“My God,” Lane said, breathless. “I couldn’t have imagined such a pure place, even in my wildest dreams.”
Sands gave Lane a sour look. He’d seen it before, but that wasn’t why he was unimpressed. “I shouldn’t have agreed to this,” he muttered.
They were standing on a beach. The cloudless sky yawned into eternity. The ocean lapped at the shore, surging and subsiding. The shrieks of playing dolphins echoed as they crested the water in unison. Lane rolled up his khaki pants and tossed his shoes to the side and walked into the water. His laughter echoed that of the dolphins.
Sands, meanwhile, scanned the shoreline. He spied something that looked like a house not too far ahead, and he was pretty sure that was where she had taken up residence. It might be that she was watching them, and it might not. A shiver along his spine made him think that the former was more likely.
“This is like heaven!” Lane exclaimed, kicking spray and running wet fingers through what was left of his graying hair. His clothes were soaked, and despite the lines in his face, there was no doubting that this place had restored some of his youth.
Sands grunted. “I don’t see any streets of gold or choirs of angels. Or are you one of those that think your eternity is something that is selective from person to person?”
Lane shrugged and laughed. He scooped a fist-sized shell from the sand, marveling at its metallic coloring. “Does it really matter? Can’t you see how beautiful this place is?”
“Yes, yes, it’s beautiful and pure and true.” He grumped. He prodded the wet beach with the toe of his boot, making little divots. “I see it.”
“That she would choose here says a lot about who she is,” Lane remarked, eyebrows raised. “You told me that a person’s choice of surroundings was the best way to judge them, like a reflection of their nature.”
The taller man scowled. “I seem to remember discussing that with you in one of two places: at a strip club, or at a race track. My memory’s foggy, but I’m sure it was one of those, Mr. ‘Reflection-of-Their-Nature’.”
Lane wagged a finger at him. “But I didn’t choose here, did I?” He spread his arms to the wondrous world around them. “She did. My Selena.”
“I suppose this isn’t about you,” Sands admitted. “And I knew where to find her. I’ve never questioned her integrity, Mr. Lane. You wanted me to bring her home, and you couldn’t pay enough. Her integrity was never going to cover the balance. I’m just showing you that I know how to get here.”
“I have no doubt that this is where she would go. She has always loved going to the beach.” He bent over and scrawled in the sand. “I think that I shall be happy here as well.”
“I was afraid you would say that. It’s too dangerous,” Sands said, shaking his head. “I know I agreed to bring you to her, but you need to understand that this place isn’t as wonderful for you as you think it is.”
“Is she near?” Lane asked, ignoring him. He stood on his tiptoes, wobbling and peering off in the distance, face round and pale and hopeful.
“Over there,” Sands affirmed, gesturing toward the little house. He glared down at the other man. “Are you sure this is what you want? You do realize that she might have changed after coming here. She could be completely different. She might not even remember you, and if she does, she might wish that she hadn’t, and then anything could happen. ”
“Forty years,” Lane replied, with a slight trace of smugness. He ran his fingers through the water and let out a soft, pleasant sigh. “Forty years of love and devotion. She won’t forget. And if she does, I will love making her remember.”
“But forty years is a long time, Mr. Lane,” the taller man said reproachfully. “Most people don’t stay married forty months anymore. You could walk away and start over. Live your life and pay respect to hers. We could go now, the both of us. It won’t be easy, but I can do it as long as she doesn’t notice you.”
“I’ve paid you, Mr. Sands,” said Lane, more than just a little exhilarated. “There might not have been any receipt, but you’ll get no refunds requested from me. I don’t want any of it back. You’ve fulfilled your duty to me.”
There was a low creak, barely audible over the steady seabreeze and crashing waves. A gray-haired woman was stepping out of the house. She was wearing a sundress. She opened an umbrella and unfolded a beach chair. She didn’t glance in their direction, but the sharp hiss that escaped Lane was enough proof of her identity.
“Selena,” Lane whispered, staring.
“Once you go to her, it’s done,” Sands reminded him. “She’s most likely already noticed you, but you can run and she will forget. In places like this she’s bound to have moments of forgetfulness.” But Lane was already walking toward her, unheeding. Sands seized him by the arm and whirled him around. In the distance, thunder boomed, and the seabirds shrieked overhead. A strong wind howled in from the ocean. Sands hazarded a glance at Selena, who was now focused on them, unsmiling.
“She doesn’t like how you grabbed me,” Lane said, delirious. “She was always my lioness.”
“She’ll get over it,” Sands snapped. “If you’re going to stay, then this is where I leave you. All sales are final. Understand I can’t bring you back with a kiss. I’m not Prince Charming.”
“How can you be so casual about this?” Sands demanded. “You can’t realize what you are risking.”
Lane turned, looking upon his wife and smiling broadly. She waved to him, and he nodded. “I know exactly what is at stake. And she’s worth it all.” He offered his hand, and Sands shook it. “You’ve got an unbelievable gift, Nocturne Sands. There might not be a whole lot of good in our world anymore, but you’ve just helped me get one foot into heaven. Bless you.”
Lane pulled from his grasp and walked away.
Sands stood on the beach, watching them as the wind ruffled his hair. He saw the look of euphoria on Lane’s face as he embraced his wife, the cries of joy and love as they were reunited. He looked away as they began to kiss. He walked toward the ocean, beneath the cries of seabirds. He offered one last glance to the couple, and wasn’t surprised to see that they were suddenly young. Selena’s graying tresses were now deep mahogany. Lane’s wrinkles were gone, and his hairline was no longer thinning. He waved to Sands, huge and excited, and Sands smirked and offered him a little salute, before plunging beneath the surf.
He opened the door softly. The bright light of the hallway was brilliant and intrusive. An orderly scurried past with a cartload of soiled linens. Muffled choruses of beeps and whirs greeted him. A cluster of nurses were huddled and giggling softly in the registration area. A solitary nurse dressed in checkered scrubs was pecking at a keyboard just feet away, and she glared up at him as he walked out.
“Visiting hours were over a long time ago, sir,” she said, voice firm. “You shouldn’t be here.”
“I know, just lost track of time,” Sands replied, giving his best sheepish smile. “It won’t happen again, I promise.”
The nurse’s face softened, and she glanced at the door behind him. She looked sad. “How’s she doing today? I just got on.” The look in her eyes revealed hope, though the expression on her face seemed far less optimistic.
Sands shrugged. “Same old, same old.” He shut the door quietly behind him. The horizontal blinds clacked against the glass window on the door.
The nurse grimaced and nodded. “It was my first week here when they admitted her. She’s such a pretty thing. Made me think of that movie, where the princess gets cursed and sleeps forever? Maybe there were a few of those, I suppose.” She sighed. “That husband of hers won’t leave her side for nothing. He even reads to her. That’s love.”
“Yes,” Sands replied neutrally. “Love.”
“They’re in my prayers every day. I keep praying that one day her eyes will open up and the first thing she sees is that husband of hers. Wouldn’t that be a sight?” She clutched a crucifix at her bosom and let out a soft, relaxed sigh. “Love like that always wins in the end. God makes sure of it.”
Sands nodded and smiled. “They say the Lord works in mysterious ways.”
“That He does, that He does,” she replied. “It’s so good that Mr. Lane has friends that support him. He needs it so badly.” She offered a secretive wink and grin. “Maybe even after visiting hours.”
“I’m sure it helps,” he said softly. He glanced briefly at the window in the door and gave his ghostly reflection a grim smile. “Although I wonder if you wouldn’t mind grabbing a pillow for Mr. Lane? It looks like he might be down for a little bit of rest himself.”