By James Blair
Nancy peered at her mother’s wet, quivering hand. Her expression contorted on her mother’s wrist watch face. She looked around at the other family members’ smiles and laughter despite wallowing in the drowning rain. But her mother’s face was as grey as the large surface ship moored behind them.
I wonder if she’s always like this when Daddy comes home.
She had never seen her mother fidget and tremble like this. What was worse, she didn’t understand why.
One hour past arrival time…
It wasn’t the first time Nancy had visited Pier 22. It was the pier her father’s boat called home. She didn’t think her mother knew she’d been here before. It was a secret he asked Nancy to keep, and she was good at keeping secrets. Her father would sometimes sneak Nancy down to see what she called a “sudmarine” when they were supposed to be grocery shopping or going to the library. Every secret visit made her smile. It was the only time she felt warm inside, because she did not have to share him.
She kept her mother’s secrets, too. Secrets about what happened when he was gone. Why that strange man only came around when dad was away. Those did not make Nancy smile. She did not like to think about her dad being gone, and she could not stop thinking about his return. Her mother told her about the cheering families when the boat returned. She couldn’t wait to watch him return on top of that black, steel shark. To cheer for him. It was like he was a movie star. He already was to her, though.
Two hours elapsed…
Nancy closed her eyes and sniffed the letter with her father’s writing on it.
Mmm…Stale cheeseburgers and pizza. It smells just like Daddy.
She didn’t know why the boat smelled that way, but that was how it smelled to her. A ship’s bell on one of the other piers chimed twice, paused, then chimed two more times. The tone echoed and reverberated off the rain and the other ships nearby. The saltiness of the water mixed with a moldy, slimy smell of the old wooden pier they were standing on.
Where is Daddy? I hope they ring the bells for him again.
She liked how they would always ring the ship’s bell when they walked onto the sub. The boat smelled like him, and she knew he would reek like the letter when she saw him. The smell and his memory haunted her. It had for four months. She was ready for him to return. All she had were pictures and videos, and she couldn’t hug a picture or kiss a video.
She heard the woman behind her say the time.
I wish Daddy would hurry. Does it always take this long?
Three hours late…
She had already fallen asleep twice, so squirming with boredom was all she could manage. Nancy remembered the many times when he would walk in late at the end of the day, and she calmed down. Sometimes 1,2, even 3 hours would pass before he would walk through the front doorway, kiss her forehead, and tell her and her mother what he could about his day. The stories were about this piece of equipment or this person needed some extra attention. She imagined him fighting sea monsters while riding his black shark.
Voices began burbling with concern as the words “four hours late” echoed off the thousands of raindrops.
Everyone seems so worried. I wish Daddy would get here. He’s never been this late.
Nancy’s stomach fluttered.
Why do these butterflies keep flying around in my tummy? Daddy said they’d only fly for a little while before they’d get tired.
She knew her daddy would fix it when he pulled in. He could fix anything. Any minute she would see the floating black shadow appear from the shimmering mist. Any minute.
Nancy winced and rubbed her stomach. Ugh, my tummy feels funny. I wish Mom would’ve brought more snacks.
The rain played a drum solo on her mother’s umbrella.
I wish it wasn’t so yucky today. I want Daddy to see my new dress, and it’s getting all wet.
Nancy heard the crowd rustling and murmuring more. Words like “overdue” and “Scorpion” escaped their lips, but the words felt heavy in her ears –weighed down with their innermost thoughts. She didn’t know why they worried so. She knew her daddy would be there soon.
Nancy shook her mother’s hand, attempting to get her hand free. “Mommy, you’re squishing my hand.”
Her mother jumped. “I’m sorry, honey.”
Her mother’s arm felt like it was a live electrical wire shocking Nancy, and she wriggled until her mother’s death grip relented.
“Is Daddy coming soon? I’m hungry.”
The vein in her mother’s forehead pulsed. “I hope so. Your Daddy’s late, and Mommy wants to know where he is, too.”
Nancy smiled as she watched her mother sigh and massage her bulbous belly. “Don’t worry, Mommy. Daddy will be here! He told me in his letter!”
“Are you going to tell him you saw the space ship take off?
She bent down and combed some of Nancy’s hair with her hand. “Do you remember its name?”
A PA speaker screeched in feedback and aroused the crowd’s attention. “Ladies and gentlemen…” She pulled against her mother’s hand to see who was speaking. He was a tall man in a uniform like the one Nancy had seen her father wear. The man’s face looked like little elves were pulling from both sides. Her mother’s face was even worse.
He looked really nervous as he tapped on the bullhorn’s microphone. “I regret to inform you that the boat is… overdue.”
Nancy cocked her head to the side. The word didn’t register. It was as if it was in a different language. Just like the words “lost” and “missing” she heard others saying.
The man’s voice cracked and trembled as he continue to speak. “We have been radioing her, but they haven’t answered yet.”
Nancy’s mother gripped Nancy’s hand tighter while her other hand covered her own mouth.
“The captain of the ship behind us offered to bring everyone out of the rain. You can warm up and get dry there.”
Nancy’s mother collapsed like one of her daughter’s rag dolls. “Mommy!”
Nancy screamed. A few sailors ran to her aid. One of them spoke with her as the other tended her mother. His face seemed confident, but his eyes told another story. She fought to get to her mother, but he held her at bay. “It’s okay. What’s your name, darling?”
Nancy continued to strain against the sailor’s arms. “Let me go! What’s wrong with Mommy? I want my Mommy!”
“What’s your mother’s name?”
One of her mother’s friends ran to Nancy’s side. “Her name’s Donna. She’s the Captain’s wife.”
The two men exchanged glances. One of the sailors yelled with an authority Nancy recognized. “Corpsman! Stretcher bearers!”
Why is Mommy not feeling well?
The men put Nancy’s mother into a chair. The other woman knelt down and spoke with Nancy.
She did her best to distract Nancy from sailors tending to her mother. “Are you okay, Nancy?”
Nancy nodded as she wiped the icy rain from her face. The woman held her polka-dotted umbrella over Nancy’s head. It wasn’t enough for them both. “Is Mommy okay?”
“She’s okay. She’s just…tired from waiting.” The woman fidgeted “What do have there? Is that a note from Prince Charming?”
Nancy beamed as she showed the woman her letter. “No, it’s from my Daddy! I can’t wait to show him I got it!”
The woman winced as if the letter were laced with the plague. “Oh…umm…”
“He told me to wait on the pier, but he said he might be late.”
The woman looked both horrified and puzzled. “What do you mean, sweetie?”
“He told me.”
The woman’s confusion grew worse.
“He told me in my letter.” Nancy opened the moistened note and read as if she were in front of her class. Reading was her favorite subject after all.
“Dear Nancy. By the time you read this, we will al-most be home! I can’t tell you when ex-actly, but I will save you some of your fav-o-rite straw-ber-ry ice cream. I didn’t want to tell you be-fore I left, but this is my last time going to sea. Af-ter this, I won’t leave again! Don’t wor-ry if I’m a little late. I’m pro-ba-bly fighting a sea monster. I love you very much, and I pro-mise this is the last time I will go a-way. See you soon! Love, Daddy.”
Nancy looked up and saw the two military men–the men who had been caring for her mother. They wore dolphins on their uniforms like her daddy, but she never saw her daddy cry like they were. Then men’s cheeks were stained from the saline streamers cascading down them. The men looked at her with an expression she’d never seen before.
“Is Daddy coming home?”
James Blair is a pseudonym for an active surface warfare officer and qualified submariner.
Featured Image: Submarine by Nick Gindraux (via Pictame)