Jeff Shelby

Drift Away


“Have you seen my mommy?”

The voice floated over my head and I squeezed my eyes shut tighter, hoping it would go away.

“Have you seen my mommy?”

I reluctantly opened my eyes. A small head shadowed by the massive afternoon sun was staring down at me. Blond hair, green eyes, a worried expression on his face.

I shaded my eyes with my hand. “What?”

“I can’t find my mommy.”

A humid breeze wafted across the sand and I propped myself up on my elbows. I scanned the beach. I saw lots of people. None of them seemed to be looking for a lost kid.

“Where’s she supposed to be?” I asked him.

“I don’t know.”

“Where’d you see her last?”

He was around six, wearing blue and white trunks that were too long for him. No shirt. His torso was dark brown, not sunburnt.

A local kid, I thought.

“By the water.”

“Um, there’s a lot of water.”

“I was building a castle,” he explained. “With a bucket. It has a dragon.”

I glanced at the cheap watch strapped to my wrist. Five till one. Almost time to get back to work.

I sat up. The water in the gulf pounded the shore, small, emerald waves dropping into the sand, one after another. People stood waist-deep in the water, trying to escape the July heat in water that was nearly as warm as the air.

“Where was your castle?” I asked.

He thought for a moment, then pointed westward up the beach. “That way, I think.”

The rental tent was back that way, meaning I had to walk in that direction.

“Down by the water,” he said. “And my mom was on the sand. On her towel. But I can’t find her.”

The sugar-white sand was littered with beach chairs and tents and umbrellas and coolers and blankets. I stared in the direction he pointed, waiting for a mom in a bathing suit to come our way, panicked and grateful to have found her missing son.

But all I saw was Liz. Which was absolutely impossible.

I slipped my sunglasses down over my eyes and stood. I pulled my towel off the sand and shoved it into my nylon backpack. I hoisted the pack onto my bare shoulders and felt two beads of sweat race down my chest.

I didn’t help people. I wasn’t good at it. And I had no desire to do it. All I wanted was to be left alone.

But this was a kid and even I couldn’t justify leaving some little boy alone on a crowded beach.

“Come on,” I said, trudging up the sand. “Let’s go find your mom.”


“What’s your name?” I asked him as we walked.

“Jackson,” he said, squinting up at me. “What’s yours?”

I hesitated for a moment. I rarely said my own name anymore for a whole bunch of reasons. There was one person in Florida who knew my name. But again-he was a kid.

“Noah,” I said.

“Like the ark?”

“Like the ark.”


We worked our way through the sunburnt masses, down to the water line.

“I hate the seaweed,” Jackson said, sidestepping one of the piles that littered the sand. “It gets in my shorts.”

“Yeah, that’s a bummer,” I said. “Your mom with your dad?”

“I don’t have a dad,” he said. “It’s just my mom.”

There was no feeling or expression behind it, just a kid making a statement, like it was normal because that was all he knew.

I envied him.

“Do you live here?” he asked.

Again, I hesitated, uncomfortable with any question that pinned me down. “Yeah.”

“Do you actually live on the beach?”

“Where do you live?” I asked, redirecting him.

“Here. In Fort Walton,” he said. “We come to the beach whenever my mom isn’t working.”

“Where’s she work?”

“A restaurant. It’s kinda far from here.” I knew what he was thinking. She wouldn’t be there.

We walked another fifty yards or so. Still no panicked moms. I glanced down at him. His smile was fading, his eyes scanning the faces under the umbrellas.

“We’ll find her, buddy,” I said.

Without looking, he reached up for my hand. His tiny, sandy hand slid into mine, his fingers wrapping around my ring finger.

It made me uncomfortable.

“How’d you find me?” I asked.

Jackson though for a moment before answering.

“I saw you. Renting umbrellas and boogie boards,” he said. “Then I saw you lying down.” He shrugged his small shoulders.

If he’d seen me working, he’d wandered a pretty good distance down the beach. We were still a hundred yards from the stand.

“Where was your mom when you last saw her?”

“She was lying on her towel. Like you were. Sorta by my castle. It has a dragon.”

“You told me that.”

“Do you wanna see it?”

“Maybe after we find your mom.”


Kids got lost nearly every day on the beach. They’d pour out of the condos above the dunes, just arrived from Alabama or Mississippi or somewhere else in the South, and they’d get disoriented, separated amidst the crowds. I just hadn’t had to help one in the few months I’d been there.

But I knew what it felt like to be lost.

“What is she wearing?” I asked.

“Her bathing suit.”

“What color?”

“I don’t remember. Blue maybe?”

Great. Only about a million of those.

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