Her Mission: Close Black Knife Beach.

“I don’t like it already,” Kristen said, scowling at the headline. She slid the newspaper across the tabletop, away from her.

“Come on,” Marcie pleaded. “You have to read it. You promised.” She sat down opposite Kristen at the big round table near the bay window in Kristen’s bedroom. She pushed the paper back across the table toward Kristen.

Kristen glanced up at Marcie. She was glad Marcie wasn’t wearing an “Iron Maiden”—that was the private name Kristen had given to the prim, starchy business suits that Brenda and Marcie seemed to wear constantly, even at home, even on weekends. For some reason, those clothes reminded Kristen of a medieval suit of armor—they looked almost that uncomfortable. Kristen felt distinctly disadvantaged when her housemates were so accoutered. Today, uncharacteristically, Marcie was casually dressed in neat black slacks and a brightly patterned sleeveless blouse. A faint hint of a smile passed over Kristen’s lips. She couldn’t be certain, but she thought it was possible that Marcie wasn’t wearing a bra.

Kristen, of course, was wearing nothing at all. She still felt a little uncomfortable being nude with Marcie here. It was purely a psychological thing—when she was alone, and the weather warm, she preferred to have absolutely nothing on. She slept now without the top bedsheet covering her. She preferred to feel only the night air against her bare skin. But she felt edgy when everyone around her was fully dressed, and she was naked. It was exactly the opposite at the beach, where she felt uneasy until she had all her clothes off.

This was an awkward situation for Marcie, too—her gaze was continually dropping, involuntarily, to Kristen’s naked body, and her cheeks glowed a rosy red.

Kristen leaned back in her chair and eyed the newspaper skeptically.

“You promised you’d try to have an open mind,” Marcie said.

“There’s something about Brenda that tends to close an open mind,” Kristen said, shaking her head slowly.

“You don’t know her like I do,” Marcie said. She smiled, and nudged the paper another inch toward Kristen.

“And I never will,” Kristen said bitterly. “Not if she keeps walking out of the room whenever I walk in, or yelling at me whenever I try to say hello. And she’s been almost as nasty to you lately as she has been to me. I don’t know why you put up with it.”

Marcie lowered her eyes. “Oh, yeah—I’m sure when you have a fight with a friend, you just turn your back on them forever, right?” she said softly. She looked up into Kristen’s eyes. “You and I disagree about almost everything, but we still get along pretty well, don’t we?”

“That’s different,” Kristen said. “You and I disagree, and we even argue about things. But we respect each other, you know? I mean—even when I think you’re wrong about something, I know it’s okay for you to have your own ideas. We argue, but at least we try to understand each other. Brenda, though…” Kristen looked directly into Marcie’s eyes and bit her lip. “Well… you know,” she muttered.

“There are a lot of people counting on Brenda right now,” Marcie said. “She’s been under a lot of pressure. She’s so—so busy all the time. And your being here hasn’t helped matters any.”

“I’ve made all sorts of accommodations,” Kristen said impatiently. “I stay late at work so I don’t get in the way here. I go in on my days off. I leave to go visit friends. I stay in my room with the door closed whenever there are people here. And there are people here all the time—this house is like Grand Central Station!”

“We’ve made accommodations, too,” Marcie said. “You usually have breakfast in the kitchen, with us. Most evenings you can swim in the pool. And your little refrigerator and microwave,”—she nodded toward the appliances in a corner of the large bedroom—“Brenda bought those for you with her own money.”

“True,” Kristen acknowledged, “but just so I wouldn’t have to leave my room. I feel like a prisoner, you know? I mean, this is a nice room, but…”

“Well, you could get dressed,” Marcie said softly. She didn’t wait for an answer. “You are right about one thing, though. You and I do try to understand each other, even when we disagree, right?”

Kristen nodded.

“So try to understand Brenda,” Marcie said. Again she nudged the newspaper toward Kristen. “Somebody has to take the first step, right?”

Kristen closed her eyes and nodded sullenly. “Yes,” she sighed. “Somebody has to take the first step.” She picked up the newspaper.

Marcie leaned forward almost imperceptibly in her chair, watching Kristen with a look of keen expectancy in her eyes. Kristen noticed the look, and felt sad.

Marcie’s devotion to Brenda was touching, in its own way. She worked tirelessly, and repaid Brenda’s frequent outbursts of temper with nothing but patience and kindness. Kristen felt certain that her own presence had helped provoke many of those outbursts. More than once, Marcie had deflected Brenda’s anger away from Kristen, often bearing the brunt herself. Kristen didn’t want to upset Marcie, but whenever the topic of conversation turned to Brenda, she felt as if she were walking on eggshells. Without warning, a seemingly innocent remark could touch some raw nerve, and Marcie would be angry or hurt, and for a few days Kristen would feel even more isolated and lonely, alienated from the only friend she had here at the house.

Kristen glanced up into Marcie’s eyes. Marcie smiled encouragingly, and nodded toward the newspaper. Marcie was always eager to have others share her own high opinion of Brenda. Kristen lowered her eyes again to the newspaper.

“That’s a really good picture of her,” she said. She lowered the paper and tapped the photograph that accompanied the article. “She’s really pretty. She doesn’t have that sour-lemon expression here, or that knotted-up look over her eyebrows, see? If she would ever smile, I’ll bet she’d be beautiful.”

“She doesn’t smile much because she has so much responsibility,” Marcie protested. “She cares about people, you know? She cares about everybody. She worries. That’s why she has worry lines.”

“I think she’d be happier if she stopped worrying about other people and let them worry about their own lives,” Kristen said.

“That’s a strange thing to hear from a lifeguard,” Marcie said. “Your whole job is worrying about other people, isn’t it?”

“That’s completely different,” Kristen said. “We’re not trying to stop people from doing the things they enjoy. Lifeguards are there to help people in trouble.”

“Wait a second—you told me how you wore yourself out last week on the day after the storm,” Marcie said. “Remember? You spent the whole day running up and down the beach telling people they couldn’t go in the water, even though they wanted to. It didn’t matter that they thought it was perfectly safe—you knew conditions were too rough, and you may have saved more lives stopping people from doing what they wanted to do than you’ll save in ten years of dragging people out of the surf. Sometimes people don’t know when they’re in trouble.”

“Maybe so,” Kristen muttered half-heartedly. “There’s still a big difference.” She picked up the newspaper again.

She studied the photograph. It had been taken in the parking lot at Black Knife Beach; the big sign that stood at the top of the trail down to the beach was visible in the background. Brenda faced several furious-looking people, men and women. Kristen recognized some of the faces from the beach. One of the men had a fist raised menacingly. Brenda appeared calm, confident and fearless in the face of their fury. She looked almost heroic.

Kristen found the photo puzzling. It was very different from what she saw at the beach every day, where beachgoers braved a hostile gantlet of anti-nudity picketers organized by Brenda.

The picketers lined the road near the entrance to the beach parking lot. They shouted vicious epithets, waved placards, and shook their fists at each vehicle that entered or left the parking lot. Some placards had crude drawings of Adam and Eve being driven out of the Garden of Eden; some read “Shame! Shame!” Picketers with cameras ostentatiously snapped photos as people entered the parking lot, capturing images of beachgoers hiding their faces as if they were notorious criminals. Some of those photos were blown up and they were held aloft by other demonstrators. The crowd seemed to grow larger and angrier every day.

It was odd to see the tables turned—to see Brenda standing alone, bravely facing a hostile crowd. Kristen didn’t know the people in the photo very well, but they seemed pleasant enough when she saw them at the beach.

The story had been written by a reporter named Ian Froste. The photograph was credited to him, too. The name was vaguely familiar—Kristen believed he had written many of the articles about the city’s corps of lifeguards that she had read when she was preparing to try out for a lifeguard job. With a quick glance across the table at Marcie, Kristen started to read the article.

“It gets very lonely here sometimes,” she read. Kristen felt an odd little chill when she read that: she was away from her parents and friends for the first time, living in a house where she was not welcome. It was lonely. But the words were Brenda’s:

“It gets very lonely here sometimes, but somebody has to do this. I couldn’t live with myself if I just turned my back and pretended this problem doesn’t exist.”

Kristen rolled her eyes and snorted. “Brenda’s probably got a hundred people out there on the picket lines with her every morning. She’s got people coming here to see her by the busload. She gets lonely? Give me a break!”

Marcie smiled. “It was lonely, yes,” she said. “Things have changed a lot since that article was printed last year. She was doing it all alone. Every now and then one or two people would join her—some of them real nut cases. There was nobody she could really rely on. It took courage, too. She’s told me about the some of the things the nudies said and did when she was picketing at the beach. It was only after that article came out that people started to take notice, and things started to turn around.”

“Well, she wasn’t all alone—she had you with her, didn’t she?” Kristen asked.

Marcie shook her head. “No, I hadn’t seen her since we were in college together,” she said. For a long moment, she seemed lost in thought. “Brenda was a great friend,” Marcie continued, with a catch in her voice. “After I saw the article, I gave her a call. I’ve been helping her ever since.”

“See, I don’t understand why you got involved in this whole thing,” Kristen said, lowering the newspaper. “There are a million problems in the world—a million things you could be working on. Why this?I know you and Brenda are old college friends, but—I mean, you’ve admitted to me that you don’t think the human body is anything to be ashamed of, and you don’t think the government should get too involved in how people choose to live their lives. And yet you’re one of the ringleaders of the movement to close down Black Knife Beach.”

Marcie smiled shyly. “I’m not a ringleader,” she said. “I’m just not capable. You might not believe this, Kristen, but I really do admire you—I mean, being a lifeguard and all. You and Brenda have a lot in common—you’re both dedicated to helping people. I wish I could be like that, you know? If it weren’t for Brenda, I’d just be a meek little mouse, hiding in my little mouse hole and pretending that this whole problem didn’t exist.”

Kristen shook her head wearily. “People go to the beach and enjoy themselves,” she said. “I don’t understand what the problem is with that.” She raised the newspaper again and resumed reading.

Although the article focused on Brenda, it seemed to deal fairly with other points of view. Brenda’s comments were balanced by quotes from Black Knife Beach regulars. Experts were cited on both sides of the issue.

“Almost everybody thinks that the nude beach is all about sex,” Brenda was quoted as saying. “The people on the nude beach will deny that to their last breath. I think they’re sincere.”

Kristen was astonished to see Brenda making that concession.

“The nudists have fooled themselves,” Brenda continued. “They haven’t fooled anyone else. They’ve come to believe their own propaganda. But I’m convinced that if they look deep inside themselves, and are honest with themselves, they will see that it’s sex that’s driving this nudity fetish.”

Kristen frowned. Only people who had never been to the nude beach thought it was about sex. She was about to say just that, but she thought about Larry, the man she and Trina had encountered on opening day. He was at the beach almost every day. He seemed to behave himself most of the time, but there was nothing innocent in the way he looked at the nude women on the beach.

She remembered Trina’s joke that everyone on the beach was either an exhibitionist or a voyeur. Maybe there was some truth to that, after all. There were a few men at the beach that Kristen enjoyed watching. Whether they were standing, sitting, walking, running, tossing a frisbee—she liked seeing them. She tried not to stare. She didn’t fixate on any particular part of their bodies—well, maybe the shoulders—but she liked knowing that no part of those strong, supple bodies was hidden from her.

Maybe Trina was right, too, when she joked that Kristen was both a voyeur and an exhibitionist. The blood seemed to sing in her veins when Kristen realized someone was watching her. Just yesterday, she had noticed a man who watched as she walked across the beach. He had a big smile on his face, and there was no doubt that his eyes were following her, taking in the way her bare breasts bounced with each step and the rolling motion of her naked buttocks. He wasn’t even a particularly good-looking man, but Kristen had felt a warm tingling sensation grow from the pit of her stomach and spread over her entire body, just knowing that he was looking at her. She blushed now, remembering that she had fallen asleep last night thinking about that man.

Could Brenda be right, after all? Was it really all about sex?

Perhaps it wasn’t entirely innocent. But there was more to Black Knife Beach. Kristen remembered how she had felt her first day on the beach, when she first felt the warmth of the sun on her naked body. She remembered how the breeze felt, caressing sensitive skin that had not felt the touch of nature for far, far too long. Almost as soon as she had felt those sensations, she knew she wanted more.

“You know, Marcie, I—I really think you should come down to the beach some day and just try it,” Kristen said, in a conspiratorial whisper. “If you would just give it one hour—fifteen minutes!—you’d see what it’s really like. Brenda doesn’t have to know anything about it. You don’t know what you’re missing.”

There seemed to be a strange sadness in Marcie’s eyes. “It’s not gonna happen,” she said, with a wistful chuckle. “But who knows? If I had a body like yours, maybe I’d want to give it a try.” She looked down at Kristen’s naked chest.

Kristen blushed and smiled. “What are you talking about?” she said. “You’re a beautiful girl! You have a great body—I’ve seen you in your swimsuit, you know. You definitely have nothing to be ashamed of.”

“You keep saying it’s not a ‘meat market,’” Marcie said, “and then you tell me I have nothing to be ashamed of because I have a ‘great body.’ You can’t have it both ways, Kristen.”

“You’re the one trying to have it both ways,” Kristen protested. “You’ve been to the clothed beaches, I’m sure. Every day you can see the really ‘hot’ women and men parading up and down the beach in their skimpy, expensive swimsuits. They never go in the water, you know. And those suits don’t hide anything—they just call attention to what they cover.” With a swift and sudden motion, she cupped her hands over her bare breasts and lifted them a bit to illustrate her point. “Everybody else at those beaches gapes and drools and feels like total crap because they don’t have the so-called ‘perfect’ body. Well, you have a great body, Marcie. You buy the right kind of suit and you could be a big hit parading up and down at that meat market. But that doesn’t change the fact that it’s not like that at Black Knife Beach.”

“Yeah, sure,” Marcie said with a skeptical smirk. “There are no voyeurs on Black Knife Beach. No exhibitionists. No perverts of any kind. Every day, hundreds or even thousands of people risk their lives to go down that dangerous cliff. Must be some mighty special sand down there. People travel halfway around the world to get to Black Knife Beach. And it has absolutely nothing to do with sex, right? Everyone’s as innocent as a newborn baby. And you don’t think your new friend—what’s his name? The peeper?”

“The—the gawker,” Kristen said glumly. “His—his name is Tony.”

“You don’t think Tony has something in mind?” Marcie said. “You nudies might think your beach isn’t a meat market, but I think that guy has plans. From what I’ve heard, I wouldn’t want to be seen at any beach where Tony hangs out.”

“You know, someone like that could go to any beach in town,” Kristen muttered.

“You’re right,” Marcie said, “but that pervert—and plenty of other perverts just as bad, let me tell you—they seem to gravitate to Black Knife Beach. Why do you suppose that’s so?”

“Tony hasn’t been there since the day I told you about, and that was before the beach even opened. It’s been years since he caused trouble at the beach,” Kristen said. “Anyway, you can’t blame the victims for the crime.”

“I’m so tired of hearing that,” Marcie snapped. “The whole point is, we don’t want there to be any more victims. Black Knife Beach is a disaster waiting to happen. It lures the wrong kind of people into the area. They call that an ‘attractive nuisance.’ It’s all in the article.”

“Yeah, and a bank lures bank robbers, so let’s close all the banks, too,” Kristen said huffily, picking up the paper again. Marcie grinned and leaned back in her chair, watching Kristen read.

Kristen read with growing interest. She learned that Brenda had carried out a lonely campaign against Black Knife Beach for several years, writing letters to city council, to the mayor, to legislators, to the governor. No politician wanted to touch the issue. Public opinion polls consistently showed 75% or more in favor of the existence of the nude beach, though fewer than 1% ever visited the beach themselves.

With dogged determination, Brenda had switched tactics. She needed to influence public opinion. She spoke at dozens of small community organizations. She wrote hundreds of letters to the editors of newspapers throughout the state. She started her lonely vigil picketing at Black Knife Beach.

Kristen couldn’t help feeling a grudging admiration for Brenda’s persistence and determination. It reminded her of her own long struggle to win a post as a lifeguard. Only her single-minded sense of purpose had enabled her to overcome the many disappointments and distractions that stood in the way of her goal. That single-mindedness had upset some of her friends. They had called her a fanatic. But Kristen had known that she was pursuing something important, and hoped that some day she would be able to make them understand.

“I’ve lost friends,” Brenda said in the article. Again, Kristen felt a strange chill. “I’ve been at odds with people in my own family. It’s a terrible feeling. If I can’t make even my family and my friends understand why I’m in this fight, what chance do I have? But my conscience won’t let me walk away.”

The more she read, the more Kristen frowned and fidgeted. Brenda cited some worrisome statistics about sexual assaults. Some expert countered with an assertion that nude beaches were actually safer than most clothed beaches. Kristen wasn’t sure whom to believe.

“They don’t like me,” Brenda said, “I accept that. The nudists aren’t bad people, but they’ve blinded themselves. They’re in denial about the reality of human nature. A human being is an animal. We live on the knife’s edge, between civilization and savagery. I know it’s exhilarating to take risks, to tempt fate. But there are forces within the human animal that refuse to be corked up. These nudists are playing with fire. Somebody’s going to get burned.”

Kristen lowered the newspaper and let out a long sigh. Marcie leaned forward in her chair. “So? What did you think?” she asked eagerly.

“It was… interesting,” Kristen said tentatively. “I don’t know whether I understand her better or whether I’m in the dark more than ever.”

Marcie smiled. “Well, if it makes you think a little…”

“I still think she’s wrong,” Kristen said. She handed the newspaper to Marcie and stood up. She walked to the big bay window and looked down at the pool. “Brenda thinks she knows why everybody does everything,” Kristen said faintly. “It’s not that simple. You can’t know what the nude beach is really like without going down there and experiencing it for yourself.”

Kristen watched the sunlight glinting off the water. She longed to go down for a quick dip. But there would be people coming to the house shortly, and she had made accommodations.