By Deborah Blumenthal
ALBERT WHITMAN & Company Copyright © 2012 Deborah Blumenthal
All rights reserved.
The summer my parents were getting divorced in Texas, I was exiled. Like a child playing pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey, I felt blindfolded, turned in circles, then pushed to stumble off on my own.
I remember the airport. The roar of jet engines. The smell of diesel fuel. I headed for the plane with my beat-up carry-on bag that said Travel Pro—even though I wasn't one—my sketchbooks, art supplies, Ollie, my worn brown teddy bear, and a turkey sandwich on a roll, in case I didn't like plane food.
Before I boarded I stared up at the wide blue sky.
"Good-bye," I whispered. Then I waited. Would a cloud move or the sun shift? All I wanted was a sign, the smallest change, invisible to everyone but me. Something I could hold on to.
But there was nothing.
I fastened my seat belt and pulled it tight. We took off and I pressed my head back against the seat, feeling the rush as the plane went faster and faster and faster until it rose up into the air, as if it turned weightless. I reached up to the chain around my neck and closed my hand around the gold charm from Louisiana that my best friend, Marissa, gave me before I left.
"Arrive the same, leave different," it said.
Would it turn out that way?
Six hours later with a one-stop layover, I arrived on another planet.
Aunt Ellie was waiting for me at the small airport.
"Sirena," she said, hugging me.
I gave her a half smile and heaved my bag into the trunk of her Volvo wagon. She rolled down the windows, and we took off to her giant old gingerbread house near the water. She took my hand and I followed her up a flight of stairs to a dark attic bedroom. Dark until she flung open the blue wooden shutters.
"Voilà," she sang.
Sunlight lit the room like a flash fire.
I stepped to the window. Ocean everywhere with no beginning and no end. A view like that shrinks your head. It puts your life into perspective.
"Surreal," I said.
For hours at a time that summer, I would sit on my window seat hypnotized by the waves, imagining the world hidden below the surface and wondering how I, a miniscule flicker of life, fit into the IMAX-sized universe before me.
My whole world would change after that summer. My parents were living together when I left. When I went back, they'd be apart.
"You'll come back to two homes instead of one," my mom tried. But a positive spin couldn't convince me I'd be gaining something, instead of losing everything. I have friends whose parents are divorced. They need calendars to tell them where to sleep and checklists to track down their stuff.
And then there were the holidays. Where would I go for Thanksgiving and Christmas? How could I celebrate? Who wanted to go back and forth between new homes, no homes? Who wanted to live with sad, single parents looking to start over?
What I wanted was for everything to stop and rewind. I wanted to live in before, not after.
But no one asked me what I wanted.
I try not to think of that now. Everything is different in Rhode Island. I guess that was the point of sending me.
Aunt Ellie's wooden house was built about a hundred years ago, and when the wind blew it groaned like an old person getting out of a rickety chair. One night when it was stormy and it sounded like an atomic battlefield in the sky, I heard strange whispering coming from upstairs. Was I imagining things?
In Texas we have tropical storms and hurricanes that turn cars into boats. We have surprise tornadoes and roaches big as baby mice. But the one thing we never had, in our house at least, was ghosts.
"Is your house haunted?" I ask Aunt Ellie, pretending to joke.
She takes off her glasses and looks up momentarily from the National Geographic on her desk. "Oh sure," she says.
My bedroom had blue-and-white wallpaper with old clipper ships with billowy sails and a double bed with a curvy white iron headboard and sheets as soft and white as magnolia blossoms. Fish X-rays in gossamer shades of inky blue hang on the walls like aquatic Warhols. But the best thing about the room is the pillow-covered window seat in front of the large bay window where I like to sit and watch the ocean.
I don't mind being away from home, I decide right then. I don't mind missing camp and being all alone. In some ways I like it better, because no one will ask me questions I don't want to answer.
Aunt Ellie has a curly-haired dog named Will who's very curious about the new person in his house. He's part wheaten terrier, part something else. Like a dog detective, Will sniffs at my pants, and then at my hair when I bend down to pet him.
"Am I okay?"
His answer is to sniff and keep sniffing, instantly putting together a scent impression of me, the doggy equivalent of a police profile.
Will is five or so, Aunt Ellie thinks. She found him walking near the ocean one day, like a drifter who lost his way. He wasn't wearing a collar, and when she took him to the vet, he didn't have a microchip to tell them where home was. Even though he was a stray, he looked well-fed and he must have been well cared-for because he wasn't skittish in any way.
"It just seemed like the natural thing to bring him home and start the next chapter of his life and mine together," Aunt Ellie said. She already had three stray cats—Nina, Pinta, and Santa Maria—a gerbil, two turtles, and a canary, so one more animal wouldn't make all that much of a difference.
Aunt Ellie is like that. Nothing is a big deal to her. Not stray dogs or cats, not ghosts, not divorces, and especially not kids who are homeless. And that's good because I honestly don't think I could survive five minutes in her house if I felt that she pitied me or anything.
There won't be any structure to her summer," my dad yelled to my mom when they were having one of the fights they somehow assumed I couldn't hear. I sat in my room helpless as a chicken facing slaughter. "What's she going to do all day?"
My mom wasn't concerned about doing. She wasn't a structure freak, or an ex-Marine, like my dad. "Ellie lives at the beach," she said in a weary voice, like that should have explained everything.
What she wanted most was to have me airlifted out of our house, the city, and most of all, away from their fights. The beach was a good alternative and probably their only one. Without asking, I knew they wouldn't have money anymore to send me to camp.
"Why can't I just stay home with you?" I asked my mom.
"It's hot here," was all she said. "I want you to have a real summer."
A nanosecond later I was gone.
Aunt Ellie seems okay with having me, although I can't imagine why. Maybe to her I'm some new specimen—the freaky teenage loser artifact—to study like a bug trapped in amber. Still, she's the relaxed type, independent. Totally not uptight. She's six years younger than my mom and she lives by her own rules, which is why she's content on her own in a creaky beach house with unmatched rattan furniture and weird specimens everywhere—from prickly cacti from the Sonoran desert to exotic seashells, Maori masks, and necklaces of snake vertebrae that seem to hiss a warning when you touch them.
I guess Aunt Ellie has so much life around her, she doesn't need a husband and kids, or maybe doesn't want them. I don't know because I never asked her.
"You don't ask unmarried people why they're not married because it's an embarrassing question, like why didn't you get asked to the prom," my mom once said, so I remembered that.
I'm relieved Aunt Ellie isn't married. If she was I'd have to deal with two people wondering what I'm thinking 24/7. The truth is more often I try not to, escaping to art or zoning to a safe haven in my head where it doesn't even matter if my parents are together or not.
"How do you split up someone's life?" I asked Marissa before I left. "Will my dad take my things from birth to eight, and my mom from eight to sixteen?" I was only half kidding. "Will the rest be dumped into garbage bags like clothes from a dead person and hauled off to a thrift shop?"
"You'll still be you," she said. "That's what counts. You won't change, you know?"
I didn't know anything. My brain was on mute along with my life. I'd walk into a room to get something, and then forget what it was. I'd stare into my closet unable to come up with a basis for picking one outfit over another, as if it actually mattered anyway. And when I opened the refrigerator or went to the grocery store, there was food everywhere, but nothing I wanted.
So why not move to a different state, even if it was the smallest of the fifty, a cubbyhole compared to Texas?
At least I'm in a house with a real animal. I fell for Will at first sight. He's sad and scruffy with liquid eyes and a Doberman-sized soul. But even though I'm dog-crazy, I'm almost glad we don't have a dog at home now because of a story I once heard. A married couple who had a dog they both loved desperately was splitting up. They were so angry with each other though that neither of them wanted to give the other the satisfaction of getting the dog.
The one who suffered most was the dog.
He ended up abandoned at a shelter.
Maybe Aunt Ellie knows things like that happen. Maybe that's why she never got married. Anyway, she seems to have this sixth sense about making people feel better, because before I arrived she bought me a present.
"Close your eyes," she said. When I opened them a wooden easel was open in front of me.
"I love it," I said. I really did. It was the perfect gift. It felt like someone had just crowned me a world-acclaimed artist. I never had an easel before and just looking at it made me feel important. I think she found it at a garage sale or something because it had little splatters of paint on it from the person who owned it before. Based on nothing, my turbo-charged imagination decided that the previous owner was an extraordinary painter who transferred mythical powers to the easel, and now it was my responsibility to uphold that artistic legacy. Of course if I told anyone something like that they'd just look at me and say, "You know, Sirena, you live in a total fantasy world."
And they'd be right.
Before I even unpacked my bag, I set up the easel near the window. I had never done any sea pictures before. I'd watch the water in different lights and changing weather to know it and learn to draw it. I could do it, I decided, if I tried hard enough. All it would take was willpower.
What I didn't know then was that my entire summer at the ocean would be about knowing new worlds. Things would happen that weren't supposed to. Miracles would come true. And for the first time in my life, I would find out what it means to fall completely in love. Only it would happen in a way even I could never have imagined.
But let me start at the beginning.
My red bathing suit is old and faded. I haven't worked out in a month, so what I see in the mirror is the Pillsbury doughboy reincarnated as a 16-year-old girl. I could hide under a sweatshirt or wear a bathrobe to the beach, but rare-day alert: I don't care.
Refresher course: The state of big hair, big oil, shirts with snaps, and barbeque—my real world—is two thousand miles away.
Texas is also a state of man-made lakes and easy tides and hello, in front of me is a giant ocean with wild, crashing waves, so I morph into a psyched six-year-old and zigzag in and out of the water, playing tag with the surf. I pretend that Marissa's with me, because an imaginary friend is better than no friend at all. The sunlight glints off the water like a million winking lights.
"Ow," I call out, suddenly. Something sharp has stabbed my sole. Now I get why serious runners don't go barefoot. Pebbles and sharp shells poke out of the smooth blanket of wet sand. You can't avoid them. I hop into the water to numb the pain then focus on the music in my iPod and keep going.
I concentrate on the rhythm of the music; the bongo drum beats of my heart. Eyes closed, I'm making my way through a world of darkness, all outside distractions shut away. When one sense is closed off, do the others compensate? I open my eyes to make sure I'm not about to collide head-on with anyone, then close them again and fill my lungs with salty air.
Breathe, they tell you when you exercise. Don't forget to breathe. I take hungry breaths and fill my lungs, flashing back to early morning hikes at camp when the world smelled fresh and piney as if it were the first day of creation and it belonged to us alone, the children of paradise. We'd run back on empty chanting one sorry chorus of a hundred bottles of beer on the wall after another and finally reward ourselves by fueling up on spongy yellow French toast and maple syrup. Then we'd go back to the bunk to write letters, mostly because we wanted to get mail, the only tangible proof of popularity.
What if I really was blind? What would I pick up through my other senses? I shut my eyes for longer, then I half-collide with an oncoming runner.
"Christ," he mutters under his breath.
He's pissed, I've broken his stride.
"Sorry," I mutter. When he's far behind me, I try again, this time with my headphones off. I listen to the squealing seagulls, breathe in the briny ocean scent, feel my skin tingle from the salty mist. I try to rise to another level of awareness and—
I'm lifted up as if a twister swept me off the ground before I realize what's happening.
Only this was no force of nature.
Or if it was, it was disguised in a very human form. He moved fast, decisively, like a giant raptor lifting me off my feet. I see only tanned arms and long blond hair that smells like coconut.
"What are you doing?" I remember a self-defense maneuver and wrap my leg around his and kick him behind the knee. He loses balance, tumbling back into the sand. He doesn't let go so I plow into him and my chin slams a jaw bone as hard as a steer's horn.
"Ow," I moan, "what's wrong with you?"
He flips me in an instant and jumps up, lightning quick on his feet.
"Me?" He stares in disbelief.
I lay there for a moment, disoriented. What just happened?
The sun is at his back. His leans forward, casting a long shadow over me, like a giant web. That's when I see his face for the first time. I open my mouth, only no words come out.
Sun-striped hair falls straight against the sharp, smooth planes of a face, so classically perfect he could be a Greek statue come to life. Green-gold eyes hold mine a beat longer than they should.
I stare back.
And begin to unravel.
The corners of his mouth turn up. A slight headshake. "Did you think I was trying to kidnap you?"
"What were you doing?" A wave of annoyance rises up in me. "You scared me half to death." I get to my feet and brush the sand off my sore bottom. My face already throbs with pain.
He narrows his eyes and shakes his head dismissively, as if it's so obvious. "The sea urchin."
As if in answer, he lifts his chin in the direction of something in the sand, ahead of us. "You were about to land on it."
I stare at something black and scary, almost the size of a tennis ball. It's covered with quills. He scoops it up and carries it back to me in his open palm like an offering. "They have sharp, venom-coated spines that break off in your skin," he says, almost in awe.
I step back and he leans toward me. "Not something you'd want to land on."
"Sorry ... I ... had no—"
He carries it to the water, then reaching back with the grace of a javelin thrower, he tosses it far out into the ocean. Without as much as a backward glance, the elite athlete sprints off in the opposite direction.
Only then do I see the back of his tank top:
I made sure to check the sign on the fence outside the beach: Lifeguard schedule. I had enough going on in my head without seeing his gloating expression when he saw me again—if he recognized me at all. I didn't tell Aunt Ellie what happened. She'd probably think it was funny and if she told her friend Mark, they'd both be convinced I was totally spacey.
But now Aunt Ellie wants to go walking on the beach. She's sun-phobic, so she only goes at sunrise or sunset.
"So wear sunblock." (Continues...)
Excerpted from the lifegaurd by Deborah Blumenthal. Copyright © 2012 Deborah Blumenthal. Excerpted by permission of ALBERT WHITMAN & Company.
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