It had been twenty-four years since she’d seen it, but the place looked exactly the same. Gray and drab and falling apart, like everything else in this god-forsaken town. Not a surprise, she thought, given how the people of Gull Harbour felt about change. Flickering neon letters above the door blazed brokenly into the night: Th Pike and Pe ican.
Hazel took a deep breath and released it slowly. She was here for one purpose, and one purpose alone: find Aurora and bring her home.
But as she stood before the door to the bar, an unexpected wave of nostalgia swept over her. Suddenly she was nineteen again, a failed nursing student returning to her hometown with all her dreams gone up in smoke. She’d come here that night looking to disappear. To forget her disappointment, forget her failure, forget herself for a night.
She'd watched the crowd from the safe anonymity of a dimly-lit corner. On a small stage in the opposite corner, an old man with a guitar was singing the blues. The music cradled her in its self-pitying sadness, although the words were lost amid the din of clinking glasses and drunken laughter. But while she was still on her first drink, the blues player finished his set and left the stage. A young man with a violin took his place.
His curly brown hair hung loosely around his shoulders and he looked out of place in the squalid bar. Like he should be standing on a stage in a concert hall. Or on a majestic windswept cliff, facing the sunset. He raised his bow, touched it to the string, and began to play.
From the moment the song began, Hazel was captivated. Her drink sat in front of her, untouched and forgotten. A hush slowly blossomed in the noisy crowd. Soon every voice was stilled, every gaze fixed on the violinist, who played with an astounding depth of emotion. Even the barman was leaning over the counter in rapt attention.
The violin sang sad and sweet in the hush, like a key that penetrated Hazel’s soul and unlocked prison doors she didn’t even know existed. It wasn’t till the song came to an end that she realized she was crying. In the silence that followed, she looked around and saw that she was not the only one.
Then the crowd erupted in applause, and at that moment, from across the room, the violinist’s eyes met hers. And suddenly they were the only two people in the room. In a heartbeat, she knew that he was different from all the boys she’d known in college. Much different.
His name was Zebedee. An unusual name for an unusual man. Hazel soon discovered that Zeb had an unusual gift: everything he made – music, wood carvings, paintings – was almost supernaturally beautiful.
“I just paint what I see,” he told her.
Clearly, he saw things in a way no one else did. Where Hazel saw a piece of driftwood, Zeb saw a unicorn or an owl or a sailboat, waiting to be set free from its wooden prison.
For her birthday, he gave her a painting. It was a picture of her with wings, flying over the ocean surrounded by silver seagulls.
He encouraged her to start writing poetry again, a hobby she’d neglected under the pressures of nursing school. Hazel loved the way her words came alive when he read them aloud.
Zeb didn’t just have a gift, she began to realize – Zeb was a gift. He poured himself into everything he made and everyone he encountered.
They were married and built a house in the treetops, in the forest close to the lake, because she’d casually mentioned once that her childhood dream had been to live in a treehouse. They called their home the Nest. The walls were filled with artwork and the table was always filled with guests.
Soon Aurora burst into their world like the sunrise she was named after, and she started dancing almost as soon as she could walk. Zeb played his violin for her, and even as a toddler there was something uncannily graceful in the way she moved.
The thought of her daughter brought Hazel back to the present. Now was not the time to dwell on memories of a happier time. Her daughter was in danger. She had to act.
She raised her hand to push open the door of the Pike and Pelican, but at that moment a surge of drunken laughter drifted out onto the street and she froze. A familiar icy hand clawed at her gut. Fear.
She had never known fear, not really, until that horrible night six years ago. Zeb was visiting a friend in town, ten-year-old Aurora was in bed, and Hazel was sitting at the table with a candle, quill pen flying across the page in front of her. Writing with a quill by candlelight made her feel whimsical and poetic. Sometimes she imagined that she was a quill and Zeb was her inkwell, a reservoir full of unwritten poems that she had only to dip into. Immersed in a world of words and sounds and images, she didn’t hear the footsteps coming up the spiral staircase to the Nest. The sudden pounding on the door startled her so much that she knocked the inkwell off the table, and it smashed on the floor. With a regretful glance at all the poems that were splattered darkly across the floor, forever unwritten, she got up and hurried to answer the door.
A policeman was standing at the top of the staircase. His face was heavy with bad news.
That was the first time fear sank its claws into her.
In the awful, silent months that followed, she tried to construct an explanation, an answer to Aurora’s insistent why. Why did those bad men hurt papa? Why indeed? Hazel searched for answers, something with which to rebuild her shattered world, and she found them. Zeb had been too generous. He had been too careless. He had spent too much time in seedy bars late at night.
It all started, she decided, with the incident at the picnic. The day the whole town gathered by the lakefront, and there were games and music and food all day. In the evening, just as the sun was beginning to set, someone had begged Zeb to play violin. He never said no to that request.
So he stood up and played with fiery abandon, and just like that night at the Pike and Pelican, he cast a spell over the whole crowd. Only this time it was even more powerful. The whole world stopped to listen. The wind held its breath. The sun hovered just over the horizon. Nothing in the whole world moved except Zeb and his extraordinary violin.
Zeb – and eight-year-old Aurora, who wriggled free from her mother’s embrace, ran to her father, and danced. She skipped and twirled and jumped as though oblivious to the watchful eyes of the crowd. No – not oblivious. Aurora was like her father that way. She never danced for herself. It was always a gift.
When Zeb finally finished playing, the people of Gull Harbour let out a collective breath. The breeze picked up again. The setting sun touched the horizon. Hazel looked at her watch and saw with astonishment that it was past midnight.
Shocked murmurs rippled through the crowd as they realized what had happened. He stopped the sun. If he could stop the sun, what else could he do?
He should have been more cautious after that. He should have been afraid of their fear. But that was his downfall - he wasn’t afraid of anything.
He wouldn’t be afraid now, she thought, if he was standing here in front of this dingy bar. He wouldn’t have hesitated to go in and find his daughter. Steeled by this thought, Hazel took one more deep breath, pushed open the door, and went in.
The Pike and Pelican was just like she remembered it – loud, poorly-lit, rank with the smell of sweat and alcohol breath and too many bodies in the same cramped space. She swallowed hard as she surveyed the people who filled the room. They were Gull Harbour’s roughest crowd. Coarse, callous, mostly inebriated. Just like the people who had murdered Zeb and smashed his violin on a dark night outside a bar much like this one.
Where would a teenaged girl go when she snuck out to town in the middle of the night? Surely, not to a place like this. Surely, Aurora knew better.
Hazel’s heart sank as she spotted a yellow dress and a mane of brown curls on the other side of the room. Aurora sat on a stool, deep in conversation with an old woman. Looking about as out of place as a flower in a garbage heap, yet totally oblivious to this fact.
Hazel weighed her options. Calling out to her daughter would draw attention. Going over to her would mean crossing the room full of potentially dangerous strangers. She stood in the doorway, paralyzed.
A commotion drew her attention. Two men were standing up, shouting. Grabbing each other’s shirts. Now shoving. Now punching. A crowd materialized around them.
Hazel glanced back at Aurora, who had also turned in her seat to watch the fight. Now was her chance, while everyone was distracted.
Then Aurora stood up. Fear tightened its grip as Hazel watched her daughter walk, not toward the fight, but toward the stage where Zeb had played all those years ago and which now stood empty. Like it was waiting for her.
Hazel could see exactly what was going to happen. She wanted to call out a warning, but fear froze her tongue.
No, Aurora. Don’t do it.
Aurora stepped onto the stage, looked briefly upwards, and began to dance.
By some strange magic the tiny stage became a wide open space. Aurora danced like she did on the beach under the stars. With all the mastery and grace of a ballerina, with all the innocence and abandon of a child.
And, as always, Hazel couldn’t help but fall under the spell.
Some time passed before anyone else realized what was happening, but slowly, one by one, they turned to watch the performance. Silence and stillness spread like a flame. Even the two brawling men stopped fighting, their attention drawn to the stage.
Aurora held nothing back. Her body, fluid as ink, poured out a wordless poem for the whole world to read. She danced grief for her father. She danced compassion for the hurting people of Gull Harbour. And she danced the fire and colour that blazed forth from her own brilliant soul.
Hazel’s heart soared as she watched. Was it just her imagination, or had the ceiling vanished and been replaced by a night sky blazing with northern lights? Was it a trick of the light, or were Aurora’s feet no longer touching the ground? And was that the sound of a violin she heard, piercing and pure and sweet in the silence?
Oh, Zeb. If only you were here.
Zeb. Her thoughts hitched. These people killed Zeb. Well – not these people specifically, but people just like them. His light had shone too brightly, and they’d extinguished it. They would do the same to Aurora.
Fear clawed at her again, shredding the starry tapestry in her imagination. She had to get her daughter out of here – now.
She pushed her way to the front of the mesmerized crowd and grabbed Aurora by the arm. Startled, Aurora yelped, and the spell was broken. Keeping her head down, Hazel began pulling her daughter toward the exit.
“Come, Aurora,” said Hazel through clenched teeth, ignoring her daughter’s protests and the shocked looks of the people around them. “We’re going home now.”
Hazel shoved the door open and pulled Aurora out onto the street, then spun her around to face her.
“What were you thinking?” she barked. “Aurora, you were dancing.”
Aurora held her head high. “Yes, mama,” she said. “I was dancing.”
“In front of everyone.”
“You told me dancing was a gift.”
“And gifts are meant to be given away.”
Hazel started to reply, then stopped. Yes, those words had come out of her mouth. Years ago, in another life. Before what happened to Zeb. She shook her head.
“Aurora, the world is darker than you realize. Not everyone is innocent and kind like you are.”
“I know, Mama,” said Aurora, with a sharp look at her mother, and Hazel fell silent. Of course Aurora knew that. Too well.
After a long, heavy pause, Aurora spoke, quietly but firmly. “If Papa were here, he would want me to dance.”
“Papa,” said Hazel, just as firmly, “is not here. Because people are small-minded and hate whatever they don’t understand.”
“Not all people, Mama! Not everyone is like that!”
“They’re all the same. We’re different. Gull Harbour will never accept us.”
“But they don’t all hate us. The pottery woman – you know, the one whose bowl we have? She still has one of Papa’s paintings up in her studio. She says this town hasn’t been the same without him.”
“Let’s go home,” said Hazel shortly, grabbing Aurora’s hand again and pulling her down the dark street.
“And Mrs. Naddler says she’s still grateful for the violin lessons he gave her sons,” continued Aurora. “She says he was like the father they never had.”
Hazel kept walking and didn’t reply. Vaguely she wondered just how long her daughter had been sneaking out to fraternize with the people of Gull Harbour. They left the lights of the town behind and made their way down the long lakefront road.
“And Mama, I know the gift we have is dangerous and makes people afraid. But I think they only hate us because they don’t understand. And they’re hurting too. And maybe we could help them. We could help them see and heal and understand. Like how Papa helped you – ow, Mama, you’re hurting me!”
Hazel realized she was gripping Aurora’s arm too hard. Quickly she let go and spun around to face her daughter. Beside them, the dark expanse of the lake stretched out like an ocean of ink.
“Life,” said Hazel, “is a candle. Beautiful but fragile. It must be protected.”
“Dark places need candles,” Aurora countered. “Not bright places.”
“Don’t go looking for darkness, Aurora. They’ll snuff you out.”
“They will?” Aurora’s accusing glare burned in the darkness. Hazel ignored the implication.
“Yes, they will.” She started walking down the road again. “No more dancing in public, Aurora. It’s just too risky.”
“What is life without risk?”
Hazel stopped in her tracks. Exactly what Zeb would say. She could almost hear his voice. A sharp, sudden wave of grief overwhelmed her.
She turned around. Aurora stood under the stars with her hands on her hips and fire in her eyes. She was so courageous. So radiant. So much like Zeb, and that scared Hazel more than anything. She knew in that moment, more surely than she knew anything else, that she would give anything in the world to protect her daughter.
“I’m sorry, Aurora,” she said. “It’s not worth it.”
Aurora’s bright eyes hardened, but she said nothing.
“Let’s go home,” said Hazel, suddenly exhausted.
“No,” said Aurora.
“Aurora,” said her mother sharply, grabbing her by the arm again, “it’s time to go home.”
“NO!” screamed Aurora, and fought her mother every step of the way down the road, along the forest path, and up the spiral staircase that led to the Nest.
“You can’t make me stay here!” she shouted. “You can’t keep me a prisoner!”
“Aurora!” yelled her mother, trying to pull her through the doorway. “You’re too old for this. Come inside this instant. It’s not safe – AURORA!”
Her daughter had yanked herself out of her mother’s grasp, lost her balance, and fell with a scream over the edge of the staircase. Hazel heard her hit the ground with a sickening thud. Fear slammed into her windpipe and crushed the breath out of her. Her daughter was dead and it was her fault. All her fault.
Then, from the awful silence at the bottom of the stairs, a feeble voice called, “Mama?”
“Aurora,” wept Hazel, and she flew down the stairs to find her daughter crumpled and broken, but alive. She knelt beside her.
“Are you alright? I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. Where are you hurt?” Hazel looked her over and a sob burst out of her as she saw Aurora’s legs, both bent at wrong angles. “Oh, my angel, I’m so sorry.”
Aurora groaned. “Mama, are my legs broken?”
Hazel swallowed down her hysteria. She had to stay calm for her daughter. “I think so,” she said. “But don’t worry. It’ll be alright. I’ll carry you up the stairs.”
“No,” whimpered Aurora. “Take me back to town. To the hospital.”
“We’re not going back to that awful town,” said Hazel with a shudder. “Not ever. You’ll be safe here in the Nest. I promise.”
“I need to go to the hospital,” said Aurora insistently.
Hazel gathered her daughter in her arms and began to climb the stairs.
“Mama!” cried Aurora weakly. “If my legs don’t heal, I won’t be able to dance anymore.”
Hazel held her daughter close, like a broken-winged bird. This was for the best. Aurora was a treasure she couldn’t bear to lose.
“Please,” gasped Aurora.
Hazel entered the house and carefully set the injured girl down in her bed.
“It’s alright,” she whispered tenderly. “You’re safe now. You’re safe.”
Aurora gave a faint moan and closed her eyes.
For one moment, Hazel felt a prickle of guilt. The walls of the Nest seemed to close in around her like a prison.
Then the moment passed, and she shook her head clear. They were together. They were safe.
And that was all that mattered.