The picture fell out of an old Shel Silverstein book. My wife was packing up the shelves in the family room. “Is this you and James?” she asked. I finished taping up a box and took a look. “Yep.” “Aww. How old are y’all here?” “Um, let’s see, nine?” “Cute. You guys look like you got into some trouble that summer.” She went back to packing boxes. I looked at the picture. Just two boys, deep summer tans, wearing flip flops and surfing shorts, big toothy grins, standing on the beach holding Boogie Boards.
I wasn’t sure if she noticed the secret hand signs or not. I was riding my bike out to Mingo Point. There was a kid way up ahead of me, riding along the row of sweetgrass. Always very competitive, I started trying to catch him. The sea breeze was behind me and I was riding fast, breaking a light sweat in the early morning air. A family was digging for clams in the marsh, but I buzzed right by them, legs whirring. I finally caught the kid and looked over smugly, trying to hide how hard I was breathing, but he didn’t seem to care.
He was coasting along, watching a white egret lift up out of the marsh, smiling and saying something under his breath.
“Hey,” I said.
“Hey,” he answered. “Nice bike.”
“I’m saving up to buy a Trek myself,” he said. “Mine’s gonna have green fenders though. I just have to mow eight more lawns when I get back home.”
“My name’s Chester,” I said.
We were both signed up for the nine a.m. pluff mud paddle. James was a much better kayaker than a bike rider; his blade caught the water crisply every time. I kept trying to race him, but he didn’t seem interested.
We pulled up on a low-tide island to look for shells. The guide was pointing out a bald eagle nest across the river when a girl started shouting.
Three of them were surfacing about twenty feet from the sandbar. Everyone was scurrying to take pictures, except for James. He was holding a little tube-shaped shell to his mouth and talking into it. I was standing next to him and heard something about “Dread-Faced Willy” and “your service to the kingdom will be rewarded.”
“What?” I asked.
He looked at me like I’d caught him with his finger in his nose and walked away, embarrassed.
After the paddle, James hung up his life vest quickly and got on his bike, but I was too fast for him and caught up.
“The tide’s coming back up in a couple hours,” I said.
“I’m going to go body surfing if you want to come.”
After lunch I rode by his place, and we headed off together. We dropped our bikes at the walkover and sprinted into the surf.
The waves were about three feet high and strong, and James was struggling to get outside the break.
“You have to dive right in—before it breaks!” I yelled. “You’ll come out the other side!”
He finally dove through and popped up, shaking the water from his hair.
“I’m not great at catching waves,” he said. “My dad usually just holds me on a raft and pushes me into them.”
“You just have to swim with them,” I said.
“How do you pick the right one?”
“Look for how they peak. You want the ones where the top smacks you in the face.”
“How about this one?”
“Wait…they come in sets of three…the third one’s always the biggest…not that one…wait…wait…now!”
I put my head down and wheeled my arms like mad. The wave picked me up and slammed me down like a roller coaster, and I cruised all the way into the shore. I popped up and turned around.
“Did you catch it?!”
James hadn’t ridden as far and was standing in the knee-deep shallows.
A shrimp boat was trawling a few hundred yards off shore, seagulls flitting all around it. He was yelling at it, shouting over the surf.
“We’ll be ready for you, Willy! The citizens of the Island Kingdom will long remember how my forces rebuffed the siege of Mingo Point!”
I came up next to him. He froze with embarrassment.
“Hey,” I said. “If there’s going to be a battle, I want to be on your side.”
We ran back up on the beach and started plotting our defense in the sand.
Dread-Faced Willy was a notorious marauder from Barbados.
He’d already captured Morris and Folly Islands, and now he’d trained his eyeglass on Kiawah.
“We’ve got the white herons, the gators, and the dolphins on our side,” James said. “Willy’s got the seagulls, the pelicans, and the sea turtles.”
“Aw, man, the pelicans?”
“I know, it sucks, but what are you gonna do?”
He pulled a lettered olive shell out of his cargo pocket.
“This is our communicator,” he said. “This morning, at Sandbar Bravo, I got a briefing from Jasmine in intelligence. She said Willy plans to attack on the thirty-first of June, coming upriver and making land at Mingo Point. We’re going to need more troops.”
“I think I can get us the bobcats and the jellyfish,” I said.
“Cool! Next we need—”
A sandpiper scooted along in the skim. James gave it a sideways glance.
“What?” I said.
“Spies. Come on, let’s catch some more waves.”
Over the next three weeks, James scheduled archery lessons and designed dolphin-mounted grenade launchers. I coached us on body surfing and came up with the O-and-three-fingers “Ming-O” hand sign.
(Speaking of, after another look at the old picture, my wife somehow recognized it as the same sign James had flashed me when we were standing at the altar, watching her walk down the aisle. “I’m just glad it’s not some fraternity thing,” she said.)
We held strategy sessions at the pool under the mushroom-shaped waterfall. (Willy had the pool bugged, but the waterfall was clean.) We biked all over the island enlisting troops. We signed up an infantry of fiddler crabs from the salt marsh and a cavalry of deer in the woods, promising fame, glory, and Johns Island tomatoes. If the U.S. Army had recruiters like us, we’d never need a draft.
We kept planning and plotting, even as our parents rinsed out our flip flops for the last time and loaded our bikes onto the cars, mine with a North Carolina license plate, his with Ohio.
Back home, distracted by other things, the end of June came without a thirty-first and without me noticing. Even now, I think a part of me still believes some strange leap year will eventually come up on the calendar, and the battle will be joined.
And when we go back to the island now, and I look out and see a shrimp boat trawling along offshore, I can’t help but squint my eyes and try to catch a glimpse of a pirate with a particularly dreadful face.
They say our greatest fears lie in anticipation, but the fact is, our greatest joys do too. — J.S.