As The Tide Came In
“Ma’am? Is something wrong?”
Carly looked up at the man, a twenty-something, bearded beachcomber in ratty t-shirt, hiking shorts and boots. And eyes dark with concern, as though he’d watched her pace for a while.
“My son,” she said, her breath hitching in her throat. “He went in the cave and hasn’t come out. And now the tide is coming in…”
She looked at the dark slit in the cliff face, the seawater washing into the entrance. She’d never thought of the danger. Dozens of kids, beachcombers, even camera buffs explored the cavern daily. They’d posted no barriers, no warnings. Ben had gone in an hour ago. She’d twisted her ankle and cut her feet on the sharp rocks when she’d tried to go after him. Now she was drowning in fear and guilt. What kind of mother couldn’t overcome a little pain to save her child? What was wrong with her?
“Do you want me to go in and look for him?” the young man asked.
“You wouldn’t mind? Oh, thank you. His name is Ben.”
“Don’t worry.” He laid a warm hand on her shoulder. “We’ll be back before you know it.”
She watched the young man wade through ankle-deep water and vanish into the cavern, hearing again her son’s reluctance when she’d asked him to go geode hunting for her. Ben, at eleven, was small for his age, timid and fearful of other boys’ roughhousing. She needed to push him gently, instill confidence, especially since Al had died. It was up to her to raise him into a strong, competent man.
“I don’t want to.” Ben scowled.
“Please, Ben?” Carly’s ankles and feet throbbed from picking her way over the shifting stones and coarse grit that comprised the beach. “You know how I love geodes and the best ones are in the cave.”
“Come with me, Mom.”
“I can’t, baby. Wrong shoes.” She shrugged. “Please, do it for Mommy?”
Ben hunched his shoulders and shook his head.
“Oh, come on, kiddo.” She gave him a tiny shove toward the cavern. “You can do it. Go get me a nice big one.”
He’d looked at her, sighed, then trudged toward the entrance slit. He turned and waved just before the darkness swallowed him. Carly had smiled. She was glad now she had forgotten her boots. She knew Ben didn’t like dark places, but he’d obeyed her anyway. Her little man had overcome yet another hurdle. How many more would there be before he was fully grown?
But the beachcomber couldn’t find Ben. Carly stood outside the cave, unable to think, barely able to breathe, feet bloody and heart numb as she watched the young man join the volunteers who flowed in and out of the darkness as day morphed into night into day until Ben’s body was found. He’d crawled through a small hole deep in the cavern, gotten stuck and drowned in the onrushing tide. Carly watched it all until they brought her son out. Until they posted warning signs and cordoned off the dangerous parts of the cave. Then she stopped noticing anything.
Ben came to her six months later, in the deep darkness of her despair. Limned in soft light, his face glowed with joy and peace. She cried out and opened her arms, but he just hovered there, a few inches off the floor.
“I’m so sorry, baby,” she said, her voice choked, her words barely discernible. “Please, don’t hate me.”
Ben smiled. It’s okay, Mom. You did right in pushing me. You couldn’t know what would happen. I forgive you.
Tears fell, releasing her back to the world, but her shredded heart remained numb. And she lived on, alone.
Now she’d returned to the cave for the first time since it happened. She stood before the opening and felt again the horror of Ben’s death. Twenty years. How have I survived this long?she wondered. Why have I wanted to? She thought of Ben’s gentle smile, heard again his soft comforting voice from so long ago: I forgive you.
She lifted the bottle, shook a few pills into her mouth, drank them down. And repeated it until the bottle was empty. Then she sat on the cold, damp stones and watched the tide surge in. She let her tears flow, let the end come. Ben’s forgiveness was not enough, because she was at fault. And there was no pardon for that.