Before the wind stirs the bay water into waves, the air is only cold and still and wet. It smells like rain and salt from the sea. Moira Sound feeds the bay, and its span stretches for miles in both directions, before blending into the Pacific. But I wonder about that water, where it goes when it drains and why it comes back with the tide; what it sees and what it brings back.
A silent slaughter takes place beneath the surface as salmon gills hook in a fisherman’s trap. I can never tell who is in the boat. It could be Dad, but it’s probably Neil. Sometimes I think it’s my grandfather. Or at least what I imagine my grandfather looks like in real life.
Safe on the beach, I hold my shoes and stand in the water until my feet get too cold. Tiny ripples gurgle and pull at my ankles. That’s as far as I let it go. If the water rises any higher, I just wake up. Because I can always wake up.
Seabirds squeal over my head as dark clouds fold in, finally bringing a breeze—the hiss before the bite—and then the wind. It rushes through the valley. A flag licks the air, its rope rattles against a metal pole. Shed doors whistle open and bang shut. Waves crash against eroded wharves, rocking boats in the harbour.
The fisherman always leaves without me. My hand rises as if to wave when I stretch out my arm. Come back, I must have said a dozen times, I’m still here. But iron bells repeat like a siren. Leave or be forgotten. Cold rain wets my skin, ocean air fills my lungs; where do I go? There are mountains before me and there are mountains behind me. I can almost feel freedom. But then I hear boat horns split the air and plane propellers drone, and I know those means can only lead me back here.
Olivia Wescott stands at the end of her driveway when I walk down the road. Her family’s gray husky, Leo, gallops to greet me and I push him away when he gets too friendly.
“Hi, Olivia,” I say.
Massive softwood trees dwarf telephone poles along the ditches beside me. I see a school bus braking at the top of the hill up the road. “Last exam?” I ask.
“You got your braces off,” I say when I enter the driveway. “You look great. And no glasses too.”
Olivia laughs bashfully and the bus stops behind us.
“Good luck,” I say.
“Thanks. Neil’s still inside. You can go in if you want.”
“Yeah, okay. See you later.”
As the bus pulls away, I stare at her house, hoping she’s wrong. Hoping that her brother isn’t home, that he drove his dad’s car into the village, and his bulky old Chevy parked near their shed is just a misleading souvenir of his absence. But I can see Neil and his mom through the open windows of the log house. I imagine his white smile pushing dimples into his sun-tanned cheeks, his eyes narrowing brightly. His mother delighted by his self-assurance; his shoulders saying I can carry that for you, his legs promising I can run that far for you.
I lean against Neil’s ugly brown truck and my backpack scrapes the paint. Leo sits at my feet and pants. A crow caws somewhere in the woods. “What do you want?” I say to the dog.
The screen door on the porch opens and bounces shut after Neil jogs down the steps. He looks at his feet. His feet, his feet, then:
Surprise. It’s me.
“It’s open,” he says after the quick glance up.
I get inside the cab and Leo leaps in after me. “You’re going to get into trouble.”
Neil opens the driver’s door and snaps his fingers. “Leo, get down…Stupid dog.”
Leo jumps out and waits behind us, lonely.
Neil stoops to fit inside the door frame and I stare at him to see if he wants to stare back. He doesn’t have his hat on today. He must have gotten a haircut. Short all over and the same sun-streaked blond as his sisters. Instead of looking my way, he turns over the truck engine, fits a pair of dark aviator sunglasses over his eyes, and spins the truck onto the road.
Neil turns on the radio, and the rowdy country music, even though barely audible on the lowest volume notch, is a good sign of mood progression. I lean against my window, watching my breath fog up the glass and then dissipate.
I look over.
“Nothing’s wrong,” I say. “I didn’t say anything was wrong.”
“The sun’s in my eyes.”
“The sun is behind us.”
I jolt in my seat, swaying with the vehicle as it bounces over potholes in the road. “It’s nothing.”
Neil sighs dramatically.
“You never used to be like this,” he says. “You used to smile. You were happy. Enthusiastic.”
“I was not.”
He reaches over to massage my forehead and says, “You just need to relax this part of your face.”
I swat his hand away. “Stop it.”
“You stop it. You’re ugly when you frown.”
“That’s not what I mean.”
I cross my arms bitterly. “Just let it go. Everyone gets this way when they grow up. Life is better when you’re young. When everything is still shiny and there’s still hope to leave places like this.”
“Leave?” He almost laughs. “You’re not trying very hard.”
“You heard me, College Girl. Two semesters and you’re back.”
“For the summer.”
“Shut up.” I sigh and watch bulky mountain peaks interrupt the horizon, fog making them muted giants in the distance.
“You love it here,” Neil says. “Why do you want everyone to think you hate it?”
“Because that’s what you’re supposed to do. You grow up in a small town then abandon your good morals, resent your rural upbringing, and discover the real world. You get a real job in a big city and lose your virtue and when you die you can say that you lived life to the fullest. And I’ve come to accept it. I’m not perky anymore because I finally see this place for what it really is. No one is safe here. This town leaves its mark on everybody. Even the most noble.”
“Thank you for that subtle jab.”
“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean you…”
I can’t help but stare at Neil’s T-shirt. Kittworth Mission Airport. The navy logo on gray cotton is faded from countless washes. He wears long sleeves to cover his scars. It gets cold up in the sky, he says when people ask.
Outside my window, homes appear closer together and views of bay water widen as we enter the village. I shake my head. “I’m evolving,” I conclude. “Adapting. I’m a product of my environment. I’m ugly because this town is ugly.”
“You’re not ugly, Darwin. Everyone is ugly when they frown. And you scowling all the time is a result of how this town looks to you. Try smiling at it and it will smile back.”
I laugh out loud. “You’re one to talk.”
Neil leans forward both ways to check for traffic as we stop at the next intersection, and grins. His turn signal ticks annoyingly as he veers onto the main road of town.
We turn into Mac Mews and I grip the door handle. “What are you doing?” I ask.
Patty’s Restaurant stares back at me as we park in front of the windows. “But I’m late,” I say.
“You can walk the rest of the way,” Neil says, free of chivalry.
“That would make me even later.”
Neil chucks his sunglasses onto the dashboard and stares at me.
“Come on, Neil, please.”
“I’ll just be a second.”
I fold my arms over my chest and look out my window. One of my old elementary school teachers is pumping gas outside the One-Stop. “Fine.”
“Aren’t you gonna come in with me?” Neil asks.
“I dare you.”
The bell on the glass door chimes when Neil and I enter the diner. A trio of girls blush when they see Neil, as if being in the same room with them is a compliment he’s paying directly to them. One of them giggles. As we cross the dining room, people drinking coffee discuss the weather, the price of fish, the traffic on Highway 16. A woman glares in my direction when she catches me staring.
“Hi, Neil.” Our old school librarian, Mrs. Gilchrist, stands behind the cash counter, ready to take orders. “I didn’t know you were home, Amelia,” she says.
“It wasn’t in the plan,” I say.
“She got fired,” Neil says. I smack him in the side with my hand.
“Fired?” Mrs. Gilchrist says. “Now, you can’t leave me out of the loop.”
“Summer job at one of those fancy coffee shops,” Neil says, reaching in his back pant pocket for his wallet.
“I see,” Mrs. Gilchrist says, full of compassion and pity. “Not your forte?”
“I’m not good under pressure,” I say, and Neil has a hard time trying not to laugh.
“Happy to be home at least?” she asks.
Neil orders breakfast to go, and another waitress rings him through the cash.
“You know, your mother forgot Lucy’s hat here when she was in earlier this week,” Mrs. Gilchrist says to me, waving toward the back of the store. She leads me to a counter where there are fat tubs of ice cream on display behind glass. I sit on a stool at the counter as she retrieves a tiny yellow bucket hat and hands it over.
“Thanks,” I say. “Mom is always forgetting something. Especially when Lucy’s with her.”
“They’re a handful at that age. Will you be needing anything this morning?”
“No, I don’t think…”
Suddenly, the air next to me moves. Donnie Keller sits down and my stomach churns. The bell on the front door rings consecutively and Mrs. Gilchrist moves to greet the customers. “I’ll give you some time to decide, Amelia,” she says. “Good morning, Donnie.”
“Good morning, Mrs. G,” he says.
I fiddle with the Velcro pocket on my baby sister’s hat. Don’t look up, don’t look up, don’t…
“Cute hat,” Donnie says.
His cheeks are wind-bitten, giving the illusion of a healthy complexion. Too many smoke breaks outside in the winter, I guess. His twenty-one year-old frame is still boyish. I always expect to be taller than him, but I never am. He seems to grow beside me as I wait in silence. Or maybe I’m shrinking. I look away.
“I don’t think you’ll get all that pretty hair under it though,” he says about the hat.
I crumple the hat into my fist and stand up. Donnie stops smiling and it takes a moment for me to realize that it’s not me making his cheerful mood sour, but Neil’s protective stance behind me.
“Hey Donnie,” Neil says, like the two of them are still friends.
My face flushes in embarrassment as Donnie scoffs, shakes his head and walks off.
“I got you a milkshake,” Neil says, handing me a Styrofoam cup with a lid and a straw.
Businesses managed from metal outbuildings and wooden home offices cramp the street. Locals attempt to entice sightseers with makeshift signs and overused flags, dull from wind and wear, before they get sucked into the harbour. Lines of customers outside farmers’ carts are distracted with binoculars and long-lensed cameras.
Neil is forced to slow down his truck as pedestrians cross the street without looking. “Tourists,” he scoffs.
“Visit Kittworth,” I say. “But you can’t stay here because God forbid anyone live here. But enjoy. No cellphone towers within fifty miles. Fresh seafood, real-live First Nations locals. Take a plane ride with the famous Neil Wescott in his famous airplane over the famous—”
“Why do you keep saying famous?”
“I’m doing a tourist campaign. I’m making us sound more exciting.”
“The bay. I mean they come here, take pictures, rough it for the day and then return to the comfort of their little resort towns.”
Neil flicks on his blinker and says, “That’s how we make money, honey.”
With his smile making me bashful, I roll my eyes as we cross under the main harbour gate to park. The blue and white sign’s large painted letters are peeling on wood.
BOYKO BAY HARBOUR AUTHORITY
Even with the hint of a sunny morning, the bay water is a dark mass slowly eating the cove, tide ebbing and then swelling. A processing plant takes up the end of the long and crowded shoreline. I imagine myself in the outdoor assembly line in chest-waders and rubber gloves, wheeling bins of graded fish to the plant all day, other workers sliding more results of butchery down to the next unlucky soul in line. I imagine Neil’s cousin, Demetra—my boss—tucked inside her office trying to prove people wrong. This place won’t become a museum any time soon.
Neil shuts off the truck’s ignition, interrupting commercials on the radio. “There’s your dad,” he says.
Dad appears at Neil’s open window. “She bugging you again?” he asks.
“Oh, you know, bragging about leaving this place to change the world.”
“Did she give you that product of her environment speech? I don’t know where Eden and I went wrong with her.”
I get out of the truck, grab my backpack, and slam the door. “Good thing you can have a do-over with Lucy, right, Dad?”
“Come here, Envy—oh, I mean Emmy.”
Dad meets me in front of Neil’s truck, and I whisper, “Thanks for waking me up this morning. You were supposed to take me with you so I didn’t have to ride with…” I jot my eyes over to Neil as he stares at me through the windshield.
Dad grins. “How was I supposed to know?”
I roll my eyes. “Why are you down here anyway?”
The wooden terminal down the road is where he is supposed to be. Dad is a partner at the private air station, owned by Neil’s dad and his uncle. They have several bush planes in hangars near a paved runway, and a small fleet of seaplanes, under cover in boathouses by the airport’s docks for delivering mail, taking up tourists and chauffeuring campers, hikers and anglers to remote destinations.
Dad holds up a take-out bag and a tray of coffees from Patty’s Restaurant in response to my question. Then, suddenly, he frowns and looks at his left hand. He flexes his palm, urgently wiggling his fingers.
“What’s wrong?” I ask.
Dad cracks each of his knuckles with his thumb. The skin on the back of his hands is marked red with scars of frostbite and water damage, souvenirs of seasons spent fishing and making air deliveries in the winter.
“My arm’s asleep,” he says.
“That’s what you get for sitting still on the job,” Neil shouts out his window.
Dad begins to laugh and then deadpans. “Jokes this early in the morning? Em should ride with you more often. Don’t go anywhere—you’re giving me a lift back to the station.”
Dad shakes his hand in one last attempt to wake it up and then he opens his arms, expecting a hug. I let him kiss the top of my head. “Be a good kid today,” he says.
He ruffles my hair and I duck away.
“Hey, where’s my goodbye?” Neil says to me.
Dad whacks Neil’s shoulder after hopping into the passenger seat and says, “You’re treading in deep water today, buddy.”
I curb a laugh as Dad drinks the rest of my milkshake and Neil rubs the sore spot where Dad belted him. “You’re right, Neil,” I shout as I walk on to the plant. “Smiling does make everything better.”