Dark clouds hung heavy in a gunmetal sky as they always did, tossing and turning, snapping at each other with short bursts of noiseless lightning. No rain fell, but the promise was there; the smell of ozone sharp, sweet and strong. The islander walked the beach, taking great pleasure in marring its pristine, milk-white beauty. Beside him, agate blue waves turned in lazy strokes, deliberately contradictory to its moody overhead counterpart. Water licked at his boots, squeezing into barely-there holes and cracks, moistening his feet inside worn out socks. He paced with one hand behind his back, listening to lonely cries from seagulls echo above the crash of waves.
In one hand, bundles of dried wood from coniferous trees that called the island home. In his other, a locket he idly stroked with an arthritic thumb. The latch had been opened and closed so many times on the clockwork piece, the hinges had long ago worn away. He kept it closed with a bit of twine, tied tightly around its cover.
(What was inside was too much to bear.)
Stuffing it into his pocket, he bent down.
(There it is.)
He set the wood pile aside and squatted, working deliberately and carefully. The find could be nothing (a bit of garbage from a long ago passersby) or everything (an altimeter, or perhaps a rudder blade). His hands made broad strokes in the sand, uncovering something brown and metallic. Grasping either side of the squarish piece, he lifted it from the sand, studying it carefully. It was copper, bent in the middle, riddled with holes, stiff with salt and rust. He scowled, thinking quickly, testing the textile with clever hands. Finding what he wanted to know, he nodded to himself. It would take time, but the metal could be reshaped and used.
Sighing, the islander mentally prepared himself. With a gasp and a grunt (and popping of joints) he stood in the jerky fashion of one who has to manoeuvre his weight around. The copper square under one arm, and the bundle of sticks under the other, the islander walked the rest of the beach considerably happier than when he had started, despite the weather.
As the island was very small, so too was the beach forming its northwest border. A slip of a thing; it lay in a crescent shape, the size of the first waxing moon and just as bright. The only blight on its otherwise pristine appearance was a line of large, ugly rocks cutting a jagged border to the east of the mountain. But, as ugly as they were, there was a certain beauty about them. A combination of salt, sea, and sand had weathered their hard exterior to a polished brilliance. They stood, a line of solid, stoic sentries marking where the beach turned from sand to ungainly river rock. In front of them; trees, plentiful and lush. They bunched at the base of the mountain, flaring out where their roots met sand, like the finest of skirts on a spinning dancer. Behind the sentry rocks, however, they turned to scraggy limbs and brush, fighting against temperamental river rock for scraps of sunlight. The scrubs followed the river rock along the backside of the mountain, poking out of soft earth where the rock was afraid to go, hundreds of miles down a steep chasm. At the bottom, a long cliff jutting from the very base of the island, extending well past the shadow of the island’s only mountain.
The configuration was of an ill cut pie, the coveted middle filling and crumble top gone, leaving the bottom crust brittle and easily broken.
On this, a lonely lighthouse precariously perched at the cliff’s edge. Around it the ocean fell in a thunderous waterfall, dissolving away far below the island. Fog from the waves shrouded the lighthouse in a thick blanket, adding to the gloom and desolation of the place. Coming to the edge of the chasm, the islander looked around for his rope ladder, praying that a stray wind hadn’t knocked it loose. If so, he would have to stay on the mainland using his old boat as a makeshift shelter, something he would not care to do, considering his boat was a skeleton of rotted wood and seaweed somewhere on the beach.
(The good planks were of much more use somewhere else.)
He shuddered at the thought. Despite all, the island was not as it appeared to be. Bright light from his little house beckoned him down.
God, but he was tired.
(He was tired almost always these days.)
He grunted. With a sigh and a muttered curse, he adjusted his load from both one hand, and made his way down the rope ladder. Wind whistled around him, tapping at the ladder to make it sway and shake. Sweat beaded on his brow, a long ago fear of heights resurfacing. He cling to the tattered ladder, his nerves shot. Hands slick with sweat, he spent the rest of his climb wondering if it would be him or his load that would wind up splattered on the river rock below. Relief flooded through him when boot touched ground.
(Where are you going?)
“Don’t,” He told the wind through gritted teeth. “Please don’t.”
Inside his pocket, the locket tumbled back and forth, in time with his stunted stride. Rain accompanied him to his small house, pattering down on his hat with the smallest of sounds.
(Where are you going?)
He thought he saw an outline in the rain. A woman, walking beside him, her feet bare on the rock, looking at him askance, a small smile on her face.
He turned away quickly, banishing the image and speeding his walk to his small house. A clack clack clatter of stones told him the woman was keeping pace. He hunkered down in his jacket, his old heart racing in his chest.
(Just a little further.)
(Where are you going?)
He tried to swallow, stuck his tongue out to catch some of the rain, licked chapped lips and tried again to drink the rain. His throat was so dry, and the woman was so close. The small locket seemed a lead weight, dragging him down, making him stumble over the rocks.
(Where are you going?)
Wind lashed at him, stinging exposed cheeks. Rain followed the wind, turning into tiny daggers. They clawed at his clothes, wiggling into open sleeves and collar, soaking him through. He slipped, stones sliding underneath his boots. Reaching out a hand, he caught his balance before any damage could be done. A hand reached out for him.
“Don’t touch me!” He cried, real fear in his voice.
The hand jerked back, as if burned. The islander forced himself to keep walking, to ignore the woman in the rain.
He didn’t. He kept moving.
(Not real. Not real. Not real. Notrealnotrealnotreal. NOT REAL!)
Terror took hold of him and he ran. His house was just there, in the distance. He could reach it if he didn’t look back, if he didn’t look back she wouldn’t be there. She wouldn’t be there.
(He wouldn’t have failed her.)
He opened the door, hurrying inside. Slamming it shut, he leaned against the solid wood frame, breathing in gasps. His house looked innocently back at him, warm and welcoming. Tossing his loot into a nearby corner, he pulled down every shade on every window, not daring to look outside, refusing to see if she was still out there.
(You forgot the light.)
He stopped, mid pull.
The house groaned against the wind, moving with it as old houses have learned to do. The islander peeked out of one of his windows, sizing up the dark lighthouse before him.
“Maybe I could just leave it for one night,” He said to himself.
A nervous twisting of his stomach told him otherwise.
“Damn,” he said to no one in particular.
His eyes swept from left to right, checking the night. He looked at the rolling storm clouds, squinted into the rain.
(No one there.)
Straightening, he adjusted himself and sniffed. Nodding once, he turned on his heel and bade goodbye to the small house.
Wind lashed at him, stinging exposed cheeks, a thousand hands slapping him in reproof for not being faster at his duties. He snorted, furrowing his brows angrily at the elements.
“Don’t rush me,” He commanded.
Lightning flashed at him.
“There’s no point to it, you know,” He continued, huddling into his heavy coat in an attempt to stay warm, pulling down his old goggles and hat. If his cheeks had to suffer, so be it, but not the rest of him. As quickly as he brought them out, he hid his hands inside his pockets. One hand gripped a large key ring, habit making him click together each key to make sure they were there. He made quick work of lighting the optic, pleased when a strong ray of white light pierced through the dense clouds, outshining the lightning.
No one would come, hardly anyone did, but the light was there.
(It was always there.)
Proud and tired, he slowly worked his way down the lighthouse’s winding staircase, food and a hot bath on his mind. Returning to his house he was surprised to see someone at his kitchen table, a chipped ceramic mug in his hands.
(No ship had come in.)
“Hullo,” He said carefully, locking the door behind him. “Can I help you?”
The man looked up, a small smile on his face.
“What happened?” He asked.
The islander stared at him, not understanding. The man turned his head to the side, not really paying attention to the islander.
“What happened to us?” He asked, clarifying himself.
The islander smiled, laughing a little. “I don’t know what you mean laddie.”
Nervous, the islander went about picking up his house, fancying he found little things that were out of place and needed to be put back properly. The other man sat in silence, sipping at whatever it was he had in the ceramic cup. The islander sniffed, cinnamon and chocolate. His mouth watered.
“Want some?” The other man asked. “I made enough to go around.”
The islander nodded gratefully. He sat at his small kitchen table, wary but desperately thirsty. Before he could get a look at his face, the other man stood and walked behind the islander, taking a whistling kettle off the burner.
(When had the kettle been on?)
The islander shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts.
“You have to make it with milk,” He heard the other man explain. “Hot chocolate doesn’t work if it’s made with water.”
The islander laughed. “Someone tried to make it with water for me once when I was a boy. She got very angry with me when I kept sending it back.”
A cup found its way into his hands. He drank deeply, the thick liquid burning down his throat, sweet and spicy on his tongue. The other man sat, chuckling to himself.
“Martha never did get over that slight, did she?”
The islander shook his head, “No she never did.”
The islander looked up. A smile crossed the other man’s face, but it was cast in shadow, the islander couldn’t see properly.
“What is this place?” The man asked.
The islander shook himself again, a feeling of familiarity slowly creeping up his old spine. He leaned back in his chair, hoping to mask his confusion with relaxation.
“The Island,” he said simply. “I don’t know another name for it.”
“And who are you?”
The other man nodded slowly, as if coming to some conclusion of his own.
“What do you do here?”
The islander shrugged, “I keep the lighthouse lit.”
“There’s only one?”
A nod. “The other side is always sunny.” He caught himself, “Well, except for now of course.”
“There’s a storm today.”
(Was the boy stupid?)
“Do you get many visitors here?” The other man asked quickly, as if sensing the rude thoughts going through the islander’s head.
“Not so many anymore,” Answered the islander, taking another draw from his mug. His body relaxed in the chair with a long, low sigh. His boots thudded to the floor as he kicked them off, other parts of him sagged over his belt and collar, reminding the islander of his age. Shame heated his lined cheeks. The man sitting across from him (what he could see of him) screamed youth and vitality. He sat straight in his seat, one hand cupped over the mug, the other resting on a muscled thigh. “You’re the first I’ve had in a very long time.”
A new sort of smile crossed the other man’s face. The islander jumped in his skin. It wasn’t an evil smile, nor was it wicked or in any way dangerous. It was a knowing smile, a secret small one that the islander had smiled himself once or twice.
(And that’s what scared him the most.)
“That’s not really true, is it?” The other man asked quietly, taking a drink.
For the second time that night, the islander’s heart sped up in his chest. His hands and sock-clad feet tingled as his body tried to sort out if it wanted to fight the obviously stronger man, or run out the door and take his chances with the elements.
“Calm down,” The other man said, “you’re going to give yourself a heart attack.”
“Don’t tell me what to do, lad,” The islander warned. “Now, who are ye and what are ye doing here?”
The man sat back in his seat, still clad in shadow.
“When you do get a visitor, what happens?”
Annoyed, the islander glared at him. “Why should I tell ye?”
“I made you hot chocolate the right way.”
“Yer also sitting in shadow and actin’ the interrogator.”
The man nodded. “All right. Answer my questions and I’ll answer yours.”
The islander huffed. “There’s a box to yer right, hand it to me.”
From his pants pocket, the islander produced a pipe. The other man reached behind him and handed over the box. The islander took his time filling his pipe and lighting it. The other man waited patiently, declining when the islander offered him the tobacco box. The islander shrugged and puffed, blowing smoke rings.
“Hungry?” He asked finally.
The other man nodded.
The islander stood. Shucking off his rain coat, he stretched until his bones popped then busied himself in the kitchen, clanging and banging pots around, sorting out different cans from his well-stocked cupboards until the smell of cooking soup and cornbread suffused the kitchen.
“The island has its mysteries, lad. I don’t remember how I came here or why. I just remember waking up on the beach.”
The other man nodded, licking his lips, “But what happens when you get visitors. Why is there only one lighthouse?”
The islander shrugged, “Don’t need a lighthouse on the other side. Sun’s always shining during the daytime.”
“What about at night?”
Another shrug, “Moon’s bright enough fer people to see their way.”
“Even at the new moon?”
“Never seen such a thing out here. Moon’s always full, half full, or nearly full.”
“No new moon?”
“Not a one.”
The other man lapsed into silence. “What do the visitors do here?”
The islander spooned soup into cracked bowls. “Some are afraid at first, clinging to each other and shivering like cornered rabbits. Sometimes it takes ’em a night or mayhap they stay a few days, but they eventually realise what’s goin’ on and they calm right down.”
“What is going on?”
(The man’s voice grated on him, it was so damned familiar. Why?)
“What is going on? What do the people realise?”
Another shrug, “Couldn’a tell ya. But, whatever they come to, they always tell me to take ’em to the beach. Got me an airship out on the other side of the beach to do just that. Built it meself. Needs repair, but I got nothin but time out here.”
“The beach on the other side of the lighthouse?”
“That’s the one.”
“Remarkable,” The man muttered. “And, you have your own airship?”
“Just what I said ain’t it?”
The islander cut thick slices of cornbread from the pan and set the table. He sat and tucked into his food, quickly emptying his bowl and plate while the other man, silent again, picked at his food.
“I’ll not be making ye food again if’n ye don’t eat it.”
The man jerked his head up, his face coming into the light. The islander’s heart stopped in his chest, his spoon falling from suddenly loose fingers.
“Interesting to see how the English language fails me as I get older. It’s not comforting by any means.”
“Yes, that too,” The other man sat back in his chair, his food forgotten, studying the islander. “Remarkable that the Irish accent is thick in you and yet I don’t have one now.”
The islander nodded dumbly. “Strange,” He agreed.
“Why am I here?” The man demanded.
The islander shrugged, “Couldn’a tell ya.”
“You bloody couldn’a if you wanted too!” The young man yelled, jumping up from his seat. “Where am I?”
“The Island,” The islander repeated as if from a dream.
His brows furrowed. He felt detached from his body somehow, looking down at himself and the man he resembled now pacing before his fireplace.
(This couldn’t be happening. His hand snaked into his jacket, gripping the tiny locket.)
“How?” The other man demanded. “How did I get here? Why am I here? What happened?!”
There was real pain in his voice; it contorted his handsome features into an angry scowl. The islander smiled to himself, he knew that look, it was the one he wore when his sister was annoying him or something went wrong in his research.
(Oh. Oh, God.)
The other man turned to him.
“What happens to the people-the visitors that you take to the beach?”
The young man positively vibrated with nervous energy. The islander shrank back in his chair, not sure if he should answer.
(He didn’t know. They just vanished. A buoy appeared clanging and clattering off in the distance. He looked away once and when he looked back, they were gone.)
The islander shook his head. The other man rounded on him.
“How could you not know?”
“I ain’t supposed to know what goes on ’round here!” The islander fired back, “I’m just supposed to keep the lighthouse burning bright!”
“The light!” The islander said stupidly, his mind grasping at straws. “The light,” He repeated more slowly, “it cuts through the dark.”
“I thought you said the sun always shined.”
“On one side of the beach you smarmy git,” He cursed at himself. “The sun don’t shine on both sides of the island.”
“What about the moon? You said there was never a new moon.”
“On one side of the island,” The islander repeated slowly, as if he were talking to an exceptionally slow child, “never shines over here.”
“Well, we’re below the island, ain’t we? Why would there be a moon shining down on a cliff over a bloomin’ waterfall? Don’t make a lick of sense, does it?”
“So why light the optic?”
“It’s there,” the islander shrugged. “And no one seems to come from the sunny side. They all come from the dark side. Seems all they want to do is go back to the sunshine. Once they come to that realisation.”
“Couldn’a tell ye.”
The other man sank into the islander’s favourite chair. An overstuffed thing, it seemed to swallow him up. Hiding his head in his hand, the other man moaned, a low piteous sound that spoke volumes. The islander winced. Standing up, he took his pipe from in-between his teeth.
“Don’t worry lad. You get some sleep and I’ll take you to the beach tomorrow.”
The other man laughed aloud, throwing his head back from his hands.
The islander stepped back, afraid.
(The locket flipped in his worrying fingers. Click open. Clack closed. Never show the picture. Never the memories. Keep them hidden.)
“Who are you, lad?”
The other man shook his head. “Where is she?” He asked instead, “What happened to her? Was she one of your visitors?”
The islander stiffened, “Don’t know what yer talking about.” He turned his back on the other man, resolving to kick him out to the rock and storm.
(It raged outside. He could hear it through the walls. It would destroy him. Nothing would be left, another shadow in the rain.)
The other man’s hands dropped to his lap. The islander could see him clearly now. Wide, green eyes stared blankly at the floor underneath red-black hair, shimmering with unshed tears. Fresh scars marred his olive skin and hands. He was thin, but well made and strong. Tattered clothes hung from his body, splattered here and there with dried blood and other fluids. Shadows cast from the fire flitted strangely along his body, adding to the drama of his haggard appearance.
(He looked as if he’d just seen a battle.)
The islander licked his lips, his fingers rotating the locket faster and faster, its tiny click audible in the silent house. The other man’s eyes darted to his pocket. The islander stopped, his breath catching in his throat.
(Did he know?)
He swallowed hard and turned his back.
(Of course he knows.)
Going to the kitchen, he opened drawer after drawer with shaking hands, looking for a match to light his pipe. He ignored the same locket hanging from the man’s throat on a delicate silver chain.
(There was a matchbook somewhere.)
“What happened?” The other man asked.
The islander looked over his shoulder. The man sat, looking very small in his armchair. This sight made the islander feel better. The islander was old, there was no doubt. But, with age came a certain awareness of the body. The way that chair was stuffed, it would take the other man a good amount of time to get out and reorient himself. By virtue of clever upholstery; the islander gave himself an advantage over anyone who didn’t take the news of the island very well.
“I don’t know,” The islander said truthfully.
The other man’s jaw trembled with caged emotion. The islander swallowed hard, Adam’s apple bobbing three times before he spoke again.
“I tell ya I just woke up one day on this beach.”
The islander didn’t deign to answer.
“You left her, didn’t you?” The other man said, making it a question. A smile (this one cold and cruel) touched his lips, “That isn’t right though, is it? I left her, didn’t I? After all, you are me, aren’t you?”
Again, the islander didn’t answer. Pain stabbed his heart, doubling him over against the kitchen counter. Rain pattered on the windows, pushed to a fine sheet by the wind. He looked up, a figure flashed before his eyes, brought to life by lightning.
(Where are you going?)
The islander bowed his head, trembling. From fear or emotion, he didn’t know which.
For a moment the world around him went very quiet. (The woman smiled at him hopefully, pressing her hand against the glass, the other clutching her opposite shoulder.) The islander peered at her, cocking his head to the side as a dog or a bird does when something confuses them. (Gusting wind made her shiver, the house answering in a loud moan as it adjusted itself.) Carefully, tentatively, the islander put his wrinkled hand against the glass, matching his hand to hers. (She grinned at him, shaking her head sadly. She stood just outside, hazy and indistinct in the rain, but he could see her. He could see her plain as day.) Metal shined where skin should have rightfully been and one eye, one eye was glass. He remembered that.
(She had lost it somewhere.)
He shook his head. She shook hers, mocking him.
Fire burned in his memory.
(There had been an explosion.)
Another gust shook her loose from the window. He opened his mouth in a wordless yell. She turned to face the wind, hunkering down against it, trying to fight.
Fog assaulted his mind, shielding her from him. In the distance, he could hear seagulls lamenting their worries to the sky above. Fear returned. Fear of her, and what she meant. He tried to grasp at the memory, ran after it as fast as his withered legs could carry him.
(Where are you going?)
He shook his head again and turned away from the window.
Another shake and the world returned. A shadow passed over him, darkening the contents of the half-open drawer he’d been about to tear through on his search for the elusive matchbook. The islander yelped in fear and surprise, spinning around.
The other man stood over him, a crazed look in his eyes. His hair hung in greasy bunches, his shirt and tattered waistcoat soaked in sweat and blood.
“It’s this place,” The other man said, nodding to himself. “I don’t know what this place is, but you didn’t-I didn’t leave, did I? I’ve been stuck here this whole time. Content,” he spat the word, “content to light a light in a lighthouse for the rest of my days and forget.” The islander turned away. The other man railed against him, speaking to his back, his voice gaining an octave with each demand, “You don’t remember, do you? Do you?!”
The islander forced himself to shake his head in the negative.
(Liar. You do remember, you just didn’t want to go back, to face it all again.)
“How did ye get out of that chair?” He asked carefully, staring at the drawer without seeing its contents.
Spotting a matchbook on the kitchen table, he stumbled over to it and pulled out a match with shaking hands.
The other man smiled, “I’m not so clever in my old age.”
Stunned, the islander dropped the match on the wood floor; it fizzled and sputtered before going out in a twirl of smoke.
“I’m not-” He started angrily.
The other man scrubbed his mouth, his expression caught somewhere between a leer and a grimace, “Yes. Yes ye are,” He said, mimicking the islander perfectly. He danced from foot to foot, laughing a giddy little laugh that chilled the islander to the bone, “I am-we are-a coward. A yellow-bellied Irish-Egyptian git.”
“I’m not you,” The islander protested, sucking hard on his unlit pipe.
The other man hunched his shoulders, the effect making him bigger than what he actually was. “Oh yes, yes you are. You’re just too stupid to see it.” He laughed again, taunting the islander in a sing-song voice, “Too stupid, too stupid, too stupid to see it!”
He hid himself in shadow again, still laughing. The islander backed up in pure instinct, his hands searching for some kind of weapon. Adrenaline made him jittery and nervous.
(Fight or flight?)
“I’m not,” He said again, coughing up tobacco bits.
“You are. Look at me old man.”
The islander did. Blood stood out in stark contrast to the rest of him, highlighted by the fire and shadows. It fell down his body in bright red rivulets, puddling on the kitchen’s wood floor in large, fat drops.
Now the islander was truly afraid. His body trembled with it. His hands skirted along the countertop, telling himself there should be a knife somewhere lying discarded on the faded green countertop.
He backed himself into a corner, staring into his own green eyes, bright with fever, beginning to turn milky white with cataracts.
“I should kill myself,” He snarled. “For all the good I’ve done her.”
“No!” He screamed, trying to get away.
He launched at the other man with a roar, deciding on a full body take down. With his weight against the other man it would be enough to knock him out, plenty of time to get to his airship and get away.
Anticipating this, the other man stepped aside, allowing the islander to careen into his antiquated kitchen furniture. He screamed in pain,
“That’s what happens when I try to be a hero!” The other man screamed, grabbing the islander by the hair and slamming his face into the chair nearest him.
Again and again and again, delicate bone met solid wood, cracking deliciously under the impact.
The islander moaned in pain, screaming again as the other man hefted him bodily and slammed him into the wood floor, smearing blood over his skin and clothes.
“I left her to die!” The other man screamed again, “I deserve everything I get!”
Finding his strength, the islander reached up to the hands holding him and wrenched them free. A long ago lesson of a forgotten martial art came back to him, and he sent the other man stumbling back with a hard kick to the sternum. He fought, his limbs quickened by adrenaline and oxygenated blood. Chairs toppled in the struggle, landing with shouts and splinters, a nightstand, slim lamp, an ancient grandfather clock that didn’t have the sense to tell time; all crashed to the floor in a torrent of limbs and curses.
“You left her!” The other man screamed.
“She was dead!” The islander screamed back.
The words echoed in the silent house, ringing in his ears like a death knell.
(She was dead. He had seen the explosion, seen her fall.)
The two fighters met and parted, circling each other in a gross challenge. Blood leaked from every orifice on both men. But, where one wore a smile and seemed to bear the wounds as lightly as a bird on a wire, the other slumped with pain, still posturing, believing he will go undefeated. The two met in a final tangle of limbs.
The islander landed with a heavy thud, one arm twisted painfully behind his back, the other trapped under his bulk. He groaned, sure that every bone in his body was broken. The other man sat on his back, dangling a small knife in front of his eyes.
(So, that’s where it went.)
One hand wrenched the islander’s head back, the other put the knife to his throat.
“I left her,” He said, bending down so his lips were close to the islander’s hairy ear. “I left her to die there when I could have saved her. I had the tools, I have the knowledge. Why?” He begged, “Why did I leave?”
The islander tried to move, tried to get out from under the other man’s weight.
“She was dead,” The islander repeated, finding strength in the words.
“I built an airship to sail people from one end of this island to the other.” The other man chuckled, his tone turning nasty, “I could save other people. That’s what I’m doing, isn’t it? Sailing others to the pretty side of the island so they can live happily ever after,” He demanded, as if the islander hadn’t spoken at all.
The islander struggled, kicking his legs frantically left and right, anything to get the crushing weight off his chest. His lungs burned with the effort of breathing.
Darkness clawed at his mind, promising oblivion.
He wrenched himself back, forced his eyes open despite the pain shooting from every part of his body.
“Please,” He begged, “let me go.”
Suddenly the knife was at his throat, digging deep into the loose skin at his neck.
“I don’t think so.”
(No way out.)
The knife sank smoothly into his skin, he could feel the tip at his Adam’s apple.
(No way out.)
“I left her,” The other man sobbed. “The only woman I could ever love, and I left her. I’m worthless.”
(No way out.)
The islander stretched his neck, trying to keep the tip the only part of the steel object in his throat.
“No,” He croaked.
“Don’t! Don’t try to deny it, I know what I’ve done.”
(No way out.)
Blackness crawled through his brain, bringing with it a sweet sort of warmth. It was soothing, promising sleep.
(The forever kind.)
The other man sobbed, his hold on his hair slackening. The knife stood in the islander’s throat, the grip on it loose.
Mustering his remaining strength, the islander arched his back and tried to buck himself loose. Laughter answered him, and the slow, delicate slide of metal in skin.
“Sleep now,” He crooned.
(And don’t wake up.)
“I don’t think so,” The islander answered, jerking the knife to the right.
Crazed eyes looked down at him, tears glistening like dew on olive brown cheeks. A slow smile crept across the other man’s face. The islander watched as the light behind his eyes dimmed and finally went out.
(It was the same with the visitors, once they realised what happened to them.)
He laid on the wood floor, breathing hard, soaked through with blood and sweat. His waist coat and shirt hung in ruins off his body, but there was no time to change.
(Perhaps the island hasn’t noticed.)
He sat up carefully, his body bruised, sore, and very likely broken. Testing weight on his right arm proved his point. Pain lanced up the joint, wrenching a cry of pain from tightly clenched lips. The islander stood, getting the same reaction from his left leg, though less of one.
(Just sprained, it will have to bear weight.)
He limped to his kitchen, stopping to catch his breath on furniture that hadn’t been overturned in the struggle. Once in the kitchen, he fashioned a splint out of a rusted spatula and soup spoon, using strips of his shirt as binding. There was no time for crutches or a splint for his injured leg.
Moving with silent determination, he gathered the things he would need. Memories flooded back as he worked.
(He’d been lying in a deep coma. There was a bed, it was moving in time with the sea, rocking him in his sleep, keeping him there.)
In the beginning, when he first stumbled upon this island, there had been visitors. Old and worn out souls that were looking for their way home. He would smile and offer them a place to sleep in his dilapidated but snug home, invite them to come in and eat, to warm themselves, then when they were sleeping, he would go to the light house and light the optic.
In the morning, their breakfast would be laid out for them, steaming and filling. He was never there when they woke, he came out later to stacked dishes and a note of thanks or some trinket brought with them in tightly clenched hands, finally relinquished when their fears had left them and reality sunk in.
(He used the useful trinkets, discarding the others that had no value to him. They were for his airship. The one he piloted to take them to the other side of the beach.)
How he came upon the island he didn’t remember. It had just been there.
(He bit his lip, slipping on his rain coat.)
It had always been there, waiting for him. He felt safe on the island. It had treated him well, so long as the light was always lit in the lighthouse.
(The light showed them their way home).
Fumbling with his left hand, he slipped the matchbook in his pocket, patting the outside once just to make sure it was there. He limped to the door, shying away from cobwebs swishing in the breeze coming in through various cracks and holes in the house’s walls. A fat black spider scrambled up a delicate thread, a fresh fly caught in its legs. The islander winced, swallowing down disgust. From a peg near the door, he pulled down a rusted key ring. Clutching it, he pushed open the door, stepping out into the storm.
In the beginning there had been visitors.
(She was there, waiting for him, still clutching at her naked shoulders, metal shining in the soundless lightning overhead. He looked at her, tears swimming in his eyes. She grinned at him, raising her eyebrows in query.)
(Are you going to help me?)
He nodded, swallowing hard.
(What’s there to forgive? You didn’t know.)
“I could have saved you.”
Hands shaking with cold slipped a skeleton key into its lock. Two turns to the right, a third to the left and the islander wrenched the door open, grateful for its slam and the protection the light house offered.
(Not long now. Light the optic.)
Memories slammed through him now, coming faster than his mind could process.
(He hadn’t been content. He had been doing something in this lighthouse.)
His hands reeked of dirt and oil.
Thunder grumbled, upsetting the lighthouse and the islander. He stopped, looking from left to right in surprise, his body poised for a new fight. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up, he turned a slow circle, his mind’s eye conjuring up images of himself with a bright red gash in his throat, coming back for round two. When he was sure he was alone, he mounted the stairs. A second thunderbolt shook the lighthouse. The islander ignored it. Initial surprise and unease over, he put himself back on the task at hand. A third thunderbolt shook loose screws in their homes, rattling metal plates. Rotted stairs underneath his bare feet swayed dangerously, their hold on the lighthouse’s support column tenuous at best. He waited. When his world stopped shaking, he continued his climb, counting the seconds between thunderbolt and lightning strike.
(Storm is coming.)
(She walked next to him, more solid now. He could almost touch her if he had the courage to hold out his hand.)
(The island isn’t happy.)
He hurried his steps.
The service room was first. Four turns to open the door. The room stood silent and black. He didn’t need a light here (he had stolen all of the clockwork).
(Light the optic.)
He took a turn around the room, carefully feeling for any signs of damp. He sniffed the air, checking for mould growth. Bending down, he patted the deck. Bundles of sharp sticks bit into his hand. Laughter grabbed hold of him suddenly. He rocked back on his heels, clutching his stomach in relieved mirth.
“That’s what I was doing!” He cried in triumph. “I wasn’t content! I wasn’t bloody content!”
He tested the bundles again, almost sorry he hadn’t brought his earlier pile with him. Satisfied no dampness permeated the walls or wood, he stood and exited the room, locking the door behind him.
Next, the optic room. Five turns with two separate keys. Glass panes stood in metal frames, quivering with every thunderbolt. Three were gone, opening the octagonal room to the elements. He looked up, blinking rapidly against fat rain drops. The copper plated dome, once shining and new, stood bent and broken, letting in more rain than it covered.
(She had followed him like the ghost she had become. She looked up with him, blinking back raindrops.)
(The light won’t last long).
He paced the room, checking each remaining pane for salt damage. They sparkled back at him, clean and bright. He smiled. From his pocket he produced the matchbox. Rain fell in earnest, soaking him and the box quickly. Wind whipped itself into a frenzy, bringing with it the ocean’s ire. Far below him his house stood in determined silence, prepared to weather another storm, its windows glowing by firelight.
The smell of burning wood caught his nose.
In an instant, his little, dilapidated house changed. Window panes that once gave the illusion of a smile and welcome now turned helpless, wood arching in surprise, doorframe widening in a silent scream.
Screwing up his courage, he struck one match. The flame glowed and fizzled, extinguished by the rain.
He hunched his shoulders, trying to shelter the next tiny stick. (She stood in front of him, adding her semi-solid hands to his makeshift shield.)
A second strike.
Fourth, fifth, sixth, seventh.
Nothing, nothing, nothing, nothing.
The eighth stayed. The eighth burned bright and fierce. He found himself blinded by the light. Squinting, he folded his free hand carefully around the match and dropped it into the lighthouse’s brand new black hole.
Fire, bright yellow and red roared to life, catching quickly on his carefully preserved dried twigs and branches. Thrown into tumult by the wind, it snapped and cracked, lashing back at the elements outside and above it, forcing the lighthouse’s occupants to the furthest corner to escape its rage and heat. His mission accomplished, the islander scrambled down the stairs as if the Devil himself were behind him.
(She followed close behind, skipping down three stairs at a time. Hair whipped back by the rain, her eyes bored into his.)
(No time, no time, NO TIME!)
Angry and alert to his plan, the island contracted violently around him. Wind, already fierce and cold, whipped itself into a fury, kicking up a storm of rock and water, forcing the islander to play a deadly game of duck and weave. His leg screamed with pain, making his stunted movements all the more slow and unsteady. Rocks flew at him with deadly accuracy. The islander ducked, dodged, and wove through the assault, trying in vain for quick reflexes.
“I’m trying!” He wailed, throwing his arms around his head to protect his face and throat.
Laughter echoed around him, high pitched and dangerous. Tossed into a tumult, the ocean added its own weapon to the wind’s arsenal. Frigid water, formed into tiny spikes of salt and brine, lashed at his clothes, seeking out soft skin under the fabric, opening the way for the harder rocks. Three hit him in the chest, another two in his exposed left side, bludgeoning him until he was a ball on the ground. Gathering itself, the wind swarmed and circled until it was a small tornado, standing just in front of the quivering islander, tossing and catching a rock with a southeasterly hand.
“Stop!” The islander begged, “Please, stop!”
The wind let him take his feet, holding both hands out in front of him to show that he was unarmed. With deadly accuracy, the wind took his feet out from under him with two well-placed rocks to the shins and thigh.
The islander screamed in pain, falling in a boneless lump to the unstable ground.
(Get up! She screamed at him. Get up!)
(I swear to God if you don’t get up I will haunt you for the rest of your life! GET UP!)
He climbed to his feet, his whole body protesting. His legs trembled and fell, collapsing underneath him.
(You bloody well can!)
He tried to stand again. This time, through sheer force of will, his legs held. The wind laughed, the ocean with it. They gathered their strength, rising up in an arch of white waves and swirling clouds and rock. A scream pierced the night, staggering them backward. The islander looked around him, stunned by the force of the sound.
(Go! Run! She screamed again, the sound cutting through him like a knife.)
Fighting to regain control of himself, he limped passed the stunned elements.
In the distance a small airship waited for him. A happy, dancing little fire perked in its basket, filling the patchwork envelope above it with hot air. It tugged on its line, hurrying the islander along with hopeful bobs and jumps. He ran and ran, the scream following him until at last, he was on board the gondola and reaching out a window, pulling a rip cord to start its engine. Cold sweat poured down his body, sticking his clothes to his skin, making him shiver.
“Please work,” He begged, pulling the cord again. “Please.”
The engine sputtered and coughed, puffing smoke and nothing else.
“Oh no, no no no no no no. I can’t stay here,” He told the engine, “I have to get back.”
He pulled again, harder this time. Again the engine coughed, trying to turn over.
“One more time,” The islander told himself, refusing to panic. “One more time.”
A rock crashed through the gondola, opening the port side to the island’s fury. Rain flew in, biting and clawing at wood and cloth. Sea water, driven by the wind, crashed inside, forcing the airship down to the ground. The islander shrieked and yanked the cord. The engine yelped and sprang to life.
What should have been a triumphant shout, came out a strangled gasp.
“I can’t go,” The other man gurgled through the wound splitting his throat open. “I let her die, I have to stay here.”
The islander threw him off, in too much pain to do any more than that. The other man recovered quickly. Pulling the silver knife from his throat, he wrenched the islander’s head back, “I have to stay,” He giggled.
“NO!” The islander yelled, forcing the other man off and away from him.
The knife clattered to the deck, bouncing with the impact of rock and water. Truly panicking, the islander clamoured on what remained of the deck, reaching for the knife, clasping it before the other man had a moment’s chance. Weapon in hand, he made short work of cutting the airship’s tether.
“Now for you,” He said to the other man, quivering and quaking on the ground.
“No,” He begged in a very small voice. “You, you can’t.”
The islander smiled, “I’m giving you what you want.”
“No,” The other man wailed in a childish voice, “I don’t want to stay!”
The airship bucked and teetered in its rigging, a slave to the movements in the gondola. The islander found the steering wheel and turned it bodily.
The other man fell to the ocean below with a final, sad shriek.
The islander laughed through tears, throwing the throttle open. The airship responded beautifully, flying above the wind, straight into the darkness beyond the cliff.
“I’m coming,” He promised her. “I’m coming back.”