A wave crashed and rushed up the sand-packed beach, sending me backpedaling in my worn canvas deck shoes. The late-morning mist moistened my face as I followed the receding wave back down the slope. Streams of bubbles in slow-draining depressions pointed where sea creatures were buried, clams and crabs, fun to play with when I was a kid.
The high tide left dimples in the sand and debris—half-buried shells, the upturned carapace of a horseshoe crab, driftwood, the base of a broken, brown bottle, its edges grayed and smoothed dull by the waves. Strands of seaweed, clinging with shell life, swept up and back with the waves like green, soaked banners. A gusty breeze scented the air with whiffs of the organic, salty sea. A screeching tern tilted its wings and forked tail to the wind and touched down just long enough to overturn an empty clamshell.
Down the beach, my uncle’s piling-mounted house was a gray and tan outline in the spray-driven mist. My uncle had died last month, and we were putting his house on the market. This might be my last visit. The porch light went off, so I knew Janet was awake. She’d said she wanted to join me to watch the sunrise, but the sun had already climbed and shed its morning orange and red.
Back at the blanket, I shook the coffee thermos. Hearing nothing, I unscrewed the cap, tipped the thermos, and caught three brown drops in the plastic cup. Perhaps Janet would think to bring more. I set the thermos on the sandy blanket beside an unused, maroon, ceramic cup.
“Mr. Drake, hello,” a small voice cried. A boy six or seven, standing ankle-deep in the surf, waved his clam trowel then broke into a run up the beach toward me. He wore bright blue, boxer-style swim trunks and a yellow, Cub Scout t-shirt emblazoned with a blue wolf badge. I didn’t recognize him, but he knew my name. He must be mistaking me for my uncle, I thought.
As he got closer, I saw the trowel he pumped in one hand had flecks of rust, and his other hand held a red plastic pail. They looked like the trowel and pail I played with when I’d visited here. Perhaps the boy had borrowed them from my uncle.
“Mr. Drake, Sir,” the boy stopped, huffing, and craned his neck up to look at me, “Wanna see what I found?” His bare toes flexed nervously in the sand.
“Sure, young man,” I said, doubling my legs to crouch and peer into the small pail he tipped toward me.
“This one’s my favorite,” said the boy, handing me a concave shard glistening with blue, iridescent mother-of-pearl. “I’ll give it to my mom,” he said. “This one’s nice, too, almost perfect.” It was a salmon-pink sand dollar over four inches across.
A small sand crab tried to bury itself in the sand at the bottom of the pail. “I just picked him up to look at him,” the boy said. “He’s scared, so I’ll put him back.”
The boy grabbed the scuttling crab, set the pail down, and ran to the water’s edge. I shook sand off a corner of my blanket and sat, waiting for his return. A pair of terns took an interest in the pail, hovering and dipping, rocking in the breeze, so I pulled it onto the blanket. “Craw,” one protested, and they both climbed off with the next gust.
I hadn’t seen anyone on the beach that morning and didn’t expect anyone except Janet. The boy seemed to appear out of nowhere. I watched him set the crab down and rush back.
“I started searching for shells over there,” the boy said, pointing. I followed his finger but couldn’t see anything. “By the pier and the old tower.” The boy squinted. “It’s really hard to see right now. My uncle said navy guys came to the tower to look for submarines. That was during the war. If they saw anything they had a boat with guns at the pier. I know you’ve been there.”
“Yes, I have,” I said, a little surprised at the boy’s certainty. “My uncle told me about the submarines, too. But they took the pier away years ago, and all that’s left of the tower is the foundation.”
The boy nodded quickly. “But I remember when they were there. It was a good place to hunt for crabs and stuff like that.” I smiled, excusing his confusion. The tower and pier were gone years before the boy was born. He must have heard stories and imagined the rest.
“I suppose there aren’t submarines anymore,” the boy said quietly and lowered his still pointing finger. He kicked sand back with his foot then made a groove in it with his toe.
“The Navy sold that land,” I said, “and I heard the new owner wants to put up a Ferris wheel, a roller coaster, and some sort of go-kart track, maybe a paint ball arena, too.”
The boy’s eyes lit up. “Will you bring your kids to play?”
“My wife and I don’t have children,” I said.
“You should get to it,” the boy said, again surprising me. I was sure he was thinking about friends to play with.
“Maybe we should,” I said then asked. “Do you live around here? You seem to know my uncle.”
“I’m just visiting, like you, and staying with my uncle … he’s a very nice man, but he gets kinda grumpy. My mom says it’s ‘cause he got old. I don’t want to get old if it means I have to get grumpy and can’t go out to play. What good is it? I know if he played it would cheer him up, but my mom says he won’t do it. All he thinks about is busyness.”
“You mean business?”
“Yes,” the boy said, then looked seriously at the sun. “I have to go.”
“Will you be back tomorrow?” I asked.
“Yes,” he ran, turned his head, and called back. “But if I come tomorrow you might not recognize me. I’d like it if you did. Maybe we could look for shells an’ stuff.”
“Roy,” Janet’s voice called behind me. “Sorry I’m late. Your sister was on the phone, and we got talking.” She held out a fresh thermos. “Your sister wants to know if you’ve changed your mind about selling your uncle’s place.”
“I was just talking—” I started to point but, looking up the beach, couldn’t see the boy. Rushing waves swept over the last of his footsteps. “A local boy was just here playing in the surf.”
“I think so. His family might have a place up here. He thought I should know him, but I think he was confusing me with my uncle. The boy said I’d see him tomorrow but might not recognize him. Very curious.”
“What did he look like?”
“Your average, pale, city boy, seven years old, active blue eyes, talkative, precocious. He wore a yellow Cub Scout shirt just like I wore.”
“Bright blue, boxer trunks, bare feet?” Janet asked. “Shock of rumpled brown hair … carried a rusty shovel and a red pail?
“A rusty trowel. Yes.”
“You might still know him.”
She led me back to the house and up to the bedroom where I stayed when I’d last visited my uncle. The room hadn’t changed. There was the wood-framed, single bed with the hand-stitched, cowboy-themed quilt, ruffled, blue-checked curtains framing the one window, and a quaint, varnished, knotty pine dresser. On the wall above the dresser was my picture when I was seven, standing on the beach in my Cub Scout shirt and waving a rusty trowel. The ink-scribbled inscription read, “Remember me and our good times. Your Uncle Al.”
Janet squeezed my hand. “You still have a good imagination.” I started to speak, but my jaw just dropped.
Janet squeezed my hand again. “I’m sorry. I told your sister before I told you. I wanted it to be a surprise.” She looked up into my eyes. I knew the look.
“A baby?” I asked. She nodded, and we both smiled.
“I got the message,” I said to the boy in the picture. “I’ll tell my sister we’ve decided keep the house. Our kids should have a chance to play here, too.”