The waves sparkled as Lorelei’s head broke the surface of the bay, the droplets in her eyelashes twinkling in the soon-to-set sunlight. She spotted a fish leaping high, but it disappeared again, quick as a flash. She looked for Mama, and at first she didn’t see her. When her round, smooth head appeared to Lorelei’s left, the small girl let out a sound, half-squeal, half-bark, and swam for her.
Mama’s dark brown eyes seemed to laugh before she dove under, daring Lorelei to give chase.
Lorelei dove, too, keeping up with her mother – barely. She might be small, but she’d taken to the waters with all the alacrity of her ancestors. She slipped through the waves with ease, a crab bumping her tail as it fought for purchase in the tumbling surf off Orcas Island. She whipped her tail faster and shot ahead, catching her mother in time to bump her flank, then rise for a gasping breath of air.
A loud horn ripped through the air – too close – far too close.
Mama’s firm grip wrenched Lorelei under, and out of the ship’s deadly path. The craft stirred the water and shoved them further below. Lorelei’s lungs burned; she hadn’t had time to take a deep breath.
When they surfaced again, Mama held Lorelei to her. They were human again, their sealskins tied to them in the careful knots Lorelei already knew at the age of five.
The small girl’s back pressed to her mother’s front, as the wake of the ship rocked them. Even through her desperate gasps for air, Lorelei could make out her mother’s sobs.
She held Lorelei all the way to the steep, rocky shore. The tree line loomed just above, dense with shadow in the deepening dusk. For some reason, Lorelei felt sad, like she’d just lost something too precious to be put into words. They climbed the ladder to the dock, silent, and took the forty-seven stairs to the landing above.
Lorelei felt her mother’s eyes on her and lost her count of the stairs. Counting was her favorite thing to do, and she glared at Mama. But when she saw the look there, the look that said Mama was still one step away from tears, Lorelei dropped her eyes back to the weathered wood and continued to climb.
Mama cried often.
Those days weren’t fun.
Usually their swims were the most fun, except for counting. But today Mama had turned a swimming day into a crying day.
Inside, Mama handed her a towel warm from the dryer and unknotted her sealskin. When she took it, Lorelei felt lost for a moment, a piece of her carved away, leaving just a hole where her seal-self should have been. She’d grown accustomed to this feeling, though, and she let it pass.
“Hot chocolate?” Mama asked, knowing the answer.
“Please.” Lorelei smiled, and went to her room to get dressed.
She skipped back to the kitchen a few minutes later. She had to remind Mama about the marshmallows before the hot chocolate cooled off. Melted marshmallows were the best.
“Did you see that boat?” That was Daddy talking. Lorelei skipped faster. Daddy was home!
“Yes. I saw it,” Mama said.
“Too close, Mel. I don’t like these chances you’re taking.”
“It’s what I am. You know that—”
Lorelei realized they were fighting just before she came in. When her mother stopped talking, she wondered what they were mad about. They’d both been mad recently. It was boring. Once, Lorelei’s dad had told her that when she was mad, she should count to ten before she said anything she might regret. That was good advice. Counting was much more interesting than fighting, and she usually forgot she was mad and wanted to yell. Dad seemed to think that was good.
Lorelei scooted her chair out from the table, the loud scraping noise making her mother cringe. Her parents were still trying not to look at each other. Cups of hot chocolate sat steaming on the counter.
“Mom?” Lorelei asked quietly.
“Can you add the marshmallows?”
“Melty marshmallows coming right up,” she said with forced lightness.
Dad smiled at her, but it didn’t reach his eyes. Lorelei knew he’d like to talk to Mom without her hearing. But she wasn’t going to budge until after hot chocolate.
Mama brought Lorelei’s cup to her, but the other two sat on the counter, lonely, while Mom and Dad went to their room to talk.
The distance didn’t completely muffle their argument.
So Lorelei counted.
Three little marshmallows.
Six…dunk the little marshmallows.
Eight…how many little marshmallows?
And that was it. So Lorelei counted again.
The dampness of the Washington coast in January did not agree with Lorelei’s hair. That was today’s excuse for being late. The hair.
She took the stairs two at a time, grabbing her backpack from the hook before she’d even reached the ground floor. As she whipped it around to put it on, it came into contact with something firm. Something that gave a loud grunt.
“Dad! Crap. I’m sorry. Late!” Lorelei tried to spin around him, but he blocked the exit. She blew her hair out of her face – again, the blasted stuff – and gave him the look.
“Don’t give me that look. Breakfast. It’s on the table now, and I don’t want to hear another word.”
“No time for breakfast. I have math class.”
“You can’t do math on an empty stomach.”
“Rubbish. I can do math any time. See – four times seventy-six is…wait, let me think…” Lorelei thought for a second as Dad’s eyes narrowed. She might be sixteen, but sometimes he still asserted his single-parent control over her every move. Like periodically he woke up and thought, I wonder how I can notice (i.e. torture) my daughter today?
He pointed to the dining room.
“Three hundred and four!” Lorelei exclaimed. Then, in a more sedate tone, “Dad, I’ll be seventeen in less than two weeks. I think I know how to feed myself.” Lying, of course. She had no plan for feeding herself.
His finger did not move. “Eat breakfast. Now.” He didn’t say it loud. He said it in that dangerously un-loud way.
“Was that right? Yep, think it was right.” Lorelei trudged to her seat. He hadn’t been home to make her eat well the last three days, so she hadn’t seen this spot much this week. She’d been heating stuff up and eating in front of the TV. So there, Dad.
He’d fixed eggs and bagels with cream cheese, his favorite breakfast. Strawberries on the side; those were for her, and she popped one in her mouth right away. Okay, a nice breakfast wasn’t so bad.
He sat across from her and read the news on his iPad while they ate. Lorelei wished she had an iPad, but then she’d be even later. Instead she hummed and scarfed her food, knowing she must leave for school or she was in serious trouble. She had to quit sleeping late and worrying about her hair. It could be a disaster, as long as she got a good grade in AP calculus.
“See you later?” she said to Dad as she took her plate into the kitchen for a quick rinse.
“I’ll be at the clinic until seven. Order a pizza, okay? There’s cash in the jar.” His dark eyes met hers as she swept back through, and this time the smile did reach his eyes. “Have a good day, honey.”
“You too, Dad.”
Hustling, Lorelei almost tripped over her boots that refused to go on correctly. Forcing herself to take a breath, she shoved her foot in, shoved the laces into the boot to deal with later, and clicked the unlock button on the remote to her silver Jetta.
She slid into the driver’s seat and backed up onto their small private road. School was three miles away, along nothing but windy country roads.
Lorelei didn’t drive fast. She wasn’t going to risk an accident or ticket just to shave off a few seconds. She turned on a song, and as she came around a bend and popped out of the trees, she caught sight of the pink and orange glow that marked sunrise. She whistled. The dawn was still so new that it didn’t offer any appreciable light, just the brilliant colors.
And then it was gone. She made a turn into greater Anacortes, Washington and left the sunrise behind her. Her belly tightened at the thought of math class, which was starting right now, as the houses grew denser along her route. Almost there.
This neighborhood was decades old, but the houses were nice two-stories with deep front porches and large, neat yards. Theirs was a decent, boring town. A good place, really.
Finally, the cluster of school buildings appeared up the road.
Lorelei turned into a parking space and ran. This was the second time she was late this week. What if Mr. Richards dropped her from his class? It was AP, so he could drop her if he didn’t think she’d perform.
Lorelei’s toe caught on the curb, and too late she remembered she hadn’t even fastened her boots in her rush to get out the door. The impact sent her tumbling and ripped her shoe off, so it bounced along the curb and back into the parking lot.
With a twisted ankle and her scraped palms burning – not to mention a distinct roaring in her ears and the deep blush due to sheer embarrassment – Lorelei moved, a bit less swiftly, to Mr. Richards’ room. The stairs were tough, but so was she.
She cracked the door open and attempted to sidle to her seat without drawing notice, but it was not to be.
“Ms. Dorian. That’s the second time this week. I’ll see you in detention this afternoon.”
And, triple crap.
Ah well, at least he wasn’t dropping her from the class. Lorelei took her seat, surveying the damage to her palms and finding it wasn’t that bad. There wasn’t much blood.
“What are you smiling about? You look like hell,” Shea Carlson, the rudest girl on the planet, whispered harshly from the next row.
“I made it.” Lorelei shot her a big grin. “In time for differential equations, right?”
She snickered. “You’re always way too excited about math, hon.”
“You missed the intro…probably going to be hard to keep up today,” said a voice to their left.
Shea glared at Vardon Caster, just long enough to let him know he was beneath her, and not invited to chat. He was a loner, and as far as Lorelei knew, no one had really talked to him much since third grade or so.
Lorelei didn’t care about school-kid politics. She cared about her AP Calculus grade. “Seriously?” She sank lower in her seat. “I missed the intro?”
“Yes, Ms. Dorian, you missed the intro. Maybe some poor soul will take pity on you, though you do not deserve it, and bring you up to speed. By Monday.” Mr. Richards chimed into their conversation, drawing the attention of the whole class.
Lorelei was already the youngest student here – one of just two juniors in this advanced math class. The other being Vardon.
Stupid tardiness wasn’t doing her any favors. She frowned. Much of her plan for next year revolved around getting a great grade in calculus. She would do whatever it took to catch up.
“I might have to drop swim team,” Lorelei declared at lunch.
Six pairs of eyes, four of them teammates, swiveled her direction. “Are you kidding?” Haeley Schneider, Lorelei’s best friend, cried. “You can’t quit swim!”
A general shaking of heads around the table seemed to agree with Haeley. But Lorelei couldn’t let them make this call for her.
Haeley tried again, more gently this time. “Lori, you’ve been working to be captain of the swim team forever. And just before senior year, you’re going to quit? Why?”
She was right, of course. Lorelei had set her sights on leading the swim team starting freshman year. She was the best swimmer the team had ever seen, and they made state for the first time ever after she joined. It was considered almost a sure thing.
But was swimming distracting her from greater goals?
“Swimming senior year would be wonderful…but where does it lead?”
“Why does it have to lead somewhere?” asked another close friend and teammate, Emily.
“If I’m going to sacrifice time on homework – and possibly sacrifice qualifying to go to my dream school – it has to lead somewhere.”
“You’re too serious,” Emily grumbled. “Here, have this chocolate chip cookie.” She shoved Lorelei half of her cookie. “You need chocolate to treat your incredibly uptight brain.”
Lorelei was sure a need for chocolate had nothing to do with her over-achiever nature, but she took Em up on it.
“You’re not quitting swim,” Haeley stated.
Lorelei was done with the argument. She’d also noticed they had an audience.
Vardon Caster had stopped behind Haeley, who peered up at him and then turned a questioning look back on Lorelei.
“Uh…hi, Vardon.” Lorelei hadn’t spoken to Vardon outside of class since, once again, about the third grade. He didn’t go out of his way to talk to people, and she had no idea what he would want with her.
“Hi, Lorelei. Can I talk to you?”
She looked around, kind of mystified. “Sure.”
She followed Vardon until they stood a fair distance from her admittedly gossipy friends. Did he not think asking to speak with her privately would breed gossip? They were probably up to it right now.
Vardon was tall. He looked taller outside of class.
“If you want, I could help you get caught up on what you missed this morning,” he finally said.
It clicked into place. “Thanks. I appreciate it. I totally screwed up being late today, and Mr. Richards is right, I don’t deserve the help.”
“Sure you do.” Vardon’s eyes lit up with intensity, and Lorelei felt self-conscious all of a sudden. “You’re brilliant at math.”
She grinned. “Do you compliment all the girls on their math skills?” she joked.
He shook his head. “I don’t really talk to girls, actually. Not much.” He didn’t seem sad about it. Just thoughtful.
“You should change that.” Lorelei wasn’t sure why she said it. She thought maybe he was sad, and maybe he didn’t need to feel quite so alone.
He smiled, complete with dimples she hadn’t assumed existed. And changed the subject. “So…the math help.”
“I have detention this afternoon, but I’m free later. I’d rather get caught up today, if possible.”
“So you can be back at the top of the class on Monday?”
She shrugged. She didn’t have to answer; he already knew it was true. The whole class did.
“Okay. I have to work at the bookstore for a few hours tonight. How’s eight?”
Lorelei had forgotten his family owned the bookstore downtown. Maybe because it didn’t exactly cater to her generation…or her dad’s, for that matter. She nodded and told him her address as he typed it into his iPhone.
“See you then.” He smiled again and walked off.
Lorelei turned to see all of her friends with their eyes fastened on her exchange with Vardon. Oh, no. Had they just made plans for eight o’clock on a Friday night? Lorelei’s stomach sank. Her friends would call this a date no matter what she said.
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