Marceline Fiole had almost decided to quit going to the beach. This was not out of any concern over sun-induced skin cancer or gritty sand tucked away in those sensitive spots hidden by her bikini bottoms or even being hit upon by amorous beach bums with a fling on their testosteroned minds. It was the sealed bottles she kept finding washed ashore nearly every time she strolled along the shoreline. And not just any sealed bottles, but sealed bottles with messages inside them! How was this possible? Had it become yet another idiotic trendy thing to do? Who were all these people who wasted their time — and more important, the precious time of the finders — stuffing bottles with ridiculous communications from afar with some aberrant expectation that they would receive a reply? Marceline equated it to the very similar and yet vastly pricier foolishness of astronomers sending willynilly signals right and left across space in the hopes of aliens in far-flung worlds picking them up and saying, “Oh, wow! Here’s a cryptic message from a planet two-hundred light years away! I guess we better drop everything and answer it immediately so maybe it’ll arrive in time for Christmas in the year 2215.” It thus might be conjectured that Marceline Fiole harbored a sardonic and perhaps even a somewhat cynical bent of mind. Either way, all these bottles cast off by whom she regarded as nothing more than asinine litterbugs irritated the hell out of her and was somehow spoiling her weekend.
Some people thought it indisputably romantic about casting a missive into the sea and wondering where wind and current might convey it. Marceline, au contraire, found it inane. Some, if not all of the bottled messages she’d uncorked were simply preposterous. Castaways, ghost messages, unfinished business, love potions, memos to mom, lifesavers, come-ons, hooks, lures, last words, contests, class projects, and on and on. The Internet was rife with examples. The few that she’d thought made any sense at all were the scientific ones with a practical purpose, like those of measuring ocean currents and whatnot, not that this method was necessary anymore what with today’s technology — though in 310 BC Greek philosopher Theophrastus found this method quite useful as part of an experiment to show that the Mediterranean Sea was formed by the inflowing Atlantic Ocean. The ones from stranded sailors, on the other hand, were only realistic if the message was received and attended to before the crew starved to death or was devoured by sharks. Marceline hadn’t tripped across any bottles of that nature, however. In any case, mobile phones and the Internet were far more pragmatic and immediate for such rescues.
During this particular morning’s stroll along the beach, which took Marceline beneath a pier that jutted a hundred yards into the ocean, she was no longer surprised to eye yet another bottle floating aimlessly back and forth in shallow water. She thought at first to ignore it and move past, but then paused, suspecting that the bottle, through the ebb and flow of the waves, might eventually smash against one of the piles supporting the pier and create a potential hazard for other walkers. It also occurred to her that the bottle itself might be of some worth. And so she sloshed into the water and retrieved the sealed glass container, which she vaguely recognized from recent googling into bottle types as perhaps a rare, olive green New England chestnut bottle. And for the first time she found herself mildly excited by the find. As she recalled, this type of bottle had been around since ancient times. It was not round but more flask-shaped, and about eight inches in height. Once out from beneath the pier, she held it up to the sunlight, but it was oddly semi-opaque and all she could detect was an amorphous shadow inside. She decided that she would take it home with her and check it out on the Internet to be more sure. If it was old enough, it might even be valuable—unlike the others she’d come across, read their idiotic contents, and then tossed into the dumpster near where she was staying. And if it wasn’t, she thought she might still keep it, for it was a lovely piece of glass-work and would look very nice on a shelf she had in her den back home. That was her only consolation. She also hoped to God that there was no message inside.
With bottle tucked under arm, Marceline turned to continue her stroll when she peripherally noticed a man wearing a swimming suit and a T-shirt waving aloft one free hand while clutching a pair of binoculars in the other, trotting in her direction from atop a nearby sand hill to her right. He seemed to be calling out to her. She slowed her pace and inclined her head toward him, feeling a slight tug of uncertainty. Did she know him? She frowned. There was in all probability no reason that she should.
She watched him carefully as he approached, wondering if it might not be prudent for her to start running in the opposite direction. He didn’t look dangerous, however, despite a scruffy beard. More like . . . what? Agitated? Distraught? Why would he be distraught? She looked around to see if there were other beach people nearby. No. At least not close-by. It was still early.
As he drew near, he slowed down to a quick walk. Then slowed further, and finally stopped a few feet from her. He seemed out of breath. He dropped his binoculars on the sand and leaned over, hands on knees, gasping for air. After a few seconds, he raised one hand, forefinger extended in the air.
“Gimme . . . gimme a second,” he wheezed. “No . . . better make it . . . make it a-a minute . . . .”
Marceline’s initial uncertainty ebbed, replaced by amusement. She decided to wait him out, curiosity overcoming any prior urge that might have occurred to her to simply walk away.
“Whew!” he exclaimed finally, still panting. He stood up. His face was pale. “Sorry. I am really out of shape. Desk job. Hope I didn’t alarm you.”
“Are you alright?” she asked, now somewhat concerned. Was he about to have a heart attack? He seemed about forty years old or so, a risky age for cardiacs.
“Just a bit winded is all. Don’t get enough exercise.”
She regarded him for a moment, suppressing a smile. “Umm. Well, if running downhill did this, then I don’t expect you do.”
He arched his eyebrows in mild surprise, blinked, then chuckled, shrugging ruefully.
Marceline grinned back, then remembered an unanswered issue. “So, what was it you wanted to see me about? You were calling me, weren’t you?”
He nodded, then pointed at what she held under one arm. “The bottle.”
“The bottle?” Marceline looked down, then back up. “You mean this one?”
“Exactly . . . It’s mine.” His face reddened slightly.
“Yes . . . Ahem, you see . . . well, this may sound a little odd to you, but I threw it into the water several minutes ago. But . . . uh . . . it . . . well, it floated back.”
“And it wasn’t supposed to.”
“Precisely. At least not yet. Not here.”
Marceline closed her eyes. Oh, God, he’s one of those loony message-in-a-bottle tossers! Isn’t it enough to find their stupid bottles washing ashore all over the place, and now I also have to actually see one in the flesh! This is definitely not my day. She opened her eyes again.
“Let me guess. You stuck a message in this bottle, didn’t you?”
He saw her face tighten slightly, and he gulped. “Well, uh, yes, as a matter of fact . . . .”
“And you expected it to float away and end up somewhere else far away for somebody to find, right?”
“A-as an experiment, you might say, yes.”
“Excuse me, but this weekend I have managed to find this particular stretch of shoreline littered with nothing but beached bottles, each and every one carrying a message inside.”
“You have?” He seemed surprised and chagrined at the same time.
“In effect.” Marceline paused a beat, regarding this idle rascal with disapproval. “Would I be wrong to surmise that some or all those bottles prior to their corresponding launch point belonged to you?”
He blinked several times, his blush deepening. “Oh, well . . . I-I suppose that . . . that as far-fetched as it may seem, it, uh, might be . . . conceivable that some did.”
“Wait . . . D-do you mean you have in your possession all those bottles that I may or may not have, uh, as the case may be, conceivably launched over the past few days?”
She stared at him for a moment, lips pursed, then shook her head. “Only fourteen of them. The others I recycled.”
“You recycled the others?” He looked as appalled as he sounded.
“The ones not worth keeping, yes.”
“Not worth keeping?”
Marceline nodded. “Umm. They were of little if no collectible value at all, nor even particularly nice-looking. The others, though, are very definitely keepers.”
He blinked. “They are? How so?”
“Let me ask you a question first. How is it that you ‘conceivably’ had these bottles in the first place?”
“Ahem . . . Well, you see, I was cleaning out my late uncle’s garage and there are shelves of them.”
“Indeed? So you just decided to use them for bearing your messages across the seven seas.”
“Uh, yes, I guess you could say that. Although it’s now apparent that they didn’t get very far.”
“No, fortunately they did not.”
The man frowned. “Why do you say fortunately?”
“Because the fourteen bottles I kept happen to be collectors’ items. Now fifteen with this one, I’m suspecting.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean that each one of them is worth a lot of money.”
“I admit I’m no expert in bottles, but the obvious age of these naturally piqued my interest. And so I’ve been doing a little Internet exploration.”
“You have? A-and?”
Marceline cleared her throat. “And, if I am not terribly mistaken—and not counting the present bottle, mind you—you’ve shipped me what I believe to be roughly ten thousand dollars worth of rare, antique bottles . . . give or take a thousand.”
“What!” His face paled.
“Oh, they’d have to be properly appraised for a more exact figure, of course, but that seems to be the general neighborhood of their value according to my research. So I want to thank you very much.”
The man stiffened. “But-but they were not intended for you!”
Marceline wagged an index finger at him. “Oh, but they were. If they were yours in fact, you were definitely sending them to me. Otherwise, why would I have all of them in my possession now?”
“But, no! That’s not . . . that’s not how it works, not what I proposed!”
Marceline cocked her head to one side. “Oh? Then what did you propose?”
“Th-that ocean currents would carry them across the sea to other lands.”
“Well, sir, ocean currents can do that, of course. But there’s certainly no guarantee of that. Ocean currents can be quite frivolous, you know, dithery, free-floating, most particularly close to shore. Undertows, riptides, crosscurrents, countercurrents, and so on. Some things get carried out to sea; others return to the same shore. Your alleged bottles came back. To me, in fact. Ergo, I, it turns out, am the intended recipient. And I can’t tell you how delighted and grateful I am.”
“But this isn’t right! They are valuable bottles. You must return them to me.”
“Why is that? Had they reached other shores, do you think the recipient or recipients there would turn them around and send them back? And who’s to say that they would ever reach other hands at all?”
“But that’s not the case here. You have them. I am the sender. They are valuable. They should still be mine.”
Marceline eyed the man and sighed. “Excuse me, what did you say your name was?”
“Me? Why . . . Bradley. Bradley Bifford.”
“Okay, Bradley Bifford, let me explain it to you this way. You’re no doubt familiar of the adage that possession is 9/10ths of the law?”
“No? Well, perhaps I should mention that I happen to be an attorney. Sorry, but I am, so I know a thing or two about the legality of such cases. The law states, and I quote, ‘that in a property dispute, in the absence of clear and compelling testimony or documentation to the contrary, the person in actual possession of the property is presumed to be the rightful owner.’ So, for example, the shirt, trunks and flip-flops you are currently wearing are presumed to be yours, unless someone can prove that they are not.”
“But . . . .”
“I have recovered several bottles that were deliberately thrown into the sea, presumably by you, according to your claim, that is, for the express purpose of them falling into the hands of another or others, and therefore you can no longer claim them as your own. Ergo, the fact that they are in my possession makes them presumably mine now.”
With a dulcet smile Marceline Fiole nodded, bade a sputtering Bradley Bifford a pleasant good morning, and continued her stroll up the beach. She was, of course, not a lawyer, nor were any of the bottles she had collected and subsequently tossed in the trash bin worth more than a few dollars at most. Her smile persisted the rest of the way back home. Hoodwinking the bottle-tosser had wondrously transformed an otherwise nettlesome morning into quite a lovely day.