Jessica Marie Baumgartner
Sierra shivered before her son’s window. Her limbs hung lifeless at her sides. No matter how many nights she took care of little Mason, she would never see him again. The sting of his absence grew more potent with each missed feeding.
She lingered before the rocking chair, rubbed her fingertips over the head of the crib and let the tears pour out. Grasping the baby blanket draped over the crib, she pulled it against her chest to sit and rock alone.
“You can’t keep blaming yourself.”
She jumped at Xander’s scratchy voice and closed her eyes. She grasped the blanket against her chest.
The gentle pressure of her husband’s hand on her shoulder pulled her from her fantasy. “I can’t.”
“I know. I miss him too.” He patted her back.
She pulled away. A glimmer of moonlight illuminated tears trickling down the scruff on his chin.
“There’s no more milk.” She grabbed his hand and slid it over her empty breasts.
“It’s okay.” Xander stepped in front of her. “No one will replace him, but-”
“No.” She shook her head. Her lips trembled. “We don’t get to start over. He’s dead.”
“I’m sorry.” Xander kissed her forehead and stood. Shadows blocked his expression, but the stains on his T-shirt stood out.
She longed to reach for him. Her body ached to be held, but she couldn’t leave the nursery.
Xander nodded and left. His footsteps died away on the padded carpet and the quiet stillness of night surrounded her. Moonbeams drifted in the night. They dusted a corner of the windowsill with their glow and Sierra glimpsed the shimmer of rolling waves darkening the sand beyond the house. Unable to keep from staring at the sweeping rush of water, her breath quickened. Something about the waves seemed different.
A strange series of hums sounded. The low tones held a deep harmony unlike any music she knew of. The blanket fell away as she went to the window to look out for the first time in days. She stood in the brilliant glow of the full moon and wrapped her arms around herself. The memory of kissing Mason’s chubby cheeks took over her thoughts.
A new wave of tears rushed free and Sierra hummed along with the waves to keep from crying aloud. She longed to hide beneath every drop of water in the sea.
“I died with him.” She groaned, but instead of diving further into her memories, she focused on the increasing hum of the ocean. It called to her, electrified her.
Without stopping to think why, she stripped herself of her baggy nightgown. She stepped out into the hall and followed the curve of the wooden rail down the steps, past the living room. She hastened to the garage and stopped before the air tanks that had hung unused for over a year.
Flicking on the light, she checked the gauges. Still full. She grasped her tank with a forgotten familiarity and slowly set it behind her hatchback to open up the car. The tank slid in easier than it should have. Her strength returned and she fell into the old routine, grabbing her wetsuit and dive bag.
It’s been a while. One look at her widened hips and she glanced back at her husband’s wetsuit hanging beside his air tank.
I’m as fat as ever with nothing to show for it. She grabbed Xander’s wetsuit and pull it over the rolls on her body. She cuffed the arms and legs and tugged at the extra material folding at her stomach. At least his suit is still big on me.
She sighed before getting into the car. She sat back and drove down the beach to the dock. The once familiar spot sat untended. Boards splintered. The rail held rust spots. It led beyond the rocky shore.
Illuminated swells of sea water rushed in and away from the beach as if it were breathing.
Unsure of how much healing her body needed, Sierra struggled to carry everything to the dock one at a time. She dragged the air tank through the sand and onto the planks, hooked up the BCD Breathing Regulator, and tested the mouthpiece.
A breath of stale air chocked her. She blinked hard eyes watering, but nothing would stop her. She pulled her mask over her head and let it hang around her neck with the snorkel attached. Strapping on her weight belt, she tested her clip-on flashlight. Thank god the batteries still work.
She sat down, flippers in hand and turned to stare at the air tank strapped into her life jacket. She mused over what she remembered from her diver training. Never dive alone, especially at night, or on private property.
Sierra cocked her head at the waves. The hum had dulled, but a slight buzzing sound still pricked at her ears. The dreamlike chorus grew. She scanned the blue-black surface of the waves and a pool of bubbles called to her from a spotlight of moonbeam.
Her fear of going into the water alone drowned in the anticipation of exploration. It’s been too long. She gazed over the edge of the dock to stare at the ripples of the water.
She strapped on her jacket. The tank weighed her down, but she pushed herself up. Shuffling her flippers to the edge, she filled her lungs. The dock bobbed with the current. She stepped one foot out and fell into another world.
She inflated her life jacket and floating to the surface of the waves, then pulled her mask over her face. She slipped her mouthpiece in and breathed from the tank. Looking back to her perfect ocean view house, she bobbed with the water’s current. She swallowed hard and deflated her life jacket to drown out the pain of the empty nursery.
She flicked on her flashlight and the slight hiss of her breath offered a comfort. It reminded her that she was just a visitor. She popped her ears to ease the pressure mounting in her head, but the cloudy darkness surrounding her took hold of her pulse.
Why did I come alone? she asked herself.
A lionfish swam passed the dull shine of her flashlight. She smiled at its ghostly swish. The presence of consistent life below had always comforted her. She stayed her flippers in wake of the familiar bubble of tears coming up to meet the stagnant air in her face mask.
The steady hum that had blended into the stream of water whooshed around her in a deeper tone. Determined to find the source of the sound Sierra peered around, but the shadows of the water pervaded everywhere around her.
What am I doing? I’m not Jacques Cousteau. Wondering why the noise had called to her, she kicked forward until the shelf drop-off lay beneath her as black as the depths of space. I know this area. There’s nothing new to see.
She checked her air gauge and bit the inside of her cheek. The water vibrated with life in the darkness. She couldn’t see what was thriving there, but she had before. A mecca of fish, crabs, and aquatic plants lay beneath her.
She swam a little further and let some more air out of her BCD to sink down. A few frightened fish darted away from the beam that she flashed ahead of her. Just a few minutes, she told herself watching the particles of seaweed dance in the light like dust in a sunbeam.
Turning about, she wandered aimlessly. The isolation welcomed her, but she still couldn’t understand what she was hearing. The sound that had lured her there had died down.
She began to swim back in frustration. Unable to prevent the tears this time, she instinctively tried to suck a great breath through her nose. Some water rushed in flooding her senses. The burn went from the back of her throat up to her eyes. She chocked on the mouthpiece gasping on the air as her tank continued to empty.
Bile stung her throat and chest while she worked to swallow. Trying to kick up something brushed against her back. Every muscle in her body tensed. Her calf locked up so badly that she could not kick. She hovered in the water, eyes wide.
Struggling at the opening of the drop off, she glimpsed the moonlight piercing through the water. Its shimmer penetrated just enough for her to gape at the shadow that flickered over her. She panted through the mouthpiece, gasping for breath. Her teeth clenched together and she squinted through the fog that began clouding her mask.
I have to get back. She flicked the flashlight around her. A coral hue of bumps stopped her. She remembered a barracudas piercing bite. Other aggressive fish had swum at her in the past, but the delicate body she found sat calmly in the water.
Blinking through her surprise, she traced the blurred lines of a protruding stomach to an arched neck and a long snout. Sierra reached out and held her gloved hand as steady as possible.
It can’t be. She had seen a few before, but this was nothing like the small creatures that hid their frail frames at the ocean floor.
This seahorse nudged at her palm, unafraid. She held her forearm up to it and gasped. It reached from her elbow to her fingertips. Her head grew light. She became so captivated by the find that she had forgotten the pressure gauge and her limited time.
She relaxed her fingers and patted the seahorse’s muzzle. It brought back sweet memories of the stable horses she tended as a child.
The creature moved closer. Sierra wrinkled her forehead as it reached her womb to nudge with the softest of pressure. It reminded her of the butterfly kicks she felt during pregnancy.
The seahorse looked up and swam toward her hand again, pushing its belly against her fingers.
Her eyes went wide and she cocked her head. Even through the mist inside her mask, she understood. You’re going to be a daddy, she thought.
She inhaled but barely any air came. She struggled to gulp in oxygen and glanced at the air gauge before kicking upward. Her legs moved faster and faster as panic took her over. Pumping her arms to propel herself as far as possible, she splashed through the surface of the waves, spit out her mouthpiece, and sucked in as much air as she could.
She inflated her BCD, ripped off her mask, and floated on her back. The night seemed to become a haze. Her temples pounded. She slowly paddled herself back to the dock. Her body felt like lead and she began to fear that she was not strong enough to make it back. Her lungs ached with each thud of her pulse, each breath made her body weary. Her head had never felt so heavy.
“Come on sis, open the door.”
Sierra rubbed her thighs with the palms of her hands and eyed the door to the nursery. It was the first time in days that had she felt like herself.
“Everyone thinks I’m crazy,” she called back
Her sister’s sarcasm got her going. Sierra glanced from the changing table over to the stacks of books on the shelf beside it before sighing and opening the door.
Her sister’s deep caramel eyes weren’t mocking and for that she was grateful. Sierra grasped her sister’s arms when she spotted Xander leaning against the wall behind them. “He wants to lock me away. He’ll come in here and destroy all our son ever had because he wants to forget.”
He stepped forward. “She…”
“I’ve got this Xander. Why don’t you go to work?” Her sister was firm.
He lingered for just a moment; enough time for Sierra’s mouth to dry out and her breath to stop. She forced herself to swallow.
“Let Savannah do her best.”
Sierra wrinkled her nose at her sister’s third person declaration. The relief of normalcy allowed her to relax her shoulders the moment her sister closed the door on Xander. “You don’t think I’m crazy do you?”
“After what you’ve been through?” Savannah shook her head.
Sierra leaned into her. “You won’t let them take me will you?” she whispered.
Her sister pulled back enough to stare into her eyes. “Never. We’ve always taken care of each other.”
“Even when mom and dad didn’t.” Sierra stepped back and wrapped her arms around herself.
Savannah Shrugged. “They were just kids playing house.” She stared at the floor and smiled. “Remember when I had to live on your couch?” She sat on the carpet with a smile.
Sierra leaned against the wall. “You nearly drove me nuts.”
“Yeah, but you loved it.”
Sierra put her hand over her mouth and bit her lip at the unexpected laughter that bubbled forward.
Savannah leaned back supporting her weight on her hands. “I miss him too, you know.”
“I know.” She nodded.
“But just because he’s gone doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy yourself.”
“I don’t want any more children.” Sierra clenched her hands tightly into fists.
“Who said you did?” Savannah stretched her legs out in front of her, but never moved her eyes from Sierra’s.
“Xander does.” The dull ache that she had been constantly living with began to grow.
“Screw Xander.” Her sister sat forward, features tight. Little lines pulled at the corners of her dark eyes. “I know he loves you, but forget what he wants right now.”
“I’ve pushed him away.” Sierra sighed.
“He’s hurting too, but you’re a grieving mother.”
Sierra fidgeted with her T-shirt. “He had to go back to work. Getting back to the office to deal with staring at a screen all day hasn’t helped him.”
Savanna pulled her knees to her chest and hugged her legs to her. “What about you? You used to make the most eye popping designs.”
“Fashion school was a long time ago.” Sierra rubbed her forehead and began to pace.
“Not that long.” Her sister’s crooked grin caused her to smile back.
“It’s been years.” She continued pacing. “I do miss it. When Xander got his big job and asked me to marry him, everything changed.”
“And now it’s changed again.” Savannah stood up and went to her. She rubbed Sierra’s back. “When was the last time you did something for yourself?”
Sierra stopped and gaped at her sister. “Last week.”
“When you nearly drowned?”
“Please don’t make that face at me. It was the first time I’ve felt alive in weeks. I don’t know what Xander told you, but I really did experience something amazing.”
“A giant seahorse?” Savannah’s lips bunched to one side of her face.
“Not giant.” Sierra sent a pleading glance at her sister before closing her eyes to keep from having another breakdown.
“Well, for a seahorse.”
“I know what I saw. I went out on my own because I heard something. I know it was dark and empty down there.” Sierra reached for her sister’s hand. “But the little thing nudged my stomach, allowed me to touch his belly.”
“His belly?” Her sister squeezed her hand and Sierra cocked her head.
“He was pregnant.”
“He… aas pregnant?”
“Dammit Savannah, male seahorses birth the babies, it’s pretty much common knowledge by now. There have been numerous documentaries about it; it’s even in kids’ shows.”
“Oh.” The scrutiny on Savannah’s face washed away and she leaned in with a wicked glimmer in her eyes. “When have you ever known me to be common?”
Sierra rolled her eyes. “I’m not expecting you to believe me, but I need to dive again.”
“No. Xander found you passed out on the dock. We’re still worried that you did permanent damage to your brain.”
“What happened to fuck Xander?”
Savannah stared at her.
“Do I sound impaired?” Sierra set her jaw and stood as tall as she could.
“That’s not what I’m saying at all.” Her sister leaned back as if unsure.
Sierra relaxed her hands and slumped over the nearby crib. “I just want to dive again. I know going alone was stupid. I won’t do that again.”
“No, you won’t.”
“You’re gonna dive with me?” Sierra raised her eyebrows.
“I was never that good.”
“Oh shut up. We had fun in Cancun.”
“That was a long time ago.”
Sierra smirked at her sister’s apprehension. “Not that long ago.”
“Thank you so much for doing this with me.” Sierra pulled her hair into a tight pony tail while Savannah stared at the water.
“How about a selfie before we get all hooked up?”
“Okay.” Her sister snapped out of her daydream to grab her phone.
Sierra laughed at her childish nature. She tapped her phone screen and captured each silly face her sister made. By the last shot, she was sticking her tongue out as well.
“I missed this.” Savannah’s features grew serous.
“Me too.” Sierra glanced back at the perfect angles of her house. It loomed in the distance. No matter how far she went, it was still there harboring every memory.
“Come on. This was your idea.” Savannah grabbed her dive bag and flung it over her shoulder. Grasping her tank, she lugged it to the dock.
“Good thing you had that brush-up.” Sierra slid her bag over her shoulder. She grit her teeth and grasped the fresh air tank carrying it behind her sister. “You might need to lead me.”
“Nah, I don’t even have my own suit.” Savannah tugged at the material around her neck.
“I’ll probably never get back in that thing.” Sierra hated getting upset over something as trivial as her weight after having lost her son, but she couldn’t help it.
“Whatever. You look great.”
She pinched the extra meat on her hips and pursed her lips with a scowl.
“We all have that and you know it.” Savannah grabbed her tummy and squeezed. “See. And mine’s just food and booze.”
“Not baby weight.” Sierra stared down at her stomach. She had been so excited to dive that this fit of sadness hit her worse than the ones that had used to follow her every day. It rolled from the inside out and she trembled with tears.
Sierra swallowed her breath and sat under the pressure of her sister’s hands on her shoulders.
“We have all day. There’s no rush. Take all the time you need.”
She sank onto Savannah’s lap.
The low hum that had called before rang out clear and they both gasped. Sierra sat upright. “You hear that, right?”
“Kind of.” Savannah wrinkled her forehead. “I don’t know.”
“That song, it’s blending with the sound of the water, but it’s not the waves.” Sierra opened her bag. She scooted onto the dock to pull out her gear.
“I know the doctor cleared you physically, but are you sure you’re up to this?”
“Absolutely.” Sierra tested the air in the tank. “That’s why I brought you. Remember?”
“Uh, you’re the older sister.” Savannah tested her tank as well.
“Well then, you can babysit me for once.”
They both paused at the word babysit. Savannah seemed to hold her breath until Sierra nodded. “Okay, time for the hard part.”
They suited up and helped each other to snap on her jacket and secure their air tanks.
“I can’t believe you did this by yourself.”
Savannah stepped off of the dock and plunged into the water.
When she resurfaced to bob along the rolling current, Sierra said, “Me neither,” and she followed suit. The first rush of bubbles always tickled her senses. An instant smile spread over her lips. She swam atop and inflated her jacket. “That, and I’ve done this way more than you.”
Savannah splashed sea foam at her. “You always were better at sticking with things.”
The gentle rhythm of a deep buzz met Serra’s ears. She pulled her mask over her eyes. “Ready to help me stick with this?”
Savannah nodded and adjusted her face mask. She held up the tube linked to the inflator in her jacket.
They both pressed the button to begin their descent. A rush of cool water flooded Sierra’s ears and she pinched her nose and blew to pop them. She scanned the water, searching the area for any signs of life. They neared the ocean floor and visibility was better than it had been on her previous excursion.
She held up the okay sign and Savannah returned it. Savannah pointed ahead with a vigorous motion and Sierra turned to meet a school of mackerel. Their silver fins shimmered as one with the uniform movements of uniform swimming.
Glancing down, she spotted a mudpuppy and nudged at her sister. Savannah dipped so low, her nose barely brushed the sand. Sierra pulled her back and put her arms out to demonstrate the perfect hover. Her sister brushed it off and nodded to kick further on.
They passed fish nesting in a kelp bed. The muffled whoosh of the ocean no longer held any strange sounds. Savannah swam along beside her until they reached the seemingly endless pit of shadows that opened up beneath them; the drop-off. She grabbed Sierra’s hand and shook her head.
Sierra squeezed her hand and nodded. Pointing to her eye, she patted her hand on her chest and then her sister’s to calm her. Savannah looked back to the sun beams penetrating the shallower water. Fish darted through them, aglow with the warmth of life.
The chill of the drop off didn’t bother Sierra, she welcomed it. Nothing would ever leave her as cold as the day that she had woken and walked into her son’s room to find him not breathing. She grabbed the flashlight clipped to Savannah’s belt and flicked it on before pushing it into her sister’s hand. Grasping her own, she flashed the narrow beam down and began to dive lower.
Her sister’s light shook from side to side revealing plankton all around them, but the water seemed empty. Sierra had never gone all the way down and her sister was not deep sea certified and so she stopped herself after a while. Floating beside a rock wall that seemed to reach down into the very heart of the ocean, she looked up to check on Savannah who clung to the rocky wall with both hands.
Sierra sent her the okay sign, but Savannah pointed up. Sierra help up one hand to ask for more time and directed her flashlight around. The brilliant glow illuminated a series of miniscule caverns in the shelf wall that were covered in the most brilliant array of sea flowers that Sierra had ever seen.
Savannah moved down to look as well and a great ripple of water pushed out from the largest opening. The golden body of a rippled seahorse raced out from one of the tiny caverns and swam around them.
Savannah brought her hand to her mouthpiece. She whipped out her Sea Life camera and began clicking away.
Sierra wished she could speak to the miraculous seahorse. She reached out to stroke its neck. The great curve of its body seemed more angular than ever, and the round belly protruded well beyond its snout. Again its size left Sierra blinking in disbelief, but her sister was there to see it too.
Savannah looked to her as if to ask permission. Sierra waved for her to stroke the creature. It jerked back and began to draw near to the shelf wall again. Don’t be afraid, Sierra thought.
Instead of slipping back into the hole that it had come from, it began to convulse. Its tail and head palpitated. Sierra feared that they had killed the creature by over stressing it.
Savannah hugged her arm. Sierra worked to steady her flashlight on the convulsing seahorse. An eruption of little seahorses spewed from his body and the young began to dance around them.
Sierra gaped. A trickle of water entered her mouth and she had to focus on keeping her mouthpiece steady. She held up her hand grinning. The babies were no bigger than her thumb.
She nearly dropped her flashlight when a colony of seahorses drifted out from the cracks in the natural rock wall. A ripple of gratitude swept over her. The magic of a world unknown captured her and another seahorse about the size of the father swam to the center of the swirling offspring to nuzzle them.
“You must be the mother,” Sierra mumbled through her mask nearly forgetting her air tank.
The seahorse stared at her with bug eyes.
Shehe held out her hands. The mother didn’t budge, but one of the babies swam closer. It came to rest in her palms fixing its eyes on her.
Those eyes. Her breath stopped. Those crystal clear eyes. She stared unable to move.
She had longed to look upon those eyes once more. Unable to blink she leaned in. “Mason?” Her mouthpiece fell out and she quickly shoved it back in, sucking in a long breath.
Savannah poked her and pointed to their pressure gauges. The air ran low.
Sierra’s heart ached. The seahorse swam closer and nuzzled her cheek. With the gentlest touch, she rubbed the creature and pressed her forehead to it.
Her son seemed to speak through the seahorse’s eyes and Sierra gazed on him with all her love one more time.
The colony of seahorses began to file back into their hidden home. Sierra looked back as she swam to her sister. The last seahorse surveyed her ascent with unforgettable eyes. She turned her face to the increasing light and kicked away. The glow of the surface water warmed her. Sierra broke above the waves. She spit out her mouthpiece and pulled her mask down around her neck to dangle like a necklace.
Unable to form words, she studied the mixture of confusion and serenity on her sister’s face.
“That was definitely…something.” Savannah’s breath came out heavy with awe.
Sierra lay on her back and let the waves carry her. “Definitely.”
“Remember when we used to go to the stables as kids?”
“I always felt so free there.” Sierra rolled over in the water.
Savanna flicked water at her. “It was like that today.”
“I know.” Sierra peered down through the salty waves and got a sting of spray in her nose.
“And I got it all on camera” Savanna bobbed with the current.
“Really?” The adrenalin of exploration began to wear off and Sierra steadied her breathing. “Did you see…its eyes?”
“Which one?” Savannah contorted her face.
“Never mind.” Sierra squinted down through the water. “Time to head back.”
“You’re sounding more and more like your old self again.”
“Am I?” Sierra swam to the dock with an easy upper arm stroke.
Savannah followed and climbed the ladder. Sierra sat down beside her bag and pulled out a couple of packs of trail mix and water bottles.
She tossed one to Savanna as she joined her. She grabbed the drink and gulped it down. “There’s something to this. I’ve been thinking about changing my major again.”
“You?” Sierra snickered as she pulled out her phone to check for updates and emails. A huge apology text from Xander flashed across the screen. She ran her fingers over it.
Savannah shrugged and looked out to the sea. “I’ve always loved biology, and water.”
“Marine biology is a lot more than that.” Sierra scanned the horizon.
“I thought you’d be excited.” Savanna struggled to open her pack of trail mix.
Sierra grabbed the bag and tore it open for her. “I am, as long as you’re ready to commit.”
“After our find?” Savannah shoved a handful of nuts into her mouth. “I’m totally ready to study and protect our little guys.”
“If you ever need a dive buddy for in-field research, you know where to find one.”
“Where?” The corner of Savannah’s mouth curved up and Sierra hit her with a playful slap.
“So what about you?” All of the teasing left Savanna as she set her eyes with serious concern.
“I don’t know.” Sierra took a small sip from her water bottle.
“I think you do.”
Sierra lay back on the dock. “I had this weird design I wanted to try.”
“For a dress?” Savannah sat forward, eyes wide.
“You know me too well.” Sierra wrung out her ponytail. “It’s rippled down the torso and has curves up in the back, kind of tight.”
“Like a seahorse.” Savannah bounced with enthusiasm.
“Exactly.” Sierra grinned. “You can imagine where I got the idea.”
“You should make it. You were always so good at making things. And I’ll model for you if you want.”
“Sounds good.” Sierra stood up and brushed herself off. “We need to get all this stuff back in the garage.”
“Already?” Her sister groaned.
“Yeah.” She handed Savannah of the bags. “We both have work to do.”
“What about Xander?”
Sierra stared ahead. Her home stood waiting. “I think he understands more than I give him credit for.”
“You should get him to dive with you again.”
The soft touch of her sister’s hand on hers stopped Sierra. “He’s too busy.”
“Too busy to see his son’s eyes reborn?”
A blur of tears filled Sierra’s vision. She looked deep into her sister’s eyes. “You saw?”
“Of course I did.” Savannah wrapped her arms around her. “I doubt anyone will believe us though.”
“It was him. I don’t know how, but I know it was.”
“Whatever it was, I’ll never forget my little nephew.”
“Thank you.” Sierra buried her face against her sister’s shoulder.
“If I were reincarnated, I wouldn’t mind coming back as an undiscovered seahorse.” Savannah patted her head.
“Yeah.” Sierra giggled and glanced out to the ocean. “Me neither.”
Jessica’s motto is: Adventure first, then write! When not running around exploring nature and chasing after two smaller versions of herself, she also…feeds the bunny. Somehow in there she has found time to author the award winning books, “The Golden Rule,” and, “Embracing Entropy,” as well as My Family Is Different. She is a current member of the Missouri Writers Guild and her writing has been featured in a wide variety of publications such as: “The Society of Misfit Stories,” “FrostFire Worlds,”The Lorelei Signal,” and more.
Check her out at: