Preview: A Patch Of Blue



       Miraculously the rear deck was empty for the moment. And it was a good thing because my head was swimming and I was in real danger of actually throwing up. I got up and moved unsteadily over to the back corner of the boat.
       We rode up another hideous swell, and that was it; I felt it coming. Twisting around, I stepped up to lean out, when suddenly the boat came down hard, skewing sideways, and my flip-flop shot out from under me, pitching me forward. I teetered on my stomach for half an instant then flipped over the railing and fell over the side.
       I plunged into the ocean and water closed over me, shocking in its suddenness. It happened so quickly, I accidentally sucked in a mouthful of water. My chest heaved and I clamped a hand over my mouth to keep from breathing in more as my lungs tried to expel what I had inhaled. Shocked and horrified, I fought my way up and broke through to the surface, choking and retching. A wave washed over me and I jerked my head up and tried to stay afloat as I coughed and gagged up the water.
       By the time I managed to stop coughing and got my breath back enough to call out, the boat had already moved a considerable distance away from me. Hadn't anyone noticed? Was that possible? I heard no shouts of "Man overboard!" and no one seemed to be looking in my direction. Incredibly, my falling overboard seemed to have gone completely unnoticed. I felt the tug of the ocean around me and realized I was caught in a current that was pulling me away from the boat.
       Taking a deep breath, I mustered all my strength and screamed as loud as I could, "HEEELLP! SOMEBODY HELP MEE!" I took another breath and screamed again, "HEEEYYY! OVER HEEERE! SOMEBODY HEEELP!"
       Oh my God, they weren't hearing me! I was screaming as loud as I could and they couldn't hear me! If they left me I would die. Panic hit. This time I lifted up out of the water as far as I could and screamed so long and loud I felt like I ruptured something.
       I fell back down in the water, going under. A large swell caught me by surprise and washed over my face as I came back up, and once again my mouth filled with water. I spit it out, this time without inhaling, and fought to gain my equilibrium and keep my head above water.
       The boat was even farther away now. If they didn't hear me before, how would they hear me now? Maybe the music had been too loud. Maybe they had stopped playing for a minute. I rose up again and renewed my efforts. "HEEEELLLLLPPPP! SOMEBODY HEEELLLPPP! OVER HEERE! HEEEEYY!" I waved my arms and continued to scream off and on to no avail. The boat was receding at too fast a rate. I was definitely caught in some kind of current.
       How could this be happening? I rose and fell with the swells in the ocean around me. Up, then down. Up, and down. Weirdly, my nausea had disappeared. Not that it mattered. If the weather kept going the way it was, it was going to storm and then the waves would be huge and I would be hurled up and then flung back down until I was dragged under and drowned. Panic swept over me again. I didn't even have a life jacket on. I couldn't believe this was happening. My mind resisted the reality of it, and I kept repeating in my head, This can't be happening. This can't be happening.
       I struggled to stay afloat in the increasingly choppy water, riding the swells, trying not to overtire myself. I twisted around in the water, but I could no longer spot the boat at all. It had either gotten too far away or the waves were blocking my view.
       Had they discovered I was gone yet? How long would it take for James to come looking for me and realize I wasn't in the bathroom or anywhere else? My mind seized on the possibility. Of course. James would come looking for me and realize I was gone. They would figure out what happened and turn the boat around. I twisted around again, scanning the ocean, but I couldn't see much in the choppy water, and I gave up and hoped for calmer seas.
       Sometime later the waves and swells began to die down. I could still see lightning way off in the distance, but the sky had brightened above me and the waves seemed to be smaller. The storm had passed on. I had no idea how long I had been in the water. Three hours? Four?
       I scanned the horizon constantly for any sign of the boat, but all I could see was endless water in all directions. Once, I heard the distant sound of a helicopter and my heart leapt with joy, but due to the remaining cloud cover, or because they were just too far away, I was never able to spot it, and soon the sound receded and was gone. The vulnerability of my position was even clearer to me now that I wasn't occupied fighting waves to keep my head above water. Open water stretched out as far as I could see. I was one lone person in a very big ocean, and I wasn't even wearing a life jacket. It would be almost impossible for anyone to see me. Treading water, I told myself to stay calm, but I could feel the panic coming again, nipping at me from the deep. How long could a person stay afloat without a life vest? I could alternate treading water with floating if the ocean stayed calm, but wouldn’t I get tired at some point? And what about water? I had to already be somewhat dehydrated from all the alcohol and the spitting up I had done earlier.
       I lifted my legs and stretched out on my back, floating as motionless as possible to conserve my strength.
       I prayed for rescue.

What followed was the longest night of my life. I floated quite a bit, but I had to keep my head tilted back to do it, which hurt my neck, and I could only manage it for so long. And worse, since the sun had gone down, the temperature had fallen, and now I was cold. Really cold. The air around me wasn't really that cool, but the water temperature was lower than my body temperature and I was still in danger of getting hypothermia. I couldn't even move around too much to warm up because I knew sharks came out at night to feed.
       Due to the partial cloud cover, only a few stars were out to give me light, and the sea around me was eerily dark. I tried not to think about what could be in the depths of the ocean beneath me. It was easy to imagine some giant sea monster rising slowly up out of the water to take me into its beaky mouth. Suddenly I had another horrible thought. What if they never even knew I was missing? The helicopter I had heard earlier might not have been looking for me. I was a last-minute addition and my name wasn't even on the list. But surely the woman who had been checking off names would remember me. Wouldn't she? Or the hotel lady's cousin who had taken my money. Or James. Surely he would remember talking to me. But even if they had realized I was missing, it might not have been until they got back to the marina, which left a large area to search from the boat's location when James last talked to me, to the marina all the way back in Port Denarau. And even then, they would be looking in the wrong place because the current had surely swept me far away by now.
       I had always been a strong swimmer, probably due to the summers I had spent immersed in the neighborhood pool when I was growing up, but even so, I was starting to get tired. The coldness and the constant motion I had to make, as well as the strain to stay above water, was wearing me out, mentally and physically. It wasn't too bad whenever I was floating, but then my neck would start to cramp and I would have to drop my legs and tread water again. I was terrified it would attract a shark.
       On and on the night seemed to drag. I had no perception of time. All I had was minute after minute of exhaustion, fear, and cold. And though I tried not to think about it, I knew lack of water was a real worry. After all the sun, and the alcohol, and the seawater I had inadvertently swallowed, I had to be getting dehydrated. All it would take would be for me to pass out for a minute and then I would slip beneath the waves and drown.
       I flipped onto my back and tried to conserve my strength. Hypothermia was probably setting in, but it was all I could do. I was so tired. I relaxed as much as I could and let my mind wander. My thoughts drifted to the boys. I couldn't give up … I had to think of them and all the things they would need … me for … graduations … weddings … and grandchildren …

The first sharp sting jolted me awake. I hadn't been asleep exactly, but somehow I had managed to drift into a twilight state I immediately wanted to go back to as I felt two more sharp stings on my leg and shoulder.
       I let out a cry and jerked upright in the water. I reached down to my leg and my fingers closed around something gelatinous. Burning needles of pain immediately shot through my hand. I cried out and jerked away. I felt another searing pain on my neck and realized one was clinging to me. Reaching around, I ripped it off and was stung again. With a shriek, I flung it off of me.
       Translucent jellyfish surrounded me in the water. More excruciating needles of pain began to strike me all over. I felt one on my foot and another on my lower back below my shirt, and then on my leg. Shrieking, I thrashed about in the water and tried to swim away from them. Relentlessly, I was stung over and over as I plowed through them. Crying out every few seconds in agony, I kept swimming even though there seemed to be no end to them because stopping wasn't an option. Just when I thought it would go on forever, I finally got clear of them. My heart was slamming in pain and exhaustion, and drowning now seemed like a real possibility, but I forced myself to swim a little farther to be sure I was far enough away.
       I rolled over in the water and managed to get onto my back. I was trembling all over, and my breath whooped in and out of me. I had been stung too many times to count, and I had no idea what all that venom would do to me. I realized I was making a low keening sound and forced myself to stop.
       For the first time, dying in this fathomless ocean seemed not so much a possibility, as a certainty. Jared had cast me aside and I had been left in the ocean to drown. He would be with Angie, and I would die in this endless sea.

I  didn't die but I believe my life was teetering on the edge by the time the sun broke over the horizon. I had been in the ocean for fourteen hours.
       The first rays of the rising sun were just coming across the water when I felt something bump into me.
       I whimpered in anguish at what I knew was coming. I was too tired and in too much pain to do more than bob low in the water and wait to die.
       I felt another thump against my back. This was it. This was how it was going to end. I waited for the shark to tear into me.
       But nothing happened. After a minute I turned my head and saw something floating in the water. It didn't look like a shark. Suddenly I realized what it was and lunged for it. Wrapping my arms around it, I pulled myself up and collapsed on top of it, nearly weeping with joy. The log, which was really a large piece of a tree that had broken off somewhere and floated out to sea, was big enough to hold most of my upper body, and I lay across it, thanking God over and over. Just to be able to get most of my body out of the water was heavenly. My hands were wrinkled-up prunes and some of the welts from the jellyfish were oozing blood. I turned my face to the sun, soaking up the warmth and light, and felt the first faint flicker of hope.
       By the time the sun had risen all the way, I had warmed up and managed to adjust myself to where I was sitting with my legs dangling in the water. For the first time since I had fallen off the boat, I felt optimistic. Being up out of the ocean would make it easier for anyone to see me. And keep me from being eaten by a shark or dying of hypothermia in the night.
       But I still needed water. A person could go weeks without food but could only go three or four days without water, in the best of circumstances. And I was already horribly thirsty. My mouth was so dry it felt like my tongue was swelling, and I could feel my lips cracking.
       If only it would rain. I craned my head up. Not a cloud in the sky—but that could change.
       After a while the heat of the sun and the motion of the water lulled me into drowsiness and I turned over and lay across the tree on my stomach. With my head resting on my folded arm, I could keep my face completely out of the water, and I soon fell into an exhausted sleep.