The day the boy, the father, and the mother went to the beach began as a beautiful one. The sun shone above the cumulus clouds which heaped and moved steadily along the horizon like white sails, blown by an urging, warm wind. The wide expanse of sand was golden and fine to the touch, but the boy hopped from foot to foot as he walked from the parking lot onto the waiting sand.
“What’s wrong?” asked the father.
The boy, who was holding his mother’s hand, did not respond. He merely hopped faster, making small “ta, ta” sounds with his lips.
The father looked at the mother. “Do you think he needs to go to the bathroom?”
The mother, whose mind was still on the book she had just laid aside, merely smiled and said, “I think he’s alright. He’s only excited about the beach.”
The father frowned and grabbed the boy’s other hand.
In fact, the boy’s feet were burning because he wasn’t wearing any shoes. His sandals had fallen off during his nap on the way to the beach and neither the mother nor father had thought to put them on again because their car had been so close to the beach.
The family of three made their way on the sandy shore, looking for a place to stake their belongings. The owner of a nearby eating establishment would later say that the family reminded him of the laundry his late wife used to set out to dry, the little boy fluttering between the two parents like a sheet.
After a few minutes of walking, the family finally found their spot on the sparsely populated beach, a short distance away from the beginning of some tidal pools.
“Here’s good,” announced the father, and proceeded to unload his burden of beach chairs. The mother let go of the old canvas bags she had dug out from the closet and began unpacking the bunched towels, fighting against the wind to lay them out in neat parallel columns. The boy, feet burning and unrestrained now by hands, ran headlong towards the water.
He had never been to the beach before, except in the picture books his mother sometimes read to him before bed. The sand was wet and hard under his feet, the water cool at his ankles. He laughed at the saltiness which magically appeared on his tongue and gasped when the father hoisted him up by his stomach and swung him into the air to prevent him from going any deeper.
The father carried the boy back up the beach towards the mother, who had been watching the whole scene unfold.
“No,” she told the boy sternly, kneeling so her eyes were level with his. “No going to the water by yourself,” she said. When she saw that the boy’s lips had begun to tremble, she softened and gave him a hug, “You can go with your father, okay?”
The boy nodded, and the father held the boy’s hand as they walked to the water again. The boy squatted in the wet sand wondering where the small bubbles in the sand were coming from while his father stood over him, surveying the beach around them.
The beach was a curved and wide affair, the pride and joy of this fading seaside town. Miles away up the coast, there was a harbor with personal motorboats and white, gleaming yachts, but here, there were only sun-bleached orange cones to mark the boundaries of the beach and rundown shops across the road. These local establishments were dedicated to providing their seasonal visitors with shark tooth necklaces and cheap, rubber flip flops, whose rainbow-colored bands occasionally snapped in the rocky tide pools that framed the beach. So late in the summer now, all the shops were closed but for a dodgy stall that sold fish and chips, owned by a man with a stringy beard.
The mother and father had been meaning to visit this beach since receiving rave reviews from their friends in college a couple years ago, but had only recently had the opportunity. The mother had asked for a day off from her job as the front desk attendant at a highway motel and the father had stalled on his restoration of an antique dining room set. The trip had almost been cancelled multiple times, first because of the 40% chance of rain the mother saw on the evening news; second, because of the father’s irate customer who demanded that his dining set be completed quickly; and lastly because the boy had developed a slight cough a couple days before. Luckily, the father had been able to pacify both the mother and the customer’s worries, and the boy had gotten much better.
There were only a handful of other people on the beach with them now, and this fact pleased the father inordinately, for it was almost like they owned the beach. The lifeguards had finished for the season and only locals frequented this stretch of shoreline after the tourists left. From the looks of it, the only people from out of town like themselves were a group of college students, enjoying the last warm days of August before school started again. Despite himself, the father squinted to see the girls better, shading his eyes for a better look.
This motion did not escape the notice of the mother who was watching the pair from her seat on one of the towels. She had not taken off her strapless, beach cover-up and she squelched the wave of jealousy that bubbled up in her stomach now. She acknowledged that her body had never quite been the same since the birth of the boy, but she soothed herself with the fact that her mind was as sharp as ever. She pulled out the hardcover novel she had been reading during their trip here and resumed, using one hand to shade the words that crossed the page. The sun made the page a nearly blinding white.
The father, meanwhile, had squatted next to the boy, who was poking at the popping bubbles. “Those are from sand crabs,” the father told the boy, moving sideways to mimic the awkward motion of the colorless creatures. The boy laughed, and began imitating his father. Soon they had both scuttled into the water, the father moving to carry the boy once the water became too deep.
The boy was not afraid of water, the father noticed. In fact, he seemed fascinated by it, slapping his hands happily against the surface, causing the salt to fly into the father’s eyes. The father carried the both of them further and further into the sea until the water had just reached his chest, where the boy squirmed happily.
From the shore, he heard the mother call something in warning, but her words were faint, whipped away by the wind. Didn’t she trust him? The father remembered his time on the college swim team a couple years back, when he could swim more than a mile without growing weary. Back then, the mother would wait for him at the end of a meet outside the men’s locker room when his hair was still drying from his shower and kiss him in congratulations, the chlorine of the pool tasting sweet and fresh on her lips. Those days were only a few years back, and yet they felt like forever ago.
He wondered fleetingly if the boy could swim as well as he had. For just a moment, the father loosened his grasp and allowed the boy to drift loosely in the water, where he floated for the briefest of milliseconds before the father quickly clutched the boy again, shocked at his own audacity. The boy, however, had noticed his father’s loosened grip and struggled all the more against his tight hands.
“Oh, you want to swim, do you?” asked the father, feeling just the slightest bit relieved. “Okay, let’s go, son.” He cautiously formed a loose cage with his arms, allowing the boy to bob up and down in the water, careful never to let the boy sink too low. The boy bobbed like a cork, babbling happily and buoyed from beneath by his father’s arms.
“Alright, alright, that’s enough for now.” So saying, the father began to swim one-armed towards shore, hugging the boy close with his other arm.
The mother watched the father and the boy leave the ocean salty and wet. The boy had only recently recovered from his cold, and the father was already bringing him all the way into the ocean. How irresponsible. She opened her mouth to reprimand the father, but before she could say anything the father said, “He was trying to swim! Actually swim! He must get it from me,” the father beamed.
Seeing the father’s large smile, the mother held her tongue and began methodically drying the boy with one of the beach towels. She nodded, “I think so. He seems like a natural.” The mother thought about how lovely and terrible it was that the boy had picked up swimming so quickly. It was such a beautiful sport, swimming was. No strength or might necessary, but rather agility and a determined endurance that showed on the bodies of those who participated. Heaving chests and the warring scent of chlorine and sweat that the mother had occasionally thought about late at night in her dorm room after her roommate had fallen asleep, and later, found in the father.
But now was neither the time nor place for such thoughts. The mother picked the boy up and sat down with him on her beach chair. “Are you tired after your adventure? Would you like mummy to read to you?” She started reaching in her bag for a picture book she had packed, but the boy squirmed away onto the sand.
“He has too much energy,” said the father. He had been like that too, racing around and bumping into the unfinished wood projects his father had worked on until his father gave him a piece of wood and some sandpaper.
“Here, boy. Make the wood smooth,” his father had told him. And he had. He had rubbed the sandpaper and wood together until blisters and splinters tore the skin of his palms, but the wood had come out shiny, tan, and smooth.
The boy needed to build something like he had when he was younger, the father decided.
Sandcastles, he determined, that’s what kids built when they came to the beach. They hadn’t thought to bring a shovel or pail for the boy, though. The father looked around for something that the boy could use as a pail. He spotted a couple of abandoned plastic cups by the large rocks where the tide pools began, likely the forgotten trash of some college party that had gone too late. The father felt a pang of nostalgia when he went to retrieve them. There would have been alcohol in these cups at some point, but it was long gone by now. He rinsed the cups in the sea before returning to the mother and the boy.
“Here,” he said, handing a cup to the boy. “Why don’t we build sandcastles?”
The father taught the boy to gather the wet sand by the sea and to pack it tightly into the cup. The sides of the cup bowed outwards and leaked sand, but once the boy learned to tap the bottoms quickly, the sand came out whole. The boy wanted to build the castle right by the sea, but the father urged him not to. “The tide’s going to come in, see?” he said. And indeed, the water was staining the sand higher up than it had before.
Back and forth they went, the father and the boy, from the sea back to their place on the beach again. A large uneven circle of wet tapering cylinders gradually emerged. At one point, the mother joined them, taking the cup from the father, but she soon stopped, feeling self-conscious as she bent down at the waist to scoop the wet sand. She was no longer the thin girl she had once been and she wondered if the father could still lift her from the ground as he had when she kissed him outside the men’s locker room.
She stopped and sat down next to the father, who had paused to rest in the center of the circling sandcastles. They watched the boy run back and forth from them to the sea.
“It’s good to get away from it all, isn’t it?” the father asked her. She noticed his eyes were directed away from her, towards the boy.
“Mmmm, it really is.” She noticed then that father’s acne scars had lightened, the red inflamed patches by his ear almost completely faded into the surrounding skin by the last two years. The marks of youth were slowly, but steadily disappearing. He’s getting older, she thought.
“I know, he’s so tall now. It’s unbelievable,” said the father.
The mother realized that she had accidentally spoken out loud.
“You wonder how it happens,” the father continued. “First, they’re the size of your cupped hands, and then…then they just become their own person. You have no control over them. They’re just—them.” He lapsed into silence.
The mother murmured something in agreement, but she thought about how the boy really wasn’t just himself. He was himself, plus the father, plus the mother, plus the time they put into him. The boy was exactly what she wanted him to be, strong, energetic, and well-behaved too. She worried though, about his lack of speech. She had read that at his age, he should be using full, monosyllabic words, but so far as she knew, he was still mostly babbling. Maybe, she thought, maybe he had come too early.
When she had gotten pregnant during college, both she and the father agreed that it would be best for them if she simply dropped out of school and continued later. All their friends had said they would break up, what with her being so into her studies and him being such a good swimmer, but the couple hadn’t. They had had a quiet wedding in the backyard of the father’s childhood home during spring break. The father had built her a gazebo with the help of his own father, and it had been put to good use when the rainstorm occurred. The rain is good luck, one of the mother’s friends told her. The whole wedding party, huddled under its octahedral roof, had watched from the rain color the newly cut wood a deep brown. The father left shortly after the abbreviated honeymoon and had graduated with a degree in marketing one year later. He became a carpenter, just like his father before him and advertised his own quickly shrinking profession. Things were tight at home, but they managed to get by, thought the mother.
The boy had grown tired of running across the beach and now joined the mother and father. As he ran towards them and crossed the barrier of miniature sandcastles, he tripped over one of them. His chest hit the ground with a small, solid thud and more from surprise than anything else, the boy began crying. “Hey there,” said the father, reaching to right the boy. “It’s alright. You’re alright, see? Sometimes we fall, but it’s okay.” The father set the boy between him and the mother. The boy continued to sniffle.
“Look,” said the mother, “Why don’t we bury your father?”
The father agreed, demonstrating by burying one hand with the other. Together, the mother and the boy began burying the father in earnest. The father wriggled and shifted occasionally, his movements causing the mountains of sand to shift and crack and the boy to giggle. The mother smoothed the cracks over, touching the father’s body through the sand.
“Hey!” the father said, sputtering when the mother accidentally got some sand in his mouth. She kissed the sand off his lips. “Happy?” she asked, “Now I have some sand in my mouth too.” The particles scraped unevenly against her teeth.
“Why don’t I get us some real food instead,” the mother continued. “I bet we’re all hungry, aren’t we?”
She grabbed the boy off the sand and tickled his stomach. “We’re always hungry, aren’t we?” she asked teasingly. The boy met her eyes, and for a brief millisecond the mother thought that he would respond. But the boy only smiled and clapped his hands, indicating that he wanted to continue burying the father. “Yes, we are. Yes, we are,” said the mother, answering her own question and releasing the boy. The mother grabbed her bag and began heading towards the group of college students, away from the beach towards the road.
The father propped himself up on his elbows and looked at the boy. “We’ll do just fine by ourselves, won’t we?” The boy merely kept piling sand on the father’s calves like before and eventually the father lay back down. He closed his eyes, enjoying the warm pressure of the sand under his back.
He remembered how he had once dropped a piece of wood into a deep puddle after a rainstorm. It had floated so effortlessly on the surface of the water, as though it weren’t even a solid, just a different type of water that happened to have a shape and presence in the world. Only three days later, he had imitated this same sort of lightness at the community pool and taught himself how to swim. This different state of being would later give him the scholarship he needed to attend college and meet the mother, but what he remembered most about that first day was the chaos of the other swimmers around him. Their splashing movement created an oscillating pattern on his back that buoyed him up and down, up and down. He should have felt disturbed, but the muffling effects of the water in his ears and that feeling of expansiveness on his back blocked the confusion. He felt this same gentle rippling on his back now and a wideness of thought like the sea. Later this afternoon, he would take the boy and teach him how to float. At night, he might lie with the boy on his bed, knowing that his son was sharing the same buoying, drifting feeling he was.
The father awoke to shaking. The mother. “Where is he?” she asked him. It took the father a second: his son. The mother didn’t wait for the father to register her words before she tore away, dropping the greasy fish and chips she had bought and shouting the boy’s name. She ran along the beach towards the college students, her strapless dress slipping a little in her haste.
For a moment, the father couldn’t breathe. Then he ran towards the water, legs feeling as though they were still encased in sand. The boy was there. He could feel it. No, he knew it. He knew it just as surely as he knew that his life had ended those years ago when the mother told him that she was pregnant. He had felt a confusion then, a muffled incomprehension not unlike the feeling he got when he was fully submerged in water, but there was no surfacing for air in this case. For eight months, he had wandered around the school, living life, swimming, and drinking as he had before. Then the boy had come and the confusion had thinned, but never completely dissipated. A storm had become a fog, but even that was fading now, overwhelmed and washed away by the waves that beat against his arms, legs, and head. Where, where, where, pounded his heart.
The father, treading water, turned towards the shore. He noticed that the mother had rallied the college students. Around him, there was nothing but choppy waves. With a shock, the father realized he would never find the boy alone, so he began swimming back towards the shore.
It was on his way back that the father detected some movement among the rocks making up the tidal pools. There, the boy, sitting in a pool of water between two large rocks. As he drew closer, the father saw the boy had been crying, tears streaming down his face, but it was only when the father was right next to the boy did he begin to hear his cries, once covered by the wind.
The father shivered, swim trunks plastered wetly to his body, as he quickly picked the boy up. He felt the rough rub of sand from the boy’s wet shorts on his forearms as he carried the boy, still crying, towards the mother and the group of college students. “He’s okay, he’s okay,” the father repeatedly told the advancing group, “He just got lost and scared.”
“Look at his hand!” said one of the college students. Her dark hair was pulled into a messy bun spilling down her back. The father looked down. There on the inside of the boy’s arm were bright, red lines, crawling up towards his elbow like strands of cobwebs. He gently touched one, causing the boy to recoil.
“It looks like a jellyfish sting,” said one of the guys in the group. He had his arm around one of the girls. Bright pink bikini top and white bottoms. “They happen all the time around here but they aren’t serious. The acid in pee helps a bit until you have time to go to the hospital for cream.”
The father’s eyes met the mother’s over the boy, the college students huddling around them. The father wanted to do it. He could see himself doing it, in fact, taking one of the plastic cups they had used for making the sandcastles and turning away to fill it with urine to help the boy. But even as he looked at the mother, he knew that he couldn’t, not with all these college students around.
The mother allowed him a moment of quiet, before she grabbed the boy from his arms and ran to their towels where she had dropped their food. “Vinegar,” she said, “That should have acid in it.”
Setting the boy in her lap, she poured the vinegar over the arm while he twisted and turned, the sand turning a deep brown beneath the boy’s outstretched arm.
“Shhh, it’s alright,” the mother said, standing and holding the boy. “You feel better? You’ll feel better soon,” she said. The boy hiccuped and coughed, falling silent in his mother’s arms.
The man with the stringy beard who had watched the whole scene unfold from a distance thought about how fortunate it was that he had not yet closed up shop for the season. Without his fine food, where would the family be? But they would be okay now, he thought. The family had left the group of college students soon after they found the boy, the mother carrying the boy as the father folded their towels and packed their bags. The clouds floated above them still, as the family made their way back to the car, sideways across the beach.
Karen Xiao was born in China, but now lives in quiet Farmington, Connecticut. She graduated from Georgetown University with a degree in English, and currently attends the University of Connecticut School of Medicine. This is her first published piece.