My People

Nicholas admires his work on the sand castle, adds another pebble to the tower ramparts, listens to the surf's steady pounding lullaby. "My people," he whispers.

"Nicholas," his mother shouts, putting too much emphasis on the first syllable.

"What?" he answers without enthusiasm, the sound lost in the sea breeze, born off by the tide.

"Nicholas!" she roars, standing up like a hydra rearing but one of its ugly heads.

He looks at her and scowls.

"You need more sun block, and put your hat back on. You'll get sunstroke."

Reluctantly, he reaches for the white baseball cap, half buried in the sand.

He brushes the damp tan granules into the rushing wind, which responds by snatching the hated cap from his grip, sending it tumbling down the beach to Nicholas' utter delight.

"My people," he says, watching the hat spinning into the surf.

"You get that cap at once—do you hear me?"

"Yes'm," Nicholas says.

He kicks the sand castle to pieces before running down the beach, glad for an opportunity to be beyond earshot of the dragon.

Dark cumulus clouds, seemingly from nowhere, billow across the horizon, stacking thick blue-gray mountains one atop the other, knocking them down, stacking them higher.

Nicholas pauses at the water's edge, feels the cool sea tickling his ankles and toes, looks up, shields his eyes from the wind.

"My people," he says.

The ocean tumbles the baseball cap, spits it back upon the beach at Nicholas' feet. He snatches it up and continues running, oblivious to the shrieking waving harpy, shrinking in the distance, clutching her own sun bonnet in the face of the coming storm.

The voice of the thunder joins the chorus of the surf and wind. Nicholas runs faster. He flings the cap back into the sea, spreads his arms, lets the wind lift him into the air. He will have none of it. Not the hat, not the commanding voice of authority, not the schoolroom that lurks at summer's end, not the workaday world that looms before him at childhood's end.

"My people," he cries, rising high above the sea.

Far below a terrified woman cringes before the pelting sand and shouts the hated name that once bound him to this place—shouts it like a broken spell lost upon the building storm.

—Paul L. Bates