The deck rolled beneath her feet as another swell hit the boat broadside. Meredith Cavallo shifted one foot slightly in front of the other, rocking her hips to absorb the motion. If only everything else in her life could be weathered as easily.
The wind had picked up since the fourteen scuba divers had plunged off the commercial dive boat and into the water above Key Largo’s famed Molasses Reef. She scanned the water’s surface, looking for bubbles. They’d been down about forty-five minutes and should be surfacing soon.
Most of the divers were experienced, but she worried about one couple from the Midwest who had just earned their certifications. These waves were going to be a problem when they surfaced. Sweat dampened the back of her neck. She pulled an elastic out of her shorts pocket and wrangled her dark hair into a braid, while mentally reviewing the emergency equipment stowed on board.
“Brace yourself,” Leroy shouted from the wheelhouse. “We’ve got incoming.”
She grabbed the safety rail above her head. The boat shuddered as a massive wave smashed into the LunaSea, forcing Mer to hop to keep her balance. Scuba tanks clanged against one another as the boat settled into the trough.
Two tanned bandy legs appeared as Captain Leroy Penninichols descended the aluminum ladder connecting the upper and lower decks. “That’ll make a rabbit smack a bear,” he said.
Mer crinkled her brow. “You realize that wouldn’t end well for the rabbit, right?”
The portly captain stepped onto the lower deck. “Why are you always so damn analytical?” Merriment was hidden behind the gruff words.
“One hardly has to be analytical to see the problem with a mismatch of that magnitude.”
An ever-present plastic straw barely extended beyond the thatch of silver-streaked dark beard that covered the bottom half of his face. “Yeah, well, I’m still rooting for the bunny.”
Of course he was. Mer smiled. Leroy always cheered for the underdog. That’s why he’d taken her under his wing when she signed on as crew two months ago. Since then, she’d alternated between teaching scuba and acting as his first mate.
Leroy brushed past her and stepped into the sunshine. The bottom deck resembled the bed of a pickup truck. Benches lined the port and starboard sides where divers sat to don their gear. Two “dry” tables occupied real estate in the middle, although staying dry on a boat was a wish rarely granted. A swim step, a platform extending from the stern, supported two swim ladders. Today one remained lashed in place, while the port ladder hung in the water.
He leaned against the table and oriented himself like a sunflower toward the sun. “You aren’t on an old tub in Antarctica anymore, Cavallo. You may want to try toasting that pasty skin of yours a little.”
Mer dragged a tube of lotion from the backpack she kept stashed up front. “My research was in the Arctic. Big difference.”
“North Pole, South Pole. What’s it matter? Neither one is paradise.”
She took off her crew shirt and slathered a gob of sunblock on her face and around the edges of her red Speedo tank. “You can’t meet Santa at the South Pole.”
“My, aren’t we feeling feisty today? And all this time I had you pegged as lumping Santa together with the tooth fairy, leprechauns, and honest politicians.”
A glimmer of movement caught her attention. “Diver up.” She stood and pointed off the starboard side of the boat. “About thirty yards out. Just ripped off his mask.” She shimmied out of her shorts.
Leroy shielded his eyes. “That one of ours?”
Three other dive charters bobbed in the choppy seas, all on mooring balls even farther from where the diver had come up.
“No idea, but we’re definitely closest.” She grabbed her mask, fins, and snorkel in one hand and signaled to the diver by placing her fist on the top of her head. She waited for him to mimic the signal to let the boat know that he was okay. Instead, he spit the regulator out of his mouth and started thrashing the water, fighting to stay above the whitecaps.
“Diver! Inflate your vest,” Mer shouted, shoving her feet into her fins.
“He can’t hear you,” Leroy said.
She pulled the mask strap over her head. Leroy handed her a bright-orange flotation device with a line attached to it. “You’ll have to swim it out to him. Get him to the current line and I’ll tow you back in.”
Mer’s heart beat faster. She clutched the seahorse pendant around her neck and took a steadying breath. “Keep pointing at him. These waves will hide him.”
The next wave drove the stern close to the surface and Mer stepped off the boat. The initial shock washed the heat of the sun off her skin. The surging water pulled at the emergency flotation she carried and threw off the smoothness of her strokes as she swam away from the LunaSea. A particularly large wave welled beneath her. She tried to aim for the diver, but she couldn’t see him.
She spun in the water. Leroy stood on the deck of the LunaSea, still pointing. Mer corrected to her left and swam as if a life depended on her.
As she closed in on the flailing man, she removed her snorkel. “Diver, are you okay?”
The question was rhetorical, but it gave Mer time to assess his condition. Big guy. Ill-fitting equipment. Too much white showing around his unfocused eyes. All clues that he was in over his head.
“Help me! Keep it away from me!”
She splashed him in the face. It startled him, and for a moment he stopped struggling and focused.
“Look at me.” She pointed at her eyes with two fingers, treading water beyond his reach. She didn’t recognize him from the boat. “Look at me. I’m here to help. Let me help you.” She extended the flotation device toward him. “Grab hold.”
He reached for it just as a wave swamped them. The diver choked on the brine. With renewed panic, he lunged at Mer, intent on using her body as high ground.
She submerged herself, then popped out of the water behind him, grabbed his tank, and clamped her knees around it. “It’s okay, I’ve got you.” She spoke close to his ear.
The diver twisted, his fingers clawing at her.
Snaking her left arm around him, she mashed the inflator button. Air rushed into his jacket. “You’re okay. Everything’s going to be fine. My name’s Mer. What’s yours?”
His body rose above the water, and some of the tension left his face.