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Authors: Kristin Bair O’Keeffe

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BOOK: The Art of Floating
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M's perch in the tree:


•  •  •

Then in the middle of the night, “Stuart?” M shook him. “Stuart?”

“Mmmmmm.” He rolled onto his back.

“Our girl . . .”

Stuart sighed, turned, and wrapped his arms around his wife. “I know, darling. I feel it, too. But you have to believe.”

“In what?”

“Her. Remember Odysseus. He made it home.”

“Odysseus,” M whispered. “You're right, Stuart. Odysseus.” M sat up. “That's it.” Then she leapt out of bed and raced to the attic.

Barefoot, Stuart padded along after her. “M? M? What are you doing? It's three

She flipped on the light and began rooting in boxes—tossing aside prom gowns and Halloween masks and Christmas decorations—until she came up with her old, dog-eared copy of Lattimore's translation of
The Odyssey
. She held it over her head triumphantly. “Ta-da!”

“Oh, no, not that again, M.” Stuart leaned his head against an exposed beam.

“Oh, yes, Stuart. That.” She turned to Book 1. “Tell me, Muse . . .” she read out loud, and in that moment, her second obsession with Homer's magnum opus began. This one even more passionate than the first.


do we want?” Joe Laslow shouted into his megaphone.

“Open beaches!” the crowd hollered.

“When do we want them?” he shouted.


“What do we want?”

“Open beaches!”

“When do we want them?”


•  •  •

The troupe stomped from end to end of Beach #3's parking lot and back, realizing after seven laps that the march might have had more impact had they worn Doc Martens or military boots instead of rubbery flip-flops, but feeling pretty good despite the feeble flip-flop-slap because for the first time ever, they were going to have the last word. Every staunch plover lover was off searching for Jackson, and while all of the protesters—even Joe Laslow—would join the search soon enough, they'd chosen not to cancel the march . . . believing, like most everyone, that Jackson would show up soon enough.

The crowd halted its forward momentum five feet past the “Closed” sign, and after forty-five minutes, a final shout rose up: “Man trumps plover! Man trumps plover! Man trumps plover!”


As Sia
shook sand from her shoes just outside the front door, Jillian zipped into the driveway in her lime green Mini Cooper. Perched on two pillows so she could see over the steering wheel, she waved and held up a newspaper.

“I've got two of everything,” she hollered out the window.

“Sssh,” Sia said, a finger to her lips. “He's sleeping.”

“Still?” Jilly answered in a shouted whisper.

“I hope so. I just got back.”

“From where?”

“The beach. I wanted to see if I could find any evidence before the tide came in.”

Jillian tumbled from the car with an armful of newspapers. “Evidence?” she said.

“Yes, anything that Toad might have left behind that I missed.”

“Thanks, Sia,” Jillian said. “You could have taken me.” She hugged the papers to her chest and trip-trapped up the sidewalk on a pair of red-heeled sandals.

“It was a quick trip, Jil. Just a reconnaissance mission.”

“Still . . .”

“I'm sorry. I just figured I could do it faster by myself.”

Her statement was only a little bit true, and they both knew it. Sure, Jilly would have blurred the focus, but if anything, she would have speeded up the journey, bouncing on her springy legs down the beach like a kangaroo, forcing Sia to keep up. But the bottom line? Sia hadn't wanted company. This was hers. Toad, and whatever his appearance meant, was hers. Just like Jackson and his disappearance. Sharing wasn't an option.

“Did you find anything?” Jilly asked.

“Nothing but our footprints.”

•  •  •

After confirming that Toad was still asleep, they settled in the sunroom with the newspapers. Sia was just repentant enough to let Jilly participate, and Jilly felt bad that she'd pushed too hard too fast. As usual. It was the familiar give-and-take of their friendship, one that they'd both accustomed themselves to throughout the years. To an outsider it might have seemed strange that they settled into anything friendly after such a skirmish, but this was how they were.

“There's got to be something about him in here,” Jilly said. “Someone has to be missing this guy. He's too gorgeous for his absence not to be noticed.”

“I'll start with the
,” Sia said.

Jilly grabbed the
Daily Charter

“Don't forget to look in the crime section,” Sia said.

Jilly looked up. “Really? You think so?” She leaned forward, elbows on her knees. “You think he might be a robber or a kidnapper or something like that?” She looked almost hopeful.

“I hope not,” Sia said. “I'm not too keen on hosting a criminal.”

“No, but it would be exciting if we got to turn him in on TV. And maybe get a reward.”

“Jillian, focus. I'm pretty sure Toad's not dangerous. I'm just saying we need to make sure.”

But Jilly was already off on one of her riffs. Wrapped up in possibility, she forgot the sting of Sia's snub and any split-second decision she'd made to better protect herself from Sia's wildly complicated emotional boundaries. She was excited and began to dream out loud. “Yeah, we could split the money or if you want, we could pool it and travel all over the world together for a year. We could go to Italy and South Africa and Paris. Oh, my God, Sia, we could shop in Paris!”

“Or you could kill me first.”

“Oh, I've got it. I've got it! We could buy matching sports cars—red ones—and take a driving vacation through the mountains. . . .”


Jilly stopped. “What?”

“Enough. Toad's not dangerous. We're not turning him in on TV. We're not getting a reward. And we are definitely not buying matching red sports cars and taking a driving vacation through the mountains. I'd rather lie down in a crate of crabs.”

Jilly stuck out her tongue. “Okay, okay, so he's probably not dangerous. Even I have to acknowledge the fact that Gumper has taken the guy under his great furry wing. He doesn't do that unless he trusts someone.”

Sia nodded. She was depending on Gumper for this one.

“So . . . why exactly do you think he trusts Toad so much?”

“Hell if I know.”

•  •  •

For the next hour, they pored over every page of every newspaper, searching for anything that might give them a clue about an accident, a missing man, a boating incident, a family falling-out . . . anything that might explain Toad's sudden appearance on the beach.

Every once in a while one of them looked up and said, “Anything yet?” and the other shook her head no.

•  •  •

When Toad appeared in the doorway an hour later, the sun was directly overhead. Sia and Jillian had made their way through four newspapers.

“Hi,” Sia said when she noticed him. Toad's hair hung down like stiff, wrinkly ropes around his head; it was brittle and hard. His clothes were wrinkled, and the salt water had dried in his suit, leaving behind white chalky streaks. Gumper stood beside him.

“Come on in, Toad,” Jilly said. “Make yourself at home.”

Gumper moved first. He walked to Sia and buried his head in her lap. She folded back his ear, leaned so close her lips touched the pink part, and whispered, “My big giant lovebug. So good, Gump. So good.” He preened and cooed as if she'd given him a T-bone drenched with beef stew.

“Oh, come on,” Jilly said, tiring of the lovefest. “Let the reeking mutt lie down.”

Gumper walked over to Jilly, set a paw on her knee, and jabbed at her until she reached out and rubbed him. He never let her get away with anything.

Finally they all turned to see where Toad was going to sit.

They waited.

And waited.

When they figured out he wasn't going to move, Sia got up and guided him to the chair by the window. He sat, leaned back, and set his hands on his knees.

“He walks like he's been hitting the hooch,” Jilly said, and then after staring at him for an embarrassingly long minute, blurted out, “Okay, that's it, Sia, killer or not, we need to keep this guy. Look at him. He's bloody gorgeous.”

“Careful, Jil. You're drooling on the newspaper.”

“Oh, come on. Even if he is a criminal, we can reform him. Love changes everybody, right?”

Gumper lay down on Toad's feet and sighed.

“Jil, stop. Please. We can't keep this guy. You know that.
can't keep this guy.”

Jillian paused and looked at Sia. She sensed a door opening and tiptoed through. “Sia, don't you think it's a
weird that
of all people found this guy?”

“Yes, Jil, I do. It doesn't seem possible.”

“But it is. He's right here.”

“Well, I think it's about time I called someone to help. The police, I guess.”

“Can't we wait until tomorrow? Wouldn't it be fun to keep him for the night? Just one night?”

“No, we can't wait until tomorrow. That's what they always do in the movies, and no matter how hard you wish, this is not a movie.”

“Yeah, but there's a reason they do it in the movies. A good reason. That way the sexy leading lady gets a chance to bond with the mysterious man. They spend a quiet evening in front of the fireplace. They share a bottle of wine. They look longingly into each other's eyes and recognize each other's souls from a past life or a brief rendezvous in Rome. Then they leap into bed and have awesome sex. This could be you, Sia. Tonight. Right here.” She patted the couch cushion.

Sia rolled her eyes. “You should be the writer, Jil.”

“You should listen to me for once.”

“Jil, this isn't a movie. It's my life. And Toad's, whoever the hell he is. For all we know, there's some woman or child out there desperately looking for him.”

And that was the statement that finally shut Jilly up . . . the flashing neon sign that read:


And with all the bounce and light gone out of her voice, Jilly said, “Okay, Sia, I'm sorry. I'm going back to work. Go call the police.”

•  •  •

While she waited for an officer to arrive, Sia tore a sheet of plain white paper from a roll in her office. It was large, as wide as the door and as high as Gumper's head, and with duct tape, she hung it on the wall. Then she picked up a black marker and, for the first time since Jackson disappeared, made a list. The pen felt like a log in her hand, heavy and dense, and when she was done, she barely recognized her own handwriting. It had been that long. But there it was. In black and white. She'd done it. Eleven questions about Toad.

  1. Did he crawl from the sea?
  2. Is he human?
  3. Could Jillian be right? Could he be an alien?
  4. Can he hear?
  5. Do his vocal cords work?
  6. Does he speak English?
  7. How did he get here?
  8. Where did he come from?
  9. Why did he come here?
  10. Why did I have to find him?
  11. Does this have anything to do with Jackson?

She didn't know the answer to any of the questions, but it was the first thing she'd written in over a year.


Like any woman who refuses to take anti-depressants or drink heavily after her husband disappears, Sia began to float.

“You're not floating,” her therapist told her again and again. “You're disengaging from reality, a coping mechanism that often follows a traumatic event. You imagine your higher self is separating from your body so you don't have to feel the pain around the loss.”

“Bullshit,” Sia said. “I'm floating.”

•  •  •

Two months after Jackson disappeared . . . two months after she'd taken to her bed . . . Sia dragged herself to the couch. Her ass was sore from lying on her back, and her muscles ached. For a moment, the couch felt like heaven. Firm. Supportive. Stalwart.

But then Jilly and her heartfelt blah-blah-blahing. And then
 . . . Sia was up somewhere close to the ceiling, feeling lighter than a speck of dust floating through a streak of light. Except that unlike the speck of dust, she wasn't graceful or fluid. She was clumsy and awkward. She was a terrible, awful, uncoordinated floater.

This is Jilly's fault
, she thought, as she grabbed at the air around her, trying and failing to find something to hold on to. No matter how hard she tried to stay upright, she just rolled forward into a crooked, unimpressive somersault.

This isn't even a somersault
, she thought.
It's a flop.

When she wasn't flopping forward, she was flopping backward, which quickly led to a few moments of being completely upside down.

•  •  •

Jilly and her big mouth. She'd been so excited that morning to find Sia out of bed and sitting, actually sitting, in the sunroom—though it was still as dark as an underground cave—she'd launched into her normal repartee, which she hadn't gotten to do since Sia had taken to her bed.

“. . . and in yesterday's yoga class,” she chattered, “Mrs. Wysong got stuck in pigeon pose again. And although at first Raj thought she was just teasing and didn't pay any attention to her whimpering in the corner, when she yelped like a stuck pig, he rushed over to help. And, believe me, by then the woman was stuck. Everything but her eyelids had cramped up. . . .”

At first it felt good to listen to Jilly ramble on in such a normal, everyday manner as if no terrible tragedy had crashed into their lives, but then Jilly got brave—or as Sia would tell it—stupid.

“But after class, I had to run like hell because there are only two things anyone wants to talk to me about: you and Jackson's disappearance.”

“Me and what?” Sia said.

“Jackson's disappearance.”

When those two words popped out of Jilly's mouth, paired so matter-of-factly, Sia heard them like this:

Jackson's disappearance

Jackson's disappearance




Her heart raced and sweat gushed down her torso, soaking her breasts and belly. Within seconds, the waistband of her sweatpants was drenched. She felt dizzy, and the room blurred into a smear of yellow and black. She put her hand on the arm of the couch to steady herself and closed her eyes. When she opened them again, she was floating. Well, part of her was floating. The other part?

She looked down and saw herself—her corporeal self—and Jilly, sitting in the sunroom with serious looks on their faces, but she, Floating Sia, was up near the skylight.

What the hell?

The skylight was, of course, closed and still covered with a large swatch of tar paper, but the tar paper had absorbed the heat of the sun and its warmth felt good on her back.

What the hell is going on?
she thought.
What's happening?

Floating Sia tried to reach down and grab Jilly's hand, but she only managed to knock herself off balance again. This time she tipped sideways.

, she thought.
Am I dreaming? Did I fall asleep? Am I dead?

Though she still could hear Jillian down below, nattering on about Jackson and Raj and the unfolding of Mrs. Wysong's crimped limbs, it was as if she were very far away, like a radio turned low in a distant room.

, Sia told herself.
This is nuts. Get your ass back down there.

Like a good yoga student, she dropped her breath down to her belly and slowed her racing heart, but instead of sinking back into her solid self, she slipped right through the skylight and found herself outside in the shockingly bright sunlight. She squeezed her eyes closed. She hadn't seen sunlight in over two months, and even the orangey-black brightness that seeped through her eyelids hurt like crazy. She waited, tipping this way and rolling that way, and when she finally managed to open her eyes again, she started to cry. The sky was perfect . . . a perfectly stirred cobalt blue . . . the kind she and Jackson used to leap out of bed for in the morning, the kind under which she'd been born.

•  •  •

Up there in the brilliant blue, Floating Sia could see the spot where she'd slipped into the world. While she bobbed like a buoy in the sky, she watched a flock of seagulls scatter, then land, on a spot in the ocean below. To calm herself, she imagined settling among them, the waves gently pushing her up and down, and after a while with this thought in mind, she was able to hold herself in an upright position for minutes at a time before tumbling either backward or forward.

Strangely, she could still see herself and Jillian in the sunroom below. It was as if the roof of the house didn't exist or as if she had X-ray vision. The two of them were a little fuzzy around the edges, but aside from that, things were quite clear. Solid Sia, as she began to refer to her corporeal self, was dutifully taking in Jilly's lecture about having to get back into the world again and not allowing this tragedy to ruin her life. Solid Sia nodded every few minutes as Jilly spoke, but getting her ass back to bed was looking more and more appealing by the second.

On the other hand, Floating Sia felt good, better than she had in months. The sun was warm. She'd forgotten how much she needed it. She got brave and stretched out as if she were flying. Within seconds, she was halfway down the beach, where she spotted her friend Mary by the lifeguard's chair with her children, Simon and Amanda. The kids were digging in the sand and Mary was lying on a pink towel reading

“Mary!” she called. “Mary!” Sia waved but quickly realized that Mary couldn't hear or see her. She stretched out again and floated away.

Across the lane, she saw M perched like a lovesick bird in the tree, the whiteboard resting faceup on the branch next to her with the word
written in bright purple letters. M looked terrible. Worse than terrible. She was thin and brittle. Her hair was greasy and flat, pressed close to her head like a pale swim cap. Sia had never seen her mother like this, and instead of sticking around to get a better look, she balked and wheeled, then tipped over backward and continued on in a wild spin. It took more than a few moments to slow and right herself.

When she was able to move on, Sia discovered that no matter in which direction she floated—north, east, west, south—she could still see herself and Jilly below. It was like a magic trick, and when she got too overwhelmed with the notion of what she was doing, she took a deep breath and visualized her heart safely locked away in the tiny birdcage. A few minutes later, when Jilly stopped talking about Jackson and started talking about watermelons, she dropped smoothly into her sitting self.

•  •  •

That was fucking weird
, Sia thought. She ran her fingers across the fabric of the couch, then reached out and grabbed Jilly's hands. She needed to hold on to something.

•  •  •

Because they'd had no secrets since that first day of kindergarten when Jillian had dragged Sia to the seesaw and demanded to know what her father did, what her favorite food was, how long she'd been able to hang upside down on the monkey bars by her knees, if she wore shorts under her skirts so the boys couldn't see her underwear when she hung upside down, and why the heck she had such a weird name, Sia's first instinct was to tell Jilly about the floating.

In Jillian's world, boundaries were something dreamed up by other people to crush her natural curiosity. She had no sense of privacy, about her life or the lives of others, and she'd been this way forever, butting in where she wasn't wanted and joyously blurting out things other people only thought.

But Sia didn't tell her about floating. It was just TOO fucking weird and it made her look even more vulnerable than ever. That bugged her. Jillian would never have floated away . . . no matter how sad or pissed or heartbroken she was. Jilly was harder than rock; she was diamond. A glimmering gem that couldn't be broken by hammer or stone or life.

But after Jack disappeared, Sia was the exact opposite. Just the wing of a bird . . . a mishmash of hollow bones and wispy feathers.




•  •  •

As soon as she was able, Sia crawled back to bed.

BOOK: The Art of Floating
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