Fantasy Mystery Strange

Endless Autumn

By Jamie Mason
4,048 words · 15-minute reading time
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She’ll be back today. She has to be. She lives here, after all. The final few tourist kids left with their parents on last night’s ferry. And after Labor Day the ferries from Port Angeles start running to Wren Island only three times per week instead ­of every four hours and I know she didn’t leave last night so she must still be on the island. Which means she’ll be here ­­­today. I know it.

It was the best summer ever. I didn’t want to leave. Neither did dad. But when he said "one more week," it made me ­feel hollow inside. Yes, it had been a good summer. But staying behind won’t make it last any longer. Things end. I may only be seventeen but I know that things end and you have to say good-bye and move on.

Dad has a hard time with that. Ever since mom left he’s sort of withdrawn into himself, spending most of the summer alone in the cottage working on his novel, except when he takes long walks by himself on the beach or through town at dusk like he’s looking for something. He tells me he is “absorbing the shades of melancholy” to put into his book, but I know he’s really looking for mom. He’s looking for the past.

Staying on the island one more week won’t prolong summer. A good summer is about more than just where you are – it’s about who you spend it with. And everyone’s gone.

Except her.

I know it.

The general store has an old wooden porch that smells of bleach and popsicles. All us tourist kids and our Island counterparts would meet up here. There was tension between our parents, but not us. We didn’t give a shit that they were hicks and they didn’t give a shit that we were tourons. All summer long on this porch, two, then five, then a dozen of us would gather each morning to drink coffee and bum cigarettes and joke around until the group got as big as it was gonna get then we’d all wander off to go do something, usually hang at Black Beach. That’s where I first saw her, three days ago.

She hung at the fringes of the group. At the beach you could more or less do whatever you wanted so we built fires and cooked out in the open although the Forest Service signs said not to. We made a fire ring between these two high dunes near the remains of the barb-wire fence from back when Wren Island had a naval station. Someone had just opened a package of hot-dogs and was putting them on sticks to roast up when the salt wind rustled the thin grasses at the top of the dune, causing me to look up.

There she was. A pale, thin tomboy in a white tank top, jeans and bare feet. She smoked and watched us from the top of the dune. I had never seen her before. Ordinarily I’d have pulled out my iPhone and scanned my friends’ FaceBook accounts to try and find her profile but there’s no cell service on Wren Island and WiFi is spotty so I’d been leaving my phone at home, switched off and tucked into a pocket of my backpack. But I have it with me now on the steps of the general store. Although I’m getting almost no signal the colorful icons and glimmering screen comfort me. Yesterday morning you couldn’t find a place to sit on this porch. Now I’m surrounded by empty chairs.

I hear footsteps and look up and see Adele, the hippie woman who runs the Breadloaf Café in town. "Hello," she says quietly, walking toward me with a string grocery bag dangling from her hand. "I thought all the tourists had gone home. Are you and your father staying on?" I smell jasmine, hear the clink of the big silver ear hoops she wears as she gathers her long paisley skirt neatly in one hand and sits beside me.

"We’re staying another week. Prolonging the summer," I say, a little frustrated as I swipe to the home screen of my iPhone.

Adele laughs. "That’s about as hopeless as trying to get a signal on your contraption. Haven’t you learned that yet? I bet you miss your friends on the mainland."

"Yeah." I pick at the iPhone. Turn it on. Switch it off. Put it back in my pocket, which makes Adele’s smile widen as she says:

"I remember back in the Seventies when they built the signal transmitter on Kemmer Peak. The project was supposed to take a month but ended up lasting almost a year. Something having to do with all the interference from the electrical fields surrounding the island. My friends and I would climb up and hang out at the construction site on the weekends. We stopped -"

Adele pauses and stares at the horizon.

"Yeah, it was right around Labor Day weekend. That’s when we stopped going up there. For lots of reasons," Adele says then pats my shoulder sympathetically. "It gets worse in autumn, you know, the interference. Something about the change of season. I’m sorry to say it but your phone doesn’t have a chance of working now. Perhaps you could connect with some of our local teens ..?"

"Oh yeah, I know a few. There’s this one girl, actually. Don’t know her name but I’ve been looking for her. She -"

"I’m sure you’ll find her. We live on an island, after all. There’s only a limited amount of space to hide in. Time is where you lose track of people, here."

I don’t understand what Adele means and it must be obvious on my face because she says:

"Remember how I said there’s a lot of signal interference here? It’s unique to our island. Well, time is the same. Different here from everywhere else. And it gets worse in the autumn, too. You’ll see."

I wanted to ask about the girl but Adele gets up and goes into the store. An echo of her presence lingers beside me in a cloud of her jasmine perfume. But a sense of her calm and her beauty also remain. It’s funny how people leave traces of themselves behind. I touch the iPhone in my pocket but don’t take it out and when it’s obvious no kids are going to show up here today, I head to Black Beach.

Something doesn’t feel right and it takes me a moment to realize that it’s the silence. There are no cars on the roads. Because the island is small the tourist traffic seemed a lot heavier than it actually was and I learned to tune out the constant hiss of tires. Its absence is like the sudden silence of crickets. I stand and listen hard until I hear a very faint sound like the hum of an electrical current. I think the sound might have always been there but I just never heard it because of all the people. Realizing that reminds me that everyone is gone and I feel sad again. I cross the narrow parking lot that fronts Black Beach.

After that first glimpse of the girl on the dune, she stayed on my mind. When she didn’t come and get a hot-dog I hiked up and down the beach looking for her, from the parking lot to the ruined light-house near the reef. I remember that was the day one of the local kids taught us Wren Island volleyball, a version of the game played without a net that allows players to kick the ball and tackle each other. I kept hoping as I played that I would look up and see the girl on the sidelines but there was no sign of her. She didn’t appear again until evening. We were finishing up our last game when I saw a slender silhouette down at the tide-line that seemed familiar and I recognized that it was her.

I step over the half-buried barb-wire fence and approach the fire circle between the dunes. One of the crumpled hot-dog wrappers is still jammed between two rocks. Seeing it makes me feel suddenly sad. Another lingering echo of someone now gone, like Adele’s perfume. Someone has dumped a bunch of stuff out here, too – an old sofa, two boxes of books, a broken kettle and a stack of yellowing newspapers tied with string. I glance at the headline of the top one as I settle onto the mildewed couch. It is dated September 5th 1979.

ISLAND GIRL VANISHES FROM CONSTRUCTION SITE

I approached the girl where she stood ankle deep in the tide, smoking and studying the waves. The sun was setting and the water was lit up all orange and gold around her feet. I caught her eye and smiled. And she did something funny. Rather than smile back she raised a finger to her lips – “shhh” – then pointed at the sunset. I hoped to talk to her but understood that she wanted to be quiet and appreciate the view. So I stood there and watched the light churning the clouds over the ocean. It was a beautiful sight, and so was she when I glanced over to watch her watching. Then the shadows came and the show was over and the beach kids started building a bonfire. I started to say something but she put her finger to her lips again. I was disappointed and that must have shown on my face because she stepped over and surprised me with a kiss on the cheek before walking away. She crossed the beach and paused at the edge of the parking lot to light a fresh cigarette, then looked back at me once, her thin face serious between her black bangs before disappearing again.

"Who’s that girl?" I asked Dave. His mom’s boyfriend Herbert runs the ticket kiosk at the ferry terminal and so knows more or less everybody on the island. Turned out Dave hadn’t seen the girl and when I described her to him he shrugged. "Don’t know any smokers," he said. "Maybe she’s a touron."

For the rest of the night I stared at the spot where I’d last seen her. I’m staring at the same place now from where I sit on the junked couch, as if staring at the place where she stood for long enough might summon her to return. Like if any of those echoes remain I can use them like threads to pull her back here. And then I think about dad and his long evening walks and decision to stay here one more week and I remind myself that things end and you have to say good-bye and move on. Of course, it’s easy to say that when you’re talking about somebody else but in my own case, I tend to forget. Because I want the echo. I want the sense of her presence. Because maybe if I feel it enough she’ll have to return.

I yank loose the top newspaper from the tied bundle and read the article about the girl who disappeared in 1979. The construction site where she was last seen was on Mount Kemmer. According to the paper she

... was part of a group of teens that visited the site regularly since construction began on the signal tower last March. Miriam’s disappearance surprised eyewitness Adele Hutchens, 15, who claimed they knew the site well. “Miriam said she’d be right back and went behind this boulder,” says Adele. “I could see smoke from her cigarette rising. Then suddenly it was gone and so was Miriam.”

I realize the Adele in the article is the same one I spoke to this morning. It’s strange imagining her at age fifteen. She has grey hair and dresses like a hippie (probably because that’s how they dressed back when she was my age). Adele said after that Labor Day weekend she and her friends stopped going up to the construction site and now I know why. There is no picture of her or the girl who disappeared. I guess back in 1979 the Wren Island Masthead did not run many photos. The one for this article is so muddled and grainy it takes me a moment to realize it is a shot of police at the scene. I tuck the paper under my arm and take it with me.

I leave the beach and follow the sand path across the hills into town. That same weird, humming silence I noticed before hangs in the air. My only company is a distant tugboat threading the channel between here and the mainland with a wake of froth, causing the surface to quiver in the stillness. The boat disappears behind the embankment as I descend to the alley behind the Chinese restaurant. A set of weathered wooden steps leads from the tiny gravel parking circle up to a row of apartments above the restaurant. The one in the middle has its drapes parted, meaning that Dylan is open for business. I count the money in my pocket then climb the rickety steps and knock.

When Dylan opens the door he is slower than usual and I catch a whiff of marijuana and the sound of acoustic music: Led Zeppelin. Normally Dylan pulls you right inside and closes the door and doesn’t allow you to smoke at his place because he doesn’t toke even though he deals. But I guess that’s all changed now because his black Afro is disheveled and his eyes are bleary and blood-shot behind the steel rims of his little round glasses.

"C’mon in," he mutters. I follow him into the kitchen. The big wooden table is bare except for an open baggie of weed and a glass ashtray with a small wooden pipe still smoldering from his last hit. "Wanna bag? I’m having a Labor Day sale. Siddown." Dylan drops into the chair draped by his army surplus jacket, takes up the pipe, sucks deeply then hands it to me. I take a hit. Good dope: the welcome sensation of high immediately drapes my neck and shoulders like a warm blanket.

"How come yer still here on the Island?"

"My dad wants to extend summer another week."

To Dylan this seems perfectly ordinary. "I unnerstand ya know really I do. You c’n do that here. Wren Island’s weird that way."

"I’m lookin’ for a girl."

"Yeah? I just lost one. If yours smokes weed then I prob’ly know her ..."

"She does smoke. Tobacco and weed. I just met her Friday. We watched the sunset together on Black Beach then I saw her at a party the next night. Some guy’s parents were out of town and a bunch of us went to his house and she was there, hanging on the edge of the group and watching everyone the way she does."

Dylan just sits listening. When I get stoned I talk a lot, and that’s what I do now:

"I got her alone and we shared a joint but didn’t talk. Both times we hung out she kept doing this" - I raise my finger to my lips - "She never speaks. After we smoked we sat for a while then she got up and left. I asked Adele about her and she said the Island isn’t big enough to get lost on – that it’s time not space where people go missing around here."

I don’t mention the fact that the girl and I made out a bit before she left. Dylan doesn’t need to know that part.

"Real skinny tomboy. Jeans and a tank top. Black hair. Walks around in her bare feet all the time. Dylan, do you know her?"

"Don’t know many tobacco smokers," Dylan admits. "Maybe one or two. People Adele’s age. Or older – people who picked up the habit when they were young, back when young people did that."

Now it is my turn to listen.

"Adele’s right," Dylan says. About time. "My friend Jerry said that time is alive. Like a ... sea creature or something. And the part of it that lives on Wren Island is sick, like it has some disease. Like mental illness. Time behaves irrationally here, and –"

Dylan pauses, a look of pain twisting his face before he continues.

"It gets worse in autumn."

Daylight is sliding into evening when I leave Dylan’s. I hike the ghostly streets through town toward the cottage. Turning the corner by the art gallery I see my father hunched over in the clapboard doorway beside to a display window with a CLOSED FOR THE SEASON sign. He is crying.

"She’s gone," he whispers when he sees to me. "She’s gone."

I have never seen dad so broken and vulnerable before, like a little child who has just learned that Christmas is over and he has to wait until next year for it to come again. I may only be seventeen but I know that things end and you have to say good-bye and move on. And that’s exactly what he is doing. The pain and the tears tell me: he is moving on.

I wrap my arms around him. "Dad, there was this girl ..."

"Yeah?"

"I met her only three times. Once on the beach. Once at a party. And for the last time the day before yesterday when the rain spoiled the town bar-b-cue. I saw her crouched under an awning with her arms wrapped around herself shivering. I ran over and held her. She clung to me like a wet kitten and I kissed her."

My father pulls away. "Son, why didn’t you tell me -?"

"Because our time together was so short, dad. Almost like it never happened."

"It was the same for me with your mother."

I close my eyes.

"She never spoke to me," I say. "Except that one day in the rain. She said: remember. Just that one word."

Dad smiles. "So what happened to her?"

"She didn’t leave on last night’s ferry. So she’s still here on the island somewhere. She has to be. I know it."

Everything is closed. The metal shutters pulled over the store-fronts are the same grey as the clouds that rain dusk light the color of steel and fog down on the empty street from above. The windows of the Breadloaf Café glow a soft gold. I cross under the wooden sign hanging from its cross bar and mount the steps to the door. I push inside tripping a small bell that sprays delicate silver notes. The frumpy café, with its wooden tables and wire-backed chairs and tinny radio playing Simon and Garfunkel beside the cash register, is empty. Except for the couch in the alcove beside the mural.

She looks up, a smile curling her slender face.

"I searched for you," I say. "All day."

"I know," she says. It’s strange to hear her speak. I sit down. We reach out and hold hands like we’ve been doing it forever.

"Do you believe it’s possible to live an entire lifetime in one day?" she asks.

"I suppose," I say. "If you only live one day, sure."

"What if you only live one day per year?" She plucks her cigarettes from the coffee table. "What if you spend the other 364 in a kind of in-between state – not quite here, but not quite anywhere else either?"

"You’re talking," I marvel.

"Yeah." She shakes loose a cigarette and plays with it. "I’ve wanted to before but was unable to because I wasn’t fully here, not fully manifested. But I am now. At least until nightfall. Sometime after full dark I’ll go back."

"Where?"

"To the other place. That’s what I call it." She lights a match. "It’s not here. And it’s not death. But it’s somewhere in between." She touches the match to the tip and inhales. "I’m never there for very long. But every time I come back – or fade back – here, it’s always the same time of year. And the same things are always happening." She blows a smoke ring. "The tourons are leaving. And the ferries start running three times a week instead of every four hours. And I never see anybody I know."

Hearing all this, I feel suddenly very cold.

"When the fade starts, I try to hurry it along so I can arrive sooner, have the experience of being here longer. But hurrying it never works. Until I’m fully faded in I can’t speak or eat. So I always spend a few days just hanging around, like a ghost, watching. Not eating."

"Like on the beach," I say. "You didn’t come get a hot dog."

"I wanted one. Whenever I come back from the other place, I’m always hungry. Because I was hungry the day I first went there. After I’ve been here a day or two I can manage a word. Then two or three. Then I can start eating a little. But by the time I’m able to start eating full meals and have complete conversations, it’s almost time to go. Time goes too fast. Trying to hang on doesn’t help. Before I know it time’s up and I have to move on."

"Yeah. I ... understand."

She looks down, then smiles up at me shyly through her drooping bangs.

"Got to kiss you, at least," she says.

"Yeah." I smile. I want to kiss her again. Right there in the café. But even though it’s empty it somehow doesn’t feel right.

"You know Dylan?" I ask. I pull the baggie of weed from my pocket and raise my eyebrows.

She shakes her head no.

"Well –" I put the baggie back "– he says Wren Island has a sickness that makes time behave irrationally."

"Makes sense." She takes another drag of her cigarette and butts it out, then walks over to stare down into the pastry display. "These look good."

"I’ll buy you one," I say. "Adele should be back –"

"Adele?" She smiles. "Adele works here?"

"Um, she owns the –"

There is a spray of silver notes as the door opens, tripping the entryway bell. I smell jasmine, hear the clink of silver ear hoops and watch a smile rise on Adele’s face as she crosses the floor toward us.

"Welcome," she says softly. "You’ve come just in time. I was just about to close up for the ni-"

And Adele stops, stricken. The girl has turned and she meets Adele’s eyes with a smile and it causes the older woman to freeze in her tracks, eyes widening as if she’s seen a ghost. Because she has.

"Miriam?" she whispers.

And in that moment I understand. Miriam is the name of the girl I love. She is the same girl who went missing on Mount Kemmer in 1979. And because she only lives one day out of every year, she has not aged.

And she never will.

It was the best summer ever. I didn’t want to leave and at first when Dad suggested we stay another week I felt uncomfortable. But I don’t anymore. Because I’ve spent the past two days at the library. I’m reading about the space-time and a phenomenon called “wormholes.” The scientists say there is no evidence for the existence of these apertures which may allow passage from one dimension – from one time – to another. But their presence would explain a lot so scientists are being asked to believe they exist although they cannot see them. They are being asked to take something on faith. It’s ironic.

A wormhole would explain Miriam, her fading in and out of reality, her existence one day per year and the strange finality with which she vanished after our kiss. But so would the longing I feel. Because I want the echo. I want the sense of her presence. Because maybe if I feel it enough she’ll have to return.

She’ll be back again. She has to be.

I know it.

 

THE END

This story originally appeared in Great Jones Street.


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