I planned on ending things with Joe when he took me to see the lighthouse that Saturday night, but coincidentally, it rained fire. I thought it’d been firecrackers at first, cast from beneath the cliff where we were parked, but knowing how animal-like his instincts were, I sensed that he learned the truth just seconds before the windshield shattered. I think he saw a shadow move, heard the rustle of a bush, the click of their iron command.
When the silence returned, the stench of gunpowder remained, and the front of my waistcoat was wet. Like a newborn I drew my first breath, and almost instantly, lightning-white pain seized my ribs, tearing the corners of my eyes. Gradually I took in air as if sipping on hot tea, tasting sea salt in the breeze, wondering if I’d been a mistake in human form all along.
Thinking back, it might’ve been the same breeze of January 1918, when I lived with my Ma near the shore, guarded by the same old lighthouse. I was fifteen then, riddled with pimples and sickness every now and then. It was so cold that we could’ve felt the streets through the floorboards. The sea was an otherworldly blue in the summer, but in winter, all that greeted us each morning was a sky of smog and the lighthouse peeking out.
Ma made sure the fire burned all night long. She stoked the wood with thin, shaking hands. She wouldn’t let me help her even if I wanted to. Perhaps she thought it was too much for my frail self.
I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was not right, until the following spring, when I opened a yellowing tome from Pa’s old trunk. We were moving out from the house near the shore, and I had to clear his things in the attic.
The writings of a man—earnest and stone-cold, as was Pa.
I flipped through the pages, hoping Ma wouldn’t show up. It wasn’t something a woman would want to find amongst her husband’s belongings. The story sprawled over the moth-eaten pages in flowered musings and outbursts of the flesh and the soul. Looking back, perhaps those words had snaked their way past my ribcage, and made a nest of my heart.
Even now I could not tell you if it was a blessing or a curse, but I’d like to believe it led me to Joe.
We met at the speakeasy along 58th Street, which wasn’t too far from the beach. I was halfway through a third pint of stout, ears still ringing with the curses of a girl I thought I loved. His hair was wavy and dark, his nose thin and crooked, mismatched with his clean face and sun-spotted eyes. He was not unlike a leopard in a patch of tall grass. What were the odds that he’d asked me for a lighter in that half second?
In the dim rabble, the little flame flickered between our beer-scented breaths. We exchanged names, which lingered in the smoky air.
Only afterwards I’d learn that he was watching someone behind me—a plump, sharp-eyed gentleman in his fifties. It was partially what he did for a living, he said. The precarious nature of his work, his constant dancing and intertwining with the city’s finest gangs, became clearer in a few days, when he showed me the scars engraved on his lower back.
All in a day’s job, he’d said nonchalantly.
In the space of white sheets uncrossed by our bare limbs, Joe sensed my hesitance, but all he did was cackle, or wave a hand. He wouldn’t understand, I remembered thinking. For Joe, scars were contrails in an afternoon sky—a sign of hope, an uplift from his days spent on the streets, barely surviving on scraps.
For me, a simple bookkeeper, it could spell the end.
We walked those days on a tightrope, but strangely, I never wanted my feet to touch soil again.
It was only half a year after we met that I learned that we’d grown up by the same shore, in the shadow of the same lighthouse. His Mama came from Sicily and raised him on her own. When we first went there together, we talked about sailing away into the horizon.
As long as the lighthouse was there, we could find a way out, Joe had said. I could run away from my musty office, the sullied city, and be a new man—waking up to crystalline, countryside skies, raising calves by the mountains.
We both laughed. What ludicrous ideas! Later, I wondered if he’d been talking about himself.
Mustering all the strength I had, I tilted my gaze towards Joe. His face was not unlike a sleeping infant; the most serene I’d ever seen him be. His chest rose and fell, albeit faintly; that was the only answer I needed.
There were footsteps outside—voices growing sharper yet more foreign, torches afloat like will o’ the wisps. Before I knew it, I was looking up sleepily at a group of heads joined by a strip of sky, as they gently set me upon the tarmac and wrapped me in bandages.
The hint of a silver cross dangled from Joe’s neck. We survived—was this our second chance?
A single light towered over the sea, and it was brighter than I’d ever remembered it being. Perhaps at the stroke of midnight, or tomorrow, or the day after, it would envelop the cliffs, the silhouettes of ships, engulfing our bodies and memories whole, until all that was left were the stars. I was afraid before, but when the cool hand of night rested upon my eyes, I knew then that we would not be lost along the way.
About the Author
Paulin Lim typically writes during local witching hours and is a business analyst by day. Her words are forthcoming/available in the truth is in the stars anthology by Fifth Wheel Press, Aothen Magazine, and more. She lives in Malaysia and retweets at @onionpaul_.