"Two Hundred Twelve" by Sarah Archer Moulton

Sarah Archer Moulton
Sarah Archer Moulton

After studying English, Creative Writing, and Screenwriting at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill, Sarah Archer Moulton worked in film and television development in Los Angeles, where she was involved in projects ranging from Monk to House to the upcoming series People Are Talking and Uncle Buck. Writing in a variety of genres, she has sold a script to Comedy Central’s show TripTank and has been published in such venues as The Brooklyner and Tract. She recently relocated to the island of St. Maarten. Samples of her comedy writing can be found on Twitter at twitter.com/sarahamoulton.


Two Hundred and Twelve

Ellen had not intended to kill her grandfather, and at first she couldn’t be sure if she had. She drained her flooding mind and examined the facts: here was his body which looked to be lifeless on the iron floor of the hexagonal room at the top of the lighthouse. She waited: one beat of the heart, two beats, ten, thirty, a full hundred. He did not move. Was it a trick? She kept her body where it was, back against the column that supported the light in the middle of the room, the floor frigid against her bony buttocks, knees scooped up under her chin, and stretched out one arm, trembling, to touch his boot. His foot moved heavily beneath her touch, sapped of inner suspension. She hovered her hand just above his mouth and nose, remembering a scene she had read in a book, the air leaving a body like from a bag held upside down. He was dead.

How did he die? Cowering by the light, she had felt rather than heard him coming: the iron beneath her humming, then vibrating, then shaking as his steps grew stronger but slower up the two hundred and twelve stairs. By the time she could hear his curses and grunts, he had to wait a full ten beats of the heart between steps, and still he kept coming. She did all she knew to do: become small and stay still. She wished she could disappear into a tiny crack like the train of ants that dripped black down the wall of the alcove where she slept and took her meals. She wished, wickedly, his steps would fail him before he reached the top.

Then the door opened with a crack. He lurched in, bellowing between gasps: “I know you’re in here! I know what you did, you little bitch! You destroy my things and then you make me come up these steps after you. You’re trying to kill me. Who’s going to take care of you then?” He coughed. Your mom and dad?”

She felt the heat of him approaching around the column like a mist. Not daring to turn to look, she saw his knobby hand grasping towards her, arched like a claw. But then the hand froze before it reached her arm. There were horrible hoarse, retching sounds; the hand drew back, and she finally turned her head to see him clutching his chest. Strobed slowly in and out darkness in the spinning beam, he crumpled slowly, putting a hand out for support that was not there as his knees gave way and brought his whole weight to the hard floor with a quake. His chest shuddered up and down and his gasps turned to gurgles, and then stopped.

It was the climb that had killed the old man, a climb he neglected in recent years, letting the light get grimy and the windows fill with the stains of rain. The climb made him die, and anger made him climb, and it was Ellen who made the anger. She knew when she saw the watch she should leave it on his bedside table where he left it. But the fact that he had left it made it irresistible.

Usually putting on the watch was John’s first act in the morning and taking it off his last at night. Even when the trips upstairs dwindled and more of his time passed in his chair, he would rub oil into its handsome leather strap and wipe its glass face to a gleam, palming the weighty gold of its setting with a deliberate caution that was almost tenderness. But he had gone into town for the day and there was nothing to stop Ellen from just seeing it up close for the first time. And then there was nothing to stop her from picking it up, watching its hand tick the seconds, as fine as anything. And then how could she not slide it on, cold and heavy, over her wrist and past her narrow elbow? And then how could she not, in the course of doomed events, splash it with her tea, the leather splotchily darkening, liquid moving in bubbles under the case, the three hands stopped in their perfect world of glass?

So if Ellen caused the watch to stop, and finding the stopped watch caused Sir to climb the tower after her, and climbing the tower caused his heart to stop, and his heart stopping caused him to die, Ellen had killed her grandfather.

Ellen’s eyes scoured the room for an answer to the answer she had inevitably deduced. From afar, at first the light looked like an eye that was blinking, but one realized it was in fact rotating in steady circles, never shut, only turned from what you could see. Ellen knew this about the light. She had lived in the lighthouse for seven years and could not remember not knowing it. The two years before that did not count. All she remembered from those days was her mother’s rose perfume, and that she didn’t remember. She kept it in a gauzy pink scarf, the one thing she had from her parents. The scent fell from its folds as from a sun-splashed garden across the sea, full of swaying stems and little iridescent flashes of wings.

After climbing to the tower room to hide, she had watched the sun. Rather than circling towards an apex, it filled the space, light swelling from pane to pane, shedding its expanding heat. Then the light seeped out and pulled up into stars, visible wherever the bulb rotated its restless back. By now, clouds had come in from out over the water and were shaking themselves off, and here the two bodies remained very still in the gut of the sky. But Ellen’s heart was beating beyond its normal pace, and the rotation of the light seemed to slow in comparison, scraping over them, searching.

Her books, or rather John’s books, which she allowed herself to read because he took no notice of them, or of her, had taught her that evil cannot escape what it has done. Without her, a man would still be alive. The price for a life in the stories was generally a life. Sometimes it was the guillotine, sometimes the cold walls of a prison, the dreary wasting of the years.

It would only be a matter of time before someone would come: the lady with the lipstick and the quilted bag who came once a year, dependable as rock, to measure her educational progress, would knock on the door and wait patiently for someone to open; the postman would tip open the mail slot, peer inside. And when they found her, they would seize her and bring her, held up by each arm, before a stern-mouthed judge. And any sentence, she would deserve.

Ellen was resolved. If she was the villain now, she would have to act like it. And that meant to dispose of the evidence and escape. Her escape came clearly: she had seen through the window how John sometimes took a boat out with a long, slender paddle.   There were other places in the world; she would escape the house, the whole town. Music would play as she pulled up on the shore of a hot island. She would find work in a store that sold books and buy fruit every day and practice being better.

The next concern was rations, but those could be found. She took a mental inventory of what was in the kitchen: half a crusty loaf, a wedge of cheese in paper. Sir never let her touch the meat, but there was a whole raw chicken in the refrigerator to be boiled and chopped. She would allow herself to take it; she was reckless, a creature of need, she had already broken everything. She could stretch the chicken out for quite a while, and she would gather windfall apples from the yard.

No, the biggest concern was him. How did one make something as solid as a body disappear? What happened to a body when it was no longer in use? What happened to her mom and dad?

She listened to the steady suck and sigh of the ocean, a sound at once low and enormous. And that was it: the sea. Sir had been the biggest force in her life, but the water was the only thing bigger, bigger than anything, deeper than sky. She would push him into the water and it would lose him so completely that his rough words, his hands stiff like sailcloth, would never have existed.

Ellen stood, her knees wincing a little; she hadn’t realized how long she had been folded into herself. She tiptoed to the window, as if someone listened, and balanced on the pads of her feet to look out. Between the base of the lighthouse and the water was a jumble of rock and sand ten or fifteen feet across. If she managed to get Sir to the window, to lift him above her and open the glass and propel him out, he would fall not onto the water but the land. She imagined his body breaking jaggedly like a glass, the blood draining into the brown sand, too deep down to ever remove.

The only way would be to pull him down the stairs, all two hundred and twelve, and into the water herself. But this shell of John was as hefty as John, as solid as when the blunt flat of his hand would crash her cheek. How could she move him? She reached out and brushed his hand; it was tepid, almost oily. She imagined if she grabbed him by the arms and pulled, his dead skin would slough from his body, and the innards whose diagrams she had traced in books would spill out slimy and dark.

She stood, stepped gingerly above him, leaned down and grabbed his coat collar, carefully avoiding his hair. She tugged; the fabric shifted but the body did not move. She concentrated her strength and pulled harder. The weight moved maybe only an inch, but it crashed into the central column of the light, which gave a screeching, grinding noise.

For the first time in Ellen’s memory, the light stopped. Its beam pointed unwaveringly on some distant, unforgiven spot, rather than circling. She kicked it, but her soft foot barely even made a sound. Her eyes raked around the room: a corroded metal carrier of strange tools she couldn’t begin to identify, let alone use. It would have to stay. She did all she knew to do: she focused on the body.

Beside the tools were a bucket of oil-streaked rags that he used to clean the light when he used to clean it. Taking two, she returned to her grandfather, sat with her back to him, very close, and with a shuddering breath, reached back with her right arm and grabbed his left. She tied his arm to hers, hooked together as if they were partners in a dance. Then, with more difficulty, she tied her left arm to his right. She could feel his head against her back, his hair thin and soft like a baby’s, pulling back and forth with her every movement over the leaden solidity of his skull.

She stretched her legs at a wide angle, bore her ankles into the floor, and pulled her body towards her feet, dragging him along with her. They moved a few inches. This was the best she was going to do. So three inches at a time, they neared the door. It helped to give her arms something to work against; she tried alternately clinging just below her own knees as she jerked forward and digging her palms into the floor.

By the time she reached the doorway, maybe six feet, sweat dampened her thin sweater and percolated at her hairline. The rags dug into the crooks of her elbows, and she shifted them, but every tug across the floor moved them back to the same spot. And now the stairs gaped beneath her. Maybe here gravity would allow her to pull him down without the constant pressure of his body against her back. She untied herself, stood, and tried pulling at his coat again, but it was no good. Her already delicate arms were wearying fast; she needed the full force of her body behind every move. There was no point in waiting or coming back later. Every trip up and down the steps would sap her strength, and every day wasted would dwindle her rations. Besides, with more time, who knew what new transformations the body would undertake? And so shuddering again, she retied herself, placed her feet on a lower step, and with a massive effort, pulled her body down to the first step.

His head and shoulders jolted into her sickeningly. But she continued, one step at a time, the corpse slamming against her with each like a beating. One step, two, thirteen. Every time she tensed her arms, the thin tendons of her elbows stood out and chafed against the rags.

If she counted each step, she did not have to think about his cold shoulders ramming her back. Twenty-six, twenty-seven, twenty-eight. At fifty she allowed herself a rest, pausing for deep gasping breaths, but the stale smell of him filled her mouth and she gagged. Fifty. Fifty. Fifty.

Now the stairs were completely dark, too far from top or bottom to receive light from either. She felt the way to each step down toes-first. In the absence of sight, the smell took on more force and character; she saw it in the pitch dark like smoke that grew hands and eyes and laughing mouths and was the color of rot. But she did all she knew to do: she continued.

By the hundredth step, she was less alone. In her fevered mind she talked to someone; it was a little game she played, and the person never had a name or face, but there was something maternal about the presence. “And today I read that Majorca is an island of Spain, and hamsters eat their young.” The person never answered back, but that was fine; she was used to provoking her own thoughts, one to the next. Maybe she would escape to Majorca. The water there would be filled with color, the sand soft as fine sheets.

But suddenly she realized that she had forgotten to count. What step was she on? What number did she last hear in her head? She considered untying herself and walking back up to the top to count where she was, but there was no time, and the thought of fumbling for her grandfather’s lifeless arms in the dark, brushing a sallow hand, was too awful. Her only choice was to hurry, to end it – there was no measuring of the pace now, no landmarks in numbers, just a blind rush that disallowed anything but panic. The bones of her bottom ached from pounding down step after step, her skin smarted against the rag ties, sweat sprayed from her forehead with every downward jolt, and looming from the black she saw the faces of an accusing crowd, looking at her with nothing but hate.

But at last, the edges of the steps below began to be faintly outlined, and the sound of the body thumping behind her quieted in the acoustics of the opening stairwell. Finally she could see enough to count the steps ahead: five, four, three, two, two hundred and twelve. She kicked into the relative brightness of the moonlit hallway, a human space. She paused. The only sound was her erratic breath.

Limp and shaking, she let herself relax into the floor and into the body, exhaustion trampling disgust. She closed her eyes and saw spirals and whirling geometric stars, giving herself permission to rest because she could do nothing else. Here, finally, she would drink some water, wash the raw stripes on her arms under the bands that were now spotted with blood. But first she would just rest…

But a new set of voices jolted her. Where did they come from? Not inside her, not even inside the house, but outside. They grew and shrank, moving along the perimeter of the building, closer and away. “Storm’s almost here, we have to fix it.” “Give it five minutes and we’ll knock again, then if he doesn’t answer, we’ll bust in.” “Old bastard hasn’t done his job right in years.”

Jerked to life by fear, Ellen untied herself and scrambled, low and soft like a thief, to the entryway. She glimpsed two male shapes beyond the window, heard their mismatched gaits move restlessly through the yard. The stillness of the light must have brought them, and now they were here. Her reckoning. They would break in, find the body, find the girl, and she would never escape this place or anything that had been done here.

But they had said five minutes. She averaged ninety-six beats of the heart per minute. Four hundred and eighty beats – it was enough, if she hurried, and if she hid… she would get her grandfather outside, wait until they entered the house, then drag him through the back yard, around the side of the house, and down the sand in the front that sloped into the sea. She would mirror their movements like the shadow behind a light. Then until they came back out and left down the gravel drive, she would hide by a rock or a tree, until she could claim her belongings inside and leave forever.

When she scampered back toward the body, the smell hit her afresh with a swell of nausea, followed by a realization that struck her even more than the threat of time – her mother’s scarf and its rose perfume could block out the smell.

In her alcove she found it, tucked away in its corner as always. She allowed herself to smell it infrequently because it gave diminishing returns. The smell grew lighter as time went on and even now she had to catch it, a whiff that would hit when she unfolded the scarf, before she could think to want it. If she pressed the fabric to her nose, it was gone. But now with all the shame of indulgence, she tied it around her face, bandit-style, and allowed herself to take it in, hating herself for the stains her filthy skin would leave.

Through the windows she saw a charcoal sky. It was ten by the clock, but lighter than it should be, the full clouds that filled the sky diffusing the moonlight until it was everywhere and the moon was nowhere. And still the lighthouse beam stuck straight into the gloom, still and focused and patient. Far-off thunder muttered.

If the men were trying to fix the light before the storm, they would have to hurry, and so would she. She ran on shaking legs back to John and, with no time to try anything else, strapped her bleeding arms back to his and pulled him through the house. His pants snagged on a nail, cutting into his leg, and a long streak of blood traced after them that she saw when she turned a corner, but it was too much effort to get up and fix it now; now, she did all she knew to do: keep moving, keep moving. She breathed open-mouthed and the gauzy scarf fluttered in and out, damp. When she finally reached the back door, leaving a trail of blood thickened with gray dust on the floor, she stretched up and opened it, thrust herself and him through to the cold ground outside with an animal grunt, and leaned back and shut the door behind them.

Here she could hear the men’s words, or shards of them, carried around the skin of the house on the buffeting wind. She heard “one more chance” and two sets of heavy knocks by different hands. Then, from within the house and through the back door rather than around the outside, she heard a splinter of glass and a rough shudder of a door; a laugh and “doing his job anyway.” They were in.

The pause of a moment had allowed tiredness to lower over her, but she shoved it off and resumed her path into the yard. The grass here was sparse; it had never taken to the poor soil, and rocks poked up regularly. But the cold air felt good to her hot face. She tried not to think about the wet hard ground beneath her. Plant the feet, tighten the legs, plant the feet, tighten the legs. She started to see little white explosions of stars over the front of her vision, but she was gaining ground. Too weak to untie herself, stand, and open the gate, she instead went an extra five pulls out of the way to scrape through a hole in the fence instead. The fence to the water was ordinarily seventy-two of her grandfather’s steps. She wished she could convert that to whatever unit her current jerking progress was. Momentum was the only way she would keep going.

As she rounded to the front of the house, soil gave over to sand, and she realized she had not accounted for the change in texture. She dug her heels in and tried to pull herself forward, but her feet slipped back through the shifting ground. She had to bury her feet a few inches deep, lurch forward, and shake them out of the sand to secure them again, making every step slower and harder. She stuck to the side of the beam of light and the night almost disguised her. The scarf now was wet with perspiration, her hot breathing, and the dampness in the atmosphere and clung to her like washed hair. The air was a mixture of roses, salt, and rotting meat.

She was halfway towards the water when everything changed. She thought the land was rolling slowly from one side to the other, then she realized it was the light that was moving. They had turned it back on, and now it swept again in slow spirals. There was no way to avoid it, and every few seconds she would be thrown into bright relief. Without a hope of hiding, her closest disguise was stillness. Her only thoughts could be for the rhythm of light and dark, immobility and rush. That was maybe a door slamming behind her, but it didn’t matter. Every five beats of the heart she froze, letting the electricity wash over her.

All her fibers fighting, she inched ahead, sand filling her worn shoes, stabbing in a thousand little points into her hands. She and her burden were a macabre wind-up toy, moving jerkily forward then suddenly suspending animation. The sea was welcome; it was the road that was going to carry her away. She kept her thoughts on planning: take ten apples, one blanket, one jar of water… As she neared the water the wind gushed in her ears and she could not tell if the voices she heard were real or part of the storm or neither, and she could not stop to look back, she only moved on and down and had no energy for the thought that the voices were getting closer, more distinct.

She reached the shore and dug and dragged herself forward, the waves sloshing up to her chest and then neck and then over her face. She struggled to a stand and the water helped buoy the dead man. Ahhh. It was pleasant – his weight, her weight, everything floating off of her. She tried to untie the rags but her fingers slipped and the wet cloth was impossible to make sense of. Instead, she dragged the tight canvas over her bloody wounds, letting the salt water wash in, and slipped her thin arms out. Her nearing freedom uplifted her and she was almost playful as she took her grandfather by the cold white hands and pulled him out through the water, deeper and deeper, easy now, like a dance.

There they were in the light that passed so beautifully over the colorless glass water and everything was natural motion, the light, the water, the wind, his body letting the motion of everything lead it and hers letting her limbs which no longer had the power to do anything else, but that was all right, be part of the endless up and down and around, and at last they were playing together in the ocean as she had pictured years ago, the day she sat in the back seat of his truck as it jounced up the gravel drive and saw the sea and the apple trees and the lighthouse for the first time. The knot at the back of the scarf was loosening in the water; it started to come off and her deep wet inhales sucked the filmy material in. It was choking her like a small fist, salt water sliding into her throat, and the voices were closer and more desperate, but it was all right, it tasted like roses.