Emily Egan is a writer living on the coast of Ireland. She enjoys writing short stories about her country, and the people that live there.
The saltwater lapped at her feet. Gentle, but cold. Enough to make her shiver but not enough to persuade her to move.
She could hear the guests. They were laughing. At least someone was having fun on this bleak February day. She wondered why no one had come to look for her. In her head: an image of Brian, saying something like “Ah, you know how she gets, we’ll give her half an hour.”
As if she were a piece of undercooked chicken that could be fixed by a little bit more time to roast.
She glanced at the tan coloured, faux leather, wristwatch that Brian had bought for her last birthday. Back when they had first gotten together, they had had this little joke, so cheesy that only they would laugh at it.
“What time is it Bri?”
“Time for you to get a watch.”
Twenty-five minutes. That’s how long it had been since she had abandoned the pack of young adults day drinking and gossiping near an isolated coast. She didn’t like these people, apart from Brian. Maybe she didn’t even like Brian all that much anymore. She pushed the treacherous thought out of her head.
The seagulls above cawed. One plunged into the shallow water but returned to the surface without anything in its bright orange beak. “Trick of the light Buddy” she said. This water wasn’t deep enough for fish. The birds should have known that. Birds had tiny brains though, they couldn’t even remember what had happened five minutes previously. Or was that goldfish? Either way, birds were stupid.
She fumbled for her lighter, hidden underneath her denim cut-offs, lying among the small pebbles and silt that made up this stretch of beach. Hard plastic. She gripped it.
Another gift from Brian, who still hadn’t made himself known. He smoked like a trooper, and for their first few dates just presumed she did too, but she didn’t. Still, she kept it, this tacky yellow lighter that he had given her on the way back from one of the many hazy nights out they had shared.
She removed her jacket, padded with fleece, an emerald green.
The breeze was glorious. Invigorating.
A boat was moving along the horizon, barely even an ant to her from here, but the plumes of smoke were visible. Surely someone would have invented a solar powered or electric boat by now.
The music from the party, or ‘gathering’ as Brian had called it, grew louder and more obnoxious. Those friends of his - the ones from Trinity - were a pain. All they spoke about was Dublin and how incredible it was. She had been to Dublin a number of times and never did understand the hype. Too sprawling, too urban. Not Irish enough.
A crunch of something, driftwood probably, came from behind her.
She didn’t even bother turning around. She just stared out to the sea, imagining she was skimming across it. Walking on water, but not like Jesus did, more like a bird who was so light the water just held her.
Brian saw her bare arms and immediately started taking off his jacket.
He stopped and sat next to her. Orlaith had always hated the beach. She had told him that on one of their first dates, back when things were so simple.
Orlaith sighed. “Imagine, years ago, how the men would have gone off to fish in their handmade boats. They’d do that just to get food for their wives and children. Isn’t that nice?”
“This isn’t an island, Orls.”
“Does that mean they couldn’t go fishing? Jesus Christ, Brian? I’m trying to make conversation. It’s a coastal town. I’m sure the men used to fish in those little boats.”
Brian grabbed a handful of the sand and then gently let it tumble out of his hands. Like a waterfall. It brought back memories of this very beach. Over fifteen years ago now, since he had sat on these shores, bucket and spade in hand.
“We should make a sandcastle.”
Orlaith laughed. “With what, Brian? I don’t think any of the Trinity crowd brought beach toys.”
“You didn’t either.”
That’s all she really said recently. When he would put his arm around her in bed. When he would try to kiss her cheek. When he opened the car door to let her climb in. When he was about to ask her to do something with him and ‘the Trinity crowd’. Those four letters, and one special character. Don’t.
“Why did you even come to the party, Orlaith? It’s my twenty-fifth birthday. I’m just trying to have a good time.”
The sea’s calmness was eerily like hers. She showed very little emotion nowadays.
“I’m your girlfriend. It’d look weird if I avoided it.”
“Maybe we should have a chat.”
Orlaith laughed again, whenever she laughed around Brian these days, she felt the opposite of how she should feel.
“We are chatting now.”
She made little circles in the pebbly sand with her left ring finger. A finger that at twenty-five on her grandmother and mother bore a plain gold band. Hers felt bare, naked.
“You know what I mean.”
Orlaith studied him, his nice curly hair, his happy eyes. There was a true simplicity about him, one that had gone unnoticed before. Not simple in a stupid way - he was intelligent enough to graduate and then go on to do a master’s - he was just so blissfully unaware of any hardship.
“Are you saying we’re done?”
Brian didn’t look at her, he just stared out to sea, light blue eyes surveying the horizon, small pebble in between his hands.
Orlaith felt as though he had punched her, although some part of her anticipated this. It was to be expected, the way she had been this past while.
“I don’t know. Do you want us to be?”
“I don’t know.”
Uncertainty bubbled between them, a dark grey colour to the trained eye.
He held out his hand.
She grabbed it, reaching over (slowly, like a bird spreading its wings to prepare for flight).
Hers was sandy, and his was so smooth. He hadn’t ever engaged in hard labour. Her dad didn’t approve.
“I love you.”
He let her hand go.
Orlaith considered telling him everything then. She considered it, for selfish reasons completely. Telling him would hurt him and he was so soft, so delicate, she didn’t want that.
“Orls. Tell me what’s happening.”
Those clear blue eyes, the stuff of dreams. Whimsical eyes, eyes that she had looked into so many times with love and fondness.
Everyone in his family had those eyes.
He exhaled, but it sounded like a sob.
“I will do anything, you know that, right? Please.”
It was true. He loved her recklessly, or as reckless as someone like Brian could be. He wrote poetry about her, played guitar and made up silly little songs for her. He drew pictures of her in his spare time and gave them to her. She had a collection.
He was the man of her dreams. Or had been.
“If you’ve cheated, that’s fine, we can figure it out Orlaith.”
“You really think I’ve cheated? Did the Trinity crowd tell you that? Why on earth would I cheat?”
A seagull above screeched and glided down into the ocean in front of them.
“The bruises you had that night, after my last birthday.”
“I explained them.”
Brian shook his head, those cherubic curls bouncing as he did so. He was like something from a renaissance painting. All he needed was a strategically placed loincloth and a random piece of fruit to hold and he could be mistaken for a legitimate work of art.
“I wouldn’t do that.”
“You were drunk.”
“Yeah, I was.”
The bruises had long gone, it had been a year, but the memory of that night remained. For Orlaith, anyway.
“They were horrible.”
Orlaith nodded. “I know, I was the one who had them.”
The bruises had been large and black the first day, like ink spilled on a blank sheet of paper. They were on Orlaith’s inner thighs, her neck, and around the top of her right arm. They were beautiful in a totally inappropriate way. He had admired them, some part of him had wished he had made them. He knew he hadn’t.
“I’m sorry for pretending I thought it was me.” Brian really was, sorry for being so complacent - non-confrontational to a fault. The fear of someday going too far held him back.
Orlaith ignored him. She watched the birds dip and dive, a perfectly choreographed routine, but one they did every single day. Maybe living by the coast wouldn’t be so bad. It wasn’t something that she had considered before, but it had a beauty about it, being so close to the edge.
“Who was it? Was it one of the Trinity lads?”
Orlaith scoffed. “As if.”
Brian thought that Orlaith was just as incredible as the day that he met her. A tornado on the dancefloor that night, too much black eyeliner and a shaved head. So unlike the girls that he had chosen before. Orls didn’t smoke, didn’t do drugs, ate meat. She was wildly unpretentious. She had mellowed, sure. They both had. She was still a badass.
“It wasn’t you ,was it?” Brian says, plunging into the darkest of waters of his brain, less scary than he had imagined. He was stupid, an idiot. He thought the moods were because she had wanted to leave him, all of these months. He cursed himself.
“Don’t. Please.” She stared at him, brown eyes pleading.
“Someone raped you.”
Orlaith screamed. It was bloodcurdling, and it shocked her. She hadn’t heard anyone say that out loud, directed at her before. The seagulls looked on, beautiful, unaware.
“Don’t, I said. Don’t.”
“Who the fuck was it”
“It doesn’t matter.”
She stood up. So did he. They were as tall as each other.
“It kind of does.”
“It’s been a year.”
He grabbed her arm. She blinked. It hurt.
“No. We’re done, I’m leaving.”
He squeezed harder. She looked frantically around for anyone. The beach was isolated. The Trinity crowd were behind a hill. No one could see this.
A small seagull landed on the ground by their feet. Orlaith looked down at it and tried not to cry. It blinked back up at her.
“Look at me.”
Brian grabbed her throat with his free hand. She wasn’t the object of his frustrations, of course, but Brian was too deep now, too deep in the icy cold waters of his brain to realise that he was going too far. That’s what happens when silent men think.
Orlaith couldn’t breathe. The birds watched, but they couldn’t comprehend that what was happening was wrong, and awful, and scary.
Her face turned red. He kept on squeezing.
“Please. Tell me who it was.”
Orlaith couldn’t respond. Brian’s hands were too tight around her throat. She wanted to scream, but couldn’t do that either. She wanted to scream loud enough that the Trinity crowd would hear and come help her.
Orlaith thought - this Is it. This is the end of my life. I don’t go anywhere from here. I’m going to die on this beach. Like she did that night, exactly a year ago.
But the last time was worse. That was horrible. This was horrible too, but there wasn’t a strange penis between her legs.
That was basically the only difference.
Her vision was getting blurry now, cutting in and out.
“Tell me, please.”
His pretty eyes seemed detached, like he couldn’t see what he was doing, like he was blind.
She tried to speak, but it was more of a moan than anything else.
Brian seemed to wake up then, seemed to realise what was happening, let her go, almost pushing her away. Orlaith was out of breath, so she fell into the sand. It got into her short hair, which had only recently started to grow out.
He took a few steps backwards and put one hand over his mouth. He was shocked. Or he seemed to be. His whole body was shaking, trembling. He was standing in the water now, his jeans getting wet from the waves lapping against his ankles, shoes completely soaked. They would never be the same, Orlaith knew that about saltwater. It ruins everything. Shoes, clothes, relationships.
She stood up, sand pushing down between her fingers, into all of the creases in her hands.
They just stood - him in the water, her on the sand, looking at one another.
Bri felt like a stranger to Orlaith. Orlaith felt like a stranger to Bri. It was so alienating.
They had loved each other for years but neither of them could find anything that resembled the person they thought was their soulmate.
The birds stared silently, looking at them both with wide and solemn eyes.
Brian started to sob. Orlaith had seen him cry before, but never like this. This was aggressive, and violent. It was brutal. He could hardly breathe.
Orlaith didn’t shed a single tear. She was stoic, a statue. Like a Roman goddess, Bri thought, even amid his sobs.
She stepped backwards, slowly. Further away from the man who had just taken the breath from her lungs, laid a hand on her. Her father had warned her that a man like that was prone to “toxicity”. You’d have sworn he read Cosmo as a hobby.
Before Orlaith knew it, she was so far away from Brian that his face was hard to make out. She was surrounded by the birds; it felt like she had developed a kinship with them even in the short time that she had been on the beach.
Brian seemed to be in some sort of trance. Staring at her, like a man possessed. He was still in the saltwater. Would this be goodbye?
“Bri,” Orlaith spoke, her voice straining to be heard without yelling.
“Like father, like son, I guess.”
She turned around and walked off of the beach with confidence in her step. She didn’t look back. They would never see one another again. Brian stood in the water until one of the Trinity lads found him. Orlaith took the bus home. She didn’t cry that night. She just thought about the birds, her new friends. Maybe they weren’t so stupid, after all.