Authors: Francine Prose
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Horror, #Social Themes, #General, #Horror & Ghost Stories, #Social Issues
So I wasn’t all that surprised when he told me he was offering me a two-month job taking care of Flora and Miles, his niece and nephew. The boy was home for the summer from boarding school, to which he would return in the fall. And though they’d hired a full-time replacement teacher for the girl, who was being homeschooled until she was old enough to go away to study, her teacher wouldn’t arrive until the end of August. Since it was the summer, Mr. Crackstone thought he would hire a young man, because of his recent disappointment with the children’s previous teacher, who had left them in the lurch when her fiancé proposed. A young man could supervise the sports and games, the physical activity that the children badly needed, and also Jim Crackstone thought it might be good for Miles to spend some time around a role model—a young man who was a decent human being.
Something about the way Jim Crackstone’s lip curled when he said “decent human being” made me think there was something he wasn’t telling me. It crossed my mind that there had been someone who worked for him before who had definitely not been a decent human being.
Mr. Crackstone explained that he was the children’s legal guardian. Their parents, his brother and sister-in-law, had been killed in a train wreck on a trip to India when the children—now ten and eight—were very young. He told me the children lived with their longtime cook, Mrs. Gross. Their house, the family home, was the only dwelling on the island, not counting a few small cottages where they’d put up the staff and guests, in the days when they’d had a staff and guests. He told me there was no internet or phone and, for the children’s benefit, no TV. He said that was his decision, because he was determined to protect his niece and nephew from the corrupting influences of modern society and culture. For a moment, just for a moment, I almost said I couldn’t do it. I like all those things—my phone and video games and TV—that I’d sort of taken for granted until I was faced with the prospect of living without them. Jim Crackstone must have noticed the dark look on my face. And that was when he told me how much he was willing to pay.
“Okay,” I said. “Sounds good.”
Then Jim Crackstone said, “Young man …” And I began to suspect that he’d already forgotten my name. “Young man, there’s one more thing. And in a way it’s more important to me than anything else we’ve discussed so far. And it’s this: No matter what happens on the island, I don’t want to know. Don’t try to get in touch me with me, don’t send me a letter or ask someone to reach me in any way. I’m a very busy man. I simply cannot be disturbed.”
In a way, his saying this seemed unnecessary. He’d already told me the island had no phone or email. How did he think I would reach him and what did he imagine I would have to report? But the way he looked at me … once more it was like something else was being said
what he was saying. I had the feeling that he was threatening me, and that it had something to do with you, Sophie. That unless I promised and kept my promise, he’d tell your father on me, and your dad would tell you, and (even though I knew better) it would somehow make you think less of me, and we would break up. I’m not saying this makes sense. I’m just telling you what I was thinking.
“What if one of the kids gets sick or hurt?” I asked.
Jim Crackstone sighed. “Mrs. Gross will know how to deal with that.”
“Okay,” I told Jim Crackstone. “I get it. You won’t see or hear from me until the two months are over. In case you want to debrief me or something—”
“Not even then,” said Mr. Crackstone.
“All right,” I said. “Not even then. You’ll never see me again, if that’s what you want.”
He gave me my instructions and then I left him. I can’t say I felt good after the meeting, but I had what seemed like an easy job for a lot of money. I wasn’t going to complain.
I don’t know why I’m putting this whole conversation in a letter to you. You already know it all, we talked about it so often before I left. Maybe I’m just writing it down because I didn’t tell any of it to the blind man and his wife, and something about this job and my interview with Mr. Crackstone just keeps seeming so weird. I feel like if I talk about it enough—to you—maybe I’ll figure something out.
Then I remembered the old woman had asked what I knew about the kids, so I said, “The children I’m going to be caring for are orphans. That’s all I know.”
“Oh dear,” said the old woman. “That island has such a tragic history.”
“Tragic how?” I asked.
“Well, to begin with,” the husband said, “the first John Crackstone was among the pilgrims to die on the
expedition. He left a wife and two little children from whom the Crackstones are descended.”
“And then there was that other story,” said his wife. “Very romantic and sad. By any chance have you read
Romeo and Juliet
“Last year. In tenth grade,” I said.
“One never knows,” said the blind man. “What young people read these days. Anyway, sometime in the twenties, I believe, one of the Crackstone girls wanted to marry a local boy, and the family objected, and they eloped in a rowboat. Unfortunately, a storm came up, and swept them out to sea …”
His wife said, “They were never found.”
It gave me a chill. Because it was sort of
story, Sophie, minus the rowboat and the death. Ha-ha. But your mom and dad definitely don’t want us to be together. I’m not saying it’s a family thing, like Romeo and Juliet, or that it’s just because your family’s rich and my dad works in construction. My dad would be more likely to renovate your dad’s house than to ever go there for dinner. And your parents don’t like that. If your dad can’t separate us forever, he’ll settle for the summer.
The blind man’s wife said, “Wasn’t there something more recent, dear? Within the last few years? Another tragic incident connected with Crackstone’s Landing? I seem to remember reading something in the papers, something unpleasant … I think someone died there, and there was some kind of police investigation …”
That got my attention. Someone died at this isolated place where I’m about to spend the next two months? There was an
“Do you know what happened? Who died?” I asked.
“I just can’t recall,” said the woman. “Can you, dear?”
“I can’t either,” the blind man said. Then he turned toward me. “But I’ll tell you something, young fellow. I grew up two islands away, and from the time I was old enough to understand, I can remember people saying that Crackstone’s Landing was haunted. That on foggy days you can see the ghosts of that couple who tried to escape in the twenties, in their little rowboat, bobbing around in the waves. It’s ridiculous, what people choose to believe. Just to scare themselves.”
His wife said, “But I wish I could remember what it was. That legal or criminal problem they had there, it was really quite recent …”
I didn’t really want to hear any more, so I said, “It’s been a pleasure meeting you. I think I need some air.” It was true. The café was overheated, and an awful greasy smell was coming from the counter where they sold coffee and soggy doughnuts. And honestly, I didn’t want to spend the whole trip talking to these two.... Something about them creeped me out, especially when all they could talk about was ghosts and death and tragedy at Crackstone’s Landing. I really didn’t need to hear that. It wasn’t exactly calming me down.
The blind man said, “We understand. It’s getting a bit rocky, isn’t it? Fresh air is always the best thing to head off seasickness before it starts.”
It was true what the blind man had said: the sea was getting choppy. I had to hold on to the railings as I went back upstairs. I felt a lot better out on deck, though the wind was wetter and colder than it had been before. But even the fog was refreshing after the choking-hot, steamy café.
The fog was so thick that I couldn’t see very far into the distance … but I thought I saw something. A boat. Anyone would have been crazy to take such a small boat out in weather like this. Then the boat seemed to vanish—if it was ever there—and I thought of the blind man’s story about the ghost boat appearing in the fog. I didn’t know which would be worse—if the boat was carrying ghosts or living people, in danger. I wondered if I should tell someone, in case there were real people out there in trouble. The fog cleared for a moment, and I looked again. Nothing. Probably I’d imagined the boat. It sure couldn’t have been a ghost boat. First, because there
no ghosts. And second, because we were still more than an hour from Crackstone’s Landing, and that little ghost boat would have had to cover a very long distance.
I was trying to pump myself up. Get my nerve back. Obviously, I wasn’t wild about hearing creepy stories about the island where I was going, isolated from everything and everyone I knew, separated from the real world for two entire months. I didn’t know what was wrong with me … first the stupid seagull fantasy and then I thought I was seeing ghosts. Maybe I was just missing you, Sophie. Maybe I was just trying to come up with excuses to turn around and come home.
I pulled my hoodie over my head. It had begun raining, lightly but still sharp and cold, like a shower of tiny ice needles. Now there was only one other person on deck. A woman in a summer dress, not warm enough for the weather at all. She was very thin and had long red hair. She stood against the railing, staring at the sea.
I can practically hear what you’re thinking, Sophie. Maybe it’s because we’re so close, but a lot of times it’s almost like I can hear your voice in my head and I know what you would say and how you would respond to what’s happening. I know you’re probably thinking that the redheaded girl was pretty. Not that you’re a jealous person. Why would you be jealous when I haven’t looked at another girl since I met you?
But she was pretty. I saw that when she turned. She would have been really pretty if her eyes weren’t red-rimmed and swollen from crying. I couldn’t quite tell how old she was. Early twenties, I guess. And something about her scared me. She looked not just unhappy but way
unhappy. I don’t know why, but I suddenly thought, Damn! She’s going to jump!
Great, I thought. This is really great. I haven’t been gone an hour. Already a seagull freaks me out, a blind man tells me that the place I’m going is haunted or cursed or whatever, and I see a girl about to dive off the side of the boat. These are not good signs! Maybe something’s trying to send me a message, and I should listen to that seagull. I should have gone for it when my dad said there was still time to change my mind.
I crept up closer to the woman and calculated how fast I would have to move to drag her back if it really started to look as if she was about to go over the side. She was so thin and delicate, she couldn’t be very strong. Even if she was struggling, I could take her down with one arm.
Imagine how relieved I was when she just turned and walked away from the edge of the deck. She brushed past me without looking at me, as if I wasn’t there. Rubbing her arms—she was shivering—she went down to the café.
I stayed on deck for a while. Then I thought what a drag it would be if I showed up on the island sick. Hi, I’m the new babysitter, and I’m here to give your kids the flu!
So I went downstairs again. The blind man’s wife waved to me, but I pretended not to notice and kept walking.
More of the tables were occupied. Where had all these passengers come from? Maybe they were all ghosts. Joke. For the first time, I looked around to see who was traveling with me. And for a moment I envied them, the men and women and kids on vacation, on their way to the summer home or the big family reunion, the cousins all playing touch football, the barbecues and parties on the lawn. It was a life I knew only from movies—until I met you and we went to your aunt’s party on the lawn, and everyone was playing touch football.
I envied them. I did. My easy, high-paying summer job was already starting to seem like a two-month jail sentence on some cursed (and haunted!) prison island.
Then I saw the redheaded girl again. She was sitting at a table and playing cards with a much older man, a guy with black eyebrows and thick silver hair, older-guy movie-star handsome. He’d given her his jacket, and she no longer looked cold. I could tell that the guy was winning. And suddenly I knew that the reason the woman had been crying had something to do with losing the game, with how much or what she was losing. I can’t tell you why I was so sure, but I promise you I knew: they were playing for big stakes—bigger than money—and the redheaded girl was losing.
I kept trying to look away. But no matter where I tried to look, I’d find myself staring at them. They were so involved in their game, they didn’t know anyone else was there. But you know how sometimes you can feel you’re being watched even when you don’t see anyone watching? The guy must have sensed my interest because he looked up from the cards and turned and stared straight at me.
His eyes were black and opaque, like two dark marbles. Where had I just seen eyes like that before?
Then I remembered: the seagull.
needed to chill out. Okay, I didn’t want to go away for the summer, but this was ridiculous. I powered on my laptop. I went back to writing this letter to you.
I don’t know how much time passed before the ship’s conductor found me and told me that we’d be docking at Crackstone’s Landing in twenty minutes.
For a moment I wondered why I was getting special treatment, why he wasn’t telling anyone else that their stop was coming up. And then I remembered that I would be the only passenger getting off at that stop.