In Which We Arrive Back at Rock Island, a Place Where Time Stands Still
Captain Jim’s Island News
August 1, 6:00 a.m.
Should be another beautiful day on Rock Island, with temperatures in the low eighties and a strong breeze for the sailors. And speaking of sailors, anybody own a black Labrador retriever named Gus? If so, please come to the Coast Guard station. Gus got tangled in some rigging and has been slobbering all over the Coast Guard yeoman since his heroic rescue.
“We’re going to miss the boat!” Frog wailed from the back of the van. He was buckled in the third row with Sir Puggleton the dog and two cat carriers housing Zeus, the eighteen-pound Maine coon, and Lili, the six-month-old marmalade kitten. All were yowling the low, -discontented yowls of animals resigned to their plight. Frog’s three older brothers were crammed in the middle seats, also occasionally yowling. No one was happy.
“We have time. We’ll make it,” Dad said. But Eli noticed him twist his head to peer at the traffic clogging the highway.
“Of course we’ll make it!” Papa boomed. He was leaning forward as he drove, as though he could plow through the traffic by sheer force of will. “We’ve never missed a ferry yet.”
“Yes we have!”
Jax and Eli spoke at the same time.
Eli shot a glance at his older brother and let him do the talking. Jax could be counted on to get the facts right.
“Remember, Papa? When we were supposed to go for Memorial Day one year? And there was an accident on the highway? And we sat--”
“We sat for FOUR HOURS,” Sam interjected, pausing his mad texting and looking up briefly from his phone. “And I missed a soccer tournament that weekend. That was the worst.”
“Yeah, and Sir Puggleton barfed in the car,” Frog added.
“And we had to stay in that gross motel,” Eli said, his nose wrinkling at the memory.
“Ah yes, the Mildew Inn, I think we named it. Happy family memories, eh, guys?” Dad asked.
“Gentlemen, please. We are only around ten minutes from the dock. We have plenty of time. Maybe not as much time as we would have had if someone hadn’t neglected to put his suitcase in the car, requiring us to turn around and pick it up”--here Papa paused and stared pointedly at Dad--“but we still have time. Fear not.”
Sure enough, just as he finished speaking, Papa moved the car into the exit lane and down the ramp. Eli knew they were close. Jax and Sam both lowered their windows and the thick, warm, salty ocean air rushed through the chill of the air-conditioned car. Sir Puggleton started barking in earnest, knowing freedom was near.
Eli closed his eyes and let the smell overwhelm him as the car made the last few turns to the ferry dock. It was the smell of a working harbor, of diesel engines and fish and seagulls and fried seafood from the restaurant next to the ferry. It was the smell of August, when the Fletcher family boarded the ferry and crossed the twenty miles of Atlantic Ocean that separated the mainland from Rock Island. They were almost there.
Of course, first they had to actually get on the boat.
“Frog. FROG! Please, hold someone’s hand! Don’t run ahead!” Dad called. His arms were full of tote bags and coolers, and he moved at a slow shuffle that couldn’t match Frog’s excited leaps. Papa was still in the long, snaking line, waiting to drive the car into the belly of the boat.
“Jax, get your brother please,” Dad ordered as Frog dodged around a startled-looking elderly couple and ran toward the gangplank.
“Can’t Sam get him? I’ve got this stupid furry moron,” Jax said, hefting Lili’s cat carrier, where she was caterwauling as though being tortured.
“Well, I’ve got THIS furry moron,” Sam retorted. His arm was straining from the weight of Zeus’s carrier. “But fine. Just take my ball, then,” he said, booting the soccer ball toward Jax and running to catch up with Frog. Jax bellowed and lurched forward to try to catch the ball before it rolled off the edge of the dock and into the water. Clearly disliking the jerky movements, Lili wailed louder.
“This stupid kitten!” Jax said. He tucked the ball securely under one arm and tried to steady the swinging cat carrier. “Why won’t she just zip it?”
“You upset her,” Eli said. “Animals communicate very clearly without words, you know. She’s using the language she has to tell you she’s scared.” He was pulling Sir Puggleton, whose nails were scraping the gangplank in an effort to stay on solid land. Sir Puggleton loathed boats, and his preferred language seemed to be an utter refusal to move.
Jax shrugged. “She’s upsetting me with these noises, but--” Suddenly Lili made a desperate gacking sound. “EW! What kind of ‘secret message’ does cat gack send?”
“Let’s just get on the boat, boys. We can clean everything up then.” Dad looked rattled, and Eli noticed there was nobody anywhere near them on the dock.
“Frogface! Get over here now!” Sam ordered, and reluctantly, Frog turned. Sam was pretty much the only Fletcher brother who could get Frog to listen.
“But I can see minnows! And crabs way down low,” he said.
“We can see them on the island. You don’t want to miss the ferry, do you? We can leave you behind if you want. . . .”
Frog shrieked and ran to grab Sam’s hand. More or less pulled together, the Fletchers stood in line to get on the boat.
Eli glanced around. They were taking up the whole gangplank. First was Sam, who at thirteen was practically as tall as a grown-up. He was shaggy, with his summer-vacation-means-no-haircuts rule, and he looked even bigger standing next to Frog, who, even though he was six and a half, was still smaller than the other soon-to-be first-graders at his school. In the summer, Sam’s skin tanned enough that he didn’t look as pale next to Frog, but they still didn’t look like brothers. Of course, thought Eli, neither did he and Jax. Jax had shaved off his Afro at the end of the school year, deciding it was too hot for summer. But Eli’s pale skin freckled and burned, while Jax started out dark and just got darker. And Jax didn’t have glasses sliding down his sweaty nose far more than he would like. At least Eli was still taller than Jax, although Jax liked to point out that he would always be five months older.
They walked up the gangplank and the narrow metal stairs of the boat, their voices echoing and their feet clanging. Finally, finally, the Fletchers emerged way up high on the top deck, the sunlight making them squint after the darkness of the stairwell. Squeezing and shoving, they shuffled onto a group of deck chairs and dropped their bundles with a sigh.
The boat picked up speed once it exited the harbor. As always, Frog covered his ears and buried his face in Papa’s lap when the loud horn sounded. Then they were finally on their way. Slowly, the mainland got smaller and smaller behind them, disappearing into the fog that was somehow dim and bright at the same time. Salty dampness coated their skin.
Papa sighed a deep, happy sigh. “Nothing in this world is as good as the moment when the Rock Island ferry leaves the dock. For over forty years I’ve been taking this ferry, and Mimi and Boppa probably took it a dozen times before that. Nothing but sand, rocks, sea, and sky at the other end.”
“And ice cream,” Frog added. “And all the crabs and lobsters! Do you think Gar Baby will be there?” Gar Baby was his cherished hermit crab from last summer.
“Crabs don’t tend to live long,” Eli started to say. “Seagulls and other predators--”
“Yes indeed! Well, let’s not dwell on the carnivorous habits of seagulls right now, okay, E-man?” Papa interrupted. He cast a worried look at Frog, who had been known to sob uncontrollably when faced with nature’s harder lessons. “How about that ice cream! What flavor will you get?”
“Coffee fudge, like always,” Eli said decisively.
The rest of the boys answered quickly.
“I kind of wish they’d get some new flavors,” Sam said. “They’ve had the same stuff forever.” He sighed. “And there’s literally no phone service anywhere.”
Papa gave him a look, and Sam quickly continued. “But still. I can’t wait to get there! I wonder how the surf’s been. I bet I’ll catch some sick rides this year.”
“And who wants new flavors anyway?” Jax asked, sounding defensive of the island. “It’s perfect the way it is. The best ice cream, the best tide pools, the best lighthouse . . . Why would you want it to change?”
“Hey, I call the lighthouse first!” Sam yelled, forgetting his phone for a minute. “You guys can go downstairs, but I get first climb.”
“No way! We can all go up. I want to see if there are any seals off the rocks and that’s the only place to see them,” Eli said.
“Yeah, and I want to have a water battle, upstairs versus downstairs,” Jax said. “Downstairs gets the hose!”
The lighthouse, with its massive striped exterior, was maybe the very best part of Rock Island. It sat right next door to the Fletchers’ house, and its empty interior, complete with winding staircase, was open to the public. And on their end of the island, the public meant the Fletchers. The only other houses nearby were a giant sea captain’s mansion that had sat empty for years, owned by some people who lived far away, and tiny cottages filled with old couples who had no interest in a lighthouse. The Fletcher house was tiny too--a fishing shack that had been built up over the years to its current size of two bedrooms and a sleeping loft. But who cared how tiny it was when they could escape to the lighthouse next door?
“We’ll go up all together, same as always,” Jax said. Sam nodded, overruled.
Eli sighed with satisfaction. He loved Rock Island, the sameness of each summer, the activities that had turned into traditions and now felt like important rituals: the first run up the lighthouse stairs, the first ice cream cone, the first dunk in the waves. “Same as always,” he said, echoing Jax.
“I want everything to stay exactly the same forever and ever,” Frog said. He was cuddled against Papa, half-asleep from the rocking of the boat.
“Things have to change a little,” Dad said, speaking up from where he lay across a bench, a sweatshirt making a pillow under his head. “Look at you guys. Another year older, and bigger, and looking for new adventures.”
Jax shook his head. “No! Rock Island doesn’t change. Their sign even says it: ‘Welcome to Rock Island, Where Time Stands Still.’ It’s always the same. And that’s why I love it.”
In Which the Good, the Bad, and the Ice Cream All Show Up
Subject: MADE IT
We are officially on the ferry, which, between attempting to pack at midnight last night and the traffic this morning, feels like a victory. Who knows what we forgot . . . at least I counted four boys and Tom, so that’s good. As the attached photo shows, we have the whole back of the boat to ourselves . . . probably because the darn kitten has been yowling the whole time, leading Sir Puggleton to bark in some kind of cross-species sympathy. Only Zeus is keeping his mouth shut in a wonderful example of feline dignity. Oy.
Anyway, I cannot wait . . . almost five blissful weeks of beach life! I do admit I’m a little jealous of Tom. August is a great month to be a teacher. Still, I’ll play hooky a fair bit--if all else fails I’ll tell everyone the Internet connection went out. After all, we are 20 miles out to sea.
Can’t wait to see you. Right before Labor Day, yeah? We’ll save some sand and sunshine!
Love, your bro
The van had barely stopped moving down the white crushed-shell driveway when Jax and Sam flung open their doors and tumbled out.
“AHHHHH! WE’RE HERE! WE’RE HERE! IT LOOKS EXACTLY THE SAME!” Jax bellowed, running full tilt toward the gray-shingled cottage. Sir Puggleton followed, nose close to the ground as he inhaled all the exciting new smells. Jax inhaled too. It smelled like ocean, and hot sun on grass, and the wild beach roses that grew like crazy all along the fence by the driveway.
“Duh! What were you expecting, that it would somehow turn into a brick apartment building? It’s been here for practically a hundred years, moron,” Sam said. But he grinned as he grabbed Jax in a headlock. Jax yelped and tackled Sam’s knees, sending them both laughing onto the lawn.
The Nugget, as it was named, was an exceedingly knobby house that looked as though each room had been added on without much thought. It looked this way because that was exactly how it had been built, with the original one-room fisherman’s shack expanded by different owners until it had reached its current shape. Papa’s parents, Mimi and Boppa, had bought it back when Papa and Aunt Lucy were babies. Not terribly much had changed since. Inside was a big kitchen, a small living room, two small bedrooms (one of which was Papa’s office), and a sleeping loft with four beds and a ladder to get up and down. There was a bathroom too, of course, off the kitchen. An outdoor shower in a shady wooden stall and a back deck, where rabbits and even deer sometimes wandered, completed the property. It was tiny. And it was often very hot. It was impossible to keep mosquitoes out, as the screens were all crooked. It was, as far as Jax was concerned, a perfect house.
“Nobody goes running off until we unload the car,” Papa ordered, his arms full of suitcases and bags of books.
“And somebody better let those cats out before they lose their minds,” Dad added. “Make sure Lili has her collar on. We don’t want to lose her!” Lili the kitten had never been to Rock Island before, unlike Zeus, who considered it his personal kingdom. The Fletchers had learned to step carefully on the back deck in the morning, as Zeus often left the family a prized mouse head or bit of toad.
Reluctantly the boys returned to the van. Each boy’s choice made clear his priorities. Sam grabbed the giant industrial-sized boxes of cereal, peanut butter, and potato chips, stacking them so high he could barely see his way up the path. Eli carefully took out the telescope and microscope, both wrapped in towels, and refused to talk to anyone until he had placed them safely inside on the faded couch. Frog took his nets and collecting buckets and made it as far as the edge of the driveway before he dropped them and started trying to catch grass-hoppers. Jax grabbed the mesh bag full of soccer balls, footballs, baseball gloves, and other equipment, then tucked the pop-up soccer nets under his other arm and dragged them toward the wide backyard. Rounding the corner of the house, he looked up and screamed, loud and shrill.
Copyright © 2016 by Dana Alison Levy. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.