The family was stuck. There were snacks. There was iced tea in cans. There was a great white shark circling their boat.
Mom almost hadn’t come. Lately, she never did things with the family. That she was here at all reminded the children of old times, when they could count on her to make the sandwiches, stacked and saran-wrapped and mortared with ketchup, and to bring coffee poured from an old thermos that smelled like rubber, but somehow was good and the kids were allowed little sips. Today, Dad had brought food from the grocery: paper-wrapped sandwiches, packs of cookies, and potato chips in little puffy blue bags like throw pillows for dolls. Dad always came through. He could plan any meal, fix any internal combustion engine, build any house, sail any boat in any harbor. The shark didn’t bother him. “It’ll go away, for God’s sake. Eat your sandwiches.”
It did swim off eventually; he was right. He sailed them home and all the while, the kids snuck looks at Mom. When the shark had been circling, she’d crushed her potato chips inside the puffy-pillow bag, her knuckles red. Now that it had retreated, she still looked into the distance. Seeing what they couldn’t see. Brave, when they couldn’t be. Dad couldn’t even look. He’d been wrong all along: it was still out there. He guided the boat to the dock, the water slapping gray planks. Mom climbed off. The kids turned around and she was gone.
They turned to their father, too brokenhearted to cry.
Karen Chaffee lives in Central New Jersey. She teaches Chemistry at the university level, and she was excited to teach a science stem camp last summer where high school students learned about the early universe. She has recently published a story in Orca.