“Could you take a picture?” the girls ask, and I jump up from the bench outside the candy store and check they are all here, all thirteen. I am pleased they want a picture together, considering their history, which is fraught and filled with ugliness.
This is their Senior Trip. We’ve only been off the ferry for two hours, and the girls have spent most of that time weaving in and out of the gift shops on Main Street, finally emerging with a concerning excess of commemorative merchandise.
For the picture, they dress in their loot, rummaging through shopping bags to pull off tags and tug new items over their regular clothes—ball caps and sweatshirts and long-sleeved T’s, Put-in-Bay scrawled over the front in block letters or cursive or cartoon fonts, accompanied by graphics of anchors and lifesavers and compasses, in theme with this Lake Eerie Island off the coast of Sandusky, Ohio. The clothing is boxy and not particularly attractive, but the girls sell it because they are masters at posing. “Smile!” I say, and they throw up their arms and jut out their shoulders and squeeze at their waists. They embrace. They grin with their whole faces, which are fresh and round with youth. Posing, they look happy, and this makes me happy. I tell myself that I am seeing their true selves. “Another one!” I say. “Another!”
“Send us the pictures!” they say. “Are they cute? Do we need a filter?”
“No!” I say. “They are so cute!”
As soon as I drop the camera, the girls scatter. Scrolling through the pictures, I am reminded of the pictures we took earlier that spring, my husband and daughters and I. The day was cold, but we were trying to look warm. We were trying to look happy. Now, wind gusts in from the water, whipping my shirt across my body. Early June and the temperature is in the low sixties, but it feels colder if you aren’t standing in the sun. The kids had plans to kayak first thing off the ferry, but all morning the phone at the kayak place rang and rang with no answer. Turned out all twenty of the kayaks had been blown out into the water by rough morning winds. The staff was out on the lake for hours trying to retrieve them, with limited success. They are closed until further notice.
In the field across the street, adjacent to the harbor, the boys play soccer. They are red-faced, tireless, exultant.
I walk a lap around the main street, peering in the windows of all the businesses.
At one of the nicer bars, I am drawn to a poster for a band, the lead singer perched on a blue velvet couch, dressed in a blue velvet blazer. He has dreadlocks and a dark goatee. The other band members, all male, are arranged around him, looking fit and edgy but old. I know this band. Once upon a time, I loved this band. I would say I still love them, though I haven’t listened to them in ages and had assumed they were broken up. According to the poster, they are playing this night, on this island, at this bar, a coincidence on the level of fate. I imagine myself in that crowd, hearing that band. In my two hands, I hold a snow globe for each of my daughters. They are heavier than they appear, the plastic bag handles cutting into my fingers. To my surprise, the gift shops offered no stuffed animals, and the cashier didn’t have any tissue paper, so the globes were dropped defenseless into one thin bag. I had to ask for an extra so they wouldn’t keep bumping into each other.
Across the street, Mr. P. removes himself from the game and tips back his head to gulp from a stainless-steel water bottle. I walk over to meet him. He bends at the waist, huffing, sweat dripping from the sides of his face.
I want to tell him about the band, but only if he shares my feelings, which I can’t determine unless I tell him about the band. It is entirely possible that he hates the band. The band was pretty mainstream, back in its day.
“Good game?” I ask, and he nods. He asks how the girls are doing and I say they haven’t killed each other yet and he says, “Awesome.”
The kids love him, Mr. P., a physical science teacher who wears knit ties and wildly printed shirts and thrift-store blazers in plaid and tweed. He has this way of pausing in the middle of teaching to fix the students with this steady, quizzical expression that makes them feel as though they are wildlife, exotic enough to merit study. When he fixes me with that expression, I feel like I’m going to die of shame. For over ten years he’s been teaching at this tiny private high school—150 kids, all four grades, on a good year—which is surprising to everyone. He always seemed destined for greater things. I imagine his popularity has something to do with his longevity. He’s king of the castle here; why would he leave? At the beginning of this school year, my first, I was popular too—friendly, fresh, youngish—but I feel that my popularity has begun to wane.
The sky is darkening, promising rain, so we round everyone up and walk the quiet streets as a herd. Only a limited number of cars are permitted on the island. Mostly, people get around on golf carts. The speed limit is fifteen miles per hour.
A glut of the students chat together, including those who don’t normally hang out, enjoying their last hurrah. Only one pack of girls have separated themselves, whispering furiously and glancing around in a paranoid way that irritates the other kids. As we walk, we pass bars and more bars, including but not limited to “the longest bar in the world” and a Margaritaville-themed bar with a sand floor and a shuffleboard and a couple of hammock swings. This is not the Put-in-Bay I remember from my childhood.
Off the main street, the students are attracted by a square brick building with a sign indicating that it is a school, serving students in kindergarten through twelfth grade. A school that is even smaller than their school. “They go to this school their whole lives?” says one of the boys. “It looks like it’s the only school on the island,” says another. “People live here during the winter?” says one of the girls. They pull out their phones, trying to figure out how many people live on this island during the non-tourist months. The number is very low. “Does the ferry even run in the winter?” they ask. They decide that in the worst parts of winter, the people must be all but trapped.
The street has no sidewalk, just gravel where the asphalt meets the grass. We pass a street full of compact two-story houses with painted shutters and stairs leading up to railed front porches. Toward the end of the street, vacation rental signs appear in front of many of the houses, which are more rundown. The road dead-ends at The Villas, the vacation townhouses where we are staying and which seem to be intended primarily for bachelorette parties. In point of fact, there is a party staying in the townhouse adjacent to our group’s four. When we arrived that morning to drop off our things, five bachelorette girls were shivering out on the porch to their villa, dressed in bedazzled tank tops, playing a little 10 a.m. beer pong. Across from The Villas is a kidney-shaped pool with some weathered plastic lounge chairs and a tiki bar called the Blue Marlin, which has a thatched straw roof and a line of stools which look sticky even from a distance.
When we arrived, I reminded the kids they couldn’t use the bar and maybe not even the pool because of its proximity to the bar. They looked at me like I was stupid. Anyway, the pool was empty because of the weather, but a family of five was making use of the hot tub, splashing in the steamy water under a cloudy sky—Largest hot tub in the world! according to a sign. Seats forty people!
We’re a couple of streets away when a raindrop lands on my forehead. We hurry but fail to outrun the downpour. By the time we reach The Villas, we are all soaked through. As we burst through the doors, the girls are laughing and pushing each other, sliding around the ceramic floor in their bare, wet feet. I am shivering, wrecked, chilled from the inside out. I dart to my room, drop the snow globes in a corner, rip the sopping clothes from my body and fall into bed. I pull out my phone, call my husband. He doesn’t pick up. This could mean anything. He might be putting the girls to bed. He might be ignoring me on purpose, watching the phone with a glass of whiskey in his hand. Early that morning, I was a pillar of rage, and that is the image I’ve left him with. I screamed at him; I screamed at the girls. I had to be at school early, and no one would cooperate. My daughters kept changing their clothes and changing their breakfast, refusing to brush their teeth. My husband watched from the table. I wanted to find the will to coax them all into submission, but all I could do in the moment was scream and scream in the hope that eventually they would cower and turn silent and do what I needed them to do.
When I emerge into the living room, the villa is silent and empty, so I put on a raincoat and go down the outdoor stairs and up to the villa next door, which is bustling with dinner preparations.
The clock reads seven. The band goes on at nine. They have this song about runaways and rain that I must have listened to a thousand times. I would like to share it with the students—they’re the right age—but I worry it wouldn’t move them.
We’d been planning to grill, but the rain is coming down too hard. Mr. P. is upset. He goes out looking for an overhang under which he can grill, but the rain is blowing sideways—it’s totally hopeless. “Plan B it is,” he says. A couple of the kids cook up pasta in huge pots instead. They debate extensively whether they should stir in the cheese and sauce or let people add toppings themselves—a philosophical pondering of the merits of personal choice versus hot melted cheese. They compromise by stirring sauce and cheese into one pot and leaving the other plain. They seem happy with this compromise. The kids take evenly from both pots.
We eat on the floor or standing up or smushed together with six people on a two-person couch. We are a small but not tight-knit group. Outside the windows, the evening is black and unwelcoming. I am hiding out in a corner, against a wall, shoving cold pasta into my mouth. Halfway through dinner, one of the girls stands from the floor, then flees the room in tears. More girls follow. Everyone notices. It’s very dramatic. I go over to Mr. P., and he asks if I know what that was about, and I say I can offer a theory but I don’t know any details. As we talk, I’m aware of the students watching us. I say I’ll go talk to them.
I throw away my plate and head upstairs. When I get to the bedroom, I find three girls huddled in a circle on the bed. “Can I come in?” I say, expecting them to send me away.
“Yes!” They pat the bed and I sit. The room smells like perfume and burned hair.
Annie, the girl who was crying, tells me she’s been feeling sick for days. She is a tall, big-boned, dark-haired girl, a girl who turns in all her assignments on time and compliments my sweaters if she sees me in the hall but rarely speaks in class. “You have kids,” she says.
“Yes,” I say. I talk about them sometimes in class, to lighten the mood or make it seem like we are all friends in the room, though more often than not, when I tell what I think is a funny story, none of my students will laugh.
Here is a story I would like to tell: The other day, to explain to my daughters why I was going away for the night, I dug up my old yearbook. Marina, my younger sister, they picked out right away, pointing to her sweet ninth-grade face with obvious pleasure, but even after I reassured them that I was also inside, they couldn’t seem to locate me.
“Oh!” they said finally, relieved. “There you are!”
It wasn’t me.
Annie asks how old I was when I had my kids, and I say I was in my late twenties. “If I had a baby,” she says, “it wouldn’t have to be a bad thing.”
A ping of discomfort moves through my body. “You’re going to have to be more specific,” I say.
She shrugs. “I’m tired of school. I don’t want to work. I just want to live in a nice house and have a baby. You probably think something’s wrong with that. But I don’t see anything wrong with that.”
“Oh, stop it,” says one of the other girls. “You just want to have Gabriel’s baby because then he’ll have to keep talking to you.”
Gabriel is one of my seniors. Tall, with a bit of an attitude, mid-level grades, not a young man I’d recommend to a girl. I would like to extricate myself from this conversation, but I’m not sure I can. “Is there something you’re trying to tell me?” I say.
Annie sits up. She shakes off the covers. “Nope,” she says.
I convince them to go back out into the living area, where the din of conversation and barely repressed energy is intense. I locate Mr. P. near the refrigerator, wearing a backwards ball cap and drinking a root beer while laughing it up with a couple of the funny, nerdy boys. I wonder if I should tell him what Annie might have told me, but it’s graduation. In a couple of days, she won’t be our student anymore. Her problems will be her own.
A group of the students are talking about the island and specifically what will happen on the island if the island loses power. It’s just a thunderstorm, says one of the kids. Yeah, says another, but I can’t imagine their grid is well-maintained. As a whole, they seem convinced that the winds will get stronger and the rain will come down harder and something bad will happen. We could be stranded, says a kid, but then another kid reminds them about the ferry, which should not be affected by storm. That is, unless the ferry gets washed away like the morning’s kayaks. But this seems unlikely.
Our plan was to screen a movie outside on the patio, but the rain is not letting up, so we decide to show the movie in this living room instead. The students agree on a teen comedy made in the nineties. In the corner, I spot a couple of sour faces: the girls from upstairs. They voted for a different movie, an action film I can’t imagine they actually wanted to watch.
The students fetch blankets and pillows. There is a spirit of comradery and collaboration between them, which is nice to see. The four girls approach me. They don’t want to watch the movie, they say. They’ve already seen it plus they have better snacks in their room and anyway it’s way too crowded in here and they can’t breathe and they really need to get out and go back to their own room. I’d thought their room was upstairs in this villa, but apparently they’d commandeered someone else’s room to have their crying session.
I am sympathetic to their last point. It is definitely too crowded in here. I permit them to leave, and they invite me to come visit them in their villa, if I want. They will be making chocolate-chip pancakes and putting on face masks. I thank them for the invitation. As they are leaving, I peer out the open door and notice that the rain has calmed down significantly, not enough to show a movie outdoors, but enough to walk if you have somewhere to go.
I stand in the back of the room with Mr. P. He is eating potato chips and drinking a second root beer. He sees me eying the root beer and shrugs. “Can’t have a real beer,” he says, and takes a swig from the can.
I want to ask him something, but I don’t know what. I suppose I want to feel like we are friends. I wonder, does he realize that this year isn’t going well for me? I started out with a clear head and a strong sense of purpose, with a fresh and promising stack of books to teach, but the students haven’t liked the books I’ve assigned. They don’t seem to like anything, and this makes me feel hopeless, fuzzy, like I am in need of another glass of water, all the time.
The students get all settled in, and it’s like a giant slumber party, very sweet. I hang out a couple of minutes, and then I tell Mr. P. that I am going to check on the girls next door, but what I do is put on my raincoat and boots and slip away into the night.
I pass the pool and bar, which are dark and shuttered, not posing any problems. The gravel road is a mess, pocked with puddles that run deeper than they appear. I walk carefully, my eyes on the ground, though I can’t see well enough for true caution. Anyway, the cold and rain feel good on my face and my hands, cleansing, exhilarating. Halfway down the dark street, the lights of a store beckon, a beacon in the dark, a lighthouse calling in ships, as though anyone will be slipping in in this kind of weather. I think I might recognize the store, which sells antiques out of the front room of a historic home. If I’m not mistaken, I have visited this store before, as a child, with my parents. The store is expensive, full of dark wood and intricate display tables piled with gleaming artifacts from real ships.
Up ahead, the main street is well-lit and dreamy, underwater-lovely in the rain. I can’t see the lake on the other side of the park, but I can feel it. At the door to the bar, I pull off the hood of my jacket and realize the rain has nearly stopped, and I am a little worried that the students will seize the opportunity to venture outside and that this will make my disappearance more noticeable.
As I try to reach the bartender, I am pushed up against people. Their bodies are warm. The bar is warm. We are all a little damp, and the dampness hangs in the air, creating a closeness not dissimilar to the closeness in the room where the students were watching the movie. Assistants set up the stage. I buy myself a beer and settle onto a stool. Conversations ping and bellow around me. The music stops. The band comes out. They pick up their instruments, and people begin to catcall and cheer but in a very adult sort of way. The band members are older than they used to be but still beautiful. Their shoulders are wide, their heads are enormous, they seem to glow. The lead singer greets the crowd, and he says how happy they are to be here, how much it means to them to be together and playing in front of such a beautiful crowd, on a lousy night like tonight, in a place that means so much to them. Put-in-Bay. He says Put-in-Bay but does not explain the story behind his connection to Put-in-Bay. I am curious. It seems like such an unlikely place. They have a new album coming out soon, he says. It appears they are planning a comeback. In this world, thank goodness, one is never too old for a comeback.
They pick up their instruments and begin to play, and I haven’t heard live music in ages, and suddenly I realize that this is a travesty. I close my eyes. I open my eyes. The music moves through my body, pulses through the air; the lead singer croons and belts, his voice rich and smooth with a gravelly edge that makes my skin tingle. They finish the song. They play another. I am watching the lead singer move, how his jeans fit his body, how his jacket fits his body, how he tilts his head to the microphone and grasps the microphone stand with a firm hand. They take a break. I buy myself a shot of whiskey and drink it quickly. A buzz in my pocket. When I fish out my phone, I realize it’s been on silent, that it is now buzzing in protest of having received so many messages without being checked.
The chat group for the trip is full of nonsense, inside jokes I don’t understand, but there’s a separate message from Annie, intended for me, complaining that her stomach is really bothering her, she’s feeling very sick. That message came in about twenty minutes ago, and after that the messages kept coming. Annie thinks she has a fever, she might have to vomit, her friends are getting worried.
There is a message from Mr. P., asking if I’m with Annie or if I could check on Annie, asking where I am.
As I am standing up from my barstool, the band is playing “Runaway,” and I could say that I’ve been waiting for this moment for twenty years, but the sound is too loud, discordant in my ears, and I have to get out of here. I put my beer up on the bar and realize that I’m not wearing my raincoat. I’ve taken it off, flung it over a barstool perhaps. In any case, it’s gone. I search all the stools and underneath the stools, underneath people. I ask the bartender, but he can’t understand me, and then he says he can’t help me. I don’t have time to waste.
Without my coat, I go out onto the street. Luck is not with me. The rain is back, worse than it’s been all day. Without a coat, I am one with the rain, made out of rain, indistinguishable from rain, and the rain is a terrible rain, heavy and cold. I duck my head, watch the ground, try to dodge puddles. I am moving fast, toward the goal, making progress. And then I trip. I think I might be able to catch myself but I don’t. I fall, land on my knees, brace with my hands. The puddle is cold and full of small rocks that rip my thin leggings and cut into my knees as rain pounds my back. I stand up. I keep going. I am covered in mud. By the time I get to The Villas, I feel like I have passed through the gates of hell, and I am sure that’s how I look.
The girls’ villa is quiet. I try to be quiet. I must cover my tracks. I pull off my shoes and sopping socks and go into the first-floor bathroom and wash my muddy hands and wipe myself off with a towel. I pull back my hair and push up my leggings so you can’t see the holes. I am wearing all black. I don’t look as bad as I’d thought; the soaking could have been done walking outside between the villas. I send a message to Mr. P. that I am in the girls’ room, no mention of the time I was missing. I pad up the stairs. The stairwell is dark, though not as dark as it was outside in the rain. I think I hear whispers, including a voice with a low male register.
Mr. P. is standing by the bed. Annie is under the covers, and two of her friends are sitting on the edge of the bed. The room smells like vomit, and I wonder if the girls have been drinking but decide it’s more likely, considering her earlier claim, that Annie is actually sick.
“Is she okay?” I say.
Mr. P. doesn’t look at me. “Whatever she is, she’ll have to hang on until morning,” he says.
There is a low lamp burning next to her bed. Blanket tucked to her chin, Annie looks pale and beatific. It is a good look for her. “I can hang on,” she says. “I have my friends.”
I look at her friends. They are wearing sweatpants with their Put-in-Bay T-shirts. It is difficult to read their expressions. “Maybe you should all try to get some sleep,” I say. No one responds. “I can stay,” I say. “If the girls want someone to hang out for a while.”
“That’s okay,” says Annie. “Mr. P. can stay. We were in the middle of a conversation.”
Mr. P. puts his hands in his pockets. He looks only a little uncomfortable. “You should check on the kids next door,” he says. “They’ve been unchaperoned for a while now.”
Dutifully, I go down the stairs and outside the villa. To get to the other villa, I must go back out in the rain, and I still don’t have a jacket. I am soaked through a second time.
The living room is crowded with kids, so many that I have to wait for them to move out of the way before I can fully open the door, which I take to be a good sign, that they are still here. The movie is over, and the lights are back on, and the scene looks like a party from a teen movie, except that the kids are drinking soda, not beer, and no one is making out in any of the corners, and it seems that I was able to slip away and nothing bad happened, and I feel a surge of affection for these kids. I stand on a chair to do a head count. It is at this point that I discover three kids are missing. It doesn’t take long to figure out who the three must be—Michael, Seth, Gabriel, all troublemakers, not a good sign—and I nearly topple off a chair calling the room to order.
When I ask about the boys, the kids get shifty-eyed. They tell me the boys might have gone upstairs, so I go upstairs, where I find a darkened bedroom and one boy asleep sideways on top of the bed, dressed in his clothes and shoes. I nudge his shoulder and he mutters a little but doesn’t wake, so I send a message through the messaging group to the two boys who are missing, telling them to present themselves immediately. While I wait for a reply, I scour the rest of the bedrooms and bathrooms. I don’t find the boys. They have not replied to my message. It is almost midnight. I go back into the bedroom with the sleeping boy, and he hasn’t stirred. On the way to the main room, I become terrified that more kids will have slipped away in my absence, but they seem to all be there, and I don’t have the heart to count them and make sure. I ask if there’s been any sign of the two missing boys. Silence. I deliver a stern warning about leaving the premises, and then a girl raises her hand and says she’s tired and wants to know if she can go to sleep. I snap at her, frustrated by the silliness of this question.
“Of course,” I say, and she says that she can’t because there is a boy asleep in her bed and also she doesn’t feel comfortable going to sleep in this villa with all the kids in there, and some of the other girls agree that they want to go to sleep and can’t, so I say that we are now enforcing bedtime and they should all go back to their own villas. It is hard to tell how much the kids actually know about the boys’ location. They are being very poker-faced. I send a message to Mr. P., and he says that Annie seems stable and he is able to come over and talk with me. I am worried that he will question me over my whereabouts from earlier, but he doesn’t, and I wonder if anyone even noticed that I was gone. I suspect that they did not. We decide that I will be in charge of getting the kids into their rooms for bedtime and then, after that, for keeping an eye on Annie, while Mr. P. will try to find the missing boys. Like the kids, he seems poker-faced as well; I have no idea what’s going on inside his head and certainly not his heart, and I worry for how my family will receive me when I return. This morning wasn’t the only morning. It was one of many similar mornings. What if their morning tomorrow is better? If my husband shuts me out, that’s one thing. But what will I do if I find my daughters in a similar state of unreachability, if I look into their familiar faces and have no idea what they are thinking or feeling because they don’t want me to know?
We are talking about where the boys might be. Because Put-in-Bay is a party island, Mr. P. thinks that the bartenders will be good about asking for IDs and that it is unlikely that the boys are in a bar. Outside, the rain continues to pour. I say we should wake up the boy in the bed immediately, and Mr. P. agrees. We are on our way upstairs when the lights flicker three times and then go black completely. About half of the kids are still in this villa, and some make surprised noises, and others make triumphant noises. “Spooky!” someone says. “I knew it!” says someone else.
Mr. P. comes back down the stairs. He asks if anyone has a flashlight and seems embarrassed that he hadn’t thought to bring one. But we all have flashlights on our phones. One problem is that my phone is about to run out of battery. Mr. P. uses his own phone to go back up to the bedroom, and after a couple of minutes he comes down the stairs with the kid, who looks very out-of-it, and it’s hard to tell what’s wrong with him exactly. He collapses on a couch, sort of half-asleep.
I am starting to feel really bad, really sick inside of my body. It is dark and damp and smelly and claustrophobic in this room, and the kids have gotten over their initial shock at the power outage and now they are being louder and more rambunctious than ever. “Back to nature!” they say. “Let’s party like it’s the end of the world!”
“We still have to find the boys,” I say. “I’ve been here before. I know the island. I’ll go.” I don’t actually know the island. But I am relieved to be making my escape. By the door, I find an abandoned Put-in-Bay sweatshirt, and I pull it over my clothes, fit the hood over my head, and go out into the night, which is so much colder than when I went out earlier to hear the band. I imagine that the band members are back in their hotel room, which is outfitted with velvet sofas, drinking champagne by candlelight. I go down the road, and this time, beyond the antique store, which has gone dark like everything else, I notice a cemetery surrounded by a low fence—tiny, intimate, quaint—just nestled in among the houses, and I think I remember this cemetery from my childhood. My father loved cemeteries. He found them peaceful, reflective. If we passed one, he would usually want to stop. A little neighborhood cemetery like this would have been particularly interesting to him. If it’s the one I remember, there was a line of gravestones with the same last name, ranging in age from thirty years old to less than a year, and as he puzzled through what might have happened to those people, who must have been a family—illness, an accident, something else—I didn’t know how to feel. Later, what I felt was unsafe, like a similar fate might be lurking around the corner for us too, and, still refusing to explain my reluctance, I had to be coaxed down into the island’s stalactite caves for a tour at the end of the day. Probably I did not understand my reluctance. According to the tour guide, these caves, one of the great wonders of the natural world, were all ruined. He pointed our attention to the stalactites, which had rounded tips, as opposed to the pointed tips they were meant to have. The cause for this deformity, he explained, was the stupidity of a landowner from the early part of the century, who had the brilliant idea to saw off the tips of the stalactites and sell them for a couple of bucks a piece in the gift shop upstairs. He assumed the stalactites would grow back. He had no idea that they would never grow back into their original shape, that the damage was permanent, centuries of formation destroyed. Next, the guide turned our attention to the underground lake, which was tinted an odd shade of green as a result of oxidation from the pennies that the same landowner had encouraged paid visitors to throw into the once-pure waters along with a wish. This damage, said the tour guide, was permanent as well.
If we let our students leave this island, I think, without showing them that cave, we will have failed in our mission as teachers.
Meanwhile, the rain is falling down on my head, falling into my face. I pull the hood in further to protect myself and circle the dark, powerless main street, pausing in front of the bar where I saw the band earlier. Looking through window, I am mesmerized by pinpricks of light, and I cannot resist stepping through the door into the main space, where tea lights have been set up on all of the tables. The glow they cast is dim but sufficient, forgiving, soft. On the stage, the band members are huddled together. I blink and stare, surprised they haven’t left. Though I saw them earlier, their star effect has not worn off. In their skinny pants and various kinds of jackets—moto leather and a velvet blazer and a military style in olive green—they are so cool. Their hair is spiky. Their chins are stubbled. I wish I could climb up on the stage and ask them how they do it, ask them everything about their lives, the people and places they’ve left behind to be here tonight.
I am perusing the crowd when I spot them, on the other side of the room, included in a group of people, both men and women, at least five to ten years older than they are, all talking and laughing as though they are having a great time. One of our boys says something. The others laugh. Our boys look totally at ease, like they really think they belong here. They have removed their coats, and their clothes are dry and maybe a little casual for going out—sweatshirts and sweatpants—but also stylish. The gleam of damp shines in their hair, but they aren’t alone in that.
I make my way through the crowd. I catch their eye. As recognition dawns, they flush and look pretty freaked out, little boys who’ve been caught, and now the spell is broken and I know who they are and they know who I am and we will have to reconcile that.
“I almost didn’t recognize you,” I say.
What I ought to do is herd them right back out into the rain, but instead I lead them over to a quiet table and I sit down and they sit down across from me. “You probably don’t realize,” I say, “but this is actually a really important band.”
Gabriel—the famous Gabriel—nods. “We saw the poster earlier in the day. We thought we’d be too late, but we got to hear a couple of songs. It was so awesome.”
“You know the band?” I say. They do. They feel bad about sneaking out, they say—it honestly wasn’t part of their original plan, but once they saw the poster, they could not have stayed away.
“You could have asked,” I say.
Michael raises his eyebrows and I shrug in response. He’s right. They couldn’t have asked. “We didn’t drink anything,” he says. “We don’t want to mess up our last days of school.”
“We really don’t,” says Gabriel.
“What about your other friend?” I say, and they don’t seem to know who I’m talking about. “Your friend who passed out in one of the beds?”
“He passed out?” says Michael, with a roll of his eyes.
I pass my hand over a candle. The heat from the flame tickles my palm. I can’t lie. I am thrilled for them, that they got to see this band they love, impressed that they have taken the initiative and made the journey to this place which is the only true place to be on this island, impressed that they were brave and bold enough to leave the artificial world of that trip, a world that is about to disappear anyway, and make the leap into the authentic world, where real people are talking to each other and real music is being played. These boys aren’t sulking in their room, bathing in nostalgia, hiding from the world. They are moving out into the world. They are trying out their new selves, their best selves, still fresh and intact. They want to be musicians, they say. All through high school, they say, they’ve been practicing for hours a day, and now they are ready, with ideas for where they can study, where they can play. I am ashamed. After teaching them for a solid year, I didn’t know this about them, didn’t know who they were. All the ideas I had about them were wrong. I ask them to tell me about the songs I missed, and their faces glow as they talk, and it turns out that the band told a story about the journey they took to get to this island and all the comic obstacles they faced along the way, and as the boys retell this story for me, I feel like I am talking to people who are familiar to me but not close to me, but even so it is nice to see them and sort of wonderful to find out that I have more in common with them than I would have anticipated. The band breaks up their huddle to announce that they will stay here in this bar until the power comes on, that we will carry on this vigil together. They pick up their instruments, and the song they play is one of my favorite songs, and I can tell by the boys’ faces that it is one of their favorites as well.
I tuck the sleeves of my stolen Put-in-Bay sweatshirt over the palms of my hands. “This is a great song,” I say.
“Yes,” they say, their eyes closed in reverence, their faces beaming with purpose and joy. “It’s a really great song.”
Shira Elmalich is a graduate of The Ohio State University and the University of Michigan MFA program in creative writing. You can read her work in EPOCH, The Chattahoochee Review, and elsewhere. She lives in Cleveland, Ohio, and teaches English at a small private high school.