Little Island

 

Chapter One

THURSDAY

JOY

 

I sat at our kitchen table amid the remains of a hasty breakfast, letting the silence slowly swallow me up the way the stealthy tide steals in and surrounds Spectacle Island, stranding unwary visitors. An hour earlier I'd watched my husband and son set off for Cornell, my son's trunk, suitcases, skis, computer components, tennis racket, desk lamp, and new bedding filling the back of our Highlander. Soon I would be on my way to Little Island.

I didn't think my mother would have chosen this weekend for my grandmother's memorial service had she remembered that Friday was the twentieth anniversary of the crash, and yet I couldn't imagine that she'd forgotten. No mother could forget such a thing. So, I'd begun to wonder if it was a sign: all of us together again, without the “outlaws,” as Daddy humorously (if unoriginally) refers to my husband, Stuart, and to my sister's husband, Daniel. I took a large gulp of coffee but couldn't swallow. My throat felt constricted, something hard lodged there, as each passing moment carried my son farther away, and my journey to Little Island closer.

Earlier this summer, I spent the better part of a day roaming from Kohl's to Macy's to Beds 'n Things, searching for the perfect ensemble for Rex's room, finally settling on a red rug, blue-and-white-striped sheets, and a blue comforter with red piping. My selections were masculine yet soft, warm yet light. I found them at my very first stop but kept going, even though I hate shopping, wanting them to be perfect.

“S'great, Mom. Thanks,” Rex said, and stuffed them into his duffel.

I don't know what kind of acknowledgment I'd hoped for. No, that's not true. I did. “These are awesome. You're the best, Mom. I don't know how I'll make it without you. In fact, you know what? I'm not going. I'm staying here with you.”

Ridiculous, but true. I'm not proud of it, but there it is. I'd prayed half the summer that some event would delay his departure, and then spent the rest of the summer trying to recant my prayers -- as futile as trying to cancel an e-mail sent in haste. I was worried, you see, that the prayers might bring on some catastrophe. Sitting here -- his chair empty beside me, the memory of him so fresh I half-expected to turn and see him standing at the sink -- I simply didn't know what I would do without him, without his cross-country and track meets, dances at the high school, college applications and campus visits, his meals, laundry, and the comforting sound of his size eleven footstep clomping up and down the stairs. The too-silent house now seemed like a taunt.

“I disinvited Daniel,” Tamar had said on the phone the other night. “We had a fight,” she told me. “A big one.”

I was surprised to get my sister’s call. It was unusual for her to open up to me. Usually she confides in her twin, Roger, and vice versa. “About what?” I asked.

“Oh, nothing. Stupid misunderstanding," she said. "You know how it goes."

I said I did, but I really didn't. Stuart and I rarely fight. I don't like fights; there were too many in my family. There was sure to be at least one big one this weekend.

The clock was ticking too loudly above the kitchen sink, and I began to think again about my family, alone together on Little Island for three days, with no referees. Then I remembered that Tamar was bringing her twin daughters: not referees but, perhaps, buffers, someone to focus on other than the five of us. I didn't know what to say when she shared this news, not recalling Tamar ever having traveled alone with her girls. And so I said nothing. Silence does not guarantee absolution with my sister.

“I'll be fine, Joy,” she'd snapped. “And thanks for the vote of confidence.”

“You don't need my vote, Tee. You've got more than enough already.” As soon as the words were out of my mouth, I could hear my mother's voice in my head, chiding. The edict she delivered throughout my childhood: “Be nice to your sister. She's younger than you.” And then, later, “Joy, be kind. Remember, we almost lost her.”

I resent this immutable stance presented by my mother: Tamar will always be younger and we will always have “almost lost her” in the crash that altered our lives in so many unexpected ways. And, although I am the eldest of the Little children, I am not my mother's prized firstborn. That spot will always belong to Abigail, who died in infancy. What did that make me? I was not quite three years old when Roger and Tamar came along. Came along, as though my twin siblings were foundlings our parents discovered one morning on the broad granite step beneath the inn's kitchen door and decided, on a whim, to keep.

I tried another swallow of coffee and thought about the fun I could have with her twins, Hal and Nat: bake cookies, play dress-up from the trunks in the attic, and collect beach glass. (My mother lugs a box of bottles out to Sunset Point every Thanksgiving, to ensure a good crop on the beach below the inn the following summer.) And then I thought again of my own child, no longer a child, and of my husband not beside me this weekend. And this thought sent me spinning, like Alice, twirling down into that storybook earth. Dizzy, I lowered my head onto the kitchen table and stared at the crust of toast on Rex's plate. Beside that lay the little paring knife.

I picked up the crust and held it in front of me like some sort of rare artifact. I knew I needed help, but Stuart was an hour into his trip, and it was too early to wake anyone else. Reaching for the knife, I told myself, I'll just hold it. It was an old castoff my mother gave me when I married Stuart; its handle was worn and its serrated blade dull. But I pressed the blade, ever so gently, into my thumb, liking the resulting puckering dents, liking the feeling, wanting to press harder, knowing I shouldn't.

Did Alice fear her fall, I wondered? Or did Alice, just a child, believe that she would land safely? Unlike Alice, who floated gently down her rabbit hole, a portal to a great adventure, I was plummeting, with no adventure awaiting me at the bottom. I pressed the knife just a little harder, physical pain is so much easier to locate and manage than emotional.

On the fleshy mound at the base of my thumb, I could see the faint white scar where I'd pressed that other knife, over and over, always in the exact same spot, startling myself alive with the pain, the sudden flow of blood. I knew I should put the paring knife down and stand up.

“Do something, anything, related to the task,” Tamar once told me is an antidote to procrastination. What was I procrastinating now? An endless succession of days and weeks that would become months, and then years, with no child giving them purpose. Also, three days alone at the inn with my mother, father, and twin siblings. At this, I pressed the knife against my thumb a little harder and drew a bit of blood. It surprised me. I hadn't thought the blade sharp enough, hadn't thought I was pressing that hard.

Stuart would walk in tomorrow night -- I could picture it clearly -- and find me here, knife to thumb, mustering all available strength and concentration to draw in each new breath to replace the last. Not acceptable. But the effort to raise my body from that kitchen chair seemed as unimaginable as hopping off the footbridge leading to Little Island and riding the current to the other side: a Little family tradition. I sucked away the bright thread of blood.

“Feelings mean we're alive,” Dr. Kilsaro told me when I was first sent to see him two months after I began cutting. “Be grateful. Don't judge them as good or bad, but as indicators of how fully alive you are.” I never told him the reason I cut myself. Never told him that sometimes, being alive felt more like a burden than a gift and demanded some accompanying pain.

Do anything related to the task. There was nothing I could do about the endless stretch of empty highway that was my life without my son, but I could pack for the weekend. I lifted my head from the table and ate Rex's crust. Pressing a paper napkin against the cut on my thumb, I stood, tossed dishes into the dishwasher, and climbed the two flights of stairs to the attic to get my suitcase.

When I flicked on the light, there, scattered beneath the eaves, stood a half dozen boxes that I had, years before, carefully labeled Rex Toys, Rex Books, Rex Camp, Rex Soccer . . . I breathed out and wondered if I would find sufficient reason, this time, to take in another breath. My thumb throbbed, and I could see a faint smear of blood on my robe. I needed to get out of this house.

I didn't see my overnight bag and guessed that Rex had taken it to college, which was why I grabbed the Pullman case and rolled it behind me as I fled to the second floor. I launched the big bag -- ridiculously large for the few items I'd need for a weekend at my parents' inn -- onto the bed, went over to the dresser, and yanked open the top drawer. Reflected in the mirror -- in addition to my haggard face -- was our king-sized bed flanked by our nightstands. A single book was the only item on mine, while Stuart's housed yesterday's coffee cup, his back scratcher, a flashlight, a water glass, and a tissue box. A trail of papers, books, and magazines spilled off the table and into the piles on the floor.

In front of me, on his side of our dresser, stood a pile of loose change, three pairs of cufflinks, several slips for the dry cleaner, a dish that Rex had made in third grade in which Stuart kept orphaned buttons, several library books, some shells from our family vacation in Florida last March, a roll of pennies and two finger puppets from the play I had recently put on at the library, an oversized paper clip holding several crisp twenty-dollar bills, and his comb. My side? My jewelry box and a single dried rose from the bouquet Rex gave me on Mother's Day. I knew then that I wasn't only concerned about the loss of my child and this weekend in Maine. Sometime in the past twenty years, I had gone missing.