Lighthouse Park Chapter Five


Carol listened patiently as Winnie explained that she wanted to find out everything she could about the cottage. She held off on mentioning her discovery of the letters and pendant, citing instead her conversation with Gary the day before. “I don’t know that I believe in ghosts,” she laughed, “but it did make me interested in the history of the place.”

“I can see where it would,” Carol agreed. “I confess, that cottage has just always been there, rumors notwithstanding. I guess I never gave it much thought. It’s just sort of a town fixture.” She tapped her chin. “I am sure we’ve got plenty of documents about the Hillis estate. No books, they were never that notorious, but we’ve got copies of every issue of the Bluffs Bulletin. They were often in the town news, of course. Hmm.” She turned to her computer.

“I guess for documents that old, we’re talking about microfiche?” Winnie glanced around with a frown, realizing she’d never noticed a microfiche machine in the library. Maybe that was one of the other public services in the basement?

“Oh, no, no microfiche dear.” Carol waved a dismissive hand. “We’re all digitized here. I’ll get you set up at one of the workstations. I was just thinking you might also want to run a search on articles about the lighthouse, since the cottage is linked to it.”

Winnie blinked. “Don’t take this the wrong way,” she ventured, “but for such a small rural town, y’all are weirdly on top of current technology.”

Carol laughed. “It certainly doesn’t hurt for drawing tourists, does it?” She shook her head, stepping out from behind the desk and leading Winnie over to the table that held the library’s half dozen public computers. “It’s all down to Mr. Kerns.”

“Kerns. I’ve heard that name. I think Jacob mentioned him.”

“Likely so. I hear he’s installing a set of built-in bookshelves at Mr. Kerns’ lake house. Grew up in the area, you see. Not a Bluffs boy, but his grandmother lived here. Visited every summer.” She gestured for Winnie to sit at one of the computers. “After he moved out west and became a tech bigwig, he had his lake house built. Still comes here every summer, and most Christmases. But he’s an important businessman, don’t you know,” she chuckled at this, “so he wanted to make sure he could stay connected. Pulled some strings and set us up as a test town.”

“Test town?”

“For the fancy new wireless networks or high speed internet, that sort of thing. I guess tech companies like to set it up on a small scale somewhere to test it out for problems and make sure it really works before they start trying to build and sell it everywhere else. Believe it or not, if it’s phone or internet, the Bluffs probably had it first.”

“Wow. Nice perk,” Winnie said, at last understanding why even her tiny cottage in the woods got such good cell service.

“It is. It also keeps us connected to the rest of the world, which I like. Broadens those young minds, and honestly, it means most of the folks who stick around or come back are here because they know what’s out there isn’t better than what we have here.”

Winne smiled at that. As much as she had picked Birchland Bluffs because it looked to be in the middle of nowhere, more or less, she had come to appreciate that it wasn’t a truly isolated place. “Sounds like that’s worked out for everyone.”

“More or less,” Carol agreed. “Now, let’s get to your project.” She leaned over Winnie’s shoulder and opened up a program shortcut. “This is the Bulletin archive. It’s searchable—so anything through 1925, you’ll want to look up ‘Hillis estate’ or ‘Hillis cottage’ and then after that, you’ll want to search for stories about the lighthouse or town properties.”

“Thanks,” Winnie said, reaching for the mouse. She glanced back up at Carol. “Don’t tell me Mr. Kerns helped digitize the archives, too?”

“Nah. That was a class from the high school, ‘bout ten years ago. They’d head over here every day for their last period and scan things in while a few worked on building the database. Took a whole semester, but I think it was definitely worth it. The computer class still comes over once a month to scan in the most recent issues for extra credit.”

“The Bulletin can’t just send you the files?”

“Babs refuses to go completely digital. It was like pulling teeth to get her to set up a website, and I don’t know if you’ve seen it, but it’s pretty clunky. She still prefers to do a daily printout. At least she spearheaded the recycling program in town—did you know every Bulletin is printed on paper recycled from old Bulletins?”

“I did not,” Winnie laughed. She was aware of the recycling bins beside each newspaper machine in town, had used them herself even. The bulletin was only printed on two pages, front and back, so at least it wasn’t too much paper going to waste, she supposed.

“Rumor mill says Babs will be retiring in the next year or two, though, and I know her granddaughter did a journalism stint at Mizzou. I heard one of the kids mention she’d reached out to them about interning. I suspect the Bulletin will go digital itself before too much longer.” She smiled at this, but it was a sad sort of smile. Winnie thought she understood. Babs represented a Bluffs tradition. Even if change was for the better, sometimes it still hurt to watch it happen. Carol straightened and gave herself a shake. “Listen to me go on! That’s not what you’re here for.” She patted Winnie on the shoulder. “I’ll leave you to it. Fetch me if you’ve got questions.”

“Thanks, Carol,” Winnie said as she departed. She turned her attention to the computer, impressed by the archival database. The kids who designed it had done a really good job. Winnie decided to start at the beginning and typed “Hillis estate” into the search bar. The earliest issue pulled up was dated 1890, and featured an article about a party that had been thrown by the Hillis family for the whole town. “Not quite what I’m looking for,” she muttered, clicking over to the next search result.

After about an hour of searching, she’d found frustratingly little about the cottage. There were plenty of articles about the Hillis family, and their estate. Most notable were those about the fire in 1925. Remembering the date on the letters she’d found, Winnie went down the rabbit hole a little bit, reading everything about the fire, but there was no mention of the cottage in any of the articles she found. One made a passing reference to the cartaker—he had been in the manor at the time of the fire, apparently, along with the rest of the family’s small contingent of staff. Also presumed dead in the fire were all family members in residence and the son of the mayor from the next town over. The article mentioned the young man had been courting the youngest Hillis daughter.

When she finished reading up on the fire—there were a lot of articles about it considering how little was actually known about how it had started, but it had been the talk of the town for a good month, judging by the Bulletin—she moved on to searching about the lighthouse. This proved a little more fruitful, as she found a few advertisements for the lighthouse keeper position that mentioned residence in the cottage was included with the job. As Jacob had told her, the advertisements seemed to pop up every couple of months until 1930. She couldn’t find anything about the string of keepers or why they left. She tried searching “lighthouse cottage”, which was the address listed on all of her rental agreements since the place wasn’t on any actual street. That turned up a few rental advertisements and one article talking about renovations that were done when the park was officially installed in the seventies.

As a last-ditch effort, she searched “lighthouse decommissioned” and found a few articles detailing that event. Two of them mentioned the cottage: the first noting a push to make the site a historical landmark, along with the lighthouse. The second followed up on this, reporting that while the lighthouse was indeed to become a landmark, the cottage would undergo renovations to remain a rental property of the town. “Which,” she blew out a huff of air, “I already knew.” Winnie rubbed her forehead and glanced at the clock on the computer’s taskbar. She’d been at this for almost two hours. The library would close before long, and she was getting hungry. “One more try,” she muttered, sitting back and considering. The cottage had been in the hands of the Hillis family and their lighthouse keeper from its construction until the fire. That was when it changed hands and become town property. So if there was any compelling information about the place, it probably would have been published around that time.

Trying another tack, Winnie checked the date of the fire and pulled up the first issue of the Bulletin printed after it happened. She scanned the following two months of Bulletin issues, trying to make sense of the fire’s aftermath and curious if the cottage had come into play in any of it. It hadn’t, as far as she could tell, beyond being part of the property that the town council had to figure out what to do with. The last article she read bore the headline “Hillis Heir Signs Family Estate Over to Birchland Bluffs Council” and detailed how Mr. Hillis’ oldest daughter, who had wed and moved away to Chicago, had finally been reached by the council. She had no interest in taking over ownership of the land in Birchland Bluffs and sold it to the town at what even Winnie could recognize as a paltry sum for the time. Her only condition seemed to be that the town utilize the land as a public space. The cottage was mentioned, along with the lighthouse, as one of the remaining structures that had been sold with the land with a request to keep them intact and maintained.

“So, I guess the most interesting thing about you,” she sighed, sitting back and rubbing her eyes, “is that you’re in such good shape for being so old.” She reached for the mouse to close out the archive and paused as her eyes fell on one of the photographs accompanying the article. The first was of the manor before it had burned down, the top of the lighthouse standing tall in the distance behind it. The second featured a portrait of the Hillis family that must have been taken before the older daughter married and moved away, dated three years before the fire. It was the younger daughter who caught Winnie’s eye, or more accurately, the pendant she wore. A small stone surrounded by filigree. “Hello,” Winnie breathed, leaning forward. “What have we here?” It was hard to tell, given the image quality and the fact that the photo was in black and white, but Winnie would have sworn it was the very same pendant she’d found in the cottage. She squinted her eyes, trying to make out the tiny caption below the photo. “Emmaline, huh? Now, why would your necklace be in my cottage?”

Winnie felt a sizzle of excitement as she closed the program, eager to get home and see if she was right. She didn’t stop to speak to Carol on her way out, just waved goodbye at her and made her way back home at a quick pace. Once there, she dropped her things on the couch and barreled into the bedroom, kneeling beside the loose baseboard and trying to move it out of place. She must have wedged it in too well, because she had to pull hard to pry it off, and scraped her thumb on the rough edge of the wood. Ignoring the sharp, short burst of pain, she tossed the board aside and reached in for the tin, opening it and picking up the pendant. “It is the same!” she declared, rubbing her thumb over its smooth surface. Too smooth, she realized, looking down with a grimace to realize she’d gotten blood on it. She hurriedly wiped the pendant off on the hem of her shirt, grateful to see that she hadn’t gotten any blood in the filigree. Careful of her scraped thumb, she started to reach for the letters, eager to confirm her theory.

“I thought we had decided to leave those tucked away. What changed her mind, I wonder?”

Winnie whirled around at the words, falling on her bottom. She stared up at the man leaning in the doorway of her room. “How the hell did you get in here?”


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