The smell was noticeable. Although it had seeped into the car gradually, now it was strong. Kendra wrinkled her little smidge of a nose.
“What’s that smell, Momma?”
“That’s the ocean, baby.”
“The ocean has a smell?”
“Yes. Doesn’t it smell good?”
“I guess.” She popped up onto her knees to boost her field of vision. “When are we going to see it?”
“Soon, baby,” her mother said, rummaging through her purse for a cigarette. She rolled down the window so she could blow the smoke out of the car, and the smell grew even stronger: salty, maybe a little fishy, like the lobster tank at the grocery store back home.
Kendra had grown tired of waiting to see the ocean, expecting it every moment, so she played her special game, the one she could play by herself by counting all the blue cars. Blue was her favorite color. When she got to twenty, she was the winner.
At last, her mother said, “Look, Kenny, there it is!”
“That’s the ocean?” It looked smaller than she thought it would be. The waves looked like curled up fists punching the sand, only the fists were gray-blue with foamy white fingernails. The sand looked gray, too – not like the bright turquoise and golden sand of the oceans they showed on TV.
“Wow,” she breathed. “Can we play in it?”
“Of course, sweetie,” her mother said. “We just gotta find a nice beach to set up.”
After a few minutes, her mother turned off the highway into a parking lot with only a few cars speckling the lot. She opened the back hatch and pulled out one of the garbage bags full of clothes.
“Hmm, I know we have your bathing suit in here somewhere,” she said, rifling through the bag they had packed in a hurry last week. She eventually pulled out an old pair of cotton shorts, the ones that had frayed at the hem. “Well, this will do for now. Here, go change in the car.”
Kendra grabbed the shorts and ran to hop back in the car, shouting “Quick change! Quick change!” Her mother echoed back “Quick change! Quick change!”
Slamming the door and ducking out of sight, Kendra lay flat on the seat, wiggling out of her jeans and pulling on the shorts. She popped back out of the car like a flash and ran back to where her mother was pulling out an old bathroom towel and a ratty paperback with the cover torn off. “Okay, you ready, spaghetti?” she said, folding up the towel and tucking the items into her purse.
“Ready!” Kendra jumped up and down.
“Alright. What are the rules?”
“Stay where I can see you!”
“Yep. What else?”
“Um…” Kendra squenched up her eyes, trying to remember.
“Don’t talk to strangers?” her mother provided.
“Oh yeah, I forgot.”
“You forgot! Silly,” her mother teased, reaching out to tighten Kendra’s limp ponytail.
As they headed down to the shoreline, her mother said, “Wait, we need something to drink. I’m going to find a vending machine. You go on to the water, and I’ll meet you down there.”
Kendra ran down to where the sand started getting wet, then proceeded carefully. The sand was packed hard, and rougher than she’d always imagined it would feel. Though the day was overcast, the air around her was warm, so she was surprised when the first wave snatched at her feet.
“Aah!” she squealed. It was icy! She ran from it, then turned back to try again. This time, the incoming wave skidded up her legs, splashing her knees.
By the time her mother had parked herself with her book and cigarettes on the the towel, Kendra had soaked the cotton shorts and was happily digging a trench by the water. It kept getting filled in by the waves, so it felt like a race against time.
“Kendra! I have your Coke!” her mother shouted. Kendra gave up on the project and ran back up to the warm sand.
“Momma! The water’s so cold!” she yelped, plopping down on the sand and grabbing the proffered soda can.
“It is?” she asked absent-mindedly. “Do you like the ocean, baby?”
“Yeah. I like the sand and how the water chases you. It’s not blue, though.”
“Not today. But sometimes it’s blue. You know, Momma used to play at this beach when she was a little girl,” her mother said, setting her book open-faced down on the edge of the towel.
“Yes. My brother and I would make giant sand castles, then wait for the water to come knock them over.”
“You had a brother, Momma?”
“Yes. He was younger than me.”
“Are we going to stay at his house?” Kendra asked hopefully.
“Maybe, honey. But he doesn’t know we’re here yet…”
“Oh.” Kendra had hoped they would finally be home, wherever that was going to be.
“Don’t worry, baby,” her mother said reaching out to give her a squeeze. “What do I always tell you?”
“All we need is each other,” Kendra recited.