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Fist-sized, spit-encrusted Jawbreakers, cold waves, the smell of sunscreen, salt, and a tinge of sweat, and sandy feet tumbled through my head. More memories shoved their way in by the second, crowding together in reminiscent anticipation as I stepped out of the car into the thick, warm air, flip-flops slapping the concrete. I gazed at the faded yellow beach house that had grown so familiar over the past few years, feeling a smile slide across my face. The ocean roared, crickets chirped, and my car door slammed shut. We were finally here.
My cousin and I padded through the sand, the lazy, slow sun finally beginning to paint everything golden. Tiptoeing gingerly over the tiny, crunchy shells, we scanned the beach for any hidden treasures.
“Hey, I found one!”, she exclaimed, a light breeze lifting her blond curls around her face as she triumphantly held up a swirly white shell shaped like an inch-long tornado.
After a few more minutes with only the crashing of the ocean and distant shouts of laughing kids in the background, she remarked, “I love the sound the shells make when the ocean washes over them and they clink against one another. See? Listen.”
A small, foamy wave brushed over the shells. Although I had visited this beach annually all fourteen years of my life, I had never heard that sound before because I hadn’t ever listened. Amazed, I listened again. It sounded almost like rain.
With hands full of shells of every sort, we meandered back to the boardwalk, a hint of sunscreen in our mouths and hot sand sizzling our toes as if they were sausages on the grill. The rest of our family lagged behind, sticky with sunscreen and salt, chairs, towels, inner tubes, and buckets sticking out at every angle. I was quiet. The peachy sky scattered with clouds, soft white sand dunes, and faded gray-brown of the splintery boardwalk slapped me with a new clarity.
“Woohoo! JAWBREAKERS!” my little brother exploded as we arrived at the little candy store, bursting out of the car.
“Ethan, wait for Mommy”, my mom called out halfheartedly- that kid is a miniature out of control bouncy ball- as she followed behind. The door jangled as we stepped into the cool candy shop.
“Ooh, I like the green one”, my cousin said, eyeing the giant jawbreaker hungrily.
“Do they have any sour ones?”,asked my little sister. “Those are the best.”
I wandered away, their excited jabber fading into the background as I explored in awe the rows of candy of every sort. Creamy and salty white chocolate-covered pretzels, pale, glittering sugar crystals on an old-fashioned wooden stick, a rainbow of jelly beans, truffles, giant jawbreakers, of course, saltwater taffy, and much, much more beckoned me.
Our parents gave us ten dollars each and we all went sugar crazy. As the sweet old woman with curly gray hair behind the counter checked us out, I thought about how picturesque this experience was : an adorable elderly lady running a candy shop on the beach swarming with children (and, um, a few teenagers). We stepped outside into the warm, muggy air, each clutching a bag of candy in one hand and a super sized jawbreaker in the other.
My cousin, sister, and I charged at the ocean, clumsily hopping over- or falling through- waves, leaping across underwater piles of sharp, jagged shells, and just generally hurling ourselves through the breakers. When we finally cleared the majority of the crashing waves, we stood in the chilly, waist deep water. On calm, clear days we would float on rafts or look for seashells; however, today was not a peaceful day. It was rough, with strong waves that loomed over us as if they were shoes and we were tiny ants. On these days, my favorite days, the ocean seemed to become a living thing, an angry beast. The sense of adventure, danger, and excitement exhilarated me.
We pressed ourselves against the bottom, digging our fingers into the sand every time an incoming wave got ominously big.
After coming up from under an enormous wave that I could feel rumble across my feet, I sensed the water being pulled out and heard a huge wave thundering closer. Instinctively, I fell backwards into the quiet, dark water before I even had time to open my eyes. A second later, it pounded over me.
I surfaced, gasping.
“Olivia!”, I heard my sister shout, panicked, a second too late. The wave slammed over my head and sucked me under. The next few seconds became a haze of heavy, cold water, sand as rough as sandpaper against my skin, salty water scrambling up my nose, twisting, flipping, tumbling, and foam. “Which way is up? Which way is up? Which way is up?” pounded through my head, desperately crowding out any other sensible thought. Finally, my hands found the ground and I shoved off of it into the air. I stood, hacking and coughing, up into the sunlight. Looking around, I found my sister.
And we both started to laugh.
I set The Life of Pi on the glass-topped wicker table and pulled myself out of the worn green couch to seek out a flashlight. My grandma, parents, aunt, fourteen year old cousin, his friend, and I, armed with flashlights, trailed down the spiral wooden staircase connected to the boardwalk. In a ragged line, we traipsed along the beach, clicking our flashlights off as we neared our destination. Lined with people and glowing with red light from filtered flashlight beams, the turtle nest runway reached for the ocean. We plopped down in the cool sand near the fluorescent orange tape marking off the nest. I stared at the bright, full moon in the crystalline midnight sky. The murmur of soft voices and muted rushing of the ocean in the background illustrated patient anticipation as I waited, peaceful and wide awake.
At two o’clock in the morning, the first tiny sea turtle peered out of the nest. As I watched one hundred and six miracles the size of my pinkie finger crawl out of the sand and waddle down the runway, I brimmed with a sense of wonder I’d never experienced before. After fifteen of the longest minutes of my life, the last little sea turtle was swept into the ocean.
The crowd cheered, and shared relief, amazement, and wonder swirled through the air. As we eventually drifted away, dancing flashlight beams and happy chatter relived the story none of us would ever forget.
Days later, a monotonous voice filled the airplane cabin. “Flight attendants, please prepare for takeoff.” I slid my pink bag under the seat in front of me and clicked my seat belt into place. As the plane bounced haphazardly down the runway, I reflected on our vacation. We were all reluctant to leave Emerald Isle, but if we stayed any longer I’d be ninety-eight percent salt water and have every type of skin cancer ever discovered, along with a few that hadn’t. So I sat back, and I remembered.
I remembered splashing in the pool with the rest of the older kids with the music on high at eleven o’clock at night.
I remembered lounging on the mess of blankets and pillows on my younger cousin and little sister’s bed, watching Nickelodeon together and licking our Jawbreakers until our tongues were raw.
I remembered when we went deep sea fishing, and my little brother caught a squirmy, muddy- orange colored octopus, then watched it swim away into the incomprehensibly massive clear blue ocean.
I remembered the assembly line we formed just to bring in the bags and bags-and bags- of groceries needed to feed seventeen people.
I remembered so many more little moments that may seem insignificant to others but mean so much to me. That was when I realized that all of those fleeting experiences are what make me treasure this yearly vacation so much.
As Ashley Smith has said, “Life is full of beauty”. All I have to do is find it.
Visiting Emerald Isle every year has taught me to notice and appreciate the extraordinary in ordinary life. I draw joy from the crisp, clean air in fall, climbing a tree, or even a fun homework assignment. There is breathtaking loveliness in everything from a tiny, fragile new turtle swimming in the ocean for the first time, to laughing with family, to the sound of the seashells, to the taste of an oversize Jawbreaker on my tongue.