Back and forth, the waves sloshed in a steady rhythm–a calming musical accompaniment to the day. The young man took unhurried strides toward the ocean; with each step, fine mounds of sand, hot and soothing, swept between his toes and spilled from his sandals. After he had walked a short distance past the sunbathers, he stopped and took several deep breaths in and out. As he inhaled through his nose he breathed in the sweet almost musty smell of the sand and the water and the ocean air. And as he exhaled through his mouth he felt lighter like a weight inside had floated far up into the cloudless sky. His black hair rippled in the soft breeze. He closed his eyes, extended his arms perpendicular to his sides like a bird preparing for flight, breathed in gradually filling his lungs with the salt air, and counted slowly–one, two, three, four, fi–
The young man gave a start, dropped his arms, and looked down in the direction of the voice. A small boy wearing wire-frame glasses and red swim trunks was staring up at him.
“What are you doing?”
“Nothing,” said the young man.
“You gotta be doing something.”
“Well, I’m not. Why are you asking me?”
“I don’t know. You looked like you were doing something. Thinking? Yeah, you looked like you were thinking.” The boy smiled, revealing a gap where his two front teeth should be.
“Okay, maybe I was.”
“What were you thinking about?” The boy cocked his head to the side.
“I was thinking about grown-up things.”
“Taxes? My dad’s an accountant. He thinks about taxes all the time. That’s how we can afford to be here, because of taxes. No one wants to do them, so then he does them and people pay him lots of money.”
“No, I wasn’t thinking about taxes.”
“Numbers, if you must know.”
“That doesn’t matter. I don’t know you.”
“Are you married? You look married. What does she do?”
“What do you mean I look married? I look normal and why do you want to know what my wife does?”
The young man rubbed the back of his neck. “She goes shopping, gets her hair done, paints her nails; besides that she doesn’t do a whole lot.” He put his hands on his hips. “How old are you?”
“Seven and a half.”
“You should definitely not be talking to me.”
“Guess what I had for breakfast.”
“I give up.”
“Pancakes!” the boy said and attempted a backflip that landed him flat on his backside and knocked his glasses off his face into the sand.
“Are you okay?” said the young man.
“Do you want to watch me swim?” The boy picked himself up and shook the sand from his glasses before putting them back on.
“Please!” the boy said, his hands clasped together.
“I can’t swim if nobody watches me.”
“Where are your parents?”
“I don’t know. Come on! It won’t take long.”
“No, I’m not your responsibility,” said the young man, crossing his arms.
The boy let out a loud groan and dropped his hands to his thighs.
“Why ask me? There are other people around you could’ve bothered.”
“You looked like you were going into the water.”
The young man looked away. “I hadn’t decided yet.”
The boy hung his head and dug his right foot into the sand. He pushed his small toes down deep, inch by inch. Once his right foot was submerged, he kicked the foot up, as if resurrected, sending sand flying everywhere. Next, he went to work on his left foot, burying it so there was nothing but sand under his ankle. He looked up at the young man. When the young man looked back at him, the boy averted his eyes and returned to his task digging his right foot back into the sand so that both feet were engulfed.
“Can you even swim?” asked the young man.
The boy sprung his head up and nodded in a hurry, before making a mad dash for the ocean.
The young man scratched his head. He made no motion toward the running boy. Instead, he turned to the sunbathers, who were all either stretched out on their backs or slumped on their stomachs. No one was looking at him or the boy. Still he remained planted in his spot waiting for someone to stir, do something. But no one did. No one was coming to retrieve the boy. He sighed, turning back around. “Hey, not so fast!” he cried.
The boy was running with limbs bouncing in a frenzy like a character in a cartoon. He looked over his shoulder and laughed at the young man, slowly giving chase, and kept running until his little legs arrived at the edge of the water where the sand was flat and gray. The tail end of a wave passed just short of his toes. Before the wave had a chance to retreat, he stuck out his hand and poked the foam layer with his finger.
As soon as the young man reached the boy, he rested a minute and steadied his breath. He was bending down to slip off his leather sandals when the tide came in and washed over his feet, catching him off guard. Too late, he jumped back to dry land and clenched his teeth, the water slinking away. He frowned at his wet sandals. They felt heavy as he pulled them from his feet and set them aside beyond the tide’s reach. The boy, already barefoot, was smiling, crouched over, slapping the water with his palms.
“You’ve done this before, yes?” asked the young man.
“Swim in the ocean.”
The boy stood up and took a moment before answering, “I think so.”
“You sure about that?”
“I don’t know.”
“You don’t know if you’re sure?”
The boy bobbed his head and ran in a circle. A few seconds later, he stopped and looked down at his feet submerging into the wet sand. “I’m sinking,” he said. He stepped back carefully to reveal a perfect outline of all ten toes. As he admired his footprints, a wave spilled over them and carried them away into the ocean. He chased after the offending wave, splashing all the way with the young man trailing behind him.
The boy turned around. “What is it? Did you see a manna ray?”
“Oh,” the boy said, wrinkling his nose. “Ever?”
“Sure, in an aquarium.” The man held his elbows to his chest.
“Did it fly around in the water?”
“I guess you could say that.”
“Manna rays look like pancakes.” The boy laughed.
“They do have a similar shape.”
The young man, now ankle deep in the water, shivered.
“Don’t you think the water’s a little cold?”
The boy shrugged.
Above them, a large gull, held aloft by a gust, hovered in place.
“I’m gonna be an astronaut when I grow up.”
“I wanted to be a cowboy when I was your age.”
“You’re a cowboy?”
“I guess I was never really serious about it.”
They kept going, the clear water steadily rising higher, soaking the young man’s navy trunks. Farther out the waves lifted up and over, reaching their white knuckles forward only to collapse in the near distance. The young man watched the boy pushing through the heavy water, making slow but deliberate progress, holding his skinny arms pulled out to the sides like a tight-rope walker.
“Hold on a second. Shouldn’t you be wearing little floaties on your arms?”
“I don’t have any,” said the boy.
“You should,” the young man said. “We can go back and get some at the hotel. I think I saw some at the gift shop.”
The boy shook his head. “I want to find a manna ray.”
“I don’t think they live around here.”
“They’re just hard to see because they like to swim near the bottom and sometimes hide in the dirt to get away from predators like sharks and killer whales,” the boy said. “They eat about a million tiny fishes a day and can fly out of the water clear over our heads. Some get to be as big as a car. Maybe if we catch one and it’s friendly, we can ride it.”
“Why do you know so much about them?”
“When I grow up, I’m going to be a marine biologist.”
“I thought you wanted to be an astronaut.”
“So which is it?”
The boy, rubbing his chin, considered the sky. “I want to be a marine-biologist astronaut,” he said.
“There’s no such thing,” said the young man.
The boy looked confused. “What do you mean?” he said as a wave lapped against his chest and fell around his waist.
“We should go back,” said the young man.
“No!” said the boy.
“Then come over here.”
The boy waded to the young man’s side and took his hand. They were the only ones in the water and were far enough away that the people on the beach were now reduced to miniature. “Come on. Let’s go,” said the boy.
“Not too far,” said the young man.
It was difficult to see anything with the hot sun flickering bright on the undulating waves. The young man was holding his free hand up to shield his eyes when everything suddenly grew dark. A shadow had descended over them. He turned to the boy, who was looking up, mouth agape, eyes fixed on a massive wall of water rising high above their heads, and gasped, “Your glasses!” and reached for the boy’s face, just before the top of the towering wave crashed down on them and shoved the young man headlong into the ocean. Another wave followed and rushed over him with a rumbling ferocity that screamed into his ears as he fell into darkness.
When the tide finally rolled away from shore, the young man pulled his head above the surface of the water and coughed uncontrollably. He scrambled to find his footing and struggled to lift his dripping body, caked with heavy layers of sand. Once upright he turned around in a panic–the boy was gone.
He searched the ocean and was met with an infinite expanse of blue and a horizon line that blurred into the sky. The salt water began to sting his eyes. He scowled in pain and rubbed his eyes, which only made them sting worse. He labored to look back at the beach and saw the same sunbathers laid out as before when he first arrived. He opened his mouth to call to the boy, but he didn’t know his name; in desperation he yelled, “Aaah!” He turned in circles and yelled again, “Aaah!” When the young man saw on the beach the small figure of the boy lying on his side, he thrashed through the water and ran, kicking wet clumps of sand behind him. He dropped to his knees. The boy was not moving. The young man knew that he had to do something–CPR or some sort of resuscitation first aid that he had no formal training to perform. Tears welled up in his eyes. His shoulders trembled and his breath came in short clipped spurts, making terrible guttural and sniffling noises. He wept and convulsed with a violence that made his body hurt. He was wringing his hands over and over against his flush forehead when he noticed the boy’s eyelids begin to flutter. The young man held his breath and moved in close as the boy opened his eyes.
“That was fun,” said the boy, beaming. He sat up and shook his head dry with the vigor of a wet dog. “Did you see me riding on its back? A real-life manna ray!”
The young man opened his mouth to speak but closed it again.
Raising his thin arm to his brow, the boy wiped the sand away from his face. Up and down his legs, torso, and back, he was covered in sand. He would need a bath to be completely clean. Even then he might still find bits of sand between his toes, inside his ears. He rose to his feet.
“I have to go now.” The boy waved goodbye and ran off in the opposite direction of the hotel.
The young man watched him growing smaller and smaller, running farther and farther away until the boy disappeared into a patch of trees. The young man remained focused on the trees, waiting for something to emerge when a light shined up into his eyes. He looked down and saw the boy’s glasses reflecting in the sand. He leaned forward and picked them up. He turned them over in his hand like they were precious jewels, before folding them carefully and slipping them into the pocket of his trunks.
At last, he sat down in the soft sand alone under the hot sun.