The woman had found Pete’s phone number somewhere, somehow, in some faded old address book, called Pete out of the blue, and told him in her low and slightly husky voice, Peter. If you want to see your father, now is probably your last chance.
Who the hell are you? he’d said.
I’m Tiffany Hale. I work for your father.
As what? A naughty nurse?
Tiffany paused, then said, He’s asking for you. If you want to see him, you need to come right away.
So, Pete had come. He’d scraped together enough money for the plane ticket, hoping maybe there was an inheritance waiting for him in Massachusetts. His father had been asking for him. That had to mean the old man felt guilty, right?
Pete called the landscaping company and told his boss he needed the time off because his father was dying — the father he’d never talked about. His boss had been pissed; Pete knew he probably wouldn’t have a job when he came home. There were twenty guys in the Home Depot parking lot every morning who could do Pete’s job for less money. But, Pete needed closure. Or something.
His father’s sickroom had white-paneled walls and a slanted ceiling. The hospital bed and the equipment clustered around it took up most of the space. A Currier and Ives calendar pinned up behind the bed claimed it was May of 2008.
The nurse wasn’t the woman with the phone-sex voice. With that dark gray hair and that face as harsh as a granite tor, in no possible universe could she have been named Tiffany. Pete couldn’t stop staring at her scrub top. It was royal blue with a pattern of snowflakes and snowmen.
“You mustn’t excite him,” the nurse said curtly.
“Sure.” Pete realized he was staring at the rocky escarpment of her bustline. He looked away. “No problem.”
He barely remembered his father. The old man had taken off when Pete was six. He’d literally done the going out for cigarettes fast fade cliche, except it had been something he forgot at the office. Pete’s mom never saw him again. Pete wasn’t happy to see him now.
The old man already looked like a corpse. Cancer had wasted him to a skeleton with yellowish skin stretched over it. The sickroom smelled like alcohol and band-aids and flowery air freshener and under that, a deep sweetish stink that Pete realized with a jolt of horror was the smell of his father dying.
Bracing himself, he walked to the hospital bed, and stood looking down at his father. The old man’s pink-rimmed eyes slid open and glittered up at Pete.
“I’m here,” Pete said. “What do you want?”
His father’s forehead creased in a frown.
“It’s me,” Pete said, frustration twisting in his stomach. “It’s Pete. Your son. Remember?”
His father’s eyes widened. A stick-like arm roped with veins trembled and lifted off the baby blue fleece blanket, the hand grasping at the air. The old man grabbed Pete’s wrist before Pete could pull away. His hand was damp and cold, and surprisingly strong.
“I told you not to excite Mr. Delacroix,” the nurse snapped.
She pronounced it Dela-croy. Pete pronounced his last name Dela-kwah, because that’s the way his mother had said it. He shot the nurse a fuck-you look.
The old man’s clammy claw tightened on Pete’s wrist. He uttered a high, whistling wheeze, then drew in a rattling breath, his mouth gaping open, his withered lips peeling back from his teeth. Rattle-wheeze, rattle-wheeze — his wasted body twitching and flailing. Pete yanked back, pulling against the grip on his arm, but his father held on.
The nurse fumbled with a syringe and a bottle of clear medicine, trying to inject the syringe into his father’s IV line, which was flopping like a live-wire. That was when Pete realized his father was laughing.
He wrenched himself out of his father’s grip at last, stumbled back, and collided with somebody behind him. He spun around, startled. He didn’t see her at all in that first second. He saw the blue glass mug she’d dropped, he saw it falling, as if in slow motion. His hand shot out and he caught it. Hot coffee slopped over his hand. He barely felt it. He raised his head, handed the mug back to her. Brown eyes. A sweep of dark blonde hair. Her fingers closing over his, to steady the mug. One of the machines started shrieking. Pete flinched away from her. The old man’s feet drummed the mattress, as if he were trying to run. The blankets twisted around his legs, and he fell limp, one bony foot dangling off the edge of the bed. The room filled with the sudden, sharp smell of piss.
“Please leave,” the nurse said. “You need to leave immediately.”
Pete fled. Out of the room, down the narrow staircase, his own laughter boiling up against the back of his throat like vomit, as if the old man had infected him. This had been a complete waste of time. There was nothing for him here. He was almost all the way down the staircase when he realized he was still holding the blue mug, half full of milky coffee. The skin between his thumb and index finger stung. It was turning red. He turned around. At the top of the stairs, the blonde girl was just closing the door of the bedroom behind her.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I never should have called you. But, I felt –“
“Yes,” she replied stiffly. “I work for the Thorsby Historical Society.” She came down the stairs, and took the coffee mug out of Pete’s hands. “Your father hired me to catalog the books and the papers in the house. Some of them are over two hundred years old.”
“Did he ask for me?” Pete said. “Really?”
“Okay.” It came out bitter and harsh. “Okay, yeah. That figures.”
“He knew he was dying. He must have wanted you here.”
“Guess you’re right, Tiffany. He sure seemed delighted to see me.”
“Let’s go down to the beach,” she suggested.
“Beach” was too nice a word. There was no sand, just a narrow stretch of smooth-tumbled rocks between the tide wall and the ocean’s edge. The surf rushed toward them with a roar and spray, leaving yellowish globs of foam behind as it fell back. The beach was bitterly cold, with a wet wind sweeping in from the sea. Pete shoved his fists deep into the pockets of his thin jacket, and turned to watch Tiffany pick her way down the path. She wore a thick plaid flannel jacket, the kind Pete associated with lumberjacks, jeans, and red duck boots that were vivid against the gray day. She pulled an elastic from her pocket, and gathered her wheat-blond hair into a ponytail. Her boots crunched across the rocks and clam shells.
Behind them, the old man’s house crouched at the top of a steep hill, silhouetted against the cloudy sky, narrow windows frowning down at Pete, austere and Puritan. It was the only house on the island. A causeway barely wide enough to fit a car stretched across the water, linking Delacroix Island to the mainland.
“Are you okay?” Tiffany said.
Pete shrugged. He honestly had no idea.
They stood in the awkward silence of strangers. The view was bleak, but spectacular. Endless gray ocean tossed by whitecaps, under a sky churning with dark clouds.
“He’s dead, I guess,” Pete said.
“Probably,” Tiffany said.
She didn’t bother with polite lies and Pete kind of liked her for that.
“Where are you staying in town?” she asked.
He had dumped his duffel bag beside the couch in the living room, in the midst of Tiffany’s boxes and books. It wasn’t like he planned on hanging around. He could be home by tomorrow afternoon.
Tiffany added, “I know a few good places. There’s a bed and breakfast on Harbor Street that’ll give you a decent weekly rate. I mean, you are a Delacroix.”
“Weekly,” he repeated.
“For the funeral,” Tiffany said. “And the reading of the will. Afterward, you can move into the house.”
“I’m not staying,” Pete said.
Tiffany looked startled. Aghast, even. Her hand went up to her neck as if she had a strand of pearls to clutch, even though nothing encircled her slim throat save a fine silver chain that disappeared into the collar of her oatmeal colored henley shirt. “What do you mean you’re not staying?”
“I mean I’m leaving,” Pete said. “That’s what not staying means. First thing in the morning, I’m out of here. I’m not on vacation. I don’t live here. I live in Los Angeles, and I’m going home. As soon as possible.”
“But… the house,” she said. “And the island…”
“What about them?”
“You’re the last living Delacroix. The house and the island belong to you.”
“I’ll sell them,” Pete said.
“You can’t sell them. There’s always been a Delacroix in Delacroix House.”
She pronounced it Dela-croy, the way the nurse had.
“I don’t care,” said Pete. “Take whatever you want for the historical society. Did he owe you any money?”
Tiffany shook her head. The wind was already tugging hanks of her ponytail out of the elastic, tossing her hair around her face.
“Peter,” she said earnestly. ” You’re a Delacroix. This island is your home.”
“Nobody calls me Peter,” he said. That wasn’t true. His mother had called him Peter. Everyone else just called him Pete. He added, “It doesn’t matter. I’ll crash on the sofa tonight, and tomorrow morning I’m out of here.”
It would probably be easy enough to unload the house and the island without leaving Los Angeles again. It was a private island with a house on it. Who wouldn’t want that? Besides Pete.
But, Tiffany’s horrified expression sent a quiver of cold unease through his guts.
“You can’t spend the night here.”
Pete frowned. “What happened to me me being the last Delacroix?”
“You can’t stay on the island tonight, Peter. Not during a dark moon tide.”
Pete turned to look back at the causeway. Already, the ocean was drawing back from a wide swath of rocky mud that glistened with strands of seaweed. The foamy verge of the waves flirted about four feet from the causeway like the lacy edge of a lady’s fan. Clutches of mussels lay naked to the air, starfish clung to the stones. Huge, jagged boulders were just cresting above the retreating water. The air stank. A muddy funk that reminded Pete of the back rooms of aquarium stores.
“When the tide is higher,” Tiffany said, “the sea is deep enough –“
“To hide the stink,” Pete finished for her. “Okay, sure.” That made sense. He’d probably be able to smell the sea-stench even inside the house. But that didn’t change the fact that he was flat broke. “I’ll hold my nose.”
“You can’t stay on Delacroix Island tonight. It’s haunted.” She brushed her hair back from her face. “Sort of.”
Delacroix House had been built in 1923. Before the house, the island had been uninhabited for many years. Abandoned. But, in the 1850s, a lighthouse had stood on the island.
On the night in question, the night of the new moon — or the dark moon, as Tiffany called it — no ship had run aground on the sharp rocks that circled the island. No sailors had drowned. The lighthouse lamps burned all night. They were still burning when the sky brightened. But they were not rotating to sweep the rocky coastline. They beamed steadily eastward. The massive gears inside the tower had not been wound in hours. Ordinarily, the lighthouse keeper, a solitary and excruciatingly polite man named Henry Carver, wound the mechanism every two hours.
There was no causeway between the island and the mainland then. When one of the fishermen rowed his dinghy out to the island, he found the lighthouse empty.
For weeks, everyone in Thorsby assumed Henry Carver had abandoned his post for greener pastures. Even though he had kept the Thorsby lighthouse for six years without complaint.
Then a letter arrived for Thorsby’s town doctor. Henry Carver had turned up in Fall River, twenty miles south. He was utterly insane. The asylum staff in Fall River only knew who he was, because he had carefully printed his name and his home town in India ink, inside every piece of his clothing — a precaution, in case he were ever swept out to sea and drowned.
Henry Carver never spoke another word. All he did, until he died six months later from pneumonia, was to sit in silence, punctuated by occasional fits of wild laughter.
Pete felt a chill stiffen the hairs on his arms. “I don’t find that funny.”
“I’m not trying to be funny,” Tiffany said. “It’s all in the county records. I spent two days in Fall River looking at microfiche. Henry Carver really did die in the Taunton Sanatorium.” The late slanting light of the sun sinking into night behind the Cape Cod houses and red brick buildings of Thorsby across the water, turned Tiffany’s hair fiery gold. “You’re welcome to check it out for yourself. Come back to town with me.”
Pete said, “Did my father…” The word felt strange and thick in his mouth. Fraught. “Did he ever spend a night here? This kind of night?”
Tiffany looked away, and that was all the answer Pete needed.
She said, “I never kept your father away from the island longer than necessary. Just until the tide turned. But…” She spread her hands helplessly. “When the cancer got really bad, Mrs. Brand — the nurse, I mean — she wouldn’t let me take Mr. Delacroix into town. In the end, I couldn’t even do that one thing for him.”
“I’m sure he understood.”
“Thank you,” Tiffany said, with the prim politeness of a New Englander. “I’m sure he did.”
The ambulance came and went, lights dark and siren silent. Mrs. Brand left shortly afterward. Her bright white Smart Car, shiny as an enameled bedpan, went trundling across the causeway toward Thorsby. The only other car on the island was Tiffany’s red Chevy pickup, parked on the lawn around the back of the house. As Pete walked up from the beach, Tiffany was carefully setting a banker’s box full of ancient and yellowed papers on the passenger seat.
“Last chance?” she said.
Pete shook his head. “I ain’t afraid of no ghosts.”
She got the cheesy reference. But her polite smile twisted into a crooked, wrong shape. “If money’s the issue, I have a couch you can…”
Pete stiffened. “There’s a couch here.”
“Okay,” she said. “All right. I’ll see you in the morning. I can drive you to the airport.”
“I’ll call a cab,” Pete said.
He tried to refuse her easily, casually, but it came out as awkward and wrong as her smile.
“Thanks,” he added. “For everything. I mean it.”
“Of course. Nice meeting you, Pete.”
“Nice meeting you,” he parroted back.
Tiffany climbed into her red pickup and backed out of the side yard, leaving behind a roughly square patch of grass that was as yellow as the old papers piled all over the living room. He watched Tiffany drive away. At the bottom of the hill, she lifted a hand to him. Pete waved back. Her truck went rattling across the rocky causeway, and Pete was alone on the island.
The last Delacroix, he thought sourly.
Pete foraged for dinner in the kitchen. He expected to find fuck-all, and he was not pleasantly surprised. Two packs of shrimp-flavored ramen in the back of a cabinet, and a can of corned beef hash that had expired in 2012.
He found a dusty glass, rinsed it and refilled it at the kitchen sink. There was no bottled water. He expected the tap water to taste horrible, the way the tap water in Los Angeles tasted. But the Thorsby tap water tasted of deep aquifers and minerals; they could bottle this stuff, put it on the shelf at Whole Foods and sell it for three bucks a liter.
He filled the glass again, and carried that and the bowl of shrimp ramen back to his camp in the living room, where he was surrounded by stacks of Tiffany’s banker boxes. The high bookshelves were crammed with a hodgepodge of cheap paperbacks and leather-bound volumes. The room smelled like old paper and wet wood and mold. Exhausted by jet lag, and overwhelmed by a piercing homesickness for Los Angeles, and its undrinkable tap water, Pete stretched out on the couch. It was as uncomfortable as it looked. Scratchy embroidery with a faded, brownish pattern that might have been leaves and vines once upon a time. Wind rattled the French doors. Waves hissed over the stones. Somewhere in the house, a clock ticked with maddening slowness like a dripping faucet. Pete fell asleep, the bowl of shrimp ramen steaming untasted on the coffee table.
He sat up on the lumpy couch, squinting and rubbing his eyes. Brilliant light swept across the scraggly lawn, across the stony beach, lit up all the dusty clutter in the living room. Tiffany had been so adamant that he not spend tonight on the island, the night of the dark moon tide. There was no moon. So, what the hell…
He got to his feet, stepped forward and immediately collided with the coffee table, knocking it over. Still half-asleep, his shins stinging, he stumbled across the room and rattled the latch of the French doors, until the doors flew open. Raw, stinking wind rushed into the room. Pete headed out of the house and across the lawn. From behind him, a beam of light passed over the far side of the island, over the ocean, returning to where he stood. Pete turned and looked up. A tower of brick rose above him. The lighthouse. Tiffany was right. The island was fucking haunted. So fuck that. He was going back to the mainland. Immediately.
He ran down the the long drive leading to the causeway. When he reached the rocky beach, he saw it. Her. Creeping out of the low, combing surf, up the stone wall of the causeway, to block his way. The lighthouse beam swept over her, and passed. In the darkness she glowed with sparks of greenish-blue, wavering and trembling at the ends of her dark hair. Shapes squirmed in the darkness behind her, below the causeway. The sea-stink was overpowering, but he still could smell her: the smell of female, the sweet musky warm smell at the crux of a woman; strange and terrible mingling with the stinks of stagnant brine and decaying seaweed.
The lighthouse beam returned. She shrank from the light, uttering a low, guttural cry. Things hidden in the low tide mud echoed her. Scurrying. Flapping. For just a moment, Pete saw her better. Her jaw was too long, too wide, her eyes set too far apart, slanted and small and black like glistening stones. The lower half of her shimmered with scales and slime. The lighthouse beam passed away again, turning toward the far side of the island. She flopped onto the causeway, wriggling toward him.
Pete turned to run. His feet tangled and he fell over a mound of seaweed lying on the beach, a mound that hadn’t been there before. The thing quivered and seethed, bits of it flapping like gills gasping for water.
She glided toward him with horrible grace, stretching out her hand. Between her fingers gleamed a sheen of webbing. The smell of her surrounded him: aqueous and intensely female. Her cold, cold fingertips brushed his cheek. She bent closer. Her hair caressed him. Thousands of delicate feelers danced over his skin, each one a pinprick of chill. The blue-green lights of the lures threaded into her hair glimmered in the edges of his vision. He felt the years in her gaze, felt the loneliness and the lightless depths of her. She was alone, in a way Pete had never been alone and would never be, in his brief spark of a life.
Then she drew away from him, making that low, soft crooning sound in her throat again. The lighthouse beam swept the causeway. She reeled back, hissing, flinging up a hand to shield her face. The seaweed thing flapped and wheezed. Pete jumped up and he ran, up the beach, up the driveway, crushed clam shells crunching under his feet. His face was wet. Each gasp of breath seared his throat and lungs. The things did not pursue him. She did not pursue him. She didn’t want him.
He huddled at the base of the lighthouse, aching with cold, until its beam faded away into the brightening sky and the tide turned, rushing to cover more and more of the causeway with each wave. By the time Pete finally worked up the nerve to look behind him, the lighthouse tower was gone. The old man’s narrow Cape Cod house was the only building on the island.
Pete stood, shaky on his stiff limbs. He went back into the house, picked up his coat and his duffel bag. He retraced his steps down the drive to the causeway. The sunlight sparkled on the water. The air smelled fresh and salty. Gulls wheeled and shrieked above him. He set one foot on the causeway. The next step was easier. Soon, he was walking toward the mainland. Thorsby lay silent in the early morning. Too early for Tiffany and her red pickup truck. She was probably still at home, wherever home was, asleep in her warm bed.
Pete trudged toward the center of town. He could buy a coffee somewhere, call a cab, get to the airport, fly home to Los Angeles, to his shithole apartment, to his shitty job. If he’d been fired, he could always find another equally shitty job. He could go back to his normal life. Forget about the house and the island. Tell himself it had all been a nightmare, and never come back here.
Even so, he stopped in the middle of the empty street and turned around for one last look. Delacroix Island was a black silhouette against the sunrise, the house a stark shape at the crest of the hill. The old man had never told Tiffany what had happened to him on the night of the dark moon tide. Pete was certain of that. He wouldn’t say anything either. How could he? What could he say? The reason he hadn’t been dragged to a watery death, was because he wasn’t man enough to satisfy a monster? That she had taken the measure of him just by looking into his eyes?
It was a story no man would ever tell to a woman. Or to anyone. The shame would keep any man silent to his grave. And so Delacroix Island had kept its secret for decades. It would keep them forever.
As Pete realized this, he began to laugh.