I used to pray. I really did. Every night, my knees found themselves on the hardwood floor and I whispered a dream of world peace, a peanut butter sandwich for lunch, and that my family would stop fighting. Other days I implored that I didn’t have to pray as much, especially to the person who created me, the person who knows me best. But what I prayed for the most was no different than what anyone else did: happiness, even if it meant a sacrifice of my own. I told God I’d wait forever because happiness is that important.
Fifteen years later and I’m still waiting. I can’t expect anything less. Forever is a really long time. Yet while I was waiting for forever to start, things changed. I learned that every second is scripture. I questioned if Heaven should have gates. My prayers got stuck in between the moment I had to kneel and the times I wished to stand. In the end, I raised my nose from the Bible and found the world greeting me. It wasn’t always friendly. Sometimes it was wicked and unforgiving, not because it didn’t know what it was doing, but because it never could.
But then there are days when even all the evil of the world can be silenced by good. I experienced one of these days and have wondered about it ever since. I have only told three people this story, besides my family. I have now matured enough to digest it. This is because if you ever need a story about the proof of God’s existence, here is one.
To begin, I should say that if life is a beach, mine nearly ended there.
“Your floaties, Kacper.” My mother says with gentle authority. The sun beams on her auburn hair generously. She is calm, yet confident. After lathering me with enough sunscreen to drown out the sun itself, her hands feel slippery like jello. She drops the orange floatation devices twice. “Please,” she repeats, this time with a hint of anger.
I shoot a look of childish defiance. Despite her youthful face and the sun highlighting her cheeks, she looks tired. Maybe I’ve won. A laugh comes from behind her. “He can swim. Don’t worry. He’s responsible.” My father. The voice of reason, “Plus, I taught him everything I know.” He winks my way.
My mother smiles hesitantly. My father kisses her. “Ew,” I respond. They are still so young, so beautiful. I’m only a child but I know that love wouldn’t describe what they have. They cannot wait to see each other grow old, and love doesn’t grow old. It is defined again and again in hopes of staying new. So what they have, then, is each other. I storm off with my brother. A faint cry comes from my mother to not go so deep followed by a quick dismissal by my father.
The sand burns the bottom of our feet. The waves are so large, the water so warm. For a while underneath a wave, time loses its meaning. There is only swim to the top or sink to the bottom. All days, all hours, and all seconds of one’s life are reduced to these two decisions. For this reason, many people say that life is a beach if you let it be.
After making decision after decision, my brother and I climb out of the waters triumphant, ready to go home. The sunny day has smoldered down to a firefly’s strength. Where the sun was once now floats gray, voluminous clouds. “It’s going to rain,” my father says. I stare off into the distance, watching the pillars of fluff turn into something foreign and strange. One droplet of water falls nearby.
“Let’s pack up,” he continues. True to his command, but instinctively lazy, I grab a flotation mattress. Earlier that day, my grandfather showed me what he dubbed as a “shortcut” to get to the car. It was through a bunch of bushes and tall grass. To my grandfather, it felt like home. As a man of unparalleled discipline even in the face of dilapidating health, a foreign land, and a world war, he emigrated from Poland in 1985. With a life carved in wrinkles and experience etched into his skin, his word took precedent. When he spoke, I listened. The first time we took the shortcut, he stressed the importance of such things, “To find a shortcut is to find something you can claim as your own. It could even save a life. This is our shortcut. It brings us together.”
I smiled and nodded, happy that I could share something with someone so dear to me. Little did I know that it would also be what nearly brings us apart. For when it comes to happiness, love, and anything else you desire, there are no shortcuts. The same is true of life. The only shortcut that does exit is finding a quicker end to it.
The swimming mattress is especially light in my hand. In the clouded beachscape, it is one of the few colourful objects that has retained its luster. Everything else has faded to a light gray, their colours lost in the lack of sun. I trod on gingerly to the car – maybe indifferent to fact that life has turned black and white, maybe because of it. For better or for worse, I take the shortcut.
The car is only a few minutes away. I maze through familiar landmark: an ice-cream truck and a hot dog stand. Without a problem, I get to our car. I place the mattress down at its side, unable to open the obviously locked door. No one has yet returned from the beach. I wait a minute. Two. Then three. I give up and go back. If they are looking for me, then it’ll be a pleasant surprise if I find them first.
I walk back the way I came, recognizing the same landmarks as before. Soon enough, after treading through the bushes and tall grass, I am on the beach again. Oddly enough, my parents are not. Either is my brother. Nor my sister, my grandfather, or my grandmother. I am alone.
Above me, it rumbles of thunder. The clouds have become heavier and darker. The sun is almost completely drowned out. Even seagulls have retreated. I comb the beach back and forth. For some reason, I am hesitant to call my parents name, even more so to cry. In the catacombs of my mind, where reason combines with fear, I tell myself there is nothing to worry about. Certainly my family is looking for me. The sand is no longer warm against my feet. It is wet and cold. I make it to one end of the beach. Nothing. I walk to the other. No one.
I make my way back to where I think the short cut is. The tall grass reigns over me; the bushes brush gently against my skin. Maybe my grandfather will pass by here. So, I wait. And I wait. And I wait. Whatever was left of the sun has faded in the overwhelmingly dark clouds. The waves lap against the shores, a familiar sound in an otherwise foreign region. Back and forth they go. Yet I stand perfectly still. Or at least, I try to. My legs shake. My arms sway back and forth. Not because I am annoyed. Not because I am bored. But because I am scared.
Because I am lost.
It hits me. I call my father’s name. My first words. No answer. Then my mother’s. Still nothing. My brother’s. My sister’s. My grandfather’s. My grandmother’s. Only waves of water reply back, just as they would. Just as they always would. Then the clouds rumble again. It begins to rain.
And I begin to cry.
The rain droplets are heavy and cold yet I have not moved. I don’t even wipe my tears. The few beachgoers are gone, as far as I can see from a marred vision of tears. I am not sure how much time passed right there in the tall grass. To this day, I still don’t know. I just remember crying a never-ending stream, feeling cold, and wondering where I went wrong. My mother probably warned me not to stray too far.
If only I could hear her sweet voice again.
The rain pours and pours. The once naively soft drizzle has turned into complete downpour. I don’t even know if I am crying anymore and what’s worse, I don’t think it matters. I force my legs to move. One foot, then the other. I figure that’s what my father would tell me. He always said, “Quitters never win and winners never quit.” So I do my best impression of a winner, and trudge on.
I go over the scenes of the day over and over. The waves. The sun. The shortcut. My brother’s laugh. My mother’s chiding. It doesn’t help. I always fall back onto memories of family. I miss them so much. All I wonder is if I’ll ever see them again.
I can’t remember where or how long I walked. Somehow, I made it to the beach front. Rows upon rows of stores are open, housing the various customers. Lights, company, and warmth await me in there. Maybe even a phone call. But I don’t care for it. In hindsight, I wasn’t thinking straight. I guess just wanted to see my parents. So with tears streaming down my face and the rain pouring ever stronger, I tremble on. To be honest, I have no idea where I am walking. But that doesn’t matter. When the world shifts right from under your feet, it’s enough that you’re moving.
My dad told me in the worst scenario, one should laugh. He told me that no matter what, tears will always dry up. “Suffering will leave you empty. Pain will leave you weak. But laughter, if you can muster it, will make everything right if only for a little while. Or at least, it’ll make sure your stomach doesn’t hurt from emptiness alone.” I try to heed his words. They are all I can think of, but instead of laughing, I just cry more. Maybe it’s because tears are just laughter contained in droplets. I’m sure right then and there, he’d say something like that.
A few people notice me. A decrepit little boy walking alone on the beach front is hard to miss, I guess. Some of them rush outside, offering their help. They bring umbrellas. They ask me my name. I say nothing. I walk indifferent to the world. Instinctively, my mother’s words of ‘not talking to strangers’ kicked in. I didn’t mean for them too. I’m sure all of the people would of helped me greatly. But in one’s worst state, they are reduced only to what they know . And when that is dashed away, they hold on to it anyways for that is all they knew.
After turning down four different people, I truly feel alone. The rotting wood of the beach walk creaks underneath my feet. The rain has not abated. The clouds have only darkened. If any part of me was ever dry, it is surely wet by now.
Then I see it. A car. Our car. Driving away.
It is on the other side of the street, moving ever-slowly away from me. I run. I scream. I call my parent’s name. To this day, I do not believe I have run faster in my life. With the speed of a cheetah and the carnal urgency of one as well, I use ever ounce of my eight year-old body to reach the car.
If there is on coming traffic, I do not remember it. If I was nearly hit by other cars, I don’t care for that either. What mattered was that at that moment, I could catch up. The car did not slow, though. Nor did my calls halt the tires, despite my wishes otherwise. It just drove and drove, inching further and further away. Then it turned left, out of view. I chased it helplessly, panting a tune of hope and desperation all at once.
But when I turned the corner, it was gone.
I sometimes think of the worst thing imaginable. I think of the wars humanity has waged, the atrocities we have committed. I look at the gravestones of numerous victims who are otherwise nameless souls. I contemplate the people who are starving now, who are victim of things I can never imagine.
And I come to the conclusion that although I can’t wish those things away or that they didn’t happen, I wish that no one would feel like I did right then. I don’t think I can put it in words. If I were to try, I think I would say that all I can wish for is that no one feels alone in the Universe, that no one only has their tears for company, and that no one can be helpless against it all.
To say I was crying would be useless. To say I was beyond depressed would be stating the obvious. To even mention a feeling of loneliness would be a grand understatement. All I can say is that right then and there, when the car was gone, whether it was real or not, that my hopes were lost right along with it.
I don’t think I moved. I don’t think I breathed. I had a pulse, but what it was beating for I do not remember. I saw, but my eyes were stagnant. In the end, I wasn’t even a shell of what I once was.
I wasn’t even alive because I didn’t feel like I had anything to live for.
Wherever misplaced time goes, I must’ve spent two eternities and back there. Even though it was raining, I didn’t feel it any longer. I didn’t feel anything.
For some reason or another, I walked forward on the street. Must have been instinct. I can’t say my actions at that point were beyond anything but the basic emotions from a primordial time. As far as my blurred eyes could see, the street was endless. I turned left once. Then right. And in front of me was a bright red church.
It was from a bygone era. Rustic black shingles combed the roof and perhaps the reddest plywood imaginable composed its sides and front. Despite everything fading in the grayness of the rain and clouds, it stood bright scarlet. On its very front, and right in front of me, was a white spotless cross. It was as large as the church itself. Everything about it was unmovable and unwavering. I was sure that even the strongest winds would not bring it down. Behind my tearful eyes, the church seemed to glow.
I didn’t pray. I simply stared. I simply admired. I found comfort in the worst of times with something I know, something I was raised to believe in. I looked up, and it continued to rain. I looked back at the cross. The rain poured off it too. I turned around. There was no answer – at least, not here.
I walked back from where I came, not hoping for anything, not caring for even less. Walk, though, may be an overstatement. One foot followed another but barely at that. My life was gone and me right along with it.
Then I heard the sound of brakes halting. I stopped. I had heard stories before, been told over and over again what happened to a young boy alone. Maybe my teachers were just inoculating a culture of fear. Maybe they were being realists. But I can’t say that I thought the worst. I can’t even say that words like pedophilia even crossed my mind. To be honest, I didn’t think at all. I had experienced the worst already. Anything else was just injuries to an otherwise broken body.
“Hello, Kacper,” a voice said, “I heard you’re lost.”
To this day, I will never forget the conversation that perspired or the man who I had it with. I turned around to find an unassuming man approximately in his thirties with an unshaven face and a seemingly broad jawline. His beige sleeves were rolled up, showing an average build. Everything about him seemed typical, besides his most peculiar attribute: he was wearing a cowboy hat. He was neither smiling nor sad. “I can help, Kacper.”
My name. He knew my name.
I stayed still, not because I was afraid but because my mother words of not trusting strangers surfaced again. I went over everything he said. His voice was hard, as if there was a mixture of melancholy and hidden happiness behind it. Although I never had met the man before, it was nice to hear my name again. Maybe he saw my hesitance. I’m not sure. But he continued, “I heard you have a twin, Oskar. I can bring you to him.”
I could not believe it. I had stopped crying and instead focused intently on what was going on around me and what he was saying. He seemed honest enough, but then again, so did everyone else and I didn’t trust them. I grappled with what he was saying and whether or not I should answer. I looked at him with as much intensity as I could muster. The rain poured on, slightly blurring him. He did not move against the rain. He did not come closer to me. He and I stood perfectly still, allowing the silence between us to stretch onto the distance it takes two parallel lines to meet.
Just as I was about to turn around, it stopped raining. I looked to the sky, and where imperceptibly dark clouds once were, I now saw a single strand of sunlight.
Immediately, I knew what I had to do. I walked to him, hugged him, and he said, “I will take you to your family now.”
This time, I cried from happiness.
I know it sounds silly and beyond believable. I am not attempting to prove it either. The way I see it, some things don’t need to be weighted down by cold analysis. Some things just happen, and only after do we try to make sense of them.
He opened the van door and I met his children and his wife. His wife and children were beyond beautiful. They treated me as one of her own for the thirty minutes it took to get to where my family had parked. The two children, a boy and girl, offered me apples and even to play games with them. I wasn’t hungry or in the mood. They still talked with me regardless. Oddly enough, there was no radio playing or directions given. So, I just kept staring at the man in the cowboy hat as he drove on, not smiling or nodding, but instead, looking ahead.
From that point on, there is nothing much to tell. He dropped me off at my car while my dad was talking to a group of policemen and my mother was uncontrollably sobbing. At that time, they had issued an amber alert that was just going on the airwaves for two minutes. At the sight of me, my parents immediately hugged me then my dad hugged the man. Both of them were crying, as far as I could tell.
Now I can’t explain to you what happened next because I don’t know. I believe my father offered anything and everything to repay the man. I think my mother just couldn’t believe what happened as I tried to tell her and sat in the car stupefied. I know, at least, that my brother and sister were annoyed that they had to wait five hours for me.
I should say, though, that it’s not that I don’t remember what happened after I was dropped off and eventually returned home to live the same life I had been living before. Instead, it’s that all I could think about is that I never learned the man’s name.
To this day, I regret nothing more.
Now, I don’t believe in God necessarily. One story is neither a testament for the cause of belief or lack thereof. I believe in coincidence and chance. I believe that humanity often perceives events in a way that makes the most sense to them. I believe we are nothing more than a series of accidents.
But when I look back on this story – and I grapple with what could have happened and what did – I think back to a cowboy hat and a man I will never meet again, and I do not feel alone, I do not feel like a failure, and most importantly, I do not feel lost.
For a little while, I feel like life has meaning and one only needs to find it.