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First thing Carl noticed was the old woman’s voice, how it sounded panicked. “Isaac, damn you boy, get back over here. NOW.” It floated in on the breeze with the powerful tang of saltwater and seaweed curing in the sun. He saw her out on the tide flats next to two men, one digging, the other standing nearby watching the hole grow. A chubby, little boy ran in carefree circles on the tide flats, seawater splashing out with each step. The boy drunk with the energy only a kid can find on an open beach and no tether to hold him back. The woman trying her best to rein him in.
Carl was there with his friend, Hank, to try their hand at steamers. There was a good ebb tide on the Hood Canal, sunny and warm for April. Carl watched a few other clammers in the distance, stick figures, their shovel-clanks echoing off the cedar and hemlock that crowded in from shore.
“I’m going to see how this is done,” he told Hank standing nearby in rubber snow boots staring down at his phone as if it were more important than the task at hand. “I’ll walk over and ask them.” Carl pointed in the direction of the woman and the two men when the chubby boy made a bee-line at him. He stopped. The boy was someone else’s problem, he hadn’t come to wrangle an out-of-control kid. That feeling left when the boy stopped a foot away, looked up and smiled. He had curly brown hair and his tummy poked out from under a striped t-shirt, his pant legs wet and stiff with gray sand.
The woman got more emphatic, “Dammit boy, come here.” The boy reached out a hand to Carl.
“Isaac,” Carl took hold of the boy’s hand to lead him back. There was something there in his grip, a need to feel safe. Carl wasn’t one to read into things. He walked the boy back slow, looking down at the boy and the boy looking up at Carl, his eyes holding some secret.
“Thanks for bringing him back.” The panicked sounding woman was older, her face lined with wrinkles, her eyes deep-set.
“How you doing?” Carl asked the man digging the hole.
He tilted his bucket. “Pretty good I’d say, almost a limit.”
The old woman pushed a few gray hairs behind her ear and smiled at Carl. She was missing teeth.
“I’m too old for this shit,” she said. “Isaac’s feeling his oats. He’s a good boy, right Isaac? You’re a good boy. Must feel good getting free from your old man and all.”
Carl figured he’d done his part getting him back in tow.
“Doesn’t know what to do with himself all this freedom. Right, Isaac?”
The boy took off circling mindlessly in the sand and edging ever closer to the water.
Carl headed back. Hank was talking to a woman with long black hair and large brown eyes. She had a pail and small trowel.
Hank pocketed his phone. “This nice lady’s name is Fern and she said to follow her, she’s got a good spot to dig and she’ll show us how. Says there are lots of clams. We hit it just right.”
Carl and Hank struggled to keep pace with Fern, alternately sinking in soft sand or stumbling in the rocky stretches. Carl looked back for Isaac, but he didn’t see him or the old lady, just a series of random holes in the sand where others had tried their luck. He wondered if anyone else had taken notice of Isaac?
“They’re all over in here,” Fern said twenty minutes later as she scraped away some wet sand and plucked a butter clam just as advertised. She tossed a couple more at Hank and Carl’s bucket. “Don’t have to go deep. Look for little holes, you’ll find them there.”
Carl couldn’t get Isaac out of his head. How he’d gripped his hand. The way he looked at him. What had the old woman meant: free from his father? Had Isaac been mistreated? Carl thought about his own kids as he dug. He couldn’t bear to think of any harm coming to them.
“I got mine,” Fern announced minutes later. “Soak them in saltwater. Change it every three or four hours. They’ll spit out the sand. It’s some work. Better than a trip to the dentist.” Fern waved. “Enjoy!”
Carl felt sun on his face. They’d been at it for a couple hours and he hadn’t bothered with sunscreen, it being so early in the year and all. He doubted the boy, Isaac, had either. Kids got burnt easy on days like this on a beach. He’d seen it with his own. They rinsed their clams and filled their bucket with saltwater, taking turns hauling it back to where his truck was parked.
Carl didn’t like thinking worst case, worrying about things out of his control. He counted clam holes and contemplated how life could be so different one child to the next. He wished good fortune for little Isaac. And if he were being honest the kid left him pondering things, sad stuff he guessed. He hoped his instinct was wrong. Maybe Isaac had clams for dinner and not a nasty sunburn.
At the truck, he kicked the sand off his boots. “68 holes give or take on that beach,” he mumbled to Hank.
Hank checked his phone. “They’ll be gone in three-hours. Tide will fill them back in like no one was ever out there.”
When they got back, they set their clams in shade. They cracked open a cold beer, watched golf on TV. Isaac would stay in Carl’s thoughts for weeks, but like the holes, his fears would be washed away, disappearing with the passing of time.