If chores built character, I’d be a twelve-year-old Mother Theresa. Today, on a perfect summer morning, I stood in Annie Lee’s porthole-less gloom washing last night’s marinara from Mom’s sailboat emblazoned Melmac.
Fish bones floated in the dying suds, making me shudder. Picking bones out of spaghetti was wrong on so many levels.
Six-year-old R.J. had found something more interesting to do than dry dishes. Dad puttered above deck. Mom slept off her hospital night shift in the bow. The boat echoed quiet—always. Sometimes I wished Mom and Dad would yell at each other like the hotheads on the rundown cabin cruiser next door.
I bargained for my freedom by promising Dad I’d wash down the cockpit after lunch.
Matt and Kate Canfield and I left our little brothers lying on their bellies peering over the edge of the dock watching for a manatee somebody spotted earlier.
I shuddered, hoping we didn’t run face to face into the big ugly thing. They were plant eaters, but grew bigger than we were.
We climbed down the Pier 1 ladder, sneakers clenched in our teeth by the laces, into the bay.
We treaded water, looked both ways, and darted into the channel.
A marine engine gunned a couple piers over, and I scrabbled faster with my three appendage stroke, shoes aloft in one hand.
No Wake signs had been posted at the end of our pier, but boats barreled through the marina channel at high speeds a dozen times a day. I glanced back at Pier 1 to see if our parents stood on the T, drinking coffee and chatting, ready to shake their fists at law breakers, but no luck.
My shoes felt like they weighed ten pounds, and my breath wheezed in and out of my throat.
Kate and Matt matched my snaggled crawl.
A Checkmate powered toward us, looming twice as big as it looked from the dock.
“Oh, crap,” Matt panted.
“Hey! Don’t run us over!” Kate hollered.
The rumble of the engine drowned out her voice.
We swam for all we were worth.
The pilot saw us, cut the engine to a crawl. “Are you kids crazy? I coulda killed you.”
Lucky for the pilot we were winded, or Matt would have had choice words to say about his speed.
We touched bottom and hauled ourselves, chests heaving, onto the beach. We brushed sand from our feet and donned our semi-dry tennis shoes while spitting out smart-mouthed retorts we should have said to the speedboat driver.
Matt unrolled a soggy notebook paper map of the portion of the island we’d explored last time—which wasn’t much. Two steps off the beach, we’d yelped and yanked sand spurs from our feet—thus the extreme effort to transport shoes today. Kate must not have minded the sand spurs since she grew up to be an acupuncturist.
We hiked into the scraggly trees, Kate in the lead, as usual, even though I was three years older. As an adult, I still happily traipse after Kate.
We hiked through underbrush, so pristine and scratchy on our shins, we were sure no man had ever gone before us. At the tip of the island, wind gusted our salt-stiffened hair against our faces—raising squawks of surprise from me and Kate.
Matt’s summer-shaggy head bent over a perfectly preserved fish skeleton. “Duh. Why do you think they call it Windbreak Island?” He’d go on to earn three master’s degrees.
We harrumphed and marched down the beach on other side of the island, Kate scooping up half a conch shell and rubbing her thumb over the smooth, pink underbelly.
I stooped to pick up a piece of blue glass, admiring how the sun warmed it green—the dank quiet of the Annie Lee seemed far away.
“Look! Another island!” Kate shouted.
Matt came up beside us, his fish skeleton forgotten.
The three of us stared, open-mouthed—like Columbus sighting the New World—at the second island snugged behind Windbreak Island.
A ribbon of light water stretched between the islands as though they held hands. It took my brain a second to recall from multiple sailing aground experiences that light color meant shallows. “A sand bar!”
Matt tore past me, his legs pumping as fast as he could make them go.
Kate and I took off after him.
Matt careened across the sandbar, high-stepping through calf-deep water until it sloshed above his knees and he face-planted in the surf. He righted himself, and pressed on until he made virgin soil. He turned and faced us, chest puffed out, grinning.
Kate and I sloshed up and collapsed under a tree.
Matt was all for exploring the new land, but Kate and I smacked at the sand fleas munching on our skin and voted for home, food, and a long list of necessities for our next trip—by dinghy.
We waded back across the sandbar, our shoes heavy with grainy silt and water.
Sun fried us from above and reflected up in white rods from the water till it burned fleshy pink through our eyelids.
Kate and I stepped into the brush at the narrow belly of Windbreak Island.
Matt stopped to poke a bug-brown horseshoe crab the size of one of Mom’s Melmac plates.
My stomach growled. “Hurry up!”
Matt ignored me.
Kate and I trudged onto our beach, deciding to swim back to the pier in our shoes.
“Let’s go,” Kate said as Matt appeared.
“Wait!” Matt dug furiously, flinging sand through his legs like Deliah, their English bulldog. “I have to bury my treasure.”
In went his sinister horseshoe shell, Kate’s conch piece, and my blue bottle chunk.
The three of us dropped to our knees and pushed sand over the hole—one of a thousand moments that cemented us like cousins for life.
Matt marked the spot with a stick, hatted by a crumpled Michelob can.
We slumped into the cool green arms of the water, looked both ways and swam for our lunch.
Whether divine intervention or sweet twists of fate our families moved ashore within months of each other—into Coconut Grove mere blocks apart. And, after a lapse of two and a half years when my family lived in Stuart, only Faulkner Street Elementary and a few houses separated us in New Smyrna Beach during the second half of my high school and my college years. The Canfields weren’t blood relatives, but they were my people, just the same.
On my first Thanksgiving in New Smyrna Beach I climbed down from the Old Fort ruins in the center of town and walked along Riverside Drive toward the Canfields’ white Victorian.
Five minutes later I knocked on the kitchen door.
The door flung open and thirteen-year-old Kate yelled, “It’s Annie!” She pulled me through the door by the wrist—as if I needed any encouragement to step into the scents of turkey and sweet potatoes and pie.
Kate’s mother, Anita, looked up from a bowl she was stirring. “Just the person I was looking for!”
I lifted my brows, curious. In the divvy of friends after my folks’ divorce, Dad got the Canfields. But lucky for me, even acerbic Anita kept me and R.J.
Twelve-year-old Matt looked up from where he hunched over a book at the dining table.
Their dad, Dick, walked into the room and I grinned. I couldn’t help it. If kids got the choice, I would have picked him out of the shop window for a dad.
“Happy Thanksgiving.” Dick smiled at us all like he’d called a meeting. He focused on me. “We have a proposition for you. Anita and I want to get away the first weekend in December. Would you like to stay with the kids? We don’t trust anyone else. If you can’t do it, we’ll stay home.”
I looked at the warm moisture condensing on the windows while my grin surged through the rest of my body. “I’d love to.”
Eleven-year-old Scottie bounded into the room. “Can R.J. come, too?”
“Only during the day,” Dick said. He eyeballed Kate. “Can you keep your nose clean for a weekend?”
She narrowed her eyes at her father, barely into first gear of her teen rebellion, then glanced at me. “Yeah. Okay.” Despite the three-and-a-half years between us, Kate and I had bonded in Biscayne Bay. And we both knew she would always be boss.
Dick’s gaze shifted to Matt’s shaggy head. “Matthew?”
Matt shut his book and I glimpsed Civil War in the title. “Sure, no problem.”
I loved that kid. He was as bull-headed as he was intelligent. And somehow—miraculously I thought—we’d always gotten along well.
“Okay, it’s settled.” Dick folded his arms, satisfied.
Scottie piped up. “Hey, aren’t you going to ask me to behave?”
We all laughed. Scottie, though tough-willed himself, was the compliant Canfield.
I scuffed my way home, a smile still hiking the corners of my lips.
If the Annie Lee and her cache of fish bones and hidden hazards had been cloaked in gloom,I still basked in sunshine of my Canfield “cousins.”