“Hurry.” She spoke softly, her demeanor quiet yet emphatic as she stared into the horizon. He slipped on his remaining boot and stood, joining her in the doorway, eyes squinting towards the focal point. A winter storm loomed portentously.
“Well, let’s get moving then.” Warm breath and a quiet fear chased his words and hung in the late October air for a fleeting moment before dissipating. Nerves squared, he offered her a knowing smile before pulling up his hood which came right up over his forehead, shielding his face. She lifted her face to the sky, eyes closed, breathing the cool air deep into her lungs. She paused for a moment, frozen in time, before hearing the soft plunk of a raindrop fall onto her shoulder, pulling her back into the present. Readied, she pulled up her hood and followed suit.
They set off assuredly on the path before them; it was a short, well-travelled route leading down to The Rock, and so familiar to them that they recognized every bend, every stone, every bush along the way. There was an icy chill in the air that came with the season’s transition; it seemed to nip at their exposed skin more incessantly the closer they got to the shoreline. Strands of green grass were swallowed by the tan and yellow strands that had already lost their color. Large rock boulders began to poke through the earth beside the trail as their worn dirt path progressed into stone.
By the time they reached the final bend, the path had completely vanished, and stone steps lay before them. From a distance, The Rock resembled a granite giant resting peacefully along the shoreline, the lighthouse affixed firmly onto the giant’s jutting hip. The white octagonal lighthouse stood nearly seventy five feet tall on the peninsula, with a red cap that housed its beacon.
The two hooded figures scurried up the rock, sure-footed on the granite boulders, quickly approaching their destination. As they climbed their final steps, he pulled a small brass key from his coat pocket, and with numb, red fingers, slipped it into its counterpart on the large grey door of the lighthouse. With a slight creak, it swung open before them and they entered the vestibule with haste. The storm was imminent, preceded by a dense fog that blanketed the shoreline and crawled up the path, past their home, and into the inlet town.
The entryway was short and narrow, protruding out from the octagonal perimeter of the lighthouse walls. To the left, an iron staircase welcomed them and spiraled up and around the walls like a corkscrew, before disappearing into a landing at the top, the watch room. A long cable dangled from a hole in the watch room floor and extended, taut, all the way down to where they stood. The six thousand pound weight it connected to hung before them in the center of the room, nearly eight feet above the ground where they stood.
As he stepped onto the first stair, he grabbed the rail in his right hand and felt the cold sting of the metal. Step by step they climbed, ascending like mice purposefully scurrying towards the security of their hole in the wall. The stairs ended at the watch room where a window overlooked the sea. A small dim light seeped through, unyielding to the fog, and illuminated the steel ladder in the center of the room. At the base of the ladder stood a clockwork mechanism, a clear box full of gears of varying sizes. Next to it stood a large tank full of kerosene connected to an apparatus that disappeared into the lantern room above. Inside the tank, pressurized air pumped the kerosene vapors upwards, through to a Bunsen burner chimney emitting a flame at the top. Encompassing the flame on all sides stood an eight-and-a-half-foot-tall fresnel lens whose prisms focus the light from that tiny flame into a concentrated beam of light projecting twenty miles out to sea. ‘Twas “the invention that saved a million ships.” And it was their duty to keep it.
He climbed but three rungs of the ladder in the center of the watch room before he was able to lift his hands to a small square in the ceiling and apply just enough pressure for the hatch to pop open. Before disappearing into the lantern room, he pointed at a basket of clean linen cloths on the floor across the room and nodded at her with his unspoken request. She walked over to the far side of the gallery where some supplies were kept on a tall wooden shelving unit. Several rows of two-and-half-gallon cans lined the middle two shelves, each with a fine layer of dust resting on the tops. On the bottom shelf, three larger circular imprints were left in the dust, the ghostly memory of larger canisters that once rested there. Paying no mind, she drew three folded towels from the basket and one by one, tossed them up to her partner who playfully smiled as he caught each one with the same hand.
“Want me to juggle them, too?” He let go of the ladder with his steadying hand, and for a moment, stood balancing with just his feet on the ladder before he began to wobble.
“Quit acting like a clown, we have work to do,” she chided, but let a smile escape as she turned away. Both went about their business; she trimmed the wick and refueled the lantern while he wiped the glass of the fresnel lens, clearing it of all impurities that may stifle the light it projected. She stood to the side as he climbed down the ladder and proceeded to the clockwork mechanism. He grabbed onto the crank at the side of the box and pushed it forward and around, not unlike a jack-in-the-box toy. Only, there is no devil that will pop out unexpectedly. Rather, the crank wound up the long wire cable that connected to the weight hanging near the bottom of the lighthouse. She watched, engrossed by each gear, seemingly stationary and independent of each other, until the teeth of one collided with the teeth of another at a point of convergence. That changed everything. A small motion with an impact so great that a six-thousand-pound weight could be hoisted with the effortless turn of a crank.
The wind howled outside the window behind her, and she suddenly felt aware of her surroundings again. While he finished winding the cable, she looked out at the sea. A mist danced upon the water and hovered over the rocks below like a ghost, scouring the ground for something lost. The veiled sun was slipping behind the mountainscape to the west, taking with it all of the colour in the world, replacing them with hues of grey, charcoal, and black across the landscape. The deviating heights and depths of the rocks below created shadows that, covered in the blurry mist, could easily be mistaken as human figures. One in particular, projected the image of a small person. A child perhaps. The wind blew again and for a moment, a brief moment, there was a clearing in the mist and the figure of her imagination was unveiled. A young boy stood on the rocks below—his figure entirely real and not of her imagination at all.
“A boy!” she shouted unexpectedly causing his body to jolt with the startle. He looked at her, speechless, unable to identify the emotion in her voice. “A boy! There is a boy on the rocks!” Her eyes abided on the sight below, and without pause she added, “Those waves are going to crush him!” She hollered out the window towards him, but to no avail—the waves crashing against the rocks snuffed out every other sound like wet fingers pinching the flame of a candlestick.
He darted towards the window and glanced frantically at the ground below. He sighed and looked at her again, opening his mouth to speak, but before the words came out she hurtled past him and threw herself towards the stairs. Her feet scrambled down the steps, moving faster than her mind could keep up with. He followed, filled with the urgency that consumed her, as if they were of one spirit. Halfway down the flight, he began to skip steps, as many as his stride would allow, until he reached the bottom and stepped onto the firm foundation of the floor.
“Now just wait a minute!” he called after her as she reached the entryway door. She turned and looked at him and with one swift motion, simultaneously opened the door.
“That boy may not have a minute to spare.” And with that, she disappeared into the mist. Seconds later, he was outside the doorway, looking right first, then to the left, catching a glimpse of a shadow in the fog. He followed. The rain-saturated rocks were smooth and sleek under his feet, and when he stepped onto a lower rock just a few feet out the door, his foot slipped and slid out from beneath him causing him to lose balance and fall to the ground. His tailbone was first to connect with the stone, and then the back of his head. And then, darkness…
She was turning towards the back of the lighthouse now, her eyes darting this way and that, frantic, surveying the rocks for a boy unaware of the threat of these crashing waves and his vulnerability to them. The rain was pelting down now, an array of liquid bullets barraging the landscape. The wind had long since thrown off her hood, and the few rogue strands of hair that had come undone in the process now stuck, soaking wet, to her cheeks. Her eyes scoured the cliff edge, twenty or so feet from her. She took one step forward and halted when a wave shot up and seemed to falter for the briefest moment in time, barricading the horizon from her view before dramatically plummeting back from where it came. “Where did you go?” she exhaled, chest heaving from both adrenaline, and from lungs working double time to breathe in the icy air. She paused for several moments, staring, lost, at the sea before her. After a long pause, her cognizance returned and she lifted both hands to her face, then rubbed them back over her scalp, pressing the wet stray hairs into the wet, tamed hair so they would stay in place. Suddenly remembering her pursuer, she glanced back over her shoulder, bemused to see that he wasn’t there. She tiredly ambled back up towards the lighthouse, occasionally glancing back and around in quiet hope of catching another glimpse of the boy. Perhaps she was too late—the notion of which struck her with an obscure sense of grief and loss she couldn’t articulate. Or perhaps she was just going mad, her imagination wild with the illusions of the mist. The rocks were slippery and with careful footing she heaved her body up the rocks until she saw him. In the dark shadows of the night she saw her partner’s body lying on the stone. With a sudden surge of energy, she ran to his side calling his name, but he did not answer. She shook his body, but he lay lifelessly still. A dark liquid pooled underneath his head but abruptly diffused into the rainwater; it washed away into the crevices of the rocks and disappeared deep into the earth—as if it had never been. She screamed for help, but it was of no use; she knew that even if there were no waves beating against The Rock’s shoreline, and if the wind could calm her unearthly wailing, there were still no people within earshot to hear her shouts for help. With two shaking fingers, she raised her hand to his neck to check for a heartbeat. She pressed her fingers firmly against his skin, just below the angle of his jaw. To her relief, a gentle pulse throbbed against her fingertips and before she could think of what to do next, a groan escaped his lips.
His eyelids began to open drearily as his head moved slightly to the side. She cupped his face in her palms and spoke to him. “My dear, can you see me? Can you hear my voice?” He groaned again, and clenched his eyes close, before reopening them with equal intensity and then blinked precipitously a few times to regain his focus. She focused her gaze on his and asked, “Can you stand?” He strained himself to sit up, so she aided him with one hand behind his back reaching from shoulder to shoulder.
“What happened?” he asked, bringing his hand to the back of his head and letting out a painful moan.
“You must have slipped and hit your head.” She squinted to examine the wound in the dark as he squinted to examine the blood on his fingertips. “We need to get you up and to the doctor. You may be concussed.” He closed his eyes for a brief moment as if to replay the words in his mind and comprehend them. Then with a nod, he brought one leg up to his chest and leaned forward to push himself into a standing position. When he staggered towards the left, she grabbed his arm and pulled him back towards her, having to take a few steps back to brace herself. Had there been any onlookers, they would presume him inebriated now with the way he struggled to maintain his balance and faltered with each step. Alas, they were alone, and she was desperate to get him medical attention.
It only took a moment or two, and five or six steps back towards the lighthouse before he seemed to regain his composure. Together, they reached the big grey door of the lighthouse which was, unsurprisingly, slightly ajar. With one hand gripping his arm that draped around her shoulders, she used her free hand to push open the door just wide enough for her to side-step in with him attached at her hip. When they reached the staircase, she turned, allowing him to sit on the bottom step.
“I need to assess your head wound,” she stated matter of fact in passing as she flew up the stairs at record speed to retrieve a clean piece of linen. As she quickly made her way back down the stairs, she could see the contrast of red blood against his light hair. She pressed the cloth against the back of his head and said, “Here. Hold this and apply firm pressure,” while maneuvering his hand to hold the back of his head. His hand dropped to his side lifelessly and she turned to look him in the face, as if his expression might be an indicator of what she should do next. To her dismay, he was expressionless and his eyes were closed, asleep.
“Wake up!” Her voice was loud but stern. His drowsy lids opened just enough to expose the dull grey eyes that hid behind them. “Listen to me.” She cupped his face once again. “You need medical attention and you are in no shape for the trek. I will have to fetch Doctor McMahon myself and bring him back here. You need to stay awake. Can you do that for me?”
“Come...back,” he mumbled. She stared back at him with no words—just a heavy feeling in the pit of her stomach. Once again, she brought his blood-stained hand up to the back of his head and directed him to apply pressure with the cloth. He held it on his own this time before realizing that his other hand was resting affectionately on her cheek, though he didn’t remember putting it there. He let his hand fall back to his lap, leaving a smear of red down her cheek. He vacantly observed her determination as she donned her coat and wrapped a scarf around her neck all in one swift motion while concurrently making her exit. It was as if he had blinked and then she was gone. He closed his eyes to relieve himself from the pain of the light overhead, but he was immediately met with the overwhelming sensation of being on a boat in tumultuous waters. He opened his eyes to settle the sea but the sensation stayed with him. He stood, swaying side to side and felt his stomach turn. With sudden gumption he strode to the doorway and barely got his neck past the threshold before heaving the contents of his stomach onto the stone below. The motion caused the wound on the back of his head to pulsate, and he stood grimacing, clutching his head in one hand and his abdomen in the other. He took a few deep breaths.
He opened his eyes. Less than forty feet ahead stood the fuel house—a shabby, old supply shed used to store light-keeping materials. Unsure of what he heard, he held his breath and listened, trying unsuccessfully to tune out the sound of the ocean waves and wind. The wind. The wind blew something over, he thought to himself, though it pained him to focus enough to consider what would be outside the shed that could make that kind of a sound when knocked over. For just a moment he had forgotten about the nausea and throbbing on the back of his head, but the moment was fleeting so he turned to go back inside.
Now he knew, the wind was not the culprit, and he cautiously made his way towards the shed, still keeping pressure on his wound. When he approached the shed door, he noticed the rusty latch pulled back and the door slightly ajar. With his free hand he pushed it open a few inches but remained cautiously outside as he peered in. It was too dark to see, so he paused as he considered his next move. But when the wind took a breath in between its howls, he made out the faintest sound of movement, and, a whimper? He opened the door all the way this time, and stepped to the side, allowing the light of the moon to illuminate the face of the trespasser. On the floor of the shed sat a boy, cradling his knees tight against his chest and peering up with his big green eyes half hidden behind those wobbly knees.
“It’s okay,” he whispered to the boy. The boy buried his head into his knees and began to rock. “I’m not going to hurt you,” he spoke gently as he struggled to crouch down to be eye level with the runaway who peeked up at him again, and then hid his face away. “Are you hurt?” He looked around as if there were hidden clues in the blackness of the shed. He looked back at the boy hiding his face as though it made him invisible and gently asked, “Where are your parents?” The boy didn’t speak, but the quiver in his breaths told the same story as the brief glimpse into his eyes. He looked back over his shoulder at the open lighthouse door and exhaled a long, deep breath that cut through the icy air. The tips of his ears burned and his wound throbbed. The rain was subsiding but temperatures were dropping. “See that lighthouse right there?” He looked back at the boy. “It’s my job to keep that light running day and night, to guide sailors and their ships to safety. It’s a safe place for them. And it’s a safe place for you too, you know.” The boy didn’t speak but sat shivering in his saturated clothing. “It’s too cold for you to be out here. Why don’t you come in to warm up and dry off?” He reached out his hand to the boy who looked up at him. The boy’s eyes locked on his own, and they seemed to search his soul for... What were they looking for? What would they find? After an excruciating moment, the boy released his knees and sat up. He lifted his hand and began to reach out but when his eyes fell upon the red-stained palm extending towards him, the boys’ eyes widened with fear. The boy recoiled abruptly then jumped up and pushed himself through the doorway before disappearing into the foggy night. Dizzy, he slumped himself against the shed door. Snowflakes wisped and fluttered mesmerizingly in front of him now, and so he rested his eyes for but a moment…
“Over there!” a woman shouted.
“What in the world are you doing out here?” a man’s voice.
His eyes opened and he saw two faces looking down at him.
His eyes closed again.
A warmth covered his body, and he awoke to the brilliant orange sight of flames dancing before him, teasing and taunting each other, flickering on and off. Periodically a sharp cracking sound would fill the room as the wooden logs burst in the heat of the fireplace.
“Well good morning, darling,” she said while gingerly taking a seat next to his hip. “How do you feel?” She brushed her fingers against his cheek.
“What happened?” His voice was groggy. “How did I get home?” He looked around at the familiar and comfortable space around him.
“Shhh, just relax. Doc is en route and he’s going to change your dressing and check your wound. Can you try to sit up?” Confused, he pushed himself up onto his elbows.
“Dressing? Wound?” He lifted his hand to his temple to soothe a sudden pain, as if it hurt to remember. But he became distracted from the pain when he felt the fibers of a dressing faintly caress his fingertips.
“You slipped at The Rock yesterday.” She rested her hand on his chin and gently turned his head to examine the dressing around his wound. “You injured yourself considerably. You’ve suffered a bad concussion and you have been speaking nonsensically all through the night.” She reached for a glass of water on a nearby table. Passing it to him, she continued, “To my relief, I might add. I was worried if you fell asleep you might never wake up again,” her eyes met his and she smiled, “and I’d go mad trying to decipher the meanings of your ramblings and never knowing the ending to your story about the fuel house stowaway.” Her smile turned to a smirk as she removed the glass from his hands and set it back onto the table. The image of the weeping boy in the shed suddenly filled his memory.
“That’s right! I found him! The boy you—”
“Good day, to you, Charles! I’m happy to see you up and alert.” Doctor McMahon’s silhouette stood in the light of the entryway. He removed his hat first, then removed his overcoat, and hung them both on a hook in the corner. “How are you feeling?” he asked as he closed the distance between himself and where Charles lay, still feeling somewhat discombobulated.
“I have a dull ache in the back of my head, but I feel fine otherwise. Nora has been watching over me all night by the sounds of it.” He gave her a thankful glance.
“I believe it so.” Doc McMahon smiled and made his way to where Nora had sat just moments ago.
A sudden awareness filled Charles, and with pulse racing he sat up once again.
“What time is it?” He looked out the window for any indicator of time of day, a sudden angst filling his gut as he realized that his light-keeping duties were going unfulfilled every moment that he was stuck on this sofa.
“Just relax now. You have been badly concussed and you aren’t going anywhere for a few days at least.” His hands were working busily around his head. “Turn to the window so I can check your sutures.” He turned. “Don’t worry about the lighthouse. It will be taken care of in your absence.”
“Nora.” He sighed with relief looking back at Doc. “I don’t know where I would be without her.”
“Nora?” Doc McMahon furrowed his brows while affixing the end of the dressing in place. “No, that Douglas boy from town is taking over.” Doc McMahon had finished with the dressing and was about to reach for something else in his bag when Charles clutched his forearm with a concerned expression. Doc looked at the grip Charles had on his arm, and then back at Charles.
“Just until you are well again.” He spoke calmly yet assertively before carrying on with his search inside the bag. This gave Charles very little comfort; he was commissioned to keep that light burning, and the burden of responsibility it carried was too significant to relegate to just anyone, even temporarily. But of course, Nora needed to be here at home until he was well again. He lay back uneasily, wincing in pain as he let his head fall into the cushion. Doc McMahon paused and looked at him a moment before saying, “You know, Charles...it is due time for you to retire your responsibilities at that lighthouse.” He turned back to his bag removing a small glass jar filled with a dark liquid. “That Douglas boy is eager to learn and without having any children of your own to assume the role…” He stopped and hung his head, closing his eyes as if those last few words were still stuck in his throat.
A painful memory resurfaced in Charles’ mind. He saw Nora’s piercing emerald eyes gazing upon a baby cradled still in her arms. A tear rolled down her face. A tear rolled down his cheek.
“Charles. I’m sorry. But if this incident has taught us anything, it’s that you can no longer be tending to the strenuous responsibilities of that lighthouse alone.”
“I am not alone,” Charles said more indignantly than he intended to. “Nora is just as capable as I,” he added, aware of the town’s perception and the unconventionality of her role at the lighthouse. Doc stared at Charles for a long moment, holding his words captive behind his lips, though they longed to be set free. Charles could hear Nora clanging around in the kitchen, and he wondered how much attention she was paying to their conversation. If she was hurt by Doc’s implication. For as progressive as they like to think they are, these townsfolk rarely strayed from the conservative views that determined which roles were suitable for a woman and which were not. Charles’ blood began to boil inside him, but he forced himself to relax when the tension focused around the wound on his head.
“Just think about it, okay?” Doc rested an arm gently on his left shoulder. A simple gesture that seemed to say more than words could articulate. Then, as if he suddenly remembered why he was there, he twisted the lid from the jar and said, “Take a sip. It will help with the pain.” The taste was awful and bitter on his tongue. Charles cringed as Doc took the jar from him, replaced the lid and set it on the table. “You’ve been lugging those basins from the fuel shed up to the top of that lighthouse since we were children.” The fondness of a memory left a soft smile on his face. “Remember when we were ten and Jacob Miller bet you his cat’s-eye marble that he could beat you in a race to the top? I can still see you balancing on that railing seventy feet off the ground, flailing your arms at us below while Miller panted his way up the stairs.
“And I can still see the look on my father’s face when he saw me up on that rail. He had me cleaning the gallery windows inside and out, morning, noon and night for a month.” Doc gave a short laugh and then paused for a moment before a pensive expression surfaced.”
“This town owes you a debt of gratitude for all the years you worked day and night to keep that flame burning. Richard Douglas wouldn’t be alive today if you didn’t see that September storm coming when you did.” Doc had pulled a long wooden tube from his bag and was now screwing a bell-shaped piece onto the end while he spoke. “You know you’re a hero to that boy of his.” He turned the instrument over and began to screw a smaller bell onto the other end. He then placed the larger bell against Charles’ chest, pulling the opening of his white cotton shirt to the side to place it directly over his heart. Placing his ear to the bell on the other end he said, “Take a deep breath in and exhale slowly.” Charles did as the doctor instructed. Satisfied with what he heard, Doc McMahon began to disassemble the stethoscope. “If you hadn’t fought as hard as you did to implement that mercury system of yours, that light would not have gotten Warren Harding home to his wife and twin boys last April. It was a years-long battle you fought tirelessly for, but it's a decision that saved hundreds of lives.” Charles looked up at Doc and was surprised to see him looking back at him with an expression that seemed to implore him for something that he couldn’t quite identify.
“What is it that you really want to say?” Charles asked fervidly. Doc sighed and looked sympathetically at his old friend.
“I know that job has taken its toll on you and I just worry about you. That’s all. I feel it’s time to pass the torch—so to speak.”
Charles sat up. “Keeping that light is my duty. It was my father’s before me, and his father’s before him. It has been the burden of my family for decades. Now, Walter Douglas is a good boy, I’ll give you that. I am grateful for his willingness to lend an extra pair of hands when it has been...necessary…” Charles’ voice tapered and after a short pause he seemed to disappear into his thoughts.
“Charles.” Doctor McMahon leaned forward to look into his eyes, but Charles was fighting to push back a painful memory that was working its way to the forefront of his mind. “Charles.” He said his name louder this time, and Charles looked back at him, returning to the moment.
“But,” he continued, “he is neither equipped with the knowledge of the intricacies of the operation, nor is he prepared to devote the rest of his youth to such a life.”
The two sat in silence for a moment. “Okay.” Doc raised his brows and offered another sympathetic smile. “Get some rest, old friend.” He patted Charles’ shoulder as he stood. “I’ll be by in the evening to check up on you again.” And with that, Doc McMahon removed his bag from the side table and strode across the room to retrieve his coat and hat. After opening the front door to leave, he paused momentarily in the doorway to look back over his shoulder. He drummed his fingers against the frame, pursing his lips, as if contemplating the freedom of those words he still held prisoner, but thought better of it and continued on his way.
A week passed and the memories of those first few days were as convoluted as the hazy view outside. But when the eighth day arrived, with it came a crack of sunlight pushing through the clouds, and clarity pushing through Charles’ mind.
“You’re looking well.” Nora set a steaming bowl of soup on the table. “Are you hungry?” she asked while watching Charles fasten his open shirt. “Going somewhere?” she stepped towards him, concerned.
“I’m just going for a walk.”
He turned and grabbed his coat from the hook. He looked at her and smiled affectionately.
“I will be fine.” He walked towards her, cupped her face in his hands, and kissed her forehead gently.
“But Doc said no sudden movements until you are fully recovered.” She looked up at him with eyes pleading. “Charles, The Rock is covered with ice right now. You could slip and reinjure yourself! Please don’t go down there.”
Charles, pulling on his boots, replied, “Who said anything about heading down to the lighthouse? I’m just getting some fresh air. It will help with the headaches.” He stood and gave her a wink before disappearing through the door, closing it behind him. Beside herself, Nora sprung across the room for her cloak and threw it over her shoulders as she hollered after him.
The sunlight, bright in his eyes, shot a dart of pain through his skull, it’s brilliance reflecting off a blanket of white snow that covered the ground before him. He used his forearm to shield his eyes until they adjusted to the light and then squinted at the scenery around him. The northeastern winds brought this snow in its most recent storm, and it seemed out of place against the green leaves of the trees that stood unprepared for the presence of this unwelcome guest. Charles, too, stood still, and unprepared in the cold, felt slightly befuddled at the abrupt transition of seasons. His contemplation was stopped short, however, when a door slammed behind him. He glanced over his shoulder to see Nora fast approaching, fastening her winter cloak.
“If you go, I go. And I won’t hear a word about it.” He grinned as she marched past him, leading the way to keep a lookout for any obstacles or icy patches along their path. The two hooded figures once again found themselves meandering down the trail to the lighthouse, and, to Nora’s relief, arrived at the icy fortress unscathed. Where the snow-covered dirt path turned into frosted slippery stone, Charles paused momentarily to have a look around, surveying both the fuel house and the lighthouse for any indication of the whereabouts of the young Walter Douglas.
“Watch your step there,” Nora warned as she turned to face him, pointing at a sheer covering of ice on the rock before him. A dull pain throbbed inside his skull, reminding him of his recent injury. Nora spun back towards the lighthouse steps, and suddenly lost her balance. Her arms darted out at her sides and flailed briefly before her balance was restored and her feet were planted firmly underneath her once again. She wondered if Charles had seen.
“Perhaps you should worry less about me and more about yourself,” he teased. “Our young Mr. Douglas is hardly burly enough to carry you all the way back up that hill.” She glared back at him, though he could only see part of her eye and just the upturned corner of a grin behind her hood. But he smiled as he imagined the rest of her expression. Nora stopped at the entrance and glanced out at the ocean, rubbing her own shoulders for warmth and taking in the view while Charles fumbled in his pockets for the brass key. Suddenly aware of her stinging nose, cheeks, and ears, she turned to face Charles and noticed a perplexed look on his face as he stood brows furrowed, hands frozen mid-search in his pockets, staring at the door before him. She followed his gaze and saw the red, partial handprint on the door before him. Without saying a word, Charles reached out his arm and used just his fingertips to press firmly on the wood door next to the stain. The door opened with a creak. His eyes widened.
“Charles, what is it?” His body blocked the entry and she struggled to steal a glimpse of what left him in the trance. “Charles, tell me what you see,” she pleaded, disconcerted by his lack of response. But he just stood there, motionless and vacant. Impatiently, she barged through his shoulder and gasped at the lifeless body that lay face down in a pool of blood on the floor. Bright red blood.
“WALTER!” Nora shrieked and leapt across the room to the boy’s side. “Charles!” she screamed. “Charles, help me!” He stood staring, in shock of the sight before him. Bright red blood now covered Nora’s hands. “For goodness sakes, Charles! Help me! Please!” She sobbed as she implored the sight before her for any possible sign of aid. Then Nora stood before him and scowled into his glazed-over eyes. A sharp pain emanated throughout his face from the slap across his cheek. And then it rumbled through his skull as if something was trying to claw its way out from the inside of his head. “Snap out of it right this instant!” she commanded him. “I’m going to find help.” The words were barely audible as she disappeared behind him. The sudden awareness caused a panic to settle in, and Charles took three small steps closer to the body until Walter’s face was visible. He lay so still, as if asleep, as one might think if it weren’t for those eyes—staring, undeviating, wide-open and soulless…
“Charles?” Nora’s voice pulled him back out of his trance one again and he spun to face her. But to his consternation, it wasn’t Nora at all. In fact, it was the young, very much alive, Walter Douglas who spoke his name.
“Sir, are you all right?”
“How...” Charles’ face paled as he stood staring, abashed. “But you’re—” He turned back abruptly towards the body on the floor, but there was no longer a body on the floor. Nor were there any remnants of the bright red blood that sent his body into shock only moments ago. “How is this possible?” he whispered in disbelief before looking back up at Walter.
“Sir?” He stepped forward cautiously, with his hands out in front of him as if to avoid any sudden movements.
“How is this possible?” he asked the perturbed young man, though he seemed to be searching himself for an answer. “You were there a moment ago,” he gestured over his shoulder as he half turned towards the direction behind him, then turned back straight towards the ghost before him and said, “and now you’re here.”
“I’m afraid I don’t understand, sir.” He looked afraid indeed. “I-I-I was just out in the fuel shed getting supplies when I thought I heard a commotion,” he explained, “the wind is loud and so is the sea, so I ignored it for a moment, then thought better of it and came quickly.”
“Sir, I think maybe I should go find help. I don’t think you’re well, you’ve been recently concussed and—”
“Don’t patronize me! I know what I saw.” Charles felt infuriated by his inability to grasp what had just unfolded before him. “I am the keeper here, not you.” Walter’s eyes fell to the floor as he shrunk back, deflated. “A moment ago, I saw you face down in a pool of your own blood. Dead.” Walter’s eyes slowly lifted until they met Charles’ once again. “And now you are here, and there is nobody there.” He pointed again to where Walter’s lifeless corpse once rested.
“I-I’m sorry, sir,” Walter stammered out a response. “I-I-I don’t know what to tell you except that I am here, and I don’t know who or what you saw...” his voice trailed off as his eyes focused on something else that had caught his attention. Charles looked down and noticed a few red droplets on the concrete floor at his sides. He held up his hands to examine his palms, then held them up for Walter to see. That same bright red blood covered his palms and fingertips.
“Then tell me, whose blood do I have on my hands?” Charles’ voice was deep and steady. Walter’s face paled and he stared at the sinister red stains aghast.
“It’s mine.” A voice echoed down the chamber and both Charles and Walter looked up. There, on the watch room landing stood the boy, watching them from above. In a flash, he scurried up the ladder and disappeared through the hatch leading into the lantern room.
“That’s the boy!” he said excitedly. “That’s the boy who took up shelter in my fuel shed the night of the storm.” He was already making his way up the stairwell. Walter, unmoving, hollered after him.
“Sir I really think that we should—”
“Nora is already on her way with help, Walter. I’m going to need you to stand guard so he doesn’t run away again.” Charles was now half way up the stairwell and hadn’t removed his gaze once from the door atop the ladder since the boy vanished through it. When he reached the top of the ladder and pushed open the hatch, a cold draft swept across his face. The window to the outer gallery was open, and he saw movement behind the beacon.
As he pulled himself into the lantern room, Charles noticed the smear of red he had just left on the hatch door and was immediately reminded of the night of the storm. The boy had already been scared off once by the sight of blood; Charles wouldn’t let that happen a second time. He quickly scanned the room for a rag and found a blackened one strewn carelessly over a crate next to the fresnel lens. He noted Walter’s disregard for tidiness as he picked up the dirty rag and rubbed vigorously at the palms of his hands and fingertips before jamming the rag into his pocket. Then he moved discreetly around the gigantic beacon in the center of the room and towards the open window leading to outside.
The boy stood pensively staring out towards the sea, wind disheveling his hair. He ignored Charles as he approached with caution.
“Hello, there,” he said as calmly as one could while having to compete with the wind for audibility. Charles stopped a few feet from the boy who did not answer. “I was hoping we would meet again,” Charles shouted, heart still racing. His adrenaline began to settle, however, when he noticed a single tear rolling down the boy’s face which filled him with tenderness for the cold, lonely boy before him. “I want to help you, I won’t hurt you,” he assured the boy.
The boy turned to face him, his green eyes immediately swallowing Charles whole. A gust of wind blasted at them as they studied each other silently, steadying themselves with one hand on the guardrail. Charles waited for the wind to settle before speaking again.
“Let me give you a warm meal and some warm clothes,” he paused, searching the boy once more, then added, “and then we’ll take you into town and see if we can find your parents.” The boy turned back to face the sea, indifferent to Charles’ offer.
“My mother’s dead,” he said coldly, but the water filling his eyes gave way to the pain that was really tormenting him.
“Well, I’m sorry to hear that. My mother also passed when I was young.” Charles casually leaned against the railing beside the boy. “Where is your father?” The boy gripped the top of the rail and stepped onto the first steel rod. The wind blew hard and Charles steadied him with his eyes. “My wife, Nora, and I had a son. You remind me of him.” The boy ignored him and heaved himself up onto the second rung of the railing, bracing himself in the wind as Charles stepped to the boy’s side, heart palpitating at the boy’s fearlessness. “Please come down from there,” Charles pleaded, contemplating pulling the boy down himself. The boy stood up slowly, and steadily, before letting go of the rail with his hands and balancing, using the pressure of the steed rod against his shins. Anxiety burst out of Charles’ chest as he shouted, “Be careful!” and hovered his arms at either side of the boy, prepared to catch him at a moment’s notice. The boy smiled, ear to ear and extended his arms straight out in either direction, closing his eyes as he fought to stay steady against the wind’s force. He turned and met Charles’ eyes.
“Am I doing it right?” he asked with a smile so warm that a relief flooded over Charles and he held the boy around the torso to steady him.
“Now I know how my father felt when he watched me dare this balancing act. That wind is a force to be reckoned with.”
“So is the sea.” The boy swallowed, his stare fixated on the tumultuous waves crashing onto the rocks before him. His chin quivered and he whimpered before climbing down from the rail. He turned and looked up to Charles and burst into tears. Charles leaned down and pulled him into his chest, and he was surprised when he felt the boy’s small arms wrap tightly around his neck. “Why didn’t you come for me?” he cried.
“I-I’m so sorry.” Charles didn’t know what to say or how to console the child. The wind howled once more, and it seemed to call his name. When it took its pause, Charles faintly heard his name called out a second time.
“Charles!” Charles stood abruptly at the sound of his wife’s voice and saw her calling out for him from the rock below. She hollered, but her words drowned amidst the wind and the waves crashing behind her. The boy, too, peered over the railing at Nora before bolting past Charles and back inside through the gallery window. Nora continued to call out to him, but her words disappeared in the air before reaching his ears.
“Nora!” he shouted back. “I can’t hear you!” Nora frowned and cupped her ear upwards. “I’m coming down!” he shouted. Then again louder and slower, accompanied by hand gestures, “I’M COMING DOWN!” Nora’s glance shifted down from Charles, and she smiled towards something ahead and out of his sight. She then crouched down with an arm extended. A small hand reached out towards Nora, and Charles saw that it was the boy. He watched his hand take hers, and then she pulled him into an embrace. His heart fluttered in his chest, but it was an ambiguous sensation. A mixture of love, and pain. With the boy in her arms, Nora looked back up at Charles smiling, and motioning him to come join them. He couldn’t take his eyes off her as he took in the beauty of that tender moment. There was something different about Nora as she held the boy in her arms. There was a joy there that extended beyond her relief in finding him safe. There was a hope in her eyes as the natural nurturer within her longed to be fulfilled once more. She looked...complete, somehow. Charles, suddenly feeling the distance between them, felt an urgency to join his wife and the lost boy below. With great effort he tore his eyes from them and turned to enter the lighthouse. But the doorway back into the lantern room had been blown shut, and below the glass window, a glimmer of brass caught his eye. He came to an abrupt halt to examine a metal plate fastened to the exterior of the gallery door. Etched into the plaque read the words:
To our beloved Flynn and Eleanor
Nary a day passes we don’t remember thee
Or the night your ocean eyes got swallowed by the sea
May your spirits find the lost and guide ships through the night
Forever in our hearts as the keepers of the light.
Nausea swept over Charles, and the platform began to shake wildly underneath his feet.
“No...” A flood of memories flashed across his mind’s eye. Faces. Eyes. Ocean waves. Dizziness consumed his vision and Charles could barely stand upright. “No it can’t be...”
“Sir?!” Walter Douglas stood peering at him through the glass window. Pain shot through Charles’ skull once more and then slithered down his spine before segueing through his chest and into his heart. He threw his palms at his temples and grabbed at his hair. The world was spinning and moving as he took a few steps back and fell to his knees.
“Please, sir. You’re scaring me.” Walter had flung open the gallery door and was now side-stepping, his back glued to the glass window of the gallery, towards the unhinged man. Charles squeezed his eyes shut in panic and when he opened them again, he realized that he wasn’t on his knees at all. He was standing on the first rung of the guardrail, hunched over, knuckles white as his cold chapped hands clenched the metal. The wind collided with his face with such force that it filled his nasal cavity and lungs involuntarily, causing him to struggle to breathe for a long moment before it relented.
“Charles! Come down from there!” A new voice. Assertive. Familiar. Doc McMahon reached out for him. “With all due respect, old friend, I think you’ve gone mad.”
Terror now consumed Charles and he closed his eyes once again, desperately searching his soul for clarity. Answers. The dizziness ceased when Eleanor's face appeared in his mind before him.
“Nora...” he reached out to touch her face.
“Charles, Eleanor and Flynn have been gone for eight months.” Doc McMahon said sternly before pausing with a sigh. Charles looked at his friend with disbelief for a long time, and then the truth of those painful words resonated in his heart, tearing it open from within.
“No no no…” Charles shook his head as his face contorted and he began to weep uncontrollably. A lifetime of memories replayed before him. He closed his eyes tight to see them clearer, desperate to hold onto the cherished images that he feared would flee from him the moment he opened his eyes again. He remembered. He remembered the storm on the day that Eleanor and Flynn were to return home from the island. They had gone to visit Eleanor’s parents, and Charles had planned to accompany them, but in the end decided against leaving his post at the lighthouse. An overwhelming sense of grief cast its shadow over the remaining light in his soul, as he thought of their ship lost at sea. The wind howled and a wave plummeted so violently into the rocks below that it sent a mist up into Charles’ face. “I should have been with them,” he lamented, “I should be with them!” His memories flashed forward to the night he was injured, and he saw Nora chase after the boy towards the cliff. He felt suddenly betrayed by his mind and his memories and he turned to Doc McMahon shouting, “You’re wrong! She’s here! Nora is here and—”
“I thought your hallucinations were caused by the concussion, but I fear you’ve been suffering for some time. It’s poisoning, Charles.” Charles caught Doc’s eyes and they stood staring at each other for a moment, still in the chaos of the wind and stormy sea.
“Wh-What are you saying?”
“I’m saying that the mercury you use for the beacon, it—it-—”
“It’s poisoned you,” Walter interrupted. Charles had forgotten he was still there. “That system has transformed our signal and has saved countless lives...but it's taking yours, Sir.” Charles thought about the mercury flotation system and how pleased he had been about successfully implementing such progressive technology—a bath of mercury that allowed the metal base of the lens to rotate faster than its predecessor and without any friction. Charles released the rail and looked down at his palms. His red palms.
“It can’t be.” He looked down at The Rock once more, and once more, Eleanor stood looking back up at him. Flynn stood at her side now, holding her hand, as if they were waiting patiently for him. For Charles to make his choice. A better choice than he had made before. A choice that put his family before his duty. Flynn’s emerald green eyes were alive and searching his—calling out to him—to his father. This was reality. The disillusionment he felt seconds ago dissipated as he looked at his family and believed with every ounce of his being. This time, he would make the right choice.
The wind stopped, and the sea calmed. The glow of the midday sun cut through the icy chill in the air and warmed his face. His pain and regret were replaced with a hopeful peace. He felt his heart beat steadily in his chest and knew it was beating for them, with a love that had never been more profound than it was at that moment. In that moment that stood still, in waiting. And so Charles, liberated by the clarity that now implored him, made his choice, climbed up over the rail, and took a step towards his beloved wife and cherished son. The keepers of his light.