Church bells clanged as I awoke. Soft enough to creep into my sleeping brain, yet loud enough to interrupt a REM cycle, they were the perfect alarm, allowing my eyelids to fold open peacefully.
I lifted my iPhone from the nightstand and, with a slide of my thumb, silenced the clanging.
Sunday, July 6th, 2014.
Normally I’d hit snooze a few times before arising, but this morning I was wide awake, head pounding, mouth dry and eyes bloodshot from the blurry, alcohol-infused summer night before.
I stretched from the bed, pressing my bare feet on the cold hardwood below. In an hour I had to be at the beach. On a regular day I’d have two hours left, with lifeguarding shifts beginning at 9. Today, however, I was running the front gate.
The usual gatekeeper was a skinny kid with long brown hair named Atticus, but he’d had an accident Saturday morning — his surfboard strap wrapped around and severed the tip of his pinky as he tumbled in a wave. He was in the hospital and I was filling in, charged with the task of collecting cash of those craving the sands of Goosewing Beach.
I headed out at 7:25; plenty of time to ride my bike to the beach, go for a quick swim and be back beside the shack by 8. Holding my stainless steel travel-mug of coffee in my left hand and the handlebars in my right I took off. As I rounded the corner the assaulting glare of the July sun blinded me.
“Sunglasses,” I said, clenching my teeth as I pressed my bare feet onto the pedal brakes. “Shit.”
In almost any other profession this wouldn’t matter. But as a lifeguard? Sunglasses are crucial. As important as water to drink and clean air to breath. I placed my coffee by the side of the road and spun the bike around. Two free hands would help me to make up some time on my trip back to the house.
I peddled back and, dropping my bike at the bottom of the steps, rushed in, grabbing my Ray Bans from the kitchen table. Sliding them on I spun back out the door and, again, cruised around the corner, this time snagging my coffee as I passed.
I glided down the hill leading to the beach on my rusty beach-cruiser, sipping coffee whenever the terrain smoothed. My faded-red board shorts flapped in the wind as I rode. I stopped toward the bottom of the hill to investigate a snapping turtle that’d wandered from its pond and onto the side of the road, snapping a picture with my phone before lifting my feet and letting my bike continue on our course.
The beaches compacted-dirt parking lot was not coffee sipping terrain. I dipped through the bumps slowly, avoiding misplaced rocks along the way. A typical early Sunday morning, the lot was nearly empty. The old Volvo station wagon of a local surfer named John was parked in its usual spot. John leaned on the trunk, enjoying the last few moments he and his mutt Murphy could share together before the “No Dogs Allowed” rule kicked in at 8.
“Morning John,” I said, pulling beside him and reaching out to shake his hand.
“Morning Paul!” he returned, smiling as he squeezed my hand. I could see my reflection in the lenses of his brown sunglasses. “Looks like another beautiful day.”
“Sure does,” I said. “I’m going for a swim, I’ll see you in a bit.”
I peddled to the last lifeguard stand in the parking lot. Resting my bike up against its white posts and my coffee on its red wooden seat, I stripped the beach-issued shirt from my back. I wrapped it around my sunglasses and tossed the bundle beside my coffee, turning toward the ocean. It was low-tide and dying waves met the shore about one-hundred yards away.
The smell of salt-water filled my sinuses as my heels sank in the white sand. The ground grew darker and harder with each step and soon, a sheet of foamy-white water rushed past. I stepped gently, avoiding the sharp edges of the pebbles below my feet and, when I got about knee-deep, the urge to sprint and dive was overwhelming.
Then I realized my phone was in my pocket.
I turned and walked back to the stand, dropping the phone into the soft folds of my balled-up shirt. Eager to once again feel the refreshment of the water I sprinted back toward the shore, prancing through the gentle force of the breaking waves as they met my thighs. Finally, clear of all deterrents, I closed my eyes, took a deep breath, swung my hands over my head and dove in.
I sliced through the cool salt water, pulling my arms and kicking my feet just above the sandy bottom below. I surfaced as the air in my lungs began to expire, clearing the salty drops from my eyes with my fingers and sliding my hair back from my face. As I took a deep breath through my nostrils rows of razor-sharp teeth clamped down into my calf.
Quickly I was back under water, cloaked in a sea of crimson, my flesh tearing from my bones. The beast dragged me down and as my pain began to fade, so too did the world. In my final moments I thought…
If I hadn’t left my phone in my pocket, or stopped to talk to John…
If I’d peddled faster over the bumps in the parking lot, or ignored the snapping turtle;
If I’d biked back to the house slower with one hand on my coffee, or if I’d remembered my sunglasses;
If I’d have just hit the snooze button;
If that surfboard leash hadn’t wrapped just so around Atticus’ pinky finger…
I wouldn’t have crossed paths with the shark that devoured me.