“There’s the island,” Sarah’s mother said, as they stood on the prow of the trawler. “You can see the lighthouse.”
“But I don’t want to be on the island,” said Sarah, “not without you. Can’t I stay with you?”
“We’ve been through this so many times,” her mother said. “A hospice is no place for a child.”
“I’d rather be there, with you and Gran, than stuck out here with Great Uncle Jacob. I don’t even know him,” she whispered.
Sarah glanced behind her at the old man at the captain’s wheel.
“But I know him,” said Sarah’s mother. “I spent one long summer with him on the island, when I was not much older than you, and it was–”
“–the best summer of your life,” said Sarah. “I know. I heard the story before.” Only a million times.
They pulled away from shore, heading to the straights. Sarah looked back, wishing the mainland wouldn’t recede, wishing she could stay, wishing that Gran were well, like every other year, so they could spend the Christmastime at her house, with the tree, the stockings, the roast beef, and the tiny Cornish game hens, all golden and stuffed with chestnuts and raisins.
“Does he know how to cook?” Sarah whispered. They’d probably be eating out of cans.
“Hey, there,” said a gruff voice. “Will ya steer the ship?”
The island hovered in the mist like a home for forgotten selkies.
“He’s talking to you,” said Sarah’s mother. “Go on, you can drive the boat!”
“All right,” said Sarah. “What do I do?”
He showed her where to place her hands.
“That way,” he said, pointing to a cove behind the breakwater.
Steering the ship was easy. Sarah leaned into the wheel. Now and then a wave or current moved the wheel, and she had to push against it with all her weight.
Her mother talked softly with Great Uncle Jacob.
Sarah tried not to listen, for it was about Gran and how even the cheerful nurse didn’t hold out hope anymore. But Sarah could still hope, if she didn’t hear what they said.
“Easy now,” Great Uncle Jacob said, standing behind her. “Steady round the rocks.”
She guided the boat into the cove.
“Mighty well done, Captain,” he said. “I’ll take her into the dock, then.”
Sarah stood beside her mother in the bow. “There’s the conservatory! Your room will be in the back, with the living area.”
If staying there hadn’t meant being apart from her mom, Sarah would have been jumping with excitement. The conservatory rose like a palace tower, with cheerful fairy windows looking out upon the bay.
As it was, she swallowed the lump in her throat and blinked away a few tears.
She kept her head down as she shuffled up the path. Maybe if she walked slowly enough, her mother would miss the mailboat and have to stay the night.
When her mother showed her her room, she sat on the bed. She wouldn’t say goodbye.
Her mother and Great Uncle Jacob shared a pot of tea in the kitchen. And then the mailboat blew its horn and there were hurried kisses and promises of phone calls.
“Come get me before Christmas!” Sarah said, between sobs.
“If I’m able,” said her mom. “If I can.”
Then she was gone, and the house was quiet.
Sarah got into her PJs and crawled under the quilt. Time would pass faster, if she were asleep.