“The Lightkeeper,” Manda Collis
Every summer I patiently tried to suggest picturesque hiking trails or city skyscrapers for our week-long escape from reality, and every summer I was shot down. My wife loved the sand and the sun more than she loved me, and I loved her enough to be willing to cope with the yearly “beach week.” This year was pure hell – the first four days it did nothing but rain, thunderstorm after thunderstorm. Instead of walks on the beach, we were doomed to watching all seven hundred of the satellite channels, playing every board game in the rental cottage, and re-watching the same six dated VHS tapes that the homeowner had left for whatever sorry sap who would actually sit down and watch a VHS on vacation.
As the fifth day approached, I couldn’t take it anymore. I was going out, braving the weather. I’d been looking through some fliers and thought I might check out the lighthouse nearby – another afternoon spent bickering wasn’t going to help either of us. With my wife nose deep in a book, I decided to brave it alone.
Thanks to the weather, the park was nearly abandoned spare for a few park service workers. The bold stripes of the lighthouse loomed over menacingly, black and white spiraling upward until they disappeared in the clouds. I relished the first few flights once I got inside, stopping only to glance out the windows at each landing into the downpour that seemed to be getting only worse.
About halfway up, a poorly framed newspaper clipping caught my eye, along with the smiling photo of a newlywed who had jumped to his death from the top of the tower. It was chilling to think that the steps I was climbing were the death march of a man before me – what must that have been like? I was about to make my way up the rest of the lighthouse when I heard voices calling down below.
“Alright!” A voice called. “She looks empty, close ‘er up!” Before I could argue otherwise, the heavy doors slammed shut, obviously preparation for the weather that seemed to only be getting worse and worse. They’d seen me come inside, hadn’t they? Why hadn’t anyone checked further up the stairs? I flew down to the bottom, panting as I reached the ground level, but the doors were sealed shut. They had to be, in case the ocean rose, but left no way out for me. I was trapped. Shouting did no good – whoever had come to close the lighthouse had long since left. Maybe if I could make it to the top I could drop something down – a note? I had a couple pens in my pocket, and there were brochures in the lighthouse base. It seemed stupid, but I needed to escape.
The first two landings were fine, though I was growing weary. The lighthouse had over two hundred steps, and the return trip from my first partial climb had taken it’s toll. I was nearly at the top when a clap of thunder startled me, and as my sandals failed to find traction on the slippery steps I suddenly went flying down the staircase. My first attempts to get up were hit by a gust of wind to the face – though I couldn’t discern where it had come from, it felt like a truck had smacked me in the forehead.
As I was pulling myself up on the railing, I caught a glimpse of a young man descending from the top of the tower, pausing at one of the landings. I was relieved to see another person – perhaps he worked for the park service, or had a phone on him? As he looked out the windows, I rushed up the remaining stairs in an attempt to catch him, but it was in vain – by the time I rounded the last circle, he was gone.
“Hello?” I called to the nothingness, and nothingness answered. A quick glance down proved that he hadn’t passed me when I wasn’t looking, and a quick glance up didn’t show him either. I pressed onward to the light room, thinking that maybe he’d gone back out on the observation deck. Had I seen anyone at all? Was it just a trick of my exhausted mind? I ambled around at the top once I’d reached the final stair, and through the dredging rain caught a glimpse of the man through the windows. Excitedly, I rushed out onto the deck.
It wasn’t until I’d followed the circular deck around the top of the tower that I heard the door slam shut, leaving me alone once more. Tugging on the door, my heart pounded as it wouldn’t budge. Another truck-like gust hurled me against the edge of the railing, pinning me there. I knew that I was alone, but the gust felt like more than just wind. With a terrifying screech I felt the steel bars before me begin to give way, the wind blowing hard against my back and preventing me from stepping away. I was leaning forward against my own will as I gripped tight to the metal, struggling to right myself until all at once the rail gave way and sent me dangling off the edge of the observation deck, holding on for my life.
I saw the man again briefly through the rain – this time staring back at me from the inside of the lighthouse. My mind reeled as I attempted to cry for help, suddenly recognizing his face from the news article on the landing so many feet below. He smiled briefly before disappearing again, leaving me to scream alone. The bars lurched again, and as my fingers slipped I knew now what I wish I’d realized sooner – that the only way out was down.