any wax, do you? This stuff is useless."
"No, sorry. I don't."
"No worries," he says. "Take care of yourself, OK?"
He walks back to his board and picks it up, giving me a long look over his shoulder and gets into an ancient EH station wagon. It stutters into life and he waves briefly as the car rumbles off towards the point, just another pretty surfer boy passing through.
I gather my things, throw them in the back of the ute and sit at a picnic table on the patchy grass by the playground.
The dark wooden table is scarred with dozens of initials, the crude carvings of young lovers. "J.B." appears more times than I can count, always paired with different initials, none of them put there by Jake. Mine are here somewhere too, carved in a clumsy heart by Jim on a morning last summer just like this one but I don't look for them.
That's all over now too.
Sam Uley nods a greeting on his way into the kiosk and stops by on his way back to the car park. His hair is receding at the temples a little but he's still a handsome man, with dark eyes under salt-flecked eyebrows. He sits down opposite me, absently stirring a packet of brown sugar into his coffee with a popstick.
"It was pretty messy out there today," I say.
"It wasn't too bad." He takes a sip of coffee. "Are you going to see Jake now?"
"Yeah." A quick glance at my watch. "He'll be worried if I don't get there soon." I fiddle with the lid on my lemonade bottle, rolling it around in my hands like I'm rubbing dice for luck, hoping he'll keep things light.
Sam blows on the coffee, tapping the popstick on the table in a fast rhythm. "He's getting worse, Bella." I put the lid down on the table as the tapping stops and when I look up the popstick is pointing at me. "So are you," he says quietly.
"I'm fine," I say, the words ringing hollow even to me. "I'll be fine. I'll go in tomorrow, Sam. I can feel it, tomorrow's the day." I smile brightly, fooling no one.
"I can prescribe some medication, Bella. Something for anxiety or maybe anti-depressants."
"I thought he was already on them?" Disappointment flashes across his eyes at my childish response, willfully misunderstanding, and I feel a pang of pity for him. He is still so willing to try and help us.
"Not for him, Bella. For you."
"I just ... I don't think I'm depressed. I'm just... stuck or... something." He watches patiently while I ease the plastic ring from inside the bottle top, careful not break it, and stretch it out gently just like we used to do in high school. When it's big enough I roll the thin, blue band carefully down my index finger. It's a little tight but I like the feel of it digging into my skin, the flesh bulging slightly around it. "I think I'd feel better, I think we both would feel better, if I could just get back in the water."
"What makes you think it'll make any difference to him if you do?"
Such a gentle tone, so gentle, as though he's speaking to something very fragile, to someone who might break if he pushes too hard. I don't reply. I don't think I could speak even if I knew what to say.
"Bella," he says, in that same frighteningly gentle voice, "I don't know if Jake will get any better."
There is only the ocean for a long moment, the sound of waves rolling in and the scent of brine on the breeze. I rub my thumb over the band on my finger. Sam shreds the popstick into splinters that drop to the ground. A seagull pecks at them before resting on one leg in my shadow, his beady eyes unblinking.
So, there it is. Someone has finally said it. I should have known it would be Sam. Doctors, I suppose, have to be realists.
He rises after a minute but doesn't leave. I wonder what there is left to say but he just leans down, so close I can smell the ocean on his skin and squeezes my hand briefly.
As he turns away the truth of his words, the undeniable weight of truth, settles on me like dirt on a coffin lid.
Jake and I.
Jake lives deep in the bush at the end of a gravel track that winds through the ancient Karri trees, their straight golden trunks glowing softly in the shards of morning light. The track opens to a clearing littered with the car bodies Jake used to work on, rusted and ruined now from the winter rains. Faded red weatherboards sag in uneven rows under the tin roof of the shack he lives in with his father and his old dog sits on the veranda waiting, rising wearily to greet me as I get out of the ute.
"Hey, Wolf," I say, bending down to scratch his back. "How's Jake today?" He flops heavily on the grey sand, his chin on his paws and sighs deeply. "That's what I thought," I whisper. "That's exactly what I thought." He follows me inside and lays at my feet, his tail thudding a slow, gentle rhythm on the lino floor beneath the old pine table.
Jake's dad hands me a cup of tea and I take a couple of sips while he wheels himself around the small room tidying up.
"How is he today?" I ask after a minute.
Bill busies himself at the sink, washing a bowl and a spoon, not meeting my eyes. "He's the same as yesterday, Bella, the same as the day before that. The same as he is every day."
I drink my tea while Wolf dozes at my feet, the click of cicadas from the bush outside the only sound. Bill wheels himself over to the window by the TV and pulls the faded green curtain aside slightly, peering cautiously into the bright sunshine as though a world he doesn't recognise has landed outside his house overnight. He closes the curtain and slumps in his chair, staring at the floor as the dog pads over to sniff with concern at his fingers.
I finish my tea and take my cup to the sink, rinsing it under the tepid water and leaving it to drain, the clattering noise too loud in the quiet gloom.
"Is there anything you want me to do while I'm here? Anything I can get you in town?" I ask quietly.
He closes bloodshot eyes for a moment, thinking, and shakes his head. "No thanks, Bella, we're OK for today."
"OK, well I'll just say hi to Jake, then." I wave a hand in the direction of Jake's bedroom and Bill nods. "Sure," he says. "Sure."
The walls of Jake's room used to be lined with posters of the champions he worshipped riding the breaks he dreamed of surfing, the shelf on his wall crammed with the trophies from local competitions that proved those dreams weren't out of reach. His floor was a chaotic mess of surfing magazines, leg ropes and boardies, car parts and tools and pizza boxes.
But that's all gone now.
Jake tore it all down and hurled it out the window one night months ago when Bill was out and set fire to it, nearly burning the house down in the process. The ugly mess left by the fire is still out there, a scar of twisted metal and melted plastic that I can never bring myself to clear away. It's just bare walls in here now and a floor left carefully clear so he doesn't fall on his trips to the bathroom.
His crutches rest on the chair by his bed and I lean them against the wall and sit. He lies with his back to me and I'm not sure if he's awake until his muffled voice drifts out from under the sheets.
"Did you go in?"
"No," I whisper. "No, I didn't go in."
He rolls onto his back, grimacing slightly and I cross my arms to stop myself from reaching to help him. He relaxes into the pillows with a soft grunt, his eyes closed. I go to the window, throwing the curtains open and lean on the sill, looking out at the peppermint trees that circle the house. Their weeping branches gently sweep the grey dirt beneath them in the soft breeze. Wolf licks Jake's hand resting on the sheet and then slumps heavily at my feet.
"It's a beautiful day, Jake. Why don't you come into town with me? I've got a shift at Newton's and then we could go to Settler's for a beer." We talked about it for years in high school. The day he turned 18 we were going to saunter into the pub on the main street, have a beer and pick over the day's waves like all the locals do. It's a rite of passage for every kid who surfs the breaks at Margarets and we couldn't wait, but it's been eight months since Jake's birthday and longer still since he left this house.
"No thanks, Bella. Not today. Maybe tomorrow?" He shrugs slightly. My eyes drift briefly to the white sheet that covers him. He used to be huge, a wall of muscle and sinew that hummed across the waves like he was part of them and in control of them at the same time. But not anymore. The skin that used to glow with the kiss of the sun is pale and sallow and stretched tight over sunken eyes and cheekbones.
"Maybe tomorrow then," I say lightly. "I'd better get going. You know what Mick's like if I'm late."
"Sure," he says. "No worries."
"Can I get you anything before I go? Have you eaten?"
"I'm fine, Bella."
"OK, I'll drop by later?"
"If you like," he says.
He's tired now, worn out from the effort of having me in the room so I kiss his forehead and turn to leave. He stops me with a quiet sigh as I reach the doorway.
"Bella," he says softly, "close the curtains before you go."
And he turns away from me to face the bare wall, pulling the sheet up over his wasted body like a shroud.
I turn off Caves Road and cross the bridge over Margaret River and into the main street of the town that bears the same name. Lined on both sides with cafes, bookshops and surf shops, the town has somehow managed to keep its sleepy country town even with the influx of tourists in recent times.
I park my ute behind the shop and go in through the back door. Mick Newton is behind the counter, ringing up a sale and chatting with fake cheer to his customer. As soon as he sees me he glances pointedly at the clock on the wall.
I am exactly three minutes late.
When the customer leaves he turns on me, his chin thrust forward and an ugly sneer twisting his bland features. "Where have you been?"
"None of your business," I reply.
Here we go. Another day of Mick's relentless antagonism.
"As if I didn't know anyway. It's not like your routine varies much, Bella. How's Jake today?"
"He's doing fine. He'll be up and about soon."
He snorts and mutters "yeah, right" under his breath, flipping a pen around his fingers while he sizes me up, eyes narrowed.
"Did you go in?"
"Did I go in where?" I reply. I know exactly what he means but baiting him is a small but irresistible pleasure.
He sighs deeply and speaks very clearly, as though I am a very young and stupid child. "The water, Bella. Did you go in the water?"
"Not today." I reply airily. "It was mushy, not worth getting wet for."
He swallows his words as the electronic chime signals the arrival of a customer. Saved by the bell.
The day wears on, a quiet afternoon following a quiet morning and my working day is almost over when a familiar figure appears at the counter.
It's the boy from the beach.
"Can I have some Mrs Palmer's, thanks."
Mick snickers just as he does every single time someone asks for that brand of surfboard wax. He reaches for the red and blue packet on the shelf behind him and hands it to Beach Boy, who is smiling at me.
"How're you feeling? OK?"
"Good," he says. "You looked pretty rough there this morning. Gave me a bit of a fright, to be honest." He smiles again, handing his money over to Mick.
"Thanks again," I say.
There it is again. That same spark I felt on the beach this morning. I glance sharply at Beach Boy as he holds up the packet of wax and nods to Mick. "Thanks, mate."
"No worries." Beach Boy turns to leave and Mick snickers. "The best grip all round."
"You do that every time," I mutter when Beach Boy is gone, needing a distraction.
"Mrs Palmer's? What's so funny about it? It's just surfboard wax."
"Mrs Palmer and her five daughters?" He grins and waggles his eyebrows in a lewd dance.
"Come on, Bella," he says, holding his hand up and twinkling his fingers. "Don't be embarrassed. Everybody does it."
I don't. Not anymore.
I had thought that part of me, the part that sprang to life briefly last summer with Jim, had withered and died but Beach Boy has stirred something in me that I would prefer lay dormant. My stomach churns in a rolling wave and I lean on the counter, waiting it out.
"Does that make you feel good?" We both turn. Beach Boy is back, glaring at Mick.
Mick looks at his hand, still extended at his waist.
"This? This makes me feel alright, mate, but I haven't had to rely on it for years." He snickers again and Beach Boy tuts to himself.
"Not that." He mutters a quiet "Jesus" to himself. "I never understood why blokes like you get off on embarrassing girls like that."
Mick splutters like a kettle on the boil and Beach Boy waves a hand.
"I heard there's some caves around here. I wouldn't mind looking at one of them if you can tell me where it is?" He's looking at me but Mick jumps in, trying feebly to even the score with his superior local knowledge.
"They'd be full of tourists this time of day, whining kids and families." Mick shudders briefly, as though people enjoying a holiday are the worst horror he can imagine. "It's your money though." He takes a brochure from the stack on the counter, the cover a catastrophe of gaudy green and orange letters in a slash across the gaping mouth of a cave, and hands it to Beach Boy. "I'd wait until just before closing if I was you. Less people then."
"Thanks, but I'm not interested in the tourist caves. I was hoping to have a look through Jewel Cave."
"No way, mate, it's not open anymore." Mick leans back against the shelves with his arms folded across his chest, pompous and patronising. "It's too dangerous. People have been killed in that cave. The council closed it down years ago."
"Well, maybe you could tell me where it is anyway."
"Not me. I don't want to be on the front page of the paper as the idiot who sent you in there to get trapped by a rock fall."
"Fair enough," Beach Boy says easily, turning to leave. "I'll find another idiot then."
"Jesus, what a dickhead," Mick mutters, waiting this time until he's sure Beach Boy has left the shop. "Bloody tourists."
"Good luck making a living without them." Mick Newton has never surfed a break in his life and everyone in this town knows it. If he didn't have the tourists to rely on his shop would be closed in a month and he knows that.
"I'm very happy to take their money, Bella, but I don't have to like them," he says, with an air of maddening superiority. "Besides," he says, "owning a surf shop gets me laid plenty by the tourist girls."
Mick turns like Pavlov's dog as the door chimes again and I sag against the counter, weak and weary to the marrow in my bones.
I work here for two reasons; because I have to work somewhere and because no one I know would ever come into this shop. We stuck together for a short time after what happened, but our old crowd has all scattered now. Jake has turned away from all the reminders of what might have been, our friends among them, and I wonder if he would be better off if I left him alone as well.
I wonder if I would.
Was it Albert Einstein or Sigmund Freud who defined insanity as doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result? Sam Uley used different, diplomatic words this morning but his meaning was the same.
I glance at the clock above the counter. It's almost time for my afternoon visit with Jake, the next step in the joyless dance I have choreographed for myself. Can I abandon him, even for a few hours, and take a chance?
A muffled giggle from the clothing section of the shop is accompanied by Mick's murmuring voice. He's flirting with some poor girl from out of town, subjecting her to his own particular brand of charm.
A sudden wave of claustrophobia washes over me and the cloud that's lain heavy on my shoulders since this morning feels as though it might swallow me whole. I search frantically for a way out from under it and from nowhere or from somewhere, from desperation or from God, I realise the question I've wrestled with all day is the wrong one.
Sometimes the question isn't why.
It's why not.
My shift is 45 minutes from being over but I pick up my bag and slip away towards the front door. Mick would never leave a customer, even to stop me, but he's nearly finished with her and I want to be out of here before he does. The tinny dirge chimes in my ears as I close the door behind me and step onto the footpath outside.
The street is crowded this time of day, cars lining the road as people return from a day at the beach or the wineries. I lean against the window casting around for somewhere to go, something to do. My instinct is to get in my car and head to the beach but I fight it. Trying to break the pattern by doing the same things out of order won't get me anything but another anxiety attack on the beach.
The sun is casting long shadows but it's still bright enough to glint off the cars across the street. It catches on the chrome mirror on the side of an old station wagon. I search the street desperately, the spark of an idea igniting, and there he is. The stranger who has shadowed me all through this strange day. Beach Boy is strolling out of the grocery store across the street, a bag of apples in one hand, towards his car.
"Hey," I shout. "Hey you." He turns, his hand on the car door as I cross the street.
"I'll show you where Jewel Cave is," I say when I reach him, "if you take me down there with you."
The EH is like a furnace as we drive out of town and we wind the windows down until the car cools. The cave is a half hour drive away, closer to Augusta than Margaret River. The strange feeling of unreality, at veering so far from the daily path I have carved out, ebbs a little as we talk.
His name is Edward Cullen. He's from Melbourne and is three years into a degree he doesn't seem to want to talk about. He's deferred his studies for a year to travel around Australia, surfing by day and sleeping in his swag by night. He's due back in Melbourne in two weeks to begin his fourth year at Uni and he's heading for Esperance in the morning.
And that's it.
I offer a sketchy overview of my life in return, painted with the same broad brushstrokes. No light and shade. No fine detail. Just the bare facts. There is something in the set of his mouth as we talk that suggests there is more to his story than meets the eye and I wonder if he's thinking the same thing about me.
I send a quick text to Charlie as we turn off the main road, a cloud of dust trailing behind us as we leave the bitumen behind. The gravel track is a mess of bone jarring corrugations and it's a relief when we turn into the clearing near the cave's entrance.
Edward goes to the back of his car and I wander off a little way to phone Jake. I know he won't answer but he'll listen to my message.
"Jake? It's me, it's Bella. Look, I'm not going to make it this afternoon. Something came up and -." I roll a faded beer can under my foot and a cloud of fine orange dust drifts lazily towards the trees. "Just something came up. I'm fine and I'll see you tomorrow."
The sting is out of the day now, the air cooling as twilight draws in and the witching hour begins. It's hard to believe it's almost a year ago to the day since Jake and I were here. We were high on that first summer of freedom; leaving town in a few months and saying a long goodbye to our friends, our home and our childhood. A whole crowd of us came out here late one night and prowled through the cave by torchlight before drinking and singing and swimming the night away.
Jim took my hand and a blanket and led me away in the hours before dawn to lay with me in a secluded corner. I said goodbye to the last remnant of my girlhood that night, willingly and happily, and when we emerged into the sunlight the next morning I felt as though anything was possible.
It was the last night we all spent together.
I try to picture Jake's face as he listens to my message but I can't guess at his response. The image of his face remains out of focus, a blur on the pillow that I can't make out anymore. Maybe I'm a welcome visitor from a world, however narrow it has become, that he no longer inhabits. Or maybe my presence in his room, that prison, only serves to remind him of everything that is lost to him now.
The metal gate padlocked over the entrance looks formidable, but when we look closer the hinges aren't attached to anything and it swings open easily. Edward raises a quizzical eyebrow.
"Local kids go down sometimes," I shrug. "Mick was exaggerating hugely about the danger down there." Edward has a torch, a Tilley lamp and a backpack and I take the lamp and lead him to the entrance.
It's a tight squeeze through the cave's narrow opening and the late afternoon light dims quickly at our backs as we crawl through. The passage descends gently for a time until we reach the end and Edward turns to help me down stone steps to the floor of the cave. He sweeps the torch in a long, slow arc, like a lighthouse keeper searching a stormy sea and we gasp in unison.
I had forgotten how breathtaking this place is and even revealed in chapters by the narrow beam of torchlight, this first chamber's vast beauty is overwhelming. Every movement of the light reveals something different.
Stalactites, white and thin like a whale's teeth bared in hopes of a belly full of krill, hang from above next to clumps of calcified stone snowflakes that sparkle like diamonds. He trails the torch lower and ancient formations glow beneath the light in shades of pink and cream and gold, luminous and haunting. The only sound is the plunk of condensation dripping and our breathing.
We pick our way carefully through the cave, over rocks and paths that take us steadily deeper. We squeeze through passages no more than a body's width wide and clamber through chambers as large as a cathedral or as small as a tomb.
Edward leads and I follow, but we stop frequently to take in every new wonder revealed in the torchlight, standing side by side before these monuments to time and gravity. He is surefooted but I stumble sometimes and his hand is always there, ready to catch me.
I realise at one point, as I lurch over a jagged stone and fall into his back, that perhaps I should be scared.
My text to Charlie to let him know where I am was more for his benefit than mine, but still I'm a long way underground with a complete stranger. But Edward turns to me, checks that I'm OK and takes my hand before we continue. He may be a stranger but he's one who's shown me more kindness in a day than some people I've known all my life have in a year. If my instincts are to be trusted, I'm safe with him.
The numbers on my watch aren't visible and I don't remember how long it took last time, but we must be getting close. The cluster of rocks on my right seems familiar and my pulse quickens as Edward sweeps the torch past them.
There it is. Waiting. Dark and still.
"Water," I breathe.
"Cold water," he points out.
"I don't care. I'm going in."
I'm stripping my shorts off and pulling the T-shirt over my head as I speak, all thumbs in a desperate rush to just be in that weightless suspension once more. I want that cool underwater silence like I want the air I'm breathing and a chant begins in my head - "I can do it, I can do it, I can do it".
I stand on the smooth rock, the deep water just inches away as goosebumps break out on my skin and the words come faster, a dizzy din rising in pitch until I can't tell if the words are still inside me or if I'm screaming them at the black pool before me.
I'm not even aware that I've moved until I feel cool rock at my back and Edward swings the torch full in my face. I must look like a wild-eyed animal to him, cowering in the harsh light as the words echo around the cavernous darkness with mocking repetition.
"I can't do it."
Charlie's love cocoons me in a hundred different ways but the demonstrative form is not one of them. Jim is long gone and Jake has turned inwards and away from me, as cold and remote as the moon. But this tall, gentle stranger gathers me up and holds me tight while I tremble through the aftershocks.
"Do you want to go back up?" he whispers after a while.
"No," I say into his shoulder. "Do you?" He shakes his head against my hair and lets go with a final squeeze of my hand.
He lights the Tilley lamp and the soft halo of light rests gently on jaw and cheek and throat, peaks and troughs of shadow and light. The gentle hiss of the lamp and the faint scent of kerosene evoke memories of a thousand nights on the beach when we were really young, Jake and I hurling seaweed at each other on the sand while Charlie and Bill fished off the beach.
I shiver, putting my shorts and T-shirt back on while Edward gets a blanket from his backpack. Thoughts of what the morning may bring fight their way into my head and I shut them down, unwilling to look more than a minute into the future.
That water was my last hope and it's gone now.
"You look cold," he says, laying out the blanket on a smooth piece of ground. "I have food too. It's not much, just some bread and fruit, but it'll do the job. Are you hungry?" I shake my head as he sits on the blanket eating a bread roll.
I take a moment to really look at him.
In some ways he's the classic surfer boy. I've seen a hundred boys like him pass through town. I've seen a version of him in every surf magazine Jake ever owned. Wild hair that is probably brown but has been bleached a thousand different colours by the sun and the ocean. Brown skin, green eyes, dark brows, full lips, tall, lean. Beautiful.
I would love to see him on a surfboard.
"You wanted to come down here pretty badly," he says quietly, meeting my eyes.
"Yes," I reply. It's seems obvious that only desperation would drive a girl to recklessly hitch a ride with a complete stranger and then climb into a dark hole with him for the night.
"Because of the water?" he asks.
I wait for him to ask why but he doesn't. Instead he reaches for my hand, pulling me down next to him, and continues eating. I pick up a piece of bread and tear it into pieces, making a mess, before brushing the crumbs off onto the ground next to me.
"I miss it so much," I whisper, finally. "I could count on one hand the days I went without being in the ocean before -." I trail off, not ready to speak of that yet. "There's nothing that comes close to being in the water, to being underwater. You can seen the sun through it, the blue sky above and you know the world's still out there but for as long as you can hold your breath, for those few mindless moments, nothing but the water can touch you."
There is silence for a few moments before he says quietly, "I know the feeling."
"There's nowhere to escape to now. I try to find comfort, I try to find the will to get over this but I can't seem to find a way to begin." I pick up an apple, inspect it briefly and put it back down again. "And there's Jake." I look across at Edward, a half eaten apple in his hand. "This makes no sense to you at all, does it?" He shakes his head slowly. "I don't know why, but I want it to." I wave a hand, a helpless gesture. "I don't know where to begin."
"Why don't you begin at the beginning and see how that goes?" He stretches out, hands behind his head, looking up into the darkness beyond the halo of light. "You were born...?"
I lay on my side next to him, my head cradled on my arm and wonder if I can do this and if it will make any difference if I do. That fleeting moment of decisiveness in the shop this afternoon was the only taste of freedom I've felt in twelve months and I'm still not sure where it will lead me, but I mutter "why not" once more, take a deep breath and begin.
"I was born... at home, a water birth of course. A water baby right from the start. My mother was gone before I was a year old and we haven't seen her since. She sends me a birthday card every year, every one of them from a different place."
I settle down on the blanket a little more and find Edward's hand with mine before continuing.
"They always have a weird effect on Charlie - my father - those cards. He makes a point of asking me what postmark the envelope has every year, like it's some kind of cold war between them. He feels mocked and she feels vindicated... or something. I don't know."
Charlie has never talked much about why my mother left but Bill told me once that nobody but Charlie ever thought she'd stay. I don't know how she felt about him or about leaving me behind but there has never been another woman in his life since then. I have never replied to even one of her cards.
"So," I continue, "it's always been just me and Charlie. I grew up on the beach. Charlie had me on a boogie board when I could barely walk. Jake too. His father's been in a wheelchair for years and Charlie would carry him down onto the sand to watch us. I was never that good but Jake - he was something else right from the time we were tiny. He was fearless, you know, like all the best surfers are."
Edward nods and I'm struck again by how much I would like to see him on the water. Picking his way through the dark cave seemed so easy to him. He has the balance and poise of someone who would be beautiful to watch on a board and I wonder if he's reckless enough to be really good.
"So that was our life. School was an inconvenience that we sandwiched in between a morning and afternoon surf. Charlie and Bill took us to watch every surf competition in the south-west until Jake was old enough to enter them himself. He won nearly every one too. It was pretty close to a perfect childhood. I don't suppose many people can say that but we can. There's not much about it I'd change.
"By the time we got to high school Jake was the king of the town. Everyone could see he was headed for something big and everyone wanted to be able to say they knew him when. We were pretty low key through high school but when we finished the fun really started. There was a bunch of us and we had a blast that last summer. We spent every day at the beach, surfing and swimming, falling in and out of love or lust or both. I'd known Jim for years but we'd always just been friends. That all changed that summer."
I pause, realising that I'm speaking of things that happened barely a year ago as though they are events from the distant past, from another lifetime.
"Jim was the only one old enough to buy alcohol so he'd drive into Margaret River and stock up for the night. We'd stay on the beach and light a fire or go to Jake's house in the bush and party all night. Paul's ukulele plunking in the background, I'd cook in Bill's kitchen, feeding everyone, wetsuits hanging from the trees. And always the girls. The girls loved Jake."
"No, not me. Not like that anyway. Jake and I are like brother and sister." I rub my thumb over Edward's hand and shrug. "At least we were. I don't know what we are now."
I pause for a long moment, trying to summon the courage to continue and find that I can't, at least not without help.
"Do you have anything to drink?" Edward passes me a bottle of water but I shake my head. "Not water." He reaches into his backpack and pulls out a bottle of Wild Turkey, two thirds full. I pour a measure into the lid and throw it back, the burn in my throat spreading to my stomach. I take another lidful and pass the bottle back, wiping my mouth with the back of my hand. Edward takes a couple of swigs while I wait for the bourbon to warm my blood and when it does, I continue.
"So there we all were," I say, "just biding our time. Jake spent the summer surfing every minute he could, honing his craft, counting the months until he was eighteen and he could join the circuit. He was amazing that summer, so determined and at the top of his game. Board humming over the waves, hair flying and just on fire. We were going to do it. All the years of dreaming and planning and practicing. He was going to be a pro surfer, a world champion and I was going to travel the world with him and manage his career."
I look at Edward, sitting close to me now, his eyes so steady and serious.
"It's strange to say it now, strange even to think of it. Like watching someone else live their life and knowing the ending before it begins."
I reach for the bourbon again, not bothering with the lid, taking a swig straight from the bottle. This time I don't pass it back, cradling it instead in my arm as I drift away from the intimate lamplight to another world, to that day.
"He picked me up that morning at dawn just like he did every morning. The surf was rubbish everywhere and it wasn't worth the trouble so we just decided to go down the hill to Yallingup Beach." I take a sip from the bottle. "It was such a strange ocean that morning, flat like a mill pond. There wasn't a ripple on the water or a hint of breeze in the air. Just a flat grey ocean under a dull dawn sky. It was eerie, everything so very still and so very quiet."
Edward reaches for the bottle and takes a long pull, handing it back with a shuddering sigh. He knows. Every surfer in the world would know what's coming next.
"We never saw it coming. One minute we were sitting on our boards laughing about some stupid thing and whining about how flat the surf was and the next I was thrown off my board into the water. Jake saw it then and he jumped in after me, he was trying to help me get back on my board but it circled around. Jake saw it and he was screaming at me, screaming "get on your board, Bella, get back on your board" but I couldn't get a grip on it. I kept slipping and he was pushing me, trying so hard and then I saw it over my shoulder. I saw it coming at us. I saw the fin cutting the water behind him and then it disappeared and Jake's face, his eyes bulging and I couldn't do anything and there was red everywhere and I tried and I couldn't get to him..."
My breathing is coming in savage gulps that hurt my chest and Edward engulfs me in his arms again but I don't cry. I hold it off, counting the drops of condensation as they fall until I reach fifty and can speak again.
"It was all over in a few seconds. Less than a minute and it was all over. Sam Uley was on the beach with his daughter and he swam out to us. I would never have been able to get Jake out in time. He would have bled out in the water before I could have even gotten him to the beach. Sam saved his life."
"Jesus," Edward says under his breath, the grip on my hand so tight it hurts.
"His left leg was gone," I say. "Just... gone. It felt like there was nothing left on that beach. Nothing but bloodstained sand and Sam's daughter sobbing."
I take another long swig on the bourbon and shudder as it hits my stomach. I pass the bottle back to Edward and whisper into the darkness.
"And that was the end of everything."
Edward looks pale and I wonder if I've stolen his peace of mind in the water forever. He takes another long pull on the bottle and I wait until the colour to returns to his face.
"Some people might recover from a thing like that," I say. "They might fight their way through it and find a new way to live, but Jake hasn't been able to do that. He doesn't leave his bed, he barely eats, barely sleeps. Sam has him on all kinds of medications but it's no use. Nothing helps. He's just a shadow in the corner now."
"Me? I -." I swallow the words and instead of saying "I'm fine", I say nothing.
The bourbon is rolling in my stomach and I take the bottle from Edward, holding it up to the light. I tilt it this way and that, mesmerised as the liquid clings to the glass in a golden film before the next wave hits and washes it away. Edward replaces the bottle with another and I take a long pull of cool water.
"I can't get back in the water," I whisper. "All I want is to get back in the water."
He doesn't say anything. He just moves closer and puts his arm around my shoulder, rubbing my arm in a soothing rhythm.
"People say these things happen for a reason," I say. "Everybody says that to me, all the time. 'Everything happens for a reason.' I suppose they think it helps."
"That's a lot of pressure for a person, trying to find reason in something like that."
He has struck right at the heart of it all, a direct hit. I wonder if his degree is in psychology but I don't think that's how he knows. I think he knows that from experience and unexpected tears prick at my eyes.
I struggle every day through a whirlpool of thoughts and ideas swirling around in my head, trying to pluck out the one that will make sense of it all, but there is never anything big enough to make up for what happened to Jake.
What do we do now, Jake and I, to make up for what is gone?
"Do you believe that?" I ask. "That things happen for a reason."
"No." He's shakes his head slowly, that single word uttered with deep conviction. "No, I don't."
"What do you believe in?"
Silence falls, heavy and long, and a hundred emotions shadow his face. After a long time he rises slowly, holding out his hand to mine.
"Come with me," he says.
We stand at the water's edge, the Tilley lamp resting at our feet. The feeble glow does little to illuminate the black pool before us, casting just enough light to soften the angles of Edward's face.
Nobody has looked at me like that in a long time and his delicate touch, a single finger running along my jaw, sends a shiver up my spine. He runs a hand down my side and back up again, lifting the T-shirt over my head in one smooth movement before pulling his own shirt off.
He leans in so slowly, so close and I want to keep my eyes open but they drift closed as I wait for his lips to touch mine. Instead I feel his cheek brush mine and a whisper of warm breath in my ear.
"I believe in love and heartbreak and bourbon and sex and the ocean and random, terrifying chaos." A hand caresses my hair and his arm wraps around me as he moves closer until there is nothing separating us but our skin. His mouth moves slowly from my ear to my neck. He pulls back a little, his eyes looking briefly into mine before he whispers against my lips. "I believe brown eyes are beautiful and I believe that kissing the right person, at the right place and the right time and for the right reason can change everything."
There are no words for a long time. There is only the irregular cadence of water dripping, the hiss of lamplight and our breathing as the world slips further away with every passing moment until all that remains is his mouth, my lips, this kiss. It changes from something sweet and hesitant into something restless and urgent as our sighs become moans. His hands are everywhere, exploring and roaming over me, his skin warm and smooth under my fingers.
I'm not aware we've moved until I feel the water at my ankles.
I gasp and pull back a little but Edward's mouth is right there, trailing kisses on my throat and hair and mouth and I feel dizzy but not in the usual frightening way. This is a delicious giddiness that I don't want to end and I hold him tighter, wanting to melt into his eyes and his skin and the water.
It takes a long time and my lips are swollen and burning by the time the water reaches my waist. I take my hand from his hip and trail it through the water, feeling something bubbling in my chest, a ripple that escapes as soft laughter that I bury in Edward's neck.
It's so dark that I can't see his eyes but his voice is warm with relief when he whispers against my mouth.
"It's not the water you're afraid of," he says. "Let go, Bella."
And so I do.
Finally, at last, I let go - of him and of everything.
With one intake of breath I dive into the cool water, my hair spreading behind me like a bridal veil as I stroke and turn through the beautiful, quiet nothingness. Gliding through the water, cocooned and weightless, detached from anything above or below I feel what I have longed for all through these long, bleak months.
I want to stay here forever but I need to breathe. Something touches my arm as I break the surface and a pulse of fear ripples through me.
There's nothing be afraid of though. It's Edward, reaching for me as our lips meet once more.
It's different this time. This kiss is not a desperate attempt to defeat the fears that lurk below the surface. This kiss is a celebration of everything he believes in and all the things I thought lost to me forever.
And when I wrap my legs around his waist as we head into deeper water, I have hope that maybe – maybe – tomorrow will be different.
The sun hasn't crept very far above the horizon but the sand is already warm beneath my feet. Today will be another scorcher.
A seagull glides overhead, wheeling easily over me towards the ocean. It circles near the cluster of surfers beyond the reef as they rise and fall gently on the swell, waiting for the next set. Sam Uley is out there, the nose of his board pointed towards me as he raises a hand to shield his eyes from the sun.
I adjust my hold on the board and take one final look towards the point. Edward's EH is still there. I can't see him but I know he's there, sitting behind the wheel, watching and waiting.
A silent witness to whatever will happen next.
He's leaving town this morning, just as he always intended to. Even though I said goodbye to him barely an hour ago, he's already part of my past. I know I'll hold the memory of last night in that cave close by forever though, to draw strength from whenever I need to ward off loneliness or to find courage.
I turn towards the ocean. Jake will be wondering where I am. I'll visit him this morning, just like I always do. This time though, things will be different. There are things to talk about, things that have been left unsaid for too long.
Whether it's what we hoped for or not, the future will happen and we've already wasted enough of it.
I take my phone from the bag at my feet and type in a three word message, press send and walk towards the water.
I'm going in.