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The sea gulls beat their wings in a steady rhythm that kept them floating just a few feet ahead of the prow. They led the ship through the fog toward the island that had just come into view. Alone on the deck, Maggie Fraser pulled her light raincoat tightly around her and leaned over the rail, straining to see the outline of Heron's Neck. It looked larger than she had expected, forming in the distance like a long, charcoal smudge. It was too misty to see any buildings yet, and the only visible point was the lighthouse at one end, sticking up like a bony finger.
The ferryboat churned through the gray-green ocean, spewing white foam to either side of the bow. Maggie narrowed her eyes and attempted to bring into focus the contours of her new home.
Home. After twelve years the world seemed foreign to Maggie. She tried to align it in her mind with this island in the Atlantic, over an hour from the New England coast. It was the first time in her life that she would be living near the sea.
A blast of wind blew the rain into Maggie's face, and she shivered. For the tenth time that day she wished she had worn something warmer than her unlined raincoat. It was only October, but the air already had a bite to it. It made her feel unsettled, as if she had come in answer to an invitation, only to find she had the wrong address.
The thought of being unprepared for the weather struck her as being a bad beginning. She had made such painstaking preparations for this arrival in every other way. She tried to remember when she had started imagining it. It seemed to her now that the idea had been conceived when she received that first, perfunctory note from the publisher over a year ago. It was only a brief word of congratulations, which came shortly after she received her college diploma in a prison ceremony. A busy man had taken time for a thoughtful gesture, meant to encourage someone like her. But between the lines she had deciphered the glimmer of a possibility for herself. Now, when she thought about it, she realized that the idea for her arrival today had come to her when she was carefully composing that first reply.
The correspondence that began between her and William Emmett had a journalistic flavor to it. She satisfied his curiosity about prison life, while he provided details about the small newspaper he ran in his retirement. And finally, it had yielded the results she had hardly dared to hope for. Maggie reached instinctively into her coat pocket. The envelope, like a talisman, rested in its spot. Today she would assume her job on Emmett's newspaper.
The clang of a metal door opening interrupted her thoughts. Maggie turned and saw a man emerging from the stairwell to the lower deck, his hands grasping the calves of a pudgy child who was riding on his shoulders. The child squealed with delight and bounced up and down, her yellow slicker glistening with the spray from the sea.
"Upsa daisy," cried the man, hoisting the child from his neck and grabbing her around the waist. He pressed a slice of bread into her tiny hands. "Crumble it in pieces," he ordered.
The child did as she was told, giggling all the while, and then held up a bit of bread in her outstretched hand while her father held her aloft. "Here, sea gull," she chirped.
"Hold it up there," the man instructed the child.
"Will he come for it today?" she asked.
"Sure he'll come for it," said the man.
What a dangerous game, Maggie thought uneasily. The child could slip from his arms and fall into the sea. Maggie glanced back at the pair, the child wriggling and laughing in the man's arms. But she loves it.
"Are we almost there, Daddy?" asked the child.
"Almost there," the man assured her.
Almost there. Despite the misting rain, Maggie's mouth felt dry at the prospect. What would the others think of her? She smoothed out the dress she was wearing under her coat. It was apricot-colored and had looked so well on her in the store, fitting closely to her body, showing off her white skin. For years she had not been allowed to dress like a woman. She had felt a moment of lightheartedness when she had first put the dress on. It had made her look attractive. Even pretty. Now, all at once, it seemed like too much.
The child on the deck shrieked with pleasure as a gull swooped down and picked the bread from her little fingers. She quickly held up another piece and a second gull hovered briefly, then dove for the crust. The child clapped her hands and turned, throwing her arms around her father's neck and covering him with wet kisses. "He took it," she crowed.
The man held her fast, his hand gripping her chubby thigh beneath her slicker, his lips puckered to receive her kisses.
Maggie scowled at the pair on the deck. What a reckless thing to do, she thought. She wanted to walk over to them and cry out, Be careful, don't do that. But she turned her back on them instead. It was none of her business what they did. She had her own concerns.
She stared out over the water, thinking again of her dress. It's too short. Maybe she still had time to change. She closed her eyes and tried to visualize the contents of her suitcase, but another image flashed across her mind. For a moment she could picture the face of Sister Dolorita, glaring at her, the glittering eyes full of imprecations.
No, she thought angrily, shaking her head to dispel the unwelcome image. I'll wear what I like. She realized sadly that even though Sister Dolorita had been dead for years now, she could not yet escape her memory. With an effort she banished the painful thoughts and tried to concentrate on what was ahead of her. She was going to a completely new life, where no one would know her and her past would be a secret she could guard against all intruders. She wondered if it would show on her, like welts after a whipping. Maggie turned the idea over, then rejected it. Even those, she reminded herself, fade without a trace. She rubbed her chilled hands together and chided herself for her expectations. Soon enough she would know.
"Raw day for the deck," a voice broke into her ruminations.
Maggie turned and saw a young deckhand in a khaki rubber raincoat holding a length of rope. "I don't mind it," she said defensively.
"Well," he shrugged, "you'd better get below soon. We're almost in."
Maggie looked around and realized it was true. She had been so preoccupied with her thoughts that she had hardly noticed their rapid approach to the island. She could see the dock now, a number of neat, gray-shingled houses edged in white surrounding it. The pale, chalky sand stretched away from the dock in either direction.
As the engines died down and the boat glided toward the wharf, Maggie noticed two children playing together on its weatherbeaten boards. They crouched side by side in their matching windbreakers, the wind lifting the flaxen hair of the larger boy and tousling the black curls of the smaller. She felt an unfamiliar pang of pleasure mingled with regret at the sight of them. It had been a long time since she had enjoyed the simple sight of children playing. In truth, she had hardly ever noticed such innocent moments years ago.
The boat slid slowly into its berth, and Maggie leaned over the rail to get a better look at the children. Suddenly she paled at what she saw.
Between the two boys, on the boards of the dock, lay a large turtle turned on its back. The beast flailed the air with its horny feet, struggling to right itself. The older, blond-haired boy grasped a stick, sharpened at the end to a point. He poked at the legs of the helpless animal, and when the turtle withdrew its injured limbs into its shell, the boy jammed the stick into the turtle's sanctuary, poking and probing mercilessly, while the smaller boy cried out in glee. The older boy poked at each orifice, finally reaching the hole where the turtle had withdrawn its head. Gently he probed the opening, and then he drew back the pointed poker and thrust it in as hard as he could.
Maggie gasped, her stomach churning. She began to shake, as if she could feel the agony of the dumb beast. Probably a few moments ago it had been crawling peacefully along the sand, she thought. Now it was being tortured.
"Hey, you kids, get the hell out of there. And leave that damned animal alone." Maggie looked up to see the young man in the khaki raingear brandishing a fist at the boys over the rail. The older boy kicked the turtle hard, and it flew into the water, the poker still protruding from its shell. The two children turned and scampered down the dock.
"Hey, lady, you'd better get going. You think we stay here all day?" he asked, turning to her.
Maggie shook her head and ran a trembling hand over her hair. Steady, she told herself. A wave of apprehension surged up within her. She forced herself to inhale lungfuls of the damp salt air until she felt calmer. Everything will be fine. She picked up her suitcases and headed for the top of the stairs.
The man and his daughter were already descending, the child clinging to his neck. The father murmured to her, his face buried in her yellow slicker. Maggie watched them disappear, and then, on rubbery legs, she followed into the darkness of the deck below.
The offices of the Cove News were in a white frame house, in need of a painting, on a cobbled side street. On one side of it was a large private home, which looked dark and untended, and on the other was a small building housing a well-lit and fragrant bakery, advertising all-natural fresh-baked bread in the window.
Maggie went up the walk to the peeling white house, past the little sign announcing the News. She pushed open the door and walked in. Once inside, she found herself in a gloomy hall with faded wallpaper, facing a wooden staircase. On her right was a coatrack with black, cast-iron hooks. Maggie slipped off her soggy raincoat and hung it up, removing the letter from the pocket. She placed her bags beside the coatrack, and then, smoothing down the slightly damp dress that clung to her body, she walked down the hall to the first open door and entered.
It was a large, light room with small-paned windows almost completely covered over by the dense trees outside. There were three desks in the room, although only one was occupied at the moment. A plain-looking woman of about forty with a short cap of brown hair streaked dirty blond, and silver-rimmed glasses, sat pounding away on an ancient Royal typewriter.
Maggie stood uncertainly just inside the doorway, as the woman seemed to ignore her, absorbed in what she was doing.
"Excuse me," she said finally.
The woman looked up and peered at her from behind her glasses, but she did not smile or get up.
"I'm here to see the editor."
The woman wiped her hands on her muted tweed skirt, then slowly rose from her seat. She folded back the sleeves of her mud-colored cardigan and walked over to where Maggie stood.
"I don't believe I know you," she said.
The woman's tone nettled Maggie, but she maintained a very neutral expression. This was a small place. This woman probably knew everyone on the island.
"I just arrived," Maggie replied evenly.
"That's what I thought," said the woman, satisfied with herself.
Maggie spoke in a voice that sounded strained to her own ears. "I'm here on business."
The woman said nothing, but she ran her eyes critically over Maggie's silky dress and high-heeled shoes.
Maggie felt her face start to burn. "Mr. Emmett sent for me. I wish you would tell the editor I'm here. Margaret Fraser."
"What about?" the woman said, eyes narrowed.
Maggie returned her stare. "A job."
"Come with me," said the woman.
Maggie followed her down the drafty hall to another large room at the back of the house. There were several desks in this room also, littered with papers and newspapers. A man of about thirty-five in a plaid flannel shirt and tie sat on the edge of one of the desks, earnestly explaining something on a piece of paper to a thin, boyish-looking girl of about eighteen. The girl had hair the color of dead leaves and light eyes that looked like the pale, blue bird's eggs Maggie had seen once in the barn at home. The girl seemed more intent on studying the contours of the man's lean, expressive face than on listening to what he was saying.
"Jess," said the woman beside Maggie, and the man looked up.
"This girl wants to see you. What's your name again?"
The man looked up at her with a distracted expression in his eyes. Then, as he took in the tense but attractive face and figure of the woman before him, a smile formed on his lips and spread to his eyes. A flicker of pleasure and challenge enlivened his expression as he leaned forward and extended his hand to the stranger. "Hello," he said warmly. "It's a pleasure to meet you."
Perplexed, Maggie took the proffered hand. "Are you Jess Herlie?"
He nodded, holding her hand longer than he had to.
"Aren't you expecting me?" she asked. "I'm here to start the job."
Reluctantly, Jess released her hand. His smile faded into a frown. Maggie looked in confusion from the man to the girl he had been talking to. The girl stared at her curiously.
"What job?" Grace demanded.
"Editor's Assistant. Didn't Mr. Emmett tell you?"
"That's my job," Grace yelped. "What's she doing here?"
Jess put a soothing hand on Grace's arm. "Back up there," he said. "Start over."
Maggie tried to keep her voice cool and deliberate. "I was hired by Mr. Emmett to work for the paper. I'm supposed to start right away."
"Mr. Emmett's not here. He's away on business," Jess explained.
"I know that," said Maggie impatiently. "He told me to come and get started. Here's the letter."
Jess reached out and took the envelope. He pulled out the folded sheet and opened it. Grace crowded up beside him and peered angrily at the letter, which he made no effort to conceal as he read. The girl continued to scrutinize Maggie.
Jess finished reading and ran his hand rapidly through his thick hair. "How about that? The old man never said a thing to me about you, never mentioned it."
Maggie felt herself vibrating with anger and alarm. "Well, you can see for yourself I'm expected."
Jess nodded, watching Maggie's stricken face with concern. "Evy," he said finally, "get Miss Fraser a glass of water."
Intent on their exchange, the girl did not seem to notice right away that she was being addressed. "Oh," she said as if she had been suddenly awakened. "Sure." She went to the sink in the corner and filled a paper cup. At an arm's-length she offered the cup to Maggie.
Maggie took a sip and steadied herself. She looked directly into the kind, worried gaze of the editor. "It seems to me," she said, "that you could just call him and check."
Jess sighed. "I'm afraid we can't do that. He went away rather abruptly and left word that he was going off island to do some business. We're not even sure when to expect him back. We could try his Boston office, I guess...." Jess's voice trailed off.
"Well, she can't just walk in here and take my job," Grace protested.
"Look. I don't know what the problem is here," Maggie said grimly, "but I have come a long way for this job."
"Where did you say you came from?" asked Jess.
Maggie was instantly on her guard. "Pennsylvania," she lied.
"Oh, did you work on Emmett's old paper down there in Harrisburg?" Jess inquired.
"Harrisburg? No." Their eyes felt like bright lamps trained on her face.
"I don't know." Jess sighed again and shook his head. "Who knows what Bill had in mind. He's a little forgetful these days."
Maggie stared at him. Her thoughts would not arrange themselves into the words she needed.
"Maybe you should just start," Jess continued, "and we'll see what he wants to do when he gets back."
"She can't take my job," Grace repeated adamantly.
"Don't worry, Grace," Jess reassured her. "No one's going to take your job from you. There's plenty of work around here to be done."
Grace glared at him, unconvinced.
"Besides," he laughed, "we could always do with another pretty face. I think Miss Fraser would really brighten up the place."
Evy turned and looked sharply at him. For a second her eyes flared. Then she looked down at her shoes.
Maggie let her breath out slowly. She could feel the color returning to her face. "That's fine," she said. "Thank you. What shall I do?"
Jess waved her off. "Go get yourself settled," he said. "Do you have a place to live?"
"Not yet," Maggie admitted.
"Well, take care of that. Then come in when you're all set."
"Fine," said Maggie awkwardly, backing out. "I'll do that."
"Don't forget your coat on the way out," said Grace sarcastically. "You'll freeze to death in that dress."
There were only a few customers in the dank, oak-paneled dining room of the Four Winds Inn. Maggie took a table by the window, far from the others who were scattered around the room. She asked for a muffin and tea from the waitress, a girl with a crown of braided hair, who took her order and glided away.
From where she sat, Maggie could see the few lights of the stores that were open on Main Street. She brooded over the scene in the newspaper office. Somehow, things had so quickly gone wrong. The older woman, Grace, already resented her arrival. She would probably give her no end of hassle. If only Mr. Emmett had told them she was coming. She had asked him to keep her past a secret, but she hadn't expected him to leave her in such an awkward position. She could also sense that the young girl did not like the way the editor greeted her. She must have a crush on him, Maggie thought. Great. Well, he is good-looking. Immediately she stopped the thought. That was absolutely the last thing she wanted.
Despite all her planning, it had gone awry. She had wanted to slip in, unobtrusively, like a diver slipping into a lake, with the surface closing up tranquilly around her, leaving no ripple where she had entered. Instead, she had drawn unwanted attention to herself.
Maggie looked out toward the dock. A few lights winked on around it in the gathering dusk, but otherwise it was deserted. She wondered where the boys were who had played their vicious game there this afternoon. Home eating cookies, no doubt, their wind-burned faces angelic in the fluorescent glow of television cartoons. The thought of them made Maggie shudder.
The waitress returned and put Maggie's order down in front of her. Maggie stared at the plate with no appetite.
Maybe you should get out now, she thought. Run, before things get any more complicated. The realization stabbed through her that she had nowhere else to go. This was her only option, and she had come this far. She had to face the fact that she was bound to feel ill at ease around normal people. She would have to learn to adjust. Anywhere you go, she scolded herself, there are going to be some problems. "You have to try," Maggie said aloud, then looked around, embarrassed. This was not the kind of place where you could talk out loud to yourself and not be noticed. This was not prison.
Maggie closed her eyes and rested her face in her hands. Wearily she massaged her temples with her fingertips. They had all looked at her so suspiciously. As if they could sense something wrong about her.
Maggie bolted upright.
Evy, the pale girl from the office, stood beside the table, holding a bundle of books and papers. "I didn't mean to startle you."
"You didn't," Maggie lied.
"Figured you'd be over here. It's really the only hotel in town that's open, now that the season's over."
"Do you want to sit down?" Maggie asked.
"Can't," said Evy.
Maggie could not imagine what the girl wanted with her, but her stare made Maggie feel awkward. She wished the girl would go away.
"Jess sent me over," explained Evy, as if in answer to Maggie's unspoken question.
Maggie picked up her knife and began buttering her muffin. "Oh?"
"He thought you might want to look at these. Some back issues, books about the island and stuff."
"Thank you. That's very nice," said Maggie, reaching for the papers and placing them on the chair beside her. "I'll enjoy looking at them." Maggie cringed inwardly at the hollowness with which the words came out.
"You're welcome." Maggie looked up at Evy to see if she could read any sarcasm in the girl's face, but Evy had delivered her message expressionlessly.
"I hope it won't be a problem, my being there, at the paper," Maggie stammered on, in the face of the girl's silence.
"No," said Evy surprised. "Why should it?"
Maggie forced a smile. "I got the feeling that Grace wasn't too happy to see me."
A ghost of a smile hovered on Evy's lips and deep in her eyes. "Oh. Grace. She can be a drag sometimes."
For a moment Maggie felt absurdly grateful to the girl for her remark. "Why don't you have some tea?" she asked.
Evy hesitated, as if considering the invitation. Then she shook her head. "No. I have to go back." Still, she did not move. Maggie looked in confusion at the pale, oval face.
"What's wrong?" said Evy.
"Nothing," said Maggie, looking away. "Thank you for the books. I appreciate your bringing them to me."
The girl fixed Maggie with her curious, appraising gaze and then, quite unexpectedly, she smiled. "I thought you would."
Maggie drew back, surprised by the smile. But as suddenly as it had appeared, it was gone.
Copyright © 1981 by Patricia J. MacDonald
Posted September 8, 2012