It was the morning after your father had left that your mother took you to the beach. She spread a blanket over warm sand and stripped you down to your new blue bathing suit. Her red eyes were hidden behind rose colored glasses that covered most of the top half of her face and her lips were pressed together, a gate holding something in. She wore long cotton pants, the soft gray ones, and her pale shoulders, bared by a yellow top, were already turning pink in the morning sun.
You fidgeted, dug holes in the sand with your toes while the eternity of your childhood crashed like a wave into itself. “Can I try it?” you said. “Please.” She pressed her cheek to yours and you tasted the salt of her tears. You felt her go limp when she finally let go and whispered, “Yes.”
You ran across those shifting sands as fast as your legs would carry you, dove into the white surf, propeller arms slicing the water, motor legs kicking until your buoyancy lifted you to the surface and you dove under the next cresting wave. For the first fifty yards the water was so shallow that when the crest dropped you could touch the silty bottom. You brought a handful of it to the surface to see how much remained: none. You kept swimming over cresting waves until, into deeper water, you held a lungful of air and, somersaulting, swam-kicked straight to the ocean floor. The water must have been cold — it was September in Maine — but you don’t remember the cold. You remember: the salt in your eyes; your feet settling into the coarse, under-sea sand; the whirling water tugging you under then whooshing you up; the bitter sea taste on your tongue when you licked your lips; the thump-thump of your heart.
In the distance, Rock Island rose like a bump on the belly of the ocean. Waves crushed against its jagged stone. White foam burst from unseen crevices, escaped from trapped whirling pools. You lifted your head every two strokes to make sure you were still going in the right direction. Waves in the deeper water turned to soft swells that carried you further. Your arms grew tired but you didn’t let that stop you, kicked harder, doggy style clawed through the smooth water.
Years ago, when your father had swum out to that very rock, you had begged to go with him. “I’m a good swimmer,” you had said, but he refused.
“One day, when you’re older and stronger, you’ll understand,” he had said. “It’s not the going out that matters.”
Tired fingers gripped jagged rocks. The island was no more than ten feet around and at its highest point you could see the shore so far away. Your mother, shading her eyes with the flat of one hand, scanned the water. She looked like a toy and you were glad to be far away where you couldn’t see her cry anymore. She waded into the surf, raised her face to the sky and opened her mouth. There was something behind her muffled roar, a deep bell, a distant drum, a howling dog.
Despite the growling in your stomach and the sun pressing down and the sharp rocks that offered no place to rest, you weren’t ready to go back, not yet. You would simply wait here and watch the white tipped waves crash into the island until the strength returned to your arms. Maybe you’d never make it back at all, and would that be so bad? Spending the rest of your days here? The ocean spread wide and flat and empty and you wondered what it would be like to keep swimming, nothing but you and the water and the sky. You stepped down to the water’s edge. Sea foam crashed as you dove into jagged swirls. You tumbled backwards and rolled forward and everything was up and everything was down. You stopped kicking, stopped fighting, and felt a warmth envelop you. A calm. The current pulled you back and forth and in that moment you were flying. A fish in the ocean. A clump of seaweed drifting.
Then the ocean roared again and it was the voice of your father saying, “It’s the coming back.”
The salt stung your eyes but you found the sun and clawed your way to it. You burst through the surface like a dolphin and saw the shore and saw your mother plunging deeper into the surf, just her head and shoulders bobbing in the undulations. You were tired but you swam with everything you had because you were bigger now, and stronger, and that wide blue stretch of ocean, that warmth, could stay behind you, could stay behind Rock Island. You didn’t want her to return alone to a bed half-made, a closet half-full, a house half-empty. Slicing through white peaks you kicked with the current until you found a crest and rode the perfect wave back to the gritty shore.
J.L. Smith lives in the remote northwest corner of New Mexico with his wife and daughter and their three cats. His short fiction has appeared in The Cynic Online Magazine, Halfway Down the Stairs, Every Day Fiction and eFiction Magazine. When not locked in a room staring at words on a black screen he can be found running through the desert.