My cousin Jimmy said he had an easy job and an easier life out on the North Carolina shore. Prospects were lean in Wisconsin, so I was open to suggestions. His was simple: I’d blow in whenever I could make it, and he’d set me up. We shared everything in childhood (even a name) and answering his call felt like a return to a time when things were better.
I hitchhiked my way out from Milwaukee. Jimmy had told me that whenever I arrived, I’d find the key under the doormat. I was to await his return from work, at which point we would knock beers, find ourselves winsome lasses, and repeat every night until we decided to move on. This plan did not require the exchange of travel details or the establishment of a specific arrival date, so I took my time weaving about the small towns of the Great Plains, seeing a bit of what there was to see along the way.
Things went smoothly until the last leg of the journey. I found a trucker who gave me a ride from Raleigh nearly all the way to the shore, but he said there was no Aubrey, North Carolina.
I said, “Maybe you haven’t heard of it. It’s a small place, just off 64 before you cross the bridge to Nag’s Head?”
The trucker shook his head.
“Ain’t no such place,” he said.
“My cousin gave me directions.”
“Good for him. I can get you as far as the exit.”
“Fair enough. Much traffic that way?”
The driver shrugged.
“Depends,” he replied.
I ran over Jimmy’s directions in my head, feeling for the first time a prickle of anxiety about not sharing my travel plans. Too late now. My phone had bricked in Missouri, after an incident involving a toilet at a bar, and as I drew closer to my destination, the sense of freedom I’d gained had started to wear thin. I wanted a real sleep in a real house after a real meal.
What I got was a sandy backwoods road off the exit the trucker had agreed to drop me at. “Depends” had been his gentle way of letting me know ain’t nobody out here. When I climbed down, he said, “Good luck finding Osprey,” and I knew he still didn’t believe it existed.
Jimmy must have anticipated this, because his directions included a footpath shortcut through a small national forest that hugged Croatan Sound. Jimmy said this was easier than traveling along the roads, especially if there weren’t any rides to hail along the way. The town of Aubrey was a small, inhabited pocket of land just on the other side of the forest. I fingered my pocketknife as I trekked along the grass-choked lane. It was late afternoon and my shirt stuck to my back. I had the lousy, gummy feeling of having sat in cars for too long, and I’d forgotten to grab my water bottle when I hopped out of the trucker’s cab. The desolation and the trucker’s doubt got inside my head. When you’re walking along an empty trail you’ve never walked before, time loses its shape and fear rushes into all the extra minutes you manufacture.
With no watch, and my phone dead, I don’t know how long it took me to get there, but as afternoon tilted into dusk, the trail finally widened and I saw buildings through the trees. A one-pump gas station marked the edge of town, just as Jimmy said it would. I didn’t see anyone outside, but I thought it might be Sunday. Days had blurred together on the road, and with no job, I’d stopped caring.
I followed Jimmy’s directions faithfully, and faithfully they led me straight to his door. So far I had not encountered a single soul in the town of Aubrey, North Carolina, as night settled quickly. If it weren’t for the faint sounds of activity inside some of the houses I passed, I would have agreed with the trucker: this place hardly existed at all.
Jimmy’s home was on the beach, perched between a strand of pine trees and the dunes. It stood on stilts, like a lot of houses in hurricane country. The ground floor was the garage, walled in with trellis to allow sand and water to flow through. A porch had been built out on the side, for grilling. An exterior set of wooden stairs led to the front door on the second floor, where the living spaces were. The floodlight at the top of the stairs was burned out, and I didn’t see any other lights on inside the house. In the moonlight I saw the stairs well enough to get my bearings, and climbed up. I found the key under the mat, just like Jimmy told me.
I fumbled my way through his door, and switched on the first light I found.
It was a shabby little hole. Beaded curtain to the kitchen. Nubbly couches smelling not-faintly of cat piss and weed. Broken TV in the corner with a massive crack across its screen, now serving as a plant stand to several perishing cacti.
I suspected Jimmy had hit the one bar in town, and would get home when he got home. I let myself into the spare bedroom—its door hung open and I saw it was far too uncluttered to be inhabited by Jimmy. I threw the window open, letting in the cleansing ocean air. I could live with Jimmy as long as I had this space, this sparse, pure room.
The window of my room overlooked the roof of the back porch. I crawled through the window onto the roof. I sat up lazily, back propped against the house, one knee bent. Through a break in the brambles that were struggling to be trees, I could see the dunes that separated us from the sea, bristling with razor grass and cattails. Though I couldn’t see the ocean, I could hear it. I leaned my head back and closed my eyes.
My neatness was the only way in which I differed from Jimmy. Our mothers, who were sisters, looked exactly alike, and so did we—so alike that people often mistook us not only for brothers, but for twins. My mother married a man named Monroe and Jimmy’s mother married a man named Madison and they both thought it would be noble to name their sons James, so in that we were similar as well. I went by my full name.
We grew up like brothers, too. I think sometimes we read each other’s thoughts. It was how we managed to cause such utter mayhem in our schools and neighborhood. If we were in completely different places I could sense if he was in trouble and I’d go cover for him.
When we were eighteen we got tattoos together, our initials on the insides of our wrists. “A proud tattoo,” he’d called it. “No hiding it.” It also hurt like hell.
At the time, the pain bound us together, but later it seemed like that was the last time we’d be so close. After we got the tattoos, Jimmy started drifting. I couldn’t tell what had changed. He went from being my brother to being my cousin, just another relative. Then he moved out here, where none of our blood lived, and I didn’t hear much from him until this year when he invited me to live with him.
The sense of his absence, after wandering the deserted town, sent an uncanny finger up my spine. My eyes snapped open and I decided to check out the beach and shake off some of my dark thoughts.
It wasn’t hard to climb over the dunes, answering the bay’s soft call of whish, whish, boom. Any trace of worry was erased by the sand’s sweet erosion. It wasn’t that I stopped wondering where Jimmy might be; I felt he was right here, that he was me. It was like walking into a party and asking, “Has anybody seen me lately?” It made me want to laugh.
I saw a heap of rags on the beach ahead and wandered over to investigate. I walked faster when I saw the heap begin to move. By the time I reached it, a person had begun to emerge. Her hair, long and wet, was ashy blonde, and in the moonlight she could have blended right into the sand. Ocean-blue eyes opened wide and wondering. Her threadbare clothes hung from soft shoulders. I broke into a run, kicking up sand. When she saw me, turned and held her arms open. I thought it as a plea for help, but when I arrived at her side, she embraced me as if we were old friends.
“Um, hi,” I murmured, finding my cheek resting on her hair as she buried her face in my shoulder. Her shoulders shook and I couldn’t tell if it was laughter or sobs, but when her face lifted from my chest I saw it was a little of both.
“I’m out,” she said, her voice carrying a faint, undefinable accent. “Thank you, thank you.”
“I’m just here,” I said. “Are you from Aubrey? Do you need help?”
This made her laugh harder.
“It doesn’t matter,” she said. “I’m no one. And you are too.”
“You need help,” I said. “You got a home?”
The laughter became tears again, as quickly as clouds shifting across the sun.
“Don’t make me go back,” she said. “She can’t stop me now.”
“Okay, okay,” I soothed. “No one’s making you go anywhere, except someplace warm and safe. Can you walk? Are you hurt?”
“I was in the surf when I woke up,” she said. “Stung by some jellyfish, I think.” She began to lift one edge of the garment she was wearing, revealing a creamy pale leg lashed with red welts.
“Lemme take you to my place,” I said. “Then we’ll figure out what to do.”
I never noticed until later how smoothly, how easily, it became “my place.”
For a lot of my life I’ve been a little bit tweaked. Anxious fellow, they said. Acts out. I don’t know what it is, but when I get that screeching feeling inside, I go to a house in my head. It’s a cottage on the shore where I am utterly alone. People exist outside an invisible barrier and I can hear them play, but they don’t come close.
As I walked up to Jimmy’s house again, seeing it from the top of the dunes, it sank in: this is the house I had always imagined. The similarity would have made me shudder, but I was too occupied with the woman hanging off my arm as if she’d never learned to walk on her own.
Inside the house, there was still no sign of Jimmy.
“Sit down anywhere,” I told the woman.
I left her and went to scope out the kitchen for coffee, squaring my shoulders as I did so, hoping she could see my broad back. The coffeemaker was broken, so I put on a pot of water to heat on the stove. When I turned around, she was sitting on the living room floor, cross-legged. In the light, I saw she wore a ragged kimono-style robe, and no shoes.
“Yeah, I wouldn’t touch the furniture either,” I said. “It’s my cousin Jimmy’s place. I take it as I find it.”
She didn’t reply, but seemed lost in the cracks between the floor boards. Something about her tugged at me, made me forget about the coffee. Made me want to stay inside the sphere of her presence, a golden orb that embraced anyone within an arm’s distance of her. I stepped toward her, and sank to the floor by her side.
“What’s your story?” I said. “What were you doing on the beach?”
“What?” she asked, startled from her trance.
“How did you wind up on the beach?” I asked again. “What were you getting away from? Do you need me to call someone? Are you hurt?” She giggled uncontrollably. The laughter built up and up and over until she covered her face with her hands and leaned forward, her hair falling around her like a curtain, close enough that I could smell the salt in it. I started laughing too. I don’t know why. Probably because she was so damn pretty.
“I should be at home!” she said, gasping.
“Do you need help getting back home?” I asked. “Not that I’m chasing you out. You look great on my floor.”
The smile dropped from her face like a rock, and her laughing stopped so abruptly my ears rang.
“No,” she said. “I don’t want to go back there.”
“Okay,” I said, trying to be soothing. “No one’s making you go anywhere you don’t want to go.”
She stood up, hair flying, and took a step back from me like a frightened animal.
“Do you promise?” she asked.
“Cross my heart,” I replied, rising slowly with my hands up.
A smile flowed over her face like the rivers of her hair.
“I get to live on the outside now,” she said, spinning around once to take in the room. If this was an upgrade, I wondered what the place she came from looked like.
“Was someone harming you?” I asked. She nodded. “Do you want me to call the police?” I continued.
“We don’t have police,” she said. “Just a night watchman.”
I took a deep breath.
“Do you have any family? Friends you could talk to?” I asked.
She shook her head. “I’ve been alone for a long time. I used to have friends, when I took turns with Cassie. But after mother died, I haven’t seen anybody but her.”
“Is she the one who was harming you?”
“Not on purpose, usually. She just forgot my turn.”
“I don’t understand what you’re talking about. I think you might have a concussion. Have you taken anything? Any drugs?” She didn’t smell like alcohol.
“I just haven’t talked to someone in a long time,” she said. “I think I forgot how.”
“Follow my finger with your eyes,” I said, waving it slowly in front of her face. She tracked it easily. “What’s your name?”
“Do you have a last name?”
“I don’t think so. I’ve always been Tess from the lighthouse.”
I dropped my hand.
“You don’t know your last name?”
“We don’t really need them out here. There aren’t that many people, and after a while you forget.”
I lifted her wrist and felt her pulse. As far as my limited knowledge went, it seemed strong and healthy.
I heard a hiss in the kitchen and realized the pot was boiling over.
“Are you injured?” I asked. “Besides those jellyfish stings?”
She shook her head again.
“Okay. You’re going to spend the night here, sleep off…whatever you’ve had, and we’ll work this out in the morning. Hop in the shower to wash the stingers off and I’ll get you some vinegar.”
I fixed up some tea while I listened to the shower running in the bathroom. I hoped Jimmy didn’t have anything worth stealing around here. I found a bottle of apple cider vinegar in the kitchen cabinet, and left it on the floor outside the bathroom door.
When Tess emerged, I’d made up the couch with some spare blankets I found in a closet, after shaking the sand out of them on the landing outside. I placed her mug of tea on the floor beside the couch.
“I’ll see you in the morning,” I said.
“It’s just like I imagined it would be,” she said, a radiant smile spread across her face.
I raised my eyebrows and turned to my own room. It wasn’t until I lay down that I realized, after all my offers to call someone, that I didn’t even think Jimmy had a landline set up. I left the door ajar so I could hear it if Jimmy came in or Tess snuck out. I wondered what Jimmy would think when he came home and saw her.
He probably wouldn’t think anything at all.
By the time the morning light touched Tess on the couch, she seemed to belong there. I got up early, and surveyed the kitchen for breakfast things. All I found was some expired instant oatmeal.
Tess appeared to be sleeping deeply. If she woke up, and decided to leave while I was gone, I wouldn’t be any worse off than when I’d got here. But I found myself hoping she’d stay.
I walked to the corner convenience store I’d seen the night before. In the daylight I got a better look around. Aubrey was a bleached-out beach town like an old postcard that had been left out in the sun too long. Everything had a thin patina of salt on it, and I was pretty sure if I looked behind any shutter I’d find paint ten shades darker than the rest of the house. It was normally the kind of place I liked – dusty, unobtrusive, unapologetically strange – but its quietness was too perfect.
There were no cars anywhere.
The store was deserted except for the ancient guardian of the cash register, who may have been a mannequin for all he did to acknowledge my existence. I grabbed some essentials, hugging them in my arms because I forgot to get a basket. I dumped it all on the counter, and the old man made his first move, to ring me up.
“You can’t just quit your job like that, Jimmy,” he said toothlessly.
“I think you’re confusing me with my cousin,” I said. “We look alike.”
“It’s a work day. You should be at the hardware store. They’re talking about you, Jimmy,” the old man said.
“You got the wrong guy,” I muttered between my teeth, but I couldn’t go anywhere until he took the money from my hands.
“That’s impossible,” the geezer said.
“Then surely this will be remembered as the day that pigs fly,” I said. “Gimme my change.”
The old man pulled the lever on the register and methodically counted out bills. He handed me my bag and my change with a scowl and I got the hell out.
When I got back, Tess was up and pacing the apartment. She threw herself at me when I walked in, grasping me by the shoulders.
“Did anybody see you?” she asked. “Were you seen?”
I held up the bag.
“I got breakfast,” I said. “My cousin doesn’t keep a lot around, apparently.”
“No,” she said, looking stricken. “You shouldn’t have gone out without waking me.”
I stepped back, shaking out of her grip.
“I don’t have to ask you permission to leave my own house,” I snapped.
“It’s too late,” she said, falling backward onto the couch. “How many people saw you?”
“Just the old guy in the store,” I said. “He thought I was my cousin.”
“No,” she said, softly this time. “It’s already happened.”
I didn’t know what I feared, but I tasted something sour at the back of my throat.
“Do you know my cousin?” I said. “What’s so wrong with someone thinking I’m him?” I put the bags down, the sour taste now overpowering my mouth. “Did he do something? Did something happen to him?”
Tess choked back a sob.
“Maybe if you don’t know, there’s still a chance,” she said. “Do you have a car?”
“I hitchhiked in,” I said.
“How far in?” she asked.
“I got dropped off at the exit off 64.”
“Did you come alone?”
“Yes,” I said.
“That’s too bad for you,” she whispered. “But we might catch them.”
“Where the hell is Jimmy?” I said. “You clearly know something.”
Tess got up.
“I have to show you,” she said.
“Is he dead?” I stood between her and the door.
She laughed bitterly.
“No,” she said. “If he’s still here, you could say he’s remarkably well-preserved.”
Tess stopped herself with a hand to her mouth.
“I’m sounding just like my sister now,” she said. “It’s happening.”
“Just show me what you’re going to show me,” I said, stepping aside and letting her out the door.
Tess walked out with such confidence that we were halfway down the road before I remembered she wasn’t wearing shoes.
She took me back to the path I’d used to get in, with an ease and precision that made me think she’d walked this way many times before.
I hesitated on the edge of the trail. I didn’t think she could overpower me, but what if she had someone waiting to rob me? That seemed unlikely, and anyway I had nothing worth stealing. It was worth it to follow her, if I learned something about where Jimmy had gone.
Any trail seems much shorter the second time you walk it, especially if you’re no longer alone. In five minutes we were under pine trees, and in another twenty minutes I thought I recognized some of the turnings that came close to the highway exit. Tess stayed slightly ahead of me, impervious to the sharp rocks and needles under her feet, striding purposefully. I started to lose my sense of direction when I realized I should have been hearing highway traffic by now. I had definitely seen a distinctive rock that I’d passed yesterday, close to the exit; a smooth outcropping with one jagged portion standing in the middle, like a sundial. We hadn’t taken any forks in the path, nor had we turned around, but I started to notice other little landmarks I’d seen before—a pile of stones carefully stacked by a hiker, a single mountain laurel at the edge of the path—that led me to believe we were now walking back towards town.
I was correct. In another fifteen minutes we reached the edge of the woods and I saw the path cut through the tall grass to the abandoned one-pump gas station.
“We missed the turn off to the highway,” I said. “It must have been a side track I didn’t notice somewhere.”
Tess just looked at me, sadly. I headed back into the woods, and this time she walked by my side, swinging her hand so it sometimes brushed mine.
We made it back to the sundial and I started hunting for a small footpath leading off the main trail. The smooth bed of pine needles offered no clues. I thought I spotted a way between the trees that seemed slightly indented, and took that. Tess trailed with a sigh. I felt confident I’d found it.
To my surprise, in a few moments the footpath dumped me out into the tall grass again, just across from the one-pump gas station.
I started to hear a rushing sound in my ears.
“Where’s Jimmy?” I asked.
Tess began to cry.
“He’s gone,” she said. “They’re both gone.”
“Who did he leave with? What do you know?”
“With my sister,” she choked out. “He went with my sister. She kept me in the lighthouse, locked in a room, but I could hear things through the door. I heard your—his voice, when he visited her, and I knew what they were planning. But I hoped we could get out first.” Tess’s voice cracked so badly she barely got the last words out.
“Well, why can’t we just follow them? Where did they go?” I took a deep breath and tried to muffle the screeching sound in my head, but the heat and lack of food and the trails that led nowhere made it difficult.
She looked at me with a tear-streaked face.
“You can walk that trail as many times as you like, try as many paths as you dare, and they’ll all lead back here, like a closed loop.”
I left her there in the grass and set off on the trail at a run this time. Halfway to the sundial I tripped on a root and twisted my ankle, but I got up with a curse and kept limping on as fast as I could. The sun was high enough now that it was hard to use it as a reference point, but as much as possible I tried to keep my narrow shadow in front of me, heading west toward the highway. I lost it somewhere in the shade of the pines, and emerged five yards away from where Tess was crouched at the edge of the meadow.
I turned around, the pain in my ankle nauseating, and found the trail one more time. Not far from the edge of the trees, I put my bad foot into a hidden depression in the ground and wrenched it again. My vision went black and I fell heavily to my knees, heaving.
I felt Tess’s gentle arms around me, lifting my arm over her shoulder. Eventually, we rose together and she supported me back to the crooked house on the beach.
I sat on the couch in a daze, gradually aware of the sounds of Tess moving items in the kitchen. She reappeared with toast and sausages and a huge glass of water and a small bottle of whiskey.
“Explain,” I said, taking a sip of the water.
“You know how water eddies in a corner of a cave or rock formation that traps the current?” she said. I nodded. I’d almost drowned in one of those as a kid, rafting on a family vacation in Colorado. “Time eddies here,” Tess continued. “It got stuck. And now we’re stuck in it.”
I picked up the glass of water again, found I couldn’t breathe, set it down, and took the whiskey instead.
“What happens?” I asked.
“Nothing ever changes and no one leaves. We’ve been living the same lives over and over again, new generations but the same roles. Every cycle, there’s a woman keeping the lighthouse. She falls for a drifter in the beach house, and she gets pregnant. He drowns, she raises their daughter alone in the lighthouse. She is the new lighthouse keeper. The hardware store manager falls asleep with the generator on and asphyxiates. We’ve been through three of those in my lifetime; this batch don’t seem to last long. The couple on the corner of Roanoke Lane and Juniper Street start building a boat every spring. They work on it every weekend, but it never gets done, and then one year it gets washed away in a hurricane and they start over again. The Williams sisters down the street start learning the piano…they’ve been playing for years and never progressed, but then again, sometimes people aren’t very good, right? Only, every generation a new pair of sisters takes the house, and they start learning the piano…”
I started to tune out Tess’s voice. Slowly, I got up, grabbing a street hockey stick from the corner as a crutch. I hobbled down the stairs. Swallowing my pain (and a little more whiskey from the bottle, which I’d taken with me), I made my way into the hardware store I’d seen a few storefronts down from the convenience mart, the one where Jimmy was supposed to work.
It was cool inside the hardware store, and a furry coat of dust covered the items on the top shelves. I tried to focus on the familiarity of the bins of screws and nails, to bring myself down so I could ask someone sane about all this.
“Is this some kind of joke?” a roughneck in coveralls hollered at me, voicing my thoughts exactly. He circled the front desk and got up in my face. His nametag said Mark. “You’re late, you’re drunk, and you’re maimed?”
“Yessir,” I slurred.
“We’re supposed to get a shipment today,” Mark shouted. “What the hell am I supposed to do with you?”
“What’s my name?” I asked.
“Dear lord, Jimmy, you’re far gone for this time of the morning,” Mark said.
“I don’t think that shipment’s going to come in,” I said.
“What is going on with you?”
“I think you should fire Jimmy,” I said. “He’s a pretty bad employee.”
“Go home and sleep it off,” Mark said. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
I turned haplessly to find Tess behind me; she’d followed me.
“Hey Cassie,” Mark said.
Tess flinched. She took my hand and led me out of the hardware store without acknowledging Mark’s greeting.
“Something went wrong with my cycle,” Tess said, following me. “My mother had twins. She wasn’t supposed to have twins. The lighthouse keeper had never had twins.”
“It broke the pattern,” I said.
“The pattern nearly broke us,” Tess said. “Anytime we went somewhere together, Cassie and I, some kind of accident happened, something that could have killed one of us. Eventually, my mother started taking us out separately, only one at a time. We took turns. When mother died, Cassie decided she didn’t want to take turns anymore.”
She was staring at the lighthouse on the rock.
“She trapped you there?” I asked.
“I slipped out once or twice, but the second time I did it, I almost got struck by lightning on the beach.”
“How did you get out this time?” I asked, afraid I was already halfway to guessing the answer.
“They let me out,” she said. “I think they let me out to trap you.”
I wanted to say his name but it wouldn’t come out. Tess continued for me, keeping pace as I limped down the street, passing folk on their porches, looking at them engaged in their daily activities—sanding a railing, washing a car, weeding a garden. Slowly, they lifted their heads to look back at him.
“Cassie didn’t think about escaping until Jimmy got here. It hadn’t been done before, no one knew if it was possible. But when Jimmy learned he was the new drifter, and he learned what happened to the drifter every time, he had an idea. Maybe this place will let you go if you have a replacement. That meant Cassie could have been free all along, but by the time she learned that, they were deep into each other. She wanted to leave with him, so he invited you here. I don’t know how they watched for you, but one night Cassie gave me something that made me fall asleep, and I woke up on the sand, like you found me. I think they figured once you saw me, you’d stay at least a night to make sure I was alright. And that would give them enough time to get out.”
“You knew? You knew that was the plan and you still let me stay?” I asked, blood boiling.
“I didn’t know I was the decoy. I just knew they were going to run away as soon as you hit town. I figured the rest out today.”
I wanted to be angry at Tess because it was better than being angry at Jimmy. I could stand to have my heart broken by her.
We were at the end of the road. A meager curb bordering a gravel lot held back the sand of the dunes. The last house on the lane stood empty, one loose window shutter clapping in the wind. There was a woodpile under a little shelter next to the trellised garage. I picked up the ax that hung from the wall next to it.
Tess’s eyes went wide.
“If you do it, it’ll just start again with someone new,” she said.
I brought the ax down on the trellis of the garage. I hacked until I made a hole big enough to climb through. It was hard, without the leverage of two steady feet, but I kept reminding myself I had all the time in the world. Neighbors put down their paintbrushes and their sponges and their trowels to stare at me, but no one moved.
Inside, I found what I was looking for. A two-seater kayak.
“Help me with this,” I said, hopping painfully as I tossed the oars through the hole in the wall.
Tess climbed in wordlessly and helped me drag the kayak through the hole. Splinters tore the backs of my hands, but I didn’t care anymore. Tess’s face was resigned and sad. She knew what I was trying to do, and I think she knew what was going to happen, too.
We dragged the kayak up the dunes. The neighbors’ stares swiveled to follow us, the only motion they made. I dropped to my knees, crawling to drag the boat because my ankle wouldn’t take the weight. Thorny dune brambles tore at my legs.
I stayed on my knees until we’d dragged the kayak out to the edge of the bay, floating far enough into the water that it wouldn’t get stuck aground once our weight was in it. I flipped it the first time I tried to get on, filling my mouth and nose with salt water, kicking to stay afloat with my bad leg until stars burst in my eyes. The second time, I made it, and I felt Tess slide into the seat behind me.
I took a single stroke and felt searing pain up my leg. I forgot that when you kayak, you leverage your arm strength against the stability of your feet and bottom in the boat. I extended my bad leg, relaxing it, and put all my weight into my good leg as I took another pull on the oars. This time we surged forward.
Tess was rowing behind me. We made for the lighthouse. I thought, if we could pull past it, that would be the proof I needed that we’d broken free. I strained and strained, but the current was always stronger than us. I turned the boat outward, toward the center of the bay, hoping to cut across the current and find calmer waters. But when I took a moment to rest my arms, eyes fixed on the thin gray line of the opposite shore, we drifted. By the time I looked over my shoulder, in what felt like moments, we were in the lee of the lighthouse again.
I rested my oar across the boat and let the waves take us in to shore, resting my tattooed wrist upward to the sky in surrender. Tess rested behind me. The current bobbed us up to the promontory the lighthouse was built upon.
I closed my eyes, feeling the proximity of land over my left shoulder. And I heard it; a boom of the rising tide breaking against hidden hollow places, and another kind of sound, one that raised the hairs on the back of my neck.
I knew that down there was the tide that nearly killed me as a child; the tide that destroyed every drifter who came to this town. It was the sound Jimmy used to say he heard when he knew I was about to get in trouble. It was the roaring sound I’d heard in my ears my whole life when everything seemed too clear and baffling all at once. All those times, when I’d imagined the house on the beach as a way to find peace.
It was calling me to go down, down, down to the place I had always associated with peace.
I laid my head back on Tess’s lap, feeling the boat bob under us, gently knocking against the rocks.
“How long do we have together?” I asked.