Usopp ate slowly, trying not to make loud crunching sounds that would hide other, better sounds, like footsteps, and watched the door. It was an old door. Scratched here and there and there was still a smudge of green paint from where Usopp had tried to decorate it but had been too little to remember and he was big now. He scratched the back of one leg with his toes and took another bite of too crunchy cereal.
"You're like a little mouse with big ears," Mama says, but with a smile and she looked at the door herself because they were both waiting even though the footsteps didn't come as much as they used to. Sometimes it seemed like months between but Mama always told him not to ex….exagger…make the truth seem bigger than it was, that it was only days, she'd said. Though as the days or months passed her mouth got a little tighter. Like it did now. As if she was chewing on words instead of saying them. Then she smiled at him brightly, like a switch had been turned.
"Eat up. It's getting dark and we're to the school house tomorrow."
"School?" Usopp echoed, spurting some milk on his hands on accident but he couldn't help it. Excitement perked him all the way to his toes. He didn't think he'd be old enough in forever to actually go. Mama's smile turned soft and she wiped his hands with a napkin.
"Don't speak with your mouth full. And yes school. But just to look at it." She pressed a kiss to the top of his head and Usopp tilted his head up to smell the mint and lavender smell that always surrounded her like a soft cloud. "You've still got a year to go yet. Don't be growing up before it's time."
"I'm already growed up," Usopp said, kicking his heels against the chair legs. "Last night I grew two whole feet!"
"You did, did you?" Mama said with a laugh. "Maybe here," and she lightly tweaked the end of his nose. He wiggled it to make her laugh again because Mama's laugh was pretty. "You—" Mama said, but then stopped and raised her head, as if listening. Usopp listened, too but didn't hear anything except the distant bell of Grandpa Pleco's fishing boat coming in. Usopp slipped from the table and raced to the window facing the sea. He could just see the tiny little cutter coming into port, the sunset red in her sails.
"Can I go signal him, Mama?" Usopp asked, already fingering the tiny mirror in his pants pocket.
"Go on," she said. "But come right back. It's almost bath time."
Bath time! Boo. He bet pirates never had to take baths! He wanted to tell her so but swallowed his words back because she didn't like pirates right now. But that didn't matter because if he didn't hurry, Grandpa Pleco's ship'd be out of sight. He pushed through the door, out into the summer breeze which smelled like sea and forest and flowers. He stood against the sun and dug the rounded mirror shard from his pocket and flashed the lamp letters that Papa had shown him.
He waited. Peered at the cutter ship. Nothing. Usopp chewed on his lower lip. Maybe Grandpa Pleco hadn't heard him. He signaled again. Still nothing and the ship was about to go around the curve of the coast and Usopp wouldn't be able to signal him from here at all. He ran quickly to a better spot, higher on the hill. He could just see the blue coated and white bearded figure of Grandpa Pleco from here and raised the mirror a third time, wishing he knew how to spell his name but all he knew was the 'l' and the 'o'. Other letters were still harder to remember. He flashed a hello again and it seemed Grandpa Pleco saw him, or at least the white beard was turned his way. Usopp grinned, bouncing up on his toes, waiting for a reply. But then Grandpa Pleco turned and all he saw was the blue coat.
But… Usopp lowered the mirror, an achy feeling reaching up to the back of his throat and making tears sting his eyes. But he was a big boy and big boys didn't cry and he wasn't either. But…but why hadn't Grandpa Pleco said hello? And why didn't he give him apples when they went to the market anymore like he used to? Had Usopp done something bad? He'd stuck little flowers in all the fishes mouths just last week but Grandpa Pleco had only laughed so why…
The thoughts scattered from Usopp's head as he heard low whistling coming from down and out of sight around the curve of the hill. His toes were bouncy again. Even his hair felt like it had gone straight out as if he'd been zapped by carpet cling. Was it? The whistling soon became a song, a familiar voice lifting up the hill.
"That's how we sail and that's how we go
Through the sea, and maybe home
Even prison has its charms
If you come back to someone warm."
"Papa!" Usopp cried, barreling down the hill. A stone caught under his foot and he tripped and fell face forward, rolling a few times before getting up and continuing to run despite an achy knee and leapt at Papa as soon as he came around the curve of the hill. Papa laughed with bright white teeth and caught him in big strong hands and suddenly he was flying up, his stomach doing weightless jiggles until he was caught safe again.
"Hello, little bird-boy," Papa said, tweaking his nose. "What are you doing out? Being bad for Mama?"
"Yep!" Usopp said with a grin because even if it wasn't really true it made Papa smile.
"That's my boy," Papa said, ruffling his hair and Usopp grinned and clung to his neck with both arms as Papa carried him up the hill to where Mama was waiting.
"Where were you this time?" Usopp asked, wriggling impatiently. He wanted to hear of Papa's adventures before they reached the house because Mama wasn't in the 'letting Papa tell stories' mood. Though Usopp didn't know why. Papa's stories were the best.
"I haven't been anywhere in five years…" Papa muttered and Usopp frowned. That wasn't how it usually went.
"Not even to mermaid cove?" Usopp asked, wiggling a bit. That story was okay. Not as exciting as the giant squid sea king that Papa had fought with his bare hands. But the mermaid cove was Papa's favorite and always made him laugh. Papa didn't laugh but gave him a little half smile which was good enough.
"I went there last week," he said, pushing open the old heavy wooden door that creaked. "And do you know what I found there?"
"What?" Usopp asked, grabbing onto Papa's shirt with one excited hand. His mind fires around possibilities. Mermaids were always being attacked by giant craw fish or swimming lions or mean pirates and Papa was always there to save them.
"You'll have to tell him later," Mama said, holding their bowls in her hands as she gave Papa a grown up look. "It's bath time."
"Aww, but I wanna hear!" Usopp said, holding Papa's neck tighter and frowning as big as he could.
"Yeah, Ban-chan, let him hear," Papa said. And Mama's face usually softened at that into a half moon smile, but she just raised her eyebrows and Papa sighed and Usopp knew they'd lost. Boo. Papa set him down and the floor was too far away from where Usopp wanted to be so he clung to Papa's leg until Mama insisted. She put the bowls in the sink and started washing, her silence filling the whole room. Papa patted his head, a signal for him to let go and Usopp did, though he didn't want to. Instead he plopped cross legged on the floor in the last sunbeam of the evening and pulled the tiny snail he'd found this afternoon out of his other pocket. He set it on the floor and pulled out a few marbles so the snail could pretend it was having an adventure in a rolly rock maze.
"I wasn't gone that long," Papa said in his low 'only for Mama' voice. Usopp snuck a peek up and saw that his arms were around her waist and they were swaying a little like dancing to music Usopp couldn't hear.
"You were gone long enough," Mama said, in her muttery 'not for little mice with big ears' voice. "Your supper is in the oven." But she made no move to push him away.
"Don't be like that…" Papa said and then seemed to stiffen a little like he was scared. "Banchina… Please tell me you don't believe what that crotchety old hound is saying," Papa said, speaking of Auntie Cork who lived on the other side of the hill. "Because you know I would never—"
"I know you would never," she said in her 'Usopp is listening so shut up' voice. "But I also know who you were with."
"It was just a few drinks."
"It's always a few drinks. And then a few stories. And before I know it, it's been a week."
"I haven't done that in years."
"That's what worries me," Mama said. They weren't fighting. Not like some parents did. But they weren't happy words either and Usopp didn't want to hear them anymore. Instead he picked up the tiny snail loosely between his fingers.
"Snaily is lonely," he told them. "Can I take him home?"
"Snaily?" Mama said, moving out of Papa's arms. "Oh Usopp I told you not to bring live animals in the house."
"It's just a snail, Banchina," Papa said, coming over to Usopp and crouching down, holding out his big hand. "Let me see." Usopp put the back of his hand on Papa's and watched the snail inch off his small fingertip onto Papa's big hand. Papa brought the snail closer to his eyes and peered at it, his eyes going back. "You know what this is?"
"What? What?" Usopp said, peering closer at the snail himself.
"It's a baby baby baby den den mushi."
"Wow, really?! Will it grow into a big den den mushi?"
"The biggest one in the East Blue. You'll have to build it its own house."
"Oh stop it. It is not," Mama said, coming to stand over Papa's shoulder, but she was smiling a little too. "Go put that thing back outside where it belongs. As for you—" she held out a hand for Usopp. "Bath time."
"Can't I take Snaily home with Papa?" Usopp asked. It would just be a short time.
"He's just putting Snaily outside the door," Mama said. "Come on."
Usopp sighed and tucked his marbles back into his pockets and petted Snaily goodbye.
"Make sure he has a good leaf with other snails," Usopp told Papa, because that was important. Papa nodded without even smiling and saluted him.
"I'll do my best, Captain Usopp!" he said and Usopp grinned.
Bath time was good, though. Mama washed him with strong soft hands and shampooed his hair so there were bubbles everywhere and he lost his floaty turtle twice in the foam, but floaty turtle was a brave turtle so he wasn't even scared. The best part was he could hear Papa moving in the other room. Scraping chairs. Lighting a fire. Whistling that song as the smell of wood smoke and cigarette smoke curled into the bathroom.
"So, how is Grandpa Pleco?" Mama asked as Usopp was sending floaty turtle on a deep sea mission and leaning forward so Mama could wash his back. "Did you say hello?"
"Yes," Usopp said, absently poking floaty turtle's head onto the wooden bottom of the tub. "But he didn't say hello back." Mama's hand stilled. "Maybe he's mad about the fishies." He'd just been trying to make a joke.
"I'm sure he's not mad, sweetheart," Mama said, moving the soapy rag in slow warm circles on his back. "He was telling me just the other day that his eyes were giving him trouble so maybe he didn't see you."
Maybe. But he saw the sun didn't he? And the mirror just flashed off the sun, that's what Mama told him. But he didn't want to say that because she seemed pulled down again and he didn't want to make her sad.
"Close your eyes," Mama said. "Here comes the rain."
Usopp put both hands over his eyes as the warm water splashed over his head and shoulders. Then she helped him stand so she could wash off the rest of him and he realized it was almost bed time and Papa was still here and bed times with Papa were the best. He scrambled to get out of the tub and squirmed impatiently as Mama took forever drying him off. Wanting to hurry and get in his pajamas and start bed time.
"You're a wiggly worm tonight," she said, sounding tired but not mad as she pulled the pajama top over his head and it got caught a bit on his nose because it always got caught a bit on his nose.
"I'm not a wiggly worm, I'm a wiggly pirate," he told her when the shirt was on and she gave him a little frown.
"None of that now," she said, pushing lightly on the back of his head. "Off to bed. Your father will be in shortly to tuck you in."
"Okay!" Usopp said and bolted out of the bathroom, skidding a little on the rug and nearly falling, but not, reached his bedroom and dove under the covers. For a moment he thought of hiding like a cave troll to spring out again and pounce Papa when he was least expecting it. Then he got a better idea and flopped onto the center of the bed, arms and legs out like a starfish. Taking up as much room as he could. After what seemed like forever, he heard Papa's footsteps in the hall and couldn't fight back a giggle. Though he tried to look serious, frowning fiercely at the star stickers on the ceiling as the door opened.
"Oi oi, you little rat," Papa said in a rough tough voice. "Budge over."
"Pirates don't budge over for anyone," Usopp said, trying to sound just the same.
"They don't do they? We'll just have to see about that!" And he saw a glimpse of Papa's big frowning face before he started tickling him. Usopp squealed and laughed and tried to roll away from the tickles, then moved back and tried to tickle Papa back until he laughed and then they were wrestling and Usopp was almost winning, pretending he was fighting a bear and Papa growled like a bear, until Mama came to the door and told them that if Papa didn't do more tucking in and less horsing around she was going to ground them both. But she was smiling when she said it so Usopp wasn't worried.
"We can wrestle in secret," Usopp whispered as Mama left the doorway.
"No thanks," Papa said, flopping on his back. "You're too rough. Ugh. Ow. I have bruises on my bruises! You're almost as strong as a full grown man!"
"I'm stronger than you," Usopp said, sticking out his tongue, then shrieked as Papa grabbed for him again, flailing and laughing as he was tickled.
"Boys!" Mama called and Papa stopped which was good because Usopp couldn't breathe any more. Instead he rested against Papa's strong shoulder, smelling the sea on him and what Mama called 'drinks', though it wasn't milk, and smoke like he'd been shooting things. Maybe with the people he was making friends with.
"Who were you drinking with?" Usopp asked, taking one of Papa's big hands in both of his own and exploring the way his fingers bent.
"Ah, just some people," Papa said. There was quiet for a moment. It was a quiet filled with things cuz Papa was looking at the ceiling. The stick on stars didn't glow like they used to but maybe Papa was looking for something else.
"Did I ever tell you where I was born?" Papa said. Usopp nodded.
"In the volcano! In a giant red egg!" Well he'd made the red part up but he was sure the egg was red because a volcano was supposed to be hot and hot things were red.
"Nah. That's just a story." He pulled Usopp close against him. "I was really born on a ship. A pirate ship. I can still remember the way the stars looked through the rigging and that black flag snapping in the wind. I was born for that kind of life. On the sea. Going anywhere I wanted. There's so much out there that you don't even know. I don't even know. I want to see it." He didn't sound sad exactly, but distant and far away, as if he was really on that ship. On those seas.
"Me too," Usopp said. "And Mama. We should go! We should go be pirates!" And they could have their own ship with their own rigging and stars and black flag and go to Mermaid Cove and Volcano City and find the lost Candy cane Island. Papa chuckled and ruffled his hair and Usopp grinned. It would be sad leaving the house with the old wooden door and the hill and the woods and Grandpa Pleco who wasn't mad at all, just old.
"Mama loves her home too much. But you could go." Papa twisted his head to look at him. "Go be a brave warrior of the sea, just like your old man, huh?"
"Okay!" Usopp said. He wasn't sure what a warrior was. Maybe it was just another word for pirate. Though he wasn't sure about going alone. Mama would be lonely here by herself and she belonged with Papa. It would be better if they were all brave warriors of the sea together.
"Don't fill his head with stories," Mama said softly but warmly from the doorway. "You never mean any of them."
"Sure I do," Papa said, squeezing Usopp close. "I mean all of them!"
"Yeah he means all of them!" Usopp said, then shut his mouth tight as Mama gave him a look. But in the end she only shook her head and said:
"Time you were asleep, Usopp-chan. Give your Papa a kiss goodnight."
Usopp clung to Papa's neck and pressed a kiss against his whiskery cheek but didn't want to let go, instead hung on, lacing his fingers together. He didn't want Papa to go so soon. He missed when they all slept together in the big bed and he could wake up in the middle of the night if he had a bad dream but it was okay cuz they were there. But now that he was a big boy he had his own bed and sometimes Papa wasn't even there in the mornings. Sometimes Papa wasn't even there for the whole day.
"Stay with me," Usopp said. "There are monsters under the bed."
"Yeah well you're stronger than they are," Papa said. "I have to go talk to Mama now."
"Your papa will be here tomorrow," Mama said. "Maybe you can go kite flying together. Usopp has learned to make his own." There was something strange in her voice. Like she was asking Papa but also like she was a little mad but a little sad too. Mama said so many things but Usopp couldn't understand.
"Sure. Sounds fun," Papa said, unlacing Usopp's hands from his neck and placing a kiss to his forehead. "Night, buddy."
Usopp watched Papa walk to the door and Mama move out of his way. There was another look that spoke whole sentences before Mama came to his bedside and pulled the covers up to his chin and tucked them in around him before kneeling beside the bed and resting her chin one arm while she stroked his hair with her other hand.
"There you are, all safe and sound. My big boy. You're not going to have any nightmares, are you?"
"Nope!" Usopp said.
"Good." She leaned over and kissed his cheek, the tip of her nose pressing warmly against him. Mama kisses were the best. "Night night, Usopp."
"Night night, Mama." And she left the room but left the door open just a crack so a strip of warm light shone through. Usopp waited, counting slowly on both hands until he was sure she'd moved far enough from the door, then crawled from bed and laid down by the door to listen to them speak. It was nice to hear Papa's voice again but he wasn't speaking. Or even whistling. There was that quiet again. The heavy quiet that meant thunder and rain soon. But it was just quiet. All quiet and soon Usopp found himself falling asleep.
"Usopp learned how to make kites himself you know," Mama said, and hearing his own name woke him up again. "Out of your old book."
"Talented kid, that," Papa said and Usopp beamed. "Not a bad shot either."
"I wished you wouldn't have taught him that. He's only five."
"Come on, Ban-chan, it was just for fun."
"He could get himself hurt."
"How? I practically have the only pistol that exists on the dinky little island."
Dinky meant something like small. Papa had told him that once. The island always seemed big to Usopp but maybe it would seem small when he was as tall as Papa was. He yawned and scratched at a splinter on the floor, trying to keep himself awake as silence fell again.
"So when are you setting sail?" Mama said. Papa was setting sail? Did he have a boat now? Was he going fishing? Maybe with Grandpa Pleco.
"What makes you think I am?" Papa said.
"Because I know you, Yasopp."
"I said I'd be here, didn't I?" A long pause and then a sigh. "But I can't say that I'm not tempted. He's been to the Grand Line, you know, with Roger no less— and he's going back again. It could be years before I get another chance."
"And you believe everything that man tells you?"
"Yes, I do. Look you don't know Shanks. You haven't met him—"
"Mister Pleco has, apparently, and does not approve," Mama said. and Usopp could tell she was mad even if she didn't sound so. 'Mister' was never a good sign.
"Neither does half of Syrup— but who cares what they think? Shanks is a good man. A great man. All the things he's seen. All the things he's done. And the Grand Line…that big ocean…just waiting… I'd only have to go through once…."
Usopp could see it in his imagination. Grand meant big so it was a big line. A fancy line in the middle of the ocean with mermaids and squid monsters and squidmaids and Shanks. What was a Shanks? Usopp remembered someone saying he had red hair and drew it on his mental picture of Shanks, all wild and curly, like Usopp's own.
"If you survive it."
"…It would be worth the risk…"
Silence. So deep and so long. Usopp kept having to shake his eyes open again. He couldn't sleep now. He wanted…to hear about …oceans and lions and shankmaids.
"Then risk it…" Mama said, her voice soft and warm and far away.
"Banchina…" Papa said. "I can't… I… you and—"
"Shh. You've always said you're just waiting for your ship to sail…and we'll be fine."
"Yeah…" Papa laughed but didn't seem happy. "I guess you will…"
"Just promise me you'll come back one day... Swear it…"
And Papa might have said something or he might not have said anything but Usopp was too busy swimming in the warm dark sea to hear, looking for adventure and lines in the sand.
Usopp opened his eyes and blinked at the spot of sunbeam on his pillow. The house was quiet. No clingy clangy sounds of breakfast. Mama must be borrowing eggs from Auntie Cork. Or maybe she was sleeping in with Papa. Papa! That was right! He was home this morning! Wasn't he? Usopp jumped out of bed, yelping at the cold floor and covering his mouth with his hands. Then he tiptoed out of his room, keeping close to the wall as he approached Mama's room and opened the door slowly cuz it creaked. Papa and Mama were sleeping, curled around each other like two pill bugs in a nest. There was just a big enough gap for Usopp to squeeze between and if he did they would make more room just for him. He was about to take a running leap but then remembered the kites.
The kites! He and Papa were going to fly them today. Usopp should show him how well he made them now. But it should be a surprise first. He went back to his room and changed quickly into green overalls, struggling a little with the buttons, then stuffed his hair under a cap so it wouldn't get in his eyes or get glued to the sticks. He dumped his little blue bag of all the stuff that had been there yesterday, frowning at the toad that hopped out and wiggled under the door before he could catch it. Kites, he reminded himself. Kites. Sticks he could find in the woods so he got old newspaper and glue and string and marbles and a few markers and a stuffed orange cat with one eye falling out and an old half eaten chocolate bar for later with only a little dust on it and his slingshot and …he thought… the mirror so they could both say hello to Grandpa Pleco and his toy binoculars so they could see how high his kite flew. His little bag was bulging by the end of it and couldn't fit the little cat in so he held it under his arm as he slipped out of the window and dropped down to the summer morning.
The dewy grass felt good against his toes and he ran around in it, arms out like a bird as he made his way up to the best place for kite flying on the whole island he bet. On the way he collected a stick bug and watched a little green spider make her way into her little hole in the earth, watching him with glittering eyes before pulling the grass plug closed to wait for prey. But kites. Kites! He spent some time finding a suitable sunny working spot and gathered some sticks from the woods and went about kite making. It was hard though because even if the kite had the right shape it didn't always fly right or sometimes would only go a little off the ground before wobbling a bit and falling down. By the tine Usopp had one flying kite made he was hungry and sticky with glue and the sun had moved from shining on his shoulder to shining on his neck.
He was tempted to go home and have some nice breakfast and show Papa his kite— but it was just one kite and they should both have kites! Papa would be really proud of him then. But he was hungry so he took a break to eat his chocolate bar. This made him thirsty so he wandered into the forest to drink from the little stream that cut a path through the brown earth. He found a wild strawberry and ate some of those and then watched a line of ants carry leaf bits up a tree trunk. Curious he broke off bits of leaf for the ants to take but they didn't seem interested. He wondered what it would be like to be an ant. To have so many friends and family all the time all around you. Of course you wouldn't be able to tell who was who but whenever you wanted, you could just reach out and brush feelers with another ant which was like a hug maybe or a laugh or a joke. And the mama ant wouldn't even have to be worried because all her little ant children and her ant husbands always came marching back home with little leaf presents for her.
Maybe he should make a present for Mama and take it home so she would know that Usopp would come back. And Papa too. Even when they went on great adventures together and spent months and months out on the sea with monsters, they would come back with presents. He began to look around for lavender flowers, her favorite kind, but there were none even after a while of looking so he got some daisies instead, knowing she would like them because Mama liked everything, but secretly promising lavender later. He carefully bundled the flowers up in string and then remembered the kites he was making and tucked the flowers in his back pocket as he went back to check on them.
The sun was even higher and Usopp had to blink as he came out of the shadowed trees. The sea was a sharp deep blue and there was a ship on it way way out, pointed away from the island. Not Grandpa Pleco's cutter but a bigger ship. A bigger ship with a black flag! A pirate ship! A real pirate ship! Woow! Papa would love to see this. But it was too far out. He'd never get the chance. But maybe Usopp could describe it to him!
Usopp dove for his little green bag and searched around for his binoculars… and the ship was even better up close! There were real sails and riggings and a mast with a real black flag with a skull that had swords crossed behind it and one…two…three red stripes across the eye. And there was an actual pirate! Crawling out of the crow's nest! Usopp squeaked in surprise. He looked so rough and mean with an eye patch and everything! There were even more on the deck of the ship! So many of them! Much more than one hand or even two! There must be all the pirates in the world right there! He expected them to get smaller and smaller as the ship moved away but they stayed in the same place, bobbing up and down in the waves. One with a yellow hat was laughing and laughing, hands clutched over his stomach and he laughed so hard the hat fell off and Usopp saw that he had red hair!
Sh—Shanks right? But his hair didn't look like Usopp's at all. But….but that was okay because he still looked really friendly. Almost all of them did. They were all laughing and pointing at something in the water. Usopp tried to follow their fingers but for a moment all he saw was blue and then saw a person in the water swimming out to them. A person with yellow hair.
Wait why was Papa going? They were supposed to fly kites, right? Right? Maybe he didn't know. Maybe he'd forgot. Maybe all Usopp had to do was remind him!
"Papa!" he called but Papa didn't even look up. Just kept swimming toward that big scary ship. "Papa!" He started running for him and tripped, falling hard, the binoculars jamming against his forehead. When he looked up he saw how far the ship was and his Papa was only a little dot in the blue. He had to get closer! He had to get closer so Papa could hear! Usopp grabbed his bag and bolted toward the port, as fast as he could go, the wind making his eyes blur. He had to get there! Had to go faster! He ducked his head and ran. Ran and ran and ran, someone tried to talk to him a grownup but Usopp ran past them feeling bad but he couldn't stop. If he stopped Papa would disappear. If he stopped the kites would never fly and monsters would come out from under the bed and gnaw at his ankles.
He ran until his heart felt like it was going to break to tiny pieces and he could hardly breathe. He ran until he could feel the sand under his toes and the sea was right in front of him, big and yawning and blue and the pirate ship was so very far out. Usopp wanted to swim out to it but he could only dog paddle and only if Mama was holding on. But Papa was going! He held up the binoculars with shaking hands and tried to find Papa in the water but he wasn't there.
Usopp searched through the water until he saw the ship. And there was Papa, climbing up the rope ladder, like a rigging for the side of the ship. He doesn't look sad at all as he's climbing. He's just looking up at them looking down at him and grinning. Grinning wider than Usopp had ever seen him. Like there was the whole moon in his smile. He was back where he was born. Under the rigging under the stars. Off to be a great warrior. Off on the grand lion. Big and strong just like the big and strong hands that pull him on the ship and pat him on the shoulders and back. Like feelers. Like ants. But— Usopp should have a feeler, too. He waved his hand in front of himself. Papa looked close enough to touch. But he wasn't. Usopp's feelers were too small. His hands were too tiny.
"Papa." He wanted to cry it. To scream it and jump up and down so Papa would notice him. Would remember he forgot. Would come back and take Usopp with him or come back and stay until they could all go together. But he could only squeak. Papa didn't even look. Had his back turned. But Shanks was looking. Because he had longer feelers and binocular eyes maybe. But he seemed to be frowning right at Usopp. He put his hand on Papa's shoulder and was speaking, pointing. Papa's shoulders went straight and stiff as if he was scared. But Papa wasn't scared of anything. And he turned around and Usopp saw his smile break like an egg. His whole face. Usopp couldn't see any more though because his eyes were full and then his nose was full.
"Papa," he said in a shaky voice that sounded tiny even to him. He wiped at his eyes with the back of his hand but couldn't make the wet go away. "Come back. Come back." But there was no call of "Usopp!" over the water. No splash. No coming back. He heard distant shouts and lifted his head, sucking in a breath. The anchor was being pulled from the water and the sails were dropping down. And something flashed at Usopp from where his Papa was standing. It flashed a few times. Then stopped. Then flashed a few times again. It was— it was a mirror.
Papa… Usopp didn't want to signal back. Didn't want to say hello. Wanted Papa to get mad and come back only— Papa didn't get mad. He never got mad like that. He might just stop, maybe. Usopp set his jaw. Thinking of holding his breath but realized Papa wouldn't see. And he remembered how happy Papa had been to go…and how sad looking back. Usopp dug out the small mirror from the bottom of the bag and held it up to the sun with both hands.
H-e-l-l-o, He signaled back. There was a moment of nothing and then flashes.
H-e-l-l-o, Papa said.
H-e-l-l-o, Usopp said, wishing he knew how to say 'come back' or 'take me' or 'I love you'. But he just knew one word. Just one. And he repeated it over and over and over. The ship didn't stop for h-e-l-l-o. It kept going. Further and further out. The flashes getting too faint for Usopp to even see through binoculars. But he kept at it because maybe Shanks could see and tell his Papa that Usopp was still standing there. Still being strong.
But soon he couldn't be strong any more. His legs wobbled and he sat on the sand. The mirror fell out and rolled down the beach. He wrapped his arms around his knees and watched it lie there. Watched the ocean lap at it. Maybe it had someone it wanted to say h-e-l-l-o to, too. He wiped his eyes and curled his toes into the sand and sniffled. The sea covered the mirror or the sand ate it and soon it wasn't even there. Just a lump where it had been.
After a long long long time Usopp heard Mama say:
"There you are." She knelt beside him on the sand, even though she was in her good dress. "I thought it would be easier for you if you slept through it," Mama said, rubbing his back. "Where did you go off to so early?"
To make kites, Usopp wanted to say. But maybe Mama had forgotten, too. Grownups didn't always remember the important things. He wanted to tell her stuff about ants and feelers and flowers but it felt like some of the glue had gotten into his mouth.
"Look at you," Mama said. "Covered in chocolate. Wherever did you get it. Your Papa?" He took a hanky from her skirt pocket and licked it and her warm soft hand came under his chin so he was looking at her. Her eyes were red. She had been crying. Why was it so sad? Why was everything so sad?
"There you are," she said, wiping the hanky over his face. "Nice and clean. Now…now don't worry about your Papa," she said. Her voice went trembly and she moved to kiss the top of his head. He wondered if that was because she didn't want him to see her cry. He didn't want her to cry.
"He'll be back," Mama said. "Before you know it." And she sniffed.
"He'll be back tomorrow," Usopp said. The words spilled out of his lips and he didn't know how he got there but it felt good saying them. Mama pulled back and blinked at him, wiping at one eye with her thumb.
"What?" Mama said.
"Yeah! He'll be back tomorrow. He said. He said he was just going to Mermaid Cove with them, that was all. And he'll be right back tomorrow and this time he'll take us with him. Shanks is really nice, too. He says he has a room all made up for us where we can look at the stars through the rigging every night except when it's cloudy but then I we can look at clouds and I won't be scared at all I promise."
"Oh Usopp. I know you're going to miss your Papa but that's not going to happen. He's not going to come back for a long time."
"I know, I know," Usopp said, nodding and folding his arms. "I guess it will just be up to me to defend this island from man eating squidmaids. They're everywhere and anyway I gotta train real hard."
"Train for what?"
"To be a brave warrior of the sea!"
"Hush now. No talk of that today." She wiped something off Usopp's face with her thumb. "Now come on. Let's get home and get breakfast."
"Can I piggyback?" Usopp asked. He didn't need to. He could walk. He was strong but… but…
"Of course, honey. Come on."
Usopp climbed on to her back, wrapping his arms around her neck and feeling warm as she took his legs, even though they were sandy. Mama didn't care about sand or dirt or anything, even in her good dress. He held on and rested his cheek against her neck and smelled the mint and lavender, a little bit of tobacco smoke. The thought made his eyes go blurry and he wiped them with the back of his hand. As they went up the path to the house, there was Grandpa Pleco coming the other way.
"Banchina… I heard about what happened…"
"I'm sure the whole village did by now, Mister Pleco," Mama said, sounding tired.
"Yes, well…" Grandpa Pleco coughed. "It's all for the best. That rascal had nothing to do around here but stir up trouble."
Mama said nothing and Grandpa Pleco coughed again and shifted his glance to Usopp.
"Hello, Usopp-chan," he said.
"Hello," Usopp said. "Papa will be coming back tomorrow."
"What?" Grandpa Pleco said with a blink.
"I said no more of that, Usopp," Mama said in a flat iron voice. "Good day, Mister Pleco," she added and started to walk again. Usopp pressed his lips shut. He didn't want to make Mama mad, but maybe it was true. Maybe Papa would be coming back tomorrow. Yeah! And if not tomorrow the day after that. Or the day after that. But whenever he came, Usopp would be ready to say hello.