Authors: Francine Prose
Tags: #Juvenile Fiction, #Horror, #Social Themes, #General, #Horror & Ghost Stories, #Social Issues
I never liked Jim Crackstone. But you already know that. Anyhow, the kids you’re taking care of sound interesting, and you’ll probably be really good for them. They’ll be less lonely with you there. Just like I would be less lonely if you were here. Which you’re not. I keep telling myself that the weeks will go by quickly, and you’ll come back with all that money, so we can go to the same college. That’s what we need to remember whenever we miss each other. Which is all the time, right?
That story about the seagull screaming at you on the ferry was so scary! I couldn’t sleep the night after I read it. And that blind couple on the boat, and that woman crying on deck … I wonder if the island is really haunted, like people say. Well, I guess you’ll find out. And that’s got to be more interesting compared to what I’m doing here, working in the boring town public library, where they don’t even really need me, but they’re doing my dad a favor because he gives the library money. At least I get to hang out with our friends after work and on weekends, though all the things you and I used to do—the beach parties and picnics and stuff—will just seem dull without you.
I wish I had more to tell you, but unlike you, I’m having a totally uneventful summer. Write to me soon. Have a good time but not such a good time that you forget me.
I was so happy to hear from you! Please write me again, right away, and tell me more about every little thing you’re doing. Maybe it seems boring to you, but I’m sure your summer must be exciting compared to what I’m doing here. Unless you count seeing ghosts.
I decided not to mention my little … hallucination to Linda and the kids. Linda still doesn’t know me that well, and it won’t make her all that comfortable to think that the children’s new companion is a guy who imagines strange men peering in the library window.
When Linda got back from taking Flora to the dentist, the children went to their rooms. Linda said they were tired from the trip and wanted to take a nap before dinner. She asked me if everything had been okay in her absence, and I said I’d enjoyed having all that time and privacy to roam around and explore. I told her I’d spent a lot of the day reading in the library.
When I mentioned that Hank seemed disappointed that she wasn’t there and that he’d said to be sure to tell her he’d see her next week, Linda smiled to herself. Maybe I was right about there being something between them.
Linda told me she’d gone by the post office and picked up the mail, which otherwise wouldn’t have come on the ferry till later in the week. She smiled again as she said that one of the letters was for me, and she kept smiling as I ripped the envelope open and stood right there in the kitchen reading your letter over and over.
After a while, Linda said, “Don’t you want to know how Flora is?”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” I said. “I got distracted. What happened at the dentist?”
“Don’t worry,” said Linda. “I still remember what young love is like.”
It’s always a little embarrassing when grown-ups talk that way, but somehow it was less creepy coming from Linda. I thought of the poetry book I’d found in my room, and I wondered if it had been a present from Linda’s husband.
“Anyhow,” Linda was saying, “Flora’s fine. She’s still a little spacey from the anesthetic. Dr. Jacobs had to pull an impacted baby tooth.”
“Poor Flora!” I said.
“She was a brave little soldier,” said Linda. “I’m making soft foods for dinner. Mashed potatoes for Flora and some kind of veal stew for Miles and you and me. Flora can have gravy on her potatoes if she wants.”
“Are you okay?” I asked Linda.
“Fine,” she said. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
“I don’t know why I asked,” I said. Linda wasn’t her normal cheerful self. She looked worried or just distracted. Well, it must have been stressful, taking a little girl with a raging toothache to get dental surgery and get back to the island.
I kept Linda company while she cooked dinner. The children came downstairs and immediately started chattering about their trip to the neighboring island. If Flora was still woozy from whatever the dentist gave her, I couldn’t tell.
The kids described all the passengers on the ferry and an enormous Great Dane they’d seen waiting outside the post office for its owner, and the funny eyeglasses that Dr. Jacobs’s receptionist wore. I acted as if I agreed that they were amazing things to see, though, to tell the truth, what impressed the kids wasn’t all that exciting. But I knew it was a treat for them to see
they didn’t see every day on the island. Flora did an imitation of how the dentist’s voice sounded when she was coming out from under the anesthesia. Linda asked if her tooth hurt now.
Flora said, “Not very much.”
All through dinner, I had the feeling that Linda was worried about something. I still didn’t know her that well, so maybe it was nothing. Just something else I imagined. But from time to time I’d catch a look in her eyes that reminded me of the way my dad looks when a job isn’t going well or a client is giving him a hard time about paying a bill.
After the kids went off to bed, Linda asked if I wanted to go out on the porch. I’d been looking forward to drinking more chamomile tea and maybe finishing the conversation—though I couldn’t remember where we’d left off—that Linda and I had been having when we’d been interrupted by Flora’s howl of pain.
We rocked in silence for a while, sipping our tea. Then Linda said, “I know you practically just got here, and I don’t want to burden you with this. I probably shouldn’t mention it at all, but I need to tell someone.”
So I’d been right. Linda did have something on her mind. The first thing that occurred to me was that maybe the dentist had said that Flora needed lots of dental work or braces. Her teeth looked straight enough to me, but I’m no expert.
Linda said, “I need to figure out how to deal with this. As I’m sure you know, Jim Crackstone has made it very clear that he doesn’t want to be bothered with good or bad news about the kids. Not ever. Not about anything.”
“I did kind of get that impression,” I said. But Linda didn’t laugh.
She said, “There was another letter in the mail. I don’t know why it came here instead of directly to their uncle. Maybe because Jim Crackstone has informed everyone involved that the less he hears about the kids, the better he likes it. The letter was from Miles’s school. It said they were sorry, but they don’t want Miles returning to school in the fall.”
“Why not?” I said. “Were his grades bad? I’ll bet it was hard for him to adjust to being away from the island and you and his sister. After my mom died I practically failed out of elementary school. He was probably homesick, and his schoolwork suffered. I know Jim Crackstone doesn’t want to be bothered, but I’m sure if he talks to someone at the school they’ll give Miles another chance—”
“His grades were excellent,” interrupted Linda.
Linda’s voice was so soft, I had to lean close to hear. “They said that he was a bad influence on the other boys.”
“What kind of bad influence? How could that be possible? Miles is the most polite kid I’ve ever met. I’ve never heard him curse, not once—”
Linda said, “They used the word
. They said he’d had an evil influence over the others.”
” I said. “
It’s a mix-up. They’ve got the wrong kid. He’s not evil; they’re crazy! What could he have done?”
“That’s what I think about Miles,” said Linda. “And that’s what I can’t figure out.”
“Can’t you ask Miles?” I said. “I’m sure it must be a mistake.”
“I don’t want to,” said Linda. “Not yet. I still can’t believe it. And I don’t want to upset him.”
In the silence, broken only by the rocking of our chairs and the buzzing of the June bugs against the screens, I wondered if it was true. But e
is a strong word. I knew that Linda was wondering, too.
Suddenly, I remembered the ruined photo in the library. And the blind man talking about the island being haunted—and about the investigation. And, okay, the seagull’s warning. Plus I couldn’t help thinking about the man I’d imagined at the window. I tried to put it out of my mind.
I said, “Linda, who was here before me? Who taught the kids before I got here?”
“I thought their uncle told you. A very nice girl named Kate. But she left to get married and didn’t warn us and left us in the lurch.”
“And before Kate?” I said. “Who was here before Kate?”
“Before Kate?” Linda rocked back in her chair and took a swallow of tea. “That’s a longer story. I hope you’re not tired.”
“I’m not tired at all,” I said.
“Then I’ll tell you,” Linda said. “His name was Norris Holmes. The children’s uncle hired him when my husband became too ill to do the hard work on the island. Norris was a general handyman and gardener.
“I never liked him, though, at least at the start. I couldn’t figure out why. I always had the feeling that there was something about his life that he didn’t want anyone knowing. But he was a good worker and very helpful with keeping up the place while I took care of the children and, more and more, of my husband. One thing I never trusted about him was that he was always talking about the exotic places he’d been—he’d climbed Mount Kilimanjaro; he’d trekked through Outer Mongolia. But sometimes I would ask him a question that he couldn’t answer, and I’d get the feeling that he was making it all up.
“For several years, the children had a part-time teacher, a Miss Eldridge, who left to teach third grade in an elementary school on the mainland. Working in his usual mysterious ways, Jim Crackstone hired a full-time governess, a woman named Lucy.”
For a moment I spaced out. The seagull in my dream had said, Lucy Lucy Lucy. I don’t usually remember my dreams, but this one had stuck with me....
Linda said, “I knew there would be trouble from the very first time I’d introduced Norris to Lucy. Lucy was pretty, pale, with bright red hair—”
“Redheaded?” I remembered the woman on the boat, and a chill went down my spine. I told myself that lots of people had red hair. Miles, for example.
“Miles was thrilled,” said Linda. “To tell the truth, I’m not sure he’d ever met another redhead before.”
“What did Norris look like?” I said. I can’t explain why, but I was already praying, Please don’t let him look like the guy I saw at the library window.
I thought: Like the guy at the window. But lots of guys were tall and dark-haired.
Linda said, “I guess some women would have thought Norris was handsome. The problem was, Norris thought he was handsome, and men who can’t get over themselves just aren’t my type.
“Later, looking back, I remembered thinking that Norris and Lucy recognized something in each other, the first minute they met. I had no idea what it was, but I didn’t like it. Or maybe that was something I began to think only after what happened later.
“Otherwise, Lucy was pleasant and intelligent, and it’s possible that she would have worked out fine if it hadn’t been for Norris. She’d been to college, and she took the children’s lessons seriously. Until then, their education had been kind of spotty, though both kids were natural readers. In that way, at least, maybe their uncle was right about the benefits of their having nothing else to do on the island. Without video games or the internet or TV, the children had no choice but to learn to read—and like it.
“Lucy made sure the children knew the basics of arithmetic, and she taught them geography and a little bit of science. She had a real passion for plants and botany, and she used to advise Norris about what would grow best in the gardens.”
Linda paused and rocked awhile, sipping her tea, obviously trying to decide how to tell me the next part of the story.
I said, “Miles wants to travel to Mongolia. And Flora wants to be a botanist when she grows up.”
Linda gave me a quick look. “Well, that would have been the best part of Lucy and Norris’s influence.”
“And the worst part?” I asked.
Linda fell silent for a long time. I listened to the furious buzzing of a June bug that was just not getting the message that he couldn’t fly through the screen and join us on the porch.
“I never exactly knew,” Linda said. “I guess it was partly my fault, leaving the kids alone with them. But at that point, I’ll be honest with you, Jack. I had a lot on my plate. Let’s just say I wasn’t giving the situation here my complete attention. There were so many trips to the mainland, to see doctors and spend time in hospitals before my husband died. I guess I could have taken the kids with me, but it would have been awful for them. They were close to my husband; they liked him. And why would I take them, when Jim Crackstone was paying two other people to look after the children? The truth is, I was grateful to have someone to leave them with.
“By then it was pretty clear that Norris and Lucy had fallen in love. Or fallen in
. Looking back, I wouldn’t dignify whatever was going on between them by calling it love, exactly. But I could sense something sparking back and forth every time I saw them together. At first it was just the way that Lucy looked at Norris when he told his crazy stories about getting captured by bandits in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco and having to tread water in the Black Sea when his boat hit a rock and sank. Often, after the children were in bed, I’d see Lucy hurrying across the lawns in the direction of the gardener’s cottage, where Norris lived.” Linda paused.