To Best the Boys(7)

Did I mention my mum’s a real cheerful sort?

A knot of tears catches in my throat at the image of her saying that, and my chest squeezes as I drift on my back in the ocean among the all-too-real awareness that right now, in this very moment, her life is being licked away along with a host of others. The reality of which just about hollows the breath out of me and keeps me frantically working with Da.

Or hiding out here.

I blink and try to refocus. I don’t want to think about it.

A Whitby falcon screeches overhead, and Seleni hollers from the shore, “Rhen, how’s your mum feeling today? Did your da figure out anything new?”

The waves froth around and over me, and I let the questions dissolve with the bursting bubbles as the water’s foamy arms push me toward shore before they tug me back out to the ocean’s glassy surface.

I pretend not to hear her, partly because my answer is always the same—“Not good. Not yet, but we’re hopeful. I don’t know”—and mainly because I don’t know how to explain the insidious fear and grief that come with such questions. They’re not the kind of thing you can dip your toes in, then run away from. The emotions crash together in a wave and dash you against the rocks until you’re drowning and screaming, and sometimes you just want to dissolve too.

I swallow. If I start down that path today, I won’t know how to come back, and I can’t afford that.

Instead, I inhale and kick my ankles and float on my back beneath the sun’s rays reflecting off the marina, and mentally retreat to the logical steadiness of blood counts and stem cells. I turn the problem over and under in my mind, trying to find the key to what Da and I are missing. How our town can produce such vibrant life—and yet, for the past ten months, can’t figure out how to halt a person’s crippling death.

“The key is there in the blood cells,” he keeps saying. “We’ve even isolated the strange mutation that’s creating this recent disease.”

Only every time we think we’ve clicked a cure into place, another subject dies.

And soon it will be Mum.

Then, he fears, me. Because this new disease seems to hit with no rhyme or reason, other than being centered among the poor of the Port.

“Rhen!” Seleni’s voice rings garbled and now irritable in my ears. “For gnat’s sakes! I’ve been talking to you!”

I lift my head and find her in the water up to her ankles, skirt pulled up to her knees. She’s frowning and waving me in. “You said you’d hurry! Sun’s fading and the party’s soon. If you don’t dry out, you’ll get home wet and your hair will be unbearable to fix!”

I nod and peer across the blue expanse of sky to the sun’s spot hedging toward the golden ocean ledge. Then at the falcon diving along the dale that drains into the Tinny River, where the knights of old used to camp during wartime. We have an hour left, but with little heat in my house, dressing will already be miserable—and once night falls, the sea sirens will be awake, and anyone who values her life wouldn’t be daft enough to be this far out in the bay.

With a sigh I tip my head backward to let the water lap over my face until only my chin is above salt water and let the cold finish leaching away the smell of cadaver from my nose, my skin, and my clothes. Washing the dead away. Washing everything away for a few precious moments. Then I right myself and, after a last dunk, swim close enough to let the current carry me to where my toes can touch the crunchy sand and I can walk to my cousin and Beryll.

Seleni has just finished wringing out Beryll’s waistcoat while the large water spots on his breeches and shirt suggest he’s been scrubbing them to avoid immersing his full self in the water. When I stroll up, he glances at Seleni, then blushes like a beet before his gaze shifts to a far-off spot.

I chuckle and flick a handful of water at him. “If wet clothes and bare ankles mortify you, you’d best avoid a mirror, Beryll.”

“Don’t mock him for being a gentleman,” Seleni chides. “Would you rather him look at me like those two men are down the beach? No wonder they’ve not caught a single fish, with all their ogling.”

I glance toward the two cads fishing from the shore not far from us. I frown and refuse the urge to wrap my arms around my flat chest. “Or maybe they could just look at women as if we’re regular people,” I mutter. There’s a thought. The way Da does. Straight on, as if we’re all just his friends.

Seleni gives a hard shake to the waistcoat and utters the type of fake sigh old Mrs. Mench does when I forget to wear stockings under my skirt. She mimics the woman’s high-pitched voice. “Rhen Tellur, your head’s so full of man ideas you’ll forget your place among the proper ladies. Clearly, your mum and da are to blame for this.”

I laugh and grab my rinsed coat from the crook of her arm, then climb up the shore, wringing out my skirt and hair as I go. With a burst of chuckles, Seleni and Beryll follow to the sand beside our pile of shoes, where I double-check that my vial is still tucked away safe. Then pause a moment to soak up the last bit of warmth the scorched beach offers, before I tug on my stockings and slide the vial and scrubbed gloves back into my soaked coat pocket.

Seleni and Beryll’s giggling continues, and I stand to leave when my cousin asks, “Did you two finally get your Labyrinth Letters?”

The waves crash and hiss, trickling around her voice. I drape my coat over my arm and move to slide on my shoes. “It came yesterday,” I say, and, with a last wringing of my thin skirt, turn toward the busy, steaming wharf and begin to walk.

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