Edward Barrett turned to face his niece. She was sitting on a towel in the sand beside his beach chair, hugging her knees and watching the rolling blue ocean. For a moment Edward imagined he was looking at his younger sister Jessica, forty years ago. Little Suzie had the same dark hair and green eyes. “What is it, Suze?”
“Mom says we have to leave tomorrow.”
“I know. It’s been good having you both here.”
She stayed quiet a moment. “Isn’t that the same beach chair you had when I was a little girl?”
“You’re still a little girl.”
“I’m eleven,” she said.
“That’s true. I sit corrected.” Edward raised his head and studied the worn chair he was sprawled on, in his cutoff jeans and T-shirt. “Since I only have one beach chair, I guess this is it.”
“Why don’t you get a new one?”
“Because I like it.”
“I liked our old car,” Suzie said, “but I’m glad Mom bought us another one.”
Edward nodded. “The women in our family are wise beyond their years.”
She seemed to be about to say something else, probably on that subject, when her eyes widened. “I almost forgot!” She dug around in her pocket and thrust her hand out. “Look at this.”
In her palm was an old brass medallion the size and thickness of a silver dollar. A leather cord was threaded through a hole at one end, and on the rust-colored face was the embossed outline of a guitar.
“I found it on your dresser,” she said. “Where’d you get it?”
He gave her a stern look. “What were you doing, snooping around in my bedroom?”
“Investigating. I’ve been reading mystery novels.”
“Is that so.” He took the medallion from her and examined it. “Well, no mystery here, Sherlock. Not even an interesting story. To answer your question, this was given to me by a friend.”
“A long time ago.”
She grinned. “In a galaxy far, far away?”
“Why’d your friend give it to you?”
Edward shrugged. “He wanted me to have it, he said. He traveled a lot, and didn’t have much family.” Needlessly, he added, “He was a good friend.”
Both of them fell silent. Finally Suzie asked, “Where’d he get it?”
“That,” Edward said, “is an interesting story. And a mystery too, in a way.”
She gripped her knees tighter. “Tell me.”
He looked up at the sun, low now in the sky. “It’d take too long.”
“I’m safe until Mom calls me for supper,” she said.
“Okay. But first, some background.” Edward picked up a clod of dirt and tossed it at a gray crab ten feet away. “Allen—my friend—was sort of a wanderer, which is a nice way of saying he couldn’t hold a job. We both grew up in Tennessee, but he wound up moving to Florida, to supposedly find his fortune. He was one of those people who made a lot of mistakes—he drank too much, gambled too much, spent what little money he had on dreams of hidden oil fields or miracle-drug remedies or buried treasure. Finally, back in the late nineties, when he was maybe forty years old, he decided to leave the country. He borrowed a little sailboat from a pier in Key West—”
“Stole it, you mean?”
“Probably. And set off for Cuba, of all places. He didn’t know the ocean, but he knew where the North Star was, and a couple others, and figured that’d be enough.”
“But it wasn’t?” she said.
“No. The sky stayed cloudy for the next week, and with no stars or sun to guide him, Allen somehow missed Cuba completely, no small feat, and after ten days his food and water were gone and he was lost. Truly lost, and dying of thirst. Then a storm came and swamped his boat, and he figured he was a goner. Would’ve been too, except something—whatever the force is that seems to look out for fools and drunks—washed him up on a beach in the middle of nowhere. When he woke up he was lying on his back in the surf, looking up at a man sitting in the sand beside him.”
“A man?” Suzie said. “Who was he?”
“That’s what my friend Allen wanted to know,” Edward said, and looked at her. “That’s the beginning of my story.”