One day, for a lark, I decided to play with a random title generator online. I clicked the button a number of times, flipping lists of randomly generated titles faster than I could read them. Then, I picked the three best titles on the list, picked one of those three, and started writing to see what would come of it.
This story is the result.
Stones in the Ships
By L. V. Gaudet
© January 28, 2010
The wet sound of waves lapping against waves danced with the wind in a unique chorus.
The world bobbed and rocked drunkenly. It was dark and dank, reeking of an old dampness that never dried out. It was the utterly unique odor that only trillions of gallons of water sitting forever in a cesspool of life and rotting detritus being eaten and defecated out by billions of creatures for a couple billions of years could have.
The cry of a solitary gull that had winged its way much too far from land pierced the air.
A distant buoy clanged.
“What are you doing?” a boy’s voice sneered.
Instantly, the real world crashed back.
The girl didn’t look up. She didn’t need to. She knew who the boy was, and who the other boys that would be with him were too. She stayed motionless, squatting with her bum barely off the ground, leaning slightly forward, and just stared at her little boats. They were crude creations of paper and sticks and bits of string that barely resembled boats. She’d made them herself.
“What are those supposed to be?” another boy said, his voice full of meanness. “Boats?!”
He laughed. It wasn’t a fun laugh.
“You’re a girl,” the boy said it like an insult. “Girls don’t play with boats.”
“Yeah,” a third boy added. “Girls don’t play with boats. Go find your doll-ies.” This last was sung in a nasty way.
Tears stung the girl’s eyes, threatening to flow. She made a conscious effort to hold them back. Crying would only make the boys worse.
The boys had circled her, standing over her very close, their shadows chilling her with more than their shade.
The first boy, Trevor, stomped on her little paper boats, grinding them into the mud of the shallow little puddle they almost floated on.
Brian “Buster” Brogan and Oscar mimicked his mindless guffaw.
One of the boys shoved her roughly as they walked away, making her fall in the mud. Laughing, they went off in search of other victims.
Laindra looked down at her muddy shorts and legs, then at her boats, now little more than soggy torn paper scraps and broken twigs. Her face twisted into sadness and the tears flowed down her cheeks.
A man stepped from the trees.
“I saw what those boys did,” he said. “It wasn’t very nice,”
“They’re mean,” Laindra sobbed, staring at the ruined boats.
“Let’s see what you have there,” the man said, plucking a soggy paper scrap from the mud. He looked at it, puzzled.
“It’s a boat,” Laindra said without looking up at him.
“Hmm, a boat, huh?”
“Yeah,” she whispered. She looked up at the man, and then stood up, shifting her feet nervously.
“Um, I have to go. I’m not supposed to talk to strangers.” She ran off down the trail away from the creek she’d been playing beside.
The man watched her go. When she disappeared from sight he went too, going the same way he had come, past the trees.
The next day Laindra was back playing beside the creek. It was her favorite place to play. It was usually quiet here. Nobody, not even her mother, knew she came here. Well, now those mean boys knew. She hoped they wouldn’t come back.
It had rained during the night, and the little puddle had grown wider and deeper.
She squatted next to the puddle, gently putting the new boats she had made in it. This time the puddle was deep enough for them to float. The breeze blew the boats slowly to the puddle edge nearest Laindra. She blew on them, sending them back the other way. Too soon the little boats made of paper, twigs, and bits of string became soggy and fell apart.
She sighed. The boats never lasted long. Still, she loved them. She would remake them again, float them again, imagine life on the sea in them, and watch them grow soggy and fall apart.
They made her feel closer to her dad. He had always loved boats, always worked on and with boats, and was often gone for months at a time on a boat. He had been lost at sea on one of a number of ships that had been rolled and sunk by storm tossed waves. Her mother was convinced it had to be more than just waves to sink the ship her dad was on, but it was a very bad storm.
“Did the boys break your boats again?”
Laindra looked up. It was the man again.
“No, they always fall apart.”
Then her eyes widened and she stared at what the man held. She was on her feet in a flash, drawn to the man, reaching out a tentative hand, wanting badly to touch.
He held it out to her.
“It’s ok,” he said. “Go ahead and touch it.”
“It’s beautiful,” she whispered, gently running her fingers along the graceful curve of the wooden ship’s hull.
“I made it myself,” the man said proudly, “in my workshop just on the other side of those trees.”
Her face beamed with obvious longing.
She would need both of her little hands to hold the sleek ship. Its two masts stuck out proudly, the sails carefully rolled and tied to the beams, ready to be unfurled with the tug of a string.
“You can have it,” the man said.
Laindra’s eyes grew even wider. She stared up at the man in awe, her arms twitching with the desire to take the ship.
She looked away shyly.
“I-I can’t,” she said quietly.
“Sure you can. I want you to have it.”
“I have to ask my Mom.”
The man stared at the boat thoughtfully for a while, and then looked at the young girl.
“You are probably right,” he sighed. “Your Mom probably wouldn’t understand.”
“It’s so beautiful,” the girl said longingly. “I couldn’t take it anyway. You worked too hard on it.” She drew nervous patterns in the dirt with the toe of her shoe.
“Why don’t you make your own?” the man said.
She looked at him like he had corn silk growing out of his ears.
“I’m just a little kid,” she stated the obvious.
“I could help you. Whenever you have time, you could come to my workshop. We’ll build it together.”
She knelt down, picking at the sodden mess of her paper boats, making a point of not looking at the man.
“I don’t know you. I shouldn’t even be talking to you. I’m not allowed to talk to strangers.”
“I’m not really a stranger anymore. I think we’ve kind of gotten to know each other. You know my workshop and house are just on the other side of the trees, and I know your house is just over the little hill. We’re neighbors.”
She dared a quick glance at him, and then returned to staring at the remains of her paper boats. She really wanted a wooden ship like the man’s, badly.
“I’m Mr. Collins. Mr. Jeffrey Collins,” he said. “But since we’re going to be friends, you can call me Jeff. What is your name?”
“Laindra,” she whispered, keeping herself at a safe distance from the man.
“Well hello Laindra,” he motioned as if shaking her hand. “I am very pleased to meet you.”
“I-I have to go.” She hurriedly got up and ran off in the direction of home.
Mr. Jeffrey Collins, Jeff to his friends, went back through the trees towards his own home and workshop.
The next day Laindra was back at the creek with her little paper boats. This time Mr. Collins was already there, floating his elegant wooden ship in the creek.
She took a spot some distance away, making a point of trying not to look at the man and his boat. Before long the little paper boats grew soggy and fell apart. Then Laindra turned to other games while surreptitiously watching the man with his wooden ship. As soon as he tried to talk to her, Laindra ran off home.
They repeated this ritual day after day.
Sometimes the man brought a different boat.
Sometimes the mean boys came and tried to tease her. They quickly learned it was best to just turn around and quietly leave when Mr. Collins was there.
Laindra stopped bringing her sad little paper boats to the creek. That was exactly what she thought of them now, sad. But it wasn’t just the pathetic little creations of paper, twigs, and bits of string that made them sad. It was what they represented too, the desperate longing for a father she missed terribly.
And then one day Mr. Collins wasn’t there.
Laindra looked up and down the creek, but he wasn’t there. She waited, and waited. No Mr. Collins.
Jeffrey Collins stood in his workshop, an old barn converted to a workshop, carefully studying a large chunk of driftwood. He turned it this way and that, inspecting it from every angle. Bright sunlight from the open large barn doors flooded the workshop, dust motes danced in the light beams.
He turned at the slight sound of a scrape by the door. He smiled.
“Well, hello there young lady.”
Laindra stood nervously in the doorway.
“Have you finally come to help me build your boat?”
She nodded hesitantly.
“Well come in then, come in.” He waved her forward with a friendly manner.
“Come see,” he urged. “This here is your boat.” He proudly held out the chunk of driftwood for her to see.
She looked at the ugly gnarled chunk of dead wood in confusion, and then looked at Mr. Collins as though he had just sprouted squirrel tails from his head.
“Oh, I know it doesn’t look like a boat now.” He caressed the chunk of wood as though it was the elegant smooth side of a boat like the other one that Laindra so desired.
Drawn by curiosity, she stepped forward.
“Driftwood is the best wood for making a boat,” he said, ignoring the girl as he studied the wood. “A driftwood boat can never sink. It has lived a good life, died a proper death, and cast itself out to sea because the tree just knew that was where it was meant to be, a natural sailor. Old sailors’ tales are full of the belief that sailors are trees that became driftwood, reincarnated of course.”
By now the girl was holding the driftwood in her own little hands, looking at it with careful awe. She was amazed at how much lighter it was than she had expected it to be. A chunk of wood that big should have weighed much more. It was still kind of heavy, but not so that she’d have trouble lifting it.
“Well, let’s get to work,” Mr. Collins grinned eagerly, rubbing his hands together.
He helped Laindra put the driftwood in a clamp, his larger hands covering her little ones completely as he helped hold it in place and helped her turn the rod to close the clamp securely on the would-be boat.
He laid out tools, explaining what each would be used for.
With strong and gentle hands Jeffrey Collins guided the young girl as she slowly drew the boat forth from the chunk of driftwood. They talked as they worked. The afternoon wore on, the sunlight grew old, and a slight dimness began to invade the workshop.
Laindra suddenly noticed the change in light and looked up startled.
“What time is it?” she asked urgently.
“Oh, you’re going to be late for supper aren’t you? You’d better hurry along.”
She looked at the driftwood longingly. It didn’t look like anything yet, but in her imagination she could see through its twisted bulk to the sleek hull hidden within it.
“We can finish it another day. It will take days to do it properly anyway.”
Laindra turned and scampered for the door.
“Um, Laindra,” Jeffrey said hesitantly.
She stopped, turning and looking at him expectantly.
“Uh, maybe we shouldn’t tell your Mother about this just yet.” He cleared his throat. “Um, about the boat and about us, our friendship.” He paused. “She might not understand.”
Laindra thought about this a moment. Her Mom was crazy worried about her talking to strangers. She always had to meet all her friends and their parents, and then told her which ones she was allowed or not allowed to play with.
Mr. Collins was nice, but she suspected her mom might not approve of her spending time with a grownup instead of kids.
She didn’t like playing with other kids. Sometimes they weren’t very nice about her not having a dad. Sometimes they didn’t even know they were not being nice about it. But sometimes they were cruel about it on purpose. And hearing about the things they did with their dads only reminded her that she would never do those things. Things like going fishing, building a tree house, or … or building a boat like she was with Mr. Collins.
“Ok,” she nodded before turning and running for home.
Laindra spent a lot of time with Mr. Collins that summer. They worked on her boat, spent time down by the creek floating boats, went for walks, or sometimes they just hung out and talked.
Laindra’s mother noticed changes in her daughter that summer too.
She spent more time out playing, and when she was at home she seemed preoccupied.
Laindra had kept mostly to herself and talked little since they learned of the loss of her father. She had grown increasingly distant from her friends and eventually stopped playing with other children altogether. When she talked, she talked about her father and boats.
This was a topic Laindra’s mother didn’t like. She missed Laindra’s father desperately and talking about him broke her heart. But even worse was when Laindra sometimes talked as though she was convinced her father was still alive out there somewhere, stranded and waiting for rescue.
That terrified her.
It terrified her that Laindra would hurt herself further clinging to an impossible dream. He was gone forever. A lot of men on those ships were.
It also terrified her because the thought tickled at that tiny shred of doubt, that inkling of hope she dared not hope lest it make her go mad. They never found him. They never found a lot of the bodies from that disaster.
Laindra had always shared her father’s love of ships. Her mother had always suspected it was just because it was the only way the girl could feel connected with her often absent father.
Since his ship sank at sea the girl had become obsessed with ships and boats. She spent hours re-reading any book with a boat in it, and even more hours building and re-building those little blobs of paper, twigs, and bits of string that she called boats.
It wasn’t a healthy obsession, she worried. Not healthy at all for that child’s mind. She had tried to put a stop to it, taking away any book with a boat, tossing away the girl’s sad little paper boats whenever she caught her with one.
It was always a very ugly scene. The girl screamed as if she were witnessing the death of someone close to her. She’d bang her head against the walls, smash things in the house, and just scream and scream until she choked on her raw throat and lost her voice. The hoarse screams that continued after that just sent terrified chills down her spine.
The doctor had advised she leave the girl to her books and boats, and so she did. The violent episodes ended, and she watched her baby girl go through her days quietly withdrawn within her own little world.
But that summer Laindra stopped talking about her father. She read books about horses and dogs, books without a single boat to be found within the typewritten pages. And, she stopped building the sad little paper boats.
Laindra’s mother wondered at the changes coming over her daughter. Was she finally getting over the loss of her father? Was she finally starting to adjust, to cope? But at the same time she worried that Laindra was hiding something; that she was preoccupied with some secret she knew her mother would not like.
She wasn’t sure just when it began, but Laindra started to be increasingly moody and angry. Her sad little girl, who had always clung to that shred of hope that shone through her eyes, had turn empty and emotionless, yet always one small trigger away from a furious fit.
One day she might go into a violent tantrum and throw her dinner plate across the room because her mother asked her to scrape it and place it in the sink. Another day she’d find Laindra’s toys broken and tossed in the garbage. When she asked what happened, Laindra would just shrug emotionlessly and answer that she’d cleaned them up. Was this all part of her adjustment to the realization her father would never return?
And then came the day the doorbell rang. Drying her hands on a tea towel, Laindra’s mother opened the door to a frighteningly furious Mrs. Brogan. The anger lines on her usually stern face looked strung so taut they were about to snap. Her eyes blazed, lips were a puckered little o, and a tick was gearing up to start twitching her face.
She was so angry that she couldn’t talk. Her mouth opened and closed, her jaws clacking, and nonsense sounds squeaking from the tight angry line of her lips.
Laindra came in the room behind her mother, took one look at the fearsome visage of Mrs. Brogan, and tried to melt into the next room before the woman set eyes on her.
It was too late. She turned eyes wild with fury on the young girl. The ferocity of the woman’s glare pinned the girl in place, freezing her motionless with fear. She took a half step forward as if to go for the girl.
Laindra’s mother stood blocking the door, a look of stunned confusion on her face.
“Th-that that GIRL!” the woman sputtered.
Laindra’s mother sighed.
“Now Mrs. Brogan,” she began. “Surely …”
“Surely that GIRL should be locked up!” the woman spat, turning her furious look to the girl’s mother. “There is something wrong with that girl, she shouldn’t be allowed around other children!”
Laindra’s mother’s blood boiled.
“Now Mrs. Brogan,” she said sternly.
“…needs to be put away somewhere!”
The woman’s shrill voice was grating and her insinuation only served to raise her protective mother’s hackles.
“Now Mrs. Brogan, that is enough!”
“If you don’t do something about that child…”
“Either tell me what you think she did, or get off my doorstep.”
“Sh-she broke my Brian’s nose, that’s what she did,” the woman finally spat.
Laindra’s mother finally noticed the boy standing behind Mrs. Brogan. Brian held a bloodied cloth to his swollen tear-streaked face. This boy, who was so much bigger than little Laindra, suddenly looked much smaller and younger. She stifled a giggle, which made the furious woman before her even angrier.
“So, little Brian Buster-the-Bully Brogan got his nose broken by a little girl much smaller and younger than himself,” she humphed.
Brian hung his head at the nickname everyone knew the kids called him by, but his mother turned a deaf ear to.
Mrs. Brogan only grew more furious.
Laindra fully expected to see steam come whistling from the woman’s reddening ears.
“Your daughter…” the woman spat.
“My daughter is a little girl dealing with the death of her father, while the whole town knows that your son and those other boys are nothing more than dimwitted bullies that go around picking on anyone smaller and weaker than them!” She leaned toward the other woman, her fury in return making the woman back down.
“…just like his all too present father!”
Without a pause, she went on.
“Whoever did this to Buster, Mrs. Brogan, you can be rest assured it was well deserved. That he would blame a little girl much smaller and younger than himself is just pathetic.”
“But,” Mrs. Brogan sputtered, the wind having been taken out of the fury of her sails.
Laindra’s mother calmly closed the door in the woman’s face and turned to Laindra.
“Did you break Buster’s nose?”
Through the little window by the door Laindra could see Mrs. Brogan cuff Buster with her hand and drag him off while scolding him all the way down the sidewalk and beyond the sight of the window.
She looked down at her feet and fidgeted.
“Yes,” she mumbled.
Fighting an amused smirk, Laindra’s mother asked as sternly as she could manage, “how did you do that?”
“I hit him,” she paused nervously. “With a big dead tree branch.”
“He broke my boat.”
She sighed. So, Laindra hadn’t given up the boats after all.
“Go to your room.”
“I said go!” Her heart wasn’t in punishing her daughter. She knew those boys, and knew that any broken nose one of them got was well deserved. She was secretly proud of her daughter for standing up to him and fighting back.
Laindra stomped her foot in stubborn frustration.
“It’s not fair!”
“You broke his nose,” her mother said calmly.
She turned and stomped off to her room.
“I think you should stay around here for a while,” her mother called to her retreating back. “You know, stay close to home. Play in the yard.”
Laindra froze, horrified. She turned and stared at her mother as if she’d just turned into a giant slathering fire-spitting poisonous monster with razor sharp claws grasping to tear her into mouth-sized shreds.
“Don’t look at me like that,” her mother warned. “You know as well as I do that next time you see Buster he won’t be alone.”
“But, but,” she stammered, “how long?”
“A while, until things calm down.” Her mother shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe until school starts, maybe longer.”
Surprised, she stared at her daughter.
“I-I have stuff I have to do…”
“Ihavetomeetsomeone!” She spat it out so fast that it was all garbled into one word.
Laindra’s mother stared at her, sorting the sounds out until they made sense.
“Meet someone? Who?”
Her heart skipped a beat. A friend? Has Laindra finally started doing what little girls are supposed to do? Has she finally started playing with other children again?
“Well, who is this friend? I’d like to meet her.”
“Just … a friend.”
“Does just-a-friend have a name? Where does she live?”
“Um, he …” she said too quietly.
“He …” a little louder.
“Oh, a boy. Ok, so what do you play?”
Boats, she thought. Ok, boys like boats. This might be ok. She looked at Laindra expectantly, waiting for more.
“We’re making a boat, a ship, like Daddy’s.”
Her heart turned to an icy lump in her chest, heavy, a cold dead weight.
“Did-did you know if you put stones in the bottom of the boat it won’t tip over? It should work on a big ship too, same principle.” She stared up at her mom expectantly, hopefully, willing her to understand.
“Every sailor would know that…” Laindra looked down at her fidgeting fingers. “If-if Daddy…” She fought back tears. “Daddy would have known that, Daddy, he, maybe…”
“And driftwood doesn’t sink,” Laindra grasped, desperate. “Daddy would know … if he had driftwood and stones … he could make …” her voice was trailing off. “… a … ship … and…”
“Laindra, enough!” Her heart dropped in her chest like a stone. This scared her. She had thought, hoped, that Laindra was getting better. Was she dragging this other child, this boy, into her dark fantasy? Or worse, could she be playing with some imaginary friend, losing herself into this fantasy world, making her father alive and well and building boats with him in her mind?
Laindra burst into tears.
“What is his name, this boy?” She was terrified of the answer.
“Jeff.” Her mind raced, her heart lurched. Ok, Jeff, you might be a real boy.
“Ok, I want to meet him.”
Laindra just stared at her like she couldn’t figure out what kind of creature her mother was.
“This Jeff, I want to meet him. His parents too.”
“You know the rule. I meet your friends and their parents. Before you play with Jeff again, I want to meet him and his parents.”
“But,” Laindra whimpered while inside she screamed, “I can’t!”
“He has a phone, I’m sure. You have a phone number for Jeff, don’t you?”
“Yes,” she whispered.
“Ok then. Invite Jeff and his parents over. They can come for supper, a visit, whatever. Or else we can go knock on their door. Either way, I meet them.”
Laindra looked hollowed out, like she had been gobbled up and spat out. This made her mother worry more.
“I’m glad you made a new friend,” she said gently. “Now, off to your room. You still broke that awful Buster-the-Bully’s nose.” She had to fight a smile when she said this.
Laindra’s mother was fidgety. She kept fussing with everything, wanting to make a good impression. Jeff and his parents were coming for dinner.
The doorbell rang and she nearly jumped. She rushed for the door and opened it.
There, stood a nicely dressed, not bad looking, man.
“Um, hello,” she said.
“Hi,” he said with a smile. “You must be Laindra’s Mom. I’ve heard a lot about you. You look even more beautiful than Laindra described.”
Her heart beat faster.
“Um, and you…”
“Sorry,” the man said with a hint of nervousness. “Jeffry, Jeffrey Collins.” He produced his hand to take hers in a warm greeting.
She took his hand and he shook hers. His touch was gentle and warm.
“And,” she looked past him, seeing nobody. “Where is your wife, Mr. Collins?”
“Oh, there is no Mrs. Collins.”
Her heart fluttered.
“Where – where is Jeff?”
“I am Jeff.”
She stared, puzzled.
Laindra burst past her mother, throwing her arms around the man.
Aghast, she stared.
“You? You are Jeff? The Jeff? Boat-making Jeff? Jeff who Laindra has been spending so much time with?”
He nodded eagerly.
She stiffened, alarm bells clanging in every part of her being. Why is this man spending so much time with her daughter?
“Well, Mr. Collins, this is a bit of a surprise,” she said icily. “When Laindra said she had a new friend, I just thought …”
“That it was someone her age,” he finished for her.
“Yes,” she said curtly.
“I’m – I’m new here.” His eyes begged her to wait, to hear him out before closing the door on him and her daughter’s friendship.
“I live alone, I don’t know anyone here. I have no friends here. I-I was lonely. I saw boys picking on her. She has no friends her age, you know.”
She knew. She knew all too well.
“Laindra is a remarkable little girl. I don’t know if you realize just how lonely she is…” He paused. “Just how much she misses her father, how badly she needs to fill that … spot.”
“Come in Mr. Collins. Supper is waiting.”
Over the following weeks Mr. Collins used his considerable charms on Laindra’s mother. They never dated, but he charmed and flirted with her just enough to keep her heart aflutter and confuse her with hopes for something she wasn’t really sure she wanted.
Laindra seemed to be blossoming in her friendship with the man. Her need for a father figure weighed against her need for friends her own age, and Laindra’s mother couldn’t bring herself to put an end to her daughter’s friendship with Mr. Collins.
But it still troubled her. There were little things, things she just couldn’t put a finger to, things that just seemed a little – off.
The day they talked about the stones in the ships was a day that changed everything. That was the day she broke Buster’s nose, the day her mom made her introduce Jeff to her, and the day she made a new friend who would change everything between her and Mr. Jeffrey Collins.
Mr. Collins was busy. He said he had things he had to do. When he wasn’t at the creek Laindra went by his house, just in case. She knocked on the door and there was no answer. She went to his workshop. It was quiet and deserted. Lonely and dejected, she went back to the creek.
She had with her a crude little wooden boat she had made herself. It was the first boat she made all by herself, without Jeff’s help, that actually kind of looked like a boat.
She sat on a log looking at the crude boat. It wasn’t pretty or smooth like Jeff’s boats. She was so eager to show it to him that she brought it along, even though she knew he wasn’t going to be around today.
“Hey,” a boy’s voice cut in.
Startled, she looked around.
“Hi,” a boy said, waving a little timidly.
Laindra had never seen this boy before.
“Hey, hi,” she said a little distrustfully. Would he be like the mean boys? He was closer to her age, maybe even the same age as her, but that didn’t mean he was nice.
“What-cha got there?”
“A boat, cool. Can I see?”
Laindra scooted over and Kyle came and sat next to her, looking at the boat.
“I made it.”
“I like it.”
“Hey look,” a boy’s voice sneered.” Girly’s got a boooyfriend.”
Laindra froze, her heart sank. “Oh no.”
Sure enough, Trevor, Buster, and Oscar came out of the bush.
“Who’s this?” Buster sneered. “I don’t think I’ve seen you around before.”
“That’s the new kid,” Trevor said. “The little dweeb moved in next door to me.”
Oscar raised his eyebrows.
“You mean Sally’s house? Sally Spooner, ya better run sooner ‘cause Trevor’s got a crush on you, Sally’s house?”
Trevor glared at him.
“Ooh, bad luck dweeb,” Buster snorted. “You picked the wrong house to move into.”
“Is this your girlfriend, dweeb?” Trevor sneered.
“He took your girlfriend’s house,” Oscar snorted. “Maybe you should take his girlfriend.”
“She wasn’t my girlfriend,” Trevor muttered. He stepped forward and snatched the boat from Kyle’s hands.
“What’s this, dweeb?”
“Is that supposed to be a boat?” Buster snatched it from Trevor.
“Pretty crappy boat.”
Laindra watched in horror as the boat was roughly passed around.
“Maybe it’s a plane,” Oscar laughed. “Let’s see if it can fly.” He tossed it straight up as high as he could. The boat caught in the tree branches and held there.
“Pretty crappy plane.”
The boys made a game of throwing sticks and rocks at the boat, trying to knock it out of the tree. The solid thunk of a large rock finally dislodged the boat. It tumbled, bouncing off branches, the mast snapping off, dropped, and bounced off the ground.
Laindra watched the boat fall as if in slow motion, her face so pale that Kyle stared at her with wide eyed worry. He watched her cringe each time the boat bounced off a branch, despair snapping her with the snap of the mast.
“Huh, piece of junk!” Buster raised his foot high and stomped down hard on the little wooden boat. It cracked with a dull sound under his shoe.
Laindra screamed. It was a terrible sound. It filled the air, the deep guttural animal scream of the desperate, the release of unbound fury and hatred, the primal scream of all the wrongs through the history of mankind.
All four boys froze and stared at her with slack-jawed faces turned white and drained of blood.
In a flash of fury fed adrenaline, Laindra was off the log, small fists wrapping tightly against a large tree branch on the ground, and coming up spinning in one fluid motion that would make any action movie actor jealous. She swung the branch with all the might of her great fury, the adrenaline burning white hot through her little muscles.
Oscar barely dodged in time, losing a few hairs that were caught in the bark as the branch whizzed past his head, its breeze rustling his hair.
Standing just behind Brian Buster-the-Bully Brogan, Trevor staggered back even though branch didn’t actually touch him. He almost fell on his butt.
Buster wasn’t so lucky. The intended target of the branch, he didn’t stand a chance. His nose exploded with a spray of blood as the rough-barked branch connected with a sickening crunch. He fell to his knees, holding his face, screaming.
Trevor and Oscar ran faster than they’d ever ran in their lives, the monster that was a little girl chasing them, brandishing her blood-stained branch, screaming like a banshee.
Gingerly, Kyle plucked the little wooden boat from the mud, turning it over and examining the broken toy.
“You shouldn’t have broken her boat, I guess,” he said quietly.
Mr. Collins came home to find a sobbing Laindra trying to float a broken little wooden boat in a bucket of water. Its hull was cracked, and the mast had been snapped off and tied back together with sticks that looked like they were supposed to be splints. Every time she let go of the little boat, it immediately tipped on its side, bobbing in the water. She sobbed anew, scooped the boat up, and tried again.
A little distance away, a tired looking boy sat quietly.
He had never seen the boy before.
Jeff gave the boy a cursory glance, and stared at Laindra with concern. He approached her slowly and knelt beside her.
“I-it k-k-keeps t-tipping,” she sobbed.
“It’s top heavy,” he said gently. “That’s why.”
“You made it? All by yourself?”
She nodded dully.
“It’s not a stupid boat,” he said gently. “You just need stones.”
She looked up at him through her tears as though he’d just turned green and grew an elephant’s trunk.
“Sure, stones. Your mast is too heavy. You have to weigh down the bottom of the boat, and then it won’t tip.”
“B-but stones will just make it sink.”
“Only if you put in too many. Here, I’ll show you.”
Jeff searched around for small stones, pebbles really, because it was a small boat. Carefully, holding the boat upright, he balanced pebbles on the crude craft, counter-balancing the heavy mast. When he was sure it wouldn’t tip, he carefully let go.
“Wow!” Laindra stared in amazement. She looked up at Jeff in wonder, her sobs finally subsiding.
“Its and old trick every sailor knows,” he explained. “If your mast is too heavy, it will tip your boat like this.” He cupped his hands flat, one finger sticking up like a mast, tipping his hands like a tipping boat.
“But why would they make a boat that needs stones to keep it from tipping?”
“They wouldn’t. But a mast is heavy and, if the waves swell too big, the boat goes up and down the waves like this, see?” He rocked his hands like a boat on a storm tossed sea.
“If the boat rocks too far, tips over too much, the weight of the mast pulls it down, tipping it over all the way.”
Laindra stared at him wide eyed, soaking it all in.
“So, if they know a storm is coming, they’ll go to land and put stones in the bottom of the ship’s hull. Weight it down, so it can’t tip. It’s an old sailor trick from the days when all ships had masts. It’s still used today, sometimes even with ships without masts.”
“So,” Laindra gasped hopefully, barely able to whisper it. “My-my dad, he might, he could have …”
He leaned over with a conspiratorial wink.
Laindra sat in stunned silence, her mind working through this new information. She believed everything Mr. Collins said about boats. After all, you couldn’t craft such beautiful ships without knowing all about them, right?
The truth about it was that Jeffrey Collins only knew how to build toy boats. He knew nothing about the real thing and made it up as he went along, all to impress a very impressionable little girl.
“So,” Jeff said suddenly, standing up, “who’s the boy?”
“Huh? Boy?” she said confused.
He motioned with a nod toward the boy still sitting quietly just out of earshot.
“Oh, oh that’s Kyle. He’s new, I just met him today.”
“What happened to your boat? Did Kyle break it?”
“No,” she said sadly. “Those bully boys did. Kyle tried to fix it.”
“I see. Well, maybe Kyle should go home now. Then we’ll fix your boat properly.”
Laindra said goodbye to Kyle. With a shrug and an uneasy glance at Mr. Collins, Kyle went on his way.
Laindra and Mr. Collins went into his workshop and he went to work fixing her little boat. While he worked, he told her more about how sailors used stones in the ships to keep them from tipping and sinking during terrible storms.
Laindra told Mr. Collins about hitting Buster with the tree branch and how there was so much blood. It scared her.
Things were different after that day. Laindra was different. Her relationship with Mr. Collins was different.
Kyle didn’t like Mr. Collins. He said he was creepy and that he didn’t think Laindra should spend so much time with him.
This made Laindra feel defensive, protective of her relationship with Mr. Collins.
The more time Mr. Collins spent with her mother, and the more time she spent with her new friend Kyle, the more she thought of him as Mr. Collins instead of as Jeff, her friend.
Laindra was jealous. She felt like her mom was taking over Jeff, intruding on her private friendship with him. She could tell her mom liked him, but in a girlfriend-boyfriend way, not just as a nice neighbor. But she knew Jeff really liked her, not her mom.
She also knew she liked her new friend Kyle. Sometimes it was good to just be around a kid her age, and Kyle was easy to be around. He never asked about her dad or why she liked boats, despite her being a girl. It didn’t seem to matter to Kyle whether she was a girl or a boy. She felt a little more normal around Kyle. Around Kyle she was just a kid, not Laindra who lost her dad and had to make boats to hold onto that connection with him.
She also thought she was beginning to feel the stirrings of a crush on Kyle, although she’d never admit it to anyone. He was nice, and kind of cute, in a dumb boy way. At this age all boys were considered dumb boys, because otherwise you might have to admit you kinda liked them. Although a girl Laindra’s age didn’t really understand those feelings or what to do with them. It was just puppy play, the natural childhood learning on how to one day be a grown up.
Her feelings for Kyle really confused Laindra. Somehow, she felt like she was tricking Jeff, cheating on their friendship. But there was nothing wrong with having more than one friend, was there?
Jeff always got mad when Kyle was around. At first it was little. He just seemed a little annoyed at nothing in particular. But the more Laindra went off to play with Kyle instead of visiting Jeff, the more angry Jeff seemed to be, both at her and at Kyle.
At first Jeff dropped subtle hints that maybe he’d like to do stuff alone with Laindra, like before she met Kyle and they spent much more time together building and sailing the little ships together and stuff.
That changed as her friendship with Kyle grew stronger and it became more obvious that Mr. Jeffrey Collins had competition for the young girl’s attention. The subtle hints that maybe Kyle should go do something else somewhere else grew bolder, more obvious, until at last he’d outright order Kyle to leave and to go home.
Kyle and Laindra sat on a downed tree by the creek, watching the water trickle by. It was one of those days when Laindra didn’t want to talk. But that was ok; they were comfortable sitting together in silence.
Kyle idly broke up twigs and tossed them into the creek. They both watched them float downstream.
“Hey there, I found you,” a man’s voice called from behind them. Mr. Collins.
Kyle stiffened. He always got that creepy feeling when Mr. Collins was around.
Beside him, Laindra didn’t react at all. But Kyle sensed the increased wariness in her, that today she would prefer it if Mr. Collins just went away and left her alone. She got kind of moody that way sometimes.
Twigs crunched under foot as Mr. Collins approached. His shadow chilled Kyle when he leaned across the downed tree to see their faces. Kyle’s was carefully guarded. Laindra’s was blank, empty.
Mr. Collins barely gave Kyle a glance, staring at Laindra’s face, studying her in a friendly manner. Friendly, if friendly could hold a trace of jealousy, a hint of anger, and something else Kyle didn’t know what it was. Friendly, yet a bit intense.
“Go home Kyle,” Mr. Collins ordered in a soft voice that would not take “no” for an answer.
Kyle glanced at Laindra. Her expression hadn’t changed. Her face was expressionless, her eyes empty. She was like that a lot. Sometimes, Kyle knew, it was because she was thinking about her dad. Sometimes, he didn’t think that was it at all.
With a shrug that said, “I don’t like this,” Kyle hopped off the log and ambled off, glancing back now and then.
Mr. Collins watched him go out of the corner of his eye.
“Hi Laindra,” he said softly.
Laindra’s mom was kneeling down pulling weeds when she glanced up and noticed a boy standing timidly at the edge of the yard. She stared at him staring at her.
“Hello,” she finally said, wondering what the boy wanted.
He approached hesitantly.
“Um,” he paused, struggling for words. “Are-are you Laindra’s mom?”
“Yes I am. And who might you be?”
“Kyle,” he said, almost a whisper.
“Well, hello there Kyle,” she smiled at him. “Are you a friend of Laindra’s?”
“Um, yeah. Kinda.”
“Laindra’s not here right now.”
Curious, she waited for the boy to continue.
“I-I want to talk to you.” He took another hesitant step forward. “About,” step, “about Mr. Collins.” He stopped and played with his fingers nervously.
“What about Mr. Collins?”
“I-I think he’s hurting Laindra,” he whispered.
She just stared at him, certain she heard wrong. After all, the boy had said it so quietly that she barely made out any words at all.
“Mr. Collins,” Kyle repeated, “he’s-he spends too much time with Laindra. He’s a grownup, she’s a kid. I-I think he’s hurting Laindra.”
Laindra’s mom was miffed.
“Nonsense,” she snapped, giving the boy her best Mom knows you’re lying stare.
Kyle stared back, defiant, afraid, unsure, yet sure what he was trying to do is completely right.
“What makes you say such things?” Laindra’s mom demanded. “He is a nice man helping a young girl who needs a father figure.” She sounded a little too much like she was trying to convince herself.
“Laindra,” Kyle said, “she acts weird after she’s been with Mr. Collins.”
“Go home Kyle,” she said sternly, turning back to her weeding, making it clear the visit was over.
With a sad shake of his head Kyle wandered off down the street.
Late that afternoon, Kyle found Laindra down by the creek again. She was sitting on a thick branch up in a tree. He clambered up and sat beside her without a word.
She seemed off today, again.
“Hey,” she finally said, quietly.
“Hey,” he returned.
They sat in silence for a long while.
“You okay?” Kyle finally asked.
They returned to their silent vigil, the sunlight growing weaker, thicker, as the afternoon wore on.
“I don’t like Mr. Collins,” Kyle said at last.
“I know.” She seemed to have the wisdom of the ages hanging on her shoulders today.
“He doesn’t like me either.”
“He acts like thinks he’s your boyfriend or something.”
She shrugged. The both knew grownups didn’t think like that with kids.
“I don’t think you should visit him anymore.”
Laindra turned and looked at him with her empty eyes. Behind that dead stare he could see the flash of fury that could erupt without warning.
“Mr. Collins is not good for you, you know.” Kyle thumbed his trousers leg nervously. “He’s not your dad,” he whispered.
Fury flared in her eyes, her face twisting into a tight angry knot.
Ignoring her anger, he went on.
“You act weird when you’re around him.”
Laindra glared at him, her fists raised as though about to strike out, to attack him with a violent fury never seen before.
“I told your mom.”
Her arms dropped to her sides. Her face paled, the fury draining from it as quickly as it appeared, replaced by a deep sadness and hurt.
Without a word Laindra climbed down the tree and ran off through the trees. She never looked back. Kyle didn’t see the twisted knot of grief or the tears streaming down her face.
Laindra ran and ran. She ran until her legs felt weak, her lungs burned, and a sharp knot of pain gripped her side, slicing through her with every ragged breath. Her throat burned raw with every gasped breath. Her head spun dizzily. Her heart and mind raced in a thousand directions at once.
When she couldn’t run anymore, Laindra walked. She walked and she walked. The sunlight grew dimmer, thicker, older. The afternoon quickly waned into dinner time.
At last Laindra came to her very own secret place. Nobody knew about it. Not her mom, or Kyle, or Mr. Collins.
She knew her mom would be worried by now, supper would be sitting cold on the table, and she would probably be in trouble for being late.
Laindra didn’t care. She had something she had to do.
Her secret place lay on the edge of the sea, sheltered by bluffs. The sandy soil was mostly soft here, with some large ancient boulders barely peaking the tops of their heads through the soil. Not far away lay an old abandoned farm house and barn, a treasure trove of treasures laying within.
Laindra had been coming here secretly for some time now. She had a project, a big project.
She was building a ship.
Laindra collected anything from the old farmhouse and barn that looked usable, dragging them to her secret place. She tested her treasures in the water lapping at the shore for floatability. The discards were tossed or shoved into a rough pile, and the useable items crudely tied together to form her ship. There were pieces of wooden boards, old wooden kitchen chairs, and an old faded steamer trunk among other things.
“It’s not quite finished yet, but it will have to do,” she thought.
Digging her heels into the sandy ground and grunting as she strained, Laindra struggled to push the heap of old junk towards the water lapping against the shore. It got easier as objects began to bob and float in the water, taking their weight off the pile she was trying to push.
When the whole mess was finally floating in the water, Laindra paused to catch her breath. She stared at her accomplishment, then back at the shore.
“Oh, I almost forgot…”
She hurried out of the water and scampered across the sandy soil. Laindra grabbed up a long stick that had probably once been a sapling and raced back to the water.
Her homemade ship had already begun to drift away from the shore. The tide had started to go out, drawn away from shore by the moon’s cold pull.
Laindra fought the water that slowed her down, struggling to reach her raft in time. She swung her stick on top of it and managed to grab hold and drag it back closer to shore where the water wasn’t too deep for her to clamber aboard.
Once she was perched safely aboard her floating raft, Laindra used the stick to push it away from shore again.
She was going to find her father.
Coughing up water and exhausted from the battle with the sea, Laindra dragged herself from the surf and collapsed on the little sandy beach amidst gnarled clumps of seaweed that had washed ashore. The world was hazy. Her eyes drooped and closed.
“Stones in the ships,” her mind drifted … “I should have put stones in the ship.”
Her eyes fluttered open. A vague shape shimmered before her eyes, its darkness playing against the brilliance of the sun clashing against the pale beach.
She struggled to sit up, to see.
The shape slowly took form, a human form.
She stared in confusion. Something about the form seemed familiar as it danced and shimmered like a mirage.
It was a man. He looked scruffy and tired. His hair and beard were long and untrimmed, and his clothes little more than worn rags.
Laindra struggled to stand on unsteady legs, eyes glued to the image standing some distance across the beach.
She stood on the shore, gasping and dripping wet, staring with incredulity.
Her face exploded in an ecstasy of delight.
“DADDY!” She screamed, running across the little beach with arms outstretched.
The water lapped at the shore, carrying with it seaweed, driftwood, and the assorted remains of the homemade ship, shattered and waterlogged. Among the remains the lifeless body of a young girl was dragged to shore, one swollen hand still tangled in the rope tied around an old steamer trunk.