The smell of oak and pine mixed with sweet salt air, the tingle of water from crashing waves coating bare forearms, the familiar sights and sounds welcomed him home. Old Tom walked along the familiar path through the forest, sighing with relief when he saw his home standing tall and proud on cliffs of black rock bordering the sea. For the last nine months, he worried about the fate of his home after leaving it to that young man. After all, with just one look, he could tell there was something wrong about him. Something in his eyes turned Tom’s stomach, but it seemed that all his worry was unneeded.
He gave the structure a quick inspection as he approached. The glass seemed clean enough, at least from this distance, the walls had no vertical cracks through a few horizontal ones had grown from another bout with the winter freeze (nothing a little mortar couldn’t fix), but where was the fresh coat of paint? Hadn’t he told the man to be constant and faithful?
Not bothering to knock, he entered the stuffy lighthouse, leaving the door open to let the cool air in, and called out for the keeper. No answer. Scowling, Old Tom ascended the spiral stairs, rubbing his hand along the railing, appreciating every groove in the wood and every knob of discoloration.
Old Tom stood in the first store, a blank, bewildered stare all the expression he could muster. The first store was empty, filled with a distinct odor of rotten potatoes. When was the last time Jack had come? He called out once again, receiving only silence as an answer.
His grumbles burst into a curse when he saw the broken stair and the second floor in a similar disheveled state. Used tools, an empty medicine box, inventories incomplete. Tom ground his teeth, flinging the medicine box aside, shouting out his anger.
He stormed up the steps, past the kitchen with its cold and sooted stove, past the bedroom with its layer of dust coating neatly folded sheets, and flung open the trapdoor to the light room. The weights hung still, the lens safe beneath its linen cage.
Old Tom uncovered the lens, gave it a fastidious examination, then turned to the rest of the room. Nothing was amiss. There was kerosene in the pump, water in the buckets, a shine on the windows, but where was the keeper?
At the desk, he found half complete inventory sheets, records of ships, and a handful hastily scribbled papers. Old Tom read the first page. It looked like a memoir or a confession. He read the next page, then the next, then sat down to read it all, a growing feeling of dread welling up in his heart.
He finished the last sentence, wondered if he had, turning the page over, but finding nothing. A gust of wind rocked the windows and Old Tom jumped in his seat as the door to the lighthouse far below slammed shut, distant echoes climbing up the stairs like stealthy feet. He swallowed his fear and waited, but there was nothing to hear but the steady creaking of the lighthouse and the pounding of his heart.
He exhaled, chasing away the shadow of fear with half-hearted laughter, but his voice faded as he looked up at the lens, which seemed to look down on him like a great eye. He shivered and descended the steps, stepping over the broken stair, casting his weary eye over the shadows in the stores, and placed a wrinkled hand on the entrance door. With a grunt, he shoved it open.
In rushed sunlight and cool air. There was nothing to see but a New England spring, nothing to hear but birdsong and breaking waves. The forest was green with rejuvenation but pocketed with more shadow than he could remember.
His heart quickened, eyes widening at the sight of two pinpoints of red, like glowing coals, shining from the darkest shadows of the forest, but when he tried to focus his gaze, they were gone as if never there.
He swallowed, shook his head for being a fool, and barred the door between him and the forest with its watching eyes.