“What?” Jay moved his feet around in the sand. They were wading in thigh-high water on a sandbar a good distance from shore. The setting sun reflected orange, promising a vivid sunset.
“She’s been watching us since we got out here.” Lee tugged on Jay’s arm.
“Let her look.” Jay nudged a sandy lump, but it was too curved, and he sent his toes exploring in another direction.
“I just want to enjoy this vacation.” Lee pulled harder. “I’m really not in the mood for a confrontation.”
“So ease up. Enjoy the vacation.” Jay removed Lee’s hand from his arm and instead intertwined their fingers. “There.”
But he did look towards shore. The woman was swimming out now, leaving two children and a man playing in the surf. Lee sighed, but he stopped yanking Jay away. The woman approached at a leisurely dog paddle, moving inexorably in their direction.
Finally, she reached the bar and stood up. The water came up to her hips, and she spoke in a nasal twang. “Are you from around here?”
Jay said, “Nope.”
“Dang. Tourists, too.”
“Here’s the thing.” The woman squared her shoulders and braced her hands on her hips. “I’ve been out here with my family all this afternoon. I guess you can see them back there.” She pointed and waited while Jay and Lee observed the man towing both children around in an oversized alligator raft.
Jay said, “Cute kids.”
“We left ours at home with Grandma.” Jay felt something flat and circular under his foot.
“That so?” The woman cocked her head to one side. Neither man spoke. Jay went on probing the shape with his foot. “Listen,” she went on, “We’ve been back and forth across this sandbar a couple of times now. And yesterday, a guy said there’s a sand dollar bed somewhere along in here, but I’m danged if we can find it. I was hoping you’d be locals and know where to look. My little girl’s just dying to see a live one.”
Lee said, “Nope, sorry. We’re from Georgia.”
The three of them looked at each other for a little while. And then Jay said, “But the tide’s been headed out all afternoon. And I think we’re on the far edge of the bar right now. So it could be coincidence…” He let go of Lee’s hand and balanced on one expert foot while he bent up the other knee and snatched a disc from between his toes, “or it could be that the bed’s only accessible at low tide.” He held his find out to the woman.
She opened her mouth to say something, then plucked up the sand dollar without closing it again. She turned it over in her hand. “That’s the real item.” She handed it back to Jay, upside down. “Look at those little feelers.”
“They’re soft,” he told her. He passed the sand dollar to Lee. The woman stood watching them again, not talking.
Taking the sand dollar, Lee said, “If you’ve got something to say, I wish you’d come out with it.”
“Well,” she hesitated another moment and finally asked, “Are we going to bug you if we all come out here? I mean, you got off without your kids and all, and we’re kind of like having the circus over to tea if you know what I mean. But I know my kids would …”
Lee’s sudden barked laugh drew her silence and a raised eyebrow.
“Bring them,” said Jay. “We’re under orders to bring some home, ourselves. I was starting to think we’d be buying them in the shell shop. I’ll see if there are any more good ones or if that was a loner.” Even as he spoke, his toes rubbed up against another flat shell. He nudged a big toe underneath and smiled when the sand dollar flipped up.
The woman shouted, “Come on out!” and then joined Jay’s hunt. She flopped down on her stomach and then dove under. She rose scrubbing salt water from her eyes with one hand and holding up a sand dollar in the other. By the time the husband arrived with the alligator float and its occupants, Jay, Lee, and the woman had dredged up half a dozen more sand dollars between the three of them.
“Look at that!” The little girl took one out of Lee’s hands. She cradled it in her palm. After nearly a minute, she handed it back. “Eewww ! It peed on me.”
All of their hands were stained yellow by the time they had finished excavating the bed and then putting its occupants back when they were through looking. The alligator float was adorned with four or five more that weren’t alive and were therefore viable take-home specimens.
The sun hung low over the water, orange embers making them all into silhouettes even to each other stretched out along the bar. “Oh look at how late it is!” The woman said. “We’ve got to get in. The park closes at sundown.”
“I didn’t know it stayed light this late,” said her husband.
“Neither did I,” said Jay. “Come on. Get your kids back up and we’ll help you tow the float.
The four adults each grabbed a handle, and they left the sandbar together, walking until they had to swim, towing the children safely to shore.
Jessie Powell is the Jester Queen. She likes to tell you about her dog, her kids, her fiction, and her blog, but not necessarily in that order.