In this excerpt from my work-in-progress, Eleanor is fourteen years old, and spending a day with her only friend, Jack.
August arrives with a storm.
Eleanor and Jack are on the pier, perched on the tall base of a lamp post, looking for whales. Word had spread through town that morning that a pod of grays were resting in the harbor, just beyond the marina. The pier is clogged with tourists and locals alike, men and women in shorts and tank tops and flip-flops. The tourists are pink and rosy, scorched by a sun they hadn’t planned to encounter above the Oregon coast. This is a mistake Eleanor and Jack giggle at. You can always spot the tourists, the locals say, by their lobster-like faces.
But today the rain comes from nowhere, and the tourists scatter, leaving mostly locals behind. Eleanor and Jack climb down from the lamp post and fill in the gaps that the tourists have left. They lean on the railing, squinting through the powerful downpour.
“I don’t think they’re really here,” a woman to Eleanor’s left says.
“Hush,” the man beside her says. “They’re waiting for the looky-loos to clear out.”
Jack elbows Eleanor, and they both grin behind their hands.
Eleanor hasn’t thought about her accident in weeks. Her neck has healed; for a long time it hurt to look in any direction, and then one day the pain was gone, and she just didn’t think about it any more. She finished her makeup classes by the end of July, and since then has spent her days on her bicycle, patrolling the town with Jack. Today their plan had been to bike to Rock, a little town just down the coast from Anchor Bend. There isn’t anything to see or do in Rock, but Jack had told her that the journey was adventure enough, and she had agreed. Then they had heard of the whales sunning themselves in the harbor, and had left their bicycles chained to a street sign, their plans forgotten.
“I don’t see them,” the woman says again.
“Wait,” the man says. “Be quiet.”
Jack and Eleanor lean over the rail as far as they can, fifteen or twenty feet above the gray sea, and watch the rain spatter on the surface. Sea gulls bob on the slow waves, flapping their wings in place. Now and then one lifts off and noisily relocates itself some distance away from the others, and then a few seconds later, the others follow, and the cycle begins again.
The whales surprise Eleanor. She has fixed her gaze on the water just short of the horizon, expecting tiny whale bodies to bump to the surface, spout a tiny jet of salt water into the sky, and dive deep again. But they appear no more than twenty yards from the pier, three of them, a clear family unit. One whale is as large as the pier is long, and Eleanor gasps.
“There!” the man cries.
“Where?” the woman asks. “Where are they —“
The man grabs the woman’s head in both of his hands and turns her face in the direction of the beasts.
“Ohhhhh,” she sighs. “They’re so big.”
A medium-sized whale is a few yards away from the largest one, and between them a small one floats, turning over once, then again.
“It’s a family,” the woman says. “That’s the baby.”
Jack shakes his head and whispers in Eleanor’s ear. “I’d call them tourists, but they actually live near me,” he says.
Eleanor watches the whales drift by. They seem to be in no particular hurry. The rain patters on their bodies. Their flukes are the size of a car.
“Pretty big,” Jack says.
Eleanor doesn’t answer.
“Hey,” he says. “You okay?”
Eleanor cocks her head without taking her eyes from the whales. “What?”
“You alright?” he asks again.
A fourth whale surfaces, smaller than even the baby. It swims hard to catch up to the rest of the little pod, though they are not moving quickly. Eleanor watches it carefully, and feels as sudden urge to scoop it out of the water in a net — a very large net — and take it home and put it in her bathtub, and keep it warm and pat its back, and laugh when it spouts water all over the bathroom.
“Eleanor,” Jack says. He touches her shoulder, and it breaks the spell, and Eleanor looks at him.
“What?” she says.
“You’re spacing out.”
She looks down at the whales again. The medium-sized one dips below the surface, then the baby sinks, too. The littlest one isn’t far behind.
“Wait, wait,” the woman beside Eleanor says. “They didn’t sneeze yet! They have to sneeze, I have the camera out!”
“It’s not called sneezing,” the man chides.
The largest whale slowly turns over, its enormous flukes like an old fashioned paddle-wheel boat, and then it, too, goes below. Eleanor watches until the whales descend too deeply, until their shapes fade from view, and then her vision refocuses on the slapping waves the beasts left behind on the surface.
“God damn it,” the woman says. “I wanted to do the one-hour photo and go show Charles.”
“We can wait,” the man says. “They’ll come back up.”
But the skies really open up then, as if the ocean itself is falling from the clouds, and in an instant the people on the pier are drenched. The downpour is loud and drowns out the woman’s shout, but she shouts something, and then she and the man run for the parking lot.
Eleanor stares at the place where the whales were. The rain churns the sea until it seems to boil.
“Hey,” Jack says, putting his hand on her shoulder. “I don’t know if you noticed, but it’s really raining now.”
Eleanor looks up at him.
“You okay?” he asks again.
Her red hair is dark with rain and plastered to her face. It has grown long over the summer, framing her face in a way that Jack has noticed. Eleanor has only been half-aware of the way he looks at her now. She understands that he is attracted to her now, like boys are to girls, but for most of the year she has been distracted, for obvious and mysterious reasons.
But she sees him now, and he raises his hand as if he might brush the wet hair from her face, and there’s a strange nervous twinge inside her chest. She feels it take her breath from her, and she looks away from him at the same instant, and the moment is severed as cleanly as a thin wire clipped by a cutting tool. She looks up at the rain and closes her eyes. It falls so hard that it stings and leaves red welts on her skin.
“We should get inside,” Jack says.
Eleanor squints at him. If he is aware of the moment that almost was, he does not show it, and she is strangely grateful for this discretion, if that’s what it is at all. She nods her head. “Dad’s office,” she says.
Jack says, “Good idea.”
They leave their bikes chained on the street and run instead, their feet smacking against the wet road and splashing in deep puddles that weren’t there just a few minutes before. The waterfront road is empty of people, and Eleanor glances to her left and sees that every shop is filled with wet people, some of them pressed to the windows, forlorn and disappointed by this turn of weather.
For nine years, Eleanor has walked into her father’s little real estate office and been met by Geraldine’s wide, buoyant smile. Gerry mans the reception desk as if it is a great ship, and she is its captain. Eleanor has always thought of Gerry as the captain of her father’s entire office. She has worked for Paul Witt Realty through two divorces — the first ended shortly after she was hired, when she returned home for her lunch break and discovered her husband in bed with a woman she did not recognize; the second fell apart when her new husband decided that he would like to be a she — and through the loss of her two sons. Gerry’s boys were much older than Eleanor, but she had suffered plenty of hair-touslings from them when they visited their mother at work.
Eleanor remembers the last time she saw them. It was after Esmerelda died, so she must have been eight or nine years old. She was flattened on the green sofa in her father’s office, drawing pictures on his stationery while Paul sat behind his desk — an uneven skyline of manila folders and property listings and property restriction books. Had her father worked for anyone but himself at the time, he probably would have lost his job for all of the time he spent behind that cluttered desk, staring blankly through the blinds at the sea.
It had been raining that day, Eleanor thinks, though she cannot be certain. It was the sort of day that a storm might attend to. Those were gray months, a year or two into what Eleanor has always thought of as the dim years.
Geraldine had tapped on Paul’s office door, nudging it open slightly. Eleanor looked up at Gerry, who smiled kindly in her direction, then turned to Paul and said, “Mr. Witt, the boys are due on the bus in a few minutes. They just wanted to say thanks.”
“Yes, alright,” Paul had said. He got to his feet slowly. His face was pale and grayish. He moved like someone thirty years older. He reached out his hand to Eleanor, who took it and walked beside him into the lobby.
Gerry’s sons were there, dressed in khaki uniforms and squashed, short-billed caps. Their last name was stitched onto the breast of their jackets — Rydell. Eleanor looked up at her father. Paul smiled, though nobody in the room was convinced by it, and he held his hand out. The boys, Joshua and Charles, the former tanned from too much time in the sharp summer sun, the latter pale and red-haired like Eleanor herself, shook his hand in earnest.
“We just wanted to say how much —“
“It’s not much,” Paul had interrupted. “But you’re welcome.”
“They’ll eat like kings,” Gerry said. “Not every boy goes overseas with such nice care packages.”
“If Josh doesn’t eat it all on the plane,” Charles said with a grin.
But Paul had only nodded. His plastic smile weakened. Eleanor and Geraldine both noticed, but the boys seemed oblivious.
“All right, all right,” Gerry said, flapping her hands at her sons. “Let’s get moving. You don’t want to be marked AWOL before you even get to boot camp.”
Joshua nodded at Paul and stuck his hand out again. “Thank you very much, sir,” he said, stiffly.
Charles bent down and looked Eleanor in the eye. “Your dad’s a pretty good man,” he said. “You’ll be a good girl, right?”
Eleanor felt her eyes well up. She didn’t understand why. She just began crying.
Charles stood up and looked at Paul, and then his mother. “I didn’t say anything,” he said.
“Go, go,” Gerry said, folding her boys into one big hug. “She’ll be all right.”
Eleanor pressed her face into her father’s stomach. He put his hand on her head, but it didn’t comfort her the way she so deeply wanted to be comforted. His hand rested there like a weight, as if she was nothing more than an armrest. She had stopped crying. What was the point if nobody was going to tell her that things would be okay?
“I have a bad feeling about this,” he said, watching Gerry usher the boys out onto the sidewalk.
Eleanor didn’t know what he meant, but she shared the sentiment. She had only bad feelings about everything in those days.
Geraldine had eventually come back inside, her eyes shining and damp. She had taken her position behind the desk again, and shooed Paul and Eleanor back into his office, and things had returned, for better or worse, to normal. Eleanor returned to her drawings, and Paul returned to his lonely desk, and Geraldine’s sons flew first to boot camp, and then, weeks and weeks later, to their post in Europe.
They never returned, and they never arrived. Geraldine had arrived at work one morning with the same blank stare that Paul wore so often, and her grief had shaken him out of his own, at least enough that he inquired about the boys, and she told him about the officer who had come to her door. The boys’ transport plane had gone dark somewhere over the Atlantic, and it hadn’t been found. It had been wiped away like a smudge on a window, vanishing clean out of the sky as if it had never been there at all.
Paul had tried to send her home, but she wouldn’t go. She remained at her desk, captain of the ship, and continued to care for Paul and Agnes and Eleanor during their own dark days. She would bring casseroles and potato salad and pot roasts from home and send them with Paul. Eleanor had eaten many of Gerry’s meals in those days. Her own mother had already learned to drink, and was going outside less and less.
In a way, Geraldine Rydell had mothered Eleanor.
Eleanor and Jack can see Gerry inside the realty office. The rain hammers the road around them, and Jack runs for the door.
“Wait,” Eleanor says, but Jack has already gone inside.
She can see Gerry jump up from the desk and go to Jack. She exclaims over his condition, like a very animated mime, and Jack turns and points outside. Points at Eleanor. Gerry looks past Jack and sees Eleanor standing on the opposite sidewalk, and goes to the office door and opens it and yells across the street.
“Ellie, for Pete’s sake, come inside! You’ll catch cold!”
Eleanor can feel the warmth radiating from Gerry even all the way over here, across the street. The office is lit up, gold against the darkening gray sky. Her father’s blinds are pulled, but she knows he is inside his office, too. His Buick is parked at the curb. She can go inside and stand on a mat and maybe drip-dry. At least inside it’s sure to be warm. The temperature outside has plummeted, and Eleanor feels a shiver course through her body.
But she hesitates.
Her father’s words come back to her.
I have a bad feeling about this.
And Eleanor does, too.
The sudden summer storm. The whales.
It has been an unusual day.
A bad feeling.
“Ellie,” Gerry calls again. “Dear sweet Lord, come in! What’s wrong?”
Eleanor pushes the worry away. She can practically smell Geraldine’s perfume, and suddenly the only thing in the world she wants is to feel that woman draw her in close for a big, strong hug.
Gerry waves at her.
Eleanor forgets to look both ways as she steps into the street, but there’s no traffic. The sound of the rain on the asphalt becomes a sort of chant. Eleanor crosses the street, and Gerry waves at her again.
“Girl, you’re drenched,” Gerry says. She steps back into the office, but leans into the doorway, holding the glass door wide for Eleanor. Jack stands dripping in the lobby, watching Eleanor inquisitively.
A bad, bad feeling.
Eleanor fixes her eyes on Geraldine, and steps through the door of her father’s office.