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Five years later …
One night, an otter got in the house.
Eddie heard the commotion all the way upstairs. He’d been nestling in the mound of blankets on his top bunk. He had the pinecone men Joel had carved arrayed across his pillow, standing up fat on their pinecone bottoms. Like little soldiers, Uncle Benny had said the first time he’d seen them set out this way, and he’d smiled wide through his white cat whiskers. Misunderstanding, as usual.
Like guards, Trudi had said, the one time Eddie could ever remember her coming up here. That was closer, though also wrong.
Like meerkats, Rebecca had said, not too long ago. Like you. Little meerkat, with your head always sticking up to see. And of course, that was right. Rebecca always got it right. Even Eddie hadn’t thought of it that way before.
Lifting his favorite pinecone meerkat—the red one, with the stickpin-eyes that reflected the orange from the sunset outside—Eddie held it toward the open door, the hallway, the commotion downstairs. He cocked it to the right, the left, and let it listen.
“Are they laughing?” he whispered.
Red-cone meerkat nodded. Eddie returned him to the pillow and lay where he was a few seconds longer. It wasn’t as though he’d never heard this sound in the house before. As a matter of fact, he’d heard it a lot, and more and more, lately, now that he thought about it. Even from Dedo, sometimes.
But not this loud. Not from all of them together, all at the same time. Never once, in his memory, had Eddie heard his whole family shouting and laughing.
The sensations it caused in him—banging heart, prickling skin, sympathy grin sprouting on his face even though he had no idea what they were all laughing about—made him nervous even as they made him happy. He flipped the sea-star duvet Dedo had made him over his head and pressed himself into the wall, making himself flat as a sea-star. Then he willed himself silent, imagined his inside-fist grabbing his heart, squeezing it still so it wouldn’t flutter the duvet, and he lay quiet, and he listened.
After a few seconds, he felt ridiculous, and he was still grinning. Even so, he didn’t come out right away, or let his heart loose. Kaylene would have said he was being a Dug, if she were up here instead of down there in the racket. Until a month or so ago, when she’d finally showed him her favorite game on her phone, Eddie had just thought dug was her crazy-Kaylene way of saying bug.
Sitting up as a new burst of laughter erupted, he nestled deeper into the corner, right where the steepled ceiling met the cedar walls, and touched his fingertips to the glass of his porthole window. Across the grass out back, over the roof of the old windmill-shed where Dedo and Trudi slept, Eddie could see the sun sinking into the firs toward the Strait. He should be downstairs, he knew. He wanted to see what everyone was laughing about. And yet he waited, as he did whenever he was alone in his room at right about this time. When the first wisps of every-night mist crawled up onto the horizon and began their long float across the water toward land, Eddie sucked in a breath and held it as long as he could. Out there, over the water, more wisps pulled themselves onto the surface of the Strait and began gliding across it.
With a single, explosive sigh, he unleashed all the air he had in him. The glass fogged and his reflected face vanished in the mist he’d made himself. Wiping fast with his fingers, he cleared the glass, and there were the wisps, seemingly knocked off course by his exhalation, already cohering into plain old clouds. He watched the clouds fold together as he sucked in another breath, held it. Held it. Let fly.
Blowing up a storm. One of his favorite in-bed games. He hadn’t needed Joel’s or Kaylene’s or Rebecca’s or Dedo’s help for this one. He’d come up with it all by himself.
The clouds collided and swelled, and the orange in the sky faded to gray. Nothing out there lit up, today. No thunder boomed. Sometimes, it didn’t.
Still, even float-clouds were good for blowing, and in the breaks between bursts of laughter from downstairs, through the whistling crack between the window glass and the warping pane, Eddie heard or thought he heard the okras (which is what he’d first called them, and so now everyone in this house called them that). Maybe they were back, down in their cove at the foot of the cliffs, spouting and snuffling, maybe even singing. Calling him out.
“Oh, yeah?” Joel said, downstairs. “It’s dancing you want?” Then came more shuffling sounds—Joel-dancing sounds—and more laughter.
Quiet as a Dug, Eddie slipped from his bunk, stepped into his no-tie sneakers, and made his way across the loft so he could peer over the edge of the landing. He saw the otter immediately, up on hind legs in the center of the circle his housemates had formed around him, chirring like a little grandfather telling them all off. Or like one of the munchkins in that movie they’d showed him last summer, with the flying monkeys and the mean, green witch. Or like one of Joel’s pinecone-meerkats, come to life.
As Eddie watched, Uncle Benny edged closer to the otter from behind, a giant soup pot in his white-whisker hand-paws. The pot still dripped whatever he’d just washed out of it. No, it was still full, Eddie realized.
“Oh my God, it’s not a fish!” Kaylene howled at him, and burst out laughing again, grabbing Joel’s arm as she doubled over. Joel had a broom in both hands; he was using it mostly to swat Kaylene.
The animal dropped, whirled, darted in Benny’s direction, and Benny startled and lost the pot, which flipped in midair, launching water all over Dedo, who barely even flinched, just closed her eyes. Eddie grabbed the stairway banister, almost screamed. He hated when Dedo stood like that, absolutely still with that Dedo-look on her face that said—where had Eddie gotten this? How did he know it? What did it even mean?—I love you. It’s okay. It’s all over, now.
She’s melting, he thought, clutching the banister but making no sound.
Instead of melting, Dedo opened her eyes. She glanced toward Benny, who was gaping at her, then down at her dripping self. Then she laughed, too.
“Sorry, Jess,” Uncle Benny murmured.
“Shit, where is it?” Joel said, and they all craned their heads around. Rebecca dropped low to look under the table. Kaylene edged up to the window, gave the half-drawn curtains a smack, and leapt back. Eddie was sure they’d see him, call him down or tell him to stay put. Instead, they all turned, seemingly as one, toward Rebecca. She was crouching by the couch, now, with that Rebecca look on her face. The one that just said, Shhh.
“Under here,” she said, and they all went quiet, though they kept smiling. Every one of them. The only one missing, Eddie realized, was Trudi. She was probably holed up in her room in the windmill-shed, as usual. If she’d been here, and if she’d smiled, too, then Eddie would have suspected that this really was a magical night. Or a dangerous one.
The sudden warmth at his crotch surprised him so much, he almost cried out.
He calmed himself by chanting, inside his head, the things Dedo would inevitably say when she found out he’d wet himself again. Happens to everyone. He imagined her balling up his sopping pants, bundling them away and giving his hair a pat. We’ll throw them in the wash, and it’ll be like it never happened.
So comforting, those things Dedo said. Her movements and reassuring touches. Everything but her face, which sometimes looked like all the gears inside it had caught, locked. Snapped …
Pushing her hair behind her ear, Rebecca settled lower on her bramble-scratched knees. They were scratched, Eddie knew, because she walked the woods the way he did: off-path, wandering everywhere. Sometimes, whenever he asked, she did that with Eddie. Now, he watched her edge back from the couch, her head sinking still further, until she was eye-level with whatever was under there.
Rebecca could talk to otters. Eddie had no doubt of this. Rebecca could talk to anything. He glanced around at everyone else: Dedo, drenched, was leaning into Uncle Benny, the way she occasionally let herself; Benny had shifted on his bad ankles and draped one arm carefully around her, as if Dedo were the otter and might dart away; Joel held his broom in front of his chest, sword-like, and his shiny green rain pants—which he wore because they were shiny, not because it was raining—winked in the window-light like the pin-eyes on his pinecone meerkats; Kaylene hunched over Rebecca, the streak in her long, black hair blazing orange tonight like new lava. That meant she’d recolored it, which meant she and Rebecca were headed out performing, later.
Family was a word no one in this house used, at least not to or about each other. Eddie wasn’t even sure where he’d learned it, or why he thought of it at that moment. But he did. The thought scared him. He glanced down at the wet pants clinging to his legs. He wanted to fly down the stairs like one of the Wicked Witch’s monkeys and spirit everyone off before they could get away. It was all too much. Confusing. And he didn’t have the words.
So when the otter exploded out the side of the couch and screamed over its shoulder at Rebecca, tried to hurl itself up a wall, slid down, banged off Joel as Joel attempted to sweep it through the open patio door, and hurtled off again toward the kitchen, Eddie didn’t laugh or shout. He clutched the banister, watching his family collide, bounce off one another, scramble after the animal. When they were all turned toward the counter behind which the otter had scurried, he edged downstairs, tiptoed along the far wall, and slipped out through the open patio door. Then he darted down the little steps, across the lawn, and away into the woods.
The second he hit the tree line, smells engulfed him. They were his favorite smells: resin, fallen apples, wet pine, dead leaves, and underneath it all, binding it together, that tang, so sharp it stung, especially in October, between rains. It wasn’t just sea-spray or ocean air, but air they had breathed. His okras. He was breathing air that had been inside okras, and had therefore been where they had: out to sea, or all the way down at the bottom of the ocean with the shadow-fish that glowed and flickered. Air that tasted like whale-dreams.
He knew he should have signaled at least one of his family that he was going. He didn’t mean to worry anyone in the house, and he knew they did worry, though less than they used to, when he slipped out. But they were busy, and somehow, after watching them all together, laughing together, he really needed to see his cove, catch a single glimpse of black and white skin-shine surfacing in the black-green water. Just one glimpse of just one whale sounding, surfacing, blowing okra-air in his direction. Then he’d go straight home. With luck, he’d be back in his own pod before they even noticed he was gone.
Overhead, and also straight ahead, through the haze of hanging leaves, Eddie saw stars in their millions. Glowing, winking, shadow sky-fish. He wondered what the air up there tasted like, and how long it would take a sky-okra to get down—or up—to them. Nothing moved around him, and yet he could hear movement up in the madrone trees and in the centers of the pines. Night whistles, and little skitters so light and quick that they didn’t even stir the needles on the ground.
Where had all his clouds gone? He wasn’t sure he’d ever been out on such a clear night. Certainly, he’d never been out alone after dark on a night like this, without Rebecca or Dedo or Joel. A few wisps still floated offshore, and none at all overhead, though around him—between the pines, and amongst them—the fog-foxes had come out, prowling silent, as always, in their fog-fox pods. They melted away whenever he turned to look.
He really could hear okras, now. At least, he was pretty sure he could hear one, making the unmistakable huff and burble that was Eddie’s favorite sound in the world. He was almost running when he emerged from the pines right at the top of the cliffs at the edge of the island and stopped. Across the Strait, he saw the Mummyrocks, even whiter by moonlight than they were in the day. Hurrying along the cliff, he went right past the twisty tree, and only stopped and turned around when he’d gone several steps farther down the path. That’s when he saw her for the first time.
She was perched in the crook of two twisty branches, neither of which looked thick enough to hold her on its own. He’d been up in that tree, too, lots of times, usually with Rebecca. But he’d never been that high, and Rebecca never let him go anywhere near the branches that swung out past the edge of the cliff, seemingly suspended in the empty air like the arms of construction cranes.
She’d seen him, too, watched him stop. Now that he was looking, she turned her gaze out to sea, down toward the okras in their cove. His okras, in his cove. Eddie didn’t like that, started to say something, and her gaze swung back and pinned him in place.
She didn’t say anything, just gazed down, looking remote as a nightjar up there. Her blond hair sparkled almost white in the starlight and the moonlight. Her legs swung out into the emptiness, swung back, swung out, in odd, mechanical jerks. Stop-start. Out-in. In-out.
Slowly, she grinned. It was a huge grin. “Hi, Eddie.”
Everything about her—movements, voice, gaze—fascinated him. He watched her up there, dangling her feet over the emptiness. The sight reminded Eddie of something. So many somethings, really, all from stories he’d been read or shown on the TV, or heard from one or the other of the people he lived with. Mostly, he just stared at her smile. A smile in a tree.
“Are you a cat?” he whispered.
The woman exploded into laughter, rocking back against the trunk. She kicked out her legs, watched them collapse back toward her. Somehow, her grin got wider. It really did seem just to hang amid the leaves, lit up with moonlight, in air twinkling with whale-dreams.
“You are,” said Eddie.
The woman stopped laughing, stared down. She straightened her stained and ripped jean-skirt over her leggings. Then she patted the branch beside her and smiled even wider.
“Why don’t you come up here and find out?”
Copyright © 2018 by Glen Hirshberg