The Everlasting Tide of Innocence
by D. B. Gardner
Fran perched on the edge of her bed, hands on knees, glaring across the hall at the laundry pile spilling in a tangled knot outside the dryer, struggling to fathom how things had reached this point. Outside the window, the push mower sat idly in the long grass. More than dismayed, she wormed her feet into her slippers and trudged down the hall, trying to ignore the cheese-stuck plates heaped outside her daughter’s bedroom door as though waiting for a hotel maid, and instead glanced into the bathroom. Teen magazines, Justine and J-14, lay scattered across the floor, open to glossy photos of Whethan and Boy Pablo. She went across the hall into the mudroom—enduring the stench of neglected kitty litter, a straight-up violation of the promise the girl made to her allergy-stricken mother to obtain the animal in the first place—then marched out to the kitchen, shoved aside the partially consumed yogurt containers scattered across the counter, and started the coffeemaker. With the morning not yet half-over and her exasperation mounting, Fran wandered out to the patio in search of solace. A nail brush from a bottle of dreamy periwinkle polish sat firmly stuck to the glass table, but before Fran could pry it up, she heard the low hum of the pool pump, and kneeling down near the skimmer, found a beach towel, partially sucked in, and wrestled it free.
One thing had become crystal clear. When it came to the girl, Fran had arrived at the end of her tether. She doctored a steaming cup of coffee with a reliable dose of sugar and took it out to the wooden bench the Captain had erected for her beneath the boughs of a willow. The morning air was crisp, and Fran inhaled deeply, cradling the cup close to her nose, and soberly assessed the situation.
This much she knew: to compensate for his frequent and prolonged absences, the Captain spoiled the child. His work often sent him to far corners of the globe, and he’d long ago taken to sending the girl a gift from a distant port each time he was away. The package Fran held in her hand bore a stamp of Anchorage, Alaska, though the postmark was most likely a decoy—where the gift was mailed from. It could be a voodoo doll, an exotic painting of the goddess Marici, an Inuit carving, or a boomerang.
Fran lipped her coffee, checked her watch. It was nearly noon; the girl would be up soon. She laid her boney chin with her palm, the package against her leg, and weighed the decision. The Captain never understood Fran’s frustration over his lavish treatment of the girl. To him, Kimberly was still the bouncing baby daughter on his knee, not an insolent thirteen-year-old. But when it came to Kimberly’s latest punishment—being careless with her things, specifically her phone—Fran wasn’t about to cave. And after what she’d encountered this morning, the girl didn’t deserve anything, let alone another gift.
She slapped her knees and stood, her mind made up, and trudged in through the mudroom, the ammonia of the litterbox biting her nostrils, stormed to the end of the hall, shoved the plates away from the girl’s door with her foot, and knocked. “Kimberly?”
“Don’t get in a squeeze.”
“A what? Pumpkin?”
Boyband pop blared from inside the girl’s room. “Music box, stop,” the girl yelled, directing the smart-speaker. The song faded, and the door flung open. Kimberly stuck her arm across the doorway. “What’s up—Fran?”
“There’s news—from your father.”
“Daddy!” The girl hopped around, clapping, and performed several pirouettes. “Is that mine?” she said, pausing long enough to finger the package at her mother’s side.
Fran jerked the box away. “No—well, sort of. First, can we discuss your behavior?”
“Oh—god, Mother! Why you be pressin’?”
“Why—am I—does it feel like I’m pressuring you, Kimberly?” The mother kicked a pile of clothes aside and nudged into the room.
Kimberly batted her eyelashes, conjured a remorseful pout, and draped her arms over Fran’s shoulders with a hug so feeble it wouldn’t have made a stuffed toy squeak. “I’ve been a dell.”
“Yeah—a big fat dell,” said Kimberly pulled away. “You know—devil from hell? Come on, Fran, I’ve played you that song before? Devil from hell, you made my heart bleed. Devil from hell, you’re such a dell,” she sang.
“I’m afraid—I don’t. Kimberly, as long as we’re talking—for a change, I’d like you to stop calling me Fran. I’m your mother.”
“Sure—mom,” the girl replied with an impish smile, freckles dancing at the top of her upturned nose.
In years past, that face would have melted Fran’s icy resolve. But this time was different. “Why did you contact your father? I wanted to be the one to inform your father about the incident,” said Fran.
“All I did was send him an email. I miss him.”
Fran’s arms crossed her chest. “Do you miss your phone?”
“That’s not fair!”
“Fair?” Fran started to pace in front of the girl. “Buying you another eight hundred dollar phone doesn’t exactly sound fair either.”
“But—it’s—been—four—days,” Kimberly whined, her outstretched palms flipping open and shut with each syllable.
Fran stamped her foot. “Kimberly Iris Campbell. Your father shared your email with me. You made it sound as if the phone accidentally fell into the pool.”
Kimberly plopped at the edge of the bed, pulled a pillow to her chest. “Well—that’s what happened.”
“It didn’t fall in. You threw it across the pool to Ashley.”
“Who happened to be wearing a softball mitt.”
“Who happens to be a ballplayer who can throw, unlike you.”
“So, I misjudged—a little.”
“You misjudge a lot. Like thinking I’m your personal housemaid, for one.”
“It’s cause I’m missin’ my phone, Mommy, I’m going loco,” said Kimberly, leaping to her feet, a hand shoved under each armpit, scratching at the floor like a chicken, “I’m funky with the got-no-phone sweats,” sticking her fingers beneath her nose, flopping into the wicker chair. “Why doesn’t Daddy just call?”
“We’ve been over this before.”
“I—know,” said the girl, hand gesturing like the head of a duck, “he’s not allowed to have special ship-to-shore privileges unless it’s an emergency.”
Fran squared her jaw. “Does this seem like an emergency?”
“Didn’t think so.” Fran patted the girl’s thigh. “Now, let’s think. When did Daddy last write?”
“Um—four days ago.”
“Exactly. So he won’t write again for another five days; that’s his pattern. By then, he’ll be at the port of LA, and if all goes well, meet us at the rental in Manhattan Beach. We only have the house for three days this time, so be ready come Friday morning.” Fran drifted to the window. “I hope your father can make it. He was expecting some rough weather.”
“I know. I’m so worried.” Kimberly eyed the package swinging at Fran’s hip, arms outstretched, fingers waggling in a fit of puerile humor, mouthing the word—‘gimme.’
Fran plodded over and handed the package to the squirming girl, who instantly ripped off the pull tab, dumped the contents onto her bed, and, drawing her breath like a two-year-old before a tantrum, squealed, “It’s the H2O-phone with a zip-pouch! It’s waterproof. I can take it snorkeling.”
“That’s terrific, honey,” Fran said and trudged thanklessly into the hallway.
The girl dove onto the bed. “Oh—Daddy, you’re the best. Thank you—thank you,” she beamed, rolling side-to-side, phone clutched to her chest.
At the sideboard halfway down the hall, Fran paused to comb her hair with her hand, leaning into the mirror. “Better get home soon, Captain. Six weeks is long enough. We need to have a talk—about the girl,” she whispered sullenly, expecting the words to bridge the fourteen-hundred-mile gap between her and her husband’s ship, steaming eastward across the Pacific.
* * *
Lightning splintered the sky outside the helmsman’s window. As the strobe decayed, the sailor gazed into the inky blackness and snared a glimpse of the turbulent sea. His grip tightened on the wheel, more to keep his balance than to steer, as another punishing wave spilled over the bow. The freighter heeled side to side, lurching about in search of a balance point, and the ship’s off-course alarm flooded the bridge with a near-deafening blare.
First Mate Benjamin Stewart, the ship’s most able seaman, crossed the tottering steel enclosure and silenced the horn. The eighteen-year veteran propped himself against the console and studied the maelstrom. It had worked its way south from the Arctic, overtaking the Vancouver-bound vessel more quickly than anticipated.
“Mr. Ross, plot a new course,” Stewart ordered the helmsman. “I’ll take it up with the captain if we’re late to port.”
The next wave lifted them higher still, and the seven-hundred-foot freighter nosed over the top and charged headlong into the breach, sea rising all around, staccato flashes punctuating the black; jagged ghosts of light skittering across the bridge. Stewart wiped the fog from the window, focusing beyond the acres of steel containers to the short white mast nearly two football fields away, bobbing in the void.
“Give us a heading of west, southwest, Mr. Ross. We’ll fight our way out to deeper water and wait for this monster to pass,” he said. Seaspray exploded once more as they burrowed into the coming swell. “Were the lashings inspected this morning?”
“Yes, sir. The calibrations were completed before lunch.”
Stewart warily eyed the swaying cargo, then picked up the phone and rang the stateroom. “It’s Stewart, sir? Yes, sir, it’s a strong one. Right. On my own accord, yes, sir. Thank you, sir.” He hung up the receiver and pivoted toward the helmsman. “We’re to keep to the new course.”
Less than ten minutes later, Captain Donovan Campbell’s indomitable outline appeared at the threshold. He latched the door and shook the rain from his jacket and boots, staggered across the bridge to the radar screen.
“Good work, Mr. Stewart,” the Captain boasted, “We wouldn’t have been able to run through this bastard. Hold steady—the worst will soon be behind us.” The barrel-chested man lumbered to the window, slid it sideways, rain pelting his face, and stuck his head out, gathering his best view of the trackless sea. “Give me a reading,” he said as he drew back.
“Wind speed hovering between sixty and seventy knots for the last thirty minutes. Out of the northwest, sir,” said Stewart.
“Very well. Hold firm, Mr. Ross—we’ll be crosswind soon. Things could get dicey.”
With a grinding cry, the vessel skittered down another wave. “Will this ever let up?” shouted Stewart, trying to keep his balance.
“Sir, look,” said the helmsman, gesturing madly toward the bow, where the metal lashings were vaulting into the ocean like pogo-sticks, breaking lose one-by-one, nearly a dozen in all. “Oh, shit!—Captain, we’re losing some of the deck chairs!” the helmsman yelled as a column of containers toppled into the sea.
“Steady, Mr. Ross, this doesn’t need to be an avalanche.” Captain Campbell ground his fist into his palm. “How many, do you think, Mr. Stewart?”
“I saw three go over. No way to tell for sure,” replied Stewart.
“Be sure to get a full report when this clears and log it onto the manifest,” said the Captain. He went to the radar screen and ran his finger over the map. “Another hour or so, and we’ll be in the clear,” he muttered under his breath, “Time enough to get to my girls.”
* * *
Early that Friday morning, sipping coffee from the comfort of her poolside lounger, Fran regarded the mist over the distant creek, thick as an ice-cream mustache. A strand of sunlight found a heron, regal blue, gliding effortlessly over the reed-lined channel, departing more gracefully than Fran’s disappointment as she reread the Captain’s email:
Won’t be home tonight for the beach bonfire, sorry.
Fran’s airy sigh moaned like a budget concertina as she rose from the low chair and crossed the lanai, pool skimmer in hand. Three steps into the shallow end, she snagged the plastic bundle and brought it to the edge. Music poured softly from inside the pouch; the girl’s phone was still playing. Fran tapped at the buttons inside the bag until the thing shut off, then stormed into the house to wake the girl.
* * *
“You left it behind intentionally, didn’t you, Fran?” the girl accused. Kimberly glared out the passenger window at the trees and houses flitting past, stalking them like prey.
“It’s only for three days. It’ll do you some good.”
Kimberly adjusted her aligner. “Three days,” she said, chewing her fingers, “might as well be forever. The Jeg Iz Spellin’s new single is supposed to drop tomorrow. I’ll be snoozin’ like Susan.”
“You should have thought about that before leaving your phone in the pool overnight.”
“Uh—Hello? Mars to Fran? It was in a waterproof pouch.”
“That doesn’t make it a turtle.”
The girl flicked off the car radio and crossed her arms. “I don’t suppose you brought your eReader.”
“Actually—I did,” Fran replied glibly. “If I give it to you, will you read an actual book?”
“If I stop talking—will you actually drive faster?”
“Kimberly Jo Campbell,” the mother said with a groan, “we’ll be on the beach in less than an hour. Can’t you at least be civil?” She glared over at the sullen girl. “Oh—why do I even bother?” Fran shrugged. “It’s in the console.”
The girl popped open the dash, jammed a cord into the eReader, and turned it on. “Oh, wait,” she said, tugging an earbud out, “Did I mention I had a dream about daddy’s ship. It was in a bad storm. Nobody hurt, but—freaky, huh?” Kimberly blew a bubble, tucked the AirPods into her ears, and except for the occasional cracking and popping of gum, silence set in, and Fran soon found herself ruminating over countless times the two had read Charlotte’s Web, Tom Sawyer, Wind in the Willows, and Harry Potter. She nudged Kimberly, “What is it?” pointing to her ears.
Kimberly paused the narration. “Hannah Brine.”
“Never heard of it.”
“Daddy got it for me. It’s about this woman from Louisiana who goes to live with the monarch butterflies in the mountains of Mexico, then one night, she turns into one.”
The mother grinned. “Fiction, right?”
“It’s a popular book. Been translated into thirteen languages.”
“So—the butterfly effect, literally.”
* * *
“Well, Fran,” Fran muttered to herself, “go ahead and stand there, doing nothing, mother of the year, watching your daughter rush into the edge of a churning ocean. May as well take her bungee jumping—or sky-diving.” She curled one arm over her head and waved. “Kimberly!” she shouted, her voice trying to overcome the pounding surf.
A soccer field away, the girl scrambled up from the sandcastle—hair dancing in a tangle along her sunbaked shoulders—brushed off her knees, and stared back at the cottage. A wave trickled in around her ankles, going from inches to knee-deep, then peeling back like spent linen. The mother yelled once more, and Kimberly pointed to her ears, shaking her head.
Fran spread her fingers, holding them high, making a five, and flashed it twice.
Twenty minutes later, Kimberly plunked down onto the kitchen chair. “When do we eat, Fran. I’m starving to death!” she complained, hair twisted into a towel above her head.
“I’m not sure you realize what that phrase really means,” Fran said, bent over inside the refrigerator. She carried a platter across the room, laying a hand on the girl’s tawny shoulder as she placed it on the table. “You going to finish your sandcastle after lunch?”
“There’s nothing else to do—without Daddy.”
“He’ll be here in the morning. We can have breakfast together.”
“Okay,” said Kimberly. She propped the napkin ring on its edge and flicked it with her finger. It twirled like a pinwheel across the waxed mahogany tabletop. “I saw some skateboarders in the city park—by the big red caboose.”
“That’s nice, dear,” Fran answered feebly. The ocean, being boy-free, was perhaps not so dangerous after all. She dipped a carrot into a bowl of ranch dressing.
Kimberly unwrapped the towel from her hair and shoved herself away from the table. “Maybe I’ll get dressed and —”
Fran sprang from her chair. “Hang on,” she said, opening a drawer on the kitchen island and pulling out the phone.
“I can have it back?” squealed the girl.
Fran held it over her head. “You had it less than a week, then left it overnight in the swimming pool,” she scolded. “At least try to take better care this time.”
She kissed her mother on the cheek, climbing Fran’s arm to reach the phone, then danced out the door, the pouch spinning like a propeller at her side.
Slightly irked by the exchange, Fran watched as the carefree girl bounded down the steps toward the ocean. She put away the leftovers, and an unopened bottle of prosecco greeted her daringly from inside the refrigerator door. The dishes could wait.
With a beach read paperback plucked from the rental home bookcase, Fran sauntered out to the deck and situated herself comfortably into a lounger. Under the shaded comfort of one of the broad umbrellas, hours seemed to vanish with the ebbing tide. A voice rang out, perforating the trance. It was Fran’s name being called, gliding up the windy shoreline. Fran raised up from the book to find Kimberly near the shoreline, waving for her to come out. She folded her book and trekked down to the breezy shoreline where the girl’s lithe frame lay coiled effortlessly around the sandcastle, patting, sculpting, adding the final touches. The shoulder-high sunset seemed to complete the fairytale scene, so Fran plucked Kimberly’s phone from the girl’s towel and snapped a photo.
Kimberly scrambled to her feet excitedly and snatched the phone away from Fran. “Takes pretty good pictures, doesn’t it?” she said, punching the buttons inside the pouch. “Underwater, too—see.” She handed it back.
“Is that a sand-dollar?”
“Uh-huh,” Kimberly nodded.
Fran closed her billowing shirt over her chest, looking back at the house with a wan smile. Beneath the umbrella—green-canvas flapping in the breeze—her beverage and novel awaited. She turned around, admiring the winsome girl, bronze-backed, hands-on-hips, watching a pair of seagulls hover over the sea. These wondrously beguiling days with the exuberant little beast would come to an end soon enough, thought Fran. “You want to come up? I could make hot fudge sundaes?”
“Not yet. I saw a starfish earlier. I want to get a picture,” the girl said and tore away.
Fran trudged up the beach to the deck and nestled into the cushy lounger. Less than a thirty-second sprint away, Kimberly tumbled amid the crashing waves. Fran glanced up nervously from her book until eventually, the girl scrambled into shore and plopped down to resume work on her sand structure.
“I brought another, just in case.”
The familiar voice behind her startled Fran at first. She dropped the book on the deck and coiled around. “Why, prosecco, my favorite,” she said, rising to wrap both arms around the Captain’s neck.
“I ought to bring this more often. Cheaper than a necklace,” said the Captain, once she’d unloosened her grip. He gestured toward the lounger, the elation melting from his face. “Sit,” he said and nestled in gloomily beside her.
“What is it?”
“I’ve been put on leave. Six months.”
Fran ran a hand across his stubbled cheek. “Oh—dear me, no.”
“There was a mishap, a stretch of bad water.”
“Not to me, it doesn’t. And this time was expensive—for the company. Or should I say, for the insurance company?” He cradled her hand and planted a grateful kiss inside her palm. “I can begin looking for other work come Monday— if that’s what we decide.”
“Will it come to that? Oh—Don—I’ve never seen you so troubled. What was the cargo?”
He rubbed the back of his head. “There were 44,000 of them, Frannie, with a manufacturing cost of three-hundred bucks a pop. Christ—that’s a goddam fortune!” The father glanced up, hearing Kimberly’s shouts as the girl came sprinting up the beach.
“Daddy! Yay—daddy, Daddy!”
“My—angel!” he roared, rising to greet her at the edge of the stairs with a hug, lifting, twirling, carrying her up.
It warmed Fran’s soul watching them reconnect, listening to their chatter as they crossed the deck. “Honey, did you thank Daddy for his gift?” she said.
The girl unlocked her arms from her father’s waist, beaming. “Oh, yes, thank you,” she said, hugging him again, her arms overlapping. Then, with a jolt, she suddenly jerked away, looking around. She walked to the edge of the deck. “Oh, no—No! My—my phone!” she shrieked, realizing the phone pouch no longer dangled from her wrist. Kimberly spun around, pointing to the ocean. “I left it next to the castle,” she told her parents, horrified, and she peeled away down the steps.
The Captain promptly removed his shoes and socks, rolled up his pant legs, and chased after the girl, the pair arriving together at the muddy mound of sand, ankle-deep in water. The girl charged furiously about the emptying moat as the wave pulled back, searching without reward before the next arrived. Along came the mother, wading in beside her husband, shadowing the girl as they scanned the surface of the turbulent water, ever-wary of the undertow, Kimberly charging ahead, her feet barely touching the sand.
“There it is!” the girl squealed and triumphantly snagged the pouch from the wave’s crest as rolled over.
“I found it!” shouted the mother, some thirty feet away, stumbling in the heavy surf with a phone pouch in her hand.
“Here’s two more,” said the father, perplexed, pushing his way through the flotsam, holding forward the pair of rubbery bubbles as five more plastic cases, each carrying a phone inside, floated past his knees with the next wave. As the trio inched their way closer together, dozens of pouches, then hundreds more, began to pile in around them.
“This couldn’t happen in my worst nightmare,” the Captain moaned quietly to himself, absorbing the phenomenon with disbelieving eyes.
“It’s—amazing!” Kimberly shouted, her face a shimmering wet glow. “Just like the end of my dream—the ship and the storm—the phones. How did you do it?” she said as she splashed over and leaped into the Captain’s arms, the pair tumbling into the onrushing surf.