( These first two chapters really had me, so I am thrilled to be able to share them with you! Hope you enjoy! Elissa)
Off the southwest coast of Florida, a cabin cruiser bobbed on the placid water of the Gulf of Mexico. To the east, the darkening, silvery light of a gathering storm filled the skies over central Florida. Thunder clouds sent intermittent shards of lightning into the earth, illuminating the fantasy worlds built from man’s imagination. Seen from above, the exodus of people resembled ants scurrying from a hill beset by invading anteaters, and the gods laughed.
Innocent at this moment in time, Rachel Wells lay on the sun-drenched deck of the boat, drifting in blissful unawareness, lulled by the rocking sea. She absently tucked an errant, tickling curl, blown astray by the ocean breeze, behind her ear. A believer in the natural spirits of the world, Rachel silently thanked Gaia, goddess of the earth who had outdone herself today. Cotton clouds dotted the blue sky and the breeze carried the scent of sea salt. Arching her back, she lifted her chin into the salty spray that caressed her sun-kissed cheek.
“You are so beautiful,” a deep voice sang from the cockpit.
Rachel laughed and arched her back further, seductively, full breasts rising in the sparse bikini bra.
“Watch it, lady…women have been ravished for less.”
She laughed. “Anytime big fella, anytime.”
“I’ll get you later,” he called.
“My door is always open,” Rachel vamped.
She settled back on the mat. Life was perfect. The universe had given her all the blessings a woman could ask for: a wonderful husband, loving and kind, and an amazing, adorable little daughter. They had even discussed trying for a second child, perhaps a boy this time, but it didn’t really matter, because another daughter would always be welcome. The organic herbs she grew and marketed had developed into a thriving business with orders from shops and herbalists across the country and Jack’s veterinary practice was growing. He was even considering bringing on another vet or expanding it to include veterinarians who specialized in ophthalmology and oncology.
Jack, the rock of her existence, was her bulwark against the ragged memories of a lonely childhood spent shuttling between foster homes and children’s shelters until she was finally adopted at age six. For a moment, a frisson of fear rushed down her spine and Rachel shuddered. Shaking it off, she silently thanked the universe for her blessings. The warm sun lulled her into a half-sleep, although her subconscious was always alert for her napping daughter’s cry from the cabin below.
In this twilight time, between consciousness and sleep, thoughts of the past surfaced and Rachel’s memory drifted to her own long-dead parents, shadowy figures with no substance; a figment of the foggy memories of a four-year-old. Sometimes she saw another, a toddler, but other than a halo of blonde curls, she too lived in the lost and faded past. As an adult, Rachel had tried to resurrect her without success from uncaring bureaucrats guarding closed files. “Rules,” they said, sending her back into the harsh reality of non-existence where she remained a numbered file in a locked drawer that never saw the light of the sun. Who was the tiny child trapped in her memory? Sometimes, she could still feel the chubby hand in hers and see the worshipful blue eyes gazing up at her. Rachel loved her adoptive parents and her childhood had been happy, except for the missing pieces, the never-answered questions.
“Let it go,” whispered the pragmatist.
“Easy for you to say, figment of her mind,” the idealist retorted.
“Oh, and just what are you?” the pragmatist continued.
Rachel shook off the invading dialogue and let her body relax into the gentle rocking of the boat.
“Honey, I think you should go below.”
The voice of her husband slowly penetrated her mind and she stretched, like a languid cat. Rolling over, she looked up at the bridge. “What did you have in mind, lover?”
“No, seriously! Look over there to the east.”
Rachel looked back over her shoulder. A large black bank of storm clouds rolled over the horizon toward them. She could see the lines of rain and faint flashes of lightning. “Where did that come from?”
“Typical Florida storm, you know how they suddenly appear and disappear. I’m not worried, I just think you should go below, the baby might get scared.”
She rose on long slim legs and climbed up to the bridge. She kissed her husband and nuzzled his neck. “I love you so much, Skipper Jack.”
He reached out and caressed her breast. “I love you, too, Skipper’s wife. I’m going to look for a safe inlet to ride out the storm. Now go below before something else steers the boat besides my hands.”
Rachel giggled and crossed the now rolling deck. Suddenly frowning, she shivered under the hot Florida sun. A thought flashed like heat lightning and was gone in an instant; this joke would be the last words Jack ever spoke. Resolutely shaking the words from her mind, she descended the few steps to the cabin below.
Inside the cabin, Rachel looked down at her sleeping daughter, curled in a fetal position, body wrapped around a Raggedy Ann doll. Her thumb hung loosely in her mouth and every so often she would suck on it. One of these days they would have to get her to stop sucking before her teeth were pushed out. She stroked the child’s back and murmured in her ear, “Wake up, sleepy head. Time to get up.”
The little girl opened her blue eyes and reached up. Immediately she was enveloped in her mother’s arms, wrapped in a cocoon of warmth, feeling secure and safe. She sighed and burrowed into her mother’s shoulder, her tousled blonde curls blending with Rachel’s hair.
“Come on, baby girl. You have to put on your life vest.”
“Come on, sweetheart, there’s a big storm coming and you know what that means.”
“No! Hate it, arms stick out.” Emma crossed her arms, pouting.
“I know, but it’s only for a little while, until the nasty clouds pass by.”
Thunder rumbled in the distance and the boat rocked.
“You first,” the child stubbornly insisted crossing her arms.
Rachel sighed, this was not the time for a lesson in obedience. She reached under the bunk and pulled out the two orange life vests. She quickly shrugged her arms into hers and tied the strings. “Okay? Now it’s your turn.”
The little girl reluctantly stood and allowed the tiny hated vest to be pulled around her torso. Rachel tied the strings and double knotted the bows. The child had been known to pull open the ties in the past.
“Hate it.” The child screwed up her face.
“I know, baby girl. Me, too, but it will keep you safe in the water.”
“No go in the water.”
“That won’t happen. This is just in case, to be safe.”
The boat rocked like a wild child bouncing up and down on a rocking horse on springs.
The child pressed against her mother. “I scared, Mommy.”
“It’s okay, honey. Daddy is finding us a nice island where we can walk on the beach and look for pretty pink shells. Then we’ll have a picnic lunch and wade in the water.”
Rachel continued to drone on about the mythical island as the boat rocked harder
and rain pounded on the deck above, like spring hail on a tin roof. She looked up at the ceiling and wished she knew what was happening on deck, if Jack was safe. She felt trapped down here in the cabin. She always hated tight, enclosed spaces and a claustrophobic fear threatened to engulf her. Focusing on her child’s safety, she fought it back like a boxer pounding his opponent into the ropes. She couldn’t lose it now, for her baby and her beloved husband.
“You can do it, be strong,” the pragmatic voice echoed in her head. “Don’t give in.”
The boat shuddered suddenly and came to a jarring stop “Rocks, we hit the rocks.” The panicky words tumbled around in her brain as she fell to the bunk.
“Climb on my back and hold on to me, Em. Whatever you do don’t let go.”
“That’s right, we’re taking a piggy back ride.”
The child closed her legs around Rachel’s waist and wrapped her arms tightly around her neck, nearly cutting off the air supply. The boat listed to one side and Rachel struggled to stand and balance the child on her back. She fought her way up the few steps to the door. It took her entire body weight to push open the cabin door.
The world had gone mad. Thunderous black clouds roiled and crashed overhead. Jagged flashes of lightning seared the water line through the deluge of rain. At once, they were soaked through.
“Jack!” Rachel screamed into the shrieking wind, her voice carried away as soon as the name was uttered.
The boat had foundered on a barrier of rocks just short of landfall. The cockpit was empty.
“NO!” she yelled. “Jaaaack!”
Clutching the child, she plowed through the howling deluge toward the small life preserver hanging on the side of the cockpit. Rachel pulled it down and fighting the blinding rain, she pushed the screaming child into the middle of the ring and dropped it into the water, jumping in after it. But a powerful wave pulled the ring out of her grip, breaking her wrist. “Emmaaaaaa!” she cried, ignoring the agony in her wrist. Rachel tried to swim toward the preserver, only to be swept backward with each stroke. The ring pulled further away toward the damnable rocks.
“Mommeeeee.” The small voice disappeared in the din of the maelstrom. Through the torrential downpour, she watched helplessly as the ring hit the sharp rocks and began to deflate. A tiny orange life vest bobbed and rocked, teasing her, as the little child’s body bounced among the jagged rocks and disappeared into the vast sea.
“Oh, Gaia, why us?” Her last thought before she blessedly fainted, held afloat by her orange vest. The storm moved off into the vast firmament to wreak more havoc and misery along the line of Keys that dotted the Florida Gulf Coast. A final flash of lightning, like the taunting finger of God, pierced the line of black at the edge of the now blue and tranquil sky.
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