All evening Steven felt he had something stuck in his throat. It was similar to how he felt before a big game. Beyond the fog, he could hear the waves crashing. Could feel the cold sea spray on his hands and face. He pulled the hoodie drawstrings a little tighter and glanced over at Madison. She was vaping, hugging her chest against the wind, her face glowing in the dark with the intermittent pulse of the faux ember. He noticed the subtle roundness beneath her sweatshirt and felt his pulse quicken. Ahead of them, Leslie and Veronica were holding hands, their faces intriguingly close together. He wanted to try and hold Madison’s hand, but she was always waving around that e-cig.
“Are you cold?” he asked her, working through the obstruction in his throat.
“Yeah,” she said.
“You want my jacket?”
“Then you’d be cold,” she said.
“I’ll be okay.”
“Why don’t you put your arm around me?”
“Yeah,” she said.
He approached her—it felt very formal somehow—and she was watching him with bemusement, which didn’t help. He awkwardly reached an arm around her waist and pressed their hips together. Then something seized ahold of him, and he tried to kiss her. But at that moment she turned her head to drag on the e-cig and his lips landed on her cheek, her dark curls tickling his face.
“What are you doing?” she backed up, undoing the progress of his arm and their hips.
She laughed a little, and his knees went weak seeing her smile for the first time since the carnival, when her face had been painted with a swirl of ghastly lights. “I didn’t say you could.”
“Can I?” he asked. His mouth suddenly felt dry.
“Okay, Mr. First Base.” She bit her lip.
He approached her again. It was even more difficult than before, the beach sucking in his feet like quicksand.
And then he had her warm mouth, and her tongue was flicking and playing with his. He was blinded for a moment, his senses filled with the softness of her and the bittersweet aroma of licorice.
Then she pulled away, looping his arm around her waist, so they could continue on along the beach at the base of the dark cliff.
She offered him the e-cig and he took a drag, which made him feel even more light-headed but revealed to him the source of the licorice notes. He’d never cared for licorice—not until now.
Leslie and Veronica had put fifty yards between them by now, almost lost in the fog but for the firefly bobbing and perching of Leslie’s Marlboro. Beyond them, a light swept over the sea, its beam streaked with the moisture of drizzle and sea spray. Then suddenly the fog broke, and the lighthouse rose before them out of a jagged blossom of rock like the stamen of a petrified bird of paradise. It was low tide, the only time when the lighthouse was accessible, when they could walk over a narrow sandbar to the island.
“I thought it was abandoned,” Steven said.
“Yeah, of course it is,” she said. “Still works though. It’s automated. Electronic.” She put the e-cig to her lips. “Like everything,” she said around it.
“Hurry up, you guys,” her sister, Veronica, shouted back over the wind and sea. “We only have a couple of hours before the sandbar will be underwater.”
Twenty minutes later the two couples reached the island and found the path that zigzagged up through the rocks to the lighthouse. A foghorn bellowed in the night, though they could see no sign of the beast, no lights glimmering through the dark and the fog. The first thing Leslie did when they reached the base of the lighthouse was pull out a can of spray paint and tag the chipped white paint with his balloon letter signature. The two sisters huddled together in a group, as Veronica, a little taller and a year older than the other girl, whispered and giggled. Steven wasn’t quite sure what to do with himself but wished he could kiss Madison again. By grouping together, the girls had constructed some kind of obstacle between them and the boys; now they would have to earn their way back into their feminine graces.
Steven finally approached Leslie, who was working on some fanciful design to decorate his name.
“You kissed her?” Leslie asked over his shoulder.
“Yeah. Fuck me, she’s hot. And she’s ready, man, I tell you what. Check on the door. See what’s what inside. I’m not going back to school next week a virgin.”
“I think I saw some tents back at the beach house.”
“You crazy, dude? We go back there, your mom’s going to milk-and-cookie us to death.”
“We could sneak in and get them. My parents wouldn’t have to know.”
“Fuck, Steve. We gotta do this deal tonight or it’s never gonna happen. Check the door.” He turned back towards his artwork, ending the discussion.
Steven glanced towards the girls. They were watching and whispering. He smiled. Both of them made come-hither gestures. He obeyed.
“We bet you guys can’t break that light,” Veronica said.
“What?” Steven said.
“The light,” Madison said. “Can you break it?”
“Of course I can. That’s an easy throw.”
“I think you guys are full of shit,” Veronica smiled. She was beautiful like her sister, with the same long, dark curls, but the way she smiled annoyed him. The smile better suited Leslie.
“I’m not going to,” he said, “but I can.” Then he added, “It’s an easy throw.” I already said that, he thought. The repetition made him sound uncertain.
“What’s easy?” Leslie inserted himself.
“We bet Mr. First Base can’t break the light.” Veronica nodded up towards the flashing cupola.
Steven noticed how the attack was now directed solely at him. He decided not to respond. It was nice having Leslie back in the group, because he always spoke for Steven.
“Of course he can,” Leslie said. “Do it, man.”
Steven’s smile faded quickly as he realized now that he been stripped of a choice. No longer us against them, it was everybody against Steven. He could refuse, and the party would end. He and Leslie would return to sophomore year virgins. Or he could break the light with a rock, and both he and Leslie would get laid, likely in whatever kind of rusty bunkers they had inside this old lighthouse. It would be a good dugout story.
Yet part of him resisted. Part of him wanted to go back to the beach house and be milk-and-cookied to death, as Leslie would say.
Still, he thought, stooping down and grabbing ahold of a wet, jagged rock, it is an easy shot.
He watched the rotating spotlight, letting it make several full rotations before he cocked his arm back. Then he made very subtle rhythmic motions, getting his body in sync with the lighthouse, becoming the light. Then he released it. He knew instantly it was a successful throw, but there were a couple of seconds of suspenseful silence, and then he heard the shattering of glass of the outer window and then a sickening tear—almost as of ripping flesh.
The sweeping beacon sparked out of existence.
And then a scream.
It only lasted a few seconds, but it was clear as day. Their eyes went wide, and they exchanged bewildered looks. When the scream died, in its place was a very faint crinkling sound.
“Fuck, dude,” Leslie whispered. “You are so fucked.”
“What? No … it wasn’t …” Steven couldn’t finish whatever it was he wanted to say. He didn’t know what he wanted to say.
“Oh my god, Steven. That was so not cool,” Veronica said.
“I’m out.” Leslie turned and scuttled away.
Veronica was quick to follow, giving a short tug on Madison’s elbow.
Madison didn’t move for a few seconds, a few seconds in which Steven heart-and-soul loved the girl he had only met twelve hours ago at a The New England Toffee Shop, whose eyes now said she might be willing to stay by his side, follow him along the strange turn his life was about to take—and her company might have made it more tolerable, the many nights that followed when Steven dreamed of the taste of licorice and her soft mouth and yearned for more softness and comfort—but then she turned and scampered down the uneven stone path, leaving Mr. First Base to his folly.
“It wasn’t … I didn’t …” he said for no one’s benefit other than his own.
A loud moan came from behind him. From the lighthouse. A man’s voice.
Steven turned to face the now darkened structure, but was surprised to find something he hadn’t noticed before: through the porthole of the door a dim light flickered. His altruistic instincts kicking in, along with all the other legal and social pressures related to whatever it was he had just done, he sprinted towards the door.
If I’m quick to help, they’ll know it was just a stupid accident. They’ll know I didn’t mean it. I’ll go back home in two days, back to baseball practice, and I’ll never have to think about this night again!
He reached the door and peered through the window, seeing beyond a candle guttering on a wooden workbench. He tried the knob, and the door creaked open. The wind rushed in with him and snuffed out the candlelight. He pulled out his iPhone. No service, he saw, but he flicked on the flashlight, and like the lighthouse light he’d just destroyed he swept the light across the interior of the building.
The décor was what one would expect in a seaside abode—decorative buoys and life preserver rings, a barometer, nautical paintings framed with thick twists of rope. One of the pictures, titled “Darkwater,” caught his eye, depicting a seascape ruined by an inky black blob with the bubbled carbonized frailty of burnt paper. There was a tiny lighthouse at one end of the picture, piercing the blackness with its light.
“You,” a hoarse voice whispered from the corner of the room.
Steven started, dropping his phone. He scrambled to pick it up and found the screen cracked. The light was still going, but as he moved it around the room, it flickered and then went out—like the candle, like all the lights.
For some reason, Madison’s words came back to him. “Electronic. Like everything.”
“Boy,” the voice whispered again. There was a burst of sparks from the far wall, and in that instant, Steven saw an old man slouched in the corner. He also saw a sofa and old-fashioned television and at the far wall a flight of stairs leading up to the next floor.
Steven rushed towards the old man, and he crouched down before him. There was another burst of sparks. In that instant, he wondered wildly if he were examining some kind of a robot, as the sparks were flying out of the man’s chest, right where his heart should be. The man-machine moved and grabbed his hand, and it felt like real flesh, cold, but perhaps because there was a giant hole in his chest—because he was dying.
“You’ll do,” the old man whispered. His white beard was spattered with black.
“What?” Steven said.
“I’ve been waiting for you.”
“What are you talking about?” Steven said.
“Listen and listen carefully. I’ll only say this once. The Darkwater. It’s coming.”
“It’ll be here any minute.”
“Shut up and listen.” The hands squeezed his. They were leathery and large.
Steven shut up.
“You’re going to have to repeat these words one day, when someone else comes along. You broke the light. I broke it, too—long time ago. And when I did, I found a man inside this very lighthouse. Except he wasn’t exactly a man, just like I’m not exactly a man anymore. He was the light, you know. He was the reason the Darkwater didn’t reach the shore and consume the land. This lighthouse, it’s from the same place as the Darkwater; it’s a kind of weapon, but it needs a mind to function properly. It needs a soul. He told me that since I broke the light it was my turn to take the watch, to be the light. Now it’s your turn.”
Steven dropped to his knees and was about to speak when he noticed that crumpling sound had gained in volume. It sounded like sheets of tinfoil being crinkled by long, bony fingers.
“What’s that sound?” he whispered.
“The Darkwater.” Sparks burst out of the man’s chest again. Steven saw a heart and strange looking bones and a curling white smoke. The black on the man’s beard glistened red. “Boy, you have a job waiting for you. Up those stairs. Eighth floor. You’ll find the light. You’ll give yourself to it. Go. Now!”
Steven pushed himself up and ran up the stairs. It was all a blur as he rose to the top floor. Each level was its own room. A kitchen. A bedroom. An office. It wasn’t until he reached the fourth floor that he noticed the gradual change in architecture—the walls had a ribbed appearance, like the insides of a giant whale, the bones covered in fleshy webbing. The walls began to collapse, the air compressed, and he felt himself suffocating, his body crushed against the alien bones.
He was no longer sprinting, but crawling upward, his mind filled with that static-like crinkling. Then, his head seemed to squeeze out into the tiny glass gallery, and he was staring at the sky. The sound of the Darkwater was louder, clearer up here—sounded like the sky itself was being crumpled into a ball—and the wind cut in howling through the broken glass of the gallery. Beyond the glass he thought he could see something, dancing black fire shadows burning their way through the fog. There was something stuck in his chest, that lump of anticipation that had been there all evening metastasized into something cold and jagged, choking him. He had no choice but to reach inside his mouth and work his hand down into the tightness of his throat and unclog the stone he had thrown. When he removed it, a piercing light shot out into the darkness.
Steven felt himself sweeping across the sky, probing into the dark corners of the night, always searching for that crinkling disturbance, always turning towards it, but at the moment of illumination, seeing nothing but the sea.
Tim W. Boiteau’s fiction has appeared in such places as LampLight, Kasma Magazine, and Every Day Fiction. Tim holds a PhD in experimental psychology and lives in Michigan with his wife and son. He’s currently searching for an agent to represent him in selling his first novel.