Strange Alchemy

By: Gwenda Bond

Chapter 1


I am a Blackwood, and in this town, on this tiny island, that means taking whatever escapes are offered. I cock my head back and pretend to be in two places at once. Here, in the wings of this outdoor theater, half-listening for my favorite part of The Lost Colony, and there, as far away as the stars, light-years above it all. The night sky is as familiar as the constellation of calluses that dot my palms. As familiar and set as everything in my life.

I used to think I could get away for real. I was younger then… stupider or more innocent, depending on your point of view. The first time I checked the back of my closet for a portal to another world I was eleven. The year Mom died. After the closet, I tried other places. I wandered small patches of woods, seeking doors hidden in the twisted trees, and peered into mirrors searching for reflections that weren’t mine. No wonder the kids at school decided I was a freak. No, that’s not fair. They would’ve decided that anyway. The Blackwoods are cursed, after all — the unluckiest family on the island.

Escape is a romantic notion. I’m too practical to believe in it now. I no longer hope to step over a secret threshold and leave Roanoke Island behind forever.

And yet here I am, staring at the stars.

It’s almost funny that I’m unable to escape a place that’s famous for people vanishing. Roanoke Island, the site of the first English colony in the Americas, where 114 men, women, and children went missing without any explanation, save for a single cryptic carving left behind on a tree. Disappearing completely is some trick to pull off, even hundreds of years ago when the country was still almost entirely wild places.

“They’ve survived!”

The bullish voice of the actor who plays Governor John White snaps my attention back to the stage. The line signals his return to the colony after his trip to England. The set’s faux oak tree, hollow boulders, and packed dirt floor pass for an abandoned settlement, except for the shining spotlights.

Surrounded by sailors, White gasps — hamming it up — as he points to the oak on the far side of the stage. The simple cloak around his shoulders flies out with the gesture. I can’t see the word from here, but of course it’s the famous CROATOAN carved into the bark in desperate, crooked letters.

White, overacting like crazy, shouts: “My granddaughter, I will see her beautiful face!”

I exchange a look with Polly, my boss and the stage manager, the one who lets me stand here in exchange for my intern scut work. She’s the closest thing I have to a friend — well, besides my dog, Sidekick.

Polly shakes her head, her prematurely gray ponytail swishing. We both know Director Jack, aka His Royal Majesty, will give John White a scathing note on his over-the-top performance later.

For now, the governor, along with the sailors in the background, freezes. The lights dim. The final reveal is cued up.

It’s sticky humid out here, but a small shiver runs through me. The same one I always feel when I think about the colonists. Every time I watch the show, I wonder how or where they ended up. The standard theories involve bad endings and tragedy. But the reality is, the truth died when they did. We’ll never ever know what happened to them.

A single low spotlight draws my attention back to the stage. The beam fixes on a solemn young blond girl as she wanders, ghost-slow, through the frozen men. Her face is chalk pale.

His Royal Majesty’s biggest change to this year’s show was making Virginia Dare — the first English child born in America — the show’s deadpan narrator. The actress, Caroline, is a local kid, seven, and a holy terror mean-girl-in-training. But the casting works.

I lean forward to see how the scene’s going over for the crowd. We aren’t sold out tonight, but the curving rows of the amphitheater are still nearly full. Twelve hundred people sit, riveted and silent, as Caroline haunts the stage.

And then I spot something off… a shadow at the back of the audience. One moment everything’s normal, the next this giant shadow is there, hovering in the air.

It’s definitely not part of the show.

The floating darkness grows and grows and then resolves into a recognizable shape — an immense, old-fashioned black ship. The kind of ship that was used by colonists or pirates. Odd gray symbols bloom on each of three billowing black sails, the shapes a mix of straight lines and arcs, a half-moon curving above a circle at the top. The sailcloth ripples in a wind I don’t feel on my skin.

I blink. And again.

The ship is still there.

I raise my hand, and my hand is in front of an immense black ship with tall black sails. The ship glides forward, swallowing the audience row after curving row.