After about forty minutes of playing H-O-R-S-E on the hot black asphalt of the basketball court Ben and I decided to head for the ocean, lay on our boogie boards and just float for a while. Stripping away our ragged sneakers and grabbing our boards and off-white towels from the clothes line behind Ben’s cabin we set off, jogging over the fresh-cut grass of the lawn.
The soft vegetation folded beneath our bare feet before eventually giving way to rough dirt, which soon morphed into the jagged gravel and broken sea shells of the Goosewing Beach parking lot. With light, calculated steps, we traversed the serrated pathway and hopped down into the hot white sand, boards dragging in tow like detachable semi-trailers, scuffing with a gentle hiss.
Around the time our basketball game began, the eight-hour shift of the local lifeguards ended. As they took down their green flags and dismounted their wooden stands the beach-goers they looked over did the same, packing their towels and heading for their cars.
The once crowded sands sat deserted and silent. Only the churning of the ocean broke the quite repose. Eleven years old and free of supervision we carelessly tossed our towels beside a kingdom of abandoned sand castles and turned for the vast expanse of blue before us, velcroing our boogie board straps to our wrists as we charged at the shoreline.
The salt water was an instant relief from the oppressive summer heat, even so late in the day, and I screeched with joy as I dipped below the cold white caps of the small waves rushing toward me. After paddling just over our heads we relaxed in the tranquil waters beyond the shoreline breakers.
Once beyond the turbulence, we unhinged our wrists from the straps of our boards, tied them together and rested, face down, on our blue styrofoam boards, basking in the peace of the ocean’s gentle sway. I awoke to a burning in my foot. The shriek I let out must have awoken Ben as well as we each lifted our heads to the sight of nothing but flat, featureless water cloaked in the dark of night.
“Oh shit,” said Ben.
“What happened?” I retorted, confused and frightened.
The answer to my question was, of course, all too obvious to both of us. We had fallen asleep and drifted far from shore and now, without the guidance of the sun, we were stranded deep in the ocean that we, just hours ago, felt completely at ease in.
“What do we do?” exclaimed Ben, scared and helpless.
The darkness was consuming. We were engulfed in a sea of salt and black sky, barely able to see each other.
“I don’t know, but my leg is killing me,” I said. “I think I got stung by something.” Having grown up by the sea, I was well aware of the threat of jellyfish at this time of year. I attempted to remain calm due to the already frightening nature of the circumstances we faced, but my leg felt like it was plunged in smoldering coals. As it hung behind me in the salt water, I squeezed and bit the front of my board, trying to ease the pain. Rather than relief, I came away with a mouthful of salty blue foam.
Unaware of our location, the immediate thought to start paddling became an obviously poor choice. We had no idea how long we’d been adrift, and in all likeliness, fighting the pull of the Atlantic current was surely a losing battle.
With the sun now set, the heat of the day gave way to the chill of night and, within the hour, I was shivering. I once again clenched the front of my board, flexing to draw heat into my rapidly numbing fingertips. A regular swimmer, it was a wonder that I’d never been stung by a jellyfish before. The initial pain was like being branded, but the following minutes, which became hours, were much worse.
My leg began to itch and nausea quickly set in. My head was spinning and my heart was pounding like a madman on an enemies front door.
“I feel sick,” I said, breaking a speechless silence that had gone on for quite some time.
“You’re probably sea-sick,” he told me. “We’ve been bobbing around out here for a long time.”
His diagnosis eased my mind, and I agreed.
“You’re pwobabwy white,” I mumbled back, now unable to control my lips. “But I can’t… it’s tough to bweath…”
In a panic, he broke my train of thought. “Have you ever been stung by a jellyfish before!?” he asked.
When I responded with “no” he grabbed the strap of his board and pulled it toward mine, separating the velcro bond that held us together on our unplanned journey. He reached his cold hand up and felt my face.
“Yeah, your cheeks are all swollen. And your eyes. You’re having an allergic reaction. The same thing happened to my brother Brian when he got stung by a bee last Spring.”
My pounding heart sank in my chest, and my mind began racing. “What do I do?” I murmured, shaking uncontrollably.
“We have to wait it out and hope someone finds us,” he said.
The murky black water began to spin beneath me and before I could respond he, along with all that surrounded me, faded into darkness and I plopped down, unconscious.
I awoke in a wind storm of blinding light and roaring turbines. Overhead a coast guard helicopter buzzed, lowering a orange clad man on a nylon rope.
“You’re gonna be alright!” he shouted, his booming voice just barely present over the roar of the spinning blades above. “Relax, I’m going to strap you on and take you home.”
As we rose from the sea, I coughed in between each attempted shout.
“Where’s Ben!?” I shouted. “We went out together! Where is he!? Is he alright?”