In 1973, the thirty-one residents of Bitter Rock"disappeared" In 2003, so did my mother. Now, I've come to Bitter Rock to find out what happened to her—and to me. Because Bitter Rock has many ghosts. And I might be one of them.
Sophia's earliest memory is of drowning. She remembers the darkness of the water and the briny taste as it filled her throat, the sensation of going under. She remembers hands pulling her back to safety, but that memory is impossible—she's never been to the ocean.
But then Sophia gets a mysterious call about an island named Bitter Rock, and learns that she and her mother were there fifteen years agoand her mother never returned. The hunt for answers lures her to Bitter Rock, but the more she uncovers, the clearer it is that her mother is just one in a chain of disappearances.
People have been vanishing from Bitter Rock for decades, leaving only their ghostly echoes behind. Sophia is the only one who can break the cycle—or risk becoming nothing more than another echo haunting the island.
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Final Radio Broadcasts of the Landontown Residents
From the island of Bitter Rock, Alaska
12:48 PM, September 9, 1973
UNKNOWN: . . . if anyone’s hearing this. This is [indistinct] of the Landontown Fellowship on Bitter Rock. Our phone is out. The winds and rain are violent. Mist everywhere. Can’t [indistinct] evacuate. Everyone on Belaya Skala has taken shelter in the church. I—
3:45 PM, September 9, 1973
UNKNOWN: Storm is continuing. Flooding is becoming a concern. We don’t know if—
UNKNOWN: We thought we were alone, but—
5:34 PM, September 9, 1973
UNKNOWN: There are figures in the mist. They’re everywhere. Can anyone hear me? Is anyone there? You need to come for us.
UNKNOWN: They have our voices.
12:03 AM, September 10, 1973
UNKNOWN: If anyone can hear me, do not come to Bitter Rock. Do not come to Belaya Skala. Do you hear? Don’t come! Don’t—
UNKNOWN: He’s here. God help us. God help us, he’s here!
1:13 AM, September 10, 1973
UNKNOWN: There is no salvation.
Note: Landontown was located on the island of Bitter Rock, Alaska. Thirty-one residents were present on September 7, 1973. Only Theresa Landon, wife of founder Cole Landon, was absent. Multiple attempts were made to respond to the final radio calls of the residents, but none of these attempts appear to have succeeded.
All 31 residents vanished without a trace. No further communication was received. No bodies were ever recovered.
They were not the first.
They would not be the last.
September 2, 2018
The camera is positioned to one side of a study. Bookshelves line the walls; a heavy wooden desk in the center of the room is covered in orderly but prolific stacks of folders, books, and papers. A photograph on the desk shows Dr. Andrew Ashford standing with Miranda and Abigail Ryder, his wards, in front of a sycamore tree.
In the chair in front of the desk sits a young white woman: Sophia Novak. She is blonde, in her late teens. Her features are solemn, her skin sun-weathered. Dr. Ashford appears from behind the camera and sits opposite her, in the chair behind the desk.
ASHFORD: There we go. Ms. Novak, was it? Is it Sophie or Sophia?
SOPHIA: Either one is fine.
ASHFORD: I see. Thank you for coming all this way.
SOPHIA: I thought I should. Abby said—she talked about you a lot.
ASHFORD: The file Ms. Ryder compiled is incomplete. Her notes are fragmentary and I’m having trouble piecing together exactly what occurred. I hoped you could fill in the blanks.
Sophia seems to have expected this. She reaches down to a backpack beside her chair and pulls out a spiral-bound notebook.
SOPHIA: I wrote it all down. Abby asked me to, but I didn’t get the chance to give it to her.
She slides it across the table to him. Ashford rests his hand over it but doesn’t open it yet.
ASHFORD: What happened on Bitter Rock, Ms. Novak? What did you two find there?
Sophia smiles a little, almost sadly.
SOPHIA: Nothing but echoes.
My earliest memory is of drowning.
I only remember bits and pieces. The darkness of the water; the thick, briny taste of it; the way it burned down my throat when I gasped. I remember the cold, and I remember hands, impossibly strong, pushing me under. And I remember my mother lifting me free. Her voice and her arms wrapping around me before the warmth of her slipped away.
But I’ve never been to the ocean. Never choked on saltwater. So I have been told all my life. My mother died in Montana, hundreds of miles from any ocean. The water, the darkness, the cold—they’re nightmares, nothing more.
Or so I thought, until Abby Ryder asked me what I knew about Bitter Rock.
The first tendrils of mist seethed past on the wind as the boat bucked. Droplets trembled on the few strands of hair that had escaped my tight braid.
“It’s just ahead,” Mr. Nguyen shouted unnecessarily: there was no way to miss the island, as grim and foreboding as the name Bitter Rock suggested. But I would have known we were approaching the shore even with my eyes closed. The sea had been a constant since we left the shore; the water had sloshed, sucked, and slapped at the sides of the boat. But now a new sound reached us: a sibilant crashing of water meeting rock.
The engine thrummed through me, singing in my bones. I knew this place. I knew those sounds, even though I shouldn’t. The thought sent a shiver through my core, but I couldn’t tell if it was fear—or relief. I knew this place. There had to be a reason—an explanation. An answer. In my pocket, my hand closed tightly around the small wooden bird that was all I had left of my mother.We’re here, I thought.
Mr. Nguyen piloted us past sharp black rocks to a tongue of weathered wood—a dock, but not much of one. The engine puttered, then cut out, and Mr. Nguyen leapt to the dock with a nimbleness that didn’t match the ash-gray patches in his hair. He didn’t bother to tie the boat off. He wouldn’t be staying. He hadn’t even wanted to bring me in, not with the storm threatening to sweep down and cut off the island from the mainland, but I’d talked him into it.
“You’re sure this is where you want to be?” he asked.
Was I sure? Was I sure that I should be here, three thousand miles from home, chasing the memory of dark water? Tracing the footsteps of a dead woman?
“I’ll be fine,” I told Mr. Nguyen. “Will you be okay getting back? That storm looks bad.”
“I’d rather face the storm than stay here.” He helped me off the boat, catching my elbow when my foot skidded on the wet boards.
“Thanks,” I told him, pulling away. “I’ve got it from here.”
He gave me a long, unblinking look. Like he was trying to decide whether to talk me out of it. But he’d tried on the mainland and he’d tried on the way over. I guess he decided he’d done all he could. “Be careful,” he said at last. “Nothing good happens here.”
I could have told him, I know. I could have told him,That’s why I’ve come.
Instead I only nodded and turned away.
I didn’t have directions to the house where I would be staying, but it wasn’t like there were many options. The beach led to a road, and the road led in two directions: west, to the Landon Avian Research Center; or east, where the few houses on the island were located. It was after hours, so no one would be at the Center. I turned east.
The island was equal parts rock and clinging grass. The wind made the grass hiss, like the island already disapproved of my presence. I kept my head down. The strap of my bag dug into my shoulder and across my chest.
If I hurried back, I could still catch Mr. Nguyen. I could tell him that I’d made a mistake. I could go home—except there was no home to go back to. Now that I’d graduated high school, I was officially aged out of the foster system. The only thing I had left was a ghost, and this was the only place I knew to look for her.
I remembered almost nothing about my mother. A blue jacket. Her hand cupping the back of my head as I pressed my face against her thigh. Her voice barely hiding a laugh.Come on, little bird. Bye-bye, little bird. Good night, little bird.
Joy Novak died in an accident, fifteen years ago. I was three years old, and I didn’t remember any of it. I only knew what they told me in foster care, and it wasn’t like my foster parents knew any details. I wasn’t able to find any either, when I went looking. One dead woman didn’t make a ripple in a world where worse things happened every day, and I’d started to accept a future in which I never knew what her last moments had been like, or what kind of accident had claimed her.
And then I’d gotten a phone call. The girl on the other end had asked what I knew about my mother’s disappearance. The word had been so unexpected that at first I hadn’t heard it at all. I assumed she was asking about herdeath. So when Abby asked me about what my mother been doing in Bitter Rock, Alaska, I’d told her she’d made a mistake.My mother died in Montana, I’d told her. I don’t think she’d ever been to Alaska.
So you believe she’s dead, then?
That’s when I realized what she’d said. Disappearance.
I still didn’t believe her. Not until she sent me the photo: my mother and three-year-old me on a beach.
Turns out there were answers. I was just looking in the wrong place.
Gravel crunched under my feet. A pale bird winged toward me. The splash of red at its throat was vivid as fresh blood. A red-throated tern—the bird Bitter Rock was famous for, in certain scientific circles. It was a perfect match to the wooden bird in my pocket, its wings barred with black and white. The colors flashed at me as it flew overhead, and I tracked its progress.
The western point of the island rose in a hill, and at its top crouched a blocky gray building—the Landon Avian Research Center, or LARC for short. It was the only reason anyone came to Bitter Rock. It was the reason my mother had been here, at least according to Abby, and so I’d lied and wheedled my way into a summer job interning for one of the lead researchers.
The tern flew over the hill and"disappeared"northward. Heading, I assumed, toward Belaya Skala—Bitter Rock’s headland, connected to the main island by an unnavigable isthmus of sheer rock and home only to birds. Though that hadn’t always been the case. At least three times before, people had tried to gain footholds of one kind or another on that side of the island.
Every time, it ended in disaster. Disaster that left not corpses, but questions—which had never been answered. This island had swallowed up dozens of people. Now I was here, alone and unsure of what I was facing.
Suddenly it crashed over me, the immensity of what I was doing stopping me in my tracks. My mother was just one name among many, and these islands had eaten them all, and left behind nothing—not even bones. Who was I against that?
I turned on the road, a plea on my tongue— Wait, I’ve changed my mind. But Mr. Nguyen was a blot on the sea, too far for my voice to reach. I dug my fingers into the strap of my bag, sick with the sudden conviction that this had all been a mistake. There was a strange vibration in the air that seemed to settle in my chest and radiate out through my limbs. It made me queasy, like I stood on the lurching deck of a boat with the rumble of the motor beneath me.
I blinked. Mr. Nguyen’s boat was gone. I searched the horizon for him—he couldn’t have gotten far enough to vanish, not yet. Fear skittered over my skin. I gritted my teeth. It was fine. I wasn’t leaving anyway. I was letting my nerves get the better of me, that was all.
My eye caught against a shape jutting up from the waves.
It was a man standing in the water. He was up to his thighs in cold surf, facing away from me. He wore an old-fashioned army jacket that flapped in the wind. He stood canted to one side, like he had a bad leg, with his arms dangling into the water. His head hung forward.
That water had to be freezing. What was he doing? I stood rooted for a moment, torn between concern and caution. I drew forward haltingly. That buzzing in my bones was almost an ache. I licked my lips, wanting to call out, but afraid to. “Hello?” I managed at last, still far away, lifting my voice above the crash of the surf.
His shoulders jerked back. His head snapped up. He started to turn.
I knew immediately I’d made a mistake. I scrambled backward, a yell lodged in my chest, desperately wanting to steal back that word, to stop him from turning, because I was sure, in a way that I could not explain or defend, that I did not want him to turn.
Rough hands seized my arm and yanked me around, and now I did yell. A huge man loomed over me, his hand gripping the meat of my upper arm. His face was half hidden behind a huge gray beard, an orange knit cap jammed down over his blunt forehead.
“You,” he growled, brow knit. “What are you doing out here?” His voice was thick with a Russian accent. He smelled of damp, salty sea spray and stale cigarette smoke. Drops of moisture jeweled the bristles of his beard. A half-healed blister balanced at the edge of his bottom lip. One of his eyes was almost entirely white, the skin around it ropy with a starburst of scarring.
“I—I—” I stammered. Fear surged through me, and my breath caught in my throat.
But fear wasn’t useful. Not now. I shoved it away—not just repressing it, but flinging it away from me, into the void—the other-place that was always waiting. It bled away in a rush, and I gave a small shudder of relief.
“Get your hand off my arm,” I said, cold and flat.
He peered at me through his good eye. “Do you know me?” he asked.
“No,” I said, bewildered.
He let go abruptly and took a half step back. I just stared at him. I wasn’t afraid, and there would be a price for that later, but for now I needed the calm. The empty. I did know him, though—didn’t I? It was like I remembered him from a dream. Or maybe a nightmare. “What were you looking at?” he asked, brusque and demanding.
“I saw—” I twisted back toward the water. The man was gone. In his place was a tree that must have been uprooted on some other shore and dragged here by the tides, blackened by the water and pitching as the waves rolled it. Out in the distance, Mr. Nguyen’s boat continued its steady retreat. Not vanished at all. The tree—I’d seen the tree, and somehow I’d thought it was a man.
The explanation leapt into my mind, comfortable and reassuring and false. I swallowed. No. I knew what I’d seen.
“Hey,” someone called.
The speaker was a young man—I blinked in surprise. I hadn’t expected to find anyone my age here, but he was eighteen or nineteen at the most, with black, tousled hair and a lip ring. His skin was light brown, his frame borderline scrawny; he wore a T-shirt printed with a caffeine molecule over a long-sleeved shirt. He loped up the road and slowed as he approached, the slight laboring of his breath suggesting he’d run a fair distance. When he spoke, it was with a British accent. I didn’t know enough to tell what kind, but it made him sound a lot more refined than he looked in this state.
“Everything okay here?” he asked.
“Yeah,” I said, tearing my eyes away from the ocean. If I said anything about a man in the water, they’d think I was delusional.
“You’re all right?” the boy pressed, looking between me and the big man, who still stood closer to me than I liked. “I heard a shout.”
“I’m fine.” True enough, with my fear neatly excised. But that glassy calm made people nervous, and the young man’s eyes were uncertain as he looked me up and down. I forced myself not to glance over my shoulder. Not to wonder if someone was behind me. “It was just a misunderstanding.”
The big man’s eyes tracked out past me, at the driftwood tree, and he gave me a narrow look. “You two, you should get inside. The mist is coming. It’s very dangerous.”
“Yeah, we’ll do that,” the boy said. The big man muttered something under his breath and walked past us, heading down the road. The boy waited for him to get a good distance away before he turned to me. “You’re the intern, then. Sophia Hayes.”
Sophia Hayes. I’m Sophia Hayes. I’d practiced it in front of a mirror until it felt natural. One of many lies I’d have to tell. “Yeah,” I said. Empty of fear, I could tilt my lips in a faint smile. “How’d you guess?”
“It’s not exactly a huge deductive leap,” he said, smiling back. It made his lip ring click against his teeth. “I’m Liam. Liam Kapoor. My mother’s your evil overlord.” Liam stepped forward with his hand outstretched and I took it. His skin was cool, his palm lightly callused. The motion pulled his sleeve up at his wrist, baring the edge of a bandage taped down over the back of his arm.
“You mean Dr. Kapoor?” I asked. She was one of the two senior staff members who ran the LARC, and the one who’d hired me.
“That’s the one. I’m spending the summer out here with her as punishment for a few minor transgressions.”
“Poor you,” I said. I wondered if those transgressions had anything to do with the bandage. “That guy . . .”
“Mikhail? He’s the caretaker. Or groundskeeper. Or something,” Liam said. “Wanders around the island with a shovel, glaring at people. He’s not what I’d call friendly, but I’ve never seen him accost anyone like that.”
“I think he just—wasn’t sure who I was,” I suggested.
“There’s a way of saying hello without coming off like a total creeper, and that wasn’t it,” Liam said, eyeing me with an uncertain look. Like he was wondering if he needed to be more forceful, more comforting, or something else entirely. “You’re sure you’re okay?”
“I’m totally sure. Completely sure. Absolutely—”
“Got it,” he said with a laugh. I crafted a smile, false and crooked.
“Although I am exhausted,” I confessed. It wasn’t a lie—I’d been traveling for more than thirty-six hours, crammed on planes, jostled on buses, and pitched around in Mr. Nguyen’s little boat. “Dr. Kapoor’s instructions said to head down the road until I reached Mrs. Popova’s house.”
“You’re on the right track. Dr. Kapoor’s place is right up there.” He pointed in the direction he had come from. “I was out for a walk when I heard you. Mikhail’s place is by the water nearer the LARC, and Mrs. Popova’s is straight that way, at the eastern end of the island. Come on, I’ll walk you there.”
I nodded. I didn’t look at the water, at the tree, at Mr. Nguyen retreating. I kept my eyes fixed on the gravel road, and on the sky ahead, where a dozen birds wheeled and cried.
I’d done my research before I came here. I knew my mother wasn’t the first to disappear from Bitter Rock. There was theKrachka. Landontown. And, in 1943, there was a tiny army outpost. Thirteen men, an airstrip, and a few planes.
Like my mother, they had come to Bitter Rock.
Like my mother, they had vanished.
I kept my eyes on the road, and I wondered—what if they weren’t gone at all?
Post on Akrou & Bone video game fan forum
“Off Topic: Urban Legends & Paranormal Activity” sub-forum
June 3, 2016
My grandpa was in the air force during World War II. He always said that the scariest story he had wasn’t from his days dodging German Messerschmitts over Europe, but on our own home turf. Early in the war, he was stationed at an airstrip on a tiny Alaskan island. They dubbed it “Fort Bird Shit.” It was a boring assignment. The Japanese threat was farther west, so the biggest problem they had to deal with was the saltwater in the air corroding the metal on the planes.
Some weird things happened, but nothing that couldn’t be chalked up to men being drunk, bored, and isolated. Seeing people who weren’t there, hearing weird noises, that sort of thing. One man insisted that someone was speaking Russian to him whenever he started drifting off to sleep. Then one day my grandpa gets the job of taking the ranking officer back to the mainland. There was a thick mist that night. They headed back the next day—and everyone was gone.Everyone.
Whatever happened, it was just after dinner, because the dishes were being washed. They were abandoned in the tubs. Some boots and rifles were missing, but not all of them, which meant that some of the men were barefoot and unarmed. One of the planes was crashed in a ditch, like someone had tried to take off. A wall nearby was riddled with bullet holes.
They never found out what happened. The official report said a storm killed everyone, but Grandpa insisted the night was calm. Not even a breeze. Just fog.
I would say he was pulling my leg, but I have to be honest—my grandpa didn’t have a sense of humor. At all. And when he told me the story, he seemed terrified. Whatever happened, he was still scared seventy years later.