This story is by Alan Benlolo and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
It was an unseasonably hot, cloudless afternoon in August of 1994 and Verasalt Beach was teeming with activity. Seventy-four-year-old Leo Palminsky, the beach’s metal detective, stood between the boardwalk and the shoreline with his thin, wrinkled forearm resting over the handle of his metal detector. He closed his beady hazel eyes and basked in the sounds around him: the crashing of the waves, the laughter of kids playing in the water, the squawking of seagulls, a lifeguard warning swimmers through his speakerphone, the bell of an ice cream bicycle making its way down the densely-packed boardwalk. Every so often, a Cessna would zoom by trailing a banner advertisement. The last one read, “FRESH SHRIMP: 50% OFF MAIN & 2ND.”
Being the passive participant at this lovely beach was the best part of Leo’s job, which he had held for 40 years following his duty in the Second World War as an explosives specialist, diffusing land mines and other improvised devices. Leo was nicknamed “Shutout” for his track record of disarming some 500 explosives without a hitch.
Although it paid very little and demanded that he work only twenty hours a week, sweeping sand for metal served as much-needed therapy from the horrors he faced at war, in particular that dreadful day on June 6, 1944 — aka D-Day— when he took two bullets and witnessed the death of many of his fellow officers as his platoon charged towards the enemy on Omaha Beach.
From the small pocket of his utility belt, Leo extracted a brittle piece of paper no bigger than a business card. It was heavily oxidized, stained almost entirely in yellow. The paper was torn from a larger map of Northern France. On the back of it was scrawled in barely legible handwriting: “hard right, 25°.” As Leo gazed blankly at the writing, his lips quivered and he grew misty-eyed. Memories of that fateful day slowly crept into his mind, until a sharp tug of his right pant leg snapped him back to reality. He looked down to find a stout boy, no older than four or five, holding up a metallic cigarette casing. It was one of the nicest objects Leo didn’t find.
Leo nodded thankfully to the boy and quipped, “One man’s garbage is another man’s treasure.” He took the casing and in it stored the remnant of the map.
The alarm on Leo’s watch went off; it was his daily reminder to take his medication for PTSD. The tablet was in a plastic container tucked in his right pocket, but Leo had no more water in his Thermos mug. He shook the cup that was clipped to his utility belt to make sure — not a drop.
Leo began making his way to the nearest water fountain, some 200 feet away at the foot of the boardwalk. About halfway into his trek, Leo started feeling dizzy under the scorching sun. Not helping matters was that he had forgotten his baseball cap.
As he slowed down his pace to conserve energy, Leo heard another high-pitched alarm, this time coming from his metal detector. From his utility belt, Leo produced a pocket shovel and started digging at the spot that triggered the audio signal. The signal was weak — it was emitting every three seconds, the lowest interval this detector was configured for. Leo scooped up a generous chunk of the dampened sand only to come up empty-handed.
After ten scoops, Leo paused and wiped the sweat off his forehead. He got up and waved the detector over the hole; the signal was now emitting every two seconds. He was getting close, or so he thought.
Leo dug and dug, but the object eluded him. Ten minutes had elapsed since detection, his dizziness intensifying with every scoop. From his knees, he tumbled onto his rear. Looking at his watch, he decided he was going to resume in the evening. He was not going to let this one get by him.
* * *
Leo and Gale, his wife of thirty years and five years his junior, had moved into their two-storey bungalow on a quiet cul-de-sac after Leo returned from service. Gale was working as a nurse when she met her to-be husband in a makeshift hospital after the war. Now retired, she waited for Leo, looking wistfully through the screen door. Her arms were crossed as she held onto her shawl covering her diminutive shoulders.
She spotted Leo’s gangly figure emerging from the distance. As Leo made his way to the entrance, she noticed a look of sorrow on her husband’s tanned and chiseled face, one she hadn’t seen since tending to his wounds that frantic day in the tented hospital 50 years ago.
Gale opened the door and asked, her voice cracking with worry, “Leo, is everything alright?”
“Yes, hun. I quit on a dig today. Forgot my bloody cap and couldn’t stay focused. I’m drained. I’ll be heading back later tonight to finish what I started,” he said with calm determination.
* * *
Leo arrived at the beach a little past 21:00 with his metal detector in one hand, shovel in the other. He made his way to the excavation spot, which he recalled being approximately 10 feet south of the tented parasol rental stand. The clouds were quickly gathering and the wind was gaining momentum — rainfall was imminent.
Leo waved his detector over the hole he had started earlier. “Beep, Beep.” The object was still there. Leo went to his knees, dug a shovelful of the cold damp sand and, after discarding it, meticulously rummaged through the small pile with the tip of his shovel like a seasoned archaeologist. After coming out empty, he repeated the process a dozen times, until a faint rumbling in the sky could be heard followed by a deafening bang of thunder that momentarily jolted Leo.
Unfazed, he dug at a more feverish pace only to have his efforts thwarted by a deluge of rain. His hole was filling up fast, its walls collapsing before him. Leo banged his fists on the wet sand and bellowed a frenzied scream. With his stiff, veiny hands, he dug with an almost maniacal obsession, but the rain had nullified whatever progress he made. Exhausted, he rolled onto his back and tried to retain his tears.
The sound of the crashing waves was fading into explosions, the howling of the wind into wails and moaning cries of dying soldiers. The rain bouncing off the tent’s roof behind him was replaced by the relentless spattering of bullets hitting walls of sandbags and concrete.
Leo grabbed his metal detector and pointed it at the raging sky, approximately 25 degrees forward. As the sound of gunfire and explosions waned, he rolled onto his stomach and began crawling towards the tented parasol stand, but the weight of his soaked cargo pants coupled with sheer exhaustion didn’t get him far. After a few feet, his knees buckled, landing flat-faced on the muddied sand.
As he propped himself onto his forearms, readying for another go at his target destination, he heard someone shrieking his name from the distance, “Leo!!” The muffled voice was vaguely familiar to him. Looking over his shoulder, he saw someone in a hooded raincoat sprinting towards him.
“Hard right, 25 degrees! Hard right, 25 degrees!” Leo yelled in an attempt to warn the incoming soldier of the enemy’s firing position.
Before he sounded off the warning call again, he was grabbed by his arms and dragged some 12 feet to the parasol stand.
“Hard right, 25 degrees!!” Leo yelled in panic.
“It’s me Leo, it’s me! It’s Gale, your wife. It’s going to be alright. You’re here, at Verasalt.” In her effort to console him, Gale grazed his cheek with her silky soft hand, breaking Leo from his past. The pleasant sound of the beach came back to him…as did his sanity.
* * *
Harold, the husky, bearded custodian who was stationed at the depot by the main entrance of the beach and responsible for inspecting each metal detector (or “rod” as he liked to call it) after usage from the previous day, said to Leo, “You know, in the 20 years that I’ve known you, this is the first time you’ve left your rod’s power switch to OFF. Good for you. The batteries could use a break.”
Leo stared at him incredulously. Had he even activated his detector yesterday?
As he exited the depot, Leo peeked inside the lunch bag Gale had prepared him — he was getting hungry. Pinned to his foil-wrapped sandwich was a bright yellow sticky note that read, in beautiful cursive handwriting, “Another simple reminder that I love you. P.S: Pill + Water + hat & happy thoughts. That’s an order!! – Gale.”
Leo unzipped the sleeve of his utility belt, pulled out the casing the little boy had given him yesterday and replaced the torn section of the map with the sticky note.