Anne-Marie’s mother truly wanted what was best for her daughter. Wanted her to have all the adventures and excitements Mom had never had herself. Which is why, the year Anne turned sixteen, despite what had happened the year before, Mom agreed to a second summer at the beach. The family would stay on Hatteras this time—or, sort of on Hatteras, their rental a little west of the Cape—not up in the northern Outer Banks like the previous summer. No. They wouldn’t stay next to all those drunken college kids again. All those even drunker adults. Not after what had happened the last time. “Dad blew that whole thing out of proportion,” Anne said, taking her mother’s hand. “It wasn’t even like what he said. You know how he is.”
“I know,” Mom said, and wondered if she did.
Mom was sitting in a coffee shop a couple of days later, the sun strong and high for the first time in what seemed like forever, when the woman sitting next to her leaned over and said, “Isn’t this weather wonderful?” All the mothers in the neighborhood had been dying for the longer days to arrive, for the first pink buds to sprout and the summer pollen to infuse the air. “It’s a godsend,” Anne’s mother said. “My husband and I, we hadn’t planned on it, but we were just thinking that when the kids get out of school next week, we were thinking of just, you know, just taking off for the Outer Banks, just load everyone up in the car and go. We didn’t rent a place yet, but our kids really want to go. They’re at that stage, you know. One minute they’re digging for Blackbeard’s treasure, the next they’re going out on dates.” The woman next to Mom leaned closer. “You know,” she said, and Anne’s mother sipped her espresso and listened while the woman told her about a friend of a friend who owned a house on a tiny private island west of Avon. “A private island sounds all fancy,” the woman said, “but really it’s just a small bar of sand off the Cape. It’s so close you can practically swim to it. For us old folks, though”—she half-laughed, the two of them several fingers shy of fifty, if appearances were to be trusted— “they have this little two-person rowboat that you can paddle back and forth to the island. It’s kind of fun, actually.”
Anne and Serge had always been more like best friends than siblings, so when their mother asked them that evening, “Well, what do you think of renting a private island?” Serge turned to his sister and said, “We’ll be like pirates,” and Anne said, “I’ll be Mary Read, the fiercest among them,” and Serge said, “I’ll be Calico Jack, the captain,” and, “No way,” Anne said, “you’re Mark Read, Mary’s half-brother,” and, “Totally,” he said, “I forgot Mary had a brother.” When they’d come to the Outer Banks the previous summer, Mom had brought a book called Pirates of the Carolinas and Caribbean, brought it for herself, really, but the kids spent the whole car ride down reading it and oohing and aahing. “Is that appropriate reading material for children?” their father had asked. “They’re like fairy tales,” Mom said. “And it’s keeping them busy, so don’t knock it.”
Within two weeks of running into the woman in the coffee shop, Mom and Dad and Anne and Serge were loading themselves in the car, driving seven hours down the coast, and parking in a lot reserved for residences reachable only on foot, the four of them lugging their bags over a half mile of hot sand, pushing forward until, finally, they came upon a small wooden pier with a rowboat chained to it. They’d been given the code to the lock, and by the time they’d loaded their bags onto the boat, there was enough room for only one person to paddle, and so, “I’ll be back in a jiffy,” Dad said, leaving Mom and the kids to wait by the pier, to gaze out across the water. The rental was close to the Cape, true, but not quite as close as the woman in the café had indicated. “It looks like the crown of a muffin,” Anne said, noting how the island was mounded. “Like the house is the cherry on top,” Serge said, noting its ochre-red exterior, how the house sat dead center. It looks like a breast, Mom thought, but didn’t say a thing.
“Why isn’t it on stilts like the other houses down here?” Anne said.
When their father returned, he said he’d carried their bags up onto the sand, but that maybe they should just swing by that seafood shack they’d passed earlier and grab something to grill before paddling back to the island. He wasn’t exactly out of breath, but it was clear he’d been straining, his brow dotted with sweat. “Why not save ourselves a trip?” he said, and he locked up the boat, and they walked the half mile back to the seafood shack, and inside the small space it was cool, almost cold, or cold enough, at any rate, that goosebumps raised on Anne’s flesh, her uncovered arms and shoulders. Mom’s little girl was sixteen now, and, to Mom’s chagrin, she dressed like it, standing there in her fluorescent bikini top and frayed shorts that were far too short.
“Ain’t seen you all here before,” the man behind the counter said.
“We’re just getting in,” Dad said.
“We’re renting that island,” Mom said.
“Oh,” the man said, sour caution eclipsed by a smile. “I’ve delivered out there once or twice when they were having some sort of gathering. Pulled a little skiff right on up and unloaded.” He tossed a piece of ice in the air and caught it, up, down, up, down. “Rumor is that place’s haunted. Somethin’ to do with all ’em pirates back in the day. Buried treasure and all.”
Anne and Serge looked at each other, eyes wide.
Anne’s voice was a little deep for a girl and Serge’s a little high for a boy, and sometimes their mother couldn’t tell which of them was speaking, heard only a slur of words nearly indecipherable—ghostislandundersecretknowcatchem—and it wasn’t until they were all in the rowboat and nearly back to the island that their verbal onslaught stopped, that Anne pointed at something snagged on the paddle and said to her brother: “Looks like you lost something, Sergio.” From the end of the oar, Anne unwound a pair of Snoopy boxers and dangled them in front of him.
“Dad!” Serge widened his eyes. “What did you do?”
“Nothing, I don’t think. I left the luggage up by the house, like I said.”
There was no pier on the island side, and as the boat approached the sand, Serge and his father jumped out and began to drag the vessel ashore, Mom and Anne still sitting inside like a couple of proper ladies. Before the boat had even cleared the water, though, Serge gave a loud, performative cackle, sloshed a couple of feet forward, and returned waving a black-and-red thong above his head: “Looks like you lost something, Annalid.”
“Anne-Marie,” their mother said. “What is that?”
“You are so fucking dead,” Anne said to her brother.
Dad pressed his lips together and looked away.
The slope of the island was longer and taller and harder to climb than it had at first appeared, and their luggage was sitting by the porch, just as their father had said it would be, only a colony of seagulls was there, too, pecking at the contents. A blouse tossed here, a sock there.
Serge guffawed. “Looks like even the gulls get in your underpants, Annabelle.”
“Hey!” Dad said, face reddening. “We’re going to have a nice family vacation this time.”
When they collected their bags and stepped to the door, they found a note that read:
Welcome! Thanks for sharing our little beach house.
Kids’ rooms first floor, adults’ second. Closets are
stocked with chairs and floaties. Be sure to check out
the fish mart on the main drag. Any questions, don’t
hesitate to call us. Have tons of fun and enjoy the sun!
As a warning, please refrain from deep digging on
the island, as the foundation could become unstable.
The inside of the house was nice enough, two bedrooms on the first floor, two on the second, a decent-size kitchen that opened onto a living room with wraparound leather couches. The top floor was filled with natural light from the windows; the bottom floor was much dimmer. “That’s why it’s the kids’ floor,” their father said. “Because all kids want to do these days is sleep.” Anne’s mother had been hoping for a balcony, just someplace small where she could sit in the evening and watch the sun set, and there was a door off the second-floor living room, yet, oddly enough, it led to nothing. “Who knows?” her husband said, when she pointed it out to him. “Balcony must have rotted out or something.”
When Anne’s mother returned to the island a couple of years later, she returned alone, no family with her, the trip more escape than vacation. She should have known better than to bring her daughter back to the Cape again, even if it was to a private island that second time. Being on a private island hadn’t stopped Anne from strutting around in that fluorescent bikini of hers when they went into town. In those shorts that left nothing to the imagination. What was I thinking? The binding that had held the family together had already begun to loosen before that second trip, their family album falling to loose-leaf pages. In part, it was because Anne had entered those terrible teenage years, her already blond hair dyed blonder, whiter, eyes caked in makeup, once-soft body aggressively thinned, but mostly it was because of what had happened that second summer. Mostly that was the reason the family had come unglued. Serge claimed not to have heard a single thing, despite being only a bedroom away, both he and Anne on the bottom floor. Her husband would only grit his teeth and turn his head whenever the subject was raised. Even Anne herself pretended not to understand what had happened, though that, of course, was impossible. Only in Bible stories do those kinds of miracles happen. And still, these several years later, still the house had no balcony, still the living-room door opened onto nothing but a drop. “Still not fixed,” Mom said, watching the sun set through a pane of glass, thinking about how beautiful and free and open her daughter had been that summer, asleep in her bedroom that night. Mom watched the sun drop beneath the horizon. Wondered which of them really knew what had happened?
Wondered which of them was to blame.
“Do you think…” Anne’s mother said to the man in the seafood shack. “Is it possible to swim out to that island? I mean, if I were just trying to have some fun, get some exercise or something, do you think it’s swimmable?” Mom kept her eyes down, on the rows of fileted fish. “Or, I mean, if someone were in good shape, you know, maybe a little younger than I am, you think they could make it across?” She was talking too much. Going on too long. Just as her father had always told her, told her not only when she was a child but until the day he died. “Or is it just not doable at all?” She pointed at a tuna that had been halved, head intact. “How about that one?”
“Family back at the house?”
“No,” she said. “It’s just me this year.” Mom’s eyes were too large for her face, and her mouth too small, and she wasn’t naturally beautiful— wasn’t as blessed as her daughter—and she was a little shy and not very confident, and when she was growing up, when she wasn’t at school or doing chores in the house, she sat out on the front lawn and read adventure stories, fantastic tales of daring and escape, and she did this even when she was a little older, when she probably should have been off at college, and when boys her age passed on the sidewalk, she smiled and said, “Hello” and “How are you?” and never once did any of them take it to be anything more than a passing greeting, and so Mom had never come to fear saying a thing like this to a stranger: “I’m alone. It’s just me. All by myself up at that remote island rental.”
“Big tuna for just you,” the man said.
“Could you swim it? I mean, you’re young, right? You think you could make it across?”
“How ’bout I just cut you a loin,” he said.
She picked up a small cellophane envelope from the counter. “Spices,” the man said. “For the fish.”
He’d cut his beard. That’s what was different about him this time. Mom could see now that he had dimples and that his eyes were blue and that, really, he was rather handsome.
“You ever been out to that house before?” she asked.
“Just to drop off some food for a party—like I told you before.” He squinted an eye at her. “Why you wanna swim it anyway? You think you heard them ghosts out there?” He rubbed some sort of flaky seasoning over the tuna. “Cause if you hear them ghosts rattlin’ around, I’d stay put. Stories I hear say they’re like Sirens, callin’ a person out to ocean just so they can drown ’em.”
The first time Anne’s parents took her and her brother to the beach, the year Anne turned fifteen—the year before they rented the island—Anne secreted two packs of cigarettes in her luggage, tucked them in with her underwear so no one would find them, and then, when the rest of the family was asleep, slipped a pack into her pocket and snuck out the front door. The family rented up north that first time, only ten or twenty feet from the dunes, and the sky was black and purple and velvety as Anne moved beneath it, like the skies in old romantic photos, or in that one scene where Frankenstein sits out on the melting glacier, and the air smelled like the inside of the seafood shack Anne hadn’t yet visited, and she wound her way down the cordgrass-lined path that led up and over the dunes and out to the ocean, and the sand that was so hot during the day was so cool at night, and Anne liked to sit out on it and ponder. Liked the way the moon glittered and stretched over the water. Liked being on the beach while everyone else was asleep, the A.M. air warm, the ocean breeze misty. Liked how it made her feel immortal.
The waves crashing. The ebb and flow.
What she wasn’t so fond of, to be honest, was smoking, though she enjoyed sparking the lighter and taking those initial puff-puffs to get the thing going, but she did it anyway, smoked and really inhaled, because something about balancing a cigarette between her fingers and watching it smolder, gray rings like kisses from her lips, made her silly moonlit thoughts feel substantial. At fifteen, Anne’s face was rounded with a last vestige of baby fat and she had long blond hair and blue eyes and hips that were just beginning to widen, and she was told she’d grow up to be pretty one day, and even back then she understood that only meant men’s eyes would bore inside her all the more viciously, and she never knew what to do with her arms, whether to cross them in front of her or let them dangle, and whenever someone spoke to her—someone who wasn’t her brother—she didn’t know where to look, didn’t want to appear too much this or too much that, and so mostly she looked away, which sometimes made people think her bored or uninterested or worse: a bitch. That’s what Tom Malone had called her on the last day of school, right in the middle of the lunch room. She was sitting by herself at one end of the long white table, and she’d just picked up a baby carrot and taken a bite, and he’d come out of the lunch line, tray in hand, and he stood next to her, over her, kind of, and, “Hey,” he said, and, “Hi,” she said, and, “What’s up?” and, “Just eating,” and, “What’re you doing this summer?” he asked, and she lifted her head from her tray, blond hair falling in her face, and he was staring directly at her, and she turned her head to the side, trying not to dream, even for a half second, that he might be about to ask her out—no, that would be impossible—and so she looked back down at her tray, and, “Aren’t you doing anything?” he said, and because he was terribly nervous, and because he knew his friends were watching, and because he felt the whole thing slipping away far too quickly, because he could already imagine his friends laughing, “You too good to talk to me?” he said, and usually she and Serge sat together at lunch, but her brother had skipped out earlier that morning, had gone to play soccer with some new friends, and that’s probably why Tom had approached her in the first place—because she was alone—and before she could respond to his initial question about her plans for the summer, he said, “Guess it’s true what everyone says about you,” and then, in a voice two times louder: “You’re really just a frigid bitch, aren’t you?”
His fear punishing them both.
A seagull squawked somewhere in the distance. A cool gust of air came off the ocean. Anne had let herself get so tangled in the memory she hadn’t heard the man on the beach approach her, had lost the sound of the crashing waves. The smell of seaweed and brine. The ghost crabs scuttling from hole to hole so fast they couldn’t be caught. The man was directly in front of her, though, and Anne was neither ghost nor crab, and it was too late for her to run for shelter. Why hadn’t she told Serge where she was going? It would be different if he were with her. If he hadn’t left her alone in the lunch room that day. She would have been safe and protected.
The man was probably in his late 20s, early 30s, the cleft of his chin sharpened, his blond hair a little thin, his drawl a little thick, jeans rolled up on calves still well-muscled, on golden hairs that seemed to glow in the night. He was carrying a thatch basket under one arm. He wasn’t very tall, but he was wide, and because Anne was sitting, his waist was at the level of her face, and she noticed that his zipper was only halfway zipped.
“A cigarette,” he said. “You got another?”
“Oh, um, yeah.”
He put his basket down and pointed at the sand. “May I?”
“What’re you doing out here?” he asked. “Shouldn’t you be asleep somewhere?”
“Shouldn’t you?” Anne said, and immediately regretted it. What if the words or vibration or tone or pitch felt to him the way her turned head had felt to Tom back in the cafeteria?
“Fishes bite best at night,” he said.
She scanned the sand around them. “Where’re your poles and stuff?”
“On the boat already. I’m on my way over.”
She handed him a cigarette and then the lighter.
“You can come with, if you want. Bet you never been on a fishin’ boat before.”
“I’ve been crabbing,” she said.
“That’s like if I said, ‘You ever been in the ocean?’ and you said, ‘I been in a pool.’”
She leaned back on the sand, on her elbows, tilted her head toward him. “What?”
“What’re you doin’ out here anyway? Fight with your folks or somethin’?”
“No,” she said, looking down. “Nothing like that.”
But before he could finish his sentence, fast splats of sand sounded behind them, back from near the dunes and cordgrass, and her father’s normally reserved voice was slapping the night.
“Anne-Marie Christianson!” he screamed.
And before Anne knew what was happening, she was being yanked to her feet, her father’s hand clamped on her upper arm, dragging and pulling at the same time, his face splotched, breath rancid. “What in God’s name is wrong with you?” he said, and Anne didn’t know whether he was yelling at her or the man still sitting behind them, the man who was watching as if he were invisible, as if he were a ghost. At the foot of the dunes, Anne’s father turned and screamed, “She’s a child, for Christ’s sake!” and then they were going up and over, and Dad was hissing at her through clenched teeth: “What are you, some kind of slut?”
The second time Anne’s mother came to the island alone, without her family, something had changed. Physically. She’d rowed over from the mainland, just as before, and she’d unloaded her baggage, same as always, and she’d beached the boat and climbed the slope and the sun was directly overhead and, sure, she was tired, but tired didn’t change the heights of porches, and standing in front of the house then, the porch had grown so tall she couldn’t get up onto it, the first step higher than her knees. “Can’t get a balcony fixed in near ten years, but you can afford to raise the foundation?” Who even owned this place? She’d originally gotten the number from that woman in the café, six or seven years ago already, back when the kids were still kids, when they were inseparable as twined rope, before whatever had happened between them had happened. The person who’d picked up the phone gave her a routing number for the deposit and a code to unlock the rowboat, and that was that. Had she and her husband ever bothered to ask any questions? Had they asked for a contract or business address or even proof of existence? No. They hadn’t. But then again, why would they? What happened with Anne could have happened anywhere. Could have happened on the mainland that first year they’d come to the beach, could have happened back at home. All the island did was add a question: How? How had it happened?
Anne’s mother wiped the sweat from her brow.
From the back of the house, she could see the Cape trailing off in the distance, could see, she thought, the black-and-white striped seafood shack, only a heat-shimmered speck, an illusion. But that’s all she saw: no stepladder, no bucket, nothing that would help her get up onto the too-tall porch. Shit. She kicked at the sand. Had she and her husband done the right thing for their daughter those years ago, or had they done only what was right for them? What looked best?
The heat beat down on the sand with a nauseating intensity.
Maybe if she knew the details, the specifics of what had happened, the who and why—a boy on the beach Anne’s own age, or something far, far worse—maybe she’d be able to help her daughter overcome it. Maybe she could be more than a silent accomplice. Maybe she could be a mother to her daughter again. But then, Anne had barely spoken three words to her in the years since it happened. Since Mom and Dad had made her do what they’d made her do.
Anne’s mother really didn’t want to have to row back into town at this hour just to get a stepstool, just so she could get into the house she’d rented. The owners really should have warned her about whatever was going on with the front porch. It really was unkind of them to leave her in the lurch like this, with the sun beating down. God. Anne’s mother had to get out of the sun.
She could feel her skin beginning to sizzle.
She took a step toward the house, toward the eave and the shade, and the sand slid down and over her feet, and it occurred to her then that maybe the owners hadn’t raised the foundation at all, maybe the land was simply eroding, returning to the ocean from where it came, and Anne’s mother took another step, and her toes sunk beneath the surface and emerged again, sunk and emerged, and maybe the owners didn’t even know what was going on here, and maybe she should tell them, and she took another step toward the house and her foot smacked something hard. “Agh!” she yelled to no one who was there, to no one who would hear her. “Shit.” Her toe throbbed and she felt as if she might black out or throw up or do both simultaneously. But what had her foot run into? The buried treasure Anne and Serge had hoped to find that first visit? A chest filled with gold and jewels?
Anne’s mother knelt and brushed at the sand, slowly at first, with her open palm, and then faster, more frantic, using her forearm. If she hadn’t spent so much of her life taking care of her father, if she’d gone off to college as she’d once imagined she would, maybe this would be her life now: maybe she’d be an archaeologist out in the deserts of Mesopotamia, digging up ancient temples, digging up—
Two metal storm doors?
Had the person on the phone mentioned a cellar?
Maybe the owners keep their personal belongings down here? If that were the case, maybe she’d find a stool or something to help her get onto the porch, and then she wouldn’t have to row back into town, because at this point all she wanted was to get inside and turn on the fan and lie down on those cool leather couches. All she wanted was not to think. To silence everything. Her father telling her it was about time she got married; her husband telling her it was about time they had kids. All of them turning against her, telling her it was her fault. No, not the thing that had happened to Anne but everything that had happened after. All Mom’s unsubtle accusations.
Anne’s mother took a deep breath and grasped the handle of the storm door, fully expecting to find it locked—but it wasn’t. The handle turned and opened, and without even thinking, Anne’s mother stepped up and over and down into the darkness, her hands pressing against the cold stone walls, her steps cautious and uncertain, one by one, the air growing thicker, tighter, harder to breathe, and how far down the cellar went, she had no idea, but she kept descending, down and down, until, finally, her fingers brushed over a light-switch. She could still turn around. She could still go back. But no, there’d be no point in that now.
So she flipped the switch.
Saw a cellar like any other.
Three red-handled shovels leaning against the far wall. A cabinet. A shelf to her left. A standing desk to the right. The space fairly empty. Sweat drying on the small of her back. An old business card for the seafood shack lying in a corner. A small stack of photos on the desk: a couple of them of women with their eyes closed, a blurred leg, a hand. Anne’s mother couldn’t be sure, but one of the photos, it looked like the woman from the coffee shop, only maybe a little older now, the photo more recent. Was that woman in the coffee shop the owner of this place? Then why say the place belonged to a friend? That made no sense.
Under the desk, Anne’s mother found what she’d been looking for, a stepstool, and as if on cue, a colony of seagulls began to caw up on the surface, outside, and she was so, so tired, and all she could think of was collapsing on the couches and drifting off to sleep, to silence, and really, anyway, what a disappointment this cellar was—a complete lack of buried treasure.
On her way to the island, Anne’s mother had remembered to stop by the seafood shack to pick up a flank of salmon, but after the sun and the heat, she no longer had any appetite. The man at the shack had again rubbed some sort of flaky coating on the fish, and she asked what it was, and, “Tenderizer,” he said. “Special house recipe. Makes the flesh more supple.” Unfortunately, he said, it also degraded the fish quicker, and she’d have to eat the flank that night or it might spoil. Oh, well. She put it in the fridge anyway, a light rain beginning to fall outside, the sky beginning to darken. She hadn’t bothered to scoop the sand back over the cellar doors, to put things back the way she’d found them, and she wondered if maybe the reason the doors had been buried was to keep the water from getting in, to help absorb the rain and mist. To prevent mold from forming.
At some point during the night, Anne’s mother awoke, and she didn’t know what time it was, hadn’t thought to set her phone by the bed, and didn’t even know what exactly had woken her. She’d fallen asleep on the couch in the living room, her head lolled forward, and now she had a terrible crick in her neck, and her stomach was rumbling, finally missing dinner, and as she straightened her spine, her back spasmed, and God, she was getting old, and it was all happening so quickly. Just the other day, she was sitting in her parents’ yard reading adventure stories. Just the other day, she and her husband were forcing their only daughter to do the unthinkable.
“It’s not right,” Anne had said. “It’s my life.”
“What’s not right is that you refuse to tell your own mother what really happened.”
“I don’t know what really happened.”
“You don’t trust me.”
“You don’t trust us,” Serge said, appearing at the top of the steps for a split second and then vanishing. “You only believe what you want to believe. You’re sick.”
The room around Anne’s mother had grown completely dark, save the moonlight creeping in through the slats, and there wasn’t a clock in sight, not even in the kitchen, and she had no clue if it were closer to morning or night, and she stood from the couch and her head instantly rollercoastered. She’d never turned on the living-room fan and the upstairs floor had become warm and muggy and she was having trouble catching her breath. She pressed her palms together and told herself, “You’re okay,” as she’d told herself so many times throughout her life, and still, no matter, her breaths came short and shallow.
Mind unable to convince body.
Okay, okay, okay, she repeated, her own personal mantra, and she hurried to the ground floor, opened the front door, and practically threw herself from the too-tall porch, down onto the ground below. The moon round and bright and silvery. Okay. You’re okay. She slid her fingers beneath the cool granules of sand and churned up the smoked end of a cigarette and felt her head swim all over again. But then, faint and barely audible, she heard something new: a scratching sound. Like a rat chewing on metal. She stood and tried to follow it, found herself winding around the back of the house. Found herself standing above the open storm doors. Yellow light leaking out. Scratch, scratch. The sound unquestionably emanating from the cellar.
She’d spent so many hours, and days, and years, so many sleepless nights trying to explain to herself how what had happened to her daughter had happened, trying to come up with a palatable answer. But she’d never considered this.
That maybe none of them were lying.
That maybe miracles did happen.
“Hello?” she said to the darkness. “Is anyone there?”
The scratching stopped.
The ocean shushed behind her.
“Why did you do this to us?” she asked, and waited a very long time for an answer.