The road curved along the cliff-side looking out over the ocean. It had been a month since Mark had been here last; he couldn’t face it. He had come to San Gregorio every Sunday for as long as he could remember, but it wasn’t the same anymore. The water, the air, the sky—it had all changed. Or maybe it was him who had changed. Maybe he just couldn’t see it all the same anymore.
Mark pulled off to the side of the road. He put the truck in park and looked out at the waves disrupting the water’s surface. His dad had found this place—far from the people that spotted the beach on sunny afternoons—before he was born. Dad brought him here when he was about three and they had come together every week since.
The door shut, and Mark began walking across the rocks, slowly, as each one grabbed at his shoes in an effort to drag him down. There wasn’t much green at the top of the cliff. Mostly rocks; dark porous rocks that clawed at any exposed skin. He had received more cuts and bruises from the rocks there than anywhere else. It didn’t matter how many times they sent him tumbling to the ground; he never quite learned to follow his dad’s example of slow and precise footsteps. Just a couple months before, he had received a nasty cut on his leg as he spun around in excitement and lost his footing. “You never learn, do you?” his dad had said.
No. I never do. Mark thought. He stepped carefully, now, envisioning his father’s footsteps before him. The sun shone, reflecting off the water’s surface, making it hard to look at the water when the waves caught the reflection just right. Mark kicked a rock as he continued to walk along the edge of the cliff. He listened to the gulls flying overhead, wondering how the world looked from above. No matter how much you experience the same thing, you’ll never experience it all, his dad would say. That’s why they always came to the same place every week.
When he was younger, Mark would run and play, as young boys do. Some days Mom would pack them a lunch, others they would hike down to the rocky shoreline, and he would leave soaking wet. As he got older, they would talk about philosophy, God and the universe. But each week, his dad would ask, “What was new today?” In the beginning Mark would tell him it was the same as every week. Maybe the weather was different, but nothing else changed. And then his dad would tell him what he found that was new each week. Maybe it was the way the waves sounded, echoing tales of people lost at sea, or maybe it was the how the scent of salt mixed with dirt in the air that never seemed constant.
Mark sat on a large bolder. Everything is new today, Dad. The water seemed ominous, crashing against the rock wall, reaching for him, waiting to drag him down to the depths of the ocean if only he would give it the chance. The sky was darker than he remembered.
Mark rose to his feet, emotion building inside him. Scooping up a rock he hurled it out into the ocean. His hand fell to his side in a clenched fist. His head fell back, looking at the sky, and his body began to tremble. He didn’t understand. Why had he come back here when this place only held pain? Why? Mark sank to his knees and let the tears fall from his eyes.
“I’m proud of you,” his dad said putting his hand on Mark’s shoulder. “Stanford is lucky to have you.”
“But Dad, what about this?”
“Son, we can still come whenever you want. The drive isn’t that far from Stanford, and I’ll meet you here any time.”
The first few weeks of school had been busy. Moving in, classes, roommates. But Mark made sure to make the 45 minute drive each Sunday. He had learned more at this place than he ever could in any classroom.
The last time he had come was right before finals. He almost didn’t make it, worried that he wouldn’t pass his classes, taking every moment to review notes and make flashcards. Now he wished he had stayed. Stayed on campus, safe behind books and lectures. “Come on, Son, it’ll be good to take a break from studying. Just for a few hours.” So he came. The water was the calmest they had ever seen it. “Life, it’s always changing,” his dad said, “what matters is what you do with the changes.”
Why did this have to change? Mark rose, walking to the edge of the cliff. He looked out at the horizon trying to pinpoint the end of all that he could see, wondering if his dad was out there somewhere. The waves crashed against the rocky surface of the cliff, and the ocean spray covered his face. Mark ran his fingers through his dark hair as he closed his eyes, allowing the aroma of salt and seaweed to fill his nose. His dad was right, the ocean never smelled the same. The wind had picked up causing goose-bumps to appear on his now damp arms as the cool breeze whipped around him. He had gotten the call shortly after returning to his dorm, already absorbed in study guides. He hadn’t been back here since.
“Mark,” he felt a hand on his shoulder, making him jump.
“Mom,” he smiled turning around to embrace his mother. “Did you find it okay?”
“Yes, I saw your truck.” She pulled away looking at her son. She raised her hand to wipe Mark’s still damp eyes. He turned away, looking back over the ocean. It hadn’t been his idea to return here, but his mom had insisted that it’s what Dad would’ve wanted.
“So this is where you two came all those years?” Mom asked. After a moment of silence she continued, “Thank you for inviting me Mark.”
“Remember when I was eight and came home covered in mud and all scraped up?”
His mother nodded.
“It’s over here, come see.” Mark took his mother’s hand and walked around to the north end of the cliff. There was almost a stairway of rocks the curled around to the sandy beach below. “Here,” he said. “Dad was talking to me about the sun. He pointed out to the horizon right there and said that everything had its place and order and talked about if the Earth was any closer or farther away from it we couldn’t be here.” Mark paused, remembering the rest of the conversation. “He said that I was supposed to be his son. Maybe God made it that way, maybe he didn’t but I wasn’t supposed to go anywhere else. I got so excited, I was jumping around and the ground was still slick from the rain and I just slid right down.” Mark reached his foot out, feeling the rocks in front of him. “Dad didn’t rush at me, y’know like you would’ve. I was terrified. Didn’t know what happened. But he knew he’d only make it worse, so he just called out my name after I sat up at the bottom, said ‘Mark, I’m right here’. Didn’t ask if I was okay, didn’t scold me. Just said my name. Told me I could make it back and he’d be right there. It was slick, but I made it up just fine like he said. And when I got up here he hugged me and told me how great I did.” Mark stopped, and turned back to his mom. “I’m sorry, I’m so sorry” He erupted. “I’ve always cause problems and made messes, I’ve never been careful and if I had just done something different—“
“Mark,” mom put her arm around him tears falling from her eyes, “You couldn’t have done a thing differently. Your father still would have died in that car crash. You making him leave earlier or stay later, or not coming out here wouldn’t have made a difference. You should know that. When it’s a man’s time to go, it’s his time to go.”
Mark nodded silently. He knew his mom was right. Dad would’ve said the same thing. “Is he… in your car?”
Mark turned again, and walked away from the beach and cliffs, leaving his mother alone. Behind his truck was his mother’s small car. He walked over and pulled out a small jar and carried it back. His mother had moved to the edge of the cliff where Mark had been before she came. He joined her there and held the jar out.
Unstopping the lid, she reached inside and pulled a handful of ashes, sprinkling them over the edge. “All of them?” Mark asked? His mother nodded. Mark held out the jar and allowed it’s entire contents to flow down beyond the edge of the cliff. As the ashes fell, Mark too could feel his sorrow leave. His dad was there still. Even though he couldn’t physically come with him anymore, his dad was still around. Mark saw him in everything at the beach. His footsteps were in the ground, his voice in the wind.
The jar was empty and Mark watched as the blue sky began to fade, instead turning pink as the sun began to set. It was time for them to go. Goodbye dad, I know you’ll always be here for me.
“Thank you,” his mom said, “Let me know when you’re coming home, and I’ll make sure to have a pot roast ready,” she smiled.
Mark nodded and let his mother leave. She knew that being here was more painful for him than her. He was the one that had all the memories here. But, Mark realized, he had made another memory today, even without his dad. “Mom,” Mark called causing her to stop. “Next week, do you want to come back?”
“I’d love to,” his mother said, and he could hear the crack in her voice. He had never thought about her wanting to join them here. He always thought she saw it as trivial, watching her son come home time after time covered in mud, water, or bruises. But he knew otherwise now. Mark turned, to get a last look at the sunset. I’ll be back next week, Mark thought as he turned back to his truck. It didn’t matter that his dad couldn’t come anymore. He would continue to come to their place, every Sunday, just as they did together. And one day, he would return without the memory of pain and loss, but he would come with his memories of the past and hopes for the future.
Coming back today he realized his father had been wrong. I learned something today, Dad. It was different, like his dad taught him, but what his dad didn’t realize was that it was still the same. It was the same place they had always come to. It was the place he could return to now and talk with his dad. He could live and relive those conversations and moments of life because, though things were not the same and never would be, they always came here. And that never changed.
Miranda Winger graduated from Brigham Young University in 2015 with a degree in Family Studies and a minor in Communications. I have been previously published in Mangrove. Despite my talent for writing sappy romances I try to steer clear and prefer working on fantasy, action, and realistic fiction.