It was an odd structure, out of place in both geography and design. It lay near enough to the ocean that salt spray touched the windows. There was no path, no fence nor gate. The house was surrounded only by the same tan stones that lined the rest of the rocky beach – great pitted boulders, some higher than the roof itself. There did not seem to be any one cultural influence in the architecture. Some windows were Japanese style – tight squares of wood framed glass – and others were made of colored glass, or covered with Mediterranean blue shutters. The roof was part thatch, and part Spanish tile. The only uniform feature of the house were the whitewashed walls. They gleamed beneath the afternoon sun.
An old man sat on a stone near the front door, his face turned towards the spray of the waves. The deep creases in his face were lined with white salt, and his tan suggested that he’d spent many days in this same spot. His eyes were closed, but he smiled as the boy approached. A fine dust of salt crystals broke from his face and settled onto his woven shirt.
The boy wiped a hand across his forehead. He’d been walking in the heat and could feel his own salt upon his brow.
“Afternoon,” said the man. His voice was deep, but sounded much younger than the cracked lips it spilled over.
“Good afternoon,” said the boy.
The old man opened his eyes. More salt broke from his skin and settled onto his clothes. One of his eyes was milky white, and the other – as though to make up for the lack of color in its partner – was a brilliant blue; a welding flame in a leatherwork face.
A wave crashed behind the boy and cold spray settle around him.
“You lost?” asked the man.
“I don’t know,” said the boy.
“Well, if you weren’t before, then you are now. Nobody comes here unless they’re lost.”
“Where is here?” asked the boy. He looked up and down the beach. Only tan stones looked back.
The man smiled again, deeper. He had no teeth and his pink gums glistened in the sunlight.
“Here?” he said. “It’s a home for lost things. Everyone and everything inside came from somewhere else. Some were lost by design, some cast away, and others were just misplaced.”
“Why do they come here?” asked the boy.
“Because, even lost things need a home.” The man smiled. His blue eye flared.
“And you? asked the boy. “Are you lost?”
The man laughed. His voice sounded young, but the laughter was dried and ancient – a sound his throat was unused to making.
“Me? I’m not lost. I was never found.” The man unfolded himself and stood. He was surprisingly tall, and even more surprisingly thin – as though his collected mass had pushed itself upwards and stretched him tight like an elastic band. A cascade of dried salt fell around him and the boy wondered if the man himself was made of salt. Perhaps he’d been here long enough that the ocean had permeated his flesh and left him a relic of Gomorrah.
The man turned, all tanned and salted leather, and closed a hand upon the door handle. It was brass, tarnished blue, devoid of salt, and polished from use.
“Are there many here?” asked the boy.
The man seemed to shrink before answering, contracting upon himself until the boy could see his many years pressing down upon him.
“Too many. There are too many here,” said the man, and he cast open the door. Shadows leapt forth to fill the opening. The man stepped aside and gestured the boy in. There was no smile upon his face now, only a chiseled weariness.
Behind the boy, a wave crashed. Cold spray settled about him. He saw flecks of moisture settle upon the old man’s skin. He closed his eyes and the water dried into spots of white.
“How long can I stay?” asked the boy.
“As long as you like,” said the man without opening his eyes. He folded himself back down to the stone, settling slowly, every motion a resignation instead of an action.
The boy stared into the gloom. Smells drifted out to him – cookies, fabric softener, jasmine, coffee, cloves, rose soap… they swirled and changed with every breath. He looked back to the old man.
“Thank you,” he said, and stepped through the doorway.