When I Get Home


You shouldn’t have gone out on the water when it was so rough, Tracey.

My mother’s voice keeps playing through my head—everything she’s going to say to me after I get back.

I’ve told you that a hundred times, but you never listen, do you?

I pull the tiller as fast as I can, making the boat swerve and tilt, a wave knocking into the side and breaking over the edge, where it sloshes on the deck, pooling around my feet. I squint up at the black sea in front of me, and can just barely make out the wave, bigger than I noticed before—at least twice the height of my sail. I didn’t see it coming in the dark, and now it’s close. I can already feel the water heaving under my boat as it is tugged back.

“I know what I’m doing, Mom,” I say. “Don’t worry, I’ll be fine. I wouldn’t have come out here if I didn’t know what I was doing.”

I move the tiller again so that I’m pointing directly into the wave.

You should never go out on the water when there’s even a chance it might storm.

“This isn’t a storm, Mom. There’s no rain.”

There’s only wind. It wasn’t here ten minutes ago and now it’s all I can hear as it wails around me and snatches my breath from my chest. My hands are freezing, fingers clutched around the tiller. I take one more look at the wave approaching and shove them into my coat pockets. It now stands only a few hundred feet away, black water gleaming as it towers above me.

“Okay, okay, let’s think through this, Tracey. Turn the boat into the wave. I did that already. Okay, okay—oh, someone said to go below deck but I don’t know if that’s right and—I don’t have a below deck so it doesn’t matter. Start thinking clearly Tracey, think, think.

The bow of the boat suddenly lifts and I scream, dropping to my knees and grabbing the mast. I bend my head to my chest and shut my eyes.

The boat is thrown to the side as ice water crashes onto my back and breaks over me. I am wrenched from where I sit and lurch forward before more water hits me and I am slammed onto my stomach on the slippery wood of the deck. I gasp and try to grab onto anything with my nearly numb hands but there is nothing. I open my eyes but still can’t see anything and more water keeps coming down and the boat tips and I slide across the deck, clawing at the wood to no avail. My back hits the rail and I twist my body and grab it with one hand, before the boat is tossed onto its other side, lifting me off of the ground so I am hanging in midair. My grip won’t hold and I struggle to reach the rail with my other hand, but I can’t. My hand comes loose and my nails shriek against the metal of the railing. I flail in the air for a moment before the side of the boat comes back down, smacking the water and catching me as I fall. I hear something snap and feel a shocking pain in both of my legs, and I lie there, chest heaving, coughing up water until I can’t breathe. My whole body shudders and I lie still for a moment, feeling nothing but the freezing wind still rushing over me, stinging my body and pulling my sopping, tangled hair, and the pain in my legs.

You could have been killed! You can never go back out on that boat again, or I swear to Jesus, Tracey, I will disown you. No daughter of mine gets to be that stupid—

That’s what she’ll say when I get home. I push myself up on my elbows and look all around the boat. No more waves as far as I can see.

“All right,” I say. My voice is hoarse and I cough and clear my throat. “See, Mom? I survived that wave. I told you I know what I’m—”

That’s when my eye catches on something unfamiliar. The top of the mast is lying on the deck a few feet from me, and where it landed there is a splintering hole in the boat, out of which water is pouring onto the deck. As I watch, the boat creaks and sinks an inch or so deeper into the water.

“No, no!” I yell.

What did I tell you about getting such an old boat? It’s not safe, Tracey. I knew you should never have taken it out, I knew it.

“No, no, no—” I turn to see that the mast landed on my legs when it fell, and struggle to move out from underneath it. I limp as fast as I can to the hole and try to cover it with my hands, but it’s much too big, at least a foot in diameter. I glance at the water. I could jump overboard and swim, but it’s too cold and the shore is too far away and it’s so dark and I’m so lost that I would have no idea which way to go. I grab the piece of the sail that ripped off with the top of the mast and try to cover the hole with that, but it’s like trying to use a tissue to stop a bullet wound from bleeding. I feel my throat tightening and I would be crying if I weren’t so panicked.

I told you you’d die out there, Tracy. One way or another—

“I’m not going to die out here.” I try to laugh, but it’s hollow and unconvincing. I lie back on my stomach, my head on the deck, and stare at the water filling my boat, spreading across the already flooded planks. There’s something sitting, submerged, a few feet from the hole.

The radio.

I laugh for real this time, crawl over to it, and pick it up. The antenna is bent but should still work. I twist the dial as quickly as I can to turn it on and listen.

All I can hear is the wind and the waves.

“Come on, come on.” I twist the dial again and straighten the antenna. It doesn’t look broken. So why won’t it work?

I told you that just because you have that little radio doesn’t make it safe.

“I know, mom, I know. But I know how to use this thing. I’ll get help and I’ll be fine. I know what I’m doing here.”

My hand starts to shake and the radio drops back into the water, which is now nearly up to my shoulders while I’m sitting down. I use my arm to bring the radio back and hold it between my knees. I press my hand into a fist against my thigh, unable to move it by itself, and smack it against the radio, as if hitting it will somehow make it work. I listen. Any sound at all would be good news. Anything. But it remains silent.

The boat creaks again, and I start spinning the dial in circles with my wrist as the water reaches my neck. I reach down and clamp the radio between my wrists instead of my knees so it is above the water and use my chattering teeth to turn the dial again, and again, and again.

I’ll never let you go back out there again, Tracey.

I can just imagine her telling me that when I get home.

“Okay,” I say. “I’ll never sail again if I don’t have to.” I keep turning the dial.

I don’t want you to die out there, so I’ll never let you go out again.

That’s what she said last time, and that’s what she’ll say this time. That’s what she always says.

I can no longer feel the floor of the boat underneath me. Only water. I kick my feet and tilt my head back, keeping the radio clenched in my teeth by the dial, and move my hands through the water, though I can’t feel them. I can’t feel anything anymore except my face, and even that is starting to go numb. My head is shaking so badly that the radio drops. I try to move to get it back, but it sinks too fast and I can’t see anything. A wave slaps against my face and I sputter and cough. I look out at the ocean around me. Everything is black. I look up. Through my shaky, blurred vision, I see the stars and smile. I always loved watching the stars over the ocean.

I told you not to go tonight. I told you it was a bad idea.

That’s what she’s going to tell me.

“I know, Mom. I know.”

When I get home this time, I’ll listen to her.

I try to move my legs, but I can’t feel anything.

I told you, Tracey. I told you to stay off the water.

When I get home, that’s what she’s going to say.