Brittany Baum

Lighthouse

 

     

He was sick of listening to her sob. 
    Charles slumped over the edge of their bed as Ellie wept behind the bathroom door. She’d been in the shower for over an hour now. The heat couldn’t have lasted long. He wondered if she cowered away from the freezing spray, or if she forced herself to stand beneath it, allowing the chill to break onto her back. 
    The bag of clothes did it this time. He had found them in the trunk of their car while he was looking for spark cables to jump a neighbor’s dead sedan. The clothes were tied up and wadded in a yellowed Target bag next to a bottle of pink anti-freeze. He had ripped it open. The rotted smell of wet animal had slammed into his nostrils. And there they were—a bundle of his daughter Kiera’s swim suit and slippers. They must have forgotten them after their last visit to the lake. Somehow, they were still damp, almost as if she had just emerged from the water. 
    He should have put them back. He should have put them back and hid them deep inside the car. But instead, he just stood there. Just stood there holding this mildewed bag full of his little girl’s clothing. He hadn’t heard Ellie until she was already behind him. 
    She plunged her hands into the bag and crushed the clothes against her chest. That’s when he should have done something. That’s when he should have grabbed her—held her in his arms. But he hadn’t. He had just stood there. Holding this empty bag. 
    Charles dragged himself to the bathroom door and steadied his hand against the frame. The sound of her cries were muffled now, smothered beneath the shower’s hum, but he could still hear them. He always heard them. Even when he was alone. He rested his fingers against the knob. He could go inside. He knew that. He could go inside, and this time he could grab her, and she would hold him, and they would be together. All he had to do was turn the handle and walk inside. Walk inside to Ellie. But that was the problem. His hand didn’t work anymore. Nothing did. 
    He retreated away from the door and her cries, into the garage, texting her as he headed toward the only place that made sense anymore—
    Gotta take care of something. Be home soon.


*


    Incident. 
    That’s what the Sergeant had called it. Who’d phoned for him at work while he was heating cheese sticks in the staff lounge. His coworker had raced into the room, and it had taken Charles four tries to pick up the goddamn extension, because he couldn’t remember how to take it off hold. 
    Incident. There has been an incident at Cuttle Creek Elementary. Then—shooting. Then—Kiera. Then— 
    “ . . . I’m so sorry.”
    The entire thing had taken less than fifty-one seconds. That was the number counting down on the microwave when he picked up the call. Fifty-one seconds. Less than the time it took to drain a bath. Less than a commercial break during a TV show. Less than a Windows update on his computer. In the end, his daughter’s life, her seven stunning years on the planet, came boiling down to the amount of time it took to swish and spit a swig of Listerine into the sink. He thought about this—the day they put her in the ground, daisies falling around him. Someone scattered their little heads near her stone, and he stared at them all, hating the way they smiled as the dirt from everyone’s hands thudded onto her box.
    43.5” x 19”. That was it. 51 seconds and 43.5” x 19” was all it took to lock his Kiera away forever. They barely had to dig.
    The early March chill of the Minnesotan night locked up Charles’ joints as he pulled another smoke from his pack of Luckies, the one broken streetlamp above his seat on the curb re-flickering to life. He held the smoke inside his mouth for as long as he could, matching the sizzling tip of his cigarette with the four seconds the lamp lasted before flicking back off again. He could still smell them. The clothes. He’d already gone through three cigarettes trying to choke back the memory. He’d had to force the bundle from Ellie’s hands. Had to take them away for her. Wash them. Fold them. But when it came time to put them back in his daughter’s dresser. To open the bedroom door he hadn’t touched since the day of the sergeant’s phone call—he couldn’t do it, choosing instead to store them in his suitcase in the utility closet. Anything to avoid the searing brightness of Kiera’s pink walls. In the end, he couldn’t even throw away the yellowed Target bag he found them in. 
    A light switched on in the woman’s house behind him. Somewhere in the hall. A faint glow behind the three diamond-shaped windows on the front door. The last few times he needed to come, the house had been dark. Quiet. Nothing there to distract him. Nothing to help him forget. But now the light was back, and he had something to focus on again besides the sound of Ellie’s sobs in his head. He hopped off the curb and rummaged through his car parked in front of her house for something to write on. There was a large receipt from an old oil change still inside his glovebox, the bottom three quarters left blank and free. He tore it off and grabbed the pen he always kept now in his cupholder. It would do.
    They say everyone could hear the screaming before he even got to the first room… 
    The pen smashed against his ring finger as he scribbled across the paper, writing so fast he sometimes missed a letter or two in his sentences. He never bothered to go back over them. These days he didn’t even care whether the woman read them or not. He knew she saw them. The mailbox empty every time he returned. That was enough. 
    He’d been coming with his letters for months now. Sometimes driving by after work to check and see if a light was on. Other times sitting on the curb smoking a couple Luckies as he watched the light move from room to room before finally shutting off. The first time he saw her face was during the TV special about the shooting at Cuttle Creek. He and Ellie refused to appear in the program despite the countless calls and e-mails NBC made to the home of the ‘first victim.’ They sent photos of their little girl instead, the only thing they still had left. It aired almost a month after the incident, and they watched it together, side by side, hands clasped. They stayed that way as the pictures of Kiera finger painting at the school and licking a spoon of cookie dough flashed across the screen, intermixed with the other fifteen victims and families and interviews with survivors. The two of them had squeezed one another’s hands so tightly, as if they were terrified of facing their daughter alone.
    And then, he was there. Inside their living room. The man who’d taken everything from them. Followed by a fifteen-minute interview with the woman responsible for bringing him to life. She submitted pictures as well. Pictures of the shooter building sandcastles, and winning the science fair, and blowing bubbles in the park, and finally, one of him at Camp Foley, the same place Charles had sent his little girl just a year before the murderer shot up her elementary school.
    Charles folded his newest letter twice, not bothering to worry about an envelope, and shoved it inside her mailbox. He slammed the lid hard enough to hear the shriek of rusted tin, then glanced at the house for any sign of movement, but everything was silent as always. He hated that house. Hated the moss-colored roof and shredded jade and gold window awning that flapped in the wind. The decaying vines that slithered up the door posts and abandoned their leaves across the entryway. The tipped patio chair on the lawn no one had ever bothered to set right again. Every piece of crumbling brick. Every inch of green. But mostly, Charles hated that life still existed there, somewhere deep inside it.
    He stepped away from the driveway and relaxed back against his car. The smell was gone now. He breathed deeply. 
    Ellie had called twice since he got there. One text. When are you coming back? One new voicemail. He hit play and listened to the sound of his wife’s voice, still raw from sobbing. 
    When are you coming back home?
    He remembered how it used to feel. Coming home. The smell of citrus and sugared asparagus drawing him toward the stove. Little giggles popping through the air behind him. These days, despite sitting for an hour in traffic upon ending his shift at Altour, the thought of having to force his way through their various niceties kept him circling around their neighborhood, before he worked up the will to plunge through the door. That was the problem with sharing a life with someone. When it was gone, all you had left was an empty house too crammed with memories for both of you to fit inside it. They’d lived there now for almost nine years. It was perfect—central to everything. Twenty minutes from downtown, ten minutes from Target, five minutes from Cuttle Creek Elementary, and only three blocks from the home of his daughter’s killer.
    Charles grabbed his keys to start the ignition and glanced again at his phone. A faint glow still shone inside the woman’s window. He stared at Ellie’s text, debating, then chucked his phone into the backseat, pulled out another smoke, and chose instead to walk back to the curb, back to the light in the dying green house. 


*


    “Did you know it will be six months tomorrow?” Ellie gazed out the car window, one dead tree after another flashing past as they pulled away from her therapist’s office in the plaza. It was brighter than usual for early March, a few rays managing to hack their way through the thick Minnesotan haze, but they did nothing against the frigid air, and Ellie shivered as she adjusted her seat belt across the sweater that hung off her body even more these days.
    Charles repositioned his vent so the heat could blow on her instead and kept his eyes on the road, avoiding the mounds of dirty ice that still hadn’t melted from winter. He didn’t tell her he had stared at the date that morning at work after he flipped his calendar to the next month. That he let the phone beside him ring and ring as he stared, until a coworker walked over to ask if he was okay. 
    “What happened the other day . . . with the clothes . . . ” She flipped her hands over on her lap and rubbed her fingertips as if she could still feel them. The blood in her cheeks had thinned. “I can’t go through that again, Charles.” 
    He squeezed the wheel as hard as he could, until he worked up the nerve to rest his hand atop the open one in her lap. The warmth of her skin made him shiver.
    She stared at his hand there for a long time before placing hers on top as well. And then she told him. What she and therapist Janet had plotted and sobbed over without him in the last fifty minutes he’d been waiting outside. 
    She wanted to get rid of her. She wanted to open the door to their daughter’s bedroom, the door they’d kept sealed for the last six months—letting the house freeze, just so they wouldn’t have to make as many trips past her room to adjust the thermostat, and now she wanted to open it, and touch all her things, and lock the rest of their little girl away in some dark storage unit for fifty-seven bucks a month.
    “Please, Charles,” she said. “I can’t do this by myself.”
    And he jerked his hand away from her and placed it firmly back on the wheel. “Absolutely not.” 
    And that was it. All he said for the next fifteen minutes as they made the drive back home.
    Absolutely not speeding past Pleasantview Memorial Gardens, where every two weeks Ellie traded the wilting daises on their daughter’s grave for a fresh bouquet from the Target up the street. 
    Absolutely not as they spotted the large green sign leading down to Cuttle Creek Elementary, Where We Create Our Children’s Future! 
    Absolutely not as they turned past the tire swing in the Markham’s lawn to their left, where Kiera lost her first tooth after banging into the white ash. 
    And finally, Absolutely not as Charles approached the road leading to the woman’s house, the road he found himself switching on his blinker for, until Ellie asked him where the hell he was going.
    By the time they arrived at their street, she was staring out the window again, at the balloons taped to a child’s birthday sign that collided into one another as they zoomed past, her hand as far away from him as possible.


*


There were times, right after the incident, when Ellie would leave him in the middle of the night to fall asleep in the hallway outside Kiera’s room. He would discover her there in the morning—body curled in darkness, save the tip of her nose from where the light peeked beneath the crack of Kiera’s door. He always wondered what little piece of their daughter she spotted under there when she woke, before she remembered she was gone. A square of beige carpet . . . maybe the leg of her bookshelf by the door . . . 
    Charles tossed in bed again and tried to adjust his neck on the pillow. He’d been lying awake, watching the ceiling fan cast long, looping shadows around the dim room. The air was stifling thanks to the heater that had cranked all day. He glanced at Ellie’s back on the other side of the bed.
    They argued about clearing Kiera’s things for almost an hour after they got back. Mostly she pleaded, and he ignored her, until she eventually gave up, and he could go back to hating himself again. He knew what she wanted from him. Understood why she needed it. But the thought of having to walk past his daughter’s bedroom every day, knowing it was even emptier than before, scared him more than the silences between them that were growing longer.
    In the beginning, they’d tried therapy together. Once a week to the little house in Lakeshire Plaza that had been converted into a series of rooms dedicated to helping people learn to stop crying. There were five of them, each with a different therapist, psych, counselor, and shrink, some with doors covered in beads or big inspirational posters of a fountain. Ellie chose the door with a picture of two hands walking through a field of wheat and the quote, Grief knits two hearts in closer bonds than happiness ever can. They’d sit in the lobby while a jazz ensemble blared from a speaker on the bookshelf, waiting for their fifty minutes to sit on opposing sides of the red, plushy couch in front of Janet with her clipboard and candle that smelled like Christmas. They went once a week, every Wednesday, until Charles realized he could just as easily sit in silence beside his wife at home—for free.
    A single strand of Ellie’s hair waved beneath the fan’s breeze. During the summer, the sun would glint across her sandy head, dusting her curls with little patches of light. Their golden hue had faded the last few months. He inhaled and caught a hint of the pomegranate shampoo she’d used that night in the shower. He remembered the times he used to massage it into her scalp, then quickly forced himself to think of something else. They were opening the school again. He’d read it online a few days ago. He was scrolling through the latest mass shooting statistics like he always did on his lunch break when he saw it— a large headline about Cuttle Creek, and ‘Moving On’ and some other horseshit about building a peace room to plant flowers. He wanted to call Ellie as soon as he saw it. Yell until he stopped feeling. But he wrote another letter instead: To the mother of the monster. He never used the woman’s real name. 
    Ellie rustled under the sheets and scrunched the comforter further beneath her chin. A mess of curls fell across her forehead. Did you know it will be six months tomorrow? she’d asked him. 
    He remembered coming home that day. September 21. He remembered the first thing he noticed. The first thing he processed right before the grief stripped him away. There was a calendar hanging on the side of the fridge by a magnet Kiera made in kindergarten of her little face inside a window. Inside the square for Tuesday, the 21st, were three little words scrawled in shorthand along the bottom: 
    Aveda. Robert. 2 pm. 
    Two hours after he got the call from the Sergeant, Ellie was supposed to get her hair done. She’d taken the calendar down since then. Hid it inside her dresser. Neither of them needed to make plans anymore.
    “Charles?” Ellie whispered, her back still turned to him.
    He snapped his head the other way and shut his eyes.
    “I know you’re awake.” The bed moved as she shifted around. He could feel her eyes upon him, roaming across the side of his face like he’d done to her moments before. “Please look at me.”
    He turned toward her again, twisting his whole body around this time to face her. The quiet whir of the fan spun through the air. She placed a hand on the sheet in the space between them and rubbed it. Their daughter's head used to fit perfectly there. Right there in the middle. 
    “I’d like you to come with me tomorrow. To visit Kiera.”
    His neck contracted at the sound of her name. “I have work,” he said, his throat hoarse.
    “It’s Sunday.” Her voice tightened. She pulled her hand back close to her chest and stared at the empty space again on the bed. “It’s been six months, Charles,” she said. “Please.”
    He didn’t respond. Just focused on keeping his breaths even, until she flattened to her back and gazed at the ceiling. 
    “Never mind,” she said softly, her throat catching.
    “Ellie.” He touched her shoulder. The same warmth he’d felt earlier when he’d reached for her hand pulsed through him again. 
    She twisted her head his way. A few curls fell across her eyes, obscuring her face, so that he couldn’t tell at first if she was looking at him. He brushed one off her cheekbone and let his hand linger there. Her eyes closed at his touch, and then she grabbed his fingers and squeezed, her hand trembling.
    “Do you want me to let you go now?” she whispered. Her grip on his fingers tightened.
    And then without thinking, he reached for her, pressing his lips into her own.
    It’d been months since he felt her like this. Smoothing his hands across her body. Running his mouth down her neck. He felt her breath quicken as he trailed a hand up her thigh, her soft moans singing into his eardrums. He allowed himself to kiss her again, this time shutting his eyes and letting himself forget, until suddenly she pulled away and hid her face inside the pillow, the sobs beginning their course again throughout her body. He sat up.
    “I’m sorry,” she choked between tears. 
    “It’s nothing.” He wiped his eyes, thankful now for the heavy darkness surrounding them. 
     “Charles . . . ” 
    She reached a hand out to his, but he moved it before he could let himself touch her again, and laid back, re-positioning the comforter to hide his face. “We both have to get up early. You should try and get some sleep.” He flexed his hand, the sensation of her skin still lingering on his palms.
    “Charles—”
    “I said, it’s fine.” He winced at the harshness of his voice and forced his body to stop shaking, until she finally lay down as well. He began composing the next letter in his head, his mind calming as he ran through the lines. He imagined what it would feel like this time to walk up to the woman’s door. Walk up to her door, and look inside her eyes, and make her see him. Make her understand. Behind him, Ellie cried even softer now. The whir of the fan continued. He flexed his hand.


*


I can’t do this anymore.
    A horn blared throughout the quiet neighborhood surrounding him, and Charles glanced in his rearview to see a car swerve around a couple making out in the middle of the street. The taller man laughed and clung to his partner’s drunken shoulders as they stumbled toward their driveway. When they reached the door, the drunken one pulled him in for another kiss, his hands clasped firmly around the taller man’s waist. They entered the house together like that, and Charles continued to gaze after them, until their porch light blinked out, and he was left alone again in the silence.
    I can’t do this anymore. 
    He re-read Ellie’s text for the seventh time and took another swig from the bottle of Jameson in the seat beside him. He’d been parked in front of the woman’s house for the last forty-five minutes, waiting for the whiskey’s fire to burn away the sound of Ellie’s sobs inside his head.
    He’d promised to go with her. To Kiera’s grave. She’d cornered him that morning, despite the fact he’d gotten up two hours early to avoid any discussion about the night before. He had brushed past her to the kitchen, talking quickly before she tried to open him up. 
    “Work’s been hell—gonna stop by Target on my way home tonight, need anything?” He pretended to rummage through the cupboards, not quite waiting for a response. “Just text me and let me know. I may be late. Not sure yet. Big proposal and all. That one for Billy. The Anderson thing. Remember, I told you? Anyway, don’t wait up for me to eat—in case I’m gone long. That ok?” He turned around, not quite looking at her.  
    “Charles.” Her body was still. “I need you to come with me today.” 
    His stomach clenched. “I told you. I have this big proposal for Billy.” He rifled through one of the drawers, until he found an empty envelope wedged in the back, then tore off a couple sheets of Ellie’s stationery.
    Her eyes narrowed at the envelope in his hand. “I see.” She exhaled sharply. “Charles. I need you to come with me today. I’m not asking.” 
    “I’m sorry?” He twisted toward her, focusing on the patch of skin in between her eyebrows. “Ellie . . . I am sorry I have to provide for this family—”
    “This—family . . . ” She said the last word slowly, then walked toward the window. A cluster of spring beauties shivered outside in the wind, the majority of their pale blooms hidden beneath a sheet of dead leaves. 
    He grabbed his chain of keys from off the ring and moved to the door. 
    “Our daughter is dead, Charles.”
    The chain slipped from his fingers and clattered to the tile. “ . . . what?”
    She swiveled back to face him. “She’s dead, Charles. Not you! You are standing right in front of me—breathing.” 
    He crouched slowly for the keys, then straightened, keeping his gaze trained on the floor. “Ellie. I think you need to calm down.”
    She took a step toward him. “Our daughter is dead.”
    “Stop it.” His eyes flashed up.
    “You tell me how he shot you too! You show me the body! Where is your grave, Charles? What time was your service? When did the men show up to tell me you were missing! Because every day, I have to walk past the ghost down that hallway, to the one standing in this kitchen! And if you don’t want to help me clear out the goddamn room so I can finally wake up one day without wanting to shove my head in the oven—fine. But I will be damned if I have to spend another minute sobbing by our child’s grave alone!”
    He felt his knees buckle. Her features started to blur.
    “Please, Charles . . . ” She took another step toward him. “I’m still here and so are you.” Her hand formed a claw against her chest. “I’m still here!”
    And so, he promised. This time would be different. This time, he’d be there. This time he’d squeeze her hand while she wept over their daughter’s grave, just like he had the day of the special, just like he used to during their walks around the lake, until Kiera would run up between them and asked to be swooped into the air.
    Four-thirty, he’d told her. He would meet her there, at their home, at four-thirty. He promised this as he moved to kiss her cheek goodbye, before stopping halfway and patting her shoulder instead. She had stood so still as he shut the door behind him. Four thirty . . .  
    But instead, he had circled their block for twenty minutes, slowing down each time he approached the right turn leading toward their cul-de-sac, only to speed past it again and again, until he finally stopped circling, and instead pushed forward, down the familiar route he’d driven so many times before, to celebrate the anniversary of his daughter’s death with the only person he hated more than himself. The same familiar light glowed inside the woman’s window. The same broken streetlamp flicked again in the darkness. Charles took another pull from the Jameson.
    You’re still here. That’s what Ellie had said to him. You’re still here. But she was wrong. Ever since the day he watched the woman hold up photos of her son on TV, something in him had severed. He remembered listening to her. Remembered how the hand clasped around Ellie’s had clenched into a fist as he listened to that woman repeat the same phrase over and over, until his wife was forced to let go. 
    “I don’t know,” the woman had said. “I don’t know.”
    I don’t know why my son chose your school. I don’t know why my son chose your daughter. Why he picked that day, at eleven ‘clock in the morning, to bring three guns and over one-hundred rounds of ammo to ravage an entire community. Charles had stared into her eyes—the same eyes of the man who walked behind his daughter and shot her three times in the stomach as she sipped water from the fountain, and all he could think about, all he could breathe, was the fact that this woman, this woman—she was alive, while his daughter lay rotting beneath a slab of daisies. He lay awake all night thinking about it. And the next day. And the next. He found pictures of her house on Google. And then one day, he found himself driving to that house, and sitting outside, and watching her stupid, fucking light—day, after day, after day, after day. And he couldn’t talk to Ellie, because she couldn’t hear him over her sobbing, and so he sobbed as well—inside his letters, and he dumped them week after week, and even after six months, and fifteen funerals, and a lifetime of waking up knowing he would never again feel the syrupy press of his daughter’s hands on his cheeks after pancakes, she hadn’t so much as glanced at him through the window. Not once. 
    Charles slammed the car door shut behind him. Little lines of fire streaked across his forehead. He had no letter this time. Only Ellie’s words slashing through his memory. He threw back another shot from the bottle, then poured the rest of it into the lawn and staggered up toward the house. 
    “Open up!” he slammed against the door, enjoying the way it rattled under his fists. “Open up the door!” His arms felt heavy. The sharpness of the Jameson on his breath assaulted his nose. Somewhere behind him a busted sprinkler poured into the street. He clawed through his jacket for the photo he always kept inside and shoved it against the peephole. “I want you to look at her!” He forced his weight against the frame. “She was only seven. Seven! And he took her!”
    The light inside the house stayed on, but the door remained silent. He slammed into it again. “Hey! I’m talking to you! I’m talking . . . ” He slurred and tried to swallow, his tongue lolling around his mouth. 
    I can’t do this anymore.
    “It’s all your fault. It’s all your fault. . . ” His vision clouded, and he slumped to the ground, falling back against the chipped panel. “How do you do it? How do you wake up every day? How do you go on living in this same home day, after day, after day . . . ”  
    I can’t do this anymore.
    He dug his thumbs into his forehead. “Do you ever wonder . . . do you wonder what she thought of? Right before he shot her?” The houses lining the street were spinning. “Do you think she thought of me? Wondering where her daddy was—to save her?” 
    He heard something drop, followed by a muffled cry, and stumbled to his feet, blinking through the haze from the street lights.
    And there she was. Standing behind him at the foot of her driveway. For how long he didn’t know. Covered head to toe in gray, her head wrapped so tightly inside her scarf, all he could see were her eyes, caught every now and then inside the glow of the flicking lamp above her. A dropped carton of milk pooled around her feet. Nothing about her was moving, save her hands, which trembled violently. The only thing alive between them. 
    “I’m sorry,” she said.
    He stared back at her. At Margaret. At the only person he realized he’d been able to speak to since the day he lost his little girl, who now gave him the same tortured look Ellie had that morning, right before he abandoned her. 
    He took a step toward her. Then closer. And closer. Until he was standing right beside her, until he could feel her breathing beside him. And then moved past her, leaving her alone. And the lonely light behind him.


*


There was a home video he watched sometimes, whenever Ellie was out. Of their last Christmas together when they bought Kiera her scooter.
    “Can I open it now! Can I open it now!” His daughter’s voice would shriek through the TV in their living room.
    “Why are you so excited?” He’d hear himself reply. “You don’t even know what it is.”
    “Yes I do! I do, I do, I do!” She ran around cackling, waving her arms and legs wildly in a sort of sideways jumping jack. 
    “And what might that be?”
    The focus would switch to a large box jutting by the evergreen, and he could hear Ellie chuckling behind the camera.
    “A scooter! The one I wanted!” 
    “Afraid not,” he said.  It’s a baby tiger, actually. We’re putting you in charge of its feeding, so you better make sure it gets enough before you fall asleep, or else . . . yah!” He’d watch himself snatch her up, taking a mock bite out of her neck as she squealed and laughed out of his grasp. The lights in her sea-glass eyes danced as the camera zoomed closer, the pink ribbons in her hair flapping like wings. 
    Charles stood outside the shut door to his little girl’s bedroom. In the back of his mind, he could still hear her there, behind that door, the wheels of her scooter scuffling against the carpet. She’d ridden for nearly two hours that Christmas, ignoring her runny nose and the drizzling rain sliding down her cheeks. Charles reached a hand out toward the door. The house was dark now. Quiet. Ellie’s suitcase gone. He brushed lightly against the handle. The cold brass stung his fingertips. He dropped his hand.

“For this alone on Death I wreak

The wrath that garners in my heart;

He put our lives so far apart

We cannot hear each other speak.” 

 —“In Memoriam 82,” Lord Alfred Tennyson

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THE COURTSHIP OF WINDS

© 2015 by William Ray