This story is by Kyle Lockhaven and was part of our 2017 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
The tide was coming in. There was nothing I could do about it.
I took a step back to contemplate what we had built together. The castle itself was roughly made, but magnificent in a way. It stood over four feet tall, and to the untrained eye it almost looked like a big mound of dirt. But to us, it was a castle fit for a king.
Molded turrets shot out from all sides. A hundred pieces of seashell adorned the walls and sparkled in the afternoon sunshine. Seaweed spiraled up and around from base to pinnacle. Pincers from unlucky crabs stood as menacing guards on the watchtowers. An unusually large seagull feather fluttered in the breeze like a flag from atop our stronghold.
It would soon be washed away by the encroaching waves. Like it was never there.
But I laughed. We laughed.
“Dig more holes!” my son shouted while frantically digging holes in front of the castle walls with his plastic shovel. “It traps some of the water.”
“Build up the walls!” my daughter exclaimed with a smile.
My wife and I dutifully did what the project supervisors asked of us.
The waves were coming in farther now. They began to melt away the bottom of the sandy ramparts.
“Let’s build a moat around the castle walls,” my son said. His face shone with a mix of determination and joy.
“Dad.” A little louder.
My reverie was broken by the familiar voice. I shook my head and turned my eyes from the open window. My son seemed to float toward me holding my two-year-old granddaughter. His wife came in behind them. Her smile was so warm, yet so sad.
“Hey, Dad. Sophie is here to see ya,” my son said, setting my granddaughter on the bed beside me.
“Papa!” Sophie hugged me, laying her head down on my chest. My eyes welled up as I lifted my right hand to embrace her. I blinked the tears away, not wanting her or my son to see them.
“Be careful of this, Sophie.” My son pointed to the tubing that ran from a hanging bag of fluid to the top of my left hand.
“What is it, Papa?”
“It’s…” I had to clear my throat and take a deeper breath before speaking. “It’s my medicine, honey.”
“How you feelin’, Dad?”
I looked up to my son. “I’m hanging in there.”
“We brought you an Orange Julius.” My daughter-in-law handed me my all-time favorite drink.
“You’re angels,” I said, taking a long drink.
I set the cup on my nightstand and lay my head back against the pillow on the raised adjustable bed. My head turned toward the window. I felt sleep beginning to take over.
The inevitable rising tide was really rushing in now. The waves came, filled the entire moat, and surrounded the castle walls. The water was breaching the walls in spots.
“Pile more sand on top,” my daughter said.
Both of the kids beamed as they added sand to the crumbling fortifications.
I put an arm around my wife’s waist and took a second to watch the kids play. The unbridled joy of living in the moment emanated from them. I envied them for that. I wondered when I had lost that ability. I silently vowed to strive toward living more like they did, before picking up my shovel and getting back to work.
“Dad, more sand over here, please.” My son waved me over to a weak spot.
The next incoming wave was a big one. It melted the walls into a barely visible circle around the castle. Two of the crab-pincer sentries were swept back into the sea. The water began to impinge on the castle itself.
“Goodbye brave guards,” my daughter said. “You served your kingdom well.”
The battle raged on. Time blurred. For a little while, I didn’t worry about the future, I wasn’t stuck in the past, I didn’t compare myself to anyone else on that beach. I simply laughed while working with my wife and two kids toward a common goal.
My daughter appeared in front of me. I hadn’t seen her in nearly five months.
“I got here as fast as I could,” she said, coming around the other side of the bed and bending to embrace me.
“It is so good to see you,” I said.
“It’s good to see you too, Dad.”
“You fell asleep, Papa,” Sophie said with a giggle.
“Yeah, I guess I drifted off there. How long was I out?”
“Just a minute or two,” my son said. He put a hand on my bony shoulder. I tilted my head so that my cheek touched the back of his hand.
“I’m sorry, Dad,” my daughter said. “About everything.”
“Don’t you worry about a thing,” I said. “Not a thing. I’m just glad to see you here now and that’s all that matters.”
She buried her face in my other shoulder. It soon felt wet. I put my left hand on her back and rubbed it. The monitor next to my bedside began to beep.
My hospice nurse rushed into the room. “Is everything okay?”
“Yes,” I said. “Thank you. Everything is wonderful.”
She came around the bed and reattached the electrode I had pulled off. “Just a few more minutes, guys. And then he’s going to need some rest.” She tickled my foot as she left. I smiled and instinctively pulled it away.
“We’re going to the beach soon, Papa!”
“You are?” It was a struggle to reach my hand as high as her head, but I gritted my teeth and stroked her shoulder-length hair. “Can you promise me something, honey?”
“Can you build a sandcastle for me with your mom and dad?”
“Well, you can come with us. Can’t you?”
“No. Not this time. I’d love to go with you, but I need to stay here.”
“So? Do you promise?”
“Yes. We’re gonna build a castle taller than me!” She stretched a hand high into the air.
“That’s my girl.”
I smiled at her, then turned to my son. We shared a look. In that moment was everything that we could have said to each other. I saw his sadness, his anger, his appreciation. I hoped that I conveyed my love and my pride in him.
I turned to my daughter with the same love. I saw her for just a moment before my eyes closed.
I squeezed her hand. She squeezed back.
I heard my nurse come in and gently usher everyone out. “He needs his rest right now.”
The sandcastle was gone.
Well, that’s not entirely true. In a way it was simply repurposed back into the beach that it once was. Ready to be reformed into more castles or whatever sand sculptures could be imagined by the mind of a child.
And it lived on in the memories of those who had built it.
I woke up several hours after my family had gone. I dictated this story to my nurse, who is an aspiring author in her spare time. I asked her if she could fix it up and make a proper story out of it. She obliged. She is a great person. She has made these last few days not only bearable, but almost pleasant. She has been instructed, against her objections, to leave this part in.
I don’t know if I’ll live to see my family again.
I love them.
My wife passed six months and twenty-three days ago. Will I see her again? I hope so, but I’m unsure. What I am sure of is that the life that I bu–. The life that we built was rough at times, but it was magnificent. To the untrained eye, it may have looked like any other life. But to me, because of the people around me, it was a life fit for a king.
Dictated from recording, with sparing alterations, from Elijah Wakefield, one of the kindest patients I’ve had the honor of seeing through to the other side.