by Carol Sojka
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
“Sam’s kind of a worrier, isn’t he?” I said, “especially about you.”
“Oh, I know,” Angie said. “At first it drove me nuts, but after forty years I’ve sort of gotten used to it.”
Angie and I were on one of our almost-daily walks around the development and its lake, and I remember the conversation because that was the only time I ever heard Angie say anything even remotely critical about her husband. I continued, “But he worries about everything you do, and that time when we went to Disney World–you’ve got to think you’re safe at Disney World?once he finally agreed we could take the ride through Space Mountain, I thought he was going to smother you he seemed so afraid you’d fall out. Has he always been that way?”
“Ever since I met him. He was that way with his mother, too, but she had a stroke and died despite all his hovering. He used to see her every day, count out her pills and put them in little labeled boxes for the time of day. After she died, he was worse with me for a while, but he’s eased up some.” She laughed, an uncomfortable kind of laugh.
“He fusses over Joe and me, too,” I said, “but not as much as over you.”
“I can’t change him, though. Can’t teach an old dog new tricks, as they say.”
We went on to talk of other things and I didn’t raise the subject again, although I often complained about Sam to Joe. He listened without commenting, as usual. Angie and I spent a lot of time together swimming at the beach and the local pool and taking long walks, and we talked about our families and their doings, our pasts and our plans when we got too old to live alone. We ended those discussions, which often began when someone we knew had had a stroke or was getting forgetful, with a comment like, “Let’s talk about something more cheerful,” or more often, “Enjoy life while you can. You never know.” I was sure I knew Angie Abbott as well as I had ever known another woman.
My Joe’s a big football fan and in the fall we treated ourselves to a special weekend, driving into Tampa to see the Bucs play. We had dinner with friends after the game, stayed at a hotel overnight and the next day I went shopping by myself while Joe relaxed in our room. When I’d had my fill of shopping, I stopped for lunch at a French restaurant where Joe and I had celebrated one of our anniversaries.
When I stepped inside and saw the white tablecloths, the flowers and the couples at each table, I realized I might be uncomfortable as a woman alone and nearly turned to leave, but then I thought, “What the hell!” and asked the waiter for a quiet corner table. As he led me through the restaurant, I glanced around at the other diners.
It was then I saw Angie. I was surprised to see her there because I hadn’t known she and Sam were going to Tampa, but I thought, “Oh, good. Now I’ll have company.” Until I realized she wasn’t alone, and she wasn’t with Sam.
She was seated in a booth with a man I’d never seen before and just in time I stopped myself from going over to say hello. Thank goodness I didn’t, because when I saw Angie’s face and the way she and the good-looking guy in his sixties were looking at one another, I knew that this wasn’t a casual lunch. These were two people in love.
I felt sick to my stomach and if I could have left then without being noticed, I would have, but I didn’t want to walk back past where Angie and her lover were seated. I tucked myself into my corner table and thought about what I’d seen. It was as if a chasm had opened between us and I realized I had no idea who Angie was. She had a secret life, a life I knew nothing about. I wondered how I’d be able to face her after what I’d seen.
They didn’t see me and I couldn’t see them, but I hardly tasted my food, spending a lot of money on sawdust. I wished I’d never thought about coming here. I lingered as long as I could before I settled my bill and went to the front door. When I passed the table where Angie and her lover had been sitting, I saw they were gone and I breathed a relieved sigh.
I didn’t tell Joe about seeing Angie because there was something so naked about the longing in their faces that I knew I had seen something very private. Joe and I did tell the Abbotts about our weekend and my shopping expedition on Monday, and I tried to keep my face as blank as possible. I’m not a good liar, but I did my best.
All that fall and winter I distanced myself from Angie as much as I could. We didn’t walk or swim together nearly as much, but sometimes I saw her coming back from the pool alone. She didn’t question why and I wondered if she knew I’d seen her.
It was the next spring that we decided, the four of us, to try a deep sea fishing expedition.
It took some talking to convince Sam Abbott that it wasn’t dangerous, that lots of people like us went out all the time and came back safely, but finally he agreed, and we booked a full-day expedition out of Clearwater.
It was a gorgeous day when we set out. Florida in March isn’t hot enough to be uncomfortable, just warm enough that we were glad we no longer lived up north. We took the boat out about nine in the morning and selected our seats along the rail, holding tight to our rods and reels. We had a choice of live bait or lures, and Angie and I both opted for lures because we couldn’t manage to get the wiggling anchovy onto the hook. Joe laughed at me and baited my hook. He said the fish didn’t feel it, but I thought that was unlikely. Sam sat next to Angie, baited her hook and showed her how to cast, watching to be sure she didn’t lean too far over the side.
Soon after I threw my line in, I felt a tug. Joe stood behind me to help if I needed it. The fish seemed enormous and strong, pulling the line away from the boat and when I reeled him back, fighting me for all he was worth. I played him for what seemed like hours, but was probably only a few minutes. Just as my aching arms felt as though I couldn’t hold on any longer and would have to give my rod to Joe, I was able to pull the fish out of the water and then, with Joe’s help, into the boat. It was a good-sized red snapper. The others applauded my catch and the captain said, “Nicely played.” I felt the thrill that comes with conquest, even if my prey was only a twenty-pound fish.
Later, the bites got fewer for everyone and I found myself yawning and wondering when we would stop for lunch. We pulled the lines in then and drank some wine to celebrate my catch, the biggest of the day. As the afternoon wore on, the sun and salt air made me sleepy, and the hunt for the big one, which had seemed exciting early in the day, grew tedious. By three o’clock, I was ready to go in. I glanced over at Angie and saw she was slumped in her chair, half asleep, her rod and line dangling. She had rigged it so it was fastened loosely to her wrist because she said she was afraid she’d lose it over the side. I yawned widely and closed my eyes, almost asleep.
Then, I heard the line on Angie’s rod. The rod pinged loudly as it bent forward, the line taut against it. Something big! The fish plunged and before I could even see what was happening, Angie, attached to her rod, had tumbled overboard, the fish pulling her down toward the bottom. I screamed.
I don’t know where Sam was when Angie went in, but the next thing I saw was Sam leaping over the side, calling for her.
I yelled for someone to throw a life preserver and the captain threw one with a line over the side and directed the mate to go in after them. Sam surfaced, and Joe yelled at him to kick off his shoes. I’m not sure Sam heard. He dove again, looking for Angie, and this time when his head came up, he had Angie clasped in his arms. She had managed to release the rod from her wrist, so the fish was no longer pulling, but she was coughing and sputtering.
She had swallowed a lot of water in her downward plunge. Panicky, Angie grabbed onto Sam and pushed him under while he tried to get her in a grip that would let him swim to the life preserver. Other preservers were flung at them, but Angie fought so strongly to stay afloat, shoving Sam underwater while she struggled, that he wasn’t able to reach them.
The mate was in the water by then and he towed a life preserver toward them as we watched Sam and Angie struggle, he trying to hold her up and get a grip, she thrusting him under to save herself as the mate swam toward them. Angie reached a life preserver, grabbed it and was pulled back to the boat. When she was lifted to the deck, she was alone. Sam had disappeared. The mate dove and dove again, but Sam was gone.
Divers were sent out later in the day to look for Sam, but the water was too deep. His body surfaced the next day on a beach near St. Petersburg. Angie was inconsolable, blaming herself for Sam’s death and although I was sympathetic and caring, she became difficult to be around, crying and saying it was all her fault.
About six months after Sam’s death, Angie sold their house and moved away. The last time I saw her was just before she left, and she told me then that she was remarrying and moving to California. I wondered then. You see, I knew that Angie was a very strong swimmer and Sam was afraid of the water.
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