Chapter One Chapter One
A red door.
A dark hallway.
A terrible feeling of dread.
My dream always starts just like this. The only noise is a rhythmic dripping behind one of the walls. I’m so sick with fear, I can’t move. I squeeze my eyes shut, but when I open them, the red door is still there. Looming.
A tingle prickles up my spine, like the toes of a hundred black spiders.
Someone whispers my name.
And right then, on most nights, I wake up.
Usually I’m crying, my sleeping gown soaked in sweat. Usually I plead for my mam to light the gas lamp by our bed, and she holds me till the shaking has stopped.
But sometimes I can’t wake up at all.
Sometimes, still asleep, I thrash about or crawl to the floor. Sometimes I run screaming straight across the room, my eyes wide open but not seeing.
Mam calls it “getting stuck.”
On those nights, when she catches my cheeks between her hands, she can tell that I’m not really with her. She says she calls to me over and over, trying to lead me back to the world of the living with the sound of her voice, but it’s like I’m deep underwater. I hear nothing at all.
In the distance, on the other side of the East River, a lighthouse beam pierces the late afternoon fog. Five seconds of burning light. Five seconds of chilling dark. For a moment, I’m certain it’s happened again. I’m certain I’m stuck in the nightmare.
I realize that the shadow forming across the murky, churning water is North Brother Island, and a shiver passes through me. I turn to go back inside the ferry, but Mam takes my wrist.
“You promised,” she says under her breath. Since I can hear her, I know I’m awake. “Come now, Essie. Be a brave girl.”
That’s easy enough for her, I suppose. Mam is the bravest person in all of New York City. Everyone says it—the cranky landlord in our crumbling tenement; my best friend, Beatrice; the nuns who teach us at St. Jerome’s Catholic School. I’ve seen Mam pick up dead rats without flinching. I’ve seen her stomp a fire out with her boot. When she was half my age, just five years old, she crossed the whole ocean with her mother to join her father in America. I can’t even take a ferry up Hell Gate without turning white as a petticoat.
January wind, freezing and damp, spits into my face. There are slushy puddles of water on the deck and it’s so cold that I’m shaking even in my big coat, but Mam takes a step toward the rail, tugging me after. I get an irritated look from her when I dig in my heels, but I refuse to risk my life for a view. Besides, anyone with sense knows that the shadow in the distance is no sort of view to be glad for.
“Brought a lot of luggage, you did,” someone says, and Mam and I both turn.
A crewman in a long, wet rain slicker smiles, tipping his cap. The water is getting rough, so he’s checking cargo secured to the deck, pulling on ropes and doubling knots. One of the big wooden crates beside him reads MEDICAL SUPPLIES. Another reads LABORATORY EQUIPMENT. Tied up on top of the pile is our dented old steamer trunk and Mam’s pretty metal hatbox—a gift from her new husband.
My new father.
“A lot of luggage just for a visit, I mean,” the crewman continues, several questions hanging at the end of his comment.
He’s not the first curious person we’ve met today, but I don’t like the look of him. There’s something suspicious—his hair, perhaps, or his shoes—so I shrink behind my mother and narrow my eyes.
“We aren’t visiting,” Mam says, raising her voice to be heard over the waves. “We’re moving to the island.”
The crewman tilts his head. “You can’t be patients.”
“Heavens, no!” says my mother.
I don’t want to look out over the water again. I don’t want to see the lighthouse, warning us away from the growing shadow it guards. But the ferry rocks violently and I stumble from my mother, crying out as a huge wave splashes up over the bow. Terrified I’ll be swept overboard, I lurch to the side railing and cling on tightly.
Behind me, Mam is giggling like a schoolgirl, pressing her fancy new hat to her head. She’s hardly even lost her balance, as poised and confident-looking as ever.
“What weather!” she says to the crewman, and then, as if I didn’t just nearly fall to my death, “Not too close, Essie dear.”
I shut my eyes, trying to keep from looking down at the icy rushing water below. All I want in the world is to go back inside—and then, after that, to turn the boat around and go home—but I’m frightened I’ll fall if I let go of the railing. And our home in Mott Haven is no longer our home. The rest of our possessions, few as they are, have already been packed up and sent ahead to the island. Our tenement back in the city is empty.
Our apartment, where I’ve lived my whole life.
Our apartment, where I lived with my mam and my da—my real da.
When the beam from the lighthouse strikes me again, I force my eyes open, squinting through the brightness, then the gloom that follows.
North Brother Island is desolate. The scattered trees look like the arms of skeletons. The shoreline is rocky and seems to be waiting for someone to step wrong and twist her ankle.
“You’re a nurse, then?” the crewman asks my mother. “To replace the ones gone missing?”
I let go of the railing and turn around, my eyes wide, but then the ferry crashes into another high wave and I’m sent tumbling toward Mam, shouting. She catches me as dirty brown water sprays up over the side of the boat.
“I’m drenched!” I cry out.
“You are not,” says Mam.
“I’ll catch cold!”
“Goodness, Essie. Don’t be dramatic.”
My mother turns toward the crewman and excuses us politely before leading me back inside the ferry. By the time we make it, I’m a shivering, blubbering mess.
“Stop it now,” says my mother. “You’re causing a scene.”
I can’t help myself, though. It’s terrible, picturing all the ways you might die.
Mam pries my fingers from her waist and begins patting her clothing down with a handkerchief. Her wet skirt is black-and-white-striped. Like the hat and hatbox, it’s new. Another gift.
“We might have picked a better day to travel.” She tries to smile at me.
“We might have not traveled at all,” I say.
A sharp look is enough to get me quiet again, so I cross my arms, teeth still chattering, and pace away. Our ferry sways. North Brother Island creeps closer. The storm clouds darken above. When someone begins coughing, I glance over my shoulder. There aren’t many other passengers on the small boat, though I saw two police officers board with us. They must be up top with the captain. It seems the ferry is mostly just delivering a last run of supplies before bad weather makes crossing the river impossible. But then, in the far corner of the room, wrapped in a shabby blanket, I see a skinny man, his face flushed with fever.
Anxiety knots in my gut. I take a step back.
“Come dry off,” calls Mam, wiggling the handkerchief as she sits down on a bench. Her eyes dart to the man, and I quickly do as I’m told.
For a while, neither of us speaks. We’ve said everything already, after all. Yelled everything. Shouted everything. Called each other terrible names. I’ve already cried till I was purple, gasping and begging like my life was in danger.
Because, truly, it is.
The ferry crests wave after wave, rolling my stomach.
“We’re going to sink,” I whisper.
“No, we aren’t.”
“Ships sink in this part of the river all the time. Hell Gate is a graveyard.”
Mam sighs. “You know, my first time on a ship, I was so excited. I couldn’t stop thinking about what my new home would be like. And we had quite a few worse nights than this. Have I told you about the time we started taking on water and the cabin filled up to my bloomers?”
Of course she has. I’ve heard about every moment of my mother’s journey from Ireland. Even when she tells me the most frightening parts—the ship catching fire or the food spoiling or sharks circling in anticipation—she speaks as if it were all some grand adventure I missed out on. I suppose, in her mind, anything was better than what they were leaving behind. Mam and Granny were starving. Getting on the boat to America was a last chance at survival.
The beam from the lighthouse pierces the fog, fracturing through the ferry windows. Light. Dark. Light again.
“He’s a good man, Essie. You’ll see.”
I go rigid. I don’t want to hear my mother try again to convince me that this is the right choice—the only choice. I don’t want to hear about Dr. Blackcreek and his hospital.
“We’re going to get sick,” I say, my voice low as I glance at the other passenger.
“No, we aren’t,” Mam replies, and she puts her arm around me, kissing the top of my head.
I understand why my granda came to America. I understand why my granny followed him. But even though, through her pretty new dress, I can feel how thin Mam has gotten—even though, this past Christmas, we could barely afford coal to keep from freezing, much less any presents—I don’t understand why my mother’s remarried. I don’t understand why she agreed to move us to this strange man’s estate.
Because North Brother Island isn’t like other islands.
Our new home is where the incurable sick of New York City are sent to die.