ASHFORD: The file Ms. Ryder compiled is incomplete. Her notes are fragmentary and I'm having trouble piecing together exactly what occurred. I hoped you could fill in the blanks.
Sophia seems to have expected this. She reaches down to a backpack beside her chair and pulls out a spiral-bound notebook.
SOPHIA: I wrote it all down. Abby asked me to, but I didn't get the chance to give it to her.
She slides it across the table to him. Ashford rests his hand over it but doesn't open it yet.
ASHFORD: What happened on Bitter Rock, Ms. Novak? What did you two find there?
Sophia smiles a little, almost sadly.
SOPHIA: Nothing but echoes.
MY EARLIEST MEMORY is of drowning.
I only remember bits and pieces. The darkness of the water; the thick, briny taste of it; the way it burned down my throat when I gasped. I remember the cold, and I remember hands, impossibly strong, pushing me under. And I remember my mother lifting me free. Her voice and her arms wrapping around me before the warmth of her slipped away.
But I've never been to the ocean. Never choked on salt water. So I have been told all my life. My mother died in Montana, hundreds of miles from any ocean. The water, the darkness, the cold—they're nightmares, nothing more.
Or so I thought, until Abby Ryder asked me what I knew about Bitter Rock.
The first tendrils of mist seethed past on the wind as the boat bucked. Droplets trembled on the few strands of hair that had escaped my tight braid.
"It's just ahead," Mr. Nguyen shouted unnecessarily: there was no way to miss the island, as grim and foreboding as the name Bitter Rock suggested. But I would have known we were approaching the shore even with my eyes closed. The sea had been a constant since we left the shore; the water had sloshed, sucked, and slapped at the sides of the boat. But now a new sound reached us: a sibilant crashing of water meeting rock.
The engine thrummed through me, singing in my bones. I knew this place. I knew those sounds, even though I shouldn't. The thought sent a shiver through my core, but I couldn't tell if it was fear—or relief. I knew this place. There had to be a reason—an explanation. An answer. In my pocket, my hand closed tightly around the small wooden bird that was all I had left of my mother. We're here, I thought.
Mr. Nguyen piloted us past sharp black rocks to a tongue of weathered wood—a dock, but not much of one. The engine puttered, then cut out, and Mr. Nguyen leapt to the dock with a nimbleness that didn't match the ash-gray patches in his hair. He didn't bother to tie the boat off. He wouldn't be staying. He hadn't even wanted to bring me in, not with the storm threatening to sweep down and cut off the island from the mainland, but I'd talked him into it.
"You're sure this is where you want to be?" he asked.
Was I sure? Was I sure that I should be here, three thousand miles from home, chasing the memory of dark water? Tracing the footsteps of a dead woman?
"I'll be fine," I told Mr. Nguyen. "Will you be okay getting back? That storm looks bad."
"I'd rather face the storm than stay here." He helped me off the boat, catching my elbow when my foot skidded on the wet boards.
"Thanks," I told him, pulling away. "I've got it from here."
He gave me a long, unblinking look. Like he was trying to decide whether to talk me out of it. But he'd tried on the mainland and he'd tried on the way over. I guess he decided he'd done all he could. "Be careful," he said at last. "Nothing good happens here."
I could have told him, I know. I could have told him, That's why I've come.
Instead I only nodded and turned away.