I had only sit down to write a chapter. Maybe not even that, maybe even just some words on a few pages that made it look like a chapter.
But once I started typing, I couldn’t stop.
I had names; first, last, and nicked. I had paint colors and wood types picked out, flora and fauna that surrounded them in fences. I had traditions and belongings and details down to their comfort foods.
But eventually, exhaustion came over me, and I had to go to sleep.
Even then, I saw Kitt.
Tears streamed down my face, but my screams had stopped.
Now I was just staring at Paraíso with wet cheeks, watching my beloved island go up in black smoke and purple flames.
The minute Elias had woken me up, my body was in mourning. When I had asked Elias about my parents, and he had given me that look, it only confirmed what my heart already knew. Whatever was happening, they were gone. They were gone, and I was alone.
Alone except for him and Milo, Penelope and Pear. Arlene, too. They were my only family now.
I turned to take them in. Milo had found a place for himself in between my legs, so small and silent, cuddling little Arlene in his arms to keep himself occupied. Every once and a while he looked up at me said, “It’s okay, Kitt. It’s okay.”
My hands stroked his hair away from his face, his eyes sad and angry, the rest of his face confused as to why he was feeling that way. He was only six then, and Arlene was three. This was the way their little lives were beginning. With his little face looking up at mine, in tears and panic, I promised him I’d do everything to make sure they didn’t always feel this way. Not so long as I was alive.
I moved my eyes away from him and Arlene, to watch as Pear held a crying Penelope, who was more hiccups than tears. That whole time, Pear hadn’t shed so much as a tear. She’d been completely void of anything but empathy for her darling Pen.
From the age of six, she was very clear about what her priorities were. Penelope, her family, and her practice, in that order. I didn’t usually mind that much. Pear is my little sister, and I’m supposed to take care of her, not the other way around.
But watching her cradle Penelope while I mourned our parents alone? I could feel something turn sour in my stomach, and the rocking of the boat was encouraging it to fly out.
Before it could reach my throat, I turned to look at the rest of the group, and stopped at Elias’s face.
He was rowing us away from Paraíso, but his eyes were glued to it. I could see the cruel way the flames danced in his eyes.
Things did that often. Reflected themselves in the black of Elias’s eyes. Looking at them now, black was all the color they seemed to have. They were hardened, all at once watching our island and looking beyond it, thinking of more. I wondered then if he’d known what had happened to our parents. I wondered if he’d seen what had happened to them too.
He broke his stare then, to look at me.
Elias’s eyes were known for the way they could run over you. People talked about the way he drank them in, searching every inch of their skin, for what, they didn’t know. They always found it rude, the way he always avoided their eyes.
No one liked being looked at that way.
But I would.
I find it fascinating. This obvious little habit of his. I always wondered if he ever found whatever it was he searched for, if he just did that because he liked to memorize people that way. Sometimes I even think he might just do it because he likes to make people talk.
Mostly, I just wonder why he’s never looked at me like that.
Just as he’d done our entire lives, on that boat he broke his gaze to look me directly in the eyes.
Pear and Arlene always say he looks at me that way because he’s in love with me. I say it’s because he isn’t interested in knowing anything more about me.
His eyes had a look of pure pain in them, on the boat. He had doubled in age overnight, in look and in character. When he shook us all awake that night, and again when he rushed us to the boat the next morning, he had made a silent promise of protection over all of us. That stare on the boat was both another promise, and a plea. A plea to help him keep it.
Looking around, at Pear and Pen, at Milo and Arlene, I realized just how much help he would need.
I simply nodded, and wiped the last tear from my eye.
We were a family now. And we needed to find ourselves a home.
We saw open ocean for days. The boat had little space, and Milo was growing tired of only having the options of my lap and the wooden floor. Arlene was crying, for food, for warmth, for her parents. There was nothing I could give her but my words, and they only made her more angry. Pen and Pear talked quietly for hours, and Pear rarely slept. She was growing delusional and irritated, shouting at Arlene for crying and threatening to throw Milo overboard. But food and water were completely out of the question.
For the first time in my life, I felt angry that my grandmother had found an island in open ocean, and not a quiet lakeside shore.
Every so often, Elias and I switched places. He’d rock Arlene to calm her down, when she’d let him. He’d gotten Milo to settle down with stories of things he’d seen when hunting on the island. On the third night, he even got Pear to sleep, and we heard quiet for the first time since we’d left.
Penelope had gathered herself enough to stop crying, and once she’d gathered enough energy to speak, she took to playing with Arlene. Elias left the two alone while Pear and Milo slept, and made his way to my left, to take one of the oars.
“Thanks,” was all I could think to say.
We sat side by side for a while, staring off into what felt like the exact same ocean spot we’d been in since I watched Paraíso shrink into the sky. It was exhausting, rowing like this when you couldn’t see or know an end.
Just as the sun started to creep over the edge of the sea, Elias started to speak.
“I miss the way the sky would turn purple on Paraíso,” he whispered.
From how softly he said it, it didn’t even sound like he was talking to me. But he was. He was looking directly into my eyes, like always.
“Me too.” I gave him a smile, but he didn’t return it. Instead, he went back to staring ahead.
“Do you think we’ll ever find somewhere? Somewhere safe?”
“I don’t know. What is safe?”
He turned back to me with his eyebrows pinched. “What do you mean?”
I sighed and watched his eyes pinch, too. “We thought Paraíso was safe. All of us. And obviously, that wasn’t true. So, how will we really know if wherever we end up is going to be safe?”
He smiled then, in a way that made my mouth taste bitter. And then he laughed.
He laughed the way Penelope could cry. Hard.
He didn’t stop when Arlene started crying. He didn’t stop when Penelope and Milo started asking what was wrong. And he didn’t stop when Pear shook him and screamed for him to stop.
I kept rowing, faster, and Pear took up his oar. She shoved him off the bench and kept my pace, looking between me and the ocean, trying to gather what was going on.
“Why is he laughing like that?” She said.
I stared at my sister with as much concern as her tone carried. I stared at how dark the circles under her eyes were, I stared at how pale her knuckles were getting, her hands gripping that oar.
“I don’t know. One minute he was whispering and the next, I couldn’t get him to shut up.”
The water was getting violently choppy from how fast we were moving, and Arlene was getting tossed around, with only Milo to hold on to. Penelope was beginning to cry again, and Milo was shouting at his brother.
“Elli, what’s going on? Elli are you okay? Elli are you gonna die?” He was trying to tug on his brother’s arm, but Elias only slapped Milo away, swatting his tiny fingers away from him and laughing while he did it.
Milo stopped asking questions.
It took hours, but Elias’s laughter had finally turned to tears, staying just as incomprehensible as he had been when he started. Milo was looking after Arlene now, and he wouldn’t let anybody touch her.
“I’m her big brother,” he told Penelope after she tried to take her. “Leave us alone.”
She came to sit by Pear and me.
“Pear, where are we going?”
I laughed, and Pear sent a glare my way. She saved all her sweetness for Penelope.
“I don’t know, Pen. Somewhere safe, I hope. Somewhere with food, and people who can help. There’s still people we need to rescue from Paraíso. Our parents are still back there.”
I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. Our parents? She thought our parents were alive.
How was I supposed to tell her that that couldn’t possibly be true?
Before I could say anything, Elias’s cries stopped. We all turned to watch him laugh again. Pear rolled her eyes.
Elias didn’t seem to find anything funny anymore.
“You think your parents are still alive? They’re dead, Pear. Everybody back there, is dead. Every. Single. One.” His voice was scathing, each word another lick of a switch, hitting in tender spots that, up until now, Pear had kept hidden.
She stood up quick enough to capsize us. She steadied before it could happen.
“You don’t know that,” she screamed. “None of us know what the hell happened back there. They could still be fighting and putting out those fires. We’re going to send help when we find it.”
Elias stood up, and the both of them grew six inches, looking as if they were going to kill each other with their bare hands.
“Are you stupid, Pear? Did you see anybody else when we woke up? Did you hear anything when we got onto the boat? THEY’RE ALL DEAD.”
Everyone went silent, as Elias’s words sank in.
Arlene began to cry.
Milo held her and started singing, staring at his brother with tears in his eyes. Pear let a hot tear roll down her cheek, and slapped Pen’s hand away as she was trying to wipe it off.
“Look,” I whispered. “Land.”