Close Encounters on the Beach

By Laura Tobin

A walk on the beach is usually an escape for me. It allows me the luxury to get lost in my thoughts. I’ll leave my solitary life to join others, but not necessarily to be with them. It is my time for respite and reverie as I walk on the flourlike sand of the Carolina coast. The beach has become my own personal sanctuary, or was until the day I was approached by fright.

Close Encounters On the Beach

It arrived while I was walking close to the encroaching waves on a long stretch of unoccupied sand. In the distance, I noticed a small, heavyset woman in a black bathing suit running haphazardly in my direction. Her arms were flaying above her head. I had no idea why she was acting in such a bizarre manner and wasn’t too sure I wanted a “face-to-face” encounter with some crazy lady intent on spoiling my serenity. There appeared to be no one with her, or following her or in any other way aware of her existence. I halted in my sand tracks.

It was only when she came nearer that I realized I was encountering the embodiment of fright. It registered on her countenance and pulsated through her entire being. The shock of the recognition sent a chill down my arms. She started to speak, and at the same time she was trying to decide if she should stop. It was as if stopping would take away precious minutes needed for her absolute mission. She spoke quickly with a noticeable foreign accent. I strained to understand her over the sound of the waves.

Her voice was filled with desperation. “Have you seen my little boy? Red bathing suit…” she choked out. “Three years old…” she added as her hand instinctively lowered to measure his height.

“No, I haven’t,” I stammered. “Have you…”

Something escaped from her mouth like, “Ieeeehh.” As she moved a few steps beyond me, her hands went to her temples. She then spun around and threw her arms into the air. I may have seen such scenes acted out in movies, and I’m sure I had thought them convincing, but I realized all the fright I had known or experienced up until this point had been counterfeit.

She suddenly turned back and looked at me as if I was to supply some answer. I called to her. “Can I help you…have you called…do you want me to use my cell phone to….” I couldn’t form one complete, coherent sentence.

She said nothing, turned and ran frantically down the beach. I didn’t know exactly what to do. I wanted to help, but I couldn’t stop thinking about how her search was running on Adrenalin rather than reason. I quickly retrieved my pocketed cell phone, flipped it open, and dialed 911. I explained the situation and was connected to the local police. A dispatcher informed me that they “were apprized of the situation.” I looked around and could find no sign that anyone, other than the distraught woman and I, was aware of anything. A child was lost – someone’s little boy in a red bathing suit.

I instinctively scanned the area. I drew my gaze from the water to look in the direction of the small dunes topped with sparse vegetation. I wanted a little boy in a red bathing suit to magically emerge from some secret sand hiding place amidst the dunes.

I saw nothing of the little boy, but I began to notice that the other inhabitants of the beach were beginning to stir. Games stopped, Frisbees drifted to the ground and people listened intently as details were related. The heavy news traveled quickly, and groups of adults began to form to assist the search. I caught the tail-end of some foreboding comment about an uncertain man on a bicycle.

Collectively, all the mothers on the beach quickly accounted for their own children. Some drew them closer on their outstretched beach blankets. Others called them back from where they were playing in shallow water. All those mothers knew that unreal reality can slap you in the face unannounced. They had a collective understanding that life can spin on a moment, and a child can slip away on a beach, in a store or on the way home.

The beach became more than sand, beach chairs and blankets as people banded together. I watched it all unfold and wondered what my part should be. Suddenly, I noticed a young, athletic woman run up the beach to her waiting friend. Their body language and facial animation seemed to indicate good news. They called out to other people, and though I could not make out what was being said, I could feel a sense of relief in the air.

I knew nothing for sure as I headed across the sand to the path leading to my car. I couldn’t muster the courage to ask anything of anyone. I wanted to leave content in the thought that all was well. Each group I passed, on blankets and towels, for a short period of time, had been connected to a larger happening. For the time being, children were accounted for and many small bodies were being relegated to small, nearby beach chairs. Mothers, who, minutes earlier, had been sunning themselves, conversing with friends or reading, now had their eyes keenly focused on the small humans in their care.

I sat for a moment in my car. I could not get the face of the foreign woman out of my mind. It was compelling. I had vicariously lived through a situation that I had never experienced with my own children, and I was shamefully grateful that I had not been her. I momentarily wondered what kind of courage it would take to go on after the loss of a child. I refused to let my mind linger there too long. I knew meeting fright had not been a chance encounter to be dismissed or forgotten. It came as a subtle reminder that mothers must remain forever vigilant.

About this writer

  • Laura Tobin Laura Tobin left the wintry Midwest to reside in Myrtle Beach. She received her graduate degree from Michigan State University, and was an International English Language and Literature teacher. She writes fiction, nonfiction, poetry and recently completed a novel about women pilots who flew for the military during WWII.

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