“You’re not going to make this sailing,” the agent said, sliding the last of my money into the till. “Gate Four is at the very far end.” He shook his head so his sniffer-hound jowls wobbled.
No time to yell at him. I grabbed my ticket and sprinted. I had to get on that scoopship: the next sailing wasn’t for a week.
The marble floor was like trying to run on ice. What would happen if I tripped and fell on my face with my heavy pack driving me down? With every stride it rose on its straps and came down to whomp the breath out of me. Run, smack, run, smack. If this just wasn’t my bad luck again!
The terminal was vast. The ceilings were two stories high. I dodged between rows of empty wooden benches. Two clocks, each tall as me, faced each other at the ends of the terminal. 6:53. Departure was 7:00.
I zigzagged around a cluster of yellow-eyed knobbies with cages on two airsleds. No time to talk. As I pounded by, I scanned their faces: I didn’t know them. Most people thought knobbies looked like identical brown stringy stumps with arms and legs. I’d spent so much time with knobbies, I could at least see who was familiar and who wasn’t. From the size of the cages, it looked like they had dogs. Big ones. Don’t even look to see what breeds they are, I told myself. There’s no time!
The voca system crackled to life. It echoed badly. A woman’s voice: “—for Fjarri Island, Goat Island, Langr and Satter, now departing —”
A beige-uniformed ferry person across the hall was coming my way fast. “Hey you! No running in the terminal!”
I skidded, slammed into a bench with my right leg. Recovered myself.
Gate Four. I whammed to a halt against the counter. The agent, a woman with a dark braid down to her waist, said, “You’re too late to board.”
I pushed my ticket over the counter to her. I didn’t know what I was going to say until I opened my mouth. “My Auntie,” I said. Paused to gasp. “On Satter. She’s counting on me to help. My uncle broke his leg.” It wasn’t exactly a lie.
She looked at me. “You’re Rúna’s—” I could see the cogs clacking. Was I a boy? Mmm. A girl?
“—relative?” Braid-woman finished.
“You’ll have to run. Even then—” She punched the ticket, then thrust it back to me. She hurried to a door in the wall behind and unlocked it. I followed, almost treading on her heels. On the wall over our heads, I saw the clock hand jerk forward: 6:57.
Braid-woman winked and pushed me through the door. “Go!”
I ran outside into the cold dark. The windscooper was half a city block away. I felt sick: I thought it was going to be just outside the door.
At least the gangplank was still down. Move it, I ordered myself. I could see two lights by the gangplank. I ran toward them. The dock underfoot was wet and slippery. There were still patches of snow.
I’d never realized until I’d hacked off my hair how much it protected my head from the cold. And my ears. They hurt now in the wind.
When I was getting close, a uniformed crewman poked his head over the windscooper’s side. Then he disappeared. There was a squealing metal noise. The gangplank started to lift. He was winching it on board.
I tried to call, “Wait,” but I didn’t have the breath. The crewman finally heard me pounding toward him above the sound of the winch. “Hey, you can’t board now!” he shouted. Then he began to winch even harder.
There was a gap of two feet between the gangplank and the dock. The gangplank was retreating as it was lifting. Three feet away now. I jumped for the gangplank, leaning toward it as my feet left the dock. I reached my arms straight out in front of me the way I’d seen people do for the long jump.
My feet slammed onto the narrow gangplank. Crash! The end I’d landed on dipped as if I was bouncing on a diving board. I was going to get tossed backward right into the ocean! Then the weight of my pack rammed me forward to my knees. I slid backward and down. I grabbed for the rope handrails but they were above me and the gangplank was vibrating. I fell underneath the handrail at an angle. I grabbed for the gangplank—two wooden boards—but the wood was slick and wet. I couldn’t keep hold of it. I slipped back further.
Now my head and shoulders dangled above the ocean. I could see the gap between the ferry and the dock widening. Water whooshed along the ship’s hull. I thought how cold the sea was going to be. Saw my pack pushing me straight to the bottom—
Stupid. Yes, I agreed—
Hands grabbed my pack. Pulled it. Pulled me. Swung my shoulders so my head was over the gangplank, then oh, relief, the hands pulled me over the half-way mark on the gangplank so I could start crawling myself. Only the hands were really strong and kept on pulling. I ended up being rolled off the gangplank like a sack of garbage onto the ship’s deck.
I sat up. Panted. I’d used up every bit of energy I had. The quay was now seven faðmrs away. But when the crewman started shaking his fist at me, I managed to scramble to my feet. Two big magne-lights glared down from the mast.
“Thank you—” I said. The crewman kept on yelling. I was a heimskur thick-skulled numbskull with a diseased rock troll for a mother and a rotten stump for a father. The man had a mole on his right cheek that moved as he cursed. He yelled more, and I’m sure worse, but the Islenska I’d picked up from my Amma, my grandmother, was a long time ago. And she didn’t teach me the words he was using.
Then he stopped shouting and squinched his eyes. I could see the first horrible suspicion dawn. Could someone so tall, with such big shoulders…
“What are you?” he said.
I didn’t like the expression on his face.
“She’s a passenger,” a new voice said. “And as such, you might want to mind your manners.” This man reminded me of a Mountain Rescue dog: there was the same narrow face and intense stare. He was the same height as me, with dark hair and lots of wrinkles. He carried a scholar case and wasn’t wearing a uniform. I checked for T-tells and found none: no rings, no sigils on his jacket, no cuffs of office. Didn’t mean he wasn’t a Talent, but he wasn’t displaying. Generally Talents liked to show off. Splashy tells also had the effect of letting the rest of us know to be careful.
The crewman said, “So where’s her ticket, then?”
I stupidly looked at my hand.
Grey-jacket said, “I saw her with a ticket earlier. She paid. But you jacks left ahead of time as usual.
“Nice save, by the way,” he told the man.
Grey-jacket nodded to me. “Let’s get out of the cold.” He cut in front of the angry man and then, somehow, he’d got us away. Behind us, the crewman hawked and spat.
It wasn’t until Grey-jacket used the word “cold” that I realized how chilled I was. I’d been sweating. Now, in the winter wind, the sweat had cooled. It prickled. I was still breathing hard.
To our right was the chest-high grey dome of a cargo hatch with multiple hatches. To our left I saw portholes and a beautiful varnished door. Light spilled from the door onto the deck. It was toward this door Grey-jacket was leading us. What was his angle?
In the semi-dark, the pilings were moving. Only they weren’t, of course, the scooper was. Another time, the hissh of water from the ship’s movement might have been soothing.
“Thanks. Did you really see my ticket?”
He laughed. “Nah. But I saw you look at your hand like you’d been holding one. You do long jump at school?”
“No, I don’t, ah, do sports.”
The sky was lightening. There were no clouds; it’d be sunny later on. It made me think of Mom and how, right now, our place would smell of the toast and honey she ate every morning.
I couldn’t help myself. I said, “How did you know?”
He didn’t pretend to misunderstand. “I got a freshflash for you. Girls are put together different. The hip bones. I saw you run.”
Looks like a boy, runs like a girl. I sighed.
From ahead of the scooper, blasts of foul-smelling gas blew back from the tiny tug pulling us. The tug had to get the ferry well away from land before it’d let us go. The weather-Ts needed a clear run of sea before they called up the wind.
Phew. From the smell, the tug could use a tune-up. No way was that a clean kuhl conversion.
Grey-jacket held the varnished door for me.
Inside the ship, it was warm. I sighed with relief. We emerged into a corridor with lots of portholes. Padded benches ran beneath them. I eyed the crowded benches with envy. They’d be a lot softer and a lot warmer than the straw I’d been sleeping on. And I wouldn’t sneeze constantly, either.
“Y’always cut your departures so fine?” the man asked.
I glowered at him. “No. The team that brought me here, one of the horses threw a shoe.”
“You musta caught its luck,” the man said now. “That was quite the jump.”
Maybe. Braid-woman unlocking the door and telling me to run, and me making the jump, and the ferry worker pulling me aboard. Murre driving me.
I sniffed. Cinnamon. No. This was torture. I couldn’t lie down and sleep and I didn’t have money for food. No, whatever luck I had ran out years ago with my father.
“Look around a bit before you decide where to eat,” the man said, coming to a stop. “There are lots of different places. I recommend the sky-high lemon pie place.” His Mountain Rescue dog eyes were kind. Any moment now and he’d be patting me on the shoulder. And then—no.
I had to get rid of him. I don’t trust people who are too nice. I’ve had to learn. “See you round then—”
The man blinked: I realized I’d surprised him. He shrugged and said, “Sure.” I watched him disappear around a corner. Well, that was easy. Maybe he wasn’t a creep after all. The slithery ones tried to hang onto me.
Out the portholes I could see Cimarron’s skyline. It was dawn now. Grey sky, darker grey land.
Sky-high lemon pie, huh? If that wasn’t leading up to an offer to buy me food, I didn’t know what was. I ran a hand over the tufts on my head that were all that was left of my hair. I must look like a total waifburger. A hungry waifburger. All I’d eaten for the last two days were apples and horse carrots. Oh, and I lie, a lonely veggi-wurst.
The scoopship was noisy. It was full of kids, running and yelling. At last I found a single seat beside a porthole. I wiped at the glass with the elbow of my jacket. All I could see was a piece of the mast. Time to up-end my pack. I had no idea what I’d actually shoved in before I ran out the door.
My wallet. Dirty nosers and one dirty sock. A library book, The Secret Life of Skyhorses. I was on my way to the island they all lived; that was a good thing. I’d only ever seen one skyhorse in my life and that was from a long way away. A lunch bag. Great! But inside I found only an apple core and a twist of paper. On the cover, there was a picture of the author with her black and red Dingwall Retriever. It brought back memories of the Square at home so hard that I had to rub my nose to stop the tears. Oh, you sadsack. Had I ever blown things.
I carried on emptying the pack. Hey, a fruit leather I’d used as a bookmark. I opened it and made myself nibble instead of tearing through it in two bites. A couple of pants and shirts. I was down to the pockets in my pack.
In the second-last pocket, I felt a lump. I started to lift it out. Froze. It was felt lumpy like coins. I shoved it back in my pack, peeked. It was money, hack-silver and coins. I took a long time counting. The total came to about two months worth of groceries at home.
Who’d put it there? Over the last couple of days, only two people had access to my pack: Mom and Murre.
Mom didn’t have this amount to give me. It must have been Murre. But how had the knobbie managed to slip the money in without me seeing? And then the thought came crashing in: what if I got accused of stealing? I’d die. I already had enough against me.
I turned my face toward the porthole so no one walking by could see my eyes watering.
Two days ago, I’d never thought I’d run away from home. I still didn’t understand what had gone so wrong.