Authors: Tara McTiernan
She thought of Ginny, a girl who had always gotten what she wanted, whether she earned it or not. Hannah recognized that easy insouciance and utter confidence the first time she’d met the girl, having known and envied many other cossetted and spoiled children in Fairfield County. Now Ginny was living in a guest room in the main house, waiting for Hannah to move out. She waited patiently, knowing she would get what she wanted because she always got what she wanted. But where would that leave Hannah? Where would she go? And what about the perfect little home she had labored so hard to create? Hadn’t she earned some kind of ownership or did all that effort ultimately mean nothing?
“Okay?” Manny asked again.
Hannah hung up.
As soon as the Meadowbrook State Parkway entered the marshlands that were precursors to the beaches that lined the South Shore of Long Island, Hannah pulled her car over to the shoulder of the road and performed the first of the rites that she had helped act out every summer of her youth when they went to Captain’s Island: rolling down all of the windows of the car.
“It’s like having a convertible!” her mother would say every year, as if it was a fresh thought, laughing with delight as she not only rolled down the front windows, but also the back windows of their black Volkswagon Jetta. Once on the road again, their hair whipping in their faces, Keeley would crow, “The summer has officially begun! Yee-haw! Ride em’ cowboy!”
Hannah didn’t know where her mother’s frequent cowboy references came from, but she had always used them lavishly and, if she was wearing a hat, would take it off and throw it in the air as punctuation.
Back on the road, salt-marsh-scented air filling the car, Hannah let herself feel the tiny hope that had blossomed in dark terrain of her misery the day before. It had been close to one o’clock in the afternoon and Hannah had been in a daze of depression, sitting staring at the television without seeing it. When the doorbell rang, she thought it was from the television and the sitcom currently playing. When the bell rang a second time, it took her a second to realize it was hers, the sound so foreign to her from lack of play.
At first, she was struck by terror. It was Mr. Harris, it had to be. He had stopped by and called several times now, waiting for her answer. When would she be moving out to be with Daniel? When could Ginny move in? Hannah had always been vague and noncommittal. But now the rent was due, overdue, and she didn’t have it.
She switched off the television and slunk over to one of the windows near the front door to peek out and see who it was. A large white box of a truck was in her driveway, bright red and blue lettering spelling FedEx on its side. She breathed out. Thank God. It was only a delivery.
She opened the door to an annoyingly cheerful FedEx delivery man, who grinned at her and held out a large padded envelope. She signed for it quickly before he could smell her B.O. and shut the door.
The return address was her mother’s. Inside was a set of keys on a key ring and a note. The keys looked like any other keys, but the note was pure Keeley. Big looping letters scrawled sideways on a piece of lavender stationary, scratched off quickly and sent before she was distracted by something else, the next exciting thing on the horizon, and forgot to mail it.
Hannah read and then reread the note. She picked up the keys and examined them, reading their labels: Gate, Boat, Aunt Pam’s, Barefoot. The last was the one she stared at the longest. It belonged to the house Hannah had been kept out of since she was twelve, thrown out of without explanation. In dreams she was there again, small, loved.
Hannah clutched the keys to her chest and closed her eyes. “Thank you,” she whispered.
The car radio started playing “Running on Empty” by Jackson Browne. Hannah turned up the volume and sang along, shouting out the lyrics. She knew she was running, too, both away and toward. She had no answers about her life back home, all she had was the wind blowing through her hair, this perfect song, and what lay down the road and across the water: Captain’s Island and the Barefooter house, the very heart of who her mother was.
Isolated at the southernmost tip of the island, the tiny house, once belonging to a hermit who had lived there year-round for years, had been abandoned and decaying when the Barefooters were little girls living on the island with their parents. It had become their secret clubhouse when they were little and later, as young women, Keeley’s father had purchased it for the four friends and had it renovated. Had that been when the war started between Keeley and Hannah’s grandmother? Hannah knew that Grandma O’Brien had openly disliked Captain’s Island, although she had never understood why. When she asked Keeley, she had only said, “Fire and water, that’s your grandma and Captain’s. Just not meant to be together.”
Captain’s Island was a long lean strip of sand and marshland in the Great South Bay of Long Island. The sea captain, for whom the island was named, Captain Floyd Cedric Hughes, had been an odd antisocial man who had wanted a place to retire where no one else was interested in settling and had found the mosquito-infested marshy island perfect for his purposes. Long Island was sparsely populated at the time, and this island, accessible only by boat and miles from civilization, appeared to be the perfect fortress from humanity.
Building a large house on the island, he promptly married his thirteen year old second cousin and fathered five children by her, raising them all on the island. When the children grew up, they built houses on the island for their families as well. This, according to island legend, drove the captain to his wits end, having his family crawling all over his island, throwing parties and making noise. Inviting strangers! According to island legend, he ran off to the uninhabited southern end of the island that was almost pure marsh, built a house, and refused to speak to anyone in his family, even his wife, again.
As little girls, the Barefooters were convinced that the little abandoned house still standing on the tip of the island, propped on stilts in the marsh, was the famous hideaway of the captain. Grown-ups said that the house had been built much later, during the Roaring Twenties, and had theories about bootleggers and bathtub gin. But Aunt Zo insisted she saw the Captain’s ghost there one time when she was alone in the house and curled up with a book on one of the “safe” corners where the wooden floor was still solid, other portions of the floor having gone soft and rotted through. The ghost, a tall dark man, had been crossing the room, and then turned and glared at her before turning away again. “Then, poof! He was gone. Like a light switch being turned off!” Aunt Zo said.
Hannah had heard that story many times, Aunt Zo loved to tell it around Halloween, but she still didn’t know how the girls met, their history, how their childhood friendship grew and lasted as long as it had. Hannah had friends as a child. Where were they? Why weren’t they banging on her door, dropping in for a pitcher of Mean Greens? Hannah couldn’t wait to get to the island, get inside that house. She only wished her mother and the Barefooters would be there, too. She wanted that special electricity around her, the kind she had grown up on: Barefooter power.
All of the Barefooters owned their own houses on the island, ones more spacious and suitable for husbands, children, and the assorted guests that found their way onto the island every summer. Keeley and Pam owned houses they had purchased, while Amy and Zo lived in the houses passed down by their parents, the same houses where they had spent the summers of their youth. Almost all the houses on the island were raised wooden houses with enclosed areas underneath built for the inevitable high tides of storms that would destroy a house that rested directly on the sandy soil.
Unlike the houses they owned separately that were shared with their families and children, the Barefooter house was the Barefooters’ alone. They hung out together there, inviting no one except their youngest children who needed supervision. They had their own private parties, or just gathered to talk, or came singly to escape their own homes when they needed a respite. The only time outsiders were allowed in the house was when they were throwing one of their big parties, which were held mostly outdoors as the tiny house filled up quickly.
Hannah remembered the books filling shelves lining the walls, softening and swollen from the humid sea air. There were tons of photos of the Barefooters throughout their lives all over the house – some framed, some simply pinned to the wall, and thousands in their enormous collection of photo albums. They also had many collections of keepsakes from trips they had taken together, including her favorite, a huge bowl of Mardi Gras beads that used to sit on the center of the table in their tiny living room. She had loved playing with the beads as a girl, draping herself thickly with them and pretending to be a princess or a mermaid.
Hannah turned onto Ocean Parkway, noticing how the streetlamps along the highway changed here from silver metal sticks ending with the smooth pods that held the bulb to wooden poles topped with clunky old lamps that looked like car headlights. Here the scrub pines became fewer and the tall grasses took over, topped with golden tassels. Dunes rose up and receded like waves on her right as she drove past Jones Beach, jaunty flags near the visitor center still flying in late September.
She drove, peering over the thick growth on the left side of the road in snatches to see the other islands that were precursors to Captain’s Island, some inhabited like Captain’s Island, some simply grass-covered humps in the water. It was always this way when they drove out to Captain’s, each marker causing increased excitement: first the huge arching Throgs Neck Bridge followed by a cross island crawl in inching fume-scented traffic. Then the traffic broke and they rode across the smaller bridges across the bay, stopping briefly to open the car windows. As they approached the ocean, the temperature dropped and the air freshened, filled with the sweet-sharp smell of salt water. When the water tower near Jones Beach came into view, they always hooted, “Almost there! Captain’s! Captain’s!”
Driving now, on a clear cool late-September day, there were differences. The beach crowds were gone, the huge parking lots at Jones nearly empty. The road that shimmered hot in the sun in the summer held steady, without the usual mirage of distant puddles glimmering on the asphalt. The tall grasses were starting to turn from summer-green to fall-gold.
Then there it was, Captain’s, a glimpse through the brush on the left of the road. She turned left at the turnaround and then a hard right into the parking lot, and stopped in front of the locked metal gate. Hannah climbed out of the car, unlocked the gate, drove through, and relocked it after herself. It wasn’t hard to remember to do: a huge hand-painted sign on either side of the gate read, “Remember to lock the gate!” In addition, she had grown up hearing angry adults describing irresponsible islanders who failed to lock the gate, heard of the cars being broken into, heard of the vandalism to the dock, the boats.
She had her pick of parking spaces. Only one space was taken by a dusty Subaru station wagon with the words “Wash Me” written in the dust of the rear window, plus “PD + JK” was written in smaller letters below. She pulled up into a prime spot near the dock and killed the engine. She was here.
She climbed out of the car and looked at the other car, the Subaru, in the lot. Who did it belong to? All of the islanders usually left by the second week of September and it was the very last day of the month. Plus it was a Thursday and, even in the summer, most islanders only came out on the weekends.
Hannah walked over and looked in the dusty windows of the car, trying to see if there were any clues to its ownership. Although the outside of the car was dirty, which was typical if you parked your car in the gravel-and-dirt lot all summer, the inside was neat and orderly. No toys or fast food bags or used coffee cups. The upholstery was spotless and there was a neatly folded dark blue towel in the back seat. There were none of the usual bumper stickers that islanders favored, like political statements or boasts about children who were honor students. No peace signs or warnings not to tailgate. It didn’t look like a typical islander’s car at all.
Shaking her head a little, she turned and looked at her own car. No, she would unpack in a minute; she had to unlock the dinghy, test the outboard motor, get the whole thing over to the community dock to load first anyway. The dock – that’s where she wanted to go. Cool breezes blowing her hair around and into her face, she walked down the gravel path and out on to the long t-shaped dock, grabbing at her hair to be able to see where she was going. Her sneakers, making contact with the wooden boards, made the satisfying summertime hollow thumping sound that she loved.
She stopped and looked.
If it had been high summer, motorboats would be buzzing back and forth on the water, punctuated by occasional leisurely sailboats. There would be other people on the dock, guests with their hosts who had arrived by boat to pick them up for their visit, families cluttering the dock with boxes and bags filled with supplies. There would be enthusiastic little boys lying flat on their bellies with their heads dangling over the edge, grabbing at schools of passing minnows and talking about sharks.
Now, the hollow sound of her feet on the boardwalk which usually made her smile, the telltale sound of fellow islanders approaching for a visit, sounded more like an echo. The string of houses across the channel were shuttered for the winter and the boats that waited and bobbed in the water at the end of each dock were gone. The docks and small beaches that were the hubs of every home in the summer - children diving, screeching, and playing in the water, adults setting up to sail or motor somewhere or just sitting with their feet dangling in the water and cocktails in their hands - were silent and empty, the beaches clear of the usual summer debris of colorful pails, beach chairs, and shiny plastic toys.