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January 2014

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It's about 1 p.m. At the beach. And I'm in the water.


Annie and I had driven in the night before. The dog rode in the back of the car, walled off from us by her collapsed crate which sat vertically on the floor, wedged against the back of our seats. She hates the car, but at least this time she didn't throw up. Not for lack of trying, though - I guess it helped that we didn't feed her first.

We'd gotten a late start. It was my fault, of course, it always is - I had been running around, cramming cables and batteries and other crap into my laptop bag. Triple checking the door locks. Making sure to leave lights on - only the compact fluorescents, since the incandescents wasted so much energy - but not too many. There's a balance to meet, somewhere, between making the house look occupied and making the house look like somebody was trying to make the house look occupied. This is more art than science.


I bob on top of the waves, occasionally floating on my back, sometimes doing some actual swimming. I'm a shitty swimmer, though - this is about the only swimming I ever do. The buoyancy of the salt water is an enormous help, and even I can easily stay afloat despite the waves. Still, I should have used the asthma medicine before coming out.


I had known this would be a difficult trip, and I'd been steeling myself as we drove through the nameless backwater between Raleigh and the coast. No, this was not going to be a happy family get together - it would be brutal, stressful, dominated with concern for my 85 year old grandfather, whose health had been in sharp decline for the past year. I've only known my grandfather to exist in a permanent state of gradual decline - he had reached his physical and mental prime before I was even born. By the time I had become old enough actually appreciate him for who he was, he was already starting to slowly disappear.

But this trip would be something different - this past year had been even worse. The man he was - the man I had never fully known - had been slipping away at an ever increasing pace. We knew this was inevitable, but none of us were ready. It shouldn't have been happening yet. And yet, it was.

When we had arrived at the house, around 9:30 p.m., my grandfather was already asleep. We checked in with my parents and my sister and went on down to bed.


The waves are a bit choppy. I guess the tide is going out - it sure feels that way. There aren't many people in the water, due to the rough ocean. I can see a guy on a boogie board to the east, I can see 3 kids playing up near the shore to the west. The kids seem to be having a good time, yelling at each other, splashing water at each other. Most people are just relaxing on the sand.


We took the dogs for a walk shortly after we woke up this morning. Dahlia seemed to be afraid of the ocean, and there was nothing we could do to coax her in. I suppose you can't blame her for that - there's definitely something ominous about the endless wall of water, reaching to the horizon, with waves rolling in and crashing down upon you. Besides, why risk it? There was so much biomass washed up on the shore, she was in dog heaven already.

There was some kind of military vessel in the water. I kept trying to figure out what it was, staring at it through the cheap binoculars I'd gotten for free with a Leatherman pocket knife, looking up naval vessels on my phone. I finally decided it was a Ticonderoga.

When we got back to the house, my grandfather was up. He had his cane, but he couldn't really move on his own; somebody had to help him every step of the way. I think he remembered who I was, despite not knowing my name - but as for Annie, he might as well have never even met her.

It pained me to see him like this, his physical state ranging from convalescent to incapacitated, his mood fluctuating between despair and obliviousness, his mental faculties between vague comprehension and complete disorientation. And as hard as this was on me and my sister, I knew it had to be much worse on my mother and her brother. Their entire lives had been anchored by this man's presence. The last year had changed the equation - he was no longer their father, but their dependent.

Looking at him, I thought this would probably be his last beach trip. It was a depressing thought, and it got me thinking about 30 years from now, when my parents would be in this spot, and then 30 years from that, when I might be too. Is that the best we can hope to do? Is this the reward for surviving to old age? Being forced to sit around, waiting for death, as it steals a little piece of you every day?


Somebody is shouting something. I know what they're shouting, but my brain rejects the possibility. This is not something that can happen. Not to me. This doesn't happen. I'm sure I didn't really hear that.

I look to the shore to the west. I see two kids.

I hear the sound again. I can't deny what it is any more - there's no way any reasonable person could. I turn my head to the southwest, out towards the open ocean. I see the third kid.


He's out there. Way the fuck out there. How the fuck did he get out there? His scream for help is the most desperate thing I've ever heard, the most panicked sound I can imagine. This is a 7 year old kid, and he thinks he's going to fucking die.

I have maybe half a second of rational thought before my brain shuts off. I know the tide's going out. I know the current is strong out there. I don't think I can beat it, not with a kid on me, not without albuterol...

And then, like that, the thinking stops.

Right arm forward, kick kick kick, left arm forward, kick kick kick.

The kid gets closer. I don't know how. I don't know how far I've gone, I don't even remember deciding to move. The adrenaline keeps me pushing, swimming as hard as I can with the current, moving further and further away from the world.

Here he is. He looks fucking terrified, but he's staying afloat, his little head bobbing above the swells.

"Are you OK?" I ask, panting.

"Yeah," he says.

"Grab on," I say.

He grabs my left forearm. I can't think of any way to do a front crawl with a kid holding onto me, so I guess that's as good a place to grab as any.

"Let's go," I say.

I can feel it now, the current, dragging us away from safety. Is this a rip tide? How the hell should I know? There aren't any giant arrows in the water telling me where the current is or where to swim to escape it. Do I swim at a 90 degree angle? Do I just try to move towards the shore?

Fuck it.

I swim towards the shore, using my free limbs in some kind of bastard dog paddle. I'm fighting the current. I'm out of breath. The kid hangs on admirably. I'm making progress. Maybe we'll make it.

We're getting closer, but I'm getting weaker. I'd burned so much energy getting out there, I've left nothing to get myself back. The adrenaline is wearing off - I start thinking again, thinking dark thoughts. I feel the drag of the current against me, now almost freezing me in place. I'm no longer moving. I think I'm going to fucking die. I think we're both going to fucking die. I've never felt so alone.

The kid keeps hanging on.

Why is nobody moving? Why aren't they helping? I can see the tent on the shore where my family is, but they're not moving. They're not coming to save me. I'm on my own. Me and the kid. Nobody is coming. I'm going to fucking die.

"Sweetie?" There's a woman here. I don't know where she came from. I didn't see her until now.

"Are you OK sweetie?" She's not talking to me. She's talking to the kid. Her kid.

"Mom, I'm scared," the kid says.

"It's OK sweetie, I'm here."

She's got a life jacket. She has a fucking life jacket.

I hand the kid off. They float on the jacket. I float on my own.

I'm still panicking. Even without the kid, my progress is abysmal. Their progress is equally slow, but with the life jacket they have more time to spare. I can stay afloat due to the buoyancy of the salt water, but I feel my energy draining. I try to see if I can touch the bottom yet - I can't.

Now somebody is moving on the beach. Somebody thinks something is wrong.

I look behind me. A wave - a big wave. Finally - I can feel it transfer some of its collasal momentum to me. "Fuck, come on waves," I find myself saying. I briefly regret using profanity around the kid, but all things considered I doubt the mom will hold it against me.

The waves roll in. I can see that the guy moving towards the beach now is my dad, but I don't need him any more. I can feel my rubbery legs touch the uneven sand underneath the surf.

I stagger onto the shore. I know the sand under my feet is burning hot. I don't feel it.

"Are you all right buddy?" My dad meets me as I walk up.

"Yeah" I say.

I make my way to the tent, where everybody else is sitting. I sit down on one of those flimsy $5 beach chairs that you expect to collapse at any minute. Cheap shit. Why even bother.

"Is everything OK? You look a little tired," somebody asks.

"Yeah," I say. "Can somebody pass me a beer?"

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