Alan loves the beach. More than a weekend respite, it is his home, his refuge, his sanctuary. And for most of the year, he strolls the sand in blissful solitude, letting nature—and no one else—touch him. But spring has given way to summer, and soon, the annual invasion of vacationers and tourists will subdivide the beach with blankets, umbrellas, and chairs, depriving Alan of his privacy and seclusion—the fundamental touchstones of his life.
Resigned to endure another seasonal onslaught of beach-goers, Alan believes there is nothing he can do but prepare for the worst.
But fate has other plans.
Delivered to him on the crest of a rogue wave, the strange object appears to have no purpose, no practical use—until Alan accidentally discovers what waits inside. Now he must attempt to unravel an ageless mystery, unaware that the final outcome will change his life, and the beach, forever.
The breeze was too warm for a sweater and the water too cold for swimming.
Useless weather, he thought. Good for nothing.
The mild transition between spring and summer didn’t appeal to Alan. He was already missing the winter seas and the raw, wet air that hurt your lungs if you drew it in too fast. In spite of his disfavor with the calendar, he still had the beach and today it was just the way he liked it—empty, not another soul for as far as he could see. The beach was his church, and he worshipped best alone.
He walked at a slower gait than usual, taking it all in, knowing that within a few weeks the crowds would return, littering the sand with their ice cream wrappers and cigarette butts, and contaminating the clean, salty air with the ear-stench from a hundred black and silver boom-boxes bought on sale from the local drug and notions.
Several summers ago he had tried to teach them, to show them how their seasonal invasion—their thoughtlessness and stupidity—was damaging the beach and the wildlife that lived there. They had responded with blank expressions and glassy-eyed indifference, some arrogantly turning up their radios to drown him out, to push him out of earshot.
As bad as the tourist-filled days were—so bad he never ventured outside in the afternoon—the evenings were far worse. That’s when he found his precious beach wounded and bleeding, the sand punctured with empty beer cans and still-glowing cigar stubs. Even more vulnerable, the higher dunes were frequently left suffocating in tons of grease paper, used Kleenex, and the occasional disposable diaper—damning evidence that raging human scum had fucked his beach.
One night, after trying to diffuse his anger with a fifth of Johnnie Walker Red, he had admitted the truth—if only to himself: He would kill them if he could. Club them with the very same shovel he used to pile up their wretched trash, and then let the birds pick their bones.
He pushed the thought from his mind. They would be here soon enough. Right now, he had the beach to himself, and he would savor the solitude for a couple more days, maybe a week, depending on this useless weather.
Alan was taking his usual late afternoon walk along the shoreline. As he inhaled the salt-laden mist and felt the tightly-packed sand crunch under his feet, he easily imagined the light breeze at his back gently urging him toward a large outcropping of exposed granite at the south end of the strand.
As he covered the final hundred yards separating him from the rocky projection, he slowed his pace. No matter how many times he saw it, he couldn’t help but appreciate the enduring strength of the weather-worn monolith. Dark and craggy, it was an unremarkable monument. But for Alan, its stubborn and defiant stand against the elements gave it character and personality, and he always approached it with a kind of pantheistic reverence.
From there, he would turn and gaze back at his house. At that distance, it appeared as little more than a tiny blue-white dot on the water’s edge. Yet, it was his prize—a small bungalow resting comfortably on a hand-laid stone foundation, its weatherworn base hidden under a thick blanket of ivy and periwinkle.
Alan had waited several years for the property to come on the market. Then using his highly developed skill as a negotiator—the same skill that had allowed him to amass a small fortune and retire early from his job as an independent sales rep—he had paid cash.
Today, his anticipated view of the empty shoreline made the solitary pillar of rock especially inviting. Alan quickly climbed to the flat shelf near the top and leaned against the naturally supportive contour of the stone. Slowly, devoutly, he surveyed the entire beach—his beach. At least, that’s what he told himself. And why not? He did, after all, have an innate appreciation for its serene beauty. And he was all too aware of how it suffered when subjected to the abuses of the ignorant and irresponsible—abuses he would never tolerate if the beach belonged to him.
Alan looked out over the water. “So, what will we discuss today? What secrets will you share with me?” The ocean settled his thoughts and he often talked to it like an old friend, his irrational personification of the sea a telling symptom of intentional self-exile. Since his retirement, he had deliberately distanced himself from personal acquaintances, colleagues, and former business associates, favoring his own company—and voice—to that of others.
Although he seldom had to wait for the waves to answer, today his confidante seemed restless and unsettled. Instead of welcoming him with the relaxing rhythm of a gentle surf, the water was agitated, churning with cross-currents and rip-tides. In the distance, burgeoning thunderheads were rising from the edge of the sea, and unlike the usual white blankets that spent the day playing hide-and-seek with the sky until finally resting on the sun-struck horizon like giant puffs of cotton candy, these intruders were different—threatening harbingers, an assault force from an angered Poseidon.
“Don’t worry,” he assured his anxious friend. “I’m sure they’ll keep their distance.”
His thoughts were well-intentioned, but in the scheme of the universe they were nothing more than idle chatter, and within minutes a dark rumbling umbrella extinguished the sun.
Bright flashes began to light the interior of the boiling cloudbank. In a threatening display of power, jagged razors of blue fire dropped from the sky, blistering the surface of the water.
“Shit. I probably won’t make it back in time to beat the storm.”
His bungalow was nearly a half-mile away, and as he hurriedly jogged along the shoreline, he regretted not being able to enjoy the pleasant, even roll of the surf, its normally soothing turquoise-trimmed waves now a chaotic frenzy of foaming white caps.
The wind arrived with the rain, the fierce gale driving the downpour sideways. As the drops stung his face he cursed his bad luck, slinging insults against the storm—and anyone else who might presume to ruin his day. “I’ll give you a minute or two, that’s all. Then you will move on, leave my beach.”
As if mocking Alan’s pretentious attempt to challenge its dominion, the tempest howled in defiance, stripping sea grape trees of their leaves and wrapping shredded fronds around the sodden trunks of swaying palms.
He looked around for the nearest shelter. There was only his familiar granite megalith some one hundred fifty yards behind him. Although it wouldn’t keep him dry, he could sit out the deluge with his back against the stone, on the side opposite the wind and waves.
As he hunkered in close to the rock he felt the latent warmth of the sun, absorbed from an earlier cloudless sky. Irritated by the sheeting rain streaming down his cheeks, he formed finger tunnels around his eyes and peered through the curtain of water. He recognized the green blur of a plastic chair as it tumbled across the sand.
“Damn storm. It’s crapping all over my beach. It’s got to stop soon, before the trees snap.”
If Alan had ever enjoyed the slightest preference from nature, this torrent confirmed his loss of favor. Unrelenting, the blowing wall of water strengthened in intensity, the whirling gusts clotting the air with saturated grit.
As the swells pushed the storm surge even higher, the huge projection of bedrock could no longer shield him from the reach of the sea. Wet and cold from the breakers that washed up high enough to touch him, he barely felt the bump of something solid against his leg. At first glance he thought it was a small Thermos. But as the receding surf moved it slightly outside his reach, he could see the cylinder-shaped object was covered with unusual markings—quite different from the bright patterns and bold graphics that typically decorated an insulated beverage bottle. He leaned into the wind, grabbing the oddity just before the retreating swells could return it to the ocean.
Even through the rain, Alan was impressed with his catch, the color alone making the object interesting enough to reward him for the reach. As the forces of nature jousted for dominance, Alan imagined how the piece would look on the front porch railing, or among his collection of shells lining the pea-gravel driveway next to his house.
A rogue updraft slapped his face with abrasive fury.
“How much longer is this going to last?”
The answer came quickly. Although he was grateful for the unexpected reprieve from the angry elements, the clouds swift retreat was as suspicious as it was welcome. Alan briefly wondered if his new souvenir was some kind of seafarer’s talisman, granting its possessor the power to change foul weather into fair. The thought was a passing one, and in the time it took to jog back to his house, he had completely dismissed the rapid end of the storm as nothing more than a fortunate rebounding of atmospheric pressure pushing the exhausted thunderheads from the area.
After changing into dry clothes, Alan sat at his dining table to examine his new find. About eight inches high and three inches in diameter, it resembled a small lamp base. But there were no holes or seams from the process of manufacture, and the maker had left nothing that could be opened or twisted free to reveal the interior. One end had been finished with a smooth rounded crown while the opposite was flat, allowing the piece to stand upright.
The material from which it was constructed appeared to be a union of wood and stone, the combination so densely fused that it was difficult to determine which comprised the base component and which was inlaid. Smooth to the touch, the surface was patterned with intertwining ribbons of deep purple and burgundy, the colorful helix forming the unique design that had first caught Alan’s attention as he pulled it from the water.
“It’s just a bauble,” Alan said aloud. “A rich person’s trinket accidentally dropped from a passing yacht. Someone probably paid a small fortune for it, and now I bet they don’t even know it’s gone.”
Alan glanced at his watch. There was still time to get his shopping done before the beach-plundering weekenders took all the good parking spots. He set the object aside, grabbed his grocery list, and headed out for the store.
A visit to the market usually took no more than an hour, but street maintenance on the main thoroughfare had strangled the traffic, stretching the round trip into a two-hour stop-and-go crawl. By the time Alan returned home he was fuming.
“Damn crazy tourists.” Shifting his shopping bags from one arm to the other, he fumbled with his house keys. “This used to be a decent place to live. No traffic, plenty of parking, didn’t have to fight your way down the aisles to get a loaf of bread. Now, it’s overrun with—”
Alan stopped his ranting mid-sentence. His entire kitchen was bathed in rainbow–fused light. More curious than concerned, he tracked the brightly hued beams to their source—his newfound knick-knack. Picking it up, he felt a twinge of excitement as he watched the full spectrum of reflected sunlight dance in concert with the movement of his hand. “Must be some kind of prism,” he said, his focus captured by the hypnotic display of color. “Good juju,” he added, recalling how some of the Haitian street merchants referred to their good luck charms.
“I’ll put it on the deck. That’s where my juju bottle belongs.”
He quickly changed his mind. Someone will see it there and try to claim it.
Although Alan didn’t know exactly what his newfound treasure was or where it came from, he hadn’t gone to all the trouble of retrieving it from the sea only to have some muscle-bound beach bum take it from him.
I’ll keep it in the house, hang it from the main entry beam where it can catch the light for most of the day. Or on the windowsill, to reflect the late afternoon sun. I’ll decide tomorrow.
The next morning brought a clear blue sky and a warm breeze—the kind of weather that always drew people to the seashore. He didn’t want to think about it. Grabbing his light-bending novelty from the kitchen counter, Alan walked out the back door toward an old ramshackle storage shed. Providing minimal protection for a half-empty bag of potting soil and some replacement roof shingles, Alan also used it to store a few tools and some loose hardware.
He welcomed the opportunity to be outside, to be on the beach with purpose. Not to enjoy the tickle of the sun on his skin or to hear the soothing rhythm of the waves, but to revel in the sadistic pleasure of confrontation, to direct his pre-emptive arrogance at them, answering their questions before they could ask: No, you can’t use the bathroom. No, I don’t have any water. No, you can’t use the hose to wash off the salt. And no, I don’t know what time it is.
“Somewhere under the bottom shelf . . .” he mumbled.
Peering into the rusted-out coffee can, he stirred the collection of loose hardware—mostly nuts, washers, and bolts—with his fingers. “It can’t be too big, might split the thing wide open.” Finally locating a few finishing nails, he dropped them into his shirt pocket.
Brushing aside a thick blanket of cobwebs, he began rummaging through an old plastic paint bucket, pulling out a plunger, paint roller, and a broken hacksaw before finding the hammer.
The lack of a decent working area forced Alan to return to his kitchen. He sprawled on the floor. I’ll seat the nail an eighth of an inch or so before driving it deep with a full strike.
Estimating the center of the cylinder’s flat end, he marked it with a pencil, set the nail, and gave it a light tap.
Instead of penetrating, the nail bounced off the surface.
What the hell? Must be hardwood, maybe walnut or cherry.
He brought it up for a closer inspection. Although the nail-point had failed to scratch the finish, the impact had definitely affected its integrity. He could hear a soft hissing, as if the interior had been under pressure and was now equalizing with the ambient altitude.
“Probably been under water a long time. Got to let off some steam.”
Re-positioning the nail, Alan swung the hammer again. This time the strike was solid, with plenty of force. The metallic ping of the nail ricocheting across the floor was suddenly lost to the sound of escaping air. Alan jumped to his feet, concerned the thing might explode or the rush of leaking gas might be filling the room with dangerous—even deadly—fumes.
“Maybe it’s some kind of high-tech fire extinguisher or a CO2 dispenser for making wine spritzers.” It was mere speculation and both possibilities were doubtful, especially since a puncture to either type of pressurized container would have sent the cylinder skittering across the floor.
With no reasonable explanation for its unusual behavior, Alan wanted it out of the house. Grabbing a broom he drew back, preparing to whack it—hockey style—through the open door. He focused on the target.
The sight made him lower his broom.
The object—at least part of it—was moving. As the inlaid bands receded into the base material, the once solid form was rapidly assuming the appearance of a worm-eaten section of turned wood, its metamorphosis leaving it riddled with deep channels and tiny chambers.
No longer able to hear the hissing release of air, Alan concluded that any danger from explosion had passed. He bent down for a better look. It reminded him of a child’s puzzle, with interlocking pieces that could be removed to reveal a secret compartment. But this was clearly no toy. The obvious earmarks of intentional design reflected painstaking workmanship, the intricate symmetry more representative of fine sculpture than something mass-produced in the factories of Beijing.
Alan picked it up carefully and brought it close to one eye, peering into the elaborate maze of cavities and compartments.
“There is nothing inside.” The voice was deep and sure and it came from behind.
Surprised, Alan twisted around on one foot, dropping the honeycombed remains of his juju bottle. It bounced off the floor and flipped up on one end, apparently able to right itself under its own power.
“There was, though not any longer,” the intruder added. “What was once there is now here, standing before you.”
Alan’s first thought was that he’d caught one of the kids from the beach slipping into the house, probably trying to steal something. But this was no kid. And while he knew most of the local panhandlers, this guy didn’t resemble any of them.
“What are you doing in my house?” Alan barked. “You can’t just come in here and sneak up on me like that.”
The stranger’s mouth broadened into a wide smile. “Oh, I beg to differ. I can do exactly that. Actually, there is very little I cannot do.”
His accent was dripping with a British lilt. Maybe Australian. His clothes—neatly-pressed khakis, a pale blue button-down shirt, and brown calfskin loafers—were yuppie-casual yet tailored to precisely fit his six-foot frame. His grooming was impeccable, with neatly trimmed sandy-blonde hair, a clean shave, and movie star teeth. Alan estimated the man to be about thirty-five.
“You need to get out of here before I call the cops. You hear me?”
“Why certainly I hear you. Although it’s a wonder I can still hear anything with all that racket going on. I assumed I was being summoned to a situation of utmost urgency, so I came as quickly as the ether would allow.”
Alan shrugged his shoulders, his rising irritation pushing him closer to picking up the phone and calling the sheriff.
“The ether seals,” the intruder said. “The inscribed stonework that allows my coming and going. The helix is always in motion, sometimes offering the risk and reward of opportunity, other times simply foretelling an unchangeable future.”
Alan knew that some of the “artistic” types occasionally wandered up from as far south as Key West, and a few of them could be eccentric as hell. He decided his best approach was to stay calm and try to get this guy out of his house before he could do any real damage.
“You’re not from around here, are you?”
“Oh, contraire,” the stranger answered. “I am from here . . . and there. In fact, I cannot think of a single place I haven’t been. Places on and off this little sphere on which you live.” He paused, his expression frozen in a flash of blank absence, as if in that fleeting instant he was somewhere else, distracted by another conversation. Then in a moment too short to measure, his attention returned, his features fully animated. “And I suppose you still call this part of your planet, oh, let me see, what was that word?” He pronounced it phonetically, in broken syllables. “Ah . . . mare . . . eee . . . ka.”
“America,” Alan repeated. “We say, America.”
“Yes, yes, that’s it!”
Alan nodded slightly in placation. “So what do you want?” It sounded demanding, and Alan immediately changed his tone, concerned the strange man might be harboring violent tendencies. “I mean, how can I help you?”
“I don’t think you can. That is, I’ve never received help from anyone before. Never needed it. I appreciate the offer. Certainly do. I’m going to take note of it. Make sure you get full credit during the . . . negotiations.”
Alan’s eyes narrowed with building suspicion. The guy was talking in circles, but so far he hadn’t given any indication he was dangerous, just a pain in the ass. He decided to try reasoning with him one more time before calling the authorities.
“Why don’t you tell me why you’re here? And what you want from me.”
“From you? Why, I want nothing from you. At least not right away. Not until we get down to the finer points. And to answer your inquiry as to why I am here, I’m afraid I’ve been presumptuous, and for that I do apologize. For you see, I thought you knew. And here I’ve been going on about this and that, and you have no idea what’s in store . . . for you.” His last words lingered with unnatural duration, echoing through the house, each room answering in turn with a slightly smaller voice.
Alan wondered if the man was a ventriloquist or a magician working on a new act. He’d occasionally seen local street performers trying out new material on tourists, hoping to get feedback. I’ll compliment him on his talent—whatever it is—and then ask him to leave.