I left the coffee house, taking a sip of the hot coffee from my travel mug.
Instead of my mouth, the front of my cardigan got most of it.
A friend, who fancied herself a comedienne, had once joked that coffee stains on my clothes was my signature style.
This time, just like most other times, I’d been preoccupied with some thought or another while loading up the mug with cream and sugar back in the coffee house. I couldn’t even remember screwing the lid back on, apparently not doing a good job of it.
As I turned a corner, I fumbled to secure the bothersome lid, and unexpectedly ran into a wall.
What remained of the coffee in the mug ended up on the wall, and the wall made a noise that sounded like “ugh.”
The wall, as it turned out, was actually a man wearing a nice sports jacket over a shirt and trousers, now thoroughly soaked with coffee, cream, and sugar.
The man might have been really handsome, but just now he had the look of a cold-blooded killer, looking right at me with his icicle eyes. He was apparently unimpressed by the incoherent apologies I had begun, and the crushed, sodden napkin I was offering.
Under his hard scrutiny, I rather suddenly became aware that the mug and lid were no longer in my hands. They were rolling on the concrete at my feet.
I bent down, getting away from his unblinking stare, to retrieve them.
The bothersome lid, I saw, was cracked.
I straightened up with the dripping items and said to his wet shirt, “May I buy you a cup of coffee?” trying an apologetic smile as I ventured to lift my eyes back to his face again.
He didn’t return the smile, replying coldly, “I’ve had enough coffee for now.”
Beneath his long, drooping eyelids, his ice blue, almost colorless eyes were remarkably, rather horribly piercing, pinioning me like an insect.
His lashes, like his hair and brows, were very fair, the color of wheat fields in late summer. But there was nothing warm or particularly summery about him otherwise, especially his iceberg eyes, which presently fell to my fumbling hands; in my usual scatterbrained way, I was stuffing the broken lid and the mostly but not quite empty mug in my tote bag.
Then his gaze took in my appearance, complete with my own fresh coffee blotched cardigan.
My cheeks flamed red; my otherwise pale complexion showed blushes mercilessly, and, to my great annoyance, I blushed easily, too easily. I made for one lousy poker player. And he made me feel very self-conscious in a way I hadn’t felt for years, since I was a teenager, really. It was as if it mattered to me what he thought.
I supposed that, almost by default, my appearance was consistent with what I was, a socially awkward computer geek of the skinny and pasty variety. Under my cardigan was one of the many geek humor t-shirts I owned. My hair, which was black, fine, straight, and uncooperative, was pulled back in a serviceable ponytail, though strands were already slipping out.
His ice cold eyes seemed to see too much.
Then, unexpectedly, his brows quirked slightly and he said, “Do I know you?”
“Know me? Oh, no,” I said quickly, finally managing to tear away my own gaze from his. I was having the sensation that I was now a deer caught in headlights, maybe even already run over.
“Elena. Or Helena,” the man said.
“No, I’m sorry,” I said, forcing another apologetic smile. “That’s not me.”
He mirrored my smile this time with a slight, rather derisive one, more a sneer than a smile.
“No, of course not,” he said presently, in icy, mocking tones. “You would be dead. My mistake,” and he walked away without a glance back, heading toward the dock where the ferry came in from the mainland.
I blinked after him until he was out of sight, wondering if “you would be dead” meant he was going to murder me if I was Helena. I hoped that would be the last I ever saw of him.
Then I turned on my sneakered heel and fled in a completely different direction, taking an unnecessary side street to avoid any possibility of running into him again.
I eventually stopped at a drinking fountain to rinse off my sticky hands, drying them on my jeans. There seemed little I could do about the spot on my cardigan. At least the coffee hadn’t soaked through to my t-shirt, which was more than I could say about the man’s clothes; he’d gotten almost fifteen ounces of coffee on him. Not that he had exactly deserved any sympathy. Not that he would care what I felt.
I crossed over to the boardwalk that lined the pale golden beach, glancing back over my shoulder. I saw no sign of him. There was no reason I should have expected him to follow me, of course.
I kept walking along the boardwalk, slowing my pace, leaving the harbor and Old Town behind me, leaving behind the man with the icicle eyes.
When the length of boardwalk ended, I continued to follow the curve of shoreline. It was late spring, still fairly early in the day, and the breeze hadn’t yet cleared the fog. The fog was drifting over the surface of the ocean, merging with it and the low-hanging grey sky. Closer, against the shore, the waves separated from the grey void, spreading on the sand, then falling back again in sighs, and the air was damp and heavy with the smell of brine.
This far out from town, I encountered no one other than a few inevitable artists who had set up with their easels. Among other things, Edith Island had its renowned artist colony, which was patronized by the rich and famous who lived on the island.
The island otherwise was mostly a sleepy, exclusive retreat for whoever could afford it, hiding themselves in an undisclosed number of very private estates. Even the artists had their own separate chateau-like enclave, though they also wandered out to paint and mingle with lower mortals – tourists – like me, who stayed in the town, went to their art galleries and other tourist stuff, and wandered the beach. There was also the steep three-mile hike on the far side of the island up to Edith Fountain. The Fountain, tapping into mineral springs, was supposed to have healing properties of some sort, and for a while had been quite the fad. Of course, anyone really sick would have a difficult time making it up there.
I kept walking along the shore until I arrived at the base of the headlands, which meant the end of the public beach. I hopped onto the rocks, escaping a wave. My eyes idly searched the tide pools, an old habit from childhood.
I spotted quite a find, a chestnut cowry seashell. I stopped to pick it up and examine it. It was a very nice specimen, completely intact. Its smooth, rounded back had a mottled reddish-brown pattern, and the underside was pearly white.
I slipped it in one of the inner pockets of my tote.
It brought back memories of finding other shells when I had been a child. I’d spent hours wandering the beach and tide pools and collecting shells and researching them. I’d wanted to become a marine biologist.
But then I left that part of my childhood all behind when I was fourteen, including my carefully organized shoebox shell collection and my interest in marine biology, all of it. I was fourteen when I was last at the beach, even though I lived fairly close to the coast since then. And, oddly, perhaps, I’d forgotten that I’d once collected shells till now.
I presently began climbing amidst the cliff rocks, leaving the tide pools behind, and found a narrow, overgrown path that appeared to lead upward to the windy headland.
By now, the fog was burned off and the cloud cover was thinning, but the blue sky was still veiled and the light was grey.
As I continued to climb, the ocean shifted restlessly below me. It seemed much vaster from this vantage, stretching far out to the horizon and fading into the indeterminate sky, far from everything.
But the sound of the waves against the shore remained close no matter how dizzyingly distant the waters seemed.
It would make for quite a fall.
I felt utterly, completely alone.
It was, I reflected, quite a very different kind of aloneness than I was used to, a loneliness I’d only felt as a child. My usual kind was inside the confines of the four walls of the room I had rented during my graduate school years, in front of my computer, with headphones on. For the last year and half, especially, I had been sucked into the entangled monstrosity that had been my PhD thesis and my constant companion.
All that was over now. I was no longer a graduate student. Soon I would be starting up a job, a career. I would have a new life in a new city, a new identity.
Just now it felt like I was in between identities.
As I neared the top of the rocky headland, far from the rest of the world, it felt even more that way. Maybe it was because I hadn’t fueled up on my usual morning coffee, thanks to that encounter with the man with the icicle eyes.
When I reached the top, I continued along the narrow, little-traversed footpath as it wound around wizened pine trees and veered inland. From there it led me zigzagging steadily down to yet another pale yellow, empty stretch of beach. It was high tide now, so on this side of the headland the sand was only a narrow strip hemmed in by the encroaching ocean on one side, and the rise of grassy dunes and rocks to the other. And, perched above these, beyond a barrier of more battered trees, was a palatial stone house on a slant of manicured estate grounds, closed off from the rest of the world by a line of stone and iron fencing.
I followed the thin golden track of sand of this new bay.
Midway, I stopped to empty sand out of my shoes.
I glanced up at a series of wood steps, which appeared to lead up to the stone mansion.
I left the beach and began climbing them.
The steps ran up and into the rocky cliff, then burrowed their way through the grove of trees that clung to the land, ending on a stone pathway half obscured by moss and fir needles. The beach and now bright late morning sunlight disappeared behind me. I was enveloped in the quiet hush of damp undergrowth and dappled light, which flitted and danced about beneath the thick canopy of the trees.
I followed the path and soon found myself at a gated entrance, and, beyond it, rising above terraced gardens, I caught a glimpse of the truly magnificent stone mansion. It was reminiscent of an English country manor.
I saw the woman approaching before she saw me.
She looked like an incognito celebrity.
She was wearing huge sunglasses and a silk floral kerchief tied under her chin and completely covering her head. Beneath a voluminous, drapey cashmere cardigan, she wore a loose-fitting white tunic and pants that fluttered in the ocean breeze.
As she neared, though, I thought she looked too ill to be some glamourous starlet.
She glanced up and froze when she saw me at the gate.
“Who the hell are you?” she demanded in a hoarse voice.
“I’m trying to find a way off the beach,” I began.
“This is a private beach. There’s no public access in or out,” the woman interrupted in brittle tones.
She reduced the distance between us with almost aggressive speed so there were only the iron bars of the gate between us, and she peered at me as if through prison bars, only I wasn’t sure which of us was the prisoner in this case.
Her mouth, painted an angry pink, was a hard, thin line.
This close up, she looked even more shrunken, her skin, inelastic and grey, pulled taut over bones and sinew.
“How did you get here?” she demanded.
“I got to this part of the beach from the headland. I followed a footpath. Then I saw these stairs.”
“You came from town?”
“That’s five miles out.”
The dark lenses and the eyes behind them continued to stare at me like an unblinking insect.
“Who are you?” the woman at length repeated.
“I’m no one,” I said.
She gave a mirthless, barking laugh, continuing her insect stare.
Then she said abruptly, “Helena?”
“No, not Helena. I was just walking. I started out on the boardwalk along the beach and then I found the footpath,” I repeated. “Look, I can just go back the way I came.”
“No, of course you’re not Helena,” the woman was saying, not listening to me. “You look like her. A little older, of course. She was fourteen when she died.”
“Oh. I’m very sorry,” I said, my cheeks blooming vivid red.
The woman’s thin mouth twisted into a kind of smile.
“You even blush like she did,” she said. “But it’s all water under the bridge. She died thirteen years ago.”
“Oh. Well,” I said, struggling to know what to say.
“Come through the grounds,” the woman said presently, and her lips parted to show her very white, straight, capped teeth.
She raised one of her boney hands and typed in a code on the gate lock.
It clicked open, and she swung the gate open, gesturing imperiously.
“Of course,” the woman replied with a tinge of impatience, beckoning again with her claw-like hand. “I wouldn’t have offered it otherwise.”
“No, I don’t imagine you would,” I said, and, after a pause, said, “Thank you.”
I stepped through.
I should have turned and fled.