I closed my eyes and breathed in the ocean air. A breeze ruffled my hair while the melodic crash of water against rock calmed my racing heart.
I've never feared the ocean, for it has brought me nothing but peace.
My eyes blinked open as they began to burn.
"We close in twenty minutes."
I jumped at the voice behind me and turned to the open doorway of the lighthouse gift shop. I swallowed, not trusting myself to speak.
Under the light of the setting sun, the woman before me sparkled like the seashell mobiles hung outside the door, her narrow eyes warm with kindness and her smile as radiant as the sun at my back. Her jet black hair lifted with the breeze. I dropped my gaze. I was in no position to be admiring a beautiful woman, especially not today.
She hesitated at my silence but added, "Let me know if I can help you with anything."
Adjusting the bag on my shoulder, I gave a vague nod and followed her inside. My eyes took a moment to adjust from the coral skies to the dusty interior.
Shelves covered nearly every inch of the unpainted plank walls, and tables occupied the floor space in a cramped fashion. Tacky lighthouse and beach souvenirs were spread along every available surface. The floorboards groaned beneath my feet as I wandered through the gift shop to the connecting museum, the opposite direction of my objective. I was stalling. Despite being a horrible boyfriend, breaking rules had never been a strength of mine, and unfortunately, that's exactly what I had to do today. Nothing could properly prepare me for this.
One distracted loop around the museum, then another. The history of the lighthouse was lost on me, my mind a tangle of thoughts. What if I couldn't do this? I had already disappointed the one and only woman I'd ever loved too many times. The thought of doing it again filled my throat with bile. How hard could it be anyway?
Through the window, I saw the sun sinking closer and closer to the horizon, casting pinks and oranges across the surface of the water. The place closed at sunset, so it was now or never.
I poked my head into the gift shop. The woman stood, clipboard in hand, in front of a rack of t-shirts with varying Maine colloquial expressions printed on them. My eyes scanned the rest of the room and found two doors on the far wall marked 'Do Not Enter'. I remembered the saleswoman walking out of the one behind the counter, presumably a stock room. I had to assume the other led where I needed to go.
"Can I help you with anything?"
I jumped, looking back at the woman. She had spotted me lurking in the doorway. "Oh, uh..." I can't do this, I can't do this. Heat crept up my neck, sweat beaded on my forehead. I looked anywhere but at her, and my gaze landed on the t-shirt rack. "I want to get a shirt...for my dad."
The woman stepped back so I had a better view of the options. "Which cheesy logo do you prefer? I'm quite partial to this one." She pointed to a logo resembling the cover of Jaws, but instead of a shark, there was a lobster, and the title read Claws.
I laughed, my shoulders easing. "But you can't go wrong with an 'I Heart' shirt." I gestured at an 'I Heart Maine' shirt where the heart had been replaced with a lobster.
She hugged the clipboard to her chest and pursed her lips in consideration. "Very true. How does your dad feel about lobsters?"
She threw back her head in laughter.
A tightness wrapped around my chest, squeezing my heart and stealing my breath. I rubbed a hand over my heart as if to brush away the feeling.
Back to surveying the shirt options, the woman had pulled out a shirt with the lighthouse's name on it. "Sweet and simple," she said.
I nodded. "Perfect."
"What size do you need?"
My father resembled a stalk of corn, tall and skinny, and I knew the shirt in her hand was the right size, but I needed her out of the way. "Uh, a 2XL."
Those lips pursed again, so pink against her skin. "I'm not seeing any on the rack." She glanced at her clipboard, flipping up a page. "Let me check out back real quick."
I watched her go, half wishing I could stay but knowing I didn't deserve it. As soon as she disappeared out back, I booked it to the other door and mercifully found it unlocked. Door closed, back pressed to it, I allowed myself a few seconds to calm my breathing, but I couldn't wait long. If the woman came looking for me, I wanted to have finished what I came here to do first.
A few feet away at the end of an empty corridor there stood another door. Through it would be the base of the lighthouse.
As I approached, the door opened. I had no time to worry about the little bit of pee that had escaped me as I came face-to-face with a round man, slightly out-of-breath, wearing a utility belt. Somehow I hadn't considered there might be someone working on the lighthouse tonight.
"Sorry, I, uh, was looking for a...a bathroom," I stuttered.
He eyed me up and down, then nodded at the door behind me. "Can't you read? The door says don't enter."
"I was hoping I'd stumble upon an employee bathroom," I said lamely.
"There aren't any bathrooms here." He waved me back. "There should be some portable toilets scattered around the park."
I had passed at least four on my walk up here. "Oh...okay." My feet stayed glued to the ground. I watched his face grow suspicious, so I blurted out, "Is the light broken?"
He reached into a pocket of his utility belt and removed a dirty rag; he used it to wipe the sweat from his face and bald scalp. "No, I'm just...surveying the area." I struggled for a follow-up question, but the man took my silence as an invitation to continue. "It might not look it but this place is prone to pranksters and graffiti artists. I make sure to regularly check the area."
"That's smart." If I had waited two more minutes, I wouldn't have run into him at all. Could I return to the gift shop with him and sneak back once he'd left? No, the cashier had to be suspicious of me. I wouldn't be able to trick her a second time. "So no one's allowed to go to the top?"
The words came out light-hearted and joking, but he didn't see it that way. His expression hardened, and he widened his stance in the still-open doorway, eyes narrowing at my fidgeting. "Nobody is allowed access to the lighthouse."
"Well, that's convenient because my name happens to be Nobody." Not so much as a twitch from him. "Not an Odyssey fan, I guess." I reached into my bag and retrieved a worn paperback, some mystery thriller I picked up years ago in an airport bookstore, holding it out to him. "Take my copy and give it a try." As soon as his eyes dropped from me to the book, I flung it in his face and charged.
Like my father, I was a stalk of a man, not much meat to me. And while the man's rotund figure suggested fat, there was definitely some muscle hidden underneath. I only managed to topple him because I had surprise on my side.
The man's head smacked against the cement floor, and I rolled off him, horror-stricken. I hadn't come here to hurt anyone. I just needed to keep my promise.
Fortunately and unfortunately, he had a thick skull and recovered quickly from the fall. He clambered to his feet as I did the same. "What's in the bag?" he said.
Ignoring his question, I said, "I need to get to the top." I eyed the base of the spiral staircase behind him. "Please."
"I can't let you do that." His hand reached out, fingers skimming my arm, but I jumped aside before he could grab me. "Don't destroy an historical landmark."
My fingers curled tightly around the strap of my bag. "I'm not. Please, I only need a few minutes up there." I feinted left and rushed right, but I'd never been good at sports. The man caught my arm. My hand shot out and hit his solar plexus, or where I thought his solar plexus was. I'd only taken one self-defense class and did poorly in it.
He stumbled, bent over to catch his breath, but held fast to my arm. With my free arm, I swung around behind him and looped my arm around his neck. It wasn't much of a sleeper hold one-handed, but it got the man to release me as he reached to extract my arm from his neck. Now with both arms accessible, I corrected my sleeper hold and waited. He struggled, trying to swing me off his back, but I held firm. My muscles screamed from the strain.
His hands slowed their pulling and scratching, and once his movements had completely ceased, I lowered him to the ground. I reached a shaky hand towards his neck and searched for a pulse, nearly collapsing with relief when it beat strong against my fingertips. "I'm sorry," I whispered.
I rushed up the stairwell, the tight spiral dizzying me, and I had to sit down at the top to regain my balance. I slipped out the glass door onto the balcony.
Wind beat against my face. I gripped the railing for fear of falling. "Of all the places," I muttered. Out of my bag, I grabbed a small, silver urn, held firmly in both hands. My thumbs brushed the smooth surface. "Hannah." The wind picked up, stealing the name from my lips and carrying it out into the open air.
"Hannah," I said again, staring at the urn clenched in my hands, "I'm sorry. I'm sorry for being a terrible boyfriend. I'm sorry for abandoning you when you needed me most. I'm sorry I wasn't there in your last moments. You deserved better." Carefully, I removed the lid. "I'm fulfilling your wish, spreading your ashes from the top of a lighthouse. I hope this proves my apology to you. You know I never liked heights." Even now I was purposefully avoiding looking down. I reached in and pulled out a handful of ash. It trickled through my fingers and flew away with the wind. Someone so solid, so warm, pulsing with life had been reduced to a fine dust in my hand. The rough grains held no memory of her smooth skin. My throat tightened. "In the next life, I hope you get to live a peaceful life in the ocean. You've earned it." Another fistful floated away. Once the last of it was gone, a weight lifted from my shoulders. I had finally done something right for her.
The glass door crashed open, and I spun around. The man stepped onto the balcony, and his eyes dropped to the empty urn in my hands. A sigh escaped his lips.
"I'm sorry," I said. "I'll come down now."
He didn't move, eyes still on the urn. When he finally looked up, it wasn't at me but the ocean, golden under the setting sun. "Since you're up here, you might as well watch the sunset. Won't get a chance like this again."
We sat on the metal grating of the balcony and watched the sun sink below the horizon as the waves crashed beneath us.
Hannah said to me once, "I've never feared the ocean, for it has brought me nothing but peace."
And she was right.