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It forced itself to take that last step onto the ferry. Every step further from land felt like falling. Through space, through time, through every place it had ever been. It kept its eyes open, its features arranged in what it hoped was a neutral expression. Somehow, it walked itself up to the small covered passenger deck and took a seat on a plastic bench. The boat began to move.
It gripped the plastic seat with its fingers as its body fought every inch of distance between it and the land. A dew of sweat blossomed on its brow, a snake-like coiling seized its guts, and a tectonic tremor unsteadied its hands.
This would pass. This always passed.
Ucluelet had been nice, at first. That salt in the air! Salt that seasoned everything, everyone. Delightful. It had hoped this might be the place. That maybe it could stay a while, if not forever.
Before it fed, it made its usual early missteps: offering the wrong greeting in town, using an ancient tongue instead of a more recently borrowed one; then, ponying up only a dime for a newspaper at the grocery store. It always needed time to acclimate to the right decade in a new place. Time, and a meal.
It could admit it had chosen poorly in Ucluelet. Grazed from the wrong pasture, to use the parlance of the place before last. A tricky thing, choosing well. It needed someone who knew the area, the people, the customs. But someone who would not be missed.
The surfer had been a mistake. It could admit that even now, landless and sick again. He’d been a local son, though not native to the land—a compromise, it had thought. He lived most of his life within walking distance of the shore. It could smell brine in him, down to his bones, and it wanted to taste. The surfer knew the town, the tides, the necessary scourge of seasonal tourism—and then, belly full, it knew all that, too.
Before the surfer, though, its first mistake: arriving alone, deep into off-season. The only stranger in town. Foolish.
But how could it know there was an off-season before it had fed? See? Tricky.
First there were just the missing person posters, the surfer’s face plastered all over town. It could have weathered that. But the dirty looks, the whispers on the sidewalk? That soured the air, turned sea salt to strychnine. When the brick came through its front window, it knew it was time to leave. So it stole a Jeep from the public beach lot, drove across the island, and walked onto the next ferry departing for the mainland. Any mainland, it didn’t really care. The departure board might as well have read elsewhere.
It had moved around plenty, but it hated crossing water. Could barely stand it, even on clear, calm days, which today was not. All the old places reared up in its consciousness at once as the ferry swayed against a current. It closed its eyes and let the old places flood the gnawing void left by the land it had just departed. The terroir of a river valley overlapped with a bitter cure for altitude sickness, the texture of handwoven sweetgrass confusing the metallic taste of—
“First time crossing?”
A young woman sat down next to it. Her dark hair hung in rough braids over fleece-clad shoulders. She smelled of sweat and pine and somewhere new. Somewhere it hadn’t tasted before.
“First and last,” it replied.
She smiled. “You should try again in the summer. The ride’s a lot smoother. Sometimes there are whales. Orcas, mostly.” She shrugged. “If that’s your kind of thing.”
It was not a good travel companion. Its usual opening question, you from around here?, didn’t work in transit. Where was here? Everywhere. Nowhere. “You… make this trip often?”
“Once a year or so. Just passing through, this time. Ferry from Victoria was cancelled so I caught a ride up here. Gotta be back in Prince George before winter semester starts.”
It glanced down to her steel toe boots, the heavy black bag between her feet, the cooler on her lap labeled SAMPLES—Keep Refrigerated.
“You’re a student?” it asked. She didn’t smell like one. Students usually smelled less lived in. Rootless. Restless, even. More like itself. They were not its favourite.
“Post-doc.” When it did not reply, she went on. “Like a researcher? But my grant ran out, so I had to take on another section of Intro Bio next semester.” She shrugged again, but didn’t smile this time. “What can I say? The life academe.”
Prince George, she’d said. It didn’t know the place. But someone it had tasted did. The words felt like winter in its ears. Ice and dirty snow and shivers through thermal layers. A nice change, after so many years of rain-damp bones down south. Or maybe it was just glad to have someplace firm to grasp onto during this time in between.
“Do you like it there? Prince George?”
“I didn’t used to. Couldn’t wait to get out when I was younger. But you know how it is. You see a bit of the world, and then a little bit more, and at a certain point the more you see the more you just miss home.”
It did know. It also knew what it felt like when there was no home to go back to. Like hunger. Hunger everywhere. Teeth eyes stomach skin fingernails bones. Screaming, wailing hunger. It was a hunger she would never have to know.
“What about you?” she asked. “You headed home, too?”
They were approaching land. It could feel it. All the old places, even Ucluelet, started to recede. The void in its middle did not. She should thank it, really. For sparing her ever having to endure this feeling. In that empty space, a plan formed.
It would disembark the ferry with the girl. Make some excuse to draw her away from the other passengers. Get her somewhere private. Really get acquainted with that sweet, cold place. Start to inhabit it. Like only a local could.
A true local. That’s what she was. One who would be missed greatly. Deliciously. And before it ever stepped foot in the place it would steal from her.
She was still looking at it. Waiting for an answer.
“Home?” it said. “Yes. For a while, I hope.”
It moved its lips into the shape called smile, which people found reassuring, even though it showed them every one of its teeth.
Editor: Kathryn Weaver
First Reader: Kathryn Weaver
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