“Where did you come from?” Ezra placed a cup of tea in front of Ada.
“My ma drowned in that boat and my daddy doesn’t love me anymore.” Ada said this simply, as if she understood it all perfectly and it made quite a lot of sense to her. Her bag and shoes were drying by the fireplace, the pages of her book nodding slightly in the eddies of heat.
He considered her words. “What made you come here?” Ezra was trying his best to be as small and soft as possible. He found that due to his size and unusual habit for silence, most of the other children in his neighborhood were afraid of him; he didn’t want the girl to be intimidated.
“Nothing. The ocean.” Ada sipped a tiny bit of her tea and her mouth ghosted downward in the glimmer of a grimace. It was clear that she had simply cast herself adrift, not caring where she ended up.
What kind of life made such a small thing so cold? Now that he thought about it, she had to have come from at least twenty miles away; that was the nearest town. “Did you run away?”
“I didn’t run,” Ada proclaimed briskly. “I took my daddy’s boat. It has a hole in the bottom, that’s why I was sinking. I don’t think I ever learned to swim.” She paused. “Thank you for the tea, mister, but I better be going now.”
He watched her as she began repacking her sack and tugging her damp socks and shoes back on. They were frilly lace and shiny black patent leather. He wondered if she was too old for something so doll-like. She certainly carried herself more like an old woman than a ten-year-old. When he was ten, Ezra had been…living alone in a big house and rowing out to sea every day with an old crazy woman. In the end he guessed he couldn’t really begrudge her manner. He could relate.
“It’s dark already.” He eventually said as she yanked the strap of her shoe tight. “I can’t let you go out there alone at this hour.”
Ada turned to stare at him. Silhouetted by the fire she looked even smaller and frailer than before. Her eyes were hard and bright, though, and she didn’t seem at all warmed or amused by him. For a full minute she stared hard at him, then she crossed her arms and sat back down at his table. The thought crossed his mind that Ada was really just a terrified, lost kid, holding all that feeling inside with tight seams. Another moment of silence passed and just as he was about to say something awkwardly encouraging, her stomach growled loudly.
“When’s the last time you ate?” He said, immediately getting up and opening a cupboard, relieved that there was something he knew how to deal with. He took down a loaf of bread from the local bakery and sliced it thickly, then slathered one side with peanut butter. He paused in his work and blinked, realizing he didn’t have jelly.
“How do you like honey?” He said finally, drizzling some onto the other half of the sandwich before she could respond. He sliced the sandwich diagonally and presented it to Ada with a fresh cup of tea.
She kept staring at him throughout this process. Ada found that contrary to her behavior, she liked this big man—in her eyes fourteen years made him a man—and was reluctant to open her mouth and speak any more for fear of him discovering a reason to reject her.
He pushed the plate closer, brushing crumbs off his hands. “Can you at least tell me your name?
“Ada.” She answered in a small voice. She was now fixated on the delicious-smelling sandwich.
“Go on, I didn’t make it for looking at.” Ezra laughed for the first time since he’d pulled her out of the ocean and felt some of his discomfort dissipate. Ada hungrily devoured the sandwich, careful not to make herself sick by eating too fast. Ezra marveled at the caution and precision that dictated Ada’s every move. She was precocious by nature and hard as a rock on her insides. He wondered if this was a result of her running away or if she had always been like this.
“Thank you.” Ada murmured politely, apparently embarrassed to have taken so easily from a stranger.
“My name is Ezra.” He mentioned as a response. She nodded and rubbed her eyes. She seemed sleepy and kept eyeing the couch on the far wall. He imagined her sleeping in hard rock crevices and piles of debris. Perhaps she had wrapped up in the sail of a beached ship and struggled against the cold. She didn’t even have a coat. “It’s alright, Ada, you don’t have to stay awake. At least stay the night and then tomorrow come with me to the police so we can get you back to your dad.”
All trace of her exhaustion vanished and she shook her head vigorously. “No! He hates me, he does!”
“Why do you think he hates you?” Ezra opened a closet in the hall to take out the seldom-used guest blankets. He also grabbed a clean shirt of his from the laundry for her to sleep in. She’d be swimming it.
“He looked at me and he didn’t look nice how he always does. He didn’t even know who I was.” She said this with such utter truth and despair that Ezra didn’t feel like he could question her further. For all he knew, she was right. After all, he could already see that she was more perceptive than most grown up folk.
“Alright.” He finally sighed. “We won’t go to the police. Okay? For now just get some sleep.” Ada nodded and was already laying out the blankets on the couch, not even bothering to pull out the sofa-bed. She tugged her bag open and took out her mother’s book, touching the pages; Oh, to be a pear tree!. She put it back in the bottom of the bag, thinking of the space in the world where her mother should be.
As Ezra headed up to his own bedroom a thought occurred to him. “Ada?”
She looked up at him on the steps.
“Please don’t run away before I wake up.”
She said nothing but dropped her gaze to the book again. He felt as if she had left already.
That night Ezra dreamed he was in his boat again, the old woman’s boat. It was a muggy day, just like the one he’d just had. On the horizon, dark clouds were brewing and in the far distance, he could see lightning strike something in the water. The sun was still high enough to shine too brightly in his eyes. This dream was so realistic, so breathable that Ezra pinched himself hard on the arm. His heart was pounding in his ears and the ocean sloshed at his boat’s hull. Suddenly he remembered Ada and began searching frantically for her, knowing that her boat must be sinking. This couldn’t be a dream, he thought, her boat was going to sink and it would be his fault if he didn’t find her.
Finally he spotted her, right where he should have known she’d be. She was standing in her boat, partially submerged in the water. He rowed violently to reach her, even as the waves began to crest higher and higher. Finally he got to her, ankle deep in the water and looking, for all the world, like she belonged there. Silently he reached an arm out for her and she gripped it with both hands, but when he pulled, she wouldn’t budge. Bewildered, he looked down at her ankles again to find that her legs had dissolved into a tangle of fronds and seaweed, rooted beneath the turbulent water. The harder he pulled her, the deeper the roots yanked her down. In a voice that sounded just as far away as it had before, she screamed “I don’t want to drown!” but Ezra couldn’t help her. Before he knew what was happening, she had been pulled under, screaming, the water swirling over her little hands, her boat creaking and groaning all the way. The water looked as though nothing had ever been there and Ezra sat, panting, unable to move. Too late, too late! Not enough, not enough! And now, next to him in the boat was the old woman who had always cared for him. She patted his arm.
“Ah, there, you’ve got it. It all looks the same.” She said, smiling, satisfied.
As he expected, when Ezra got downstairs the next morning Ada was nowhere to be found. She had neatly folded the blankets he lent her and even placed a fragrant sprig of rosemary on the pillow. Other than this, there was no trace of the girl left in his house. Ezra didn’t know what he’d thought would happen. A child as sad and scared as Ada didn’t run away without resolution. But after his troubled sleep the previous night, he felt a keener sense of danger for her and wished she had found the courage to stay.
Though her boat had been destroyed in the storm, there was still no hint of Ada anywhere in his little town. The baker and butcher, a married couple, had sold some bread and dried meat to her at little after six in the morning. And that was it; she had disappeared into the morning fog like the dream that had upset him so much. After this, there was nothing more that he could do. He couldn’t follow her. She didn’t want to be followed, and even if she did he had no idea which way she’d gone. He went to the police station after a few days to report the whole incident.
“It’s alright, son.” The officer said, gruffly, adjusting her belt. “More n’ likely she’s gone on back home.”
Another nodded knowingly. “Yeah, most runaways go through it. Run out of food or money, or start feeling bad and run back quick as a jackrabbit.” They both noticed Ezra’s hard expression and shifted uncomfortably. “Well, if you like we can put out a search notice for her. Never do much good, so don’t get your hopes up.”
Ezra couldn’t help but hope. Ada was a special, serious child, obvious kin to his heart, and he had let her slip away in the night to face some unknown fate in either the woods or the sea. He had only known her for a few hours, but in her huge eyes and hard demeanor, he had recognized himself. Some new ember in his mind convinced him that he was meant to help her. He wanted desperately for her to soften and be happy again. Of course the strangeness of his feelings did not escape him. He hardly knew her, or her situation. He knew she had a family somewhere out there, twenty or more miles away that wanted her back and was deeply worried for her. He knew that as a child himself, he couldn’t provide any real sort of care for Ada, but he at least wanted to know that she was safe and back home. He wanted to know what sort of life she lived, and if she knew how to smile.
So he checked with the station daily at first, then every other day, and eventually once a month and there was never news. He would continue to take his boat out every afternoon, but now instead of clearing his head, he only thought about Ada and his recurring nightmare of her being swallowed by the water. Before he even began to think straight again, a year had gone by. Before the fear stopped gripping his heart that she had died out in the wilderness around his home, it had been two. And before he began to forgive himself for letting her disappear, a full five years had gone by. And finally, in order to nearly forget who Ada was at all, it took eight years. He had only known her for a few hours, but to him she became an event that shook the very foundation of his being. Rosemary now grew all along the outer walls of his house.