SO MANY THINGS happen when people can’t sleep.
It was always hot in Brisbane, but that night was pouty, unsettling. After getting Natalie and her family comfortable in their rooms at the inn, Frank couldn’t rest. His leg plagued him. The toll of oppressive weather on that kind of old injury was no old farmer’s myth. He rambled around, briefly joining Natalie’s brother Brian in the bar on the beach, then painfully mounting the switchbacked decks of wooden stairs that led to a kind of viewing platform just adjacent to the car park, looking out over Bribie Island Beach. Up there, he hoped the signal would be good enough to call home, his home, if home is the place you started. For Frank, that would always be a ramshackle horse farm in south-central Wisconsin—now probably more ramshackle than when he last saw it, three years before. As the brrrrr on the other end began, his pulse quickened. He looked up at the sky and thought of all the calls darting through the sea of radio waves tonight, swift as swallows—dutiful, hopeful, wistful, sad.
“Frank?” His sister, Eden, answered, her voice holiday-bright and holiday-brittle, suddenly next to him across nine thousand miles. He was about to ask her to summon his mother to the phone so they could all talk together when he saw it. Without thinking, and without another word to Edie, he let his phone slip into his jeans pocket.
He could not figure out what it was.
He would never remember it as a wave.
Wave was too mere a word.
Although there were hundreds of photos and pieces of film, some shot just at the moment, near this very spot, Frank could look at these and remain curiously unmoved. But should he close his eyes and let himself return, the sick sweats would sweep down his breastbone, a sluice of molten ice. He would hear again the single dog’s one mournful howl, and feel the heavy apprehension, something like that moment from his days as a uniform cop when a routine traffic stop went completely to shit and a fist came flying in from nowhere, but monumentally worse. So much worse that it routed even imagination. Many years later, Frank would think, this was his first sight of the thing that would sweep away the center of his life in the minutes after midnight, and, by the time the sun rose, send surging into his arms the seed of his life to come.
Just like that. Like some mythical deity with blind eyes that took and gave unquestioned.
He saw the wave as a gleaming dam, built of stainless steel, standing upright in the misty moonlight, fifty feet tall and extending for half a mile in either direction. Then, as it collapsed in place, it was water, surging lustily forward and drowning every building on the beach, including the Murry Sand Castle Inn, where Frank’s pregnant wife and her entire extended family lay asleep. For one breath, Frank saw the inn, its porch strung with merry lanterns, red and gold and green, and in the next breath, he saw everything disappear, every light go out, faster than it was possible to think the words that could describe it.
He shouted, “No!” and stumbled forward to make his way down the high tiers of wooden stairs he had only just ascended.
Hoarse, in the distance, another voice called, “No!” over a cascade of sound—the brittle pop of breaking glass, screams peppering the air like gunshot, and the throaty insistence of the water.
Even as Frank turned, the mud-colored tide was boiling up the stairs and leaping the boardwalk barricade. He plunged forward, trying to wade against it, to find the riser of the wooden steps, but there was nothing; his foot bounced against water; he was soaked to the thigh. Pulling himself up along the top rail of the fence, for he would certainly be able to see something of the inn from there, or at least hear something, he shouted, “Natalie!” There were no voices. No lights except the milky smear from the hotels and office towers far in the distance to his left, like a frill of fallen stars. No sound except the insistent gossip of the water, and he was wet now to his waist. Grateful that he was still at least relatively young and passably fit, Frank hauled himself over the fence. He skip-sprinted across the car park, to their little Morris Mini-Minor. Water was already frothing around the tires. Frank pulled open the door, throwing himself into the seat, fumbling for his keys, quickly gaining the highway.
He stopped again and got out.
He heard a man’s voice cry, “Help! Who’s there . . . ?” and then again the swallowing silence. Floodwater rocked at the verge of the road; now how many feet above sea level? Of the two of them, Natalie was, pound for pound, by far the stronger, fitter, even tougher. Of the two of them, she was also the more intrepid, the more likely to have found some way to outsmart and elude this cliff of tides. They would find each other, and he did her no service by stalling here, forsaking his own life for no purpose. Natalie would have hated him for that. He floored it, racing inland. Miles sloughed away and he felt rather than saw the dark shapes of other cars congealing around him.
At last, there was nowhere to move, and all the cars had to stop and Frank got out and walked.
Others walked, too.
An old man struggled under the weight of a gray-lipped girl. She was perhaps ten or eleven years old and her sweet, lifeless face had closed in a smile, her nose and eyes pouring saltwater tears. Frank saw a young woman wearing just one shoe. She clutched a bundle of wet clothes, among them a child’s small jersey embroidered with cross-stitched Santas. A man Frank’s own age sat sobbing near a great blooming evergreen frangipani. Frank avoided their eyes. He thought he might be able to get to a place where he could think, but he only walked farther. He met people hiking toward him, or saw them sitting in their cars, or standing still by the roadside, their hands like the pendulums of broken clocks. After some time, he came upon a large group gathered around a car whose young driver had removed his outsized speakers from the dash. A basso radio voice intoned, “Now you will hear that the tsunami happened because of climate change, friends. You will hear that it struck our coast because of a tropical storm deep in the Pacific. You will hear that this was a random event. But do you believe that? How can any man believe that it was coincidence that water swept into the Sodom of Brisbane on this very hallowed night? Intelligent people will say that we have failed to take care of our earth. But the Lord God Almighty does not care about the climate. He cares about the climate of our souls! As it says in Matthew, ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.’ And so it has come . . .”
Frank walked around a curve in the road, and the preacher’s voice faded to a series of thumps, like the bass notes of a song from a car passing the open window of Frank’s childhood bedroom on the farm. A pale vein of light lolled on the horizon.
It would soon be dawn, on Christmas morning.
Two If by Sea
Just hours after his wife and her entire family perish in the Christmas Eve tsunami, former police officer Frank Mercy pulls a little boy from a submerged car. Not quite knowing why, Frank doesn’t turn Ian over to the Red Cross. Instead he makes up a story about where the boy came from and takes him home, where Frank realizes that Ian has an otherworldly gift—an extraordinary ability to transform lives beyond anything he’d ever imagined. Awed and confused, Frank confesses Ian’s secret to Claudia, a beautiful champion rider who is training for the Olympics. They join together to fight the sinister forces gathering to take Ian back. In a final confrontation, Frank and Claudia will risk everything—their love, their family, their very lives—to save this boy they now love as their own son.
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Reading Group Guide
A day after losing his wife and unborn child in a tsunami in Australia, American ex-pat Frank Mercy rescues a young boy from the floodwaters. Frank unaccountably decides to return to his family’s horse farm in Wisconsin with the boy.
Frank quickly begins to suspect that the boy—who he’s named Ian—has an extraordinary gift, but Ian has been so traumatized that he is mute. As Frank learns to be a parent to this strange child, he settles back into continuing the work he began in Australia as a trainer of elite show jumping horses. Frank meets Claudia, a young psychiatrist and champion equestrian with Olympic hopes, and she ends up as the perfect rider for Frank’s horse Glory Bee and becomes a companion for Frank. With her, Frank can share his emotional life and his concerns about Ian, as it becomes clear that keeping Ian’s gift a secret is impossible. Someone sinister is looking for Ian.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. What if there rea see more