Here’s Tenx9 newcomer and Porch writer Cherie Roberts’ story about a harrowing turn of events while enjoying a day at the beach. She told this for Tenx9’s August 2016 theme “Strangers.”
A few summers back, I was nestled beneath a beach umbrella, reading, on the second day of a long anticipated vacation on Hilton Head Island. It was late afternoon, a peaceful time to be on the beach. I looked up from my novel to see my 13 year old son Nathan thigh-high in the waves with his friend, Bill. The boys kicked and splashed in the water while a mother and her small child played in the surf nearby.
As I returned to my novel, over the sound of the waves I could just hear a mother and daughter to my left arguing. The mother waved her rhinestone encrusted phone in her daughter’s face as the words, “told you,” “too young,” and “trouble” floated by me in staccato bursts on the breeze. I sighed and turned away. I’d left my own phone back in the condo to avoid dispelling the serenity of the beach.
Moments later, that serenity was interrupted again by Nathan, yelling and running toward me.
“Mom, Bill’s been bit by a shark!”
Nothing stills activity on a beach like someone yelling the word, shark. Everyone stopped moving and talking all at once, and heads turned as Nathan’s voice boomed louder than the waves.
“Hurry, Mom! He’s bleeding!”
I scooped up my towel and ran toward Nathan. Surely my son was wrong, and Bill had only cut himself on something. Up ahead, I could see Bill being led out of the water by the woman with the baby. Her navy swim suit with its white flowers was a stark contrast to the bright red blood pouring down Bill’s left leg, covering his entire calf like a trouser sock. The woman’s face was filled with panic as she guided Bill with one hand and her small child with the other. As they made their way toward me, blood poured out of the leg so fast that it puddled on the sand. I grabbed Bill and laid him down.
Remarkably, he was very calm, his blue eyes never leaving my face as I wrapped my towel around his leg, staunching the blood so I could get a look.
When I pulled the towel away, I realized Nathan was right. Bill had the perfect semi-circle pattern of shark’s teeth from his knee to his ankle on both sides of his leg. The serrated teeth had pierced and torn his flesh, each tooth leaving Bill’s skin, feathery, almost like fringe. At the deepest places, the muscle had been pulled through the bite marks like the macabre threading of a needle. Blood poured over my hands and onto the towel. Soon, a circle of strangers surrounded us; but several people who were close enough to see Bill’s injuries backed away quickly. I told the woman with the baby to run and get help.
In minutes, a young blonde lifeguard came running with what looked like a float but in reality was a medical kit. Later, Bill and Nathan would laughingly describe her bikini-clad figure running towards them with hair swinging in the sunlight as a scene straight out of Baywatch. She pushed back the crowd and dumped the contents of the kit on the sand, then shouted into her walkie-talkie for a Jeep that seemed to materialize in seconds. It was then that I felt someone touch my shoulder—the mother who had been arguing with her daughter under the umbrella.
“Here, take my phone,” she said, shoving the rhinestone studded IPhone into my hand. “Use it, call whoever you need.”
We got Bill into the jeep and shot straight up to a gurney waiting at the boardwalk in front of nearby hotel. The entire walkway had been cleared of people, except for one man, standing only a few feet from me, all alone as if waiting for us.
The stranger’s appearance made it impossible for me to look away. He was so out of place amongst the beach goers. Older, probably in his late sixties, he was shirtless with gray chest hair and a firm rounded potbelly overhanging a filthy pair of sun-faded red and white seersucker swim trunks. Barefoot, he had hairy legs and feet, and his toenails were riddled with fungus. His thinning salt and pepper hair was wiry, and with each puff of wind, it parted, revealing a sunburned bald spot. But what was most unusual about him were the Band-Aids on his face, one at the corner of his left eye, and one at the corner of his mouth on the opposite side, giving an odd symmetry to his face.
For some reason, I felt drawn to the strange man, making it difficult to turn away from him, but soon it didn’t matter—he fell in beside me as the gurney began to move and I held tight to Bill’s hand. The man talked to me non-stop in a firm but quiet voice.
“You aren’t his mother are you? You’ll need to keep her busy when you call,” he said.
I could only nod to his answers like a puppet. No—yes—his voice was hypnotic. When we reached the ambulance, two EMTs moved Bill into the back, and I tried to climb in with him, but the older paramedic stopped me. It was against the law for me to ride back there. The dark-haired younger paramedic who was starting Bill’s IV looked up and said, “He’s a tough one, mam. He’ll be fine.”
In the cab of the ambulance, I kept looking back at Bill through the small window behind me, his face white as the sheet, but his eyes so bright blue.
“Second shark bite of the day,” the driver said. “An hour ago a woman lost half her thigh a mile up the beach. Haven’t had shark attacks here in decades. The boy’s lucky—because of the woman, I mean. The surgeons live on the mainland—over an hour away, but because of her, they’ll already be at the hospital when we get there.”
“I need to call Bill’s parents,” I said.
“Whoa, wait a minute! You two are doing great. No one’s panicking. Calling his mom’ll cause her to panic, and then you’ll panic.”
I looked down at the sparkling phone, its pebbled stones cutting into my palm. Then I looked the driver straight in the eye and said, “If this was my son, I know Bill’s mother would call me.” As I dialed, the man with the Band-Aids stood just outside the passenger side door. My window was rolled up, but I could hear him as clearly as if he was in the ambulance with me.
“Keep her busy. Tetanus shot—tetanus shot,” he said.
Bill’s mother answered the phone. “Hey, Suzie, it’s Cherie,” I said. “Bill suffered a puncture injury on the beach, and I was wondering if you’d check to see when he last received a tetanus shot?”
I heard a quick intake of breath but gave her no time to reply. I told her we were on the way to the ER, and I could talk more then. Meanwhile, she should call Bill’s pediatrician.
My calm voice and soothing tone surprised me. We hung up, and I looked at the ambulance driver.
“Good job,” he said. “You’re a pro.”
Outside my window, the stranger with the Band-Aids smiled with approval. As I smiled back, my son Nathan ran up to the ambulance, jostling the bandaged man in his rush, moving him out of my line of sight. I was shocked at my son’s rudeness but I couldn’t get a word in; he was talking loud and fast before the window was even down, telling me that the woman who’d given me her phone had found his big brother, Jackson. Gasping, he continued, “Jackson said we’ll follow you in the car. The woman said, don’t worry ‘bout the phone.”
“Nathan, you shouldn’t have run into that kind man,” I said. “He was helping me.”
My son looked puzzled, and the driver next to me stopped writing. Both of them stared at me as if I was crazy. I looked out the window, but the bandaged man was nowhere to be seen.
“Mam, what man are you talking about?” the driver said.
“The man who walked with me to the ambulance.” I pointed at the parking lot. “He was standing right there.”
“Mom,” Nathan said, “no one was here when I came up, just the ambulance.”
“He’s right, mam,” said the driver. “We clear a path for the gurney. There was no one there.”
Stunned and confused, I looked back and forth between them, but the looks on their faces said it all. They never saw the strange man who helped me.
The driver turned the siren on, and we sped out into the twilight, the ambulance’s lights coloring the passing palm trees red and white.
* * *
At the hospital, Bill was a celebrity, “the boy with the shark bite.” The ER doctor determined he had been attacked by a four and a half foot reef shark. I learned that shark teeth leave marks as telling as a fingerprint.
In the hours leading up to surgery, Bill and Nathan talked about the ordeal, each telling from his perspective. But it was a comment from Bill that left us quiet and thoughtful.
“I wasn’t scared when it happened,” he said, “and now I’m grateful. If the shark had bit the baby, she would’ve died.”
Nevertheless, my heart was heavy for Bill. We had been told that the scar would be large despite plastic surgery, and recovery could be slow. Unfazed, Bill blushed and said with a grin, “It’s okay. I bet the scar’ll help me with girls. I mean, who can compete with a guy who survived a shark bite. Right?” Then, we both laughed for the first time since the attack.
When the nurse came to medicate Bill for surgery she turned to me and said, “The news crews are outside. Do you want to speak to them?”
“No interviews,” I said. “He isn’t my child. I have to protect him.”
I leaned over a very sleepy Bill, kissed him on the forehead, and told him I loved him. As they rolled him away, he seemed as much my child as any of my three children.
* * *
Back in the surgical waiting room, I called Bill’s parents to tell them he was in surgery, and I’d call back when it was over. After hanging up, I looked down at the twinkling rhinestone phone—given by a stranger without hesitation. A kind act—one of many during the unthinkable. Then, with images and moments from the day flooding my mind and heart, I sank to my knees in that dark and empty waiting room, miles away from friends and home, and I cried in gratitude for Bill’s life, for the kindness of strangers, and for a mysterious bandaged man no one could see but me.