I hate it here.
The house is bigger than our old one, but it’s older. And darker. All the furniture is different. It’s all wood, but not the bright wood. It’s dark brown. And the beige walls in every room don’t exactly bring a welcoming atmosphere.
“Mom,” I whine. “I’m bored.”
“I’m a little busy right now, sweetheart. Go ask your father to play with you.”
Mom is in the kitchen, unpacking boxes of plates, cups, and things like that. Earlier, I heard her get mad because one of her favorite mugs broke in the moving truck. She said one of the bad words she always tells me I’m never allowed to say. The one that starts with S.
Sighing, I push myself off the chair and make my way down the large hallway to Dad’s office. I don’t knock before opening the door.
Dad’s back is to me. He’s on the computer again. He’s always on it. I think his job has something to do with the computer. Either that or he has a really bad addiction to it. If it’s an addiction, Mom should take it away from him just like she took those candies away from me last month.
“Dad? Do you want to play with me?”
“Ask your mother,” he says.
“She told me to ask you.”
He stops typing and rubs his forehead, sighing. “I’d love to play with you, Eli, but I have to get my work done. Why don’t you go out and meet some of the neighbors? I think they have kids your age.”
I frown. “But Mom said I’m not allowed to wander around outside by myself.”
“It’s okay if you’re only going next door. Just make sure you come back before the sun goes down.”
As I leave his office, I make sure to close the door behind me. The last time I forgot to close it, Dad got mad. I don’t want that to happen again. He’s scary when he’s mad.
As I make my way to the front door, I pass by the kitchen. Mom is still putting cups away, but this time she seems to be mad about something being lost, mumbling to herself about how one of the workers probably stole it.
“They looked odd, those two. I never trusted them.”
When I get to the front door, I sit down and put my sneakers on, tying them. I always use the bunny ear method. I quickly stand up and grab my coat. It’s orange. I got it for Christmas last year from my aunt. She said not only would it keep me warm, but it’d make me look like a traffic cone that people will always be able to find, even in the dark.
I zip it up, put on my hat, and go outside. Even this neighborhood is different from the other one. Before, we were in a city, so there were people and buildings everywhere. Now we’re by the beach, so instead of buildings, there’s sand. And instead of people, there’s seagulls. I really don’t like seagulls. One of them pooped on me once.
People at school told me I was lucky to be moving to the beach. I don’t think I’m that lucky. It’s just a lot of sand and some water. Oh, and a lighthouse. I guess the lighthouse is kind of cool. I’ve never seen one up close before.
The beach isn’t nice in the winter. It’s windy and cold, and it’s not like I can put on my bathing suit and go for a swim. I’ll freeze to death!
I look to the left and then to the right, not sure which way I want to go first. I don’t really want to meet the neighbor kids. I saw some of them when we were pulling up to the house. They aren’t my age like Dad says. They’re either middle school kids who want nothing to do with me or a bunch of kindergarteners that I want nothing to do with.
I decide to just start walking left, kicking a pebble as I go.
After a minute or two, I lose the pebble. It bounces into the street. I’m not allowed to go in the street to get anything. Mom says that if I do, a car might come and hit me. So I stay as far away from the street as possible. Getting hit by a car, freezing to death, that’s not how I want to go.
I sigh, and when I do, I can see my breath. I watch it as it rises and then disappears. Then something catches my eye and I look at the lighthouse. The light is on.
I go from the sidewalk to the sand, watching as the light turns in a circle. Is someone up there? Is it someone’s job to turn the light on or does it turn on automatically? Maybe someone in one of the few houses around here has a button on his cell phone that he can press and make the light turn on. That’d be cool.
Before I know it, the sun is setting and I’m standing directly in front of the lighthouse. It’s a lot bigger and taller up close. There’s a door at the bottom and two windows on the way to the top. I look up and, for a second, I see a shadow of a person up at the top.
“Hello?” I call.
I feel stupid. Of course whoever it is can’t hear me from down here, so I knock on the door instead.
And I wait. And wait. And wait.
Then I’m suddenly not waiting anymore. I hear the door unlock and it opens, but it only opens a crack. I see a blue eye staring back at me, but it’s at my eye level, so there’s no way this person is an adult.
“What do you want?” A girl asked.
“I-I just wanted to ask whoever works here about the lighthouse,” I stammer. “Is your mom or dad up there?”
“No,” she says. “Just me. No one works here. This is my house and you’re trespassing.”
“Yeah, I just said that. Are you deaf or something?”
“No,” I say, frowning. “How can you live here by yourself? You’re a kid, aren’t you?”
I blink. “So? Kids can’t live by themselves. You have to have a parent.”
“Well, I don’t.” She sounds mad, so I stop asking questions. Her tone reminds me of Dad’s that time I left his office without closing the door behind me. I start to turn around to leave when she speaks again, “You said you wanted to know about the lighthouse. I can answer questions you have. I know everything about this place.”
I turn back around. The door is wide open now and I get a good look at the girl. She’s no older than I am and her blonde hair is tangled so badly that I wonder if she’s ever brushed it. She has dirt on her face and she’s wearing a worn out brown dress that falls at her knees. She’s barefoot. “Really?” I ask, my eyes wide. Then I remember that Mom once told me it’s rude not to introduce myself to people. “I’m Eli Park. I just moved into that house over there with my parents,” I say, pointing to the house. It looks really small from here.
“So you’re the new people.”
“You know us?”
“I saw you,” she says. “When you came with all those trucks and stuff. I was watching from the tower.”
“All the way at the top?”
“Cool,” I breathe. “Uh, what’s your name?”
“Margaret. Just Margaret. I don’t have a last name like you do.”
“Everyone has a last name,” I say.
“Didn’t you say you wanted to ask about the lighthouse?” she asks, and I can tell she doesn’t want to talk about herself.
“Sorry,” I mumble. “How does it work? Like, how does the light turn on?”
“I turn it on,” she answers.
She hums as an answer, but I can tell it means yes. “Do you want to go up to the top?” she asks, taking a few steps back towards the stairs that likely lead up to the top of the lighthouse.
My eyes light up as if it’s Christmas morning. “Would I? Of course!”
I follow her up the stairs, but around the middle, I start to get tired. She’s at least ten steps ahead of me and she doesn’t seem to be breathing heavily. I guess it’s because she’s used to it. Does she go up and down these stairs all the time?
“Hold on. Can we rest for a second?”
“No,” she says. “You can’t stop or the monsters will get you.”
“There are monsters in this staircase. They can’t sense you if you’re walking, but they can if you stop. And then they eat you.”
I don’t know if I believe her because Dad always says there’s no such thing as monsters, that they’re just something movie people in Hollywood make up, but I start to make my way up the stairs a little faster than before.
After that, it only takes a few minutes to reach the top. “Woah.” I walk over to one of the windows and look out. “You can see the whole town from here!”
“Yeah, I can see everything and everyone,” she says, sitting down on a folding chair. It’s the only piece of furniture in here. I wonder how she eats or goes to the bathroom.
“Like, I know how the kid that lives over there-” she points to the house to the left of mine “-acts like a big, tough bully, but he actually likes to play with his little sister’s Barbie dolls. And the kids down the street – they’re twins – always gang up on their mom and get whatever they want. No one wants to deal with two temper tantrums at the same time. It’d give anyone a headache.”
“My dad gives my mom a headache whenever he forgets to take off his shoes and gets mud in the house.”
“What’s it like? Having a mom and dad?” Margaret’s voice is barely above a whisper and I almost don’t hear it.
“Uh,” I start, not knowing how to answer that, so I just shrug. “Someone’s always telling you what to do, what to eat. Parents are very enthusiastic about vegetables, but I think vegetables are gross. They can do lots of things I can’t, like say bad words. I said one I heard my mom say once and she grounded me for a week,” I say. “But it’s also kind of nice. Someone’s always there if I feel sick, and they always seem to know what to do. I can’t wait to be an adult. Adults have all the answers to everything.”
Margaret nods, but she doesn’t say anything. I wonder what happened to her parents. Did they die? Or did they leave her here and tell her they were coming back? I’ve seen that happen on TV before.
“You said there are monsters in the staircase,” I say. “Is that – is that true?”
She nods. “It’s true. They hide in the shadows.”
“My dad says monsters aren’t real.”
Margaret narrows her eyes at me and I take a step away from her. “They’re definitely real,” she says. “I’ve met one before. A long time ago. I was hiding in the staircase. I don’t remember why, but I was sitting on one of the steps, trying to hide in one of the shadows, and a monster found me. He grabbed me.” She touches her hair.
“Then what happened?” I ask.
“I woke up.”
My mouth falls open and heat rises to my cheeks. “So it was all just a dream? I really thought there were actual monsters in this lighthouse,” I say, frowning and turning to look out the window.
“There are,” she whispers.
I’m watching the ocean and she’s on the other side of the tower, sitting in her chair with her knees to her chest, looking out at the town. I don’t know how much time goes by before she says, “Hey, Eli? I think your parents are looking for you.” She points in the direction of my house.
I run over to where she is and look out the window. Mom is halfway down the beach, a blanket wrapped around her shoulders. She seems to be looking around. Dad is a few feet behind her, stumbling as he tries to get his shoes on. “Uh oh. It must be getting late,” I say. “I should go.”
“Are you going to come back?” she asks.
“I can. I’ll come by tomorrow. I’ll bring games and stuff that we can play together. Have you ever played Life?”
She shakes her head, her lips turning up into a smile.
“Then I’ll bring that. It’s really fun,” I say, smiling back. Then I wave. “Bye, Margaret.”
I quickly run down the stairs, panting by the time I open the door and walk out. Mom notices me first (probably because of the orange jacket) and runs over to me.
“Eli!” she exclaims, hugging me tightly. “We thought you were going to the neighbor’s house to make some friends.”
I shake my head, stepping back from the hug. “But I did make a friend, Mom.”
She looks confused. “In the lighthouse?”
I nod. “Yeah! Her name’s Margaret. She lives in the lighthouse.”
Dad has caught up and is now standing behind Mom as she stands up straight. They exchange a look I can’t quite read. “What do you mean? No one lives in the lighthouse, Eli. That lighthouse hasn’t been operating for a hundred years at least.”
I tilt my head, confused. “No, she’s up there.” I turn and point to the tower. I can see Margaret looking out the window, her hand on the glass. “See? There she is!” I wave to her and she waves back.
They both look up and Mom says, “There’s no one up there.”
“Yes, there is,” I defend. “She’s right there, at the window! I’m looking right at her!”
Mom sighs and Dad puts his hand on my head, patting it like I’m a dog or something. “Aren’t you a little too old for imaginary friends?” he asks.
I frown, moving away from them. “She’s not imaginary. She’s real! She’s right there!” I turn around again, but this time she’s gone, a small handprint lingering on the window.