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The clam juice, fresh and cold and salty, splashed my lower arms. We’d been in the kitchen shucking clams, my mom and I, since just before the sky turned orange and warm, since I ran into the house with a child’s bucket full of the little critters and sand between my toes. Side by side at the kitchen sink, we gazed dreamily out the window at the scene in our backyard beach: two laughing people, each baked to a deep golden tan (especially the man), sipping their beachy cocktails. Their beach chairs sank so low that they really seemed to be sitting in the sand. The tide had just gone down, so they’d moved closer to the water so that their feet could just touch. They’d refilled their glasses what seemed like half a dozen times since the sun began sinking into the ocean. They were happy. My grandparents had a thing for the beach. There was nothing they loved more than a full day at the beach with a good book, each other, and a cool drink, sweating beady drops on the little table nestled between them.
“I bet you wish you were out there right now, don’t you,” my mom asked, dropping a spoonful of stuffing onto a clam on the tray. I knew she was really the one wishing she were out there. The beach had always been her favorite, especially at this time of day when the only audible sound was the lapping of the waves. But my dad was coming down to the beach tonight, after a long week of work back at home, and my mom always made sure to have a nice dinner for him, complete with drinks and hors d’oeuvres by the ocean at sunset.
“Yeah, I do. But I really want these clams!” I grabbed one from the hot water they were soaking in, broke it, and tossed half its shell into the bucket. My mom’s famous Clams Casino, everyone’s favorite hors d’oeuvre, made summer complete. They were a real treat, too, since they took so long to make. But every bite was well worth the work. The twelve-year-old cook in me aspired to someday master these clams all on my own. “We’re almost done, right?”
“We’re close. We just need to finish them off. Go get the bacon, would you?” I went to get it, to crumble it into baby pieces to top off the stuffing on the clams. This was by far my favorite part: it meant that they were done and only one step remained before they’d be ready to eat.
I was dropping the bacon onto a clam, chatting with my mom, when her words were interrupted. “H-e-e-e-l-l-p,” the voice called. It was raspy and barely audible, strained. It certainly got my heart banging against my chest. Dropping the clams and shells and stuffing and spoons, leaving the steaming water running, we both dashed for the side door, out to the back steps. “What is it?! What’s the matter?” I shrieked when we got outside. I think my mom was yelling the same, but I couldn’t hear her voice over my own.
Nana had been reading her book, but she was slowly bringing herself to her feet, shading her eyes with her free hand and searching the wide open sea. I raced down the steps two at a time, headed for the sandy strip of beach, my mom following behind, a bit slower. Seeing Nana sitting next to an empty chair gave me that horrible feeling inside that I often get when I know something is wrong, like that time when my dog never came home from the woods, like when the police couldn’t find my little sister.
“It’s Puppy!” Nana screamed to us. My grandfather had gone for a swim. I was a little shocked she wasn’t more panicked, but then again I was somewhat surprised she’d even heard him at all from way out in the water; she was old and her hearing was not too great, I quickly remembered. Neither was his. “I think he needs help!”
Before I knew what I was doing, I was in the water, swimming out towards Puppy’s bobbing head. My jean shorts clung heavily to my thighs. I did not notice the chilled slapping water or the tiny rocks jutting into the soft bottoms of my feet or the gulps of salty water streaming into my opened mouth or my sore, weak arms. All that existed in my world was the deep dark water shoving me around, and white fuzziness. What I do remember, though, is looking up every few panicked strokes, only to see Puppy’s head, rolling around, never getting any closer to me. My hands smacked back water that would not budge.
His hand reached out for the red and white donut being thrown toward him, and he sluggishly maneuvered his body to rest heavily atop it. Desperately relieved, I stopped furiously swimming and was stunned to feel my bare feet hit the ocean’s floor. Panting and shivering, I waited for my heart to stop racing. I rose to my feet, dumbfounded.
My eyes followed the string, with, on one end, Puppy, holding tight to the life saver, and on the other, the real life saver: my mom. She was farther out in the water than I was, only she was not exactly in the water; she was standing, a little out of breath, at the edge of our dock. She reeled Puppy in and helped him up the ladder.
“What was that for? I was fine. I was really fine,” Puppy said groggily, clearly embarrassed, but trying to restore his pride. “I didn’t need help!”
We all, on the other hand, had to disagree. “Are you crazy?” My mom looked at him, smiling at his desperate attempt to appear strong.
Nana bundled me up in a towel when I got out of the icy water. Sand was wedged between my toes, which I hated. My mom and Puppy walked toward us at the other end of the dock, she guiding his dizzy steps. Nana held me close as we waited for them to get to us. Her eyes told me how proud she was of me; she didn’t have to say it. She’d seen everything from her spot at the shoreline. She’d seen me plunge into the water and get nowhere fast. She’d seen my mom stop where the sand meets the water and stand still for just a quick moment. She’d seen her grab the life saver and run (careful not to trip) down the length of the dock, until she reached the very end. She’d seen her throw it out to a weak Puppy, struggling to keep his head from going under, and she’d seen him stop fighting the water while seeing me do the same.
The four of us made our way up the steps back into the house once all laughter escaped us, all words exhausted. My mom, I could tell, couldn’t wait to tell my dad the afternoon’s excitement. But I couldn’t stop looking back; why hadn’t I taken the dock?