Shannon counted the broken steps on the abandoned lighthouse’s staircase.
When she reached the lantern room, a pair of mourning doves departed in a hurry through a hole in the cupola. The space held only cobwebs, discarded birds’ nests, and a smattering of broken wood. Years ago, the massive lantern was removed. The glass window panes were gone too, with some spaces boarded up and the rest open to the outside.
Footfalls sounded on the stairs below.
“Shannon?” Oliver’s voice echoed up the lighthouse. “Are you up there?”
She nodded, all words hitched on her vocal chords until she moved to an open window frame and sucked the lakeside air into her lungs.
“I’m here,” she managed.
By the time she heard her brother reach the lantern room, then felt his shoulder press against hers, she’d squashed the mutiny of her emotions. Oliver’s head turned from one direction to the other, taking in the state of their old haunt.
“Time hasn’t been too good to this place,” he said. “When was the last time we were here?”
Shannon watched his forehead wrinkle as he tried to remember. There was a sprinkling of gray in his brown hair, and fine lines beside his eyes.
“Fourteen years,” she answered. “You were twenty-four, I was twenty and Zoe was seventeen. It was after her high school graduation party.”
His expression cleared and brightened. “Yes, we sat out on the gallery and talked until a thunderstorm rolled in.”
“Then we sat in here until it passed.” Shannon nodded. “I remember my shoes were ruined in the mud as soon as we started walking home. Zoe took them and threw them in the woods.”
Oliver laughed. “Of course she did.”
“She said I’d be stronger without them, whatever that meant.”
A rope of silence coiled around them. For a minute, they both yielded to it, then Shannon snapped its hold.
“Sometimes I wish I believed in reincarnation.”
Oliver raised his brows at her. “Why?”
“Another chance,” she whispered. The threat of mutiny swelled again within her chest. “For her. For me. So I could hope. Maybe we could do better the next time around.”
He slipped his arm around her shoulders and she settled into his side, resting her head. His steadying heartbeat drummed in her ear. When the wind off Lake Huron brought a shiver, Oliver hugged her a bit tighter.
“She was so sick, Ollie. How did we not know?” Shannon asked, her voice laden with desperation.
“I don’t know,” Oliver admitted. “When Mom called and told me what happened, it knocked the air out of my lungs. I still feel like I’m trying to catch my breath.”
“Did she really hide it that well? Or did I not pay attention?”
He didn’t offer the automatic consolations she’d received from friends in the past week. Together, they stared in the direction of the turquoise water, barely visible through the tangle of overgrown pines and birches surrounding the lighthouse. Waves, heard but not seen, slapped the rocky shore.
“I’m glad we don’t believe in reincarnation, Shannon.”
“That night of Zoe’s graduation party, when she was talking about college, and art, and traveling, and everything she was determined to do, she said something that stuck with me for a long time. I’d forgotten about it, honestly, but it came back to me this week.”
A fire-red cardinal landed in the limbs of the nearest pine. It flew to the next tree when Oliver continued.
“She said, ‘He knows how many days I have, but I don’t.’”
“I remember,” Shannon said.
“Do you remember how badly she wanted to make us understand?”
The memory washed over her. She heard the rise and fall of her younger sister’s voice, and saw Zoe’s dark, unflinching eyes and her hands lifted and gesturing.
“She had on purple nail polish that day.” Shannon raised her fingertips to her lips. “I can’t believe I remember that.”
Sliding her calf-length black dress to her thighs, Shannon climbed through the open window frame to the gallery encircling the lantern room. The decaying boards groaned beneath her feet.
“Be careful,” her brother called before sighing and climbing out after her.
Shannon stepped cautiously over one of several gaps in the walkway. Finding the lengthiest series of sturdy boards, she gripped the cold steel rail and sat down with her legs dangling over the edge in the wind. Oliver joined her, wariness pinching his features.
“Zoe said, “I don’t know if I have any more days, but I know I have today. I’m going to live like today is all I have.’”
“Yes,” Oliver murmured.
Shannon’s voice rose in agitation, “But don’t you think that’s a terribly dangerous way to live?”
“I do,” Oliver said, his expression guarded. “Don’t you think pretending it’s not true is also a terribly dangerous way to live?”
The cardinal landed on the gallery railing, two yards from where they sat. A song, sweet and brief, came from its lifted chest and yellow beak.
“Oh!” Shannon yelped, for her left shoe had slipped from her foot and dropped.
They watched its plummet from the gallery to the ground, and in that fall—with its tree branch collisions and flips—Shannon saw more than her black leather, two-inch pump hit the ground. She saw her choices. Her refusals to choose. Her fears dressed up as wisdom. She saw her sister and all the signs of what came.
Oliver leaned over the rail, shattering her momentary trance.
“I think I see the old path over there. I might be able to get the shoe if I….”
She kicked off her other shoe and stood, not waiting for it to land.
Her brother looked up at her. “It rained last night. Plenty of mud on the way home.”
She smiled back at him. “Maybe I’ll be stronger without them.”
*This story was published in “Ever Eden” literary journal, Fall 2019 issue, August 2019.