Undertow
Joanne Faries
Dorsal Winner
P.S. Wish you were here. Love C.
 
She dropped the postcard in the blue corner box, readjusted her beach bag, lugged her canvas chair, and smiled. Secretly Courtney was grateful to her aunt for the solo invite. Not her mother, not her brother.
 
Twelve year old Courtney, alone, flew from Iowa into Philadelphia. Aunt Lori and her cousin, Sarah, greeted her at baggage claim, then drove directly to Ocean City, New Jersey. Car windows down, seagull cries, and salt air. Crossing the initial bridge, over sailboats and fishermen, Courtney gasped, “It’s so big.”
 
“Just the inlet, silly,” said Sarah. “Wait until you see the ocean.”
 
Now, day four - Courtney bobbed in the saltwater, her toes doing touch and go like a small crop duster. Her arms hung suspended, and her fingers flicked at dangling seaweed. A swirl of tiny fish brushed past and she opened her eyes to marvel as they darted left and right.
 
Her eyes closed. Muffled cries from Italian Ice hawkers wafted from the beach. Paddle ball slaps, merry-go-round calliope, little kids on boogie boards squealed –all mixed in the mélange of backdrop noise. A plane put-putted across the sky and she opened her eyes to read the ad for All-You-Can-Eat Crab at Watson’s. She glanced back and saw Sarah’s bright red bikini. At fifteen, Sarah preferred to flirt at the lifeguard stand, especially when Nick was on duty.
 
More sunscreen. Courtney decided to head to welcome umbrella shade. She licked her parched lips and hoped Aunt Lori had lemonade in the roller ice chest. Straightening her legs and pointing her toes yielded nothing, no sand. Looking again for Sarah’s bright red beacon, Courtney frowned. She had drifted…drifted far. She began a breaststroke and barely made headway. She kicked and pulled some crawl strokes, only to be slapped in the face by a wave. Sputtering, she halted in the water to clear her head.
 
Undertow. Riptide. What if she was carried away to England? Sarah had joked about that. Aunt Lori shook her head. “The currents are serious. Courtney, luv, keep your eye on the lifeguards and mind the whistles.”
 
She commenced breaststroke hoping for progress. “Help,” she called. Her voice cracked with fear. Tremulous wimpering. “Help,” she screamed and tried to wave her arms. Futile.
 
Wish you were here, Mom. Nagged me to stay close. Courtney rolled onto her back and blinked silent tears.
 
A strong arm enclosed Courtney and Aunt Lori said, “Stay calm. I’ve got you. I was a lifeguard a long time ago.”
 
Final waves propelled them on shore, and they staggered to their chairs.
 
“Thanks,” Courtney exhaled.
 
“Your mother would kill me. No trip to England on my watch.”

First published: August, 2014
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