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The Atlantic Odyssey awaits its passengers at the mainland of the Spanish harbor, sitting stoic and stable in the water like the architecture that grows out of the sea along the coastline. "It'll be okay," Tessa says to herself, shading her pale-green eyes against the ship's reflection of the smoldering Barcelona sun. "The cruise ship isn't even rocking." The breeze threatens to billow upward Tessa's turquoise, gingham-checkered circle skirt that she grips tightly to her legs. She swallows hard and plants her feet wide on the dock, attempting to calm the motion sickness already curling in her stomach at the sight of the unsettled water, which cracks indignantly against the weathered wood of the harbor's jetties and splashes up the side of the ship. Its foam reaches for the portholes. The distant horizon is shadowed with a faint though expanding darkness.
Fourteen-year-old Ella stands beside her mother, her drawing-journal and artist pens clutched in one hand and her school library's stained copy of an anatomy guide for illustrators in the other. Ella pays no attention to the weather — in her colorful leggings and oversized black t-shirt — but for the wind's bending and crinkling the pages she studies. She snaps the book shut and taps Tessa's bare arm, her mother's goosebumped skin exposed in her fitted white tank top tucked into the high waist of her skirt. "What is it, Ell?" Tessa smiles and gathers Ella's long, honey-blond bangs behind her ears, but it's no use. The wind, gentle at dawn, is now tipping over the wide-brimmed hats of the tourists studying their cruise itineraries and maps, and braiding the hair of women shifting their weight from one sandaled foot to the other, impatient to board.
"Exciting, isn't it?" Tessa adds.
Ella swings her backpack around her shoulder to her chest and tucks away her book and drawing tools, then begins to gesture with her hands, signing a word from American Sign Language. Her palm faces her forehead, her fingers fanned, and in a downward swooping gesture, ending at her chin, she closes her fingers to her thumb, also shutting her eyes. She repeats this several times. Her midnight-blue-painted nails complement her icy-colored eyes that quickly flick open to ensure her message is received.
Tessa recognizes the sign and answers, "Sleeping."
Ella nods, then points first to herself, then to Tessa, and finally to an old man sitting on a splintered wooden bench a few paces away. His weathered face and drooping nose are nearly wedged between the pages of a scuffed leather book that he reads intently, protectively, his shoulders hunched in his khaki coat to block the view.
Ella finishes her thought by raising her index finger and pivoting her hand side to side, signing the word where. She scrunches her eyebrows together, the language's method for communicating a question.
"Sleep. You. Me. Grandpa ..." Tessa says, piecing together her daughter's question. Ella had not spoken in six months, ever since a seizure had spasmed through her petite body. It confirmed the worst: Ella's brain tumor had grown.
Tessa brightens with understanding. "Where will we sleep on the cruise? Well, you and I are going to share a cabin. It'll be like a long sleepover. That'll give us plenty of girl time. Grandpa Archie will have his own cabin." Tessa looks over at her father-in-law. Her smile slowly fades.
* * *
ARCHIE moved in with Tessa and her husband — the ever-optimistic, studiously handsome Arden — when Ella was seven years old. Arden had worried about his father's wellbeing after his mom died. "It won't be permanent; just a few months while Dad finds a smaller place and adjusts. I'll make sure he behaves," Arden promised.
Not even a week had passed before Archie's wool socks were tucked into every crevice of the couch and his stained mouth-guard lay forgotten in his cup of Earl Grey after breakfast. The walls of their boxy 1960s Seattle bungalow were not thick enough to muffle Archie's lionlike snores, which woke Ella and sent her from her princess bed to snuggle under the covers with Tessa and Arden. Ella was a wiggler. She would root herself in the center of the bed between her parents and for half an hour rest still before rotating her legs and eventually her torso ever so slightly, like the long and short arms of a clock marking the passage of time.
It was a sleepless spell for all but Archie, who shuffled out of his room every morning stretching, scratching, yawning, and grinning, while offering a "Good mornin', everybody!" on a gust of rank breath.
One week turned into two, two months turned into three, and the years began to multiply. Arden did his best to tidy up after his father and ensure Archie's robe was fastened after his morning bathroom ritual with the Seattle Times.
"He's forgetful, that's all," Arden would say, pushing his chunky frames up his nose and brushing aside his dark hair from his forehead, his endearing nervous habits.
"How did your mom put up with this?" Tessa complained.
"I'll talk to Dad." But Arden never did, for that was the time Ella's headaches and vomiting began. MRI and CT scans confirmed the presence of the tumor, which was greedily expanding in Ella's ten-year-old brain and spinal cord. It coiled itself at the base of her skull, so horribly entwined that not even the most skilled pediatric surgeon could extract it.
The radiation oncologist began external beam therapy to shrink the tumor, but Ella did not understand. The medical team strapped her small body to a chair, so she couldn't fidget. Her feet dangled an inch above the floor and her chin rested on a plastic oval ledge swung over on a metal arm. The machine that delivered the high-energy x-ray was aimed at the soft, flush-pink skin of Ella's neck. Tessa could only watch from an attached room where her tears dampened her long blond hair as she pressed her forehead and hands against a pane of glass, her breath fogging the view of her screaming, terrified child.
Arden would come home from Seattle University, where he worked as a historian and professor of ancient Egyptian dynasties, only to find Archie pacing on the front steps. "We've got to do something, son. I don't know what, but we need a miracle." Archie clutched Arden's shoulders so tightly that his fingertips turned white, until Arden shrugged hard out of his father's grip. Archie and Ella, his only grandchild, had developed a playful and protective bond in the five years of sharing a hall bathroom and a host of inside jokes.
Father and son would stand without words on the front steps for what seemed like hours. Arden removed his glasses and ran his fingers along his eyelashes, brooding silently. Archie wrung his handkerchief between his deeply creased palms until its fibers frayed and fell to the ground. The younger of the two men would cross the threshold first, only to find a pale Ella asleep on Tessa's lap where they sat on the dated kitchen tiles, with whatever dinner his wife was cooking burning in the pot. The whole house reeked of vomit and charred food. Tessa simply looked up at Arden with hollow eyes.
* * *
A chipper young woman in a white skirt and blue blazer, with a gold crest embroidered on its breast, switches on a portable microphone and speaker. It shrieks loudly. "Welcome to Constellations Cruise Line!" she begins, attaching the mic to a flimsy stand. "My name is Valarie and I am your cruise director. Our team is full of nautical knowledge — and insider tips on the local landscape and culture — so don't be a stranger! We will board in a moment — please excuse this brief delay — but while we wait, it is my immense pleasure to introduce Captain Nathanial Billows, who will be guiding us through Spain's Canary Islands on this proud vessel, the Atlantic Odyssey." Valarie gestures to the tall, broad-shouldered man beside her — in his early forties Tessa guesses, maybe only five years older than herself — before clapping ardently, cuing the crowd on the waiting platform.
The captain approaches the microphone. He is dressed in the classic brilliant white seaman's suit, its ornamental black epaulets decorated with gold lines and the executive curl of the captain's insignia. "Thank you all, and thank you, Valarie," he says as he scans the passengers with a confident gaze, bowing his head ever so slightly, his free hand holding the black brim of his stiff white hat up to his chest. "Valarie is our cruise director and leader of guest services. She is more than happy to assist you while on our voyage, both day" — he smiles cheekily at Valarie — "and night." Valarie blushes and toys with a strand of her shoulder-length brown hair. Her pale face flushes with color. She smooths the front of her blazer.
"Please, call me Captain Nate," he continues as he swings his hat back onto his ash-blond crew cut and rubs his palms together. "You folks are in for a scenic treat! For the next eleven days, we will explore the seven main volcanic Canary Islands. One legend says the islands are the mountaintops of sunken Atlantis. Another tells the tale of a mythical being who kidnapped the sun and hid it inside one of the volcanoes. Still, another myth speaks of an eighth island." Captain Nate's voice slips into a whisper, and he widens his brown eyes and spreads his hands wide. "Only the setting sun will reveal the location of the mystery island — but don't blink, or it will vanish as quickly as it appeared!"
With the captain's words, a low screech slips out of Ella's mouth as she tries to laugh or speak — Tessa does not know which — as the tumor tears through the normal sound like a deeply scratched record. The curiosity on Ella's face morphs to embarrassment, and she drops her sunglasses from the top of her head to her nose, hiding her eyes behind their reflective lenses, and she crosses her arms. Tessa puts a comforting arm around her daughter while glaring at the passengers that turn with disgusted expressions to see where the noise originated.
Valarie, back at the microphone, announces, "Our first stop: the port at Arrecife on the island of Lanzarote." Her two-way radio chirps in her hand and she listens. "Wonderful news, folks! We are ready! Welcome aboard!"
Tessa, Ella, and Archie ride the elevator in silence. After the safety briefing on the promenade deck and a tour of the life preservers and rafts on the quarterdeck, where sunbeams streaked in long lines between the cracks of angry clouds, the passengers had been released to find their cabins on one of the eight expansive levels. From deep within the ship, they can hear the Atlantic Odyssey's horn blast. The engines growl as the vessel leaves the dock to shrink from view behind them.
Ella looks up at her grandpa, fumbling through an awkward gesture.
"What is it, sweetie? Hmm." Archie watches Ella intently as she repeats the motions in a loop, pleading for understanding with her eyes. Archie's white eyebrows are raised, deepening the creases on his forehead.
The family had begun sign language lessons months before, but while Archie's arthritic fingers were near useless, Ella was merely resistant. Thus, beyond the fundamentals, the family had resorted to a frustrating game of charades to express more complex ideas and emotions.
"Hmm, Ell. I'm not sure." The old man exhales deeply. "I'm sorry, sweetie."
Tessa steps in closer. "I don't know that sign, Ell," she says and pulls out her ASL pocket dictionary. She is still flipping back and forth between pages when the elevator doors open. Ella gives up, her arms falling limp as she walks out into the hall.
Archie deposits his luggage in his cabin around the corner from Tessa and Ella's room, then raps on their door. "You ladies decent?" he hollers.
Ella waves her grandpa in to the small cabin — number 251 — which contains a queen bed, a wardrobe built into one wall, and a narrow bathroom. Ella shows him the continuous blind contour drawing of the Atlantic Odyssey she had made before boarding. "That's great work, Ell. Hey, guess what I saw? A cabin with a tiny circular window," Archie says, sitting down on the edge of the bed. "Those folks can look out to the sea." Ella looks impressed. "Maybe next time, my sweet Ell." Archie pulls Ella in close, ruffling her hair — which she quickly tidies back into place — though she releases a happy squeak, what Archie has recognized over the last months as his granddaughter's giggle.
"Want to go up top?" he asks Ella, before swiveling to catch Tessa's gaze as she hangs a creamy-white cotton dress in the wardrobe. "Can I take her up? For a look around, just Ella and me? You know, grandpa bonding time?"
"Is that what this trip is all about?" Tessa barks, searching Archie's face for answers.
"What d'you mean?"
"I don't have you figured out, Archie. Is it quality time you're after? I have never seen you spend this kind of money. And out of the blue!"
"Always harking on me for being a penny pincher! I couldn't afford a cabin with a window."
"You know what I mean."
As Tessa stares at Archie, she sees Arden's face: her husband's smile lines, exaggerated; and the curve of his cheeks and forehead, though the face before her is freckled with sunspots from Archie's career as a roofer. The old man is bald on top, with a half-halo of coarse, silvery hair reaching from ear to ear. Archie's features have their own quirks, distinct from Arden's, but Tessa recognizes her husband's eyes and even his build in Archie's slouching frame. Tessa unconsciously shakes her head and a thin line deepens between her eyebrows at the thought of Arden Wellsley.
"All right, Tessa. You got me." Archie raises his hands in the air. "I do have a motive for this trip. I want my granddaughter to be happy. Does that make me a bad guy?" He looks over at Ella, who shakes her head and pinches her pointer and middle fingers together with her thumb, signing the word no. "That's my girl," commends Archie with a chuckle.
A deep sigh escapes between Tessa's teeth. She pushes the last two years of struggle as a single parent out of her mind. She had been distrusting of Archie since Arden's abrupt disappearance, though her father-in-law had proved dependable, even on their toughest days. That is the one difference between Archie and Arden, Tessa reflects. Archie is still here.
* * *
Archie and Ella stroll along a hallway below the quarterdeck, passing expensive gift shops, a beauty salon, fitness center, and a grand entrance to the ballroom and theater at the base of a broad, maroon-carpeted circular staircase. A chandelier of crystal petals dangles above the stairs in a wide skylight, three floors above their heads. The daylight catches the curve of the petals, which cast rainbows in every direction. Ella touches each bend of color along their path. She curls her arm backward and pulls her phone from a side pocket of her backpack and posts a photo of the rainbows on Instagram.
The pair head up the staircase and Ella runs her hand along the rich oak railing. "Awwweeek —" Ella says, forgetting her vocal limitations. She drops her head and grits her teeth, though peers at her grandpa through the corners of her eyes. A few passengers pause on the stairs.
"It's okay, sweetie. Don't care what anybody thinks, you hear me? I know you've been having a rough go in junior high — but high school, and the real world, can be even rougher. You need to toughen up."
Ella nods but her jaw remains locked. She clumsily signs her thought but her fingers trip over themselves. Her eyes swim behind instant tears and she looks away.
"This is our secret, Ell," Archie whispers as he pulls a pen and creased receipt out of the pocket of his oversized pleated pants. "Now don't get me in trouble and tell your mom about this. She'll report me to the sign language teacher and get us both in heck. You're on vacation, sweetie. Now tell Grandpa Archie what you want to say."
Ella beams at her grandpa, tears still on her cheeks. She scans the stairs to ensure her mother is not within sight before taking the paper and pen. Ella developed an expansive vocabulary in the years she carted books to every doctor and radiation appointment. When she lost her ability to speak, in the peak of awkward adolescence, she retreated between the hardcovers in her school's library.
Ella scribbles on the flimsy receipt: This place is lovely. Like a dream.
When they pass through the sliding glass doors into the dense salty air on the quarterdeck, the speed of the ship becomes apparent. Ella's bangs are again swept from behind her ears and tickle her freckled nose. She and Archie explore, discovering a kidney bean-shaped pool carved out of the deck, surrounded by wooden patio chairs, their pristine white canvas slings blowing erratically in the swiftly traveling air.
Excerpted from "Above the Star"
Copyright © 2018 Alexis Marie Chute.
Excerpted by permission of BookSparks.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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