Esme always loved the ocean. She spent thirteen summers of her life on Shelter Island, a speck of land only eight square miles, set in the Long Island Sound between the two forks of the peninsula. A quiet haven for city dwellers, like her own New York City family, the island was the perfect summer destination for those who yearned to escape the intensity of urban life. The water there was her playground, a place to refresh her spirit.
Whenever the North Fork Ferry bumped up against its port on their little island sanctuary, all lush and green and welcoming, she felt her entire body sigh. But the water made the biggest impression on her, buoyant and blue and inviting, sparkling under the hot summer sun.
Now, standing on the rainswept deck of The Midnight Sun in her red raincoat, Esme shivered, as much from fear as from cold. This was not the Long Island Sound. This was the North Sea. Icy water stretched out in all directions with no land in sight, just iron gray waves and a low, wet, cloudy ceiling. Mist formed on the horizon with a promise of becoming a thick, muddy fog.
“I don’t want to be here,” she whispered out loud as she looked around the deserted deck. Her stomach was tied in knots and her hands were shaking. Those waves. That water. She worked to keep nausea at bay. At first, she was proud of herself for leaving the warmth and safety of the cabin, but now she regretted her trip up top. Now she was terrified.
Scanning the deck, Esme wasn’t surprised to find she was the only person who had braved the rain. Everyone, even her grandmother Nana Elsie, was safely tucked away in the warm bowels of the ship, oblivious to the weather as they sailed from the white cliffs of Dover, England to the fjords of Norway. She couldn’t even disappear into TikTok or watch her favorite YouTube influencers because her grandmother had insisted the vacation be “screen free.” She had even locked Esme’s phone in their room’s safe.
Esme tiptoed closer to the wet railing separating her from the churning wash of water that flowed from the back of the boat. The stern, she had learned from the strict steward who’d delivered the information in a clipped accent. Squinting against the sharp wind, she pushed wisps of her fine, blonde hair off her damp forehead.
Her mother had toyed with the idea of cutting her daughter’s hair short, but Esme was afraid she would look even worse. At the age of thirteen, she was average height and rail thin, with bony elbows and ankles, and a basic, plain face. Her small lips, pale eyebrows and little nose didn’t mean she was ugly, but she wasn’t pretty. Or at least she didn’t think so. Nothing about Esme was exceptional. Nothing except for the exquisite color of her large, deep green eyes. “Just like trees at twilight, or the inner fire of an emerald,” her mother had pointed out in a rare, poetic moment. In fact, her eyes were the reason her parents had named her Esmerelda.
The last time Esme had seen trees at twilight was on Shelter Island. Her family lived on Fifth Avenue in a brand new, shiny skyscraper. Henry and Heidi Gray - or Team Gray, as they referred to each other - ran the world’s largest beauty company as president and head of marketing. Their tight little unit only found time to wind down out on the “rock,” the locals' name for the island, during the weekends.
Esme went to school downtown in the West Village while her parents worked outrageous hours in their midtown headquarters. That kind of work pressure took a toll on their family time. Esme’s father was always stressed out, his handsome mouth a tight line, the muscles in his jaw twitching. He wasn’t the greatest at small talk around the dinner table, or anywhere else, for that matter. But Esme loved her dad. True, he was distant, but he always made her feel safe. She cherished the odd night when he would steal into her bedroom after he shut his computer down, when he thought she was sleeping. Still dressed in his neatly pressed trousers and a crisp white shirt, Henry Gray would lower his tall, lanky frame onto the edge of her bed. Reaching over her, the smell of his cologne hanging in the air, he would stroke her funny, thin hair, and sometimes, her favorite times, she heard him chuckle.
Esme’s mother was always stressed out, too. The head of marketing for the beauty company, she kept even longer hours than her husband. Heidi Gray was constantly on her cellphone, pacing around their living room with floor to ceiling windows and majestic, sweeping views of the city’s gritty, gray skyscrapers. Her high heels clicked as she paced, dictating orders in a voice that was never fully raised but always filled with iron and ice. Esme knew it sent shivers down the employees' spines to see her mother’s number come up on their phones.
“That’s what you need to get the job done, Esme,” her mother instructed her one afternoon after ending a particularly grueling call. “Fear. And don't you forget it.” Esme logged the command in the back of her mind, even though her mother’s advice seemed mean. Still, it worked for Heidi. Esme’s parents' beauty company was the largest, most powerful in the world, and Team Gray was going to keep it that way. Her parents even talked about Esme taking over one day.
“Nope,” Esme said when her mother pushed the idea.
“Don’t be so obstinate,” her mother complained, pinching her cheek.
Esme just rolled her eyes. She might not inspire fear in others like her mother, but she surely knew how to dig her heels in and say no when she wanted to.
“Nope,” she whispered now, watching the waves roll away behind the ship. Esme knew her obstinance had not rescued her from this summer holiday.
Nana Elsie was the last surviving grandparent. To Esme she was a bit prim, even grim at times. It was Nana’s “grand idea” to whisk Esme off on this exclusive getaway to the Norwegian fjords.
Esme did not want to go anywhere associated with water. At least not anymore. Her new reality made her sad, but the very thought of water made her so anxious, she felt sick. Even her beloved Shelter Island was ruined for her now, because of what had happened there. Still, as much as she pleaded, her grandmother objected, quite strongly for a pale, ancient lady, with wisps of silver and lavender hair perched precariously on top of her regal head. “You’re a survivor, my girl. Just like me. If you fall off a horse, there isn’t any better way of getting over the fear than getting right back on.”
Her grandmother’s recommendation was made with firm assurance when Esme nervously voiced her concerns about their vacation plans. “I just feel so scared, on a ship, you know?” Softening her voice, Nana Elsie took Esme’s hands in her own her papery soft palms and looked her in the eye. With a tug in her own chest, Esme could see deep sadness reflected there.
“I know this is hard, dear Esme. I know you are hurting and miss them every day.” Her grandmother sighed then and looked away. Esme caught the glint of tears in her eyes. “I miss them, too,” Nana Elsie said with a catch in her throat, hesitating before she continued. “But you have a long life ahead of you, and often the simple act of moving forward is the only way to deal with the pain.” Esme remembered after the funeral how her grandmother had wept, repeating in a broken voice that no parent should ever have to bury their child.
Standing on the deck in the North Sea, Esme recalled her grandmothers words and how miserable her advice had made her feel. She didn’t want to move on; she wanted to go back to the way things used to be. Leaning her face into the rain, she allowed herself to remember.
That day was bleached hot, the sun so strong, it bounced off everything, hurting her eyes. Esme and her parents, sunglasses shoved against their noses, were bumping across the Long Island Sound aboard the North Fork Ferry. They strained their eyes to glimpse the tantalizing oasis of their other home, nestled in the thicket of their beloved Shelter Island, as sure as the osprey nests protected high above. All would be well, just across the water. Inside the tightly closed and air-conditioned car, the family of three was silent, looking ahead as the ferry rhythmically smacked down into each wave. Parked on the sturdy, ancient ferry, the Grays’ car was one of a couple dozen, filled with other families fleeing New York City. Shelter Island didn’t attract the trendy. No, the trendy headed to the Hamptons. This island - our island, thought the Grays - was a sanctuary for people desperate to leave all glamor behind.
“Mom, Jenny wants me to come over tomorrow night for a barbeque,” Esme piped up. “I know you have the golf scramble thing and I’m supposed to go to dinner with you, right? But I’d rather go to Jenny’s.”
Heidi put her phone on her lap and gazed out the window, her shaded dark eyes scanning the water. “Henry, am I playing with you tomorrow? I totally forgot.”
“Yep. You are.” Her father let out a long sigh. “Esme, do what you want.”
Esme rested her head back and watched her parents. Where was their joy? In her opinion, they never really knew how to let work go.
“All right,” Esme said, refusing to take in the moodiness in her father’s response. She was just glad it was a yes, even if not an enthusiastic one. She found the club dinners boring.
“Maybe I’ll come to Jenny’s with you,” her mother said, pulling down her shades and winking her beautiful, dark eyes at her daughter before picking up the phone again. “I mean, I hardly ever get—”
Heidi never finished her sentence.
Henry had one second to hit the automatic window before their car, the first in line at the front edge of the ferry, plunged into the sound.
The North Fork Ferry’s perfect record of passenger safety ended that moment, the inflexible boat reeling and capsizing to avoid collision with a super yacht careening off a broken rudder. Esme heard the bellow of the horn as the ferry swung hard to port. Catching the leading edge of a wave the boat tipped on its side. History would later record this happening as a million to one.
Black water rushed into the car through the cracked window. Operating as one, Team Gray frantically pushed and bashed at the car doors and windows with hands, shoulders, and feet, but the shorted electrical system and external water pressure kept them locked in.
Esme felt a new, never-before feeling spread over her body. Despair. As the water rose inside the car, her mother’s scream filled the interior while her silent father desperately tried to free them. Esme would never forget that moment her father grabbed her face, tense in the underwater gloom. “Follow the bubbles up!” He finally shouted, as he shoved her head and then her torso through the narrow top of the window. She looked back down at them – there was no way her parents could fit. No goodbye, no kisses, no hugs. “Follow the bubbles up!” Her father’s voice rang in her ears. Her chest tightened with fear and pent-up breath. She looked back down, one last time, and saw her parents' faces pressed against the window. It was the last time she ever saw them.