Julia Bechtel was airborne only as long as it might have taken had a large someone picked her up and heaved her high into the ocean. She went underwater in a stunned state, but she never lost her orientation. Even before her downward plunge slowed, she was clawing against the sea to propel herself back up. When her head broke the surface, she gasped for air. The waves rose around her, but she fought them. Focusing on that singular need to breathe, she used her arms and legs to create a rhythm matching that of the sea in an effort to keep herself afloat.
Her breath came in shallow gasps, along with a creeping awareness of what had happened. She heard in echo the sound of screams, an impact, and an explosion, all drawn from immediate memory. Pushing wet hair from her eyes, she looked around, trying to get her bearings. The waves were littered with pieces of wood, ejected from the boat just as she had been, but where the rest of the Amelia Celeste should have been there were now flames furiously devouring wood and God knew what else, and the line between black smoke and white fog was lost.
Instinct told her to move away from the fire, so she fought the tug of the waves and pulled herself backward. Her sandals were gone, as was her pocketbook, and when she felt the weight of the wet quilted blazer dragging her down, she slid her arms from that, too. She was trembling, though she didn't know whether from cold or from shock. Fear hadn't yet set in.
"Hey!" came a shout from the smoky haze, then a head appeared. It was the man who had been with her in the bow. He was swimming toward her. "Are you hurt?" he called loudly enough to be heard above the roar of the flames.
She didn't think she was. Everything seemed to be working. "No," she called back.
"Hold on to this," he said as he pulled forward what he'd been towing. It was a long seat cushion, clearly buoyant. "I'm going back in."
Grasping the cushion, Julia was about to ask if that was possible, when another staggering explosion came. She barely had time to take a breath when the man pulled her under to escape the falling debris. By the time they resurfaced, gasping and sputtering, treading water in the churn of the waves, the hail was done.
Going back in was a moot point, then. The flames were louder, the smoke more dense.
In obvious anguish, the man stared at the devastation. Seemingly as an afterthought, he tore his eyes from the smoke, looked around for the cushion, swam for it, towed it back. "Hold on," he said, and when Julia complied, he dragged the cushion through the waves, farther away from the wreck. All the while he stared into the smoke and the flames.
Suddenly, he did an about-face in the water and turned those anguished eyes in the opposite direction. "Hey!" he screamed in desperation toward what Julia assumed was the shore. "Get out here! Hey! There are people who need help!"
Julia knew he wasn't referring to himself or to her. They appeared to be unscathed, but there were all those others on the far side of the flames, who might have been hit by debris, knocked unconscious by the explosion, or burned by the fire.
Incredibly, the man began to swim toward the smoke.
"Don't go!" Julia cried. She had visions of his disappearing and never being heard from again -- or perhaps she just didn't want to be left alone. The fog was thick, the fire close, and she had no idea how far they were from shore. For the first time then, with a marginal grasp of what had happened, she did feel fear. The ocean was a big place and she an infinitesimally tiny dot in its midst. Two dots were better than one.
He kept swimming. After a minute, though, he stopped. He bobbed in place, staring at the flames, before recalculating and swimming to the left of the fire, but the waves fought him there, pushing him back when he might have moved on. So he let himself be carried back to where she was and, once there, grabbed hold of the cushion.
"Did you see anyone else?" she asked. She was breathing hard, but nowhere near as hard as he was.
He shook his head, then twisted it back toward shore again. It was another minute before Julia heard what he had, and another minute after that before a boat emerged from the fog. A working lobster boat, it was smaller than the Amelia Celeste and nowhere near as polished, but Julia had never seen anything as welcome in her life.
In no time, she had been helped over the side and into the boat, wrapped in a blanket and settled in the small cabin under the bow. Once there, though, she began to shake in earnest, because not only were those sounds reverberating in her mind -- screams, impact, explosion -- but she could see it again: the sudden emergence of a huge purple point coming out of the fog, just high enough to start right over the side of the ferry, before crashing down in its midst.
Unable to sit still, Julia went back up to the deck, where she stood, dripping wet and trembling under the blanket, now with a hand at her mouth and her eyes on the fog. The smell of smoke was overwhelming; she raised the blanket over her nose to diffuse it.
The man who had been with her in the water was also aboard, but there was no blanket for him, no coddling. He and two others were leaning over the side, peering through the fog and smoke as the boat dodged its way along between pieces of wood, fiberglass, and miscellaneous other matter that Julia couldn't identify. Some were burning, some were not.
The ghost of another search boat flickered briefly in the fog before heading in the opposite direction. When a third search boat appeared, it drew alongside, and the man who had been with her in the water climbed into it.
Julia didn't ask questions, and he didn't look back. He was clearly a local, known by the men in both boats, no doubt known by the rest who had been in the Amelia Celeste. He was worried.
Feeling a deep sense of dread, she watched the third boat pull away. She followed the sound of it, struggling to see through the fog, until her own boat turned away.
"We're gonna get you in," the captain explained as the boat picked up speed.
"You don't have to," she said quickly. "I'm okay. Shouldn't we stay here and help with the search?" She felt a need to do that.
But the captain simply said, "I'll drop you ashore and come back," and sped on.
Chilled as the wind whipped through her wet hair, Julia took shelter in the wheelhouse, eyes on the front windshield, waiting for sign of land. Within minutes, a darkness materialized, a body of land rising from the water, with a serrated skyline rising high above it. Another minute, and the mist thinned to reveal a small fishing village built into a hillside.
The boat pulled up at the dock. Of the islanders already gathered there, one woman ran forward.
Zoe Ballard was Julia's mother's youngest sister, a late-in-life child, barely twelve years older than Julia. That closeness in age alone would have been enough to justify the bond Julia felt. More, though, Zoe was interesting and adventurous, irreverent, independent. She was everything Julia was not but admired nonetheless.
And now here she was, wearing a woven patchwork jacket and frayed jeans, her chestnut hair windblown, her features delicate like Julia's, eyes filled with tears. But her arms were strong, helping Julia as she stumbled off the boat, then hugging her tightly for what seemed like forever. Julia didn't complain. She couldn't stop shaking. Zoe's strength helped. She felt safe with her, safe on dry land, safe and alive -- and suddenly terrified that others were not. She looked back at the boat in time to see it head out again.
That quickly, the crowd closed in, and the questions began.
"How many were on the Amelia Celeste?"
"Have they pulled others from the water?"
Not knowing where to look, Julia focused on Zoe. "A boat hit us. There were six, seven, maybe eight others on the ferry."
"Did you catch any names?" Zoe asked and Julia understood why. Ferries like the Amelia Celeste were casual things. Tickets weren't booked ahead; there would be no list of passengers. Any information Julia could give would be a help to the islanders gathered there.
But she could only shake her head. The rest of her body continued to tremble. "I was in the bow. They were in the stern."
She tried to picture the group she had seen when she boarded the boat, but the image was vague. Running down that dock, she had been distracted and tense after a harrowing seven-hour drive up from Manhattan. It should have been an easy drive -- would have been, had she left when she had originally planned. But her husband had given her a raft of last-minute errands, treating her as usual like a maid, something she had come to sorely resent. Driving out of the city, she had wallowed in that resentment, mentally arguing with Monte as she didn't dare do in person, venting a frustration that had been building for years. Add to that the growing realization that she was late enough to miss the ferry she was booked on, that she didn't know if there was another ferry that day, and that she had no idea where she would spend the night if she didn't get to the island, and her level of tension had risen. She had driven above the speed limit much of the way, a problem in and of itself. She didn't drive often, least of all on the highway. What she had hoped would be a pleasant drive had turned into a white-knuckle experience.
The only good thing had been her luck in finding the Amelia Celeste ready to leave.
Lucked out? Well, perhaps. She was alive and well. But others?
"Her arm's bleeding," said a man who emerged from the crowd. He didn't appear to be out of his thirties, though he carried an air of mature confidence. "Can I check her out?"
Julia was startled to see the blood on the underside of her forearm.
"He's a doctor," Zoe explained quietly. Stepping out of her clogs, she knelt to put them on Julia's feet.
Julia put a hand on her shoulder for balance. "Won't a Band-Aid do?" she asked, because she didn't want to leave the dock.
"His clinic's right around the corner," Zoe said as she straightened. Sliding an arm around Julia's waist, she guided her away.
"Now you have no shoes."
"I have socks," Zoe said, keeping her moving until a large man wearing a khaki uniform stepped in their path.
"I have to talk with her," he said.
"Not now," Zoe replied, clearly unintimidated.
"Something happened out there. I'm opening an investigation."
"Not now, John," Zoe repeated. "She hasn't stopped trembling. She's likely in shock. Jake is taking a look, then I'm taking her home."
Julia whispered, "I want to stay here."
Zoe ignored her.
The police chief stepped aside.
With Zoe holding her on the left and the doctor close on her right, Julia was ushered down the dock. When they turned onto Main Street, she saw little of it. Island store, tackle and gear shop, offices for newspaper, postal service, and police -- all passed in a blur. She was barely over the threshold of the small clinic, though, when she balked. Something was starting to feel familiar -- the same thing she was running from, the sense that she didn't have a mind of her own.
"I am not going home right now," she told Zoe. She kept her voice low, just as her aunt had done with the police chief, but there was no doubting her determination.
"You need to dry off and warm up," Zoe said, albeit with greater deference.
"I need to be down on the dock," Julia insisted, and something about the sureness in her voice must have registered, because Zoe gave in.
"Okay, then. Give me my clogs. While Jake checks you out, I'll drive back to the house for dry clothes."
Only then did it strike Julia that she had none of her own. No clothes. No shoes, no socks. No makeup. No books, no camera equipment. All of the things that she had so carefully gathered -- been putting aside for months, if the truth were told -- for her two weeks on the island were gone. Same with her pocketbook, which meant she had no driver's license, no credit card, no money. She had no cell phone, no picture of Molly that she kept in her wallet, no dog-eared photos that dated back to her own teenaged years and had been the object of so many dreams. Nor, it dawned on her, did she have any of those other personal papers that she had so painstakingly gathered.
She was grappling with the realization of all that when Zoe slipped out the door. By the time she returned, twenty minutes had passed, and Julia had been judged in fine health aside from the jagged tear on her arm, which the doctor stitched.
"A week for the stitches," she heard him tell Zoe, while she pulled on the dry clothing Zoe had brought. "The shaking will stop. I offered her a sedative, but she refused it. She's apt to feel bruised all over by morning. Call me if there's pain."
Julia zipped the jeans, pulled a T-shirt and sweater on carefully over her bandaged arm, then wool socks and sneakers, and a fleece jacket, appreciating the warmth with each layer. She used Zoe's blow-dryer for a minute, brushed out her hair, and pulled on a baseball cap that said Foss Fish and Lobster. Then she joined the others in the front room.
"I'm ready," she said quietly, and was grateful when -- rather than tell her how pale she was, that she needed food, a hot bath, and sleep more than she needed to return to the dock -- Zoe simply nodded.
The three retraced their steps. The mist over the harbor had thinned some, and the visibility was improved, but what had been gained was being quickly consumed by dusk. Enough light remained to show Julia a maze of side docks meandering off the main. Empty slips, along with a dearth of lobster boats at harbor moorings, suggested that the entire local fleet had joined the search. As Julia approached, another pulled away from its dinghy and motored toward open water with its running lights on, spotlights blazing from the wheelhouse roof.
The dock itself was lit by tall torches and crowded with people. The town had come out en masse, a throng of worried faces, watchful eyes, and joined hands.
Holding Julia by the arm, Zoe waded right in. "What's the word?"
"Not good," said a woman with a cell phone in her hand. "Rescue boats have come from the mainland. Emergency vehicles are waiting on that end." She stopped short, but the look in her eyes went farther.
"What are they expecting?" Julia asked, needing confirmation.
"Burns," the woman said, but again stopped short.
Julia closed her eyes for only a second, but it was enough to be right back out there with the others in the ferry, enough to see that purple boat burst out of the fog, enough to hear the screams and feel the impact, enough to be thrown by the explosion. Body parts. That was what the woman hadn't said, and suddenly Julia glimpsed the scope of the horror.
Trembling head to toe, she wrapped her arms around herself and turned to the water, though there was little to see and even less to hear: the roar of flames, the rumble of rescue vessels, the sirens were gone. Except for the occasional low talk over a cell phone or radio transmitter, she heard precious little other than the waves that slapped pilings under the pier, rocked boats at their moorings, and broke resoundingly against granite boulders that lined the outer shore.
Behind Julia, the conversation went on in hushed tones, muted by a fear that was heavy and stark. Glancing over the crowd, she could have picked those closest to the missing. They were at the center of each small group. By contrast, a gray-haired man stood alone at the very end of the dock. His hands were anchored in the pockets of a worn brown jacket that hung over loose corduroy pants.
"Matthew Crane," Zoe said, following her gaze. "The Amelia Celeste is his. He's probably wishing he'd been at the helm himself, instead of Greg. Greg has a young family."
Julia was trying to absorb that information when the woman with the cell phone said on a note of accusation, "It was Artie Jones's racer. They're picking up purple debris."
Again Zoe explained to Julia, "Artie's up from Portsmouth. He has a house down on the shaft. You remember."
Julia did. Big Sawyer was shaped like an ax. It was broadest and most densely populated at its head, which included the harbor, near the flat of the blade, the fishing village, which climbed the wooded hill, and, at the back of the head, viewing open ocean, the artists' homes. The shaft, extending off to the southeast, was long and narrow. Seasonal residents lived there, putting a certain distance between the lavishness of their homes and boats and the down-to-earth functionality of the locals. The arrangement suited both groups just fine.
"Artie made it big in the Internet boom," Zoe went on, "and if he suffered when the whole thing went bust, you'd never know it. His house is huge. No expense was spared." She caught a breath. "If it was The Beast, Artie was the one at the helm. No one else drives that boat. He's out there, too."
"Is his family here?" Julia asked softly.
"No," answered the woman. "They don't move up until the kids finish school. Artie comes alone to open the house and put The Beast in the water." She looked past them. A boat had come in and was approaching the dock, drawing the crowd. "There's the Willa B. Looks like she has someone." She set off.
That someone, Zoe told Julia as soon as she made the identity, was Kim Colella. She was standing on her own steam and appeared to be unhurt. Wrapped in a large towel with her hair soaked and her head bowed, she looked to Julia to be little more than a child, but when, in a voice tinged with horror, she said just that, Zoe was quick to correct her.
"Kimmie's twenty-one and tends bar at the Grill. Life hasn't been easy for her. She was raised by her mother and grandmother. They're two tough ladies."
Julia felt a tug of protectiveness, not only because her own daughter was close to Kimmie's age, but because Kimmie Colella didn't look tough at all. Her chin stayed low as she was helped from the boat to the dock, and when a barrage of questions hit her, she recoiled. Huddled into herself, she let the doctor guide her away.
The boat that had delivered her was already heading back out. "How long can they search?" Julia asked, because it was fully dark now.
"Awhile. They have floodlights."
Julia had been frightened enough out there in daylight; she couldn't begin to imagine the terror of being in the water at night. Moving closer to Zoe, she tucked her hands in the pockets of the fleece jacket. "Maybe other survivors have been taken to the mainland?"
Zoe's eyes were understanding, but she didn't offer easy comfort. "We'd know," she said gently, even apologetically. "Someone would've called. Are you sure I can't take you home?"
"Does your arm hurt?"
"No." But she didn't think she would notice if it did. The emerging horror dwarfed aches and pains.
"Want something to eat from the Grill?"
"I don't think I can eat."
Julia gave in on that, though she didn't drink much. She had adrenaline enough in her body without caffeine, but the warmth of the cup in her hands did feel good. As time passed, though, that warmth faded, along with the hope that others would be brought in alive. And still she resisted when Zoe would have taken her home. She wouldn't be able to sleep, not with the weight of grief on her chest -- and not with the rest of the townsfolk still on the docks. As long as they stayed and waited, she had to as well. She had been on that boat. She might not know the names of these islanders, but she was one of them on this night.
By eleven, the fog had dispersed, and the mood of the crowd lifted with the hope that survivors would be more easily spotted. By midnight, though, when no good news was radioed back from the boats, that hope waned. By one in the morning, those on the dock stood in silent huddles.
Shortly thereafter, word came back that the Coast Guard had called off the search for the night and would return with divers in the morning -- but still the local fleet kept at it. By two, however, even they began to return. One boat after another slipped into the harbor, their engines rumbling in exhaustion. The faces of the men who climbed back on the dock were pale and drawn in the flickering light of the torches; they had little to say and simply shook their heads.
Julia searched until she saw the man who had helped her right after the accident, the man from the Amelia Celeste. Zoe identified him as Noah Prine. Though he hoisted himself to the dock now with the others, the depth of the pain on his face set him apart. He didn't look around, didn't acknowledge any of those who had been waiting there all night, and they, in turn, gave him wide berth as he strode along the planking and off into the night.
"He was with his father," Zoe explained softly. "Hutch is still missing."
Julia was horrified. She could only begin to imagine what Noah was feeling, fearing that his father was dead but not knowing for sure. Her own father was still alive, as were her mother and her brothers. And her daughter.
"I need a phone, Zoe," she said, feeling a dire need, right then, right there, to hear Molly's voice. The girl was a culinary student, normally studying in Rhode Island, but now doing a summer apprenticeship in Paris. It would be morning there. If Molly had worked the night before, she might still be sleeping, and under normal circumstances, Julia would have waited. But what had happened -- and what she felt -- were far from normal.
Zoe produced a cell phone, and Julia quickly punched in the number of Molly's global phone. As it rang, she moved away from the others on the dock. It seemed forever before a groggy voice that Julia knew well said, "Mom?"
Julia felt such a swell of emotion that she began to cry. "Oh, baby," she gasped in a choked voice that, quite naturally, terrified her daughter.
Sounding instantly awake, Molly asked, "What's wrong?"
"Nothing. I'm fine," Julia sobbed softly, "but it's a miracle."
The story spilled out in a handful of sentences, to which Molly injected "Omigod" with rising frequency and fear. When Julia finally paused, her daughter said with a mix of disbelief and awe, "Omigod! Are you sure you're okay?"
"I am, but there are others who aren't. I'm sorry to wake you" -- she was crying again, though less wrenchingly now -- "but with something like this, you need to talk to people like your own daughter. Email doesn't do it. You need to hear a voice."
"I'm glad you called. Omigod. Mom, that's just so awful! Here I am, pissed off that the chef at the restaurant won't give me the time of day, and there you are dealing with life and death. When'll they know about the others?"
"The morning, maybe."
"That's so bad. And you -- you've been looking forward to this for months. It was supposed to be your vacation. Are you going right home?"
The question startled Julia. "No," she said. Odd, but there wasn't a doubt in her mind. She couldn't list her reasons, because her thoughts were too disordered. But leaving wasn't an option. "I'll be at Zoe's. You have her number."
"Are you sure you want to be there after all this?"
"Do you want me to come?"
"No. You have a job. You need the experience."
"Is Dad coming?"
Julia was startled for a second time. In all that had gone on, she hadn't once thought about Monte, which was odd, too. Or perhaps it wasn't. Monte had no place here on the island. She had visited Big Sawyer three other times since her marriage, and he had opted out each time. Nor had he shown any interest in coming this time. She was sure that he had made other plans for these two weeks, well beyond those he had shared with her; she was as sure of that as she was that she couldn't leave the island and race back home.
Unable to explain all this to Molly, she hedged. "Honestly, I don't know. We'll probably talk about it in the morning."
"Let me know?" Molly asked and rushed on. "Email me later. And call again whenever you want. I love you, Mom."
"Me, too, baby, me, too."
Alone, Noah Prine tromped down Main Street, turned left onto Spruce, and began the short climb up the hillside to the house he shared with his dad. It was a fisherman's cottage in a neighborhood of other fishermen's cottages, clapboards weathered gray by the salt air, blue shutters in need of paint -- always in need of paint, because the wind was abusive to everything, and boats and buoys came first. It wasn't a big place, a fraction as large as the monstrosity Artie Jones owned down on the shaft, but it was honestly come by, the product of years of hard work, and it was paid for in full.
He bet Artie's place wasn't. He bet there were hefty mortgages on both the house and The Beast. He bet that the guy didn't have an ounce of insurance either, because guys like that didn't think past the moment. What that meant was that if eight people turned out to be dead, all the lawsuits in the world wouldn't produce enough money to adequately compensate two orphaned Walsh kids, Greg Hornsby's wife and kids, Dar Hutter's fiancée, Grady Bartz's parents, and whomever Todd Slokum might have left in the world.
Money certainly couldn't bring back his dad -- not that Noah was convinced he was gone. Hutch had spent his whole life on the water and had done his share of time in the drink. He had survived storms that might have killed another man -- and besides, it wasn't like it was the middle of winter, with water almost at the freezing point. This was June. Hutch could do it. A night in the sea might even slow the growth of cancer in his blood.
The problem, of course, even beyond that of the initial crash and whatever those mammoth propellers had chewed, was the explosion. Who knew what damage it had done? Noah would be out there still searching if he had floodlights on the Leila Sue. Radar alone wouldn't have helped, not in the chop. He would go out again at first light. In the meantime, he didn't know what to do with himself.
He turned in and went up the short path. His mother's lilacs were in bloom. He could smell them as he went past, though he couldn't make them out in the dark. There wasn't even a light on out front, because he and his father had planned to be back well before nightfall. Noah had intended to cook the bass that had come up in a lobster trap the day before. Hutch loved bass, and, sensing that their day at the hospital would be a disaster, Noah had wanted to please him.
Noah hadn't had a clue what the real disaster would be. He had always seen the island as safe and low-key and familiar. Yes, death came. They had been through it with his mom three years before, but not with this kind of violence, not with this kind of...stupidity, this kind of preventability.
Bursting with anger, he opened the door, and a forty-pound creature raced past him and out into the small yard. "Lucas," he said with a mixture of dismay and guilt, anger draining instantly away. He had forgotten about the dog, shut in all day. Like the bass he had intended to cook for Hutch, he had planned to be back for Lucas, too. Leaving the front door ajar so that the dog could return, he went inside.
The emptiness was overwhelming. He put his hands on his hips and hung his head. After a moment, he raised it and pushed a hand through his hair. What to do? he asked himself. Was Hutch dead or alive? He just didn't know. No one knew anything for sure. How could they know without proof? He felt the need to talk to someone, but whom could he call? Most everyone who meant anything to Hutch was here on the island.
Ian ought to be told. Noah went to the phone. He lifted the receiver, punched out the number, but hung up before the call could go through. Ian was his son, seventeen years old and difficult. Noah had trouble communicating with him in the best of times. He didn't know what to say now.
Still in the dark, he went down the hall to the bathroom, stripped off clothes that had dried stiff with salt, and turned on the shower. One hand high on the wall and the other limp by his side, he let the water course over his head, though he barely felt its heat or its pulse on his skin. He scrubbed every inch of himself to erase the smell of fish, a habit that was unnecessary today, since he hadn't been fishing. He was going through the usual motions -- come home, shower, put on dry clothes, fix something to eat.
He got on the dry clothes, still without lights, but wasn't up for eating, and knew enough not to even try to sleep. Lying in the dark, with his mind having nowhere to go but back on the water, he found himself staring down at the sneaker of a one-year-old child. No, he couldn't do that. But he had two hours to live through, before he went back out in the boat, back to the search. Not knowing what else to do, he did the one thing he did best.
Grabbing an anorak from the coat tree, he went out the door. Lucas was beside him -- a surprising comfort -- before he reached the end of the walk and raced on ahead, while Noah strode back down the hill to the small shack by the water's edge where he kept his traps. He had already set several hundred, mostly in the warmer water of the shallows, because this was June, and the shallows were where lobsters would hide before molting. Come July, once the molt was done, they would move to the shelter of deeper water to let their new shells harden. The traps he set now would head in that direction.
Most were ready to go, stacked in eights from floor to ceiling. Over the winter, he had repaired those in need of attention, but there were a few last casualties, victims of marauding seals, hidden rocks, or plain old wear and tear. His wire mesh traps were more hardy than the old wooden ones, but they weren't invincible.
He set to repairing them now, working by the light of an old oil lamp, because there was no electricity in the shed. He didn't mind the smell of the oil, or that of fish or ocean air. Or that of fresh paint, drying on buoys that hung in bunches from the rafters. Or that of old gloves that had handled their share of fish bait. These scents were part of his history, part of who he was.
He worked on the wire with his pliers, twisting one piece around another to close a gap, reattach the netting inside, or repair a door. He replaced hog rings and attached trap tags. When he finished with one trap, he went on to the next, then the next. By the time he was done, he had a tall stack of traps ready to go, as well as a sore back. But the two hours were nearly up. He could see it in the whisper of light that came through the window, could feel it in bones that screamed to him, Get on out there now, man, right now!
He blew out the oil lamp, left the shed, and, with Lucas still full of energy, running every which way ahead, he set off for the harbor. Lights were on up the hillside; Noah could pick the homes where they had probably been on all night. Those people would be down on the dock soon, resuming the vigil while they waited for word. Until then, the gulls had free access, swooping through the predawn light to perch on pilings, deck rails, and wheelhouse roofs, sitting statue-still, then setting off with a cry.
He reached the Grill. Inside its door, his thermos was filled with hot coffee and waiting in its usual spot alongside those of the other lobstermen. This time, though, the owner of the Grill was waiting too.
Rick Greene was a man with a large body, a large mind, and a large heart. He had single-handedly turned the Harbor Grill into a destination eatery; come summer, day-trippers planned expeditions to the island around lunches of mussel salad, lobster chowder, or curried cod, all fresher than they would find anywhere else.
Now he pressed a bag into Noah's hand. "You gotta have food."
Noah stared at the bag. He wasn't surprised by the gesture, but he was by his own need for it. For a man who prided himself on being self-sufficient and independent, he was touched. The heaviness he felt inside was eased, if only briefly, by the sense of another person sharing the weight.
"Did you sleep any?" Rick asked.
"Nah," Noah said and raised bleak eyes to search the harbor. "Anyone else here yet?"
"The Trapper John left ten minutes ago, and they aren't heading out to haul traps."
Noah was relieved. The more boats joined the search, the better the odds.
"Maybe you shouldn't go out alone," Rick said.
Noah smiled sadly. "Lucas'll have to do, since I don't seem to have my sternman." That would've been Hutch.
Pain crossed Rick's face. "What can I do?"
Noah looked out at the sea. The waves were tipped with the same shade of lilac as his mom's beloved shrubs, a new day rising, though with a sense of dread. "Not a helluva lot," he said, feeling the kind of despair he hadn't yet allowed himself to feel, but exhaustion did that -- poked holes where holes wouldn't normally be. "I'll go out looking again. Could be we missed something. Could be we misjudged the area. Could be there's a whole crew of them hanging on to a piece of the hull."
"Let me know," Rick said kindly. "You need anything, radio it in."
Noah tucked the bag under his arm, hooked his fingers around the thermos lid, and set off down the dock. The planks underfoot were damp as usual, but the harbor chop wasn't bad. The Leila Sue rocked gently in her slip, flanked by lobster boats of different sizes and states of repair. Each had a buoy pegged to the wheelhouse roof. Noah's was bright blue with two orange stripes. These were his colors, registered with the state, marked on his lobstering license, and repeated on every one of the hundreds of buoys he attached to his traps. Blue-orange-orange -- originally his father's colors, for the past ten years his own.
Lowering himself to the deck of the Leila Sue seconds before Lucas leaped aboard, he stowed the food in the wheelhouse, then got the engine going. He didn't look at the yellow oilskins that hung from hooks, one for Hutch and one for him. His jeans and sweatshirt would do today. And his Patriots hat. He reached for that and pulled it on. He and Hutch shared their love for the team, and, killer though that had been at times, the wait was worth it. That first Super Bowl season had been something. And the Snow Bowl against the Raiders two weeks before the big game? That had been something! It had been a good day. Driving down to the game that day, he and Hutch hadn't argued a bit, a rare and memorable thing.
Noah untied his lines fore and aft, then gave the Leila Sue enough gas to back her out of the slip and turn her. Throttling up, he headed out, but he saw little of the harbor boats, the buoy field, or, passing the lighthouse, the rocks that the gulls made white, now shaded the palest pink with the dawn light. Nor did he see the lime-grape-lime buoys that were out farther, in waters traditionally fished by Big Sawyer lobstermen, because he couldn't begin to think of the gear war that loomed. The Leila Sue might have been in forward, but his thoughts remained in reverse.
No, he and Hutch hadn't argued going to Foxborough that day in the snow, but they sure had bickered yesterday. Hutch had criticized Noah's driving, his choice of a tuna sandwich in the cafeteria, his inability to answer the questions that -- Noah countered -- Hutch should have asked the doctor himself. They had bickered about how to negotiate traffic leaving the hospital, about waiting in the toll line rather than producing exact change, about radio stations, about refilling the gas tank of the borrowed truck. By the time they had returned the truck and were boarding the Amelia Celeste, Noah had had it. When Hutch grumbled that he didn't want to sit after he had been doing nothing but sitting all day long and that he would stand in the bow during the ride to the island, Noah had balked.
"Sit," he'd ordered his father in no uncertain terms. "I need air." He had held up a hand in warning and reinforced it with a warning look. Stay there! it said. Don't argue! Gimme a friggin' break! He'd remained where he was long enough to make sure Hutch understood, then marched up to the bow. And so he lived through the crash.
Guided now by the GPS, he pointed the Leila Sue toward the spot that had been the focus of the search the night before. Other boats would be searching, as would the Coast Guard. With a little help...a little luck...a miracle...
Lucas settled in against his leg, nearly sitting on his foot, looking up, and Noah allowed himself a moment's distraction. He had rescued the dog from euthanization three years before, and hadn't once regretted it. Lucas was a retriever, and a handsome guy at that. His coat was red, with white markings on his nose, his bib, and the tips of his feet. He had a feathered tail that wagged constantly. And freckles. And gentle eyes. And undying love. How could he not save a dog like that, even if it had meant arguments with his father ever since?
No place for that dog on this boat, Hutch had argued. Dog like that has to run. Why'd you think no one else wanted him? Dog like that'll exhaust you. You watch. You'll see.
What Noah had seen was that Lucas could run himself ragged around the island, but was good as gold on the boat. Not that Hutch ever admitted that.
Noah stroked the dog's head and scratched his ears, but his father's voice filled his mind. Straightening, he held the boat steady at twenty knots and kept his eyes peeled. As soon as his radar picked up the bleeps of other boats near the site, though, he turned off. He couldn't go there. Just couldn't. The best he could do was circle the perimeter and wait for word on the radio. He didn't remind himself that the search had gone on for seven hours the night before, that the nature of the debris picked up then did not bode well, or that even before turning in for the night, the Coast Guard had begun talking about recovery rather than rescue. He didn't remind himself of any of those things because they only made him feel heartsick and empty -- empty and helpless -- helpless and angry -- angry and confused. And there he stayed at the end of the list, with anger and confusion foremost in his thoughts.
He was a lobsterman. Lobstermen knew that they couldn't control the wind or the waves any more than they could control where lobsters chose to crawl on the ocean floor or what bait they decided to take. But there were certain givens, and Noah loved those. He loved the freshness of the morning air, loved heading out with a boat full of bait and a belly full of breakfast. He loved pulling up a trap that held a breeder loaded with eggs, loved notching her tail and setting her gently back in the sea. He loved knowing that she would drop many thousands of lobster larvae and that in six or seven years he would pull up some of those very same lobsters, now big enough for keeping. He loved knowing that he had some control, however small, over the preservation of the species.
He had no control over people like Artie Jones, though. He had no understanding of people like Artie Jones, and his anger grew as he approached the site of the crash. Artie Jones was a hotshot. Infinitely worse than rogue lobstermen planting lime-grape-lime buoys where they shouldn't be, Artie bombed around in The Beast, polluting the air with its roar, adding its wake to the rock of the sea. That said, he wasn't suicidal. He might be an irresponsible, arrogant cad, but he wasn't a maniac.
So why in the hell had he done what he'd done?
The one person who might have given them a clue wasn't saying a word about what had happened -- not to the fishermen who had pulled her from the sea, nor to the other searchers, the police chief, the doctor, or, with the rising sun now, the families gathering again on the dock, waiting for word. She wasn't talking to friends or to her boss, and certainly not to her mother or grandmother. She wasn't talking, period. For all intents and purposes, the accident had stolen her voice and rendered her mute.
Copyright © 2004 by Barbara Delinsky