Today's Reading

So Piper sat on the wooden bench, the dampness seeping through the back of her khaki slacks, and pulled a book out of her satchel, cracking the worn spine. Piper and Tom both loved to read, but whereas Piper enjoyed mostly mass-market mysteries, bodice-ripping romances, and even heart-pumping horror, Tom preferred higher-brow literature. For years, Tom tried giving her some of his favorite classics as gifts: Moby-Dick, A Tale of Two Cities, Frankenstein. And to please him, she would try to muddle through, even if it meant reading the same paragraph over and over, while her mind drifted to other things. It wasn't that Piper wasn't smart—she was. (Science-minded like her mother, though she was drawn to entomology over ecology. Could tell you the species, genus, family, all the way up to the domain of a number of insects that crawled the earth.) It was just that when it came to reading, she liked what she liked.

And so far, she only liked one of the books Tom had given her, Their Eyes Were Watching God', and she was currently rereading it for the ninth time. The first time she read it, it drew her in from the very first paragraph: the idea that for some men, their dreams sail forever on the horizon, resigned that they will never reach them. She thought that perfectly described Tom in a way she might never have put into words. Literally, at times, when she would catch him staring out into the ocean, as if he were looking at another life he could have lived. But Tom was a Parrish. And while some island watermen's families saw the writing on the wall—the marine life in the bay was dying off from pollution and overfishing, and the sea levels were rising, swallowing up their island with it, inch by inch—and encouraged their kids to leave for government jobs on the mainland, join the military, go to college even, Tom's family were stalwarts of the community. Tom's daddy and his granddaddy and his granddaddy before him were watermen. And even though Tom's father was no longer around to see if his son kept up the tradition, or maybe because he was no longer around to see it, Tom felt duty bound to take his place at the helm of the trawler when his time came.

It wasn't just that sentiment in the book that reminded her of Tom, though, or really why she loved the book as much as she did. It was, of course, the love story. Maybe she was too young, or didn't have enough life experience, to truly appreciate the deeper themes of independence and feminism, but she wasn't too young to understand the burning desires of love. And she believed with her entire being, the way maybe only young people can, that she was the earth and Tom, her sun, moon, and stars. Tom was her Tea Cake and she loved him in the same way she breathed—effortlessly and as if it were the only thing that kept her alive.

So that was what Piper was doing—sitting on a bench, lost in the love story of Janie and Tea Cake, when a shadow fell over her pages. She looked up with her well-known smile, ready to greet whomever it was standing over her.

"Hey there, Pipes," BobDan Gibbons said. His face was weathered, in the way boat captains' faces are, as if their skin were competing to match the wood on the decks of their ships.

"BobDan," Piper said, the dimples in both her cheeks still on display.

"I don't know how to tell you this," he said, taking his baseball cap off his head and curving the worn bill in the palm of his hand. "I'm sure everything will be fine, of course, but Tom . . . well, he's gone missing."

Even though the words didn't immediately register with Piper, they did pull the corners of her lips back into a straight line. She cocked her head. "What do you mean, missing?"

He cleared his throat, a sound like a race car engine gunning on the starter block. "Apparently he radioed out for help this morning, during that little rain shower we had. Old Mr. Waverly got the call. Said he was taking on water, but the connection was bad and it went out 'fore Waverly could get the coordinates. Coast Guard's been looking for him since, and we've got some of the guys out there, too. Like I said, I'm sure we'll find him 'fore long and everything'll be fine." He twisted the bill of his cap one more time, and Piper wasn't sure if it was that movement or the grim look in BobDan's eyes that caused her stomach to go hollow.

And then Piper remembered the Teredo navalis. Three months earlier, Tom had spotted damaged wood on the hull of his trawler—a few drill-size holes, as if someone had shot a BB gun clear through the wood. Upon further inspection, he discovered he had shipworms, a parasite that fed on docks and boats and had been wreaking havoc at marinas for centuries—there was even a mention of them in Moby-Dick. To kill them, Tom had the boat pulled out of the water and sprayed it down with a hose, and after a few days without saltwater, the worms curled up and died, their carcasses like little circles of copper wire. (Piper, of course, took one home to study under her microscope.) The boards needed replacing, but by that time, they had already run through most of their winter savings—and the little bit they had left needed to go to new crab traps for the season. Tom hoped, until he could scrape the money together, that any water that came in through the tiny holes could be handled by the bilge pump.
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