The paintbrush slips from Lana’s fingers, turning through the air as it falls. It clatters to the floor at the foot of the easel, splattering tiny flecks of blue acrylic paint against her ankle.
Lana doesn’t glance down, doesn’t notice the spots of paint that decorate the small tattoo of a wing inked on her ankle. Her gaze remains fixed on the radio that sits on the windowsill, her fingers raised as if still holding the brush to the canvas. That silver box of metal and wires holds the entire sum of her concentration as she focuses on the voice of a news presenter.
“. . . has sunk a hundred nautical miles off the north coast of New Zealand. The yacht—The Blue—was believed to have left Fiji eight days ago with a crew of five on board, including two New Zealanders. A search-and-rescue operation has been launched from the Maritime Rescue Centre at the Bay of Islands. The Coast Guard has described the sea state as moderate with wind speeds of up to twenty knots.”
Lana blinks, struggling to absorb the information, as if it’s rain running off hard, scorched earth. Her gaze bores into the radio, willing it to disclose something more, but the newscaster has already moved on to the next story.
She turns on the spot, lifting a hand to her head. She feels the cool silk of her headscarf keeping her hair off her face. It has been eight months since she stepped from that yacht, her skin tanned, her feet bare, a backpack heaved onto her shoulders. She’d walked along the shoreline with dark hollows beneath her eyes and hadn’t looked back. She couldn’t.
As she turns, she catches sight of herself in the long mirror that leans against her apartment wall. She stares: her face has paled, and large green eyes glare back at her, wide with questions. Was Kitty still on board after all this time? Had she stayed even after Lana left? It’s possible that Kitty could have returned to England. Lana tries to picture her riding the Tube with a script in her hand, glossy dark hair loose over her shoulders, her lips painted red. But the image won’t form, not clearly. She knows that Kitty wouldn’t have left the yacht, because how could either of them go home after what’d happened?
It has been eight months since they’ve last seen each other—the longest time in their friendship they’ve ever spent apart. She thinks about Kitty’s e-mails still sitting unread in her in-box. At first, they came in thick and fast; then there were gaps—a few days, sometimes a week. Lana began imagining the patterns of the yacht as it sailed through remote island chains, wondering what was happening on board, who Kitty was spending her time with. Eventually, with her head too full of images, she stopped reading the e-mails. Stopped thinking about Kitty.
Now a beautiful memory gusts into her thoughts, bright as a kite. She and Kitty, eleven years old, sitting cross-legged on her bedroom floor braiding friendship bracelets. “This is yours,” Kitty had said, holding up a slim cotton bracelet woven with turquoise and yellow threads—Lana’s favorite colors. Kitty tied it firmly over Lana’s wrist, using her teeth to get the knot in exactly the right position. When Kitty pulled away, there was a small smear of strawberry lip gloss on the back of Lana’s wrist.
In return, Lana had braided a pink and white bracelet for Kitty, and the two of them had held their wrists side by side and made the promise, “Friends forever.”
Lana had worn her bracelet for eighteen months, until it had faded and frayed to a dishwater gray. It had eventually snapped in the bath, so she’d picked it out and dried it over the towel rail. Then she’d put it away in her memory box with the photo of her mother.
Friends forever, they’d agreed.
A guilty heat crawls across Lana’s skin as she thinks of that failed promise: she’s cut Kitty out of her life, like slicing a bowline and letting a boat drift out to the open ocean.
• • •
Lana waits desperately for another news bulletin. She needs to hear exactly what’s happening out on the water—whether the crew have made it to the life raft, whether any of them are injured—but the radio station is playing a soft rock song that comes strumming into her apartment. She paces to the windowsill and snaps off the radio.
She stays by the open window. Outside, the morning light is thin and hazy, a salt breeze drifting into the room. She pushes up onto her tiptoes, peering beyond the tree line to where she can glimpse the sea. It’s one of the reasons she agreed to rent the apartment, with its cracked wooden floorboards and noisy electric heaters that she has to huddle against in the depths of the New Zealand winter to feel any warmth.
Now that summer is on its way, she’s grateful for the wide windows that let the light flood in, as she sets up her easel in front of them so she can paint before work. She’s made a life of sorts here: she has a job, a place to live, an old car. Her days may not be filled with friends and laughter and noise as they once were, but perhaps it’s better this way.
Sometimes she thinks of her father back in England, in his tired terraced house, spending his evenings alone doing the crossword or
watching the news. After all those years of riling against his quiet routines, the irony of how her life has taken on the same lonely rhythm as his hasn’t escaped her. She writes to him every couple of months—just brief letters to reassure him that she’s safe—but she never includes her address. She’s still not ready for that.
Lana arrived in New Zealand eight months ago now, stepping from the plane into the start of autumn, shivering in a sun-bleached cotton dress, her salt-matted hair loose over her shoulders. She’d had a backpack on her shoulders and $500 left of her savings.
She’d spent that first night in an Auckland hostel, lying on a bunk with her eyes closed, waiting to feel it sway and shudder. If someone had walked into her dorm, laid a hand on her shoulder, and asked, Are you okay? Has something happened? she would have told them—told them everything: about the canvas backpack thrown from the side of the yacht, drifting in the sea like a body; about how a horizon curves and wavers when there is no land to break it; about the red sarong pooled on the floor of the cabin, soft beneath Lana’s feet; about a kiss in a cave carved from limestone; about how you can look at your best friend and no longer recognize her. But no one had asked. And as the minutes had crept into hours, and the hours stretched through the night, Lana had pushed down each of those memories, sealing them off.
When dawn had arrived, she’d showered the salt from her skin, letting the water run long and hard, marveling at its seemingly endless supply. Then she’d pulled on her dress, followed by her backpack, and started to walk. The rubber V of her flip-flops rubbed between her toes; she’d been barefoot for weeks. She’d stopped at a sidewalk café and ordered breakfast and a coffee. As she’d wolfed down a salty bacon-and-egg bagel, a car had pulled up with a surfboard strapped to its roof and a handwritten sign taped to the back window, reading FOR SALE, $500. Lana had gotten up from her table and asked the car’s owner, a young Spanish guy whose visa was expiring in two days’
time, if he’d take $300. He said if she dropped him at the airport first, she had a deal.
Afterwards, she’d driven north with no map, no plan, and no one sitting beside her. It had been odd to be behind the wheel of a car after so long, and she kept oversteering into bends, having grown accustomed to the yacht’s helm. The speed and smoothness of road travel unnerved her so much that she’d wound down all the windows to feel the wind against her face.
On that first drive across New Zealand, she’d passed serene dark lakes, endless undulating vineyards, and staggering hillsides, eventually arriving at the coast. That’s where she’d pulled up—on a gravel path that overlooked a bay. She’d parked facing the sea and watched as the waves rolled in, beaching themselves on the shore. When the sun had lowered itself into the sea, she’d climbed onto the backseat, pulled out her sleeping bag from the bottom of her backpack, and wriggled into it, lying with her neck cricked against the door.
If anyone had asked, Why New Zealand? she could have told them that she’d always wanted to travel here—but that would have been only part of the story.
The truth was, Lana had always known that the yacht was going to return here eventually—just as she’d known that New Zealand was where he was from. Perhaps she’d been waiting all these months because, no matter how hard she tried to forget, she still wasn’t ready to let go of The Blue.