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MYSTICAL MANATEE PARK by J.Q. Rose
Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge
Homosassa Springs, FL
Photo by J.Q. Rose
Nelda hefted her folding lawn chair and the six-can cooler out of the trunk of her old Buick. Placing the cooler on the gravel of the parking lot, she used her free hand to slam the trunk lid down. The loud whop reverberated through the riverside park, a place locals came to watch the gentle giants--manatees.
Hmph—that felt good. She smiled at her show of strength. Still a tough old gal. Flashing a satisfied grin, she picked up her cooler and adjusted her hold on the lawn chair. She trudged across the brown, sparse grass to her favorite place on the narrow beach by the river.
The park attendant sidled up next to her and walked a few paces with her. “Hey, do ya’ need some help carrying that stuff, sweetie,” he asked.
Nelda stopped. Her back straightened as rigid as the soldier guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. “No thank you,” she said lasering her gaze on the man’s bearded face. “And please, don’t call me sweetie.” She spit out the command using her best school teacher voice.
His wide eyes registered his surprise at her come-back. “Oh, I, uh…” His tongue stumbled over the words. He nodded and stepped away.
Nelda carried on without his company. Damn. Why do people think an old woman is incapable of carrying a chair and lunch box? I’m not helpless. She wrinkled her nose with disgust. And for sure, I’m not his sweetie.
The grass turned into sand as she crossed the beach to claim her spot to set up for the morning. She opened her chair and angled it for the best view of the river.
The Florida winter weather was on full display today with cool air and a breeze from the north—perfect weather for manatee watching. She wore layers of sweaters and a jacket which she would remove when the sun warmed her later in the morning. She pulled a knit cap over her short gray hair, fitted her arthritic fingers into her gloves and headed for the rail fence barrier between the river and beach.
|Manatees swimming in the river|
Photo by J.Q. Rose
Nelda stood along the waist-high fence and searched the waters. The manatee did not disappoint her. She spotted three adults and a calf lazily floating nearby.
She sighed, wishing her husband, Ralph, was standing next to her relishing the sight of his beloved manatees. Looking skyward, she said, “Hey, Ralphie, are the manatees as beautiful in heaven’s rivers as they are right here on earth?”
The manatee park was the one place she felt closest to Ralph. She missed him now just as much as she missed him after he died nearly two years ago. She blinked the tears away and sniffed.
The couple had retired to Florida to escape the cruel northern winters. But they were as giddy as children when the temperatures cooled down the gulf waters forcing the manatees to enter the river leading to the warm springs in the Weeki Wachee River.
“Beautiful day for manatee watching, eh?” A man’s cheery voice in her ear interrupted her reverie and startled her. She clasped her hands to her chest and faced the man.
“Oh, sorry. I didn’t mean to frighten you.” He bobbed his head and blinked his eyes.
Nelda wiped her eyes with her gloved fingers and studied the tall gentleman. He wore a navy blue jacket zipped all the way up the front of him with the collar turned up to protect his neck from the cold breeze. His cheeks glowed red from the cold as he stood with shoulders hunched and hands in his pocket to keep warm. Light blue eyes peered at her under his snow-white brows.
Nelda was ready to tell him to bug off and leave her to her memories, but something in his kind eyes stopped her.
“Oh, that’s okay. Guess I was mesmerized by those magnificent manatees.” She smiled and waved her hand toward the river.
“Magnificent is the word for them. Some folks believe God has a sense of humor when they see a manatee.” He chuckled quietly at his own joke.
“I guess you could say that. The manatee is quite an odd-looking creation.”
“I figured you must love them as much as me. Seems like every time I come, I see you here.”
“I thought you looked familiar.”
He cleared his throat. “Well, um—“
“Nelda,” she said with a friendly smile.
“John.” He dragged his hands out of his pockets.
Nelda offered her hand, and he grasped it with a tender but firm handshake.
“Nice to meet you,” he said.
She covered his hand with hers. “Glad to meet you too.” She meant it because she sensed she had a genuine, meaningful connection with John.
The next morning was another cool one, perfect for manatee watching. She packed up her chair and lunch and drove out to the manatee park.
Her trip was worth it. When she walked to the fence, she saw five manatees and two babies in the river.
“Good morning, Nelda.” She jumped at the sound of his voice behind her.
“Hey, you’re going to give me a heart attack scaring me like that with your greeting.” She turned around with a radiant smile on her face.
His delightful laugh rumbled from deep inside him. “I brought my chair today,” he said. “May I join you?”
“Why that’s a wonderful idea. I just happened to pack a big lunch today too. I’d be glad to share it with you.”
Their friendship grew as they met each day at the park sharing stories. Although Nelda had to admit she talked more than John. He truly was a good listener.
Eventually, the southern winds blew in warm breezes and the sun warmed the gulf waters. One morning the manatee didn’t come up the river
“Spring is in the air. I can feel it today.” He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together as if actually feeling it and made a silly face.
“Ralph would get that gardening bug this time of year.” Nelda looked at John. “I’m sorry.”
He looked surprised. “Sorry? Dear Nelda, what do you have to be sorry about?”
“I talk about Ralph all the time to you. I miss him so much.” She leaned toward John. “Thank you for being such a good listener.”
“I like to hear about you and Ralph.” He turned in his chair toward her and grasped her hand. “Actually, I know Ralph.”
“Damn, you knew him?” She jerked her hand away from him. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
Her eyes narrowed. “What are you up to?” She stood up from her chair, her hands on her hips, waiting for an explanation.
John raised his tall frame from the chair and confronted her. “I know this is difficult to hear or even understand.” He spread his arms. “I know Ralph. He asked me to come here to be your trusted friend.”
Nelda felt light-headed. She balled her hands into a fist. Don’t faint now. Don’t faint now.
She squeezed her eyes tight and when she opened them, the park seemed flooded in pastel light. The air quivered with energy all around her. She heard no children’s laughter, no birds singing spring songs, and the breeze no longer ruffled through the palm trees.
She turned around in a full circle absorbing the uniquely peaceful moment. Her heart burst with joy.
Nelda’s gaze met John’s. “You’re here to take me to Ralph. Is that right,” she asked in a hushed voice.
“Yes,” he said. “It’s time to go. Can you trust me enough to go with me?”
Nelda’s body glowed. She held out her hand. “Yes, I’m ready.” Out of habit, she turned to fold up her lawn chair. “Damn. I guess I won’t need to take that with me, will I?” Her eyes twinkled with delight.
“No. You’ll have everything you’ll need, including Ralph.” John squeezed her hand as they stepped together through the portal to heaven.
* * *
Thank you for visiting today!
Please hop on over for more stories by the talented and imaginative bloggers listed below.
- Monstrous Monday by Fanni Soto
- Grandma's Legacy by Elizabeth McCleary
- Dragonslayer by Barbara Lund
- Megan's Virus by Karen Lynn
- Studenting by Chris Makowski
- I, The Magician by Raven O'Fiernan
- Growth Spurt by Bill Bush
- Mystical Manatee Park by J. Q. Rose
- Phased Out by Kami Bataya
- Snow White (17) MURDERED by K. M. Flint
- A Character Profile by Juneta Key
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Awww... Sweet story.
That was beautiful. I enjoy stories with older characters, and enjoyed the growth of the relationship.
Thank you, Barbara. Glad you enjoyed the story. I never know whether to use older characters, but they make such interesting subjects.
A sweet, sad story. Enjoyed it. Well told.
Loved the story, brought a sweet sad tear to my eye at the end. Well done!
Lovely story, JQ. I loved the photos, too. I've never seen a manatee. It must be amazing to see on in real life.
Thanks, Juneta, for your kind words.
Thank you, KMH. Your lovely comment brought a tear to my eye.
Thank you, Helena. Manatees are special creatures. So gentle, so big. They eat greens, have no predators to bother them. What a life. Come over sometime in the winter and we'll go watch them.
I love manatees, so this was a story right after my heart.
I love the voice in this one. It fits well with the character.
And the photography is a nice bonus.
Katharina, I love manatees too. So relaxing to watch them in the water. Like they don't have a worry in their world.
Karen, I appreciate your comments about the voice and the photography. Voice is so important in storytelling.
Ohh this was lovely and I didn't see the end coming which is rare :)
Thanks, Fanni. Not seeing the ending coming is about the nicest compliment a mystery author can receive!!
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