Renee stood alone, staring blankly across the water, the bridge, the footpath. She didn’t know what to expect, something more, something timeless perhaps – some immortal image of herself as a child carved into the walls; her young self lifted into the air by her father. Her mind relived a never forgotten Ray Bradbury story, the tale of families whose only legacy was the shadow left behind by the nuclear flash that had destroyed their world.
Alone, save for the constant wind. As a child, she’d laid in bed, listening beyond the howl for the lighthouse motor and enticing herself with fanciful stories about little men who lived in and operated the beam of light that still pretended to guide ships to the tiny island. Alone, save for the press of sea gulls, each looking up to her and calling for food, for attention, their mournful cries lost also to the wind – once she had thought the gulls carried her cries to God. But God had not listened.
Or had he?
She had trouble believing. Some said it was right that she didn’t believe, that a scientist was meant to only interpret empirical evidence. Others told her that the evidence was right in front of her – even more, that she herself was living, breathing proof of God’s never-ending love. Personally, privately, she settled for a middle ground. There were some things science had yet to explain. God, then, was a logical answer. Temporarily. All hypotheses, all theories were temporary. As a scientist, Renee knew she must accept the possibility that God did exist. Even here, on this tiny stretch of desolate land that led to a now charming bed and breakfast. Was it wrong that she prayed to God that it burned down and was never rebuilt again?
At one time, she would not have stood on this precipice alone. She’d have chased her older brother to the edge of the rocks, calling for him to wait, wondering why he wouldn’t, and tagging along anyway. Here, she would watch her brother throw her Barbie into the water and instead of being angry, she would watch with fascination as the doll floated. She would follow it and fall into the tide pools and her brother would still get grounded – not for throwing away her toy, but for letting her fall. Later, when her father raised a hand to him, she would throw herself at her father’s feet, screaming that it hadn’t been Brian’s fault. Her father would break her arm. Her brother would launch himself at the larger man, kicking and then, finally, in desperation, shielding his baby sister from a second onslaught of fists and punching and the screams that would come not only from their father but then their mother.
Her first time to sit here alone had been the night of the first black eye, the night her brother had been grounded for a year. She’d held her fist against her swelling face, dropping her dolls into the ocean one by one. When she ran out of dolls, she moved to rocks, to sticks, to anything she could find. She watched what happened and taught herself about tide pools and weights. The courage to return across the land bridge was fueled only by the chill of the air. She’d feared her brother hated her. She had told on him. She hadn’t known what she was doing wrong.
But he tiptoed downstairs, past their fighting parents, and let her into the house and helped her sneak to her bedroom and sat with her on her bed and made her promise that she’d never get lost. She hadn’t understood then. She knew now.
All these years later, Renee still wondered if he was lost or if he’d found himself somewhere.
To anyone else, it would have been a scene from a movie – the daughter of the broken family returning to the place of so much pain. She would throw rocks at the building, it would fall, she would walk away triumphant. She wanted it to be that way. She wanted nothing more than for the ending to be drafted by a screenwriter and for a beautiful actress to work out the emotional solace that she wanted so desperately to find by standing here. But after years of covering the pain under walls of numbness, she was hopeless to find emotion and the rocks at her feet would not stretch across the bay to crash through the lace-covered windows. How dare those who lived here now cover the windows in delicate lace? There was nothing delicate about the history of the house!
She tried. Just once. The stones would not reach.
Stars appeared above her, the hum of the lighthouse kicked in, and one by one, lights appeared through the lace of the curtains. White lace. Such purity to cover a history of bloodshed. Had the new owners lacquered over the stains in the master bedroom? Twenty years later, would she still find her father’s blood beneath the paint on the walls? An almost-laugh touched her lips as she thought of walking around the bedroom, the a florescent light up against the paint like in all the TV shows, the proteins, the only remains of her father, lighting up in a pattern that would never leave her mind’s eye.
A small part of her wondered if the room still smelled like iron.
A light appeared across the water and again a humorless laugh touched her lips. Of course they would keep the lighthouse going. She wondered if in that attic room, a little girl curled up under the covers, fearing the goodnight kiss. She wondered if, like the girl in her own memories, the gentle kisses were simply a façade. She hoped that the little girl of her imagination did not cringe at every passing footstep.
A flash of light across the water startled her and she turned, arm raised, ready to defend herself. But the light continued on and she realized it was simply the lighthouse. How daring for a desolate island, where the wind never stopped blowing, to be the home of a charming bed and breakfast and an old, rustic looking lighthouse. She had a feeling the brochure hadn’t ever changed. The laughter spilled from her again, and this time completely took possession of her soul – a howl floated on the wind. Her howl, her angry laughter doubled her over, sending, forcing tears to her eyes and as the tears stung against the wind, the laughter turned to sobs and she fell to the ground, her feet dangling over the tide pools she’d once fallen into, and somewhere in the back of her mind the twelve-year-old child who could still smell her father’s blood wondered if God could hear her tears.
Empirical evidence of God’s deafness stood the test of time against the harsh wind and cold water of the bay. The house stood, white washed, reflecting the light, even in the dark. God existed, it told her; God had let this remain.
God had let a house of horror remain standing. Blood couldn’t be covered up with a fresh coat of paint and a new swath of carpet. She wondered, morbidly, if the ghost of her father haunted the rooms, if children woke screaming with fresh bruises and if young girls were scared to close their eyes. She wondered if women felt possessed to fling knives at their husbands, she wondered if husbands beat their wives. In a moment of lucidity, between the laughter and the howling, she thought of The Shining and her hoarse tears, for an instant, became maniacal giggles that brought an image to her mind of Jack Nicholson racing through the rooms, screaming REDRUM at the top of his lungs.
But Redrum had happened here.
Now firmly on the cold, wet rocks, Renee’s howls subsided and she found her knees and hugged them against her chest while she watched the perfect pattern of the light on the water.
She thought of those perfect homes – the adorned apartment and the fanciful middle-class mansion in the perfect neighborhood – and looked across the water again at the whitewashed bed and breakfast with its lace curtains and shaded veranda. She threw another rock, and above the wind could hear the less-than-satisfying plop of the stone into the water.
She thought of the guests sitting around the living room fireplace, listening to the ghost story of the crazy family who lived here before. The ghost of the mother – she wondered if in their tales the mother had killed all of them. She wondered if the patrons would get the same shiver up their spine hearing tales of the California foster care and mental health systems. No, she decided, it was best to let them think the whole family had died upstairs in those rooms, killed by the lunatic mother. No one wanted the horror of reality. No one would want to know that the lunatic mother, driven insane by the drugs, the drinking, and her abusive husband, had killed the man in a last ditch attempt to save her children, especially her budding daughter, from his hands.
That was the story she told herself anyway, that it had been an act of heroism and not lunacy. It was easier to tell the story of the family gone insane by the howling of the wind and the flashing of the light from the lighthouse. That was why they kept it going, the owners would tell their customers, to keep the ghosts happy.
To keep the ghosts happy.
Was her father’s still there, across the water? The big man with the big laugh and the big brain and the big, hard hands that left bruises even when he hugged; did he still walk the world, trapped – unable to enter heaven but barred even from Hell?
A flash of a lace curtain caught her attention and she looked across the water again to watch a woman settling down, a baby in her arms, a young boy, maybe four, clambering to see the new addition to the family. A father stood, his back to the window, a proud set to his shoulders, and she felt wetness on her cheeks and didn’t know if it was her own eyes or the ocean or both. But when tears blurred her vision, leaving her with only the ghost-like impression of the dream she had of her own family, she gave in to the pain once again and let loose her anger to the wind.
She did not know how long she sat, watching the family through the blur of tears; the images ensnared her: the laughing boy, the beautiful, young mother, the tender father – the images merged with her own memories. But, eventually the tears subsided and her cheeks dried – chapped by the wind. She lost count of the number of times the lighthouse made its rotation. She lost count of her prayers and her questions.
She threw one more rock across the water. It sank, again, just barely beyond the tide pools. Her trials and tribulations could not be fixed by a tantrum of emotion unleashed at people who did not care to know the truth about their home. They wished to know only her ghost, the ghost of a twelve-year-old child. They did not want to know that she survived that night, that she ran from her mother’s bedroom and hid until the woman from social services took her hand; that she sat here, tonight, on the precipice over the tide pools, and stared at them through flimsy lace curtains.
She had come here tonight not knowing what she wanted, but praying that she would find the answers. Nothing would come; nothing dared to come. As a scientist she was forced to admit that the answers to some things were still beyond the scope of the human condition. Her “whys” were only a theory: drug use, drinking, post war pain. She didn’t know why her father had hit her mother, broken her brother, and touched her like he had. She did know why she only allowed one man to call her “beautiful”; she understood her drive to search out each and every “why” and “how” but she didn’t understand her own “whys and hows”. The scientist understood that she searched for answers at crime scenes in a desperate attempt to find her own peace of mind.
It would be easier if a beautiful actress could act out a talented screenwriter’s words and the pain could be healed with a few rocks thrown at an aging house. It would be easier if life was the movies. It would be easier if when she looked back at the lace curtains, she could see a family, her family, clustered together in laughter.
She watched the lighthouse make another pass before standing on now shaky legs. The answers weren’t here – she should have known they wouldn’t be. She had wanted to try anyway. A scientist explored all avenues. This one had not panned out. It hurt, but she turned and walked away, hearing in her mind the ghost stories they would tell. She walked, her boots crunching on the rocks, the wind whistling in her ears, the slick, sick sound of a knife entering flesh echoing in her mind.
She reached her car, unlocked it, slipped inside, turned the key in the ignition, and drove far from the Bed and Breakfast sign, the whitewashed house, the lace curtains, and the ever-watchful lighthouse.