I left the hotel lobby where Mother was having adding cream to her coffee and walked down to the beach. I decided it felt better to take the twisting dirty back pathway instead of coming along the main boardwalk. There were trees all along this area, so I was hidden from the view of any buildings nearby. This proved to be a good thing, because when I crouched down to take off my shoes before stepping out onto the sand, I caught some movement from the corner of my eye. Thinking it was a seabird I remained still until the motion was repeated; then I saw the three small men waiting beside the main path down to the beach, doing a creditable job of trying to blend into the tall overgrowths of Sea Oats that sprouted tall and green along that wooden walkway. I could not see their ears because they wore caps, but they were not dressed like beachcombing locals or foraging tourists. I turned and swiftly ran back up the path.
My mother knew something was awry. She might have smelled it in the air or noticed the hairs on her arms standing up for no good reason; in any case as I reached the top of the path she came silently out the door with the luggage, handing me my shoulder bag and hefting her own duffle experimentally.
“Is it challenging?” she asked, her voice low. I shrugged to seat the shoulder strap more comfortably in case we needed to run.
“I would call it ‘problematic’,” I replied. She fought a smile as we headed down the other side of the road, because my mother loves to solve problems. We trotted towards the pier, where we had noticed several boats docking overnight during our stay. We looked over the options tied up at the quay.
“That one,” she said after a quick moment of observation. “I’ll buy it from the owner… at some point.” I lobbed her my shoulder bag as I turned, and she caught it with a practiced air. Mother raced up the gangplank, dropped our luggage, and pulled up the little wooden bridge, finding the clips that held it fast. I trotted along the dock, untying the lines fore and aft that held the craft in place. She reached the wheel as I was pushing us off, and I heard the motor catch just as I was leaping aboard.
There was a shout from behind us, and then the tread of several feet thumped along the dock. Mother had spun the boat free by now, and carefully eased out the throttle, gaining speed as she piloted the boat away from the docks into the mouth of the estuary. I made my way to her side and we changed places just as our pursuers began to jump into a second vessel, clearly intent upon following us. Mother is the more experienced captain, but I’m good enough, and she’s far better at certain magics. She frowned and stood on tiptoe as she watched them begin to cast it off. She waited until they were about ten feet from the pier, just to be safe. You have never seen a truly feral smile on a human until you have seen my mother savor an instant.
“I think not,” she said, and she used a swift, uncompromising gesture to set the surface of the water all around the other boat ablaze. From the screams that followed it was difficult to judge if our pursuers had been fully human or not, but today they would go no farther.
“Ashes to ashes, funk to funky…” I sang to her piously, as I accelerated through the canal that would lead us out to sea. She made a different, gentler motion to suck all the oxygen from the flaming pyre, and the water became blue ocean once again. The silent skeleton hull of the other boat was sinking rapidly, stern first. Mother turned back to me, and the calm relief I saw on her face must have been mirrored on my own. She answered me with another line of lyric.
“ ‘You know Major Tom’s a junkie’,” she quoted. The wind riffled through our hair as we picked up speed. Our itinerary was interrupted and uncertain, now, but that wasn’t always a bad thing provided you lived through the changes. To starboard I could see the lights of the port all along the coastline. Strung out in heaven’s high, indeed.
“Where to?” I asked. “Left at the first star?” Mother snorted.
“We wouldn’t have enough fuel,” she observed dryly. “Instead, I’d say we should try to make it to Seal Beach. I think that’s in our range.”
“Walt’s Wharf?” I asked hopefully. She nodded, and now that we had a destination and a dining spot picked out, I took it as a sign that our day would improve as it wore on.