My cigarette tasted suspiciously like the kind of tar they use to fix hulls.
"I wonder if Captain Gregg is messing with us," Jonathan said. "Making Marlboros taste like pitch."
"They ought to taste bad," Martha scowled as she joined us on the porch to light her own smoke. "They make you smell like an ashtray, too. " I shrugged wordlessly. I know what she was doing. She wanted me to call her a silly hypocrite, a spy, anything to dispel the gloom that had settled over each of us, over Gull Cottage. When I finally glanced at her, she nodded her head slowly and winked reassuringly. At least one adult was still normal, cliché, cancer sticks and all.
Martha inhaled then swirled the smoke languidly in her mouth. Two seconds later, as the light of her cigarette faded and the smoke curled lazily out of her mouth, dissipating into the inky blackness of the front yard, she stunned us with this:
"I suppose you kids are tired of the phrase, 'we lied to protect you?'"
"Does Captain Gregg know you're going to tell us something?" Jonathan blurted. "If you're going to call them liars, and everything, I mean –"
Martha gave him the look. The focused stare. I kicked Jonathan in the shin, and he sat back down without a sound, although he did wrap his arms angrily in front of him.
"Child, I'm not about to ruin your hero. But I don't think Sean Callahan is worth another wasted meal. Someone's got to pick up the appetites around here, and I doubt we'll see or hear from your mother until she and the Captain decide to sail on back from wherever they've weighed anchor."
"Go on, Martha," I asked as steadily as I could. If Martha got busy chiding Jonathan to eat, we'd never hear the truth.
"You won't appreciate this until you're much older, but sometimes the glory of a small town is nobody can keep a secret unless a secret really needs to be kept. To protect someone in the town." She took another drag on the cigarette then snuffed it out in the huge glass ashtray we hid under the planter.
"Captain Gregg, for example. He's been the topic on wagging tongues since the 1880s. Gull Cottage isn't as isolated as you think. When we arrived back in '68, the thought of your pretty little mother residing with a cantankerous poltergeist was too much for biddies – and you know who I'm talking about. But Mainers don't talk to outsiders. Not to newspaper reporters or tourists. Not even to your grandparents when they donated all that money to the high school."
"Sure, there was a lot of smirking when your mother showed up at the Yacht Club with the real Sean Callahan. After all, everyone just knew the old goat had to have procreated in at least a few places around the world – now Jonathan, sit back down – and in 1968 Mr. Callahan looked the closest like a cousin Claymore was ever likely to see."
Martha stood and touched our faces before drawing us towards her. I tried to hold back, but the warmth and comfort of Martha's cushioned chest made everything okay. It gave us strength, and I had a good idea we were about to need a little fortitude to hear the truth.
"When she shot out of the house just after Mr. Callahan left all those years ago, I knew something was up but I didn't know about Captain Gregg back then. She ran out the doors just like that, in a wink. I really didn't give it much thought – all I know is that when she came back several hours later, she was a very changed person. The strangest look on her face. Happy, but bittersweet. Sad, but glad. She was a mess. She scurried up the stairs and took a long, hot bath."
"Now I know, Candy, that your mother tried to share at least part of what happened that day. She told me she would, but I doubt she managed to get it all out, poor dear. There are just some things a mother can't tell her own daughter. Or a father, his own son."
Jonathan brightened, Martha nodded, and three cigarettes lit simultaneously,
"None of it made any sense to me until Sean Callahan came back the other day. In the flesh, I thought! This will be interesting! Your mother hasn't been with a living man since your father died. Well, I'll tell you that is not normal. Don't look so shocked, Candy."
"Martha, don't tell Jonathan!" I exploded. "You're wrong. He'll tell the Captain and Mom doesn't want the Captain to know – and she blames herself - "
"He knew exactly what happened that day," Martha was too calm. "Do you think a ghost can't hear the cries of a loved one, no matter how distant? Your mother said he was down there, in a flash. Only he couldn't lay a finger on Sean. He doesn't have a body. So he used Sean's to stop Sean. And that's where things got complicated."
Jonathan's jaw dropped, like he was a little kid.
"That's disgusting!" I snapped before I knew what I was saying. "He wouldn't."
"They couldn't. They didn't. And they did."