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The Thousand Steps
The boy was swept out to sea trying to reach Secret Beach. Instagram posts had made the place famous, labeling it magical, Xanadu. More myth than location, it became known as just plain Secret. Locals scanned tide charts and Inlanders drove for hours, and then they all walked down the thousand steps to the beach. The unreachable cove just beyond was Secret, where a lavender-windowed lighthouse and saltwater swimming pools beckoned.
The night before the boy went missing, people in the neighborhood had heard the swell begin. The sound of the waves—like the sound of my brother’s breath in the next room over—was usually a companion in the night. But the surf had built in the darkness, and woke me up. The breakers were coming thick and heavy. You could hear them exploding on the beach, the barrel reverberating with a deep boom. Each wave rushed in with greater power than the last. The next morning I noticed everyone in the family was unsettled. Even our dog seemed unusually quiet, the way he was during Independence Day fireworks. But then the tide began to recede, and we started our day.
Mom drove my brother Finn and me to school as usual. “Traffic’s terrible,” she said, switching the radio station from Finn’s music to NPR.
“That’s a good song—” Finn protested.
“—and midwinter break hasn’t even started,” she grumbled.
I was pleased. That’s the type of pettiness that happened to a person when you never got the luxury of sitting in the front seat with Mom. I stared out my window at all the cars. It was true, plenty of people came here for their holidays. Our town was one of the prettiest beach cities in Los Angeles and Orange County. It was one of the most dangerous too, not because of war, poverty, or disease—but because of beauty, and so people were drawn to it like that boy—pulled by the fantasy of the place. My dad worked at the trauma center, and in a back hall, there hung a map with red dots denoting fatalities Many of the marks threaded along our Pacific Coast Highway; even more were on our city’s south-facing beaches; and the rest happened on the narrow, two-way road that leads out of our town, a place that surfers sometimes call the Pope’s Living Room.
When we arrived at school, I forgot about the surf as I watched my brother jump out of the car, grab his backpack, and disappear in the crowd of students. “Usual pick up?” Mom asked, as if she actually imagined he’d answer her. This vanishing was a habit he’d recently started doing. I put it down to the fact that next year he’d move to another school. It was upsetting, the way my brother and other kids his grade looked right past me as if I didn’t exist. I focused on the anxious chatter of parents, not that I wanted to be connected with adults. They whispered that before the swell was over, the tourists would arrive and schools would release for winter vacation. Everyone agreed it had been the strange year that the ocean struck at vacationers and residents alike, all of us helpless to its rogue waves.
When school ended, Finn arrived and stood in my general vicinity while we waited for mom to pull up. When we arrived home, the tide had begun building bigger than the night before. The sets spun in with a hollow thunderclap as waves hit the shore. Every mean word that had ever been said about a bad surf day was thrown at our bay: shore break, rip tide, close out, crumbler.
As I was getting out art supplies from a cabinet, Finn stepped into the garage, and headed past me to the door. “You coming?”
Our mother’s anxious words hummed through my mind: Don’t go down alone. The waves pull you out. I straightened, clutching my paintbrushes. “Sure,” I said. “Full moon,” as if that explained everything. I glanced at Finn wearing his swim trunks and holding his Go Pro camera. In this half year of school, he seemed to have changed into another person. His nose was now straight, no longer rounded by its constant attachment to a smile. I saw cheekbones newly emerged with fine hairs on the bone that caught the light. His forehead was wide and the center glowed with a dull shine I thought was polished by sea salt and surfing. He looked at me, his brow furrowed, and I noticed his lips had filled out too. I detected a slight movement forward of his jaw which I thought might spell stubbornness in the near future. “Mom know we’re going?” I asked, as the sound of the waves came reverberating up. Three loud cracks of a particularly malicious set signified a monster swell.
“Better to ask forgiveness than permission,” he said. These weren’t his words, but those of a sketchy classmate, a skim boarder, who disappeared for long stretches of time. No one knew where. “She’d say you could go. But not me.”
I understood this was a form of insult, and a trap. It was true our mother carried out a two-tiered system of permission. Mom rarely said non-negotiable things to me, but she refused Finn’s requests so often, I could see him quietly fume. Mom was afraid of his increasing boldness like when he and a friend started filming their cliff jumping, or when they began nighttime sneaking into the pool of a local hotel.
“You never do anything wrong,” he continued.
“We’ll just take pictures of the surf.” My words did not come out confidently, so I pushed past him to lead the way down to the beach. I held my phone, my lifeline, close to my stomach.
We walked together down the stairs, our steps matching. Though my brother and I were two years apart, mom marveled lately that I seemed as old as he was. I tried to be that way, tying my long brown hair in a knot like the older, middle school girls in the neighborhood. I changed the shape of my eyebrows, and my handwriting. Before, my loops and consonants were never the same width or height. As these transformations accumulated, they seemed to suddenly catch my mom and dad off guard—even though they had transpired months before. But I knew my changes were small compared to Finn’s.
“We’re not going in the water,” my brother said. He left this statement hanging in the air with a feigned mock that suggested he wanted to strike up an argument, wanted me to challenge him.
Glancing at his trunks, I burst out with a short laugh.
“I wore this to school today.” He pulled the ribbing of his tee shirt over his chin and snapped it down several times to the rhythm of his step. I had irritated him, and he glanced at me, his green eyes blending, disappearing into his olive-colored surf shirt. Lately, if Finn had some emotion, he was more likely to get a rash on his neck than to show it on his face.
As we walked, I began to fully appreciate my brother’s plan. He and I were not in this adventure together. He brought me along only to placate Mom and Dad, and give validation to the reasonableness of his desire to go in dangerous surf. “It’s a big swell. Too big,” I stated.
“Rising,” he said. “Big tomorrow. That’s why there’s no lifeguard—”
My brother would have none of my taunting. Fully capable of speech and quite a bit of it, he drew a circle in the air and then the letter L. Loser.
Now that he had brought me with him, I wondered if he would even save me if I were to fall in the big surf. “We shouldn’t be doing this,” I said.
“Nope,” he agreed.
“We’re not going in the water.”
“No,” he replied. I saw a little patch of reddish skin appear on his neck—blotchy and unevenly bordered.
“We’re not going on the rocks.”
“You’re not even getting wet. Because if you go in the water—”
“—Mom’ll kill us,” he finished.
We descended carefully with Finn guarding the disease in his knees, another irritation from a painful growth spurt. I looked out to the ocean and saw a dirty, sea-foam finger stretching outwards to the deep water. It wasn’t just a rip tide, but a whirlpool.
We tried to reach the bottom of the stairs, but couldn’t because the surf had subsumed them. Nothing remained of the beach either; the ocean had pulled the sand out to sea. Along the shore, ugly, jagged strands of giant cane dipped down into the water like the edge of a raw, ripped coyote pelt. That’s when the helicopters came. There are three kinds where we live, and our parents had instructed us about them.
“I hope they’re not from Camp Pendleton,” I said, looking south. The thick suck of air they took when roaring by, left a fleeting and unnamed sense of dread. It was always just three atom-rearranging U.S. military choppers, but they arrived like a horde.
“Haven’t you learned anything yet?” Finn asked, as if I’d been living under a rock. “I’d rather have them than the police. My brother scanned the sky for the black, swarming agents, a blur of capital letters: ICE, FBI, ATF. They gave off a higher, harsher tune-like set of notes.
But what came were the helicopters that the whole neighborhood half-expected and feared when the big swells came. These descended in the late afternoons when the second tide came in: Coast Guard rescue and recovery.
At first one helicopter arrived, with a low sounding engine. It circled almost overhead our house, and headed back to sea leaving a high whine of rotor floating back. Then it returned with a centrifugal thwaping, louder as it approached. Finn and I made our way slowly up the stairs to get a better view, but everyone already knew where the search was located. From our house we could see it circling the cove just north of us. It was no-man’s land, a place that couldn’t be reached from either our community or the more rugged Thousand Steps Beach. The helicopter turned at an angle to the ocean. I could see the spotter, harnessed and leaning way out the side door with his bright yellow binoculars trained on the grey, choppy water.
Our dog barked at the top of the stairs and we stood for a minute catching our breath. Mom was on our deck with binoculars and her phone. She knew where we had been because of her tracking app, and that was why I’d taken my phone. “A boy went missing at Thousand Steps Beach,” she said. News spread quickly in our neighborhood. People looked out for one another, and they especially watched out for the children.
“Trying to get to Secret,” Finn whispered. He seemed far away, his eyes gazed at unimportant house details like the outdoor faucet or the garage water heater as we made our way up to the deck to stand next to Mom. Below us riptides appeared and disappeared within minutes. The churning and chop was constant, the sound, intense.
“He was halfway there when the wave came,” Mom said, consulting the texts she received from mothers closer to the site. I already surmised this having been lectured by our land loving, trauma treating parents about the unsafe path to Secret with its vulnerably low promontories and the imprisoning sea cave. But still, I wanted to go, every kid wanted to go some day.
Precariously placed on the rugged border of surf and bluff, old time movie producer, Edward Griffith, ordered the pools hand dug by a crew as if it were a film backdrop. He hauled Paramount Studio Klieg lights down, scaffolding, fast drying cement, and busloads of union workers. Mrs. Griffith served everyone Oyster Stew day and night to keep them going. On three consecutive nights of aberrant low tide allowing them far into the sea, they hacked two saltwater swimming pools out of the ocean. They then started building the crazy lighthouse full of trap doors, secret-rooms, escape-hatches, and colored windows. Ever since, it was as if this place was cursed. Cursed by the fact it seemed too beautiful to be true, and that people did crazy things to get there. From Thousand Steps Beach it was dangerous—but also more enticing because of the treacherous path and cavernous sea cave. From our neighborhood you had to trespass over the current owner of the Griffith property. Rumor was that he had worked at San Onofre nuclear plant above Trestles surf spot. People even braved radiation.
We spotted another bad sign. A search and rescue WaveRunner sped out into the deep water, and disappeared behind the giant rock that marked the end of our beach.
Watching the rescue mission agitated Finn. When we retreated into the house, he stood the way he had as a child—one foot resting on the other, gazing out from the corner window watching the whirling helicopter, the WaveRunner, and the huge breakers. I went over and stood for a moment with him. When my brother and I were younger, if dramatic things happened like wild surf, the grunion run, or the bioluminescent bay, the two of us would eventually disappear into the neighborhood to further explore the details of the beauty surrounding the bay.
“He was a tourist,” my brother murmured, looking up from his phone. “Only sixteen. He and his friends had come here to get away.” He touched his fingertip to the window and condensation illuminated the unsteady line that he drew.
* * * *
The next day word spread that the boy’s family had arrived. They waited at the bottom of Thousand Steps Beach for the rescue crews to find their son and brother. The tale grew of how the family would stand there until he was brought home.
Everyone wanted to find him. “His mother said he was afraid of the waves,” a concerned neighbor told us. “Didn’t want to go out on the rocks.” This seemed to crush us all, as we stood in the street revolving it over and over in our heads: scared of the ocean. Pulled under the waves. I thought of them down there, day and night, aching for him. Everyone in our neighborhood knew about the family, felt their presence, and my brother and I kept vigil too, waiting and watching. We knew the tides from Junior Lifeguards, knew how the current traveled south around the monolith we called Whale Rock and flowed into our bay. My brother and I searched the water, as did mothers and fathers, teenagers and college kids home on vacation. I kept thinking of the family, of the sister separated from him. I caught my breath once, when I saw a ripple, a glimmer of opaqueness under the water. Look, I said to my brother. He stopped and stared at the open ocean. Don’t see anything, he told me. I noticed he held his breath while he looked. But it might be, I said, and ran to a beach table, climbed on top and scanned the water. Come on, my brother said. Let’s keep going. And so we did.
We drove to buy groceries on Saturday, and everyone slowed to get a glimpse of the entrance to Thousand Steps Beach. We looked too, and shifted uncomfortably in our seats. The lifeguard trucks continued to sit parked and waiting on Pacific Coast Highway with round-the-clock, blinking lights. An ambulance and a news truck stayed as well. We understood from experience this would go on until they found him: the divers, the Ski-doos, the boats, the helicopters, and ambulance.
I knew that someday after everything settled down, my brother and I would have to go down the thousand steps to investigate this event—just like the other fascinations of our childhood. We would want to know how the boy was lost. We would look south at the route the boy had tried to travel, gaze at the sea cave and the edge of the cliffs. In the distance we would see the lighthouse and the pools. He would go with me. Sometimes living at this beach in this beauty made us go crazy together.
We would eventually learn it was our concerned neighbor with the flowing, long hair and golden highlights who found the boy. She would tell his mother that she had been looking for him since Friday, and that she spotted him Sunday morning with her own set of binoculars. He was in the shallows. People on our beach walked right by, hadn’t even notice.
The boy was on his back, his arms rigid and about six inches from his sides, his legs were set too, about twelve inches apart. The mother would understand that the ocean had rendered him naked, and that he had been turned into pure white alabaster, stripped clean of every detail, every wrinkle, every hair, everything that marked him unique to all others. She would climb out on those stairs with her husband and daughter, leaving her son behind, and they would remember those brutal, lung-bursting rungs every day for the rest of their lives.
But for me, those cruel and gnawed-up steps, too high to negotiate, too many for mortal lungpower, were walked carefully and precisely with my brother. We would move slowly because of his knees, or because of the way he occasionally rested—one foot on top of the other, like he did as a kid. The stairs would be so steep that we would hold onto the salt-pitted handrail to pull ourselves up. I would say to my brother that the boy had relied too much on friends for this reckless journey, and that they had told him dangerous information. All you have to do is make it to the first outcropping, I said like our Dad might role-play on how not to listen to friends’ bad advice. Sure, then you can rest with us. And when you’re restored, you can move on. And the boy thought, yes, that’s a good idea. I just have to get to the first little place of safety. And then I can make it to the next, and the next. Eventually, I will be there. But obviously, I said, not getting a response from my brother. That was wrong. They missed a step. That’s how easy it happens.
I would regret the pressing desperation in my words and feel sorry I’d said this because I’d think of that mother, and I’d think of my mother. How unkind to have to climb those punishing stairs after waiting two and a half days to hear the news that her son was drowned. And in my preoccupation, I wouldn’t notice that my brother lagged behind, that something held him back. He would stop climbing because he’d turned to gaze at Secret Beach.
“You’re wrong,” he would say. “The boy did not go out on the rocks because of his friends.” When he turned to face me again, there would be a neutral look about him, serene even. I would then realize he had already made his journey to Secret Beach. He had floated in the magical saltwater pools at dusk, walked the bridge to the lighthouse, and gazed out those lavender windows to the sea. And he had gone there without me.
“Because of those friends,” I would say, “he’s dead.”
Finn would tilt his head; the polished sheen on his forehead would glow in the salt diffused air. “He went out on the rocks,” Finn would share with me. “Not to get away from his friends. He went to get away from his family.”
There would be a pause in our conversation, and I would try to conceal my dismay. “How do you know?”
I just do,” he would say, his face turning pure white, with no sign of emotion or rash. Then he would pass by me, carefully taking every step.
Juliet Cushing is a Southern California-based writer and student. Glimmer Train recognized her work in their March/April 2018 Very Short Fiction Honorable Mention category. Additionally, she has won seven Scholastic Arts and Writing awards for her poetry and fiction. When not writing, she spends her time at the beach snorkeling or swimming.
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