The sky was still pink with sleep when Xurray went down to the beach. Early that morning the Custard Blumaroo had stared into her bathroom mirror, wondering what beauty there could be in a face that no longer had anyone to admire it. She went back to her bed but couldn't sleep; the blanket felt like a cocoon. She went to her desk but couldn't work; the words avoided her eyes. Finally she'd walked to her closet, picked out her favourite tankini and bottom, and put them on, more out of habit than anything else.
Her green sandals went flap-flap on the path. Flap-flap-flap down the rocky steps. Her towel swung lightly on her shoulders. A strand of hair brushed the back of her neck.
Xurray breathed in the salty air and felt intensely alive, but also intensely alone.
Scattered thoughts passed through her mind as she descended the steps to the beach. She remembered the moment she'd stood in the mall's changing room, how delighted and relieved she'd felt. The tankini had come to her at the perfect time, when she'd begun to despair of ever finding a fit. All the full-body bathing suits were either too small as a whole, or too loose around the chest. But this watermelon-coloured top had an adjustable strap that wrapped neatly around her back, making her feel that her body was exactly the right shape. From there it was easy to find a bottom that matched. She'd turned and turned in front of the mirror.
Walking alone now, she realized: she was her own first admirer. Before anyone else could see the beauty in her, she had to see it in herself first.
It was a scary thought.
The rock gave way to sand now, warm under the rising sun. There weren't many beachgoers this early in the day. Usually it was crowded.
Usually. She paused in surprise. She was actually a regular now. Sometime in the past year, she had changed from being a shy, bookish girl, afraid to venture far from her room, to someone who went to the beach now and then. Who went out so often, in fact, that the trip had now become second-nature. When did that happen?
She was still bookish, but there was a healthy flush in her cheeks now, and more bounce in her feet. She supposed she should be grateful for that, even though she was on her own again now.
As she padded toward the water's edge, she noticed an abandoned sailboat on the beach. Its sails fluttered in the wind, pretty but futile. It looked like it had begun on a journey but never arrived anywhere.
The familiar sadness welled up again. She kicked off her sandals, put down her towel, and waded out.
Cold. Cold. So cold. She hung back for a moment, hesitating.
A wave came suddenly with a force so smooth, it lifted her off her feet. She gasped, tasting salt on her face. Then the wave rolled on, placing her gently down once again. The sand soothed her wandering feet.
Another wave came, and she relaxed this time and let it carry her. The water buoyed up her arms; the sun shone kindly on her face.
She looked back at the shore and saw more beachgoers appearing. Mats unfurling, umbrellas propping up, little splashes of voice and colour. None of the beachgoers seemed to be worrying about things beyond their control. In the shade of a giant straw umbrella, an Elderlygirl Mynci leisurely opened a book. Two Baby Korbats dug in the sand.
A Blue Lutari pushed an ice-cream cart, calling, "Cold treats! Coooold treats."
Laughter came to her ears from an Island Krawk and his White Kacheek companion, splashing in the shallow water nearby. They looked so happy.
A frisbee whizzed past her head. She swam to where it lay bobbing on the wave, and tossed it back to the Christmas Aisha who had thrown it.
"Thank you!" he said, and Xurray felt a smile spread on her face. "Would you like to join us?"
"Sure," she answered, surprised at the cheer in her own voice.
And before she knew it, she was tossing the frisbee back and forth with two strangers, jumping up and down on the sand to the rhythm of the waves. If only he could see me now, she thought. Then she quickly pushed the thought out of her mind. No, she wasn't performing for anyone now. She wasn't being pretty or happy for anyone. It was okay, and healthy, to be happy on her own.
Knowing how to enjoy life was a gift. It was a gift he had given her, and it would stay with her, even now that he was gone.
Sadness welled up again, but mingled in it was gratitude. Gratitude overpowering her, like the waves.
When lunchtime came, Xurray stood up and let the water fall off her shoulders. "That was fun," she said to the Aisha, "but I should go back to work now. Thank you for having me."
"Sure thing!" the Aisha said, his goggles shining in the sun. "Thanks for joining us. What was your name again?"
"Xurray. And yours?"
"Tomas. And this here's my sister Milly." He indicated the Brown Kyrii next to him, who beamed. "Do you come here often?"
"Not really," Xurray began to say, but quickly checked herself: "Yes. Just not usually so early. I used to come in the evening with-- well, he's gone now."
The Aisha pushed up his goggles. "Ah. Well, take care, hey? You did well today. Milly and I will be here most days, if you ever want to join us again."
"Yeah, thanks. See you soon, maybe."
Xurray's sandals and towel were waiting for her where she'd left them. As she walked toward them, she passed by the beached sailboat again. It wasn't such a sad thing after all, she decided. It had seen some fun during its time. Now it was just relaxing in the sun, like that Elderlygirl Mynci, who didn't look at all sad to be old or alone. She looked comfortable, in fact. Independent. She looked like she would continue to live fully for many years.
The Elderlygirl Mynci turned a page, looked up, and happened to catch Xurray's gaze. Both women smiled. The Mynci's eyes looked lovely through those round glasses, faded with age now, but wise. Maybe in a few decades' time, Xurray would be like that too. Wise and unafraid.
All along the open shore, Xurray saw smiles. She knew that none of her worries would be resolved today, or tomorrow. But amidst the loneliness and uncertainty, there were still moments of joy. There was still a lot she had yet to experience, a lot to look forward to.
As Xurray the Custard Blumaroo started up the steps again, headed back to her desk, the path ahead seemed full of possibility. Life without her companion for the past year was hard, but it wouldn't be all dark. She would make new friends and continue to enjoy the little moments. The brilliance of the sunlight, the joy of the water on her feet, all of these blessings would stay with her. She was going to be okay.