I swallow a piece of seaweed and try to sound casual when I ask, “How was it, then? Same as usual?”
Uncle George tilts his chubby chin down to his chest and eyes me above his thin-rimmed glasses. When he gives me that look, it feels as though my skin is see-through. He knows it’s been years since I’ve really experienced Victoria. Everyone who knows me knows that.
I can barely remember her at all, but I know Victoria is five square miles of dirt and trees and bushes and birds and insects. That she is one of nine islands in the world. And that each day, five thousand new people are allowed to dock their floaters and step onto her sandy beaches. Everyone gets one day a year. There isn’t enough land in the world for everyone to live on, and the people in charge want to be fair about it, so that’s how it goes.
“My dear Melanie,” my Uncle George finally says, a note of pity in his voice that makes my chest burn, “Victoria is never ‘usual.’ Each year I go, I find new things that are quite unusual. Yesterday, for instance, I saw the strangest flower. White and soft as a cloud, its petals opened up as I approached, and the blossom turned as I passed. As if it were watching me. As if it knew me,” he finished with a whisper, and every person at the table was absolutely still. My Uncle had that effect on people. “Am I alone in these small discoveries?”
Neighbor Lucy shakes her head like a dog shaking out water, her short brown curls quivering. “No, no, no. I’ve seen some neat things, too, every time.”
“Saw a big baboon three years ago,” neighbor Mike, Lucy’s husband, chips in. “Massive thing with yellow eyes and a big, red ass.”
“Mike!” Lucy scolds. Two of my boy cousins snort into their casserole. Ass is a funny word.
I feel a weight on my right hand. My mom has put her hand on mine. I look up at her face, tilted, staring at me with soft blue eyes beneath slanting brows. I know what she’s thinking. This time, this time you’ll see.
Three years ago we got caught in a storm floating over. We nearly drowned, but almost worse than that, we didn’t make it in time. We missed our day on Victoria, and there’s no such thing as a makeup day, as I discovered. Two years ago I got landsick. I threw up as soon as my feet touched the ground. My head throbbed so hard I went blind. Some say it’s the air that does it. There’s too much oxygen in it, maybe. But it was so bad I couldn’t move. I couldn’t think. I didn’t want to go back to our floater, so I leaned against a tree and fell asleep. Slept the whole day away and didn’t see anything. I was so angry at my parents for not waking me up, I didn’t speak to them for a week.
My parents felt bad about it and I felt bad that I made them feel bad, because it wasn’t really their fault. Even so, last year they spent months planning our trip. We mapped out a route on the island where we would see the most exotic flowers, the most amazing vistas, the strangest creatures. We even had a plan to try and convince the dock guards to let us on one day early. We stayed up past midnight some nights, my dad, my mom, and I, talking and fantasizing about the day we would have on Victoria. It was going to be perfect.
But then, my dad died. One week before our day, his heart just stopped.
I couldn’t go to Victoria. I didn’t want to walk along the route that my dad and I had mapped together. Didn’t want to see things that he would never see. I told my mom I wouldn’t go. I screamed and stomped my feet and threw things off our floater. My mom didn’t even put up a fight. So on the day we were supposed to go to Victoria last year, we just floated instead.
But this year, this year I want to go. I have to go. I have to leave a piece of my dad on the island.
“She’s an amazing place, that Victoria,” Uncle George says, jolting me from my memories. “Each visit made all the sweeter by the distance forced between us.”
My mom and I are stooped over at the back of our floater, grasping and pulling on a rusty chain. We haul up the anchor, set it in its case. I stride across the rocking floor. The wind urges me forward, fluttering the shirt on my back as I pull on a rope and raise the mainsail. Already, I can feel us moving. My mom is at the back of the boat with a compass. She sets the rudder just as the sail balloons out. We’re on our way to Victoria. We’re flying.
That night I unfold the map of the island and lay it on the table beneath the shelter at the back of our floater. In the low light, I trace the sketched-out route for the thousandth time with my finger. Last year, we decided on a curving path up to the top of the dormant volcano. They say you can stand on the edge and look down into it and know what infinity feels like. My Uncle George did it last year. He said it felt like forever and nothing at the same time. He also said people fall in sometimes. People jump in. Maybe they want to see if they’ll come out the other side.
I retrace the route a dozen more times, engraving it in my mind, until I slump forward and fall asleep at the table.
Twenty-four hours go by without a hitch. We’re moving fast. I start thinking that maybe we’ll get to Victoria in a day and a half.
Then, the sail goes limp. We lose speed, and soon, we’re just floating. I peer up into the sky, as if I might find a giant hand blocking the wind. Big fluffy clouds hang motionless in the air—stuck like our floater.
My mom walks out from the shelter and raises a hand up for a moment, feeling. She drops her arm back down to her side, and then she looks at me looking up at the sky.
“We have plenty of time, Mel,” mom says. “The wind will pick up again.”
“I know,” I say, a little too loud.
My mom just gives a nod. She walks away under the shelter and a moment later comes back with a bowl of cold clam soup. I say thanks and sip slow as I look up at the sky again, willing the wind to return.
But the sun sinks down lower and lower toward the sea, and we’re still in the same spot. I’ve been clenching my teeth the whole time and my jaw is sore. I pace the deck. Little voices inside my head chant—What if we don’t make it, what if the wind never picks up, what if I can’t—I stop in my tracks. I can’t just stand here and do nothing. So I strip off my clothes and dive into the water.
I swim around to the back of the floater, next to the rudder, and grab onto the edge. Then, I kick.
The floater barely budges at first. I kick wildly, I bend my elbows and then push hard. I take a breath and dunk my head down into the water, streamlining my body. Finally, little by little, the floater starts moving.
A few minutes later, a splash throws me off balance. I pause, my heart pounding hard, but when I look over, I see my mom’s legs kicking in the water, on the other side of the rudder. I want to tell her she doesn’t have to, that it’s probably useless anyway, but I know she won’t listen and I don’t want to stop and lose momentum. So I tilt back to center and keep kicking.
We kick and swim for two hours. The sun has sunk into the ocean and the stars are winking at us in the dim light. I don’t know how far we’ve been able to push the boat, probably not far at all, but my legs feel like a pair of jellyfish. I look over top of the rudder and see that my mom’s legs have slowed down, too. Just as I’m about to give up and pull myself onto the floater, I’m jerked forward and I almost lose my grip. I look up over the top of the shelter and see the mainsail billowing out, full of wind.
A massive weight slips off my body as I heave myself onto the deck. My mom struggles to haul herself up, so I grab both her arms and drag her on board. We huff and puff, both standing there, looking at the white mainsail as someone might look at a lover.
I’m sitting at the table packing up a bag for the trip when my mom’s voice squeals like a child’s, “Mel, Mel! I see Victoria, look!”
I push the chair away fast, knocking it over, and jog to the helm. I follow my mom’s outstretched arm to the horizon and spot a little grey-green mound rising up from the sea.
My mom puts her hands on my shoulders and shakes me a little. “We’re almost there!”
I try not to let my mom’s excitement infect me, because we’re not there yet, but I can’t help laughing at the look on her face—eyes so round the blues are surrounded by white, eyebrows almost up to her hairline, mouth twisted into a lopsided grin. She takes my hands and starts spinning me around in circles.
“Victooooriaaaa, Victooooria-aaah,” Mom sings a random tune as she twirls me around. “Victoria, Victoria!”
We collapse onto the deck and sprawl out. I lean my head back, looking out over the front of the boat at the upside-down Victoria bobbing in the distance. Next to me, my mom lets out a long, satisfied breath.
As we get closer, we start passing more and more floaters along the way. We call out conversations over the wind to the people passing by. Everyone is going to Victoria for their day on land.
“Where ya headed?” my mom calls out to a man standing at the helm of a long floater coming alongside us. There’s a two-story shelter built onto it and half a dozen, or maybe a dozen, kids running all over the deck like skittering crabs—so fast I can’t distinguish one from another.
“East side!” the man calls back. He’s got a deep tan except for grey circles under his eyes. “Kids want to see some seals. You?”
“South side!” I call back. “We’re going to climb the volcano.”
The man’s brow lifts a little, and I like to imagine he’s impressed, but he simply says, “Well, you be careful up there!”
With each floater we pass, we hear a different story. A wrinkled old woman sailing alone tells us she wants to drink from a freshwater spring. A young couple wants to bring back soil in a jar so they can smell land every night before bed. A sandy-haired boy just wants to climb a tree. Each person has a special dream. I just tell everyone I want to see the volcano, all the while fingering the thing inside my right pocket, never betraying the real reason I have to make it to the top.
Finally, the night before our day, the docks come into view. All around the island, wharfs a thousand paces long radiate out from the beach like rays from the sun. The docks are nearly empty of boats, as the five thousand visitors of this day depart at sundown. We anchor our floater out at sea—we have to wait until daybreak tomorrow to dock.
My mom and I eat mackerel on the deck, gazing at Victoria, blanketed in a hundred hues of green in the fading light. Neither of us speaks much, but when we do, each word feels weighty, significant.
“Wonder what it looks like inside,” I say, almost whispering.
“Dad always said it made him feel like he was in outer space,” my mom replies in hushed tones. “Or that he’d been shrunk down and put inside of a conch shell. He could never make up his mind on that one.”
Of course I know exactly what my mom is talking about, but I like hearing her tell the story. My dad saw the inside of the volcano once in his life, when he was thirteen, long before he met my mom. He said it was something he would never forget, and he hoped he could see it at least once more.
My mom and I fall silent again. After we finish our mackerel and clean up, we play cards to make the time go by. When I start yawning, we play one more hand and then put the cards away and unroll our bedding. We lie down. For a while, I don’t bother to close my eyes. I just watch as my mom’s silent breath lifts and lowers her ribcage. Then, my eyelids flutter, and my thoughts drift away.
I dream of being on land. I am walking through a dense jungle of thick vines and giant ferns when I come upon a baboon. He stares at me through yellow eyes. He bares pointed teeth at me, and I think he’s about to attack, but he just turns around and sticks out his big red ass and waves it around for me to see. Then, the ground beneath my feet quakes.
I wake up to my mom shaking my shoulder. I open my eyes to Victoria draped in foliage, and I bolt up in my seat.
“Time to raise the anchor,” my mom says.
I rub the sleep from my eyes and walk to the back of the floater. We haul up the anchor. I go to lift the sail. My mom sets the rudder again, and we float the rest of the way to the docks.
As we approach, the light grows, and then the sun peeks out above the horizon. The morning mist clears away, and floaters materialize near the docks.
Something’s not right, though. I see floaters moving away from the docks instead of towards them. I turn to look at my mom. Her eyes are narrowed and she’s gnawing on the inside of her cheek.
A man wearing a black shirt and beige shorts hails us, waving his arm like a pinwheel from his place on the dock. He has a wide stance and downturned lips, and I know he’s one of the people in charge of Victoria. I lower the sail and we slow down, drifting until we bump into the dock.
My mom hops off of our floater as I tie a rope onto the wharf.
“Melanie Lynn and Margaret Ann Holtzer. We’re here for our day,” my mom says to the man, as if she needs to specify.
The man steps close to my mom and bends his head down towards hers. He mutters something in a low voice. When he finishes speaking, he puts a hand on my mom’s back, almost friendly, but maybe also to usher her away, because my mom turns and starts walking back to the boat slow, as if giant anchors are attached to her feet. She is looking down at the dock when she crouches down beside me and takes my hands, still tying knots in the rope.
My mom’s voice is choked. My hands freeze mid-knot.
“Mel, the volcano is active.”
“What?” I say, finally looking at my mom. There is a deep wrinkle between her eyes. “That’s not possible. It’s dormant.”
My mom shakes her head slow. “Well, today it isn’t.”
“So? It’s not going to blow is it?” I turn to look at the peak on Victoria. “There’s not even smoke.”
“It doesn’t matter,” my mom says. “They aren’t letting anyone onto Victoria, as a precaution. If it explodes and people are on the island, five thousand people could die. They’re just being careful.”
My hands start to shake. I stare hard at the wood of the dock. “So what, we just miss our day? We have to wait another year?”
“Yes, hon,” my mom says, voice barely carrying over the sounds of sloshing water.
I drop the rope and clench my fists. I breathe in and out through my nose like some angry beast. “No. I don’t care what they say. I’m going. They can’t stop me.”
“Yes, they can. There are guards all over the dock and the beach. And I won’t let you go.”
I jump to my feet. My mom is still crouching down, and I look hard into her face. I want to throw things at her. I want to scream at her. But she looks small and weak, like an injured bird. So I dash back onto our floater as hot, salty water floods my eyes. I need to wreck something, anything, so I flip over the table and kick the chair down, and then I curl into a ball in the middle of the floor with my head between my knees.
I try to slow my breaths, to quiet myself, to calm my heart. But it just has the opposite effect, because the realization hits me even harder—I have missed out on Victoria for the fourth year in a row. I won’t see enchanted flowers or big baboons. I won’t have stories to share along with Uncle George’s. I won’t get to do what I set out to do.
I hear a thud as the rope hits the deck. My mom is undocking us, getting ready to push us from the wharf. I feel us start to turn, and then I hear a whirring sound as my mom raises the mainsail. I lift my head up and look at Victoria behind us, blurred by the water in my eyes. It feels like a snake is wrapping itself around my body, squeezing me tighter and tighter until there’s no air in my lungs.
I let my arms fall to my sides. I feel a little lump beneath the fabric of my pants, and my fingers instinctively slip into my pocket. I pull out the stump of an old brown cigar and twist it between my thumb and forefinger.
All at once, the invisible snake around my body lets go and everything becomes clear. I put the cigar back in my pocket and twist my neck to see my mom busy with the sail. Then, I inch myself to the other end of our floater and slip into the ocean.
For a few moments I paddle in the quiet dark beneath the wooden planks of the wharf, towards Victoria. Then, the sound of my name floats on the water to meet me. My mom’s voice is high and frantic and it claws at my chest, but I can’t turn back now. I have to reach Victoria.
Halfway down the dock I hear urgent footsteps thumping overhead, back and forth, back and forth. I keep swimming, kicking below the surface, noiseless.
Finally, my hands find sand, and I’m wedged between the ground and the underside of the dock. I peek my head around to look onto the beach, and watch as people in black shirts and beige shorts walk back and forth on the sand.
I take a few breaths, try to steady my heartbeat, but it’s useless. I wait for one more guard to pass out of sight. Then, I run.
My feet sink in the sand. My body is thick and heavy on land and it’s as if time has slowed down while I sprint to the trees. My stomach flips upside-down and turns around and around, doing laps inside my body. I try not to vomit.
I’m almost to the tree line, about to disappear into the jungle when a voice calls out behind me, “MELANIE!”
I keep on running, but I can’t help turning my head at the sound of my name. My mom is standing where the dock meets the beach, a guard beside her. Her face, straining against the blinding sun, is the last thing I see before everything goes dark.
I open my eyes to blackness. The ground is rocking beneath me and my cheek is plastered against a hard surface. The air tastes salty. My head is throbbing.
I blink hard until I see reeds before my eyes. I place my hands flat on the floor and lift myself up to sit. I turn to see my mom sitting in the chair at the table on our floater. The expression on her face makes me wish I were still asleep. It’s pained, as if someone just kicked her in the stomach. As if I just kicked her in the stomach.
Before I can ask, my mom says, “You ran into a tree limb. It knocked you out.”
I feel my cheeks flush in the dark. If a guard took me down, that would have been one thing. But running into a tree on my own—a hot liquid swirls in my gut at the thought.
I feel my mom’s cold stare burning a hole through me. I just keep looking at the floor beneath me. I wish I wasn’t awake. I wish I were dreaming.
“How long have you had this for?” my mom says. She’s spinning the half-burned cigar between her fingers, but it’s dark brown now, almost black, damp from my swim under the dock.
“A year and a week,” I respond.
“I wanted to throw it into the volcano.” I say, but I don’t tell her the reason why—so that a bit of my dad might exist inside Victoria. So that whatever skin cells, whatever saliva of his that was still on that cigar, could experience nothingness and forever at the same time.
My mom turns away from me and looks down at the surface of the table. She stares hard as if she is reading a very important document, but there is nothing there. She lets out a long breath.
“Next year. Maybe next year.”
All I can do is stare at my mom as the walls of my chest collapse in on my heart. I lower my spine back down onto the deck and turn onto my side, looking without seeing at the wall of clustered reeds an inch away. My eyes are dry from my swim in the salt water, but I refuse to shut them. I won’t blink until I see Victoria again.