It was precisely 3:27 am, and Melody Campbell was sitting cross legged by the beach, having stealthily snuck out of the house due to insomnia. It wasn’t a public beach with mobs and mobs of vacationers and gaudy umbrellas that made your eyes ache when you looked at them too long—it was more like a huge cove along the Atlantic coast, private to only Melody’s family and their neighbors. In fact, Melody rarely saw anybody out there but herself, and of course the bottlenose dolphins. There was no particular reason for Melody’s insomnia; it just happened some nights. But the Cove always seemed to help with that. The sound of the gentle night’s waves tamed her restlessness, the humming breeze helped her to think, and the sand, cool from the shade of nighttime, was a welcome difference to the stuffiness of sharing a small room. By now, Melody’s eyelids were heavy and she was struggling to keep them open. Just as she turned away from the lulling waves, she caught something in her peripheral vision. Stifling a yawn, Melody turned back and blearily took a second look. What she saw astonished her.
At first she thought they might be her own, but a closer inspection proved otherwise. Then she noticed the next thing. The footsteps lead right into the water-- and never back out. Scanning the ocean front, Melody didn’t see any signs of a human disturbance. The churning waves crashed on smooth sand, and behind the surf, the ocean was glassy smooth. The footprints must have been fresh, the bottoms still filled with tiny pools of water.
Eventually exhaustion won her over and forced her to turn back to the house. At the front porch, Melody took one last glance at the Cove and the footprints, only to find she couldn’t even see them anymore. Maybe it was just a trick of the moonlight, she thought doubtfully. Or perhaps I was just dreaming the whole thing. She went into the house, silently shutting the door behind her, and crept into the room she shared with her little brother Harmony. (Her parent’s bad idea of a joke.) The moon shone through a crack in their curtains, forging a path onto his face. For a second, she stared at him lovingly. His shaggy blonde hair was strewn about his pillow, those plump little-kiddish cheeks were littered with golden freckles illuminated by the moonlight, and his lips were curled into a quirky smile, perfectly reflecting his sweet nature. And then she was stumbling into her bed, pulling her sheets around her, and falling asleep, dreaming of mysterious footprints leading into the ocean…
* * *
Melody woke up to Harmony banging out a lively (and very out of tune) song on the piano downstairs. On second thought, it probably wasn’t a real song. Her little brother was indeed a… creative… composer. However, nobody in the Campbell family had the heart to tell him how he really sounded. Any headaches or earaches were carefully hidden. At first she screwed her eyes shut, trying to close off the sound and fall back asleep. And then it hit her with the force of a pummelling wave, one of the freezing ones you get when you first run into the water, one that soaks you through and makes your breath hitch up in surprise. Everything that happened last night was recalled, and suddenly she didn’t feel so tired. Leaping out of bed, she dragged a comb through her honey blonde hair, changed, and rushed into the bathroom to perform the quickest brush-your-teeth-while-washing-your-face procedure mankind has ever seen.
“I’m running out, but I’ll be back soon!” shouted Melody to her mom over the commotion of the piano as she scooped up a pancake and folded it into her palm. Her mom nodded and sent her a thumbs up signal, not even bothering to try raising her voice above the chaos. Slipping on her flip-flops, Melody sprinted out the door to the cute gray house and ran around to the back, stuffing the pancake into her mouth. She’s always thought she must be one of the luckiest girls in the world, to have a beach for her backyard. Melody raced to the shore, golden-speckled chocolate eyes probing the sand for a trace, any trace, of the footprints she thought she had seen the night before… And there, to the left, a trail of faint imprints that just defined footprints leading into the water. There still weren’t footprints leading out of the water. So she hadn’t imagined it, she wasn’t crazy. Someone or something had definitely been here last night, had definitely walked right into the water and never came back out again. Most kids would have been scared when they figured that out, but Melody wasn’t like most kids. She was intrigued, curious, pulled into the mystery, the mystery of the footprints.
* * *
When she got back to the house, Melody was relieved that the piano abuse had finally stopped. Melody’s mom smiled knowingly at her, one of the smiles moms can give you when they know just what you’re thinking at the moment.
“Don’t tell him, but I was relieved Harmony decided to go play in the back with you and got off of that poor piano.” Wait. There was something wrong with that sentence, but Melody couldn’t quite put her finger on it. Oh. Her eyes widened, lips parting slightly. She looked at her mom. “What, honey?”
“Harmony. He- he wasn’t in the back. When did he leave the house?”
“About five minutes ago,” volunteered her dad, looking up from his copy of the paper, eyebrows creased in worry. “If he went back to the Cove, you would have seen him.” They all exchanged glances. They knew how quickly Harmony’s little blond head moved from one thing to another-- he might have started out intending to join Melody, but by the time he left the house, had a different destination in mind. He might get hurt on the way, or get lost. There was a Campbell family rule that you didn’t go anywhere other than the Cove without a buddy. Obviously, Harmony wouldn’t mean to break this rule, but he was only five years old. There was a period of dead silence, concern shining through all of their faces. Melody was the first to act. Shoving her feet in her flip-flops again, she turned to her parents.
“I’ll go and check out a couple of places for him. You two stay here in case he comes back before I reach him.” Without waiting for an answer, Melody jumped out the door and began to jog away from the house, trying to tame her panic. Sure, Harmony was the annoying piano banger and always wanted her to play cars with him, (something Melody detested) he was still her little brother, and of course she loved him. Harmony wasn’t at the rock, a gargantuan boulder the Campbell siblings often went to climb and sit on the very top. He wasn’t at the picnic table, a small wooden table in the middle of the woods. And he wasn’t in the local supermarket, in which he liked to admire the delicately adorned fresh baked cupcakes and cookies.
“Mrs. Blake, have you seen Harmony anywhere?” asked Melody, out of breath, to one of their kind neighbors. She had older kids in high school.
“No, I haven’t. Has he gone missing?” Her eyebrows lifted up to her hairline. “Poor little dear.” Melody wasn’t sure if Mrs. Blake was referring to her or Harmony.
“It’s alright, I’ll find him. Thanks.” She turned and jogged away. There was no place else
she could think of looking for the little boy. Melody had asked most of her neighbors if they had seen Harmony, and though their answers were sympathetic, they were all the same.
By now Melody was freaking out, ready to race back to her house and announce, breathless, that it was time to call the police. Her sweet little brother was gone.
But what was that, over there? Behind that house? She could have sworn a swatch of golden hair just whizzed by. Holding her breath in anticipation, Melody burst around the side of the old brick house and, just as she thought it must be, there was Harmony!
“Harmony!” At first, that was all Melody could get out. Her sides were heaving from her frantic dash around the neighborhood, and her knees felt weak with relief. And then she realized that he was signalling something to her, smashing a finger against his lips and raising his eyebrows in a hopeful plead.
“Wha--?” Melody began to ask. Harmony jabbed a thumb towards the house.
It was, as she had noticed earlier, a brick house. The gutters, that must have once been white, were stained an ugly brown, like coffee stains on an old, musty book. It was a spider paradise; every wedge was thickly woven with glistening silver strands of cobwebs. “Ugh.” Melody moved a step away from the house. Then she realized exactly whose house it was. Stifling a gasp, she stared with steadily widening eyes at Harmony. “Explain. Now.” she whispered, pulling him down the side of the house to the ground. “Why are we at the crazy old—I mean, why are we at Ms. Jillian’s house?”
“I was trying to see if Ms. Jillian really does eat spiders for her breakfast, like Todd from school says,” Harmony whispered. “Honest, Melly, I just forgotted to go back!” Harmony called Melody ‘Melly’ because when he was a baby, he couldn’t say her whole name.
“It’s forgot.” Melody corrected sharply, still annoyed from her scare. “And that crazy—I mean, Ms. Jillian doesn’t eat spiders. Honestly, Harmony, I’m really disappointed in you.” Normally, this wouldn’t be something the older sister tells her little brother- that’s more for the parents to do. But as being the oldest and often in charge of babysitting Harmony when her parents were out, Melody had kind of stepped into the role.
“But she isn’t even in there!”
“All the better.” Melody snapped, taking Harmony by the hand and turning to their own house.
“No, her lights are on.”
“Then she just forgot to turn them off.”
“Melly.” he said, in a voice that was beyond his age and clearly suggested she was being ridiculous. “We should go in-”
“Absolutely not.” Ms. Jillian, with her wispy white hair, deep wrinkles, very pale eyes, and shaky, wizened hands had always turned Melody away.
“You are scared.” He stated, matter of factly.
“I, I…” For a second, Melody stuttered and muttered, trying to find a suitable answer to this challenge. “Fine. Just don’t be rude, don’t say anything, just stand next to me and disappear.” she said grumpily, taking a breath and knocking on the front door like a soldier reporting to duty.
“But, Melly, if I’m standing next to you, how can I-”
“Harmony.” she said warningly. He shrugged and smiled his little dimpled grin. They waited. And waited. Melody knocked again. It seemed like nobody was home. “No one’s home, Harmony.” She told the little boy. But Melody’s reasonable side was pushing out her fantasies of the skeletal old woman. She might be hurt in her house, needing help. Ms. Jillian lived alone. She may have fallen. Nobody knew how old she was, but by the looks of it, she was the oldest resident. “If the door’s unlocked, we’ll just go in and see if she’s in there. You’re right, it’s very unusual for her to leave her lights on when she isn’t home.” Most times Melody ran into the old woman, Ms. Jillian gripped her wrists with her knobbly, quivering hands and informed her all about how much electricity was wasted when you left lights on. “I remembered when so many electric light bulbs in every home was a privilege,” she’d tell Melody, “we never took it for granted. If only the world now thought the same thing…” She would shake her head forlornly, wisps of white falling out of her dark hood. ‘Good day, child.’ And like that, Ms. Jillian would be disappearing into the dreary fog. No, it would be most uncharacteristic for her to leave them on. Which meant she must be in trouble.
When Melody opened the door and pushed her way in, the first thing she did was see was Ms. Jillian, hunched on the floor in the corner. The second thing she did was think, why in the world did I bring Harmony in with me? Backing out the door with the little boy behind her, she turned around and faced him, trying to clear the fright from her features.
“Stay here. Don’t move.” She turned into the house again, shut the door, and went uncertainty for Ms. Jillian.
“M-Ms. Jillian?” She stammered, staring at the shaking old lady. She might be having a seizure, or a heart attack, or something else that was just as horrible… Think clearly, she reminded herself. “Ms. Jillian, can you hear me?” she asked putting a hand on the back of the black coat. She went in front of Ms. Jillian and saw she was clutching a pendant around her neck.
“Campbell… you are the Campbell girl…”
“I am the Campbell girl. It’s me, Melody. Are you okay? Are you hurt?” Ms. Jillian blinked, eyebrows knit up in confusion.
“Hurt…? No. He is gone, dear child. Gone. I knew it, when I found him sitting by the beach. I knew he was magical…” she paused, bottom lip trembling. “Yes, I should have known, I should have. It was stormy. Mystical things are brought up by great storms…”
“Magical? Mystical?” If Melody had any doubt about Ms. Jillian being a little crazy, it was gone. “Please, let me go get help.”
“No, no, no.” she gripped Melody’s arms in a viselike way with her bony fingers that were too strong for her age. “He was huddled on the beach, gasping for water, moaning for water.” Now it was Melody’s eyebrows that were knit up in confusion. She gave a gentle tug on her arms, but Ms. Jillian gripped them fast. “So I took him to my house and put him in my bathtub.”
“In your… bathtub?” It didn’t make sense. Nothing made sense. “A boy? A human?”
“A human on the outside, but a beautiful creature on the inside.” Now that both of her hands were occupied, Melody could focus on the swinging pendant. It was glass, a sleek, gray bottlenose dolphin. But no… the crazy notion didn’t make sense. Ms. Jillian’s eyes seemed to be snow white and glowing in the dim, flickering lighting of her house. Those eyes probed Melody’s own brown speckled eyes, trying to make her understand.
“A dolphin?” Melody breathed. Ms. Jillian’s eyes were focused on something far away, and her chin barely bobbed up and down.
“Yes, he was an angel of the sea, never destined to live on this, this dry land. So he left, he left this earth and went to his roots, within the waves and among the other angels.” Ms. Jillian’s grip on Melody’s wrists loosened, and she broke free of it completely. She felt like she was so close to understanding Ms. Jillian’s story, she felt like there was just one puzzle piece missing. Going into the small bathroom, she saw towels strewn about the floor, all soaking wet. The tub was still sloshing full of water.
“So…” Melody tried to understand, walking back to Ms. Jillian. “So you found this kid a long time ago on the beach in the middle of a storm and brought him back to your house? You cared for him and put him in your bathtub because he needed water to live… and then one night he just left?” Speaking the words, she felt like she was speaking another language. This was too preposterous to believe. But Ms. Jillian nodded, a small tear making its way down her wrinkled old face. And in a way, it made sense. Ms. Jillian had already kept to herself, but when Melody was little, maybe Harmony’s age, it wasn’t unusual to see her walking around the town. That stormy night must have changed everything.
“Yesterday night.” Yesterday night!! That was the night she saw the fresh prints, the night they went in and never came out. The mystery was slowly unfolding, the truth starting to shine. And the startling realization only seemed to prove Ms. Jillian’s point.
“Well, then… he’s where he belongs. You can’t keep a… dolphin spirit in your tub, Ms. Jillian. Surely you know that.” She put a comforting arm hesitantly on Ms. Jillian’s shoulder.
“I know that.” She repeated numbly, nodding slightly. “I knew it, all along. Knew that one day...” Her voice puttered out and eventually lapsed into a period of lengthy silence.
“Are you okay now?” As soon as she said it, Melody mentally face palmed herself. It was a bad question—she had suffered a loss, for a period of time the creaky old brick house had seemed not as creaky and old to Ms. Jillian herself, because she was sharing it with someone. Someone she had obviously loved. Apparently Ms. Jillian thought it was bad question too, because she ignored it.
“I know what people say. About me.” She said. She wasn’t speaking in that whispery frail voice anymore, and she almost seemed… well, normal. “I know they think I’m crazy. I know they think I stay in my house all day long doing nothing… I don’t have any family anymore. I’m the last.” Ms. Jillian turned to Melody with a sad smile that made Melody struggle to keep a tear or two in her tear ducts. “The folks here are nice. They bring me things sometimes, and greet me nicely when I’m out of the house. But it’s not the same as having someone, of having a friend. And for a while, I had that friend. But not anymore.”
“I don’t really, either.” Melody allowed herself to admit.
“But you’re a beautiful, friendly little girl… surely you have a buddy from school?”
“Not really. And it’s summer now. Everyone that goes to my school lives closer to it, and I live the farthest away. It’s kind of like I’m an alien from another world, the places are so different.”
“Then. We should get to know each other a little more.” Ms. Jillian suggested hesitantly, smiling and looking decades younger. Melody smiled back, thinking that it wasn’t such a bad idea.
* * *
Melody woke up early a few weeks later and clambered down the stairs, grabbing a piece of toast and waving to her mother over the thumping of piano keys and wrong notes. She ran around back to the Cove and made her way to the North side of it, where it was rocky and offered many ledges to sit down on.
“Hey, wait up!” she called to her friend who was in front of her, steadily making her way to the same spot. They had made plans the other day to meet up here. The lady turned around, grinning. Her white hair was braided loosely over her shoulder, and she was wearing a light blue shirt that brought out the pale color of her unique eyes.
“Did you wake up to Harmony’s piano skills again this morning?” She asked jokingly. Melody groaned.
“I sure did!” She replied, catching up to her. As the friends sat side by side on the rocky ledge, talking, Melody smiled to herself and thought, What a huge change one friend can make. And she was right. And then the sun began to rise, casting beautiful colors onto the waves below, a dolphin leapt out of the ocean and slapped his tail onto the surface of the water, concentric circles spreading. The lady reached out a hand and caught a droplet that had spiraled up to them.
Ms. Jillian and Melody turned and smiled at each other.