Myra Porter was lost in the mental clutter of everyday checklists as her husband and kids poured out of the family minivan into the chaotic beach parking lot. The kids, five and eight, had just now calmed to a merely excited level, down from frantic, and were buzzing around their father as he packed a large rolling cart. Myra secured the van with keys from a keychain that held a picture of her recently late father, and gathered her family for the trek to the beach.
“Matty, get back here!” Myra yelled to her older child. “Dana, stop playing with the gravel!” She shared a weary look with Don as both shook their heads. Then looking forward said, “I miss him. I’m not in the mood for this.”
“You’ll have fun.” Don smiled, knowing she wouldn’t.
Myra, the vanguard of the family entourage, hummed beginner’s singing exercises as she sallied on past tented and soggy families who’d arrived earlier, gotten a good spot, and were snugly nestled into the yielding sand. They found a place to set up camp; kids were undressed and sunblocked. They ran gleefully toward the water, carefully dodging frisbees and beach balls as they went. Don glanced at her, but knowing that she had used up all her personal energy for the day – as she did often and early since the funeral – followed them to make sure they didn’t wash away.
Myra watched them briefly as they left, smiling as much at the sight of them as at the fact that they were walking away. She crawled under their new beach shelter, popped a rolled-up towel under her head and picked up the paperback her new book club was reading. It was a mystery and she was on page 78.
She was just meeting the murder victim’s son when lifeguard whistles blew urgently. Three short, shrill blasts directed curious eyes to the lifeguard stand, where stood a diminutive boy.
“Anyone lose a kid?” the high-school lifeguards shouted. Myra eyed the boy. Small, nervous, almost apologetic for his presence. He stood there for a few minutes examining the crowd desperately before someone motioned for him to sit down.
Myra looked around, as though she would be able to pick the mother or father out of the crowd herself. An anxious feeling surprised her, something ancient and maternal, but was duly labeled and beaten back. She resolved that surely someone would be along soon enough, and commenced reading about the surviving relative.
Things were getting good on page 152, when she realized it was lunchtime. Children all over the beach were being called, and an army of wet children returned to their blankets to consume sandwiches with added sand. Juice boxes were administered, and consumed meals were rewarded with animal crackers and trips back to the water.
Ever the planner, Myra had a few extra sandwiches and a couple of cheese sticks, just in case. She walked over to the lifeguard stand and asked the teenager, a serious-looking athletic blonde in a red bathing suit, “Hasn’t anyone come for him yet?”
“No ma’am. Central dispatch is too busy to pick him up too, but he’ll be ok. We’ll watch him.” The teen winked at her, a habit which Myra found annoying.
Myra smiled at the boy warmly, and received a polite smile in return. “Do you like peanut butter and jelly?” He smiled and nodded. “How about apple juice?” Another nod. “Is it ok if I give him some food?” she asked the lifeguard. “It’s lunchtime.”
“Thanks! I didn’t even think of it.” said the girl, upset with herself for not having brought him something from her own lunch. “That’s really sweet.”
Walking away from her good deed done, she couldn’t help but theorize about the boy. Where were his parents? Surely they were frantic by now. Maybe something had happened to them. Her thoughts began to run toward the macabre, but she managed to stop herself, thinking that perhaps she’d had enough of that novel today. A few minutes later, the lifeguard dutifully blew her whistle a few times and shouted “Anyone lose a kid?”
Myra paused, looking around. She waited a few seconds, frowned, and then plopped herself back onto the blanket. Distracted, she set to the business of cleaning up the mess from lunch.
“Time to build a castle!” Matty jumped on the younger Dana, who yelled and attempted to remove her sibling in a grandiose flailing way that had great comic value. A fight over who would carry the pail from the ocean to the construction site ensued, until their father settled it by picking someone. Even though Myra was not reading, she sensed an extreme invasion of her peace, and something needed to be done. As she looked around for an escape, perhaps a familiar face or an oncoming tidal wave, she caught sight of the boy on the lifeguard stand. He had beautiful eyes, soulful and old. Also, he happened to be staring in her direction, with a glassy stare that looked both at and through the tumbling, sandy family.
She walked the few steps back over to the stand. “Can he play with my kids until they come get him? He looks bored.” The teenager looked warily at the woman but the boy looked at her with big eyes and said, “Please?”
“Ok, but just until the truck comes. It’s been a crazy day. A lady had a heart attack this morning and there’s a guy with heat stroke a few beaches away. They’lll be here when they get back from the ER.”
The lifeguard jumped off the stand and hauled the boy onto the beach. “Make sure I can see you, ok?” He nodded and took Myra’s hand as she walked.
“What’s your name?” asked Myra.
“Emett,” he responded.
“Emett, nice to meet you. I’m Myra. These are my kids Matty and Dana. Guys, this is Emett. Can he help you with your castle?”
Emett was immediately brought up to speed on building plans and various responsibilities. He excelled at digging trenches, and provided good voice when a superhero was required. He was also good at jumping across moats and could move deftly while not collapsing the gables. He fell in naturally with the family, like they had been friends for years.
Myra watched Emett, whose toy soldier and princess were perched at the main gate of the castle, deciding how to lead a charge. As he pondered, he began humming a tune very slightly. Myra recognized it as one that she’d been practicing in her voice class.
And so, as he hummed, she sang along. “I’m on the Top of the World lookin’ out on creation…” He turned and gave her a broad smile which she gave back. For an imperceptible moment, Myra felt totally at peace. It was a fleeting feeling, but palpable and also familiar.
It was 2pm when the truck showed up. The lifeguard hopped off her perch to happily greet him, and pointed in the direction of the Porter family. A man with a badge trudged over to them.
“Are you the little boy I’m looking for?” The man had a friendly but worn smile, official-looking tags and a radio that chatted quietly at his belt. Myra guessed that Emett would be playing with paperclips and tape from someone’s desk until they found out where he was supposed to be. She wondered where exactly that was, as she resisted an implusive urge to hug him.
“Say goodbye to Emett, guys. He has to go.”
“Ok, bye!” both kids called out in a chorus. Myra knelt down to Emett’s level and said, “Thanks for playing with us! We had fun.”
“Me too, Myra. Thanks for everything. Goodbye.”
Emett turned to leave, taking the man by the hand and chatting with him as they walked down the beach. He glanced over his shoulder once, and Myra made sure she was looking at him, in case he needed to be reassured. He caught her eye and she smiled and waved. He smiled, then went back to talking to the man with the badge.
Matty and Dana ran to their father. “Can we go down and get more water?”
“Yes, but we’re leaving in a little bit, too. About a half an hour.”
“Ok,” sighed disappointed voices in unison, and they took his hand and dragged him to the surf.
Myra watched as Emett was loaded into the truck. The official got into the driver’s side and drove slowly away. The truck turned right, off the beach and onto a service road. Myra stared at the spot where the truck had disappeared for a while before she began to clean up the blanket and get ready for home. She fished her keys out of her purse so they were ready for the van, and rubbed her thumb over her father’s keychain picture for a while, looking especially at his eyes.
“A Beach Escape” was submittted for a Writer’s Digest contest in the fall of 2011, and did not win. (Darn.)