Once upon a time a boy struggled desperately to save his father’s life. The water they had been surfing in together had been a cool blue but now it was frothing and crimson with blood. The boy paddled towards his father, screaming in rage, tears blurring the horrific scene before him. He reached out and grabbed his dad’s arm. He kind of knew he was too late but it had all happened so fast and he didn’t have time to process it. He only knew he had to get his dad back to the beach. He didn’t think about the shark that must still be around. He kept swimming, towing his dad back and pulling him out of the water onto the sand.
The boy was becoming a man. He felt he was almost there, but like something was holding him back. He shaved every other day, he was hairy like his dad had been. He was starting to look a lot like him in fact. He avoided looking at himself in mirrors for too long, which had the effect of making him look even more like his dad, who’d never seemed to have time for much grooming between surfing with him, work and taking his mum out on dates. So when the boy did catch sight of himself in the mirror he saw his dad’s salty brown dreadlocks and blue-black midnight eyes, and what his mum had called ‘desert face, all sandy tan and spiky cactus stubble.’ If he looked for too long he noticed his dad’s eyes looked flat in a way they had never done when he was alive, then the boy would remember he was looking at his own desert face.
An autumn, a winter and a spring had all passed since the boy had been in the ocean that last time. He’d been to the beach every day though. He was on the lookout for sharks. He didn’t know what he’d do if he saw one. He just knew he hated them. He hated them because he and his dad used to defend them, telling people about how shark deaths at the hands of humans far outnumbered human deaths at the jaws of sharks. He felt like a dickhead now. So the boy hated sharks and remembered his dad every day. He replayed memories in his head like a TV series. He’d be out with his mates at the shops and remember one of the pranks his dad used to pull, like when they’d go to the shops and walk around looking puzzled at the ceiling and see how many other people would look up. And he’d remember how when he was a kid his mum and dad took him and three of his mates to the beach and his dad told them all to line up behind him at the bin right next to the Mr Whippy van. They were pretty tame pranks compared to the ones the boy knew his mum and dad used to pull when they were kids, but they all still pissed themselves laughing when people started joining their line without really looking and the line for the bin got longer than the line for ice-creams.
Too often these memories would keep him awake at night, hot with grief and hate. It was such a night when the boy saw his dad’s face again. Not in a memory this time, or in the mirror. He was standing by the window. The boy had just punched a hole in his door and was tensed up in anger, sitting on the end of the bed, his head bent between his fists. “Get our boards kiddo, we’re going to the beach.” ‘Not another beach memory Dad, can’t you just let me sleep?’ the boy thought. He looked up and saw that face, his own but with laughter lines, crow’s feet and a few grey hairs streaking his dreads. The boy was so tired, he thought he might have dropped off and slipped into a dream. It felt pretty real when his dad put his hand on his shoulder though. He heard his dad’s sandpaper lullaby voice again, “Come on, sun will be up soon.” The boy thought about surfing with his dad. He gave in to temptation and let himself believe for a moment that his dad had never died, after all he was right here in the room with him like he had been every morning.
On the way to the beach they joked around like no time had passed, “Remember when you used to live in my balls?” “Remember when you used to be handsome and witty?” And after a while the boy’s dad got as serious as he’d ever seen him. “You know what happened to me mate, there is more chance of being struck by lightning. Or being killed by a coconut falling on your head,” he said. “Or of winning Lotto,” the boy remembered. His dad continued, “Exactly, you know them all too. You used to say them all, to anyone who would listen. What changed buddy?” The boy replied with a suddenly husky voice, “I lost you. However small the odds were, you were my dad and that shark took you from me.” The man and his son walked downhill in silence for a while. When they could see the shadow of the dunes and the waves beyond, the man spoke again, slower and more deliberately, “I know how much it sucks, but you have to remember we were in their territory mate, and in our wetsuits we looked just like their dinner. It was a freak accident. They’re not hungry for surfers, they thought we were seals. Anyway, think about it, they’ve been here for four hundred million years, before dinosaurs even, people have been here for like two hundred thousand. It’s their planet man, it’s their ocean, we just surf here.” The boy walked the rest of the way in silence, trying to process all the thoughts and feelings bubbling away inside him. He missed his dad for all the things he’d been when he was alive; father, teacher, best friend, brother, and all the things he’d never be; father of the groom, best man, grandfather. He missed surfing, he missed riding the crest of a wave, salty cool flight. He felt the anger that his dad had been taken too early receding a bit, which made him feel guilty. He still craved the invincibility that guys his age all seemed to have, but he knew it was just an illusion. He wanted to laugh. He really wanted to be happy every day, but there was that guilt again. He knew his dad was right about the sharks too, but he wanted to hate them, even felt like he needed to.
The boy and his dad crossed the sand and stood with the cool water rushing in over their feet. The boy felt the salty sting of half-hearted slaps against his calves. He looked at his dad who grinned back. “Careful mate, you might smile,” he cracked as he ran into the ocean. The boy felt his face relax into a smile and he felt warm and happy, with no trace of guilt. He followed his dad into the waves and the two surfed together for the first time in almost a year. It was the best ride of the boy’s life. He felt like his heart had been dried up and shrivelled and now it was soaking up the ocean water and filling his chest. He heard his dad’s voice in his head, telling him the hatred he was still holding onto was like a disease that would destroy his happiness. His dad’s voice was telling him to let go of the hate, try to understand that it wasn’t an attack but an accident, that sharks were not the enemy but powerful creatures to be respected and admired. The boy looked over at his dad who, lying flat on his board, lifted an arm back and bent it strangely out of shape, his hand pointing up out of the middle of his back, his elbow sticking out to the side. One foot pointed down like any normal foot but the other rotated backwards. His legs were fusing together and getting longer, it kind of looked like an extendable lens on a camera. Micro second by micro second the boy watched as his father’s body parts clicked into odd positions, morphing and darkening until he was face to face with a small shark.
The boy looked into the keen blue-black midnight eyes and felt a lightness in his heart that he hadn’t even known he’d been missing, though it was so obvious now. Hate was a cage, and he’d just been given the key to freedom. He said goodbye and watched his dad swim away, feeling salty tears on his cheeks and not caring if they were his or the ocean’s. The sun had been up for a long time but suddenly everything was bathed in light, and the boy knew that the next time he looked in the mirror he’d see a man with light in his eyes.