Sea Glass

Going down to the Lakeshore with Dad was a Sunday treat that summer.


oing down to the Lakeshore with Dad was a Sunday treat that summer. He’d drive us all the way down Spadina to the wide water that was sometimes grey, sometimes green, where the gulls screamed and dove and would snatch your food if you weren’t careful, where Canada geese strutted on the hot sand with their black webbed feet, honking and dropping small soft cylinders of poop, the same colour as the lake. There was this payphone down near the boardwalk. Its angular bulk was part of those long summer days; it called to Dad, it glinted at him like a wink. We’d watch him stroll over there, like it wasn’t a big deal, lean against the booth with his hip kind of cocked, the receiver held between his jaw and his shoulder.

“Why’s the goose poop green?” Michelle asked one day. Asking him questions was one way to keep him nearby. Dad replied that it was because the geese would get seasick from bobbing in the water for so long.

“And what happens when people get seasick?”

“They turn green!” I had read this in a book about pirates.

“Exactly!” Dad said, grinning at me. I liked getting the answer right. “So, there you go! Green poop!”

Dad always had the answers to all our questions. I decided that I would also know the answer to every question by the time I was grown up. Yes, or No. Right or Wrong or Left. Because because because. Having Michelle as a sister was good training, because her favourite word was WHY. Mom got fed up with her questions easily, and would shush her, or tell her she didn’t know and to go wash her hands, or set the table, or something. Mom seemed fed up with everyone and everything lately, though. Especially me and Dad.

Michelle and I were always eager to get out of the house by Sunday. Mom never came with us. When Michelle asked why, she breathed in, in a way that seemed to take a lot of effort, and said there was too much cleaning to do around the house. “I have to tidy up after you people!” Dad had winked at us and said, “What your mom means is that she can’t swim.” We’d giggled at that. I was already a Green badge in swimming, and even Michelle could doggy-paddle at the public pool without a life jacket, although Dad made her wear one when we were at the Lakeshore. Baby Michelle. I never wore a life jacket, did I? I asked Dad. No, I had been a strong swimmer from the moment I touched water. Nobody had to worry about me. I wanted to ask Mom if she really meant it about not knowing how. Wasn’t she an adult? I tried to remember if I’d ever seen her swim when we used to go on outings as a whole family, what her swimsuit might have looked like, but it seemed like such a long time ago, and I could barely picture any of those excursions.

Mom had already turned away to pretend-search for something in the hall closet. When we got back home, she would be just as silent. “Tell your mom what we got up to,” Dad would say, with a cheerful voice that I knew was fake. I hated that voice. Mom’s blank face made me so grumpy that I didn’t want to tell her anything. Michelle would start babbling away, until she spent the rest of her energy. Mom would make some vague noises of interest, but she barely seemed to be listening. Before this year, she used to nod along to whatever stories we told her, Michelle and I—her hair would bounce along, tickling the underside of her jaw. Now it hung still, like a tired, solid weight.

Michelle and I waited for the sharp sound of Dad pulling up the handbrake, and the pop of the doors unlocking, which was the signal to grab our towels and buckets, fling ourselves out of the car, and run through the parking lot towards the sand. I beat her easily, because her legs were shorter. Dad followed close behind, with his backpack. It was a humid, cloudy day. There were barely any people around, just the usual gulls bobbing on the sluggish waves. We threw our towels down, and surveyed the water. I could see a ferry coming from, or maybe chugging towards the Islands. It was hard to tell which direction things were moving in, from far away. Coming or going.

“If the other side of the lake is another country, where does it switch?” I asked Dad. It was hard to imagine a shore on the other side of the endless water. A shore that you could stand on, just as the three of us were standing on this one, our bare feet burrowing into the damp sand. “Can you swim out to the middle, and tread water, with half your body in our country and half in theirs?”

“Sure can,” said Dad. “But if you linger on the dividing line too long, the waters will open and swallow you right up! You have to be careful out here. And don’t try it yet! Wait until you’re a Bronze badge, at least. For now, what’s the rule?”

“Always stay in your sight,” I recited. “And don’t put our heads underwater.”

I had learned doggy-paddle, breaststroke, and head-up front crawl in swim lessons, so I wasn’t in danger of dunking my head into the fishy-smelling water, which was full of pollutants, which was why there usually weren’t many people swimming at the Lakeshore with us. “Your mom would have a fit if I brought you both home with wet hair, she’ll think you’ve caught some kind of Toronto Harbour Mutant Disease,” Dad said. “So keep your hair dry, or—”

Here, he paused so we could recite it together: “There Will Be Trouble.”

When I was older, I’d swim out there, I thought. I’d figure out how long to linger on the line, without getting swallowed. I’d just know. The way that I knew exactly when to start building a massive pillow fort with Michelle, using all our bedsheets, our two duvets, our larger stuffed animals, and any other materials we could gather. The fort had to be thick and piled up enough to block out most noise. It wasn’t the shouting that was the signal. It was something that came before the shouting, an echoing sort of quiet that I could always hear very clearly.

“What’s that?” Michelle was stretching her glistening brown arm towards a glint of pearly green among the shifting pebbles. I crouched to pick it up. It was smooth, like a precious stone must be, I thought, but also translucent. I held it out in the palm of my hand, so that its wet surface caught the pale sunlight.

“That’s some sea glass. Good find, Sailors!” Dad had peeled his shirt off, and was slapping sunscreen onto his freckly chest.

“Want me to do your back for you?” I asked. He did, as usual. I rubbed the lotion carefully into his pale skin, which was so much whiter than mine and Michelle’s, or Mom’s. As a family, we were a gradient. He always ended up with a burn. I wished I could wear no shirt like him, and swimming trunks. Instead, I had to settle for a full-piece yellow bathing suit with SAVE THE WHALES printed on the front in turquoise letters and a partly worn-off picture of an orca. I kept my t-shirt on over top. Michelle had a new pink bathing suit with a fringe around the waist, like a ballerina. She was excited to not have to wear one of my hand-me-downs for once. Now she could twirl incessantly. It had been a gift from Auntie Anita, Mom’s sister who came to visit last month and didn’t seem to like Dad very much.

“Thank you very much, Madame!” Dad slapped his hands together, the way he did when one activity was concluded and the next one was about to begin. I didn’t want to be Madame, but I liked helping Dad out.

“What’s sea glass?” Michelle asked.

“Let’s see,” Dad rubbed his stubbly chin. “Sea glass is left over from the fancy bottles they drink from in the Kingdom Under the Lake. They toss the bottles away after their feasts, and instead of clearing all the broken glass away, they just let it get carried off by the waves. The waves wash the bits of glass up and down the shore of the lake, and after many, many years, they get rubbed smooth, like this.”

“Like, how many years?”

“20 years or more. Imagine you two in your 30s, like me. Grown-up ladies with families of your own. That’s how long, at least.”

Michelle looked at me and snorted with laughter. “Jemima isn’t going to grow up to be a lady,” Michelle said. She wasn’t being mean; she knew it to be a fact. I appreciated my sister’s rare moments of insight. “A lady—how revolting,” I said, in one of Dad’s affected English accents, gesturing like I was holding a large fan. Michelle screamed with hilarity.

Let me become anything but a grown woman, I thought. Better a piece of frosty sea glass, dragged along the bottom of a lake. I still couldn’t quite believe that the smooth green stone had once been a sharp shard of glass from a broken bottle. I imagined letting my own body float, dipping up and down with the waves, tossed this way and that, until I emerged, a totally new shape. Not an adult shape, but something unexpected—new, different, like that first breath of air you gulp after you’ve been swimming underwater for a personal record of 52 seconds.

“Alright, alright, settle down.” Dad stood up and turned towards the water, away from the pay phone booth. “Who wants to play Whale Island?”

Whale Island was when Dad would hunch over in the water, and we’d climb onto his back together, like we really thought it was an island. It worked best if we made ourselves believe that it was. It was like pulling your mind inside out, you pulled and pulled it and then, without the switch being obvious, the thing that was fake would become real, at least for a bit. A skin-coloured hump, sticking out of the grey-green water. He’d let us perch on him for a while—Dad was an extreme breath-holding champion, and then, when we least expected it, he’d rear up like a giant whale, roaring, and we would topple off of him, slide screaming into the lake. Then he would chase us to shore. Usually he caught us, but I was getting faster lately, and sometimes I made it to land, leaving Michelle behind to get scooped up and thrown up in the air, before being deposited, hysterical with laughter, on a beach towel. Sometimes she cried, too. That moment when the laughing flipped to crying—I was attuned to it, I could always sense it coming. It was like a texture in the back of my throat, sort of sour and a bit harsh, like a canker sore. Either Dad couldn’t sense it, or he didn’t care to. Like with Mom, he’d just keep going, even though to me, it was obvious that things were about to turn.

That moment when the laughing flipped to crying—I was attuned to it, I could always sense it coming.

Dad was glancing towards the boardwalk now, barely listening for our response. I was feeling a bit too old for Whale Island, anyway. Sometimes I had to sacrifice my maturity so that Michelle could have fun, which is what it meant to have a little sister. But now could we do Greek Myths, I wanted to know? Dad had been reading me Jason and the Golden Fleece before bed, when he wasn’t working late at the office. Jason was the hero—brave, steadfast, a leader of his crew. Tragically, he was led astray by an evil woman who had bewitched him. Dad seemed to dislike Medea as much as he hated Yoko Ono, who had ruined his favourite band, the Beatles. He would scoff as he read, get all heated up, and I’d have to tell him to just keep going. Michelle was already whining that she hated the Greeks, and she wanted to play mermaids instead. “No,” I said. “Mermaids are boring, they’re too pretty.” “They are NOT,” Michelle said. “You never let me pick. I hate playing with you.” “Who cares what you think,” I said. “I’m Jason and you can be the Argonauts.”

“Girls,” Dad said, in a warning voice.

There it was again. Well, I was going to be Jason, like it or not. “Call me Jason from now on,” I told them both. I flexed my biceps, which I had been working on with my friend Dana during the school year, doing chin-ups together on the monkey bars at recess. Hopefully they hadn’t gone away. I stood there, fists clenched for what felt like too long—I’d lose the pose any second, I’d collapse. Just as I was about to give up, Dad started clapping for me and Michelle copied him. Relief eased my muscles. This meant that they were going to let me be Jason all day. I’d get to direct the ship.

“I’m just going for a walk thataway,” Dad announced. We knew he meant the payphone. Maybe what he was doing over there was calling Mom, to tell her how much fun we were having, and that Michelle and I were actually much more well-behaved than she gave us credit for. To tell her not to worry, everything would be fine, and that there’d be no need to fight across the dinner table later on. “Jemima, you’re in charge.”


“Right, Jason. Jason the Argonaut, you’re in charge, okay. Don’t let your sister go in the water until I get back. I’ll be watching.”

While Dad leaned against the phone booth in the distance, his head tilted into the receiver, the sun glancing off the metal frame, Michelle and I crouched at the lip of the lake. We burrowed our toes into the smooth brown sand, waiting for the waves from the Island ferries to scud up to our ankles, each wave pulling the sand upward like a gritty blanket, then away again, leaving dark streaks and clicking pebbles behind.

“If we wait long enough,” I told her, “we’ll get buried alive, but not actually, because once we’re totally under the sand, we’ll wake up and become completely different—"

“Why is Mom mad at us?” Michelle interrupted.

“She’s not,” I said. I dribbled a handful of wet sand into a blobby tower, covering Michelle’s right foot. She giggled. “She just doesn’t understand what we do down here. She doesn’t understand about having fun.”

“A friend of mine might join us for a little bit.” Dad was standing over us, his sunglasses hanging on a cord around his neck, bumping against his hairy, freckly chest. Dads, unlike daughters, could walk around without their shirts sometimes. Not in the house, but in the backyard, and definitely at the Lakeshore.

“No misbehaving, right? And no telling tales.”

I resented the implication that I would tell tales. About Dad, to Mom—Mom being the only one he’d be afraid of. Her hurt. A friend coming to play with us at the Lakeshore, while Mom was at home, rearranging closed spaces. But she’d never asked to come, had she? Had we invited her? Mom would never let me be Jason, anyway, that was for sure.

“She’d never last on the Argo,” I said to Michelle, “Mom wouldn’t. She’d hate how dirty the ship can be, and how much tossing there is, she’d be sick, she’d be totally seasick.” Michelle had finally agreed to be Atalanta, because she was the only woman among the Argonauts. She was a woman I approved of, because she didn’t want to marry anyone. Well, she’d been forced to in the end, because Aphrodite had rigged the footrace so that Atalanta’s suitor could beat her, which would have been impossible without divine interference. I hated Aphrodite, she was so feminine, always depicted in books and paintings as peach-faced and dimply, always making everyone fall in love and get married. How gross. I told Michelle so, but I knew she liked playing house with her friends when I wasn’t around to give her better ideas.

A wave came up just then, tugging at our half-buried shins, and Michelle, squinting up at Dad through her purple-rimmed sunglasses, lost her balance and toppled over. I reached over to prop her back up, before she could cry. She could be a bit babyish still about this kind of thing. Her bathing suit was damp and gritty, her skin was slippery and creamy from sun screen. She smelled like coconut and a tiny bit like pee. “Who’s that?” she said loudly, her mouth moving wetly against my ear. I turned. A woman with long brown hair had sat down next to Dad, in the space where our three towels converged. She had tanned legs and a straw hat.

“Girls,” Dad was gesturing, he seemed a little awkward, which was unusual. “This is my friend, Laurel.” He didn’t seem to know how much space to leave between himself and this woman, Laurel. The air between them shuddered. I suddenly thought of Mom, alone in the house. Was she looking out the window, could she see what was going on down here?

“These are my girls, Michelle and Jemima.”

“Pleased to meet you,” Laurel said, and inclined her head in a semi-formal manner that also seemed to be a little joke, maybe a little joke with us.

“I’m Jason, remember!” I was mad that he’d forgotten again. In addition to being mythological, JASON was the right name for summer time, I told them: July, August, September, October, November spells Jason.

Laurel laughed at this. “I never realized that,” she said. “Very cool. Hello Jason.” Her laugh showed her teeth, which were crooked. Was she trying too hard, I wondered. I squinted at her.

Michelle had leapt up from my lap, her purple bathing suit sagging at the butt, and was showing Laurel our collection of sea glass. The pieces were mainly green, but some were a cloudy white, or a deep brown. “Oh, I love sea glass,” Laurel said, approvingly, surveying our little mountain of shards. “You know, if you take these home, you can put them in a little bowl filled with water, and they’ll stay shiny forever.” Her eyes smiled at us from under her thatched hat. They were not unlike the smooth green fragments we were clicking between our fingers. I sidled closer to her, I smelled her smell, which was different from Mom’s.

I wasn’t going around smelling adult women, necessarily, but I knew that Mme. Beaumont, my grade three teacher, smelled like pencil shavings and dried rose petals like the ones Dad’s mom would put in a little pot on top of her toilet. Mlle. Katz, from grade two, whom I liked better, smelled of vanilla ice cream and cinnamon hearts. Once you knew someone’s smell, you couldn’t un-know it, you couldn’t detach the smell from the person. You knew they were in the room without having to look, or even when they’d been there and left already. Laurel had freckled skin like Dad, but less hairy, though she had more hair on her arms than Mom, who had none. Laurel smelled freckly too, zesty like orange peel or bubbly water mixed with pink lemonade, which was a delicacy that I had invented myself.

Once you knew someone’s smell, you couldn’t un-know it, you couldn’t detach the smell from the person. You knew they were in the room without having to look, or even when they’d been there and left already.

I was not a woman, and did not need to concoct a smell. I could smell like myself, which so far wasn’t much. Eventually, I’d wear Old Spice sports deodorant, like Dad, I had decided. It came in a white container with a red top. I’d buy it at the drugstore and keep it in a leather pouch along with my shaving implements.

Michelle was sitting in Laurel’s lap already. I felt a pang—jealousy? I was too old to be sitting in people’s laps. I thought again of Mom, who was maybe looking out the kitchen window, wondering what we were doing and when we were coming home. But she hadn’t wanted to come, I reminded myself. Maybe she was enjoying her time alone, playing Bach fugues on the piano, with no one to bother her. Before guilt could catch me, I scrambled to my feet and busied myself looking for more sea glass. The sun was high in the sky, and the lake was coughing up wet stones that glinted in the light, so that it was hard to tell what colour anything was. I’d grasp what I thought was a green treasure, only to find myself holding a plain grey pebble. I threw the grey pebbles back into the water over and over, trying to throw them further out each time, to get rid of them. I felt offended by their normalcy, how it kept washing back to me.

Michelle always charmed new adults so quickly. They’d call her cute and she’d smile wide enough for her dimples to show, accept their silly kid-talk. It didn’t bother her to do this. I hated being called cute. It was a word like the lacy, roll-down socks that I had discarded in the sand. It made me feel frilly and folded over. I couldn’t accept it, and I never smiled at the adults who said it, and then they didn’t like me, or told my parents I was rude. Dad would laugh it off, and ruffle my hair like he was almost proud of me for being difficult, but Mom took it badly, she’d get agitated and pull me aside and give me instructions on how to stand better, or warn me that the wind would change and my face would stay that way. She herself frowned often in the company of others—nervously pulling her bottom lip under her top teeth until it disappeared. I felt that she didn’t like her own traits in me, and preferred Michelle’s way of being, which was the way that Mom wished she were too. Couldn’t Michelle just be the one to wear the lacy socks, then? I didn’t understand why I had to, if it didn’t make anyone happy.

A new wave had rolled in. I could trace it all the way to the wake of a ferry that was on its way to the island. I could be a ferry boat captain, I thought. Mom’s Dad, whom I’d never met, had worked on a ferry in Hong Kong, which was another island, but so far away that you had to take a day-long flight to get there. Dad told us that Mom had gained an entire day of her life when she moved from there to here. Lucky Mom. But it meant she could never go back, because then her bonus day would be lost. I didn’t understand how it worked, because wasn’t Mom living in time the way all of us were? How had she gained an extra Tuesday, say, or a Friday? Had she lived that day twice over, while other people were living it only once? What had she done on that extra day, I had ventured to ask her. She had been on a plane, she said simply. She had not wanted to be on the plane. Her father had died recently, the dad who worked on the ferry, and she had not wanted to leave home to go to school on another continent, but the fees and ticket had already been paid. If she’d cried on the plane, she didn’t mention it. Whenever I did notice her crying, usually after one of the fights, I had to pretend that I didn’t. If I said anything in those moments, she always got angry, usually about something that made no sense: I was holding my fork rudely; my hair needed trimming and was a disgrace; my facial expression was petulant and disrespectful. I thought of Mom stepping off the plane, stiff and tired, and having to live the whole exhausting day all over again. There were times when I felt that Dad didn’t know what he was talking about when he said lucky, but I also wished Mom would try harder to have fun.

An eye was winking at me in the lake froth. I felt a jolt of optimism—it was a deep blue eye, bluer than any human eye could be. I leapt over the sand and scooped it up before the lake could take it back. It was a piece of sea glass, impossibly smooth and translucent, indigo like I always thought the Aegean Sea must be, when the Argonauts sailed across it. It danced in my palm, it was alive, I cupped water in my hands, like a bowl, with the blue, blue treasure glinting up at me. I ran over to the towels, I made a beeline for Laurel, who was still holding Michelle in her lap, and saying something to Dad that made him smile.

“Look,” I said, crouching down before her. Michelle was craning, trying to see it, but I made sure my hands were offering the blue jewel to Laurel alone.

“Wow, Jason,” Laurel said, smiling up at me. “I’ve never seen a blue one like this, it must be from a very rare bottle. Look at how polished it is, it must have been tossing around in the waves for a long time. And now it let you find it. Treasures are like that sometimes, they only reveal themselves to a special person.”

“Well, it’s for you,” I said, and I felt myself turn red in the cheeks.

Laurel thanked me gravely, and asked if she could pick it out of my hand bowl. Yes. She reached in, her fingers felt cool against my palms. She plucked it out and held it up to the sun, and nodded, like my gift had passed some kind of secret test. If I was sure she could have it, she’d keep it on the window sill at her apartment. In water, of course. Dad seemed to approve of my gift, but there was still something edgy about him. Was all of this something he, or we, would get in trouble for later?

The sun was descending, casting our shadows down the sand, long and stretched out as if we were all on stilts. We’d all run into the lake together, all four of us, and despite a lot of splashing, everyone had managed to keep their hair pretty much dry. Laurel had kept her hat on while doing breaststroke parallel to shore, which we thought was hilarious. Now, other people were packing up their towels and umbrellas. Dad had bought us ice creams from the stand by the boardwalk: chocolate for him and me, vanilla for Michelle, strawberry for Laurel. I normally avoided strawberry because of my aversion to pink, but now I wondered whether it might be a good flavour.

We had all gotten silly, horsing around, as Dad called it—it was the kind of energy that came with knowing that a summer day was nearly over. There was an urgency to it, like the length of all our lives was running short. The fates, winding their skeins, scissors poised to cut. I got up on a big, smooth piece of driftwood, with my cone in hand. I was showing Laurel my balancing act, which I had just thought up. I skipped across the log, acting like I was about to fall—Oh no! And then I’d catch myself, pretend to look relieved, and carry on. Back and forth, back and forth. Everyone was laughing and clapping. I felt great. I was Jason, I had my braids tucked away under my hat and my big t-shirt on, and I was entertaining everyone, with my agility and my comic timing. Could I be Jason from now on, I wondered with part of my brain. It seemed possible. After the initial lapse, Dad hadn’t slipped up again, and Laurel had accepted the name immediately, as if she’d never heard my other one at all. She did not appear to care that my feet were clumped with sand, that my lacy socks had been discarded hours ago. A life as Jason seemed rich with possibility, the golden fleece within my grasp.

Buoyed by this thought, I tried a bigger wobble and leap, miming my fake clumsiness to my audience, who were still cheering for me. And then I forgot where my feet had to go.

I landed on my stomach in the gritty sand, winded, gasping. Dad was running over to me, and my eyes were filling with tears, and my chest was constricting, heaving in spite of my attempt to be cool and collected. My ice cream cone was upside down, its softness coated in dirt, inedible. I’d half crushed it with my right hand, to break my fall. Pieces of soggy cone clung to my palm.

“Oh, sweetie,” Laurel was saying, crouching by Dad, who held me in his arms, as if I were little and stupid again. “Oh, Jemima, are you okay?”

On the drive back, I stared out the window at the receding lake, which had a greyish tint now. A heavy cloud cover had descended. There would be no sunset to gaze at. Dad had tried to wash the ice cream and wet sand off me at the drinking fountain, but now I was just streaked with grime and shivering. Laurel had offered me her sweater in the parking lot, but I had shaken my head, humiliated by the whole thing, and Dad had snapped a little at her. “No, of course we can’t take it, you know that.”

Michelle was crying noisily in the seat beside me, which was annoying. What did she have to cry about? She always cried when I was upset. If I scraped my knee climbing one of the big trees in the parkette near our house, she would wail at the blood. “Sympathy pains,” Mom called it. But no, I thought grimly, she just wanted the attention for herself.

“Girls,” Dad kept saying, and then trailing off.

“Are you and Mom getting divorced?” Michelle suddenly asked, snorting and rubbing at her eyes. Having uttered this unthinkable question, she began crying again, even harder.

“Michelle!” I said. I punched her in the arm, and she squawked and hit me back, harder than I expected from her. My elbow thrummed. I couldn’t tell if I was angry at her for asking, or angry that she had thought to ask before I did.

“No,” Dad said.

It sounded definitive, like the answers he always gave to our questions. This time, though, I detected a slight pause, a sliver of doubt.

“And no telling tales,” he added, after a few blocks. But it was like an afterthought. He was so sure of our loyalty, I realized. So sure that we would always be on his side.

I kept my gaze fixed on the buildings rushing by. I didn’t look at Michelle beside me. I didn’t look at Dad, sitting up front in the driver’s seat, with the passenger seat empty next to him. I imagined Laurel sitting there, and then blinked hard to get rid of the thought.

The next day was Monday, which meant that Michelle and I had to go to day camp, in the crowded gymnasium of a nearby public school, doing babyish crafts because it was raining. Sunday dinner had been itchy and quiet. Mom had scolded me and Dad for how dirty I was, and practically thrown me in the bathtub. I didn’t fight her. When she scrubbed my back hard, like she was angry, it also felt nice, like it made up for something. Monday’s dinner was quiet again, in a sort of jagged way, like far-off waves gathering their strength to crash, eventually, against the shore. Dad did the dishes with a dutiful air. Michelle and I dried them, without complaint.

“Jem,” Mom said, from the kitchen doorway. “Come upstairs with me.”

Was there to be more scrubbing? Or was I going to have to confess? Was she going to question me, so that everything from the Lakeshore would come spilling out? I wondered whether I could keep the secret, like a spy. I pinched my lips together and looked at Dad, but either he couldn’t hear over the sound of the dishes, or he was trying not to draw attention to himself. Either way, he didn’t turn to me. Why didn’t Michelle have to come with Mom? Because she was the younger one, I thought. None of this was her responsibility. I imagined I was a locked box. I imagined myself forgetting everything, the phone booth, the sea glass, Laurel, the ice cream in the sand. Jason. Lock it up and throw away the key. But the images just projected on the screen behind my eyes all the more clearly. I climbed the stairs behind Mom, keeping my posture straight, and my legs steady.

Mom said, “Come here.”

She was sitting on her and Dad’s bed, holding something. I was never allowed in here, it was their bedroom and off-limits to children. The carpet was different than elsewhere in the house, less worn, no stains. The curtains were drawn, the whole room had a muffled feeling. I braced myself for questioning.

“I have something for you,” Mom said.

It was a book, with a girl on the front, a girl wearing a billowing blue dress, standing on the deck of a ship. She looked determined. What was this?

“It’s about a girl,” Mom said, looking at me, a little sideways.

“Okay,” I said.

“I picked it up from work, from the children’s literature section.”

I flipped it over and read the back. It was about a girl who is sent alone to America from England on a ship in the 18th century. At first, she is proud and proper, but eventually she impresses the sailors with her agility, dons boys’ clothing, and becomes part of the crew, who rise up in mutiny against their domineering and corrupt captain.

“What do you think?” said Mom. I couldn’t tell how I was supposed to respond, couldn’t detect any cues in her voice.

“Umm, thank you,” I mumbled. She was looking at me—really looking. “It sounds interesting.” I couldn’t wait to read it. A girl who transforms into something else, someone else. I didn’t deserve it, not after the weekend. I felt almost angry at her for giving it to me, because it meant that now I was the bad one, accepting a thoughtful gift when I was actively hiding things from her. Grown-up things. Consequential things.

The lamp light shone on Mom’s hair, which was blueish black and so smooth and heavy, curving slightly where it brushed her jaw. I smelled her powdery smell, cut with a sharpness, some alive and a little bitter. I suddenly wished that I hadn’t given away the bright blue shard so easily—a bid for quick acceptance, before falling on my face. And I thought to myself that Mom was actually much more beautiful than the other woman down at the lakeshore, and smarter and meaner and kinder as well, which was why she was my mother and not someone else.

I pitched forward and hugged her, something I never normally did. It was just that the space between us seemed so small, suddenly. And briefly but firmly, she hugged me back.

“Mom,” I began. I spoke it into her shoulder. But the moment was too delicate. I felt keenly that the balance could shift with a breath. With one wrong word, Mom could turn into my enemy again or I could turn into her enemy, someone who never obeyed her and made her sad.

It was just that the space between us seemed so small, suddenly.

“What is it?” said Mom.

“Nothing,” I said. And we let each other go.

“I’ll be out in a moment,” Mom said. “Go back down and help your sister finish drying the dishes.”

“Okay,” I said. I turned away from her with the library book under my arm, and walked out the door of the bedroom where I normally wasn’t allowed, and back down the stairs to the kitchen, where Dad and Michelle were laughing at something, and Dad handed me the last plate to dry, and, without letting go of the book, I did.

About the author

H Felix Chau Bradley is a writer and editor living in Tiohtià:ke (Montreal). They are the author of Personal Attention Roleplay, a story collection. You can find their recent work in carte blanche, ESPACE art actuel, the Humber Literary Review, the Montreal Review of Books, PRISM International and Xtra.