“Fine. I’ll play it again. But no more knocking the music,” he warned with a joking air to his tone.

We arrived at the beach just as the Sunday sun woke the rest of the world. Mike parked Dad’s car in the only empty space left near the boardwalk and wandered casually around to open my door.

“Ah, so the boyfriend finally got you speaking French, too, huh?”

“How’d you know he spoke French?”

He frowned at me for a second, his eyes falling on my silver locket. “I just assumed, because of the uh—” He pointed to his own neck.

“Well,” Mike said, sounding awfully cheery, “It suits you—French. You should speak it more often.”

“Nah. I don’t wanna learn it, then wake up one day and realise all the disgusting things you’d been saying to those girls all these years.”

“Ha!” His whole upper body jerked toward the heavens with his burly laugh. “Yeah. Second thoughts; don’t learn French.”

I smiled, folding my arms across my body as Mike walked to the trunk, flipping the keys around on his index finger.

“Nice beach, isn’t it?” he said, fussing about, pulling things out.

“Yeah.” I turned and faced the coast, the gentle summer breeze greeting me to the day. Down by the water, families built sand castles and couples walked hand in hand, stopping to kiss and marvel at the horizon. I once had that fantasy—to be right there, standing toes in the ocean with David, kissing as the sun went down, which made coming here with Mike feel kind of strange—kind of…sad.

“Well, what’re you waiting for?” Mike offered his hand to the view before us. “Go ahead. I’ll catch up.”

“Really? You don’t want help carrying all that?” I nodded to the picnic basket, the blanket and a dozen other things.

He closed the trunk and shook his head. “Just go, baby.”

Without further encouragement, I pulled off my shorts and shirt, left them on the ground for Mike to grab on his way down, and flew to the call of the ocean, my feet barely touching the sand before I hit the whitewash with the grace of an elephant. The waves enveloped my ankles, cooling the burns on the balls of my feet, leaving behind a tingle, like sherbet mixed with cola, as they receded.

I could almost believe I was back home in Perth. And even with my eyes closed, unable to see the origins of the noise around me, I could feel the brightness of the day, filling me with the hope that some things in life were still normal. I placed my hands to my knees and bent closer to the water to catch the light breeze coming off it, feeling my toes sink into the soft, grainy sand as the waves swam back out to sea.

“You still look like a little girl—standing there in that rainbow bikini.”

I opened my eyes to the portrait of summer and Mike’s arm around my waist. “Well, I’m not a little girl anymore, Mike.” I pushed his hand off my skin.

“I know. I just thought you looked cute, that’s all.”

“I don’t do cute,” I said sarcastically, but a band of ‘gullsters’ beside us drowned out my retort with their hideous squawking. I jumped inside a little, clutching my locket. “God, I’m not used that sound anymore.”

“Scrat!” Mike said, waving his hand at the gulls. “Get outta here.”

“Don’t you dare kick that bird.” I grabbed his arm as he stalked toward them.

“I never actually hit them, Ara. I wouldn’t do that.”

“Doesn’t matter, what if you did? By accident?”

“Then I would apologise…profusely.” He bowed his head. “But you know what I wouldn’t apologise for?” The corners of his eyes sharpened as he smiled and leaned slowly closer, then, the world came out from under me; I flew through the air, landing on my back in a massive, cool splash, with Mike’s hand catching the base of my neck before my head went under water.

I opened my mouth to yell, gurgling the salty burn of a wave down my nose and throat instead. “You asshole!” I coughed, sitting up as he jumped back. “I’m so gonna get you.”

“You have to catch me first.” He started running.

I hesitated only for a moment; we both knew I’d never catch him, but it was damn well worth a try.

Each time I reached for him, he darted out of the way—like we were both south poles on a magnet, but at last, I managed to grasp the rim of his shirt; I closed my fingers around it, wearing a victory grin for only the breath it took him to roll his shoulders, leaving me, and the shirt, face down in the sand.

“You’ll have to do better than that, baby.” He laughed boisterously.

I pushed up on my hands and sat hugging my knees, hiding my face in my arms. Sand was stuck to the water all over my body, making me feel like a crumbed steak. Well, it was time this steak got a little revenge!

“Ara, you okay? Did I hurt you?” Mike asked, leaning over me.

Wrong move. He didn’t even see it coming; I grabbed the back of his neck and pushed the entire force of my shoulder into his chest, rolling his head under my arm as I flipped him into the water. His weight came as a shock. He never used to be that heavy. But he went down hard, wetting my legs, arms, shoulders, and the kid a meter down from us, as the water exploded out from under him.

“Well,” he said, clasping his hands over his belly, taking a breath after a wave receded. “Girl; one. Guy; nothing.”

I stared at him, an impish grin making my eyes small, wondering if I should point out that we both knew he let me flip him. “Well, you taught me that move, oh-wise-Master.” I sat down on the edge of the ocean. “You should be weary of your students; they usually supersede you.”

He rolled onto his stomach and smiled at me, the magic of the ocean lighting him like a happy feeling. He seemed more alive, more spirited, sort of…free here. He belonged on the beach, with the sand and the blue skies.

“What ya thinkin’?” He jumped up, ruffling his hair into a mess as he landed beside me.

“I was just remembering home.” I shrugged. “Thinking how easy all this is. Like, sometimes, when I’m with you, I forget they’re gone.” I wrapped my arms around my legs and linked my fingers together. “The sunlight, the beach, all of this stayed with you when I left, and now you’re here...it’s like you’ve brought it all back with you.”

“You say that like it’s a bad thing.”

I shrugged again. “I don’t wanna lose that when you go.”

He gave a gentle smile and let his elbows hang loosely over his knees. “You know it doesn’t have to be that way.”

“I’m sorry.” His smile dissolved. “I just miss you, too, you know. I went to the beach a few weeks ago—watched the storm come in across the bay, and it didn't feel the same without you.”

I half smiled, allowing memories in. “Did you sit on the fishing jetty while it was raining?”

“Yeah.” He nodded, dusting a line of yellow sand off his shin. “But I just didn't get it anymore. It was just cold and I felt silly.”

I drew a really long breath; the salt in the ocean was so strong I could almost taste it, as if the air were made of sand, brushing the back of my tongue each time I swallowed. Even though this beach wasn’t nearly as pretty as the one back home, it was good to feel the crisp water and the weight of my body sink into the sand again.

But the heat reminded me of the truth, because, while the sun may have burned into the side of my face like a hot iron, the breeze was icy and strong—not humid and wet, like home. It was nature’s truth, and it screamed out so clearly that autumn was coming, and that David would be gone for good.

I ran some of the cool ocean water over my cheek, and the heat dissipated with a soft tingle.

“Don't!” I spun my face away from his cold, wet touch.

“Whoa. Ara. I’m not going to hurt you.” He leaned around and looked at me.

“You still defensive about those scars?”

I lifted one shoulder and dropped it again.

“Hideous?” Mike’s voice trailed up. “Ara, you can barely see them.”

“Then why did you touch them?”

“It’s just…the sun was reflecting off the water beads on your skin. It looked pretty. Like little diamonds. I just wanted to touch you.”

And I just wanted to run away. In my mind, the scars had faded to an almost invisible memory. When I looked in the mirror, I never even noticed them anymore; tiny little dots covering one side of my face and neck, silvery and very indistinct. But Mike noticing them made me feel uncovered and monstrous—like they were all over me.

“Ara. I’m serious. They’re barely visible.” He shuffled closer and turned my face. “You’re still just the same beautiful girl you’ve always been.”

That’s where he was wrong. I wasn’t the same. Nothing about me was the same. Not on the outside and not from the inside.

“Ara?” Mike called as I stood and walked down the beach, dusting sand off my butt.

No one understood. No one could possibly understand. He didn’t see the scars because he didn’t want to see them. But they were there. They would forever be there as a reminder of who I used to be—who I had tried so hard not to be anymore.

I wandered past a little girl with dark hair sitting by a lumpy-looking sand castle, carefully placing shells around it in a swervey pattern. She smiled at me, her little face so warm and honest I smiled back, even though I didn’t want to. I was just like her once, and it made me insanely jealous of the normal life she had—that everyone had, even Mike. No one could possibly know the demons I faced; not the ones from my past and not the physical ones that had left me alone—scarred in my heart, just living out my days, waiting for death.

“Ara.” Mike’s hand clasped my arm; I stopped walking with a jolt. “Don’t walk away from me like that. Talk to me.”

“About what?” The venom in my tone made the little girl look up from her bucket and spade.

“What do you think, Ara? You know how beautiful you are. Why would you pretend you don't?”

“That’s what you think I'm doing? Pretending?” I turned away. “God, you’re so insensitive.”

“I'm sorry, baby,” he called. “It’s just…I just don't get it. You can't even see the scars. I’d have to know they were there to notice them.”

“Why do you lie to me?” I spun around.

“Baby. I’m not.” He stepped into me and his eyes narrowed as he studied my face—tracing the curve of my jaw where only David’s eyes had previously been allowed. “Do you still see them there? Honestly?”

“Oh, baby. I…I don’t know what to tell you. I think it might be some kind of psychosis.”

“What?” I frowned up at him.

“Look, I don’t know what you see when you look in the mirror, but all I see is perfect white skin on the face of the prettiest girl in the world.”

I touched my scars with my fingertips.

“Ara.” He gently grabbed my wrist and pushed my hand down from my face. “I promise, on my own future grave, you have completely healed.”

“Really?” I whimpered in a breaking voice, keeping my eyes on my toes.

“Yes.” Mike’s shoulders dropped enough for me to see it through my peripheral.

Then, even with the warm sun, the salty air, and all the families around us, I felt the rise of pain I’d held in—the pain I never got to share with Mike—bubbling up in my chest, then my throat, like an aching blockage of air. I needed him to hold me; I needed him to make everything okay. “I’ve needed you here so, so badly, Mike.” My lashes burned on the edges as hot tears filled my eyes and the beach disappeared into a blur.

“Ara, baby—” He caught me against his chest, the rough sand scratching my jaw. “It’s okay. It’s okay. I’m here now.”

“I needed you, Mike. I needed you,” I sobbed almost inaudibly. “All this time, and you haven't been here.”

“Oh baby, I wanted to be here. I just—I thought you hated me.”

He clicked his tongue. “Oh, baby, what has life done to you?”

The little girl by the water stared at me as her mother grabbed her by the wrist and quickly led her away. And I didn’t care if I scared families off. The funny thing about breaking down is that you can’t choose when to do it—it just hits you like a storm; a flash of heat, an overpowering surge of anger, and then—the pouring rain. I was just glad Mike was finally here to shelter me from it all.

“Yeah, she’s okay,” he spoke softly to someone behind me. “She lost her mum recently.”

“Oh. Oh, poor dear,” an elderly-sounding lady said. She said something else, but I didn’t hear. Mike pressed my face tightly against his bare chest—causing a sort of unintentional vacuum seal over my ears.