Vineet’s father had always been a man of highs and lows. Now that he was gone, Vineet figured the highs had been like tides in the ocean Dad had loved so much. He remembered his father enthralling audiences with his lectures about currents, eroding coastlines, and storms, always storms. He remembered the adoring students who worked their butts off at Dad’s very own University of Washington climate change lab.

Vineet tried not to remember the lows, because they made him feel empty inside and hadn’t this day been a punch in the gut already?

It hadn’t started that way. His parents left in the morning as always, Mom in her car and Dad on his bike, which he’d park at the train station before taking the light rail to campus. Vineet went to school, then to Earth Club and wrestling. He came back home, let himself in. He scrounged rice and chicken from the depths of the fridge. He threw himself on the couch and studied the night’s possibilities on his SkyGuide phone app.

In the evening, Mom returned home. “Did Dad call?” she said. He was often late but he always called.

“Nope. He’s probably meeting with students or something. You’re a bit late, aren’t you?”

“Traffic,” Mom said. She’d worked for years at the University hospital, leaving for her nursing job while it was dark and returning only when it turned dark again. Every few weeks she’d switch to night shift, still dark-to-dark, only in reverse.

“Put some hot water on for me, sweetie,” Mom said. “I’d love a cup of tea.”

While Vineet put the kettle on and made her tea, Mom put the phone to her ear once, twice, then gave up. “He must have left the lab,” she said. “He’s probably on his way. Come. Sit with me for a bit.”

He brought her tea and sat beside her on the blue floral couch. At his knees, the coffee table was piled with science journals. One of them lay open, an article partially marked up in yellow highlighter.

Mom sipped slowly while Vineet told her about Earth Club and the plan to reduce light pollution at his school. As he talked, she nodded, but he could see how she was really listening for the crunch of his father’s bike turning into the gravel driveway. When he got to Fern’s plan to hike Little Si in the summer, she smiled a bit. Vineet couldn’t tell if the smile was just tired or sad.

A sudden memory assailed him of a long-ago vacation trip to Canada, to Vancouver and then to a bunch of islands. Boat trips and laughter, lots of laughter. How long had it been since he’d heard his parents laugh?

The thought made his stomach turn to stone, so he quickly started thinking about good times, funny times from when he was little. Collecting sea glass on the beach for the jar in the window, still half full. Slip-sliding on kelp and laughing so hard he couldn’t stop.

“What is that?” Vineet had asked Dad, many years ago. He’d been five, maybe six, and they were at the pool. Was it the first time he noticed the great big gash bisecting his father’s body, angling over his stomach? “What happened to you, Daddy?”

“Accident,” Dad had said. “See? I had to have stitches.” He let Vineet feel the little lumps and bumps edging the scar, but then he pulled away as if the spot was still sensitive. And he wouldn’t tell him anything more. Not a thing.

Now, in the living room, with the evening drawing down, Vineet asked Mom. “Did Dad always have that scar?”

She gave him a quick look before replying quietly, “As long as I’ve known him.”

“Do you know how he got it?”

“A diving accident. Long before we met. Back in India, I’m sure. Why?”

“Nothing,” said Vineet. “Just thought of it.” Why were all these memories surfacing now? He glanced at the clock on the wall, blinking the minutes along.

He said to Mom, “Dad always wanted me to be a swimmer.”

“Oh, I don’t know,” she said. “Everybody has their own thing. He’s proud of your science fair medals. The astronomy stuff you’re into.”

“I guess,” Vineet said. On his thirteenth birthday, Dad had taken him snorkeling offshore. But the water was freezing. Vineet hated dunking his face in and getting it all salty. He’d refused to go again. He was sure Dad was disappointed. He himself had such a love for the water. A kind of affinity, he always said. It was natural he’d want to share it. But for Vineet, the sky was where the magic lay.

By now an hour had gone by. No call. No bike in the driveway. Vineet said, “Should I put my telescope out? It’s supposed to be clear. Maybe Dad will want to check the sky out after dinner.”

“Sure, go ahead.” Mom got up and began to tidy the living room, folding the knitted throw, straightening pillows.

Vineet went to his room. He got the Celestron out, the telescope that was practically an extension of his mind. He took it out the kitchen door to the back yard and started to set it up.

Dad had bought the telescope for him the year he turned fourteen. Vineet spent countless hours changing the settings, trying new hacks on the software so he could hook it up to his old laptop. Looking for the shiniest objects in the heavens.

A memory came so swiftly he nearly dropped the scope, recovered it just in time. That night when the Celestron was still shiny new, the clouds had lifted in the east, and the view opened up to the stars. The autumn night was good and dark, no moon and Cassiopeia pulling up over the tops of the cedars behind the house.

Just as Mars was swimming into focus, Dad came out and started messing with the settings. “Hey!” Vineet protested.

Dad pointed the scope over the wide roof pitch, to where Aquarius the water carrier and Capricornus the sea-goat were dim in the southern quadrant. What was he doing?

“Cetus,” Dad murmured. “Delphinus.” The watery constellations.

Vineet had said, “That’s a lousy view, Dad. I was trying to find Mars.” Mars was pumpkin-colored, risen, ripe for finding. A thing he could reach out and pull into view and it took him out of himself, into some great beyond.

But his father wasn’t listening. He seemed to have become suffused with a kind of light himself, as if he was ready to beam up.

Get a grip, damn you, Vineet told himself and went back in the house. A chill coursed through him. To shake the feeling, he called his girlfriend, Fern.

“I’m putting out the old Celestron,” he said. “Want to come over?” Fern had zipped into his life like a meteor shower the same year that he’d gotten that telescope. She joked that she’d dated a boy and his telescope, since there was no way to separate them.

“Can’t,” she said. “My grandma’s visiting.” Fern was from one of those islands between here and Canada, a creature of no borders with family that came and went unpredictably. “Maybe tomorrow?”

She kept on talking about the grandmother and her aunt and a cousin’s new baby. He could have listened to her forever, but he snuck a peek at the time on his phone. Two hours since Mom had come home.

“Is something wrong?” Fern said. “I can feel it. Come on, talk to me.”

He told her how Dad wasn’t home and it wasn’t like him not to call.

“I’m sure he’s fine,” she said, so reassuring it almost worked.

Muffled voices on her end. Probably the family calling her to dinner. He was reluctant to let her go, but had to wrap up the call.

Footsteps jolted him to attention but it was only Mom. “That wasn’t Dad on the phone, was it?” she asked.

“No, just Fern,” he said, and saw her face fall. She shook her head and went back to the living room.

Fern had once asked him about his parents. “They don’t touch much or kiss or anything, do they?”

Vineet said his parents had always been like that. Maybe it was because they were from India, where people didn’t do such things in public.

“I’m not public,” Fern pointed out. “And what about Bollywood?”

“That’s different,” Vineet said. “That’s the movies.”

She wouldn’t give up. “Doesn’t India have, like, a massive population? So obviously there is touching going on then, isn’t there?”

“You don’t understand,” he’d said.

She wanted to understand, but her persistence had annoyed him at the time. He’d felt like a planet caught up in the wrong orbit. He got over it, as he got over most things, letting time slip those conversations away. But now that memory—of Fern and him, talking about his parents—wrapped itself around a funny feeling he’d had about them, maybe a couple of years ago, that they weren’t even talking a whole lot to each other, much less kissing.

The memories gathered and reshuffled themselves, as if they were trying to form patterns.

“Vineet!” Mom called, and now her voice was panicked.

He ran to her. She said, “I called the lab again and someone answered.”

“Yeah? So?” Why was she looking so stricken?

She said, “One of the faculty was working late. She said he’s not there.”

“So maybe he left already.”

“No.” Her voice was high and sharp and quivery. “You don’t understand. He hasn’t been to his office. To the lab. On campus. In a year.”

“A year?” Vineet heard himself say in a stupefied echo.

“Everybody thought he was on sabbatical. They thought he was home working on the article about his research.”

“The article?”

“Ocean temperatures. Public policy connections. You know.” Of course. The papers on the table marked up in yellow, the markups left unfinished.

After the elections, when the climate change deniers won all around, Dad had been glued to the TV, addicted to fury, swearing at the talking heads until he was hoarse. “Bastards,” he’d yelled. “Can’t anybody see where this is going?” The light of the TV screen flickered across the window behind the sofa. Shadow Dad, helpless and angry, caught in a tsunami of bad news.

“You’re not the only one who’s angry,” Mom said. “Lighten up, for God’s sake. You can’t take it all so personally.”

“They’re going to take down the planet. You’ll see. It’ll be personal then. Trust me.” The words resounded in Vineet’s mind now, hollow, as if coming from far away.

Mom had worried that Dad was getting depressed, overly obsessed with every item of bad news about the field he’d given his life to. But what did that mean, on this day?

Vineet said, “Where did he go? Like every day? He didn’t tell you?”

“No,” she said, her words brittle as glass. “He didn’t.”

“What the hell—I don’t understand.”

Her face tightened. “We could have gone somewhere. He could have gotten a research grant someplace. He could have … he could have taken you out on one of their research vessels.” She seemed about to crumple into herself, then she took a breath. She straightened up and reached for the phone.

“What are you going to do?”

“I’m calling the police.”

The police from the Missing Persons Unit were rough in a well-meaning way and they made Vineet’s mother cry. They went away with notes about Dad’s newly discovered sabbatical, and about all the places he used to go. The University, of course. The lab. The coffee shop on Jameson Street. The running trails in Discovery Park. “We’ll keep you posted,” they promised.

It stormed that night. The wind was so fierce it whipped the tops of the tallest cedars as if they were feather dusters. The branches creaked so loudly Vineet could hear them through the closed windows. NOAA issued a weather advisory for the coast: possible landslides and gale-force winds. Vineet texted Fern but she must have turned her phone off. He couldn’t stop shivering. He sat up in bed all night.

When his clock blinked three in the morning, Vineet found himself humming a song Fern liked to sing. Maybe because she helped him make sense of the world, or because she first sang it to him on the beach at the south end of Discovery Park. They’d sat on a damp log, watching the tide pull slowly in, the kelp trails with their round heads bobbing on the surface. “I am a man upon the land. I am a selchie on the sea.”

She sang “I am a man” without a trace of irony. She sang through a purse of gold, a summer’s day, and a little young son, all the way to a final stanza, ta-tum, ta-tum. She was like someone from another century when she sang. It was old people’s music but somehow she made it real. The song made him feel ready to float up and away.

“Haven’t heard that one before,” he’d said.

“Old Scottish ballad. A human who’s really a seal, lives in two worlds.”

The hair stood up on the back of Vineet’s neck. He tried to attach a label, something that always helped him control the unfathomable things in life. “Mythology.”

“It’s about everyone who doesn’t fit in. Everyone longing to be something or somewhere else.” Which is me, he’d thought, and now, flopping back on his bed, bone-tired, it occurred to him that Dad was that way too. It didn’t do anything to heal the fear in his heart about his father, but somehow it helped to think about the story, its geography and its oldness all tied in to the lure of the sea. It was a glimmer of the unreal folding over and over the real world through time, in a way that might even make sense someday. It made him wonder, where did he long to be? For a minute he felt himself lifting as if on wings, up into the darkness of the sky. For a moment he thought he caught a glimpse of some wild truth and then the terror returned.

In the morning, the police came back. They’d found Dad’s clothes, soaked through but neatly folded and left on the beach with a rock on top. Hat, raincoat, jeans, shirt, shoes, socks, underwear. The lot.

“We’ll comb the coast,” the cop said. “We’re so sorry. Did he have any reason, do you suppose, for—?”

Vineet stared. Mom said nothing. What was there to say?

One of the cops left her card, along with a plea for hope. “We’ll get in touch as soon as we find out more. You never know.”

You never know. What did that mean? Was there something beyond knowing?

When they were alone again, Mom sat by the window, letting a cup of tea turn cold. “He was so brilliant,” she said, staring out into the mist. “So damn brilliant. What was the use?”

“What do you mean, was?” Vineet said.

She shuddered. “I don’t know. I have a bad feeling.”

“Was brilliant? Was? You can’t just—what the fuck?” Vineet felt his voice getting louder. “You can’t just give up on him!” He was shouting now. He wanted her to look at him. He wanted her to keep her mind open. He wanted the crunch of the bike in the driveway, the beep of the security keypad, the shudder of the garage door rolling up and then back down again. Then Dad would come in and they could keep on keeping on, bad news and disappointments and all.

But Mom put her head in her hands. Her shoulders shook and suddenly, the house was filled with the anguish of lives half-lived. Vineet leaped up, toppling a pile of science journals off the coffee table.

He ran out the front door. He ran and ran. For hours, it felt like. Down the trail Dad always took, past the wooden boardwalks, uphill and down again. He ran all the way to the beach at the southern end of Discovery Park, littered with gravel and shells, bits of sea glass and masses of driftwood, everything sculpted by the ocean. He threw himself down on the sharp gravel, welcoming the punishment. He lay there, sobbing out loud. The wind picked up his cries and blew them over the water.

Hours went by before he felt a hand on his arm. It was Fern.

“How’d you know I was here?” he mumbled.

“Where else would you go? Oh, Vin. I’m so sorry.”

“You heard?”

“I stopped by the house,” she said.

The horror of it swept over him anew and he thought, I will never forget this. The taste of the salt air, the weight of this feeling. Everything he knew about his father rushed back to him in waves and it, too, was part of here and now. He thought of Mom with a sudden tenderness and regretted he’d shouted at her.

And now he could smell Fern’s hair as she knelt in the sand and bent over him. It was scented with some kind of fruity shampoo and that too was part of this moment.

She sang, so softly he could hardly hear the words, but he knew that tune. The selchie song. He shuddered.

“Do you know what I think?” she said.


“All of our fathers are selchies. And our mothers too. All alien beings on loan to us for a while, before we’re ready to go on our own way.”

She made it seem fitting and right and so very ordinary. She took the years of his puzzlement about his parents and the mystery of his father, whom he’d never understood, and she made it all seem forgivable. He didn’t know what to say, so he hauled himself up painfully and then he was kissing her because kissing her brought him back from the brink, brought him into his own life again. She kissed him back, all moist and warm and mango-scented, just the touch of her dissolving him into a shapeless, trembling mess. In a weird way, dissolving like that made him not only more intensely himself but also a part of everything, the water lapping against the shore and the screeching gulls swarming the fishing boats in the distance.

While the police continued to scour the shoreline, Vineet came back daily to the beach and Fern came with him. Rain or shine, they sat on the damp logs and watched the water. On dry days, Fern brought her guitar and strummed it. Sometimes she sang.

Even after the police stopped searching, Vineet still came, and Fern with him. One day, the entire sky was gray, sagging with the kind of rain that misted the air and settled gently upon Vineet’s hair and shoulders. Fern’s hand in his, with the world swimming into hazy focus, he saw something move in the waves. Out in the shifting, changing water, beneath the wind-ruffled surface. A shape rose up, the waves sliding off sleek, grey-brown flanks. A whiskered face turned to the sky. The seal leaped. It was enormous, the big propeller scar banded across its girth. It turned and leaped, looked once, dove down, leaped up again for the last time. And was gone.

He gripped Fern’s hand as if to make sure he was still holding it. The visibility toggled from murky to dazzling. The sun emerged from behind a cloud and all at once, Vineet could see everything and nothing.

{ Edited by Alexa Wejko. }