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Mary Alice Monroe

New York Times Bestselling Author

Swimming Lessons, Excerpt

Last night, Toy Sooner dreamed again of the turtle. It was always the same dream, one so vivid that when she awoke she was tangled in her sheets, disoriented and filled with a great, nameless yearning.

Toy sat on the precipice of the sand dune looking out over the wave-scarred beach. Another day was ending. Around her the sea oats were greening and above, a nighthawk streaked across the slowly deepening sky. The tide was coming in, carrying sea-shells, driftwood and long-harbored memories tumbling to the shore.

She identified with the loggerhead sea turtle in her dream. Was it merely that the turtles were on her mind? She searched the restless sea that spread out to forever under the vast sky. Out in the distant swells,the sea turtles were gathering for the nesting season. Toy sensed the mothers out there, biding their time until instinct drove them from the safety of the sea to become vulnerable on the beach and lay their eggs.

It was an emotional time of the year for her. Each May when the sea turtles returned to the Isle of Palms, she felt the presence of her beloved mentor, Olivia Rutledge, returning with them.

She hugged her knees closer to her chest. This small dune on this empty patch of beach was her sanctuary. She came often to this sacred spot—to think, to remember, to find solace. She felt closer to Olivia Rutledge here—Miss Lovie to everyone she’d met. This dune had been Miss Lovie’s favorite spot, and on some nights, especially when the sun lowered and the birds quieted, as now, Toy imagined she heard Miss Lovie’s voice in the sweet-scented offshore breezes.

It had been five years since old Miss Lovie had passed. Five years spanned a good chunk of her life, she thought, considering she’d only lived twenty-three. After Olivia Rutledge died, Toy had worked hard every day of those five years to make a better life for herself and for Little Lovie, her daughter. That had been a vow made at Miss Lovie’s gravesite and a promise to her infant daughter.

“I did my best to keep my vow,” she said aloud to Lovie Rutledge, feeling her spirit hovering close tonight. “I finished college, got a good job and I’ve made a nice home for Little Lovie. All tidy and cheery, with flowers on the table, like you taught me. I want so much to be a good mother.” She rested her chin on her knee with a ragged sigh as the longing from the dream resurfaced.

“So, tell me, Miss Lovie. Why don’t I feel that I am? Or content? I’m still like that turtle in my dream, swimming toward someplace I can’t seem to get to.”

A high pitched cry shattered her thoughts. “Mama!”

Toy’s gaze darted toward the call. Her young daughter sat a distance from the shoreline surrounded by colorful plastic buckets and spades. Her long blond hair fell in salt-stiff streaks down her back as she bent over on hands and knees before the crude beginning of a sand castle.

“What do you want, Little Lovie?”

“mama, come help me with my castle!”

Toy sighed, sorely tempted. “I’m working, honey.”

“You’re always working.”

She saw a scowl flash across Little Lovie’s face before she ducked her head and went back to her digging. Mingled in the muffled roar of the ocean she heard Olivia Rutledge’s voice in her mind. Stop what you’re doing and play with your child!

Toy desperately wanted to play with her and enjoy each with Little Lovie. She felt an all too familiar twinge of guilt and paused to allow her gaze to linger on her daughter. Little Lovie was carefully molding another tower with her chubby hands.

That child was happiest when she was at the seaside, Toy thought, her heart pumping with affection. Whether collecting shells, digging castles or rollicking in waves, as long as she had her toes in the sand she was content. She was only five years of age, yet Little Lovie was so much like Miss Lovie Rutledge that Toy sometimes believed the old woman’s spirit had returned to settle in her namesake. For Toy, the sun rose and set on her child. And it was for her child’s future that she gathered her discipline.

“let me finish that sand Castle.”

“You promise?”

“I promise, okay?”

Her daughter nodded and Toy resolutely brushed away grains of sand from her notebook and returned to the report that was due by morning. She was an Aquarist and had been placed in charge of her own gallery at the South Carolina Aquarium. It was her first break and she needed to prove that she was capable of the responsibility.

The noseeums and mosquitoes were biting in the sticky humidity and blown sand stuck to her moist skin but she worked a while longer, determined to finish in the last of the day’s light. A short while later she closed her notebook and raised her gaze toward her daughter. Another lopsided tower had been added to the castle.

But her daughter was gone.

Toy’s breath caught in her throat as her eyes wildly scanned the beach. “Lovie!” she cried out, leaping to her feet.

“Mama, look!”

Toy swung her head around toward her daughter’s voice. Little Lovie was arched on tiptoe at the water’s edge. The bottom of her pink swimsuit was coated with a thick layer of damp sand and she was pointing excitedly toward the sea.

Toy ran across the beach to grasp hold of her daughter’s slender shoulders. “You know you’re not supposed to go near the water,” she scolded, even as her eyes devoured her child and her hands gently wiped sand from her face. “You scared me half to death.”

The five-year-old was oblivious to her mother’s concern. Instead, her large blue eyes were riveted to something in the surf.

“It’s right there,” she cried, wiggling her pointed finger urgently. “I see it!”

“What do you see, a dolphin?” Toy turned her head back toward the Atlantic to peer into the rolling surf. Then she saw it. A large dark object floated at the surface not more than fifty feet out.

It wasn’t a dolphin. She squinted and moved a step closer. Could it be a turtle? The dark hulk appeared lifeless in the waves.”You stay right here,” she ordered in a no nonsense tone, and this time, Little Lovie didn’t argue.

Toy rolled her pants higher up on her slender legs, coiled her shoulder length blond hair in a twist at the top of her head, then walked into the sea for a closer look. She felt the chilly spring water swirl at her ankles,calves and then dampen the hem of her shorts as she waded forward, intrigued by the shadowy object bobbing on the waves.

It was a turtle! It had to be at least two hundred pounds—and it looked dead. What a pity, she thought and she wondered if this was a nesting female holding eggs. It was always a shame to lose an adult turtle, but to lose a nesting female was a tragedy. The loss was one of generations.

A wave carried the turtle closer and Toy’s stomach clenched at the sight. It looked like she’d been floating for a long time. She was badly emaciated and the shell was dried and covered from tip to tip with barnacles.

“Poor Mama,” she muttered. There’d been too many dead turtles washing ashore in the past few years.”Barnacle Bills” the turtle team called them, and this was another to add to the list. She’d call and have DNR pick the carcass up in the morning. Toy was about to turn back when she saw a flipper move.

“She can’t be…” Toy bent forward, squinting. A breaker smacked her legs but she kept her eyes peeled on the turtle. A flipper moved again.

“She’s alive!” she called out to Little Lovie.

The child jumped up and down, clapping her hands. Toy hurriedly waded closer to Little Lovie to be heard. “Honey, I’m going to need some help. Run up to Flo’s house and tell her to come right quick, hear? Can you do that?”

“Yes, ma’am!”

The child took off like a shot for the dunes. Just beyond was the white frame house of Florence Prescott, the leader of the island’s turtle team. Flo was very active in the community and always out doing something for someone, but she was usually home at the dinner hour. At least Toy hoped she was today.

She turned back toward the turtle. The inert creature was floating with her posterior up, like a lopsided rubber raft. She’d have to haul her in. She sighed and looked at her clothes. Well, they were halfsoaked anyway, she thought as she began wading toward the turtle.

The pebbly sand suddenly dipped and sliding down, her toe was sliced by the sharp edge of a shell. White pain radiated up her leg and looking down, she saw the murky water stained red with blood. The turtle was drifting farther away in the current. Ignoring the pain, she kicked off to swim to the floating hulk.

The big turtle was in much sorrier shape than she’d first realized. As she drew near, the turtle’s dark, almond eyes rolled in her large skull in a mournful gaze.

“Don’t be afraid, big girl,” she said to the turtle, feeling an instant connection. “I’ll get you out of here in no time.”

A small wave slapped her face as she swam around the turtle. Her eyes stung and she spit out a mouthful of saltwater. Once behind the rear flippers she could get a good handle on the shell. Then, using the carapace like a kickboard, she began kicking and pushing the turtle toward the shore.

She was making good progress when she caught a quick silvery flash of movement in the corner of her eye. Her breath hitched as she scanned the vista. The water’s surface was turning glassy in the brilliant colors of the setting sun. She hesitated, not fooled by the serenity. Dusk was feeding time for sharks.

Toy knew she was in a vulnerable position. The predator would be curious about the sick turtle—an easy prey. With her toe bleeding she knew the smart thing to do would be to leave the turtle and get out of the water.

Then she saw it again. This time it was unmistakable. The slim, v-shaped dorsal fin broke the surface, heading her way in a lazy, zigzag pattern. Toy froze as the shark neared, then swiftly veered off. The turtle’s instinct flared and her flippers feebly stroked in the surf. The shark surfaced again, but this time farther out by the inlet.

“Well,no one ever said I was smart,”she told herself,gripping the turtle’s shell. With a grunt, she pushed with all her might, propelling the turtle forward. She repeated this twice more before her feet hit sand. The shark was closer again, circling in a pattern of surveillance.

That bull shark was four feet of sleek danger and she knew it could attack in shallow water. She hurried to the front of the turtle and grabbed hold. “We’re not home yet,” she muttered and began tugging the enormous turtle in. Behind her on the beach she heard Florence Prescott calling her name.

“Hurry, Flo!” she cried over her shoulder.

With athletic grace that belied her advanced years, Flo ran straight into the water, her tennis shoes still on.

“Drag her out of the water,” Toy cried with urgency. “We’ve got company.”

Flo looked over her shoulder. “God damn,” she muttered.

Little Lovie ran into the surf, arms reaching for the turtle. “Let me help!”

“Lovie, you get back on the beach this instant!” Toy ordered.

“But I want to help!”

“Do as your mama says,” Flo told her. “Sharks nibble hatch-lings in ankle deep water and your toes are just the right size. Go on now, git.”

Little Lovie scrambled out of the ocean.

Flo grabbed hold of a side of the turtle’s shell. Her deeply tanned arms spoke of many years spent in the sun. “On the count of three…”

With a heave-ho, they shoved the turtle up the final few feet to the edge of the beach. Out of the water, the full impact of the huge turtle’s weight was felt. It was like pushing a boulder and it took all they had to get the turtle to scrape sand till only the tips of the incoming tide caressed her rear flippers.

The turtle remained motionless. Toy plopped down on the sand beside her and lifted her foot to check out her wound. She was shocked to see that the cut in her big toe was deep and bright red blood trickled in a steady flow. And it hurt like hell. It hit her how reckless she’d been to stay in the sea with a bleeding wound. Raising her gaze, she looked again out at the sea. The shark had already disappeared beneath the murky water. She started to laugh with relief.

“What are you laughing at?” Flo asked. “Is that a cut you’ve got there?” She swooped down like a mother hen.

“It’s nothing.”

“I’ll be the judge of that. Those shells can be like razors. Let me see it.”

“Really, Flo, I’m okay.”

“Bring it here.” Flo bent and, grabbing hold of Toy’s foot, studied the toe closer. She clucked her tongue. Little Lovie hovered nearby, mesmerized. After a quick perusal, Flo released the foot and rose to a stand. “Put some antibiotic ointment on it and you’ll live.”

Toy looked up at her daughter with a reassuring smile. “I can’t believe you went out there with a shark trailing you,” Flo said. “You know better.”

Toy took the scolding with good nature.

“I didn’t see it when I swam out and I wasn’t sure I was bleeding.” She snorted and added smugly, “But I got her in, didn’t I?”

Florence Prescott usually had something upbeat to say about most things, but she looked at the turtle with a frown and shaking her head said, “I’m not sure it was worth the risk. This turtle looks barely alive. And she’s covered with gunk. I’ve buried strandings that looked better than this one.”

“No, she’s beautiful. That gunk is merely leeches, algae and barnacles. We just have to get her someplace where we can clean her up.”

Before they could discuss this further, their attention was caught by calls coming from up the beach.”Well, thank goodness the cavalry’s here,” Flo said. She stretched her arm overhead and waved, calling out, “Cara! Brett! Over here!”

Toy turned toward the dunes and saw an attractive couple in khaki shorts and green Barrier Island Eco-Tour T-shirts. Toy’s spirits soared and she grinned from ear to ear as she lifted her arm in a wave.

A tall, lean woman strode toward them in a long-legged, no-nonsense manner. Her glossy, dark hair whipped in the breeze and behind her smart, tortoise sunglasses, Toy knew Cara’s brown eyes were sparkling with excitement at the prospect of a live turtle on the beach.

Behind her, Brett’s broad shoulders and height towered even over Cara. Though he wore the same T-shirt of the tour company they owned, on Brett the clothes were faded and worn, giving him the disheveled appearance of an island boy.

Little Lovie yelped with excitement at seeing them and ran into Brett’s arms for a quick hoist high up in the air.

“It’s a turtle, see!” she cried out.

“I see it!” Brett’s blue eyes brightened against his weathered tan as he grinned wide and swung Little Lovie around, her legs flying behind her. Then he tucked her on his hip with a hug of affection.

“What’ve we got?” Cara asked, walking directly to the turtle. She bent over the sea turtle to get a closer look.

“Probably a nesting female,” Flo replied as she quickly moved to Cara’s side.”She’s covered with barnacles. And look, leeches too. Ugh, the horrid blood suckers are all over her.”

Cara grimaced at the pitiful sight.”She must’ve been floating for weeks.”

“Weeks? Longer than that,” Flo replied. “These poor floaters can’t dive to hunt and this old girl likely hasn’t eaten in months. Her neck is so thin…she’s all skin.” She clucked her tongue. “I don’t know if she’s going to make it.”

“She’s not gone yet,” Toy said, joining them at the turtle’s side. She felt fiercely protective of the turtle she rescued.”I’ve been amazed at how resilient sea turtles can be. I’m not giving up on her.”

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