With a bright candy-cane stripe winding around its exterior, the lighthouse, set atop a little rise of sandy scrub, was as easy to spot as it was postcard-pretty. Although its light had been decommissioned years before, the lighthouse was the backdrop of every family vacation on Bonnet Beach, preserved in the sepia Kodak and grainy Polaroid prints of my youth, and by now, a whole new world of digital selfies. Gnomon-like, it marked the hours of the day, pointing a dark finger of shade across the sand.
There were warnings, of course, about the notorious rip tides that plagued the area; each year, an unwary swimmer or two was swept out of their comfort zone, but that was pretty standard for any beach along the Atlantic coast.
No, it was just a sleepy, summery spot, with nothing but the empty lighthouse to distinguish it from all the other ones. At least, that’s what I thought, once upon a time, when we arrived there for our annual family vacation with my cousins.
After supper on our first night of vacation, the older cousins casually announced they were going to walk on the beach for a while, and the various sets of parents nodded in sleepy agreement, worn out after a long day of keeping the little kids from drowning or eating sand or some other babyish trick. I watched my cousins slip away toward the lighthouse where they had probably hidden a few six-packs earlier. They thought I was too young to be included, so I waited till they were out of sight before I followed them.
There was no sign of them at the lighthouse; they must have gone on down the beach. I hesitated, not sure what to do next, until I noticed that one of the tiny windows on the far side of the lighthouse was open a few inches—an irresistible invitation to trespass. By standing on tiptoe, I caught the edge of the window ledge and hauled myself up to peek inside. I dropped back, fumbled for the lighter I carried in my pocket, and swung myself up again to take a cautious look around by the light of the tiny flame. The room seemed mostly empty, but that’s all I could really tell.
I wiggled in a little further and brought one leg across the sill and ducked my head under the sash. Another twist and I got my other leg through. I paused, took a deep breath, and dropped down into darkness.
It was farther than I thought, and the jolt of landing bounced the lighter right out of my hand. I was afraid to move for a moment, not knowing what else was between me and the door I was now going to have to find by groping for it.
I felt my way along the wall, following its cool plaster surface in the direction where I guessed the door would be. I couldn’t hear anything from outside, especially with my heart beating hard enough to drown out everything but the shuffle of my bare feet across the concrete. A big part of me now wished I was back at the house with the little kids from which I’d been in such a hurry to distance myself.
Without warning, something heavy rattled and clanked—someone was fumbling a key into the lock just a few feet from where I stood, frozen. The heavy tumblers clicked into place and the door opened with a grunt followed by the protesting screech of salt-swollen wood dragged across the floor. Another grating screech and the door was pushed shut. Re-locked. Then footsteps, crossing the room toward the window. There was a squelching thump, like a bundle of wet laundry dropped to the floor, and then I heard the window slide shut. I stayed glued to the wall, sweating, barely breathing.
The laundry bag squelched again as it was lifted and the footsteps moved across the room. Whoever had come in knew this space well, even in complete darkness. He—and I did think it was a man, though I could see nothing—started up the stairs that spiraled toward the top of the lighthouse.
I forced myself to begin creeping along the wall again. Get-out-get-out-get-out throbbed in my mind as my fingers groped what I thought was the door frame—just as something horribly cold and wet dropped out of nowhere over my head and I shrieked, the sound bouncing back at me from every direction. I clawed at the door, finding nothing but the handle and the empty keyhole—whoever had come in must have the key with him.
Footsteps pounded back down the steps and the beam of a flashlight swept over me. “Take it easy,” a man said, sounding surprisingly normal as he swiped at my face with the damp burlap bag he carried.
“What—“ I croaked as strings of slime dripped down my neck.
“Nasty things,” the man sighed, shaking his head. “I couldn’t tell you what they are, exactly, but I’ve always called them walkie-talkies. Lost souls, so to speak, always drawn to the living. They come right to a light—caught this one staggering and babbling toward a bonfire on the beach,” he said, gesturing over his shoulder in the direction my cousins had gone.
“I put a bag over it,” the man continued, “and brought it here to wait for morning—the sun makes quick work of them up there on the tower. But it got loose halfway up,” he chuckled. “I think it knew you were in here, even if I didn’t. Anyway,” he took the key out of his pocket and pushed it into the lock, “I squeezed it pretty hard,” he said, shouldering the heavy door open, “and you felt the results.”
The man stepped outside, motioning for me to follow. “Now, you’ll not mention this to anyone, I hope?” he asked. “I’m the mayor of Bonnet Beach, and everyone in town depends on our summer business.”