Somehow, when Joel takes her to see the ocean for the first time, Ellie isn’t afraid.
It’s mouth opens when she runs up to it, and flashes it’s frothy white shark teeth and almost, almost swallows her whole. But, Joel is there. His palm sits flat on her back, warm and big and rough n' tough like crocodile skin or weathered leather. His other cradles the back of her head and steadies her when she tilts back too far, and slowly, he teaches her to paddle her legs and wave her arms and to not thrash too hard when she's worried the water might take her down.
“Careful,” Joel says.
Ellie huffs and spits water, “I’m always careful.”
He laughs. “No you ain’t.”
Later, Joel tells her about his childhood, or, more specifically, when he first learned to swim. When his father taught him.
Ellie listens. She doesn’t say a word until she’s sure he’s finished. Her hair, despite the fire and the wind, is still sopping wet. She wrings it out with her hands and watches it turn the sand into little icky mud pies.
“Do you miss him?”
Ellie wipes her hands on her shorts. “Your dad.”
His mouth curls up a little. She waits.
“No,” he says, “No I don’t.”
Ellie chews her lip and picks at her finger nails. Her knife sits, alone and cold in her back pocket. “I never met my dad.”
Joel looks up at her. His eyes are quiet; patient. She continues, “Or my mum.”
“Yeah,” Joel breathes, “I bet you didn’t.”
Ellie looks at the fire. Joel passes her a can of old beans, the tin already open and a spoon in, only a quarter eaten because they have to share, and he thinks she’s too small for her age, even still with Jackson’s surplus of food. A blanket comes next, purple and threaded well. He wraps it tight around her shoulders. Tonight, she knows, he’ll make her take the softer pillow, and the warmer sleeping bag.
“Do you think they would’ve loved me?” She asks. “My parents, I mean.”
Joel looks at her. His eyes are warm, and his hands are too. He pats her knee and smiles and says, “I know they would’ve baby girl.”
And somehow, Ellie believes him.