ALICIA LETS THE towel slip from her sunburned shoulders and adjusts the goggles. A volunteer secures a number to the strap of the swimsuit, nudging her into a procession of shivering girls dropping off the end of the pier. In the dream the river is cold and muddy, the current swift.
Awake, she listens to the snowflakes rake the side of the house, its spare cedar frame shuddering in the bracing December gust. Somewhere nearby a patch of ice splinters; a fox crossing a pond, she guesses.
In the top bunk, Dougie kicks off his blankets.
“You awake, sis?”
“Count giraffes,” she says. “You like giraffes.”
He goes quiet. Asleep, she hopes.
“He’s back!” Dougie disappoints, pushing away from the window, dropping to the floor and crawling in beside her. “Take a look if you don’t believe me.”
But Alicia is tired, and Dougie is an imaginative boy. When his breathing evens she tiptoes to the kitchen for a sip of water. She peeks out the window, but sees no sign of – what was it he saw this time? Oh, yes: a little man. A little man who looks like a leprechaun.
BEFORE MOVING TO the island the Ficks – Alicia, Dougie and their mother Drew – had lived in a trailer and then a series of motels and gloomy government housing units. Each of their former homes reminded Alicia of a different man. Uncle Rex was the night clerk at a hotel with leaking faucets and drafts that seeped like a ghost through the building’s faded shiplap siding. Uncle Dieter managed a rooming house where someone had been murdered. Each of the men was enamoured with the well-preserved and liberal-minded Drew Fick. She had been fond of them as well, but her infatuations proved short-lived.
Her new friend, Al Somerville, was second mate on the Nellie Womack, the car ferry plying the channel.
“Mom, is my real dad ever going to visit?” Alicia asked, the three of them squeezed together on the vessel’s windy upper deck.
“Yeah,” Dougie said. “Is he?” The boy didn’t know the siblings had different fathers. How that could possibly be.
“He moves around a lot,” said Mrs. Fick.
“Do you have a picture?” Alicia pursued. “What’s his name?”
Mrs. Fick replied with one of her looks, the one that said, Girl, change the subject.
“Where we gonna go if it floods again?” the boy asked.
“Downriver, I suppose.”
The conversation is interrupted at the sounding of the deafening foghorn. A sulphurous plume is spat from the smokestack.
“Can’t we move somewhere like Hawaii?” said Alicia. She’d seen a film at school. Beaches, bikinis, suntans. Cute boys on cool surfboards.
“Sure, love,” said Mrs. Fick. “As soon as we win the lottery.”
THE HOMES ON the low-lying side of the island were scheduled for demolition. Original owners had abandoned them because of a rising river; everyone blamed global warming, as though the planet wasn’t meeting their expectations. Dampness had warped the floors of the Ficks’ modest squat. Dougie’s marbles careened like drunks into its mildewed walls.
A government man had warned the squatters they lived in the vacant dwellings at their own risk; they had to sign waivers. Power lines had already been removed. Squatter kids were schooled with mainlanders in a former packing plant furnished with foldout tables and wobbly stools. The classrooms smelled of decomposing fish.
The Nellie Womack departed every morning at seven to accommodate those who staffed the settlement’s last working cannery. Evening sailings conformed to shift times, which depended, grownups would smirk, on the mating habits of salmon.
During the labour shortage, the reason the Ficks moved to the island, workers were actively recruited. But as their numbers increased, as the price of fish dropped and unemployment along the river soared, acceptance of the outsiders frayed. Alicia sensed an unspoken hostility at school and in the shops.
When it became known in the waterfront bars that Drew Fick had begat two kids from two men, neither of them a legal spouse, some barstool wit coined a sobriquet: Screw Me Quick.
Al, his workmates ribbed, was happy to help.
“Jealous buggers, all of ya,” he said. “I’ve seen the way you all look at her.”
They’d met, he and her, during Happy Hour at the Fish Net Lounge. Al had won the food draw, a country-cured ham with all the fixings.
“It’s your lucky day,” she said.
“And it’s not over yet,” he replied.
A few weeks later, Uncle Al moved in.
THE RING AND baby fingers on both of Alicia’s hands were webbed. Once classmates discovered the mutation, scorn was hurled at her from behind locker doors and exercise scribblers, words sharpened to a malicious point.
Fearful the oddity was catchable, tables in the lunchroom would be vacated if she sat nearby. One boy addressed her to great applause in the voice of the cartoon character Donald Duck: “Quack!-quack!”
The abuse eased somewhat that winter. Snow falling, she could avert attention from her anomaly with a pair of gloves: out of sight, out of mind. Mrs. Fick had promised an operation, “a routine snip,” but whenever enough cash had been set aside for the procedure they had to distance themselves from another uncle. Savings were converted to a “flight fund.”
“Our luck will change, love,” she promised. “It can’t get any worse.”
THE RACE FROM the island quay to the wharf on the mainland was an annual event. It was held in the spring, when the water was frigid and the snowmelt was still flooding farmland upriver. Only the heartiest competed.
There was one race for boys, who competed first, and a separate contest for the girls. All participants had to be under eighteen. The Ficks’ first year on the island, Alicia had just observed. She was enthralled by the bathing-capped heads battling the currents, weary adolescent arms churning the surface to a frenzied boil.
That summer she swam the distance every morning along a shallow stretch of shoreline; she wore a weight belt around her waist, a strength training technique she’d read about in a library book. Dougie followed his sister in the skiff, timing her with a Spiderman wristwatch. Mrs. Fick watched from the beach. Sometimes she joined Alicia in the water.
“What’s the prize gonna be this year?” Dougie asked. School had just let out; they were riding the Nellie Womack back to the island. Al, in his official capacity, was on the starboard, sighting deadheads. “Why don’t they give the winner a tub of ice cream? Who doesn’t like ice cream?”
Alicia was only vaguely aware of his prattling. In social studies that day, a unit on China, a boy had incited a round of sniggering by declaring that her “webs” resembled the oriental fan pictured in their textbook. She withdrew to a safe place inside herself until they’d chosen another victim.
The afternoon sailing was usually the best part of her day, a respite between lesson and chore; she didn’t want to waste it nattering. The sigh of wind whistling through the channel had a way of making her dwell on the strangest things. Like what it must be like to live elsewhere as another, anywhere as anyone but Alicia Fick. Like what it must feel like being a woman. A woman with friends of her own.
There was a shy boy in her class, Darryl Cousins. He didn’t taunt her like the others or laugh at their nasty remarks. Alicia began to feel something for him, a sensation different than anything she had known and quite wonderful. When listening to the hit parade on her transistor radio, her thoughts turned to this beanpole of a boy whose large brown eyes moistened like runny eggs.
She leaned over the railing and peered into the eddies.
“I’m sure the prize will be worth winning, Dougie,” she said. “I know the fastest girl gets a new hairdo.”
Alicia’s musings during the crossing sometimes drifted to her father. Not having a name or an image to fill the void left her feeling incomplete. Given a chance encounter, would they even recognize each other? Or would they pass quietly like gillnetters in a fog?
Her brother’s chatter returned her to the present: The race. Prizes. Ice cream. Besides a new coif for the fastest girl, winners would receive a coupon for a family dinner at the Log Jam Restaurant. Their photos would be published on the front page of The Riverbank. Best of all, the name of the swimmer with the best time, male or female, would be stencilled across the bow of the ferry, remaining there for one year. The reigning champ, Nellie Womack, was too old to qualify for the next race.
But Alicia wasn’t competing for the salon appointment or the dinner and the newspaper photo, although it excited her thinking people waiting on the dock might someday say, Here comes the Alicia Fick, right on time. No, she wanted to be the first swimmer pulled up onto the wharf because… because the only thing a Fick had ever won was a round of church basement bingo.
IT WAS JUST before the spring thaw, the last flakes of winter tumbling from a sullen, slate-grey sky. Alicia was helping her mother with the dinner dishes; Dougie was finishing his homework. Al was in the hallway, bent over a bowl of hot water, shaving.
At the sound of someone climbing the steps, the boy jumped up from the table and ran to the window, swiping away the condensation, anything to avoid long division.
“It’s him!” Dougie shouted.
“Red?” asked Drew. “Let him in.”
Red Corcoran was Al’s shipmate. Most evenings the two played cards, waterfront poker, until they were too drunk to keep score.
“Ain’t Red,” Dougie said.
Drew stepped back from the sink and opened the door.
It was the little man Dougie had seen outside his window, the leprechaun. The scarf looped around his neck had belonged to one of the boy’s dissolving snowmen; they had surrounded the house like centurions much of the winter. The leprechaun wore earmuffs. In place of gloves, he wore oven mitts.
“Be with you shortly, Red,” Al said. He poked his head out from the hallway.
“What the –”
Dark whiskers clung to the visitor’s frost-bitten cheeks. She couldn’t tell if he was grinning or grimacing, but the heavy-lidded eyes, when his met hers, seemed to smile.
“Told ya, sis,” Dougie said.
Drew scooped up the lantern and led the little man under Al’s soapy frown. In the cellar she sat him on the workbench like one would a child.
“Get upstairs!” she said, but they disregarded her. It wasn’t every day the family hosted a leprechaun.
She dried his dripping hair with her apron.
“How come he doesn’t talk, Mom?” Dougie asked. “Is he –”
Drew returned to the kitchen. Alicia unlaced the visitor’s wet shoes.
“Don’t get too close, sis,” Dougie said, remaining as far from the stranger as the cellar walls permitted.
She reached for the oven mitts, intending to dry them on the wood stove, but the leprechaun folded his arms across his chest, tucking them into his armpits. Drew returned shortly to the cellar with an armful of clothes. She had filled a shopping bag with juice boxes and packaged lunch snacks. Dougie was told to fetch Al’s spare boots.
“But those are too big, Mom,” Alicia said.
“At least he’ll stay dry,” said Drew.
“Hey!” Dougie said, recognizing the ski jacket. “That’s mine!”
“It was,” said his mother. “You had two.”
The door at the top of the stairs swung open. Light from the lantern cast Al’s shadow across the cellar floor. Shaving soap, like melting snow, slid down his hairy chest.
“Alright, then,” he legislated. “Visiting hours are over.”
THE WHISTLE SOUNDS; she dog-paddles to the starting line. The river reeks of diesel fuel and fish.
“On your mark, get set –”
Two lines of small boats mark the course. Friends and family members of the swimmers heave encouragement from shore.
Alicia dives shallow and kicks hard. Fast-moving silt stings her skin; sludge gushes between her toes. There’s Mom and Uncle Al; there’s Dougie. In the panorama of faces, she thinks she sees the leprechaun.
Alicia focuses on her stroke, establishing a rhythm: face in the water – exhale – face out – inhale.
Kick, stroke, stroke, breathe.
Halfway to the mainland, she hears it: “Quack-quack!”
This time her hurt turns to anger, to defiance, to strength. Webbed fingers fanned, muscles screaming, a second wind surges through every limb. Ahead and behind, hopeful palms churn the channel to a froth. She passes one girl, but then someone overcomes her.
Kick, stroke, stroke, breathe.
Alicia fancies herself a fish. Breaching the surface, gills gasping for oxygen. Leaping high out of the water, niftily flicking her silver tail.
AL FOUND HIM in an alley salvaging empties from a waste container. The liquor store paid a nickel a bottle. He pulled up alongside him in his pickup and rolled down the window.
“I’ve been looking for you, squirt,” he said. “You come near my place again and I’m gonna mess you up. We clear?”
The leprechaun flashed a middle finger.
Al slammed on the breaks and gave chase. He caught up to him in the parking lot behind the hardware store and ground his face into a bag of garbage.
“Next time,” he said, “I’ll make ya eat it.”
THE SUN IS rising, filling the kitchen with its warmth as they step over Al’s inebriated body; it stretches across the floor like a filthy carpet. Once out of the yard they hurry down the trail and across the rocky beach. The trawler is anchored in the shallows.
“There’ll be a short delay, Mrs.,” the fisherman, lifting them aboard, says. “I’m waiting on one more passenger.”
Alicia wasn’t an awkward, scrawny little girl any longer. Her body had filled out over the summer, and people were noticing. She was learning, as her mother did before her, that some rules don’t apply to those who please the eye.
She was sad to be leaving the island, and just when her classmates were beginning to accept her, but she knew it was time. She and Darryl Cousins had kissed, the first time for both of them. She was certain she would never forget him, and that he would never forget her. People we care for leave us, and we leave them. We get tangled up in each other, tie ourselves in knots. It’s the way it is, this life.
“The river is fast today, Mrs.,” says the fisherman. “We’ll make good time.”
Just as the trawler’s engine engages they hear a commotion in the woods; a blackbird rises up out of the underbrush and veers off over the water. Moments later Al staggers onto the beach, and he’s pissed.
“What are we going to do?” Dougie asks.
Closer to the boat, a second figure emerges from the trees. They recognize Dougie’s winter jacket, the oven mitts. The final passenger is hauled in like a prize catch.
“Shoving off, now, Mrs.”
Al stands in knee-deep water beating his chest, his roar fading as the trawler leaves the channel. The four passengers stretch out on the open deck, shielding their eyes from the glare.
“Are we moving to Hawaii now?” Dougie asks his mother.
“No,” she says, “but we’re getting closer.”
They sit, the four of them, side by side. Alicia is bookended by the leprechaun and her mother, a slim paperback squeezed between a prominent hardcover, as the first ferry of the day slips away from the government wharf. The freshly painted letters gleam across the vessel’s rusty bow. Drew leans over and tightens Alicia’s kerchief. Her hair has returned to a follicle anarchy. To its natural state of knots and tangles.
Don McLellan has worked as a journalist in Canada, South Korea and Hong Kong. He has published two story collections, In the Quiet After Slaughter (Libros Libertad), shortlisted for a 2009 ReLit Award, and Brunch with the Jackals (Thistledown Press, 2015). More at donmclellan.com.