Cool, crystalline water tumbled around Chelsea, her father, and hundreds more in the sea. Each wave swelled excitement in the young girl, enjoying every dark tumble with sand and shells under foamy break. She’d shoot up with a splash, gasp for breath, and look for her father and the next wave.
“Come on, Chels. Let’s go back to your mom.” He beckoned, impatient as his daughter wiped water from her eyes.
“Can I stay just a little bit more? You can see me from the beach!” Chelsea pleaded
Her father looked to mom, sunbathing beneath a floppy straw hat, thoughts far from either of them.
“Your mom will kill me.” He said just above the tide’s roar.
“I won’t be more than ten minutes!” She bargained.
“Fine. Ten minutes, then you’re out. I’m timing you!”
Without a moment’s delay Chelsea tossed herself into the next wave, rolled into a ball, and drifted with currents until her little lungs could take no more. When feet planted touched sand, her waterlogged eyes darted past a mosaic of t-shirts, torsos, lotion-lathered children, and multicolored umbrellas until she found mom tanning and dad reading. She thought it curious how even the shortest time underwater swept her so far away from her parents.
Between gulps of saltwater, Chelsea stared at the line where sea meets sky. Mom once told her about the universe and space, how it’s always expanding. Little eyes fixed on the horizon made sense of it all. If she swam all the way out, no matter how far, she’d never reach the horizon—it’d always be there, even if she traveled the world over to catch up to it. “The universe must be like that, too.” Chelsea thought in wait, preparing for the next wave’s turbulent journey.
Other swimmers splashed and played, soaked foam balls were hurled and uncaught, smashing into backs and necks. She stared at water’s edge and watched it shake, bending to reveal a force stirred deep below—a mass of water growing and toppling over itself. The hundreds around her kept calm even as the wave touched the sky and heaved forward.
Water streamed past her ankles, draining into the immense wave that slouched towards Chelsea. Forced into the flood, she clawed wet sand and tore long ephemeral lines while pulled before the towering sea. Chelsea balled herself up beneath its crest and prepared for darkness. The wave crashed, shoving her deep below: a mess of sand, shells, saltwater, and little girl.
When her head surfaced, Chelsea coughed saltwater and wheezed air, dizzily reorienting herself in now-calm tides. She wondered how she’d survived. Her legs scrambled for bottom but found nothing to stand. She swam in circles, coughing up warm water, desperately looking for her family, the beach, or anything at all. It’d all been swept away with the wave’s assault. The horizon steadied itself and remained as far from Chelsea as it ever was.
In a field of silent blue, wading in water too-deep-to-tell, Chelsea cried. So far, so very far away, she panicked.
“I’ll never see my parents again.”
Chelsea pictured them drifting along and shouting for a daughter lost to a monstrous wave. She wondered if they’d have another child to take her place, and if her imaginary brother or sister would ever be allowed in water. Amid pained thoughts Chelsea noticed two stones among sun-kissed water: one grey and one white, bobbing along a few meters away. As if it knew it were watched, the grey stone picked up speed and cut through water towards Chelsea.
Her arms and legs went stiff, her lips frozen-parted. Her eyes locked on the stone, its form unfolding as a fin mere inches from her face. A slick body rubbed against the soles of Chelsea’s feet.
“Why are you drifting out so far, child?” A calm voice inquired from below. Chelsea launched from the body in escape, but tired arms slapped against water and drowned below. She turned to see the fin dip beneath the surface. In her fright, she gulped a mouthful of cool, salty water and spit it up with words following, “Who said that?”
A dark, blurry shadow hovered just beneath her toes. It rose like the morning sun, patient and majestic. Within moments the water broke to present a large bottle-nosed dolphin.
“How did you come to be here, child?” It asked, mustering as confused a look as a grinning dolphin can.
“I…how…you can talk?”
The dolphin tossed an incredulous look and laughed, “Talk? Child, there are more pressing matters to address! To you, one whose voice you’ve never heard is strange, indeed. To me, a child tossed from the blue above is much more puzzling—is it not to you? Then enlighten me, how did you come to find yourself here?”
“Perhaps your tired limbs prevent you from speech. Please, allow me.” The dolphin dove and rested its body under Chelsea’s feet, providing balance and respite from her fight to stay afloat.
“I really don’t know! I was swimming and a big wave took me under. It was as big as the sky! I don’t know that anybody else even saw it. When I found the surface I couldn’t find the beach, or my family.” Chelsea’s teary eyes blended blues of sea and sky that trapped her in a senseless, watery orb.
“I’m lost.” She cried.
The dolphin appeared before her again though her balance remained.
“Another holds you up, child. I can neither explain nor understand what brought you here today. But if this meeting is meant between us, it is surely one of great importance.”
The dolphin watched with sad eyes as Chelsea cried, curious to how she was able to spout water.
“I am not to know the many mysteries of our world, but you must be a special child. These waters are much too dangerous for a child to swim—you are brave, indeed. I wish to offer you a treasure of my kind, one of many we have come to find.”
Under tears and within water, Chelsea nodded. In a flash the dolphin dove deep, its shadow reduced to the size of a pin-prick beneath her propped, shaking body. An eternity of silence melted around her as she searched, longing for a horizon lost in a blue-scape of blended sea and sky. From the corner of her eye, the white stone buoyed for a few moments and dashed away—another fin, no doubt.
Bubbles surfaced a thin layer of foam torn in half by a conch shell led by the dolphin’s nose and eternal grin. She took the pearl-colored shell in her hands: a soft, velvety touch with deep grooves, an intricate mosaic like mom’s crystal bowls. She traced each crevice with her wrinkled thumbs, overtaken by its precision and fragility. A light fragrance lifted into Chelsea’s nose—it smelled like home.
“I see you can appreciate the fine work of deep-sea mollusks, child, and it is wise, too, to understand this to be no ordinary shell. The shell you carry is enchanted in a most beautiful way. Just place your ear to its innards and all will be received: past, present, and futures.” The dolphin paused, searching deep within Chelsea’s eyes.
“You’re a brave girl indeed, to find yourself in such unsafe waters. There are enemies here, child, and they are more powerful than I.” The dolphin stopped itself from saying more.
“Follow this shell, child. Listen to its song; it sings for you—your path will be made clear.” It remained smiling, “Your gift is one that all life dreams of having; a clear path—as clear as light piercing still water, to satisfaction.” As the dolphin spoke, Chelsea stared at the shell, rubbing its grooves spellbound.
“Thank you. It truly is the most beautiful shell I’ve ever seen. But how do I get home?”
“You hold the answer in your hands, child. Listen to the shell, it knows far more than I.” And so Chelsea did, and within the shell sprang a cacophony of swirling water and angry waves that filled her with terror. Still fastened to her ear, Chelsea turned to see a gigantic wave fast approaching.
“That’s the wave that brought…” Before finishing she became a waterlogged rag doll—upended sand and shells pelting her drowned, sunburned face. Again, Chelsea’s head emerged and again she coughed saltwater. Without thought, her exhausted arms scrambled to keep her afloat but fell limp at her sides. Before panic settled in, Chelsea found sandy bottom for her feet and a beach for her family—she’d returned. In her hands the large conch shell hummed, still soft to the touch and beautiful as ever.
“Mom! Dad!” She yelled, splashing nearby bathers as she galloped from sea to beach towards her parents, combing the shoreline in search of their daughter.
“I told you ten minutes.” Her father scolded. “We need to go back to the room and get ready for dinner. I’m starving!”
Reunited, she embraced her parents and displayed her gift, telling the story of scary waves and friendly, intelligent dolphins.
“That’s nice, Chels. I think you got a little waterlogged. Some of that saltwater went right into your brain! You’re just lucky that dolphin only kept you around for 15 minutes, or I’d have to swim out there, beat ‘em up, and make myself a nice sandwich out of him!”
Mom laughed. “You’ve been in the water way too long! We thought you turned into a fish and swam away!”
Chelsea demanded she be taken seriously. “You’re being silly. Seriously, you gave us a scare out there,” Her mom bent down to look Chelsea in the eye, “Never do that to us again. When we say ten minutes, we mean it.” She scorned.
“Now let us see that shell of yours!” Dad interjected. “Wow, Chels. This thing is a beaut. Pam, take a look at this!”
“So what’s this shell supposed to do again?”
Chelsea explained the dolphin’s words as best she could, and her dad placed the conch shell to his ear.
“I only hear waves. This is supposed to tell me what to do in life?” A befuddled look came over his face. “Then I suppose we have to move to the beach!”
Dad laughed, mom grinned, Chelsea sneered. It didn’t matter—she knew what the shell could do. She knew what destiny lay before her. It was all settled.