Short Stories

The Eternal Tomorrow

By Casey Melnick

 A scant cloud covering fails to shield the sun and its breaching rays of light that pierce through my car windshield. From across the street, a vacant building stares at me. The St. Grove church stands in dereliction with its crumbled façade and sagged roof. Dense veins plunge into gaping fissures as the church clings to remnants of a dissipating halcyon haze. At the entrance stands a decayed wooden door restrained with hazard tape.  

I slide my sunglasses down the bridge of my nose to survey the lot. My right arm grazes the baking leather of the center console. There is a vacant space underneath a cropped palm tree. I park my car underneath the shadows and I sit transfixed by the radio murmur. Twisting the volume knob, I listen to the music hum. Alongside an untidy piano melody a female singer languidly drawls,

Only for today, we meet no end.

It was but yesterday can’t you pretend?

Take my hand and let me borrow,

Your infinite soul for our Eternal Tomorrow.

I turn off the engine and the music perishes. I thrust the car door open. The outside air caresses me with fragrances of salt and redolent lavender. From my trunk I remove a well-used green duffel bag. Inside the bag is a six pack of beer, along with SPF 50 sunscreen and a crimson beach towel. I hoist the bag’s strap around my shoulder and head towards the beach.

The sun continues its fervent assault on the landscape. I feel a dribble of sweat slither down my neck and trace the contour of my back. A tarnished shower presides over a shimmering puddle of muck. I inadvertently kick a pebble into the still puddle. The tiny round rock enters the pool and it’s overwhelmed by a shroud of murky concealment; disappearing into a vague uncertainty.

A wooden staircase cascades down to the beach below. I trudge over to the precipice and scan the extensive dunes undulating across the horizon. Perpetual waves batter the coastline. Each step lets out a squeal and moan as I descend below.

Sand envelops my sandals as I step off the staircase. I dig my toes into the ground and I feel the warmth give way to a cool layer that is undisturbed by the gape of the sun. Overhead, loitering clouds leisurely consume the blue gray sky.

I walk towards the ocean. A swirling gust presses my hair against my forehead and showers me with particles of sand that bound off my face. I arrive at a barren island of dead seaweed. I walk over and release the burden off of my shoulder. I take my beach towel out and place it on the uneven ground. My body relaxes and I let the soft fabric of the towel hold me. Smothered clumps of sand beneath me surrender to the pressure of my weight.

From inside my bag I retrieve a can of beer. A cool stream surges down my throat as I devour its contents in three gulps. I crush the empty can and throw it back into my bag. My shirt feels damp against my back as I take out sunscreen lotion. I smother my face with a thick layer and the artificial banana aroma tickles my nostrils. I grab another can of beer. A single seagull floats quietly above me.

I gaze at the outstretched wings of the bird while it aimlessly glides back and forth. I finish my second can of beer and close my eyes. I see the lone seagull.  Back and forth goes the bird, constantly roaming through the blackness. It casts about with its rigid wings and protruding beak. The unadulterated whiteness of the seagull cuts through the darkness. Suddenly the seagull fades away and I am left alone.

 I hear the sound of footsteps kicking up sand. There is a tap on my shoulder. I force my eyes open. My world gradually sharpens and light bleeds into my sight. There is a woman standing over me.

She moves her lips. I hear nothing but the sound of the ocean waves ringing in my head.

Inaudible words again. I try to focus. She is saying something.

“Ethan?”

My name is uttered amongst a crashing of waves.

“Ethan Sherman?”

Before me stands a woman that appears to be in her late twenties. She is short and well-toned, wearing a tight pink bikini top and jean shorts that squeeze her upper thighs. Her face is obscured by a pair of black sunglasses. An untamed mangrove of blonde hair sits on her head. Two dimples frame a demure grin.

 I try swallowing but only dryness lives in my throat. A wave of dismay overcomes my body. This woman has a small tattoo on her ankle. A black cat sits upon a smiling crescent moon. I have met a single person with this tattoo.

“Diane?” I whisper in an unfamiliar voice.

“The one and only,” she replies.

 Diane smiles, this time revealing her teeth. An uncanny beauty radiates from her mouth.

“It’s been ages since I last saw you.”

I feel a calming inner warmth pulsate through my chest as she utters these words.

Diane removes her sunglasses to reveal cutting blue eyes. These ethereal windows convey elements of fatigue and strain while everything else about her body seems effortless. I try to look towards the ocean but I am helpless.

 “What’s with the silence, aren’t you happy to see me?” Diane gives me another big grin.

“I’m sorry. It’s great to see you. I’m just surprised to see you here.”

I can feel my face fill with color. I clumsily get up and walk over to Diane.

“You don’t live in Apatee do you?”

Diane takes a moment to inspect me with her eerie glance.

“Yes, for about eight years now. It’s a lovely town. A bit boring sometimes I must admit but it’s still endearing, don’t you think?”  

I nod my head absently. Eight years Diane has been living in the same town as me and I have never run into her. I try to hide the uneasiness in my movements.

“I had no idea that you lived here.”

“Well, we haven’t done a great job of staying in touch,” She laughs.  “I remember back in high school we were practically inseparable.”

I can still imagine those days from 15 years ago. Those carefree days that were filled with laughter and youthful bliss. And undeniable happiness.

“Two peas in pod.”

I look again at Diane’s haunting eyes. These eyes seem foreign. I am staring into the eyes of a stranger. Diane notices that I am looking at her face.

“Do I really look that different to you? I hope I’m not disappointing you in any way.”

“I’m sorry. Forgive me but you look nothing like what I remember. I must say you have a type of distinguished beauty now that I don’t recall.” Otherworldly I think to myself. “ I don’t mean to insult you. I always thought you were pretty.”

 I turn my chin towards my feet and I dig my toes into the sand.  Buried shells brush against my toes and jab into my skin.

“Ethan you haven’t changed one bit. When I look at you I still see the same boy that I knew so well. Of course you are taller now I see. And more solemn looking. But I still sense that same shyness in you. And I don’t mean to insult you.”

I look up again. A tinge of sadness has overcome Diane’s face.  

“Would you like to go on a walk with me for a few moments? Is it fine if you leave your stuff here?”

I look at my bag and I am repulsed by my worthless belongings.

 “I’d love to. There is barely anyone here, I doubt anyone would want to steal this junk.”

I walk next to Diane while maintaining a gap of several arm lengths. We trek through the sands in silence for several minutes towards the parking lot. Its darker than I remember. Black clouds are festering above. Suddenly, there is a hint of coolness in the air.

We continue towards the rundown church across the street from the parking lot. Diane leads me to the heavy wooden door adorned with yellow tape. A single piece of paper is fastened to the door. Only the word condemned is perceptible as all other print has been muddied by water damage. Diane grabs the black handle and gives the door a firm push. It creaks open slowly and she turns around.

“So tell me, did you ever become that famous explorer that you dreamed of? Have you climbed the snow covered peaks of Tibet and traversed the stifling Sahara yet?” Diane asks me. She grabs a curl of hair and strangles her finger.

“Not exactly,” I smile. “After college I did a backpacking trip in Europe for a few months but I ran out of money. I saw the usual destinations such as Paris and Rome. Nothing extraordinary. I am not deserving to be called world explorer, that’s for sure.”

“That’s too bad. I know, how about we do some exploring right now? A condemned church sounds pretty interesting.” Diane points to the notice on the door and winks. “It’s never too late to start something new.” She smiles and slips past the yellow tape into the unseen.

“Are you sure we are allowed to be doing this?” I shout past the door.

“Nope, but that’s why we should do it. The thrill of the unknown keeps us going.”

I take a deep breath and focus on the air flowing into my body. A compelling force beckons me to enter the portal. I creep towards the void and exhale.

Inside, the grimy floor is littered with pulverized wood and a sundry of metal fragments. There is a chasm in the ceiling above where a window use to exist. Only a few pews remain vaguely intact and recognizable. There is a pile of old brochures sitting in a cardboard box next to the pulpit. Leaning against the pulpit is a single daisy. I walk over to the flower and pick it up. The petals are smooth and cold and no traces of life can be found. In the corner of the room a downcast shadow melts on the floor. Diane is sitting on a piano bench staring into a world beyond my comprehension. I sit down beside her and pass her the daisy. 

Diane glares at the flowers for a moment with her blue eyes . After a few moments, she takes the flower from my hand and smiles, “A daisy, my favorite flower.”

The ephemeral grin retreats and she continues to hold the stem with a clenched fist.

“It’s funny, there is a perverse beauty to this place. Perhaps it’s sacrilegious to admit but I feel strangely at ease in this rundown church.” Diane says in a low tone. “I can’t even remember the last time I was in a church.”

“I think I understand what you mean. I feel a calmness in this place. Inexorable finality has taken hold and there is nothing to do but sit and wait for the end.”

“Sit and wait for the end,” Diane repeats softly.

I get up from the bench and I walk over to the pulpit. I place my hand on the dusty wood. There is no distinction between the outside world and this mysterious space. My heart batters my chest as I press my hand harder against the wood, as if I could imbue my life into this object to make it understand my thoughts and feelings, my pain and my suffering. A low rumble comes from outside the building.

Diane gets up from the bench and walks toward me with soft steps.

“Do you remember the last time we saw each other?” Diane whispers. “You came over one evening and it became abnormally dark in the evening.”

“Yes, I remember looking outside through your bedroom window and we were transported to a world in which all light was extinguished. I remember wishing that the sun would never come out again and we would be forever waiting for the next day to come.”

Diane nods slightly and stare toward the sky, through the chasm in the ceiling. She bites her lip, as if she wants me to continue my answer.

“I also remember holding you that night in my arms. I recall experiencing such a warmth coming from your body. I felt at home and I never wanted to let go. For a brief moment of time, we were eternal. But all nights must come to an end.” I become silent.

“Can I ask you something then?” Diane looks down from the ceiling and her eyes are glistening. “Why did stop talking to me after that night? You never called me again.”

I spend several moments searching for the right words. Deep inside my inner reserves an answer glows faintly before me.

“I felt unworthy.”

“Unworthy? For what reason?”

“You were so kind and beautiful and pure. I didn’t feel like I deserved your love. I didn’t think I was good enough for you. So I decided it was best to just drift away and disappear. ”

Diane shakes her head and silence surrounds us.

“Did you ever wonder how I felt? Did you ever wonder what your disappearance did to me? Did you ever wonder how devastated I was?”

“Yes, I figured you would be for a short period of time but you had so many suitors back then I thought you just get over it. Besides, we were going to be a different schools and I knew eventually we would just drift apart. Perhaps I was wrong in my estimations though. Was the pain that great?”

“Yes. That was such a long time ago and not seeing you again hurt me immensely and…” Diane stops talking abruptly, catching herself from saying something. I want to embrace Diane and feel her warmth against me again. But the distance between us feels too vast.

“But the past is irretrievable, Ethan. If we linger too much on what could have been, we will be torn apart from the inside out until we are nothing but skeletal remains of regret. Besides, we are here now, aren’t we? That’s good enough for me.” Diane smiles.

I nod.

Diane steps over a large piece of debris and sits down at one of the vacant pews. I follow her and sit beside her. I notice that there is an earthy fragrance wafting through the air. We sit on a bleacher that is covered in a layer of dust and dirt.

“If it’s ok with you, I’d like to sit here for a moment.” Diane says.

“No problem.”

I want to take Diane’s hand and squeeze it with every bit of energy that I have inside of me. I crave to feel her hand in mine and to return to the days of being eighteen. But I don’t move. I sit in silence staring ahead into nothingness. The sky rumbles again and a tremor runs through the structure of the church.

I don’t know how much time passes before Diane lets out a sigh. “Thank you, Ethan. I think it’s time we head back don’t you think?”

I stare into her eyes, longing for an invitation to embrace her but there is no clarity to be found.

We get up and walk over to the door. Before I leave, I turn around and I stare up at the chasm in the ceiling. The sky is dark and lifeless. I grab the door and force it shut behind me.

We trace our way back to my belongings, and everything is left undisturbed. The sky is much darker than it was and now the chill in the air has turned into a whispering coolness. I notice that Diane is still carrying the daisy that I handed to her.

“I envy this plastic flower as strange as it sounds. Time marches on for you and I but this little thing forever remains the same. If only we could share the same fate.”

Another rumble of thunder shakes the ground.

Diane looks up at the sky.

“Looks like we should get out of here before the rain starts.” She says before pausing several moments. “It was really nice getting to see you again, Ethan. Thank you for talking with me.”

“It was good catching up with you.” I am not sure what to say past this remark but Diane seems to understand.

She takes the stalk of the daisy and sketches something in the sand.

“If you ever want to chat again why don’t you give me a call?” She finishes writing the last digit in the sand.

She gives me one last look with her absent eyes and she places her sunglasses back on her face.

“Goodbye, Diane.”

“Goodbye, Ethan.”

Diane glides across the sand towards the parking lot. I am transfixed by her boundless mangrove as she departs into the darkness.

Should I run after her? My legs won’t move.

She recedes out of sight. Perhaps I will just wait.

I sit down on the ground and drops of water bounce off of my forehead. I take the unopened cans of beer out of my bag and I drink each remaining one. The heavens rumble again with violence and the ocean roars a repentant cry. I stare at the phone number carved into the sand. It’s impossible to comprehend what the numbers mean anymore.

Only for today, we meet no end.

It was but yesterday can’t you pretend?

Take my hand and let me borrow,

Your infinite soul for our Eternal Tomorrow.

The water is unleashed from the sky. And the phone number begins to fade away. A cloudiness enshrouds my body and I no longer desire to move.

I just let the rain wash over me.

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