The late afternoon sunlight exploded off the waves in flashes and sparks, forcing Hillary Callahan to squint at the shore as her ferry pulled into the harbor. Gull Island rose out of the water ahead, as if waking from a nap to greet her, and the sight of it caused a warm flush of excitement on Hillary's face despite the cool June breeze. All around her, dotted across the water, were small islands of varying sizes. Hillary's eyes narrowed as she pored over the islands; clearly she was searching for one in particular. Just before they entered the harbor, Hillary caught a glimpse of the roof of The Sound, her grandmother's enormous shingled house on the northern tip of the island. And up ahead, at the southern end of the island, was Eastport Harbor, Gull Island's small (and only) town. Hillary scanned the old-time New England skyline of church spires and the tops of the low clapboard and brick buildings and breathed a small sigh of relief. Everything was just as she remembered it: the same, unlike the rest of her life back home.
Up ahead, clusters of people stood on the weathered wooden ferry dock, waiting to claim the boat's passengers and shepherd them to their final destinations on Gull Island. Hillary tried to make out the tall, lanky frame of her grandmother Gee, then craned her neck to see if any of her cousins were visible. Of course they changed so much from visit to visit, they'd be harder to spot, but she couldn't see little Neeve with her cowlicked black hair, or Kate's bouncy brown mane, or even Phoebe's bright blond hair that should have been shining like a beacon from the shore.
Phoebe, Kate, and Neeve ("It's Irish. It rhymes with Eve," Neeve always said briskly, sometimes even in her sleep), along with Hillary, had all been born in one year to four of the Callahan brothers. Among the twenty-six first cousins in the Callahan family, these particular cousins had always been friendly and enjoyed occasional weekend visits or holiday gettogethers, but they'd never spent any considerable period of time all together.
Now that they were finally twelve years old, it was time for their long-awaited "solo" stay at their grandmother's house on Gull Island - a whole summer without any parents! (Every cousin had a turn to do this once they were twelve; it was a family tradition.) So in they'd flown: Kate from Westchester County, just outside New York City; Phoebe from Florida; Neeve all the way from Singapore; and now Hillary from Colorado.
But as excited as Hillary was for her summer of relative freedom and time spent on Gull, she was still sad inside about the unraveling of her parents' marriage. This whole year had been a roller coaster of Will they or won't they?, and in the past month or so it had become clear that they probably would. Split up, that is. Done. Hillary couldn't believe it. When her father moved out and her mother changed back to her maiden name, Hillary felt like she was the only Callahan left in the world. She felt like her family had just disintegrated and she was desperate to hold on to any and all trappings of family life. It was essential for her to be with her dad's side of the family this summer and prove to herself that she was still close to them; still a Callahan. That was the main reason for the little project she had in mind for this summer. She could hardly wait to get the others alone so she could tell them.
"Oops!" said Hillary as she bumped into someone. Looking up, she realized it was the tall, preppy teenage guy she'd spied during the two-hour crossing.
"Excuse me," she said as a hot pink blush spread across her face. She always felt nervous talking to new people, especially boys.
"That's okay," said the young man, looking down at her with a grin. His chin-length blond hair kept blowing into his eyes and he pushed it away impatiently. "I can't make out the people who are meeting me either."
"Who are they?" asked Hillary, regaining some composure. "Maybe I know them." She forced herself not to be completely tongue-tied.
"The Bickets," said the young man, glancing back at the dock. "I'm coming here for the summer to teach sailing at Hagan's Marina and I'm living in the Bickets' garage apartment. I don't have a clue what the Bickets look like since I've only talked to them on the phone, but they said they'd be waving a yellow yachting flag."
Had he been looking at Hillary as he said this, he would have seen the surprise on her face. The Bickets! It was just too much of a coincidence! But she recovered quickly before he noticed.
"Oh, I don't actually know the Bickets, but I've heard of them, of course," said Hillary breezily, but inside her heart was pounding nervously. "Everyone has. They, um, they own the big grocery store here on the island." She quickly changed the subject. "I also know the Hagans! That's their marina, just to the left there. Some of my cousins have taken sailing lessons at Hagan's Marina in the past, and I think my grandmother said my other cousins and I will be doing it this summer, too. I've sailed before, just never here." She spoke quickly, hoping he wouldn't ask her anymore about the Bickets.
It worked. "Sounds like you have a lot of cousins!" Hillary nodded. "And hey, maybe I'll be your instructor at Hagan's. That would be cool," the young man said. "I'm Tucker Hill. What's your name?" He extended his right hand for a shake.
"Hillary. Hillary Callahan," said Hillary. Shaking hands! How grown up, she thought as she took Tucker's warm and calloused hand in hers. He was probably seventeen, but his earnestness and poise made him seem older. Hillary felt completely immature next to him. She felt a blush starting again and quickly looked back at the nearing dock to try to think of something else to say.
"Hey! There's a yellow flag!" Hillary pointed to a small cluster of people on the dock; one of them - a bored-looking dark-haired girl about Hillary's age - was lazily waving the flag in figure eights. Hillary was startled, though she didn't show it. She hadn't realized there was a Bicket girl who was her age. She studied the family carefully, sizing up the potential competition for her project. Other than the beautiful, pouty daughter, there were two parents who looked kind of normal, and a little boy who must've been the girl's brother. Tucker raised a hand in greeting but the Bickets didn't seem to see him; or at least none of them waved back. Just then, the ferry's engine shifted into a roaring idle as the captain began maneuvering the boat into its berth. A noxious cloud of diesel fuel filled the air, and Tucker said something Hillary couldn't hear.
"Pardon me?" she shouted.
"I said, I hope they're nice," Tucker shouted back.
"Oh, um, yeah. They're supposed to be, um, pretty nice. I'm sure it will be fine." But Hillary wasn't telling the truth. She gazed out over the water for a moment.
The Callahans and the Bickets had been on bad terms for years. Hillary didn't know all the details, but she knew that her dad and uncles had been friends with the Bicket brothers growing up, and then things turned sour. Over the years, she'd listened in as the grown-ups discussed the Bicket brothers and what jerks they had become. And her dad had told her time and again about a kind of wild, silly game that the Bicket brothers and Callahan brothers used to play - where family honor was at stake and winning a round meant winning one for the family and proving yourself a real Gull Islander.
Hillary's proposed summer project was to restart this game and win it once and for all. Over the course of the past few months, she had decided it was the only way to prove to herself and her dad that she was a true Callahan. And, even more important, she figured it was a surefire way to prevent herself from being cut out of the family loop after the divorce. After all, no one would ever forget about the hero of their family. Would they?
Hillary snapped back to reality as the roaring of the ferry suddenly stopped. The captain had cut the engine, leaving only the noises of the gulls and the passengers' chatter, and the squeals of the boat against the wooden dock pilings.
Tucker smiled as he gathered up his huge duffel bag.
"Hey, it was nice to meet you." He slung the heavy bag up over one broad shoulder in a graceful arc and smiled at Hillary. "Do you need any help with your stuff before I take off?"
"No, thanks, that's really nice of you, but I'm fine." The poor guy, she thought. From what I've heard, he's the one who might need help!
"Okay, I'll see you when sailing clinic starts! Later!" Tucker called over his shoulder.
"Bye!" Hillary waved. "Good luck!" she added, but it was too late. He didn't hear her.
Tucker strolled off toward the front gate just as it opened, spilling the passengers onto the dock with its waiting throng of greeters. The cars on board the ferry began starting their motors, one after the other, as they waited to be waved off the boat by the deck hands.
Hillary shook her head slowly from side to side. The Bickets, she thought. It's already starting!
"Yoo hoo! Hillary!" Gee's voice rose above the crowd.
Gee! Hillary turned and spotted her grandmother at the far left of the dock. Gee hadn't changed at all since they'd seen her in Vail at Christmas. In fact, thought Hillary, Gee hadn't changed at all since before Hillary was even born. Her short, snow-white hair stood up all over her head like peaks of frosting on a lemon meringue pie. Her tan was as dark as ever, and her bright blue eyes - the Callahan family trademark - twinkled in dazzling competition with her wide grin. Gee was beautiful in an outdoorsy, healthy way, slim but well-muscled from her daily one-mile swim in the chilly waters of the sound (she was president of the local chapter of the Polar Bears Club, leading the charge into the water every New Year's Day) and energetic in her movements. And as always, she was beautifully dressed, right down to her usual pink lipstick.
"Hi, Gee!" called Hillary. "I'm coming around!"
Hillary hauled her mountaineering backpack into place on her shoulders, then looped between the cars on the ferry's deck and crossed through the boat's gate. She picked her way through the crowd and over to Gee, where she was instantly wrapped in an enormous hug that even encompassed the backpack.
"Look at you!" cried Gee, holding Hillary out at arm's length. "You're so grown up and lovely! Wait 'til the others see you. Of course they're all grown up and lovely, too."
Hillary laughed, thrilled to see Gee again, and relieved that Gee was the same as ever. Gee linked her arm through Hillary's to lead the way toward her ancient Volvo station wagon in the parking lot. They passed the Bickets, who were chatting with Tucker, and the dark-haired girl gave Hillary a cold, appraising look that sent a chill up her spine. Hillary stared back, sizing them up. Just then Tucker looked up and called "Bye, Hillary!" and Hillary waved. The Bicket girl's lip curled in displeasure and she turned her back to Hillary and looped her arm through Tucker's. Tucker seemed surprised but game as he gallantly led the girl toward the boardwalk to town.
The girl's father gave Gee a curt nod, and Hillary looked quickly at Gee to see how she'd respond. Gee nodded back cordially, ladylike and polite as ever. Although Gee had never been directly involved in any of the rivalry between her boys and the Bicket boys, she'd certainly heard plenty about it. She always said that she didn't approve of anyone's behavior in the whole thing, but she, too, had grown to dislike the Bickets over the years. She just wouldn't admit it.
It was weird for Hillary to see the always-friendly Gee looking so restrained; she could see Gee fighting her natural instinct to be friendly and chatty, while at the same time not wanting to be outright rude. Gee turned and smiled brightly at Hillary. "What a nice-looking young man that was with the Bickets! Was he on your boat?"
"Um, yes," said Hillary. She forced the Bickets out of her thoughts for the moment and said, "Tucker's his name. He's going to be an instructor at that sailing clinic we're doing. By the way, where is everyone? I thought they might come."
"Well, they're so excited that you're coming, they've been buzzing about getting things ready for you since they arrived two days ago. In fact, we just had a discussion at dinner last night about how they wouldn't feel complete until you'd arrived," said Gee.
"Really?" asked Hillary with a grin.
"Really! Now how was your trip?" asked Gee as they settled into the Volvo, Hillary's pack stowed safely in the back of the car.
"Not too bad," said Hillary. She gathered her long, saltspray-dampened curls into a ponytail, crossed her legs in their olive green lowriders, then recounted her travels. Meanwhile, Gee steered the car out of the parking lot and turned left onto Market Street. To Hillary's right loomed the long and boxy Bicket Bouquet grocery store, but she purposely averted her eyes so she wouldn't have to see it.
Hillary looked out the window as they drove down Market Street, one of the lively harbor-town's two main shopping streets. Solid red brick buildings - the bank, the post office where you had to pick up your mail because they didn't deliver on the island - nestled snugly against white clapboard stores, virtually unchanged for over a hundred years. Her eyes combed the streets, checking for all her favorite landmarks. There was Booker's Sporting Goods, where Hillary had gotten her first soccer ball, and the News Co., where you could get piping hot cinnamon donuts with your newspaper every day. Across the street was Barefoot Toys, with the world's best collection of science stuff for kids, and The Dip, where their parents always took them for Awful-Awful ice creams ("They're awful big, and awful good!").
Where Market Street met Broad Street, there was a roundabout, or rotary, instead of a stoplight. Hillary had always thought that was cool. They didn't have those back in Colorado. Here Market Street's name changed to Fisher's Path, and the Village Green with its Lost at Sea monument bisected it for about a block. The stores thinned out and neat little houses where the year-rounders lived clustered along the village lanes that led off Fisher's Path.
Hillary felt herself relax a bit more. Gee's the same, Eastport Harbor's the same; so far, so good, she thought. Nothing like home, where everything had changed.
"So what's new with the cousins?" asked Hillary.
"Oh, well, you're about to see for yourself, but personally, I think
they're more themselves than ever before!" laughed Gee. "Phoebe's
grown about a foot, and with that wonderful vocabulary of hers she
seems about twenty years old. Kate has been needle-pointing and
doing her watercolors, and baking wonderful things for us to eat.
Excerpted from The Callahan Cousins by Elizabeth Doyle Carey Copyright © 2005 by Elizabeth Doyle Carey. Excerpted by permission.
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