I, mid-2020

What you'd intended to be a planned outing ended up being a spur-of-the-moment decision at one on a Sunday morning.  The weather sat comfortably in a junction between mist and gentle rain, the one that makes your hands instinctively form fists even if they're already in your jacket pockets.  Light fog was on the menu, too, but along the coast, when is it not?

You'd spent sunsets walking along the beach often enough that wondering what it was like later at night was probably inevitable.  The last time you'd been to one well into the evening was years ago, a faded memory waiting to be refreshed.  Mostly, though, you just wanted to get away from the people, and away from the light.

The fog thickens as you walk from your car to the shore.  You throw a furtive glance over your shoulder as you leave the last lamppost's halo and start down the beach path, as though an unrestricted dirt trail would for some reason be guarded or patrolled.  Every step jangles your nerves and your shoulders are tight and rigid, but you keep walking further into the darkness, eyes struggling to adjust.  You brought a flashlight with you, of course; leaving it at home felt too much like an invitation for disaster.  Treading ever-deeper into the night, though, it occurs to you that a flashlight would be the most efficient tool to give away your location.

...give it away to whom?  To what?

Eh.  You can see well enough now, and the fog would render the flashlight's beam largely ineffective anyway, so it stays in your pocket.

You already know the rough layout of the path, so at a certain point you stop and stand on the edge to look out over the ocean.  For the first time since you closed your car door, you take a deep breath, made jagged by the cold and wind, and you tell your eyes they can stop hunting for threats and just look out over the water.  There's enough ambient light to see the waves coming in to the beach, and you follow them back to see where they start, but at a certain point, the gray static of fog all around you fades into an absolute inky blackness.  The horizon isn't so much a line as it is a fuzzy band, but staring into its heart, you feel like you know how space looks to astronauts--namely, as though there's no coming back from it.

After a few minutes you're a little cold, so you decide it's time to call the experiment for tonight.  As you turn, a pair of headlights flare into your vision and make you squint; there's a car coming down the road that crosses the head of the path, and it seems like it has its high beams on.  Is it a cop?  Shit, you think, and start walking more quickly back toward the trail.  You prep yourself to seem as unassuming and oblivious as possible, but be honest--your fear is baseless, for multiple reasons.  Before you reach the road, the car has long since turned the corner and driven away, and you chuckle at yourself for being so worried.  You've had a low-level adrenaline drip into your bloodstream since you got here, and when you get back home, you fall asleep with a clearer head than you've had in weeks.


II

The air itself, though still rich with the scent of the sea, is darker and graced with only the weakest trace of fog.  The difference is nice; compared to your first trek, you can relax.  After all, you're a regular now, right?

As with before, you walk out some distance before stopping to watch the ocean.  The wind is battering the coast with less fervor, perhaps explaining the lack of fog, and your thoughts have a little less noise against which to compete.  In the silence your eyes turn upward to the sky, and you realize the sheer number of stars now peeking through the veil.  When was the last time you saw this many at once?  You're sure there were moments, but you certainly can't remember them right now, and besides, you'd rather take this one in as the new standard anyway.

Walking back, you're shocked to alertness by someone approaching in the darkness.  A thousand thoughts rush through your mind in an instant--this is going to be the moment you're mugged or murdered, and you didn't even get the chance to finish the show you started watching earlier--but as you come level with the figure, you see they're carrying a fishing rod.  A gruff voices lets loose an "evening!" and you reply with a fight-or-flight-stifled "thanks".

With wired nerves you return to your car, but before you get in, something makes you pause and scan the sky from one horizon to the other.  It's a clear night, so...where's the moon?

Hm.  You assume that if it was really missing you would have read about it on Twitter already, and head home.


III

Presumably to make up for its absence, the moon finally does make an appearance tonight, but it's a paltry showing and casts only the most subtle of shadows despite being close to full.  It's enough light that the waves stand out a little more against the dark sea, though, and you watch the ever-changing divide between sand and water for a little while.  Every now and then, a dark spot obscures the line, and you wonder whether it's a figure that melts away or just a familiar pattern your mind conjures up from the noise.

In time, though, you catch a flicker in your peripheral vision that is most definitely real.  A tall form is walking down the path out of the darkness, and as it draws nearer you see a strange, almost loping gait.  Do they notice that you're turning your head to follow them as they pass behind you?  It's hard to tell, since neither of you say a word--not even a weak greeting.  They slowly fade into the darkness.

Your focus returns to the ocean.  There are lights on the horizon, presumably ships, but for the most part hidden; only when not looking directly at them can you see their twinkle, an uncountable number of miles from shore.

For a time you keep looking out to infinity and talk to someone who's been gone for years, wishing as you so often have that they were not taken so soon.


IV

You don't wish to stay for long tonight.  The mist is heavier than usual, bordering on the edge of rain, and it twists your eyes into a half-squint, a facial fight between raindrop-induced reflex-blinking and trying to see clearly.  Two people appear out of the darkness with a dog, but you are now generally more accustomed to encounters.  You mutter a stunted "hello"; of the three, the dog is by far the friendliest.  And that's alright.  In that space, nobody is bound by the customs of the day, and anyone who's there is there for reasons that don't make sense in sunlight anyway.

You brought a battery-powered lantern with you in place of the usual flashlight, and you turn it over and over in your jacket pocket.  Pulling it out, you turn it on and spear into the darkness, then twist and unfold it, allowing it to spring to its proper form.  Your immediate surroundings are bathed in light, but it's a cold glow, reminiscent of hospital hallways and office buildings, a ghost of Diogenes irately asking why he's been summoned.  You feel too exposed, so the lantern is returned to your pocket.

Even with the light gone, something refuses to settle peacefully in the night.  You keep looking over your shoulder, expecting to see something in the inky darkness, and a few times, you're sure you do.  That was a figure just out of the fog's limited visibility, wasn't it?  Is it receding, or has it just moved behind you instead?  You wish you could focus on it but the roar of the ocean seems purposefully more distracting tonight, pouring static and noise into your senses.  It feels angrier than usual, and you just hope you're not what's angering it.

But, in case you are, you turn around and head back to the car.


V

Tonight the sky is crystal-clear and the moon is full, unleashing a wave of detail that takes your breath away.  Mountains--perhaps you're giving too much credit to some hills, but you think of them as mountains--show off shades of gray that you never believed you'd be able to see, with gradations of color that can't be captured on a camera.  They effortlessly convey a strange sense of distance and perspective, to which the expansive ocean only contributes, but underneath they also sing in tones of weariness.  The mountains were here first, and they'll be here last.

You pass a group of people going the other direction and turn from the mountains to the water.  The moon illuminates waves that are at once monstrous and quiet.  For all their might and all their relentlessness, they are pillowy tufts crumpling and disappearing back into the foam, like some behemoth is dragging a butter knife across the surface of a pile of flour.  Far off inland a distant house's lights shimmer and dance, a beacon of life in what feels close to an empty tundra.

It's anything but empty, though, as the next moment you see a flashlight ignite, presumably held by the people you passed earlier.  Its beam waves around in the night for a few seconds, like a lighthouse unsure of how to use a newly-awarded degree of freedom, and is extinguished.

The moon reveals all tonight, and it banishes any fear the fog carried in.  You stand on the rocks and impulsively sing a bit.  Mostly for yourself, but a little bit for the waves.


VI

Another night, another full moon, another clear sky.  In the distance, god-knows-how-many miles of chilly water away, a ship sits with a slowly-spinning beacon, silently keeping time for you.


VII

The moon has vanished (abruptly--was it something you said?), but the night remains clear, and for the first time since you started visiting you can see the lights of a city down the coast, a glittering grid of streetlights filled in by all temperatures of windows, signs, and storefronts.  The highway's taken you through it countless times, no doubt, but have you ever deviated from the road?  Set foot off the path?

Away from the city, the horizon fades into an inky seam of darkest black yawning into the abyss.  From that seam upward the stars are again out in force, and in the space of an instant you get a sliver of a sense of how it might have felt to look on them thousands of years ago, when there wasn't a blazingly industrial nation behind you competing for the attention.  The thought makes you dizzy, enough so that you need to steady yourself when you look back toward the ground.  You wonder if thousands of years ago, someone else had the same dizziness where you stand.

You've brought the lantern again, and setting it down on the path, you step away until you're just outside its immediate illumination.  You feel unnerved again, but why?  Out of nowhere, the thought occurs that an unmanned lantern on a path is a perfect trap in the darkness, as the closer one gets, the harder it is to see--and the less likely one is to worry about--what's waiting just beyond the light.

Was that something yelping in the distance?

As you drive home, the fog rolls in with determination.


VIII

You're further out than normal tonight, and there are some concrete steps near you under construction, barred by caution tape.  You mindlessly sidestep it, the way most caution tape should be dealt with, and sit for a while on the top stair.  Waves lap on the beach with less urgency than normal, and you are grateful for a calmer ocean to chat with.


IX

Leaving your house, you opened the door and felt the patter of light rain.  Briefly weighing the possibility of staying home, you changed your jacket instead.

As you walked from your car to the beach a pickup truck slowed almost to a stop, and the driver seemed to look at you for a moment longer than excusable before driving off.  Shortly after, a humanoid shadow on the ground sent your heart into your throat, but it was just someone exiting their front gate.  You stammered out a "hi!" but they said nothing.

Rain's always heavier next to the ocean, and even though the air carries more of a chill, the water pricking your face feels warm.  You aren't planning on being out for long tonight--even with your altered jacket choice, you're damp already--but as you start to walk up the trail, a light far off in the distance catches your eye.  Likely just a figment of your imagination, so as usual you trudge a short ways and look out toward the ocean.  But the light again twinkles in your peripheral vision, and this time it hangs around for long enough to warrant investigation.

A mile away at the end of the trail, hills rise into the sky, and it's on the side of one of these hills--the one closest to the water--that something is shining.  You're straining to see it when it flares up again and wonder if it's a campfire, orange-warm and flickering.  Campfires rarely move, though, and you track its ascent as it shows up every so often, soon reaching the hill's peak.

What's it doing?  If it's dark by you, it's inky up there, and midnight said its goodbye easily half an hour ago.  Your hand is up as if to block out the sun, but in reality, it's just doing a poor job of stopping the rain's assault on your face.  A thought crosses your mind and you pull out your flashlight, letting it sear through the rain towards the hill.  Cover it, uncover; cover, uncover; repeat.  You desperately wish there was an SOS equivalent for saying hello, extending a friendly wave through a pattern; if there is such an equivalent, you desperately wish it were taught as universally as the cry for help.  The flashlight goes back in your pocket, since you have your doubts as to whether it's even visible.

In short order the light on the hill begins to return to sea level, following the winding stairs down from the peak.  You consider for a moment the idea of trekking out to meet it, to find who or what has been making a pilgrimage on this unwelcoming night.  But it's late, and you'll already have to wring out at least one garment when you get home.  You start to walk back toward your car, turning every so often in the hope of glimpsing the light again, but you never do.

It's a miserable night, rainy and cold, you think to yourself.  Who in their right mind would be making the journey so far out, after midnight, in pitch darkness?

But aren't you there, too, and not for the first time?  Something's been pulling you back, a pull that has yet to weaken.

Is it so difficult to imagine that some night, well after the change of the days, it will pull you up that hill as well?


X

It's raining again, to the point where you almost call the trip off when you park.  You figure a quick jaunt might be worth it, though, so you jog over and crest the dirt mound obscuring your view of the ocean.  Your eyes fall upon two ships, slowly parting ways in the night, with the brightest lights you've ever seen on the horizon.  You even wonder if one might be ablaze.

You're already drenched, but it was worth it.


XI

It's colder, windier, and much angrier, and as you walk you feel as though the sea is casting shame upon you.  While returning to your car, you're passed by a trio on electric scooters.  Briefly, you wonder if they have violated a sacred and unspoken norm, but it isn't up to you to decide--and they whir, blinking, away into the night.


XII

A flashlight far off at the end of the trail blinks back out toward you, and you look up at the stars, themselves blinking to their own beat.  Your eyes swing back down to earth, though, when you see a roaring campfire erupt by the flashlight.  It wavers in the darkness before strengthening and growing, and with a tinge of jealousy you think for just a moment about how long it's been since you sat around a fire.  One of the flashlights begins to bob along the trail, in your direction, and even though it's a mile away, you decide to go.  Perhaps partly out of some respect for privacy, perhaps partly out of some evolutionary instinct's nudge telling you when it's time to make an exit.

The next day, you return to see if you can find the remnants of the fire.  It's an entirely different beach because the sun is out, obviously, but you remember the general area, and after a few minutes of searching the sudden acrid smell of lighter fluid puts you on the right track.  You find said lighter fluid's bottle, a thick and blackened branch driven deep into the sand, and a pile of scattered ashes.  Crowning the pile is the stump of a log, still--sixteen hours later--smoking gently and sending the occasional ember to the wind.


?

It's a clear night again, a little warmer than usual, and the waves are gentle on the coast in the darkness.  You walk out and look all around you.  A cloud bank sits over the ocean, and it might be the first time you've seen one this massive from the side.  To your left, as always, are the rolling black hills, softly highlighted by the glow of a hidden moon as they stretch out behind you; to your right, as always, are the lights of the city, throwing into relief smaller patches of fog snaking along to the top of the bluff.

Then you look upwards, and you see the stars, and once more you are dizzy and close to overcome.

On your way back, you pass a group of teenagers.  They're all talking to each other; one is beating on what might be a tribal drum, and another wishes you "good morning!"  It's half an hour until midnight.  His voice that tells you he is beaming, even though their faces are hidden in the night.  As you return to your car, you can hear the drum's occasional thump far away, moving deeper into the night.