THE MADONNA GHOST
“Here, hold this for me, Annie.”
I looked at my aunt Jill with utter disbelief as she thrust two ferry tickets at me. I had a large suitcase in each hand, my roller blades slung over my shoulders, Aunt Jill’s tennis racket under my arm, and the car keys she had given me to hold a minute ago between my teeth. I muttered my protest, finding it impossible to get my tongue past the car keys. What came out was more drool than intelligible language. Finally, she looked up from the purse she was digging in to see what the trouble was.
With that, she stuck the tickets in my T-shirt pocket.
Not feeling very grateful, I hurried after her as she headed toward the ferry station. She was pulling ahead of me quickly, even though she had one bag on a shoulder strap, one under each arm, and one in each hand.
I looked ahead to the ferry station across the coarse gravel parking lot. Through the dust clouds raised by the cars pulling into the remaining spaces, I could see a large, weathered, gray, wooden building, shed-like in appearance. Behind the building, the super structures of two white ferries could be seen, bristling with wispy radio antennas and twirling radar ones. Milling all around the building like colorful ants dislodged from their hill was a crowd of waiting ferry passengers. Like Aunt Jill and me, this busy mass of humanity was bound for Fire Island and a summer vacation.
We arrived at the tiny ticket office and gratefully dropped our luggage to the ground.
“Can I get a ten-ticket pass, please?” I heard Aunt Jill inquire of the ticket agent. This might be a vacation for me, but she was going to have to go back to New York City to check in at work a couple of times a week.
“Ask if the ferry’s on time. Okay?”
“They’re always on time, Annie, unlike most things in our sweet young lives. Let’s find a spot over there on those benches.”
Gawking in fascination at the people around me, I stumbled after my confident, determined aunt. I felt like one of those little ducklings following the mother duck. Imprinting is what they call it in biology. I guess I have imprinted on Aunt Jill, or J as I like to call her. It was a special name I came up with, and it made me feel more like her friend than her niece. J is my hero. She’s a cop, a special-assignment detective with the New York City Police. She treats me as if I have a few working brain cells, and I can talk to her.
“Annie, do me a favor? Go into that little shop over there and buy four batteries for the camera, will you? It will be twice the price on the island.”
J thrust a twenty my way, as she stacked the luggage next to one of the wooden benches we had found.
“Yeah, maybe I’ll get some gum, too,” I called over my shoulder as I collided with a short, stout, sixtyish woman. She was cradling a Lhasa Apso puppy in each arm, so she couldn’t adjust the large, purple straw hat that had fallen over one eye. A gentleman of similar age in blue and green striped Bermuda shorts, a flowery Hawaiian shirt, black support sox, and white Keds righted the lady’s hat and smiled at me.
Giggling, I just managed to avoid two tiny women with enormous mounds of curly jet black hair and matching sequin and rhinestone shirts. Pushing their sunglasses back up their noses in a unified movement, they stepped aside to let me pass, all the while looking me up and down. I snaked my way through the throng and into the shop.
I was in luck. The saleslady was free, and I stumbled past a large man with a toddler in his arms. The two of them seemed locked in an ill-fated struggle with a frozen yogurt cone. Just as I stepped up to the counter, they lost their struggle, and the cold, oozy mass landed on my foot. I stared at my chocolate-covered toes, wondering what to do as the kid gave out with an ear-splitting wail.
“God, how embarrassing!”
“There’s a faucet out back on the dock, honey. You can wash your foot off out there. Lucky you’re wearing those nylon sandals.” The salesgirl looked sympathetic as she offered this advice.
“Gee thanks, but could I have four double A batteries, please?”
She responded with merciful speed. I grabbed my purchase and headed for the faucet. After a quick wash, I ambled back to our seats, trying to size up the crowd. Would I find some people my age on the island?
As I came around the other side of the building, I caught sight of J, and I hesitated. She was talking to a man, engrossed in conversation. The man looked up as I approached, and my aunt followed his gaze. She pointed the man toward the restrooms. He nodded and left.
“You know that guy, J?” I asked, trying to sound casual.
“No, he just wanted directions. C’mon, they’re boarding the ferry now. Let’s go.”
We loaded up like two pack mules and headed for the boat. The coconut smell of tanning oil was everywhere. Sunglasses flashed in the sun like a field of sparkling mirrors. I felt a thrill of excitement, knowing that we were on our way.
Continuing in the pack-mule mode, we picked our way to the upper deck with none of the grace of those critters. Staking out our spot, I left Aunt Jill to protect our turf and headed for the rail.
Looking out across the Great South Bay, I could see Fire Island in the distance, a long stretch of dunes and scrub pines across the horizon. At the western end of the island, was the black and white striped tower of Fire Island lighthouse, blinking away. Sailboats maneuvered across the dark blue waters of the bay in ballerina fashion, their sails puffed out by the wind like dancers’ gauzy skirts.
“Annie, watch the bags, okay? I’m going to find the restroom.”
Nodding, I ignored her warning about the bags. What could happen to them on this ferry, I thought. It’s just her line of work that makes her jumpy.
Searching the lower deck for faces my own age, I mused about my next two weeks on the island. I was bound to meet people on the beach.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw someone pause by our luggage. There go those city street smarts again. Looking up, my gaze fell upon a nondescript middle-aged man who was studying our stuff.
“Can I …”
Before I could finish my question, he smiled, wheeled around quickly, and made for the lower deck. Leaning over the rail, I caught sight of his hurrying figure bounding down the gangplank.
With a hasty glance, I could see that the bags appeared undisturbed. On further examination, every zipper and flap was intact. I wondered where J was. Back at the rail, I leaned over, craning to see if she was on the lower deck.
Puzzled and amazed, I stared. There she was, talking to the same guy from the dock. More directions? I wondered, grabbing for the rail as the Islander Queen bumped through the piling and out of the slip. Despite the warm, gentle air around me, I felt an involuntary shiver.
J’s work made me nervous sometimes. She was my closest friend. My parents were useless: Mom, with her roller-coaster ride through alcoholism recovery, and Dad, dedicated to his twice a week flights to the UK. I just didn’t want anything to happen to her. Besides, my instincts were telling me that there was something funny about the guy who just took off and the one talking to J.
The man was tall and wore a black shirt and slacks in some silky material. His dark hair was slicked back with gel. He was a shiny man. All his surfaces were sleek. He was good looking in an adult sort of way that I associated with the foreign movies Aunt J seemed to favor.
My heart was thumping as I turned to look at the bags again. Craning my neck to see if J was on her way up the stairs, I could feel a cramping twinge of anxiety. J appeared at the top of the stairs, absorbed in some papers she was trying to remove from her purse, her face a study in tension. Seeing me watch her, she arranged her face into a smile.
“What’s up?” She joined me at the rail.
“Uh, nothing. Just watching the scenery.”
And scenery it was, capturing us for the next few minutes. The ferry plied its way out of the little harbor of Bay Shore, past the marina, its wake causing the boats that were tied up there to bob momentarily. They seemed to salute us as we passed. Once into the bay, we picked up speed, the breeze pulling our hair out of our faces. The salt air prickled my nose, and I wondered again about the two strange men.
Should I tell her? I wondered. The little angel-devil voice in my head argued briefly. Even if these guys meant something, J’s not going to tell me, or she would have told me already, I decided. I felt left out, like some little kid.
“Look, Annie, you can see the little villages on the island now! Boy, it’ll be good to spend the day on the beach tomorrow. I need some rest.”
J’s reassuring statement about the beach made me feel better. I pushed aside the urge to blurt out, “Who was that man? What’s this all about?” This was going to be a great vacation, and I wasn’t letting my overactive imagination ruin it.
“J, tell me about the house we’re renting. You didn’t fill me in on any details.”
“Well, it’s a fairly large house. It’s one of the original ones built before the turn of the century. The man who owns it is John T. Egan, known to his friends as Doc. He’s retired. Used to work for the CIA. He was a decoder.”
“For Pete’s sake, J! Don’t you know anyone who has a normal job, like a teacher or a salesman?”
J laughed, warming to her subject. “He lives in a small wing on the house, and Annie, he has the neatest sailboat.”
She reached out to hug me. “We’re going to have the best time, Annie. I promise.”
“Whoops, I think we’re there.” The engine noises quieted, and the ferry drifted like a swan toward the ferry slip. I had the weird feeling that the boat was standing still and that it was the island that was gliding toward us. The ferry dock had almost as many people on it as the ferry, but the dock people were dressed differently. Their attire was strictly T-shirts, shorts, and sandals. It was as if you only needed the brightly colored clothes to get onto the island. Once there, your feathers faded.
Besides their uniforms, each group of dock people had a red wagon like the ones we played with as kids. There were also rows and rows of red wagons hanging on racks on the dock.
How curious, I thought. And then it hit me. There are no cars here! You have to load all your stuff onto these wagons.
“Look at all those wagons,” said J. “How cute!”
The faces on the people became clearer, and again I looked for faces around my age. There were a few likely candidates, and I wondered how I could meet them. My roving eyes came to rest on the top of a dark, shiny head of hair. The owner was bent over a wagon, unlocking it from the rack. His tan hands worked quickly, making the muscles in his back ripple across the shoulders of his white T-shirt in the most appealing way. As he straightened his body on a pair of long, tan, strong legs, he looked up at the ferry.
My legs started to tremble from standing on tiptoe and leaning over the rail. At least, I think that’s why. I felt hot and realized I was blushing. Boy, is he cool looking. How do I meet him? I wondered.
“Absolutely gorgeous,” escaped my lips.
“What?” J said as she poked me. “There’s Doc!” she pointed.
“Where?” Tearing my eyes away from Mr. Gorgeous, I saw what looked to me like Santa Claus after Weight Watchers. Full white beard, full head of white hair, rosy cheeks, and twinkling blue eyes gave character to a compact body. He was erect and tan in his white shirt, Levi’s, and red suspenders. As I stared with pleasure, he turned to speak to the tall, dark boy I had noticed first. Together, they looked up at the ferry, shading their eyes to see the passengers. Aunt J waved furiously, blowing kisses at Doc when he spotted her. The boy smiled with a wide white grin flashing across his handsome sun-browned face.
My stomach flip-flopped as I realized my luck. I wasn’t going to have to even try to meet this guy. He comes along with Doc.
“This is definitely going to be fun, huh, J.”
J looked at me and just grinned.