Shark Attack in San Francisco, 2 killed.
“Oh Cordelia!” Dad spotted me hovering in the hall. The remote rested in his hand, teetering on two fingers. It overbalanced and crashed to the wood floor.
I switched my gaze to the TV, which portrayed a sunny beach oddly devoid of families and surfers. Instead, ambulance crews and police dotted the length of the coastline, and a thick yellow tape prevented people from entering the water. They held hands to their foreheads to shield their vision from the sun and conferred in huddled groups. The tickertape scrolled by endlessly at the bottom of the screen:
Shark Attack in San Francisco, 2 killed.
A memory stabbed deep. My mother and brother…
The boat crested a gentle wave, gliding along a sparkling ocean, and twisted my stomach like I was riding a rollercoaster. The bow peered at the valley. It stalled there until something large shunted the boat forty-five degrees. I stumbled against the seating and stretched for the grabrail. With my heart hammering against my ribs, I pulled myself up and looked over the starboard side. The sea remained sparkling and calm, revealing no clue as to what had collided with us. I glanced at Dylan. He shrugged. Mom pulled her lifejacket tighter.
Shark Attack in San Francisco, 2 killed.
My heart thumped in my chest as the news report ticked on and all the memories from five years ago slammed into me like a cartoon anvil. That made ten fatalities from shark attacks along the US Pacific coast this year alone. What the hell was going on? Although sharks were territorial and often defended their patches of ocean, this behavior was unprecedented. What crazy experiments was Dad conducting at the Navy lab? His explanations were starting to wear a bit thin.
I sucked in a breath. Dad turned toward me. He bent, retrieved the remote and thumbed the power button. The screen went blank. We looked at each other. Neither of us could speak.
“Breakfast is ready.” He ushered me to the table. After sitting, he busied his hands with moving the jug of maple syrup and the plate of bacon and a thousand other unnecessary things. “Here.” He placed a mountain of waffles in front me and proceeded to drown the whole thing in a gallon of maple syrup.
I pointed to the blank TV screen. “Are you going to ignore what we both saw?”
His shoulders sagged. “I didn’t want you to see that.”
“Too late,” I said, putting the cap back on the maple syrup.
“You know shark attacks are rare, right?” He held a forkful of waffle poised before his lips. “What happened to your mother, to Dylan—it’s extremely rare.”
“You’ve told me before, Dad. It was Sod’s law. Wrong place, wrong time. A crappy, unfortunate accident.” I couldn’t meet his eyes. If I looked into those compassionate blues, tears might fall. “Or so you say. But the shark that took Mom and Dylan wasn’t an ordinary shark. You must know that.”
He frowned and somehow managed to pull his whole face into the gesture, stubble and all. “What else could it be?”
“I don’t know! You’re the shark expert!” I chucked my knife and fork onto my plate. The clatter startled both of us. I took a breath, calming the building anxiety. “The fact that ten people were killed by sharks this year alone tells me something else is going on.”
Dad chewed on his waffle and swallowed carefully, then rammed in another bite. I wasn’t about to let him off the hook.
“How do you explain what happened?” I picked up my knife and pointed it at the TV, then pierced a mouthful of waffle.
“It is unusual,” he said, running fingers glistening with syrup through his short beard. “I think illegal feeding, combined with the rise in pollutants and a decrease in prey, has made sharks bolder. I don’t know. That’s just a guess. You’re not the only one thinking about it. I’m going to talk to the others at the lab when I get in.”
“You guys work for the Navy. You’re a marine biologist. Surely you have a better idea than ‘I guess?’” I jabbed my knife in little stabbing motions to emphasize my point.
He shoved his plate aside to lean over the table. “Cordy, have a little faith in me. I’m working on it. I don’t share everything with you. You still won’t get into a bath. And don’t think I don’t know you had a nightmare last night. I don’t want to add to that.”
I brushed his comments aside. “I don’t know how you can work with sharks. Walk into a lab every day, look at those sadistic smiles, and not think about Mom and Dylan. How do you do that?”
He splayed his hands on the table. “You know why. For your mother.”
I blanched. “Mom hated the water.”
“She had anxiety.”
“I know that.”
Dad’s voice lowered as he said, “A hormone in sharks’ brains is showing promising signs of regulating anxiety. How can I not?”
A renegade tear slipped down my cheek. Dad yanked his plate back and poured more maple syrup onto his drowning waffles. He took his time cutting his last few bites.
My knee bounced under the table. “Do you think it was the same shark that attacked Mom and Dylan?”
Dad coughed and spluttered. He slapped his chest a couple times to ease the food down. “Cordy—”
“It could be.” I pressed my hands onto my knee to make it stop jiggling. “Who knows what your experiments are doing to them.”
“Then we have two killer sharks swimming up and down the coast of California. Don’t you think that’s a little odd?” I snatched a piece of bacon and swirled it in a puddle of syrup.
“What I think,” he said, after swigging the last of his coffee, “is that we should change the subject. This isn’t getting us anywhere.”
“I’m not avoiding.”
Behind my head, the kitchen clock ticked a full sixty seconds. The hum of the refrigerator purred and clicked. A calendar hung next to it. The picture for September depicted an ocean scene with a boat uncomfortably similar to The Big Blue—our old boat.
Dad swiveled his baseball cap around on his head a full three-sixty degrees and fiddled with the peak, pulling it lower on his brow. “I wanted to talk to you about your birthday.”
“You’re changing the subject.”
I blotted my sticky lips with a paper towel. “I don’t do birthdays. You know that.”
He gave me one of his thin sympathy smiles. “I think it’s about time you did.” Lifting my plate, he placed it on top of his. Then he folded his hands on the table and waited me out.
I half stood, tucking my legs around the stool. “I don’t want to be late for school.”
“You don’t have to be there for a while yet.”
I eased myself back into my chair and focused on the suddenly interesting condensation pattern my juice glass had made on the wood table.
“You’re going to be eighteen.”
Not looking at Dad, I ran my fingers up and down the side of the glass. “I’m aware.”
I remained fixated on the tabletop.
“Cordy.” His voice softened. “It’s been almost five years.”
“I’m aware of that too.” I met his eyes, surprised to find them watery. “I think about them every freaking day.”
He took the glass out of my hand. “So, what do we do now?”
I lifted a shoulder. “I guess we keep on keeping on.”
Dad reached for my hand. “I don’t think that’s enough. I want you to be happy.”
I wiped the dampness away from my eyes. “I want to be happy too. But I can’t. Not without them. Not while other people are being killed by some serial killer shark.”
Dad brought his coffee cup to his lips, must have realized it was empty, and put it back down. He blew out an extended breath, which ruffled the sparse hairs of his moustache. “What do you think Dylan would want you to do?”
I recalled the worst day of my life. The day he and my mother died. The day he tried to steal a bottle of beer from the cooler. At thirteen. “Something outrageous.”
“Will you at least think about it? It doesn’t have to be a big deal. You could do something small with Trent and Maya.”
Dad pressed his palms against the table. “You deserve it. We…I…you…need to move on. We need to celebrate the happier times in our lives. You need to stop being chained to the past.” He stood, gathered the dishes and carried them to the kitchen sink. He rinsed them and loaded the dishwasher, the clang of the plates fraying my already unravelling nerves.
I traced the condensation pattern with my finger, spreading it across the table. “Maybe.”
He stared at me, seeming to assess my sincerity, my willingness to cooperate. “Okay. Good.” Stooping, he kissed the top of my head. “I’ve gotta get to work. You’ll be okay?”
I nodded under his lips.
“See you for dinner. I’ll bring back some fish from the market.”
“See you for dinner,” I echoed.
Dad grabbed his work satchel, keys, and cellphone and then left the house. The back door caught on a breeze and slammed behind him. Above my head, the kitchen clock continued to tick, and the refrigerator clanked and whirred. The calendar picture called at me, mockingly. But I couldn’t sit there all day trying to avoid thoughts I could never escape.
Rising from the table, I glanced briefly at the TV, picturing the widening jaws of the great white shark from my past. I shook my head, trying to dispel the image. Not daring to glance at the spare room or think whose room it used to be, I walked past the framed family prints dotting the hallway. I refused to take in the wide smiles and arms around shoulders of a life long ago and stepped into my room. Today was the first day of my last year of high school. A milestone, if I cared enough to think that way. Maya would be all over it.
I hovered in my doorway, my hand grasping the cool of the brass door handle. Inside, the scrunched pillows, askew lampshade, and twisted sheets spilling onto the floor revealed the extent of last night’s nightmare. I wished, for the millionth time, that everything was different.
Tasting salty tears at the back of my throat, I struggled against the graininess of tiredness and drooping eyelids. A morning breeze blew through the open window and billowed my curtains, making humanoid shapes of the woven fabric.
I straightened the lamp shade. Underneath sat a framed photograph of my family: mother, father, daughter, and son, like many other families. The picture was framed simply and elegantly in a band of thin silver, and it glinted under the soft lighting of the lamp.
The four of us sat on the beach wearing shorts and T-shirts and backward baseball caps. Our smiles were wide and twinkling; the great American toothpaste commercial. Our arms were thrown around each other. Dylan had planted bunny ears above my head. It had been taken five years ago, almost exactly. Right before the attack.
A dorsal fin appeared on the crest of a foaming wave. My heart rate ratcheted up a notch. Twenty feet away, the fin hovered on the crest. The dark shadow beneath the waves snaked one way, then the other. Jaws burst through the surface. Jaws bigger than I’d seen in any movie or documentary. Impossible jaws. Three lines of serrated teeth. Two rolling black eyes. Intelligent eyes. Eyes that portrayed a murderous purpose. My pulse thundered in my ears, and my hands turned slick.
“Holy…” Dylan muttered. His thirteenth birthday badge glittered in the sunlight.
“Chris,” Mom yelled, pointing at the advancing shape. She leaped across the deck, slipped over a rope, and went sprawling, bumping her head against the fixed seating. Dad let go of the wheel and ran to help her.
“It’s a great white,” I said, tensing against the guardrail.
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