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There is one thing that always completes my summer. Mission Beach.

Every August, my family either takes the eight-hour drive or the one-hour flight down to San Diego, where my mom grew up. My grandpa lives in a small complex called Stonecrest, and about a ten-minute drive away is Mission Beach, my favorite beach in the whole world. My mom’s best friend, Auntie Julia, brings down her entire huge family from Piedmont, California, and Chicago, Illinois, and she rents the same old enormous beach house located directly on Mission Beach.

It’s 10:04 am, according to my sister’s watch. Dad is driving the car, singing along to Bob Dylan blasting on the radio. Mom is on the phone with Auntie Julia (occasionally making furious gestures to Dad to bring down the volume), and my sister Anna is announcing the time every four minutes. I finger my bright blue summer dress that I bought from The Gap this past July. All the windows of our minivan are rolled down, air-conditioning is on full blast, and we are off to the beach. I think this is the best way to end my summer.

Dad hasn’t even parked or turned off the car when Anna and I unbuckle and explode out of the car. The cool salty breeze tickles my nose and tugs at my hair as a smile breaks on my face. The hot sun beats down as we quickly unpack the trunk and trudge down the alley to the big familiar brown house.

The four of us climb the brick wall. Mom helps me up and I can see the sparkling blue ocean that never fails to amaze me.

Mission Beach swimming at the beach
Kate and Anna wave to us as we wade out of the water

“Natalie! Anna!” A little girl, who is around eight, runs over and gives me a huge hug. “Mommy, they’re here!”

“OK, I’m coming!” Auntie Julia rushes over, her spiky brown hair damp, and she has on a cute black dress. Of course, she isn’t really my aunt. But our families are so close that it is hard not to refer to each other as family.

Julia smiles and embraces my mom in a giant hug, and then my dad. “Welcome back, guys! Everyone’s out on the beach.”

We follow Julia onto the front porch of the house that faces the bluer-than-blue ocean. There isn’t a cloud above in the sky, and tanned teenagers are tossing around a volleyball in the sand across the boardwalk.

“Natalie!” I spin around to see a cute blond girl, freckles sprinkled across her nose, her hair glowing strawberry blond in the sun.

I smile. “Ellie!” We share a hug. She is a year younger than me and we first bonded a few years ago over our love of reading and books. Ellie is Julia’s niece. Her mom is Beth, who has two older boys, also: Chase, age fourteen, and Josh, age sixteen

Kate tugs my hand. “Let’s go to the beach, c’mon!”

I grin and glance over my shoulder at Julia, Mom, and Dad. Mom takes my bag, smiling, “Go on!”

It’s a tradition. Ellie, Anna, Kate, and I race across the sand and see who can get to the water first. We grip hands as we check up and down the boardwalk to make sure there are no bikers or pedestrians coming, then we sprint across the asphalt and scramble over the three-foot concrete wall. I kick off my flip-flops and my feet sink into the warm sand. I can already feel my shoulders starting to get sunburned as Kate yells, “GO!”

We take off, trying to pick up our feet as much as possible so we don’t get burned. Running through the sand is hard! It’s really different from running over hard, solid ground. If you let your weight sink into your feet for more than two seconds, it’s like sprinting through molasses.

We pass a volleyball game as Kate and Anna start falling behind. Now it is me versus Ellie. We flash mock-competitive looks at each other. I look down to see the sand growing darker and firmer, meaning it’s wet and we are getting close to water. I could feel the balls of my feet throbbing. Ellie’s face is red and she pants. I pump my sore legs faster, now able to run normally because the wet sand is more dense and packed tighter. Ellie and I splash into the refreshingly ice-cold ocean at the same time. We laugh, gasping and panting, as the waves lap at our knees. The hem of my dress brushes a passing wave, but it feels good.

Kate and Anna wave to us as we wade out of the water. They stand at the top of a sandy hill. Ellie and I start towards them, when a bucket of freezing water hits my back; Ellie and I scream.

We whirl around to see Chase and Josh holding two pails of ocean water, kneeling in laughter. With our entire backsides drenched, Ellie and I have found new energy even after the long sprint down to the water as we pursue Chase and Josh into the ocean. A wave rolls up and splashes around my ankles as I tilt my head toward the turquoise sky and I realize my summer can’t get any better than this.

Mission Beach Natalie Bettendorf
Natalie Bettendorf, 13
Berkeley, California

Mission Beach Emily Considine
Emily Considine, 13
Half Moon Bay, California