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When my nephew Nick was three years old and his brother Matt was two, we took them to the beach with our daughters. It was another hot smoggy summer day on the Eastside, so we drove a half hour to Santa Monica and up Pacific Coast Highway to Matador State Beach, because it lacked signs that said “No Dogs”—we brought our big dogs. Nick was a thin, pale cute little kid made cuter by a solemn expression set off by ears that stuck out like his hair stuck out. My daughters were somewhat older than Nick and Matt, more kids to play with, along with the red Malemute and the Australian shepherd mongrel. Matador was approached from a gravel parking lot on a high rocky bluff north of Malibu. It was a great place, I thought, for kids and dogs because you descended to the beach on a long sloping ramp of a trail down the eroding cliff and you could walk north along the beach through several separate coves.

It was beautiful, with great sentinel rocks standing like monoliths in the surf, some of which had eroded into arches with the ocean behind them. The previous times we’d taken the kids and dogs there, we’d find a cove without too many people for the dogs to bother (though the dogs weren’t bothersome, generally).

We set our stuff, towels and sand toys and lunch stuff on the sand at one of the farther coves beyond a huge rock that was at least the size of a three story building. The waves pounded the backside of it; the big rock emerged from the beach, partly surrounded by waves. The ocean that day wasn’t too rough—maybe two to three foot waves—mild enough for little kids if you watched them. We didn’t let our youngest daughter or her two cousins go anywhere near the water without standing by them, watching over them.

We could run with the dogs, dry off on the beach towels, have lunch, and wade in the water. Our daughters showed endless fascination for all the little wonders of a beach: building sand castles, digging up and playing with sand crabs in a cup, populating a sand castle with sand crabs, poking sea anemones on the rocks to make them squirt, etc. Nick stood in a little puddle in the shady side of the big rock and stamped, splashing in the few inches of water in the puddle. This puddle was at least ten to fifteen yards from the actual rolling surf. I was standing nearby, and when I looked at Nick, I noticed that the puddle he was standing in was moving. It was expanding and contracting slightly, almost as if it was breathing. That got my attention.

Then the puddle expanded, rising about Nick’s legs, and suddenly drained out of the bowl-shaped depression, knocking him off his feet. When the water emptied out, Nick was gone. The sudden rise and fall of the water had knocked him down and he’d gotten sucked down a little hole at the base of the rock that had been hidden by the puddle. I screamed Nick’s name and ran, thrusting my arm to the shoulder down the hole,. My hand grabbed nothing but water and slippery stone surfaces. The goddamned giant rock swallowed my nephew.

My wife was screaming something, what happened?

I had no idea.

I splashed into the surf, heading around the back of the rock. I expected the rock to open out into the waves—it had to be riddled with caves, like so many of the arched and caved rocks at Matador. The ocean had to be pouring through caves into the little puddle that had swallowed Nick, but as I ran through the waves around the side of the rock, I could not imagine how I would locate the toddler in the waters of a cave. Would there be any light? Would I be diving underwater, searching blind crevasses and cubbyholes clogged with seaweed and sand in the backside of the giant rock? As I rounded the backside, a wave receded, washing back into the surf with its surging foam, planetary pull and force and swirl. Behind it, another wave rose like a wall, ready to rush in and crash.

Nick appeared screaming, sitting bolt upright screeching in astonishment (but unbloodied and unhurt—his hair barely mussed), pulled out into the ocean by the receding wave, which he was riding on his bottom like a surfer. The backside of the rock was a huge hole, a yawning black opening large enough to swallow a semitractor-trailer truck. Nick rode the water that flowed out of the back of the huge hole. I splashed through the water and grabbed Nick up, so sweet to cradle the saved kid in arms. The nightmare I’d been having about diving without air or light into underwater caves evaporated as I sloshed back to my wife through rolling surf.

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At some point I’m sure we stood, peering down at the little stone basin and the little puddle where Nick had been playing. My wife would have been crying, she said, but it all happened too fast. She said she felt like weeping on the way home, and she kept thinking for a long time how we almost lost Nick. It took her weeks before she could tell her sister what had happened top Nick. Sometimes (and sometimes at night) she would suddenly recall that day and it caused her to weep. Some little thing you barely noticed, a puddle in the wide wild world, in a fleeting second could take part of your life and destroy you. Or you might be restored in a second.

Nick doesn’t recall any of this now. Now he works as a cook, has tattoos and a girlfriend with tattoos.

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