The Watchers • Granny Pearl’s House • The PAMELA JANE • A Gloomy Illumination • “It was unmistakable”
Simon’s school bag bounced on his back as he ran. When he reached the bend in the road he stopped and looked back. His sisters had gotten off the bus with him but they were lagging behind. With a running leap he vaulted onto the mossy boulder that sat on the verge of the road and climbed quickly to its top. From there he could see out to the choppy winter sea around Bermuda and hear the whistle of the wind. The slate gray sky was heavy with clouds and the day was already growing dark. He wished that Maya and Penny would hurry up. Recently their parents had forbidden them to walk home alone, so Simon had no choice but to wait, even though he was impatient to get to the boatyard. He and his friends had spent the past month rebuilding an old speedboat and it was almost ready to put in the water. It was all he had thought about all day as he endured the slow crawl of the hands around the big round clock at the front of the classroom.
Through the treetops Simon could see the crisp white limestone roof of Granny Pearl’s house. Even though they had lived there for nearly four years now—and it was the only real house any of them had ever lived in—they all still called it Granny Pearl’s house. If he stood on his tiptoes he could just see the kitchen garden with parsley, thyme and the frothy green tops of carrots, and lettuce that grew crisp and cool deep inside the ice green heads. Around the side of the house was a milkweed patch where flocks of monarch butterflies massed in the summer. The house overlooked a small green cove, sheltered from the open ocean, with a narrow slip of sandy beach and a mat of rubbery sea daisies. The family’s boat, the fifty-two-foot schooner, the Pamela Jane, rocked on her mooring, her yellow hull the brightest thing on this gloomy afternoon.
Something stirred in a nearby tree and Simon instantly thought of Helix, happier in trees than with his bare feet on the ground. But it was just a branch bobbing after a bird took flight. Their friend had disappeared so suddenly and had been gone for so many weeks now that Simon wondered if he was ever coming back.
Maya and Penny finally appeared—Penny hopping ponderously on one foot—and Simon slid down from the boulder and went to meet them.
“You should have waited for us,” Maya said crossly when they reached him. “What’d you need to go rushing off for?” Maya was sixteen, which meant she thought that she was in charge of Simon and Penny. Simon had just turned thirteen and he hated anyone telling him what to do, most of all Maya. Since nothing irritated her as much as being ignored, he didn’t answer and instead swung five-year-old Penny up onto his shoulders so fast that she squealed. He made up a silly song that made her giggle and began walking.
“Frog!” Penny shouted, catching sight of a muddy-backed bullfrog on the side of the road, and she wriggled until Simon put her back on the ground.
Maya dawdled with Penny, who was prodding the reluctant frog to hop in front of them, and Simon turned onto the shortcut, a narrow packed-sand path between the trees to Granny Pearl’s house. Old Man’s Beard hung like fog from gnarled branches. The light that managed to make it through the thick clusters of stubby palm trees and the heavy climbing creepers was dim and eerie. High in the spice trees, the wind creaked ominously, a sound that reminded Simon of the wind moaning in a ship’s rigging, but the air on the path was strangely still, as if it were sealed off from the rest of the day. He stopped to wait for his sisters and peered uneasily through the trees, trying to see if he could make out one of the watchers. The strange men were here all the time now.
He looked back. “Hurry up!” he shouted.
When he saw them, Maya’s scowl had fallen away and her face was lost in the hazy drift of a daydream—Maya was always daydreaming. The frog leaped into a clump of ferns and Simon, not liking the dark stretch of the path, took Penny’s hand and pulled her firmly along.
* * *
The house was cool when Simon came in, and the tiny television on the kitchen counter was spouting yet another news report about the mysterious glowing sea creatures that were being found dead in the waters all around the Caribbean and South America. Simon’s mother wasn’t home from the laboratory yet, but Granny Pearl was listening to the report as she chopped vegetables at the sink. Simon swooped down to give her a kiss—he had grown three inches in the past few months and he was doing a lot of swooping to low places, as well as stretching to high ones, reaching up nonchalantly to rap his knuckles on every door frame he went under.
“How was your day?” his grandmother asked
“Boring,” he said. “But yesterday I figured out what was wrong with the boat engine. The old fuel had thickened to varnish and the jets were clogged. I’m going to take the carbs apart and clean them—I think we can have it in the water by this weekend.” He glanced out of the window. “Are they still out there?”
His grandmother nodded. “They’ve been lurking around all afternoon.”
“They can’t just invade our yard,” he muttered. “Why doesn’t Papi get rid of them?”
“Sometimes things are more complicated than they seem,” said Granny Pearl.
Simon’s gaze fell on the television, where an old fisherman was holding up a dead octopus, its faint glow ebbing even as Simon watched. “Found it in my nets,” he said. “Second this month—I been fishing here since I was ten years old with my father, in fifty-five years I’ve never seen a thing like this before…”
The television still babbling tinnily, Simon went to change into his old grease-stained clothes for the boatyard, hearing the screen door bang shut as Maya came in behind him. Usually these days he breezed right by his father’s study, but today he stopped and looked in.
Dr. Nelson’s ear was pressed to the CB radio. With one hand he was turning the knob, listening to the series of pops and whines and static that sputtered from the speakers. With the other hand he was making notes. His beard, white since his time in the Ravaged Straits, had grown long and his skin, no longer exposed to the sun as they sailed from port to port, had faded. Frown lines deepened into grooves as he concentrated.
A year ago, the first thing Simon would have done when he got home from school would have been to head straight to Peter Nelson’s study. All of them would have, Helix, too, but Simon always stayed the longest, telling his father about his day and sitting at the desk opposite his father’s to do his homework. He’d browse through Papi’s books, poring over the scientific illustrations. He loved the treasures on the shelves: marlin bills; exotic shells; starfish and octopus and coiled water snakes that floated in a solution in rows of big glass jars. Simon had a steady hand, and his father often asked him to sketch things he saw under microscope slides. But these days his father was preoccupied, and he rarely talked to the children except to yell at them when they were too noisy.
“Papi,” said Simon. His father didn’t hear him.
Messy piles of coffee-stained papers teetered precariously under sea stones and open books were stacked on top of each other on almost every inch of the floor. Behind his father’s desk was a large map studded with colored drawing pins that plotted the locations of the reported sightings of dead, glowing sea life. Simon felt a sudden rush of annoyance at the shambles of his father’s office.
“Papi!” he said, loudly this time.
His father looked up, startled. “Simon,” he said. “Home already? What can I do for you?”
“I just saw that someone found another glowing sea creature,” said Simon. “Did you hear about it?”
“I did,” said his father, looking back down at his papers. “Very troubling business.”
“What do you think is making them glow like that?” Simon asked. He had been hovering in the doorway but now he stepped inside, dropping his school bag to the ground.
“Anything I could say now would only be speculation,” said his father. “And I’d rather not speculate.”
Simon frowned. He wished his father would stop being so infuriatingly vague. He looked out of the window. “You know those men are still out there,” he said.
“Yes, I’m aware,” said his father, sifting through the jumble on his desk in search of something.
“I could help, you know,” said Simon. “We could go outside right now and tell them to get lost!”
His father looked at him. “That would be very foolish,” he said seriously. “Those men are dangerous—it isn’t a game. Steer clear of them, Simon. I mean it.”
“What do they want?” Simon pressed.
When his father didn’t answer Simon changed the subject. “What about Helix?” he asked. “It’s been weeks—can’t you at least tell us where he’s gone, or when he’ll be coming back?”
Dr. Nelson sat back, rubbing a bony knuckle over his bushy eyebrow. “I wish I did know where Helix was,” he said. “I’m worried about him. He took it upon himself to— Oh, never mind. He thinks he’s helping us.”
“I want to help, too,” said Simon.
“You’re too young,” said his father.
“Helix isn’t that much older,” argued Simon.
“Helix is different,” said his father.
“That isn’t a good enough reason,” Simon objected in frustration. “I don’t understand why no one will tell me anything!”
“Please, Simon,” said Papi. “I’m very busy. Was there something specific you wanted?”
“No,” mumbled Simon. He picked up his backpack and went the rest of the way noisily to his room. He could get there now in just three long strides and—whack—one especially hard knock on the door frame.
* * *
When Simon got back to the kitchen his mother had returned home from the laboratory. Her lab coat hung over the back of a chair and she was helping Granny Pearl make dinner. “I’m going to the boatyard,” he told them, bending down to tie his shoelace. Maya had gone to her room and just Penny was there.
“Can I come?” she asked.
“Nope,” said Simon breezily.
“I won’t say anything,” said Penny. “You won’t even know I’m there.”
Simon shook his head.
“Hang on a minute, Simon,” said his mother as he headed out of the door. Simon knew from the tone of her voice that she was going to say something he wouldn’t like. He had almost made it. He stopped and turned around, but kept his hand on the door.
“Those men are outside again,” she said. “I’d be happier if you stuck close to home, okay?”
Simon’s heart plunged. He couldn’t stay at home. He hated being there these days. The only thing he really looked forward to was the boatyard. Maybe Maya was happy to sit in her room and read a book, but he had to be out. He had to be doing things.
“But I have to go,” he said. “If I’m not there Dennis will be the one to put the last bits of the engine back together and then he’s going to act like it’s his.” It was true. That was exactly what would happen.
Mami hesitated, frowning as she wiped her hands on a tea towel. “I’ve had a funny feeling all afternoon,” she said. “Something’s in the air. I’d like you to stick nearby—just for today.”
When Simon opened his mouth to argue she looked at him so seriously over her glasses that he stopped. Outside the screen door, he could see his bicycle leaning against the poinciana tree in the yard. He felt the afternoon sliding away from him, like a wave being sucked back out to sea.
“A feeling,” he grumbled. “That isn’t very scientific.”
“Not everything is,” said his mother.
* * *
Simon shuffled outside and flopped down on the porch steps. A perfectly good afternoon, ruined. Now what was he going to do? At this very moment he should have grease all over his hands and engine parts spread out on the ground around him. He scanned the garden but the men who had caused all the trouble were nowhere to be seen. It was all so stupid. The light was fading fast and the fact of the short winter days only sharpened the injustice.
The dreary day reflected Simon’s thoughts.
A cool wind rustled through the trees and rattled the Pamela Jane’s halyards, and his gaze wandered down to her. Until four years ago, Simon, Maya, and Penny had lived on her, sailing the open seas with their parents, who were marine biologists. Back then the Pamela Jane had been kept in tip-top shape: Simon and his father used to dive beneath the water and scrape the barnacles from her hull, her yellow paint was fresh, her name was proud and bold, and the waters she sailed over were sometimes four thousand fathoms deep. Each day her brilliant white sails were filled by the salty Atlantic wind.
But now she sat there as if abandoned, chained on her mooring. Scummy sea moss waved around her in the current, making her appear to drift in and out of focus. Her paint was cracked and faded, her sails furled and her masts stark and lonely. Rust bloomed around her fittings, and underwater, chains of olive green barnacles plated her hull like armor. The wind drove seaweed in through the mouth of the cove and it floated over to become tangled in her anchor line. She looked like a neglected, sea-worn old hulk—bewitched and unlucky—destined for nowhere but the sea floor.
And now Simon and his family were what the old salts who hung around at every port called “landlubbers.” Landlubbers—blecch! Simon missed the days when the family had sailed from port to port, never waking in the same place. But the best place they had ever been—the most exciting and the scariest—had been Tamarind, a mysterious island not on any map, where they had lost their parents in a storm, met Helix, and gone on a wild adventure to rescue their parents.
For a long time after they returned home and moved in with Granny Pearl, Tamarind had been all the children could think or talk about. Simon, Maya, and Helix had formed the Tamarind Society. Sometimes, when she proved useful, Penny was brought along, too. They had played on the Pamela Jane or in a tree house in the garden, pretending it was in the Cloud Forest Village. Maya pretended to be Evondra or Mathilde, Simon played Rodrigo the barge captain or the pirate Captain Ademovar, Helix was always himself, and a night heron pecking for hermit crabs in the rocks of the cove would be Seagrape, Helix’s green parrot that they had left behind. No other kids ever joined in these games. Simon and Maya’s parents had made them solemnly swear never to breathe a word about Tamarind to another soul—It may be the most important secret you ever keep, Simon’s father had said—and none of them ever did.
But time passed and Tamarind began to seem very far away. Simon could still remember the day when Maya had finally sighed and said to him, Tamarind was just something that happened to us a long time ago. She began hanging out with school friends and had little interest in Simon as he sat alone at the edge of the cove, stirring the water into a tiny maelstrom with a stick, like the giant Desmond had done, watching bits of twigs get sucked down into the whirlpool as the pirate fleet had on one of their last days in Tamarind. His parents told him that there was no way ever to go back to Tamarind, but sometimes, on days like this, Simon wished he were there again.
Though they lived in the same house and shared the same family, they didn’t seem to be really together anymore. Simon’s parents acted weirder and weirder. They would never talk about Tamarind or the Red Coral Project or their old friend and colleague, Dr. Fitzsimmons, who was the reason they had ended up in Tamarind in the first place. Simon’s parents felt Dr. Fitzsimmons had betrayed them, leading them to believe the Red Coral Project was a simple scientific study, when in fact he knew it was a dangerous investigation to find the secret island. Simon’s parents had resigned from the project as soon as they had returned home, but the Red Coral had never left them alone.
In all that time, Simon had kept the secret of Tamarind faithfully, but now his parents were keeping secrets from him … it wasn’t fair! Helix, too, had grown cagey. Before Helix disappeared a few weeks ago, Simon had several times interrupted hushed conversations between him and Simon’s father, which had ceased when Simon was noticed in the doorway.
Though the Nelsons considered Helix part of their family—Simon considered him practically a brother—Helix in many ways remained a mystery. He perched on furniture, never getting too comfortable. Simon had never seen him really sink easily into an armchair or couch. He took school seriously and was a diligent student, though he had little obvious delight in learning, unlike Simon, who actually secretly liked many of his schoolbooks. Helix had been orphaned as a small child and brought up by an island tribe. The Nelson children met him on their first day in Tamarind, and from the moment Simon had seen him—when Helix had freed him from the carnivorous vines of the Lesser Islands—Simon had liked him. Helix had tattoos made of jungle pigments all over his skin, his hair was knotted and dirty, and he had carried a spear. In Tamarind he could disappear into the jungle and survive on his own for months at a stretch. Sometimes Simon thought the only surprising thing was that Helix had stayed with them as long as he had.
As he sat there on the porch steps, Simon longed for a moment to be back in Tamarind when, in spite of all the trials they’d faced, life had seemed simpler somehow, his purpose important and clear. The place he had worked so hard to escape from was now the place he desperately longed to return to.
It had already grown darker in the short time Simon had been sitting there, and the next time he looked up, to his surprise, he noticed a pale light glowing from one of the Pamela Jane’s portholes. At first he thought it was an illusion caused by the reflection of gray water and sky, but then he felt his heart quicken. Why was there a light in the boat and was someone on board? Everyone else was still in the house. Simon glanced around him. One of the watchers was walking around the other side of the house; the other was nowhere in sight. Simon ran quickly down the stairs, across the grass, and down to the cove, where he ducked behind the mangroves. The little rowboat was there but he wanted to get to the Pamela Jane unnoticed, so he stripped off his shirt and waded into the water, which lapped cold over his bare ankles. Another quick glance behind him told him no one was looking, so he began to swim out toward the schooner.
Whoever was responsible for the light could still be inside the boat, so Simon swam hidden underwater as far as he could. He popped up on the starboard side and swam along in the cool gray shadow the boat cast on the water, passing the black-stenciled letters of the Pamela Jane’s name, where a chiton had made its home over the N. He crouched for a moment at the top of the ladder up to the deck, making sure that no one on land was watching him, before he crept quietly to the hatch. He pressed his ear to it, but heard no one in the cabin below. He opened it and, taking a deep breath, dropped into the companionway.
To Simon’s relief the main cabin was empty. He closed the hatch softly behind him. The portholes were frosted with salt and the light was dim. He waited for his eyes to adjust, listening to the familiar creaking of the boat. It felt as if an old friend were talking to him, but through a dream, the words distorted. Though he stood still, straining his ears, Simon had no sense of whether he was alone or not. He wished he had brought something more than the flimsy pocketknife he always carried, but it was too late to do anything about it.
The light had come from the captain’s quarters at the bow of the boat, where his parents had slept, so Simon tiptoed cautiously forward. He went past the upper and lower bunks that had been his and Maya’s (how had they ever fitted into the tiny beds?); past the sling that Penny had slept in that had never been taken down and still hung from a center beam; past the galley, the cupboards bare, no smell of meals cooked thousands of miles out at sea lingering on the stove. He inched up to the doorway of the tiny laboratory, where once their parents had studied the mysterious, ethereal sea creatures that had led them to Tamarind in the first place, but it was silent and empty.
Simon’s next step squeaked on the deck and he stopped for a moment to steady his nerves. Sweat trickled down his back and he felt clammy and light-headed. He had only a few paces left to the door to the captain’s quarters. What if one of the men who had been lurking around the house was waiting for him? There could be more than one, even. What would they do if they caught him? He realized his hands were trembling. But he was more afraid of turning back than going forward. Bracing himself, he turned the corner.
The captain’s quarters were empty.
But his sigh of relief was cut short when his eye fell on the source of the light he had seen coming from the porthole.
A glowing foot-long gouge, half an inch deep, ran horizontally across the inside of the hull.
It was the last thing he would ever have expected to see.
He came and crouched next to it, his heart beating quickly. In the dim cabin, the cut glowed with a blue-green light, a color like phosphorescence stirred up in the sea on a summer night. It looked hard and polished, like deep ice under the sun, but its radiance was neither cold nor hot.
It was unmistakable.
“Ophalla,” he whispered.
Simon leaned in to peer at it more closely. A thin veneer of wood had been cut through to reveal ribs of ophalla that lay beneath it. Fine shining dust, like the talc from moths’ wings, spilled from the cut and lay in a small motionless heap, glowing softly in the dark. He reached forward and rubbed some of the ophalla powder between his fingers. There was no breeze inside the boat, but the Pamela Jane rocked in the waves stirred up by the wind and groaned on her lines.
What was ophalla doing here? The precious ice blue mineral was from Tamarind, where it had long wielded a mysterious power over the people. Wars had been fought over it, children had been enslaved to work in mines deep underground (Simon and his sisters had been taken prisoner at one—a memory that still made him shiver), and it had created more havoc and chaos in Tamarind than any other single thing ever had or should. Yet it also possessed rare healing powers—Simon had seen it cure his father after he had been trapped in the inhospitable salt islands of the Ravaged Straits. And it had been here, beneath their noses—beneath their very hands and feet—for years and they had never known. Simon’s skin prickled with excitement.
He kneeled, deep in thought, and stared at the whitish dust. He was oblivious to everything else around him for a few minutes so he was startled when he heard the footsteps on the deck. Someone else had come aboard the Pamela Jane! He looked around frantically for something more threatening than his pocketknife to use as a weapon, but the captain’s quarters were bare. Whoever it was had opened the hatch and descended the companionway and was now walking softly down the short corridor. Simon ducked behind the door and held his breath. To his dismay he remembered that he had swum to the boat and his shorts had been soaked—his wet footprints led from the companionway through the main cabin and down the corridor, directly to where he stood right now. Whoever was coming knew he was here and knew exactly where he was. Simon clutched the pocketknife and his knees began to quake as the footsteps stopped outside the door.
“Hey!” said an indignant voice. “Where are you? What are you doing in here?”
Simon almost leaped out of his skin.
“Maya!” he said, furious. “Why did you sneak up on me like that?”
“You’re the one sneaking around,” said his sister. “I saw you swim out here. What’s going on?” Simon could tell that she had been scared, too. He was surprised she had come out here on her own and he felt a bit embarrassed by how afraid he had been. They both looked at each other angrily, Maya shivering in her wet clothes. Then she caught sight of the glowing cut. She sucked in her breath and hurried past Simon to see it.
“I saw light coming from the porthole, that’s why I came out here,” whispered Simon. “I think it’s fresh.” He came closer to peer at the cut with Maya. “You don’t know anything about it?”
“No more than you,” she said. They spoke in whispers. “Ophalla,” she murmured, incredulous. “Do you think those men who’ve been hanging around the house did this?”
“I haven’t seen any of them coming out to the Pamela Jane,” said Simon. “But…” he whispered, “I don’t know who else would have.”
He looked closer at the glowing scar. It wasn’t a gash, he noted; the cut was neat and precise and shallow. The culprit had been gentle.
“Whoever it was knew what they were looking for,” he said thoughtfully. “It’s not random. And they didn’t want to damage the boat—it’s not vandalism.” He paused. “I think they suspected there was ophalla here, and they wanted to know for sure.”
“But how would they know?” Maya asked.
Simon shook his head, mystified.
Maya turned to look all around the cabin. “Do you think it runs through the whole hull?”
Simon had been wondering the same thing. He took out his pocketknife and went to the hull on the opposite side of the cabin. He began to score a line through the wood.
“What are you doing?” hissed Maya.
Simon ignored her, and a few moments later the scratch in the wood began to glow and a fine powder of blue-green ophalla trickled to the floor. Simon stopped. He tried a few other spots around the cabin. In some there was nothing; in others fresh ophalla was exposed.
“It’s in the main beams,” he said excitedly. “This is incredible! It’s almost as if there’s a skeleton of ophalla inside the boat and just a thin layer of wood covering it. It would have been really hard to build. Whoever did it would have had to know how much ophalla the frame could bear before it became too heavy to float, and all sorts of other things. But there must be a reason why she was built this way—I wish I knew what it was!”
Maya looked all around them in wonder. “How did we never know?” she whispered. “We lived here for years!”
Though she had belonged to their family for years now, the children knew little of the Pamela Jane’s past before the day she had drifted into the little cove at Granny Pearl’s, her sails in shreds and her hull encrusted in barnacles, back when Maya had been just a baby and Simon had not yet been born. It wasn’t until after the great storm that took them to Tamarind that they even learned that she was from the mysterious island. Whatever secrets were locked within her timbers were hers alone. The day had changed irrevocably, and the boatyard and Simon’s friends suddenly seemed very far away.
“We have to tell Papi,” said Maya.
“I guess…” said Simon grudgingly. Part of him wanted to keep the secret until he had time to investigate further.
When Maya shivered again they decided to go back to shore. They drew a chest in front of the glowing scratch to conceal its light, then climbed back up to the deck. The water was chillier the second time, and as the wind picked up from beyond the mouth of the cove, the Pamela Jane rocked from bow to stern. Impulsively Simon swam along the lee and took his knife out of his pocket. He pried off the chiton from the Pamela Jane’s name and, feeling a moment of small triumph, watched it wobble down through the water and come to rest in the turtle grass beds below. Then he swam back toward the little beach. The clouds were thickening in the sky and the first raindrops were splashing down, dimpling the surface of the water.
Copyright © 2011 by Nadia Aguiar LLC