Wilom was so startled he hit his head on the back of the door, and grazed his knuckles trying to find the doorknob.
“Stay where you are, lad, don’t worry.”
Wilom tried the doorknob anyway. It was locked tight, not even rattling against the door frame.
An old man came down the stairs, holding a lantern, improving the dim light only slightly. He was wearing an old cloak, dark grey worn pale, the kind of colour the eyes slide over without ever really seeing.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“Tris is your family name?”
“Sounds familiar. Maybe someone mentioned it. Probably years ago. Might I ask what brings you to the lighthouse?”
Wilom scratched the back of his head, and winced as he touched the tender spot. “Thought it was abandoned,” he said.
“Ah. Someone running after you?”
“Oh, one of those, then. It’s not exactly a warm night – cup of tea?”
He nodded, but didn’t move. He didn’t think the lighthouse keeper meant to harm him, and he wasn’t usually wrong … but it never hurt to be suspicious, especially with a locked door behind you.
“Come on upstairs, then. If you were a little older, I’d offer something with whiskey in it, but as it is, we’ll save that for another time.”
“You expect me to come back?”
“That depends,” the old man said.
“On whether you want something with whiskey in it.”
There was a long pause.
Wilom asked, “What happens if I don’t come upstairs with you?”
“I unlock the door. You go home.”
The old man held up a key, and tossed it over. “You can hold onto this for now, if it makes you feel better.”
Wilom caught the key, and turned it over in his hands. He tested it in the lock; it turned smoothly along with the handle, and the night air seeped in through the crack.
He hesitated, still holding the door open a crack. “And … what happens if I go with you?”
“You get a cup of tea.”
“Do I die? I’ve got nothing worth stealing.”
“Do you want to die?”
Wilom stopped. “You … sound like that was an actual question.”
“A fairly reasonable one, from my point of view. A boy runs away from his village to the abandoned lighthouse? You weren’t dared by your friends. You weren’t chased.” The old man shrugged. “It’s the sort of thing you get used to asking.”
“Yes, but,” Wilom said, “If I said I wanted to die, it kind of sounds like you’d offer to kill me.”
The old man sighed, and continued up the stairs.
“I’d prefer not to die, if that’s alright with you.”
Wilom looked back at the door. All things considered, it wouldn’t be the stupidest thing he’d ever done. The lighthouse keeper was old. If he needed to, he could make it to the door first, and he had the key. He closed the door, but made sure it was unlocked before turning back to the lighthouse keeper.
“But if it’s alright, I’d like that cup of tea.”
“The comfortable couches are upstairs.”
They must have climbed halfway up the tower. Wilom didn’t want to admit he had to stop and catch his breath, but the old man stopped for him without needing to be asked. He didn’t say a word and didn’t look back. Wilom didn’t know whether that was considerate or patronising.
At the top of the stairs, a kettle was steaming, nearly boiling. Two mugs were set out, and a variety of teas were gathered on the bench. There was a fire in the hearth, and a pair of large, soft-looking sofas sitting close to it. Apart from the stove, there was an icebox and a pantry in the kitchen, and not a lot else. There was one window, facing the ocean.
“Were you expecting company?”
“I heard you at the door.”
“I see.” He’d set up the tea things and got down the stairs in the time it took to open and close a door? Really?
“Do you want to choose a tea, before the kettle boils?”
Wilom looked through the selection. Half of them had names he didn’t recognise at all, and most of the rest of them contained descriptions that he was certain shouldn’t apply to a drink.
“It’s a fruit infusion.”
“Is it actually sweet?”
One of them had bergamot in it. Well, at least he was familiar with bergamot. He pushed that tin over to the lighthouse keeper.
“Good choice,” the old man commented.
“This is your favourite?”
“One of them.”
“What are your other favourites?”
“Those ones.” His gesture took in the whole bench.
Wilom watched him measure out some of the tea into a pot and pour water from the whistling kettle into it.
“I’ll give it a moment to steep,” he said. Wilom didn’t argue. It seemed to be said every time someone made a pot of tea, so there must have been some truth to it. He turned to sit down, and stopped short.
Was one of the chairs the old man’s favourite? Neither had a crushed cushion…
“I had been sitting in the one on the left, if you’re trying to be polite.”
Wilom took the chair on the right. The old man pottered around in the kitchen, putting things away, until the tea was done. He put the steaming mug into Wilom’s hands.
The tea tasted mostly like it smelled, of wood smoke. It was not unpleasant.
“Out of idle curiosity, what would you have done if the lighthouse was unoccupied?”
“Stayed the night. I thought maybe I’d bring some things down, some blankets.”
“So you could come more often?”
“I’m not running away from anything.”
“No, of course not. After all, you were hardly planning to stay here permanently. You’d still go back to the village.”
Wilom wasn’t playing that game. He sipped his tea and didn’t answer.
“Was that what you were thinking?”
“Ah, well, perhaps something else then.”
“Do you do this often?”
“Which particular thing? Drink tea? Frequently.”
“Bring some kid up to your house and try to make them change their life around because they’re obviously not doing so great, or why would they run to a bloody lighthouse in the middle of the night and plan to camp out there.” Whoops. Wilom could have cursed his mouth.
The old man sipped his tea. “Was that a joke?”
“Yeah, of course.” The lighthouse keeper was deliberately giving him a way out, but Wilom wasn’t too proud to take it.
“But was it about you?”
“Are you not ‘doing so great’?”
“I told you it was just a joke.”
The old man balanced the mug on the arm of his chair. “May I ask you what you want to do?”
There it was. The one thing all adults were obsessed with. “I’d prefer not to talk about it.”
“I meant in a more immediate sense. Are you going back to the village, or will you go somewhere else?”
“Because turning up suddenly in the next town wouldn’t raise any questions at all.” Wilom realised he had no idea what this old man wanted from him, and it was rattling him.
The old man drained his mug and refilled it from the last of the teapot. “You might start contributing to the conversation instead of acting like a child.”
Wilom, cheeks stinging, looked down at his tea. “Sorry. Guess I’m used to my aunt.”
“She doesn’t deserve respect?”
“No. She doesn’t respect me, why should I respect her?” He stopped. Why was he telling the lighthouse keeper so much? He changed the topic. “Look, I am actually sorry. You didn’t have to bring me up here and give me tea. I was out of line.”
“I’m not offended. Do you really have no plans?”
“Hey! I had a plan for if the lighthouse was abandoned. It’s just that, you know, it’s not.”
“You had no backup plan?”
Wilom shrugged. The old man said nothing, so after a moment, he forged on ahead. “So, I hated the plan I had, but there wasn’t a whole lot else I could do.”
“Have you ever considered that your life might be much easier if you were a little nicer to people?”
Wilom’s hand clenched around his mug. “That has to go both ways, you know. I made mistakes, but it seems like after one mistake you have to be perfect or you’re worthless forever. Never angry, never frustrated, nothing. You know they blamed me when some butcher’s son in the town decided to be an idiot, steal some stuff, sell it and catch the train to the Capital? Bad influence. I hated him, and he hated me. I’d thought it was obvious, but it turns out nobody was paying attention.” Wilom wanted to stop talking, but as usual, he was already speaking before he’d stopped to think. “And they never give you a real choice, either. Everyone under the age of thirty is a child to my aunt. I don’t think even she knows what she wants from me, but she can’t just sit down and ask me without telling me what the answer should be.” He finally managed to stop. That was more than enough to tell a complete stranger. Still, he’d give the old man this: he wasn’t patronising.
“And so, you came to the lighthouse.”
Wilom picked up the cup of tea and put it in front of his face, pretending to drink. “You make that sound like it’s not a stupid reaction.”
“I am glad you feel that way. That was, in fact, my intention.”
Wilom drained his teacup, and the old man held out his hand for it. “Let’s have another.”
“Have you a preference?”
“Not really. I picked the last one. You know what they all taste like.”
“I’ll find something.”
Wilom paused. He checked the key was still in his pocket. The whole situation still bothered him, but … the old man wasn’t so bad.
“You never told me your name.”
“I didn’t, did I?” The old man measured out tea.
“Hey, that’s not fair. I told you mine.”
“Please just call me the lighthouse keeper.”
Wilom frowned. “Something happen to you?”
“Many things have happened to me.”
“Oh. Sorry for asking.”
The kettle boiled, and the lighthouse keeper filled the teapot.
Wilom blew on the tea. “So, what do you think?” he asked.
“I figure you might have some different ideas to Aunt J. If you were me, what would you do?” He decided to take a long shot. “Need an apprentice?”
“I don’t, just at the moment. But I know someone who might.”
“What does he do?”
“He’s a ferryman.”
“Not far at all. He’s a very straightforward person. I think you’d like him.”
“Yes. He’s very understanding. Tends to take the long view of things.”
Wilom sipped the tea again. This one was light and pleasant, with just a hint of a fruit he couldn’t place. Sort of berry-ish. “And he might be looking for an apprentice?”
“If I asked him, he’d take you.”
Wilom sipped the tea again.
“It’s your choice. If you don’t want to go, I won’t make you. There are some more details you’ll want before you say yes for certain, but he knows the job better than I ever will, so I’ll allow him to explain.”
“But I don’t need to go back to Aunt J?”
“I won’t make you.”
“I … I shouldn’t just walk out on them again. Can I leave her a note? Will you talk to your friend for me?”
“Of course. You can write the note now. We’ll go drop it off, and then we’ll go to my friend.”
There was no window to tell the time by, but it was definitely late.
“Is that … alright?”
“He doesn’t keep normal hours, so yes. There’s pen and paper in that drawer under the table. Can you read and write, then?”
Wilom smiled. “For a while, I said I was going to be a trader, like my sister. She said I’d have to learn to read, for contracts. So she taught me.”
“Unusual, but sensible.”
“My friends used to mock me for it, until they found out it had some uses.”
Wilom had to think for a while before he started to write.
Aunt J and Uncle T,
Thank you very much for looking after me for so long. I’m fine. I am going to get an apprenticeship.
I’ll come back and stay once I’ve settled in.
Sorry this is so sudden.
“Good. This way, then.”