There was something about the ocean that made 12-year-old Emily Dunn happy and sad at the same time. She couldn’t quite figure out why, but her mother had a theory.
“It’s beautiful, Em, and beauty can make you feel that way.”
When Mom said that, Emily had been watching the way the reeds on the dunes bowed toward the waves, thinking that they looked as if they were trying to overhear what the seagulls cried to the bright sails that bobbed like chips of sun near the horizon. The whole group, the Dunns and their two special guests — the “vacation brigade” as Dad called them — had just scooted up to the wooden bridge that crossed over the dunes at one part of the beach at Cape May, New Jersey. They wanted to say a quick “hello,” as Mom had put it.
“Strange,” Emily said. “I remember you telling me that very same thing, Mom.”
“I probably did tell you that before, Em,” Mom said. Emily noticed that her mother’s curly hair had begun to fluff out because of the humidity; the sun had already begun to burn a blush into Mrs. Dunn’s fair Irish skin.
“No, Mom,” Emily said. “I mean exactly. We were here, at the beach. The sky looked the same, the ocean. Everybody smiled the same. Everything was exactly the same.”
“Deja vu,” said Dad, stretching and reaching toward the sky so that he looked even taller and lankier than usual.
“A feeling that you’ve been here before.”
Just then, Emily’s friend, Kristen Reese, cupped her hands over her mouth and yelled into the breeze: “I love the ocean!”
Brittany Dustin, Emily’s other friend, said: “Come on, Kristen. People are going to think you’re crazy!”
“But I am!” Kristen said, and bobbed her head like a rap singer.
The three girls laughed. And even though they looked and acted differently — Brittany, tall, dark, and thoughtful; Kristen, short, blonde, and antsy; Emily, freckled, brown-haired, and attentive — the giggles blended into one sound.
Emily realized, once again, that having her buddies along for this vacation would make it wonderful.
They hadn’t even unpacked their car, yet. They had stopped at the realtors, picked up the key, driven into and then out of the heart of Cape May, and then had pulled up in front of what would be the Dunn’s home for the next two weeks.
“I’m dying to stretch my legs,” Mom had said.
Emily, Brittany, and Kristen played “picnic” twice on the ride down the shore. It’s the game where you go through the alphabet, naming things that you are going to take to a make-believe picnic. Each player has to remember what the other items were (apples, blankets, chairs, Doritos, eggs…) before selecting the thing for the next letter. The last one “it,” has to count off 26 items and heaven help any girl in the Dunn’s car who had forgotten something.
That wasn’t the whole ride, however.
“I wonder if we’ll see Blackbeard’s ghost down here?” Mom asked, at one point.
“Get real, Mom.”
“Mom’s right, Em,” Dad said. “That’s one of the legends about Cape May. That Blackbeard hid some of his pirate treasure there.”
Mom explained that last year on their vacation she’d bought a book called “Cape May Ghost Stories.”
“Ghosts?” Brittany asked. “I love ghost stories.”
“But you know they’re fake, right?” Emily asked.
Brittany merely shrugged.
“Cape May is one of those places that people make up weird stories about, for some reason,” Mom said.
“Why?” Kristen asked.
“Some of them are based on history,” Mom replied. “There were pirates on Cape May at one time. Merchant ships would often have to pass Cape May on their way north after picking up a lot of supplies in Philadelphia — the sorts of supplies that pirates would want to steal.”
“Like gold!” Brittany exclaimed.
“Yes, gold, but other stuff as well,” Mom said. “They don’t know if Blackbeard hid on Cape May. But they do know other pirates hid there. Cape May was really wild in those days — hundreds of years ago. Lots of trees and inlets. Lots of places where pirate ships could hide.”
“Didn’t the Undercover Railroad go through there?” Dad asked.
“You mean the Underground Railroad?” Emily asked.
“There was only one,” Mom said. “You know girls, of course, that hundreds of years ago there were slaves in the United States and that the Civil War was fought to free them.”
“We’ve known all that since kindergarten,” Emily said, and shot a glance at Brittany. She had learned in school about cultural differences — how the fact that Kristen’s ancestors had come from Germany, Emily’s from Ireland, and Brittany’s from Africa contributed to the various talents each person possessed. Emily had gotten an A in the quiz, even though deep inside, she hadn’t understood why it should really matter where someone’s long-ago relatives came from. Had she been wrong?
“Before the Civil War,” Mom was saying, “if slaves could escape from the South to the North, they could become free. Thousands did it.”
“They took the railroad?” Kristen asked.
Emily fought back a surge of impatience. She knew that Kristen didn’t learn things as easily as Brittany and her. She had to struggle to get Cs in school. Still, the questions could be annoying sometimes.
Brittany explained: “It wasn’t a real railroad.”
“Right,” Mom agreed. “It was really secret trails in the woods and hiding places in houses along the way. A lot of white people knew that slavery was wrong. They would hide the runaways in their homes during days and the Railroad, so to speak, would run mostly at nights.”
“So Cape May was a stop on the Underground Railroad,” Dad said.
“It’s never been proven,” Mom said. “But, you can see Lewes Delaware from the tip of Cape May. In fact, that’s where the Cape May-Lewes Ferry goes. Remember when we rode on the ferry last year, Em?”
“Yeah, that was cool,” Emily said, recalling the way the ocean breeze had made her hair flap like a flag.
“Well,” Mom continued, “Delaware was a slave state. New Jersey was a free state.”
“Can you imagine?” Dad asked. “Can you imagine being a slave and running and hiding for hundreds of miles and then getting to Delaware and looking across the water and seeing that tiny strip of land.”
“And knowing that meant freedom?” Mom finished for him.
She’d explained to the girls how horrible slavery was; how the Southern owners would separate families, beat men, women, and children. Kill runaways.
“I’m sure your folks have talked to you about it, right Brittany?”
“Yes, they have, Mrs. Dunn,” Brittany said, but Emily could hear the uncertainty in her friend’s voice. Emily thought about the time that her parents had mentioned something about a Potato Famine, but Emily hadn’t really been listening and her parents hadn’t really made a point of explaining.
“The slaves were property to them,” Mom said. “Just property. It would be like someone coming along and taking you girls from your parents.”
“I wish,” Kristen joked.
Mom, pretended not to hear and continued. “It would be like someone having total control over what you did, how you lived. It was against the law to teach a slave to read and write.”
“Mrs. Dunn?” Kristen asked. “Could we talk about something else?”
“I’m sorry, hon,” Mom said. “It is upsetting. You girls are too young to dwell on this stuff.”
“Let’s talk about Blackbeard,” Emily said, though really, she would have liked to have heard more about the Underground Railroad.
“Wouldn’t it be too cool to find buried treasure?” Brittany asked.
“Imagine if we got into a time machine and went back and saw where he hid the loot,” Emily said.
“Then we could dig it up on the beach,” Kristen said.
They had gotten tired of talking about buried treasure at just about the time Mom had asked if they could smell the salt water. After picking up the key, the girls had begged Mr. and Mrs. Dunn if they could visit the ocean before they did anything else.
“Anything else?” Dad asked.
“Anything,” the girls said, and began chanting “Beach! Beach! Beach! Beach!”
“Ok, Ok,” Mom said. “To the beach!”
When they had gotten out of the car, Dad had yelled, “Surf’s up!” so loud that a few of the other families unpacking vehicles on the block looked over at them.
Emily didn’t care. She was here to have fun.
The house that the Dunns were renting was a few blocks from the beach, and small, with one bathroom and a cramped kitchen. The girls would sleep in the biggest room — “party-central,” Kristen dubbed it — Mom and Dad would have the smaller one near the back. Everyone kept bumping into each other as they emptied the car after they had returned from saying their quick hello to the ocean.
“Feel like we’re roughing it,” Mom said, as she handed Emily her suitcase and shot a look at Dad.
“I love it, Mom,” Emily said.
“Me too,” her friends chimed in.
“Well, the price is right,” Dad said. “You OK?”
“Fine,” Mom said, and Emily could see the frown melt from her face. “We have the ocean and the sun. What more do we need?”
“Plus, what I saved on the rental we can use for…” Dad said.
“Yes?” Mom said, arms akimbo.
“Rides!” Brittany said.
“Movies!” Kristen said.
“Dinner!” Mom said. “Every night! Breakfast and lunch, too. I don’t want to cook. That’s not a vacation for me.”
“I hear you,” Dad said. “And I see that our sunny day is starting to cloud over. Kids, get your swimsuits on and we’ll go catch what rays we can.”
“Maybe I’ll be down after I unpack,” Mom said. “Maybe I’ll just relax here. Hard choices like that are what vacations are all about. Everybody must wear sunblock. Just because it’s cloudy doesn’t mean your skin can’t be damaged.”
The day was indeed starting to darken, but the water was warm and quiet — at least when they first arrived. Emily had dreamed about this vacation ever since May when Mom and her friends’ parents had ironed out the details. Emily had had to beg to have Brittany and Kristen included.
“I don’t know if I want to be responsible for two other children by the ocean for a whole two weeks,” Mom had said.
Emily had pleaded and pleaded and finally they compromised. Her friends could stay for one week, then go home.
“But what will I do the next week?” Emily had thought, but didn’t bother to ask out loud. There was the slight chance — “a very slim possibility” Mom had said — that Emily’s cousins, Therese and Kate, would be visiting from Wyoming.
“They’re making the rounds on the East Coast, seeing family and friends,” Mom had said.
“We’re family and friends,” Emily had said.
She got to see Kate and Therese once a year mostly because Aunt Terry, Mom’s older sister, would get homesick. Her husband, Uncle Carlos, had moved the family out west because he could camp and fish and do all the other outdoor activities that he had been able to do as a boy in Cuba. Mom had told her that Uncle Carlos had had to flee Cuba — leaving behind all of his friends and family when he had moved to the United States.
When he’d gotten to this country, he couldn’t speak English. He took buses up to New York City to start his new life. To make sure he had gotten on the correct bus, he would sit in the terminal and watch to see which Greyhound they’d put his luggage on. Uncle Carlos was used to strange surroundings.
“Living out there hasn’t been as hard on him as it’s been on Aunt Terry,” Mom had explained.
Kate and Therese were older, 14 and 16. Emily really liked them because they were interested in the same things: sports, plays, and music. Also, they never made her feel as if she were just a kid tagging along.
“When will we know for sure that Therese and Kate will visit?” Emily had asked.
“They’ll either show up or they won’t,” Mom had said with a shrug.
Emily had decided that that would have to do. She’d find something to occupy her days the next week. As Mom had said, she had the ocean and the sun and what else, really, did she need?
Besides, people always surprised her. For instance, now, this very first day on the beach when everything was supposed to be so perfect Emily, Brittany, and Kristen got into a little argument. They were making a sandcastle, digging down to the wet sticky stuff under the warm top carpet. Emily had distributed the shovels and buckets and directed where each of the castle’s towers should go. She thought everything was going well when, all of a sudden, Brittany slammed her bucket down.
“We’re not finished,” Emily said.
“I am,” said Brittany. “You always want to be the boss.”
“Not that again,” Emily said. Whenever this came up she explained to Brittany that she didn’t want to be the boss. Was it her fault that she had most of the ideas?
Emily started to point this out one more time when suddenly Kristen began kicking the towers over.
“Big Foot’s attacking! Big Foot’s attacking!” Kristen yelled.
Brittany hushed her. “People are looking!” she hissed.
“You care too much about what people think,” Emily said, although she had to admit to herself that she too was a bit annoyed at Kristen ruining all of their good work. Kristen never seemed to take anything seriously.
If three young girls could go their separate ways while still hanging out together, then Emily, Brittany, and Kristen did just that in the few minutes following the squabble.
At first, Emily wasn’t going to talk to them for the rest of the day.
Then she thought, “This is stupid. I’ve been looking forward to coming to Cape May for months.”
She was trying to figure out a way to make friends again when Dad yelled over “We’re going to be heading back soon, girls. If you want to take one last dip, do it now.”
It was the water, then, splashing up to say hello that made Emily, Brittany, and Kristen remember that they were friends and this was vacation.
“Be here now,” Mom often told her, when Emily would be complaining about things that might happen to her in the future. “Be here now.”
Now, was when the waves roused themselves from sleep and began to reach back and slap down upon the swimmers like a giant hand. Now, was when Emily and her friends rode the choppy water all the way in, almost to the feet of Dad, who’d been standing on the shoreline watching them. Now, was when Emily held her nose and submerged.
In the fractured light of the underworld, the squeals of her friends seemed to come from somewhere else, as if they were memory instead of “now.” Then every noise got mixed in the soup all at once, and Emily heard something strange. It was a voice, groaning and whispering, “Help me, please.”
The ocean, Mom had once explained, was here before the buildings, the boardwalk, the people. Look at it long enough, she had said, watch just how it heaves and you will think that it’s calling you. It reminds some people of God — the people who believe in God, “people like us” — and the people who don’t believe in God, it reminds them of the safety that they once felt, but can only recollect in dreams.
“Safety?” Emily had asked.
“Like how you were safe when you were in my uterus, before you were born,” Mom had said.
“But you, Mom,” Emily had said. “What does the ocean remind you of?”
“It reminds me that we’re connected to people,” Mom had said.
“All over the world?” Emily had asked.
“Yes,” Mom had said. Emily knew that her mother had meant much more, but just didn’t want to get into it. The 12-year-old had closed her eyes and tried to imagine all the people who had ever lived along the shore standing together, watching the waves break one after the other. Emily had felt small and important at the same time.
When the sky seemed to clear its throat that afternoon, the lifeguards blew their whistles and called everyone out of the water.
“Oh, well,” Dad said. “At least we got some fun in.”
By the time the rain finally crashed down, the girls had already showered and changed into their clothes. Dad had fixed everyone his “Dagwood specials,” big sandwiches with lots of stuff falling over the edges of the bread.
“Too much, too much,” Mom warned.
“Swimming gives you an appetite,” Dad said.
Still, the girls could only finish half of their Dagwoods and Dad had to wrap the leftovers. Then, came reading time. Emily, Brittany, and Kristen each pulled out their books and followed the stories as the rain beat against the streets outside.
Emily was reading a book called “Nic of Time,” about a teen adventurer, Nicole Carraway, who travels to the future to find answers that will keep her school, Old Valley High, from closing.
When Dad caught a glimpse of the title, he snorted.
“Those books make time travel seem as easy as sneezing,” he said to Mom.
“It’s science fiction,” Mom said. “Pure entertainment. Beats watching the boob tube.”
“Right,” Dad said.
“Don’t you believe in time travel, Mr. Dunn?” Brittany asked.
“You had to bring that up,” Emily said.
“Time travel is impossible,” Dad pronounced. “Or, let’s put it this way: It can only work in the abstract.”
“Abstract?” Kristen asked.
“Lay Einstein on them, Dad,” Emily said.
“Well, wiseguy, since your friends seem actually interested…”
Although Emily liked kidding her father, she was interested too, even though she’d heard the explanation many times.
Einstein’s theory, Dad explained, was that if you travel through space at speeds close to the speed of light, time slows significantly. Take twin infants, leave one on earth and put the other in a spaceship traveling the speed of light for a year. When the space twin returns, she would have aged a year. The sister she’d left on earth, however, would be 60-years-old.
“So, time travel is possible,” Brittany said.
“Nope,” Dad said. “As you get close to the speed of light, you gain in mass. You get heavier. So, you can never really go faster than light because you’d get too heavy.”
Just then, the rain outside came crashing down in sheets, turning the road into a steam.
“Pretty heavy stuff,” Kristen said.
“He’s not done yet,” Emily said.
“Yes I am,” Dad said.
“What about worm holes?” Emily asked.
Mom said, “Em, you’re the one who read ‘A Wrinkle in Time.’ Maybe you could explain worm holes to your friends.”
“I don’t quite get it.”
“Nobody does,” said Dad.
“Worm holes?” Kristen said. “Sounds nasty.”
“Einstein said that these worm holes are ruptures in the fabric of space that could make time travel possible,” Dad said.
“Tesseracts,” Emily said, recalling the word from “A Wrinkle in Time.”
“It’s all interesting in theory,” Dad said. “But none of this has been proven and probably never will be proven. Time travel is impossible.”
“But how do you know, Mr. Dunn?” Brittany insisted.
“Drum roll, please,” Emily said.
“I know, Brittany, because nobody visits us from the future,” said Dad. “Case closed.”
The rain let up at that moment, and from outside they could hear the sound of a car splashing by.
“Well,” Kristen said finally, “maybe it’s dogs and cats that visit from the future.”
“I don’t think so, sweetie,” Dad said.
“What if God wants to travel in time?” Brittany asked. “My mother says that all things are possible with God.”
“God exists outside of time,” Dad said.
Emily saw Mom shake her head. “Frank! These are 12-year-olds.”
“I’m just trying to answer questions, Kate.”
“Outside of time?” Brittany asked.
Mom spread her arms and looked at Dad. “You were saying?”
“Who wants to play Monopoly?” Dad asked. “I’m in a buying-and-selling mood.”
“You don’t stand a chance, Dad,” Emily said.
“In your dreams, shrimp,” Dad said. “When did you ever beat me?”
“In the future, Mr. Dunn,” Kristen said, and the girls laughed before Emily could say that, in fact, she could not remember ever losing a board game to Dad.
The immediate future for Emily and her friends was not entirely a washout. The steady rain gave way to softer drizzle. Then, there was just a mist that clouded the late afternoon.
“Can we go up the boardwalk, Mr. Dunn?” Brittany asked, as Emily landed on Park Place.
“I could use an ice-cream fix right about now,” Dad said. “All this capitalism is making me hungry.”
On the way to the boardwalk, they passed a house where a woman was struggling to pull an old-fashioned trunk, like ones Emily had seen when she visited Ellis Island, onto her front porch.
The house was located at about the halfway point between the Dunn’s vacation place and the beach. From two blocks away, Emily had noticed the woman pull the trunk out of her garage and scrape it along the sidewalk toward her gate.
The woman wore a long, light summer dress — too flimsy for the sort of work she was doing. And she seemed too old for that kind of labor, also. Her snow-white hair was wrapped around her head like a crown. She was black, but much darker than Brittany.
She had started dragging the trunk and by the time the girlfriends and Emily’s father had reached the woman’s home, she had managed to work it through the front gate, getting ready to pull it up the walkway that led to the porch steps.
“Need help, ma’am?” Dad asked.
“No thanks!” the woman said. “I can handle it.” When she turned toward them, she seemed to totter a bit on her heels. It appeared to Emily that what helped steady the woman was seeing the three friends, almost as if the big smile the old lady flashed to the young girls was a balancing pole.
“What have we here?” she asked.
“Fun-loving kids,” Dad said.
“I can see that by their beautiful teeth,” said the woman. “Many years ago I was teacher. Being around the young is the best tonic you can get.”
“My name is Frank Dunn. You sure I can’t help?”
“I just wanted to move it onto the porch,” she said. “It’s filled with odds and ends. I might want to show some of them to my great-granddaughter. Kimberly’s visiting next week.”
Dad and the girls went through the front gate. As Dad leaned over the trunk like a sumo wrestler, grabbing the handles, the woman asked: “Can I help you?”
“Nope,” Dad said, as he grunted and lifted the trunk. “Got it.”
He wobbled toward the porch.
“That’s too heavy,” the woman fretted.
“Just bulky,” Dad said, taking each step in a way that reminded Emily of a movie she once saw in which a soldier had to struggle through an obstacle course laid with car tires. Except Dad walked. She could tell by the way veins bulged on his arms that the trunk was burdensome.
“Please, just put it down there, Mr. Dunn.”
Dad dropped the trunk near a rocking chair. Emily saw the floorboards move.
“But how will you get it inside the house?” Dad asked, breathing heavily.
“I’m going to empty it, and then it will be pretty light,” the woman said. “I am 88-years-old, would you believe it? Doctor says I’m healthier than most 60-year-olds.”
“God bless you,” wheezed Dad.
Suddenly, Emily caught a glimpse of a white cat who had bounded out from behind the screen door and onto the porch. Without really thinking, Emily ran down to the gate and slammed it close.
“Oh, Conjuror!” the old woman said, as the cat disappeared into the bushes. Then, she turned to Emily, as the girl walked back toward the porch. “Honey, you did exactly the right thing. I don’t know how many times that cat’s gotten out on me. If I have to call the police once more, I’ll die of embarrassment. But where are my manners? My name is Aggie Johnson. Aggie Turner Johnson, I should say. I live here. Year round.”
As Dad introduced the girls, Mrs. Johnson shook each one’s hand.
“Let’s see what we’ve got,” the old woman said as she sat in her rocker and opened the trunk. “I’ve forgotten half the things that are in here.”
For the next 15 minutes or so, the girls didn’t think about the boardwalk and the ice cream that awaited them. They were too interested in the things that Mrs. Johnson pulled out: old books, dolls, Christmas ornaments, miniature paintings “done on tin.”
“Junk, really,” Mrs. Johnson said.
“I wouldn’t be too sure,” Dad said. “Some of these things strike me as being antiques. I’d definitely get them appraised before throwing anything out.”
“Well, I certainly will never throw this out,” Mrs. Johnson said. She held up an oil lantern, something that Emily had only seen in books about the Old West. “This was my great-grandmother’s. Lot of mystery around it. I believe it’s what lighted her way to freedom.”
“Freedom?” Kristen asked.
“The Underground Railroad?” Emily guessed.
“Exactly,” Mrs. Johnson said. “How did you even know that?”
“I just did,” Emily said, with a big smile. She did not bother to add that they’d just been talking about the Railroad that day.
“I had heard that people who let the slaves sleep at their houses would sometimes put lanterns out as a signal,” Dad said.
“That might have been it,” said Mrs. Johnson.
“You’re not sure?” Brittany asked.
For the first time since they’d met, Emily could believe that Mrs. Johnson was 88. Brittany’s question seemed to make the woman’s movements a bit awkward. She sagged in her rocking chair with a sigh.
“My great-grandmother never talked about it,” said Mrs. Johnson. “You see, it was against the law to help runaways. She felt that saying anything would get the people who had helped her into trouble.”
“Historians have never been able to prove that the Railroad had a stop in Cape May,” Dad said, and Emily knew that if Mom had been there, she might have shot him one of her you-are-talking-too-much looks.
“And they might never prove it,” Mrs. Johnson said. “Even after the Civil War, my great-grandmother wouldn’t talk about how, exactly, she got free. She always thought that freedom was such a precious thing. Too precious. Almost as though if she thought about it too much, or spoke of it at all, it would crumble like a cookie. But she never let anybody mess with this lantern. I’ll bet it still works.”
“You’re great-granddaughter will love seeing it, Mrs. Johnson,” Brittany said.
Mrs. Johnson held the object for a moment, studying it almost as if it were a book. “The ‘Light-Keeper,’” she said. “That’s what my great-grandmother called it sometimes. You know, I think you’re right, Brittany. My Kimberly will like this, and maybe a few of these dolls as well. See this one? Doesn’t it look sweet?”
“Are we still getting ice cream?” Kristen asked suddenly.
Mrs. Johnson smiled and looked at Dad. “You’re leading an important mission, I see.”
“Pressure’s on,” said Dad.
“Robinson’s Ice Cream, two blocks down on the boardwalk, is best for my money,” said Mrs. Johnson. She stood and escorted the vacation brigade to the top of the porch steps. “I hope you young ladies enjoy your stay. Come back and visit any time.”
Dad and the girls headed out to the pavement in a chorus of “Good-bye, Mrs. Johnson’s” and hurried toward the promenade. As they approach the walkway, the noise level rose, as did their suspense. The boards were exciting: the smell of cooking foods; the sounds of rides and arcades; the constant beat that the ocean kept — it all seemed to Emily like a fantastic quilt that had been sewn, not only for the eyes, but for all the senses. She imagined that if she floated above in a hot-air balloon, she would see a multidimensional design.
“This way,” said Dad. “Stay with me now.”
The wet ending to the day hadn’t dampened the spirits of all the people looking for fun. The girls were jostled as they tried to follow Dad through the crowds.
However, they slowed when they passed a display where, if you threw three baseballs through a small hole at 40 miles an hour or faster, you got a prize. There were three different “lanes” where hopefuls could, as the sign read, “test your skills, or try your luck.” The lanes happened to be unoccupied at the moment.
“Do it Dad!” Emily pleaded, remembering the pictures of himself — dressed in a baseball uniform and clutching a tattered mitt – that her father had kept in a photo album all these years.
A man behind a booth to the side of the lanes smiled, and echoed: “Yeah, Dad! Just do it!”
“I haven’t played in a looong time,” Dad said smiling back at the man, but Emily could tell that he liked the idea. “Why not?” Dad added with a shrug.
He stepped over to the booth, paid, and was given three baseballs. Dad handed two of them to Emily.
“Give me luck,” he instructed, “because I sure don’t have any skill.”
Then he gripped the baseball that he held, and faced the target sideways, just as a big league pitcher would. “Back up girls. Is it my imagination, or did that target just get smaller?” Dad joked.
But when he wound up and threw the first pitch it went right through the hole. The lighted sign above the booth flashed “51 mph.”
Emily and her friends clapped, though Dad was disappointed.
“That’s all?” he said. “I am getting old, man.”
“Again! Again!” the girls pleaded.
By this time, a few of the people strolling by slowed to see what was going on and, Emily noticed, some even stopped altogether. Among the crowd were a few boys who, she guessed, were a couple of years older than the girls.
Dad wound up.
“Here’s the pitch!” Emily intoned, imitating a baseball announcer.
Again, Dad hit the target. This time the sign flashed “45 mph.” Even though strangers clapped too, Dad shook his head.
“Let’s get this over with,” he grumbled.
It seemed as if, on the third throw, that he didn’t even bother to look at the target. Didn’t matter. The ball went through anyway — 42 miles per hour.
“Yeah Dad!” Emily squealed.
“Way to go, Mr. Dunn,” said Brittany and Kristen.
The man behind the counter saluted. “Your prize is a pair of softball spikes,” he said. “What’s your size?”
Dad held up his index finger, signaling that he wanted to talk for a moment.
“Here girls,” he said, handing coins to Emily, “you can try.”
For kids their age, the targets were a bit bigger, and the balls had to be thrown at least 20 miles per hour. Emily, Kristen, and Brittany all hit the targets at least once, but none of the girls could make three consecutive shots.
“That the best you can do?” one of the boys on the sideline teased. Emily, Kristen, and Brittany ignored him.
Even though they didn’t hit the targets on the second chance, the girls still had fun and got consolation prizes: whistles, handed to them by a young woman who also worked at the booth.
And that was not all.
“Brittany, Kristen,” Dad asked, stepping over to them for a second, “what are your shoe sizes?”
Emily’s friends told him.
“Why?” Emily asked.
“Just a minute,” Dad said. She saw him again lean over the counter and talk to the man. Dad then took out his wallet and handed over some crisp bills. The man disappeared behind a curtain and returned seconds later, carrying three shoeboxes
“Softball spikes,” Dad explained. “A pair for each of you. Not exactly summer beach gear, but the best I could do. I tried to bargain for stuffed animals, but he didn’t want to give them up.”
“I could use spikes!” Brittany said.
“Me too!” said Kristen.
The girls spent a few moments admiring their new athletic shoes before Dad stuffed them back into the boxes.
“I’ll carry them,” he said. “Let’s go.”
By the time the vacation brigade made it to Robinson’s Ice Cream, the mist from the sky and spray off the ocean had mingled to make it seem as if they were walking through a cloud.
“What a murky twilight,” Dad said. “Here.” He gave Emily money for the desserts.
While Dad lingered by a community bulletin board, reading announcements of upcoming beach events, the three girls bought their ice creams and then walked over toward the rail that looked out over the beach. Something scooted right across the boardwalk, jumping onto the sand.
“Did you see that?” Brittany asked.
“What was it?” Kristen said.
“Looked like a cat,” Emily said. “I hope Conjuror didn’t escape again.”
It was no more than that. The slightest, quickest shutting of her eyelids and then everything was gone. The boardwalk, the people, the houses. The only thing that remained was the ocean.
Emily clutched her friends’ arms.
“What is this?” Kristen said.
“Where are we?” Brittany asked.
“Stay calm. Calm,” Emily said. But she wanted to cry. Their whole world had changed. Were they under some sort of spell?
In those frightened moments, Emily tried to work toward an explanation. They were on the beach. A storm seemed to be kicking in. It was drizzling and wind raced toward them from the breakers. Light, seeping trough the troubled sky, was ebbing quickly.
“It’s going to be dark soon,” Brittany moaned.
“What is this?” Kristen repeated.
A piece of paper that had blown across the sand stuck to Emily’s sneaker. She peeled it off and in the twilight could just make out what looked like the front page of an old, old newspaper — the kind she had viewed behind glass in museums. Much of the top was torn off, so all she could see of the name was “Philade”.
Emily thought, “Philadelphia. This is the Philadelphia Something.” Her eye traveled down and caught the date. “August 22, 1855.”
“Look!” Kristen said, pointing to the side. A group of men were pulling a boat up the beach to the safety of the dunes. They were rough sounding, cursing and arguing with each other. Emily didn’t know who they could be. She didn’t want to find out. One of the men, who’d appeared to be the leader and who held a lantern, suddenly turned toward the girls and pointed.
“Over there,” he shouted. “I think I found them.”
“Let’s get out of here,” Brittany said.
Kristen asked, “Why?” but didn’t wait for an answer. Instead, she followed her friends’ lead and ran through the dunes. They heard the men chasing them, floundering through the sand.
“Get them runaways!” one yelled.
Emily, Kristen, and Brittany darted toward what looked like a house over by what had been the promenade. The girls were crying, struggling. Once, Kristen fell and Emily and Brittany each grabbed an arm and helped their friend back onto her feet.
This beach, Emily noted, was much more wild than any shore she’d ever been too. Reeds and bushes grew tall, and the path they followed seemed to disappear altogether.
They struggled through one bush and fell onto the sand. When they looked up, the girls were surprised to see a big bell. Carved into the metal was the inscription: “Fire/Rescue Brigade.”
“What do we do?” Kristen asked.
“There you are!” somebody called from behind.
And just then, this strange and dangerous world that had been closing in about them, disappeared. The girls were back at Cape May, gazing over the rail at the ocean.
“Please, always let me know where you’re going,” Dad was saying, as he came up from behind. “Hey! You dropped your ice cream cones.”
“What?” Emily asked, noticing that it had started to rain again.
“Your ice cream,” Dad said, squatting and picking up the cones. He tossed them into a nearby trashcan. “How did all three of you manage to lose your cones at the same time?”
The girls looked at each other and blinked. They couldn’t remember.
Memory is the closest thing we have to a time machine, Mom would sometimes say. But it’s selective and that, really, is not a bad thing. Once, when she was younger, Emily had been upset by a story a friend at school had told her: All of one man’s memories, in a terrible instant, flashed in his mind. Everything he had ever stored there and had forgotten: every meal he’d ever eaten, the look on his mother’s face when he was two-years-old, the first time he kissed his wife — came back to him with equal intensity. He went crazy.
“Why?” Emily had asked.
“Information overload,” her friend had said with a shrug.
Mom had told Emily: “I don’t know if that’s true or not, Em. I do know that memory chooses. Nobody can remember everything at once. My problem with that story is: If the man went crazy, how can anybody really know what made him crazy?”
The sun decided to stay a few days, and Emily and her friends eased into the delicious routine of vacation. In the mornings they’d wake up around 8 a.m. (although, one day, they had actually gotten to see the sunrise).
Kristen would always be hungry from the start and ate her cereal right away. Emily and Brittany needed to wait a bit. Then, to the beach. Dad, Mom, and the girls staked their spot right near the lifeguard’s stand. The children did all the beach things: make sandcastles, swim, play Frisbee, take long walks. Then, back to the house for lunch and to escape, as Mom put it, the harsher rays of the day.
After lunch, the girls read or played board games or just hung out and talked. Then, in late afternoon they’d head back down to the beach again. The chairs and blankets that they had left on the sand, now sat like an oasis in a desert that kept expanding around it. The ocean had measured its retreat in layers of watermarks that stepped down to the new shoreline.
Time moved slower in the afternoons, but not slow enough for Emily. She wished it could stop altogether so that she could stay at the shore with her friends and parents forever. She knew that that could never be, however, and eventually Dad would say, “Let’s head home.”
On those afternoons they often just lay on their blankets listening to the ocean pull slowly back upon itself. Emily once imagined that she had heard the instant — the exact moment — where the sea changed its mind, and started toward the boardwalk again. The girls would talk about the school year that had just passed, or sports that they wanted to play in the fall, or their favorite singers. And, of course, they talked about boys – boys that they liked, ones they didn’t like, and the type of boys they hoped to meet in high school in a couple of years.
Perhaps, because the easy pace of their vacation invited investigation of deeper issues, memory itself was sometimes a topic. Emily often started these conversations, saying that she felt as if there were something just beyond her recollection that struggled to be seen.
“Why is that?” she asked, as she adjusted her sunglasses and felt the warm sea breeze rearrange her hair. She, Brittany, and Kristen were lying in the sun.
Her father’s voice came from two blankets over.
“Probably has something to do with the collective consciousness,” he said.
“Frank,” Mom said, in a pleading voice, “these are 12-year-olds.”
Emily’s father kept quiet for a moment, but her parents had forgotten that he had once tried to explain this to her. Seems that in prehistoric times, there were two types of people walking the earth.
“Are you talking about Cro-Magnon and Neanderthal?” Emily asked.
“We are Cro-Magnon,” Dad said.
“Is this about cavemen?” Kristen asked.
“Sort of,” said Brittany.
“Did they teach this in school?” Mom asked. “I thought this was for next year’s biology class.”
“Library books,” Brittany explained.
“I forget,” Kristen said. “What happened to the Neander?”
“Some scientists think that Neanderthal man died out in childbirth,” Dad said. That’s because the size of their heads got too big, he explained.
“Why?” Emily asked.
Because each generation had stored the memories of all the generations that had gone before and handed them down to their children.
“I don’t get it,” Brittany said.
“I’m getting hungry,” Kristen said.
“We’ll be eating soon,” Mom promised.
Dad wasn’t going to be distracted.
“It would be as if you children were born with the memories of your parents already in your heads. Not only that, the memories of their parents, and parent’s parents.”
“Frank,” Mom said.
“Well, they’re asking,” Dad said. “It’s like the animals. People believe that they’re born with the memories of every other of their type that had lived before them. The lion cub knows what the first lion learned, so to speak.”
“I still don’t understand,” Emily had said.
“They think that Neanderthal was the same way,” Dad said. “The problem was that man kept getting smarter. The brains kept getting bigger to store all the information. That’s how they died out.”
“Well, Em, Cro-Magnon adapted by learning how to learn. Babies need to be taught everything.”
“So we don’t have that collection thingy.”
“Collective consciousness,” Dad said. “Well, some people think that we still may have some of that. But it’s hidden. Or, more like a muscle that isn’t used. Some people think that we can tap into some of the knowledge of the past without actually having to learn. That it’s just there.”
“Instinct,” said Kristen.
“Well, no,” said Dad. “Instinct is separate from thinking. This really is learned information. It’s just that we, individually, didn’t learn it.”
“So, do you believe in collective consciousness, Mr. Dunn?” Brittany asked.
“I rank collective consciousness right up there with time travel on the list of things that sound great in science fiction but don’t exist in the real world.”
“I’m still hungry,” Kristen said.
When they walked home that afternoon, the girls waved to Mrs. Johnson, who was sitting on her front porch.
“How’s the water?” she called.
“Great!” the girls said.
Emily’s glance caught something glimmering in the window right over the old lady’s shoulder. Conjuror the cat sat on the other side of the screen, looking right at her. And as Emily watched, in that long instant, one of the cat’s eyelids shuttered down over its glassy orb, and then just as deliberately opened again. Emily shivered. Had that animal just winked at her?
“That cat freaks me out,” Brittany whispered, when they had passed.
“Why?” Emily asked.
Brittany merely shook her head, and Emily decided that she would ask her friend about it later. She must have seen the wink too.
“So that’s the Underground Railroad lady,” Mom said. “I’ll have to introduce myself next time.” She had been buying more books about the history of Cape May, looking for any mention of the slaves who had escaped.
“That is Mrs. Aggie Turner Johnson,” Dad confirmed. “Eighty-eight years young.”
“I think that someday historians are going to prove that the Underground Railroad stopped in Cape May,” Mom said.
“How can you be so sure, Mom?” Emily asked.
She told the children about Harriet Tubman, who became known as the “Moses” to her people. In 1849, Tubman escaped from slavery on the Eastern Shore of Maryland and made nineteen trips back South to help at least three hundred slaves escape.
“One of the Railroad’s most famous conductors, so to speak,” said Dad.
“They think that she may have worked on Cape May for a few summers,” Mom said. “Of course, in those days, they called it Cape Island.”
“That’s not proof that the Railroad ran through Cape May, but it’s certainly an interesting historical tidbit,” said Dad.
When the girls got back to the house, they huddled together on the back steps playing Fish.
“OK,” Emily said. “Who else saw Conjuror wink?”
“Me! Me!” Brittany said.
“What?” Kristen said.
“Mrs. Johnson’s cat winked at us,” Emily said.
“Cool trick,” Kristen said.
“Kind of freaked me and Emily out,” Brittany said.
“Hey,” Kristen said, as if this reminded her of something. “Maybe tonight in the bedroom we’ll tell ghost stories.”
“We’ll see,” Emily replied, but immediately regretted saying it. It made her feel that perhaps she was being bossy again. So, she added: “It might just be a fun thing to do at that.”
There were a lot of fun things to do at night down the shore. The evenings, as Dad said, were up for grabs. The first night, of course, they had walked to the promenade. The second, they drove into Wildwood to an amusement park. The screams of the crowd rang in Emily’s ears the entire trip down the Garden State Parkway. On the third night, they drove to Sunset Beach.
“Why do they call it that?” Kristen asked, as Dad maneuvered the van through the streets.
“It’s the best beach in the area for watching the sun set over the ocean,” Mom said, as she scanned one of the brochures that she had stuffed in duffle bags, pockets, and the glove compartment. Mom located something with her finger and read: “‘Visitors can view the sunset with a 100-percent unobscured horizon line.’ Oh and listen to this: ‘Due to atmospheric conditions caused by the interaction of sea and bay breezes, sunsets seen here are among the most brilliant and colorful on the East Coast.’”
“Oooooh,” Dad joked, as if he were looking at fireworks. “Ahhhhh.”
They made a couple of turns and found themselves in a line of cars inching up toward Sunset Beach.
“Well, these beautiful sunsets are certainly no secret,” Dad said.
“The best things in life are free, Frank,” Mom said.
“My uncle, he’s prejudice, and him and my Dad got into an argument once when he said that slavery wasn’t that bad.”
“There are a lot of people with a lot of crazy ideas,” Mom said. “I’m sure your Mom and Dad could tell Kristen’s uncle about how bad slavery was, right Brittany?”
“Yes, Mrs. Dunn,” Brittany mumbled, and Emily knew that her friend felt a bit awkward. Sometimes Emily wished that Kristen would think more before she spoke. She also wished that Mom and Dad would stop always trying to educate them. Why would Brittany know anymore about slavery than Emily or Kristen? Because she’s black?
“Let me tell you something,” Mom was saying. “Slavery was the worst sin this country ever committed. It was a horrible thing. You, of course, have read about know Abraham Lincoln, the president during the Civil War. Well, did you girls know that as that horrible war dragged on and on, hundreds of thousands of people died — were killed.”
“Whoa,” Dad said, placing his hand on Mom’s knee. “You’re always reminding me that these are 12-year-olds.”
“That’s all right,” Mom said. “This is history. They should know this.”
“We know all about the Civil War,” Emily said.
“Well, that’s why history is so fascinating,” Mom continued. “It helps us understand events that the people who actually lived through them couldn’t understand. Lincoln, for instance, wanted to understand why so many people had to die in that war. And do you know what he finally decided?”
“What?” the girls asked.
“He decided that the war was punishment for slavery. He said in a speech:
Fondly do we hope, fervently do we pray, that this mighty scourge of war may speedily pass away. Yet, if God wills that it continue until all the wealth piled by the bondsman’s two hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still it must be said, “The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.”
“Wow,” Dad said. “I am impressed.”
“I can also do the Gettysburg Address…” Mom said.
Dad interrupted: “So can I.”
“…backwards,” Mom finished.
“Get out,” Dad said, as Mom laughed.
Just then Dad pulled the van to the side, behind a line of vehicles that had parked along Sunset Boulevard, which led up to the beach.
“We’ll have to walk the rest,” he said.
“It’s a nice night,” Mom said.
The families and couples were quiet as they strolled toward the sunset; so much different than the crowds that had mobbed the boardwalk, or that had waited in the lines at the amusement park in Wildwood. Yet, Emily spied one or two faces that she’d seen on those other nights.
The vacation brigade did not linger by the shops and eateries at the edge of Sunset Boulevard but rather walked right onto the beach where Emily, Kristen, and Brittany took off their flip-flops and felt the cooling sand between their toes.
The first thing Emily noticed was a huge dark blotch against the water — an old boat.
“That’s the Atlantis,” Mom explained. “It’s been there for over 75 years.” Mom’s voice lowered, and Emily could tell that she was again ticking off points from a brochure. “‘Built of concrete during World War I. Decommissioned because too slow and heavy. Towed to Cape May to be used as a loading platform for a ferry. During storm on June 8, 1926, broke free of moorings and beached where she now lies.’ Interesting.”
But Brittany had found something else interesting that was lying in the sand.
“Look!” she exclaimed, holding up what appeared to be a jewel shimmering in the flaring light.
“A Cape May Diamond!” said Mom. “You should keep that, Brittany.”
The girls gathered around the object that sparkled in the palm of Brittany’s hand.
“That’s what I want my wedding ring to look like,” said Emily.
“Is Brittany rich now?” Kristen asked.
Mom chuckled. “Unfortunately, it’s not a real diamond. Let’s see.” She fumbled through brochures again. “Here. ‘Cape May Diamonds are pure quartz crystals found in a variety of shapes and sizes.’ They’re from way up the Delaware River. They’re broken off from veins by the current, travel 200 miles — over many years — and wind up here. They’re really caused by the tidal flow against the Atlantis. That’s why there are so many of them on this particular beach. Interesting, interesting, interesting.”
By this time, the sun was beginning to sink into the horizon. Everything had gotten quiet, as if humans and seagulls worshipped in the same church. Rays reached out like hands sifting through the haze of the sky, searching for the stars that would soon appear.
“Let’s go down by the water,” Emily said.
“Don’t wander too far,” Mom called.
“We won’t,” the girls said.
The friends stood apart from the crowd and watched the sun ease into the sea as if it were taking a bath. Emily heard one seagull call — it seemed to be searching for something. But what, she wondered. And in that instant of wondering, it happened again.
The first thing Emily noticed was the wind. Then the sand hitting her face.
“Where are we?” Kristen cried.
“Calm down,” Brittany said. “Last time this happened, we made it back OK.”
“But we didn’t remember anything,” Kristen said, reaching out and grabbing Emily’s hand.
“We made it back,” Emily insisted.
“Look!” Brittany said.
Out further toward the water, they could just barely see pinpricks of light.
“Let’s go over,” Brittany said.
“No!” Emily said. “We don’t know who they are.”
Just then, a voice called from the lights.
“You there! Any sign of them?”
“Who?” Kristen called back.
Emily heard the voices mumble among themselves.
“They’re children,” one said.
“What are you youngsters doing here? Go back! Back I say! Back toward the road or you’ll be swept into the sea!”
Just then a wave crashed nearby.
“Let’s go back to the road,” Emily said.
They ran toward other lights behind them. They could just hear something cry out.
“That sounds like a horse!” Brittany said.
Suddenly, they bumped into something. “Ouch!” said Kristen. “Where’d that tree come from?”
The girls looked up. Swinging from the crossbar of a post was a sign that read: “Welcome to Cape Island.”
“Cape Island?” Emily said. She blinked, and the friends were again back in their own time, watching and forgetting as the scatterings of sunset shooed the seagulls off their perches.
“Come on, kids,” Mom called from the dunes. “I don’t want you to get lost in the dark.”
Look at it in a certain way, Mom said, and time travel is not only possible, it’s unavoidable.
“We’re here, on Earth and time goes by,” Mom said. “We — all of us — travel through time.”
The girls waited, as Mom dumped cereal into one of their bowls.
“That’s it?” Emily asked, pouring some milk.
Brittany said: “Mrs. Dunn, that’s so…”
Kristen finished for her, forgetting not to talk with her mouth full:“… thoo bowing.”
“What?” Mom asked.
“So boring,” Emily translated.
Mom laughed. “Sorry, girls. That’s the best I can do. Now, jumping all around, in and out of different times, I don’t know about that.”
“It’s impossible!” Dad called from the porch, where he was reading the newspaper and drinking his morning tea.
“But it’s the jumping around part that’s fun, Mrs. Dunn,” Brittany pointed out.
“I’m sure it is, hon,” Mom said. “But we can’t control time, even though sometimes I wish we could. Like last night, during the last flare-out of sunset, I wanted time to stop, it was so beautiful.”
As Mom said this, she looked dreamily at the wall, as if she were seeing the sunset all over again. The distant crash of the waves seemed to murmur an agreement. Emily fought the urge to go over and hug her mother.
“Then again,” Mom continued, glancing back to the children, “when I have a problem, I wish time would go by fast. But it doesn’t happen that way, does it? The clock’s hands move at their own pace, no matter what we do. Gosh, we adults can be such downers, can’t we?”
Dad called: “Some of us can.”
“That’s enough from you,” Mom said. “Stop eavesdropping!”
Dad said: “Did you tell Em the good news yet? Or are we going to save it as a surprise? Maybe we’ll wait until next week. Yeah, that’s what we’ll do.”
Emily looked up at Mom. No way they were going to keep a surprise from her, and her parents knew it.
“Very funny,” Mom called back to Dad.
“What news?” Kristen said.
“Yeah,” Emily said, “Out with it.”
Before Mom could even speak, the girls started chanting: “News! News! News! News!”
“OK,” Mom shouted, and sliced the air with her hand. “Cut!”
The girls started giggling.
“Yesssssss?” Emily said.
“Your cousins are coming to spend next week with us here.”
“Great!” Emily said.
“Kate and Therese want to see the shore,” Mom continued. “They’ll be arriving the same day Brittany’s parents come to take her and Kristen home.”
“Good for you, Em,” Brittany said.
“I wish I was staying,” Kristen said.
Emily’s excitement bubbled over into laughter. Her vacation was made: Brittany and Kristen for one week, Kate and Therese for the next.
“Doesn’t get any better than this,” Emily said.
“Your cousins never saw the ocean?” Brittany asked.
“Only when they were little.”
“I thought Cuba was an island,” Kristen said.
“It is,” Emily said, feeling a bit exasperated. After all, she had told her friends about her cousins before. “They’re from Wyoming, which is nowhere near the ocean. My uncle, many, many years ago, came from Cuba.”
“Oh,” Brittany and Kristen said at the same time.
In the living room, Mom flung aside the curtains and the morning sun invaded.
“Yikes!” Emily said, covering her eyes.
“Another beautiful day!” Mom said, and almost purred like a cat.
It was indeed a beautiful day, but windier than the first few had been. The ocean was rougher, the waves seeming to argue with themselves about which way to turn. That was fine with the girls.
The beach was fairly deserted in the morning. At one point, Emily looked up to see her father standing on the shore and her mother sitting on a beach chair next to him. Mom was letting the ocean tickle her toes.
It happened right when Emily waved to Mom and Mom waved back. The world stopped. Or seemed to. The cries of the seagulls were cut off, as if they’d been playing on a CD and someone had unplugged the machine. Mom’s arm, waving, froze in mid-air. She looked as if she were telling the tide to stop. The Atlantic, though, was the only thing that hadn’t been immobilized. It kept on, but it suddenly had turned much calmer than it had been, as if it were a clock that had wound down.
And again, Emily remembered: the storm on the beach that made the sign “Cape Island” rock, the night that they had dropped their ice cream cones. She remembered not only what she had forgotten, but also that she had forgotten as well.
“We can’t cry,” Emily said, clutching both of her friends’ arms. “Whatever this is, we got out of it before.”
“Yeah, but we don’t remember anything when we’re back in…,” Kristen said, her lower lip beginning to quiver.
“Our own time?” Emily finished for her.
“Let’s get out of the water,” Brittany said, and that seemed like a good idea. An image flashed in Emily’s mind of whatever it was that was doing this to the girls. It was something that had lurked in the deep, deep ocean for a long time and now its tentacles stretched toward the unsuspecting legs of the youngsters.
“Let’s go!” Emily said, and the three splashed toward dry sand.
As they approached the beach, Emily herself had to fight the urge to cry when she saw her parents, still frozen in place.
She told herself: “They’re alive. It’s just that time has stopped,” but she couldn’t be 100 percent certain.
Emily tried to be brave, she really did, but her parents looked like those figures she’d seen in wax museums and, for an instant, she wondered in terror whether they would melt before her eyes.
Suddenly, she felt warm arms around her. Brittany and Kristen hugged her.
“It’s OK, Em!” they said.
Emily didn’t think so, but she wouldn’t have much time to cry, and neither would her friends because just then Kristen shouted: “Look!” She pointed out toward the breakers.
Emily had, of course, seen ocean spray before. And that’s what it looked like at first, spray. But it couldn’t be. First of all, the water had become too calm to create this kind of mist. Second, when she squinted, she could see that this whatever-it-was had a shape, looking a little like the big oval mirror on Mom’s vanity at home or, Emily thought with a shiver, a huge cat’s eye.
The oval moved, or seemed to be moving. It floated above the calm waves toward the beach, toward them. The girls stumbled backwards. At about the point where the oval hovered on the shoreline, it stopped.
That’s when they heard the scream. At first, Emily thought that it may have been a seagull who’d been suddenly unfrozen and ranting a protest to nature, or heaven, or worm holes, or whatever it was that had brought this upon it.
But the sound, high-pitched at first, came down several keys until it seemed human. Then, a form plunged out of the oval and onto the beach.
“What is it?” one of the friends screamed. Emily didn’t know whom; she was that scared. It might even have been herself.
The form rolled in the sand, and then sat up. It was a young girl, looking about her as if she were awakening from night terrors and was trying to get her bearings.
“Help me! Help me, please!” she cried.
She was dressed in old-fashioned clothes. Blinking, she held her arm up to the sun, as if it were someone trying to hit her. That’s when Emily noticed a thick line across her cheek and, at first, wondered why the girl had drawn on her own face. Then, she realized that no marker had made that — it was a deep, purple scar. There were also scratches on the girl’s forearm, as if she had stumbled through thorn bushes.
“Am I dead?” she looked all about her. “Is this heaven? Are you angels?”
If it hadn’t been for the fright of this youngster, Emily would have been a mess and, probably, so would have Kristen and Brittany. But the child, who was black and, Emily guessed, maybe a little younger than the three friends, looked so frightened and scared that Emily, Kristen, and Brittany shoved their own fears aside.
They ran to the girl and helped her to her feet. When Emily grabbed the girl’s hand, she almost shrank back. She remembered holding a pineapple once in the supermarket. The girl’s hand felt that rough.
“You’re not dead,” Emily said. “Something strange has happened to time.”
“There is no time!” the little girl cried. “They’re after me!”
The three friends hesitated for the girl spoke in such a thick accent that it took them a moment to translate.
“Who?” Kristen finally asked.
The girl looked warily at Emily, Brittany, and Kristen.
“The Railroad send you?” she asked.
Emily said, “What’s your name?”
“The Railroad send you?” the girl asked again.
“We know about the Underground Railroad,” Emily said.
The girl mumbled something and Brittany asked, “What?”
“My name’s Jane,” the girl said. And, looking at Brittany, she asked: “Are you a freed-girl?”
“She’s a girl-girl,” Kristen said.
“Next year, a teen-ager,” Brittany added.
Emily stepped forward.
“What year is it, Jane?”
“Yes, what is the date.”
“Well, it’s 1855,” said Jane, who added a little shyly as she glanced about, “I suppose.”
They talked for a few minutes then. Actually, they gestured and wrote words — like “Delaware” and “guns” — in the sand, for the three friends were still adjusting to Jane’s accent.
But they got the story. Her name was Jane Hobbs, of the Hobbs Plantation in Maryland. She was running away with her family on the Underground Railroad. They were trying reach a boat that waited for them in secret at Lewes, Delaware, to make the crossing to Cape Island.
“So, the Underground Railroad did stop on Cape May,” Emily said.
“It does,” said Jane. “The men are coming after us. Want to take us back to the Southland. Back to bondage.” She glanced about her. “They were right behind me. That’s why…”
“We’re not angels,” Brittany said. “We’re just kids, like you.”
“But from the future,” Kristen said.
“The future,” Jane said, looking more closely at Brittany. “Imagine that.”
“We got to get her away from here,” Brittany said to Kristen and Emily, though she couldn’t take her eyes off Jane.
“No way,” Emily said. “This is where we slipped through. This is where we’ll slip back to our own time.”
Brittany tugged Jane’s hand.
“We’ve got to get her away,” she insisted, and started pulling Jane toward the dunes.
Emily thought that this was a bad idea, but couldn’t decide whether fright or bravery had led her to this conclusion. So, she went, remembering the accusations her friends had made to her about wanting to always be the leader.
If minutes or hours or seconds or days or months or years existed in this strange, frozen dimension — this non-time — that the four girls has fallen into, then mere minutes probably passed before Emily realized that sometimes, it’s better to let others take the lead.
They heard another yell. They were out by the dunes, which were much more hilly and ripe with reeds, than in real life. They could hide there, as Brittany realized right away.
“Get down,” she hissed.
They girls squatted, peeking through the reeds. Just then, forms tumbled out of the oval and hit the beach. They looked like character actors from some old movie Western, but Emily could feel Jane quaking beside her.
“It’s them,” she whispered. “The bounty hunters.”
Emily watched as the men blinked and shook and dusted themselves off. She could only make out some of their words, and in the strange sunlight that never made shadows, saw gun metal sparkle.
“It’s a spell,” one of men said. “Voodoo. Witchcraft.”
“Tracks,” another said, and sure enough, the footprints of the four girls led right up to their hiding place. The men glared their way.
Kristen screamed, then the girls got up and began running.
Emily had never felt such fright. Her heart pumped so hard, it was as if it had become a fist that kept punching her chest from the inside.
She prayed: “Please! Please! Please!”
Then, an explosion, and she realized right away that one of the men had shot at them. Emily had never heard gunfire before, but even so, she knew that the noise could not echo as this boom echoed. It filled the air, shook the sea, and made the trees and bushes and reeds that the children ran through shake as if they were coming alive. Another explosion, and this one was so loud that the sound rolled over them, knocking the girls to the ground, stirring up reality so that it bubbled about them.
Just then, Emily broke the surface of the water.
She and her three friends struggled to catch their breaths.
“Come in, girls,” Dad called from the shoreline. “The ocean’s too rough.”
Time at Cape May, Mom would say, was a spell that got into your bones and eased away the usual cares. Fluids make up about 55 percent of the human body and perhaps that’s why, down the shore, the sea lulls people into mimicking its pace. It’s almost as if, on one level, they are hypnotized. And if, at some point during their visit, they are drawn, entranced, to the shoreline, it may be because they can almost see those ghosts who, long ago, had fled slavery’s lash to stand, for the first time, free. Free! “Just as we should be free,” Mom said. Forget about bills not paid, repairs not made, clients not contacted.
“It’s not a vacation unless ambition takes a holiday, too,” she would protest whenever Dad said that he should be calling his job more often to see how things were going. “You don’t see me phoning my work, do you? Let all that drift away for a couple of weeks.”
“I’m worried about it getting away from me for good,” Dad would answer.
“Let it go, Frank. Let it go.”
That day of the rough water, when they were walking back to their house for lunch, they could see Mrs. Johnson gardening along the picket fence in front of her home from two blocks away. The big straw hat that she wore reminded Emily of pictures she’d seen of people in Asia working in rice paddies. When she pointed out Mrs. Johnson to Mom (“You said you wanted to meet her”), the discussion among the girls once more focused on the mystery of whether the Underground Railroad had stopped in Cape May.
“Not again,” Dad grumbled.
“I don’t think we’ll ever find out for sure,” Mom said. “There’s so little true evidence.”
“Why is that, Mrs. Dunn?” Brittany asked.
“Nobody kept good records about the slaves — birth dates, who they married, who their kids were, when they died,” Mom said. “Whites, down South and many up North also, didn’t want to see them — really see them — and blacks, especially the ones who escaped, didn’t particularly want to be seen.”
“Seen?” Emily asked.
“Many blacks who escaped to freedom didn’t want to be noticed,” Mom said. “That could be dangerous. It could mean someone asking where you came from. And that could mean being dragged back into slavery because the law, before the Civil War, made it a crime to help runaways. The plantation owners down South would pay good money for men — bounty hunters, they were called — to capture runaway slaves and bring them back.”
When they got to Mrs. Johnson’s block, the old woman looked up from pulling weeds and Emily could see that, even from a distance, she recognized her, Brittany, and Kristen.
“Hear the water’s pretty rough today,” she said, as the vacation brigade approached.
Emily was about to speak, when she noticed that Brittany was also getting set to respond. In that moment, something small but significant happened. Emily normally would have rushed ahead, stepping on Brittany’s words. This day, however, she held off and let her friend take the lead.
“Yes it is, Mrs. Johnson,” Brittany said. “My, but your house looks nice. Looks nicer every time we pass. Your great-granddaughter will certainly feel at home here.”
“Think so?” Mrs. Johnson asked, but Emily could tell by the way the old woman beamed that she already knew the answer.
Mom stopped and extended her hand.
“Kate Dunn, Emily’s mother,” she said. Mrs. Johnson took off her gardening gloves, stuffed them into a big pocket with a flap in the front of her baggy farmer’s pants, and then shook Mom’s hand. Emily was surprised by how fast the old woman did these things. Meanwhile, Mom had continued: “We’ve been talking about the Underground Railroad ever since the girls spoke to you that night.”
Mrs. Johnson opened the gate.
“Join me for some lemonade, why don’t you,” she said. “I’m a bit of an amateur historian.”
As the girls and Dad settled on the steps leading up to Mrs. Johnson’s front porch, Emily glanced about to spy Conjuror, but the cat was nowhere to be seen. She did notice the lantern. It hung on a hook right by the doorway.
“Here, let me help,” Mom said, and began handing out the plastic cups of lemonade that Mrs. Johnson was pouring.
“So, you believe that the Underground Railroad stopped here?” Mom asked.
“Black folks in these parts — most of us live in West Cape May, so I’m sort of the odd man out — all have stories in our families about it. Nothing that historians would call proof. But, you’ve got to remember, for centuries ours was a culture kept alive in secret by the stories folks told.”
“You believe that your great-grandmother escaped on the Underground Railroad?” Mom asked.
“With all my heart,” said the old woman. “Maddie Turner is first mentioned, in a written document, in 1860, when she’s 15 years old. A marriage certificate. Where was she before then? There’s no mention. The line for her maiden name was signed Maddie Turner, too.”
Emily wondered if her eyes had grown as wide as Brittany’s and Kristen’s when she heard that someone had gotten married at 15.
Mrs. Johnson laughed when she noticed. “It was not all that uncommon in those days for a person that young to be married,” she explained. “And in those days, not always a bad thing, either.”
“I’m still waiting for my first kiss!” said Kristen.
Emily nudged her. “Get serious,” she said.
“I am,” said Kristen, and the girls couldn’t help but laugh a little.
Mom continued: “Maddie Turner married well.”
“The Turners had been here a long time,” said the old woman. “Mariners. Merchant marines. There are two main branches of the family. One from Ed Turner; the other from his brother, Sam. Ed was probably the most famous. During the days of the Railroad, he would have been the person who picked up the cargo, so to speak, from the Delaware side. He wasn’t the only seaman involved, but he knew the shoreline like no one else. Once, so the legend goes, another ship carrying a family of runaways was hit by a quick storm and dashed against the rocks. Ed Turner sailed right into that storm looking for survivors, but of course there were none. What did survive was a sloop of bounty hunters that had been chasing the family.”
“Did Ed Turner confront them?” Dad asked.
“No, they had already gotten through,” said Mrs. Johnson. “But it did get dicey for the bounty hunters because over on this side they were met by freedom fighters. People on Cape Island didn’t welcome Southern tourists of that type. Someone had rung one of the big bells on the beach that were used as signals whenever a ship was in trouble or a fire had broken out. The volunteers came running and found the bounty hunters.”
“I’ll bet a lot of things happened like that, and history will never know about them for sure,” said Dad.
“That’s why finding facts is like finding diamonds,” said Mrs. Johnson. “They’re that precious.”
“Here’s a fact,” Mom said. “Maddie Turner married into the Ed Turner branch.”
“Correct,” said Mrs. Johnson. “I see you’ve done some research, Mrs. Dunn. I’m a direct descendant of Ed Turner. Ed was third-generation free black. Owned property. He was a seaman. So was Sam at first, but he gave it up. Wanted to set his own course in the world. So instead of boats, Sam would drive people around in conveyance wagons for pay. He knew everything that was going on. The conveyance wagons, taxicabs we’d call them today, stayed in the Sam Turner family for a long time. See that lantern? My great-grandmother once told me that her husband, Miles, use to hang it on his wagon.”
“To light his way?” Kristen asked.
“It’s a nice lantern, but it’s not big enough to give off the amount of light that a conveyance driver would have needed,” said Mrs. Johnson. “I believe that Miles used it as a sort of good-luck charm. For him, it gave off a light that few could see — a special glow.”
“I’m a bit confused,” Dad said.
“It can get confusing,” allowed Mrs. Johnson, favoring him with a smile.
“Miles Turner was your great-grandfather and he was from the Ed Turner branch and he drove a conveyance wagon?” Dad asked. “He wasn’t a seaman?”
“The families then were somewhat like families today,” said Mrs. Johnson. “Ed Turner’s son, Miles, took more of a liking to the work that his Uncle Sam did, than to the seafaring work that his father did. A son not wanting to follow his father into the family business. Happens all the time.”
“True,” said Dad.
“Well, that old lantern sure looks nice hanging there,” said Mom.
“I use the Light-Keeper each night, for about an hour,” said Mrs. Johnson. “I do it to help the spirits of the past find their way out of bondage.”
When Mrs. Johnson said this, Emily felt the hairs on her neck stand.
“A symbolic gesture,” Dad said.
Mrs. Johnson looked at him and nodded politely.
“We learn from the past, from all the people who came before us,” Mrs. Johnson continued. “But, maybe on some level, people in the past learn from us. Or, maybe on some level, we help the people in the past.”
“Maybe,” said Dad, with a polite shrug.
“Isn’t that what most religions say?” Mrs. Johnson said, her dark eyes twinkling. “That we should be good now because somebody, 2,000, 3,000, or 5,000 years ago wants us to behave?”
Just then, Emily felt someone staring at her. She glanced about the porch and yard, but could not see Conjuror. Then, she heard faint rustling in the bushes and knew, even though she hadn’t seen, that the house cat had passed by.
When the vacation brigade was back in their home after the visit with Mrs. Johnson, Emily, Brittany, and Kristen began playing Parchessi (an old board game that they had found in a cupboard at the shore house) while Mom and Dad started making sandwiches.
When Emily remembered to fetch her flip-flops from the back shower stall, she passed by the kitchen and overheard Dad say to Mom: “Maybe, on some level, that old lady is nuts.”
“Oh, Frank, she’s just a little odd.”
“But leaving a lantern on for the spirits? Yikes.”
“She’s old,” said Mom. “Let’s see how you’re doing when you’re closing in on 90.”
“If I start leaving lights on for spirits, you have my permission to shoot me,” said Dad.
That afternoon, the sea had decided to behave. The waves broke in long lines from pier to pier, and the water’s color had lightened so that it looked like one of Emily’s favorite school blouses. The girls were always amazed by how much fun they could have on the beach without really seeming to do anything. The friends played Frisbee, built sandcastles, explored tidal pools, and of course splashed in the waves with Dad and Mom.
They even played touch football with some boys their age. When the girls asked Mr. and Mrs. Dunn’s permission, Dad said: “Heaven help us.”
“What?” asked Emily.
But before Dad could respond, Mom said, “Score a touchdown for me, Em.”
All that activity made them hungry for a late-afternoon snack and Dad gave them money to go up on the boardwalk for some cheese fries.
“There’s a nice salad stand up there, too,” Mom called after them.
“Maybe tomorrow, Mrs. Dunn,” said Brittany.
They sat on a bench on the boardwalk, eating their cheese fries and watching the planes fly by dragging big banners behind them that advertised things like “Karaoke-night specials” at some restaurant in Wildwood, or encouragement to read the Atlantic City Press.
Two seagulls perched on the rail nearby and watched the girls.
“I’d offer you one of my cheese fries, but then I’d have to feed 17 of your friends,” Emily joked.
“Or 17-hundred,” said Brittany.
Emily glanced at Kristen, who she expected to follow with “or 17-thousand” — the next step on this back-and-forth that would probably end up at 17-gazillion. Emily was surprised to find a quiet Kristen, blinking at the horizon with a very serious look on her face.
“Earth to Kristen Reese,” Emily said.
“I was just thinking about everything we learned this week about slavery and the Underground Railroad,” said Kristen. “It makes me a little scared.”
“Makes me especially scared,” agreed Brittany.
“What makes me scared is to see Kristen Reese so worried,” said Emily, and nudged Kristen to try and get her back to her normal silly self. But Kristen still looked concerned.
“It couldn’t happen again, could it?” she asked.
Just then, one of the gulls that had been watching them suddenly spread its wings and swooshed away crying, “Gone! Gone! Gone!”
Brittany said, “My Dad says that freedom is like our fence in our backyard. Every spring he has to paint it. He says that if you don’t take care of it, it rots.”
“What does that mean?” Emily asked. “I don’t think I understand.”
“It means vote,” Brittany said.
Kristen said, “Boat? What do boats have to do with it?”
“Not boat,” said Brittany. “Vote! Vote!”
The misunderstanding, however, was enough to make Emily start to laugh. Her friends joined her. She was glad that, just like magic, they were back to being three lucky young girls having fun at the beach. Too much thinking about all this serious stuff had made her head start to ache a little. Or was that caused by having to squint so much?
That night, the colors at Sunset Beach swirled so freely that Emily could almost hear a fizzling sound as the day sunk into the horizon.
“Can’t we stay here forever?”
Emily added: “That’s what’s known as a rhetorical question.”
The girls truly did want to extend the day, it had been that delicious. So, back at the house, Emily asked: “May we go up to the boardwalk again?”
Mom sang, “Not by yourselves.”
“But we’re 12 years old,” cried Emily.
“No way,” Mom insisted. “Brittany and Kristen’s parents would not be happy.”
A chorus of “Please? Please? Please?” descended on the quiet hour and was met by a defense of “No! No! Stop!”
Finally, Mom said: “Only if an adult goes with you and I’m staying here.” She glanced at Dad.
“I’ll go,” Dad said. “Let me find my shoes.” Then, he glanced at the children’s feet. “You’re not wearing those, are you girls?”
As a joke, the friends had earlier put on the softball spikes that they’d gotten the first night on the boardwalk.
Emily swung toward Mom.
“Please? Can I? I think they’re cool.”
“But you might wear them out,” Mom said.
“Come on, Mom. We love these shoes.”
Brittany and Kristen added: “Please Mrs. Dunn?”
“What if you step on someone’s foot?”
“Mom!” said Emily. “We’d never step on anybody’s foot. We’re not little girls. Please? They’re only rubber spikes.”
Mom sighed. “What do you think, Frank?”
“You guys start heading up,” called Dad from the bedroom. “If I’m not out, you’re to wait for me at Mrs. Johnson’s house. I don’t want you getting any more of a head start than that.”
Emily took a deep breath after the screen door slammed behind them. The smell of seawater mixed with all the aromas of food wafting from the boardwalk a few blocks away: funnel cakes, popcorn, cotton candy, soft pretzels. The fragrances curled in and around each other under stars that pierced the purple dome of the sky. Carnival music drifted close to a harmony that she could almost recognize. And as they headed toward the sea, Emily noticed that the light of the arcades on the promenade scattered like dust as it reached further into the darkness overhead. There was a coolness in the air and Emily realized, with some surprise, that the start of a new school year wasn’t all that far off.
She asked Brittany and Kristen which of the two seventh-grade teachers they hoped they would get. The girls agreed that they liked Ms. Urmson, who had a reputation for being tough, but fair.
“Far enough,” said Kristen.
“Don’t you mean fair enough?” asked Emily.
“Nope,” said Brittany, “she means far enough. As in, we have to wait here for your father.”
Emily hadn’t realized that they had already walked to Mrs. Johnson’s house. The girls stopped by the gate and turned to look back down the street for Mr. Dunn.
Just then, a white mass jumped out from under a parked car and leaped over the fence and onto Mrs. Johnson’s front lawn.
Emily recognized a second too late that it was Conjuror — too late because she had joined Brittany and Kristen in screaming.
“It’s only the cat,” Kristen managed to say. Emily’s relief did not last long, however, because from the porch came a loud crash. She swung around and saw that the lantern had dropped to the ground. It was lying on its side, still lighted.
“Let’s run back to my Dad,” Emily said.
“We can’t,” said Kristen.
“That lantern could make the house catch fire,” said Brittany.
“You’re right,” said Emily.
The girls opened the gate and rushed onto the porch. Kristen rang the doorbell while Brittany reached carefully for the lantern. She wanted to set it upright without getting burned.
However, when Brittany grabbed the handle and lifted the lantern to give it to Mrs. Johnson, whom the girls heard approaching from inside the house, the porch had disappeared and wind howled around high reeds that suddenly surrounded them from every side.
In the light of the lantern, Emily could see the horror on her friends’ faces as they realized, in an instant, that they had once more slipped away from their own time.
“Not again!” moaned Kristen. “It’s cold.”
“And wet!” yelled Brittany.
It was, in fact, very much a continuation of the night when they had traveled back to 1855 on the beach and had lost their ice cream cones as a result. Emily realized, of course, that it could have been any evening in the long, long history of the universe. It could be that dinosaurs roamed nearby. Or space people. Who’s to say that this was Earth? But that wasn’t the case. Emily didn’t know how she knew, but she knew, that this was the same night that they had visited when they had dropped their desserts. Still, that didn’t ease her confusion for though she knew when they were, she couldn’t figure out where they were. She guessed that they were still on Cape May, or in this case, Cape Island — but for three 12-year-olds, that was a big place.
“There’s got to be a reason that this is happening to us,” cried Brittany.
The rain, Emily supposed, would have been merely light drizzle if it hadn’t been for the wind. But the gusts that seemed to spring from the ground as well as shoot from the air, made the wetness sting. The sky was unusual, reminding her of a quiet night last winter when falling snow had covered her backyard. Now, light seeped through in the same way. Even without the lantern, the girls would have been able to see somewhat. But having the Light-Keeper made visibility that much better. Emily had never felt so aware in her life.
“Hear that?” Emily shouted.
“The ocean!” she said. “Over that way!”
Even in the short time that they had been on vacation, the rhythm of the Atlantic had so become a part of their world that Emily had almost not noticed it now. She remembered a clock at her grandmother’s house that seemed so loud when she had first arrived at visits, but by the end — after playing with cousins, or laughing with aunts — she hardly heard the “tic-tock, tic-tock.”
“Is that really where we want to go — the ocean?” shouted Kristen.
Emily shrugged. “I don’t know,” she said. “Where there’s the ocean, there’s usually people.”
“Not on nights like this,” said Kristen.
“Emily might have a point,” said Brittany. “Maybe there’s a lighthouse.”
“Or lifeguards,” said Emily.
“Or… or… shelter,” cried Kristen.
“Anything!” said Brittany.
“We shouldn’t get too close to the water, though,” said Kristen. “I don’t want to be swept away!”
So they walked, holding onto each other’s shirts and covering their faces with their forearms. They took turns holding the lantern, and leading the way. The Light-Keeper was heavier than Emily remembered. It rocked on its handle and several times she worried that the fire might go out. Thankfully, though, the glow continued, directing the girls out of the marshes and onto a muddy pathway. Even with spikes on, the friends nearly slipped a few times.
They sloshed up the road toward the sea. Sure enough, when they approached the ocean, they saw another light. Over in the distance, a beam reached out toward the choppy waves.
“Lighthouse!” Emily said. “But it’s so far away.”
“It’s probably at Sunset Beach,” said Brittany. “That’s a good hike from here, especially since a lot of the roads we know haven’t been paved yet.”
Suddenly, Kristen said, “Look!” and pointed toward the opposite direction.
Out in the darkness, they could just make out pinpricks of light.
“Lanterns,” said Brittany.
They were stationary glows, as if the owners had laid the lights down and then had forgotten about them.
“We don’t know that it’s the bounty hunters,” Emily said.
“I won’t take any chances,” said Brittany.
“But maybe they’re the townspeople,” said Emily. “Maybe they can help us get out of this storm.” As she started over, however, Brittany grabbed her arm.
“We don’t know who they are,” Brittany insisted, pulling Emily and Kristen down behind a sand dune so that they could not be seen.
“We can’t stay here,” said Emily.
“Why not?” said Kristen. “Every other time we slipped into the past, we made it back to our own time again. Eventually.”
“Yeah, but now there’s a difference,” Emily said, and the sky rumbled, as if in lazy agreement.
“We do need to get out of this storm,” Brittany agreed.
Just then, the girls heard groaning nearby.
“What’s that?” cried Kristen.
“Right over there,” said Emily. “I’ll check it out.”
Before her friends could protest, she grabbed the Light-Keeper, crawled two dunes over, and found something stirring in the sand.
“Jane Hobbs!” Emily cried.
Emily remembered the clothes, but the girl herself looked so different. She was soaked and groggy. Barely breathing. Her face appeared gray in the lantern’s light and she whimpered, as if trapped in a nightmare. But it was Jane, all right. The welt across her cheek looked wider, almost as if the wound were opening. Emily began shaking her as Brittany and Kristen scurried over.
“We’ve got to get help,” Brittany said, gesturing toward the lights.
She and Emily looked at each other.
“Are you sure?” Emily asked. Now, she was the one who was wary. “They might not be friendly. It doesn’t make sense, them being out here by the ocean in the middle of a storm.”
“What’s our other choice?” Brittany asked. “We can’t drag Jane all the way to the lighthouse. We can’t leave her here. We might not be able to find her again. Anyway, she needs help. Now.”
Jane suddenly rolled onto her side and wheezed, spitting up seawater. She shivered, groaned, and then drifted off again.
Emily shook her.
“Jane!” she said. “Jane! Whatever you do, please don’t go to sleep. If you can hear me, stay awake!”
“Help me, please,” Jane murmured and Emily gasped. It was the same mysterious voice that she had heard under the waves on the first day of her vacation.
Brittany asked Emily: “Are you with me? We owe it to Jane to at least find out who those people are. We can sneak up on them.”
“All three of us?” Kristen asked.
“We can’t leave Jane,” Emily said.
She and Brittany looked at Kristen.
“OK. I’ll stay with her,” Kristen said. “But don’t take all day.”
“You mean ‘night,’” Emily corrected.
“Why don’t you want her not to sleep?” Kristen asked.
“Because, she may not wake up,” Emily explained. “Feel how cold she is. Just like people trapped in a snowstorm shouldn’t sleep. Body temperature drops too quickly and that’s the end.”
“I’ll keep her awake,” Kristen promised.
Emily and Brittany left the lantern with Kristen and Jane and began walking, in a bent-over manner, around the dunes toward the lights. Their softball spikes made a squishing sound, but they helped the girls keep their balance. Even so, it was a tough trip.
Twice they stumbled over clumps of seaweed and once they stepped forward only to find themselves tumbling down a big embankment. The wind still howled, however, and the rain fell even harder. If there were people near the lights, they hadn’t heard them. Or, at least, Emily hoped that they hadn’t.
“Please be good people,” Emily prayed.
As she and Brittany drew closer, the glow from the lanterns began to shine further into the darkness, illuminating a boat that was propped up with boards, almost as if it were a beach umbrella knocked on its side. Except this umbrella had been set up against the rain, rather than the sun. Three men huddled underneath, their faces looking ghostly blue in the light from the lamps.
“We leave soon as this storm lets up!” one of the men said.
Emily shook from fear. Despite the wind and the crashing waves, the voice reached her too clearly. She hadn’t realized how close they had crawled to these people.
“Without any runaways?” another said, sounding as if he were about to either cry or laugh.
“You saw that their ship hit the reef!”
“There might be survivors.”
“That’s exactly what some of these Yankees think. They’ll be combing the beach.”
“I say we search now, take any slaves we find back to Lewes before they know what happened.”
“This is a small boat. We’ll wind up dashed against rocks too, if we try to leave now.”
“We leave when the storm eases. But we do a quick search of the beach first.” That seemed to settle the matter for the men — and the two spying girls as well.
Emily tugged Brittany’s shirt and signaled that they should head back to Jane and Kristen. Brittany nodded. The girls had heard enough.
Just then a voice cut into their exchange, seeming as rude as if it had interrupted a real conversation.
“God be praised!”
The girls swung about and saw a large form hovering over them.
“Run!” Emily cried, as the man reached out his big hand. He looked like he was going to grab her on the shoulder but, instead, he brushed Emily to the sand and grabbed Brittany.
“Over here,” he cried. “Runaway!”
Emily scampered to her feet. Brittany struggled, but could not break free.
“Emily!” she cried. “Help me, Emily!”
In those moments, which seemed to stretch as far as the protesting sea, Emily saw that the man had tightened his grip on her friend. He had let go of the shoulder only to lift her off her feet, as if Brittany were a sack. He struggled to maintain his balance in the sand. The rain fell off him as it might roll down the side of tent.
In those moments, which seemed to glow like the troubled sky above, Emily heard the other men respond, starting to run in their direction.
In those moments, which reached back toward a terror that, until now, had slept through her darkest nightmares, Emily saw her friend’s contorted face, and her arms that reached out for help.
In those moments, which hardened like plaster in art class that had been made too quickly and applied too slowly, Emily recalled the police officer that had visited their school one time and told the children what they should do if a stranger ever grabbed them.
Emily screamed as loud as she could. It must have been very loud, for the look the kidnapper shot her was one of angry surprise. The next step, the officer had said, was to run and get help. But that was advice for another time, and Emily knew that no help would be coming.
She then recalled what her cousins, Kate and Therese, had told her about SING, which stands for the four weak spots on an attacker — solar plexus, instep, nose, groin.
“And you’ve got to hit or kick him as hard as you can,” Uncle Carlos had added. “These are bad men.”
“Yeah, Em, real hard,” said Therese. “Like you’re trying to score a goal in soccer.”
Kate had added darkly: “Your life may depend on it.”
Now, Emily saw that this man’s nose and solar plexus were too high up to strike. So was the groin until Emily stamped down as hard as she could on his instep. She felt her spikes dig in.
He grunted and doubled up a bit, but still held onto Brittany. That’s when Emily kicked at his groin as hard as she could. She thought for a moment that she had missed, maybe hitting the thigh. But the man screamed, and Brittany wiggled out of his grasp.
“Run!” Emily cried.
But before they took off, Brittany brought her elbow down as hard as she could on the man’s nose. Emily heard a crunching sound.
“Ouch!” he yelled, covering his face and falling to the ground.
“Now!” Brittany screamed.
As the girls scrambled over the dunes they could still hear the man cursing.
“That way,” he said, to his friends. “They clubbed me.”
The other men took off, swearing as they thrashed their way through the reeds.
“Here!” Emily said, pointing in the direction that she thought she and Brittany should run.
“But that’s the way we came!” said Brittany, holding Emily back for an instant. “We can’t lead them to Jane!”
They turned and headed away from the dunes, but the men had spotted them.
“There they are!”
Part of Emily felt relieved because they had steered the bounty hunters away from Jane Hobbs. Another part of her felt more frightened than she had ever been in her life.
She could still hear the men following. They were not cursing or calling to each other anymore. They struggled quietly in the storm to catch the girls and their quietness was, perhaps, the thing that scared Emily the most.
“Conjuror,” she whispered. “Please.” But the cat was nowhere to be seen.
Emily remembered stories that she had heard about people who had simply disappeared. Dad had said that they were probably murdered. But what if they had vanished as she and Brittany would vanish if the men caught up to them and the girls, for some reason, couldn’t return to their own time? The bounty hunters would kill Emily, the witness. She knew that much. And they would kidnap Brittany into a horrible life in which her friend would wish she were dead.
“Is this where the missing go?” Emily wondered in those desperate seconds.
The exhausted girls were slowing down. The men were gaining. Just then, Emily saw it. They were, in fact, on top of it. The fire/rescue bell. Brittany must have seen it too, because she stumbled over to it and pulled the rope as hard as she could.
Because the bell was a little smaller than the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia, the loudness of it surprised Emily all the more.
“Bong! Bong! Bong!”
Three times Brittany pulled the rope. As soon as the third “Bong!” echoed over the dunes and above the roar of the waves, Emily thought that she heard more voices, coming from the direction opposite from where the bounty hunters pursued them.
“How did they get in front of us?” Brittany screamed.
“Girls!” A big man suddenly stood before them.
Though Emily wanted to cry from fatigue, she was determined to try to kick this intruder in the groin as well.
However, when the man asked: “Are you OK?” Emily hesitated, blinking the rain out of her eyes and getting a better view of this person.
His giant frame stood outlined against the stormy sky. His cowboy hat rested high on his forehead. His black features looked to Emily to be much tougher than his brown leather jacket — a jacket that reminded Emily of suits of armor that she’d seen in encyclopedias.
Behind this giant stood others, carrying lanterns. On the roadway she could see carriages and people holding the reins of horses that needed to be steadied.
“Where’s your family?” the man asked. “Where’d your ship go down?”
“They’re chasing us,” Brittany managed to say.
Just then the men who’d been stumbling through the dunes after the girls suddenly broke through the surrounding brush. When they saw the townsfolk, they froze for an instant, but only an instant. One of the men brandished a rifle. When he did this, Emily heard the “click click click” of what she supposed to be other guns being cocked behind her.
“That’s private property,” the chief bounty hunter rasped, pointing at Brittany.
Emily screamed and fell into her friend’s arms. As they hugged she cried: “Leave her alone! Leave her alone!” Brittany patted her and whispered, “It’s OK.”
Emily looked up to see three or four of the townsfolk suddenly rush the bounty hunters. When a gun went off, she closed her eyes again. When she opened them next, she saw about five of the townsfolk disappearing into the brush. She didn’t see any of the bounty hunters, but noticed that the rifle the one had carried lay on the ground.
“They won’t hurt you now,” a woman, who hadn’t joined the chase, said to the girls. “They’ve run off and they won’t be back. You’re safe. New Jersey’s a free state.”
“I’ve got two friends waiting out on the dunes,” Emily said.
“Lead us to them,” the woman said.
Emily knew that she was safe, but her heart didn’t seem to be able to take in that information because it pounded like a bass guitar on a CD player in a teen-ager’s car. The strange beat played out as the search party found Kristen and Jane; as the girls were loaded onto a wagon; and as they were led to a building where grownups wrapped them in blankets and settled them around a crackling fireplace in the back, right underneath a sign that read: “Cape Island AME Church.”
It pounded as she saw people come and go, and men meet and nod. It beat loudly, but not so loud that she couldn’t hear pieces of conversation that led the townsfolk to the terrible conclusion that all the other runaways on the ship — including Jane Hobbs’s family — had drowned in the escape attempt.
Jane herself knew. Emily could tell by the way the girl sat staring at the fire, not saying anything. She cradled the lantern that Kristen had brought — Aggie Turner Johnson’s lantern — as if it were a doll. Brittany and Kristen, lying close to the fire, couldn’t help themselves — they fell asleep. Exhaustion weighed heavily upon Emily as well, but as she started nodding off a voice came from behind.
“Where you from?”
She swiveled about to see the large man who’d led the rescue party. He was looking at her softball spikes.
Emily pulled the blanket tighter around her shoulders as she considered how to answer. She didn’t have to. The woman had come over.
“Don’t quiz these children now, Sam Turner,” she said. “They’ve been through too much. Talk to them tomorrow.”
Emily tried not to look too surprised. Sam Turner. One of the Turners who’d helped so many former slaves start new lives in freedom. Mrs. Aggie Turner Johnson’s ancestor.
Her thoughts were cut short when, to her surprise, Jane Hobbs murmured something.
“What’s that, babe?” the woman asked.
Jane said: “I can read and write. That’s how I got this.” She ran her fingers over the welt on her face. “Punishment. The missus caught me once. Used a riding whip. But they couldn’t stop me. I can read and I can write. May I please have a quill pen and piece of paper?”
The woman scurried across the church to the pulpit, pulled the ink jar from its hold, grabbed the pen and a piece of paper. As she did this Emily looked from the woman, to Jane, and back as if she were watching a ping-pong match.
“Here, darling,” the woman said, when she returned. “You write. Write as much as you want and don’t you worry about it. This is Cape Island, New Jersey, and here we’re allowed to learn.” She put her hand on Emily’s shoulder. “And you,” she said, “why don’t you rest like your friends here.”
Emily did lie down, but she couldn’t keep her eyes off Jane as the runaway dipped the pen and scratched a message before the fire. At one point she blew on the paper, waved it about. In those quiet seconds, in a church from another time that sheltered her from a rain falling from another sky, Emily considered the strangeness of her circumstances.
She felt happy and sad all at once. Happy, because Jane Hobbs was now safe. Sad, because Jane had lost all of her family. Sad, because of all the millions of others who were still trapped in slavery. Sad, because Emily knew what bloody event — just five years off — would be needed to free those in bondage.
Something else, too. This time traveling had presented Emily with a great gift. All students are taught about how horrible slavery was — Emily and her friends had actually been able to see for themselves.
What had made Jane Hobbs’s parents risk everything — even, it turned out, death — to run away? Freedom. Emily had learned that it was not just a word in a school textbook. It was a thing, as real as the blanket across her shoulders or the spikes on her feet. No, that wasn’t quite right. It was as real as a barrel full of money. It was real and it was priceless.
She had no doubt that, just like the other times, she and her friends would return to their own world. But they would forget, just like the other times. Emily didn’t want to forget. She wanted to remember just how valuable this thing, freedom, was.
Now, Emily watched as Jane Hobbs folded the paper she’d written on and was about to put it in one of her pockets. But before Jane did, she felt her cloths and must have realized that they were still too damp; that they might make the paper bunch up or the ink run.
Just then, Mr. Turner had come over again.
“Here,” he said squatting next to the child and grabbing the note. “We’ll put this somewhere safe. You know, I’ve got three children at home but my wife isn’t happy because they’re all boys. She says boys are fine, but she wishes she had a little girl.”
“Your wife?” Jane said, still gazing dreamingly at the fire.
“The woman who’s been over here getting you children settled in,” said Sam Turner. Emily glanced across the church and saw the woman laying food out at a table, trying her best to not look at her husband and Jane Hobbs.
Sam Turner whispered: “She’s too shy to bring this adoption matter up, herself. Wants me to break the ice. But you’ve been through a lot. Think about it. We just want you to know that you don’t have to be alone in the world.”
“Your wife,” Jane Hobbs said, as if she’d decided something.
Then, Sam Turner spoke again in his big, raspy voice. “Don’t you worry, about them bounty hunters, either,” Sam Turner said. “We know how to keep them away. We’ll give you a new life — and a new name to go with it. Is this your lantern?” he asked. Jane turned toward Emily. The runaway must have known that the girl with the strange shoes had been awake the entire time. Emily nodded.
“Yes,” Jane said. “It’s my lantern — my Light-Keeper.”
“Light-Keeper?” said Sam Turner. Emily thought that he savored the phrase as if it were a morsel of food. He continued: “Here’s an old trick I learned. Sometimes we who work on the Railroad need to send messages. Watch.”
He unscrewed the top of the lantern, rolled the message up, so that it looked like a narrow tube, and then inserted it into a screw hole right next to a real screw hole.
“That will keep a long time,” he said. “Before I tighten the lid, is there something you want to add to the note?”
Jane nodded and Mr. Turner extracted the note and handed it back. He waited patiently as she unfolded the message, scratched something else on it, waved it around again, and then refolded it and handed it back to Mr. Turner. He again rolled it up, stuck it into the unused screw hole, and then put the lantern lid back on.
“Come on over, girl, and let’s get you some food.”
He gathered Jane Hobbs up and as he led her toward a table at the side of the church where a meal was being set out, the runaway looked back at Emily and then at the lantern.
Emily nodded again, agreeing to watch over this treasure until the girl returned.
She got up, and grabbed the lantern, which because it had been unlit for some time now, seemed cold to the touch.
As she did this, Brittany and Kristen stirred and the three girls looked at each other.
“We’re still here,” Kristen moaned, rubbing her eyes. The three stood. Emily was about to say that they should try to sneak out to where they’d been in the woods when they had first crossed over, but then she saw Mrs. Turner coming toward them.
“You children must be hungry, too,” she said. “Here,” and she reached out her hands, “let me take that lantern from you.”
Just like that, they were back in the present, on Mrs. Aggie Turner Johnson’s front porch. The old woman was leaning out of her screen door and the girls were handing her the lantern — now lit again — that had fallen. Emily was wondering how she could fix the top of it, which had gotten damaged. The screws at two of the four corners were pulling loose from their holes.
“Thank God a fire didn’t start,” the old lady said.
Emily said, “Here, Mrs. Johnson. This piece of paper fell out.”
At first, Mrs. Johnson didn’t understand what Emily meant. She flicked the overhead electric porch light on, blew out the lantern, and came outside.
“Fell out of where, Emily?”
“The lantern, I think.”
“This,” in one hand Mrs. Johnson brandished the miniature scroll as if she were a teacher holding a piece of chalk, “fell out of this?” In the other hand, she held the extinguished lantern by the bottom, as if it were a pumpkin whose stem had been damaged.
“I saw it too,” said Brittany. “It fell out of the lantern.”
A voice called from over the fence.
“Everything OK?” It was Dad and — Emily was delighted to see — Mom.
As Emily’s parents opened the gate and walked up to the porch, Dad said: “Sorry I took so long, girls.”
“Wasn’t his fault,” Mom added. “At the last second I changed my mind about going and then couldn’t find my shoes. Oh no! Your lantern!”
Mrs. Johnson said quickly, “It can be fixed, Mrs. Dunn. The cat must have knocked it off its hook. The girls saw it, thank God. Could have been a real fire hazard.”
“Mrs. Dunn,” said Kristen in a voice loud with excitement, “there was a secret message inside.”
Mom looked at Emily with wide eyes.
“Well, it did fall out of the lantern,” Emily explained.
“Before we get all agitated, let’s just see what this is,” said Mrs. Johnson, who had settled herself on the rocking chair and began unfolding the piece of paper.
“Would you like to be alone?” Mom asked.
“No, no, no,” said Mrs. Johnson. “These young ladies made this discovery. They should be here when we see what’s going on.”
Dad asked, “Do you need more light?”
“I’ve got 20/20 vision, with my glasses,” said Mrs. Johnson. “Let me get to this little note before these girls die of curiosity.”
Emily could tell that the old woman didn’t really expect to see much. Then the 12-year-old glanced at her parents, who were smiling. They didn’t think the piece of paper would turn out to be such a great find either.
Brittany and Kristen, however, watched in wonderment as Mrs. Johnson unrolled the scroll, unfolded the paper. Her friends must have had the same feeling that Emily had — the sense that this was, indeed, something important.
Mrs. Johnson gasped.
“What is it?” Dad asked.
“Now this is really interesting,” said Mrs. Johnson, who handed the note to Mom.
“Read it!” the girls pleaded. “Tell us!”
Mom brought the piece paper close to her face and began.
I, Jane Hobbs, on this night, August 22, 1855, am now a free girl. I know that my family smiles down upon me. I will always pray for them. I can read. I can write. I am 10-years-old and will never again call anyone master. I will cover the tracks of my escape on what folks call the Underground Railroad, so that others can escape. No one will ever know except for whoever finds this note. I leave that up to God.
Jane Hobbs died tonight. A kind family will take in an orphan from the storm and raise her as their own. God Bless Mister Sam Turner.
When Mom finished, it was as if a blanket had been thrown over the soft summer night. The noise from the promenade hesitated, just as a wave might before crashing down, and even the crickets paused. Emily imagined all the creatures of Cape May trying to take in the meaning of this letter that had fallen out of the lantern, but might just as easily have fallen from the sky.
“Well,” Mrs. Johnson finally said, and then took a deep breath and repeated: “Well. I’ve got lots of dots to connect, don’t I?”
“Look at how well-preserved it is,” Mom said. “The paper feels strange. It’s been coated with some sort of preservative, I think.”
“Do you think it’s authentic?” Dad asked Mrs. Johnson.
“Don’t know,” the old woman sighed. “It’ll be a lot of work finding out.” Aggie Turner Johnson seemed to slump a little more in her rocker.
Emily felt awkward, embarrassed by the fact that she could not think of anything to say. She glanced about the porch. Everyone else seemed as if they, too, had somehow overheard something that they shouldn’t have. They looked to be searching for just the right words.
Except Brittany. Emily’s friend didn’t worry about saying anything. Instead, she walked over to Mrs. Aggie Turner Johnson and gave the old woman a big hug.
“If anyone can connect those dots, it’s you, Miss Aggie,” said Brittany.
“I’ll help!” said Mom. “This will be a project!”
“You’ll be going back to your home, and busy life,” said Mrs. Johnson.
Kristen said, “Mrs. Dunn majored in history in college.”
Mom added: “We can keep in touch by phone and mail. There’s a lot of information that I can pull off the Internet and send to you. I’ll be your research assistant.”
“There’s an idea,” said Mrs. Johnson, suddenly rocking herself out of her chair to shake Mom’s hand. “This will be exciting. And fun!”
“Connect those dots!” Emily cheered, giving Kristen and Brittany high-fives.
Connecting the dots was what Mrs. Johnson set out to do in the next couple of days. The girls saw her two or three times. She moved quickly, calling a professor at Rutgers University who planned to visit the next week.
“He’s going to check the paper and the ink and tell me whether they really date from 1855,” said Mrs. Johnson.
“That will prove that the note is real,” said Kristen.
“No, babe, that’s just the first step,” said Mrs. Johnson. “There are a lot of things that need to be investigated in order to uncover who wrote this note — and when.”
“It’s got to be somebody in your family,” said Brittany. “Somebody your great-grandmother knew.”
Mrs. Johnson only smiled as she petted Conjuror who, for once, had settled onto her lap as the old woman sat on her front porch.
“Lots of dots, lots of dots,” she warned. “We’ll probably never know for sure.”
The three friends last saw the old woman on the Saturday that Brittany and Kristen were going home. Visiting Mrs. Johnson had been on the girls’ to-do list that they’d written the night before. The first item — watch the sunrise — had been scratched because the girls had stayed up so late eating popcorn and watching movies that they had overslept.
“I don’t want to miss anything else,” said Kristen at breakfast.
They looked at the sea, strolled on the promenade, traded in their arcade tickets for little souvenirs, and wrote their names in the sand.
“Bye-bye, ocean!” Kristen called from the boardwalk. She glanced a bit nervously at Brittany. Emily could tell that Kristen hoped that she hadn’t embarrassed Brittany in front of the people passing by.
Brittany, to her friends’ surprise, cupped her hands over her mouth and called: “See you next year!”
The seagulls sailing above the breakers seemed to answer, “Call! Call!”
Brittany added, “Let’s head back.”
And even though they still had time, and even though Emily had wanted to see if any of the baseball pitching cages were open, they turned and left.
In that moment, Emily felt something that she hadn’t expected: relief.
She thought: “I don’t have to be the one who comes up with all the ideas all the time.”
On the way home, the friends checked to see if Mrs. Johnson had awakened yet.
“I know she’s awake,” said Emily. “She gets up with the birds.”
The old lady was not only awake, but appeared to be entertaining company. From a block away, Emily could just make out another form sitting on Mrs. Johnson’s porch.
She wondered whether Mom or Dad had come down for a visit, but as she drew closer to Mrs. Johnson’s house, Emily discovered that the other person was a child.
“I thought your great-granddaughter wasn’t supposed to come until tomorrow,” Brittany said, as the girls stood by the gate.
The girl, who had been sitting on a stool next to Mrs. Johnson helping the old woman pot a plant, now stood and preened over the bushes so that she could get a better look at the three visitors. She wore a soccer shirt and, for some reason, that made Emily decide right off that she liked this person.
“She and her Daddy — my grandson — arrived a day early, and I’m just thrilled,” said Mrs. Johnson. “Come on up here, girls. Meet my great-granddaughter, Kimberly Johnson.”
As introductions were made, Emily noticed that Kimberly ran her hand across her cheek. Mrs. Johnson had noticed, too.
“Heavens, girl!” Mrs. Johnson said to Kimberly. “Look at that smudge!”
Dirt had marked Kimberly’s face, looking like a scar running down her cheek. For the second time this vacation, Emily Dunn was struck by a powerful sense of déjà vu.
Even after Mrs. Johnson had sent her great-granddaughter inside to wash up (“And don’t touch anything until you do!” she had warned), Emily couldn’t shake the feeling that in some mysterious way, she somehow knew a girl who looked a lot like Kimberly Johnson — especially when you add the smudge.
When Kimberly returned, Mrs. Johnson told the girls to sit.
“I just wanted to give you all an update on the Jane Hobbs note,” she said. Emily glanced at Kimberly. The great-granddaughter apparently knew all about it.
“Do you children know what a theory is?”
The girls raised their hands, slipping alarmingly quick — in Emily’s opinion — back into school mode.
“It’s something that hasn’t been proven yet,” the girl answered.
“Correct,” said Mrs. Johnson. “This is my theory on the note. It hasn’t been proven yet, and perhaps may never be proven.” The old woman shook her head and added: “By me, anyway.” Then, as if she had made up her mind about something, she sliced the air with her hand and said: “Doesn’t matter! Moses never made it to the Promised Land either. He left that up to his descendants.” Mrs. Johnson glanced at her great-granddaughter and quickly smiled.
The girls insisted, “Tell us! Tell us!”
Jane Hobbs, Mrs. Johnson had concluded, was, in fact, her great-grandmother, Maddie Turner. When she said this, the girls gasped.
“Let me explain,” said Mrs. Johnson. “I believe that my great-grandmother escaped on the Underground Railroad. Always thought so. I now believe that she had lost her family and had been adopted by Sam Turner. To throw off any more bounty hunters, they had given her a new identity: Maddie Turner. But because she wasn’t a blood relative of any of the boys in Ed Turner’s family, she could marry into the Ed Turner family without any problems and without,” the old woman ended with a wag of her finger, “even having to change her name.”
“The marriage certificate!” Emily recalled.
Brittany said, “So Maddie Turner’s maiden name and married name were the same.”
“That’s what happened!” Kristen said.
“That’s what great-grandmother thinks happened,” Kimberly Johnson reminded.
“This is only my theory,” agreed Mrs. Johnson. “I really didn’t want to mention it this early in the research, but I knew Brittany and Kristen were going home today. But it’s only a theory. You understand? My great-grandmother never spoke about any family except the one she was raised in.
“But that might not have been her original family. If she had been adopted, then what happened to her biological parents? Could have been anything. Maybe they tried to take a boat from Lewes to Sunset Beach and had gotten caught in a storm. The wind could have thrown them against any of the barrier reefs around here.” The old lady pointed toward the ocean. “For all I know, she may have washed ashore a few blocks up.”
When Mrs. Johnson said this, Emily glanced at Conjuror who once again was sitting on the windowsill behind the old lady. Did the creature smile at her? Emily shivered, and looked away, glancing at Kimberly Johnson. Emily could still picture the mark running down the girl’s cheek.
“It’s only my educated guess at this point,” Mrs. Johnson was still insisting.
“Only a theory,” Emily agreed, and did not add that she believed it as much as she believed that a day passed with each rotation of the Earth.
A little portion of a rotation of the Earth later, Emily was standing on the sidewalk in front of the shore house saying goodbye to Brittany and Kristen.
The three friends, in Dad’s words, really “hammed it up,” hugging each other and pretending to moan that they “will never see each other again.”
“Oh stop,” said Brittany’s father. “You’ll see each other next week.”
Although the parting had been all giggles, Emily in fact really got sad as she waved to her friends who waved back through the rear window of a car that disappeared around a street corner.
“You OK, Em?” Mom asked, as she placed her arm around Emily’s shoulder.
“I miss them already,” Emily said, still looking up the block. She felt almost as if she were going to cry.
However, something nice and unexpected occurred in that moment. As the car taking Brittany and Kristen away turned the corner, another car — going in the opposite direction — passed it. This car now approached and the driver began honking the horn to a song Dad would sometimes sing: “Shave and a haircut, two bits!”
Emily’s cousins had arrived.
“Talk about great timing,” Mom said.
Uncle Carlos and Aunt Terry, Therese and Kate, unpacked in a whirl of laughter, a storm of stories, a flurry of hugs. Emily was almost dizzy. It took, maybe, about two hours before her cousins had settled in and the families were walking up the street to the sea.
“Another beautiful day,” Mom said. “We’ve really been lucky.”
The ocean greeted them with applause as they staked their spot on the beach. Mom had already told the Comella’s about all the ghost stories and mysteries that surrounded Cape May.
“Buried treasure?” Kate said.
“We’re going to find some gold,” said Therese.
“How about finding some nice seashells?” said Uncle Carlos. He grabbed one of the plastic buckets that Emily had brought for digging.
So the grownups and the girls walked down the beach toward the reefs. It was then that Mom told the relatives about Mrs. Aggie Turner Johnson and the Underground Railroad that may or may not have stopped at Cape Island.
“It’s incredible the hardships those people went through to escape,” Mom said. “You wouldn’t believe it.”
Uncle Carlos said: “Oh, I’d believe it.” Emily saw that something tough and unbending had crept into her uncle’s smiling eyes.
“That’s right, Carlos,” Dad said. “You’ve got a pretty interesting escape story yourself.”
Emily asked, “What would you have done if they had caught you, Uncle Carlos?”
“If they would have been stupid enough to have let me live, I would have tried to run again.”
“Really?” Emily said.
“Sure!” Uncle Carlos said, and laughed. Emily felt a bit embarrassed. She’d heard this sort of laugh before. It’s the laugh that would often precede an adult’s explanation of something that was plainly obvious to adults — but maybe not so obvious to children. Uncle Carlos must have noticed Emily’s confusion.
He added: “I would have tried to swim here, right to this beach, if I thought I had a chance to make it. Swim across the ocean, sharks and all. That’s how much freedom means to you when you don’t have it.”
Just then, Kate tagged Therese and the sisters sprinted up the beach, with Emily following. She recalled Mom saying that the shore was everybody’s ticket to act younger than their age. When the girls finally stopped, they leaned on their knees catching their breaths as they looked back at their parents strolling in the afternoon sun.
“So let’s dig,” Therese said.
“You’re 16,” Kate reminded.
Therese shrugged. “I don’t care. I want to dig.”
“With our hands?” Emily asked.
“Good point,” said Therese, sitting on the sand. “When we go back to the blanket and the shovels — then we’ll dig.”
“Yeah,” added Kate, “I hear from a reliable source, Emily Dunn, that Cape May is loaded with buried gold. We’ve got to find treasure.”
Emily, shading her eyes with her hand, looked back down the beach and watched as her Uncle Carlos detached himself from the group of grownups and walked up to the water’s edge, looking for just the right seashells to put in the bucket.
Emily’s imagination, she had learned, never took a vacation. Mom had said that that was a good thing — healthy. “You probably couldn’t put the brakes on imagination even if you tried.”
Now, looking at Uncle Carlos, Emily imagined that the bucket he carried was really Mrs. Johnson’s Light-Keeper, and that he gazed beyond the breakers for a ship in trouble, for people trying to escape to freedom.
“We will find treasure,” Kate was insisting.
“For some reason,” said 12-year-old Emily Dunn, “I feel as if I just did.”
Author’s note: As of this date, it has never been definitively proven that the Underground Railroad did indeed stop at Cape May, though it has been a matter of conjecture for over a hundred years. There is also pretty strong evidence that Harriet Tubman did spend some summers at the resort. One thing is certain. For some reason, legends, indeed, seem to attach themselves to Cape May, New Jersey.