Right after dinner and as it hits dark, Bill Ghormley organizes the young men into two teams, and they walk through a break in the small dunes and the dune weeds to the giant dune behind. That dune must a quarter mile long and wide. They have spent the day fishing in the waves and body surfing. For dinner, they ate two sand sharks and three sand trout they caught. The new kid, from the less active family, mildly scandalized some of them by telling a dirty joke.
The sand has cooled quickly, and the humid evening air is mild. Bill uses a flashlight to highlight a strip across the sand. “This is the neutral zone. Think of it as ten yards wide and as long as the width of the dune. It’s easy to find because I will be sitting in the middle of it. If you’re tagged, you’re captured and have to report to the neutral zone where you stay until a teammate rescues you.” He claps his hands. “Ready? Good. Go hide your flags. Game starts in two minutes.”
For two hours they will play the best capture the flag game that the young man has ever played and will ever play. There are strategies, flank attacks, covert squads, hidden defense teams, and wild sprints across the dune when he can barely see where he is stepping. On one of those, he misses a gap, falls, and slams full-frontal into the wall of a rise in the dune. Each side loses their flag at least once, the game is reset, and everything continues. Finally, about an hour in, his attack squad is spotted, and while others escape, he is captured and sent to the neutral zone.
He flops onto the sand near Bill.
“Got you, huh?”
“Yep.” He is aware of the gentle roar of the sea, as he stares into the moonless clear night sky. “They got me while I was attacking with a squad of four. There were two of them, Tone and Aaron. They singled me out, and Tone is super fast.”
Bill laughs, then goes quiet, and they listen for several long moments to the ocean throwing itself against the sand.
“What do you think of that night sky?” Bill says finally.
“Amazing. Way more stars out here.”
“Ever seen anything like it?”
“In the mountains in Utah. But not often.”
“Amazing to think about, isn’t it? There are more stars than people. More grains of sand on this beach than people.”
“Who knows how many of those stars have their own planets and how many of those planets have their own forms of life.”
“And yet, our heavenly parents know your name and my name.”
They are quiet again. The depth and breadth of the star canopy are endless, and the clusters are far denser than in the average night sky. When he looks left or right, the dune appears to stretch endlessly into the night, merging at the horizon with the night sky. When he looks at the ocean, he sees its vast darkness stretching out, heaving but formless, to the starry horizon. He has never felt so small, never sensed the immensity of time like this, never before thought of what a speck his life was, never felt so known.
A form bursts from the darkness and tags him. “You’re free! Let’s go!”
He hops to his feet and heads to his team’s base.