by Maggie Nerz Iribarne
This was the part she loved the most, when the island’s impressive mass shifted into view. On the ferry deck, she tuned out the screaming child clinging to her mother’s legs and the green-at-the-gills teen boy gripping the garbage can. She tilted her face to the sunshine and leaned into the winds as she balanced herself on the rocking sea. Finally, Block Island, Rhode Island, with its old hotels and line of shops in the distance, inching closer every second. Of course, her own house was not visible here, perched on the other side of the island on Dory’s Cove. Her thoughts stalled and clenched at the idea of the house—her house, her family’s house. A familiar anger and bitterness cropped up. But this was her favorite view in the world. She willed herself to enjoy the sight of this place she’d loved since birth. Every crevice, building, and beach etched in her soul. A brown lab nipped at her legs, snapping her out of her reverie. The cold air inspired thoughts of a sweater. At last, the ferry pulled into the dock and Caroline Masters joined the throng of day-trippers exiting the boat.
Some people rushed to the public bathrooms to be sick, but Caroline arrived famished—something about the sea air, she presumed. The screened door of Frank’s Fish Fry sprung open, revealing a familiar large woman, glistening with sweat, rolling plastic utensils in paper napkins. “Huh. I didn’t expect to see you today,” she said without fanfare.
“Why’s that?” Caroline said, hands busy rearranging her gray bob.
“The wedding? Tomorrow? Thought you’d be busy.”
“Ah, well a girl’s gotta eat. The usual, Judy.”
Caroline preferred to sit inside, avoiding the outdoor picnic tables swarming with irritating interlopers.
Judy approached carrying Caroline’s fried haddock sandwich, extra tartar. “Sworn I saw you pass by last week,” she said.
“Not possible. You know when my semester ends.”
Caroline sipped her lemonade then bit into the soft bun.
“I’ll see you tomorrow then,” Judy said, business as usual.
Caroline tucked in, swatting away the persistent flies haunting the place. She tossed her garbage and dropped a five dollar bill in the tip jar, needling her oldest friend.
Next, she decided to do the thing she dreaded most, Surf Real Estate. But, no. First, a drink. She thumbed her nose at the realtor’s red door, headed to the Sandpit. She needed to see Bobby. Ten years her junior, scruffy, uneducated. (He was actually the smartest person she knew.) Bobby was her summer fling that just kept flinging.
“Yo!” His red bearded face moved from behind the bar to envelop her in a hug. “I heard you got in last week!”
This island! Bunch of busybodies.
“No, you know the semester goes ’til—”
“Gin and Tonic, C?”
She arranged herself on a bar stool, watched him scoop ice into a glass. The first summer buzz spread like a pleasant rash, settled in—even with the very first sip.
“So you all set up over there?”
“Haven’t been yet. It’s Alicia’s affair. She’s done it four times already—should be easy by now.”
“You sound real excited.”
“Ha! I’m losing the one thing I love the most. Excitement not an option. ”
Bobby tossed a lime into her drink.
“I wish I could rob a bank. Or, maybe you could finally move in with me?”
He glanced at her, looking for her reaction.
“You know I can’t live in that cess pool upstairs,” she said, “and besides, I have a job, a career.”
“Blah blah blah,” he said, covering her cold hand with his warm one. “Let’s talk history.”
Bobby was the ghost tour guy at night. They shared an obsession with her long-ago dissertation topic: shipwrecks of the New England coast. He called in a relief bartender, joined her on the other side.
A little tipsy, Caroline finally ambled to Surf Realty, swinging open the door, exposing the bulging pink frame of Bennett Harper, the villain. She fought the desire to slap him across his mishapen face.
“Despite your revulsion to me,” he said in lieu of a greeting, “I intend on getting you the best price for your iconic property—beyond your wildest dreams.”
“Iconic-shmilonic.” Caroline slumped into the chair opposite the over-the-top antique desk. “And I don’t have dreams—wild or otherwise.” Caroline never remembered her dreams, that was Cornelia, who told their mother lengthy tales of circuitous nonsense every morning.
“After all this wedding business is over and done, then we’ll get the estate sale people in and then the staging, of course. The prospective buyers will be lining up at the door,” Bennett droned.
His loquacious explosion prompted a blur of memories: Sitting in the Adirondack chairs reading for hours at a time, running to the ocean with Cornelia—her braid flying, eating fish fry on the picnic table with Mommy and Daddy.
Bennett’s voice reasserted itself. “You’ll have so much money you’ll retire early. Haven’t you always wanted that?”
“No. That money will go to all the debt I’ve incurred trying to keep this place up on my own—on a teacher’s salary. Maybe you’ll get to retire early. Isn’t that what you’ve always wanted?” She slammed her hands on the desk, a slap of pain jolting.
“Not true, Caroline. Not true.”
“The sight of you—sitting there licking your chops. I’m glad my parents aren’t alive to see this.”
“Well, I’m certainly glad you didn’t stop to chat at the farmers market last week,” he said, straightening his pen cup.
“Me too,” she said, even though she’d not been at the farmers market or even on the island then. “And I have to go. I guess I’ll see you Monday morning when you descend with your vultures.”
“Honestly, Caroline Masters—”
She turned her back to him, stumbling a bit, exiting the office. The heat, like a brick wall, assaulted her as she stepped into the street.
Caroline had loved the white and blue Mary statue tucked in a corner garden behind St. Andrew’s church. After Daddy’s funeral Mass she’d sat here feeling so alone, mostly because she was. It was here that their parents forced her and Cornelia to say two Hail Marys every Sunday for their grandparents.
“We wouldn’t be here without them,” one or the other of them often said.
Well Gran and Poppa, where are you now? Can’t you do something to help here?
Her father’s voice intruded. There are worse problems in the world. We’ve had our time here. Let it go.
“Look what the cat dragged in!”
She startled to find Father Clemens standing behind her, wearing mud stained khaki shorts and a sweatband circling his bald head. He carried a pair of pruning shears.
“Father!” She jumped up and hugged him, immediately bursting into tears.
“Oh dear me.” He reached in his pockets, finding nothing.
“I’d worried you’d be in a state. Let’s go to the graveyard,” he said.
They walked slowly while Caroline blathered.
“Damn New Yorkers taking over the place! Raising the prices! Damn COVID! Causing all these interlopers to come and buy every single property!” Her hands flew in the air with each damn. Her students teased her about the trait, did impressions. “Damn Governor! Raising the taxes! And I really hate to say this, but damn Mommy and Daddy for leaving me this place but not the money to maintain it! And Damn Cornel—” With her sister’s name she broke down into sobs again, heaved and blew and leaned into Father Clemens. She was sweating profusely, practically panting. It was 3 PM, the hottest time of the day.
They stood on the hill of the cemetery and looked out at the island. A creamy expanse of blue and tan stretched out in miles of beaches and ocean and lighthouses, the ferry making its way into port, fields of goldenrod and green grass and stone walls and country roads looping, crisscrossing. The blue sky unfurled above them, the sun blazed overhead.
She wiped her face on her navy golf shirt and ran a hand through her hair. “This is my island. That house is all I have. And I’m all alone. Everyone left me. And I blew it. I’ve never had anything but this, and now—” She descended into despair.
By this time they’d passed from the graveyard and entered the labyrinth, a circular meditation path nearby. Father Clemens, close at her heels, maintained his usual silence. The two walked the spiralized trail. Caroline’s crying gradually subsided.
At the end they stood where they started, overlooking the island. Caroline pointed out the black dots—seals lounging by the dozens on the nearest beach. She never tired of the seals. Never.
“You know what I always say,” Father Clemens said.
“That’s right. You’re strong. You can survive this.” He patted her shoulder, led the way back to the church.
Caroline hitched a ride to the house with Marilyn Vanderhue, the owner of the hardware store, who’d pulled over to say hi.
“I coulda sworn I saw you last week in the grocery,” she said.
“Yeah, you and everyone else.”
Marilyn drove while blabbering on about all the obnoxious mopeds and all the obnoxious tourists and all the obnoxious alcoholics and all the obnoxious high prices. “You’ll be lucky to unload that place and—” she stopped, biting her tongue. “Sorry, Caroline.”
They pulled up to the gray weather-beaten saltbox house sitting high on a hill overlooking the ocean. A white tent pitched on the far lawn, signifying cousin Alicia’s fourth wedding transpiring the following day.
“Thanks, Marilyn. See you tomorrow at the nuptials?”
“Of course! So nice of you to invite us all!”
“Hey it’s our last hurrah! Suddenly I’m even kind of excited about it.”
Caroline trudged up to the house, crunching on the gravel driveway, salivating at the sight of the outdoor shower and the thought of a cold beer.
“C-C! We’ve been calling and texting all afternoon!” Cousin Alicia, her face caked in makeup, ran at her with flip flops slapping and a towel twisted on her head.
“Why?? Did the caterer quit or something?”
Caroline followed Alicia’s pointed finger. At the kitchen door stood a woman her own age, height, weight, even the same hair color and style.
“Cornelia!” she gasped, heart stopped.
“I’m here!“ she exclaimed, opening her arms wide.
Caroline reflexively entered her sister’s embrace, inhaling her signature baby powder smell.
“But you haven’t. It’s been. I thought—”
Cornelia laughed her familiar gritty cackle.
“Silly, stupid, hogwash. All me. And stupid Randall—now my ex Randall,” she said, still hugging.
Caroline pulled back. “But but,” she sputtered. “Wait a minute. I’m so angry at you. What happened? Why did you stop talking to me? And the house! You haven’t written or called or answered any of my messages!”
“All me. I have no idea what my problem was. And it’s my fault for moving and changing my phone and never checking email and being a worthless piece of garbage. I’m so so sorry, Caroline. Can you forgive me?”
“I don’t know. You missed their funerals!”
“Now don’t you two start fighting again,” Alicia said, filing her nails.
“Listen up, sister. I got a load of money in my divorce settlement and I’m paying to keep this house. End of story.” Cornelia gripped Caroline’s arm.
“You’re loaded? With money?” Caroline steadied her breath. In and out. In and out.
“Absolutely. Loaded. With money. Now where’s the champagne?”
“I’m way ahead of you,” Alicia said, a bottle in each hand, corks popping into a pinkish evening sky.
That night, Bobby canceled his ghost tour to come celebrate and then everyone else followed—Judy, Father Clemens, Marilyn, and even Bennett the villain. They cooked steaks on the grill, eating around the old picnic table while downing copious glasses of red wine. After everyone went shouting and singing and swaying down the hill, Caroline and Cornelia sat together on the lawn under the stars.
“Let’s forget everything. Start over,” Caroline said, dragging on a forbidden cigarette.
“No. Let’s remember everything. You can’t erase the past,” Cornelia said.
“That’s true, I guess.”
It was so late. Or so early. Caroline’s eyelids felt heavy as stones.
“C’mon! Up!” Cornelia tugged on her arm. “Let’s go watch the sunrise!”
“Really? On the beach?”
“Where else? Let’s go!”
She made a dash for the path.
Caroline lugged her body out of the chair, watching her sister, a flitting shadow in the darkness, disappearing. She gathered her energy, sprinted to catch up. She didn’t want to miss the glorious sun rising over the sea. She didn’t want to lose Cornelia, ever again.
Maggie Nerz Iribarne is 53, lives in Syracuse, NY, and writes about witches, cleaning ladies, struggling teachers, neighborhood ghosts, and other things. She keeps a portfolio of her published work at https://www.maggienerziribarne.com.
We believe good fiction doesn’t have to be depressing.