by Samantha Clark
Blue. White. Black. Flashes. Then silence. The boy tumbled in the waves, tugged by the current. Round and round. Until the thin tide lifted him, curled into a ball, onto land. Small. So small.
And I watched and waited.
His jaw was the first thing to move, back and forth like a see-saw. The teeth rubbed against each other, pushing out the grit between them. “Unhhh!” The boy’s mouth crinkled.
He tried to open his eyes, but light slapped them shut.
He felt cold, his back damp. He curled his fingers and was surprised they obeyed. He wriggled his toes, and they wriggled back. He lifted his arms, then felt around for his body. Two legs, chest, head and nose. Just as it should be.
He pushed up on his elbow, and a sickening feeling erupted in his stomach. Leaning over, he retched, but nothing came out.
I don’t feel good. The words clawed out of his murky mind.
The boy reached out to steady himself and a streak of pain ran up his arm. He pulled it back. No sign of injury. He pressed it to the sand again. Heat! Burning! “Ow!” Maybe it was hurt on the inside. Best to not use it.
Struggling to his knees, the boy cautiously pried his eyes open, spying on his surroundings through gaps between his fingers. A long beach of golden sand stretched out against the edge of a seemingly never-ending blue ocean. Timid waves crept up to him, then retreated, wary of staying too close. Behind him rose a line of trees and bushes so thick, he couldn’t see beyond a few feet.
And that was it. That was all he could see.
The boy dropped his hands, his eyes no longer bothered by the brightness.
Where was he?
The question echoed in his brain, and was joined by another.
How did he get here?
He gazed down at his body. He was wearing navy blue swim shorts and a yellow T-shirt with some kind of pattern on it. He pulled at the bottom so the shirt stretched out before him. Even upside down, he could read the words. “In real life I’m a Pirate,” it said, and the word “Pirate” was curved around a picture of a skull and crossbones.
Skull and crossbones…
The biggest question of all screamed in his mind.
Who am I?
The boy staggered to stand. He was wobbly, but stayed upright.
He stared down at his bare feet, bare shins, bare knees. Skinny legs and arms, like on a stick figure. He spread out his hands in front of him. Even with his fingers stretched as far apart as he could make them, they were still small.
Had he just been born? No, he wouldn’t be wearing shorts and a T-shirt if he had just been born. He wouldn’t even know what shorts and a T-shirt were, or the beach, or trees, or the ocean. No, he couldn’t have just been born. But how did he get here?
His shirt! Maybe he had been on a pirate ship. Or some other kind of ship. He squinted his eyes against the sun. The sea was quiet and empty, dotted only with dancing white-tipped waves. No pirate ships. No ships at all. And the beach was clean of wreckage.
He whipped his T-shirt over his head. Maybe it had another clue. On the label were the words “Dude Duds.” The boy scrunched up his nose. Was that his name? Didn’t sound like a good one. He had to have a name, though, didn’t he? The ocean did, and the trees and sand. Yes, he had a name. But he was sure it wasn’t “Dude Duds.”
Below the words was, “YM 10-12.” Maybe this was his age. His stomach tingled, like he was warm.
He pulled the shirt back over his head and dug his hands into the pockets of his shorts. In one, his fingertips grazed something soft. He drew out a small square and held it up. It was some kind of fabric. Frayed edges and flecks of blue and black. But nothing to tell him who he was. The boy sighed and stuffed it back into his pocket.
The wall of trees loomed behind him, all sorts of green, from very light near the edge, where the sun lit up the leaves, to an ominous black-green deep within the branches. The sand beneath his toes was browny yellow, as though it once was bright yellow but now needed a good wash. And the water was a thousand different shades of blue swaying together like they were all hearing the same silent music.
Was this his home?
Something curdled in his belly, and the boy wrapped his arms around his waist to comfort it. This was not his home. He was sure of that. But how did he get here?
“Hello?” He flinched at the sound of his own voice. It was high and croaky, as though out of a tiny frog. He coughed and felt pinpricks of sand in his throat. He stuck his fingers into his mouth and tried to fish them out, but felt nothing. His tongue was no help either.
“Hello?” he called, still shy but louder than before. This time his voice was high, but singed with a rasp, like the words had been grated over the sand.
Still no answer came. So he tried again, louder, but not too loud.
Nothing. The water’s edge crept toward him, then backed away. The leaves in the trees purred in the slight breeze.
The boy’s jaw tightened. He couldn’t be alone. Not completely alone. There must be someone near, someone who could hear him and would help him get home.
He dug his feet into the sand, bent his legs as a brace, then gathered himself from deep within his body.
An explosion came from the depths of the thick trees. Tiny noises from the movement of every leaf and branch combined into a roar that flew out at him. Riding atop it were the high-pitched squeaks of thousands of birds, upset that their peaceful sleep had been disturbed.
The boy dropped to his knees, his arms protecting his head. He dared a peek and his jaw slackened. The birds rose up from the tops of the trees, so many that they changed the color of the sky. They circled above him, squawking in frightened, angry bursts; then they jetted away, back behind the green wall.
Quiet fell again.
The boy’s arms slacked, shaking by his side.
He had nothing. He knew nothing. Nothing but this beach.
Sand, trees, water. Just sand, trees and water.
There must be something else. Something that could help.
The boy wandered up the beach. One step, two steps, three, four, five. Nothing. No houses or buildings. No people. Nothing to help him know where he was.
Had he walked here or been brought? There were no footprints except the ones he had just made. Had he fallen from the sky? Out of a plane? No. That couldn’t be right. He’d be smashed to bits. He shuddered. So how had he got here? And how was he going to get home?
Maybe if he went farther he’d find some answers. One more step. Just one.
His scream hung in the air. He was frozen. Every inch of him tensed. His arms, legs, entire body was stretched. He tingled from head to foot. He tried to move. To make it stop. But the tremor gripped every part of him. “AAAHHH!” The scream flew out of his throat. Escaped his stiff body.
Then the pain stopped.
The boy slumped. He wriggled his arms, his fingers. Curled his toes. Everything was normal again.
What was that?
Had he stepped on something? Was it something he touched? But there was nothing, just sand—
His body tensed again. Everything shook. His teeth chattered. His knees jogged. His arms trembled. His insides burned.
And then it stopped.
The boy hurried back to the safety of where he had began.
Sand, trees and water.
The boy sighed. There had to be more. But how could he find it? He must have walked into some kind of invisible fence. Something that shocked him. Whatever it was, he couldn’t go there again.
Perhaps there were people in the other direction. One step. Two steps. Three. No sign of anybody. No buildings. No ships. Farther. He had to go farther. One step. Two steps. Three.
Ahead, the sand turned black. No, it wasn’t sand. It was rock. Hard, rough rock. The boy lifted his bare foot. No good for rocks. He couldn’t go there.
The sea. Could he swim? He walked to the edge. It was cold on his toes. He stepped in. The water lapped against his ankles. He stepped again. It kissed his shins. Again. It tugged at his knees. Pull. Pull. It wanted him to go in. It wanted to take him down. Beneath the surface.
The boy ran back to the dry sand. His heart pounded.
There was only one more place to go. The green wall. Perhaps that’s where he had come from. Perhaps that’s where his answers hid. Behind those leaves. In the blackness.
Could that be his home?
The boy took a deep breath. Stepped closer. Peered inside.
The green wall twitched. Leaves rattled.
Something was in there.
Something that didn’t want him close.
The boy ran back to his place in the sand.
“Slow heart. Slow,” he whispered.
Sand, trees, water. There was nothing else.
At least, nothing good.
The sun squatted in the sky, watching. The boy caught the sun’s stare and tried to return the gaze—maybe it knew where his home was—but the brightness hurt his eyes.
He sat, the squishy, sinking feeling of the sand comforting him.
He couldn’t go down the beach. He couldn’t go in the water. He couldn’t go in the trees.
But he had to find out who he was. He had to find his way home.
Or maybe he didn’t. Other people must be close. He couldn’t have been here alone. He couldn’t. He was just a boy. If he stayed where he was, they would find him.
“Once upon a time, there was a boy who was lost. And the brave king of the country saved him.” The words danced passed the boy’s lips and lifted his heart.
The boy jumped up. Whirled around.
“Who said that?” His own voice was timid, quiet. He scanned the beach, left and right. Gazed over the water, up and down. Peered into the thick trees.
He frowned. Maybe he had imagined it. A bird squawked overhead. Must have been the birds.
He dropped back onto his bottom, digging his toes in the sand. Someone had to come soon. They had to.
‘You’re just going to sit here?’
The boy jumped up again. “Who said that?” He turned in every direction, strained his neck to see as far away as possible. But the voice wasn’t coming from far away; it was right next to his ear.
‘You don’t really think someone will come along and rescue you, do you?’
The voice was so close. It could probably hear the boy’s pounding heart. He tried to slow it.
“They might.” The boy eyed the shadows of the trees on the sand. Maybe the voice was from the hissing monster, hiding behind a thick trunk. If a shadow moved, the boy could run.
‘Not very brave to just sit here, though.’
A branch bounced. A bird flew away. The monster must be near. A glint behind a leaf. Was that its teeth? Its eyes?
The boy crouched down stiffly. He felt for a stone or rock, something to throw. His fingers found nothing but sand. He filled his fist with the grains.
“I have to stay.” He tried to keep his voice calm. “If I leave, they won’t find me.”
‘That’s not why you want to stay. You’re too scared to do anything else.’
“No, I’m not.”
‘Yes, you are.’
“No, I’m not!”
‘Yes. You are.’
“NO!” The boy sprang up and threw his fistful of sand into the leaves. The grains fell through the branches, tink tink tink onto the ground. No monster rushed out. Nothing moved.
“Come out.” The boy stepped back from the green wall. “Come out,” he whispered.
The leaves were still. The whole beach was quiet. Not even a breeze disturbed the peace.
‘If you’re looking for me, you’re way off.’
Was it coming from behind him? The boy twisted on his heel.
“Where are you?” His hands thumped his sides.
‘I’m in here.’
The boy’s breath faltered. He dropped onto the sand.
“You’re in … my head?”
‘Bingo. Gold star for the slowpoke.’
The boy pursed his lips. His shoulders drooped. His only company was a voice in his head—and it was mean.
“Rrrrrrr.” The noise rumbled in the boy’s throat. Lying on his back in the sand, he flew his hand across the sky. If he dreamed of an airplane, maybe one would come and rescue him.
The sun had walked halfway across the sky, and the boy still had no answers. But something tugged at him, something he was supposed to do.
He hadn’t eaten. He hadn’t even felt hungry, or thirsty. 10-12-year-old boys were supposed to eat and drink, weren’t they? But he hadn’t needed either—until he thought of them. The craving crashed over him, raced from his toes to his mouth.
“Food!” he said. “I should eat and drink.”
He pushed himself up to his feet. “Where can I find food?” His brain gave him the answer: A refrigerator.
The boy’s mouth split into a thin smile. In front of him stood a large white box, taller than him. He pulled open the door and cold air rushed into his face, stilting his breath. He blinked, and his smile widened. Inside, a light shone on shelves upon shelves of food and drinks, a multi-layered showroom of edible goodies. Pizza, turkey, cheese, milk, Coke. He reached out to grab a big bowl of shimmering bright red Jell-O—and the refrigerator disappeared. His fingers clasped around air. His smile melted.
A grumble echoed in his belly, and the boy muttered, “I know. I know.” He pressed down on his stomach to shut off its complaining.
‘You didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?’ the bully asked.
“I can find something.” The boy pouted.
‘Do it then.’
The boy wasn’t as sure as he pretended, but he straightened his shoulders anyway.
Nothing on the beach seemed appetizing. There was nothing to eat in the sand, and he didn’t want more annoying grains between his teeth.
He peered into the edge of the ocean. No fish. At least, none close enough for him to catch. He couldn’t let the tide drag him under.
He could drink, though. He cupped his hands, brought the water to his lips and coughed. He scrunched up his mouth. Salty. Yucky. And now more grains of sand were in his teeth. Ugh.
Only one place held promise for food and drink, but it made the boy’s heart drop.
Gingerly, he turned toward the green wall. It was so tall, he wouldn’t be able to see over it even if he could jump a hundred feet high. It was so deep, he’d be swallowed up after five steps … no, three.
And the monster…. The hissing monster. What did it look like? Big? Yes. Bigger than him. Three times bigger than him. Covered with black fur. Like a giant bear, but with the head of a wolf. It was in there. Behind those leaves. Behind the boy’s only chance for food.
His stomach grumbled. But he didn’t move. He stared at the green wall. Deceptively peaceful. Lying to him that it was safe. Waiting for him to get close.
‘Don’t be a baby.’
“I’m not a baby.” The boy crossed his arms.
‘It’s just a bunch of trees.’
The boy opened his mouth to say it wasn’t. To tell the bully about the monster. That it was in there. That it was watching him. But the bully wouldn’t believe him.
He bit his lip. He did need to eat.
Maybe the monster was asleep.
Pulling a tiny bit of courage from where it was hiding, the boy stepped closer to the wall, stopping about three feet away. Crackles, snaps and pops emanated from the dense growth, like evil cereal calling out, “Come, eat us,” only to eat him instead.
A glint from a big oval leaf caught the boy’s eye. Taking a deep breath, he edged nearer. Water had collected in the green cup, rainwater. Would it be salty too? He dipped in a finger and licked it. No. The water was good. He drank from the leaf, careful not to spill any drops. The cool liquid slinked down his throat, and he grinned. Now to find food.
Keeping a watchful eye on the trees, the boy searched the line where the grass that crept out from beneath the green wall met the sand. It was as close as he wanted to be — far enough that he could run if the monster pounced.
Clumps of green stuck up between tiny yellow dunes. Gray roots like thick, knobby veins weaved around the grass and sand, diving beneath the surface and reappearing a few inches away.
The curve of one root cradled a small, round ball, like a big grape. It had a leathery, purple skin, but part of it had been eaten away. Inside was a brown pit surrounded by a layer of pink jelly. “A bird ate this,” the boy whispered, picking it up for a closer look. “If it’s okay for the birds, it must be okay for me.”
‘I don’t know. You’re the genius who can find food on your own. Why don’t you try it? If it’s poisonous, you’ll figure it out quickly enough.’
“Poisonous!” He said the word too loudly. But the green wall stayed silent. Nothing moved. He turned back to the grape things, whispering, “You think so?”
‘I’ve been here as long as you have. How should I know? I guess the question is, how hungry are you?’
The boy’s stomach grumbled again. Maybe it knew something his head didn’t, that these grape things, sea grapes maybe, as they were by the sea, were fine for people. They looked all right. In fact, they looked like they might be nice.
“I think they’re perfect,” the boy whispered, slapping his doubt away.
The boy found more grapes, not bitten. He picked up a round, juicy one and carefully wiped the sand off its skin. He brought it to his lips, but a thought stopped him. Maybe bugs had crawled on it. He rubbed it hard on his T-shirt, cleaning off any invisible bug prints.
His teeth sunk through the flesh and the sweet jelly swam over his tongue. He spun the hard pit so his teeth could scrape off every last piece.
‘Not poisonous then.’
When he was done, he spat the pit in the grass and threw away the skin. He scoured the ground for another.
The boy dropped onto his knees. The sound shook the beach. He slammed his hands over his ears. But it was too late. It had crawled inside his brain. Never ending.
He curled into a ball. His arms protected his head. Squeals and squawks echoed through his ears. Creaks and cracks as the green wall tossed and tumbled.
The boy opened one eye.
It was there.
Standing in front of him. Hunched on its two back legs. So tall, its shadow shrouded the boy.
Black hair tinged with gray ruffled in the wind. Muscles twinged under its dark skin. Ears twitched at every noise. A scar weaved across its face. The monster had fought before. And it had won.
Long, shining claws. Ragged from destroying prey. Yellow teeth. Sharp. Dripping with drool. Red eyes. That glowed. And stared through the boy.
“No. No. Please,” the boy whimpered.
The monster clenched it fists. The sun glinted off its stretched-out claws.
It strode to the boy. Two long strides and its giant head was inches away. Its nose was cold and wet. Its breath lashed across the boy’s face. Hot and sticky, with the smell of death.
Tears stuck in the boy’s throat. He shivered. Closed his eyes. Held his breath.
And the wind died down. The roar dissolved.
The warmth of the sun stroked his back. The boy opened his eyes. Lifted his head. He was alone on the beach. The tide drifted in and out. The leaves of the green wall shuffled calmly. Birds floated lazily above.
Cautiously, the boy stood and turned. Had it gone back to sleep? Was he safe? He stared at the trees, but couldn’t see the hair or eyes or claws.
He felt something beneath his foot. A sea grape. Food. He picked it up, and another. He piled up the hard sea grapes, as many as he could fit in his shirt, then ran away from the green wall. Back at his safe spot in the sand, he sat and dug in.
As his teeth scraped and scraped and the jelly slid down his throat, the boy watched the leaves. The monster must be behind them. Hiding. He’d have to be careful.
Above, higher in the trees, branches hung over the sand, covered in big broad green leaves, like circles almost, with light green veins fanning out from a center line to the edges. They cradled thick bunches of sea grapes.
The boy’s mouth crinkled. “At least I found food.”
After a few bites, the boy popped sea grapes like popcorn. As his teeth scraped and his throat swallowed, his mind wandered.
He counted all the things he could remember: twenty-six, more if he included colors. What other things were in his brain that he hadn’t discovered yet? He poked. He prodded. He begged his brain to tell him something about who he was. But nothing came.
He needed a nudge….
A scuffling noise behind him made the boy jump, and he dropped a half-eaten sea grape in the sand. Turning, he saw movement near a small rock and froze.
Could it be his rescuer? Someone to save him? To take him home?
Was it the monster?
The scuffling turned to a scraping. Next to the rock, grains of sand flipped into the air making a tiny yellow fountain. The boy shuffled backward and stared.
A crab, no longer than the boy’s finger, kicked at the ground. It was so pale in color, it almost blended in.
The boy knelt closer, his fingers and toes curled beneath him, and watched. The fountain sprayed higher as the crab’s legs clawed the sand, trying to lift its body. The pincers snapped at the air. The boy kept his distance.
“Aren’t they creepy looking?”
The boy swung around. The voice. It wasn’t the bully in his head. It was older, softer. A woman.
“It’s a crab, a sand crab, I think. There are different kinds.”
No one was with him. He was still alone. So where was the voice coming from?
“They walk sideways, kiddo. Did you know that?” This voice was deeper. A man. “And those pincers are for protection. The smaller it is, the more protection it needs.”
The boy sat back on his heels and closed his eyes. The voices were familiar. He played them again and again. Other sounds floated around them. Children shouting, people laughing, feet shuffling.
His eyes snapped open. “My parents?”
Parents. Of course, he had parents. Parents who loved him. Parents who took care of him. And sometime before, they had taken him somewhere, shown him a crab. But where were they now? Were they looking for him?
The sound of shifting sand drew his attention. The crab had pushed away a pile of grains but was still standing by the rock. The boy looked closer. It was trapped. One of the crab’s legs was lodged under the rock.
The boy thought of the man’s—no, his father’s words: “The smaller it is, the more protection it needs.”
The crab needed his protection, his help. “It won’t hurt me,” the boy whispered.
The boy frowned. “I have to try.”
He stretched out his hand but quickly pulled it back when the crab’s pincers came dangerously close.
‘Watch out! Those things will hurt.’
He wanted to run. But he couldn’t leave the crab.
“Once upon a time,” the boy whispered, “there was a boy who laughed at crab bites and saved all the crabs in the land.”
“Hi,” he said to the crab. His voice wavered, but he tried to keep it calm. “I can help you.”
He crawled around, away from the pincers. Carefully, he picked up the rock and put it beside him, opposite his tiny companion.
The crab turned to the boy and raised both its pincers, but they didn’t snap. The crab just stared at its rescuer. And the boy stared back.
“You’re free,” he said.
The crab’s eye twitched.
Dancing sideways, it came closer to the boy. He stiffened, and the crab froze too.
Once upon a time. The boy relaxed a little.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I didn’t know what you were going to do. You’re not going to pinch me, are you?” He smiled. “You could be my friend. If you want.”
‘Friends with a crab?’
“He’d be nicer than you.”
The crab peered at the boy… then skittered into the ocean.
Alone again. Fear crept into his throat. The sky was on fire. The sun was waving goodbye. In a few minutes, everything would be black. And the boy didn’t have anywhere to hide.
‘What you going to do now?’
“I don’t know.”
‘You’d better think fast.’
Wind picked up. Whistling through leaves. Plowing giant ripples across the dark ocean. Gone was the quiet, timid sea. It swelled, as though a monster had awakened just beneath the surface and was ready to break through.
And soon, very soon, the boy wouldn’t be able to see where that monster was.
He turned toward the green wall. Was the hairy monster gone? Could he sleep among the leaves and trees? But as stars twinkled overhead, eyes gleamed within the depths of the trees. Shadows shifted. Rustling and hissing echoed through the leaves. The boy imagined a thousand creatures with sharp teeth and a taste for young boy—watching, waiting.
He slumped on the sand, trying to calm his wild heart. He had nowhere to go, nowhere he could be safe.
Then an idea bumped into him. Pirates. They hid in caves. He had read about pirate caves. That’s where they put their treasure. He didn’t have a cave. But maybe he could make one, at least one where he could hide.
He dug his hands deep in the sand, pushing the grains aside. Again. And again. Finally, he had a hole deep enough for him to curl into.
As the last glimmer of light drained from the sky, the boy pulled sand around him, covering as much of his body as possible.
‘You think this will keep you safe?’
The boy closed his eyes. His breath came fast. He curved his hand into an O and rubbed the side of his finger along his lips, the softness soothing him.
“It has to,” he whispered. “It has to.”