Chapter One - Unforgiving Hop
THE RED TIDE is COMING!
Water Level Low.
SPRYT SightingsHighly Expected.
Un-luck + Disaster To All Who Encounter.
— Mayor Tanning
What a delightful sign to have hanging in front of one’s home — a mix of “watch out” with “you’re on your own.” But that’s living in Hop for ya, a’kay?
As a ﬂoating port in the middle of the sea, there weren’t any roads to or from Hop. On their own, indeed. But it wasn’t always so lonely. Fifty years ago, Hop was a bustling pitstop for the hundreds of trade ships sailing across the Domus Gulf every year. A place to “hop” from one side of the gulf to the other. Being a travel hub made it bursting with exotic goods and fresh ideas. But the wild waters of the gulf were hard to predict, and they only seemed to grow more dangerous over time. One shipwreck was enough to send thoughts and prayers, but after ten and twenty ships washed back blown to bits, it started to nip at the proﬁts. Soon traders found alternate land routes that may have taken longer, but at least weren’t so death-y.
Practically overnight, Hop and its people were forgotten like a used hanky in a puddle. Trapped on a ﬂoating port amid the unfor‐ giving sea, a stagnant idea stuck to them — anything made would just be unmade. What was to stop anything they worked hard to build from falling to pieces like Hop did? Nothin’ lasts but salt in yer ass became the most grafﬁtied words on the splintering streets, a series of long planks called “Boards.” Was there any point in shining your shoes, doing your hair, brushing your teeth? They would all end up dirty, tasseled, and yellow. Undone, eventually. Was there any point in building relationships, then? Nothing lasts but the salt in their asses, indeed.
Just behind that friendly “red tide” warning sign on Boulie Board, a skinny wreck of a home rose from the battered planks. Its number, 76, was drawn large and wide on the front and side in “Hopper White,” a local specialty paint whose main ingredient was seagull poop. Nothing could be wasted in Hop, not even waste. The pieces that made up the home had a kind of widely used look about them, like maybe that wall had once been the barnacled belly of a rowboat, and before that, it was a sign that said HOP: POPULATION 600. Its door was a full fourteen shades of a should-I-touch-that sort of green and was cracked at the bottom up to the knob. Its two sea-weathered windows were small and narrow like suspicious eyes squinting at the neighbors. By Hopper standards, the Izz family actually had quite a ﬁne little nest.
The only reason the Izz house somewhat outshined its raggedy neighbors was because of the family’s firstborn, Gaiel Izz. Gai liked to fix things when they broke. Something about broken objects made him queasy, compulsive even; a roar in the belly yapping at him to make it better. As for the things he couldn’t fix, he’d at least insist on putting a sheet of soggy newspaper over it or something. In fact, he patched so many holes in his clothes with newspaper that it became the dominant fabric. It crinkled as he walked.
One special night, this industrious ﬁfteen-year-old was lying motionless on the ﬂoor in one of the home’s damp upstairs bedrooms. His right ear was practically suctioned to the ﬂoorboards as he listened carefully for any signs of movement downstairs. He’d been listening so long his ear had become a bright, throbbing mushroom. This night, he’d embark on his most ambitious ﬁxing project yet — his twelve-year-old sister, Lynd.
While Gai may have been on the ﬂoor, he wasn’t out of bed. The ﬂoor was both of the Izz children’s bed. Many, many things ﬂoated by Hop in the strong currents, like sunken ship junk or garbage from far off Electri City on the mainland. But few were “cozy” materials for them to scoop out and use to make bedding. Since nothing came in or out of Hop, if a Hopper wanted something new, they’d best grab a scoop and pray to Zeea that whatever they needed happened to be ﬂoating by that day. Gai once scooped an armful of braided anchor rope and wove it into a nice blanket. He looked over at Lynd sleeping on it, snoring like a ship headed out to sea
— Twaahhh! Peaceful as she seemed, her little hands kept pulling at the fraying edges of the rope-blanket, almost like tearing it apart soothed her as a babe suckling their thumb would. She was deﬁnitely not a ﬁxer like her brother. Truly, she was quite the opposite.
Gai hadn’t heard a peep or a creak downstairs for quite some time and began to imagine their mother, Mape, had fallen asleep in her favorite rocking chair again. He then carefully studied his sister’s breathing. Slow and steady. Lynd’s asleep, too, he thought. It’s now or never.
The boy crept over to their narrow window. As usual, Mamma Mape heeded the mayor’s spryt warning outside and boarded up their windows nice and twice, like a good Hopper. He dared not risk yanking them open and letting the briny night mist blow in and wake up his sister. All he wanted near the window was a single piece of wood he’d hid above the pane — a reach too high for either Ma or Lynd to ﬁnd. Pulling it down, he remarked just how new this forearm- sized chuck of wood was. It didn’t have nail wounds from its time as a post or curly grooves where worms had eaten it. It didn’t smell like rot. It was the least Hop-like piece of wood he’d ever seen. It was even delicately curved — perfect for his plan to ﬁx Lynd. But it was only part of his plan.
Gai stuck the wood into the waist of his pants and quietly scur‐ ried to the only other opening in the Izz household — the toilet. Or, in Hopper terms, the “dumper.” The ﬂoorboards creaked as he entered the small room with a generous hole cut in the ﬂoor for elim‐ ination of all kinds. Gai could hear the whooshing water directly beneath. Sometimes it splashed up at him if the chop was particu‐ larly rough. He peered down into the wet darkness, and his stomach churned like the sea. Did he absolutely have to ﬁx Lynd tonight? After all, he could easily just curl back onto his ﬂoor-bed and no one would know a thing. Should he use the bathroom ﬁrst? His sister snored so loudly and abruptly in the next room — Twahh-twahhh! — that he nearly wet himself right there out of fear. He exhaled, hoping his fears would sort of just blow out of him. “I have to. For Lynd.”
Getting through the dumper hole was the easy part. Finding his footing in the nasty, molding jungle of posts that held up Hop below was indeed a trick. It was sticky and slippery in all the wrong places. This area was called the “Under Board,” and it was nowhere anyone ought to be. It was closer to the dangerous water, smelly as a dead cod, and who knows who could be sneaking around in the dark with him? And let’s not even mention the chances of getting a splinter. But Gai believed his plan was worth the risks. His sister needed help. He went carefully and only breathed in with quick mouth-gulps. In about twenty gulps, he found his way under the house and back up onto Boulie Board proper, gasping for what counted as fresh air in Hop.
He’d made it out of the house. He’d actually done it. He was outside in the middle of the Hop night for the ﬁrst time ever. And he was alone. It was time to ﬁnd the ingredients he needed for his plan to work. Leaning near the front door of 76 were two long nets — scoops, as they were cleverly called — about three times his height. He snatched one and tippy-toed to the Board edge, listening for anything that wasn’t the sound of rushing water. There were plenty of characters to encounter in Hop’s darker hours — nosey neighbors, thieves, rival scooper gangs, spryts even. Anything was possible. “Deﬁ‐ nitely should’ve used the bathroom ﬁrst.”
Gai lowered his scoop into the strong currents below. “A’way, Zeea. Gimme some luck.” His handle bent three times with fresh catches before he pulled it out. “Balls at ya,” he huffed, pawing through the dripping net. “All watermoss.” The boy plucked out a small crab from the tangled watermoss. “Well, there’s a nice crabby for Emilie in here, at least. More than we scooped earlier—”
“Ya snuck out to get pet food?” someone spoke behind him.
Ahh! Gai dropped everything but the crab and spun around with it in his hand like its tiny claws were a weapon. Pinch, pinch. In the dim light, his not-at-all-sleeping, absolutely-faking-it sister stood chest-high to him. Her wavy hair was dark as the night around her, so she was all cheeks and eye-whites. “Lynd.” His shoulders relaxed. “I thought ya were asleep? Get back inside.”
“I know.” She sighed. “Finally had to fake snore to get ya to leave . . . Did ya just wee yer pants?” “No! What? Never! What?”
“But durin’ that thunderstorm—”
“I told ya that was the rain leakin’ through the roof !” He came close to whisper. “How’d ya even know I was gonna sneak out?”
“I didn’t.” Lynd reached for his newspaper-patched shirt and crinkled it. “But ya sound like a rat chewin’ on garbage when ya move.”
“Ya think yer so smart,” he huffed.
Gai then noticed a thin sliver of wood gripped tightly in his sister’s hand. It was about the length of her foot and as thick as a ﬁnger. She was mindlessly playing with the splintering edge the same way she did with her blanket.
“At least ya listened to Ma,” he said. “Always bring somethin’ to snap when ya leave the house. Just in case.”
She ignored him and looked at the crab, “Gaiel Izz, the good boy, snuck out for the ﬁrst time. To get Em pet food?”
“Yeah,” he lied, stone-faced.
Lynd bent the tip of that piece of wood in her hand off with her bare thumb. Snap!
The boy ﬂinched, “A’kay. A’kay. Don’t get mad. Please at ya.” “Waitin’,” she sung, rocking on her heels.
“Keep yer voice down,” he whispered. “I’m just lookin’ for some‐ thin’, a’kay?”
“I knew it,” she said, pointing to Mayor Tanning’s red tide warning sign. “Ma said the sign’s about spryts comin’. Yer out to ﬁnd one without me, ain’t ya?”
“Spryts?” he scoffed. “No. I’d like to live.” “What’s so important, then?” Lynd whined.
“Get. Back. In. Side,” he said with all the older-brother-authority he could fake. “Wait, how did ya get out?”
“All I had to do was break those boards over the window,” she said proudly. “I pulled apart that rope blanket ya made me and climbed down.”
“Ya don’t say.” Gai wiped off a layer of Under-Board muck from his arm. “Anyway, get back in. I won’t tell ya again.”
Snap! She broke off another piece of the wood in her hand. “Fine.” Gai tossed the crab back into the water. “I’m not out here for food. I’m not out here for spryts. What’s tomorrow?” Lynd smiled wide. “My birthday . . .”
“A big one.” He fanned out both his hands. “Yer gonna be thir‐ teen ﬁngers old.”
She grabbed one of his hands and closed it. “Ya still talk to me like I’m only ﬁve ﬁngers.”
“Still got the claws out?” He turned his back to her and sat down, dangling his feet over the edge of the Board. “All’s a’kay. I didn’t scoop what I need to make yer present anyway.”
“Ya risked sneakin’ out . . . to make me a present?” Lynd sat next to him and wrapped her arm all the way around to his other shoul‐ der. “Thanks at ya! I love it — will love it. Whatever it is. What is it?”
“Will ya keep yer voice down? I don’t wanna think what’ll happen if someone ﬁnds us out here.” He pointed down, “Someone could crawl right up from the Under Board and grab us.”
“A’kay. . .”
“And yer stabbin’ me with yer broken wood.”
“Oh, sorry at ya.” Lynd shriveled a bit in embarrassment.
He sighed. “No, lucky ya brought that thing. Or Boulie could’ve gotten a new crack in it instead. Or I could’ve.”
“I know ya don’t mean to break things,” Gai interrupted, peering down Boulie Board to the center of Hop.
All the Boards started in a central point and radiated out like spokes on a wheel. At night, the center glowed faintly yellow with a few bright electri lamps. Most Hoppers could never afford fancy Electrian toys like ﬂameless lamps, so having one was sort of a status beacon. Note, having high status in Hop still meant one’s toilet was a hole in the ﬂoor.
He whispered, “Remember the time we scooped a lamp?” “Mhm. Was the happiest I saw Ma since Pa left,” Lynd said. “We should’ve kept it.”
“She was right to sell.” Gai pointed to each yellow light. “Light makes ya easy to spot. I’d rather not have any extra targets on our back.”
“Ya think Pa could be back for my birthday, Gai?”
The boy turned away. “I thought ya got tired of askin’ me that?” Lynd stood up. “A’way.”
“Finally,” he yawned. “I’m ready for bed.”
“Bed? There’s no bed when ya got a present to make.” She offered her hand. “Let’s head to the center. Everything that ﬂoats by collects there, so maybe we’ll scoop what ya need?”
Gai shot to his feet. “Have ya lost yer brains? Every spot down there is claimed by one scooper gang or another. Ever heard of the Wicked Wikets? They’ll net us up like clams!”
Lynd had already started walking down Boulie while he was babbling. When he ﬁnally ﬁnished, she whispered, “I wish ya weren’t such a sogg sometimes.”
“What’d ya call me?” The word struck Gai right in the beating heart. Sogg. Bump. Bump. Was that what he was? Bump. Bump. Sogg was Hopper slang for a useless person, like when someone would scoop something they thought was nice at ﬁrst, but turned out to be all soggy and unusable. What an unforgiving term. How could he ﬁx being a sogg? The boy picked up his scoop and banged it like a gavel. “Back home, now!”
Lynd stopped. But she wouldn’t turn around. Her little shoulders rose and fell with a sigh. “We only go outside to work.” She began snifﬂing. “Everything’s too dangerous. Can’t even remember the last time Ma stepped out onto the Boards. We can’t make any friends because—” Snap! She broke the wood in her ﬁst again. Snap! Then another piece. Snap!
“All’s a’kay,” Gai said softly, gesturing with his palms open like Lynd was a wild, bucking horse. Breaking things was some kind of release for her. When she got upset, she had to break something. If she didn’t break something with her hands, then something would just break around her — hands-free. It was frightening to the boy and terrifying to their mother, who tried her very best to ignore it. That nice crack in their front door was Lynd’s doing, as were four more just like it inside the Izz home.
Boulie Board’s planks began to rumble under their feet as if the waves were pounding the Under Board. The posts rattled. Gai’s cheeks rippled. But the boy knew this was no seaquake. It was Lynd’s bizarre destructive power boiling up to the surface again. The boy hobbled to his sister, softly singing a song their Pa used to play, “We’ve been here before . . .”
Lynd’s ﬁst loosened.
“With yer hand in mine,” he continued.
The planks eased their quaking. Lynd’s shoulders settled down away from her jaw.
Gai sang, “In my heart, there’s a window. And it sees through time . . .”
Lynd turned to him and smiled as if nothing super crazy just happened.
“See,” said Gai. “All’s a—”
Waaahhhhhhhh! A loud horn blared from a few houses down, followed by heavy, clanking footsteps coming at them fast. Gai took Lynd’s free hand and led her to the edge of the Board, where they both climbed down to hide in the Under Board.
The noisy boots banged right above them, pounding back and forth like they were searching around. Then, snifﬁng them out like a dog, they stepped right to the edge from where the Izz kids had just climbed down. Gai and Lynd huddled tightly just beneath and held their breath. They dared not make a sound. Finally, after a few long beats, the boots clanked back to where they came. The boy and girl exhaled together with relief.
“Mrs. Shakk,” Gai said. “Our favorite neighbor.”
“Why does she have to use that yellin’ horn?” Lynd plugged her ears. “Makes my head wanna explode.”
“Satisﬁed?” Gai waved her to the edge. “Let’s get home quick before someone else comes. Or you get upset—ugh—before someone else comes.”
Lynd stayed leaning in the crux of two beams.
“A’way, Lynd. Ya gotta admit this is way more excitement than anyone promised ya when ya went to bed.”
She grasped the wood tightly in her hand. But did not break it this time. “A’kay.”
“Wow.” Gai gently put his hand on her shoulder. “Pa’s old ﬁddle song really calms ya up, yeah?”
Lynd only offered a tiny smirk.
As the boy began his climb back up to the Boulie, two more stomping feet rushed toward them again. Who knew the Boards were so busy at night? Gai ducked back under and waited for whomever it was to pass.
Clink. The person dropped something just as they were walking above Gai and Lynd. “This rotten old sachet,” a woman said, picking it back up. “Everythin’ else in this world’s got a hole in it, ‘course this does too, she says.” The woman then walked down toward the center of Hop, muttering, “Zeea, I pray this is worth it.”
“Gai,” Lynd whimpered. “That was Ma!”
“What?” He tried to peak through the spaces between Boulie’s planks. “What did she mean ‘worth it’? What’s she doin’?”
“She never goes out!” Lynd smacked his shoulder. “We have to follow her!”
“No, Lynd. We’re goin’ home.”
She scoffed and paused, glaring at him. “Yer such a sogg. What if somethin’ happens to her?”
Bump. Bump. The sogg remark. That made two times. A ﬁst-sized lump formed in his throat. Where did she get an idea like that? Bump. Bump. He looked at the wood still clutched in his sister’s hand. All that destruction nonsense started the night Pa left. Was that why he was a sogg? Because he couldn’t ﬁx her? He was trying. He did his best to ﬁx everything that broke in the house due to her strange power. He was even sneaking out to make the perfect present, one that actually might calm Lynd when she needed it. Maybe then the destruction would stop. He could patch up a few cracks, but what else was he supposed to do to ﬁx Lynd? Bump. Bump. Put a piece of news‐ paper over her?
Lynd turned and said, “What if somethin’ happens to her like P—”
“Stop!” Gai accidentally shouted. He went to cover his mouth but then puffed out his chest instead. “Ya won’t keep up with Ma, jumpin’ on the dinky ones.” He leaped from beam to beam as a monkey moves through tree limbs.
She giggled. “Lead the way, wetleg.”