We used to come here for driftwood. That was when Sidney first took me in, when I wasn’t sure yet whether or not he was a perv. He kept his distance at home, only knocked on my door to let me know when lunch was ready. He didn’t seem to know how to make anything other than sandwiches, so that’s what we ate. Mustard and ham, tuna and mustard, tomato and mustard, once, boiled chicken and mustard. He made tea, too, and served it up with a little creamer full of milk, and saucers, a honey jar, like we were in a movie or something. High tea. I’d sit in my room and spend the hours watching the TV or writing letters I never sent back home, and then during the evening, he’d knock again and we went out for the driftwood.
His parents built the cottage out here on the fork so they could use it for vacations. It was small and they painted it all white, on the inside and the outside. They built shelves and filled them with things they found on the beach: seashells and dead starfish, a rusted anchor, and sea glass. When I first arrived, Sidney tried to tell me about everything they’d collected, but I didn’t care then, and I didn’t want to know.
He moved out here when they died. Said he liked the water and the beach was the only place he could still feel them. The agency had told me he had a dead wife too, and I could tell they had lived in the house together for a long time. He had her watercolors framed on the wall, and fancy dishes he never used with gold trim in the cabinets. In the laundry room, there were balls of yarn, knitting needles stuck right through the hearts of them. I wondered what it would be like to live for so long in one place with the same person. I guess Sidney was used to company, and that’s why he got me.
He didn’t ask me about my last home, or the one before that. He didn’t say anything about the stationery I kept filching from his desk to write letters. I scratched out his name and his dead wife’s name, the address to the cottage, and the little rope knot that decorated the bottom of each page. I mailed them to the last address I had for my aunt, who had kept me for the longest before Sid. She hadn’t written back in years but I kept sending them in case she changed her mind.
When the paperwork went through for me to start at the junior high, Sidney gave me an allowance. I used the money to buy stamps and lipsticks and cigarettes I smoked in my room. Sidney didn’t say anything about the ash I left on the windowsill, the smoke smell that sank into the curtains. He left me alone until he needed me, at dusk, when it was time to head for the beach.
We’d pick up the driftwood, big pieces and puny ones, too. It didn’t matter. They all burned. And when we got back, I helped him build the fire. I don’t know why they never got real heat put in the house, but it never got so cold that the fire wasn’t enough, and Sidney seemed to like feeding the sticks into the stove. It was the only time he didn’t seem so old, the only time I wondered about him, about what his life had been before, how long he’d keep me, and what he did all day while I was in my room, neglecting my homework, and watching cartoons I’d outgrown.
When he got sick, he said, This is where we’ll do it. We were on the shore, past the grass, on the pebble beach. We ran our toes into the surf and he explained it all. It was warm and we were picking up and putting down pebbles: peach ones and pink ones, some that could have been pearls if not for their shape. I listened and even before he asked me whether I could, I knew I would say yes. It had been a long time since I had stolen stationery to write to my aunt; it had been years since Sidney was enough. He was the one who taught me how to hunt, the fall after I had been with him for nearly a year. He took me over to the next county and taught me how to bring down ducks and rabbits, and, eventually, a deer. When I brought down a buck, he had the antlers mounted up on the wall of the tiny living room. There they were, all those bones, surrounded by his dead wife’s watercolors. When somebody from the church came by with a pie or a jam, Sidney would make tea and invite me to sit in the living room with him and his guest, and he’d point up at the antlers and say, “See what that girl did? Those antlers? She brought down a buck—straight shot.” That was when I was fifteen, and since then we’ve hunted other deer. We’ve taken out the boat to fish in the summer; we’ve burned our driftwood; Sidney drove me to my prom, bought me my green dress. So when he asked me I said yes. There was nothing else I’d ever say.
The season turned cold fast, the days moving faster with me out of school, my diploma tacked up on a shelf with a good tea-set we used to save for company. We had circled the date on the calendar, like it was a birthday or a good hunting day or a potluck at church. We bought the calendar for the occasion, so we could finish all our planning and preparing. I want to say that the day snuck up on us, that we didn’t realize, that we almost missed it. We didn’t.
The house was drafty, wind coming in through the little gaps in the boards, so I stayed in my room, even after I woke up. I had off from work, so I painted my nails and watched TV. Sidney read the paper by the stove. We went out in the afternoon and gathered the scraps of wood that had washed up, out of the water, and we built a fire just as it was getting dark. We ate sandwiches for dinner. Sidney poured out tea.
Afterward, Sidney sat on a bench by the door to tie up his boots. He hummed while he tightened the laces, and I knew the tune but couldn’t remember the words. It was something I’d guessed he used to play for her, because I’d heard him playing it late at night on the record player when he thought I was asleep. I wanted to ask him about his wife and about that song. It took him a long time to finish with the laces. I stood there in my coat, but I didn’t rush him.
We left the cottage and went to the spot, the one he’d chosen. It seemed hard for him to stand there, up against the wind. The waves hammered onto the shore, and then slinked away, leaving the sand behind bright. The crabs were already out, crawling sideways from hole to hole in the dunes, and since it was the off-season, and freezing, no one else was out on the beach, like we’d known. No couples groping each other in the dark, no beer bottles, no kids digging up sand and shouting that they were searching for gold, no bonfires.
Over the years, I’d grown to like winter the best. The emptiness of the beach, scavenging for sticks in the blue night, the tide swells. Me and Sidney, before his body shrank, before the needle pricks and sick mornings, before the bruises on his face stopped fading and became the newest parts of him.
We listened to the ocean for a while. I read the sign, Miller Beach, and wondered how I’d ever come back here. When the treatments started, he told me he had written it down so the cottage was all mine. It was before we knew how bad it would get, before we knew that the treatments would be worse than being sick, and being sick was worse than dying. “Just in case,” he had said.
There were the same pebbles on the beach: an orange one, a white one. I kicked them both into the surf.
“How old are you now?” Sidney finally said, and he broke the silence between us, the waiting.
I told him and he whistled. “I haven’t kept track,” he said. “Feels like you’ve always been here with me.”
“Thanks,” I said, and we stood again in the quiet.
“Don’t forget to put the fire out in the morning,” he said. “Cover up the logs with their own ash. Give it a minute, just to make sure all the embers are snuffed out.”
“Sidney, I know,” I said.
And he said, “Yeah. That’s my girl.”
He handed me the gun and turned to look toward the sea, and I knew how quick it would be, how instant. I shifted to his side and aimed for where he would have been able to reach for himself. I shut one eye and pictured the cloud I had seen inside his skull. The white spot, the shiny egg, the wave-washed stone, glowing inside his brain.
When it was done, I got in the car and drove to town, then out to the distillery. The story was I had forgotten something in my locker at work. So I got there and I said hello to everyone and I got out my purse, which had been there for three days, but no one had the key but me. I stopped to buy a candy bar from the vending machine and drink a soda, then I said I had to leave for dinner and I went. By now, the gun was in the sea, but Sidney would still be on the beach, much heavier than a gun.
I took my purse and drove back toward town and bought a coffee at the gas station and filled the tank. When I was ready, I drove back onto the road and counted the miles back to town. I bought a coffee at the gas station and filled the tank. Then I sat in the car again with the engine off and thought about those pictures they’d shown us in the hospital, the blue insides of Sidney’s brain, that bright cloud drifting. The coffee grew cold, and I threw it out before I pulled away. Nothing worse than cold coffee.
There wasn’t much to see on the road but vineyards, bare for the winter. No green this time of year, no grapes. Just the warped limbs of the small trees.
I followed the signs to our beach. I parked the car off the road and cut home the back way, through the woods. The pond behind the cottage was frozen over, half mud, half ice. Even in the dark, I could see the water shifting underneath the surface. There was no way to see his body from this far back from the shore, no way to have heard the gunshot over the waves. I got inside and turned the lights on in every room. It was tidy and bright in the house, how Sidney liked it to be. I still had a few hours until I could call, until I say he didn’t come back from the beach and I was worried. So I got his jar of pebbles down from off the shelf, some we picked one evening cause there were more pink ones and orange ones than usual, and they looked like rotten cherries without stems, which you don’t see everyday. I turned the rocks over in my hand, and each of them had a new weight. I put one in my mouth—it was the color of a yellow plum—and I expected it to taste of salt or sand, but it didn’t taste like anything, but rock. We had left the fire going, and I listened to the driftwood snap and burn. Over the stove, hung my antlers—the tawny, perfect bone.
When we hunted the buck, I hadn’t been sure I could do it. He looked so faraway and regal across the field, but Sidney showed me different calls to draw a buck near, and it had worked. He was right. He had let me carry his center-fire rifle, which had belonged to his father, and I knew I had to shoot the way he had taught me. To be quick was a kindness. When it was close enough, he held up a hand and breathed soft and told me to go ahead when I was ready. I had stared down the barrel, across the field and the dead grass, at the pale down covering the windpipe of the buck. I held the rifle until I was sure, then I squeezed the clutch, and blew open his throat.
Naima Coster is a Brooklyn-born writer living in North Carolina. Her first novel, Halsey Street, will be published in November 2017 by Little A. Her stories have appeared in The New York Times, The Rumpus, Arts & Letters, Kweli, and Guernica, among other places. She tweets as @zafatista.