Her Sealed Heart
Updated: Apr 14, 2021
Young widow Natalie wants film producer Mark to document the plight of California sea animals, but he's broadcasting other intentions.
Natalie guided the dinghy away from the marina and across Bodega Harbor. At the front of the boat, producer Mark Tucker captured on film the sand dunes and rocky shores of the northern California coast Natalie called home. She was glad she’d worn an extra sweatshirt under her rain jacket. The sun struggled to break through April clouds.
The way her heart wanted to break through the cold she’d felt inside far too long.
Mark swung the camera in her direction. “Hey,” Natalie called out in a light tone. “No photos of me, remember?”
He put the camera down. “I wish you’d change your mind. Every documentary needs a hero. Especially a beautiful one like you.”
“I’m neither,” Natalie said, her cheeks flushing.
“I have a feeling my viewers would disagree.”
As she circled the harbor searching for injured sea mammals, Natalie tried to ignore Mark’s broad shoulders and curly dark hair and the excitement she felt when he looked at her. Over the past two years, she’d grown accustomed to the role of grieving widow. Cliff had been a marine biologist. One day, he’d kayaked alone out of the harbor and into the Pacific Ocean when a squall capsized his craft.
She’d dealt with her sorrow by founding the Sea Mammal Rescue Alliance in his memory. During the day, the work gratified her. But Natalie was still young, in her thirties. Lately, alone in bed at night, she’d begun to yearn for more.
Seagulls circled a hundred yards away. “There’s an animal in distress,” Natalie told Mark, their hands touching as she passed him binoculars.
“It looks like a seal,” Mark said. “A pup.”
“Let’s check it out,” Natalie said.
“As long as we’re back at three.”
Natalie revved the engine. “You’re wasting time interviewing the fishing guides.”
“I’ve got to show both points of view.”
“Their practices are the problem.” She tightened her grip on the steering wheel.
“You save seals. I’m a journalist. Different jobs.”
Natalie turned the boat toward the far end of the harbor where the waters were unsettled, remembering what brought the filmmaker here. The Alliance needed money. So when she’d met Mark — famous and famously single — at a fundraiser in San Francisco a few weeks before, she’d pitched him the idea of a documentary, hoping the publicity would help.
She’d been surprised when he readily agreed.
“It’s a fairy tale,” he’d said, bringing them fresh glasses of wine. “A man lost at sea. His widow who rescues sea lions in hopes that he’ll one day return.”
“The story isn’t about me. It’s about animals harmed when humans damage the ocean.”
“You provide the facts, Miss Kane, and I’ll provide the magic. We’ll make a great team.”
As the boat cut through the waves, salt water stung her cheeks. Natalie hadn’t spent this much time alone with a man — an undeniably attractive man — since Cliff died. She flipped her blonde ponytail back and pulled her jacket close. Mark kept pressing her to be in his film and explain to his audience how she’d transformed her grief.
“Your story is important,” he’d pleaded. His passion almost made her agree.
She slowed the dinghy and pulled up to a buoy. “Get your camera ready.” The seal in the fishing net whimpered.
“He’s bleeding,” Natalie said. She scrambled for a white waterproof bandage and fixed it over a gash on the seal’s back. “Now I need to cut the mesh without hurting the pup.”
Mark moved next to her, camera trained on the small gray creature struggling to get away.
“I can’t reach far enough,” Natalie cried.
The wind picked up, tossing the dinghy on the waves. “Let me try.” Mark tossed the camera down and gripped the knife. He leaned over the boat’s edge, grunting as he struggled to slice through the tangle of cord. The pup broke free, disappearing into the dark water.
“Will he make it?” Mark asked.
“The bandage should help the wound heal. With luck, he’ll find his mother and resume a normal seal life.”
Mark wiped blood onto his jeans. “Looks like I cut myself.”
Natalie cleaned the wound with alcohol, watching as Mark grimaced. She fixed a bandage over Mark’s forearm, her hand lingering on his skin to seal it in place.
He slid closer and traced his finger on the side of her face. “I told you we’d make a good team.”
Natalie felt herself falling into dangerous waters. How long would Cliff want her to grieve?
“We’d better head in,” Mark said then. “It’s almost three.”
The two of them dined that night with the Alliance’s board of directors on a waterfront patio. After everyone said their goodbyes, Natalie led Mark down the boardwalk to Bodega Harbor. The clouds had cleared. Moonlight glistened on the water.
“Look.” Natalie pointed. A pile of seals slept heaped together on the sand, a pup with a white bandage nestled at the edge. “He found his family.”
“I want to thank you for today,” Mark said, “and say I’m sorry. For the first time, instead of filming an experience, you brought me inside. I understand now why you don’t want to go on camera and turn the focus away from the seals.”
“I can’t stop reliving how I felt watching the pup realize he was free. The film’s message will be clear, believe me.”
As they approached the water, Natalie breathed in the smell of the ocean. It reminded her of Cliff and seals swimming and the endless Pacific sky. Love was bigger than all of that. She picked up a stone and tossed it in the harbor.
“I’ve been thinking.” Natalie took Mark’s hand and looked up into his questioning eyes. “If it helps, I’ll be in the documentary.” Her body felt alive. “It’s time to take the bandage off my heart.”
Mark wrapped his arms around her. The moonlit water lapped on the shore. His kiss tasted of salt and sea.
By Kristen Ray
Kristen Ray's short fiction has been published by The Ocotillo Review and online by Panoply, Exposition Review Flash 405, Women on Writing, and fiftiness.com. She was a NYC Midnight Flash Fiction 2020 finalist. Kristen lives in Minneapolis with her husband.