Lost in the Waves
Credit: John Loomis
The ocean was always one of Christopher's favorite places. The shallow water near the jetty rocks of Ponce Inlet, pale and green at the curve of the beach – Walt took him there as much as he could. Like a lot of autistic children, Christopher was drawn to water. By the sensation of it, by its sounds, its placidity – Walt could only guess. Christopher could never explain the ocean's hold on him, could only put on his swim trunks and stand barefoot on the wooden floor of the house, or find the car keys from the table and try to place them in Walt's hand, or just wait impatiently at the door of his convertible. As his son grew up, his main communication turned out to be the sounds of his laughter, his hands slapping at the tide foam, his giddy squeal as he climbed onto his father's back, swimming for hours until it was time for them to go home.

On September 6, 2008, a Saturday, Walt took him to Ponce Inlet late in the afternoon. It was his weekend with the kids. As he did every two weeks, he picked up Christopher from the group home where he lived, then picked up Angela, his 14-year-old daughter, at her mom's house in Oviedo. Christopher sat next to Dad in the front seat of Walt's red Celica, the top folded back, wind running through Christopher's short dark-brown hair. Angela sat squished along with two of her friends in the back. It was a perfect day to go to the beach. They stopped at McDonald's, Christopher's favorite, on the way.

Christopher ate his double cheeseburgers slowly, maddeningly, the exact same way he did every time. He took off the top bun, held it in his hand, and ate the pickles. Then he ate the lettuce. Then the top bun. Then he ate the meat. Then the bottom bun, then each french fry, one at a time. He chewed vigorously, with his mouth open, loud enough for Walt to ask him to stop. Occasionally, when he became anxious or upset, he might stand beneath the spout of the soda fountain and press the button, and try to catch the spill in his mouth.

As Walt watched Christopher eat, he tried not to think about the meeting he'd had earlier in the day with his ex-wife Robyn and her husband Ed. Walt had lost his accounting job a few months before and asked if he could cut back on child-support payments. He'd split with Robyn eight years earlier, and whenever they spoke anymore it was briefly, tensely, and only in regard to the kids. During this meeting, in which Robyn and Ed agreed to reduce but not eliminate payments, they asked Walt what he planned to do with the kids that day. "I don't know," Walt replied, though he did know.

They arrived at New Smyrna Beach around 6:30 pm. The five of them walked the long wooden boardwalk, Christopher plodding behind, sometimes staring down. Walt followed him. The Ponce Inlet Lighthouse was the one thing, long and orange, that rose above the sparse landscape in the distance. The boardwalk ended at stairs that went down to the sand; by the time Walt and Christopher caught up to them, the girls had ignored the signs posted and were sliding down the backs of the white dunes as if on a playground. Walt and Christopher watched them for a while, then put their bags and towels down on the hard sand close to the water.

Christopher, in floral trunks like his dad, took off ahead of Walt, toward the south jetty, and splashed in, wading along the rocks. The tide on the protected side of the jetty looked serene. A group of people, their dark fishing poles like long weeds sticking up between the jetty rocks, watched them. Walt waded in to get Christopher, unaware that the tide had begun to go out, or of how strong it was, or that he was actually disobeying a county ordinance; no one was supposed to swim within 300 feet of a pier or jetty. Robyn and Ed had repeatedly asked Walt not to put Christopher in any situation that could be dangerous, and they asked him in particular not to take Christopher to the beach. But Walt didn't listen to them. He was certain that it made Christopher happy to be here.

The current grabbed father and son almost immediately. They floated past the glistening rocks, and then it pulled them faster, the sand disappearing beneath their toes. Within a minute, Walt and Christopher were 50 feet out, the ocean in their faces and ears.

"Do you need help?" one of the fishermen yelled at Walt as he watched him being pulled away.

"We're okay!" Walt shouted back, giving a thumbs-up. He still thought he had things under control, that they could make it back. They had waded into this water a thousand times, he and Christopher.

But this time the current was much stronger. Another two minutes, 200 yards farther out to sea. Walt knew they were in trouble now. His heart thumped in his ears. "Don't come in!" he screamed to Angela, who was now staring out at them in fright from the jetty. "Call 911! 9-1-1! 9-1-1!" He repeated this instruction, hands cupping his mouth, over and over, trying to keep his head above water as the waves grew, but Angela was now out of earshot.

One second Walt could see the beach, and the next he was below the horizon. He tried to focus on Christopher's head, the dark-brown hair wet and matted, the only part of him above water. Christopher was about 20 feet ahead of Walt now, bobbing and laughing hysterically. Walt yelled at Christopher to swim back to the jetty with him – "Come on, let's go, let's swim!" – but they had been raked into the middle of the inlet, where the current's pull was even stronger.

After 20 minutes, they were about a mile out, at the mouth of the open sea. A green navigational buoy bobbed there, tall and round, with a rusted bell clanging back and forth. Walt reached out to try and grab onto the buoy but struggled against the current. Christopher just kept laughing, unaware of the danger, of the situation, of the fading shore and the strength of the current, of the ocean ahead. As they floated past the buoy, there was nothing else to stop them from drifting into the sea.