the “final” version of my short story, or at least the latest draft. it’s about friends at the beach, and being afraid of big things. like life. i’ll probably never really be satisfied with it.
you don’t have to read it or anything. that’s why i’m using a little break here. but yeah.
Cameron approached the rising tide, taking a brave look out at the water. There were no islands in the distance, no land, just the line where the ocean met the sky. The private beach was nestled between two hills. The one on the left, from which they had just descended, was topped by his parents’ beach house, brilliantly white against the cloudless sky. The one on the right was a cliff face, layered with thousands of years of sediment and erosion.
Myles trotted ahead on the footpath, reaching the sand before Cameron. He’d been talking about the beach all morning, at least while the others were around, but Cam knew that it wasn’t the sand or the ocean he was excited about. Myles was waiting to visit The Castle.
“Let’s just sit for a minute. I don’t feel like it yet, dude.”
“What? No, let’s go.”
“We just got here.”
“I’m not ready to swim.”
“It’s not about the swimming.”
“Bok bok bok.”
“How old are you, five?”
“How old are you, dude? A hundred?”
Cameron felt about a hundred. Myles had led him to the far end of the beach insistent on heading toward his real destination, but had dropped his backpack unceremoniously on the sand when it became obvious that Cam wouldn’t budge.
Cameron placed his own backpack and towel beside Myles’ and the two plopped down at roughly the same moment. He tried to lie perfectly flat, giving his aching back a moment to rest. It had been a long four years, and he would need the whole week to relax the tension from his spine. Ever since they had arrived at the house—Cameron, Myles, and the four others, who were currently shopping somewhere in town—he had been plagued by uneasiness. The anxiety was something Cameron had grown accustomed to over the years, a little itch at the back of his brain telling him he’d forgotten something crucial, that he had something to do. It was a souvenir of business school. But that was over now, thank God. When he started to feel anxious, he would remember the framed diploma Myles had hung ironically over the bar in the dining room, and the itch would temporarily subside.
There was a merciful moment of silence in Cameron’s head before Myles started up again.
“You better not act like this all week, old man.” Myles lolled his head to the side, resting his sunburned cheek on the towel. His impish eyes squinted against the sun. “A last hurrah is the least you can give me.”
“It’s not a last anything,” said Cameron, lying still and pale on the sand. Myles had been talking about him like he was on death row for the past few weeks, trying to pack in as much debauchery and Xbox as possible before Cameron started work at his father’s investment bank. They had months to make up for, anyway. Senior year had really cut into the time they usually spent messing around.
“Seriously. It’s not like I’m going anywhere.”
“No, no. Sure. You’re not going anywhere.”
Myles didn’t reply, but closed his eyes against the mounting sun. Cameron propped himself up on his elbows, casting a shadow on Myles’ tattooed chest. He’d had a lot of work added over the years: sailor-style sparrows, Led Zeppelin album art, Pink Floyd lyrics. There was even a patch on his left arm that he’d inked himself, back when he was trying to convince Cam that he didn’t need a “fucking fancy-pants school” to do something with his life. During their last “last hurrah,” just after high school, Myles had talked Cam into letting him “practice” on him. That accounted for the anchor on Cam’s shoulder blade.
Myles was lying with his arms behind his head, a too-innocent expression on his face that said point made. Cam had never doubted that his friend had life figured out, but he couldn’t stand when Myles got superior. He had never gone to college. He had just barely finished high school, and had been jumping between minimum wage jobs since then, tattooing kids in his basement, getting high on the weekends. His car was a piece of shit. His apartments were always temporary. Myles’ choices weren’t often discussed, but only because there was never a doubt that there would be another job, another apartment, another plan. Cam couldn’t help but be bothered once in a while that his friend could just float through life while he struggled every second to stay on track.
“Look, can’t we just enjoy this? You’re being so fuckin’ dramatic about the whole bank thing.”
Myles held up his hands in a motion of surrender, not bothering to open his eyes. A familiar smirk played on his lips.
Cameron opened his mouth like he was about to say something else then closed it again. He repeated this a few times, looking somewhat like a fish, but eventually gave up and laid back down.
The sunlight sank in, pressing him into the sand. The waves crashed in the distance, and he couldn’t help but open his eyes every few moments to check on the level of the tide. When he could taste sweat, Cameron sat up and pulled himself to a standing position.
“Well, I’m pretty sure I have skin cancer now,” he said, sighing. “Time to cool off.”
“Don’t sound so excited,” said Myles, rising.
“I’m just a lazy, sorry.”
As they trudged through the sand, leaving their things behind, Cameron thought about his lie. He wasn’t lazy. Myles was lazy. Cameron was tired, sure, but that had never stopped him before. He just couldn’t think of a way to explain the short-breathed, pulse-raising panic that struck him whenever he looked out over the water. Cam never used to be afraid of the ocean; in fact, he and Myles had spent the better part of their summers swimming at this very beach. But now the thought of being suspended over something incomprehensively deep and powerful was enough to make him clench his eyes when he drove over a bridge. And he couldn’t explain it.
Cameron could swim. Jaws, for all its merit, had never frightened him. He’d never known anyone to drown. And still.
When they reached the wet, packed sand, Myles started a trot toward the cool waves. Cameron followed, concentrating on the way his feet sunk into the squishy ground, like it was pulling him in. He went stock still as the water washed over his feet and ankles.
Myles, who was already waist-deep, turned back to call to him.
When he was sure Myles was underwater, Cam closed his eyes tightly and marched into the ocean. Short waves broke against his belly, soaking his trunks. He shuddered from the cold, but at least his feet were still on the ground. After a few seconds, he felt the relief on his scorched skin. Cameron kept walking until the force of the tide caused him to bob and float. His toes searched for the sand but found no purchase.
Before he could panic, Cameron was tackled by a sniggering Myles. He thrashed underwater for a few seconds, then sprang back up, having found that the sand wasn’t too far away after all.
Cameron thought about telling him off, but he didn’t want to sound freaked-out. Myles just laughed, carding the soaked brown hair out of his eyes. Cam scrubbed at his blond crew-cut— a nervous habit.
“Ready?” Myles asked.
Cam tried not to hesitate too long before he nodded. Then they began their journey.
The Castle was a sloping rock face on the eastern side of the cliffs. It wasn’t visible from the house or the beach, and getting there involved a circuitous route of swimming, climbing, and praying you didn’t fall to your death. When they were fourteen, they had discovered The Castle on one of their summertime adventures. It became evident, when they mounted the precipice—or “drawbridge”—and found themselves at the mouth of a cave, that they had discovered their secret clubhouse. To this day, Myles wagered they were the only people on the planet that knew it existed.
The first leg of the trip was approximately seven minutes of swimming, which they had timed once, on Cam’s waterproof watch. They had to skirt around the jutting rocks of the cliffs, paddling until they disappeared around the bend. Cameron breathed infrequently for these seven minutes, his lungs and stomach tightening against the creeping depths beneath him. He tried not to think of the fact that whole icebergs, shipwrecks, and submarines could conceivably fit between where he was floating and solid ground. Cameron felt small and fragile, despite the way his well-muscled arms displaced the water, desperate to reach land. Myles cackled somewhere ahead.
After what seemed more like an hour of swimming, Cameron saw Myles start to hoist himself up onto a rock. He swam faster to catch up, and met Myles’ outreached hand at the edge of the rock formation.
“Welcome, young squire,” Myles said, helping him onto the rock. Cameron was grateful for something solid beneath his feet, but was conscious of the approximately seven-minute swim back to the beach. Still, the sight of their old spot brought an automatic smile to his face.
They stood for a moment, breathing deeply, then started the hike toward the cave.
There was a path like a staircase, cut seemingly for them, leading from the initial rock to the jumble of footholds and outcroppings that would lead them to the cave. The stone was cool and slippery under Cameron’s bare feet, and he walked with his knees crooked to guard against a fall. Myles bounded from rock to rock ahead of him, with no apparent care for his own wellbeing.
“Be careful, would you,” Cameron said.
Myles continued to race up the side of the cliff. When he found an outcropping to accommodate his entire body, he turned to look at Cameron.
“Don’t be a little bitch about this. I’m fine.” He breathed heavily.
“I’m not. I just don’t want you to break your neck before we even get up there,” called Cameron from below.
“What would I do without you?”
The rest of the climb proceeded in relative silence, save a few curse words when Myles scraped his knee on a sharp rock and the “I told you so,” that echoed in Cameron’s mind.
Eventually, they found themselves staring into the dim opening of the cave. They shuffled forward, silent and revering, into the shadowy mouth. The first thirty or so feet of the cavern were in the sun’s path, making the vibrant colors of the walls visible, sharply contrasted from the shadows. Swooping, airbrushed shapes in fiery orange, metallic silver, violent red, yellow, and green were borne on the rocky, uneven surface. One patch of rock was a man’s face, grinning in the darkness. Another patch showed a long-fingered hand, reaching out from the depths of the cave. There were initials, phrases, and lyrics from what had once been their favorite songs. The figure that stood out the most, however, was an absurdly-drawn castle. The turrets swooped out at ridiculous angles in blue and gold, climbing up the wall.
Myles stood in front of this particular mural, thumbs tucked into the waistband of his swim trunks. A shaky laugh rumbled out of his chest.
“You were good at this.”
Cameron, who had been studying the hand on the opposite wall, mumbled a response.
“I was okay.”
“No, you were good. Really fucking good.”
“Better than you?”
They shared a laugh. Cameron was surprised at how much he missed their old hobby. There was something gratifying about it, creating something beautiful that never would have existed before. He remembered spending whole days at the Castle, sunup to sundown, dizzy from paint fumes. It was a place where he could forget about everything else, just enjoy the moment. He hadn’t felt that way in a long time.
After a few moments of circling their cave, staring hard and silent at the paintings, the boys met again at the opening. They looked straight into the blackness of the cavern, further than they had ever traveled as kids.
“I’m trying to be happy for you. I know it took you a long time,” said Myles. Cameron looked confused.
“…The bank?” he reasoned. Myles nodded.
“School, the bank, everything. You—like—accomplished something. That’s good.”
Cameron was ready to thank him and put the matter to rest when Myles spoke up again.
“After all that shit you accomplished, though” he said, “why do I still feel like you’re giving up?”
Cameron didn’t have an answer. He just stared into the pitch blackness while stirrings of anxiety crept into his chest. It was their place, the safest place in the world, but now he just felt like he was in the water again. Floating and helpless.
“I mean, this was the plan, since you were eighteen goddamn years old, and now it’s all over. You’re going to start at that bank in a few weeks, and you’re going to work there until you’re dead. And that’s that,” Myles said.
“No I’m not,” Cameron choked out.
“Yes—you are.” Myles continued, “You’re gonna have a parking spot and an employee of the month plaque.”
“And what will you have?” There was a stunned silence. For a moment, Cameron regretted saying anything. It was shitty, and he knew it, but he had to defend himself somehow.
“I don’t know. I really have no fucking clue.” There was no resentment in his voice. He just kept squinting into the darkness. “I know my life isn’t perfect, Cam, but at least I’m not settling.”
Is that what he was doing? Settling? The bank was safety and security. It was what was expected of him, sure, but it wasn’t some easy way out. It wasn’t a short cut.
“You don’t know what you’re talking about—“
“—Look, just promise me you won’t.”
“What do you even mean?”
They had walked back toward the ocean, right to the edge of the precipice. There was only one way down from here; it was tradition. But Myles didn’t take the leap just yet.
“I mean, promise me your life won’t end the second you sit down at that desk.”
Cam looked over the edge, down at the water. His heart was racing, but the familiar itch of anxiety was gone. He wanted to jump, if only to prove to Myles that he could.
“Okay, yeah, I promise.” There was a silence, and the words seemed to take-on more weight. They sunk in until they felt like an oath.
Then Myles propelled himself from the outcropping and plunged toward the water. Cameron was left glancing between the deep black behind him and the deep blue below. He waited for his breath to come shallow, but it didn’t.
Then he jumped.