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Vincent blinked his brown eyes, groggily adjusting to the early morning light that slipped through the space between the window frame and the frayed vinyl shade. The first thing he heard was the comforting drone of the air conditioner. The second thing he heard was the familiar sound of his brother’s cough.
Kicking off the cotton blanket, Vincent sat up, threw his legs over the side of the twin mattress, and stared at his younger brother lying in the companion bed crammed into the small room. Unmindful of his latest coughing episode, five-year-old Mark still slept. Vincent supposed the kid had to sleep through it if he was to get any rest at all. Mark had been hacking through the night, every night, for as long as Vincent could remember.
Many nights the eleven-year-old would listen in the dark to the coughing coming from the next bed. He was afraid that his brother was getting worse. He resented that Mom focused so much of her attention on Mark. He was angry that he had to help with his little brother when every other kid his age seemed to be out playing without a care in the world. He was relieved that he didn’t have the same condition that afflicted his brother. And then, ultimately, he felt guilty. Why did Mark have cystic fibrosis? Why had Vincent been spared?
The doctor at the clinic had tried to explain it. Some people unknowingly carried the defective CF gene. Both mother and father had to have the gene and pass it on to their baby. Mark had gotten the sickly combination. Vincent had not. It was just the luck of the draw.
Some luck, thought Vincent as he quietly pulled on his shorts. His brother had an incurable disease, his mother was worried all the time, and he hadn’t seen his father since three Christmases ago.
Careful not to make any noise, Vincent stepped gingerly over Mark’s inhaler on the bedroom floor. He couldn’t wait to get to the beach. He hoped he hadn’t missed anything good by not going late yesterday afternoon after the swimmers and sunbathers left. That was the time to go, at the end of the day, the time with the best chance of finding the good stuff. But Mom had to go into work early to cover for one of the other waitresses who’d called in sick and Vincent had to stay with Mark and give him the treatment with the pounder.
Vincent hated the pounder, the electric chest clapper that helped dislodge the mucus that built up in Mark’s lungs. But the pounder was a lot better than the old-fashioned way Mom used to do it, clapping and pounding on Mark’s chest with her fists. Three times a day for twenty to thirty minutes each time. Little as he was, Mark never complained. In fact, he said it didn’t hurt. But Vincent cringed to watch it.
Mom tried to make the time go faster by singing songs with Mark. For Vincent, television was the preferred diversion during the pounding treatments, as much to keep his mind off what they were doing as to distract his brother.
The door to his mother’s bedroom was open, and Vincent stepped though the doorway. A ceiling fan whirred over Mom’s bed, moving around the sticky air. There was only one air conditioner in the small, rented cottage and the boys had it in their room. Mark’s condition demanded it. Vincent supposed that was one plus. Another was the mini-trampoline that lay on the living room floor. Mom had bought that for Mark to jump up and down on to supplement his chest physical therapy, which gave Vincent a chance to play around on it, too.
His mother stirred in her bed and, in her fitful sleep, muttered something that Vincent could not understand. He walked over to the bed. Her blond hair was tangled on the pillow, and there were dark smudges under her eyes left by the mascara she hadn’t bothered to wash off when she got home last night. Jumbled together on the floor at the foot of the bed were white sneakers, denim shorts, and a black T-shirt with the bulldog mascot of The Salty Dog stenciled across the front.
Vincent tiptoed to the dresser and counted the carefully stacked bills that lay on top of the chipped paint. Forty-eight dollars. Hardly worth the night’s work. But that was August in Florida. During “the season,” when Siesta Key was crowded with all the northerners who came down to escape the miserable winters in their home states, a dinner-shift waitress at The Salty Dog could bring home two hundred dollars for serving frosty beers, clam chowder, shrimp poppers, fish-and-chips, and battered, deep-fried hot dogs to the steady stream of customers who came to the informal open-air restaurant.
Mom worked the dinner shift so she could be home with Mark during the day while Vincent was at school. But Mark, already reciting the alphabet and beginning to sound out words, was about to start full days himself. Vincent hoped Mom would keep her promise to work more lunches and, when the snowbirds returned to Siesta Key in November, go back to cleaning houses and condos for extra money so she could stay home with them at night. He didn’t want to admit it to anyone, but it was scary sometimes being home taking care of Mark. Scary and time-consuming and distracting. Vincent’s grades had fallen over the past year, and the teacher had told Mom that, with the material getting harder, he needed more help with his homework.
Vincent was tempted to wake his mother and tell her where he was going, let her know that he was forced to get up so early to get to the beach and see if he could make up for missing yesterday. Instead, he took a pencil and scribbled a note on the back of the envelope that had the bill in it from the telephone company. One of the many bills lying unopened on the cracked linoleum counter. As he headed out, Vincent stopped to strap on his rubber-soled sandals and grabbed the metal detector propped up next to the front door.
Though the air inside his house was warm, the whirring ceiling fans made it bearable. The air that greeted Vincent outside was oppressive, even at this early hour. The heat and humidity enveloped him as he walked down the front steps and onto the road heading toward the beach. He had gone just two blocks when he felt the first trickle of perspiration drip from his temple. By the time he got to the next corner, the back of his neck was wet.
The streets were quiet. Most mornings there would have been a few joggers out, but today it seemed that not even the most devoted wanted to brave the heat. Vincent recognized the haunting cry of a mourning dove, though he couldn’t tell where the eerie coo was coming from. A gecko scampered across the sidewalk in front of him, eager, Vincent supposed, to get off the baking macadam and onto the cooler grass.
Vincent noticed the scattered vacancy signs in front of the rental condominiums and bungalows. August might be a busy time of year at northern beaches but not at Siesta Key. Compared with the winter and spring, summer made a relative ghost town of Sarasota’s barrier island.
For Vincent, August meant that vacation time was over and school would soon be starting again. Next week, to be exact. He felt a lump in his throat as he thought about it. A sixth-grader now, he would be going to the middle school, at the lowest rung of the ladder, with all the seventh- and eighth-graders above him. Vincent was keenly aware that he was small for his age, but at least last year he had been on top of the elementary school heap. Now he was going to be at the bottom. He had heard that middle school was brutal. He didn’t want to go.
He crossed over Beach Road and passed a trash can full of discarded Budweiser cartons and bottles before he stepped onto the white sand. The sand of Siesta Beach was famous, and Vincent was proud of the fact. One year, Vincent knew, Siesta Key had been chosen Best Overall in the International Sand Contest, competing with exotic places like Barbados, Antigua, and the Grand Bahamas for the title. Siesta Key’s sugary sand, composed of billions and billions of tiny crystals, was judged to be the finest and whitest in the competition. Now Vincent scuffed through the prized soft powder and switched on the metal detector.
He had to give it to his mom, he thought, as he swept the detector over the sand. She tried to do the best she could with the money she made. She was always going to garage sales and picking up things he could use. A bike, a skateboard, a tennis racket, a snorkel mask and fins. This metal detector was, with the exception of his bicycle, the sweetest thing she had ever found. She had bought it and put it away and given it to him on his birthday in June, apologizing that it wasn’t brand new. Vincent couldn’t have cared less. All summer long he had been sweeping the beach. Every day was a treasure hunt.
Mostly the giant wand found lost change. Quarters, dimes, and nickels and pennies that Vincent rinsed off in the water of the Gulf of Mexico and stuffed into his pockets until he went into the village and spent them on chocolate ice cream cones at Big Olaf’s or threw them into the empty coffee can on top of the dresser he shared with his brother. The instant money was good, but jewelry was even better. It made Vincent feel like a pirate, finding buried treasure.
So far his summer booty had included a gold cross and chain, a Timex watch, a silver bracelet, and lots of single earrings. One earring had a diamond in it. Gideon had taken him to a jewelry store on the Tamiami Trail and the man there paid fifty bucks for it!
This morning, oblivious to prehistoric-looking pelicans skimming the green water, the gulls pecking in the sand for food, and the cloud-dotted blue sky stretching as far as the eye could see out over the Gulf, Vincent swept the metal detector back and forth over the beach, dreaming of making another great find. The machine sounded off, and Vincent dug beneath the fine grains to uncover a metal comb. He tossed it aside. Next he found a quarter. And then another. He slipped them into his pocket
He made his way up the beach toward the Old Pier, Gideon’s favorite place to fish for pompano and permit. But the old fisherman wasn’t there. Vincent cut in across the beach toward the worn, concrete seawall. He’d found good stuff at the foot of the seawall before, stuff that had been swept in by the tide.
A mound of green and black seaweed lay clumped at the bottom of the wall. Vincent passed the metal detector over it, and the indicator went off. Not relishing the idea of picking up the slimy sea grass, he cast around for something to do it for him. The neck of that discarded beer bottle would do the trick.
Vincent squatted down, inserted the brown glass beneath the seaweed, and pulled back. At first he thought what he saw had to be a fake. He bent down closer. No, it was real, all right. The boy took a deep breath and gagged.
Oh, sick! This was nasty.
Nestled in the prizewinning soft, white sand, a gold ring with glittering red stones gleamed in the morning sun. The ring constricted the finger of a swollen human hand.