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Walking down the beach that day, he was so wrapped up in his own problems he almost didn’t hear the girls screaming.
Shrieks of joy, the sounds of happy children, reverberated across Rhode Island’s Napatree Beach. Two little girls playing in the sand. But I was barely aware of any of it. I plodded along, oblivious of the crashing waves at high tide. Late afternoon.
I ran my fingers through my wind-tangled hair, as if to clear my head. I’d come to this isolated spit of land on my sailboat, a place to escape. My wife and I had recently separated, our marriage in shambles. I worried about the toll on our boys, just six and eight.
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It seemed like forever since I’d heard them laugh. But I didn’t know what to do to make things better.
The girls. I’d meant to tell them to stay away from the water. The currents could be dangerous. Now one of them was in the ocean. Beyond the surf line. I could just hear her screams over the waves. The undertow. Any second now she’d be swept away.
I ran across the hard-packed sand as fast as I could. The other girl was at the edge of the surf, maybe 20 yards away, yelling, all the while wading deeper into the water herself.
“Wait! Stop! Don’t go any farther!” I charged into the waves and was reaching for her when a wall of water overwhelmed us. I clawed to the surface and for half a second I saw her disappear under another big breaker. I dove to the spot. I’m a strong swimmer, but I could feel the current pulling me hard.
Where is she? Splashing. A gasp for air. There. I grabbed her and she clung to me, her little body shaking, trembling. I held her against me as waves roared over us, pulling us into deeper water. We were way beyond the breakers. The other girl; where is she?
I saw a waving arm. A head broke the surface. Not far away.
The arms of the girl I’d rescued were wrapped desperately around my neck. She was breathing in racking sobs. “Listen, honey. Can you hear me?”
She nodded, water cascading from her long blonde hair.
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“Let go of my neck. I need you on my back. Grab my shoulders so I can swim to your friend.”
She nodded again and said something I didn’t hear.
“What?” I asked as I pried her hands loose and shifted her to my back.
“She’s my sister,” she said. For a moment I thought of my boys. How much they loved each other. How much I loved them.
“It’s okay, honey. We’re going to get her.” I looked across the water. The girl was nowhere to be seen. Dear God. Where is she? Had the undertow swept her away? From the crest of another wave I spotted a bobbing head.
“Hold on tight.” I kicked as hard as I could, my arms churning. Stroke. Stroke. It felt like I was swimming through molasses. The current pulling her farther and farther away, the waves smashing against us. I quickened my strokes, fighting for each breath.
Tiny arms pressed against my collarbone. Stroke. Stroke. Stroke. Just a few feet away. Finally! I reached out and the second little girl grabbed hold. She spewed out a geyser of seawater. Her fingers, flailing crazily, raked across my cheeks.
She was fighting me, pushing me under the water. I came up sputtering. Her sister was still holding on.
“Easy! I won’t let you go. I promise.”
She calmed down, taking deep, ragged breaths, crying quietly. I floated on my back and looked toward shore. I couldn’t see anyone. We were at least 50 yards from land. No way I could swim that far, not with two girls hanging on to me.