Driving along the narrow, rutted track between bare-limbed trees and spindly pines brought memories of happier times to Carissa Yates. She relaxed her grip on the wheel as the trees fell away to reveal a whitewashed lighthouse and keeper’s quarters perched on an outcropping of bare rock facing the ocean.
She pulled up in front of the garage and turned off the engine. After driving more than twelve hours between New York and Maine, her trip punctuated only by stops at gas stations and rest areas, her eyes smarted and her limbs ached. But she had left her problems behind, she reminded herself. Ex-husband Matthew and the persistent paparazzi would have to find someone else to harass. Savoring the silence, broken only by gusting wind and distantly pounding surf, she laid her head back against the seat and closed her eyes.
A sharp knock on the window startled her.
“Ms. Yates…wake up!”
A thin, middle-aged man, his cheeks ruddy with cold despite a heavy woolen overcoat, headgear reminiscent of a World War II pilot and oversized leather gloves, tapped the glass again. Carissa cracked open the window.
“The name’s Al Dyson,” he shouted, dancing from one foot to the other. “William Dansinger, your aunt’s lawyer sent me over with the keys. I’ve been waiting close to an hour. I thought you weren’t coming.”
Carissa opened her door and stumbled out, her legs cramping after too many hours behind the wheel. “My car had a flat. I left Mr. Dansinger a voicemail.”
“He’s out of town.” Dyson shrugged. “No harm done, but I would’ve left in a couple more minutes. It’s close to dusk already.”
“I know.” Carissa looked at the darkened windows of the keeper’s quarters. “I really appreciate you waiting for me, Mr. Dyson. You should have gone in and made yourself comfortable.”
He shook his head. “No thanks. I’ll see you get inside okay, then I’m heading home.” He motioned her to follow him and walked toward the picket fence, his feet crunching over a mixture of gravel and crushed shell. “Call me Al,” he said over his shoulder, holding the gate open for her. “Everyone does.”
“Okay.” She managed to return his smile despite wanting to pull away when he placed one hand on her back to guide her onto the porch.
He was a weird little man, his nose reddened not only from cold but prominent veins. His eyes, murky blue surrounded by yellowed whites, protruded in a disconcerting way. As he fumbled around in his pockets for the keys, Carissa stepped back off the porch and turned her head toward the ocean.
Salt stung her face and the biting smell of the sea cleared the cobwebs from her brain, purging her fatigue. During the five years since she’d visited Aunt Jessica at the defunct lighthouse, very little had changed. The fence needed painting and a large crack in one of the flower boxes beside the worn wooden door had leaked dirt across the concrete, but the neatly printed name on the mailbox still read “Malloy,” and a holly bush continued to sprawl over the trellis above the garden gate in its untidy fashion. Beside the door, a much smaller and compact holly bush made her smile. A Carissa Holly, planted by her aunt to celebrate her niece’s birth.
Peace, Carissa thought as Al opened the door. A chance to rebuild her shattered self-esteem and calm her nerves in the serenity of Aunt Jessica’s beloved home. If only her aunt could have been there to greet her. Tears blurred Carissa’s vision; Aunt Jessica’s death had precipitated her arrival.
Al flipped the light switch inside the dark hallway. “Damn,” he said when nothing happened. “Dansinger told me the power would be on.” He glanced back at her. “Not thinking of staying here tonight anyway, are you?”
“I was,” Carissa said, doubt filling her. How could she spend the night there without electricity?
“You can follow me down to the Cove. I’ll see you get a room at the local inn,” he offered, starting to back out of the house. “You shouldn’t be here by yourself. The faster you put this place on the market, the better. It gave me the creeps even before your aunt died here.”
His proprietary manner angered Carissa. “That’s a bunch of nonsense,” she said, pushing past him. “I’ve stayed here several times in the past, and I’ve never been scared.”
Taking out her smartphone, she activated the flashlight. It would run her battery down quickly, but it was better than tripping or running into something. She started walking down the passageway toward the center of the house. “I’m sure there have to be candles or kerosene lamps. My aunt wouldn’t have relied only on electricity with the frequency storms blow up around here.”
Al grabbed her arm. “All right; if you’re so determined, let me help you. Put your phone away before it runs out of juice; I’ve got a flashlight.” He pulled it out of his pocket. “Let me go first.”
“Thanks, but I’m probably more familiar with Aunt Jessica’s home than you are. I’ll lead the way.”
She used his flashlight to guide them both into the living-room. Dark shapes loomed at the edges of the beam—furniture shrouded in dust covers. Someone had cared enough to be thorough, presumably William Dansinger. Carissa made her way over to the windows and opened the drapes.
Weak late-afternoon light struggled into the room. Dust tickled her nose. She stifled a sneeze and glanced around, finding everything the way she remembered it, right down to the baby grand piano in the bay window.
“I’m staying,” she said.
Al Dyson snorted. “You’re making a mistake. The furnace has been off since your aunt’s death. You’ll freeze.”
“I can light a fire. Look, there’s plenty of wood.”
She pointed the flashlight toward a stack beside the fireplace and a basket filled with kindling. A box of long matches sat on the mantle beside a pair of candles. She struck a match and lit both candles, carrying one to the coffee table. She pulled off the dust cover and set the candle holder in the middle of the Vermont maple Aunt Jessica had purchased in an estate sale during one of Carissa’s visits.
“I’ll be fine,” she assured Al, handing him back his flashlight. “The keys, please.” She held out her hand.
Al snorted again but dropped the keys into her palm. Carissa wondered what had happened to the rabbit’s foot Aunt Jessica always kept on her key ring.
“Your funeral, I guess.” He chuckled hollowly. “Proverbially speaking, of course. If you change your mind, the inn’s on Main Street. You can’t miss it. The lights are always on.”
Carissa followed him back to the front door. He stopped on the threshold, dug into yet another pocket and brought out a handful of crumpled-edged business cards. He thrust one at her. “Here.”
She wanted to refuse, but reminded herself he had been kind enough to wait over an hour in the cold. She took the card. “I won’t change my mind, but thanks.”
Al handed her the flashlight. “You’ll need this more than I will tonight. You can bring it to my office when you change your mind about selling.” He walked over to the gate, swinging back and forth in time with the wind gusts, looked back at her again before closing it, and gave it a good shake to make sure the latch was fastened. His voice barely carried above the combination of roaring wind and crashing surf. “I already have an interested buyer.”
“I won’t change my mind.” She waved him away and closed the door before he’d reached his car.
Within thirty minutes she’d kindled a fire, removed all the dust covers and piled them in the guest room, taken her bags inside the cottage, locked her Lexus into the garage and brought two oil lamps in from the mudroom. Aunt Jessica kept a camping stove, which Carissa used to heat a can of chicken noodle soup and water for tea after finding several gallon jugs stored in the pantry. She found stale crackers in a tin and a small box of raisins hidden in the back of a cupboard. Taking her meager supper on a tray into the living room, she wrapped herself in one of Aunt Jessica’s crocheted afghans and settled onto the couch in front of a cheerful blaze.
Carissa mulled over her conversation with Al Dyson while munching a tasteless soda cracker. He’d imagined she’d be afraid to spend a night alone at the lighthouse, but he was completely mistaken— its isolation had motivated her to make the long trip. Apparitions were among the least of her concerns. The proximity of a very much alive and breathing Matthew Yates in New York had been far more disturbing.
Abandoning the crackers, she finished the soup, placed her tray on the coffee table with the half-burned down candle and drew her knees up to her chin as she stared at flickering flames illuminating the fireplace and the decorative metal fire screen. Logs settled, sparks shooting up the chimney.
For five years Matthew had out-maneuvered her, out-witted her and threatened her. Did she really think she was clever enough to turn the tables now, because she had finally managed to run away? For a moment, she allowed misery to seep back into her consciousness. There could be no escape from Matthew as long as he was alive. Or as long as I am.
Carissa threw off the afghan. Grabbing the poker, she pulled the fire screen aside and viciously stabbed the logs while flames crackled in protest. I’m never going to allow Matthew to rule my life again. One of the logs started to roll out and she quickly pushed it back to join its neighbors. I’m safe now, as long as he doesn’t remember Aunt Jessica’s lighthouse.
The room had become noticeably colder. Unsure if more wood was stored in the shed, she decided against adding another log to the fire. Instead, she draped one afghan over herself, wrapped another around her legs and stretched out with her head on one of her aunt’s cross-stitched pillows. I’ll be fine, she told herself as she tried to relax. I’ll be fine…
Copyright 2018 Heather Ames