Surfacing by Shana Norris
When I closed my eyes, I dreamed of an ocean I could barely remember. The last time I saw the beach, I had just turned four. It was fall, only a few weeks after my birthday, and my mom drove all the way across Tennessee and North Carolina to the tiny island where my father lived.
It had been the big adventure of my life, the long car ride and the ferry trip across the water, but the only thing I could remember now was this giant, dark haired man framed by the sunlight. Mom’s voice still echoed in my head. “Mara, this is your daddy.”
I had vague memories of sitting on his shoulder as he walked down to the beach. When he dipped my toes in the Atlantic Ocean, whispering things I had long ago forgotten, Mom got angry. Angrier than I’d ever seen her before or since. We left that night and I never saw him—or the Carolina coast—again.
The bus I’d boarded at the tiny airport half an hour ago bumped down the road and sent me bouncing in my seat. It woke me from my half-sleeping state, pulling me from foggy dreams of waves crashing over my toes. Outside, all that sped by my window were dried pastures dotted with a few grazing cows and abandoned gas stations with windows like broken teeth.
Only an occasional car passed by in the other direction. Even the bus was empty, except for the driver up front, me in the back, and the thin, silent woman who had been staring at me from a few rows ahead ever since I’d boarded.
Another bump and I tried to hold onto the seat in front of me while gripping my bag. My camera, as usual, hung safely around my neck and tucked inside my jacket, so that was one less thing to worry about as I held on as if my life depended on it. Because, judging from the bus’s lack of shock support, it apparently did.
The woman didn’t seem to notice the bumps in the road as she bounced in her seat, her frizzy graying hair forming a messy halo around her head. She sat turned on the edge of the seat, her legs in the aisle and her back pressed against the seat back in front of her.
She didn’t even attempt to hide the fact that she was staring.
When I’d first noticed the woman, I had managed a smile even though my face felt as if it might crack at the effort. It had been a while since I’d smiled.
“Be polite, Mara,” my mom’s voice in my head had reprimanded me. Not the weak, croaking voice she’d had in the final days before the cancer finally took her, but the soft, sighing and sweet voice in which she used to tell me bedtime stories. So I’d smiled at the woman; it wasn’t her fault that I sat in this death contraption of a bus in a part of eastern North Carolina that seemed to be more trees and farms than anything else, on my way to meet the father I had not heard from in over twelve years.
The woman hadn’t smiled back. I’d thought then that maybe she was blind, but when my bag had slipped from the seat earlier, her gaze had followed as I leaned over to retrieve it.
So she could see. And apparently, the only thing that interested her at the moment was me.
She continued to inspect me even now with that panicked expression, her eyes wide and her hands clenched into tight fists on the lap of her faded red peacoat. It felt like she was accusing me of something, though I didn’t have the slightest idea what I could have done. She had already been seated on the bus when I boarded. Plenty of seats remained empty all around us, so I didn’t think that I had taken one that she wanted to save for someone else.
Besides, there was no one else.
When the bus stopped bouncing long enough that it seemed safe to move, I stood unsteadily and made my way toward the front, easing around the woman. Her staring had become unnerving and I was already stressed enough for one day. The woman slid back in her seat when she saw me coming her way, pressing herself against the wall of the bus. The wild look in her eyes followed as I passed.
I settled into a seat near the front, arranging my bag at my side. Exhaustion washed over me and I closed my eyes for a minute. But I didn’t sleep. I could doze here and there, enough to keep me going, but I hadn’t fully slept in a long time. Weeks, months maybe. Half-asleep, I would dream foggy, choking memories of the ocean.
Fully asleep, I dreamed about my mom dying all over again.
My throat constricted in that way it always did right before I started crying and I forced myself to think of something else. Like…cows in a pasture, which was most likely what I’d see outside if I opened my eyes. Back in Memphis, Mom and I had lived within the city limits, surrounded by buildings and people and cars, not an endless parade of cows. There was always something to do and something to see. I wanted that life back, not this new one in the middle of nowhere, stuck on an island where the only way on or off was at the mercy of the ferry schedule.
The hairs all along the back of my neck prickled. My eyes flew open and I glanced over my shoulder. The woman had moved so quietly that I hadn’t heard her and now sat two seats back, on the opposite side of the bus. Her hollow eyes gawked at me and bones protruded from her sagging cheeks. Her clothes hung off her body, the faded red coat too big for her small shoulders.
Something about the woman’s frenzied expression made me feel sorry for her. A memory of my mom, delirious with pain, flashed through my head.
“Are you okay?” I asked the woman. “Do you need some help?”
She shrank back, pressing herself into the corner of her seat against the window.
“Okay then,” I said under my breath. I turned my attention back toward my own window, pulling my camera out to snap a few pictures of yet more cows outside the bus. The woman’s eyes burned holes into the back of my head, but I forced myself not to look back.
Only a small crowd waited at the dock when the bus finally pulled into the gravel parking lot, but still, it was very likely that I wouldn’t know which of the men wandering around was my father if it weren’t for the sheet of notebook paper he held with “Mara” scribbled across it in thick black letters.
I hitched my bag higher up my shoulder as I studied him from a distance, taking advantage of the opportunity to exist in anonymity for a final moment. My father, Lake Westray, was not as tall as I remembered, but then again, everything looked gigantic from the perspective of a four-year-old. He didn’t look as old as I knew he was. Something still youthful hid in his features, something that maybe if he wasn’t my deadbeat dad I could say was alluring. Whatever it was, this wasn’t the face of a man who had spent years worrying about or missing his estranged wife and daughter.
He spotted me and gave a hesitant wave, forcing me into this strange new world.
“Mara,” Lake said, smiling to reveal his perfectly straight, white teeth as he approached. Mom never spoke much about Lake, but she did once say I got my perfect teeth from him. At twelve, I had launched my bike off the biggest hill in town, hoping to run into a tree and knock some of my teeth out so they wouldn’t be like those of the father I had long since given up on. My teeth survived intact; the same couldn’t be said about my right arm.
“You look like your mother,” he told me.
This was a lie and not even a good one. My golden brown eyes were identical to his. My smile, the shape of my face, ears that were too big: they all came from his genes. Almost all of me was like him, except that he was tall and narrow where I was shorter and wider. My skin was a darker brown than his tanned tone, but not nearly as dark as my mom’s. I was stuck somewhere in between the two of them, never really fitting in anywhere.
Up close, Lake looked tired, with dark circles under his eyes. His long brown hair fell around his shoulders freely and tangled in the silver chain of the necklace he wore, which disappeared into the collar of his shirt. His skin had turned golden and leathery from a lifetime working in the sun. Maybe once he might have looked like the bronzed beach god that my mom stupidly fell in love with, but now he was just a worn beach bum in ratty khaki cut-offs and flip flops, which he wore despite the fact that it was probably only thirty-five degrees outside.
He hugged me. Or he tried to anyway. I didn’t open my arms to him, so he wrapped his around me, my arms pinned to my sides, and pressed my bag into my back. He smelled like salt and sand, which seemed to remind me of a memory that I couldn’t recall. I was only a few weeks old when my parents split up and my mom took me away from Swans Landing. The only life I knew had taken place in the tiny apartment where Mom and I lived in western Tennessee, far from the ocean.
“Do you have any bags?” he asked.
I shook my head no. Everything had been shipped to the island, what little bit I still owned. The furniture, household items, and things that didn’t matter anymore had been sold to pay Mom’s doctor bills. I had enough in my carry on to get me by until my belongings showed up.
“Do you need me to carry that for you?” he asked.
I tightened my grip on the bag and took a step back. It contained the only things I valued most—my photo albums, the pearl ring Mom always wore, and a sealed envelope she had given me right before she died, along with a few random clothes that I had stuffed in at the last minute.
“I don’t bite, Mara,” Lake said, grinning at me. “I promise.”
I shrugged. That still remained to be seen.
“You’re not supposed to be here,” said a panicked voice behind me.
The woman from the bus stood several steps away, glaring at Lake and me. She pointed a long, crooked finger in our direction.
Lake let out a sigh. “Silvia,” he said, “I didn’t know you would be here today.”
My head snapped toward him. “You know her?”
“She lives on the island. She’s a bit…confused sometimes.” He stepped forward, but Silvia scrambled backward, kicking up rocks under her scuffed shoes. “Silvia, do you need help getting home?”
She spat in his direction. “Don’t touch me!”
His smile faded and he shifted from one foot to the other for a moment. Around us, voices of other people waiting for the ferry drifted above the crunch of gravel under their feet. Silvia panted heavily as she glowered up at Lake.
“I’m not here to hurt you,” he explained to her in a gentle tone. “I’m waiting for the ferry, that’s it.”
Her eyes darted back and forth for a moment before stopping on him again. Her forehead creased into confusion. “You’re not supposed to be here,” she said in a quiet voice.
“Let’s go,” Lake said to me, grabbing my arm and steering me away from the woman.
“What was that all about?” I asked.
He shook his head. “Nothing. Forget it.”
If this was any indication of what life would be like with Lake, it wasn’t off to a promising start.
“Where’s your car?” I asked. I needed to get out of view and hide in my own private world for a while.
“The blue Jeep,” he said, nodding toward a contraption that was more rust than blue and may have once been a Jeep, but now resembled a mess of wires and duct tape holding the pieces together. “But it’s a nice day and the best place to wait for the ferry is at the fence.”
“I don’t think we have the same definition of ‘nice day.’” I shivered, hugging my arms tight around myself.
We picked our way over rocks and sand, where bits of dry grass hung on, determined to grow under the weak late February sun. The small group waiting at the fence had been laughing and talking with each other, but once we drew close a hush fell over most people. Three men stood away from the rest, arms crossed over their chests and narrowed eyes watching our every movement. A woman darted glances in our direction, holding her baby tighter in her arms and then eventually turning her back on us.
If it hadn’t been for Mom’s sickness, the subtle change in behavior might have passed over my head without notice. But dealing with sneaky glances and uncomfortable silences at my old school for the last few months caused me to pick up on the change at the ferry dock pretty quickly.
No one moved or said anything aimed at us, but the air became thick with tension, as if everyone waited for someone else to make the first move. Lake had been walking casually toward the group, but as the atmosphere shifted he stopped abruptly. He looked at them, as if weighing his options in the unwelcome silence. Others still talked and laughed, seemingly oblivious to what quietly played out only feet from them.
After a moment of consideration, Lake turned and walked a little ways away from everyone else.
“So,” I said, hitching my bag higher on my shoulder and fiddling with the camera that hung around my neck, “good job actually leaving the island for an hour or so. No need to come to the airport or anything.”
My mom always said that I had a need to hurt people who hurt me. My body felt as if it were full of venom when I looked at my father. I wanted to make him feel guilty, to know that my coming here was not my idea and we would not become friends.
“I’m not good away from the water,” Lake said. He ran a hand through his hair, his fingers getting tangled in the messy strands. “Your flight was okay, right? And you didn’t have to wait long for the bus?”
“It was fine,” I muttered. “Lots of cows.”
Lake’s words were tinged with a strange accent that sounded out of place anywhere in the United States. “Flight” came out sounding more like “floight.” For all I knew, my grandparents could have been from Ireland or Scotland or who knew where. My dad had always been nothing more than a mystery for me.
“Want some water?” Lake pulled two bottles from his pocket, offering me one.
As much as I hated to admit it, I was thirsty so I took it. “Thanks,” I said begrudgingly.
Lake opened his bottle and pulled a small packet of salt from his shirt pocket. He ripped it open, dumping the contents into his water before taking a long swig. My fingers found the little packet of salt in my own pocket. I craved salt constantly, but I didn’t want to share that habit with him.
I made myself take a sip of my salt-free water, avoiding Lake’s gaze.
He leaned against the fence and twisted the chain of his necklace around his fingers. “Mara, about your mom—”
“I don’t want to talk about it,” I said.
He nodded once. “Okay.”
And then he let the subject drop, as if it didn’t really matter. Just like he’d let Mom and me drop from his life sixteen years ago.
I turned and followed the fence along the water, walking until the voices behind me faded into white noise. The lens of my camera hooked easily into the chain link and I focused on a few white, long-legged birds wading through the water and dipping their beaks in search of food. That water must have been freezing, but it didn’t bother the birds at all. They continued their search, burying their long orange bills under the surface as my camera clicked.
“Ibises,” said a voice at my side.
I jumped and pulled my eye from my camera. Lake’s approach had been so quiet I hadn’t even noticed him until he spoke. “What?” I snapped.
He nodded toward the birds. “American White Ibises. Listen closely and you can hear them grunt.”
Over the sound of the water lapping on the shoreline, a guttural “croo, croo, croo” drifted toward us.
“Your mom always loved watching them,” he told me.
My green painted fingernails clenched around the camera. “Talking about her doesn’t excuse you from not coming to the funeral.”
Lake opened his mouth, but I turned my back on the birds and started walking again. The crunch of sand and gravel let me know that Lake followed.
“Stop following me,” I grunted.
“The ferry will be here soon,” he said.
“I’m sure I’ll notice a big boat pulling into the dock.”
“You shouldn’t wander too far away. There are things you’re not used to around here.”
I walked faster, my brown boots clunking on the sandy gravel. “I’m not a little kid and you’re not my dad. You’re not anything. I don’t want to be here any more than you want me to.”
His footsteps behind me stopped suddenly, but I kept going, refusing to look back as tears stung my eyes.
“This is as hard for me as it is for you, Mara,” he called after me.
“Not likely,” I muttered.
I didn’t stop until I was sure a good amount of distance separated us. Then I leaned against the fence, resting my forehead against the cool metal as I fought to calm the tremors making their way through my body. I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to force the reality around me away. If my mom had never gotten sick, I would be with my old friends right now, shopping or going to the movies or talking about all the latest gossip going around school.
But that life had passed.
I looked through my camera again, scanning out across the water. The ferry would take us to barrier islands that lay somewhere out there along the coast, but from here I could only see gray-green water stretching out until it met hazy clouds on the horizon. Nothing but water everywhere, almost as if I stood on the edge of the world and soon I might slip off of it completely.
A chill tickled its way up my spine and the hairs along the back of my neck stood up again. I had the distinct feeling I was being watched, just like on the bus.
When I turned my head slightly, looking back toward the group at the other end of the fence, no one blatantly looked at me. Lake stood several feet away, his back to the water and his head bent. The woman from the bus sat next to the ticket booth, hugging her arms around herself as she rocked back and forth on the wooden bench.
A splash drew my attention back toward the water of the Pamlico Sound. I panned my camera lens closer to the shore in search of more birds.
There is no one watching me, I told myself. Only gently rolling waves stretched out forever. The long day was getting to me.
Lake still leaned against the fence as I trudged back toward him. “How much longer?” I asked.
“Probably about fifteen minutes or so.” Lake turned toward me, shoving his hands deep into his pockets. His breath hung frosty white in the air in front of his face for a moment before disappearing. “I know you don’t remember anything about Swans Landing, but it is your home. You’ve always been welcomed here.”
He could make a thousand excuses now about why he never felt the need to be a real father and pretend that everything was fine, but it would never make up for years of silence. I had long ago given up the fantasy of my loving and caring dad coming back for me. He was the one who couldn’t even come to see Mom one last time. I had to come to him. Like always.
“We’re family, Mara,” he said softly. “And right now, we’re all that we have left.”
I squeezed my eyes shut, fighting back the tears that threatened to fall. I would not cry. Not in front of him. He wasn’t allowed to have this kind of effect on me.
“I don’t need you,” I told him, my voice a hoarse whisper over the sound of the gently lapping water on the shore behind us. I didn’t need anyone. I was only staying until I turned eighteen, then I would be gone and he could forget we ever met. I certainly would.
Copyright 2011 by Shana Norris. May not be reproduced without written permission from the author.