Saturday, July 24, 2010
Prologue - Island Passage
Perry Monument, Lake Erie - June, 1968
A summer thunderstorm, deep-throated and black as midnight, moved across Lake Erie from the north, pressing into South Bass Island. Ten-year-old Francine Douglas dumped the last of her ice-cream cone into a trash container as the first drops of rain splattered against the sidewalk. Turning on the heels of her new white Keds, she made a mad dash across the wide plaza of the Perry Monument to where her mother waited for her at the entrance.
“Hurry!” Marian Douglas shouted through the downpour for her daughter to run faster, faster! A fierce gust of wind whipped over the pavement, rolling a paper cup across the concrete, snapping at the line of flags at the edge of plaza. The air smelled both sweet and sour, like crushed flowers and moist earth — like the breath of God, Himself. A tingling sensation raised the fine hairs at the back of Francine’s neck mere seconds before lightning flashed across the black sky. BOOM! The thunder blasted like a battle cannon over her head.
“Fran-cine!” Her mother screamed into the storm, visibly frantic. Marian firmly pressed her hand into the shoulder of the tall, gangly girl who stood beside her. The girl’s face held no expression; her arms hung limp at her sides as the wind caught in her long, dark hair and billowed out the front of her faded, oversized blouse.
Jealousy prickled up the back of Francine’s neck seeing her mother’s hand on the shoulder of the strange girl her family had taken in for the summer months. Although they were the same age, Claudia Angelo was practically a freak, towering over most girls their age, not offering so much as a friendly smile when she’d stepped off the ferry that afternoon. Unlike Francine, blonde, rosy-cheeked and well-fed, Claudia appeared to be no more than skin and bones, her hair black as coal, accentuated by an alabaster complexion and dark, vacant eyes.
Marian turned Claudia to face her and pointed that she was to stay put. She then rushed out into the rain and grabbed hold of her daughter’s elbow, giving it a parental jerk. “You straighten up right now, young lady. Stop pouting.”
“Not pouting,” Francine sassed back. “I’m sick.” When they reached the overhang of the monument, Francine glared up at Claudia, not bothering to mask her spite at having to spend the summer with this skinny, ugly girl who refused to talk to anyone. Francine’s brother, Matthew, had already nicknamed the girl Clodhopper.
Francine didn’t know much about Claudia, except for what she’d overheard her parents say late one night after tiptoeing down the back stairway and into the kitchen for a glass of milk. She had hugged the wall, listening to her mother and father talk in hushed tones about someone named Claudia and how her mother had been arrested for something really bad—murder. Francine’s father, a criminal attorney, had been asked by the court to defend her, pro bono, and her father would have done that, except Francine’s mother insisted he hand the case over to another law firm. That way, her mother could offer the child a home for at least the summer months. No surprise. Her mother often took in foster children, but usually little ones, four or five years old, and never during the summer months. The summer months were for family. She had missed the rest of her parents’ conversation because just then her mother caught her eavesdropping and shooed her off to bed.
Marian led the girls into the rotunda of the towering 352 foot monument. “Go,” she ordered, moving them forward. She wearily pulled the scarf from her head and wiped the rain from her face.
Joe Douglas waited in the line for the observation deck, one hand firmly gripping Matthew’s shoulder. Her older brother looked irritated, probably ticked off their dad wouldn’t let him run wild with Tank and Navy Bean, his island buddies. Matthew was a prankster, a real tease. Already, at the age of ten, Francine had it pretty much figured out that boys got away with a whole lot more stuff than girls ever got away with.
Suddenly, from out of nowhere, Navy Bean took a flying leap at Matthew and playfully poked him in the gut. Matthew instantly broke loose from his father and darted after his friend.
“Matthew Douglas! Get back here!” Marian wadded up the scarf and stuffed it into her skirt pocket. She left the girls in line with her husband and started out after Matthew. Claudia backed up, accidentally bumping into Francine who then made a point of brushing off her shoulder as if Claudia had a case of the cooties.
Claudia lowered her head and mumbled, “Excuse me.”
Next in line to board the elevator, Francine pulled back on her father’s hand. “Daddy, I don’t feel so good. I don’t want to go up there.”
Her father scowled down at her. “Don’t be silly. We’ve waited in line all this time.” He patted the top of Claudia’s head. “Claudia’s not scared. See–”
“Daddy,” she interrupted, not wanting to hear about how brave Claudia was. “Honest. My stomach hurts awful.”
Her mother then reappeared with Matthew, one hand bunched around the collar of his shirt, the other she deftly placed on Francine’s forehead. “Joe, maybe she’s coming down with that summer flu going around. You go on with Matthew and Claudia. We’ll stay down here and wait.”
“If she’s sick, it’s only because of that double scoop of ice cream she just had to have.” Her father made an aggravated sound deep in his throat, jaw muscles working in a way that meant he’d had about all the shenanigans he could stand for one day.
Matthew crept up behind his sister and made retching noises down the collar of her shirt. “Fatso-watso ate too much.”
“Did not.” Francine gave Matthew a hearty shove.
“Did so.” He shoved her back.
“Mommm,” Francine whined. “Make him stop.”
Her father leaned over, clasping both knees, eye-to-eye with his daughter. His voice softened. “Now, pumpkin, once we get to the top, you’ll be okay. I’ll hold your hand the whole time.” Reluctantly, she followed him into the crowded elevator where she ended up wedged between two women who smelled a lot like the flowers people had sent to her grandmother’s funeral. She stopped breathing until she got to the top. And just when she thought her lungs might burst from lack of air, the elevator door opened and a gust of wind swept through from the observation platform. She retreated into the corner of the elevator, but her father pulled her out.
Overhead, big cottony puffs of clouds moved against a new blue sky, making it feel as if the monument itself were swaying back and forth. Francine could barely catch her breath in the wind. Desperate to stop the wooziness inside her head, she grabbed her father around the waist. She closed her eyes tight in a last ditch effort to calm the churning sensation inside her stomach.
The wind made it hard to hear. Somewhere faraway she heard her father talking. “Now, see, I was right, wasn’t I?” He tugged at her shoulder. “Look, over there, you can see the winery on Middle Bass. And see . . . through the trees, that’s our summer house.” He coaxed her to the railing. “Come on.”
She squinted up at her father. For one instant her stomach seemed fine, but then it wasn’t fine. In one awful heave, she vomited—everywhere.
“God, almighty!” Her father jumped out of the way, shaking vomit from his hands. Marian unsnapped her purse and pulled out two fresh handkerchiefs. She handed the first to Joe, using the second to wipe Francine’s mouth. “Oh, honey,” she said, brushing at the front of her daughter’s white J.C. Penney blouse. “I’m so sorry.”
Tourists on the crowded platform opened into a wide circle around Francine and the puddle on the deck. A mortified Francine hung her head, unsure her stomach was finished. Within earshot Matthew howled with laughter.
“Francine?” her mother whispered into her ear. “Are you all right?” Her mother’s arm went around her waist, drawing her close.
“I told you I was sick,” Francine moaned. “You made me come up here.” She aimed this remark at her father. “You made me!” She then buried her head in the folds of her mother’s soft cotton skirt and wiped her tears. It was from the safety of her mother’s embrace that she watched the next scene play out in slow motion. Claudia, stealthy as a cat, moved toward Matthew, her jaw locked and set for revenge.
“You-fucking-jerk,” Claudia said in a voice sounding much older than other girls their age.
Her mother gasped.
Francine’s jaw dropped open. She had no idea what the word meant, but she knew, if spoken out loud, a smack in the mouth would definitely follow. Francine pulled back from her mother, suddenly seeing Claudia in an entirely new light. Maybe this odd girl her parents had brought to the island wouldn’t be so boring after all.
Hearing the “F” word, her father stopped working the handkerchief up and down his trousers and glared up at Claudia. His face turned a scary fire engine red. Marian clutched at her throat. “Claudia, my goodness,” Claudia didn’t take her eyes off Matthew. He taunted her. “Hey Clodhopper. You’d better watch who you’re calling a jerk.” Without hesitation, Claudia drew back an arm and shoved a fist into Matthew’s nose. Pow! Blood spurted from his nostrils like a ketchup bottle given one too many whacks.
“Jesus!” Matthew’s hands flew to his nose. He sucked in short breaths and danced in place to keep from crying in front of his buddies who’d followed him up on the elevator. He looked about to explode with all the agony of holding in the pain.
Claudia stood her ground, fists up and ready to give him another punch, if necessary. Matthew quickly edged out of her reach.
Claudia’s eyes narrowed at his retreat. “She’s my friend. Don’t ever laugh at her again.” She stiffened her lower lip and protectively looped an arm through Francine’s. She gave Joe and Marian a satisfied smile.
Francine obligingly moved closer to Claudia. Her parents were horrified and obviously didn’t have a clue as to what they should do next. And Matthew? He finally lost his courage and started to cry like a ba-by.
Francine squeezed her new friend’s arm, smiling up at her, wanting to thank her for taking her brother out. This had turned out to be one fine day. And her stomach felt one hundred percent better.