She has only been on the island for twenty minutes, and already she’s disappointed. The lock clicks behind her, all dull sound that echoes her mood. She saw again, set over reality in a thin haze of memory, the image on the hotel website. Cool, serene hues, aqua and teal and fresh lime. Headboards of bamboo, walls vibrant with abstract art. Twin glasses, mimosa-filled, are set before the mirror that shows the bed and the balcony overlooking the blue shore. She can almost hear the waves whisper, can feel the soft breeze flitting in her hair, can taste the sea tang on her lips.
Or she could, at least, sitting at her laptop at home a week ago, pricing her stay here for the long weekend. She’d found the hotel, the only one on the island, on one of those travel discount sites. The price had seemed too good to be true, based on those photos.
It was. The vision fades, leaving only olive-green carpet, pale sky-blue walls, the awful orange of the bed pillows. Maybe this is someone’s idea of a beachfront hotel room — someone who’s been asleep since the ‘70s, only walking mere days ago. No balcony, of course. No mimosas. Only two empty tumblers, upside-down, on the particle-board corner desk.
Haven leaves her luggage in the narrow closet, then sits on the bed, winces as the frayed rattan headboard creaks behind her. She opens the laptop she’d stowed in her shoulder-bag and double-checks the address of the office where her interview (one she still can’t believe she has scored) will be held.
Her phone buzzes in her purse. She sighs, seeing the caller’s name, and slides it unlocked. “Hello, Dad.”
“Hey, sweetie. Get there okay? No traffic stalls? Did you get lost?”
“No,” she strives to keep her tone pleasant, “no problems. Everything’s fine.”
“Are you nervous?” She hesitates. “You know,” he barrels on, “you can always come back home. Move in with us. Find an internship next year. No need to rush into things. Your mother could still use you. For, uh, the company,” he finishes, a bit lamely.
Haven knows exactly what he means, though. How many months has Mom been ill now, the doctors unable to find out the cause? How long since she’d lost all the weight? She has always been obsessed with health and her shape, but even though she looks more like a stick figure than a cover model, she resists eating more than a few mouthfuls, afraid to make things worse. It feels as if she’s lost interest in getting better. Since that time, every visit feels as if their roles have been reversed. It’s like taking care of a child, making sure her mother eats and gets enough exercise to stay strong and avoid atrophy. Nor had her father been any use when she had needed him.
“No, I’m not nervous,” she lies. Not that nervous, at least. Though she knows it won’t be the last time he will call and ask her to come home. She says goodbye, tosses the phone onto her bed.
Haven lets her thoughts slip away, lies down and tries to find peace. It’s hard not to think about her parents, though. Obligations, pressures, guilt trips…
“Damn it,” she swears under her breath. “I’m not doing this. Not today. Not this weekend.”
She leaves her room and walks onto the beach. The air is humid, heavy, but cool. The sky flat and pearly. Waves roar in her ears, dull as the sound of the lock in her hotel room, but alive as well, stirring something in her.
Wind whips in her hair, blows it in her face in tangles, and she laughs. Gulls yearn from far away, voices eerie as sirens. She kicks off her sandals. Sand slips between her toes.
Time sinks away. The tide rides and Haven watches, sitting with her chin rested on her knee. It isn’t quite tourist season, but she’s never seen the beach this empty. Surfers wade in near the pier; a block or two away, a dog catches a frisbee. Too far away to hear. The stillness is nice. Pelicans dive and vanish, rise again with gravid throats, riding rafts of foam over waves a metallic green. Green or purple; it’s hard to tell in the pale, shifting light.
She almost feels the footsteps when they come: more a tremble than a tremor, not strong enough to make sand shiver. She turns to look. A stone’s throw or two away, back by the dunes, a figure walks with downcast eyes. His right arm bears something like a cane or a golf club, wrapped in a wire. He sweeps it side to side — a metal detector, of course.
Haven watches him. She’s certain he hasn’t noticed her, lost as he is in his effort. There’s something intriguing about that. The way he walks, as if doing what he’s meant to do, no doubt or distraction or worry.
Her eyes close, and calm rushes over her. Too much of it. If she stays for much longer, she’ll sleep here on the shore, and the tide will wake her. As nice as that seems in theory, the ocean looks cold today. Haven rises and trudges to the hotel, sand sticking to her limbs and lips and somehow, caught in her hair. The lobby is bright and inviting, just as the interwebs had promised. Her own room is still tired and weary.
She falls on the bed, aware that something is wrong, something is missing, but too drowsy just now to care.
* * *
I could sleep, I could sleep. When I lived alone—
Haven’s hand pounds her phone on the bedside table, silencing the Band of Horses song she has set for her alarm. She stares stupidly at the screen, wondering what she’s doing. It’s 8:16. In the morning.
“Shit! Shit!” She leaps from the bed and tears off her old jeans, nearly tripping on the way to the bathroom. Her face looks tired and unkempt in the mirror, but panic is filling her bloodstream, lending her energy.
She splashes cold water in her face. It’s clear enough what has happened. What she’d meant to be a nap, assuming she’d wake in the early evening, had spanned the night and invaded early morning. The alarm was set for eight, but she must have snoozed it. She hadn’t meant to do that. Hadn’t known she was so drained. There is no time to do her hair now, or double-check her resume, her portfolio — things she should have done before leaving home, after all.
She throws on the white top, black pants, and light grey blazer she’d selected after checking the staff page on their website for a taste of how they dressed at the magazine, and is out the door, fumbling with her keys (“Damn it! Damn it! Okay, here we go.”) a moment before climbing into her car and darting out of the hotel lot, up the central road through town and toward the mainland, muted braids of green and blue slipping past her windows as she crosses the bridge. Calm fills her, somber and stern.
Things have to go this way, don’t they? On today, of all days. It isn’t a random internship she’s interviewing for, after all. This is it. Haven has read Kindred for over three years now, the small-press bimonthly on culture, art, and social justice she’d discovered first as a podcast, then an iPad app, and finally the print copy, its cover a dull satin gloss, its pages crisp and sharp. It’s the first hard copy of…well, nearly anything that she’s read since college. A tactile pleasure in her hands.
Writing for them was her dream all through junior and senior year. They’re passionate about what they do, have a keen sense of design, and though they don’t pay much, they have a solid subscribership belying their size, and several of their writers and editors, she’s noticed, have moved on to success with other publishers. If she can get this job, her dreams are in reach. It will take a while, but Haven is willing to wait.
Her phone interrupts her blurred thought to tell her she’s arrived. She’s made it here more or less on time, though she wonders, laughing as she lurches into the first parking spot she can find on the roadside, if the senior editor will share her liberal definition of “on time.”
Through glass storefront windows she can see, past all-caps Gotham letters that spell KINDRED, a cozy and casual meeting room, and past that, an understated grid of desks and shelves. A man with blond hair and a reddish beard spots her coming and meets her at the door.
“Yes,” she breathes, standing straight and forcing a smile.
“Sorry about the traffic. We planned on you being late since you’re from out of town. It can be,” he pauses, smirks, “a little overwhelming if you don’t know what to expect.”
“Yes,” she nods. “The traffic. It definitely was. Very bad.”
His smile widens. “Well, I’m Aaron. You can take a seat on the sofa, and I’ll let Keller know you’re here.”
She sits in front of the wide table, grateful he hasn’t noticed her disheveled looks, and glances around the room. At the dry-erase board with notes for future stories, the blown up covers from past issues, At the white glow of an Apple logo from a desk nearby. Haven hasn’t imagined the place would look like this: so normal, so laid-back, filled with people who, aside from the CEO who she knows has run the magazine for the past twenty years, were more or less her own age. The place feels too real. In a way it hasn’t before.
Minutes pass. Her foot starts to tap, slow at first but then quicker, till her left leg is shaking. Her veins, too, begin to throb, matching its rhythm. Her breath comes heavy, ragged. What is she doing here?
“Sorry, it’ll just be a minute.” Aaron’s voice startles her, his wiry frame appearing somehow just beside her. “The printers called, and they’re dealing with some kind of—”
“It’s okay,” she stammers, and flashes her phone. “I just got a text. Emergency call. I have to go. Sorry I’ve wasted your time.”
She doesn’t wait for an answer. Not when the door is so close, her feet so quick on the tile floor. Her own steps are all she hears till the blare of a car horn jars her from her panic. What did she just do?
It’s done, whatever it is, whatever reason she did it. She climbs in the car and drives away, not looking back.
* * *
Her thoughts start working again somewhere near the bridge back to the island. What happened, girl? Why did you choke? It isn’t as if she hasn’t prepared for this, gone over every possible question in her mind, chosen the best answers for each. She remembers how present she felt in that meeting room, jarred by reality as if it by icy rain dripping down the back of her neck. She wants to slam her head onto the steering wheel, but she’s too dazed to do even this.
Tiny raindrops spangle her windshield, but the sun is brightening. Light invades the island again as she pulls into the hotel lot, and by the time she slips into the lobby she is grateful for the shade. She reaches for sunglasses in her shoulder bag — hold on, this is odd. Her laptop is missing. I definitely put it back yesterday before I fell asleep. But maybe not, she thinks.
What must they be thinking at the magazine? she wonders. I can’t believe I did that. What the hell is wrong with me? She knows what her father will think: that he was right the whole time.
The lock glows green as her room key slides in, and she opens the door, ready to sink into bed again, defeated. Instead she stands frozen in the doorway, staring at the shape inside her room, blackened by the light streaming in from the curtained window. It is bent over her desk, rummaging through her other handbag.
It too freezes, turning to face her. She can’t see its features, but feels surprise and alarm radiate from its shape. She backs away.
And then it’s gone. He darts out past her, handbag in hand, and runs down the hall — a short, gaunt figure, its soft footfalls rhythmic in the narrow hall.
It happens so fast she can barely process it. She stands still in shock a moment. Without thinking she bolts after him, dropping everything in her still open doorway.
He pushes through the lobby door as if through cling wrap, and she follows, neither heeding the outraged calls of the desk staff. Outside, though, she halts, hitting a wall of light. The day has brightened even more by now, and she can barely see the figure as it slips around the corner, through a narrow space between the yellow building and ranks of fenced-off dunes.
Haven follows. The farther she runs the closer the thicket presses in from both sides, lush green stalks grasping to overtake the sand-covered walk. Ranks of sea oats and dollarweed, daggers of yucca, spindly passion flowers hanging from vines, all glimpsed in a blur of motion. She reaches the beach and stumbles, kicks off her shoes, grateful she hadn’t worn heels.
The figure is even farther away now, but shorn of her shoes, Haven is gaining on him. Her mind is clear of thought, filled instead with a searing rage. She has no idea what she’ll do if she catches him, nor has even considered it.
A brief, half-finished idea flits through her that the island is not long, and the hotel is near its southern end. There is nowhere for him to go.
Still the form flees, borne on those swift, slender legs. She can hear her things clattering inside her bag, and she focuses more on the sound than on the sight of him. The dunes rise, their faces blunt from where storms have carved them away, then fall gently. And round a corner, where the beach dog-legs, a stand of trees appears. White and smooth like bones. Shorn of any leaf or living thing.
She halts. Stares up at them. They seem a strange and alien thing, something she’s never expected to see. Wind-worn, skeletal. It seems like a place of death. For a moment she forgets the thief, lost in her awe.
Only a moment, though. She begins to run again, but she’s lost sight of him now. Her feet pound the soft, warm ripples, making no sound. The island narrows, as it has been doing for a while, though she hadn’t noticed. Soon it’s only a narrow spit, then it fails altogether, giving way to a calm blue inlet. A ring of ripples churns the water near the edge then fades away, lapping at the sand with jittery waves.
There is no one here. Haven is alone.
She turns, scans the fringe of the island. Salt flats stretch toward the creek, covered in places by fans of sand pushed inland. No trees, no tall brush, nowhere to hide. Only a small strip of beach and the lagoon, and the ocean. Not until now has she noticed its own sighing, soughing sound, calm and eternal.
There is no hint of the figure. She recalls its silhouetted shape again, short and gaunt. She shivers, in spite of the warm sun on her skin. There is nothing more left to do here.
On the way back, she marvels again at the strangeness of the white trees, so stark and graceful in their stillness. She walks around the largest of them, traces its bony smoothness with her fingertips, lets her touch linger in one of its curves. Her eyes close, and she leans her head against it, filled with defeat. Twice today she has failed herself, and there seems no sense to make of it.
Haven kneels then rests her back against its trunk. Imagines the tide rising and cooling her tired feet. Her fingers splay in the sand on either side of her, reveling in its texture. They brush against something hard, and she opens her eyes to look.
A black flute of glass. She grasps and pulls, digging until the sand releases a wide, bulbous shape. Haven brushes it off, strains to see through the clouded hull. Something swirls inside, wakened by her hand, dark as the bottle itself.
Sure, she thinks, staring at her find. Because why not?
She carries the bottle back to the hotel, picks up her shoes as she finds them. They are farther apart than she remembers. Every step feels slow and heavy, as if somehow she has become someone else.
At least she has the bottle. Haven grips it tightly. She has no bottle opener, but she already has an idea about that. Fishing her Swiss army knife from her car’s glove box, she sits in the passenger’s seat and uses the thin blade to work around the edge of the cork, then stabs it, twists, and pulls it out.
Rum. She can tell immediately by the scent rising from the open neck. A scent, she thinks, that has lain in secret for centuries. It’s almost overpowering. Haven nearly feels drunk from the smell alone.
She thumbs a patch of barnacles on the glass, waits a moment before raising the neck to her lips, and drinks.
* * *
Somehow it is dark, and she is grateful. The last rays of sunlight have been spears in her eyes as she sat at the foot of the bed and drank, sip by sip — the rum is strong — and waited for the day to fade. The hotel room is silent. If she had got the balcony she’d hoped for the door might be open now, the sound of waves slipping in to soothe her. But Haven doesn’t want soothing. Only the freedom and misery the bottle will bring.
Other sounds drift in, though. Footfalls creak from the floor above. Voices of teenage girls in the room next to hers, their effervescent laughter. She resents their happiness.
What am I doing? Why did I choke today? Why did I even come here? Did I really think I could—
Her phone rings, and Haven groans, hearing the ringtone. She nearly doesn’t answer, thinking of the friction sure to follow, and then does, for the same reason. “Hello.”
The caller hesitates before speaking. “Did I wake you, hon? I didn’t think you’d be sleeping this early.”
“No, I’m awake,” she laughs harshly.
“Hm. You sound groggy, or…” He trails off, appraising her tone. “How was your interview?”
“So good, Dad. I’m sure they’re going to hire me. It’s pretty much in the bag.”
Again her father is silent. “Haven, are you all right?”
The breath comes heavy into her lungs. She has no answer for this, and the gulf in their words feels unbearable. She knows what he must be thinking, resents him for not saying it aloud. She knows he wants to. How disappointed he must be!
There is static on the line a moment, then a new voice speaks. “How’s your trip, sweetie?”
Her eyes close. “I’m fine, Momma. It’s going great.”
“That’s good. You know I worry.”
“I do. How are you?”
“Not the best. It’s been a hard day. Dad made waffles, but I could only eat one. I didn’t get out of bed much, either.”
Haven’s brow creases. She presses her forehead. “Why not?”
“Well, I just really didn’t have a whole lot to do. There didn’t seem much point in it.”
It’s not the words so much as the way her mother says them. Her tone is that same singsong drawl, proud yet sweet, but the color is leached out of it, the energy sapped away. It sounds something near to giving up.
“You know you need to move more, Momma. Need to get your strength up if you want to get better.” She hopes she can’t hear, or doesn’t notice, the tired slur in her own words.
“I know,” her mother answers without much conviction. “Here’s Dad.”
“I don’t know what to do for her, Haven,” her father’s voice returns. “She won’t eat or move around much, and I can’t convince her to do anything. You know how she is.”
Haven does know. She loves her mother, but she has never been the easiest woman to live with. She takes another swallow of rum.
“Our door is always open, hon. I know you’re excited to be on your own, but…your mother needs you. She would like it if you were here. An awful lot.”
Haven’s face flushes with anger. “I bet she would. I bet you would, too.”
“Of course I would,” he stammers, surprised. “You know I — Look, Haven, I don’t know what I’ll do if she’s not around. And you know, lots of people do gap years.”
“Before college, Dad. Not after.”
“You know,” he presses, “I helped out my dad around the shop when his knee gave out, and I worked at the same time. You could still—”
“Dad, you had time for that.” Her tone is rising, but she doesn’t care. She screws her eyes shut, tries to speak clearly and emphatically. “You didn’t have crippling debt right after college. I haven’t even found a job yet! You act like I’m so privileged, but you’re the one who had it easy. Things have changed.”
He doesn’t grow angry, doesn’t lash out at her. Part of her is even more angry at him for this. “Things may have changed,” he says at last. “For you, and me alike. And most of all for your mother.”
“I know what you’re doing,” she seethes. “I know, and I’m not — you don’t even care, do you? You don’t understand how much I need this. How much pressure I have to start my career, to—”
Her phone beeps. The line goes dead. Did he hang up on her, or did she hang up on him? She doesn’t remember. Haven stares at her phone for what seems hours, but it has only been minutes. Time is dilating and it’s nowhere near midnight. The rum is half gone. It no longer looks appealing. Just the smell of it drifting out of the bottle on the floor makes her sick.
She doesn’t want to be drunk anymore. Haven just wants to be anywhere but here, anyone but her.
* * *
It isn’t the sunlight, dazzling as it is, or her phone alarm, not set to go off for an hour or two, or even the noise of the air conditioner that wakes her. It’s the pain. Somewhere behind each of her eyes, a miniature sun is exploding.
Haven gives the rum bottle a glance and grimaces. She wonders if she ought to take a sip — hair of the dog and all that. But no. She won’t touch the stuff again.
She tries rising, but the movement only makes the pain worse. Her head sinks into the cool comfort of the pillow, but that position hurts just as much. Oh well. She has to do something. She needs food, the one and only hangover cure she’s ever known to work. And that, excruciating as it may be, means going outside.
Two Excedrin and a cup of stale, hotel lobby coffee later, Haven stumbles along the island’s central street and into the Crab House, a blue-painted wooden shack. Seafood does not sound good for breakfast, but it’s the first place she’s found, and another minute outside feels like torture. She tries not to press her brow ridge too hard as the hostess seats her — at the bar, of all places.
“What can I get you, hon?” the waitress asks
“The pimento cheeseburger is good,” a voice beside her murmurs, “if it’s a hangover cure you want. And the fried pickles, too.”
“Thanks,” she replies. “What he said. And a Coke.”
The food when it comes is heavy, greasy, and glorious. It’s been a while since Haven has eaten this bad, but every fiber of her body is calling out for it. It’s just what she needs. Between it, the coffee, and the pills, her migraine begins to fade some forty minutes after the last bite. The relief is almost a high in itself, even through the fog of lingering pain. She still feels halfway dead, but the worst part is over.
Finally she’s aware enough to take in her surroundings. She glances right, toward the source of the voice, and spots a familiar face, though she can’t place him. Lime green t-shirt, black swimming trunks with a tricolored floral pattern. Deep, dark eyes that are watching her, half in amusement, half in concern.
“I saw you yesterday,” he says. “Out on the beach. You’re wearing the same clothes now that you were then.”
Haven winces, looking over the water-stained pants and rumpled top, both scattered with sand. She has no idea what happened to her blazer. She shrugs. Right now it’s kind of hard to care.
She studies the guy again, and then places him: the metal detector guy from her first day here. He’s younger than she had first thought.
“I saw you, too. Not yesterday — the day before. You were panning for gold, I guess. Sunken pirate treasure?”
He laughs and his eyes glint, his head tilts. Haven runs a hand through her stringy, oily hair. Something about him intrigues her.
“No, it’s not that glamorous, actually. Just a hobby.”
“And what do you usually find?”
He rolls his eyes. “What don’t I find? Trash, mostly. Bottle caps, soda cans, foil, bobby pins, sometimes even nails, believe it or not — I don’t know what people are building here on the beach — a bullet casing, once. Coins. But sometimes jewelry. Rings, mostly. And earrings.”
“Do you sell it, or collect it?”
The guy looks surprised. “I give it back to them, usually. Unless I’m out there on my own time.”
Haven frowns. “What do you mean?”
“I’m in this group.” He sips his mojito. “You can look me up on the website. We find people’s lost weddings rings for them.”
She sits straight. It’s never occurred to her that people might set up a service like that, but it makes sense. But the thought is replaced immediately by another. “Can you find something for me?”
Now he looks taken aback. “Um. Sure, I mean, I’ve already been out today but I can go again.” He checks the clock behind the bar. “You know where the pier is? By the hotel? Can you meet me there in fifteen minutes?”
She slips off the barstool, signals for her check. “Absolutely.”
He smiles again, that same tilted-head smile, and offers his hand. “I’m Efren,” he says.
“Good to meet you, Haven,” his smile widens, hearing her name. “I’ll see you soon.”
* * *
Forty-six minutes later, they stand on the edge of the spit, the island’s last gasp, looking out on the inlet. The tide is low now, and they can see pluff mud beneath where the water had been, a relic of the island’s former shape. Haven’s headache is entirely gone; which is good, since the sun has not dimmed at all.
Efren sweeps the metal detector from side to side, pausing to mark the places he’s covered with his sand scoop.
“What makes you think it’s buried here?” he asks.
“I don’t know. Where else could it be? He just disappeared here, there’s no place he could have gone. He had to have hidden it somewhere.”
“Unless he threw it in the water. I’m guessing he jumped in, too.”
Haven shakes her head. “Maybe. But he couldn’t have just held his breath that long, and I’d have seen him swimming away, wouldn’t I? And wouldn’t the tide have pushed the bag back to shore, anyway?”
Efren’s eyes remained focused on his task. “I don’t know,” he says at last, voice muted. Haven watches, no longer speaking, afraid to somehow jinx him.
He stops, and his head jerks toward her. “I’ve got something,” he says, pulling the earphones off and handing them to her. She listens as he sweeps the round coil over the sand again. Two sharp beeps.
Efren is already digging. The barrel of his scoop sinks into the beach, then rises to let the sand sift out the bottom. He doesn’t have to go for long before they find something.
Many somethings, actually. And not just metal. Haven kneels and squints into the hole. Lipstick tubes, unopened condoms, a pocket mirror, a change purse. A nearly empty tube of bug spray. Efren bends and pulls out something squarish. “Haven’t seen one of these in a while,” he says. She looks. An iPod nano, the paint on the aluminum casing worn away to dull silver. “Looks like someone’s stash.”
“More like trash.” She looks up at him, shielding her eyes from the sun. “Who would keep all stuff?”
Efren doesn’t answer. He kneels behind her, digs a bit with his hands. A few more objects surface. Strips of photo negatives. Two keyrings, cheap reading glasses. A Shirley Jackson paperback, waterlogged and thoroughly yellowed.
“Maybe it’s just random,” she says.
His head shakes. “I’ve never seen this much stuff clustered all together. Look, I’ll bet it goes even deeper than this. Maybe wider, too.”
Haven stands. Wind flings salt spray into her hair, making it even more unkempt. Efren watches her as if waiting, but she doesn’t know what to say. Is there anything to say? I can’t make sense of anything here. A few feet away, inches deep in the water, she spots two crabs, a hermit dismantling the shell of a larger blue. Out beyond that, the fin of a dolphin arcs from the water then vanishes. Haven sighs.
She turns from the ebbing sea and looks Efren full on. “I found something out here, too,” she says. “I’ll show you, if you want to see.”
The walk back to the hotel is a slow one, even slower than the walk out. It hadn’t felt this long when she’d ran it, chasing the figure from her room. Of all the things she’d hoped for in this trip, none of them had happened. She thinks, for the first time today, of her father’s call last night, and a stab of bitterness touches her. Why is he so helpless? she wonders. Why can’t he take care of her himself? And why’d I even mention my career? The internship’s dead anyway.
Even more of a mystery is what she’s doing with Efren. Asking for help is one thing. But bringing him back to her room?
In the hotel, the hall seems dimmed. Their sandaled feet clack halfheartedly on the tile floor, the only sound. The place feels like a temple. Haven finds her door, opens it, and lets him in.
“Oh, wow,” Efren whispers. He goes straight for the bottle, holds it to the light, studies its many details. “It’s a glass onion.” He turns sharply to her. “You found this? On the beach?”
She sits on the bed. “In the beach, actually. It was buried under those white trees.”
Efren fingers the cork on the desk, then sniffs the bottle’s neck. “Did you drink out of this?” He looks up at her, and Haven nods. His eyebrows raise. A sign of respect, or incredulity?
“Probably best not to again,” he says.
“If you’d had the day I did…” Haven shrugs.
He doesn’t respond, but sits on the desk across from her, searching her eyes. A strange look forms in his features, as if he’s trying to decide something. “Tell me,” he says.
Haven blinks. Should I? Do I trust this guy, who I’ve known for half a day? Clearly part of her does, to have invited him here. She takes a deep breath.
“So many things are pulling at me. Pulling in different directions. And I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what I can do. Or should do. I don’t know if I believe I’m capable of it. And my parents…they’re not supportive. At all. My dad is dragging at me to take care of my mom when he won’t, or can’t. And all this doubt and guilt, they’re toxic. They petrify me. I know all this, but I can’t help feeling it.”
Haven looks away. She wishes now, after that torrent of words, that she hadn’t spoken at all. Efren doesn’t speak. She feels cold here in this room, cold and vulnerable.
“I’m sorry,” Efren says. She looks at him, surprised to see real empathy in his eyes. A long moment passes before he breaks eye contact, glancing again at the black bottle. Haven glares at it.
“Will you take that thing away from me? I should never have brought it here.”
He winces, moving away from it an inch or two. “I’d rather not. It kind of low key gives me the creeps.”
“Then stay with me. I don’t want to be alone here with it.”
Efren nods. He looks out the window at the ragged palmettos, at the grackles haunting their branches, feathers an iridescent black. She wonders if he wishes he were out there, away from her. If he regrets coming here, regrets agreeing to help her at all. He meets her eyes again, nods a second time, stands, and sits on the bed beside her. An awkward moment passes, and he takes her hand in his.
I don’t know anything about you, she thinks. But his hand feels warm, like the warmth of the sun outside, of the sand underfoot this morning.
She makes her decision. Her hand rises to touch his neck, then settles in his ruffled black hair. Her fingers trace the back of his head and she pulls him closer, tastes the salt on lips, the roughness of his stubbled cheek.
“Haven,” he says.
“It’s okay,” she answers. And believes it.
* * *
That night, Haven dreams of faceless shapes. They are watching from outside her window, through the keyhole of her hotel door. Bent and shrunken figures, lean and wasted, nearly blown away by the sea air. The dream gives way to a pod of dolphins that swim the shallows, weaving amongst each other. One is made of clear glass. It leaps from the water, a glass fish in its mouth, and lays on the beach. But it isn’t a dolphin — not anymore. It blackens and liquefies, swirly and sloshing, until a bottle forms around it. One of the windblown figures comes and drinks deeply, leaving it to sink into the sand as if through deep water.
She wakes, gasping and drenched in cold sweat. Her head whips back and forth, scanning the room for danger, but there is none. She sits up for several long moments, heart pounding, and finally laughs, knowing she is safe. The day is underway, and the light is dancing with motes of dust as it streams in through the blinds. The dust seems alive, clean and sacred to her morning eyes.
Then she realizes: Efren is gone. She is alone again. She feels sad at first, sad and bitter, but she rises and walks out to the beach and sees him there, walking its length, metal detector in hand. He spots her as well, smiles, and waves. She smiles, too. The soft sand between her toes mingles with the roughness of sea wrack, and in the dunes the sea oats bob in the wind, the dollarweed gleaming in the sun. The world is itself here, as it always has been. Sky and ocean, limitless.
Haven laughs, feeling lighter somehow. She turns and leaves Efren to his beach.
Will she see him again? It pulls at her, that rootedness he carries, an aura of belonging in this place. A sense of purpose, stability, that makes her yearn for him stronger than before. She keeps walking, not looking back.
In her room again she sits on the bed, lets her thoughts wander. The bottle is still here, but it no longer seems strange or ominous. Mere glass and rum, hoary with age. Haven picks up her phone, swipes through the notifications. She’s missed two calls in her short time outside. Both have left voicemails.
“Haven, it’s your momma. I just want to check in on you, make sure you’re all right. Your dad says y’all were cut off, and we haven’t heard back from you since. I miss you, sweetheart. You know if things aren’t going well, or even if they are, we’d love to have you home again. Rent free. Just for a while. What do you say? We love you. Give us a call back when you can.”
She pauses, hearing a warmth in the recording that makes her feel guilty. She plays the second one.
“Uh, hey, Ms. Roe? It’s Aaron Canberry from Kindred. Just wanted to follow up on your interview. I hope everything’s all right with your family emergency, but we were definitely sorry to see you have to leave so quick. If you’re, uh, still interested in that internship, give me a call, all right? If not, then good luck in your endeavors. Thanks so much!”
Haven stares at the phone for so long that it auto-locks. Of all things, she’d never expected a second chance with them. Not after the way she’d stormed out. She’d felt sure they had seen through her, deep into her core, common and worthless.
She no longer felt that way, though. Not today, at least. But who knew what tomorrow would bring?
Haven stands, paces, then walks back to her bed. She picks up the phone again. Her heart beats loud and heavy, and she wonders which call she should return. Her mother really does need her. She sees that now. However ineffectual her father may be, there is real good that Haven can do. But there is so much she can achieve as well, with a platform like Kindred. It feels like a shining beacon, waiting for her, one that will not stay lit for long.
Her thumb shakes as it hovers over the dial screen. A part of her wonders if there is a right answer, and if so, how she will ever know if she’s chosen it or not. She loves her parents, maddening as they can be.
Whatever she decides, she knows she will regret it.
One final sigh, then she acts. She’s made her choice, and there’s no sense in doubting it now. Haven touches the number on her screen and listens to the distant ring, lonely somehow like the calling of gulls. A voice answers, and for a moment she hears the crashing of waves in her ears before she swallows, closes her eyes, and speaks.