Michael Calder and Peter Cunning were close friends since they were young. They had lived in the same neighbourhood since Peter moved in at eight years old – it was the same neighbourhood they lived in now. When they were both 19, they made a bet to see who would marry first. Peter got married to Nancy, a nice girl he had met in college. Then Michael met Tina. For losing the bet, Michael treated Peter to a 12 oz. steak dinner. Michael then made another bet on that night, to see who would have a child first. This time, Michael won, gloating.
Nicholas Michael Calder was born in the evening of March 27, 1979. The next day, Michael phoned up his best friend with the news but found he was not at home. His own wife had entered into labour and the two were at the same hospital.
On March 28, 1979, little Samantha Cunning was born. Peter barbequed steaks for the Calders while Michael stood over him, jokingly pointing out every flaw in his technique. Nancy and Tina shook their heads and smiled knowingly to each other while suckling their newborn angels in the Cunnings’ backyard. While their husbands were away at work, they would bring their children together to play – sometimes at Nancy’s house, sometimes at Tina’s. They would sigh wistfully to one another, imagining how the two would grow up, marry and have kids of their own. What would their grandchildren be named, they wondered?
Nick and Samantha celebrated turning five years old together in the Calders’ home, sharing a gigantic cake piled high with strawberries and white icing. In the following September, they started walking to school together, their two mothers walking behind them to guide them off the road, all the time smiling and nodding with pride. Tina told Nick to protect little Samantha, so he walked on her left and held her hand, making sure she never tripped. In return, Samantha tried to bump Nick onto the road until Nancy scolded her.
When Nick was seven years old, he realized for the first time that Samantha was a girl. He had been chasing her in the school playground, up and down the jungle gym that sprawled all over the soft white sand. At the top he grasped out, trying to catch her. Samantha took a step back and fell. Her bum began to hurt so she started crying. Nick watched, confused. He had assumed that she would simply get up and punch him, like his classmate Joshua always did, but she only sat there and rubbed at her eyes until they became red. A teacher came over and scolded Nick, threatening him never to push girls again. His mother later explained to him that girls were different than boys. She made him call Samantha to apologize. When he did, Samantha forgave him and said she was okay, but told him never to scare her like that again. That event made Nick decide he would protect Samantha all his life.
But then, Nick and Samantha turned 14 and entered high school. They continued to walk to school together, but they stopped holding hands. Their friends would have laughed if they did. Samantha’s ash brown hair grew long. She tied it up in a simple ponytail, away from her hazel eyes. She began shopping with the other girls and wearing make-up. She knew she wasn’t too smart, but she worked hard and was able to earn some decent marks. Although Nick didn’t think she was especially pretty, she had an honest smile and made friends easily. He heard other boys talking about her and it made him feel jealous.
Nick turned into a fairly popular guy himself. The bones of his face had grown to give him a handsome profile. When he neglected to have his dark chestnut hair cut, it would sit carelessly at his cheekbones, shading his attractive dark eyes. Anyone would have said he was good-looking. He did well in just about any sport and his grades were among the top. Girls whispered feverishly to each other and shot enticing glances over to him during class. At 15, he started telling Samantha to walk home without him. He would grin smugly at her as he dropped hints that there was another girl he wanted to walk home with. Samantha would simply shrug and leave. Sometimes she would see him linked arm to arm with some pretty girl around the hallways at school. It was a different girl almost every time. She would sigh desperately to her friends and they would comfort her. Those girls were allies together in their fight for true love.
But Nick and Samantha remained good friends all through their childhood. Nick still followed his dad to Samantha’s house to help wash their car, or paint their garage, or fix their fence. Samantha would help Tina with her baking sometimes. Tina would invite the Cunnings over for dinner on those days, and Samantha and Nick would always have tons to talk about – homework, classes, teachers, their friends, their enemies – in a language their parents had long forgotten how to understand. Jokingly, Michael once said to Peter, “Dammit, didn’t we used to be like that, Pete?”
Peter answered, “No, I think my Samantha’s prettier than you have ever been, Mike.” Tina laughed in agreement while Michael chuckled and turned red.
Nick and Samantha eventually turned 18 and graduated from high school. Samantha and five of her friends pooled their savings together to rent a limousine for the prom. They were all dateless but happily decided to make the best out of their situation. Nick showed up fashionably late, with a girl from another school on his arm. Later that night, he disappeared. There were rumours of a fight outside between that girl and another from their school. Samantha’s friends rolled their eyes while they followed Samantha outside, completely worried to death and scrambling to take a look. There really was a fight but, as it turned out, Nick was fine, dancing, and completely oblivious to the problems he had created.
Nick and Samantha ended up going to the same college. They planned their class schedules together so that Nick could drive the two of them in the morning. They ended up taking many of the same classes: Psychology, English, and Economics. Samantha also took a Math class that ended late in the afternoon. She would bus home if Nick couldn’t wait for her or was on a date with someone. Again, it was a different girl almost every time. At least this time Samantha felt comfort in not having to run into him as often as when they were in high school. But her heart still hurt on the rare times she caught sight of him laughing with another girl.
Samantha met Justina in her second term Math class. She was smart, mature, outgoing and beautiful. Samantha admired her and followed her cheerfully around campus. Soon, they became friends. Justina came from a rich family and they had paid for a dorm room on campus for their daughter. Justina explained that she could never study at home with her two much younger twin siblings screaming into her ear all the time. She often invited Samantha to study together and sleep over with her. They would never get much sleep on those nights, instead talking into the late hours of the morning. They wouldn’t get much studying done, either.
One weekend, Samantha brought Justina to her home for a visit. On the Saturday night, the Cunnings invited Justina to join them and the Calders for dinner. Peter brought out the barbeque and Michael hovered over him as he cooked, pointing out all his mistakes. Nancy and Tina shook their heads, smiling knowingly to each other.
That night, Justina met Nick for the first time and something immediately struck Samantha as odd. Suddenly, Nick had nothing to say to her over dinner, and she was left silently munching on her corn while Justina and Nick chatted and laughed. It was as though she had disappeared. But Samantha simply shrugged and let the night pass. On Monday morning, as Nick was driving the two girls to school, the strange feeling came over her again. Again, she let it pass. The rest of the week went by normally.
That was, until Thursday afternoon. Justina had mentioned that she was busy with a project and couldn’t let Samantha come over like she usually did, but Samantha had left a textbook in her room the previous night. She decided to stop by to get it. She knew it would only be a few seconds to find, so she wouldn’t be too much of a nuisance. At the door, she knocked.
“Nnnh, can you get it?” she heard a muffled voice from inside. It was Justina. Samantha froze, sensing danger.
The door opened. She saw standing there, Nick – shirtless, a startled expression on his face. Samantha’s blood ran cold. She dropped her eyes.
Her voice stuttered out, “Um, I left my textbook here–“
“God! Samantha?” Justina yelled. There was the sound of cloth rustling. Samantha was too scared to look up. Nick was still standing in front of her. She could feel his eyes boring into the back of her head.
Justina pushed Nick aside and shoved the book under Samantha’s chin. “This is it, right?” she said, nearly in a panic.
“Y-yes,” Samantha said, clasping her shaking hands around it. “S-s-sorry for bothering!” She backed up and knocked into the opposite wall of the hallway. Then she turned and shuffled down the stairwell as fast as she could. She heard the door slam behind her. Her hands were so numb she was afraid the book would drop, making a loud noise on the concrete. She gripped it tighter against her chest, feeling its sharp corners through her shirt.
That night, Nick stopped by Samantha’s home. Samantha was almost too afraid to open the door, but it was Nancy who let him in. He said he wanted to talk to Samantha privately, so Nancy led him up to Samantha’s bedroom. Returning to the kitchen, Nancy quickly phoned Tina with her fervent speculations that there was something going on between their two children.
“You caught me at a bad time,” Nick explained. Samantha was silent for a moment. He saw her huddled on the bed, knees up, arms wrapped around a pillow. He leaned against the closed bedroom door as casually as he could. He could feel his heart beating uncontrollably.
“Why do you keep going out with different girls all the time?” she eventually whimpered.
“What? You have a problem with the girls I pick?” he replied. “Or,…do you just have a problem with you never getting picked?” He sneered sarcastically, partly to her, partly to himself.
“Did you sleep with her?” Samantha mumbled.
“Justina? You saw, right? Yeah. Why?”
“It’s wrong,” she whispered.
“What’s your problem? There’s nothing wrong with that,” Nick said. Without knowing it he had raised his voice and was practically shouting at her.
“Do you love her, then?”
“No,” he smirked. “‘Course not.”
“That’s wrong. She’s my friend.”
“Well, she wanted to. It’s not my fault.”
“I can sleep with whoever the hell I want!” Nick roared at her. “Stop butting into my private life.”
“Private life?” Samantha squeaked, stunned. It was as though a barrier suddenly appeared between them.
“Yes, private,” Nick said, leering. Samantha wouldn’t speak afterwards. Nick left the house, fuming, as Nancy frantically chased after him to stay.
The next day, Nick left for school early; Samantha was forced to take the bus to school alone. In Math class, Justina refused to speak to her. They had become like strangers again.
There were three painful years when Samantha thought she would be alone for the rest of her life. She worked hard to keep her mind off of things, but a strong surge of emotion occasionally caught her off guard and left her trembling with tears in her eyes. But eventually, time passed. She met William.
She had been invited to the campus pub with some of her classmates at the end of their fourth year, near graduation. He approached her carefully, later buying a drink for her as they talked. Their companions eventually noticed what was happening and left them alone. Within the month, they started dating. It lasted four years, past the time they both graduated with their Masters in Law, passed their bar exams, and entered into work with the same mid-sized law firm. Samantha was the first to decide: she hinted teasingly at him whenever she could. For the longest time, William remained oblivious to her gentle suggestions. When he finally proposed to her, she nearly fainted with happiness. They waited almost a year more before getting married, before they could find the time off of work. On Samantha’s whim, they had their wedding in the Cunnings’ backyard under the watchful eyes of their parents and closest friends. Nancy and Peter had tears in their eyes as Samantha walked down the makeshift aisle strewn generously with brilliant pink flowers. Their little princess had grown up. Samantha invited Michael and Tina Calder, of course. She invited Nick, too. He told Tina he’d come, but he never did. Neither Michael or Tina knew why. It had been years since he had moved out of their house and Nick had not kept in touch, as though he was purposely avoiding them.
That evening, Samantha spoke her new name to herself, whispering, like a secret–
–It gave her a warm, fluttering sensation in her heart. She smiled and blushed, her eyes shining.
But it wasn’t easy in the beginning. Samantha and William were both working. Working, and trying to find a home for themselves at a price they could afford was difficult. Peter Cunning died suddenly on a Monday morning on his way to work. It was a heart attack. No one had known that his heart was bad. Nancy blamed herself; Samantha cried every night.
Then little Liza was born and things became easier. Samantha started working part time, and her baby girl started growing up. She and William watched, astonished as Liza’s doll-like fingers stretched out and grasped at their faces. Even Nancy was able to cheer up again, holding that little angel in her tired old arms. They smiled at her and gurgled at her, and she smiled and gurgled back. The next year, she was sitting in a high chair, flicking peas. William took endless pictures. Samantha lovingly labeled each one with the date and place it was taken, arranging them into piles of beautiful photo albums for their future selves to wonder at.
In the year Liza turned three, Samantha received a letter from Martha Yeaks. She stared at it for a while before realizing it was the same Martha Umbridge who had told everyone in their high school graduating year that she would organize a reunion in ten years’ time. Samantha opened the letter eagerly. Just as she guessed, it was an invitation for their ten-year high school reunion: a semi-formal dinner and dance at a local hotel and ballroom for $110 a seat, all spouses invited. Samantha showed it to William and they decided to go together. Nancy eagerly took the opportunity to spoil Liza while the two parents were away.
Unfortunately, William was nearly bored to death by the whole thing. Samantha wanted to bring him around and introduce him to all her friends, but he was so embarrassed by the ordeal that he refused to follow along after the first hour. He managed to find one of his old law school classmates – another lonely husband – and the two of them moped together at a corner of the bartender’s booth. Samantha satisfied herself by showing off her picture of Liza to everyone she met.
Later in the night, she saw Nick. He stared at her – he was unmistakable in the crowd. He was dressed casually, wearing a blue button-down shirt, untucked, over dark pants. His hair was longer and tied back, and there was a faint shadow of stubble along his prominent cheekbones. She hesitated before approaching him.
“Haven’t seen you in a long time. So, what are you up to these days?” she spoke, using a voice that sounded cheerful yet impersonal.
“I’m working,” he said. “Copywriting work. Nothing major. You’re a lawyer now, right?” She nodded. “I heard from my mom.”
“You still keep in touch with them?”
“Yeah. Hey, I heard about your wedding. Congrats. Sorry I couldn’t make it.” It sounded as though he were lying. Samantha shrugged. She decided to show off Liza.
“Have you seen pictures of my daughter? She’s three this year,…”
Nick held the picture. He looked at it with downcast eyes, impassive.
“Pretty girl,” he said, handing it back. “Good job. Who’s the dad?”
She pointed in the direction of the bar and waved. William noticed, popped out of his bored daze, and waved back.
“Oh,” Nick grinned mockingly. “Didn’t know you were into plain-looking guys–oh. Just a joke,” he added when he noticed Samantha’s expression turn sour.
Samantha sighed and glanced back at William. She saw him looking back at her, hands in his pockets, concern in his eyes. “Well, it was nice seeing you again. Tell your parents I said ‘hi,'” she said.
“You probably see them more than I do.” That was true. Samantha tried to get away, but Nick kept on talking. “Look, we haven’t talked in a long time, right? You got a new number? Can I phone you sometime?”
Samantha hesitated, but, “Sure. Sounds great.” Her enthusiasm sounded fake. She gave him her cellphone number.
“And what?” Nick smirked again. “A married woman like you just gave your number to some guy you used to know. Does that sound wrong to you?”
His tone of voice hinted at something that frightened her.
“Hey, Sammi.” William had left his post by the bar to come and rescue his wife. He put his arm around her protectively and examined this strange man in front of her. “Someone you want to introduce me to?” Nick’s gaze hardened and he looked back at him unblinkingly.
“Nick, this is my husband, William. Will, this is my childhood friend, the one I was telling you about–“
“Oh. Nick. Yes. Pleasure to meet you, finally. Samantha’s spoken about you before.” William held his hand out. Nick ignored it and continued to stare. William cleared his throat, then diverted his eyes to Samantha.
“Sammi, it’s already past twelve. Think you want to head back around now?”
“Yes,…I think this is a good time. Nick,” she turned to him now, “it was really nice seeing you again. Say ‘hi’ to your parents for me.”
“Sure. I’ll tell them you’re doing well.”
“Thanks,” she smiled. It was the same honest, beautiful smile he recognized from long ago. He watched them leave, his eyes dark and threatening. Samantha felt his gaze piercing across the ballroom, but she was afraid to look back. She only tightened her grip on William’s arm as they walked out.
To her relief, Nick did not call her the next day. She assumed her life would continue, as it had.
But two months later in September, Nick called. It was 9 pm and Liza was already in bed. Samantha was sitting in the living room, watching the news. Her cellphone rang. She was almost too afraid to pick up.
“Samantha,” he muttered. “Samantha, I’m at the beach.”
“What? Nick? Is there something wrong?”
“Samantha, I think I drank too much.” He slurred his words together and paused to breathe heavily. Samantha strained to understand. “I was thinking, like, we’re good friends, right? I was just thinking, like, and I think I drank too much. I drove here, but I didn’t want to drive home. Actually,” he chuckled, then coughed, “I think I can’t drive. ‘Cause there’s police on the roads, and I drank, right? And there’s something wrong with my car, so, I thought I’d call you and you can drive me, I thought. You can come to pick me up, right? I didn’t know who else to call,…”
“Nick! Listen to me. Where are you?” She spoke her words carefully, louder that usual. William saw her from the kitchen and came closer to listen.
“…I think it’s outta gas. At the beach. It’s kinda dark out right now, but I’m at the beach.”
“That one with the big rocks and I can see a tree over theeere–“
“Nick! Is there a sign somewhere? Like, a road sign?”
“Yeah, not the washroom sign, right?” He chucked again. “Erm, there’s one, let me get to it.” Samantha heard scuffling in the background. “Um, it says, here,…Sunny…side, D.R….”
“You’re at Sunnyside. Okay, I’ll come to get you. Stay right there, okay? Nick! You hear me?” she yelled into the phone.
“Yeah, yeah, I’ll stay here. Come fast, Samantha. I’m not feeling so great–“
“Yes, I’ll be there in fifteen minutes. Don’t move, Nick. I’ll be right there.”
“Stay there!” She hung up.
William finally spoke. “What’s wrong?”
“Nick. He’s stuck on Sunnyside beach, and he sounded drunk. I’m just going to pick him up and drive him back to his place.” She started for the entrance, grabbing her coat and bag.
“Samantha,” William stopped her just before she opened the door. He placed his hands on her shoulders and gazed down at her. There was concern in his eyes. “Do you want me to go instead?”
“Hm? No, he doesn’t really know you, and it’s better if one of us stays here with Liza. She’s in bed?”
William nodded his head. “Samantha, listen to me,” he said, his voice serious. “That guy worries me. I’m afraid for you–“
“Of what?” Samantha asked. William sighed.
“I won’t forgive myself if he does anything to you.”
Samantha looked back at him. She saw his concern and smiled encouragingly. “Trust me, Will. I’ll be fine. I promise.” Then she went on. “But he’s my childhood friend. I have to go see him, make sure he’s okay.”
William sighed again, deeply. “Alright,” he nodded with reluctance. “I’ll let you go, Sammi. Just,…please, take care of yourself.”
“Okay. Don’t worry, Daddy,” she said, childishly. Liza had tiptoed out of her bedroom and was now peering through the staircase railing. Samantha turned her head and waved to her little daughter before opening the front door.
William watched as she climbed into their car, waved back again, then drove off. Liza noticed how slowly her daddy closed the door and walked up the stairs to her, as if his feet were tired and heavy.
“Come, honey,” he said. “I’ll tuck you in. Mommy will be home later.” Liza glanced at the closed door again, then followed her father back to bed.
Samantha drove more carefully than usual in the dark, reaching Sunnyside beach in 20 minutes. She found Nick sitting on the ground with legs sprawled, leaning against a signpost. He waved lamely at her as she walked towards him.
“Samantha Cunning!” he shouted. He struggled to stand. Samantha helped him up. “So, the married woman’s come alone. No, no, I’m good now. Now you’re here, let’s play a while! Like when we were kids.” He took her hand and started pulling her towards the water’s edge.
“Nick! I’ve come to take you home,” she said, dragging her feet. “Tell me, where do you live?”
Nick let go and spun his hands in a wide arc around himself. “Here! I live here now. It’s great! It’s waterfront property,” he laughed. “You’ll come live with me. We’ll be happy together.” He continued walking towards the water, until his shoes became soaked in the breaking waves.
“No. Nick, you’re acting childish. Stop this. You’re drunk. I’m taking you home.”
“No! I’m fine! We’re childhood friends. I want you to stay with me.” He grasped and jerked her towards him. Samantha could smell liquor in his breath.
She pushed him. He fell. There was a splash as she turned away, and Nick yelled out as the cold water hit him. His hands touched coarse, wet grime.
“Hey! Wait!” He caught up to Samantha and violently grabbed her arm. She slapped him. He pulled her closer. She clawed his face. Her long nails left trailing red gashes in his skin. He caught her arms and pushed her face closer still, his lips against her lips. He felt her teeth clenched tightly. He held her tighter, in defiance.
Slow, excruciating seconds passed. His blood fell onto her cheeks. The mud and seawater seeped through his body, through her clothes. Eyes open, Nick could see Samantha’s tears as she struggled to resist him. Her eyes were squeezed shut. Her arms were shaking. She was still beautiful. He felt how strong his grip was, the cutting grit of the sand between their skin. He felt the chill of the air was around them, like ice. There was a sudden burst of cold air, and his head became clear. He remembered: he was hurting her again.
He let her go. It was an abrupt movement, causing her to stagger back. She almost tripped in the sharp grey sand.
“Nick, you and I,” Samantha was crying and screaming, with smears of blood staining her pale cheeks. “This would never have worked out between us. Nick, you know this.” She brought up her coat sleeve and wiped at her face, glaring wide-eyed at him. She expected an answer from him, some snide remark.
His throat felt constricted. He could only stare at her. There was nothing he could say.
“No,…Don’t come looking for me anymore. I’ve moved on,” she said, turning her head, backing away. She started walking away from him. She started running – she was running away from him. Nick was afraid to call out. He looked down at his hands. They were covered in mud. He touched his face with them and felt his cheeks sting. He turned and bent down to wash everything off.
On his face, there was a little smile.
Nick stood and fixed his weary black eyes towards the sea. Through its troubled surface he saw only raw emotions. They fought within him, causing him pain, causing pain to the ones he loved. He had wasted his life. The endless sea mocked him for it. Now, It, the dark and restless, yet somehow soothing to him, beckoned. Its fingers lapped against his shoes, soaking him through, drawing him closer. There was Peace, he saw, and Rest. His eyes grew clear and bright with realization. In a moment, he knew what he would do. Alone at its shore he stood wavering, watching, calmly, coolly, quietly, wondering.