The wind chimes next to the lighthouse door tinkled softly in tandem, then shook furiously in the island breeze, interrupting the old woman reading from her book. It was hard to believe that Fannie Flagg had dyslexia because she wrote excellent stories and Can’t Wait to Get to Heaven was one of Seraphina’s favorites.
She loved the author’s down-home, Southern girl humor and her gift for creating such lovable characters. Seraphina especially enjoyed the name of the heroine in this book: Elner Shimfissle. It was a fun thing to say aloud, letting the name tickle her tongue: Elner Shimfissle. She changed her voice to a higher key, sounding exactly like a flute, then deepened her tone to the resonance of a tuba. Elner Shimfissle. All names should be this fun!
But Elner and her faithful friends would have to wait because a family member was coming home. Humming one of her favorite spiritual chants composed by a famous twelfth-century abbess, Seraphina arose from the white stone bench to enter through the violet door of the lighthouse. Once inside, she rummaged through the assorted mess of old oil lamps, maps, and clocks until she located her yellow rain slicker with the black duct tape patches at the elbow.
The little rowboat was tied to the wharf, changing colors from red to purple to red as it swayed in the water. Seraphina untied the rope and climbed in, rowing across the waves with the energy of a teenager. Of course, she could have done this the easy way, but it tickled her to do something so incredibly human.
Looking out at the teal waves, Seraphina’s ancient intuition confirmed that the visitor was drowning. This knowledge did not worry her because all guests entered through the water portal. She continued to row with great happiness, wondering how a third-dimensional character like Elner Shimfissle might handle the situation.
Seraphina rescued the brown boy from the depths of the ocean, transporting his limp body to the lighthouse for emergency restoration. While the crystals flashed their brilliant light rays of color energy, Seraphina rejoiced and sang of gratitude to the Almighty. Soon the lights dimmed and the boy reconnected to his full Divinity.
"Welcome back, Dear One," Seraphina sang in her angelic soprano. "For a tiny soul, you’ve had quite the adventure!"
"Did I do well?" asked Prabhakar.
"Very well," said the innkeeper. "When you return to your suite you will find that it reflects your new green aura."
"Excellent!" said the boy. "Only three lifetimes to go!"
Seraphina laughed at his exuberance. "That is correct, but first things first. How does a Loving Pink treatment at the Soul Spa sound?"
"Fine," he said, gazing out the lighthouse window.
"I sense that something is troubling you, Dear One."
Prabhakar could never hide anything from Seraphina, nor did he wish to.
"Yes," he sighed. "As you know, I am most anxious to connect to the soul of my dear father, Sankhar, from my life in India. He needs to know I forgive him. Has he arrived yet?"
Seraphina smiled. "Not yet," the wise woman answered. "He is busy being a teenage girl."
The deliveryman stood in the doorway, holding the sequined six-foot fishtail as if it was his prize catch of the day.
Glorie Sunday looked up from the glass counter and waved her arms at the hulking stranger in the My Wife Loves Me Just The Way I Am T-shirt.
"Stop! No! Don’t take another step!" She pressed the button on the intercom. "Elm, I need you out here!"
On the storage room floor in the back of the store was fifteen-year-old Elm Sunday, sitting cross-legged with her head bowed in deep concentration.
She didn’t hear her mother’s plea at first because she was too busy painting a nautilus seashell on a drum and needed to be extra careful with her brushstrokes if she hoped to sell it at Sea Angels. Besides its loud bass tone, the drum could be made to sound like the ocean waves by tilting it, which caused the metal beads to scramble inside and create the cadence of the surf. Elm thought it was very cool.
As there was no immediate response from her teenage daughter, Glorie reached behind the counter for her walking stick, a carved mermaid with a cascade of curls flowing down one side.
"Have an accident?" the man blurted.
"Yeah, I was accidentally infected by a tick," she drawled. "Look, the store is opening in twenty minutes and you’re blocking my entrance. Could you move that thing out of the doorway?"
He shrugged, leaning the tail against the nearest wall. "That’s quite an accent you got there, Lady," he said, wiping his forehead sweat with the back of his hand. "Y’all from the Deep South or something?"
Glorie shot him a look that would have sent most Yankees running. "Yes, I am—from Georgia—and I need you to turn right around and come into the store from the back."
He frowned, staring down at the neon, ocean-themed floor. "What is this place?" he asked, picking up a ceramic mermaid figurine from a wicker table. "Some kind of cutesy mermaid store?"
"Yes, it’s Sea Angels and that tail is desperately needed for a birthday party tomorrow and—"
The man wasn’t listening because his attention had been drawn to an old newspaper article about a young woman who worked as a mermaid at a Florida waterpark. The article was hanging in an aqua blue frame on the same wall where he had set the tail.
"That’s my mama," said Elm, who had emerged from the storeroom.
Elm gave her mother an "I got this" wink and assumed her best customer service persona. She was a thinner, prettier version of her mother with huge sea-green eyes and straight, long hair the color of golden copper. She hadn’t made peace with her small breasts, huge flat feet or the freckles that spilled across her pert nose but Glorie said she was nice-looking enough to have modeled for any one of the mermaid prints that hung on the walls.
Elm always thought her mother was beautiful, even after her weight gain. "She used to be a professional mermaid," Elm boasted. "Down in Florida."
"Yes, many, many moons ago," said Glorie, now a plump, middle-aged woman wearing huge, pink-tinted glasses, dangly starfish earrings, and graying, strawberry-gold hair stuffed under an outlandish, floppy pink hat. "Elm, would you kindly show this man how to get to the back from the outside. And that mermaid tail’s for the party, so make sure he’s careful with it."
Elm nodded. They didn’t want a repeat of what happened at the Tessa Baker party, where a mother of considerable size "borrowed" the tail from her daughter, wriggled inside until it burst at the seams and sent sequins rolling all over the place.
Glorie said it was like looking at six pounds of sugar in a five-pound bag.
* * *
Like all Sundays in Little Blessing, the mornings were reserved for worship, but the restaurants and store owners were not opposed to taking money from summer visitors, so their doors flew open at noon. Or around noon. Or whenever the proprietors felt like showing up. Elm called it "Wishy-Washy Sunday."
There wasn’t much happening at the store at one o’clock, so Elm called The Good Book Tea Room for their lunch order. Twenty minutes later, she returned with sandwiches and fruit-infused waters. She supposed she shouldn’t have ordered the pricier lobster roll for herself, but she craved its succulent sweetness. As far as she was concerned, lobster was the perfect summer food and (next to a double-dip Triple Fudge cone from Holy Cow Sundaes, the home of Little Blessing’s world-famous Divinity Fudge), it was her favorite addiction.
Elm set the lunches on the counter, grabbed two turquoise and Caribbean blue wooden chairs from the front of the store and placed them outside the entrance. Then she lugged a huge stuffed mermaid and plopped it into one of the chairs.
Maybe this will bring people in.
She joined her mother inside for lunch in the arctic air conditioning, where they ate and chatted in the delicious chill, anticipating a stampede of customers seeking immediate heat relief.
They would be waiting a long while. This was beach season in late July and even though the shop was conveniently located across from Moonwater Beach, most sun-worshippers planted themselves on the beach until at least four o’clock or whenever they felt they had achieved ultimate bronze perfection.
Business had been deathly slow since Memorial Day, despite the website promotions and the year-round mermaid birthday parties. A small stage with an underwater backdrop and golden scallop shell throne had been set up in the back of the store. It was still one of Elm’s favorite places.
Glorie tapped her pink mermaid pencil so hard on the counter it snapped. It was the third broken pencil that day.
"No more pencils for you, Mom," Elm laughed, wiping up the wood fragments with a paper towel.
Poor Mermie. As if having Lyme isn’t bad enough.
Then Elm got an idea. "Hey, wanna play our game?"
"Sure," said Glorie, perking up.
They spent the next two hours watching the windows, guessing the professions of passersby. It was one of the many activities they enjoyed doing together, like singing Christmas carols at church, eating a picnic aboard the Glorie Hallelujah, and scuba diving in the ocean.
The door chimes tinkled and three middle-aged women walked in. They had thick black hair, leathery tans, and enormous gold jewelry.
Sand Stabbers! It was the name Elm used to describe women who wore high heel shoes on the beach.
"You gotta bathroom around here?" The woman speaking had an aquiline nose and graying temples.
Glorie and Elm looked at each other and smiled. It was time to play "let’s mess with the tourists."
"No, I’m so sorry, Miss," Glorie lied, exaggerating her Southern drawl. "Little Blessing doesn’t provide sanitary facilities for non-residents. Our mayor says it just isn’t in our itty bitty budget this year."
"That’s ridiculous," said another woman. "Whoever heard of a tourist trap without public restrooms?"
Trap? Elm could only imagine what her mother was thinking.
"Now if you rich Yankee women want to buy some property in Little Blessing—to help the economy, you know—then you could use the bathroom whenever you like, of course. I would be plumb tickled to help you find the town realty office."
Elm played along, without the accent. "But they’ve closed for the summer. Did you forget that, Mother?"
Glorie winked. "Why, that’s right, Honey Child. So I guess you’ll have to hold it until the next tourist trap, Ladies!"
Two of the beach women scowled and exited, leaving their friend behind. Elm watched the woman pick up a green mermaid scarf from a shelf and let it drop to the floor.
"What the h—?" Glorie said.
Raising her bejeweled middle finger, the woman laughed and hurried out the door, leaving it wide open.
Elm ran after her like a wildcat on a deer chase.
"Hey, you!" Elm shouted. "Don’t you ever come into my store again—ever! And who do you think you are, giving my mama The Finger? I’ll cut that ugly finger right off you!"
The woman slipped inside Holy Cow Sundaes two stores away but Elm was relentless and stood outside screaming.
"And when you know the damn air conditioner is on, you close the door unless you’re paying for it. And don’t you even think about peeing in our ocean, Lady, or my daddy will arrest you—he’s the mayor of this town!"
It was the first time Elm had ever lost her temper in public and she was shaking. She didn’t care what those women thought about her because they were disrespectful. But she probably shouldn’t have said peeing or damn because it was not the kind of behavior one expected from The First Daughter of Little Blessing. And God was watching. He was always watching.
When Elm returned to the store, she was surprised to find that Glorie wasn’t upset.
"If it isn’t my little ol’ guard dog," Glorie laughed. "Hey, remind me to give you a treat when we get home, Elm."
"You’re not mad?"
"Mad? No, I’m proud!" Glorie exclaimed, hugging her daughter. "But it’s a good thing your grandma wasn’t around because I could hear everything you said out there, even with the damn air conditioner blasting!"