“This baby is going to kick some serious butt.” Wayne Schaeffer scrambled from the engine to the cockpit of the sleek red boat with the fancy name Maddie had forgotten.
“I thought I was your baby.” She kicked one of the pilings, then winced at both the crushing pain in her big toe and the whine in her voice.
He gave her the smile that had captured her heart in high school and hadn’t let go, even after six years of marriage. “You’re the Baby. This is a generic ‘baby.’ Come for a test drive with me. The guy I bought it from says it roars like a lion.
”She cursed her fine, shoulder-length hair that whipped into her face for the gazillionth time. It didn’t have the decency to be blonde or brown, so it hovered somewhere between.
She said, “Too choppy out there today.”
Wayne’s thick, black hair danced in the warm breeze blowing off Sugar Bay. The Sugar Bay Marina hugged the curve of the half-moon bay. Three rows of docks snaked out into a bay where a maze of sandbars and oyster beds lurked. Her uncle Barnie said someday the dangers of the bay would chew up a boat and its passengers, that it was just a matter of time.
Wayne made another adjustment. “How could I have married a girl who gets seasick?”
“I don’t get seasick, just queasy.”
“I keep telling you, that is seasickness.”
She didn’t much like going fast either, but she kept that to herself. It was Wayne who loved careening through the black night on the Gulf of Mexico, hugging her against his chest as she squeezed her eyes shut.
“Should I go faster?” he’d ask. She wanted to say no, but always said yes because she didn’t want to be a fuddy-duddy.
What she enjoyed was taking out the dinghy—the Dinky Wayne called it–and skirting the little islands looking for shells and driftwood. She also knew it bored him to death, going slow and leisurely. She did not want to bore Wayne.
He came from money, if there was such a thing in Sugar Bay. The real distinction was whether you lived on the water, had a pool, and owned the place you worked at. Back in the thirties, Wayne’s family bought up acres of land on the water and built the marina that had recently been bequeathed to Wayne. The Schaeffers envisioned Sugar Bay as a resort town for the northern coast of Florida.
Unfortunately, they forgot one tiny requirement for resort towns: beaches. Oh, they’d tried to bring in the beach. They’d dredged and pumped and trucked it in and dumped it onto the rocks. Mother Nature laughed in their faces and washed it all away.
The sudden roar of the boat’s engine made Maddie jump. The green piling she brushed against sent a sliver of wood into her thumb. Wayne cut the engine and hopped onto the dock.
“What’s a’matter, Baby?”
“Splinter,” she muttered, thumb jammed against her teeth as she tried to extract it.
“Here, let me see.” He squeezed it out and kissed the pad of her thumb. “Okay?”
She nodded. Everything was okay since Wayne had rescued her from terminal wallflowerdom all those years ago. The rest of the boys in town saw her as the scrawny girl who was sick through most of her school years. Besides all of them picking up her family’s nickname for her, “Baby,” the boys said those dreaded words whenever she even thought about kissing them: You’re just like a sister to me.
Well, heck, she could have told them having a sister wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. But she didn’t, because she was quiet, nice Maddie Danbury who didn’t cause any trouble, no how, no way.
Then Wayne’s dad, God bless him, had moved back to Sugar Bay. He took over the old marina and turned it into something new and full of life. And Wayne walked into her English class and did the same for her.
“You gonna come for a ride, or what?”
“Come on, you never say no to the one who loves you. Besides, this is your place, too. It’s your duty to get a feel for the boats we sell.” He kissed her on the forehead, and before she could even kiss him back, hopped onto the boat. “Selling used speedboats is much more exciting than just taking care of other people’s boats. There isn’t anything sexier than a Scarab. This baby’ll go so fast, you’ll pee your pants.”
Her face lit up. “Ooh yeah, that convinces me.” A twinge lit her stomach when she felt herself giving in like she always did. “Not today, okay, Wayne? Besides, it’s my day to walk the dogs at the Society.”
“You’d put dogs before your own husband?”
She wrapped her arms over her stomach and nodded.
“Those dogs are homeless and you’re not, so today I would.”
“All right, I won’t twist your arm. Maybe we’ll take the Dinky out tonight and catch the sunset.”
She didn’t miss his disappointment and tried to make up for it with her enthusiasm. “Kewl! I’ll grab some subs and a six-pack from Homer’s. Did you fix the gas gauge yet?”
“Nah. Got to be some excitement on that thing, never knowing if we’ll be stranded out there.” She must have let her apprehension show, because he said, “You know I wouldn’t let anything happen to you, don’t you?”
She smiled. “Nobody takes care of me like you do.”
“’Sides, it’d be romantic, alone on the Dinky at night, no one knowing where we are.”
He did look right at home on that snazzy boat, moving deftly around, yet taking a moment to touch the fiberglass curves like it was some woman. A sexy woman. Wayne didn’t even like sexy women. If he did, he sure wouldn’t have married her skinny, flat-chested self. When he started that blasted motor again, she stopped breathing for a minute. The hari-kari look flickered in his blue eyes. That fire made her heart beat faster and sent a trill of fear through her. He got the look when he was skirting the edges of oyster beds or sending a boat into full throttle.
The engine churned the green water as he maneuvered out of the navigational challenge of Sugar Bay. No one had removed the pilings from the original marina. They had disintegrated into spiky talons over the years. Wayne thought they added atmosphere and had dredged the pass to go right by them. As long as boaters made the passage warily, they’d be fine.
But Wayne was showing off. She couldn’t complain too much, since he was showing off for her. He’d threaded through the maze a gazillion times, even on moonless nights with a couple of beers in his belly.
He gunned the engine as soon as he cleared the docks and the one boat coming in. She knew exactly what he was going to do: head straight for the warning sign on the mound of oysters, then feint to the right at the last possible second. She leaned against the piling, mindful of splinters and powdery white pelican poop. Yep, he was going to give her a scare.
A seagull squawked from above. Wavelets sloshed around the pilings and sent a tiny brown crab scurrying out of the water’s reach.
Wayne glanced back at her and grinned. She smiled back because he expected it.
“Someday that boy’s gonna get himself hurt fooling ‘round like that,” Barnie said from his docked sailboat, just like he always said when he saw Wayne pulling his stunts. Barnie was her dad’s uncle, her great uncle, but she just called him Barnie.
Wayne tugged on the wheel, but the boat wasn’t turning to the right.
She forced a laugh, but it sounded brittle. “Always fooling, isn’t he?”
He wasn’t fooling. His motions turned frantic as he jerked the wheel. She wanted to yell, “Jump!” but she couldn’t even breathe. Time slowed to a halt as she stood helpless on the dock, hoping it was a joke after all, hoping the boat wasn’t actually going to hit the piling.
The boat hit with a deafening thud that shuddered through her entire body and loosened the hold of shock and fear that paralyzed her. Wayne was thrown free, and his arms and legs pummeled the air. His scream rivaled the warped sound of the boat’s engine as it rocked sideways and hit the oyster beds.
Signs didn’t have to warn what the eye could see: jagged edges clawing out of the green depths. Wayne sailed through the air, hit a sign, and dropped into the water.
She started to run, but stumbled. Her rubbery legs weren’t cooperating.
“Calling for help,” Barnie yelled and took off in the other direction.
She never took her eyes off the place where Wayne had disappeared.
The two men on the nearby boat turned around. Maddie reached the corner of the docks and ran down the narrow dock. Someone’s senseless wails penetrated her brain. Who was screaming like that, she wondered, then realized the screams were coming from her.
The men reached Wayne first. She heard them say, “Oh, my God,” and “Let’s get him out of there,” but she refused to hear the resignation in their voices. Wayne was all right. He’d be bruised, sure, maybe even break a bone.
The two men lifted him gingerly out of the water. They wouldn’t have done that if there was no hope, so he must be all right, and the blood, just superficial cuts, that was all.
She climbed to the stern of one of the docked boats, then tumbled into the water. “I’m his wife, I’m his wife,” she heard herself say as they helped her aboard.
“It don’t look good. Let’s get him to the dock,” one of the men said.
Wayne was curled in on himself. One arm was pressed over his stomach where the torn fabric of his shirt was soaked in blood. Superficial, just a scratch. The tiny cuts on his face wouldn’t even scar probably.
She knelt beside him. “Wayne, you’re going to be all right, you hear me. Help’s on the way.”
She bent to kiss him, but the kiss was warm and sticky. A trickle of blood seeped from the corner of his mouth.
“I’m sorry, Baby.” He sounded like he was gargling.
“You have nothing to be sorry about. You’re going to be fine,” she said firmly, in case anyone dared doubt her.
He swallowed, then winced. “I don’t…think so, Baby.”
She stared into his eyes, willing him to believe her words. “You’re fine.”
His eyes were glassy and filled with tears. “I’m sorry…” He coughed, and more blood trickled out. She quickly wiped it away. He’d probably bitten his tongue.
“You promised you wouldn’t break my heart.” Her voice was a stretched whisper. “You promised.”
“I know…” He took a wheezy breath. More coughing, more blood. She wiped it away again. “I won’t break your heart. I’ll…” He squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed like he had a sore throat. When he opened his eyes, he was looking beyond her. His expression changed from pained to peaceful. “An angel.”
She didn’t want to take her eyes off him, but she looked anyway. Through the waves of her tears, she saw two rainbows. She blinked to clear her eyes, but there were still two of them, one above the other. That had to be a good sign, a sign of hope.
“I’ll send you an angel, okay?” he said. “To heal your broken heart.”
She looked back at Wayne and was startled by the gray pallor of his face. “My heart’s not broken, because you are not dying. Do you hear me?”
He closed his eyes again. “Baby, are you going to listen to me, or what?”
“Or what. Look, we’re docking, and I hear the ambulance coming. Don’t move—”
He reached out with a shaking hand and took hers. “I love you, Baby. I always will.”
“I love you, too,” she said on a choked breath.
But he was already gone.
Whenever you feel alone, look for the end of the rainbow, and I’ll be there.
One year later…
Maddie made the morning transfer from her bedroom to the couch. She couldn’t muster enough energy to change, so she stayed in her oversized pajamas. She snuggled into the faded comforter with the pink flowers and stared at the television while the morning routine went on around her. It was comforting, that routine, even if she wasn’t part of it. Dad came in wearing his blue uniform with the grease smudges on it even though Mom had washed it a gazillion times. He said he didn’t mind the stains; he was a mechanic and proud of it. Even if he did work for the Schaeffers.
Everything about being back home was comforting. Nothing had changed since she was a kid, except that Mom had turned PTA bake sales into something of a career. By six in the morning she’d already baked and delivered her goodies.
And just like when Maddie was a kid, the clowns watched her. They didn’t jive with the country charm décor (farm house clutter, Dad called it), but Mom didn’t care. Clowns were nestled between cow and pig figurines, were sitting on top of the pine cones in a bucket, and were tucked into nearly every basket in sight. Maddie didn’t mind the rustic furniture or the cast iron duck she stubbed her toe on regularly. But she hated clowns.
Her sister Colleen walked in the front door, looked at her, and rolled her eyes. Just like she had every single morning for the last few months. She was born mean-looking and hadn’t changed much since then. “Wow, big surprise: Baby’s sitting on the couch, still wearing her PJs, and dirty hair to boot.”
Through the magic of maternal instinct, Mom sailed into the room with the brush and planted herself beside Maddie. “Just like when you were a little girl,” she said, running the brush through Maddie’s hair. Mom’s strawberry curls billowed around her hair band. “You were too sick to do it yourself sometimes, but you loved having your hair brushed.”
“Oh, gawd, she’s not a little girl anymore,” Colleen said. “She outgrew the asthma when she was fourteen.”
Mom pushed her big glasses down her nose. “She has gone through hell in a hand basket, and don’t you forget it.”
“How could I? She’s never going to get over it if ya’ll keep babying her—”
Mom shoved her glasses back up to the bridge of her nose. “Colleen Anne Danbury Sewell, I swear you don’t have a heart at all. What if your Bobby left suddenly? Wouldn’t you want your family to rally around you, try to ease your pain? That’s all we’re doing, and…”—this was where Mom’s voice got shrill from impending tears—“if you can’t understand that’s what family is all about, I…I have failed as a mother.”
Colleen opened her mouth to say something, but let out a sigh instead. “You didn’t fail, Mom. It’s just that Baby’s been getting this kind of attention since the day she was born, and I don’t think you’re helping by doing every little thing for her.”
“I am helping, by giving her time to heal without having to sweat the details. She can stay here as long as she likes, forever even. And you can’t blame your sister for being born with asthma. We almost lost her three times.”
“I know, I know,” Colleen said.
“You almost didn’t have a little sister.”
Mom’s shrill voice returned. “It was only by the goodness and mercy of the Lord God that she lived to be here today.”
Maddie always faded off whenever they started talking about her as though she weren’t there. She stared through the picture window to the pink house across the street. That was where Colleen lived with her husband and son, who was standing by the mailbox waiting for the bus. Maddie had moved farther away when she had gotten married. Wayne’s grandparents had given them a little cottage on the Gulf, and Wayne had added a pool. But living there alone…heck, living alone period was beyond comprehension. Her family and friends had closed up the house and moved Maddie back home. She hadn’t been back since, not there or to the marina. It hurt too much.
It hurt that life went on. After Wayne died, the sun came up bright and clear, people went to work, and the marina kept operating. Maddie’s life screeched to a halt, but everyone else kept on living. It hurt to see her family look at her the way they used to when she was sick. This time she wasn’t sure she could get better, and she felt like she was letting them down. It even hurt when her dad kissed her on the forehead every morning and said, “Bye, pumpkin. You try and have a good day, hear?” like he really wanted her to, but knew she couldn’t.
Mom grabbed Maddie’s chin and asked, “You okay, Sugar Baby?”
Maddie had heard this question all through her growing up years. For every cough, every sniffle. During the last year she always answered, “Okay,” but couldn’t help the one-shouldered shrug that said, Not okay.
“My poor Baby, you just let your Mom make it all right.” When the kitchen timer went off, she asked, “Would you like a banana pecan muffin?”
“No, thanks,” Maddie answered as Mom went into the kitchen to bring one anyway. Maddie would pick at it until it kind of looked like she’d eaten it.
Mom sailed out of the kitchen bearing the muffin and a mug of coffee for Colleen. “Chocolate raspberry this week,” she said to Colleen before heading back to the kitchen. Mom changed the flavor of coffee every week to add excitement to the old routine. Dad complained every morning, but she swore he’d come to like it. She’d been doing it for three years. Maddie happened to know that he dumped out his coffee in the front yard (which was why the gardenias were all brown out by the clown mailbox). Colleen kept running her fingers through her hair as she stared out the window. She had the hair Maddie didn’t, loads of it that fell just past her shoulders. It was, however, the same drab shade of blonde Maddie had. Colleen denied to the moon that she highlighted it, but they all knew she did. It was all Maddie could do to muster the energy to wash her hair, which she just had, thank you very much, Colleen. She just hadn’t brushed it since her shower last night.
Colleen took after Mom, with slanted eyes and a sharp nose. Maddie wasn’t sure who she’d taken after. She got her square face from Dad, but her small frame? The doctor had once told them asthma could postpone the onset of puberty; he’d never mentioned that puberty might never catch up. Colleen was still looking out the window.
“Bobby go to work early again?” Maddie asked.
“Yep. Hard-working man, he is.” There wasn’t any real pride in those words. “He’s been going in at six for the last few months. Then he gets off early and goes out to the workshop and makes furniture ‘til late.”
“He still talking about quitting Schaeffer Cabinets and starting his own business?”
“He wants to. I told him our finances are just the way we want, down to the dime. In three more years we might be able to afford the down payment on a pool, unless I win the Publisher’s Sweepstakes this year.” She opened the front door. “Have a good day at school, Quigley!”
He waved, rather sullenly Maddie thought, and got on the bus as though his feet weighed ten pounds apiece.
“He wants to be called Q,” Maddie said after Colleen closed the door.
When the bus dropped Quigley off, he came over and babysat Maddie, though it was portrayed the other way around. “He wants to be called ‘Q.’ He says it’s cooler. And the kids are starting to tease him, calling him Quiggles and Quig Pig.”
“That’s ridiculous. Six-year-olds aren’t cool.”
Just like when they were kids, Colleen gave her the vulture look: hair pulled back, shoulders hunched and face thrust forward. “Playing Nintendo with him for a few hours a day doesn’t qualify you to tell me how to raise my son.”
Maddie crossed her arms over her chest. “We do more than play Nintendo. We play Scrabble sometimes, too.”
“Don’t put thoughts in Quigley’s head, all right? It’s just a phase. And unlike you, he’ll get over it. Unlike you, he’s not waiting for some stupid angel to fix his problems.”
That again. Every day Colleen managed to bring it up with some dig. Maddie pulled the comforter up to her chin. Colleen didn’t know anything about getting over things. She’d never lost one of the most important people in her life. And she’d never had to wait day after day for a promise to be fulfilled.
“Someday I’d like to sit you down and tell you what you look like, moping like a rag doll,” Colleen said. “But you’d go running to Mom.”
As Colleen headed to the door, Maddie said, “Q hates the trolls at your house, too.”
Colleen’s shoulders stiffened. “What?”
“They creep him out.”
The quaint exterior of Colleen’s house belied a cave-like interior filled with trolls. She had Bobby build a wall unit that looked like a tree, with little caves and even a working waterfall. Their furniture was made of lacquered cypress, the walls were covered in dark paneling, and the sculptured carpet was moss green. Colleen narrowed her eyes. “My home is the only place where I don’t have to defer to your wishes. All my life it was no, you can’t have a dog, or you can’t do this or that, because it’ll make Baby sick, or give in just this once because Baby had a rough night. Between Mom and a husband who spoiled you rotten, no one has ever let you grow up. I’m sorry he died, Baby, I really am. I’m sorry he left, I mean,” she added, because no one was supposed to say the D-word around Maddie. “But just because you’re miserable doesn’t mean everyone else is miserable, too. Just once I’d like to see some evidence that you’re growing up and moving on with your life.”
Colleen waited for a response. Maddie could have come up with some biting reply if she’d had the motivation. Instead she stuck out her tongue. Mom had turned her big, square kitchen into a bit of country heaven over the years. The floor was covered in a flat, flowery carpet. Dad had scavenged the heavy oak table at a barn sale in Georgia. Bobby had built two open cabinets that were now crammed with plates and pitchers and hanging tea cups and all the things that reminded Mom of the farmhouse she’d grown up in.
Ever since Bobby started working late, Colleen and Q ate dinner with the rest of the Danburys. Q’s mouth was in a pout and his blue eyes were downcast as he picked through his mashed tators for the lumps. Lumps were his favorite. His curls were the color of the copper gelatin molds on the brick wall behind him. His skin was pale as cream except for the spray of copper freckles, just like his daddy.
“How come Dad don’t eat with us no more?” Q asked. “He’s working hard so we can have a pool someday.”
Q traded a look with Maddie, then went back to spearing lumps. She noticed the flush on her sister’s face. Something wasn’t right. She wasn’t meeting anyone’s eyes. Is everything all right? The words hung in Maddie’s throat. Of course it was. At least Colleen had a husband to spoon with at night. Maddie picked at her drumstick, but her appetite disintegrated when she took in the two empty chairs in the dining area. Bobby’s at the table…and Wayne’s, which had been set by the phone, like she wasn’t supposed to notice. If he were there, he’d be tipping his chair way back and making Mom nervous. He’d be telling some joke he’d heard and laughing harder than anyone else at the punch line.
“Oh, Maddie,” Colleen said in a taunting voice. “Ran into Wendy today. Darcy told her about a guy who came to town in response to Barnie’s ad. Darcy checked him out, of course. He’s in his late twenties maybe, dark hair. He’s going to be working on that sailboat Barnie started before hurting himself.”
“He crushed his nuts,” Q said. “Nuts isn’t a bad word.”
“I swear he’s proud of it. Anyway, the guy doesn’t even have enough money to stay at Marylou’s, so Barnie’s letting him sleep on his sailboat.”
That’s how Maddie figured the angel would make her, or his, appearance, a stranger wandering into town. Some of the strangers who stayed at Marylou’s bed and breakfast (Maddie checked every week) were nice enough, but they usually had earthly ties like spouses or children. She was sure one older lady was her angel until she stole Marylou’s jewelry and even the quarters in her coffee tin. Maddie leaned forward, then realized she’d dipped her elbows in her gravy. “What else?”
“Oh, come on, Maddie. An angel’s supposed to be…I don’t know. Angelic. This guy sounds too good-looking to be angelic.”
“Nicholas Cage played an angel in that movie, and he’s good-looking,” Maddie said.
“He is not.”
“What about John Travolta then? He played a cool angel. A cool, good-looking angel.”
“That was a movie, made up, fantasy. Then again, so is your whole angel infatuation.”
Maddie wiped the gravy off her elbow. “There was so an angel in my hospital room that night I almost died.”
“It was a visiting doctor,” Colleen said.“Then why couldn’t anyone say who she was?”
Mom pursed her mouth. “If Maddie wants to believe there was an angel in her room, let her believe it.”
“Tell me more about the guy,” Maddie asked.
“Darcy said he had a tattoo on his arm. No angel is going to have a tattoo.”
Excitement surged through Maddie. “An angel can be disguised as anyone. Most of the stories I’ve read—”
“We know,” Colleen said. “We’ve heard them all.”
“If it makes her happy to believe in angels, then let her,” Mom said, then turned to Dad. “Isn’t that right, dear?”
“I don’t think she should—”
“You’re right, she shouldn’t be thwarted by someone else’s cynicism,” Mom said.
Colleen buttered a roll with jerky movements. “But she’s not happy. She hardly ever leaves the house, doesn’t help at the Humane Society, doesn’t go to the marina, or anywhere.”
“She’s as happy as she can be having lost the love of her life,” Mom said, that shrill tone creeping in. “She tried going back to the Humane Society, but the thought of those dogs and cats being put down was just too much to bear. And how can she go to the place where that awful thing happened?”
“She owns it! The Schaeffers have taken it over just like they’ve taken over everything in this town.”
Maddie slid into her own thoughts, but this time those thoughts weren’t never-ending bleak days that rolled one to another without joy. This time she thought about the stranger. It was too late to see him tonight. Her throat tightened at the mere thought of going to the marina.
Mom said, “I haven’t seen that much life in her eyes since…well, since the last time she thought a transient was her angel.”
Dad said, “I don’t think—“
“Of course you don’t think there’s anything wrong with her looking for that angel,” Mom cut in. “What kind of father would you be if you did?”
“Tell me more about him,” Maddie asked Colleen. “What kind of tattoo does he have?”
“I was kidding about him being your angel, Baby!”
Maddie leaned forward, mindful of the gravy. “Tell me anyway.”
Colleen rolled her eyes. “It’s a tattoo of…a naked woman. When he flexes his muscle, she dances. And he has long hair. And he has…an eye patch. He’s missing some teeth. And he walks with a limp.”
“I thought you said he was good-looking.”
“Well, you know Darcy. Anything male is good-looking to her.”
Maddie tried to put the items together in the picture of her mind: John Travolta with a tattoo, eye patch, missing teeth, and a limp. “I don’t care what he looks like. I’m going to go check him out tomorrow.”