I stare into the sky, my hands sheltering my eyes from the bright sun. I hear the sound of the ocean waves behind me quietly lapping onto the beach. The temperature is hot as usual for this time of year. I can feel small beads of sweat coming down the edges of my forehead. The leap year has already begun. The waves would be bigger on any other day, but not Leap Year Day. I keep searching the sky looking for the thing that makes this day special. I turn around and look in a different direction, looking over the water, trying to adjust my focus.
“There it is,” I quietly tell myself.
I can just make out the faint outline of the turn-stop, about forty-five degrees above the horizon. Technically it’s high in orbit, working its magic for leap year, along with the other hundred or so turn-stops up there. It’s February twenty-ninth, my sixteenth birthday. Or as everyone likes to joke, my fourth.
“Hardy!” I hear my name called.
I bring my focus down again, my eyes trying to adjust to the horizon. The hills in front of me slowly turn greenish-yellow as my eyesight gets used to my surroundings. I can see the scorched dead grass stretching over the rolling hills for several kilometers.
“Maybe one day this will be green.”
I turn to my left, sure that the familiar voice is coming from that direction. In the distance, I can see them. Brandt and Simi. My best friends. Brandt waves at me and I can tell that they pick up speed to catch up with me. I am anxious, knowing that Brandt’s asthma should disqualify him from running.
“Your mom was asking us where you went,” Brandt says in between huffing and puffing for air once they finally reach me. He’s bent over, clearly overwhelmed.
“Mom always knows where I go,” I answer. “Besides, you know you’re not supposed to run so fast. It’s not good for you.”
Brandt lightly punches my shoulder. My heart jumps with his touch.
“Don’t tell me how to live my life,” Brandt answers me sarcastically.
I turn to Simi, who isn't breathing as hard.
“You could have stopped him,” I tell her.
Simi looks at me through her dark-framed glasses. She has freckles that force their way through her rosy cheeks. She is one of the most beautiful creatures I know.
“You know nothing can stop him,” she says back. “Especially when it comes to you.”
She softly touches my cheek for good measure.
“Happy birthday, old man,” she says.
I chuckled at her term of endearment. For having four birthdays, I look old for my age. I turn back to Brandt who’s leaning down, still catching his breath.
“Are you okay?” I ask him.
“Why do you ask?” Brandt asks back, “You’re too protective of me sometimes.”
Brandt stands up and takes my face into his warm hands. They’re soft on my cheeks. He pulls my head close and kisses me, our tongues briefly touching. The taste of Brandt’s mouth fills my own. I fight the urge to grab him harder, feeling that I want him desperately at that moment. Slowly we separate and I open my eyes. Brandt’s face is close to mine.
“Happy birthday, old man,” he says quietly.
Chills go through my body. Brandt always makes me feel like this. I look into his dark eyes, seeing my reflection in his. For a moment, I am lost, undone, hoping the moment lasts forever. Simi breaks the silence, jumps in and hugs us both, arms wrapping around the two of us.
“It’s going to be a good day!” Simi shouts into our bodies, her voice muffled in our clothing.
We separate and step back from each other. I look up at the sky again.
“It’s going to be a hot day,” I say.
Simi and Brandt join me looking at the sky.
“Where is the turn-stop this morning?” Brandt asks.
I point in the direction I saw it before. Forty-five degrees above the horizon. It’s still there.
“You can make it out right up there,” I respond. “Just barely though.”
After a few moments, Simi sees it.
“There it is!” she shouts, pleased with herself.
Brandt is the last to see it.
“It’s really faint,” he says. “Do you think they even work anymore?”
I look back to the ocean, noticing the waves have slowed down even more than earlier.
“Of course they do. Just look at the water.”
The story my mother told me was that the ocean used to be a hundred miles to the west when my great-great grandmother was just a little girl. On a clear day, you can still see the tops of old buildings just at the edge of the horizon, at least the ones that are still standing. The weather got worse as the years went on and eventually everyone had to move from the coast as the ocean kept rising. The climate got too hot and people started dying. It took years of research and money but scientists finally came up with a solution: the turn-stops, giant devices in orbit that would make the world stop turning every four years. Every February twenty-ninth, it gave one side of the world a chance to cool down for twenty-four hours, the subsequent leap year, it was the other side’s turn. Technically the world didn’t actually stop, it just extended the day, making daylight last a full twenty-four hours at the equator before the sun set again. The project took twenty years to complete but it finally gave humanity a fighting chance for survival. The weather was still bad, but it was bearable and it gave the world an opportunity to fix itself. I can’t even begin to understand the science, but I’m thankful, as I know everyone else is.
“Now that your whole life is ahead of you,” Simi says, “what do you want to do with it?”
It isn’t the first time she’s asked me that question. To be fair, I don’t give it much thought. But over the next year, I would be required to choose my vocation, as every sixteen-year-old on the planet has to do. Everyone has to do their necessary part to make sure that the planet survives. I love the ocean. I always thought that maybe I could do something with oceans, maybe help bring the whales back.
“I could help with the whales,” I say it like a question.
“You mean work on the ocean project?” Brandt asks me anxiously.
“I don’t know,” I answer. “I think about it sometimes.”
“Why? Why would you want to leave?” he continues, looking more agitated.
“I don’t want to leave,” I say. “I just want to be helpful.”
Brandt scoffs, turns around and walks away. I turn to Simi and she wants to tell me something, but she’s hesitant to say it.
“What did I say?” I ask her.
“He thinks you’re going to leave.”
I shake my head.
“The ocean is right here,” I respond. “I don’t need to go anywhere.”
Simi pauses for a moment, looking at me as if I was already leaving.
“Hardy,” she starts, “You’re smart. We know you’ll succeed. There is no one who cares more about this place than you. Brandt is afraid. We’re not like you. We’re not destined for something bigger than just being happy.”
I turn to Brandt and call out to him.
“I just want to be happy too.”
I walk up to him as he turns around to look at me. I can hear Simi’s footsteps behind me.
“I want to be happy too,” I repeat earnestly.
He slowly smiles, our faces are mere inches from one another. I can smell his hot breath on my skin. The excitement in me rises again. He wraps his arms around me in a warm embrace. I can feel Simi lean against my back. We stay in that moment, silent, breathless, listening only to the noise of the world moving ever slowly.
“So what do you want to do today?” Brandt whispers in my ear.
I think about it for a moment. The only thing I really want is to be right here.
In this moment.
With Brandt and Simi.
I don’t want to change a thing.
“I don’t know,” I say, eventually. “I kind of just want to hang out here.”
I can tell that Brandt is restless.
“Hardy,” he says anxiously as he pulls away and grabs my shoulders. “It’s your sixteenth birthday. The entire day is sunny. That’s twenty-four hours of pure awesome! You need to do something!”
I feel my stomach growling. Maybe I’m hungry.
“How about breakfast?” I suggest.
“Well, it’s something,” Brandt replies.
Brandt takes Simi’s hand and starts walking down the beach.
“If you don’t come now,” Brandt calls out behind him, “I’m going to eat it all.”
I laugh and start towards them, running until I catch up, taking Simi’s other hand as she puts her head on my shoulder. I slow down and stop, looking out on the water. The waves have ceased moving. The water is as still as glass.
“Looks like everything still works,” I say. “Today, the world waits for us.”
“Happy birthday, old man.”