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Caleb took Julian to shore, left him with a friend and returned to help Johan search for Rhiannon. Caleb went for the strongest part of the current. He dived over and over, plunging into the water until the sun set and he couldn't tell the difference between the water and the sky. Caleb had pulled people from these deceptive waters before, and his proximity to Rhiannon without saving her would haunt him. She had just passed forward her son, and now she was gone.
Back on shore, someone found Rhiannon's phone in her pack and called Zell, who came down to look after Julian. The next day Caleb went back out on his board to keep searching for Rhiannon. "She wouldn't appear," he says through a translator. So he got a friend who had a small boat and went back out again. "We spent all day looking for her," he says. "All day, and she didn't show up."
Usually when the tide comes in at Playa Avellanas, everything comes back to the beach. But not Rhiannon. On Sunday, after a two full days of searching, the Coast Guard found her body floating three miles straight out from where she and Julian had entered. Perhaps there was simply no swimming around that riptide.
Using Rhiannon's computer, Zell Skyped Norm Hull while Rhiannon was still missing, and he arrived before her body was found. "He convinced himself [at first] it was foul play," Zell says. "He couldn't imagine that an athlete like her would drown."
Norm and Keneally took the first flight from San Francisco to Costa Rica, where Norm had to identify Rhiannon's body. He needed only to see the words on his wife's pale blue wrist: IT'S A NEW DAY, NOT A NEW FIGHT.
After Rhiannon disappeared and before Norm arrived, Zell took care of Julian. The boy asked her what happens when a person stays underwater. "What do you think happens?" asked Zell, herself a teacher.
"I think she became a mermaid," replied Julian, who had been educated by his mother through magical storytelling. The story spread among Julian's friends. Within hours Rhiannon had merman friends and sea creatures to keep her company. She was living on a nutritious diet of seaweed scooped from plates made of seashells.
"It would have been exactly how she wanted him to think of her," Zell says, "taken into a story and the imagination."
But Julian is smart. "Oh, he understands what happened," Norm says. "His mom handed him to someone and disappeared into the sea." One day nearly three months later, back home in Healdsburg, Norm was in the car with his boys when Julian piped up, "I worked really hard to save Mommy."
Norm almost broke down. Dude, you're six, you shouldn't have to feel this way, he thought. "You did enough, son," he said with the slightest crack in his voice. "She just wanted you to be safe."