Miriam arrived on Aveny’s front porch the next day, a vibrant maroon and yellow carpet bag in one hand and a neon purple air purifier in the other.
“Miriam?” Aveny stammered, when she opened the door. “What are you doing here?”
“I came for a visit,” Miriam replied, stepping past Aveny and into the house. A small black dog followed in her wake and immediately settled itself on the couch.
“I didn’t know …” Aveny started.
“I know,” Miriam said, “I didn’t tell you. But Brand texted me and told me what happened with your arm, so I’m here. Consider me your new right hand,” she added with a laugh.
“How did you get here?” Aveny asked, her mind still reeling.
“I flew!” Miriam crowed, adding “On a plane, of course. It was wonderful. The TSA detained me for two hours while they inspected all my herbs. I told the guard how to treat his IBS. He didn’t ask, but you hear someone burp and break wind that much in 90 minutes and it’s time to intervene.”
Aveny giggled involuntarily.
“Give me a hug,” Miriam said, pulling Aveny into a hearty embrace.
As Miriam’s warm arms enveloped her, Aveny was overcome with a sense of dawning relief. Her auntie had come. She was actually there, smelling of mint, rosewater and seaweed. Maybe everything would be ok after all.
Aveny delayed retrieving her car – and the skin – for three days. She’d dodged a bullet and was reluctant to go fetch the gun. Fortunately, having Miriam around, reading everyone’s chakras and making loafs of banana-spinach bread with large, simmering vats of homebrewed Chai tea, was a great distraction. Soon, Aveny’s kitchen took on the appearance of an herbal market, with plants of every size and texture dangling from pins in the ceiling.
The kids were delighted that Miriam had come to stay, but they were particularly entranced by her tiny new pet. They’d never had a dog of their own before and the fact that one had just appeared in their house was joy beyond measure. Even Aveny, who wasn’t much of a dog person, was charmed by this atypically undog-like creature that didn’t bark, growl, chew, shed or, as far as she could tell, do anything aside from happily follow everyone around. Tali kept asking Miriam what it was, as if she couldn’t believe they were lucky enough to be in the presence of a real-life dog.
“That’s my little Maki,” Miriam explained, as the small black creature nestled into Tali’s lap. Its fur stuck out wildly at all angles, highlighted by tinges of grey. Tiny black eyes peered out from the explosion like still burning embers.
“But what is it?” Tali pressed.
“It’s a little dog,” Brand replied, ducking around a particularly large bushel of hanging sage, looking like he might be regretting that initial text that invited this strange chaos into his home.
Miriam winked and squatted down next to Tali. “He’s my little ‘Aumakua,” she whispered. “Although, he’s extra special – he’s more of a ‘Tipua.’”
Tali seemed satisfied at this answer and returned to rubbing her face in Maki’s soft ebony and grey streaked fur.
The night Aveny awoke fumbling to open Brand’s truck door in her sleep, she knew it was time. If she didn’t get the skin soon, her body would.
The next day, Brand drove her back to Olympia to retrieve the car. Miriam stayed behind to make organic, tie-dyed, double bubble bath bombs with the kids. “We’re adding cinnamon, orange, lemon and rosemary to stimulate brain function,” she explained as she ushered Brand and Aveny out the door. “We’ll make extra for you too.”
The pair rode in comfortable silence, having finally regained a workable ease, relatively free of suspicion. In the preceding days, Aveny had reinforced her manufactured reality over and over again. She’d doubled down on her fabrications, verbally berating herself for being so clumsy and for risking injury over a dumb seashell. This made Brand laugh. Aveny could see him visibly relax but he continued to hold her a little longer too.
When Brand pulled into the hospital parking lot, Aveny hopped out and meandered calmly to her car’s driver-side door as if there was nothing precious inside, as if her heart wasn’t racing with angst to hold her contraband once again.
Worried thoughts raced through her mind. What if it wasn’t there? Three days was too long to leave it vulnerable and unprotected. She longed to run but restrained herself. Every step was measured, intentional, careful not to betray the urgency of her emotions.
The moment the car door clicked shut beside her, Aveny reached down and yanked the skin from beneath the stiff, blood-stained t-shirt. Its touch felt like coming home. She draped it across her lap and almost sobbed with relief.
Guilt still hung in the air, but she was helpless against the skin’s allure – it was hers and she belonged to it. They were one and the same, after all. Even if it was just a delusion.
Aveny’s face was hot with emotion. The skin, however, felt cool and comforting, draped across her lap. It felt like crawling into her grandmother’s loving embrace after emerging from the darkness of a terrible dream. Even if Aveny never again entered the sea, at least she had this.
She delayed examining the cut until she got home. Locked in the privacy of her bathroom, she spread the skin over the counter and examined the damage. The gash remained – jagged and mean. The edges felt hard and crisp, as if singed with fire.
Could it be fixed or is it ruined forever? She wondered fearfully.
Maybe it didn’t matter. Even if it could be repaired, could she – in good conscience – return to the sea?
What if something happened? What if I never come back?
She couldn’t do that to her family – not again.
But could she survive land-bound, after everything that had occurred? She didn’t know.
Aveny thought ruefully of the rusty hunk of metal that had stolen everything – almost including her own life. Hot anger rose in her chest. What was it – and all the nasty garbage like it – doing down there anyway?!
Hatred swelled in her heart. It wasn’t the skin that had almost claimed her life. It was humans – lazy, wasteful, stupid humans.
Her mind’s eye cast over all the places she wouldn’t go in the sound, where the water felt like acid on her skin and the depths were clouded with murky strains of strange vapor.
Few creatures ventured there. Those who did eked out strange half-lives full of sickness and uncertainty. Nothing thrived in those dark, poisoned waters.
She thought of the other animals – fish, harbor seals and sea lions – who sliced themselves on rusting hunks of abandoned metal like she had; or become entangled in lost nets; or hooked by forsaken fishing lines. What happened to them?
She shuddered at the thought and her mind suddenly expanded. She felt them – all of them; hundreds of thousands of them – a sea of sentient beings whose lives had been crippled or guillotined for no reason other than man’s willful neglect.
They weren’t even food – that, at least, might have made sense. No, they were simply casualties of human sloth and greed. She felt their presence in that moment – within her, swimming through her very soul.
In that moment, Aveny knew two things with undying certainty: she was no different than they and, for them, no help was coming.
An icy chill ran down Aveny’s spine, pouring over her hips and rippling down her legs. Shivers radiated across her arms and clambered up her neck. No one was coming.
She fingered the skin’s silky texture and knew. Even if she never again entered the sea, she had to do something. Someone had to come, to help, to make this right; and that someone was her.