The moment I stepped onto the boat, I was breaking my mom’s number one rule: Never go into the water without parental supervision. But that rule was ancient. Would one tiny crack even be noticed?
And more importantly, could a party on a hundred foot yacht be considered breaking the rule? It was more like a party on a private island. Safe as houses, my grandma would say. Although my mom would say I was begging for trouble.
Ian stood on the boat with his arm stretched out to me. Mae dug her sharp elbow into my ribs, nudging me toward him. “Come on, Aye. No one’s gonna see you out there.”
I peered down the dock through the endless tangle of fishing boats, every one of them locked up for the night. The boat in front of me was the only one with any sign of life. No one was around to spot me. No one would tell my mom. Even the moon complied by sliding behind a dark cloud.
I still didn’t move.
As if sensing my reluctance, the water sent out its own plea. The waves rocked the boat. The gentle up and down motion beckoned me closer. I could play it safe and go home like a good little girl, or I could listen to my body and the way every nerve buzzed at the first scent of briny air.
I felt myself rising onto the balls of my feet, ready to jump in, then I stopped myself by lowering my heels and curling up my toes.
“Aileen?” Mae jiggled my arm.
“What? Oh.” While I stood there being the indecisive queen of the world, everyone else had climbed on board. Kids were plunking drinks into coolers, seeking out private places to … ya know, and untying the ropes so they could cast off.
Mae would never let the party leave without her. Thirty more seconds and she would get everyone to join in a rousing chorus of “Come on, Eileen,” a song she’d learned from my dad. Sure enough, she threw her arm over my shoulder and leaned in toward my ear, giggling and humming at the same time.
She sang quietly at first, then her voice grew louder while a few other kids picked up the tune.
The lapping waves joined in with their sweet siren song, the one that had serenaded me my entire life. No matter how much I longed for the water, it was always just beyond my reach. It had been years since the accident, yet my mom held on to the past like a stubborn child.
“You coming?” Ian’s hand waited for me. His gray eyes sparkled with a hint of mischief, a look I once knew very well, and I wondered what he had planned for the night. While hanging out with him didn’t thrill me, I couldn’t help but feel everyone’s excitement charging through the air. The last party he and his brother, Stephen, had thrown lasted for two days and involved a trapeze, two dozen bubble machines, and a goat.
“Pretty, pretty pleeeease,” Mae giggled into my ear. Her dark curls sprang up and down as she bounced at my side. “You’ve been talking about this party all week. You can’t chicken out now.”
And I’d hate myself if I did. Obviously, Mom would never let me go, but since I was spending the night at Mae’s and her parents had approved, I technically had permission. Who knew when I’d have another chance to go out on the water?
“Oh, what the hell.” If my mom was going to kill me, at least my last night would be spent in luxury. Ignoring Ian’s hand, I jumped onto the pristine white deck as a silly grin spread across my face.
“That’s my girl,” Mae said, grabbing my shoulders and landing with a thunk behind me.
Steven shouted out, “Let’s do it,” as he headed toward the helm. When he looked back over his shoulder and added, “Good to see you, Mae,” she giggled.
“Have fun, ladies.” Ian flashed a sly grin as he followed his brother. Within moments, the motor purred to life, churning the water beneath us, and setting us free. From land, rules, and everything.
Mae took off on a mission to stalk Steven, her crush since, well, last Monday when she’d heard about the party. Because of the boat’s size, it wasn’t long before I lost track of her. There were three levels. The bottom two were enclosed and filled with food tables and pounding music. The top level was an open deck and even had a hot tub. A few couples wandered around outside and disappeared into the shadows, but most people either went inside or to the top. I had never ridden on anything so ritzy, and if it had been tied up at the docks, I would have loved to explore. But as this was my first journey into the bay in thirteen years, I followed my instinct.
The star-filled night turned the bay into something vast and infinite, an unknown territory waiting to be explored. I dug through a cooler, passing up the fruity drinks and beers for a 7up and took my place by the port railing.
As we sailed away from the dock, our tiny stretch of Oregon coast grew smaller. The dock lights shone like ghosts, a slight mist hovering around them, waiting to guide us home when the time came. I hoped it never did. Judging by the music and laughter I heard coming from inside, everyone on board felt the same. It was quiet where I stood though, just the purr of the motor and whoosh of the water.
Off in the distance, the black outlines of dozens of rock islands dotted the bay, like shadow puppets posing in front of the star-filled sky. I tried to memorize them all so I could paint them later. A gentle spring breeze tossed my hair and warmed my skin. I reached over the side, feeling the salt spray tickle my hand.
About ten feet away, a seal poked its head above water and looked around, his movements agitated. I recognized him as one of the seals that hung out on the beach behind my house.
“What’s wrong?” I asked.
His eyes met mine, and he let out a low, purposeful growl that felt very much like a warning. When he ducked under and raced off, an uncomfortable feeling curled up inside my chest. I’d watched the seals in the bay my entire life, and I’d never seen one react like that. A moment later, three more streaked through the water in their race to get away.
From what? I could only think of one thing.
Against all common sense, I leaned over the edge. The moon disappeared again, darkening the water into a black void. My heart hammered its protest against my ribs as I searched for the threat. Please don’t be a shark. Please don’t leap out and—
I jumped, and a small cry escaped my lips. Ian appeared from around the corner, a million watt grin on his face. It disappeared though when he saw me clutching my chest and realized he’d scared the snot out of me.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “Are you okay?”
I cast my eyes out to the water, feeling stupid for letting myself get freaked out by the seals. “Yeah, I’m fine.” It was probably my own guilt for being out there in the first place. It would have been too embarrassing to explain that to him though. The guilt part. Not the broken rule. He was well-versed on those.
“Good.” Ian planted himself beside me, his eyes focused on the horizon just like mine. A silent moment passed, and I wondered why he was with me instead of inside, flirting with some freshman. Ian and I had been friends as kids, but middle school had brought an end to that. “So, what do you think—?”
The boat lurched, and the world dropped into slow motion.
I lost my balance and slammed into the railing. The top part of my body tilted over the edge, and in my mind, I realized my mom was right. This was a very bad idea. But my body told my mind to shut up. As my fingers grazed the water, a shock went up my arms and sent tingles along my skin. I had come into the bay for a reason, and it wasn’t because I wanted to ride in a boat. Every inch of me longed to know what it felt like to be completely surrounded by water.
As if sensing my curiosity, the waves reached up to me, wrapping themselves around my arms and pulling me forward. Reality didn’t set in until I sucked in that first lungful of salt water. And with reality, came panic.
Water. Me. Drowning. Bad, bad idea.
The world snapped back to normal speed as I screamed and flailed, feeling for anything to grab hold of.
Strong arms wrapped around my legs, and despite my kicking, hauled me back into the boat. I landed on trembling legs and clutched at Ian’s t-shirt, coughing and gasping. He held tight to my waist while I buried my head into his shoulder and tried not to cry.
“It’s okay,” he said. “I’ve got you.”
I nodded, unable to speak. I felt like the railing had left a dent in my stomach, but that wasn’t what had silenced me. If I had gone over … Oh, God. And what scared me even more was that part of me had wanted to be engulfed by the water. It had happened once before, and I knew how badly that turned out.
“Th— thanks.” I lifted my head from his shoulder. I should have pulled away right then, but I needed to feel stable for just a moment longer.
“You’re welcome.” A hunk of blonde hair fell across his forehead, and I remembered how I used to brush it out of his eyes. And how he used to smile when I did it. As if on cue, that perfect smile appeared. “You know, swimming isn’t such a bad idea. There’s a cove about a mile east. We have some wetsuits downstairs. What do you think?”
That you had a chance with me in eighth grade, but you cheated on me with Sarah Brewster.
“Um, no thanks.” I eased out of his grasp, but before I got two steps away, the boat lurched again. I grabbed him by the sleeve. “What was that?”
A grinding sound came from the propellers. Ian’s head snapped up toward the helm. “Steven, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”
I followed his gaze and saw Steven yanking hard on the wheel. “We’re caught on something. I don’t know what. Let me try to—”
A scream ripped through air, followed by a dozen more, all coming from the back of the boat. Ian and I ran toward the crowd to look down at the propeller. As I pushed through, some girl stumbled backwards, spilling her beer all over my shirt, but neither of us cared. I doubted she even noticed because of what she was backing away from.
Tangled on the blades was a thick rope, and tied up in that rope, was a dead girl floating on her back. I didn’t recognize her, but she looked about my age, maybe older. It was hard to tell. She was blue and bloated, and the pain in my stomach turned into heart-pounding nausea. I grabbed hold of the railing, ready to be sick.
“Steven, cut the motor!” Ian shouted over everyone’s cries.
“Um … Ian.” Some guy elbowed him and pointed across the water.
Red and blue lights flashed through the darkness, approaching us with a speed and purpose that turned Ian’s already panicked face a ghost white.
“Oh, shit,” he said.