JW Young

Welcome To Avalon

The misconception of ordered tranquility, that was Avalon. Ten tidy residential blocks, some meandering mountainside neighborhoods, and a calm harbor worked together to convince tourists that paradise existed just off the California coast. I knew paradise was real by the summer of 1991. I was eleven-going-on-twelve, and it was the place Dad had chosen over me. I wanted to see it for myself.

When I scuttled off the Catalina Express, I spied Dad searching for me in the throng of the camera-wearing. He was sporting floral board shorts and a once-white t-shirt instead of the khakis and polo shirt I’d remembered. His once floppy brown hair had been shorn into a crew cut. I hadn’t seen him since the divorce five years before and had to convince my feet to walk toward him. He didn’t put his arm around me, only smiled and took my backpack, tossed it into the milk crate strapped to the back of his golf cart. “Let me give you the grand tour,” he said. He gassed past the tourists along Crescent Avenue, wove in and out of alleys and narrow paths, and showed me the gift shops and restaurants, one advertising We’re not just the only pizza in town, we’re the best pizza in town!  We thrummed along tidy streets, and Dad pointed out the businesses owned by all of his friends, explained why only a few people on the island had cars.  Finally, he pointed to a row of green converted horse trailers with the words Island Tours painted in yellow along the side. “I work right there,” he said.

Dad lived in a converted tug. Before the divorce, I’d collected Bazooka wrappers, and when I saw his house, I remembered that stash. The tug’s deck acted like a balcony of sorts, connecting the wheelhouse to the levels below. The bridge ladder, handrails, wheelhouse, and bow were painted bright blue, the doors were all bright red, and the rest of the exterior was yellow, even the mainmast. It all looked like something out of those crude cartoon strips, as if life was as simple as three primary colors.

Before walking in through a rear door, fashioned where the boat’s propeller would’ve been, I caught sight of a flutter from the dark blue curtains covering the view screens of the wheelhouse. Maggie was inside, at the sink, her face upturned like she was talking to the ceiling.  She had black hair that curled under her chin and was wearing a necklace of white seashells.

“Hey you guys. I wondered what happened to you. The nine-thirty got here a while ago.”

“I gave him a spin in the cart,” Dad told her.  

I’d nagged Mom about seeing Dad for a few years. She’d given in just before my birthday. I thought it had been held up by Mom’s overbearing insistence that I couldn’t be trusted to eat vegetables if left to my own devices. More pointedly, that Dad wouldn’t force spinach and peas down my throat. I had no idea that the real reason was Maggie. And the flutter in the wheelhouse.

Dad said, “Jud, this is Maggie.”

“Good to meet you, Jud.  I know so much about you.” Her teeth were as white as the shells around her neck.

“Yeah, yeah,” he said.  “Let’s get you settled. Shouldn’t you be at the hospital, Mags?”

“I wanted to be here when you got in.”  She eyed dad. It was the same look Mom gave me when she knew I was lying every time I told her I hadn’t gotten into another fight at school.

Inside the tug, the furniture was built into the walls—wooden sideboards, melamine countertops in the kitchenette, a half-moon Formica table with two chairs like the molded ones from the detention hall at school.  Bookended by heavy rectangular sideboards, whose lamps were bolted in place, was a two-seat green sofa. “You’ll sleep here,” Dad told me, patting the cushions. “It makes into a bed. I don’t know how they got this over here.”

“Same as everything else,” Maggie said. “By boat.  I’m gonna finish up in the kitchen.” She and Dad exchanged another look, making me feel like the out-of-place sofa.  Then Maggie was gone.

Dad put my backpack on the couch then sat down next to it.  “She’s a nurse,” he said. “Works days. You won’t see her much.” He leaned back on the sofa, spreading his tanned arms along its back pillows. I sat down, but I couldn’t look at him, so I stared at the floor, then at my dirty white sneakers. I’d nearly outgrown them. Mom was holding out for a new pair for school, but my toes were pinching. I slipped the shoes from my feet. I hadn’t said much to Dad since I’d met him at the harbor. Every day in the years since his move, I could see the island off the coast when I rode the bus to school. Just as we crested the hill, no matter how much smog or fog was lounging in the sky, I’d imagined Dad out here. But I’d never really been able to imagine him doing much of anything.

There seemed to be, between us, a timid silent agreement that the occasional phone calls I’d gotten over the last five years had been enough to sustain a thread of love. We’d somehow, from the moment I sat next to him in the golf cart, pretended we’d just seen each other last week. I’d grown five inches in that time, my hair had lightened, and I had two new teeth growing in. He hadn’t said anything about these things and I didn’t test him. Before the divorce, Dad worked in an office like most other people in Costa Mesa.  He took fishing trips to Catalina four or five times a year with his company. Mom and I were never invited. She never complained, but during his absences she dropped things and ran into door frames. I first noticed my habit of teeth grinding on the last trip Dad had taken before being laid off.

That first night, we ate a meager dinner of the best pizza in town, and we ended up playing a game of “remember when.” Most of Dad’s memories were of our family just after I was born. “You used to take off your diaper when you wanted to be changed,” Dad said. “Remember that? Remember how you wouldn’t even cry? You figured out how to get that darn thing off. We had to watch you all of the time. Remember?” Dad would laugh himself into a coughing fit.

“No,” I’d say, quietly, unable to be an ally. I tried hard to remember the things he recalled from my third and fourth years, but they were hazy or never quite matched up with his version. Eventually, he stopped laughing and turned on the small television affixed to the sideboard.

Even though Dad said Maggie wouldn’t come back, she appeared just as I was settling in. “You can’t eat pizza every night you’re here,” she said.  I half expected her to add Mom’s usual nag about vegetables, but she just smiled, gave Dad another sideways glance, and disappeared out the back door. I took the opportunity to use the tiny bathroom tucked into a back corner. I grabbed my toothbrush and paste from my backpack and pulled the chain for the bulb overhead. Teetering on the edge of the oval sink was a tiny blue toothbrush and a tube of training gel. A green soap frog squatted by the spigot. These were Dad’s attempts at readying his home for his son.

 

That night I couldn’t sleep.  The sofa bed was damp and smelled like sea salt.  I rolled over and over until I’d wrapped the foul-smelling sheet down around my ankles. I decided to turn on the television, and just when I stumbled off of the mattress, I heard footsteps on the deck above. I stood in the middle of the small living room, my head cocked to the left, while the footfalls echoed above me. I followed them with my eyes, until they stopped outside of the wheelhouse door. Then I waited. I’d been grinding my teeth and flexed my jaw just as the footfalls scurried from the wheelhouse, around the deck, then back again. A series of passing golf carts droned by outside, and a horn tooted. I jumped.

A narrow switchback staircase started in the bow of the tug. Dad’s room was on the second level, along with another small bathroom. His door was cracked, but the room was as dark as a cave. I climbed the next series of steps and met an exterior door with a large view screen. I grabbed the handle, but it wouldn’t budge. I jiggled it again, shoved my shoulder into the glass. I pressed my face to the window, trying to see what Dad was doing out on the deck. No one was there.

“What’re you doing?” Dad’s voice carried up the short staircase and I nearly lost my balance. “Jud?” he said.

“I heard someone. I heard walking. I couldn’t sleep.”

“Go back to bed,” Dad said. “It was nothing. This boat makes noises, is all.”

I passed him on my way back below. He didn’t ruffle my hair or hug me the way Mom did when I couldn’t sleep or when I’d been sent to detention again. “Sorry,” I said to him, though I didn’t know why.

“Just go back to sleep,” he told me.

 

Eventually, I did doze, but by the time Dad woke, I was running a fever. Maggie took my temperature, bundled me under a musty blanket she found in the coat closet, and dosed me with Tylenol. “You need to stay in bed,” she told me. Then she looked at Dad. “It’s not high enough for flu, but he’s sick for sure.”

“Shit,” Dad said.

She cut her eyes at him and he did something I’d never seen or heard him do before. He blushed and said, “Sorry.” Mom could never make that happen. I hated Maggie.

Dad had to work, and since his original plan to take me along with him was spoiled, Maggie said she’d check in on me. Dad said something about watching TV all day, shrugged, and left. I had to turn onto my left side to watch TV, so soon my ear, nose, and sinus on that side of my head were throbbing. I got up to use the bathroom a few times, diligently drank the Gatorade Dad had left for me, ignored Maggie the best I could when she came back to give me more medicine and check that my fever wasn’t rising. I used about a thousand tissues to blow my nose. The bottom level of the tug was dim, only portal windows for light, but I managed to find a few things lying around—some Hot Wheels, stray dice, a wooden puzzle under the little couch. I wanted to call Mom, but knew she’d insist I come home. I didn’t want to leave. I didn’t know if she’d ever let me come back. I switched off the television and drifted off to sleep.

When I woke up, Dad was sitting at the small kitchen table where we’d eaten dinner in silence while Jeopardy! played on the television. He was watching me with pleading eyes. I swallowed hard. He was staring at me, wringing his hands like any minute he’d lock them around my neck. It was the first time I’d thought of him as dangerous.

“Are you better?” he said.

“Not really,” I told him. “Maybe a little. I’m hungry, maybe.”

“Maggie made some soup. There’s crackers too. I got more Gatorade when I got off work.” He glanced up at the ceiling, the wheelhouse. “I’ve been meaning to tell you something.  I don’t really know how to say it, though. So I’m just gonna say it. You have a brother. A half-brother. His name’s John, he’s seven.”

I must’ve looked confused, rather than surprised, because Dad said, “Yeah, your mom and me only split five years ago. There’s reasons for everything.”  He glanced upward and started rubbing his hands together. “You always wanted a brother; now you’ve got one. I want you to know about him. He knows all about you, his big brother. He’s a good kid and you shouldn’t be mad at him about being alive. You can be mad at me.” He rubbed his hands together even harder, his knuckles whitening.

He was waiting for me, but I could hardly make sense of what he was saying. He could’ve been pulling a prank, but Mom told me before I left that he wasn’t going to tell me any tales. “I warned him,” she said. “I told him he couldn’t carry on with you the way he did before. I wouldn’t let you go until he promised.” He’d played practical jokes on us so often that at some point Mom stopped taking him seriously. Once, he’d convinced her he’d been in a minor car accident on the way home that resulted in a hole in the roof of the car. When Mom and I ran out to the garage to see the damage, we found the new sedan that he’d bought.

“I had to move out here. For him,” Dad was saying. “He’s got a problem. He’s got this disease.” The word was like a mouthful of sand.

I tried not to grind my teeth. I knew Dad had been cheating on Mom. It was one of those things I’d overheard on a night when they’d thought I’d been asleep. But I’d never heard about John, so I’m pretty sure Mom hadn’t found out about him until later. Something Mom had said right before I boarded the shuttle popped into my head. “Don’t let your father hurt your feelings. He sometimes says what he means before he thinks about what it might do to someone else.”

“John’s a Moon Child,” Dad continued. “You don’t know what that is, I know. Basically, he’s allergic to the sun, to sunlight. To some lights that aren’t the sun. Maggie, she could explain it better than me.”

“I don’t need her to tell me about it.” I tried not to spit out my growing anger at Maggie. Loyalty for my mother caused me to pledge that I would ignore Maggie for the rest of my stay even though I had wanted a little brother, longed for someone to join me in rebellion against our parents. But then they’d started rebelling against each other, and I forgot all about my fantasy of a sibling.

“I should have told you, should’ve introduced you. It was John you heard last night. Playing. He knows not to be loud, to wake our friends, but sometimes, well, I can’t stay awake all night watching him. Still,” Dad said, still wringing his hands, “I’ll have Maggie take him over to the clinic tonight. He’s got a room over there. She takes him sometimes when I need more sleep. I don’t like to ask though. Her job’s more important. All I do is haul people up and down to the ranch. ‘Here’s Wrigley Ranch. There’s St. Catherine Lace. Arabian Horses. Eucalyptus trees. Blah blah blah. I don’t save people. I don’t take care of them the way Maggie does.”

“It’s fine,” I said. “Can I meet him tonight?”

“When you’re well. No more fever. He can’t get sick. It could really hurt him. You understand that, right?” Dad smiled then, the wicked grin I remembered from years before.

“Yeah,” I said.

“I knew you would,” Dad said. “You’ve always been smart.”

 

I didn’t hear John again. My fever remained for another two days, and on the fourth morning it finally broke. I awoke to Dad sitting at the bottom of the stairs. “Why don’t you make up your bed? We’ve only got two days now, so I’m going over to the clinic to see what Maggie’s got planned for lunch. See if John’s ready to come home.”

I stood alone in the middle of the living room after he’d gone. I was weak, drained. Even though John wasn’t home, I still expected a little ghost to jump out from behind a carved nook and surprise me. At the bathroom sink, I brushed my teeth. I heard Maggie and Dad come in.  She was saying, “We agreed it wasn’t a good idea, that you’d have a nice visit with Jud and that was it.”

“But I couldn’t lie—”

“Why not?  It’s not lying, anyway; it’s just not telling something.”

“It’s lying.”

“Do you know how you sound, Michael?  To a son who hasn’t seen you in years?”

“Shut up.”

Maggie’s voice softened.  “I know, I know. It just wasn’t a good idea.  It’s hard to understand.”

My heart pounded in my ears and I couldn’t make out much more. I ground my toothbrush between my teeth, nearly pulverizing the bristles.  Mom had hardly said much about the divorce, and she hadn’t warned me to be ready for a stand-in mother. And now Dad was being dictated to by a woman who didn’t even know me, who didn’t know that for a long time I’d actually wanted a little brother. Listening to her tell Dad how I should be treated triggered something inside of me, and I yanked the bathroom door open so it banged against the shower box then slammed shut again. When I stepped out into the kitchenette, Dad was preparing bowls of cereal.

“You’ve got a temper, you know,” Dad said.

“Yeah.”

“You should work on that,” he told me.

I sat at the small counter-table. “When am I gonna meet John?” He didn’t turn around, didn’t answer. “Tonight, maybe? Can we play tonight?”

Dad peered through the round portal window over the tiny sink, as if looking for something. I was about to ask again when he said, “Yeah. We can do that. Yeah. Hey, I got an idea,” he said. He turned to me and his dark eyes brightened.  “How about some new shoes?”

I shrugged. “Okay.”

We finished our cereal quickly, then Dad shuffled me out into the bright island sun. I had to blink several times to focus; everything moving from yellow-white into contrasting colors and shapes. We hopped into the golf cart and Dad sped along the narrow road and whipped onto the main boardwalk. Tourists had already arrived and milled around eating street tacos, sno-cones, and cotton-candy. A few ventured out onto the rocky coastline, wincing when their feet touched the cool water. Lines were forming at the ticket kiosks for glass-bottomed boat and ranch tours. “I’ve gotta work this afternoon. See how you feel, then we’ll see about putting you on the tour,” Dad said. “This is where I get my shoes.” He stopped at a cave-like store. Strings of beads hung in the open door, the smell of leather and mildew filtered through them. “Come on,” he said, tugging on my shoulder. “My friend owns this place. He can make us a deal.”

When Dad walked in, the rotund man behind the counter didn’t move. He raised his head with a haphazard smile, saw Dad, then looked back to the newspaper he was reading. “Morning, Mike,” he said.

“I’m here to buy my son some shoes, Charlie,” Dad said.  “You might need to measure his feet.”

Charlie didn’t look up. “Yeah, sure. That’s likely.”

I ran my fingers along the rows of skate shoes on the right wall. There were more Vans here than I’d seen at Standard Shoes. Why anyone would need that many shoes, I didn’t know. Charlie noticed me, finally, and said flatly, “Can I help you, kid?”

“I told you,” Dad said to him, “we’re here to get shoes.” He put his arm around my shoulders.

Charlie stepped back from the counter, as if blasted in the face by a hot gust of air. His eyes briefly resembled dark ingots, then they turned to narrow slits. “You’re serious,” he said.

“Damned right,” Dad told him. “Look at these old things on his feet. He’s sprouting out.”

“This is your kid?” Charlie said, still not moving from behind the counter.

“Yeah,” Dad said.

He cut his eyes at me. “This your dad, kid?”

“Um, yeah.”

“Huh,” Charlie finally said. He folded his newspaper and waddled out from behind the counter. “It’s your money, Mike.”

Dad told me to take my pick, any pair I wanted as long as they were a half size larger than the measurement Charlie took. “Room to grow,” Dad said.  I chose simple gray suede.

My skin crawled the whole time we were in the shop. I could tell Charlie thought I was John, that he hadn’t known anything about me. Dad had kept all of his friends in the dark about his mainland life, as if Mom and I didn’t even exist. “I need socks, too,” I said, “and, really, I need two pairs of shoes.”

 

Everywhere we went, Dad introduced me to the people he said were his friends. They watched me with surprise. I got free food and t-shirts and keychains and hats, and a free trip on the glass-bottomed boat. Then, that afternoon, I climbed into the cab of Dad’s touring truck for a ride up the mountain to Wrigley Ranch. Dad typically gave the tour twice a day, and each took four hours. Behind the truck, he hauled the converted horse trailer. Speakers were affixed in the corners. Over the radio, he told everyone to lower the windows and introduced himself to the group. Then he introduced me and explained I’d be sitting with him in the cab for the rest of the tour. “When we get to the dirt road, folks—I’ll announce it when we do—please, please, please close the windows or you’ll have to see the rest of the tour with your eyes closed.” The group chuckled and I shifted my feet. “I’ll be explaining much of the sights for you from up here. I won’t be able to hear questions, so please ask me when we make our stop at the ranch. When we come back down, we’ll come slowly so you can take photos.”

The truck climbed the narrow road originally meant for stagecoaches and hauled us farther and farther up the cliffs until the harbor boats were specks. Two Catalina Expresses flew by, their plumes of foam rocking each other. “These eucalyptus trees were planted here for a reason,” Dad was telling the people. “They take root and won’t let go. If for some reason we should make a wrong turn, the trees would be able to hold us up.”

“Really?” I asked.  

Dad switched off the CB. “No, if we crashed, we’d break through in this rig. No one could get up here in time to rescue all of us.” Dad snorted and raised his radio to his mouth.  “Now we’re entering the Conservancy, ladies and gentlemen, established by the Wrigleys to keep the island as it was when the first Spanish settlers saw it. The Conservancy makes up 99% of the island. On the left you’ll see a grouping of St. Catherine’s Lace, named after the island Santa Catalina, which was named after Saint Catherine of Spain. This plant is endemic to the island.” For almost an hour, Dad droned on about the flora of Catalina Island. He didn’t use notes; no slips of paper were hanging from the visor. He didn’t even close his eyes like Mom did when she was trying to remember something. He drove up the narrow road, passing cars going the other direction, forcing them almost off the cliff so we could pass.  

The silent agreement between us returned. I watched the Wrigley Ranch horse show.  The ranch hands served us stale popcorn and water. I walked out toward the western cliffs. The horizon was nothing but blue, the dark murky color of the sea. The sky was ringing like crystal. I closed my eyes and tilted my head toward the afternoon sun. I couldn’t imagine living without that warmth.

Dad stood next to the bathroom huts in the shade. When the show was over, he gathered the tourists back to the trailer. “John,” he called to me, waving his arms above his head. “Time to go.” At first I thought I’d heard him wrong, but then he said, “C’mon John, let’s go.”

On the way back down the mountain, Dad busied himself by explaining The Loop, a sharp curve in the mountain road from where, he told the tourists, people have been making wishes since the Spanish arrived. Dad strained as he turned the wheel, and the truck seemed as if it were folding back on the trailer. Though the day I’d spent with him had been a good one, I wished that I wouldn’t ever come back to Avalon.

 

I couldn’t sleep. Though I hadn’t told him, I’d started to feel feverish when Dad took me out for a Chinese dinner after the tour. While I sweated the last of my flu onto the already damp sheets, I stared at the ceiling. I tried to doze and maybe I did. But then I heard the wheelhouse door click. I strained to hear footsteps on the deck above. I sat up. I waited to hear more movement, but nothing happened. I lay back again and closed my eyes. Dad hadn’t told me at dinner that John was coming back, and by that last night the thoughts of a half-brother caused me to grind my teeth so hard my jaw popped. A few seconds later there came a low hum of classical music. It was Debussy, one of Dad’s favorites that I remembered from before he left for the island.

The deck overhead creaked and popped. John was awake. I swung my legs over the side of the sofa bed and crept across the tiny living room. Dad’s snoring had stopped. I tiptoed up the switchback staircase and was nearly at the top when a step creaked under my weight. Hurried footfalls whispered across the deck again, then the wheelhouse door clicked. Debussy played on. At that moment I could’ve chosen to go back to bed, to suffer my sweating night in silence, to forget about the half-brother protected from the sun. And I could’ve done it. I was young.

But I didn’t. I crept out onto the deck, then climbed up to the narrow door of the wheelhouse. The dark blue curtains were drawn. I rapped on the door. Nothing. The moon was slightly out, the island’s steep mountainside cutting the sky into black and blacker. I knocked lightly again, thought briefly that I’d somehow get into trouble for meeting John. But no one answered. Only Debussy. So I opened the door.

There was a bookcase at the far end of the tiny room filled with board games, stuffed animals, and toys. A small iron bed was pushed against the wall. The sheets were rumpled, like someone had slept there that day. On the wall next to the bookcase was a map of America with each capital marked by a huge red star. There were flashcards on the floor. Each had a picture on it of a place and under the place was the name. The only one out of order read New York City and had a picture of the Statue of Liberty at sunset. The dark blue curtains on the other view screens thrown open and the slight moon was lighting the room. Other than these things, the room was empty.

I swallowed hard. I whispered, “Hi? John? It’s me, Jud. I’m—I’m your brother.”

In the corner behind me I heard the rustling of feet. I spun and saw the wardrobe. One of the doors, that had been open a crack, slammed closed. I could hear John breathing on the other side. “You don’t have to be afraid,” I whispered. “It’s just me, Jud. I’m—I’m your brother. Dad says he told you about me. I just wanted to come up and say hey.” The breathing on the other side of the wardrobe door quickened. I looked around the room again and spotted a couple of games I knew. “Really,” I said, “come on out. We can play a game. You like Connect Four? Battleship?” I slowly reached toward the door’s handle, secured my fingers around it, and yanked. There was a gasp, but the door didn’t move. Hangers rattled inside. I yanked again, but the door just rattled. I pulled and pulled.

Before I knew it, I was kicking the door. Just like the fights I’d been in at school, I couldn’t pinpoint the moment my temper flared, the moment when something inside me clicked, my jaw turned to steel, and I fell into a panting rage. “Open up!” I yelled. I banged and kicked on the door, causing thunder in the room. The wardrobe rattled. “I know you’re in there, John! Just come out! Come out!” In a fury, I tore the games from the shelves, pulled off the bedding, ripped down a curtain. All the while, I was screaming for John to come out. Of course, he never did.

Dad had come up the stairs by then and was watching me from the wheelhouse door. When I finally stopped yelling, tears running down my face, he said, “I’ll put it all back. Come to bed.”

“I want to see him!” I yelled, pointing to the wardrobe. “I know he’s in there!”

“He’s not,” Dad said. He walked to the wardrobe, turned one of the handles, and the wardrobe opened. A few shirts hung inside, but other than a ladder leading down to the tiny closet in Dad’s room, it was empty. “You think he wants to see you now?” Dad said. “Your temper.”

I sniffed, wiped my nose on my shirt collar. “What d’you know,” I said, defeated.

The assuring silence came to rest between us again. Finally Dad said, “Go back to bed. I’ll clean up.”

 

“This is it,” Dad said the next afternoon when he took me to the harbor.  “You had fun?”

“Yeah.”

“Kids your age, what’s fun, right?”

I shrugged and shifted my backpack to my other shoulder.

“You got your other shoes? Socks?”

“Yeah.”

His eyes were soft and clear. “You’re gonna miss your boat. You call when you get to the dock so I know you made it.” He slung his arm over my shoulder as a hug. We both knew I wouldn’t call. This was it for us. Dad had John and Maggie. He had no use for me. Nor I for him.

Mom picked me up on the mainland. As we drove home, she said something about my new shoes and asked how I’d liked the island, but she didn’t ask about Dad, didn’t mention John. I didn’t tell her I’d been sick or about my tantrum or the way Dad had looked at me like an injured child. As we pulled into the garage, I asked, “Did you know, Mom? Did you know about John?”

She sighed and nodded slowly.

“You should’ve told,” I said.

She nodded again. “I don’t know what to say.”

We sat in the car long after she’d turned off the engine. Finally, she sighed again and said, “I’m sorry. I love you.”

“I love you, too,” I said. We never mentioned John again.

That trip seems like a dream to me now, these many years later. Dad’s sporadic calls continued through my teens, but when I left home to go to college, we lost contact. Last year, right before my thirtieth birthday, Mom called to tell me Dad had died. Maggie had called to deliver the news. “She was a good nurse,” Mom said. “Did more for him than I could ever do.”

I waited for grief, but nothing came. “I don’t know how you managed to keep me in the dark, Mom, but I’m glad you did. You never made him out to be the bad guy.”

“He wasn’t,” she sighed. “He was just…”

I waited, hoping she’d finally say it, finally admit why they’d divorced, why Dad had chosen the island over his own family, maneuvered a horse trailer up and down a dangerous mountain while telling people they were perfectly safe. When she remained silent, I said, “I think I knew the whole time John wasn’t real. That Dad was sick. Maybe I pretended not to know the last time I saw him. Or maybe I didn’t. But I get it now.”

She sighed again. “I’m sorry,” she said, in the same way she had years before.

“You don’t have to be sorry. I’m not angry. Not at you anyway.”

“We did okay, didn’t we?”

“Yeah, we did. I love you.”

“I love you.”

After we’d said our goodbyes, I tried to remember Dad standing on the dock as I left Avalon. It was difficult because over the years I’d changed it. Sometimes I misremembered my departure on purpose and imagined it at night, a little kid next to Dad, holding onto his leg as the boat pulled away. The truth is, when I’d finally found a seat on the Express and thought to look back at the dock, all I could see was the huge map of the island. It had been forged of copper and spun triangles of light into my eyes as the boat zipped back to the mainland. I’d been momentarily blinded, and when I shaded my eyes, Dad wasn’t there. I wonder sometimes if he ever really was.

JW Young

The writing of JW Young has been anthologized by Random House, Dzanc Books, and Pinchback Press. She teaches writing in Georgia, where she lives with her husband and three children. You can find her on Facebook and Twitter: @joyousinhell.