I felt a lump form in my throat as I gazed out across the ocean at the setting sun, the heavenly display it created silencing the world around me.  The dying sun had taken on a luminous terracotta shade as it crept over the horizon, the sky alive with colour, a cacophony of reds, ambers, greens, blues and purples all balanced together, merging and contrasting.  No painting or photograph could ever have done justice to the celestial exhibition, Mother Nature’s own artistry unsurpassable by man.

 

The ocean was almost still, calmer than I’d ever seen it, reflecting the colourful sky with near unfettered vibrancy.  As I gazed out it was like staring through the gates of heaven twice over, a vision of paradise, of unbridled beauty, the closest to perfection any human could ever hope to get during their lifetime.  I felt so small, so insignificant, and yet at the same time blessed, as though the myriad of colours were there just for me, a celebration of life, a vision to remind me of all that was wondrous and beautiful in the world.

 

I took a step forward into the tepid water, allowing the gentle waves to wash over my feet, but I didn’t feel them.  I was lost in the spectacle before me, my mind awash with thoughts and ideas, hopes and dreams, memories and feeling.  I remembered the first time I had stood on the beach, a child of just four years, my grandmother’s hand gripping my own tightly.  We had stood on roughly the spot I stood now, gazing out over the ocean as the day faded into night, neither of us speaking lest a single word be enough to dispel the vision and leave us in darkness.

 

It was my earliest coherent memory and certainly the one I treasured above all others, one of the few times in my life I had known real tranquillity, true serenity, peace with myself and the world around me.  After the sun had bade its final farewell and the sky had faded into blackness we had walked up the beach, back towards the house, finding a comfortable spot on the beach away from the frigid ocean and gazing up at the stars.  My grandmother had pointed out all the constellations visible that night, telling me stories about how they came to get their names, introducing me to wonders my childish mind could only begin to comprehend.

 

Every year we had returned to my grandmother’s house in the tiny Cornish coastal village of Castleford, our annual two-week summer holiday a break from the hustle and bustle of our daily lives.  Every day during those holidays, every year until my grandmother died, she and I had come out at night, watching the sun dip over the horizon and then watching the stars.  It didn’t seem to matter how many times I heard the stories of the constellations I never tired of them.  Even after she died when I was eleven I continued the ritual, sitting out on our spot and recalling those precious tales, fables that inspired my imagination and filled me with wonder.

 

As I took a step back, withdrawing my feet from the water, I could feel them approaching behind me, but I didn’t dare turn around, didn’t dare look away from the sunset, afraid that if I did so I would look back and it would all be gone, the flamboyant colours replaced by blackness.  I didn’t want it to end, but I knew that it was only a matter of time before it all faded away, before the sun disappeared, vanishing until morning.  I couldn’t stop it, but I could savour every last moment, burn the image into my mind for all of eternity, refuse to let it go no matter what.

 

As I stood there waiting for them to arrive I could almost feel my grandmother’s hand in my own.  I could almost touch her weathered skin, feel the love she had for me, sense her vivacious spirit.  I knew that wherever she was she was smiling, watching over for me, waiting until I was ready to join her so that she could share her stories with me once more.  I felt an aching in my heart as I thought of her, a sense of loss that came whenever I thought of her, whenever I remembered our times together.

 

I had been eleven years old when she died, a stroke claiming her life just weeks after our annual visit, and in the four years that had passed since her death I had found myself missing her a little more each day.  My parents, my family, my friends and my teachers had all taught me the things I needed in order to survive, to build a life for myself, to prosper, but it had been my grandmother who had taught me about the little things, the things that most people tend to overlook.  Things like taking the time to stop and admire the world, watch the stars, smell the flowers, look at a tree and not just seeing a lump of wood with leaves, but a piece of living history, a testament to time and the endurance of nature.

 

“Thanks gran,” I whispered, turning from the fading sunset to watch as they walked towards me.

 

The three of them walked side by side, none of them looking at me or even at each other, all lost in their own thoughts, their own memories.  I smiled as I watched them, yearning to run to them, to pull them all into a tight embrace, to hold them close to me, but I held my ground, waiting for them to arrive, just watching their approach.  They took their time, ambling slowly down the beach from my grandmother’s house, from our holiday home, making their way down towards me, towards the edge of the water.

 

As they reached me they stopped, standing silently, motionless, none of them yet ready to take that final step even though they knew the time was close.  My father stood furthest from me, his eyes locked on the ground before him, watching as the waves lapped at the shore, rising to within inches of his bare feet before retreating back into the ocean.  He seemed lost in thought, trapped in a haze of conflicting emotions as he had been since the moment we’d arrived at the house.

 

It had been he who had first suggested we keep my grandmother’s house after she died, that we return every year just as we had during her lifetime, continue to enjoy the peace and tranquillity of the village.  It had surprised me when he first made the suggestion.  Until that day I had always thought of him as the sort of man who would have preferred a holiday in some exotic location, the sort of person who would want to explore the world, see everything, but like my mother and I he genuinely seemed to find contentment at the house, on the beach, insulated from the rest of the world.

 

Despite his claim that he loved coming to the house, I had never really understood it until the morning after our arrival.  Sure, I would have chosen a holiday at my grandmother’s house over any other place in the world, but in spite of his words and reassurances I just couldn’t understand why he loved it.  My mother had grown up in the house, played on the beach as a child, so to her it was like coming home, returning to her childhood, a chance to be close to her mother once again.  I suppose I shared my mother’s sentiment, for every year since my birth we had come back here.  I saw it as a second home, a place where I could reflect, think, rejuvenate and recover, but my father was different.  He had no childhood memories of the house, no special bond with it, or at least that was what I had thought.

 

He had risen early the day after we arrived, descending the stairs before sunrise, walking out onto the back porch and taking a seat there.  I had followed him, sitting down beside him, watching him in silent confusion, waiting for him to say something, but it was not his words that made me understand.  It was his actions.  After a few minutes he reached into the pocked of his dressing gown and produced a picture, a faded photograph of me as a little boy sat on the beach gazing proudly at a sandcastle he had just helped me to build.

 

“Happy days,” he had muttered, lowering the photograph just enough that I could get a good look at it.

 

I’d been five or maybe six when it was taken, a mischievous looking child with a broad grin and a mop of platinum blond hair, an angelic imp who looked so innocent, so happy.  It was hard for me to believe I’d ever been so small, so fragile, but it was definitely me in that photograph.  My hair had darkened over the years, my body growing, changing beyond all recognition, but that smile, those eyes, those features were mine.  As I gazed at the photograph I almost wished I could have been back there again, that I could somehow bring that little boy back to life and meet him, talk to him, caution him about the mistakes I had made, teach him to do things differently.

 

My father had smiled, chuckling briefly to himself.  “You played out there for hours that day, Liam,” he’d said in a gentle voice, gazing down at the photograph as he spoke.  “You were so happy that you just didn’t want to come back in.  We ate our lunch on the beach that day just so that you would get some food and in the evening we ate out here, on the porch, the closest we could get you to the inside of the house until you fell asleep listening to your grandmother’s stories.”

 

“I remember,” I’d whispered to him.

 

“You were a wilful child, but a happy one,” he’d continued.  “It was impossible to get angry with you, because all you had to do was smile and any trace of annoyance just seemed to slip away.”

 

“I should have tried that after I snuck out to Kelly Larson’s party,” I’d replied, reclining in my chair.  “Maybe then I wouldn’t have been grounded.”

 

My father hadn’t responded, just continued to stare at the picture with a subtle mixture of sadness and joy.

 

As the memory of that morning began to fade I smiled at my father, knowing that at last I finally understood him.  Perhaps he didn’t have any childhood memories of the house, at least not his own childhood, but he had plenty of memories of mine, happy days spent playing on the beach, paddling in the sea, building sandcastles.  In our own home there had been plenty of happy memories, as well as our share of cross words, but at my grandmother’s house there were only joyful recollections for all of us.  It was the one place where my father could see me as a child again, remember the years as I grew up, all the changes, all the laughter, all the happiness we’d shared.

 

I wanted to go to him, to thank him for all of those memories and hug him, but though my mind screamed at me to do so my body remained motionless.  I just watched him from afar, the gulf that had grown between us too great to bridge.  It saddened me that this holiday would bring us no new happy memories, that in all likelihood it would be the last time we would all be here together, standing on this spot.

 

I sighed, fighting back the tears that burned my eyes, struggling to regain control of my emotions before turning to look at my mother.  She stood beside my father, her eyes fixed on the horizon, but somehow I knew she didn’t see the colours, the beauty, the tranquillity before her.  Her mind was too preoccupied, lost in sadness, relief and hope, conflicted, but also at peace, unable to conjure any tangible memories, yet lost amongst them, fighting to cling to them all.  To her chest she held a small, wooden box, cradling it close as though it was her most precious possession, stroking it with her fingers, pressing it to her heart as a solitary tear made its way down her cheek.

 

I’d never seen my mother looking so beautiful.  She was wearing her pale green summer dress, the one I had liked so much when I’d been a little boy.  I smiled as I remembered how I’d often crept into her bedroom when she was in the shower, returning the clothes she’d laid out for herself to the wardrobe, climbing onto a chair so I could reach to hang them back up, replacing them with that dress and her white sandals.  Most of the time she’d just laughed, shaking her head at me and telling me that either the weather or her tasks for the day meant she was unable to wear it, but every so often she would indulge me.  Each time regardless she would hug me close, kiss me on my forehead and tell me how much she loved me.

 

I wished so much that she and I could have that kind of closeness again.  I wished that I had been the one to creep into her room and lay the dress out for her, but it was a ritual I had abandoned many years ago, too long ago.  Now, even the hugs and kisses were impossible, just memories we would both share and cherish, memories we would both long to revisit, but would never know again.  The barrier between us was insurmountable, the love we felt for each other strong, but not strong enough.

 

I’d been there that morning as she’d taken the dress from her wardrobe, hanging it up over the door and gazing at it.  I’d been sat on the chair by the window, watching her silently as she’d smoothed the fabric, stared at it for what felt like an eternity, doubtless reliving the same memories that crept into my mind in those moments.  I’d seen her smile as she’d sat down on the bed.  Even though she’d been facing away from me I’d seen that smile, I’d caught it in the mirror and even though it had been a fleeting glimpse it had been enough to bring a smile to my own face.

 

“It’s going to be ok Mum,” I’d whispered to her.

 

“I know how much you love this dress Liam,” she’d said.  “At least, you loved it when you were a little boy.”

 

“I love it still,” I’d smiled.  “It brings out your eyes.  It makes you look young again.”

 

She’d sighed, swallowing heavily as her eyes flooded with tears, tears of joy as she remembered those early days and tears of sadness as she realised they were long gone.  I’d sat with her for almost an hour as she gazed up at it, sitting motionless, her face changing every few minutes as she pondered her memories, sometimes smiling, sometimes crying, sometimes impassive.  When she’d risen to get dressed I’d left the room, but my departure had been a reluctant one.  Even though nothing much had been said I’d enjoyed just being there, just watching her, just being close to her again.

 

It was true what I’d said.  As I gazed at her standing there on the beach in the fading light I couldn’t see the faint lines that had formed around her eyes and mouth over the years.  I couldn’t see the aging to her skin around her neck or hands.  She just looked like the mother I’d known as a little boy, a young and graceful woman, a woman who always had a warm smile on her face and a song in her heart.  Perhaps the smile was absent and the music had faded away, but her youth, her vitality, her generosity and kindness still remained.  The dress did nothing to bring it out, it merely reminded me of what had always been there.

 

I smiled at her, my smile broadening as she dropped her right hand from the box, reaching out and taking Nate’s hand in her own, holding it tightly, firmly.  My boyfriend turned to look at her and she offered him a fleeting smile, a small gesture, but one I knew would mean so much to him.  I couldn’t see his face as he looked at her, but somehow I knew he was returning her smile, communicating silently with her, offering her support and love and accepting it in return.

 

As she released his hand and returned it to the box, Nate looked away from her, turning his eyes towards the fading sky.  He looked so serene, so calm, so peaceful, a faint smile preying on his lips.  I wanted more than anything to lean over and kiss those lips, to feel them against my own, to lean into his warm embrace, but all I could bring myself to do was reach out, rest my hand on his shoulder, feel the warmth of his skin as it drifted through his pale blue shirt.

 

He shuddered beneath my touch as though some imagined chill had reached his flesh, as though for a moment the sultry air had cooled around him.  I withdrew my hand, dropping it back to my side with a heavy sigh.  Nate glanced towards me and then back at my mother before dropping his eyes to his feet and shaking his head.  I reached out to him again, but stopped myself, my hand hovering above his shoulder, hesitating just inches from his skin, blocked as if by some invisible barrier.  Nate stepped forward, moving away from me and looking up at the sky once more.

 

“It’s beautiful here,” he said, his voice full of wonder, full of passion.

 

“It’s my favourite place in the whole world,” I whispered to him.

 

“It is,” my mother agreed, turning to smile briefly at Nate.  “When I was a child, my mother and I would come down here whenever I had a problem or something we needed to talk about.  We’d sit out here for hours and just work things through together.  She did the same with Liam, whenever we visited.  Sometimes I wish I could have joined them, but whenever I thought about asking to come with them I always thought I would have been intruding.”

 

“You wouldn’t,” I told her.  “We’d have loved to have you with us.”

 

“I remember one time,” she continued, “when Liam was seven or eight and was having trouble sleeping, my mother and I brought him down here.  We built a little fire, toasted some marshmallows and read him stories until he fell asleep.”

 

“I remember that night,” I nodded.  “You read me Peter Pan and I tried to stay awake until the story was over, but I just couldn’t.  I don’t think you ever finished reading it to me.”

 

My mother sighed, shaking her head and staring out to sea again, the conversation dying as quickly as it had begun.  There was so much more I wanted to say, so many words I needed to speak, so much I needed them all to hear, but I knew it wasn’t the time.  Any words I had to speak would fall on deaf ears, lost in the abyss, all because of what happened that night, the night of my parent’s twentieth wedding anniversary, the night when I hurt them all, when I broke their hearts.

 

It had been a happy day, a beautiful day, the beginning of summer, the sun burning in the sky, scorching the Earth.  I had risen early to prepare breakfast for my parents, intending to bring it to them in bed, but they had woken before I could finish and in the end we sat together at the kitchen table and munched on toast and eggs and bacon, reminiscing about old times. We talked about the day my father first laid eyes on my mother, how he had pursued her until she’d finally agreed to go out with him, how she’d fallen for him as he took her for a moonlit picnic by the river.

 

As I washed the dishes after our meal I’d asked my parents about their plans for the day, gawping incredulously at my mother when she said they would be going shopping and returning in the early afternoon to get ready for their anniversary party.  All of their friends had spent weeks organising the party, keeping it secret from them, plotting, scheming, planning the surprise, but in spite of every precaution they’d taken my parents had still managed to find out about it.  It was typical of my mother.  Somehow she always knew what was going on, but of course she never revealed how.

 

She’d laughed at the expression on my face, telling me that it would be a cold day in hell before anyone managed to truly surprise her, but promising to look surprised anyway.  I told them that I had to get them to the Granville Hotel by seven and they both smiled at me, assuring me that they would be back from their shopping expedition by four in order to get ready.  I shook my head as I watched them leave the house, smiling to myself as they waved at me from the car.

 

The rest of that morning I spent calling around, making sure everything was ready, dealing with the handful of minor problems that had arisen.  Well, when I say minor problems, arranging transportation to and from the party for six elderly relatives was no easy task, but after an hour on the phone, begging and pleading with friends and family I managed to make the necessary arrangements.  When I was finally satisfied that everything was in place I’d picked up the phone again, calling Nate, dialling the number that had been burned into my mind, waiting with eager anticipation for him to pick up.

 

We spoke for almost an hour, discussing our plans for that evening.  The one aspect of the surprise that I knew my parents hadn’t managed to figure out was the fact that we had all chipped in to book the honeymoon suite at the hotel for them.  They would be away for the night and while it was supposed to be a celebration for them, Nate and I had planned a little party of our own.  We’d been together for almost two years and that night was going to be the night when we would finally make love to one another.

 

Nate had taken care of everything for us, packing a hold-all full of supplies, jamming it to the brim with anything and everything he thought that we might need or want, anything that would make our first time together perfect.  Of course, two fifteen year olds may have felt worldly and grown up, but we had no idea what to expect, no idea what we would need, no clue as to what awaited us.

 

That afternoon I’d packed bags for my parents, calling one of my mother’s work colleagues to come pick them up, to take them to the hotel ready for their surprise.  My aunt had made a list of everything I should pack, everything they would need, ensuring that they would have no reason to back out, that they would find no excuse to leave the hotel early, return home and possibly abandon the opportunity to relive their wedding night.

 

When they returned I said nothing, just smiled at them knowingly, watched as they unpacked their shopping bags, showing me all the things they’d bought.  Of course, it was my mother who prospered most from their little expedition, buying almost an entirely new wardrobe as well as a copious amount of jewellery, but my father hadn’t come away empty handed.  My mother had bought him a new watch, a couple of shirts and a brand new briefcase for work.

 

All but one of the bags were emptied there in the lounge, the contents displayed for my admiration.  I didn’t ask about the final bag, knowing the moment my mother nudged it under a pile of clothes that I didn’t even want to think about the contents.  I knew my parents, even after twenty years together, had a healthy relationship, full of love and passion, but there was a big difference between knowing it and knowing the details, the difference being several years of intensive therapy.

 

I’d helped them to carry their purchases upstairs to their room and then we’d all separated, getting ready for the party.  Officially my parents and I had been invited by my aunt to a celebratory dinner at the hotel, but the reality was a five-star buffet and over one hundred guests, a celebration fit for such a hefty milestone in their relationship.

 

I’d taken a long shower and then dressed myself in the black suit my father had bought me for my cousin’s christening earlier that year.  I’d smiled as I looked at myself in the mirror, remembering the day we bought the suit and the heated discussion I’d had with my father about it.  We’d both agreed on the suit itself, but the associated shirt and tie were another matter.  I wanted a black silk shirt and matching tie while my father was pushing me towards a more traditional white shirt and blue tie.  In the end I’d tried on the suit with the shirt and tie I wanted and despite his reservations he’d been forced to admit that it looked good on me.

 

More importantly, Nate had really liked the look of me in it.

 

The party was a resounding success, my parents loving every minute of it, relishing the attention, the love, celebrating their anniversary to its fullest.  We sprung the surprise on them when my mother first talked about heading home, handing them the key to their room and their bags.  Of course, they both protested, but in the end they gave in.  Their only concern was for me, ensuring that I would be all right alone in the house for the night, but I managed to dissuade their anxiety without giving away that I wasn’t planning on being alone.

 

After that night, part of me wished that they had insisted I spend the night with friends, or even come home themselves.  If they had they would have probably saved themselves a lot of pain, but they didn’t.  They trusted me, trusted that I would behave myself, that I didn’t need someone to watch over me.

 

I turned to them again, stepping past Nate to be closer to them, but they didn’t look at me.  My father just kept watching the waves lapping at the shore, my mother lost in thought as she gazed at the dying remnants of the sunset.  I wanted to apologise to them, to reach out to them, but I knew in my heart there was nothing I could say or do, nothing that would make a difference, nothing that would take their pain away.  When my father had suggested coming to my grandmother’s house, making our annual summer pilgrimage, I knew that he did so in the hope that it would bring about some kind of resolution, bring peace to us all, but somehow I’d known the moment he voiced the idea that it would do little to help.

 

The fact that they invited Nate to join them meant a lot to me, and I knew it meant a lot to him too, but as I turned to him, as I stared into his eyes, I saw past the calm, collected act he was putting on.  I saw the turmoil he really felt, the confusion, the pain.  Sure, our annual summer holiday might begin to repair the damage, but I knew as I looked at them all that the pain I brought them that night would be with them for a long time to come.

 

There was nothing I could do except remember that night, replay it over and over again in my mind, wonder if anything would have made a difference, if there was anything I could have said or done to change things.  People say that hindsight is twenty-twenty, but no matter how hard I look I can’t see anything I could have done to change things, anything that would have made a difference and spared the people I loved most from pain.  I hated myself for hurting them, but I knew I couldn’t blame myself and hoped that one day they would be able to forgive me.

 

My father’s sister drove us home that night, dropping me back first before driving Nate around the corner to his house.  I hurried inside, carrying with me the bag that Nate had brought for us, taking it up to my room and lighting the candles around my bed.  I had just finished lighting the last one when I heard the gentle rapping on the door downstairs, a smile instantly filling my face as I trotted out of my bedroom and down to greet him.

 

I pulled him into my arms the moment he stepped through the door, tugging him against me and kissing him ferociously.  I pushed him up against the wall, pinning him there as our mouths ground together, our tongues engaged in passionate battle, his hands exploring my back as mine slid slowly down either side of his body to his hips.  He groaned into my mouth, the bulge in his trousers pressing hard against me, screaming for release, begging for attention.  I broke our kiss, withdrawing my head as his mouth reached for mine again, smiling at him, gazing at him.

 

“Are you sure you want to do this?” I asked him, reaching for his hands and holding them in my own.

 

“Absolutely,” he grinned at me, licking his lips salaciously.  “It’s ok if you’re having second thoughts though.  We can just sleep together if you want.  We don’t have to…”

 

“To hell with that,” I laughed, stepping back and tugging his hands, pulling him towards me.  “Tonight your body is mine and I’m going to enjoy every last inch of it.”

 

“If you insist,” he winked.

 

Nate let me lead him up the stairs, allowed me to guide him into my bedroom, staying close to me the whole time, holding my hands tightly as though he was afraid to let go.  Once inside I turned to him again, fully intending to ask him once more if he was certain, absolutely certain, that he was ready, but I didn’t need to speak the words.  I could see in his eyes that he was sure, that he had no doubts whatsoever.  I could see the love he felt for me, the lust, the desire, and any concerns I had were lost in that instant, forgotten forever.

 

I have two conflicting memories of what happened that night, one based in reality, the other a romantic version, a fallacy created by my mind where everything was perfect.  It’s the latter I prefer to recall, the tender lovemaking, the fierce passion, a flawless performance by us both that brought us to the gates of heaven itself, but the reality was very different.  Sure, it was tender and passionate and wonderfully climactic, but it was also clumsy and awkward.

 

Nate and I had explored each other’s bodies many times before, lain naked beside each other more times than I could count, certainly often enough that we were not self-conscious about our bodies, not shy about looking at each other, touching each other.  That night, however, my hands trembled as I undressed him, my body burning bright red as he helped me shed my own clothes.  I shook as I stood naked before him.  I would like to be able to believe that it was because I was excited, quivering in anticipation of his touch, but the truth was I was terrified.

 

When he kissed me we bumped heads, our noses colliding over and over, our teeth clashing, the act clumsier even than our first kiss.  When I led him over to the bed he stumbled, crashing onto the mattress with a savage thump, erupting into fits of giggles that seemed to last an eternity.  I felt awkward as I lay beside him, as I kissed him, as I ran my hands over his glorious body and from the expression on his face I knew that Nate felt the same way, that he was just as terrified as I was.

 

Our foreplay lasted long past midnight, gentle caresses that seemed to become easier with time, kisses that began to feel natural again after a while, our fear subsiding, comfort returning, but the moment Nate reached for his bag, the moment he produced the box of condoms he had bought for us, the anxiety returned.  At the time I pushed it aside, dismissed it out of hand, but later I realised that I wasn’t nervous about losing my virginity and I had no qualms about losing it to Nate.  I was anxious because I wanted it to be perfect, terrified that I would do something wrong, ruin it somehow, forever tarnish the memory.

 

We both knew precisely what to do.  We’d worked out enough for ourselves, but the rest we’d discovered on the Internet, in books and in the handful of pornographic movies we been able to acquire.  Even so, it took us nearly twenty minutes to get into a position where Nate could get inside me.  In the end I had to bundle pillows under my stomach to lift me up and reach around to spread my cheeks so Nate could see where he needed to go.  It felt like a wholly unromantic position, very different from what I’d imagined, from the many fantasies I’d had about our first time, but it seemed to work.

 

Then came the trauma of getting Nate inside.  I’d thought that all he would need to do was push, but it seemed to take an eternity of coaxing and manoeuvring for him to slide inside and when he finally did I had to grit my teeth to stop myself from crying out.  Fortunately Nate sensed my pain and paused, waiting until I was ready for him to continue and then guiding himself deeper inside me with slow, shallow strokes.  After the initial pain subsided it was still uncomfortable, but at the same time it felt good to have him inside me, as though we’d both accomplished some incredible feat.

 

He made love to me lowly, sliding in and out of me in long, graceful strokes.  Once or twice he slid out of me altogether, but each time that happened he guided himself in with much greater ease than there had been with the initial penetration.  Our lovemaking was slow and awkward, beautiful but uncomfortable, tender and passionate, yet inelegant.  I loved the feeling of having him within me, but at the same time I couldn’t wait for him to finish.  When finally he did, his body shuddering from his orgasm, I was both invigorated and relieved.  When he pulled out of me I felt a sense of loss, but at the same time gratitude, thankful that the discomfort had passed.

 

I would love to say that we continued instantly, covering each other in gentle kisses before I took my turn mounting him, but as he withdrew from me I felt a most unromantic urge to rush to the bathroom, barely making it to the toilet before my bowels opened.  I returned to the bedroom to find my lover curled up on the bed, laughing hysterically at me.  At first I had been annoyed at him, but within moment I was lying beside him with joyful tears pouring down my cheeks.

 

It was the early hours of the morning before I took my turn with him and in spite of the lessons we’d learned when he entered me it was still a clumsy affair.  I almost gave up twice, but Nate encouraged me with tender words until finally I slipped inside him.  He gasped as I entered him, his face creasing in pain, his teeth clenching.  Such was his distress that I almost withdrew from him entirely, but as I began to move back he reached behind me, clasping my buttocks firmly and shaking his head.

 

When finally he was ready for me to continue I did so gingerly, more concerned with not hurting him than enjoying the experience myself, but after what felt like an eternity of thrusting I found myself buried deep within him, lost in a wave of passion.  I made love to him slowly at first, watching his face carefully for any signs of distress, but as my body began to relax and I started letting myself feel the pleasure, started realising that I was inside the man I love, I lost myself, delving into him with wild abandonment.

 

Somehow I managed to slow myself when I noticed that Nate was gripping the pillow beneath his head hard, his face red and tense.  I leaned forward and kissed him, adopting a slower, gentler pace as his legs wrapped around mine, reaching out and taking his hands so that I would know if he was in pain.  I had felt no fireworks when he was inside me, none of the flames of ecstasy I’d heard described in stories, but buried deep within him I felt those fires burning, erupting into an explosion as I reached orgasm, the world around me seeming to go black for a moment.

 

When the darkness cleared I found myself lying on top of him, my cheek pressed against his.  I lifted my head to look at him, concerned for a moment that he was going to be angry about my momentary loss of control, my disregard for his feelings, but he simply smiled at me, blowing me a tired kiss.  I lifted my body off his, swinging my legs over the bed and pushing myself to my feet.  For some reason I turned my back on him while I pried the battered condom from my fading erection, dropping it in the bin before turning back to him.

 

Nate gazed up and me with a loving smile, his arms opening, beckoning me to him, sending me an invitation I had neither the desire nor the will to refuse.  I climbed back onto the bed, slipping comfortably into his arms and pulling the quilt over us both.  I rested my head on the pillow beside his, staring into his eyes as I tried to find the words to express how much our night together had meant to me, but any I could come up with sounded either empty or too corny.  Instead I just watched him, staring into the eyes of the man I somehow knew I was going to spend the rest of my life with until sleep claimed us both.

 

Morning found me standing at the foot of the bed watching my lover as he slept, gazing at him with love and an aching heart that begged for forgiveness.  He looked so peaceful as he slept, so angelic, like a child desperately in need of love and nurturing.  I wanted so badly to wake him, to feel his arms around me, his lips against mine, to gaze into his beautiful eyes, but if it had been within my power I would never have allowed him to wake.  I would have kept him asleep forever, spared him from the harsh light of the day.

 

The rich amber sunlight drifted across the room as the hours passed, seeming to grow in intensity with every passing minute, finally reaching my lover’s face a little after nine.  His silken flesh seemed to glow in the light, beauty radiating from him, stilling my heart as a tear slipped silently from my left eye.  The first time I’d seen him I’d been captivated by him, enchanted by his sweet face, but never had he looked as glorious as he did that morning.  I wanted to freeze time, to hold him motionless, to keep the light on his face forever, but even as I made that wish I saw his eyes flutter open.

 

I felt my breath catch in my throat as he opened his eyes, a smile filling his face as he saw at me.  He rolled over in bed, propping himself up on his elbow, gazing down at me, his lips curling ever upwards as he stared at my face, at the smile that still adorned my lips, the same smile I’d worn as I fell asleep.  He leaned over, pressing his lips to mine, kissing me softly, tenderly, intent on showing me how much he loved me, but in that moment he knew.

 

I watched as he withdrew from me, his lips trembling, his hands shaking, his eyes darting from side to side as his mind raced.  I knew he was trying to tell himself that it was just a dream, a terrible dream, or a mistake, that he was wrong.  He reached out, his fingers brushing my cheek, stroking my cold, pale flesh and he knew that he wasn’t wrong.  He shook his head anyway, lying back down as I stepped around the bed, a tear slipping from his eye as he stared up at the ceiling.  I took a step forward wanting more than anything to climb into bed beside him, to wrap my arms around him, but all I could do was stand there and watch, gaze at him as he lay beside my lifeless body.

 

“It’s time,” my father said in a low voice, his words shaking me from my thoughts, from the memory of that morning.

 

My mother and Nate said nothing, just moved to his side, the three of them standing together, facing the ocean, their eyes fixed on the horizon, watching as the stars began to appear in the sky.  They stepped forward as one, walking together into the ocean, walking until their ankles were submerged in the sea.  I moved with them, staying close to them, remaining at their side, knowing I couldn’t leave them until they were done.  Part of me hoped that they would change their minds, that they would decide to wait for another year, but I knew the time had come.

 

None of us were ready for it.  My parents looked numb, empty, as though they had no more tears to cry, while Nate had so many left, so many tears he hadn’t allowed to escape.  Every night I’d lain next to him, watched him as he lay staring at his bedroom ceiling until exhaustion claimed him, waiting for him to let it all out, but he maintained rigid control of his emotions, held onto the pain as though he was afraid to let go, afraid to cry.  I knew there would come a time when he would no longer be able to hold back, when his grief would overwhelm him, but I knew that time had not yet arrived.

 

He frowned as my mother moved the box from her chest, holding it out in her hands, gazing at it hard.  His hand flickered as though he wanted to reach out and touch it, but he held back, stopping himself, most likely afraid that if he touched it he would lose all control.  He turned away as my mother carefully pried the lid from the box, her trembling hands barely managing to keep hold of it as she gazed down at the powdery substance within.  She glanced at my father and as she did so he nodded to her, wrapping an arm around her shoulders as she turned the box over, a choked sob escaping her lips as she watched my ashes pour into the sea.

 

As my remains were carried away by the ocean tide the four of us stood silently together, each of us lost in our own thoughts, our memories, regrets and hopeless wishes.  Without thinking I moved closer to Nate, stepping to his side and reaching for his hand, almost feeling his flesh against my own, though I knew he could not feel me.  With my other hand I reached up, pressing it against my heart, simultaneously cursing it for falling silent that night and thanking it for the time it had given me.

 

I almost didn’t notice when my parents turned and walked out of the ocean, when they began their journey back up the beach to our summer holiday retreat, realising they were gone only when I turned to look at my boyfriend again.  When I realised they were gone I turned, watching as they slowly ambled back towards the house, their hands locked together, shoulders rubbing as they walked.  I smiled after them, but didn’t follow, instead choosing to remain with Nate, staying with him until finally he turned and walked from the ocean.  As we reached the dry sandy shore he paused, turning his head towards me, his eyes locking with my own and though it was impossible I felt as though he could actually see me.

 

“Goodbye baby,” he whispered, his bottom lip trembling as he stared at me.

 

I don’t know how, but somehow I was certain that he could see me, or at least feel me, feel me enough to know I was there, that I was still with him.  I felt my eyes flood with tears as we looked at each other, silently communicating all those things we had left to say, all the feelings we’d never had time to express.  In that moment it seemed as though time itself had stopped and for a small eternity I was with him again, but then he turned away, walking swiftly up the beach after my parents.

 

“Goodbye,” I muttered, smiling as I turned back towards the ocean, a smile that never wavered as I sat down on the beach and stared up at the stars, as I waited for my grandmother to arrive, to take me to the place where I would wait until it was time for my family, and my love, to be with me again.

 

 


Many thanks to Alicia for editing.


 

 

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