sliding one last entry in before the New Year! turned out to be a bit unseasonable for this time of year, but hope people enjoy anyway...

thanks as ever to Sarah Blackwood, and to katzsoa (for encouraging me to post this chapter)..

happy new year to one and all!


"Fifty-five," Amy said, for about the hundredth time that hour. Her eyes, boring into the side of his head were almost as hot as the sun above them. "Fifty-five minutes."

"I showed up!" the Doctor protested weakly. It wasn't a big deal, was it? Judging from her glare… oh, it was.

"I always come back; you know that, Pond." Amy glared even harder, so he tried another argument.

"And it was within a multiple of five…"

His voice faded, as he realised rather belatedly, that he might just be making things worse. He glanced around, wanting -no, expecting- someone to interject a comment into this situation. Really, wasn't this why he often had more than one companion at a time? Backup conversation, for when one of them got annoyed? But, no. He pouted, sensing their tacit sympathy for Amy; and River began to laugh.

"Mummy dear, I told you he'd be late, and have some ridiculous excuse. You should be happy I went back to get him when I did; or who know when he would've shown up." She shrugged nonchalantly, conveying without even using words that they should all be used to his foibles by now. Rory cracked an eyelid, surveyed them, then carefully closed his eye again and kept whatever he was thinking inside his own head. The Doctor scowled at him. Traitor.

"So what was it?" Amy leaned forward, looking straight into his eyes. "You said you were late because you couldn't find… what?"

"My turtle." He was trying to speak with a calm dignity, but upon seeing the looks on their faces he felt the need to explain further; lest they think he always walked around carrying a testudine in his pockets.

"Not a real turtle, I mean; beaches have real turtles, but they're not a lot of fun to play with. All that moving slow, and pulling themselves back into their shell when they don't want to be troubled with the outside world. Anyway, we're not at a beach; this is a chlorinated pool and sea life doesn't do well in chlorine. So I was looking for my inflatable turtle." He patted the virulently green toy beside him, giving the Ponds a cheerful smile. "Her name is Tanya."

Amy's shoulders had begun to shake uncontrollably during that speech, and Rory turned his head away, eyes still closed and biting his lip. River stared at him over the tops of her sunglasses, before reaching for her wine and taking a long, fortifying sip.

"Interesting," she said in a rather bland voice. "You were late because of Tanya the inflatable turtle."

Amy let out a muffled, hiccupping sound, and the Doctor turned to glare at the Ponds -really, what was with Amy and that twitching and that noise?- before looking back at his wife. She looked -he thought very suddenly, his mind a bit distracted- rather gorgeous. Compared to the other girls in the area, splashing about in bikinis designed to show the most skin possible; there River Song sat, in a fifties-style black swimsuit, oversized straw hat and sunglasses. Even with midriff and hips covered, hair haphazardly stuffed beneath her hat, and face in the shade, she was still undoubtedly the most beautiful and unique of everyone there.

Of course, he might have been just a little bit biased.

"What are you thinking?" she murmured, leaning closer and speaking softly enough that he knew the Ponds couldn't hear her. "You've the funniest look on your face."

"Oh," he said, blushing a little. Now of all times, as they sat with her parents, was probably not the right time to flirt. He shook his head, trying to retain equilibrium. "You shouldn't make fun of Tanya."

"What, her feelings are sensitive? Did she tell you that?" River's lips quirked up in the corners into the faintest smile.

"No," the Doctor said. "It's just… water safety is very important. You shouldn't take it lightly."

River stood up, rolling her shoulders back and her head around, before taking off her hat and shades. The sun gleamed golden off the curves of her calves and arms, turning her hair into a fiery halo of ringlets surrounding her face.

"Come on, let's go in the water. I assure you, Doctor, I take water safety very seriously." A dark look flashed across her features, and she glared at the inoffensive toy with narrowed eyes.

"But," she held up one finger, "don't think that Tanya is going with us. After nine hundred years, I think you know how to swim without her.

"And if you don't…" She stretched her hand out to help him off the lounge, her smile suddenly as bright as the sun, "I promise I'll always be there to save you."

"I think," he corrected, "that's my line."

"And I think," River retorted, arms poised over her head to dive into the water, "that we're married, and everything is fifty-fifty, my love." With a sharp movement, a blur of golden curls and limbs, stark black swimsuit and impossible grace, she disappeared head-first into the blue depths.

"River," he murmured, watching her swim underwater, clean precise strokes propelling her to the opposite end of the pool and back again, all without coming up for breath. He shook his head, trying to loose the unwelcome memory her words brought up. River, strapped into that chair with the spiky crown on her head, preparing to download 4,022 people into her head and save him. River, telling him with tears in her eyes and a cheeky smile: 'what, I'm not allowed to have a profession?'

But, no. There was a day to do that, to take her to the Towers and to give her a screwdriver, to cry and swear he'd find a way to fix things… but it wasn't today. Today should be all about the important things. Friendship. Family. He shook his head once more, letting unpleasant thoughts leach away in the hot sun, trying to focus on the present.

"What was it, Doctor?" He turned around to find Amy staring intently at him, her voice quiet. "There's something wrong, isn't there? You had a reason for staying in the TARDIS. Something you had to do, you said; and you've been acting so weird for the last few weeks. I mean, weird even for you. So what was it?"

"I told you," he said, reaching up to fiddle with his bowtie, forgetting for a moment that being dressed in swimming shorts meant that he didn't have one. His hand fluttered uselessly around his chin before he dropped it.

"Yeah, Tanya. I don't believe that for a moment."

"Believe it, or not," the Doctor said, standing up a little straighter, puffing out his chest with dignity. "But water safety is very important. I couldn't have known if River could swim, after all."

"Course she can," Rory mumbled, eyes still shut. "She swam out of the library, that one time. Anyway, we taught her. Mels, I mean; we taught her at the Isle of Wight, when we were about seventeen."

Amy spun around, her breath hitching in her chest as she stared at Rory.

"I forgot," she breathed. "How could I forget?"

"Mels looking scared to get in the water with us? Mels, scared of anything? I agree. How could you forget something like that?"

"Shut up," Amy responded automatically, but not without affection. "That's our daughter you're talking about."

The Doctor hesitated, mindful of what happened the last time he tried to pump them for information; but of course curiosity won out in the end. It always did.

"What happened?" he asked quietly, one eye on River swimming past them. "She was afraid and you… cured her?"

"She was afraid to get in the water, gave us all these ridiculous excuses like it was too cold, or she had a stomach ache. Turned out she couldn't swim. She'd never even really been to a beach before, because she never had parents to take her to one, or to teach her…" Amy's voice trembled for a moment, one hand creeping up to unconsciously touch her necklace, a tiny smile softening her features.

"She didn't ask, but once I figured out what was wrong, we wouldn't let her get away with being afraid anymore. Mels was never afraid of anything; and I told her that I refused to let her be afraid of water. So Rory took one hand, and I took the other… and it was like having a baby at the beach. Letting them get used to the waves, then we took turns towing her around and teaching her how to kick and move her arms and breathe properly until… she was swimming. Proper swimming, like she'd been doing it her whole life."

"And not afraid anymore," Rory mumbled.

"Yeah," Amy agreed. "She was back to being her usual self; all brave and… amazing.

"So of course our daughter can swim," she said proudly. "We taught her."

Funny; he had trouble imagining his River afraid of anything as silly as swimming… but the Doctor smiled, slightly, thinking of the picture that must have been. Mels clinging to her parents hands and gradually overcoming her fear. And, probably feeling as though she'd been plunged into the childhood she'd always wanted. A normal child, going to the beach with her parents for the first time.

"Amy, leave the Doctor alone," Rory said, finally opening an eye to look at his wife. "I'm sure he was just late because he had some great Time Lord-y thing to do… can Time Lords get wet? Maybe he had to put on gills, or something."

"Come to think of it…" Amy thoughtfully tilted her head to the side, surveying the Doctor up and down intently, "maybe you're right. I've never actually seen him swimming."

"He's just self-conscious when he's in shorts." River chimed effortlessly into their conversation from where she was hanging onto the edge of the pool, a grin on her face. "That's why he doesn't swim, usually. The whitest knees in the known universes lurk beneath all those ridiculous clothes."

The Doctor flushed a fierce red under the scrutiny of the entire Pond family, feeling just a little cross at their obvious humour at his expense. What, he thought, feeling a bit sulky, is the point in having them all, when all they're doing is making fun of me?

"I didn't know you've a problem with my knees," he said, turning to River. "I thought you said my knees -like my bowtie and my hair and all the rest of me- is amazing."

"You are amazing," she admitted, raising an eyebrow. "But I'm not sure I'd count your knees, bowtie and hair among your best bits."

"Oi!" He made a face at her, and River laughed, pushing away from the wall to begin backstroking lazily through the water.

"You," he said, pointing at Amy, "of course I can swim! Over nine hundred years old, and you think I've never learned to swim?

"And you, Mr. Pond!" He turned to Rory. "Time Lords do not have gills; don't be ridiculous. And of course they can get wet! See?"

He took a few careful steps backwards to give himself some space to run and leap into the air.

"Geronimo!" he yelled, before pulling his body in to cannonball into the water, nearly landing on River and thoroughly soaking the sunbathing Ponds in the bargain.

It might have been a dicey start to the day, but at least it ended well. A spectacular water fight, which he managed to win because of the wave setting on the sonic. (He chose to ignore Amy grumbling that not using your hands to splash was cheating.) Rory, clearly thrilled to be out with his wife and daughter, and Amy, restored to ebullient good spirits. And River, talking and laughing easily with her parents… flirting with him…

Yes, it had been a brilliant day. And it was with a happy little sigh that he settled down on River's bed, picking up her diary to immerse himself once more in her past.

I have to admit, I was probably looking forward to Amelia's seventeenth birthday more than she was. She'd wanted jewellery. Clothes. A certain pair of stiletto heeled, lace up silver sandals that she was sure Tabetha would never let her out of the house in. (She was probably right; but even so, I'd gotten them for her present. It is always easier to beg forgiveness than ask permission.)

Instead, we were on holiday, renting a quaint little cottage on the Isle of Wight. Amelia -after grumbling that she would've preferred Paris or Milan- perked up when she realised that a holiday by the sea meant that she could buy bikinis… one for each day of our week-long vacation. But for me… well, I wasn't sure what appealed to me most. The prospect of a week spent with my family was so exciting that -like a child before Christmas- I hadn't slept at all, the night before we travelled. Plus, I'd never been to the seaside; not like that. Long ago, Melody Lafayette used to wander the boardwalk at Coney Island. She'd stood on the sand, even daring -on brief occasion- to take a tentative step or two into the water, before being scared off by news stories of the hypodermic needles being washed ashore.

That world, that long ago and far away world, is totally different to this one. Coney Island was busy and bustling and dirty and exciting; much like the rest of New York, to be honest. But this… After we'd gotten out of the car, Tabetha and Augustus went to unpack the house, and Rory and Amelia staggered off to stretch their legs… but I just stood on the front steps and watched the water in the distance. I've never seen anything so beautiful. Tiny sailboats bobbing on the horizon, looking like nothing more than children's toys against the shimmer of deep blue-green waters sparkling under the sun. White crested waves crashing on the beach and long stretches of pale, glittering sand.

"Are you ok?" Amelia asked, walking up the steps. She slung one arm around my shoulder, tipping her head down to rest against mine. "I don't think I've never seen you stand so still to look at anything before."

"Of course I'm ok," I answered. "I was just looking at the beach."

"You're looking at it," she retorted, "like you've never seen one before. You have though; right? I mean, you've never gone with the Zuckers; but at some time in the past, before we knew you…?"

"In New York," I said. My eyes were fixed far out on the horizon, but my mind was even further away. The weathered grey-brown wood of the boardwalk beneath my feet, the smell of cotton candy and popcorn and hotdogs mixed in with the brine of the sea. The shrieks of children on the kiddie rides, the hum of the Wonder Wheel and the creaks from the wooden railings of the Cyclone.

"Long ago," I murmured, "I used to go to the boardwalk at Coney Island. But it was nothing like this."

"You never talk about that," Rory said, coming up behind us. I jumped when he put his hand on my arm. "You never really talk about your childhood, before you moved to Leadworth."

"There's nothing to say," I mumbled. "I lived in New York. It was a big city; very different to here."

"Did you like it?" Amelia asked. She gave a little shiver, and a smile. "New York. It sounds so exotic."

"It was… New York. It was home, for a long time. But I barely remember it, now." It was easier to use those words, than to tell the truth. I choose not to remember it; which is very different.

"It seems like a lifetime ago. I was a very different person..." I paused, with a slight smile. "You wouldn't even recognize me, back then."

"Where do you think of as home?" Amelia asked, as we walked into the cottage. "I mean… I grew up in Scotland and England, but I don't feel exactly right in either one. Which one do you prefer; Leadworth or New York?"

A good question, and one I've never really thought of. I've lived in so many places, it seems. Leadworth, New York… Even Florida; hot, sunny Florida with the frightening darkness inside Greystark. For a moment, a wave of disorientation flashed through my mind, the memory of all those places and times gone by. But then I grinned, grabbing Amelia and Rory's hands as we walked into the kitchen. Tabetha had prepared sandwiches, and Augustus was pouring out lemonade; and they both looked up with happy smiles at seeing us.

"Easy," I said cheerfully. "Home is where all of you are."

That first afternoon saw us out on a sailboat, cruising through the waves with the wind and sun beating down on us. Sailing, as it turned out, had always been Augustus' first love.

"Even before me," Tabetha said, making a face at her husband.

"No," he answered. "Not before you. You're equal in my heart."

"That's what he says now," Tabetha whispered into my ear. "When we first married, he wasn't that tactful."

"Don't believe a word she's saying, Mels," Augustus said. He winked at me, and I grinned. "You should hear the things she said about me, when we were newlyweds!

"Now," he continued, glancing around at us, "who wants to steer for awhile?"

"Not me," Amelia said promptly. "I'm happy being lazy right here. But I bet Mels would. Just look at her… she looks like she's loving this."

I laughed, tipping my face up to catch the sun rays directly across my cheeks. "I am," I said. "I really am."

Amelia might wax poetic about her dreams, of how much she loves travelling through time and space with her Doctor. But I can't imagine anything better than this: the wooden rudder against my hand as I steered, the steady dip and rock of the boat as we zipped through the waves. The sun beating down on my head, the wind and occasional spray of salt water on my cheeks. It was even better than those joyrides with Cam had been.

But maybe what made it feel the most magical was the company. I glanced around at them, trying to memorize their faces, to freeze those moments into my mind. Tabetha sitting a bit away from us, with her blond hair tucked under her hat and sipping a glass of wine; and Augustus, red cheeked and beaming with his arm around her. Amelia trailing her hand through the water, and Rory, half turned toward her as they talked.

"It's my birthday in two days!" Amelia said, abandoning her contemplation of the water to grin at Rory and me. "I know it's not a big deal to the two of you; you're already seventeen. But just think: only one more year, and then we're grown up. We'll be eighteen!"

"Eighteen is just a number," Rory said. "It doesn't mean we're grown up yet."

"Spoilsport," Amelia grumbled. She crossed her arms, lip jutting out in a pout. "I still think eighteen sounds old, and I think it means I'll be grown up. Or do you think I have to wait until I'm forty to be an adult?

"Forty." She shivered. "That sounds so old, doesn't it?"

Not to me, it doesn't. I'm already forty-five and as I snuck a glance at Rory; he, too had a carefully blank look on his face. If he was who I thought no, forty wasn't old to him either. Only to Amelia would that amount of years seem like an eternity.

"What do you think we'll be like, when we're forty?" she asked, dunking her fingers one by one into the waves splashing past us. "What do you think we'll be doing?"

"I think," Rory said, with a furtive glance at Amelia, "that I want to be a doctor."

"What, really? You want to be Doctor Williams?" She stared at him, no doubt trying to envision him years in the future: mature and lab coat clad, stethoscope around his neck and bristling with thermometers and syringes. A pained expression came over her face as she tried to hide a smile.

"Why?" she asked, evidently giving up her battle as a grin emerged. "Do you like taking care of people?"

He shrugged, looking flustered. "I could."

"There are all types of Doctors," I said, trying to be loyal, trying desperately to hide my own smile. "Not just medical ones." Yes, there were all sorts of doctors, but the image of Rory Williams as one, as any of them, was a little funny to me, too. He just didn't seem that type.

"But I have an idea," I drawled, glancing at him from the corner of my eye. "What if you joined the army, instead? Be all that you can be?"

"The army?" he asked curiously, giving me a funny look. "Do I seem like a soldier type to you?"

In the last few months, I'd kept trying to trip Rory up force him to show his hand, so to speak. When we were alone, I'd mumble in Latin, hoping he'd take the bait again. (He didn't.) And once, walking home from school when Amelia was nowhere around, I'd spoken about the fall of Rome in the present tense, asking him what it was like.

"How should I know?" Rory had said, carefully avoiding my eyes. "Sounds like it would've been traumatic though."

"Can you imagine," I'd persisted, "being there? Living through that?"

There had been a long silence, before he raised his eyes to mine.

"I think anyone with a good imagination and grasp of history could picture it."

I'd groaned, inwardly. Those were Rory's sorts of answers. Calm and polite, but giving nothing away. I wished there was some way to ask: are you by any chance a 2000 year old Roman soldier? Are you like me; with time being all confused and crazy and improbable?

But there is really no good way to work questions like those into polite conversation. Hence my current query about the army.

"Nah," Rory said dismissively. "You know me, Mels. I'm not a fighter."

Our eyes locked, and I could see the unsaid words. No, he wasn't. Rory Williams was not one who pushed or fought for what he wanted; more the type who let things happen as they would. But maybe, he should be. Try to fight for what he wants, on occasion. For example: if Amelia was what he wanted, maybe he should learn to throw a right hook or draw a sword and fight for her; not just be content to let things happen as they would.

"I don't know what I want to do," Amelia said, unknowingly drawing us out of our battle of the eyes. "Maybe I should find a nice older man who wants a travelling companion, and will take me the see the world."

Her words were teasing, but Rory still twitched.

"You mean like a sugar daddy?" His voice was disapproving, and just a little bit hurt.

"No," she said, giggling. "Not like that! But maybe my perfect guy isn't in Leadworth, after all. Maybe he's somewhere else, waiting for me to find him."

I focussed my eyes on the boat's rudder to suppress the sudden urge I had to roll them. Why did nothing seem to change? Rory was still an implacable enigma, and Amelia still ignored what was in front of her in favour of a magical saviour. Because deep down, I knew she was talking about him. Her Raggedy Doctor. The man she thought would return to save her from boring Leadworth life, and to save the world.

I'd made my -tentative- peace with her conversations of him. I'd even gotten in trouble at school for casually name-dropping him into class discussions, all for the sake of making her smile. But just for now, if I could help it maybe today could be about us.

"Anything can happen," I said finally. "Maybe Mr. Perfect is waiting for you to find him." Or notice him, I added, in my mind.

"Let's not think about the future just yet." I had a feeling that Rory was deliberately trying to change the subject. "Today is more interesting that what might happen. Right? Look at Mels, how happy she looks."

"Content," Amelia supplied instead, leaning forward to scrutinize my face. "I think the word is content."

As much fun as we had on the boat, the next day Amelia begged and pleaded for the beach.

"Sailing is nice enough," she said cheerfully, as we found the perfect spot for our things. "But lazing around in the sun and going in the water to cool off is the best. Plus, I can't really show off my bikini under a lifejacket."

She shucked off her cover up, and ran down the beach, with Rory following slowly behind. And I ran along with her, not even stopping when I reached the shore. Ice cold water tickled my toes, then swells rose around my knees and hips, breaking over my stomach and shoulders as I walked further. And then, suddenly, the bottom dipped down under my feet; and as I frantically tried to gain some purchase, a wave broke right into my face. I sputtered, trying to wipe the water out of my eyes and Amelia looked at me curiously.

"What are you doing?" she asked. "Why are you letting the waves hit you like that? Jump!"

"Jump where?" I spat out a mouthful of water. "I'm already in the water; why should I be jumping?"

"Because - because you do," Amelia said, giving me a funny look. "The wave comes, and you jump when it's at the highest point and you're lifted up for a moment. Why are you looking at me like that? Don't you know how to swim?"

Another wave, less intense this time, spared me from answering. Then too, Amelia's attention was caught when Rory began splashing her. Within moments the two of them were engaged in a furious water fight, and I watched, grinning.

Rory Williams. Peaceful and calm Rory Williams… pelting Amelia with armfuls of water and ignoring her squawks of rage and swears that she would get him back. I've never seen anything so funny in my life. I turned away from them, jumping as the next wave rode in.

The truth is that I've never learned to swim. I've never had a need to, or anyone to teach me. But, after all, this wasn't swimming. It was hopping, digging my toes into sand I couldn't even see, and leaping up as I saw a wave beginning to crest. I jumped and jumped, over and over, my body effortlessly adjusting to that moment of utter weightlessness when I was aloft in the water. Impossible to call it fun, exactly. It was a thrill, a little rush of excitement; and I do so love that. My heart raced as I pushed myself forward into the next waves, willing myself not just up but out… further out to the horizon, where the blue of the water and the blue of the sky became one.

Perfect vacation, I thought, giddy with the excitement and the fun of it all. Perfect vacation, and perfect day, and perfect company and everything is just…

I don't know what told me something was wrong. My feet were cold; that may have been it. An unexpected coldness creeping up my legs as I flailed abruptly, making no contact with the bottom. The shore, when I turned my head, was so far away; and I couldn't even see Amelia and Rory. I should have been able to. Amelia's hair, even dripping and sodden should shine red above the darkness of the water… so why couldn't I see her? Panic set in as the next wave broke over my head, deafening and blinding me in a crash of salt and water, and I gasped instinctively as I frantically paddled with my feet, waving my arms and trying to cough out the water in my lungs.

"Hey!" I rasped, my voice barely audible even to myself. "Hey! Help-"

Another wave broke over my head; and I squeezed my eyes shut, trying hard this time not to inhale or sink too far beneath the waves. My limbs were being to shake and tire from the cold, from fighting against the unceasing currents. This water is not what I stood on the front steps watching, or the friendly sparkling ripples creeping and rocking our sailboat from yesterday. This is Water, with a capital W. This is fierce and cold and vicious all at the same time; and all the more frightening because I'm not in control, here. It felt like I was stuck in one of my nightmares, unable to move or to help myself against the furious assault of the waves that never seemed to stop.

Terror and panic flooded my body. A driving fear that I'll never make it back to the surface and I won't be able to breathe and maybe this is how I'll die. Trapped, choking to death in the ocean. Battling something I can't win against… and alone. So horribly alone, with the people I care about too far away to hear me or help; or to even know what I'm fighting against.

He stopped reading, abruptly.

Something about all that didn't make sense. We taught Mels to swim, Rory had said. Amy had elaborated even further, talking about how brave she'd been. Overcoming her fear of the water, learning to swim with the aid of her best friends and parents.

So… it didn't make sense! She'd run right into the water with them, and they hadn't taught her to swim. And now… now, Mels caught in the ocean -drowning in the ocean, even- with no one around? No one even noticing that maybe she needed help, needed…

Oh.

Marriage was fifty-fifty, indeed. Some days he needed her, with her intelligence and ingenuity (and the guns that he -sort of, but not quite- hated) to rescue him and save the day.

And sometimes, it was his turn.

Within moments, he'd run back to the console room, throwing the TARDIS in flight, and remembering at the last moment to switch on the invisibility shield. (Tricky things, time streams. Best to be sure that no one saw a blue box hovering over the beach that day…)

"Nano recorder," he mumbled, hastily sorting through a box of assorted plugs that he didn't know what they belonged to, but hesitated to throw out. "Come on! Something that records!

"Hah!" He'd found a set of micro receivers; not quite as good as a recorder, but at the very least something that would allow him some audio feedback. A quick blast of the sonic to fuse one of them to plastic… and then he was wrenching the doors open to hurl it into the water below; hastily garbling instructions through the one he'd kept behind. Worry made his voice not even sound recognizable and a few minutes later, he slid down to the floor, hearts fluttering rapidly in his chest.

Really, there was no need to worry because she'd obviously survived. Maybe she would even have found a way, without his help. Mels, like River after her, was remarkably self-sufficient even in the face of danger.

But… well, it was always nice when he could do something. Fix things and dabble with timelines and explore options to save her until everything fell neatly into place; as neat as anything with River ever really was.

He said a few more hasty sentences into the receiver before switching it off with a grin. It was very likely that now everything made sense -time wise- for what Amy and Rory remembered. Mels, bold and impetuous Mels Zucker might have been afraid of going into the water after nearly drowning… leaving things open for her parents to coax her back in, and teach her to swim.

Well. He picked up her diary again, leaning back against the TARDIS doors and flipping back to where he'd stopped reading. Difficult to say whether his plan had really worked, until he read those next pages.

I will not, I thought suddenly, keeping my eyes shut and paddling for dear life; kicking my legs wildly and waving my arms in big circles, just trying to keep my face above the water. I am not going to die here, and I will not let this defeat me. It's water; just water. I'm stronger than this. I've lived forty-five years, in all different places and with all different people; I've lived with the thought that my parents left me behind and my own mother shooting me, for heaven's sake! I've lived with the idea that somehow time doesn't make sense and I'm now growing up -again, for the third time!- with those same parents that I thought abandoned me, and the mother who shot me is my best friend…

I have lived through craziness that most people could never even imagine… and I've always survived. And I will survive this because I am Mels Zucker, and I refuse to let a stupid thing like the ocean defeat me!

Determination is fine and good; but when you're in the ocean with no idea of how to swim, and too far out to reach the shore… I wasn't exactly drowning, but I wasn't only waving, either; and I was starting to wonder how exactly I would get close enough to be rescued, or force my exhausted limbs back to the beach, when something bumped against my hand. I opened my eyes to see a child's inflatable ring bobbing along beside me. No, not just a ring. A turtle, with an oversized head and tiny limbs coming off the circle of its body. A ridiculously feminine looking turtle with big painted eyes and long eyelashes… but it was one funny little miracle from heaven. I grabbed for it, clutching it so hard I thought it might pop underneath my fingers.

"Relax." Relief made me think I was hearing a little voice of sanity whispering into my head. Actually, it sounded like it was coming from the turtle; but I've never heard of beach toys that talked. "Just relax and let the waves carry you closer to the shore. Don't fight against it and don't tire yourself out."

"Sure sign of madness," I mumbled, "hearing voices no one else can hear. Or having toys talk to you." Still, I stroked one finger over the thing's head, grateful that it was keeping me aloft. And wherever that little voice came from -my logical subconscious, or otherwise- it was right. Once I stopped fighting, the waves did indeed carry me back toward land, and the second I felt ground beneath my feet again, I felt much better.

"I know you're inanimate and can't actually hear me or anything, but thanks for being there," I mumbled aloud, taking deep breaths as I walked toward the shore. The incongruousness of talking to a toy didn't really matter; not as long as I was safe. Weak and trembling and more than a little shaky, but safe on the sand with water swirling around my toes.

It might have been stress, but I swore for a moment I could hear a little voice chirping back at me.

"You're welcome," it said. "But I think you might have made it somehow, even without me."

"Maybe not," I muttered. "I was… scared. For just a little bit, I was really scared."

There was a funny, tinny sort of sound. Like laughter.

"That doesn't matter. What counts is how brave you are, even in the face of being scared."

"An inflatable toy is giving me advice?"

"No. Encouragement. And doing what I'm here for."

"Oh yeah?" I asked. "And what's that, then?" I'm told that near death experiences make you hallucinate, but this was getting ridiculous. I ran my fingers over the plastic, searching for wherever a microphone or some sort of speakers must have been hidden, but there was nothing I could see or feel.

"Saving you," the little voice said, rather triumphantly.