Seal Island is Kate Brallier's first
The story has its origins in Kate's
childhood summers on Penobscot Bay where one could still find seals
sunning themselves on the island's stony beaches -- including some
of the big, dark-eyed breed also found on the misty shores of
Ireland, the Shetlands, and the Orkneys.
A friend of Kate's recently confessed
that "All [her] nightmares take place on that small island in
Maine." The dense trees, high rocks, and seas of mist can turn
the mind to old stories from across the sea.
Image Copyright Tor Books
A Seal Island Sampler...
Sometimes all it takes to change your life is a single
instant; no one knows that better than I. But the last thing I had
expected, in early June of what some people might call the new
millennium, was to find myself flying to Bangor, Maine with my
stable old life behind me, the bulk of my possessions packed into
storage, two suitcases of assorted clothes and mementos between
myself and the world, and an unknown future stretching out before
me. But that was
exactly where I found myself—for reasons I still couldn’t quite
comprehend or credit.
Aunt Allegra—not even a proper aunt, just some sort of
distant cousin of my mother’s—had possessed little impact on my life
beyond a few brief visits in my youth and a bi-yearly phone call
given more out of duty, I suspected, than any sort of family
feeling. Not that I
disliked her; there was a certain…presence about Allegra that had
always struck me. I
just didn’t know her.
She had been my mother’s friend, and I knew nothing about her
background, her history, her habits, her likes, her loves. I knew even less about Seal
Island, where she lived.
Which was why it remained incomprehensible hat I—a city
girl—was now headed to Seal Island for a visit of unspecified
length, to tie up Allegra’s affairs and determine what to do with
the house and business that had been unexpectedly deeded to me at
But where else was I to go? I had no job, no apartment,
and the safe, walled place I had built for myself had proved to be
founded on sand. So why
not Seal Island? What
more could it take from me than New York already had? At times, it seemed that my
life was a series of losses tempered by brief, intermittent periods
of normalcy. But a
false normalcy, that was snatched from me the moment I began to feel
comfortable with it.
sounded melodramatic and self-pitying, and who was I to
complain? I still
had my life. Allegra
Gordon, at 45, had been deprived of hers in an
Part of me still felt numb at the thought. Not that I was any stranger
to violent death; my parents had taught me that lesson well, one
snowy night in December.
But, as with all broken resolutions, Allegra was one of those
people I had always wished I knew better, had always planned to
acquaint myself with.
Tomorrow, next week, when this next crisis was over, when
there was time…. Only
there was never time, and now it was too
I still wasn’t clear how on she had died—something quick and
unexpected like a stroke or an embolism, I assumed. The lawyer who had called me
had seemed oddly reluctant to go into detail, but by the catch in
his voice as he imparted the news, I imagined her passing must have
been harder for him, who had known her, than for me, who had
not. Yet she had left
me her house, her business, all that she had acquired in life. To a girl she had met but
twice. To a girl who
accepted her phone calls happily but never quite managed to make one
of her own in return.
I stared out the plane window, feeling a sluggish guilt
unfurl as I rested my cheek against the cold plastic and watched the
scenery of New England, just warming into summer, stream by below
me. Maine. It conjured up images of
blueberries and bears and boats, and beloved childrens’ books. Of sea and fog and gulls
had always longed to go; someday. And now someday was here,
and I was on my way with no more than a few remembered phrases and
routes highlighted on a hastily-purchased map to guide
What, by all that was precious, was I
Panic seized me, sudden as my guilt, and I clutched
surreptitiously at my armrests, trying to distract myself with the
fields and forests scrolling away below me. What had I been
thinking? I hated
change—especially change unexpectedly thrust upon me, as this had
been. The last time it
had almost destroyed me; how would I weather it again? What was that popular
phrase, “that which doesn’t kill you can only make you
stronger?” Only, I
wasn’t quite sure I believed it. I don’t think I became
stronger, just harder.
Most days I muddled along quite cheerfully, but on others I
felt as if a breath of wind might crack me.
I had spent eight years shoring up walls around my world, so
that the wind might not penetrate, and now look at me. I was twenty-eight years
old, and just “downsized,” as the popular term would have it. Six years of company
loyalty, and now I was unemployed with six months of severance
between myself and the future, and homeless to boot. The lease on the ridiculous
box I called an apartment had expired, and a recent bout of
“renovations” had skyrocketed the rent beyond my meager means. So it was either hunt for a
new job and a new apartment at the height of the summer crunch,
or…retreat to Maine for a few months. Rest, re-energize, regroup
away from the crushing heat, humidity and stench of a true New York
summer, and then return in September
Clearly, I had chosen the latter
A coward’s act?
Perhaps; perhaps not.
Maybe it was just what I needed. As the roar of the plane’s
engines rumbled dully in my ears, I forced myself to evaluate what
had become of my life.
Or rather, of my existence, because gradually—and without my
even realizing it—my life had gained that dull sheen of bare
necessity. I had worked
six years at a job I didn’t care about, and which now left no
impression in its absence.
I had scraped together a few friends, but none terribly
close—or perhaps just none that I let get terribly close. No boyfriends, no long-term
lovers, no one I really cared about. I lived alone in a box, and
my main passions had become cooking and reading. The former half out of
necessity, because I was too poor to eat out a great deal, and half
because it added a surface color to my life and gave me an excuse to
invite my acquaintances around for meals. Because then, packed around
my cramped table in my even more cramped apartment, while wine and
laughter and conversation flowed, I felt a part of something—but a
something that departed as naturally as the guests out the door,
that cleaned up as tidily as a sink full of
The reading seemed self-evident.
Surreptitiously, I caressed the Thomas Moreland paperback on
my lap. It was an old
favorite: well worn, but as unbuttered as I could manage to keep
it. I had sometimes
thought that if only I could meet a man like the one who wrote these
books—tough yet sensitive; someone who understood—then
everything would be all right.
That the spell would be cracked, that the sleeping princess
would come out of her shell, that I would lose my dull fear of the
world and its consequences.
But that was a foolish dream, and the author was as much a
mystery to the world as my life was at times to me. No bio beyond the minimal:
“Thomas Moreland served as Boston DA before turning to writing
full-time;” no author photo. My friend Meg said
that probably meant he was either hideously deformed or flamingly
gay, but for me it was yet another instance of something forever
beyond my reach. Thomas
Moreland heroes were not for the likes of Cecil Hargrave, and their
creator was probably nothing like his creations, anyway. Besides, if the growing
popularity of his books were any indicator, I was not the only
contender in the field.
I let a small laugh trickle through my lips, and turned my
attention back to the scenery below me. The further north we flew,
the less it seemed that summer—let along spring—had penetrated the
land. There were still
large patches of bare, muddy ground, and where I could see the ocean
it looked cold and grim.
Yet, oddly, instead of depressing me, this gave me new
heart. Maybe this was
exactly what I needed.
Maybe, like the coming summer, Maine could wake something in
me, could enable me to return to the city with a new energy, a new
outlook. And maybe it
didn’t take a kiss to wake the princess, but only a decent
I smiled to myself.
Besides, the lawyer who had called me—Harry Cameron, I think
his name was—had sounded quite attractive on the phone the few times
we had spoken. There
was a comforting resonance to his voice, tinged ever-so-faintly with
what I had to assume was a New England accent, and as he had gotten
over his shock at Allegra’s death, a natural sense of humor had
begun to assert itself that often had me smiling into my end of the
phone. Not that it
would be easy, I reminded myself, coming into a small community and
claiming the life and possessions of a woman who had only been dead
a mere month; I had no doubt there would be repercussions I was not
even aware of now. But
if Harry Cameron’s demeanor were any indication, there might still
be more of a welcome for me on Seal Island than in impersonal,
suspicious New York.
Even the weather seemed to support this, for the plane
eventually touched down into one of the most welcoming days I had
seen in a long time. It
was sunny and in the sixties, crisp and cool in the shade, warmer in
the sun. The air held
an ineffable freshness and I inhaled wonderingly, amazed how I had
existed all these years breathing the choked haze of the city. Everything felt fresh
here. Even the
potential complications of picking up my leased car did not
occur. The clerks were
both friendly and courteous, and keys in hand, I loaded my two
suitcases and one carry-on into the trunk, laid the map out beside
me, and took the wheel—grateful I had not let the drivers’ license I
had gained in college expire.
The drive to Seal Island was a long one, and could have been
tedious had I not been
gripped by a continued excitement. But that delightful feeling
of newness had not yet faded, so I
rolled down the windows and tuned the radio to something
joyous, aware beneath the music of the rumble of the engine, the
hiss of wheels on asphalt, the rush of wind through the open
windows. When it got
cold, I turned the heat up, unwilling to lose the freshness of the
Maine air. And wondered
why I hadn’t done this years ago.
As it was, I smelled the ocean before I saw it. But soon it was before me,
steel-blue and frosted with white-caps in the breeze. At first it was revealed
only in pockets, peeping shyly through dips in the hills and gaps in
the pines. And, later,
in glittering stretches, revealing islands slabbed with granite
ledges and capped with bristling pines. Sails dotted the water, the
boats scudding before the wind. Picture-book perfect, but
too much so to be real?
For once, I refused to let my native suspicions spoil the
Unerring signs directed me toward Seal Island, amidst markers
for such places as Blue Hill, Sedgewick and Brooklin—the latter
delighting my New York soul. I was deep in the heart of the country
now, the houses scattered along the side of the road an odd mixture
of tumble-down and gracious.
They ranged from gleaming, whitewashed residences to little
more than tarpaper shacks, their large yards spanning a spectrum
from manicured lawns and gardens to piles of rusted-out autos and
other appliances. There
seemed to be no order to their placement or distribution either, and
this delighted me as well, for there was something oddly comforting
about such utter randomness.
The few towns I passed were growing smaller as well,
shrinking from metropolis to tourist center to
I was aware from the signs that I was getting close to my
destination, but even I was amazed at the suddenness of how my
leased Honda seemed to be swept bodily around a bend and onto the
Seal Island causeway.
The scent of the ocean increased threefold, the salt stinging
my nostrils, and the air grew perceptibly colder. Seal Island, as Harry
Cameron had informed me, was a true island, but set close enough to
the mainland that it didn’t even need a bridge to connect it, just
this winding stretch of roadway across Jericho Bay. It must have been high tide,
for the waves lapped aggressively against the large rocks bordering
the causeway, as if given reason they would wash against my tires,
driving me back. I
imagined the water as a guardian spirit, carefully considering each
visitor, choosing to grant or deny them access on the whims of its
Fortunately, I must have passed, for four sweeping arcs of
causeway later I was on Seal Island. The houses were more
unassuming, here—some clapboard, some shingle: the latter weathered
to a ghostly silver-grey, the former painted white and red and pink
and green. And, once,
even an improbable purple.
In the yards were lawn ornaments and more rusted cars;
lobster traps and buoys.
Quaint signs proclaimed bed-and-breakfasts, announced
craftsmen and artisans.
One—Cassel’s Woodcrafts—showed a distinct lack of planning,
the letters dribbling off into a crooked heap at the end of the
sign. Private drives
yawned off the main road at intervals, presumably leading to the
grander, sea-side dwellings such as I had seen on the
Then the road curved again and regained the coast, and I
could see the smaller islands dotting the bay, giving shape to the
view. Larger house
ghosted from clearings by the water: some traditional like the
whitewashed Victorians; some more modern, often shingled and more
than half glass. Save
for a few exceptions—and those strewn with boulders as if from a
giant’s hand—the beaches seemed to consist of slab-like ledges of
One island, not far off the coast and consisting of no more
than barren rock, was scattered with black blots,
curved up at both ends like a series of miniature anvils.
The road turned inland again, the houses growing denser, then
swept back out into a half-moon cove, around which clustered the
town and the public docks.
Boats bobbed at anchor—twenty or thirty, as near as I could
tell—ranging from tiny motorboats to luxury sailboats, with a
handful of what could only be working fishing boats thrown in. There seemed a bustle of
activity around the longest of the docks; less so on the
streets. A scattering
of summer folk—the merest tickle before the seasonal flood, I would
later discover—browsed the shops, dressed in outfits from J. Crew,
Eddie Bauer, and L.L. Bean.
I had dressed carefully for the occasion—neither too formal
nor too fancy, not wanting to either underdress or overwhelm—but now
my jeans, boots and green chenille sweater seemed hopelessly out of
I pulled my car into parking space, rolled up the windows and
locked it out of sheer force of habit, then shrugged into a leather
jacket as I examined the main street. It stretched about two city
blocks long, anchored at one end by a brown and green post office,
and at the other end by what looked to be an upscale restaurant and
inn, backed by a garden that swept down to the water. There were tourist shops and
galleries, a hardware store and a supermarket. And, to my delight, a
smallish library. About
three more streets angled off the main road, seeming to contain
further shops and galleries.
At a glance, none of the establishments I could see seemed to
boast a lawyer, or house what might pass in these parts as a law
office. I debated going
into the library—as much to survey their collection as to ask
directions—but then decided against it, not wanting to disturb
anyone with my inquiries.
Instead, I stood uncertainly on the sidewalk for a minute,
brushing at hair that the wind seemed determined to disorder, then
chose a shop at random.
It was a tourist shop, but tasteful. It was called simply The
Gull, and had a welcoming exterior, with flower-boxes beneath the
windows—though the blooms had been blown somewhat ragged by the
breeze. As I opened the
door, the wind chimes mounted above it tinkled. Inside was an eclectic
collection of cards and books and local crafts, mingled with the
inevitable t-shirts and postcards. And, of course, stuffed
Had I been the type to credit premonitions, I might of felt a
frisson of inevitability, but as it was I simply felt at home. Behind the counter, a
woman—the shop owner, presumably—was engaged in a sale. She looked to be about
thirty-five, slightly plump, with reddish-blond hair, erratically
curled, and a sparkle in her hazel eyes. Her customer—as pampered and
sour-faced as I have ever seen—could not seem to make up her mind
between a blue t-shirt and a green sweatshirt, both with ‘Seal
Island’ inscribed on them.
As evidenced by her comments, she seemed to dislike both
The shopkeeper spared me a fraction of a glance—enough to
assure herself I was not a similarly high-maintenance prospect—then
went back to her sale.
Not wanting to interfere (and wishing her the best of luck
with it), I drifted toward the back of the shop, delighted to
discover a rack of paperbacks.
Someone, it seemed, liked Thomas Moreland as much as I
did. I skimmed though
the titles, vaguely aware of the two women’s voices behind me
concluding their sale, the tinkle of chimes as the elder of the two
departed, leaving myself the sole
Nonetheless, I still found myself startled when a soft voice
from behind me said, “I’m sorry about that. Is there anything I can help
I jumped and whirled, restoring the book I was examining to
its rack, perhaps feeling guilty about handling merchandize I had no
intention of buying and in fact already owned in multiple
editions. But if my
reaction was a bit extreme, I was not in the least prepared for the
She literally tottered two steps backwards, her face draining
so severely of color that it revealed a scattering of freckles
across her nose and cheeks like rocks uncovered at low tide. One hand was clutched to her
breast as if to hold her heart within it by sheer force of
“Allegra?” she breathed.
Her words caught me completely by
“Excuse me?” I stammered, and the woman took a deep breath,
pushing back her red-gold hair. The color flooded violently
back into her cheeks, obscuring the
“It’s nothing,” she said, waving a hand. “Foolishness. You just caught me off
guard.” She fashioned a
smile, then recognition grew in her eyes. “Of course; you must be
Cecilia Hargrave. Harry
Cameron said you were coming.
I just didn’t expect you to walk in so…well,
I blinked. “I’m
sorry?” I still felt
somewhat in the midst of a Mad-Hatter-esque tea party, comprehending
only about half of what was going on. “I just got into town and
was looking for Harry Cameron’s office, and when I couldn’t find it
“…walked into the first place you saw to ask
directions?” The woman
completed my sentence then paused, looking chagrined. “Oh, dear. I really have made a muddle
of things, haven’t I?”
“So you really don’t know?”
Despite my best intentions, my voice became a little
She took another deep breath, which seemed to anchor
her. “I’m sorry; I have
gone about this all wrong.
You are Cecilia Hargrave, aren’t
“Cecil,” I said.
She stuck out a hand and we shook. “I’m Abby Cantwell,” she
said almost sheepishly, peering at me as if she expected recognition
An instant later, it did. I knew that name from Harry
Abby Cantwell had been Allegra’s assistant and
had even offered to buy Allegra’s business from me if I was
interested in selling—though Harry Cameron had seemed to have some
unspoken doubts on that issue.
I felt another sluggish stirring of guilt. Here I was, come to tie up
Allegra’s affairs, and it had apparently never occurred to me—in all
my conversations with Harry—to determine exactly what the nature of
her business was.
From what I recalled of Allegra, this was the last thing I
would have expected.
And yet, in another way, it made perfect sense. I looked around the shop
with new eyes. It had
Allegra’s sense of style written all over it, yet why had she chosen
to deed it to me instead of to Abby Cantwell, who had managed it
with her for years?
Just what sort of tangled web had I landed myself in the
midst of this time?
“Abby,” I managed, since my new…employee, I suppose, was
looking at me with expectant eyes. “Good lord. Well, it’s…it’s nice to meet
you, I guess.”
She smiled, revealing a faint trace of dimples. “And you,” she said, adding
more seriously, “I am sorry for your
I sighed. “I
expect I should be sorrier for yours. I… didn’t really know
Allegra; she was more my mother’s friend than mine. I don’t know why she…”
I halted, not wanting to get into the ramifications of that
quite yet, but Abby was already plowing ahead. “I suppose Harry already
told you about my offer to buy the shop? I know you’ve only just got
here, but...” Then she
caught sight of my face and amended, “I’m sorry; you’re right. There’ll be plenty of time
to talk about that, later.
Everyone always says I don’t know when to take a hint, that I
am always bulling in when I am not wanted…” She grinned then, a genuine
expression that made her dimples dent in earnest. “Why don’t we just start
this all over again?
Hi, I’m Abby Cantwell.”
“Cecil Hargrave,” I said, echoing her smile, and this time
our handshake was warmer.
“And, Abby, I’m sorry, but I honestly don’t know what I am
going to do, yet.
Allegra just died; I just lost my job and my apartment. I probably will move back to
New York in September and sell you the business, but I can’t decide
that right now. I
just… Well, I just need
a little time to figure to all out.”
“No, I’m sorry; I shouldn’t have even brought the issue
up. Believe me, there’s
time. Time is something
we have in spades on Seal Island. And, frankly, the longer I
have to save my money, the better. Businesses—even small
ones—don’t come cheap.
And there’s my daughter to think of. Jessie; she’s twelve. Besides, you seem a
reasonable sort; I’m sure we’ll get along just
I had a feeling she was right. For all her scatter-brained
exterior, there was a solid core to Abby Cantwell that I liked. I had a feeling that, once
she accepted you, she would be loyal nigh unto death. And suddenly, I very much
wanted her in my corner.
“Look,” she added, “why don’t we do this in the proper
order? Go see Harry
Cameron first; he’s around the corner and three doors down on your
left. Then come back to
see me later, and we’ll have a proper chat. And no pressure, I
“Fair enough,” I said, then, “Thank you. I’d like
She smiled again, and turned back to her post behind the
I walked back to the door of the shop, then paused with my
hand on the knob.
“Abby,” I said, turning.
She looked up.
“That woman, the one with the sour face. Did she end up buying the
blue t-shirt or the green sweatshirt?”
Abby grinned. “Thanks to a little
persuasion, she bought both.”
And when I gaped at her, she laughed and added, “Whatever
else has been said about me—and many things have been said, both for
and against—I do know how to do my
Setting off the wind chimes in my wake, I left the shop,
letting the wind tug idly at my hair. It was shoulder-length and
impossible to pin back, and the wind seemed determined to blow it
straight into my mouth.
I spat it out again, smiled slightly, straightened my jacket,
and rounded the corner, following Abby’s
Cameron and Rowe, the sign said, small but unmistakable. I swallowed another surge of
panic—this time, I knew which establishment I was entering—and
pushed open the door.
Somewhere in his mid-sixties, overweight and balding—with a
wedding band planted firmly on his finger—Harry Cameron stood up
from behind his desk to greet me.
I nearly laughed.
So much for expectations.
I was also getting used to being recognized on sight—though
presumably there were not that many strangers on the island at this
time of year to confuse me with. Still, it was rather odd to
see him—like Abby—go subtly pale at my appearance. Allegra and I may have
shared a basic coloring, but my memories of her were of a profoundly
beautiful and very stylish (yet oddly down-to-earth) woman. I, myself, had none of her
flair, and knew it only too well. So why was
everyone acting as if I were Allegra
I would have to ask Abby, later.
To Harry Cameron’s credit, it didn’t take long for him to
pull himself back to order.
“Cecil Hargrave, I presume?” he said, his voice as rich and
resonant as I remembered.
But, coming out of that body, it suddenly seemed less
fraught, less flirtatious.
Still, it didn’t change my impression that he was a nice
man. He smiled and
waved me to a seat.
“Welcome to Seal Island.”
“Thank you,” I said, settling in across from him. “It’s good to be here.” I meant it. There was something about my
brief view of this place that appealed to me—and not just because it
was so different from the city. Even in the few minutes I
had been here, I sensed a community at work—a community that I
suddenly wanted to be a part of. Six years in one
apartment in New York, and I had never so much as met my
neighbors. Here, I
already felt as if I might have two friends—even if one was eager to
purchase my inheritance.
“Ironically, I went into The Gull to ask directions; I hadn’t
realized it was Allegra’s shop.”
“Yours, now,” he said.
“And she’s done…she did”—he winced—“some wonderful stuff with
the place over the years.
It’s quite popular with the summer
“I can see why.
It’s lovely. And
Abby seems a darling.”
“Yes,” he said, though again his voice seemed fractionally
cooler. “Abby has run
the place well enough since Allegra’s…passing, but just remember
that you don’t have to make your mind up right away about The
Gull. There are those
of us who don’t believe Abby Cantwell is quite…sober enough to
ultimately handle such a
A reference to her character, I wondered, or something more
serious? I kept
“It might even be best,” Harry continued, “if you were to run
the place with her for a while this summer—that is, if you are
planning to stay for a while—to see what it is you are giving up
before you do so.”
There was an unspoken question in his voice that I didn’t see
the harm in answering.
“As I told Abby already, I’m not certain what my ultimate
decision will be—about any of this. But I will be staying at
least through September, so I will have time to
A definite expression of relief crossed his face at that, and
he abruptly became more businesslike, handing me two bank
accounts; checking and savings.” He frowned slightly. “Not very much, I’m afraid,
which is odd, since The Gull can turn a tidy profit at the height of
summer. When I checked
into it, the bank manager said she had been regularly withdrawing
large sums of money out of her savings account throughout the
winter, claiming she was planning to invest them with a friend, but
none of us have been able to find records of those investments. But then, perhaps you’ll
find something in the house we’ve overlooked.” He shrugged. “In any case, I’ll see about
getting the remaining balance transferred to your accounts. You’ll want to open
something local, I assume?”
“Well, tomorrow will suffice for that. In the meantime… Well, you’ve seen The Gull,
you know her assets—at least, those we’ve been able to discover—so
all that really remains is the house.”
“Yes, the house.
Is it in town, or...”
I doubted it would be one of the grand mansions by the
ledges, but I had, I realized, been expecting a water view. The very name—Seal
And until I had actually seen the island and the cluster of
houses around the town, it hadn’t even occurred to me that the place
might be inland.
“Not in town, no,” Harry was saying. “It’s about two miles out,
on the Drew’s Point road.
Would you like to go out there now, or explore the town a bit
While the town did have a certain appeal, I had never owned a
house before, and found myself eager to see it, hoping I liked the
proportions, the furniture.
The setting. For
even if it was only until September, it would be a welcome novelty
to have a place I could completely call my own. So, “The house, please,” I
answered. “If you don’t
“Not at all.” He
levered himself up from behind his desk, and as he moved around it,
I noticed that he walked with a pronounced limp. I tried not to stare,
uncertain if it was congenital or a recent injury, but he noticed my
covert attention anyway and smiled.
“Walking cast,” he said ruefully, exhibiting it. He reached for a cane I
hadn’t noticed in one corner.
“I’m afraid it plays havoc with my driving, which is why I
was unable to offer to pick you up at the airport. And why I’ll have to ask if
you don’t mind doing the honors and driving us to the house. I’ll direct you, of course,
and my wife will come pick me up when we’re
“It’s no trouble at all. I’m parked a fair bit down
the street, though.
Will you be okay with the walk, or shall I bring the car
“No, no, my doctor said that walking is good for me; gets the
circulation moving and all that. So as long as you don’t mind
a slowish pace...”
“I don’t mind at all.”
“Thank you,” he said, patting my hand. “You’re a sweet girl. I think you’ll be a welcome
addition to our little community—even if it is only for a
From anyone else, such words would have sounded
condescending, but from Harry Cameron—with his guileless, round face
and spaniel-brown eyes—they merely seemed sincere. I wondered if he was as
genuine as he appeared, or if that was all part of his lawyer’s
facade, playing the innocent to put people off their
Then, as he locked the office door behind us and began his
halting progress along the street, I chided myself for my
suspicions. We were far
from the city now, and things worked differently in small
towns. Lawyers did not
have to be sharks, and young heiresses did not have to look every
gift horse in the mouth.
However, as we wended our slow way to my car, I did become
aware of the attention we were drawing. Now that I was in Harry’s
presence and identified—no longer the anonymous tourist—every eye
seemed to track me, aided by our snail’s pace: curious, assessing,
Gordon’s not-quite-niece, coming to claim her inheritance. I wondered how many of them
were judging me, and how many were finding me lacking.
Too young; too callow.
Maybe this town wasn’t quite as accepting as I had naively
assumed. The back of my
neck was red and hot by the time we reached my
As I unlocked the doors—and there was no way not to make it a
production—I blushed again at the obvious lack of trust such a
gesture implied. But
Harry Cameron must have noticed my distress, for he just smiled and
said, “Don’t mind the eyes.
Everyone is curious, that’s all. Allegra was an important
part of this community.”
You have big shoes to fill, was my unspoken assumption, but
all he added was, “She’ll be missed.”
I just nodded, and opened the door for him. As he maneuvered himself in,
hampered by the awkward cast, I went around to the driver’s side and
unlocked it. When we
were both seated and underway, he turned to me and said, “And don’t
worry about people’s opinions; you’d be wisest to continue locking
your doors. This may
seem like a small island, and safe, but we have our share of
problems. And I don’t
mean to alarm you, but there have been rumors of some rather shady
characters hanging about the island recently, and a few houses have
been broken into. You’d
be wise to hold onto your city suspicions, and keep everything
locked as tightly as possible—especially the house.”
“Very well. But
No.” For the
first time, his heartiness sounded forced, but before I could
elaborate he said, “Now, make a right out of the village and just
keep going. I’ll tell
you where to turn.”
Since I didn’t seem likely to get more out of him, I
complied, continuing out a road that once again grew more woody and
isolated the farther we got from the town. The houses out this way,
while not exactly more affluent, at least seemed a little less run
down. I was even
happier when we turned right up a smaller, pine-lined road and I
began to catch occasional glimpses of water through the
The road swooped closer to the shore, and a succession of
clearings opened up, separated by stretches of pine, revealing green
lawns sloping down to the same slabbed-granite ledges I had noticed
earlier. The houses
were widely separated, and further hidden from each other’s view by
the swooping curves of the road as it navigated the winding
There was another long stretch of woodland, then, “Turn
here,” Harry Cameron said.
“And there. What
do you think?”
I drew in a breath.
A short hop of badly paved road led through a clearing and
down to grey-shingled house.
It wasn’t large, and was built very simply in the New England
style, but I loved it instantly. There were three gabled
windows under the eaves, the wood trim painted white against the
silvery cedar. Two
large windows and one small one graced each side of the door, and
what looked to be a sun-room was attached to one side, while a
screened porch lay to the other. On the far side of the
screened porch was a garden, once laid out with care but now gone
rather badly to seed.
Beyond the garden was a small greenhouse. And beyond that, far off to
my right, was a dense stretch of woodlands.
There were more woods to the left, with a free-standing
garage tucked discretely beneath the branches. And—glory of
glories—stretched out before me, the water, sparkling brightly in
the sun. The beach was
ledged, and curved away to both sides, as if the house lay on a
smallish point. There
were a few distant islands scattered in the bay, and—nearer to
hand—a smattering of half-exposed rocks, one of which bore at its
top an oddly bulbous, anvil-shaped form, much like the ones I had
seen scattered across that rocky island,
“What is that?” I exclaimed,
“Haven’t you ever seen a seal before?” And when I stared at him, he
added, “Where do you think our island gets its name? The harbor seals will
often haul out on those rocks at low tide, but every so often you
will see one at high tide, like now. It must be a good omen,
welcoming you to the island.
How do you like the house?”
“I...love it,” I said, sounding oddly tentative—not from any
lack of enthusiasm, but more because I was struggling to believe my
Harry fished a set of keys from his pocket and handed them to
me with a grin. “Then
why don’t you open it up and have a look around?”
I bumped the car to a stop near the side of the house where
the road petered out into gravel, and was out of it almost as fast
as I could scramble, with Harry following more slowly behind. At the commotion, the seal
slid from the rock and disappeared beneath the waves, but I paid it
scant heed. So eager
was I that I fumbled the keys on the first try, dropping them
clanking to the stoop.
As I scooped them up, I froze, convinced that I had seen a
flash of movement out of the corner of my eye: a shadowy figure
disappearing into the trees behind the greenhouse. I glanced over at Harry to
see if he had noticed, but he had pulled a mobile phone out of his
pocket and was dialing, unaware. I looked back at the woods,
but now could see nothing: no hint of a figure, no motion among the
Most likely it had been my imagination, whetted by talk of
unsavory lurkers. I
retrieved the keys and examined the locks, both of which seemed
uncharacteristically new and shiny. Recently replaced,
perhaps? I inserted the
proper key into the lock more cautiously—Harry or an associate had
obligingly labeled the keys for me—then pushed open the
The air inside the house was hot and somewhat stale from
sunlight and lack of ventilation, but even so I felt at home. The front vestibule was
shaped like an upside down T, one side leading off into what looked
to be the kitchen through a door at the base of the stairs, and the
other, longer hall to my right passing a row of windows before
opening into the sun room.
Ahead of me, through a wide archway, was the living
room—three sets of French doors at its far end leading onto a wide
I passed though the arch, intent on that deck, and was
delighted to observe in passing that the living room contained not
one but two fireplaces, mirrored to either side. What a joy on winter nights,
I thought, temporarily forgetting that I was leaving in
September. But it
seemed an unusual design—and now that I noticed it, something else
struck me as unusual about this room. But such concerns quickly
vanished as I reached the far wall, for then I was undoing the
latches of the leftmost French door, pushing wide the panes, and
emerging onto the broad
expanse of deck.
It was newer than the house, the wood still faintly golden
rather than weathered into ghostly paleness. It should have looked odd,
and yet it didn’t. I
leaned against the railing at the far end, letting the wind whip my
hair, and listened to the whispered kiss of waves against the
ledges. The seal that
had left the rocks bobbed up again, closer to shore, and I saw its
head more clearly now.
It seemed to be looking straight at me. Its long muzzle drooped
mournfully into wide, W-shaped nostrils; its whiskers added the
appearance of a walrus mustache. It stared at me for several
long seconds until I began to wonder uncomfortably if I should
somehow hail it, then turned away, briefly presenting me with an
elongate profile, nose curved and almost equine. Its coat was dark with white
flecks. Then it
submerged again, and was gone.
I became aware of footsteps off to my right. Remembering that half-seen
glimpse of the figure in the woods, I started, but it was only Harry
Cameron coming around the side of the house, casted leg thumping
awkwardly after good.
He grabbed the railing of the side stairs and, grunting
slightly with effort, pulled himself onto the deck.
“Lovely spot, isn’t it?” he said, crossing to where I was
standing. And when I
voiced my agreement, he added, “This land has been in Allegra’s
family for generations.
I’m glad it didn’t have to pass out of family hands just
“As am I,” I said, envisioning the long, lazy summer ahead,
getting acquainted with this
house and this view.
After another moment of silence, I added, “I saw the seal
again. He came up
closer to the shore, almost as if he were studying
My companion chuckled.
“I’m sure you’ll be seeing a lot of that in the months to
come. Seals are
naturally curious creatures, always willing to investigate a new
sight or a new face.
They also tend to return rather frequently to their favorite
haul-outs. After a
while, Allegra came to recognize individuals. She had even named a few,
though I’ll be damned if I can remember what she called them. Except, of course, for
Ragnarok. A great woman
for seals was Allegra.
She used to say they were her greatest
I shivered slightly, remembering that dour, elongate face
bobbing atop the waves, the steady regard of those obsidian
eyes. I don’t know why
it struck me as sinister.
Maybe because I had always thought of seals as playful
creatures. But then
again, maybe this particular seal had been old and venerable, far
beyond its carefree youth.
Certainly, there had been something about it that seemed
almost ageless. Or
“Cecil? Are you
all right?” Harry asked, as my silence stretched
I blinked, then smiled. “I’m fine. I’m just...getting a little
cold.” The wind was
stiff, and fierce.
“Shall we go in?”
Harry hesitated, as if loathe to intrude on my first moments
in my new house. I was
about to insist when I heard a crunch of tires on gravel, and moved
curiously to the side rail of the deck. A battered, pea-green
station wagon was rolling into the drive behind my car. “Ah, there’s Martha, now,”
Harry said—though I could see no more of his wife than a curly grey
head behind the steering wheel. “I’ll introduce you later;
for now I’ll leave you to poke around on your own. Should you need anything, I
left my number—and yours, by the way—on the fridge. I’ve kept the phone bills,
the electric bills, and the heating bills paid and current, so you
shouldn’t have any problem with that. We haven’t gone through any
of Allegra’s things, yet; we figured that was best left to you.” His
face closed off again, briefly. “But any clothes and such
that you don’t want can be donated. Just let me know, and I’ll
arrange it. The local
market has a decent selection should you want to cook in. Of the local restaurants,
I’d recommend the Clam Digger, or the Myrtle Inn if you want
something more upscale.
Unless you’d care to join
Martha and myself?
I believe she has a roast...”
I felt suddenly overwhelmed. “Thanks, but I think I would
rather get settled in first.
He smiled, seeming not the least put out by my refusal. “I figured as much, but I
wanted to extend the offer nonetheless. How about next Friday?” It was Thursday, now. “We’ll make a small party of
it, have some of the neighbors around as
“That sounds lovely,” I said. “And thank you. For your hospitality. For
“It is,” he said, “my pleasure. And please do call me if
there is anything you need.
Do keep the doors locked when you are not around. Do you
His tone was oddly intense, and I nodded. But I couldn’t help
wondering—with another shiver—if there was far more to those simple
words than he was admitting.
Almost absently, I watched him totter back across the gravel
to the waiting car, climb in awkwardly with his casted foot. But as the car pulled away
and silence descended once again over the clearing, I suddenly
remembered the half-glimpsed figure from earlier that afternoon and,
on a whim, walked over to the garden. The plots looked generous,
and I had always wanted to try my hand at gardening, but it wasn’t
that sort of surveillance I was after. More than anything, I wanted
to reassure myself that there was no sign of trespass, that it
really had just been an illusion.
I circled the greenhouse, and stopped dead in my tracks. For there, in the soft dirt
by the far corner, was the unmistakable print of a man’s