The chill in my arms seeped into my chest. I didn’t know Nessa well—not beyond exchanging the occasional hello—but she didn’t strike me as the type to leave town without a word. No one in Port Coire ever just vanished.
“Maybe the sea-witch took her.” Cat shuddered, turning several shades paler. “Maybe old Morag needed her hair or her bones for a spell.”
“Or Nessa finally ran off with that tailor from Peel who’s always visiting. She’s fancied him for ages.” Lugh directed a glare at Cat from over my head. He was easily a foot taller than either of us. “Let it go now. It’s a terrible subject. And no more talk of witches.”
I gripped Lugh’s hand tighter, and he squeezed mine back. Warmth enveloped me, banishing the cold. I hoped that wherever Nessa was, she sent a letter to her poor husband soon. For his peace of mind, and everyone else’s.
“What’re you two doing out here, anyway?” My voice came out breathier than usual. “Looking for Nessa?”
Lugh ran his free hand through his shaggy red hair and grinned. “Looking for you, actually. Mrs. Kissack gave Cat the afternoon off. Want to grab a bite with us?”
“I’d love to.” I reached in my pocket to retrieve the money from Da and my sweaty fingers brushed against the pearl. “My treat.” I showed Cat and Lugh the coins, but the pearl remained my secret for now.
We continued up the path, my friends on either side of me. “What do you fancy today?” Cat asked as we crested the hill.
I considered our options, which were quite few, but Lugh said, “We’ll share a bucket of oysters. Sound tasty, Bry?”
I stuck out my tongue at him.
After supper, a glimpse of one of Mam’s paintings hanging in the hall—a mermaid wearing nothing but tiny silver pearls—reminded me of the treasure still in my pocket. Nessa Daley’s sudden disappearance and the afternoon spent with my friends had driven it far from my mind.
I had changed into clean clothes before supper, so I slipped away from the table to find the pearl.
The dress I’d worn earlier was hanging in my wardrobe beside a few similar ones, but I recognized it by the years-old stain on the bottom. I put my hand in the pocket and grasped the round, smooth object, then hurried to surprise my parents.
They sat on the lumpy sofa in the main room, their heads bent together as they spoke in low voices.
I moved toward them, clutching the pearl and thinking of how I’d share my good news. But the words died on my tongue as I overheard snatches of their conversation.
“… savings are gone. And Grayse will need new clothes soon. We can’t ask Mally to spend more hours at the market,” Mam said.
“Or Liss to wash more dishes at Katleen’s. Her hands look too much like mine already,” Da grunted. “But I tell you, something’s scaring all the damned fish away. I’m not catching half what I used to, nor are the other lads.”
I lingered in the shadows, hardly daring to breathe.
“What about Bridey?” Mam said suddenly.
“What about her? She’s only fifteen, Mureal. It wouldn’t be—”
“Bridey’s almost seventeen. Liss is fifteen. And Liss has been working since the summer.”
I stared at the floor, ashamed for the second time today. Was I so useless? At least I had the pearl. I uncurled my fingers, eager to be reassured by the pearl’s swirl of colors, and gasped.
An unremarkable stone rested in my hand, bumpy, dark, and dirty.
I rushed back to our room to search the pockets of my other dresses.
Nothing. The pearl must have fallen out during my adventure with Cat and Lugh. But wouldn’t one of us have noticed such a beautiful thing rolling away?
When I returned to the main room, Mam and Da were still talking. This time, I cleared my throat to announce my presence. They flinched and scooted apart. Sighing, I perched on the edge of the armchair.
“I overheard you.” I let them feel the full weight of my stare before I continued. “I’d be glad to find work.”
“Really?” Mam smiled, but shadows rimmed her eyes. Perhaps she’d had one of her headaches today. They always accompanied the dreams that inspired her paintings, and sure enough, a new canvas lay glistening on her easel. It was one of her most unusual paintings yet, of what looked like a black horse with deep blue eyes and a dolphin’s tail, swimming beneath an unsuspecting boat. It wasn’t the shape of the creature that made it seem so unusual, though. What struck me as odd was that its eyes seemed somehow human, full of an intelligence I’d never seen a horse or dolphin possess.
Recalling the eerie image, I shuddered.
“If you’re sure about this, Bridey”—Mam’s voice drew me back to the present as she rubbed her temple and exchanged a glance with Da—“I know just the thing.”
“I’m sure.” I tried to return her smile, but my lips only twitched. “It’s past time for me to start contributing to the family.”
Unlike the pearl from Da’s net, that wasn’t an empty, glittering promise.