The sea stretched out in front of Michael in a sullen, grey, oily sheet. With monotonous regularity it flopped a half-hearted wave at his feet and tried to haul itself up the shelving beach, lost its grip and slipped, with a hiss and rattle of shingle, back into itself.
An ominous feeling of expectancy hung in the still, heavy, humid air, making it difficult to breath.
Michael squatted on his haunches. His left hand searched the beach beside him for flat stones, whilst with the other he flicked the stones into the sea. Each one disappeared at once with a loud plop. It wasn't fair, he thought. Other boys could do it, time after time, and he'd never done it once.
He tried again. Plop. Again. Plop. His left hand passed another stone to his right, groped, felt a smooth, oval, flat stone.
"Wish I could make it skip, just a bit!" he thought. The stone left his hand and skidded over the water, touching the surface once - twice - then dived in. He stood up.
"Cor!" he said aloud. He was about to throw the stone in his hand, but looked down at it. It was pink, translucent, with thin, white veins running through it.
"Too pretty to throw," he thought, and keeping it in his left hand he stooped and picked another. Like the first, it skipped twice, then sank. He tried again and again, keeping the pretty pink stone in his left hand, and every one skipped twice then sank.
"Wish I could get one to go on for ever and ever!" he thought, already unimpressed by his new-found skill. The stone he was about to throw seemed to leave his hand of its own volition, and shot off almost parallel to the heaving surface of the ocean. It dipped, lightly touched the surface, rose, dipped again, and again, on and on, until his dazzled eyes lost sight of it. He stood dumbfounded.
"Again!" he shouted, and threw another. It skipped off out of sight. Another. The same. And again, and again, faster and faster, until the surface of the sea seemed covered with skipping stones.
Without thinking, he threw the pink stone that had been in his left hand all this time. It plopped into the sea at his feet, and as the wave receded it lay glistening and sparkling on the edge of the water. He bent and picked it up again.
It seemed to have become even hotter and more humid. A storm was brewing. Michael's teeshirt clung uncomfortably to hishe thought. salty back. "Wish it wasn't so hot!" At once a breeze sprang up from behind him, ruffling his blond curls. He looked down at the stone in his hand, and a mad, wild thought came into his head.
He looked around him for somethingto try out his startling theory on. Further along the beach and higher up, his sister Jill was walking slowly along the high tide line, scanning the flotsam and jetsam for anything worthwhile. That was all she ever seemed to do on the beach. She usually found something. Once, she found four pound coins, and Dad had let her keep them. She had all the luck, and she always got her own way, because she was older - nearly ten - and a girl. It wasn't fair.
"I wish she'd just disappear," Michael said, quietly and deliberately. Then he gave a little, gasping cry. His sister had vanished. The stone dropped from his hand, and just as suddenly she reappeared. He stooped and picked it up. "Again!" he said, and she was gone. He stood and stared at the spot where she had been. Perhaps she had just bent down out of sight to pick something up? He waited for what seemed an age. She didn't come back. He began to feel frightened. What would Dad say? Even worse, what would Mum say? "Didn't mean it!" he burst out, and there was his sister, unconcerned, walking slowly away from him as before.
Michael sat down on the shingle beach and looked at the pink stone in his hand, then he thought very hard. What did he want more than anything else in the world? Loads of money! No. How could he have not thought of it before? He looked up to where his father sat alone, dozing under the sea wall, then, gripping the stone very hard in his left hand, he closed his eyes tight and wished.
"Please, please, please, magic stone," he begged, "Get Mum and Dad back together!" He waited, not daring to open his eyes. Perhaps it wouldn't work straight away, anyhow. Mum was back at home. Perhaps, when Dad took them home, she'd come out to meet him, smiling like she used to, and they'd all go inside together. Just because she wasn't there when he opened his eyes, didn't mean it hadn't worked.
He opened his eyes slightly, and peeped towards his father. Dad was standing up now, and somebody else was standing beside him. They moved closer together. It had worked! Dad turned towards him and beckoned. With a cry of "Mum! Dad!" he scrambled to his feet and pounded up the beach, head down, his feet slipping and sliding on the shingle.
As he came up to where his father stood, there was a rumble of distant thunder. "Time to go, son!" Michael looked around him. There was no sign of Mum. He felt a sickening jolt in his stomach, and looked down at his left hand. It was empty.
"My stone!" he screamed in horror. Hot tears ran down his cheeks as he broke into racking sobs. Jill rolled her eyes upwards in mocking contempt. Michael looked back across the yards and yards of shingle he had traverse. It was hopeless, but he must try. "Wait!" he shouted, and started running back, scanning the ground with eyes blurred with tears.
His father ran after him and picked him up. "Come on, Michael. I've got to get you back to your Mum on time, or she'll start making trouble about me seeing you."
"But......" Michael began. But what was the use? They'd never believe him. Jill would sneer at him. And even if they searched the beach, and against all probability found the stone, it would be Jill who found it. She always did have all the luck. And then it would be Jill's stone, and what would she wish for?
© Chris Gutteridge 1996