Sunflower Smith-Jones Has an Adventure (Chapter Two)
Updated: Nov 15, 2019
I jam my AirPods into my ears to avoid any more comments or questions about trees.
This guy. Seriously. For all his know-it-all attitude about the trees and O.C.E.A.N. and the seafaring life, he can’t fool me. His nasal voice inflection and the length of his Os give him away surer than his square face and stocky build. He’s Midwest—one of the Dakotas, I would guess. He doesn’t have enough school-glue-paste to his skin to be from Wisconsin or Minnesota. The cracks and creases around his eyes say he actually saw a dry sun and felt the wind as a child. Lucky. Maybe he got tired of being landlocked and took to the coast. Can’t blame him. I mean, here I am—running away from Middle America to chase adventure.
But still. He doesn’t even ask why I was on a bus, or what my name is. Weirdo. If he’s so familiar with O.C.E.A.N., wouldn’t he want to know what an Affluenza’d youth is doing taking the bus, of all modes of transportation, to a program designed to shake me out of my wealthy malaise? Or something.
I bop my knee to Miles Davis and drum my fingers on my thigh, positively certain my peers on this voyage will be insufferable turd-people. When I discovered O.C.E.A.N. online, I had to Google “Affluenza’d Neophyte,” and I almost died of actual hysteria.
I may have fudged a few details on my application.
But, come on. The world isn’t exactly brimming over with opportunities for lower-middle-class high schoolers to spend a summer at sea.
Miles’ trumpet solo is heating up when my not-Uber, please-God-don’t-be-a-serial-killer driver slams on the brakes, bringing his crappy blue Corolla to a halt in front of a looming mansion. It’s the kind that looks like it’s most likely haunted with the ghosts of several generations of angry, red-blooded American families. Probably owned by wealthy crab fisherman. Crab fishing—that’s a thing here, isn’t it? Greying blue siding, a wraparound porch, an off-center tower that looks like it might house an observatory. Aside from the large and boxy windows, there are hardly any straight lines.
Oh yeah. There are definitely ghosts here. As if on cue, an ominous wind rattles the stately trees in the front yard.
“We’re here,” my driver says.
“Great, thanks—no, you don’t have to—what are you doing?” I pull out my AirPods and shove them into my pocket.
He’s gotten out of the car and is stretching out the kinks in his back, looking at the maybe definitely haunted mansion like he owns the place or something. He turns a cocky grin on me and then opens the back to collect my huge duffel.
“I can get my own bag, you don’t have to—”
Oh no. No no . . .
“This is my stop too,” he says, winking. He actually winks at me. Gross.
I barely have time to catch my bag as he chucks it at me. It hits me in the chest, nearly knocking me straight to my ass.
And then he’s offering me his hand like he’s a perfectly decent person and not a weirdo who picks up 17-year-old girls on the side of the road when he’s not actually an Uber-driver. Of course, he hasn’t turned out to be a serial killer either. Yet. Really hoping I dodged a bullet on that one.
“I’m Doug. I’ll be your captain when we embark.”
Fantastic. Really great.
I glance up at the cupola, biting my lip. The cupola on top of the observatory tower of the maybe definitely haunted mansion. Well, I told my parents I would be responsible and totally prepare for college this summer, so I guess befriending the captain is a good way to do that.
Doug. Doug. Dooouuuug. Blech. Boring.
I wrestle my duffle to one side to free an arm, and then I shake his hand, firmly, the way Poppy taught me to. Poppy, who helped me fudge my application. Poppy, who has a soft spot for his only granddaughter.
“Hi, Doug. Or do I call you Captain? Captain Doug? Doug the Captain? O.C.E.A.N. Doug?” I give him my brightest smile.
He snorts, releases my hand. “Just Doug is fine.” He goes to his trunk, which opens with rusty, protesting groans, and removes a single backpack.
“Is that all you have? For six weeks?”
“You really don’t need more than the essentials on a ship. Trust me.”
I sling my bag to the lawn and unzip it just enough to slide my paperback inside. Essentials. Right. Well, I essentially couldn’t decide how many books to bring. So.
“Are you planning on unpacking here on the lawn? I promise we have a room for you inside,” Doug says. “Ms. . . .?”
I can’t get the stupid zipper to zip shut again. I shove the book deeper into my wadded clothes and then sit on the bag, wiggling my butt to shift everything around. Ha. There it goes. Blowing my hair out of my eyes—because why would it actually stay under my cap like it’s supposed to?—I peer up at him. “It’s not Ms.anything. It’s Sunny. Just Sunny. I’m not eighty years old.”
“But you do like jazz.”
“Well, yeah. What’s wrong with that?” I stand and haul the bag to my shoulder.
“Seems a little old-fashioned for a . . . sixteen—”
He gives me a “that’s your business” look as we turn toward the house. “I don’t remember a Sunny on my roster,” he says. “Are you a last-minute registrant?”
I take a deep breath. “It’s Sunflower.”
“My name. Sunflower. Sunflower Smith-Jones.” I cut a look at him, waiting for the comments, the inevitable questions. The truth is never interesting enough to satisfy people—that my parents gave me a bonkers first name to compensate for having literally the two most boring last names in the English language, hyphenated for God only knows what reason.
That’s it. That’s the reason for my lifetime of torment. Thanks, Mom and Dad.
But he just chuckles and says, “You rich kids. Or, rather, your parents, I suppose. Yeah, I remember your name, now.”
I force a laugh. Us rich kids. Yep. “So you get why I go by Sunny, right? Or SJ sometimes. But I prefer Sunny.”
“Whatever you want, kid.”
We climb the steps to the wraparound porch. Our feet thump ominously on them, like they are too hollow—rotting. Beyond the house, the wind blows in to cool the too-warm air, carrying the salt of the sea. This maybe probably haunted mansion sits on a cliff. The ship must be somewhere beneath us, moored in the bay.
It’s all I can do not to bounce on my toes with excitement. Three days of intensive training in this house, and then we’re off!
I can’t believe I made it.
Before Doug can open the door, it’s opened from within by a boy about my own age. He’s thin and pale, but not, like, in a nasty way. His cheeks are flushed beneath dark hair that falls in waves to his shoulders, framing a sharp chin and Victorian mouth. His eyes are hazel—like the actual real hazel of a field of wheat. He wears a fisherman’s sweater with holes in each sleeve for his thumbs and leather ankle boots left untied around the upturned cuffs of his jeans.
Oh my God. I’m in love.
“Oh, hey. I didn’t know anyone was out here.” Perfect Boy swings the door wider and gestures us in. “I was just coming out to read.” He’s clutching a worn paperback of . . . All Hallows Eve by Charles Williams . . . I read sideways, tilting my head.
“I like to read, too,” I say. “Twins, right? I brought, like, fifty books. I couldn’t decide. Is that book any good?”
Captain Doug looks at me like I’ve had an aneurism.
“Uh . . .” Perfect Boy tips his Victorian lips into a quirky smile. “I just started. You guys coming in, or what?”
“Yes,” says Doug.
“I’m Sunny. Or SJ. You can call me whatever you want.”
“Gabriel.” He lifts All Hallows Eve to his forehead like a salute and edges past us, letting Doug catch and hold the door.
Gabriel. Of course he would have the name of an angel.
Doug, Captain Doug, O.C.E.A.N. Doug clears his throat. “Sunny. Inside. Come on.”
I pull myself away from Gabriel the Angel-Boy and follow Captain Doug into the wide and dark foyer of the house. There’s a tall wing-backed chair by what looks like a reception desk, and I sling my duffel into it with a relieved sigh.
“I should mention that one of the rules on board my ship is no fraternization,” Doug says in an offhand way. He’s paging through a stack of something on the desk, not looking at me.
“That means you can’t pursue any romances. Not while on board my ship.”
“I know what it means. But why? Why not?”
Doug snorts. “Multiple reasons. The reasons are . . . legion, even. Hormonal teenagers at sea, stuck together on a ship for six weeks? That’s a lawsuit waiting to happen, and more than one of you little sh—participants—has a mommy or daddy who is a big-time lawyer. No thanks.”
I open my mouth to protest again, but Doug raises his hands. “No. Nope. No way. Besides, it’s out of my hands. It’s O.C.E.A.N. policy. You all can flirt however much you want, but no touching or . . . disrobing . . . until your feet are firmly planted back on land and you’re no longer my responsibility.”
“Disrobing. Really? Like in Titanic?”
“I don’t know what you kids are into these days.”
“Doug! You made it.”
We both swivel to see a woman with dark hair and tan skin coming into the room. She wears a blue blazer over a matching skirt and a white and blue-striped shirt with a red scarf.
“The ship doesn’t leave without me,” he says under his breath. Then, “How are you, Jacinta?”
Silence, awkward and dripping with unspoken words, falls over us. Doug turns just his head to look at her more fully. “And?”
“That’s all. Just, alive.” She raises a smart eyebrow.
“Uh . . .” I say.
“Hello, you must be one of our participants. What’s your name?”
“This is Sunflower Smith-Jones,” Doug says. “It looks like she’s the last to arrive”—he taps the papers on the desk—“is that right?”
“It is, yes. The other girls and boys are here.”
“Jacinta is our O.C.E.A.N. liaison,” Doug says in answer to my unasked question.
Jacinta looks me up and down. “A coat? Whatever for?”
“I, uh.” I bunch the poufy fabric in my hands. “I thought it would be cold. I’m not from around here.”
“Clearly not. Cape Cod is quite pleasant in June. Follow me.”
I scramble with my bag to follow Jacinta, who somehow manages to outpace me in her navy stilettos as she leads me through the house to a winding staircase.
“Your rooms are in the tower,” she says over her shoulder. “Girls in one, boys in the other. As I told the others, you have until supper to get settled. Relax, unpack, get to know each other. Supper is at six sharp. Orientation begins then.” She stops outside a door painted plum purple with a knob shaped like an eagle.
Oh yeah. This house is definitely haunted.
“Excuse me, um, when will we get to see the ship?”
“Tonight. We’re eating supper on it.” Jacinta’s eyes catch the light of the antique lamp as she opens the door without knocking and lets me in.
There are two other teenage girls in the room. One with blonde hair like mine, but not like mine because hers actually shines and is long and wavy rather than shoulder length and ratty. But whatever. I’m not totally jealous. Blonde Girl also has perfect blue eyes and a figure like an hourglass. Even better. She introduces herself as Jenny.
Okay, Perfect Jenny. What the hell are you doing on a six-week sea voyage? I almost snort-laugh, but then Jenny says, “Did you see Gabriel on your way up? I guess this summer isn’t going to be a total waste after all.”
“If you can pull him away from his books,” says the other girl, whose name is Margaret. She’s tall with curly hair like a halo around her face, and dark skin. She moves like a ballerina around the room, which looks over the front lawn. “Have either of you met the other guys yet? Roman and Frank?”
“Nope,” says Jenny.
“Me either,” I say. I shake my hair out of my cap. Open my duffel to find the perfect shirt to make Gabriel fall in love with me. Somewhere in here I have a sweater the same color as the one he has on . . .
“Who was that man you arrived with?” Margaret asks, pointing out the window. “Is he, like, your dad? Why did he stay?”
“I didn’t think parents came along on this thing.” Jenny hangs over the edge of her bed and runs her fingers through her hair.
“They don’t. He’s not. He’s our captain, actually. Doug. I, uh . . . I hitchhiked here with him.”
“You what?” Margaret drops her mouth open. “He literally could have killed you.”
“Literally,” Jenny says.
“Good thing he didn’t.” I find the sweater I want and pull it out, scattering books and underwear and socks.
Jenny rights herself. “What did you say your name was again?”
“That’s a weird name.”
“Any weirder than Roman?” I say through the sweater fabric. Doug really hadn’t been wrong about these rich kids and their weird names. “Who does that to their kid, anyway?” It’s an easy insult, one that’s been used on me too many times to count. I’m not proud of myself, but it’s deflection time. I run my hands through my hair, trying and trying to get it to cooperate.
No dice. With deft fingers, I toss it up into a messy bun and hope it looks passably tolerable. Then I grab a book—not the nonfiction one I was reading earlier, but a novel. Gabriel was reading a novel, so I will choose . . .
Jane Eyre. Perfect.
“See you at supper,” I say.
“Where are you going? Do you even know your way around?” Margaret and Jenny exchange a look.
“We have free time, right? I’m going out to the porch to read. Bye!” And I dash out the door.
Male voices come from the room across the hall, but I doubt Gabriel gave up on his book and came inside already. I charge down the stairs, through the now-empty foyer, and out to the wrap-around porch.
But Gabriel isn’t in the seat he had taken when Doug and I entered the mansion only a half hour before. I twist my lips and turn a circle, looking around. The wind picks up again, this time carrying more than just salt with it. There’s sound on the wind, too. Voices from somewhere down below.
I follow them around the curvature of the maybe definitely haunted mansion, around to the far side that faces—as I suspected—a drop to the sea. And there, too, is Gabriel, leaning on the old railing and watching the water.
Or, watching the preparations on the ship below us, I guess. The wind parts his hair over his forehead, giving him a wistful, man-of-the-moors look. I crush Jane Eyre in my sweaty hands and—
“Are you staring at me?”
“What? No. I—no. I just came outside to read and heard noises and came over here to see what they were and you were here too and . . .”
Gabriel jerks his head. “Come see.”
“Okay.” I can hardly breathe.
“They’re getting the ship ready.” He points with All Hallows Eve. “Wanna go down there?”
“Now? I don’t think we’re allowed to.”
“Why not? Our parents paid for us to be here, didn’t they? Basically, we’re paying their salaries.”
I’m sure Captain Doug would love to hear him say that. “I don’t know.”
“It’s Sunny, right?”
He remembered my name. I bite my lip and nod.
“Well, Sunny, I’m going down there. You can come with me, or stay up here and”—he raises an eyebrow at my book—“read.” He strides to a gate that gives egress to a rickety staircase down the tumbling cliffs. “The guy who owns the mansion in that one—Mr. Rochester—he has a secret wife in his attic, by the way!” he calls back to me.
My face flushes. I hurry after him. “I know.”
“Oh, do you?”
“I’ve read it about a thousand times.”
Gabriel huffs—unimpressed or playing unimpressed?
We round a bend, another bend. The rush and pull of the waves gets louder with each section of stairs we descend. The ship—I don’t even know what its name is—looms closer.
“Why are you here this summer? Why did you sign up?” I ask Gabriel as we near the bottom.
He grins in a wicked sort of way. “To meet girls. You?”
A wave hits the rocks as I answer and I have to shout to be heard. “To have an adventure!”
Gabriel laughs, his perfect Victorian mouth cracking wide as he doubles over. “Lame,” he says. “Nobody has any real adventures anymore.”
“You’re lame!” I shove him, playfully, clutching my book in the cold ocean spray.
The waves crash and the ship is now near enough to touch.
“What are you kids doing here?” a voice shouts from the deck. “It’s too early. Go back up to the mansion where you’ll be safe!”
“He sounds almost afraid,” I say.
“What?” Gabriel takes my shoulder and leans close. The water has turned his hair into spiraling ringlets.
“I said, he sounds almost afraid. Maybe we should go back!”
“I thought you wanted to have an adventure!” Gabriel shoves me, as I shoved him, and I drop my book, kicking it toward the ship as I scramble for purchase on the slippery dock.
“My book!” I say as the man on board the ship shouts, “Go back to the mansion!”
I dive for Jane Eyre, catching her before she goes over the edge, but not before I do. With a shriek and a gasp, I plunge between the ship and the dock into the frigid water.
My head hits the ship—or the ship hits my head. When you’re dying, I’m not sure the details really matter. There’s a flash of white, and then red, and then I’m rising out of the water and somehow warmer than I was, and dry, and I’m looking down on Gabriel the Angel Boy, who is puking his guts out against a pylon, and in my hands I’m holding a ghostly copy of Jane Eyre—because of course, I am. And I’m floating toward the ship where I settle onto a coil of rope on the deck, look at my semi-transparent body, and have the time to think, “Oh my God, I’m dead. Like, I’m an actual ghost,” before Captain Doug lands before me with heavy feet and says, “Ah, Dammit. Not again. I was hoping it wouldn’t be you.” He kneels before me. “Sorry, Sunflower Smith-Jones, you wanted to come to sea. You just became a permanent resident.”
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