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On her eleventh birthday, Daria Cato became a hero.
A deep hush had fallen over the Sea Shanty after the savage weather of the night before, and Daria woke very early, as usual, when the sky outside her bedroom windows held only a hint of dawn. She opened the window above her dresser to let the breeze slip into the room. The sound of the ocean was rhythmic and calm, not like the angry pounding of the night before, and she breathed in the smell of salt and seaweed. The sunrise would be spectacular this morning.
Quickly, she slipped out of her pajamas and into her shorts and tank top, then quietly opened her bedroom door and walked into the hallway. She tiptoed past her sister Chloe's room, and past the room where her cousin, Ellen, slept. Ellen's mother was asleep in the downstairs bedroom, and Daria's parents were in their room on the third story. Her father would be getting up soon for early mass, but her mother, Aunt Josie, Ellen and Chloe wouldn't be up for at least another hour. They didn't understand the early-morning allure of the beach, but that was fine with her. She preferred solitude as she watched the sand and sea change color and texture each morning. This morning would be special, not just because of the storm, but because it was her birthday. Eleven. Kind of a dull number, and still two years away from being able to call herself a teenager, but definitely better than ten.
Daria padded quietly on bare feet down the stairs, trying to avoid the step that always squeaked. Would anyone remember her birthday this year? She was certain it would be nothing like the year before, when her mother had arranged a party for her with all the other kids on the cul-de-sac. No, this year was destined to be different, because her mother was different. She'd changed over this last year, and this first gloomy, overcast week of summer in Kill Devil Hills, North Carolina, had done nothing to lift her dour mood. Daria's mother slept late almost every day and moped around the cottage once she did get up. She barely seemed to remember her daughters' names, much less their birthdays. Chloe wouldn't care, of course. She was seventeen this summer, the brainy one in the family, already finished with her freshman year at college and interested only in boys and what color nail polish she should use to paint her toes. That's when their mother started changing, Daria thought, when Chloe went off to college. "I'm losing my little ones," Daria had overheard her mother say to her aunt just yesterday.
And, of course, the kids on the cul-de-sac would balk at coming to the birthday party of an eleven-year-old this year, now that they were all teenagers. Every single one of them except her! It was a good thing she didn't mind being alone all that much, she thought as she opened the front door and walked onto the Sea Shanty's broad screened porch, because that was obviously the way it was going to be this summer.
From the porch, Daria could look directly across the cul-de-sac and see Poll-Rory, Rory Taylor's cottage. Even Rory, who had been her summertime buddy for most of her life, was now fourteen and pretty much ignoring her. He seemed to have forgotten all the hours they'd fished together, crabbed together and raced against each other while swimming in the sound.
There were no lights on inside Poll-Rory. She looked at the upstairs window she knew to be Rory's bedroom and felt a prickly pain in her heart.
"Who needs you, anyhow," she muttered, pushing open the screen door and descending the steps to the cool sand. She began walking toward the beach, where she could see the sky just beginning its silent, peach-colored glide toward sunrise.
All six cottages on the cul-de-sac were built on stilts, like most of the oceanside structures in the Outer Banks. The Sea Shanty, built by her father and uncle the year Daria was born, was only the second cottage from the water, so Daria quickly reached the low, grass-covered dune overlooking the beach. She glanced at the cottage where Cindy Trump lived, the only home on the cul-de-sac directly fronting the ocean, to make sure it had not been damaged by the storm. It was perfectly fine. She envied Cindy and her brother for living right on the water, but her father said the beach was narrowing in Kill Devil Hills and Cindy's cottage would one day plunge into the sea. Still, Daria thought it would be neat to be able to look out your bedroom window and see nothing but water below you.
The beach was beautiful! The storm had washed the sand clean, and the tide had left behind a deep, wide row of shells, waiting for her to sift through them. The sun was already a thin sliver of copper on the horizon above the water, which was so calm it looked more like the sound than the ocean. Nothing like last night's turbulent, frothy waves. She sat down on the dune to watch the sun's rapid ascent into the iridescent sky. The sand was cool and damp, and she dug her bare feet into it.
Large, brown, orb-shaped horseshoe-crab shells dotted the beach, an eerie spectacle in the coppery light. They looked like something from another planet. She had never seen so many of them at one time, but they only held her interest for a moment or two before she began thinking again about the social dilemma facing her this summer. Although the Catos had been at the Sea Shanty for less than a week, Daria could already see how this summer was going to shape up, and the picture wasn't pleasant. She went over the cul-de-sac kids in her mind, wishing she'd made a mistake in figuring out their ages. Chloe was seventeen and Ellen, who'd be with them for most of the summer, was fifteen. Cindy Trump was sixteen, her brother, Todd, thirteen. There were seventeen-year-old twins, Jill and Brian Fletcher, in the cottage next to Poll-Rory. Next door to them was that really quiet girl, Linda, who was fourteen and always had her nose stuck in a book. An old couple, the Wheelers, lived next door to Daria, and their three children were so grown-up, they were married. Last year, Daria had occasionally played with Rory's sister, Polly. Polly was fifteen, but she had Down's syndrome, so it was like playing with someone much younger. But even Polly seemed to have moved far beyond Daria this summer, at least in terms of physical development, if not interests. She had breasts that Ellen and Chloe were talking about with envy.
Once the sun was fully above the horizon, Daria set out for the inviting line of shells. Her shorts had deep pockets, so she would be able to carry whatever treasures she found. Her bounty would annoy her mother, who now complained about her collecting buckets of "useless" shells each summer, even though she'd never said a word about it before.
The sand was deliciously cool beneath her feet as she walked along the line of shells. She had progressed only as far as the Trumps' cottage when she spotted the largest horseshoe-crab shell she had ever seen smack in the middle of the broad strip of shells. The shell looked odd to her, raised up a bit, as though perhaps the crab might still be inside. Curious, she extended her leg, and with her sandcovered toe, kicked the brown globe onto its back. Daria blinked in disbelief. A bloody baby! She shrieked before she could stop herself, then took off across the sand, screaming and waving her arms, wishing now that she were not all alone on the beach.
She'd run the distance of several cottages when she stopped short. Had it really been a baby? Could it have been a doll, perhaps? She looked back over shoulder. Yes, she was certain it had been a real, human baby. And in her memory, she imagined the small, almost imperceptible movement of a tiny, blood-covered foot. Surely that had not actually happened. She stood rigidly on the beach, staring back at the shell. Okay, maybe it really was a baby, but it couldn't possibly be alive. Very slowly, she walked back to the overturned shell. The ocean was so quiet that she could hear her heartbeat thudding in her ears. Standing above the shell, she forced herself to look down.
It was a baby, a naked baby, and not only was it stained with blood, it was lying next to what looked like a pulpy mountain of blood. And the baby was alive. There was no mistaking the tiny movement of its head toward the sea, no mistaking the weak, mewling sound escaping from its doll-like lips.
Fighting nausea, Daria took off her tank top and knelt in the sand. Carefully, she began to wrap the shirt around the baby, only to pull away in horror. The bloody mountain was attached to the baby! There was no way to leave it behind. Gritting her teeth, she wrapped the shirt around everything—baby, mountain and half a dozen shells—and stood up, cradling the bundle in her arms. She walked as quickly as she could up the beach toward the Sea Shanty. She stopped once, expecting to be sick, but she felt the trembling of the small life in her arms and forced her feet to continue walking.
Once in the Sea Shanty, she laid the bundle down on the kitchen table. Blood had soaked clear through the tank top, and she realized there was blood on her bare chest as she ran up the stairs to her parents' third-story bedroom.
"Mom!" She pounded on their bedroom door. "Daddy!"
She heard her father's heavy footsteps inside the room. In a moment, he opened the door. He was tying his tie, and his thick, usually unruly, black hair was combed into place for church. Behind him, Daria could see her mother, still asleep in their double bed.
"Shh." Her father held a finger to his lips. "What's the matter?" His eyes widened as he saw the red stain on her chest, and he stepped quickly into the hall, grabbing her by the shoulder. "What happened?" he asked. "Did you get hurt?"
"I found a baby on the beach!" she said. "It's alive but it's all—"
"What did you say?" Her mother sat up in bed, her brown hair jutting from her head on one side. She looked suddenly wide-awake.
"I found a baby on the beach," Daria said, pushing past her father to reach the bed. She tugged her mother's hand. "I put it on the table in the kitchen. I'm afraid it might die. It's really tiny, and it's got a lot of blood on it."
Her mother was out of the bed more quickly than Daria had seen her move in months. She pulled on her robe and slippers and raced down the stairs ahead of both Daria and her father.
In the kitchen, the baby was just where Daria had left it, and the bundle was so still that she feared the baby might now truly be dead. Daria's mother did not balk for an instant at the bloody sight, and Daria was impressed and proud as her mother lifted the crimson tank top away from the infant.
"Dear God in heaven!" Daria's father said, taking a step backward. But her mother was not repelled. With the practiced hands of the nurse she had once been, she began moving efficiently around the kitchen. She filled a pan with water and put it on the stove, then wet a dish towel and began cleaning the baby with it.
Daria leaned close, made less afraid by her mother's matter-of-fact handling of the situation. "Why is it so bloody?" she asked.
"Because it's a newborn," her mother said. "She's a newborn."
Daria looked closer and could see that the baby was indeed a girl.
"Where exactly did you find her?" her mother asked.
"She was under a horseshoe-crab shell," Daria said.
"Under a horseshoe-crab shell!" her mother exclaimed.
"She was with all the shells washed in from the tide," Daria said. "Do you think the storm last night washed her up on the beach?"
Her mother shook her head. "No," she said. "She would have been washed clean then. And she would have been dead." Her lower lip trembled and her nostrils flared with quiet rage. "No, someone just left her there."
"I'm calling the police." Daria's father headed for the living room and the phone. His face had gone gray. Aunt Josie passed him on her way into the room.
"What's going on?" she asked. "Oh my God!" Her hand flew to her mouth as she saw the baby lying on the kitchen table.
"I found her on the beach," Daria explained.
"All by herself?" Aunt Josie asked. "Where on the beach?"
"Right in front of Cindy Trump's cottage," Daria said. She saw her mother and aunt exchange glances. People always did that when they talked about Cindy Trump, but Daria didn't have a clue why.
"The placenta is attached," Aunt Josie said, peering closer, and Daria knew she must mean the bloody mountain still lying next to the baby.
"I know." Daria's mother shook her head as she rinsed out the wet cloth under the faucet. "Isn't this just unbelievable?"
Daria thought of Chloe and Ellen still asleep upstairs. They shouldn't miss this. She started toward the kitchen door.
"Where are you going?" her mother asked.
"To get Chloe and Ellen," Daria said.
"It's not even eight o'clock," her mother said. "Don't wake them yet."
"Teenagers sleep the sleep of the dead, I swear," Aunt Josie said.
Chloe and Ellen would probably blame her for not waking them, but Daria thought it best to be obedient just then. She stepped close to the table again and watched as her mother slipped the blades of the kitchen scissors into the boiling water for a moment, then snipped the cord coming from the baby's belly button. Finally, the baby was free of the horrible, pulpy mass. Aunt Josie brought a towel from the downstairs bathroom and Daria's mother wrapped it around the newly bathed baby and lifted the bundle to her chest. She rocked the baby back and forth. "Poor darling little thing," she said softly. "Poor little castaway." Daria thought it had been years since she'd seen so much life in her mother's eyes.
The policemen and rescue squad arrived within minutes. One of the rescue-squad workers, a young man with long hair, nearly had to pry the infant from Daria's mother's arms. Still wearing her robe and slippers, she followed the baby to the ambulance. She stood watching the vehicle as it drove away, and she stayed there for several minutes after the ambulance had turned onto the beach road from the cul-de-sac.