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Shenandoah Nights | Chapter One

“I’M NOT GOING, MARK. Please don’t force me.”

“Rebecca, please? I wouldn’t ask if you weren’t my last hope.”

“No way. You’re the principal, why don’t you go?” Rebecca O’Neill paced from the kitchen counter to the dining-room table and back again while contemplating the sanity of the person who invented the cell phone. Who wanted a device that allowed one’s boss to track her down during summer break?

“Rebecca, I’m begging.”

“Absolutely not. The last thing I want to do during the final week of my summer vacation is spend my time on a haunted boat with sixth graders and ghosts of teachers past.”

“I thought only Catholics believed in the Ghost?”

“Funny, Mark, very funny. And I think they believe in the Holy Ghost, not ghosts, which has nothing to do with the Shenandoah. I don’t believe in ghosts, I just don’t feel like revisiting the scene of the crime.”

Rebecca heard her boss sigh. “Not you, too. There was no crime five years ago. No ghosts. No haunted boat.”

“I don’t care, Mark, I’m not going.”

*

Rebecca threw another sweatshirt on the bed and assessed her clothing inventory. She grumbled to herself once again as she replayed the previous day’s conversation in her head. How many times had she said no? Obviously not enough because here she was, packing for a trip she didn’t want to take.

“I’ve got to learn to be more convincing,” she said as she stomped down the hall for her raincoat and flip-flops. She slammed the closet door and wished right then that she owned a pet so somebody could see how annoyed she was with herself. A startled jump or yip would be comforting, a little affirmation at least.

Rebecca threw the flip-flops on the bed and then tossed the raincoat behind the T-shirt pile. She could think of a hundred reasons she shouldn’t be going on the trip. Her boss telling her no school chaperone meant no school trip was downright unfair. Mark knew she wouldn’t let the kids be disappointed or their parents lose the money.

Sometimes Rebecca hated living in Tisbury, where everyone knew what everyone else was doing. The small town on an island off the coast of Massachusetts had a hotline for news and secrets that traveled the eighty-seven square miles with alacrity.

Hello? Of course Mark knew without asking me that I had no off-island vacation plans. Probably heard from Jessica at the post office that I was going to the beach every day.

Rebecca had argued, without enough conviction, that her days at the beach collecting sea glass and walking miles of the Vineyard’s shoreline were the best vacation she could think of anywhere in the world. She lived on Martha’s Vineyard, vacation paradise for a hundred thousand people every summer, including presidents—why would she want to go anywhere else?

In the end Mark had promised her five days off whenever she felt the need to escape to the beach. She picked up a picture of her parents. “Mark knows full well I will probably never use those days. Heck, the only time I’ve taken any time off during the last four years was in April after Gram died.” Rebecca put the picture back on the desk and walked to the bed. “Unless, of course, I go missing like Melissa Smith, and then I’ll be taking a lifetime off.”

She shook off a chill, squared her shoulders, and clenched her jaw. She pushed the thoughts of Melissa and her disappearance to the far recesses of her mind. Rebecca had enough negative energy to deal with without adding death and disaster to the list. She thought about the deal and the potential for five free days on an Indian summer day. The thought was sweet, yet she knew she wouldn’t, couldn’t, take off and leave her classroom to a substitute without feeling guilty. And Mark knew it, too. Rebecca guessed he only offered those vacation days to make the chaperone job sound more like a compromise. Some compromise. Blackmail was more like it!

Complaining would get her nowhere, though, and there was a lot to do. She needed to swing by Jackie Walker’s and pick up all the supplies and the daily activity sheets Jackie had planned for the kids before she threw her back out and earned a ticket off the Shenandoah. She also needed to call Jeff and cancel their date to the gallery opening on Friday night. They’d been dating for a couple of months, but Rebecca knew in her heart it wasn’t going anywhere. She’d avoided saying anything during the last month because she hadn’t wanted to hurt Jeff’s feelings.

The summer was Jeff’s busy season. While Rebecca walked and soaked up the sun at the beach, Jeff was managing his tour company by the harbor in Oak Bluffs. His crazy schedule had kept their dates limited to Friday nights, which was enough for Rebecca. She shrugged. There was one plus to the trip, and she was thankful.

The cell phone’s reggae ring tone interrupted her thoughts. “Tell me it’s true. Tell me the gossip I heard while ordering my morning cappuccino is true.”

Rebecca rolled her eyes. She knew Tess was going to love the fact that her friend would be the teacher chaperone sailing with her father on her favorite ship. Rebecca knew she should have called Tess yesterday and asked her to let her father know she’d be sailing with him on Sunday. She wasn’t ready yesterday to deal with Tess’ enthusiasm. Tess loved the Shenandoah more than any other ship. All her life Tess had wanted to take over the helm from her father. Captain Roberts wouldn’t even let her work onboard, never mind captain.

“All rumors are true. The Vineyard Gossip Mill is still fully functioning with the latest boring news of my life. I am officially sailing on the Shenandoah as the teacher chaperone despite every effort on my part to convince Mark that I did not want to go.”

Tess squealed into the phone. “I can’t believe it! Why didn’t you call me? I wish I could go with you. Any chance they’ll let me bunk in your cabin? Heaven knows my father won’t let me sail with the all-male crew. Maybe if I can finagle a job as school chaperone he’ll discover how indispensible I am and hire me on next summer.”

“If I could take you, you know I would.”

“I know, Becca.” The pain in Tess’s voice was as clear as the blue sky out Rebecca’s window. Her friend had longed to sail on her family’s beautiful old ship, the Shenandoah, since they were in high school. Captain Roberts, Tess’ father, had told his only daughter year after year that she couldn’t work as a member of the crew because she would be the only female on an otherwise all-male crew. The fact had cut Tess to the bone, especially since all three of her brothers[see my notes later, but need to add here to introduce Andy, maybe something like: -- including Andy, who was as spunky in male form as Tess was in female form--/that way reader doesn’t say toward end of the book where I flagged/huh, who’s Andy?] had spent most of their summers working on one of the family sailboats. The best Tess had managed was to work in the crew on the sunset sails or the day cruises.

“I wish you could go instead of me. You know me, Tess, I’d rather walk the Island than sail any day. On the other hand, I have an excuse not to go out with Jeff on Friday night.”

Rebecca heard Tess chuckle. “When are you going to have that talk with him? The summer’s almost over, the tourists are gonna leave, and Jeff’s going to have more free time to spend with you. You’d better spill the beans before fall arrives.”

“I don’t want to hurt his feelings. Jeff’s a decent guy. I just don’t feel ‘it’ for him.”

“You’ve always been a softie, Becca. If you’re not careful, he’s going to ask you to marry him and you’ll end up saying yes because you don’t want to hurt his feelings.”

Laughter filled the phone line. “That happens, you’ll be standing beside me in one of the frilliest dang dresses I can find.”

Tess only laughed harder. Rebecca joined in.

“I’m going to go beg my father to let me sail with you. Don’t hold your breath, though. I’ll call you back if he says yes. If he says no, I’ll be sulking Up Island on Sunday night trying to console myself at Brendon’s barbeque. Have a great time.”

After talking with Tess, Rebecca called Jeff and left a message on his cell phone. He wouldn’t be happy, but at least Rebecca had a valid excuse. She took one look at the clothes on her bed, grabbed her bathing suit, and headed to the bathroom. The packing could wait till later. She wanted to swing by the post office and ask them to hold her mail before they went on lunch break. Most of all, she had to get an attitude adjustment. The beach was the only place that would happen.

Rebecca walked over to her computer, pulled up the Shenandoah’s company website, and printed out the “Suggested Packing List” as well as the “Chaperone Guide” and “History of the Shenandoah.” She could read the last two at Bend In The Road Beach and hope the salt air, warm summer sand, and rhythmic roll of the waves would make the words more palatable.

An unsettling thought compelled her fingers to Google: “Melissa Smith, missing teacher, Shenandoah.” She found hundreds of news stories. Rebecca clicked on a dozen of them and scanned the articles. She printed out three, including a controversial account given by the then galley boy, Pete Nichols, which had run in a less-than-reputable newspaper.

Rebecca had little recollection of the stories and gossip after the accident. She had just left the Island to start her senior year at Boston College when Melissa disappeared. She’d scanned the newspaper clippings her Gram had sent her and listened to the tidbits of speculation her Gram had shared during their phone conversations, but she hadn’t known Melissa and hadn’t retained many of the details.

Everyone knew Melissa had boarded the Shenandoah with her sixth-grade class five summers ago for a weeklong sail. On the fourth morning of their trip, while anchored off of Cuttyhunk, Melissa hadn’t come up on deck to supervise morning chores. The stories after her disappearance told how a student had gone below and knocked on her door but had gotten no response.

Rebecca sorted some of the printed papers, her thoughts swirling. Lizzie Rubello, the girl who had gone below looking for Melissa that morning, was in high school now and she still talked about that day. Lizzie would have known in a minute something was wrong when Melissa didn’t answer her door, which was the main reason she’d run to find John Masters, the biology teacher at school and the boys’ chaperone that week.

A quick phone call to John could answer a few questions. Rebecca stared at her cell, debating whether she wanted to hear the answers. One minute turned into five. She kept staring at the phone. Curiosity finally won out. Rebecca walked to her desk and looked up John’s phone number.

Four rings later, her call went to voicemail. “Hi John, it’s Rebecca. Listen, I got roped into going on the Shenandoah instead of Jackie. I don’t want to sound like a wimp, but I’ve got some questions, and I’d love to talk with you if you have a minute. Feel free to call my cell any time. Thanks.”

Still frustrated, Rebecca picked up another article and searched for clues. According to the story, John had knocked and eventually jimmied open the door to Melissa’s cabin to discover she was nowhere to be seen. A thorough search of the boat had also turned up empty. The captain had called the Coast Guard, who had conducted a full search of the small island and its surrounding areas in the Elizabeth Islands archipelago. Neither Melissa, nor Melissa’s body, was ever found, and no one had ever heard from her again. Those were the facts.

Dread rippled through Rebecca’s body like a thrown stone shattering the stillness of a pond. She practically hit the ceiling when her phone rang. Startled and catching her breath, she recognized the number as John Masters’. “Hi, John.”

“Hey, Rebecca. So Mark convinced you to sail next week, huh?”

“Blackmailed is more like it, but we’ll keep that between us so I can keep my job.”

They both chuckled, and then Rebecca got serious. “Listen, John, I have little memory of Melissa. I probably shouldn’t be giving this a second thought, but I am, so I’ve got to ask: What do you remember?”

“Everything, I remember everything like it was yesterday. Worst vacation of my life. I never figured Melissa to be one for a midnight swim, but I guess we never really know anyone.”

“So you think she went swimming?”

She heard John chortle. “Well, I don’t believe Pete Nichols, if that’s what you’re asking. Is that what’s got you spooked?”

Rebecca rolled her eyes. She was being silly. John was absolutely right. “I just printed out his story. I haven’t read it yet. I guess I wanted to hear from you what went on that night.”

“Listen, Rebecca, I don’t know if we’ll ever know what actually happened to Melissa. I can tell you that, when Lizzie first told me Melissa wasn’t answering her door, I figured she was overtired and had slept in. After the sixth knock—and I was banging by then—I suspected something was wrong. Even then I wasn’t thinking she drowned. I thought I was going to open her door and find her dead from a heart attack. When I finally got in after working the latch with a putty knife, I was stunned to find her bunk empty.”

“Did Pete say anything then?” Rebecca interrupted, fingers tapping on the desk. “While you were searching for her? After the Coast Guard arrived?”

“He was mumbling something, but I was focused on Melissa, calming the kids down, and calling the school and all the parents. You can’t begin to imagine how chaotic it was. The Coast Guard didn’t want anyone to leave the boat, and all the parents wanted their children shuttled home immediately. It took all day to get the kids transported back to the dock and safe with their parents. I had to return to the boat while the search continued. Mark arrived in the early afternoon. Whatever happened that night, whether she went swimming or fell overboard, she was gone.”

“I take it there was no note or anything like that?”

She heard John sigh. She stood and went to the window.

“I wish, Rebecca, there had been some clue, any clue. There was nothing. She vanished.”

“Um, thanks, John. I guess you’ve answered all the questions you could.”

“Have fun, Rebecca. The Shenandoah has been sailing every summer since without incident. Melissa’s accident was a freak event. Don’t let it spoil your trip.”

“I’ll do my best. See you after Labor Day. Thanks again.”

Rebecca hung up the phone and stared at the papers on her desk. She inched across the floor and sank into her padded chair. She rolled the pages and tapped them against the wooden legs. The Pete Nichols story rested in the printer’s out tray. She had never given heed to his sci-fi version of Melissa’s disappearance—after all, who believed in time travel and vanishing teachers? John hadn’t believed it, either, and he had been there.

The Coast Guard had given a perfectly logical explanation: accidental drowning. Melissa had either fallen overboard or had decided to take a moonlight swim. She had drowned, and her body had been pulled into the current and carried out into the Atlantic. Though no one knew for certain, the Coast Guard’s conclusion suited Rebecca.

Nevertheless, her natural inquisitiveness and a slight case of nerves took hold as she sat on the edge of her bed and skimmed the Pete Nichols story, “Teacher Dreams Her Way Back to Colonial Boston.”

Rebecca scanned the story, her eyes focusing on “excited and agitated,” “talked about strange dreams every morning,” “pestered everyone, especially the captain, for information on the Shenandoah’s history,” and “asked about captains from the 1800s, specifically 1770.”

Rebecca shivered. John hadn’t mentioned any of that. She could call him back. Maybe she would later. She continued reading. She drew in a sharp breath two paragraphs later. “Nichols stated Melissa stayed in Cabin 8 and that she was curious if anyone else had ever mentioned hearing voices or having visions of sailors in Colonial Boston.” A chill slithered down Rebecca’s spine. She remembered Jackie telling her that she would be staying in Cabin 8 and how Jackie had made a joke out of it.

Great—now I’ll not only be cooped up on a boat with hyper students, but when I finally get them to bed, I’ll then have to deal with the Ghost of Christmas Past and his Colonial friends!

Rebecca jammed the story into her beach bag nestled in the corner of the room by the bookcase. She turned and swiped a scrunchie out of the pile on the bed, gathered her unruly brown curls back into a ponytail, and then grabbed the beach bag off of the floor. She marched through the house, pausing to snag a bottle of water, a bag of trail mix, and the book she’d left overturned on the kitchen counter yesterday when Mark had called. Her grandmother no longer present to yell at her, Rebecca slammed the new screen door as she headed to her car.

Five days? Huh! Mark was going to owe her a month at the beach for this one.

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