I didn't have directions to the house where I would be staying, but it wasn't like there were many options. The beach led to a road, and the road led in two directions: west, to the Landon Avian Research Center; or east, where the few houses on the island were located. It was after hours, so no one would be at the Center. I turned east.
The island was equal parts rock and clinging grass. The wind made the grass hiss, like the island already disapproved of my presence. I kept my head down. The strap of my bag dug into my shoulder and across my chest.
If I hurried back, I could still catch Mr. Nguyen. I could tell him that I'd made a mistake. I could go home—except there was no home to go back to. Now that I'd graduated high school, I was officially aged out of the foster system. The only thing I had left was a ghost, and this was the only place I knew to look for her.
I remembered almost nothing about my mother. A blue jacket. Her hand cupping the back of my head as I pressed my face against her thigh. Her voice barely hiding a laugh. Come on, little bird. Bye-bye, little bird. Good night, little bird.
Joy Novak died in an accident, fifteen years ago. I was three years old, and I didn't remember any of it. I only knew what they told me in foster care, and it wasn't like my foster parents knew any details. I wasn't able to find any either, when I went looking. One dead woman didn't make a ripple in a world where worse things happened every day, and I'd started to accept a future in which I never knew what her last moments had been like, or what kind of accident had claimed her.
And then I'd gotten a phone call. The girl on the other end had asked what I knew about my mother's disappearance. The word had been so unexpected that at first I hadn't heard it at all. I assumed she was asking about her death. So when Abby asked me about what my mother had been doing in Bitter Rock, Alaska, I'd told her she'd made a mistake. My mother died in Montana, I'd told her. I don't think she'd ever been to Alaska.
So you believe she's dead, then?
That's when I realized what she'd said. Disappearance.
I still didn't believe her. Not until she sent me the photo: my mother and three-year-old me on a beach.
Turns out there were answers. I was just looking in the wrong place.
Gravel crunched under my feet. A pale bird winged toward me. The splash of red at its throat was vivid as fresh blood. A red-throated tern—the bird Bitter Rock was famous for, in certain scientific circles. It was a perfect match to the wooden bird in my pocket, its wings barred with black and white. The colors flashed at me as it flew overhead, and I tracked its progress.
The western point of the island rose in a hill, and at its top crouched a blocky gray building—the Landon Avian Research Center, or LARC for short. It was the only reason anyone came to Bitter Rock. It was the reason my mother had been here, at least according to Abby, and so I'd lied and wheedled my way into a summer job interning for one of the lead researchers.
The tern flew over the hill and disappeared northward. Heading, I assumed, toward Belaya Skala—Bitter Rock's headland, connected to the main island by an unnavigable isthmus of sheer rock and home only to birds. Though that hadn't always been the case. At least three times before, people had tried to gain footholds of one kind or another on that side of the island.
Every time, it ended in disaster. Disaster that left not corpses, but questions—which had never been answered. This island had swallowed up dozens of people. Now I was here, alone and unsure of what I was facing.
Suddenly it crashed over me, the immensity of what I was doing stopping me in my tracks. My mother was just one name among many, and these islands had eaten them all, and left behind nothing—not even bones. Who was I against that?
I turned on the road, a plea on my tongue—Wait, I've changed my mind. But Mr. Nguyen was a blot on the sea, too far for my voice to reach. I dug my fingers into the strap of my bag, sick with the sudden conviction that this had all been a mistake. There was a strange vibration in the air that seemed to settle in my chest and radiate out through my limbs. It made me queasy, like I stood on the lurching deck of a boat with the rumble of the motor beneath me.
I blinked. Mr. Nguyen's boat was gone. I searched the horizon for him—he couldn't have gotten far enough to vanish, not yet. Fear skittered over my skin. I gritted my teeth. It was fine. I wasn't leaving anyway. I was letting my nerves get the better of me, that was all.