The news of my grandfather’s death reached me three months after the event, the transmission hindered by distance and garbled by the solar flares that mangled radio signals from Earth to the middle planets. Those of us on Bifrost Station in orbit around Jupiter were resigned to outdated mail and stale news; I preferred it that way. Piloting a shuttle between Bifrost and the research center on Ganymede required all my concentration, or so I told myself.
Still, the automated pinging of the transmitter with my code piqued my curiosity even as it triggered a strange reluctance. Who would be contacting me? I didn’t have anyone on Earth I cared to correspond with, not since I was emancipated as a teen and made my way in the solar system. I had left everything behind, and the only people who would care for me were dead. But I lived my life according to one principle: face the unpleasant head on. That way you can see it coming.
After docking my shuttle and shedding my suit, I pushed toward my quarters to pick up the transmission. Still stinking of eight hours in a pressure suit, I sat down at my Spartan desk in my spare quarters and called up my mail.
Transmission to: Captain Beatriz Sabatini, Bifrost Station
Date: May 26, 2237
From: Maher, Craven, Edelweiss, and Stroheim, Attorneys at Law
Dear Captain Sabatini,
We regret to inform you of the death of your grandfather, Richard Aldo Sabatini, on May 10, 2237.
Almost at once I was thrown back into my childhood, reliving memories I had tried so hard to bury, so hard that I fled them off-world and halfway across the solar system. The adults at the funeral home whispered over my head as I sat kicking my chair, sad and frightened, not even the pretty dress and the shiny shoes making up for what I knew.
What will become of her, poor thing?
I heard the grandfather is taking her in.
Has anyone contacted her father?
The delicate laughter that followed and I strained to make out the words: Does anyone know which one it was?
I forced myself to concentrate on the present and read the rest of the message. It was simple, text only. My grandfather had left me everything, but owing to ancient Earth laws, I had to return home to deal with my inheritance in person. I could not assign a proxy, nor could I engage a lawyer off-world to represent me in these matters.
I sat back, staring at the frozen text hanging in the air in front of me. Out of habit I lifted my hand to the scar that ran from my temple to my jawline, the last gift of my grandfather before I fled his presence as far as I could.
“How far do I have to go to get away from you people?”
The bitter words hung in my small quarters much as the text did, unanswerable. In death my grandfather had as strong a hold on me as he had in life. I imagined him glowering at me the way he did whenever I disappointed him, which was often.
“You are a Sabatini, Beatriz, and with that privilege comes great responsibility. We are not like other people. Let them misbehave, hmmm, child? Let them shirk their duties. Genes will tell, Beatriz. Genes will tell.”
By other people, I knew he meant his daughter-in-law, my mother, and the genetic taint of insanity she had burdened me with.
A small green light blinked patiently in the air at the end of the message, waiting to catch my attention. I touched the air where it blinked, and another message unfolded, this one an image transmission. I was surprised; that was expensive, even as tightly compressed as the message was.
The pixelated image resolved in front of me into a small bright scene: the family cemetery on Tern Island where I grew up. Generations of Sabatinis were laid to rest in the little overgrown grassy field, ancient gravestones weathering in the cold, wet island climate. My grandfather’s grave was an upthrust obelisk in the center of the cemetery, shining and polished, surrounded by fresh dirt. I shook my head. Typical.
The image included a sensory file. The lawyers had really spared no expense. Pine trees soughed overhead, and I could feel the bright warmth of Sol on my shoulders. The waves broke on the shore and the whitecaps dazzled in the sunlight. I could smell the salt air and feel the breeze against my cheek. I shivered in the cold air.
The sensory file paused for a split second and then began again and I shook my head in disgust. As if I would be won over by warm sunlight on my shoulders. I liked the sun where it was, I told myself, so far distant it was hardly bigger than a star.
I reached forward to close the image when something caught my eye and I paused. In the shadows on the farthest edge of the cemetery stood a figure. I couldn’t make it out clearly but I could tell it was a child. Without thinking I leaned forward and my forehead brushed the image, sending it into a pixelated frenzy. Disgusted, I sat back and waited for it to resolve again. It was no use. The harder I looked, the blurrier the figure got until finally it blended in to the shadows and I couldn’t see it any longer. No matter. I knew who it was, and who it was impossible to be.
Wet spray hit me in the face with salty seawater and I sputtered and gagged, my eyes stinging from the faceful of ocean. The wave had almost knocked me flat. I still had jelly legs even after exercising to rebuild muscles gone slack from zero gee. I windmilled my arms and caught myself on the old fat posts lining the edge of the slippery wharf, waiting for the ferry to take me to Tern Island.
The sun was low in the sky on a wintry afternoon and I shivered in my coat and scarf. I could see the ghostly lines of the massive near-Earth space station that was our closest satellite slowly rotating overhead, and I felt comforted. Space was not so far away after all.
“Well look who’s here. Beatriz Sabatini, return of the prodigal daughter,” someone called, laughter in his voice.
I turned cautiously, clutching my duffle bag and holding my hood down over my cap, recognition making my heart speed up with an unaccustomed happiness.
“Ethan Cardenas,” I called back. “What are you doing here?”
“I’m your ride, darling,” he said, and despite my misgivings, I had to laugh at the double meaning. Ethan Cardenas, a ferryboat captain. I really was back on Earth.
Ethan waited for waited for me in front of the rickety old office that perched on the rocks at the very edge of the wharf. He carried a thermos and was bundled in a yellow slicker, big black boots, and a wool watch cap. He was bulky, broad-shouldered, with creases around his eyes as if he spent his time peering into far distances. What I could see of his face was dark skinned and clean-shaven.
I minced over to him cautiously. The soles of my boots clicked uselessly on the stone. They could be magnetized at need, but little good that did me here. He was laughing at me.
“Still got space legs,” he said. He looked like he was enjoying my awkwardness and I seethed. He was always teasing me when were kids. He was handsome now and looked like he knew it, but he was just as infuriating. “When did you make landfall?”
“Three months ago,” I said. Quarantine and mandatory re-immersion had taken that long. Once Earthside, I had to meet with my grandfather’s attorneys and go over the will.
He snorted. “Took you long enough.”
I didn’t bother to reply. He had clearly never been off world and didn’t understand about launch windows and transfer points. He turned to give me an assessing look. I flushed and straightened under his gaze.
“My, you’ve grown, Skinny,” he said, using his old nickname for me. I had been a gangly child, all arms and legs, and space and zero gee had only accentuated that. I managed to raise an eyebrow and give it back to him.
“Same with you, Pudge. Still the same jerkface kid you always were.”
He just laughed, as if he knew his needling got to me. “Come on into the office. My mom wants to say hi.”
He took the duffle bag from me and hefted it easily with a look of surprise. “This is all you’ve got?”
It was half my height and stuffed solid with my worldly possessions. I had taken little with me when I left Earth, and had accrued not much more. When every kilo is an extravagance, spacers learn to live lean.
“Yes,” I said stiffly. “I travel light.”
To my surprise, he said, “I hear that.” There was a weighted undertone to his voice that made me wonder, but he didn’t say anything more. I followed him into the rickety old office, and breathed a sigh when he closed the door on the winter day. The office was warm and well lit. Old charts were hung haphazardly on the wall in between sophisticated and modern transmitting and depth sounding equipment. My eyes were drawn to the ancient 20th century phone that hung on the wall. Its twin was in the kitchen of the house on Tern Island. Mrs. Dawes, the housekeeper, used the phone to call the office to put in the weekly grocery order.
Mrs. Cardenas bustled out of the back room, a smile of pure delight gracing her broad face. She was a short, wide black woman, her hair only lightly frosted with gray.
“Little Beatriz, how you’ve grown. Come here, girl, let me give you a hug.”
“Mrs. Cardenas, it’s wonderful to see you again.” I hugged her back with delight. She had been so kind to a small frightened child and a surly teenager – I felt a pang at the way I had thrust her out of my memory along with the rest of my childhood. She hadn’t deserved that.
“Jupiter,” she murmured, rubbing my back once more and then letting me go. “So far, Beatriz. It’s good you’ve come home. Take off those wet things and sit awhile. I’ve got some soup and the rosemary biscuits you always loved so much. Goodness, child, you’ve gotten so skinny. They must not be feeding you well in space.”
Ethan must have noticed that I moved slowly with fumbling hands to take off my coat and remove the scarf from my face. I unwound it and placed it on the hook, and put my coat and hat on top of it, gathering courage before turning around.
I could see their expressions as they took in the scar, a reminder of my life on Tern Island. Mrs. Cardenas’ lips parted; Ethan’s face was unreadable. I tried to tell myself I didn’t care. A little flirtation between old friends; that’s all I wanted anyway.
“Oh Beatriz,” Mrs. Cardenas said softly. “We should never have left you there.”
“It’s all right,” I said. I managed a smile. “I survived. Every day it reminds me that life is good.”
“Well,” Mrs. Cardenas said. “Let me get you some food.”
While she went to bring back dinner Ethan took off his coat and watch cap and hung them next to mine. He wore a knitted sweater and kept the scarf around his neck, and all that clothing made me wonder what he looked like without it. Heat crawled up my cheeks and I looked away.
“Here you go,” Mrs. Cardenas said, bustling back in with bowls of soup and balancing a basket of biscuits. Ethan grabbed the biscuits and I cleared a spot on the long table that doubled as workspace. It was just like I remembered when we were kids, and I breathed deep, taking in the aroma of minestrone and rosemary biscuits. The first spoonful was heaven.
“You’re right, Mrs. Cardenas, there’s nothing like this in space,” I said, and she beamed.
“How long will you be staying?” Ethan asked, his voice neutral.
“Not very long,” I said, feeling awful at the look on his mother’s face. “I do plan to sell and return to Bifrost Station. I just needed to check on the place – I mean, I don’t have to, but –” I quit my excuses. After all, I could hardly tell them I had seen a ghost.
“I see,” Mrs. Cardenas said. She glanced at her son. “Well, if you hurry, Ethan can get you there and back before dark.”
“Oh no, I intend to stay the night,” I blurted in a rush, just as Ethan said, “We can’t do it in one afternoon, ma.”
We looked at each other.
“Not if you really want to see the place,” he amended.
“Yes,” I said firmly. “I do. Mrs. Cardenas, the lawyers told me they prepared the house for my arrival and it’s perfectly habitable. Surely Ethan ferried over the supplies and workers.” I looked over at him for support.
He nodded, but reluctantly. “It’s all ready. They upgraded the Stirling heat exchanger and fixed the roof and some other stuff.”
I remembered the cranky old Stirling that used to creak and groan and keep me awake at night.
“So you see? Everything is set. In fact the wind is kicking up. We should probably go before it gets worse,” I said, then winced inwardly. I sounded as if I was eager to be rid of her, but I really just wanted to reassure her.
Mrs. Cardenas didn’t seem offended. She patted my hand. “I know you’re anxious to be on your way, Bea, but I just think –” she didn’t finish. “Ethan, perhaps you should stay too.”
“What?!” We both exclaimed. Ethan looked as shocked as I did, and perversely, that irritated me.
Despite her worry, Mrs. Cardenas tried to keep from smiling. “I just think that Bea shouldn’t be alone on Tern Island, especially so soon after returning from space.”
“I’ll be fine,” I said. “Really. I appreciate your concern, but Ethan doesn’t need to babysit me.”
“Tell you what, ma,” Ethan said. He cast an anxious eye at the weather. “We’ll see how it goes. If the weather is too bad or if Bea doesn’t feel comfortable about being by herself, we’ll update accordingly.”
Mrs. Cardenas smiled up at her son and he kissed her on the cheek, then picked up my duffle bag with an ease that I envied. She watched us from the window of the office while I trailed after him to his boat.
“What’s the big deal about me staying alone on Tern Island?” I asked him. He looked at me and sighed.
“My mom, she thinks there’s something not right about that house. And I don’t know, Bea—you grew up there. You tell me.”
I opened my mouth to say something and found I couldn’t lie. Back then Ethan came and played with me whenever his father ferried over supplies, but he wasn’t there every day and his parents never let him stay overnight. Some of that was due to my grandfather, of course. At my expression, he cocked an eyebrow as if to say, See?
“I don’t believe in ghosts,” I said finally. And maybe it’s about damn time that someone told the ghosts of Tern Island that. As if he could hear that last unspoken bit he snorted and shook his head.
We reached the ship, and my heart sank further. It wasn’t a ship but a mere boat, rusted and peeling, with a spray-soaked deck and a small pilot house aft.
“Now, don’t judge,” he said, taking in my appraisal. “She’s a good little ship, especially in weather like this.”
“Not judging,” I promised, and made a cross my heart gesture. He laughed and took my hand, helping me jump onto the swaying deck. He threw my duffle bag onto the deck and hopped on board. He untied the lines and coiled them efficiently and once again beckoned me.
“Come into the wheelhouse with me – there’s no heat but it’ll be warmer than on the deck.” We all squeezed into the wheelhouse, him, the duffle bag, and me, and with the door closed it was warmer, though still dank. He started the engine and I could smell the acrid chemical note of biodiesel.
The boat dipped and swayed as it pulled away from the wharf and I caught myself, wedged into a corner. He piloted with concentration and I could see only a corner of his face and his eye as he faced forward, standing easily as we bounced along through the waves. I swallowed nausea. The odors from the engine and the sea were strong and overwhelming me with scent memories.
“You can open the door if you need fresh air,” he shouted over his shoulder. I shifted the duffle bag and opened the door a crack and the fresh sea air rushed in, making my eyes water but relieving my stomach. I kept my gaze fixed firmly on the bow as it plowed through the waves, the ocean frothing over it like a scene out of the Odyssey. I, too, was going home to my island, but in my case there would be no welcoming dog, no waiting wife to recognize me. Unlike Ulysses, I intended to leave as soon as I settled my affairs.
The island was just a dot at first and then it steadily grew until the engine slowed and sputtered, and we puttered gently alongside the long jetty until Ethan cut the engine and we drifted.
“Give me a hand,” he said, and I followed him out. He jumped the distance between the deck and the jetty. I threw out the ropes and he made his little boat fast with quick knots. I grabbed my duffle, threw it onto the jetty and followed more awkwardly, unaccustomed gravity complicating my movement. I slipped and he caught me, holding me close. His eyes had green flecks, and he had dimples around his mouth. I was staring and reddened. He steadied me and set me back a step, but he didn’t let me go.
“Don’t fall, Captain,” he said softly, and the way he said made it sound like a caress. “Water’s cold.”
“I remember,” I said. You could only swim in August and even then it was brutally cold. Ethan and I used to swim until our lips were blue and then run shivering into the house, where Mrs. Dawes gave us hot chocolate and wrapped us in enormous towels.
We both realized he was still holding onto me at the same moment. Ethan coughed and set me aside and I turned to look at the house looming on a rise near the shore. I remembered its gables and roofs silhouetted against the wintry sky, a dark presence of stone and slate. The lighthouse thrust at the sky, white stone against a dark cloud. For a second it looked as if there were a light in the window, but I shut my eyes and looked again, and it was gone.
In a few minutes I would be alone in the house of my childhood. I could sense my own reluctance, and it irritated me. I steeled myself, picked up my duffle bag, and turned to Ethan.
“Well,” I said. “Thank you.”
“Look,” he said. “I can come up with you if you like.” and I could tell he didn’t mean it, the way he cast an anxious look at his boat. The wind had picked up and the waves crashing over the end of the jetty were increasing. The boat bobbed and bounced. I shook my head.
“I’ll be okay.” I attempted a smile. “They’re not really ghosts, just memories, and they can’t hurt me anymore.” It was the first time I’d ever admitted it, I thought ruefully
“If I were you I’d burn the place down,” he blurted. He caught himself. “Bea, if you need anything, just call, okay?”
“I will. You better be going. Weather’s kicking up.”
As if to emphasize my words, a wave crashed over the end of the jetty, spattering us with a curtain of spray and foam.
He surprised me with a comforting hug and a kiss on the cheek with the scar, kind and all the sweeter for it. Then he let me go and I hefted the duffle bag and headed up toward the house. Behind me the boat chugged into life and pulled away from the jetty.
I felt for the key in my coat pocket. The lawyers had sent it, along with a new set of keys, but this one was the one that I remembered. It was ornate, tarnished brass. I had been fascinated with it as a child. At the door I set down my duffle bag and fumbled for the key.
Something caught my attention and I turned sharply. The lighthouse was a dark shape in the gloom now, no longer white under the cloud. That’s why the tiny flash of light was able to get my attention as much as it did. But when I looked straight at it, the tower stayed dark.
Some stars can only be seen out of the corner of the eye. But that’s on a planet such as Earth, with an atmosphere. Out in space stars are defiantly bright. Still, I knew the trick, and I knew that I would have to practice it, but later. I wanted – needed – to get inside. Deliberately I turned my back on the lighthouse, put the key in the lock, and with some effort turned it. It scraped but the tumblers fell into place.
I took a deep breath and opened the door.
The house was warm, blessedly so, but gloomy, very little light coming in through the high windows. I set my bag down, closed the door behind me, and touched the light plate where I remembered it. The warm glow that came up chased away the gloom, and I let out my breath.
The rich red carpet under the antique electric chandelier looked as warm as when I was child, sitting in the ornate central medallion, playing with my toys. I remembered my grandfather thundering at me for leaving behind a sharp block that he stepped on in the middle of the night in his wanderings.
His wanderings…I remembered that too, the heavy-footed walkabout in the night, creaking along the hallway, muttering to himself. I had asked the housekeeper Mrs. Dawes about it once. She only told me to hush, that old men had to get up and about in the middle of the night, and there was nothing to be afraid of. And I knew that was to be true, but then, why was my door always locked from the outside during the wanderings?
And one time it had stayed locked even past daylight, and I shouted myself hoarse and screamed and cried and wet myself, until at around mid-morning Mrs. Dawes came hurrying up the stairs, breathing hard, and scolded me for locking myself in, her eyes darting about the way people do when they lie.
I wandered around the house, turning up the lights as I went. There was the parlor with the furniture covered with sheets. The dining room was shrouded as well. The kitchen was cheerful though. The fridge hummed, and I peeked in. As the lawyers had promised and Ethan had confirmed, it was well stocked. The pantry was filled with dry goods, and someone had set out clean dishes for me. The kitchen smelled of freshness. I turned on the water and grabbed a glass, drinking the icy coldness of sweet water straight from the sky. I had forgotten how water tasted. In cities it was as filtered as it was on Bifrost station.
I set the glass down on the farmhouse kitchen table and poked around a bit more. There was the ancient early 20th century house phone that connected to the office on shore. There was the door to the root cellar, but it was locked. My grandfather used to store his wine and scotch down there. I wondered if there was a stray bottle or two – a drink would be nice. I had left the other set of keys in my duffle bag and I decided that despite my inclination for facing things head on, investigating the cellar could wait for morning.
I left the lights on and went up the stairs, turning on the lights as I came across them. I looked into all the bedrooms except mine. There was grandfather’s, with a lovely fireplace and mantle. Incongruously there was a hospital bed in place of the massive fourposter that used to be there. I wondered why no one had come to remove it. It was sleek and white and shiny, still new with the latest medtech.
The next bedroom was empty. Then there was a bathroom, with its tub big enough to swim in, and the tiles still bright blue and white, with dolphins cavorting in green waves. I suddenly wanted a bath. I had not had one since I left Earth. Here I could be as frivolous with water as I wished.
I saved my bedroom for last. I paused in front of the door, took a deep breath, and pushed it open. I fumbled for the light switch, and slowly the darkness gave way.
My grandfather had not changed a thing. There was the bed, too small for me when I left, as it was for a child and I was a gawky teenager by then. There were my books and vids. The books were old relics of a previous age. I had a bright new reader but I preferred the books, even the musty smelling ones. The vids had long gone dark, the gel memory having faded, but I picked one up and shook it and for a moment a bright image of a horse galloping over a beach appeared in the air in front of me, and then ghosted away apologetically. I set it down on my bed and wandered around the room. The pictures on the walls stared down at me. Some were of animals – I remembered my owl phase – and there were the rock stars and the cute movie star boys, young and nonthreatening. I was far past that stage, and I thought of Ethan’s green-flecked eyes and the dimples around his mouth, the strength in his arms as he caught me. Gravity had its good points, I thought.
There was a dresser, my desk, and a clothes closet. I hesitated. The closet door was barely ajar. I remembered that it didn’t like to stay closed. I hated it. I felt as if sometimes it moved from within, as if something watched me. One of my bedtime rituals was to jam my desk chair under the door knob to keep the door firmly closed. And once I had thought I had done, only to wake in the middle of the night with the chair by the desk, and the closet door ever so slightly opening a tiny bit more as I stared at it. And my grandfather, wandering the halls, muttering and dragging his feet. …
This was ridiculous. I reached out to yank open the closet door when I heard a loud bang from downstairs.
I jumped and gave a little shriek. My heart hammering so hard I was almost faint, I backed out of the room and went to the top of the stairs.
“Who’s there?” I shouted, ridiculously. It was an island for goodness’ sakes. I was the only one home. I hadn’t closed the front door completely, that’s all.
Sure enough I went downstairs and saw the front door wide open, banging against the wall with every gust of wind. Another gust drove rain onto the floor, wetting the flagstones and the rug, and cold air blasted the house. I cursed myself and went to push the door closed when another blink in the darkness caught my eye. I stood there, framed in the door way, the house lights all blazing behind me, and stared at the dark lighthouse at the tip of the island. I could hear the crash of the waves and I was getting soaked with rain, and finally I saw it again. A light, a faded, barely visible light, fluttered weakly in the tower. I frowned. I couldn’t understand what kind of light it was. It flickered and was barely bright and seemed to flutter—
Wait. Could it be candlelight?
The wind shrieked up around me and almost tore the door from my grasp. I came to my senses and pushed it closed and locked it for good measure, and the cold and the noise abated. and I found myself hoping that Ethan made it back to shore okay.
The steady thrumming from the Stirling heat exchanger in the basement eased my nerves. It sounded comforting and familiar, reminiscent of Bifrost Station, whose mechanical heartbeat was a sign that all was safe and sound.
I shivered in my wet clothes. It was time to change and settle in for the night.
The bathroom steamed up luxuriously and I stripped out of my wet clothes and stepped into the full tub. I sank back and let my eyes close, enjoying the near sensation of weightlessness that the water gave me. The bath soothed my aching muscles and bones, so unaccustomed to one gee. Gravity was a burden, something we spacers have to re-learn. There had been stories of people just returned who set a cup aside in mid-air and were surprised to see it drop. Worse were the spacers who pushed off of balconies or second stories.
I dozed, half-asleep, and ended up in a muddle of a dream in which Ethan’s ferry boat was crashing into the station and I was unable to stop her. The impact shuddered me and the ferry broke apart in a bloom of fire, fed by the explosive decompression of station air.
I woke with a jerk and a splash, gasping as I sent cooled water up my nose. Disoriented, I wondered what woke me when I heard it again. A bang, much like the first, of the front door slamming open, and the rising sound of the storm as it wailed around and inside the house.
I had locked the door.
I got up, heavy and clumsy as a mermaid on land, and fumbled for the big soft towel. I dried off hastily and then, cursing because I had forgotten to get dry clothes from my duffle bag, I struggled back into wet clothing and pulled on my boots once more. All the good the bath had done me vanished in a clammy moment.
At the top of the stairs I could see the front door banging back and forth again, the storm flinging rain inside onto the red carpet of the ballroom.
I hurried down and closed it again, locked it again, and let my heartbeat subside as the warmth returned to the house.
“Beatriz Sabatini,” I scolded myself out loud. “Get a hold of yourself. You are an experienced pilot and spacer with millions of miles of vacuum under your belt. Stop acting like a child.”
I needed to change into dry clothes. With deliberation I went to pick up my duffle bag. It wasn’t there. Confused, I turned all the way around. Nowhere. I certainly hadn’t lugged it around with me when I first got in, but dropped it at the front door.
There was a large wet spot by the front door. A faint trail of wet gleamed across the wood floor where something large had been dragged.
Something steeled inside me. I grew calm, making my heartbeat slow and my breath even. I picked up a fire iron from the hearth and hefted it and followed the wet trail. I held my breath and listened for other breathing sounds but the only background noise was the rhythmic movement of the Stirling.
The wet trail led to the kitchen, and now I could see small bare footprints. A child? The bag was heavy even if one didn’t have zero gee muscles. How could a child drag it?
The cellar door was open, cold musty wet air flowing up from it like air from an opened grave. Child or no child, I lifted the poker and called out,
“Come on out of there.”
“Listen. You get your ass up those stairs right this instant, or I will call your mother.”
There was a pause and then I heard a small giggle. I swallowed and swore all kinds of curses in my head. My mobile was in my duffle bag, and my duffle bag had been stolen. I eyed the antique phone. If ever there was an emergency, this was it. I didn’t care if Ethan thought I was nuts. Maybe I was nuts. But I wasn’t alone on Tern Island and someone was playing tricks. I picked up the house phone. There was static interference on the line, and then I heard a child sing slyly,
“Who is this? Hello?”
The static increased and I had to move the phone away from my ear. The cellar door swung wildly and then slammed shut, making me jump. The latch fell into place.
Ethan, get me off this island now.
I brought the receiver back to my ear. The static was fainter now, and I could hear the ghost of other transmissions. I strained to make sense of the words when I heard as clear as anything,
“Bea, the lighthouse has the answers.”
Static shrieked in my ear and I jumped back, dropping the phone to dangle by its twisted cord.
This was absurd. Someone was playing a sick joke and I had fallen for it. I looked at the closed cellar door. If there was a child down there – a preternaturally strong and clever child – I should still go down to find him or her. A child should be protected, after all. An uncomfortable memory came to me, of being locked in my own dark, cramped place, and I shied away from it. Was it a memory or a nightmare?
I jiggled the latch of the cellar door and it creaked open. I felt for the string for the old-fashioned light unit, but when I tugged on it, nothing happened. The kitchen light barely illuminated the wooden stairs that disappeared into the gloom. The shelves that held my grandfather’s wine and spirits were tucked beneath the stairs. There wasn’t much space for anything else; just a small landing and room to duck under the staircase and pull out a bottle of some fine ’07 vintage. I couldn’t see my duffle bag at all, so that’s where my unseen adversary had probably hidden it.
Mrs. Dawes had kept a flashlight and basic tools in the cupboard next to the sink. I checked it and sure enough there was a handheld torch of the simple windup kind that amused me so much as a child. I wound it and a blue-ish light gleamed from the torch. I glanced back at the cellar door, uncomfortable at the thought of it slamming closed with me downstairs. Rummaging through the cupboard, I found the power screwdriver I was looking for. It didn’t take long to take the cellar door off of its hinges and set it down on the floor of the kitchen.
“Little children who slam doors don’t deserve to have them,” I announced to the house. The only response was the wind.
The doorway yawned in front of me, and I shone the flashlight at it. The light had grown weaker and I quickly wound it up again.
Six steps down into the ground. I walked down quickly, the air growing colder as soon as I left the kitchen. The thrumming of the Stirling was muffled; the heat exchanger lived on the other side of the house.
My duffle bag was not at the bottom of the stairs. Winding the light, I looked around and under the stairs. No duffle bag. No bottles either. Whoever had taken the duffle hadn’t gone down the stairs. I went to go back up when something hit the back of my head and I pitched forward in a blinding flash of pain. The last thing I remembered was the flashlight rolling crazily, the smell of the ocean, and the fierce pain in the back of my head.
I woke up cold and stiff with a pounding headache, thinking I was still on the Bifrost. But the rough wooden floor and the bitterly cold wind helped me remember that I had left Jupiter eighteen months ago. I was on Tern Island. I tried to get up but my legs didn’t work. It was like when I first made planetfall. I gave up the attempt and lay there, trying to make sense of what was happening.
I blinked and opened my eyes hazily, seeing double. I was looking up at the night sky. The rain had stopped and the clouds had cleared. The stars flickered through the atmosphere, the spiral arm of the Milky Way a faint smudge against the void. I could see the massive armature of the station that orbited the Earth, its lights flashing rhythmically. I looked for Jupiter and saw her, a steady, reassuring point of light.
I turned my head oh so carefully, almost overwhelmed by the pounding headache and the nausea. There was enough starlight for me to see the broken stone walls of tower. Someone – no child – had carried me to the top of the lighthouse. An enemy. I struggled to come to terms with that. I had no enemies. Things like this simply didn’t happen in space. People were – people were chosen for space, carefully vetted and analyzed and tested. They didn’t hit pilots over the head with heavy objects and carry them to the top of dangerous towers. I would have felt more outrage if I weren’t so sick and feeble.
I managed to push into a sitting position.
“Where are you?” I tried to shout, but my voice came out as a whisper. I was shivering from the cold and shock. I needed to get back to the house, despite the presence of my enemy. I wouldn’t last the night up here.
A light caught my eye, the flickering of candlelight, a tiny reminder of danger. A candle doesn’t light itself. I got to my hands and knees and then to my feet, swaying dangerously. The light waited, the little flame blowing sideways. I was drawn to it – I imagined I could even feel the tiny bit of heat it emitted. I tottered toward it, one step, then two.
A mighty gust of wind roared up out the sky and battered me backwards. I couldn’t even hear my own scream in the whirlwind that sent me to my rear on the wet, rough floor. My head pounded as if it were about to explode.
The wind abated as quickly as it had come up, taking the candlelight with it. I got my breath back and decided staying off my feet was best. I scooted over to the center of the tower, thinking I could find the stairs and the ladder down. The stars gave me enough light that my plan was rewarded. My boots found the trap door, and slow step by slow step I made it down the ladder.
This part of the tower was familiar to me. My grandfather used it for storage of all kinds of junk. I didn’t know who was playing with fire, but I knew where they had gotten the candles. I made my way to the cabinet with the emergency supplies and fumbled for a stub of candle. There were matches too, and after a few hasty tries I managed to light my candle. It flared and sputtered and the heat was uncomfortable, but it gave me light. I found a small lantern and fixed the candle inside it, holding it by the handle high above my head.
As I expected no one was in sight. I had to turn my whole body to look around but my headache had faded somewhat. I grabbed a wool blanket from the stack and wrapped it around myself. It smelled of urine and rat droppings but at least I stopped shivering. I could even, if I wanted, stay here for the night.
The tower has all the answers? I wasn’t sure I wanted answers anymore. Someone had tried – was trying — to kill me. I wanted off Tern Island as much now as I had when I was a teenager and my grandfather succumbed to his madness, calling me Angelique, my mother’s name, and cursing me for my bad blood, my defective genes, for killing his son, my father. He had beaten me so badly that I still bore the scars on one side of my face. I had fled in the night, piloting the small fishing boat that belonged to the house across the sound, setting a rough course by keeping the flickering light from the lighthouse at my back. I imagined I could hear my grandfather screaming my name across the water. The Cardenas had sheltered me from his retribution, and I had fled as far as I could.
I had gone all the way to the moons of Jupiter to escape his insanity, and here I was, back again, with no way to escape this time. Moving stiffly, I barricaded the door to the tower, constructing a deadfall of junk to warn me if anyone tried to get in. I cleared a lumpy old sofa and laid my aching body down, wrapped in the stinky blanket, and blew out the candle.
From where I lay, I could see a patch of starlight through the trapdoor in the ceiling. Jupiter burned bright and I was comforted by her presence. I closed my eyes and slept.
I woke to birdsong and the wind in the pine trees, plagued with a cold and stuffy nose, the only part of my exposed to the air. I sat up stiffly, waited for my headache to subside, and began the process of clearing out the deadfall at the door.
The sun was up but emitted no warmth. My breath misted as I made my way across the overgrown frost-rimed lawn to the house. I would call Mrs. Cardenas and she would send Ethan, and once away from this place I would instruct my lawyers to sell the house and the island. I would begin the process of getting back into space. I never should have come.
The ocean was gray with whitecaps, the long stone jetty submerged by the tide. Despite my determination to leave and never come back, I paused to take in the island’s harsh beauty. It was a stark place, and unhealthy for a child to grow up here, but it was the only home I knew. And there was the cemetery, with its impossible image of a child who never existed. I knew I should walk away, and I knew I couldn’t. It was an essential part of me, as much of my DNA as the bad blood my grandfather accused me of.
The rusty gate squealed as I pushed it open and entered the little graveyard. I looked around at the graves of my ancestors. There was my grandfather’s, the massive, polished oblong thrusting into the sky. But it was not his grave I meant to see. Nestled in between the roots of the largest pine tree was a small, unassuming gravestone, its engraved name barely readable after eighty years of weather and time.
April 29, 2150-September 8, 2161
I didn’t believe in bad blood or bad genes, but I was beginning to believe in ghosts. Before me at Tern Island, there had been another child, one whose grave was tucked furthermost under the pine trees in the cemetery. I was a lonely child, and before Ethan came to play, I pretended she could play with me. I only stopped when the play became too real and the stories I made up about the little girl became frightening, as if I hadn’t been playing make believe so much as narrating history.
What happened to the little girl in the cemetery, the one who fell from the tower? I remembered asking Mrs. Dawes. And her only response was to stutter and scold, telling me I was a bad girl for making up stories.
I stopped playing with Bianca and I never went back to the cemetery but she was never far from my mind, especially at night when my grandfather hammered on my locked bedroom door and screamed at me.
“Dammit,” a voice came behind me. “You are hard to kill, Beatriz Sabatini.”
I turned unsteadily. The man behind me had long brown hair and an untidy beard. His eyes were pale blue and red rimmed. He wore an old worn coat and dirty jeans and pointed a gun at me. He did not look healthy but he was stronger than I was. I had to remember that. I tried to will away my concussion. My life depended upon quick thought and action.
“You were supposed to fall off the tower,” he went on. He gestured with the gun. “Practice until you get it right, I suppose. Move it.”
I didn’t move it. “And you are?” I inquired politely, retreating into icy, spacer calm. He sputtered.
“The rightful owner of this island,” he said, advancing a step and waving the gun at me. I tried not to flinch. “And don’t you forget it. You spacers with your attitude and your technology and your money and your fancy lives, you think you can just come back to Earth and take what belongs to others. I took care of this place when you took off. I took care of the old man all the time he was crazy, raving about you and some other whore and God knows what. Tern Island is mine, spacer. You should have stayed in space where you belong.”
Tell me about it, I thought.
“Where’s my duffle bag?” I said.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” he said. He gestured again with the gun. “Let’s go.”
I couldn’t stall any longer. He fell in behind me and we made our way back to the tower. The sun was up and the ocean was blue and green, dazzling bright. Above us the ghost armature of the space station was painted on the sky. The lighthouse with its broken stonework loomed above us.
The danger had cleared some of the fuzz from my mind. He couldn’t just shoot me. He had to know that someone would come back to look for me. If it looked like an accident, then no one would look for my killer. I wondered how he had managed to hide on the island in the almost two years since my grandfather’s death.
The lighthouse storage room gave me my answer. What I had not noticed last night in my concussed state was that the junk had been organized. There was a camp stove and pallets of canned foods. I felt sickened by the fact that I had spent the night in his lair.
“Where did you sleep last night?” I asked.
“The old man’s room,” he said smugly, then caught himself. He jabbed me with the gun. “Shut up and climb.”
Had he been in the house when I bathed? I was repulsed by the thought. I climbed carefully, only partly taking my time to slow down the inevitable. I fumbled my way up the ladder one-handed, my boots slipping on the rungs. He was pressed up behind me and I knew it was awkward for him too. I had to time my next move carefully. As my head cleared the trapdoor I grabbed hold of the top of the ladder, engaged the magnets in my boots and kicked out. He grunted and his grip loosened. I felt the clunk as the magnets pulled the gun from his hand.
I flung myself forward awkwardly, disengaged the magnetic soles and grabbed the gun as it dropped to the stone, aiming it at the attacker as he came barreling out of the trapdoor. He went stock still as he took in our reversal of fortune. My hand was shaking but I made myself calm.
“Back off,” I ordered.
He swayed slightly, his head moving from side to side, his eyes darting in confusion. My sense of danger heightened.
He mumbled something and began to cry. “You can’t do this to me!” he screamed. He stumbled forward and I backed up, turning along the curve of the broken tower wall. “I took care of that old bastard for three years while he went insane. He owes me!”
I didn’t want to have to shoot him. “Stay where you are!” I said, my voice rising in panic. He took in my fear and in an instant he became sly.
“Oh, you don’t want me to do this?” He took a step forward. I backed up instinctively, and he grinned, cruel. He did it again, and I backed up again, stumbling against the wall.
“Listen,” I said. “I don’t want to shoot. I will if I have to though. So just stay where you are.”
The gun was old and stiff, an antique. I wondered if he found it in the storage room. I wondered if it even worked. I squeezed the trigger ever so slightly and he saw the movement and stopped. I wondered how long I could hold it like that before I would shoot him. He began screaming and cursing at me and despite myself I flinched. Perhaps it was because of my childhood but I never could stand uncontrolled anger and rage. I licked my lips and held my ground, wishing for the peace and calm of space.
There was no warning when he charged me. I squeezed the trigger reflexively and the report of the gun was loud and shocking. My outcry and his howl intermingled. I missed of course; the bullet ricocheted off the stone and sent a puff of concrete dust and stone into the air. He bowled into me, knocking me off my feet, and the gun flew from my hand to land a few feet away on stone.
He grinned, his teeth dirty and unkempt. I started to speak but my eyes widened as I looked past him and made a sound. He snorted with disdain. “Really? That old tri—”
Ethan Cardenas stood up from the trapdoor with one quick movement and brought a sizable chunk of old stonework down on his head.
We sat in the sunlight and the cold air, enjoying the bright breeze, the dazzle on the sea, and the blue sky and scudding clouds. The space station wheeled silently overhead, creating spoke-wheeled shadows on the ocean. Ethan wrapped me in his warm wool peacoat and I leaned against him. My attacker was mostly out but groaned every now and then. From our vantage point we could see the three speedboats with police flags coming our way, sending up a vee of whitewater from their bows.
“Why did you come back?” I asked. I felt warm and tired and safe.
His arm tightened around me. “You called. Or – someone did. The phone in the office rang. And when I answered it I couldn’t hear anything except static and voices. The storm had come up pretty bad by then, so I couldn’t get back before now. Sorry.”
“Not your fault,” I said, and leaned in closer. Ethan didn’t seem to mind. He kissed the top of my head. It was like the kiss he had given me the day before but somehow held more promise.
“Maybe,” he said, and there was guilt in his voice. I shifted to look up at him. “I never thought he’d still be on the island. After your grandfather died, it never occurred to me that Mike Dawes would have stayed.”
“Mike Dawes,” I repeated. “You mean—“
“The Dawes’s grandson. After you left he came out to the island to help them take care of the place. They retired and he stayed to look after your grandfather. As far as I knew he was a nice guy but after a few years – well. He got more and more squirrelly. But I never thought he’d gone feral.”
I didn’t say that my grandfather had that effect on people. My gaze wandered over to the small candle that was still wedged firmly in the ruined tower wall. There was a sizable gap leading out into the air. If I had continued walking toward the candle last night I would have gone right over the edge, just another spacer fallen victim to gravity. With me in my concussed state, had it not been for that wild gust of wind that knocked me flat, it would have worked. Maybe Jupiter was looking out for me after all. Or maybe – it was something else.
The last night I spent on Tern Island, my grandfather had hammered on the locked door of my bedroom, screaming at me, calling me Bianca, Beatriz, even my mother’s name, Angelique. I curled up in my bed terrified, until I felt a small presence beside me. I don’t know who it was who lay next to me, holding my hand as tight as possible, her small body pressed against mine, but we hugged one another as the storm in my grandfather’s head raged just outside the door. It lasted all night long, and when I woke in the morning, drained and exhausted, there was an impression on the bed next to me, but I was alone.
“So what now?” Ethan said. “Are you going back to space?” His voice sounded cautiously neutral.
I would have thought I’d had enough of Earth. Ghosts, people trying to kill me, unpleasant memories. On the other hand, I lifted my face to the sun, its warmth giving me strength and energy. Maybe it was time to stop running from memories and face them head on, the way I had always prided myself. I had ghosts to lay to rest after all.
Space had been a respite, but it wasn’t home. Even gravity no longer felt burdensome, as if my muscles were eager to regain strength. It helped that Ethan’s arms around me felt good and strong, a reminder that gravity didn’t just hold us down, it held us together too.
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “But I think I’ll stay awhile and see if I can get used to one-gee again.”
His response was to give me a kiss, one that was neither kind nor comforting but hungry and passionate. He broke off to whisper in my ear,
“Welcome home, Captain Sabatini. It’s about time you came back.”