valina Jones slowly sank to the bottom of the giant claw-footed bathtub. Her arms floated at her sides and her long dark hair drifted about her shoulders. Bubbles trickled from her open mouth while her wide blue eyes blinked and gradually closed. One minute passed. Then another and another. Five long minutes and still, Avalina Jones remained at the bottom of the giant tub.
Small bare feet padded across the bathroom’s black-and-white tiled floor and stopped at the bathtub’s edge. Macy, a young orphan of seven-years-old, clutched her long white nightgown and peered into the water. She gasped and then wailed in horror. Such a racket roused every orphan on the third floor of La Maison des Oublies—the House of the Forgotten. Within moments twenty fearful girls huddled around the tub, horrified by what they saw. And then more orphans raced up from the second floor, shrieking at the sight of Avalina Jones lying quietly at the bottom of the tub.
It was enough to bring Miss Ward, the orphanage’s owner, stomping into the bathroom in her own nightgown. An unhappy woman, Miss Ward brought her scowl with her wherever she went. Her dark hair, always pulled back from her pale face, was wound into a tight bun atop her head and captured with a small black net.
“What now?” she demanded and then stopped abruptly upon seeing the young girl in the tub. Miss Ward stared openmouthed for a moment before narrowing her eyes with suspicion. Then she leaned over, slapped the surface of the water, and yelled. “Get up!”
Avalina bolted upright, sputtering and coughing water. She blinked furiously and brushed water from her face. “Jumping junipers! What’s all the fuss?” Avalina blasted. A sea of astounded expressions surrounded her.
“Oh, Avie!” wailed Macy, wiping tears from her eyes. “We thought you were—”
“That’s enough of that!” snapped Miss Ward. “Avalina Jones can hold her breath longer than most! Big deal! Now back to your rooms! All of you!”
Without further explanation, Miss Ward herded the girls out of the bathroom and closed the door. She grabbed a towel from one of the pegs lining the long wall and threw it across the room at Avalina.
“Get out of the tub! At once!” she barked, her dark beady eyes flashing with anger.
Avalina carefully climbed out and dried herself off. She slipped into her long white nightgown and faced Miss Ward.
“You know I wasn’t holding my breath,” she said quietly. Miss Ward sniffed and raised her chin.
“Yes, I know.”
That was the night everything changed. Six months later, strange things were still happing to Avalina whenever she was near water. One time, the bathroom faucets slowly turned on when Avalina was drying her hands on a towel. Water silently ran out in long ribbons that swept over the white porcelain sinks and shimmered down to the black-and-white tiled floor. Unaware she was being followed by a pack of clear snakes Avalina left the room, shutting the door behind her. The water snakes splashed against it, making a huge puddle on the floor.
“I didn’t do it!” Avalina had insisted when Miss Ward accused her of making the mess. Regardless, Avalina had been forced to clean it up. A month later, a glass of water tipped over during dinner and the water trailed across the table, straight onto Avalina’s lap. Miss Ward, furious about the so-called accident, had declared that the furniture maker built a crooked table. It was a wonder anything stayed put. Avalina knew better but no one questioned Miss Ward when her anger was up. Especially Avalina.
In spite of all the unexplained incidents with water, Avalina carried on as though she were as normal as the next orphan. Early one September morning, she stood on her bed and raised her arms over the twenty eager faces gathered around. Rows of narrow beds lining the long room laid empty as the sun peeked through the tall windows. The orphans had been drawn to the foot of Avalina’s bed the moment she began.
“So there I was,” Avalina continued, her voice rising in anticipation and blue eyes flashing wildly, “racing toward the cliffs when the evil winged creatures swooped down after me. I was trapped! Nothing but the sea far below me and death behind me…” She paused dramatically, brushing the long dark hair from her face.
“What’d you do, Avie?” Macy asked, her brown eyes wide with wonder. The older orphan next to her, Cecilia, rolled her eyes and crossed her arms over her nightgown.
“She didn’t do anything,” Cecilia answered for Avalina. “Because it never happened. It was another one of her dreams. Right, Avie?”
With a face as solemn as a grave digger, Avalina slowly shook her head. “You know I never do lie so I can’t say for sure. This one felt more like a memory than any of them others did. A long-ago memory in a far-off land that—”
Cecilia scoffed loudly. “You’ve been at the orphanage since you were four years old. I know because I was here when Miss Ward found you in the tree outside.”
That much was true. Avalina had awakened one morning to find herself abandoned in a live oak tree right outside La Maison des Oublies. The orphanage was a giant red brick mansion plopped down along the Mississippi River in the French Quarter of New Orleans, Louisiana. It was the only home Avalina actually remembered although her dreams were usually filled with vivid images and wild adventures that made her doubt they were dreams at all but perhaps real memories.
“So!” Macy demanded hotly. She jammed her hands onto her seven-year-old hips and stood up against Cecilia’s tall, thirteen-year-old frame.
“So, when was she supposed to have been running for her life, again?” asked Cecilia doubtfully. “Avie’s only ten-years-old. She can’t have been in danger so many times: swimming from man-eating sea creatures, hiding in an underwater bubble for days to avoid a hurricane, swinging through trees while being chased by skeletons with swords. Either they’re just dreams or she’s making it up.”
At that moment, the front door of the mansion slammed shut. Avalina jumped down from the bed and raced to the window.
“There she goes,” she said as the orphans piled up behind her and craned their necks to see. Far below, Miss Ward was just stepping onto the mansion’s front walk. Her hair, coiled into its usual tight bun perched atop her head, revealed a face that displayed certain qualities that brought to mind a pelican: black beady eyes, a long narrow nose, a scooping jaw, and a cruel mouth where cruel words grew like seaweed. She wore her typical black skirt and a white blouse stretched high around her birdlike throat. Miss Ward was so fond of this severe look that she made it the mandatory uniform for anyone living at La Maison des Oublies.
Avalina eyed Miss Ward carefully on the sun splashed sidewalk. The thing about Miss Ward, aside from her clever mind and unreasonable temper, was her skittish nature. It made her downright paranoid at times. And she hadn’t a single funny bone in her entire body, which was a crying shame as far as Avalina was concerned. All that aside, Miss Ward was not someone to be taken lightly. A tall woman, she was so thin and quick afoot that even her shadow found it difficult to keep up. But what she liked most was order and consistency, which Avalina found to be quite dull and predictable.
“Now watch this,” Avalina said and then quietly recited everything Miss Ward would do.
First, Miss Ward would begin her morning routine by sniffing the air and gazing toward the Mississippi River. “‘Bad weather brings bad news,’” Avalina quoted Miss Ward’s tiresome warning while the girls giggled and nodded.
Second, as Miss Ward was never one to leave the property unchecked she began inspecting the high brick wall surrounding the orphanage. With a stick, she poked the wall here and there. She jiggled bricks and kicked the foundation as though checking its tires. Miss Ward had an unnatural concern for the safety of those within the walls, but Avalina believed she also had a great fear of outside visitors. Not once did Miss Ward welcome a potential couple who wanted to adopt an orphan without a rigorous, insulting, and suspicious inquisition. Often, the loving couple would leave in tears with Miss Ward muttering sarcastically under her breath and wringing her hands. Why she was so cruel and suspicious had long been a mystery to Avalina.
Miss Ward, who seemed satisfied that all was well within the mansion, locked the front gate with a quick turn, dropped the key inside her pocketbook, and closed it with a sharp snap. With her spine as straight as a flagpole Miss Ward turned on her heel and marched smartly down Pier Street toward Café du Monde, leaving the orphans in the care of the cook, Mrs. Carringford.
Avalina turned back to her friends. “She’s gone,” she said with a knowing smile and a familiar restlessness stirring within her. Quick as a wink, she hopped onto the nearest bed and began jumping up and down. Soon, every orphan was jumping from bed to bed. Macy, who was better than any guard dog, continued to defend Avalina to Cecelia by declaring that she believed every last story Avalina had ever told them.
“Just look at her go!” Macy cried by way of proof as Avalina swung from the chandelier over their heads. Avalina rocked back and forth while the orphans below laughed, jumped, and raced after her, trying to grab her feet. Avalina easily shifted from the first chandelier to the second one and then on to the third at the far end of the long room. High overhead, the giant beams supporting the chandeliers creaked and rained down bits of dust. Avalina grabbed loose cables and effortlessly swung herself around the room to the delight and amazement of the girls. For reasons unknown even to herself, Avalina had always felt comfortable swinging from great heights or climbing the outer rails of the mansion’s grand staircase. The sprawling live oak tree outside the mansion she had conquered ages ago.
Cecelia, who’d given up trying to compete with Avalina’s physical talents over the years, spotted a pile of clean laundry in baskets waiting to be sorted. She dug in and soon every orphan on the third floor was throwing clean laundry at one another. They were laughing and falling and having the time of their lives. The loud ruckus brought orphans from the second floor racing up to join the fun. Avalina relished in the game and swung back to the center chandelier just as Macy clutched her ankles.
“Swing me!” Macy cried, sounding more like a toddler than a grown woman of seven whole years. Together the girls swung high in the air like trapeze artists in a circus. Back and forth they went, gaining speed while their friends clapped and cheered. “Okay, now!” Macy commanded to which Avalina gently hurled her forward. Macy let go and slid across the floor strewn with black and white laundry. “Weeeeeee!” she cried and then crashed headlong into Miss Ward who just happened to walk into the room at that very moment.
No one had time to wonder why Miss Ward had suddenly changed her morning routine. Macy yelped and Miss Ward gasped, clutching her shins in pain. Every orphan froze on the spot, except for Avalina who slowly swung back and forth with her mouth hanging open.
“How dare you!” Miss Ward demanded when her shins had recovered and she had yanked Avalina aside to speak in private. “I’ve warned you before about throwing the Landlubbers,” she whispered angrily.
Avalina winced at the word Landlubbers. Miss Ward always said it as an insult as if the children were all good-for-nothing lay-abouts, never mind that they were Avalina’s friends.
“I wasn’t throwing them, this time,” Avalina whispered in her defense. “We were just having a little fun.”
“That’s what you always say! But I’ve told you to be extra careful now,” Miss Ward insisted, peering around nervously should anyone eavesdrop.
“Sometimes I wish you hadn’t told me anything at all,” Avalina grumbled. It was one thing to learn you were different, which she would have been fine with, but quite another to learn you weren’t really as normal as the next orphan, being that they were just plain old humans.
“Don’t be ridiculous,” Miss Ward said irritably. “You know perfectly well I had no choice. Especially when all your trouble with water began.” She waved off further arguments because they both knew she was right.
Not long after the strange incidents with water began, Miss Ward had called Avalina into her office. Avalina remembered the day clearly because it had been December thirty-first—the day Miss Ward had selected as every orphan’s birthday because she hadn’t cared to keep track of their individual birth dates. As Avalina’s tenth birthday, she had been hoping for a present, which would have been a first. Instead, she’d found Miss Ward slouched behind her large wooden desk. Avalina had recognized Miss Ward’s mood instantly, the gentle sway of her head and slow blinks that indicated she’d visited the contents of the locked sideboard cabinet she thought no one knew about. A glass of amber liquid sat within reach.
“Child, it’s time you knew that La Mansion des Oublies has a dark and disturbing secret,” Miss Ward had said thickly. “And, well…it’s you.”
Avalina slowly sank into the chair opposite the desk. Miss Ward then revealed the differences between the forty-five other orphans and Avalina.
“They’re known to us as Landlubbers. Boring old humans who live on land. You and I are not Landlubbers. We’re Heirs, part of an ancient organization known as Heirs of the High Fleet. But you’re not just any Heir. You’re a…a…” Miss Ward had shaken her head as though fighting back the words she feared to say. Whatever she had wanted to reveal, she didn’t.
“But what’s it mean to be an Heir to the High Fleet?” Avalina had asked.
“You have responsibilities! That’s what it means!” Miss Ward had retorted sloppily and then, snatching her drink from the desk, shrank back into the shadows of her tall chair. She sipped the amber liquid as a rare loose strand of hair fell across her face. Avalina had never seen her so disheveled and agitated. So deeply disturbed.
“What kind of responsibilities?” Avalina had asked quietly. She’d been afraid to upset the woman further; Miss Ward had a habit of hiding herself away when faced with unpleasant things. And this seemed to be a very unpleasant thing. But Avalina still wanted answers.
Miss Ward had leaned forward and slammed the glass onto the desk, sloshing the liquid over the sides. “You’ve been a torment all these years,” she’d slurred. “Given me nightmares to have you under my roof. A ticking time bomb. That’s what you are…”
Avalina hadn’t been able to make heads or tails of anything. Miss Ward had rambled on in disjointed sentences. She claimed to have been keeping a close eye on Avalina since the moment she’d arrived, should anything dreadful happen. Dreadful? Miss Ward claimed not to have asked for such a task and fully resented being dragged back into Heir business when she’d been living happily ashore for fifteen years prior. She begrudged those who’d put her in danger. Danger? Avalina had shaken her head, perplexed.
In the end, Miss Ward had failed to explain the peculiar things about Avalina—her strange connection to water, the mysterious responsibilities, and why Avalina was considered a secret. What Avalina had really wanted to know was the one question Miss Ward repeatedly refused to answer—why she had been left at the orphanage in the first place.
Avalina walked away from Miss Ward’s office that night more confused than when she’d entered it. Perhaps it would have been easier to believe Miss Ward had made the whole thing up to teach her a lesson for causing so much trouble. But Avalina couldn’t forget the wonderful sensation of floating at the bottom of the giant tub, breathing water as easily as she breathed air.
Forty-five orphans in matching black skirts, white shirts, gray socks and black shoes, shuffled listlessly in line with their small hands clutching breakfast trays. Avalina wrinkled her nose at the foul smell of Mrs. Carringford’s lumpy gravy dumped onto a loose pile of wet scrambled eggs. Was gravy supposed to be green? The food was reliably bland and boring but no one dared complain. Talking was not allowed during mealtimes and anyone caught with words in their mouths instead of food would pay heavily. Miss Ward was known for doling out creative punishments that usually involved the whipping board. Avalina knew from experience.
Miss Ward, who’d taken to staring out the windows lately, pulled back the curtains and glared out as though the lovely blue sky had purposely offended her.
“No one goes outside today!” she barked angrily as if in answer to an annoying question, and then muttered, “Looks like a storm’s brewing.”
Strange. It appeared to be a perfect September day to Avalina. She had the same thought the next day when Miss Ward announced that no one but Mrs. Carringford and her helpers were allowed outside to collect the laundry from the lines. Another storm brewing, Miss Ward had warned although there hadn’t been a cloud in the sky since Labor Day. Avalina wondered why they kept hanging laundry out to dry if they expected such horrific weather.
“Her fear of bad weather never made a lick of sense to me,” Avalina said as she and Macy secured the storm shutters and then locked the windows throughout the first floor.
“Maybe a hurricane is coming,” Macy offered although she didn’t sound convincing. Seeing how Louisiana was practically famous for its hurricanes, it wasn’t the first time Miss Ward had ordered the girls to lock down the shutters. But it usually came on the heels of severe weather reports, which there had been none of lately.
Later that night, when the girls had climbed into bed, Avalina snuck off to the bathroom by herself. After more of those strange happenings with water running from the taps and following her throughout the mansion, Avalina preferred to brush her teeth alone. Once done—without any water behaving badly this time—she tiptoed down the hall to change into her nightgown when she suddenly remembered the attic windows. She and Macy had forgotten to lock them and secure the hurricane shutters. If the mansion really was hit with a storm that shattered the windows, Miss Ward would have a fit for the record books. Worse, she would undoubtedly blame Avalina. Macy rarely volunteered to visit the creepy fourth floor on account of having an imagination so wild she could scare herself under the covers for days. Avalina decided not to ask Macy for help and started the long climb up the darkened stairway alone.
The attic was spacious, dusty, and full of broken furniture and odd smelling things best not identified. Avalina hadn’t an ounce of fear about it. In fact, she often escaped to the attic for two reasons: under the floorboard she had hidden a small purple sack given to her by her mother, and the attic window had the best view of the Mississippi River. From the first moment she had laid eyes on the wide river, Avalina knew it by heart. That water belonged to her as sure as she belonged to it. No one could tell her different. It wasn’t the way the river changed colors like a chameleon or how it thrashed during a storm, or even the way the sun made golden discs on its surface. That water called to Avalina as though it knew her by name.
Days when Avalina could steal away to the attic, she’d perch on the window ledge and gaze out in wonder. There was so much life on the river, barges carrying cargo, various sailing vessels, and the Steamboat Natchez down by Toulouse Street Wharf. Avalina loved watching the giant white steamboat with its red, white, and blue bunting and red paddlewheel churning up the river. The Natchez was often filled with happy tourists waving from her three decks. Truth be told, Avalina had often imagined herself sailing around the bend and out of sight. Her destination hardly mattered. Just to be gone from the orphanage, which she knew deep down was not where she belonged, and on the glorious water would be good enough.
Avalina picked her way around broken chairs and three-legged tables to a small window that looked down onto the mansion’s backyard. She threw a careless look outside. Not a shred of wind.
“Fat chance of a hurricane,” she muttered, locking down the shutters and closing the window anyway. Before she could walk across the room to the next window, the tree right outside began to whip around in a frenzy. Its long, gnarled branches swirled around and around as a beast caught in the throes of a mighty gust of wind. The windowpanes rattled and the street lights far below flickered erratically.
How had the wind come up so quickly? Was Miss Ward right after all? Avalina was tempted to run down and warn the others but curiosity had gotten its hooks into her. She hurried to the window and pushed it all the way up. As she leaned out, her long dark hair immediately took flight, whipping around her head. She cupped her hands around her eyes and squinted into the murky moonlight. Up and down the river, all appeared calm. But just below the window, which looked out onto Governor’s Wharf, the river was throwing a tantrum. Whitecap water swirled around and around, forming a tight circle and picking up speed.
“Bad weather brings bad news,” Avalina whispered the ominous warning again, wondering what the bad news was and whoit was meant for.
To Avalina’s amazement, a water funnel began to rise straight up from the center of the swirling circle!
“But that’s…impossible,” Avalina said. She had once seen a waterspout spiral down from dark clouds over Lake Pontchatrain but she had never seen a waterspout rise up from the river. All doubts flew out the window as Avalina watched a giant gray cyclone of water twist its way across the surface.
Without warning, the wind changed course and suddenly began blowing…upward? Avalina gaped in wonder as rocks began to float in the air. Newspapers, tourist pamphlets—anything along the riverbank that wasn’t bolted down slowly rose and floated in place. Meanwhile, the cyclone danced along the surface of the thrashing river, twisting this way and that. It headed straight for Governor’s Wharf where—instead of crashing headlong into it—the cyclone paused at the dock’s edge and a woman stepped out as pretty as you please.
Avalina’s mouth fell open.
Not only was the woman completely dry, Avalina thought she was completely beautiful. A burst of vibrant color beneath the pale moonlight, that’s how Avalina saw her. Untouched by the swirling wind, the woman wore a wide-brimmed, blue-velvet hat with a tall white feather. Matching the hat was a blue-velvet waistcoat over a flowing white blouse. Her ruffled cuffs, so light and airy, appeared to wave like tentacles of a sea anemone. The woman’s blue-velvet knee-breeches matched her waistcoat while white stockings covered her shapely calves. Black, square-heeled shoes with shiny gold buckles finished the look.
The woman’s crowning glory—Avalina decided—was her magnificent red hair. Long and thick, it was swept over her shoulder and secured with a short length of rope. In her hand was a black cane with a gold tip.
Avalina squinted deeper into the chaos of swirling wind, desperate to watch her every move. The woman pulled up a gold chain from around her neck. Anchored to the chain was something that reminded Avalina of an old-fashioned pocket watch. The woman popped it open and held it up to all four directions as though she was lost and it was a compass.
That couldn’t have been further from the truth.
Quick as a sneeze, the strange waterspout was sucked right inside the pocket instrument. When the woman snapped it shut, the wind stopped and every bit of floating debris dropped to the ground with a thud. The tree outside Avalina’s window settled, and her hair came to rest on her shoulders.
It was as quiet as the moon but the woman must’ve noticed something wrong because she gave the instrument a good shake. Then she opened it again, pulled out a garden gnome, and tossed it aside.
Once satisfied, she dropped the pocket instrument back inside her blouse. Then she turned and began walking directly toward La Maison des Oublies.