How strangely still
The water is today,
It is not good
To be so still that way.
Sea Calm by Langston Hughes
It occurred to Mel, as she sat on the beach and observed her friend slyly over her notebook, that she had never been to Anne’s house. Was that normal? She’d been to Jackie’s house loads of times, but they’d been friends since before primary school. Besides, the research office was basically Anne’s home, right? She went back to reading her notes. When she looked up again, she caught Anne staring right back at her.
Anne quickly dropped her gaze and checked her phone.
“There’s been an oil spill,” she said, without preamble.
“I just got a news alert on my phone. Hold on, I’m texting Dad about it right now.”
“Where was it?”
“The North Sea. Northeast of here.”
“No! Is everyone alright?”
Anne shook her head. “Three workers were killed. How terrible.”
A notification popped up on Mel’s phone. Expecting a news article, she found a text from Jackie instead: where r u hen?
Studying with Anne, Mel texted back.
Ur always with Anne. Come hang out with me.
It would be rude to leave now. I’ll hang out tomorrow, Mel promised.
U could at least invite me. I have to study, too.
That was true, Mel had to admit. There was no reason the three of them couldn’t study together. In fact, she would probably make more progress under Jackie’s tutelage than Anne’s: while Anne had read her late mother’s entire English literature syllabus and knew the books by heart, Jackie was the more persistent teacher. But then she’d have to share Anne’s attention with Jackie, and she wanted it all to herself.
Ur replacing me.
“I am not!” Mel yelled, earning her a quizzical look from Anne.
I am not, Mel texted.
Prove it then.
Mel resisted the urge to throw her phone into the ocean. We’re best friends. That’s just
how it is and always will be. I don’t have to “prove” anything to you.
For several minutes, Jackie did not respond. And then:
The dreaded k bye. Jackie was too angry to even argue with her. She’d really messed up this time. Or had she? Jackie was the one who was being jealous. Mel had never complained about how much time she spent with Roger. Jackie wasn’t allowed to control her life, even if she was her best friend. How dare she presume–
“Hey! My dad just texted me back.” Anne grabbed for her hand without looking up from her phone, and Mel was jerked from rage to giddiness in the blink of an eye. “He’s already heard about it, of course. The oil company says they’re going to contain it, but naturally he has his doubts. His oceanographer friend says that even if the spill isn’t contained, it shouldn’t come as far south as us.”
“That’s a relief, I guess.”
“We should go north and help though. After exams and the leavers party. They’re going to need volunteers,” said Anne.
“I–do you want me to go with you?”
“Of course I want you to come with me,” said Anne, smiling oddly. “There’s no one else I’d rather have by my side in the fight against environmental devastation and corporate greed.”
“Then I’m in.”
Mel pretended to go back to reading her notes. It was Tuesday. Her biology exam was on Wednesday, chemistry on Thursday, English on Friday, and the leavers party, which she unfortunately could not study for, was on Saturday.
“Do you want to see the dress I got for the leavers party?” she asked.
“Yes.” Anne sat up straight and gave her full attention.
Mel handed over her phone, praying Jackie wouldn’t send an angry text message in the next sixty seconds.
“Oh, that’s beautiful...”
Mam had been ecstatic when Mel asked her to help her find a new outfit for the leavers party. Mel never got excited about fashion or parties, and both of those things at once was almost too much for Mam to fathom. Mel had imagined a ruffled white shirt beneath a powder blue suit, or maybe a sleek black dress with simple black shoes. But Mam had looked so happy when she tried on the glittering lilac gown with the tulle-padded tent of a skirt that she pretended she liked it. She should have commissioned something from Bakul, but it was too late for that now, and besides, they’d decided to go to graduate school and they were swamped with applications. The dress wasn’t Mel, but it certainly was stunning.
“I’ve never seen you dressed up before,” said Anne. “You’re magnificent. You look like the queen of the garden fairies.”
“I was wondering if you’d like to go with me. As my date.”
“Oh,” said Anne, lowering her eyelashes. The tips of her ears and nose had turned a faint shade of coral. “Well it’s not like American prom, Mel. You don’t have to bring a date. But I’d love to go with you.”
“No, I mean–” Mel began, but then she reconsidered.
Normal people asked their crush out for coffee. What sort of idiot asked someone out to a leavers party? Clearly, Anne thought she was asking her as a friend. If she didn’t want to damage their relationship, she had to pretend everything was normal, starting right now.
“Thanks, hen!” Mel squealed, in a performance deserving of an Oscar. “I would have been so lonely without you.”
Anne smiled faintly. “Of course. We couldn’t be having that now.”
Mel looked up at the gathering gray clouds as Anne glanced down at her phone. “Hey, my dad just texted. I have to go,” said Anne.
“Oh, okay! I’ll walk you back.”
“No, er, sorry–I just want to be by myself. I need to think,” she said, that strange, faint smile still lingering on her face. “See you tomorrow?”
Mel couldn’t stand to watch Anne walk away, so instead she pulled out her binoculars and walked down the beach to find Penelope. She was with her chicks, who had long hatched but not yet flown. The little hunters ventured further from their mother every day, their thick black necklaces not yet fully formed. Her mate was there, too. Always lingering just a few steps behind.
“Why are human relationships so complicated?” Mel asked. “You plovers make it look so easy.”
She checked her phone to see if Jackie had texted but the battery had died. She sighed, looking to the sky in a silent appeal for help. And then, just to top everything off, it started to rain.
About the author: Ella Shively is a graduate of Northland College. She is now working as a water resource specialist at the Mary Griggs Burke Center for Freshwater Innovation in Ashland, Wisconsin, USA. You can find her online at https://www.instagram.com/shivelywrites/.
About this chapter's featured poet: James Mercer Langston Hughes (February 1, 1901 – May 22, 1967) was an American poet, social activist, novelist, playwright, and columnist from Joplin, Missouri. One of the earliest innovators of the literary art form called jazz poetry, Hughes is best known as a leader of the Harlem Renaissance. Hughes worked as a sailor for six months of his life, travelling from West Africa to Europe, giving him intimate knowledge of the ocean.