I know the ocean first by smell, then by sight. It’s how my family always does it.
Sunlight floods our car as we wind up the Pacific Coast Highway. Once we near the beach Dad rolls down the windows and says, “Everyone breathe it all in!”
My big sister, Lainey, snorts loudly the way she does whenever Dad says that, and we crack up.
I close my eyes and inhale softly; it smells like morning and seaweed. That’s when I spot it: miles and miles of glittering water.
We pull into a small parking lot. Mom, Dad, and Lainey unload our gear while I help my little brother, Toby, out of his car seat. Then a short walk down a rickety wooden staircase. As soon as we touch bottom I kick off my flip-flops and we pad along, the sand soft and warm under my feet. We plonk down our things.
“Ah, perfect,” Mom says, shaking out a blanket that floats in midair.
Toby grabs his shovel and starts digging. Lainey and Dad yank surfboards out of their long cozies. And I do what I always do: trace a heart and plant myself in the center of it.
Around us the beach is already packed with colorful umbrellas, kids building castles, and surfers bobbing in the distance. Waves lap in gently.
Among all these people I’m a dot and nothing more. I imagine a movie camera looking down on me, then zooming out-out-out as wide and far as it can go until it reaches a million miles away and I dissolve into a small blue marble. The Earth.
I’m not sure why it’s called Earth instead of Ocean, since most of our planet is covered by water. I learned that from Tatang, my ninety-year-old great-grandfather—he feeds facts to me like candy. Tatang taught middle school and knows everything.
In his younger days, Tatang used to swim and free-dive in the Philippines, where he grew up. He’d come across animals like the psychedelic frogfish or the blue-ringed octopus, so wondrous they seem more like mythical creatures from the Filipino folktales he loves to tell. I’ve looked them up to try to sketch them, but I’m sure it’s not the same as seeing them up close.
Lainey sits next to me and I rest my head on her shoulder.
Dad sighs. “Our last family beach day before Dr. Lainey leaves, huh, girls?”
“I can’t wait,” Lainey says.
“Hey!” Dad says.
“I mean . . . yeah, I’m really going to miss you guys,” she says with a big grin.
Next week Lainey’s crossing the ocean—all the way to the Philippines—to study abroad for the summer. Then in the fall she’s off to college in New York. Premed.
“You’re going to have an amazing time, sweetheart,” Mom says.
At the end of Lainey’s high school valedictorian speech, the crowd gave her a standing ovation, and my family cheered the loudest. Tatang even brought a megaphone and shouted, “Way to go, Elena!”
Impressing people is my sister’s talent. Sometimes I get a little jealous. I’ve never done anything that people gush over.
Lainey nudges my side. “How you doing, Kaia? You’re kind of quiet.”
“You’ll miss the solar eclipse,” I say. It’s at the end of the summer and she won’t be back in time.
“The Philippines should have an eclipse, too, right? I thought we all shared the same moon and sun?” She gives me a teasing smile.
“No, I mean here. Tatang is taking us to the science museum. They pass out special glasses so we won’t hurt our eyes.”
“That sounds like fun,” Mom says. “I’m sure he’s dying to tell us a new bakunawa story.”
“The sea serpent who causes eclipses! I love that one,” I say.
Everything I know about Filipino creatures comes from Tatang and Mom, since Tatang’s basically a walking encyclopedia and Mom teaches Asian American studies at a big university. They could tell stories nonstop. Tatang’s favorite is about the bakunawa, a giant sea serpent with a mouth as wide as a lake, who swallows suns and moons—until villagers scare him back into the water by banging on pots, pans, and drums.
Whenever we see a partial moon, he likes to say, “Bakunawa’s been hungry.”
I’m old enough now to know that magical monsters don’t cause eclipses. A total solar eclipse is rare; it happens when the moon completely covers the sun. What’s cool is this will be my very first one.
I picture the sun going down here in Los Angeles and all of the beach-loving Angelenos freaking out and fleeing every which way like the world’s ending. We’ll only be able to see a partial eclipse, but it’ll be fun to watch it with Tatang. Some kids at school think I’m weird for hanging out with a senior citizen, but I don’t mind. Once people get to know my great-grandpa they understand why he’s my best adventure buddy.
Lainey kneels by her surfboard and rubs it with a small bar of wax. “What do you think would happen if the sun disappeared entirely?” she asks.
“Ooh, I know this one,” I say. “We wouldn’t immediately turn cold and shrivel up and die, but things would definitely be different.”
Mom smiles at me. “How so?”
“Well, there’d be no photosynthesis for the plants, so we’d run out of oxygen, and then the oceans would freeze and the bottom levels of the food chain would die off and we’d all turn into scavengers living off the dead, sunless bodies of other beings for mere survival!”
Dad, Lainey, and I burst out laughing.
“Aww, I wish I could watch the eclipse with you, Kai-Kai, but remember what Tatang always says.” Lainey clears her throat, stretches her arms like she’s hugging the air, and in her best imitation of our great-grandfather’s deep voice says: “Kaia, we all share the same sky, so when you’re looking up, you will know that I am too.” She shakes her finger at me. “And you’ll have your protective eye gear!”
“If the sun ever disappeared the stars would still shine,” Mom says.
“Sure, but we’d still depend on the sun’s movement. The sun is a star. It’s the center of our universe,” my sister says. “Which means Kaia’s right. . . . Chaos would ensue. Especially in Hollywood.”
“And for sure there’d be zombies,” I add.
“Maranhigs! Filipino zombies!” Lainey says, and we bust up again.
Dad slathers on sunscreen. “Considering this bright sun now, I think we’ll be okay, girls.”
“Don’t say we didn’t warn you.” Lainey shrugs. “All right, who wants to paddle out?”
“Is there any other reason we’re here?” Dad says.
Mom pulls out a stack of celebrity magazines. “No thanks, I’ve got some important reading to do.”
“Kai-Kai?” Lainey says.
“Someone needs to stay and bury Toby.” I scoop sand and let it slip over his feet. He squeals. Toby’s three and definitely a Santos, because he could live at the ocean. Our family loves trying out different beaches all along the coast. We have one we can walk to from home, and we have spots like this, where we drive to and spend the day.
Dad and Lainey grab their boards, run to the shore’s edge, and jump in until we lose sight of their silhouettes.
Toby’s little face scrunches up. “Where’s Lainey?”
“She’s still there, you just can’t see her.”
Out in the distance a wave breaks. It swells and gets larger as Lainey and Dad paddle to catch it.
The ocean can scare people because it’s unpredictable. Sometimes the waves roll in calm and smooth, but other times they roar. It’s tough to know how to face the water. Lainey’s told me how big waves make her nervous—normally it’s Dad who rides them—but this time she beats him, jumping to a squat on her board before standing tall.
Mom covers her eyes. I hoist Toby onto my shoulders.
The wave looks ginormous. Lainey skims the surface and water begins to curl over her, rising higher and higher until she’s covered.
Copyright © 2020 by Mae Respicio. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.