More than five hundred feet above sea level, the spectacular view of sky and water that Beachy Head offered took Rhys Kenworthy's breath away. The tall, sensible university professor positioned himself on this magical site in Sussex, sharing the fresh, salty air with the creatures that called it home. The chirping and cawing of the gulls sounded like distant, orchestral music.
Rhys had stood atop these chalk white cliffs before, but on this particular evening the sun was setting in broad pink strokes rippling across the sky. Normally a touch of crimson or purple, or a splash of magenta appeared to create a dramatic effect. But now it was pink that reigned supreme, though the expanding darkness was rapidly creeping up. Like a recessive gene, the pink stood no chance; its beauty would soon disappear, succumbing to the more powerful shroud of night.
The day was almost gone and the tourists had returned to their hotel rooms, allowing Rhys to bask in the solitude and the magnificent quiet. After performing in front of classrooms for two decades, quiet was his favorite sound. It was difficult to grasp the fact that someplace not terribly far away car horns were honking and stubborn people were arguing heatedly about inane differences of opinion. As far as Rhys was concerned, he was observing every single thing worth observing in the universe.
Anticipating a blast of cold weather, he dressed in a black wool jacket and cashmere scarf. Relaxed and resigned, he put one hand in his pocket and caressed the candle he brought along for this special night. He would take it out and light it when the sun had sailed off to its resting place.
Rhys knew it was impossible, when feasting one's eyes on this panorama, not to feel philosophical, at least to a certain degree. The setting always struck him as a kind of limbo, a place between life and death. Sacred ground.
A clear image of Simon in his naval uniform came into view. A handsome man with steel blue eyes, a cleft in his chin, and wavy, chestnut-brown hair, Simon loved to make Rhys laugh. It was his greatest pleasure to see that stern, serious expression disintegrate into a silly boyish grin.
"Come here!" a man shouted a short distance away, breaking the sublime silence. "Get over here while there's still some light!"
Rhys cast a quick glance at the body to which the voice belonged: dark-haired and lean, dressed casually in a grey sweatshirt and jeans, looking very much like the students he used to teach. A camera hung from a strap around this one's neck, dangling in front of his torso. He seemed frustrated by whoever didn't want to join him, whoever was standing so far away that Rhys couldn't tell if the figure was male or female, adult or child.
Rhys brought his focus back to the horizon, hoping the tourist would find another spot on which to gaze, someplace far away from him. Instead, the tourist planted himself as close to Rhys's right without inappropriately invading his personal space. "Man, it's really something, isn't it?"
Rhys peered at the stranger's face, younger than it looked from afar. His youthful reddish glow on each cheek almost seemed fluorescent. "Yes," Rhys responded in his gentle, baritone voice. "It is."
"How big is the drop, do you know? Must be a few hundred feet."
"Five hundred thirty," Rhys stated, realizing he sounded like an expert, opening himself up to a barrage of questions he was in no mood to answer.
"Five hundred and thirty," the tourist said with astonishment, taking a few steps toward the rim. "Wow."
"I came here for the quiet," Rhys said, "if you don't mind."
"No problem," the tourist said with sarcasm. "Pretend I'm not here." The men stood in silence for about five seconds. "My girlfriend Kim is afraid to come within a hundred feet," he blurted out. "She's afraid of her own shadow."
Rhys begrudgingly acknowledged the remark with a nod. The tourist continued to step toward the sunset. "You might not want to get so close to the edge," Rhys suggested. "A strong gust of wind once blew a coast guard officer off the top."
Instantly the tourist scurried a good ten feet back. "Thanks," he said. "I'm not a fan of flying unless my seatbelt's on."
"She's desperate to get married," he shared. "Marriage is the one thing I'm afraid of."
"Then avoid it like a virus," Rhys advised.
"I'm really not sure she's the right one," he said.
"Then she's not the right one," Rhys stated.
"They say opposites attract but I think a couple should have a few similarities, don't you?" he asked. "Are you married?"
"I was," Rhys solemnly said.
"Did you have a lot in common?" he asked, looking at Rhys instead of the horizon even though Rhys continued to look at the horizon instead of him.
"Everything," Rhys said.
"Were you a hundred per cent sure she was the right one?"
"A thousand," Rhys quietly stated.
"Cool. I'm about forty per cent. That's why I'm not searching for engagement rings," he explained, taking his eyes off Rhys and focusing on the view: the smooth, endless ocean, the colorful, darkening sky.
"Do you want to experience all this from a different perspective?" Rhys asked.
"Definitely!" the young man exclaimed, eager for an experience that he could share with his friends back home.
"Lay down on the ground, slowly crawl to the edge. When you get there, put your head over the cliff, and look at the bird's-eye view."
"I take it you've been here before."
Rhys's lips formed a crooked grin. "Once or twice," he said.
The tourist carefully followed Rhys's instructions. When he made it to the edge, he stared down for a few seconds. Then he seemed to feel some kind of jolt and quickly crawled back several feet before standing up and rushing to safe ground. "Man, that was weird."
"Tell me why."
"It was almost like...I don't know...like I was being lured over the edge."
"By whom? Or what?"
"I'm not sure, it just felt strange...this bizarre feeling of being pulled even though I wasn't moving. Like I was under hypnosis."
"Maybe the dead want company," Rhys nonchalantly said.
The young man froze for a few eerie seconds. "Is it true?" he asked. "I heard rumors that people come here to jump off, but I didn't know how much to believe."
"This happens to be one of the most popular suicide spots in the world," Rhys explained, "along with the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Aokigahara Woods at the base of Mount Fuji. The allure of these cliffs, in addition to the obvious physical beauty, is that the human body will fall at a speed faster than the speed it takes the brain to register pain. So at the moment of impact, you die without feeling the least bit of discomfort."
"You sure know a lot about this," the tourist said, suddenly uncomfortable.
"More than five hundred people have taken the plunge. Young, old, rich, poor, sober, soused. Mothers with small children have driven their cars over the edge. Fathers too, deluded parents who convinced themselves they were acting out of love."
"By killing their kids?" he asked.
"They probably thought they'd be shielding them from the harshness of life," Rhys explained.
"Well, life can be harsh," Rhys said, "more for some than others."
"Life's tough for everyone, but we don't jump off cliffs."
"Of course not," Rhys said. "Cliff jumping is highly overrated, especially when there's soccer."
"Why don't they put up a fence?"
"Do you think a little barbed wire would stop someone from doing what he wants to do?" Rhys asked.
"Probably not," he said, nodding his head.
"Most people get a running start," Rhys explained, "then leap off and plummet to the beach below, although women tend to sit by the very edge and push themselves over, or lay down and roll." To this day he didn't know the manner Simon chose. Rhys had been told there was no way to determine this.
"Suicide is against the law, you know," the young man announced.
"Yes, I believe it is," Rhys said. "But I never heard of a corpse being arrested, have you?"
The tourist managed an awkward chuckle. "Well, I need to get going. Thanks for the chat."
"You're welcome," Rhys told him. The young man continued up the bluff, almost in slow motion, as if his legs were made of steel. "Young man?"
"Yeah?" he asked, instantly stopping in his tracks.
"Don't say 'I do' until you're one thousand per cent sure."
Neither man budged. A rueful smile appeared on the younger one's face. "Got it," he said, nodding. "Thanks."
"But break it to her gently. Rejection could cause her to leap off."
The tourist stood his ground, gazing at Rhys, oddly drawn to him. "Do you need anything?" he quizzically asked.
Rhys, taken aback, decided to answer this unexpected question with a question. "What could I possibly need?" Then the young man saluted him, as a soldier would salute a sergeant, and he raced away into the rapidly descending darkness.
Tranquility took over once again. Rhys found the last glimmer of pink struggling to survive in the same sky Simon saw at his worst, when he'd lost control, when flying off the edge seemed his only solution. Ten years to the day, and it felt like ten months. Rhys wondered about the sunset Simon had witnessed. Pink? Orange? Violet? What did he focus on? The pier? The harbor? Newhaven or Brighton? Maybe the lighthouse popping up from the water like a monument. Was it clear enough to see the outline of the Isle of Wight? Rhys always felt close to Simon when he stood here, close and helpless. The hours, the days, the weeks had taken Simon farther and farther from him, but here at Beachy Head, time seemed to freeze.
The magic of the sky, with its ever-changing rainbow of colors, dazzled and baffled him. Why the sunset might be a rich crimson one night and a striking amethyst the next was as mystifying as Simon leaping into eternity. Still, these mighty cliffs, this sublime creation of rock and grass and chalk, with the calm sea so far below and the heavens so close above, brought Rhys a sense of serenity, as if he were a piece of some giant unfinished puzzle.
Unbeknownst to Rhys, Constables Maggie Scudamore and Alan Kerr were making their nightly rounds, inspecting the area, looking for suspicious characters. "It's going to be a cold one," Alan said.
"A finger-numbing one," Maggie agreed. "Just like every night this week." When Alan spotted Rhys Kenworthy standing on the cliff, facing the sea, he kept his eyes on him. "That one over there, he's a bit close to the edge, don't you think?" Alan asked.
"Ah, the university professor," Maggie said, as if Rhys were an old pal.
"You've seen him before?" Alan asked.
"Oh yes," Maggie said. "Spoke to him once. He lingers for about an hour. Not every night, but I'd guess three or four a week."
"I see," Alan said. "We shouldn't worry?" "I don't think so," she said. Alan nodded as he and Maggie moved on.
When the line separating the sky from the sea became undetectable, when Rhys felt as if he were breathing black fog instead of air, it was time to begin the journey home. But he remained, planted on the ground like a pillar. The cold didn't deter him. After a while, his body adjusted to it. No, it would take a lot more than plunging temperature to deter him tonight.
Rhys couldn't leave the cliffs of Beachy Head just yet. He had one more thing to do.
BIO: Garrett Socol's fiction has been published in more than thirty literary journals. His debut collection of short stories, Ear of Lettuce, Head of Corn, will be published by Ampersand Books in 2011. His plays have been produced at the Berkshire Theatre Festival and the Pasadena Playhouse. He created and produced several television series including Talk Soup and The Gossip Show for E! Entertainment Television and the Style Network.