I wake up to the fine grit of sand against my cheek. The scent of human scum and beach funk permeates the space. There’s a stainless-steel toilet on one end of the suspiciously damp public restroom. All smooth edges, nothing for someone to grip onto and rip off. Festooned with toilet paper and piss. The urge to vomit tickles my throat. I gotta get out.
I’m in Hermosa Beach. I recognize it. But I can’t fathom how I got here.
Above head, the sad darkness of the night, more a static than a sky. I hear the murmur of the promenade from around the corner. I’ve been here a hundred times before. Been coming here all my life.
Why am I here? What time is it?
My shirt’s soaked against my skin, like the slick fetid slime of seaweed wrapped around your feet. I need to change my clothes, but I wouldn’t know for the life of me where to find any. It’s really early in the morning. The sun is just a melancholy wish, awaiting its grand entrance above the horizon.
Or is it really late at night?
No point in mulling it over. I head toward the promenade from one of the outlying public restrooms. There’s a somber tranquility permeating the evening. I could see the old arcade, a neon sign winking in the distance. I see the kitschy tourist store, dumb slogan tees draping the façade like bad teenage fringe.
My friend Donnie is sitting on one of the benches lining the wide walkway. Looks like he’s eating frozen yogurt by himself. Is he expecting me?
He glances up, startled.
“Oh, hey,” he says, his big horse teeth shining.
“W-what. What are you doing here?”
It’s all I could muster.
“What do you think, idiot. I’m waiting on you and the other two jackasses.”
That’d be John and Bobby. Late as usual. Apparently.
Donnie should be back in Houston with his family. I don’t remember making any plans to meet up at Hermosa Beach. The circumstances don’t seem to make any sense. My brain’s frozen though. I’m too shaken by this sudden scenario. Should I ask him a question and risk him thinking I’ve lost my marbles? It’s a gamble.
I make up an excuse about needing to change – which I do – and retrace my steps back to the bathrooms. It buys me some time alone. Across the ocean, I still see just a rouge scrim of hopeful sun, swallowed by static black. I need to figure this shit out.
I discover the splayed remains of my old high school backpack. There’s a bundled-up hoodie inside that I use to replace my filthy shirt. Not much else has been left in the pilfered bag. There’s an aerodynamic frisbee, a fuchsia ring of rubber.
With my tattered backpack slung over my shoulder, I head back toward the promenade.
Something tells me I shouldn’t ask Donnie any questions. I shouldn’t confront something I’m not ready for. Instead, I figure it might be funny if I fling the frisbee in Palomino’s general direction. He loves shit like that.
It sails about a foot over his head, slicing through the sad buzzing warmth of the night. Damn kid nearly drops his froyo. Speaking of which, I’m beginning to crave.
For a few minutes Donnie and I post up on the bench, coolly surveying the first few solemn ebbs of life awakening in Hermosa Beach. When I glance over, I still can’t bring myself to ask the questions surrounding these circumstances. He’s got a wife and three kids half the country away. How did this happen?
We hear John hollering from one end of the promenade.
Donnie gets up, and retrieves the frisbee. He throws it as hard as possible back toward the beach, way over my head. I hear him chuckling behind me as I chase the damn thing toward one of the berms of sand rising up to prevent flooding into the promenade. A creaky wooden pier bisects the two behemoth mounds, totally empty save a pair of elderly fishermen near the very end.
The frisbee flies up and over one of the berms, forcing me to ascend and then tumble down the backside of the hill toward the water itself. I can hear John and Donnie greeting each other in the distance. They’re both teasing me, just the playful hassle between friends. As I approach the fallen toy, I notice the horizon brightening. What was once a sad glow grows cheerier, the sun very nearly bursting through the seam that separates land and sea.
“Whaddup EZ,” John says at the foot of the promenade once I’ve returned. We bump fists. “Wanna get some Street Fighter in?”
All three of us head to the arcade.
Why would we be here so early? Why would the arcade be open at this ungodly hour?
We’re on the West Coast. The sun doesn’t rise over the Pacific. It sets.
Or rather, it’s supposed to set.
Why did the sky just get brighter when I was retrieving the frisbee that Palomino soared over my head? Is time moving backwards?
John has shaved. It’s weird, I haven’t seen him without his characteristic chinstrap beard since we were teenagers, maybe young adults. Did Tiana convince him to do this? He looks objectively younger without the facial hair, I’ll give him that. But it’s a jarring look given how the last decade I’ve seen him with that bushy beard of his.
Now that I think about it, Donnie looks kind of different too. A little pudge to him? I can’t quite put my finger on it. But they both definitely look younger.
The arcade beckons. The digital explosions, the laser beam simulacra, the buttons mashing. It forms a cacophonous symphony that invokes something deeply nostalgic within me. With the sun coming back up from its plunge below the western horizon, I can’t help but feel like a kid again, soaking up the sights and sounds of Hermosa Beach once more.
Street Fighter is one of the first machines within the buzzing game room, just a few feet off the promenade. I let my two buddies head on in first. I’m still struggling to orient myself. The must of beach piss still tickles my nostrils. And the utter lack of memory getting here leaves me just on the right side of sheer panic. Donnie and John have nabbed the machine, and are feeding the little orange faces below the game cabinet with quarters. Everyone else in the arcade is obscured, either their backs turned toward me or their faces mired in a blurry splotch that erases the definitive quality of real life.
One of them has chosen Blanka. The other Ryu. The second the fight starts, John starts mashing the punch button, electrifying the screen. Donnie jumps straight into it like a fool, laughing all the same.
Bobby’s still nowhere to be found. But that’s the least of my worries, right now. I can’t stifle my disorientation anymore.
“How’s Tiana,” I ask, over John’s shoulder. I desperately want him to even acknowledge her existence. He’s been married to her for five years. And Donnie’s had three kids since that point. Are they living in the same time as I am?
“Wha-?” they both ask. No recollection. Tiana’s just a word scattered in the early evening breeze. These are the young punks I knew when we were in our early twenties. None of us were involved with anyone back then. It’s the small window where we were really at our closest.
When I swivel back out toward the promenade for fresh air, I notice that the sun has resurrected even further up from its decline, and the horizon is now a deeply resonant orange. John’s doing that long swooping double punch Blanka is capable of, keeping Donnie at bay. Each punch that connects, the sun rises further out of the sky, diminishing the coming tragedy of sundown.
They’re just a couple of kids, mashing buttons. Everything is beginning to make sense. I’ve woken up in the putrid stench of a beach bathroom, and I’ve gone back in time. Years ago.
Now it’s just me and my friends chasing the dreams of early adulthood. They don’t have any memory of everything I’ve lived through in the years since. They don’t know what’s to come.
John wins the first round, and the sun crests the horizon. I’m greeted by the ethereal glow of a rising sun. I try my hardest to forget the circumstances of how I got here, or the logistics of my time travel in general.
Donnie attempts his comeback.
He throws his first hadoken, the blue fireball rolling across the screen. From there on out, he spams the one power move he knows. John’s initial fury is masked by the dopey smile on his face. Over my shoulder, the setting sun defies us further. It’s halfway out from the horizon.
“Howdy, maggots,” Bobby says, having materialized by the air hockey table.
“Sup,” Palomino says, mashing down-forward-punch, down-forward-punch.
A flurry of his fireballs brings us closer to home. The sunset is just fading despair, this day defiantly wanting to make its mark on me. I know I have to live in this moment. I have to relish it, because I know these circumstances are sure to collapse soon. The gig will be up.
“Hey, man” I say, and shake Bobby’s hand.
I shake it the same way I always have, to this very day.
Whichever one I may be existing in.
“Whaddup,” John says, skillfully hopping over an incoming hadoken.
While they’re all crowding Street Fighter, I head outside. It’s golden hour.
The frozen yogurt shop’s a few steps away. Self serve.
I swirl a base of vanilla, glancing back out through the window. The sky is going more brilliant by the second. I see the ghostly strangers on the promenade pausing, engulfed in its beauty.
I swirl strawberry, to balance the sweetness of vanilla. It’s working. My joy is saving the day. Our joy. We’re all experiencing the innocence of youth. Whether they know what’s to come or not, for this moment, we can enjoy the virtue of our friendship.
With the resurrected sun, maybe I get to live it for a little while longer.
Lychees and Fruity Pebbles to top the froyo. I walk out, and bathe in the sun. At the foot of the promenade, curbside, gleans Bobby’s Camaro. We’ve gotta go for a ride. It’s what we always do. I remember every weekend, each revery rushing up to me, driving up the coast, through the snaking roads. The sun seems to be following our joy.
John reigns supreme at Street Fighter, the electroshock of rapid button mashing stymying both Donnie and Bobby. We meet at the curb, and get in the car. Bobby’s always happy to drive. None of us ultimately care where we’re sitting in the car, but someone’s gotta yell shotgun anyways.
“Shotgun,” I holler.
I know this moment is going to end. The scenario will inevitably collapse in on itself. The illusion of youth will fade away, and the sun will sink back beneath the horizon as time reorients and trudges forward once more.
But for now, with every joke hollered, every inch of gravel gnashed, and every moment savored, I can at least forget the notion of real life and be with my friends. In Bobby’s Camaro, we carve through the hills above the coastline, and bathe in the resurrected sunshine.
Eric Farrell is a beer vendor by day, and speculative fiction author by night. His writing credits stem from a career in journalism, where he reported for a host of college, local, and metro newspapers in the Los Angeles area. He has recent fiction with Aphotic Realm, HyphenPunk, and Haven Spec.