Jason Telford had walked the beaches of the Delaware shore all his life. His parents would bring him down to the Inlet to play in the sand and the surf and to watch the tankers head into the Delaware Bay on their way to the oil refineries. He collected shells, and later driftwood, as a memento of each visit. After graduating from nursing school, he took a job at a medical center near the Delaware shore and purchased a condo in Bethany Beach.
The aftermath of a severe summer thunderstorm was always a good time to search for driftwood. Last night’s storm had been fierce. Loud cracks of thunder had woken him several times during the night. The beach was strewn with debris washed ashore, the usual seaweed and stranded animals – horseshoe crabs, jellyfish, small sea turtles, and an occasional fish – and driftwood.
What Jason didn’t expect to find on the beach was a woman, half-buried in seaweed and clutching a piece of driftwood. He approached her cautiously, calling out to her to let her know that he was coming to help her. When she failed to respond, he knelt over her and checked for a pulse. She was alive, unconscious, and soaked to the bone. He dialed 911 to report his discovery.
Jason went with her in the ambulance to the community medical center where he worked. She was admitted as a Jane Doe by the state police and placed in a room where she was photographed and fingerprinted. At the shift change, he caught a ride back to the condos with one of the other nurses.
“That’s quite an interesting piece of driftwood you found today,” Marianne joked. She didn’t know Jason all that well, but they had worked a few late night shifts together when there was little to do but talk. It also wasn’t the first time that they had carpooled between the condos and work, although usually he was driving.
“Funny you should mention that,” he said while grabbing his bag out from the back seat. “I’d forgotten that she’d been clutching a piece of wood when I found her.” He rummaged through his bag for a few minutes before giving up the search. “I must have left it on the beach.” He tossed his bag into the back seat and started tapping his legs with his thumbs.
“It’s probably been washed back out with the tide,” Marianne said. “Probably wasn’t important anyway.” She pulled the car up in front of his condo. “We’re here,” she chirped.
Jason pulled his bag out from the back seat and exited the car. “You’re right,” he held the door open, “It probably washed out to sea.” He closed the car door and watched her drive off. “I wouldn’t want to be caught withholding evidence now, would I?” he said under his breath.
Inside his condo, he dumped out the contents of his bag and quickly latched on to one piece of wood. It was gray like old driftwood, about two feet long, but it had writing on it. He spent most of the night trying to read the faded letters before falling asleep on his couch.
The glare of the morning sun bouncing off the piece of driftwood revealed the hidden letters to his blinking eyes. The whole of the driftwood glistened in the bright sunlight, except where the painted words had been. They were words that are usually found on a cross-stitch sampler: “HOME SWEET HOME”. The words were clearly visible, but were they useful?