Welcome to the July edition of First Monday Free Fiction. To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on every first Monday of the month. It will remain free to read on this blog for one month, then I’ll take it down and post another story.
This month’s free story is Boardwalk Baby, a fantasy novelette set on the Jersey Shore that’s perfect for summer.
There are two things about herself that Izzy has always known with absolute certainty: One, that she was adopted and two, that she has an affinity for the sea. For from her earliest memories on, the ocean has always called out to Izzy. But her adoptive parents thwart her attempts to get closer to the sea at every turn.
When Izzy turns eighteen, she goes in search of her past and her birth family. It’s a quest that will take her to the boardwalk of Ocean City, New Jersey, and to a mysterious fur coat that might hold all the answers to Izzy’s questions.
Izzy had always known two things about herself with absolute certainty: One, that she was adopted and two, that she had an affinity for the sea.
She’d learned about the first from a book her parents, her adoptive parents, had always read to her at bedtime when she was little. The book was called The Greatest Gift. It told the story of a big house, drawn in bright, cheerful colours. Women who were too poor or too sick or just had too many children already could put the babies they couldn’t keep into the mailbox of the house. The women, called “birth mothers” in adoption agency jargon, were rendered in washed-out, grey hues, fading from the page as they faded from the lives of their children. The babies, in the other hand, were little bundles of joy with ruddy cheeks and round smiling faces in pink, a yellowish beige and various shades of brown.
Inside the big house, the babies were taken out of the mailbox by roly-poly jolly teddy bears and put into little beds. There was a long row of little beds with babies of all shapes, colours and sizes, cared for by the roly-poly jolly teddy bears and kept behind glass, as if they were dolls in the display windows of Macy’s at Christmas time.
Then a couple came to the house, a couple who were so very sad, because they would love to have children, but couldn’t have any. The jolly teddy bears asked them in and took them to the big room with the long row of little beds behind glass. And the couple walked along the display windows like shoppers walked past Macy’s at Christmas time. Finally, they picked the perfect baby from the many, many babies in the long row of little beds. And then the couple went home with the perfect baby and they all lived happily ever after. The end.
Over the years, Izzy had come to hate that book. Oh, it was all right at first. After all, it was a bedtime story and all kids loved bedtime stories, didn’t they? But when her parents kept reading that stupid book to her again and again — never Grimm’s Fairy Tales or Hans Christian Andersen’s Fairy Tales or Where the Wild Things Are or Pippi Longstocking or Horton Hears a Who! or The Rainbow Fish, but always that same bloody book — Izzy had gradually come to hate it. For who wanted to hear the same stupid bedtime story over and over again every single night? Even if, so her parents had insisted, it was Izzy’s own story.
Years later, Izzy had learned that her parents had been given the book by the adoption agency to take home and read to their perfect child to accustom the child to the idea that he or she was adopted. She’d also learned that there were different versions of the book, featuring different coloured parents and babies.
The book was one of the reasons why Izzy hated the adoption agency. Because they honestly thought that such a stupid, silly picture book was all the explanation an adopted kid would ever need or want.
Izzy had learned about her affinity for the sea when she was four and her parents took her on a holiday to the Jersey Shore. She already knew she was adopted by then or at least she’d already had that stupid book read to her every single night.
It was the first real holiday Izzy had with her parents or at least the first she could remember with any clarity. She remembered the tacky little beachside motel with its tacky neon sign. She remembered the endless white beach and how the sand had squished between her little baby toes.
But most of all, she remembered the sea. She remembered the colours, all blues and greens, crowned with tufts of white foam. She remembered the smell, all salty and briny. And she remembered the sounds, the waves crashing onto the beach, the cries of the seagulls, the sound of the north-easterly winds blowing in from the sea and rattling the walls of the little clapboard motel.
Every night, when her parents were asleep, Izzy had stood by the window of their room in the little clapboard motel, listening to the roaring of the waves and watching the moon rise over the sea. And as she stood by the window, the sea seemed to call out to her like the song that the sirens of old had once sung to entrap unwary sailors.
Actually getting to the sea was a lot harder than Izzy would have thought. For even though the little motel stood directly by the sea, her parents still wouldn’t take her there. The sea was unsafe, they said. And Izzy’s parents were all about safety.
So they took her to the pool of the motel every day. The pool was a perfect turquoise rectangle, the water was perfectly smooth and the chlorine made Izzy’s eyes sting and her nose itch.
It wasn’t that the pool was bad. On the contrary, Izzy had lots of fun paddling around in the motel pool all day, trying to ditch the stupid water wings her parents had foisted on her (more safety concerns). But compared to the ocean that was roaring just beyond the clapboard walls of the little motel, the pool might just as well have been the bathtub at home.
But then, when the holiday was almost over, Izzy got her chance to swim in the ocean after all. She’d been walking along the beach, the long white beach, with Mom and Dad, securely held between them, Dad on her left side and Mom on her right. And all the while, the waves were crashing onto the beach, so close and yet so far away.
In the end, it was a seagull that came to her aid. A seagull that shat right on Mom’s head with an aim as true as any sniper’s, messing up Mom’s perfectly permed curls (blonde rather than auburn like Izzy’s). Mom screamed and Dad frantically tried to wipe off the seagull shit. For a few moments, they were both so occupied with themselves that they let go off Izzy’s hand in the process.
That was her chance. And Izzy grabbed it. She took off, as fast as her little pudgy baby legs would carry her, and ran towards the sea.
A wave crashed against her, nearly knocking her off her feet. But Izzy stood firm. She enjoyed the prickling of the fresh seawater on her skin, the sensation of the sand washing away beneath her feet, the feeling of the sea spray on her face and the salt in her hair. She laughed and whooped with joy, as happy as never before in her short life.
That moment of utter perfection lasted for a second at most, then the wave rolled back and the water withdrew. For a moment, Izzy was stunned. Then she ran after the retreating wave, right into the ocean. And then the water came back, higher than before, bubbling right up to her face and tickling in her nose. And it was bliss, pure bliss.
Her parents later claimed that she almost drowned that day. They said that Izzy tore herself loose (no mention of the seagull, of course, cause getting shat upon by a seagull was too embarrassing), ran into the water and almost drowned, would’ve drowned, if a lifeguard hadn’t pulled her out, all pale and blue.
But that was not how Izzy remembered it. In her memories, the water buoyed her up, until she was shooting through the waves, swimming like she’d been born to it. And the water she’d inhaled didn’t harm her at all. On the contrary, it was like oxygen to her lungs, like fresh sea air, salty and delicious.
Of course, no one believed Izzy’s version of the story. She’d been only four, after all, so it was no surprise that she was misremembering a traumatic event, the therapist to whom Mom and Dad dragged her said. And then he said something about how Izzy was transforming a traumatic event into a positive experience in her mind and how it was a coping mechanism. He also said a lot of other things, but Izzy didn’t listen. That therapist was an idiot anyway.
Nonetheless, that was the last Izzy got to see of the ocean or indeed of any body of water deeper than a bath tub for several years. Because her parents said that Izzy couldn’t be trusted around water. She wasn’t sensible like them, not concerned about safety like them. She was wild and strange and other.
But even though she saw little of water and even less of the sea, Izzy nonetheless developed a taste for all things maritime. For starters, she developed a liking for fish and seafood and not just for fish fingers either, those bland breaded slabs of tasteless mediocrity. No, Izzy liked any sort of seafood, shrimps, clams, scallops, crabmeat, tuna, salmon, smoked and raw, sushi, even the dreaded anchovies. The saltier and fishier and weirder it tasted to her parents’ palates, the better it tasted to Izzy.
When she was twelve, a Vietnamese-American classmate introduced her to fish sauce. Izzy was in heaven. For here was the taste of the entire ocean, distilled into one little bottle. So she begged and asked and cajoled her Mom if they could buy some fish sauce for themselves.
Mom and Dad were unadventurous about eating. They inevitably bought the same brands, same foods and ordered the same dishes as they always had. And they were equally disturbed and bemused by Izzy’s insistence on trying new things all the time.
So of course, Mom didn’t want to buy fish sauce. After all, she’d never had it before and didn’t know what it was. And besides fish sauce — said with a curled lip — sounded kind of disgusting, didn’t it? For of course, Izzy’s parents didn’t like fish, unless it was breaded and fried within an inch of its life.
But eventually Izzy prevailed and Mom gave in and bought a bottle of fish sauce. And it was oh so wonderful. Izzy drizzled the stuff on everything, using fish sauce the way other kids used ketchup. Because fish sauce made everything taste better, made everything taste of the sea.
Sometimes at night, Izzy would get up, sneak into the kitchen, open the fridge, drizzle some fish sauce onto a teaspoon and put it into her mouth. And as she savoured the salty, briny liquid dissolving on her tongue, she suddenly felt as if she was four years old again, swimming in the ocean for the very first time.
But then one day, as she opened the fridge, the bottle, the familiar bottle with the red cap, was gone. Izzy looked everywhere and checked if she had accidentally misplaced it, but the bottle was nowhere to be found.
“Mom, where’s the fish sauce?” she asked.
“The fish sauce, Mom. Where is it?”
“Oh that,” Mom said, while she was making a sandwich of fluffy snow-white bread for Dad, “I threw it out.”
Mom patted her on the head in that annoyingly patronising way of hers. “It had gone off, dear.”
“It tasted fine.”
“It smelled like rancid fish,” Mom said, “That means it’s gone bad. Besides…” She swirled around, floral dress flying. “…none of us actually liked the stuff.”
“I did,” Izzy said, sniffling, “I liked it. It tasted like the sea.”
Mom crooked her head and gave her a thoughtful glance. “We should really get you checked out for iodine deficiency some time. This salt and seafood obsession of yours can’t be normal.”
The test results were negative, of course. Izzy didn’t have any thyroid problems and wasn’t suffering from iodine deficiency. Though growing teenagers occasionally needed more iodine than normal, the doctor said. Or maybe the seafood cravings were due to an iron or B12 deficiency. Both were possible. So Izzy was poked and prodded and finally prescribed supplement pills. She even took them, if only to keep Mom and Dad happy.
But the pills didn’t help. For Izzy wasn’t craving iodine or iron or vitamin B12. She was craving the sea.
At around the same time that Izzy discovered the fish sauce, she was also finally allowed to swim again. It was Mr. Borosov, her middle school sports teacher, who did it.
“I don’t care if the girl has phobias, because she almost drowned when she was little,” he said to her parents in his buzzing Russian accent, “Phobias are there to be overcome. And the girl must learn how to swim. Then she will never almost drown again.”
So Izzy was finally allowed to formally learn swimming. And she took to it like a fish took to water.
“Are you sure you have a phobia, girl?” Mr. Borosov asked, frowning at the stop watch in his hand.
Izzy shook her head, enjoying the way droplets of water flew from her wet curls. “My parents are the ones with the phobia, not me.”
Mr. Borosov promptly declared Izzy a natural at swimming and his glowing praise — a rare thing for Mr. Borosov, who never praised anybody, if he didn’t have to — persuaded Izzy’s parents that she was responsible and grown up now and wasn’t going to drown anytime soon.
So Izzy was finally allowed to swim. After a while, she was even allowed to swim without supervision, once her parents were convinced that she was really, really not going to drown.
In high school, Izzy even made the swim team. This time around, her parents barely objected. After all, extracurricular activities and sports would look good on her college application.
Once again the swim coach, Mr. Whitelaw, declared Izzy a natural. “You swim like a seal,” he said in his high nasal voice.
Izzy took part in competitions on the local and state level and even won a few. Her parents were proud of her for once and even displayed the trophies and medals she won.
But as much as Izzy enjoyed swimming, she was only too aware that the chlorinated pools were only a pale substitute for the real thing, the sea. Cause nothing could ever compare to swimming in the sea.
Alas, seaside trips were still out, because Mom decided that sea air made her asthma act up. And so the closest Izzy ever got to swimming in the sea again was the saltwater lagoon at a stupid water park.
But through it all, she never forgot the sea, never forgot the way it had called to her in that long ago summer by the Jersey Shore.
In high school, Izzy also finally met someone else who was adopted. Her name was Amy and she was something of a sensation in the ordered suburban world of Herbert Hoover High School. Because Amy was not just adopted, she also had two dads. And though most of the kids at school knew about Heather and her two mommies, a girl with two dads was something new.
Izzy and Amy quickly became friends. They were both on the swim team, after all, not to mention both adopted. Though they never talked about that, until that one night Izzy was staying at Amy’s and her dads’ for a sleepover.
“Does it ever bother you?” Izzy asked that night, while she and Amy were eating a pizza, “Being adopted, I mean?”
Amy considered for a long moment. “A bit,” she finally admitted, “I mean, Dad and Pa are great, but…”
“You’d like to know where you come from, who your birth parents are,” Izzy completed. She took a bite of pizza, savouring the briny taste of anchovies and capers.
Amy nodded emphatically. “I’d like to know what they look like and if I look like them, just a little bit.”
She bit into her own pizza slice, mushroom and pepperoni and no anchovies.
“I mean, it’s easier for you, cause you look like your parents, at least sort of…”
Izzy shook her head. “Not really.”
“But Pa, Dad and I must be the only family in America where everybody is of a different race,” Amy said, “And that’s just weird. Even weirder than having two dads.”
“Did your dads also read you that stupid book The Greatest Gift?” Izzy wanted to know.
Amy shook her head. “I guess they didn’t have a same sex version.”
“Do you know anything about your birth family?” Izzy asked, munching on her pizza, “Anything at all?”
“I know that I was born in the Sichuan province in China…” Amy said, her voice dreamy and far away, “…and that I was found by the gate of an orphanage in a small village at the foot of the Hengduan Mountains. Pa and Dad said that when I finish high school, they’ll take me there to see it all for myself.”
“I know nothing about my birth family and where I was born,” Izzy said, surprised at her own sadness, “Only that I’m from the seaside.”
“Did your parents tell you that?” Amy wanted to know.
Izzy shook her head. “I just know.”
Ever since that night she’d spent at Amy’s, Izzy became obsessed with the idea of learning more about her parents, her true parents.
“Mom, Dad…” she blurted out one night at the dinner table, while they were having cheesy chicken casserole, “…what do you know about my parents, my birth parents I mean?”
Mom and Dad exchanged a significant glance.
“Why are you asking, dear?” Mom said, very carefully, “You were never interested in any of that before.”
“Well, I am interested now. I want to know where I come from.”
Her parents exchanged another glance.
“The agency told us this day might come…” Dad said, while Mom reached for his hand.
“Amy’s dads told her that she’s from Sichuan in China, from the something or other mountains. And after graduation, they’re going to take her there for a visit.” Izzy shoved a spoon full of cheesy chicken casserole into her mouth. “So what about me? Where am I from? And can we go visit?”
Mom and Dad exchanged yet another glance.
“We don’t know, dear,” Dad said.
“You don’t know if we can visit? But if Amy and her dads can go to China, then surely we can visit wherever I’m from.”
“No, we don’t know where you’re from,” Mom corrected.
“You don’t know?” Tears and snot were rising in her throat. Izzy did the best to fight them down. “The agency didn’t tell you?”
Dad shook his head.
“But they must know something.” Izzy brought her hand down hard on the table, setting the crockery ashudder. “I mean, it’s not as if they really collect babies in mailboxes like in that stupid book. So why didn’t they tell you?”
Mom reached out and took Izzy’s hand, patting it like one would a puppy dog.
“We didn’t want to know,” she said, “We wanted you to be our baby, not somebody else’s.”
“But that’s what I am,” Izzy said, “I’m somebody else’s child as well as yours. And I want to know where I come from, who I really am.”
Mom squeezed her hand. “You’re our baby…” she said, “…and that’s all that matters.”
Izzy shook her head. “No, it’s not.” She pulled back. “It’s not that I don’t love you.” Izzy jumped to her feet. “But I still want to know where I come from. I want to know why I’m a good swimmer, while you’re not. Why I like fish, when you don’t. Why I’ve always felt drawn to the sea.”
Izzy brought down her foot, even though she knew it made her look like a toddler throwing a tantrum. “I just want to know.”
“We understand, dear,” Dad said, though Izzy could tell from the look in his eyes that he didn’t, not really, “But we really don’t know.”
“What about the agency then?” Izzy found that all the yelling had made her throat dry and took a gulp of cola. “Surely they must know something. And they must tell me.”
“You’ll be able to access your records…” Mom began.
“…when you turn eighteen,” Dad completed.
Eighteen. That was more than two years away.
“Why then? Why not now?”
“It’s the law, dear,” Mom said, “The law says that adopted children can access their records when they turn eighteen.”
“But surely you could ask to see the files,” Izzy said, “The agency might not show them to me, but they’ll show them to you.”
“I don’t know if they will, dear,” Dad said, “After all, there are privacy issues…”
“But what if it was an emergency — like — if I was ill or something and needed blood or bone marrow or a kidney or something from a biological relative. Surely then they’d open the records.”
“But you’re not ill, dear,” Mom said.
“No, but it means there are ways around all this privacy bullshit.”
“Language, dear, language,” Mom said.
It was that more than anything else what set Izzy off. Because as she saw her parents sitting there at their perfect Early American dinner table, the perfect cheesy chicken casserole growing cold between them, upset about bad words, because what would the neighbours think, Izzy suddenly realised that she had nothing in common with them and never would. Her parents had wanted the perfect child to complete their perfect lives. Instead they got Izzy who was anything but perfect.
“Don’t interrupt me and don’t lecture me about bad language,” she yelled, so loud that she was sure the Wanamakers next door could hear her. She imagined the horrified looks on their faces and the mental image was very satisfying indeed.
“I’ll fucking talk like a I want to talk. And don’t think I don’t know why you’re suddenly so fucking concerned about how I talk. It’s because you’re derailing. Because you don’t want to talk about what really matters.”
Izzy looked from Mom to Dad and back again, taking in the expression of pure shock on their faces, and found it good. Because it meant they were listening. And maybe, just maybe they’d even get so upset that they’d send her back to the agency. Then they’d have to show her the files.
“You don’t want me to know where I come from. You don’t want me to know who my parents, my real parents are.”
“But we’re your real parents,” Mom said, her voice choked with tears.
“And you’ll always be,” Izzy said, her resolve faltering, “But I still want to see those files.”
“And you can…” Dad said in his stern head-of-the-house voice, that he’d last employed when he had forbidden Izzy to go swimming in the neighbourhood pool back in sixth grade, “…when you’re eighteen.”
“And why not now? Why won’t you help me?”
“Because it wouldn’t be good for you, dear,” Mom said, her voice almost pleading, “The agency said so…”
“Oh, the agency said so. The same agency who thought it was a good idea to read that stupid book about roly-poly teddy bears and babies in mailboxes and display windows to me every night? What the fuck do they know?”
“You don’t know what sort of people your birth parents are,” Dad said.
“You’re right. I don’t. And whose fault is that?”
“They might be drug addicts, mentally ill, in prison even,” Mom said, “You’d only be disappointed.”
“Do you think I don’t know that? I’m not stupid. I know that the people who give up their children for adoption usually aren’t prime parent material. But I still want to know.”
“When you’re eighteen,” Dad said, dialling up his stern voice another notch, “And now apologise to your mother or you can go to bed without dinner.”
“Fine,” Izzy said, “Cause I fucking hate cheesy chicken casserole anyway.”
Two years went by, but Mom and Dad remained adamant. Izzy could access her adoption files when she turned eighteen, but not one day before.
Secretly, her parents hoped that she’d forget, that once she turned eighteen and graduated, she just wouldn’t care anymore. But Izzy never forgot. And with every week, every month that passed, the desire to know where she came from became stronger.
She won more medals and competitions with the swim team and even got a scholarship to a good college. And Mom and Dad were proud, of course they were, because Izzy was finally playing the perfect daughter they’d always wanted.
But in private, she made plans. Plans about how she’d head for the adoption agency immediately after graduation, how she’d request her files and then visit the place she came from, the place where she’d been born.
Her best friend Amy was making plans, too, plans about going to China with her dads. She kept showing photos of Sichuan and the Hengduan Mountains to Izzy, chattering about how beautiful everything looked and how excited she was that she would finally get to see it all for herself.
Of course, Izzy also shared her own plan about paying a visit to the Child of Hope Adoption Agency in Trenton, New Jersey, with Amy, but it wasn’t quite the same. And wasn’t it typical that Amy got to be from someplace cool like the Hengduan Mountains in Sichuan, China, while all Izzy got was Trenton in fucking New Jersey?
That summer, Izzy got her first kiss, courtesy of a boy named Daniel who was bound for Duke, as he kept telling everybody who’d listen. She graduated with honours, smiled for photos with Mom and Dad and then, at the graduation after-party, she went skinny-dipping in the lake. Most of the other kids quickly left, shivering, because the water was so cold. But not Izzy. She enjoyed the coolness and even went diving down into the murky depths of the lake, where the skeletons of old shopping carts rusted away. It wasn’t the sea, but it was close.
In the early hours of the very next morning, when her hair was still slightly damp from the nightly swim in the lake, Izzy mounted the bus to Trenton. Mom and Dad were there to hug her and wave her good-bye and ask her, if she was really, really sure. Mom even cried a little, but none of that could dissuade Izzy. She was finally going to find out where she came from.
The offices of the Child of Hope Adoption Agency were located in a restored Victorian brownstone. The place looked friendly and light and not at all like the big house with the roly-poly teddy bears and babies kept behind glass from that stupid children’s book. They did have a mailbox, but it was way to small to put a baby in.
An almost pathologically cheery receptionist greeted her. “Hi! How can we help you today?”
“My name is Isabel Hunter,” Izzy said, “I’m here to view my files.”
“Of course, Ms. Hunter. If you’d like to proceed to the waiting room. One of our case workers will be right with you.”
The waiting room was full of hopeful couples who all eyed Izzy like a pride of hungry lions would eye a gazelle.
“Relax,” Izzy said, when their hungry stares became too much for her, “I’ve got nothing to sell. I’m the merchandise. Or rather I was, eighteen years ago.”
In a corner, there was a bookshelf, full of different editions of The Greatest Gift, featuring couples and babies in different combinations of genders and races. Izzy flipped through a few of them out of idle curiosity. They didn’t have one with two dads or two moms, she noticed. Apparently, progressiveness still had its limits here at Child of Hope.
Eventually, Izzy was called into the office of the case worker, a briskly efficient woman named Mrs. Pickwick. She was middle-aged, made-up within an inch of her life and dressed in a pink suit that clashed horribly with her fire-red dye job.
“Ms. Hunter,” she began, scrutinising Izzy over the rim of her gold-rimmed glasses, “I understand you’re here to view your files.”
Izzy nodded. “Yes, ma’am.” Because Mrs. Pickwick was simply the sort of woman you called ma’am.
“You do realise, Ms. Hunter, that you might be in for a disappointment. Whatever perfect family you might have envisioned for yourself, that’s not what you’re likely to find.”
Izzy nodded. After all, she already had the perfect family and that hadn’t worked out too well. “That’s okay. I understand.”
“Women who give up their babies for adoption rarely live in happy circumstances,” Mrs. Pickwick said, “Putting up a child for adoption is a hard choice, but it’s often the best one. That’s why our service is so important to parents, birth mothers and of course our children of hope…”
“There’s no need for the sales pitch,” Izzy interrupted, “I was one of your children of hope, remember?”
Mrs. Pickwick blinked. Apparently she wasn’t used to being interrupted in the middle of her sales pitch.
“I just wanted to make sure that you’ve thought about this, that you are aware of the consequences,” she said.
“Believe me, I’ve thought about this for two years,” Izzy said, “So yes, I am sure.”
“All right then.” Mrs. Pickwick opened a file on her desk, flipped through the contents and frowned. “Oh. This is… unusual.”
“Is that my file?” Izzy wanted to know, so bouncy with anticipation that she could barely keep in her seat, “What does it say?”
“Yes, this is your file, but…” Mrs. Pickwick shot Izzy a look that was full of pity. “…I’m pretty sure this is not what you want to hear.”
“Why? Is my mother… my birth mother…” she corrected herself, “…dead? Is she in prison?”
“Like I said, this isn’t what you want to hear…” Mrs. Pickwick began.
“I want to hear it,” Izzy insisted and it took all her self-control not to reach across the desk and snatch the file out of Mrs. Pickwick’s hands, “Whatever it is, I can take it.”
After all, how bad could it be? Drugs, probably. Maybe prison? A life-threatening inheritable disease? Death? Incest?
“Please, Mrs. Pickwick. I’ve waited for this moment for years. I just want to know where I come from.”
“I’m sorry, Ms. Hunter,” Mrs. Pickwick stammered, “But we do not have any information about your birth mother.”
“Nothing?” Without noticing, Izzy rose from the visitor chair and leant over the desk, trying to catch just a glimpse of the file. “But you’ve got to know something. I mean, it’s not as if people really dump off babies in the mailbox here.”
Mrs. Pickwick looked up from the file. She’d put on her compassionate face, Izzy noticed, the face she probably wore when meeting with potential clients.
“You’re a foundling, Ms. Hunter,” she said.
“A… what?” Izzy exclaimed. So far she’d only seen the word in the context of those regency romances Mom sometimes read, where foundlings regularly turned out to be wealthy heiresses and marry even wealthier dukes.
“You were abandoned on the boardwalk in Ocean City, where a patrolman found you,” Mrs. Pickwick said, the compassion in her voice dialled up to eleven, “The police failed to locate your mother and no one ever came forwards, so you were eventually put up for adoption. There’s an article from the Ocean City Sentinel in the file.”
Mrs. Pickwick handed Izzy a newspaper clipping, yellowed with age. The article was dated July 17, 1996, the day after Izzy’s birthday.
A newborn baby girl, only a few hours old, the article said, was found on a bench on the boardwalk, right across from the fudge and salt water taffy shop, in the early hours of the morning. The baby girl was found wrapped in a fur coat and perfectly healthy. The police was urgently seeking witnesses.
There was a photo of the fur coat, too, though it was so blurry that Izzy could barely make it out. Or maybe that was just the tears — stupid, silly tears, salty like the sea — rising in her eyes.
“I’m sorry, Ms. Hunter,” Mrs. Pickwick said, “I did try to warn you.”
Izzy took the next bus to Ocean City. What else could she do? Ocean City was where the trail led, so Ocean City was where she’d go.
She’d talk to the police there, she decided. Maybe they could help her. Maybe they knew more than what was in that yellowing newspaper article.
On the bus, she got a text from Amy, who was at LAX with her dads, waiting to board the plane that would take them to Beijing.
“How r things on ur end?” Amy wrote.
“Heading for Ocean City, NJ,” Izzy wrote back, “BTW I was right. I am from the sea.”
Well, not from the sea exactly. From the boardwalk. Still, Izzy figured that was close enough.
Ocean City, so the map app on her phone told her, was not far from Avalon, the town where Izzy and her parents had spent that fateful holiday by the Jersey Shore, back when she was four. Coincidence? Or had her parents known something after all?
The bus stopped at Ocean City Tenth Street Station. Izzy hopped off and went on the boardwalk. It was only logical — after all, that was where she’d been found, opposite a fudge and salt water taffy store.
Alas, it turned out that the boardwalk was more than two miles long and had several shops selling fudge and salt water taffy. Izzy stopped at every single one of them — even though she’d figured out she didn’t care about salt water taffy at all after the first — to ask about a baby abandoned opposite their shop eighteen years before. Alas, the sales clerks were mostly teens her own age or younger, for whom eighteen years ago might just as well have been during the Pleistocene.
But apart from the surfeit of salt water taffy shops with unhelpful sales clerks, Izzy really enjoyed the boardwalk. She loved the way her feet echoed on the wooden planks. She loved the sounds, the jingles of the amusement arcades, the shouts of the barkers, the clatter of the mini-golf courses, the music spilling out of shops and cafés, the hydraulic rattling of the thrill rides on Wonderland Pier, the cries of the seagulls and above all the roaring of the sea. She loved the smells, fries and fish and caramel and candy all intermingling in the salty sea air. She loved feeling of the sun on her skin, the wind in her hair, the sea spray on her face.
It was as if part of her had always known this place, even though she’d never been here before. It felt like coming home and in a way that’s what it was. Coming home.
The shops and stalls and cafés along the boardwalk offered all sorts of maritime delicacies and Izzy tried them all. She had fried fish and crabcakes and clam chowder and fried shrimp and spicy Dungeness crab and a whole bucket full of steamed mussels. All the salty, briny riches of the ocean were finally hers to eat and no Mom and Dad were there to stop her.
In the end, she bought herself an ice cream cone for dessert and set down on one of the benches along the boardwalk — so many benches — to look out across the sea. She watched the waves crashing onto the beach, watched the little children chasing the ocean under the watchful eyes of their parents. And as she watched, she felt the sea calling out to her, calling her to step into its wet embrace.
She’d go swimming, Izzy decided, right here in the ocean. What was worst that could happen? She wasn’t going to drown this time. After all, she was the North Eastern regional junior swimming champion. She had a medal that said so.
But first things first. And so Izzy reluctantly turned her back on the ocean and went in search of the local police station.
Ocean City police department was headquartered in a squarish brick building just off the boardwalk that looked solid and reassuring.
Izzy told the desk sergeant who she was and what she wanted and was told to sit down in the waiting area among tourists who’d been robbed by pickpockets and a crying couple who had lost their wayward toddler on the boardwalk. A police woman quickly appeared to take the crying couple away, then the tourists were called in one by one, until there was just Izzy, perched on an aged plastic chair and waiting.
She checked her watch and wondered about Amy, who had to be somewhere high above the Pacific at this very moment. She decided to send Amy another text, though she knew that Amy wouldn’t be able to access her messages, let alone answer for several hours yet.
“I’m a foundling, too, just like u,” she texted, “Gonna talk to police, find out more.”
Finally, Izzy was called in to see Lieutenant Kennedy, a man in his forties with kind eyes and faded reddish hair.
He squinted at Izzy and smiled.
“So you’re the boardwalk baby,” he said and held out his hand, “I was the one who found you, you know? I’ve always wondered what became of you.”
He bade Izzy to sit down and even offered her coffee, strong and dark and solid just like the whole police station.
“I was still a patrolman back then,” he said, “I had the early bird shift, patrolling the boardwalk and chasing away the bums and the drunks and the homeless before the tourists came. I didn’t find many of those — they’d learned to avoid me.”
He took a sip of his own coffee, lost in reminiscence.
“Then, on the bench right across from Pete’s Fudge and Salt Water Taffy…”
Izzy quickly scribbled the name down, so she wouldn’t forget.
“…I saw something grey and furry. At first I thought it was a dog – we’d been having problems with feral dogs for a while. But as I approached, I heard a quiet mewling and so I thought, ‘It’s a cat. A very big cat.’ But once I reached the bench, I saw that it was a little baby, entirely naked and wrapped only in a fur coat. And that’s how I found you.”
“What happened then?” Izzy wanted to know.
“I picked you up and took you to Shore Memorial. You were such a sweet little thing back then, so tiny. And those big dark eyes…”
He looked directly at Izzy. “You’ve still got them, those big sad dark eyes, you know? Anyway, the doctors said you were perfectly healthy, so child protection services got involved and found a foster family for you. I lost sight of you then, though I heard you were eventually adopted.”
Izzy nodded. “That’s right.” She paused. “Did I have a name? Or did you just call me ‘Jane Doe’ or something?”
“Eloisa,” Lieutenant Kennedy said with a smile, “We named you Eloisa after a dancer who was performing at the Music Pier back then. She could make the most amazing contortions…”
“Eloisa,” Izzy repeated, savouring every syllable. Eloisa. It sounded wild, exotic, adventurous. Like the name of a pirate queen. She’d use it as her middle name, Izzy decided, just like Amy sometimes referred to herself as Amy Mei Lin Chadwick.
“I guess your parents didn’t keep the name,” Lieutenant Kennedy said.
Izzy shook her head. “They called me Isabel, after Mom’s mom.”
“That’s a nice and sensible name,” Lieutenant Kennedy said kindly, “Probably better than Eloisa.”
That, Izzy thought, was a matter of opinion. She leant forwards. “Do you know anything about my birth parents? Anything at all?”
Lieutenant Kennedy shook his head. “We investigated and searched for witnesses, but without success. And back in the 1990s, we didn’t have CCTV cameras on the boardwalk, so no luck there either.”
He paused and looked straight at Izzy with his kindly eyes.
“During the season, the town is full of vacationers, daytrippers and other transients. People who are here one day and gone the next. We always suspected that your mother must’ve been one of them. For a while we hoped she’d come forward herself, but she never did.” He shook his head. “Sorry, kid.”
“And there was nothing else?” Izzy probed, “No note, no piece of paper, no toy, no locket, no clue at all?”
Lieutenant Kennedy shook his head. “Just the fur coat,” he said, “I always found that weird, a fur coat in July. I guess your mother wanted you to be warm.”
“Did you ever try to trace the coat?”
“We did, but again it was to no avail. The coat didn’t have a label for starters. It was of good quality, handmade, but likely not in the US. We had a lot of Russians back then, so maybe that’s where the coat and you came from.”
“What happened to the coat?” Izzy wanted to know.
“Still in evidence, as far as I know.” Lieutenant Kennedy shrugged. “I haven’t thought of it in years.”
“Could… could I see it?”
“Well, it’s theoretically against the rules, but… — Oh, what the heck? It’s not as if we have much of a chance of solving this case anyway after eighteen years. Just wait her and I’ll be right back.”
So Izzy waited and studied the family photos on Lieutenant Kennedy’s desk, while she was at it. She saw another perfect family. Mom, Dad and two boys, smiling for the camera, happy as clams.
After a few minutes, Lieutenant Kennedy returned, bearing a cardboard box with a case number and the word “open” scrawled on the side, just like in the cop shows on TV. He opened the box and withdrew a slightly battered folder.
“Here,” he said and pushed the folder towards Izzy, “There’s a photo of you in here as you looked, when I found you.”
The photo was affixed to the folder with a paperclip that had gone rusty in the past eighteen years. It was an old-fashioned Polaroid, similar to the ones Izzy had seen of herself as a toddler under the family Christmas tree. The baby in the photo was staring in the camera with huge, dark eyes. She looked frightened and who wouldn’t be, in a foreign place surrounded by strangers? Izzy tried to recognise herself in the photo, but she couldn’t. It was just a faded Polaroid of a terrified baby that could’ve been anyone.
Izzy pushed the folder back to Lieutenant Kennedy. “Could I see the coat now?”
Lieutenant Kennedy handed her the open box. And there it was, the coat. It was a silvery grey, beautiful and luxurious. Izzy let her hand run over the soft fur and received a little jolt. She longed to put the coat on, to let it enfold her in its soft embrace like it had on that fateful night eighteen years ago.
“Do you know what fur it is?” she asked, still stroking the coat.
“My first guess was silver fox,” Lieutenant Kennedy said, “But the forensics people said it’s seal. This is also why we suspected that it’s either old or foreign, because seal fur hasn’t been politically correct since the eighties at least.”
The urge to put on the coat became ever stronger. Izzy wanted to grab it, put it on and run, run for the boardwalk and the sea beyond. It took all of her willpower to resist. After all, Lieutenant Kennedy had been so nice to her and Izzy really didn’t want to get him into trouble.
“Could… could I have the coat, please?” she asked, “After all, it’s the only thing I have of my mother.”
Lieutenant Kennedy gave her a long look. “I could really get in trouble for this…” he said, “…but why the heck not? We’re likely not going to solve this case after all these years, the statute of limitation has probably long since run out and things get lost in storage all the time. Besides, you are the legal owner of the coat.” He winked at her. “Just don’t tell anybody, okay.”
“I won’t,” Izzy promised.
Lieutenant Kennedy went to fetch another cardboard box, identical to the first except for the case number on the side, and transferred the coat from one box to the other, carefully folding it up.
“Here you are,” he said and handed her the box.
Izzy spontaneously hugged him. “Thank you, Lieutenant. Thank you for everything.”
Izzy returned to the boardwalk, the box under her arm. People gave her curious looks, but she ignored them.
She found Pete’s Fudge and Salt Water Taffy and sat down on a bench right across from the shop. She still had no way of knowing whether this was really the right bench, but it was pretty likely.
Carefully, she put down the box next to her and checked her mobile, but there was still no message from Amy. Still in the air, probably.
“Sitting on bench where I was found as a baby,” she texted, “Got my mom’s fur coat.”
She opened the box just a little bit and let her fingers trail across the soft, silvery fur. And once again, she received a tiny electrical jolt.
Behind her, the sun was setting and Izzy realised with a pang of sadness that it was probably too late to go swimming now. She should get up and find herself a motel for the night, like she’d promised Mom and Dad she would.
And talking of Mom and Dad, she should really call them like she promised she would. But the moment was so perfect that Izzy just stayed on her bench, looking out across the churning ocean.
A wind was blowing in from the sea, and though the day had been warm, it carried a bit of chill. Gooseflesh prickled on her bare arms. She’d put on the coat, Izzy decided, and to hell with what people thought. After all, it was her birthright.
The coat wrapped around her like a second skin, soft and warm and perfect. And though people promenading along the boardwalk gave her strange looks, Izzy neither noticed nor cared. Because her eyes, big and dark as on the day she’d been found on this very bench, were focussed on the sea and the sea alone.
The ocean was calling out to her again, singing a siren song only Izzy could hear. It was just like that perfect summer’s day on the beach back when she was four and the sea had called to her, called for her to come home. But the lure was much stronger now.
Without really noticing, Izzy rose to her feet. Just in front of her, a staircase led from the boardwalk down to the beach. Izzy walked down those stairs, steadily descending towards the beach and the sea beyond. Her mobile beeped, announcing a message, but Izzy ignored it.
She paused briefly to take off her trainers, then she stepped onto the beach, enjoying the way the sand crunched between her toes.
“Hey, chica, what’s with the coat?” a boy called out, but Izzy didn’t even hear him. All her senses were focussed on the sea.
She walked steadily towards the ocean as if drawn by an invisible magnet. Soon the saltwater swept across her bare feet, while the sea foam soaked the hem of her coat. And still Izzy walked on, further and further into the sea. Her mobile beeped once more and gave up the ghost.
The water was already up to her waist, when she heard someone shouting behind her, “Hey, you there in the fur coat. Come back!”
Izzy turned around and saw a lifeguard jumping up and down on the beach, gesticulating with his lifebuoy. Izzy smiled. Either lifeguards had gotten a lot slower in the past fourteen years or Izzy no longer looked as if she was in immediate danger of drowning.
“It’s okay,” she called back to the lifeguard, “I can swim.”
“You’re going to drown, you stupid bitch”, the lifeguard yelled, “The coat will soak itself full of water and drag you down.”
Izzy shook her head. “No, it won’t.” She smiled. “It’s okay, really.”
She threw herself forward into the waves. And like the lifeguard had said, the fur soaked up the water and became heavier and heavier, dragging her down. The wet coat fused itself to her body until Izzy couldn’t have taken it off, even if she’d wanted to.
But she didn’t drown. Instead, she swam, shooting through the water as if she was born to it. And the water she swallowed didn’t harm her. Instead, she found she could breathe it, breathe it as easily as air.
Behind her, the lifeguard jumped into the water with a curse and set off after her, but Izzy easily outswam him. Because she was faster and more agile than any mere human could be.
Part of her was vaguely aware that they’d say she’d drowned herself, overcome with grief at not finding her birth family. Mom and Dad and Amy and all her friends at school would be devastated. But they’d all be wrong. For Izzy wasn’t overcome with grief. She was happy, as happy as she’d ever been.
She swam until the Jersey Shore had been reduced to a band of lights on the horizon. And still Izzy swam on, headed for the shoals off the coast. In the distance, she heard the barks and cries of her own kind, her true family.
Izzy smiled, as her fur covered body plunged once more beneath the waves. After eighteen years, she’d finally come home.
I hope you enjoyed this story. Check back next month, when a new edition of First Monday Free Fiction will be posted.