by Cameron Walker
Cameron Walker is a California-based writer. Her short stories have appeared in New South, District Lit, PANK, and Levee Magazine. Her essay collection, "Points of Light," won the Tamaqua Award from Hidden River Arts and will be published next year.
As Sophia packs to leave, Miles tells her that he’s really almost done with the boat. Soon they will sail out of Monterey Bay and turn south to find the place they were meant to be. Sophia says that he is asking for more time than she can give, and that if he could see that he was already in the place he was meant to be, she wouldn’t be leaving.
She tries to give him the watch back before she takes the train to her sister’s farm in New Mexico. “No, you keep it,” he says. “Sorry it can’t give you back the time you wasted here.”
In the days after she leaves, Miles texts Sophia the questions he meant to ask. Won’t you miss the water? Does everyone really wear cowboy boots and put green chile on everything? Have you seen any aliens yet?
When she doesn’t respond, Miles begins taking photos of the sunset for her. This is what had pulled them together at the end of each day, the golden hour before the sun fell beneath the horizon, the blue hour of twilight that followed. The next day started soon after, with Sophia leaving before dawn for an early shift at the café in Moss Landing. Miles would work on the boat until she returned, and they would both work some more. Sophia pulled out her sewing machine, made sails and jacklines, fixed covers and canvas and upholstery. She sang to herself all the while. Bits of songs--she’d never been in one home long enough as a child to learn a whole lullaby. Miles loved the patchwork songs, and the boat seems to respond, too, swaying beneath them as they worked, even when the harbor water beneath them was a still, sullen green.
In the late afternoon, Miles would ring the bell in the cockpit—eight rings, signaling the end of a watch. Then they would motor out as far into Monterey Bay as the boat could manage. He and Sophia would watch the sunset. They talked about how different the sun would look on the open ocean, when the ignorant fist that was the land didn’t tug back at them anymore.
Miles doesn’t ring the bell anymore. The boat is timid and touchy without Sophia; the bolts he has just replaced loosen and rust. Still, some of the sunsets over the bay are clear, the sun knocking cleanly against the rim of the horizon. Other times the sunsets are blood-red, striped with clouds, or too foggy to see. Occasionally Miles will send a note along with the photo: No green flash yet! Or There’s a fire somewhere that’s making this beautiful. Once, a sea otter bobs next to the boat and cracks open the sea urchin on its chest to the same rhythm that Miles types out his messages.
Sophia never replies. Six weeks later, Miles runs out of money and he gets a text back telling him that he has THE WRONG NUMBER AND DON’T YOU HAVE ANYTHING BETTER TO DO THAN WATCH THE SUN SET?!? Miles gets a job on a construction crew and sells the boat to a woman who plans to name it Unsinkable II. He and Sophia had been waiting for the boat to be done to agree on a name. “What happened to the first Unsinkable?” Miles wants to ask the woman, but the boat is already on the trailer and pulling away.
Miles hears a thin whimper. The boat? No, it’s the harbormaster’s dog, wheezing in its sleep. Or maybe it is him: Miles’s chest feels like someone is pulling duct tape off the skin, piece by piece. He touches his back pocket, where he put the woman’s check, until the feeling goes away.
Sophia loses her cellphone at Union Station in Los Angeles, but she can’t seem to lose the watch. She can’t even rally enough energy to unbuckle the watch from her wrist, even though the dial that shows the time in Roman numerals is now always an hour behind. Miles built the watch and gave it to Sophia when sailing to find a new home was something they had dreamed up together, rather than an idea he had put on her like a too-warm coat.
Maybe Sophia would like the watch it better if she knew how it worked. On the boat, she hadn’t helped Miles with the more involved mechanical issues. Getting that deep into the boat’s inner workings seemed like it would be trespassing—too close to Miles’s heart or to the boat’s, she wasn’t sure.
A semicircle cutout on the watch face shows the phases of the moon. Another set of dials tracks sidereal time, measured by observing stars. “It’s a little less than four minutes shorter than a regular day,” he had explained.
At first, the spinning of the different dials—complications, Miles called them--fascinated Sophia. But soon the watch felt too much like the two of them, slightly off cycle, judging their position against different points in the sky.
Now Sophia turns the face of the watch inward so she won’t snag it against anything at the new restaurant where she works—a place where each of the dishes has the name of some desirable quality—Empathy Pancakes, Sweet Potato Devotion. Outside the café is a river filled with rocks and the pink fringes of thistles, but no water. Dust and altitude and parched air exhaust her. She sleeps readily, heavily.
On Mondays she walks to the library after work to wait for her sister, Mia, who is out delivering farm boxes. Sophia sits with a book in one of the stuffed armchairs and closes her eyes. Only the pulsing suck and hum of the vacuum rouses her, hours later.
The man pushing the vacuum is wearing a striped button down and dark pants with pink socks that flash out from underneath the cuffs. He bends to clicks the vacuum off so that she can hear. “The children’s area is closed,” he repeats. “But the makerspace upstairs is still open.”
The makerspace is a room enclosed in glass in the center of the library. On the outside there are posters that consist only of words with exclamation marks. CREATIVE! INNOVATIVE! WORLD-CHANGING! The overhead lights inside are aggressive and there is a huddle of preteen boys in baseball caps and braces but there is also an empty chair. Sophia sits and puts her head down on the table.
“Here’s what you need to get going,” a voice says. It is one of the boys, this one with a worried smile. “We’re making circuits.” He gives names to the pile of supplies he pushes in front of her: copper tape, batteries, LED light. She wants to glare at him until he migrates back to his friends, but her traitorous fingers reach for the copper. Five minutes later, the small green light flashes on and off, on and off. Every time the light goes on a small hum of pride ignites in her throat. She returns, night after night, for this feeling.
The man who sits in the back booth at the restaurant a few weeks later reminds her of Miles, although she can’t say why. This man has a scraggly ponytail and perfect white teeth, while rumple-haired Miles had two front teeth that overlapped slightly, as if embarrassed to show all of themselves. Sophia carries a cup of coffee to the man’s table, the saucer taut between her hands so that it doesn’t spill. The bell on the front door rings. A woman wrapped in scarves—they cover her head, her shoulders, her waist, they drag from her like tails—has started through the door only to be caught halfway, several grocery bags in each of her bundled arms.
Sophia sets the coffee on the front counter and goes to the door, pulling at it with both hands. The wind outside yanks back.
Finally, the door gives. “Thanks,” the woman huffs, and pushes past her. Sophia peers up at the mechanism that is supposed to prevent the door from slamming. She wiggles the door back and forth, and the bell rings over and over.
“What about my coffee?” the man calls from the back. “I see it sitting right there.”
“One moment,” Sophia says. She stares at the mechanism, trying to imagine how it works.
“Hello!” The man stands up and his chair shudders away from him. “Are you going to bring me my coffee—my Exuberance Espresso--or do I have to get it myself?”
Several things then happen at once. The man pushes through the tables and grabs for the coffee. The woman in the scarves swings one of her bags around as she takes a seat. Sophia senses exactly what is wrong with the mechanism. The spring inside the door closer is too tight. If she loosens the screws on the bottom, it can swing more freely.
Sophia turns to get the screwdriver from beneath the cash register and the man trips over the woman’s bag and the coffee flips over in the air and onto the checkered linoleum floor. “Jesus,” he says, pulling his stained shirt away from his body. “What is wrong with you people?”
The woman unwraps a purple scarf from her right arm and begins to dab at the man’s shirt without speaking. The man arches away from her, disgust widening his face. “Get away from me,” he says. He is nothing like Miles, Sophia realizes, and for the first time, she misses Miles and his rumpled hair and relentless hope.
The cook, a narrow woman with a face ancient as sandstone, strides out from the kitchen with a whisk and levels it at the man. “You—out!” she says. To Sophia’s surprise, the man scrambles over himself to get to the door, where he is caught for a moment, halfway out, before slipping away. “Some people,” the cook says. Her face erodes into a smile that scans over Sophia, taking in Sophia’s tentative mirror of a smile, the screwdriver in the girl’s hand, the way her apron hugs against her belly. The cook sighs, and Sophia has another sudden understanding about the strange exhaustion she’s been feeling, about the way parts fit together to make something new.
Mia and her husband, George, have bees and chickens and goats and, now, Sophia. Mia and George are usually bruised with smeared dirt and their backs ache and they have no money to fix the cracked window of their truck. The jars of honey set on the kitchen counter glow like stained-glass window, amber and yellow and brown. Sometimes Sophia cries when she sees the light pour through them.
Mia tells Sophia to take a pregnancy test to be sure. George says Sophia can use any tool he has as long as she puts it back where she finds it and doesn’t hurt herself. After work, she begins to take the watch apart, piece by piece, drawing pictures for herself at each step so that she will remember how she got here.
One night Sophia picks apart the complications and, hundreds of miles to the west, the boat twitches on its tie-down. There are gulls overhead and the domino line of dock planks and to the west, the pull of the sea. Sophia works on into the night, and the fibers inside the distant knots ease their grip on each other, relax their vigilance. In the morning a piece of rope will be found on the dock, curled up onto itself like a baby.
Days later, Miles is driving up the coast after work when he feels something following alongside him. The muscles in his chest ache from levering 2x12s into place for the entryway of a house that will overlook the sea. He can’t look away from the road, which is lined with crosses and plastic flowers to mark where someone watched the water a moment too long. The hovering presence stays just beyond his shoulder, like how the moon used to follow him from the window of his parents’ car. His parents are long-dead and so is the feeling of being taken somewhere that he knew was home.
The followed feeling doesn’t lift—sometimes he imagines that it is a pelican, flying low over the water. Sometimes he imagines it is Sophia. One evening the setting sun bores into his eyes and he can’t take it anymore. He pulls across the centerline to the guardrail and flings himself out of the truck. There is a flapping down below him. Miles scoops up a stone from the dazzle of broken glass and bottle caps on the shoulder and hurls it toward the sea. Only then does he look up. Floating there, far past the range of Miles’ tired arm, is the boat. Its sails raise themselves, as if it sees him, too.
The open sea! The water that nudges and splashes the boat like a puppy! The creatures that tickle beneath its belly, the dash and sparkle of them! Oh, the joy of being a boat that has lost its tie to the land!
The wind delivers Miles and the boat into the open sea at such speed that the sun seems to pause above the horizon. The man, Miles, sits down on the railing and dangles his feet, the boat feels the gentle tap of heels against its side. All that is missing is the girl’s songs, and the boat rocks slightly to remind Miles of this. Will they sail now to find her?
Miles seems to notice, strokes his palm along the boat’s railing. “We’re here,” he says. “It’s not what I thought it would be.” The boat does not know what that means but happiness spills from it as the two of them hang in the timeless heart of the day, suspended between sky and water. The rise of each wave! The creak of the timbers! The fullness of the carefully sewn sails! Joy! the boat shouts, and the man sits down to wait for the sun to set.
Sophia has fallen asleep in her clothes again at the workbench, her zipper pressing a jagged pink line of teeth into her belly. She has had another vivid dream, in which the boat hangs over her like the moon and she gives Miles the watch back and tells him that he has given her another kind of time.
She yawns and stumbles outside into a spring night thick with honey and impatience. She brushes this away. She will make so many things in her own time, which now grows at a different pace than any complication. Sophia’s time is now the size of a plum. In two weeks, it will be a pear. By the end of summer, time will swell to the size of a cherimoya, that sweet, strange fruit that her sister fed her the other day, its green outsides with round markings like petals, like small fingerprints.