Cape Disappointment is more than a mediocre respite for sailors. It’s the home of a curse—one that has taken the lives of women from every branch of Meredith Strand’s family for decades. But it’s also the only place that Meredith can retreat to as her marriage falls apart.
Returning to her mother with a young daughter in tow soon proves to be even more difficult than Meredith imagined. Meredith may not believe in the curse, but Judith certainly does. And soon, the curse begins to exert its will upon their family once more…
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The lighthouse stood on a small hill in the center of the peninsula. It wasn’t much to look at; the navy-blue paint had worn away in chunks and rust coated the rails of the catwalk. Small windows dotted the side to light up the stairwell, but the glass was foggy, stained with salt. It was a steep climb up the side of the small hill, all chipped concrete stairs with no rail. Meredith hunched forward and focused on each step as it came, fighting back the vertigo. She broke her arm once falling down these stairs before there were chunks missing. No matter how much her daughter begged—and Meredith knew she would—there was no way Alice was coming up here.
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She turned to look for the direction of the voice and misstepped, her toe hitting the next stair. She went flying forward and caught herself on her forearms on the edge of the concrete. Pain rocketed up her arms, knocking the wind out of her.
“Oh, shit. Hold on!”
She was halfway to standing when an arm looped under hers, pulling her the rest of the way up.
“Careful, now,” he said. “Are you okay?”
She smiled when she realized it was Art. Mom’s cousin and probably the only family member Meredith had always gotten along with, apart from her stepdad. His hair was much grayer than the last time she’d seen him, and deep creases lined his cheeks and forehead. He was only a few years older than her mother, but he looked twice that.
“When did you get old?” she asked.
“About the same time you did.”
She slapped his shoulder and winced at the pain. Her forearms were scraped up good, and blood wept from the wounds, dusty with gravel. She sucked in a breath as she tried to clear the biggest pieces.
Art nodded at the lighthouse. “Come on. I’m pretty sure there’s a first aid kit in there somewhere.”
They finished the climb arm in arm, though after a few more steps, it was Meredith doing the guiding. Art’s knees popped with each step up, which he tried to cover with conversation. But that ended quickly; neither of them was in the best shape, and it took all of their breath to make it to the top. Finally at the door, Meredith went through three keys before finding the right one, and even that took some finesse to turn.
The door creaked open and a dank, animal odor washed over them. Meredith gagged.
“Something probably got in and couldn’t find its way out,” Art said. “Great.”
They went inside, propping the door open with a folding chair. A thin layer of dust covered the desk. The room was like a cave, swallowing whatever light managed to get through the door. On the stairs, ghosts of footprints traveled all the way up in the dust.
“Does no one ever come up here?” Meredith asked. With how adamant her mother was that she be responsible for the light, she figured someone had to have been climbing the stairs and winding the mechanism.
Art shook his head as he started opening desk drawers. “The day you went off to college, Judith locked the door and that was that.” He peered into the drawers. Closed them again. “Why she suddenly decided it needed to be up and working is beyond me. Boats don’t come this way anymore. Not if they can help it.”
Now that Alice is here...
“She thinks it’ll keep Alice ‘safe,’” Meredith said, throwing air quotes around safe. “She used to talk about the red light warding off evil.”
Art made a noncommittal noise.
“I know. But going along with it is easier than arguing with her.”
He snorted. “That, I believe. Oh, here we go.” He pulled a small metal box from one of the drawers and opened it on the desk.
There weren’t any bandages, but there was gauze and alcohol wipes, which she was pretty sure couldn’t expire. She cleaned out the dirt and managed to stop the bleeding, but the cuts stung and moving her arms made them stretch, sending up little shards of pain. The only thing distracting her from it was the smell. The sooner she found whatever had died and got rid of it, the better.
With few places an animal could get stuck, they searched the bottom floor in no time. Art managed to pop open the small window above the desk and a cross breeze took out some of the odor. Meredith rifled through the desk but only found a twelve-year-old sports page, some junk mail, and paperwork related to the lighthouse’s upkeep. Someone had gotten a stack of quotes on painting the place but apparently never followed through.
Meredith followed Art upstairs, tracing her fingers along the wall, pausing about halfway up to admire her thirteen-year-old self’s handiwork. Carved in the wall at about chest level, no bigger than her palm: Judith Strand is a BITCH. She remembered doing it, remembered cutting herself with the kitchen knife she used to carve the words, but couldn’t remember why. Could’ve been any number of things. Meredith and her mother could never be in the same room for more than a few minutes without biting each other’s heads off. Her stepdad tried to tell her it was because they were alike; Meredith figured it was because her mother hated her. As a teenager, the lighthouse was where she came to cool off. Minor vandalism was sometimes part of the process.
The smell got worse the farther they climbed. Meredith slipped her collar over her nose, her eyes watering with the dust and the stink. The hall curved at the top of the stairs, leading to the light room. Beer bottles lined the far wall next to a pile of clothes and blanket that, until she kicked it, she thought might have been a person. The kick shuffled the pile and a new burp of rot wafted up from it.
Meredith breathed into her elbow to keep from puking.
Art’s nose twitched, but he kept his composure. As a taxidermist, he’d probably smelled worse. “I knew kids would get in here. I fuckin’ told her...” Using his foot, he shifted the rest of the pile out of the way to reveal a mound of fish carcasses, some half-decomposed, others little more than skeletons.
It was a sludgy, putrefied mess that squelched as Art moved the clothing, making Meredith’s stomach turn and her head spin. She bolted for the nearest window, broke a nail sliding it open, and stuck her head outside, sucking in deep breaths of fresh air. She heard Art circling the room, mumbling, sliding open the rest of the windows. Once her vision righted itself and she felt mostly confident she wouldn’t throw up, she went back to the pile and noticed stubs of cheap candles and wax drippings all over the floor. A half-rotted Ouija board stuck out from beneath one of the blankets.
Old shame bubbled in her guts.
“I thought all this ended when I was in high school,” she said.
“All what ended? Juvenile delinquency?” Art laughed. “Trust me, doll, you were an angel compared to the little shits I’m chasing away from my shop every Friday night.”
“No. The Fish Lady crap.”
Fish Lady. Fish Witch. They’d never been very creative with their taunts. Some of the kids she went to school with had taken the legends of her family, of the tragedies that plagued them, and twisted them into something they could use to taunt and demean. They told stories about her mother, that she was a witch or communed with witches. Her obsession with the danger in the ocean spawned rumors that a sacrifice of fish would grant you wishes. None of it ever made any sense to Meredith, but it didn’t have to. It was a small town, and the kids were bored. Meredith and her mother were convenient targets. She knew that now, but back then it was the final nail in the coffin of what was left of their relationship.
“Just some kids being stupid,” Art said, as though it wiped everything away. Not for the first time, Meredith wondered if coming home had been a good idea. With his face turned away from the mess, Art gathered the blankets back over the fish mess and scooped it all into a bundle, wafting the stench further. “I’ll see if I can’t get most of this out of here. You try to find some bleach or something.”
She clapped one hand over her nose and mouth and gave him a thumbs-up with the other.
While he carried the bulk of the pile downstairs, she rifled through the cabinets beneath the light itself, a fourth-order Fresnel lens that’d somehow withstood a steady stream of teenage partiers. In the first couple of cabinets, she found a pile of books she recognized as keeper logbooks, along with a few other journals and stacks of paper. She’d been through these before, a long time ago, and remembered one of them had belonged to a relative of hers—Grace—from when she was the keeper. Her stepdad had shown it to her when she was in high school, at a time when the strain between Meredith and her mother was at an all-time peak. Meredith had accused Judith of not being her mother, a claim made out of anger but no actual proof, and Judith hadn’t contradicted her. But her stepdad told her there was a lot in Grace that he saw in Meredith. Other women in the family too. He said it was impossible for her not to be blood of their blood, and offered the books as proof. All Meredith had ever taken from the logs and journals was that there was some- thing wrong with their family, and not in the way her mother meant. They weren’t cursed. They were mentally ill. Afraid. Angry.
She absently flipped through one of the books now. Dried flower petals— Thalias, she thought—rained from between the pages. Through the windows, the sound of the ocean filled her ears, and if she closed her eyes, it was like being cradled in the sound. She had missed this. More than she thought. Her skin ached for the water. Setting the book down, she glanced longingly through the window to the ocean below. She could almost feel the rush of the foam over her body.
The thought was like a knife, in and out before she could stop it. She looked down to her feet and went cold. She’d taken a step toward the window without realizing, and even as she came back into herself, she was already leaning forward into a second step.
She shook her head, rubbing her arms against the chill. It was nothing. She’d had intrusive thoughts before. Just brush them aside. It’s fine.
To distract herself, she continued exploring. The next cabinet was empty save for an impressive spiderweb, but in the third she found several mason jars full of murky water. At the bottoms of the jars were an inch or so of sediment—sand and tiny shells and bits of wood and seaweed. She frowned, thinking, Kids, but as she picked up one of the jars, the sound of the waves seemed to grow louder and it was hard to think anything at all.
There was a drain in the floor near the far window, meant to let out any rain that got in before it had time to flood and damage the lens. Meredith grabbed two of the jars from the cabinet and, opening the first, strew the water over the fish sludge to try to nudge it toward the drain. It didn’t move much, but at least now the muck was diluted. She opened the second jar. A thin scum rested on top of the water, which she scooped out with her fingers. The moment her skin touched the water, the room seemed to fall away. The scent of the sea made her salivate. A sudden, des- perate desire for the water made her bring the jar to her lips and, before she could stop herself, she tipped a tiny splash of water into her mouth. Grit rubbed against her teeth as she swallowed. She continued to drink even as a small voice in the back of her head ordered her to stop, drowned out by the roar of the ocean in her ears. For an agonizing minute, it was like her body wasn’t her own.
Meredith finally pulled the jar away from her mouth and it was like coming out of a fog. She breathed against the tremble in her hands as she dumped the rest of the water down the drain. Intrusive thoughts, she told herself. That’s it. She knew coming back here would be hard, that she’d struggle mentally. But if she kept her head up, focused on herself and Alice, everything would be okay.
She licked her lips. Swallowed. She could still taste the water. It tasted like midnight. Like the foam that brushes the curl of a fast-moving wave. Bitter, like patience growing thin. Like desire. Like someone watching. Waiting.
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