I open my eyes at midnight to the sound of the ocean and my brother’s breathing. It’s been ten months since Cal drowned, but the dreams still escape.
I’m confident in the dreams, liquid with the sea. I’m breathing underwater, eyes open and unstung by salt. I see fish, a school of silver--bellied moons thrumming beneath me. Cal appears, ready to identify, but these aren’t fish we know. “Mackerel,” he says, his words escaping in bubbles that I can hear. But the fish aren’t mackerel. Not bream, not any of the names we offer. They’re pure silver. “An unidentified species,” we say as we watch them fold and unfold around us. The water has the texture of sadness: salt and heat and memory.
Cal is in the room when I wake. He’s milky--skinned in the darkness, dripping of ocean. Impossible, but so real I smell salt and apple gum. So real I see the scar on his right foot—-a long--healed cut from glass on the beach. He’s talking about the dream fish: pure silver, unidentified, and gone.
The room is dark except for the moonlight. I feel through the air for the dream, but instead I touch the ears of Cal’s Labrador, Woof. He follows me everywhere since the funeral, a long line of black I can’t shake.
Usually, he sleeps on the end of my bed or in the doorway of my room, but for the last two nights he’s slept in front of my packed suitcases. I can’t take him with me. “You’re an ocean dog.” I run my finger along his nose. “You’d go mad in the city.”
There’s no sleeping after dreams of Cal, so I pull on clothes and climb out the window. The moon is three--quarters empty. The air is as hot as day. I mowed late yesterday, so I collect warm blades of grass on the soles of my feet as I move.
Woof and I get to the beach quickly. There’s almost nothing between our house and the water. There’s the road, a small stretch of scrub, and then dunes. The night is all tangle and smell. Salt and tree; smoke from a fire far up the beach. It’s all memory, too. Summer swimming and night walks, hunts for fig shells and blennies and starfish.
Farther, toward the lighthouse, there’s the spot where the beaked whale washed ashore: a giant at six meters, the right side of its face pressed against sand, its one visible eye open. There was a crowd of people around it later—-scientists and locals studying and staring. But first there was Mum and Cal and me in the early cold. I was nine years old, and with its long beak it looked to me like it was half sea creature, half bird. I wanted to study the deep water it had come from, the things it might have seen. Cal and I spent the day looking through Mum’s books and on the internet. The beaked whale is considered one of the least understood creatures of the sea, I copied into my journal. They live at depths so deep that the pressure could kill.
I don’t believe in ghosts or past lives or time travel or any of the strange things that Cal liked to read about. But every time I stand on the beach, I wish us back—-to the day of the whale, to any day before Cal died. With what I know, I’d be ready. I’d save him.
It’s late, but there’ll be people from school out, so I walk farther up to a quiet spot. I dig myself into the dunes, burying my legs past my hips, and stare at the water. It’s shot with moon, silver leaking all over the surface.
I’ve tried and tried to stop thinking about the day Cal drowned, but I can’t. I hear his words. I hear his footsteps through the sand. I see him diving: a long, frail arc that disappears into sea.
I’m not sure how long I’ve been here when I see Mum walking over the dunes, her feet struggling to find traction. She sits on one side of me and lights a cigarette, cupping it from the night.
She started smoking again after Cal died. I found her and Dad hiding behind the church after the funeral. “Don’t say it, Rach,” she said, and I stood between them and held their free hands, wishing Cal had been there to see the strangeness of our parents smoking. Dad’s a doctor; he’s been working with Doctors Without Borders since the divorce ten years ago. Mum’s a science teacher at the high school in Sea Ridge. They’ve called cigarettes “death sticks” all our lives.
We watch the water without talking for a while. I don’t know how Mum feels about the ocean now. She doesn’t go in anymore, but we meet at the edge every night. She taught Cal and me how to swim, how to cup water, how to push it back and control its flow. She told us not to be afraid. “Don’t ever swim alone, though,” she said, and apart from that one time, we didn’t.
“So, you’re packed?” Mum asks, and I nod.
Tomorrow I leave Sea Ridge for Gracetown, a suburb of Melbourne, the city where my aunt Rose lives. I’ve failed Year 12, and since I don’t plan to try again next year, Rose has gotten me a job in the café at St. Albert’s Hospital, where she’s a doctor.
Cal and I grew up in Gracetown. We moved to Sea Ridge three years ago, when I was fifteen. Gran needed help, and we didn’t want her to sell the house or go into a home. We’d stayed with her every holiday, summer and winter, since we were born, so Sea Ridge was like our second home.
“Year 12 isn’t everything,” Mum says.
Maybe it’s not, but before Cal died, I had my life planned. I got A’s, I was happy. I sat on this exact spot last year and told Cal I wanted to be an ichthyologist, studying fish like the Chimaera, which evolved 400 million years ago. We both tried to imagine a world that went that far back.
“I feel like the universe cheated Cal and cheated us along with him,” I say now.
Before Cal died, Mum would have explained calmly and logically that the universe was all existing matter and space—-10 billion light--years in diameter, consisting of galaxies and the solar system, stars, and the planets. All of which simply do not have the capacity to cheat a person of anything.
Tonight she lights another cigarette. “It did,” she says, and blows smoke at the stars.
I’m lying next to Amy in the self--help section of Howling Books. We’re alone. It’s ten on Thursday night and I’ll be honest: I’m currently mismanaging a hard--on. The mismanagement isn’t entirely my fault. My body’s working on muscle memory.
Usually, this is the time and place that Amy and I kiss. This is the time our hearts breathe hard and she lies next to me, warm--skinned and funny, making jokes about the state of my hair. It’s the time we talk about the future, which was, if you’d asked me fifteen minutes ago, completely bought and paid for.
“I want to break up,” she says, and at first I think she’s joking. Less than twelve hours ago, we were kissing in this exact spot. We were doing quite a few other very nice things too, I think, as she elbows me.
“Henry?” she says. “Say something.”
“Say what?” I ask.
“I don’t know. Whatever you’re thinking.”
“I’m thinking this is entirely unexpected and a little bit shit.” I struggle into an upright position. “We bought plane tickets. Nonrefundable, nonexchangeable plane tickets for the twelfth of March.”
“I know, Henry,” she says.
“We leave in ten weeks.”
“Calm down,” she says, as though I’m the one who’s sounding unreasonable. Maybe I am sounding unreasonable, but that’s because I spent the last dollar of my savings buying a six--stop--around--the--world ticket. Singapore, Berlin, Rome, London, Helsinki, New York. “We bought travel insurance and got our passports. We bought travel guides and those little blow pillows for the plane.”
She bites the right side of her lip, and I try very hard, unsuccessfully, not to think about kissing her. “You said you loved me.”
“I do love you,” Amy says, and then she starts italicizing love into all its depressing definitions. “I just don’t think I’m in love with you. I tried, though. I tried really hard.”
These must be the most depressing words in the history of love. I tried really hard to love you. I’m not certain of a lot of things, but I’m certain of this—-when I’m old and I have dementia, when my brain has aged to smoke, these are words I will remember.
I should ask her to leave. I should say, “You know what? I don’t want to see the homelands of William Shakespeare and Mary Shelley and Friedrich Nietzsche and Jane Austen and Emily Dickinson and Karen Russell with a girl who’s trying very hard to love me.” I should say, “If you don’t love me, then I don’t love you.”
But fuck it I do love her and I would like to see those homelands with her and I’m an optimist without a whole lot of dignity, so what I say is “If you change your mind, you know where I live.” In my defense she’s crying and we’ve been friends since Year 9 and in my book that counts for a lot.
There’s no other way for her to leave but to climb over me, because the self--help section is in a small room at the back of the shop that most people think is a closet, but it’s just big enough for two people to lie side by side with no space to spare.
We do this weird fumbling dance as she gets up, a soft un-tangling wrestle. We kiss before she goes. It’s a long kiss, a good kiss, and while it’s happening I let myself hope that maybe, just maybe, it’s so great that it’s changed her mind.
But after it’s done, she stands and straightens her skirt and gives me a small, sad wave. And then she leaves me here, lying on the floor of the self--help section—-a dead man. One with a non-refundable, nonexchangeable ticket to the world.
Eventually I crawl out of the self--help section and make my way to the fiction couch: the long blue velvet daybed that sits in front of the classics shelves. I rarely sleep upstairs anymore. I like the rustle and dust of the bookshop at night.
I lie here thinking about Amy. I retrace last week, running back through the hours, trying to work out what changed between us. But I’m the same person I was seven days ago. I’m the same person I was the week before and the week before that. I’m the same person I was all the way back to the morning we met.
Amy came from a private school across the river and moved to our side of town when her dad’s accounting firm downsized and he had to shift jobs. They lived in one of the new apartments that had gone up on Green Street, not far from the school. From Amy’s new bedroom, she could hear traffic and the flush of next--door’s toilet. From her old bedroom, she could hear birds. These things I learned before we dated, in snippets of conversations that happened on the way home from parties, in English, in detention, in the library, when she stopped by the bookshop on Sunday afternoons.
The first day I met her I knew surface things—-she had long red hair, green eyes, and fair skin. She smelled flowery. She wore long socks. She sat at an empty table and waited for people to sit next to her. They did.
I sat in front and listened to the conversation between her and Aaliyah. “Who’s that?” I heard Amy ask. “Henry,” Aaliyah told her. “Funny. Smart. Cute.”
I waved above my head at them, without turning around.
“An eavesdropper,” Amy added, gently kicking the back of my chair.
We didn’t officially get together till the middle of Year 12, but the first time we kissed was in Year 9. It happened after our English class had been studying Ray Bradbury’s short stories. After we read “The Last Night of the World,” the idea caught on that we should all spend a night pretending it was our last and do the things we’d do if an apocalypse was heading our way.
Our English teacher heard what we were planning, and the principal told us we couldn’t do it. It sounded dangerous. Our plans went underground. Flyers appeared in lockers that the date was set for the twelfth of December, the last day of school before summer vacation. There’d be a party that night at Justin Kent’s house. make plans, the flyers told us. the end is near.
I stayed up late on the night before the end, trying to write the perfect letter to Amy, a letter that’d convince her to spend her last night in the world with me. I walked into school with it in my top pocket, knowing I probably wouldn’t give it to her but hoping that I would. My plan was to spend the last night with friends unless some miracle happened and Amy became a possibility.
No one listened in class that day. There were small signs all over the place that things were coming to an end. In our homeroom, someone had turned all the notices on the board upside down. Someone had carved the end into the back of the boys’ toilet door. I opened my locker at lunch to find a piece of paper with one day to go written on it, and I realized that no one had bothered working out the finer details of when the world would actually end: Midnight? Sunrise?
I was thinking about that when I turned and saw Amy standing next to me. The note was in my pocket, but I couldn’t give it to her. Instead, I held up the paper—-one day to go—-and asked her what she was planning to do with her last night. She stared at me for a while and eventually said, “I thought you might ask me to spend it with you.” There were several people in the corridor listening, and all of us, me included, couldn’t believe my luck.
To give myself maximum living time, I decided that the world should end when the sun came up—-five fifty in the morning, according to the Weather Channel.
We met at the bookshop at five fifty in the afternoon to make it an even twelve hours, and from there we walked to Shanghai Dumplings for dinner. Around nine we went to Justin’s party, and when it got too loud, we walked to the Benito Building and took the elevator to the top—-the highest place in Gracetown.