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James wasn’t actually reading the newspaper—he was hiding behind it. Hiding from the crowd surrounding him, on the outside deck of the Brenton Bean. Hiding from the blinding glare of May sun on glassy harbor. Hiding, most of all, from what lay in between: that empty ferry dock.
If only the flimsy paper could block out sound as well. Tucked into the most protected corner of the coffee shop’s open deck, chair backed up against shingled exterior, he was still well within earshot of the stranded commuters who’d washed up at tables along the outside railing. Their worrying pecked at his hangover like a seagull feeding frenzy: without the ferry, how would they ever get ashore to their jobs? They were all so desperate to get off this island. And for the first time in sixteen years, James was too.
He should’ve delivered them to the dock in Newport just over two hours ago. Right now he should be motoring back to Brenton, spray flying and diesels rumbling, already tasting his daily bagel-and-coffee reward. But yesterday he’d been fired. So instead of clutching a wooden wheel, he was crushing limp newsprint.
The rumors were partly true; he had been caught with one tiny bag of marijuana, bought to ease a friend’s pain. But he hadn’t attacked his boss; he’d made a feeble attempt to reclaim the baggie. Reach, grab, hold up his hands as soon as Lloyd started screaming. Nothing that merited calling the cops—the guy just had a screw loose.
So there’d be no ferry this morning, a complete upheaval of Brenton’s usual Wednesday routine. Even non-commuting locals had drifted down here in search of news—and then lingered to enjoy the first warm day of the year, filling every open seat. Which led, of course, to speculating with their neighbors: What really happened between James and his boss yesterday afternoon? Could the ferry even run without Captain James? Did I hear James was dealing drugs? Each time he heard his name, the scar on his left temple throbbed.
Though that could be last night’s beers.
To his left was the door to inside, and just beyond it was the least popular table out here—occupied by a pair of stranded tourists. The wife proposed a bet on the ferry’s exact arrival time, loser to buy the first round of martinis once they made it safely ashore. Birdwatchers, probably. The husband swiveled his head around to ask the regulars, “When’s it supposed to get here again?”
Over at the big table, the animated weather discussion went quiet. Five pairs of eyes dropped down to stare into white china mugs. Only Mayor Frank—who just couldn’t leave anyone’s question unanswered, even when he was wrong—replied: “Eleven-ten.” Adding with less certainty, after a glance at his watch, “Might be a little late today.”
The storm door opened, whacking into the birdwatchers’ table. “Oops, sorry!” Patty said, smiling. “Busy as Fourth of July out here.”
James lifted his newspaper back into guard position, but those light blue Crocs stopped beside him anyway. The waitress carried a steaming glass coffee pot just above that huge apron-covered belly. Twins, maybe?
Mugs were already waving over at the big table, but Patty focused on James. “Still have to eat, ya know.” She topped off his coffee and set her pot down next to his plate. “Or did you finally realize peanut butter just doesn’t go with pumpernickel?”
“Bagel’s hard as a rock.”
“That’s ‘cause it’s yesterday’s—Barb didn’t make her delivery this morning.” Those brown eyes bored into him. “I heard you two had words last night.”
More than words. His fortieth birthday meal, dumped into the bakery’s trash bin. An overreaction, even for Barb.
Patty rubbed a ringless hand against the left side of that baby-bulge. “Billy got ‘stuck’ in Newport last night.” Her fingers made air-quotes. “He was way too happy about—”
She swiveled toward the big table just long enough to shake her head at Mayor Frank. When she turned back to James, a frown had wrinkled up her forehead and she opened and closed her mouth twice, before finally managing, “No hat today? And those eyebrows! One of these days, a laughing gull’s gonna fly in there, build a nest.” Her own brows had been carefully plucked. “How about a quick trim, once this crowd gets tired of waiting for their ferry? Betcha don’t have any other plans today. . . just sayin’.”
James snapped the newspaper up between them, mixing burnt coffee aroma with his own unwashed sweatshirt and the ebb-tide odor of drying-out seaweed.
Patty picked up her glass pot. “Yesterday’s Journal, too—not that you care.”
Of course. . . today’s newspapers wouldn’t arrive unless the ferry did.
Sighing, James let the paper drop and raised his left hand to pat down the hair standing off his forehead. It just stood right back up again.
The harbor was a windless mirror, from empty dock out to rocky breakwater. Beyond the entrance, eddies of ebb tide swirled out toward Bird Island, the uninhabited rock that kept this harbor so well protected. Out there, on the water, he knew what to do—because boats were so easy to handle: Goose the throttles forward to cruising speed. Adjust for set and drift. Listen for the port engine’s ping, telling him it needed oil again. What he couldn’t navigate was people. . . and all this damned uncertainty.
Starved for fresh news, the chatter around him faded, revealing more normal island sounds; wavelets tumbling pebbles along the tide line. An osprey chirping overhead. The whack of storm door against square metal table. Yesterday, it all would’ve blended together into a comforting symphony. Today, not knowing when he’d leave the island again, each noise clanged like a jail cell door.
“You tell him?” Mayor Frank was mostly hidden behind Patty’s bulk, but his raspy voice still carried.
Patty glanced back at James, shaking her head. “Didn’t dare.” She poured the last of the coffee into the mayor’s waiting mug.
Tell him what?
To avoid any additional grooming tips as Patty carried her empty pot inside, James stared down through the black grate of tabletop until he heard the door click shut behind her. If only the dried paint on his jeans could be read like tea leaves.
When he looked up again, he caught Mayor Frank frowning at him—until those thick glasses swiveled back out to check the harbor.
“Ah! Thar she blows!”
Beyond the breakwater’s jagged top edge, two white bumps motored steadily north. Radar dome and life raft canister, riding proud on top of the ferry’s wheelhouse. Their familiar shapes—and the slate blue superstructure—were surprisingly distinct against the dark backdrop of Bird Island. For Mayor Frank—and everyone else out here, except James—this was the view of a normal morning: his ferry, steaming proudly home.
But today he watched, steaming, from the beach.
The commuter chatter started up again, giddy with relief. First thing tomorrow morning, their ferry would be there to take them ashore. Which meant that today, they could all enjoy an unexpected day off.
“Told you it would be here,” Mayor Frank said, to no one in particular. “Just like Lloyd promised.” Lloyd. James’s boss—ex-boss—must’ve dragged some drunk captain off a Newport barstool last night.
But as soon as the white hull cleared the end of the breakwater, the bow wave diminished. Drunk or sober, the scab of a captain knew enough not to come into a strange harbor above idle.
“It’s slowing down,” the birdwatcher wife said.
“Gotta be at least five minutes away still,” her husband replied, smiling.
Four and a half, James silently corrected, sliding back his sweatshirt cuff to check his watch. Already eight minutes late.
“Guess I’m buying those martinis.” The wife was smiling too. “But I don’t care—we’re getting off this island at last!”
Some damned stranger had started those quirky engines. Pressed his own thumb and forefinger into the two varnished dents on the wheel’s king spoke. Soon he would pivot into the dock and smile at his departing passengers—if there even were any, on a Wednesday morning in May.
From the far end of the big table, Harbormaster Mack caught James’s eye and shrugged, as if apologizing for what he was about to say. Then he drained his mug, clunked it down, and stood up—waking Chester the dog, who’d been asleep under the table.
“Ferry’s here!” Mack announced in his public servant’s voice, as Chester shook himself to standing. “Everything’s back to normal now.”