"Choctawhatchee Bay is dying," the newsman said on August 22, 2000.
Isn't it odd? When I was a boy Choctawhatchee Bay had nearly killed me. Now the bay itself was dying. I was obviously spared, but would someone come now to spare it?
It all came back to me like one of those vivid dreams you have, only it wasn't a dream, just so distant it was hard to connect to it. I knew how it felt and how it all came to pass. There was no detail I didn't know because it was me bobbing up and down in the angry waters all those years ago.
Avery was my summer friend, but he was hardly a friend back then. We'd only met a few weeks before. He was Granny's selection as friend of choice for me on my first summer vacation in Fort Walton Beach, Florida. It was my first vacation anywhere and my first time away from home for more than a couple of days.
Over the next few years Avery and I would become good friends. I always looked forward to getting back to Fort Walton Beach each summer. That first summer he was absent when I arrived. I'd explored the area, finding a beach at the end of Hollywood Blvd. Each day after chores, I'd grab my towel and spend the afternoon on "my beach."
It was a placid piece of real-estate with tall swaying palms for shade and pristine white sands to lie upon. The water was like glass and the bottom of muck and mud under it was easy on the feet after braving the scorching asphalt on the way to heaven.
I'd swim and play there by myself. No one else ever entered my universe while I was there. Not one other person had stepped upon that ground. Avery was off at scout camp and had yet to appear. I'd only heard the name and didn't particularly want anyone to interrupt the most magnificent summer of my life.
After swimming and romping in the water, I'd lie sweating on the beach with the palm leaves waving over my head and the hot tropical breeze blowing off the Gulf Of Mexico and onto the bay. Many times I found myself looking out at the Destin Bridge which loomed on the horizon marking the place where the gulf met the bay.
Some days, a car would screech to a stop at the path that led down through the shrubs and onto the beach. The horn would blow and I'd grab my towel and run up to see what Granny wanted. Most days I had a choice of going or not going with her to the store, the doctors, whatever.
Then, one day as I sweat and swooned in the heat, another twelve year old boy came dodging through the brush and ended up standing right over me. He was only a shadow when I looked up at him and into the sun.
"Hi, I'm Avery," he announced.
"I'm Dick," I said.
"I know who you are. Want to swim?"
This was the interruption I didn't want. If I wanted to play I could have stayed in Maryland. Oh well, I was expected to pal around with him, and I knew expectations were mostly orders back then and so I hopped up to follow him as he wadded into the calm waters at the foot of our beach.
Avery was the oldest twelve-year-old I'd ever known. He was intelligent and self-assured with a smile that might melt the polar cap. In spite of my oath not to like this prefabricated friend, by the end of that first afternoon our friendship had been sealed. I'd have followed Avery anywhere after that, and that was saying something, because there were few places Avery dared not go.
One morning in late July, Avery came dashing in through the front door.
"Hey, get the fishing gear. Will Granny take us to Wayside Park?"
"I think she has a doctors appointment," I said.
Granny was washing dishes after breakfast and Avery turned on the charm. By the time the last glass was put away Avery and I were loading Pop's fishing gear into the old Buick. When she came out we were already waiting in the front seat.
It was a simple plan. Granny would drop us off at the pier, she'd go to the doctors and return in one hour to pick us up at the same point where she dropped us. If I'd offered up such a plan, Ganny would have shot me down without a thought, but such was the advantage of having a friend like Avery. If me, another twelve-year-old, was susceptible to his charm, adults were absolutely helpless.
Of course I didn't want to go fishing. What the use of an hour on a pier. I'd been fishing before. I'd once caught a fish. It took all afternoon and the fish was nothing to write home about. It was neither eaten or mounted, so what was the point?
"What's that," I said, as we walked double time out on the pier with our arms loaded in gear, stringer lines, buckets, and the like.
I stopped to lean over the rail to see this immense black shadow hovering around the pier like some oil slick newly deposited by some invisible tanker.
"Fish," Avery said. "I heard on the news this morning. A storm in the gulf. The fish are in. See the fishing boats out there?"
Out a hundred yards beyond the Wayside Park Pier were four quite large fishing boats. I could see men moving around on the deck, pulling in nets full of leaping fish and letting other nets out from overhead cranes. I'd never seen anything like it as men in black boots knee high in fish, never slowed their activity.
Looking over the railing again, there was a quick shift in the oil slick. One side of the pier was devoid of shadow in an instant, as it seemed to dart to the opposite side where I was.
"What are they doing?" I asked, not convinced of the fish he told me about.
"Sharks," Avery said.
"Huh!" I said, recognizing the word and not liking it.
"The sharks follow the fish. The fish move when they sense the sharks," he said.
We'd often swum there just a few yards out from the pier. The thought of sharks that close didn't do a thing for me. I measured the distance to the beach with my eyes and once again watched the fish shift in that sudden way they had of moving.
"Come on, Dick. We've only got forty five minutes."
Avery had already set up a rig and was casting two baited hooks into the black wreathing shadow.
"I don't see the point. Forty five minutes isn't enough time to fish. I don't know why we're wasting our time," I said, trying to figure out how to get the dough balls onto the hooks without ruining their nice circular mode.
It all came quite clear to me as Avery started backing up and the grinding of the reel told me he was bringing in his line. As he lifted it up to clear the railing, two beautiful perch flipped and flopped next to me on the pier.
"Here, let me," Avery said, shoving the dough balls on my hooks and moving me to the railing before he unhooked his catch.
I was impressed. Avery could catch fish. I had no such hope. I let my line fall straight down into the black ring and turned to see Avery dropping the stringer line over the side, baiting his hooks, and quickly standing beside me to toss his line back into the fury.
"You've got fish," he said.
"What?" I said.
"Reel in the fish. Look at the pole.
Soon I was winding in my catch. Avery helped get them over the rail, kneeling beside me to release the fish and add two new dough balls to my gear. Quickly he was setting the new fish on the stringer and up like a flash he was reeling in his catch, repeating the process over again.
It didn't stop for fifteen or twenty minutes. Avery was on top of it all, pulling, unhooking, baiting, stringing. He just took care of it while I dropped in the line for a minute, reeled it in, and the outcome was always predictable. One or two fish pulling against my hooks.
"How many?" I asked after he'd managed to stand up to the rail one more time.
"Dozen, maybe more," he said without excitement to the revelation.
We both went through the cycle one more time before Avery leaned his pole against the railing and walked toward the end of the pier. There were a dozen people out at the end facing the boats. One man with large hairy arms complete with tattoos had this monsterous rig in his hands. The rod was thick and the gold reel must have held a mile of line. He pulled the point of the rod into the air, reeling quickly as he let it dip once more.
In a minute Avery was near his elbow, watching the fight. I unhooked and strung another fish, and I left my rig next to Avery's, heading out to witness the action.
The rod bent in a wide arch as the big hands cranked the reel, making that clicking sound that marked the line he was taking back. Every now and then there would be a screech, followed by a high pitched whine as the fish took some back. The man's back strained as he wrestled what, I could not see. Avery did not move and stayed close to him.
"Shark," someone yelled.
"Where?" I asked Avery.
"On his line. He has a shark," Avery said, pointing to where the line entered the water and over to where the dorsal fin broke the surface every few seconds.
"Shark?" I said.
"Sure," Avery said. "Not uncommon in these waters, especially with all the fish.
I stood slightly behind Avery to watch the struggle. Avery was indomitable when it came to his world. He was a native and familiar with sharks and fisherman. I backed off further the closer the shark came to the pier, finally ending up on his belly on the pier, flipping his tale like an irregular pendulum on some errant clock.
Avery stood fast as one man hammered the five foot sharks head a dozen quick times. Finally another man came from the other side of the pier and with one powerful thrust, he impaled the shark on the end of his machete.
Even with the machete sticking out of the middle of the sharks head and after all movement stopped, I shied further back, keeping a distance between me and the beast that I envisioned lurching forward to engulf me with those ferocious teeth.
To add insult to injury and to further delineate the difference between my new friend and myself, Avery took the tow of his frayed sneaker and used it to pry open the mouth so he could get a better look at the sharks choppers.
In a few minutes everyone moved away, we collected our fish and raced to be there to meet Granny on time. Entering the parking lot just in time to see the shinny black Buick enter the Wayside Park drive.
The car came screeching to a halt and Avery lifted the fish for her viewing.
"Where do we put these?" he asked, meaning the seventeen fish.
"Wrap them in the newspaper in the trunk," Granny said, revving the engine as we stowed the gear and the fish.
"Where'd you get all those fish?" Granny asked as the tires squealed, launching us back toward Highway 98.
"We caught them," I said proudly, figuring at least some of them were mine, even though I hadn't been much keen on the idea.
"Where did you really get them?" Granny said, not believing my story.
"Honest, Mrs. D. We caught them," Avery said, and so it was believed.
Avery had become my doorway to adventure. Sometimes a little more adventure than I wouldn't to experience, but he knew no fear and few boundaries he wasn't willing to stretch.
It was August when the hot tropical breeze stopped, leaving us to swelter in the heat, taking relief in the shallows of Choctawhatchee Bay. One day I sat holding my knees and looking out at the Destin Bridge, looming there beyond reach, intriguing me like some looming creature beckoning.
"What are you looking at?" Avery asked.
"The bridge," I said.
"I don't know. I want to see it close up," I said.
"We pass over it all the time," he said.
"I know, but it is different from the water. I'd like to see it close up," I said, not meaning anything by it.
"I can get the sailboat from the Yacht Club one morning. We can sail there and back," he said.
"Really!" I said.
This appealed to me. Now I couldn't swim but I loved being in the water. I suppose this would be a factor that would help me survive. It seemed so simple when he said it, and by this time I trusted Avery like I'd never trusted another friend. In my mind there was nothing he couldn't do. Sailing out to the bridge was just the kind of thing that got both of us going, him, the pathfinder, me, his loyal companion. Little did I know, I'd come as close to death that day as I'd ever come.
We sailed out of the Yacht Club and around the point that led to our little stretch of beach. It seemed even smaller as we passed in front of it, Avery turning the tiller hard left, pointing the bow of the boat at the bridge.
I sat in the bow and had to look over my shoulder to see it. After the first half hour, being maybe a quarter of the way to our destination, I lost interest in turning to see it. Instead I watched Avery guide us, the sail whipping in a growing breeze, and my fingers extended down into the pleasantly tempered waters.
The water was making a rippling sound as the bow cut into it. The sail made the sound of fabric being jerked in by the air, folding and unfolding as we moved along.
I didn't notice the darkening, but I was aware we were going faster. The sounds increased with our speed. Avery stared past my shoulder and at the bridge. It was a straight shot and an easy sail, but you never know what might happen when you are on the water. We were on the water a couple of miles from the Gulf Of Mexico, and it a few seconds a bright boiling day could turn violent and mean, and our pristine day was about to take a turn.
First I saw the alarm on Avery's face. He was measuring something with his eyes. I knew it was alarm because it was an expression I'd never seen him display before. His concern was obvious and I wasn't sure what it meant.
"What's wrong, Av?" I asked.
"Storm. Coming up quick. We'd better turn back."
We were getting close to half way to the bridge. We were dead center in the middle of Choctawhatchee Bay. The storm boiled up out of the gulf, and it was climbing up above the Destin Bridge. As Avery turned the boat, I was facing the impending storm.
The breeze stiffened and gave off the first chill of August. I shivered as all sunlight was lost to the black clouds. I could see as they reached up into the blue sky, swallowing it at a frantic rate. The sail snapped and the smooth bay turned into a choppy swirling cauldron of water.
Avery looked back over his shoulder and each time there was more desperation in his alarm. He knew I'd picked up on it and he kept checking my face for fear. I suppose I was a little too naïve to be scared. We were in a boat. I'd seen lots of storms. I'd even seen lightning and heard thunder. Maryland wasn't without weather.
Of course I'd never seen one in the middle of a fickle body of water while in a sailboat no more than ten feet long. I was beginning to see the power of weather and water merge into life threatening danger, but for now, I trusted Avery even though he seemed tested by what we faced.
"You okay, Dickie?" He asked.
"Sure, I'm fine," I said.
"We can't out run it. It's going to catch us," he said, sounding resigned to it.
It was almost dark now. The chop had turned to waves, lapping over the side of the boat. The sail yanked and jerked on the small mast. The cool breeze went cold as Avery hunched forward in the wind, holding the tiller with both hands. There was nothing else for us to say.
The waves took on a weird pattern. They came at us from both sides and from the rear. The boat came almost all the way out of the water before diving back down, showering me with tubs full of water each time we dipped. Finally one wave lifted us up as another smashed against the side, and we spilled out as the centerboard gleamed and glittered between us, disappearing into the bay.
I still wasn't scared. I was a bit confused by my sudden emersion into the stormy sea. The waves washed over us, covering our heads, before we bobbed back up.
"Keep your feet on the boat. It should hold us," Avery said.
I followed his instructions and managed to get my feet on the wood on the side. It settled two feet below the surface after filling with water. The boom and the sail pulled the boat to one side as it lay on its side.
"You okay," Avery said, dog paddling a couple of feet away from me.
"Yeah, I'm fine," I said, getting water in my mouth as I spoke.
The water was lapping at my chin as the balls of my feet extended down to keep contact with the fine shinny wood on the sunken sail boat beneath me. The storm had come up quickly. The sun was bright and high up in the morning sky with those pillow clouds floating lazily along. Then it boiled up off the Gulf Of Mexico. The clouds started to look like what I'd imagined a witch's caldron might resemble when she was creating her witche's brew.
Avery stayed with me after a wave dumped the boat on its side, sinking it almost immediately. The sail that a moment ago propelled us along became waterlogged. With the boat resting three feet below the surface, there was no difficulty in using it to keep us buoyed as the waves washed over us too rapidly to count. The usual placid bay came alive. The wind, rain, and lightning joined that incredible rolling thunder that vibrated the water. It became dark as night while we fought to keep afloat. The lightning lit us up for short periods of time. The water blew in a spray across our faces, stinging us like a million tiny little bees, when the waves weren't rolling over top of us.
At first Avery stood across the boat from me making light of our situation. His demeanor was one of concern, but not of distress. Then the bay became angrier and angrier as the boat settled under us deeper and deeper. The more water the sail absorbed, the further down in the water the boat sunk. Toward the end Avery came over beside me when the water was up to my neck. He no longer used his feet on the boat. I realized he'd moved off the boat when I watched him dog paddling as waves rolled over our heads. After a few minutes of increasing concern on his face, he let the waves wash him over to my side. I could feel him kicking his legs as I strained to feel the boat under me while keeping my chin out of the water.
It was when Avery put his arm around me that I realized the fear I saw in his face was not so much for himself but for me. He pulled me up a few inches using his strength and energy to keep us afloat. We'd neglected to bring life jackets in our youthful desire to get on our own. Avery was now my life jacket. His constant search of the horizon told me he was looking for a way out of this mess we were in, but the waves hid everything but the water in the dim light. Keeping me afloat, he spoke for the first time in long minutes.
He looked into my face and my eyes saying, "I've got to swim for it if either of us is going to make it. We're losing the boat. You think you can make it to shore? I'll swim with you if you can make it."
I could tell by his voice he already knew the answer. I suspected Avery knew he could make it, or strongly suspected he might. Being at least a mile to shore in all directions, I knew I could swim maybe a quarter of that on a warm calm day. I shook my head noticing how handsome Avery's face was with all that intensity on it. He was more like an older teenager. He dwarfed me in the way his body had already filled out. His voice was strong and deep. I thought I was lucky having his friendship.
We'd known each other for only a few weeks. There was the day Avery came down to the beach I'd claimed since my first day in Fort Walton Beach. It was quiet and peaceful and a five minute walk from the front door. Large palm trees stood high overhead with the big leaves furnishing a little bit of shade on the really hot days. I would swim and wade watching the birds, turtles, and insects dart around me. Well not so much turtles, they were just there, like me. They'd come out of the underbrush to sun themselves and for me to study them. The beach was only fifty feet long by twenty feet wide, so there was never anyone there but me.
When Avery showed up, it was a major bummer. My private beach went public that day. He stood over me, tall, with a body that made me feel even skinner than I already felt for a twelve year old. His shinny teeth showed through his smile and what was even worse, when you put it all together, Avery was as handsome as anyone I'd ever seen, and I didn't even notice most people. I didn't need that kind of competition. I certainly didn't want it.
As soon as he sat down it became apparent he was also smart. That really finished him off as far as I was concerned. Handsome and dumb might have made it, but handsome and smart didn't cut it with me. No way. I would just ignore him and he'd go away as most people did when I froze them out. Avery was on thin ice with me already and he'd barely opened his mouth.
As though things couldn't get any worse, he announces, "Granny told me to come down so we could be friends while you're here."
Granny was everywhere. Omnipresent. Always able to reach out and touch someone. Me.
I heard Avery yelling at me as though I were across a large room. I remembered the question out of reflex. I didn't have any idea how long ago it had been asked.
"No, I can't swim that far, Avery. You go for it. You go ahead. I'll be okay."
It was a stock answer I'd learned a long time ago. Oh! I knew we were in pretty deep this time. I was always "okay". My whole life I'd been "okay". I was "okay" now, though I thought not for much longer. I didn't want Avery to stay there out of some duty or obligation he felt for a friend that had been forced on him in the first place. I never wanted anyone to put themselves out for me. I don't think I realized Avery knew just how desperate my situation was. He looked at me as though he didn't want to leave me, but at the same time knowing if he didn't leave me, we were both going to be fish food.
Avery kept his arm around me when the waves no longer pelted us. He seemed almost afraid to let go of me. He looked around, but there was no way to see shore. We were over half way to the bridge which disappeared as quick as the storm came up. Only the position of the boat gave us a clue to the direction of the closest shoreline, but it might have shifted under us during the storm.
"I'll get help. I'll get to shore, and I'll bring someone back. Stay with the boat, Dickie. That's your best chance. Staying with the boat. Don't panic. Just stay right here. ... I'll be back. I promise," rang in my ears long after he disappeared in the dark.
Avery was gone quick when he decided he'd stayed as long as he could. I thought he'd stayed longer than I might. He seemed in a lot of pain over his decision, but I knew it was the only thing for him to do. I didn't know if I was going to drown. The thought did cross my mind each time my feet lost the boat, and I would start to panic. It was lucky water didn't scare me, and I knew that panic would serve no purpose. When I would lose contact with the boat, I'd let the water slid up to my lower lip until I could taste the bay. Then I'd kicking my feet and hoping to find it again. At least for the time being it was still there, coming back up to meet my feet after a scary absence. There I was flapping my arms like some big blond bird flying amongst the waves and the loneliness. I always feared being alone most of all.
I found myself smiling as I bobbed up and down in the water. Not because the boat was still under me, but because I was seeing my Pop Pop shuffling his feet across the rug in the Kepner living room. He'd be clicking his false teeth as he walked, and a white handkerchief dangled from his hand so he could mop his ever running nose on his golden tan face. Pop no longer picked his feet up either by plan or as a result of his seventy years. He was brown all over with big blue veins poking out at the backs of his lower legs. He was always in shorts that hung just below his moderate belly. He was taller than me by many inches. I didn't know how that worked. Kids were supposed to be larger than their parents, and parents larger than my grandparents, but my father was taller than I was and Pop was the tallest of us all. He was closing in on six foot, and I'm sure his spurt of growth must have passed by this time.
I smiled when I saw Pop because he was my friend. I loved his easy smile, and the way he liked to kid with me. It was that summer Pop took a liking to me. We'd never spent any time together before. Just around my house when he and Granny would visit, but we were kids and mostly they were doing adult stuff when they visited. Then, they were gone back to the world where they came from to show up once or twice each year.
Pop and I had something in common; we were the black sheep. Pop was always in trouble with my dad or Granny. I was always in trouble with my dad and Granny. I loved it when Pop would take me out to the wayside park that overlooked the Gulf Of Mexico. We'd sit watching across the snow white sands at the emerald green waves washing to shore. They rolled easily and without effort. The sky was usually dark blue dotted with fluffy white pillow clouds. People strolled along holding hands while wading in the remnants of the waves that were really just swells of water except during storms when they became mountains.
Pop was the first adult to take time with me. This endeared me to him like I'd never loved another adult. Mostly, they were scary ill tempered big people with loud voices. I'd seen Pop that way in the past when I was really small, but I'd never see him that way again. Pop was with me when Avery wasn't during my first summer in Fort Walton Beach. Pop spent much of his time rescuing me from chores and punishment. That alone would have endeared me to anyone, but he also took me along while making his morning "rounds". We'd eat at a downtown diner that was just across from the Tringas movie house. He knew everyone there, and the first morning we went on rounds, he announced to the seated patrons as though we were important people,
"Everyone, this is Dickie, he is my grandson," He said this with such pride I couldn't help but be touched. I thought Pop loved me, after that day I knew I loved him. Two black sheep doing something no one else did in my family. I guess Pop Pop was the first person I loved.
After breakfast we would visit shops, and homes, and bars all across Fort Walton Beach, but we would always end up at the Wayside Park overlooking the gulf where he would tell me about who he was and who he had been. I didn't always understand what Pop was talking about, but it didn't matter as long as he talked to me. There was no other time like it in my life, and nothing could ever compare to a grandfather being with his grandson.
My reverie broke as a wave filled my mouth causing me to choke. Pleasant thoughts gave way to a sudden fear and desperation. I didn't think I was afraid of dying. At twelve I hadn't lived, but I had lived enough to know I was worrying about what came after the end. I really wasn't scared of death. Life scared me a whole lot. I never knew which end was up. I didn't know where I was going or what I was doing much of the time.
I remembered hearing some place that your life flashed in front of your eyes when you died. I wondered if I was really still floating or if I was dying while remembering I was remembering things about my life. Perhaps I was drowning and this was my life. My toes wiggled to feel the wood for reassurance I was indeed alive. That was my contact point with life. A piece of wood no more than an inch wide. It marked the very top of the side of the sunken sailboat. I'd admired that light teak finish rubbing my hand on it to see if it was as smooth as it looked. A crack of lightning and the rolling thunder shook me while waves jostled me.
Granny and Pop seemed delighted when we showed up, and in the first few days it was a marvelous place to be. Then Granny and I started to conflict over my inability to do chores properly. I'd never spent much time with Granny. At the house she'd always favored my brother, Billy. It never bothered me because I didn't much care for her. Being there in her house I became aware that I was expected to do chores while Billy roamed free. When I had the nerve to question the fairness of this, I was told,
"Billy is with John, and they have things to do. You don't have anything to do, so you are going to help me. You're not going to lay around here all summer doing nothing," and my entire concept of summer vacation was changed.
Then, I saw Granny standing at the stove cooking hush puppies, not the ones you wear on your feet. The smell filled the air with a delightful mixture of hush puppy dough, confectioners' sugar, and hot grease. They were the best when she would roll them in that confectioners' sugar. Wow! Give me a dozen of those suckers and a large glass of milk, and I was in heaven.
Granny was a good cook. I mean she was a grease addict, but boy did all that food taste good when she was done. Granny was typical English with a rounded face wrinkled by the years. Her hair had gone all salt and pepper gray, they called it. I never remembered it any other way. She wore silver wire rim glasses. Granny's voice was somewhere between sand paper and running your fingernails down a blackboard. It had the ability to hit that off key cord on the piano when she was mad at you. It could grate against you when you weren't ready for it. I was seldom ready, and she always seemed mad at me. Her favorite words were thingamagig and whichamacallit. I'm not sure of the spelling and their exact meaning still eludes me.
Then, I saw her at Hampton Roads. She was no longer in the kitchen on Kepner Drive where I'd left her that morning but in the kitchen in that small apartment in Virginia. She was then turning around from the sink smiling and served my brother Billy a bowl of ice cream, and I got this green jello with Cole slaw inside. Yuk! It was disgusting. She made me sit until I ate it, and I didn't eat it, so I sat. It was really awful tasting stuff. It looked awful. I preferred hush puppies, but remembered the jello then.
I coughed and choked from the taste of it, and then it was the bay I tasted. I wasn't in Virginia or on Kepner, and I realized Granny would really be pissed at me if I drowned. What was new. I had two left feet and hands that were all thumbs. When I was around Granny, I was even clumsier and dumber than usual. I could hear her voice grating out, "Dickie!" I was in trouble again. "How in the world did you get out in the middle of that bay. You know better," I could hear her say.
I was dog paddling. The boat was gone. I could see the white sail beside me, but my feet no longer touched the boat. It was gone for good this time. Which way to swim? I looked to see more of the surface of the bay. The waves were more huge swells by now. Then I heard Avery telling me,
"Stay with the boat. I'll be back. I promise," like he was next to me again. My arms searched the water for him. I struggled to see his face. Alone was the worst of all. Fear ran though me like icy fingers on my skin.
I leaned my head back so my face was toward the sky. My mind rolled in my head like it was floating in the water. I couldn't imagine feeling relaxed, but I was. I guess I was exhausted from however long I was fighting with the bay. I knew it was bigger than me and it would be okay if it won. They'd say, he put up the good fight, but it was too much for him. The bay is awful big for a boy to go against. A small wave splashed water into my mouth and I opened my eyes and choked on it paddling harder to make sure I could get air that didn't have any water in it. I looked again thinking maybe Avery was still there with me, but he wasn't, and a wave washed the water over my head and filled my mouth again. I needed to find the boat, somehow.
I floated, treading water with my arms, keeping myself right above the boat without knowing if it was still there or not. The thought that the boat seemed to be staying there did lift my spirits, though it was harder and harder keeping my arms moving. With the swells less fierce it required less energy to fight to keep my chin above the water line. I noticed little things like that, and the island that wasn't there the last time my mind could focus on where I was. Each was a positive that lifted my spirits, but the thought my time was running out persisted.
As I thought of Avery I pictured his brother John who was the buddy of choice selected for my brother Billy. The age difference between Avery and his brother, was approximately the same as between me and mine. It just so happened that someone my grandparents knew were the parents of two boys our age. It seemed too convenient to ignore, and John already was spending time with Billy, but Avery was occupied with other people, and it took him awhile to get around to me.
One morning, shortly after we met, I went to Avery's house to start an adventure. I met John. I knew who he was. My grandmother spoke about him. My brother spoke about him at meals. I sat in the living room waiting for Avery to find his extra fins and mask and John walked into the middle of the room naked as a Jay Bird. He was tall and thin and almost as handsome as Avery, and he came complete with a large smile and little modesty or shame. He said something to his mother, and disappeared back into the hall as his father said,
"John, wear clothes when you come in the living room. You're getting too old for that."
"Yes, sir," I heard John answer.
The problem with this is they were both very relaxed about it. The mother said nothing and went about her business ironing shirts. It just seemed strange that the father didn't yell and John didn't jump. He reappeared a few minutes later in his white briefs and he looked at me without expression. I knew brothers. I had one after all. I didn't expect John to speak to me or to be civil. He was. He came over and sat right beside me and shook my hand with a very pleasant and very boyish smile. John would always be a little impish.
"You must be Billy's brother. I'm John. I guess you're waiting for Ave."
"Yes," I said, and shook his hand while wondering what he wanted.
These visits into other people's worlds confused me. I knew my house and what it was like inside. It never made sense to me that other families didn't yell all the time. My own brother never spoke to me unless it was to insult me or to tell me to do something he didn't want to do. I found it difficult to accept John as being a nice guy. I knew instinctively he would be a villain, but like knowing I wouldn't be Avery's friend, I found I liked John in spite of my effort not to like him. He never once gave me a reason not to. He was always polite and friendly and at times he took up for me when my brother was picking on me. That's when I knew I really liked him. Things like that still confused me, but I could like anyone that took up for me. As threatening as Avery was to me at first, John was always just a nice guy that came with my best friend. One of the little extras you never expect.
The first weekend after I met Avery, we went water skiing with the Taylors. It was all five of them including a little sister, my brother Bill and I. We pulled down by the Spin Drift Inn, and Mr. Taylor threw the skis off the rear of the boat. He looked around and came to me with his eyes.
"You're the youngest. You get to go first."
I'd never water skied, and I was always scared to death of embarrassing myself. The opposite side of this was you didn't do anything that got you called sissy in my house. That was about the worst insult of all. With brother Bill there, I couldn't refuse. With Avery there I couldn't say I couldn't, so I jumped off the tail end of the boat to take instructions on how to ski.
The Spin Drift Inn is maybe a mile further down the bay from where the beach was at the end of the street by Granny's. It was the same muddy bottom next to the bridge that crossed over from downtown Fort Walton Beach to the gulf. As I landed I knew there was something wrong immediately. The water was maybe four feet deep, and the skis floated around my head. My foot touched something very very slick and very, very scary, and before all my weight came down, I was going straight back up in what was an impossible maneuver defying all the laws of gravity and momentum.
I don't know what it looked like from the boat, but I launched myself straight up, and with Mr. Taylor there to instruct me, he was also there to make a one armed catch, and he pulled me back aboard the boat just as a sting ray surfaced and rolled over revealing its white stomach and barbed tail. He disappeared beside the boat with everyone watching in amazement with eyes and mouths wide open. Leave it to me to find a way to screw things up.
"He didn't hit you," Mr. Taylor said, checking my legs carefully.
"No. I felt him under my foot when I jumped out."
"You are lucky. They have a barb on the end of their tale. They can do some damage."
Thanks, but I really didn't want to know that.
"Never seen one up here before," he added, watching where it had last been seen.
I was asked if I wanted to wait for awhile, but waiting wasn't what I did well. I knew I'd have to ski sooner or later. I jumped back out as Mr. Taylor told me what to do. John leaned over the side feeding me the line and giving me encouragement as Avery stood in the front ready to give the boat power. Avery was driving the boat when I didn't know the bow from the stern and had trouble driving my own feet at times. I knew I had to ski or risk looking like a fool in front of my new friend.
Luckily, I did get right up. I just did what I was told, and the next thing you know I was on top of the water skimming right across it. After a few minutes they yelled at me to drop the rope near shore, but I wouldn't listen. I had to show them I could do it as well as anyone. It was only another few minutes before my legs gave out from this strange exercise, and I fell forward hitting my head on the tip of the right ski right out in the middle of the channel. I couldn't fall close to shore like a normal person. I had to wait until I was precisely in the middle and at the deepest point when I went down hard sliding under the water.
An errant wave washed me under the surface of the bay. I opened my eyes looking up to where the surface should have been. I gulped a mouthful and tried to spit it out, only it was hard to spit under the bay. I coughed while my head was still under, but then I bobbed back up like a cork, using my feet to keep me up. I kicked the side of the boat as I struggled to surface. It was still right there, but I'd moved a few feet away finding it during the subsequent panic.
My arms were like lead, and I didn't think I could make them go any more. My feet kicked which caused the boat to move down. I tried to drag myself up so my mouth could stay out of the water. I looked for the island, but could no longer find it. This was it. I knew there was no way I could stay floating any longer, and even if I could have once reached that island, there was no way my arms would carry me more than a few feet. I coughed repelling the water mostly using my legs now. They'd become stiff and cold, but they were still strong and practically unused since the ordeal started.
The sky seemed even lighter. The swells were smaller. I wasn't sure what to do, and I hung there kicking my feet trying to get my freezing arms to work enough to once more hold me above the waters surface. Was this it. Is this how it ends?
Everyone seemed worried and the boat pulled along side me as John jumped in to make sure I was none the worse for wear. He then helped me climb up. I had a big knot over my eye, but everyone said I did good. They told me to fall to the side or to the rear from that time on. I told them I didn't intend to fall any more. I was very proud of myself, but as always, it ended less than gracefully for me. My head hurt.
Avery seemed to be proud of me for getting up on my first try.
He said, "I didn't even get up my first time." He patted my back.
John patted my back with his big happy smile always on his face, and he dropped a towel over my shoulders as I shivered with a smile being grateful not to have embarrassed myself. He rubbed his thumb over the knot on my eye.
"Looks like it hurts?" he said.
"I'm okay," I said.
Brother Bill went next, and he got right up his very first time. That was a pretty big deal since the pressure was on since his little brother did it the first try. It wouldn't have been a good idea for him to fail to duplicate what I had done, and he did it in spite of the pressure, only he skied awhile, and he was smart enough to listen when they told him with their hands to let go and ski in toward the Spin Drift Inn when they swung close to the shore. He settled into the water still wearing the skis.
John and Avery both skied and then we loaded the boat and took it back to the Taylor's house. I was exhausted and starved after the hours on the water. They drove us back down to Granny's, and Billy beamed while telling how he had water skied on his first try. I just listened and didn't say anything. Granny didn't ask but shook her head when she saw my eye. I never did do much right as far as she was concerned.
I rubbed my eye, but the bump was long gone. For a second I thought I heard Avery, but I thought we were on our beach. As I floated up and down in the water, I realized he was gone. Out there. Some where. My eyes got lost looking for him or anything but the water and the sky. Sailing had been my kind of experience, but it was ending badly. How did I get myself into this mess?
... And then one particularly quiet and uneventful afternoon, Avery and I were done swimming and wrestling and insulting each other. We'd laid down on our towels under the palms while admiring the smooth glass surface of the bay. We waited for the cooling breeze that always kicked up just about the time you thought you might roast or melt. We tried not to move at all when it was this hot. Even the breeze ran hot that day. We thought we might boil if we exerted a single muscle for a single second. The sweat was standing on our skin, when Avery said,
"You ever been sailing?"
"No." I said.
"We must go sailing before you go home. It's so quiet and pleasant letting the wind carry you across the water. I think you would enjoy sailing. It's an experience you need to have. We'll go sailing tomorrow. It will be cooler out in the bay."
As with anything Avery suggested, I knew it was an adventure I would otherwise not have. If Avery said I would like it, I was sure I would. He went about detailing how we would borrow the ten foot sail boat from the yacht club his parents belonged to. We would go early and be back before the afternoon showers might come in.
"That bridge," I said, "Could we maybe sail out to the bridge. I want a close up look."
"Sure. We'll sail to the Destin bridge."
The bridge seemed like it was a million miles away from our beach but sailing to it was an adventure I couldn't pass up. It was a focal point on the horizon. Whenever you looked into the bay that bridge couldn't help but catch your eye.
It was set. The next morning I would learn about sailing. I would supply the sandwiches, and Avery would secure the boat. It was a perfect plan for one more adventure, and little did I know it would be the adventure of a lifetime and maybe the last adventure of my life. That bridge and I had a date with destiny since I'd first noticed it, but I didn't think about things like that before ending up in the middle of the bay struggling to stay afloat and alive. For the first time in my life I was completely alone and isolated from everyone and everything but the water that could claim me at any time.
Avery was the doorway to adventure all right. How he knew the stuff he knew was a mystery. No matter when or where, he could always come up with something that drew me to him like a moth to his flame. I could hardly sleep that night while waiting for the dawn to break. I raced to the kitchen and made two bologna and two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. By seven o'clock I was waiting at the corner of the dirt road that led into the yacht club. Shortly after I arrived, Avery came bouncing down the street from his house all smiles.
Avery had let me carry the centerboard by the fine teak wooden piece that kept it from falling down through the bottom of the small boat. He had to talk the manager of the yacht club into allowing us to "borrow" the boat. It wasn't an unusual request from a yacht club member, but at twelve, we were probably the youngest to do so. The centerboard was about three feet high and two feet long and I stumbled with it as I stepped onto the dock where the sailboat sat silent.
The bottom of the boat tapered off somewhat to about a foot in width. The wood inside was the same beautiful color as the wood on the centerboard. It matched perfectly. Once you slid it down into the hole in the bottom of the boat, the shinny wood piece kept it secure in the middle, all but the wood invisible as the long narrow metal piece cut down into the water. I was curious about its purpose as it disappeared through the middle of the boat's bottom.
I looked up at a mast about as tall as the boat was long, maybe ten feet. The boat looked very short. The mast looked very long. It was made of the same wood, and the sail was wrapped securely around it fastened with rope. There were two seats, one in the middle and one in the rear. It was wide enough for me to comfortably place a hand on the shinny boards on either side of me. They accented the outline of the top of the sides. While Avery situated himself, the boat rocked gently back and forth.
I stayed firmly seated in the middle as he untied the line holding us secured to the dock. He shoved us out into the water while releasing the sail. There was a slight breeze that filled it immediately taking us slowly and without sound toward the point of the peninsula that hid the bay from out view. He swung the bow of the boat out to negotiate the tip opening up the bay before us.
The small craft idled down the other side of the peninsula following the irregular shore line and allowing me to examine the barrier brush and bushes which made up the shore and extended into the bay a few feet. The only sounds, a gentle rippling against the wood as it cut a path through the water. I found you must listen carefully to hear sounds. They were subtle and new to me. I could almost hear the wind in the sail as it pillowed out beside me. The water took on its usual appearance of glass.
For the first time I looked out toward the heart of the bay, and there it stood, the Destin bridge. The morning haze was in over and around it, signaling another hot humid day. The haze precedes the clouds that yielded up the afternoon thunder storms. While it was pleasant enough, and being in the water cooled you more, the sun blazed brightly cutting its defused light through the sky to our backs.
We worked our way toward the beach Avery and I claimed. I watched small birds fluttering away as we came too close for their comfort. Many insects provided a morning smorgasbord for the birds that circled us like winged boomerangs gliding out around our boat as we passed through and out of their dining area. They returned to the same branch they occupied before we interrupted their buffet.
The night songs of the crickets and frogs were still sung in the depths of the thicket where the sun did not find them until later in the morning. The quiet was as loud as any sound, and Avery did not say anything as he reacquainted himself with the controls. The sail made a slight creaking sound as it followed the directions Avery gave. From time to time there was a sound from the fabric that might fold and then unfold itself in an attempt to find the wind. All the sounds were soft and part of the boat or the water. There was nothing abrupt or harsh about sailing. I found I more than liked it. Though in water I was always home.
The speed boat was adventure. It was powerful and versatile. You made quick starts, and it forced you back in your seat. You could pull skiers or cruise rapidly across the waters leaving a large wake to mark your path. As I sat facing Avery looking past his shoulders there was just an ever so slight sign of where the boat cut its path through the water. Within a few seconds all signs of the boats passage were erased.
The sounds remained few, gentle, and soft. It was like becoming part of the water making it relaxing and pleasant. I let my arm dip down across the side of the boat dangling my hand into the water. It drank the moist heat through my fingers connecting me more closely to it. Looking out toward the bridge, it had all but disappeared in the gloom at first glance, but now the sun brightened the white fluffy clouds and it stood against them as a black back drop.
There were no boats to make sounds that interrupted the flow of our journey. As we drifted along, we passed our small beach. He used that as our landmark turning sharply into the middle of the bay without speaking. He steered the sailboat directly at the bridge. I watched back as we broke free of the shoreline. I watched Avery as he studied the horizon and guided us toward the gulf. I turned to look over my shoulder at the bridge.
The beach grew smaller behind us until it was just part of the shoreline. I noticed a point where I thought, I can no longer swim back to shore. We have reached my point of no return. The boat is all that is between me and drowning. There was no fear or anxiety. It was a point of reference for me. When I noticed, I took note, and saw nothing in Avery's demeanor to make me think there was any danger or any reason for me not to feel safe. I felt safe in his hands.
He asked if I wanted to steer the boat. He described the function of the tiller and showed me its operation. Each of his movements gave the sail a different life, and at times it fell almost limp beside the mast, and at times it blew out to the side and filled with air. He explained starboard and port, fore and aft, and there was nothing difficult about what he told me. There was a simple explanation that went with each maneuver he showed me.
I liked the feel of the boat. It was simple, and responded slow and in a time I could relate to. It didn't surprise me by its power. It didn't make me apprehensive about anticipating its response. I thought of the controls of the speed boat and how it scared me when the power gave the boat life. This on the other hand was slow and easy. When I gave the boat a command and showed alarm when it didn't immediately react, Avery would patiently tell me to wait for it. In no more than a second or two it would respond.
Avery and I sat together for a time, and he let me control the action, and generally told me to put the nose where I wanted it to go letting the gentle breeze guide us. I aimed at Destin Bridge. I wanted to sail under it. I wanted to see what was on the other side. The sail filled with new found air and there were sounds of metal against metal as the wind moved the sail around. The water wasn't as smooth as we moved toward the middle of the bay. The boat bobbed a bit but continued an easy glide.
Avery pointed at the bag that contained our lunch.
"What's in the bag?" Avery said, breaking the silence.
"Two bologna, two peanut butter and jelly sandwiches."
"One of each for each of us?" He asked, playfully.
"I'll take one bologna and one peanut butter if you have them," He said.
"It just so happens I have one bologna and one peanut butter to spare, unless you want two bologna or two peanut butter and jelly, and that's okay too. I like both, or either," I said, as though it was the first time the sandwiches were mentioned.
We both laughed. We ate and watched the birds and the big white clouds that floated above. Avery made dough balls from the bread and held them up in his hand reaching into the sky as he ate. Seagulls came closer and closer until one floated straight down sweeping a dough ball from Avery's hand. Then another one repeated it until the dough balls were gone.
When the sandwiches were gone he took over the controls. The only sound was the slight rippling of the water against the bottom of the boat. You needed to listen closely to hear it. We found ourselves moving into somewhat choppier water. It made the same sound your hand would make if you slapped the palm on the top of the water. There was nothing in Avery's actions or expression to indicate anything out of the ordinary. He kept an eye on the horizon and at times struggled to see around the sail that towered over the little boat. The sail was full of air from that time on. We had found the breeze, and Avery smiled, and said,
"Won't be long. The wind is picking up."
I was facing Avery as I gathered in the plastic bags the sandwiches were in. We hadn't thought to bring water, and while we were surrounded by it, there was not a drop to drink. I pushed that worry out of my mind thinking we'd stop at one of the shops next to the bridge. I watched Avery as he moved the tiller, watched the sail, and check the horizon. I could see only a shadow where our beach should have been. There were still no other boats out.
As I continued to study Avery's motions, I once more dipped my fingers, whole hand, and then lower portion of my arm into the water. It was rushing over them now, and I could feel the power of the water being propelled past us as the wind drove the sailboat. Small rolling waves that lifted us ever so slightly up and down. Lost in my thoughts I reasoned the water near the gulf was more alive with activity. It was then I watched Avery's face expecting it to reassure my sudden apprehension. It did not. There was a concern in his face and especially his eyes as he studied the horizon. It wasn't a big change, but gone was that relaxed carefree delighted expression. He held the tiller tighter and seemed to be working harder at keeping the boat steady.
I looked into the water noticing the chop had turned into a roll as the boat reacted to the waves. Avery became consumed with what he was doing. I puzzled about what there was to be concerned about. The questions were answered for me as Avery watched intently into the sky over my head. He steered the boat in a loop leaving me to stare in the sky over the gulf with the black storm clouds boiling angrier and blacker than usual. Rarely did they rise up in the morning, and never before this early. It was always an afternoon event. We often planned our days around the specter of the storms. Our plans had not taken into account the fickle face of Florida weather.
The bridge was dwarfed by the storm coming up over top of it rising straight up into the blackest daytime sky I'd ever seen. We couldn't have been two miles from the bridge before making our retreat. Avery continued to look over his shoulder at the clouds, and while we were moving at a good clip, it was obvious from the start we were no match for the storm. They churned into the sky blotting out the sun in no time. I could still see some blue sky, but we were in the shadow of the clouds in no time. A cold breeze blew into my face. It was chilly, and uncomfortable, and it was the first cool air I'd felt in weeks. There was a distinct musty smell I recognized from those long lasting afternoon storms. The spray blew over the boat as the waves grew. The bag with the remnants of our early lunch blew up into the wind skipping out across the water seeming to escape from the craft like rats might scurry from a doomed ship.
The wind gusted filling the sail for a second then was gone. Avery fought to keep the wind in the sail but the wind changed directions to fast. A spray showered my arms from the movement of the bow of the boat. It rose up at a forty five degree angle and then dropped nosing down off a wave and throwing water back up over me. The sail swung quickly over my head as gusts of wind yanked it from Avery's hand, and the boom hung out over the water with the boat tilting as we struggled to regain control, but by the time both of us reached for the sail, it was in the water, and we were in the water as it rushed over the side where we both leaned reaching for the sail. Something very shinny slithered just beneath my legs and the last glint of light shinned on it as it disappeared from my sight.
"What was that?" I asked, not wanting to know.
"The center board," Avery said, with solemn resignation in his voice.
"Can we get back?"
"I don't think we can without the center board. It keeps the boat stable. We've got bigger problems," Avery confessed.
"What else?" I moaned.
"The boat. It's filling with water. I don't think the two of us can get the water out."
"What's it mean? Avery?"
"We can't get back. Don't get worried. We'll be all right. Someone will come," Avery said, and his eyes swept the horizon, and all they could see were bigger waves rocking us as we held to what was left of the sailboat. He could not hide the fear I saw in his eye.
"We've got to stay with the boat. Hang onto the side?" I dog paddled to where the boat rested under the water. It floated just under the surface with the sail floating useless on top.
"Just stay with the boat. We'll be okay, someone will come by. It shouldn't sink. Too much wood, but you can't put your weight on it. Just let it hold you up," and he stayed opposite me using his weight as a counterbalance to mine. I did as he did.
We bobbed up and down, and the water rushed over us in waves that were becoming angrier. The clouds took away most of the daylight, but the lightning shot out of the dark with the thunder rolling over our heads. All I could see was Avery, the water, and the black sky above us. The rain drops stung as they hit and made a loud splattering sound when they met the water. Water caught me by surprise filling my mouth. Avery stayed across from me studying me as the boat settled deeper and deeper below us. His eyes gave away his fear.
"If I swim for it, I might make it to shore. Do you want to try to swim with me?"
Avery came to my side. He held me up by putting his arm around my waist. He instructed me on how to keep my head back so I wouldn't take in any more water. He talked in short gentle sentences always reassuring that someone would come. I knew the waves were too large to see past, and someone could pass right next to us and never see us
"I can swim for it, and with just you on the boat, it will probably hold you until I get back. We're losing it with both of us standing on it. I can barely reach it with my toes. If I swim it should hold you up until I can get help. Can you swim with me? Could you make it back?"
"I can't swim that far, Avery. I don't think I could make it."
"Can you stay here if I swim for it? I won't leave you if you don't want me to. We're in this together. I would never leave you if I didn't think it was the only way. I'll bring help. I won't leave you here. I'll be back. I promise I'll be back."
"What's the chances you can make it?" I said.
Avery looked away from my face, and tried to see over the waves, and they washed over our heads again and again pushing us away from the boat. We both gulped down the water struggling back to the sunken craft..
"I don 't think we'll make it if I stay here. If we're lucky, someone will be out, or coming back in. I might be able to signal someone. It's our only hope. I don't think we'll both last here long. We're losing the boat. Our only chance is for me to swim for it, Dickie."
I could see the pain in his eyes from his decision to leave me behind.
"I'm sorry I got you into this. If I had paid better attention, I might have seen it. I wasn't looking for a storm this early. It shouldn't have come in that quick. I'm sorry."
"It's not your fault Avery. You swim for it. I know it's the best thing. Maybe you'll make it and send me help. I'll hold on. I know you'll be back for me."
"Maybe," Avery said, "but I don't want to leave you. I'm afraid I won't be able to find you when I come back. I'm afraid I won't see you again if I leave you. It might be better if we stay together. At least we won't be alone if something happens."
"You'll find me. I know you will. You never let me down. I know I can depend on you, Avery. I know I can. I'll be okay. Go on."
"If I'm going, I better go," and another wave washed over us pushing both of us under.
He gulped down the water saying, "I'll be back. I promise."
Avery used his strength to hold me up, and the last second he looked once into my eyes swimming away on the next wave. The rain poured so hard I didn't know which way he'd gone. He was there holding onto me one second, and then he was gone. I dog paddled and heard the sound of my breathing like I was hearing someone else. It seemed quiet, very quiet, though the storm roared on around me. I was totally alone. I was totally alone and too far from shore and without a prayer. It would take Avery too long to get to shore, if he made it at all.
I faced my own mortality for the first time in my life. There was no panic, only a realization that I might die in that place on this day. There was no need to struggle or to become too hysterical. Who would ever know I was there? If I was dying there was no struggle, no panic, that was going to make it any different. If I kept my head, perhaps I could outlast the storm, and perhaps I could hold onto the mast until someone did come. That was what kept me from slipping under the waves and giving up my hold on life. I also thought of Avery coming back and not finding me, and I couldn't do that to him.
There were many minutes of nothing but random thoughts, connecting to nothing and no one, and taking me no where. I was suspended in the water and in time and space. The world was gone. There was only me and the small invisible boat and the water. I bobbed there like a fixture on a fishing line, and I put in time, and every minute I was alive was another minute I lived, and as long as I lived I wasn't dead. I would stay with it for another minute and then just one more after that one, and that's how I stayed alive.
After what seemed like a long, long time, the blackness overhead seemed to lighten. The boiling in the clouds stopped, and the thunder rumbled in the distance. The rain was gone, and the waves weren't as high. There was just silence, and me. I tried to see land, and as I bobbed up and down above the boat, I saw the bridge, much further away. The sky seemed to brighten, and there was another sound that I heard in the distance. I wasn't sure what it was. Then there was another sound, almost like a voice, almost like someone talking.
It brought me back from some place else. I hadn't been there at first. I was with Granny, and Pop, and Avery and brother Bill. I was basking in the sun on the beach, and roaming with Avery, his voice echoed in my head as though he were beside me. I knew he wasn't. I knew my arms were lead. I knew that in a second or two or three that my head would finally slip under the water for the final time. I was beyond caring or feeling anything.
As I tried to look over the waves, I heard the sounds again, closer. I tried to push myself up, but as I pressed against the boat, it sank under me. I was suddenly frantic. Panic set in. It was gone. I was finished this time. The panic passed because I was too exhausted to panic. The water moved me around in a gentle motion that forced the boat even higher so my feet were now on the side for the first time in long minutes. Somehow I found myself held up one more time, and there was that noise again. What the hell was it? I knew I recognized the sound, I couldn't remember what it was. I was dreaming it.
"Are you all right?" I heard a voice clearly say.
My mind was still fogged with water and wind. Avery was there. I opened my eyes and Avery was beside me. He hadn't left at all. Where had he come from. Where had he been. He held me under my arms and paddled pulling me away from the sailboat. At first I struggled to get back to it, convinced that I was dead without it, and not knowing why Avery would take away my lifeline. Then, I knew it was another trick of my mind. I suspected Avery wasn't there, and I was in my final struggle before I died. It was another trick my mind played on me.
"I didn't think I would find you. I was scared," Avery said, "I was really scared. I can't believe you are okay."
Avery swam with me. Then, I looked over his shoulders as we moved up and down in the water, and there was a small boat. Avery swam pulling me until we reached the side of the boat. He boasted me up as I reached an arm up for the man in the boat to pull me in. I laid on my back and the man stared down on me as all the feeling was gone from my arms and legs. I couldn't get up. I couldn't roll over or move. My chest heaved and my lungs burned as though they might be on fire. I wasn't sure I was alive. I didn't know the man.
"You all right?" he said, louder than he needed to talk.
I continued to look up and I watched his lips move, but I wasn't really sure he was real. My arms and legs suddenly were cramping up, and I was winded, cold, tired, and I wasn't even sure any of it was real. The man threw a towel on top of me, and it was warm and dry, oh! it was so dry. I managed to wipe some of the water from my body and felt shivers running through me as my stomach heaved up its contents onto the floor before the man could get me up. I started looking around for Avery, and again wasn't sure I had really seen him at all. Was he there? Did I imagine it was him. Where was I? Was anything real?
"Avery?" I heard myself say.
"He'll be up in a second, he's hooking a line to the boat so we can tow her in. He's okay. Better shape than you I would guess," he said.
Sure enough! in another minute, Avery climbed over the side of the boat, and helped me get up into the seat by the engine. He put a towel across my legs and dried my hair with the towel on my shoulders. He kept smiling this big smile like the cat that just ate the canary, and I was shivering and my legs were blue, and the boat started and the wind made it worse. I was exhausted and wanted to go to sleep.
"I'm freezing," I said with a shiver.
"I thought I lost you. I didn't think I would find you," Avery said, and he put his arm around my shoulders and hugged me, and I leaned against the warmth of his body, and I shivered and felt dizzy. My insides were churning and they seemed to want to get outside again, and I fought back the urge to puke. I didn't want to get the guy's boat any dirtier than I already had, and I didn't want to move away from the warmth Avery provided me. I was too tired to move.
"I thought I lost you. You scared hell out of me. I'm so glad I found you. You stayed up. You sure stuck with it. I was afraid you wouldn't be able to holdout until I got back. You can't believe how scared I was."
"I couldn't think of anything else to do," I said, and Avery laughed, and he leaned away and looked at me like he wanted to make sure it was really me, and then he dried me more with one of the towels. The sky grew lighter and the clouds were breaking and the water smoothing out.
We pulled down into the cove where the yacht club was situated, and the sun broke through shining brightly before Avery tied us up. I stood shivering on the dock as Avery and the driver of the boat lifted the bow of the sailboat so the water tumbled out the back. Another man walked down from the yacht club, and he didn't seem as happy as the first guy.
"You boys are damn lucky. You know you could drowned out there in a storm like that. Is the sailboat okay?"
"I'm afraid we lost the center board, sir," Avery said, in his most parent pleasing and shy manor. It didn't work. For the first time since I knew Avery he found someone he could not charm the pants off of. That was the manager of the yacht club.
"I guess you know whose going to reimburse this club for that centerboard, son."
"I will, sir, but I don't have any way to pay you," Avery said.
"Oh! not so quick my adventurous little lad. You'll bus tables in my dining room until you work off the cost of replacing the missing centerboard. Does that meet your approval?"
"I'll need to ask my parents, but under the circumstances, I'm sure it will be okay," Avery said.
"You boys are lucky," the driver of the boat said. "I was just coming in when he told me you were out there. I just took a stab and went toward the bridge."
"Let's go seal this deal. You boys look like drowned rats, I'll drive you home."
... And there it was, the day I almost drowned. I thought it couldn't get any worse, but Avery was dropped at his house where the manager made arrangements with his mother. When the manager came out I said, "Just drop me here. It's okay."
"Not so quick my fair haired lad, I think we need to take you home."
"I live in Maryland," I said. "It would be a long drive for you. You've done too much already with the ride and all."
"Yes, I'm sure, but your grandparents don't live in Maryland, and I would like to meet them," and I knew my goose was cooked.
After his conversation with Granny, and telling her I might have drowned, I was grounded forever. I thought maybe I would have been better off drowning, except when Avery came over, and then I could always stop whatever assigned chore I was doing, and escape into the world he opened before me. Of course, it was with Granny's blessings, and she'd say, "as long as you are with Avery, but you come right home when he goes home. You hear me."
Yes, I always heard her. I hear her still.
Avery and I saw somewhat less of each other because he worked each day to pay back the yacht club, but I knew not only did he get me into it, he also saved my life. Avery was one of a kind, and that summer was an adventure of a lifetime.
My time would soon be occupied with my cousins Carol and Marty who arrived later that week. The adventures with them were a lot less adventurous, but it turned out to be the best summer of my life even if I almost did drown and never got to see Destin Bridge from the water though we crossed over it all the time.
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