There’s nothing like these fog banks—how they stop time except for the few inches in front of your face, Willow thought as she walked toward the docks.
She could hear the waves lapping against ships and wood. The only workers out so early in the morning were the ticket takers setting up their stands before the first round of tourists filed down from the Boothbay inns and cafés. Willow headed to Captain Faulkner’s Whale Watching Tours, its sign so faded it was nearly illegible.
“Morning, Sully,” she told the man sitting behind the stand. He hesitated, dog-earing his book before glancing up at the woman, her auburn hair thrown into a bun.
“Willow! A bit early to be down here, don’t you think?”
“You know my brother. . . . Rob’s just going to drop Carly off before work. I thought this would be a good way to eat up some time until he gets off.”
Sully nodded. “The deckhand was starting to get lonesome for you,” he said with a chuckle. “Been saying he’d have to start getting his coffee from the café as an excuse to say hi.”
“Oh, please,” Willow muttered. “Well, there’s nothing to stop him. If I’m not home, I’m there.” Not that leaving hadn’t entered her mind. Seems to be the thing to do these days, she thought, comes so easy for some.
“When was the last time you saw Carly?” Sully asked.
Willow gave him a sharp look. “Recently enough that my brother should be grateful for today.” She exchanged her tickets with the sailor for two wristbands. Scraping—the first word that came to mind when she thought of them, her brother with his two jobs and the girl with her messy braids. Never would’ve thought he’d be able to hold on to the kid this long, Willow mused.
Three hours later, the life jackets were making their rounds, required for everyone under the age of twelve, the voice over the speaker announced. Willow glanced at the little girl beside her, who stared down at the water beside the boat in turn.
“That means you, Carly.” The girl would have to take off Willow’s overcoat first before they’d be able to fit the orange vest around her. Willow had simply shaken her head when she saw Carly’s thin long sleeves earlier. You’d be surprised at just how cold you can get when leaning over the boat railing in the Atlantic, scanning each swell for a dorsal fin, Willow thought.
The child cocked her head. “Those are for kids who can’t swim.”
“No, they’re for kids who want to stay on the boat and see whales.” Willow motioned one of the deck hands over and took the jacket. “Arms up.”
Carly watched each move as Willow snapped the fasteners in place; the girl’s eyebrows furrowed. The last passengers filed in and found seats, some on the upper deck, some in the cabin, and some on the outside rim, like Willow and Carly. I never could have dragged Grant inside, Willow thought. Even now she grinned at what he’d always said of himself—“born to the sea.”
Carly’s voice distracted her from the memories. “Dad said you guys went out on Sully’s boat all the time growing up.”
Willow nodded. “Sure did.”
“He said you used to teach him to paint when you were kids, too,” Carly said.
“You could say that. Always thought he might’ve had a gift.” Willow almost smiled at the memory—the mild Maine afternoons before their mom would get home.
The girl nodded, and the speaker announced that they were about to embark.
Carly’s voice was small. “I don’t know how to paint.”
Willow hesitated. The girl was staring out at the waves again, her arms folded around herself. “How about drawing?”
Her niece shrugged, and Willow opened her bag beside her. Some note cards and two pens were all she had.
The morning wore on, yet they became only colder the farther away they got from shore. Willow drew five shark outlines, Carly colored in three, and the ocean swallowed one errant card when Carly took a break to lean on the railing.
Willow’s last time whale watching had been about three months ago. Grant had seemed unfocused, jittery. Even the sound of the waves couldn’t hold his attention. The thought had struck her as she looked at his sun bleached hair, his sharp jaw, that she’d either get engaged tonight or lose him. Then he showed her the acceptance letter to the graduate program. California.
Two months had been the extent of her college attendance. Goodness knows I wasn’t cut out for hour-long lectures and research papers, she thought. Maybe if I’d waited a year . . .
Hadn’t seemed like a mistake though. Not when the lab assistant with the crooked grin had started coming in for coffee every week during her shift.
Willow waved at Sully as he walked toward them, offering small bottles of water to the passengers.
“I’ve seen him before,” Carly said, looking at Sully. “At church, I think.”
Willow and Grant had visited Sully’s church once or twice, shook hands with the other older people in the congregation. The building hadn’t aged well, she’d noticed. And it had been too long since she had come as a child to remember many of the songs.
Grant had laughed as he tried to read the notes she’d scribbled on different pages of the Bible she’d brought and the memory verses underlined in crayon from grade school.
Carly grinned shyly at Sully before going back to her picture. The sailor stood by them a minute, his smattering of blonde beard shifting a little in the breeze.
“Haven’t heard anything from Grant, have you?”
Willow shook her head. “I haven’t called.”
Sully seemed to begin to say something, but looked down at the deck.
“Everything’s so new for him right now. . . . Don’t want to pull him away from that,” she said.
“Still got Boothbay, Willow.”
She arched an eyebrow. “Exactly.” Still within thirty minutes of her childhood home near the harbor. “But what about you, Sully? Any plans for this weekend?”
“Ah, you know me. Nothing much, unless one of the kids calls.”
She nodded. Willow knew there was a daughter, a son, and two or three grandkids. They hadn’t left Maine, she didn’t think. But they’d stayed in Boothbay only long enough for her to get used to how his daughter laughed like Sully’s wife did before her death, and how you could confuse the son’s voice for the father’s. Guess they haven’t needed him, though, like we have, she thought.
As another twenty minutes passed by, Willow closed her eyes to the sea breeze, to the sound of Carly’s ink scrawl.
Carly’s voice broke into her memories. “What do you think?” she asked, holding up a sketch.
“I’d say you draw like your dad. Maybe even like me,” she said with a laugh.
“I want to look at yours.” Carly leaned over to look at the paper in Willow’s lap. A small boy had been sitting on the other side of Carly, playing a handheld video game. He gave Willow a little wave.
“Can I see your pictures?”
Willow nodded and motioned him over.
“Cool,” he said to Carly. “Is your mom an artist?”
Carly looked up at Willow, wide-eyed. “I don’t know . . .” The little girl’s voice trailed off.
“You would think so from the way Carly draws, wouldn’t you?” Willow said. “We could give you some pointers, if you want to stay around a few minutes.”
Somewhere in the world, she thought, there’s the woman who named this child, who maybe has the same eyes. Willow couldn’t even remember whether they had been Carly’s hazel. But the girl could learn to have hands like mine, hands that create something, she thought.
The girl stood as the speaker crackled again. “If you look to the right side of the boat, at about 3 o’clock, you can make out an adult humpback making its way alongside us.”
The girl hopped down from her seat and started to sprint down the deck before Willow could speak. Other families stood up too, the children chattering.
“Carly, give me a minute!”
The girl looked back, her eyes wide. Willow couldn’t hear her over the others, but she seemed to be laughing.
Might be a rarer sight than the humpback, Willow thought, Carly giggling. The girl disappeared in a flash of dark hair, weaving between the moms and dads. Willow rounded the corner, hands raised to avoid knocking into anyone.
“Sorry,” she said as she brushed by a middle-aged man. “That girl’s with me.”
And I have to be there when she sees it, Willow realized.
“I see its back!” someone exclaimed as Willow reached the other side of the boat. There, tucked behind a couple of teenagers, Carly stood on her tiptoes.
The girl accepted Willow’s hand submissively. “Do you see him?” Carly asked.
Willow nodded. People were already lining the railing.
“Is that your friend?”
She looked up to where Carly was pointing. On the second deck, Sully was leaning over the railing, waving both arms as if trying to signal a helicopter.
“Think he wants us up there,” Willow said, shaking her head. As Willow and Carly walked forward, people stepped aside distractedly, everyone squinting out at the waves or scanning them with binoculars.
Sully was already part way down the steps when they reached the stairway.
A grin split his freckled face. “Hand her up.”
He took Carly from Willow’s arms and dashed up to the second deck. She followed more carefully, sidling between the other passengers.
If there was one memory that she held onto more than the rest from growing up, from when faith came easily, it would be the sailing—with church groups, with Sully, and his wife.
And all Sully’s worry over whether we’d find our way, she thought. All the words he wanted us to live out, the words she had once written out by memory, some of which still hadn’t faded.
If anyone hears my voice, Willow remembered as she followed, from which chapter or verse she couldn’t say. Did that voice sound like an old sailor’s? Like a child’s? Or the morning song of a small coastal town?
On the top deck too, people were scrunched together on the right side. But Sully’s navy posture stuck out, the child atop his shoulders.
And opens the door. What if I don’t know how to anymore? she wondered. How to take someone for his word . . .
“Anything?” she asked as she stepped up next to them.
“Saw some spray from his blowhole,” Sully answered with a wince. The girl’s fingers curled around his hair in excitement.
She heard Carly’s gasp as the humpback’s head emerged from the water, then its right fin, only to fall with a slap. The girl reached down her hand to Willow without looking away from the aqua sea.
I will come into him. Willow squeezed her hand in response. Those around her waited in silence, cameras held out.
“Aunt Willow?” Carly whispered. “Will you teach me how to do a watercolor when we get back?”
“Wouldn’t mind that.”
A streak of gray caught Willow’s eye as the front half of the whale seemed to stick up at an angle. A few people on the upper deck started clapping.
Willow sighed and pulled out the cards they had been drawing on from her bag. Carly had signed her name on the last one in wobbly print, as if she hadn’t wanted Willow to lose it among all the other whale sketches surely populating Willow’s fridge.
People began drifting back to their seats, resigned to the fact that the whale had dived. Willow wrapped the coat around Carly when she got down.
The sea-salt air was a friend to her, what she’d tasted each day since she was seven years old. And maybe that another of His voices—what never changed, she thought. What always stood open.