Thursday, September 13, 2012

Trouble on the Reef

 Trouble On The Reef
      It was only seven-thirty in the morning, but already the hot Florida sun beat down on the bleached wharf. Nick watched the fishing fleet move slowly out into the Gulf.
               “Wish you were out there?”
      Startled by the voice, Nick whirled. Sheila Blake smiled up at him.
      “Oh, it's you,” Nick stammered. A flush spread over his cheeks. Why did he always feel uneasy when she was around?
      “I didn't mean to startle you. Your sister said I would find you here. I have a favor to ask.” Her dark eyes searched Nick's face.
      Nick turned away abruptly. He knew what she was going to ask, and his heart pounded furiously.
      Sheila smiled uncertainly. Why did Nick seem to dislike her?
      “I was wondering if you'd be my diver buddy when I swim out to the old sunken wreck today.”
      The words sent ice water coursing through Nick's veins. Sheila thought nothing of swimming out to the reef, but then she had no reason to be afraid.
      With Nick it was different. Thoughts of how he had almost drowned doing the same thing swirled in his brain. The muscles in his stomach seemed tied in knots. Cold beads of sweat broke out on his forehead. Sure,he was just a kid back then, but fear like that doesn't easily go away.
      How could he explain how he felt? He didn't even want to admit his fear to himself, much less to this laughing, bright-eyed girl. He closed his eyes, trying to blot out the memory of the swirling water as it pulled him deeper and deeper.
      “Well, will you?” A hint of impatience tinged Sheila's question.
              Nick kept his eyes on the horizon, watching the fishing fleet get smaller as it moved away.
      “I'm busy. Besides, you're my sister's guest, not mine. Let her help you,” he grumbled.
      Nick ran his fingers nervously through his short, black hair. Everything he said came out wrong and disagreeable. If only Sheila understood what had happened. He almost died out there on the reef. The water had sucked him deeper and deeper, filling his lungs, eyes, and ears. If old Charlie hadn't seen him go down and summoned help... Nick shivered in the heat of the sun.
      When she finally spoke, Sheila's voice was icily polite.
      “I was thrilled that Mary asked me to spend a week with her. I thought I'd be welcomed by all the family.”
      Nick remained silently brooding.
      Hands on hips, Sheila sighed.
      “I'm not asking you to take off the whole day, just a couple of hours. Mary was the one who suggested I ask you to dive with me.”
      Nick's head shot up.
      “Mary said to ask me?” Why would Mary do a thing like that? She knew how he felt.
      Sheila nodded as her eyes swept over the shimmering Gulf in quick appraisal.
      “It's out there to the right, isn't it? The minute I heard that an old ship's hull was lodged on the reef, I knew I wanted to dive down and see it.”
      She glanced back at Nick, her eyes pleading.
      Nick felt his face redden under her stare. He frowned.
      “It's not good to dive out there. Last year George Miklos drowned while diving for the ship's log.”
      Nick bit his lip. Maybe if I told her the real reason I don't want to dive, perhaps she would change her mind.
      “But we don't have to enter the hull. I just want to dive close enough to see it.”
      “I won't go with you. It's too dangerous,” Nick insisted.
      Anger sparked in Sheila's eyes. “Is it too dangerous, or  are you just too stubborn to help me?”
      Nick pointed toward the reef. “That ship is lodged on the edge of the reef. The slightest motion could send her tumbling to the depths. Would you like to be dragged down with her?”
      “I know it's dangerous, but I'd be careful,and you're a good diver. Change your mind, Nick, please.” Sheila caressed the word “please” until it came out like thick honey.
      Nick shook his head. Why did she have to keep goading him?  
      “You don't realize what can really happen, but if you won't listen to reason, then dive alone.”
      The minute the words escaped his lips, Nick regretted them. It was too late.
      Sheila stamped her foot and turned back toward the house.
      “You – you're just impossible,” she shot back over her shoulder as she stalked up the gravel path.
      Nick watched Sheila disappear around the corner of the house. An uneasy feeling settled in his stomach. What if she did try to dive alone? No, he reassured himself quickly. She couldn't be that foolish. Besides, Mary wouldn't let her. Again Nick found himself wondering why his sister had prompted Sheila to ask him to dive.
     Suddenly a smile played at the corners of his mouth. Of course, it had been Mary's way of trying to make him conquer what had eaten away at him for so long. If a pretty girl couldn't tempt him...
      Nick glanced again at the old white-shingled house. Tonight he would tell Sheila. He'd apologize. Then, perhaps in a day or two he would find the courage to dive again. Yes, that's how it must be. Nick felt the muscles in his stomach relax for the first time that morning. He hopped into his Jeep and headed to town. Maybe he'd even get a little gift to placate Sheila.
      It was afternoon before he arrived back at the house. As he parked the Jeep and headed up the gravel path, he heard Mary frantically calling.
      “I'm coming,” he shouted as she continued calling his name. Why did she sound so upset?
      “Nick, something must have happened to Sheila.”
      Nick gripped his sister's arm. Alarm at what she was about to say, made the hairs on the back of his neck rise.
      “What about Sheila? Where is she?”
      For an answer, Mary pointed toward the Gulf.
       “She's been gone for over an hour, Nick. I'm frightened.”
      “You mean she went diving alone after all? Why didn't you stop her?” Nick shouted more than asked.
      “ I tried, but couldn't. She seemed angry. She said something about showing you. I don't know, Nick. She just stormed off.”
      Nick ran his tongue nervously over his lips as he stared out at the Gulf. He spotted old Charlie shuffling along the beach. He raced down to the old man.
      “Charlie, did you see Sheila this morning?”
      Charlie's lips parted in a toothless grin.
      “Oh, yes, I see her. She's pretty angry with you. What did you say to her?”
      “Never mind that now. Did she head out toward the reef?” Nick asked impatiently.
      Charlie nodded.
      Nick threw up his hands in despair.
      “Why didn't you stop her? You know how dangerous it can be out there. Mary says Sheila has been gone over an hour now. Charlie, don't you realize what could have happened?”
      Charlie cocked his head to one side. “ Do you?
      “What kind of stupid question is that? Of course I know what could have happened. That's why I'm worried.”
      Charlie pointed toward the dock.
      “Then you must go find her. When I could not stop her, I brought your equipment down from the house. Hurry now.”
      Anxiety shot through Nick like a bolt of lightning.
     “Me dive? I - I can't.”
      Charlie grabbed Nick's shoulders and shook him roughly.
      “You must,” he whispered hoarsely. “There's no one else to go.”
      Nick felt his body sag. Charlie was right, of course. But the thought of what he had to do made Nick tremble. Almost automatically, Nick strapped on his air tank and flippers. Charlie helped him with the weight belt. After adjusting his face mask, he was ready to start.
     Mary had stood silently by. Now she touched Nick's shoulder
      “You'll be able to do it, Nick. Only hurry. Hurry!”
      Nick nodded mutely and strode to the water's edge. For a moment he hesitated, fighting the panic rising in him. Biting down on the mouthpiece, he opened the valve of his tank and headed for the deep water
      Terror, mingled with his anxiety for Sheila, made his head buzz strangely. He felt his heart beating furiously somewhere up under the roof of his mouth. What would he find when he reached the reef?
      Soon the water was over his head. Down, down he went until the bottom  seemed to drop from beneath him. He started paddling through the green haze. With each stroke of his finned feet he shot downward. Fear for his own safety faded, as his fear for Sheila's safety grew.
      Suddenly the decaying hulk loomed ahead. Through the strange, underwater light he could see it had settled on the extreme edge of the reef. One good shove could send it plunging to the bottomless depths. As he reached the hull, Nick switched on his waterproof flashlight. All he could see was green slime and decaying wood. He began circling the ship.
      Minutes passed, measured only by the hiss of the oxygen from the tank. After what seemed  an eternity, he saw a shadowy form ahead of him. It was Sheila. Her body seemed to sway back and forth in rhythm to the long, trailing streamers of green slime. As Nick reached her, he could see that her air hose had become tangled on one of the ship's rusty valves.
      Sheila motioned feebly. Her eyes, staring wildly at him through her face mask, told Nick more than words how frightened she was.
      Nick motioned for Sheila to remain still, then he began working on the tangled hose. Freeing it would be touchy work. One wrong move and he could tear away her vital supply of oxygen. As he worked carefully, but quickly, a growing doubt gnawed at him. By now Sheila's air supply must be very low. If he couldn't free her in time...
      Suddenly the hose slipped from the valve. Sheila was free. As they swam quickly toward the surface, Nick could hear the drone of a motor somewhere above them. That would be Charlie in the launch. Soon the nightmare would be over.
      “Over here,” Charlie shouted as Nick and Sheila broke through the water's surface.
      Later, Nick wasn't sure who helped whom aboard, but there they were, the hot sun warming their chilled bodies.
      “Oh, Charlie,” Sheila gasped as the old man headed the launch toward shore, “That was a stupid thing I did.”
      At Nick's surprised look, she hurriedly explained what had happened.
      As the words penetrated Nick's tired ears he could hardly believe what he was hearing. Sheila and Charlie had planned the whole thing. That's why no one had tried to rescue Sheila, why no one seemed too concerned over her dive. But their plans had backfired.
      When Sheila finished, Nick asked, “Why? Why did you risk your own safety for me?”
      Sheila stared at him, her eyes big and soft. When she spoke her voice trembled.
      “Don't you know why?” she finally asked.
      Charlie's voice boomed above the engine. “Somebody had to do something. When I told Sheila why you wouldn't dive with her, she wasn't angry no more. She just wanted to help you get rid of that crazy nightmare.”
     Sheila blushed. Nick realized how beautiful she was, and how stupid he had been.
      “I wasn't very smart, but I learned a lesson today. I'll never dive alone again.” She reached over and touched Nick's hand, her eyes holding his.
      Nick felt a small, throbbing current of delight race through him. His fingers twined around hers. There would be time later to really thank Sheila. Nick knew there would be lots of time for them, together. But for now...
Author: Audrey Frank