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You leave the Air B&B early—almost too early, really, but you weren’t keen on running into Amar this morning, not with how you’d left things yesterday. The sunrise would be good for you—a fresh start. A clean slate. Last night could evaporate with the ocean mist.

God, what had you done? It spun around your ears like vertigo, all the way from furtively shoving Nikes onto your feet in the early gloom to the spiderwebbed cracks of the poorly repaired street. The thought that they really should do something about that crossed your mind, before being violently displaced with the blaring panic raging through you.

Shit. You really did sleep with your boyfriend’s brother.

Kicking a pebble down the street, you make your way to the beach. Collaroy is a beautiful place, even now, with the streetlights clinging to the last traces of shadow and the road ever running with exhaust fumes and over-it commuters. That was why you’d all chosen to go there for a week, a quick summer getaway from the stifling suburbs of the inner west before uni went back. Maybe if you’d gone camping instead this never would have happened.

The beach is across the road, behind these two ugly apartments that must be relics from the 70s, judging by the slanting metal writing on the side and the exposed brick. Your legs get whipped by beach grass, but you relish it, the sting on your calves strangely cathartic. You pause, before you hit the sand. Great, you think. You’re becoming a masochist. How could this day get literally any worse?

You have several ideas as to how that could happen, and they’re intimidatingly realistic, so you take off your shoes and forcibly evict all avenues of thought, heading to the water.

The worst thing about beaches these days, anywhere, is that no matter when you go, there’s always people. You don’t know why you expected to be left alone on your depressive stroll, before the sky had really begun to lighten in earnest, but crossing the beach turned out to be a two-lane affair. You stop to let a jogger go past, hurry to beat a slow-moving man, and dedicate a solid thirty seconds to smiling at the border collie that dashes first one way, and then the other, ball in mouth and tail wagging. You feel slightly better, and then immediately crash right back into guilt.

The water was cold.

“Cute dog, huh?”

You almost die, right there, on the spot. The girl who’d appeared beside you grinned, as if she knew the dire straits you were in and decided to hassle you into a heart attack despite them. Sometimes, you really hated the beach.

“Yeah,” you say, and stare resolutely into the horizon as the ocean sucks at your feet.

“Rough morning?”

Yeah, you hated the beach. You don’t answer, but the girl goes on anyway.

“You look like you’re having a rough morning. Did you know your shirt is inside out?”

Shit, it is. You briefly consider, in a moment of insanity, taking it off and putting it back on, but you haven’t actually gone mad, despite what recent events might indicate. The girl waits for your answer though, like that was the normal thing to do when you accost strangers at the beach with invasive questions.

“I had… an interesting morning,” you settle on.

“This beach has seen plenty of those,” she says.

“Really?” you ask despite yourself.

She points at a hill in answer, and you squint up at it. There’s a series of distant, chunky looking blocks in various shades of concrete and red brick. Having your glasses would probably help here.

“Up there used to be a big building—a white cylindrical house, occupied by a man who once owned a lot of land around here. He was a master builder, and circular rooms were kind of his thing. There’s still a lot of his work around, actually, repainted or re-plastered circular sunrooms. It was a while ago, now, but I’ve never forgotten the story.”

You glance at your watch, but you’ve got nowhere to be. Really, nowhere you want to be. If you’d hoped to be distracted from your mistakes, you guess this was the world’s way of giving you exactly that. The girl tips her head in a quiet question, birdlike, and you resign yourself to the situation.

“Shall we…”

You gesture to the sand up further. She sits with you there, looking over the rolling blue.

“So, this man?”

“He had a wife,” she continues, “a really lovely lady, I think. I’d like to think. I don’t know much about her. The builder, though—I heard a lot about him. His son, or the son after that, told me that he spoke seven languages and was a Russian tour guide, and an Olympic boxer, and a fruit and tea salesman.”

That, frankly, was ridiculous. You tell the girl as much, and she laughs.

“Believe what you want, then! I never met the man myself, so I wouldn’t know. All I know for sure is that his name was John, and fishermen here used to chart their courses by his house on the hill.”

“It was that big?”

“His family didn’t call it the Citadel for nothing.”

That was… almost impressive.

“What happened to it?”

She frowned across the ocean, a lighter shade of pale as the morning light grew. The ocean simmered at the shore, white noise.

“It was torn down for concrete cancer in the 2000s. Really what’s interesting is what happened to him. His wife had a sister, you see—and she came to stay with them. In those days, it was difficult to find a place of your own as a woman. The man fell in love with her.”

Suddenly, you found it hard to swallow.

“His wife had a child—a son. And in between then and now, he kicked out his wife, and her sister took on her name and her place in his life, and together they raised a family, had children. The oldest had no idea until years and years and years after, when his mother was already dead. His wife told him the truth, but she’d already known it, and kept it secret. This beach must have seen a lot of it, I think.”

She looks at you then, and your face must have been doing something awful, because she stood up. You scramble up after her. She must know. Somehow, she must know what you did.



“I didn’t—! How did you—are they even real? What kind of twisted game—”

“You’re going to miss the sunrise if you keep shouting like that.”

Words stuttering to a halt, heart beating loudly in your ears, you can’t look anywhere but at this girl. She’s impassive, even in the face of your outburst. She knows something. Maybe she knows him.

“Are you going to tell on me?”

The beach kept doing what beaches do, but it seemed so distant to you, suddenly. You could lose everything. It stretched out before you, in the dawn-bending time, the heartbeats in-between truths. An event horizon.

“I don’t even know your name,” she says to you evenly, as cold and clear as the air before dawn. Relief sinks in, dizzying. You were safe. She wasn’t going to—

“But you do.”

You pause.


“Your name. You know it.”

A bolt of light hits your eyes, and you cringe away, before realising the sun must have come up. You turn to it, squinting, and the tiniest sliver is a pool of gold in the distance. It’s almost enough to cling onto.

But her words echo in your ears, and you turn back to ask—

She’s gone.

Spinning around, you can’t see her—a pod of beach walkers, three surfers, a clutch of coffee-cup-carrying commuters at a distant bus stop. What the actual hell? Did she just… leave?

A spy, your brain supplies helpfully. No, you think back absently, and glance around your feet for a hint in the sand.

There are no footprints. Not even a trace of where she sat. Your butt-print, unappealing and oddly squished by the way you were sitting, is exactly where you left it when you freaked out on her. A trail of your meandering footprints lead to and from the water, a blank gap where the ocean had smoothed them over. For her… nothing.

You sit down hard, and, wow, your tailbone will regret that later. The sun rises over the ocean, sharp and bright and stinging. Digging your fingers into the sand, you clench them just for something to hold onto. Something real.

Did that conversation even happen? Are you hallucinating, now? That would really be the cherry on the cake of today, you think, and glare at the sun.

It’s hard to look at. This whole morning has been hard to look at, that’s nothing new. But it’s different to the dawn around your house, sheltered as you are by a bowl of mountains. This is a great expanse of flat nothing, a broken mirror, fractals of light sharp and scattered, shifting on the morning tide. You can’t look at it directly, you realise, and hate the notion.

Why shouldn’t you? Why shouldn’t you know where the girl went? If she’s even real? Why shouldn’t you look the sun in the face? Hell, why shouldn’t you yell at it, scream, ask it the questions you desperately wanted to ask her—what have you done?

You blink, and it clings to you like ocean spray. That question didn’t sound like it was for her. It sounded like it was for you, except…

You know what you’ve done.

The sun comes up slowly, after that. You stare at everyone who goes by, looking in each of them for the face of the girl—but you can’t remember what she looks like. In each of them, all you see is the story she told you. All you can see is yourself.

When you leave, later, you take a chance on a passing fisherman and ask—did he know of a building on the hill, a white cylinder, possibly called the Citadel, by chance?

He cracks a craggy smile. He did, he said, and knew the son of the man who’d built it. A good man. The eldest of several.

Dawn settles between your bones, burning and warming all at once—a realisation. You thank him politely and leave. A girl watches you go, though you don’t see her. Sun-bright, she smiles, and vanishes with the tide.

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