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The steady rhythm of the moving car traversing the New Jersey turnpike had lulled Betsy to sleep, her stuffed dog nestled in the crook of her arm; now the green station wagon jolted to a stop outside a beach rental cottage and Betsy awoke with a start.
The four-year-old blinked sleepily and let out a luxurious yawn as she scrutinized the cottage, a small house with peeling slate grey paint on cheap aluminum siding, a concrete roof, and a front yard of pebbles dotted with the occasional dandelion.
“Are we here, Mama?” she asked, sweeping her red bangs into place and unbuckling her seatbelt.
“Yes, Betsy,” murmured Mother with a gentle smile. “White Sands Beach, here we come!”
Betsy jumped up immediately. She begged, “Can we go there now, Mama? Please?”
“Not until tomorrow, kids,” Father said firmly, to groans of disappointment from Betsy and her brothers, Noah and David.
Mother turned around in her seat and promised, “You’ll have plenty to do tonight, I assure you. Besides, it’s already after four fifteen. The lifeguards go home at five.”
Unpacking commenced then. Betsy ran into the house as soon as Father unlocked the door—she was determined to claim the perfect bedroom. Up a flight of narrow, rickety stairs she hurried, not even bothering to take off her Mary Janes. Betsy flung open the first door to reveal a sparse bathroom, little more than the typical amenities on a grungy, mildewed tile floor. The next door yielded a pink bedroom with a twin bed in it, covered with a flowery bedspread. An enormous conch shell rested in a friendly sort of way on the bureau, and watercolor prints of seagulls and sailboats, painted in gentle pastels, adorned the walls. Betsy didn’t need to search any farther. This room was perfect for her flighty daydreams and imaginative stories—it would be hers.
Mother and Father helped Betsy unpack her suitcase. First they placed her swimsuits (all with skirts, so Betsy could transform into a mermaid at the beach) and towels and play clothes in bureau drawers, then Father went to check on Noah and David and Mother continued to help Betsy. Out came Betsy’s books—she passionately loved to read—and Lily, Betsy’s favorite doll, sporting two brown braids and a pale blue dress. Lily and Doggo, Betsy’s love-worn stuffed dog, earned coveted spots on Betsy’s pillow.
Evening fell; golden and scarlet streaks of color painted the sky into a glorious summer sunset. By seven thirty, dinner had been eaten and bedtime stories had been read. Mother sat primly on the edge of Betsy’s bed and read “maggie and milly and molly and may” in dulcet tones to her daughter. She ended the bedtime stories with,
“ …For whatever we lose (like a you or a me)
it’s always ourselves we find in the sea.” Mother closed the poetry book and landed a light kiss on Betsy’s brow. “I love that poem. It’s by e. e. cummings, and I thought it was appropriate to read to you during a seashore vacation. Good night, darling,” she whispered as she plugged in the nightlight and slipped quietly from the pink bedroom.
Betsy was exhausted from the day’s travels and, though she squirmed for a few minutes with excitement and anticipation for the day to come, she was soon dozing peacefully, content with the realization that, as there was no closet in her room, the nighttime specters she feared could not be lurking unseen. She was safe.
The morning arrived in a hurry once Betsy dropped off to sleep, and before she knew it, her mother was waking her and helping her with her swimsuit.
“Mama, did we bring the shovels and the bucket?” Betsy asked, breathless with excitement.
“Yes, dear, and we’re all ready to go. Carry your towel, Betsy darling, and we’ll walk down to the beach.”
Betsy heard and smelled the ocean before she saw it. The shrieks of swimmers and the waves crashing on the surf drifted over the dunes to Betsy and her family. Betsy caught the scent of salt on the air and raised her head to inhale it as, above her head, seagulls cried and circled in a cloudless blue sky.
“Want to sit on my shoulders, Betsy?’’ asked Father. He hoisted her up, high enough to see the great billowing masses of blue sea and the beachgoers, so tiny by comparison. Betsy hugged his scratchy neck as if to shield herself from the massive ocean.
Father swung Betsy back down to earth, and the family ambled down to the beach. Betsy’s two red pigtails waved in the wind and David whacked Noah playfully with a boogie board. Betsy clung to Father as they wove through a labyrinth of umbrellas, towels, and cabanas. People of all nationalities and ages were running, tanning, playing beach volleyball, and sculpting sandcastles. Betsy stubbed her toes on shells and sticks in the sand. An additional trial was the scorching sand, which felt like hot coals under Betsy’s bare feet.
“How about here for our cabana?” Father proposed, pausing all of a sudden. “It’s clear and flat and close to the lifeguards, Judy.”
“Looks good to me, Bill,” Mother replied. “You guys, are you all set to help Father and me put up the cabana?”
The cabana, a blue-and-white open-fronted tent, was quickly erected. Mother unpacked her enormous canvas beach bag, tossing towels, toys, shovels, and sunglasses into the cabana before extracting a bottle of sunscreen.
“I’ll start on Noah if you help Betsy, David,” Mother told Betsy’s oldest brother.
David knelt by Betsy and said confidentially, “Hold out your arm, Betsy. It’s a hot dog and we’re going to put some ketchup on it.” He bent his blond head down and grinned widely as he began systematically running lines of sunscreen up and down her arms.
Betsy giggled and shrieked as David squirted the cold sunscreen onto her arms, then her legs. All the while he kept a straight face, shook his head solemnly, and said things to Father like,
“Father, will you just look at this? Betsy here has some hot dogs without any ketchup on them!”
Father slapped his knee in an excellent display of astonishment and cried, “Well, my goodness! That won’t do! Slap some ketchup on those hot dogs at once!” And he winked conspiratorially at his son.
After David had finished slathering Betsy in SPF 55, Mother sent her children off to play.
“Off you go, kids,” Mother called from inside the cabana. “David, Noah, keep an eye on Betsy. Be good!”
Betsy skipped down the beach, chasing after seagulls as she went. Noah, his blond curls tousled, hollered,
“Let’s go into the ocean, Betsy! Come on!”
Betsy scampered after him, squelching along in the wet sand, then into the gloriously cold water that lapped gently against her feet. She squealed with irrepressible delight as a wave broke against her ankles.
David handed the four-year-old a boogie board.
“Come a little deeper, Betsy, and I’ll teach you and Noah to boogie board!” he promised, fastening a bracelet to her wrist that attached to the board.
The children waded clumsily out until the water was close to Betsy’s waist.
“See that wave there?” David asked his younger siblings, pointing with a tan, muscular arm. “It didn’t foam yet, so when it comes to us you lie down on your board and jump onto the wave. Ready?”
Betsy and Noah, speechless with excitement, faced the shore.
“When I tell you to, jump,” ordered David. “Okay…go!”
The timing was perfect. The little kids rushed into shore with the wave. Exhilarated, Betsy did it again and again. She didn’t mind the seaweed that snarled her ankles every now and then, nor the occasional misjudgment that ended in a mouthful of salt water.
As Betsy spat out a little seawater, Noah said suddenly, “I’m hungry.”
David, knowing how abrupt an eight-year-old’s hunger could be, agreed, “Okay. Let’s take a wave in to shore and we’ll get a popsicle.”
“I’m not ready to go yet,” protested Betsy, glancing longingly at the damp, inviting sand.
David reflected for a minute. “Alright. Here’s what we’ll do,” he announced. “I’ll take Noah up to the cabana for a snack. Betsy, do you want to build a sandcastle?”
Betsy nodded eagerly.
“Yeah? So you’ll sit right here by the lifeguard chair”—he led Betsy to a spot just next to where the lifeguards sat on duty—“and build your castle and don’t move until I come back.”
“Okay.” Betsy sat down contentedly in the sand and started to methodically bury her legs.
“Be good. We’ll be right back.”
Betsy started digging a moat for her castle. That way, she figured, it wouldn’t flood.
“Now let’s build the wall,” she murmured to herself, “so no one gets in.”
Soon, Betsy realized that a shovel would be necessary to make this palace grand enough for the royalty in her imagination. Betsy looked up at the endless rows of cabanas and umbrellas. Where had hers gone? Briefly confused, the little girl furrowed her brow and—Ah! There!
Betsy stood up, splashed a little water on her legs to rinse off the sand, and squinted up at her cabana as she made her way up the beach. She passed through the “sponge sand,” as she called it, slowly. This was the sand that bounced into perfect footprints, soft and cool under Betsy’s toes. Then there was the dry sand that caked unpleasantly to her damp feet and ankles. Oh well, she thought. I’ll rinse it off later.
Betsy sauntered over to her cabana. Snoring was issuing from within.
“Daddy has fallen asleep,” giggled Betsy, and stealthily peeked around the edge of the blue nylon so as not to disturb Father.
It was not her father. It was a man with a large stomach and a sunburned face covered in two days’ worth of whiskers. Betsy jumped back immediately, startled.
This was not her cabana, so which one was? Betsy swiveled her head back and forth and slowly pivoted; was that one hers, over there? She set off in search of her family with only minimal worry in the back of her mind.
It was terribly hot; the sun beat mercilessly down on Betsy’s little shoulders, evaporating the last few drops of ocean water clinging to her. What she would give for a popsicle now! Worry increased in her as she dragged her feet through the hot sand; her family ought to have been in that last cabana! Where were they?
She arrived at the next cabana, hoping desperately that her family would be within. No, only another group that she didn’t know, just a few more faces in this mass of people.
A little girl with blonde ponytails yelled to Betsy, “Come listen to the ocean in my seashell!”
Betsy went over to the girl curiously and put a massive blue-and-white streaked shell to her ear. “I hear the waves in here!” she exclaimed.
“Uh-huh,” the girl said knowledgably. “My daddy showed me how to do that. Where’s your daddy? Is he here?”
“Um…I got to go,” Betsy replied regretfully; she would have loved to play with this girl who had built a soft, dry castle and was now covering it in dozens of tiny seashells. “Maybe later we can play.”
Where was her family? Betsy wondered. And how was she to reach them? The beach was so large and the cabanas were so numerous….
Her throat was too dry; the sun too hot. She had to find her family. She had to. Panic rose like a bitter poison in the back of her throat as she looked around, plodding ever forward. Betsy’s heart was pounding, so loudly that the people around her, blissfully unaware of her plight, must surely hear it and wonder what that dull, rhythmic thumping was…. She continued to trudge along. It seemed to be all she could do, for otherwise how would she find her beloved parents, David, and Noah? Oh, she was horribly tired and the day was only growing warmer. But she had to keep plodding doggedly along, had to walk until she found David and Noah and Father and Mother…. Her feet kept moving slowly onward, one in front of the other. Left, right, left, right, left—
A shadow fell over Betsy, a human shadow. Practically trembling with anxiety and nervousness, she looked up into the eyes of a policewoman.
The officer knelt in the sand before the little girl to match her tiny stature and looked up at her with gentle, kind eyes.
“Honey, are you lost?” the woman asked softly, gazing into Betsy’s blue eyes.
Breathless, Betsy nodded.
“Well, don’t worry. I’m a policewoman, and I’ll make sure we get you back to your family, okay?”
Betsy nodded mutely.
“Okay, take my hand. You get to come for a drive in my police car! Come along, honey.” The woman slipped her large, capable hand into Betsy’s pudgy, little, sweaty one. “What’s your name, sweetie?”
“Betsy,” the girl whispered.
“Okay, Betsy, let’s get you home.”
The girl and the woman strode off the beach to the officer’s cruiser, Betsy taking two steps for each of the policewoman’s.
Her car was as neat as a pin; the carpet was neatly vacuumed and the windows were spotless. Betsy slid with some trepidation into the faux leather back seat and the officer helped her buckle in. Betsy’s damp skin stuck to the hot seat. She shrank back from the sturdy bars separating the front seats from the back row.
“We’re going to drive down to your beach,” the officer told Betsy gently, “because your parents are looking for you. Let me know when you see your folks, okay?”
Betsy shivered, whether from fear or from the blast of air conditioning, she knew not which. She sat quietly as the police officer tucked her long, straight brown ponytail behind her shoulder and started the car. They drove slowly through White Sands, past white and blue and yellow houses with porches and balconies, sprinklers and flowers.
Betsy longed for the safety of her own neighborhood, where her mother planted flowers and she could run merrily through sprinklers, never losing sight of her home. But now…now where was her family?
The woman was keeping a sharp eye out and instructed Betsy to do the same.
“If you see your parents, let me know, Betsy,” she urged.
Not a moment too soon.
“Mama!” cried Betsy joyously. “Daddy!” She pressed against the window, saying, “Please stop, Miss Police Officer!”
The cruiser pulled over alongside a sidewalk where Mother and Father were walking along, looking worried, with David wearing a deeply concerned expression and Noah bawling.
“These are your parents and brothers, Betsy?” asked the policewoman.
“Yes!” Betsy exclaimed. “Oh, yes!”
“Come on, sweetie,” the woman said, opening the back door of the car.
Mother threw her arms around Betsy in relief. Father thanked the officer profusely.
“Thank you, thank you for our little girl,” he cried gratefully.
As the police car drove away, Father picked up Betsy and seriously told her, “Nice job finding the police, Betsy. If you’re ever lost or separated from us, the police will take care of you.”
“Oh, we’re so glad we have you with us again,” Mother sighed.
Noah dried his tears and threw his arms around his little sister in a tight hug.
Betsy and her family went to the beach again the following day. She played exuberantly in the sand, swam, and devoured popsicles and crunchy cold chicken. And all day long, no matter what, she never lost sight of Noah or David. Betsy wasn’t going to get lost again; she made certain of that.