The seven-year-old with dark braids tucked her chin against the sharp edge of her collarbone and cowered in the shadows of the darkened hallway behind her Aunt Louise. 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 a.m. 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 Michelle remembered that moment, she would remember those raindrops, 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 sank 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 slumped, broken couch cushions and the hissing blue static of the cracked TV. He held her tight against his chest. Louise, through her grief, managed to light a cigarette. Then the wailing began again, and Michelle shrank back into the chilly 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.
She did not return.
A deer, they said, had jumped in front of Martha Thomas’s 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-eagled on the wet grass behind the net shed, the damp soaking through 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 had 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. Synesthesia, her mother had called it—the way Michelle could sometimes taste colors and feel sounds in her body. 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, leaving the cousins behind. It was just the two of them in the turd-brown Chevy Impala that drifted strangely sideways across the road and smelled of cat piss. She was wearing a pair of too-stiff hand-me-down jeans, an old T-shirt, and a man-size canvas fisherman’s jacket that smelled of cigarettes and diesel fuel and scratched uncomfortably on her skin. Deep inside the torn quilted lining of the jacket, she had hidden the pouch of marbles, and she fingered them, her hands thrust into the pockets. She took comfort in the weight of them against her belly. The marbles 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 fabric cutting hard across her belly.
They boarded a ferry in the late afternoon where families emerged from their 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 rolled down her window and waved at the ferry attendant. “Excuse me. When is the next boat to Vancouver Island?”
“Sorry to say, Ma’am, but you just got off it. Boat’ll be pulling out in, oh…” He checked his watch. “Twenty minutes.” The cars were piling up behind her. Louise cursed under her breath, and the man waved her on. She pulled her foot off the brake, then hit it once more, leaning out the window. “Harland Shepherd still live here?”
The ferry attendant nodded. “Yup. Hardly’s out on Shelter Cove. Biscuit there can tell you more.” He pointed to a giant man in dreadlocks helping to direct the traffic.
“Seabiscuit’s here too?”
“The same.” The car behind her tapped the horn. “Gotta keep it moving, Ma’am.”
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.
“Wait here a minute.”
Aunt Louise walked up the hill toward a small office building where the man named Seabiscuit had just re-emerged. Michelle watched. He seemed surprised to see Louise, smiling, offering her a cigarette, which she took. Louise nodded her head toward Michelle, and the man stared in her direction for a moment before returning his attention to Louise, at first nodding, then shaking his head vehemently at something she had said. Some kind of argument ensued, both of them gesturing, pointing at Michelle, until Louise shrugged, took a last pull on the cigarette, and stomped it out. The man’s shoulders dropped, he went into the office, still shaking his head, and Louise marched back down the hill toward Michelle.
“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 didn’t mean it to go down like this, 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 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.
Seabiscuit emerged from the office again. Michelle had rarely seen a black man except on TV, and she watched him from under half-closed lids, curious about the thick ropes of hair that tumbled from his head. He looked 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 another cigarette down to a stub, and each time his gaze fell on Michelle, she looked away so as to not be seen and shrank herself into the fisherman’s jacket, its stiff collar jutting halfway up the back of her head. When he 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.
Michelle shook her head, trying to look adult and confident, but at that same moment, she thought of the stupid Bible storybook, all the children gathered around the man with the beard, and tears welled up and overflowed. 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 damned . . . ”
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 hot 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 sometimes made. 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 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 covering his mouth like walrus bristles. Round-rimmed spectacles reminded her of Santa Claus but, of course, she did not believe in Santa Claus. “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.
“What about Watercracker?”
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 always did. 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.