by Debra H. Goldstein
Enjoy this never before published mystery short story.
When it comes to jumping into the ocean, two things always hold me back: my fear of sharks and how I look in a wet bathing suit. Pete must have plied me with a lot of drinks last night for me to stand shivering, waiting to plunge into the Gulf of Mexico at high noon on Valentine’s Day. I can’t imagine what possessed him to want us to take part in the poor man’s version of the Flora-Bama’s Polar Bear Dip. Maybe he thought the shock to our systems would help us start over. Being honest, I wanted to believe everything, as he promised, will be different this time.
When Pete suggested coming to this part of the Florida Panhandle, rather than Pensacola or Destin, I knew, even though he didn’t say so, it was to save a few bucks on condo rent. I didn’t care. I’d have gone anywhere in Florida. It was that important to me. Pete didn’t understand. Then again, he wasn’t the one who spent eleven months and two days visualizing pink polished toes sinking into soft white sand while sunlight glistened off emerald water. Only being allowed access to sunlight for an hour a day, if everyone behaved, gave me lots of time to think about the beach, Pete, and staying out of trouble.
No more sticky fingers for me. It didn’t matter how good Pete and I were at our cat and mouse game. My mother didn’t raise a fool. Our one slip-up woke me up. The few times he visited me, Pete agreed. He assured me our lifestyle might not be as fine as we’d grown accustomed to, but we’d make do. That’s why I didn’t open my mouth about the place Pete rented.
I figured we’d stroll the beach, stare out the condo’s windows at the swirling waves, or simply get drunk and let the good times roll. When we curled up on the double bed and watched the moon glow against the darkness of the water, without a bar obstructing my view, I was in hog’s heaven.
That’s when Pete announced he’d signed us up for the Valentine’s Polar Bear Dip. I raised myself up on my elbow and politely explained that Polar Bear Dips in Florida were not on my bucket list.
Pete laughed and assured me it would be fun.
“Maybe for you, but not for me. I’m not going to be eaten by a shark.”
“You’re being silly,” he said. “There aren’t any sharks in this part of Florida.”
“But there are. I saw them in that movie, Jaws.”
“That movie was set in New England in the summer; not Florida in the winter.”
“Doesn’t matter. Look outside, it’s the same. There’s a small town, a beach, blue-green water, and a bar. Nobody in the movie wanted to admit a shark was out there eating people, but it was. And there are sharks here, too.”
Pete pulled me back to him and held me tightly. “Honey, relax. It’s not like there are lions, tigers, or sharks out there. They’ve been doing this Polar Bear Dip for years without anyone getting hurt. Wait until you see how many people come out to participate or simply watch. We’ll take the plunge, swim around, and run back up on the sand so fast you’ll hardly know you were ever in the water. Besides, you’ll be with me, safe as can be.”
Releasing me, he attacked, fingers outstretched. He tickled parts he knew were sensitive until I gasped, “Uncle!”
I leaned back on my pillows and caught my breath.
“If you’d feel better about it, you can barely dip your toes in, scream about sharks, and let one of the he-man lifeguards rescue you.”
“And what will you do while the hunk saves my life?”
“Pete!” I frowned at him.
He grinned and kissed me. “Either scenario will be fun. I promise.”
Feet planted in the sand, I stared at my goosebumps while Pete fetched us each another beer. To forget how cold I was, I shifted my gaze from my arms to the group gathering at the water’s edge. The many bikinis in the group made me feel self-conscious. I wondered when Pete would comment about the pounds I gained since I last wore my bathing suit.
Pete was right about the lifeguards being hunks, but the beach patrol guys, especially the one I talked to after Pete went to get our beers, were studs, too. Maybe I was out of circulation too long, but I had an urge to take him home with me. Unfortunately, the gold band on his left hand negated that idea so I returned to the task at hand – the one Pete assigned me of guarding the space we staked out with our towels and beach bags.
Glancing down the beach, I saw it was empty except for the few intelligent people not participating in the Dip and the towels, chairs, umbrellas, bags, and whatever abandoned while their owners took the plunge. When I heard my name, I glanced behind me. Pete.
He stumbled over a child’s pail, unable to stop himself from falling. Ever so graceful, he rescued our beers by holding them upright with one hand, while he caught himself with the other. Finally reaching me, he snaked an arm around my waist and handed me my beer.
“Perfect, isn’t it?” he whispered into my ear. His cold lips barely touched mine.
I nodded, but still wasn’t sure I wanted to do this. I didn’t relish making my way to the starting point in front of the bar. People already were jostling for position. In one area, where I saw hands raised toward the sky tapping beachball balloons, there was barely enough room to move. Yellow, blue, and red balls floated gently, free to bounce with the flow of the air currents.
Pete interrupted my meditation. “Ready for your performance?”
“What are you talking about?”
“Look around. The pickings here are perfect. All you’ve got to do is dip that pretty foot of yours into the water and scream.”
I stared at him. I knew the answer but had to ask. “And where will you be?”
Pete waved his hand toward the now deserted chairs, towels, and umbrellas. A gold watch, a little worse for having some sand on it, dangled from his hand. “Doing my civic duty. Cleaning up the beach like a good citizen.”
“You promised me. You said you changed.”
“I have. But we can’t forget about Valentine’s presents for each other.” He dropped the watch into his beach bag.
“Yes, but…” He put his finger over my mouth.
My head spun. I pushed my feet deeper into the sand, anchoring myself. The image of being at the water’s edge with the waves lapping the shore and sand ebbing and flowing beneath my feet brought on a queasy sensation.
“Come with me.”
Pete shook his head. “I can’t. I’ve got a job to do. Remember?”
All I remembered is how everyone in Jaws who had jobs ended up. “I don’t like the task you’ve given me.”
“You’d like mine even less.”
Pete steadied me, but my mind played games. He held me so tightly I wondered how his hug compared to the confines of a shark cage. I looked at the crowd waiting for high noon and at Pete and shuddered. I couldn’t do it.
I realized Pete will never understand sharks don’t discriminate. Hot or cold, tall or short, is immaterial to them. All they want is a fleshy piece of blubber they can sink their teeth into – holding on until life is squeezed away for good.
It wasn’t going to be different this time. I shoved my beer back at Pete and moved away from him. I walked toward the condo eager to shed my too tight bathing suit. As I passed my beach patrol friend, I slowed and waved, but didn’t stop. When he started in Pete’s direction, I willed myself not to look back. Jumping into the ocean still scared me, but the moment of payback was a delight. Too bad they won’t let Pete hold on to that watch. It would have been perfect for him to keep an eye on the time he’ll be doing.
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