Love and Death
Cartwheeling head over heels, Nicki landed on her back with a hard splash as wooden and fiberglass splinters landed all around her. For a moment she simply lay still, the sharp waves from the wake of whatever had slammed into the boat rocking her wildly in the water. She moved her limbs and found no obvious injuries to herself. "Sam? Jessie?" she called out, looking around.
"Yeah, we're OK, Nicki," Samantha swam out from behind the largest chunk of their boat's wreckage. She stared down at the water below them, now becoming calmer, and with no visible sign of anything below. "What in the world happened here?" she asked out loud, still looking white in the face from their sudden accident.
"I have no idea, Sam, and I vote we just get out of here before whatever it is comes back," Jessie also looked unnerved. "Just look at this!" she lamented, staring at the wreckage of their boat strewn everywhere, "Mr. Smarr's going to kill us when we come back with this all wrecked! We'll probably have to pay for it too, I'll bet!"
"Well, at least the radio still seems to be OK," Samantha pointed to it, still hooked in place on the fuselage and out of the water. She reached for it and activated it. "All units, we've had a bit of an accident out here; we're going to need someone to pick us up," she said to everyone on the beach, "We're at," she glanced around, "Near the ring of rocks about two miles from the old prison on DeSoto Island (indeed, Nicki could make out the decaying Spanish fortress, over four hundred years old, in the distance). Be advised also there's also debris from another boat wreck of some kind out here, so let recovery teams know there's stuff to salvage besides our own boat."
"Roger that, we'll send someone out to pick you up," the dispatcher said. Nicki heaved herself up onto the fuselage and grabbed hold of what had been the front railing. Jessie and Samantha did the same, and the three of them gently kicked towards the beach, about a mile or so away. "Don't say it, Nicki," Jessie held a hand to her face, "Don't say this was the work of a sea monster. It could easily have been a whale or a shark or something like that."
"Maybe," Nicki mused.
"Just stop that, OK!?" the redhead begged her, "You're starting to freak me out with this whole business! Isn't she freaking you out too, Sam!?" she pleaded with Samantha to support her.
"We'll see what else happens," Samantha seemed non-committal, "We didn't disprove that theory either out here. Oh, here they come," she noticed a boat speeding towards them. "Over here," she waved the other lifeguards down.
Much as Jessie had feared, Mr. Smarr was rather upset that one of the county's rather expensive lifeguarding boats had been wrecked. While he hadn't punished the three of them, he had rather strongly advised them not to borrow another boat until further notice. Nicki had listened in outside the door before heading back to the tower, having seen the recovery crew bringing in the remains of their boat and the other boat they'd found. Apparently, Smarr had said while on the phone with someone with the county sheriff, the other boat had been a pleasure yacht rented from the same marina Tim Reilly's boat had been from by a group of college students on one last summer fling. And they hadn't been heard from since they'd left port either. At this point, Smarr had started for the door, perhaps suspecting he was being listened in on, and Nicki had been forced to dart around the back of the building and make her way back to the tower.
The rest of the day went by relatively uneventfully. The wind was picking up harder as Nicki and her friends left the tower for the night and trudged back to the beach house. Nicki's mind was racing, not least of all about how horribly she would have felt had either Samantha or Jessie been hurt in the accident. Once inside the beach house, she walked into the bathroom to change, but instead found herself staring at the mirror. A set of worried blue eyes looked back at her. Was it really worth it to figure out what had happened to endanger their lives, she thought to herself? And what if Jessie was right all along, and it was nothing. Perhaps everything that was going on was a string of unrelated accidents.
She knew what she had to say. After changing out of her lifeguard uniform (as it was cooler out now with a cloudier sky and brisk breeze, she put on a set of pants), she walked slowly into the den. Her friends were slouched in chairs, watching the TV. "I, uh," she cleared her throat slowly, "I'm sorry I put you guys in harm's way. If the two of you think I should stop looking into what's going on, I'll stop."
"It's entirely your decision, Nicki," Samantha seemed sympathetic, "I know you look into these things because you care for people."
"Yeah, I know your heart's in the right place, Nicki, and you just want to help," Jessie did give her a smile before continuing, a bit grumpier, "But from here on, please try and be more careful; I don't want to be almost killed again by..."
There came a sudden knock at the door. The redhead jumped up to get it. "Well hello," she sounded quite pleased. Nicki turned and froze up to see Adam at the door. Part of her felt like hiding, at least until Adam spoke up. "Is Nicki in?" he asked Jessie.
"Uh, yes, um, I'm, I'm here," Nicki found her voice after a moment, "What, um, what do you want?"
"I just wanted to ask if you wanted to take a walk on the beach," he told her.
"Just the two of you?" Jessie looked rather disappointed.
"Sorry Jessie, just her and I," Adam shook his head.
"Well, um, I, guess that would be fine," Nicki was amazed he would offer her that, "I'll, uh, I'll be right out. Just, just, uh, leave the light on for me, guys," she told her friends as she bustled out the door, "I won't be too long, I don't think."
She gave Adam a nervous smile as they walked over the dunes together. "Why me?" she asked him, "Why would you want...?"
"I'll explain in time," he said, giving her a smile of his own that made her feel like melting. "Word is you had a bit of an accident earlier; are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm fine, no damage at all," she shivered as the breeze off the sea picked up in the dwindling twilight. "Boy it got colder quick," she remarked, glad she had put on pants in the end.
"I'll say," Adam was shivering himself. "So, what were you looking for out there that made you wreck the boat, as they've said?"
"Well," Nicki thought it over and decided he might as well know, "You know how I went to see the woman who I pulled out of the ocean last night...?"
She explained everything to him. Adam looked surprisingly melancholy. "What's wrong?" she asked him, a little concerned herself.
"Well, it happens Tim Reilly and I were pretty good friends," Adam confessed, "He lived here up till about four years ago when his family moved up to St. Catherine. We'd often go sailing together out on the ocean when we were younger. When I heard he'd disappeared at sea, I was crushed. I hoped they'd find out what did happen to him, but nothing's come up since then. You have any idea what happened?"
"Not concretely," Nicki shook her head, "If I do find anything out, though, you'll be the first to know."
She glanced around at the deserted beach. "Does Heather know you're here?" she asked, a little worried, "I'd hate to have to face her down if she thought..."
"Truthfully, Nicki, I don't care what Heather thinks anymore," Adam grumbled, looking disgusted, "In fact, the next time I see her, I'm breaking it off between us. The Heather I know now isn't the Heather I fell in love with at first. She's narrow-minded, spiteful, and overbearing; I have to do whatever she wants whenever she wants, and I can't argue it. If I'd known she was like that when we first met, I would have steered clear of her in the first place."
"Oh, well, sorry it didn't work out," Nicki told him, secretly glad Heather was about to get her comeuppance. Adam came to a stop. "This seems far enough," he told her, sitting down on the sand and gesturing for her to sit with him. She slid to the sand and stared into the darkening horizon. The waves seemed to be getting larger as the tide came in. "Where're you from again, Nicki?" he asked her.
"Shadyside," she said.
"Ah, I see," he smiled, "When are you going back?"
"After the last weekend before Labor Day. School starts the next week. Hard to believe it's my senior year," she sighed, her gaze falling on the horizon, "It goes by so quickly; it seems like just yesterday I was still a little girl eagerly waiting to unwrap my Christmas presents."
"Yeah, time goes by too quickly these days," Adam agreed, "I'm not sure what I want to do when I graduate this year yet. How about you?"
"Probably into nursing or something like that; I just like being able to help people," she confessed.
"So I've seen all summer long. That's why you make a great lifeguard," he was smiling again. "Listen, Nicki," he said quickly, sounding a little nervous, "I've got something I'd like to say before we head on back. Close your eyes."
"Don't want to spoil the surprise. Go on, close them," he urged her. Nicki complied, wondering what this could be about. She felt something soft and almost felty slip into her hand. "OK, open them," Adam urged her. She opened her eyes and almost jumped in surprise. Resting in her palm was a case containing a beautiful diamond ring. "I've been thinking about this all summer ever since you came here to Coronado Beach," Adam told her, a warm look on his face, "When you stood up for me last night, I knew you were the right one, and that I should go ahead with this, so I'll say it now: I love you, Nicki Price, and here's my testimonial."
"Oh Adam," she was at a loss for words, but nonetheless tried to find them. "Oh Adam, I...I don't know what to say," she gushed, tears of joy starting to flow, "No one's ever done anything like this for me before. To think you really think of me this way..."
"Why shouldn't I? Why shouldn't any boy feel exhilarated in your presence?" he pulled closer to her, "You're everything a boy could ask for, Nicki; you're sweet, caring, hard-working, and you're beautiful as well-yes, it's true Nicki," he smiled warmly at her when she sniffed in happy surprise, "You're easily the most beautiful girl in the world, and don't let anyone ever tell you any different."
"Oh Adam..." she had no idea what else to say, and so let her actions speak for her: she threw her arms around him and joined with him in a kiss, the first of her life. She didn't care at all about sea monsters or boat attacks or anything at the moment. She wanted to savor the first real love she'd ever known, with a boy who clearly loved her in turn.
The tide started lapping at her legs; it was starting to come in again. She paid no attention, though; she didn't want the moment to end, and apparently neither did Adam, who continued kissing her while still hugging her. How long the two of them embraced, she had had no idea, and only really started to loosen up when something brushed against her leg in the surf. "I never thought I'd kiss anyone like that," she told Adam dreamily as she broke off the kiss and leaned back, "I hope we can..."
"Nicki!" he looked abruptly panicked, and was staring down at the surf behind her. Nicki turned to follow his gaze...and let out a bloodcurdling scream that echoed over the whole beach. For floating right next to her was a severed human head, its face frozen forever in an image of pure terror.