There’s a foolproof method to running away.
I know the wrong ones all too well. This time, there’ll be no mistakes.
I’d left my cell phone, fully charged, duct-taped beneath a seat on a Duluth city bus. If they track it, they’ll think I’ve never left town. Acting scared and paranoid is a giveaway. Wearing a hoodie is no good, either; they’ll think I’m a criminal. With my height and my brown skin, I get enough sideways glances as it is without more advertising. Nah. I make sure the clothes I’ve stolen from my uncle are clean and defy gravity, instead of sagging on my hips and shoulders. I carry a hiking backpack, not a high schooler’s version.
This khaki down jacket I got from the Salvation Army. It’s the nasty kind only worn by grown-ups with flat, worn-out souls. And I carry my armor of pleasantness like a plastic shield, pretending it’s the most normal thing in the world to board the ferry to Isle Royale on October 4, the last day it runs to the island.
I make them all believe I belong on this damned boat.
A line of people waits to board the Quest II at the dock. They’re all middle-aged, with that middle-aged sag that weighs them down. The air around Lake Superior is cold, but humid and acrid from the rotting wood of the pier. The sky hangs with clouds of pale gray. It doesn’t look like rain’s coming, but the color paints a thin gloom, and fog skims the lake. I zip my jacket up higher.
A bald white guy calls out names for passengers, his pudgy, callused hands gripping a clipboard. His belly’s softly round above his jeans. My name is fake, of course, and my fare paid in cash, to leave no trail.
“Goin’ alone?” he asks, friendly-like. The gap where he’s missing a canine tooth only shows when he smiles.
“No. Meeting my wife there. She works at the lodge,” I say, performing lines I’ve carefully rehearsed. Luckily, I’ve got a face that could be twenty-five or fifteen, depending on my clothes. So, I’ll let them think I have a real life. I’ve even got my dad’s old wedding ring on my fourth finger, but I hate how it feels on my hand. Confining. My palms get sweaty and I shove my ringless hand into my pocket.
“Don’t forget the last ferry leaves at one o’clock, tomorrow afternoon. It’ll be crowded.”
I nod, but my stomach dives into the center of the earth. I pray he won’t notice that I’m not on it. I try to walk by, when he points to my backpack.
“Hey. Next time you come, bring a different bag, will ya?”
I shift uncomfortably, conscious of the line of people growing on the dock. “Uh, why?”
“Black bags are bad luck. They sink ships.”
A passenger behind me yells through his beard, “Ignore him! Norm’s superstitious. He made my wife throw away a rose I gave her. Right into the trash, because they’re bad luck on boats. He won’t run the ferry on Fridays. Lucky they shut down in November, too.”
“Why November?” Ah, God, Hector. Shut up, shut up.
“The worst storms come in November,” Norm says quietly. “There’s a name for them storms, the ones that sink ships. The Witch o’ November.”
There’s something about how he says “witch” that bothers me. Some people love to say stuff for the drama of it. But this guy glances nervously at the lake, as if it were listening.
I nod at him. “Got it. No Fridays, no flowers, no Novembers. And I’ll bring my blue backpack next time,” I say with a smile, though the conversation is killing me. My hands are swampy with perspiration. The boat sways beneath my feet as I walk past the other passengers. This late in the season, they’re probably Isle workers helping to close up for the season. Because from tomorrow until late spring, the Isle Royale will be empty.
Except for me.
It’s the perfect hideout. No one will look for a runaway on an island that’s purposely deserted every winter. I’ve covered my tracks too well. I’ll hide out here until mid-May, when I turn eighteen. And then I’ll be free, and there will be no more leashes. No more living under that roof that punishes me with thoughts I can’t stand.
I’m doing my uncle a favor, really. He complains about the bills, how much it costs to raise me, how the money my dad sends is never quite enough.
But it’s not about the money. It’s what we never talk about that chases me from that house.
I’ve lived with him since I was six. I know he’ll report me missing when he finds out. I know that deep in his heart, he might hope I’m never found. By then, the island will be uninhabited. On Isle Royale, I’ll be where I don’t belong.
I’ll fit right in.
The two engines of the Quest II are already rumbling, water boiling to a hissing fury by the propellers. The mooring lines are cast off and the fenders secured. I sit in my corner seat inside the boat, itching to read the maps, notes, and pamphlets I stuffed into my coat pocket. I’m not supposed to look like a tourist. My phantom wife supposedly works on the island, after all. When the force of the engine pushes me against my seat, I glance up.
Lake Superior stretches out in liquid stillness, a yawning expanse of dark water that unsettles me and makes me sweat even more. Behind us, the sparse buildings of Grand Portage shrink farther away. The black forest swallows everything as the boat pushes us forward, until there’s no trace of humanity on the horizon.
For almost two hours, I fake like I’m asleep in my corner seat. It works; no one talks to me. The boat pitches up and down on the growing swells, the lake water occasionally spraying my face from one of the open windows, but I pretend I’m dead to the world. I’m hungry for sleep, but my mind is wrung too tight to relax.
I think of which part of the island I’m going to live on, how to stay warm, how to eat enough. Looking on the internet hasn’t been helpful. All I know is that pit toilets and leave-no-trace camping rules abound. Isle Royale isn’t exactly a popular or luxurious tourist destination. Then again, that’s why I chose it as my refuge.
Finally, a cramp in my thigh forces me to sit up and change positions. The second my eyes pop open, a voice chirps nearby.
“Takin’ a late vacation?”
I jump inside my skin. An older woman in head-to-toe khaki is sitting a little too close to me. There’s an Isle Royale National Park logo on her coat. Shit.
“Nah. Too late. Just meeting my wife. Maybe I’ll be able to spend more time next July.” I swallow dryly and my heart trills. What if she looks for me on tomorrow’s ferry, or asks who my wife is? What if she knows everyone on the island and catches my lie?
“That short a trip, eh? Well, not much to do now, anyway. Weather’s turning.” She shifts her large, square ass and motions out the window. In the distance, the dense clouds kiss the lake’s surface. “You make sure you get off this island before the witch gets ya.”
There we go with the witch again. What’s with these people? I give her a blank look, not wanting to engage, but she takes it for a question. Great.
“You know. The November storms. Where you from?”
She stares at me in that impolite way that makes my skin crawl. I know what she sees. She’s trying to guess what I am. Not who, but what. I’m some crooked puzzle piece that bothers them. Indian! No, Native? Oh, wait—Hapa, right? I have “double eyelids” that my Korean mom called sankapul. She was so proud of that little crinkle of skin. I made sure to cut my hair so the thick waves were under control. The lady studies the angles and colors of my face—pieces of my parents. I hardly recognize which parts belong to whom anymore. As if ownership ever mattered to either of them.
The lady narrows her eyes—she still can’t figure me out but doesn’t want to ask that question. What a relief. She tries again. “Are you from Grand Portage?”
“Oh. No, we’re from…” I can’t say Duluth, which is where I’m really from. But despite practicing the lie in my head on the bus ride, my brain is all DuluthDuluthDuluth. I stutter, remembering the small town on the shore I’d picked out on the map last week. “Uh. Um. Grand Marais.”
She keeps babbling on about places to visit next time I come, flashing an artificial smile of false teeth. Her upper plate keeps coming loose as she talks to me, so her S sounds are more like sh. She says things like, “Now that’s a nice place to shit for a view of Duncan Bay.” Normally I’d laugh, but nothing is funny now. I don’t want to be chatty. I need to be ignored.
After a few minutes, I can’t be polite anymore. I’ve taken three buses from Duluth to get to this damn boat, and I’m so close. Last thing I need is some square-assed lady committing verbal diarrhea all over me.
“Sorry. Where’s the men’s room?” I fake my best nauseated look and hold my stomach.
“Oh! Bathrooms are aft,” she says, thrusting her thumb behind her. “We have Dramamine on board. Scope patches. Sea bands?”
I nod politely and bolt past the other passengers, who give me plenty of room to pass.
I push through the door to stand on deck. Isle Royale is in view now, with Washington Harbor yawning open a passageway for the boat. Evergreens cling to the rocky shore on either side. There are scant houses and docks as the boat turns gently to enter the bay’s inlet. The water sparkles from the sun cracking through a slice in the clouds. We’ll be docking at Windigo soon. I’m almost there. As I inhale to empty the stale cabin air from my lungs, something on the shore catches my eye.
It’s a flash of amber, and at first I think it’s just sun reflecting off the water. But it doesn’t flicker like reflected light. It almost seems to glow, like the harvest moon beaming against the backdrop of dark evergreens—but it’s daytime.
It’s a girl, standing on the shore. She’s dressed in dark colors, which is why I could only see her face at first, and now, a dab of pale hands clasped together in front of her. She stares back at me, and her face changes—subtly, like when a blink changes sunset to evening. Though she’s far away, I swear she went from smiling to frowning. Or maybe it was frowning to smiling?
Something in her expression tugs at the center of me. It’s a terrible feeling, and wonderful at the same time—like waking up on Christmas, and realizing that, damn, the waking up part is already over. As I squint to get a better look, the door to the inner cabin swings open and that same chatty lady steps outside. Ugh. I can’t handle any more conversation. I shuffle toward the bathroom. But when I check over my shoulder for one last glimpse of the girl on the shore, the rocky beach is empty.
I try to push aside the vision of her face as I search for the bathroom. Inside, I lock the door with nervous fingers. There’s a stainless steel toilet that’s stained anyway, and the tiny compartment reeks of fake evergreen deodorizer and piss. The mirror is broken and divides my face on a diagonal.
The wind must be picking up, because the floor pitches me left, right, left, and waves slap the boat. I close the toilet seat and sit down, placing my bag on my lap. I unzip it. Half the space is taken by an old sleeping bag. The rest is crammed with beef jerky packets, baggies of bulk dried fruit, nuts, oatmeal, and a collapsible fishing rod I stole from Walmart when I worked there this past summer. Since my uncle took every paycheck, I couldn’t spend a penny without him knowing why. I push aside the food, touching the changes of clothes, thick winter gloves (also nicked from Walmart—it was a good summer), a sewing kit, all-weather matches, a tiny enamel cooking pot and water bottle, and some bathroom stuff. Folded within a flannel shirt is a good camping knife. And inside my jeans pocket is enough money to buy me a ferry ticket in May and a bus ride to someplace that isn’t Duluth. I’ve got the clothes on my back and the skin over my bones.
That’s all I have.
I’ll have to break into a few houses, maybe the park ranger’s quarters. On the bus up here, I realized I’d need an ax to chop wood, but it was too late. I couldn’t afford to buy one or risk stealing something that big, so I’ll have to find one on the island and a place with a wood-burning stove. There will be no electricity. No phones, either. Hopefully I’ll survive the five months and get out on the first ferry before anyone can find me. I zip my bag up and exit the bathroom. I can see the dock at Windigo now.
I might die before May comes. But if it happens, at least it will be on my terms. I watch, almost without blinking, as the shoreline grows closer and closer.
I’m almost there.
I’m almost free.