The only thing that had gone right since Aaron had turned fourteen in the spring of 1948 was having suddenly grown taller than his mother. But even that wasn't such a big deal because she was only five-six and his father had been six-two and he wanted to be at least that tall. Even just six feet would be okay. Not great. Just okay. And as if that wasn't enough to worry about, he would be starting high school in September, and he had no idea what kind of nasty stuff might be waiting for him there, never mind how much harder he was going to have to work. He could deal with having to work, but he wasn't so sure about the high school itself, mostly because it was so big, fifteen hundred kids in one building. He set the thought aside, if only because there was nothing he could do about it. In September he'd get on the bus and go to school because that's what you did. But at least if he was at home he could've talked to his friends about it, and instead he'd been jerked away to spend the last month of the summer in a spooky old house that had neither electricity nor running water and looked like the only things that had lived in it for a hundred years were ghosts. He wasn't much in favor of ghosts. Not that he'd ever seen one, but he'd heard enough stories to convince him that such things existed and if ever he'd seen a haunted house it was the one his mother had rented. Clay, who was two years younger, thought the whole thing was neat, but then he always liked new things, going to new places. He was even excited about starting junior high school because they had a football team and the fact that the eighth graders were bigger didn't bother him at all. The only thing in the world that Clay feared was spiders, which, when you thought of all the other scary stuff, seemed ridiculous. Look at what I'm facing, Aaron thought: high school where the guys in the upper grades were all a whole lot bigger. It might even mean he'd have to fight and he'd had enough of that in the neighborhood. Besides, Clay always saw the good side of things. So did his mother. And then, again, as he did so often, he wondered what his father would have thought. Try as he might, he would never know that. He wished he'd been older when his father had been killed in the war. At least then he would have known him better. Because it was Clay's turn in the front, he sat in the back seat of the car and gazed out the window at the unfamiliar landscape; the scrubby pines and oaks on one side of the road and an endless marsh on the other, trying to find at least one good thing about this vacation to Cape Cod. Okay, he could think of one thing. They probably wouldn't get polio, and just now, at home in the humidity and heat and with a lot of kids around, that was a risk. It was why they were here. And then he thought of another benefit of being here. The beach. He loved going to the beach. He liked the sand and the salt water and searching through the shallow water and tidal pools for the critters he had seen pictures of in books. And he liked to swim and build castles in the sand. What he didn't like was the crowds, and the beaches they went to at home were always crowded. So it was a surprise when he saw no other cars in the small parking lot, which was hardly more than just a wide sandy spot at the end of the road. They pulled the beach gear from the car and walked off onto the hot sand. The tide was out, and patches of eel grass grew here and there between the sand flats, but that wasn't what surprised him. "There's nobody here," Aaron said. His mother smiled. "It's why we came so far." "To get away from the polio," Clay said. "I never saw a beach without any people! We can build all the sand castles we want and there's nobody to knock them down." Aaron looked around at his mother, aware as always now, that he was taller by two inches. "Can we go swimming?" "Of course." With a whoop he headed for the water with Clay right behind him. Maybe this wouldn't be so bad after all. Together they walked over the rippled sand flats and then through the ankle-deep water, and then they walked a long way before it got deep enough to swim, and even then it was only waist-deep on Clay. Through the clear water they could see the sandy bottom rippled like ribbon candy by the waves. Above them, herring gulls and terns soared, their calls sharp in the soft breeze from the water. From where they stood, looking back at the shore, way off to the left they could see several cottages along the high bluff and below on the beach an occasional brightly colored beach umbrella. And then, where the cottages left off, the bluff ran a long way back toward them without a single house or cottage and the beach below lay deserted. For a while they frolicked in the warm water, diving and splashing and when they grew tired of that, they headed back to the beach for a round of sandcastles and books and sun tan oil. Both boys had fair skin and blond hair cut summer short, but they tanned well once they got past burning, and because this was August they were both well tanned. At fourteen, Aaron should have been the leader, and in some ways he was, but Aaron had never cared about being in charge. He preferred taking care of his own business. But if he did not choose to lead, he also disliked being led. Suddenly, in the distance they heard the unmistakable deep drone of fighter plane engines and they looked up, staring off to the northwest at a group of Hellcats flying in tight formation, coming in high off the water, four of them, maybe a mile out to sea, swooping in on what looked to them like a helpless freighter. Even from that distance they could see the machine guns open up and then came the sound of the guns and then they could see where the bullets hit the water. Each plane made a single strafing run and then the engines throbbed in the summer air as the planes rose upward, wheeled, and dove back down at the ship to drop their bombs. The explosions made bright yellow and orange flashes and the booms followed, flat dull thuds rolling across the water. Only one bomb hit the freighter and then the planes rose higher, resumed formation, and headed back the way they had come, shrinking in size until they disappeared into the distant clouds. Both boys ran for the beach. "Did you see that? Mom, did you see that?" Clay shouted. "Real guns and bombs!" He turned to his older brother. "Did you see that, Aaron?" "It was amazing!" Aaron said. "Wow! I never thought I'd see anything like that!" Clay couldn't stay still, walking back and forth and looking out at the freighter which, surprisingly, seemed undamaged. He had expected to see it burst into flames and then slowly sink out of sight into Cape Cod Bay. "At first I thought it was just a regular ship." "It's just target practice," his mother said. "Who cares! Boy, would I like to fly one of those planes!" He swooped his right hand through the air, imitating a fighter. "Whroom -- pow!" He ran in circles on the sandy beach, his arms extended, howling and imitating the sound of the planes and the machine guns and the bombs. Finally, he dropped back down onto the blanket. "Do you think they'll come back?" he asked. "Mr. Watson, at the store, said they come in several times a day," his mother said. She adjusted herself in her beach chair and went back to reading her book. "Com'on, Aaron, let's go back in the water." "Don't go out too far," their mother said. "Okay," Aaron said. Just a short way out, in the shallow water, Aaron spotted a large dark shape crawling across the bottom. It was a horseshoe crab and it was the first time he'd ever seen one alive. Before he'd seen only the dried-up shells. And then without thinking he called to his brother. "Clay, you gotta see this!" He followed the crab along through the shin-deep water. Clay came up alongside. "What is it?" he asked. "Horseshoe crab, isn't it neat?" "Do they bite?" "Naw, but you don't want to step on its tail. If you stepped on it, it'd go right through your foot." "Really?" "Sure, look at it. It's just like a spike." "What does it look like underneath?" "Just a lot of legs." "Legs? What kind of legs?" "Not like a spider, if that's what you're worried about." "I'm not afraid of spiders any more," Clay said, though he didn't think Aaron would believe that. "Good. There's nothing to be afraid of." He plunged forward, and closing in on the hapless crab, drove his hand down into the water, caught hold of the tail and pulled it up into the air, the water flying away with all the legs flailing and flapping. Then he turned toward the beach. "Hey, Mom, look! I caught a horseshoe crab!" Clay took one look at all those legs thrashing in the air and all he could think of was a spider, but not just any spider -- oh no -- this was the world's biggest spider. "Let it go!" "What's the matter, you afraid of an old horseshoe crab?" "No! Just let it go --" Aaron dropped the horseshoe crab, letting it fall with a splash back into the water. "There's nothing to worry about, Clay. They're harmless." "What about the other kinds of crabs?" "The only thing they can do is pinch you." "How do you know?" "I read about it in a book I got from the library. It was all about the stuff you can find in salt water. The only nasty thing is jellyfish. They sting you and it itches like poison ivy." "Jelly fish?" Clay asked. It sounded like something Aaron had made up just to scare him. Jelly fish? How could a fish be made out of jelly? "They just float around on the tide and currents and they have long tentacles and when a fish swims into them, they sting the fish and paralyze it, and then they eat the fish." In his mind Clay made a picture of something big enough to paralyze a fish. "They got jelly fish here?" "Sure. They're everywhere in saltwater. Don't you remember two summers ago when Uncle John rented a cottage and we went to visit and we dug clams? Remember him telling us to look out for the jellyfish?" "I only remember the clams." "Well, he told us about the jellyfish but we never saw any. There's even a really big jellyfish called a Portuguese Man O' War. They have enough poison to kill you, but you don't see them this far north, usually." Clay began searching the water. Some of his friends' brothers would make up stuff like this just to scare them, but Aaron never did that. In fact, as brothers went, Aaron was the best older brother he knew. He even let him tag along with the older guys and nobody else had a brother who did that. What's more, Aaron read all the time and he remembered everything he read, especially anything about science, so when he told you about something like jelly fish, there was no reason not to believe him. The sudden blast out at sea startled them both and then they stood, watching as another group of planes made their run. One after another the planes swooped in, dive bombing as they roared out of the clear sky, then rose up, circled, and dove back in at the freighter, machine guns blazing as they strafed the old hulk. And then one of the planes suddenly veered toward the land, smoke pouring out of its engine. Aaron and Clay turned and ran through the water toward the beach, glancing back at the plane coming steadily closer, and it seemed to be coming right at them. "Run! Run!" their mother shouted at them from the beach, pointing off to the left. "Go left!" Aaron shouted and Clay turned with him and they ran to the left, came up onto the sand flat and now with the water no longer dragging at their legs they tore across the flat, not daring to look as they heard the plane screaming through the air and then it went past them well off to the right and they turned to watch it come down, the pilot keeping the nose up so the plane landed on its belly and went skidding across the shallows, throwing enormous sheets of water on both sides as it nosed on into the eel grass of the marsh. Even before it stopped, the pilot pulled himself out of the cockpit and leaped away from the plane, running as fast as he could, lifting his legs high to clear the grass and the water and just then the plane exploded and he dove down onto his stomach as pieces of the engine cowling flew through the air over his head. The bright orange fireball rose up into a dense cloud of black smoke and then the fire seemed to settle into a steady burn. The pilot got up and ran toward them, hollering as he ran. "Get away! Get back as far as you can!" They turned then and ran down the beach, the boys angling in toward the shore and their mother running straight down the beach. And now the pilot had reached solid ground and he ran as fast as he could, heading for the point where a finger of the sandy bluff stuck out into the beach and he pointed toward the bluff and shouted, "Get behind there! Get behind there!" All four of them reached the bluff and then ducked behind it at almost at the same instant and that's when the gas in the remaining fuel tank went off. The explosion seemed to tear apart the air and parts from the plane flew in all directions. From behind the bluff they watched pieces of metal zip past, whistling in the air, and then suddenly it was quiet and they looked out around the bluff at the remains of the plane, the orange fire leaping high into the air. The pilot pulled off his soft helmet, and smoothed his rumpled dark hair. "You okay?" "I -- I think so," their mother said. She looked around at her sons who stood with eyes wide open, still too astonished to speak. "You guys okay?" They both nodded. "Sorry I came so close," the pilot said. "Without my engine all I could do was try to keep the nose up." He wiped a hand across his face, smearing the soot from the fire in the engine. He smiled. "I'm Eddie Bayles." "Linda Harrison, Captain," their mother said, "and these are my sons, Aaron and Clay." They shook hands. "Sorry to drop in so unexpectedly," Captain Bayles said. "It certainly was a grand entrance," Linda said. "I can't believe you got out of it." "I'd have used my chute but I couldn't get any altitude after the fire broke out. All I could do was ride it down." In the distance they could hear the fire sirens. "That was even better than the movies," Clay said. "We're all pretty lucky," Captain Bayles said. "The starboard fuel tank went first and it was mostly underwater. If the other one had gone first none of us might be standing here. I'm just glad I'd already dropped my bomb. That would have made things really exciting." "Is this why they call it First Encounter Beach?" Aaron asked, and his mother and Captain Bayles laughed. "It was an amazing landing!" Linda said. "I was lucky. Just lucky. It could have blown up at any time." He shook his head. "Sometimes, I guess, God truly is riding copilot." They watched the fire truck pull up and then they turned and started walking toward the smoldering wreckage. "What made the engine catch fire?" Aaron asked. "Good question. The only time during the war I had to bail out was when I got caught between two Zeros and one of them got a machine gun round into the engine. All I got was wet." He shook his head. "Today was a lot like that." And then Captain Bayles went off with the firemen and cops and they sat on the blanket and just watched. "I don't know whether you know it or not," their mother said, "but not just any pilot could have landed that plane and gotten out of it. I think Captain Bayles must be an exceptional pilot." "It happens all the time in the movies," Clay said. "A lot of things happen in movies," Linda said, "but that doesn't make them real." Clay was having none of it. "But how can they take pictures of something that doesn't happen?" "They have lots of tricks, Clay," she said. "Remember, seeing is not always believing." Maybe, Aaron thought, this wouldn't be such a bad vacation after all, though he couldn't think of what else could be nearly as exciting. And then as he looked around, he saw a short, gray-bearded man standing high up on the bluff watching the activity below. He was dressed in work clothes, blue jeans and a short-sleeved blue shirt and he stood with his arms crossed. Slowly, he turned his head and looked directly at Aaron, held his gaze for several seconds, and then he seemed to drift downward, as if he were settling into quicksand. Aaron looked away from the bluff, wondering why the man had moved off out of sight. Had he just changed position so he could see better? Had he seen enough and simply left? Either explanation would do, and anyway, it didn't matter.
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