Chapter 1- “The Calm Before”

Geeze it’s hot.  

Tara dug her feet deeper into the sand finding the cool underneath.  The sun had moved and she could feel the newly exposed skin burning uncomfortably.  She pulled her legs back into the shade of her umbrella and squinted out through her sunglasses at the water.  Cool called to her.

That sand is gonna be friggin hot.  

She huffed and assessed the pros and cons.  Con one… the sand was friggin hot.  Pro one… so was she.  Con two… that sand.  Pro two…. her relocation might inspire the attention of the cute guy.  She loved this new suit and matching cover-up and admired herself through her shades.  Athletic bikini.  One of the best inventions ever.  She could play volleyball and and do split rockets in this baby.

She reached for her water and the solid block of ice it had been a few hours ago had surpassed lukewarm and was nudging gross.  She drank some anyway and looked over her glasses at the oh-my-God-so-cute guy at eight o’clock.  The water.  The sand.

“What a delicious day…” Her mom purred next to her, stretching like a well fed cat.   Alana hummed a tuneless song as she worked on a castle, for her purple haired mermaid, dribbling wet sand onto melting towers. Mom, rolled over, assessing her work, her eyes crinkling at the corners, and said, “The parapet is looking good.  Are you going to dig a moat around it?”    Alana looked at Mom, and paused her song, “Moat?”

Mom propped onto her elbows.  “A sort of defense, to protect a castle. You dig a trench around it and fill it with water… sometimes they would put scary animals like crocodiles in it to keep the bad guys away.”

Alanas blue eyes were wide for two seconds before they narrowed, “I knew that.”

“Water Dragons…”  Mom growled and clawed her hands with a sneer, but Alana was already humming again as she started scooping a circle around her Dali-esque structure.  Lucy pawed at the sand beside her.

MOM’s the water dragon.  

Tara yawned and rolled her head to stretch her aching muscles.  Coach Killer they should call her.  She must be trying to kill her.   All those laps of doubles, unders, butterfly, V-sits… Geeze,… was she psycho?    Her arms were killing her.  In between her ribs were killing her.  Who even knew there were muscles there?

She bowed her arms forward into a graceful O, curled her toes into a point and stretched forward, grabbing ahold of them, groaning.  She flexed her feet, and slipped her oily fingers between her toes and pulled forward more, her hamstrings protesting, her hair falling into a tent  around her face, shielding her from the sun suddenly shining hotly on the back of her head.  She rested her cheek on her shins and was face to face with Mom.  Tara groaned again.

“Breathe out…”  Mom crooned.  Tara groaned again with a dramatic flair, sinking further into the stretch.

“Gooooood….” Mom’s eyes crinkled again.

Tara sighed.  It helped.  She hated that it helped.

“I’m on vacation… can I just…”

“I’m shutting up…”

Mom watched Alana’s mermaid dig the moat.

“So are you going to the dance with Ahmed?”

Here it comes.  “I don’t know.”

“What do you think of him?”

Maybe Mom would think her cheeks were just sunburned.

“I don’t know…” she tossed back, casually.

Mom picked up her book and pretended to look at it.   Rilke. A flutter of wings and a squawk.  A couple of seagulls were looking with interest at the PBJ crusts by Tara’s chair.

“Well he’s certainly been attentive on the phone.  Where’s he from?”

Tara felt like she was back in school… the kids making fun of his name, and worse.  It wasn’t fair.

“Where all the wars are…”

Mom’s brow furrowed.  “Well that could be a bunch of places.  You don’t know?”

“I don’t know…” Tara heaved a sigh, like only a teenager can. Mom turned, her gaze landing on the tip of Emily’s long braid being pulled by the waves curling around her buried wrists, and wondered that her tomboyish child hadn’t insist that she cut it off yet.  She was glad of the girlieness it lent her.  The rash guard she wore, she understood, but she couldn’t understand her insistence on wearing the long boyish swim trunks as the aquatic equivalent of the rest of Emily’s closet.  T-shirts and baggy sweatpants. The few dresses that had been foisted upon her slammed nicely to the rear, their pretty colors only seeing the light of day when pulled out on special occasions, and only with a lot of protest and pouting.  Em’s fingers wriggled into the pocketed mounds of sand as the water pulled back again.  We are oceans away from each other… Oceans away…battles with my beloved’s girls… battles…war… Mom turned her attention back to her eldest and asked,

“What does his father do again?”

Tara slapped her magazine shut and leveled her mom with a look over her sunglasses. “MAAAAHHHMMM…”

“I’m stopping, I’m stopping already…” and she raised her hands in resignation and let her thoughts fall on the answers of the water.

Were there any?  This was something she did share with her girls.  This love of water.  She had taught them to respect it.  People who ended up in her waters heard similar speeches.  From the disabled, to Olympian, she parceled out her lessons in levels of droplets to deluges.

“Water has so many powers.  Most of our planet, and most of our bodies. are water … It is the source of life.  It has the power to refresh, the power to soothe an anxious mind, the power to heal.”

I need healing. 

Mom breathed it in.  Tara groaned.

“Yawn… it’ll oxygenate your blood.”  Mom suggested.

“I don’t have to yawn.”

Mom looked mischievous “just talking about it… think about it… Yaaaaawwwn…. say the word…”

“Mom…”

“Yawn…”  And sure enough, Mom’s green eyes started to water, the muscles of her throat tightened, “Yaaaaaaaawwn…”  and she did.

“Just because you yawn doesn’t mean that I’m going to Mom.”

Mom yawned again with a “Maaaaaaaawwwwmm…” and wiped the water from her eyes.

Tara rolled hers. “Maaaaawwmm!” but she felt the betrayal of her soft pallette dropping and knew.  She tried to keep her mouth shut but the tighteneing muscles of her own face finally won.

$#*+ she’s always friggin’ right!  as she sighed a huge relaxing yawn… right as the cute guy looked over.

Alana’s moat had grown exponentially thanks to Lucy, who was now butt up, sand flying, tail wagging, and pivoting in a circle. AS Tara’s lips were stretched,  jaw dropped, her tonsils exposed… the slow motion moment of Lucy’s ass aimed a maelstrom of sand under the umbrellas.

“LUCY!”  Mom screamed as Tara gagged and tried to shield herself with her magazine. A shower of sand fell onto their blonde heads and Mom charged out from under the umbrella.  Lucy’s butt waved at them and continued it’s barrage.  Tara spat and grabbed for her water bottle, and rinsed her mouth out, water sloshing everywhere.  Alana screeched as Mom caught Lucy’s collar, stopping to look, ears perked, over her shoulder before being distracted by a seagull, her squirrels of the sea.

Emily had never laughed so hard in her life. Her eyes glowed, and her diaphragm bounced a note of joy in an expanding radius that made everyone turn to watch.

Including cute boy.

Tara coughed, furious.  “Shut up Em, it’s not funny!”  Emily added to the offense with the addition of a finger pointing at the gagging Tara as she guffawed.  As if there wasn’t enough obnoxiousness to her braying laugh… Such a brat.   Tara was tempted to offer her a different finger, but was too busy gagging.

At this, Emily decided to add a bit of her own flair to the developing scene by grabbing her belly, doubling over and amping up the laughter to villainous hilarity.  Lucy’s butt pivoted in its oblivious arc, sending a shower of sand down on Emily, as her head tossed back into a diabolical howl.  Everyone laughed, except for Emily, who splashed her face with water and spat.   Tara wiped at her sticky lipgloss and shot a quick look to dreamy guy and caught a glimpse of that blinding smile, turning away from her direction and back to his buddy.  He gestured towards them, said something and they both laughed.  Tara turned her back to them mortified and took the bottle of water Mom was pressing into her hands.

Moms’ cell phone rang, “It’s Daddy.”  She put him on speakerphone.

“Hi Love.”

Instant chaos.

Dads voice blared over the screaming of an infant and an apparently furious yelling woman in the background as Tara and Emily recovered.

“Honey, I know we’re trying to be eco-friendly with the diaper thing, but I can’t do a darn thing with the cloth things, and… it’s just a mess, your sister is screaming on the phone with a client…and he’s crying… the baby is crying, I mean…not the client.  Although I certainly would be… Oh no… NO!  JASON… YOU DIDN’T.  Can you get up… Oh gross… geeze… Jason man, you’re killing me…”

Mom made a face as she heard him gag.

“Please come up to the house… Jason, dude… what did you do?”

Click.  Tone.  The four of them stared at the phone.

Emily splashed some sand from her eye.  “Dad got peed on again didn’t he?”

Tara and Mom looked at each other, suspecting worse.

Tara and Alana started giggling.  Mom got up from her towel, shaking her head and did that giggle that reminded Tara of her best friend, Grace.  Mom started packing the beach bag  “Ok girls…”

There was a cacophony of “NOOOOOOO” and  “Just a little longer…”  and “Pleeeeeease Mommy”’s.

Alana said, “Can’t Tara watch us?”

Even Emily, “Yeah, Tara can watch us.”

Tara sat up, suddenly all help and responsibility.  “I’ll totally watch them Mom.  Please?”

Mom arched an eyebrow like only mom’s can do, she could do that one eybrow Spock thing that Tara had inherited, and looked over the top of her sunglasses at Tara.

“You’re in charge.”

There was a general “Whoo Hoo!” and Lucy wagged harder as Mom started giving instructions.

“Em… you listen to your sister, and don’t swim out too far.  Tara, do not let them go out too far… and everyone needs, all of you need more sunscreen. Put more on Alana too, even though it’s gloppy.”  she tweaked her nose.  Alana’s lip stuck out a quarter inch.

“I’ll be back in half an hour.”  She kissed the pouting architect “I’ll be right back, Boo…”

Alana turned, “Moat, moat, moat… ”  Her purple haired mermaid growled at the imagined nightmare dripping before her.  Moms eyes did the crinckly thing.

With a “Lucy, stay… watch my girls.  I’ll be right back.”  she padded across the sand to the little beach house to her… something soaked men.

Tara applied gloppy white snot to Alana, wondering at the change in her little body.

She’s getting so big…

“Listen to Tara!”  Over her shoulder, hiking the dunes.

“I got it Mom!”  Tara responsibly schmeared Alana, and thought for a fraction of a second, that her mom really was as pretty as everyone said she was.  You wouldn’t see her face with the sun behind her, but she looked strong.  She really was strong…

Alana squished out of her hands.  Mom walked up the boardwalk.

“Emily come put on some sunscreen.”

Emily muttered. “You’re not the boss of me.”

“Mom said I was in charge…”

“You’re not the boss of me.”

“Fine.  Burn.”  Their eyes did.   “See if I care.”

Tara tossed the sunscreen aside and returned to magazine advice about boys, fuming, and resisting the urge to look at the cute one so as to perpetuate the cool thing… well not so cool after all the gagging and the drama, but there had been a moment of cool thing going on. She wasn’t about to go down to the water now.

Emily.  So annoying.  

She could look forward to laughing at her sister as she peeled and recoiled from the aloe green snot Mom would slop all over her.

Let her peel.  

Alana’s mermaid dove into the empty moat with a  “sploosh… ssshhhhh… glooooooopy monsters…” A bathing suited Barbie was added to the moat as Alana growled again.  “Arrrrrrrg” as Barbie screamed and went flying cresting over Alana’s head, landing on her feet, her head cocked curiously towards the water.

Emily was next to notice the cresting fins of dolphins off the coast.   Her jaw dropped.  She gasped as one leapt high above the water, and called as if he were speaking just to her, squeaking

“I heard your laugh! What was so funny?”  

And Emily heard him.  “This is mine…” she thought.

She wanted to have an experience that was hers and only hers.  She cast a quick look over her shoulder to her preoccupied sisters, Tara was sucked into her stupid magazine and she kept looking at the stupid boys when a volleyball was produced and tossed from friend to cute guy, to friend to cute guy to friend…  Tara was pretending not to watch and trying to get their attention at the same time.  Weird.  Alana was geeking with her Barbies.  She was so cute.

“What was so funny?”  the dolphin laughed.

Emily swam out farther… it’ll be like Dolphin Tale.

Lucy had been eyeing a sea gull… Mom called them sea squirrels…

Up… that was a good movie… the talking dog was spot on.  “Squirrel!”

Lucy started to whimper, and move towards the waves anxiously, Tara told her to hush without looking away from the tan muscles and floppy hair… the volleyball game had her undivided attention.  As the boys began to chuck it at each others heads, catching it with some impressive athletics and a lot of gleaming fun teeth, Lucy continued to whimper and bark towards the water.

Alana, who had found her moat was lacking a key element, tucked her mermaid in the sand, and to took her bucket to the edge of the water to remedy the situation… her steps slowing when she too, heard the call of the dolphins and saw her sister swimming out to them.

What were you laughing at? 

“Loooook” she cooed inaudibly, scurrying across the sand, her index finger leading her, pointing to them for Tara, whose fingers twirled mindlessly in her hair.

Emily had stampeded through the breakers, but slowed as she neared the dolphins, laughing, and glowing.  Alana padded into the saltiness to catch up with her.  Emily was suddenly surrounded with them, and her shoulders eased as one nuzzled under her armpit and laughed with her.   Magic.

Alana pointed “Look Tawa…”

The water sang.

Cute guy’s friend feigned a hands to  face “Oops so sorry, can’t believe I did that”  apology as the ball rolled past cute guy to Tara.  Tara palmed it like a water-polo ball and tossed it back to cute guy that was…

O.M.G…. trotting over in slow motion.  

her sunglasses lowered, but not towards Alana, was more interested in the dolphins laughing with her sister.  She waded in, turning her jumping heart to the dolphins.

We will be friends…won’t we? she thought to the dolphins…and they heard her, and one turned to meet her with a

Yes...   and she believed them.

“Whoa!  That’s quite an arm… what do you play?”

“Kinda.  I’m not very good though…”

His blue eyes saw her.  “You look like you could handle it pretty well… what are you a dancer or something?”

“I can handle things…”  Some of the flirtiness that she had intended rang bitter.  She’d been handling four hour practices, six days a week, in all weather, for years now.  She’d been handling her younger sisters for years, and now the baby brother. She’d changed diapers, coached the novice girls, and been a good student.  MOM… that was a whole other thing.   She could handle things.

“So are you?” he persisted.

“Kinda.”  This conversation had a tendency to go weird sometimes.  Respect or ridicule… she’d received both on this subject.

To tell or not to tell… that is the question…

“Mysterious… okaaaayyy… am I supposed to guess?”

Why not?

“I’m a synchronized swimmer.”

“Bullshit…”

“Seriously.”

“Like that stuff where you go upside down in the water with your legs all like crazy?” He flailed his arms in an attempt to demonstrate.

Tara nodded.

 

“…and you have to wear those things on your nose?” he pinched his nose and made a face.

“Yup.”  Here it comes. Which will it be?  

“Man that looks so hard.  How do you hold your breath that long?”  He didn’t wait for an answer because he humphed a laugh and perked his eyes to her.  “Hey have you ever seen…”

She anticipated the Martin Short and Christopher Guest imitations would commence momentarily. The infamous SNL skit…

The first time she had seen it, she had been a little… ok not a little a lot… ok completely self righteously defensive.  Synchronized swimming was a real sport.  Anyone who has ever even attempted a ballet leg could attest to that.  And here these guys were making it look ridiculous.  It had taken her a couple of years to develop a sense of humor about it.

Synchro.  It was kinda silly… ok really friggin funny, sometimes.  Mom had had to have some serious talks with overzealous parents to remind them, “It’s just synchronized swimming… we wear jello in our hair, point our toes, and stick ‘em out of the water.  Let them enjoy it!”   Martin Short and those guys were so genius so nailed it.

Cute guy delivered the prophesied imitation.  “I’m not a strong swimmer…”

Tara corrected him as Christopher Guest, “No, no, no, you’re not angry  you’re just pointing at him, ‘Hey you… I know you… I know you…”  Cute guy joined in. They were pointing at each other, and laughing, when he paused, and the moment slowed to a breathless heartbeat as he said, “I know you…”

It was like in Avatar… that “I see you” but “see” was seeing on a deeper, more into your soul you kind of thing.  Tara’s stomach did a fluttery thing.

The cute friend trotted over.

“Dude… stop bogarting the ball… who’s this?”

“I don’t know… who, pray tell, is this?” blue eyes found green again.  “Tara.” Her hand went out.  He took it.  “Tara… cool.”  He didn’t release her hand, but started pulling her towards the nets.  “Come play… c’mon..”

“I really shouldn’t.”  she cast a longing look up to the beach house for any sign of reprieve.  No Mom.

Come on…” he tossed his hair out of his eyes, “come play with us… let’s see what you got.”  Cheesy.  Blue met green, her heart beat stupidly anyway.

“I’ve got to watch my stupid sisters.”  She looked back to Alana and she wasn’t there.  “My sisters…” her eyes darted towards the water, finally lifting to the horror of  her sisters surrounded by fins.

“Oh my God…

 Like lightning, she was on her feet, pounding the sand, oblivious to the heat, and screamed.  “ALANA!  EM!  Get back in here right NOW!”

“Chillax already!  They’re friendly!”  Emily shouted back.

“They’re wild!  This isn’t Sea World!” she yelled splashing in, feeling for the right place to dive.

“Come see, Taywa!” Alana encouraged her.

They did seem friendly, and her sisters were glowing. The dolphins were like one of the family tickle fights.  But dolphins could defend against sharks.  They could do damage.  They were wild.  They were all over her sisters.  And she was in charge.

“Come ON!  You guys shouldn’t be out so far!  they can be… Get over here Em!”

“Make me!” Emily spit water at her sister as another dolphin cozied under her arm.

I’ll make her.  

A wave presented itself and Tara dove into the cooling warm water.  The rush of water was peppered with the pops and squeals of the dolphins, and was that a giggle from Alana?  They sounded so alike.  She surfaced, and found them closer, but moving quickly out.

This isn’t a game of tag!  

Tara heard them laughing. She crawled head up, towards them, her eyes squinting as the light bounced on the water.  She could pick out Alana’s little toes pointing out of the water, and going crookedly down in a split spin, and the flash of her smile when she surfaced so, so, so scarily far away.

She’s dancing with them… they’re moving so fast…

She pulled harder, but the dolphins were faster than Tara was.  Then she saw it… a river-like shimmer just to the right of them.  They were heading right towards it.

It felt like she still hand sand inner throat.  A wave splashed into her mouth.  “EM!  Look over there!  EMILYYYYYYyyyy!”

Emily saw her sister approaching and wished that Tara would just shut up.  The sun was too perfect.  The dolphins were too perfect.  Emily spun Alana around in a move she remembered from the Stronger routine and they laughed as they shimmied down.

Tara can’t take this away.

She couldn’t keep up anyway.  The dolphins were so powerful, and so friendly.  Surely they would bring them back.  Emily deliberately turned her back as Tara’s head disappeared behind a wave.  The river shimmer was sparkling as if electricity was coursing through it.  Tara had never seen anything like it.  The light… it was everywhere…

This was more than just sun.

Something is really weird here… this is weird.  

Emily’s head reappeared just a few feet from the current.  Alana tackled her with a squeal and they both went under, toes pointed.  They were five feet from the current.

But it was like Tara was swimming through glue.  She couldn’t get to them.  The sky was an explosion of light and color.  Her legs eggbeatered underneath her as she put her hands to her mouth.  “EM look OUT!” but they were too far, the ocean too loud, their ears too full of water, and hearts too full of rebellion and joy to hear her.  Tara took a look towards shore, and saw the two guys watching, while Lucy barked in the surf in front them.  Cute guy had started to wade out.

“GET MY MOM!!!”  She yelled and pointed towards the house up the dune.

She felt the water go colder and got smacked in the face with another wave.  She wiped her eyes.  Cute guy had his hand to his ear and hollered inaudibly shaking his head.  She yelled again, and the guys turned to each other to interpret as Tara turned back to her sisters.  They were inches away from whatever that was…  Her eyes must be playing tricks on her now because there were suddenly spots of lights illuminating the air and below the surface of the water in that current.  Tara screamed to them.

“Remember what Mom said about the RIPTIDE!”

But it was too late.  Emily giggled and splashed away from an advancing Alana who jumped into her arms.  Dolphins leapt around them, their bodies arching and glittering in the magic of water when around them when it caught them, and the ride suddenly turned scary.

“ALANAAAAAAAAAaaaa!!! EM!!!”  Tara started swimming faster than she ever had in her life.  Their heads were getting smaller and smaller as they were sucked out.  She looked to the beach again, and cute guy was struggling past the breakers.   His friend started running up the dune towards her house.   Lucy continued to bark, spinning circles the submerged sand as her focus shifted between the girls and the house, the waves buffeting her back.

Alana and Em were almost completely out of sight.  Tara put her face in the water and pulled harder towards them, breathing on threes, diving under waves, and listening for her sisters.  But there was nothing but the water.  The whole pod was gone.  Her brain started rapid firing through the things Mom had said about riptides, how to survive them, and prayed that her sisters had paid attention too. She was getting closer to it.  If Mom didn’t come to the beach in the next couple of minutes, that she was going to be swept into the only solution she could think of to catch them.  She herself was one of the strongest swimmers she knew.  She could bring them back.  She would bring them back.

I will bring them back.

The warm water cooled a couple of degrees on her skin, and she felt a tug on the flimsy cover-up she was still wearing.  It was close.  She looked to the beach-house and called for Mom one more time, but her voice was lost in the musical roll of the waves.  Mom wasn’t there.  All hope of rescue from another source, were gone.

I will bring them back.  OMG.  Oh My God.  Oh God.  What do I do? What should I do? 

Tara had seen the miracle of what lifeguards can do when they saved Alana during that class… that class when she lost her kickboard and ended up being used as one by another little girl in the glass.  She’d gone down.  Little Alana… down on the bottom… the seconds… slow motion.

So scary… thought we lost her…  I’ve lost her… and Em… No… No… No…

Amid the clamor, arose the distant memory of a show she’d seen on one of those TV survival things her dad watched on National Geographic or Discovery or whatever.  Some scientist had said something about going with the current, don’t try to swim to the land, try to go parallel to it… but this one was going straight out.  She wished Dad was here with her now.  Her throat tightened more.  But he wasn’t here. And her sisters were somewhere ahead of her, or God forbid, somewhere below.

No time for emotion.

The current was faster than she ever could be.  It was calling to her. She held her breath and dove in, muscles long and streamlined, and felt the water chill churning around her, felt it’s humming through her veins, and let go.  Her right arm pushed the water under her in one last powerful thrust, and her flesh tingled with a kind of electricity that was more than goosebumps.  Her ears filled with a humming, haunting, otherworldly sound, and she was suddenly surrounded by the lights dancing in the air and water around her.

What is this?  These lights?  Alana, Em…God help me find them.  

Her head cranked hard to the right, her nostrils filled with salt water, rushed down the back of her throat, and WHOOSH…

She was gone.