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Esperanza

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“It’s a boat.”

Birds scream overhead. They dive down to the water, searching for food, swoop onto the docks and snatch scraps of garbage dropped by tourists. One of them flies too close and Laura bares her teeth at it, slides her feet apart and curls her fingers. Rebecca tried to feed one of them once — a french fry — and they all attacked, squawking and screeching and flapping until Delilah drove them off with her ice breath.

Papa’s eyebrows go up toward his hair. His clothes look nice, soft blue sweater and jeans with no blood on them, Charles must have picked them out, with a hat jammed down over his eyes. “Of course it’s a boat, what did you think we were talkin’ about buying the whole time?”

Laura shifts her weight, listening. It’s been months now, no more Transigen, no more bad men, but she can’t stop listening. She and her friends still sleep together in the same big room even though they don’t have to anymore. But the only sounds are the waves lapping against the docks and the ordinary bustle of the shipyard. No sneaking. No pounding feet as men run along the alleys. No crackle of walkie-talkies, no barked orders. Safe still, safe for now.

Papa waits, and oh. He asked a question. “A weapon,” Laura says without hesitation. Papa frowns, and she frowns right back, leaning forward and pinching her mouth tight, making her eyebrows pucker together in an exaggerated parody of his face. “Sunseeker. Like a missile.”

“Oh.” Papa laughs at that, short and coughing but an actual laugh, and a funny warm feeling spreads through Laura’s chest. “Yeah, I guess I can see where you might think that. But nah, kid, it’s just a boat. What are two old guys and their caretaker going to do with a weapon?”

She shrugs one shoulder. “You are weapons.”

Papa reaches up and rubs his shoulder, like an old ache is there. Maybe there is. “Not anymore. Anyway, you wanna come with for a bit? We came all this way to see you.”

Laura knows. Charles called to her a few days ago, met her in her dreams. We’re coming for a visit, Laura, he said. His voice felt like sunlight warming a broad, flat rock in the middle of the afternoon. Can you make it to the coast?

Still. She frowns at the boat, bobbing on the water. So much water, stretching out all the way to the end of the world, wide and open and sparkling in the sun. Laura squints one eye and looks up at Papa, suspicious. He laughs again. “It’s not gonna sink, I promise,” he says. “And you don’t have to swim if you don’t want to, but it’s actually kinda fun. Charles tries to get in the water a little bit every day, though I’m not sure I’d call what he does ‘swimming’.”

Laura pretends to consider, but it isn’t really a question. Even with all that water, even with the boat-not-weapon that looks as old as Papa and makes creaking noises when it bumps up against the dock, they’re here. They came to see her and they want her to come with them — Papa wants her to come with him — and so she darts past him and scrambles over the railing onto the boat.

Charles is waiting on the deck. He has a big floppy hat and a wide smile, and he holds out his arms. “Laura!” he calls. She skitters at first, she’s still not used to letting people touch her on purpose, but he looks so happy to see her, his mind a warm expands of bright, sunny yellow. “Welcome back, child.”

Laura skirts in sideways, lets him draw her in against his side with one arm. One of her hands presses against his ribs, and she thinks about how easy it would be to flex her fingers, let the bone claws slide out and into his organs. It’s what Transigen made her to be.

She doesn’t do it. She would never. Knowing she could, but won’t, fills her up like the hot chocolate Jamaica made for her even though the weather’s too warm.

“No hot chocolates, but Caliban can make you a milkshake downstairs,” Charles says.

“Here.” Papa tosses her a hat. It’s too big and slides down her head. Laura pushes it back, tips her head up to squint at him. “Don’t want you getting sunburned.”

“She can’t get sunburned, Logan, she heals,” Charles reminds him. He’s still smiling, all the way down to his voice. “But it’s always a good habit to have, Laura, yes.”

Papa starts up the boat. It rumbles and stutters, and he shows her how to untie the ropes that keep it lashed to the dock, and then they’re moving away across the water. They skim across the ocean, waves splashing across the sides, skimming twin lines of froth behind them. Laura grips the railing and stares as the shore fades away, the water around them growing wider and wider. The sun dazzles on the water, wide patches of sparkling gold and white against the brilliant blue.

Even if the nurses at Transigen had given Laura all the crayons in the world, she never would have been able to draw something like this. The spray splashes her face, cool and startling, and she laughs into the wind.

Finally the boat stops in the middle of the water and Papa cuts the engine. Laura looks around and it’s everywhere, calm and still. Someone could shoot a thousand bullets — a million bullets — into that water and it wouldn’t even care. It could swallow all the blood she ever spilled, every last gun in the valley, with nothing more than a ripple.

Papa comes up beside her, leaning his arms against the railing. “Not a bad view,” he says. He sounds different here, like he isn’t dragging so many rocks behind him making everything so heavy. Like he hasn’t looked over his shoulder and expected to see enemies for a long time. “You wanna try swimming?”

She doesn’t, not at first. You can’t fight water, you can slash it with your claws, you can punch or kick or scream at it and it won’t make a difference. Water will only flood your lungs and make you drown, and there’s nothing you can do about it. But then Papa helps Charles into a special vest and carries him over the side, and Charles floats on his back and moves his arms like graceful wings, pushing him across the gentle waves. After a while he gets tired and Papa brings him back to the boat, wraps him up in a towel on the deck so he can look out at the water.

“C’mon,” Papa says, catching Laura’s eye. “I’ll show you.”

He doesn’t give her one of the floating vests. Instead he eases her into the water, gets her to lie on her back with her hands out at her sides. The first time her body dips in the waves Laura cries out, kicks her feet and starts splashing, but Papa’s hands press lightly at her back, push her back up. “I’ve got you,” he says. “You’re fine, kid, see? Trust me. Now relax.”

She tries, even as her heart pounds in her ears. The water laps around her, but Papa’s hands keep her steady, and slowly she learns to feel the rhythm of the ocean. “Don’t hold your breath,” Papa says. Laura exhales, realizes she’d been keeping all the air trapped in her chest, trying to fill herself up like a balloon. “Breathe. Don’t kick your feet, just let them be where you want to be. When you’re ready, tilt your head back and look up at the sky.”

Her feet dip and her stomach clenches, but Papa said don’t kick and so she doesn’t. Her legs sink a little but then they stay, level a little way below the surface, and the rest of her floats. Water laps at her ears, muffling the outside sounds, and finally Laura looks up and lets her gaze focus on the clouds floating overhead.

It’s bright, more white than blue today, with wisps of clouds that cover the sky like feathers. She can’t feel her body for once, no aches, no bruises, no reminders of the killing weapons they stuck into her hands and feet. There’s only the water, everywhere around her until it feels like it’s nowhere, until it feels like the sky has come down and lifted her up to meet it.

“I’m flying,” Laura breathes. Moisture trickles from the corners of her eyes and joins the endless sea.

She closes her eyes and lets the world disappear except for the gentle rocking of the waves, the cries of the seabirds overhead, and the rush and roar of the ocean all around her. And underneath it all, Papa’s hands at her back, strong, gentle, careful, making sure she doesn’t fall.