The secret of sex appeal, sixteen-year-old Sarah believes, is an even tan, and the key to an even tan is remembering to turn over at eightminute intervals between one and two p.m. Most of her friends opt for spray-on fake-n-bakes, but Sarah has always preferred the real thing.
As the second hand of her watch sweeps over the twelve, she flips from her stomach to her back, then inhales the delicious fragrance of sea salt.
“You’re going to regret lying there,” a voice calls from beneath a nearby umbrella. “You’ll be burned tonight and freckled next week. When you’re thirty you’ll have wrinkles, and when you’re forty you’ll have skin cancer.”
Sarah rolls her eyes. “Transmission received! You sound like Miss Pratt.”
The woman beneath the umbrella lowers her book and peers over the top of her reading glasses. “Who’s Miss Pratt?”
“My Health teacher.”
“Oh.” The book rises again, eclipsing the pale face beneath a wide straw hat. “Well, Miss Pratt is correct.”
Sarah sighs loudly, then flips back onto her stomach. Truth is, she’s bored with the pursuit of the perfect tan. She has nothing to listen to because she left her iPod in the city, and umbrella woman won’t let her bring the CD player down to the beach . . .
She pushes herself up and jogs toward the water, splashing away a pelican that climbs from the shallows and flaps his way toward a distant dock.
“Be careful!” the straw hat calls.
Sarah ignores the warning. The woman is hyper-paranoid; a certified over-worrier. Enough to drive a girl crazy.
Especially one who’s had more than her fair share of things to worry about.
Sarah wades forward until the water touches her bare belly, then she turns to brace against the breakers. After gasping at the first cold splash on her sun-warmed back, she swims beyond the waves, then backstrokes in an area where the swells rise and fall in a gentle rhythm.
She loves the ocean. She’d never admit this to a living soul, but if mermaids could exist, she’d exchange every shoe in her closet for a tail and flippers.
Floating lazily, she positions ankle to ankle and knee to knee, then kicks, sputtering as the awkward movement plunges her beneath the water.
She surfaces, laughing and spitting. It’s not easy to kick both legs simultaneously, but she could probably get the hang of it if she had time to practice.
She swims a little farther and treads water, then lifts her arms and lowers a tentative toe. She can touch the sandy bottom only until a swell pushes in, then she’s picked up and set back down as gently as you please. The ocean is quiet today; due to the heat, more people are shopping than swimming.
To the east, the white fleck of a sailboat streams against a vibrant blue sky while to the west, a sleepy line of gulls squabble over a ripple on the sea—probably a fish, maybe an entire school of fish.
A glimmer on the water grabs Sarah’s attention. Beyond the slanting line of the glassy waves, a shiny object rises and falls.
Sarah stretches out and swims. The object is a plastic container, a two-liter bottle that once held Coke or Sprite. No—Sprite comes in green bottles, and this one is transparent. The cap is missing, though, and in its place is a wad of some unidentifiable material.
Sarah closes the gap with one stroke, then grasps her prize. The container is nothing special; the wad is dried grass and something black—tar maybe, or gum? A few pages of densely printed paper curl inside the mostly waterproof ride. One edge is ripped, so these must be pages torn out of a book.
She turns the bottle. She’s not much of a reader, having been forced to read too many classics over the summer while her friends were touring Europe, but a handwritten message in the margin catches her eye. The brown ink is blurred, but one word is legible:
“Hey!” Sarah waves to catch the straw hat’s attention. “Hey, look!”
The woman is too engrossed in her book. Either that or she can’t hear above the steady crash of the surf.
Sarah’s mouth twists. Good thing I’m not drowning.
But she is a good swimmer, and umbrella woman knows it. Sarah tucks the bottle under her arm and sidestrokes toward the shore, then catches a wave and rides it until she reaches shallow water. She tugs her wet bathing suit back into place as she approaches the umbrella, then drops to her knees in the powder soft sand.
“Look at this.” She holds the bottle horizontally between her hands. “I found it in the water, and guess what? Someone wrote my name on these pages.”
The book falls. “What—oh, gross! That’s trash, Sarah, throw it away.”
“But it’s got—”
“You don’t know what it has. Some nasty drunk probably pitched it off a sailboat.”
Sarah points to the message. “But that’s my name, see? Can you read the rest of what it says?”
A pair of perfectly arched brows furrow for a moment. “Ugh! That looks like dried blood.”
“Drop it, and don’t touch it again. You don’t know where that’s been or who’s handled it. They could have HIV or AIDS, or something even worse.”
Sarah drops the bottle and wipes her hands on her bathing suit while the pale face warily regards the sun. “Look at how late it’s getting. We’d better go. When we get back I think we ought to write a letter to let someone know this beach is becoming unfit for swimming. I know they can’t stop riffraff from boating here, but there has to be a law against tossing trash into public waterways . . .”
Accompanied by an inexplicable sense of guilt, Sarah picks up her towel, shakes out the sand, and wraps it around her. Before following the bobbing straw hat to the house, she gives the odd bottle one last look.