Remember Me?

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.”

“A neighbor?”

“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.”

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Jack

Six-year-old Cory tucked her flannel nightgown tight around her bare legs. The old farmhouse was cold. Cory sat on the top step staring down the dark stairway. She listened for any creak of the pine boards that would tell her that her mother was coming. A naked light bulb with a drawstring rocked back and forth in the draft and cast barred shadows of the stair rails along the cracked plaster walls. She licked her lips.

“Mommy, when are you coming up?” she called softly. The bare walls swallowed the sound of her voice.

“Get into bed, Cory,” her mother said. “I’ll be up as soon as I get these pies in the oven.”

Cory didn’t want to go into her bedroom alone. Bad things would get her. That’s what Billy Farkin had said on the playground. Bad things like little girls. Tonight they’ll come for you, Cory. It’s Halloween night. They’ll come for sure. He’d hissed when he said it. She looked back at the dark doorway to her bedroom. A full moon shining through the window silhouetted a leafless tree, casting ghosts of boney branches across her bed cover.

Why was Billy mean to her? She remembered him pulling her swing seat away then squatting in the dirt hollow beneath the swing. Bad things happen on Halloween. Oh yes, they do … and bad things happen to little girls. He’d rubbed his nose on his wrist then pointed that finger straight at her. And they’ll be coming for you, tonight. He’d squinted his piggy eyes and flexed his fingers like claws as if to grab her.

“Mommy, come tuck me in!” Cory shouted, this time hearing her voice echo. No reply came. She wished her daddy was there, but she knew he was at the garage trying to get the car fixed. She wiped her wet cheek and blinked away tears.

Tonight bad things will get little girls.

CREAK, THUMP, she heard something in her bedroom. Cory snapped her head around and pulled her heels close beneath her to jump. A shadow moved. She looked harder. The twisting light bulb lit a corner of her bed. The dust ruffle waved. Behind her bed, a single candle flickered soft and golden from the jack-o’-lantern her daddy had set on the steamer trunk.

“Mommy! Come tuck me in!” Again, there was no answer. Cory stood and edged toward the doorway.

Tonight, Cory . . . bad things will come.

Cory leaned into the dark bedroom, careful to keep her feet in the triangular patch of light beside the door. The wind whistled. CREAK, THUMP, a frosty gust slapped one of the tree’s skeletal branches against the loose-fit single-pane window. SCRATCH, SCRATCH, sharp branch sticks like tiny claws scraped the glass, sending shivers up Cory’s neck.

They’re trying to get in . . . the bad things are coming.

“Cory, go to bed,” her mother called. Cory ran back to the top of the stairs.

“Grandma wants to make pies for Mrs. Jones, too, and daddy’s still in town, so don’t wait up. Crawl into bed. I’ll be up as soon as I roll out the extra pie dough.” Mommy doesn’t know about the bad things, Cory thought, hearing no fear in her mother’s voice.

“Mommy! I’m scared. Billy said . . .”

“CORY! Get into bed. If you’re scared—talk to Jack.” Her voice trailed off to murmurs with grandmother in the kitchen.

Cory tiptoed back to the light triangle in the doorway. The jack-o’-lantern’s candle flickered orange shadows and wafted smells of hot wax and pumpkin. Cory kneeled and looked under the bed. The dust ruffle swayed like an unseen monster, breathing and waiting.

Bad things are there, watching for little feet to come close.

“JACK!” Cory whispered loudly. “Are your there?”

“I’m here, Cory!” The jack-o’-lantern’s flame danced. “Come to bed. I’ll watch for you.”

“Jack, you better help me.”

Cory pulled herself upright, widened her eyes, and took a deep breath. The jack-o’-lantern flared a bright smile that shifted the moon shadows. Cory bolted forward, jumped, and grabbed the smooth comforter. Feet, she thought, feeling the dust ruffle brush her ankles. She curled her legs up behind her before any swift-closing claws could catch them. The comforter pulled loose and began sliding. Cory felt herself slip. Exhaling hard and pulling, she wriggled her way up.

The candle sparked. “Good work, Pumpkin! You made it!”

“Ha! Jack!” Cory turned the edge of the bedcovers back then rolled and squeezed her legs between the cool tight sheets. She pulled her nightie close about her, tucked the covers so nothing could creep under, then propped her head with the pillow.

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“Don’t call me Pumpkin, Jack.”

“Don’t call me Pumpkin, Jack,” she said with a sigh. “I’m a little girl. You’re the pumpkin.” She pointed a bent finger at Jack’s dancing eyes. “I know you are, because I went with Daddy to get you from the pumpkin patch. You were a big orange pumpkin on a curly vine.” She rocked her head as she spoke. “We brought you to the house, and Daddy gave you that big smiley face—just like I told him to.”

“Yes! He did, Cory.” Jack’s candle glowed. “And he put me right here at the foot of your bed to keep the bad things away.”

“Bad things like little girls,” Cory whispered. “That’s what Billy Farkin said.” She looked at Jack beaming beyond the foot of her bed. “How can you help me, Jack? You are little like me—and monsters are big,” Cory swept her arms wide, “this big.”

“Because I’m magic.” Jack’s flame snapped bright.

“Magic? How?”

“Your daddy put magic in me. Remember when he carved my face? He loved his little girl with every stroke. Love is magic.”

“YES!” Cory sat up, raised her arms, and put her hands on top of her head. “And Daddy was laughing, and he said when he was away, Jack would watch over me.’”

“Yes, your daddy was laughing … laughing is magic too, Cory.” Jack’s flame twinkled. “And it doesn’t matter how little you are, not when you have loving and laughing magic.”

A new tear glinted in Cory’s eye. “I wish my Daddy was here. But, I’m real glad he made you for me, Jack.”

“Cory?” her mother said from the doorway. “You still talking to Jack?” Her mother smoothed the quilted bedcover. Leaning close, she framed and kissed her little girl’s face. Cory smelled cinnamon and cloves. “Good night, Sweetheart.”

“I love you, Mommy.”

“Sleep tight! Do you want me to leave the light on in the hall?”

“No, I’m not scared any more.” Her mother left. Cory looked toward the glowing face just beyond her bed. “Good night, Jack.”

“Good night, Pumpkin!” Jack’s candle twinkled.

“You’re the pumpkin, silly Jack. I’m a little girl.”