Evan hadn’t been to the beach for three summers, and he’d forgotten how different sand was from normal earth—how you didn’t step on it but into it, and how, planting a foot in one place, you could almost feel the displacement of grains two or three feet away. What looked like one thing from a distance—a beach—turned out to be made up of billions of smaller things, each moving of their own accord.
Uncle Josef led the way over the sand. Then came seven-year-old Liam, the cousin that Evan was to help look after for the next week, as a favor to Aunt Jen, his mother’s sister. She’d just finished treatment for Lyme disease and was napping back at their vacation rental.
They snaked around other people’s beach plots until they found an empty square and claimed it with their bags. One hand reaching back between his shoulder blades, Uncle Josef yanked off his tank top, revealing the curly black hair that climbed from his thick torso onto his neck and back. He was practically a bear, Evan thought—a black bear you might find in your back yard, sorting through the trash. Evan lifted off his own shirt, then looked down at his sunken chest, which boasted one tawny brown hair.
A prop plane hummed down the coastline. Josef nodded toward its long plastic tail, which read “Pit Beef, Icy Beer, Live Music, Tonite at Shane’s.”
“In a coupla years,” Josef said, elbowing Evan in the ribs, “we’ll head out and pound a few, you and me. We won’t tell your mother.”
Evan smiled. He never knew how to respond when Josef said things like this. Evan hadn’t seen his own father in eight years, and he sometimes wondered if Josef wasn’t trying to fill some kind of father-shaped space he imagined he saw in the middle of Evan.
“We’re getting Liam in the water today,” said Josef. “All the way, right Ev?”
Liam kicked at the sand. “Do we have to?”
Josef pretended he hadn’t heard. He stabbed at the beach with the umbrella’s metal tip, then started working the point back and forth, deeper into the sand. Evan helped Liam lay out his shovels, buckets, and sand molds.
“Let’s make a Wild West,” Liam said. Westerns were Liam’s current obsession.
“Sure,” said Evan. He picked up a bucket and headed toward the waves. A couple of girls in bikinis started laughing as he passed. Were they laughing at his sunken chest? His single chest hair?
A wave broke against the shoreline and foamed up the hard sand slope. Evan dipped the bucket in. When he was five, Evan had been certain that the ocean wanted to take him, to pull him down into some underwater kingdom. During his last beach trip, he’d still been tentative, venturing only just past the breaking point with his mom. But now Evan was thirteen and closing in on five-foot-ten. That was taller than your average wave, wasn’t it?
Josef pulled a cream-cheese-on-pumpernickel out of a paper bag and broke the spine of a chiropractic journal onto his knees. “At high noon,” he said, “when men meet their makers, we’ll get in the water.” He smiled, showing square teeth the color of brittle old newspapers.
Evan and Liam built up their Wild West. Soon, it had a saloon, a town square, and a clock whose hands were two plastic spoons.
Up on the boardwalk, teenagers in bright green aprons slid open PlayLand’s long shuttered doors. Then chimes rang out.
“Did you count?” Josef asked Liam when the bells stopped. “That was twelve!”
Evan’s stomach dropped the way it had on the PlayLand Ferris wheel the night before, as he’d sped along in the car with Liam, trying to pretend he wasn’t nervous.
At the water’s edge, Josef picked up Liam and walked him, squirming, straight into the ocean, which was full of other people. Evan followed a couple of feet to their right, water climbing up his trunks inch by inch.
A small wave broke over them, spraying water into the air, and Liam screamed. “Look,” Josef called out, “Evan’s not screaming. The ocean’s a bath today, kid.”
Josef kept moving forward. Evan placed each foot tentatively, thinking of sea urchins, needles, and other sharp, unseen things. A low wave came and lifted them up, then down. Evan scanned for jellyfish. Once, when he was little, he’d seen a man set one on his bald head like a pancake. Evan shuddered. How could a man be so fearless?
Soon they were out past most of the other people, out farther than Evan had ever been. Evan glanced back toward the sand. Even the lifeguards, on their white toothpick thrones, seemed a civilization away.
A bigger wave came in. The bullying water circled Evan’s neck, and goose bumps flooded his arms. He looked toward the horizon, watching the swells as they approached. His body was made of steel cords now, and his breath nothing more than air locked inside his chest.
Liam pointed into the deeper water. “Daddy! There’s a really big one!”
“You’re fine,” said Josef, laughing.
Evan’s fingernails dug at his palms. If he made a break for the shore, the water would feel thick as a milkshake. It would feel like he were running in a dream.
Liam screamed again. Evan’s heart pounded harder, and he looked to the horizon, imagining a wave as implacable and gray as a skyscraper. He pictured himself tumbling underwater, forgetting which end was up. Soon he’d be nothing, just a hard shell on the ocean floor.
But it wasn’t a tsunami. It was just another regular-sized wave. Only a kid would see the end of the world in every distant swell, Evan told himself. For men, waves were challenges, rises to overcome. At least that’s how it looked from the outside.
© Elisabeth Dahl
Elisabeth Dahl writes for adults and children from her home in Baltimore. She’s the author-illustrator of Genie Wishes (Amulet Books/ABRAMS, 2013), a middle-grade novel with line drawings. Her short stories, essays, and poems have appeared at NPR.org, at TheRumpus.net, in Johns Hopkins Magazine, and elsewhere. A graduate of Johns Hopkins University and Georgetown University, where she was a Writing Center Associate Fellow, she teaches creative writing for the Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Talented Youth.