By Paul K. Riley
The noise of the night before had subsided: the slurred yells, the blaring television, the pounding on her locked bedroom door. From the bed, she stared across the room past the pressboard dresser, sagging under the weight of middle school books, to the bedroom corner where her rocket-shaped escape stood. It pointed toward the ceiling as if ready for take-off. In cautious silence, she changed into her suit.
On the beach, having found the perfect time to launch into the roiling surf, she sprinted through the sand, surfboard in hand, and leapt out over the ocean. For a moment, her thin body soared above the surf, then landed with a rush of speed on top of the bright white board. The momentum sent her gliding through the rough water out toward the breakers and away from her sweltering Carolina beach town. With deft strokes, she accelerated away from land, trying to escape the shifting wash of whitewater before a wave could catch her and toss her back to land.
She paddled hard, muscling through the rushing remains of broken waves or duck-diving under those that threatened to crash on top of her. With a last heave of effort, she passed the final breakers. The pull of currents and tumble of shattered waves subsided. She was free, away from the beach and floating in the gentle rolls of the ocean.
She caught her breath and thought of her escape—past her father, face-down on the couch; past the wobbly kitchen table, covered with empty beer cans and a capsized pill bottle; then out through the trailer’s screen door and down the dirt lane toward the ocean.
She arched her back to raise her head high and look away from the beach and thoughts of her battered home to the open water. She scanned the sea in hopes of a perfect wave; one big enough to carry her away, far and fast, and high enough to lift her above the tumbling surf that she had fought to get here. But she could see only row upon row of the choppy swells repeating themselves into the distance, like a chaotic jumble of barren, shifting hills that offered no relief. She squinted her eyes to try and see further in hopes that there was more. Then the wind shifted and swept across the water to cast a gentle mist onto her face—as if promising a change. She smiled at the cleansing taste of brine. She closed her eyes, lay her head on the board, and drifted.
When she raised her head again, she saw it. There among the moving hills, a mountain. A smooth swell standing far above the rest, taller than herself, taller than her father. She turned her board to run before the wave and paddled hard to try and match its speed. As it came under her, its motion and incline thrust her forward, and she and the board began to drop down the face of the wave; she no longer needed to paddle, the board moved effortlessly with the mountain. In one graceful motion, she popped to her feet, and she and the moving mountain became one, a single, powerful force. With slight shifts of her feet, she carved back and forth, the water and speed allowing her to ride the wave from crest to trough and back again. She no longer thought of her trailer or the half-mile trek down the dirt road to cross the freeway, or of the rows of rich, rental homes that looked down on her as she passed to reach the beach; she no longer thought of her broken father or bolting her bedroom door; she only thought of the moving mountain and all it was and all that it could be. Its power and energy propelled her far from herself. At its crest, she could rise, rise above the broken waves and her dusty, dead-end road, rise above even the clouds themselves and glimpse a world beyond, one where she was a goddess riding the slopes of the solar winds: powerful, invincible, untouchable.
Then, as always, the mountain began to collapse. When it reached the shallows, its lofty height became too great to support, so it curled and started its thunderous crash. At the last moment, she leapt from the board over the breaking mountain and into the calmer waters just behind it. The momentum of the water carried her and the board forward and up onto the beach. As she threw back her hair and brushed salt-water from her eyes, she saw standing on the sand the red-eyed, disheveled figure of her father. She could see the apology forming on his lips and a beer dangling from his fingertips. She wanted to take her board and launch back into the sea, but she knew the waves would only wash her back again.