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the light that turns atop her tower

Chapter Text

“And so it is
that as he gazes out, he cannot help

but wonder what it is he might be warning of
with the light that turns atop his tower,”
Mark Waldron, The Lighthouse Keeper

 

a

“I’ve only loved two things in my life,” Nicole’s aunt used to say to her. “You and the sea.” She used to sweep her arm along the horizon and Nicole’s eyes would follow, looking at the line where the sky met the sea. “That’s all I’ll ever need.” She’d rest a hand on the sun-warm stone behind her. 

“Well,” she’d smile. “That and this lighthouse.”

Nicole would follow her up the worn steps, gripping the metal railing of the winding staircase until she got to the very top. The windows of the lantern room stretched up to the cupola, taller than even Nicole’s aunt. She would press her face to the windows, watching the sea crash into the rocks below them.

“One day,” her aunt would whisper in her ear. “One day, this is going to be yours, Nicole. This will be your lighthouse and you will be its keeper.” She’d curl an arm around Nicole’s shoulders. “You will be the protector of all the things in the water. The ships and their captains. The fishers and their boats. The mermaids and the sirens and the selkies.” She’d press a kiss to the top of Nicole’s head. “Especially them.”

Nicole would whisper back, “I can’t wait.”

 

-

 

“Come here,” her aunt whispers.

Nicole is on her feet quickly, crossing the room in large strides. She takes her aunt’s hand, too cool in her own. “You should be resting.”

Her aunt shakes her head. “There are too many things to tell you.”

“You can tell me tomorrow.” Nicole forces a smile. “There’ll be time.”

“There’s no time, Nicole.” She takes a shuddering breath. “I’m running out of time.”

Tears burn at the back of Nicole’s eyes, but she blinks them back. She won’t break down. She’ll be strong. She has to be strong. There will be a time to be weak, later when everything crashes down. For now, she needs to hold them both up. To get them through this storm and steer them home.

“The lighthouse will be yours.” Her aunt grimaces through a ripple of pain. “I’ve written it into my will that everything goes to you. And you’ll have to take care of it, Nicole.” She sighs heavily, gathering her breath. “The lantern will need replacing soon and-”

“I already called Doc Holliday down at the store,” Nicole reassures her. “The guys down at the dock said the light is still good for a few miles out, but Doc is going to come by and replace it.” She trusts the fisherman and they trust her.

“And check the windows. Since that storm, we-”

“I know,” Nicole says softly. “I’m already redoing the frames. They’ll be ready for the winter, I promise.”

Her aunt smiles softly. “Of course they will.” She sits up a little and Nicole adjusts the pillow underneath her. “You’ll have to bring those ships in. Lead them home. It’s our job. To protect the sea and everything in it. Fisherman, ships.” She pauses. “The mermaids.”

Nicole’s heart clenches in her chest. “The mermaids,” she repeats.

Her aunt coughs weakly. “Don’t you start with that, Nicole Haught. I’ve told you before and I’ll tell you a hundred more. There are mermaids out there.”

“Sirens and selkies, too,” Nicole finishes. “I know.”

Her aunt looks over her face, studying it until Nicole feels like she should shift in her seat. “But you don’t believe. Not like you used to.”

“I’m not ten anymore,” Nicole says softly. “Mermaids and selkies… They’re myths. They can’t really exist. They’re tall tales the old fishermen tell.”

Her aunt shakes her head. “They’re not just pretend, Nicole. They’re real. My father-” She starts to cough, sagging forward with the effort.

Nicole steadies her and guides her back against the pillows. “Rest,” she says. “We can talk tomorrow after you’ve gotten some sleep.”

Her aunt nods weakly, sinking into the pillows. Nicole pulls a dark blue comforter up around her, tucking it gently in against her sides. “Tomorrow,” she promises. “You’ll believe me tomorrow.”

Nicole stays up all night, sitting near the fireplace with a book unopened in her lap. She thinks about moving in with her aunt and learning the nooks and the crannies of the lighthouse. How to change the bulb of the lantern. How to guide the ships to shore. How to navigate the window walk. 

She counts the minutes to tomorrow, but tomorrow never comes after all.

 

-

 

Nicole’s aunt stretches her arms above her head, yawning. “You don’t know the story?”

Nicole shakes her head, leaning in towards her aunt. Her dark blue comforter bunches up around her waist. It reminds her of the sea when it gets dark and the water is angry. “No. Daddy didn’t like stories.”

Her aunt scowls a little bit. It’s quick, there and gone again when Nicole blinks sleepily. “Your father was always like that. Always interested in the facts, never using his imagination.” She smiles gently. “But enough about him, right?”

Enough about him , Nicole thinks. 

“Our father told us this story when we were your age. In this very room.” Her aunt nudges her over until they’re sitting side by side on the bed. She points across the room at the painting of the lighthouse on the wall. “He told us that when he was younger, when his father was a lighthouse keeper, that he met a selkie.”

Nicole frowns. “What’s a selkie?”

Her aunt smiles widely. “Do you know where Scotland is?”

Nicole thinks about it. “Quebec?”

Her aunt laughs a little. “No. It’s near the North Sea, thousands of kilometers away. And they tell a story about a selkie. It’s called mythology. A story people pass down through the years. People tell their children and their children tell their children. And one of these myths is about a selkie, the sea’s most magical creature.”

“It’s real?”

“Of course,” her aunt says firmly. “They’re beautiful. Kinder than mermaids and sirens. Mermaids are mischievous, you see. And sirens lure sailors into the sea, only to never give them back. But selkies…” She sighs softly. “Selkies are gentle and sweet.”

Nicole eyes her skeptically. “Do they have tails like mermaids?”

“No, no.” Her aunt pats her hand gently. “No. When they’re on land, they’re human. Legs and arms, just like you and me.”

“And when they’re in the water?”

Her aunt lowers her voice like she’s whispering a secret no one can know. “They’re seals.”

Nicole frowns. “Seals?”

“Seals. With smooth, leathery skin. It helps them slide through the water.” Her aunt winks at her. “Much better than a mermaid’s tail. They’re fast. Sleek. S-l-e-e-k. There’s a spelling word for you the next time Ms. Lucado asks for a bonus word.”

Nicole repeats the letters over in her head before she focuses back on her aunt. “Seals,” she repeats. “They can’t be seals. I learned about seals in class and seals aren’t humans. They’re… mammals, I think. They flop around on land like big fishes.”

Her aunt shakes her head. “Not selkies. These are special seals. When they come on land, they shed their skin and hide it away.”

Nicole sits up a little bit. “They hide it away?”

“It’s called their pelt. The skin. They shed it.” Her aunt nods confidently. “Their pelt is the most important thing about them. It’s magic.”

“Magic?”

“Their pelt is the most important thing to them,” her aunt repeats. “People say, that if you take a selkie’s pelt, they can’t go back into the water. They stay human until they get it back.”

Nicole frowns. “Why would someone want to take their pelt away?”

Her aunt shrugs a shoulder. “Some people are selfish, you know. Some people take and take what doesn’t belong to them. The selkies belong to the sea. Just like you and I belong to the sea.”

“I don’t shed my skin.” Nicole shudders just thinking about it.

Her aunt laughs. “No, honey. You don’t. But fish belong to the sea and they don’t shed their skin, do they?” She waits for Nicole’s nod. “The sea is home to so many amazing things. There’s a whole world just below the water’s surface. We can’t even begin to know everything about it. We can only protect it and care for it.”

Nicole thinks about it for a minute. It sounds like a lot of responsibility. She learned that word last year, at her old school. She has to protect the whole sea? She’s only ten. Can’t she start with something smaller? She peers up at her aunt. “And your dad’s dad-”

“My grandfather,” her aunt says. 

“Your grandfather. He met a selkie.”

Her aunt nods. “A beautiful woman with long golden hair. She promised him she’d come back for him someday. He waited in the lighthouse tower for years, looking for her on the rocks each night. But each night passed and she wasn’t there. He met my grandmother and fell in love with her, but he never forgot about the beautiful woman who came from the sea.”

Nicole stares at her for a minute, wondering if she should believe her aunt of not. “It sounds like a story.”

“A story is just the truth told over and over again.” Her aunt stands up, yawning again. “It’s past your bedtime, though. And you need to be up early so you’re not late for school again.” She smiles gently.

Nicole shuffles down until she’s laying on her back, her mouth working over some words before she says them out loud. “Will I meet a selkie?” she asks. She holds her breath, waiting to hear the answer.

Her aunt, kissing her forehead as she pulls the comforter up high around Nicole’s shoulders. “If you’re lucky enough, you’ll meet a selkie. And I have a feeling, Nicole Haught, that you are going to be very, very lucky.”

Nicole shimmies down under the covers and stares at the light-up stars on the ceiling above her. Argo the ship and Pisces the fish. Her aunt put them up the first night she moved in, clustering them right above Nicole’s pillow. “The sea will watch over you,” she had said as she tucked Nicole into bed.

She pauses at the door now, her hand over the light switch. “Have good dreams,” she says quietly. 

Nicole blinks sleepily. “Good night.”

She dreams about a woman with long brown hair climbing up out of the ocean while seals swim off behind her.

 

-

 

“I’m so sorry for your loss,” the priest says. He presses a hand against Nicole’s, gaining her attention. “Your aunt was loved by this community.”

Nicole looks back at the people idling at the bottom of the lighthouse, the soft chatter calming somehow. “I know,” she says quietly.

Doc from the hardware store tips his hat at her, eyes soft and kind. Xavier Dolls, the handyman who helped her put in the windows, lifts a hand at her. The community did love her aunt and they’re here now to celebrate her life. Celebrate it , her aunt had said. Don’t mourn it. Just send me into the sea when it’s all over .

She holds the urn against her side, cradling its weight. It’s smooth, wooden. Randy Nedley had made it by hand, sanding down the sides and shaping it into a dinghy, Sarah Haught stenciled into the side. She would love it, Nicole knows. She would love how Nicole is going to place it at the edge of the rock and push it out into the waves. 

“Nicole,” someone says softly.

Nicole looks up and smiles at Chrissy. “Hey.”

Chrissy squeezes her shoulder gently. “How’re you?”

Nicole pushes out a smile. “I’m okay. We knew… We knew this was going to happen.”

“It doesn’t make it any easier.” Chrissy drops her hand, her arm against Nicole’s. “I remember what it was like when my mom passed. We knew it was going to happen, but…”

“But you didn’t believe it,” Nicole finishes. She breathes in deeply. “Neither did I.” She looks past the lighthouse to the sea. “Do you think there’re things out there?”

Chrissy stares at the water. “Like what?” she says after a minute.

Nicole exhales noisily. “Mermaids. Sirens.” She pauses. “Selkies.”

“I know what my dad has told me.” Chrissy sways again, pressing into Nicole’s side a little tighter. The urn sticks between them. “He’s told me stories for years. He used to say that my mom was a selkie. That when she died, she was just returning to the sea.” She glances over Nicole’s shoulder at her father standing with the other fisherman. “I think he told himself because it hurt him so much to lose her.”

“She believed in all that stuff.” Nicole flinches. Believed . Not believes . “She used to tell me stories about sirens calling sailors into the sea and mermaids tricking people. She told me I would meet a selkie, someday.”

Chrissy is quiet. “Do you believe in them?” she finally asks.

Nicole looks at the wooden boat in her hand, tracing the letters with the tip of her finger. “I don’t know,” she admits. “She believed in them. And I believed in her.”

Chrissy smiles gently at her. “Maybe that’s enough.”

Maybe , Nicole thinks.

 

-

 

She meets a girl with long brown hair the summer she turns sixteen. 

Shae Pressman comes with her father for a fishing season, renting one of the houses down by the water. She gets the seat next to Nicole in math class and they share a book because Ms. Clootie doesn’t have an extra right now. Shae smiles at Nicole over polynomials and Nicole forgets to breathe.

“Do you ever wonder what’s up there?” Shae asks, stretched out on the rocky shore. They’ve been watching the boats go in and out of the harbor for a few hours, listening to Shae talk about the last town she was in the past fishing season. She points up at the lighthouse as she talks and Nicole follows the long stretch of her arm to the gallery deck.

Nicole grins.

“Want to find out?”

Her aunt is outside when they get there, dropping their bikes on the loose gravel at the base of the lighthouse. She flattens a hand over her eyes, blocking out the sun.

“Hey, girl. I was just about to send up a signal flare.” Her aunt kicks at a large rock. “I’m trying to get this damn thing back against the foundation.”

Shae is close to her side. “You know the lighthouse keeper?”

Nicole’s shoulder brushes Shae’s when a gust of wind sweeps over them. “Yeah, kind of.”

“I’m going to need to get Robert Svane up here next week to shore it up,” her aunt continues. “Maybe widen it a bit. I don’t like the way things are starting to come loose.” She stops and looks at Shae properly. “Who’s this?”

“Shae. Pressman,” Shae says, sticking her hand out.

Her aunt takes it easily, shaking it. “Sarah Haught. You’re new.”

“Haught,” Shae says slowly. She turns to Nicole, eyes wide. “You’re the lighthouse keeper’s daughter ?”

“Niece,” Nicole corrects. “I’m her niece.”

Shae rolls her eyes. “You kind of know the lighthouse keeper.”

“Here for the season?” her aunt asks.

Shae nods. “My dad is working on The Fire. We just came from western Canada.”

Her aunt nods. “The Fire is good. Ewan Allenbach and his brothers run a tight ship.”

“The uniforms are funny, though.” Shae wrinkles her nose. “All red is kind of overkill.”

“So is his hair,” Nicole mutters. Shae elbows her lightly. “Can we go up?” she asks her aunt.

Her aunt nods. “Go on. Just watch that loose board on the deck. I’ve still got to nail it down.”

“I can do it,” Nicole says quickly. She spots the small toolbag her aunt keeps and grabs it, tightening it around her waist. It sags a little with the weight but she keeps a hold on it.

Her aunt stares at her for a moment but shrugs a shoulder. “Go ahead. Don’t get crazy with the nails, though. One in the corner should do fine.”

She leads Shae up the winding stairs inside the lighthouse, stopping each time Shae stops to look out of the windows sunken into the side of the concrete. They finally come out of the watch room and onto the gallery deck, the hammer in Nicole’s toolbelt swinging into her leg.

“Wow,” Shae breathes. “You can see everything from here.”

Nicole puffs out her chest. “Cool, right?”

Shae leans her arms against the railing, her hair fluttering around her face as a breeze drifts over them. “More than cool.” She turns, elbows on the rail. “I’ve always wanted to climb to the top of the lighthouse,” she admits.

Nicole kneels down on the decking, wrestling a nail out of the tough leather pocket on her waist. She holds it steady over the loose board, eyes narrowed in concentration. She looks up at Shae quickly as she brings the hammer down and misses the nail.

Shae doesn’t see her. She’s staring up at the cupola as the sun reflects off the copper dome.

Nicole huffs, blowing some hair out of her eyes, and tries again. She finds the nailhead, hammering it through the wood smoothly. When she looks up, Shae is smiling down at her.

“Impressive.”

Nicole shrugs a shoulder, going for careless. “I help out a lot.”

Shae looks wistfully at the widow’s walk just above them. “I wonder what it’s like to be in the lantern room.” 

Nicole grins. “Want to find out?”

 

-

 

Nicole pushes her peas around her plate and sighs.

“What’s wrong?” her aunt asks, putting her fork down.

Nicole looks up quickly. “Nothing. I’m fine.”

Her aunt narrows her eyes. “That’s the fourth time you’ve sighed like that. And you’re not even eating your potatoes,” she points out.

Nicole sighs again and drops her own fork. “Champ Hardy-”

“Here we go,” her aunt mutters. “What did that pissant do this time?”

“Nothing,” Nicole says quickly. She shrugs a shoulder. “He said that mermaids don’t exist.”

Her aunt shakes her head and mutters,  “The Hardy family intelligence doesn’t exist.” She sighs. “What have I told you about listening to that boy?”

“Not to,” Nicole mutters. She shifts in her seat. “It’s just that he was going on at recess today about how mermaids are stupid and they don’t exist. He-he, he says that they’re pretend and we’re all babies.”

“He’s just like his father was at that age,” her aunt says. She shakes a finger in Nicole’s face. “Listen to me. That little 12-year-old hotshot doesn’t know his foot from his elbow. He wouldn’t know a mermaid if one came up out of the sea and smacked him in the face with her tail.”

Nicole sighs and shifts. “I don’t think a lot of people believe in mermaids,” she admits.

Her aunt hums softly. “Do you?”

“I want to,” Nicole says quietly. “A sea full of mermaids sounds like the best thing ever.”

“And the sirens and the selkies.” 

Nicole starts to smile. “And the pirates. Don’t forget the pirates.” 

“Poseidon will take care of the pirates.” Her aunt smiles back. “You don’t let that Hardy boy get to you. And if he gives you a hard time, you let me know.”

Nicole nods. “Me and Chrissy think he’s kind of a bully, anyway. And bullies are just mean because they got no sense. That’s what Mr. Nedley says.”

Her aunt picks her fork back up and points it at Nicole. “Mr. Nedley is right. And he knows a thing or two about mermaids. Ask him, the next time you see him.”

“I will,” Nicole promises. She picks up her own fork, stabbing at her peas. “Will you tell me about your grandfather tonight? And the selkie he met? I want to tell Chrissy.”

Her aunt smiles widely, knocking the point of Nicole’s shoulder with her knuckles. “Of course I will. She had a family in the sea, you know.” Her aunt nods. “There’s a whole world underneath those waves, girl. One day, you’ll see.”

 

-

 

“Hey, stranger,” someone says behind her.

Nicole turns, her hair in her face. She hefts the bag of mulch in her arms up a little higher but it drops when she sees Shae Pressman standing ten feet away from her.

“I heard about Sarah.” Shae gives her a soft smile. “I wanted to stop by and pay my respects.”

It still hurts a little when she thinks about her aunt, but not as bad as when the wound was still fresh. She pushes her hair off her forehead and smiles. “Thanks.” She closes the few steps between them, her arms hesitating in the air. “I’ve been out here sweating all day.”

Shae rolls her eyes. “And I just came in off a boat, so it’s not like you’re going to offend my delicate sensibilities.”

Nicole laughs, hugging Shae tightly. “It’s good to see you.”

Shae squeezes back. “I was out in Baffin Bay when I heard. I had a month left, or I would have been here sooner.”

Nicole holds Shae at arm’s length. Her hair is longer but her smile is the same as it’s always been. “You didn’t have to come at all.”

Shae snorts softly. “Are you kidding? Sarah was my first love.”

“That lighthouse was your first love,” Nicole corrects.

“No, you were.” Shae smiles. She rubs at Nicole’s hand as it drops between them. 

Nicole breathes in slowly. “Are you hungry? Can I get you a drink?”

“You don’t have to.”

“I can take a break.” Nicole sweeps an arm around the base of the lighthouse. She’s putting flowers in; highbush cranberry. They were her aunt’s favorite. “I’ve been at it for a few hours now. Think I’ve earned a break.”

Shae smiles. “Only if you’re sure.”

Nicole ignores her. She dusts off her hand on her pants and runs one through her hair as she opens the door and slips inside. It’s cool here, hidden away from the end-of-May sun. She leads Shae up the winding stairs and into the living quarters she’s called home for the last decade and a half. It looks the same as it did the last time Shae was here; just a few more pictures and little less of her aunt’s things.

“I’ve got iced tea,” Nicole offers. 

“Sarah’s iced tea?” Shae asks.

Nicole stops at the refrigerator. “Is there another way to make it?” She doesn’t wait for an answer, pulling the doors open and getting the container. She takes down a few cups, filling them. She thinks that maybe she has something in the fridge she can put together. A sandwich, at least. 

“I ate at Shorty’s before I got here,” Shae says. “In case that’s what you’re eying the cabinets for.”

Nicole fakes a gasp. “You ate at Shorty’s? When I could have made you my world-famous peanut butter and jelly?”

Shae makes a face. “Please. I’ve had your world-famous peanut butter and jelly sandwich before.”

“Then you know why they’re world-famous.” Nicole grins widely but doesn’t pull the peanut butter down from the cupboard. She sets the glass of iced tea on the table in front of Shae, pulling her own seat around and sinking into it. “You still with the guys from Nevada?”

Shae takes a long drink. “Yeah. They’re a good crew. We work well together.”

“That’s great.” Nicole runs a hand through her hair again. “What’re you catching these days? Polar cod? Someone’s eye?”

Shae laughs brightly and it fills the space. Nicole soaks it in. It’s been a while since there’s been laughter in this place. “Catching someone’s eye. What’re you? Five years away from a nursing home?”

Nicole grins. “Depends. Will you be my doctor?”

Shae ignores her. “Polar cod and some migrating haddock, mostly.” She pauses. “But there is a girl on the mainland who isn’t hard on the eyes.”

“Oooo.” Nicole puts down her glass and leans forward, elbows on her knees. “Tell me about her.”

“Get out of here.” Shae kicks lightly at Nicole’s knee. “It’s nothing serious. I’m on the boat most of the year, so it’s not like I’m around much.” She pauses again. “We’re actually thinking of heading towards the Barents next season.”

Nicole looks at the map on the wall near the door. She whistles. “That’s a haul. For a season?”

“Permanently, actually.” Shae runs a finger down the sweating glass of iced tea. “The cod fishing is good out there. Steady. In the Baffin, we can only run for a few months. And fishing has been good. Okay,” Shae corrects. “But the population is drying up and we’re fighting for space. Barents is bigger. We can haul in more.”

Nicole is quiet for a minute. “So you’re coming to say goodbye.”

Shae smiles softly. “More like, ‘see you later’.”

Nicole looks back at the map again, racking her brain. “There’s a lighthouse on the coast of Murmansk called Ostrov Shurinov. They put solar panels on it.” Nicole makes a face. “Sounds like a terrible idea, really.”

“Solar panels,” Shae repeats. “All that means is they don’t have a keeper.” She kicks at Nicole’s knee again. “Feel like moving?”

She shouldn’t be surprised Shae is headed out to sea. She’s been fascinated with it for years; if Nicole loved the lighthouse, Shae loved to be in the water searching for it. Fishing has been harder as the years go on. It was only a matter of time before she stopped coming by every few months to spend the night. 

“I can’t,” Nicole says softly. 

Shae smiles, her head tipped to one side. “I know. Figured I’d ask, though.”

Nicole reaches out, taking Shae’s hand in hers. “If I wasn’t keeping this place running, I’d-“

“I know,” Shae says again. “But even if you said yes, I wouldn’t let you.” She squeezes Nicole’s hand. “You belong here. You’re the lighthouse keeper now.”

Nicole takes a deep breath. She’s the lighthouse keeper now.

Shae finishes the rest of her iced tea, putting the glass back down on the table with a soft thud. “I can’t stay long. The guys want to get a head start on the storm coming in.” She stands up, stretching her arms over her head.

“You don’t want to wait until it passes?”

Shae shakes her head. “We’re already almost halfway into the season. We don’t want to lose any more ground than we already have.” She smiles. “Those Russia boys won’t know what hit ‘em.”

Nicole stands, leaning back against her chair. “So, this is goodbye.”

“This is ‘see you later’,” Shae corrects. She crooks a finger in Nicole’s direction, pulling her closer when Nicole steps in. Shae kisses her, catching the corner of her mouth, and lingers for a moment. “Take care of yourself, Nicole. And this lighthouse, too. I’m going to need it to find my way back here.”

 

-

 

She wakes up and stares at the Argo and Piscis constellations above her head. She feels a little sweaty under the big blue comforter her aunt bought her. It’s late; the stars are still glowing, bright enough that Nicole can see the tips of her fingers in the dark. The big window is open and she can hear the waves hitting the rocks at the base of the lighthouse. Something - a bird, maybe - calls over the water. The moon streams into her room and across the carpet.

This is her home now.

She gets out of bed slowly, shivering when her feet touch the wood floor. She steps quickly across the room until she’s on the small carpet her aunt got for her - blues and greens and a big turtle in the middle of it. A leatherback turtle, her aunt had told her as she rolled it out. 

“Do you know the difference between turtles and tortoises?” her aunt had asked.

Nicole didn’t. She saw a turtle, once, at the aquarium her school visited. But she didn’t get a chance to put her hand in the water like everyone else did. They moved on to the octopus tank instead. 

“Turtles live in the water,” her aunt explained. “And tortoises live on land. Have you ever seen a turtle?”

Nicole had nodded, eyes wide as she took in this new place. She’s never been this close to this much water before. Jennie Strain had a pool, back when Nicole lived with her dad. But this is the sea . And it goes on for miles and miles and miles. Nicole doesn’t know what that means, but she knows it has to be a lot. And there it is, right outside of her window.

There’re a hundred windows here, she’s sure of it. They go all the way from the ground to the top of the lighthouse. She lives in a lighthouse now. It has a staircase that goes around in circles and a big gold top. Her aunt let her go up to there and she stood on the wooden walkway. A gallery deck, her aunt said. She stood on the gallery deck and tried not to look down too many times so she wouldn’t get sick.

“And this,” her aunt said, pointing up from the gallery deck towards a small room with a big light inside of it. “This is the lantern room. This is how we get the ships home.”

Nicole stands at the window, leaning against the small sill. The sea almost looks black when it’s this dark out, she thinks. She watches the light spin around on the water. If she squints, she can make out small red lights in the distance. She’s not sure if they’re coming towards her or if they’re going away.

 

-

 

Nicole climbs down out of the lantern room and lands on the gallery deck, feet thudding against the worn wood. She toes at a loose board, putting her weight on it slowly. It’ll hold for now. But she’ll have to come up tomorrow or the next day and reinforce it. She thinks of being sixteen and trying to show off for Shae, the sun warm against her neck and her palms a little sweaty.

There’s a postcard on the fridge in her kitchen. Greetings from Murmansk , it says. Shae signed it with a big red heart just below her name.

She looks down quickly and then back out along the horizon. She pauses and looks down again where the rocks and the sea meet. Her hands grip the railing of the deck and her heart starts to pound in her chest. There, just at the front outcropping of rocks, is a woman battling against the waves. Nicole watches her struggle against the current as it washes in and out and in again. 

We protect the sea and the people , her aunt used to tell her.

Nicole dips into the watch room and grabs a hold of the wire-railed spiral staircase. She skips a few steps on her way down, feet sliding on the smooth treads. We protect the people , a voice in her head says. She hits the cold stone floor at the bottom of the stairs and breaks out into the breezy summer air. It’s not too far from the rocks - down the gravel path and over a large rock Nicole named ‘Rolling Stone’ when she was younger. The water laps at the bottom of her shoes as she gets closer to where the rocks get more jagged.The woman is right there in front of her, twenty yards away. She looks stuck, one foot wedged in between a close circle of rocks. She’s tugging at her wet pant leg, her forehead wrinkled in concentration. Her hair drops from off her shoulder, falling across her face. Nicole pauses for just a second.

“Hold on,” she calls.

The woman looks up, eyes wide. “No, I’ve got it.”

Nicole ignores her. “Just hold on a second.” She tests her footing on a loose rock.

“Really,” the woman says. “I’ve got it. I’m just-” She tugs hard at her pant leg again. “I’m stuck .”

Nicole missteps and her foot slides off into the cold water. “Shit,” she hisses. Her shoe will be soaked through for hours. She holds her arms out, balancing carefully as she goes from rock to rock, her steps light and quick. We protect the sea and the people , her aunt’s voice says. She stretches her leg a little too far; the muscle burns but she makes it to the rock she wanted, arms swinging wildly.

The woman huffs, the strands of hair around her face fluttering away. “I can do it.”

“I’m here,” Nicole breathes out. She pauses, her chest rising and falling as she pants for air. “Don’t worry, I’m here.”

The woman sighs.

Nicole slings her arm low around the woman’s waist, lifting her up until her feet skim across the top of the rocks and she finds her footing. She doesn’t let go. She holds on as they move rock to rock until their points start to flatten out and she feels more sure. The woman curls her other hand into the front of Nicole’s shirt when they slide once, but Nicole steadies them easily.

The sand starts the squish under her feet as they come off the rocks. Nicole lets out a shuddering breath.

“That was dramatic,” someone drawls.

Nicole spins, pushing the woman back behind her. Another woman is leaning against one of the bigger rocks the line the inlet, picking at her fingernails. “What’re you-”

The woman looks up. “If we needed to be rescued, don’t you think we would have asked?”

Nicole blinks. “How did you-”

“I’ve been here the whole time.” The woman sounds bored. “That little heroic stunt was unnecessary. Wasn’t it, Waverly?”

The woman in her arms shifts, peeling Nicole’s fingers away from her hip gently. “I was going to get unstuck.”

Nicole blinks again.

Waverly turns to her with a soft smile. “Thanks, though. For trying to save me. It was very honorable.”

“Honorable,” Nicole breathes. She blinks a third time. “Wait, what? What are you guys doing down here?” She looks up at the lighthouse. It’s always something to stand down here and see it. It stands above the rest of the rocks, guiding the ships in. Her lighthouse . “It’s not safe here.”

Waverly steps lightly off the rock they’re sharing, closer to the other woman. “Willa, I’m fine.”

“Of course you are,” Willa says without taking her eyes off Nicole. “Only a loser would be afraid of drowning in two inches of water.”

“Actually,” Waverly starts. “A human being can drown in one inch of water. Statistically-”

“Stop talking,” Willa says sharply. She finally looks away from Nicole and down at her fingernails. “Waverly, we need to go. Daddy doesn’t like it when we’re late.”

Waverly takes another step away from Nicole. “I know,” she says under her breath. She makes her way across the sand towards the rocky path Nicole took to get down to the water. Willa trails ahead of her, already halfway up. Waverly follows after her, looking back over her shoulder once, giving Nicole a soft smile.

Nicole watches them go and lets herself sink softly into the sand beneath her feet.