It was the light that started it. Hannah woke up at three o’clock in the morning one cold February day and noticed that one of the old copper sconces along the wall was turned on, emitting a dim, barely perceptible halo. It flickered at first, then died, then abruptly came back to life again. At first she chalked it up to a faulty wire, or carelessness on her part—had she turned off the lights before bed? But when it happened again the next evening, and again two days later, she began to pay attention.
The fourth time, she was already awake when it happened. She felt around the nightstand for her glasses, put them on, then stared at the glowing bulb and frowned. She definitely remembered turning off the switch before going to bed. She watched as it slowly burned out, leaving the room dark once more. Then she went back to sleep.
Another girl would have been scared, maybe a bit frightened, but this was Hannah’s third winter on Shelter Island and she was used to its “house noises” and assorted eccentricities. In the summer, the back screen door would never stay closed, it would bang over and over with the wind, or when someone walked in and out of the house—her mother’s boyfriend, a neighbor, Hannah’s friends whose parents had houses on the island and spent their summers there. No one ever locked their doors on Shelter Island. There was no crime (unless bike-stealing was considered a crime, and if your bike was gone, most likely someone just borrowed it to pedal down to the local market and you would find it on your front doorstep the next day) and the last murder was recorded sometime in the 1700s.
Hannah was fifteen years old, and her mother was a bartender at The Good Shop, a crunchy, all-organic café, restaurant and bar that was only open three months out of the year, during the high season, when the island was infested (her mother’s word) with cityfolk on vacation. The summer people (also her mother’s words) and their money made living on the island possible for year-rounders like them. During the off-season, in the winter, there were so few people on the island it was akin to living in a ghost town.
But Hannah liked the winters, liked watching the ferry cross the icy river, how the quiet snow covered everything like a fairy blanket. She would walk alone on the windswept beach where the slushy sound of her boots scuffing the damp sand was the only sound for miles. People always threatened to quit the island during the winter. They had enough of the brutal snowstorms that raged in the night, the wind howling like a crazed banshee against the windows. They complained of the loneliness, the isolation. Some people didn’t like the sound of quiet, but Hannah reveled in it. Only then could she hear herself think.
Hannah and her mother had started out as summer people. Once upon a time, when her parents were still together, the family would vacation in one of the big, colonial mansions by the beach, near where the yachts docked by the Sunset Beach hotel. But things were different after the divorce. Hannah understood that their lives had been lessened by the split, that she and her mother were lesser people now in some way. Objects of pity ever since her dad ran off with his art dealer.
Not that Hannah cared very much what other people thought. She liked the house they lived in, a comfortable, ram-shackle Cape Cod with a wrap-around porch and six bedrooms tucked away in its corners—one up on the attic, three on the ground floor, and two in the basement. There were antique nautical prints of the island and its surrounding waters framed in the wood-paneled living room. The house belonged to a family who never used it, and the caretaker didn’t mind renting it to a single mother.
At first, they moved around the vast spaces like two marbles lost in a pinball table. But over time they adjusted and the house felt cozy and warm. Hannah never felt lonely or scared in the house. She always felt safe.
Still, the next night, at three o’clock in the morning, when the lights blinked on, and the door whooshed open with a bang, it startled Hannah and she sat up immediately, looking around. Where had the wind come from? The windows were all storm-proofed and she hadn’t felt a draft. With a start, she noticed a shadow lingering by the doorway.
“Who’s there?” She called out in a firm and no-nonsense voice. It was the kind of voice she used when she worked as a cashier at the marked-up grocery during the summers when the cityfolk would complain about the price of arugula.
She wasn’t scared. Just curious. What would cause the lights to blink on and off and the door to bang open like that?
“Nobody,” someone answered.
Hannah turned around.
There was a boy sitting in the chair in the corner.
Hannah almost screamed. That she was not prepared for. A cat. Maybe a lost squirrel of some sort, she had been expecting. But a boy … Hannah was shy around boys. She was fast approaching her sweet-sixteen-and-never-been-kissed milestone. It was awful how some girls made such a big deal out of it, but even more awful that Hannah agreed with them.
“Who are you? What are you doing here?” Hannah said, trying to feel braver than she felt.
“This is my home,” the boy said calmly. He was her age, she could tell, maybe a bit older. He had dark shaggy hair that fell in his eyes, and he was wearing torn jeans and a dirty T-shirt. He was very handsome, but he looked pensive and pained. There was an ugly cut on his neck.
Hannah pulled up the covers to her chin, if only to hide her pajamas, which were flannel and printed with pictures of sushi. He must be a neighbor, one of the O’Malley boys who lived next door. How did he get into her room without her noticing? What did he want with her? Should she cry out? Let her mother know? Call for help? That wound on his neck—it looked ravaged. Something awful had happened to him, and Hannah felt her skin prickle with goose bumps.
“Who are you?” the boy asked, suddenly turning the tables.
“I’m Hannah,” she said in a small voice. Why did she tell him her real name? Did it matter?
“Do you live here?”
“How strange,” the boy said thoughtfully. “Well.” He said. “Nice meeting you Hannah.” Then he walked out of her room and closed the door. Soon after, the light blinked off.
Hannah lay in her bed, wide-awake for a very long time, her heart galloping in her chest. The next morning, she didn’t tell her mom about the boy in her room. She convinced herself it was just a dream. That was it. She had just made him up. Especially the part about him looking like a younger Johnny Depp. She’d been wanting a boyfriend so much she’d made one appear. Not that he would be her boyfriend. But if she was ever going to have a boyfriend, she would like him to look like that. Not that boys who looked like that ever looked at girls like her. Hannah knew what she looked like. Small. Average. Quiet. Her nicest feature were her eyes, sea-glass green, framed with lush dark lashes. But they were hidden behind her eyeglasses most of the time.
Her mother always accused her of having an overactive imagination, and maybe that was all it was. She had finally let the winter crazies get to her. It was all in her mind.
But then he returned the next evening, wandering into her room as if he belonged there. She gaped at him, too frightened to say a word, and he gave her a courtly bow before disappearing. The next night, she didn’t fall asleep. Instead, she waited.