Grace shakes her father's old canteen with vigor, attempting to free up any droplets that may be circling the bottom.
No such luck.
Accepting defeat, she forces down the parched sensation itself, leaving it to mingle with the acid in her belly. Her rations are long gone, and this wasn't a banner day for fishing.
A piece of her is, she's surprised to realize, happy for those that escaped her net just the same. She knows something about preserving one's liberty at all costs.
Facing eastward, she situates herself along the shoreline, waves lapping her toes, trees swaying in unison on the periphery. It's that hazy hour when light begins to make space for darkness. The sun is retiring, leaving swaths of vivid peaches and corals in its wake, a view that would, under better conditions, fill her with awe.
Here, on this unnamed isle, it's to be expected. She's lost count of how many nights have slipped away in identical fashion, the ocean's bounty shaded by luminous bursts of color, her mind carried off to slumber by the rustling palms.
The flowers, too, speak of beauty, their perfumes bright and intoxicating. Dusk is lovely enough in her native Australia, but this?
This is a page out of Eden's book.
She has no recollection of drifting ashore, only of the vicious gales that somehow delivered her to safety. After thirty-two successful days at sea, the hospitable sky had let loose a torrent of rain, crests overwhelming her craft with little effort.
Grant, her instructor, had warned of this scenario with urgency. "It's not like sticking to charted territory. Those waters will lull you into a false peace before casting you down to Hell. Don't go. You're not ready."
Not only had she dismissed his advice, it strengthened her resolve to seek out the horizon's duality. She made immediate plans to depart from Melbourne. Since toddlerhood, her mother has regarded Grace as the family contrarian, a label that she, now twenty-seven and headstrong as ever, has learned to embrace.
When Grace awoke atop a dry patch of sand, its surface soft as velvet, she was alone. Neither bees nor birds nor another human soul made themselves known to her—not even as she wept, the pretense of stoicism laid to rest.
She wraps her arms around her knees, rocking ever so slightly to dispel the loneliness. Solitude is a more desirable state under one's chosen terms. Nature dictated this arc on her behalf.
Wandering the left limb of the cove, she found a heap of debris that once comprised her catamaran, smashed radio included. Despite her valiant attempts to cobble the bits back together, there was no signal to be had.
At this discovery, panic came home to roost. It was hard not to feel as though the scholars and ancients got it wrong. That she had, perhaps, against every odd, managed to sail clean off Earth's edge.
In hindsight, that was part of the appeal.
Welcoming, jaunty music.
The unexpected sound cuts through the air like a hot blade into butter. She gets to her feet and, brushing off her sunburnt skin, pivots towards the vegetation farther inland.
She listens, ears at attention.
For a moment, silence reclaims the night, and it seems as though she was mistaken.
There it is again. Up-tempo, distant.
A melody so familiar that she can taste its title on the roof of her—
The Charleston. Of course! How many times had Nana selected this very song, swinging her about the tatty summer cottage with abandon?
Prior to the fire, it had been their coastal retreat in a soil-rich existence. Alas, never to be rebuilt.
As is her habit, curiosity overrides caution. She starts to forge a path through the lush landscape, an occasional branch skimming her thighs in the dim. The lack of nourishment is catching up, and she finds herself having to break often.
Maybe a kilometer into the thick of it, she happens upon a narrow clearing. A structure has been erected in the center, slim reeds and rustic planks forming the crude façade of a bar.
A couple of stools are arranged in front of the countertop, the legs made of what looks to be gathered bamboo. The music is streaming from an antique phonograph, jazz a bold contrast to the island's customary stillness.
Its needle, she notes, is unattended by man or beast.
Grace approaches the seat on the right, instinct urging that she's meant to do so. She glances at the wood beneath her fingertips, trailing a pointer across the grain. The pattern resembles a lioness on the prowl, a detail that coaxes a grin out of her.
"Hello there!" says a figure from within the booth, prompting an alarmed Grace to lift her gaze.
In a spot that was vacant just seconds ago stands a woman of indeterminable age. She is tall and dressed in khaki, cropped hair curling around honest features. She wears a smile that conveys multitudes, and Grace is at once comforted by her presence.
"Can I get you a drink? You must be wild with thirst."
Grace struggles to summon her voice. She has an endless series of questions, but what spills forth is simply, "Yes, thanks."
Then, after hesitating, "Is this a mirage?"
The stranger lets out a good-natured laugh. "Don't believe so but can't fault you for thinking it. Been told I'm as authentic as they come. Sturdy stock."
Judging by her accent and cheerful inflection, she's American.
As Grace watches, she retrieves a green bottle from the shelves, pouring a generous amount into a stemmed glass. The liquid, a pale honeycomb by day, appears smoky and shimmering as quartz under the veil of evening.
What it contains is another mystery. Some variety of sweet nectar, she assumes.
Her hostess adds a sliver of grapefruit to the rim, and Grace's stomach responds with a growl at the reminder of food.
"Starved. I haven't eaten in... actually, I'm not certain. It's been a while."
"We can take care of that. Get you squared away. Plenty to go around."
"We?" Grace echoes, confusion washing over her anew. "Are there others? How did you—"
"Several, my girl. You'll meet them in due course. Now drink up!"
Playing at the obedient child she never was, Grace raises the glass to her lips and takes a greedy swig. The beverage is cold and unspeakably refreshing, bathing her throat in relief.
When its contents have been drained, she takes a slow, measured breath, sighing on exhale.
This one she'll savor.
"There was a brutal storm," Grace says, unsure which aspects of her journey are most pertinent. "My boat, the Petite Blue, was—"
"You shouldn't trouble yourself with events gone by. You're in capable hands here, Gracie."
Grace pauses, a wedge of citrus halfway to her mouth. "How could you possibly... I've yet to introduce myself."
She looks around, this time from a place of skepticism rather than wonder. "Where, precisely, are we? My maps didn't survive the trip."
"The joy of setting off on your own," the woman offers, failing to acknowledge the inquiry, "is that no other can lay claim to those precious sights. There's always a ripple or breeze that reaches no one else, a migrating creature that you encounter whilst solo. A sunrise that puts famed works of art to shame, and it's all yours for the taking. For the damn thrill of the thing."
Not for the first time, Grace is rendered mute. It's as if this lady maneuvered a scope within the chambers of her heart and retrieved her most primal longings. She had, in fact, shared a similar sentiment with her mum before heading for open waters.
"You'll get nothing but agreement from me," she declares, grateful to have stumbled upon a kindred spirit. "I gave up everything, just to be certain I could. That I wouldn't quit or run when opportunities presented."
"What constitutes 'everything'? What did you leave behind?"
"In a word? Drudgery."
The farm. Its related businesses. The pressure to marry in haste and produce children who would inherit her landlocked fate. A fine gig for some; a prison for those prone to restlessness or sea-lust.
When stacked up against adventure, navigating swells unique to one's position amongst the stars? The chance to rejoin society with, if fortunate, newfound knowledge?
Grace's decision to sail had been easy as a mild afternoon in May.
"I hear that. Some of us aren't meant to be caged. The more people sought to build a wall around me, the greater my desire to fly above those confines."
Grace nods, her anxieties melting beneath the warmth of understanding. "I apologize for not asking sooner, but what's your name? Seeing as you already guessed mine."
"Amelia," the woman provides, and Grace is struck by how well it suits her.
Somewhere in the recesses of her memory, it seems she already knew as much.
"Pleasure to meet ya, Amelia. Do you know what this locale is called? Has it been officially discovered?"
"Best I can figure, we're somewhere between the Pacific, paradise forgotten, and Heaven's gleaming gate. A long way from my beginnings in Kansas."
Grace nurses her refill, eyes trained on the emerging constellations. Any weakness has vanished, and her nervous energy has gone to ground.
"Not a bad spot to end up," she murmurs, humbled.
"Not in the least. And to address your other question," Ms. Earhart continues, taking a sip of her gilded beverage, "only by the few and the intrepid."
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