Flynn slipped into the Pacific and never got out. This is how it happened:
Atop a craggy Haida Gwaii coastline, she hopped from stone to stone. She crouched to poke sea anemones and laughed when they recoiled into themselves. Starfish in palm, she turned and smiled. I snapped a picture for you. Black braids, blue raincoat, gum boots, ten years old; your daughter moved like an otter, with curious zeal. But she had my hair, glossy like oil. Dark eyes like mine. Skin beige like mine. A young face still easily attributed to me. To everyone but you, we could have been father and daughter.
She scrambled higher up the rocks, and I followed with cautious steps. Closer to the cliff’s edge, she jumped a fissure and landed with her hands on the rocks, pockmarked stone sharp with barnacles or open mussels. She neared the drop-off, kept her stance wide, but leaned forward, toyed with gravity, to peek into the ocean.
“Flynn, careful,” I said.
Another jump, away from the edge, but her toe caught a seaweed weft, tripped her forward, wrenched her down, tangled her in air. No scream while she fell, instead a clutched gasp that whistled at the end—a punctured shriek. Waves devoured the sound of her splash.
She landed in a cleft where water siphoned through stones, spit up the cliff side, then towed back out. My first instinct was to jump, but the sea wasn’t calm. A violent whirlpool of spray and rock, where water churned stronger than swimmer and could throw or snap me—and Flynn—against its edges. Like a black hole of ocean, gravity twisting inwards and not letting go. It could crack a skull; it could smother lungs.
If I were her father, I would have jumped. I would not have hesitated upon seeing the sea’s teeth; I’d be in the maw right now. Maybe my hand would find hers through the colliding waves. The rapids would crush us both against stone, redden the black water, marble the sea foam. We would drown side by side. Once limp, the sea would wash us out, rip us apart again.
Instead, I stared into the ocean, rabid froth clinging to the cliffs. I couldn’t see her. I called her name as if she could hear me, when I could barely hear myself. Water replaced air in her lungs, and I watched the ocean spin, heard it crash. The thunderclaps against the cliff seemed shockingly quiet.
I met your daughter in January, eleven months ago. You answered an ad I’d posted in libraries and rec centres: Mandarin Tutor. My story is similar to your daughter’s father’s. Our parents immigrated from China, from neighbouring provinces even. We were both born in Vancouver. I used to visit my family in China every few years, with my parents, then my wife, then I stopped. Over and over, I tell myself I’ll go next year. When life is calmer, I’ll go. When life is easier, I’ll wander with my cousins in the Beijing sprawl.
In your kitchen, the tiled walls veined with ivy and the air starred with phosphorescent dust particles, we stood a wide distance from each other.
“Flynn, this is David,” you said, hip against the table edge where she sat. Next to her, no one would have known you were related. Your hair was orange fluff and your eyes pigmentless. While she carried traces—round jaw, straight brows, widow’s peak, pronounced dimples—they were subtle enough to be overlooked. She didn’t lean toward you with parent-child pull, didn’t hide behind your back, didn’t raise to you wide eyes or ask you to speak for her. She sat clean and folded, calm and unsmiling, as if you were nothing but an escaped bird fluttering around her shoulders that would settle if left alone.
You told me this, once Flynn had gone upstairs, as if I couldn’t see genetic disparity. “Last week, her teacher asked me if she was adopted.” Then, questions about days and times and rates to make me forget what you’d said. Months later, Flynn would tell me she liked the question. She relished the frustration in the tight line of your lips, the bitter correction. No one saw her as a child grown from your womb, and she wouldn’t be the one to correct them.
I was never asked this when I went out with Flynn. No, instead it was, “Your daughter is so beautiful!” She is, I’d say. “Is this your daughter?” Why yes, she is.
I did what you asked, and what she wanted: I taught her our language.
“I had to convince her to let me learn,” she told me that first day I was at your house, as I shrugged into my jacket, the entire kitchen between us, her far away at the table, me in the doorway. “But I think I wore her down.”
“How did you do that?”
“By letting her know that I’m not okay with it. This is important to me.”
“It’s easier to learn something when it’s important to you.”
Then I asked her what she wanted to do when she grew up, the only question I could think to ask a child I didn’t know.
“I want to travel,” she said.
“Where do you want to go?”
“I want to go everywhere. I want to go home. I want my home to be everywhere.”
I arrived each Saturday morning at ten o’clock and each Tuesday at three thirty. We sat in the kitchen, cluttered but clean: viridian tiles, potted peace lily, plates in stacks rather than cupboards. A square of light crossed our hands. Lessons were focused since you eavesdropped around the corner, out of sight but within earshot.
“I know this already,” she said, ten minutes through the first class, in which she’d been silent except for calmly echoing vocabulary. “My dad taught me this already.”
When she spoke, I heard how much she knew. Flynn lilted her tones like she already knew the bite and feel of those sounds, slipped in words I hadn’t taught her, signed her name in hànzì with confident flicks instead of traces. This was more than drive and intelligence, adult-like mental organization combined with childlike mental fluidity. She spoke with her history.
In later weeks, you left to run errands. Lessons became messy with tangents. Conversation distracted us. Once alone, she ran upstairs and returned with a moleskin journal filled with messages and notes written back and forth in hànzì; her handwriting neat and thoughtful, her father’s organic and certain.
“This is what he’s taught me already.” She opened the journal and pointed to her name written on the inside of the cover. Flynn Zhang. “I have my dad’s last name, see?”
You signed your emails as Shelby Gallagher, and had explained this the day we met— you had to tell me before I noticed. You’d changed your name back after the divorce. “Flynn decided to keep her dad’s name.” This, you said quick and casual, wedged between, “Would you like some water?” and, “Is Sunday evening a good time?”
“She asked me to change it,” Flynn said. “She even cried, I think. She said she didn’t understand why I’d want it now. She said it would just confuse people. That it would make them ask questions. Maybe I like it when people ask questions.” She fiddled with the pages of the journal. “So I told her that if I changed it, people would just ask questions when I was with my dad, instead of with her. I think that’s when she cried.”
“Your last name is more important to you than making your mom happy?”
“Yes.” She shelved her chin in her hand.
“Why is that?”
“I miss my dad. I want to have something left of him. Mom wants me to be nothing like him. Not be half Dad, just be all her.”
Without your name and face, the only way anyone could tell she was your child was to look at your DNA. I hadn’t met your daughter’s father, but she made the divorce you referred to as ‘mutual’ entirely your fault; the divorce she would have been too young to remember save for a few distant details. I should apologize for believing her.
June. I took Flynn on a field trip to Chinatown. At a supermarket we bought durian, sat on a bench outside, and cracked open its spiny shell.
“You’ve never tried durian?” I said.
She poked the white flesh. “It smells terrible.” She peeled a small strand from the pod and winced as it hit her tongue. “You’re lying to me, or this fruit has burned off all your taste buds.”
“It’s not that bad.”
“Yes, it is that bad. I want to like it, but I hate it,” she said. “It looks like an alien and tastes like gasoline custard.” She punched her thumb through the purple, leathery flesh of a mangosteen. “Please redeem yourself and your fruit, David.”
“This one’s good, I promise.”
“You said that about the last one.” She tried it with reluctance. “Oh, this one is good!”
We kept walking. Fingers stained purple, she pointed to a bubble tea shop. “I went here with my parents once.”
“Do you want to go?”
Her answer was the door’s rainy chime before I’d finished my question. Inside, I recognized the owner, Mei. I’d tutored her son.
“You have a daughter, David? You never told me.”
In the coming months I would lie in answer to this question many times. Easier to give a quick “Yes” and continue walking, easier than explaining, easier than unravelling the judgement, the hypothetical then why are you with her? I was proud of your daughter, proud to be mistaken for her father. As if I were somehow responsible for her bravery. Were you responsible for that? She seems to have developed her personality in opposition to you.
“She’s just my student. We’re on a field trip,” I said, when Flynn approached the counter and introduced herself. I leaned over her shoulder to whisper, “This would be an excellent time to practice your conversational skills.”
“She definitely heard you,” Flynn said, “but okay.”
Mei smiled at this. Her cheeks tugged higher as Flynn ordered, her voice light, nimble on her tones, not a nervous sway.
In all strangers’ eyes we were parent-child. I learned that it didn’t take much to convince anyone. It took so little in fact that she and I ferried across the Salish Sea, all the way to Haida Gwaii, no blood relation between us, without a suspicious glance. Our shared language not spoken by passersby made us even more convincing as father and daughter. When we walked down the sidewalk, she twirled in a circle until she wobbled dizzy and I caught her arm to keep her from toppling.
While she was underwater, I approached the edge. Among the waves bubbling and spitting and battering the shore, she was gone. Invisible.
I scanned the cliffs and beach for help. There was only cold sand. Anyone else would be so far she’d have stopped breathing by the time I brought them back. And what could they even do? Stare and scream and feel their hearts consume their blood with weight, just like me? I searched for a way to climb to her, but the cliff edges were tall and the stones too jumbled to scale.
Tomorrow, you’ll be waiting at my house. You’ll be waiting for your daughter. You won’t even know that we’d left Victoria, and I don’t know how I’ll start. I don’t know how I’ll tell you that we got in the car and drove to the ferry, but only I came back. And yes it was her idea, but I’m meant to be the adult, and yes this looks bad, and yes this looks terrible—because yes, it is terrible. Because yes, she’s not here anymore. I don’t know how I’ll tell you there was a storm in the ocean and she got caught in its eye, and I don’t know how to tell you that I was the one who brought her close enough to touch that storm, reach her hand into its pull, and be sucked right in.
What I do know is that you won’t share my broken heart with sympathy. There will be no shared loss between us, not when it’s my fault, and not when there’s no way or time I could explain that I’m not her father but she feels like my child. It will be too late to explain that. These past few days, and maybe all these months I’ve known her, will be twisted into some horrific alternative—my name in the paper, Flynn’s face on the news, a line of invented violence drawn between us, the days we spent at the park twisted under false context. Parents will look more closely at their children’s tutors, or piano teachers, for a while. It will be a thing I never escape, and you will believe it, if not create it. I will have used up my chance. I will have destroyed it.
August. Flynn spoke conversationally with ease. Her favourite pastime was to go to Beacon Hill Park and make people think we were tourists. I’d questioned it, but she protested: “It’ll be fun! We get to trick people.” She would ask joggers to take our photo, holding out my phone and saying “Picture? Please?” with faux broken English. I’d spent my life wanting to be seen as part of this city, but I played, and the game made me smile. Flynn made a hobby of pretending to be an outsider, and I stopped wanting to be an insider. Why had I ever wanted to be one? I could be an outsider if I was an outsider with her.
We stopped at a bench near a pond flanked by arbutus trees. Stray leaves floated by like gulls. A red leaf maple bent at the hip and dipped its hand into the water.
“Why don’t you have kids?” she said.
Her Mandarin sounded deft; I could barely hear the youth of its root in her brain. I’d told you this a few days before. You’d only commented on how, if she kept it up, it would be great for her career. Because everyone wants to hire someone who speaks Chinese. More useful than the French she’ll learn in school. All this study for a line on a resume.
“I know why,” she said. “It’s because you don’t have a girlfriend. That’s the real question, why don’t you have a girlfriend?”
“I was going to.”
“Have kids. I was married.”
A duck hopped in front of us. She trailed it with her eyes as she spoke. “Did you get a divorce like my parents? Is that why you never told me about her? I’m not that sensitive about things.”
“No, no,” I said. In the lull, she looked at me, wanting the answer but giving me permission not to speak. “She passed away.”
“Oh. I’m sorry.” She looked back at the duck.
“It’s okay. I don’t mind you asking about her. It’s been five years.”
“She got very sick. She had a brain hemorrhage.” Sometimes I forgot this wasn’t her native tongue. I repeated the term in English, but she still didn’t know, and signalled unknowing with stoic non-response. Sometimes, I forgot Flynn was ten years old. “Bleeding in her brain.”
“What was her name?”
“Lan.” Her name sat in my throat like a soft cough, always waiting to be my next word, yet rarely spoken.
“How did you meet her?”
“On a plane when I was nineteen. I was coming back from visiting my family in China. Our seats were next to each other. She was moving here for her university exchange.”
“What did you talk about?”
“What did we talk about?” I repeated the question because I’d never been asked it.
“You must have talked about something very interesting if she thought you were interesting enough to marry.”
“Well, we talked about a lot of things. It was a twelve-hour flight. She showed me a picture of her cat. We debated a bit, I was a cat person, she couldn’t pick. We recommended music to each other. I remember we talked about a poetry book we’d both read, I don’t know why I remember that part. She was studying literature.”
“So you were both dorks?”
I laughed in a restrained way. “I didn’t understand the book. I’d read it for school years before, but she finally explained it to me.” On days after this one, I told her other stories about Lan. I had endless stories about Lan, and Flynn kept asking to hear them. The plane story alone had infinite facets that I kept telling her week by week as I remembered. How six hours into the flight she’d fallen asleep and her head tipped onto my shoulder. Young and shy I’d not woken her, but sat instead with uncomfortably still posture until she woke up hours later and apologized with embarrassment. “You would have liked her. She was very blunt, like you.”
“You say what you mean. Lan did that too. She was calm, but honest. She was a watercolourist, and a competitive swimmer, and a sailor. We sailed up to Haida Gwaii in the summers. She’d sit on the deck and paint when we were moored.”
Explaining opened up my chest, let light seep in.
“Should I not have asked you about her?”
“No, no. You can ask me about anything.”
She considered this with a tilt in her head. “What language do you dream in?”
“Both. Simultaneously. Sometimes I can’t remember when I wake up.”
“I don’t dream in both yet. Is David your real name? Why did your parents give you an English name?”
“It is, and I think they wanted me to fit in.”
“Do you fit in because your name is David?”
“Maybe. I don’t know. Do you fit in because your name is Flynn?”
She scanned the park before answering. “I’m not sure. My dad wanted to name me Yue. I wish it was my name, sometimes.”
“That would be a good name for you.”
“My mom didn’t like it. She wanted me to fit in. With her.”
I met with Flynn twice a week, then three. By October, four. I dropped my rates so you could afford it. I didn’t need the money; what I had was a fear you’d pluck another person from her life, tear one from mine.
“Mom,” Flynn chirped as I opened the door to leave. “Can David stay for dinner?”
“I didn’t make enough food for three people. Next time.”
Flynn sulked toward me and closed me in a goodbye hug. The top of her head reached my ribs. I was reminded she was a child. She puppeteered you. I gave her hair a gentle rustle to prompt her to let go. As I walked to my car, she sang her goodbye, pulling each syllable with spite.
Three days later, as I left, your daughter crossed her arms and announced: “You said next time. That was last time.”
Flynn ate in deliberate bites: salad one cherry tomato at a time, pasta one penne a bite, alternating with small sips of water.
“Do you tutor a lot of people?” you said.
“Oh, no. I started when I was in college, stopped for a while and started again a few years ago. I only have a few students right now.”
“I thought this was your full-time job?”
“I’m actually a social worker.” In your face, I saw you imagining me saving children from broken homes. That’s how I imagined myself at eighteen. And you must have thought, isn’t that noble. That must be so fulfilling. I process disability applications.
“You know, we owe so much to social workers. When I left her dad, it was an awful situation. Just getting Flynn out safely and—”
“Méiyǒu fāshēng,” Flynn said. Did not happen.
“Flynn,” you warned.
“She’s making this up,” Flynn said, again in Mandarin. “That never happened.”
“If you want to speak to me, you can speak to me in English,” you said.
“We just left. That’s all. You told me we were coming back, and you packed my stuff, and then we never did, we never came back, and now you don’t let me see him!”
“This is not appropriate behaviour,” you said.
“I don’t care.”
“I’m sorry, she’s normally not rude like this.”
“I know, I know,” I said. “Flynn, what’s going on?”
“What is she saying?”
“You’re lying!” she screamed.
“You make him sound bad, you make it sound like his fault. It’s your fault!”
“What is she saying?” You turned and closed your daughter out of your sight, addressed me with a cool tone.
“I don’t know,” I said.
“What do you mean? You don’t understand her?”
“Lie,” Flynn instructed.
“She’s just speaking nonsense. I don’t know, she’s just causing trouble.”
Flynn looked at you, and in Mandarin still: “Mom, I don’t feel loyal to you. Sometimes I think I don’t even care about you. I care more about David than you, and you’re my mother.” She smiled, you must remember the smile—dimple flanked, pulled tight in her lips but not her cheeks—and in English said, “Sorry Mom.” She was not apologizing for her behaviour that evening.
I offered to help you clean. You said no, so I offered again with a more careful tone.
“You’re a guest,” you said, and turned to ask Flynn to go upstairs, adding that she must have homework.
“I don’t,” she said, but went anyways.
I offered to help one more time, and hoped you could see this wasn’t polite courtesy. This was me needing to scrub at an apology when none of us were sure how exactly I’d tipped the balance, but the shift was quick and everything was on the floor. As the most removed, I’d definitely been the one to knock it over.
You said yes without making any sound. Strange, when people speak like that. I could hear the function of your lungs.
In the sink, suds clung to my rolled shirt sleeves. Water softened my fingers.
“I’m sorry,” you said. “She’s never done anything like that before.” You reached across me for soap, bumped my shoulder with yours in a spot that cymbaled the bone.
Speaking to you felt like holding wet clay. “I know she’s normally not like that. She’s a mature kid. Smarter than me most of the time.” I picked at burnt pasta until it gummed under my fingernails.
You flicked water from your hands. A bead struck my eye, blurred my vision until I blinked it clean, and another struck my cheek. You leaned your back into the counter, arms crossed behind you.
“Does she talk about me?” you said.
I scrubbed. The pause—filled with the ceramic scrape of dishes—answered, but the lie was already halfway up my throat. It detached and bubbled free. “No.”
“Does she talk about her dad?” You braced your hands against the table.
“She talks about you both.” I felt like a doctor diagnosing something inoperable. “Sorry, she—”
“Don’t tell me. I can imagine.” You closed your eyes. “We divorced when she was six. She doesn’t remember him. She just thinks she does. I thought she might be angry, having her family torn up. I didn’t think she’d only be angry at me. I just wanted to do my best, you know? To take care of her.”
“I’m sure when she gets older she’ll see.” I felt like I was speaking with coin-operated phrases, from a script. Select one from the list, and there’s a neutral comforting phrase.
“Helping people is your job,” you said. “What is that like? When they don’t want help?”
“It’s not the same. They’re not my children.”
“I thought this would help. You being here. This was something she wanted that I could give her. To make her happy.”
“She’s a kid,” I said. “Kids want more than they can have, don’t they?”
“Don’t you think she’s smart enough to tell what’s best for us? She’s not like other kids. She sees through everything. She stopped believing in Santa when she was five. Five. When she lost her first tooth and I told her to put it under her pillow, I couldn’t get all the way through the word fairy before she said ‘You?’ Her dad is just a Santa she still believes in. Someone she’s invented. For some reason, the one thing she can’t see through properly. But I do know better than her.”
It took until faced with her death for me to think that maybe you weren’t lying.
I tried to search for a hint of her cornflower shell in the grey waves, one shock of brightness. She’d told me she was a stronger swimmer before, in the summer when she nearly jumped off the breakwater. I’d told her not to, then, and she’d stayed back. “But it would be so fun, David!” she’d protested, leaning against the rail.
Underwater, consciousness is lost within minutes. Drowning takes only minutes more. In the seconds I’d wasted trying to save her with only her name, she’d have passed out, lost her ability to fight. Water crashed into her chest, and I felt phantom water filling mine.
You worked one room over, eavesdropping again. You did not greet me when I arrived, no more “Hello, David” before your daughter wove in front of your knees; you radiated bitterness like a nuclear core. She answered the door alone, and I left an hour later without seeing you. Flynn and I opened books as if we intended to study.
“We have a code,” Flynn said, in code.
“A code a billion people speak. That’s not much of a code.”
“It doesn’t matter how many people speak it, my mom doesn’t.” She checked over her shoulder. “You believe me? That she was lying.”
“Of course I believe you.”
“It wasn’t dramatic. It wasn’t dangerous. She makes him into a bad person. She wants everyone to hate him now, even me.” Her voice warbled like she wanted to scream, but she spoke studiously. “I want to see my dad.” She looked at you again, gazed over her shoulder while she spoke. “She can’t understand us.”
“No, she can’t.”
“She never lets me see him. I haven’t seen him in years. I can’t even talk to him. And I don’t know where he lives now.” She was ten years old, weeks shy of her birthday. Tears bleared her eyes. I’d never seen her cry before. It felt like something I wasn’t supposed to see. Something intimate that a parent sees their child in, only theirs. Children cry when they shred their knees over sidewalks or get caught plucking the flowers their mother planted. But those tears, shallow tears easily soothed, were not these tears. She cried with deep pain for her father, but with her eyes, not her chest, because she couldn’t let you hear. She had to cry with restraint. She ripped the corner from a paper sheet and wrote. “His name. Can you call him for me?”
I folded the scrap in clean halves, then quarters, then promised I would.
For a week it became hobby or habit. Since Lan died, my time had been filled with so much empty space, time filled with a cold greyness, evenings after work that couldn’t be warmed. A fog settled into the house we’d lived in, a presence, not her ghost, but the absence of it. A task was a gift.
I dedicated two hours each evening, sifting through names and phone numbers. I called every Nathaniel Zhang I found. Some answered, and the calls were short. No, she’s not my daughter. No, I don’t have a daughter. I left messages, sent emails. Some replied with wrong number courtesies. The rest provided only silence.
When you learn your daughter is gone, that her lungs and throat closed with water, that she suffocated, this is the question you will regret asking: “Can you take care of Flynn for the weekend? I’m away. Her grandmother just had surgery.” You rambled about how you hoped it wasn’t too much trouble, it was too late to find someone else, reasons all other family members were unable, the subtext being you’re my last choice, David.
I said, “Of course.”
Friday morning you dropped Flynn off with a list of emergency contacts and a duffle bag. She gave you a dull “Goodbye” in response to your “I love you.” You will not regret your last words to your daughter, but you will regret hers.
The first thing she did was wander to the desk where I’d been searching for her father over the past week. I hadn’t told her that I’d found nothing. She knew what no news meant.
“Is that Lan?” she said. In silver frames, a photo from our wedding, another of Lan at the helm of our sailboat.
“She painted these?” On the other side of the desk, two of Lan’s paintings: a stretch of skeletal cedars at a Haida Gwaii beach painted with grey and hints of green and blue, the other captured the still orange waters of the Gulf Islands. “They’re so pretty.”
“I have more, here.”
Flynn stepped aside so I could open the drawer, and I put the sketchbook in front of her. She pivoted the cover open, leafed each page like it was a moth wing. “This is your hànzì journal,” she said. “Where you keep someone you miss. Where is this?”
“This one is Desolation Sound. That’s Ucluelet, that’s Haida Gwaii.”
“You told me about that place. You sailed here.” She placed her palm flat over the painting, Sitka spruces and totems under her thumb. When she removed her hand, she’d left a tiny fingerprint in the graphite under the wash. “I want to go here. Can we go here?”
“Maybe at some point.”
“You meant now?”
“Do you still have that boat?” She lifted to her tiptoes.
“No, but we wouldn’t have time to sail there and back.”
She turned the page, to a painting of foggy coastline. Greys and blues muted and blurred, only a few trees in crisp strokes. “This is also there?”
She splayed her hands on both sides of the painting, so her fingers created a frame. “Is there another way to get there?”
“We could take the ferry to Port Hardy and drive there. We’d only be able to stay for one day, though. It’s a long trip.”
This type of answer she took, from you, as no. “Oh.” She sunk to her heels.
“But,” I said, “if we leave now, we could make it by evening.”
She shut the book. “Yes, please.”
Light rain dripped from a sky the texture and colour of rubbed charcoal. The ferry was quiet, passengers sparse. Water freckled the windows. Flynn wanted to go outside even though the deck was slippery and rain fell sideways, into our faces and down our collars, while wind levitated her hair. She leaned against the railing, looked into the waves, and reached one hand into the fog.
“What are you trying to touch?” I said.
“The clouds.” She raised the weight from her heels, transferred to her toes, and stretched the point of her finger as far as she could. I did not believe she could fall. I believed, if she jumped forward, she could fly into the mist.
The rain fell harder and we went inside so Flynn could do homework.
We found a nook of six seats, three facing three, and took the window spots. Flynn sat cross-legged and leaned her elbows on her knees.
She touched her pencil to the page, then looked up at me. “My mom would be angry if she knew we were here.”
“Yes. She would be.”
“When we get back, should I tell her?”
“Maybe. No. No, I’ll tell her.” I knew how terrible it looked. To take your child and cross the sea, you completely unaware. Neither of us ever telling you would be best, so something completely innocent couldn’t be warped by someone who wasn’t there, who didn’t know. But one of us would have to tell you, and it should be me.
She focused for ten minutes, had a habit of pressing the pencil to her nose until it left an indent, then shut her book and asked to go back into the rain. I nearly slipped on the deck, but she ran, slid with her arms outstretched. I worried I’d fall and roll into the waves, but in my mind, Flynn could only fall up: into the fog, past the sun, and into the stars.
We arrived in Skidegate when it was too dark to see anything but the beams of the car ahead.
“The air is better here,” she said, as we walked to the bed and breakfast I’d booked while we were in line for the ferry. “I think I’d like to live here someday.”
“You haven’t even seen it yet.”
“Places with air this nice aren’t ugly. I can’t wait to wake up tomorrow and open my eyes.” She crunched across the gravel with skips, and stopped to crouch so she could touch the Earth.
This morning, I found her kneeling on the couch backrest, where the windows nooked. Soft light fell from the flat grey sky, through the bay windows, and wrapped around her shoulders.
“How long have you been here?” I said.
“Since half the sky was dark.”
I put on the kettle.
“There’s no time to make tea or breakfast, David!” She bounced to her feet and tossed the quilt from her shoulders. “We only have one day! We can’t waste it. We have to go outside!”
“Okay, okay. Dress warm, it’ll be cold out.”
“I’ve been ready to go for hours.” She skipped to her feet and reached for her coat, slung over a chair back. “I know.”
She ran across the beach like she’d been tethered her whole life and was finally cut free. Her gum boots cut a pattern through the pebbly sand. The air felt like a sip of cold water; it left an icy wake through my sinuses and chest. It hummed with a steady wind. Wind coiled up my jacket through the sleeves. Driftwood spires, like fossils, and three red kayaks waited along the beach.
She scrambled up the rocks. Cedars with toughened skin braced against the wind, and lodgepole pines coiled over the rocks. The fog touched the sea and the cliffs touched the sky. With each wave, water sputtered up channels in the stone. Flynn dipped her hands into a tide pool. Hands red from the cold, she extracted a purple starfish and raised it for me to see. Her fingers curled through its groves as if they were holding hands. She set it back and we climbed higher, past the high tide line.
At the highest point, she spread her arms and the wind ballooned the droops in her sleeves, inflated her jacket hood. The cold bit her nose red. Rain clung to her coat. She spun and walked into the wind, jumped from point to point with elbows poked out for balance, spine hunched low.
I’d imagined her filled with a reserve of helium. She wouldn’t fall; she’d catch herself and float back up, to safe ground. But her bones weren’t hollow, and instead she dropped. Her strangled gasp fell after her. The sea closed her in its fingers and tugged her under.
I ran to the edge, but she’d been buried. “Flynn?” I screamed, and the world sounded loud even though it was quiet. Or, quiet though it was loud. As if her name could pull her up, lift her with a gentle hand, cradle her, set her down next to me, I kept screaming. “Flynn?”
She did not rise to the surface. She did not float up until she stood next to me. I stared into the riot of waves—and they screamed, savage and feral, clashed their teeth against the steep shore—and now I am standing here watching your daughter drown.
All this time, I believed only her. When you told me in the kitchen, “This is my best”, and “I want her to be happy”, cold trickled through my stomach. For taking the steps into his place, with eyes closed then eyes open. For knowing both your truths eclipsed each other’s, and knowing this, choosing a definite side. For how I’d seen you, for seeing that I could replace her father, and perhaps by extension, replace you. For seeing I could, and then doing so.
Wind pushes into my chest, but I step through its resistance. I reach the drop-off. I took these steps, nudged her father’s presence out and settled into the empty shape he left in her life. I have to take the steps he would.
Gravity pulls me toward her. Impact flares shock through my muscles. Cold numbs, burns, wraps, clings; hypothermia hits instead of trickling in sleepily. Like a kaleidoscope, the world shifts, tears, and fragments.
Underwater, a heavy baseline throbs in my ears like an erratic heartbeat. The current pulls at my shoulders, tries to rip my limbs from my body. I open my eyes with a salt sting. Bubbles and veins of white water churn through the ink. I’m sinking.
Lower, below the rapids, light sifts through the green-black water, molten thick but arctic cold. Below my feet, a faint dust-like trail reaches toward me. My kicking limbs sap with heat and control as the cold cinches my ribs tight over my lungs.
Her hand locks in mine, and I don’t know if she finds me or I find her. Her hair, ripped loose from the braid, whips fluidly with the current; the strands float like she’s a part of the ocean. She is a sea nymph who can hold her breath forever. Bubbles coat her lashes and lips. We are in a spinning tumult of water. The ocean roils around us. The world is black, but bubbled with spots, maybe of light. I can’t tell if we’re sinking or rising to the surface.
Shaelin Bishop is a fiction writer from Vancouver. She writes mostly at night, and is currently working on a novel. Her work has previously appeared in Meat for Tea.