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Authors: Beth Hautala

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BOOK: Waiting for Unicorns
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THE BLUE HOUSE WAS TALL
and skinny with two bedrooms on top and two bedrooms below. The bathroom, kitchen, and main living spaces were all squeezed onto the main floor. Dad and I would sleep upstairs, and Sura downstairs, leaving one room empty. She would rent this out to tourists later in the season.

My bedroom was exactly the same as Dad's—small with low ceilings. Dad could only stand upright in the middle of the room, where the ceiling rose up to the peak of the house, otherwise he bumped his head. It was easier for me because I was smaller, but I still had to watch my head around the window alcove.

The blue house sat on the edge of town, and when I craned my neck just right, I could see Hudson Bay from my bedroom window. It was frozen solid, which is how it would stay until July, and I tried not to be too discouraged about that.

“By July things will warm just enough to break up the ice,” Dad said, his voice echoing in my small, empty room. “And it will begin to form all over again just a few months later.”

He wanted me to be as amazed as he was. It
was
pretty amazing that a place could spend so much time frozen solid and still live. But all I could think about was how cold it was, and how cold it was going to stay. I don't like having to pull on layers of socks and sweater after sweater until my body feels thick and I can't bend my elbows very well. Even in mid-summer, temperatures in Churchill hang right around sixty-two degrees. I wouldn't need my bathing suit.

Breathing on the window, I made a small patch of fog and wrote my name on the glass with my finger. Then I drew a sad face. Dad cleared his throat and I turned around, kept my gaze on the small bed frame and mattress, the dresser, and the empty bookcase before meeting his eyes. My dad stood with his hair brushing against the ceiling. A giant man in a tiny room full of echoes.

“Whad'ya say we bring up our stuff?” he asked, motioning toward the door. I followed him downstairs and out into the cold.

Until Mom got sick, I never really had to think about how much stuff I owned. I had tons of collections; Mom called me a pack rat.

“Look at all of this junk, Talia!” she said one afternoon. I was supposed to be cleaning my room, but I'd gotten distracted.

“It's not junk!” I said. “These things are important!”

“Well, if you don't get all of your important things picked up before dinner, I'll take care of them myself.”

“You mean throw them away.”

She folded her arms across her chest, which was all the answer I needed. Mom was generally pretty understanding when it came to my collections. She had some herself, but when things started sprawling over into places they didn't belong, she got rid of them.

“Tal, you don't even need these things.” She picked up an old plastic Easter egg full of Scrabble tiles, and a broken compass. “Why are you saving these?”

“Those are from the time I got bingo.” I nodded at the Scrabble tiles. “They're lucky! I played every tile on one turn.”

She rolled them around in the palm of her hand. “And what was the word?”

“Moraine.”

“Moraine?”

“Yeah. The stuff that's left behind when a glacier melts.”

She sighed, then dropped the tiles into my hand, like my answer had just given them meaning. “And the compass?”

I shrugged. “It used to point north.”

“But Tal, it's broken. The needle just spins.”

“I know. But it used to work. And that counts for something, right?” She shook her head like she thought I was a little crazy and handed me the compass. Sometimes she just didn't understand.

After Mom died, Dad and I moved out of our house to a smaller apartment. There just wasn't enough room to take everything with me, so I'd thrown a lot of my stuff away. I didn't need it. It was just clutter, really. Things that reminded me of other things. And some of them I didn't want to remember anymore. But I saved the Scrabble tiles and the compass.

At the time, I remember being surprised by how easily my entire life fit into boxes, and now, as Dad unloaded one carton of our lives after another, that same feeling washed over me again. Our entire life had been reduced to a load small enough for one man to carry.

My name was written across my boxes in permanent marker, and I picked one up, being careful to knock the snow from my boots before carrying it into the house. It felt nice, having my own familiar things back.

Sura held the door for us as we traipsed in and out, making small talk with Dad. I knew she knew about Mom, though she never actually said anything. You can always tell when people are trying not to talk about something. Their voices are too bright and don't match their words. But I'm glad she didn't ask us how we were. People asked that all the time, expecting it to be an easy question to answer, but I never knew what to say, so I usually just kept quiet.

While Dad and Sura chatted, I climbed up and down the stairs in this strange new place, each box held tight against my chest. When I had carried everything up to my room, I began peeling back the tape and opening them up.

Clothes and blankets came first, followed by shoes and the red wool hat my neighbor had made for me. I pulled that hat on and tugged it down over my ears before digging back into the rest of the boxes.

Books and photographs were next. There were photographs of school friends, of Dad and me at the state fair, him, me, and Mom standing in front of our old house. And there was one of Mom looking over her shoulder, laughing as she walked away from the camera. I picked up that picture, studying it.

Everyone said I looked like her. I had her same wide-set eyes and turned-up nose, and I liked that. Our hair was the same, too—long and brown and straight. When I was little, I wore it short—bobbed at my chin. But it was long now, partly because Mom was the one who used to trim it for me, and partly because I wanted to look like her as much as I could. I wanted to hold onto her every time I looked in the mirror. But sometimes, when I saw my mom's face looking back at me, I wondered what else we shared. Would I get her cancer, too?

After I unpacked the photographs, I opened a box of random stuff I hadn't wanted to leave behind. There was a valentine from a boy at my old school, a pencil holder I'd made out of Popsicle sticks, old diaries, and a few stuffed animals.

I put my things away, stacking books on the wobbly bookcase, hanging my clothes neatly in the closet, lining my shoes along the floor, and spreading my quilt from home across the bed.

Lastly, I unwrapped a sheet of crumpled packing paper from around a large glass mason jar half full of little paper slips. It didn't look that impressive, but this jar—these slips of paper—were the most important things I owned. My wishes.

I held the jar up to the window. The light seemed to collect inside the glass, illuminating each paper slip. I shook the jar, shifting the slips around, rearranging them, settling them. I wouldn't take them out tonight. I'd let them adjust to our new room first.

I pushed the jar under my bed and leaned back against the bed frame, checking my work.

“Better,” I whispered.

It was less full of echoes, but it wasn't home and I knew it never would be. I just had to get through the next few months. Then Dad and I could go back to Woods Hole and I could forget this place and finally start over.

I WOKE THE FIRST MORNING
in the blue house and lay very still in my bed, staring up at the ceiling. It was dark, but the light from the hall spilled under the crack in my bedroom door. The old cast-iron radiator in the corner of my room clunked and gurgled. It had made those noises all night long. Sura warned me it would, but it still sounded strange. We'd had central heat in our apartment back home, and the baseboards would tick as they warmed up, but they were polite about it. This old thing was downright ridiculous. I glared at the radiator as it clunked and gurgled again.

The smell of coffee climbed the stairs, and Dad's bedroom door across the hall creaked open on rusty hinges. His footfalls were quiet, but the floorboards still squeaked under his weight as he made his way down the stairs. I heard his muted voice greet Sura, and her muffled response.

I lay there for a minute, listening to them talk before sighing and throwing back my covers to search for a sweatshirt and a thick pair of socks. I didn't want to stay up here in bed while they talked about me down there. I didn't need Dad telling Sura any personal stuff when I wasn't there to defend myself. She didn't need to know a single thing about me that I wasn't willing to share on my own.

The stairs squeaked as I padded downstairs, a pair of Dad's wool socks on my feet. I tucked my hair behind my ears and both Sura and Dad looked up from their places in the kitchen. He was at the table with his big hands around a steaming cup of coffee, and Sura was flipping pancakes at the stove.

“Morning, Tal, how'd ya sleep?” Dad's grin was wide and hopeful. He wanted this to be all right. He wanted me to be okay.

“Fine,” I said.

“Do you like pancakes, Talia?” Sura held out her spatula, a perfect golden cake balancing on the end of it.

I shrugged. “They're okay.”

Dad threw me a look, but I ignored it and sat down across the table.

I loved pancakes and Dad knew it. Actually, I loved my
mom's
pancakes. She made them from scratch with oat flour. They tasted like oatmeal and pancakes all rolled into one. Breakfast perfection.

“Well, your dad said you were a fan.” Sura was unfazed, and she placed a plate of pancakes in front of me. “If you don't like them I have
tuktu
and
touton,
” she said.

Dad laughed, and I glanced up at her.

“What is that?”

“Caribou and bread fried in bear fat,” Dad said.

I quickly stuffed a bite of pancake in my mouth.

Strange places and strange people were one thing, but strange food was another. I smiled, a tiny bit nervous as Sura handed me a glass of orange juice. What sort of people ate caribou? And then there was
whale
! Dad told me whale meat was a regular delicacy around here.

“These are great,” I said between bites. I pushed the pancakes around my plate.

“I'm going to head on over to the CNSC this morning and start mapping out the expedition details,” Dad said to me. “Want to come along?”

I wanted to go with him. There was an empty loneliness in me, yawning wide. It had been open ever since Mom died, but it was opening up even more now that Dad was so close to leaving. Normally I would have jumped at the chance to join him. And I should have jumped now; it might have gone a little way in closing up that Mom-sized space. But I shook my head. Something kept me from saying yes.

Dad had planned this trip a while ago. Before we knew how serious things were with Mom. And when she died, he should have called it off. He should have stayed home. He should have let
me
stay home. What would Mom think right now, if she knew? If she knew he'd gone on with his work and life and stuff just like nothing had changed. What would she say if she knew he had dragged me out here with him for the summer, only to leave me with someone I didn't even know?

But Mom wasn't here.

What was I supposed do once Dad disappeared out on the ice? Hanging over his shoulder at the CNSC while he got ready to leave me wasn't going to help. The emptiness inside me was loud and insistent. I needed to be alone while I figured out what to do with it.

“Think I'll just stay here,” I said. “I want to look around.”

Dad looked surprised, and then sort of relieved. And I suddenly felt horrible. Mad even. I didn't actually want to do anything of the sort. What I really wanted was to go back upstairs to my room and hide under the covers until spring came to this icy, frozen-over place. But it was easier to lie than tell him we'd both better get used to being alone. And Dad didn't seem too concerned anyway.

“Well, you have fun exploring,” Dad said as he got up to leave. “Just make sure you let Sura know where you're headed.”

I nodded and watched him walk down the hall as he pulled his parka from its hook on the wall. Until he left, Dad would spend the next week or so inland, preparing his team for the first of several expeditions out on the ice. They'd head north out over the floes and explore the eastern edge of Hudson Bay and the Foxe Basin for beluga activity.

And I knew I'd be safe here while he was away. Safer than if I was out on the ice, anyway. I could even go exploring around town if I wanted. Dad didn't want me getting lost, but there wasn't much chance of that considering I had no intention of actually leaving the house. Or my room for that matter.

“See you later tonight,” Dad called over his shoulder. But I just stared down at the brown pool of maple syrup on my plate, blinking as the front door slammed behind him.

The kitchen was very quiet for a few minutes, and then Sura pulled out a chair and sat down beside me. She spun her coffee cup in a slow circle while I tried to think of something to say.

“I'm glad you're here, Talia,” she began. “I know this must all seem very different from what you're used to. And I'm sure it's going to be awkward at first, being here.”

Awkward was putting it mildly. How normal was it to spend a summer in the Arctic with someone you've never met?

I squirmed in my chair. Sura didn't avoid the obvious like Dad and I were so used to doing. It made me uncomfortable, like I'd forgotten to put on clothes before coming downstairs.

Whether Sura could tell I was uncomfortable or not she didn't show it. She just kept trying to make me feel at home.

“It's a good thing for Churchill—you and your father being here,” she said. “We depend on the whales to draw in tourists, so we need the whale watchers, the photographers, and the naturalists to continue visiting. They keep our little town on the map. Your dad's research will help to ensure our whales keep coming back, year after year.” Environmental and climate changes could potentially alter their route, but I knew from science class that even if they stray off course, whales return to the same places to eat and rest every year. As long as conditions remain favorable, they will hunt in the same places, too, and follow the same ocean currents, which makes it possible for researchers, like my dad, to study them.

I'd also learned that whales are repetitive creatures. Dad said they're like stubborn old men.
Once they get set in their ways, they settle down and stay put.
That's why Churchill was so important. This was home to those whales. Nothing on earth would make them fail to return.

Sura looked up at me over the rim of her coffee cup, her eyes warm. I twisted my napkin into tiny little pieces until it looked like my lap was full of snowflakes.

I should have been glad to be here. To be away from everything that reminded me of Mom. And I should've been happy my dad was making a difference. But the small selfish part of me kept creeping in and twisting my sadness into anger. I wanted my dad to myself. I didn't want to share him with Churchill or with Churchill's little white whales. And I didn't want Sura to be glad about us being here. I wanted her to feel upset with my dad for dragging me out here and then leaving, like I was.

“Thanks for the pancakes,” I said.

I gathered up the bits of napkin in my lap and looked around the kitchen for a trash can. I didn't want to sit here anymore. I didn't want Sura to know how hard I was fighting the lump in my throat.

“The garbage is under the sink,” she said. “Or I can take that for you.”

I shook my head and jumped up, my fist clenched around my twisted, shredded napkin.

“I got it,” I said, dropping the pieces into the trash can.

I muttered an excuse about unpacking some more of my things and hurried up the stairs to my room, my sadness twisting inside until my heart felt small and cold and in pieces. Just like snowflakes.

BOOK: Waiting for Unicorns
2.19Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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