It was a picture-perfect weekend afternoon on the Jersey Shore, with just a faint haze on the water and waves of heat rising from the sand.
A sunburned dad threw a football back and forth with his son. Shapely teenage girls in bikinis ran giggling into the surf. Out in the deeper water, young men yelled and dunked each other. A plane flew overhead, trailing a banner that advertised $2 nachos and a beer that rhymes with Spud Fight. People of all ages, shapes and elaborateness of body ink walked in both directions along the wet sand, talking.
In short, it was a normal day; nothing out of the ordinary -- until a strangled scream rose up from the mass of beachgoers.
The people standing at the base of the lifeguard's lookout structure turned to see a woman in a bathing suit running toward them. Her face was contorted.
"I've ... I'm ... my ... missing ..." she choked. "He's ... I can't ..." She could scarcely form the words, so great was her distress.
The teenage lifeguards suddenly seemed very young. One of them raised a warning and faintly officious hand.
"Ma'am," he said, "I can see you're upset, but you're going to have to calm down or we can't --"
"It's her little boy," put in a man who happened to be standing by. Being a father, he was able to interpret what the younger men could not. "She says he's gone missing."
Instantly, everyone turned and looked out at the water, which had only a few minutes ago looked so inviting.
Now it looked dangerous, and hungry. The shrieking people leaping around in the waves looked too small in its oceanic vastness.
The woman gave a hoarse cry and ran up to her shins into the surf. She was beside herself with anguish and fear, keening with the force of it. It was awful to see.
"He's wearing a blue shirt and white shorts," gasped a second woman, a friend of the first, running up to the lifeguard stand. "His name is Jimmy."
A short distance away, the man's wife said to him quietly, "They don't usually go into the water, do they?"
He looked at her. They had been through this themselves, losing track of a child at the beach. They remembered that young children usually didn't wander towards the hotter, drier inland parts of the beach. Nor were they typically inclined to go alone into the water.
Children tended to walk lengthwise along the beach, like everyone else. It was easy for a small child to lose track of which blanket and umbrellas were which; once he'd walked far enough, the next lifeguard stand would look pretty much like the last one.
The man and woman decided to split up. As the man walked south along the beach, the noise of the mother's agony disappeared almost immediately in the general beachy roar. Children ran like sandpipers along the wet sand. None of them wore a blue shirt with white shorts. The haze was heavier now, so he was nearly at the next lifeguard stand when he finally saw what he had been looking for.
"Are you Jimmy?"
An evidently rather perplexed little boy looked up and nodded.
"Let's go find your Mom," said the man. The child took his hand, and together they went back down the beach.
It was the mother's friend who saw them first. She raced towards them, managed a hasty, "Oh my God, thank you," scooped the boy into her arms and ran down the beach, yelling.
The mother rushed forward, clutched her child in her arms and sank with him to her knees. Her wail of relief was as ungoverned and primal as her screams of distress -- but this time it was moving and beautiful to see.
"She lost her husband last winter," the woman's friend explained to the boy's rescuer. "So, this --" She exhaled heavily. "Thank God, is all I can say."
The breeze kicked up over the water, and the plane came back again with the nacho ad blowing the wrong way. Children ran past with money for the ice cream guy. The lifeguards were watching the swimmers and boogie boarders. It was once again a normal day at the beach.
Meghan Cox Gurdon's column appears on Sunday and Thursday. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.