The small grey stones shifted beneath Hanna’s bare calves. Hot, smooth pebbles stuck to her skin as she squirmed to find a more comfortable position on the quiet beach. Just one afternoon on Napier’s stony beach made her miss the sandy ones of her home city, made her heart ache just a little more for Auckland.
Shielding her eyes from the glare with a hand, Hanna gazed out over the flat expanse of calm, blue water, and took in the distant cape that jutted out beyond the bay. It had a name, that she couldn't recall now, and reasons to visit, although none had piqued her interest enough to follow through with her half-hearted promises to make the drive there. She might in the future, might rent a car, pack a lunch and explore, should she find the enthusiasm, or the desire. She might do this, and so much more - if she ever stopped feeling numb.
Hanna had spent the last nine months of her life completely numb, and arguably the nine years before that too. If she didn't feel anything, then she wouldn’t cry.
“You’d hate it here, Matty,” she whispered to the ocean. The waves crashed ever closer to her feet, and she watched as the water was sucked back out again by dangerous unseen currents. The water of Hawke Bay, seemingly calm beyond the small breakers, was more deadly than it appeared. She had heard the warnings; she knew she was better off not swimming out there - and Matty would have hated that. Scoffing at another rule to be broken, he would have rushed into the water anyway, determined to conquer the currents despite the warnings. He had never let anyone tell him what he couldn’t do.
Even when the feared ‘R’ word had been spoken, even when he had been given the remainder of his life in weeks, he had refused to accept it.
Rejection could go to Hell.
With her eyes still fixed on the cape in the distance, Hanna ran a fingertip over the smooth gold band of the ring that sat snug on her middle finger. It was all she allowed herself to cling to now, the only reminder of him in this new life she was starting for herself in Napier.
And Matty would have hated Napier and its small library, the one-hour travel time for a decent beach, and the museum with doors closed for renovations. The city boy, who lost himself in libraries, and wandered tirelessly through museums, would have been driven mad here - which was why she had come. Perhaps in Napier she might find the pieces of her younger self, the parts that had been lighter and warmer. The parts that had allowed her to smile. The pieces she had lost when she lost Matty.
Hanna’s phone vibrated on the stones beside her knee, her ring tone drowning out the crash of the waves and the seagulls’ cries. Fiona, her oldest friend, had been texting her all morning and Hanna was yet to respond to a single message. The phone call had been inevitable. She reached down, her hand shaking as it hovered above the phone, and she fought to convince herself to pick it up and answer the call.
Sucking in a deep, uneven breath, she swiped a finger across the display and brought the phone to her ear. “Hey, Fi,” she answered, her voice even, calm, as though she wasn’t currently resisting the urge to throw her phone into the ocean and forget it had ever existed.
“Johanna!” her friend chastised, sounding more like Hanna's mother than her best friend. “Are you ignoring my texts?”
Hanna released a soft sigh while her fingers turned stones over. Her eyes scanned each pebble, searched for a smooth one to skip across the surface of the azure ocean. “Yes.”
She closed her hand around a smooth, flat stone and held it tight in her fist. “I’m settling in.”
Fiona snorted. “I doubt that.”
Hanna opened her fist and glanced down at the grey stone lying flat in her palm. “I'm trying to ease myself out of Big City mode.” A small smile played on her lips, but she didn’t need to look into a mirror to know it didn’t reach her eyes. When Fiona didn't respond, Hanna added, “Napier's fine, really it is, and it’s only short-term. I think I could get used to life here.”
“Okay, hon,” Fiona said, but even down the line Hanna could hear the sadness in her tone. “But why’d you leave us, Jo?”
Jo. She hadn’t been looking forward to hearing herself being called that again. A new city, a new name. Matty had called her Joey, just as only she had called him Matty. To others, they had been Matt and Jo. Jo and Matt. The two crazy kids who were determined to make it no matter what. Mortality be damned. Without him, she wasn’t Jo anymore.
“Because I had to get out of there,” she replied into the phone, the words a little broken after pushing past the jagged lump in her throat. “I kept seeing him in everything. Every place I went held a memory of him, and no one, including you, knew how to act around me after he died. I just...” She paused and gathered her thoughts. “I need to be somewhere where no one knows me, where no one knows he ever existed. I was with him for almost ten years, Fi. A decade of my life, a time when I was growing up and finding my identity. Now that identity's gone.” Her last words came out as a whisper. Her life had been so interwoven with his that without him she didn’t know who she was anymore. Pushing herself to her feet, finding her balance on the hot stones, she took a couple of painful steps, the soles of her feet burning as she made her way to where the waves broke. The cool water soothed her skin, and she tossed the pebble, watched it skip across the surface, once, twice, three times, before it dropped from sight and sank to the ocean floor.
After a moment’s silence, as though Fiona was watching it too, her best friend replied, “Well I fucking miss you. I miss dragging you out even when you didn’t feel like it, because you needed the company whether you’d admit to it or not. I knew you were sad, Jo, but you had valid reasons, and I love you no matter what.” Fiona paused and took an audible breath. “When you’re ready, come back to me, come back to your family? We’ll all still be here, and we’ll still love you even if you return with that sadness we know so well. But I hope you come back happy because you deserve to be happy.”
“I’m crying inside right now.”
“I know you are. I’ll be calling regularly because I know you won’t. I miss you.”
“Miss you too,” Hanna promised.
“Jo? Merry Christmas.”
Hanna sighed. It was Christmas Day, and here she was, alone, on this stony beach, refusing to acknowledge her first Christmas without Matty. “Have a glass of mulled wine for me.”
“I will. Love you. Talk soon.”
Fiona ended the call and Hanna clenched the silent phone in her hand. Fiona had been there for her through it all, all the way since high school. Fiona had seen her fall in love, as a naive seventeen-year-old, and had watched her heart slowly break. Not once had Fi ever asked her if Matty was worth it. Fiona had seen the love they shared, and like everyone else she had silently prayed for hope.
Hope had given Hanna and Matty almost ten years together. Hope had been the only thing keeping her going some days. And hope had been what had ultimately brought her to Napier. Hope - for a new start.
The wall she had put up the day Matty died made her doubt she would ever fall in love again, whether with another man or with life itself, but still she let hope linger around her.
Easing down on the stones, laying back and closing her eyes, Hanna took some comfort from the beach beneath her, from being able to feel it, the warmth, the pain. She let the relentless Hawke's Bay sun beat down on her skin, allowing it to begin to dissolve the ice crystals in her blood and start the long thaw on her frozen heart. She could do this, all of it. She could start this new job, start this new life, and find her smile again – with a little help from a lot of the Hawke's Bay’s finest bottles of red wine, of course.
Hope and wine. Two old friends. Because she had never been good at being alone.
Emilia’s is available in ebook format for US$3.99 at Amazon, or free with Kindle Unlimited. Paperback copies can be purchased through LMEF Press