Fahrenheit 52

The Outer Beach

Last night, Penny spent a full hour alone on Tern Island. She knew it because she set a timer on her forest green and brown Timex Indiglo™ wrist-watch. She also knew she wasn't technically alone -- seals, birds (terns, hopefully, if the island's name was worth its salt), all sorts of crabs, and even more sorts of bugs were her invisible, snoozing companions.

The hour passed in a heartbeat and when she closed the round metal door knob of the bunk room in the cool dark basement of Gram's house, Penny could still see the summer Moon on the backs of her eyelids. She grabbed all four of the comforters in the otherwise-unoccupied room and bundled under them in her twin bed.

Tomorrow night, she decided, she'd do it again. But this time, she'd go all the way.

A quarter mile beyond Tern Island lay the Outer Beach. Penny's parents always referred to the barrier island as the "Secret Beach." At least once a summer, they'd all head down to the fish pier and hop into the yellow boat, captained by someone who looked like Santa's no-good brother, and spend the day on the quiet island playing paddleball, eating sandwiches, and digging holes.

Boats were the only way to get to the Outer Beach, at least nowadays. You used to be able to drive all the way there from Orleans, Gram liked to explain as she'd hand over her heavy binoculars to Penny. Penny always listened to Gram.

Except now.

Gram had explicitly forbidden Penny from kayaking all the way to the Outer Beach. Even though Penny was an expert kayaker - she lived on Orcas Island, after all. Even though Penny was now thirteen - a real teenager. Even though Penny was pretty sure Gram had done it herself. Sure, Gram allowed Penny to kayak around Tern Island, and even stop there for lunch, all by herself. But this was during the sunshine, and Gram always watched her like a ship's lookout.

But something was calling to Penny from the Outer Beach.

Her parents were arriving this Friday, and Penny knew they'd all be heading down to the yellow boat so they could have their fix of Secret Beach, but that wasn't it.

The day passed in a blur of sprinklers, ice cream cones, and pool-time. There was even a midday library visit, where Penny took out a book on the famous Coast Guard rescues in the Cape Cod town. She might as well be prepared for anything.

Gram was an avowed night-owl. Penny waited until nearly midnight, reading her Coast Guard book under her covers with a flashlight, before venturing to open the bunk room door.

Penny's headlamp flashed against the wall covered in framed rock-and-roll records. Her dad always said he was happy with Gram's collection - but Penny could never find the record player to see what he was talking about. She pushed aside the loveseat, where she'd hidden her things: a small water-resistant pack, filled with two almond-butter packets, a ziploc of whole almonds, an Almond-Joy candy bar, and almond milk in a thermos (Penny was going through an almond thing). She also had a compass-on-a-red-string, which she put around her neck, a poorly-folded map of the harbor, a spool of fishing line and some striper hooks with gummy fake bait attached, a pack of matches, a pocket knife that she found in her grandad's study, and something else, too. The most important thing. Penny added the library book to the pack, zipped it, and slung it over her shoulders before padding over to the basement door.

She unlocked it and the door opened with a pop and a hiss. Penny shuddered. Gram didn't hear it last night, thought Penny. She probably didn't hear it this time either.

Penny's banana-seat bike stood near the overturned charcoal grill from the summer when the gas grill was out of commission. She put on her helmet, tucking the head lamp lower so that she could see its beam, and undid the kickstand. She rode across the damp grass to the dirt path down to the beach.

Gram's kayak was made of clear plastic, which made it hard to find in the darkness. Usually kayaks were bright red and orange, like Penny's back in Washington. But, sure enough, Gram's was clear as tape. When you rode it, it felt like nothing was between you and the water (and whatever might be swimming beneath you). Penny had mixed feelings about this design.

Something flashed across the water. Heat lightning, thought Penny. But then it flashed again ten seconds later. The lighthouse beam, she remembered. The spinning light reflecting off the clouds over the Outer Beach.

Penny dragged the kayak down to the waterline, which was farther than usual thanks to the exceptionally low tide. Penny looked up at an orange and full Moon.

She tucked her pack into the cubbyhole, snapped on her life-jacket, and then pushed the craft further into the water before hopping in on the go.

Last night, Penny felt like it forever to reach Tern Island, as she darted between the fishing boats moored in the harbor. Tonight, in no time, she was already past Tern Island, following the flowing channels between the sand bars, the same ones that the yellow boat took.

There was a single house standing on the Outer Beach. A shack, really. You could see it from the shore, Penny knew, and you could really see it with Gram's binoculars. Penny was mystified by it. Who lived there? How did they get their groceries? Gram said no one lived there year-round, and, even stranger, that the owners weren't allowed to fix it up. If it fell into the ocean, then that was that. In fact, there used to be dozens of houses on the Outer Beach, but the tides swallowed them all up.

There were no lights on at the house tonight. Probably unoccupied. But Penny still decided to steer clear of it, and she navigated into a channel that took her slightly more south.

The waters became choppy halfway to the Outer Beach. The current picked up. Penny's worst fear was that she'd be pulled out into the deep ocean, through the break in the barrier island. This was probably Gram's worst fear, too. The kayak became difficult to control, and Penny nearly lost her paddle trying to turn the craft. She dug in, forcing her paddle against the current, trying to get back on track.

But, just as quickly as it became choppy, the water stilled. The sea became a silent lake. The lake became a calm bath.

Penny dipped her paddle into the water and the water sparkled in neon blue.

She did it again, on the other side. The same thing happened.

Each time Penny's paddle tapped into the water, the water flashed back like a thousand blue fireflies exploding at once.

Was this an algae bloom? She remembered her dad talking about something like this happening when he was camping one night along the Tomales Bay, near San Francisco, where he used to live when he met her mom.

The blue flashes then darted ahead of her kayak, beckoning her. Penny followed until she heard the crunch of the kayak's nose hit the Outer Beach.

"Thank you," Penny said, turning back to the water, once again swift.

She pulled her Gram's kayak deep onto the sand, well above the tide line, and hitched it to a boulder. She grabbed her pack from the cubby.

Her feet found the narrow path through the dune grass. She felt coyote eyes, yellow and sleepy, follow her through to the other side, where the deep ocean crashed and howled.

At her feet were one hundred-thousand horseshoe crabs, dragging their armor towards a massive tide-pool.

A seal cried like a siren. Like Gram's voice.

Penny removed her pack and placed it in the sand. She unzipped it and quickly got to work.

She struck a match.

"One Mississippi, two Mississippi, three Mississippi..."

The firework soared in the sky, higher and higher still.

Penny kept on counting.