ISABEL AND VICTOR DRIVE SOUTH towards Santa Cruz from their home in the suburbs of northern California. Victor's apricot-coloured surfboard is lashed to the roof rack. Ash from a distant forest fire drifts down like black snow. Over the dashboard, across the horizon, the red glow of sunrise or the fire itself. The Sierra Nevada Mountains look deceptively close and small, flattened and beige like hills of sand.
It used to snow in Vancouver, Isabel says. And in Tofino, Victor replies. They grew up on opposite sides of the Strait of Georgia.
Victor tells a story about getting snowed in on a family trip to Victoria. The roads closed and their rental car vanished in a white sweep. His parents left eight-year-old Victor alone in the motel room. He watched from the window as they trudged into the blizzard, looking for somewhere that was still open and selling food. I can hardly believe that story now, Victor says, and it’s mine.
Isabel reaches across the gearshift to touch the back of Victor’s head. Her hand moves slowly down his body, cupping the back of his neck, fingers trailing over his shoulder and forearm, landing on his upper thigh with a friendly squeeze. She draws her hand back. She feels sated, as though she leeched a substance out of Victor through her fingertips, into her bloodstream: a mild, warming high. It’s early. Her eyelids are heavy.
They keep talking about family vacations. They have similar memories of road trips and a particular kind of motel that occupies the British Columbian interior and northwestern United States: the pull-in lobby with Danishes and suspect coffee; the stacked oblong rooms; the mustard yellow fire-retardant blankets. The stippled concrete edges of the pools scratching at their feet, the white metal fencing, the sunken leaves and floating bodies of drowned flies. Their mothers boiling water in kettles they brought along. The then-thrilling cycle of McDonald's, Denny's, IHOP, Red Lobster, Olive Garden, warmer tray buffets with bottomless Jell-O.
I feel like you were there, Isabel says. Like I’ve always known you.
Victor smiles. He wonders aloud if he should take one highway or another. He talks about the weather conditions. He talks technical jargon about tides, winds and surfing technique that Isabel indulges but doesn’t absorb. His voice eddies pleasantly around her sleepy mind.
They exit the highway and drive through a small coastal town. Surf shops, bike rentals, gelato, handmade crafts. Nothing is open yet. Their car descends a steep hill towards the beach, through a damp layer of fog. The spectacle of sunrise ends. The sun becomes a sizzling, perfectly round yolk, hanging low across the straight slice of the ocean between the hills.
They park across the street from the boardwalk. A carousel and an arcade with walls of pink sandstone, also closed. Hot dogs, deep-fried seafood, ice cream, funnel cakes, closed. The smell of stagnant cooking oil and rotten fish.
Victor changes. Isabel sculpts a mound of sand into a back rest, spreads a blanket in front. She has a stack of books and magazines and a travel mug of milky hot tea. The beach is chilly and desolate, the colours of the boardwalk storefronts washed out by years of salt, sun and wind. Isabel wraps another blanket around herself, though she’s already dressed in layers of synthetics and wool. She looks away as Victor wades out and rides. The waves crash over hidden trenches like curls of cold butter. They seem enormous and violent to Isabel, a house-sized monster storming the shore. It’s better not to watch.
Good, strong waves. Yet the beach is empty, no other surfers, no kites or kayaks, no wanderers or addicts. An hour or so passes. Isabel checks her phone periodically even though the result is always the same: no service.
The wind ruffles her pages forward. Her eye catches a phrase that ruins a twist in the novel she’s reading. She ties her hat into her hair. It blows off anyway, whipping behind her and yanking at her skull. The second time, it pulls free of her hair altogether, rolls playfully across the sand, grounding and then lilting upward again like a stone skipping across a pond. She chases it. Her hair blows around her face and into her mouth.
She catches her hat where it comes to rest in a divot in the sand, the edges still flickering. She seizes it with both hands. She looks up. The empty ocean stretches away. Where’s Victor?
The surface of the water is reflective silver, making it hard to focus her eyes. She looks for his orange surfboard. She looks for his black wetsuit. His slick of wet hair. His tan face. His hand. A shape. Anything. She looks back at her blanket, thinking maybe he’s come out to meet her. The wind has knocked over her tea, leaving a spot of wet sand.
She calls out, inquiring. Victor?
She stands still, listening. The ocean roars like the white noise of a television, turned all the way up. The rustling of leaves somewhere. Louder, longer: VICTOR!
She feels acutely alone. The ocean draws waves from its depths re exively. It howls and crashes to the same rhythm as before. It doesn’t care about Isabel and Victor.
Her heart is thudding but she stands still. Is he just out too far to see? She pictures herself running frantically along the water’s edge. She sees herself wading in, diving down, kicking up the sand at the bottom, searching pointlessly. She can see more from here, at a distance. She grew up by the ocean. She knows not to trust its pull. She cups her hands around her mouth and yells his name as loudly as she can.
She calls his name three times in a row, broken into its syllables. VIC-TOR! It sounds like the word and not the name—the one who gets the spoils.
She can’t help it. She runs. She goes back to her spot on the sand, checks her phone, and of course, no service. Who would she call, if she could? She runs. She runs. He must be further along the beach somewhere, he must’ve decided it was too dangerous and went in search of calmer waters. He’s somewhere. The ocean is vast but not infinite.
She waits. She’s covered in sand for some reason. When did that happen? Her calves are wet and the sand sticks. Sand in her mouth, her eyes. Sand weighs down her feet.
She pulls out her phone and starts running again, up the beach, away from the water. One bar flickers in and out, then disappears. When she reaches the boardwalk, she sees someone inside the beachfront café. She bangs on the glass door. The employee, a drowsy young man in a white apron, gestures at the “Closed” sign. She bangs again with both fists. I need help, she cries. It’s an emergency!
Is it? Is it yet?
He reluctantly turns the lock and opens the door a crack to hear what Isa- bel’s yelling about. His manager, a middle- aged woman in a brown patterned dress with glasses on a chain, is counting cash as she assembles the oat for the day. Oh for God’s sake, the woman says, let her in.
Isabel calls 911 on the café phone. She stands by the door with the receiver against her ear, still scanning the ocean. The young man in the apron hovers nearby, faintly regretful. He wants to help.
IN A FUNDAMENTAL WAY, Isabel believes nothing bad has happened to Victor. He’s safely out of view. Even as the police arrive, and then the coast guard, and a small rescue boat putters back and forth from where she saw him go in. She has a conversation with the woman in the brown dress. Isabel says he’s a strong swimmer, he’s an experienced surfer, he knows his limits, he knows the water, he knows this beach. The woman says I’m sure he’s okay. Isabel says he’s okay. They go back and forth: he’s okay, he’s okay, he’s okay.
Or this conversation is happening with the police. Or this conversation is happening in her head.
The hours stretch into years of possible lives. Isabel thinks about how mad she’ll be when it turns out to have been nothing at all. Victor came out of the water far down the beach, judged that the water had turned and is hiking back. He paddled his board into calmer waters, to lie flat on his back and doze, not realizing he’s out of sight.
The woman in the brown dress asks Isabel if she’d like something to eat. Isabel starts allowing for the possibility of a small injury, a twisted ankle—he’s clinging to his board, out too deep, waiting for rescue.
The woman in the brown dress says Isabel should eat something. The light is changing. The sea is beginning to calm. The beach has filled with people, gawkers and onlookers and those determined to enjoy themselves. The arcade lights up. The carousel plays its mocking tune. Serious injury, then: Isabel imagines Victor’s life as a paraplegic. She would nurse him through the early days, the relearning, the physical therapy. They’d cry together. When he went back to work, his coworkers would applaud. He’d join a wheelchair basketball league.
FIVE MILES DOWN THE BEACH, outside the wind tunnel made by the shape of the backing hills, nine-year-old June builds a sand castle at the water’s edge. Her parents are far up the beach. Her little sister, Emma, who is hot and bored, sits between them underneath an umbrella and sucks on a freezer pop.
June thinks she might be out of her parents’ sight. Or almost. A girl shape in a purple swimsuit. She feels a frisson of naughtiness. Lately, being alone feels exciting instead of scary. Or rather, it feels scary and exciting. Even though she doesn’t do anything bad, it’s just the idea that she could. The realization that her mother doesn’t know everything.
June feels like she invented lying by omission. Emma lies, of course. Emma’s lies take the form of nuh-uhs and stomping her feet while screeching, I didn’t do it! I didn’t do anything! Which of course means she did. June is sophisticated. She says nothing at all.
June needs more water for her sand castle. She brings her plastic bucket down to the clearer shallows among some nearby rocks. She stops a few feet away. She sees a man swimming. Not swimming, floating. Face down. Is he snagged on one of the rocks?
He needs help, June decides. He needs help right now. She looks behind her. Her parents seem far away, across a huge stretch of hot sand. Parent shapes.
June is proud of her strength. She can hang from the monkey bars longer than anyone. She can win mercy fights against boys. She can jump from the high dive and swim five laps of an Olympic-sized pool. And still, for no good reason, her mother won’t let her go in the water by herself.
It will take too long to get her parents.
June plunges in. The tide is on her side in that moment, draws her out in the direction she wants to go. Towards the man. She swims in smooth, strong strokes. When she gets close, she sees his ears dip above and below the waterline with the motion of the waves. She treads water. Hello! she calls out, are you okay?
She continues to tread in place. She needs to decide if she should try to flip him over. She’s learned how at swim lessons, although of course, she’s only practiced on dummies and other kids. Up close, the man is much larger than he looked from the beach. She momentarily doubts her strength, but there’s no time for that. She has to hurry.
With both hands, she grabs ahold of his arm in its wetsuit. She dolphin kicks in an attempt to pull him under and around. She’s lost track of the tide. A wave hits her back and sucks her down. She lets go of the man’s arm but gets tangled in the heft and confusion of his body, seemingly everywhere, possessing a hundred limbs.
June realizes she has to dive down to escape him. She kicks away, her eyes open, the water frothing from her panicked breath. She rolls underwater to reorient herself: which way is up? Where is the light coming from?
She sees his face.
The features are blurred and dream-like. Something has nibbled away at the edges. His eyes are open, clouded.
June allows her instincts and buoyancy to pull her towards the surface. She kicks hard, bursts clear. She gulps her first breath and takes in water. She remembers her lessons: calm down.
She zigzags to shore, using her parents’ umbrella as a marker. She knows she can’t swim straight towards them the way she wants to. She knows she can’t start crying yet.
June emerges from the ocean level with her family. Her mother sees her striding up the beach towards them. Her long ponytail hangs down her back in a teardrop shape. She looks aquiline, flushed, seal smooth, vibrantly alive. A creature of the sea. She looks changed.