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Summer Strong

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The yell shattered his unconsciousness and he woke with a start. Sam shuffled his butt over to avoid rolling off the bed, but merely backed into a sharp poke.

“Sam, wake up. You said we’d go to the beach today. You promised!” His younger brother climbed up onto the mattress and really started going at it with those razor-like fingers. Sam wiggled around, trying to burrito his blankets around his body like a shield, but to no avail.

“Sweet Yoba, Vince. It’s like the crack of dawn.”

“No it isn’t! It’s 9:37!” Suddenly there were LED lights inches before Sam’s eyes. Vincent smushed the alarm clock into his nose. “And don’t swear, or I’ll tell mom- ”

Vincent lost his balance and fell over as Sam sprang up from beneath the blankets, snatching up the pillow and swatting him on the bum. “That’s what you get for your little threats! Nobody likes a tattle-tale!”

He held down the pillow, grinning as he listened to hysterical giggling - however muffled - coming from beneath. Vincent finally shoved Sam aside and hopped down. His bare feet thumped across the carpet.

“Then hurry UP, I wanna GO!”

After throwing on some clean clothes and a bit of hair wax – it never stayed down no matter how hard he tried, so might as well encourage them to stick up – Sam grabbed his JojaMart uniform and went to the kitchen to eat. His mother, Jodi, hummed to herself as she flipped golden-brown pancakes with a spatula. Cooking was the only chore that she didn’t seem to mind, especially when it was pancakes. The skin around her eyes crinkled as she smiled at Sam shovelling fat stacks onto a plate.

Vincent hovered beside him, eyeing the rapidly disappearing breakfast. “So slow! Let’s go.”

“Hold up. You don’t want me puking on ya, do you?” Sam took advantage of his brother’s chortling to down his milk in one gulp. “Later, mom.”

Jodi nodded, smile already gone as she surveyed the dirty dishes. “Mmhmm. Get me another can of soup from work, okay? I’ll need it for tonight.”

“Got it.” Sam jumped up and sprinted towards the door, where Vincent was banging his spade against the wall impatiently. He was about to yell at him to just start walking and he’d catch up when he spotted the mail. Three pieces thin and pale on the floorboards. They must have been delivered early today.

Sam ignored his brother’s whining and slowly picked them up. One was a bill. The second was a note from Penny reminding Vincent of their field trip later. But the last one…he read the return address and felt his heart drop into his very full stomach. Ferngill Military Outpost, Gotoro Bay.

In a few strides, he was back in the kitchen. “Mom.”

She turned from the sink, up to her elbows in soapy water. Sam placed the envelope on the table. Jodi wiped her hands hastily on a washcloth and picked it up. A butter knife sliced it open – still greasy from breakfast, but they didn’t care – and his mother’s eyes darted back and forth over the letter inside.

Finally, she looked up and smiled again, but this time it just made her look tired. “Don’t worry, Sam. He’s okay. Just an update.”

She held up the paper and he saw handwritten, not printed words. Sam let out a shuddering breath, suddenly realising he had been holding it. Behind him, Vincent hung off the doorknob: innocent, groaning.

“Leeeeeeeeeet’s goooooooooooooooo…”

Sam sprinted away again, but not before giving his mother a quick peck on the cheek.

It was the perfect summer day. The sun floated high above them like a big yellow ball, unhindered by any stray cloud that dared form in such a blue sky. Vincent had a nice red one of his own, which fit snugly inside the plastic pail that swung back and forth from his hand. A few swings too eager took it sailing through the air, but fast reflexes narrowly prevented it from smacking into bushes, the cemetery tombstones, and even Mayor Lewis’s prized petunias. Sam sauntered along while Vincent panted, his shorter legs working double time to keep up. He was looking forward to this, though it wasn’t the same without their dad – those were the days, before the war and before growing up. Sam remembered splashing around the surf, screaming until he was hoarse, and almost being swept away into the Gem Sea before strong arms grabbed him and brought him safely back to shore. And when Vincent was born, they used to go together, all four of them. But now all that could be spared was two hours in the morning before he had to clock in at Joja.

Sam slowed down when they got to the stone bridge that separated town and the beach. Somebody had beaten them there.

The waves rumbled and lapped against the shore. Seagulls ruffled their feathers as they waddled about along the old soaked timber of the dock, occasionally squawking to one another. Vincent squealed and rushed onto the hot sand, yelping while his plastic pail and spade knocked noisily together. Sam hung back and stared at Alex.

He couldn’t say that he hadn’t seen the guy in forever. Pelican Town was tiny. You’d have to be a real hermit to avoid someone for so long. They were around the same age, give or take a year. It was at least close enough to have ridden the same bus to attend lessons in the next town over.

Man, that felt like ages ago. Sam didn’t like thinking about high school, but he remembered the whole system well. He and Sebastian had always taken the third row behind the driver. They usually whiled away the trips by swapping Solarian cards or sharing a single pair of headphones on Sam’s Walkman. Alex had buddies from the other towns who always saved him a coveted seat in the last row. Only gridball team members were allowed in the back. Not that you’d want to sit there, as Sebastian had always grumbled, clamping a hand over his free ear to block out the hooting and yelling.

So Sam instantly recognised the bright green and yellow varsity jacket. Alex had his back to them, crouched down by the water’s edge in front of the campfire. His dark brown hair tossed about in the seaside breeze. Instinctively, Sam’s hand flew up and tested his own head. Still spiky.

“SAAAAAAAAAAAAAAM!” Vincent cupped his hands around his mouth, and his shrill voice was amplified along the lonely beach. “How ‘bout we make a pond?”

Sam hesitated. Was Alex going to be annoyed with them being here? Sam stopped himself. This was a public area. They were allowed to be as loud as they wanted, screw whoever might complain.

“Yeah! Let’s make a pond,” he said. His brother grinned widely. His cheeks puffed up and his eyes were reduced to delighted squints.

It was one of their favourite games at the beach. Sam rolled up his pant cuffs and started digging a deep pit a short distance from the water. Vincent scurried back and forth with the pail, first hauling sand out of the way, and then moving on to collecting larger rocks and pebbles. They clanked loudly in the shallow bucket. Sam sat back on his knees, dusting the sand off his palms.

“You got them?” He glanced over at the campfire again. Alex hadn’t moved. He looked kind of weird, sitting that way: head bowed, shoulders hunched over, and knees slightly raised as if he was trying to hide something in his lap.

“Yeah!” Vincent trotted forward, using two arms to drag the heavy bucket through the sand. His shorts and the hem of his t-shirt were soaked with saltwater, but the kid glowed with joy as he tipped the pebbles and rocks into the pit. Sam helped him arrange them around the bottom.

“Now for the river,” he said to Vincent. “Do you wanna do it?”

Vincent shook his head. “Nah, it’s more fun watching you.”

Sam shrugged. “Okay.” He pushed up his sleeves and straddled the pit. Vincent looked on and burst into cheers when Sam knocked a hole into the pit’s wall. He continued to gouge out a trench with his hands, creating a route towards the sea.

“Hey, fix those walls!” he called back to Vincent. The waves taunted them, creeping forwards enticingly then ebbing away. The plan was to coax water up the trench and into the pit in order to create a small pond.

Vincent eagerly did as he was told, and together they fortified the Sam-made waterway. But the water wasn’t coming.  Perhaps it was low tide. Vincent tried to fill up the pit himself, lugging his pail over and over again, but soon it exhausted him as well.

“It’s okay, bro,” Sam told him as the water receded yet again. “We’ll take a break and try again later.”

Vincent’s shoulders drooped. “I wanted to find a fish and put him inside. It was gonna be his new house!”

Sam picked up the ball. “C’mon, let’s do something else for a bit. My wrists are tired.”

It worked. Soon Vincent was chortling and waving his arms as he lurched up and down the sand to catch Sam’s random throws. At least Vincent wasn’t any better than him, Sam reflected as he lobbed the red ball one more time. It spun slowly as it flew through the air on a direct and lopsided course to – oh, shit.

Alex’s clammed up figure stumbled back as the ball narrowly missed his shoulder. His whole body seemed to unfold, legs splayed out and one arm thrown back to steady himself. The other he kept close to his side, with something tucked into the crook of his elbow. Alex’s head whipped around, and their gazes met. Sam froze. Even from this far, he could see it. Puffy eyes, blotchy cheeks, and the way Alex hurriedly smeared the back of his hand across his nose…

Sam wanted to look away, but Vincent had already started towards Alex, fumbling over the uneven sand.

“Sorry, mister!” His high pitched voice seemed to float away with the seagulls’ cries. “We didn’t mean to!”

Alex quickly turned around. He spied the ball floating in the shallows in front of him. Still with one arm glued protectively to his jacket, he reached over and grabbed it.

Vincent’s floundering pace slowed while his nose followed the perfect arch of the ball in the air. Sam, still frozen, watched the sailing sphere travel high, clearing Elliott’s cabin and the trees easily before falling back towards the earth.

Vincent’s jaw dropped as Sam dumbly held out his hands and the ball landed neatly in them with nothing more than a soft paf. “Whoah! That’s so good!” He wheeled about and resumed his charge towards Alex. “You’re WAY better than my brother!”

Well, duh. Sam had never claimed to be particularly good at sports, but it was really unfair to compare him with Stardew Valley’s gridball quarterback. He reluctantly tucked the ball under his arm and jogged over to where Vincent was dancing around Alex’s now standing figure, praising the throw and begging for pointers.

Alex blinked down at the young boy with red-rimmed eyes. “Uh, sure...First, you have to get the right stance. Lean back and point your foot at where you want it to land…”

Sam watched as Alex rearranged his brother’s limbs. They avoided looking at each other when he passed the ball over.

“Hold it with your fingertips, not the entire hand. You want to push it forward in a half circle and let go at its highest.” Alex stepped back. “Ready?”

Vincent didn’t move a muscle, intent on keeping position. “Yeah! Sam, you catch!”

Sam swallowed a sigh and went back the way he came. When he reached a fair distance, he turned around and waited. There was Vincent, still striking that gridball pose, and Alex hovering somewhat uncertainly behind him.

“Go!” Vincent hurled the ball. Sam stumbled forward as it fell a little short from him.

Alex clapped. “Not bad.”

Vincent looked up at him, wide-eyed. “Could you show us one more time? Please?”

Alex seemed embarrassed. Sam silently gave him the ball. “Oh…okay. Hey dude, go long.”

It took a few moments to register that Alex Mullner had ‘hey dude’-d him, but Sam dutifully trotted down the beach again. Alex hefted the ball to his ear, aimed his fingers like a salute, and released yet another beautiful throw into the sky. Vincent whooped admiringly as Sam plucked it from the air with one hand. Hey, he could do cool too.

Alex nodded. “Nice.”

Sam tossed him the ball. “Back at ya.”

Alex smiled a little. Sam knew that they were both thinking the same thing: how weird it was that they were actually interacting. “So, what were you guys doing over there? It looked like a big project.”

Vincent, now totally energised, was refilled with determination. “It’s our pond! Sam and me always make a pond at the beach. The water wouldn't come though. I wanted to find a fish or something to put inside.”

The three of them walked back to the other side of the beach. Sam chanced a side glance. He could see a corner of what Alex had been protecting: something small and wooden. Alex pulled his jacket a little closer, covering it up.

They arrived at the pit’s side. Alex peered down. “Hey, you’re right. It’s a cool little pond.”

Clearly, the waves had only consented to fill up their trench once they had stopped paying attention. Vincent, wracked with delight, dropped the ball for the pail once more. He ran up and down the shoreline, searching for a sea creature to kidnap and imprison. Sam and Alex agreed to help him, trailing behind him in the soggy, silty sand.

“Your brother’s a good kid,” Alex said.

Sam smiled. “Yeah.”

Fifteen fruitless minutes later revealed no fish, much less those that were willing to take Vincent on as their landlord. His patience was running low as well, until he spied some innocuous bubbles just a few feet into the surf.

Vincent pointed. “What’s that?”

Sam leaned over, trying to see into the glassy green water. Alex, of course, was a bit taller. “Looks like a cluster of mussels.”

Vincent’s brows furrowed. “Mussels?”

“Yeah, that’s what they’re called. Hey, trust me. I know about muscles.”

Alex lifted his arm and flexed. It would have been incredibly douchey were it not for the self-aware wink and grin, Sam decided. It took a few seconds for the light bulb to go off for Vincent, but he then spent a good ten seconds in hysterical laughter. The movement had raised the jacket by several inches, and the hidden object was in full view: a small walnut-stained box, engraved with some floral designs along the surface. Its silver clasp looked a little tarnished. Sam had no idea what it could possibly be for.

Vincent didn’t either. “Hey, what’s that?”

He pointed again. Alex looked down and dropped his arm.

“Oh…that’s my mom’s.”

 “Does she know you took it to the beach?”

Alex hesitated, and then he said, “She’s gone away.” He stared at his feet.

Sam suddenly had a very good idea about where Alex’s mother probably went. His mind raced to find a new conversation topic before Vincent probed deeper, but his brother opened his mouth and uttered, “Oh, like dad? He’s gone away too.”

Alex’s head jerked as his eyes darted up to look at Sam. Sam shook his head ever so slightly. Nah, not like that. “Our dad’s in Gotoro.”

Alex’s eyes widened and he began to nod slowly. “Whoah. That’s pretty…that’s pretty legit, yeah.”

Vincent deflated. It wasn’t just a sulky chin drop. For the first time that morning, he looked defeated. “Is…is he ever coming back? Feels like forever.”

Sam breathed in sharply. He could feel his whole chest tighten. Alex shifted his weight nervously and frowned at the sand. Sam reached over and squeezed Vincent’s shoulder.

“Of course he’ll be back! I bet he’s making all the plans right now. They got him out of that prison camp, right? All they need to do is the doctor’s checkup and he’ll be on the next ship home. He did his duty. He's a hero.”

Sam honestly had no idea how the military worked, but he wasn’t going to tell Vincent that. They’d gotten the notice of his rescue a month ago. Sam remembered. Their mother had been so anxious that he had to open the envelope for her, and they’d all cried at the news. The notice had strongly implied that he might make it home in time for the Feast of Winter Star, but honestly, who even knew?

“Hey,” Alex ventured, “if your dad survived a Gotoro prison camp, he’s really strong. Like, real strong. Someone who can protect you, not just good for throwing around a gridball.”

Well, that was an unexpected comparison. Sam let go of Vincent’s shoulder and breathed deeply. “Yeah. That’s right. Anyway, our time’s almost up. Come on, Muscles. Let’s get those mussels.”

Vincent lit up with a snort of giggles. Alex grinned and followed Sam into the water. The boys scooped up piles of the wet sand, the shellfish still opening and closing within them, and dumped them into the pit. Vincent busied himself by decorating the edges with shells.

Alex wiped his cheek with one hand, leaving a small streak of gravelly sand. “Nice. We got a pond.”

Vincent threw his hands up, spraying sand. “Yay!”

Sam slapped his shins, trying to get the wet sand off his jeans. They were soaked to the knee. Morris was going to kill him. “And just in time. I gotta go to work.”

“Oh yeah, me too.” Alex stretched. “Where you off to?”

“JojaMart.” Sam scowled at Alex’s raised eyebrow. “Don’t judge me, what other choices are there?”

“I’m at the ice cream stand. But true, my grandma got me that one,” Alex replied. “Hey, if either of you want some scoops, just drop by. I’ll give you a discount.”

Vincent tossed up more sand. “YAY!”

Soon they were all headed back up the bridge into town. Vincent kept up a steady chatter as they all headed east. When they walked past Mayor Lewis’s manor, Sam could already see people waiting for them on the other side. Sunlight glinted off Haley’s platinum hair as she leaned on the ice cream stand’s counter. Penny stood to the side of the museum, waiting with Jas. It was time to split. To settle back into their scheduled locations.

Vincent waved goodbye as he ran towards his teacher and friend. He’d insisted on keeping one of the mussels in the pail as a pet. Three heads bent over it, blocking out everyone else. Alex started to unlock the snack stand, then stopped. He looked back and nodded at Sam. “Later, dude.”

Sam nodded back. “See ya.”

He was alone again. Alex had his back to him now, those broad shoulders moving under the green and yellow jacket as he dished out a cone for Haley. Sam turned too and plodded up the dirt path towards JojaMart. They had exchanged more words in less than an hour than they had ever done in… who even knew how many years. Who knew mutual understanding could occur so quickly?

And there was the sterile blue building of JojaMart. Through the glass doors, he could see Shane’s head ducked down towards a box, arms pumping mechanically as he stacked can after can of mushy peas onto the shelves. An air conditioned chill stole over him as he entered. This place just sucked the energy out of you. He scurried past Morris, who was glowering at him from behind the membership counter, grabbing his broom and his tunes…when he was finally safe behind a display, he slipped the headphones on.

He’d left a trail of sand behind him along the aisle. Beats blasting in his ears, Sam moved to sweep them away, the remnants of a summer strong morning.