I shaded my eyes against the Saturday morning sun, then snuck another peek at my watch. It was already ten o’clock, and Isabella Hohenstaufen had yet to appear. Every summer, for two weeks, my parents and I vacation at Carrie Ann Bay, where we own a beach house. This is the part of summer that is devoted to family time, when me, Mom, and Dad get to spend some quality time together. However, for one weekend, I get to invite a friend over. We stay in a congenial white cottage next door to the beach house, and for two days, we get to do whatever we want. Popcorn, movies, late nights, surfboarding, you name it. Usually, I take my best friend, Jessica, but she had moved to Kansas this spring, making it “highly impractical for her to come,” as Mom said. So this year, I invited Isabella.
See, Isabella is my pen pal. My whole seventh-grade class had been assigned to someone from another school district. Most kids had stopped after two letters, but not me and Isabella. We’d been corresponding for about a year, and even though I’d never seen her face-to-face, I could tell she was the kind of person I would want to be around. Her letters were long and detailed, but not painfully so, and her stories were always entertaining, like the time she and her younger siblings tried making their own glue and ended up pasting their fingers together. But the best part was that she answered my letters almost immediately. Her favorite food was strawberry ice cream, and she liked to read books, like me. I felt I could tell her anything, things I didn’t even tell Jessica, because I knew Isabella wouldn’t laugh, at least not to my face, and she always had a kind word. So, this summer I thought Isabella would be the perfect choice for a cottage-mate.
I squinted at the road, and my heart leaped in my chest. I saw a red minivan approaching the beach house. It stopped in the path, and a girl got out of the passenger’s side. She slung a red backpack on her shoulder and started walking quickly towards me. I waved energetically at her, and she waved back, even faster. Finally, when we came to the middle of the path, I got my first good look at my pen pal. She had curly blond hair and warm hazel eyes that laughed and sparkled. She was wearing denim shorts, a white T-shirt, and a vivacious, effervescent grin. “Hi,” I smiled, “I’m Crystal.”
“Isabella,” said Isabella shyly.
I heard the screen door bang shut, and my parents came out. “You must be Isabella!” bubbled Mom. “We’ve heard so much about you!”
“Isabella, welcome,” said Dad, gripping my pen pal’s hand in a hearty handshake. “I’m Mr. Glassman, and this is Mrs. Glassman. Now, did your mom bring you?”
“Y-yes,” stammered Isabella, obviously overwhelmed by all this attention. “She’s coming j-just now.”
Sure enough, a woman who looked just like Isabella walked up behind her daughter. “Sorry we’re so late,” she said. “We got lost on the highway. The road really twists and turns, doesn’t it.”
“Yes, especially if you’re not used to it,” said Mom. “I’m Paige.”
Dad held out his hand. “And I’m Mark.” They then proceeded to talk about boring adult stuff, like where Isabella and I would be staying, when she would be picked up, etc., etc. I turned back to Isabella. “Wanna see the cottage?”
“You bet,” said Isabella. “Hey, Mom, I’m going up to the cottage. See you Monday.”
“OK, sweetheart,” said Mrs. Hohenstaufen. “I love you. Be good, now. I don’t want you getting into any mischief.”
“Mom!” Isabella shot me a quick “can you believe her?” look. I shot her an “I know, my parents are the same way” look, and grinned. She grinned back. We left the adults talking and took off running down the beach to the cottage.
* * *
The cottage wasn’t much by Carrie Ann Bay standards, but it was just right to me. It had two rooms, a living room and a bathroom, a small television, a microwave, a pantry, a refrigerator, a couch, and a vase of seashells. I could tell that Isabella thought it was the best thing since sliced bread. She stared at everything open-mouthed, even peeking in the bathroom three times. “So, your parents let you stay here? With a friend? For a whole weekend?”
“Yeah,” I said, “it’s pretty sweet.”
“Sweet? It’s wonderful! I don’t even have my own bed. I have to share one with my sister, Casey. And she drools!”
Isabella had never told me this in her letters. “I think you’re lucky to even have siblings. It gets kind of lonely being an only child.”
Isabella shrugged. Then she grinned brightly. “So, can we go exploring? I’ve never been to Carrie Ann Bay.”
“Sure. We can go boogie-boarding. You brought your swimsuit, right?”
“Of course!” She unzipped her backpack, took out a blue one-piece, and threw her backpack near the door. It was clear that Isabella knew how to travel light, as her backpack seemed to float to the ground.
“Great! You can get changed in the bathroom, and I’ll change out here.” As Isabella shut herself in the bathroom, I found myself smiling. Her exuberance was infectious. Even though it just started, I could tell this would be a great weekend.
* * *
“So what’d you think of the waves? Pretty awesome, huh?” I asked as Isabella and I made our way back to the cottage. We had been in the water all day and were tired and dripping wet. We had wrapped towels around ourselves, but that didn’t stop the chilly Carrie Ann Bay winds from creeping in and making us shiver.
“Awesome doesn’t cover it!” said Isabella, laughing. “Only, I still have water in my nose from falling off so many times.”
“You did great for a first-timer. You should have seen me the first time I went boogie-boarding. I fell off so many times the lifeguard came over and asked my parents if I had a history of collapsing.” We laughed as we entered the cottage, leaving wet, sandy footprints on the hardwood floor.
After a quick dinner of macaroni and cheese, we were just settling down to some popcorn and a movie, when my cell phone played a piano riff. Jessica’s ring! “Sorry, I have to take this,” I said to Isabella. I flipped open my phone. “Hey, Jess!”
“What’s up, Crystal?” said the voice of my best friend.
“Oh nothin’. I’m just here at the cottage.”
“Really? I wish I was out there too. It’s too bad you’re stuck there with just your parents this year.”
“Well, I’m not exactly alone.” I suddenly felt a tightening in my gut. I wasn’t sure how Jessica would take the news that I was at the cottage with someone else. On the other hand, I couldn’t just ignore Isabella’s presence, especially since she was in the room. “I’m kind of here with my pen pal, Isabella.”
“Oh?” said Jessica. I couldn’t tell if that was a good “oh” or a bad “oh.”
“Yeah. Look, Jess, I would have invited you, but since you just moved to Kansas…”
“That’s OK,” said Jessica, but her voice sounded different, almost deflated. “I’ll call you back next week, when you have more time. Have fun.” Jessica hung up. I sighed and closed my phone, wishing Jessica could be here too.
“Who was that?” asked Isabella.
“That was my best friend, Jessica.”
“Oh?” said Isabella.
Again with the “oh,” I thought.
“Yeah. I usually invite her to the cottage, but I couldn’t this year because she moved to Kansas.”
“You never told me about her in your letters,” said Isabella.
Part of my brain registered that Isabella sounded kind of out of sorts, but I kept blabbing. “Yeah,” I continued. “We met in kindergarten and have been best friends ever since. She owns a horse, Scotch, and three cats. We… Isabella? Is something wrong?”
Isabella seemed to be biting her lip. She looked uneasy. “No,” she said. “It’s kind of late. I think I’m going to bed.”
“Don’t you wanna watch the movie?”
Isabella shook her head. “No, that’s OK.” With that, she got out her sleeping bag, curled up, and fell asleep. I sat on the couch, confused by her behavior. I looked at the cell phone I was still clutching in my hand. Then it hit me. The call! Jessica! I suddenly felt like such an idiot for bragging about Jessica. Listlessly, I got out a sleeping bag, turned off the light, and lay down, feeling as if someone had just punched me in the stomach.
* * *
We had been sleeping for about an hour when a loud crash woke me up. I sat bolt upright in my sleeping bag and looked around. Everything looked in order. I lay back down and was about to drop off to sleep again when I heard another crash. I opened my eyes just in time to see the cottage door blow open and slam shut. Isabella woke up too. “What’s happening?” she asked, sounding worried.
“A storm, I think.” I peered out the window to see a crack of lightning illuminate the sky. Rain fell down like miniature missiles. “Yeah. The storms here can be pretty bad. The wind must have blown the door open.” I moved to lock the door when another gust whipped through the cottage, this time taking Isabella’s backpack that had settled by the door earlier.
“No!” Isabella cried. She raced out the door without bothering to put on shoes.
“Isabella!” I screamed. She either didn’t hear me or was ignoring me. I followed after her, running for all I was worth.
I chased her all the way down to the beach, to the edge of the sea. What had once been gentle, playful ripples were now big, choppy black waves. “We’ve got to go after my backpack!” Isabella yelled over the thunder. She pointed. I followed her finger, and sure enough, the red backpack was being tossed around haphazardly in the merciless waves.
Isabella started out after the backpack, but I grabbed her arm. “Listen,” I said. “You know what they say about swimming in a thunderstorm. You could get electrocuted! You can always get another backpack!”
“It’s not just that,” said Isabella. It was on the tip of my tongue to ask what she meant when, out of the corner of my eye, I saw the beach house light flick on and the silhouette of my dad peek out of the window. He must’ve heard the commotion. Isabella, taking advantage of my distraction, broke from my grasp and, before I could stop her, waded in, first to her ankles, then her knees, then her thighs. Then she cried out and fell headlong into the water.
Time seemed to stand still as I made up my mind. On the one hand, I could get hurt if I went in the water. On the other, Isabella was already in the water, and she was in trouble. I had to go after her.
The water was frigid cold. I tried to ignore it as I swam clumsily but quickly after Isabella. I called her name, but every time I opened my mouth a rush of saltwater poured in. The waves pushed me back, but I fought, the only thought in my head was to get to Isabella before she was gone, forever. Finally, after a brutal struggle, I spotted her. She was up to her neck in water. With one arm, she hugged a large rock. With the other, she clutched her backpack, as closely as she held the rock. Lightning cracked the sky. Thunder boomed, as I swam over to her and put one arm around her shoulder. She whimpered appreciatively. We were exhausted and had no idea how we’d get back to shore. Just when I thought we were doomed, I heard my dad yell, and a life preserver landed next to us with a splash. We grabbed it, giving us just enough hope to struggle towards the shore. The sea was like a hand that kept trying to grab us and hold us back. The waves loomed up and enveloped us in water, and we would come up, coughing, only to be caught again in the same vicious cycle. When I didn’t think that I would be able to hold on anymore, my feet brushed the sandy bottom. We had made it!
My dad ran toward us. “Girls! What were you doing out there? You know not to go swimming in a storm!”
I started to speak, but Isabella cut me off. “It’s my fault, Mr. Glassman. My backpack blew into the water, and Crystal was just trying to help me. I’m sorry.”
“Well,” said my dad hesitantly. “If you’re OK…”
“Dad,” I interrupted, “we’re fine.”
“Are you sure? I could get you some hot chocolate…”
“Or some pillows…”
“At least let me get you some towels…”
“Dad, we’re OK.”
Dad shrugged. “If you say so. Just come up when you’re ready. I’ll start the hot chocolate.” He turned and walked away.
Isabella and I stood awkwardly. I felt like I had when we had just met, shy and uncomfortable. “I’m sorry,” Isabella said, breaking the silence, “for everything. For chasing the backpack, and how I acted. It’s just, I thought I was your best friend. But it wasn’t right for me to get all jealous and close you out.”
“Don’t sweat it,” I said, not wanting to sound mushy. Then I added, “Isabella?”
“What’s so special about the backpack? You went after it like it was your prized possession.”
Isabella looked at me. “It’s not the backpack, it’s what’s in it. I happen to carry all your letters in there. I don’t know what came over me, but when I saw the backpack in the water, I just had to get it. I couldn’t bear to lose your letters. But they’re all destroyed, anyway. Look.” She pulled out a fistful of soggy paper.
“That’s OK. I’ll write more. Come on, let’s go back up to the cottage. Want some hot chocolate?”
“Are you kidding? Of course!” said Isabella, smiling that bright grin again. We took off running up the rocky path, both smiling. I didn’t know why Isabella was smiling, but I was smiling because we had not only salvaged a backpack, we had also rescued a friendship.
As we made our way to the hot chocolate, I started planning next year’s weekend at the cottage. Next year, hopefully, we’d have three sleeping bags to unroll.