Palo Alto Weekly 35th Annual Short Story Contest
Third Place Teen

Too Far

by Elise Chang

Author Bio

Elise Chang is 11 years old, a 6th grader at Jane Lathrop Middle School, and lives in Palo Alto. She goes by Ellie and her favorite things to do are writing and reading. She enjoys reading fantasy novels and is always working on a new story. She likes drawing and often illustrates her own stories or story covers. Other hobbies include playing piano and cello, swimming in her swim club, traveling, and watching animated Disney movies. Believe it or not, she still loves the beach after her rocky experience!


I got the inspiration for my short story from a real experience that happened to me one cold day at the beach. Most of the details in the story are true, including the boogie board, the waves, the depth, and the temperature of the water. I switched some of the names but tried to capture the chaotic, frantic feeling of knowing just how powerful the ocean really was. It was scary to realize that you are just something small, in such a big, powerful, unpredictable world, and being in the ocean helped me realize that. I was glad I had a friend, and even though the experience was negative, it still gave me a tale to tell of a memorable moment.

Judge Comments

This story is beautifully structured and beautifully written. The young writer has chosen compelling material, but also has an instinctive grasp of tension as a story driver.

Based on a true story

How close have you come to drowning? Whatever the answer is, I can probably beat that.

The sun warmed my skin as I stepped out, filling me with warmth from the inside. I breathed in and out, smelling the fresh, salty air. This was where I belonged: out near the ocean.

I grabbed my boogie board and followed my family down onto the sandy part of the beach. I could see the shimmering waves crashing into the shore as I scurried down, kicking off my shoes to feel the warm sand sifting in between my toes satisfyingly.

In moments, I was running along the beach where the water met the land. I heard my friends, Diana and Sophia—who were older then me—call out my name as they followed me, tracing my soon-to-be covered footprints.

"Athena! Wait up!" Diana doubled over, gasping.

I complied, stopping in my tracks. "Hey, Diana, Sophia!" I held up my board. "I bought a boogie board! Wanna come into the waves?"

Sophia grinned. "Sure. Should we tell our parents?"

I shrugged. "I mean, it’s only for a second. Lets go!" I hefted the board over my shoulder as I tested the water. It was freezing!

"No other way to do it," Sophia said with a tilt of her head. Before I could comprehend her words, she was running straight into the water.

I grinned. "It is so on."

"Eeeeek!" Diana squealed as she submerged herself deeper into the freezing-cold water. Sophia laughed and waded in further along with me.

"C’mon, Diana!" I called. "It’s not so bad out here!" I gestured to where I was floating with my board. The water was still cold, but when you moved it was not as bad.

Diana shivered as she ducked all the way into the water and started paddling toward us. I led the way as we all started to swim further out.

I was kicking, pressing my chest against the boogie board, and Diana and Sophia were treading water. Every so often a wave would push past us, but other than that it was relatively calm.

"How deep is it?" Diana asked nervously.

"I don’t know," I replied. I slid off of my board, and my balance tipped as I found I couldn’t touch. "I can’t reach the bottom, but you guys are taller, so maybe you’ll be able to."

Diana looked at Sophia. "Can you stand?"

"A little," she answered . . . but I could see the worry in her eyes. I ignored it as I continued to move farther away from the shore. We weren’t that far away.

"Swim to the right," Sophia suggested. "We’ll get further than if we swim against the waves."

I remembered something about my parents telling me to swim parallel to the shore in case you needed to get back, but that was pointless. We didn’t need to get back, right? We knew what we were doing.

Suddenly, Diana froze. I didn’t see her, so me and Sophia continued on, pressing through the waves one by one.

"Guys? Are we getting too deep?" Diana called from behind me.

"What do you mean? It’s only been a little bit," Sophia answered.

"Yeah but . . . I’m cold. I think I’ll just go back."

I shrugged. "Suit yourself."

Diana nodded and started back towards the shore. Soon it was just me and Sophia, paddling forward.

"Wow, I think we’re pretty far away," Sophia said, she was almost yelling to be heard over the crashing thunder of the water moving. We stopped kicking.

"Hey, where’s Diana?" I asked, spinning around as another wave battered me. They were getting bigger and stronger, and for some reason that filled me with dread.

"I . . . don’t know." I could barely hear her. Sophia’s tone was anxious as she looked back.

"Are—are we supposed to be that far out?"

All the way back on the shore, the people were way smaller than they should have been. I could see Diana trying to swim back, but she kept on getting tossed backwards, erasing her progress, so it wasn’t any use.

"ATHENA! SOPHIA! GET BACK!" I heard her yell. Then something else, but it was lost in the waves.

"Oh no," I whispered. I looked behind us. There was a rock, with the waves churning around it, that we seemed to be getting pulled closer to . . .

"We should go, NOW!" Sophia had to scream to be heard over the waves as they got rougher. She grabbed my board and started kicking.

Panic was building in my chest as I looked longer at the shore, which looked so distant. How did we get so far? Diana was the smart one. But even she was having a hard time, even though we were half as close to land as she was.

Which meant it would be doubly hard to get back.

I kicked harder, feeling my legs propel us forward, along with Sophia’s power. We were moving! And then a wave came and the undercurrent pulled us back again.

It was like we were playing a game—forward, then the waves dragged us back again.

"WE CAN DO THIS!" Sophia yelled, but her voice was faltering. So was my strength.

Would we make it?

We had to make it.

"WAVE!" I cried, glancing over my shoulder. A huge crest of water that seemed to be ten times bigger than a normal wave loomed over us. I barely had time to gasp up some air before I was slammed down by the impact. My head pounded as I thrashed towards the hazy blue surface.

I broke the water, gasping for air. Sophia was equally drained. We both drifted for a moment, catching our breath.

"We should get going!!" I warned. I forced myself to keep on kicking, but fear had added along to panic, which was tightening in a knot. What if that happened again, but I couldn’t swim up in time? What if we lost our board? Then we would be really done for.

I looped the piece of rope connecting me to the board around my wrist, ignoring it’s scratchy edges. It was crucial that we had this board. In fact, it had probably already saved our lives.

We kicked as hard as we could, but the waves kept dragging us back. It seemed hopeless, but I couldn’t allow myself to think like that. Wave after wave slammed into us, carrying us off-course. And all the while, the shoreline did not seem to be getting closer. The water seemed to be getting even colder. My arms were so heavy and lead-filled that it took energy just to not sink.

"WAVE!" I would yell before one hit us. Sophia and I would grab a breath and we would go under, then after it passed, we would pop up, blink the water out of our eyes, and start pushing again.

Then came the worst wave of all.

"WA—!" I cried, but I didn’t have time. Sophia glanced back just as a gigantic wave rushed over us. I lost my grip on the boogie board as I was plunged underwater, deep enough that I could brush the bottom with my toe. I would have normally taken this as a good sign, but now all it meant was that I was far too deep underwater. I swam towards the surface, trying to remember my swimming lessons. Pull. Kick.

But it was getting too hard to breathe. My lungs cried out for air and my limbs burned. I kept on kicking, but my head spun and I thought I might pass out.

Finally, finally, I pushed my head through the water and gulped in deep breaths of air. I followed my line of string back to the boogie board.

"ATHENA!" I heard Sophia call. I scanned my surroundings: forward, the beach, backward, the rock, and all around, waves. But then . . .

"OVER HERE!" I shouted, waving an arm as another wave passed by.

Soon I could see Sophia fighting the water to get over to me. But then I realized how powerful the ocean was, and how it wasn’t going to be fair. Sophia and I were going to have to play a wild card in order to get to the shore.

I held out an arm to Sophia and helped her climb back onto our board.

"I have an idea!" I said once she had stabilized herself. "We should be going along with the ocean instead of fighting it. We need to use the waves to our advantage! We go forward, but the water drags up back. We need to ride on the waves!"

"Huh?" Sophia looked confused, then her countenance cleared. "Oh. Oh! Yes! Let’s go!"

We waited for the next wave.

"It’s coming!" I announced. We started kicking. My legs were so cold that I couldn’t even tell if they were moving, and my teeth chattered. Were my hands turning blue, or was that just me?

But that didn’t matter. The wave pushed us forward, and we gained enough momentum to last through the undercurrent. Then another wave came, then another. Soon, the distant yellow line was growing not-so-distant.

We were close enough to see the people now. Parents were pacing along the edge of the beach, hovering right where the ocean met the sand, as though deciding whether to go in or not. Our parents were in the center, calling our names and waving their arms, and I could just spot Diana wading out until she was waist-deep in the frigid water.

"We’re—almost—there—" Sophia panted. My legs were sore and the wristband cutting into my skin was throbbing, and my chest didn’t seem to be working as well. Maybe that was the cold getting to me. But either way, we were almost there, and we weren’t giving up.

"Huge wave!" I called. Sophia and I inhaled in case we went under and started kicking that hardest we had ever kicked. The wave rolled under us in a swift motion, like an eagle diving to get it’s prey. We grabbed onto its power and it carried us right to where Diana was waiting.

She nearly strangled me in a hug. "You could have died! Awesome work!"

I could barely breathe. I felt the sand on the bottom, and I vowed never to go to a point where I couldn’t touch the bottom. Ever. My limbs had started shaking, either from adrenaline or nerves or probably the cold.

"Let’s go back," Sophia suggested, looking as relieved as I felt.

- - -

"Retell it again, please," my little brother, Ian, pleaded. He looked up at me with big eyes.

I sighed. "But you’ve already heard it so many times."

"Just once?"

We were sitting on the beach. I was lying on the sand, sprawled next to Diana and Sophia, gazing at the waves. In the distance, I could see the rock which Sophia and I had gotten so close to. Now I realized that it was pretty amazing that we had gotten back, because it looked so far away.

Sophia smiled and repeated our tale. It turned out that Diana had been able to get back, but barely because she had no boogie board like us.

"Wow, it sounds like a close call," my mom commented.

"You have no idea," I replied, grinning.

Sophie, Diana, and I shared a meaningful look. This was one experience we would never forget.