Adrift – Micki Browning

The deck rolled beneath her feet as another swell hit the boat broadside. Meredith Cavallo shifted one foot slightly in front of the other, rocking her hips to absorb the motion. If only everything else in her life could be weathered as easily. The wind had picked up since the fourteen scuba divers had plunged off the commercial dive boat and into the water above Key Largo’s famed Molasses Reef. She scanned the water’s surface, looking for bubbles. They’d been down about forty-five minutes and should be surfacing soon. Most of the divers were experienced, but she worried about one couple from the Midwest who had just earned their certifications. These waves were going to be a problem when they surfaced. Sweat dampened the back of her neck. She pulled an elastic out of her shorts pocket and wrangled her dark hair into a braid, while mentally reviewing the emergency equipment stowed on board. “Brace yourself,” Leroy shouted from the wheelhouse. “We’ve got incoming.” She grabbed the safety rail above her head. The boat shuddered as a massive wave smashed into the LunaSea, forcing Mer to hop to keep her balance. Scuba tanks clanged against one another as the boat settled into the trough.

Two tanned bandy legs appeared as Captain Leroy Penninichols descended the aluminum ladder connecting the upper and lower decks. “That’ll make a rabbit smack a bear,” he said. Mer crinkled her brow. “You realize that wouldn’t end well for the rabbit, right?” The portly captain stepped onto the lower deck. “Why are you always so damn analytical?” Merriment was hidden behind the gruff words. “One hardly has to be analytical to see the problem with a mismatch of that magnitude.” An ever-present plastic straw barely extended beyond the thatch of silver-streaked dark beard that covered the bottom half of his face. “Yeah, well, I’m still rooting for the bunny.” Of course he was. Mer smiled.

Leroy always cheered for the underdog. That’s why he’d taken her under his wing when she signed on as crew two months ago. Since then, she’d alternated between teaching scuba and acting as his first mate. Leroy brushed past her and stepped into the sunshine. The bottom deck resembled the bed of a pickup truck. Benches lined the port and starboard sides where divers sat to don their gear. Two “dry” tables occupied real estate in the middle, although staying dry on a boat was a wish rarely granted. A swim step, a platform extending from the stern, supported two swim ladders. Today one remained lashed in place, while the port ladder hung in the water. He leaned against the table and oriented himself like a sunflower toward the sun.

“You aren’t on an old tub in Antarctica anymore, Cavallo. You may want to try toasting that pasty skin of yours a little.” Mer dragged a tube of lotion from the backpack she kept stashed up front. “My research was in the Arctic. Big difference.” “North Pole, South Pole. What’s it matter? Neither one is paradise.” She took off her crew shirt and slathered a gob of sunblock on her face and around the edges of her red Speedo tank. “You can’t meet Santa at the South Pole.” “My, aren’t we feeling feisty today? And all this time I had you pegged as lumping Santa together with the tooth fairy, leprechauns, and honest politicians.

” A glimmer of movement caught her attention. “Diver up.” She stood and pointed off the starboard side of the boat. “About thirty yards out. Just ripped off his mask.” She shimmied out of her shorts. Leroy shielded his eyes. “That one of ours?” Three other dive charters bobbed in the choppy seas, all on mooring balls even farther from where the diver had come up. “No idea, but we’re definitely closest.” She grabbed her mask, fins, and snorkel in one hand and signaled to the diver by placing her fist on the top of her head.

She waited for him to mimic the signal to let the boat know that he was okay. Instead, he spit the regulator out of his mouth and started thrashing the water, fighting to stay above the whitecaps. “Diver! Inflate your vest,” Mer shouted, shoving her feet into her fins. “He can’t hear you,” Leroy said. She pulled the mask strap over her head. Leroy handed her a bright-orange flotation device with a line attached to it. “You’ll have to swim it out to him. Get him to the current line and I’ll tow you back in.” Mer’s heart beat faster. She clutched the seahorse pendant around her neck and took a steadying breath.

“Keep pointing at him. These waves will hide him.” The next wave drove the stern close to the surface and Mer stepped off the boat. The initial shock washed the heat of the sun off her skin. The surging water pulled at the emergency flotation she carried and threw off the smoothness of her strokes as she swam away from the LunaSea. A particularly large wave welled beneath her. She tried to aim for the diver, but she couldn’t see him. She spun in the water. Leroy stood on the deck of the LunaSea, still pointing. Mer corrected to her left and swam as if a life depended on her.

As she closed in on the flailing man, she removed her snorkel. “Diver, are you okay?” The question was rhetorical, but it gave Mer time to assess his condition. Big guy. Illfitting equipment. Too much white showing around his unfocused eyes. All clues that he was in over his head. “Help me! Keep it away from me!” She splashed him in the face. It startled him, and for a moment he stopped struggling and focused. “Look at me.” She pointed at her eyes with two fingers, treading water beyond his reach.

She didn’t recognize him from the boat. “Look at me. I’m here to help. Let me help you.” She extended the flotation device toward him. “Grab hold.” He reached for it just as a wave swamped them. The diver choked on the brine. With renewed panic, he lunged at Mer, intent on using her body as high ground. She submerged herself, then popped out of the water behind him, grabbed his tank, and clamped her knees around it.

“It’s okay, I’ve got you.” She spoke close to his ear. The diver twisted, his fingers clawing at her. Snaking her left arm around him, she mashed the inflator button. Air rushed into his jacket. “You’re okay. Everything’s going to be fine. My name’s Mer. What’s yours?” His body rose above the water, and some of the tension left his face. “Rob.

My name is Rob Price.” “Rob. Pleasure to meet you.” She used the cheerful voice she reserved for small children and drowning men. “How about we get you back to the boat?” He jerked upright. “We gotta get out of here!” “I’m going to tow you in. Can you help kick?” “It’s getting closer.” His alarm quickened her pulse. “What’s getting closer?” The ocean had plenty of docile animals that looked like man-eaters to the inexperienced, and just enough real dangers to keep things interesting. She dipped her face in the water and scanned beneath them.

Nothing. “How are you feeling?” “Not good. Nothing’s right.” Crap. Wrong answer. “What’s going on?” “I’m…my…did you see that?” He pointed behind her. His fear infected her. She twisted around but didn’t see anything. “What? What did you see?” He tensed, shuddered, then went limp. “Shit!” She moved quickly, pulling him backward until he floated faceup on the water.

She stripped her mask off, hooked it over her arm, and then checked to make sure he was still breathing. The waves pummeled them, but at last his chest rose. The boat bobbed nearly a hundred feet away. “Why is it always the big guys?” She yanked the weight pockets out of his vest and let them fall the thirty feet or so to the ocean floor. Grabbing the tank valve, she towed his limp body toward the LunaSea. “Couldn’t be the size of a turtle.” She spoke to calm herself. “Nooooo. You had to be a flippin’ whale shark.” The current worked against her.

“Oh, and for the record?” She struggled to keep his face protected from the waves. “It’d be really nice if you’d mentioned what I’m protecting you from.” She swiveled her head, searching for threats. The wind wailed in her ears and blasted spray into her face. She focused on the LunaSea. Kicked harder. Finally she reached the end of the orange current line and Leroy pulled her the remaining twenty-five feet. The ladder slapped the water with the passage of each wave. The buckles on Rob’s vest held fast as she fumbled in the water to release them. At last they yielded, and Mer freed the unconscious man from his equipment.

Leroy leaned over the stern and grabbed Rob’s gear. “I’ve been timing the waves,” he said. “Wait for the next one to pass and grab the ladder as quick as you can.” She yanked off her fins and flung them toward the captain. “Catch.” Mer fought to keep Rob on the surface, and they bobbed in the water just beyond the back of the boat. She’d get only one chance at doing this without injury, and she’d have to move fast. She imagined carrying him like a sleepy child, his arms draped over her shoulders, his face against her neck. Only she had to grab the ladder, find her footing and wedge her leg between his, or the force of the rocking boat would slam them back into the ocean and slap them with the metal ladder for good measure. “Here it comes, Cavallo,” Leroy said.

“Get ready.” Mer inhaled a deep breath, felt the power of the water swell beneath her. As the wave ebbed, she swam toward the boat, planted her foot, and drew her arms in to pin Rob between her and the ladder. Another wave hit, raising the LunaSea’s stern into the air. Gravity pulled at Mer, doing its best to drag her back into the sea. She gripped the ladder. Her biceps strained until Leroy seized Rob under the armpits and hauled him onto the deck like a gaffed fish. Before Mer could readjust, the swim step plummeted toward the water and hit with a teeth-jarring thud, then dragged her beneath the surface. She held tight as the boat righted itself, and her head broke the surface just as another wave crested. She spit out salt water and clambered up the ladder, pausing at the top to catch her breath.

Two divers had already surfaced. The husband held his cellphone eye level with Mer’s face while his wife huddled under a towel, trying to stay out of the way. Emergency equipment littered the deck like flotsam. Mer dropped her gear on the bench. Leroy leaned over the now conscious diver. His tense face made Mer’s pulse race. Rob clawed at the oxygen mask on his face. “Tell her!” Leroy brushed the man’s hand aside and resettled the mask. Mer gripped her pendant. “Tell me what?” “He says he was diving the Spiegel Grove.

” “Impossible,” she said. “We’re five miles away, and the current’s going in the wrong direction.” “That he was diving the Spiegel and there was a—” Leroy struggled to find the right word. “Presence.” “A presence? You mean like a ghost? Please.” She pursed her lips. He shook his head. “I know. Except just after you went in the Sea Dragon radioed they’re missing a diver off the Spiegel.” He nodded toward Rob.

“This one.” Chapter 2 Leroy rapped a wrench against the ladder three times to recall the other divers. “I’ve radioed for medics. They’ll be on the dock when we pull in.” Mer nodded. The husband and wife team had helped her move Rob into the shade. His eyes were closed, clamped so tightly shut that his face wrinkled and air hissed out the side of the oxygen mask. “Relax,” Mer said. “You’re safe.” He shook his head, dislodging the mask.

“You didn’t see it. You don’t know.” “I don’t know what you saw, but it wasn’t a ghost. Maybe a stingray. In the distance, the way they move can be a bit spooky. Did you take any medications today?” “I’m telling you, I saw a ghost.” She leaned closer and sniffed, expecting to smell alcohol. Nothing. “Can you tell me what day it is?” His eyes popped open. “What’s it gonna take for you to believe me? I’m not crazy.

There’s a ghost down there, so can we just get the hell out of here?” Mer readjusted his mask. “As soon as everyone’s back.” Another diver surfaced. Leroy helped him out of the water while Mer tended to Rob. “Dude.” The diver swiped his long hair out of his eyes and looked at Rob. “Everything okay?” “Medical emergency,” Leroy answered, guiding the twentysomething to the bench. Mer addressed the couple. “Can you help the captain get the other divers on board?” The wife nodded, the husband put down his cellphone. “On it.

” Over the next ten minutes they settled the remaining thirteen divers on the pitching boat. Leroy consulted Mer. “How’s he doing?” “Stable. Time to cast off?” A petite older woman stepped forward. “I’m first-aid-certified if you need me to watch over him.” “Perfect.” Mer sprang to her feet and headed for the bow. “I’ll only be a minute.” Leroy fired the engines and Mer unhooked their mooring. “Line off,” she shouted above the noise of the diesel engines.

Leroy motored off the reef, then gunned it. Mer bumped her way back to Rob as the LunaSea plowed through the waves. Rob sat with his back against the bench, the other divers clustered around him. Several held their smartphones, filming or snapping photos. “It was a ghost and the creepiest thing I’ve ever seen,” Rob said. “It was shaped like a man, but green and kind of see-through.” Mer gaped in disbelief. “He pointed at me. Then crooked his finger like he wanted me to come over. Well, no way was that going to happen.

” “Rad,” the twentysomething diver said, still filming Rob’s ramblings. “Uploading this to YouTube now.” The husband dipped his head toward his wife, but spoke loud enough for all to hear. “I already posted the video clip of the rescue.” Mer recovered her senses and pushed through the crowd. “Everyone back up, give me some room.” She knelt next to her patient and held the mask over his face. “You need to keep this on.” He swatted it away. “People have to know about this.

” “Already posted. Don’t worry, dude, they’ll know your story.” “On Facebook now, too,” another diver said. “Fifty likes in less than five minutes. That’s gotta be a record for me.” “Really, people?” Mer said. “This man was just pulled out of the ocean unconscious. He didn’t see a ghost. Now back up.” “I know what I saw.

” Rob eased back down, seemingly relieved that the others believed his story. Mer snapped the mask over his nose and mouth. “Inhale.” She followed her own advice and drew a big breath. She’d saved a man from drowning, but that didn’t mean he was out of danger medically. She needed to concentrate on that. Nothing else. The forty-minute return trip stretched into forever. A circuslike atmosphere permeated the boat. The divers huddled together, sharing photos and liking one another’s posts and uploads.

One excited young man boasted that his post already had more than a thousand views. Another said she’d alerted a local news personality on Twitter. Mer looked to see if her patient had overheard. His eyes were shut and his face was expressionless, but his chest rose and fell steadily. The LunaSea lurched as Leroy backed off the engines in the no-wake zone. “Almost there.” She patted Rob’s shoulder, then stood and spoke to the others. “When we dock, let the medics board first. We’ll get you off as quickly as possible, but I need you to all stay clear.” She herded them to the back of the boat.

Leroy radioed his approach to crash corner, Port Largo’s dangerous ninety-degree turn, to make sure it was clear of traffic. The timbre of the engines changed as they motored through the bend. The Aquarius Dive Shop was a short distance beyond the turn, and one of the few dive outfits in Key Largo that had its own dockage, retail space, and parking all in one spot. When Mer glanced at the dock, she did a double take. Emergency lights from the ambulance and the fire truck splashed off of the shop windows in waves of red and blue. Medics stood in front, but a crush of media people and gawkers crowded the remaining space. Reporters jostled for position and did last-minute primps in anticipation of their impending live shots. The gawkers held their cellphones aloft. Kyle had a front-row view of the spectacle from the doorway of the equipment room as he guarded the expensive regulators, dive computers, and other gear the shop rented to divers. As soon as the LunaSea drew near, he closed the door and pushed through to the dock.

Leroy spun the boat in the narrow canal and brought it broadside against the dock, pointing in the direction they’d just traveled. Kyle handed Mer the lines, and the medics pushed on board. A couple of photographers tried to follow, but Leroy slid down from the wheelhouse and blocked their access. The click of electronic camera shutters filled the air like cicadas on a summer night. The medics secured Rob to a backboard and carried him off the boat to a waiting gurney. A cheer rose from the crowd when he raised his hand and waved. A reporter sporting a brunette bob shoved a microphone into Rob’s face. “Wendy Wheeler, Keys News. Is it true that you encountered a ghost on the Spiegel Grove today?” He nodded. “How on earth did you get to Molasses Reef?” Rob scraped the mask off his face.

“I can’t explain it. Mind-blowing. Terrifying.” One of the medics brushed her aside and cleared a path while the other pushed the gurney through the crowd and into the parking lot, where the ambulance waited. Wendy spun on Mer. “Wendy Wheeler. Were you the heroic rescuer?” The question surprised Mer. “Heroic? No.” “Brave, beautiful, and bashful. Come on, now, don’t be shy.

What was it like to encounter a ghost?” “There was no ghost. Only a man who needed assistance.” Wendy held her hand so that her body shielded it from the camera and made a circular motion that urged Mer to elaborate. When she didn’t, the reporter shot out another question. “How long has the Spiegel Grove been haunted by the Spiegel Spirit?” Mer swallowed a groan. “It’s not.” “How did Rob get to the reef?” “I don’t know.” Exasperation flickered across Wendy’s face. “Good thing you were there to save the day. I’m Wendy Wheeler, the key to Keys News.

” She signaled her cameraman to cut. “I’d love to do a more in-depth interview. You know, after you’ve had some time to prepare.” “There’s really nothing to prepare.” Mer stepped off the boat and was engulfed by jostling reporters shouting questions about ghosts, mermaids, and other supernatural phenomena. More camera clicks, more questions. People reached out to touch her, grab her clothes, talk to her. She desperately wanted to escape. Wendy had moved deeper into the crowd and was now holding a microphone under the nose of the young diver who’d posted a video to YouTube. Mer recognized at least three of the other divers giving separate interviews.

Leroy stood on the stern of the LunaSea, the straw in his mouth whirling like a mangled pinwheel. He made eye contact with Mer and motioned her to meet him in the shop. Grateful to get away, she wiggled through the horde and bounded up the stairs of the two-story building. By the time Leroy entered the shop, Mer had found two YouTube videos. She hit Replay and handed him her phone. Rob’s tinny voice described his ghostly encounter. She shook her head. “It’s generated eighteen thousand hits. The rescue clip has even more. After tonight’s news, it will be everywhere.

” A new horror occurred to her. “Do you think this nonsense is going to tarnish my reputation?” “You saved a man. That’s usually a checkmark in the good column.” “But this YouTube clip makes it sound like I saved him from a ghost.” “If you believe Rob, you did.” “I don’t. And neither will most research facilities, including the two that have my applications.” “You’re taking the long way round the barn, Mer. What’s got your knickers in a bunch?” “Living in the Keys was supposed to be temporary. I’m a scientist.

A researcher. I have to be seen as serious. Credible. Now I’m linked with ghosts and ghouls. Someone even suggested that Rob encountered a mermaid. Seriously?” Leroy waggled his straw. “I’d like to see a mermaid.” “You’re not helping,” Mer said. “Doesn’t change the fact that I want to see one.” — Mer punched her code on the security pad.

She’d never been so happy to see the massive gate lurch open, granting her access to the exclusive Key Largo neighborhood. The day’s bizarre events had left her with an unfamiliar fatigue. All she wanted now was to enjoy a bath, sip a glass of wine, maybe spend a couple of minutes scanning the Internet for research opportunities, and then off to bed for some much-needed sleep. She replayed the rescue in her mind. Again. Few things in life defied explanation, and it bothered her that she didn’t know the science behind this particular oddity. No one had yet posited a satisfying hypothesis for how a distressed diver had traveled five miles from the Spiegel Grove to Molasses Reef without the use of teleportation, a TARDIS, or a wormhole. The last rays of the sun cast long shadows across the empty street. Years ago, this stretch of land had been an airstrip, before a savvy developer realized that planes didn’t need the view. A canal paralleled the street on one side.

Palatial homes, built to withstand tropical storms and hurricane winds, rose above carports, garages, and surge levels on the other side. When the economy crashed, many of these ground spaces were converted into illegal rentals for those who couldn’t afford homeownership in the Keys. Like Mer. Finding an affordable place in the Keys was as common as spying a roseate spoonbill flying through the mangroves. They could be found, but it took someone in the know to point them out. She’d been lucky. Her brother knew a friend, who had a neighbor with an unoccupied furnished granny flat and a cash-flow problem. She neared the end of the road. One house separated her home from the ocean, and the two driveways shared the same access before branching apart. An unfamiliar car blocked the narrow entry, its liftgate open.

Lights blazed in the neighboring house. In all the time Mer had been here, she’d never seen anyone next door. Now she couldn’t even pull into her own driveway, one more irritation to add to an already vexing day. She parked on the street. Slinging her backpack over her shoulder, she tiptoed down the driveway and slipped past the passenger side of a Range Rover. Enough light fell from the neighbor’s house to illuminate the gear in the back: two rebreathers, a couple of tanks, and several large black bags. She shook her head. There was more cash wrapped up in that unattended gear than she’d been awarded for her last research grant. The main door of the residence opened, and Mer sidestepped into the shadows of her own property. “If you’re trying to avoid detection, you shouldn’t park under a streetlight.

” Mer squeaked, her heart in her throat. A man stepped onto the driveway from the path that led to the other house. His face stirred memories, and she froze. Ian Phillips. It couldn’t be. “I wasn’t hiding,” she said. “On this, we agree.” Yup, it was him. Still infuriating a dozen years later. Darkness bleached the color from his features.

With half his countenance in relief, his sharply angled cheekbones and severe jaw reminded Mer of an artful black-and-white photograph. The only softness about him was his voice. Low-pitched and smooth, it raised goosebumps on her arms. Just as it had when she first met him. Mer tried to regain control of her pulse. “What are you doing here?” “Still as direct as ever, I see.” He tapped a button on the liftgate and it closed with a pneumatic sigh. The window tint hid everything from view. “If you want nice, you shouldn’t jump out of bushes and scare me.” He tipped his head back and laughed, a baritone boom that transformed his face.

“In the future, I’ll take more care, lest I find myself on the losing side of a war of words with you.” “You’re avoiding the question.” He slouched against the car, his hands in his pockets. “I was surprised to hear from your brother. We’d lost touch over the years.” “I sense a pattern.” They stared at each other. He’d aged well. Had she? She smoothed her hair back selfconsciously. He used to tease her about her wild curls. Said her mane and height reminded him of an Amazon. But that was a long time ago. Footsteps on the front porch broke their contemplation. A woman, about Mer’s age with straight red hair, leaned over the railing. “Selkie, I just opened a bottle of wine. You coming up anytime soon?” Selkie. He still used the nickname. “In just a minute,” he said. “I’m speaking with our neighbor.” The woman dipped her head lower. “Hey there! Sorry, didn’t know you were home. You must be Dr. Cavallo. I’m Fiona. Come on up. Have a glass of wine with us.” A pang of jealousy hit Mer. She squashed it, annoyed at herself. Of course he’d moved on. Theirs had been a summer fling. That’s all. As if sensing her reluctance, Fiona added, “I promise you, I’m much nicer than my brother. I’ll get another glass.” She disappeared from the balcony. Mer’s annoyance only increased. “You have a sister?” What else didn’t she know about this man? He nodded. “She’s visiting for a couple weeks. Come on over, I’ll introduce you proper.” Having wine with Selkie ranked right up there with swimming through a bloom of jellyfish. She readjusted her pack. “Thank you, but it’s been a long day.” The magnitude of the past several hours sagged her shoulders; or maybe it was the unanticipated hefting of a two-hundred-and-fifty-pound man onto a heaving boat that had taken its toll. Either way, her body ached and her mind was still spinning like one of Leroy’s straws. She didn’t even want to contemplate the implications of living next door to a former fling. Selkie studied her face, then placed a hand on her backpack. “Let me take this.” “I’ve got it.” “It’s okay. I’ll give it back.” He lifted it off her shoulder and motioned her forward. “You don’t need to do that,” she said, but the absence of weight felt wonderful. “Let me be a gentleman.” He grinned. “Evidently, I need the practice.” “Thank you,” she said with more feeling than she’d meant to reveal. At the door, she turned her key and stepped inside. Selkie paused at the threshold while she fumbled for the switch. The apartment was bigger than the berth on her last research vessel, but not by much. Her large walnut desk anchored the room, its utilitarian presence out of place among the whimsy of wicker and seashells favored by the decorator. A garage-sale aquarium acted as a room divider, screening her bed from view. Few other things marked the space as hers: a family photograph, dive gear, her computer. The important stuff. Selkie held out her backpack. “Most people actually put fish in their tanks,” he said. She took the bag and set it on the desk chair. “I’d planned to.” “May I?” He pointed at the aquarium. She thought about refusing, but apparently the roof over her head was due to his connections. “Sure.” He crossed the space in three strides. He had a swimmer’s body: wide shoulders, narrow hips, long legs. Mer focused on something safer and picked through the mail on her desk. The envelope from the university contained a check, but she was afraid to open it. The amount compensated her for a month on her recent research project. If she pinched, it would cover next month’s rent and some groceries, but not much more. And, thanks to funding cuts, it was her last one. She’d already interviewed for one research position and applied for another. If they fell through, well, with any luck the dive shop would have a rush of people wanting to learn to scuba before the summer ended. Selkie tapped the tank and recaptured her attention. “Seems like a lot of rock.” “To you, maybe. To a cephalopod, it’d offer wonderful places to hide.” Or would have if she stayed in the Keys long enough to condition the tank properly. He whistled. “A cephalopod, huh?” She slid the check into a drawer to deal with later. “You have no idea what I’m talking about, do you?”

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