Her mother, the officer said, was dead.
The seven-year-old with dark braids tucked her chin against the sharp edge of her collar bone and cowered into the shadows of the darkened hallway. She watched the man’s mouth moving, his pale skin lit by the strobing lights of the patrol car that had pulled her from sleep. The sounds of the room faded, as if they’d all been plunged underwater, but grownups were liars anyway, so it didn’t matter what they said: Aunt Louise, and her new man with the crooked foot, and the policeman from town who hovered on the front porch at three am to deliver the news. Michelle watched as droplets of rain gathered on the brim of his plastic-covered hat and his hooked nose, pooled, then fell, dashing themselves to shards on the shine of his black shoes. Years later, when she remembered that moment, she would remember those rain drops, like rolling crystals, tumbling in slow motion, accelerating to a roaring shatter, in a scene otherwise muffled of all sound.
Then Aunt Louise ripped the silence with a long ululating cry of despair, hands thrown in the air—dance of the dying loon—and sunk to the ground, right on the empty threshold where the officer had stood. She pulled at her hair, thumped her head against the sill and calmed only a little when her new man pulled her back into the house, to the slump of the broken couch cushions, and the hissing blue static of the cracked TV, and held her tight against his chest. Louise, through her grief, managed to light a cigarette. When the wailing began again, Michelle shrank back into the darkness.
They were all liars.
She crept back to the bedroom where she had been sleeping. She closed the door without sound, turning the knob with careful precision, then slipped back under the covers of the double bed where her cousins huddled together like a pile of freshly-whelped pups. Their breathing, and the softness of their hot toddler bodies enveloped her. Someone—she could tell by the smell and a vague dampness in the mattress—needed a diaper change, but she did not move to fix it. She had never left the bed. This night had never happened. She turned over on her side, curled in tight against her knees, and waited for morning and her mother’s return.
But she did not return.
A deer, they said, had jumped in front of Martha Thomas’ car out on the dark winding stretch from Beaver Lodge to Yaahi Bay, on her way home from the night shift at Rascals. “Didn’t do the deer any damn good either,” Michelle overheard one of the visiting men say later the next afternoon. They came all day, a trickle of apologetic visitors, slope-shouldered, hats in hand, in and out of the house, while Louise held court in the living room and Michelle lay spread-eagle on the wet grass behind the net shed, the damp soaking deep into her jeans. The sun had come out, making jewels of the raindrops that winked and sparkled from the sea-foam green fish nets, still strung on the mending frames where just the day before her mother had worked the lines, back and forth, in and out, and sung her the song about the girl who wandered too often and too close to the shore and fell tragically in love with the Prince of the Fish People.
She would not feel sad. She would not. Because to do that would be to accept the lies the grownups were telling, and they were lies. What she did feel, instead, was the physical sensation of sparkling threads weaving themselves inside her body, just under the skin, in an ever-tightening net of sea foam green. She clutched a small beaded leather bag filled with red marbles that she’d been told belonged to her mother as a child. The marbles were the color of blood, the color of love. She tried to imagine her big-boned, dark-eyed mother as a little girl like herself, playing with these same marbles in a yard just like this one. She held one of the scarlet drops to the sun, watched the light refract in crimson shards that cut against the pale green fish nets, then she popped it in her mouth, held it in the curve of her tongue to try and taste the redness, somehow catch the electrical bursts, like sharp currant jam, their color elicited in her senses. The marbles were real in her hand, and proof, somehow, that the visitors were liars too, just like the officer and Aunt Louise, and the man with the crooked foot.
The next morning, Louise pulled her from bed in the dark, and it was just the two of them in the car (the cousins left behind) in the turd-brown Chevy Impala that drifted strangely sideways across the road and smelled of cat piss. She had been dressed in a pair of too-stiff hand-me-down jeans, an old t-shirt, and a man-sized canvas fisherman’s jacket that smelled of cigarettes and diesel fuel and scratched uncomfortably on her skin. Deep inside the torn quilted lining of this jacket, she had hidden the pouch of marbles, and she fingered them now, her hands thrust into the pockets, and took comfort in the weight of them against her belly. The marbles, she believed, were like north to a compass, and her mother would use them to find her, to make her way through the forest of lies. They drove for hours, south, along the winding coast road, through moldering villages and swank tourist havens, across bridges that spanned gorges so deep Michelle felt her stomach spin with the roiling water at the bottom, the car and the road they drove on dwarfed by endless ranks of evergreen—spruce, and fir, and cedar. For a while, she watched a raven who seemed to keep pace with them, the Salish Sea winking in and out of view behind his black feathers. They drove through the city, and Michelle leaned her head out of the window to try and see the tops of the buildings until Louise jerked her back in the car by the waist of her pants, the force of the move cutting hard across her belly.
They boarded a ferry in the late afternoon where families emerged from the cars—laughing, calling to one another, pointing out at the water—and she reached for the door handle, but Aunt Louise grunted at her to stay put, so Michelle sat back and fidgeted with the backpack at her feet. Louise had packed it, slamming the items inside and fastening the buckles incorrectly, the right top strap pulled over to the left buckle. It contained a pair of pajamas, a squashed toothbrush, and a tattered blue book of Taylor’s Bible Stories with a pretty white Jesus on the front (a present from one of the visitors the day before.) Michelle undid the straps and quietly fastened them to the correct buckles. Louise bristled with more impatience than usual, and Michelle thought it best to feign sleep, watching from half-closed eyes as her aunt scribbled something in a notebook and snuck sips from the oversized cherry Coke she’d bought at the gas station on the way. The thump thump of their wheels caused Michelle to sit up when they disembarked, and she read a sign—she was a very good reader, everyone said so—outside the car window: “Welcome to Beautiful Huna Island.” Louise drove up the short winding road toward a few buildings, then swerved a U-turn and pointed the car back down the dusty hill to park again in the departure line. “Thank you for Visiting Huna Island. We Hope to See You Again!” Louise grabbed Michelle by the hand and pulled her back up the road to a covered bench on an overlook above the dock. Michelle had to pee, and she said so, but Aunt Louise shushed for her to be silent, shoved her down on the bench, thrust the backpack into her arms, and pinned the note she had been writing on the chest of the fisherman’s jacket.
“You just wait here.” Aunt Louise stretched her lips into a tight, sad sort of smile and put her fists on her hips, looking left and right. “Your dad will come fetch you.”
“I don’t have a dad,” said Michelle, and then something hot and angry seethed up inside her chest, beyond her control. “You’re a liar.”
Louise tensed, and Michelle tightened her shoulders, waiting for the slap, but instead her aunt slumped, seemed to cave in on herself, and sat next to her on the bench. “I am sorry, Shelly-girl. But if we’d told him before, who knows what he’d have done, eh?” She wrapped an arm around Michelle’s shoulders, but Michelle stared straight ahead and would not look at her, pulling all of herself to a point deep inside, far away from where the edges of the world met her skin. They sat like this for several long, uncomfortable moments, until Michelle began to wonder if Louise would ever release her, but then the line of cars flared to life, and Louise roused herself, wiping a tear from her cheek with the sleeve of her sweatshirt, and speaking up to the sky. “I didn’t mean it to be like this, Martie, but you know CPS woulda been worse, and I can’t do one more. I can’t.” To Michelle, she said, “Look, I couldn’t get through to your dad, but he’ll come. He’s a good man, so I know he’ll come. Just stay put.” Then she turned without another word and trotted off to the line of cars that were already starting their engines. They boarded, the boat pulled away, and she was gone. Michelle stayed still in the relative quiet left by the absence of all the engines, boat and car alike, leaving only the gentle clank of riggings on the sailboats below and the cry of a gull overhead. She tracked the bird with her eyes but did not move from the spot. She had a sense that it was wrong to be left here, alone, out in the open, but that feeling was equally balanced by relief to be free of Aunt Louise. For just a moment, in the stillness, a crack split open in her mind, and she peered through it into a world where Louise had been telling the truth, where her mother really was dead, and where she had, in fact, been abandoned in a strange place far from home. Fear, like lava, oozed through that crack, straight into her heart, so she bit down hard on her lips, squeezed her eyes shut, and closed the mental fissure into that other possibility. She clutched the marbles in her pocket. Her mother would come.
A black man in an orange safety vest lumbered past her up the ramp, huffing from the effort. She watched him from under half-closed lids, curious about the thick ropes of hair that tumbled from his head. He entered a small booth at the top of the hill then emerged again to look out over the landscape: the empty ferry lane, the sparkling blue water with mountains beyond, and the line of white boats marching away down a long dock. He drank from a thermos cup and took his time smoking a cigarette down to a stub, and each time his gaze fell on Michelle, she looked away so as to not be seen and shrunk herself into the fisherman’s jacket, its stiff collar jutting halfway up the back of her head. When she saw him set the thermos cup down and begin walking back toward her, she looked down and did not look up even when his work boots stopped in front of her own feet.
“Hey there.” His voice was gentle. “Are you waiting for someone?”
Michelle shook her head, trying to look adult and confident, but at that same moment, she thought of the stupid Bible story book, all the children gathered around the blonde man in with the beard, and tears welled up and overflowed in her eyes. She swiped angrily at the disloyal drops and looked away. They were all liars.
“Oh! Hey now…” She felt the light weight of his body settling next to her, heard the bench creak. “It can’t be that bad, eh?”
She shook her head again, and more tears dropped off her cheeks, splashing onto her jeans, leaving small marks of deeper blue.
“I see you’ve got a note on your jacket there,” he continued. “Mind if I have a look, or is it private?”
Michelle sniffed. “I don’t care.”
Thick fingers reached into her view and unpinned the note as carefully as if she’d been made of glass. She heard the paper unfold, and then his intake of breath. “Well, I’ll be goddamned…” He trailed off, and Michelle watched him fold the note again and slip it into his own pocket before staring off into the sky for a moment. Then he stood and held a hand out to her. “Tell you what,” he said. “I’ve got hot chocolate up in the shop, and I bet you like hot chocolate, eh?”
Michelle did not take the hand, but she nodded and stood, following him up the hill to a small office where she was handed not only a cup of chocolate, but a paper sack with a tuna fish sandwich and two peanut butter cookies with hatch marks on the top, the kind her mother used to make. She had not been fed since the rushed middle-of-the-night breakfast, and she tore into the sandwich like a wolverine.
“Easy there,” the man said. “Take your time. There’s more where that came from if you need it. I’ve got a few phone calls to make, but I’ll be back in two shakes.”
Michelle did not respond, focusing on her meal and the hot sweet drink, which filled her belly and caused a deep sleepiness to creep through her limbs. She used the small office bathroom quickly, hoping that wasn’t against the rules, then returned to her chair and closed her eyes, only for moment, to be startled awake by the opening of the office door. The sky outside had clouded over and darkened toward evening. The same man—maybe he was a small giant—filled the door frame.
“Michelle?” She turned to him. “Good. That IS your name.” He smiled at her—sadly, it seemed—and cleared his throat. “Michelle, we haven’t been introduced. My name is Seabiscuit. I’m a friend of your dad’s.”
The giant stepped in closer and dropped one knee to the ground, which put them at eye level. She looked directly at him for the first time. His skin was very dark—much darker than her own, even in full summer—and his head was big as a boulder. He wore blue overalls and a red knit hat over a thick silvering ponytail of dreadlocks. A long gray mustache covered his mouth like walrus bristles. Round-rimmed spectacles reminded her of Santa Claus but—of course—she did not believe in Santa Claus. His eyes sparkled as if they shared a secret together. “Hey there, Squirt,” he said. He reached out a hand for her to shake, and—reluctantly—she stuck out her own, which was completely engulfed in his, calloused and warm. “Seems you’ve had a run of bad luck, eh?”
She swallowed and looked to the side. She would not be sad. Would not give in to the liars. “Seabiscuit isn’t a real name” she said. With her other hand, she clutched the bag of marbles in her pocket.
“You’re right about that…” He leaned his head to the side, trying to catch her eye. “You can call me Matthew if you like. Or d’you prefer Clamcookie?”
She shook her head.
She crunched herself deeper into her jacket, suddenly shy.
“I’ll let you decide,” he said, holding out his hand again. “But we gotta get a move on, or it’ll be dark.”
“Are you friends with my Mom?” she blurted.
“Martie?” His eyes grew wary. “I met your mom a few times.”
Michelle chewed her lip, deliberating, then took his hand, but only his index finger. He led her to a pickup truck parked at the side of the office and lifted her into the front seat, carefully pulling the seatbelt across her lap and buckling it, which her mom used to do, then he handed her the pink backpack to hold on her lap. “Let’s go give your old man the surprise of his life,” he said.
They drove up the hill and through a little town only two blocks long before taking a road that turned to gravel and lead through farm fields and patches of woods. They turned off on another, bumpier dirt road that ran through a tunnel of deep trees and ended on a flat landing with a gravel beach at the bottom of the slope below. Seabiscuit opened her door and reached in to help with the belt, but she flinched away, so he stepped back and talked her through it until she had freed herself and hopped down from the tall seat, backpack on her shoulders. He led her to a winding set of slick wooden steps, each a different height, with some so tall that Michelle had to hold the thick rope strung along the edge, nearly sitting on one plank before her foot touched the one below. He descended with ease but waited for her to catch up every five steps or so. “Can you count to twenty-nine, Michelle?”
“Everyone can count to twenty-nine!”
“Well, all right then,” he continued. “You’ll be able to count these steps we’re on. Everybody calls this place ‘The Twenty-Nine Steps,’ and I bet you can guess why.”
“Because there are twenty-nine?”
“No!” he laughed. “There’s only twenty-eight.”
“That doesn’t make any sense.”
“Not everything does, Kiddo.”
Michelle frowned, trying to sort that in her mind, not liking to be fooled. “Well it should,” she said.
The steps wound past the deck of an old cabin on stilts with shuttered windows and peeling gray paint, then dropped onto the beach at the head of a long cove with four boats out on water so still that the reflections formed an upside-down pirate fleet in deep green. Save for the little cabin, there were no houses on the cove. Far off, at the mouth of the inlet, two rocks sat like giant haystacks, bristling with the silhouettes of long-necked birds. The sun had dropped behind the ridge where the truck was parked, and shadow stretched over the world, but the mountains far across the water still glowed a soft orange and gray. She could hear, from the boats, the music of a harmonica and the sound of a man laughing. Seabiscuit dragged a rowboat out from underneath the cabin deck and set her in the bow before pushing off and leaping in himself. Remembering the Prince of the Fish People, Michelle shrunk away from the dark water and pinned herself to the exact center of her seat. She wondered how her mom would find her here, so far away from home, as night was coming on. A light blazed to life in one of the boats—a crazy-looking structure that resembled three cabins mashed together on a floating tray—and it was toward this lumpy craft that they rowed, the darkness gathering all around.
When the strange boat towered above them, they pulled alongside, and Seabiscuit tied them off to the larger deck. “I’m gonna go inside for just minute,” he said. “Can you stay perfectly still and not move a muscle while I’m gone?”
Michelle nodded, freezing in place when his departure rocked the boat. She heard boots on the deck, then the protest of a jammed door being opened, emitting a beam of warm light and the smell of pipe smoke and a man’s voice, stopped in mid-sentence. Then the door closed again, leaving her in silence and shadows. She watched a silhouette pass in front of the lit window curtain. A sea lion barked from very nearby, slapping the water, and she flinched. Did the fish people have tentacles? She would be brave. It seemed an eternity that she sat there in the dark, listening to the soft rumblings of voices from inside the cabin,
“You’re shitting me!”
“Impossible!” followed by more mumbles,
“Martha Thomas, Louise” and a long period of silence. Chairs scraped, suddenly and all at once, and the door flew open revealing the darkened outline of a tall thin man who lurched drunkenly out to the boat rail to stare at her, followed by Seabiscuit and a new man with a blonde beard and another smaller man she couldn’t quite see. They were monstrous shadows, backlit by the door frame. Someone shone a flashlight beam in her eyes.
“Dammit, Bone! You’re scaring her. Turn that off.” The world went dark again, save for the bright halos in her vision, and the boat tilted sharply, then rough hands seized her under the armpits.
“No! Leave me alone!” She squirmed and kicked her feet, hearing a grunt when they made soft contact. “Let me go!” She twisted and freed clenched fists from her pockets, ready to strike, but when she did, the loop of her marble pouch caught on one thumb and sailed out over the dark water. “No!” She wriggled free and lunged after it, slipping and knocking her leg hard against the gunwale before tumbling overboard. The icy water seized her whole body in shock, and her chest clenched, unable to breathe, and then a hard hand gripped her upper arm and yanked her, splashing and kicking, into the row boat. She took sharp gasp, then was hauled out onto the deck of the bigger boat like a sack of clams, accompanied by a chorus of male voices, angry and shouting. The thin white man flopped onto the deck beside her, his sleeves and head soaking wet, and gasped for breath, sputtering water from his lips. The light from the window shone on him so that she could see the sparkle of wet beard stubble on his sharp chin, and she could see his eyes as well—green and startled, and identical to her own.
“Welcome to fatherhood, Shepherd,” someone chuckled from the darkness. “You’re a real natural.”
“Don’t. Ever. Do. That. Again!” The one called Shepherd breathed heavily, and coughed, and she could smell the alcohol on him. Michelle opened her mouth and let out a thin, wavering cry that rose into the dark like a curl of smoke.
“Oh no! No, no, please don’t,” said the man, tears welling at the corners of his eyes.
She reloaded and let out a powerful howl.
“What do I do? What do I do?” He asked, frantic, looking at the others for an answer. He tried to put an arm around her, but she flung him off and wailed again.
“I’ll get a blanket,” said a quiet voice, neither Shepherd’s or Seabiscuit’s, and soon heavy wool draped around her shoulders, and she screeched again, louder, and the thin man shushed her awkwardly, patting her arm until she paused. He tried to pull her onto his lap then, but she arched her back in outrage and renewed her crying, after which he sat next to her, hip to hip, but didn’t touch her again until her sobs grew far apart and were replaced by shivers. Then he wrapped her up in the blanket and carried her into the cabin.
“That’s Martie’s kid for certain,” said Seabiscuit, warming his hands by a wood stove.
“Outta that chair, Ren,” said Shepherd. He nestled Michelle into the freshly-vacated cushions of an easy chair and tucked the blanket under her chin.
She listened to their conversation and watched them through the dark fronds of eyelashes—faking sleep for the second time that day but failing to keep her teeth from chattering with cold: the tall thin man named Shepherd who had pulled her from the water, the blonde one named Renny, who looked just like the Jesus on the cover of the Taylor’s Bible Story Book she’d been given, Seabiscuit, and one other with a slight frame and quick, darting movements that reminded her of a twitching white frog. This last man, Longbone, had scars across his face so that—where it wasn’t covered in salt and pepper beard—he looked like melting wax. The walls of the little cabin, at least what she could see without seeming awake, were lined with books—more books than she’d ever seen outside of a library—and a spark of curiosity flashed inside before she remembered again that she was cold and angry and frightened.
“You gotta get her out of those wet clothes,” said Seabiscuit.
“Oh, I know. Just give her a minute, poor little thing.” Shepherd sat on the cushioned foot stool by her chair. “I’ve got a clean t-shirt in my room. D’you mind, Ren?” He reached out and touched her cheek with a finger, brushing aside a damp strand of hair, and she let him, being too tired to protest anymore. “I’ll be goddamned,” he said. “Look at her. It’s like someone put Martie and me in a blender.”
“She got your eyes, but Martie’s skin.”
“Lucky for the kid she got more of Martie and less a you.”
“She never let on,” said Shepherd, who stared at Michelle with wonderment. “I woulda done the right thing. But she never said a goddamn word.”
Michelle curled in more tightly against herself, squeezing her knees under her chin, and willing them all away. Her mother would come.