Justin reached down and picked up the shiny object that had fallen from the tree. It was a disk, about the size of a soda can top, suspended from a fine metal chain and made of metal that might have been brass. In the center was a translucent stone that looked like a crystal. Its surface had been cut into faces, like a jewel, but the flat surfaces were irregular, and instead of being clear, it had a clouded look. Numerous small loops, like wire, except that they seemed to be part of the disk itself and not fastened on later, were arranged around the circumference. When Justin looked closer, he saw that the arrangement of the little loops was irregular. He could see no pattern to it. And, at the base of each loop, the pattern continued as small looping lines engraved in the metal. Sometimes the engraved lines matched the loops, sometimes they did not. Again, there was no obvious pattern to it.
He held it up to the light and watched as it slowly twisted on the end of the chain. Justin had encountered the word "amulet" a few times in reading stories about witches, wizards, and magic. He had never bothered to look it up, but, from the way the word was used, he decided that this strange trinket most likely fit under the heading of amulet. In the books he had read, the fantasy ones, amulets usually were more than just decorative. They had powers or were used by people who had powers. For about ten seconds he entertained the notion that this was a magic amulet, then decided it was just a piece of tacky jewelry someone had won at the county fair and lost here.
Being twelve years old, Justin subscribed to the theory of "Finders Keepers." So, he dropped the amulet into his backpack. It never occurred to him that if someone had lost it, that someone might also be looking for it. Of course, when it comes to that, it would never occur to most grownups either. Justin went back to his book and read awhile longer. The battle wasn't quite done but the chapter was, and Justin decided he'd better get started for home. He'd finish the battle tonight as his bedtime reading. He stashed the book and the empty soda can in his daypack and started down the trail, barely thinking again of the amulet he'd found.
He made it home just in time to start setting the table. His mother had already returned and was reheating a casserole, one of many she mass-produced and kept in the freezer. As if on cue, Lars came in just as the casserole was ready, followed quickly by his father.
It was a typical dinner. Most of the conversation revolved around Lars and the football team and how the season was shaping up. Then it was time to clean up. While they did the dishes, Lars lodged his usual complaint that they were the only family he knew that didn't have a dishwasher.
"What do you mean? I have two dish washers," his mother replied, patting their shoulders. It was her standard reply. And once the last dishes were done, Lars was off again.
"Gotta study playbooks with Eddie and Chuck," he said as the door slammed behind him.
This was good news for Justin. It meant he had the computer all to himself. He could get back to his current favorite game, Elven Warriors: The Temple of Karak-Dur. Elves weren't quite as cool as Vikings, but they were close. And, after some initial setbacks, he was getting the hang of it and making good progress. If Lars had stayed home tonight, he'd have been fighting Lars for the computer instead of making another attempt at taking out the Necromancer in the Twelfth Tower. He was one tough elf. He'd already defeated Justin's character five times. But tonight! Tonight Justin was sure he had figured out the secret to neutralizing the Necromancer's powers!
Justin went to the alcove off the dining room where the computer was set up. He powered it up and started the game, resuming play from where he'd left off the night before. He totally immersed himself in taking out the troll who guarded the third floor of the tower.
One of the drawbacks to having the computer in the alcove was that the alcove was open to the dining room and the dining room was open to the living room. And usually the door to the kitchen was open as well, so that on an evening like this, even though Mom and Dad were talking in the kitchen, Justin could hear their conversation. It was mostly just bits of this and that from work or what the neighbors were up to, and Justin could ignore it easily.
But every now and then something would be said that caught his attention. Like tonight.
"I stopped at the boatyard and talked to Herb today," his father was saying. "It's not good. He can't really say a lot for sure without hauling her, but just from what he saw poking around inside her, at least a dozen frames need replacing. Some of the planks are looking pretty bad, too. And she really needs to be refastened. They used galvanized iron when they built her. When it goes bad, it rots out the wood around it." There was a long pause. "Herb said he wouldn't even think about taking her out again, not in the shape she's in. Of cours, he might be exaggerating a bit. He'd like to have the business. Things are pretty slow for him."
There was another long pause.
"The Ingrid just doesn't pay for herself, Olie," he heard his mother saying. "You're working hard to support us, but, more and more, it seems like you're working even harder to support Pop's boat."
"I know, I know," Justin's father said resignedly. This was not a new conversation. "Common sense says sell the boat, if anyone'll buy her, or haul her out and leave her on the beach, and get out of fishing altogether. But, it's like the Ingrid's a part of the family. Heck, she's been in the family longer than I have. Pop bought her two years before I was born."
Still another long pause. Justin could picture his father taking another drink of his coffee, then setting the cup down slowly, and just sort of playing with it a little while he thought.
"I know I should sell her off or lay her up. But I keep thinking of something Pop used to say. 'A Ranstrom without a boat is like a cowboy without a horse. It just ain't right.' "
A Ranstrom without a boat! Justin didn't like the sound of that, which was a bit odd since Justin had been seasick every time he'd gone out fishing with his father. Unlike Lars. Lars had demonstrated an unnerving ability to wolf down a thick deli sandwich with extra pickles and onions and gobs of mayonnaise and chug a soda regardless of how wildly the Ingrid rolled and pitched beneath him. And never would he show the slightest signs of distress, other than an occasional burp. Just watching Lars eat lunch had been enough to send Justin to the rail more than once.
So it shouldn't have bothered Justin that they might not be able to keep the Ingrid, but it did. Justin still had hopes that he would outgrow the seasickness. Or maybe grow used to it. After all, Ranstroms had been sailors as long as codfish had had fins. Or so his Grandpa Ranstrom had said. It was unthinkable that he, a Ranstrom, wouldn't be a sailor. And it would be a lot easier to be a sailor if the Ranstroms still had a boat.
And there was another thing. There was the day that there had been a boat without a Ranstrom. Charlie Holbeck, on the Mollie B, had found the Ingrid drifting on a gentle swell, lines hanging limp in the water, and no sign of old Anders Ranstrom anywhere.
"Heart attack, most likely," the Sheriff had said. "These old barnacles, go out fishing all alone. Too ornery to pay attention to the symptoms. Next thing you know, it's over the side with 'em."
Sell the Ingrid? Haul her up on the beach to rot away? That couldn't be, Justin thought. If anything, start the engine and point her west. Set a small fire below decks. Give her a proper Viking funeral.
Later that evening Lars returned. Justin braced himself for the wisecracks or the demand to turn over the computer, but, luckily, after checking in with Mom and Dad, Lars went straight to his room. Unluckily, it reminded Mom of what time it was, and she ordered Justin off the computer and to bed.
"Ok, Mom, in just a minute," Justin replied. He closed down the game, but, before shutting down, he thought of something and opened up the email. He clicked on Jessica's address, then typed in a cryptic "Come over tomorrow, got something to show you," and sent it off.
Justin hurriedly washed up and brushed his teeth, then was sent back to do a proper job of it. He went to his room, put on his pajamas, and retrieved his book from the daypack. With luck, he'd manage to get to the end of the battle before his light was ordered off. His fingers brushed the chain of the amulet, so he pulled it out and held it up to the light. It was a little disappointing now that he had a second look at it, just dangling there, doing nothing. Part of Justin's imagination had been hoping something might happen. Nothing much. Maybe just a little flicker of light or something. But nothing happened. He again decided it was just some cheap jewelry and dropped it into his sock drawer.
He slid under the covers and started on the next chapter, where the battle between Hildr and Grimr was starting to get serious. Justin's room was right next to Lars'. He could hear him through the thin walls, talking on his cellphone.
"Yeah...Me'n'Chuck'n'Eddie....We were down at the Shipwreck Burger…There was this old bum, dumpster diving in back. We chased him...Shoulda seen it! He was like making faces and talking crazy at us."
That's just like Lars, Justin thought. Took three of them to chase one old bum.
Sally Ranstrom poked her head into Justin's room. "Lights out, Justin. Save some dragons for tomorrow."