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Scale Model

Kelsey meets a professional sandcastle builder on the beach.

Kelsey arrived at the Fort de Soto Sand Art Competition at twenty past two. After spending the morning walking four miles of the beach’s coast and counting all the dead fish she saw, she wandered over to the competition to watch the artists. The crowd was mostly parents with young children, the moms and dads holding up the kids so they could see the adults playing in the sand. A bay area news team covered the event, the cameraman resting his gear on his shoulder and sweating in the midday heat.

Kelsey recognized Adam right away, the sand builder she had met yesterday when she had walked past his version of the Taj Mahal. She remembered the way the Taj’s domed top shimmered in the late sun. Adam wore the same frayed khaki shorts as the day before, his back bare and bronze. All of the contestants were working to create a scale model of Fort De Soto in its heyday, but Adam was already ahead of the others, working quickly to build the parameter to his fort.

Kelsey walked behind the crowd and over to Adam’s square of sand in the top left corner. The contestants were in a grid of four by five rows, each with at least six feet of sand to themselves. No one was allowed to walk between the rows, so she was glad he was on the end, close to the audience.

For a minute, she watched as he smoothed his fort walls with the back of a trowel. She looked to the real, massive fort a dozen yards behind them, imagining its faded, rough stone as fresh and smooth. “Hey,” she said, lifting her voice so he would hear. When he didn’t answer, she said, “Adam.”

He looked up. “Oh hey,” he said, smiling quickly and then continuing his work. “You made it.”

“Yeah.” She stepped closer, up to the edge of his sand. “How long do you have?”

“Two hours. Winner’s announced at five. But I built the Taj yesterday in only an hour, so I’m not worried.”

“Impressive.” She knew he didn’t need the encouragement, but she wasn’t sure what else to say.

“Are you going to stay for a bit? You should see me win.”

“Yeah, I’ll stay.” Kelsey had finished her work for the day already, imputing the volume of today’s dead fish into her spreadsheet. There had been less than the day before, which was a good sign. The beach area surrounding Fort De Soto hadn’t been getting many visitors that summer. The fort was undergoing renovations, hoping to open again by the end of July. Yet, the tourism company she worked for thought the decline had less to do with the fort renovations and more with the dead fish. Kelsey, only an assistant field researcher, didn’t get to decide if this beach was worth investing their money in. She could only watch and count as the fish continued to wash up.

Adam had found her work fascinating when she explained it to him yesterday, how she had to mark the size of the fish, the color, even the smell. She had showed him the dead baby shark she’d found, a small grey thing with ripped cartilage and poking bones. Kelsey could barely stand looking at it, but all Adam had said was “cool,” and then he was inviting her to the sand art competition.

*

The local news team gave Adam a short interview after he won. His face was bright as he talked to the reporters. He was covered in sand, his hair in clumps tucked behind his ears. He clutched a small trophy in his left hand. Kelsey could overhear words like “masterpiece” and “phenomenal,” although she couldn’t distinguish if the praise was coming out of the reporter’s mouth, or Adam’s.

She stayed in her spot in the sand next to his winning model. She took in the careful crafting of the building, the tall lookout tower, the two cannons that still sat in the courtyard of the fort, the little rolled balls of sand next to the cannons, piled perfectly.

It almost seemed to be made from something not as permeable as sand. She wanted to poke a finger into one of the smooth walls to see if it would even leave a mark. As Kelsey waited for Adam to finish his interview, she wondered so much about him – if he made a living off sculpting or if it was just a hobby, if he was a local or had traveled here for the competition, why he had invited her yesterday to come watch him win.

Adam walked back over to Kelsey after his interview, a grin still on his face. “It’s my third competition win this month,” he said, leaning back on his elbows in the sand. They were quiet together for a moment until he said, “Ugh, I’m filthy. I’m going in the water.” He hopped up and headed to the shore, diving under the soft waves when he was deep enough. He surfaced and slicked back his hair, his shoulder muscles flexing. She didn’t know how he had this much energy after spending two hours working in the sun. She wondered if he would ask her to dinner later. If she would sleep with him later. The thought thrilled and terrified her. She had never slept with a guy she’d only known for a day.

He came back to the beach, his khaki shorts dark and heavy and low on his hips. “Hey, I want to show you the parts of the fort that I was thinking of when I was building. I was in there for two hours last night. It was sort of eerie.” He smiled. “Come on.” He offered his hand and pulled her up quickly, playfully.

She began following him, then stopped. “The fort’s being renovated though, it’s closed to the public.”

“That doesn’t mean anything. I got over the fence no problem yesterday.”

Even though Kelsey had been a Florida resident all her life, she had still never been inside this fort. She heard there wasn’t much to it, except for maybe some plaques on the walls detailing how the fort was used in the Civil War and later, the Spanish-American War. She didn’t find it terribly interesting but still, she was breaking in to see it. The thought made her heart kick faster.

Adam reached the fence first. There was a padlock over the short wire gates and a clear sign that warned against trespassing. They were far enough from the beach and the few lingering spectators that hopping a fence wouldn’t be noticeable. “Up and over,” he said, clearing the barrier in a swift jump. “Your turn.” He pushed his hair out of his face then offered his hand to her. Kelsey paused for a moment, knowing that this wasn’t very smart, but she wanted to be a little reckless, to let her curiosity drive her, and she climbed over the fence with Adam’s help. She smiled, her cheeks hot, and Adam held her hand.

“You’ve got to come check out this view.” He led her up the stone staircase on the side of the fort, the one clearly rebuilt for tourists, and said, “Take a look at this.”

Kelsey stood still and took in the way the beach curved around the front of the fort, creating a soft edge, and she imagined men storming this beach a hundred and fifty years ago. The men loading the cannons, the loud booms deafening everything, the quietness that would linger afterwards, the smell of smoke and gunpowder still fresh in the air. She wondered why tourists would avoid this beach solely because of dead fish when they could be viewing history.

And then Adam pulled her away, saying, “I want to show you the inside.”

The interior chambers faced the courtyard where the cannons sat, empty black hallways and open windows with steel bars on them. “They’re like cells,” she said.

“Yeah, with little stone beds. Think about sleeping on those.”

“I’m pretty sure nobody was doing much sleeping.”

Adam wandered through the open, dark hallway, and Kelsey followed, her hands tensing into tight little balls. The hall in front of her stretched into blackness.

“I don’t really like this,” she said, looking behind her and seeing the remains of sunlight quickly fading.

“Come on, it’s cool. Hey, you wanna play a game?”

“No, not really.”

“Hide and seek. Once you go around this corner though it gets so dark, you’ll have to use your hands to feel around.”

She wished she hadn’t left her phone in her car. “Hide and seek? Are we twelve?”

“Don’t be like that. I was just suggesting it.”

“Well, I don’t want to play.” She wanted to coax Adam out of the dark hallway, but couldn’t think of a good enough reason.

“Hey, come here.” He reached out for her, grabbed her hand. He smelled of sun and salt. “I’m just trying to have some fun. Here, we’re just going to go around the corner. I won’t let go of your hand, promise.”

He led her into an open room that she couldn’t gauge the size of. It was cold and smelled of dirt and stone.

“Pretty cool,” he whispered. His fingers were on her face, feeling for her lips, and then he was kissing her. She felt like they were two teenagers sneaking away from a tour group to make out somewhere. He didn’t have to drag her away like this, into the darkness.

Kelsey ended the kiss quickly. “Hey, how about we go somewhere else, huh? Maybe get some dinner at the pier?” She leaned against the wall behind her, pressing her palms on the cold stone.

“I like it in here, though. I’ve been in the sun all day, I need something without light and sand.” He walked around the empty space. “Helloooo,” he called out, to hear his own voice echoing on the walls. “Hey, come on, close your eyes and I’m going to hide. It’ll be fun. Just count to ten, and come find me.”

“This is ridiculous,” she said.

“I know, babe. Let’s be ridiculous.”

She used her hands to guide herself along the edge of the wall, stepping back to the hallway. “Okay,” she said, changing her tone to something lighter. “I’ll count to ten. Go hide.”

“Close your eyes.”

A fleeting moment of fear went through her, that the instant her eyes shut something would happen. She thought of the knife still folded in his pocket, imagined the fingers that were on her lips on her neck instead, holding tight, draining everything. She imagined him burying her in the sand. Building a monument.

But she closed her eyes anyway, fingertips digging into the wall, and started counting out loud. She couldn’t hear his footsteps, and she thought that he was probably being extra sneaky, trying to really get her.

She opened her eyes and was greeted with blackness. “Okay, I’m coming to find you,” she called out. Kelsey quietly slid around the corner, back into the hallway with the fading sunlight. She looked around quickly to make sure he wasn’t hiding somewhere around her, but she thought he was probably in the farthest, darkest corner, ready to pop out and scare her when she was close.

Kelsey held her breath as she stepped out of the dim hallway and into the falling sun and the fresh, salty air. She walked faster across the courtyard to get back to the gate. She paused and looked behind her, but she didn’t see his khaki shorts and tan skin anywhere. She struggled to jump the fence by herself, adrenaline pumping, and hurried across the beach to the parking lot on the opposite side, kicking up sand around her, her heart thudding heavy and alive.

She wondered how long he would wait for her inside the fort, if he would call out her name in a few minutes. If he would walk around the fort in circles, if he would be upset that he didn’t get her phone number. She wondered if he would still be on the beach tomorrow, making more graves and forts. Or perhaps he would move on to creating models of the White House, or Cinderella’s castle, or whatever would look most impressive to the locals—never tourists. Just making scale models of a real thing, just sand and water. 

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