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The Lighthouse

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You, you’re not the first to ask

Probably not the last

And I don’t expect you to understand

 

“Why are you still here, Clint?” Tasha asks him late one night, “this isn’t healthy.”  Clint ignores her, focusing on wiping down the counter and putting the empty cups and plates to soak in the sink.  “They’re opening another Starbucks two blocks down on Orchid,” she tries again as Clint picks up a garish orange mug and starts to rinse it in the sink, his back to his best friend.  “You’re barely breaking even as it is, it’ll take a lot of money to keep this place afloat once they open their doors.  You should sell and move to Albequerque the way you always said you would.”

“It’s my money to waste, Tash,” Clint answers without turning around as he rinses another coffee cup, blue this time, with purple flowers around the lip.  Except that it isn’t, not really.  It’s Phil’s money.  Everything here is Phil’s.

 

Why I stayed upon that rock

After the birds had gone

And all of the waves turned to sand

 

Phil had bought the little rundown corner store when he’d switched from active Army to Reserves years ago.  He turns it into a coffee shop-slash-café and names it “The Lighthouse”.  He paints the outside blue with yellow trim and hangs a great panelled light fixture made to look like a lantern over the front door.  In the Army, he says, finding a good cup of coffee feels like a sailor seeing the glow of a lighthouse in a storm.  And he likes the irony - calling his shop The Lighthouse when it lies on a small, unassuming street corner in a small, unassuming town in New Mexico, with not an ocean in sight.

Clint meets Phil when he first starts working in the dingy video store across the street, trying to make ends meet and still pay his tuition to the local community college.  He is twenty-two, all piss and vinegar and grim determination.  Phil, a few months past his thirtieth birthday, seems so put-together in comparison - recently returned from a tour in Afghanistan, the owner of his own business, master of his own destiny.  He is kind and calm and quietly badass, as Clint discovers when a couple of teenage boys had try to rob The Lighthouse. Phil puts them both on the floor in seconds, zip-ties their hands to their chairs, and feeds them carrot cake while he waits for the cops and their parents.  Clint has always been pretty sure that was the moment he’d fallen in love with the man.

 

But I am a lighthouse in a desert and I stand alone

 

The locals, at least, are grateful at first.  Clint always kept the place running when Phil was away.  It didn’t happen often - a two week Annual Training each year and a handful of short deployments in the eight years they’d lived together.  After the last deployment, the one where Phil didn’t come home, Clint just keeps going.  It’s a small town, news travels fast.  The regulars come in and tell him how sorry they were to hear about Phil, and how glad they are that he’s keeping the place up.  There’s a lot of talk about what Phil would have wanted and a lot of awkward sympathy. Clint and Phil had been discreet - this is New Mexico, not Massachusetts after all - but the nature of their relationship is pretty much common, if unspoken, knowledge around town.

Phil’s lawyer comes in and makes Clint sign some papers that officially transfer ownership of The Lighthouse, and the small apartment above, to Clint and he promptly hires Tasha to keep the books.  That is something Phil had always done.  Tasha asks him if he’s sure half a dozen times before she takes the job.

 

I dream of an ocean that was here a long time ago

 

There is no breakdown.  There is no wailing or gnashing of teeth.  Clint quits his full-time job at the local gym teaching martial arts and archery, and works The Lighthouse instead.  He still teaches a few classes on the weekends, but most of his effort is put into keeping the shop open.  It keeps him busy, too busy to think and that’s what Clint needs right now.  That and time.

Phil is officially listed as Missing In Action, but Clint knows that’s just because they never found the body.  Clint never gets the details but he hears about the destruction of a small base in Iraq on the news, watches shaky video of the building exploding into flames, and knows that no one is looking.  Clint tells himself that he doesn’t work late every night waiting for Phil to walk in the door, drop his duffle, and ask “You keep the light on for me?” with that little half-smile the way he always does, and as the weeks become months, become years, eventually it starts being true.

 

And I remember his cool waters and I still glow

 

They’d been dating for ten months when Phil sort of asks Clint to move in.  Actually, what he does is ask Clint to keep the shop while he is away for Annual Training.

“I’ll be gone for two weeks,” Phil says.  “You’ve helped me out enough so you know how to do everything,” he adds, face as close to pleading as Clint has ever seen it.  “I could close, but I do hate disappointing Mrs. Rogers,” he finishes with a wry smile and Clint would have agreed to anything to keep seeing that smile.

“By all means, then,” he says with a grin.  “I could never be responsible for disappointing Mrs. Rogers.”  The old woman comes in thrice a day every day, morning, noon, and night.  Her son is also in the Army, and she loves to talk about him with Phil, who is appropriately admiring of the young Captain’s accomplishments.  She always has a blueberry muffin with her caramel espresso for breakfast, a Reuben panini and Italian soda for lunch, and chamomile tea and a slice of coffee cake after dinner.  She brings over homemade casseroles and prods them about not eating enough.  Her son is on his third tour and Clint figures she needs someone to mother.  For whatever reason, she’s picked him and Phil.

Phil smiles, relaxed, and pulls Clint in for a long, lingering kiss.  “Thank you,” he says, earnest and sincere, as if watching the shop for a couple of weeks were some great burden he hadn’t expected Clint to accept.  Clint’s heart breaks for him all over again.  Phil had been thrown out of his parents home at seventeen when he admitted that he was gay, and everything he’s achieved after that has been done all on his own, with no one to turn to for support.  Clint has his own horrible childhood - abusive parents and then juggled from one foster home to another until he turned eighteen, but sometimes he thinks Phil had it worse.  Clint has never had a loving family, doesn’t know how to miss it, but Phil had had one for seventeen years before having it snatched away.  That he actually asks Clint for help after learning the hard way not to trust the people you love to support you warms Clint to the core, and Clint swears that he will never let Phil down the way his parents had.

“You should stay upstairs while I’m gone,” Phil says, pulling Clint from his thoughts.  “That way you won’t have to commute every day.”  Clint agrees gratefully - his own apartment is twenty minutes away, and The Lighthouse opens early.  He usually stays over at Phil’s apartment above the coffee shop on the weekends, but this time he packs his bag for a more lengthy stay.  Over the following two weeks, Clint ends up bringing more and more of his possessions to Phil’s place, going back to his apartment only when he needs something.  He intends to move most of it back before Phil gets home, but Phil surprises him by coming back a day early.  Clint blushes when he sees Phil taking in most of Clint’s meagre possessions strewn around his apartment.

“Sorry, I thought you’d be home tomorrow.  I’ll get all this out of your way, I promise,” he says, starting to pack up the game console he’d hooked up to Phil’s TV.  Phil’s warm hand heavy on his shoulder stills him, and Phil pulls until Clint stands up, turning around to face the older man.  Phil’s hand shifts from Clint’s shoulder to cup the side of his face.

“Don’t,” Phil says.  “Leave it here.  Stay.”

 

These days the sunlight has bleached my paint

The moonlight has made it plain

That nobody needs me to call them home

 

Tasha is right.  The opening of the Starbucks a few blocks down and the shifting of the highway so that it no longer runs right past town kills off most of Clint’s business.  Even most of the locals stop coming after a while.  Mrs. Rogers still comes by, still brings over casseroles, but she doesn’t talk to Clint the way she used to talk to Phil and Clint doesn’t know what to say to her.  Sometimes he sees her son, home now after being honorably discharged, sees them talking and laughing in the street, but he never comes in.  The ghost of Phil never really leaves the place and Clint knows it makes people uncomfortable to see shop still lit up but empty, the worn out legacy of a dead man, a symbol of a hope that doesn’t exist.  It doesn’t matter.  Clint may not like dealing with the business side of The Lighthouse’s operations but he has a degree in Finance and has always had a touch for investments.  There is enough coming in to keep the shop going even at a loss.  

The place is a little shabbier now.  Clint hasn’t bothered to repaint the outside, and the faded paint on the wood panelling has a weathered look that Clint likes.  Most of the cups are chipped or cracked and lovingly glued back together, although a few have been lost to breakages too complete to be repaired.  Phil isn’t coming home with boxes of coffee cups and mugs picked up at tourist traps and sidewalk markets all over the world anymore.  None of the customers come in proudly bearing some new and interesting bit of ceramic or stoneware the way they used to.  Clint could always buy them from a wholesaler the way other coffee shops do, but it wouldn’t be the same.  Instead, he picks through the offerings at yard sales and local craft markets, and ignores the pity in the eyes of the sellers that no one bothers to hide anymore.

 

But I swear there was a time when I

Shined for him through the night

And he was the only ocean that I have known

 

It has been a busy day and Clint is bussing the last of the tables when he hears the door to the shop open.  He’d locked up half an hour ago, and only one other person has the key, so he’s already turning around with a smile when he hears that welcome voice. 

“You keep the light on for me?” Phil asks with a tired smile.

“Always,” Clint answers, placing the cups back down on the table in front of him and wrapping his arms around Phil, burying his face in Phil’s neck and inhaling the strong scent of him.

“Stop that,” Phil says, amused, as he cards his fingers through Clint’s spiky hair.  “I’ve been travelling all day, I must reek.”

“You smell like you, just more,” Clint mumbles into Phil’s ear, placing a soft kiss behind his earlobe and grinning when he feel Phil shiver.  “I like it.”  

They stand like that for a few minutes but Phil pulls back too quickly for Clint’s taste.  “We can finish this upstairs,” he says softly, and Clint is suddenly aware that they are standing in front of the door in the still-lit shop, clearly visible to anyone passing by.  Clint nods and steps away to retrieve the cups he’d put down when Phil had come in.

They finish cleaning up in silence, and when the shop is clean and everything in its place Clint picks up Phil’s duffle from where it still sits by the door and leads Phil upstairs by the hand.  He dumps the duffle to the floor just inside the bedroom door, and turns back to see Phil typing something into his phone.  Clint tilts his head inquisitively.

“Just texting Darcy,” Phil says in explanation, “telling her it’s her job to open tomorrow.”  Clint nods gratefully, and takes the phone from Phil’s hand, dropping it unceremoniously on the bedside table.  Then he pulls Phil closer with a grip on his shoulders, sealing their lips together with a moan as he starts to walk backward toward the bed, stripping Phil of his fatigues along the way.

 

In my lantern there’s a crack

And I know he won’t be back

But I will leave the light on forever

 

Tasha has given up trying to convince Clint to sell, but Clint can still see the worry in her eyes when she looks at him.  He wishes he could tell her something that would reassure her, wishes he could make her understand that he is . . . not happy, but content.  Tasha wants him to move on, to leave town, to let Phil go.  She tells him that Phil would want him to be happy, to love and find someone to love him the way Phil did.  She doesn’t understand that it’s not possible.

It’s been almost five years since Phil didn’t come home.  Clint isn’t in denial, he isn’t keeping the shop in some forlorn hope that one day Phil will walk through the door.  Phil is gone, Clint knows that.  He accepts it.  Just as he accepts that Phil was it for him, that he will spend the rest of his life comparing everyone he meets to his kind, calm, quietly badass dead lover and that no one will ever, ever measure up.

Clint keeps The Lighthouse because Phil loved this place, because it is the place where they met, the place where they fell in love, the home that they lived in for eight wonderful years.  Clint keeps The Lighthouse because every inch of it is full of happy memories, and they are all he has left of Phil.  And because once, long ago, he made a promise.

 

Cause I am a lighthouse in a desert and I stand alone

I dream of an ocean that was here a long time ago

And I remember his cool waters

 

“I won’t be anywhere near the fighting, Clint, I promise.  I’ll be safe,” Phil says, the first time he’s called up for deployment.  Clint nods, knowing Phil will do his best, but still worried.  It’s bad enough that Phil will be gone for two months, knowing he might be in danger is making Clint’s stomach flip.

“You going to keep the light on for me?” Phil asks, his eyes sad and a little worried when he looks at Clint, like he’s not sure what the answer will be.

“Always,” Clint promises, voice adamant, and he kisses Phil goodbye, putting into that one kiss everything Phil makes him feel - the happiness and the worry and the admiration and the love.  

They don’t say the words.  They don’t need to - they just did.

 

I remember his cool waters

 

“It’s just Annual Training,” Phil says, “I’ll be home soon.”

“I know,” Clint answers with a sigh.

“But--?” Phil asks, seeming to realise that there is more to this than Clint just not wanting him to go away for two weeks.

“But,” Clint agrees, “do you know what next Wednesday is?”  Phil looks confused for a moment before his eyes go wide in realisation, then sorrow.

“Our anniversary,” he says, low and miserable.  “I’m sorry Clint, I forgot.”  

“S’ok,” Clint says, and he means it.  They don’t really do anniversaries, or Valentine’s Day, and while they exchange gifts for birthdays and Christmas they don’t make a fuss.  But this is different.  Next week is their fifth anniversary.  And Phil won’t even be there for it.  “It’s just . . . five years.  Never thought anyone would put up with me for that long.”  

Phil cups Clint’s face in his palms and presses a kiss to Clint’s forehead.  “I don’t put up with you,” he says, “I love you.  There’s a difference.”

“Me too,” Clint answers, eyes shining.

“Keep the light on for me?”

“Always.”

 

I remember his cool waters

 

The man who enters The Lighthouse is gaunt, cheeks hollow, faded army fatigues hanging loosely off his too-thin frame.  There are circles under his eyes dark as bruises, and he holds himself stiffly, as if in pain.  Clint stares, afraid to look away, afraid to blink.

“You kept the light on for me,” Phil says, voice rough with disuse, looking at him with love and awe.

“Always,” Clint whispers, eyes bright as the lantern over The Lighthouse door.

 

And I still glow.