The minute Elliott Fletcher passed the ‘Welcome to Cambridge Strait’ sign it all came flooding back. Everything from the pot holes in the pavement, to the convenience store selling beer, to the gas station that used pumps with white numbers on the rollers. It was like the place was forever stuck in the eighties, and he loved it.
Elliott pumped ten dollars’ worth of gas and went inside. “Looks like another storm coming,” he said as he handed over the ten spot. No fancy card machines around here.
“Yep,” the gas attendant replied with a grin. “Nothing we can’t handle, though. Folks have been through this before.”
“I was hoping to visit the lighthouse, if possible. Do you know where I can find the keeper?”
The color drained from the attendant’s face and he stammered over his words until he got it out. “That’d be Doc Murphy. He ain’t a real doc. That’s just what folks call him. His place is down at the end of the road.”
Elliott tipped his tattered ball cap to the attendant and followed the road until he found Doc Murphy’s place. The old timer’s eyes perked up when Elliott told him what he wanted.
“You sure?” Doc Murphy asked, cocking an eyebrow. “No one hardly ever goes down there anymore. Especially tonight.”
Doc Murphy regarded him with a bemused smirk. “You really don’t know, do you?” He went to a side table and poured himself a measure of rum. Elliott shook his head when offered a similar measure. “The story is that ten years to the day there was a horrific boat crash. Three people drowned.”
Elliott knew all that, but didn’t say anything.
“Now, every year on this night, those spirits return looking for vengeance. Our boats don’t even put to sea today.”
Elliott shoved his hands into his pocket. “Ghosts, huh?”
Doc Murphy nodded and downed his drink in one gulp. “Seen ‘em with me own eyes.”
Elliott wasn’t concerned with ghosts. He had enough trouble dealing with his own demons. All he wanted from this man was the lighthouse key.
This was why he drove fifteen hours in a beat up sedan, after all. Back to a lonely outport community he hadn’t seen since he was a snot-nosed kid. It didn’t take long for the memories to come back once the first briny wisps of salt water filled his nose.
Everyone had tried to stop him. They told him to let it go, that old wounds should stay covered, but Elliott didn’t listen. Not this time. They were only worried about their own embarrassment, not his recovery.
He’d wanted to make this trip every year for the past decade, but there was always some excuse. Finally, he couldn’t take the dreams anymore. Every time he closed his eyes, he saw a boat crashing against the rocks. He had to come.
The dreams weren’t the only reason, though. The program said he needed to make amends. To move forward he had to make things right. He thought of Tessa’s smiling face across the coffee shop table after their meetings. They’d only been seeing each other for a couple of months, but Elliott had a good feeling about her. He wanted things to get serious, but first he had to make things right. Before he allowed her fully into his heart, he had to find peace.
Elliott’s heart pounded as he made his way down the narrow path towards the dilapidated shack at the base of the Cambridge Strait Lighthouse. His knees wobbled as if he’d spent the night in the bottom of a bottle. A feeling he knew all too well.
The walk from the main road out to where the lighthouse sat wasn’t far, but it was far enough for him to run through a whole gamut of emotions. He swallowed hard, trying to ease the butterflies in his stomach.
The lighthouse was exactly as he remembered, albeit with a new coat of paint. Still the original lenses, though he imagined the light had been upgraded to a more modern version. At least, he hoped so.
A brisk wind out of the north cut across his skin. Elliott welcomed it, though it threatened to shift around to the east, and if that happened, it would be a bad day for the mackerel fishermen farther offshore.
Elliott stopped and listened as waves crashed against the rocks. It had been too long since he’d heard that sweet sound. It was worlds different from the car horns and screeching tires he was used to. Hitching his collar higher on his neck, he walked the rest of the way to the lighthouse.
For the first time in ten years, he stepped into the single room shack and shook off the early evening chill. The room was nothing fancy. A small table with a handheld VHF radio, a woodstove with a kettle, and a bookshelf that looked like it had seen better days. Elliott took a deep breath of stale air and shed his jacket. It was exactly as he remembered it.
And that’s where the pleasant memories ended, replaced by dark, dangerous visions roiling like the approaching storm. Elliott remembered that night like it was yesterday. Ten years ago to the day. Storms, common for this time of year, were blowing in. He wanted to go drinking with the boys and tried to get someone else to watch the lighthouse for him, but they all refused. It was his turn, they said. Everyone had to make sacrifices.
Care of the Cambridge Strait Lighthouse had been a Fletcher family responsibility for generations. Elliott understood its importance. Someone had to keep watch on the strait. He had just grown tired of spending countless hours cooped up. Instead of a watcher, he felt like a prisoner.
He remembered heading down to the wharf for a couple of drinks with the boys. It wasn’t dark yet, and nothing bad had ever happened anyway. By the time he arrived at the lighthouse, he was already three sheets to the wind. He only vaguely remembered passing out and waking up to his father’s furious glare.
Elliott remembered throwing up when his father told him what happened. A family of three were out on the water when a storm hit. A lump formed in his throat. The father, Daniel, the mother, Ruth Anne, and the young girl…
Their names forever burned into his memory. All drowned when their boat struck the rock the lighthouse was supposed to mark. Before he could say anything, his father went public to take responsibility. He was the patriarch, he said. The one ultimately responsible for what happened. It was his duty.
When the authorities came for the inquiry, his father handled it. The results shamed his family. Everywhere he turned, he was asked about it. People more than willing to talk and lay blame constantly badgering him. Even his friends distanced themselves from him, not wanting to take any part in the tragedy. In the end, it became too much for them and they were forced to move.
Elliott spent every minute, waking and not, picturing the boat splintering on the rocks and the three faces slipping below the icy waves.
His only escape had been the bottle. And he sought it at every opportunity. Finally, one night he’d ended up face down in a ditch, near death. At times he wished for it. At least he wouldn’t have to suffer the anguish of guilt anymore. But he had been found and admitted to a program. Now, here he was on step nine. Making amends. Who would’ve thought he’d make it this far? Not him, that’s for sure.
Elliott swiped a finger beneath his eye and switched the radio to channel sixteen. Why, he couldn’t say. Some habits were hard to break, he guessed, even after a decade. He set a fire on the stove and filled the kettle for tea. While it heated, he made his way up the narrow winding steps to the lighthouse proper. This used to be easier, he thought, as he stopped a moment to catch his breath.
A nostalgic smile touched his lips. He had made the same walk every night back then. Except that night. The smile disappeared.
Elliott shook his head, bringing his mind back to the present. There was no point dwelling on events he couldn’t change. He had to admit, despite the bad memories, he felt like he was home. It was a feeling he’d been missing for a long time.
He walked around the beacon, ensuring everything was in order. He hadn’t planned on manning it tonight, but since he was here, it couldn’t hurt. Even with their fancy GPS gadgets, a working lighthouse was never a bad thing. If this storm hit as advertised, she would need to be on her best behaviour. From what he remembered, she could be a contrary girl at times.
Elliott went back downstairs where the kettle whistled angrily. He made his tea, and took it to the window overlooking the narrow waterway. White capped waves crashed against rocks, and stiff pines fought the wind along the shoreline.
Clouds blowing in from the east cloaked the moon. Soon, it wouldn’t be visible at all. Lightning flashed, and he counted the seconds until thunder rumbled in the distance. It was getting closer.
Elliott retrieved a tattered yellow-paged paperback from the stack on the bookshelf and settled into a chair next to the wood stove. Warmth from the teacup cascaded through him, putting him at ease.
Then the radio crackled.
“This is fishing vessel Spring Dawn, Spring Dawn, Spring Dawn,” a frantic voice called. “Can anyone hear us?”
Elliott shivered. It was that night all over again. No, this time he was sober. This time it could be different. His hand trembled as he picked up the radio. “Spring Dawn, this is the Cambridge Strait Lighthouse. Do you require assistance?”
“We have lost an engine, our electrical system is damaged and we have no GPS. We have no choice but to put in at Cambridge Strait. We’re not going to make it home before the storm hits. Make sure that damn beacon is lit.”
Elliott brought the radio up to answer as he got to the window. The words died at his mouth and his stomach clenched. The familiar glint of silvery light on the water was missing. The lighthouse was dark. The radio dipped in his hand. He didn’t understand. It was working a few minutes ago.
The light malfunctioned that night ten years ago too.
It had to be a coincidence. There had to be a logical explanation. He looked out the window again, thinking his eyes had fooled him. But no, the light was still out.
Indecision paralyzed him. Should he tell them about the malfunction? What if he couldn’t fix it? What if he failed Spring Dawn like he had failed the other boat ten years ago?
Elliott jumped when the radio crackled yet again. “Please acknowledge last, Cambridge tower.”
No, he decided. They had enough to worry about and he wouldn’t fail. Not again. “The lighthouse will be lit, Spring Dawn.”
The radio dropped to the table with a thud as doubt pummeled him. He couldn’t go through this again. He should go find someone. Someone in better physical condition. Someone who hadn’t abused their body for the past ten years. He started for the door, but hesitated. There wasn’t enough time. The Spring Dawn would be on the rocks before he got back. There was only him. He had to do it.
Elliott was halfway up the stairs when he heard it. He spun around, bringing his hands up, but the stairs below him were empty. Where had that voice come from?
“Why did you let us die?”
Elliott screamed and spun again, but still the stairs were empty. His mind went back to the stories. They couldn’t be true, could they? Elliott set his jaw and stomped up the stairs. Nonsense, all of it. He didn’t have time for legends and stories. The Spring Dawn was getting closer.
He crested the top of the stairs to find the lens and the lamp intact. Elliott checked the beacon and then moved to the electrical panel. He spotted the issue almost immediately. A tripped breaker. The same one he’d reset on countless occasions. He pushed the switch and the light flared to life. Elliott allowed himself a small victorious smile and closed the breaker panel cover.
An odd chill pulled goosebumps out on his arms, and the hair stood on the back of his neck. There was someone behind him. He knew it. Elliott mumbled, trying to convince himself it wasn’t real.
Standing slowly, he held his breath and turned. Before him, draped in a silvery ethereal light, was a young girl. She wore a yellow sundress with blue ribbons on the chest and sleeves. Sarah. It could be no one else.
Elliott squeezed his eyes shut, refusing to believe. He was hallucinating. Had to be. But when he opened his eyes, she was still there.
“Why did you let us die?” she asked. “What did we do?”
“You’re not real!” Elliott screamed.
He stumbled back down the stairs, moisture dripping from his eyes. He should leave, forget he ever came back here. He could leave a note in town about the disabled boat. They were better equipped to deal with it anyway. They didn’t know who he was. They wouldn’t know the difference.
But he would. The rest of his life he would know the difference. Two boats lost because of his selfish decisions. No, he wouldn’t let that happen.
The radio on the table came to life. “Cambridge Tower, we’re approaching the mouth of the harbour. Where’s that light?”
Elliott stumbled over to the table to tell them that he had gotten the light working. He went back to the window to make sure that it was. Given the strange things that had happened, he could take nothing for granted. His shoulders slumped when he found the strait dark once again.
He pounded his fist on the table, upset that the keepers wouldn’t put the care into maintaining this beautiful piece of the community history. “Spring Dawn,” he stammered, “I’ll have the light working in a few minutes. Stand by.”
Wind pounded the lighthouse as the storm picked up. Windows rattled. He fought the sudden urge for a drink, though there was nothing here that would do the trick anyway. Elliott took a deep breath, forcing calm down through his body. What was he doing? He was a fool, cowering here like a child. The only thing that mattered was the Spring Dawn. He had a breaker to reset.
Elliott neared the top of the stairs when the lightning bolt struck the tower. Glass and steel exploded with a deafening roar, throwing him back down to the lower level. He landed on his back sending waves of pain through his body. Stars flashed before his eyes. Groaning, Elliott rolled over onto his stomach and pushed himself to his feet.
He looked up the stairs now blocked by twisted metal. “No, no, no!” he cried. This wasn’t happening. He had to get into the tower.
Elliott threw on his jacket, grabbed a flashlight, and rushed into the driving rain. Ice-cold water ran down his back as lightning lit up the night sky. A few short seconds later, thunder boomed. He had to hurry.
Elliott swept his flashlight to his right, towards the water. He swore he saw the figure of a young girl standing there. But there was no one.
Taking a deep breath, he pushed forward. Nerves, that’s all. The storm pounded him relentlessly. He could barely see a foot in front of him. How was he supposed to see the top of the tower? He had no idea.
Elliott rounded the back-side of the lighthouse, picking his way over slick boulders. Lightning flashed, illuminating everything in a searing white light. He had never seen anything like it. When it dissipated, Sarah’s pale figure stood on a rock a few steps away. Just beyond her was where her family’s boat had gone aground.
His knees buckled and he sat down on a nearby rock. No matter how much he wanted to deny it, he couldn’t anymore. She was real, and she wanted answers.
“Why didn’t you save us?”
Elliott thought it couldn’t get any colder. He was wrong. Her voice sent shivers down his back and froze him into place. There was no anger, no accusation. It was almost pleading, begging him to give her salvation. He wished for the anger. At least he knew what that felt like. This? He couldn’t handle this.
Elliott’s lip trembled. “I was drunk. I fell asleep and didn’t know the light was broken.”
“Why did you wait so long to come back? We have roamed the space in between for so long. We want to go home.”
“I was ashamed,” he cried. “I couldn’t face people. It was all my fault.”
“We want to go home. Help us go home.”
How? He came here to make amends and suffer his penance. And he’d done that with every memory, with every glance upon her face. But he couldn’t get them home. That power was beyond him.
The clouds parted then, and moonlight shone down. Almost as if it were preordained. A large boulder stuck up in the middle of the narrow channel, clearly visible, even sitting here looking through the rain. Sarah stopped over it and turned back to face him.
Elliott could see the boat crashing against the rocks. Like it was happening right in front of him. This must be the final piece. He had to see where it happened. Tears streamed down his cheeks, mixing with cold rain. Sobs wracked his body as memories of souls lost ran through his mind. It would’ve been even worse if he’d actually seen the bodies. All he had ever seen were pictures, but it was more than enough.
A fine grey mist swirled in front of him, forming into two figures standing hand in hand. Sarah’s parents, Daniel and Ruth Ann, had joined her. They were together again. His lip trembled anew. Two families were destroyed that night. Sarah’s, as well as his own.
Daniel glided forward a few paces. “The pain on your face says you’ve finally accepted what happened. Perhaps now peace can find us all.”
Elliott swallowed the lump in his throat and spoke. “Your accident should have never happened. I was stupid. I was selfish. I wish I could take your place.”
He stood and stepped forward, icy water licking his feet. One more step and it would be over. It would be quick, at least. He wouldn’t suffer like this family had. His only regret was Tessa. Part of the reason for this trip was her. She would miss him, but eventually she would move on.
Ruth Ann held up her hand. “Your end will not bring us back. It is not your time.”
Elliott swiped a sleeve across his face. “What do you mean?”
Daniel spoke again. “Another chance is offered to you. Succeed and complete your penance.”
The Spring Dawn. Of course. She was still coming, and the beacon was still blocked. “Did you cause the storm to test me? Is this why there’s a storm on this night every year? Can’t you end this?”
“We do not control the storms,” Ruth Ann said, “but they grow from our unrest. We cannot end it. Only you can.”
Elliott raked his hand through his hair. “I can’t get to the beacon. The way is blocked.”
“You must,” Sarah said. “It’s the only way.”
Elliott fought the raging tempest in his head, trying to figure things out. The answer was in the lighthouse itself. He couldn’t get to the beacon from the inside, but that staircase didn’t always exist.
He scrambled back over the rocks and found the rusty ladder next to the shack door. He had no idea how secure it was. It hadn’t been maintained since the shack and stairwell were added. It was his only chance, though. He had to get to the beacon.
Hands and feet slipped off the cold metal rungs as he climbed, nearly sending him to his own doom. The ladder shifted and creaked as his weight pulled it away from the structure. Don’t stop, he urged himself. You have to save them.
His sides hurt and he wheezed heavily. Cold, wet air slammed against him, threatening to hurl him off. Elliott pushed the pain aside. He wasn’t going to let another boat crash because of him.
Reaching the railing, he clamoured onto the narrow deck. He lay there unmoving for a moment to catch his breath, but something nagged at him to keep going. He couldn’t rest yet. The beacon was surprisingly still intact, but blocked by twisted sheets of metal from the rain hood. He tossed debris over the side, sparing no time for any thought or doubt.
He cleared enough debris to make it close to the beacon, but there he faced his biggest challenge. The largest section of the metal roof lay right up against the glass lens.
Elliott grabbed the sheet and yanked with one hand while the other held the railing. The smallest slip could send him over the side like the debris. Metal scraped against metal, screeching in protest, but it held fast. Again, he pulled. And again. Desperation mounted by the second. Spring Dawn was into the strait. The low rumble of her single working engine plowed through the howling wind.
Elliott rattled the jammed sheet, but still could not find any give. It wasn’t budging. He couldn’t do this with one hand. Not in this rain and against this fierce wind.
He planted his feet on the slippery deck the best he could and let go of the rail. The wind pushed against him, but Elliott managed to keep his balance. Grabbing onto the metal sheet with both hands, he pulled as hard as he could.
Muscles strained as he bore down. He thought he was making progress, but then his hands slipped off the sheet. His feet disappeared from under him and he stumbled backwards. His heart stopped and his stomach lurched. The deck wasn’t wide enough to break his fall.
The world slowed. He could almost count his heart-beats. This was how it was supposed to end. His sacrifice meant to save a vessel he couldn’t save ten years ago. But it didn’t come. Instead, he hit the edge of the deck.
Sharp pain shot up between his shoulders, and breath evacuated his lungs in a gasp. Elliott fought to regain control as rain pounded his face and ran up his nose, choking him.
Opening his eyes, he saw his foot hooked underneath the jammed sheet of metal. Son of a bitch, he swore. I don’t deserve the luck, but I’ll take it. Sarah’s slim figure stood next to it staring at him expectantly. There was still time.
Elliott pulled himself up by the rail and grabbed the metal sheet again. He put all of his remaining strength into moving it. Sharp edges cut into his hands and he growled against the pain as rivulets of blood mixed with the rain.
But slowly the sheet moved. An inch, then another. It screeched and resisted, but it was no match for Elliott’s determination. With everything he had left, he gave one final heave. The sheet let go and tumbled over the side of the lighthouse.
There was one last thing he needed to do. He crawled through the remaining debris to the electrical panel and pried open the cover. One lousy switch. All of this trouble to reset one lousy switch. He pushed the breaker closed and bright light shot forward, banishing the darkness. Elliott collapsed to the deck, barely able to catch his breath. His hands stung and his whole body shook. But the beacon was free.
The radio in his pocket crackled to life. “Cambridge Strait Lighthouse, this is Spring Dawn. We have the beacon in sight. We see the light.”
Closing his eyes, he let out a sigh of relief. Mission accomplished.
Elliott wasn’t sure how much time passed before he trusted himself to move. His whole body ached and shivered. It wouldn’t do to go through all of that only to die of pneumonia.
He climbed down the ladder and went to the rock where the three ghostly figures waited. There were no smiles, no salutes, no platitudes. Only a nod to acknowledge a wrong made right.
“It had to be me,” Elliott said, his voice barely a whisper. “Every year on this night, you came back looking for me. You couldn’t find rest until I came back.”
Sarah nodded. “And now we can. Your heart has proven true. There is no more blackness for either of us.”
He stared at her, standing barely beyond his reach, and uttered the only two words that he could think of, “I’m sorry.”
She offered the slightest of nods and slowly dissipated into an ethereal mist. The winds died down and the rain stopped. Looking out across the strait, he saw Spring Dawn pass by and he offered a meek wave. At least they were safe now.
Elliott headed back up the path towards the main road, leaving the lighthouse. He stopped by Doc Murphy’s to report the storm damage and then took the potholed road past the gas station. He grinned as he passed the town sign. ‘Please Come Again’, it read. He just might.