Sunday, April 9, 2017

Fiction #72: K.C. Toews

The Light Keeper

Jacob had never met the lighthouse keeper. He’d only heard stories. But lately, rumours had speckled Portbay Daily’s headlines, and now, a poster tacked to the corkboard, next to a crisis hotline ad, made him think about the local man who lived out on Cutthroat Crags. The paper fluttered in a fan gust with the smell of feet and deep-fried pickles—distractions from his sponsor and the mumble of a red-bearded teen to his right. Bowling balls slammed onto the lanes above, and down here in the circle was the tap-tap-tap of his heel. Strands of hair floated in a beam of sunlight from the dusty basement window, the poster brightened by rays.

He squinted. Near the blue tack in the top left corner, someone had penciled a bottle. Rum, probably. Lettering on the page dipped and dove like a gannet, it’s gist: solar beacons can be seen from a thirty-six-mile radius. The lights—LED bulbs with reflectors—turn off at dawn and are virtually indestructible. Our town says farewell to the lighthouse and welcomes a new, innovative system.

No more lighthouse meant no more keeper. He’d once believed the keeper saved souls of those adrift at sea. As kids, he and his sister Jen had spent nights on the beach and watched the distant light pierce storm clouds. The bulb must’ve been an extension of the keeper’s being and, at one with the lighthouse, he’d slay the rain-razored skies. Rescue stories boomed from radio stations, deeds of a real-life hero. Then, at his grandpa’s funeral, Jacob thought he’d caught a glimpse of the keeper. He’d tried to shrug through the crowd to beg him to save his grandpa, bring him back home, but the keeper’s silhouette disappeared. Perhaps he’d only been an apparition. Anyway, Jen had lied—the keeper couldn’t save everyone.

Now, word around Portbay painted the keeper a hermit too drunk to find his way off the inlet. Only last night, after work, Jacob’s squad had joked the old man probably wanted boats to crash into the rocks so he could steal their booze, that he’d gone insane from isolation.

“Jacob, would you like to share today?” The sponsor crossed her legs, pen pressed to clipboard.

Yes.

He’d had the same dream again—the one where he and Holly escaped the island and started a new life elsewhere, on the prairies. They lived in a blue bungalow, had a horse. No longer did he see an endless grey, but an expanse of golden fields.

“Next time.”

Chairs scratched the floor as everyone stood, and he swiped a handful of Walker’s shortbread from the table. He counted the stairs on his way out, thirty-six, like he did each Sunday. At the top, inside the bowling alley, the deep-fried feet smell intensified. A lounge separated the eight-pin lanes from the glow-bowl ten pins. Shadows waltzed the walls from the technicolor lights, the pulse of music reverberating under his shoes. A disco ball rotated, glittered like the glasses at a bar.

“Jake!” Holly waved at him from the last lane. Her teeth shone, the gap in the front blended with the black lights.

His boss and friend Devlin guided Holly’s hand, and the ball rolled towards the pins, a spare. When Jacob reached them, he scooped Holly into his arms. Dog hair clung to the violet dress she wore, and the ribbon wrapped around her head pushed back her hair to reveal wide eyes. Striking how much she looked like Jen: thin forehead, dimple in her left cheek, and blue irises that promised things would be okay.

“Did you see me, Jake?”

“Professional bowler at age six,” he said.

She giggled and buried her face in his neck. Benji and Devlin joined them at the booth. Holly crawled out of Jacob’s lap, and he passed the cookies to each kid. Crumbs on face, they scampered back to the lane to finish their game. Devlin slid a bottle of Pepsi across the table. His black eyebrows touched the brim of his Jays hat when he yawned, and his stomach bumped the table with his stretch.

“Thanks again,” said Jacob. “Sometimes I can’t tell if you’re babysitting her or me.”

Devlin laughed, teeth dazzling in the dark. He reached into his jacket pocket, unfolded a piece of paper, and slapped it onto the table.

“Fancy system they got.”

Another solar beacon poster.

“Wonder what the keeper thinks about that.”

“You’ll have to ask when you see him.”

“What?”

Devlin said, “Portbay can’t evacuate the old man from the Crags until he signs an eviction letter. Our squad got nominated for the task.”

Jacob thought of the expanse of water between town and the inlet. A curtain at the end of the lane rose, and ten white pins gleamed like straight-jacketed patients in a dark hallway. Bass palpitated over the rate of his quickened heartbeat, so loud, and a dribble of sweat ran into the corner of his lips. His foot bounced.

“No one wants to do it, the hassle and awkwardness of it all,” said Devlin. “So I’ve decided to offer a transfer to anyone who steps up.”

Jacob thought he’d heard wrong. “A transfer?”

“To the mainland. Got a connection in Morningside. Some small town in the Okanagan. They need a new deputy. All you gotta do is deliver that letter.”

Morningside. Even the name sounded hopeful.

Holly laughed as Benji’s ball slipped into the gutter, and his stomach churned. This morning, still groggy from sleep, he’d mistaken her laugh for Jen’s, and a second later realized he’d forgotten Jen’s laugh. If he moved, would he forget everything about her? His palm made its way to the six-month coin in his front jean pocket, its solidness a reminder of the order he’d created here, the support. Change meant a chance to slip, lose what he’d worked so hard to regain.

“Give it to Matt. He’s got family on the mainland.”

The sound of children’s laughter and the hiss of the deep fryer quietened with the roar of his cowardice.

*

The two of them sat side-by-side, his legs crossed and hers over the dock’s edge. An oyster-grey sky hovered above the Pacific, fog a veil over the distant mainland. Waves lapped against the wooden poles, and he tightened Holly’s jacket. Brine and cedar carried through the breeze—a smell he’d always known as home, but that now turned his stomach.

“What are you going to write?” Holly tilted the Pepsi bottle.

Brown ripples sizzled atop the water, expanding twice before they vanished. On the water’s ink-black surface, their reflections glistened. Hers freckled and spirited like Jen’s, while his had grown sober by a deep wrinkle between his eyebrows, a face much older than thirty. He missed the spark that once shone in those eyes. Holly leaned over to rinse the bottle, erase the faces, and he gripped her shoulder.

“Jake.” She swiped a loose strand of white hair from her forehead. “I won’t fall.”

He pulled his hand away.

“What did you write last week?” He passed her a notebook and pen.

The clean bottle sparkled, and she tapped the pen to her lip. “Secret.”

A seagull cawed and glared at them from on top of an offshore buoy. With its head cocked and doll-eyes locked on his own, it screeched again. Jacob tucked his feet farther onto the dock. He wouldn’t miss those scavenger birds. The mainland would have eagles and falcons—birds that soared above open fields, free birds.

“Why do they live by the sea?” Holly pointed at the gull.

“Why?”

“Cuz if they lived by the bay, they’d be bagels.”

She giggled over the same joke she told every time they came to the pier and then flipped onto her stomach and drew an allium on the centre of her page, like the ones that bloomed in their backyard every April.

“I miss Mom,” she said. In the silver light, tears cocooned her eyelashes.

He’d come up with answers to these statements when Holly first entered his custody, had them all ready for when her heart would shatter, but now all he could do was resort to the bullshit clichés any uncle would use, like the ones his grandpa told him when his own parents died: things will be okay, I love you, the pain passes.

In bubbled writing, Holly scribbled a message onto the page and handed it to him. He couldn’t find the right words for his own—the tradition, played out—and rolled hers into the Pepsi bottle. They stood, and she clasped his hand. He threw the bottle as hard as he could and watched it glint, glimmer, and vanish into the sky. A splash echoed seconds later.

“I wonder if someone will ever read them,” said Holly. “Hopefully a mermaid.” Her eyes scanned the water, a faint smile on her lips.

“Holly,” he said. “Remember that place I told you about? From my dream?”

“Where we could get a horse?”

“And where sunflowers grow and the night sky shines brighter than here.” Jacob pointed into the distance. “What if we went to that place sooner?”

She leaned her head against his leg. “That sounds like a pretty place.” Then she lifted her head and shrieked. “Jake, look!”

A monarch butterfly fluttered in front of them and landed on the dock pole. Its wings, the colour of cigarette embers, stretched taut. Veins weaved across the membrane to fade into white-speckled tips. Bulbous eyes shimmered. Holly padded over to the pole and tried to coax the creature onto her finger, but it folded its wings and flew into the sky, a kite adrift. In a second, it disappeared into the clouds. The dock slats rattled, and Jacob turned to see Devlin stride towards them, a folder under his arm, with Benji in tow on a bike. Holly teetered down the dock, the butterfly an afterthought, and Benji threw down his bike to hand her a fishing rod. Jacob had taught her how to fish last summer on the beach behind their home. Her technique was now enviable, and she cast the rod out onto the quiet water.

“Matt’s a no-go. Hung over,” said Devlin. He clapped a hand on Jacob’s shoulder. “Keep an eye on Benji, will you? I won’t be out long. A storm’s supposed to roll in around six.”
 Navy blue with four white stars on its portside, the small police motorboat bumped against the dock. Devlin placed the folder on the barnacle-riddled pole and reached down towards the boat cover. Jacob’s grandpa had taught him and Jen how to sail before they knew how to drive. Jen had taken to it quickly, an art form, she’d said, rather than a procedure. She’d fallen in love with the way the water moved beneath her body, how you were only really in control if you believed you were.

“Here,” said Devlin. “Help me with this thing.”

Jacob gripped the cover, slippery from ocean dew, and tugged.

Two Aprils ago, instead of a boat cover, he’d unzipped and peeled open a body bag. He hadn’t wanted Jen to go that night—the twilight sky had seemed to calm, something eerie about the way his voice drifted crisp through the air, but two lilac moons sagged under her eyes.

“I need a break, just for an hour,” she said.

He watched her drive away in her yellow Jericho, boat supplies in trunk. Rap music blasted from her stereo, and she threw him a grin over her shoulder, already almost back to her old self, the exhausted young mother role momentarily forgotten. Then, as the credits of Pinocchio flickered across the TV screen, with Holly sprawled across his chest, the phone rang. Details of the next hour were still crystal: accident, body found, can you come down to the station? He hadn’t been sure at first, her neck too thin, and purple veins slithered across her skin. Each finger of her upturned hands puckered from salt. Her eyes hadn’t changed, though—wide and grey like his, yes, this was Jenny.

Red-and-blue lights flashed across the sand and wind rippled through the Yaupon holly bushes when he stood on the beach afterward. Midnight sky blanketed the water, and yellow tape flapped in the breeze. Avoiding his gaze, his crew gathered remains of the lacerated boat, its sail like an egg-yolk pulsing in the water. In the distance, a white light blinked. The keeper who should have saved Jen.

Someone handed him a flask, the sting replacing another.

“Holly’s yours now,” said Devlin, hand firm on his shoulder.

They moved into a small house on the water two weeks later, packed Jen’s belongings into boxes, furniture to go with them, clothes to Salvation Army. He held onto the sweater he’d bought her for her sixteenth birthday, the one she’d worn to the Eminem concert. He knew holding on was unhealthy, but when Holly fell asleep each night, can after can silenced any thoughts of letting go. One night, Jacob found himself on the beach. He stepped into the water, waded to his chin. He could see her out there—on the horizon, her white sail.

“Jake?” The billow of waves engulfed Holly’s voice. His niece stood in the sand, barefoot, head tilted. Her white hair glowed in the moonlight, and she looked like Jen, maybe she was Jen and this was all just a dream, that they were still kids chasing fantasies of the keeper, back when they swore they’d never die.

“I’m cold,” Holly said.

He was, too. Damn cold. 

“Hurry! Reel it in!”

Holly hopped on one foot as Benji pulled a trout onto the dock, which flipped and flopped, the hook in its mouth red.

Benji shoved the rod into Holly’s hands. “You do it.”

Water seeped through her dress when Holly knelt on the wood. She ran a finger along the fish’s scales and turned to glance at Jacob. The first time they’d caught one together, the pike had swallowed the hook. He’d told her to grasp the creature as she would a Styrofoam cup: firm enough to hold but with enough gentleness to avoid collapse. Then he guided her finger, and they pushed down, twisted, and pulled the octopus hook free—a method to keep the fish alive.

“Maybe we should let it go,” said Benji. “Hurry.”

Holly returned her gaze to the trout and unhooked its lip. She held the creature over the dock where it struggled in her palm, gills aflutter. After she placed the fish into the water, she stood and stared at the surface before hauling his bike to its wheels. She pushed it towards the end of the pier where he and Devlin stood. Chains clinked, feet pattered. 

“Did it swim away?” Benji said when they were near.

“Of course.”

Holly snuggled against Jacob’s leg, eyes shining. 

“Evans, hand me that folder.” Devlin placed a foot in the boat and rapped a knuckle on its metal side.

“Jake,” whispered Holly.

He crouched down so they were face-to-face.

“I want to go to that place,” she said.

“What place?” said Benji.

Holly pointed into the distance. “See that?”

Benji held his hands to his eyes in the shape of binoculars. “I don’t see anything.”

Holly wrapped both arms around Jacob’s neck.

“Let me do it.”

Devlin wrenched the pull start, and the engine shuddered. Skin around his neck jiggled when he turned. “What’d you say?”

Jacob straightened. “I’ll go to the lighthouse. Give me that letter.”

His boss looked at the water. “You sure?”

“I want the transfer.”

Devlin stepped out of the boat with the help of Jacob’s arm and ran a hand under his hat. His eyes scanned Jacob’s face. “I’ll take Holly for the afternoon,” he said. “Take them to the shack for burgers.”

Holly exchanged a grin with Benji.

“Get that signature and then hurry back before dark, got it?”

Jacob slipped his hand from Holly’s grip and kissed her forehead. “Don’t let those bagels steal your fries.”

Benji hopped onto his bike, Holly on the back. He began to pedal, and she held her arms out like an airplane. Her hair rippled in the breeze, ivory against a grey sky, how good sunshine will look on her. Jacob broke his gaze and sat on the boat’s bench where he gripped the tiller, knuckles white.
Devlin shoved the boat with his boot.

“Jake,” he said, “you’ll be okay.”

Jacob swallowed, and the boat puttered away. A few metres from the dock, he peered into the depths.

A silver trout floated belly-up and bobbed to the ocean’s heartbeat.

At the Crags, a deluge of mist hovered. In one hand, he cradled his cellphone and in the other, a folder that pulsed with information on the light keeper, who, he’d learned on the ride over was born seventy-two years ago. Had green eyes. Height: one hundred and eighty-three centimetres.

Rotten lingcod stenched the air, and dew-dotted rocks lined the path. Another step and a seagull, lifeless, lay on a boulder, each wing crooked. Tiny ivory bones protruded from its neck and both eyes were pecked, gone. He reached a hand to the inside pocket of his jacket to where the flask of polar ice used to nestle. Empty now, he slid both hands under his armpits and hurried his pace.

A ram-shackle cottage with shingles mangled from ocean winds emerged from the fog. Smoke billowed from its chimney towards his childhood phantom—a red lighthouse, which towered a few metres from the house. Makeshift and sodden, an elevator slouched on the lighthouse’s base and shuddered with each wind gust. Rotations of the tower’s light sliced through the corpus of clouds, the only weapon against the inlet’s gloom. Painted scarlet, the cottage’s front door loomed. Fingers of moss clung to its top corners, and the knob glinted in the pale light. The taste of copper coated his tongue as he tore at a thumbnail with his teeth. He just stood there, folder growing damp from west coast mist, trying to figure out what to say to a man whom he once thought a hero, was now a burden to his town, but whom he’d never actually met. Count back from ten to calm yourself, his sponsor once said. Ten.

Then the door squeaked, and the lighthouse keeper appeared.

Face shaven, his grey eyebrows zigzagged above oval eyes that glimmered like salmon scales in sunlight. His fingers curled around the door with nails yellowed and gnawed to the nub. He didn’t stand tall, nor did he wobble on a prosthetic leg, which proved the latest headline, Lighthouse Keeper Crippled by Shark, false. The right corner of his cracked lips tugged downwards in a frown, forehead raked with wrinkles.

“Elijah Michaels?” Jacob swallowed the bead of blood he’d kept pooled in the bottom of his lip.

“If you have to ask, you shouldn’t be here.”

Jacob straightened his police badge. “I’m Jacob Evans, sir.”

The keeper gazed at the folder under his arm, eyes narrowed to pinholes. Channels of rain fell, so loud, and a few drops seeped into Jacob’s collar, down his spine, and he closed his eyes. On the mainland, there wouldn’t be constant rain—he’d be able to hear his thoughts again, his breath. When he re-opened his eyes, the keeper had disappeared inside and left the door ajar. Jacob stepped into the cottage. Heat from a fireplace engulfed him. He opened his jacket, and then closed the front door, with its sleek red surface, so that the sounds of the Crags, the pounding and sloshing of water, vanished. A tabby cat perched on the loveseat, and Roger Miller’s voice drifted from a stereo on top of the fridge. Paintings lined the walls, the largest behind a wood-burning stove—its canvas awash with a dark figure who stared at three sailboats in the distance.

“Evans,” said Elijah. “You related to a Jennifer Evans?”

“My sister. She passed away two years ago.”

Elijah shuffled to the kitchen in worn slippers and pulled out two mugs. Jacob fixed his stare on the flat, hazel hat that covered Elijah’s curly hair. A single white feather poked out from the back of the hat, its edges streaked with black, its tip a brilliant blue.

“I’m sorry,” said Elijah. “Can’t keep up with news on this rock.” He took a bottle of Old Fashioned bourbon from the fridge and poured some into each mug. Runnels of alcohol gleamed as the keeper returned to the bottle to its upright position.

“My wife took some of Jennifer’s art classes a while back.”

“I never knew you were married.”

“I’m sure there are a lot of things you don’t know about me, kid. What’s the latest story? Am I a pirate yet?” Elijah gulped from the mug.

Wind rattled the cottage, and a line of bottles on the kitchen windowsill chimed. Five of them sat neck-to-neck with faded Pepsi labels. Their glass shone except for the one on the end, which was encrusted with silt and sand. Jacob stepped closer to the window. Inside each bottle lay a roll of paper.

His finger trembled when he pointed, but he kept his voice even. “Where’d you get those?”

“Washed into the inlet over the years.”

When Jacob didn’t respond, the keeper continued. “Don’t know who wrote ‘em, but I like to imagine I know the writers.” A blush shaded his cheeks. “Their words have gotten me through nights I wasn’t sure I’d make it. Heroes of mine, I guess.”

The tabby cat brushed against Jacob’s shins.

“Sounds silly,” said Elijah. He moved to the window and grasped the fifth bottle. A smile crinkled his eyes into slits. “This one’s my favourite.” He dumped the roll into his palm and stared down.

Fragile and faded, small loopy handwriting, Jen’s writing. Jacob’s heart pounded, and before he could ask to read the message, Elijah slid the paper back into its bottle and placed it inside his robe pocket. He returned to the kitchen island where he held out the other mug of bourbon.

When he swallowed the wedge of cotton in his throat, Jacob shook his head. “Seven months.”

“Good for you, kid.” The keeper sank onto a stool. “So they thought they’d send the young one to try and twist my arm one last time, that it?”

Jacob pressed the folder onto the island. Beside a pill container, a stack of notice letters from the town council and a utility bill. Newspapers covered the shelves, dated back ten years. At the other end of the island, condensation beaded the bourbon bottle. A droplet wriggled from the cap down to the counter’s surface, its trace as transparent as a spider web. He bent down to pet the cat.

“Portbay invested in a solar light system, Mr. Michaels. Costs a lot less than the lighthouse.” He straightened with the cat in his arms, its purr vibrating across his chest.

“Worth a lot less, too,” said Elijah. He drank from his mug.

“They have a place all set up for you in town.”

The keeper waved at the walls. “Angie was a hell of a painter. She did all of these. Learned a bunch from your sister. And did you see the door? Painted that right before…” he sipped and said, “Wonder what will happen to all of them.”

“I can come back to help you move.”

“Saw you looking at that one.” Elijah pointed to the boat painting. “You sail?

“Jen does. Did.”

Fire logs crackled, flames flickering crimson. The cat wiggled out of Jacob’s hold and padded across the counter. Wind echoed throughout the cottage. Jacob stared at Elijah’s robe. What did Jen’s message say? Maybe she’d written it the day their grandpa died, maybe her words could get him through, too. He wanted something, anything, to allow him to hang on to Jen right here and now, for even a minute.

“Come with me, kid. I want to show you something.”

The keeper didn’t speak as they crossed the yard. His lantern cast the hat’s tail feather in an iridescent glow and turned the rain to mist, and Jacob tucked the folder inside his jacket. Ivy slithered up the lighthouse’s inner walls, and he counted each damp stone step. Thirty-two. Water dripped, echoed. At the top of the lighthouse, eight sheets of glass lined the perimeter, but there was a ninth panel, empty, to his left. Devlin had been right. These repairs would cost the town. Jacob stepped closer to the gap in the glass. Silver clouds lingered above the ocean—a grey wild blend of sea and sky—once beautiful, now confinement. Even with the absent panel, he couldn’t hear the waves, only the rising wind and rhythmic creak of the turning bulb. Whiteness blurred his vision each time the light flashed across his face.

Elijah inhaled deep from the climb. He set his mug on the window ledge. “Angie was taken by ALS,” he said. “After her legs stopped workin’ she didn’t want to leave the inlet, said the water eased her mind.”

Jacob picked at his frayed watchband and pulled out the eviction letter, wilted from the rain.

“You were the keeper for so many years,” he said. “That won’t be forgotten.”

Elijah drank from his mug. “Whether keeper or sailor, that’s what we do our entire lives, isn’t it?” He stared at Jacob. “Search for the light.”

The bulb creaked, and Jacob shifted his gaze to the bottle in Elijah’s pocket. “Please,” he said, “they’re coming at the end of the month to shut off the electricity. You need to sign this.” He placed the letter beside the mug. “I’m sorry.”

“Me too, kid.” Elijah set his hand atop Jacob’s. He squeezed once and signed the letter. “You better get going. I’ll stay up here a while.”

Paper in hand, Jacob backed toward the staircase and turned. Halfway down the steps, he paused, pressed a hand to the wall. If he were about to leave Portbay, he needed to know what her message said, a final piece to cling to, surely the keeper would understand. It only took him a few moments to return to the top of the lighthouse.

Empty.

Jacob concentrated on each breath, his gaze steady on the mug of bourbon. Ten. The open window panel yawned. Nine, eight. He moved to the gap in the glass and peered down, his stomach leaping into his throat.

Seven.

Below, a feather lay on the boulders. Its blue tip sparkled, and each lap of wave nudged it closer to the tide line. A sand-crusted bottle bobbed against the rocks, floated like a miniature sailboat. Jacob stumbled from the panel and pushed both palms to the window ledge. Black spots dotted his vision. He looked back at the bourbon.

Six.

Five.

Four.

Then he blinked, tore his stare from the mug and looked outward. Three. Across the rocks, over the ocean, over the loss—his, Elijah’s—the mist broke and cast the horizon in a fiery shimmer, the mainland a pale form in the distance, and he felt a fragment of hope as fleeting as the glimpse of a butterfly. For a second, he knew they’d escape. But he knew, too, in an instant coastal clouds would encompass the sky again because when he closed his eyes there were flashes: parents he’d never met, rows of cars at both funerals, Holly in front of her mother’s tombstone with a rose in hand, and a silver trout floating wide-eyed on the water.

Two.

He traced the mug’s rim with his index finger and lifted it to his lips. One.

The white light circled round and around.

*

Kara Toews is a third year student at the University of Alberta where she focuses on English and Creative Writing. Along with her studies, she is busy working on her first novel and exploring the beautiful city of Edmonton. Toews loves to travel and often latches on to the small details she stumbles upon during her adventures. She strives to inspire readers with her words, and she draws inspiration from snow-filled afternoons, hikes beneath forest evergreens, and from copious amounts of coffee.

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