The 100 Year Miracle is the latest novel by author Ashley Ream (Available May 24, 2016).
Once a century, for only six days, the bay around a small Washington island glows like a water-bound aurora. Dr. Rachel Bell, a scientist studying the 100-Year Miracle and the tiny sea creatures that create it, knows a secret about the phenomenon that inspired the region’s myths and folklore: the rare green water may contain a power that could save Rachel's own life (and change the world). When Rachel connects with Harry and Tilda, a divorced couple cohabiting once again as Harry enters the last stages of a debilitating disease, Harry is pulled into Rachel's obsession and hope as they both grasp at this once-in-a-lifetime chance to save themselves.
But the Miracle does things to people. Strange and mysterious things. And as these things begin to happen, Rachel has only six days to uncover and control the Miracle's secrets before the waters go dark for another hundred years.
The First Day of the Miracle
The Department of Fish and Wildlife had cordoned off the beach, wrapping the small half-moon bay in yellow caution tape. The mayor and the governor in separate press conferences—because even for this they could not share—had warned people to stay out of the water. They feared islanders and tourists would gather up so many of the glowing Artemia lucis into glass jars to wonder at like fireflies that the breeding activity would be compromised, killing the species forever. This fear was not, in Dr. Bell’s opinion, unfounded.
She pulled the zipper of her waterproof jacket up a little higher. Gloves would’ve been nice, but she couldn’t work in gloves. Winter on the San Juan Islands was cold, but only occasionally was it cold enough to snow, which meant the persistent drizzle didn’t have to bother melting before it soaked into her clothes, boots, and skin. The light but unrelenting wet had not let up all that day and wouldn’t until June. Apparently, people got used to it, but Rachel, who grew up in Arizona where the sun baked and bleached your bones while you were still using them, didn’t think she would ever get used to it. She had been cold for two years running. It was a cold no wool socks and bulky sweatshirts could cure. It was the sort of cold that made a person irritable.
If it were not for the Artemia lucis, Rachel would never have considered such a place fit for habitation. But scientists have a long history of following their obsessions into the most unpleasant and treacherous places on earth, deep into jungles and out onto ice floes, so it would be a warm winter’s day on this godforsaken bay before she would breathe a word of complaint to any of her teammates, some of whom had been raised on drizzle and moss and seemed to thrive in it, as though it were some sort of growth medium.
Her research team was led by Dr. Eugene Hooper, who had headed the biology department at the University of Washington for long enough that no one remembered who had done it before him. Hooper, who hated his first name and wouldn’t answer to it, was a head taller than any other man in the department. Incapable of accruing body fat, his skin was shrink-wrapped to his frame, and he had deep lines carved around his mouth and eyes by too much sun on too many field expeditions. The work had taken its toll in other ways, too. A trip to Borneo early in his career had left him with a lifetime of reoccurring malarial bouts. It made for interesting “out of office” messages.
All of Dr. Hooper’s seminars, office hours, and meetings are canceled this week due to feverish hallucinations. Thank you for understanding.
Hooper’s team for this expedition had been assembled and waiting for a year. While the approximate time of the breeding could be estimated, the date could only be calculated within twenty-eight days, and even that was probability.
Each member carried a packed duffel bag in the trunk of his or her car. All the necessary laboratory and collection equipment was assembled and waiting at the university for transport. There had been training drills and practice scenarios and more meetings than Rachel cared to remember. No one, heaven forbid, let their cell phone battery die. It was as if they were all expectant fathers waiting for the water to break.
When the call had come that morning just after 5:30 a.m., Rachel, a biochemist, had been trying to bend over. Bending over was just one of the things that did not come easily to her. Everything tightened while she slept. No matter how many stretches she had done the day before, she had to begin all over each morning.
First Rachel pushed away the sheet, the comforter, the quilt, and the blanket and slid off the mattress like a woman balancing a glass of water on top of her head. Once on her feet, she let her head fall forward, which pulled at the ropey, knotted clump of shiny-looking scars at the base of her neck. She clamped her jaw tight and waited for the worst of that pain to pass before rolling her shoulders forward and letting her arms hang loose over her toes. With a series of deep, loud breaths that she pushed through her teeth, Rachel let her spine lengthen, one vertebra at a time. The thing here was not to pass out or throw up. Vomiting was a serious concern because she’d had her morning Vicodin, and it wouldn’t do to lose whatever remained undissolved in her digestive tract.
Rachel was still doing her Lamaze breaths when her phone began to buzz and vibrate. It was a jarring sound in the predawn quiet when even the dusky blue scrub jays were fast asleep.
She reached up with one hand, feeling blindly for the nightstand and then for the top of the nightstand and then for her cell phone.
“Bell,” she said into it.
“Rachel?” Hooper said. “It’s time.”
Understanding her brain’s chemistry did nothing to control it. A jolt of epinephrine targeted her adrenergic receptors, stimulating the sympathetic nervous system and causing an involuntary start. She jerked up fast and phosphenes swam through her vision.
“Aargh.” Rachel bit down and punched her thigh.
Hooper often asked if she was okay, and Rachel always gave the same answer. The question and the answer had gone back and forth between them so many times that it no longer required a conscious thought. Rachel would, of course, never tell him about her scars because she would never tell anyone, but if anyone could ever be an exception, it would be him. This extreme hypothetical was the most trust Rachel had placed in anyone since she had been old enough to ride a two-wheeled bicycle.
“I’m fine,” Rachel said on a breath. “I’m on my way.”
She ended the call with her thumb but moved nothing else. “Dammit.”
The thing she wanted more than she had ever wanted anything was happening—it was happening right then—and Rachel had no choice but to wait. She wiggled her fingers, scrunched up her toes, made fists and then released them, fist, release, fist, release, wiggle, scrunch, wiggle, scrunch, anything to calm her nerves. As each millimeter of scar tissue relaxed, her breath eased and then quieted. When it was all the way quiet, the stretches were done. She stood up, pulling off the baggy T-shirt she’d slept in.
Her back from her shoulders to her waist looked like dripping, melted wax. Rachel knew the scars well enough to pick out shapes as a child might see animals in the clouds. There was a tree just to the right of her spine about halfway down, a raven in flight was on the left a little higher up, and the face of an old man was etched between her shoulder blades. They stretched as she moved, and though they never seemed to get any better, she wondered if they did not change slightly over time like stars moving across the sky.
While Rachel did not find them horrible anymore, objectively, they were. They were the sort of scars that made people clamp their hands across their mouths when they saw them. The sort of scars that frightened people. And although an adult might say to a child that they—that she—was nothing to be frightened of, that was a lie. Any rational person would be and should be frightened because her scars were proof that things that should not be survivable sometimes are and that this is not good news. It was better not to know these things. Rachel wished she did not know them, which was part of the reason no one ever saw her scars. No living person, apart from her doctors—and there had been a lot of doctors—even knew they existed.
Keeping this secret did tend to interfere with interpersonal relationships but, then again, so did her tendency to think of them as “interpersonal relationships.”
Hurrying, she reached into one of the two small fishbowls that sat on the nightstand. White pills in one, orange pills in the other. The Vicodin was a mixture of acetaminophen, which had begun to damage her liver, and hydrocodone. By her own calculations, her dosage trajectory would lead to heart and/or respiratory failure in less than a year. There were, she thought, some advantages to her default mode of detached analysis, not many advantages to be sure, but some. This was one. She knew how long she had to fix things. She could make a plan.
Rachel took three from the orange stash and swallowed them while pulling on yesterday’s clothes, which she’d left on the floor the night before. Halfway into her pants, she stopped, debated with herself and then cursed, taking them off again. She found and put on a pair of clean underpants, pulled the jeans back on, grabbed her pre-packed duffel bag, and left without remembering to turn off the lights.
* * *
The underfunded, six-member team was to meet at the ferry that ran from Anacortes, a coastal town eighty miles north of Seattle, to Olloo’et Island, but when they arrived, hurriedly dressed and with to-go cups gone cold in their cup holders, there were seven of them. This made for some awkward shuffling of feet and discreet glances. It was like being halfway through a meal in a restaurant when a complete stranger decides to drag over a chair.
“This is John,” Hooper said, clapping the stranger on the back. “John is an expert on the area’s coastal ecosystem and comes highly recommended. He’ll be joining us. I hope you’ll all make him feel welcome.”
Rachel made a noise. It was only after she made the noise that she realized she’d made it and that people were looking at her.
“Did you have something to say?” Hooper asked.
Even Rachel, who did not always judge these things accurately, suspected it would be best not to answer.
Hooper raised an eyebrow, but he went on, and she stewed. They were all experts. They had all come highly recommended. It was hardly reason enough to bring him on board at the last minute. But to object would not only have been rude, it would’ve required her to provide some sort of justification, which she was not, under any circumstance, prepared to do.
Rachel knew one very important thing about the Artemia lucis, one thing that, up until that singular moment, she felt sure no one else on the team knew. She’d been secure in this one-upmanship, and now, in the space of one introduction, she didn’t feel sure anymore. If anyone else would know—could know—it would be John. She had never met him before, but she could read it on his face.
Rachel did not mean that as a figure of speech. Up his neck and ending just in front of his ear, John had the Olloo’et tattoo, the one hammered into the skin of all tribal men sometime after puberty but before taking a wife. Four rows of coal black dots. Eighty-eight dots in all.
The Olloo’et had always been small, much smaller than the better-known Snohomish whose national headquarters just off I-5 Rachel had passed on her drive. The Olloo’et were members of the southern Northwest Coast peoples, but they spoke neither Salishan nor Chemakuan nor Chinookan languages. They were culturally, linguistically, and geographically distinct. They lived on just the one island, the farthest populated island from the mainland. They were not known to other tribes as great diplomats like the Nimi’ipuu or great warriors like the Cayuses. In fact, the Olloo’et were hardly known at all.
Rachel had spent two years studying the handful of old photographs that still existed of these people, John’s ancestors, a people she had come to think of as no longer a part of the world, as extinct as the Spectacled Cormorant. Of course, that was ridiculous. Languages died out. Religions died out. People did not. They assimilated and interbred, and the next thing you knew, you were on a team with John.
The rest of the team stepped forward. There were two or three handshakes and some polite nods, but later Rachel would be the only one to remember his name. For the rest, excitement and nervousness overrode everything. It zipped from scientist to scientist like static electricity, making them double-check cartons of equipment, bounce on their toes, and fiddle with zippers. Rachel was nervous, too. She clenched and unclenched her fingers inside her coat pockets, both looking and trying not to look at John, who stayed next to Hooper, the two of them leaning close when they spoke.
The ferry, which was rolling in the choppy sound waters, docked. Vehicles returning to the mainland were driven off, and the team hurried back to their cars. John, who had the build of someone who played rugby, bent to pick up his duffel. When he did, he reached his other hand out for the backpack sitting at Rachel’s feet. She was on it before he could wrap his fingers around the straps.
“That’s mine,” she said, lifting the worn bag and shrugging it over a shoulder, well out of his reach.
“I thought I might help.”
“I don’t need help.” Too many seconds went by before she remembered. “Thank you.”
“Never?” he asked.
“You never need help?”
Rachel directed her answer at his left ear. “Once. I electrocuted myself trying to rewire my bathroom light.”
The last vehicles drove off the ferry, and a gull landed near their feet, attracted by an empty potato chip bag.
“I can’t tell if you’re kidding,” John said.
“I had to get an EKG.”
John didn’t reply. Hooper called his name, and he peeled away from her without saying good-bye, which was fine, except that it was usually Dr. Bell who Hooper was calling for, and so she was left alone.
* * *
It was a two-hour ferry ride to Olloo’et Island. The seven-member team deployed workstations at both the water’s edge and at the off-season summer camp where they were lodging. They worked as quickly and efficiently as a MASH unit setting up field hospitals. Some would work in the day. Some would work at night. Hooper would supervise both, sleeping when he could. By sundown, they were all standing in the rocky sand by the bay watching the water begin to catch a green fire, just a little at first so that Rachel had to blink and squint to be sure she wasn’t imagining it.
Streaks and blooms of lime appeared along the water’s edge, as though hundreds, perhaps thousands, of glow sticks had been cracked open and poured into the bay. The spots of phosphorescent neon grew and spread and joined together.
Awed murmurs came from the gathered locals standing side-by-side up the bluff behind the yellow tape. Rachel hugged herself, grinned wider than she wanted, and had to bite her lip to keep from letting out a whoop. If she’d been alone, she might have run down the whole beach hollering like a child who’d just been given ten years’ worth of Christmas gifts all at once.
These tiny arthropods, related to brine shrimp, were some of the rarest living beings on earth. Artemia designated them as a member of their genus. Lucis is from the Latin lux for light. The lighted arthropod. Rachel loved the name. She always had.
As far as she knew, no one alive had ever seen one outside a specimen jar. They had segmented bodies, an exoskeleton, and twenty-two legs, which seemed an awful lot for something no more than eight millimeters long. With a life span of just six days, they hatched by the millions once a century and right away began to send out this bioluminescent signal. They thought—the biologists standing there at the shore—that it was for mating. (Almost everything is for mating in some way or another.) The light might be density dependent. It might be triggered by the movement of the water. They knew so little that it made Rachel’s breath catch. It excited her, made her skin tingle and her heart pound. It made her feel like an explorer, a discoverer. She was about to know things that no one else had known before. Not one person. Not ever.
“All right,” Hooper said to the six other scientists standing shoulder-to-shoulder on either side of him. He took a breath and seemed to be searching for something important to say. They all felt this and squared their shoulders in response, ready to absorb this fateful moment, even Rachel, who had never been one for speeches. But inspiration failed him, and they all had to settle for “You know what to do.”
Rachel moved forward toward the waiting kayak with a plankton net attached to a specimen jar. This was it, she thought. This was what she was waiting for, the thing that could and would save her life.
Copyright © 2016 Ashley Ream.
To learn more or order a copy, visit:
ASHLEY REAM got her first job writing for newspapers when she was 16. Since then her career has taken her all over the Midwest, Gulf, and West Coasts with more moves than she would care to count. She is now finally and happily settled in Seattle, where she lives with her husband, runs ultra marathons, and is finishing her next book. Her debut novel, Losing Clementine, was short-listed for the Balcones Fiction Prize.