Thanksgiving morning finds Evan driving alone up the shore of Lake Superior; alone, save for the urn of ashes riding shotgun. He’s had his license for three weeks now, and every acceleration in his mom’s old car still feels like a new burst of freedom, one mile closer to some reunion with an unseen destiny. Not that he can drive without some anxiety. His nerves rise when he crosses the patches where the road, coated by spray from this November gale, glistens in the car’s headlights. This all still has the feeling of a forbidden pleasure, one of which his dad at his best would have no doubt approved. Those moments were rare toward the end, and as depression consumed and defeated Evan’s once vibrant guide. For now, though, he can choose what he remembers of the man whose ashes ride along at his side. His old man will inspire him. The rush only grows as he swings on to a puddle-strewn gravel road out toward a point some ways north of town.
He didn’t want to spend this holiday with his mother’s family, not after what they’d said about his dad at Thanksgiving a year ago. He is too loyal to his father to blame him for leaving him behind, and the inundation of pity from the extended family was too much to endure. The visit over the summer had been even worse: didn’t his mother think Evan was letting himself go, they’d asked. He needed a haircut, he was far too young for that dating app, and he could probably use some friends who got him back in touch with that artistic side he’d used to show. This is what she got for letting her late husband turn him into a jock instead of making sure he followed in his cousins’ footsteps to choir and cello scholarships.
His mother, to her credit, stood up for his freedom to live as he pleased. She understood the adolescent impulses at play when he said he’d rather stay home for Thanksgiving, enjoy some personal time and feast with an accommodating friend’s family later in the day. He feels vaguely treacherous as he surveys the shoreline here, in full betrayal of her faith in his good decision-making. But somehow, he knows he’ll have no trouble drowning the guilt.
The stormwaters hammer away at a rocky beach. A few gawkers are on hand to admire the swells, but Evan makes sure to park as far from anyone as he can. He stops to admire himself in the mirror: yes, all this effort he’s put in to make himself look good over the past year has paid off. He smiles at himself, then reaches beneath the surfboard jutting through the middle of the car and fishes out the wetsuit at the foot of the passenger’s seat. It will be tight on him; he’s grown a few inches since he got it for Christmas two years ago. But he forces his way into it, an unwieldy dance between himself and Neoprene and the steering wheel at his knees. He’s in no rush, takes measured pride in his efforts. Every move is steady, deliberate, dripping with certainty. As it should be.
He pops the trunk and throws open his door only to have the wind nearly blow it shut in his face. He struggles out into the elements, makes his way to the back of the car, and scans the road: no, no one can see him. He pulls out the board, fights the wind as he closes the trunk, and picks out a path down to the rocks. A heat wave the previous week melted all the snow, but thin layers of ice carried in by the lake force him to fixate on each small step down to the shore. He’s seen big waves before, knows the danger they bring. But the steely grey sky and the bone-chilling cold reveal a malice he’d never known in the Great Lake before. If he picks the wrong waves, he’s most certainly dead.
Evan is not a veteran surfer. His résumé is limited to a series of vacations on the California coast, all of which started with noble intentions of conquering waves that swiftly dried out when his mediocre swimming skills ran up against the endless need to paddle outward. His mother dissuaded him at every chance she got, but his dad was always the trusting soul who knew his otherwise religiously risk-averse son ought to catch a wave when it rose up before him. As far as his mother knows, the surfboard is still gathering dust in the basement, a forgotten relic of happier days when they’d escape to San Onofre for spring break. But he’s put in his time to plan for this day. He’s researched this shoal meticulously, made three drives out this fall when he only had his permit, the closest thing his mother’s little saint has ever come to rule-breaking (whatever his worrying aunt may say). He chose each of those visits to survey the waves in prime conditions, to watch a couple of locals in action. But on none of those occasions had the winds approached this vicious pummeling power. His knees are quaking as he stares out at the roiling waters, his tremors in no way related to the cold.
His face clenches up into a grimace. If he can’t deliver now, when will he ever? Evan fixes the tether to his leg and marches out into the surf, lets the first wave break around him, gains some confidence that those that follow won’t bowl him over. He shuffles his way past the dashing rocks and then launches himself in, struggling to paddle out through the vicious breakers and toward a takeoff point that looms on the horizon. He labors intently, thankful for those long hours in the gym of late, his arms now just powerful enough to pull him out into the open lake.
The rest of the world ceases to exist. Evan, alone amid his unrelenting swells, all life reduced to himself and these crashing monsters that have swamped vessels sixty times the length of his little board. His mother, his father, his friends, his family: they all are gone now. His mind has no choice but to lock in on his singular purpose. He exhales, shuffles his body forward on the board, waits for a set that will suit him. He lets two passable swells roll by before he musters up the courage to clamber to his feet.
He lasts all of three seconds. He topples, battles back his panic to a level he can more or less manage. The waves come so much faster here than on the ocean, a relentless barrage of punches that land blow after blow. His mouthful of water may not be salty, but it chills him to the bone. He struggles back on to his board and forces himself back out, determined to ride one in with some measure of competence. His arms groan amid this unrelenting slog, though they’re afterthoughts compared to the protests in that ever-so-rational corner of his mind. A sudden howl of wind has the waves rising up as high as eighteen feet: true monsters of the lake, enough to challenge even the experts. He shouldn’t be here, yet here he is. He climbs to his feet for a second time, but the wave fells him immediately. Eternal seconds pass as he flounders in hapless misery. His ice bath plunges him into the depths of his fears, a cold, dark terror that instills a new wish for life within. He wrestles his way back on to the board and pushes back outward, ever outward.
Evan struggles out four more times, each effort deadening his queasy stomach. Fear becomes routine. He never lasts upright more than four seconds. This is far beyond his pay grade, far beyond a couple of halfhearted lessons from some stoned-out beach bums at Laguna Beach. Did they ever tempt death in the way he now does? If they did, they never said as much. Not that he’d blame them. This urge isn’t something he could explain, either.
The next wave has a different feel to him. It catches his eyes with a mysterious greenish tinge, something that marks it as different from the rest. This one, he knows, is the one. Eyes wide with delight, Evan surges with strength, picks out his line, and shoots down the tunnel in full control. He pulls back and rides the crest, and for the first time in his life nails a turn. He cruises the length of the wave for another five seconds before he crumples down to the surface of his board. He flounders, then resurfaces, pitching violently as the waves carry him in. His eyes are swimming, though not just from the spray: triumph and loss overwhelm him at once, sudden oneness with a sheer awesome force capable of destroying him. He’s done what he set out to do.
His moment of victory makes him complacent. The waves carry him in to toward a vicious reef, and he’s reduced to another sloppy and fearful paddle back to safer waters. For a fleeting second he imagines he can repeat that triumphant ride. No, no, he immediately tells himself: to even try would be to tempt a fate he does not dare imagine. This is enough.
By the time he coasts back into shore he has a small audience bending in the breeze to watch him. An older couple eyes him with worry and awe, and a mother with three preteen boys shepherds her flock away when she realizes this phantom emerging from the waves can’t be out of high school. She doesn’t want them getting any ideas. The old man politely applauds his performance, and Evan’s taught nerves burst into a wicked grin.
“You seem awful young,” offers his wife.
A cocky voice that Evan does not know responds for him. “Age doesn’t matter if you can ride like that.”
“No fear here!” the old man wheezes.
Evan shuts down his defensive impulse and chooses the right words. “Nah. It’s all fear, all the time. But that’s what makes it worth it.”
He smiles and picks his way back along the beach to the car, where he stashes away the surfboard and turns to face the wind. He lingers a few minutes, puts on a show of paying his respects to the beast he’s conquered. Once the couple has turned its backs on him, he collapses into the driver’s seat, hyperventilating as he cranks the car’s heat as high as it will go. He peels off the wetsuit, pulls back his hair, and closes his eyes so he can kill the terror and sear the triumph into his memory. That’s the only record of his ride: no pictures, no videos, no hurried accounts dashed off to friends. No one will ever need to know save himself.
He pats the urn next to him, feels a swell of something within, some god or primeval force surging through every thundering beat of his heart. In this moment Evan believes as much as he ever has, knows he must continue to find this force that pulses through him in these rare pinnacles of raw reality. What this belief entails or asks of him he’s not entirely sure, but that does nothing to diminish his certainty.
He knows he’s not alone in seeking it. The potheads try to tell him he can achieve this state with a few quick hits, but that seems like a cheap and safe shortcut; an escape, not a deliberate rush to the brink of fate. A friend who’s smoother with girls says sex is much the same; this, Evan can probably buy, the wonder of losing oneself in another in a rush of sensual ecstasy. He really should find himself a girlfriend so he can compare notes. But this? This is just him alone, or him made one with everything, most importantly that thing in the seat next to him that he can’t have back.
He pulls out his phone to call the friend who’s hosting him for dinner, his hands still trembling as he finds the number.
“Hey Evs,” the friend says, surprised by the call.
“Yeah. Listen, I’ll be a little late, just gotta…” he trails off, omits the details on how must head home to dry himself and replace the urn where it belongs.
“I’m…” Evan pauses and returns his gaze to the waves. “I’m where I need to be.”