Doctor Nocona was a big-bodied man with coppery skin and eyes that were red against black like rare opals. There were traces of color left in his silver hair. He didn’t wear a white coat. Doctor Nocona dressed in shirts and jeans with his tattoos showing. Today he was wearing a neatly folded bandana on his forehead. He sat on Denny’s bed and smiled while he took some instruments from his bag.
“How are you feeling today, Dennis?” He asked.
Denny was sitting up in bed with his hair sticking up. There was a tray of silverware on his nightstand. “Fine,” he said.
“Ready to get out of bed?”
Doctor Nocona listened to Denny’s heart with his stethoscope and then took his temperature. He got out a pen and wrote something on a notepad, smiling, but he didn’t let Denny see what he’d written. “Well, I think today is your day, then.” His big hand patted Denny’s lightly.
“Cool,” said Denny. He threw back the covers. “I’m better?”
“Of course you are. You’re a kid. You’re invincible.”
“Thanks, Doctor Nocona!” Denny grinned. “That means I get to go to the beach today!” Denny crossed his legs and stretched. He was tired from staying in bed for so long.
Doctor Nocona stood up. His huge frame blocked the light coming through the window. “That’s what you’re grandma told me. That should be fun after three days in bed.” He began putting his instruments back into his bag. Then he looked at Denny and said, “I was . . . sorry to hear about your mother, son.”
Denny’s face tightened a little. He nodded, staring.
“I knew her and your dad real well,” Nocona continued, “And I’m glad to see you’re staying strong. You’re a strong boy. You know?”
Denny was quiet for a few seconds. Then he said, “You knew my parents?”
“Used to come see your dad just like I’m here seeing you. That’s why you’re grandparents called me.” Nocona thought very hard about what he would say next. “Your dad loved the ocean just like you.” There was a moment. Denny looked at Doctor Nocona, and the doctor looked right back at him. Then Doctor Nocona said, “You know?”
Grandma Hartshorn appeared at the door. She was grinning from ear to ear. Her hair was tied back in a bun and she was wearing a red flower behind one ear. She had on a bathing suit beneath her T shirt and long shorts.
“Well, Doctor,” she said, “How is Denny doing?”
“I’m better.” Denny said. “So we can go to the beach today.”
“Oh, is that your expert opinion?” she laughed.
Denny smiled and nodded.
“And I concur,” said Doctor Nocona.
In truth, Denny still felt a little sick to his stomach. His dizziness was gone, though, and he was glad about that. But since it had cleared up he hadn’t been sleeping well. He’d been having the worst nightmares he’d ever had. They were dark and cold and violent. He wasn’t remembering them, but they were nonetheless upsetting when he woke up.
The beach was less than a mile away. Denny and his grandparents drove there in the big Crown Vic, and this time Denny sat up, excited and talkative, with his elbows on the front armrest. They didn’t bring any surfboards. Denny had decided he didn’t want to learn to surf. Standing under the sun with his feet in the surf was relaxing. To the west, wooded cliff rose high with waves creaming at its rocky feet. Far to the east, there was a wharf and a lighthouse. Grandpa showed Denny how to skip rocks, and pointed out the hollows in the cliff face where the gulls and other sea birds nested. He explained that the lighthouse by the wharf was just for show. The original one had been much taller. It had stood in a slightly different spot, and it had been knocked down in a storm more than thirty years ago. Denny waded out to the edge of the shelf that formed the shore, hoping to see some marine animals, but beyond it was only blackness. The undertow was fairly mild, but Denny felt in its relentless tugging that, if it wanted to, it could take him down to the lightless bottom in the beat of a gull’s heart.
Grandpa waded out to stand with Denny at the edge of the shallows. He looked east, and Denny followed his gaze to the very tip of the wooded cliff. There was a clearing there.
“See that?” Grandpa said. “That’s the top of that rise you were asking me about.”
“Ohhh,” Denny said, squinting. He couldn’t see much from where he was. It looked like there were structures in the clearing. He thought he saw part of a fence. He couldn’t make out anything more specific than that.
“See that drop off?”
Denny nodded. “Yeah.”
“That’s why I didn’t want you to go up there. It’s a least a hundred feet from there to there.” With his index finger, Grandpa described a line from the top of the cliff to the water below.
“Wow,” Denny said. “Did anybody ever fall off of it?”
“No one I know,” Grandpa smiled.
They were silent for a minute. Grandma was reading on the beach under an umbrella. Then Denny saw movement at the foot of the cliff. The waves were breaking into foam, and charging through the foam Denny saw two large, dark shapes. They were moving west toward the side of the promontory Denny couldn’t see from where he was.
“Look!” He exclaimed. Grandpa looked where Denny was pointing. Grandma put down her book and sat up straight, staring out to sea. And now that he knew how to look, Denny could see lots of the big shapes out in the froth.
“Harbor seals.” Grandpa said, “They gather on the rocks just on that side of the cliff.”
“Harbor seals,” Denny repeated. Denny could see them cruising just under the water. He was amazed, but there was something frightening about their size and the way they moved. They were wild, and the ocean belonged to them. He couldn’t imagine meeting one face to face. “Will they come over here?”
“Nah,” Grandpa replied. “They don’t like to haul out where people are.” He was quiet for a long time, watching the seals. Denny looked at him. The sun was directly in his face, but he didn’t put his hand to his forehead. His eyes had almost disappeared in an intense squint. For the first time, Denny got a glimpse of just how hard a man his grandpa really was.
“What happened to dad?” Denny asked. The waves murmured, dragging wet trails as they receded as the retreated from the beach. “Did he die?”Grandpa’s face softened and eventually became expressionless. He put a hand on Denny’s shoulder. He wasn’t looking at the water anymore; he was staring into the middle distance. Finally, he seemed to smile. He turned to look at Denny. “No.” Then he patted Denny on the back and said, “Let’s get back to the beach. Grandma brought chips and sandwiches.”.