To celebrate your graduation, your parents had offered to pay for a few weeks’ stay in Europe. At first, you’d imagined a small apartment overlooking the Seine, or a hotel room in Berlin within walking distance of the infamous wall: history and a killer view, all wrapped up into one. But your parents had something else in mind.
“You’re going to be staying with Auntie Maeve in Cairnholm,” your father stated matter-of-factly, not caring to look up from his morning newspaper. “Her youngest moved out last summer, so she’s letting you use their old room.”
“This is a joke, right?” You didn’t want to sound like an entitled brat, but you felt so cheated. “Don’t you hate Cairnholm? You said you never wanted to go back after your last visit.”
“Oh, honey,” your mother cooed, “that was just…Your father and Auntie Maeve never really got along, that’s all. Cairnholm is so beautiful.
“I know it’s not Paris or London,” she said, stirring sugar slowly into her morning tea, “but you’ll have your own room, and Aunt Maeve works most of the time, so you’ll be left to your own...”
“Plus,” your father interjected, “there’s a lot of history there.”
You smirked...you couldn’t help it. History had been your thing since you were big enough to crack open the ancient encyclopedias your grandma had kept in the attic. It wasn’t your Major, or a part of your career path—admittedly, you didn’t have the best mind for dates, and your guidance counselors had urged you to go into Sociology since you were in seventh grade—but it was a hobby, bordering an obsession. Immediately, your muscles relaxed and you reclined back into your chair.
“You know, they were attacked during one of the World Wars, because they had been hiding something or other—”
“A battery, Frank.”
“A gun battery, that’s right. Thank you,” he continued, grinning triumphantly as he sipped his coffee. “One of the bombs missed and hit an old children’s home on the far side of the island. The ruins are still there, if you want to see them.”
You leaned back in your seat, weighing your options. On one hand, you could take up your friend Emily’s offer: some of the people in your graduating class were staying at her beach house in Florida. It would two weeks of awkward, introverted bibliophiles crammed into the same space as a drunk, obnoxious bunch of student athletes and undergrads. You had already been warned that she was prepared to supply them with alcohol, which didn’t bode well for any of you; the people doing the drinking would be too immature to know when to stop, and the others—yourself included—would feel compelled to clean up their messes.
On the other hand, you could spend two weeks on a quiet island in Middle-of-Nowhere, Wales, searching through the ruins of a children’s home scattered with German shrapnel and, possibly, the undiscovered remnants of mutilated skeletons. Somehow, the latter still seemed more appealing.
One thing about Cairnholm was that it only had one working landline and very little cellphone reception. Because of this, you could only really communicate with Auntie Maeve through the post, which made the month before your visit seem to stretch out even longer. The problem was that your father hadn’t actually made any plans with your aunt beforehand—he had simply made the assumption that, with a room to spare, she would be more than happy to have you, which was only partially true—and you found yourself writing a very brief, awkward, impersonal letter (you’d tried to sound as familiar as possible, but it wasn’t easy, since you’d never actually met the woman) only three weeks before you were meant to leave.
Two weeks later, you received her unenthusiastic reply:
I won’t actually be in the country this summer (I’m staying with my oldest son Edmund in Canada to meet his fiancée), but you may find the spare key with my neighbor, George Hanover. My house is open to you for as long as you want, so long as you have no overnight guests, and I’ll trust that you will return the key to George before you return home.
Love, and best wishes,
P.S. Congratulations on your Doctorate.
You stuffed the letter into your suitcase; at twenty-six years old, you shouldn’t need your parents’ approval to travel, especially when someone in the area thought it was safe enough to go alone. It would be your first time abroad—a trip long overdue—and you weren’t going to let your aunt’s vacation stop you.
The night before your five-hour flight was long and restless. Even though you were exhausted, you couldn’t seem to fall asleep; every time you were close to nodding off, the starlight that filtered into your room seemed to grow brighter, making your eyes snap involuntarily open. You groaned when your alarm went off at five-thirty, then again at five-forty-five. It was only reluctantly that, at six o’clock, you finally resigned yourself to the fact that you needed to get yourself up, showered, and dressed. Your mother drove you to the airport, yawned her good-byes, and then you were on your own, navigating the security check with your eyes only half open.
It was no surprise to you when you woke up in Wales and realized that you’d slept through the entire flight...you could vaguely remember being woken up by the stewardess during a severe bout of turbulence and asked to put on your seat belt, but you must have fallen asleep again right afterward, because there was nothing else about the actual plane ride that you could recall.You felt slightly better, and you were somehow able to keep your eyes open on the cab ride all the way to the ferry, which would take you the rest of the way to the island.
Of course, with all this travel, you were bound to run into some layover or other: there were nearly two hours between the time you reached the port and the time the last ferry left for Cairnholm. You took this chance to call home. One street from the ferry, you found a small, dingy cafe with a telephone visible from the window. You checked your pockets to make sure you had the proper money on hand, opened the door, and were immediately hit with the realization that everyone was starting at you.
“Excuse me,” you asked at the counter. Your voice was incredibly small. “I was wondering if I could use the telephone.”
The woman was much taller than you, with a gruff voice and long, coarse hair, which she had pulled back into a messy ponytail. She smiled pityingly down at you and gestured over to the phone.
“Aye,” she said in a distinct Scottish accent. “American, yeah?”
“Give it a week,” the woman laughed. “You won’t sound like ‘em, but you won’ sound American neither.”
You didn’t know what else to say, so you thanked her and booked it for the phone. The dial ring was incredibly odd, but it made the wait a little more entertaining.
“(Y/N)? Is that you?”
“Yeah, hi, Mom, I just wanted to say that I made it to the ferry safely and I’ll be leaving for the island in a little bit.”
One thing you knew about your mother is that she could talk; you’d only meant to assure her that you were fine and remind her that you’d try to come back to the mainland and call her at the end of the week, but she somehow found a million things to talk about in the time that you’d been gone. Never before had her day had so many interesting details, but you chalked it up to her nervousness: if she didn’t have anything to say, then she’d have to let you leave, and then she wouldn’t hear from you again for at least a week. So you put up with the incessant, sometimes incoherent, rambling for a quarter of an hour.
“I already checked out the docks and made sure I knew where I was going,” you muttered, doing everything in your power not to look at the man who had been waiting impatiently for the phone for the past ten minutes. “Just…save this number to your cellphone. If I call again, I’ll try to do it from here.”
“Why didn’t you just use your cellphone, honey?”
“I would, but I doubt there’s any place to charge it. This is sort of a back-up, okay?”
You quickly said your I-love-you’s and felt terribly guilty when you had to stop her from starting yet another story (”Oh, I completely forgot to tell you—”), but you squirmed your way out of the cafe, through the muggy streets, and to the ferry, where you were allowed to board half an hour before it was meant to depart.
A fog had settled around Cairnholm, so thick you coudn’t see land until the boat was practically at the dock. It was late in the evening, and much too dark with an impending storm, but you could barely make out the outline of a strange, paper thin mountain peak on the far end of the island. Beside it, the land dipped in, like a bowl, and only flattened out again at the shore; you wondered whether anyone ever tried to climb up to the top and enter the beach that way, or if they preferred to play it safe and avoid that side of the island altogether.
Not totally unappealing , you thought as you trudged through the streets. Nearly three hours left until the generators were supposed to go out, leaving the entire island in shadow, but there was barely any light as it was; you really couldn’t imagine the village getting any darker.
You smiled to a few passersby, but they looked to each other, as if in shock, and continued on their way without acknowledging you. George Hanover wasn’t any more friendly: he grunted, handed you the key, and then shut the door in your face without saying a word. You were so glad just to be alone when you arrived at your aunt’s house that you immediately flopped on the spare bed, completely ignoring your empty stomach, and refused to move or turn on any lights until the generators went out at ten o’clock and you realized that you’d have to wait until the next morning to plug in your phone or heat up some food in the microwave.
With nothing else to do, you simply laid there. You hadn’t expected Cairnholm to be especially exciting, but you had hoped it wouldn’t be so… depressing ; the air outside was wet and dark, the people went out of their way to ignore you, and you had walked up more hills trying to get to your aunt’s house than you’d seen in the past eight years at school. All in all, you were exhausted...You were exhausted physically, from the stress of travel, and you were exhausted emotionally . You didn’t know if you were going to spend the next two weeks in the same sorry, lonely state as you were in right now, or if, by some miracle, you’d find something (or some one ) that made this whole trip worthwhile.
And then you remembered that strange side of the island—that bowl, or indentation, that looked completely separate from the rest, as if no one ever bothered to go there. Perhaps, you theorized, that was the sort of adventure you could look forward to: a place you could explore by yourself, far from prying eyes and judging glares, far from the ugly sputtering of generators and the damp, charcoal-colored streets. An island all to itself, where you could hide and play and explore, but close enough to the village that you could come back any time you wanted.