His day began with the crashing of waves against craggy ancient stone. The morning air tasted of lingering seafoam and memory, and a new pain twisted through his lower back, but what else was new? The lighthouse caretaker meant to replace the lumpy mattress, but he kept forgetting. Barbara always used to take care of such things.
For a moment, everything was as it ought to be. Glass display cases filled with model naval vessels and retired Fresnel lenses. Dust-covered boxes of gift shop taffy that was made (but never consumed) locally. A quaint Argand lamp that would sit forever awaiting whale oil while serving as the old man’s paperweight. But once his vision cleared of sleep, he got a good look at his hands. The skin looked as fragile and translucent as damp paper. Surely, he thought, these hands could not belong to him.
Out of habit, he sniffed the air for bacon, but he was disappointed. There was also none of the determined whirring of small, swift vessels that used to rattle the sturdy brick walls of the lighthouse. There had been a time when a symphony of horns would rouse him on foggy days, a wake-up call that was once as reliable as a rooster at dawn. Now, the harbor was quiet.
He used the hands that belonged to someone else to ready the museum for unanticipated visitors. One never knew. There were some who made a game of visiting all of the lighthouses that remained in New England. Energetic newlyweds, usually, or lone men with soft hands and disconsolate eyes. He hoped they found what they were looking for on their graveyard tour.
The little bell attached to the museum entryway tinkled timidly. Upon turning, he saw a girl who could not have been older than ten shivering her way across the threshold. Not that he was any good at guessing ages. Even at that point in his life, everyone under thirty tended to look the same to him. She looked like a drowned thing, though, and it had not rained for days. Of that he was sure.
“Have you a fire?” she ventured through chattering teeth. The caretaker hadn’t bothered with the fireplace in fall for nearly three years, by his measure. Without Barbara, there didn’t seem to be any point. His Monmouth hat and wool sweaters did the trick. Had it already been three years? he wondered.
“I have,” the old lighthouse keeper croaked, his voice rusty from lack of use. The girl giggled, her voice dancing along the same timbre as the little sleigh bell that hung above the museum door.
As he prepared kindling and struck a match, as he had done a thousand times before, he felt an unfamiliar ache in his cheeks.
“You smile funny!” the drowned thing declared.
“And yer a peculiar little lass. Brave, too, to wander this far out all on yer lonesome.” His well-mapped face hurt even more.
“I shall only tarry here awhile, and t’would be a crime beyond forgiveness to return home without laying my eyes on this old place.” She extended her hands toward the crackling fire and her teeth finally stilled. “Tea?” She gazed up at him with wide-eyed expectation.
He gave the briefest of nods and returned with a worn black kettle. “So ye’ve a fondness for lighthouses, have ye?”
“I ought to! I was born in one.”
“Now that be a tall tale, surely,” he chided her, taking a seat in his favorite chair. His knees creaked in gratitude.
The formerly drowned thing did not respond. Now that she was done with the business of drying off, she had become enamored with the museum’s offerings. Rusted sun valves balanced this way and that on intricate industrial display. Old cans of whale oil boasted colorful labels that had outlasted the factories that once made them. She seemed to pay special attention to photos from the days of the lighthouse’s construction and operation. Tanned men in suspenders and threadbare white shirts smiled across the years at them, unfiltered cigarettes dangling from their lips and looks of determination spread across their brows. Women in pencil skirts and Sunday hats marveled at the lighthouse’s exterior, back when it still glistened with optimism and new paint.
“Who’s that?” she asked, pointing to a weathered portrait he had forgotten about entirely. On the left stood a clean-cut man, thin and straight as a pole, with dark curls trying to escape from his Monmouth cap. The petite woman on the right was holding the man’s hand, and she stooped slightly in order to wrap her other arm around the little girl in the center. The girl’s features had obviously been copied from those of the man and woman and reassembled in unique fashion; she had the man’s broad smiling mouth, the woman’s deep-set eyes, the man’s same lively dark curls. Despite the black and white shading, both mother and daughter clearly sported matching sets of freckles. Even though he must have looked upon and away from the portrait countless times over the years, in that moment, the old man felt as if he had never seen the photograph before.
“That’d be Barbara and me, a’course. And our little’un, Moira.”
“The child looks happy,” his houseguest offered.
“So she was.”
Silence hung in the air, finally enabling him to hear the telltale pitter-patter of rain overhead. The kettle began to call, and he answered with teacups and bergamot.
“How did ye say ye found yerself here, lass?” he prodded gently as he poured the girl the first cup and nudged a small plate of shortbread cookies toward his visitor. Before responding, the girl checked her pocket watch. The old man wondered how the device had survived whatever storm the girl had endured.
Shifting her gaze from her tea to his eyes, she replied, “I didn’t.” Her blue eyes looked so like Barbara’s, when she was young. Perhaps this girl had a wild streak in her, too, and had run away from home on a lark. The caretaker shrugged; there was plenty of room here now for a stray cat or two, just for the night.
The rain became more aggressive, pelting the sides of the lighthouse in scattershot bursts. The old man glanced up toward the keeper’s stairwell, which led to both the Watch Room and the Lantern Room. Many, many nights had he climbed those steps in a flash, readying the back-up generator and testing the fog signal, just in case the impending storm persisted all through the night. For once, he felt grateful that the lighthouse had been decommissioned. He couldn’t fathom undertaking that familiar climb now.
“Why did you become a museum caretaker?” The girl pulled her knees into her chest and wrapped her arms around them. The gesture seemed strikingly innocent and recognizable to the old man.
“Halt yerself, lass; museum caretakin’ was no callin’ of mine, no. This here used to be a real, honest-to-Mary lighthouse, and yers truly was its keeper.” The old man bit down on one of the shortbread cookies and grimaced. Store-bought. Nothing like Barbara’s.
“Why did you become a lighthouse keeper, then?” his visitor continued, rolling her eyes in playful exasperation. Although she sipped her tea, the girl did not pounce on the cookies straightaway. The old man admired her restraint.
He thought a minute, and soon a smile spread across the caretaker’s broad face. “Everyone needs a light in a storm. Young ‘n’ old, skinny ‘n’ stout, rich ‘n’ poor, it matters none.”
The girl squinted with a child’s exaggerated concentration. “You spend a lot of time thinking about things from the past, huh?”
“When ye get to know as many years as I, ye’ll find ye keep one foot in the past at all times, whether ye will it or no.” Flashes of light punctuated his sentence, signaling the squall’s arrival. Deep in his bones, he braced himself for the thunder that was sure to follow.
“If that’s true, then why haven’t you recognized me yet?” The girl cocked her head at him in wonderment, locking onto his gaze so that he could fully drink in the brush strokes of her face. Clear blue eyes like marbles, like the great big shooters he used to save for when he was playing for keeps. An expressive mouth that promised to grow wide and mirthful after the onset of adulthood. And now that the girl was dry, the old man could finally make out a tangle of dark ringlets that framed her freckled cheeks.
“I know ye,” the old man found himself saying. He held a fragile hand out to her as thunder rumbled closer. “But it canna be possible, it can’t.”
“I am here, so therefore it can, and it must.” She removed her frock with a dramatic flourish to reveal a healthy frame that belied her initial scrawny appearance. As she emerged from her damp cocoon, the girl became less a drowned thing and more a familiar dark-haired ghost.
“Mo leanbh,” the former keeper breathed, his face becoming as translucent as his hands. He hadn’t spoken the Gaelic term of endearment in what seemed like a lifetime, and he felt suddenly as if he was floating above them, surveying the impossible reunion. “I thought I lost ye to the sea years ago.”
“You knew I would find you, Da. Just like you know why I have come here.” As she spoke, he watched through the window as a thick mist descended upon the bay outside.
The crackle of his old CB radio disrupted the spell; he always left it on, just in case.
“Wait,” the old man pleaded. Until that dreadful moment, even after losing Barbara, he had never thought about how worthless his knickknacks would become. Painstakingly collected as they were, without any living heirs, they were always destined for the trash heap. He looked at his collection for help, but every piece in it remained silent.
A woman’s voice burst through the radio. The old man recognized its cadence as vibrant, modern. “Hello? Please, anyone! This is the Kelpie! Our navigation’s out and we gotta get hard and fast ashore before this storm swallows us whole. Pritchard Point? Hello?”
The girl put her hands on her hips and frowned. “We are delayed as it is.”
“Ye may not remember the urgency of the living, lass, but please. Please grant me this one last chance.”
She ran her thin thumb over her pocket watch once, twice. “Fine. A light in a storm,” she conceded, sighing and snapping her watch shut. “If that’s what you mean to do, you haven’t much time left. Make haste!”
Suddenly invigorated with certainty and determination, he leapt to his feet. Clicking on the radio’s microphone with practiced hands, the lighthouse keeper replied, “Kelpie, this is Pritchard Point at 42.5802° N, 70.6645° W. This lady’s been out of commission for some time, but she’ll find ye a light. Activate yer fog signal, set yer sights northeast for my ‘lectric lantern, and yer almost home.”
He barely recognized his own voice, but well did he remember the protocol. Up to the Watch Room he scrambled, pulling the backup generator’s cord with all his might until it finally started on the seventh try. The surprised muscles in his arms protested, but the old man did not listen. Up to the Lantern Room he flew, cranking the fog signal until it resumed and repeated its mechanized call home. He thanked the Blessed Virgin for the simpler innovations of times past. Finally he was ready. In one proficient movement, the man flipped the giant electric halogen lamp’s switch and shielded his eyes in anticipation.
“Damn me to whatever torture seems fit if I’m gonna let faulty wiring doom these lads!” the old man muttered, glancing around for a solution. He would have to light this sleeping lady up the old-fashioned way.
Finding nothing of use in the Lantern Room, he scurried back down to the museum. His knees and ankles protested, but the old man remained focused on his task. He scooped up different elements from the museum’s display cases: an Argand lamp, a Fresnel lens better suited for the forgotten way of doing things, a can of kerosene he prayed was still viable. Claps of thunder, his old friends, urged him forward.
After he arranged his armful of ancient treasures in working order, the old man flipped the switch for the air vent, but he didn’t bother to listen for its usual filtering hum. He was so focused on readying the make-shift lamp that he did not notice as fumes started to fill the Lantern Room.
“Yer lit, Kelpie, yer lit!” the old man shouted into his CB’s microphone. As he maintained the lamp’s oil fill line, he peered out the thick floor-to-ceiling windows, his tired eyes finally landing on a battered commercial fishing vessel in the near distance. In the lighthouse’s rotating illumination, he could see that the Kelpie was close to shore, close enough now that he knew he needn’t worry. The lamp would hold. Fumes would overtake him soon, but the lamp would hold.
With the gillnetter safely docked and the storm reduced to only a gentle rain, the Kelpie‘s captain immediately sought the old man in the lighthouse. She rattled a few polite knocks, then raised an eyebrow at her equally bewildered first mate when they did not receive a response. They cautiously cracked the door to a cold, empty room. The museum’s display cases looked exactly as they should have, but all of the other smatterings of furniture and nautical decor appeared long untouched. Even the fireplace held only cool ashes, and nary a crumb could be found in the museum caretaker’s cupboard. It seemed that no one had inhabited or even ventured into the lighthouse in a long time. Only one item was free of dust and decay: a black-and-white photograph of a young seafaring family of three. The captain would recall the otherwise nondescript portrait later simply because the mother, father, and their freckle-faced daughter lit up the frame with unbridled joy.
To the end of their days, neither the captain nor her first mate could say who helped them that fateful night. A ghost, a miracle, or something else entirely? But they passed the story on to their children so that they might, in some small way, honor the man who provided a light in their darkest hour and delayed Death itself so that they might live.
Alexandra M. Lucas is the lead narrative designer and game writer at Ten Red Studios and co-chair of the IGDA Serious Games special interest group. She won the GDC Game Narrative Review Platinum Award twice, and she has delivered gender studies presentations at GDC, PAX Dev, GeekGirlCon, Wellesley College, and the NEPCA Conference. In addition to speaking about career development at PAX Dev and GDC, Alexandra co-founded the game career consultancy SoYouWantToMake.Games. Alexandra wrote a chapter on Asari sexuality in Mass Effect for Digital Love: Romance & Sexuality in Games (Taylor & Francis, 2017), a chapter about toxic masculinity in TV’s new Golden Age for Pop Culture Matters (Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2019), and a chapter on the evolution of Dragon Age relationship mechanics for Love and Electronic Affection: A Design Primer (CRC Press, May 2020). Her short story, ‘Manna Is Where You Make It,’ was published in Whatcom WRITES: Discovery (Borderline Press, March 2020), and her poem, ‘Leftover,’ recently received a Merit Award in the 2020 Sue C. Boynton Poetry Competition. Professionally, Alexandra has written for interactive novels, digital assistants, RTS mobile games, educational MMORPGs, and more.