Shifting by Shana Norris
One day I’d remember to do something with my hair before I went crabbing. I blew the lock of blonde hair that had fallen into my eyes out of the way, but it fell back down, blocking my vision once again. I eyed the stringy ends. Maybe I should cut it. I had never thought much about my hair, I let it grow and do what it wanted. But Josh Canavan had short hair, probably not even half an inch long. Was that what girls liked? Clean and neat?
Or more specifically, was that what Mara Westray liked?
I shook my head and bent back over the wooden dock that jutted into the Pamlico Sound. The sun, barely visible through the thick fog still lingering late in the day, sank over the water in front of me. I grabbed one of the thin, wet ropes dangling from the dock and pulled it out of the water.
“Yes!” I sat back on my feet, still squatting on the weathered dock, and opened the rusted wire box attached to the end of the rope. I dumped the one crab into a cracked bucket waiting nearby. The crab tumbled in on its back, flailed its legs a bit, and then managed to turn itself over. It scuttled around the empty container, claws snapping at the air.
“Sorry, buddy,” I told the crab. “Looks like you’ll be headed for the stove tonight.” The crab waved a claw at me. “Don’t look at me like that. You can thank my mom for it. She’s the one who wanted crab.”
I baited the crab pot with some raw chicken from the plastic bag tied to my belt loop and then tossed it back into the water. It didn’t look like the crab dinner my mom wanted would go very far. One crab split among my parents, my little brother, and myself wouldn’t give us each more than a bite. The three pots I’d already pulled up had all been empty.
I sighed, then moved down the dock toward the next pot. My lack of fishing success wasn’t surprising. Every year the crab and fish population around the island decreased more and more. The strangely cold and foggy spring we were having didn’t help get the sea life moving either.
As I reached for the next rope dangling from the edge of the dock, the crunch of footsteps on sand and broken shells beyond the tall grasses on the shore caught my attention.
“I said no,” a girl’s voice snapped. I glanced over my shoulder as two figures crested the small hill behind me. Dark hair whipped in the breeze, obscuring her face for a moment, but I had recognized the voice. Elizabeth Connors. I could only assume the guy with her was one of her goon boyfriends. Kyle McCutcheon, it looked like. He seemed to be her guy of the week, judging from how she perched in his lap at lunch the other day. Not that I ever paid particular interest to Elizabeth and her group. She was hot, but she had made it her mission in life to make my best friend Sailor Mooring as miserable as possible, and that was something I couldn’t forgive.
The stabbing ache still shot through me at the thought of Sailor. People always said time healed wounds, but it had been over two months since Sailor left and it hadn’t gotten any easier yet.
“Liz,” Kyle moaned, reaching for her. “Come on.” He almost sounded desperate. Whatever it was he wanted—and I could probably guess—Elizabeth obviously wasn’t giving it up.
“Get off me, Kyle,” she said as her feet slid over the sand.
It wasn’t a private dock, so I couldn’t tell them to leave, despite how much I wanted to. I hoped maybe I could stay invisible a while longer and they’d pass me by. I remained in my crouch, not daring to move. The water lapped at the sides of the dock. Keep walking, I chanted silently in tune with the slapping waves. Just keep walking.
Of course, I had never been lucky in my life and that wasn’t about to change now.
Elizabeth saw me as she stepped onto the other end of the dock. She stopped abruptly, as confusion and then surprise passed across her face. Both emotions were replaced quickly with a smirk.
“Look, Kyle,” she purred, reaching for him as if she hadn’t just been fighting him off. “We have company.”
Kyle looked over her head and spotted me. His face cracked into a stupid grin, making him look even dopier than usual. “Hey look, it’s Nemo,” he said, laughing at his own stupid joke.
I ignored them and reached for the rope to pull up the crab pot. I hadn’t had many run-ins with Elizabeth and her crew since Sailor left. Sailor had always been Elizabeth’s victim of choice, though she did go after Mara whenever she thought she could get away with it. But ever since Mara gave her a fat lip, Elizabeth had kept a low profile around us.
“Whatcha doing, Fish Boy?” Elizabeth asked. Her footsteps thumped down the dock toward me. “Looking for your cousins?”
“I ate them last week,” Kyle said, letting out a loud burp.
I bit my tongue to keep back the crude response I wanted to say. I had always told Sailor to ignore them and they would go away. It had never worked, but fighting back never had either.
“Gross, Kyle,” Elizabeth told him.
This pot held two crabs. I would have been thrilled with my catch if it hadn’t been for Tweedledee and Tweedledum standing over me.
“So when’s your little girlfriend coming home?” Elizabeth asked me. “Or did I run her off for good?”
I dumped the crabs into the bucket and then rebaited the pot before dropping it back into the water.
“Hey,” Kyle said, kicking my leg with his toe. “She asked you a question.”
I grabbed the bucket and scuttled like a crab over to the next line. It was the last one, at the very end of the dock. All I had to do was check this one and then I could go home.
Elizabeth and Kyle followed. “Shark got your tongue, Fish Boy?” she asked.
I reached down for the rope, clenching my teeth together as I kept my gaze on the water.
There was a movement next to me, and then my plastic bucket with the three crabs hurtled off the dock. It spun circles in the air before plummeting into the sound, dumping the crabs back into the water.
I spun around, glaring up at a grinning Kyle.
“Asshole!” I reached into the bag at my hip, grabbed a handful of raw chicken and hurled it at Kyle. It smacked him in the chest with a wet slurp.
Kyle lunged at me, but I stepped out of the way and he almost went off the end of the dock. He teetered on the edge, his arms waving wildly before he caught his balance.
“I’ll kick your ass, Waverly,” Kyle grunted.
Elizabeth stepped in front of him, pressing her hands against his chest. “Back off, Kyle.”
His mouth hung open stupidly. “You’re taking his side?”
“No, but you kind of asked for it,” she said. She gave me a withering look. “Let’s just go. It’s starting to smell rotten around here.”
Kyle glared at me, but he followed Elizabeth. As they walked back down the dock, I leaned down, pulling the bucket from the water. It was empty and my catch was gone. Great. Mom would be thrilled when I came home empty-handed.
Or maybe not empty-handed. I had one last pot left.
“Kyle, stop,” Elizabeth’s voice floated back to me. They were still on the dock, halfway back to the shore.
Kyle stepped closer to her, his hands pawing over her waist. “Come on,” he said. “You know you want to.”
Charming. No wonder girls fell all over the idiot.
I pulled the pot toward the surface, grinning when I found two crabs inside. At least Mom could have crab for dinner. The rest of us would eat hot dogs or something.
“I said get off of me!” Elizabeth said, her tone sounding more irritated.
“I’ll be quick,” Kyle said, his voice muffled as he pressed his face into her shoulder.
It’s not my problem, I told myself as I shook the crabs from the pot and into my bucket. I don’t care. It doesn’t concern—
“Ow! Kyle, stop!” Elizabeth’s shout echoed back to me, the worried tone in her voice making the hairs on my neck prickle. “I mean it!”
“Leave her alone,” I said as I walked down the dock toward them. Both Elizabeth and Kyle turned toward me, their eyes wide with surprise.
“Go back to your crabs,” Kyle growled.
“Actually, I’m all done,” I said, swinging the bucket with the two crabs back and forth as evidence. “So if you would get out of here and leave her alone, I’ll be on my way.”
Kyle stepped away from Elizabeth and toward me, his teeth clenched and nostrils flaring. “This isn’t your business, shark bait.” He fluttered his fingers at me. “Swim off back to your sandcastle.”
He reached toward Elizabeth, his thick fingers closing around her wrist. “Come on, Liz. Let’s go somewhere a little more private.”
Elizabeth pulled herself free from his grasp. “Go away, Kyle.”
Kyle looked at her like she’d lost her mind. “You’d rather stay here with this loser?” he asked, gesturing toward me.
“No,” Elizabeth said. “But I’m bored with you.” She yawned wide as emphasis.
Kyle didn’t make any movement to leave. He stared at her, confusion etched across his dopey features.
“You heard her.” I should have left and let them sort this all out themselves, but I had already gotten myself into it. The guy may have been a neanderthal, but he was also much bigger than Elizabeth. I didn’t want that on my conscience when I tried to go to sleep later. “Why don’t you run along back to your shack?”
Kyle’s lips curled into a sneer. “You think you’re gonna make me, Waverly?” He puffed up his chest like the roosters in Mrs. Sampson’s front yard getting ready to fight. “I ain’t scared of no little fish—”
As Kyle spoke the last word, I swung my bucket of crabs at his head. The two crabs inside came flying out, falling onto Kyle’s shoulder. Surprised, he stepped back, dancing a little jig as he brushed the crabs off. One foot went backward again and then splash.
Kyle came up sputtering next to the dock, his perfectly combed hair now soaked and sticking to his head.
I snatched up the crabs from the dock before they could escape back into the sound and returned them to the bucket. Then I leaned down toward where Kyle was trying to get his footing on the soft sand.
“You keep forgetting one thing, McCutcheon. I ain’t no fish.” I looked back at Elizabeth. “I’m leaving. Either you go too, or you stay behind with this creep. It’s up to you.”
Elizabeth’s gaze darted between me and Kyle, who slipped and crashed back into the water again. She shot me a smirk before sauntering down the dock, tossing her hair over her shoulder.
I spit into the water near where Kyle glared up at me, gave him a big grin, and then followed Elizabeth down the dock, swinging my crab bucket from one finger.
Copyright 2013 by Shana Norris. May not be reproduced without written permission from the author.