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And the Young Devour Themselves






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CHAPTER 14
On the Rocks, in Jacksonville

Linc had been prophetic in that, on their first attempt, they found a suitable place to stay. It was an older motel (hadn’t they all been?) just a sandy, grassy patch away from the beach.

As they put their things in the room, there was a palpable eagerness in the air as in children’s bedrooms on cold Christmas mornings. They wanted to get to the water.

They were on the second floor of the two-story motel. Linc walked outside to a soda machine and bought each of them a cold drink. Jamie went into the bathroom to slip into her bathing suit. Dan would go to the beach in the cutoffs he was wearing.

“Get a move on, Linc,” said Dan, when Linc handed him a soda. “Man, it’s gonna be great!”

Linc replied that Dan and Jamie should go on without him, but that he would be down to join them soon. He wanted to give Dan and Jamie another opportunity to be alone for a while. He hoped things would soon be back to normal between the two of them.

There was a tiny balcony outside the room, and, taking his soda with him, Linc went out there to have a look around. The previous occupants had forgotten to gather up the two swimsuits they had left hanging to dry on the balcony rail, and the suits had long since blown onto the floor. Linc kicked them the few feet to the far end of the balcony. Soon he stepped back inside and dragged out a chair on which to sit. The balcony faced the surf, so he was able to watch the activity on the crowded beach. He unbuttoned his shirt and let the ocean breeze cool his sweaty stomach. He wished for a cold beer and thought how easy it would be to fall asleep. He slipped off his sandals and rubbed the soles of his feet back and forth along the gritty concrete floor.

“Are you ready to go, Dan?” asked Jamie, when she came out of the bathroom. She wore a modest, one-piece bathing suit, some sandals, and she carried a baseball cap and a beach bag.

“You look real nice, Jamie,” said Dan.

“Thank you.” She smiled for him. “Where’s Linc? He ready?”

Dan told her Linc was outside on the balcony and would catch up later.

She drew open the curtains in front of the patio door. She looked toward the ocean and then, with great difficulty, slid open the sticking patio door. Putting her head just beyond the door and right beside Linc’s, she asked him if he was sure he didn’t want to come along with them.

“Not just yet,” said Linc. “I feel kinda lazy right now. I’ll be along in a little while.”

A wisp of Jamie’s hair blew across his lips. It smelled good. Too soon, to Linc’s way of thinking, she took the strand back under control. She gazed back out over the water, a wistful expression on her face. “This is nice, isn’t it, Linc?”

“The best,” he said, enjoying her open-mouthed expression as she looked toward the sea.

She told him she and Dan would be watching for him, and he said he’d be joining them after he took a short nap to rest up from the long drive. Jamie went back inside and worried the door shut behind her.

Dan and Jamie made the short walk to the beach. She had hoped he would take her hand on the way, but he didn’t.

After she and Dan found a vacant spot on the populous beach, Jamie let the breeze whip up her towel, then she laid it on the sand, securing one of its windward corners by placing her bag upon it, and the other corner, herself. “You look pretty, Jamie,” said Dan. And she did. Her swimsuit made the most of her shapely figure.

“Thank you, Dan.”

Dan stood over her, hands in his pockets, feeling tentative and not knowing what to do with himself. She smiled up at him. She asked him if he had forgotten to bring a towel. He said he left it in his bag in the room. He said he should probably go get it. Jamie patted the space beside her. “Sit by me,” she said. “There’s plenty of room.”

Dan sat down on the towel with her, but not as close as they both would have liked. Just then a beach ball rolled between them. Dan grabbed it. He looked around.

Running up to them came a boy of about four years old, shouting, “Mister! Mister!” He wanted his ball.

Dan held up the boy’s ball and said, “Hey, you’re gonna get a speeding ticket if you don’t slow down.”

The child looked doubtful. With his heel, he ground out a hole in the sand. “My ball, mister,” he said, his face growing dark and hateful.

“Here you are, buddy,” said Dan, handing back the ball. “You’re a cute one, aren’t you?”

The ball dwarfed the child and hid his head like an eclipse. He ran away clumsily, the ball raised high above his head.

“That’s either too much ball or too little boy,” said Dan.

Jamie said, “Wasn’t he a little cutie?”

“He sure was--OH, splat! Down he went!” said Dan, seeing the boy tumble into the soft sand. The child stood up spitting, wiping his shirt across his lips, his ball rolling between another basking couple.

Jamie caught Dan’s eye. She never had to wait long to catch Dan’s eye. “Friends again?” she asked.

“Yeah,” said Dan. “I’m sorry. I was an idiot. I should be locked up somewhere.”

“Linc said you were probably upset because I called Pete.”

Dan shook his head and laughed a little. He said, “Linc doesn’t miss much, does he?”

“I only called to tell him how much fun I’ve been having. When you’re on a trip, it’s fun to call someone back . . . well, someone back home. Do you know what I mean?”

“I think I know what you mean. If I got something really big for my birthday--something like a car or a pickup--I’d probably want to call up Linc--something big like that.”

“Yeah. It’s like you’d burst if you didn’t call and tell someone your big news.”

Then Dan asked her how Pete was doing, and she told him he was all right, but that he was rather lonely; and she also said that he had asked how Dan and Linc were doing.

“He isn’t jealous or anything, is he?” asked Dan. He knew losing Jamie would be a trial for anyone to go through, and he wouldn’t wish that kind of thing on anybody.

She said no, Pete wasn’t jealous. He had told her he thought a change would do her good, and that things usually turn out in the way they are supposed to.

“Pete is a decent old fossil,” said Dan. Jamie’s words had reassured him. The resentment he had felt toward Pete since Jamie telephoned him had evaporated.

They watched the lazy surf lick at the uppermost reaches of sand, only to return whence it came. The sun was behind them and warmed their backs. An older couple near them took turns blowing up an inflatable raft. Dan watched them and wondered where the frail man got his wind. He thought he must be one of those older men who like to wear an undershirt while working in their yard, because if one didn’t look twice, one would think he was wearing an undershirt there at the beach, because his skin was painfully white where he was usually covered by his undershirt, while his arms and legs and neck were brown as an old wallet. When the man had finished his turn blowing, he handed the raft over to his equally frail wife and grumbled something to her about she being the one who would be using it, so she could just blow it up the rest of the way herself. Just the way I would have handled it, old-timer, thought Dan.

“You wanted to walk the beach, Dan,” said Jamie. “Let’s go see if we can find any shells.”

“I don’t have a pail. We’d need a pail to do it up right. I’m damned if I don’t wish I didn’t forget to bring a pail,” said Dan in all seriousness. He could find great childish pleasure in something as simple as beach-combing.

Jamie glanced down the beach. “Your little friend has one,” she said, spotting the little boy they had met, propelling his ball along the sand by leaning over it and nudging it along with his forehead, and then rolling right over the top of it, the crown of his hair full of sand, causing him to shake his head like a sneezing kitten.

“Ah, so he does!” said Dan. “Let’s go call on the little landlubber before he breaks his neck. I swear, he’d make Linc look graceful.”

Dan stood up to go to the boy. Jamie asked if Dan thought their things would be left alone while they sought for shells.

He asked her what was in her bag.

“Just suntan oil . . . my sunglasses. Not much, really.”

“It’ll be fine. Nobody’ll be wanting any of that old junk--It’s a pretty crummy towel, too. Come on, let’s go!”

They ran to the little boy. Jamie was amused by Dan’s enthusiasm and his easy dismissal of the importance of her possessions.

“Hey, buddy, your nose is gonna be like Rudolph’s by tomorrow,” said Dan to his little red-nosed friend. Dan turned to the woman there and said, “Hey, lady, are you this kid’s mom?”

“Yes,” she said. Her nose was smeared with cold cream, and she lifted her sunglasses and rested them on top of her head. “Hello.”

“Hi. Listen, lady, would it be just fine if we borrowed his pail for a little while? He’s not using it right now. That’s our junk right over there.” He pointed over to Jamie’s things. “That shows you we won’t be going far.”

“You’ll have to ask Louie,” said the mother.

Turning to the boy, Dan said, “Louie, is it? Are you called Louie?”

The boy nodded his head; his grin was as wide as his face.

“Can we borrow your pail so we can go look for some pirate treasure?”

The boy picked up the pail and handed it to Dan.

“Thanks, buddy. We’ll split any loot we find with you. Now, you keep a close eye out, and if you see any pirate ships, holler for us, okay?”

“Okay. Pirates,” said the boy. He raised his hands over his head and jumped up and down.

Dan mussed the boy’s hair. “Thanks, lady,” he said, winking at the mother.

Dan and Jamie walked down the beach, Dan carrying the boy’s pail. Hoping he would take hers in his own, Jamie made a point of walking beside Dan’s free hand. When he took her hand, she thrilled to his touch. She felt the temperature of her cheeks and throat rise. She looked away from Dan so he wouldn’t be able to notice her reaction. Once again the ocean wasn’t so compelling to her. With her hand in his, she hardly even noticed all the activity in the water: the whooping children, the wafting adults, even a huge, white ship far out, lurching its way across the horizon to who knew where--things she would have wondered about to the point of distraction had not Dan been holding her hand. Yes, those things were secondary now; those things had been swept beyond her awareness by Dan’s touch.

All of Dan’s concentration raced among the millions of contact points of their two hands now joined as one. Though he and Jamie were plodding through the sand, Dan was certain he could detect her pulse where her four fingers met her hand. Or, he wondered, was it his own pulse he was feeling? No; he could still distinguish his own heartbeat, pounding away as if it would soon fly through his chest. He had never experienced such strange sensations. He thought he might keel right over.

Linc opened his eyes, scratched his belly, and yawned. He reached high above his head, cracking his knobby knuckles. Mechanically, he glanced at his wrist for the watch he had taken off and laid down someplace in the room. He knew he hadn’t been napping for long, because the soda can at his feet still had condensation on it showing the level of the remainder of his beverage. He reached down for the can and finished it in two short drinks. He felt with his feet for his sandals, stepped into them, and decided to go and join his friends. He looked out at the beach. He could see where Jamie had left her towel, but she and Dan were nowhere in sight. He decided theirs were two of the many heads bobbing in the water.

“Damn,” he said, as he struggled with the sticking patio door. Once back inside the room, he took off his shirt and tossed it on the bed beside the one Jamie had reserved for herself by placing her suitcase on it. He thought of all the nice things Jamie probably had in her suitcase, and that, just as probably, all those nice things were well taken care of by her. He was glad there might finally be someone to share with him the burden--and pleasure--of being Dan’s friend. He smiled and walked out the door. The sun shone brightly on that side of the motel; it wasn’t nearly as bearable as on the shady balcony, where the steady breeze off the ocean could be enjoyed. He started down the stairway.

“I haven’t seen one shell worth having,” said Dan. “And Linc said there would be more shells here than we’d know what to do with. What a know-it-all. This is the most picked-over beach I’ve ever seen in my life. Just look at it--” He gestured up and down the beach. “--All that’s here are a lot of chips and pieces nobody else would have. Who’d want any of these old scraps?”

“It’s still fun just to walk, Dan,” said Jamie, finally turning to face him. “The sand’s so warm.”

“Still, though . . .” Dan grumbled the last part of his sentence so low, Jamie couldn’t hear what he said.

Jamie wished that his just being there with her were enough for him. She knelt down to pick up a worn fragment of shell. She turned it over in her palm. “Look at this, Dan. Look at these colors.” The small shard of mussel had two delicate hues of blue on one side.

“That’s pretty, Jamie. It looks just like the sky looks today. Hey, it makes me think of the color of makeup you had on over your eyes that first day I saw you at the lake. . . . Let’s put this one in the pail,” he said.

Plunk

“I was all dirty and sweaty that day, Dan; I hate to even think about it,” she said, even though she was pleased he had noticed such an insignificant thing as the color makeup she had worn.

“Here’s another one,” said Dan, moments later, stooping for another piece of shell. Though he knelt and she stood, Dan never released her soft hand; that endearing subtlety wasn’t wasted on Jamie.

He said, “I wonder what this was part of . . . probably some big snail or something.” He held it up for her inspection, asking her: “Should we keep this one?”

“Yes,” she said, the value of the thing having, in her mind, risen ten-fold at his mere handling of it. “Put it in the pail.”

Plunk

They realized there was ample such treasure to be salvaged from that beach; it was only a matter of taking the time to find the beauty not immediately apparent to the eye scanning the sand for some perfect specimen, the merit of which would be obvious to anyone walking the beach. It was much like desert landscape--seemingly barren at first, but if one were to give it a closer scrutiny, one would find it teeming with life of the hardiest sort, plants and animals that refused to live anywhere else. Dan and Jamie now preferred the shells and shell fragments that took some time to appreciate, ones that grew on them after a while. Dan suggested they wade through the surf. They veered to the right, toward the highest reach of the lapping water.

“Oh, it’s so warm,” said Jamie. She watched the water detour around her feet, and then she took two steps forward, pulling Dan by the hand, and let it wash over their feet completely.

“Now this is the good life,” said Dan. “I could walk out here forever.”

With his pail Dan scooped up some wet sand. He then led Jamie up to higher, dry sand. “Let’s see what we’ve got,” he said, as he dumped the pail and began sifting through its mucky contents. Naturally, they found nothing of value.

“Jamie,” he said dreamily, “there are so many people around here . . .”

She said she liked having a lot of people around.

“Me, too . . . sometimes . . . but right now I--”

Dan was interrupted by the hollering of a familiar voice:

“Last one in is a you-know-what!” It was Linc. He had sneaked up behind them and was now making a mad dash to the ocean, peeling off his shirt and flinging it over his shoulder.

“Linc!” cried Jamie. She stood up and gave chase.

“Christ, Linc,” hollered Dan, “you scared the hell outta me!” Linc couldn’t hear Dan for all of his own and Jamie’s laughter and shouting. “Oh, what the hell,” Dan said smiling; he tore out after them.

Jamie and Linc were knee deep by the time Dan reached them. They were splashing handfuls of water on each other, reveling like children.

“Whew!” cried Linc. “How about this!”

Dan tackled Linc chest high, and the two of them fell into the water. Then they stood up and dived toward deeper water. They swam farther and farther, doing battle with the force of the waves; Linc quickly fell behind.

They stopped at a place where they could still feel the bottom and keep their heads above water. Dan put his face down into the water. He quickly lifted it back out, whipping his hair back, a long lash of water striking at the wave crests behind him. “Whew!” he cried. He leaned back and floated until the next good wave swamped him.

“Come on, Jamie,” yelled Linc. “We need a lifeguard.”

They swam back to where she too would be able to stand easily. She swam toward them.

When she reached the boys, she was gasping. She told them they were two big kids.

Linc put his face down into the water. He then looked up and, before ducking his face a second time, told Jamie to save him. Knowing he wasn’t serious, she didn’t go to him. But when she and Dan thought he had his face too long in the water, naturally, they became concerned. Dan went to him and raised Linc’s head up by the hair, as if it had been freshly guillotined, and he were displaying it to the bloodthirsty crowd.

“Ow!” cried Linc, after he let out his breath. “Damn, Dan.” He slapped some water into Dan’s face.

Rubbing his stinging eyes, Dan said, “You had us worried for a sec there, you landlubber. We thought you were a goner.”

“My hair’s falling out fast enough without you doing that,” said Linc. (And it was: at seventeen, Linc’s hair had already begun to thin.)

“Sorry, old chap,” said Dan.

“How are you liking this place, Jamie?” asked Linc, regaining his better spirits. “What do you think?”

“I love it here,” she said. “Look at all the people.”

Just then a barge with a similarly aged group of kids to our three passed about fifty feet behind our swimmers. “Ahoy,” called one of the girls on the barge.

“Ahoy,” responded our three.

“Are you standing on bottom there? Can you touch the bottom?” called the girl. If the girl was worried about the ungainly craft dashing its underside against anything, she needn’t worry, because it didn’t need much draft, and had plenty.

“Yeah,” hollered Linc.

The barge came a bit closer, and one of the boys onboard said, “Come on out if you want some beer.”

Dan, Jamie, and Linc looked at one another; since the crew of youngsters seemed harmless enough, they decided joining them for some beer wasn’t a bad idea.

Jamie, the most talented swimmer of the three, reached the barge first and waited beside it until the boys reached her. Again Linc lagged behind Dan.

“Come on up,” said the girl who first had hailed them. Dan and Linc helped Jamie up the aluminum ladder and then followed her up onto the barge. The deck was soon awash in water fallen from their panting bodies.

“Beer’s in the chest,” said a husky blond boy. “Help yourself.”

Dan wanted no further encouragement and soon had his nose in the ice chest. He selected three beers and took them over to his friends.

Linc splished open his can. He said, “This’ll go good right about now.”

“Do you seafarers live around here?” Dan addressed the crew.

The big blond boy told them his parents owned a summer place farther down the beach.

“Doing any fishing?” asked Linc.

“Not today. The girls don’t care for fishing.”

“Been boating all day?”

“Pretty much,” said the blond boy. “Frank over there is about burnt up.” He indicated one of the crew, who was lying, unmoving, beneath a wide, yellow umbrella--the only shade available but for a canopy rigged up over the tiller; the young man was quite red. Jamie asked if the sunburnt boy was all right.

“Don’t worry about him,” said the blond boy. “He’s all right. I asked him if he wanted us to take him in, but he just said no, and that I should keep the beer coming. Every now and then he mumbles something about pushing on to Cape Horn--wherever that is.”

Linc laughed and told him that Cape Horn was at the tip of South America.

“Which tip?” asked the blond boy.

“The farthest one,” said Linc.

The blond boy grinned. “Well, not in this bucket, we won’t,” he said, as he kicked the railing. And it wasn’t much of a boat. It was kept in working order, but no tremendous sum had been laid out to keep up its appearance.

Dan, never one to stand when he could be sitting, had sat himself down on the deck, a puddle of water slowly forming beneath him. Jamie and Linc stood there enjoying their beer.

“We have some chairs over there,” said a girl who had yet to speak to the new passengers. “Why don’t you all take it easy for a while?” She walked over to some deck chairs tied to a storage bin. She undid the rope and steadied the chairs until Linc went over and lent her a hand with them.

All the original passengers on the barge were attractive young men and young ladies (excepting, of course, the young man who lay baking beneath the umbrella, for his face couldn’t be seen), but the young lady who had just spoken was particularly so. She wore a daring, white bikini and possessed the body needed to fill it: a tan body, even darker than Jamie’s. She wasn’t as generously fleshed out in all the right places as Jamie was, but still, few young men would find her resistible. And though she wasn’t as beautiful as Jamie, either, Linc couldn’t take his eyes off her. He noticed, when she smiled, she displayed a row of impeccably white teeth between heaven-wrought lips. She had blond hair reaching halfway down her back, and her liquid eyes were deep green and full of fun.

Jamie, Linc, and Dan accepted the offered deck chairs and lined them up beside the railing. The girl who had been speaking to them moved her chair near Linc’s. She crossed her legs, and her bare foot touched Linc’s bare calve, sending shock waves up his spine.

“Sorry,” she said. She hadn’t meant to touch him, but she felt the same sensations as Linc. She lifted up and shifted her chair just a hair away from Linc’s, and then Linc inched his chair that much over toward hers. He said:

“I’m Linc, and this is Jamie and Dan. What’s your name?” He felt a sudden need to know everything about her.

“I’m Sherri. It’s nice to meet you.”

“Sherri what?” Linc probed, not merely wanting to know, but having to know.

“Linc what?” countered the beauty.

Linc loved the way she said that, but then Dan answered for him: “Why, he’s Linc Lebeau, the pride of Beaumont, Texas.”

“Are they really so proud?” she asked Linc, showing her infectious smile.

“Proud to be rid of him,” said Dan.

“You’re terrible, Dan,” said Jamie, quick to Linc’s defense.

“So?” Linc said good-naturedly, “Sherri what?”

She looked him straight in the eye and leaned so close to him he could smell the banana-scented lotion she had rubbed all over her shoulders and neck. “Brace yourself, Linc Lebeau,” she said. “It’s Sherri Shaftstansbury. Isn’t it awful? I can’t believe you made me say that.” She knitted her fine eyebrows. “I hate that name.”

Immediately Linc started thinking: Sherri Shaftstansbury Lebeau . . . Sherri S. Lebeau . . . Sherri Lebeau. He decided the last one would sound rather like a stripper or a centerfold. He and Dan often reduced to lowest married terms the names of girls they liked like that, and due to his last name Linc’s always wound up sounding like a stripper. He hoped Dan wasn’t thinking the same thing and be about to open his big mouth about it. Linc tried to distract his mind by thinking about something else.

Dan looked around for the blond boy. When he spotted him he said, “How about some more grog for your first mate, cap’n?”

“Coming up,” said the boy. He fetched Dan a beer and told him there was more where that came from.

“Glad to know it,” said Dan. “I believe a well-stocked cooler is of utmost importance on a voyage of this sort.” He took a long swig of beer. He was already feeling the effect of the first beer he had drunk. Dan never got falling-down drunk: beer seemed only further to loosen his already loose tongue. If he didn’t stop with just one of his own volition, Linc usually saw to it that he did--but on this day Linc was more than a little distracted by Sherri Shaftstansbury.

To get a better feel for the on-board arrangements, Linc asked Sherri if all the crew were boyfriend and girlfriend.

“Four of us are,” said Sherri, coyly precipitating another question from her new admirer.

“Which one’s yours?” asked Linc, fearing her response.

“I’m not of the four,” she said. “And neither is the lobster we have broiling beneath the umbrella. He’s my brother, my twin brother.”

Linc felt he had escaped unscathed from a minefield. He was glad she wasn’t taken.

All at once Sherri climbed up on the railing and dived into the water.

“Woman overboard!” roared Dan.

“Jamie, take his beer,” commanded Linc. “He’s always sorry, afterwards, if he has more than one at a time.” Without a resisting, Dan handed over his beer to her.

Sherri bade Linc to join her in the water.

Linc stood by the railing. “Any sharks in there?” he asked, a doubtful look on his face, for they were considerably farther out than he and Dan and Jamie had dared to swim, and he wasn’t the most talented swimmer in that trio.

“Sharks? Probably,” she said.

“It’s okay, Linc, you landlubber,” said Dan. “I’ll watch out for sharks from aloft in the crow’s nest.” Then, after looking up, he added, “But alas, we haven’t got a crow’s nest. Curses! How will we spot land?”

Linc was still tentative. “Hush up, Dan,” he said.

“Go on, Linc,” Dan urged, “walk the plank. I’ll keep an eye out for you from where I sit. Aargh!”

Though his better judgment told him he shouldn’t, Linc slowly climbed down the ladder and into the water. He clung to the bottom rung--not out of cowardice, but out of fatigue.

Sherri swam over to him and hung on to the opposite side of the ladder. She smiled sweetly, and Linc’s heart soared. He clung there waiting for her personality to bubble over once more. He had never seen a more carefree girl. He had expected that same kind of attitude to be his once he reached Jacksonville, but all his cares had remained in the back of his thoughts, threatening at any moment to work themselves to the forefront.

Their moving legs made contact with each other. “Sorry,” she said. She glanced shoreward, and Linc admired her soft, delicate profile. She turned back to him and smiled again. It was too much. That bare skin must be caressed.

He felt with his hand high up on the inside of her smooth thigh; and on his second pass, he allowed it to trespass even higher up her thigh--“No!” she said, pushing at his chest.

This reproach stunned him. He realized what he had thoughtlessly done. His hand had instinctively sought out where she would be softest. Now the hard reality of what he had done began to smother him with the desire to have back that moment. He wished he had touched her cheek.

Sherri hurried up the ladder, went to a corner, and covered herself with a wrap. She then walked over to the blond boy and whispered something into his ear. The boy eyed Linc (who had now come back on board) while she spoke. The boy whispered a reply into Sherri’s ear and then walked over to where Linc stood beside the ladder.

“We need to be getting back now,” said the boy. “We’ll swing around and drop you off where we picked you up.”

“All right,” said Linc. “Listen, man . . . I’m sorry.”

By the look on his face, the boy was ready to tell Linc off; but he seemed to gather himself and only said that anyone might make a mistake while drinking.

“Could I please try and talk to Sherri?” asked Linc. He was distraught, anguished for what he had done. He stood there wringing his hands like a madman. The boy stepped aside, and, with a sweeping gesture of his arm, he indicated Linc’s path to Sherri.

Sherri stood facing away from Linc, away from everyone.

“Sherri, would you ever forgive me?” he asked softly.

She turned to him and sniffed. Though her eyes were red, she hadn’t been crying.

“Please, Sherri.”

“It’s funny--” she began, smiling uncomfortably, trying so hard to keep back her tears, “--you caught me by surprise. As soon as I saw you I knew I would like you. I was sure you were different, that’s all. I thought you would be nice. You seemed so . . . so--”

“But I am nice--at least I was . . . not too long ago, I swear. Please, what can I do? If you could only give me one more--”

“He is nice,” interrupted Dan, who, like Jamie, had up to this point been pretending not to be aware that there was a problem between Sherri and Linc. He chose this moment to come to the aid of his friend. “Linc’s the nicest guy I know. And not only nice, but available: he only recently quit his girlfriend when he found out she was about to make him a pappy.”

Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, Dan was honestly trying to help Linc mend things with Sherri; unfortunately, he had said the first thing to come into his mind. It was that part of a second beer talking.

Linc stood there in shock, utter disbelief. He felt laid bare to the world, mortified. He took two abrupt steps toward Dan and punched him as hard as he could above the eye, sending Dan reeling head first into a storage bin. Instantly, Linc was atop his friend. He grabbed Dan by the hair and began to dash his head repeatedly against the deck, sharp, vicious blows.

“Linc! No!” shrieked Jamie. She raced over to them, tripped, and fell on top of Linc. She tried desperately to pull him away from Dan, but she was helpless. “Someone . . . please . . . help me!” she pleaded. Sherri and her friends stood by stunned by this sudden violence. Finally the blond boy acted. He easily got control of Linc, but only because Linc didn’t try to resist him. He let go of Linc once he seemed to have calmed down, but stayed by him in case he tried something else.

Linc looked down at Dan, then looked all around. He hurried to the rail and dived into the water he had just been so leery of and swam toward shore.

“Christ, Linc,” mumbled the groggy but conscious Dan.

“Shh,” said Jamie. “Linc’s gone.” She held his head in her lap.

“Gone? Gone where?”

“He jumped in.”

“He’s not a very strong swimmer. I better--” Dan tried to rise but he couldn’t. Though still fully conscious, he slumped back down against the storage bin.

Jamie turned to the blond boy. She asked him if they would take her and Dan back now.

“Yeah, we’ll get you back. Your friend’s got a pretty hard head, but I’m not gonna turn him loose in the water. We’ve got that raft back there; I’ll take you back in that.”

Dan got to his feet. “Which way did he go, Jamie?” he asked.

“I don’t know, Dan, and I don’t care.”

He pulled a face to show her she didn’t understand anything. Then he pushed by her and went to the railing. He couldn’t see Linc for the light and shadow of the swelling sea. Suddenly dizzy, he grabbed the railing to steady himself.

Dan got into the raft under his own power; Jamie and the blond boy got in behind him. Jamie had Dan lean back against her, and she put her arms around him. The boy untethered the raft from the back of the barge, shoved the raft clear, dipped the motor in the water, and soon had them on their way back to the beach. The number of people in the water had dwindled to nearly nothing, so he was able to drive relatively fast.

“I’m sorry this all didn’t turn out so well,” hollered the boy, over the roar of motor and parting water.

“I’m sorry, too,” said Jamie. “We appreciate you taking us back.”

Back near the beach the boy let them out so they could wade ashore. Jamie asked Dan if he could make it; he said he was fine. And he was: Linc would never hurt him.

“Listen,” said the blond boy, “tell your other friend there’s no hard feelings.” The boy made a wide, lazy turn with his raft and headed back out to the barge.

Because she felt certain that Linc would already be there, Jamie suggested to Dan that they go back to the motel. “Hey--that kid’s pail!” said Dan. He had carelessly left his little friend’s pail lying on the beach. The tide was now washing past it. He picked it up out of the surf. “Let’s hurry and go see if he’s still down there where he was.”

Dan took off running down the beach with Jamie fast at his heels. She wondered why they were running, for it was plain to her the boy and his mother weren’t among the last people lingering on the beach. She also wondered how Dan could be so quickly recovered.

Jamie was right: the little boy and his mother had gone. “They must think I’m terrible,” said Dan. “They must think I’m a crook.”

“It’s all right, Dan. You tried to get it back to him. Come on, let’s go.”

They saw Jamie’s towel and bag up ahead where they had left them. They went to them, and Jamie gathered up her things. A quick inventory of the bag told her the few contents were there, untouched. They walked up the gradual slope of the beach, Dan carrying the boy’s pail, hoping he would run into him again the next day.

Trusting the opposite to be the case, Jamie asked Dan if he was planning on starting any trouble with Linc.

Dan said, “Huh? No. I could never touch Linc--I’ve wanted to bust him a million times, but I never have. I always knew that if I ever did something like that, I would have to live with it for the rest of my life. Who would ever want to hurt Linc?”

“What you did probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but he shouldn’t have gone wild like that.”

“Linc knows how I get sometimes when I drink more than one beer: I don’t use my head; I say any old thing just to be jabbering. He knows that.”

“Well, if he knows that, then he really shouldn’t have hit you. I couldn’t believe it. He just went--”

“Jamie, that’s the first time Linc has ever laid a hand on me in his whole life. And if you knew how many scrapes I’ve gotten him into, you’d know how much I had it coming.”

“But still, he--”

“But nothing! I had it coming. He doesn’t ever do anything without a good reason. I’m only worried he won’t want to be my friend anymore. . . . I swear I’d die.”

“Linc’s the one who should feel bad.”

“Oh, yeah, Jamie--if he’s not drowned somewhere. Don’t even think you can tell me about Linc. Linc's the one who makes me matter--me!” He suggested they drop the subject. Dan was more tired and dazed than angry. They arrived at the room. Linc wasn’t there, and it didn’t look like he had been there.
Continue . . .


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