That's him, Drew Addison thought. I know it's him.
Drew was standing on the beach: a broad swath of damp, firmly packed sand along a barrier island off the coast of Georgia. Behind him were gently rippling white dunes studded with sea oats, and the humble wooden boardwalk over which he had crossed just minutes ago was the only prominent sign of Man's intrusion here; otherwise, there were only scattered twinkling lights to indicate any link to the modern world: those that illuminated the balconies and decks of the large houses behind the dunes; those of lonesome buoys clanging mournfully out at sea; those of shrimp boats and other fishing vessels headed for the vast but slowly receding darkness.
And because the night was in retreat, here moments before dawn, he was able to see the figure of the man he had longed to meet again since childhood; a man moving along the shore at a leisurely pace, who occasionally glanced up at the disappearing stars before quickly looking down at the ground, no doubt to make sure he wasn't about to trip over something.
That's him, Drew thought, and I know it's him because he looks exactly the same. But will he know me? I doubt it; I certainly don't look the same. The last time we met I was eight years old: a skinny little brown-haired moppet who, along with two other stupid same-aged kids, thought it would be fun to swim out to the sandbar that even now sits out there—that even now is visible to me through the darkness, with its highest ridges showing above the water line; the sandbar that beckons at low tide for people to come and play on it, so that it can drown them like the Sirens of Greek mythology did to sailors enchanted by their songs. Now I'm a guy in his late thirties, still brown-haired and still pretty thin, I guess, but there's not much else to tie me to the kid I was—which means I'll have to find a way to tell him who I am, and then, even worse, tell him why I'm here.
The man was heading north, up the beach; in a moment his position would be directly perpendicular to Drew. That would be the best time to intercept him, Drew decided.
Only I'm afraid. I'm scared out of my mind.
He tried to steel himself as he approached the man, but his nerves failed him. He took a step forward, and then found that—for the moment—he could go no farther.
But why am I afraid? He won't hurt me. That much I know. It's just not who he is. No, what I'm afraid of is hurting him. That's what I fear. And maybe I should just leave, let him keep going.
The man was almost even with him now.
But that's cowardice, isn't it? That's running away from the truth: the truth that may well be the only thing that can help him. I have to do this. I owe it to him and I owe it to myself and I owe it to the two other guys who have been looking for him all these years.
Heart thrashing in his chest, Drew began a slow walk forward.
I've rehearsed everything I want to say. I've imagined every way he could respond when I tell him who I am, and what happened that day. But now it's like I haven't prepared at all.
"Hello," Drew called out, waving as he approached the man. "Hello."
The object of his greeting slowed down, and then stopped. The expression on his pleasant round face was one of gracious befuddlement. Again Drew was struck, though he supposed he shouldn't have been, at how perfectly this face reflected that of the selfless person he remembered from all those years ago.
"Hi, there," the man said, no doubt wondering why Drew had made such a show of getting his attention, but determined to be friendly. "So you're out early too, eh?"
"Yes, sir," Drew answered. "Actually, I was looking for you."
"Have we met before?"
"Yes, sir—a long time ago," Drew explained. "I've been trying to find you ever since."
The man grinned. "Well, I'm happy you finally got to see me. Where exactly did we meet?"
"Right here on this beach—a little bit farther up, though."
"And how long ago was this?"
"Yes, sir—I was one of the boys you rescued off that sandbar out there." He pointed to the exposed ridge of sand offshore.
The man laughed; it was a fine, hearty laugh. "Well, how about that…and you know what? Now that you've told me, I can remember exactly which one you were too." He held his hand out even to his waist. "You weren't but this high back then! You really sprouted, didn't you?"
"I grew up. We all did," Drew answered. "But we never forgot how you saved us."
"Well, look, I was happy to do it. That sandbar is dangerous. You boys were in trouble. I'm just glad I was in a position to help. Now, what's your name? I'm afraid I've forgotten."
Actually, you never learned it, was the answer Drew wanted to give, but didn't. He was not ready to reveal everything. Instead he replied, "It's Drew. My friends were Chris and Randy. They've been looking for you too. For years now, at least most days of the week, one of us has been out here walking—trying to find you."
"I had no idea," the man said, clearly surprised. "I'm sorry I was so elusive."
"No, it's okay. It's fine. We needed to be out here. We owed you that much."
"Ah, you don't owe me anything," the man replied. He gazed at Drew up and down. "My goodness—just look at you, all grown up."
"It wouldn't have happened if it wasn't for you."
The man remarked, "I see you've got a wedding ring. How many years? Any children?"
"Seven years, three children: two girls and a boy."
"Wonderful, wonderful," the man said.
"Chris is married too. He's got one daughter," Drew continued. "Randy got a divorce a
couple of years ago, but he and his girlfriend look like they might take the plunge pretty soon. He's got two kids from his marriage."
"Sounds like everybody's doing fine," the man replied. "I'm glad to hear that. Say, do you want to walk with me a ways? You can fill me in on some more of what-all you guys have been doing."
"Sure," said Drew.
As they began to walk, the man asked, "So why didn't you just look me up in the phonebook?"
"You're not in it anymore."
"I'm not? I wonder why."
Drew didn't answer at first. You really have no idea, do you? Again, he had a response he wanted to make. But he just couldn't do it. He couldn't do it even now as he struggled to find the words; searched for a way to break the terrible truth to this kind gentleman who, decades ago, had swam out into the unforgiving sea to save him and his friends, when they had gotten themselves stuck on a sandbar and nearly drowned trying to get back.
Drew finally said, "Since we weren't able to contact you, my friends and I made a pact to have at least one of us out here to look for you every morning. It wasn't too long after you rescued us that we began hearing stories about you; stories about people seeing you out here on the beach. Usually they would see you early in the morning. They'd talk about how you'd be walking towards them on the beach, and a lot of times you would wave, and they would wave back. But then, as they got closer, you'd vanish."
The man stopped.
"You know, it's funny," he said. "I don't really remember ever seeing anybody out here, not for a long time anyway." His brow furrowed. "In fact, I don't remember much of anything since the day I swam out to get you boys off that sandbar."
"No, sir, you wouldn't."
"But why wouldn't I?" While the man remained calm, his voice carried a pleading note, and his eyes were troubled. "I mean, I don't even remember coming back onshore."
Drew answered, "You didn't."
The man stood there, motionless.
"They found you the next day," explained Drew, his tone as soft as he could make it. "You had a heart attack while dragging us back onto shore. You gave out while you were carrying Randy. He said you told him he was going to have to go the rest of the way on his own. And then you went down. Randy was able to make it back, but there was no sign of you. The current had taken you under. You died saving us that day. And when we first heard the stories that you were out here walking the beach, we decided that maybe we could help you somehow—if we just found you first."
The man nodded, and then looked down at his feet, biting his lower lip. Drew thought he saw tears glimmering in his eyes, but the early morning gloom made it impossible to tell for sure.
What Drew could sense was resignation in the man's demeanor. I was wrong, wasn't I? All along you suspected that something wasn't right, but you weren't sure. Is that why you take the news with sadness more than shock?
"I just don't..." The man trailed off.
"I'm sorry," Drew offered. It was a lame thing to say, in his opinion, but he could think of nothing else. The man nodded again, though he made no answer. After staring down in silence for a moment more, he finally looked up at Drew and asked, "You've all led good lives?"
"We've tried to. I think we've done pretty well."
"That's good." The man now shifted his gaze toward the ocean, rolling softly under clouds tinged gold by the first hints of dawn. He took a deep breath; then he said, "It's the strangest thing…but I've got a feeling I need to start walking again."
"Do you not want me to come with you?"
The man shook his head. "No, that's all right. For some reason I feel like I'm supposed to walk the rest of the way by myself. It's not that I want to leave you. It's just that…well, I'm not sure you can follow me from here—not yet, anyway. And not for a long time, I'll bet. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
"I do. I understand."
"Take care of yourself," the man urged him. "Tell your friends to do the same, okay?"
"And, Drew, be sure to let them know everything's all right. Everything's fine."
"Thank you, Drew."
"No," Drew answered, "thank you."
The man now turned and started walking toward the ocean. What followed now Drew could never really describe, in spite of having witnessed the event. As the man made his way in the direction of the water, Drew found that his path was taking him toward the sun, at this point no more than a short arc of gentle flame, garlanded with cloud, rising out of the east, nearing the light, first his features and then his outline grew less distinct. There would be no crack of thunder or flash of light that morning; no radiant ascension among hosts of sparrows fluttering to heaven. No, it was just that—as the figure of the man grew more difficult to make out—Drew briefly lost his focus. He blinked or maybe looked away for a fraction of a second and in the barest sliver of time it took for him to recover his sight the man was gone. Suddenly there was nothing but water and foam and sandpipers and, above it all, a newborn sun emerging from the churning dark womb of the sea.
Here one moment, gone the next, Drew thought, just like every other life on Earth, I guess. But I think I understand now. It wasn't that I had to face you. It was that you had to face what had happened. My job—or the job of one of my friends—was to help you do it. Then you could move on. Which means all of us can move on too.
Blinking, Drew turned away, heading briskly to the boardwalk that would take him over the dunes and back to the parking lot, where his car was waiting to take him home. As he walked he was reminded of an old superstition once prevalent in the Georgia lowcountry: the need to say "Excuse me" prior to tossing trash or dirty bathwater out one's back door, in case a friendly spirit happened to be passing that way.
The remembrance was enough to bring Drew to a halt, and he found himself looking back at the beach with sudden and deep regret. He could not help but feel sorry for the region of his birth now: a land poorer for the loss of one of its kinder spirits.
Then, sighing, he continued on, toward the boardwalk.