Six-year-old Zachary had been in his room all evening.
Mary Ann kept tiptoeing over to her grandson’s quarters in the guest room and pressing her ear to the door. She thought she could hear him crying. “Sweetie,” she said, taking a step back. “Are you okay?” She returned her right ear to the door. Zachary didn’t answer. “Can I come in?” she asked.
Mary Ann loved her grandson, but she couldn’t stand when things got tricky like this. She only got to see him every other month when his mother would drive him up from Vermont, so she felt a little out of sorts when the seas got rough. It was especially hard to do without Tobias around. Her husband had always been better at solving problems.
“Zachary, can I come in?” she called again. “Do you want dinner? Do you want me to read you a bedtime story?” There was no answer. “Didn’t you have a good time today? I thought we had such a good time.”
Finally, she turned the handle and opened the door to the guest room. Zachary had been scared to sleep on the room’s high bed, so she’d piled a bunch of blankets on the floor in front of the fireplace. He was twisted on his side, crying. Next to him was a stuffed animal, an old Rottweiler that was missing his nose. She’d only seen Zachary cry once before when he’d fallen from a tree in her daughter’s backyard, but these tears, she thought, had nothing to do with physical discomfort.
In time, she managed to lower herself to the ground and curl up next to Zachary. He didn’t budge, but he took her hand and rubbed it. The meeting of two such things—young and old skin—made her happy. “Did you have a good day today?” she asked. “Are you okay?”
“Kind of,” Zachary said. He twisted his head and lined his gaze with Mary Ann’s. His eyes were glassy and tears had left the tops of his cheeks shiny.
“What do you mean ‘kind of’?” she asked. “Ever since you got off the phone with your mom you’ve been quiet. Then you came in here and didn’t even have supper. The grilled cheese I made you is cold, and the tomato bisque looks ugly.”
“I’m sorry, Grandma,” he said, flopping onto his back and shutting his eyes. His lids pushed out the remaining tears and he erased them with his knuckles.
“It’s all right. I can make you another one if you feel like it. The first one wasn’t that good anyway. Maybe I can do better.”
She’d gotten along without Tobias these past seven years and was proud of that, but sometimes having a person in the house made it hard. Taking care of someone else reminded her of taking care of Tobias, bringing him soup in bed and scanning his back for bedsores. She missed him so much that it was best she didn’t think of him and how happy he’d made her. It’d been years since someone had kissed her goodnight and whispered “I love you,” and it seemed like the words were on the verge of extinction.
“What happened on the phone with your mother? Did you tell her how much fun we had at the lighthouse? How we may have seen a shark? I think it was a shark, don’t you? Wasn’t it great up there? Up so high? And we were so lucky that the nice man was there, and that he opened up the stairs and led us up to the top. You know, I’ve been there maybe twenty times, but never to the top. You have to be someone special to go up there. Maybe they saw you and that’s why they allowed it.”
Zachary laughed. Mary Ann continued to stroke his fingers.
“It was a perfect day,” he admitted. “I love the lighthouse. I really do. It’s so tall, and I love that it’s painted like a candy cane. Why do they make them like that? Is it so ships can see them from far away?”
“I don’t know. They’re not always striped. We should have asked the park ranger. He would’ve known. Are you warm enough? Do you have enough blankets? Are you homesick? Do you want to go home? You know, tomorrow it’s supposed to be another beautiful day and we can go to the botanical gardens and feed the ducks. I’ve got some stale bread that they really like.”
“Why don’t we buy them good bread?”
“I hear they like stale bread better,” she cajoled.
Mary Ann nodded. She moved her hand to his belly and patted his soft flesh. She didn’t see her daughter in Zachary, but she could hear her—the curiosity and innocence. “Do you want me to put on a fire for you, like last night?”
“It wasn’t too hot?”
“It was hot, but I liked the sound, and I didn’t need a nightlight because the flames were so big.”
Rarely did she make a fire these days, even when the Maine winters were harsh. Tobias had installed the best heating system, so she just pressed the lever to the right when the temperature dropped. Still, she knew that all heat wasn’t created equal, and that a fire was still king, especially in the eyes of child.
Zachary and his mother lived in an apartment in Montpelier, and it didn’t have a fireplace. Last night, when she’d gotten up to get a glass of water, she’d peeked into the guest bedroom and spotted Zachary–sitting up ‘Indian style,’ she thought they called it—a few feet from the fire, mesmerized by it. Plus, she thought it probably did the chimney good. It was seldom used even when Tobias was alive, and she thought the flames’ flickers erased the bricks’ long-lasting chill.
She went to get more wood for the fire, and as she piled it in a heap, she turned back and glanced at Zachary. He was smiling now, and his eyes were bright and clear. “So,” Mary Ann said, “what happened on the phone with your mother?”
“I told her that I want to work in a lighthouse when I grow up,” he said.
“Oh, Sweetie, that’s wonderful!” She piled on more wood and pulled a few sheets of newspaper from the adjacent basket. The funnies were dusty and over four years old. She jammed them underneath the grate, struck a match, and then had Zachary bring the fire to the cartoons. “You’re so aware and bright—you’ll make sure nothing happens to those ships.”
“She said it can’t happen,” he pouted. “That all lighthouses are now automatic or something.”
“Is that true?”
“And that’s what made you sad?” Mary Ann returned to Zachary and they both sat, staring at the fire, studying the flames as they bent and twisted through the wood.
“Yes. I was so excited. I knew what I wanted to do with my life and where I wanted to live and how it was all gonna be, and then my stupid mom ruined it all,” he said as the tears began to well in his eyes again.
“Honey, it’s okay. Shhh.” Mary Ann scratched his back.
“I was gonna live in Maine and have a dog–a big dog–maybe a St. Bernard with one of those little barrels around his neck,” he explained as he cried some more. There was little build up with his tears, Mary Ann thought. They went from zero to sobbing in moments. “And then. And then…” he trailed off.
Mary Ann draped a quilt over her grandson’s shoulders. “And then?” she asked. “And then what?”
“And then my mom told me about you,” he mumbled sadly.
Mary Ann pressed her tongue against the roof of her mouth. “Oh, dear,” she said. “What about me? Did I do something wrong? If I did, Zachary, I’m deeply sorry. I really am.”
She worried that their visits would be spaced out even farther now, and that instead of meeting every other month, they would be every three or four months. In time, Zachary may not want to make the trek up the interstate to spend the weekend with her at all.
He spoke so softly she couldn’t quite hear him.
“What was that?” Mary Ann asked.
“I said,” he said, shaking the quilt from his back, “that I wanted to live in the lighthouse and be with my dog—the St. Bernard—and that I wanted to marry you, but she told me that I couldn’t marry you. That you only marry people you love. And then I told her that I loved you more than any other girl and she told me that that is a different kind of love. Is it true?”
Mary Ann paused. She looked at Zachary and brushed some of the straight hair from his face, tucking it behind his ears. She swiped her fingers below his eyes to rub out the remaining droplets of tears. Smoke built up in the chimney and the fire began to catch, popping and crackling.
“It’s true,” she finally said, “but it’s a better kind of love–one that’s sure to last forever.”
Zachary nodded, inched closer to his grandmother, and then nuzzled his face against her left arm. She kissed the top of his head, drew in his warm scent, and watched the blaze wrap the dry pine.