Golden Girl

“Look out!” Chance screamed, accompanied by a stuttering step in my direction, seeming to want to chase the volleyball he had sent careening in my direction, but hesitating at the last second.
I ducked quickly, allowing the white orb to sail past me and into the frothing waves which had stolen my attention away from the boys’ game. With a quick lurch I scooped the ball from the waters and tossed it back, only slightly amused by the chorus of drunken cheers, thanks, and half-hearted apologies I received for my efforts. I shrugged it off and returned my focus to the wide expanse of ocean in front of me. It was a normal summer day, as good a day as any to spend lounging on the beach. The sun was blazing, but a crisp ocean breeze kept the North Carolina shore cool and welcoming. The distant horizon glimmered and I thought back to the pod of dolphins we had seen that morning, leaping gleefully into the crisp air.
The relative peace of the morning was in sharp contrast to the clamoring crowds which now covered nearly every inch of the sunbaked sand. The once neutral landscape was blotted with intense, jarring colors in the shape of picnic blankets, towels, umbrellas, and tents. There were row after row of beach chairs each containing a sweat soaked, sunkissed passenger. In some there were young folks, like my friends and I, playing loud music and forcing down beer like it was water. In others there were parents, clearly denoted by their bowed backs and tired eyes, seeming to try to absorb every moment of quiet relaxation, while keeping their eyes fixed on the bouncing babies playing by the waters edge.
One family in particular broke my almost hypnotic attention away from the water, if only ever so slightly. A smiling, shining little girl sat cross-legged on a large round picnic blanket, her golden skin glowing against the jewel toned fabric she perched upon. Her hair was light and curly and frizzy, no doubt the results of several days of salty seawater soaking into the strands. It was almost identical in tone and texture to my own. The realization was enough to make me fully turn my head away from the enchanting call of the ocean. It was as if I had seen my own childhood memories come to life before my very eyes.
The young girl did not look away from the water’s edge. I wondered if she too felt that strange call to keep her eyes on the horizon. I observed her for what seemed like hours. She was quite unlike the other children surrounding us and my focus seemed to blur every peripheral detail but her, save for the crashing of the ocean waves. In all the time that I observed my tiny doppelganger, she had not shifted from her stoic, observing position; her only movement was a gentle, repetitive stroke of one thumb on her opposite wrist, clasping one hand in the other in front of her tiny form. Perhaps this is what drew my attention. It was an anxious habit which I had previously only observed in myself.
As suddenly as it came, my focus on the little girl broke and I was once again transfixed on the great water before me. The water ebbed and flowed, drawing me in deeper and deeper with every crash of a wave. The sand shifted between my toes, burying my feet deeper and deeper into the shoreline. For a second it felt as though I was becoming one with the beach. It was a silly thought, but in that moment it resonated with me deeply. It felt as though I was meant to be standing there, in that exact spot and at that exact moment.
This is when the ocean changed. At first I thought I was imagining things. I thought I was imagining the sudden chill which shot through the water, travelling across the tops of my feet and through my body, sending shivers down my spine. I thought I imagined the water’s bluish hues becoming lighter and lighter as suddenly the ocean’s ambitious reach began to fall short. At first the swells surrounded my ankles and submerged my feet, but within seconds the spray failed to approach my toes. A few more seconds passed and the water was steadily receding. I could feel the damp sand firmly covering my feet and watched row after row of perfect, rippling designs in the sand become visible. Suddenly the water was gone and the masses of people who had been crowding the surf were standing, somewhat dazed, amid the shells, litter, and other casualties of the sea’s depth.
All was still for what could have only been a half of a second. The bare, neutral expense stretched for as far as the eye could see, as if the ocean had never been there in the first place. The air was deathly still; the pleasant breeze of moments ago felt like a distant memory. It was as if each and every one of the hundreds of people gathered along the coastline held their breaths in that moment. The severity of the situation had not yet dawned. For a single moment, there was no fear and there was no division. In that moment we had become bonded. We were now linked in our confusion and our awe.
The stillness broke when the wave became visible on the horizon. There was a single piercing scream and the air outside me filled with panic. There was running and shoving, but I was cemented in my stance, as though I had fully melded with the sand. While my body remained frozen, my thoughts began to race. This was the moment before my death. The furious wall of rushing water loomed ever closer and I accepted that death was inevitable. I felt strangely at peace. Yet a strange awe creeped into my mind; this was just a normal day, completely unremarkable and now we had all become a part of something so much larger than ourselves.
As quickly as my frozen state came, it left and, almost against my own will, my head and upper torso swung around, placing my gaze squarely back on the little girl. This is when the panic and the fear and the tragedy of the moment fully hit me. What had this little girl done to deserve a fate like this? Her life had only just begun and here it was about to be snuffed out before my very eyes. But there she sat, perfectly at peace. Her parents leaned back on the blanket behind the trio, clutching each other in horror. Then, as if she had noticed me looking, as if she had noticed my quiet horror at the realization of her fate, the little girl turned her wide, gentle face toward mine. There was no expression on her face. Her eyes were soft and glittered an impossible shade of blue. Her expression was blank, creating a serene aura around her. She blinked slowly and I noticed her impossibly tiny hand grasping her opposite wrist. I felt myself mirroring her posture, completely unable to look away from her. I swore I saw a golden glow take shape around her.
The girl closed her delicate eyes and the tidal wave swept across the shore.