On the Horizon
By McKensie Thomas
The sand numbed the bottom of her feet where she stood gazing out at the expansive ocean before her. The grey waves crashed in the distance, only to roll gently onto the shore, kissing the tips of her feet as she waited along the beach.
The kayaks were almost past the point of visibility, the slight fog that had settled over the horizon making it more difficult to see. The reds and yellows bobbed in the distance where the earth touched the sky, and she worried that the storm would settle over them. She folded her arms across her chest, rubbing her hands over her shoulders, before squeezing tight to suffocate the unwanted thoughts from her body. He would be fine.
Around her the families and friends of the other contestants stood by, and as the sky grew darker, she could sense the nervousness enveloping the shore. The cheers that had started once the kayakers took off were slowly replaced with hushed whispers and pointed fingers. People were gathering together, grouping off in a jarring way that seemed to shout protection. They needed to make sure that their own were safe, at least the ones on shore that they could control.
The storm wasn’t supposed to hit the coast. The weatherman on the car radio said that it would pass far out to sea, only blanketing the beach in a light fog for a brief amount of time before passing. But the sky begged to differ. The clouds grew darker and bordered more on black than grey, and the fog weighed heavy on her skin.
Before the race had started, the competition officials had discussed the possibility of canceling the race. After much debate and complaining from the participants, they decided to go along with it, making sure to have extra safety measures. She wasn’t fond of the risk, but she held her tongue, not saying anything.
The adventure that Nick brought into her life was what first enchanted Beth. They had met on the beach, all those years ago. He had been into surfing at the time. His board had caught on the sand and he’d almost fallen on top of her. It made for an interesting story, something they could tell their grandkids one day.
Of course they could only have grandkids if she made up her mind.
He’d proposed two nights ago. It had come as a shock to her, only because she constantly worried that he didn’t actually like her. They’d been together for three years, so she really should have seen it coming, but she didn’t. He told her that she could take as much time as she needed to answer—that he would wait for her.
The trip to the beach and the kayaking competition had already been planned, so they drove down with reservations to stay in the little Oregon town for the night. She could feel him glancing at her the entire drive down, but she ignored it.
Nick’s need for adventure once made her feel…something. The way he talked about the next sport that he wanted to try or a hike he wanted her to join him on. She’d always been more of an indoor girl, but the happiness that radiated off of him warmed her soul and constantly had her trying new things. However, over the last few months the adventures grew into more of a burden. She worried for him when he left, wondering if this time would be the last.
The fog encompassed the beach as Beth stood shivering, waiting for the storm to pass, but it only seemed to be growing stronger. She prayed to a God she barely believed in that he would return safe to her. Her worrying was something he always teased her about. She knew it was always dark and cloudy on the Oregon coast. She knew there was a coast guard motorboat following the kayaks out in the water. She understood that just because she had lost sight of him didn’t mean anything horrible was happening. It just meant that he was too far away, and really, the farther away he was from her, the sooner he would be turning around to come back. Everything would be okay; she tried to remind herself of that as she dug her blunt nails into the fabric of her jacket, wishing she had grabbed her raincoat from the car. But she wasn’t going to leave to go get it now when the worry washing over her body had her nearly frozen in place.
A woman wandered over to her, standing silently just a few feet away before asking, “Who are you here for, dear?”
“My boyfriend,” Beth replied, the word sounding forced even to her own ears.
“Oh that’s wonderful. I’m here with my husband. I’m Anne by the way,” the woman said, holding out her hand. Beth looked at it for a moment before introducing herself and shaking Anne’s hand. “How long has your boyfriend been kayaking?” Anne asked and she sounded so genuine, like she actually enjoyed talking to people, that Beth felt compelled to respond.
“This is actually only his second competition. Before this it was windsurfing and canoeing and before that just regular surfing.”
“Oh so he’s a water guy,” Anne said, a small smile painted on her face.
Beth couldn’t help but smile a little bit herself. Thinking about the list of adventures that Nick had partaken in over the years made her feel fond, but did nothing to excite her like it once would. She felt almost as if she were looking in on someone else’s life.
Anne laughed at nothing and moved her hand in an excited gesture. Beth’s attention was brought to the ring that sat glistening on Anne’s left hand, sparkling even as the clouds grew darker.
“My husband thinks he’s some kayaking champion, even though this is his first competition. Men,” she said, a small laugh painting her words.
Beth watched her, remembering that fondness that she felt when she’d first met Nick. She wondered how this woman that she didn’t know still felt that way after however many years she’d been married.
She smiled at Anne and looked back at the still invisible horizon. Her mind churned with indecision as the waves shifted violently out at sea.
“Some shit weather we got stuck with today, isn’t it?” Anne asked, and Beth startled a little. Anne didn’t strike her as the type to swear. She also hadn’t expected Anne to continue talking.
“I just wish the fog would clear,” Beth said, glancing at the darkening sky. She could handle the weather if only she could see the kayaks.
“I’m sure they’re fine. It’s been about forty minutes, they should be turning back soon,” Anne said. Beth nodded, a tight-lipped smile settling upon her face as the waves washed over her feet again. She wasn’t sure if she was more worried about the possibility of him not coming back or the fact that when he came back she needed to give him an answer.
The tide was coming further up the shore and Beth and Anne took a few steps backward so as not to get their jeans wet. Anne stood by Beth like they were friends, like they had known each other before, like they hadn’t just met. Beth shifted on her feet, trying to step away but not wanting to seem rude. She almost felt the need to tell Anne what was really bothering her, but she remembered at the last moment that she didn’t actually know this woman.
Out of the fog, a yellow spot appeared on the horizon, signaling that the kayakers were heading into shore. Beth wondered what would happen if the storm became worse. Would they be able to hear them calling to them if they needed to head back to shore early? The sight of the kayak becoming clearer the closer it got sent a wave of relief through her, before the thunder cracked in the distance and a flash of lightning illuminated the sky.
Beth jumped, startled by the loud noise on the quiet beach, and wrapped her arms more tightly around her. She hoped that Nick’s kayak was one of the ones already returning. She thought about the way he looked on the way down, smiling and carefree and so happy that she almost said yes to him in the car. She’d bit her tongue to stop herself, because while she knew she loved him, she didn’t know if she wanted to spend the rest of her life with him. Hell, she didn’t know if she wanted to spend the rest of her life with anyone. The waves crashed at an alarming rate and she wondered what happened if a kayak capsized. She knew the coast guard hovered in their own boat close to the contestants, and glancing up the beach she saw the team stationed to help if things got really bad. She hoped they wouldn’t be necessary, but a small sigh of relief escaped her body at their presence.
The winner’s boat pushed up onto shore and a large group of people ran over to her, a wave of relief and joy radiating from their bodies. When the next boat pulled up a little after the first, Anne smiled gently at Beth before turning to grin at the contestant. She ran directly to her husband. He peeled off his lifejacket and caught her in his arms as she jumped up at him. Beth thought it looked cheesy, half wondering if they were going to twirl around on the beach, but when he leaned down for a gentle yet seemingly meaningful kiss, Beth felt her chest tighten. She tried to imagine what she would do when Nick’s boat pulled up. Beth tried to smile, but her gaze returned to the rest of the kayaks. She could see five more out in the water.
As the boats pushed closer to shore, she could swear that the fog followed them, as if chasing them down, trying one last time to swallow them whole. The sky remained the same dark grey, but the thunder seemed to have passed and Beth felt grateful for that at least. She couldn’t handle the idea that Nick would be electrocuted at sea; the image of a cartoon character being struck by lightning flashed through her mind and did little to comfort her.
She tried to distract herself from everything, from the storm, from the race, from the proposal. She thought of the drive here. He had been so excited to get to the coast, but the dark clouds on the horizon worried her the moment they passed over the mountain range.
“Beth, you need to relax. Have fun. This isn’t supposed to be a chore,” he teased her from the driver’s seat.
“The thought of you drowning isn’t actually relaxing to me, but I’m glad you’re so calm about it,” Beth snapped.
She saw him glance at her out of the corner of her eye. “The weather man said the storm isn’t supposed to touch the coast.” She could hear that he was trying to comfort her, but her mind swam with worries, tension, anxiety. She wondered if he regretted proposing.
She thought of that now. Had he regretted it? Had he expected an answer right away and was just going along with the waiting because that’s the kind of guy he was? He’d never push her into something she didn’t want. But was it fair for her to keep him waiting for her as she tried to make up her mind? Was it fair that she kept waiting for him?
She wondered if their relationship would ever be anything other than waiting. She stood digging her toes into the wet sand as she pulled her jacket tighter around her, folding her arms in on herself in the process. A drop of water splashed against her forehead.
Anne and her husband walked up to her, standing beside her on the shore.
“I’m sure he’s just fine,” Anne said, next to Beth, staring out at the ocean. Beth didn’t understand why this woman felt the need to mother her, but at the moment she was almost grateful for the company. The mindless chatter might distract her, make her feel like she was doing something other than waiting and worrying. “This is Jackson.”
They exchanged greetings and Beth attempted another smile as he shook her hand, her gaze catching on his wedding band.
“You guys don’t have to wait for me,” she informed them. She wasn’t fond of having people wait on her. The irony of that wasn’t lost on her. The burden grew low in her stomach, churning with the anxiety and indecisiveness.
“We don’t mind. We want to make sure everyone gets in okay.”
Beth nodded in a way she hoped conveyed her appreciation and stared fixedly at the horizon, which seemed to close in on them as the wall of fog made its way back to the shore. The drizzling mist coated her hair in fine dew, but she wasn’t worried about that.
The minutes swam by slowly like some greater force with all the time in the world was pushing them along.
Finally, the remaining boats were in and family members and friends were rushing to their respective contestants. Beth stood next to Anne and Jackson, feeling more fear than before, watching as Nick did not climb out of one of the kayaks.
The coast guard seemed calm. Why did everyone seem so calm? She assumed they knew more than her and she was moments away from storming over to them to ask exactly what was going on.
The waves grew as they waited. Beth glared at the coast guard, until someone shouted something, pointing toward the horizon. Beth whipped her head around, wet hair blowing in all directions, drawing her attention from the coast guard to the horizon.
The breath escaped her body, her heart rate picked up with a hope she’d never felt before and her limbs seemed to sink into the sand below her. A red dot, like the rising sun, pushed its way through the steel wall of fog, revealing the last kayak.
Beth knew her waiting was over.
EDITED BY: Elizabeth Fish