The media keeps calling Nova a survivor. She knows it’s meant to be a compliment, and it’s not a bad word really. But it makes her think of reality shows and a Destiny’s Child song she’s sung into her hairbrush more than once. It’s not what comes to mind when she describes herself.
Survivors are people who survive plane crashes and car accidents. Those people are just lucky.
Luck just doesn’t come in to play with her. She isn’t still alive because she wore a seat belt or sat in the right seat on an airplane. She’s alive because she fought for it. She didn’t run away and she didn’t give up.
Nova doesn’t want to be called a survivor; she’d rather be called a fighter.
Her mother, Rachel, only gets to hold her for a brief moment, long enough to kiss her tiny face and to call her by the name she had just picked out the week before, Jennilynn.
Rachel is still smiling when she closes her eyes and leaves this world forever.
Three minutes and seventeen seconds. That’s the exact length of time that Jennilynn Clarke and her mother get to exist on earth together.
It’s hard to know what you lost when you never really had it, so she just keeps fighting.
Grandpa teaches her how to play baseball in the backyard and Grandma takes her to dance classes. And as she gets older, she asks about her mother. They tell her how beautiful and kind she was, and while Jennilynn was not something she planned to happen, she had been over the moon when she found out she was pregnant.
She feels safe and loved and even though she wonders how things would be different if her mother had lived, she knows she is exactly where she should be.
That’s the stuff she’s glad to remember.
She also remembers the things she doesn’t want to. The sound of the boat hitting the reef. Wood and metal twisting and creaking as it sinks in to the ocean. And the worst thing of all, the sound of the men screaming as each one is taken down by one very persistent shark.
She’s lying on the small yellow life raft while her grandfather hangs on to the edge of it with one hand and keeps the other hand on her arm. It’s quiet before the sharks come, just the sounds of the water splashing around them and the adults trying to stay afloat. When the shark comes to take the first one, a man she’s called Uncle Freddie her whole life, his screams pierce right through her.
Her grandpa tells her to shut her eyes, then puts her hands over her ears and holds them tight there until it’s over. She can still hear the screaming, and it feels like it lasts forever, but it’s only a few moments before everything goes silent again.
One by one, hours apart, the shark takes each man down and as if it’s part of some cruel plan, he leaves her grandfather for last.
She is tired and her throat dry, but she manages to whisper to him, “Someone will find us, won’t they? “Before – before –“
He grabs both of her tiny hands in his and kisses her on the forehead. “You know how much I love you, kiddo. Right?”
“Then be a good girl, and be strong, and if – if – just love your grandma and be a good girl. Now try and get some sleep, okay?”
She nods and puts her head down on the raft, kept warm by her grandpa’s over-sized jacket that she’s still wearing.
A couple hours later, he’s still holding her hand when the shark bites his leg. She tries to hold on to him, but she’s too weak and he slips away from her and down into the black water.
She doesn’t know what else to do she curls up in a ball and cries until her body gives out and she falls asleep. She stays that way until the sounds of the Coast Guard helicopters wake her up. In her half-awake state, she thinks the sharks are back until she looks up at the bright blue sky and sees they are already lowering someone down to pick her up.
Her savior’s name is Kevin, and soon as he reaches her he says, “Hey kid, you’re going to be okay now.”
But she’s not okay. He barely has her out of the raft when the shark jumps up to take a bite out of her thigh. The pain is like nothing she’s ever felt or will ever feel, but Kevin is a man of his word and he kicks at the shark until it lets go and flops back into the ocean beneath them.
And every year after that, for the rest of her life, Jennilynn’s grandmother sends Kevin a Christmas present for bringing her little girl back alive.
All she understands is there are no more baseball games in the backyard, and he’ll never curl up with her on the couch to watch cartoons on a Saturday morning again, and when she draws something in school he won’t be there to hang it up on his office wall.
Jennilynn doesn’t know how to grieve, so she just does what she’s told. Goes to bed when grandma says, eat when there is food in front of her, brushes her teeth, does her homework and tries to be a good girl.
For weeks, it’s this, the same routine day in and day out, until her grandma tucks her in after a particularly difficult day.
“Jenni, I know how much you miss him. And I do too. We haven’t spent a day apart in thirty-five years. And I know it hurts and you don’t understand why it happened and neither do I, but I need you. I can’t make it through this without you. I need you to be my precious girl again.”
She sits up and throws her arms around grandma’s neck thinking of her grandfather’s last words to her. “I will be. I promised him.”
Her grandmother pulls her closer and for that night only, she slips under the covers and sleeps all night in Jennilynn’s bed.
They get through it together. And that’s when she truly learns how to be a fighter.
Her grandma helps shape her into the woman she will later become, teaching her to never take disrespect from a man or anyone else.
When she’s seventeen, she comes home from school to find an ambulance in her driveway and her neighbor Mrs. Arthur standing on the doorstep looking distraught. The neighbor had come over to bring them a package that had been delivered to her by mistake when she found Jennilynn’s grandmother in her favorite chair, not breathing and already cold.
She hardly hears what Mrs. Arthur says and she doesn’t even bother to look at the paramedics inside as she pushes past them to get to her grandmother.
Her grandmother is in her chair, paler than Jennilynn has ever seen her and completely still. She had never been still in her entire life, always doing something and full of life and energy and now all of that is gone.
Jennilynn feels like she’s swallowed a brick, but she thinks about what her grandmother would want and it isn’t a sobbing, flailing mess of a girl. So she steps towards the chair, leans in to kiss her grandmother on the cheek for a final time and says goodbye with a promise that she’ll keep on fighting.
She rebels, not in a meth-lab-in-the-tool-shed way, but in the way that a lot of girls her age rebel. Too many late nights out, fooling around with boys (and a couple girls), and one too many nights stumbling back into Mrs. Arthur’s house after drinking her body weight in beer or tequila.
When she wakes up the morning after her eighteenth birthday on the bathroom floor with copious amounts of vomit in her hair, she knows she’s had enough.
She tries to contact her biological father and his family, but phone calls, letters and e-mails are never answered. Her high school graduation comes and goes and while she’s proud she’s made it through, she can’t bear to attend the ceremony knowing that the only person who will be in the audience for her is Mrs. Arthur.
The week after high school is over, she takes four hundred dollars out of her inheritance money and files the paperwork to have her first name changed to Nova. It’s something that causes the brightening of a star, a nuclear reaction, something you can’t ignore and that’s exactly who she wants to be.
Jennilynn was a name given to her by a mother she never knew, and now it’s time to leave it behind.
Her next purchase is for a bus ticket to Los Angeles, just hours down the coast from where she’s spent her entire life, but a place where no one knows Jennilynn or Nova. She’s not running away, she tells herself, not when there’s no one or nothing at home to run away from.
For the first three years, she works part time in retail and part time in a coffee house, and somehow manages to make it all work even if her apartment is the size of a closet and a piece of her beat-up car seems to fall off every other week.
She makes friends and learns how to surf and makes up a thousand different stories about where the scar on her leg is from. Maybe someone who survived a shark attack should be afraid of the ocean, but Nova is not. She’s always loved the ocean, since the first time her grandparents took her to the beach and even after the attacks. No damn shark is going to take that away from her.
On her one day off in three weeks, she meets some friends down at the Santa Monica pier. But she quickly leaves them all behind when she spots a bar with sign saying they’re looking for a full time waitress. Her grandparents raised her to be confident and demand what she wants, so she pulls the sign out of the window and heads straight for the tall blonde man behind the bar.
“So, are you the boss?”
He nods but looks confused as she hands him his sign. “Well, I’m Nova, and I’m your new waitress.”
Now he looks really confused, but he starts to hand her an application and she immediately waves it away. “Not necessary, it’s a done deal. I have three years experience, working in a coffee house. And I love it, but you don’t get tips like you’d get in a beach bar. I work hard, I show up on time and I look damn good in a bikini. Anything else you need to know?”
“You’re over 21?”
“For eight whole months. So when do I start?”
He stares at her intently and she knows it’s going to be a yes before he even says it. “Saturday at six. We’ll see how it goes.”
“You won’t regret it.”
She sees her friends outside and waves at them before looking back at her new boss. “My name’s Finley Shephard, by the way. Everyone calls me Fin.”
Nova grins as she heads towards the door, “See ya on Saturday, Fin.”
A year and a half of bliss.
Then it all becomes a shit storm.
Or a shark storm.
Or as the news channels are calling it, a “sharknado.”
If she had to list the top ten ways she expected to die, “in the belly of a shark during a tornado” would not even crack the list, not even the top one thousand.
She doesn’t remember much of it and she’s beyond grateful for that. One second she’s in the helicopter with Matt and then she’s on the ground covered in blood with a disemboweled shark next to her.
Nova really fucking hates sharks.
She doesn’t want to talk about it, and she certainly doesn’t think she’s any kind of hero. She’s just a girl who fought for her life and won.
Fin is able to reopen the bar after three months, at least the bottom floor. His living and office space upstairs is still being rebuilt but it doesn’t matter because he’s already moved back in with April.
Six months after the whole catastrophe and it’s almost like it never happened. Instead of five calls a day asking for interviews, they only get a couple a week. But Nova hasn’t forgotten and even though she tries to get back into her old routine but it just doesn’t seem to fit right anymore.
She slides her resignation letter across the bar in Fin’s direction at the end of a long Saturday night.
He opens it and reads it with a frown, “You’re quitting on me? Really?”
“I’m moving. To New Hampshire.”
“I – I was not expecting that.”
Nova shrugs and gives him a smile, “I dug into my trust account and I’m buying a bar right on the boardwalk in Hampton Beach. It’s a cute place, a fixer-upper, kinda like this but more east coast, y’know.”
“You’re running away?”
“Hell no, you know I don’t run away. I only run towards things and this is – it’s just something I wanted - needed to do.”
Fin is nodding as he folds her letter back up. “And Matt?”
“I care about Matt, he’s a great guy but –“ She tries to think of a nice way of saying that Matt is dumb as dirt but stops short.
“I know, he’s not exactly a challenge for a girl like you. He’s my kid, but – I’ll never understand how he passed the test to be a pilot.”
Nova laughs and responds, “Besides, April would hate having me as a daughter-in-law.”
Fin laughs too and then walks around the bar to hug her. “We are gonna miss you around here.”
“I’ll miss you too. But you know it’s not the same anymore either.”
“Yeah, I know.” He lets go of her and then says, “So you just can’t stay away from the ocean, can you? Not even after everything that’s happened?”
“No way. No Sharknado –“ she always says it with an eyeroll and like she’s italicizing it “- or Sharkicane or Sharkquake or Sharknami will ever take the ocean from me.”
It’s different being the boss instead of the waitress and she figures if she can survive multiple shark attacks, she can sure as hell demand respect from her employees. She’s only twenty-four, but no one treats her like the inexperienced kid, because she doesn’t put up with that kind of shit.
She thought working for Fin was great, but this is even better. Maybe she’ll own the whole damn town by the time she’s thirty.
But she doesn’t hesitate. She grabs her shotgun from under the bar and while everyone else is running away from the beach, Nova runs right towards it.
She commandeers an abandoned jet ski off the beach and heads towards the busted inner-tube and pool of blood that was the site of the attack.
It only takes a minute for the bastard to come up to look for another treat and she immediately shoots it right between the eyes.
When she gets back to the bar, one of her waitresses asks what happens, and Nova just tosses her gun on to an empty table and smiles.
“No sharks. Not on my fucking beach.”