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The Invisible Husband of Frick Island
Author: Colleen Oakley

 

 

Chapter 1

 

 

The Storm


   At first, when Piper scanned the docks and didn’t see the familiar rickety white-pine-and-fir fisherman’s trawler, she thought nothing of it. Tom, like most Chesapeake Bay watermen, tried to beat the sun’s rays onto the water every morning during crab season, squeezing in every minute of the government-allotted eight hours of crabbing per day. That put him back in the harbor just after lunch most afternoons, with plenty of time for his onshore duties—icing his catch, checking his floats, tending to the boat. But inevitably some mornings there was a delay—a net needing mending, the buy boat running late. On those days, Tom’s deadrise would come puffing into the harbor later than the others, when the sun was halfway down the other side of the sky. But whether it was two, three, or four in the afternoon, it didn’t much matter. Time on Frick Island had always been more of a theoretical concept measured in jiffies or awhiles or later ons.

   Still, even though there was no telling on any given day when Tom would return, every afternoon when the Blue Point market closed at three, Piper flew through her closing responsibilities moving the packaged deli meats, cheeses, and any unsold fresh crab cakes from the display cooler to the back refrigerator, mopping the cracked linoleum floors, hanging up her apron on the hook in the office, and slipping her card in the punch time clock (even though she had never seen Mr. Garrison so much as look at them)—and rushed over to the docks.

   Most days Tom was already there, helping tie off boats or diagnosing an outboard engine problem or simply standing around with other watermen, grumbling about the day’s haul or the sharp drop in the market price of oysters.

   And sometimes, on those days, the breath would catch in Piper’s throat. And she’d stop and stare at him for a beat in wide wonder that of all the places in the world, God had found it fitting to put Tom Parrish on the same tiny spit of land that she, too, inhabited. And even more miraculous, that though he could have had his pick of mainland girls at the high school they once ferried over to before the sun woke every weekday, Tom chose her.

   Fire. That was what Piper remembered when she thought of those early days on the ferry with Tom. There was a heat to those mornings, even in the dead of winter, when they could see their breath float out into the cold air in great big puffs, as if they were exhaling cigarette smoke. She’d never forget the way the clouds would suddenly blush pink at the first kiss of sunlight and how her face followed suit whenever she caught Tom looking at her. Or the way when Tom, two years her senior, first sat next to her on the boat when there were at least ten other empty spots he could have chosen, and his thigh burned so hot against hers, even through their jeans, that it warmed her entire body from the inside out. And she thought she might die from the sheer pleasure of it.

   And she’d been dying a thousand tiny pleasurable deaths every day, ever since. Like the first time he clumsily kissed her, behind his dad’s crab shack sophomore year, catching just the corner of her mouth and a few locks of her hair. And the second time, a week later, when he didn’t miss at all. Or when he would leave notes for her in the pocket of her jacket, tucked in schoolbooks, or affixed to the outside corner of her bedroom window, and she wouldn’t find them until hours later, running her thumb over the tiny block letters of his handwriting, her heart fit to burst. Or when, just a year earlier, they had been lying in the bottom of the very boat she was now scanning the horizon for, and—looking at the moon—he had whispered the words she realized she’d been waiting to hear from him since she was fourteen: We should get married.

   She agreed immediately, because after seven years, she still felt the same way she did those mornings on the ferry—that when he looked at her, she was alive. And when she was away from him, she counted down the seconds until he would be near again.

   But on this breezy April afternoon, Piper would have to count for a little while longer, it seemed. She slunk over to the bench, swiping the beads of water off of it with her bare hand. There had a been a storm that morning when they woke, a spring squall angering the seas, creating choppy waters that slowed even the most experienced boat captains. But watermen didn’t stop for weather. As BobDan Gibbons, the official Frick Island ferry boat captain, often explained to the boatloads of tourists visiting from the mainland: The crabs don’t know it’s rainin’.

   So Piper sat on the wooden bench, the dampness seeping through the back of her khaki slacks, and pulled a book out of her satchel, cracking the worn spine. Piper and Tom both loved to read, but whereas Piper enjoyed mostly mass-market mysteries, bodice-ripping romances, and even heart-pumping horror, Tom preferred higher-brow literature. For years, Tom tried giving her some of his favorite classics as gifts: Moby-Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, Frankenstein. And to please him, she would try to muddle through, even if it meant reading the same paragraph over and over, while her mind drifted to other things. It wasn’t that Piper wasn’t smart—she was. (Science-minded like her mother, though she was drawn to entomology over ecology. Could tell you the species, genus, family, all the way up to the domain of a number of insects that crawled the earth.) It was just that when it came to reading, she liked what she liked.

   And so far, she only liked one of the books Tom had given her, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and she was currently rereading it for the ninth time. The first time she read it, it drew her in from the very first paragraph: the idea that for some men, their dreams sail forever on the horizon, resigned that they will never reach them. She thought that perfectly described Tom in a way she might never have put into words. Literally, at times, when she would catch him staring out into the ocean, as if he were looking at another life he could have lived. But Tom was a Parrish. And while some island watermen’s families saw the writing on the wall—the marine life in the bay was dying off from pollution and overfishing, and the sea levels were rising, swallowing up their island with it, inch by inch—and encouraged their kids to leave for government jobs on the mainland, join the military, go to college even, Tom’s family were stalwarts of the community. Tom’s daddy and his granddaddy and his granddaddy before him were watermen. And even though Tom’s father was no longer around to see if his son kept up the tradition, or maybe because he was no longer around to see it, Tom felt duty bound to take his place at the helm of the trawler when his time came.

   It wasn’t just that sentiment in the book that reminded her of Tom, though, or really why she loved the book as much as she did. It was, of course, the love story. Maybe she was too young, or didn’t have enough life experience, to truly appreciate the deeper themes of independence and feminism, but she wasn’t too young to understand the burning desires of love. And she believed with her entire being, the way maybe only young people can, that she was the earth and Tom, her sun, moon, and stars. Tom was her Tea Cake and she loved him in the same way she breathed—effortlessly and as if it were the only thing that kept her alive.

   So that was what Piper was doing—sitting on a bench, lost in the love story of Janie and Tea Cake, when a shadow fell over her pages. She looked up with her well-known smile, ready to greet whomever it was standing over her.

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