When I crested the hill and caught my initial glimpse of Fort Westbrook, I began to feel for the first time that being uprooted from Jacksonville, moved to Virginia, left with my mom, sister, and a new house full of boxes while Dad shipped off to fight pirates—it might not be all bad. Living on a peninsula with an old stone fort sounded like something out of a legend.
Lisa sensed it, too, and hugged her beanie toy, Tuffy, to her chest, swinging her shoulders in excitement. Dad had given us both one of his Navy ribbons before he left, and Lisa had pinned hers to Tuffy’s ear like an earring. It waved erratically as she danced toward the fort.
Watching Lisa’s ribbon, I thought of Dad the night before, kneeling so he could look me in the eyes, his blue uniform overlaid in gold under the porch light. “Be courageous and responsible, Penny. Take care of your mother and sister while I’m gone, okay? You’re my first mate.” In my whole life, he hadn’t been sent to sea for longer than a month—and now he wouldn’t be back for nine months. Nine months of missing ice cream Wednesdays and thrift store expeditions.
I took my ribbon out of my pocket, turned it over once. Rectangular. Green with two vertical orange stripes. I held it up to my nose and inhaled. Mostly it smelled like metal, but a salty metal, like the sea, like Dad. I figured maybe if I took care of the ribbon he wouldn’t be quite so far away, not really, not with a piece of him in my hand.
“D’you suppose there’s a princess at the fort?” Lisa asked, bringing me back to the present.
I rolled my eyes, sliding the ribbon into my pocket. “It’s a fort. Princesses aren’t in forts. Unless she’d been kidnapped, I suppose…”
I trailed off, searching my memory for a legend that might have a similar story. About a month ago, Dad bought Legends and Myths of Cornwall for me from the Jacksonville Naval Air Station Thrift Shop. I couldn’t come up with a legend fast enough, though, and Lisa went on without waiting.
“I’ll be the princess, then!” Lisa announced. “I’ll just stay there and wait for a sailor-knight! Or Dad can rescue me!”
“You can’t stay there because Mom wants us back—” I hesitated, unwilling to say “home” for a house we’d only spent a night in that still smelled a lot like cleaner and new paint “—back at the Westbrook house in an hour. Anyway, princesses fight for themselves nowadays.”
Lisa didn’t pay any attention—she normally didn’t, unless I was telling her a story. I hurried to catch up. Small flowers blossomed in the grass, blanketing our approach in snow-white. Puffy clouds floated above in the sky and below in the stiff moat water. The fort walls were stone, with grass growing on sloped hills at the top. We crossed a bridge with two old, fake gaslights to the squat, square entrance. Two small stoplights stood on either side of the doorway, and the red lights looked like eyes as we walked through the mouth.
We wandered around, me looking for any cracks in the walls that might contain forgotten love letters, Lisa impatiently tugging on my hand. Though Lisa groaned, I pulled her inside the fort’s museum. They had displays about Edgar Allan Poe (including a plastic statue), who’d been stationed at the fort, and Jefferson Davis, who’d been imprisoned there, and old maps that showed the star-shaped design, and lots of interesting information besides. I read most of the plaques out to Lisa as I worked across the small room, engrossed. She tugged her hand out of mine and crossed her arms.
Just as I turned to a display called The White Widow, I realized Lisa had become very quiet. I turned. She was gone.
I ran out to the courtyard. No Lisa.
A woman walked along he top of the wall, the only person around. I found steps and took them two at a time, coming to the top just as the woman stopped at the foremost point in the wall. She stared out at the bay.
“Ma’am!” I called, running toward her. The grass under my feet squished from a recent rain. “Excuse me!”
I nearly stopped when she turned toward me. She wore a sundress—the sort with little embroidered holes and an underdress—and the low sun shining through the thin material made her shine. Her hair was a blond so light it seemed nearly white, especially with the frizzy bits illuminated in the sun. She had whitish-gold eyes, the sort I imagined belonged to eagles or blind people.
“Um, have you seen my little sister? She’s this big.” I held my hand to my chest. “Red hair…”
The woman smiled and pointed behind me. I turned and saw a boy sitting in the grass on the sloping wall on the other side of the fort. Beside him—barely visible from here—I could make out the top of Lisa’s head.
“Thank you,” I called over my shoulder as I ran.
I rounded four corners before I got to the other side. A chain link fence guarded the edge of the wall here, though on the other parts there’d been no protection from a fall. Lisa sat closest to me, looking at the harbor and lighthouse. A little shepherd dog stood between her and the boy.
“Lisa!” I came to a stop, panting. “What are you doing?”
“Look, Penny! I made a friend.” Lisa pointed at the dog. “This is Melly.”
“And I’m Jon,” the boy put in, sounding amused.
“I’m so sorry,” I said, hardly looking toward him and grabbing for Lisa’s shoulder. She squirmed away.
“He doesn’t mind! He just moved here, too!”
Jon made a face, his ears reddening. “I moved a month ago,” he explained, like he owned the whole peninsula.
“Well, it’s a good thing that woman saw you,” I told Lisa. “Mom would have my skin if you got lost! Let’s go.”
“He’s got a niece that’s my age because his dad’s real old and his brother’s married and lives in New York,” Lisa continued, oblivious to Jon’s now-purpling ears. I wondered why a boy would confide so much in a little girl who couldn’t keep her mouth shut for a few minutes at a time. I figured he must be lonely, and some of my embarrassment changed to a sense of camaraderie.
“Wait, what woman?” Jon twisted around to look at the fort. I figured his eagerness had to do with distracting Lisa. “Where is she?”
“I don’t know, that—” I turned, too, but no one else was on the walls or in the courtyard. “Well, she was over there.”
“Damn it,” Jon said, shooting a look at me to make sure I’d noticed his adult word. I glared, pressing my lips so tight together my cheeks hurt. He rolled his eyes and flopped onto his back in the grass. I snuck a real look at him for the first time. He made me think of the U.S.S. Constitution I’d visited in Boston after one of Dad’s shorter deployments. There’d been facts about typical sailors in olden days, and one of the facts was that the average sailor had brown hair and gray/blue eyes. My dad had the eyes, but this boy had both. Melly put her paw on his chest, tail wagging.
“Were you waiting for that woman or something?” I asked, curious despite myself. “Who was she?”
“The White Widow.” Jon eyed me and, seeing my uncomprehending look, he smirked. Getting to his feet, he brushed the grass off his pants. The day seemed darker all of a sudden. I glanced at the sky. The clouds had started to gray. “You guys probably don’t know the story, right? Since you just got here.”
“Story?” Lisa asked, perking up.
“No.” I dragged my gaze from the sky and back to Jon. “I haven’t heard it yet.”
Jon started walking toward the farthest point, where the woman stood earlier, and Lisa scrambled after him, distracted by Melly. I followed. Though the day was warm, the wind’s chill cut through my shirt.
“It all happened right here,” Jon said with a dramatic wave of his hand, “way back before the American Revolution. The story goes that the British colonel, the guy in charge of all of it, ran a tight ship—erm, fort. He upheld all the regulations, which included killing folk on the spot if they broke rules—for instance, if they fell asleep on watch. So this guy, he brought his daughter, Wilful—seriously, I’m not making this up—with him to America. She fell in love with one of the officers at the fort.”
“Oh!” I exclaimed, my imagination running with all the possibilities. Jon shook his head like that was only the boring part.
“On the night of their marriage, they walked together along the fort walls. Wilful saw the bloodroot bloom, all down there.”
Jon pointed to the fields, then examined our feet and grabbed a flower from the grass, throwing it to me. I caught and turned it over in my hands. The bloom had a yellow center with long white petals, a little bruised from his carelessness, and fit in my palm.
The bloom had a yellow center with long white petals, a little bruised from his carelessness, and fit in my palm.
“She turns to her husband and says something like, ‘Gee, those are pretty.’ And he says, ‘Go ahead home. I’ll be right back.’ So she goes to their quarters. He goes to one of his friends on sentry duty and tells him that he’s going down to pick the flowers for his wife. It can’t wait because bloodroot only blooms about a day or two before it dies. His friend tells him, ‘You’re too tired! Take my post and I’ll go get the flower.’ So the husband takes the watch and waits while his friend climbs down. He pulls his hat over his eyes so no one will notice it’s not the right guy on duty.
“But it’s been a long day, and the husband nods off. The colonel, his father-in-law, comes around inspecting, sees a soldier asleep on duty, takes out his pistol,” Jon mimicked a pistol by putting two fingers together, cocked them at Melly, “and shoots the guy in the head—bang!”
Melly flopped over on her back, her little paws quivering. Lisa laughed and got down to rub Melly’s belly. Jon blew on his fingers like a cowboy blowing away smoke. I stared at him, horrified.
“It’s only after he lifts the dead man’s face to the moon that the colonel realizes he’s killed his daughter’s husband. So he turns the gun on himself, finds there’s another shot in the second barrel.” Jon stuck his fingers in his mouth. His head jerked back, his eyes rolled. “Bang,” he said, his head unnaturally tilted. I crossed my arms tightly over my chest.
“And Wilful, when she hears the shots and sees them both dead, well she goes nuts. She runs right off this point here and throws herself into the moat. Breaks her neck on that rock.”
I swallowed, moving so my toes were right at the edge of the wall, and looked down at the water lapping against the fort. Under the cloudy skies, the bay beyond the moat had turned brown and yellow. The rock was flat, gray, on the far bank of the moat. The flower fluttered in my hand as the wind tried to tear it away.
“They say she still wanders the ramparts, looking for a victim to bring to the sea,” Jon whispered near my ear, “when the bloodroots bloom.”
He put a hand on my shoulder and pushed. I screamed, waving my arms frantically to get my balance as I teetered over the edge. Then his hand yanked me back, I fell on my butt in the grass, and Jon nearly collapsed to his knees laughing.
“That’s not funny!” I yelled, blinking back angry tears as I got to my feet.
“Yeah!” chimed Lisa, leaving Melly to join me, hands balled on her non-existent hips.
“Oh my god, you should have seen your face!” He clutched his stomach, rocking on his heels.
“That story’s not true! And you’re mean! And we’re leaving.” I grabbed Lisa’s arm and pulled her toward the stairs.
“Whatever you say!” he called after me. “You’re the one who saw her!”
I did not deign to answer, but pulled Lisa to the nearest way out. With my free hand, I dug in my pocket. My dad’s ribbon was still there. He would have known what to do when a boy pretended to shove someone off a wall, would have known why lonely people had to be so mean. I clenched my fist and gripped hard enough that the pins at the back cut my palm.
“What’d Jon tell you?” Lisa asked. “He wasn’t nice. But I liked Melly.”
“Just a story.” My throat hurt and I cleared it. “Weren’t you listening?”
“I couldn’t hear. The wind was too loud.” She looked at me hopefully, wanting the story.
Suddenly I wanted to tell it. I wanted to take out the image of Jon with his fingers in his mouth and put in images of my own, where the characters moved the way I wanted and the story ended the way I commanded. In my version, Wilful’s father and husband had died at sea and she visited the fort now not to haunt it, but to bestow help to those with loved ones who were gone. My story began to remind me of a Cornish legend I’d read, where the wife of a sailor managed to summon his spirit to land by casting items into a fire.
“So when the bloodroot blooms, you can take something precious that belonged to a loved one and cast it into the bay. The White Widow will be summoned to bring that person safely home to you,” I told Lisa.
“Like what?” Lisa asked. “What do you have to throw in?”
I felt in my pocket. “Like… Well, like a ribbon.”
“When does the bloodroot bloom?”
“It was blooming today. That boy”—I didn’t feel he deserved to be addressed by his name—“showed me some.”
Lisa nodded, satisfied.
We came in sight of the three-story townhouse. I didn’t want to call it our townhouse yet, not when it looked just like every other townhouse here and didn’t have any of the bulbs Mom had planted at home that we hadn’t even seen bloom. I held Lisa’s hand as we made our way across our backyard, which was also a parking lot. We could hear Mom shoving stuff around even before we opened the backdoor. I helped Lisa get her shoes off and hung up her jacket.
“Lisa, can you do something really important?” She nodded. I took Dad’s ribbon out of my pocket and turned it over in my hand once. “Take this to our room and put it on the dresser, okay?”
“Okay!” Lisa took my ribbon and ran off. Tuffy was stuffed in her pocket now, just his head peeking out with the ribbon-earring bouncing as she leapt up the stairs. I made my way to our main floor more slowly. Mom was on her knees in the kitchen, putting pots in a cupboard, her curly hair pulled into a tight ponytail. I could see the winding lines of her lightning scar right above the collar of her t-shirt. A voice murmured in the living room, and I edged through the kitchen to get a glimpse of the TV. The Weather Channel played quietly, covering the weekend report. I liked how the weatherman’s voice made the house feel less empty.
“Look.” Lisa had stopped to watch the weather report. Grinning, she pointed at the screen. “It’s going to storm!”
I turned back to the weather. Sure enough, there was an eighty percent chance of thunderstorms. My stomach started doing a sea serpent coil. I could remember when I was really little, before Lisa, when we had a bad hurricane. Hail rained down and the windows broke and Mom went raking leaves in the eye of the storm even though Dad said it wouldn’t make a difference. The clouds rolled in and she got distracted talking to a neighbor. They finally said goodbye, walked separate ways, and I saw Mom and then light and then Mom again, collapsing on the driveway, thunder so loud I went deaf a moment and couldn’t hear myself scream or Dad shouting as he ran and then days afterward in the hospital with all sorts of adults telling me, “Your mom’s lucky. Struck by lightning! Went right through her spine all the way out her heel. Did she show you the scar?” And I’d say, yes, she did. It looked like tree roots, red and dark as blood, growing down from her neck all the way to her third rib.
One of the adults, a well- meaning friend, told Dad, “Hey, at least you don’t have to worry about that! The chances of getting hit again…”
And Dad’d said, “The chances get better after you’re hit once.” And his friend tried to smile and Dad stretched his lips back but didn’t even make a dint in his cheeks and rubbed his eyes and then picked me up and put me on his lap and told me a story about Zeus. Mom always got surprised when I remembered so much, especially since she couldn’t. I wished I could forget.
“There you are.” Mom came into the living room. Her flushed cheeks told me I was in for it. She nodded to a clock sitting on the dining room table, waiting to be hung. “What time is it, Penelope?”
I looked down with a sinking feeling. “Four fifteen, ma’am. Sorry… I lost track of time.”
Lisa dashed off as Mom mutely pointed to a box. Biting my lip, I grabbed scissors and started cutting. The packers had put an extra layer of tape on this one. The Weather Channel played in the other room. Storms should hit in the next hour or so. Some hail expected. If you’re in the bay area, be careful… The scissors broke through at last, and my whole arm plunged into the box. Its insides smelled a little like our old house—musty with a tinge of coffee and spices and book pages. When Mom wasn’t looking, I put my head all the way in and inhaled deeply.
We finished an hour later. Wisps of Mom’s red hair made a halo around her pale face as she put the last knick-knack on the bookshelf, a piece of blue rope tied in an Alpine Butterfly knot. It was my favorite knot because it looked sort of like a Celtic trinity knot—one big loop and two twined smaller loops. Instead of giving her flowers, Dad gave her bits of knotted rope when they were dating. “The Alpine Butterfly is very important,” he’d say to me, smiling at my mom, “because it’s the anchor knot.”
Mom exhaled slowly, mentioned ordering pizza and sent me to do more unpacking in my room. I left, relieved. I saw her heading toward the sunroom to unpack more.
I pushed open the door to my room, but before it could swing wide it caught on something. Digging my shoulder into the wood, I tried to push harder.
“Don’t come in!” came Lisa’s voice as the door pushed back against me.
“What?” I wedged my foot in the open space and tried to squeeze through the opening.
I pushed through and stopped in amazement. Our room was a disaster, post-hurricane kind. Boxes lay toppled over, spilling illustrated books and toys and clothes everywhere. I couldn’t step without putting my foot on a pile at least an inch deep. Mom was going to freak.
I swung around to Lisa, cowering behind the door. “What on earth did you do?”
“I lost it!” Big tears rolled down her cheeks. “I lost it!”
“Dad’s ribbon—the one he—he gave you.”
Hurricane winds covered my ears, my brain. I was right in front of her before I knew I’d taken a step, screaming, “What do you mean—you lost it?”
“I just wanted to play!” she wailed, pointing at her stuffed animals standing in military formation on the window seat. Tuffy sat in front of them with his ribbon earring. “I wanted to play with it, just one game, and—and—then—I can’t find it anywhere!”
Red coated everything—Lisa’s blotched face, the unpainted walls, the boxes, everything.
“You have your own ribbon! Why didn’t you play with that?”
“I wanted to play with yours!”
Red coated everything—Lisa’s blotched face, the unpainted walls, the boxes, everything.
I wished I was the colonel of the fort and I could shoot her. I wished I was a mermaid and I could drown her.
I raised my hand and the sting cut up my arm as I hit her across the cheek.
Lisa stared at me, her gray eyes wide and wounded, a tear dripping down over the angry welt from my hand. I stared back, breathing hard, my stomach turning inside out.
“Penelope Catherine Smith.” Mom’s voice was low and calm. When I turned, her eyes were scarier than lightning. “Tell me what you just did.”
“Lisa lost Dad’s ribbon—the one he gave me!” I pointed at her, my voice hitching. Lisa started crying even more and shoved past me to grab Tuffy from the window seat before latching onto Mom’s legs. I knew I was lost. Mom always went easy on Lisa. If Dad’s been here, he might have at least given Lisa a spanking. If he’d been here, I wouldn’t have hit Lisa at all. “What did you do?”
“I didn’t mean to!” My vision blurred and I felt the tears run down to my chin. “She just ruins everything! She always messes up my stuff!”
Mom picked up Lisa. “Apologize to your sister.”
I shut my mouth tight, pressing my lips together.
Mom’s eyes became steelier than an aircraft carrier. “All right then. You stay here until you can apologize. And I want you to clean up whatever of this mess is yours. Do you understand?”
“If you had unpacked all of your stuff”—she said it like another s-word I’d heard her use before—“when you were supposed to earlier, it wouldn’t have been in the boxes. And maybe once this mess is cleaned up you’ll find the ribbon. It’s got to be here somewhere.”
She carried Lisa to the door. Lisa lifted her head off Mom’s shoulder and whispered, “I’ll get him back, Penny.”
The door shut firmly and I was alone. I looked at the mess, feeling hopelessly like I’d been assigned one of Psyche’s impossible tasks. My hand still itched from hitting Lisa.
Thunder rumbled over the house about an hour later, when hunger combined with a lonely fear drew me out of my room. Though I had tearfully tried to straighten up my things, I still hadn’t found the ribbon. I moved down the steps one at a time, feeling the wood quake with the echoes of thunder. Back in my real home, my old home, I would have curled my toes to pull at the carpet threads, and felt grounded.
Mom still worked in the sunroom by the sound of it. The rain started, hitting the windows in a small patter-patter-patter. Thunder again. I went to the living room. The Weather Channel had been turned off, and the room felt bigger, colder without the murmuring weatherman.
“Lisa?” I called, checking the dining room, kitchen. I looked down the stairs to the backdoor. My coat hung on its peg with my shoes below, but Lisa’s were gone. The rain pounded louder behind my eyes. The backdoor had been left open a crack.
I ran down and pulled on my boots. I had to go after Lisa. But I couldn’t tell Mom. Not only would she be even more furious with me, she’d be in danger too. What if she got hit again, and Dad wasn’t even here to help? I didn’t want her to go in the storm—even more than I didn’t want to go in the storm.
When I slipped outside, the rain hit me like those waterfalls at nice pools—a weight breaking on my neck and shoulders. My hair clung to my face, and I blinked hard to try to see, still standing on the first step, staring out into the rain, my toes right on the edge of the step’s ledge. Lightning tore across the sky in a wicked smile. The trees waved one way and then another. My heart hammered in my chest, my stomach watermelon hard.
Something—someone—white moved under the flash of the lightning. I only had a glimpse—a woman, gliding along the grass toward the fort. With a yelp, I jumped down the steps and tore across the parking lot. The temperature had dropped, and my hands hurt with cold. Puddles soaked my pants and dripped down over my ankles.
The grass beneath my feet changed to pavement. I raised my eyes enough to get a glimpse of the fort, cloaked in darkness and looming taller than before. I could barely make out the little stoplights, still on red, gleaming at me through the storm, like they knew something I didn’t. The rain receded as I ducked into the entrance. I cupped my hands to my mouth and screamed, “Lisa!”
Lightning streaked down somewhere in the bay, and in its jagged fall to the ground I saw Lisa silhouetted on top of the wall, the light turning her red hair to fire. I screamed again, but the wind ripped my voice away. Thunder crashed through my head, and I felt the fort wall tremble under my hand.
Taking a deep breath, I plunged from my shelter back into the rain. The stairs were slick with water, and I slipped. I didn’t feel any pain when my knee collided with the edge of one step, or when my palms slid over stone to stop me. I scrambled the rest of the way on all fours. The rain tasted salty, and I thought I might be crying, or maybe it was the sea.
Lisa stood on the point where Wilful fell all those years ago. She held her right hand out, clenched shut, her other hand gripping Tuffy to her side. In another flash of lightning, I thought I saw the woman—but when I blinked Lisa was alone. I ran to her, the mud sliding away from my feet a little with every step. She stood so near the edge—I didn’t know if she realized it, and she couldn’t hear me.
You have to give her something that the sailor loved, I remembered saying. Icy fingers crawled across my neck. Dad loved Lisa way more than all his ribbons. Lisa was more than a small piece of Dad—she was half him. That woman on the wall had noticed Lisa, had smiled— but maybe not kindly after all. Maybe Jon had been right—maybe the White Widow haunted the grounds, wished harm in her grief, hurt the living for pleasure. Maybe the White Widow didn’t want to be lonely any more.
Lisa threw her hand forward, fingers spreading as she released something. Then she pitched, arms flailing, and fell.
No screams were left in me. I paused just long enough to look down. I could see a shadow under the water I thought could be Lisa. She hadn’t learned to swim yet—she still wouldn’t let go of pool edges. I backed a few steps, hardly hearing the storm anymore, too scared to think how scared I was. I ran, jumped.
The water hit me like Dad’s belt—but this all over me, every part, so sharp and stunning the air went out of me and I couldn’t get anything back in. I grabbed blindly, found an arm, and kicked off from the muddy bottom of the moat. My legs hurt from thrashing, my skin burned, my chest shrunk to the size of a pin. Water sloshed in my ears, in my head, and I could hear murmurs like a distant avalanche.
I broke the surface. Sound washed me in a baptism of thunder. I opened my mouth but no air would come in. Kicking furiously, I dragged Lisa through the water to the large rock. She started kicking, too. I pushed her onto the rock. Lisa’s hair clung in limp clumps around her face. I crawled up beside her, my whole body bruised, and curled forward until my forehead scraped the stone.
All at once, air came back. I gasped and coughed, unable to take enough in, too shaken to do more than gasp until I nearly heaved. Lisa dug her head into my shoulder, clinging.
“Are you okay?” I asked when I could speak. “Are you okay? What were you doing?”
“I tried to bring Daddy back,” she whimpered into my neck. “I gave my ribbon to the White Widow moat.” Her voice hitched. “I think I lost Tuffy.”
“It’s all right.” I gripped her arm, her head, feeling her firmness, feeling her shuddering breaths. She smelled like the sea. She smelled like the stale moat water. She smelled a little metallic. “It’s okay.”
She curled closer, shaking in the cold, and I held her. The thunder grew fainter, less frequent. At last I got up. Water lapped at my feet, and something soft brushed the toe of my shoe. Tuffy had washed up beside us. I scooped him out—soaked and drooping—passed him to Lisa. I put my hand on her shoulder.
Together we started walking home.