Authors: Dennis Etchison
“It wasn’t Al, was it?” She said it like she knew the answer.
“Search me,” he said.
“I knew it,” she said. “Oh, I just knew it . . .”
“What’s the matter now?” He put his arm around her shoulders, but she didn’t lean into him. She held herself rigid and apart, like a cat with its back up. “There’s no one here. There can’t be. See for yourself. ’Course, I don’t exactly know where he’s hiding—there isn’t any place to hide, but—” It was weird, that was for sure.
“Take another look,” she said, her eyes wide. “And say that last part again. Tell it to me over and over.”
He glanced down.
Footprints, wide and deep, leading from the water’s edge directly to his front porch. They stopped in front of him, on the mat, heavy, very heavy and muddy. There were none leading away.
The footprints were steaming.
Inside, the music ended.
“. . . It’s one o’clock straight up. So until six
, when KAB will be comin’ at you again, this is your lonesome gal, Stevie Wayne, hoping you have a nice rest of the night . . .”
The darkness closed in around them.
His mother was still asleep when he awoke. He whipped on his clothes, downed a bowl of Count Chocula, more for appearances than out of real hunger, and hit the beach before median low tide. He marched across the sand, packed smooth again during the night, the red float at the end of his fishing line swinging in the sky in front of him like a brave winking eye, leading the way.
He left his pole on dry sand and went first to the tide pools, the good ones where the crusty crabs and purple anemones closed in on themselves every time the water drained away, protecting their treasures. The sun was hot already; it bounced off the shiny rocks and bored straight for his nose. The air was still nippy, though, a cold knife blade under his arm, so he zipped his jacket up to his neck.
Already his cheeks were burning as the breeze combed his hair back with a fine spray from the riptide. Far down the beach at the cusp of the bay, a big dog, an Irish setter or golden retriever, pawed for sand crabs and then broke into a loping run at the gulls that were sunning themselves at the waterline, kicking up a muddy trail and then dashing for safety, his legs splaying wildly and his pink tongue flying, as the water washed in to fill his footprints with clear bubbles. He tried the same maneuver again and again, never tiring. His coat turned a deep rusty color under the settling moisture. Andy laughed out loud, but couldn’t hear the sound of his own voice. Doesn’t he ever quit? he thought. No, I bet he never does, never in a million years. Some dogs are like that. That’s the kind I’m going to get someday.
He found a moonstone and a good clamshell that was still joined at the middle and a pocketful of periwinkles with the little breathing holes on top. He rescued a piece of a cypress branch that had floated here from up the coast and poked it at the purple anemone, right in the center, where he imagined the mouth must be. The thick lips held fast to a cache of coarse sand and even bits of pearlescent shells with rainbows between the layers, but they would not grab for the stick. Smart, he thought. He knows it’s too big. Or maybe he’s scared.
He threw the branch like a boomerang, but it didn’t come back. He went to his fishing pole on the dry part of the beach and played with his hooks and leaders for a while. The sand warmed his legs through his jeans. Pretty soon the tide would change, and he wanted to be ready. One of these Saturdays he would catch something in the surf. He wasn’t going to give up. He would clean it himself and give it to Mrs. Kobritz to fry in butter and flour and lemon juice, and his mother would be proud. But, as always, he would need some bait. This time he would get extra-big mussels and wrap the long, stringy parts around and around the hooks, so the fish would go for it for sure. Maybe it would work today.
He planted his pole and went to look for some of the nice ones with blue-black shells that stayed under the water around the pilings of the house. He would break them open on the rocks, and then he would be all set.
He saw starfish climbing up the pilings under his mother’s room.
Now wait a minute, he thought. Get away from there, you guys. You know you’re not supposed to do that. You never did it before. Get down from there and—
He started to go back for the stick, but then he noticed something else, something super-strange.
The starfish were four or five feet above the high tide mark, and they were big ones, too, the kind with orangy bodies and long starlegs that could reach around the wood so far you could practically never pry them off.
Except that they were dry.
Their legs (or arms? were they arms?) were peeling back at the ends. How can they stay on like that? He probed one with his finger. It was hard, not soft. Which meant it was dead.
Then he noticed the other part.
Each one had a nail through the middle to hold it in place. Old-timey square-headed nails, like he had seen in the first houses that were ever built in the township a long time ago. Only these nails weren’t rusted. They looked brand new. Somebody had come here and pulled these starfish out of the water and, well, crucified them, sort of, on the posts. Right under his house.
Who would do a thing like that, anyway? Who would want to? Maybe one of those Tri-County Junior High boys, the ones who drank beer out here with their girlfriends in the middle of the night until Sheriff Simms scared them off. But, it was against the law to steal tide pool animals or even to mess around with them too much. For sure it was a crime to kill them. Besides, it was just plain cruel.
Again he thought: who would want to do a thing like that, nail up starfish under my house, under my mother’s bedroom? And
What did it mean?
I’ll tell Mom, he thought. Maybe she’ll know. But I won’t tell her right away when she wakes up. She’s always kind of crabby for a while. Never for long, though. I’ll tell her, no, I’ll show her, this afternoon. Before she has to go back to work.
Feeling a little bit funny in his stomach, he trudged back up the shore to his fishing gear. He would get the mussels he needed somewhere else.
He shielded his eyes but couldn’t find the dog. He looked up and down the beach, at the greenish seaweed that was getting sticky in the sun, and at the broken-up chunks of jellyfish strewn ahead of him, and at the blurry white line where the sea met the sky. It was really white today, which meant that some fog would be coming in tonight. That would be kind of fun, sitting by the window and imagining that Antonio Bay wasn’t out there anymore and he was anywhere in the world he wanted to be in. There hadn’t been a good fog yet this year, but it looked like they were due for one now. The only thing bad about it was that Mrs. Kobritz said she hated having to walk home to her house in it, not being able to see a foot in front of her. She said once that she was afraid she would slip and fall on the path from the landing and no one would know she had fallen or hear her cries until the morning, and by then—what? She never said. It could be bad, though. She could break her leg. And his mother, she probably didn’t like the fog, either, driving all that way home from the Point, though she never complained. But the road was narrow and twisty through the trees, he knew. He had been there with her plenty of times himself.
He began to get that sad feeling you get sometimes for no reason, say at the end of the summer when people start to leave the beach and school is about to start and the beach is mostly empty again as far as you can see, with nothing but some old cans and busted styrofoam ice chests left behind in the sand. It was okay again when you forgot about that and started enjoying having it all to yourself every day. But still, he knew he didn’t feel very good right now, and that was true. He didn’t know why, but it was a true thing just the same.
Somebody was signaling to him.
It looked like someone was using one of those Scout mirrors that flash Morse code when you don’t have a walkie talkie. Whoever it was, he was in behind the big rocks, flashing the sun right back into Andy’s eyes. It seemed like code.
He ran toward it.
He came up short and dug in his heels. The water lapped over his bare feet and buried them deeper. He wondered if he kept standing there in the same place and didn’t move, would his feet sink deeper till he was sucked down to his knees, then his waist, then—
There was nobody.
The flashing was still going on, but he could see from here that it was a shiny thing stuck in between the rocks where the waves had made holes, a piece of tin can, probably, or a plastic, well, a plastic something. That was what it was, because if it was a tin can it would have gone bad by now. Anyway, he ought to take a look, just in case it was something for his treasure chest, like the keys and the deep sea sinker and the ladies’ Timex watch without a band.
He unstuck his feet and made for it before the next wave could smash it loose. He scrambled over the rocks, being careful not to cut his feet. When he was almost to it, his eyes opened very wide.
It was a gold coin. He could already see the markings on it, the imperfect round shape the way old coins always were, and the outline of a head inside the lettering.
This, he thought, is the very best treasure I ever found.
He leaned over the side of a boulder and reached for it. A small wave struck the boulder and sent a fan of spray over him.
The foam churned and drew off, and the coin was still there. It glinted into his eyes, making it hard for him to see, but he reached for it again just as a bigger wave crashed into the rocks and over him, filling the space with more whitewater. He reached for the spot where he knew it would be. He touched something slimy, then something hard. His fingers closed around it. It was—
Something clutched his wrist.
He felt it closing over his flesh, coiling like a whip. For a second he was frightened, but then he realized it had to be a piece of kelp snapping loose in the tide, tough and rubbery and hard to break. He tugged.
The water ebbed from between the slippery rocks, and the suction of it pulled him down. The fingers of his other hand scraped the worn stones, and then his fingernails, scratching as if across a wet blackboard. He toppled headfirst, his feet caught at the last and he was anchored again, safe. The force of the water was stronger than he had expected.
Be wary of the sea, my boy,
Captain Machen had said.
It taketh away and does not give back, except that which it has transformed into its own kind.
And then the water was clearing and running out, and he saw his wrist which was just tangled in seaweed. As soon as the water finished running out—
His fingers closed around it.
Only it did not feel like a coin anymore, it felt long and soft and hard at the same time and covered with grooves. He gave it a yank.
It came free. But it was not a coin.
It was a piece of driftwood.
No, not driftwood, a board of some kind. It was gray and chip-tooled by an axe, the way they used to do it in the old days. It was a plank, a piece of a plank. And it had a word carved into it.
It was from a ship. He was so excited he forgot about the gold coin.
He walked back to the house and into the kitchen, not caring that his clothes were soaked, gazing into the carving on the wood, studying every inch. The letters were deep and dark. Maybe they had been burned there, the way he burned dry driftwood with his magnifying glass. He was sure he’d found something special this time.
An ugly morning.
Al’s eyes and the running lights of the
remained before him. Nick had tossed until past dawn, trying to dump the image, but the lights would not go out.
And now here was Hank Jones, squatting at the end of the pier, jotting neat, ordered notes about tides and temperatures on his schedule, just like God was still in his heaven and all was right with the world. The empty berth where the
should have been gaped prominently behind him, as painful as a missing tooth. But Hank didn’t take any notice. The slate-gray waters lapped between the
as if Al’s boat had never been there at all.
“Where the hell are they?” Nick said too loudly.
Fishermen eyed him gravely and returned to their nets as though they had spied an albatross flapping about in deck shoes, hovering in search of a nice hospitable place to settle.
Elizabeth drew closer. A tremor passed through her. Don’t say it, he thought. Don’t say
not now, or I’ll send you packing for sure.
“Pulled out at four-fifteen yesterday, and that’s the last I saw of ’em,” said the dockmaster.
“Al told me seven-thirty,” said Nick, hoping to make it real. “Right here, same as always.”
“Aw, you know Al. If I were you, Castle, I’d find myself another boat for the day.”
Just like that.