The beach was fine and white above, coarse and black below. Treacherous. The moment he reached the edge of the shore, he felt the sand give way underfoot. He stepped back quickly, before his wife and son caught up.
The waves crashed in, making a green roil from the horizon to a tumble of lava boulders that edged the cliffs where they touched the water, aslant from jungled peaks high above. Only this thin crescent of sandy beach remained untouched, and even that was being steadily eaten away by the sea.
“The waves are a lot bigger today than when we were here on our honeymoon,” his wife was saying, “but that was in the summertime. Quite a few summertimes ago, in fact. Although to your dad and me it seems like yesterday. Isn’t that right?”
He turned, putting his back to the sea, and beckoned them closer. The boy came up beside him and slid a hand between his father’s arm and waist, hanging there as if he were an ape about to start climbing.
“There’s rescue floats back there, Dad! And signs saying people get swept away here all the time! Do you think that really happens? What does ‘Kapu’ mean? I see it everywhere.”
“They’re just being cautious so they don’t get sued,” he said. “The hotels have to warn everybody about everything. It’s ridiculous. Your mother swam here and she was fine.”
Catching up with them, she said, “It was a nice swim, but it was summer then. Kapu is an old word, honey. A Hawaiian word. That’s where we get ‘taboo.’ Do you know about taboos?”
“Don’t do something?”
“Right. Something forbidden. Something you shouldn’t even think. If you broke kapu, the sharks would get you. I think a lot of things were forbidden in old Hawaii unless you were a big kahuna, and maybe even then.”
“Swimming’s not kapu, I hope!”
“No,” she laughed. “Not swimming.”
“Good,” said the boy. “Because after that hike, I’m really hot.”
“You can cool off your feet, that’s about it. It might not be forbidden, but you never know about waves.”
The boy stripped off his shirt, kicked off his sandals, then went rushing past his parents to the sand cliff, where he stood surveying the water. Beyond him the sea was pure foam—green stirred to a froth, pulled into agitated peaks, no clear water in sight.
“I don’t know about this,” she said. He could feel her growing tense, wanting to go after the boy but trying very hard to let him have his freedom.
“He’ll be fine.”
Then the sand gave way beneath the boy, and she rushed forward with a cry, to rescue her son.
He waited a moment, then followed. He could see she had relaxed even before he caught up.
“Careful down there,” he called to the boy, to reassure them both. He smiled at his wife. “See? He’s fine.”
The boy was sprawled on a mound of sand, formed when the bank had given way. It was still letting him gently down. He was halfway to the water, but so impatient. He grinned up at his parents, then threw himself forward onto hands and knees, crawling like a beast, making lowing sounds as he went to meet the surf. The weakest slop, the thinnest scalloped edge of the tide, swept around his hands and withdrew. The boy howled with laughter.
A glance up at the sky, another back toward the trail. The seaward curve of the cove was ablaze with full sun, but the wind from the water kept it cool. A few other hikers had ventured down to the sand, but most remained on the tumble of black lava boulders, close to where a stream from far up in the mountain rift churned through the rocks and emptied into the sea. The three of them seemed alone, apart, as if afloat in a bubble of spray flung from the surf. That white sound of crashing waves, so deafening, so physical, was all he could hear until her sharp cry cut through. It was closely followed by a second noise that could have been a bird’s call, or could have been the boy.
Suddenly she was pulling at his arm, pointing into the foaming chaos that now reached all the way up to where the sand cliff had collapsed. He saw a white shape turning over in the swirling waters as they receded, tumbling like a piece of driftwood but limp as kelp.
She screamed again, hysterical. She clutched at him, torn between the water and the land. The sand threatened to crumble under his feet as he backed away.
The bright yellow rescue float, a strip of buoyant foam padding, dangled from a zebra-striped pole, high among the boulders in the shade by the river. It was shiny and vivid and twirled in the wind like a fishing lure, caught in his gaze.
He gripped her by both arms and firmly commanded, “Wait here.”
“What do you mean?” Screaming. “We can’t wait! Go in! Go after him!”
“Wait here,” he said with forceful calm. “I’ll get the life preserver.”
He began moving across the sand toward the incandescent yellow blip. Trudging, every step required his full attention. People up on the rocks had begun pointing toward the water, so he hurried his pace. A surge of emotion seemed to crash through him, but then he recognized it as the force of the surf hitting the sand, a wave so huge he could feel it all the way up here at the base of the boulders. That feeling filled his world.
“What’s going on? What’s happening?” The voices of strangers, demanding and shrill. He turned back and saw his wife, still poised on the sand. From her stance, it was clear she had endured as much as she could bear. Stripped of patience, she hurled herself out of sight, plunging after the boy. She had gone against his instructions, he reminded himself, just as she always had.
Somewhat out of breath, he struggled up through the mounded boulders toward the garish yellow rescue float. Onlookers appeared to be moving in a different time stream, one out of sync with his own. A young woman unhooked the tube from the pole and flung it down to him, but wind caught the buoyant scrap and bore it off among the rocks, forcing him to clamber after it, wasting more time still. Finally his fingers sank into hot plastic padding. There was no further reason not to turn back.
He set off toward the sea, now among hurrying strangers. Some were unaware of him, others urged him on. It was possible all of them were watching him, judging, committing his actions to memory. He reached the crumbling brink as part of the mob, all of them seeing the same thing at the same time.
In the churning foam, nothing remained of mother or child. Wife and son had vanished. The ocean stretched out, unbounded and empty, and he had nothing more to add. He drank in the meaningless pounding of the surf, as over and over the waves came in and washed everything away.
He raised the yellow float, striking a pose that suggested absolute willingness to dive into the chaotic froth. His stance was like a promise made for everyone to notice. Immediately there were hands on his arms, urging restraint. Implicit in their comforting grip was the threat of force. These strangers would not let him throw his life away for nothing. Everyone knew it was hopeless. Their eyes held pity, but barely hid relief that it was his family and not their own.
Into the vision came a sharp rapping, and his own eyes jarred open. The jolt of adrenaline, born of surprise, felt no more real than the memory of sand giving way.
“Did you doze off?”
His wife stopped tapping on the windshield and opened the passenger door. The rental car had quietly unlocked at her approach. She reached under the seat for her knapsack.
“Must have,” he said. “It’s so warm, it put me to sleep.”
“Come on, it’s hiking time. You can rest with a mai tai when we get back to the hotel. We filled the water bottles.”
He twisted from the driver’s seat, shouldering his own small pack as he straightened. The cool sea breeze reached him even here in the parking lot, under the dense cover of leaves. His heart continued pounding. Was it fear?
She gave him a long look and put her hand on his brow. “You’re white as a sheet,” she said. “Did you have a bad dream?”
“I don’t remember,” he said. “I think you just scared me, tapping on the glass.”
“Take it easy, big kahuna, there’s no rush.” She waved at their son, marching in place while he waited for them at the trailhead just down the road. “The lifeguard said the trail’s in good shape, at least to the cove. It’s been a few days since the last big storm so it’s all dried out.”
The boy spotted them coming. “I’m going ahead!” He rushed onto the first steep twist of path before they had caught up with him.
For a while after that, there was no more talking—only the rhythms of the hike. Deep, slow breathing, deliberate steps, the alternation of sun and shade. His pulse calmed with the rhythm of steady physical effort. The trail was dusty, beaten to clay by the sun. Jungled peaks lofted above; below was the wide green sea.
They stopped at the first promontory and caught their breath, taking their turns among other hikers posing for photographs against the backdrop of a cloud-strewn sky.
“When your father and I were here last time, the cove had the most incredible swimming spot. It wasn’t storm season then though; the wind was from the south. The winds are coming from the north now. That might make for bigger waves.”
“I hope we still get to swim!”
“We shall see, young man.”
From the beetling cliff and the incised trail there was no way to see the waves directly below. The swell seemed to lift the whole ocean and let it back down all at once, like a settling quilt. It had a peaceful power.
They passed dozens of hikers returning from the cove, all of them cheerful, encouraging, enjoying the heat and drenched with sweat. Some might have just finished swimming, it was hard to be sure. He didn’t ask and didn’t meet their eyes, even when he stepped aside to let them pass.
Once the trail leveled off, he fell into an even stride and then further into a reverie. Suddenly he was back in the car, recalling how he had jolted forward, eyes snapping wide. Why such panic? Had he thought she could see into his mind? It didn’t work that way. Visions were private things. No one could see until everyone could.
The sequence came back to him now, sharp in every detail, vivid and present, unfolding like a memory of something that had already happened, something more precise than a premonition. He let the scene brighten and grow clear again. Here in the sunlight, on the hot trail, it was possible to safely experience the fear. It was like watching the waves come crashing in without feeling their force. The terror grew until it crested, carrying him with it. He refused to bend or cling. It towered and broke and washed through him, discharging its power. And then it was truly past. Gone. His pulse hadn’t varied. He kept on marching, and only startled slightly when his son’s fingers crept out of nowhere and slid into his own, giving his hand a small squeeze.
Just ahead, his wife had found an opening among the trees, a view of cliffs and sky so perfectly framed by leaves and vines that it might have served as a tropical postcard vignette. Joining her, he gazed through the green portal and saw the cove below. He smiled with relief. There was a white sand crescent, even more pure and perfect than he had remembered or imagined at the foot of sheer black cliffs. Lava boulders lay jumbled where they would soon be clambering. A tiny, unnatural speck of yellow rubber hung lurid and bright at the edge of shade.
The three of them stood with hands knit, the postcard now a family portrait.
“There it is,” she said. “Just look at it.”
The shore was perfection. Storm-driven breakers pounding on the beach, violent immensities of green nether water. He couldn’t feel them yet, but their power reached him anyway, not a premonition but a promise they had made him, self to self.
“Let’s go,” he said, tugging them onward, one hand to each, allowing himself a cautious, electric thrill of terror. “Let’s see about that swim.”
Only nature could stop him now. But maybe nothing could.
“Premeditation” copyright 2017 by Marc Laidlaw. First appeared in Darker Companions: Celebrating 50 Years of Ramsey Campbell, ed. Scott David Aniolowski & Joseph S. Pulver (PS Publishing 2017).