The Invisible Husband of Frick Island by Colleen Oakley

Chapter 1

The Storm

            At first, when Piper scanned the docks and didn’t see the familiar rickety white-pine-and-fir fisherman’s trawler, she thought nothing of it. Tom, like most Chesapeake Bay watermen, tried to beat the sun’s rays onto the water every morning during crab season, squeezing in every minute of the government-allotted eight hours of crabbing per day. That put him back in the harbor just after lunch most afternoons, with plenty of time for his onshore duties—icing his catch, checking his floats, tending to the boat. But inevitably some mornings there was a delay—a net needing mending, the buy boat running late. On those days, Tom’s deadrise would come puffing into the harbor later than the others, when the sun was halfway down the other side of the sky. But whether it was two, three, or four in the afternoon, it didn’t much matter. Time on Frick Island had always been more of a theoretical concept measured in jiffies or awhiles or later ons.

            Still, even though there was no telling on any given day when Tom would return, every afternoon when the Blue Point market closed at three, Piper flew through her closing responsibilities moving the packaged deli meats, cheeses, and any unsold fresh crab cakes from the display cooler to the back refrigerator, mopping the cracked linoleum floors, hanging up her apron on the hook in the office, and slipping her card in the punch time clock (even though she had never seen Mr. Garrison so much as look at them)—and rushed over to the docks.

            Most days Tom was already there, helping tie off boats or diagnosing an outboard engine problem or simply standing around with other watermen, grumbling about the day’s haul or the sharp drop in the market price of oysters.

            And sometimes, on those days, the breath would catch in Piper’s throat. And she’d stop and stare at him for a beat in wide wonder that of all the places in the world, God had found it fitting to put Tom Parrish on the same tiny spit of land that she, too, inhabited. And even more miraculous, that though he could have had his pick of mainland girls at the high school they once ferried over to before the sun woke every weekday, Tom chose her.

            Fire. That was what Piper remembered when she thought of those early days on the ferry with Tom. There was a heat to those mornings, even in the dead of winter, when they could see their breath float out into the cold air in great big puffs, as if they were exhaling cigarette smoke. She’d never forget the way the clouds would suddenly blush pink at the first kiss of sunlight and how her face followed suit whenever she caught Tom looking at her. Or the way when Tom, two years her senior, first sat next to her on the boat when there were at least ten other empty spots he could have chosen, and his thigh burned so hot against hers, even through their jeans, that it warmed her entire body from the inside out. And she thought she might die from the sheer pleasure of it.

            And she’d been dying a thousand tiny pleasurable deaths every day, ever since. Like the first time he clumsily kissed her, behind his dad’s crab shack sophomore year, catching just the corner of her mouth and a few locks of her hair. And the second time, a week later, when he didn’t miss at all. Or when he would leave notes for her in the pocket of her jacket, tucked in schoolbooks, or affixed to the outside corner of her bedroom window, and she wouldn’t find them until hours later, running her thumb over the tiny block letters of his handwriting, her heart fit to burst. Or when, just a year earlier, they had been lying in the bottom of the very boat she was now scanning the horizon for, and—looking at the moon—he had whispered the words she realized she’d been waiting to hear from him since she was fourteen: We should get married.

            She agreed immediately, because after seven years, she still felt the same way she did those mornings on the ferry—that when he looked at her, she was alive. And when she was away from him, she counted down the seconds until he would be near again.

            But on this breezy April afternoon, Piper would have to count for a little while longer, it seemed. She slunk over to the bench, swiping the beads of water off of it with her bare hand. There had a been a storm that morning when they woke, a spring squall angering the seas, creating choppy waters that slowed even the most experienced boat captains. But watermen didn’t stop for weather. As BobDan Gibbons, the official Frick Island ferry boat captain, often explained to the boatloads of tourists visiting from the mainland: The crabs don’t know it’s rainin’.