“Ouch! I stepped on something sharp ...”
Sienna stopped and looked under her bare foot. A tiny red spot appeared on the heel.
“Shoot, I’m bleeding. I’ll get sand in it.”
“I’m sure you’ll survive,” Richard said, throwing the frisbee across the beach.
Spike barked happily and went sprinting after the pink disc, sending the sand flying around him.
Max and I were walking behind the others. The sun was baking down on me and my three friends (four, if you count Spike). Not a breeze stirred, and behind us the sea was stretched out, greenish blue and completely calm and inviting.
Sienna tried to walk without stepping on the wounded area of her foot. “Could you please help me, Jayden?” she asked, hopping to me on one leg.
I quickly looked down to avoid staring at her suntanned breasts bouncing alluringly under her bikini.
“Sure, you poor thing,” I laughed nervously and gently put an arm around her slim waist.
I thanked heaven that I had been in the chill water just a minute ago. If not, a specific part of my body would undoubtably have celebrated the physical contact with Sienna in a highly inappropriate manner.
“Oh, it stings,” she complained. “I hope we have a Band-Aid in the house. Do we, Richard?”
Richard pushed his glasses up his nose. “I already told you, I don’t know the place any better than you guys. My parents have only been here once, and they didn’t bring me.”
“Speaking of,” Sienna said, “it was really nice of them to let us stay in the cottage for the whole weekend!”
Sienna looked at me. “Did I say something funny?”
“Well,” Richard began, shrugging his skinny shoulders. He looked particularly pale in his tight black swim shorts and his curly hair clinging to his head like a wet cloth. “The thing is, I never really got around to asking them.”
“What? You didn’t just take the key, did you?”
“I kind of did,” Richard smiled, not the least bit embarrassed. “They’ll be in Paris for the week, so they’ll never even know we were here.”
“But … how about the electricity? Was the house just, like, on?”
“I turned on the relay when we got here,” Richard explained. “And I’ll turn it off Sunday night when we leave.”
“The perfect crime,” I added.
“Jesus,” Sienna laughed. “I sure wouldn’t want my parents to catch me doing something like that.”
“Richard’s folks are pretty cool,” I said. “Hey, Richard, you remember when we filled the exhaust pipe of your dad’s Mercedes with snow? We just did it as a joke, but it messed up the engine really bad. It had to go to the shop and everything. He hardly even got mad when he found out we did it.”
“He’s pretty laid back about things like that,” Richard said. “He just … hey, what’s up with Max?”
Sienna and I turned to look back at Max, who had stopped and was staring down at something in the sand. He was the only one of us still wearing his T-shirt. Max was heavy, almost fat, and didn’t really share many similarities with his adorable younger sister. He was also a year older than the rest of us. Max and I had been friends for many years. I really liked the guy, though he could sometimes be moody. He had his good and bad sides to him, just like all of us.
“What’s up, Max?” I called. “Found something cool?”
“Yeah, come check it out!”
We went back. Sienna still had her arm around me, and I could smell perfume and salt water from her skin—although I tried not to notice it too much, as I could already feel a warningly stir in my swim trunks.
“What’s that?” Sienna asked when she saw what Max had found.
“It looks like …” Richard began.
“I think it’s a skeleton,” Max finished. “I just can’t figure out from what animal.”
The trace of a twisted spine and two parallel rows of ribs were protruding from the sand. The tiny white bones were pointing upwards.
“Yuk!” Sienna sneered. “Please don’t tell me that’s what I stepped on.”
“It’s pretty big,” I said. “I’ve never seen a skeleton that size before.”
Spike came running back with the frisbee. The retriever dropped the toy and started sniffing eagerly.
“It smells rotten,” Richard murmured. “Like old fish.”
“Nonsense, a skeleton doesn’t smell,” Max corrected him.
“Spike looks like he begs to differ,” I said.
The dog was investigating the bones with the enthusiasm of a forensic scientist. Then, suddenly, he pulled away and started growling.
“What’s the matter, buddy?” I said, letting go of Sienna and crouched down. I had only very rarely seen Spike bristle before, but he was really upset and didn’t even look at me.
“He doesn’t like the nasty fish skeleton,” Sienna said, crossing her arms. “I don’t blame him.”
“If that’s a fish it has to be at least a dolphin,” Richard interjected.
Max sighed. “A dolphin is a mammal, you goof. Just like whales, turtles and giraffes.”
Richard looked at Max with mild insult. Though he didn’t say anything, I knew what he was thinking. Max and Richard were very different. For the most part, they got on well enough with each other, but it was no secret that I was kind of the link holding them together.
“I don’t care what it is,” Sienna said. “Can’t we just go back to the house and get some lunch? It’s got to be almost one o’clock, and I’m really starving.”
“You have an impressive appetite,” I said teasingly, as I once again put my arm around her, and we ventured on up towards the tough green reeds that grew in the dunes. Richard’s parents’ cottage had appeared between two of the soft hills.
“Hey, just because you’re a girl doesn’t mean you don’t eat three meals a day, you know,” Sienna defended herself. “Besides, I’m still in the growing age.”
“The growing age?” Richard repeated with a grin. “Seventeen? I think you’re kind of done growing at our age.”
“Yeah, the only growing you do now is outwards,” I added.
Sienna counterargued with an elbow to my ribs. “What’s that supposed to mean? Are you saying I’m getting fat?”
“No, no,” I laughed. “I just mean … well …”
“What do you mean, really?” Sienna gave me an arch smile, which made my heart race faster. “Can’t talk your way out of that one, can you?”
It was at that moment I noticed the figure disappearing between the reeds about a hundred yards away. “Did you see that person over there?”
“Right, just change the subject.”
“No, I’m serious, someone just ran behind the dune right there.” I pointed.
“I think I saw him,” Richard said. “A guy in a red T-shirt, right?”
“At least there’s one other living soul out here,” Max said, coming up beside us. He had picked up the frisbee, and Spike was jumping and yelping to get him to throw it. Like the rest of us, the dog had already forgotten the unidentified skeleton.
“Yeah, it’s actually kind of weird that we had the beach all to ourselves,” Richard remarked. “This area is one of the most popular vacation spots.”
“I think it’s just great,” Sienna smiled. “More room for us!”
We approached the cottage and the station wagon, which was parked in the driveway. Max had talked his parents into letting us borrow it for the trip.
The cottage was made of wooden beams and had a tarred roof. On the side facing the sea was a garden door leading out onto a terrace. On the other side was the driveway and the front door. We had come in the morning and had hardly unpacked before heading down to the water.
“What’s up with that thing above the door?” Sienna asked, looking at Richard.
He pushed his glasses up. “It looks like an anchor. I guess it’s adornment.”
“I’ll just get my phone, I left it in the car,” I said, slipping around the house as the others went inside through the terrace door.
When I turned the corner, I was met by a strange sight. The boy in the red T-shirt had dragged the garbage stand in front of the door and was now standing on top of it. He had a small hammer in one hand and was apparently trying to drive a nail into the woodwork.
“Uhm, hi there,” I called. “What are you doing?”
The boy gave a startle. He looked at me with surprise, then jumped down onto the grass. At the same time the front door opened and bumped into the garbage stand.
Richard poked his head out. “Hey! What do you think you’re doing?”
The boy did not intend to answer, he just bolted out the driveway and disappeared behind a row of trees.
Richard squeezed himself out the door and came to me. “Why didn’t you stop him? What the heck was he even doing? Ravage? Does he think it’s Halloween?”
“I didn’t even think to stop him,” I confessed. “I think he tried to put a nail above the door. Look, he dropped this.”
“What’s that? Another anchor …”
We studied the black piece of iron that was shaped like an old-fashioned ship anchor. It was the size of a palm.
“It looks a lot like the one above the terrace door,” I observed. “But why in the world would he want to hang it up here?”
Sienna and Max had joined us.
“I saw him from the window,” Sienna said. “He wasn’t that old, was he? Like ten, maybe.”
“If he comes back for his anchor, we can ask him what he was up to,” I said.
“I really hope he comes back,” Richard sneered. “I don’t like people who think they can just mess with other people’s property like that.”
“Perhaps the anchor means good luck,” Sienna guessed.
“No, you’re thinking of a horseshoe,” Max corrected her.
“You don’t know what I’m thinking of, Max.”
“Sure, it’s really quite simple, since there aren’t really that many options. Boys, makeup or clothes.”
“So what?” Sienna retorted. “At least my best friends aren’t my books.”
“Well, if you ever learn to read, you can borrow one of them. I can probably find an early reader with lots of pictures in it.”
Sienna was about to answer, when I cut her off.
“We didn’t come here to listen to your family squabbles. Let’s go eat. You can finish arguing later.”
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