It had to be the worst storm the town of Seaport, New Jersey had ever experienced. The rain struck the earth like pins piercing a pincushion, so keen and strong that there was only a foggy sheet of gray encircling the ocean. Flashes of lightning brightened the sky, and thunder sounded all around. Wind swarmed, howling at the ocean and tumbling through the air, sending a chill through our house. Behind it, the mangled ocean tangled with the thunderstorm. Even the stars and moon were shielded by opaque, blackening clouds.
Meanwhile, I, Linda Fortinger, sat trembling by my bedroom window. I was wearing lavender fleece pajamas. Covering my quivering shoulders with the orange sheets on my bed, I peered out into the gloom from my bedroom window. I heard my younger sister, Kaitlyn, snoring from across the room, honey-blond waves scattered on her pillow, and my parents sleeping silently in the next room over. I was alone, too awed to sleep, to tear my eyes from this scene.
In my eleven years of life, I had never seen the ocean like this, a wave of fury fighting, an angry mob rampaging through the streets. The ocean was my only friend here on vacation in New Jersey. I swam by its shores, surfed along its waves, sailed its surface, but never saw it in frenzy.
And then I saw it. My eye caught a blurry silhouette emerging from the ocean. As I squinted to get a better look, I saw the figure slowly bob to the surface and glide toward the sandy beach. I gasped in fright. No, it couldn't be . . . I rubbed my eyes, and the figure had disappeared.
I lay back on my bed, amazed. I assured myself it was only a wrecked sailboat, or perhaps an unlucky sea creature. Maybe my eyes were fooling me. I couldn't bring myself to believe it, but I was sure I saw, through the darkness, the profile of a girl, with a shadowy stream of black hair tossing in the wind behind it.
* * *
“Linda! Come down to breakfast, dear, it's nearly nine o'clock!" At the sound of my mother's voice, I rose hesitantly from bed, thrust on a lime-green T-shirt and denim shorts, brushed my hair and teeth, and went downstairs to the kitchen.
There, my mother was bustling over by the stove, her brown ponytail skipping along with her, adding brown sugar to my hot cereal. Kaitlyn sat at the table, stirring her own cereal with one hand, and holding her dainty head with the other. My father had apparently already left; an empty bowl lay on his placemat. He was probably down the street fixing the Fervents' old fence or down at the old boardwalk, nailing stray boards into place; he was an engineer and was always volunteering for something or other. I pulled out a stool and sat, glancing at the small television in the middle of the table.
"Here you go, sweetie," my mother smiled heartily, handing me a bowl of hot cereal. "Now girls, today I was planning that we could spend the morning at the beach, then try this new Asian restaurant at the end of town. After that, we're free to do anything, unless your cousins in Ocean City call us . . . Anyway, I was hoping that—oh no, not another one!" Her head was turned to the television, announcing that a certain Hurricane Helena was likely to travel northwest from its current perch in the Atlantic Ocean and hit New Jersey in about a week.
"These storms . . . just all popping out of nowhere, and on vacation, too! Now we might have to go grocery shopping this afternoon instead . . ." my mother grumbled, clearly annoyed. She began to slice a peach in silence. I simply gulped down my cereal.
"Well, it looks as though some new folks are moving into the Melbournes' old shack," Kaitlyn piped up. It was true; moving vans were parked along the road, and many people were unpacking sofas and mattresses and bureaus, heaving them through the open door. This was good news; the Melbournes were an old, quiet couple who lived across the street from our beach house in an unkempt two-story house that wasn't in very good condition for a house right next to the ocean. After Mrs. Melbourne died, her husband left the ocean, and for three years the building stood alone and untouched, until now.
"Let's go watch!" Kaitlyn suggested eagerly. The pair of us trotted across the street, where the family was just getting settled.
A surge of envy filled me as I caught a glimpse of their daughter. She was beauty beyond belief, with shiny black hair that fell to her hips, a long sheet of dark silk. She wore a velvet magenta skirt that dragged behind her and a ruffled, white shirt. Then I saw her eyes flash toward me, blue-gray, with a hint of green and silver, identical to the ocean on a sunny day. My curiosity drew me closer.
"Hi," I muttered shyly, "I'm Linda Fortinger, and this is my little sister, Kaitlyn. We're staying for the summer at our beach house across the street."
"I see," the girl replied, in a tone so soft I could almost feel it. "I am Helena."
"Helena . . . ?"
"Helena Crest. This is my mother, Lela, and my father, James. Pleased to meet you. I'm sure we'll become good friends." Helena held out a tanned hand, and I took it.
"It's our pleasure." I grinned, my hopes rising. I've never found a true friend in these parts. "Well, I'd better get back home now. I'll see you later!" I dashed off across the street, too excited about my new neighbor to think about anything else.
* * *
"This is Helena. How may I help you?" a soft voice spoke into the telephone.
"Hello, Helena, this is Linda."
"Anyway, my mom is taking Kaitlyn out to buy a new pair of sneakers, so I was wondering if you'd like to take a walk along the beach with me."
"Oh, I'd love that!" the voice filled with excitement. "When will we?"
"How about I meet you there in five minutes?"
"Fantastic! Well, I'll see you in five minutes."
"Sure. Bye!" I hung up the phone and slipped into some flip-flops. When I trotted outside onto the front porch, Helena already stood waiting for me at the corner. Today, a lavender skirt blew along with the ocean breeze, rippling playfully at her ankles, and perched lightly on her shoulders was a white tank top.
"Let's go!" we said simultaneously, giggling as we ran up the creaky, wooden steps, and then onto the damp sand.
Helena and I walked down the coast in the water's fringe, collecting seashells and laughing merrily at the seagulls skimming the water's edge, hoping to catch a good fish for dinner. We even spotted dolphins dancing gracefully on the water, and then diving down again.
"Linda, don't you love the ocean?" Helena said suddenly.
"Well yeah, it's a pretty nice place to be."
"Oh, no." Helena's shiny eyes peered straight into mine, and I felt the meaningfulness in her graceful expression. "Do you consider the ocean as an equal, as a faithful companion in life? Don't you ever feel that you're somehow tied to it, like a bond of friendship that is forever indestructible? I love the ocean, I always have, and I can almost feel the waves. Don't you agree?"
"Well . . . no," I admitted. "I mean, I never thought about it the way you do. I've liked the ocean, for surfing and swimming, and I've been coming here every summer since I was born, but the ocean is just there to me. I guess I'm not really tied to it like you are."
"Strange." Helena slowly turned to face the horizon, eyes darting toward the endless blue. "I would think that someone this close to the ocean, seeing that you came here since you were born, in one of the closest houses to the water, would feel the same. You grew up with the ocean, and yet you don't understand it." She paused, heaving a sigh. She looked up at the floating clouds, smiling faintly as if in a trance. "I just love it here, more than anywhere in the world. I love the way the waves are always lapping playfully at your toes, the soaked sand sinks into your heels, the way the waves tumble out to shore and seem to hug you with a gentle splash . . . speaking of which . ." Clutching her skirt in two fists, she aimed a kick at me, and water splashed my new Bermuda shorts. I stood shocked for a moment, and then splashed her right back. Helena may have been plenty attached to the ocean, but she certainly knew how to have fun with it. We leaped and splashed all down the beach until we were so soaked and exhausted that our only choice was to go home.
* * *
It was official. Helena and I were now best friends. We did everything together; rollerblade to the park, eat ice cream, and take walks on the beach. Over the next week, I had so much fun with her I didn't even realize the time flying by, and eventually, it did.
At the end of our first week of friendship, we were rollerblading home from the Dairy Queen. Still licking the strawberry ice cream off the ice cream cone, I was about to open the front door to my house when a voice from behind stopped me. It was Helena, shouting from her porch next door.
"Linda, wait!" she cried.
"What?" I queried.
"Before you go inside, I want to tell you something. I won't be seeing you for a while, but I want to say you've been a very good friend to me. By the way, get ready for the hurricane tonight. I heard it will be a rough one!"
"Oh . . . all right then," I replied. At that, a white, toothy smile glinted at me from Helena's porch. Then, my friend strolled to her front door and drew it closed behind her.
I remembered the hurricane. What had it been called? Hurricane . . . Hurricane . . . Hurricane Helena! I gasped. "Helena!" I cried. The peeling white door remained closed, and no answer came. I assured myself it was only a coincidence. Then, without giving it a second thought, I rushed inside to prepare.
* * *
This storm was much worse than the last. The rain began to pour when the sun would have set, if not for the looming clouds growing fiercer as the night wore on. The wind was starting to rage even before midnight, when the hurricane was scheduled to hit us. I shivered at the thought.
Once again, I sat awake at the window. Something had kept me awake, urged me here. All I saw was a dreary scene, and a drab sheet of black approaching once again. But there was something different, something unusual about tonight.
I was growing drowsy when I spotted a figure beyond the translucent curtain of gray. I gasped in horror and surprise. It was Helena.
She stood at the corner, where we usually met for a walk on the beach. She was wearing a bright red raincoat and a matching umbrella hoisted on her shoulder. But she couldn't fool me with a clever disguise. How well did I recognize that calm face, with such soft features, or that graceful gesture? I grew suspicious. Then, she turned, and began to walk away toward the beach.
I didn't care about getting wet, or getting in trouble. I checked the clock; it read eleven o'clock. I had an hour, and I would have to use it wisely. Still in my lavender pajamas, I pulled a blue sweater over my head and a yellow raincoat on my shoulders quickly and quietly. Checking that Kaitlyn and my parents were all still fast asleep, I crept downstairs, and grabbed an umbrella and a flashlight from the kitchen. I took a deep breath, and bounded through the door.
It was miserable, yes, and for a minute, I was sure I had been driven into insanity. But my determination was greater and more powerful than my fear, and with that in mind, I set out to find Helena.
I approached the beach and held my flashlight up to the sand. Long ago, a tractor had spread the sand smooth, and there was only one pair of footprints. I took my wet boot and set it next to the imprint of a shoe. They were the same size. I followed the footprints, which lead only in a straight line. I suddenly stood still and found I had walked right up to the ocean. I glanced left, then right. There was no sign of Helena anywhere. But then where did Helena go?
As if answering my question, a group of dolphins was swaying in the waves. How could they be enjoying themselves when a vicious storm was about to hit? They leaped into a dive, and threw themselves back under. I rubbed my eyes in panic. I saw it again exactly as it happened before. I could have sworn I had just seen a streak of pale peach among the blue skin of the dolphins, and long locks of black hair billowing out behind it. Comprehension dawned on my face.
Suddenly, an abrupt blast of wind knocked me over, and I jumped back up in alarm. The hurricane would hit anytime now. I darted back home just before the hurricane swooped down upon us.
* * *
“Linda, hurry up! We have to leave in ten minutes. Kaitlyn, dear, don't try and carry that suitcase, your father will . . . Jonathan! Please come down now and pick up this suitcase of yours! I'll grab some crackers for the ride home, and Linda, can you pick that up for me? Thank you, dear, you're a doll . . ."
Today we were leaving Seaport, New Jersey to return home. For once in a lifetime, I would miss it. Last night, the night of the hurricane, was still fresh in my memory, and so was Helena. Speaking of the Crests, no one had heard of them since before last night; Mom said they probably left to avoid the storm; I didn't believe it. I dragged my suitcase to the car and loaded it into the trunk. My mother was in a rush to go, because we had to drive home and then go to our cousin Debbie's wedding in Philadelphia. Pretty soon, the family packed themselves into the car and drove off.
"So kids," my father chuckled, grinning at us through the rearview mirror, "Did you enjoy yourselves this year?"
There was a murmur of "Yes, it was fine," from Kaitlyn in the back seat.
But I whispered, so that only I could hear, "Oh, yes, we had tons of fun this year, Helena and I. I can hardly wait until next summer . . ."