It’s like a morning in heaven. From a blue sky, the sun, fat and buttery as one a child would draw in school, shines down on a sapphire ocean. Eleven-year-old Emily Porter stands at the edge of a cliff high above the beach, her blond hair rippled by a light breeze.
The edge of the cliff is an abrupt, jagged border, into which a small landing is built, with railings around it so you can lean against it, looking out at the sea. Before her, weathered wooden steps cut back and forth down the steep bluff to the beach.
Behind her lies the grassy lawn and their large gray summer house, so different from their apartment on East Eighty-sixth in New York City.
Last night, as the Porters flew away from Manhattan, Emily looked down on the familiar fantastic panorama of sparkling lights, urging the plane onward with her excitement, with her longing to see the darkness and then, in the distance, the flash and flare of the lighthouse beacons.
Nantucket begins today.
Today, while her father plays golf and her beautiful mother, Cara, organizes the house, Emily is free to do as she pleases. And what she’s waited for all winter is to run down the street into the small village of ’Sconset and along the narrow path to the cottages in Codfish Park, where she’ll knock on Maggie’s door.
First, she waves back at the ocean. Next, she turns and runs, half skipping, waving her arms, singing. She exults in the soft grass under her feet instead of hard sidewalk, salt air in her lungs instead of soot, the laughter of gulls instead of the blare of car horns, and the sweet perfume of new dawn roses.
She flies along past the old-town water pump, past the Sconset Market, past the post office, past Claudette’s Box Lunches. Down the steep cobblestoned hill to Codfish Park. Here, the houses used to be shacks where fishermen spread their nets to dry, so the roofs are low and the walls are ramshackle. Maggie’s house is a crooked, funny little place, but roses curl over the roof, morning glories climb up a trellis, and pansy faces smile from window boxes.
Before she can knock, the door flies open.
“Emily!” Maggie’s hair’s been cut to an elf’s cap and she’s taller than Emily now, and she has more freckles over her nose and cheeks.
Behind Maggie stands Maggie’s mother, Frances, wearing a red sundress with an apron over it. Emily’s never seen anyone but caterers and cooks wear an apron. It has lots of pockets. It makes Maggie’s mother look like someone from a book.
“You’re here!” Maggie squeals.
“Welcome back, Emily.” Frances smiles. “Come in. I’ve made gingerbread.”
The fragrant scent of ginger and sugar wafts out enticingly from the house, which is, Emily admits privately to her own secret self, the strangest place Emily’s ever seen. The living room’s in the kitchen, the sofa, armchairs, television set, and coffee table, all covered with books and games, are just on the other side of the round table from the sink and appliances. In the dining room, a sewing machine stands on a long table, and piles of fabric bloom from every surface in a crazy hodgepodge. Frances is divorced and makes her living as a seamstress, which is why Emily’s parents aren’t crazy about her friendship with Maggie, who is only a poor island girl.
But Maggie and Emily have been best friends since they met on the beach when they were five years old. With Maggie, Emily is her true self. Maggie understands Emily in a way her parents never can. Now that the girls are growing up, Emily senses change in the air—but not yet. Not yet. There is still this summer ahead.
And summer lasts forever.
“I’d love some gingerbread, thank you, Mrs. McIntyre,” Emily says politely.
“Oh, holy moly, call her Frances.” Maggie tugs on Emily’s hand and pulls her into the house.
Maggie acts blasé and bossy around Emily, but the truth is she’s always kind of astounded at the friendship she and Emily have created. Emily Porter is rich, the big fat New York/Nantucket rich.
In comparison, Maggie’s family is just plain poor. The McIntyres live on Nantucket year-round but are considered off-islanders, “wash-ashores,” because they weren’t born on the island. They came from Boston, where Frances grew up and met Billy McIntyre and married and had two children with him. Soon after, they divorced, and he disappeared from their lives. When Maggie was a year old, Frances moved them all to the island, because she’d heard the island needed a good seamstress. She’s made a decent living for them—some women call Frances “a treasure.”
Still, it’s hard. It isn’t that kids make fun of Maggie at school. Lots of kids don’t have fathers, or have fathers who live in different houses or states. It’s a personal thing. The sight on a television show, even a television ad, of a little girl running to greet her father when he returns from work at the end of the day, or a bride in her white wedding gown being twirled on the dance floor by her beaming, loving father, can make a sadness stab through her all the way down into her stomach.
Plus, her life is so cramped by their lack of money.
When a friend asks her to go to a movie during summer at the Dreamland Theater, Maggie always says no, thanks. She can’t ask her mom for the money. In the winter, when friends take a plane off island to Hyannis, where they stay in a motel and swim in the heated pools and see movies on huge screens and shop at the mall, they ask Maggie along, but she never can go. She hates the things her mom makes for her out of leftover material saved from dresses she’s sewn for grown women. Frances always tries to make the clothes look like those bought in stores, but they aren’t bought in stores and Maggie and everyone else knows it.
Frances never makes Maggie’s brother, Ben, wear homemade stuff. Ben always gets store-bought clothes—and nice ones, ones that all the other guys wear. Their mom knows Ben would walk stark naked into the school before he’d wear a single shirt stitched up by his mother. Ben’s two years older than Maggie, and bright, perhaps brilliant—that’s what his teachers say. Everything about him’s excessive, his tangle of curly black hair, the thick dark lashes, his deep blue eyes, his energy, his temperament.
During good weather, he’s outside, his legs furiously pumping the pedals of his bike as he tears through the streets of ’Sconset, or scaling a tree like a monkey, hiding in the highest branches, tossing bits of bark on the heads of puzzled pedestrians. He’s a genius at sports and never notices when he skids the skin of both knees and elbows into tatters, as long as he makes first base or tackles his opponent.
During bad weather, Ben becomes the torment of Maggie’s life. When the wind howls against the windows, she’ll be curled up with a book, assuming he is, too, for he does like to read—then she’ll discover that while he was so quiet, he’d been removing her dolls’ eyeballs in an unsuccessful attempt to give all the dolls one blue eye and one brown. One rainy summer day, he scraped the flakes of his sunburned skin into her hairbrush. Another time he put glue between the pages of her treasured books.
From day to day and often minute to minute, Maggie never knows whether she loves or hates Ben more. Emily says she’d give anything for a brother or sister. Maggie tells her she can have Ben anytime.
Emily is on the island only for three months in the summer, so Maggie doesn’t understand why, during the school year, she misses Emily so much. It’s not like she doesn’t have friends. She has lots of friends.
Alisha is fun, but she’s pure jock. Alisha’s perfect day is going to the beach, running into the water, shrieking and jumping until a wave knocks her down. She comes up laughing, knees scratched from the sand, and runs back into the waves, over and over again. If Maggie suggests a game of make-believe, Alisha looks at her like bugs are coming out her ears.
Delphine loves horses. Her parents have a farm. They sell veggies and plants in the summer and Christmas trees in the winter. When Maggie goes to Delphine’s house, she spends all day on horseback, or helps Delphine curry the horses or muck out the stalls. Delphine doesn’t like to come to Maggie’s house—no horses there.
Kerrie reads and sometimes plays pretend, but Kerrie has an entrepreneurial mind. She started a summer newspaper for children that she writes, illustrates, and sells from a little newsstand she built out of crates and set up on the corner of Orange and Main. When she isn’t selling her newspaper, she sells lemonade and cookies she baked herself.
Then there’s Tyler Madison. He would be Maggie’s best friend except he’s a boy. Tyler will play pretend with her if no one else is around. He loves the island as much as Maggie does, perhaps even more, and she can often find him on the moors, painstakingly drawing in his own guide to landmarks, like the unusual boulders the glaciers left thousands of years ago. Using an ordinary scrapbook, Tyler is creating a fantastical volume of detailed maps, showing the names and locations of each salient feature. The cover is carefully pasted with calligraphed words: Official Register of Secrets. Inside, the first page is the Table of Contents. Next, Tyler has entered page after page of carefully sketched or photographed, imagined and described boulders and their locations: Ocean Goddess. Island God. Pond Princesses. Lord and Lady Boulders. Twenty-seven different elf communities. Twelve separate Fellowship of Bushes and the Maraud Squad of poison ivy, scrub oak, bayberry. It’s so thoroughly detailed it seems as real as a chart of the stars. Maggie thinks the map is awesome and she adores Tyler, but Ben calls Tyler geekasaurus and four-eyes. It’s too bad, but understandable. Pale, underweight, uncoordinated, too clumsy to do sports, Tyler’s ostracized by most kids. Maggie suspects she’s Tyler’s best friend. Maybe she’s his only friend.
Sometimes Maggie thinks that books are her best friend, her truest, most reliable friend. The fathomless, most treasured part of her own private self is her connection with books. She’s happy when she’s reading, and library books don’t cost Frances a thing.
Maybe that’s why she and Emily are so close. Emily reads as much as Maggie does. Like Maggie, Emily talks about the characters as if they were real people and she can enter a pretend world like a fish slipping into water. When Maggie met Emily, it was as if a gate opened in Maggie’s life. Like a path curved into the future. Maggie began to believe having an imagination was a good thing, that somehow, even if she couldn’t see it now, she could believe she had someplace to go, and knew with a wonderful sense of relief that she would have companions along the way.
Emily is the person who seems most like Maggie, who gets Maggie. Maggie’s not an idiot. She knows Emily is rich while she is poor. Maggie knows rich and poor don’t mix.
On the other hand, her favorite stories tell her they can.
Excerpted from Nantucket Sisters by Nancy Thayer. Copyright © 2014 by Nancy Thayer. Excerpted by permission of Ballantine Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.