Chapter 1: Back to Dewees Island
CHAPTER 1 Back to Dewees Island
THIS WAS GOING TO BE the best summer ever!
I stood at the bow of the ferry plowing along the Intracoastal Waterway. My hands clutched the ferry railing as the salt-scented sea air cut through my hair. I was on my way back to Dewees Island! My heart raced as fast as the big boat engines below, whipping the water into a frothy wake.
To my right I spotted a small motorboat gaining on the double-decker ferry. I hurried to the side, and shading my eyes from the sun’s glare, I squinted and saw a girl with a long blond braid driving the boat. My mouth dropped open.
“Lovie!” I shouted, and waved my arm overhead.
The girl turned and tooted the boat’s horn. Then, with a smile, she gunned the engine. I laughed out loud as she sped past the ferry and soon became a small dot in the distance. Lovie only had one speed—fast.
Seeing her buzz by in her boat, I couldn’t wait to get out on a motorboat again, to feel the wind push back my hair, or kayak on a lazy, slow-moving creek, or swim in the wild waves of the ocean, feeling the sun on my face. I couldn’t wait to do my chores in the golf cart! Most of all, I couldn’t wait to see my friends.
We had all promised to stay in touch during the school year, but it was hard when you lived in different cities and had different schedules. When I did try to text them, I didn’t know what to say. It felt so awkward. Macon and I did meet up online sometimes to battle together in our favorite video games. But when Lovie sent a text—which wasn’t often—our messages went like this:
Lovie: How was school? My day was B O R I N G
Me: Yeah. Same.
Lovie: Ok. TTYL
But still, I missed them. And I wouldn’t have to wait long to see my friends in real life!
The ferry slowed in the No Wake zone as the trees grew larger and the dock drew closer on Dewees Island. A cluster of people stood waiting at the dock. It was easy to spot Fire Chief Rand towering over everyone else with his broad shoulders and red hair. Next to him, my grandmother, Honey, looked tiny. Her white hair was longer, pulled back in a ponytail. They were holding up a large sign with bright red letters: WELCOME HOME ERIC AND JAKE!
Then I saw my fellow Islanders—Macon and Lovie—waving madly, jumping up and down and calling out “Jaaaaaaake!”
I spun around and raced down the stairs from the top deck, my feet rattling the metal stairs. I stopped abruptly at the door and scoped out the main cabin through the foggy window. A woman sat with her small dog in her lap. Two construction workers were looking at their phones. An elderly couple sat talking in low voices. My gaze zeroed in on my dad. He sat on the bench with his shoulders ramrod straight in military style and looked out the window. His good leg was bent at the knee, but his prosthesis was stretched straight out in front of him. You couldn’t tell the leg was artificial by looking at it under his pants, but I knew. “Prosthesis” is a big name, but my dad said it’s just a fancy name for a fake leg. I looked at his hands. They lay flat on his thighs, but his fingers were tapping. That was my clue he was nervous. I took a breath and pushed open the door.
“Hey, Dad, everyone’s here to greet us!” I shouted as I ran up to him. “They even made a sign.”
My dog, Lucky, leaped to his feet at seeing me. His tail wagged, he panted, and his eyes were bright. I could always count on Lucky for excitement.
Just like I could count on my dad for being sad. Mom said he was trying really hard and that we had to encourage him. And I do. The pressure at home was one of the reasons I was super glad to be going back to Dewees, where I could just hang out with my best friends.
“Yeah, I see them,” Dad said, turning from the window, then pushed out a smile. “Looks like your friends can’t wait to see you again.”
“And your friend, too,” I replied, trying to make him feel as excited as I was. Fire Chief Rand and my dad had been friends on Dewees since they were kids.
As the boat eased into position at the dock, the other passengers all rose at once and began collecting their bags. I knew my dad would wait until the boat stopped rocking and everyone else had left before he stood up. He didn’t like having anyone behind, rushing him.
I walked on one side of my dad as he made his way off the boat, pausing at the six inches of air space between the edge of the dock and the rocking boat. Sometimes, something small can feel very big.
“Need some help?” the mate asked.
I cringed. My dad hated to be asked if he needed help.
Suddenly Lucky leaped with joy across to the dock with ease. He stood on the dock and looked back at us, tail wagging, like he was saying, It’s easy! What are you waiting for?
Dad chuckled and shook his head. “Nope, thanks.” He boldly stepped across the opening.
I paused and thought to myself, I’m back. From the moment I stepped off the boat, I felt I was in another world. The noise faded away. No sounds of city life. Instead of packed neighborhoods, congested roads, and busy shops, I saw trees, acres of green cordgrass, and water everywhere. It felt like all my worries were whooshing out with the deep breath I released, like a balloon fizzing out.
I gave Lucky a pat, and we followed Dad down the wooden dock. Dad kept his shoulders straight and walked at a good pace, but he had a tilted gait. Not a limp as much as a sway when he favored the left leg. I wanted to run but stayed with him.
When we made it to the end of the dock, everyone was clapping and laughing. Honey was even crying. It was only the beginning of June, and already Honey was so tan it made her blue eyes shine like the sky above. They were the same blue as my dad’s, except hers seemed to sparkle like the water around us. Honey began hugging me so tight I could barely breathe.
“Dear boy, I was counting the days, and now you’re here,” she exclaimed.
I pretended to compare my height to hers, moving my hand from the top of my head to over her head. “This year, I’m definitely taller than you.” How tall I was getting was always the icebreaker between us when she visited our house.
“And so you are,” she replied, stepping back and letting her eyes sweep over me like a scanner cataloging every change. I did the same. Honey had lost some weight in a good way and seemed more fit in her usual khaki shorts and Turtle Team T-shirt.
Honey shook her head with a rueful smile. “You’re getting taller and I’m getting shorter. That’s the way it works.” She grinned ear to ear. “I just can’t believe I have my best boys together for the summer!”
With that, she turned to my dad, opening her arms to him. I stepped aside. Dad was her only child, and she doted on him. Honey had a hard time when he was injured last year, especially so soon after she lost my grandpa.
Suddenly arms grabbed me and squeezed so tight I could barely speak.
“What took you so long, bro?” Macon asked as he released me.
Talk about getting taller! I looked up at my friend, and I mean up. Macon had grown maybe four inches since last summer. And what was that growing over his lip?
“Dude,” I said, pointing to his lip at a line of black fuzz. “Is that a mustache?”
Macon shrugged and self-consciously wiped his hand across his mouth. “It’s nothing.”
“You could say that again,” Lovie said with a laugh. “Now, my turn!” She lunged forward to deliver a hug. Then she reached over to wrap one arm around Macon in a group hug. “This is so awesome to all be together again!”
“Personal space,” Macon said, trying to gently wiggle free.
Lovie’s face flamed, and she dropped her arms and bent to hug Lucky, who was super happy for anyone’s attention.
Lovie had changed, too, since last summer, but I wasn’t exactly sure how. Her long yellow braid was the same, and her eyes were still as blue as the ocean on a sunny day. Maybe she was taller. And her brown freckles seemed brighter than I remembered. Something was making her look older. She glanced up at me, flashing her bright smile. My cheeks burned, and I felt awkward not knowing what to say.
Thankfully, I heard Honey calling my name. I turned to see the grown-ups gathering our luggage and heading toward the long line of golf carts parked beside the wooden boardwalk.
No cars were allowed on Dewees. Or stores. This island was a nature sanctuary, and the people living here took care to protect it. No one more than my grandmother. She was one of the very first to move onto the island and took every opportunity to remind folks of that. I saw her walking toward the shabbiest-looking golf cart in the row. A Turtle Team sticker dominated the left corner of the windshield.
“Let’s all stop off at the Nature Center first,” Honey exclaimed. “I have a little party set out. Nothing much, just some cake and soda. I’m so glad you’re finally here, and I want to show y’all what I’ve done to the place.” She spoke to all of us, but her eyes were on my dad.
“You go on. I’m, uh, not ready for parties yet. I’ll head to the house, if you don’t mind,” Dad said. “I’ll get settled in.”
I winced. My dad didn’t like parties or attending events ever since the war, and I could tell by his tense smile that he was uncomfortable being away from home. It was as though every new place he went was a series of tests he had to endure.
Honey’s smile fell, but she hoisted it back in place. “Oh… of course. I can show you the Rec Center later.”
Chief Rand plopped my duffel bag into the golf cart. “Y’all go ahead,” he boomed in a cheery voice. “I’ll take Eric to the house. It’ll give us a chance to catch up. We’ll take my cart.”
“I’ll save you both some cake…,” Honey offered.
“All right. See you guys later,” Dad said, and turned to walk toward Chief Rand’s cart. He met my gaze. “See you later, son.”
Macon, Lovie, and I exchanged glances. I narrowed my eyes as I watched Honey head toward her golf cart without another word.
Macon stepped closer and said in a low voice, “Hey, how’s your dad doing?”
I shrugged, feeling my defenses going up even with my best friend. “Oh, he’s okay. He just gets tired easily.”
“Let’s go to the Nature Center,” Lovie said, bringing cheer back to the conversation. “You’ve got to meet Pierre.”
Pierre stared back at me from his large tank. The diamondback terrapin stood on his hind legs, his front legs clawing at the glass. He looked to be the size of my hand, with a brown shell and gray speckled skin.
“Look closer,” Lovie said, by my side. “See the black line along his beak?” She giggled.
“Hey, he has a mustache,” I said, turning to look at Macon. “Just like you!”
“Ha, ha. Very funny,” Macon replied, putting his nose up to the turtle tank for a better look. “The sign on his tank says they are the only turtle species to live their entire life in the salt marsh.” Macon straightened. “That’s a cool fact.”
“You should feed this guy,” I told Honey. “He acts like he’s starving.”
“Oh, he’s just being Pierre,” Honey said with a wave of her hand as she walked closer. “I just fed him a few periwinkles and insects. He always bangs on the glass like that. He just likes the attention.”
Lovie looked up. “I thought turtles didn’t like to be held.”
“They don’t,” Honey agreed. “They prefer to be left alone, like Shelley over there.” She guided us to a separate aquarium, where another turtle, all brown, sat on a rock, her nose to the corner. It looked like she wanted to stay far away from us… and Pierre. “Pierre has a crush on Shelley, but she’s a mud turtle and wants nothing to do with him. She snaps at him if he gets too friendly.” Honey sighed dramatically. “Our Pierre is just a lover.”
“Oh, that’s so sad,” Lovie said, and bent to look closer at the turtle. “I’ll be your friend.”
I gazed around the Nature Center. It felt fresh and new, with posters of local animals and birds and several shelves of books all neatly categorized. There was even a section for Dewees Island T-shirts, ball caps, and mugs. Next to the merchandise display hung a big cork board decorated with a summer activities calendar and a local news section. On it were pinned newspaper clippings and photos of Dewees residents out and about doing island things. What caught my eye was the front of the Post and Courier newspaper tacked dead center to the board. The headline read:
LOCAL TREASURE HUNTER FINDS GOLD COIN ON DEWEES ISLAND
Beneath the headline was a close-up photo of an old man’s wrinkled hands holding a dark, dirty coin with specks of gold shining through the grime and sand. Not taking my eyes off the article, I hollered for my friends.
“Hey, guys! Check this out!”
Lovie and Macon leaned in to see what I was reading.
“A gold doubloon!” Macon yelled as he started unpinning the newspaper clipping from the board. He read sections out loud.
Harold Maynard, a resident of Dewees Island, walks the beach daily with his metal detector, hunting for lost items in the sand. Today he made a rare find buried slightly beneath the sand: a gold coin the Vietnam War veteran believes was unearthed by the storm system that pounded the coastline this week. Local historians said Maynard’s find could be a coin long buried by the famous pirate Blackbeard. Maynard said, “I like to believe there’s a lot more treasure hidden out here on this little island. I won’t stop looking, either.”
“So, you found out about Mr. Maynard’s discovery?” Honey said, walking closer. “That’s been the talk of the island.”
“When did he find it?” asked Macon.
“Take a look at the date on the article,” she replied. “Get the facts, children.”
“April twenty-sixth,” said Lovie, her nose close to the newspaper clipping. She turned to face us, eyes wide. “That was just five weeks ago.”
We all looked at one another in silent amazement for a few seconds. Then an idea burst out of me.
“We’ve got to find that treasure!”