a short story by Michael Sherrillo
He began walking towards the sea, like he did most evenings he could. He stopped fort a moment at the end of the boardwalk, taking off his shoes, and letting out a sigh as his feet first touch the soft sand. He slowly made he way towards the sea, with the slow meandering gait of a man walking off the day’s troubles.
Out of the corner of his eyes, he saw something. What were normally just a few miles of barren sand nestled between crags on the New England coast was now occupied by a strange presence. Though he had many times seen footsteps along the beach left over this late at night, sometimes of couples walking before the sunset, other times the excited prints of children playing in the surf. On Wednesdays, there were always the signs of a runner accompanied by mans best friends, who inevitably left a sign of his own at the edge of the farthest bluff before they turned around.
But this night was neither Wednesday, nor were these the tracks of some previous daytime beachgoer. Though he couldn’t consciously say why, somehow he knew these were the steps of a woman. They captivated him, there was something mysterious in the way they appeared to come right out of the water, for when he looked farther down, he cold see no place where they entered. In fact, he noticed that the beach was perfectly clean, without step, mark, or track anywhere. He began to follow the steps, and as he walked next to them, he let his mind wander, as he did on most nights he walked by the beach.
There is some awful sadness involved with turning forty. It wasn’t that he had no real friends or family to speak of. That he had no party, no phone call, not even a card. The sadness comes to everyone at some point, either the day of, or after the hangover the morning after, as they stand in the kitchen and suddenly realize that half their life is over.
This night on the beach, the though struck him with profound depression. He followed the steps, though his pace slowed with the weight of his thoughts as he began to reflect. Forty. Forty. Forty. Forty. The number repeated with every step. He was five foot six, and at least 30 pounds overweight. Forty. He still had a teenager’s pimple complexion. Forty. He was a traveling computer analyst, with no home, friends, or family left. Forty. He had been picked on in high school, invisible in college, and almost ignored in his career. Forty. His hair was thinning. Forty. And, he hadn’t made love to a woman since his last girlfriend slammed the door closed on him in college and whose last words of wisdom to him had been, “I fucked you the first time because I was drunk, and the second because I pitied you. The few seconds it lasted I barley knew you were in, now leave me the fuck alone!” Though he guessed she was never technically his girlfriend, it was still the closest he had ever had. Forty.
He saw the last fifteen years pass, though they were all virtually identical. Every night he had spent in some hotel room, usually stopping once a week in the one he was at now. Though he had traveled to almost every major American city, he had never explored any one beyond the confines of the motel which he slept at. He would come in every night late after starring at the computer screen all day. Sitting on the bed, he would watch TV, though he usually didn’t care much what was on, just for the comforting familiar glow and so the sound would help fill the otherwise emptiness. Before he went to bed, he would lie there and jack off to scrambled porn, sometimes the hotel would have HBO so he wouldn’t need to squint. And then he would fall asleep, flaccid dick still in his pudgy hand. And then fly out in the morning to do the same the next night somewhere else. Forty.
One memory struck him, vivid and clear, he couldn’t remember when it happened. But one night, he had managed to get an erection. Though he tried, he couldn’t ‘t keep it up long enough to orgasm. He fell asleep tiered and frustrated, defeated by his own body. At some point in the night he had woken up, the TV making a high pitched whine letting him know regular broadcasting had ended, and would resume at six am the following morning. He opened his eyes for a second before realizing what is was that had awakened him. He had a wet dream, though he couldn’t remember it, and he had rolled over into the wet spot in his sleep. He just lay there, the though that his own semen was stuck to him was repulsing. Yet he couldn’t find the strength to move, then, as if from nowhere, he began to cry. He felt helpless, powerless, and pitiful.
He couldn’t remember ever feeling that alone before, and hadn’t since until tonight. Forty. If there was one single perpetual thread extending throughout his life, it was that he was alone. There was often people around him, at work, on his was through the motel, hundreds of bodies separated by a few feet of plaster and drywall. And yet they were all as far from him as they could be were he out in deep space while they slept here on earth. Forty.
The though came to him that the true reason he took these walks was really his way of searching. He hope, in his deepest thoughts, that some night he would find a kindled spirit, also alone and walking, and that maybe, for some unspecified amount of time, he could would find that he wasn’t alone, that there existed in all this world, one other person like him. That’s when he noticed her. Far off in the distance, just a speck against the sand, the thing he had been following. She was still walking, that much was clear, but he must have been going faster than her to catch up this much. Almost unconsciously, he quickened his pace, just slightly. He must meet her, he must see her. Even if he never says a word, he knew he must see the face of this person. Desperation gripped him, and maybe it was at this point (though it could be argued he had always been) that he began to go a little mad. It was as this thought occurred, that he might just be going crazy, that he also found out he was sprinting. Though it came as a surprise, he didn’t slow down or stop. His head was no longer filled with anything except the memory of the wet sheets sticking to him, and the feeling of his complete isolation, interrupted only with the word forty after each stride.
It was when he brought his hand up to his cheek and felt the salty tears streaming down his face that he saw the woman’s, whose figure he was now able to make out very well, direction had altered slightly. The footsteps that had before been almost exactly parallel to the ocean were now angled slightly toward it. The muscles in his legs were beginning to cramp as his lunges were screaming for more air through gasps. He would have called out, but all his energy was focused on making it just far enough to see her.
As the burning became knots of pain, and the pain in his chest became a stitch in his side, he watched her make her first step into the water. With the last of his strength, he ran faster. Splashing into the water without a blink, the cold water splashed up his legs as he stumbled towards her. Reaching out his hand, his fingertips just inches away from her, as the last of her disappeared beneath the waves.
For a second longer he stood. Water up to his shoulders, waves splashing over his soaking head, gasping for breath as tears continued to pour down his face. He tried to let out one anguished cry, one great sob, but all that came out was a raspy gurgle as he fought for more air. The images circled his head, the sticky sheets, the whine of the TV, and the loneliness. Forty. Forty. Forty. The words, now seeming to mock him, continued to sound. He looked back over his shoulder only once at the beach, now so seemingly far away, and on it, he saw not two, but one set of footprints leading from the distance, his own. As he looked, another wave came, covering the few parts of him that were left above water. As the wave receded, nothing but the beach, the sand, and miles of cold, dark ocean remained.
A few days later, the man staying in room 118 at the nearby motel was reported missing, though with no relatives or next of kin to contact, little more was done. The single set of footprints which would have been the only clue, had been washed away with the rising tide.