Flames raced up the walls to spread across the ceiling. Orange. Red. Alive
. The fire was looking right at her. She could hear it breathing. It rose up, hissing and spitting, following her as she crawled across the floor. Smoke swirled through the room, choking her. She stayed low and held her breath as much as possible. All the while the greedy flames reached for her with a voracious appetite, licking at her skin, scorching and searing, singeing the tips of her hair.
Chunks of flaming debris fell from the ceiling onto the floor and glass shattered. A series of small explosions detonated throughout the room as lamps burst from the intense heat. She dragged herself toward the only exit, the small doggy door in the kitchen. Behind her, the fire roared as if enraged by her attempt to escape.
The fire shimmered like a dancing wall. Her vision tunneled until the flames became a giant monster, reaching with long arms and a ghastly, distorted head, crawling after her on the floor, its hideous tongue licking at her bare feet. She screamed, but the only sound that emerged, was a terrible choking cough. She turned to face her enemy, felt its malevolence as the flames poured over her, trying to consume her, trying to devour her from the inside out. Her scream finally broke past the terrible ball blocking her throat and she shrieked her terror in a high-pitched wail. She tried to call out, to beg for water to come to her, to save her, to drench her in cool, soothing liquid. In the distance the shriek of the sirens grew louder and louder. She threw herself sideways to avoid the flames…
Rikki Sitmore landed hard on the floor beside her bed. She lay there, her heart racing, terror pounding through her veins, her mind struggling to assimilate the fact that it was just a nightmare. The same old, familiar nightmare. She was safe and unharmed—even though she could still feel the heat of the fire on her skin.
“Damn it.” Her hand fumbled for the clock-radio, fingers slapping blindly in search of the button that would stop the alarm that sounded so like the fire engine of her dreams. In the ensuing silence, she could hear the sound of water, answering her cry for help, and she knew from experience that every faucet in her house was running.
She forced herself to sit up, groaning softly as her body protested. Her joints and muscles ached, as if she’d been rigid for hours.
Rikki wiped her sweat-drenched face with her hand, dragged herself to her feet, and forced her aching body to walk from room to room, turning off faucets as she went. At last only the sink and shower in her bathroom were left. As she went through the bedroom, she turned on the radio and the coastal radio station flooded the room with music. She needed the sea today. Her beloved sea. Nothing worked better to calm her mind when she was too close to the past.
The moment she crossed the threshold of her bathroom, cool sea colors surrounded her with instant calm. The green slate beneath her feet matched the slate sea turtles swimming through an ocean of glossy blue around the walls.
She always showered at night to wash the sea off of her, but after a particularly bad nightmare, the spray of the water on her skin felt like a healing wash across her soul. The water in the shower was already running, calling to her and she stepped into the stall. Instantly the water soothed her, soaking into her pores, refreshing, her personal talisman. The drops on her skin felt sensual, nearly mesmerizing her with the perfection of shape. She was lost in the clarity and immediately zoned out, taken to another realm where all chaos was gone from her mind.
Things that might ordinarily hurt—sounds, textures—the everyday things others took for granted were washed away with the sweat from her nightmares or the salt from the sea. When she stood in the water, she was as close to normal as she would ever get and she reveled in the feeling. As always she was lost in the shower, disappearing into the clean, cool refreshing pleasure it brought her, until, abruptly the hot water was gone and her shower turned ice cold, startling her out of her trance.
Once she could breathe without a hitch, she toweled off and dragged on her sweats without looking at the scars on her calves and feet. She didn’t need to relive those moments again—yet night after night—the fire was back, looking at her, marking her for death.
She shivered, turned up her radio so she could hear it throughout the house, and pulled out her laptop, taking it through the hallway to her kitchen. Blessed coffee was the only answer to idiocy. She started the coffee while she listened to the radio spitting out local news. She dropped into a chair, stilling, to concentrate when it came to the weather. She wanted to know what her mistress was feeling this morning. Calm? Angry? A little stormy? She stretched as she listened. Calm seas. Little wind. A freaking tsunami drill?
. “What a crock,” she muttered aloud, slumping dejectedly. “We don’t need another one.”
They’d just had a silly drill. Everyone had complied. How had she missed that they had scheduled another one in the local news? When they conducted drills of this magnitude, it was always advertised heavily. Then again…Rikki sat up straight, a smile blossoming on her face. Maybe the tsunami drill was the just the opportunity she’d been looking for. Today was a darned perfect day to go to work. With a tsunami warning in effect, no one else would be out on the ocean, she would have the sea to herself. This was the perfect chance to visit her secret diving hole and harvest the small fortune in sea urchins she’d discovered there. She had found the spot weeks ago, but didn’t want to dive when others might be around to see her treasure trove.
Rikki poured a cup of coffee and wandered out to the front porch to enjoy that first aromatic sip. She was going to make the big bucks today. Maybe even enough money to pay back the women who’d taken her in as part of their family for the expenses they’d incurred on her behalf. She wouldn’t have her beloved boat finished if it wasn’t for them. She could probably fill the boat with just a couple of hour’s work. Hopefully the processor would think the urchins were as good as she did, and pay top dollar.
Rikki looked around at the trees shimmering in the early morning light. Birds flitted from branch to branch and wild turkeys were walking along the far creek where she’d scattered seed for them. A young buck grazed in the meadow just a short distance from her house. Sitting there, sipping her coffee, and watching the wildlife around her, everything began to settle in both body and mind.
She’d never imagined she would ever have a chance at such a place, such a life. And she never would have, if not for the five strangers who’d entered her life and taken her into theirs. They’d changed her world forever.
She owed them everything. Her ‘sisters’. They weren’t her biological sisters, but no blood sister could be closer. They called themselves sisters of the heart and to Rikki, that’s exactly what they were. Her sisters. Her family. She had no one else and knew she never would. They had her fierce, unswerving loyalty.
The five women had believed in her when she’d lost all faith, when she was at her most broken. They had invited her to be one of them, and although she’d been terrified that she would bring something evil with her, she’d accepted, because it was that, or die. That one decision was the single best thing she’d ever done.
The family—all six of them—lived on the farm together. One hundred thirty acres which nestled six beautiful houses. Hers was the smallest. Rikki knew she’d never marry or have children, so she didn’t need a large house. Besides, she loved the simplicity of her small home with its open spaces and high beams and soothing colors of the sea that made her feel so at peace.
A slight warning shivered down her body. She was not alone. Rikki turned her head and her tension abated slightly at the sight of the approaching woman. Tall and slender with a wealth of dark wavy hair untouched by gray in spite of her forty-two years, Blythe Daniels was the oldest of Rikki’s five sisters, and the acknowledged leader of their family.
“Hey you,” Rikki greeted. “Couldn’t sleep?”
Blythe flashed her smile, the one Rikki thought was so endearing and beautiful—a little crooked, providing a glimpse of straight white teeth that nature, not braces, had provided.
“You’re not going out today are you?” Blythe asked and nonchalantly went over to the spigot at the side of the house and turned it off.
“Sure I am.” She should have checked all four hoses, darn it. Rikki avoided Blythe’s too-knowing gaze.
Blythe looked uneasily toward the sea. “I just have this bad feeling…”
“Really?” Rikki frowned and stood up, glancing up at the sky. “Seems like a perfect day to me.”
“Are you taking a tender with you?”
Blythe sighed. “We talked about this. You said you’d consider the idea. It’s safer, Rikki. You shouldn’t be diving alone.”
“I don’t like anyone touching my equipment. They roll my hoses wrong. They don’t put the tools back. No. No way.” She tried not to sound belligerent, but she was not
having anyone on her boat messing with her things.
Rikki rolled her eyes. How was having some idiot sitting on the boat, not diving alone? But she didn’t voice her thoughts, instead, she tried a smile. It was difficult. She didn’t smile much, especially when the nightmares were too close. And she was barefoot. She didn’t like being caught barefoot and in spite of Blythe’s determination not to look, her gaze couldn’t help but be drawn to the scars covering Rikki’s feet and calves.
Rikki turned toward the house. “Would you like a cup of coffee?”
Blythe nodded. “I can get it, Rikki. Enjoy your morning.” Dressed in her running shoes and light sweats, she managed to still look elegant. Rikki had no idea how she did it. Blythe was refined and educated and all the things Rikki wasn’t, but that never seemed to matter to Blythe.
Rikki took a breath and forced herself to sink back into the chair and tuck her feet under her, trying not to look disturbed at the idea of anyone going into her house.
“You’re drinking your coffee black again,” Blythe said and dropped a cube of sugar into Rikki’s mug.
Rikki frowned at her. “That was mean.” She looked around for her sunglasses to cover her direct stare. She knew it bothered most people. Blythe never seemed upset by it, but Rikki didn’t take chances. She found them on the railing and shoved them on her nose.
“If you’re diving today, you need it,” Blythe pointed out. “You’re way too thin and I noticed you haven’t gone shopping again.”
“I did too. There’s tons of food in the cupboards,” Rikki pointed out.
“Peanut butter is not food. You have nothing but peanut butter in your cupboard. I’m talking real food, Rikki.”
“I have Reeses
pieces and peanut butter cups. And bananas.” If anyone else had snooped in her cupboards Rikki would have been furious, but she just couldn’t get upset with Blythe.
“You have to try to eat better.”
“I do try. I added the bananas like you asked me. And every night I eat broccoli.” Rikki made a face. She dipped the raw vegetable into the peanut butter to make it more edible, but she’d promised Blythe so she faithfully ate it. “I’m actually beginning to like the stuff, even if it’s green and feels like pebbles in my mouth.”
Blythe laughed. “Well thank you for at least eating broccoli. Where are you diving?”
Of course Blythe would have to ask. Rikki squirmed a little. Blythe was one of those people you just didn’t lie to—or ignore as Rikki often did others. “I’ve got this black out found and I want to harvest it while I can.”
Blythe made a face. “Don’t speak diving. English, hon, I don’t have a clue what you mean.”
“Urchins, spine to spine, so many, I think I can pull in four thousand pounds in a couple of hours. We could use the money.”
Blythe regarded her over the top of her coffee mug, her gaze steady. “Where, Rikki?”
She was like a damn bulldog when she got going. “North of Fort Bragg.”
“You told me that area was dangerous,” Blythe reminded.
Rikki cursed herself silently for having a big mouth. She should never
have talked about her weird feelings with the others. “No, I said it was spooky. The ocean is dangerous anywhere, Blythe, but you know I’m a safety girl. I follow all dive precautions and all my personal safety rules to the letter. I’m careful and I don’t panic.”
She didn’t normally dive along the fault line running just above the Fort Bragg coast because the abyss was deep and great whites used the area as a hunting ground. Usually she worked on the bottom, along the floor. Sharks hunted from below, so she was relatively safe, but harvesting urchins along the shelf was risky. She’d be making noise and a shark could come from below. But the money…. She really wanted to pay her sisters back all the expenses they’d covered for her, helping her with her boat.
Blythe shook her head. “I’m not talking about your safety rules. We all know you’re a great diver, Rikki, but you shouldn’t be alone out there, anything could go wrong.”
“If I’m alone, I’m only responsible for my own life. I don’t rely on anyone else. Every second counts and I know exactly what to do. I’ve run into trouble countless times and I handle it. It’s just easier by myself.” And she didn’t have to talk to anyone, or make nice. She could just be herself.
“Why go north of Fort Bragg? You told me the undersea floor was very different and the sharks were more prevalent there and it kind of freaked you out.”
Rikki found herself wanting to smile inside when just seconds earlier she’d been squirming. Blithe saying ‘freaked out’, meant she’d been spending time with Lexi Thompson. Lexi, the youngest of their ‘family’.
“I found a shelf at about thirty feet covered with sea urchins. They look fantastic. The fault runs through the area so there’s an abyss about forty feet wide and another shelf, a little smaller, but still packed as well. No one’s found the spot. It’s a black out, Blythe, uni spine to spine. I can harvest a good four thousand pounds and get out of there. I’ll only go back when no one’s around.”
Blythe couldn’t fail to hear the excitement in her voice. She shook her head. “I don’t like it, but I understand.” And that was the trouble—she did. Rikki was both brilliant and reclusive. She seemed to take her talents for granted. Blythe could ask her to program something on the computer and she’d write a program quickly that worked better than anything else Blythe had ever tried.
Everything about Rikki was a tragedy and Blythe often felt like holding her tight, but she knew better. Rikki was very closed off to human touch—to relationships—basically to anything that had to do with others. She had allowed each of the other five women into her world, but they could only come so far before she shut down. She was haunted by her past—by the fires that had killed her parents and burned down her foster homes. By the fire that had taken her fiancé, the only person Rikki had ever let herself love.
“You had another nightmare, didn’t you?” Blythe asked. “In case you’re wondering, I turned off the three others hoses around your house.
She didn’t ask how the water had gotten turned on. The entire family knew water and Rikki went hand and hand and strange things happened when Rikki had nightmares.
Rikki bit her lip. She tried a causal shrug to indicate nightmares were no big deal, but they both knew better. “Maybe. Yes. I still get them.”
“But you’re getting them a lot lately,” Blythe prodded gently. “Isn’t that four or five in the last few weeks?”
They both knew it was a lot more than that. Rikki blew out her breath. “That’s another reason I’m going out diving today. Blowing bubbles always helps.”
“You won’t take any chances,” Blythe ventured. “I could go with you, take a book or something and read on the boat.”
Rikki knew she was asking if there was a possibility she would get careless on purpose, that maybe she was still grieving, or blaming herself. She didn’t know the answer so she changed tactics. “I thought you were going to the wedding. Isn’t Elle Drake getting married today? You were looking forward to that.” Another reason why the ocean would be hers and hers alone.
Everyone was invited to the Drake wedding.
“If you won’t go to the wedding and you need to go to the sea, then I’ll be happy reading a book out there,” Blythe insisted.
Rikki blew her a kiss. “Only you would give up a wedding to go with me. You’d throw up the entire time we were out there. You get seasick, Blythe.”
“I’m trying ginger root,” Blythe said. “Lexi says there’s nothing like it.”
Lexi knew everything there was to know about plants and their uses. If Lexi said ginger root would help, then Rikki was certain it would, but Blythe was not
going to sacrifice a fun day just because she feared for Rikki’s safety. Rikki’s life was the sea. She couldn’t be far from it. She had to able to hear it at night, the soothing roll of the waves, the stormy pounding of the surf, the sounds of the seals barking at one another, the fog horns. It was all necessary in her life to keep her steady.
Most of all, it was the water itself. The moment she touched it, pushed her hands into it, she felt different. There was no explanation for it. She didn’t understand it, so how could she explain it to someone else that when she was in water, she was at peace, completely free in her own environment.
“Blythe, I’ll be fine. I’m looking forward to going down.”
“You’re spending too much time alone again,” Blythe said bluntly. “Come to the wedding. All of the others are going. Judith can find you something to wear if you’d like.”
Rikki had a tendency to go to Judith for advice on what to wear or how to look if she was going to anything where there would be a large group of people and Blythe obviously mentioned her on purpose in the hopes that Rikki would change her mind.
Rikki shook her head, trying not to show a physical reaction, when her entire body shuddered at the horror of the thought of the crowd. “I can’t do that. You know I can’t. I always say the wrong thing and get people upset.”
She had met Blythe in a group grief counseling session and somehow, Rikki still didn’t know how or why, she’d blurted out her fears of being a sociopath to the others. She never talked to anyone about herself or her past, but Blythe had a way making people feel comfortable. She was the most tolerant woman Rikki had ever known. Rikki wasn’t taking any chances of doing anything that might alienate her or any of her other sisters. And that meant staying away from the residents of Sea Haven.
“Rikki,” Blythe said, with her uncanny ability that made Rikki think she read minds. “There is nothing wrong with you. You’re a wonderful person and you don’t embarrass us.”
Rikki tried desperately not to squirm, wishing she was already at sea and as far from this conversation as possible. She adjusted her glasses to make certain she wasn’t staring inappropriately. Sheesh. There were so many freakin social rules, how did people remember them? Give her the ocean any day.
“And you don’t need to wear your glasses around me,” Blythe added gently. “The way you look at me doesn’t bother me at all.”
“You’re the exception, then, Blythe,” Rikki snapped and then bit down on her lip hard. It wasn’t Blythe’s fault that she was completely happy or completely sad, utterly angry or absolutely mellow. There was no in between on the emotional scale for her, which made it a little difficult—whether Blythe wanted to admit it or not—for her to spend time with other people. Besides, everyone annoyed the hell out of her.
“I’m different, Blythe. I’m comfortable being different, but others aren’t comfortable around me.” That was a fact Blythe couldn’t dispute. Rikki often refused to answer someone when they asked her a direct question if she didn’t feel it was their business. And anything personal wasn’t anyone’s
business but hers. She felt her lack of response was completely appropriate, but the individual asking the question usually didn’t.
“You hide yourself away from the world, and it isn’t good for you.”
“It’s how I cope,” Rikki said with a small shrug. “I love being here, with you and the others, I feel safe. And I feel safe when I’m in the water. Otherwise…” She shrugged again. “Don’t worry about me. I’m staying out of trouble.”
Blythe took a swallow of coffee and regarded her with brooding eyes. “You’re a genius, Rikki, you know that, don’t you? I’ve never met anyone like you, capable of doing the things you do. You can memorize a textbook in minutes.”
Rikki shook her head. “I don’t memorize. I just retain everything I read. I think that’s why I seriously lack social skills. I don’t have room for the niceties. And I’m not a genius, that’s Lexi. I’m just able to do a few weird things.”
“I think you should talk about the nightmares with someone, Rikki.”
The conversation was excruciating for her and had it been anyone but Blythe, Rikki wouldn’t have bothered making an effort. This conversation skirted just a little too close to the past—and that was a place she would never go. That door in her mind was firmly shut. She couldn’t afford to believe she was capable of the kind of thing others had accused her of—setting fires—killing her own parents—trying to hurt others. And Daniel…
She turned away from Blythe feeling almost as if she couldn’t breathe. “I’ve got to get moving.”
“Promise me you’ll be careful.”
Rikki nodded. It was easier than arguing. “You have fun at the wedding and say hello for me.” It was so much easier being social through the others. They were all well liked and had shops or offices in Sea Haven—all a big part of the community. Rikki was always on the outside fringe, and was accepted more because she was part of the Farm than for herself. The residents of Sea Haven had accepted the women of Rikki’s makeshift family when they’d moved here just a few short years earlier, all trying to recover from various losses.
She forced a smile because Blythe had been the one to give her a place to call home. “I really am fine.”
Blythe nodded and handed her the empty coffee cup. “You’d better be, Rikki. I would be lost if something happened to you. You’re important to me—to all of us.”
Rikki didn’t know how to respond. She was embarrassed and uncomfortable with real emotion and Blythe always managed to evoke real emotion, the heart-wrenching kind better left alone. Rikki felt too much when she let herself feel, and not enough when she didn’t. She pushed out of her chair and watched Blythe walk away, angry with herself for not asking Blythe why she was out running so early in the morning—why she couldn’t sleep. Instead, she knew she’d hack into Blythe’s computer and read her personal diary and then try to find a way to help her.
Rikki didn’t mind invading privacy if she thought she had good reason. The fact that she was inept at meaningful dialogue with those she cared about gave her all the reason in the world. Blythe, of all the women, was an enigma. Rikki was an observer and she noticed how Blythe brought peace to all of them, as if she took a little bit of their burdens onto herself.
Rikki sighed and threw the rest of her coffee out onto the ground. Sugar in coffee. What was up with that? She glanced up at the clear sky and tried to concentrate on that, to think of her sea, the great expanse of water, all blues and grays and greens. Soothing colors. Even when she was at her stormiest and unpredictable, the ocean brought her calm.
She went back into her house, leaving the screen door closed, but the back door wide open so she wouldn’t feel closed in. She polished the cupboards fast where Blythe had touched them leaving undetectable prints, washed the coffee mugs and carefully rinsed off the sink around the coffee pot.
She hummed slightly as she packed a lunch. She needed high calories, lots of protein and sugar. Peanut butter sandwiches, two with bananas, even though there was an old saying that bananas were bad luck, and a handful of peanut butter cups and two bags of Reese’s pieces would keep her going. Her job was aggressive and hard work, but she loved and reveled in it, especially the solitary aspects of being underneath the water in an entirely different environment—one where she thrived.
Extra water was essential and she readied a cold gallon while she prepared and ate a large breakfast—peanut butter over toast. She might not like sugar in her coffee but she wasn’t stupid enough to dive without taking in sufficient calories to sustain her body functions in the cold waters.
She ate, toast in hand—she didn’t actually use her dishes. Her sisters had given her the most beautiful set with seashells and starfish surrounding each plate. She carefully washed the entire set on Thursdays and her wonderful set of pots and pans on Fridays—but she always had them displayed so she could look at them while she ate her sandwich.
She’d washed and bleached her wet suit the night before and made certain that her gear was in repair. Rikki repaired all her own equipment religiously waiting for that one moment when all her senses would tell her there’d be a calm and she could go diving. Her gear was always ready and stowed at all times so the moment she knew she could make a dive, she was ready.
Her boat and truck were always kept in pristine condition. She allowed no one else to step on her boat except the women in her family—and that was rare. No one but Rikki touched the engine. Ever. Or her baby, the Honda driven atlas Copco air compressor. Important) She knew her life depended on good air. She used three filters to remove carbon monoxide which had killed two well known locals a few years earlier.
She knew the tides by heart thanks to the northern California Tidelog, her bible. Although she’d committed the book to memory, she read for fun daily, a compulsion she couldn’t stop. Today she had minimum tide ebb and flood with hopefully no current, optimum working conditions where she wanted to dive.
Despite Blythe’s concerns, Rikki really did consider safety paramount. Rikki stowed her wet suit and gear in the truck along with her spare
gear—divers—especially Rikki—generally kept a spare of every piece of her equipment on hand just to be safe on the boat in an air tight locked container which she checked periodically to make sure it was in working order. Moments later she was driving toward Port Albion Harbor, humming along to a Joley Drake CD. The rather famous Drake family lived in the small town of Sea Haven. The Drakes were friends with her sisters, particularly Blythe and Lexi, but Rikki had never actually talked to any of them—especially not Joley. She loved Joley’s voice and didn’t want to chance making social mistakes around her.
Strangely, she’d never been bothered by other’s opinions of her. Friendships were too difficult to manage. She had to work too hard to fit in, to find the right things to say, so it was easier just to be herself and not care what people thought of her. But someone she admired—like Joley—she was taking no chances. Better to just keep her distance entirely.
Rikki sang along as she drove down the highway, occasionally glancing at the ocean. The water shimmered like jewels, beckoning to her—offering the peace she so badly needed. She’d had a few months reprieve from her nightmares but now they were back with a vengeance, coming nearly every night. The pattern was familiar, an affliction she’d suffered many times over the years. The only thing she could do was weather the storm.
Fire had destroyed her family when she was thirteen. Definitely arson the firefighters had said. A year and six months later, a fire had destroyed the foster home she was staying in. No one had died, but the fire had been set.
The third fire had taken her second foster home on her sixteenth birthday. She had awakened, her heart pounding, unable to breathe, already choking on smoke and fear. She’d crawled on her hands and knees to the other rooms, waking the occupants, alerting them. Everyone had escaped, but the house and everything inside had been lost.
The authorities wouldn’t believe she hadn’t started any of the fires. They couldn’t prove it, but no one wanted her after that. No one trusted her and in truth she didn’t trust herself. How had the fires started? One of the many psychologists suggested she couldn’t remember doing it, and maybe that was the truth. She’d lived in a state run facility, apart from the others. Fire-starter, they’d called her, the death dealer. She’d endured the taunts and then she’d become violent, protecting herself with ruthless, brutal force when her tormenters escalated to physical abuse. She was labeled a troublemaker and she no longer cared.
The moment she turned eighteen she was gone. Running. And she hadn’t stopped until she’d met Daniel. He’d been a diver too.
Rikki turned her truck down the sloping drive leading to the harbor, inhaling the fragrance of the Eucalyptus trees lining the road. Tall and thick, the trees stood like a forest of sentinels, guarding the way. The road wound around and the Albion Fishing village came into view. She drove on through to the large, empty, dirt parking lot and then backed up to the wooden guard in front of the Gang way connecting to the dock.
As she unpacked her gear, the last remnant of her nightmare faded. Now, here, in the daylight beside the calming influence of the ocean, she could almost be grateful for the nightmares. They always heightened her awareness of safety on the farm and the recent spate reminded her it was time to check all the fire alarms, sprinklers and extinguishers on the farm. She could never risk growing complacent again.
Even if she was not the one who somehow started the fires, someone else had. It seemed clear to her that someone wanted her and everyone near her dead. She’d almost run from Blythe and the others in order to protect them, but she’d been so beaten down, so close to the end of her rope, she couldn’t have survived without them. And despite everything, Rikki wasn’t ready to die. Thankfully her newfound sisters had realized how important fire safety was to her and they had spent the extra money on everything she’d asked for.
Rikki walked along the dock until she came to her baby—the Sea Gypsy.
She didn’t buy clothes or furniture. Her home was stark, but this—this boat was her pride and joy. She loved the Radon, all twenty-four feet of her. Everything on her boat was in impeccable condition. No one touched her equipment but her. She even did her own welding, converting the design of the davit to make it easier to haul her nets on board.
The river was calm and the boat rocked gently against the bumpers, a soothing mixture of sounds, water lapping and birds calling back and forth. There was one lone camper trailer in the park and no one in sight. The harbor was nearly deserted. She went through all her checks and started the engine. Rikki untied the lines and cast off. A familiar eagerness raced through her veins as she pushed the Sea Gypsy
from her dock.
For Rikki, no feeling on earth matched the thrill of standing on the deck of her boat, the powerful engine, a 454 Mercruiser with Bravo 3 outdrive and two stainless steel propellers, rumbling under her feet and the river stretching out in front of her like a wide blue path. The wooden bridge, with metal spanning the river, stretched above her, sandbar and rocks to the sides, was her gateway to the ocean. The channel was narrow and impassable in low tide or heavy swells. With the wind on her face, she maneuvered the boat out of its slip, kept a low throttle as she moved along the channel. The sandbar to her right could present problems and she kept to the center as the Sea Gypsy swept around the curve to enter the actual sea.
Double-crested cormorants vied for space on the closest sea stack, a small island made of rock where the birds nested or rested. She sent them a smile as she judged her mistress. She never fully trusted the weather reports or tide books, she had to see for herself exactly what mood the ocean was in. Sometimes, in the protection of the harbor, the sea felt and looked calm, but the waters beyond the land mass could betray her angry mood. Today, the ocean was calm, the water smooth and glistening.
The Sea Gypsy
swept out into open water and Rikki relaxed completely. This was her world, the one place she was truly comfortable. Here, she knew the rules, the dangers, and understood them, in a way she could never understand social situations and human interactions. The sky overhead was blue and clear, the surface as smooth as the California coast ever managed to be, as the boat rushed over the water. She had a great engine, built for speed—a gift from her sisters and one she could never begin to thank them for.
She rushed passed caves, sea stacks and cliffs—from here the coast appeared a different world altogether. Pelicans, cormorants and osprey shared the skies with sea gulls, sometimes diving deep, their bodies sleek and stream-lined as they plummeted into the depths after fish. Little heads popped up here and there as a seal surfaced close to shore, hunting for a meal. Two seals played together somersaulting over and over in the water.
Spray burst up the cliffs in a display of power as the sea met land. She lifted her face to the salt air, smiling at the touch of water on her face. She began to sing, one hand weaving a dancing pattern in the air as she maneuvered the boat with the other. It was almost a compulsion, each time she found herself alone where no one could see or hear her. An invitation. A language of love. The notes skipped over the surface to the side of her boat as she rushed over the water.
Tiny columns began to form, sparkling tubes that danced over the surface like mini cyclones. The sun gleamed through them, lending them colors as they twisted and turned gracefully. Some rose high, leaping above the boat in thin rainbows to form an archway. Laughing, she shot through it, the wind and water on her face and ruffling her hair like fingers.
She played with the water, out there in the safest place she knew, the shore in the distance and the water leaping all around her boat, drawn to her in some mysterious way she didn’t understand, coming when she beckoned, saving her life numerous times, making her feel at peace when everything and everyone she loved had been taken from her. Under her direction the water plasticized, forming shapes. The joy bursting through her there on the water where she was so alive, could never be duplicated on shore where, for her, there was only vulnerability and emptiness.
She anchored the Sea Gypsy
just off the shelf, but gave herself plenty of scope just in case a large wave did come at her out of nowhere. She checked her equipment a final time. Eagerness rose inside her unmarred by any hint of fear. She loved to be in the water. Being alone was an added bonus. She didn’t have to try to adhere to conventional social customs. She didn’t have to worry about hurting someone’s feelings, embarrassing her chosen family or having people make fun of her.
Out here, in the water, she could be herself and that was enough. Out here she couldn’t hear the screams of the dead, feel the scorching heat of a blazing fire, or see suspicion on the faces around her.
After rubbing herself down with baby shampoo, she warmed her suit by pouring hot water from the engine in it before putting it on. Once again, she checked her air compressor—her lifeline. She’d spent a great deal of money on the Honda 5.5 horsepower engine and her Atlas Copco 2 stage air compressor with the three extremely expensive filters, two particulate filters with a carbon filter on top. Divers had died of carbon monoxide poisoning and she wasn’t about to go that way. She had a non-locking Hanson quick release on her end of the main hose so she could detach quickly if necessary. She carried a 30 cubic feet—small bail-out—her back-up scuba tank on her back. Some of the divers dove without one, but since she usually dove alone she wanted the extra protection. Rikki didn’t care to be bent by an emergency assent. She wanted to always be able to come up at the proper speed should anything happen such as a hose getting cut by the boater who did not see her dive flag.
Donning her weight belt and then bailout, she put on the most important instrument, her computer to keep track of her time so there was no chance of staying down too long. She had a compass to know where she was and where she wanted to go. Grabbing her urchin equipment, she slipped into the water, taking four five hundred pound capacity nets with her.
The massive plunge felt like leaving earth and going in to space, a monumental experience that always awed her. The cool liquid closed around her like a welcome embrace, bringing with it a sense of peace. Everything inside of her stilled, made sense. Righted. There was no way to explain the strange sensations others obviously didn’t feel when being touched. Sometimes fabrics were painful, and noises made her crazy, but here, in this silent world of beauty, she felt right, her chaotic mind calm.
As she descended, fish circled her curiously and a lone seal zipped past her. Seals moved so fast in the water, like small rockets. Normally, they would linger, but today apart from a few scattered fish, the sea seemed empty. For the first time, a shiver slid down her back and she looked around her at the deserted spot. Where had all the fish gone?
The San Andreas fault line was treacherous, a good nine hundred feet deep or more, a long black abyss stretching along the ocean floor. At around thirty feet deep, a high shelf jutted outward, the extensive jagged line of rock covered in sea urchins. The drop off was another good thirty feet across where a shorter shelf held an abundance of sea life as well.
Rikki touched down at the thirty foot shelf and immediately began to work. Her rake scraped over the urchin-crusted rocks along the shelf wall, the noise reverberating through the water for the sea creatures to hear. She worked fast, knowing that below her, sharks could hunt her, where normally, when she worked on the floor, she wasn’t in as much danger.
The feeling of dread increased with each stroke of her rake.. She found herself stopping every few minutes to look around her. She studied the abyss. Could a shark be prowling there in the shadows? Her heart rate increased, but she forced herself to stay calm while she went back to work, determined to get it over with. The sea urchins were plentiful and large, the harvest amazing.
She filled her first net in a matter of twenty minutes and as the weight increased, she filled the float with air to compensate. In another twenty minutes she had a second bag filled. Both nets floated just to one side of her while she began working to fill the third net. Because she was working at thirty feet, she knew she had plenty of bottom time to fill all four five hundred pound nets, but she was getting tired.
She hooked the bags to her hose, and stayed on the bottom while she let the bags go to the surface, holding the hose to slow the urchins assent and so the air didn’t leave the float once it reached the surface. She climbed her hose a foot a second until she hit ten feet where she stayed for five minutes to be good and safe before completing her assent.
Working in the water was exhausting, with the continual flow of the waves. The wash could push forward and back against a diver and exposed as she was, having to be careful not to fall into the abyss, harvesting the urchins had made her arms feel like lead. At the surface she hooked both bag lines to the floating ball and climbed onboard to rest and eat two more peanut butter sandwiches and a handful of peanut butter cups, needing the calories.
The strange dread that had been building in her seemed to have settled in the pit of her stomach. She sat on the lid of the urchin hold and ate her sandwich, but it tasted like cardboard. She glanced at the sky. It was clear. Little wind. And the sea itself was calm, yet she felt threatened in some vague way she couldn’t quite comprehend. As she sat on her boat, she twisted around, looking for danger. It was silly, really, the feeling of impending doom. The day was beautiful, the sea calm and the sky held no real clouds.
She hesitated before she donned her equipment again. She could pull up another two nets filled with sea urchins, bringing her total to four thousand pounds, enabling her to pay a good amount of money toward the farm. She was being silly. This part of the ocean had always given her a bad feeling. Resolutely, Rikki put on her weight belt and hooked her hose to her belt before reaching for her tank.
The air around her suddenly changed, charging, pressure pushing on her chest. She turned, still reaching for her tank when she felt the tremendous swell building beneath her. Rikki turned her head and her breath caught in her throat. Her heart slammed against her chest as she stared at the solid wall of water rising up out of the sea like a monstrous tsunami, a wave beyond anything she’d ever witnessed.