Roger found he was not surprised. In fact, if he examined his feelings, he would discover that he was more shocked that Jimmy knew his name.
'I can prove there's a curse,' Jimmy said after one of those awkward silences that gets worse the longer you leave it. 'I mean, if you want to know I'm not lying.'
'All right.' Roger followed Jimmy down the path he had taken from the beach as seagulls danced above them. Not ten feet from the shingle, Jimmy stopped. He gazed at the horizon as he waited for Roger to understand.
'You got cursed,' Roger realised. 'You… can't go near the sea anymore?' To be honest, they were already fairly close to the sea. Close enough for most people, anyway.
'Nope.' Jimmy squinted out at the beach. 'I mean, I physically can't. If I try to walk any closer-' he stepped forward then stopped abruptly like a cartoon character who had just walked into a glass wall. 'I can't move any further. Not that I'd want to try, though, because the closer I am to the sea – or that bloody coral – the more I get these awful headaches. It's like I can hear the sea inside my head, screaming at me.' He said it lightly, like he was describing a migraine, but Roger caught the edge in his voice. 'I tried to take the coral to the sea hag,' Jimmy continued, 'but when I realised I couldn't reach the sea I put it back. I thought that might un-curse me.' He shrugged. 'No luck.'
'Why did you do a deal with the sea hag?' Roger asked. What could a boy born to thrive in a large city's financial sector want with a bit of coast on the edge of the map?
Jimmy pointed up the gulls.
'You want to be a seagull?'
Jimmy laughed, taken aback. 'I want to fly.'
'Oh.' Roger allowed himself a moment of embarrassment.
That, too, got worse the longer he left it.
'I want to breathe underwater,' Roger confessed.
Jimmy's mouth quirked. 'You want to be a fish.'
'Sea person,' Roger corrected. Jimmy waited. 'I don't like this town,' Roger admitted. 'It's too full of people who know your full name. I've always wanted to be able to leave whenever I like.'
Jimmy nodded. 'But it's hard to leave.'
'Not if you're good at school,' Roger argued. 'Not if you've got a family who would be proud to wave you off to sunnier climates.' Not if your name isn't Roger.
Jimmy shrugged. The handknitted sweater was a little bit worn on the shoulder seam. 'There are things other than bad grades that keep you in this town.' Roger nodded. His hands were starting to feel cold as he had forgotten to put his gloves on, but there are times when one must forfeit comfort for a seminal conversation with the most popular boy in school, especially if that boy has just confessed that he experiences excoriating pain on a regular basis. 'I like my family and I like my life,' Jimmy continued, oblivious to Roger's goosebumps, 'but I've always wanted to be able to, well, fly away.'
They stood until drizzle started to fall. Roger tried not to think about the hope he had allowed to grow in his chest while he was talking to the sea hag.
'I'm sorry,' Jimmy said eventually. 'I know how tempting that deal is.'
'That's okay,' Roger managed. 'I'll find another way,'
Jimmy, to his credit, did not enquire further. Roger, to his credit, did not ask how Jimmy had met the sea hag himself.
'I want to stop her from cursing anyone else,' Roger decided. 'I've not got the time to come and stop the next person she meets.'
'You think I had the time to come and stop you?' Jimmy asked drily.
Roger immediately felt bad. Clearly Jimmy had less going for him than his aura suggested. Roger wondered if he had a family business to look after – or, worse, just members of his family. 'How did you know I'd come to the museum today?' Roger asked.
'I've come to the museum every day since I was cursed,' Jimmy said, stuffing his hands back into his pockets. 'I didn't want anyone else to get cursed either.'
'Am I the first person you've met trying to steal the coral?'
'How long ago were you cursed?'
'About six months.'
Six months of voluntarily returning to a place that caused horrific agony. The longer this conversation continued, the more Roger realised how badly he had misjudged the charismatic star of his science class.
'I did some research on sea hags when it first happened,' Jimmy said tentatively. 'The legends vary, but often sea witches are meant to be really proud and hate sailors.'
'We gathered that,' Roger pointed out.
'Yes,' Jimmy said, with the manner he took when he answered an obvious question in a lesson. 'But what if we made it up to her? We could ask for an exchange. Something in return for un-cursing everyone.'
'I would suggest giving her coral back,' Roger mused, 'but since you're the only one of us who can touch it and I'm the only one who can reach the sea, that might go badly. Besides, I don't think she really wants it back. If she did, she wouldn't curse everyone who tries to bring it to her. I think she's doing it because she's wants revenge on humans for stealing from her. Maybe… maybe we could give her something she would appreciate, like something of the sailor who stole the coral originally.'
An eye for an eye, or thereabouts, felt suitably logical. Roger felt rather like he was organising a birthday present for his grandmother.
'About that…' for the first time all afternoon, James looked uncomfortable. 'I think I know who the sailor was.'
'Wait, you're not him, are you?' Roger demanded. 'You weren't also cursed to live forever and haunt the museum?'
'What? No! It's, um…' James cleared his throat. 'He… he was my grandfather. James I. He was a sailor, and my dad is always bragging about how half the stuff in the museum is from him. Sorry, I should have mentioned it earlier. I didn't want to… put you off. Any more than you might already be.' He coughed.
'James… the first,' Roger echoed. No wonder Jimmy had a royal air about him. 'No, it's fine. This is already quite a strange afternoon.' Jimmy still looked uncomfortable, but maybe he had another headache. Or maybe Roger just had that effect on people. 'So you think we should give her something of your grandfather's? Like what?'
'He always carries a telescope,' James said thoughtfully. 'I think he picked it up in the navy. I'll ask him tonight.'
'You mean he's still alive?'
'Why wouldn't he be?'
'I just… The sea hag seemed really old. She looks ancient. As in, should have died a century ago ancient.'
'Maybe she grew into it. Maybe that's what people do when they spend their entire life wanting something they can't get.'
'Maybe,' Roger said quickly, fiddling with the gloves in his pocket. He wondered how old he would look in a decade. He wondered how old Jimmy would look.
They walked back to the museum and stared at the coral as though it might impart wisdom from its pedestal. It was impressive to look at, but not as impressive as it would have been when it was alive. Roger didn't want to linger; Jimmy was doing a mediocre job of hiding that his hands were shaking.
'So you will ask your grandfather tonight?'
'Yeah. We always have him round for dinner. I'll… I'll see you at school tomorrow?'
Roger nodded. 'Good luck.'