The boat is gunning it through the waves and I’m watching out of my porthole as the swampy patches of land grow sparser. We’re in the space that’s a kind of no-man’s land, a zone that belongs neither to the sea nor to terra firma. Ground and water vie for authority. It’s a constant fight, but everyone says the water’s winning, that it’s slowly - surely - gobbling up the earth and that these lacy tatters of lands I’m looking at are hopeless hold-outs. They’ll be drowned soon enough. I believe them. It’s the nature of the water to vanquish, to defeat.
When the last crumb of land is lost in the distance behind us, I let the shade drop over the porthole and sit with my back against it, staring at the inside of my cabin door, thinking ahead. It won’t be long until we’ve reached the drop spot. If there’s anything I might need in the next handful of hours that can only be found on the other side of the door, this is the safest time to venture out. Now. While He and Cal are up in wheelhouse, focused on coordinates and wind speed, and scanning the horizon for other boats.
I’m hungry. Because of the early hour that I had heard Him and Cal rustling around the boat, preparing it for open water, I hadn’t strayed from my cabin to the galley for breakfast. It’s nearing noon now. Once we reach the site, the boat will become a wasp’s nest of activity and my chance will be lost.
I unlock my door and poke my head out. Coast is clear. Step out on feather-light feet and creep around the fish hold hatch and into the galley. Rummaging through the fridge, the cupboard, I snag things without thinking, flipping the hem of my shirt up to make a pouch for my hoardings. I’m quietly shuffling back towards my cabin when Cal pops up from the fish hold. My heart slams over and over into my ribs. It’s not Him, it’s only Cal.
But he looks just like Him. Like the twenty-years younger version of Him. Cal’s shirt is unbuttoned, sweat glistening on his chest and dripping off the tips of his shaggy, dark hair. He looks as surprised to see me as I am to see him, then his face quickly darkens. He wipes his sleeve across his beading forehead. “Thirty more minutes. And then you better make sure you can’t be found out here. Got that?”
I drop my head and rush into my cabin, closing the door behind me and holding my shoulder against it while I turn the lock.
Emptying my improvised food sack onto my bed, I take stock - a package of crackers, a jar of jelly, a half-link of salami - and then start in.
I’m wiping the crumbs from my fingers when the boat begins to slow. The curtain over my porthole is still dropped and I’ll leave it that way. My hands skitter to the bookshelf full of my mother’s old books and I grab a thick volume at random - Poe’s short stories - and start reading, trying to ignore the rocking feeling of boat, the sudden quiet as the engine cuts, the eventual low drone of an approaching plane.
I endeavored to shriek, and my lips and my parched tongue moved
convulsively together in the attempt –
but no voice issued from the cavernous lungs…
Neeaaooww. The plane dips low.
...The movement of the jaws, in this effort to cry aloud,
showed me that they were bound up, as is usual with the dead…
Splash! The load dropped from the plane breaks the surface of the water and I brace my hands against the cabin wall as the boat pitches on the sudden swell.
...I felt, too, that I lay upon some hard substance,
and by something similar my sides were,
also, closely compressed…
Chug, chug, chug, prrrrrrrrrrrrr. The engine catches and we motor into the diminishing waves, towards the source of the concussion. Cal is yelling to Him, “A little more, little more. Okay, stop!”
...So far, I had not ventured to stir any of my limbs –
but now I violently threw up my arms,
which had been lying at length, with the wrists crossed…
I hear all the squeaks and squeals of the boom being swung over the side. I lean my back into the wall, counterbalancing against the keel.
...They struck a solid wooden substance…
There’s a loud slap on the deck as something is hauled aboard. We keel to the side again. Then another slap on the deck. Another keel. Another slap.
...which extended above my person
at an elevation of not more than six inches from my face…
“That’s it!” Cal yells. “Let’s move it down!”
...I could no longer doubt that I reposed within a coffin at last.
Their grunts and shuffling steps are coming closer to my door. Then there are thumps below me, down in the fish hold. I glance up and eye the door handle, now listening hard to the voices on the other side. Listening for the ominous warning of dissatisfied grumbling, for the alarm bell of frenzied shouting. This drop must have met His expectation because all I hear is His upbeat inflection; my eyes drop back to the page and I let out the breath I only just now realize I’d been holding.
I’d hoped for a quick trip; that we would set course for the shore right after the pickup. But that hope proves unwarranted when evening blankets the sky and we are still anchored at the drop site. He and Cal haven’t emerged from the fish hold yet.
Until this morning, we’ve been moored in the slip next to His villa for a week straight. I haven’t set foot off the boat for seven days and I’m stir crazy. At least during the school year I can get off the boat for a few hours - walk the quarter-mile to school feeling His eyes burning holes in my back the entire way; and afterwards, walk back to the where He’s waiting in the skiff, ready to motor me back to the dot of land that’s removed enough from shore that his McMansion is visible, enviable - but not easily accessible.
Dread squeezes my throat at the thought of a summer stretching endlessly in front of me. There’s absolutely nothing that will require me to leave the boat until the start of the fall semester, the beginning of my sophomore year.
I’m hungry again. Crack open my door and listen. From the fish hold, I hear plastic ripping, packing tape being wound and cut, packages being tossed on top of other packages. And there are angry voices - not the first time I’ve heard angry voices from the fish hold. I step out of my room and hurry past, but just as I clear the hatch, I hear my name mentioned and I pause, wavering between bolting and freezing.
Cal’s voice is tense with frustration. “You want more inventory this year; that means more drops. That means more trips out, more multi-day runs, and that means more days that she is out of school. You want a truant officer showing up asking questions?”
“So, keep her at the villa while we go out.” His drawl. Just hearing the sound turns my stomach.
“What kind of a fix is that? How’s she supposed to get back to the marina every day? The whole point is that she can’t miss a bunch of school days.”
He has nothing to say to that. He would never allow me to take the skiff on my own; He would never allow me to step foot onto the marina and trudge the short distance to school without knowing that His eyes are on me as I leave…and will be watching for me at the exact moment He expects me back. For a half-a-minute, there’s only the sound of their work. I should leave. Listening to conversations that happen below is guaranteed calamity. But Cal pipes up again and I can’t tear myself away.
“Besides, people coming and going all the time...you really want her to see all that? You want her to have a catalog of everyone who comes in that door?”
“So, what’s your bright idea, huh? You got some way to fix this problem? Throw her overboard, maybe.” He laughs. There’s no sound from Cal. “Oh, come on. Laugh at a joke. You can’t be so damn serious all the time.”
“I want her out. I want her in boarding school,” Cal says flatly.
“Funny. You have a better sense of humor that I gave you credit for.” There’s the sound of his footsteps as he starts to saunter closer to the ladder. I slowly back away, ready to melt into whatever nook or cranny I can find if that shadow gets any closer to the ladder’s base. It stops short. “Boarding school,” He snorts. “Like some ambitious little prep kid. And that girl can barely add two and two. You really expect me to throw away how-many-thousand a year just to get her out of your hair?”
“It’s not about getting her out of my hair. It’s insuring against a liability. And I’m not even asking you to put up the cash. I’ll pay for it. Whatever the price is, will be less than what it’d cost if she brings the wrong people here.”
“So, send her to some fancy school, out of reach. What kind of insurance do I have against her running her mouth?”
The other sounds have stopped now and I see Cal’s shadow gliding toward the ladder, going toe-to-toe with Him. “What’s she going to say? ‘My dad takes his boat out the channel and goes deep sea fishing all the time. But he and my brother are crappy fisherman and, it’s weird, they never seem to catch any fish.’”
“Son, I don’t have any use for a smart-ass,” his voice is low, menacing. “There’s plenty she might say that wouldn’t do you any good. And you know it.”
Cal will back down; I can call the moves from here on out. Cal may be a business partner, a trusted first mate - but all it takes is that voice to remind him that he’s just a grown son who hasn’t moved out on his own yet.
Cal mumbles. “Sorry.” I see his shadow-hand scratch his shadow-chin. “Look, you’ve been firm on keeping her out of the villa. That’s smart. Too much at stake there. Don’t bend on that. But from where I’m standing, I’m telling you: it’s not gonna work for her to be on the boat anymore. Not if we want to bump up inventory. Too many unexplained absences. It’s asking for snoops. Don’t need that.”
He snorts. “More trouble than she’s worth. God! Just like her mother.” Palpable tension seeps up the hold at the mention of her. “If you didn’t pester me about her so much, maybe I would just throw her overboard. Why can’t you just mind your own business?” He broods for a moment.
Cal’s shadow is like grey marble.
Finally: “What’s this place you have in mind?”
“The Academy. In Chantilly. Lee and Eighth.”
“Lee and Eighth? Near Hargrove?”
“Across the street.”
“Hm.” The shadows are still. The game pieces are being moved. “I’ve actually got a potential distributor there…” I can see the calculations happening. “Tell you what. Set her up as a carrier and I’ll sign off on boarding school. Hargrove has a boarding option, don’t they? Enroll her there.”
“I don’t want her at Hargrove. And I don’t want her as a carrier. I’ve told you that.”
His voice ratchets higher. “Look, son, you’re trying to sell this whole thing to me as some kind of liability insurance. You think I can’t see what you’ve got cooking? I know what you’re doing here, and I need some of my own damn insurance. I want her hands in this. I want both of you know that if someone comes in with a magnifying glass, they’re gonna find her fingerprints right along with yours.”
With yours. The sudden finger-pointing doesn’t surprise me. It’s how he operates. Nothing is ever His fault. He never makes a mistake. Anything that goes wrong is always someone else’s problem. As much as I hate Cal, it sets my teeth on edge to hear Him talk like this; to know that He conceives these operations and brings them to the moment of delivery and then leaves Cal holding the proverbial baby. The scariest part is that when He leaves someone else holding His mess and claims He’s a victim, I think He actually believes it.
Cal’s voice is a thinly-veiled snarl. “Fine. But I want her at the Academy and I want her gone now. For the summer semester.”
A pause and then the shadow-shoulders shrug. “If you can line it up, then be my guest.”
Cal is climbing the ladder, and the hatch is between me and my cabin.
I glide towards the galley on light feet. I know how to walk this boat as if my feet aren’t touching the floor, how to avoid detection like a mouse scurrying from shadow to shadow. If we were docked, I’d slip out onto the deck and loop around through the other companionway so I could get back to my cabin without any unwanted encounters. But we’re out on the open water; as much as I don’t want to face Cal, I’ll choose him over stepping out onto that deck with nothing but an aluminum rail separating me from unending inky black water.
Reaching the galley, I fumble in the cabinet for a glass and jam it under the faucet just as his frame fills the doorway. The room is small enough that when he opens the fridge door and reaches in to retrieve a cold can, I have to press against the opposite wall to keep our bodies from touching. I’m clutching the glass; the faucet is still running.
Cal pops the lid, takes a long draft and then leans his back against the door jamb with one leg crossed over the other, oblivious to the noticeable rock of the floor under our feet, as sure of his balance at sea as on dry land.
I cut off the faucet and stand frozen, staring down into the sink.
“You’re leaving,” he says.
Nothing more than a blink from me.
“Already got you enrolled at a school across the Lake. Summer semester starts Monday so you’ll go over there on Sunday and get settled in. You’ll board there for the year.” Another long draft.
I take a sip of water.
“I’ve got an appointment Sunday so I can’t take you. He’ll have to do it.” He straightens and moves to leave. “Hey,” he says, and I meet his eyes with a glare. “Don’t screw this up.”
Eyes snap back down to the sink and I wait till I’ve heard him climb the companionway to the wheelhouse before I slink back to my cabin.
Outside, the sun is coming up behind the veil of nimbus clouds and I’m ready for the sleepless night to be over. At dawn, I’d heard the motor crank to life and then we were underway. I lift the curtain and peek out the porthole; there are dots of land in the distance. Splatters of rain pelt the glass and the sky above is a smoky grey. I lay back down and roll to my side, staring at the door. This is how I’ve begun every morning that I can remember - staring at this door, willing it to protect me from fearful things on the other side of it. I can hardly imagine waking up to a different sight.
What will it be like to step through that door, off the boat, and further from the water than I’ve ever been before? I should feel ecstatic at the thought of leaving this creaking trawler - this fishing boat that never smells like fish - even if it’s only temporarily. And I do feel a churning in my stomach that might be ecstasy. Or is it anxiety? Or something else entirely: Terror.
Rain is slashing against the porthole. Wind howls as it wraps around the boat. Why did He wait so long to go back? Didn’t He see this weather coming? Or is this a calculation of His? Did He wait for the cover that the storm would provide?
I snatch a book from the shelf and lay it next to me while I pull the blanket over my head. Tipping back the front cover, my fingers search for the loopy grooves on the inside - her maiden name, written in a hand so definite it seems she’d been trying to push the pen all the way through the hard cover. I trace it over and over while the wind squeals outside. Squeezing my eyes closed, I pucker my lips and blow, shakily giving voice to the wind.
If I could conjure my mother from the inscription beneath my fingers, I would. I’d summon my first memory of her: The form would be invisible at first - I’d only feel the warmth of her body, the rise and fall of her chest beneath my head. I’d feel her comforting presence in the middle of a storm that had nearly thrown me from my bed. I’d feel her hand on either side of my face, smell chocolate on her breath as she blows a puff of air at me that puts a hiccup-stop to my frightened wailing.
Then, I’d hear her voice: Listen. Listen to the wind trying to sing. Come on, wind! Give us your scariest song!
Her quiet howl: Oooo! Ooooo! You try.
Ooo! I voice my breath and press my fingers into her loops and slants, invoking the final dimension: her smiling face, visible in the momentary flash of lightening.
What makes the brain decide that this is it –we’re going to do something we’ve never done before and save this moment forever? Where’s the mechanism that decides that it’s time to start imprinting snippets of your life onto your cells so that you can never be rid of them?
If memory is all about the brain gathering clues for survival, then I get why there are no end to the memories of my mother with eyes that deaden as soon as He comes into the room, of hands covering ears to block out His ranting, of one side of her face marked with a perfect red copy of His hand and the other side purple from His fist. When these flash through my mind, the message is fresh and insistent – Danger! Stay away!
There’s a loud bolt of lightning and the phantasm dissipates into the reality of the empty room. Brushing my fingers against the inside of the book cover, I start all over again, recalling every sensation that’d constructed that first memory; it’s the only memory I have left of her smile and it won’t be lost, won’t be recycled and imprinted with more experiences my brain recognizes as crucial for continued existence.
If it wasn’t for Him, there could have been so many more memories like this one.