Praise for the novels of Mary Alice Monroe
“An inspirational tale of redemption.”
—Publishers Weekly on Swimming Lessons
“Monroe makes her characters so believable, the reader can almost hear them breathing…. Readers who enjoy such fine southern voices as Pat Conroy will add the talented Monroe to their list of favorites.”
—Booklist on Sweetgrass
“Skyward is a soaring, passionate story of loneliness and pain and the simple ability of love to heal and transcend both. Mary Alice Monroe’s voice is as strong and true as the great birds of prey of whom she writes.”
—New York Times bestselling author Anne Rivers Siddons
“With each new book, Mary Alice Monroe continues to cement her growing reputation as an author of power and depth. The Beach House is filled with the agony of past mistakes, present pain and hope for a brighter future.”
—RT Book Reviews
“Monroe writes with a crisp precision and narrative energy that will keep [readers] turning the pages. Her talent for infusing her characters with warmth and vitality and her ability to spin a tale with emotional depth will earn her a broad spectrum of readers, particularly fans of Barbara Delinsky and Nora Roberts.”
—Publishers Weekly on The Four Seasons
Swimming Lessons Mary Alice Monroe
To Martha Keenan
Letter to Reader
Questions for Discussion
The sea is thick and murky. Can you see me?
I am propelled forward, caught in a spiral of swift water. The Great Current carries me as it writhes along the coastline, swirling around the great gyre and through a vast spread of sargassum weed. It snakes from south to north, a supernatural force pushing me forward. Always onward.
I am a loggerhead. I’ve journeyed far in this vast ocean, a servant to my magnetic compass. Yet now I hear a voice that cries above the roar of the current. It is the voice of my ancestors, a voice that has guided mothers for generation after generation, for two hundred million years. I heed the call and spread my beautiful long flippers. Strange forces gain strength in my soul, compelling me eastward. Light shimmers above, then grows dark. Aqua to indigo, over and over on this odyssey.
I ignore the hunger that gnaws at my belly and swim through the living broth of drifting plankton. I push past gangly, gliding invertebrates and hallucinatory looking creatures, beyond the wreck fish and sea bream that share space beneath a gilt rock laden with pink coral and bright anemones.
I am riding a river of current, gliding in watery thermals, warmed by the sun, powered by the earth’s rotation. I am soaring through liquid wind, reaching out to the place of my birth.
I am swimming…swimming…swimming home.
First get wet, get comfortable in the water.
Let your skills develop naturally, at your own pace.
Last night, Toy Sooner dreamed again of the turtle. It was always the same dream, one so vivid that when she awoke she was tangled in her sheets, disoriented and filled with a great, nameless yearning.
Toy sat on the precipice of the sand dune looking out over the wave-scarred beach. Another day was ending. Around her the sea oats were greening and above, a nighthawk streaked across the slowly deepening sky. The tide was coming in, carrying seashells, driftwood and long-harbored memories tumbling to the shore.
She identified with the loggerhead sea turtle in her dream. Was it merely that the turtles were on her mind? She searched the restless sea that spread out to forever under the vast sky. Out in the distant swells, the sea turtles were gathering for the nesting season. Toy sensed the mothers out there, biding their time until instinct drove them from the safety of the sea to become vulnerable on the beach and lay their eggs.
It was an emotional time of the year for her. Each May when the sea turtles returned to the Isle of Palms, she felt the presence of her beloved mentor, Olivia Rutledge, returning with them.
She hugged her knees closer to her chest. This small dune on this empty patch of beach was her sanctuary. She came often to this sacred spot—to think, to remember, to find solace. She felt closer to Olivia Rutledge here—Miss Lovie to everyone she’d met. This dune had been Miss Lovie’s favorite spot, and on some nights, especially when the sun lowered and the birds quieted, as now, Toy imagined she heard Miss Lovie’s voice in the sweet-scented offshore breezes.
It had been five years since old Miss Lovie had passed. Five years spanned a good chunk of her life, she thought, considering she’d only lived twenty-three. After Olivia Rutledge died, Toy had worked hard every day of those five years to make a better life for herself and for Little Lovie, her daughter. That had been a vow made at Miss Lovie’s gravesite and a promise to her infant daughter.
“I did my best to keep my vow,” she said aloud to Lovie Rutledge, feeling her spirit hovering close tonight. “I finished college, got a good job and I’ve made a nice home for Little Lovie. All tidy and cheery, with flowers on the table, like you taught me. I want so much to be a good mother.” She rested her chin on her knee with a ragged sigh as the longing from the dream resurfaced.
“So, tell me, Miss Lovie. Why don’t I feel that I am? Or content? I’m still like that turtle in my dream, swimming toward someplace I can’t seem to get to.”
A high pitched cry shattered her thoughts. “Mama!”
Toy’s gaze darted toward the call. Her young daughter sat a distance from the shoreline surrounded by colorful plastic buckets and spades. Her long blond hair fell in salt-stiff streaks down her back as she bent over on hands and knees before the crude beginning of a sand castle.
“What do you want, Little Lovie?”
“Mama, come help me with my castle!”
Toy sighed, sorely tempted. “I’m working, honey.”
“You’re always working.”
She saw a scowl flash across Little Lovie’s face before she ducked her head and went back to her digging. Mingled in the muffled roar of the ocean she heard Olivia Rutledge’s voice in her mind. Stop what you’re doing and play with your child!
Toy desperately wanted to play with her and enjoy each precious, fleeting moment with Little Lovie. She felt an all too familiar twinge of guilt and paused to allow her gaze to linger on her daughter. Little Lovie was carefully molding another tower with her chubby hands.
That child was happiest when she was at the seaside, Toy thought, her heart pumping with affection. Whether collecting shells, digging castles or rollicking in waves, as long as she had her toes in the sand she was content. She was only five years of age, yet Little Lovie was so much like Miss Lovie Rutledge that Toy sometimes believed the old woman’s spirit had returned to settle in her namesake. For Toy, the sun rose and set on her child. And it was for her child’s future that she gathered her discipline.
“Let me finish this report,” she called back. “Then I’ll come help you finish that sand castle.”
“I promise, okay?”
Her daughter nodded and Toy resolutely brushed away grains of sand from her notebook and returned to the report that was due by morning. She was an Aquarist and had been placed in charge of her own gallery at the South Carolina Aquarium. It was her first break and she needed to prove that she was capable of the responsibility.
The noseeums and mosquitoes were biting in the sticky humidity and blown sand stuck to her moist skin but she worked a while longer, determined to finish in the last of the day’s light. A short while later she closed her notebook and raised her gaze toward her daughter. Another lopsided tower had been added to the castle.
But her daughter was gone.
Toy’s breath caught in her throat as her eyes wildly scanned the beach. “Lovie!” she cried out, leaping to her feet.
Toy swung her head around toward her daughter’s voice. Little Lovie was arched on tiptoe at the water’s edge. The bottom of her pink swimsuit was coated with a thick layer of damp sand and she was pointing excitedly toward the sea.
Toy ran across the beach to grasp hold of her daughter’s slender shoulders. “You know you’re not supposed to go near the water,” she scolded, even as her eyes devoured her child and her hands gently wiped sand from her face. “You scared me half to death.”
The five-year-old was oblivious to her mother’s concern. Instead, her large blue eyes were riveted to something in the surf.
“It’s right there,” she cried, wiggling her pointed finger urgently. “I see it!”
“What do you see, a dolphin?” Toy turned her head back toward the Atlantic to peer into the rolling surf. Then she saw it. A large dark object floated at the surface not more than fifty feet out.
It wasn’t a dolphin. She squinted and moved a step closer. Could it be a turtle? The dark hulk appeared lifeless in the waves. “You stay right here,” she ordered in a no nonsense tone, and this time, Little Lovie didn’t argue.
Toy rolled her pants higher up on her slender legs, coiled her shoulder length blond hair in a twist at the top of her head, then walked into the sea for a closer look. She felt the chilly spring water swirl at her ankles, calves and then dampen the hem of her shorts as she waded forward, intrigued by the shadowy object bobbing on the waves.
It was a turtle! It had to be at least two hundred pounds—and it looked dead. What a pity, she thought and she wondered if this was a nesting female holding eggs. It was always a shame to lose an adult turtle, but to lose a nesting female was a tragedy. The loss was one of generations.
A wave carried the turtle closer and Toy’s stomach clenched at the sight. It looked like she’d been floating for a long time. She was badly emaciated and the shell was dried and covered from tip to tip with barnacles.
“Poor Mama,” she muttered. There’d been too many dead turtles washing ashore in the past few years. “Barnacle Bills” the turtle team called them, and this was another to add to the list. She’d call and have DNR pick the carcass up in the morning. Toy was about to turn back when she saw a flipper move.
“She can’t be…” Toy bent forward, squinting. A breaker smacked her legs but she kept her eyes peeled on the turtle. A flipper moved again.
“She’s alive!” she called out to Little Lovie.
The child jumped up and down, clapping her hands. Toy hurriedly waded closer to Little Lovie to be heard. “Honey, I’m going to need some help. Run up to Flo’s house and tell her to come right quick, hear? Can you do that?”
The child took off like a shot for the dunes. Just beyond was the white frame house of Florence Prescott, the leader of the island’s turtle team. Flo was very active in the community and always out doing something for someone, but she was usually home at the dinner hour. At least Toy hoped she was today.
She turned back toward the turtle. The inert creature was floating with her posterior up, like a lopsided rubber raft. She’d have to haul her in. She sighed and looked at her clothes. Well, they were halfsoaked anyway, she thought as she began wading toward the turtle.
The pebbly sand suddenly dipped and sliding down, her toe was sliced by the sharp edge of a shell. White pain radiated up her leg and looking down, she saw the murky water stained red with blood. The turtle was drifting farther away in the current. Ignoring the pain, she kicked off to swim to the floating hulk.
The big turtle was in much sorrier shape than she’d first realized. As she drew near, the turtle’s dark, almond eyes rolled in her large skull in a mournful gaze.
“Don’t be afraid, big girl,” she said to the turtle, feeling an instant connection. “I’ll get you out of here in no time.”
A small wave slapped her face as she swam around the turtle. Her eyes stung and she spit out a mouthful of saltwater. Once behind the rear flippers she could get a good handle on the shell. Then, using the carapace like a kickboard, she began kicking and pushing the turtle toward the shore.
She was making good progress when she caught a quick silvery flash of movement in the corner of her eye. Her breath hitched as she scanned the vista. The water’s surface was turning glassy in the brilliant colors of the setting sun. She hesitated, not fooled by the serenity. Dusk was feeding time for sharks.
Toy knew she was in a vulnerable position. The predator would be curious about the sick turtle—an easy prey. With her toe bleeding she knew the smart thing to do would be to leave the turtle and get out of the water.
Then she saw it again. This time it was unmistakable. The slim, v-shaped dorsal fin broke the surface, heading her way in a lazy, zigzag pattern. Toy froze as the shark neared, then swiftly veered off. The turtle’s instinct flared and her flippers feebly stroked in the surf. The shark surfaced again, but this time farther out by the inlet.
“Well, no one ever said I was smart,” she told herself, gripping the turtle’s shell. With a grunt, she pushed with all her might, propelling the turtle forward. She repeated this twice more before her feet hit sand. The shark was closer again, circling in a pattern of surveillance.
That bull shark was four feet of sleek danger and she knew it could attack in shallow water. She hurried to the front of the turtle and grabbed hold. “We’re not home yet,” she muttered and began tugging the enormous turtle in. Behind her on the beach she heard Florence Prescott calling her name.
“Hurry, Flo!” she cried over her shoulder.
With athletic grace that belied her advanced years, Flo ran straight into the water, her tennis shoes still on.
“Drag her out of the water,” Toy cried with urgency. “We’ve got company.”
Flo looked over her shoulder. “God damn,” she muttered.
Little Lovie ran into the surf, arms reaching for the turtle. “Let me help!”
“Lovie, you get back on the beach this instant!” Toy ordered.
“But I want to help!”
“Do as your mama says,” Flo told her. “Sharks nibble hatchlings in ankle deep water and your toes are just the right size. Go on now, git.”
Little Lovie scrambled out of the ocean.
Flo grabbed hold of a side of the turtle’s shell. Her deeply tanned arms spoke of many years spent in the sun. “On the count of three…”
With a heave-ho, they shoved the turtle up the final few feet to the edge of the beach. Out of the water, the full impact of the huge turtle’s weight was felt. It was like pushing a boulder and it took all they had to get the turtle to scrape sand till only the tips of the incoming tide caressed her rear flippers.
The turtle remained motionless. Toy plopped down on the sand beside her and lifted her foot to check out her wound. She was shocked to see that the cut in her big toe was deep and bright red blood trickled in a steady flow. And it hurt like hell. It hit her how reckless she’d been to stay in the sea with a bleeding wound. Raising her gaze, she looked again out at the sea. The shark had already disappeared beneath the murky water. She started to laugh with relief.
“What are you laughing at?” Flo asked. “Is that a cut you’ve got there?” She swooped down like a mother hen.
“I’ll be the judge of that. Those shells can be like razors. Let me see it.”
“Really, Flo, I’m okay.”
“Bring it here.” Flo bent and, grabbing hold of Toy’s foot, studied the toe closer. She clucked her tongue. Little Lovie hovered nearby, mesmerized. After a quick perusal, Flo released the foot and rose to a stand. “Put some antibiotic ointment on it and you’ll live.”
Toy looked up at her daughter with a reassuring smile.
“I can’t believe you went out there with a shark trailing you,” Flo said. “You know better.”
Toy took the scolding with good nature. “I didn’t see it when I swam out and I wasn’t sure I was bleeding.” She snorted and added smugly, “But I got her in, didn’t I?”
Florence Prescott usually had something upbeat to say about most things, but she looked at the turtle with a frown and shaking her head said, “I’m not sure it was worth the risk. This turtle looks barely alive. And she’s covered with gunk. I’ve buried strandings that looked better than this one.”
“No, she’s beautiful. That gunk is merely leeches, algae and barnacles. We just have to get her someplace where we can clean her up.”
Before they could discuss this further, their attention was caught by calls coming from up the beach. “Well, thank goodness the cavalry’s here,” Flo said. She stretched her arm overhead and waved, calling out, “Cara! Brett! Over here!”
Toy turned toward the dunes and saw an attractive couple in khaki shorts and green Barrier Island Eco-Tour T-shirts. Toy’s spirits soared and she grinned from ear to ear as she lifted her arm in a wave.
A tall, lean woman strode toward them in a long-legged, no-nonsense manner. Her glossy, dark hair whipped in the breeze and behind her smart, tortoise sunglasses, Toy knew Cara’s brown eyes were sparkling with excitement at the prospect of a live turtle on the beach.
Behind her, Brett’s broad shoulders and height towered even over Cara. Though he wore the same T-shirt of the tour company they owned, on Brett the clothes were faded and worn, giving him the disheveled appearance of an island boy.
Little Lovie yelped with excitement at seeing them and ran into Brett’s arms for a quick hoist high up in the air.
“It’s a turtle, see!” she cried out.
“I see it!” Brett’s blue eyes brightened against his weathered tan as he grinned wide and swung Little Lovie around, her legs flying behind her. Then he tucked her on his hip with a hug of affection.
“What’ve we got?” Cara asked, walking directly to the turtle. She bent over the sea turtle to get a closer look.
“Probably a nesting female,” Flo replied as she quickly moved to Cara’s side. “She’s covered with barnacles. And look, leeches too. Ugh, the horrid blood suckers are all over her.”
Cara grimaced at the pitiful sight. “She must’ve been floating for weeks.”
“Weeks? Longer than that,” Flo replied. “These poor floaters can’t dive to hunt and this old girl likely hasn’t eaten in months. Her neck is so thin…she’s all skin.” She clucked her tongue. “I don’t know if she’s going to make it.”
“She’s not gone yet,” Toy said, joining them at the turtle’s side. She felt fiercely protective of the turtle she rescued. “I’ve been amazed at how resilient sea turtles can be. I’m not giving up on her.”
“She’s certainly a big girl,” Brett said, drawing near with Little Lovie in his arms.
“Let’s see how big she is.” Cara pulled a measuring tape out of her backpack and made quick work of measurements. She called out the numbers to Flo who scribbled them down in her notebook. Little Lovie scrambled out of Brett’s arms to hover closer, half curious, half repelled by the condition of the turtle.
Toy tucked her fingertips into her back pockets. The early evening’s chill seemed to go straight through her wet clothes.
“From tip to tip of the shell, I’ve got forty inches,” Cara called out. “I’m guessing she’s well over 200 pounds.”
Flo slapped the sand from her hands. “Well, that’s that. I guess I’d better call it in to DuBose at the Department of Natural Resources to come get her.”
“I could call the Aquarium,” Toy piped up.
Cara checked her watch. “It’s after six o’clock. DuBose won’t be in her office.”
“No, but there’s the DNR hotline number,” Flo replied. “Someone will come out.”
“Tomorrow, most likely,” said Brett.
“DNR doesn’t do rehab,” Cara said, zipping up her backpack. “What will they do with a live turtle?”
Flo shrugged. “Do you have any better ideas?”
“I could call the Aquarium.” Toy said again, a little louder.
The two women turned their heads toward her in swift unison.
“The Aquarium?” asked Flo with doubt. “What will they do? They don’t take in sick sea turtles.”
“Well, actually, yes they—we do,” Toy replied. “At least, the Aquarium took two in before. A few years back. They didn’t do the rehabilitation, but they held the turtle until it could be moved to a vet. I don’t know…it’s just a thought,” she added hesitatingly.
“Even so,” Cara replied. “No one will be at the Aquarium at this hour either. Why do the emergencies always happen after business hours? It’s like some unspoken law.”
“But we can still call the Aquarium,” Toy persisted. “We always have someone on call.”
“Really?” Cara asked, interested. “Then, I suppose that is a possibility to consider.”
“The DNR still has to be notified,” Flo said with finality. “Anything to do with turtles is their jurisdiction.”
“Sure, but then they’re stuck with trying to find a place to rehabilitate it,” Toy argued back.
Cara shook her head. “Flo, don’t get worked up. We’ll call DuBose.”
While Cara and Flo argued the point between them, Toy limped off, her heel digging half moons into the sand. She went to Little Lovie’s lopsided sand castle, noticing the bits of shells and sea whip that Lovie had decorated it with while she stuffed the buckets and spades into the canvas bag.
Toy turned her head surprised to see Brett standing by her side. His broad shoulders blocked her view of the women at the shoreline.
“It’s just a scratch from a sea shell,” she said and returned to stuffing her bag with toys.
“You know that’s not what I’m talking about.”
She tossed a sandy spade into the bag and rested her hands on her thighs, then she looked up again. He was standing with his hands on his hips and a calm and a patient expression on his face. It was so typical of him. Surrounded by volatile women, Brett was always a steadying force for them all. She’d come to look up to him as the big brother she’d always wanted and he’d steered her straight through some pretty rocky waters over the years.
“Do you really think the Aquarium will take the turtle in?” he asked.
She shrugged. “Honestly, Brett, I don’t know. I’ve heard talk of taking turtles in this season, but nothing’s been decided. It’s certainly not up to me.” She hesitated then said with feeling, “But at least it’s a possibility.”
“And a good one. Do you know who to call?”
A smile twitched her lips as she nodded.
“So, what are you waiting for? Make that call. You sure don’t need our permission. And it sounds to me like you’ve got the best idea going.”
Toy pulled her cell phone from the canvas bag, dreading the task she’d set for herself. After all her bluster, she couldn’t back out now. Brett crossed his arms and waited while she dialed the number of her supervisor at the Aquarium. She told herself it was the cold, not nervousness, that made her fingers stiff but the pounding in her heart was proof that it took nerves for her, a low-level staff member at the Aquarium, to be calling the Director of Animal Husbandry. She shivered as the wind gusted.
Jason answered the phone after two rings. The phone connection from the beach wasn’t good and she had to repeat sentences, but she managed to quickly sum up the situation. After a few minutes conversation she closed her cell phone and looked up at Brett, eyes wide with triumph.
“Jason said to bring her in!”
“Well, hey! Good work, kiddo.”
Toy felt a surge of satisfaction at the congratulations Cara and Flo gave her when she delivered the good news.
“The only problem is,” Toy added, “the Aquarium is locked tight until morning.”
“What are we supposed to do with the turtle till then?” Flo asked.
“When I interned at the sea turtle hospital at Topsail,” Toy replied, “Jean Beasley told me about the first sick turtle they found. She was a big loggerhead, like this one. They found her floating, too. It was late in the day and they didn’t have anywhere to take her, so they carried the turtle to Jean’s garage on the island, washed her off, wrapped her in warm wet towels and watched her through the night. The next morning they drove her to a veterinary hospital. That same night the turtle was released back to Jean’s garage.” She smiled. “And that was the beginning of the Karen Beasley Sea Turtle hospital.”
“You thinking of starting a hospital, now?” Flo chided.
Toy smirked and shook her head. “Maybe someday. But right now I’m thinking we need to stop talking and get this turtle off the beach. The sun is going down and Little Lovie is cold, I’m cold, and that means the turtle is cold, too.”
As if to punctuate her statement, the turtle made an effort to take a labored breath. It was feeble yet enough to prompt the group to action.
“Well, if they could do it, so can we,” said Cara. She bent over to grab hold of the turtle’s shell. “Okay, everyone, grab a side.”
Brett moved alongside the turtle and took hold. Toy followed suit.
“Whoa, gang. Where are we taking her?” asked Flo.
“Where else?” Cara replied with a crooked grin. “To the beach house.”
Primrose Cottage was a quaint yellow beach house with mullioned windows and a welcoming veranda. It sat on a high dune across from the ocean and was surrounded by sweetgrass, sea oats and wildflowers that grew in a riotous display. Modest but comfortable, it was one of the few remaining original cottages left on Isle of Palms. Primrose Cottage was once the summer home of Olivia Rutledge. After her death, the beach house was passed on to Lovie’s daughter, Cara, who then rented the house to Toy for a fraction of its worth. It was the kind of generous arrangement that a family member would make for another.
It was to this beach house that the turtle team decided to bring the sick sea turtle for the night. With Brett’s strong back, the four of them managed to carry the enormous sea turtle up the beach, over the dunes, and along the narrow beach path to the house.
The sky was dusky and the yellow light streaming from the cottage windows was welcoming as they approached. Cara was panting hard and her arms strained like they were breaking by the time they set the huge sea turtle down on the sand and gravel in front of the beach house.
“I have a whole new understanding of what it takes for those mamas to crawl out from the sea under all that weight,” Cara said, bent with her hands on her knees. “Look at my knees, they’re shaking!”
“You think this was tough?” Brett asked her with a short laugh. He wiped his hands on his shirt. “Giving you a piggyback ride through the pluff mud makes this seem like a walk in the park.”
While the others guffawed, Cara twisted her mouth into a smirk. “Ha ha ha, very funny,” she replied. “Just for that I think I’ll add a few pounds for the next jaunt to the hammock.”
His brows rose. “I think my dreamboat has already taken on a little extra cargo.”
This set off another round of laughs from Toy and Flo as Cara sauntered up to slap his arms, already raised in mock self-defense. Toy watched the teasing banter between husband and wife and wondered what it was like to have that kind of relationship with a man. The kind where slapping could be playful rather than hurtful.
“Save your energy. We’re far from done,” Flo called out, heading to the underbelly of the beach house’s raised porch.
Primrose Cottage had endured years of salt air, blustery wind and blazing sun, and the old house was showing its age. It was an endless battle to keep the paint from peeling, the mold from peppering the wood, and any gravel on the driveway. The small area under the front porch was closed in on two sides by a wall of a wobbly, faded white wooden trellis weighed down with jasmine vines. This confined area was so stuffed, Toy could barely see the cement slab.
“We’ll have to clean out this place if we aim to put this turtle here for the night,” said Flo. She surveyed the area and muttered, “And I thought I had a lot of stuff.”
“It’s not all mine,” Toy said defensively. “Most of it was Miss Lovie’s and I don’t figure we should move it.”
“Why not?” Flo replied. “She won’t miss it.”
Toy looked dismayed at the comment but Flo only shrugged then moved a pink bicycle with training wheels and plastic streamers stemming from the handles. “If you ask me—and you didn’t—I’d say both the elder and the younger Lovies have accumulated a mountain of stuff.”
“Okay, okay,” Cara called out as she surveyed the wall to wall clutter. “I admit, I’m not the best landlady, but you should’ve seen the mountain of junk I threw out already. You know what a pack rat my mother was. She couldn’t bear to let go of anything. Every rusted tool and each cracked flower pot still had some life left in it. Every time I threw something out she was at the trash bin pulling it out again.”
“That’s just a reaction to the Depression years, child,” Flo replied, rolling the tricycle out. “All of us tainted by it hang on to stuff longer than we should.”
“Whatever… Because of her I hate to hold on to anything. Stuff just accumulates!” She shook her head and put her hands on her hips as she surveyed the assorted garden tools, turtle supplies, toys and pots crammed in the space under the porch. “See what I mean? In just five years all this stuff gathers. I guess I should’ve come over to clear this place out for you, Toy. It’s mine to figure out what to do with.”
“I don’t mind,” Toy replied honestly. “I hate to get rid of anything that belonged to Miss Lovie.”
“Puhlease…” Cara said, raising her hands. “I had to fight with my mother to throw anything out, don’t make me fight with you.”
“Well, let’s just clear it out for now,” said Flo. “Y’all can decide what to do about it later.”
“I’ll grab the car keys and move it out to the driveway,” Toy said. “That’ll clear a big space.” She patted the gold, 1972 VW bug with affection before she opened the door. It creaked on its hinges. “This old girl has a few lapses, but this is one piece that I’ll never toss away.”
The VW Bug was once the pride and joy of Olivia Rutledge. Everyone who lived on the island knew that if they spotted “the Goldbug” parked along Palm Boulevard, the Turtle Lady was out on the beach tending to a turtle nest. Miss Lovie had left the car to Toy in her will, and at 103,000 miles, the Gold Bug was still going strong.
While Toy moved the car, the others worked together to shove the clutter to the lawn, leaving only Little Lovie’s blue plastic kiddie pool. This was scrubbed, rinsed then filled to the half way point with water.
“I reckon this is as good as it’s going to get,” Cara said, surveying the cleared and swept space. “Let’s bring her in.”
“Easy now,” Flo said as they each took hold of the turtle and carried her under the porch. Gently, they slipped the enormous turtle into the kiddie pool. She landed with a soft splash, filling every inch.
“Snug as a bug in a rug,” Brett said, rising.
“You ain’t kidding,” Flo added, drying her hands on her shorts. “She barely squeezed in. If that loggerhead was healthy, she’d use those powerful flippers to climb out from that ridiculous plastic bin and stopping her would be like trying to stop a tank.” She clucked her tongue. “Poor thing. She’s so weak and sick, she doesn’t even try.”
Toy crouched closer to the sea turtle that lay dull and limp in the pool. She looked more like one of Little Lovie’s inflatable toys than a real loggerhead. She knew this noble turtle had survived against daunting odds to reach maturity. She’d traveled countless miles to the beach of her birth to lay her eggs. She didn’t deserve to be in such a pitiful condition.
“I’m going to scrub her down,” she said, rolling up her sleeves.
“Are you sure you’re supposed to do that?” Flo asked. “Maybe we should just leave her be.”
“Flo,” she said, rising to a stand. “May I remind you that I work at the Aquarium and I’ve handled lots of sick sea turtles when I interned at the turtle hospital in Topsail. So, yes. I am sure we’re supposed to wash her down.” Her expression shifted to reveal the hurt exasperation she felt with the other woman.
Flo’s brows rose in surprise at Toy’s reaction. Then her shoulders lowered and her lips lifted to a thoughtful smile. “I reckon I can get pretty fixed in my ways at times.”
Cara guffawed from behind them. “Who, you?”
Toy breathed easier and met Flo’s smile.
“Well, kiddos,” Flo said, slapping her hands together. “It looks like this turtle is in good hands. It’s getting dark and I’m already late for my date. If you don’t need me, I gotta go.”
“Who is the lucky guy this time?” Cara asked.
Flo just waved her hand in a dismissive gesture. “You’ll be fine without me for a while. I’ll come back tomorrow morning to help with whatever you need done. What time do you think we’ll be shoving off for the Aquarium?”
“Jason is getting there early to set up a tank for her. He said to bring her in around eight,” replied Toy.
“Then I’ll be here at seven. I’ll bring coffee.”
She leaned forward to give a quick kiss on Little Lovie’s cheek then offered a wave to the others. “Take good care of our girl,” she said as she walked off, her flip flops clapping against her heels. She disappeared around a gangly oleander.
The small space beneath the porch seemed suddenly quieter without her energy.
“So then,” said Cara, breaking the silence. Her eyes turned toward Toy. “What should we do first?”
Toy scratched behind her ear, surprised to suddenly find herself in charge. She caught sight of Little Lovie standing by the steps of the porch wrapped tight in her beach towel, shivering. Her damp hair lay in clumps around her head. She was slight with no meat on her bones, as her mama would say. “The first thing I’ve got to do is warm up the little bug over there before she chatters away her teeth.”
“Let me do that,” Brett offered, walking toward Little Lovie. “I know you two ladies can’t wait to get your hands on that turtle. While you scrub to your heart’s content, I’ll scrounge around the kitchen and fix up some hot dinner for all of us.” He turned to the child. “What do you say to that?”
Little Lovie looked up at him with limpid eyes and her teeth biting the towel. She nodded.
“Come on then, before your lips turn any bluer,” he said.
“Hey, darlin’,” Cara called out to him. “While you’re at it, I’d like a vodka martini with three olives.” She winked when he glanced back at her with a smirk.
Toy enjoyed their banter and watched Brett place his big hand against Little Lovie’s back, nudging her toward the door. They were so like what she thought a father and daughter should be. And she felt again a stabbing guilt that somehow she’d failed her daughter because there was no father for her.
“He’s a pretty remarkable guy,” she said to Cara.
“Don’t I know it.”
“He’ll make a great father someday.”
Cara’s smile slipped. “God willing.”
Toy caught the sudden shift in emotion and let the topic drop. Miss Lovie used to say that the island breezes softened the bones. In Cara’s case, Toy saw that it was true. Marriage had sweetened Cara. And for sure, no one could have been nicer or more supportive of her and Little Lovie than Cara and Brett. They were like family—the only family Toy and Little Lovie could count on.
“Let’s get this show rolling,” Cara said in an upbeat voice, wiping sand from her hands. “You’re the boss here. You’ll have to tell me how this is done.”
“There’s not a whole lot we can do here,” Toy replied, unrolling the hose. “All the medical treatments will be done tomorrow at the Aquarium. But at least we can get all that slime and those leeches off. Even if she doesn’t make it, I reckon she’ll be happier for a bath.”
“I hear that,” Cara said, walking to the faucet. “Fresh water okay?”
“Yep. It’s even better than sea water for cleaning her off. Kills those ol’ barnacles.”
“Well, here’s a nice fresh water shower, baby,” said Cara. Water gurgled from the hose and splashed onto the turtle’s shell.
While Cara hosed down the turtle, Toy brought over a bucket filled with soft scrub brushes. Her stomach clenched as she knelt by the turtle. It was covered with stubborn barnacles and hundreds of thread-like, wiggly leeches.
“God, I hate leeches,” she muttered with a shudder.
“You and me both,” Cara said as she knelt beside her. Her mouth was a tight grimace. Their eyes met, then with a mutual sigh of resignation, they both dove in and began to scrub.
They scrubbed and picked and rinsed until it seemed to Toy that she’d removed acres of the ocean’s slimy bottom from the turtle. The bigger, gray, crusty barnacles were tenacious but the smaller ones were easily plucked off. Dozens more clung stubbornly to every inch of the turtle like boils. At least the horrible leeches were off and she had to admit the loggerhead did look better. The shell was spongy to the touch, but bits of its rich brown coloring could be seen between the dried, flaky bits.
The gentle turtle remained still and uncomplaining. She rolled her eyes back to stare at Toy with an almost human expression.
“Bless her heart. If I didn’t know better, I’d think she was saying thank you.”
“You’re welcome, baby,” Cara replied, patting her shell.
“I think we should name her.”
“I thought you biologists didn’t like to get personal with wild animals.” Cara said the word biologists with a gentle tease.
Toy made a face, but secretly she thrilled to the title. It was hard earned. “It’s true, but I confess I like to give names to the ones I work with every day. It helps me remember one from the next and it’s more personal. Besides, I have a hard enough time remembering names. Who can remember a number?” She paused to look with scrutiny at the loggerhead. “How about Caretta?”
Cara barked out a laugh and pretended to squirt Toy with the hose. It had long been a tender point between Cara and her mother that she’d been named after the Latin name for loggerheads, Caretta caretta. She’d spent a lifetime insisting on being called Cara.
“Don’t even think about it. Besides, doesn’t the Aquarium already have a turtle named Caretta? We have to come up with something more original for this big girl.”
Toy sat back on her heels. “That’s it! Big Girl.”
Cara nodded with approval. “Big Girl it is.”
“Well, Big Girl,” Toy said, tossing her scrub brush in the bucket. “I think that’s about as clean as we can get you tonight. Let’s wrap her up in wet towels, and then all that’s left is to wait until morning.”
“And pray she makes it.” Cara added. “I don’t know if turtles have expressions, but this poor girl even looks sick.” Night was falling fast and in the dim gray light, the shabbiness of the under-porch area was apparent. “We can’t just leave her out here by herself. What if she wanders off? Or some animal gets her?”
“No, of course not. I’ll stay with her.”
“Are you sure?”
Toy rose and put her hands to her lower back, aching from bending over the kiddie pool for so long. Her khaki pants were soaked and muddied, and her aching knees had dozens of tiny dents in the skin from kneeling on sand and grit.
“Yeah,” she replied, stifling a yawn. “No problem. I’ll just drag down the lounge chair from the porch. It’ll be like camping.” She snorted. “Kind of.”
Cara grimaced. “I hate camping.”
They burst out laughing.
“I’ll take the second shift,” Cara offered. She stretched her long arms over her head, yawning loudly. “It’s hotter ’n Hades down here. Lord help us.” Then without saying more, she began rolling up the hose.
Toy began gathering up the brushes and emptying the bucket. They both moved with the silent, slow movements of exhaustion.
“One thing, though,” Toy said in afterthought. “If I’m down here with the turtle, will you help get Little Lovie to bed?”
Cara’s eyes lit up. “You don’t have to ask me twice.”
Later that evening, they all headed for bed. While Cara and Brett settled Lovie, Toy dragged the old wooden lounge chair from the porch down the stairs to the cement slab, then went back up for a sleeping bag, a flashlight, a bottle of insect repellent and a bottle of chilled white wine. She slathered the contents of one bottle on her body and poured the contents of the other into a glass.
A vine of jasmine as thick as a python snaked in and out of the rickety lattice. Any breeze that might waft in from the ocean was blocked by the heavy foliage, but it provided a heady scent that helped overpower the dank smell of mildew and the fishy odor of turtle. Toy used the last of her energy to set the lounge chair at the edge of the concrete slab where the space opened up to the ocean’s breeze. Then, without removing her clothes, she crawled into the flannel folds of the sleeping bag and lay facing the stars.
It was a steamy night on the island. From the darkness the insects were singing their lullaby. The moon was rising and from deep in the blackness came the soothing, omnipresent roar of the ocean.
Not an evening passed that she didn’t give thanks to the Lord for being able to live here with her daughter in this cottage near the beach. Primrose Cottage was the only place in her entire life where she’d felt safe and truly happy.
The old wood lounge creaked as she shifted her weight. From somewhere a night bird called, and close to her ear she heard the high hum of a mosquito. Slapping her neck with a curse on all mosquitoes, Toy wrapped herself mummy-like in the sleeping bag and lay in her cocoon for several minutes while the heat sweltered.
It wasn’t long before she couldn’t breathe. “This is ridiculous,” she muttered as she kicked off the sleeping bag. Instantly the breeze cooled her moist skin, and just as quickly, the pesky mosquitoes hummed closer. It was going to be a long night, she thought. She shifted on the creaking lounge chair to grab more repellent. Across the floor, the turtle remained unmoving under the towels. Often these turtles hung on to life by a thin thread. Toy sat very still, waiting for several minutes in the silence to hear a breath. None came.
Worried, Toy unwrapped herself from the sleeping bag to brave the mosquitoes and check on the loggerhead. She removed the towel from over its big head. The turtle was lying perfectly still.
“How are you doing, Big Girl?” she asked, squinting in the dark. She bent to gently touch the turtle’s eyelids, seeking some response.
The turtle blinked and released a long exhale.
Toy exhaled, too, in great relief. “You had me worried there, old girl,” she said, reaching out to place her palm on the turtle’s roughened shell. She felt a strong bond with the mother sea turtle. “We single mothers have to stick together,” she said and, though she had no logical reason for it, she acted on instinct and began to pat the shell.
She thought again of her recurring dream of the sea turtle. Of how Big Girl had traveled long and far to reach this bit of beach she called home.
“You made it home,” she crooned softly. “All that way, through all those dangers. How many seasons have you survived out there in the ocean, huh? Are you forty years old? Fifty? More?”
No one knew for sure how long loggerheads lived. Some thought they lived to one hundred years or more.
“Don’t you worry, Big Girl. You’re not alone. I’m here for you.”
Upstairs, Cara closed the storybook and glanced over at the little girl on the bed beside her. Pale lashes rested on cherubic cheeks while soft puffs of air came out evenly through her rosy lips.
Cara’s heart pumped with affection for the little girl she’d helped raise since she was born. Toy liked to say that the spirit of Miss Lovie came to rest in the heart of this child, and though it was Cara’s nature to pooh-pooh such sentiment, in her heart she believed it was true. She caught glimpses of her mother’s gentle spirit in Little Lovie. And certainly in her love of nature, the sea turtles especially.
Cara reached up to softly stroke the blond hairs away from Little Lovie’s forehead, still damp from her bath. It was a gesture she remembered her own mother making. A surge of emotion moistened her eyes.
“You’re thinking of your mother, aren’t you?”
Cara turned toward the voice at the door. Leaning against the frame she saw the tall, broad form of her husband, his arms crossed at his chest, his eyes soft with concern. Brett’s keen ability to observe even small details was what made him both a great wildlife guide and a great husband.
She nodded and let her gaze wander. “I always feel her presence keenly here at the beach house.”
“It’s not surprising. She loved it here more than anywhere else.”
“Wouldn’t she just love having a turtle under her porch?” She laughed lightly at the thought. “She sure loved the turtles.”
“She loved you. Are you sure you won’t be happier living in this house? She left it to you, after all. Maybe she wanted you to live here. I wouldn’t mind moving.”
“Someday, perhaps. But the memories are still too strong. Even after five years, the pain’s too fresh.” She shrugged. “I dunno. Maybe because she died so soon after our reconciliation. For so long we barely ever talked. And then when we finally started, she had to up and die. Hardly seems fair.”
“At least you cleared the air. You had the chance a lot of other people miss.”
“I know. I’m grateful for that, I really am.” Cara reached up to tuck the pink sheet under Little Lovie’s chin. “It’s just, there’s still so much I want to tell her. So much I would have liked to share with her. I feel robbed.”
Cara rose from the bed and wrapped her arms across her chest. She gazed around the room. This was once her bedroom, the room of a girl’s dreams and heartaches.
“After she died, I tried sleeping in Mama’s bed. The scent of her gardenia perfume hung in the air like a ghost. It was pervasive—in the closet, the curtains. It was like she was everywhere. I know it’s crazy, but I missed her so much, I resorted to wearing her bathrobe to bed. I used to pretend that her arms were wrapped around me while I cried like a baby. Me!” She sniffed. “Pathetic, isn’t it?”
“You never told me that.”
Cara leaned back against him. “It’s pretty silly, isn’t it?”
“Not at all.”
He slid his arms around her waist. They felt strong and secure, and closing her eyes, she caught the scent of the sea in his clothes. “I’d much rather sleep in our own bed, in our own house and have your arms around me.”
He bent and she felt his cheek against hers and his muscle move into a grin. “That sounds good to me.”
“Besides,” she said, straightening. “It’s been good for Toy to live here. She finds comfort in being surrounded by Mama’s things.”
“She loved her like a mother.”
“In a lot of ways, she was her mother, the mother Toy never had. Remember the way she cried at Mama’s funeral? Made me look like I didn’t care as much. I got some strange looks, I recall.”
“It’s not your way to cry.”
Cara wondered about that statement. It was the kind of thing people said about her and she used to believe it. Growing up, she’d worn her stoicism like armor against the slings and arrows of her father’s anger. It had served her well as an executive in an advertising firm in the chilly north. Yet, she found that iron armor heavy to bear here in the softer air of the islands.
“Still, it’s strange the way Toy doesn’t want to get rid of anything of Mama’s. I don’t think she’s changed a single thing in this house for the five years she’s lived here. Not so much as a book has been moved from its sacred spot. It’s like this house is a shrine to Mama’s memory.” She gave off a short laugh. “It would be annoying if she weren’t so darn sincere.”
“And insecure,” he replied.
“What do you mean? I think she’s doing great.”
“She is. But all the responsibility of raising Little Lovie falls squarely on her shoulders. Toy’s still pretty young and she doesn’t have a husband to help out. Or family to fall back on.”
“She has us.”
“That she does. But I’ll wager she still feels alone.”
Cara knew what it was like to live alone and not depend on anyone else for financial or emotional support. As empowering as it was, there were many lonely moments. Especially at night.
She looked around her old room—Little Lovie’s room now. The rest of the house may not have changed since her mother’s death, but Cara had insisted that this room be transformed from a grown-up’s guest room with paintings of marshes and surf to all pink and frills with prints of mermaids on the walls. The only piece of furniture that had remained was the black iron bed that she had slept in as a girl. She’d always thought that one day her own little girl would sleep in it. Cara looked at the little girl in the bed now, and felt deep in her heart that this was the child meant to sleep here.
“It scares me how much I love this child. I don’t want to be just some aunt in her life. Someone who sends her gifts on her birthday and on Christmas. I want to be someone special to her. The aunt she can talk to when she’s angry with her mother. The one who gives her advice when she has her first crush on a boy, or when she gets her first period, or gets drunk and needs a ride home. I want to be that someone who takes her to special places, to expand her horizons. You know…the fun aunt.”
“Honey, I’ve no doubt you can fill that bill.”
Cara set the book on the bedside table and leaned far over to place a kiss on the child’s forehead. She stayed a breath longer as she closed her eyes and inhaled the sweet scent of soap in Little Lovie’s hair.
When she moved aside, Brett took his turn. His shoulders dwarfed the small girl as he placed a chaste kiss on her forehead. Rising, he smoothed the blanket and put her favorite stuffed sea turtle beside her. Then, placing his hand on the small of his wife’s back, they walked softly from the room.
“I think God gives children that special smell to protect them,” he said, closing the door behind him. “It’s so sweet it melts you at the knees and you’d do anything for them.”
“She is pretty special,” Cara said.
“Our child will be special.”
Cara leaned back against him, feeling the weight of that statement heavy in her heart. They had tried so hard for five years to have a child. “Brett, I’m scared to get my hopes up again.”
“It’ll work this time.”
“It didn’t the last two times. Let’s face it, Mother Nature isn’t very kind to women in their forties trying to have babies.” She looked up and saw her pain mirrored in his eyes. “I just thought…” She sighed. “You know, that I’d be one of the lucky ones. I still fantasize that this time will be the one. You know, the third time is the charm.” She sighed and turned in his arms to face him. “Besides, we can’t afford to keep doing the in vitros.”
“Let me worry about that.”
She patted his chest. “It’s not just the money. I don’t know if I can handle another round emotionally. The doctors might be able to say the embryo isn’t a real baby yet, but for me, every time I lose one I feel that it is.” Her voice hitched as she rested her head against his chest. “It just hurts too much.”
“I know, I know,” he said softly against her ear. “But remember, we’re in this together. We’ll be fine. Our baby will be fine. You have to have faith.”
“I do,” she said softly as he squeezed her tight. “In us.”
Arising coastal sun sent piercing spears of light into Toy’s eyes. She blinked lazily twice, then jerked her head up.
Her first thought was of Big Girl.
Clarity washed the cobwebs from her mind as she recalled in a rush all that transpired the night before. She’d stayed with Big Girl until the wee hours of the morning. Cara had crept downstairs to take the second shift, bumping into the clunky wood lounge chair with a loud curse. Toy had been in a fitful sleep, dreaming again of the swimming sea turtle and tangled up in the sweltering sleeping bag. She’d dragged herself upstairs to her bed, stripping off her sweaty clothes and flopping naked onto blissfully cool sheets. Under the gentle whirr of the ceiling fan, she’d fallen instantly into a deep sleep.
She felt groggy, like she could sleep for another few hours, but she dutifully rubbed her eyes and kicked off the sheets. She rose slowly and padded in bare feet across the wood floor to the small, white tiled bathroom, eager for the rush of cool water and minty soap to wash away remnants of the steamy night. She emerged a short time later, refreshed and eager to see the turtle. She dressed quickly in her Aquarium uniform of khaki shorts and the gray polo shirt with the SC Aquarium emblem, pulled her damp hair up in a clip and tied her tennis shoes.
Morning light poured into the small living room from a row of three windows that offered a breathtaking view of grassy dune, palms, blue sky and thousands of acres of sparkling ocean. In front of these were an old down sofa and two enormous armchairs slip-covered in the cabbage rose pattern that Olivia Rutledge had loved. Between the chairs sat a round ottoman in the same fabric. It had been a favorite spot of Miss Lovie’s, and every time she looked at it, Toy thought of her sitting with her legs up, a book in one hand, sipping tea.
The tongue-in-groove walls and golden heart pine floors were typical of many of the old island houses. On the walls were oil paintings of the lowcountry, all by local artists, historical and contemporary: Verner, Williams, Pratt-Thomas, Greene, Smith and others. It was a cozy, cheery room, and a world away from the shabby trailers Toy had grown up in.
From the main room, a narrow hall adorned with Rutledge family photographs that dated back to the turn of the century led to two small bedrooms. Toy went to the seaward room to gently nudge her daughter awake. Little Lovie groused and grumbled but eventually was lured from her bed. Next, Toy headed downstairs under the porch.
She found Cara stretched out on the lounge chair, one leg falling off it, gently snoring. She smirked, never having seen the usually sophisticated Cara Rutledge Beauchamps in that pose. The morning was already warm, hinting at the hot, humid day it would become. Toy bent close to the turtle and hesitated, wondering with sudden fear if the turtle had made it through the night. She removed the damp towels from its shell.
The turtle’s eyes rolled up to look at her.
“Ah, Big Girl!” she exclaimed, relieved beyond measure. “It sure is nice to wish you a good morning. I’d be lying if I didn’t tell you I was worried. But you’re a survivor, aren’t you? Just like me.”
Her large eyes watched Toy with a sickly expression.
“You aren’t feeling so good, are you? Don’t you worry. We’ll get you to the hospital in no time.”
Toy heard a loud yawn behind her. She turned to see Cara squinting through half-opened eyes and scratching her wildly disheveled hair.
“I feel like I slept on a railroad track,” Cara said in a hoarse voice.
“You look like it, too. A shower will improve your outlook.”
“A shower, a massage…I need the whole spa treatment. How’s Big Girl?”
“She’s alive—barely. We can try to feed her once we get her in a proper tank.”
“She probably just wants coffee.” Cara absently scratched a mosquito bite on her arm. “Speaking of which, is Flo here yet? I’d kill for a cup right now.”
“Not yet. Come on, sleepyhead. We’d better get a move on. It’s going to be a busy day.”
She went back upstairs to find Little Lovie back in bed. “You too?” she exclaimed as she tickled her stomach and toes, rousing her slowly. Reminding her of the sea turtle under their house did the trick and she laughed as Lovie scrambled into her clothes. Next she began preparations for breakfast. She was putting bread into the toaster when Flo burst through the door like a hurricane.
“Morning, Turtle Team!”
“I thought you’d never get here with that coffee,” Cara exclaimed, coming into the room. Her dark, damp hair was pulled back on her head and her brown eyes were more alive after her shower.
“Nice shirt,” Toy said to her, looking at her own shirt that Cara was wearing.
“I can wear day old, wrinkled shorts if I have to, but I just couldn’t put that stinky, turtle bombed T-shirt back on. You don’t mind, do you?”
“Help yourself,” Toy replied.
Cara stopped at the table where Little Lovie was eating cereal to lean over and nuzzle her neck. “Mmmm, gimme some sugar.”
While Little Lovie squealed, Toy turned to reach for cups from the cupboard. Olivia Rutledge had stored the remnants of generations of mismatched collections of china in the beach house. One of Toy’s morning pleasures was to choose a pattern to suit her mood. Today she chose the green and pink floral Wedgwood.
Flo poured the coffee while Cara poured the milk but no one took the time to sit at the table. They stood leaning against the counter and sipped as they arranged the day. Flo agreed to stay with Little Lovie while Toy and Cara escorted Big Girl to the Aquarium. This led to their favorite topic of conversation—the turtle nests.
“It’s the end of May,” Flo said with a sorry shake of her head. “We should have at least one nest by now.”
Cara’s face reflected her worry. “Last year’s numbers were so bad, I was hoping we’d have a swell of girls coming to lay eggs this summer to make up for it. I hope our worst fears aren’t realized and they just aren’t out there.”
“The hurricanes last year sure didn’t help.”
“It’s early yet,” Toy said with optimism. “After all, Big Girl was out there.”
“I’ll drink to that,” Flo said, raising her mug. “May there be many healthy ones out there, just biding their time.”
“Here’s to their homecoming,” Toy added, clinking mugs.
“Speaking of homecomings, I’ve got some news.” Cara leaned forward, her eyes sparkling. “I heard from Emmi. She’s sold her house in Atlanta and plans to move here permanently! She’ll be here for Memorial Day.”
“It’s about time she got herself down here,” Flo declared. “She usually blows in with the turtles. The season doesn’t really start until we have one turtle nest and Emmi Peterson back.”
Toy sipped her coffee and thought of the big-hearted, big-boned woman with a smile as bright as her fiery red hair. Emmaline Baker Peterson was the last member of the core Turtle Team started ages ago by Miss Lovie. Volunteers came and went, but the core team shared a bond that came from long hours spent together at the beach, mutual reliance and countless stories shared.
“I missed her last summer when she didn’t come down,” Toy said. “The whole season was weird. There were hardly any turtles and Emmi wasn’t here. There must be a connection there.”
“Last year was pretty tough for her,” Cara said.
“Is the divorce final?” asked Flo.
Cara nodded. “She just signed the papers. Emmi sounded pretty beat up by the whole thing. To be honest, so am I. I still can’t believe she and Tom are divorced. They were the poster couple for happy marriages. They’d loved each other since they were kids. Hell, I fell in love with Tom the same day Emmi did! How does love like that just end? If it can happen to them…”
“Tom was fooling around,” Flo said in that matter-of-fact manner that brushed away any connection between Tom and Emmi and whatever Cara was brooding about. “When a man does that, he’s throwing the marriage away. I’d like to give that boy the tongue lashing of his life. He was raised better than that.”
“Be nice to Emmi when she gets here,” Cara said. “No lecturing.”
“Lecturing?” Flo sounded insulted.
“You know what I mean. Just take it easy on her. Despite everything Tom may have done, she didn’t want the divorce. And their sons are taking it hard. It’s going to take a while for her to get past this.”
“All the more reason she should be here. With us,” said Flo with certainty. “She needs her friends now more than ever.”
Toy pushed away from the counter. “I know a turtle that needs us, too. Here comes Brett pulling up in the driveway. Come on. Let’s move Big Girl to the Aquarium.”
The South Carolina Aquarium is a proud, stunning structure of gleaming steel, stone and glass that captures the golden rays of the sun and the aqua blue reflection of the sea to sparkle against the watery horizon. It is the crown jewel of the Charleston harbor.
Toy felt a thrill each time she approached it. She still couldn’t believe that she could walk through the gates every day and not have to pay for the privilege. The proudest day of her life was the day she got her job as a staff aquarist.
Toy was the manager of the Lower Ocean Floor Gallery exhibit. She oversaw the health and maintenance of over one hundred indigenous fish and reptiles. She directed their feeding schedules and the exhibit maintenance, managed the volunteers, gave tours to school children, and whatever else was called for. There was a team mentality at the Aquarium and she never knew when she walked through the doors what awaited her.
And never was that more true than today.
She glanced over her shoulder at the white crate in the back bed of Brett’s pick-up truck. Big Girl lay quietly beneath a padding of towels. Toy chewed her lip, hoping the towels were still damp. Sitting shoulder to shoulder beside Cara and Brett in the front seat of the pick-up, she directed Brett to the rear loading dock of the Aquarium. She sighed with relief when she spotted two male volunteers in Aquarium logo shirts waiting at the black iron gate.
“Hey Favel! I sure am glad to see you,” Toy called out as she hopped from the cab of the truck. Her gym shoes landed with a soft thud on the cement. “We had a heck of a time hoisting Big Girl into the crate for the trip in.”
“Big Girl?” Favel’s white hair was like snow on top of a tall mountain and made all the more striking by his deep tan. He was typical of the dedicated volunteers who spent as much time working at the Aquarium as the hired staff. Favel had been a diver since the Aquarium opened. Retired, he had to be forty years older than Irwin, a baby-faced college student majoring in marine biology.
“That’s what we call the loggerhead. When you try and lift her, you’ll know why.” Toy turned and made quick introductions to Cara and Brett.
“Ethan isn’t too happy that you’re bringing this turtle into his domain, you know,” Favel told her in a low voice.
“He isn’t?” she asked, feeling a sudden stab of nervousness.
“You know how fanatic he is about cross contamination,” he replied. “And, the fact that no one consulted him.”
She swallowed hard, feeling her insecurity about bringing the turtle into the Aquarium as a lump in her throat. “Well, Jason approved it.”
“Right,” Favel said, acknowledging Jason as the last word. “So, let’s give this turtle a room at the inn.”
Brett helped the two men load the heavy crate onto a rolling cart. Toy followed them as they rolled it toward the lower dock entrance of the building. Toy didn’t have much occasion to come to the cavernous port entry. Down here, enormous, monolithic cement pilings rose to form the underpinning of the Aquarium. Charleston Harbor flowed in and out of giant square bins, rising and falling with the tide and filling the air with the pungent scents of mud and salt. The raucous cry of gulls and the horn of the tour boat, Spirit of the Carolinas, sounded in the distance. The wild sea hovered at the precipice of the great Aquarium.
Inside the Aquarium the basement literally thrummed with power. Giant pipes and wires snaked along the ceiling. Red painted pumps, shiny black valves and rows of gray steel fuse boxes lined the walls. She followed the cart to the huge industrial service elevator and pushed the button for the third floor where Jason told her a holding tank would be waiting. She clenched and unclenched her fists as the elevator crawled slowly upward, worried about Ethan’s reaction. She hoped that the others did not sense her nervousness. At last the elevator steel doors yawned open and they stepped out into another world.
The Great Ocean Tank, which the staff simply called the GOT, extended over two levels of the Aquarium and held 380,000 gallons of water and hundreds of animals and plants. From the public’s side, the great tank provided breathtaking views of the sandy sea floor, the rocky reef, and the deep ocean to the public. Here at the top of the tank, however, behind the curtains, it was markedly different from the gleaming, light-filled rooms the public saw. Back here was the heart of the exhibit.
The top of the GOT was rimmed with ceiling-to-floor black curtains on one side, like a wall of starless night separating the exotic world that lived in the ocean tank from the utilitarian world of giant pumps and filters behind it. Pipes and valves connected to cavernous filtration tanks pumped salt water in and out of the tank like major arteries and veins to the heart.
Behind the GOT were several smaller tanks. These held quarantined fish, hospitalized fish, and back-up stock to replenish the main exhibit. She knew most people didn’t have a clue how much effort went into caring for a major Aquarium. It truly was manipulating a world for the animals.
And this world was the realm of Ethan Legare.
“Where is Ethan?” she asked, looking around as they rolled the crate onto the floor.
“He’s usually in the tank first thing,” Favel told her. “He dives to make sure all the animals in the tank are okay. And to check for floaters on the surface. He’s got a big shark that likes to snack at night.”
“Haven’t seen him yet.”
She exhaled, anxious that no one had been here to meet her. She turned to the group. “Could y’all just wait here for a minute? I’m going to go find someone who can tell us where to put Big Girl.”
As she walked toward the top of the Great Ocean Tank, she couldn’t help but notice how meticulous Ethan was in his care of the area. Every hose, pipe and brush was in place and the water in each of the smaller tanks was gleaming. He must have been here for hours already, she thought.
She came to the steel railing that surrounded the huge mouth of the tank and looked down. No matter how many times she experienced it, looking down into forty-four feet of crystal clear water teeming with giant fish was surreal. She spotted a tall, lean man standing on the metal dive platform inside the Great Ocean Tank. He was dripping water from his black dive suit and bent over a large dead grouper. He seemed focused on his task and she hesitated to disturb him. Looking over her shoulder, she saw the group waiting around the turtle. Deciding, she called out, “Ethan!”
He immediately lifted his head to look over his shoulder. Water cascaded from the tips of his brown hair down his face. He lifted his hand in a brief wave.
“I’ll be right up,” he called back then turned back to the half eaten fish at his feet.
She waved in acknowledgment and ducked away with a sigh of relief. He didn’t seem too put out at having his third floor kingdom invaded by a sick animal.
She didn’t know Ethan Legare all that well. He was a senior staff member and one of her superiors, thus he breathed the rarified air of management. Ethan remained an enigma to most of the lower level staff she worked with, as well. No one knew much about him, other than that he came from an old Charleston fishing family and had a sterling reputation as a marine biologist. She’d heard colleagues talking with a twinge of envy about the exotic places he’d traveled to while doing research.
It wasn’t long before Ethan joined them at the cart, still in his black wet suit. He’d slicked his dark hair back with his palms but narrow trails of water still dripped down his face and lingered on the tips of his lashes.
“Ethan, this is Cara and Brett Beauchamps,” she said, stepping up to make introductions. “They’re members of the Island Turtle Team and helped bring the turtle in. You remember my talking about them, don’t you?”
“I do,” he replied, extending his hand. Though dressed in a wet suit, Toy noticed he had the manners of a man in a three piece suit. “Thanks for all your help.”
The elevator doors opened again and this time, Jason stepped out. He grinned and waved in jovial welcome, shaking hands with the group and slapping Ethan’s back.
Jason, too, was a source of feminine gossip at the Aquarium. Like Ethan, he was in his thirties, tall, great looking, and unmarried. Jason wore his dark hair neatly trimmed and his manner was more open and less reserved than Ethan’s, despite the seniority of his position. Ethan and Jason were equally passionate about the Aquarium and their work, which prompted a lasting friendship and mutual respect between them. Avid fishermen, their expeditions to gather specimens for the Aquarium garnered them their nickname, “the saltwater cowboys.”
“So, what do we have here?” Jason asked, moving to the crate.
Ethan removed the towels from the sea turtle, shook his head and said ruefully, “Looks to me like another Barnacle Bill.”
Jason whistled softly. “She’s in pretty bad shape.” He lowered to inspect closely. “She’s very thin and dehydrated. Her eyes are sunken, her skin is wrinkled. Look here,” he said, pointing to the dry shell. “Even the keratin on the carapace is wrinkled.”
“We didn’t spot any outward signs of injury, other than a few minor scrapes and cuts,” Toy reported. “From the looks of her carapace, we figure she’s a floater.”
“Floaters are tough to rehab without knowing what the underlying problem is,” Jason said. “Our oceans are sick and these turtles reflect that.”
“Where did you find her?” asked Ethan.
“Floating in the surf off Isle of Palms. At first I thought she was dead, but when she moved I swam out and brought her in.”
“Aha. So you’re a hero.”
She shook her head. “Cara and Brett helped carry her in and once Jason gave us the okay to bring her in here, we kept her overnight in a blue plastic kiddie pool under my porch.”
They guffawed at this image.
“I’m surprised she lived through the night,” Jason added. “But these animals never cease to amaze me. They come in more dead than alive, yet still they manage to survive. This looks like another case of Floater Syndrome.” He rubbed his jaw as he considered his options. “Okay boys, let’s move her. Is there something I can use to set her down on so I can get a better look at her?”
“If it’s okay with you, we have to get going,” Brett interjected, putting his hand on Cara’s shoulder. “Memorial Day is around the corner. It’s one of our busiest times of the season. I’ve got more work than I can shake a stick at.”
“You bet,” Ethan said, going over to shake his hand. “Thanks for bringing her in.”
“Take care of our baby,” Cara said to Toy before leaving.
“You know I will.”
After they left, Ethan led the team toward the back section of the third floor. “I put the turtle tank as far from my other tanks as possible,” he said to Jason. “I have to tell you, I’m not happy about keeping a sick patient from the outside without any diagnosis here with my healthy stock. If it is Debilitated Turtle Syndrome, that means we don’t know what you’re bringing into my space. No offense to the lady here,” he said, indicating the turtle, “but I’m worried about any transfer of diseases into my tank. If there’s a problem in there, it’s a big problem. I hate to take any risks.”
“I know,” Jason replied as he followed. “Unfortunately, Ethan, there isn’t anywhere else to put her right now. Let’s take it day by day.”
Ethan stopped. “For how long?”
“I don’t know yet,” Jason said, stopping beside him. “We’ll begin rehabilitation here, then evaluate if she stays here for the entire rehab period.”
“You’re the boss.”
Ethan resumed walking, taking the group to a corner in the farthest point from the Great Ocean Tank. He wiped his damp hair from his forehead. “Okay,” he said with reluctance. “But I want sterilizing procedures in full force.”
“Of course,” Toy said, stepping up. She felt responsible for bringing the turtle in. “I’ll use every precaution and be extra careful to keep all our supplies separate. If you have any problems, just let me know.”
“You can count on that.” His tone was direct but not threatening.
Toy was a little afraid of him, especially when his dark eyes flashed like they did now. Yet, she could sympathize with his position. The Great Ocean Tank was the most important exhibit of the Aquarium.
Jason did a brief exam of the turtle on a make-shift table of a piece of plywood on top of big cardboard boxes. The huge turtle lay on her backside, looking more dead than alive. When Jason finished, Ethan and Toy gently helped him to turn her to her plastron. Big Girl rolled her dark, almond shaped eyes back and cast Ethan a watery, baleful glance.
“Look at her,” Ethan said, his deep voice softening. “She’s emaciated, dehydrated and scarred. But despite all that I have to admit, she’s beautiful.”
Toy cast a quick glance to Jason. She saw a small smile of satisfaction play at his lips. No one could argue her case better than Big Girl herself.
“Let’s go ahead and give her fluids,” Jason instructed. “The rest will wait until Dr. Tom examines her. He’s on his way now.”
“All right, boys,” Ethan said with a tone of resigned acceptance. “We have a new in-patient. Bring her over and I’ll fill the tank with fresh water. It will kill epibenthic growth and help her re-hydrate for a few days. After that, we’ll return her to salt.”
Ethan and Irwin carried Big Girl to the blue polypropylene holding tank. Then the four men gently lifted her into the freshwater bath.
“Who’s going to be taking care of this turtle?” Ethan asked. When Jason looked to him, he lifted his hands. “Oh, no, don’t go looking at me. You know how busy things get during the summer season. I won’t have time.”
“I did two rotations at the Karen Beasely Sea Turtle Hospital,” Toy said, stepping forward. She could hardly believe she’d found the courage to plead her case to Jason, but she desperately wanted the job and believed she could do it. She couldn’t imagine anyone but her taking care of Big Girl and she felt sure her desire burned in her eyes. “Jean Beasely personally trained me and I’ve had lots of experience with all kinds of sick and injured sea turtles. And I’ve been licensed by Department of Natural Resources to be on the turtle team for over five years. I feel confident I can handle the job. With your support, of course.”
Jason’s joviality vanished as he considered this decision with all seriousness. She knew he’d be taking a chance on a fairly new staff member.
“You brought her in,” he said in conclusion. “Seems fair to give you the chance.”
Toy’s heart leaped at the opportunity. “Thank you, Jason. You won’t be disappointed.”
“I’m sure I won’t be. But I want you to work closely with Ethan.” He looked over at Ethan who was shaking his head with chagrin. “Just supervise, okay? And try to be nice.” He smiled at Toy. “My door is always open.” He looked at his watch and began walking off with purpose. “I leave her in your good hands!” he called out.
Ethan turned his head to look at her. Toy couldn’t read his mind in his dark eyes, but she felt sure he could read the exultation in her own.
“I’ll start a medical log,” she said as she walked off, her feet not quite touching the ground.
Medical Log “Big Girl”
Received stranded female loggerhead sea turtle from Isle of Palms. Found floating in surf. No external signs of injury. Heavily encrusted with barnacles, algae, leeches. Put in a drop and fill tank in fresh water to eliminate growth. Very thin. Vet. to examine later.
Curved carap e: length 40” width 36.5”
Weight: 240 lbs.
She’s beautiful. TS
Toy woke while the sun was still rosy on the horizon. She quickly went through the motions of her morning routine, then went to rouse a sleepy Little Lovie from her bed.
She paused at the door of the pink bedroom, soaking in the vision of that sweet face swathed in frills and lace. Children looked like angels when they slept, she thought. She hated to awaken her. Moving to the bed, she sat beside her and showered Lovie’s face with kisses, murmuring, “Wake up! Wake up, sleepyhead!”
Lovie rubbed her eyes and yawned. “Is it time to go to day care?”
“No. I have to go to the Aquarium to feed Big Girl. I’m taking you to Flo’s, just for a little while. You can watch cartoons.”
“But you promised me we’d go to the beach.” Her voice was filled with reproach.
“I know. And we will. I’ll be back as soon as I can. Now up and at ’em.” She patted Lovie’s bottom to get her moving, then drew back. Lovie’s arms shot out to grab hold of her and tug her back.
“What, honey?” Toy asked.
Lovie’s small hands reached up to frame Toy’s face like blinders. Toy felt the gentle pressure on her cheeks while Lovie’s blue eyes gazed at her, as though saying fiercely, look at me!
“I wanna be with you,” Lovie said.
Toy’s breath hitched. “I know,” she said, knowing her answer fell pitifully short. “I want to be with you, too. I love you. You know that, don’t you?”
Lovie nodded and dropped her hands.
Toy picked them up and kissed each one. “I’ll be home in a jiffy and we’ll build that sand castle.”
Flo, bless her heart, was only too happy to mind Little Lovie for the morning, even at such an early hour. When they showed up at her door, Flo greeted them at her front door brandishing a neon green super-squirt gun and calling out, “Tawanda!”
“Oh, brother,” Toy said with a light laugh. Flo was incorrigible. Toy thought the gun was a better toy for a boy than a girl, but Lovie lit up at seeing it. She grabbed the gun and tore out the back door to fill it at the spigot.
“I’ll be back early so we can go to the beach,” she called to Lovie’s retreating back.
“Time for a cup?” Flo asked.
“I wish. But I’d like to get in and out of the Aquarium as early as possible. Lovie is giving me the cold shoulder for going in to work this weekend. She’s so looking forward to going to the beach.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake. I’ll take her.”
“I appreciate the offer,” Toy replied with faint heart, “but I’d like to go with her. I’ve yet to keep my promise to help her build a sand castle. I’ve been so busy this week trying to set up a program for Big Girl at the Aquarium, my little girl is getting the short end of the stick.”
“She doesn’t look the worse for wear.”
“I hope not. But this schedule isn’t about to slow down any, at least not until I get a better handle on things.”
“You know I’m here for you. Anytime”
She felt a rush of emotion. It had always been this way with Flo. “I know.”
Flo narrowed her eyes in scrutiny, then pushed open the screen door and signaled with her hand that Toy should come into the house. “Come on, just for a minute. No whining.”
Toy did so reluctantly. Flo closed the door and sat on the Chippendale wicker bench in the front hall. It fit two women comfortably.
“Now tell me. What’s really bothering you?” asked Flo.
“Mmm-hmm. Nothing always means something.”
Toy heard Lovie’s high pitched laughing outdoors, no doubt because she pelted something with a super stream of water. The women chuckled and Toy felt her burden lighten.
“You look worried,” Flo said.
“I am, a bit.”
“Not about Lovie? She’s fine, you know. No child could be loved more.”
“Thanks to you and Cara. You’re like surrogate mothers to her.”
“More like favorite aunts. So, don’t waste your energy feeling guilty about that. If not Lovie, what’s the problem?”
“It’s not a problem, exactly. I’ve been put in charge of Big Girl at the Aquarium.”
“How wonderful! Isn’t that what you wanted?”
“Yes,” she said with hesitancy. “I volunteered for the task and would have been crushed if Jason hadn’t given me the assignment.” She threw up her hands. “What was I thinking? Suddenly I’m aware of everything I don’t know.”
“But that’s normal, my dear. It happens to all of us when we start a new job or a new project. How do you think I got all this white hair?”
“Oh, great,” Toy said with a rueful smile. “I’ll be gray before I’m thirty. That’s always a big help in attracting a husband.”
Flo shrugged. “I never worried about finding a husband. Oh, sure, I thought about it when I was younger,” she said. “It was the natural path for women. You married and had children. Folks were always after me about it, like my being single was a state of affairs I should be ashamed of. I never was in any big hurry. I surely never felt deprived. Just the opposite. Honey, I thrived!” She tossed back her head and laughed.
“After a while, heck, I just didn’t want a husband. I got set in my ways, I reckon. I was fulfilled with my career as a social worker, I made a good living, had dear friends—male and female. I suppose I’d simply accepted that I’d live my life single. Not a spinster…”
She turned her head, eyes blazing, “Isn’t that a horrid word? Spinster? It implies someone old and dried up. Unwanted.” She frowned and shivered with disgust. “Unmarried men are called bachelors. I like that word. It conjures up someone debonair, even sexy. Freedom. Men have bureaus called ‘bachelor chests.’ Can you imagine ever wanting a ‘spinster chest’? Women have ‘hope chests’, for hoping they’ll get married.” Her eyes flashed. “It’s a conspiracy. Don’t get me started on that. No,” she said in conclusion, “I never worried much about finding a husband.”
“I reckon I’ve always worried about it, but at the rate I’ve been working, I’ll never find a husband, either. And lately, I’m too tired to worry about it. So, I guess you and I are alike in that.” She sighed and, growing serious again at the mention of work, leaned back in the bench. She thought about Flo’s life, her unconscious decision to remain single, and her satisfaction—even pride—of that path. Toy had always assumed her primary role as a woman was to marry and have children.
Yet life had taken her down another path. She had, in fact, not married. She had a child and now a career. It was possible she might not ever marry. Her acceptance of that possibility thrust her career as a provider for herself and her child into primary importance. She had to depend on herself.
It was a daunting realization, one that kept her up at night shivering in fear that she’d fail in her career or make serious financial blunders and end up in trouble. This was the dark shadow Flo had spied behind her eyes this morning.
She sighed and began to open up. “I’m afraid, Flo. The other day when Dr. Tom was examining Big Girl, he used medical terms I didn’t know. I pretended I did, but in my notes I was madly writing the words down to look up later. Flo, I live in constant fear that my ignorance will be discovered and I’ll be found out for the fake I am.”
“Oh, Toy…” Flo said with a light laugh.
“Don’t laugh! I’m serious. You can be sure Ethan knew the terminology. He chatted so easily with Dr. Tom, like he was a doctor, too.”
“Well, of course he did. It makes sense, Toy. He has more experience. Isn’t he your supervisor?”
“That shouldn’t make any difference at all. I’m the one in charge of the turtle. But I’m always asking Ethan a question or having him double check most everything I do. I’m terrified of making a mistake. After all, this turtle’s life depends on me.” She wrung her hands. “But sooner or later I have to depend on my own abilities.”
“And you’ll know when that moment comes, my dear. Toy, I’ve been in that very same situation. Most of us have. When I started out as a social worker, the doctors came in and yammered on and on with their ten dollar words. I was shaking in my shoes, just like you are now. I felt downright stupid, completely out of my depth. But you know what happened?”
Toy shook her head. She’d been listening intently, not stirring in her seat.
“I studied hard, like you are now, and learned the words quicker than a hot knife through butter. Toy, every job has its own jargon, some more than others. But you’re young, you’re bright, you’re enthusiastic.” She smiled with great warmth. “You’ll catch on.”
Toy grasped this like a drowning woman. “I am studying every free minute, that’s for true. Why, the other night, poor Lovie fell asleep next to me on the sofa waiting on me to read to her. She looked so cute with her storybook tucked under her arm.” She sighed. “Of course, I felt guilty.”
“Guilt is part of motherhood, my dear,” Flo said archly. “Why would you think you’d be spared?”
Toy looked at Flo’s leathery, deeply lined face and her bright, spectacularly blue eyes. Ever since Miss Lovie had died, Flo had taken up the role of godmother to Toy and Little Lovie. Her advice, though often delivered with a velvet fist, was always heartfelt.
“You sure you don’t want that cup of coffee? Maybe a sweet roll?”
“No, thanks,” Toy, replied, rising. “I’ve really got to go. Thanks so much for listening. I truly do feel better.”
“Go on then and make good your escape. And don’t worry about that little ragamuffin. I got me one of those super squirters, too, and I’m dying to soak her good and proper. We’ll be so wild with our new toys, she won’t even notice you’re not here.”
What a pair, Toy thought but she walked with a lighter step to her car. With Flo’s fiery tongue and Little Lovie’s stubborn streak, they just might be good for one another.
Toy put down the ragtop of the Gold Bug and let her hair blow in the wind. The tide was high as she crossed the Ben Sawyer Bridge and the water of the Intracoastal Waterway reflected the brilliant blue, cloudless sky like a mirror. It was going to be a hot one, Toy thought. A lot of beachcombers were going to be happy and Brett’s boat business was going to go through the roof.
Toy glanced at her watch. It was already 7:30 a.m. on the Saturday of Memorial Day Weekend. Traffic was blissfully light this early and she’d make good time. If she worked fast, she’d be home by lunch. Then she’d keep her promise and take Little Lovie to the beach. And this time, she thought as she tightened her hands on the wheel, she’d help build that sand castle.
Toy turned on the radio and hummed as she zoomed over the gleaming new Ravenel Bridge. She liked country music. Songs of unrequited love, broken dreams, fights in bars, life and death. Country music sometimes made her think of Darryl and how he used to sing to her the songs he’d written. She rarely thought of him anymore, and when she did, it was with detachment, like he was dead or from some other life, long ago.
Her future lay before her, she thought with a heady grin. Onward and Upward! Charleston loomed, its church spirals pointed heavenward. Traffic was light on East Bay Street and she make good time, parking in the empty lot just down the road from the Aquarium that would soon be another condominium. The city was changing along the waterfront at a pace that seemed faster than the one she walked as she made her way down the street.
Her Aquarium T-shirt was already beginning to cling to her skin by the time she entered the blast of air-conditioning inside. Her first stop was the compact, industrial food prep kitchen. Big Girl might be emaciated, but she was still a fussy eater. So far, she seemed to like squid best. Toy cut and weighed the squid and fish, thinking as she did so that trying to feed a thirtysome-year-old turtle wasn’t all that different than trying to feed a picky five-year-old child. Toy cleaned up her kitchen mess and brought the food to Big Girl.
“You’re here. Perfect!”
“Ethan?” She hurried toward his voice to find him cleaning Big Girl’s tank with a skimmer. “What’s happened? Is Big Girl okay?”
“She’s fine. I got a call about another turtle.”
“A turtle? Where?”
“At Cherry Point on Wadmalaw Island. The fishermen who found her are bringing her in to the fishery.”
“How did you hear about it?”
“They called me.”
“They called you?”
“Hey, don’t get your panties in a wad. The fishermen down there know me and that I work at the Aquarium. They wouldn’t know who else to call. So, boss, is it okay with you to bring the turtle in?”
“Let me get this straight. You’re asking me if it’s okay to bring another turtle into the Aquarium. Into your space?”
She could almost hear the chuckle in his voice. “No. Jason has already given the okay. I’m asking you if you’re ready to take on another one.” He rubbed his jaw. “I don’t seem to be on this decision tree, or you’d know what my answer would be.”
The prospect of a second turtle was exciting, but the fact that Jason and Ethan had given the okay was thrilling.
“Yes, I do. And yes, I am. Bring it on in!”
“All right, then. I’ve already rustled up another holding tank. It’ll be a tight squeeze, but we’ll make it. Are you ready to go?”
“Go? Go where?”
“To get the turtle, of course. It isn’t going to crawl in on its own.”
“I thought you said that the fishermen were bringing it in.”
“To the fishery, yes. But not all the way here. They’re already doing us a favor by cutting their day short to bring the turtle to the dock.”
“Oh, sure. Fine.” She looked at the food dish in her hand as her mind spun around all she had to get done. “I just have to feed Big Girl first, and clean out her tank.”
“You feed. I’ll sweep.”
His enthusiasm was contagious. The corners of her mouth lifted to a smile as she felt the tension of the early morning bubble to excitement.
Cherry Point Seafood Company had been in business on Wadmalaw Island since the 1930s. It was a family business that once upon a time had transported passengers as well as seafood and local crops between the Sea Island plantations and Charleston. Back then, local folks could travel to Charleston by either water or horse, and most preferred a boat trip to a long, hot horse ride. Today, there were no more passengers. The long wooden structure with docks that stretched along Bohicket Creek was used strictly for commercial fisherman. It was home to the dozens of shrimp boats and fishing boats that brought in their daily catches.
“Sure seems quiet today,” Ethan said, pulling the Aquarium’s white pick-up truck into the parking lot. The bed of gravel and shells crunched beneath the tires. He cut the engine and the truck shuddered to a halt.
“Well, it is a holiday,” she said, looking out the window. “Likely most folks took the day off.” The fishery looked like a big, roughened wood shack. Along one side was a high loading dock fit for trucks, a smattering of heavy iron equipment, bales of rope, and farther down was the dock. She spied a burly man in jeans and white rubber boots leaning against a wood pillar, smoking.
“Usually the place is jumping, just swarming with fishermen and shrimpers bringing their catch in to be weighed and packed.”
“It’s not very big.”
“Don’t let the size fool you. On a busy day in the season, thousands of dollars of fish go through these doors, packed in ice and shipped out to restaurants and markets all across the country. Used to be there were a number of fish houses in these parts, but this is the only one left. Sign of the times, I guess.”
Ethan wasn’t dressed in his usual Aquarium uniform of khaki. On his day off he was slumming in olive green shorts, a stained white T-shirt and scuffed leather boots that had seen plenty of wear. His dark hair was an unruly mass and dark stubble coursed along his jawline. It occurred to her he looked right at home here on the docks.
“I’ve never actually met shrimpers before,” she told him. “Should I be nervous?”
Ethan appeared puzzled. “They’re just folks.”
“Ethan, I’ve heard the stories,” she replied with a roll of her eyes. “How they hate anyone connected with turtles. I’ve heard the names we’re called, too—turtle kissers, turtle Nazis…”
His lips twitched but he only shrugged.
“I know there’ve been some pretty strong words between the two camps over the years. I just want to know if I’m going to have my head served on a platter in there.”
“That was before—sure, there were some, well, unfriendly feelings between some shrimpers and those folks who were demanding that the boats put those TEDS on their nets.” He scratched his neck and added wryly, “Time was, shrimpers called the Turtle Excluder Devices ‘Trawler Elimination Devices.’ Safe to say it was a touchy subject.”
“To say the least.”
“Hey, the bottom line is, those TEDS cost money.”
“But it wasn’t about the money.”
“It was to the shrimpers who had to put out money they didn’t have.”
“Yes, I see what you mean. But, what’s different now?”
“Well, for starters they’ve got the TEDs on every net they own now. And, those turtle shooters work. Hey, they never wanted to hurt the turtles and I think that’s what riled them the most. They were painted as being bad guys when they were doing their best to make a living—a damned hard one—and not getting a break from anywhere.”
“Why are you so defensive? You’re a turtle kisser, too, you know.”
He laughed. “I am. But I see their side of the story, too.”
She turned to look out over the fishery and sighed. “So, no one’s going to bite my head off out there today?”
She felt his gaze sweep over her.
“I think they’ll be enamored.”
A short laugh escaped. “Enamored?”
“Sure.” He reached across her legs to lift the door handle and open her door. “Some of these guys have been out on the sea for weeks. You look a sight better than a turtle.”
She pushed open the door. “Thanks a lot.”
She followed Ethan into the dim, narrow halls of the fish house. Behind glass windows in the large room, the rusting machines lay still. Here and there she’d spy rubber boots but no man to fill them. Only when they neared the office did she catch the scent of burnt coffee and hear the hum of voices, punctuated by a woman’s hearty laugh.
When Ethan stepped into the small, wood paneled office, all talk stopped. Two middle aged, deeply tanned men—one weathered and tall, the other short and paunchy—leaned against a Formica counter covered with stacks of paper. Both wore white rubber boots over their jeans. Across from them, sitting at an ancient wood roll top desk was a sweet faced, robust woman of the same age in a blue floral dress and shiny black flats. They turned to face him, and like lightning, their faces lit up.
“Lookee here! You son of a…sea horse,” the woman sputtered. “Where’ve you been?”
She had to be at least sixty but she leaped up like a woman half her age to wrap soft, fleshy arms around Ethan in a bear hug.
“Shame on you for making yourself so scarce. If I didn’t see you at church from time to time I’d think you’d gone off traveling again.”
“I’ve been busy,” he replied, accepting the rebuff good naturedly. “But you knew I’d be coming home for your barbecue tomorrow. I couldn’t stay away.”
“Your mama’s been cooking pies all week so you’d better be there.” The shorter of the men had eyes the color of sea glass and a thick gray beard that swaddled his cheeks like a wreath. He stepped forward to deliver a few good slaps on the back and mutter words of welcome.
In contrast, the tall man in a worn but ironed flannel checked shirt straightened slowly to his full height. His once dark hair was now mostly gray and his tanned, weathered face had deep lines coursing across his brow, at the corners of his brown eyes and from dimple to chin. He didn’t smile but his dark eyes pulsed with emotion as he extended a callused hand.
She looked at Ethan and saw that he was looking at the man with the same intensity in his stormy brown eyes. And then it struck her how very much alike the two men looked.
“Hello, Dad.” Ethan reached out to take the hand. They held tight for a moment and the emotion in the room was palpable. Then the older man jerked his arm and drew his son into a quick, fierce embrace.
In another minute, everyone was talking and coffee was served, hot and bitter and loaded with sugar. Toy hung back by the door, peeking in. It was a cozy space, as worn and well used as the fishery itself. The paneled walls were covered with small, black framed photographs of the fishery and shrimp boats that dated back fifty years or more. She tried not to eavesdrop but she caught that the other man was Ethan’s Uncle Will and the woman was his Aunt Martha and that Ethan was catching hell for missing church and not visiting his mother in the past few weeks.
His father, Stuart, was quiet in comparison to his sister and her husband, but his affection for Ethan was nonetheless obvious, as was the pride shining in his dark eyes. It was clear to Toy that the apple didn’t fall far from the tree in the Legare family.
Ethan, while never boisterous, was as relaxed as she’d ever seen him. He clearly enjoyed being with his family. Smiles came readily, as did the laughter.
Then her name was called and she was brought into the room. Introductions were made and hands were shook. They couldn’t have been nicer or more welcoming and she pretended she didn’t see the suggestive eyebrow wriggling of Uncle Will to Ethan as he nodded her way. She ducked her head and took a swallow of her horrid coffee. There was a matchmaker in every crowd.
She was spared more chit chat when a gruff looking man with a cap over greasy hair shuffled over to poke his head in through the doorway.
“The Miss Peggy’s coming in!”
“That’ll be us,” Stuart said and set down his coffee.
Immediately they filed out of the cramped office into the fresh, salty air. Toy lagged behind. Ethan looked back over his shoulder and catching her eye, waved her closer. When she caught up, he bent close to speak softly in her ear.
“That wasn’t so bad, was it? No head chopping or bruises?”
She turned to him “Why didn’t you tell me they were your family?”
“And spoil all the fun? Nothing I love more than to drop the bomb that I come from a long line of shrimpers after listening to a tirade from a Turtle Nazi.”
“I owe you one.”
He replied with a look that, had it not been Ethan, she would have sworn was flirtatious.
The long wooden dock was lined with tall cement pilings, and to these a line of boats, some seventy footers, some but twelve, were tied with thick, coiling rope. She read their names aloud as she walked by Carson Elizabeth, Explorer, Tina Maria, Captain Andy, Miss Charlotte, Miss Georgia.
“Most of the fishing boats are named for women,” he explained. “Wives, daughters, mothers, sweethearts. It’s an old tradition, meant to bring good luck to the men while they are away at sea.”
“Do you have a boat?”
“Nothing big like these. Mine’s about eighteen feet and just for fun.”
“And do you have a name for it?” she asked, shamelessly prying.
“The Wanderlust.” He cast her a slanted glance.
“Suits you,” she replied.
Her attention was diverted by the sixty-two-foot Miss Peggy as it slipped into its watery square of real estate along the dock, growling and churning the waters. With the hanging nets on each side of the boat, she thought they looked like folded butterfly wings. The Miss Peggy was an old girl. White paint peeled from the wood and up close Toy could see the dread rust on metal. But she was still a graceful swimmer and slipped into her space as easily as a younger, smaller fishing boat.
Two men in jeans and white rubber boots climbed out off the high boat to the dock far below as nimbly as ship rats. On board, a wiry, weathered woman with dark gray hair pulled back in a ponytail waved them off, calling out something in a heavy drawl that Toy couldn’t make out. While one of the men bent to tie the ropes, the other, a short, bald, barrel-chested man, came straight for Ethan and sucker punched him in the belly.
Toy gasped as Ethan doubled over. Until she realized that he wasn’t grimacing in pain but laughter. The two men clung to each other, delivering velvet gloved punches like boxers in the ninth round while around them, the other men chortled, enjoying their antics.
“Don’t mind them,” Stuart said to Toy with a good natured grin. “They been fools since they were boys.”
Ethan slapped the other man’s back and turning, caught Toy gaping.
“Toy, come over and meet Bigger. He’s the most conceited, ornery saltwater cowboy on the coast. He’s also my cousin. We went to school together when we were kids, or at least whenever Bigger showed up. Bigger, this is my colleague, Toy Sooner.”
“Colleague is it?” he said with a thick drawl. Bigger lifted expensive black sunglasses to the top of his slightly sunburned bald head and gave her the once-over with eyes as bright a blue as a torch. She felt scalded and knew his mind was up to no good. What he saw seemed to please him, however, because he stuck out his meaty arm emblazoned with a tattoo and took her hand, squeezing tight.
“What kind of a name is Toy?”
“What kind of a name is Bigger?”
Bigger turned toward Ethan, a smile pinching his lips. “She’ll do.”
A coltish young girl came running up the dock, all long legs and long black hair flying behind her like a mane. She leaped up to hurl herself upon Bigger, who grabbed her tight and gave her a whirl around the dock.
In a more leisurely manner, a tiny woman with black hair and almond eyes strolled up the dock to join them. On her hip was a little boy, no more than a year, with hair as black as his mother’s. Bigger released his daughter and all bravado fled as, with something akin to reverence, he stepped forward to place a chaste kiss on his wife’s cheek. Their eyes met, his passionate, hers knowing. Toy read more love in that greeting than if Bigger’s wife had run like her daughter and hurled her tiny self into his powerful arms.
Bigger took his son in his arms, pride beaming on his face, and turned to Toy.
“This here’s my wife, Lao. This wild thing is my daughter Lily and this hunk o’ meat is my son, Bill Jr.” He looked at Ethan with bluster. “What’s the matter with you, anyway? Shootin’ blanks… Look at me. I’ve got the Miss Peggy, a beautiful wife, two of the best children to roam God’s earth. When are you going to stop wandering and get you some of these?”
“I don’t know, Bigger. There’s nothing like your family or the Miss Peggy, that’s for damn sure,” Ethan told him.
“You bet your ass.”
“Bill…” Lao said softly, frowning at his language.
“You’ve got a fine business sitting here just waiting for you,” Aunt Martha said to Ethan.
Ethan cast a wary glance at his father. Stuart’s face remained taciturn.
“We could use the help,” Uncle Will added. “Bigger likes the sea too much to stay in an office and my Jim, he wants no part of the business. Moved off to Atlanta to be some banker.” He said the last word like it tasted bitter in his mouth. “At least you didn’t do nothin’ like that.”
“Ethan has a three-hundred-thousand-gallon fish tank to take care of right now,” Toy said, jumping into the fray. “One of the largest in the country. And hundreds of fish. I’d say that’s something.”
All talk ceased and everyone looked at her like she’d spoken gibberish. All except Ethan. His eyes warmed as he looked at her.
“You and me,” Bigger added, wrapping an arm around Ethan’s shoulder. “We’ve got saltwater in our veins. At least you came back. I knew the tides would call you home.”
“Daddy, where’s the turtle?” the girl asked, impatient with all this adult talk.
Bigger hoisted his son and bent to face his daughter. “So that’s what you come for? The turtle? Not to see your daddy?”
“But I gotta do a report for school,” she whined with pleading eyes.
Lao laughed lightly and cupped her husband’s cheek. “You’re no match for a sea turtle. So where is it?”
Bigger snorted and waved her over. “Come on, sweet cheeks. Let’s go get it. It’s not looking so good, though.” He looked back at Toy. “The faster you get her off our boat, the faster we can unload this shrimp.”
“Yes, sir, captain.” Toy climbed up the wall of the shrimp boat, surprised by how high off the dock it rose. The deck of the Miss Peggy stretched long before her. At first, it was confusing, there was so much going on. There were winches, chains, cables and ropes. Nets hung full from the riggers.
The wiry man she’d seen before stood at the nets and was busy cleaning out the small fish and crabs. He turned his head when she passed and asked in a gravely voice, “You here for the turtle?”
“I am. Or,” she nodded toward Ethan, “we are.”
“Come and git her, then. She ain’t lookin’ so good. Don’t wanna be blamed for killin’ no endangered turtle.”
“Where is she?”
He pointed a heavily tattooed arm toward the rear of the deck. Bigger led them there and lifted a canvas tarp. Under it, a juvenile loggerhead lay motionless.
Toy hitched her breath, stunned at the serious crack that ran across the length of its shell. All business now, she swung her backpack off her shoulders and knelt beside it. The good news was the turtle was alive. The bad news was the gorgeous reddish brown shell was split near in two.
“That’s a nasty crack,” she said in a flat tone.
“Propeller slash?” Ethan asked.
Toy measured the shell at three feet, noted it and a few other observations, then rose. “That’s no propeller slash.” She turned to Bigger. “What happened?”
Bigger cast a wary glance at his daughter. “We were pulling in the big nets, same as we always do. Damned if this turtle didn’t fall right out of the net.”
“You dropped the turtle?” Toy asked, shocked.
“Hell, no. I didn’t drop it. It fell.”
“Daddy, you would never hurt a sea turtle, would you?” Lily asked.
Bigger’s face flushed and he shuffled his white boots. “No, I wouldn’t. You know I wouldn’t hurt no turtle. But folks like you,” he said to Toy “just can’t believe we care.”
Toy felt tongue-tied.
“She’s not saying that,” Ethan interjected.
Bigger shook his head. “I got a turtle shooter on every net. But hey, it happened. And here she is. I could’ve just chucked her back in the sea. That’s what some others might’ve done. But I brought her in. I called Ethan, didn’t I?”
Ethan slapped Bigger’s back. “You sure did. And I thank you for it. You did the right thing. We appreciate it. Don’t we Toy?”
“Yes. Absolutely,” she blurted out. “Thank you, Bigger. This turtle owes you its life. Any time you see a sick turtle out there, we’ll come out here to fetch it and thank you each time.”
Mollified, Bigger hoisted his son higher in his arms and smiled at his daughter. “Go get your pictures for your project. These folks have to move the turtle and I’ve got work to do. We’re wasting daylight.”
It was no easy task to maneuver the injured sea turtle from the shrimp boat into the crate in the back of the truck. With every move, Toy worried more damage would be done to the badly cracked shell. Ethan’s family went out of their way to help in any way they could, and before leaving, Bigger had promised her a ride on The Miss Peggy, and Lily was beaming that Toy had named the sea turtle Cherry Point.
On the way back to the Aquarium, Ethan was quiet, seemingly lost in his own thoughts. Toy wondered about the family man that she’d seen at Cherry Point, a man in sharp contrast to the loner. With his family, Ethan had opened a window to himself she’d never seen at the Aquarium. There, Ethan seemed as mysterious as the twelve foot shark he swam with every day in the Great Ocean tank.
Toy cast a slanted glance at Ethan, eager to learn more about him before he shut the window completely.
“Your family seems very nice.”
He nodded, eyes on the road. “They’re good people.”
“It sounds like you haven’t been home in a while?”
“Never often enough to suit my mom.”
“But you’re a genuine local.”
“Yep. Born and raised. You can’t go anywhere near Wadmalaw without bumping into a Legare. The whole of Johns Island, really.”
“It must be nice to have a big family.”
“Are you close?”
He cast a quick glance. “I guess you could say we are. We have our spats, like most families. But we’ve been in these parts since before The War. Most everyone’s settled somewhere around Rockville or Charleston.”
“Except Jim in Atlanta.” She said “Atlanta” with the same sour tone Uncle Will had used.
That drew a reluctant laugh from Ethan. “Poor Uncle Will. He’s worse than my mother. He never can tolerate any of us moving off. I reckon it’s because we keep losing bits of our land and he’s afraid we’re losing the family, too. He holds on pretty tight.”
“I find that endearing.”
Ethan barked off a laugh. “I’m sure he’d like to hear that.” He shook his head, muttering, “Endearing.”
“Hey, it’s better than enamored.”
“I don’t know but I was right. My family was enamored with you. Especially Bigger.”
“Your cousin is a real character.”
A grin stretched freely across his face and affection gleamed in his eyes. “Yeah, that he is. One of a kind. You wouldn’t want to mess with him, but he’s got a heart of pure gold. Would give you the shirt off his back if you asked him. He’s saved my sorry ass a few times, I can tell you. Guys like him are a dying breed.”
“Did you ever want to be a shrimper, like him? Or run Cherry Point?”
His hands tightened on the wheel as the tires spun beneath them. “No,” he replied at length. “I never did. It’s not like I don’t enjoy going out on the shrimp boats and lending a hand from time to time. Some of my best memories were on board the Miss Peggy. But it’s a hard life. Long hours, tough work, hard men. The dock can be a pretty rough place at times. I used to work there in the summers coming up and some of the stuff I saw…”
He shook his head. “It’s not for me. Never was. When I was a boy, I got a lot of ribbing for having my nose stuck in a book. I read about exotic places far away—Treasure Island, Narnia, Forty Leagues Under the Sea. If I ever dreamed of being a boat captain, it was Captain Nemo. My blood raced at the thought of getting in a boat and just…” He shrugged lightly. “Going.” He stretched out his arm. “Sailing on and on and on. Seeing the world and not worrying about coming back.”
“So, where did you end up going?”
“I went to Woods Hole in Massachusetts for my graduate degree. It’s beautiful up there, but way too cold for a Southern boy. Once I’d left home, I just kept traveling. Farther and farther away. I did marine research in Fiji, the Caribbean, the reefs off Australia, Indonesia, then ended up in Costa Rica. I spent six years there, the longest I’ve ever spent in any one place.”
“I heard that you discovered some kind of bottom dwelling invertebrate?”
He nodded. “But I’m most proud of the work I did drumming up international support for sharks.”
“When you add all that up, I can see how you were an ideal choice to run the Great Ocean Tank.”
“You never know where the knowledge and experience you’ve gained is going to lead you in life. When I was chasing down black market shark poachers, I didn’t think I’d be caring for sharks in an Aquarium. It’s funny how life turns out sometimes.”
“Did your father want you to take over the family business?”
“Yes, sure. It’s only natural that he would. But I think he always knew I was more interested in studying the living fish, not the ones caught to be eaten. And between you and me, he’s the one who inspired my interest. He was the one who taught me the names of all the fish, about their habitats and habits. He never let me keep an undersized fish and was mindful of our role as stewards of the earth and sea. When I went off to study marine biology I got some raised brows from some of the family, but he never once criticized my decision. He always encouraged me to carve out my own destiny.” He chuckled ruefully. “Though he’ll never understand why I ever wanted to leave a place as beautiful as Cherry Point. My greatest fear was that I never would.”
“But you did.”
He nodded. “Yep.”
“And now you’re back.”
“I guess it’s like what Bigger said. The tide brings us back, sooner or later.”
“Sort of like the turtles. You came back home.”
He turned his head to face her. “Sort of. Now, your turn. Where are you from?”
She shrugged nonchalantly, but inside she cringed. In the South, asking someone where they were from was asking for a family history and church affiliation. Toy didn’t have a family to brag on. She was ashamed to admit that her daddy had run off before she was born and the only siblings she had were two half brothers who were mean curs who’d as soon steal from her what little she had as say hello. One of them ended up in jail—to keep his daddy company, her mama liked to say.
No love was lost between Toy and her parents, either. Her mother and step-father had kicked her out of the trailer at seventeen when she got pregnant and never opened the door to her since. Not exactly the warm family bond that Ethan knew.
“I used to dream of traveling the world, too,” she replied, guiding her answer in a different direction. “Like you did. But I never made it farther than Holly Hill, where I was born. My parents moved to North Charleston when I started high school. My life got complicated pretty fast. Now I have my daughter, my job… So much for traveling. I have this recurring dream of a turtle swimming in the ocean, trying real hard to get home. Go figure.”
“Is your family in fishing or conservation or…?”
Toy snorted and shook her head. “Hardly.”
“My—” Her breath caught. “There is no husband,” she blurted out.
“I thought…I know you have a daughter,” he said in way of explanation.
There was an awkward silence during which Toy expected him to follow up with a question about divorce, or her being a widow. She tensed, not wanting to go into her history about Darryl and her being an unwed mother.
“So what got you interested in turtles?” he asked.
She silently blessed him for not prying. “That would be Miss Lovie, Cara’s mother. I took care of her when she was sick. She used to live in this big ol’house in Charleston but she loved the beach house. When she got sick she wanted to live there—to die there, I reckon. Anyway, she wanted a companion, so I took the job. Her real name was Olivia Rutledge, but everyone on the island called her Miss Lovie. She was the island’s first turtle lady and the dearest person you’d ever hope to meet.” She looked at her hands. “She was real good to me.”
“Is that how Little Lovie got her name?”
Toy brightened. “Yes. I called her Olivia after her, but it was my neighbor Florence’s mother, old Miranda, who gave her the nickname Little Lovie. It just stuck. It’s a big name to grow into, but I think she’ll manage it.”
He smiled. “Well, if she’s anything like her mother…”
She turned her head to look at Ethan. His dark brows gathered over narrowed eyes as he looked out at the road ahead. She could envision him steering the Miss Peggy, completely at home on the open sea. She thought of all he’d told her of his life and his travels. And looking out at the road ahead, she couldn’t help but wonder what that kind of freedom felt like.
That afternoon was as glorious as a promise kept.
Toy said a hurried goodbye to Ethan after they admitted Cherry Point to the Aquarium, and forgetting all but her daughter, hurried home to build a sand castle.
The beach was drenched with sunlight and overhead a cloudless sky made the ocean a dazzling blue. Memorial Day was one of the busiest beach days of the summer but the densest crowd clustered near the pier where the restaurants played music and served icy drinks. Families gathered together on a menagerie of brightly colored towels and under umbrellas. Toddlers splashed gleefully in long stretches of tidal pool while grandparents proudly stood by watching. The kite boarders preferred the gusty winds near Breach Inlet and the blue sky was dotted with arched kites, like so many wildly plumed birds.
Oh, what a sandcastle it was! Toy didn’t hurry the project but allowed Little Lovie to design however big a castle she wanted. Her daughter, she learned, could dream big. The moats were as long as Lovie was tall and at each corner they built an enormous turret, complete with sea shell decoration. There was a drawbridge across the moat and more turrets along the castle wall than Lovie knew how to count. By the time they were done, the skin under their nails was tender from digging, their shoulders were pink, and the sun was lowering in the western sky. Most of the other beachcombers had already left for home and barbecue.
After a rowdy day, the beach seemed very quiet, save for a few stragglers like them. Sandpipers returned to skitter along the shoreline and an unleashed dog trotted home. Their castle was done. Little Lovie ran off to the sea to wash the sand off her hands in the quiet surf. The tide was far out and the wet beach was gunmetal gray. It created a striking contrast to the pink streaks at the horizon. Toy hung back by the castle to watch her daughter at the waterline. Lovie gingerly dipped her toes in, testing the water, then treaded carefully a few inches into the lapping waves, stopping ankle deep. Her blond hair caught the last light of this precious day and it was like watching the sun spill over her shoulders as she bent to swish her hands in the waves.
Toy watched her daughter and all the yearnings for travel and adventure she’d felt listening to Ethan dissipated like the foam along the shore. Her own journey in life had brought her to this moment and she felt a sudden longing to capture it forever.
On the other side of the island, the Eco-tour’s tour boat was casting off for the sunset cruise. Cara stood on the dock and watched as Brett guided the big boat slowly back from the dock. The water churned loudly under the power of the engines, then eased forward toward the Intracoastal waterway. Every seat was filled with couples of all ages eager for a romantic cruise. While collecting the ticket money, Cara had overheard furtive whispers from couples worried that the sky was still so light that they wouldn’t see a sunset. She assured them that the sun would indeed set, as it did every night, and the voyage was timed so that they would get the most breathtaking and romantic view possible.
Cara leaned against the wood railing to watch her husband at the helm of the long boat. Brett stood wide legged, his hands on the wheel. As the speed picked up, the water churned white wakes at the boat’s sides, spraying droplets of water into the air. The wind tugged at the tips of his tawny hair escaping under his dark green baseball cap. His chin cut a strong silhouette against the sky while the tails of the blue chambray shirt, worn open over his T-shirt, flapped behind him like a flag.
As if he could sense her standing there, he turned his head toward the dock. Brett lifted his hand in a wave.
In that brief signal Cara understood at some profound level that his blue eyes had registered her standing there and his lips curved in a half smile. She knew, too, that his brief wave signaled his love and his intent to return home—to her—at the voyage’s end. Cara swallowed deeply, moved that she understood all that in a quick flip of the hand.
She lifted her arm and returned the wave, feeling the connection. Then he turned and focused on the water ahead. She dropped her hand slowly, missing him as he disappeared from view, sensing how empty her life would be without him.
They’d been married for five years. Sometimes it seemed like five days, sometimes like five decades. In those five years they’d journeyed from the early days of naive and explosive passion to a deeper love derived from commitment, understanding and finally acceptance of each other’s best and worst qualities.
Theirs had been a tempestuous love affair. When people thought of them, they usually compared them to apples and oranges—or Scarlett and Rhett. No two people could be more opposite. She’d loved the city life, the pace of her job as an advertising executive, the quick decisions and the thrill of the deal. Brett was a lowcountry boy in love with the salt marsh, the winding creeks and all the wildlife treasures that were hidden there. His pace was leisurely and his temper slow to ignite. But once he dug his heels deep in the pluff mud, he wouldn’t budge an inch. This was in sharp contrast to Cara’s quick, mercurial mind.
She might say that she married Brett against her better judgment, except that every instinct in her body had screamed that he was the one. Brett Beauchamps was the only man who had ever stood up to her, who continually surprised her, challenged her—and yes, loved her. Love had never come easily for Cara.
She turned and walked slowly down the dock. She’d never envisioned her life the way it had turned out. When she was young, she’d dreamed of escaping the South forever, and all the expectations of her deeply rooted, South of Broad family. She grew up in an era learning the limits a woman could achieve outside the home and always desiring to surpass them. Everything she’d ever wanted was somewhere off, far from Charleston in cities where people moved fast, where the accent was harsh, and where a woman living alone was accepted as a norm, not viewed as someone to be pitied. Times had changed a lot since then, but back when she was a long limbed, skinny, dark eyed teen, all traffic traveled to points north.
Cara locked the door of the small wooden shed that housed the Eco-tour ticket office and walked past flashy, expensive fishing boats and across the open gravel parking lot to her car. The night was so quiet she heard only the gravel crunching beneath her feet, the dull thud of boats knocking against the dock, and the laughing cry of a gull.
She laughed back. What a hoot her life turned out to be. She had left her executive job in Chicago, her condo overlooking Lake Michigan, her beautiful wool suits and fine leather shoes to be the wife of a boat captain struggling to make ends meet on the Isle of Palms. Wouldn’t her mother have just loved the way things ended up?
She chuckled at the thought, then sighed, missing her mother terribly, wishing she had lived to see her daughter happy at last, wanting to drive over to the beach house for a spot of tea with her and a quick chat. She would have told her mother that the only ingredient missing in her romantic saga was a child. She knew how much Brett wanted a baby and she felt a deeply rooted guilt that she, somehow, had let him down.
“Please, God, let this baby come,” she whispered.
The car seat burned her thighs as she climbed into the compact sedan. The humidity and heat were so thick she could barely breathe. She quickly started the engine and rolled down the windows, welcoming the offshore breezes that whisked in. She didn’t wait for the air-conditioning to cool things down. It had been a hectic day and she wanted to feel the cool water of a shower down her back. She guided the car around ruts in the lot, turned onto Waterway Boulevard and headed home.
A short while later she pulled off at the small, pink stucco house on Hamlin Creek that she called home. A sporty, blue BMW convertible blocked her entry into the garage. She cut the engine and checked the plates. She didn’t recognize the sexy car but the license plate showed the orange peach of Georgia.
It could only be one person. She scrambled from the car and trotted along their winding front path, digging for her house keys. Just as she reached the door, however, it swung open. Standing before her was her best friend in all the world, Emmi Baker Peterson, arms wide and her flame colored hair a fiery wreath around her grinning face.
“Emmi!” she screamed, throwing her arms wide.
They squealed in unison like little girls as they threw arms around each other. Cara closed her eyes and instantly she was thirteen again and it was the beginning of summer and she and Emmi were arriving at Isle of Palms with their families for a whole, glorious season! Emmi’s beach house was only a few blocks up the road, but both families lived the rest of the year in homes on the mainland.
They’d discovered each other early one summer morning while collecting sea shells near Breach Inlet. They couldn’t have been more than seven or eight years old. Emmi was searching for an angel’s wings shell and Cara had one in her bucket. Cara coveted an especially bright orange whelk in Emmi’s bucket. That morning they’d traded shells—and they’d been trading secrets every since.
Cara leaned back, her hands still holding tight to her best friend.
“Emmi, there’s nothing left of you to hug!” she exclaimed, blinking as she took in the dramatic changes. Emmi’s body was long and lean and wrapped in tight, bleached jeans and a pink, form-fitting T-shirt. When she’d left Isle of Palms two summers ago, Emmi had been broad in the beam, all plump curves and full breasts. Looking at her, Cara guessed she’d lost over fifty pounds. And that wasn’t all. Her short red hair was now as long as it had been in college, cut in layers that fell past her shoulders and highlighted with bold streaks of gold.
“You look incredible,” Cara said, eyes popping. “So…sexy. Girlfriend, just how much weight did you lose?”
With a saucy shake of her head, Emmi placed her pink tipped fingers on her hips. “Sixty-three pounds,” she announced. Then, her wide mouth stretched across her tanned face. “Can you believe it?”
Cara’s mouth dropped open in a silent gasp. “Sixty-three pounds… Unbelievable.”
“Ain’t it, though.” Emmi laughed in a way that indicated she was damned pleased with herself. “Divorce turned out to be the wonder weight loss program. Who knew? When you think about it, I really lost about two hundred and fifty pounds of dead weight. What a relief.”
Cara shook her head. “I’m all amazement. And extremely jealous. In fact, I’ve decided to cast off our friendship of years and to hate you instead. It’s just too inconsiderate of you to come home looking so good. You make the rest of us—meaning me—look like old crones.” She skewered her eyes. “You look like you lost about ten years, too.”
Her smiled hardened. “I lost twenty-five years.” Then just as quickly her face lit up again. “And I aim to make up for lost time.” She winked and clicked her fingers. “There isn’t a single man safe in the South today!”
It was a sassy gesture, even feisty, and though Emmi smiled her signature wide grin, Cara noted that the smile was not reflected in her eyes.
“Well, before you get too crazy,” she said, “I’m desperate for a cool shower and a glass of white chilled wine. You pour while I shower. Then you can bring me up to speed.”
Cara entered the tiled foyer of her compact house and dumped her purse on the small wooden table and her keys in a small sweetgrass basket. Over the years she’d carted out of the house Brett’s old, battered furniture and sporting goods and decorated their home in the cool, pale blue tones she loved. Each piece of furniture was carefully chosen and the dark wood and glass were polished. She noticed a glass vase filled with white roses on the table and cast a glance of thanks to her friend. “Thank you, darling, I love them.”
“No biggie.” Emmi lifted a wine glass. It was nearly empty. “I hope you don’t mind. I already helped myself. It was a long drive from Atlanta with my car packed to the brim. It’s stuffed with every whatnot in this world I hold dear, including a goldfish.”
She laughed, then coughed as wine went down the wrong way. “I’m fine,” she rasped, waving Cara away. “I choked just remembering that trip. Thank the Lord I survived. On the highway I was fine, but every time I had to stop, the water in the damn fish tank went splish splashing all over the backseat. It’s a miracle that fish made it here alive!” She pointed to a three gallon Aquarium now sitting on Cara’s kitchen counter. “Meet Nemo.”
Cara saw a fairly large goldfish with beautiful fins doing a dead man’s float at the top of the tank. “Good God, Emmi, I think it’s dead!”
Emmi went to the tank and tapped it. The fish jolted to life and swam madly in circles. “Nemo, it’s not nice to scare the guests,” she said. Then to Cara, “Can he stay here for a couple of days? I think he really will die if he has to go back into that car.”
“Sure, why not? Speaking of cars, that’s a sporty one in the driveway.”
“What’s not to like?”
“Exactly.” Her green eyes glittered over the rim of her glass. “I traded my clunky old SUV in for a convertible. I’m done with station wagons, SUVs, big cars in general. No more schlepping kids and garden supplies around. This is the new me.” She tossed her hair back again, a new gesture she’d picked up.
“Is it?” Cara looked at her friend through narrowed eyes. Emmi was slender and sexy, yes. But there was something off-putting about her aggressive youthfulness that she couldn’t put her finger on.
“You’re looking at me funny,” Emmi said. “Sort of like the way you looked at me when I got my hair done for the prom. Remember?”
Cara burst out a laugh. Only Emmi could stir up memories that deeply stored. “How can I forget it? It was two feet of copper curls held together with a hundred bobby pins and two cans of hairspray.”
Emmi threw back her head and laughed. “It was that high! I thought I was going to fall over with the weight of it. At five feet seven inches, plus heels and hair, I towered over Tom.”
“My God, what were we thinking?”
“I was thinking I looked beautiful. Tom thought I did, anyway.” Her smile slipped but she caught herself and shrugged. “At least he told me he did. That was probably a lie. Like all the other lies he told me.”
Cara sensed a dangerous turn in emotions. “He wasn’t lying,” she hurried to respond. “You did look beautiful. And you look beautiful now.”
Emmi lifted her chin and straightened, but the wine was beginning to affect her balance. “You bet I do. I look great. Tom was an idiot for letting me go.”
“A first class loser.”
“A cheating, lying, loser.”
Too much wine, too little to eat. Cara went to the fridge to scrounge for cheese and crackers.
“Listen, sugar. Why don’t you help yourself to some of this cheese while I freshen up. I’ll be back in a flash.”
In the shower she tilted her head back and let the cool water sluice away the day of selling tour tickets, answering the phone, and hopping on jet skis to help stranded tourists who stalled in the waterway. She was utterly exhausted, slightly sunburned and parched. She relished the idea of cuddling up with her best friend for a long chat over a chilled glass of wine. She emerged in minutes wearing a white terry robe and a white towel wrapped around her hair. She found Emmi curled on the couch like a sleek tabby cat. Her eyes were a telltale red, as though she’d been crying. On the coffee table was a new bottle of wine, uncorked, with two glasses. When she spotted Cara coming into the room, she forced a smile and held out a goblet of wine for her.
“Emmi, how long have you been here?” she asked, concerned.
“An hour at least. Maybe two.”
Cara curled her legs under her as she sat beside Emmi on the sofa. Emmi was clearly one sheet to the wind. This was another change in her friend. Emmi had never been much of a drinker. Tom used to tease her about being a “cheap date.”
“Did you eat any cheese?”
Emmi shook her head. “Not hungry, thanks.”
“If you don’t mind, I’m starving.” She reached for a chunk of Brie, put it on a cracker and hungrily devoured it.
“So tell me what’s going on with you,” Emmi asked. “How are things in the wild world of ecotourism? Anything new with the infertility tests?”
“Same old, same old,” she replied evasively.
“Which means…” Emmi prompted.
“Which means nothing much right now. We’re in a holding pattern till the doctors advise us what to do next.”
“Don’t stay in that holding pattern too long. Your biological clock is ticking.”
“Ticking? It’s positively unwound! A baby now would be a miracle.”
“Not with the miracles of modern science. Lots of women have babies late in life.”
Cara sighed, silently sending off a prayer that what Emmi said was true. She reached for another cracker, busying her hands with spreading the brie.
“You okay with this?” Emmi asked gently. “You still want a baby, don’t you?”
“More than ever. It’s just…”
Cara couldn’t put on a false front any longer to her best friend. She set down the cheese, fighting back tears she was determined not to shed.
“I never figured how hard it was going to be for me emotionally, is all.”
“It’s insidious. No matter how I prepare myself, no matter how cool I appear, every time I go through the hormone therapy I get my hopes up. Sure, the hormones put one’s emotions on a roller coaster, but it’s more. When I get pregnant, the joy is indescribable. A dream come true. I’m in heaven. And then I miscarry.” She released a plume of air to still her trembling lips. She felt tired, vulnerable. She didn’t want to break down. Taking a breath, her voice held the old bravado. “I’m a realist. Always have been. I try to look at the situation as I would any project. If you take my age, the cost of in vitro, the doctor’s advice…” Her shrug spoke volumes.
“What are your chances?”
“Not good. When I started trying at forty, I had a 15 to 20 percent chance. At forty-five, my chances dropped to 6 to 10 percent.”
“Do the risks go up, too?”
“I don’t think so, but with the hormone therapy there’s always the chance of being swollen, bloated, nausea and having to pee all the time.”
“That’s called being pregnant.” She raised her glass and took a sip.
Cara laughed. “Then sign me up.”
“Are you going to try again?” Emmi asked more seriously.
Cara hesitated, taking a sip of her wine. Emmi had enough of her own problems to deal with, she didn’t want to burden her. But also, Cara didn’t want to tell anyone—not even Emmi—about this last round of hormone treatments about to begin and the next in vitro implant. Not until she was sure it took. It was one thing to deal with the pain of disappointment alone. She didn’t think she could stand all the condolences again.
“Who knows?” she replied briskly. “If I do, I’d do it for Brett.” She picked up the cracker and forced herself to eat it. “How’s your house?” she asked, angling for a new topic of conversation. “I looked in on it as often as I could while you were gone.”
“I don’t know. I haven’t been there yet.”
“You haven’t been to your house? Why not?”
“I came here first.”
“But I wasn’t even here. Why didn’t you just run over and unpack first?”
Emmi shrugged and took a long swallow from her glass.
“Your turn. What’s the matter?”
Emmi rose and went to the freezer and pulled out an ice tray. “I just couldn’t go in there.”
“Why ever not? You love that house.”
“That’s just it. I do love it.” She plopped one, then two cubes of ice into her white wine. “Did love it,” she amended, keeping her eyes downcast. Emmi’s brows gathered as her bravado slipped from her face.
Emmi had always loved her family’s beach house. She’d spent every summer there as a child and brought her children there after she was married. Her parents had left it to her when they retired to Florida. That small, white frame beach house with the tin roof had always been Emmi’s touchstone. Cara couldn’t imagine Emmi not hightailing it straight to her beach house to heal and regain her footing, especially now when she needed comfort the most.
She patted the sofa beside her. “Talk to Mama.”
Emmi came and flopped down beside her. She slunk deep into the cushions, resting her head back. When she spoke, it was like a confession.
“I drove up and just sat in the driveway. The engine was off but I couldn’t get out. I just kept staring at it. And while I did, a million memories came flooding back. Oh, Cara, so many memories. There’s no part of that house I can look at and not think of Tom. I got my first kiss from Tom under the porch. I used to watch from the kitchen window as he walked up the porch stairs to pick me up for a date, his hair slicked back and a corsage in his hand. We made out on the front swing, made love for the first time in my room, groping on my twin bed.” She choked back a tear. “We brought our babies there every summer, fried Thanksgiving turkeys out back, and hung lights on the palms at Christmas. Every happy memory I have there is with Tom…”
“I can’t go back there. It’s too hard. He even took that away from me.” Her voice was bitter, laced with pain. “Now I hate my beach house.”
Cara sighed heavily, fully realizing that it was going to be a long night. “Then you can stay here.”
“Maybe just for a day or two. Until I get used to the whole idea.”
“As long as you want or need.”
“I’m fine,” Emmi said forcefully. “Really I am.”
“Of course you are.”
Cara rose, gathered the two wine glasses and brought them to the sink. Then she went to the fridge to rummage for the makings of dinner. Brett had brought some local shrimp home from the market. She took these out and laid them on the counter. Taking a shrimp knife from the drawer, she began peeling. A minute later, Emmi was standing beside her at the counter, peeling shrimp.
They worked in the silence of old friends in a comfortable setting. Cara didn’t have any answers for Emmi, nor, she suspected, did Emmi expect them. Or even want them. Sometimes, the best thing to offer was simply safe shelter.
Medical Log “Big Girl”
This turtle has major buoyancy problems. She’s so full of gas her tail end floats high, making it hard for her to dive to eat. Endoscopy scheduled. We continue to debride, scrape and scrub. After days in a freshwater bath, the barnacles all came off but left pockmarked scarring. The outer scutes are so heavily dotted it looks like Big Girl is wearing a crochet sweater. Turtle is so emaciated there is a big void where fat flesh should be.
Even though she is underweight and dehydrated, she is the biggest rehab turtle I’ve ever worked with. Don’t worry, Big Girl. Those scars will heal! TS
When the telephone rang, the room was filled with the metallic gray light of early dawn. Toy groaned and rolled to her stomach, dragging the pillow over her head. Who could be calling at this hour? Didn’t whoever that rude person was know today was Sunday, the blessed day of rest?
Sleepily, she dragged her mind through possibilities. Favel said he would go to the Aquarium this morning to take care of Big Girl, and Irwin was covering the afternoon. She yawned lustily. She was so looking forward to sleeping late.
When the answering machine clicked on, she tugged the pillow from her head to listen. She heard Flo’s strident voice on the machine.
“Hey! We’ve got a nest! And it’s right smack in front of our houses. Toy! Are you there? Pick up. Pick up!”
Toy threw the pillow aside as she lurched for the phone.
“Hello? Flo? Hello?”
But Flo had already hung up, no doubt to call Cara. Rubbing the sleep from her eyes, Toy sat up and scratched her head while adrenaline cleared her thoughts. A nest… In front of the beach house…
They’re here! A smile dawned on her face. She hurried down the hall barefoot, tugging up the bottoms of her baggy cotton pajamas.
“Wake up, sleepyhead!”
“Go away,” Lovie whined, turning her back on Toy and burrowing under the covers. Kiwi, the calico cat sleeping beside her, raised her head. Her yellow eyes regarded Toy with disdain at being disturbed.
Toy knew bringing Little Lovie to the beach would slow her down, but she wanted her daughter to share this, to be part of something that was important to her, as it had been to her namesake.
“Lovie, there’s a turtle nest—right in front of our house!” She shook the lump under the blankets. “Come on, girl!”
Lovie pulled back the blankets, sending Kiwi leaping from the bed. “The nest is here?” When Toy nodded, Lovie scrambled from under her blankets as fast as a ghost crab from its hole in the sand. Toy went to her drawer and pulled out shorts.
“I can dress myself!” Lovie snapped.
Little Lovie pitched a fit when Toy tried to pick clothes out for her so rather than deal with a tantrum, Toy just called out, “Meet you in a few!” and trotted down the hall. Excitement bubbled in her veins. She grabbed her running shorts, sniffed the green Turtle Team T-shirt and deeming it acceptable, slipped it over her head. She then pulled her unbrushed hair back into a ponytail. Over this, she slipped on the Turtle Team cap. They met at the screen door where they both slipped on sand crusted sandals. Little Lovie had her pink T-shirt on backward and her golden hair tumbled in a mass down her shoulders. Toy held back a smile but wisely said nothing. Miss Lovie once told her to “choose your battles.”
After a good push she got the wobbly screen door open. She’d have to fix that some day, she thought as she hurried to the old wicker basket on the porch. She found her long, thin, yellow metal probe stick and backpack. Just a week before, in anticipation of the season, she and Little Lovie had sat at the kitchen table and cleaned out the dusty green backpack of last season’s sand and grit and put new batteries in the flashlight.
She’d watched as Little Lovie carefully placed back all the turtle team tools: a red flashlight, a tape measure for measuring the tracks, orange tape, wooden shish kebob sticks for counting eggs, brochures for tourists, a magic marker and the lovely half shell that once was Olivia Rutledge’s and now was her prize possession. Miss Lovie’s probe stick and red bucket had gone to Cara, but Toy had purchased a red bucket of her own. In it were several thick wooden stakes and the bright orange federal signs that marked all nests.
“I think that’s it,” she said to Little Lovie, then had a sudden thought. “Wait one more minute.” She ran inside to the kitchen junk drawer and grabbed a cheap instamatic camera. She tossed it into her backpack and hoisted it on her shoulders. Then going back out, she took Little Lovie’s hand. “Let’s go!”
They followed the narrow beach path like hound dogs on the scent. The tangy, salty morning air led them around white dunes that had shifted and grown tall during the winter storms. Now the dunes were dotted with yellow primrose and beach grass, and pocked by the small holes of ghost crabs. Toy looked over her shoulder to see their footprints in the sand—hers large, Lovie’s small—side by side. Reaching the top of the dune, Toy paused, mouth open, her breath stolen by the sight.
The breadth of sand was aflame with the pink, orange and yellow light of dawn. Beyond, the vast blue ocean was glistening in the light, a rolling, breathing beast stretching out to meld with the horizon. She turned to look at her daughter. Little Lovie stood motionless, her blue eyes staring at the sunrise.
“I’m glad you brought me,” Lovie said softly.
Toy squeezed Lovie’s hand. In those few words, she knew her daughter’s young spirit had fully awakened in the beauty of this dawn.
Scanning the beach, her heart quickened when she spotted the clearly defined turtle tracks that scarred the smooth sand from the high tide line up to the dune.
“Mama, look!” Lovie called out, pointing. Her voice was high with wonder. “The turtle walked around our sandcastle! Wasn’t she nice?” Little Lovie clapped her hands and took off like a shot.
Toy laughed lightly, her amazement stirring her own childlike wonder. “You good ol’ turtle,” she muttered. The turtle tracks did, indeed, travel up to, then around, the sand castle seemingly not wishing to disturb it. Her gaze followed the turtle tracks up to a small circular mound on the dunes that was the turtle nest. Already a small cluster of people gathered around it. She recognized Flo’s shock of bright white hair and Cara’s glossy brown, Glenn’s sun helmet, Grace’s short dark curls, and…who was that lean, leggy redhead? She called out with a wave and began walking toward them.
“The turtles are here!” Flo exclaimed, raising her arms high in triumphant welcome. Her voice bubbled with the excitement they all felt. The joy was visceral. This nest signaled a beginning of their summer’s vocation. Hopes were flying high that it would be a good season.
Cara turned and waved in welcome from her spot farther down the beach near the castle where she was measuring the tracks. Little Lovie came crashing into her legs, wrapping her arms around Cara. Grace and Glenn offered Toy hugs while accepting her congratulations for being the ones to find the season’s first nest.
Turtle volunteers were a dedicated and loyal bunch. Toy knew all of the eighty people who took turns walking the beaches early in the morning to search for turtle tracks. Yet of all these, Grace and Glenn were special. In their late eighties, they put the young’uns to shame. They rose earlier, walked farther, and never missed a day. Toy thought it was divine justice that they found the season’s first nest.
The redhead walked toward her. “Hey, no kiss for me?”
Toy looked at the tall woman again, and recognition clicked. “Emmi? Is that you?”
“In the flesh.”
“Whoa, you look….” She sputtered, trying to find words other than so much better.”
“Don’t go on about it,” Flo said. “We’ve been paying her compliments all morning and it’ll go to her head.”
“You and the first nest, here on the same day!” Toy said.
“All’s right with the world,” Emmi replied.
Toy hugged her and felt the truth in that statement.
“If you’re done chatting, can we get started here?” Flo called out. She was eager to find the eggs. She lifted her hands to cup her mouth and called, “Caretta!”
“Coming,” Cara replied, tucking her notebook in her backpack. She brought Little Lovie up to the dune with her. “The tracks measured twenty-seven inches. That’s a pretty good sized turtle. And the nest is high up on the dune. I think this mama picked out a very nice spot for her eggs.”
“Yep, she done good,” Flo confirmed, nodding with satisfaction. “We can leave this one right where it is. Now, let’s find those eggs.”
On cue, the four women brandished their probe sticks like swords. Toy felt the air tingle as they gathered at the turtle’s nest. The hunt was on!
Toy used to believe finding the eggs was a matter of chance, but as the seasons passed and she gained experience, she came to realize there were field signs that pointed the way. The female loggerhead aggressively camouflaged her nest by throwing sand. But if Toy followed the inbound tracks, she could figure out in which direction the turtle lay when she dropped her eggs. The group studied the tracks as Flo put her probe to the sand and carved a circle around the large body pit.
Flo offered Toy the chance to take the first turn at probing for eggs. She chose a likely spot then carefully, oh, so gingerly, pressed her probe stick into the sand. She bent her knees, leveled her feet and took a breath. Steady now, she told herself as the probe slid into the soft sand. The first probe of the season was always like the first time she’d probed a nest. She remembered Miss Lovie guiding her through it.
“Easy now, child,” Miss Lovie had said in her melodic voice. “Don’t be in such a hurry. The eggs aren’t going anywhere. Let the stick slide into the sand nice and slow. Bend your knees. If you feel the sand break away beneath you, stop! You can’t be bumping into an egg!”
That was every turtle lady’s greatest fear—to be in such a hurry that she poked through an egg. It rarely ever happened. For her, not one egg out of the thousands she’d found in five years. Nonetheless, breaking even one made a person feel hang dog contrite and it spooked you for the whole season. And, of course there was the not-so-gentle ribbing that came from the turtle team.
Toy felt the sand grow hard under her probe, a sign that the eggs were not there. She moved to another spot only an inch away. Then to another. Then another, seeking the soft spot. After her turn, Emmi began the same process. Then Cara, taking turns at probing. Ten minutes later, the mound of sand was dotted with small holes. The sun was rising and a tourist taking a morning’s walk on the beach wandered over to see what the commotion was about, only to coo with excitement at her luck. Just when Toy thought this was going to be one of those tricky nests that kept them probing for hours, Cara’s probe dipped sharply into the sand.
Collectively they gasped and leaned forward to watch as Cara went on hands and knees to dig with her fingers. Once the soft sand was found, probes were abandoned. Cara dug away the sand from the spot, going deeper and deeper, letting the soft sand sift through her fingers. Little Lovie leaned against Toy’s legs, looking far into the hole, hoping to see eggs. Sometimes it was a false alarm and they all went back to probing. But they could smell the musky scent of eggs and were hopeful.
Cara’s arm was in so deep her shoulder was almost touching the sand. Her face was turned slightly upward and her dark brown eyes were shining in anticipation as her hand followed the trail of softer sand.
Toy watched, envying Cara a little for her natural elegance, even in such an awkward position. Miss Lovie had always said that Cara looked more like her father, a tall, raven haired, chiseled man. But Toy thought that the older Cara got, the more she resembled her mother. Not that Cara would ever be the petite and blonde belle that Miss Lovie was. The resemblance was more in the softness of expression one moment, the elegant lift of the chin at another, the air of confidence, and the constant gracefulness that came, Toy believed, from generations of breeding.
Toy sighed, flashing back to her own mother’s words. They’d been shopping on King Street and her mother had spotted a fancy-dressed woman walking down the street with an air of elegance.
“Can’t learn that in no school,” Toy’s mother had told her. She’d clucked her tongue and pointed. “Look at her. Women like that, they’re Thoroughbreds. It’s in their blood.” Her mother’s husky voice had rumbled with belligerent admiration. It still hurt that she’d called Toy a “good work horse.” Toy felt the same stab of shame she’d felt then and shook her head to expel her mother’s voice. Why’d she always have to be so mean-spirited? Instead, she replayed Miss Lovie’s words of encouragement in her mind.
“We’ve got eggs!” Cara exclaimed, retrieving a perfectly round, white egg out from the nest. Little Lovie was on it faster than a tick on a dog, begging for a closer look before Cara gingerly put the egg back into the nest and covered it back up with sand. It never failed to amaze Toy how a turtle egg looked exactly like a ping pong ball. Glenn and Grace moved forward to put their names on the stake, claiming the nest as “their own.” The hunt was over.
As Flo bent to put the markers on the nest, Toy stepped back and pulled her instamatic camera out from her backpack. First she took a photograph of the turtle tracks circling around Lovie’s sandcastle. Then she went down on one knee and brought the little cardboard box to her eye. Through the narrow lens, she focused on the cluster around the nest, three adults and one child, shoulder to shoulder, laughing. It was a nice, standard group shot.
Zooming in, however, she discovered magic in the details—the wind tousled hair, bits of sand on the faces, and in all the eyes a childlike wonder and infinite hope for this, the first nest of the season.
Hold your breath! Kick your legs hard and reach far with each stroke.
The following day, the Aquarium received a third sick turtle. The loggerhead was brought in by Department of Natural Resources from Kiawah Island. The local news stations were on hand and did a brief report on the rescue of the juvenile loggerhead from beyond the breakers. Toy laughed when she saw the clip because the men standing on the shore didn’t want to get their feet wet. It took two slender women from DNR, DuBose and Charlotte, to wade out into the surf and pull the turtle in. This turtle had three glaring slashes across the shell from a boat propeller. Toy called this third patient turtle Kiawah.
Three days later, a fourth turtle was found by three young men who were out fishing for the day. They’d discovered a turtle trapped by the lines of a crab pot in Hamlin Creek. Being good ol’ boys, they couldn’t just leave him there. Every time the turtle brought his head up for breath, the rope tightened. They couldn’t get the turtle unattached so they cut the crab pot loose and brought the pot and turtle both to the marina themselves. Their biggest worry was that they’d get arrested for stealing a crab trap.
Toy hurried to the marina and met the heroes at the dock. It was one of the saddest cases Toy had ever come upon. The rope from the crab pot had nearly cut clear through the flipper. Given the barnacle load and the emaciation, she guessed the poor turtle had to have been tangled up for several weeks. Toy called this turtle Hamlin.
Bringing two new turtles into the Aquarium caused a flurry of impromptu decisions. They couldn’t put even one more turtle on Ethan’s already crowded floor.
“It’s just like in the bible,” Favel had said as they measured the space for possibilities. “There’s no room for them in the Inn.”
“Well then, we’ve got to find a stable,” Ethan had replied.
The stable turned out to be the cavernous basement of the Aquarium. It was being used for storage. Ethan and his dive team chipped in to move gear out and clean a corner of the area for the small tanks that Jason scrounged up for the initial fresh water baths. It was a temporary solution at best. By the end of the first week, with two tanks upstairs and two downstairs, Toy was exhausted at running up and down all day. Her supplies were tapped, as was her food budget. She didn’t know how she was going to make it through another week.
Her prayers were answered by the kindness of strangers.
In the days following the television report, the Aquarium received an avalanche of donations from local people who had seen the program and wanted to help the poor sick turtles. Most of the checks and cash were in small denominations, tens and twenties, and each one was welcomed. There was the occasional $100 check and one for $500 from a Good Samaritan that sent the whole staff cheering. School children took up collections that totaled a couple hundred dollars. Other children wrote heartfelt letters and donated their allowances and emptied their piggy banks. Toy could hardly believe that strangers would care so much to send in their money to help, especially the children. Their generosity and care brought tears to her eyes.
Jason wrote a letter to the editor of the newspaper to officially express the Aquarium’s thanks to the good people of Charleston for their help and support. Sure enough, that letter brought another flurry of donations.
Seemingly overnight, Toy found her small rehabilitation effort was the center of attention at the Aquarium. But she knew she really was in the limelight when the Aquarium’s President called her up to his office for an impromptu meeting. It was the first time she’d been invited to a powwow in Kevin’s office and her stomach fluttered as she brushed her hair in the bathroom and changed into a fresh T-shirt.
On the top floor, the administrative offices were sleek and polished. Toy stepped inside the president’s corner office and was drawn to the huge plate glass windows that provided a spectacular view of the Charleston Harbor. Jason and Ethan had joined them, and across the room, Kate and Kim from the Development office were seated, dressed in dark power suits.
“Come in,” Kevin said warmly, rising to a stand and waving her in. He was young, brilliant and in full possession of the gentlemanly manners that were appreciated in the South.
Ethan also rose to offer Toy his chair then crossed his arms and leaned against the wall behind her. Everyone was in an upbeat mood, buoyed by the public’s support for the sea turtles.
“I’ve got some great news,” Kevin said, opening the discussion. “The Board met and it looks like we now can consider building an official sea turtle hospital at the Aquarium. Kim, can you give us a brief report on the available resources for the hospital?”
After Kim’s report they began to discuss how to handle any more turtles that were likely to be brought in.
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