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[Fiction] Rowboat

by Barbara DeMarco-Barrett

The sky was black as Nina rowed past the Fun Zone. Fairy lights stretched over restaurant patios, and the Ferris wheel that had been there forever spun about, its rickety bench seats looking like they’d snap right off should a strong wind blow in off the ocean. 

Nina liked being out on the water at night. By then most of the tourists, who had clotted the bay since sunrise with rented eight-person canopy-covered electric boats, retreated to their hotel rooms, burrowed in at a bayside bar, or rode the ferry to Balboa Island, where 4,300 residents and a few blocks of shops—ice cream and frozen-banana stands, restaurants, boutiques—packed its 0.02-square-mile radius, leaving the bay to the party boats and to her and her rowboat.

The night smelled salty and dank, which she liked, and the water was like glass. The boat had no running lights, which could garner a fine from the Coast Guard, if they wanted to get picky, but money was tight. Most of Nina’s income from typing up medical reports went to paying back the money she’d embezzled, so on moonless nights like this, she was super vigilant lest she got run over by a yacht. Roland, her last boyfriend, had a vintage muscle car he sped around town in, but he refused to go boating. She could put her own life at risk, he said, but he wasn’t about to get run over by a party boat. 

Bridges and a ferry connected Newport Harbor’s eight mostly residential islands. Out on the water, traversing the narrow canals, gliding beneath overpasses, Nina imagined what Venice felt like—not that she’d ever get to Italy. After she had served a year in CIW (California Institute for Women), she was lucky to return to Newport Beach, with its palm trees, surfers, and the book club she’d been a part of before she was sent away. In prison, reading was the only thing that had kept her sane. 

She rowed toward Celine’s house down by the harbor. Lovely book club member…that Celine. It had been two weeks since the last book club meeting, but the wound remained fresh. In front of everyone, Celine had made fun of her for being a convicted felon. 

“You’d have to be a dunce to get caught embezzling,” Celine had said. Everyone laughed, and one member, Jackie, who always hosted in her big oceanfront house, nervously changed the subject to her impending first Botox appointment and her worry that the treatment might freeze her forehead in a scowl instead of getting rid of it. 

Nina couldn’t forgive Celine. Nina’s boss, Jimmy Toldano, made zillions by peddling knockoff jewelry and purses. If only he’d given her the raise she asked for, Nina wouldn’t have had to embezzle it from him. What’s worse, Celine had been a friend before prison, yet the year Nina was sent away, Celine was the one book club member who never visited, never wrote a letter, never even sent a book.

But that night two weeks ago Celine went on and on, joking that Nina was their first trailer-trash club member. Of course, she was kidding, of course! Yet the comment cut deep. Nina waited for Celine to apologize, but she never did, even though she could see how much it had affected Nina. 

Nina had talked about her festering hurt feelings to her parole officer Jamie Lerner. “She never said she was sorry,” Nina whined.

“Some people aren’t good at sorry,” Lerner said. “You need to find a way to deal with frustrations. They’re a part of life.”

“At night I go out on the water and row,” Nina said. 

“Rowing is a great exercise,” Lerner said, “and a healthy way to deal with your frustrations, but is it wise to go at night? You could get run over by a party boat.”

“I’m careful.”

“It’s that temper of yours that really concerns me,” Lerner said. “Remember to always, always count to ten. Better yet, count in Spanish; it takes longer.”


A three-story yacht blasting disco glided by, rocking her rowboat. Nina held onto the sides and looked into the inky water. If she fell in, she’d survive. The bay wasn’t more than twenty feet at its deepest point and less than fifty feet from shore. You’d have to be an idiot to live by the bay and not know how to swim. 

At the last book club meeting, Celine said she was taking swimming lessons, now that she lived beside water, but scoffed because she wasn’t making progress: she hated getting wet. Brilliant.

As Nina reached Celine’s bayside home inherited from her parents, she stopped rowing but drifted in the outgoing tide. Celine’s house had floor-to-ceiling windows. At night, when the interior was lit up, it was like peering into a life-size diorama. Nina had rowed by the house many times, especially since the night Celine had been mean to her. The blinds were never drawn. Exhibitionists liked to be watched, and prowlers liked watching. Nina knew a few in CIW who would love all these curtainless bayside homes.

Tonight, Celine was with someone. A man. Nina raised the binoculars she kept in the boat because you never knew when there was something you needed to see up close, and saw Celine pour wine into the man’s glass. Roland’s glass. Roland? They toasted. Celine held her baby finger aloft. Didn’t she know it was déclassé, raising your pinky when you consumed wine or tea? Nina wanted to bite it off and feed it to the fishes.

Nina had introduced Celine to Roland at the book club’s holiday party right before she caught him cheating on her, which she learned through Instagram, of all things. The idiot had let his other squeeze take selfies, which the stupid girl posted. 

Roland had a great kitchen where he’d made fresh pasta for Nina, and even madeleines, though he had a bad habit of spitting, and he had an eye tic that acted up when he was nervous. Nina had been willing to overlook his nerves and filthy habits, but she couldn’t forgive his cheating. Yet now that Celine was with her old blinking, pacing, and spitting boyfriend, Nina was having second thoughts. What was up with that?

Lerner’s voice was in her head. Count to ten. Uno, dos, tres…


Nina wasn’t pining for the jerk; he’d served his purpose. She had met him at the Blue Beet bar soon after she was paroled, and he helped pass the time as she acclimated to life without bars. He was also good in bed. But he wanted some say in how she dressed and what lipstick she wore. Freak! He even wanted her to get a boob job. She had said she’d get a boob job if he got a penile implant, and he had the nerve to be insulted.

She felt like screaming, but out here on the bay, near the boardwalk where a few pedestrians strolled about, screaming wasn’t a great idea. She breathed in the briny night air, reminded herself she was lucky to be back in Newport and not in her cement cubicle. She rowed home fast and screamed into her pillow.

The next night, Saturday, Nina went out on the boat again. The air smelled salty and moist and made her skin feel soft. She promised herself she wouldn’t do it, but she couldn’t help herself: she rowed to Celine’s. And there they were, Roland and Celine, swilling wine from long-stemmed glasses, kissing and slobbering all over one another. Close your damn curtains. Nina had to do something. 

Cuatro, cinco, seis…

Book club was coming up that weekend. She didn’t want to go, but she had agreed to bring dessert. 

She went to Target—Targét to her—to buy cupcakes. Rubicon cupcakes were the best, short of baking them yourself. She would bring a cupcake for each member to take home in their own miniature pink box with their names calligraphed with a black Sharpie. Yes, that would be perfect.

Nina found the laxative capsules she was looking for in the pharmacy aisle. She’d inject the powder into Celine’s cupcake. The results would be harmless but annoying. Then, for some odd reason, she found herself on the pesticide aisle—kismet? Or was it that old song “Strychnine” by The Sonics roaming her brain. Rat poison. She’d inject only a smidge into the cupcake, just enough to make Celine sick but not kill her. She’d wait till just before book club to inject it lest it flavor the cupcake. And if at dinner Celine apologized for being so mean, then of course, she wouldn’t do it at all.

The following Sunday night, the book club met on a member’s patio to discuss Anna Karenina. Nina sat beside Celine, ready to give her every opportunity to apologize. Most of the women empathized with Anna and understood how distraught she must have felt after Vronsky’s rejection, but not Celine. 

“What a weak-kneed, lily-livered excuse for a human being. Get over it, Anna!” she said, making everyone laugh. Celine could be a stand-up if she’d wanted.

The group dined on a grape-and-cheese charcuterie, stuffed peppers, a green salad with pomegranate seeds that got stuck in your teeth, and wine—lots of wine. And cupcakes. 

As the group on the patio enjoyed dessert and opened another bottle, Nina excused herself to use the restroom. Kramer, the resident border collie who had sat by her feet when she was eating, followed her inside. Instead of going to the bathroom, Nina headed for the pink boxes. Kramer must have known something was up because he kept dropping a red ball at her feet. Nina threw the ball and shuffled through the boxes until she found the cupcake box with Celine’s name. She was about to inject it with rat poison when Kramer dropped the ball on her foot and whimpered. She looked into his eyes and seemed to catch the message he was sending: What if someone other than Celine ate the cupcake?

“Who are you?” she asked Kramer, and threw the ball in frustration. 


The next night Nina got in her rowboat and rowed to the center of the bay. The air smelled of seaweed and salt, and the water was rough from a storm brewing and bucked the rowboat like a pony. Fifty yards out, a ferry heading for Balboa Island crossed with three cars and a flock of pedestrians. Might the wake be strong enough to capsize the boat? She wasn’t worried about herself, because she knew how to swim. 

Nina had invited Celine because she thought: captive audience! And to her surprise, Celine had accepted! Now Nina would make Celine understand how upset her comments had made her. Now she’d get these dark thoughts of revenge out of her mind. Celine was human, wasn’t she? Somehow, Nina would make her understand and would make her say she was sorry. 

The sky was a peachy pink as a dozen party boats loitered on the water. A few bloated yachts three and four stories high blasted disco and kicked up waves, rocking her tiny boat. She rowed to Celine’s bayside home a quarter mile south, where she waited on the dock. Celine waved eagerly, and Nina threw her the line. Celine caught it and wrapped the line around a mooring buoy. Then she handed Nina a two-person cooler and tossed her a canvas bag crinkly with snacks. Finally, Celine stepped in, tipping the boat, making her gasp. Water sloshed over the gunwales. Celine was a big girl—top heavy, she liked to say about herself with a grin.

“I can’t swim,” Celine said, settling on the low bench.

“Don’t worry,” Nina said. “We won’t be too far from shore, and it’s not that deep. There’s a life preserver under there.” She pointed at the bench.

With the oar, Nina directed the boat close to the mooring and freed the line.

The sky was the color of a three-day-old bruise. The tide was coming in, making it harder to navigate the rowboat. From the top of the tote bag, Celine produced a candle.

“Vanilla.” She set the small, metal votive on the bench beside her and lit it.

Fifty feet away, Fleetwood Mac blasted from the speakers of a Newport party yacht that jiggled the rowboat as it glided by. Celine held on. A fishy-smelling wind blew in.

Celine reached into the cooler and withdrew a bottle of wine and two stemmed wineglasses.

“Glass can be dangerous on a boat,” Nina said.

“Would you rather I put them away? You know I like to live dangerously.” Celine winked.

“No, it’s all right, this time.” 

Celine always brought the best wine to book club. 

The boat drifted.

Celine poured and they toasted, but instead of Nina feeling of good cheer, that image of Celine and Roland bloomed before her, and she felt steamed all over again. 

“I’ve been thinking,” Nina said, preparing to talk about how she’d been feeling and wanting to discuss the matter like mature human beings.

But Celine interrupted.

“What was it like in there?” she asked. “Do you miss anything about it?”

“Seriously?” Nina said. 

“I bet there’s something,” Celine said in a singsong voice.

“Oh, yeah, I miss the food. Five-star dining every night. You’d love it.” Nina’s jaw hurt. Stress made her clench. She took up the oars and rowed toward the center of the bay.


“Should you be doing that?” Celine said, no longer singsongy. “That yacht is headed straight for us.” She gulped the rest of her wine.

“You like to live dangerously, right?” Nina wore a devilish grin.

By now the yacht was maybe ten feet away, and the Lilliputian rowboat rocked wildly from the swells just as Celine stood up to wave at the partygoers. A swell jogged the boat sharply, and Celine toppled backward into the water. Her glass went flying and her mouth made an O, green eyes awestruck. Her back hit the bay. Nina could not believe her good fortune. Celine flapped her arms, trying to keep her face above the water. The partiers were oblivious to what was going on down below. 

If I wanted to, I could push her head down with the oar.

Poor Celine flung her arms about like an octopus.

“Stop thrashing already,” Nina yelled.

“Help me!”

The bay was cold, and Nina hated swimming at night. There was no telling what was in the dark water that might sting or take a bite. No way was she jumping in, and she didn’t want to watch her drown after all, so she threw Celine the life preserver and, with great reluctance, pulled her to the boat.

“Put your hands here,” Nina said, placing them on the sides. “Now try hefting yourself in.” Celine’s big boobs kept catching on the side, but finally she made it in. She looked so pitiful; her hair smooshed flat against her skull like a wet dog.

“I thought I was going to drown out there,” she said, wringing the bay water from her hair. Her eyelids fluttered with recognition. “You wanted me to drown, didn’t you?”

“Of course not,” Nina said, halfheartedly.

Just then the Tiki Boat, a two-story party boat, glided past, the Allman Brothers’ “Whipping Post” playing at top volume.

Nina gave Celine her jacket—her teeth were chattering. A party boat passing the other way blasted “YMCA” with the partiers dancing, making letter shapes with their arms.

As the rowboat aimed for the Fun Zone, the ferry crossed in front of them, and someone who looked just like Roland leaned on the railing with a woman in pink. The way his arm was around her, this was no relative. 

“Oh my God,” Celine said. 


Celine pointed. “The bastard. We have a date for later. He said he was working till ten.”

“You used to make fun of him when we were dating.” 

“I know I did, but then, shit, I fell for the asshole.” Celine’s eyes looked moist. She held a hand over her quivering mouth. “And he’s really good in bed, too.”

“Yes, I know,” Nina said, dryly.

Celine shook her head. “I should kill the bastard.”

“Men have died for less.”

Celine pursed her lips. “You’ll help me, right? You probably know how to get away with murder. Isn’t that what they teach you in prison? How should we do it?”

“You can’t be serious,” Nina said.

“Serious as a heart attack,” Celine said.

They rowed to Celine’s mooring. Nina jumped out, roped the boat to the buoy, and Celine climbed onto the dock.

Nina said she’d be glad to help, but this time she’d make damn sure it went wrong. That would be apology enough.

Barbara DeMarco-Barrett is editor of, and contributor to, Palm Springs Noir (Akashic). Her stories are in Coolest American Stories 2022, CrimeReads, USA Noir: Best of the Akashic Noir Series, Rock and a Hard Place, and The Dark City Crime and Mystery Magazine. She received a Distinguished Instructors award from University of California, Irvine, and teaches at Gotham Writers Workshop and Saddleback College. Pen on Fire was a Los Angeles Times bestseller. She hosts the podcast Writers on Writing

1 Comment

Ron Ofer
Ron Ofer
Dec 18, 2023

Pure entertainment, love the story telling. Ron

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