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Herding Seahorses

Clarissa kicked downward with her fins, gliding into position in front of the overhang. She’d found the large green moray eel the day before, pointing him out to the delight of the couple she was guiding. She hadn’t lingered long with him though because they had that idyllic combination of calm surface conditions and almost seventy feet of visibility and she wanted to show the couple as much marine life as possible since they had only one day for diving.  They got their money’s worth with schools of yellow-tail snappers, colorful parrotfish, other tropical fish of all sizes darting around the reef, half a dozen good-sized barracuda languidly patrolling the territory, a bigger than average nurse shark tucked under a nearby ledge. The couple had pressed closer for a better look and Clarissa had moved to the right to give them room when she spotted the moray poking his head out. He was as big around as a thick tree branch and probably four feet long or more. He’d withdrawn at the sight of her, but was still visible enough to impress the couple.

Clarissa had not taken the camera on that dive, her job had been to devote attention to the couple’s comfort and enjoyment, doing everything she could to give them the kind of experience that would make them repeat customers. Today was different though and Renee, co-owner of the shop, was ready for some new photographs for their web site. Mike, the senior instructor for the dive shop, had a couple on board taking an advanced diving class, and the family of three down from Ohio had been with them before and required no special assistance. Clarissa was on the evening shift at Bayside’s Best and with her morning free, Renee had suggested that she take one of the rental underwater cameras and see what she could find in the way of interesting subjects.

She’d kept watch on her way to the ledge; it was the peak time of year for eagle rays, but none crossed her path. Not that the simple point and shoot camera was really equipped for a great ray shot, but it was fine for close-ups. She wasn’t concerned about not finding the moray since they tended to set up house once they found a place they liked. Clarissa settled as quietly as possible, exhaling slowly, evenly, bubbles rising behind her from her scuba tank. With well over six hundred dives, she was relaxed in this environment that she loved, streamlined in the way she moved through the water, familiar with the habits of most of the creatures that lived within the reefs and wrecks of the Florida Keys. As she waited for the green moray to emerge, she heard the faint snap of tiny shrimp and shifted her focus to the left of the opening. Ah, she’d missed that the day before - a blue tipped anemone the size of her outstretched hand tucked between two rocks. A pair of banded coral shrimp were nestled in the tentacles and she came within six inches of the creatures, obeying the rule in underwater photography of get as close as you think you should and then get closer, especially when you weren’t working with a high end camera and expensive lenses. She took three photographs and sensed rather than saw movement where the eel was. Yes, a full foot of him was extended, his mouth opening and closing as water rushed over his gills. She carefully pivoted, thankful there was no surge to rock her balance. She inched in as close as she could without alarming the eel who gave her a head-on shot and then turned sideways before he pulled back into the darkened reaches of the hole.

Clarissa checked her dive computer to see how long she had been submerged and saw it was time to head in the direction of the boat. Bubbles floating from the far side of the reef identified where some of the divers were and she skirted around to a wide sandy patch where she was rewarded with a smallish, hubcap-size Southern stingray, his gray body not yet burrowed into the sand. She maneuvered to his left, then to the front, taking photographs from different angles as she had done with the eel – Renee could select the shots she wanted and send them to their webmaster.

She finished her task and swam effortlessly to where the boat was moored.  Mike and his students were making their ascent and the Ohio family was comfortably hovering near the patch reef to the stern of the boat, waiting until the first divers were on board before they started up. Clarissa was glad to be last, relaxing in the shallow depth, watching the slow parade of fish. A barracuda hung a few feet beneath the boat, using the vessel’s shadow to mask his presence, although Clarissa doubted he was actually looking for a meal. Fluorescent blue caught her eye as tiny chromis fish flashed past her and a pair of gray angelfish moved leisurely at the top of the yellow coral head toward the bow of the boat. Clarissa exhaled a long stream of bubbles as the family began to surface. She wondered, as she often did in this liquid world, what it would be like to spend an entire week or more where small teams ate, slept, and worked in one of the underwater research habitats. She’d been on a few pre-dawn dives, but what must it be like to go to sleep and then awaken with a porthole to the reef right there beside you? She’d have to ask her email buddy, Dr. Ward, if he’d been in an underwater habitat. She wouldn’t be surprised, considering the forty years he’d spent doing marine research.

Clarissa saw the last of the Ohio family poised at the dive ladder. She floated to the surface and transferred her fins from her feet to dangle from her left wrist. Unlike the other divers, she required no assistance in clamoring up the ladder with her gear on, not with her muscled body accustomed to the sway of the boat and how to adjust her balance. She slipped onto the fiberglass bench and slid the bottom of her scuba tank into the recessed hole of the tank rack before she released the vest fasteners, eased out of the equipment, removed her mask and placed the camera into the tub of freshwater. George, the husband and father of the Ohio family, had already submerged his GS 11 and Ikelite housing, definitely a couple of notches above what they carried as rentals. Clarissa wouldn’t mind an upgrade of some of her equipment, but she didn’t suffer from camera envy. While she appreciated beautiful underwater photographs, she’d met too many photographers that were so focused on getting fabulous shots of a particular subject that they would ignore the rest of a dive and use their available air sometimes in a radius of no more than a few feet. She didn’t share that perspective even though she understood it.

Her pleasure came from the moment that she plunged into the water, not knowing if she might find something special among the usual suspects. She hadn’t yet been able to travel beyond a small part of the Bahamas and Bimini where the marine life was similar to the abundance of the Florida Keys, but they would occasionally have a majestic manta ray sweep through or radio around the spectacular sighting of a hammerhead shark or whale shark. She spent as much time underwater as possible and had been able to witness these infrequent visitors. She had plans though, plans to launch out soon for exotic locales of the South Pacific, the Coral and Red Seas; pack her meager belongings and seek a job among the vagabond dive professionals who were willing to trade pay and benefits for daily immersion in some of the most thrilling underwater realms in the world. Soon; one more semester and another three hundred dollars to finish paying off the funeral.

“Hey Clarissa, Renee needs to talk to you.” Mike’s voiced cut through her thoughts. He was pointing at the cell phone in Captain Steve’s hand.

She nodded and threaded her way past the Ohio family and took the telephone from Steve. He was keeping an eye on a smaller boat to his portside that he would overtake and pass within a minute or two.

“I know you’re on the way in, but Larry has an ear infection and can’t take the high school class trip tomorrow. You available or should I call Rick?”

“I’m on it,” Clarissa said immediately, knowing she would have to cajole Harvey since she’d be at least an hour late for her shift at the restaurant, but it wasn’t like she didn’t put in plenty of extra work and she was especially fond of the high school trips. The marine science teachers that led the groups were always willing to talk to her about their specialties and any recent research they were interested in.

She handed the telephone back to Steve and spent the rest of the thirty minutes circulating among the divers answering questions and in general making sure they knew that they were valued customers.

“Looks like good shots,” Renee said when they were alone at the shop after Clarissa offered to stay long enough to help refill the tanks. The bilge switch on the second dive boat had gone out and Dan, Renee’s husband, needed to replace it before nightfall. Both boats were scheduled for the next morning and the repair would be an easy fix once they had the part. 

“Tanks are done Boss Lady,” Clarissa announced when she entered the retail space of the dive center from the side of the shop that contained storage space, tanks, fill equipment, rental gear, and an instrument maintenance area. Renee held up one finger while she was on the telephone and Clarissa walked over to the smaller of the two aquariums, dedicated to Abby and Barney, two dwarf sea horses. “Hi kids, how are you today?” Abby, the white one had her tail wrapped round a piece of grass and Barney, the brown one, was swimming on the other side of the tank, probably content after munching brine shrimp. For all the magnificence of ocean creatures, Clarissa had an affection for tiny sea horses that she couldn’t quite explain and that was one of the things she missed about Bimini. They rarely found seahorses in the Keys.

“That was the Karenski couple. They’re coming down next month to take the wreck diving course. Hey, you forgot to tell me, did you ace your project?”

Clarissa pressed her finger to the aquarium in parting and moved to the glass display cabinets set in a U around the cash register. “I did indeed, even got a nice note from the instructor and she might be interested in giving diving lessons to her husband for their anniversary. They like snorkeling and they’ve talked about making the transition into diving – you know how that goes.”

Renee ran a hand through her short cropped hair, silver steadily overtaking the brown. “Oh yeah. Hey, are you sure about tomorrow – I know the timing will be a little tricky for you.” The tortoise shell reader glasses she’d begun to use were propped on the end of her stubby, freckled nose.

“Harvey will pout a bit to make a point and he’ll be fine with it,” Clarissa said with a half smile. “I’m going to head home unless you need anything else.”

“Go, and tell Harvey to call me if he wants to fuss at someone,” the older woman replied as the telephone started ringing.

Clarissa retreated through the work section, grabbed her backpack, exited the side double doors and unlocked her bicycle. The one mile to her apartment was a quick ride and despite one of the other dive centers in town offering her more regular hours, the set-up that she had with Renee and Dan allowed her to work part time for them while bartending full time at Bayside’s Best which was across the parking lot. The clincher for her decision had been that one of the snowbirds who preferred the Keys to upstate New York for the months of November through March had a vacancy in their downstairs one-bedroom apartment that was passed only by word of mouth to appropriate people like Renee. Clarisse served as more or less a caretaker for what was practically free rent and the close proximity was especially appreciated on those nights when she closed the bar and then had a morning dive trip. It was hard to beat a three-minute commute. Even if the property was two streets back from the bay instead of on open water or a canal, the fenced yard was filled with mature trees and low maintenance landscaping. The property included access to a nearby waterfront homeowners’ park where Clarissa could launch one of the kayaks stored in the garage. The cobbled together arrangement of multiple jobs was nothing unusual for people in the service industry and at the rate she was going, she should have enough saved to head out soon after completing her two-year degree in tourism. Clarissa wheeled onto the driveway and leaned the bicycle against the wall of the apartment from the carport side where she always entered. She would get cleaned up, have lunch, do her daily walkthrough of the house and tend to her email. Dr. Ward had probably sent a message at her news of her project.

She switched on the white ceiling fan and crossed the small den that opened onto what was generously referred to as a galley kitchen. It was fully functional with a sink, a two burner cook top, a microwave, a toaster oven, and a refrigerator. There were two upper and lower cabinets with four feet of counter space split between the sink and refrigerator, and there was another double cabinet with counter top and an overhang to make a breakfast bar where two backless round wooden stools fit neatly. The fact that only three feet separated the back counter from the breakfast bar meant that she certainly didn’t have many steps from prep to cooking to serving.

The bedroom, too, was adequate if not overly spacious, but who had time to lounge around in bed anyway? Clarissa dropped her backpack next to the chest of drawers, the motion accompanied by a soft thunk as it hit the tile floor. She didn’t have any grungy tasks to perform and would go ahead and change into her work clothes after showering – khaki shorts, a chambray shirt with Bayside’s Best logo, and a pair of sneakers was her idea of a uniform. Half an hour later, her short fringe-cut hair was practically dry, she’d polished off the last of the quiche in the fridge, and read Dr. Ward’s email with a smile.

Congratulations, Clarissa my dear! I had no doubt you would do well and perhaps you can persuade someone to pursue your idea of a sea horse habitat in the Keys. In fact, I have a colleague at University of Miami who might be interested if you would like me to make the introduction. I am on my way to a meeting, but wanted to get this note to you.

Warm regards,

She couldn’t bring herself to think of him as Phil even though she did address her messages that way after repeated chiding from him to do so. She sent a quick response and exited the apartment through the French doors that led from the den onto a concrete patio beneath the large deck.

Clarissa took a moment as she always did to appreciate the layout of the yard, the same kind of party central feel that she would have someday.  Bernie and Esther, the owners, had worked from a master design for almost four years. Native trees, shrubs and grasses virtually obscured the wire hurricane fence and they had long ago replaced the rest of the yard’s scraggly patches of grass with river rock. The original large deck coming off the house had been refitted with composite decking and a wide paver walkway bordered with chunks of coral rock had been installed to connect to the crowning touch; a rectangular paver terrace that fronted a tiki hut.  An expensive grill was set between two counters behind a bar that was fronted with teak. Bernie had won the coin toss to have decorative concrete top the bar and the counters, and had, in turn, relinquished to Esther’s desire for a misting system. Black metal tiki torches lined both sides of the terrace as well as the walkway and LED lights rope lights mounted to the underside of the decks rails gave an extra glow to night time parties.

Clarissa didn’t linger for long and made her way through the house, alert for warning signs of more bugs than usual, or brownish stains on the ceiling following last night’s thunderstorm, and thought about Dr. Ward’s offer to make introductions for her. University of Miami marine biologists, no doubt, people with PhD’s who worked at a level she sometimes vaguely dreamed of. She knew many of them had made their way up with scholarships and part time jobs, yet others would have been born into families where going to college was expected, the price of prestigious universities no source of worry. How many of them had come into the world in government subsided housing, jammed into a bedroom with two sisters, mostly neglected by a mother who whined about the state of her nerves when she was sober enough to put more than a few sentences together? Had they endured daily indignities of castoff clothing, grumbling help from an aunt who rightfully resented the extra burden, the embarrassment of not knowing who had fathered each of them separately? Perhaps. Sadly enough, she knew people whose lives made her childhood seem practically ideal. A big part of being a good bartender was knowing how to listen, knowing when someone was actually looking for a word of advice and when all they really wanted was a sympathetic smile and another cold one. She’d collected enough stories to know that despite her own burdens, things could in fact have been worse.

She glanced at her watch, set aside her musing and made a couple of telephone calls before time to leave for work.

It was a good night at the Bayside – a steady stream of customers, a mix of locals and tourists; never two deep at the bar, but not many empty seats either. The demand for the signature drinks that required more than splashing Captain Morgan and Coke into a glass was minimal, so she and Lillie, who was still learning the ropes a bit, were able to get into a smooth rhythm. Buffet playing mostly of course – live music was Thursday through Sunday.

The last table of four was settling their bill and Clarissa set down what would be the final round for Ralph Turnbull and his mate Barry – they’d been talking about the full charter they had for the fishing boat the next morning. It was a lucrative booking with a group they wanted to impress – an emerging Cincinnati company was looking to bring people down multiple times a year for fishing vacations in the Keys as a reward for good sales. Ralph said one of the guys setting it up had asked about diving as well and he assured them that Dan and Renee would no doubt be able to accommodate them. The advantage of having a dive center and a fishing charter side-by-side was a customer seeking information about fishing often knew of someone else who was looking to dive and vice-versa. Well, having extra portions of freshly caught fish occasionally handed over from the crew was a pretty good deal, too. Her small freezer had several packets of snapper and mahi.

Barry nodded his thanks as he grabbed for his cell that pealed out the opening notes of “Bad to the Bone”, and Ralph handed her two ten dollar bills. “Hey Clarissa, you said you were on the morning boat?”

She took the money and he waved for her to keep the change. “Yeah, it makes for an early start, but I don’t mind – you know the drill.”

“You bet, been at it for pushing seventeen years,” he said, a half-smile creasing his lean face with the deep, weathered bronze of a man who spent his time on the water. His calloused hands were crisscrossed with old and new scars from handling lines, hooks, ropes; the kind of scars anyone working around boats bore. “Hey, how’s school going by the way? You’re about done, aren’t you?”

“You’ve got a good memory. I’m finishing my next to last class. Another five months and that should be it – well, for the two-year degree anyway.”

His brown eyes shifted to Barry who had moved out of hearing, then back to Clarissa. “Good for you. Then what? Start on something else or will we be losing you?”

She shrugged, not because she had anything against telling Ralph her plans, but more because she’d learned that real life had a way of interfering with plans. She sure as hell hadn’t intended to get dragged back into her mother’s life the way she had been. “Well, I can’t afford more school for a while, and I’m not sure yet what might be available for someone like me.”

Ralph stopped the glass halfway to his mouth. “You want to stay here or are you looking to move on? I’ve got some contacts near Philly if you want to go north, know some people in Colorado and if he’s still there, I’ve got a cousin working at some high rolling resort in Jackson Hole, or it might be Sun Valley – have to ask the wife.”

“I’m not one for cold weather, and I can’t be away from the ocean,” she laughed, “so while I appreciate the thought, I’ll have to pass on those.”

Barry was headed back their way and Ralph downed the rest of his drink. “Well, lots of us know people in different places, so if the time comes, don’t hesitate to ask for help, okay? You never know what someone might come up with.”

“Thanks, I appreciate it,” she said, knowing he was sincere and he was right – a sympathetic contact was how she’d landed the job with Dan and Renee and they’d put a word in with Harvey for her.

Lillie offered to close up, and even though she might do just fine, the perky barely twenty-one year old didn’t have quite the attention to detail yet to make sure that all the little tasks were done. Clarissa could hear Jorge in the kitchen and if they each worked at their usual pace, he’d let her out the back as he would linger for that last cigarette. He was down to less than a pack a day, his wife having extracted his promise to quit as her birthday present.

She moved around, putting things away with practiced ease and thought back to Dr. Ward’s email, allowing herself to think how exciting it would be to actually make a living as a marine biologist. Oh sure, she knew it wasn’t all just spending time underwater and they had their share of bureaucracy to deal with. Even though she’d absorbed a lot of information about marine creatures and their behaviors, it wasn’t difficult to tell how much more they knew as she listened to the experts when they were on the boat or swapping stories in the bar. In fact, it was one of the high school teachers who had recommended she contact Dr. Ward when they were talking about sea horses one day. “He’s a super guy and never seems to mind working with the students – I’m sure he would answer you. He’s been studying sea horses for I don’t know, forty years maybe. He hasn’t left St Croix in more than twenty years, I don’t think.”

She debated for a long time. Maybe he had a soft spot for high school students who were fledgling scientists, but a thirty-year-old who was just now working on an Associate Degree in Tourism? When she was given an assignment to come up with a potential new tourism idea for South Florida and the Florida Keys, she took the initiative and sent a tentative email. Dr. Ward had responded almost immediately and helped walk her through the idea of establishing a series of shallow artificial reefs suitable as a sea horse habitat where even people snorkeling could have a chance to see the fascinating creatures. During the time she worked on the project, she learned more about him, about how Parkinson’s Disease was affecting his ability to get around, yet he kept finding ways to work around his limitations. It was never a matter of complaining, and he sent Clarissa copies of the three books he’d written. His style was not completely scientific and she was able to understand practically everything he discussed.

Jorge poked his head through the swinging doors. “Hey Girl, you about closed up?”

“Two minutes,” she said cheerfully. “Meet you at the back.” She took one last look around, nothing out of place – all set for lunch shift. She did a couple of neck rolls and tiptoed her way through the kitchen, ready to head home and grab some sleep before her regular five a.m. wakeup.

The next six weeks seemed to dissolve in even more of a blur than usual, except that Clarissa had a better than usual run of tips, a boost she hadn’t expected. She sat at her computer in the hour she had before leaving for the Bayside and re-checked her bank balance. She hadn’t made a mistake; she was going to be able to pay off the funeral home early. Talk about something she’d never planned on! Her aunt had been apologetic when she’d tracked Clarissa down and said she wouldn’t blame her if she refused to come back; both her sisters had said their mother could go to the hell she richly deserved. She wanted to say the same, God knew she did, but there was something in her aunt’s voice that kept the words from spilling from her mouth. The truth is that if it hadn’t been for her aunt, it would have been Child Services and foster homes and who knew if that would have been any better? Like her sisters, her solution was to run the minute she was done with high school. She had hooked up with a guy who was exciting and had plans, plans that included life in the islands. Of course it turned out that his real plan was living off what Clarissa managed to make since he rarely held onto a job for more than three months. He eventually disappeared to be replaced by another few of the same type and she came to understand a little more how her mother could have continuously picked worthless men. Why she’d given up on her own daughters and life in general wasn’t something Clarissa grasped, but maybe the truth was that she thought she could gain that understanding if she came back. It hadn’t been that way at all though and as Clarissa spent three miserable months trying to bring some comfort to her dying mother, she finally came to see that if there had ever been love there, it was long gone. Her sisters had both fled to other parts of the country, determined to never return to the dismal home of their childhood. Neither bothered to show up for the cremation attended by the funeral parlor director, her aunt, and one of the Hospice ladies.  That sympathetic woman knew Dan and Renee and had quietly all but guaranteed Clarissa the first job that led to the second job and the handy living arrangement.  Renee, God bless her, had been the one who nudged Clarissa back toward school. Funny how things worked out sometimes.

The telephone interrupted her thoughts and she shook away the faint sadness that she hoped would completely leave her in time.

The bar and restaurant had a raucous early crowd – the precise thing she needed. Barry, from Ralph’s boat, had stopped dithering around and proposed to his girlfriend and they were in to celebrate with some friends. Laughter and jokes floated through the bar until the impromptu party moved outside for dinner.  The next group that came in was less festive, but chatty and it was close to nine o’clock when the steady flow trickled to a trio of divers that had been on the afternoon boat, a couple that was in occasionally, and a guy sitting alone who had come from the dining room side. Clarissa hadn’t recognized him when he ordered a rum and tonic, but he seemed familiar in a way she couldn’t place. He was medium height, maybe a little over, sandy blonde hair cut not quite as short as military guys wore theirs. He was lean without being thin, tanned with the tell-tale deeper color on his hands and forearms that meant he was outside a lot in short sleeve shirts. It could be T-shirts or the button down type like he was wearing with his navy blue Dockers. His eyes were more blue than gray and his eyebrows thinned toward the edge, making them almost disappear into his skin. No rings or sign of them, but a Citizens dive watch; one of the newest models.

Clarissa moved in front of him as the level of his drink drew down. “Ready for another one?”

He gave her a longer look than was necessary to simply reorder. “Yes, thank you. It’s Clarissa, right? Clarissa Riley?”

She filled the fresh glass with ice and poured without needing to look down. “Yes, that’s right. I’m afraid you have me at a disadvantage, although you do look familiar. Have you been in before or maybe diving with Dan and Renee?”

“I haven’t had the pleasure, although I’m hoping to get a day of diving in. I was up at the University of Miami on business and have a meeting at the Marine Sanctuary tomorrow,” he said and drained his glass to exchange for the fresh one. “No, you and I haven’t exactly met.”

One of the men at the other end signaled for their check before she could ask what he meant and it took a few minutes to cash them out, chat about where they were likely to dive the next morning and then the couple decided it was time for them to go as well. Clarissa cast a curious glance at the unknown man, but he was tapping his fingers across his cellular phone.

He hadn’t made much progress on his drink when she said good night to the others and as she was trying to make her way back, one of the waiters needed her attention. The man looked up, gave a smile that indicated he was in no hurry and she kept trying to place the face. Not exactly met? That could mean he’d been in the dive shop at some point and hadn’t been diving or, if she got right down to it, maybe it was at the resort in Bimini. She’d been at her last job for almost two years and a lot of people came through there. Although if that was it, why would some guy remember her?

“Sorry about that,” she said as she got the tray of drinks taken care of. “You were saying that we haven’t exactly met? I’m not sure I know what that means.”

His smile was nice, a tiny gap between his two front teeth and a faint cleft in his chin now that she looked closely. She couldn’t discern any type of accent. “Let’s say we have a mutual acquaintance who was very insistent that I seek you out.”

If he hadn’t had such a pleasant voice, she might have been concerned about the comment – there were enough men she’d known that she didn’t want looking her up again.

“I guess that might sound a little odd,” he added as if he’d read her mind. “My name is Phil, as in Phil Ward.”

She tilted her head for a moment. “Phil Ward? But that’s…”

“My father actually,” he grinned.

She could see it now, the shape of the face, the eyes, a younger version of the man in the photograph on the back book jacket. “Oh goodness, I didn’t realize…, I mean…”

“No reason that you should,” he said. “I’ve spent most of my career working in other regions; the Gulf, the Pacific Northwest for a while, spent a couple of years in the Mediterranean. I only joined Dad in St Croix about six months ago. He really has enjoyed corresponding with you.”

“Oh he’s been wonderful, I love him to death,” Clarissa said automatically. “I mean, he’s been really giving of his time, especially for someone who is, well, I mean, not what you’d call the kind of student that I’m sure he’s used to.”

Phil jiggled his glass, rattling the ice cubes. “He’s appreciated your enthusiasm and since he’s not able to be out in the water as much as he used to be, he’s spending more time at the computer.”

“But he’s okay, right? He seems to still be quite active.” She didn’t know much about Parkinsons, but she knew the disease could be managed for years.

Phil nodded. “Oh yeah, he’s doing remarkably well and…,” he paused and looked around the empty bar as several people, to include Barry and his party, drifted toward the door.

Clarissa acknowledged their “good nights” and waited for Phil to continue.

His expression was hard to read. “Uh look, do you get off any time soon? Is there somewhere that maybe we could have a cup of coffee afterwards? Or a late dinner if you haven’t eaten – piece of pie, something like that?”

Clarissa was puzzled. “Uh well, I…”

“I know this is coming out of the blue,” he said warmly. “It’s just that I have a message to give you and it’s a little complicated and I don’t know for sure what time I’ll be done tomorrow or what my schedule will be the next day or so.”

“Oh, uh, okay, tell you what,” Clarissa said, her curiosity overriding the fact that she was on the morning boat again and this would mean even less sleep. “It doesn’t look like anyone else is coming in tonight and we close pretty soon. Do you know where CK’s diner is? They’re open all night and pie and coffee sounds good. It’ll be another hour or so though.”

“No problem,” he said and handed her a business card. “I’m staying close to there and I didn’t get a chance to work my email earlier today, so how about you call my cell when you’re ready to leave and I’ll meet you there? I promise it won’t take long, I imagineyou have to work tomorrow, too.”

“For sure,” she smiled. “I’ll call as soon as I can.”

He took care of his bill and she studied his card as soon as he was out the door – of course he too was a PhD – although she didn’t recognize the name of the foundation on the card and his title was listed as Marine Ecology Consultant. What message could be possibly have from Dr. Ward? She took advantage of the empty bar and must have set a record for getting the place closed.

She had suggested CKs because it was one of the only 24-hour places in town and it was a short bike ride away, but Phil was already in a back booth when she arrived, facing the door so he could see her come in. Rather than the marine theme, CKs opted for the 1960s diner look; linoleum, Formica, stainless steel, and red vinyl.

Two sturdy white mugs and a carafe of coffee were on the table and he stood when she approached.  “I took the liberty of getting the coffee, but I had no idea what kind of pie you might like.”

“They have a killer lemon meringue, but they’re all good,” she replied and they gave their order to a thin waitress who recommended Phil try the chocolate truffle tart.

“So, the way I understand it, you’re almost finished with your associate degree in what, tourism?” he asked as they waited. “My impression is that you’re more interested in the marine environment, especially sea horses.”

Clarissa stirred a packet of sweetner into her coffee and tapped the spoon gently against the rim. “Yes and yes,” she said, taking care to keep her voice as light as she could. “I don’t want to get into a lot of detail, but I didn’t come from a family where college was an expectation and it wasn’t realistically an option for me. I took off for the islands, spent quite a bit of time working, learned to dive and be a bartender, and managed to make it to dive master. Between those two skills, I kept busy and then a while back I came home to well, to take care of my mother.”

“Ah I see,” Phil said quietly as the waitress set their pie down and asked if they needed anything else. “She’s no longer with you?”

“No, but it’s okay, really it is, and in the process, I met Renee and Dan, got set up here with my two jobs and Renee urged me to try the community college. I do love being underwater and think sea horses are incredible, but I just don’t have the science or math background or the money to go that route. Renee and Dan are letting me work toward dive instructor though, I do pretty well with underwater photography and I thought that a degree in tourism would fit together nicely with all that.” She quickly took a bite of pie, not wanting to say more.

Phil looked thoughtful. “Hmm. Well, Clarissa, I’ve got to say that does sound like a good plan.” He glanced down at the plate as he had his first bite. “Wow, this is delicious. Give me a second here.”

They fell into a momentary companionable silence as they ate and Clarissa almost forgot why she was there.

Phil had another few bites, then poured more coffee for them both. “Anyway, let me explain since I imagine you’re wondering what this is about. If you had the resources, would you consider going for a four year degree – something in marine sciences?”

Clarissa paused, the mug part way to her mouth, and set it down again. “I don’t know. I mean, it just isn’t practical for me.” What was going on?

Phil made a motion with his hand for her to drink her coffee and he smiled in a way that crinkled his eyes. “Look, what you said about my dad is true, he is a great guy and to be honest, I still have never figured out how my mom could have left him the way she did, but that’s a whole other story. The thing about my dad is that he really loves finding someone who has a passion for the ocean – a passion that you seem to have.”

Clarissa nodded, mystified as to what, if anything, she should say.

“He firmly believes that there is no single path to take to come into the marine sciences and that apprenticeship is a path too often overlooked.” Phil poised his fork over the remaining pie. “And the truth is that I’ve been helping him out, but I’ve got a project getting ready to launch that will fully occupy me and he could use a personal assistant – someone to do all sorts of tasks, someone who could also spend a lot of time in the water doing observations for him and so forth.”

Clarissa set her mug down carefully as she tried to digest the words. Phil ate the rest of the pie, watching her. “I don’t understand,” she said simply. “I mean, it sounds as if you’re making an offer here, but I don’t get it.”

He nodded and loosely placed his hands around the mug. “Dad isn’t a multi-millionaire, but he’s well off and over the years, he’s helped a number of people who had the drive and not the resources to have the kind of college opportunity that others have through family or scholarships. In this case, he has a separate guest house on the property in St Croix and he needs someone who isn’t afraid to work, someone who would be willingly to do a wide variety of things. The pay would be respectable and in addition to what is essentially an apprenticeship, there are plenty of on-line classes you could take and the university is right there.”

“But, but I’m serious about not having a math or science background,” Clarissa almost stammered. “I didn’t make it past algebra or biology.”

The wave of Phil’s hand this time was dismissive. “And you have years of underwater observation – real life experience. Trust me, you’d be surprised at how much personal tutoring can do for you, and even if you don’t go the college route, I can guarantee you’ll learn an incredible amount working for Dad.”

She expelled a breath she didn’t realized she’d been holding and fought to hold back the growing desire to shout Really? Really? Really? “I, this is, I mean, I, this is, don’t get me wrong,” she said hurriedly. “I can’t tell you how thrilled I am, but I don’t get it. Why?”

Phil scratched above his left eyebrow. “I can’t answer that completely, but somewhere in your emails, he’s seen something in you that he thinks is special and like I said, there are four, maybe five other people that he’s done similar things for. Not as extensive as this, I admit, but then he requires more personal help now than he ever has in the past.” He dropped his hand back to the table and his expression was sympathetic. “Look, I know this has to be a surprise to you and I don’t expect an answer right this second. I’ll be here for at least two days and I’m hoping to stay longer so I can get a day of diving in.”

Clarissa studied his face and his eyes for a moment before she spoke again. The waitress was in her peripheral vision, apparently sensing that this was not the time to interrupt them. She saw nothing less than sincerity, no hint of another agenda. He was comfortable in her scrutiny, waiting patiently. When she started to speak, he did hold up one finger and smile again.

“By the way, Dad often doesn’t sleep much and when I told him you and I were meeting, he said he would send you a detailed email. I suspect it’s waiting for you.”

She felt a wide grin as if her mouth was tired of her control and that rare sensation, one of nearly pure pleasure and delight. “This is real, isn’t it?”

He nodded and signaled the waitress for the check without taking his eyes from Clarissa. “Yes, it is and I imagine that at this moment you want to dash home. I noticed you came up on a bicycle though. Would you like me to drive you back to your place?”

Clarissa shook her head and reached for her purse. “No, no thanks. I’m not far away and it’s fine being out like this at night.”

He grinned this time, and handed a twenty to the waitress. “Then I’ll take care of this and you go on. And even though it’s sort of between you and Dad now, I have the practical details of timing and other arrangements worked out, so we can get together again before I go?”

She suddenly felt awkward, not certain of how to end the conversation. She wanted to throw her arms around him and give him a hug. “Yeah, yeah, and hey, maybe you can come dive with Dan and Renee. I’ll either be on the boat or can be. I’m working nights at the Bayside the rest of the week.”

“I might be able to do that,” he said, stood and held out his hand. “It’s been a pleasure meeting you Clarissa, and I’ll give you a call tomorrow once I know what my schedule is.”

“Thanks, that’s great,” she said and shook his hand before she practically ran from the diner, throwing a good-bye smile to the few heads that turned her way. When she went to pull her bike from the rack, she saw that her hands were trembling. She positioned the strap of her purse across her chest and wheeled away, laughter beginning to bubble as she maneuvered onto the bicycle path, laughter that she no longer needed to hold back. She pedaled faster that she imagined possible, the night air sweeter than she could ever recall, exhilaration propelling her to a new future.

The End