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The Footprints Fade
Wet sand oozes through my bare toes. Each time I lift my sunburned feet up to take another step I leave a soupy footprint behind. My footprints don’t last long as the sea water rushes up every few moments and sucks everything up with its vacuum- like waves. Like my footprints, nothing stays on the beach for enough time to be remembered, as long as there is a steady tide. The heart someone scraped into the wet sand with their initials some meters back disappeared only a few moments after it was drawn. It was gone almost as soon as the amateur artist turned her back, as if the ocean could not stand such mediocre attempts at art that it washed it away as quickly as possible.
My baby sister grabs onto my hand. I didn’t realize that she has been following me. I look down at her freckled, sunny face and grin. She flashes a toothless grin back and begins to pull me to a small tide pool nearby, all the while rambling on about a big crab that lives in a house made of seaweed. I don’t think she quite understands that when her big brother is walking along the beach alone, it is because he wants to be alone.
“…and then the crab tried to eat me! I was so scared!” She pauses, and then continues, “So I ran to Mom but she said crabs only eat people if you bother them too much, so I’m not gonna bother it anymore, I just wanna show it to you. Do you think it will try to eat me if I just look?” Andry rambles.
I shake my head at her six-year-old nonsense and answer her as simply as I can. “I promise that if it tries to eat you, I will protect you.”
She laughs and hugs me tightly around the waist. “You are the bestest, bestest brother in the whole entire beach!”
“But not the whole world, baby?”
She looks puzzled and then answers, “But isn’t the ocean bigger than the world?”
“You goofball!” I unlink her arms from around my waist and tell her to take me to the crab.
The crab is no bigger than my hand. It is dark gray and is trying to avoid Andry’s probing fingers but is not succeeding. It scuttles out of her reach and huddles down into a crevice in some rocks.
“Andry, I thought you weren’t gonna touch it. It will keep on trying to pinch you if you touch it.” I squat down in the sand next to her and hold her against me as we watch the crab slowly emerge from the crevice in the rocks. It moves with speed across the sand back to the small tide pool. We watch as it slips gracefully into the water and sinks to the bottom.
“Did you know that crabs can breathe in water and out of water? They are truly amazing creatures. I wonder how it is possible for an animal to have two different respiratory systems in their body.” Andry does not understand everything I am saying, but she is taking in every word just like she always does with that fair head of hers.
“Ryan! Ryan, are you out here?”
I stand and look up at our beach house at the top of the hill. My mother is running down the sand dunes toward me. Her face is worried and desperate. When she reaches me she grabs my shoulders and looks up at me. “I was so worried about you!”
“Mom,” I’m confused. I always come out here with my little sister. The beach is our back yard and we can hardly stay away from it. “Why were you worried? I was just looking at an old crab that Andry wanted to show me. What’s wrong?”
My mother stares at me. Her face has gone pale. “You- you were out here with Andry?”
“Yeah, just like every other day. You see, she found this old crab in the tide pool and wanted me to see it.”
My mother has started to cry. The tears pour down her cheeks and she releases her strong grip on my shoulders and looks behind me where Andry was standing a minute ago. I follow her gaze. The tide pool is full of life; seaweed, tiny fish, a starfish clinging to a rock, and my good friend the crab. Everything is the same as it has always been. I grew up on this beach, after all. But something is wrong. Andry is not standing behind me. She is not leaning over the tide pool to bother the crab. She is not anywhere.
“Mom, why are you crying? Where did Andry go? She was here just a moment ago. We were looking at the crab,” I begin to lose my train of thought. Where is my baby? Where is Andry?
I look back to the shore where I was walking before Andry found me. The fading footprints remind me of something, but I cannot place it. I see the mushy remains of my movement across the almost empty beach and watch as the tide rushes in and steals the evidence of my existence on this portion of earth. The water is warm and foamy. In every aspect it is friendly, happy. But I know better. It is not friendly. It is not happy and it does not appreciate hearts or footprints or anything else messing up its unblemished sand. And when the ocean is feeling this way, indifferent to our attempts at making friends with it, it takes its revenge. Oh, how it takes its revenge is a dreadful thing to behold. The water goes cold and the wind tosses the waves and anything and everything within the water’s reach experiences the anger.
Things are becoming clearer. I can almost touch the idea of a certain emptiness growing steadily inside of my soul.
“Mom! Mom, talk to me!”
My mother is not saying anything; she is just staring at the tide pool with tears rolling down her pale face. I cannot understand why, but I begin to panic. Something is not right. I grab her hand and hold it tightly. I watch as she tries to form words with her lips and then allows them fall back into her throat. It is as if it would hurt both of us to say them aloud. At last she says something, but it is not what I expect.
“Ryan,” my mother manages, “come back to the house soon, ok?”
“Sure, Mom,” I drop her hand and watch her leave. When I let go of her hand that feeling of emptiness drains away and I am left in a confused yet peaceful state of mind. As soon as her head has disappeared behind the dune I feel a little hand slip back into mine.
“Do you think the crab will bite me if I touch it?”
“If it tries to, I promise to protect you, baby.”
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