Summer of Chasing Mermaids
After spending the day in Aunt Lemon’s gift shop with a sticky note in the shape of a crab stuck to my boomsie (and no one even told me until after I’d escorted a pair of surfers to our collection of mermaid dashboard ornaments, and then my cousin Kirby sent me the picture, all, u got crabs!), I decided a little alone time was in order.
If not for the crab incident, I probably would’ve just gone to Lemon’s Summer Solstice party tonight like I’d promised. Instead, I was slithering around the Chelsea Marina docks, hoping to reach my boat before Kirby ensnared me in her net.
“Elyse!” Kirby shouted. “The party’s starting!” In a gauzy white dress and fitted denim jacket, she stood like a beacon in the sand, hands cupped around her mouth. Her voice skipped across the waves. “Where are you? Elyse!”
She wasn’t my blood cousin—Her mother, Lemon, was Dad’s best
friend, all the way back from their graduate-school days in Miami—and before this summer I’d only seen Kirby twice: the first time five years ago when they’d visited the islands, and then again a year later when our two families met up at Disneyland, my first visit to America.
But I’d been in Oregon a month already now, living in her house, our toothbrushes cohabitating in the zebra cup in the bathroom, and still she couldn’t get my name right. Uh-leese, it was like.
Close enough, maybe. It just didn’t sound-feel-comfort like home.
Sing for us, Ay-leese. . . .
Ay-leese, stop drowning yourself in hot sauce. Give it to me!
Granna, you hear? Our Ay-leese, she got a boyfriend.
Ay-leese, breathe! Fucking breathe, Ay-leese. . . .
“But it’s the Solstice! And there’s . . . cake?” Kirby’s voice lacked conviction. She’d been searching the edges of the marina for twenty minutes, and I felt a little thrill that she hadn’t found me.
Unseen in the shadows, I crept to the slip that held the old Albin Vega—last place on earth she’d check, since from a strictly “ownership” perspective the boat wasn’t mine. I waited until Kirby finally retreated, white dress vanishing like a sail in the mist, and then I climbed onto the deck and ducked through the companionway into the saloon.
For a holiday that was supposed to, according to Aunt Lemon, “honor the full strength of the Sun God,” the Oregon night was a
bruise. I took in the blackness that seeped into the boat, the salty air, the mustiness that clung to torn seat cushions.
But for the damp suck of the sea, all was soundless.
The Vega rocked gently in the tumult, steadying herself, and my view of the sky—pink-purple-black through the starboard window—straightened.
The ship was a castaway among the polished vessels surrounding us, a forgotten relic here in Atargatis Cove. I didn’t even know her proper name. Queen of was all it said on the hull, once-gold letters peeling from the aqua-blue fiberglass. Could’ve been the Queen of Hearts or the Queen of the Damned for all I knew. But there was something special about that emptiness,
She was abandoned, a fate we shared, which made her the perfect hideaway.
The boat jostled as a wave hit, and I took a deep breath, fought a shiver. The sea can’t hurt me here. . . . I repeated the mantra in my head until fear left my limbs. Until I could breathe again.
I lit the big candle I’d brought from Mermaid Tears—Lemon’s shop—to chase away the mustiness. OCEAN BREEZE, it said. It smelled like chemically enhanced coconut.
Soft yellow light flickered into the saloon.
Everything was as I’d left it. Straightened up, wiped down, cans of expired soup discarded. A fuzzy new blanket spread out in the V-berth, and another on top, for curling up. Scattered on the cushions, a few books Kirby had brought me from her volunteer job at the library. Some extra clothes, flip-flops, sunglasses I never seemed to need here in Oregon. My iPod. A box of crackers with the peanut butter already spread between them. A bundle of Sharpies, rubberbanded together, different thicknesses.
My shoulders relaxed. The Vega was still unclaimed.
I freed a mass of black curls from beneath the hood of my sweatshirt, and from a pocket in my denim cutoffs, fished out a handful of sea glass. Lemon was looking out for me this summer, so in addition to helping at Mermaid Tears, I tagged along on her morning beach combs. She collected glass to forge into sculptures, some for sale in the gift shop and others on display in the gallery above it. She valued each piece of glass like a gemstone, but she always let me keep some of the haul. I’d been saving it in an empty Costco jar that formerly contained a decade’s supply of pitted olives—my hourglass. Once the glass reached the top, things would be right again.
Repaired, renewed, recovered.
All the REs complete, and I’d be whole.
Fucking breathe, Ay-leese. . . .
My hand tipped into the jar, and I watched the colored bits clink and settle among the others, an inch of green-gray-blue rising like the tide.
I didn’t really believe it, but it sounded nice, like a poem. Even if it were possible, what then? Where would I go? Not back. Not forward. I was here, drifting on the current, eighteen years old and totally unmoored.
I pushed the jar back along a shelf in the triangular V-berth, way at the front of the boat, and settled into my favorite spot. My iPod still had a little charge, so I popped in an earbud and scrolled to a new playlist. Lemon had plenty of instrumental on her laptop—Native American wood flutes, classical, wind chimes, dolphin calls, ambient weirdness. On my first night in the States I’d desperately replaced my soca and calypso with it, erased even the reggae—anything that reminded me of home. Of who I should have been. Tonight I was onto Bach’s unaccompanied cello suites, track one. Music hummed in my right ear as I cranked the volume, but I wasn’t fool enough to sit alone on a boat with both ears covered.
A calm ocean could change in an instant.
Sing for us, Ay-leese. . . .
By the time my screen read “Suite No. 4 in E-flat Major,” my heart rate finally mellowed, and I grabbed a Sharpie from the bundle. I found a clear spot among the tangle of words overhead—some nights my notebook wasn’t big enough—and pressed the tip to the low ceiling.
Words spin and spill
ink from a bottle of blood
Queen of lurched left, a game we nightly played, and I tightened my grip on the marker, waiting for her to settle. She perpetually lost. Her body was inked with the evidence.
A smudge, a smear, a shaky line of
black letters stands erect, marches
around my fingers, encouraging,
Back on the island of Tobago, 7,040 kilometers—no, make that 4,375 miles—off the coast of my heartbeat, Dad and Granna had an old Albin Vega in the resort fleet, the Atlantica, a twenty-seven footer like this, one of three boats reserved for our guest charters. They’d taken the fourth out of commission in March, part of a long string of before-and-after afters that ended with me leaving for the States, but as far as I knew, the Atlantica was still going strong. It was the ship my twin sister Natalie had been born on. The one I’d been born next to.
The last thing my mother saw.
It was a dark and stormy night, our birth story. So they say.
Now, out here on these chilly summer nights, the pale scar of the moon cutting the Oregon haze, I wondered if Dad was out on the Vega too. Lying in the V-berth, staring at the same moon, thinking of me as I thought of him. Of my sisters and Granna. The cocoa pods, red-orange-yellow, stacked in pyramids after first harvest, spicing the air with their intoxicating plums-and-tobacco scent.
Do you miss me?
“Keep your skirt on! Let me check it out, make sure she won’t sink.” A male voice accompanied shadows through the companionway and into the saloon. The boat bobbed under new weight, and I yanked out my earbud and bolted upright, narrowly avoiding a head injury.
His image flickered in the candlelight. When he spotted me, he put one hand on his head, as if he’d anticipated the crash that never came, and said in a tone much softer than what he’d used on his friend, “Well. Hello there.”
Unlike me, he was unalarmed, the ghost of a smile hovering on his lips. Something softened him around the edges—alcohol, probably—but his gaze was sharp and clear.
Toes to curls, a shiver shook me. This boy wore the ocean in his eyes, green-gray-blue, ever shifting, and I recognized him immediately.
Knew before he said another word that he was as dangerous as he was beautiful.
Christian Kane. Official summer scoundrel of Atargatis Cove, fresh off his first year at Stanford. Aside from the upcoming Mermaid Festival and Pirate Regatta, the Kane family’s annual return was the talk of the town. And this son, the eldest? Kirby had him to thank for the cake tonight.
Christian Kane had his own mythology, his own devoted following, much like Lemon’s Sun God. Fitting that they shared a birthday.
I was frozen on the blanketed cushions as he scanned the scene: writing on the fiberglass walls and ceiling, damning black marker still clutched in my fingers. Somewhere beneath my elbow, two battered novels about the sea, ancient legends retold. A half-empty can of Coke on the shelf behind my head. A postcard from home, blank, tacked up on the wall. The yawning jar of sea glass, there next to the soda. Nautical charts and manuals once scattered throughout the saloon, now stacked neatly on the table beside the candle, held in place with a large rock carried in first by the tide, second by me.
This ship had belonged to no one. I’d been so certain. And rickety and neglected as she was, I’d called her my home away from my home away from home, my sacred space. Now Christian’s gaze swept back to me and skimmed the unfamiliar legs stretched across the V-berth, brown skin made lavender by the moonlight.
When he finally looked at me full on, his stormy eyes changed course.
The last was the most worrisome.
I tugged the hood up over my head, tied the strings across my seashell necklace and the scar gouged into the hollow of my throat.
Breathe. . . .
“Christian?” someone said, flirty and singsong. The breeze shifted, carrying a whiff of spicy vanilla perfume, and a girl crashed into him from behind. Her silver-tipped talons curled over his shoulders. “What’s the deal? I’m freezin’ my ass off.”
Christian didn’t take his eyes off me, just raised a curious eyebrow that lit a spark in my chest.
The girlfriend noticed me then, and around a faint smile, still watching me, Christian spoke plainly.
“There’s a girl writing on my boat.”
I basically ran.