"Hey, guess what?" my dad said enthusiastically over our dinner of takeout pizza just after school let out for the summer.
"What?" I asked, but I knew what was coming. My dad only got that tone in his voice when another move was imminent. It was all I could do not to add "Again?"
"We're moving!" Dad exclaimed, as if this were the biggest surprise in the world and not the umpteenth in a long line of moves since Mom had left four years earlier.
"Where are we going this time, Dad?" I asked aloud, keeping my thoughts to myself.
He frowned. "You don't sound happy about it, son."
"Oh, Dad, I'm happy, really," I said quickly. Dad always got real upset when I let on that I was less than ecstatic about our latest change of address.
"Oh, good. You're really going to like this next one. Guess where it is!" Typical Dad, treating me like a baby again. This time I decided to humor him.
"Hmmm…" Let's see, the most boring state besides Montana, where we are now… "Alaska?" At least maybe there a polar bear'll eat me…
"No, you're way off. Try the Northeast."
"Nah. Rhode Island. The movers will be here next Wednesday."
If he expected me to be enthused by this news, he was sadly disappointed. What really mattered to me was that we were moving again, on short notice. I was careful not to let my feelings show, however, because I knew it would baffle and upset my dad. So I asked to be excused, went straight up to my room, and lay staring at the ceiling for a long time. I knew every crack in every ceiling in every house we'd ever lived in by heart.
The next week was hectic as we packed up all of our assorted junk, but at last we were on our way to Great Heights, Rhode Island. Dad talked the whole way about his new job stage-managing for the small theater company there. All I could discern from his prattle was the next production was one of Shakespeare's plays before I drowned him out with Christina Aguilera on my CD player.
Our first sight of Great Heights was none too thrilling for me, but from the way Dad reacted it was heaven itself. From this, I gauged that we might be staying here for a while. True to its name, Great Heights was on a tall cliff overlooking the grey Atlantic Ocean. Dad carefully navigated through the town in order to acquaint me with all the sights. We drove past the dinky high school, the tiny playhouse, and the minute movie theater on our way to the new house. I turned my head as if looking out the window to make Dad think I really appreciated the beauty of the little town, but I let my eyes go unfocused so I wouldn't have to see it.
About a mile past the last house I began to worry that Dad might have taken a wrong turn. We were driving along the seacoast, winding our way farther and farther from town, and we still hadn't come to our house yet.
"Dad, are you sure we didn't miss it?" I finally ventured.
"Nope. We should be able to see it soon," was all he said. Then he practically stood up in the drivers' seat with excitement. "There it is, son! Look, there it is!"
I looked, but all I could see was an old lighthouse situated on a small point of land jutting out into the pounding surf.
"Where? I don't see any…" I trailed off, beginning to realize where this was heading.
"What do you mean, son? It's right there," Dad pointed to the lighthouse, a lone point of plain white in the grey ocean.
"Isn't it great?" he exclaimed, not noticing the skepticism in my voice, "We have the whole beach up here to ourselves! Think of it! A private New England beach in the summer! You know," he added conspiratorially, "we were really lucky to find this place. The man who sold it to me told me there's some sort of curse on it! Think we can handle it?"
"Yeah. Great, Dad." I knew he was just trying to get me interested. A cursed lighthouse in Rhode Island, I thought, This is an all-time low, not counting when we were in Los Angeles and Mom ran off with some truck driver after another argument with Dad about his directing style. I quickly pushed my thoughts away from that before I got too angry. Instead I busied myself with looking out the window at the heaving grey ocean below the point.
The lighthouse was even duller than it looked on the outside. There was only enough space for one room per floor, with the bathroom and shower on the bottom level, followed by the kitchen, the living room, an office, Dad's bedroom, and then mine, with trapdoors set into the continuously spiraling staircase separating the bedrooms from each other and the bathroom from the rest of the house. A ladder in my small room led up to where the beacon had once sat to warn ships of the dangerous rocks off our point, but the lamp had long since been removed. One of the previous owners had converted the space into a sort of porch with a railing so you could go up there and enjoy the sea breeze. The roof that kept the rain and sun off the light was still there and now provided people protection from the elements. I thought this porch (which I privately thought of as mine) the best feature of the lighthouse. The rest of it was plain, cramped, and musty-smelling.
Not even the smell, however, could dampen Dad's spirits. Over Hamburger Helper heated over the stove at dinner that night he raved about the view, the location, and the price. I concentrated on my food and tried not to roll my eyes and say Dad, what are we doing here? Who cares about the view, anyway? Why can't we stay in one place long enough to make some real friends? I stayed awake late that night, staring at the ceiling and wishing I had someone I could call to describe our new house to and complain about how boring the summer was going to be. But I had only myself, as usual.
"I wish I had a friend," I said out loud to the air, then turned over to go to sleep. Just before I dropped off, I had the strange sensation that someone was standing over me.
I sat up suddenly. What had awoken me? It was the middle of the night; all was silent except for the distant roar of the sea. I looked around my room. There were my boxes, waiting to be unpacked yet again. The window was closed, a tiny sliver of moon poked through a crack in the curtains, drawing a hair-fine silver line across the foot of my bed. I got up and pulled back one of the heavy curtains, admitting a wash of moonlight. The moon had drawn a path of reflection across the water that seemed to lead right up to my bedroom window, high in the lonely lighthouse.
"I won't be able to do this often," a soft voice said from behind me. I wrenched around to stare at the empty room.
"Who's there?" I whispered, keeping the curtain wide open so that I could see the whole room by the moonlight streaming in.
"You can't see me? Drat. I forgot to stand in the moonlight." The voice sounded young, female, and irritated with itself. "How's this?" An indistinct form wavered into view, standing in the middle of the path of moonlight on the floor by the ladder up to the balcony. It looked like a highly concentrated heat wave, human-shaped and about my height.
"I can see…something…what are you? How did you get in here?" I asked, my puzzlement overcoming my fear for a moment.
"I'm a ghost, silly. I live in this lighthouse. Or at least, I think I'm a ghost. I get so lonely up here by myself, but everyone I try to talk to always gets scared and leaves. You won't leave, will you? You won't tell your father that you need to get out of here right now and never come back?"
I was silent. She/it must have taken that to mean yes, or at least maybe, because it went on, "As I was saying, I won't be able to do this often. Just on the half moon. The rest of the time, I'll be invisible, to you and everyone else. You can talk to me, and I can talk to you, but you can't see me except when I stand in the moonlight on the night of the half moon. And you have to be dreaming in order to see me, too. Got it?"
"What are you talking about? Why would I talk to a ghost about anything, even if you are real?" I demanded. Something about the frank way this indistinct form in the middle of my bedroom was relating all this to me also made me most uncommonly matter-of-fact.
"You need a friend, so do I." said the voice.
"You heard me last night?"
"I was standing right next to you."
Something about this made me uncomfortable. "Did you watch when I…"
The shape shivered, and a cheerful laugh rang out. "Oh, you have a dirty mind! Of course I didn't watch. I've never watched any of the males who've lived here. I'm not a poke-nose, or anything like that. I just happened to be sitting upstairs on the balcony when I heard you come in. I came down to get a look at you, maybe talk to you, but you were just staring at the ceiling. You seemed so intent, I decided not to interrupt."
"How nice of you," I said sarcastically.
"A little rest will help that temper of yours," the voice said in a falsely cheerful tone, "Back to sleep with you!" The figure moved towards me, stepping out of the moonlit path.
"Hey, wait!" I demanded as an unseen force shoved me back towards the bed, "What's your name?"
"I don't remember my name," said the voice a little sadly as I was pushed into bed and the covers pulled up tight of their own accord. As my eyelids grew heavy it added "But you can call me Jess."
"I'm Kevin," I mumbled as I fell back into darkness.
I opened my eyes to bright sunshine pouring through the window. The curtain was pulled back on one side, admitting a ray of sun that fell across my bed. My eyes immediately flicked to the upward-leading ladder. There was nothing there, but I could not banish the strange dream I'd had from my mind.
Uneasily, I got dressed and headed downstairs for breakfast. Dad was making Buisquick pancakes at the stove as I came in.
"Morning, son. You slept in, so I went to the store and got some supplies. Milk and orange juice are in the fridge," Dad said without turning around. I opened our small fridge and pulled out the cartons of milk and juice. By the time I was done pouring glasses of milk for me and orange juice for him, the first batch of pancakes were done. We sat down silently and began to eat. I wrestled with myself for a moment before venturing, "Hey Dad, remember yesterday you said there's a curse on this place?"
"Of course. Why? Did you see a ghost last night in your room?" I knew he was teasing me, but it took all of my carefully honed acting skills not to blanch.
"Noooo," I dragged out, "But what kind of curse was it? Like, anyone who lives here gets his head turned backwards, or something?"
Dad laughed. "Not really. Some people who've lived here claimed they heard voices talking to them, and others said there's just a spooky feeling around the place, especially on that balcony of yours. Sure you don't want to switch rooms so I can protect you from the ghost?"
"No, Dad, my room's fine," I said with my carefully neutral actor's smile, "I was just curious. Who told you this place was cursed, anyway?"
"Previous owner. He stayed here once, thought he heard someone talking to him about the weather, and tore out of the house. No one's lived here since. Why so curious? You acted like you didn't care in the car."
He was getting too close for comfort. "I guess my curiosity caught up with me this morning. I thought I'd left it in Montana."
Dad gave a full-throated roar of laughter, a little too hard. "I haven't heard you joke in a long time. I'm glad to see you didn't leave your sense of humor in Montana either. Didn't mean to interrogate you, son. Why don't you go exploring today? I'll unpack and try to get this place in order. Go get the lay of the land."
"Sure, Dad. Just don't unpack any of my stuff. I want to be able to find it later," I said, rising from the table. Going back upstairs to get my shoes on, my eyes passed over the ladder leading to the balcony. On a whim, I gripped the metal rungs and hoisted myself up, lifting the trapdoor and sliding through it. Carefully I lowered the door back into place and turned to face the ocean. As I gripped the balcony rail and gazed out at the endless grey-blue water, a voice spoke in my head.
It's about time you got up here, Kevin.
Though I had half-expected to hear the voice, I jumped and spun around. There was no one there.
It's me. I've been up here for hours waiting for you. Did you have to sleep so long?
"How come you spoke aloud last night, but I can only hear you in my head now?" I asked, unreasonably frank once again.
I don't have a mouth anytime except on half-moon nights. I can only talk to you in your mind. You can do it too, with a little practice.
"C…can you read my mind?"
No. And even if I could, I wouldn't want to. Everyone has secrets. She sounded sad. For just an instant that I wondered what her secrets were, but I knew she was right. I had secrets I wouldn't even share with Dad, let alone anyone else. Like how much Mom's disappearance still bothered me, even after four years.
So, what shall we do today? enquired Jess brightly, ignoring the pensiveness of the moment before. I could show you a wonderful little cave down in the rocks. At high tide the water would come in up to your knees. It should be a great way to cool off.
"That sounds great. It is hot today. But how can you show me? I can't see you to follow you."
That's no problem. I'll tell you which direction to take. Even if we do have to take the long way.
This statement puzzled me, but I willingly pulled on my shoes and went downstairs.
"Dad, I'm going for a walk on the beach," I called as I went through his office on my way down.
"OK, son. Have a good time," he replied absentmindedly, immersed in a script at his cramped desk. I shook my head and descended through the living room, kitchen and bathroom levels. Once outside, the bright sunshine blinded me for a moment. As I blinked away the sunspots, Jess began her directions.
OK, take a right and walk right along the edge of the cliff. Not too close, though, or you'll fall. It's a very nasty drop onto hard rocks down there.
"You're not going to push me in, or something, are you? I've read books about ghosts who look for companions to kill so they can have company," I had only read one, but if Jess was telling the truth about not reading my mind she wouldn't know that.
What do you think I am, some kind of serial killer? demanded Jess, sounding shocked. If I'd wanted to do that, I would have pushed you off the lighthouse this morning when you came up. Besides, I can't push you, or touch you at all. I'd pass right through you. The same applies for objects, walls, you name it. If it's a physical thing, I can't influence its movement at all, and it doesn't influence me.
"You pushed me last night," I reminded her.
Ah, the half-moon night is a special case. That's the only time physical laws apply to me at all. I can pick things up, move them, and so on, but it takes a certain amount of effort. Same with becoming semi-visible. I can do it on half-moon nights, but it only works really well when I'm standing in the moonlight. Don't ask me why. It took me a long time to figure all of this out.
We walked along the cliff in silence for a while. At last Jess said, Stop. Right along the cliff there is a sort of pathway that's wide enough and sturdy enough for you to use. I'll meet you at the bottom.
I looked at the cliff and saw the pathway. It was very narrow, but it looked like a shelf of rock jutting out of the cliff that led straight down to the beach below. As long as I was careful, it didn't look too hard to navigate. I started off.
At the bottom, I looked around. The rough pebbles that made up the beach were pretty dry at the base of the cliff, but not too far away there were wave-shaped marks that proclaimed how far up the water came at high tide. The cliff curved out into the water on the right to form the point where the lighthouse sat, and straight off to the left as far as I could see.
Turn right, said Jess's voice in my head, and I obeyed, walking back towards the lighthouse several hundred feet above. Tucked into a small niche about halfway between the lighthouse and the path to the beach was Jess's cave. I stopped at the entrance to examine the dark opening.
"Why did you say this is the long way?" I enquired "It's pretty much the quickest way we could have come."
Because rocks or cliffs have no effect on me, just like everything else physical. I can just drop through the rock that makes up the cliff and end up here. Or I could just float down from the lighthouse. For me, this is the long way.
She laughed. Come on. The cave's not too deep, but it has a nice echo.
"How do you know that?"
Usually I spend half moon nights here, singing to myself and pretending there are other people around me singing, too. Can you sing?
The question took me by surprise. "I don't know. I sang in the school chorus as a little kid, but I was never especially good at it. They just took whoever showed up, not really based on talent."
"You mean sing now?" I could feel the heat rising in my face.
Why not? There's no one around to hear you.
This was a valid point, but I was still inclined to feel embarrassed about it. At last I began, very softly, to sing "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star", which was the only thing that came to mind. She listened for a few lines and then joined in with a beautiful soprano voice that startled me, not only because of its bright quality but also because though my voice echoed around the cave walls, hers did not even echo in my mind. Her enthusiasm was catching, though. We exhausted all the songs I knew pretty quickly, but not before she had given me some tips.
I can tell you haven't sung since your voice broke, she informed me after we'd finished a few run-throughs of "Twinkle, Twinkle". You're trying to sing in the soprano range you had as a kid. Sing in your own range, and don't be shy about it. I tried again and sounded much better. We spent most of the morning in that cave, singing as I splashed around in the water that came rushing in at high tide. At last we headed back up the cliff.
You have a very nice voice, she approved as I struggled up the path towards the top of the cliff. With a little work you will sound even better. Sunday I'll take you up to the little church in town.
Take you to church, of course. They sing some beautiful songs in the service, and no one realizes they're hearing a voice from someone they can't see when everyone is singing at once.
"I haven't been to church since…" I trailed off. The subject was still painful.
Jess's voice was suddenly gentle. Since what?
"Since my mom left." Jess must have heard the bitterness in my voice because she didn't ask any more questions, for which I was grateful. So we ended our trip to the caves the way it had started, in thoughtful silence.
"Dad, I'm back!" I called as I opened the door into the lighthouse.
"Hi, son!" Dad called back from the kitchen, one story above. When I emerged from the staircase he grinned at me. "Wow, that was quite a long walk! Did you find anything cool?"
I considered what to tell him and settled for the simplest reply. "Yeah, there's a really neat cave down in the rocks. The water comes in there at high tide, but you don't have to worry about being swept out."
"Great. So, what do you want for lunch? I'm making open-face grilled cheese."
"Just peanut butter, and jelly, if we have it." After lunch, I went upstairs to unpack. Jess didn't say anything, though I somehow knew she was watching me. I put my clothes into the bureau and set my CD player on top of it, along with my sparse collection of books. On the night table I set the small, framed picture of my family, the one from back when Mom was still around, next to the table lamp. The glass was cracked right across Mom's face, distorting her features. I had accidentally dropped the frame at a store when I was really little, and Mom had just laughed and paid for it, as if it didn't matter. After Mom left, I had found that the most recent family photo fit perfectly into the broken frame. The crack had made me feel good when I lay on my bed for hours at a time seething at Mom for ruining our lives.
Jess did not speak until I was done unpacking and we had gone to the lookout balcony.
What happened, to your mother? Why did she leave, if it isn't too painful to tell?
"Well…" I hesitated, frightened of reopening a healing wound.
If you don't want to talk about it, that's OK. Jess's voice was almost indistinguishable from the whistle of the wind inside the porch.
"She was mad." I faltered, "At my Dad, I mean. She was an actress, and she'd do that, if he was directing a show and she didn't like what he was telling her to do. They'd have huge arguments in front of the whole cast. If she didn't get her way, Mom would take her car down to the truck depot and get in a truck bound for New York or Las Vegas or somewhere. She'd call us once she calmed down, and Dad would always go and get her from wherever she was. It was never more than a few hours away. Only, one night they had an argument and she never called. She never came back. Dad questioned everyone he could think of, and no one had seen her. The police looked for weeks, but they never found a trace of her. She had just…vanished." I wiped at my eyes, which were burning with hot tears that never seemed to spill. "That was more than four years ago. It completely destroyed Dad. He blames himself for making her angry, and for not chasing her all those times she left. We've been moving around the country ever since, Dad taking small jobs in different community playhouses. He's never directed again. His excuse is that there are no jobs he wants near the area where we are at the moment, but I think…" I paused. This was painful. "I think in his heart he's still searching for her. He tries to stay cheerful for my sake, but he's really never gotten himself back together."
We were silent for a long time, gazing out at the ocean, which was shimmering with heat waves. They reminded me of Jess's indistinct physical form.
"What was your mother like? I mean, you were alive at some point, if you're a ghost, right?" I asked after awhile.
I don't remember.
"You mean, you don't remember if you were alive, or you don't remember what your mother was like when you were alive?"
I don't remember. I mean, I know I was visible, at some point, but I don't remember it. I don't remember my name, my parents, how old I was, or even what century I lived in. I just know I've always lived here, in this lighthouse. I took the name Jess after one of the earliest guests I remember being here. She was a starving dog who wandered here with only a nametag one half-moon night. I gave her water and some food, and the next day I led her to the local animal shelter. She sensed where I was even if she couldn't see or feel me. Her nametag said Jess, so that's what I chose to call myself.
"How long ago was that?" I was shocked by how little she remembered. What must it be like, to not have any memories at all? At least I remembered my mother.
I have no idea. It could be fifty years, it could be a hundred. Time sort of flows together for me. Day or night, rainy or sunny, it doesn't matter. I can't feel the sun on my face or the rain in my hair, although I know I once could. I remember someone hugging me, feeling loved, but more than that I can't say.
Now it was my turn to say, "I'm sorry." There wasn't much else I could say. She had had a far worse past than I did. We watched sun sparkle on the water for about an hour before Dad came up and found us, or rather, me. Evidently he'd decided I'd been too quiet up there for too long.
"C'mon Kev, let's go into town and I'll show you around the playhouse. Then we'll go out to dinner and catch a movie. How does that sound?"
"Sounds OK, I guess." I got up and followed him out.
He doesn't sound as if he's pining away for his long-lost wife, Jess commented to me as we headed for the car.
That's because you didn't know him before Mom left. He was never this…bubbly, I retorted without thinking. Then I thought Hey! Did you hear that?
Yes, was her smug reply. I told you it was easy to speak the way I do. It will be…less complicated if we communicate this way when we're in public. People won't think you're crazy, talking to the air. After all, everyone knows the air doesn't answer back.
I grinned to myself as Dad started the ignition and we drove away from the lighthouse.
Jess and Dad seemed to take turns pointing out the sights in town. Dad drove right past the tiny Lutheran church without so much as a glance, but Jess had a whole litany of wonderful things to say about the Sunday services there. Dad noted the grocery store a few buildings down from the church, but since Jess did not eat, she had nothing to say on the subject. At last we arrived at the tiny playhouse. It wasn't as grand as the one in Los Angeles, but I had to admit it had a certain charm to it. We poked around backstage and went up into the lighting booth to look at the switchboard. It did not take very long to cover the entire theater from top to bottom.
"You can come back in a couple weeks, when auditions start, and help me take down names, stuff like that," Dad offered. I hadn't wanted to help him since I was little, but this time I agreed to do it because I knew he would worry about me, alone in the lighthouse.
The next two weeks would have been incredibly boring, if not for Jess. I discovered from the kind local librarian that all of the kids in town went to a big summer camp for eight weeks and would not return until school started. With Jess around, the lack of kids my own age didn't matter too much. She always found new things to show me, and could tell me a little anecdote about practically every rock we passed. We did end up going to church both Sundays, and it was every bit as incredible as she had said. She especially loved singing "A Mighty Fortress is Our God", and it was wonderful to hear her sing a beautiful soprano descant that seemed to soar in the rafters of the church even though it was not sung by a physical voice. As the days went by, I developed a strange sort of sixth sense that told me when Jess was around. It was just a feeling, one that got stronger the closer she was to me.
One evening, two weeks after I'd met Jess, I fell into bed early, exhausted from a day of swimming in the ocean with my Dad. Jess had not come with us, saying we needed time together. I had stumbled upstairs and fallen into bed just as the sun was dipping over the horizon behind the lighthouse, and did not wake when Dad called me to dinner.
When I sat up, the moonlight was streaming through the wide-open curtains. My sixth sense was buzzing in the way that meant Jess was within a few feet of me. I looked over by the stairs, and sure enough there was a ripple in the air.
"Did you forget tonight was a half-moon night?" teased Jess, "I'm going to show you something really cool. Come on."
"At this point, I'd almost rather not lose the sleep," I grumbled halfheartedly, rising from my bed and yawning.
"You won't lose any sleep," Jess reassured me in the earnest tone from which I could never tell whether she was teasing or not. "Remember I told you that you have to be dreaming in order to see me, even on half moon nights? Look," her shimmering arm pointed to the bed. I turned, and saw myself asleep on the bed, breathing deeply and evenly. Then I looked down and saw that I was nothing more than a ripple in the air, just as Jess was. I stared at my hands.
"The soul flies free in dreams," Jess said in an overly dramatic and mysterious tone. I jumped. She laughed and went on in a normal voice. "I read it once in a fiction book over someone's shoulder. Very few souls can leave their bodies at all, even in dreams."
"How do you know that?"
"I've tried to meet every person who's lived here in their dreams. Not one soul could get more than a few inches out of their body, and then they'd drift back to sleep. Then, the night you got here and I came down, I saw you standing by the window in spirit form, completely oblivious to what had happened. I didn't want to startle you any more than you already were at seeing me, so I didn't tell you. There must be something special about your soul that allows it to leave your body in your dreams."
"So if this is my soul out of my body," I mused, piecing things together, "Then what are you? A soul whose body fell asleep and never woke up? A sort of Sleeping Beauty?"
Jess stopped to consider. "I never thought of that. Like I told you before, I have no idea who I was…before. If your theory's true, then I'm just waiting for the right prince to come wake me up. And speaking of which, we'd better get going, or we'll have to wait until next half moon."
"Down to the cave, of course! It's the only time when I have a voice, and I like to take advantage of every echo."
"But…what about…me?" I gestured towards the bed, where my soulless body lay sleeping.
"I'm sure you'll be here waiting for us when we get back," Jess said with a touch of irony. Her shimmering form reached out and took my soul's hand, and I was startled to feel warm flesh. Somehow I'd expected a spirit's touch to be cold and clammy, like in the stories of ghosts. We sank through the levels of the lighthouse and deep into the rock. I allowed Jess to lead the way. Just when I was beginning to wonder how much longer it would be, we were in the cave and the ocean was sighing beneath us in high tide. The moonlight filtered into the cave, illuminating our vague outlines.
Jess shifted so that we were facing each other, my right palm flat against her left. I was vaguely reminded of the scene from Romeo and Juliet when the lovers meet for the first time. It was Dad's favorite play before Mom left, and I knew all the important scenes by heart.
"Palm to palm is holy palmer's kiss," I whispered Juliet's line.
"Have not saints lips, and holy palmers too?" Jess startled me with Romeo's flirtatious query.
"Ay, lips that they must use in prayer," I responded automatically, lost in the magic of the ocean and the rhythmic beat of our lines and the feel of her palm on mine.
"O then, Dear Saint, let lips do what hands do," murmured Jess, so softly that I could barely discern it from the rushing water beneath our hovering forms. She leaned forward and kissed me gently, our palms still pressed flat against each other's.
The next morning, I awoke feeling happier and more content than I could remember being in a long time. For a second I couldn't remember why, and then I recalled our night in the cave. Jess and I had sung all of our favorite songs, listening to them bounce off the walls and just enjoying each other's company, before returning to the lighthouse around midnight. I'd settled comfortably back into my mortal body, which was still sleeping peacefully, and just before the darkness took me I felt a gentle brush of warm lips on my cheek.
Now, my sixth sense told me, Jess wasn't nearby. This did not disturb me, for Jess sometimes did not come in until after breakfast. I went downstairs and said a cheerful good morning to my Dad, who looked a little bleary-eyed. He'd probably stayed up late last night reading his script again, I guessed.
"Did you sleep well last night, son?" he inquired.
Yes, definitely. I thought."Fine, Dad," I said aloud. "Why? Did you sleep well?"
"Not at all!" he exclaimed with a shudder.
Surprised, I asked "What happened?"
"Well, I was sitting in bed, reading a note my director sent me today, when this…thing dropped out of the ceiling and through the floor! It looked like a sort of…of…of spirit or something! I jumped up and ran downstairs, but I didn't see a trace of it. I went up and checked on you, but you were sleeping so heavily I thought you might have gone into a coma for a second. You didn't even wake up when I called."
"Wow, Dad," I interrupted, trying not to sound panicky, "I don't even remember that!" Which was true, I reminded myself. "I must have been more tired than I thought."
"Maybe that was it. I guess I was pretty hysterical by that point, but I was just sure your spirit had up and left on me for minute there." Dad sounded so shaken that I felt guilty for frightening him.
"Oh, Dad, I'd never leave you on purpose," I hastened to reassure him. He nodded slightly and turned his attention to his soggy, limp cereal. I sneaked a glimpse of the script he'd been reading. It was Romeo and Juliet, by William Shakespeare.
Jess did not return after breakfast, or all morning. After lunch, I was becoming concerned by her absence, but how could I search for her? After all, I could not see or feel her. I might step right through her, and if she didn't say anything I would never know. I wasn't sure enough of my "sixth sense" to trust it, but it was all I had to go on. I decided, after a few minutes of furious deliberation, to try anyway.
I left a brief note to my dad that I was going for a walk on the beach and quietly slipped out the door. I'll check the cave first, I thought. I headed down the cliff and across the beach. The tide was coming in, I noted. About halfway to the cave, my sixth sense began to buzz with Jess's presence. Suddenly I felt a pang of white-hot pain prickle in my skull, and I somehow knew that Jess was in trouble. I began to run towards the cave, splashing along the rising waterline. As I reached the entrance to the dark, cool recess of the cave, a blast of energy knocked me backward into the pool of shallow water near the cave's entrance. My jeans were instantly soaked, but I paid them little attention as I surged back to my feet. Or tried to. Some invisible force was holding me back! As hard as I struggled, I couldn't get to my feet, or even crawl another inch towards the cave's opening. The sensation was not unlike the one you get when you are in the ocean on a breezy day, trying to walk into the wind. The wind and water fight you, so that no matter how hard you struggle, it's all you can do just to stand in one place.
I gritted my teeth and forced myself first to my knees, and then to take a step. Five steps into the cave, the water was washing over my ankles, and I was panting with exertion. Five steps later my vision was going grey with the effort to keep moving, but I was well inside the cave. The tingles that meant Jess was close by were getting stronger, but as they did, so did the resistance. As I stepped out of the last ripple of water, the resistance gave and I toppled forward with the force of my momentum. I landed hard on the cave's stone floor, smothering a cry as the skin of my hands and knees scraped painfully. Gathering my strength, I struggled to my feet and looked around, hoping to see some sign that Jess was nearby.
I barely recognized the glowing, torchlit space as the same moonlit cave where Jess and I had kissed just the night before. Flickering torches lined the walls, lighting a path that led deep into the cliff. A deep red velvet carpet covered the floor, hiding the rock completely and looking like a trail of blood flowing back into the darkness. I was reluctant to step onto it, but when I finally did it felt like an ordinary enough carpet. Cautiously I made my way to the back of the cave, where a raised dais had appeared, about waist height. It was like a weird, pagan sort of alter. Two torches on poles stood at either end of it, but I could not see what was on it because a man in a wide blue cloak was bending over it, his back to me. He straightened suddenly and spun around. The hood of his robe was up, so I could not see his face, except for the beady gleam of two eyes. I could see his body, which was clothed in black velvet. He was the largest person I'd ever seen; he must have been nearly seven feet in height, with a massive build to match.
"Who are you?" he demanded, his deep voice resonating around the walls of the cave. "How did you get past my barrier?"
I had no idea how to answer either of these questions, but a voice gasped I…told you...he would…come. Jess's voice! She sounded raspy and exhausted, but it was her voice.
"This scrawny runt of a mortal? You think he's the one who is prophesied to break the curse? Surely your fathers must be jesting, to send such a champion!" The man laughed, a deep sinister sound, like the toll of a funeral bell.
I have no idea, Jess snapped, sounding exasperated, I keep telling you, I have no clue who you think I am. If my " fathers", whoever they are, sent him, that's more than I know. I did know that my friend would come to find me, no matter what you put on the entrance to the cave!
"Ah-hah! Then you admit that he is your champion!" the strange man spun to face the dais again.
Jess made a derisive noise. I don't know what you're talking about. As I've said before.
"Very well, you'll see reason once your friend is disposed of. You, mortal!" he abruptly turned to me. "I set before you a puzzle, and as your little friend's chosen champion you must solve it. If you will not, she dies. If you attempt to solve it but fail, you both die. Do you accept the challenge?"
"I…" I hesitated. It would be easier just to walk away, to save my own neck and let Jess fend for herself. But she was my friend. We'd shared a kiss in this very cave just last night, a kiss that I could still almost feel on my lips. She needed me. But, as long as I had the choice… "What happens if I solve the puzzle?"
"Then the curse on your friend is lifted and both of you can walk out of here, free and unharmed."
"And…if I can't, how are you going to kill us?" I figured I might feel a little better if I knew exactly how I was going to die.
"That is for me to know. Make your choice." Darn, I thought a little wryly. Now I get to wonder how I'm going to die on top of everything else. It would have been funny to hear him say something so corny under any other circumstances but these.
I glanced at the dais, where I supposed Jess was. Obviously I could not see her, but I could feel her watching me. I knew her well enough to know that she was not pleading, even though my decision would determine whether she lived or died. She trusted me to make the right decision.
"I'll try the puzzle."
The man smirked. "Excellent. It will be so much easier not to have witnesses." I shuddered at the triumphant menace in his voice. He swirled his cape, and around the edge of the circular room there appeared about twenty girls, identical in appearance. They wore identical blue cotton skirts and white cotton long-sleeved shirts, and each had pale skin, auburn hair pulled into a single heavy braid, clear hazel eyes, and delicate pixie features. The only differences among them were their expressions. One glared fiercely, another smiled sweetly, another stared down at her bare toes, and still another looked at the ceiling, apparently bored. I stared around at them, slowly rotating until I'd made a full circle of the room.
"One of these is your friend, in her true body," the man said, indicating the range of girls around us with a dramatic sweep of his arm, "Your task is to pick her out from all the others who look exactly like her. You cannot speak to any of them."
"But…I've never seen her, only spoken to her. How am I supposed to know which one she is without speaking to her?" I protested.
The man smirked again. "That's the idea. You'd better get going. You only have until the tide reaches its fullest peak." Automatically I checked my watch. High tide was in ten minutes. I resisted the urge to swear at my own stupidity for walking into this impossible game. I began to resign myself to the fact that the task was impossible when my brain involuntarily took me back to the night before. I felt Jess's lips on mine for a single, star-studded moment. I felt the warmth of her hand on mine…
I blinked, and resisted the urge to grin. This puzzle wasn't impossible after all. I walked straight up to the nearest girl and offered her my hand. She looked at it, puzzled, then shook it delicately, clearly uncomfortable. I went on to the girl beside her and made the same gesture. She batted my hand away. I made the same gesture to the next girl, and the next. Each reacted differently. Some shook my hand; some merely squeezed it; some just looked at me, puzzled. I offered my hand to the second-to-last girl. She smiled and took it, shifting so that our palms were flat against each other's, and I felt the slight buzz of my sixth sense, forgotten until now. I smiled brightly back at her-and moved on to the last girl. The girl who I'd just slighted looked stricken, but I winked at her as I offered my hand to the final girl. This one smirked, much like the robed man who stood behind me, and grabbed my hand, squeezing painfully. I carefully extricated my hand from hers and turned to face the man.
"Well?" he demanded, "Do you admit defeat? The tide is high in just one minute."
I glanced at my watch and pretended to panic. I scanned each of the girls frantically, keeping my back to the one who both my sixth sense and common sense had told me was the right girl.
"I choose…" I spun to face her and offered her my hand, which she took. "This one."
The man's face darkened.
"I did choose right, didn't I?" I asked, feigning anxiety.
"How could you have known? I watched you, you went right past her. You must have guessed. How else could you have made the right choice?"
I resisted the urge to say in a falsely deep voice "That is for me to know," and instead said "But it was correct, nonetheless. That means both of us go free, unharmed, just like you said." And, leaving the man standing there fuming, we turned and walked away down the carpeted path, hand in hand.
We were silent together until sunshine began to drown out the light of the torches. At last, our feet hit the water, hers bare, mine in dirty, soaked old sneakers. We turned and looked back as one, but the torches and carpet were gone and the cave looked as ordinary as it ever had.
I felt the girl twine her warm fingers with my cold ones. "Can we go back to the lighthouse?"
I blinked and looked into her hazel eyes (she was exactly my height), "Why?"
She looked down at the sand. "It's…easier to explain everything there."
"What are we going to say to my dad? He knows as well as I do that all the other kids my age who live nearby are in camp until August, so I can't say I met you in town."
"I'll just…oh, blast." She glanced down at her hands a bit ruefully.
"Right," I grinned, seeing realization in her eyes, "You can't just float up there anymore. We're going to have to take the long way. Come on." I started up the beach, which was mostly covered by high tide. After a moment I heard bare feet in the sand behind me.
"What about your dad?"
"We'll think of something."
We started up the path on the rock face. I glanced back to find her standing about halfway down the path, leading against the rock. Even from a distance I could see her shoulders heaving. I went back down. As I approached, she grinned, a self-mocking smile on her lips as she panted. "Can't you…just…turn off gravity for a…little while?"
"You'll get used to it. Come on, give me your hand and I'll pull you up the rest of the way."
By unspoken mutual agreement she kept her hand in mine once we reached the top of the cliff. It felt strange to look beside me and actually see her where my sixth sense told me she should be, and yet it was oddly comfortable to feel her there, so solid, so real. As we reached the driveway, I saw that our car was not there. Dad must have gone out, I thought with relief. On the kitchen table, I saw a note addressed to me:
Went out to check on the playhouse; auditions start tomorrow. Should be back by 5.
I glanced at my watch. 4:30. We had plenty of time before Dad got home.
"C'mon," I said, leading the way upstairs to the balcony. She was panting again when we reached the top, so I waited for her to catch her breath before saying any more.
"So talk," I said when she seemed ready. "What's been going on?"
"Well…" she glanced out at the ocean, strands of hair that had come loose from her braid blowing across her face, "I have no idea where to begin."
"Start with your name."
"Cassandra." I repeated, trying it out. It fit her. "I like it."
She smiled and continued; "My mother's name was Caroline, and her husband was Timothy. They built this lighthouse together, and ran it."
I went over this in my mind, and realized something. "You said 'her husband'. Wasn't he…"
She looked at me with respect. "You do catch on quick. You're right, he wasn't my father. My mother never told me who my father was. She would only tell me that she named me Cassandra after the character in the Greek myth. Do you know the story?"
I closed my eyes and strained, trying to remember Greek mythology from sixth grade. "Ummm…wasn't Cassandra a prophetess living in Troy? Apollo gave her the power to predict the future, but when she told people they never believed her. She predicted the downfall of Troy, but the Trojans only laughed at her."
"That's right. Mother loved the tale of the Greeks battling at Troy to win the beautiful Helen back from Paris. She would always begin at the very earliest part of the story, with the birth of Helen and her siblings from golden eggs laid by their mother, who had been courted by Zeus in swan shape. And she would always end with the story of Cassandra and how she was cursed to tell the truth that no one would believe. Then she would look at me and say, "Your father is one truth that your namesake would have predicted, my Cassandra." Anyhow, that was my only clue to my father's identity, that if she told me I wouldn't believe her. I would have to find out on my own, and pay dearly for the knowledge. Just as the ancient Trojans did."
"Did you find out?"
"His name was Romeo Montague." My mouth dropped open as the implications of this sunk in. She hastily went on, "Not the Romeo Montague, the one from the story. My father was the very last direct descendant of one of two families cursed by all the deaths in the original Romeo and Juliet story. The families, despite their vow of friendship at the end of the play, were too late to stop the workings set in motion by Mercutio's "A plague o' both your houses!". The families fell from prominence and lost sight of each other during the next hundred years or so, and by the time they realized what their curse entailed, it was impossible to trace each other. The way it worked was, the doomed romance begun by the original Romeo and Juliet must be continued by direct descendants of the Capulet and Montague line and seen through to a happy ending. If this did not happen by 200 years after the first publication of Shakespeare's version of the tale, than the most immediate descendant of the Montagues would vanish from the earth."
"That would be you."
"Yes. In 1897 I was sixteen years old, my father had died before I was born, and my mother had remarried. We were living in this lighthouse, and then one day I…" she paused.
"Vanished," I finished for her.
"That's right. One hundred years after that date, if the curse were still not righted, the most direct descendant of the Capulets would immediately die."
I was suddenly puzzled. "Why not me? I'm the most recent direct descendant."
"Because you did not know of your heritage at the time. Your mother did. In order for the curse to work, the descendant must have learned of the family's past. Your mother discovered very young that she was a descendant of the house of Capulet, but she did not heed the warnings about the curse when she was full grown."
With that, everything clicked into place. This was 2001. My mother had vanished in 1997, which was a hundred years after Cassandra/Jess's disappearance. I was now the most direct descendant of the Capulets, and together with the last of the Montagues, I had finally broken the curse on our families.
"So…we were destined to meet all along?" I asked finally.
"As much as the original Romeo and Juliet."
"And the man, down in the cave? Who was he?"
"Mercutio. Making sure the curse stuck for all time. He was very bitter about that striking-down he received at the hands of Tybalt Capulet."
Suddenly I heard a noise from behind us. Dad had come home unnoticed, and now he stood half in and half out of the trapdoor. His eyebrows rose when he saw I was not alone. Thinking quickly, I said "Hi Dad. This is Jess…I mean, Cassandra. She just moved here."
"Oh, hi!" Dad seemed not to notice my slip of the tongue in his enthusiasm of meeting a friend of mine. "Where are you from?"
"Ah…" Cassandra slipped me a panicked look, and I thought furiously. At last I settled on the story that I knew would probably be the best, and the most unbelievable: the truth.
"Well…actually she's been living here." I felt Cassandra staring at me, but I kept my eyes on my dad.
"What?" He looked from one to the other of us, clearly confused.
"Remember the other night, when you said you saw…" I began, but Cassandra but her hand on my shoulder to stop me.
"Let me." Simply and directly, she told the whole story. My dad just stood there looking at her, but when Cassandra began to talk about Mom, his eyes got a sad, faraway look. I knew he was reliving the night of Mom's disappearance.
"So that's what happened," he murmured when Cassandra had finished. Hope grew in his eyes. "Did she vanish like you, or…"
"I'm sorry," Cassandra replied. Tears shimmered in her eyes, and I slipped my hand into hers to comfort her. She smiled at me, and behind her I saw Dad look at our clasped hands with a wry sort of grin. I resisted the urge to stick my tongue out at him like a little boy. Seeing the direction of my gaze and my expression, Cassandra whipped around to look at my dad, who looked back with wide, innocent eyes. An awkward moment passed between them, and then abruptly Cassandra relaxed.
"Soooo," my dad said in an exaggerated change in tempo that reminded me of his acting background, "What are you going to do now that the curse is finally broken?"
"I have no idea," Cassandra replied sincerely, looking at her bare feet. I knew my dad well enough to realize where this was leading.
"I'll tell you what you're going to do," Dad continued, building up momentum with each word, "You're going to stay with us for a while, and you're both going to be in the play that I'm stage managing for!"
"Let me guess: All's Well That Ends Well?" she joked, though I was sure she knew what he was really after.
As a reply, Dad began with the prologue to Romeo and Juliet. "Two households, both alike in dignity…"