I come to the beach late in the day, so I don’t detract from the happiness of others. The ones who throw frisbees, or skate on boogie boards. The ones with children digging holes or making castles with upturned plastic pails of wet sand. The squealing kids who outrun the oncoming wave, or the brave ones with their surfboards who challenge it. I come here clothed in a shirt and cargo shorts, I don’t intend to go in the water.
I limp. My body is wracked by arthritis, and each step in the loose sand is challenging. It’s slightly better as I reach the packed darker sand when the tide has receded. My cane pokes holes that mark my path, as though I’m leaving a trail of large breadcrumbs.
The sun was slowly going to sleep, hovering just above the horizon and coloring the Gulf with brilliant hues. I pulled my cap brim lower and added my hand to shield against the final rays. Then I saw him.
A man was frantically waving farther down the deserted beach, his arms crisscrossing above his head, making and unmaking a living X. The breeze was against his face, so there was no sound at first. I began to move in that direction because he looked like someone who needed help. There was no one else around. I did the best I could using my cane for assistance. With the first heard shout, I began to move faster, a hobble-like run with a round hole pressed deeper in the sand at each gimpy stride.
By the time I got there, his mouth was open, but no more sound came out. His beard was wet with spittle, but he had cried himself dry. His frantic gestures pointed me at the shape bobbing in the Gulf. Was it a dog?
I went right by him, saying something as I passed. I don’t remember what and waded into the waters that were colder than expected at this time of year. As it got above my knees, the saltwater buoyancy began to aid me. When it reached my waist, I put the cane loop over my wrist and started using my hands to help pull me through the water. With the angle of the late day sun, it was hard to see the floating object. The hair was reddish, so it could be something like an Irish Setter. But, as I got closer, I began to question my first guess.
The water was higher, and I wished I had torn off my shirt because it was starting to drag. I pulled harder with my hands, almost swim-like, something I was not very good at.
My frantic movements splashed water in my eyes, clouded my vision, and frosted my lips with salt. I wiped my eyes with my cap.
The breeze seemed to move the object a little further away, and I worried that no response meant I was too late.
As I got closer, the water now almost to my chest. I had a new guess. It wasn’t a dog; it was a woman. Facedown, her reddish hair splayed on the water like a mahogany seaweed cluster.
I knew I was too late and stopped my frantic paddling. The sea bottom rose a little on the sandbar, and the water dropped near my waist. I slowed to a walk because I saw there was no life, no reason to hurry. A flock of seabirds circled overhead, squawking as if to comment on the situation. Or, maybe to scold me for not getting there sooner.
Just a few more steps and I could reach out with my cane and bring the body to me. The adrenalin that propelled me this far was beginning to fade. Now, I shivered with fear and had doubts. What am I doing out here? This isn’t my job. What the hell, I’m disabled. I have a car sticker to prove it.
I had to stop for a minute, get control, breathe easier, settle down. What else could I do? I wasn’t ashamed, I gave it my best shot. I didn’t see anyone else try it. I took a few more steps and had to stop again, the bottom rose a little more, but it seemed softer, and my feet were slowed by the deeper sand. Or, was I just afraid of what I’d find?
I played a little game with myself. How many more steps do I need before reaching out with the cane to bring her to me? I surprised myself with the number. Then I was able to extend the cane, add another small step, reach, and hook the handle under her arm.
When I drew her to me, her hair flowed back and followed her body like a piece of red algae bloom. It wasn’t difficult. I pulled her closer and, using all the courage I had, took her shoulders and rolled her over.
She was a pretty woman. Young, maybe in her thirties, with a pleasant-looking mouth even though the lips had lost their color. Her eyes were closed, so I could not see them. But what I did notice as the hair was swept away from her face was the small round hole in the center of her forehead.
I jumped back. I may have screamed, I don’t know. I’m not even sure how long I stood there or if I said a prayer.
I had done the best I could, I gave it my best shot. I really did. I turned to the beach, raising my arms to signal that I tried. And no one was there.
About the Author
Ed N. White is a graduate of the University of Iowa with an M.A. from the University of Rhode Island, where he taught briefly in the BGS program. He’s finally coming to terms with arthritis that racks and disables his body. Recent flash fiction has been accepted by The Scarlet Leaf Review, Flash, Fifty-word Stories, and Friday Flash Fiction. He self-publishes the TJ Tucker thrillers and the Stephanie Grand/Deena Byrne mysteries. He is under contract with Histria Books for his Middle-Grade mystery, Miss Demeanor, Teen Girl Detective, by Celia J. to be published in 2021.