I can finally breathe.
The fog hovering over the ferry clears, and like an illusion, this island I’ve been hurtling toward all morning materializes.
It doesn’t matter that my only connection to this place is a woman I barely know. That I have no clue what really awaits me once I step off this ferry. All those fears bounce off me, as if I’m a human tennis racket. Because, on this boat, I can finally take these deep, lung-filling breaths that were impossible at home.
That has to be a good sign.
Around me, the ferry buzzes with activity, families keeping track of children and tote bags and inflatable rafts, couples holding hands, groups of friends taking photos together. I twist around in my seat and get my first real glimpse of Catalina, a place I’d never heard of until yesterday. It’s plopped down in the middle of the ocean, twenty-two miles off the coast of Southern California, looking like both a desert and deserted island. Bone-dry mountains meet the clear aquamarine ocean, a few palm trees swaying on the crescent beach that greets us. As far as places to escape to go, I seem to have nailed it.
“Welcome to Two Harbors!” the captain squawks from the speaker.
Before we even fully dock, I scramble down to the luggage hold and grab my fancy new wheely suitcase. It’s a gift from Will, Mom’s boyfriend--he gave it to me the day Colorado recruited me to their volleyball team for this fall.
You’ll need it for your travel games, he’d said with his trademark shy smile.
And to drag all your laundry back home, Mom had added with a laugh.
The memory slices through me like a paper cut.
Enough. Don’t think about it. Keep going.
I beeline for the exit, like I’m like one of those sharks that has to keep moving in order to survive . . . but then I step onto the wooden dock, and it dawns on me that I have no idea what my aunt Cynthia looks like. I haven’t seen her since I was five.
When she emailed me yesterday, offering me a place for the summer to “get myself centered again,” I jumped on it so quickly, we never even had time to plan where we’d meet.
I deftly navigate around a few groups on the dock, the cool ocean air hitting my skin, when a spirited woman rushes toward me, arms outstretched. This must be Cynthia. Her outfit is farmer meets Coachella, and her hair is fully gray, like she’s announcing to the world she has better things to do than think about hair dye.
“Abby!” She hugs me tight, her cheek squished against mine.
“Hi, Cynthia,” I mumble into her hair. It smells like fresh lavender and espresso beans.
When she pulls away she gives me one of those long-lost relative, head-to-toe appraisals. “Look how tall you are! You’re a stunning woman now.”
I scuff my Converse on the wooden planks. She means well, but it’s a blatant sympathy compliment. My first one. I should get used to them.
She beams at me and adds, “I’m so glad you decided to come.”
My muscles tense. Here we go. I can feel her searching for the right words. But we both know a simple “sorry” isn’t going to cut it, and I’m nowhere near ready to hear anything else. The Pit of Doom swells in my stomach.
“Let’s get going so you can relax,” she says to my relief. Thankfully, she seems to be sticking to the promise in her email about “giving me space” this summer.
I exhale and hobble after her, my suitcase click-clacking behind me. Even though I was on a plane most of the morning, my muscles ache like I sprinted here. I guess in a way I did.
Cynthia sweeps her arms in the air as we reach the end of the pier, motioning around us. “This is where all the action is. I guess you could call it our Two Harbors version of a downtown.”
The breeze catches my hair, and I untangle it from my face so I can give downtown Two Harbors a once-over. It takes all of three seconds. Small beach, pint-sized store, and a no-frills indoor/outdoor restaurant and bar that spills out to the sand. I’m the first to admit that my brain feels like it’s stuffed with cotton candy, but if this is where the action is--I don’t think there’s a lot of it.
She gestures toward the kayaks and paddleboards piled on the sand next to us. “Most of the water activities start out of here: snorkeling, scuba diving, sailing. We have the best marine life on the island, if you’re interested.”
I nod, as if I’m considering it. Maybe I am. Who knows? When I booked my ticket here, I hadn’t thought much beyond getting the eff out of Colorado, but now that I’m here, on this beach, I realize there’s a whole summer stretching before me.
“Avalon is the main city of the island,” she explains. “That’s where most of the tourists go. Two Harbors is more like the shy, unassuming little sister, but I think you’ll see the charm here, too.”
She strolls down a dirt path and it’s unclear where we’re headed. I don’t see anything resembling a parking lot. Just sunbaked mountains, winding trails, and an ATV wedged between a stubby palm tree and some overgrown wildflowers.
She stops short in front of the ATV. “Here we are!”
“This is yours?”
“What were you expecting?” She squints at me, genuinely perplexed.
“Um . . . I guess a car.”
“A car?” She tilts her head with a half smile. “Only a small number of cars are allowed on the island. The waiting list is twenty-five years to bring one here. A few of us have ATVs, though we try not to use them much. They’re so noisy.”
“How does everybody else get around?”
I nod like this is completely normal. Maybe I should’ve read that Catalina visitors’ guide on the ferry.
She grips my suitcase and straps it to the back of the ATV. She’s long, lean, and deceptively strong, reminding me of those unassuming older women in a yoga class who do perfect headstands while you fall on your ass. At least that was my experience in the one yoga class Brooke forced me to go to, per Dr. Gold’s suggestion, of course.
“Hop on.” She gestures to the passenger seat and hands me a warm foil-wrapped package. “A breakfast burrito I made this morning. It’s one of my specialties. I provide most of the food for the tours across the backcountry, and a few of the other guided excursions, too. I figured you’d be hungry.”
“Thank you, I’m starving.” I haven’t had a real meal in twenty-four hours. I gobble it down in about three bites.
When Cynthia revs up the engine, I jump a few inches off the seat, startled, as if a firework erupted in my ear. The ATV grinds through the dirt, kicking up clouds of dust.
We turn sharply uphill beneath a row of palms and behind “downtown Two Harbors.” I instantly sit up. Whoa. Talk about night and day. There aren’t any lounge chairs, umbrellas, or cabanas in sight now. Nothing but rustic plants and a smattering of bungalows cover the hills, with dirt trails crisscrossing between them.
“Where’s everything else?” I crane my neck around. “The hotels and the houses . . .”
Cynthia laughs, an unexpected husky sound much deeper than her voice. “Banning House is the only hotel on this side of the island, and that’s just twelve rooms. As for us locals, our cottages are scattered across the mountain here. We only have one hundred and fifty full-time residents.”
One hundred fifty people. Far less than the total number of kids in my graduating class. I mean, I knew it was small, but not this small.
The first flash of doubt I’ve had today lodges in my brain. I shake my head, trying to rid myself of it.
After all, isn’t that the reason I came here? To get away from everyone at home breathing down my neck, watching me, scrutinizing my every move?
Mission accomplished, Abby. You found an island with almost no human beings. Does Amazon even deliver here? I bite the inside of my cheek, a nervous habit I haven’t been able to kick since preschool.
She hooks a hard right, winding higher up the mountain on a cactus-studded trail, and I spot the ocean on the horizon . . . again. This place is so small I can see both coasts at the same time. Two Harbors can’t be more than a half-mile wide.
The doubt in my brain begins to spread like an ink stain.
“You’re really going to be able to unplug here, Abby,” Cynthia calls out to me. “It’s very quiet, removed from the outside world. We barely even have Internet.”
“Wow, that’s . . . um, great.” I grip the side of the ATV and say a silent prayer that she’s exaggerating.
My phone dings as if purposely reminding me of all the people in the outside world I’ve just disconnected myself from.
Mom: How is it, honey? Everything okay?
Of course, her momtuition chooses to kick in at this moment. She wasn’t totally on board with this idea, though after a talk with Dr. Gold, she acquiesced. Now she can probably sense I’m freaking out. The last thing I’m going to do is give her one more thing to worry about.
I add a palm tree emoji before I send it.
“This is it!” Cynthia announces. She parks in front of a cute powder blue cottage overflowing with pots of succulents. On the wraparound porch, a wide wooden swing gently sways, as if a vacationing ghost is on it.
I’m halfway out of my seat when Cynthia tugs me back down.
“Wait--I forgot to tell you about Shanti, my African gray parrot.”
It just keeps getting better.
An unkempt man with a nature-beaten tan and a beard emerges from the cottage. Also, there’s a large parrot perched on his shoulder.
Cynthia motions toward him. “That’s my partner, Chip. I asked him to bring Shanti outside so you could meet on neutral territory. African grays can be pretty hostile to strangers. I’m hoping if you meet her outside, we can avoid any issues.” She gestures for me to follow her. “Ready?”
I flash the same smile I’d give someone with a horrible haircut who asked me how it looked. I suddenly feel very not ready. For any of this.
“Hi, Shanti,” Cynthia purrs as we approach.
“Hi, Shanti.” It’s Cynthia’s exact voice, inflections and all, but it came from the bird.
“Uh, hey, Shanti.” I try to make eye contact with her, but Shanti purposely swings her head in the opposite direction, refusing to acknowledge my presence. Ouch.
“Don’t worry. She’ll warm up.” Cynthia leans in to kiss Chip, and Shanti gets in on the action, nuzzling both of them. “Chip works for the island conservancy, if you have any questions about what to do while you’re in Catalina.”
He slings an arm around my aunt. I wonder if she told him why she invited me here. “Welcome to one of the few unincorporated areas left in the country. It’s a little slice of heaven, even if it’s gotten way too commercialized these past few years.”
I’m about to laugh when I realize there’s no trace of sarcasm in his voice.
I keep my distance from Shanti as I tag along behind them through a vegetable garden and into the cottage. It’s tidy and bright, with so much natural sunlight, I’m surprised to see a roof on top. The living room brims with eclectic furniture and knickknacks that look like they were all carried here from different continents.
Cynthia taps my shoulder. “Ready to see your room?”
She glides down the hallway, and we reach her bedroom first, which smells faintly like weed, though maybe it’s just some aromatherapy oil. Both seem equally plausible.
Cynthia steps into a bedroom across from hers. “And this is your sanctuary.”
The curved wrought-iron bed is covered with a soft white comforter, and I resist the urge to immediately face-plant into it. The rest of the furniture is equally unfussy and straightforward. Whitewashed wood nightstands, a small writing desk, mismatched lamps, and a hand-painted dresser in a watery sea glass color.
Cynthia separates the billowy curtains to crack open the windows, giving me a view of the rugged mountainside, with a hint of ocean peeking out from behind. “There you go. You have no idea how much the energy transformed in here after I burned a little sage.”
That must be that burnt woodsy smell clinging to the air. Mom warned me that Cynthia is “hippie-ish,” but I figured that meant she’d give me a few wish beads and want to read my palm. (Spoiler alert: Too late. I already know my future.)
“There’s room in the drawers, so you can unpack. And I put some fresh soaps in the bathroom for you.” She hesitates in the doorway. “I’ll give you some time to get settled.”
I open my mouth to say thank you, suddenly feeling like those two words aren’t nearly enough. Thank you for reaching out at the exact right moment. Thank you for giving me a place to escape to when I needed it. Thank you for not asking me any questions yet. But the words are stuck in my brain, and my brain is stuck in quicksand.
“Thanks for . . . having me,” I eke out.
Her closemouthed smile teeters on pity. “Oh, I almost forgot. I have one more thing for you.” She shuffles across the room in her bare feet and lifts a package wrapped in white parchment paper out of the dresser.
She hands it to me. “Something to help you on your path this summer.”
I carefully open up the paper at the taped seams. Beneath it is a journal sealed with a hemp-braided rope. I suppress a groan and harness all my energy to raise the corners of my mouth. “Thank you.”
“Reflective writing can help you sort through things. It’s been a savior for me through some dark times.” She rubs my arm with a consoling smile, and I almost recoil when I see it. I’m not sure how I missed it before, but she has a small dimple on the bottom of her left cheek. The exact same one I have.
And the same one Dad has. He used to tell me that a single dimple on the left side is a sign of good luck.
My skin tingles, burning up with the irony.
As soon as Cynthia leaves the room, I fall onto the bed hungrily and lock my arms around one of the fringy pillows, burrowing it close to my stomach.