The seagull hovered for a moment, then landed on the hood of David’s car.
“Look at that thing,” David said. “It’s going to shit all over the place.”
Outside, the ferry terminal wavered in the rising heat. It was the last weekend of summer and the parking lot was stuffed with people trapped in shining vehicles: busses full of Japanese tourists, hippie kids in beaters, fathers in mini-vans tapping bored fingers while their children sat behind them, staring at the back of their heads.
David smacked the windshield with his open palm. The bird looked over at the noise and waddled up to the glass, bobbing its mangy neck at nothing.
“Piss off, bird!”
“David. Just leave it,” Alicia snapped.
“But it’s going to crap all over my car!”
“So you clean it off.”
“But it corrodes the paint.”
“Right, your paintjob,” she snorted. “How could I have forgotten?”
David, who had promised himself he would stay on his best behavior this weekend, gave up, watching lamely as Alicia put her feet up on the dashboard. She crossed her arms over her knees with a defiant huff and stared at the water. Her limbs were bare and long, pulled in fetal. They’re still good legs, David decided. Firm. And her face, still pretty. You could barely tell she was over thirty, unless you looked close, or when she was pissed like she was now, her lips pursed up tight. Better watch those mouth lines, Licia, David thought. Keep pouting like that and soon you’ll be forty and no one will – Shit, David caught himself in mid-thought. Cool it. Best behavior, remember? He looked out to the horizon, trying to ignore the bird’s gaze until the tiny white ferry appeared.
“There’s the ferry,” he murmured. “Thank God.” He started his car and the seagull hopped a few times, spread its wings and took off, the hood left shitless.
First the busses, then the trucks, then the trailers, until finally David pulled into the roaring car deck, his tires pulsing over the tarmac. Clunkclunk, clunkclunk. Entering the ship’s rusted inner guts filled David with a vague disgust. He had always hated the ferry. He wished it were a more streamlined vessel, a futuristic spaceship with automatic doors and bright silver walls. Instead, he had to amble up the narrow, wood-paneled staircase like some herded cow, trying not to look at the bulging panty line of the woman in front of him. Surely humanity can do better than this, he thought as he huffed up the stairs.
When they got to the outside deck, they watched as people settled onto the white life-jacket hatches and lathered themselves in sun screen. They hadn’t spoken since the seagull incident, and David flailed around for something to say.
“Look at that guy over there,” he said. “Mountain Equipment Co-op asshole. ‘Hey, look at me,’” David mimicked, “’I’m MEC guy! I need to spend five hundred dollars on a fucking rain jacket and I’ve never even been to the Island before in my life.’”
“And look at his girlfriend,” Alicia said. “Lululemon bitch.” She fell silent again. She turned around and leaned far over the railing as though she was trying to crease and fold over the edge, drift down into the water like a falling piece of paper.
“I’m really tired,” she finally said. “I think I’ll go down and have a nap in the car.”
“You’re going to sleep now?”
“I’m tired. Could you give me the keys?”
“But we just got on the ferry.”
“David, I’m exhausted.”
“But this is supposed to be our vacation. We’re supposed to –”
“Would you just give me the keys?”
David watched her shoulder blades shift beneath the strap of her purse as she walked to the far end of the deck and disappeared around the corner. He thought about chasing after her, but what would happen next? He would have to convince her of something, but what? Instead, he looked down into the green marble of the ocean. He imagined jumping off the ship and swimming to shore: the perfect swan-dive, the sharp incision into the solid water, the masterful lunge of his shoulders as he swam far away.
David walked along the deck until he reached the smokers’ section. A pack of teenage girls puffed away in the heat, laughing and pushing against each other.
“What the fuck are you talking about, Melanie?” one of them screamed, looking around to see if anyone on the deck was paying attention. Stupid girls, David thought. Just wait. You think you’re hot shit but one day you’ll be thirty like me and you won’t know – he stopped himself again. See, he thought, this is what pisses Alicia off. Not that she’s any better. Me, too judgmental, that’s a laugh, that’s the kettle calling the pot fucking black –shit, David, can you not be a dick for just two seconds? The question exhausted him; he hadn’t slept properly for weeks now. He sat down on a bench and closed his eyes. He could feel the rumble of the ferry’s engine below, which stirred in him a terrible disquiet, muffled and bottomless. What the hell am I supposed to do now? He leaned his head back to face the sun. His eyelids were glowing, paper-thin red. In his mind, Alicia sat down beside him. She wavered, translucent with light.
“It’s gotten too complicated,” she said, placing her hand carefully on the back of his neck. “But we can go back to the beginning.”
A cool sea breeze came up over the ship and David woke up shivering. At the ferry’s prow, a group of seagulls floated gracefully above the deck. A small boy held his hand up to them with a box of crackers at his side. A seagull dipped down to him, fed, then sailed up a few meters, then another swooped down, then another. A measured, civilized feeding.
“Hey, you should try it,” the boy said without turning around.
Is that kid talking to me? David looked around the deck, now empty of people. “Try what?”
“Feeding a seagull.”
“No thanks.” David hated the thought of those dirty beaks clipping at his fingers.
The boy turned around. He wore grimy jeans and a blue raincoat that was too big for him. Between the coat’s open lapels, a green T-shirt said Sock It To Ya! in piss-yellow letters.
“Yeah, I can understand that. Seagulls are just okay,” the boy said. “Not like eagles. Seagulls can only see ahead about one mile, but eagles can see anything from ten miles away. Nothing can surprise them.” The boy’s voice was high-pitched and fast as a motorboat. As he spoke, he reached into his cracker box and flung his arm up towards the gulls.
“Yeah, eagles are pretty cool.” David had always felt uncomfortable talking to children. He never knew what they expected of him, so he usually agreed with whatever they said.
“And eagles can fly up way higher than a seagull and they’re way braver. Although, not like crows. Crows are the bravest. One time I was in the park and I saw two crows flying after an eagle. They chased it right out of the sky!” The boy’s eyes, bright and green as traffic lights, bulged to a remarkable size. David stepped back, repulsed.
“Well, this is really cool and everything, but I have to run. Have fun with your birds.”
The boy shrugged and turned back to the gulls.
David walked inside to the coffee shop, feeling uneasy from his encounter. Freaky kid, he thought. Licia can deal with children, but they’re so – Alicia. What a mess. Do I go and talk to her now? Is that what I’m supposed to do? David looked around the shop, which was stuffed with people, the long line-up for coffee curving far down the main aisle. Look at all these people, David thought. All these jerks waiting in their endless lines.
“Hey Dad!” a child’s high voice called out behind him. “Dad! Dad! Come here!”
Could that kid be any louder? David turned around to see who was making the racket. Towards the front of the line, sandwiched between a teenager and an old woman, was the boy from outside, with his silly green T-shirt and cracker box. How could he have gotten so far down the line that fast?
“Dad! Here I am!” the boy said, practically screaming now, waving at him.
Everyone in the line looked at David, waiting for him to respond. He elbowed and apologized his way to the boy, who whispered “I called you my Dad so you could come up here.”
“News flash, kid. I’m not your Dad,” David hissed. “And didn’t your mother ever tell you not to butt in line?”
“I didn’t butt!”
“But I just saw you outside. How else could you have gotten here so fast?”
“Yeah, I think you’re right. Seagulls are boring,” the boy said. “So are dinosaurs. Why study some creature that didn’t even make it? They got smushed by a big meteor.” The boy reenacted the explosion. His lips farted – kppsssh! - as he threw back his arms, crackers flying all over the place. “That’s going to happen to us, too. A big meteor will come along and we’re all going to burn up like Popsicle sticks on fire!”
David was just about to say He’s not mine to the woman behind them, then remembered that he was pretending to be the boy’s father.
“Now, that’s not going to happen,” he said, his voice deepening with fatherliness.
“Don’t be stupid. Of course it will.”
When they got to the till, the boy just stood there. The cashier stared at the empty counter. “Did you want to buy anything?”
“No, I was just waiting in line,” the boy said and stepped ahead.
How can I get rid of this creepy kid? David thought as they walked out of the coffee shop. To his right was a bathroom door. He pulled on the handle but it was locked.
“Well kid, it was nice meeting you,” he said, knocking heavily on the door. The boy regarded him for a moment, then turned around and walked away. David watched the back of his head as he crept slowly and certainly down the long aisle.
Good riddance, freak, but when the bathroom door opened, there stood the boy. Sock It To Ya!
“Okay kid, what the hell is going on here?”
The boy walked back to the sink. “I had to pee,” he said, washing his hands regally.
“No, seriously. I saw you walk down the aisle, just now. Do you have a twin brother or something? Is this a joke?”
“There she is! Look.” The boy pushed past David and pointed through the window to a woman walking on the outer deck. It was Alicia. Her back was turned slightly towards them and her hair was flying all around her head, but he could see the edge of her face clearly.
“Alicia’s awake now?” David asked himself.
“That’s not Alicia. That’s Maggie, my brother’s girlfriend.”
David looked at her again. He knew those pointy shoulder blades anywhere.
“No, that’s Alicia. She’s my girlfriend.”
The boy looked at the woman for a moment, then shook his head decisively. “No, that’s Maggie.”
“I’m telling you kid, that’s my girlfriend, Alicia Bonneville.”
“Fine, let’s go ask her,” said the boy. But by the time they got outside, she was gone.
“Shit, where is she?” David marched to the end of the deck, but couldn’t see her.
“She does that sometimes,” the boy said. “Just takes off. I love her.”
“What?” David turned back to the boy, who was smiling stupidly.
“I love Maggie.”
David looked around him again. I must have mistaken her for this Maggie girl, he reasoned. But she looked exactly like Alicia.
“That’s so weird.”
“It’s not that weird,” the boy said, stuffing a handful of crackers into his mouth. “I’m ten and she’s nineteen. When I’m eighteen, she’ll only be twenty-seven.” He nodded with a wide-eyed confidence, filling David with a paternal urge to set him straight.
“You know, nine years is a big gap, lover-boy.”
“No it isn’t. Nine years is nothing. The dinosaurs lived for over a hundred and sixty million years.”
“No, actually, nine years is a long time. She won’t want to date some kid when she’s almost thirty. She’ll want to have babies by then.”
“That’s fine. I want babies,” the boy said calmly.
“Take it from me, you won’t want babies when you’re eighteen.”
“Yes, I will. Babies are cute.”
“And didn’t you say she’s your brother’s boyfriend? So isn’t she in love with your brother?”
“She loves me. I can tell. When we all watch movies in the den, she and I always laugh at the same parts.”
“Kid,” David squawked, “it takes a lot more than that to know if someone loves you.”
“No, it doesn’t.”
“Yes, it does. It’s way more complicated than that.”
The kid smiled his stupid, goopy smile again. “I’m going to marry her.”
“Oh right, you’re going to marry her? You’ve got a lot to learn, kid, ‘cause it never works out that way,” David said. “Someone always likes the other one way more, and then they break your heart.”
“That’s not going to happen.”
David was pulled under a swell of sudden rage and, for a brief moment, imagined punching the boy right in the center of his face. He looked around to see if anyone was watching. Inside the ferry, a family of Mexican tourists, all wearing sun visors, smiled at them. The daughter gave him a giddy little wave. He unclenched his fist.
“What the fuck am I doing?” he muttered.
“Mom says swearing is for the birds, and truckers,” the kid said.
“Look, I have to go find my girlfriend. Go feed some seagulls or something, okay?”
David stomped down the deck, around the cold, shaded hull to the other side of the ship, where the boy stood on a white life-jacket hutch. His rain jacket lay neatly at his feet beside the cracker box. The boy was kicking up his legs, a gimpy karate.
“Okay, enough of this shit, kid. How did you get over here so fast?”
The boy side-chopped the air. “I’m practicing for my green belt.”
“Screw your belt! I just walked around the boat. It took me about fifteen seconds, so how did you get here so fast?”
The boy pulled his arms up into a grotesque wave. “This move is called the Standing Heron. Maggie says that’s her favourite name of all the moves. She watches me practice in my room while my brother’s playing video games. She thinks video games are boring, which is good. I don’t like them either.” The kid kicked up, barely missing David’s face.
“Don’t worry. I know what I’m doing.”
“I’m going to ask you one more time. How the hell did you get to this side of the boat so fast?”
“Hey, there she is,” the boy said, looking past David’s shoulder into the ferry.
Alicia walked through the crowded inner deck. David could see the insecure tilt of her eyebrows as she glanced at the people around her, and felt a wave of vertigo. A gentle love swooped up inside of him. She’s thinking that they’re all judging her, he thought. She worries about that too much.
“She always looks at the floor when she walks,” the boy said. “Mom says she’s insecure.”
David looked down at the boy, who nodded sagely, and considered throwing him into the ocean. The railing would be the hard part, David decided. He’d put up a fight, but once you got him over the railing, he’d go down without a splash. Or perhaps I should jump. Maybe that’s the thing to do. He imagined himself plummeting down, flailing as he tried to pull away from the swell, smacking up against the side of the boat in the freezing water.
“Okay, obviously I need to explain this to you one more time. That girl in there is not your brother’s girlfriend, okay? She’s my girlfriend. Her name is Alicia Bonneville and you don’t love her, alright? You don’t even know her. I’ve been dating her for two years … well, one and a half, I suppose, if you count the break-ups. But they weren’t even break-ups, they were breaks. That’s what she called them, they’re –”
What am I doing? This is insanity. David looked out to the islands that now crowded around the ocean. They were covered in green pine forest, broken up by the occasional mansion. I’m dreaming. This must be some kind of nightmare. He grabbed his arm and pinched himself. It hurt. He pinched himself harder. It hurt more.
“Go ahead, pinch yourself,” the boy said, mashing a handful of crackers into his mouth, “but I love her.”
David and the boy watched as Alicia reached the end of the inner deck’s aisle and headed toward the stairs, her purse slung over her back.
“Okay, if that’s Maggie, then where did she get that purse? I bought it for her last Christmas. I spent three weeks looking for the damn thing.”
“No. She bought it at a flea market last spring. I picked it out for her, ‘cause purple is her favourite colour.”
Purple was, indeed, Alicia’s favourite colour.
“Okay, fine, kid, then what’s her favourite movie?
“Harold and Maude.” True, but this was every woman’s favourite movie, it seemed.
“Her favourite ice cream flavour?”
“Chocolate Mint.” Correct.
“What university did she go to?”
“Duh, she just got out of high school. She hasn’t gone to university. She said she’s not going to apply for a year, because she wants to –”
“ – really piss off her Dad.”
“Yeah, that’s right,” The boy said, nonchalantly.
David stopped and peered into the boy’s eyes. “Kid, what the hell are you?” he asked.
“That question’s retarded. I’m a boy.”
The boy’s eyes were as green as green, and as David looked into them the whole world – the sky and the ocean and the ferry – began to swirl around the singular point of the boy’s face like water flushing down a toilet. The boy spoke to him with a new, low voice: “You really screwed things up, didn’t you? She loved you at first but you were chicken-shit for too long and now she hates you. You should hear how she talks about you. ‘David’s a coward,’ she says.”
“You don’t even know what you’re talk – ”
“- Remember the Vernon Lake incident? When you wouldn’t stop trying to dunk her? She was screaming for you to stop but you kept pushing her underwater, right in front of her whole family.”
“I was playing around!”
“No you weren’t. You were freaked out about meeting her parents so you acted like a dick. She had to defend you to her family for months after that. And for what? She told me all about it. She talks about you all the time. ‘He’s a child,’ she says. ‘David couldn’t love his way out of a paper bag,’ she says.”
The swirling suddenly stopped and the world locked back into place. David had to hold his feet firm on the ground to keep from falling over. The boy regarded him calmly.
“Please, kid, can we please just find Alicia? Or Maggie. Can we go and talk to Maggie?”
“Yeah, sure,” said the boy, his voice returned to its high-pitch.
“Really? Do you know where she is?”
“Yup, she’s going downstairs to sit with my family.”
“Can you take me to her? I need to talk to her, to Maggie.”
The boy nodded, turned around and raced ahead. David had to walk quickly to keep up with him, past the furtive smokers, through the heavy doors to the inner deck, where toddlers screamed on the plastic playground beneath their cooing mothers, down the stairs and past the arcade full of sweaty, focused boys, then through the cafeteria, where families followed a silent procession from the cashier to the condiment kiosk, mothers piling their trays with packets of ketchup and mustard, fathers looking anxiously ahead for an empty table.
When they got to the lower front deck, the boy stopped at a row of chairs. A thin, long-legged woman with perfect posture sat next to the aisle, her face buried deep in a Harlequin romance.
“Hi, Mom,” the boy said.
“Oh, there you are, David.” She didn’t look up from her book.
“Your name’s David?” David asked.
“Mom, this is David. He helped me feed the seagulls.”
The boy’s mother nodded into her book. Beside her, a large man with a red, pock-marked face stared into a spy novel, breathing heavily. Next to him, a surly-looking teenager played a portable Nintendo, his fingers moving deftly over the tiny little buttons. At the end sat Alicia. She was pressed up against the window, daydreaming in the summer sky.
“Alicia,” David said.
She looked up. It’s her, David thought. I knew it.
“Alicia, thank God.”
“Alicia. It’s me, David.”
She looked at the boy. “David,” she said, “what’s going on?”
The boy smiled at her, love-struck, his arms slack. “This guy thinks he knows you.”
“Of course I know you. Alicia, it’s me, David.” He stepped towards her, catching his legs in the long row of knees and feet. “You can’t be someone else,” he said as he untangled himself from the endless line of limbs. “You look exactly like her. Like yourself, I mean.” He stopped between the legs of the thick-necked teenager. From this close she did look younger, or happy. “Licia, please stop this. You know who I am.”
“David,” she said to the boy, “did you set this up? You are such a kidder!” She looked back at David. She laid her hand on his arm the way she always did – lovingly, cautiously. “He’s always doing stuff like this. I’m sorry if he –” her voice trailed off as she smiled at the boy. “No one can crack me up like him, though,” she said. David heard a tender current in her voice, and suddenly understood that the boy was right. Alicia was in love with the child, though she didn’t yet know it.
Just then, the loudspeaker went on. We are nearing Swartz Bay terminal. If you are in a vehicle, please return to the lower vehicle decks. The boy’s family put their books and garbage in their bags, ignoring David.
Alicia leaned forward and grabbed her purse. “I’m really sorry about David, if he tricked you. He’s a smart kid. Amazing, actually – but he doesn’t get it yet. How fragile people are.”
She smiled down at the floor and followed the boy’s family as they shuffled down the row, milling slowly into the heavy stream of passengers.
David stared after Alicia and the boy until they were gone from the deck, too confused to have a clear thought. He put one foot in front of him, then again, then again, until he was on the staircase to the car deck. In front of him, a balding man with long white hair creaked down the stairs, leaning hard on the railing. He felt something poke into his back and turned around, expecting to see the boy, but it was only a tourist trying to hold up his heavy backpack. “Sorry,” the guy said cheerfully.
When David reached his car, he looked down and there was Alicia, who lay sleeping across the back seat, her eyelids fluttering. She went to the car, David remembered. How did I forget that? He opened the door, slipped down into the driver’s seat, placed his hands carefully on the steering wheel, and began to cry softly.
Alicia sat up in the back seat. “David, what’s going on?”
Which made him cry harder. “If we had done everything differently,” he said. “That’s all I’ve been able to think about. I haven’t slept for weeks. If I had bought you that ticket to Hawaii last Christmas. Or if I had let you move into my place in the beginning, when you wanted to. Or if I wasn’t such a dick.”
He calmed down a little, still sniveling. “But there’s nothing we can do about it anymore. I think you think you don’t love me.”
Then, and not for the first time in his life, David’s heart broke. It was quite something, how it exploded all over the place in a million bloody chunks. He turned to Alicia, who recoiled against the back seat. She thinks I’m disgusting, David realized. As ugly as a hungry baby.
“David, what are you talking about?” she finally asked.
The heavy doors opened and the deck was flooded with a clear, white light. The trucks and busses and SUVs rumbled forward and pulled up onto land but David didn’t turn on his car. When the ferry man motioned him forward, he was crying too hard to notice. For a long time, everyone behind him had to wait.