Authors: Francine Prose
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Horror, #Social Themes, #General, #Horror & Ghost Stories, #Social Issues
To Emilia and Malena
I’m afraid this is going to sound crazy. But a very strange thing just happened.
A huge seagull had been flying alongside the ferry ever since we left the dock. The seagull was escorting us, or really, escorting
, flying as fast as it had to, in order to stay right beside me, just beyond the railing. If I moved down the deck, it moved.
The morning was damp and misty, unusually cold for June. There were only a few passengers on deck, and they were wearing rain slickers with hoods that hid their faces and screened out this weird … relationship I was having with this bird.
It was so close I could have touched it, but I knew I wouldn’t, and the bird knew it, too. I watched it for a few minutes, swooping on the updrafts and circling down again. Then I turned and watched the shoreline disappear, until I could no longer see my dad waving or my dad’s truck. I looked out at the sea, into the chilly wet fog through which I kept trying to glimpse the islands, even though I knew they were too far away.
It was just at that moment that the bird turned its head and screamed.
I know: Screaming is what seagulls
. It’s normal.
This one was screeching right in my ear. Anyone would have jumped—jumped right out of his skin. And yet it wasn’t the noise or the loudness that startled me.
What made it creepy and scary was that the bird was screaming at me. Not at the boat but at me … it followed me as we moved. How nuts is that?
Okay, here comes the really crazy part. The screech was almost human. You’re going to have to believe me, Sophie, when I tell you that I could understand what the bird was saying.
It screamed, “Jack! Don’t do this! Turn around! Go home! Leave … leave … leave …” Its cry got softer and sadder as the bird veered away and flew off into the distance.
I told myself, Okay, dude. This is pretty cracked. The seagull is speaking English and calling you by name. You should go belowdecks for a while and chill and be around other people. What makes the whole thing even more confusing is that I’d been feeling okay. Maybe a little nervous—anyone would be—about leaving home for two months to go live on a tiny island in the middle of nowhere. But it’s true what we kept telling each other, Sophie: two months isn’t all that long. By August, I’ll have earned at least part of the money I need to go to college. The same college as you. So when high school is over next year, we can
go, assuming we both get in. And somehow I feel sure we will. Two months is a long time to be away from you, but we’ll be together again before the summer is over.
So I was kind of enjoying the ferry ride, the damp cool of the fog on my face, the salty sting of the sea. I was glad just to have a job, because this summer, as everyone knows, there
no summer jobs. Anywhere. This one was going to pay really well, and it sounded easy, though maybe a little boring. I wasn’t feeling especially paranoid or anxious. So doesn’t it seem strange to you that I imagined a seagull yelling at me to jump off the ferry and swim back to shore?
Boarding the ferry, I hadn’t paid much attention to the other passengers. I’d been too busy struggling with my luggage. At the very last minute I’d thrown in more sneakers and boots than I’ll probably ever need. My dad and I had wrestled with my duffel bag, and it had been a drama, finding a place to put it on the boat where no one would trip over it and it would be safe.
By the time we’d stowed it all away, the ferry whistle was blowing and my dad was saying I could still change my mind and come home. He said it made him uncomfortable, my going away to an island where there were no phones or internet or TV, so that we’d have to write letters, old-school, starting with
! And ending with
I knew my dad felt guilty, because I had to get a job. The pizza place where I worked last summer went out of business. Lately my dad has hardly been getting any work, though he used to make good money building porches and additions, and renovating the kitchens and bathrooms of rich people’s summer homes. But now, with the economic downturn, a lot of his former customers are deciding they could live with the kitchens and bathrooms they already had. And no one is building new houses, at least not in our town. If I want to go to college, which you know I do, I’m going to have to earn some of the money myself. I think it’s made my dad feel like he failed, even though it’s not his fault that half the country is out of work.
I told my dad that two months would pass in no time and that my job sounded like fun. There were supposed to be plenty of books in the house where I would be staying, so I could read all kinds of stuff I hadn’t had time for in school. I was bringing my laptop, with this portable printer he’d got me—the old-school kind you plug in to the computer—so I could write him plenty of letters. I could improve my writing skills, which would be helpful in college. I didn’t feel I had to tell him I’d brought along my favorite video games, in case I got sick of reading and writing letters, which I knew I would.
The ferry whistle blew again. My dad and I hugged good-bye. And as the ship pulled away from the dock, I ran up on deck so he could see me waving. I was sad for a moment, but then the sadness passed, and I started to enjoy the ride. I don’t know why I had that fantasy—or whatever it was—about the seagull.
I hadn’t slept well the night before. Maybe I was just tired. I decided to go downstairs, which was set up like a big, friendly, warm café. I’d get a coffee with three sugars, chill out, and text you from the phone I’d brought along, even though I knew I wouldn’t be able to use it on the island.
It turned out I couldn’t text you. The message didn’t go through. We were already too far from land. Really, it doesn’t make sense. You can text from halfway around the world. Probably from the moon. But the minute we sailed toward the islands, we entered a major dead zone. I felt like I’d left the modern world behind and time-traveled back into the past. To tell you the truth, I was starting to feel a little stranded, marooned on the desert (I knew it wasn’t a desert) island I hadn’t even got to. I couldn’t say I wasn’t warned that, as far as modern technology is concerned, I could be spending the summer in the Neanderthal era. I just hadn’t expected to leave the twenty-first century so soon.
Fortunately, I’d kept my laptop with me instead of packing it away in my duffel bag. I turned on my computer and started writing you this letter. I figured I might as well get a head start, get in practice for the summer. Last night, you kept reminding me that I’d promised to write you every day, though the boat that picks up and delivers the mail to the island comes only three times a week. I said I’d write a letter every night and save them, and send them to you in batches.
I got so involved in trying to tell you about the seagull that I sort of forgot where I was. When I looked up, an elderly couple was standing beside my table, asking if the empty seats were taken.
I told you I hadn’t noticed the other passengers. But I’d noticed
, mainly because the guy was blind, and his wife held his arm and was constantly telling him, There’s a step here, turn right, don’t hit your head on the doorway. It was the wife who asked if they could sit with me. I couldn’t exactly say no. The husband’s milky eyes stared straight ahead, didn’t blink, and saw nothing.
As I shut my laptop, the wife said she hoped they hadn’t interrupted me. I’d seemed so intent on what I was doing. What had I been writing?
First I said, “Oh, nothing.” Then I said, “A letter to my girlfriend.”
The husband said, “We saw you having quite a time with that seagull up on deck. It would have scared the dickens out of
, a bird screaming at me like that.”
Actually, it made me feel a little less crazy that the guy said he’d
it. Though I couldn’t help wondering how a blind man could have watched me and the bird having our one-sided conversation.
They asked me where I was going, and when I said Crackstone’s Landing, the blind man and his wife turned toward each other. Even though he could no longer see, they hadn’t lost the habit of exchanging meaningful glances. It made me wonder what it was about Crackstone’s Landing that had gotten that reaction.
“Are you visiting?” asked the woman.
“Not exactly,” I said. “I’ve got a summer job there. Looking after two kids.”
“Odd,” said the blind man. “Don’t take this the wrong way, but don’t people usually hire girls for jobs like that?”
“That’s so old-fashioned and sexist, dear!” said his wife. “These days plenty of young men babysit and take care of children—”
I said, “They had a girl working there before me. But it didn’t work out. She quit suddenly to get married. So they had to find someone quick. And I guess they thought that this time, since it was summer, they should hire a guy to play sports with the kids.”
“No immediate wedding plans for you, I assume,” the blind man said.
“No,” I said.
“What do you know about the children you’re going to take care of?” the lady asked me.
“Not much, except what their guardian, Mr. Crackstone, told me,” I replied. I guess I could have told them more. I could have said there was no they who had hired me. There was only Jim Crackstone. But Mr. Crackstone was so obviously rich and powerful and intimidating, he seemed like more than one person. He’d seemed like a whole committee.
I thought about Jim Crackstone’s law office, where I’d gone to meet him, and where he’d tried to put me at ease, but where I was totally
at ease even though he said I’d come highly recommended. I remembered staring at the art on Jim Crackstone’s walls—dozens of antique prints and paintings of exploding volcanoes. I’d wondered: What’s up with that? What’s the message there?
Jim Crackstone said he’d heard good things about me from his friend Caleb. Also known as Caleb Treadwell, also known as your father, Sophie. I could have told Jim Crackstone that every nice thing your dad said about me must be true, because your dad was hardly in the habit of saying nice things about me. But I wasn’t sure that Mr. Crackstone would appreciate the joke. And I certainly wasn’t going to say that all your dad really wanted was to put me on an island with an ocean between us for two months—two months during which I couldn’t see you, not unless I quit and swam home.
Talking to the old couple, I remembered all sorts of details about my conversation with my new boss. Jim Crackstone wore a chunky gold ring in the shape of a dollar sign. Normally, I don’t notice guy’s clothes, but his suit, navy with a white pinstripe, was so amazing that I had to stop myself from reaching out to touch it. Mr. Crackstone asked me a few questions about my family. But I could tell he already knew that my mom had died of a stroke when I was six, and I lived with my dad, who never remarried. Not only did Jim Crackstone know all that but I could tell he’d made up his mind to hire me before I walked in the door.