Author’s Note – This is a short story from the perspective of “Diggs” Diggins, co-conspirator in All the Blue-Eyed Angels and the subsequent Erin Solomon books. I love thinking about these two characters as young people in Littlehope, brought together by circumstance and a kind of mutual isolation at such different times in their lives.
My protégé showed up at my place the night before she left our one pub town for college, with a six-pack of Pabst Blue Ribbon, the keys to her mother’s boat, and a last request. It was just after midnight when she knocked on my bedroom window – a habit I’d publicly tried to discourage. Privately… Well, that was another matter.
“Aren’t you supposed to be in bed? What the hell are you doing?”
“Come ghost hunting with me,” she whispered through the window. It was a cool August night, damp in the way that Maine coastal towns are always damp, and I could smell salt on the air and beer on her breath, though up to that point I hadn’t known her to drink.
“It’s late, Solomon. I’ve got work in the morning.”
Impatience tinged her green eyes. I had the sense that she had already written this scene in her head, and I wasn’t doing my role justice. She faltered – something Solomon rarely did. She was a week shy of eighteen; I was twenty-six, and feeling every minute of it.
“Come out with me – just one more time, Diggs. Please.”
I pulled on jeans and grabbed a jacket without bothering to argue the point. Solomon wore cargo shorts and the same battered Chuck Taylors she’d been wearing all summer, completing the look with a Wellesley sweatshirt two sizes too big and a knit cap over her short red hair. It took a minute of searching my bedroom floor before I found a pair of moderately clean socks, nearly toppling the bookcase of high school sports trophies I still hadn’t gotten around to packing up.
Two minutes later, I was climbing down the trellis of my parents’ house while Solomon waited for me with one hand on her narrow hips, a PBR in the other.
“Since when did you start drinking?”
“Since tonight. Kat got a suitcase – I figured I’d try some.” Kat was her mother.
“It tastes like shit. I don’t know how you stomach the stuff.”
“Years of practice,” I said.
I took the can from her and shotgunned it before she could say anything – partly because I wanted it, but more because the idea of Solomon drunk didn’t sit well with me. It had gone flat, which meant she’d probably been nursing that single beer for most of the night, trying to decide whether or not she was going to come for me.
Solomon lived about half a mile up the road from my parents’ house. We walked Littlehope’s main drag together in relative silence that night. Past Wallace’s General Store, past the Bennett Family Lobster Shanty and the locked doors of Solomon’s mother’s medical clinic and the whitewashed picket fence around my father’s church.
“You have everything packed?” I asked, when we were at the top of the hill leading down to the town landing.
“Yeah,” she said. “Car’s set. Kat wants us to head out early.”
“Does she know you’re out?”
She laughed. “Does she ever?”
For the past two months or so, Solomon had been taking the boat out once, twice, sometimes three times a week, while her mother slept one off. Ghost-hunting, she called it. I knew what she was really looking for, though.
Kat had a 12-foot Boston Whaler – a pretty little fiberglass speedboat with mahogany seats and enough horses in its Evinrude engine to get us across the harbor at a good clip. When we got to the wharf, moonlight shone on the surface of a still, black sea, fishing boats bobbing gently at their moorings. Solomon climbed in without waiting for me, untying us from the dock with practiced ease. I hopped in and took the wheel before she could protest.
“Where to, captain?”
She sat down beside me, lacing her arm through mine.
“You know,” she murmured. The laughter was gone from her voice, suddenly.
I pointed the bow due north/northeast and turned on the headlights, navigating us easily through the mouth of the harbor and into open water. Solomon didn’t speak, but I could feel her body leaning into me, warm and soft, her head on my shoulder. I tried to remember at what point in our relationship this kind of physical display had become acceptable, but I couldn’t. That was the way it was with her, somehow – lines I never would have dreamed of crossing with anyone else just seemed to melt away.
The ride out to the island usually took an hour, but the wind was with us that night – we made it in forty-five minutes, and I navigated through the inlet with a skill borne of too many close calls in that same rocky cove. Solomon sat up, no longer touching me, her eyes fixed on a point at the top of the island. I started to cut the motor, but she stopped me with a hand on my arm.
“Can we get closer?”
Payson Isle was dark – a monstrous black thing edged with granite and evergreens. She had never wanted to get any closer than this before.
“Solomon – ”
“Just a little, Diggs. Please.”
I put the boat back in gear and motored in another fifteen yards or so. I could see the dock now, along with a rough path hewn into the granite, leading up the cliff and into the woods.
“Have you been here since…?” I asked, not sure how to complete the sentence. We had been avoiding the subject ever since Solomon had started bringing me out here.
“Since my father’s church burned with his whole congregation in it?” she asked quietly. “Since he went nuts?”
I popped open another beer, because I couldn’t think of anything better to do.
“Yeah. Since then.”
She stood, and the boat rocked gently on the water. She was smaller than a lot of girls her age – not waiflike small, thank God, but small enough that it was easy to mistake her for a child, and impossible to forget the years that separated us. I’ll never play center for the NBA, but I stand comfortably at six feet. Solomon barely reached my shoulder.
“I came out here a few years ago,” she said.
She went silent for a long time. I followed her gaze up to the top of the ridge, feeling that same sense of unease I always felt out here. Somewhere in the distance I heard the light, hollow call of an owl. A fish jumped off to our right, the slap on the water loud enough to suggest it had been sizable. I stuffed my hands in my pockets and tried to be patient.
It was only one more night, after all.
I’d left grad school two years earlier to return to Littlehope, purportedly to help out at home while my mother went through radiation and chemotherapy and gradually wasted away to a jaundiced skeleton, a macabre shadow of the woman she’d once been. We’d laid her to rest six months ago, though, and I was still here, watching my father minister to the masses at the Littlehope Episcopal Church and then return home to rattle around like an angry ghost in our lifeless, haunted old house. I suspected I wouldn’t last long here, once Solomon was gone.
My brooding was interrupted by a change in the air – a stillness I hadn’t felt before that seemed to electrify everything around us. I don’t know if it was the light that I saw first, or if I heard Solomon gasp and then saw it. It hardly mattered, though – the result was the same. She went for the steering wheel before I could intercept her, started the engine and steered us toward the dock at a dangerous clip, while I just held on.
“What the hell are you doing?”
“Did you see?”
“Yeah, Solomon, I saw – it was a light. Now turn the boat around.”
“A lantern,” she said. “It was him.” She didn’t even look at me, her eyes locked on the ragged old wharf coming up fast. She slid the boat up to the dock with more precision than I ever would have managed, and had cut the engine and was already out before I’d come to enough to try and stop her.
“Tie her up – come on,” she said over her shoulder.
Since it didn’t seem like I had much choice, I did as she’d ordered, stopping long enough to grab another couple of beers for courage.
Rotten planks of wood had been driven into the granite to serve as haphazard stairs. I turned on my flashlight and followed her up the steep incline. The forest closed in fast once I’d made it to the top, and it took me a minute to catch my breath before I swept the flashlight down the path and spotted her. Solomon stood with her arms wrapped around her middle, staring down a ragged, broken trail.
“He went that way,” she whispered to me, pointing into the forest.
“What’s the plan here, Sol?” I had to fight the desire to look back over my shoulder. “You really want to do this tonight?”
“When else am I gonna do it?” she asked. She never took her eyes from the path. “It’s now or never. I can’t leave without saying goodbye, Diggs. He’s my father.”
The last words came out broken – I didn’t know how to respond to that. Solomon was young, but she’d always been rock steady.
“All right,” I said. I shotgunned the last of the beer I held, and placed the empty along with the full, unopened can carefully at the head of the trail. I figured I would probably need it, once this was all over. “But you have to stick close.”
She turned and looked at me. I could see the shine of her green eyes, a lock of hair that had escaped her hat angled across her forehead. She pushed it back behind her ears impatiently and took my hand.
“I will if you will.”
I’d only set foot on Payson Isle once before – on a dare from some friends when I was seventeen. That night, there had been a full moon, and we’d all been drinking. I’d walked this same trail that night, stumbling drunk, with ghost stories whispering on the wind, but I hadn’t seen anything – or anyone. I had thought, then, that the story of Adam Solomon’s slow descent into madness was just an urban legend. No one could possibly survive out here alone.
That was long before I’d met the madman’s daughter, of course.
“You remember the way?” I asked. Maybe half an hour had passed; it was beginning to feel like we were walking in circles.
“I don’t know where he was going,” she confessed.
It wasn’t a big island, but there were enough trails to make it a nightmare to navigate in the dark. Especially if we didn’t know where the hell we were headed.
“So what are we supposed to do here? Stumble around in the dark until we find somebody?”
“You can go back if you want. Just wait for me – I won’t be long.”
“I’m not leaving you.” The wind was rising, a light drizzle just beginning to fall. I could still smell the ocean, but now it was muted by the scent of damp forest floor and sweet pine needles. Solomon kept moving until I grabbed her by the arm and spun her around.
“Dammit, Erin – hold up a second.”
She wheeled on me. I realized that I’d never called her by her first name before. It sounded strange.
“I need to see him. I told you – just go back if you’re so freaked out. I don’t need you to protect me.”
I held onto her arm. Took a step closer. I could feel her heart beating, staccato, and it said something about who Solomon was that it took me a minute to realize that the drops of water running down her cheeks weren’t from the rain.
“Just slow down. We can keep going – let’s just come up with a plan first, okay?”
After a second, she nodded.
“Where do you think he might be?”
She had to think about it. “He wouldn’t go to the house… I don’t think he stays there anymore.” The boarding house – the place where most of the church had lived, from what I’d heard.
“There are some cabins, though. He might be there,” she continued. “Or at the greenhouse.”
We were just setting out on the trail to the old Payson greenhouse when Erin pulled up short. I bumped into her like we were in some bad comedy sketch, but she barely moved.
“Do you see that?” she whispered.
I followed the line of her arm, pointing straight through the trees. It took a few seconds before the sight registered.
“We’ve gotta get out of here,” I said. I sounded more panicked than I’d meant to.
The flames climbed high into the sky – distant enough that the colors were muted, a smudge of orange pastels on a black canvas. Solomon started toward them, leaving the safety of our path for a breakneck pace through the undergrowth. I stood on the path for a second, pissed off and trembling. The rain came down harder. It was cold now – I could feel the dampness settling on my skin, seeping in deeper. A gust of wind came up behind me and with it a low moan, more animal than human, and the sound climbed my spine like ice.
And then, a woman’s voice, warm breath in my ear.
I stood there another half a second, my heart beating a steady rhythm in my ears and my chest so tight it seemed there wasn’t room for a full breath. I turned and felt my knees go soft. A pale white figure – sexless, faceless, more light than form – fled down the path, disappearing as it raced deeper into the woods.
I turned back with my heart crashing in my chest, and tore through the underbrush after Solomon.
She had already realized what the fire was by the time I caught up to her. I came up behind her with the grace and subtlety of a drunken elephant, but she still started when I touched her arm. Through the trees, we watched a bonfire rage. Kneeling in front of it, cast in silhouette, was her father.
He wore no shirt, his ragged jeans hanging low on skeletal hips. His hair was to his shoulders, his body swaying slightly as though to a rhythm only he could hear. Solomon didn’t move. I thought of the word I’d heard on the wind and the white shadow I’d seen running from me, and another chill ran up my spine. Before I could say anything, a soft keening began from the edge of the bonfire – a sound rooted in a solitude and despair so deep that it seemed to rise from the ground and envelop the entire island.
Solomon’s hand tightened on my arm. I could hear her weeping softly. I wrapped my arm around her shoulders and steered her back toward the trail.
“Come on. I’ll buy you a beer.”
Solomon climbed into my bedroom window after me at three o’clock that morning, and lay down beside me on the twin-sized bed I’d slept in back when I was a kid. I’d given her a pair of sweatpants and a shirt that she swam in, but she was still shivering. We got under the blankets and I pulled her close, aware that another line in a long series of ever-shifting boundaries had been crossed. She lay her head on my chest. I could smell pine and woodsmoke and the ocean in her hair – all the things it seemed in that moment that she had been shaped by.
“Where will you go when I leave?” she asked.
I’d thought about the question a lot in the past few months. I still didn’t have an answer.
“I don’t know.”
“Go west, young man,” she whispered into my chest. I smoothed her hair back, and closed my eyes.
Seconds passed, marked by the incessant ticking of the old alarm clock on my nightstand. I’d lost count of how many by the time she spoke again.
“You could come to Boston,” she said.
“I could,” I said after a while, though I think we both knew I actually, in fact, could not.
“Finish out grad school there,” she continued.
“Buy you and your Wellesley girlfriends beer.”
“There are plenty of papers in Boston. You could get a job there.”
I kissed the crown of her head. Closed my eyes.
“Go to sleep Solomon,” I whispered.
Within a few minutes she had done just that, but I stayed awake for another hour, maybe two, staring at the ceiling. My mother had put glow-in-the-dark constellations up for my brother and me when we were kids. When we were little, she would lie with the two of us and tell us the names of each one, giving us the mythology behind them all.
They were both gone now – my mother taken by cancer, my brother by an idiotic childhood stunt that replayed often in my dreams. The best parts of a broken family lost, leaving behind only a self-righteous preacher and his atheist son. I wrapped my arms more tightly around Erin’s sleeping form, and felt her warm sigh on my neck.
I closed my eyes, and dreamed of Boston.