Our story begins in a certain seaside town that was neither too big for a quaint lifestyle, nor too small for a bustling nightlife. It was like many other seaside towns in the world: the harbor was its life, bringing in tanned soldiers that strutted up and down the boardwalk each night and drank their fill in the nightclubs that beat an endless pulse into the otherwise quiet air. The fish market was an old-world style affair with wooden stands and fresh fish displayed for anyone to look and buy. The children played in the shallows only to grow up and leave each morning on the day's shift, coming back at the mooring hour with aching limbs as they headed for their homes.
The greatest of these mighty sailors was named Yoska, and was rumored to have counted five hundred pounds of fish as a slow day's work. Yoska had three beautiful daughters, but before the youngest was five years old he disappeared at sea and never returned. Some say they'd seen the boat drawn in by a storm, others said that they could have sworn he'd headed out to open waters chasing a mighty fish as long as his boat. The more cynical whispered that he'd left for another woman in a place far from his hometown.
But no matter what the reason, no one ever saw hide nor hair of the great Yoska again. His grieving widow turned to laundering and mending fishing nets as her way of income, and the three sisters grew up poor as dirt. Oftentimes this would bring young girls together; and while the two younger did hold a friendly repartee once in a blue moon the sisters were, for the most part, indifferent to one another.
When the eldest came of age, she left to seek her fortune. She was blonde and had a dainty face that looked like the tales of Fae-folk, and for her full eighteen years she'd gotten by on her beauty alone. Two towns over, she found a rich miser who needed a young, pretty wife to show up at country clubs and charity gatherings; she never looked in the direction of home again, though if she remembered she'd send the mother a half-hearted Christmas card. The mother sighed with a broken heart, but the vain girl wasn't missed by her sisters.
When the second oldest came of age, she too left to seek her fortune in a town beyond that of a glorified fishing village. She had the dark locks and bright eyes of Selkie-folk, but unlike the eldest she had taken into mind that hard work and perseverance was the key to success. She moved three towns over and found work and board in a little restaurant owned by a very old woman. She stayed there, working nearly eighteen hours a day without a hint of overtime pay. She never looked in the direction of home again, but she sent half her earnings to her mother as supplement along with the occasional letter speaking of her hopes that the restaurant would be bequeathed to her in the event of the old woman's demise.
When the youngest daughter came of age, her mother had become too poorly in health to do much of the laundering anymore, and spent her remaining years working solely on the fishing nets. They could stay alive thanks to the second daughter's monthly checks, but she couldn't get around to town anymore. Her fingers had become frail, shaking as she threaded her needle to ply her trade. It was almost pitiful how hard the old woman worked, when she should have been living a life of ease with three daughters caring for her.
So the youngest shrugged her shoulders and set herself to caring for her mother in the others' absence, doing housework and repairs and arguing with the greengrocer each week over prices. She had no grudge over the matter; oftentimes she sat around and decided that should she have set off to earn her fortune, she'd have failed miserably. She'd never been much of anything, anyway: she was neither pretty nor ugly, and not incredibly lazy or hardworking either; the only thing she'd ever had going for her was her wits.
This youngest, whose name was Lisa, could often be seen carting around mended nets to the townspeople or heading home with a sack of groceries slung over her back. She was taller and more spindly than either of her sisters, and she insisted on keeping her hair cut to her chin and dying it a frightful shade of blue that made all the old wives cluck and shake their heads.
"That Lisa girl," they'd say, leaving it at that. Everyone in the town wondered at her: though both her sisters had turned out well enough, fate had made her take life by the horns in the worst possible way. In order to keep from being bullied by the sailors and taken advantage of by stall-owners, she'd grown bold, cynical, sarcastic, and as foul-mouthed as a tradesman's apprentice.
And above all, the child was already able to knock down grown men of twice her size in a single blow and barely twenty-three! Oh, the shame Yoska would have felt if he could only see… of course, no one ever mentioned that if Yoska had not been lost at sea, Lisa would never have had to become that way in order to keep herself and her mother alive.
Lisa was well aware of what everyone said about her, but she never found time to care. It was always one thing after another; it reminded her of the story of Cinderella and the toiling work the poor girl had had to suffer through. But Lisa didn't mind the cooking and cleaning and rare street brawl. It was simply her responsibility to look after her mother, and that's what she did.
But she finally did regret her standards of living one day, and it was the day before it changed forever.
It all started early that morning. Lisa arose before the crack of dawn, the way she always did, and proceed to dress. Her shirt was the throwaway of some sailor, and she had considered it good enough to salvage from the trash and reuse, as her previous one had been torn to tatters some time before and she was too poor to afford a new one. It was baggy and hung off one shoulder, but she was past caring.
Her jeans were a Christmas gift from the middle sister, who had sent them direct from the city. They were her size, but as skinny as she'd become with working and lack of food, she had been forced to take a piece of spare rope and make a belt. Her feet were always, always bare, but she never envied those townies that ran around in the latest toe-pinching heels. She liked to bury her feet in the sand, and you couldn't climb cliffs or wade around the bay in stilettos.
The time before dawn was the only time she had to herself all day, and she enjoyed every moment of it. Stealing away from the little shanty that served as her house, she climbed to the top of the cliffs to watch the ships sailing out of the harbor as the sun rose higher into the azure sky. The early morning wind whipped at her uncombed hair, making it stand out in all directions, but she kept it short enough that it would never get in her way while she worked and so the tangles were always at a minimum.
Once the sun had climbed up fully above the rippling waves, she made her way back down the cliffs and to her house, where her mother had already risen and was stoking the hearth fire. She kissed the old woman's withered cheek and then prepared eggs for breakfast, cleaning up while her mother began to start on the day's nets.
Then it was scrubbing the shanty—which was cleaner than most townhouses—sorting through bills, counting the dwindling funds, and by that time her mother had finished three nets for her to take to town. On the way back she stopped at the post office for the mail, and that was where her troubles began. When the postwoman handed over the two letters, the topmost one stood out and Lisa stopped to read it outside the weathered building.
It was a doctor's bill, the latest from a long line that had been helping her mother's arthritis and bad heart. The doctors all said the same thing—overwork and malnutrition—but there wasn't much that could be done about that. The old woman refused to stop mending the nets, and there was just no way to get more food without stealing it.
Pursing her lips, Lisa opened the second letter, from her sister. In it was the usual check for three hundred dollars, along with a little note wishing their mother a happy birthday and urging Lisa to kiss the old woman in her absence. Looking again at the notice, her heart sank; even if they went without food and property tax, there was nowhere near enough to pay the bill and collect the prescribed medicine for her heart.
Blinking back tears, she ran to the bank and cashed the check before heading home. She entered, hiding the letters from her mother and instead placing the money on the splintery wooden crossbeam that they had 'reutilized' as a table.
"So the check came?" her mother asked, her eyes lighting up as she read her second daughter's note.
"Yeah, I'm glad to see she's still doing well," Lisa replied offhandedly, moving to take the pot of stew from the fire as it began to bubble violently. She couldn't afford it to boil over—that stew was supposed to last them three meals.
"By any chance did my prescription come through the mail?" her mother then asked, folding the note and wobbling over to put it in the ripped cardboard box that held all the important papers. Lisa felt a lump in her throat arise at the hopeful tone in her voice.
"Actually, it did," she answered, reluctantly pulling the notice from her pocket and laying it on the table as well. Her mother opened it, reading it through and Lisa had to turn away, pretending to be busy with the stew in order to keep from seeing her mother's crestfallen expression.
"I see," the woman finally murmured, folding the bill as well. Lisa turned back, not sure what to say. The woman smiled at her, though it was clearly forced, and shrugged her shoulders. "I think if I talk to the hospital, we can work out a payment plan. As for the medicine… well, I didn't need it to begin with," she said with another, less believable shrug. Her shoulder cracked and she winced, but continued. "That doctor only wanted me to take it as a preventative. But I'll walk now to the post office and put in a wire to the hospital about the bill."
"Mother, I'll go," Lisa offered, putting the stew to the side and holding out her hand for the bill. The old woman shook her head, pulling on a ragged old coat to protect her against the cool air.
"No, no. I bet you that they need my ID, so I'll go. Sitting here all day isn't good for my arthritis; a walk is better than any of that old medicine." She patted her daughter's cheek and then hobbled out the door, grabbing the old piece of driftwood that she used as a cane as she left. Lisa moved to the threshold to watch her, making sure she made it up the slope and onto the main road before shutting the door.
She sat down at the crossbeam, picking at a stray splinter, and then burst into tears for the first time in years. She was usually too busy for crying, considering it a useless pastime that didn't help things any. But now the full reality of their burden was sitting on her shoulders, and she couldn't think of anything else to do but cry. If only there was a way for her to be in two places at once; then she could get a job and be there to cook and care for her mother. But that was impossible. As she dried her tears, one final solution came to her and she quieted herself before moving to the box of important papers. She dug around towards the bottom before pulling up a faded, crumpled note covered in phone numbers and brandishing it triumphantly.
She hardly used the phone for more than emergency calls, and if it weren't for customers calling about their nets she wouldn't have one at all to save money. But now she was grateful for it, and dialed a number near the top. She picked up the receiver as she heard it began to ring, happy that her mother had decided to go off to the post office. She wouldn't want the old woman hear her swallow her pride, something that Lisa rarely did. Perhaps that was even more rare than crying, in her books.
"VonStraut residence," a pompous male voice picked up on the other line. She faltered a moment, considering hanging up before the picture of her mother's veiny, arthritis-crippled hands flashed into her mind. She swallowed hard, resigning herself to a task that, in her opinion, could no longer be avoided.
"I'm—I'm looking for the lady of the house," she said in a faltering voice, hoarse with tears.
"And whom might I say is calling?" the voice asked.
"Lisa," she answered. "Her sister," she added, wondering if the relationship might help influence the man. She hadn't visited her sister, but she knew from the name alone that the man she'd married was very rich, and so this person must be a butler or steward.
"Sister?" the man repeated, sounding genuinely confused. "I wasn't aware that Madame had a sister," he continued warily. "But if you give me a moment, I'll fetch her." By the sound of his voice, any confusion on her part would make him hang up the phone in a heartbeat.
She sat on the line, heart thundering in her chest. So she hadn't admitted that she had family outside of her mother. That was fine—Lisa had all but discredited her anyway, and if her situation hadn't been so dire, this call wouldn't be happening. But what would she do if her eldest sister refused to acknowledge the connection, and the butler hung up on her? Would she take it so far as to travel to the woman's house? How, when she had no money for bus fares?
There was a crackle of static on the other line and Lisa leaned forward against the wall, holding the receiver in both hands. A young female voice, quiet and well-bred, answered.
"Hello? Lisa?" For a moment, Lisa didn't recognize her own sister's voice. Since everyone had cherished her for her looks, she'd always been a little uppity. But now, she sounded completely snobbish and high-class, not a trace of her old accent coming through the line.
"Yes, I'm here," Lisa answered as she found her voice once more. "Let me cut to the chase," she added, her usual vein of bluntness coming through despite her uncertainty. "I'm calling about Mother."
"Oh, did Mama kick the bucket?" her sister asked, and while the tone sounded genuine on the surface, Lisa's blood boiled as she caught the relief in the older woman's undertone. She acted as though the woman wasn't her mother, even calling her 'Ma-ma" like some regency Englishwoman instead of "Mother" like she had all her life.
"No," Lisa hissed, gritting her teeth. I must be patient, for Mother's sake. "But she's very sick, and I need your help. I need you to wire me some money—five hundred dollars is enough, and I'll pay you back bit by bit when I can. But we have hospital bills and she needs medicine desperately, and neither of us can afford it on our income."
"Oh?" she said again, this time not bothering to hide the disappointment. "Well, I see…." There was a long stretch of silence, and then the line crackled as she spoke. "I'm very sorry, but there's not any spare money for you. I've already given away my entire month's budget for charity cases."
"What?!" Lisa snarled, but took a deep breath to keep her temper in check. She bit her lip, and when she replied, it was in a tone of utmost politeness. "Did you not hear what I said?" she asked. "Your mother, the woman who gave you your life, is very, very ill. She needs medicine, and you're the only person I can turn to." There was a shorter silence this time.
"Did you not hear what I said?" the cold, high voice on the other end repeated in the exact same tone. "All my charity case money is gone for the month. Now, your little lie about being my 'sister' fooled James this time, but be assured that I've already warned him: I don't have any family other than my mother. If you try to call and disrupt my peace again, I will have the authorities brought on you and your organization. Good day." There was a click, and the line went dead.
She sat there a minute, floored by the fact that she'd been hung up on, and surprised at herself for imagining anything less. She sunk to the floor, placing the receiver on the phone's base, and felt the blood rushing to her face.
"You…you whore, you—" She cycled through all the insults that made the sailors cringe when used against them, but none of them seemed explicit enough to describe the sheer inhumanity of what she'd just heard. Her fury bubbled in her gut and she sprang to her feet, running from the house and down the beach. She didn't know where she was going; she just knew that if she stayed, she'd break something in her anger. She needed to release the energy.
The evening was gaining on them, the sun dropping behind the town and casting a crimson glow over the ceaseless waves. The kids in the bay turned and began running up the slope to their homes, the nightclub opening its doors to the first customers of the night as the mooring hour ended and the seamen disembarked onto the docks once again.
She ran beneath the pier, jumping over shallow pools and sending crabs scuttling in her wake, seagulls taking flight with shrill cries as she startled them from their rambling across the sands. She ran until she was out of breath and stumbled in the shifting grains, falling to her knees. She was on an empty side of beach across from the cliffs, deserted save for a kissing couple on a wooden bench near the dunes. Her heart thundered in time with the waves, and she looked out across the darkening sky to where the ocean met the horizon.
What was she going to do? What could be done? There were already collectors after them concerning previous bills. Her mother needed the medicine; she tried to stay quiet, but Lisa could hear her soft cries in the night when the pain in her joints kept her awake. Her sister—the one that cared—did all she could, but she needed money to live on too, and she couldn't send more than she was able. That wouldn't be fair to ask. Lisa would have taken three jobs, never sleeping, if it meant helping. But that wasn't feasible—her mother needed her there to cook can carry nets and shop now.
"Something's gotta give," she whispered to the first stars of the night, twinkling in the pink sunset. "I don't know how much further we can sink." The stars glimmered and glistened, but didn't give her the answer she needed. She sighed, resting her head on her knees. "Why did I have to be the youngest? Maybe I wanted to go and find my fortune too…." She laughed bitterly, wiping her eyes. "Why did Father have to get lost at sea? Why did Mother have to grow old? Why did my sisters have to leave? Why, why, why?"
She stayed on the sand for at least a half hour, watching the stars come out as the sky blackened towards its peak midnight color. Suddenly, one of them flickered and brightened, burning through the atmosphere as it fell towards the horizon and seemed to vanish into the ocean. She watched, remembering her mother say that to get a wish on a falling star, you had to say it three times in a row.
She had no time to say any wish, but with her luck, her wish wouldn't have come true anyway. She chuckled at her own childishness before whispering her wish. It would do to be seen talking to herself, even if the couple on the bench were too wrapped up in each other to notice her.
"I need someone rich to come and sweep me off my feet," she said aloud, in the quietest voice possible. "Someone who can change all this. But," she added after thinking a moment, "make it someone who's the good, lawful sort. Mother wouldn't like it if a conman got us out of our troubles."
The waves continued their quiet song, punctuated by the groans coming from the bench, and the beat of the nightclubs. No one acknowledged her, nothing magical happened, and certainly no handsome man jumped off the boardwalk to land in front of her. Sighing, she stood and dusted the sand from her clothes, and began the journey home.
"Tomorrow's another day," she muttered to the couple as she passed by their bench, but never could have guessed what sort of horrific day it would be.