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Picture Madison Ness in the ferry’s bar chatting with passengers, her head ale-foggy and happy despite having lost her backpacking partner last night in Aberdeen.
Jenna’s last text message from this afternoon: Whoops missed the boat see you at reunion tomorrow thx.
Observe Madison deftly adapting the narrative of her European travels into a solo adventure, as though she confidently conquered Spain, France, Italy, Slovenia, Croatia, Austria, Germany, Belgium, and the UK carefree and alone.
Now here’s Madison leaving the ferry and entering Blywick on the Isle of Haybrent, her shoulders once more backpack-heavy. She finds the tourist office on Trade Street where they help her rent a room in town for the night. The employee slides a photocopied map from a cubby with the assistance of one wetted finger, then begins to mark the route, the sound of his highlighter causing delightful neck shivers. Waves of energy course to the center of Madison’s back as the man’s felt pen squeaks down the tight cobbled alley of Trade Street and just a bit beyond. The tips of Madison’s shoulders buzz as he circles her destination. She asks the man to highlight some of the sights, just to prolong the ASMR hit. He circles something called a sand tombolo. He Xs out the boardwalk of a nearby sanctuary—currently closed for repairs. He even highlights the location of the reunion when she gives him the address. This tingle, Madison imagines, must be what Jenna feels when she’s kissing the Belgian woman.
Tomorrow’s reunion has nothing to do with Madison. It’s being hosted by a psychologist who connected with Jenna last year through an app identifying them as third cousins, high up in the intermingled canopy of their respective family trees. (Madison keeps her DNA to herself.) The reason Jenna has missed the boat—and may miss the reunion, too—is that she and the Belgian woman were out all night, again, this after days of noshing on each other’s faces all through England and up through Scotland.
Look, Madison is already halfway to her destination, passing shops built of dark stone with doors and window frames painted white or blue or green: Harbor Cafe & Take Away, Timmon’s Department Store, Boots!, Emerald Bank, Intersport, British Red Cross shop, Cameraland, Bank of Scotland. She sees lace curtains in the windows of upstairs residences and, high above, chummy little chimney pots that make her happy (though when she sees them again, sober, they do nothing for her). And there are more shops: Fiddler’s Corner, The Haybrent Caller, Tick Tock, Petite Fashion, True Beauty Salon, The Tavern, Summer Tan, Island Co-op, each only wide enough for a door and a window or two. There is the constant sound of gulls; Madison wonders if the locals notice them. She licks the salt from her lips and lets go of her meditation on commerce. She misses Jenna’s company, she admits, just the two of them exploring Europe before the Belgian one-upped their friendship in a way Jenna can’t.
Jenna texts again. Told Dr. Braydon you’re on your way she said to stay with them.
Too late, Madison is already in the room she’s rented, here on the third floor. After all the hostels she’s stayed in over the past six weeks, this is luxury: an entire attic level with its own bath and a sliver of a view of the harbor. She can see a ferry in the distance, the one she came in on, heading on to the Faroe Islands, or perhaps back to Aberdeen.
For dinner, she eats what’s left from her last Tesco run, then looks up Jenna’s relative, this Dr. Braydon, on her phone. There’s a modest website for the practice and also a newsletter. She browses the archive. Each issue contains a placid, meditative description of a scene meant to help people unwind and relax. (Madison can’t imagine what there is to worry about here at the edge of the world.) The full archive is supported by newsletter patrons, of which there are currently fourteen. Madison reads one of the short narratives, one about settling into a warm bath. She finds it strangely erotic, though maybe it’s just her. She reads it again. Probably just her. She takes a bath IRL, but the heat races straight to the chaffs and to unknown cuts, and the experience is more painful than soothing, and once it’s soothing, it’s too cold to continue.
In bed she thinks about her flight home on Tuesday, maybe a little happy Jenna and the Belgian will have to say vaarwel. (Unless Jenna stays and becomes one of those expats who return ten years later and are insufferable, like Madison’s cousin Mort.) Madison fails to fall asleep. She doesn’t imagine she’ll have the time or debt-lust to take a trip like this again until after long-distant retirement. Her chest tightens at the enormity awaiting her: debt, work, relationships, marriage, family, property, divorce, (remarriage?), cancer, accidents, loss, death, poof—her life a little fart in a corner of the universe. She considers reading another one of Dr. Braydon’s newsletters to stem the low-grade panic. Instead, she gets up and makes her own list of calming visualizations.
She notices that her list consists of solo endeavors, that her idea of calm is solitude. She’s not sure what this portends or if she should be worried. It keeps her up for another few hours.
Late the following afternoon, Madison walks to Jenna’s cousin’s house for the reunion. The first person she sees is the Belgian, standing in the garden with her hand in Jenna’s left back pocket. The pair stand so close together they look conjoined. They’re watching Jenna’s distant family play a lawn game involving wooden balls and short upright towers of wood.
Watch as Madison, solo traveler (not the third wheel), continues down the lane. She feels nearly weightless without the pack on her shoulders, like she might float in the air for a few seconds if she jumps. Is there a more delicious freedom than playing hooky? The road curves down to the shore. Another half mile on she walks out across the sand tombolo that was kindly circled on the map. The ocean laps on both sides of this narrow isthmus that connects the coast to a rocky promontory. At the top of the promontory sit ruins, the stump of an Iron Age broch. Signage lists theories of what the location was used for. One is that people shouted messages across the water from this spot to another island in the distance where there is a similar ruin. The distance seems too great for voices to carry, especially over the sound of the wind and the gulls and the waves breaking behind her.
While walking back to the mainland, rain falls, soaking her. She can picture her poncho in the outer left pocket of her backpack (though later she will remember that she left it draped over a garden chair at the Snuffel Hostel in Bruges, where she and Jenna smoked cigarillos with a Belgian woman who hadn’t yet told them her name.) Now, as Madison is heading back to her rented room—there past Dr. Braydon’s house, sand in her shoes, glasses fogged, the world feeling like it has a cold—Madison hears the thump of knuckles on glass. Jenna is at the window waving wildly, then gesturing her inside.
Dr. Braydon’s home is filled with voices and laughter, with folk music being played on a guitar, a fiddle, and some kind of flute. All the men and women are ungodly tall, like the Belgian. But Madison is only on the ground floor for a moment; she’s quickly taken upstairs by Mrs. Braydon, a woman in her forties who turns out to be the Dr. Braydon. Dr. Braydon brings her a towel and dry clothes. When Madison descends again, she feels nothing like Madison Ness. She wears Dr. Braydon’s wool slippers, yoga pants, a long-sleeve T-shirt, an oversized wool sweater, and a thin tan and blue scarf that Dr. Braydon adjusts for her when she sees her, then says, “There.”
Through the late afternoon and the long, loud dinner, Madison doesn’t tell anyone that she visited the tower at the end of the sand tombolo. Or that, while at the ruins, she yelled and listened and thought she heard another voice that wasn’t her echo. Dr. Braydon would make too much of it, psychologically—hearing voices, etc. Madison definitely doesn’t tell Dr. Braydon that her friends call her Madness, even though she is hardly crazy or wild; she’s always practical, always one step ahead, except if she’s drunk. Even now, she drinks tea so as not to get tipsy and say embarrassing things, like how she wishes her natural scent was exactly how Dr. Braydon’s clothes smell, or that, sometimes, she wishes she could jump ahead and be in her forties, like Dr. Braydon, professional, put-together, with long friendships that fill a house.
When the light fades and swims with darkness, and people, citing Monday morning, begin to leave, Dr. Braydon insists that Jenna and Madison and the Belgian stay the night in her spare bedroom. And it is shortly afterward, packing her things in her rented attic and returning the key to the tourist office, that Madison instead heads for the harbor, still dressed in Dr. Braydon’s clothes. She walks past Taffen’s Menswear, Missy’s Sweets, The Grand Hotel, China Garden, Dash Optometry, then boards the last ferry of the day as though she is a native leaving to explore the world and not, as she realizes now, taking the first steps back home.
There she is, on the uppermost deck. From here, she sees that the distance between the tower ruins and the island across the water isn’t that far. She can even see Dr. Braydon’s house. It occurs to her that her little list of visualization exercises is still in her wet jeans, hanging on the bathroom clothesline. While there is still a cell connection, Madison subscribes to Dr. Braydon’s newsletter and becomes a one-time patron as payment for the hospitality and the pilfered clothes.
Look, there’s Madison again, two months into her first real job. Her summer tan has faded and some days she forgets she even went on a European tour. She sits in a bathroom stall, grasping for a moment of silence before a meeting. A new issue of Dr. Braydon’s newsletter arrives in her email inbox. This month’s Soothing Scene is of paddling a canoe through reeds. Madison reads the description, and though it’s not quite her memory, she can’t help but be thirteen again, at her grandfather’s cabin, building up speed on the calm waters and cutting straight into the reed-filled cove, lukewarm water dripping onto her shoes from her paddle. See how quickly she tucks in her elbows to avoid being cut by the sharp leaves. See the gleeful face that looks acne-smacked, but is only mosquito-bitten. In the middle of the reeds the canoe comes upon a rock sticking out of the water with a turtle sitting on it, hidden from the world. The canoe continues on by. She can hear the rasp of the reeds against the fiberglass hull, slowing the canoe with shushes, playing out nearly all its energy, leaving just enough to let it emerge into open water on the other side.
In the bathroom stall, Madison opens her mouth and screams, silently, her jaw muscles stiffening into an ache. Then she takes a deep breath and exhales. She reads Dr. Braydon’s prose again. She unlocks the stall door, washes her hands, and dries them. See her there, making eye contact with herself, fixing a strand of hair, examining her nostrils, adjusting her sweater and the tan and blue scarf, and now heading back to the interdepartmental meeting where the others (she has still not fully committed their names to memory) will, she hopes, see her as composed, confident, punctual, well-rested, prepared, flourishing Madison Ness—the adult they’ve been promised.