We’d sailed out of Biscayne Bay into the rumpled, navy blue bedspread of the Atlantic an hour ago. The last shadow of land disappeared and familiar fear funneled into my rib cage—not that we’d capsize or get lost at sea, not on Dad’s watch. But I could wake up in my bunk in Bimini, Panama, or Tunis trapped in my toxic family on the Annie Lee with no way to freedom.
Whiteness bore down on the white-painted decks, our zinc oxide-whitened skin, and the whites of our eyes.
Under the white brim of Dad’s pith helmet, he smiled faintly and glanced at the cotton bunching in the bleached blue sky. He was a man who’d found freedom. He’d broken out of Ohio, the ever burgeoning Fetterman clan that sprung from his railroad-man father and his dad’s ten siblings.
The Fettermans worked, played, procreated, and wintered in pea coats. Wind burnished their faces when they rode horses, drove with the windows down, or cheered at high school football games.
And some of them, like my grandfather, drank to find their freedom.
When things were good between Mom and Dad, he talked about sailing around the world, homeschooling me and R.J. with Calvert Curriculum.
I’d be Cinderella, minus the prince.
I glanced through the main hatch at Mom spreading peanut butter on one hundred percent whole wheat. Her lips pressed into a white line.
I couldn’t remember the last time Dad mentioned circumnavigation.
For me, freedom and Dad couldn’t co-exist in the same forty linear feet—the length of the Annie Lee. If he wasn’t laying on chores, he was criticizing the ones I’d already done.
The wind petered out all afternoon. By three p.m. the ocean lapped lazy wavelets against our hull.
White pricked a million tiny crests on the water. It baked through my T-shirt, ran sweat down my sternum, and made me count the hours till the weekend would end and we could go home.
Dad threw out the tow rope.
I grabbed my mask, spit in it, rubbed saliva over the inside of the glass to keep it from fogging, and rolled over the Annie Lee’s transom into cool blue freedom.
Usually it was the green murk of Dinner Key Marina I dropped into—and swam down the dock, stacking boats between me and Dad’s expectations.
My everyday-freedom wore a green St. Hugh’s Catholic School uniform and counted the exclamation points of praise Sister Sheila wrote on my essays. It huddled under the green shade of Bismarck palms in the air conditioning of Coconut Grove Library.
R.J. doggy-paddled the length of the tow rope and back again.
I did a surface dive, the sea soothing my hot skin. I floated on my stomach.
The sun shot pale arrows of light into sapphire water.
I dove deeper into midnight blue, chilled like sweet tea.
I looked back at the keel and the hull suspended like the Goodyear Blimp in a bottomless, ultramarine sky.
Near the bow, a boat length away, a long, thin fish played cat and mouse with a grouper.
I sprinted toward R.J. who treaded water at the stern. The word barracuda formed in my throat as I rousted R.J. up the ladder.
I catalogued whether I had any blood-emitting cuts or shiny jewelry on my person. I curled my legs under me, heart racing, while my brother cleared the bottom step. Before today, I’d only seen dead barracuda.
Topside, Dad treated my fear of the barracuda like my spider phobia, a silly girl thing. He grabbed his mask and snorkel, spear gun and slipped overboard.
No way was I eating that fish for supper.
Blessedly, Sunday afternoon found us running at eight knots into Biscayne Bay. We’d be home by three p.m. at this speed.
Recalling a close call with Dad’s colorblindness, I eyed the buoy we barreled toward, dredging up the navigational ditty we needed. Just as red-right-returning rose from the sludge of my brain, the Annie Lee’s keel ground to a halt on the sandy shoal.
Six hours later, white sun oranged and died over Miami. The tide had gone out, and the Annie Lee listed to a fun-house tilt in a foot of water. Only nobody was having fun.
The Coast Guard motored up. A white hull sashed with orange and hatted by a mini radio tower was barely visible. Running lights warmed the dark and filled my eyes with hope. But they didn’t even try to pull us off. They’d come back in daylight after the tide change.
On Monday at high tide, the Coast Guard slung us a tow rope, and gunned their engine. Again. A third time.
The Annie Lee dug in her heels, folded her arms, and didn’t budge.
The Coast Guard passed us bologna sandwiches and said they’d come back and try again.
The day stretched out long and dull.
I monkeyed under the bowsprit and sat on the chain, my legs dangling in the water—my place to get away. I stared at Stiltsville in the distance, houses built on ten-foot pilings in the bay, and wondered if the people who lived in them felt as trapped as I did. For two days I’d watched the muscle jump in Dad’s jaw, Mom narrowing her eyes. I’d been tangled in the man-o-war tentacles of tension running between them—never figuring out who was stinging whom.
On Tuesday morning at high tide, the biggest Coast Guard cutter I’d ever seen chugged toward us. Her engines vibrated in my body and churned mud from the bottom.
I gripped the cockpit’s coaming as the Annie Lee caved to a force too strong to fight. At last she floated free.
We jumped up and down and shouted.
But the Coast Guard didn’t own cutter big enough to pull a marriage off the shoals.
Mom found her freedom within the year in a leafy house, tucked away near Merrie Christmas Park—without Dad. In the process, she freed me, too. But I learned a lesson I’d keep on learning the rest of my life—freedom never comes for free.
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