I stood on the bowsprit as we sailed Biscayne Bay.
The wind swept the swelter of the sun from my skin.
A bucket of Noon rain had dumped and now steamed up from the decks of the Annie Lee, taking my troubles—real and imagined—with it.
“Annie!” Dad hollered from the cockpit. “Check our depth.”
I startled and scrambled for the world’s longest mop handle and jabbed it into the water until it struck bottom. “Six feet!” I read from the notches Dad had carved in the pole. “Six and a half… six and a half!” We drew four feet, so I knew we were okay for the moment. I rammed the pole through the seaweed into the muddy bottom again. “Six—”
The pole stuck fast in the mud.
In a split-second reflex, I clung to the stick and the Annie Lee sailed out from under my feet.
The pole sunk deeper in the mud as I wrapped my arms and legs around it—suspended over the bay like a girl shish kabob. “Daaaad!” I clung to the pole while my brain registered I wasn’t reading this in Nancy Drew, but living it.
My brother jumped up and down on the aft deck screeching, “Daddy, Daddy! Annie lost the boat!”
I caught a fleeting glimpse of R.J.’s sun-toasted face gone pale as my toes touched bay. “This water is freezing.” I yelled at the Annie Lee’s transom. “There’s mud down here! I hate seaweed! God only knows what’s slithering around in here!”
Cold fingers of water and fear climbed my ribs as I inched down the pole. Dad would rescue me, but the barracuda and hammerhead I’d met this summer still lived between my ears.
In up to my neck and treading water with one hand, I kicked slimy kelp.
The chill crawled up my scalp as my hair slurped sea, morphing into soggy noodles.
Water lapped into my mouth and I tried to spit out the salty taste and my fear, but they hung around.
I peered at the shoreline. I could swim that far if I had to.
Clouds bunched their way across the horizon, white bumper cars converging and parting.
In the distance, Dad dropped sail. The anchor would be next. I knew Dad wouldn’t about-face the Annie Lee in shallow water to fetch me.
Should I swim for the boat and drag the stupid pole along?
While I debated, Dad landed on cat feet in the dinghy, shoved the oars into the oarlocks. He glanced over his shoulder to get a bead on my location.
Dad’s shoulders and arms flexed and relaxed under his T-shirt as he stroked.
Dad always loomed larger than life, but today as I watched him, he approached super-hero status.
At last he coasted up beside me. He grabbed my forearms and hauled me into the boat with a grunt. I couldn’t read his tight-lipped expression.
I inhaled the scent of Dad’s sweat and safety as I landed in a soggy lump in the bottom of the dinghy.
Dad braced his legs and yanked the pole from the bay in one heave.
The pole clattered where he dropped it—one end extended over the bow, the other oozing mud into the water behind the dinghy.
As I launched into a litany of every little detail Dad needed to know about my lapse overboard, I thought about how good it felt to be rescued.
I usually felt left to fend for myself.
Normal was bumping my knees against the ring where Mom and Dad went rounds in a marital bout. When they shed their mouth guards and gloves, and stepped off the mat into Mom and Dad, they were black and blue and beat.
I walked alone two stints of kindergarten—Miami and LA. My barracuda and shark were a graffiti-scrawled tunnel and a freeway bridge where cars whizzed by my elbow, blowing exhaust in my hair.
At seven, I rode two Miami buses to ballet, poised on my knees with my hand at half-mast beneath the pull cord.
I fixed my own breakfast every day. And once or twice I forgot and fainted in school.
My third grade picture—put down for posterity in the family album—is a shot of the Pippi Longstocking braids I did myself.
Mom pasted a smile on life, as if a Groucho Marx nose and mustache could make happy.
But when I really needed them—like today—my parents came through.
They whisked me to the hospital when I downed a bottle of baby aspirin as a kid.
Mom carted me to the orthodontist to un-buck my teeth, the orthopedist to fix my inward-turning feet—with ballet, saddle shoes, and nighttime boots nailed east and west on a plywood board.
Dad taught me how to pinch a penny, skin a fish, and feel things deep down in my gullet.
Back on the Annie Lee, before my suit completely dried, Dad spotted the cove he’d been looking for. We’d tie up along the seawall and head inland.
But we dropped sail too late and came in hot against the concrete.
A crunch sounded as the Annie Lee sideswiped the rough wall, skinning off
a two-foot section of fiberglass, resin, and paint.
I gritted my teeth. We should be called the Four Stooges instead of the Fettermans.
But Dad went grimly about tying the Annie Lee to nearby pines, positioning the bumpers to insure there’d be no more blunders today.
We tumbled out onto land and traipsed after Dad.
My mood had swung south with Dad’s. I swatted a mosquito from my sweaty neck and braced myself for an afternoon digging clams with my fingernails or wading through mangrove swamp hunting antique bottles.
Dad stopped and my nose bashed into his shoulder blade.
A rope swung in the breeze from the high reaches of a banyan tree. Sun dappled the smooth green water below.
My mouth dropped open.
A tree-gnarled Nirvana.
I glanced at R.J. and saw my grin written on his face.
Dad climbed down the bank and scouted the rope’s span for rocks and logs. Satisfied, he caught the rope with a dead branch and pushed it into my waiting hands.
I swung out into air and let go. Cucumber crisp water closed around me, encasing me in a delicious coolness I’d thought frigid when I fell overboard.
An hour later, I perched on a sprawling tree root at water’s edge, breathing hard. Rivulets ran down my arms. I wrung the moisture from my hair and watched my family swing and drop like ice cubes into the cove.
R.J. did a cannon ball, Dad a jackknife, and Mom, a graceless plop.
I laughed at R.J.’s next let-go. His arms and legs flailed in mid-air before landing in the water.
I savored this sweetest day of childhood—not realizing it would shine through the stormy seas ahead.
If you ever wonder how much truth goes into fiction, read the fictionalized excerpts from Tattered Innocence below.
Two days later, Rachel sprawled on the deck, playing “I Spy” with Katie, who was nearly swallowed up in an orange lifejacket. Cole, his hair sticking out in tufts from under his ball cap, kibitzed nearby.
“Rachel!” Jake shouted against the wind.
“What?” she yelled back.
“Check the depth. The pole is on the starboard foredeck. We draw six feet, but I want eight to ten with all this seaweed.”
Not taking time to pull a T-shirt over her Speedo swimsuit, Rachel scrambled over the top of the cabin to snatch the pole. She sounded for the bottom with quick jabs of Jake’s world’s-longest-mop-handle.
They sailed at four knots, she calculated. She called out the measurements notched into the wood, “Seven feet… seven and a half… seven and a half―”
The pole stuck fast in the mud. In a split-second reflex, Rachel clung to the stick and the Smyrna Queen sailed out from under her feet.
She felt the pole sink deeper in the mud while she suspended over the ocean like a human shish kabob. “Hey, wait! Jacob Murray, don’t you dare leave me here! You come back and get me this minute!” She slid toward the water, her life-long fear of abandonment freakishly played out. She could feel her rational mind shutting down in slow motion like hitches in a YouTube video.
Katie jumped up and down on the deck screeching, “Grandpa, Grandpa, Rachel lost the boat!” Rachel caught a fleeting glimpse of Cole’s white face as her feet touched water. “This water is freezing!” she yelled at the Queen’s transom. “It’s your fault, Jake. Your fault. Why didn’t you tell me there was mud down here?” Cold fingers of water climbed her ribs as she inched down the pole.
In up to her neck and treading water with one hand, her foot kicked against slimy kelp fronds. No one could hear her now. I hate seaweed. Jaws could be hiding in here. Her chest quivered. This was what alone felt like. A chill crawled up her scalp as her hair slurped seawater, morphing into a dozen soggy snakes.
Water lapped into her mouth and she spit out the salty taste and her fear. She peered over her shoulder at the shoreline. She could swim that far if she had to. In the distance, she saw the Queen’s sails drop. The anchor would be next. At least Jake wasn’t going to leave her. But she knew he wouldn’t start the motor in this shallow water and risk getting seaweed tangled in the propeller. Did he expect her to swim for the Queen?
Several minutes later she watched him drop into the dinghy and row toward her. “Hurry up, I’m freezing!” she yelled when he rowed into earshot. She counted five seconds, watching the muscles flex across his back and arms as he stroked, until he glanced over his shoulder at her. Eons later, he coasted up beside her.
He grabbed her forearms and hauled her into the boat, his lips zipped into a white line of anger. Rachel landed in a lump on the bottom of the dinghy. Jake braced his legs and yanked the pole from the ocean in one heave. The pole clattered where he dropped it—one end extended over the bow, the other oozing mud into the water behind the dinghy.
Rachel wrapped herself into a ball and narrowed her eyes at Jake as he skimmed an oar through the water with powerful strokes, spinning the bow back toward the Queen.
Before the thought fully formed in her mind, she threw herself at Jake, soaking him with her sodden hair, suit, and skin.
He fell back off the seat and caught himself before hitting his head on the bow of the boat. “What the―?”
She untangled herself from his limbs and squatted on the bottom of the boat. “There. See how you like being a cryogenics experiment in this wind.”
Jake pulled himself back onto the seat, squinting at Rachel as though she’d come totally unglued. She lifted her chin and stared over his shoulder toward the horizon.
Jake peeled off his T-shirt and flung it at her. He jerked his head. “Come here.” He slid to one side of the bench.
Rachel pulled Jake’s damp shirt over her head, poked her arms through the sleeves, and crawled onto the plank.
Jake rubbed her arms as if he were trying to sand off her gooseflesh with his callused hands. “This will warm you up.” He slapped an oar into her hands. “Stroke… stroke… stroke… stroke….”
Rachel gritted her chattering teeth and rowed. He acted like such an oaf. But maybe she’d warmed a tenth of a degree.
Applause ruffled across the afterdeck as they approached the Queen.
“You’ve got a feisty one there, Cap’n. Yes sir.” George heckled. “I wouldn’t get into a fight with her if I were you. Bet she keeps you in line.”
The others laughed with George while Katie clung to her grandpa’s hand, staring at Rachel as though she’d come back from the dead. Cole flashed his dimples at her.
Holding fast to the Queen with one hand, Jake propelled Rachel up the ladder with an iron grip under her armpit.
“Would it have killed you to join this century and spring for an electronic depth sounder?” she muttered. She kicked at him, wishing for a better angle as her toes barely connected with his ribs. The brute. She’d sport a collection of bruises by tomorrow.
Tremors of embarrassment or chill―she couldn’t tell which―shook her body, forcing her lip between her teeth as she bumbled up the ladder and ducked into the nearby after-cabin. Later, Jake climbed down the ladder into the room.
She ran the brush through her wet hair, temper cooled, chagrin settling in. “Jake?”
He grunted through the clean T-shirt he pulled over his face.
“Sorry about all the drama.”
He sat on the edge of his bunk and pulled on a sock. “Evidently, our guests find hysteria entertaining.” He finished tying his shoe and stood to leave.
Rachel studied the pinpoints of black in the brown of his eyes. She knew the whole episode had been an accident, but Jake’s disdain still stung. “Gabrielle wouldn’t have put on a show?”
He climbed up the ladder. “Gabrielle’s not here.”
Tattered Innocence Rope Swing Excerpt
Later that afternoon, Rachel darted in front of the plaid boxers and soggy shorts that hung from Nigel’s ebony hips and snatched the line from his hands. “Thanks a million!” she yelled as she leapt from the bank. The impact of the cool, green water closing around her encased her in a delicious microcosm of all that was good about crewing for Jake.
Perched on sprawling tree roots at water’s edge, she wrung the moisture out of her hair and watched the boys swing out and drop like ice cubes into the water of the cove.
Jake and the boys paraded cannon balls and jack knives into the cove. She tried, unsuccessfully, to imagine Bret doing the head-first “watermelon” Jake did.
Jake slumped onto the bank nearby, breathing hard. Rivulets ran down his arms and back. His breathing slowed, and he looked up at her. Water slicked his curls flat against his head. The sun picked up golden flecks in the brown of his eyes.
Her breath caught, and she refocused on Keenan whose arms and legs flailed in mid-air before he hit the water. She squashed down the popping and fizzing inside her—the same sensation that had lured her to Bret.
She darted a glance back at Jake. He’d drawn up his knees, chin resting on his folded arms as he gazed at the far bank.
“Thinking about Gabrielle?”
“Y—” He twisted his head toward her. “Let me have a private thought, would you?”
“Excuse me for caring.” Rachel climbed the bank and got in line with the boys. Obviously, Gabrielle was the only one causing any popping and fizzing for Jake.
Jake peered over his shoulder at Rachel.
She stood between Pete and Keenan, her back to him, saying something that made the boys laugh.
His eyes drifted over her ringlet-covered shoulders, the one-piece Speedo, her long legs. He caught Nigel doing the same, male appreciation written on his face.
Jake jerked his chin in the opposite direction. He wanted Gabs. Not Rachel. Gabrielle.
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