Health and Wellness

The Boy I Could Have Been

I put my hand over my heart, and I begged it to stop rattling against my rib cage. Rain was hammering my bare flesh. The trees were suffocating me, and I was locked within them. If I stopped now, they would be my tomb. Strands of wet red hair clung to my face where salty tears mixed with freshwater raindrops. I was going to die.

Thorns and branches tugged at my limbs. They scraped my skin until pebbles of blood pooled along the surface. Wobbly legs led to a break in the forest where I could see an empty beach. Dark thunderclaps rolled in the distance. Waves broke along the shore, swirling and frothing with rage. The last time I was here the sun was kissing my cheeks. A cold pink popsicle melted over my fingertips and ran down the length of my arm. My cousins laughed and my mom handed over napkins with smile. This time, I was alone.

I gagged on the sobs I tried to contain as vomit threatened to burn my throat. My mom was probably being told that no one could find me. I imagined her pouring her heart into her hands as she screamed my name. I’ll bet she was giving people a description of the dress I was wearing. It had been so pretty this morning, with delicate blue flowers printed on white cotton. It wouldn’t be recognizable now. I used it to wipe away mud that was smeared up my legs. I raked my hands across the hem to unpack the grime from underneath my fingernails.

I had twirled my way to the campground showers like a princess. Yet the longer I waited for my cousins to finish getting ready, the more impatient I became. I decided to venture off towards the direction of the campsite on my own when one path turned into another. Had I gone to the left or to the right? Or maybe straight? If I could just get up higher… to see where I was, then perhaps I could find my way back.

I climbed a dune near the beach knowing that my mom would be furious. It was against the rules to be out here alone. Although I wasn’t normally a rule breaker, an exception was made in my mind for life and death situations. Yet the water would remain off limits even as the hot sand burned blisters into the bottom of my feet. The task to reach a higher perspective was daunting, and my leg finally gave out from underneath me.

A twisted piece of driftwood sliced through my arch and blood stained its bark crimson red. I screamed in frustration, my wound, throbbing. I sat back on my bottom with a hard thump so I could have a good cry. A random hiker might find the shoe that got sucked into the mud pit. Or maybe they would find the one I threw out of anger when I couldn’t get mud-pit-shoe out of the hole it sank into. I wondered if they would locate my body sometime after that. 

Using the back of my hand, I dried my tears. I was a tiny speck of blue and white among miles of rolling sand mounds. I would allow myself to cry but I wasn’t allowed to give up. When the sun broke through the clouds, I shaded my eyes by using my fingers like a visor. A boardwalk path leading back into the woods could been seen in the distance and I whooped for joy! I still didn’t know how to get home, but I might be able to find help. I sprinted and the mud smeared dress swirled torn and tangled behind me.

When I reached the path, the knots in my stomach cinched tighter. I had barely touched breakfast and it was nearly lunch time now. The walkway wound through an eerie marsh lined with stumps and dead limbs, but I tried to keep my mind focused. I giggled when a long tongue darted out from the muck to catch a fly but stuck to the frog’s green eyeball instead. The creature looked confused and wiggled his mouth a little which made me laugh even harder.

A seagull, suspended in flight tucked its wings against its body. It danced with the breeze at a dizzying speed. Through moody storm clouds and patches of sunlight it dived headfirst into the wind.

I bet he could see my way home… I wish I had wings like his.

I rounded a corner to find myself no longer alone with the frog, the seagull, and my thoughts. A stranger materialized and for a moment I was relieved that I might be saved. I wanted desperately to tell someone that I was lost. Yet the voice in my head told me that he was untrustworthy. He tried to appear friendly, but his blue eyes struck me as menacing as he squared his shoulders with mine.

“Where’s your mom?”  He asked and I groped for words to wield like a weapon.

“Catching up to me.” I stammer and point in the direction I had come from.

I have the sudden urge to run, so I do. I carry myself as far away from the stranger as I can. When I am out of breath, I think about how his eyes brightened when he thought he caught me out here alone and how they darkened when I pointed to where I wished my mom would have been. It gives me a second wind to pace myself so that my legs can pump even harder in case the man tries to catch up to me.

The boardwalk ended at a dirt road and a three-way junction. I didn’t know where else to go from here. My stomach roared with hunger. The sun tucked itself behind the clouds again so I could barely stay on the path. I was exhausted. My resolve to hold onto hope was weakening with every step. Then I heard something. The rumble of an engine. A man wearing a park ranger vest on the back of a four-wheeler was coming for me. His vehicle skid to stop and relief floods his expression as he shouted into a walkie-talkie that he yanked off his belt.

“I found her! I found her! Tell her mom that I’m bringing her back to camp now!” The static was electrifying.

Through tears of relief, I explained how I lost my shoes. As he doctored up my blisters, I talked about making my way to the beach to look for help only to find it empty. The ranger winced as he applied a sunshine yellow sticker to the cut on my foot. His kind face was contorted into a grimace as he told me that the beach was empty because a boy my age had drowned.

He had been ripped away from his family by an undercurrent. Search and Rescue had been on the water trying to locate him and they cleared the beach, but it was too late. When my mom heard a rumor circulating camp that a missing child had washed up dead on the beach, she thought that the kid might be me. She spent the hours I was missing praying that it was someone else’s child as she searched the campground trying to find me.

The ranger scooted forward and tucked me safely behind him. My legs suspended around the seat; my fingers griping so tightly that my knuckles turned white. I rested my head on the strangers back as we flew through the forest. Myhair waving goodbye to the marsh, the dunes, and the boy I could have been.  

Every year three to four people drown in Lake Michigan at or near the Indiana Dunes State Park. Men, women, and children have disappeared. One boy fell through a sand dune never to been seen again, and police in the area are still looking for three women who went missing on a beach full of out-of-state visitors.

While there have been other times throughout my life when I have gotten lost, I’ll never forget how lucky I was to be found that day. In moments when my health has tried to drown me, or in instances where I’ve felt like I couldn’t find my way, I remind myself to keep moving forward. As my grandfather use to say, “If you don’t know where you’re going, and you don’t know where you are…put one foot in front of the other.”

56 thoughts on “The Boy I Could Have Been”

  1. Wow…so glad you were found, yet sad for the other mother who lost her child. You were so right to have run from the stranger feeling the way you did when he looked at you…children are pretty intuitive….we, as adults, need to listen to them when they show signs of not wanting to be near a certain someone or go to someone’s house. My granddaughter was about 10/11 when my neighbor and I were having a yard sale. Another neighbor (male) came over to chat, sat down next to her and she whispered to me asking if we could change seats. I brought her into the house with me and she said “he scares me”. I moved our chairs to a shadier spot when we came back out and he eventually left. He had only lived there for about a year and no one knew him very well, but about 3 months after the yard sale, he had been arrested for attempting to coerce a young girl into his vehicle! Not his first attempt as we learned more about him. I, too, never felt totally comfortable in his presence, but not a discomfort for my safety, just something off. But, my granddaughter felt it immediately. Moral of my story, I’m so glad you were found and did not end up being an abduction situation. God gives us instincts for a reason, we just need to listen to our gut when it cries out “danger”. P.S…that Park is probably beautiful, but I don’t think I’ll visit there anytime soon. Lol!!

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    1. That’s so true and I’m glad you listened to your granddaughter! The park is actually closed now. There were so many deaths and people who disappeared AND I believe they had big oil spill. So they shut the park down. I was terrified that day and I got sooooo lucky!

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  2. Wow wow wow, LaShelle. What a powerful story – your gift as a storyteller and writer really shows in the retelling of this harrowing tale. I’m so grateful that you are okay as I feel for your mom and the loved ones of the ones that have died. I’m trying to catch my breath here – beautiful!

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      1. You’re so kind! I have a good memory and it’s made easier when things happen that make it weigh heavily on my mind. I was about my son’s age (just a little older) when this happened to me (8/9). It was terrifying but it taught me a lot!

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  3. omg that is so terrifying! I put myself in your shoes as a kid and just the feeling of being hopelessly lost is incredibly frightening and then I think of it from the perspective of a mom to a young one… I don’t know what I would do if something like that ever happened to Charlotte… so incredibly scary! I felt like I was right there with you! You were so brave to keep on going and did the right thing and listened to your intuition when you encountered that first stranger! So glad things turned out positively!!

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    1. It was sad. Sometimes it’s mind boggling that any change in circumstances could have turned the tables. I could have been the boy what fell into the dunes and was never seen again, or the one who drown because I didn’t listen to my mom and wanted to cool my feet off from the blisters, or one of the women who were taken and vanished. That’s kinda why I wrote this… Because you never know how lucky you are.

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      1. So I guess I’ll stay off the Lake Mi sand dunes, if I ever get there, even though I now live pretty close to them. Actually, I probably would not even be able to climb them, so I guess I’ll be safely seeing them from a distance.

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  4. Wow! That’s the type of experience that’s etched into your mind forever. I put myself into your shoes (not literally—they were in the mud pit) and then your mom’s. She had to imagine the worst, especially when the word got out that someone had drowned.

    The year after I retired, one of the kids in the school had a sleepover with a friend—something parents and children do all the time. A parent decided to take the kids to the beach. One of the girls was hit with a sneaker wave and drowned. I didn’t know either girl, but all I could think of was how hard it would have been to be either set of parents.

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    1. Ughhh I can’t imagine being responsible for the death of someone else’s kid. That’s a whole different ballgame! The main lessons I learned here was to listen to my mom and to always trust my instincts but it really helped to remember this situation when times got tough and I thought I couldn’t carry on. Sometimes you have to keep moving forward even if you don’t see a way out. ❤️

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      1. It must have been frightening, but you received a great life lesson to keep going even when things looked hopeless.

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  5. I was holding my breath during the entire story. Which felt so real (and I realized at the end, it HAD BEEN real). Oh, how I felt for the mother. And how scared I was when the nasty stranger approached. And how I applauded the child for using her instincts. GREAT rendering of a true story later told.

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  6. It has been a bad year for drownings (many adults) here in Michigan this year. The riptides take even strong swimmers. This is a very heartwarming story LaShelle. Hope you continue to recover.

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  7. I read this story from your perspective as a child (beautifully written) but I also kept worrying and thinking how terrified your Mum would be – I’m so glad it ended well, as you say, there are certainly many tragedies.

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  8. Wow! What a scary and incredibly well-written story of such a harrowing experience. I’m glad you were okay and sad for the family whose child was not.

    My boy went missing when camping at the ocean—he was 8 at the time. He was gone for 3 hours and it was TERRIBLE. I kept calm on the outside, calling the rangers (who did end up finding him), tracing and retracing the trail through the dunes, and trying to call my husband who was out of town and wasn’t answering. I kept picturing all the horrible things that could have happened to him. He thought he could beat us to the beach, but got turned around and ended up lost in the dunes. All the trails look so much alike. He was dehydrated and scared, but ultimately okay. After kissing him, I buried him in a hole and made him share my sleeping bag that night.

    Missing your child or going missing as a child is one of the scariest things!

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    1. Oh my goodness I can’t believe you experienced basically what my mom experienced. I’m SO glad it ended well for you too and I’m so thankful your son (like myself) learned a valuable lesson. ❤️

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