Like a penny into a fountain, she fell from the top deck of a cruise ship into the black Caribbean. Tink, poor Tink, prepubescent, precocious, ten-year-old Tink, the most adorable preteen you’d have ever laid eyes on: sundress, dimples, sneakers. Sneakers that were too small and caused Tink’s toes to curl at the front of the shoes. Sneakers that were cinched tight by velcro and lit red with each step. Sneakers she wore when she fell off of the S.S. Wonder, feet first.
The shoes glanced off of one another the whole way down, lighting a ruby streak that disappeared into the sea.
Her hair had been braided and beaded earlier that day by a black woman in Antigua whose eyes were a terrible blue, and who told her she was special, and Tink wanted so badly to believe her.
She had little button boobs, buds of breasts her uncles’ thumbs would accidentally graze at dinner parties when they picked her up from underneath the shoulders. She was so small. She wore glasses, though her stepmother-to-be encouraged her to use contacts instead so as not to hide her magical eyes. But she didn’t. She was so small. Her stepmother-to-be bought her a candy cane bikini to wear by the pool with the curlicue slide. But she didn’t. She wore her lime green one-piece instead. She was so small. But her brain was big. She had a passion for mythology. Clutched a book on Atlantis to her chest everywhere she went. She only lost grip of the book when bucked overboard.
The Wonder had rocked so much beneath her. Tink did what she could to counter the wooziness it caused: wore a plastic bracelet that pinched the skin on her wrist, and to calm her belly, fed it ginger ale. Both remedies worked throughout the vacation but failed Tink the night she fell. The Wonder pitched and rolled like it never had before. And who’s to say what motion made the ship heel that extra degree, causing her to run for the railings? Who’s to say what nudged Tink from discomfort to nausea?
Below deck, her daddy and his fiancé lost themselves to one another and the sheets, in a cabin as dark as evil. They tasted dinner cocktails from each other’s lips—a strawberry daiquiri from hers, a gin and tonic from his. Moonlight refracted off of the sea (in which Tink became lost), and through the cabin’s porthole. The Caribbean slapped against the circle of glass and Tink’s stepmother-to-be cried out, Captain, Oh, Captain!
Down the companionway, Tink’s older brother—too old for the kid’s club, too cool for the teen club, underage for the nightclubs, and too young to smoke cigarettes while staring at the stars and the swells (in which Tink became lost)—lay in the shower, masturbating furiously, fantasizing of sixty-nining the brunette lifeguard from Bermuda.
On the top deck, her cousin from Kentucky sloshed in an inner tube in the pool with the curlicue slide beneath a projection screen on which an animated movie about sharks was shown to entertain the caddy girls and flatulent boys that were too old for babysitters and schlepped into the Midnight Kid’s Club.
There was so much motion rocking the Wonder, so much going through Tink’s brain: the thought of the hormone infested meat she’d eaten because her stepmother-to-be made her go to the buffet to get something with iron; the Cosmo in her stepmother-to- be’s beach bag with its list of sex tips and how to give oral—tease the shaft, massage the balls, sticking a pinkie in a man’s urethra is not advised; the image of her stepmother-to- be massaging sunscreen into the muscles of her daddy’s bare back; his moaning like a lion; that before dinner they thought it was okay to shower together while she was in the cabin; that the whole vacation was afforded by commission her daddy earned as a salesman of urinals; that to get to Miami they drove south down a state shaped like a penis; that she lost her raggedy lambchop stuffed animal; that her daddy replaced it with a plush Tigger; that her orphan cousin from Kentucky asked her to read to him about Atlantis; that the only boy she’d ever wanted to kiss was her orphan cousin from Kentucky; that all day her brother paced form weight room to pool deck; that in an attempt at male bonding, her brother told her daddy he was into brunettes now; that her stepmother-to-be had brown hair; that her mom was gone; that her mom had been blond.
Tink’s feet pierced the water like a spoon does the surface of yogurt. She pointed her toes down, held her arms slack at her sides. She had enough time while falling to intuit that her limbs would break or bruise if she held them out like wings. On the Wonder she felt as if a milkshake were being blended in her stomach. In the ocean she felt salty, sticky and hot. She was so very close to the ship. So near its propellers, ceiling fans sized for titans. Her small body missed the blades, just. She treaded water in the Wonder’s bubbly wake and what was left of her vomit and the floating, soggy pages from her book on Atlantis. And the steel drum band and the lights and the Wonder got away.
She was supposed to be onshore. All the passengers of the Wonder were. A class four hurricane named Margaret caused the crew to reroute and keep the ship away from the storm, and at sea. Spring break was supposed to be over and Tink was supposed to be back in school. She had skipped the fifth grade and was nervous about her upcoming science fair project and how it would compare to the work of her eleven-year-old peers. If she didn’t get an A, and her report card tanked, she’d have no chance at a career as an archaeologist or marine biologist, she knew it. She wanted to be back at school, in the snow. She wanted back on solid, unshakeable shore. She certainly did not want to be in the salty, sticky sea.
A creature surfaced beside her and she gasped and thought for a moment of Atlantis. But it was just her cousin from Kentucky. He was her same age but hadn’t skipped a grade and was missing two of his front teeth—his incisors, she sometimes teased. And he was pudgy. Just pudgy enough to make him cute, and buoyant.
She asked him what he was doing, and he asked her what she was doing, and she said she fell, and he said he knew, and he asked how she fell, and she said through the railings, and he asked why she was at the railings, and she said she didn’t feel good, and he asked why she didn’t feel good, and she couldn’t quite say.
Why are you here? Tink asked her cousin from Kentucky. Because you’re here, he said.
And then they couldn’t hear the steel drums anymore. The Wonder was gone and they floated in the Caribbean like two specks in a big bowl of water. And they realized under the stars in the tropical wind that they were truly alone.
You didn’t tell anyone I fell, she said.
I didn’t have time, he said. You went so fast. It’s okay, she said.
You think the captain will turn back? It doesn’t matter.
It doesn’t matter? I’m going to Atlantis.
You know there’s sharks out here, he said. Yep, she said.
Probably octopus, he said. Definitely, she said.
And barracudas, he said. Don’t forget eels, she said. Yeah. Eels, he said.
Good chance there are dolphins too, she said. Dolphins. What’s wrong with the dolphins? he said.
They’ve been known to swim up to 25 miles an hour, she said. So?
If they swam into us, they’d be the sports cars and we’d be pedestrians. Float on me, Tink’s cousin from Kentucky said.
I said, float on me. I’ll keep you away from the dolphins. I was kidding about the dolphins.
Okay but still, we can’t both tread water forever. One of us is going to get tired out before the other and then we’ll both drown and that’s just stupid. I know that I’m fat and I know that I float and if we both get tired I want you to know that you can float on me, put my face in the water and let me die.
Tink kissed her cousin from Kentucky.
He spat out seawater that had spilled into his mouth. Wow, he said.
I’m bringing you with me, she said. Where? he said.
And then it appeared before her: the Maersk Atlantis, an erumpent superstructure of steel that stood on stilts like a castle risen from the sea, twinkling with light. She dogpaddled toward it. She kicked and kicked, illuminating the silhouettes of the sea creatures beneath her with the red light of her smacking sneakers. She towed her cousin to it too, to Atlantis, the object of her imagination and misunderstanding. Too far to swim to. Too high to scale. Too distant for Tink to ever know that what it was to her and what it was to every one else were tragically not the same.