Other items were so precious that the children clung to them even as they rowed. Fiona kept a pot of wormy garden dirt pressed between her knees. Millard had striped his face with a handful of bomb-pulverized brick dust, an odd gesture that seemed part mourning ritual. If what they kept and clung to seemed strange, part of me sympathized: it was all they had left of their home. Just because they knew it was lost didn’t mean they knew how to let it go.
After three hours of rowing like galley slaves, distance had shrunk the island to the size of an open hand. It looked nothing like the foreboding, cliff-ringed fortress I had first laid eyes upon a few weeks ago; now it seemed fragile, a shard of rock in danger of being washed away by the waves.
“Look!” Enoch shouted, standing up in the boat next to ours. “It’s disappearing!” A spectral fog enshrouded the island, blanking it from view, and we broke from rowing to watch it fade.
“Say goodbye to our island,” Emma said, standing and removing her big hat. “We may never see it again.”
“Farewell, island,” said Hugh. “You were so good to us.”
Horace set his oar down and waved. “Goodbye, house. I shall miss all your rooms and gardens, but most of all I shall miss my bed.”
“So long, loop,” Olive sniffled. “Thank you for keeping us safe all these years.”
“Good years,” said Bronwyn. “The best I’ve known.”
I, too, said a silent goodbye, to a place that had changed me forever—and the place that, more than any graveyard, would forever contain the memory, and the mystery, of my grandfather. They were linked inextricably, he and that island, and I wondered, now that both were gone, if I would ever really understand what had happened to me: what I had become; was becoming. I had come to the island to solve my grandfather’s mystery, and in doing so I had discovered my own. Watching Cairnholm disappear felt like watching the only remaining key to that mystery sink beneath the dark waves.
And then the island was simply gone, swallowed up by a mountain of fog.
As if it had never existed.
* * *
Before long the fog caught up to us. By increments we were blinded, the mainland dimming and the sun fading to a pale white bloom, and we turned circles in the eddying tide until we’d lost all sense of direction. Finally we stopped and put our oars down and waited in the doldrummy quiet, hoping it would pass; there was no use going any farther until it did.
“I don’t like this,” Bronwyn said. “If we wait too long it’ll be night, and we’ll have worse things to reckon with than bad weather.”
Then, as if the weather had heard Bronwyn and decided to put us in our place, it turned really bad. A strong wind blew up, and within moments our world was transformed. The sea around us whipped into white-capped waves that slapped at our hulls and broke into our boats, sloshing cold water around our feet. Next came rain, hard as little bullets on our skin. Soon we were being tossed around like rubber toys in a bathtub.
“Turn into the waves!” Bronwyn shouted, slicing at the water with her oars. “If they broadside us we’ll flip for sure!” But most of us were too spent to row in calm water, let alone a boiling sea, and the rest were too scared even to reach for the oars, so instead we grabbed for the gunwales and held on for dear life.
A wall of water plowed straight toward us. We climbed the massive wave, our boats turning nearly vertical beneath us. Emma clung to me and I clung to the oarlock; behind us Hugh held on to the seat with his arms. We crested the wave like a roller coaster, my stomach dropping into my legs, and as we raced down the far side, everything in our boat that wasn’t nailed down—Emma’s map, Hugh’s bag, the red roller suitcase I’d lugged with me since Florida—went flying out over our heads and into the water.
There was no time to worry about what had been lost, because initially we couldn’t even see the other boats. When we’d resumed an even keel, we squinted into the maelstrom and screamed our friends’ names. There was a terrible moment of silence before we heard voices call back to us, and Enoch’s boat appeared out of the mist, all four passengers aboard, waving their arms at us.
“Are you all right?” I shouted.
“Over there!” they called back. “Look over there!”
I saw that they weren’t waving hello, but directing our attention to something in the water, some thirty yards away—the hull of an overturned boat.
“That’s Bronwyn and Olive’s boat!” Emma said.
It was upside down, its rusty bottom to the sky. There was no sign of either girl around it.
“We have to get closer!” Hugh shouted, and forgetting our exhaustion we grabbed the oars and paddled toward it, calling their names into the wind.
We rowed through a tide of clothes ejected from split-open suitcases, every swirling dress we passed resembling a drowning girl. My heart hammered in my chest, and though I was soaked and shivering I hardly felt the cold. We met Enoch’s boat at the overturned hull of Bronwyn’s and searched the water together.
“Where are they?” Horace moaned. “Oh, if we’ve lost them …”
“Underneath!” Emma said, pointing at the hull. “Maybe they’re trapped underneath it!”
I pulled one of my oars from its lock and banged it against the overturned hull. “If you’re in there, swim out!” I shouted. “We’ll rescue you!”
For a terrible moment there was no response, and I could feel any hope of recovering them slipping away. But then, from the underside of the overturned boat, there was a knock in reply—and then a fist smashed through the hull, wood chips flying, and we all jumped in surprise.
“It’s Bronwyn!” Emma cried. “They’re alive!”
With a few more strikes Bronwyn was able to knock a person-sized hole in the hull. I extended my oar to her and she grabbed it, and with Hugh and Emma and me all pulling, we managed to drag her through the churning water and into our boat just as hers sank, vanishing beneath the waves. She was panicked, hysterical, shouting with breath she didn’t have to spare. Shouting for Olive, who hadn’t been under the hull with her. She was still missing.
“Olive—got to get Olive,” Bronwyn sputtered once she’d tumbled into the boat. She was shivering, coughing up seawater. She stood up in the pitching boat and pointed into the storm. “There!” she cried. “See it?”
I shielded my eyes from the stinging rain and looked, but all I could see were waves and fog. “I don’t see anything!”