In old St. Augustine, there is a house with cracking paint and broken shutters. It sags under the weight of its roof and is almost hidden by ancient oak trees that drip Spanish moss. They warn us kids not to ride our bicycles there. They say the house is vacant and use the word condemned as if it should impress—but I know the truth because I’ve been inside.
A woman stands before a crackling fireplace. She moves with the grace of a thousand years but says she’s twenty.
—Would you like some juice, dear?
—What year did you say it is?
I’m eighteen now and will leave for college soon. In all this time, she hasn’t aged a day. I repair the shutters. I paint. I bang and hammer and cut wood boards.
—It’s too much.
She’s standing inside the doorframe. She never steps outside.
One night, I kiss her. I belong here, not at school. I want to raise a family inside these walls. To be young and live forever. With her.
—You don’t mean that.
I do. I offer myself the only way I know. We wrestle in front of the fireplace, our limbs tangled, her legs hooked around my waist. All I want is this.
—I can smell sunlight on you. Do you know what it’s like? To smell the sun?
I do not. But I know I’ve upset her. “I’ll return at night.”
—Better if you don’t return at all.
But I want to. Almost as much as I want to open the door and lead her outside. To watch her dip her toes in the Atlantic and show her there’s more to life than just four walls.
She once told me a story about a princess who lived inside a tower. You see, she was given the choice to stay inside and be young and beautiful forever, or step outside and become light. She lost everyone she loved, but she wouldn’t leave—even as the stone collapsed around her. Why? I asked. Doesn’t she know youth and beauty are pointless when there’s no one left to love? Wouldn’t it be better to become light? At least then, she’d be free.
I go to her house before the hurricane hits. My arms are weak and the walls won’t weather the storm—even if I were capable of lifting the boards the way I did in my youth. She huddles in front of the fireplace when the wind picks up. I feel fifty years younger in her presence but she matches the memory. I offer my hand. “It isn’t too late to go to a storm shelter.”
When they pull me from the rubble, they say it’s a miracle I survived. We never do find her.
“The house was vacant.”
“Abandoned for over a hundred years.”
“A liability. We’re lucky nature took care of it.”
“You’re confused, old man.”
Perhaps they’re right. But if I’m confused, why do I smell her in sunlight?
Maria Reeves was born and raised in the land of the Midnight Sun. She owns Gold Fever Press and loves spending time with her family and yellow lab. She’s working on her first children’s book.