- Author: Fritz Leiber
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By FRITZ LEIBER
Illustrated by ASHMAN
[Transcriber's Note: This etext was produced from
Galaxy Science Fiction August 1952.
Extensive research did not uncover any evidence that
the U.S. copyright on this publication was renewed.]
Meeting someone who's been dead for twenty
years is shocking enough for anyone with a
belief in ghosts—worse for one with none!
The narrow cove was quiet as the face of an expectant child, yet so near the ruffled Atlantic that the last push of wind carried the Annie O. its full length. The man in gray flannels and sweatshirt let the sail come crumpling down and hurried past its white folds at a gait made comically awkward by his cramped muscles. Slowly the rocky ledge came nearer. Slowly the blue V inscribed on the cove's surface by the sloop's prow died. Sloop and ledge kissed so gently that he hardly had to reach out his hand.
He scrambled ashore, dipping a sneaker in the icy water, and threw the line around a boulder. Unkinking himself, he looked back through the cove's high and rocky mouth at the gray-green scattering of islands and the faint dark line that was the coast of Maine. He almost laughed in satisfaction at having disregarded vague warnings and done the thing every man yearns to do once in his lifetime—gone to the farthest island out.
He must have looked longer than he realized, because by the time he dropped his gaze the cove was again as glassy as if the Annie O. had always been there. And the splotches made by his sneaker on the rock had faded in the hot sun. There was something very unusual about the quietness of this place. As if time, elsewhere hurrying frantically, paused here to rest. As if all changes were erased on this one bit of Earth.
The man's lean, melancholy face crinkled into a grin at the banal fancy. He turned his back on his new friend, the little green sloop, without one thought for his nets and specimen bottles, and set out to explore. The ground rose steeply at first and the oaks were close, but after a little way things went downhill and the leaves thinned and he came out on more rocks—and realized that he hadn't quite gone to the farthest one out.
Joined to this island by a rocky spine, which at the present low tide would have been dry but for the spray, was another green, high island that the first had masked from him all the while he had been sailing. He felt a thrill of discovery, just as he'd wondered back in the woods whether his might not be the first human feet to kick through the underbrush. After all, there were thousands of these islands.
Then he was dropping down the rocks, his lanky limbs now moving smoothly enough.
To the landward side of the spine, the water was fairly still. It even began with another deep cove, in which he glimpsed the spiny spheres of sea urchins. But from seaward the waves chopped in, sprinkling his trousers to the knees and making him wince pleasurably at the thought of what vast wings of spray and towers of solid water must crash up from here in a storm.
He crossed the rocks at a trot, ran up a short grassy slope, raced through a fringe of trees—and came straight up against an eight-foot fence of heavy mesh topped with barbed wire and backed at a short distance with high, heavy shrubbery.
Without pausing for surprise—in fact, in his holiday mood, using surprise as a goad—he jumped for the branch of an oak whose trunk touched the fence, scorning the easier lower branch on the other side of the tree. Then he drew himself up, worked his way to some higher branches that crossed the fence, and dropped down inside.
Suddenly cautious, he gently parted the shrubbery and, before the first surprise could really sink in, had another.
A closely mown lawn dotted with more shrubbery ran up to a snug white Cape Cod cottage. The single strand of a radio aerial stretched the length of the roof. Parked on a neat gravel driveway that crossed just in front of the cottage was a short, square-lined touring car that he recognized from remembered pictures as an ancient Essex. The whole scene had about it the same odd quietness as the cove.
Then, with the air of a clock-work toy coming to life, the white door opened and an elderly woman came out, dressed in a long, lace-edged dress and wide, lacy hat. She climbed into the driver's seat of the Essex, sitting there very stiff and tall. The motor began to chug bravely, gravel skittered, and the car rolled off between the trees.
The door of the house opened again and a slim girl emerged. She wore a white silk dress that fell straight from square neck-line to hip-height waistline, making the skirt seem very short. Her dark hair was bound with a white bandeau so that it curved close to her cheeks. A dark necklace dangled against the white of the dress. A newspaper was tucked under her arm.
She crossed the driveway and tossed the paper down on a rattan table between three rattan chairs and stood watching a squirrel zigzag across the lawn.
The man stepped through the wall of shrubbery, called, "hello!" and walked toward her.
She whirled around and stared at him as still as if her heart had stopped beating. Then she darted behind the table and waited for him there. Granting the surprise of his appearance, her alarm seemed not so much excessive as eerie. As if, the man thought, he were not an ordinary stranger, but a visitor from another planet.
Approaching closer, he saw that she was trembling and that her breath was coming in rapid, irregular gasps. Yet the slim, sweet, patrician face that stared into his had an underlying expression of expectancy that reminded him of the cove. She couldn't have been more than eighteen.
He stopped short of the table. Before he could speak, she stammered out, "Are you he?"
"What do you mean?" he asked, smiling puzzledly.
"The one who sends me the little boxes."
"I was out sailing and I happened to land in the far cove. I didn't dream that anyone lived on this island, or even came here."
"No one ever does come here," she replied. Her manner had changed, becoming at once more wary and less agitated, though still eerily curious.
"It startled me tremendously to find this place," he blundered on. "Especially the road and the car. Why, this island can't be more than a quarter of a mile wide."
"The road goes down to the wharf," she explained, "and up to the top of the island, where my aunts have a tree-house."
He tore his mind away from the picture of a woman dressed like Queen Mary clambering up a tree. "Was that your aunt I saw driving off?"
"One of them. The other's taken the motorboat in for supplies." She looked at him doubtfully. "I'm not sure they'll like it if they find someone here."
"There are just the three of you?" he cut in quickly, looking down the empty road that vanished among the oaks.
"I suppose you go in to the mainland with your aunts quite often?"
She shook her head.
"It must get pretty dull for you."
"Not very," she said, smiling. "My aunts bring me the papers and other things. Even movies. We've got a projector. My favorite stars are Antonio Morino and Alice Terry. I like her better even than Clara Bow."
He looked at her hard for a moment. "I suppose you read a lot?"
She nodded. "Fitzgerald's my favorite author." She started around the table, hesitated, suddenly grew shy. "Would you like some lemonade?"
He'd noticed the dewed silver pitcher, but only now realized his thirst. Yet when she handed him a glass, he held it untasted and said awkwardly, "I haven't introduced myself. I'm Jack Barry."
She stared at his outstretched right hand, slowly extended her own toward it, shook it up and down exactly once, then quickly dropped it.
He chuckled and gulped some lemonade. "I'm a biology student. Been working at Wood's Hole the first part of the summer. But now I'm here to do research in marine ecology—that's sort of sea-life patterns—of the in-shore islands. Under the direction of Professor Kesserich. You know about him, of course?"
She shook her head.
"Probably the greatest living biologist," he was proud to inform her. "Human physiology as well. Tremendous geneticist. In a class with Carlson and Jacques Loeb. Martin Kesserich—he lives over there at town. I'm staying with him. You ought to have heard of him." He grinned. "Matter of fact, I'd never have met you if it hadn't been for Mrs. Kesserich."
The girl looked puzzled.
Jack explained, "The old boy's been off to Europe on some conferences, won't be back for a couple days more. But I was to get started anyhow. When I went out this morning Mrs. Kesserich—she's a drab sort of person—said to me, 'Don't try to sail to the farther islands.' So, of course, I had to. By the way, you still haven't told me your name."
"Mary Alice Pope," she said, speaking slowly and with an odd wonder, as if she were saying it for the first time.
"You're pretty shy, aren't you?"
"How would I know?"
The question stopped Jack. He couldn't think of anything to say to this strangely attractive girl dressed almost like a "flapper."
"Will you sit down?" she asked him gravely.
The rattan chair sighed under his weight. He made another effort to talk. "I'll bet you'll be glad when summer's over."
"So you'll be able to go back to the mainland."
"But I never go to the mainland."
"You mean you stay out here all winter?" he asked incredulously, his mind filled with a vision of snow and frozen spray and great gray waves.
"Oh, yes. We get all our supplies on hand before winter. My aunts are very capable. They don't always wear long lace dresses. And now I help them."
"But that's impossible!" he said with sudden sympathetic anger. "You can't be shut off this way from people your own age!"
"You're the first one I ever met." She hesitated. "I never saw a boy or a man before, except in movies."
"No, it's true."
"But why are they doing it to you?" he demanded, leaning forward. "Why are they inflicting this loneliness on you, Mary?"
She seemed to have gained poise from his loss of it. "I don't know why. I'm to find out soon. But actually I'm not lonely. May I tell you a secret?" She touched his hand, this time with only the faintest trembling. "Every night the loneliness gathers in around me—you're right about that. But then every morning new life comes to me in a little box."
"What's that?" he said sharply.
"Sometimes there's a poem in the box, sometimes a book, or pictures, or flowers, or a ring, but always a note. Next to the notes I like the poems best. My favorite is the one by Matthew Arnold that ends,
"Wait a minute," he interrupted. "Who sends you these boxes?"
"I don't know."
"But how are the notes signed?"
"They're wonderful notes," she said. "So wise, so gay, so tender, you'd imagine them being written by John Barrymore or Lindbergh."
"Yes, but how are they signed?"
She hesitated. "Never anything but 'Your Lover.'"
"And so when you first saw me, you thought—" He began, then stopped because she was blushing.
"How long have you been getting them?"
"Ever since I can remember. I have two closets of the boxes. The new ones are either by my bed when I wake or at my place at breakfast."
"But how does this—person get these boxes to you out here? Does he give them to your aunts and do they put them there?"
"I'm not sure."
"But how can they get them in winter?"
"I don't know."
"Look here," he said, pouring himself more lemonade, "how long is it since you've been to the mainland?"
"Almost eighteen years. My aunts tell me I was born there in the middle of the war."
"What war?" he asked startledly, spilling some lemonade.
"The World War, of course. What's the matter?"
Jack Barr was staring down at the spilled lemonade and feeling a kind of terror he'd never experienced in