THE MORNING FOG HAS PAINTED EVERYTHING WHITE. It’s exactly like one of my rabbit-hole dreams, where I get trapped, suspended in a cloud, and I can’t seem to wake myself up.
Then the foghorn blares, the mist breaks into lace, and I see Jar Island, spread out along the horizon just like in one of Aunt Bette’s paintings.
That’s when I know for sure that I’ve done it. I’ve actually come back.
One of the workers ties the ferry to the dock with a thick rope. Another lowers the bridge. The captain’s voice comes over the loudspeaker. “Good morning, passengers. Welcome to Jar Island. Please make sure to collect all your belongings.”
I’d almost forgotten how beautiful it is here. The sun has lifted above the water, and it lights everything up yellowy and bright. A hint of my reflection in the window stares back at me—pale eyes, lips parted, windblown blond hair. I’m not the same person I was when I left here, in seventh grade. I’m older, obviously, but it’s not just that. I’ve changed. When I see myself now, I see someone strong. Maybe even pretty.
Will he recognize me, I wonder? Part of me hopes he doesn’t. But the other part, the part that left my family to come back, hopes he does. He has to. Otherwise, what’s the point?
I hear the rumble of cars parked on the freight deck as they get ready to drive off. There’s a bunch more on shore, in a long line that reaches the entrance to the parking lot, waiting to pull aboard for the return trip back to the mainland. One more week of summer vacation left. I step away from the window, smooth my seersucker sundress, and go back to my seat to get my things. The seat next to mine is empty. I stick my hand underneath, feeling around for what I know is there. His initials. RT. I remember the day he carved them with his Swiss Army knife, just because he felt like it.
I wonder if things have changed on the island. Does Milky Morning still have the best blueberry muffins? Will the Main Street movie theater have the same lumpy green velvet seats? How big has the lilac bush in our yard grown?
It’s strange to feel like a tourist, because the Zanes have lived on Jar Island practically forever. My great-great-great-grandfather designed and built the library. One of my mom’s aunts was the very first woman to be elected alderman of Middlebury. Our family plot is right in the center of the cemetery in the middle of the island, and some of the headstones are so old and moss covered, you can’t even see who’s buried there.
Jar Island is made up of four small towns. Thomastown, Middlebury, which is where I’m from, White Haven, and Canobie Bluffs. Each town has its own middle school, and they all feed into Jar Island High. During the summer the population swells to several thousand vacationers. But only about a thousand or so people live here year round.
My mom always says Jar Island never changes. It’s its own little universe. There’s something about Jar Island that lets people pretend the world has stopped spinning. I think that’s part of the charm, why people want to spend summers here. Or why the diehards put up with the hassles that come with living here year round, the way my family used to.
People appreciate that there isn’t a single chain store, shopping mall, or fast-food restaurant on Jar Island. Dad says there’s something like two hundred separate laws and ordinances that make building them illegal. Instead people buy their groceries at local markets, get prescriptions filled at soda-shop pharmacies, pick out beach reads at independent bookstores.
Another thing that makes Jar Island special is that it’s a true island. There are no bridges or tunnels connecting it to the mainland. Aside from the one-strip airfield that only rich people with private planes use, everyone and everything comes in and goes out on this ferry.
I pick up my suitcases and follow the rest of the passengers off. The dock runs straight into the welcome center. An old 1940s school bus painted with the words “JAR ISLAND TOURS” is parked in front and getting washed. A block behind that is Main Street—a quaint strip of souvenir shops and lunch counters. Above it rises Middlebury’s big hill. It takes a second for me to find it, and I have to shade my eyes from the sun, but I pick out the pitched red roof of my old house at the tippy top.
My mom grew up in that house, along with Aunt Bette. My bedroom used to be Aunt Bette’s bedroom, and it looks out at the sea. I wonder if that’s where Aunt Bette sleeps, now that she lives there again.
I’m Aunt Bette’s only niece; she doesn’t have any children of her own. She never knew how to act around kids, so she treated me like an adult. I liked it, getting to feel grown-up. When she’d ask me questions about her paintings, what I felt about them, she actually listened to what I had to say. But she was never the kind of aunt who’d get on the floor and help me do a puzzle, or who’d want to bake cookies together. I didn’t need her to be. I already had a mom and dad who’d do those things.
I think it’ll be great, living with Aunt Bette now that I’m older. My parents both baby me. Perfect example—my curfew is still ten o’clock, even though I’m seventeen. I guess after everything that happened, it makes sense that they’re extra protective.
The walk home takes longer than I remember, maybe because my suitcases are slowing me down. A few times I stick out my thumb to the cars chugging up the hill. Some of the locals hitchhike on Jar Island. It’s an accepted thing, a way to help out your neighbors. I was never allowed to, but for the first time I don’t have my mom or dad looking over my shoulder. No one picks me up, which is a bummer, but there’s always tomorrow or the next day. I have all the time in the world to hitchhike or do whatever I want.
I walk right past my driveway without realizing it and have to double back. The bushes have grown big and bristly, and they hide the house from the road. I’m not surprised. Gardening was Mom’s thing, not Aunt Bette’s.
I drag my bags the last few feet and stare at the house. It’s a three-story colonial covered in gray cedar shingles, white shutters bolted to each of the windows, with a cobblestone wall edging the yard. Aunt Bette’s old tan Volvo is parked in the driveway, and it’s covered in a blanket of tiny purple flowers.
The lilac bush. It’s grown taller than I thought possible. And even though plenty of flowers have fallen, the branches still sag with the weight of millions more. I take as deep a breath as I can.
It’s good to be home.
IT’S THAT TIME OF YEAR AGAIN, THE END OF AUGUST, only one more week till school starts. The beach is crowded, but not July Fourth–crowded. I’m lying on a big blanket with Rennie and Alex. Reeve and PJ are throwing a Frisbee around, and Ashlin and Derek are swimming in the ocean. This is our crew. It’s been this way this since the ninth grade. It’s hard to believe we’re finally seniors.