Part Twenty: Happy Camper
“The ocean!” Ransom didn’t stop running until he was ankle-deep in the Atlantic. “We made it!”
“You should take off your shoes.” Marcus stopped long enough to do just that, then cuff his jeans.
Ransom waded back and toed out of squelching sneakers, but his grin was unrepentant. Marcus anchored their shirts with his dry shoes while Ransom angled his to dry in the sun.
“Not much here.” Marcus scanned the coast in both directions, but there wasn’t another soul in sight.
“Are you kidding? Ocean!”
“Not much else here.”
“Guess it’s pretty early,” Ransom said offhandedly. “Their loss. We have the coast to ourselves!”
Marcus strongly suspected that Aleff had moved them. They weren’t exactly where—or more likely when—they belonged. Otherwise, there’d be boardwalks, rental cottages, drift fences, and lifeguard towers. Even if this was some kind of nature preserve, there’d be warning signs.
When had the shift happened? Marcus thought back over their morning’s route. Must have been when we left the highway. Or during that last bend before the ocean came into view. Uncle Al’s flare for the dramatic was a given, but he could be subtle when he chose.
So we’re set apart and safe. But why?
Aleff strolled over and propped his hands on his hips. Lifting his face to the stiff breeze tugging at all their hair, he sighed in obvious satisfaction. “Right where I left it.”
Ransom laughed. “It’s not like an ocean’s gonna move.”
“Not without help,” Uncle Al murmured. “Say. How long has it been since you two went for a run?”
Marcus said, “Not since the day before we left.”
Waving casually at the long stretch of beach before them, Uncle Al said, “Be free. Gallop to your hearts’ content.”
“What, now?” asked Ransom.
Marcus frowned. What are you up to?
Aleff ignored the question. “Why are you squandering precious moments? Go on, boys. Have fun!”
Ransom thumped Marcus’s back and took off down the coastline.
With a last long look at Uncle Al, Marcus followed.
It felt good to run. Bare feet on wet sand. Salt breezes ruffling hair. They picked up speed, jumping over piles of seaweed, beached jellyfish, and broken shells. Running through the edges of foaming waves.
Marcus didn’t immediately notice the noise building behind them.
Ransom glanced back and yelped, picking up his pace. Marcus made his own assessment and moved into a protective position behind his friend.
“Where’d they come from?” Ransom yelled.
“They probably live here.”
Hurdling over driftwood, he shot Marcus a wild-eyed look. “Are they dangerous?”
“Nope. I think they’re like us, out for a morning run.”
A moment later, they were overtaken by wild ponies. The herd flowed around them, all flowing manes and spotted flanks. Ransom ran harder, and Marcus matched his pace, trying to keep up with the horses.
“Your uncle is amazing!” laughed Ransom. “How did he know your horses would be here?”
“You’re the one who put wild horses on our list!”
“Oh.” What else could he say? “You’re right.”
They ran for a couple of miles, barely keeping up, gradually left behind.
Marcus finally grabbed Ransom’s arm. “Save some energy for the walk back.”
They watched the horses continue into the distance, then changed course. “Can you believe it?” asked Ransom. “That just happened, right?”
“Yep.” Marcus pointed to the long stretch of beach before them, churned up by the herd’s hooves. “True facts.”
Waves cooled their feet. Seashells bulged their pockets. Salt stood out against tanned skin. And Ransom’s almost prayerful silence put a hopeful tremor in Marcus’s furled wings.
“What?” Ransom asked, eyes narrowing.
Marcus gave up trying to hide his smile. “Your hair is outta control.”
“Yeah?” Finger-combing only made matters worse. “Thought I’d grow it out. Like Uncle Al’s.”
“Not sure that’s possible.”
Ransom pulled a strand down to touch the tip of his nose and stared at it cross-eyed. “You don’t think it’ll be long enough to braid before the end of summer?”
“Nope.” Marcus cautiously said, “Uncle Al would probably give you a trim if you want.”
“What will I do, now?” Aleff strolled over, Daichi close on his heels. Both men carried sacks of fresh produce from a roadside stand.
Ransom wrinkled his nose. “Guess my hair grows faster than Marcus’s.”
“More importantly….” Aleff dragged a finger across Ransom’s forehead. “Are you exceedingly tan or simply coated in dirt?”
“I washed yesterday.”
“In a river,” Uncle Al said blandly.
“It was water!”
“Brown water. I’ll make sure our next campground has showers. Soap will be involved.”
Daichi finished stowing their purchases and reached for his helmet. “I do not think those will be the first showers we must endure.”
Marcus’s gaze swung to the sky.
“Rain?” asked Ransom.
Uncle Al gestured vaguely at the oncoming storm. “Do you see that cloud formation?”
Ransom followed his gaze. “Yes.”
“That makes two of us.”
Silence stretched, and Ransom cut a look at Marcus, who rolled his eyes and prompted, “We should get going?”
Uncle Al clapped and rubbed his hands together. “While the getting’s good!”
Marcus looked up, and fat drops spattered his helmet’s visor. By the time Aleff parked outside a truck stop with a 24-hour restaurant, water sheeted from the sky.
“Make a run for it,” urged Uncle Al. “Daichi and I will find you.”
“Come on!” Ransom punched Marcus’s shoulder and led the way through oil-slicked puddles, pulling up short under the narrow overhang at the front entrance. He pushed hair out of his eyes and squinted through the window. “Looks like they have souvenirs and stuff.”
“Postcards?” Marcus asked knowingly.
“Let’s find out!”
Marcus grunted. Somewhere along the way, he and Ransom had reached an unspoken agreement. Whenever they found postcards, Ransom would find the silliest one on the rack. Marcus could veto, but most of the time he’d just nod and take the thing to the register and pay for it. Plus a stamp. That way, every time Uncle Al sent off the next batch of obligatory postcards home, they’d tuck in one addressed to Prissie Pomeroy of West Edinton.
Marcus wasn’t entirely sure these anonymous messages were a good idea, but he went along with his friend’s scheme. Mostly because the money was always ready and waiting in his pocket. In exact change. Can’t argue with that.
Aleff flagged them from a booth in the restaurant section, a striped hand towel draped over his head. He was talking fast to a red-haired waitress with a widening smile. When Marcus and Ransom arrived, she stepped back so they could slide onto the red plastic seat. “No trouble at all” she drawled. And with a widening smile, “Make yourselves at home, boys!”
She ambled away, and Daichi offered additional hand towels. Marcus quickly blotted lingering droplets from his hair and jacket. Ransom resorted to a more vigorous treatment that left his hair in wild disarray.
Uncle Al handed them plastic-coated menus. “I took the liberty of ordering hot drinks and a local delicacy. Take your time weighing your lunch options. We’re in no hurry.”
“We gonna wait out the rain?” asked Marcus.
“In style,” Aleff replied with a wink.
Their waitress returned with three large mugs of hot chocolate and Daichi’s usual pot of tea. Ransom’s jaw dropped when she added two baskets, a bowl of butter pats, and a pot of honey. A short scuffle ended with Uncle Al and Ransom biting into steaming biscuits.
Marcus mumbled his thanks and reached for his drink instead.
Daichi sat back and smiled at Marcus over the rim of his own mug. “Good?”
If it wouldn’t blow my cover, I’d be singing. Marcus shrugged and reached for a biscuit. “Understatement.”
His big brother pushed the honey pot closer and made his question a statement. “Good.”
They polished off all the biscuits and were licking sticky fingers when Uncle Al asked, “Were you boys buying postcards?”
Ransom nodded at Marcus, who pulled a packet out of his pocket.
“Enough for everyone?” asked Aleff.
“Yep.” Marcus spread their picks on the table.
Ransom leaned forward to poke each one, listing their intended recipients. “Dad, Mr. and Mrs. T, Brenna, Landon, Flopsy, Mr. Downstairs Neighbor …”
“Russ,” Marcus filled in quietly.
“And Mr. Upstairs Neighbor.”
“Sheldon,” Marcus finished.
Uncle Al’s eyebrows lifted. “There’s a spare. Is it a souvenir?”
Ransom cleared his throat. “Let us call it a gift.”
Marcus choked, and Daichi chuckled.
Aleff hummed suspiciously, but he passed along a pen. “We’ll swing by the post office once the weather wears itself out.”
Thunder rumbled overhead and rain battered the windows, but Marcus saw no signs of battle. As if any of the Enemy would pick a fight with a Caretaker around. This storm was nothing more than much-needed rain, a blessing after so many sunny days.
Dishes clinked, and conversation hummed while he and Ransom composed their messages home. They saved Prissie’s for last.
“A gift, huh?” said Marcus. “Feels more like a prank than a present.”
“Aw, come on,” Ransom argued. “We’re being very thoughtful.”
“Guess that’s true.” Marcus tapped the card. “Put that.”
“That we’re very thoughtful?”
Marcus rolled his eyes and dictated their three word message—Thinking of you.
Next Month: Angel Unaware, Part 21: “Archer”
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