I choked, spraying my skirt with bits of cheese. How could I explain to her that marriage would be another tie to a place I dreamed of leaving behind? Not to mention what a git Thomase was.
“Mam says it’s time you found good work or a good husband.”
“I know what Mam says.”
I didn’t like hearing her lectures repeated by my sweetest sister. After all, Mam’s idea of good work was selling her paintings during Tourist Season, which was finally upon us, to supplement the living Da made for us with his fishing. Mermaids. Selkies. Pearly pink octopi swirling through the deep. Each day Mam trapped her strange dreams on canvas, yet she expected me to do mindless work while she indulged her whims. I intended to find a job soon, but it would take years to save up enough money for a one-way ride on a sturdy boat.
I tipped my head back, letting the sun warm my face. My eyes fluttered closed and my breathing slowed as I imagined being miles from the sea.
“Look!” Grayse poked me in the ribs with her bony elbow and scrambled to her feet. “Da! Over here!” She bounced on the spot as though she were attached to springs.
I looked out over the water. A shape separated itself from the horizon and coasted toward us. Da’s boat. From such a distance, he wouldn’t be able to hear our shouts, but Grayse continued to call to him.
By the time Da was close enough for us to see the stubble on his chin, Grayse had worn out her voice. She smiled and stood with her arms outstretched, signaling she was ready to catch the line.
“My girls!” Da beamed as his boat approached. His cap had fallen off, and the wind was ruffling his dark hair, giving him a wild appearance. “Ready, Grayse?” he called as he tossed her the heavy rope.
I tried to assist as little as possible, but Grayse didn’t protest when I shouldered some of the weight of the line.
“How’s everything at home?” Da asked. He sat in the boat with his arms folded, giving Grayse time to tie the rope to the dock’s metal cleat. “Your mam? Liss and Mally?”
“Everything’s fine. Not much changes here in three days.” We exchanged a smile, and my arms itched to embrace him. “Only …” I took a deep breath and tried to quell the squirming in the pit of my stomach. “Mr. Gill and a few other men found a girl’s body on the beach yesterday. No one we know. Were there bad storms? Her boat might’ve hit the rocks.”
Da sucked in a breath and pressed his lips together. “You can tell me.”
I glanced at Grayse, whose head was bent over the cleat, then back to him.
As Da swung himself up onto the dock, I was all too aware of the murky water waiting to swallow him up if he took a wrong step. My shoulders only relaxed once he landed on the worn dock with a dull thud.
Da wasted no time wrapping me in a tight hug, and I buried my face in his shirt. The scent of fish guts and sweat overwhelmed me, crawling in through my nose and trailing down my throat. I sneezed so hard the boards beneath us groaned in protest.
“Steady there, Bridey-bird!” Da made a show of wiping off his already filthy shirt before beginning to haul his catch out of the boat.
Studying the mess of buckets, nets, and rods as he pulled them up, I realized everything looked grimier than usual. “There was a storm, wasn’t there?”
He nodded, showing me a couple of empty buckets. “Aye. It started the morning of my second day out. A nasty squall blew up, and I lost nearly half my catch.”
I peered in the bucket he plunked down closest to me. A meager handful of prawns sat within, glistening under the sun. I turned my head away before the stench could make me gag and focused on Da’s many nets. I couldn’t spot a single lobster in any of them.
“I didn’t see a girl, though,” Da added before I could ask. “Just a few of the fellas heading for deeper water.” He bowed his head. “Poor lass. I wonder if she was trying to sail out too far on her own.”
“That’s a lecture you’ll never have to give me,” I said, but the sight of an empty bucket, then another, wiped away my smile. “Is this really all you caught?”
A frown spread across Da’s weathered face. “The sea’s a fickle mistress, bird, and sometimes the places where I’ve fished in the past … well, they dry up. The fish stop coming, and I have to try elsewhere. But, I’ll not deny that everything seems scarcer lately. For everyone.” His shoulders sagged. “I’m afraid this town is headed for hard times.”
I looked away, my stomach sinking.
Grayse gave a triumphant—and rather hoarse—shout as she finished her knot, distracting Da and sparing me from attempting to say something falsely cheery.