A claw of lightening slashes bright against the inky black sky above, seemingly colliding against the Earth upon the following immensity of a tremendous rumble of thunder rolling across the air shortly afterward.
"Hales!" I demand a response, but it proves to be difficult to portray this through the chaos of the storm, my shout near lost amongst it all.
Instead of supplying an answer, she continues to stomp away, beach sand churned out from beneath her shoes with each lengthened step. Droplets of rain plummet from above, pattering sharply against the fabric of my T-Shirt with such force that it stings my skin, supplying evidence toward the ferocity of a storm seemingly determined to chase me back inside.
"C'mon!" A second shout remaining unanswered, but I plod on, stumbling across the beach, chasing her down to the best of my ability. "I said I was sorry!"
Apparently that was the right thing to say, or wrong, depending on your view on such matters. For although she whips around to face me, it's only to scoff and screech, "You're sorry? Oh yeah that's great! How convincing Jared!"
Before I can even manage to open my mouth to respond, she spins back around, dampened blonde hair flinging against the force of her twirl. "Wait!" I continue to scamper after her, but instead of making progress, I ultimately end up tripping more then advancing.
Feet suctioned to the soup of the saturated grains of sand, I stumble after Haleigh, surprised at the speed with which she storms away from me. At this realization, I find my thoughts straying to the fact that no wonder Mother Nature seems to be the force of a woman.
"Hales!" I repeat, desperate to knock some sense into her, "It's crazy out here, can you come back so we can talk?"
Once again, she doesn't supply a verbal response, instead stepping under the cover of the dock ahead, putting even more distance between us. Concentrated solely on hefting my legs forward, I lumber clumsily onward, chest heaving up and down due to exertion by the time I reach the dock. Although shielded, the rain continues to patter against the wooden roof above our heads, pounding like hail, making me ponder whether the boards will cave in right on top of us due to the continuous onslaught.
"Haleigh," I gasp, whooping for breath, "can you-just-listen-to me, please."
Hands perched atop her hips, she faces me, a scowl imprinted on her features with such pointedness it's as if someone's stamped it into her expression permanently. "Why should I when you know that I want this!"
It's shocking that her shout combats with a second clap of thunder, prevailing and sounding equally loud. With a shake of my head, I whisper, praying she won't hear me, "I can't do it, Hales, I just can't."
Apparently, her only talent isn't gliding across the beach brought to the consistency of quicksand, or yelling above staggering racket, she proves to have superb hearing. "Damn it, Jared! Will you just listen to me for once in your life?"
Enraged by her incompetence and inability to see my side, I clamp my jaw, my attempts to hold in the tremendous yell pounding against my chest lost in vain, "I'm trying!" A deep boom bursts from my diaphragm as I add, "The question is, why won't you listen to me?"
"Because!" She seems determined to argue, volleying back and unflinching to my claims, "It seems like you never hear me Jared! And I want you to hear me!" With each word she jabs both hands against her chest, supplying emphasis to her already sharp words.
A gigantic wave splashes hard against the railing behind her, as if the sea is either determined to jerk her into its grasp, or push her onward. Despite the temptation to pull her away from the immensity of the ocean behind her, I remain in place, stating firmly, "I hear you, I just don't think we're ready!"
"Not ready?" Although I would have thought it impossible, the shrillness of her cry heightens as she cries, "That's almost like saying you weren't ready for our marriage, Jared! So congratulations, you're future as an athlete, totally secure. As my husband? Not so much!"
Baffled by her claim, I'm unable to suss up a contradiction, simply standing there, staring her down. She's beautiful, even seething with anger. The curve of her lips, tightened and pursed with determination, the wild searching of her wide brown eyes, flitting back and forth between mine. In the relative silence that follows, with only the waves slapping against the dock and the rain plopping against the roof, a faint sound comes to my attention.
"Do you hear that?" I mumble, tensing up, anticipating for it to reach my ears again.
"Oh that's great," Haleigh screams, "in typical Jared fashion, change the subject!"
Although the situation requires gentleness and a careful choice of words, I end up snapping, "Shhh!"
Whether it's from shock or disappointment-possibly both-she keeps her trap shut, waiting for me to explain myself. There, in the distance, muffled and barely audible against the violence of the torrential storm, I can hear a shout drifting against the waves, "Help me! Somebody help me, please!"
"Jared?" Haleigh inches closer, her shoulder near grazing against mine, obvious worry weighting her lips into a frown and working familiar creases against her face when she scrunches her nose, as she often does. "What is it?"
Driven by my own curiosity, instead of supplying an answer, I set off down the dock, walking until reaching the opposite railing. There, bobbing in the dark depths of the treacherous sea below, a safety light winks our way, illuminating a deflated life boat just ahead.
Once again, the shout echoes through the night, high-pitched and broken with distress, "Somebody please help!"
Instantly reacting, I begin to back away, familiar with what I need to do from my upbringing. Raised in a family of swimmers, with the shore in sight, I know I won't have a single problem. "Jared," she whispers, "what are you doing?"
Brought to face her by this question, I turn, my eyes meeting hers, wide with terror, and through everything, all I bring myself to say is, "I'm sorry."
Before I can bring myself to hesitate, I bolt forward, sprinting down the dock, pumping my arms back and forth, gaining as much momentum as possible to gain the ability to spring over the railing. Clearing the jump with a powerful thrust from my legs, I dive down into the depths of the ocean.
Haleigh's demanding shout trails after me, but it's too late, I've already catapulted myself off the edge, free falling into the abyss if churning salt water below. A shock zinging through my body, staggering and stealing the breath from me, I collide with the frigid depths, floundering briefly against the current.
Eventually gaining control, working with the rocking of the small waves instead of against, I paddle forward, closing the short distance between me and the lifeboat. Yet, before I can get there, a sudden rise of the water slams upward, jerking me backward, engulfing my head briefly. The first rule not to panic, I pause, bringing myself to bob to the surface once the flow passes.
Thankfully, this action has brought me further forward, directly in front of the first person in need of assistance. He's been separated from the raft, churning water uselessly with disturbing splashes, only resulting in exhausting himself.
"It's alright!" Paddling the last few inches, I latch onto his shoulders, assuring him with my presence, "I've got you, I'm going to get you help."
Before he can give me a sign of compliance, I've turned, working my way back to the dock, realizing, with a sink and twist of my gut, that it's much further away then I'd initially assumed, an upwards to twelve feet at the least. Holding onto him with all my might, right arm coiled around his chest, I thrust myself onward.
Dad's words prompt me forward, a near thirty five year veteran in the Coast Guard, urging me to just keep swimming. This is in my blood, and tonight is when I finally prove it to myself. With the distraction of my thoughts, I've managed to battle the storm, shocked at the relative lack of resistance. The winds have died, the rain is non-existent amongst the sea, as if the weather doesn't even exist.
Encouraged by this passage, I shove the man onto the dock, watching briefly as Haleigh scampers around, jogging down the stairs toward my position. And in that moment, I make a decision, knowing that as soon as she reaches me, all my drive and perseverance will be dried up against the pores of her hands when she reaches out for me and I'll be reluctant to go out again.
Impulsively turning away, I bow my head against the chill of the water, slicing like a bullet through the icy depths, recalling what my Coach taught me as well, that I was the strongest swimmer in his team, that I had a bright future. This is just like practice, this is what he meant, I'm sure of that. For the first time in my life, I ponder if I really was so different from my family, or just refusing to admit it to myself, that I was one in the same.
Once again, focusing on anything but the journey proves to be a boost, prompting me onward, until it's over in the near blink of an eye. Fingers curling around the smooth leather of the deflated orange life raft, I eye the woman slumped over atop it, shouting, "I'm here to help you!"
When no response is forthcoming, not even a stir, I immediately react, arms curling around her chest, jerking her closer against my body. The gentle patter, patter of her heart against my forearm reassures me more then words ever could, and I spin back around, carting her with me.
A burn in my calves, muscles protesting against the extensive workout, I realize that I can't keep pressuring myself like this if I want to stay afloat. Just as thoughts of slowing my pace come to mind, a low rumble behind me twists my guts with dread. Coming to an abrupt halt, I glance over my shoulder, just in time to see a wall of water rising upward, like the violent jaws of some ravenous sea monster.
With only a fraction of a second to react, and no where to flee, the wave slams down atop us, pounding me under and spiraling me around like a mixture at the mercy of a blender. Amongst the chaos, my grip around the woman loosens, and she strays from my grasp, lost in the darkness. Before I can begin to search for her, I pop up to the surface. Just as I gulp in a deep breath of air, not nearly enough, I'm pulled under by a second wave, pummeled like. rookie at the mercy of a pro boxer's fists.
Again and again, three times in a row, battling to resurface, only to be brought back under moments later. Soon, worn out, muscles tightening and cramping, unable to keep up with my battle to survive, I don't surface at all, spiraling further and further into the jaws of the sea. Until soon, I'm pulled into the throat of the beast, with no way out, only utter defeat. And so I lay, vision cutting to black, devoured.