Nell unpacked her suitcase on the king-sized bed in the beach condo she’d rented to remind her husband of their honeymoon three years ago. Then he could not keep his hands off his bride. Now he only had eyes for Susie Q—his miniature white poodle. Even after she gave birth to a son, John Junior, it did nothing to reel in her husband from the land of scooping poop and walking the dog.
As she laid out her family’s swimwear, bright blue to match the property’s umbrellas lined on the shore, she marveled her good fortune at finding a sunhat for Junior the same shade of blue as her gauzy sundress and John Senior’s T-shirt and flip-flops. Her compulsion to match her family’s clothes had spawned with the birth of her son. She knew it was odd but could not seem to stop herself from uniting her family in color.
Susie Q distracted Nell from her deep hue of thoughts when she hopped in a circle and tucked in her paws. The poodle whined her I-need-to-pee song just as John Junior toppled backwards and bonked his head on a crescent-shaped knob protruding from a nightstand. Nell flew to the wailing baby as John lunged for the leash.
The doting mother stared at her husband in disbelief as the baby’s cheeks brightened from shrimp pink to lobster red. John shrugged his shoulders and clicked his tongue in dog speak as he slid out the door. “Poor little penguin, ” Nell cooed to her son. He’d taken his first steps two weeks before they backed out the driveway for their trip to the beach. Mostly he flapped his arms, wobbled, and fell to the ground.
“Poor little penguin, ” she said again and again, until Junior’s screams faded and he hiccupped to sleep. Nell opened the sliding glass door to the balcony and let in the ocean’s roar with its salty seaweed breath. She spotted John but had to squint to see Susie Q who blended into the white sands of Santa Rosa Beach at dusk.
The next morning Nell packed an ice chest and three canvas sacks with tuna sandwiches, sliced melons, crackers, apple juice, and Abita Strawberry Harvest beer. A fourth sack overflowed with a camera, a plastic bucket, diapers, sunscreen, and Milk-Bone dog treats.
Susie Q yipped in excitement as Nell loaded her husband with half the bags. She beamed at her matching family, her son’s floppy blue hat. He was adorable, really. How could John not stare at him the way she did, at his navy eyes, his chubby pink cheeks, his wisps of blond hair? He had a perennial smile and only cried when hurt, hungry, or tired.
On their long hike down a pier to the shore, John Junior stopped on a rubber mat under a showerhead and plopped down to inspect the new surface under his toes. He giggled and looked up at his mother who dug in her bag for the camera, snapped a picture, and turned laughing to John. But her husband had clipped down the steps with his pet to rent one of the cobalt umbrellas, the exact shade of his T-shirt and flip-flops.
It took Nell a long time to reach John because the baby did not want to be held, even though he toppled in the sand. When she tried to pick him up, which was difficult with a loaded ice chest and beach bag, he’d kick his legs to be put down. As she neared the set-up umbrella, she spied her little penguin a long way behind her, flapping his arms, under his floppy blue hat.
Nell dropped the ice chest and beach bag at her husband’s feet. She huffed and thanked him for helping with the baby.
“I can’t take my eye’s off Susie, ” he said. “I could lose her in this white sand. For god sakes, look at her, Nellie!”
So Nell looked at Susie Q who darted about with abandon as John Junior reached the shore.
His arms flapped when his toes touched the foamy outflow of water. In a rush he headed straight into the ocean basin under his bright blue sunhat. He wobbled and fell once, then pushed back up and waddled toward an incoming wave that kissed his pink cheeks. Nell turned and glimpsed her son’s hat in the water. Unable to move, she opened her mouth but her scream had drowned in her throat.
Susie Q rushed to the boy and barked to alert the father. After six long strides, John plucked his son from the Gulf of Mexico. The baby coughed and gasped for breath, frightened but unharmed as his hat roiled in the churning surf and was sucked off shore. He tried to squirm out of his father’s arms and reached for his mother. But Nell plopped down next to the poodle.
And the tide rolled out as John tried to soothe his son.
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