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Ragtop Boat

Grey clouds hung heavy and low as planes whistled over the wet, dirty coastline. Men in army green hurried everywhere, yelling out orders angrily, loading guns, jumping into Jeeps, and tugging on coats. Freighter horns blared over the choppy waters. At the top of the cliff-like overhang, a little boy with a painted wooden toy truck dangling from his hands stood, watching. He was looking for his pa, but everyone looked the same. They all looked furious, too, so he stayed out of sight, behind a thorny bush. He had never seen fear on a man’s face before, but everyone here was frightened. Pa was never scared, and that’s how he would know who his pa was when he saw him.

From behind him came the soft slap of shoes on wet rock. Turning around, the little boy saw his mother, Anouke, still in her kitchen apron and boots. “Avery, come back. What have I told you about sitting at the top of this windy rock?” But even she was curious. Sitting down behind the bush with Avery, she peeked through the branches. “Have you seen him yet?” Avery shook his head sadly, beginning to fiddle with the painted wheel of the little truck in agitation.

Below, the muddy ground was becoming a mire of tracks from people, horses, Jeeps, tanks, and wheelbarrows. Men were disappearing fast, filing onto the cloth-topped boats in the water to set off for the opposite shore or catching the handles on the back of Jeeps and hauling themselves inside. The yelling had died down some, leaving a grim and determined droning in its place. Avery scooted out from behind the thorn bush so he could see more clearly. Everything smelled like cold, salty sea water, familiar but for the exhaust fumes that mixed into it as well.

“We should go, Avery.” Obstinately, he shook his head, staring straight ahead. The waves that lapped at shore were becoming discernable through the noise, but he wouldn’t leave until he’d seen his father. Avery recalled Pa’s words before he’d left that morning: I’ll wave to you, kiddo. Look for me. And then he’d disappeared into the terrified rush of oncoming soldiers bleeding through the streets of the village.

The sun must have been going down, for the clouds at the very edge of the sky were turning a sickly yellowish color. Soot from the retreating freighters’ smokestacks wafted back to shore and hung like a mourning ghost over the wet sand. With a pale rumble, thunder sounded in the south, and a slight breeze picked up, blowing away the smoky fog, for now. As the air cleared more, the little boy stared hard at the last, remaining ragtop boat in the harbor, which was still loading a clunky machine gun. Maybe if he stared hard enough, Pa would appear, smiling, and wave.

“Where is Pa?” asked Avery quietly, massaging the truck cab in his little palms as though it was the only thing keeping him from a meltdown. “He wanted me to say ‘bye.’” A little tremble of his lower lip warned his mother, and she stood, brushing her hands off on her skirts.

“Come on, we’ll go up a bit higher, maybe he’ll see us there.” She hated encouraging his stubbornness, but the truth was that she had hoped to see her husband, too. Climbing nimbly up the rocks like goats, they reached the top and peered down. The ragtop boat had set off from the shore, and the wind that had picked up was even brisker on top of the rocks, bringing the scent of November and its frost and decomposing leaves.

Though she really didn’t need to, Anouke shielded her eyes and strained them for a glimpse of the passengers. Avery copied her, then set down his truck, cupped his hands around his mouth, and shouted, “Pa!” To his mother’s amazement, a man on the boat stood up and moved to the back of the boat, pushing through the other crouching soldiers with fervor. The figure reached the back of the boat and practically hung over the edge, waving.

“Bye, kiddo!” came a faint call.





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