If she were honest with herself, she’d expected the place to look ominous. The ocean would come lapping up at the quay, breaking off chunks of concrete bit by bit. The sky would be set with a murky gloom. There would be no ships in sight, just open sea as far as the eye could reach, drifting towards a blank horizon.
When she pulled up to the lighthouse the sun was shining bright. Seagulls circled overhead, landing on old railings, calling at one another noisily. She could see cars parked on the lot, squeezed between faded yellow lines and chunks of cracked asphalt. It was something of a tourist attraction now that it was decommissioned. Penelope’d tried to sell it, insomuch as she’d put it on the market, but in the end she’d been too stubborn about price and too loyal to an old profession to give it up. So she put in some spit and polish and opened it to the public. A good old bed and breakfast, $150 a night even. Tours during the busy season. Not fancy, she said, but it paid the bills.
Jessica parked and stared out the windshield. The water was calm save for ripples of sunlight and the frothy breaking of waves meeting shore. Something about the beauty chilled her. It was the same feeling she got when she knew someone was lying to her face, but had no way to prove it. A circumstantial helplessness. Her fingers gripped the wheel and her eyes veered towards the lever at her right. She could shift it to reverse with a flick of the wrist, pull out, and head home. There was nothing that made this visit mandatory. No one could force her to step out the door of her Buick and towards the lighthouse. She’d dragged herself in and she could drag herself right back out again.
She killed the engine. Outside the weather was mild, warm with a mix of cool breezes to bring the heat down to pleasant. The smell was salty and fresh. Part of her wanted to close her eyes and take it in, but the other part won out, the one that made her wrinkle her nose and beeline for the old oaken door that led inside the lighthouse.
The wood was rough. She tried to picture being so weathered, so striated by storms. She’d spent many nights behind that door, holding out in the rooms pinned between the control room and the cupola. Sometimes she’d fantasized that the light did not serve as a beacon warning ships of the shore but as a sign, a message that she was here, safe but cloistered behind the walls. She pictured the bow of one of those ships bursting through the stone, breaking in and bringing with it not just peals of thunder but freedom, sweet and new and dangerous.
She’d been very young.
She pushed the knob down and the door swung open with a creak. It wasn’t the sort off the track of a cheesy horror sequence – it was more like a rocking chair, the weight of a grandmother shifting forwards and back again to keep up momentum. Inside it was lit well with a mismatch of lamps, their shades colorful but clashing in a way that was quirky and quaint. Penelope liked to joke that she was colorblind, but she wasn’t. She just thought it gave the place character.
Jessica stepped down. Nostalgia enveloped her, a kick to the gut. She stood and took it in, acclimating herself to the feeling, planting her feet against a barrage of memories.
Anne infested the place. She was infused in every corner, a collection of gossamer cobwebs. Her ghost was a smiling thing squinting over the top of a book, lounging in front of the radiator to get the chill out of her bones. She was a history of words whispered late into the night, long after Penelope had tucked them both in and told them to settle down now before they slept the day away come morning. Jessica tore her eyes away and stared at the carpet, at its stains and vibrant colors, and willed that ghost to leave.
She clenched her eyes shut, seized her own smile by the throat and forced it into place.
“Hey,” she said. She flung her arms open just as the woman stepped into her, wrapped them around her solid, wiry form. She was no less strong than she remembered her. Penelope had a persisting sort of strength, a vitality that couldn’t be sapped by time because she refused to bow to its power. She still climbed those stairs every day even though the lens didn’t really need cleaning, the light didn’t really need to be lit. She did it because the movements were worked into her muscles, and she was as liable to stop her motion as the turning of the tide.
“Youuuu,” she said, squeezing her. Jessica grunted, then laughed, watching the long white braid sway back and forth over the woman’s shoulder as she was rocked. “You shouldn’t have taken so long to visit. I missed you, girl. God knows how much.”
She let herself be pulled back, held between Penelope’s calloused hands. She studied her even as she was studied, faded green eyes on warm and vibrant brown. Rubbing her arms as though she could work warmth into her with nothing but love and a little friction, Penelope tugged her towards one of the sofas and motioned her to sit.
“How was the drive up?”
“Mmm,” Jessica hummed. “Long, but quiet. Blessed with mild weather.”
“Not like we’ve been having hurricanes lately,” she replied. “Not exactly the season for storms, not yet. That’ll come with summer. Spring’s not quite ready to let go.”
“No.” She shifted in her seat, pressed her hands between her knees, risked looking at the room again. “Suppose it’s not.”
“I’m surprised you actually came.”
Jessica winced, even though she knew the words weren’t meant to make her feel guilty. “I’m sorry.”
She heard a snort and couldn’t help smiling. She peered at Penelope just in time to catch the roll of eyes, the dismissive wave of a hand. “We both know why you didn’t want to. I didn’t blame you. Not like you didn’t invite me to visit, not like I couldn’t have dug up these stubborn roots and took the drive myself.” She grimaced, rubbing a hand over her legs. “Just thinking about sitting in a car that long, though. Jesus. It’d kill me.”
“We both know it’d take a whole lot more than that to kill you,” Jessica replied dryly.
“Bah,” she muttered, faking a scowl. “Don’t you start calling me on my shit. Whatever happened to respecting your elders?”
“You told me not to respect anybody who didn’t deserve it.”
Penelope narrowed her eyes at her, obdurate slits, and put a hand over her heart. “Are you saying I don’t deserve respect?”
“You know full well you don’t even need to ask that question,” Jessica murmured. She tried to keep her tone light, keep the jest up, but sincerity leaked its way through.
“Eh, you’re probably right,” she drawled. “Nobody respects a stubborn old fart like me.”
“You’re the most respectable fart I’ve ever known.”
Penelope blew a raspberry at her, sputtering it out at the end, and Jessica started laughing. It was childish, all of it, the whole devolution of the conversation a throwback to a childhood both sweet and bitter. She wanted to open her eyes and see Anne sitting across from her, aged like one of those photos of missing children, her features matured by the mind’s eye into what she could have been now. Tears threatened, the bitter stepping to the fore, and she sucked in the last of the laughter before it could turn into a sob.
“You don’t have to do this if you don’t want to, Jess.”
She was seen through so easily and it stung, even if it wasn’t surprising. Sucking in another breath, she held it in her lungs until they started to burn, shaking her head.
“No. No, I do.” She looked towards the other door, the one still smooth because it wasn’t exposed to the elements, the one that led to the metal stairway that spiraled up to the gallery. “Not tonight, though. I’m too tired tonight.”
Penelope stood and walked to her, squeezed her knee. “Spare bunk’s all made up. Tour group’ll be coming back down soon. Tim doesn’t tend to stick around long after hours – once he finishes his last little speech he’ll be heading back into town.”
“Good,” she said. It wasn’t that she didn’t want to meet Penelope’s new business partner, but she wasn’t in the mood for the small talk made by introductions, the casual ‘what got you interested in this’ and ‘how long have you lived in Cambria?’ It wasn’t the day for it.
“Get yourself tucked in, then,” Penelope coaxed. She gave her knee another squeeze and straightened. “You know the routine. Breakfast early, go hungry if you’re not up by seven thirty.” She squinted spitefully. “Though now you have a car. And a wallet. Alas, my threats fall hollow.”
“I’ll be up. Wouldn’t miss out on your omelets. There’s no greater sin.”
Jessica stood and hugged her again. It was done wordlessly, and wordlessly Penelope accepted it. She bore the wisdom of time, the ability to know when things were best communicated without saying anything. When she stepped back and walked towards the stairwell, Penelope offered no quips, no witticisms, and let her go with a simple ‘goodnight’ borne on the back of a sigh.
She went down. The way up burned at her back as she descended and she set her jaw against the feeling. Anne’s eyes watched her, mournful, begging her to come up and say hello.
“I hate you for what you did,” she whispered.
There was no answer from the ghost as she continued down.